Susan Forest & Lucas K. Law
(Laksa Anthology Series, May 2017, pb, 328 pp.)
Reviewed by Kevin P Hallett
This anthology contains twenty-three original stories, including three novelettes.
“The Dunschemin Retirement Home for Repentant Supervillains” by Ian Creasey
Stafford is supervillain Anarcho’s henchman in this light-hearted short fantasy. Anarcho lives in a retirement home, but his desire to hatch plots hasn’t diminished one iota. The long-suffering Stafford takes care of him and works to support his many nefarious schemes.
One day a superhero, Honora, visits the retirement home, looking for a run-away boy. When Stafford discovers the boy’s name, he realizes there’s a link to Anarcho and it must be part of a new plot. Can Stafford manage the clash between his boss and Honora and once more quietly aid his supervillain?
Creasey has written a supervillain story with a new and interesting twist. The prose supported the unusual perspective making for a pleasant read.
“Bottleneck” by A. M. Dellamonica
Fleeing from the invading enemy, Ruthless is ferreting her general’s children from San Antonio to Austin in this SF novelette. Trapped in the slow-moving exodus north, she takes on a stranger, Zacha, who says he can get her moving again. But Zacha is an ex-affiliate of the enemy who wants the children for leverage.
Ruthless must navigate a narrow path between using Zacha and trusting him. Finally, when the enemy closes in on their position, Ruthless throws caution out the window of the camper they are traveling in. Exposed, can she find the path to survival for the vulnerable kids?
The author did a wonderful job of ratcheting up the suspense in the last third of the story. It quickly developed into a real page-turner.
“Mother Azalea’s Sad Home for Forgotten Adults” by James Van Pelt
In this human-interest SF short, Dave works in a hospice for people dying of old age or a terminal illness. Set in the distant future, the hospice doctors consider compassion is making the patient’s passing as painless and stress-free as possible.
Rocky Rhodes is a young patient dying from ALS. Dave and the staff make him as comfortable as they can as they track his QL numbers. But Rocky’s will to please people and enjoy his time, despite his depression and low QL reading, surprises Dave. Could there be something else that they should be doing for him, besides making his last days comfortable?
Van Pelt has written a wonderfully mesmerizing story about the future, where authorities try to do what’s right, but have lost sight of mankind’s soul. This was a story that was hard to put down until it was over.
“Things that Creep and Bind” by Christie Yant
Yant’s short fantasy tells us about a couple: Mathys is a professional monster hunter, and Hette can charm plants to grow. But Hette is ill, struck by a mysterious malady that slowly saps her strength.
Mathys does all he can to help his love. Back from a successful hunt, he brings a tonic that seems to help. But will it be enough, as Mathys realizes he cannot leave her alone to go hunting to earn money for her medicine?
This story’s prose was engaging, though the ending seemed to dribble away as if it ended in mid-thought.
“The Gift” by Bev Geddes
A mysterious path through the forest has left the protagonist lost in this short fantasy. Running from a sudden storm, she falls into a deep crevice where she begins to feel her life is done and dusted.
A spark of determination pushes her to follow a dark tunnel at the end of the crevice. In time, it leads her to a cave with the entrance guarded by a curtain of angry hornets. Trapped still, a guardian visits her and shows her the way to freedom, but only if she can pluck up the courage and conviction to follow it.
This short fantasy dealt with how people limit themselves through their disparaging inner voice. The author filled the prose with interesting imagery, but the pace was slow. In the end, the moribund pace detracted from the strong ideas raised by Geddes.
“The Gatekeeper” by Juliet Marillier
Hamza is a special cat who helps elderly patients pass on in this short fantasy. When the spirit, Bast, lets him know, Hamza visits a dying patient, passing through closed doors if need be. By the patient’s side he guides them through the gate into the afterlife. No one at the home is aware of Hamza’s special purpose.
Sonia, the new administrator at the home, doubts that Hamza is right for the home, suspecting he is the culprit in some deaths. Tariq, Hamza’s owner, fears for his cat’s place in the home. Despite all the staff’s insistence that Hamza is good for the patients, Sophia warns that she will get rid of Hamza if any more clients complain. With a visit from the government Minister looming, Hamza’s continued presence at the home is in the balance.
