(WMG Publishing, January 2019, tpb, 318 pp.)
Reviewed by Tara Grímravn
Released on January 31, 2019 just in time for Valentine’s Day, Fiction River: Feel the Love features 18 stories in total. As the title indicates, each tale in this edition of Fiction River centers around the theme of love in as many forms as one might imagine. The anthology as a whole provides a selection of tales from various genres in which readers are sure to find something that suits them, regardless of their reading preference. For our purposes at Tangent Online, however, only those that fall into the fantasy, horror, or science fiction genres are reviewed below.
“Death’s Other Cousin” by Lisa Silverthorne
Leo is one of Death’s cousins in charge of nightmares and dreams. Summoned to a private meeting with Death, he is given some bad news. Unfortunately for him, the powers-that-be believe that he’s lost his touch—he’s forgotten about love and the dreams he brings to mortals are boring. Still, there’s a chance he can redeem himself. Death tells him that he has until midnight the next day to make the residents of the Cedar Hill Manor retirement community feel love or else Leo is going to be permanently retired—and not in the “resting on a beach in Cabo enjoying your pension” type of retirement, either, but in a way only Death can provide.
I have to say, Silverthorne’s story brought a tear to my eye as Leo talked to the residents of Cedar Hill Manor. It wasn’t so much that’d he’d forgotten love as much as he’d learned to dull it by trying to protect mortals from the pain that memories of past loved ones might bring. It made him a very likable and sympathetic character. Another character, Fred, confused me at first. Until quite a way into the story, he received nothing more than a rather enigmatic mention or two with no real introduction as to who he was. In the end, though, he provided a nice touch of comic relief to lighten an otherwise highly emotional story.
“Frostwitch vs. the Ravages of Time” by Dayle A. Dermatis
Bianca Frost, otherwise known as the superhero Frostwitch, is patrolling the Greenview City Natural History Museum after being tipped off that supervillain Bad Penny might be attempting to steal the Uluru Opal. After finding and stopping the heist, however, she feels a bit more tired and sore than usual. Not to mention she’s experiencing a variety of other odd physiological phenomena that are affecting her ability to fight crime. When she realizes that she can’t blame either supervillains or her own powers for these problems, she is forced to face a far more unpleasant reality that she’d never considered before—Frostwitch is getting older.
This was a fun read. Much like the editor’s introduction indicates, Dermatis’ story not only provides a refreshing look at superheroes but also showcases love in many forms—the hero’s love for her city, the citizenry’s love for her, the love between family and friends, self-love in the form of self-care, and even a darker type of love in the form of a supervillain’s greed, just to name a few. What really caught my attention with this story, however, was the behind-the-scenes look at what happens to a superhero when they have to come to terms with the fact that, no matter their powers or abilities, they really are mortal in the end.
“Love Bots” by Daemon Crowe
Sometime in the future, sixteen-year-old Billy Flowers lives in Brooklyn with his mother, twin brother, and little sister. The United States is ruled by His Most Imperial Majesty The Grand Poobah, a leader that most of his fellow citizens adore. But Billy can’t figure out why everyone is so crazy-in-love with the clownish-looking dictator—that is, until a chance meeting with a girl reveals to him the existence of nanobots, or “love bots,” that force people to love the Poobah.
Crowe’s story is an interesting one, to be sure. Unfortunately, I can’t say that it was my cup of tea. Not that it couldn’t have been, mind. It’s just that there’s a lot of potential here on which I feel Crowe failed to capitalize. The titular love bots are introduced in nothing more than a brief explanation at the end of the story which seemed a little too conveniently and easily revealed, especially considering the brainwashed nature of the dystopian society in which Billy lives. I would have expected Louise and her father to be a little more guarded than they were, instead of just revealing everything on a first and only meeting. Had Crowe just developed this idea a bit further, the story would have been far more satisfying and the ending less awkward. The emotion implied in the last few sentences would have made more sense had the relationship between Billy and Louise been a little more developed.
“Loving Abby” by Angela Penrose
On the distant planet of Colorata, colonists from Earth, many of whom are scientists, have built a small settlement in a fertile green valley. After one of the settlers hurts his son Alvin in a fit of rage, the child disappears from the infirmary and the father is blamed. Soon, more children begin to disappear. A few weeks later, some of the missing children return and the parents discover that something’s not quite right. It becomes clear that aliens have replaced their children with perfectly replicated androids. But for what purpose?
Penrose’s story is by turns saddening, frightening, and amusing. On one hand, when the children start to disappear, there’s the obvious concern that one of the colonists has gone mad, particularly one who’s already injured his son, which results in his family breaking up. As the story moves on, this tension turns to a darker form of fear due to the suspected (but unproven) alien presence, causing the settlers to worry that the aliens are taking, and possibly eating, their children. The amusing part comes at the very end when the narrator reveals what she believes to be the interlopers’ true intentions, which aren’t anywhere near as nefarious as the reader is at first led to believe. Without giving away the ending, it’s something of a role reversal for the scientists, which made me giggle.
