Edited by Day Al-Mohamed & Meriah Crawford
(Dark Quest Books, Sept. 2014, 302 pp.)
Reviewed by Martha Burns
The aim of the editors is to present stories about power struggles in as many different contexts as possible. This includes characters of different ages, from different countries, and of various genders and ethnicities in settings that range from outer space to contemporary England. Some of the stories are clever and a few are not to be missed. Like all anthologies, there are also heavy-handed offerings, the humor typically doesn’t work, and one story is utterly baffling in its intent.
The stories, overall, have the best chance of being appreciated if one ignores the stated theme. A themed anthology, where by theme I mean the story’s point, is inherently problematic. An anthology about, say, faeries, has as many themes available to it as its authors are creative, which makes for a collection not just with a range of faeries in different times and places, but with a range of points to be made about them. In an anthology like that, editors would avoid having twenty stories whose point was that magic can be both good and bad. It would be too repetitive to enjoy. By restricting itself to power plays, what we see over and over in this anthology is the point that those in power typically express it through violence of one form or another and, though they are occasionally justified, for the most part it is those with little power who are smarter or better. While that’s a satisfying outcome, seeing it repeated over and over is not that satisfying. My advice, therefore, is to ignore the fact that most of the stories have the same point.
In “Sanctified Ground” by Beth Cato, a repressive society kills the male members of a lower caste. The powers that be leave the women, who can’t, of course, perpetuate their class without the men. The end goal is equality, but those in power did not consider the effects of angering seemingly powerless people with magical abilities. Dear leaders of the world: this is a bad idea. The big reveal of the story is the type of magic involved, but the stength of the story is the world, which receives less attention than it deserves.
In “Live Free or Die,” a freedom fighter protects his wife and daughter with some alien assistance. Aspects of Joyce Reynolds-Ward‘s story are reminiscent of the most recent Hugo award winner, Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie, from the use of gender pronouns to the treatment of political force. The characters in this story, however, stay too close to the models of heroic underdog with a pregnant wife in jeopardy and evil overlords to offer anything new.
Five survivors of a shipwreck have let one of them become the leader of their life raft. The only reasonable person on board is the physicist and she is not the one in charge. This is believable to the extent that having knowledge does not mean having power, but the conceit constrains credibility when the leader of “Infinitas” calls the law of gravity in question and the physicist, who has the opportunity to leave the raft for sure safety on shore, does not save herself. The reason appears to be because the author, David Taub Bancroft, made that decision. We’re told Dara made the decision because she’d become enmeshed with the other survivors, but she does not act as if she is attached to them and while it is possible that people in horrible situations will bond to one another no matter what, the story would seem less like a simplistic parable and more like a nuanced story if we saw Dana behave that way. As it is, the moral is that people will buy anything from those in power, no matter how irrational, and we will all, even the smartest of us, stay in the raft. That’s too easy, too cynical, and casts the reader in a very poor light.
Even if T-Rexes rule the world, that doesn’t make it a perfect world, even if there is more gender equity. The lead lizard is female. Her name is Hillary. And then there is a bad lizard, who destroys the planet’s ecosystem. His name is Al. If one missed the joke, Demetrios Matsakis appends an afterward to “Terrible Lizards” to explain. Well, we got the joke, but I do not think most readers will be laughing, whomever they are likely to vote for in the upcoming presidential election or whomever they think invented the Internet. It isn’t just Colbert who can play this game well. Penn and Teller, for example, do brilliant send-ups of left-leaning silliness such as yoga and vegetarianism that anyone will enjoy, even vegetarian yogis. Satire can be both fun and incisive, but juvenile mockery is neither.
I suspect that “Listener” by Kelly Horn would have had a different shape outside the anthology. A soldier has been made deaf when a military program goes awry. One day, someone tells her there may be a breakthrough. Is there a breakthrough, or are the generals in charge fooling her yet again? The answer to the question is predetermined because the story appears in an anthology in which the overall point is that those in power will abuse it. In being so predetermined, what the story has to offer is simplistic. In another context, though, things might have been different. Janissa is an intriguing character we feel drawn to and the experiment itself is fascinating. If only those were allowed to be the focus and a point to grow out of those strong elements.
In “The Peculiar Testimony of Dok Oculus,” a superhero, who goes by the name Dok Oculus, testifies about a bar fight that erupts at a meeting of area superheroes. On the one side is Wipeout, a smooth-talking poseur of a blowhard who is the sort who makes guest appearances at soup kitchens. On the other side is Icarus Jones, a straight-talking tough guy who aims to help people in the midst of making bad decisions. He’s a sort of buff Buddha. While the story lends itself to saccharine moralizing, Eric A. Howald avoids that trap. His spin on empathy is not cliché in the least. This is a recommended story.
