"Jesus Wrestles the Mob to Feed the Homeless" by Tom Piccirilli
"The Acid Test" by Kay Kenyon
"Night Shift" by Louis Marley
"The Dog Prince" by Sarah Prineas
"Knots" by Craig English
"The Bravest of Us Touched the Sky" by Carrie Vaughn
"A Piece of the Sun" by Stella Evans
"Eliza’s Quick-Drying Polar White" by T. Rex
And now, on to the stories . . .
Issue 29 of Talebones begins with the story "Jesus Wrestles the Mob to Feed the Homeless" by Tom Piccirilli. Cyberpunk meets more traditional mobster fair with a taste for the macabre in this tale of the good son of a mafia family being forced into the family business. For the first half, I thought that this might be one of the best stories I’ve read in a long time. Piccirilli was able to blend the dark with a hint of the surreal into the seeds of a moving romance and redemption tale as he kept my disbelief well suspended.
Then came the Plasma-Gun Wielding Android Assassin from Outer Space (PGWAAOS).
It’s not just that this brought my disbelief crashing down like a depleted-uranium balloon on Jupiter. I’ve read E. E. Smith’s Lensmen stories; if I can handle the disbelief caused by using superluminal anti-matter planets as weapons, I can handle a PGWAAOS. It’s that once the PGWAAOS popped up, the story went from an interesting set up to just a fun conclusion. Don’t get me wrong, there is much to be said for fun. I like fun, and this story is fun. However, I can’t help but be a bit disappointed in how much of a non-issue the romance turned out to be and that nothing substantial was made of the business surrounding the old don. Still, with how good I found the first half, I think that I’m going to find myself reading more of Tom Piccirilli’s work soon, even though I was a bit disappointed with this story.
Does anyone ever really ask their girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse/lover questions like “Is there anything you’d leave me for?” This is the central conceit of “The Acid Test” by Kay Kenyon, but in blatant defiance of my expectation, this conceit created a good story. Our heroine gets into this discussion with her boyfriend and discovers he’d leave her for the chance to go to another world, so she goes out and gets him a spot on an out-going alien spaceship to test whether he’d really leave. As sitcom as the set-up felt to me, I found the story itself an amusing but sober and touching look at the danger our insecurities pose to our own relationships and loved ones, and definitely worth a read.
A nurse nearing retirement vies with death over the life of a young girl in the issue’s third story, “Night Shift” by Louise Marley. Now, in my reading history, struggles against non-corporeal opponents are difficult to make work. No matter how much the sweating brow, gritted teeth, inner glow, and the like are described, what is described still tends to feel like a person having a staring contest with a cloud. This is why I like this story. It’s not that the battle between the nurse and the amorphous spirit of death works particularly well, but that the story leaves it an open question as to whether the spiritual combat actually occurred or if it was just the hallucination of a misfiring brain. To my mind, the later is much more likely and makes for a stronger story, but if you prefer the drama of an actual ultimate metaphysical struggle between the forces of life and death then you can read it that way too.
In what is one of the more disturbing story concepts I’ve read of late, “The Dog Prince” by Sarah Prineas, a boy is transformed into a dog. Sure, fantasy has always been filled with people being turned into newts, llamas, and the like, but it’s generally just a simple spell and poof they’re off in search of a puckering princess. But, no, here a King, apparently a graduate of the Titus Andronicus School of International Relations, has ordered his hostage, the boy prince of a realm that just declared war on the King and killed his son, be slowly and agonizingly reshaped by mainly surgical but some mystical means into a dog as a fitting revenge. As you can imagine, it’s a happy little story, and it even has a happy message: those who order boys’ bodies torturously mutilated are people too. You know, maybe it’s just that I have a really, really black sense of humor, but in the end I have to admit to liking this story, but it’s not really something I’d say in front of a government commission or anything.
Societal prejudice against fantastic mutants has become a standard trope in speculative fiction, and Craig English’s story “Knots” is a perfect example of why. The trivial super-powers in this story serve as wonderful exercise for the imagination. Just what could you do with the power to tie knots telekinetically or the ability to make parts of your body shine? Of course, the real purpose of the story is to show the reader the ludicrous nature of prejudice. The ability to tie knots telekinetically is pretty darn cool, and yet because this makes him different, he’s feared and despised. The fantasy mixed with the social message makes this a good representation of the subgenre and a worthwhile read.
“The Bravest of Us Touched the Sky” by Carrie Vaughn is an homage to the women of the Women Airforce Service Pilots of WWII. In the middle of the night, Evie and Jane are approached by two Army Intelligence officers who need someone to fly a rather unique B-26 to an out of the way airfield. They agree, and badness ensues. Much like stories about mutants, I’ve found that stories involving women serving during WWII tend to be about the deleterious effects of prejudice, and this one is no different. This isn’t a complaint. As I mentioned above, I’m all in favor of anti-prejudice stories, and this one does a good job of bringing its message home in an interesting and memorable way. I just find it interesting the editor put two stories with the same theme back to back. Regardless, “The Bravest” was a good addition to this issue of Talebones and a story I’d recommend picking up if you get the chance.
Elements of Native American legends bleed into a story of a man accepting his eminent death in “A Piece of the Sun” by Stella Evans. I like the hallucinatory transitions between legendary elements and reality, how Bear and the first wife are referred to separately, but seem to be the same character, how the box is only referred to as being full of sun. Unfortunately, I didn’t really like anything else. It might just be that I missed something, because it does feel like I need to know one more thing for the legendary elements to click into place. Without that, I’m left with not much in the way of story. A lonely, dying man talks to his ex-wife, finds his special shoebox, realizes his life wasn’t as bad as he’d thought, then dies feeling less lonely. Even though I wanted more from the story, the piece is well and interestingly written, and I do look forward to seeing more from the author.
“Eliza’s Quick-Drying Polar White” by T. Rex is a short story length joke, but, even though you can see the punch line coming a mile away, it’s a good enough joke for me to recommend the story. It helps that I grew up in a 100-year-old farmhouse in the middle of a cornfield, and so I have experienced firsthand the suffering a single cricket under your bed can cause at three in the morning. But, even if you haven’t, “Eliza’s Quick-Drying Polar White” is amusing and just slightly twisted enough for me to give it the good ol’ thumbs up.