Told from an interesting perspective, the prose engaged throughout. The story passed quickly, a nice read for a quiet night by the fire.
“The Healer’s Touch” by Colleen Anderson
In this SF short, Hela is a very good nano-medicine doctor, trained to direct nano-bots to rebuild damaged bones, sinews, even reverse genetic diseases. But there is a cloud in her past, one that threatens the upheaval of her goal of aiding people.
When she helps during a local disaster, her abilities come to the notice of her hospital’s directors. They convince her to fly to England to cure refugees that suffer from a wide spectrum of maladies. At the refugee center in London, her worst fears come true, she finds herself drawn into the lives of her patients, many victims of brutal torture. Ibby, a friend from her medical school, finds Hela lost in a bottle of vodka. Can Ibby help Hela find her way again, and help her find her true purpose?
The writing craft was good, but the plot predictable. In the end, it was a pleasant read, but lacked mystery.
“The Crystal Harvester” by Brenda Cooper
Cooper’s SF short starts with Maricella guiding her husband, Harry, as he searches a canyon for crystals on an unstable planet. At ninety, she is well past her best years and fears for Harry, ten years her senior. The earthquake warnings sound, but Harry thinks he’s still quick enough to avoid disaster.
When the earthquake hits, she isn’t fast enough to override Harry’s controls and get him out. The rocks crash into his flyer forcing him down to the canyon floor. With her husband alive, but trapped, Marcella is uncertain how to save him. And it doesn’t help that Harry is complacent about his dilemma.
The plot was action oriented as the earthquake hit and both struggled with their diminished capabilities. The prose had some nice side plays that kept the reader engaged until the end.
“The Burdens We Bear” by Hayden Trenholm
Sylvian, a pious monk, is the caregiver on a colony ship looking for a new world in this interesting SF short. The sole human awake on the ship, it falls to him to make any final decision on transferring the hibernating colonists to a planet.
After sixty years alone with the ship’s AI, they have reached a likely planet. Now Sylvian must decide if this planet is their best option, or they should move on. Can Sylvian trust the ship’s AI, and for that matter can he even trust his own feelings about ending the journey and the lifestyle he is accustomed to?
The opening quickly engaged the reader, and while the prose allowed this short tale to quickly pass, it was a thought-provoking story.
“A Mother’s Milk” by Heather Osborne
Dathas and her mate Cennil are in orbit around the Earth in this curious SF short. Dathas is learning human communications which is proving to be a challenge as she negotiates a visit to the surface with Earth’s liaison Madhu. Dathas and her race depend on gestures for conveying full meaning, for she finds human communication to be crude and one-dimensional.
Cennil is an engineer and bored with all the talking. He has eschewed learning the language and now feels left out. Just when Dathas earns an invitation to meet humans in person, Cennil contrives to become pregnant, knowing it will force Dathas to remain to nurture the children.
As Dathas lets Madhu know she will have to delay the meeting, she discovers the second dimension to human communications. Enthused about the chances to fully communicate, can Dathas find a way to nurture her newborns and still meet with Madhu?
Osbourne raised some beguiling ideas and insights to alternative life-forms. The prose was engaging and the story had a good flow.
“The Mother’s Keepers” by Edward Willett
In this SF short, Praella, a new keeper, rises through the ranks until she is a Senior keeper for Mother. Like a queen bee, Mother keeps all her keepers alive as they serve her, and she also nourishes the city above her.
But all is not well, as after centuries as the city’s Mother and a recently failed war with alien invaders, she is dying. As other keepers leave, Praella continues to serve the slowly dying Mother. Finally, Paella herself is dying of old age. She worries if she can live long enough to serve the Mother until she passes, so Mother is never alone.
The author has created an engaging plot. From the start the story read easily, though a couple of plot breaks distracted from the overall effect.
“The Oracle and the Warlord” by Karina Sumner-Smith
Andra is the assistant to the Oracle, Sayenne, in this intriguing fantasy short. She is also her lover and wants to ease Sayenne through her last prophecy so they can still have a life together afterwards. But each prophecy takes a little more of Sayenne as payment and she has so very little left to give.
