Jody Lynn Nye
Dean Wesley Smith
(Galaxy Press, May 2023, pb, 544 pp.)
“Kitsune” by Devon Bohm
“Moonlight and Funk” by Marianne Xenos
“Death and the Taxman” by David Hankins
“Under My Cypresses” by Jason Palmatier
“The Unwilling Hero” by L. Ron Hubbard (reprint, not reviewed)
“White Elephant” by David K. Henrickson
“Piracy for Beginners” by J. R. Johnson
“Fire in the Hole” by Kevin J. Anderson
“A Trickle in History” by Elaine Midcoh
“The Withering Sky” by Arthur H. Manners
“The Fall of Crodendra M” by T. J. Knight
“Constant Never” by S. M. Stirling (reprint, not reviewed)
“The Children of Desolation” by Spencer Sekulin
“Timelines and Bloodlines” by L. H. Davis
“The Last History” by Samuel Parr
Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf
As with previous books in the series, this anthology offers a dozen stories from winners of the annual Writers of the Future contest, each one illustrated by a winner of the parallel Illustrators of the Future contest. In addition to reprinted fiction and articles on writing from experienced authors, this volume contains a new story, inspired by the book’s cover art, from a veteran writer.
“Kitsune” by Devon Bohm takes place in New Mexico at a time when the local gray foxes are extinct. Suddenly they reappear, along with many other varieties of foxes, some of which have never been known to exist. At the same time, several women disappear.
Just from this brief synopsis, the astute reader will be able to deduce what happened to the women. The text deals with the narrator’s lack of purpose in her life, her roommate’s relationship with a man, and her mother’s relationship with her father. The resulting work can be read as a feminist allegory, a fact confirmed by the author’s introduction. Despite a predictable plot, the story can be enjoyed for its realistic portrayal of a fantastic situation.
In “Moonlight and Funk” by Marianne Xenos, a vampire meets a dragon on a Florida beach. The vampire agrees to recover an item stolen from the dragon. In return, the vampire earns a chance to change her life.
This is a very lighthearted tale. The unlikely combination of a vampire and a dragon is the result of a writing prompt, according to the author’s foreword. This may explain why the pairing seems forced. The presence of a small dog that turns out to be something else entirely is even more arbitrary. The appealing characters and the author’s breezy style are more effective than the plot.
The narrator of “Death and the Taxman” by David Hankins is the Grim Reaper. A tax auditor uses an ancient spell to switch places with the incarnation of Death, leaving the Grim Reaper trapped in a body about to die. Complicating matters is the presence of Hell’s own auditor, who is out to replace Death.
This is a comic romp, with humor ranging from satiric to scatological. The Grim Reaper’s sardonic narration and the story’s frantic pace will appeal to those looking for light entertainment.
“Under My Cypresses” by Jason Palmatier takes place in an urban setting in a high-tech future of nearly universal virtual reality. Artificial intelligences can take on the simulated forms of people and be perceived in full sensory detail by humans, but only if those observing them allow it. The plot deals with a woman who has recently broken up with a man. An encounter at a nightclub leads to a change in her attitude concerning what is real.
The author creates an unusually vivid and convincing cyberpunk background. The premise of AI’s consisting of programs without physical forms, but able to create virtual ones, is interesting and plausible. The main character’s emotional growth is conveyed in a believable fashion.
In “White Elephant” by David K. Henrickson, an alien artificial intelligence arrives in the solar system. It announces that a vessel carrying billions of nomadic aliens is on its way, due to arrive in a little less than two centuries. The gigantic ship needs repair, and the aliens have to find a place to live while the lengthy process of fixing the vessel is underway. The problem of accommodating the vast number of extraterrestrials is solved in an unexpected way.
The author creates a true sense of wonder in scenes of the aliens’ super-advanced construction machines operating in the atmosphere of Jupiter. Like much hard science fiction, the plot requires a great deal of exposition. The solution to the dilemma of finding room for the aliens gives the story something of a twist ending, which may disappoint some readers.
The narrator of “Piracy for Beginners” by J. R. Johnson was a soldier in a war between the inhabitants of Earth and the Moon. Discharged after taking an unauthorized action in an attempt to save lives, she now works as the pilot of a shuttle between the two worlds. While secretly transporting diplomats to a meeting intended to end the conflict, the ship is targeted by political terrorists and mercenaries. All the narrator’s skill in battle is needed to defeat the attackers without sacrificing the crew and passengers.
This is an action-packed story, starting with two thugs fighting the narrator and ending with hand-to-hand combat against the leader of the mercenaries. Fans of military science fiction are likely to enjoy this two-fisted tale more than other readers.
“Fire in the Hole” by Kevin J. Anderson, written from the illustration that appears on the book’s cover, is one of the prolific author’s many stories about a zombie private detective in a version of New Orleans where a vast variety of supernatural beings exist. In this adventure, he helps a humanoid amphibian creature escape its tyrannical father. Meanwhile, an ethereal fire dragon appears over the city, causing chaos as it ignites the buildings below.