After a coworker and friend die in a restaurant holdup, Danny takes a middle-management job in a foodservice packing plant. Some of the refrigerated trucks are malfunctioning, and Danny goes to smooth things over with Marco Reposo, the head buyer of a produce company. Reposo is something of a thug, but he teaches Danny what it takes to be passionate about a job. “A Real Produce Guy” by Thomas Livingston, does not quite fit the pattern of most of the stories in the anthology, which isn’t to say it’s bad. It isn’t speculative fiction and although Reposo is in charge and violent, there’s no moral about power here. Instead, the story is a character sketch of a man with strong views on broccoli and comes off better for it.
“Camp Why” by D.G. Bracey is the second story to feature a police interrogation and a Buddha figure, though the Buddha figure here is a false prophet. The narrator tells how he came to be a member of a hippy commune that’s recently been destroyed after a family comes to retrieve their wayward teenager. Again, the premise is enjoyable, but the payoff is a lesson we’ve already learned—powerful lunatics can be bad.
Becky outwits a blackmailer in “Plan B” by John M. Floyd. It’s not believable that her plan would work since the blackmailer has gone to significant trouble to then turn out to be shockingly gullible, but the gotcha at the end of the story is cute and convincingly mocks the convention of plots within plots.
A thief gets his comeuppance in “Short Dark Future.” Joseph Betterling seems to be an overly trusting member of the technogensia, but he turns out to be wily when Lev Tarski breaks into his home or, more specifically, his safe. Marian Allen crafts a cute and quick tale in which the sin of this proletariat Fortunato is not knowing the Fibonacci sequence. Once again, traditional power is subverted. This is another story to forgive for yet again making that point.
Nimue from the Arthurian legends (the captor and lover of the magician Merlin) is on a space shuttle, taking the land of faerie to a new world now that we no longer deserve it. For reasons not entirely clear, Merlin shows up to try and stop her. The final scene is lovely, but by and large “Lunar Epithalamion” by Calie Voorhis suffers from too much “medieval” elevated diction.
In the highly recommended “Oathbreaker,” Kate Marshall explores the problems that arise from competing promises. A three-centuries-old woman helps the grandson of a long-dead comrade. Ven, the grandson, asks her to find his lord’s poisoner. The solution creates a dilemma for Pria the Stonesinger, who used to be Rhana the Arbiter. Once the Arbiters make an oath to find a killer, they can’t break it without magical consequences. Though she’s no longer an Arbiter, Pria makes a formal oath to find the poisoner, but that competes with her similarly binding oath to protect her fallen comrade’s family. Ven himself has made an oath to Lord Eversha and has a personal bond with Lord Eversha’s wife. In addition, Ven has a moral duty to protect his own family, including his young sister, though no formal oath is involved. This is a story in which the depth of characterization, the sensory details, and the many finely wrought moments offers up more than a story that reduces to a simple statement about power. The end is satisfying and the story is set up for a sequel, which had I power as a reader, I’d call into existence right now.
I suspect that Ann L. Kopchik had Christina Rossetti’s “In an Artist’s Studio” in mind when she wrote “Missing Persons.” The Rossetti poem is addressed to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who loved painting idealized women more than appreciating the real thing. Alec, the sensitive artist in “Missing Persons,” is able to do both. The story is heavy-handed at times and the romance between Alec’s brutish brother and his new girlfriend, Laura, doesn’t ring true. Still, the mystery involving the brother’s last girlfriend and Alec’s paintings is what pulls the story along.
“Restraint” by Bruce Pratt starts as a simple revenge tale. A man refuses to rescue his estranged wife, who is stranded on a rock in the middle of a rushing river in sub-zero temperatures. The comic tinges at the beginning show you he will save her and the wince-inducing scene of his former wife driving too fast on an icy road with an “Eve Was Framed” bumper sticker suggest she was wrong to dump him and obnoxious. Like the previous story, this is a little heavy handed. Charlie is a manly man with a heart of butter and his former wife, Cindy, doesn’t appreciate him until she’s in freezing water. Yet it is Charlie’s final meditation on this very fact that makes the story one of the few to actually have something interesting to say about power. Recommended.
In “Almost There” by Al Nash, a young woman with the unfortunate initials B.S. attempts to abduct the scientist in charge of a morally questionable experiment. After she’s shot, authorities interview the scientist, we find out about the experiment, gain some insight into the dark side of the young woman’s scheme, and the scientist reflects that even if he and B.S. had gotten away—if they had gotten “there” rather than “almost there”—his life would not have been any different. I’m not sure about the point of the story, though I know it had something to do with all of the various power relations coming to no good.