A warlord comes to seek an answer from the Oracle and Sayenne prepares for her last trip into the frigid waters to find the answer. Andra knows that each warlord has asked the same question so she tries to convince her lover to just give the normal answer and forego the waters. But Sayenne insists that she must seek an answer and disappears under the waters. What had the warlord asked and did Sayenne have enough left to find the answer?
Full of mystery, this story had an engaging pace to it from the start. It was easy to empathize with the lovers and the prose pulled the reader through to an interesting end.
“The Beautiful Gears of Dying” by Sandra Kasturi
An android tends to a terminally ill patient in this SF short. The patient watches the android, wavering between an appreciation of the kindness it shows and resentment at its implacable attention to her condition.
As she declines, she makes more bizarre requests, and in response to her whims, the android helps her in ways that reflect an unexpected humanity.
In many ways, this was a touching story. The prose was good, but the plot lacked enough mystery to make it an engaging read.
“The Gardener” by Amanda Sun
In this SF short, the Gardener is an android that tends to the Wilde’s garden. It creates an oasis among the burnt-out remnants of other gardens.
Its only competition comes from Mrs. Blackmore’s garden next door. And even that one is failing as Mrs. Blackmore gets up later and later to care for it. It seems the Holders are falling into a malaise, ever since those bright lights shone in the sky. The Gardener keeps up its work, helping the family that bought it. Should it expand its responsibilities and keep Mrs. Blackmore’s garden too?
The prose was a little slow and it wasn’t too hard to guess the direction this story was going to take.
“Number One Draft Pick” by Claire Humphrey
Reshma and her service dog Zuzu are helping an ice hockey player, Ty, in this SF short. Ty is suffering from Loewen’s syndrome and Zuzu can sense when a seizure is about to come on. Reshma is still recovering after her last client with Loewen’s, who died of the syndrome. She is unsure if she is ready to get as involved in the life of another patient as her job demands.
Ty, a star eighteen-year-old rookie, doesn’t want anyone seeing him having a seizure and does his best to follow Reshma’s guidance, even when she pulls him from a game. As Ty’s team progresses towards the playoffs, Reshma and Zuzu find themselves embraced by the team’s members and once again Reshma has the strength to immerse herself in her patient’s life.
Humphrey has built multi-layered characters and this reader was hard-pressed to put this story down. The overall pace was just right, as was the ending. This story took the reader away from their everyday life for forty-five minutes. This story was a first round pick.
“Orang Tua Adventure Home Academy” by Charlotte Ashley
Ashley’s fantasy novelette describes Kang’s quest to build a submersible boat. The Orang Tau Academy is for the locals to learn to build their own boat, one that advances the people’s knowledge. To help Kang, she has a new tutor, Kingsley, an elderly English lady who feels she has reached the end of her useful life.
First, Kang must overcome her own reservations about her tutor and enroll Kingsley to help develop the submersible. Kingsley’s specialty is developing sea maps, a useful skill for navigating the submersible. One day, as they practice with the submersible, an earthquake hits the main island. With Kang trapped and swimming in the fast receding sea, can Kingsley and the new submersible save the day?
This story started steady and gradually ramped up the pace. The prose was engaging and the plot interesting, but predictable.
“Sunshine of Your Love” by Nisi Shawl
A near-immortal comes visiting in this SF short. Polly is stabling her horse and goat when Lazarus surprises her. She knows him, because her younger sister, Myra, had discovered his unique longevity and was studying his genes. But now Myra was suffering from a form of dementia.
Lazarus is looking for shelter and any update on what Myra has found in her research. Inside the house, Myra is bedridden and Polly has set up many security devices to safeguard her sister from any danger. Myra has ideas about Lazarus’ condition, but is only lucid for short periods. Over dinner, Lazarus reveals that the police are searching for him. Shortly afterwards, the local police show up. Can Lazarus talk his way out, without revealing his special condition?
This story read okay, it was a little slow and repetitive in the middle, but the end picked up the pace.