The amphibian creature is called a salamander, which provides a strong hint as to the connection between these two events. The plot may be predictable, but the main intent of the story seems to be to throw in as many supernatural entities as possible, to comic effect. The result will best appeal to readers of humorous fantasy.
“A Trickle in History” by Elaine Midcoh takes place at a time when a second Holocaust has almost entirely exterminated the world’s Jews. A small number of survivors use time travel in an attempt to kill Hitler and prevent both Holocausts. The effort fails, leading them to use another method to eliminate evil.
Going back in time to change history, and being unable to do so because of some sort of time inertia, is a familiar theme in science fiction. The way the characters tackle the problem is clever, but this story is more notable for its characters and somber mood than for its plot.
Workers travel to a mysterious object in the outer regions of the solar system in “The Withering Sky” by Arthur H. Manners. Their mission is to enter and occupy the thing until a scientific research team arrives. Bizarre distortions in perception occur, followed by violent deaths. A strange design, seen by some and invisible to others, has a weird effect. The workers discover an insane man hiding in the object. As time goes by without a sign of the researchers approaching, it seems likely that no one will survive.
As this disjointed synopsis may suggest, this is a science fiction horror story, with no rational explanation for its terrors. The author certainly creates an eerie mood through the use of inexplicable and frightening phenomena, but readers may be frustrated by the work’s opacity.
In “The Fall of Crodendra M” by T. J. Knight, technology allows viewers on Earth to observe events on distant worlds. In particular, an inhabited planet is soon to be destroyed by a giant asteroid. In some strange fashion, an alien child on the planet is able to perceive those watching. Unable to prevent the disaster, the man who discovered the doomed world makes a dangerous journey through a wormhole in order to say farewell to the youngster.
Despite some obvious satire of reality television, this is mostly a sentimental tale. This is made clear by the fact that the aliens are very similar to humans, although their planet’s atmosphere is deadly for Earthlings. The main character’s quest to defy the odds in order to say goodbye in person might be seen as either admirable or foolish, depending on one’s view.
The protagonist of “The Children of Desolation” by Spencer Sekulin lives in an underground city, created when a strange disaster rendered the outside world nearly unlivable. He operates an ancient train that travels into the devastated landscape above the city. A mysterious blind girl pays him a large amount of money to take her to the deadliest part of the wasteland. Meanwhile, the crime boss who runs the city, and to whom the protagonist owes a great deal of money, tells him that the only way to wipe out the debt and thus be able to pay for the medical care needed for his terribly ill wife is to sedate the child and deliver her to him.
This lengthy synopsis indicates that the story has a complicated background and a complex plot. I have not even mentioned the mutants with strange powers who dwell in the wasteland or those who hunt them, nor the scavengers who attack the train. The author creates a great deal of suspense as the protagonist faces a terrible choice between sacrificing the child or dooming his wife. The nature of the mutants strains credibility a bit, even after one has accepted the premise of the bizarre disaster.
In “Timelines and Bloodlines” by L. H. Davis, soldiers travel far back in time to prevent a terrorist attack that will kill a huge number of people. Their mission is to assassinate the ancestor of the mastermind behind the attack, ensuring that he will never be born. Complications ensue when it turns out that one of the soldiers is a descendant of the target as well. It takes a great deal of hopping back and forth in time, as well as a calculated bluff, to prevent her from disappearing while stopping the terrorist attack.
The author deals with familiar paradoxes of time travel in a way that makes the story easier to follow than some. The more I think about the plot, the less sense it makes. Surely there would be an easier way to change the past than to go back a millennium and kill a man, leading to a large number of people never existing. I also found some of the behavior of the characters hard to believe, as when the female member of the team strips naked in front of a male soldier in order to display a dragon tattoo that covers her entire body. (It is also an extraordinary coincidence that the tattoo plays an important part in the plot.)
“The Last History” by Samuel Parr takes place in a fantasy world resembling ancient China. Society is divided into upper and lower classes. The only way for a lower-class person to win a position of power is to participate in a dangerous competition.
Participants enter an enormous building with no possessions. In some manner, they must obtain the materials necessary to produce perfectly scribed poems relating to ancestral gods. The struggle is often deadly, and the poems can produce powerful and dangerous magic.
The plot deals with a lower-class woman who has survived the contest several times without winning the ultimate victory. She has also tutored many lower-class contestants, as well as at least one upper-class boy. She faces a dilemma when the boy, for whom she feels genuine affection, proves to be a ruthless competitor, willing to kill his opponents.
The author creates a strikingly original and intricately imagined fantasy world. The story avoids the usual stereotypes of heroes and villains, instead offering a great deal of moral ambiguity in the two main characters. Magic is an integral part of the plot, without overwhelming the emotional heart of the work.
As a whole, the anthology is well worth a look for fans of traditionally narrated tales of science fiction and fantasy. Those who prefer experimental or controversial works should seek elsewhere. The majority of the stories are moderately enjoyable, with no bad pieces. Only one or two stories would be worth reading more than once. Perhaps the greatest benefit to be obtained from the book is an early glance at writers who may become major talents in the future.
Victoria Silverwolf got a lot of phone calls today.