“Assent” by J. R. McRae is a story in which rape can be desired and child molesters can be deeply wronged. Reason suggests this could not possibly have been the intent, but that, indeed, is what happens.
A pirate is hanged in eighteenth-century London in “Cheat The Hangman,” by Kris Dikeman. One of his crew, Thomas Belle, abandons Robbie, the pirate, when he was about to be captured and Thomas therefore promises to do anything he can to make up for his cowardice, including bringing Robbie’s body home to Jamaica, where he has a common law wife and a witch of a mother-in-law. Literally. Anticipation propels the reader along and the twist at the end is everything one hopes for. The story is written in an epistolary format, which can be tiresome. The format means we have to hear from the captain of the ship because Thomas, the narrator, wouldn’t have direct knowledge of him, but the captain is thinly drawn. Similarly, Thomas offers up information a diarist likely wouldn’t include. Although the story would have been better served by a traditional format, if you can ignore that, it is a good read.
Would war bring soldiers honor and glory if they couldn’t die? That’s the question at issue in “Sweetest, Senseless Death” by Mark Mills. What we get are the reflections of a professional war reenactor in a future in which verisimilitude is taken seriously. The premise is fantastic but, sadly, the author expects us not to get the point unless it is explicitly stated. That serves to move us away from the question at issue (after all, it’s been answered for us in the text) and the focus becomes, once again, the far less interesting observation that power is bad.
A wicked prince is murdered and the comically masculine female executrix arrives to find the culprit. “Her Majesty’s Executrix” by James Daniel Ross may have been intended to be high comedy, though the resolution of the plot hinges on the executrix’s maternal feelings for a more realistic character. It is as if the earlier story, “Oathbreaker,” went through a silly mill.
Mr. Perkins is the new neighbor of Richard and Fattie (nee Faith) in “Neighbour from Hell” by Edoardo Albert. Perkins offers the couple a franchise opportunity they gladly accept, though it’s never clear why they deserve this opportunity. Again, the goal seems to be to be funny, but the joke falls flat or, rather, it’s difficult to see what the joke is at all.
A representative of an intergalactic empire lands on a planet new to colonization in “Perfect Memory” by Jonathan Shipley. The gimmick is that because Anton is encountering an alien civilization, part of his job is to articulate the various power plays at work in this first contact and those power plays involve food, customs, and religion—the whole package. The subtlety of the aliens’ machinations allow them to put Anton in his place, but the ending of the story means his realization can’t spread and because Anton’s neither interesting enough, smart enough, nor venal nor even sympathetic enough, it’s hard for the reader to care.
An Inuit ex-convict passes the time while he drinks and waits for his friend to show in “Survival,” by Edward Folger. Malachi thinks about his time in prison and tells himself the story of a man who survived getting shipwrecked. Their stories are similar and neither ends well, though the convict fares better because he has a home to go to, if only his friend would show up and take him there. The reveal is tender and will stick with you. Recommended.
A yoga teacher, a traveling salesman, and a pregnant woman unclear on toileting etiquette live in New Orleans. Disaster ensues. “Blind Spot” by Michaux Dempster makes some odd suppositions, such as that a man who can’t afford air conditioning is likely to live next to a would-be congressman and a pregnant woman desperate to pee will resort to any means so long as it does not involve knocking on the door of anyone on the street to ask them to use the bathroom. Those oddities get in the way of enjoying the story.
In an alternate future, a tech-enhanced gang member gets ready for a fight between his Boston Heavyboys and their New York rivals. The gangs wear anti-gravity suits, shades with net access, and special shoes to keep them balanced. As in life, the brand of the shoes matters, but Futurepop’s are missing. How will he find them or at least find the right kind of replacement before the fight? I needed to know. Chang Terhune keeps the tension coming and creates a world I couldn’t get enough of in “The Wrong Shoes.” Highly recommended.
“The House On The Lake” by Patrick O’Neill has tinges of creepy atmosphere that are effective, but those moments are undercut by a predictable plot that involves a lake, a husband, and his gold digger new wife. In addition, there are clichés such as “vice-like grip.” In a story without the fine atmospheric touches, it would have been easier to let the clunky parts go.
There are two strands in “1612” by Richard Smith. One involves Nathan, a criminal, and the other involves Desi, a young woman on the way to a job interview. Their fates come together on a hot day in June when their train stalls. As the accident plays out, we see just what Nathan and Desi are made of and the young woman rethinks her interest in marketing. Although Desi is a thoroughly passive character and Nathan isn’t fleshed out enough to either care for or dislike, our interest in the particulars of the accident move the plot along. And the point of this last story in the anthology? People in power are bad.