“Good-Bye is that Time Between Now and Forever” by Matt Moore
In this poignant SF short, Catalina is escorting her father to die. A zombie-like disease has taken most of North America and anyone wishing to end their lives can pass over the border into this lost region.
During the trip from Spain, Catalina begins to understand why her beloved father wants to end it all. Her appeals at first fall on deaf ears, but slowly her father opens up about his role in the contamination. He reveals how Catalina lost her mother and elder sister. Catalina has the final decision on her father’s fate.
This was an interesting plot, exploring an old theme in an unusual way. Overall, the prose worked well.
“Ambassador to the Meek” by Alex Shvartsman
Mary is working to save the children in this apocalyptic SF short. The new transporter system has committed everyone who used it to death from inoperable brain tumors over the next thirty years. The only survivors will be people from communes that shunned the new system.
Mary tries to convince the commune she left as a five-year-old to take in seventy children, born after scientists realized the adverse effects of the transporters. The enticement is two-fold. The commune will get additional supplies and when everyone else dies, the bigger stronger communes will do better.
But the power struggle going on in her old commune means that things take an unexpected turn for Mary and the children.
Shvartsman creates an unusual take on an old concept. The result was an engaging story with a human touch to the characters.
“Gone Flying” by Liz Westbrook-Trenholm
Nanee is the eighty-year-old mother to eight clones of herself in this SF story of a post apocalypse Earth. Four of the clones died early. Now with the recent death of Bee, Nanee has three charges left to raise as best she can in isolation from the deadly disease that has decimated humanity.
The young girls show their resilience when Gee falls under the deadly fever. It leaves Gee weakened, but amazingly she recovers. The small group works hard to survive alone, eventually passing through puberty and into adolescent. As their hormones change, the young women pose endless challenges for an aging Nanee. Will the three girls survive to become a new hope for mankind, overcoming an apocalypse that should have killed off humanity?
The prose was easy to read and held the reader’s attention. In the end though, the story dealt with a common theme of life after a civilization-ending disease.
“Am I Not a Proud Outlier” by Kate Story
A hive is swarming to settle a new planet in this SF short. Outlier 31 senses something is wrong with the new Queen. Some hive members feel it too, while others seem to be oblivious to it, or even perpetuating it. It threatens to tear the hive apart, even before they decide on where to go next.
When Outlier 31 tries to show her concerns in a dance in front of the hive, she stirs up animosity and other hive members force her to flee and hide. In time, she risks a visit to the Queen, where she learns of some sinister plots. Can she and others loyal to the new Queen prevail?
This was an interesting take on a potential future for humanity. The prose was engaging, but the plot lacked an essential element.
“Blinders” by Tyler Keevil
In this SF novelette, Mags is an eighty-year-old welder on a solar-power-collecting satellite. Virtually blind from the intensity of the plasma welding wand, she relies on a young man to guide her and monitor her equipment. There is a strong bond between the irascible welder and her quiet guide, they both want the best for each other.
Today is Mags’ last day before retirement. The union and company are competing for her endorsement of their own disparate goals. But Mags keeps her own counsel. Her guide feels the company’s offer to repair her eyesight is the best for her, even though it would destroy his own dreams of joining the union.
Out on the solar sail, doing her last weld, things start to go wrong. A coincidence? Can the pair find a way to survive the deadly competition between the union and company?
The story maintained a fast pace throughout, ratcheting up in the final quarter. The attention to building the characters, layer by layer, has created another engaging story that was a pleasure to read.
“Dreams as Fragile as Glass” by Caroline M. Yoachim
Hikaru is the youngest daughter of Masumi and Tsutomu in this fantasy short. Her elder sister had turned slowly to glass before dying. Now streaks of glass are appearing on Hikaru’s body.
In their despair, her parents wrestle with her desire to learn to surf and their own desire to protect her body as it grows more brittle. Clearly, surfing presents a danger to her increasingly fragile body.
This story had a smooth flow to it, which made it pleasant to read. Yoachim raised some questions we all face at some time in our lives, foremost among them, do we protect our loved ones or do we let them enjoy life, however little time they have remaining.
This anthology was one of the better ones, with no ‘howlers’ and several thought provoking page-turners.