“The Refurbished Companion” by Kelly Washington
The company for which Mirna lo-Kim works believes that coupled workers are better workers. The pressure to marry doesn’t end there, of course. The city in which she lives also puts a higher value on married individuals. To that end, Mirna’s boss has sent her an android companion. When he arrives, Mirna finds she has to put him together herself, all the while nervously wondering what he’ll be like when he’s finally activated.
This was a genuinely sweet story. It’s difficult to say too much without giving away the ending, especially since it’s relatively short and the ending is what makes it so nice. Suffice it to say that Washington’s story is more about platonic love and a desire for simple companionship and connection with another person.
“The Secret of Catnip” by Stefon Mears
Midnight the cat wakes up from his usual after-catnip nap only to find that something’s not quite right. The familiar scents of his home are gone and everything around him is bathed in a strange haze. As he tries to make sense of what’s happened, his favorite human Little Warmth enters the room. He watches her reach down to rub his belly and she begins to cry. With the reality of his situation now apparent, so does Midnight.
This story is most definitely something of a tearjerker as Mears explores the bonds of love between a cat and his human. One aspect that I really liked was the point of view from which the story is told. The reader is experiencing these events through the deceased pet and the description of Midnight’s reactions to everything and his thought processes really make the story.
“Lifeblood” by Alexandra Brandt
Anolia Green is a woman with a gift—she has universal immunity, meaning that her blood can fight off any disease or illness. Voluntarily living in the hospital full-time, she is hooked up to a machine once a day and her blood is cycled through a dialysis machine into another ill person. Their blood, in turn, is transfused into her body, where her “gift” kills off the offending illness. Despite the fact that the process takes a massive toll on her health, Anolia keeps doing it, knowing that she’s saving lives. Eventually, however, she discovers that Dr. Hart, the man in charge of this special treatment program, is quite possibly mismanaging the program.
In keeping with this issue’s theme, Brandt explores the ideals of selfless and selfish love. The story arc, while predictable, does a fair job of demonstrating the meaning behind these two polar opposites. Unfortunately, I found the story to be a bit tedious, making it a hard slog to get through.
“With Love in Their Hearts” by Robert Jeschonek
Set in a weird, apocalyptic future version of the United States (Pennsylvania, specifically), Sir Gardner Schell is a knight on a mission to save his village of Burytown. To do this, he must form an alliance with Lord Rubicon via marriage to the noble’s daughter, Listy. Gardner, however, only knows the love-that-kills. In order to convince Rubicon to send reinforcements to save Burytown, he must master the love-that-cherishes and wed Listy with true affection for her.
I really wanted to like this story because I enjoyed the medieval feel of both the dialogue and the society that’s developed in this dystopian future Earth. Unfortunately, there are a few issues I just couldn’t get past. To start, the constant use of italics for emphasis is distracting, especially in terms of dialogue. It made it very awkward to read the conversations taking place because I felt like I was being forced to read the words in a very specific and unnatural way.
The other issues come from the fact that, no matter how I twist it, the logic in this story fails and the whole thing falls apart. As an archaeologist, the notion of rewriting DNA to make it physically impossible for someone to harm others out of hatred or anger simply makes no sense. In the story’s introduction, the editor states that the author wanted to explore the human tendency to “rationalize behaviors that go against their moral compass.” While I understand that intention, the above explanation from the story just doesn’t work.
Morality is not genetic—it’s learned. Morals are social constructs, not biological presets, and have no value or influence outside of the society that creates or accepts them. DNA is simply sets of instructions to make genes, and genes tell cells how to make proteins that do certain things related to biological growth and reproduction. Emotions like love and hate are nothing more than chemical reactions orchestrated by genes that produce certain effects in the brain—they are not technically genetic traits themselves. In order to make believable the notion that rewriting DNA could make it impossible to harm someone out of anger or hate so that they can only kill as an act of genuine love for their fellow humans, there needs to be a lot more information given in the story on a few things: the exact genetic mechanism that this DNA manipulation changed, how this genetic trait is expressed in an individual, and in what way it makes it impossible to act out of hate or anger, including why such a thing as the love-that-kills would even be necessary at all. For example, did the rewritten DNA result in the development of genes that rewired the way neural pathways form or did it change chemical receptors in the brain?
Ultimately, the foundation on which this story is built, namely the link between DNA, emotion, and the ability to kill or not kill, doesn’t hold water. Psychologically speaking, you don’t need to hate someone to harm or even kill them. War like that described in the story is not necessarily triggered by hate or anger. Historically, it was most often about competition for resources. The Romans, for example, didn’t hate the people their armies conquered—they simply needed the resources to feed their people. The Vikings raided, pillaged, and murdered for the same reason. I think one would be hard-pressed to find many modern soldiers who would say that they hate the people they have to face in combat.