So after a long break and a lot of sleep (which I really, really needed), it is my immense pleasure to be on the advanced reading team for Writers of the Future Vol. 37, and to review one of the best new science-fiction and fantasy anthologies in the world.
Not to brag or anything.
I’m just kind of excited.
And the good news about my advanced review turning into a late-December very not-advanced review is that the book is already out. So you can read my gushing review and then run off and buy your very own shiny new copy!
But to clarify:
A Disclaimer: I received a complementary ARC of WOTF Vol. 37. I do not receive any compensation for sales of said volume and all thoughts and opinions herein are my own (because we all know trying to convince me to say something I don’t want to about a book is even more foolish than forcing a rhinoceros into a smoothie shop).
And just so you know what you’re getting into:
Like last year, I’m reviewing each story in the anthology separately, because they are all so unique and different that just hitting the highlights of the volume or even leaving a single one out would create an impossible choice. And for the record? The anthology is really good this year. I usually pick one or two stories that are my favorites, but right from the start I kept thinking “Ooh, I like that one too!” And each one was better than the last, one after the other, like I was drinking tea and listening to the most science-fiction-y Scheherazade that anyone has ever met.
Not to get ahead of myself.
Finally, the review is in two parts because it’s a wonderfully fat little book and I can’t gab about all the things I like without creating a mega-long post that literally three people on the internet would have the patience to read.
Brew your tea and settle into your blanket forts my friends, because this book is well worth the wait.
The Tiger and the Waif by John M. Campbell
Content Warnings: 1 instance strong language, mild peril.
When I say each story is better than the last, I should also say that the first one is jaw-dropping in its own right.
I mean, what more could we ask for than a sassy AI kitten who disapproves of Catwoman?
We’ve seen evil AI and friendly AI (Roombas, I’m looking at you), but an AI cat? Just typing that makes me happier than I know how to express.
But even beyond the inventiveness of the idea, Campbell explores this frankly gorgeous concept–does it matter if it’s my programming making me feel the way I do if I still feel it? Does being synthetic or artificial make emotions fake or unimportant?
Yeah, that’s going to haunt me for a while.
In the very best way.
Sixers by Barbara Lund
Content Warning: alcohol use, themes of war, some violence.
So after reading “How to Train Your Demon” by Lisa Lacey Liscoumb in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (which you should also totally check out), I’m dubbing this the Year of the Granny in the SF/F world, and anybody who wants to fight me can go home. Because having more fantasy stories feature sweet grandmotherly ladies as protagonists is about the most unpredictable and wonderful genre trend I can think of.
The protagonist of “Sixers” fights a man with a crochet hook. I love her. A lot.
It’s just so refreshing to watch her struggle with pain and being tired and have that unique, motherly perspective while also getting the job done, whether it’s looking after someone else or getting down to murder.
The rest of the characters are equally diverse and wonderful, and Lund’s version of magic creates as many problems as it fixes.
They get into so much trouble and they get banged up and take time to rest and I can’t, just go read it, okay?
The Enfield Report by Christopher Bowthorpe
Content Warnings: some disturbing scenes of torture, a character is drugged.
This third one was frankly gorgeous in a way I was neither prepared for nor able to comprehend. It’s more the standard sci-fi that we all expect–otherworldly exploration, alien races coming into contact with the (sometimes inhumane) human population, scientific research–but at the same time, it isn’t.
The colors. I can’t get over the colors. Most of the story takes place inside a sterile lab, but the way Bowthorpe describes it–the oranges, yellows, greens–you don’t notice the bite of disinfectant in your nose or how white and unfriendly everything feels. When you’re there, it feels like home.
And the plot!
I should have seen stuff coming. But I didn’t. Not until it fit so perfectly into place. And the characters, the conclusion, the way they fail and fail and fail and try to get up again–
Look, if you don’t have the anthology in your online book-shopping basket by now, what are you doing?
The Widow’s Might by Elizabeth Chatsworth
Content Warnings: violence, including bombings; crossdressing
The nature of anthologies is usually that you can’t love every story. Unfortunately, “The Widow’s Might” isn’t at the top of my list.
I wanted to like it. Women banding together to save the most charming little tea shop through the power of pockets in their dresses? What could possibly go wrong?
My first pet peeve is the dead pet trope. I get it, our pets mean a lot to us. Believe me when I say I know.
But is a dead pet really the best springboard for killing people?
And although it’s nice once in a while to see a corruption arc instead of a redemption arc, the moral of this story ties my gut in knots. Replacing one gang with another isn’t a great plan, even if the new one seems to have a moral high ground.
In some situations, that just means they have a psychological superiority that allows them to do any dangerous, cruel thing they want.
Am I overthinking this?
Am I wrong?
No. I am not.
Interlude: Magic Out of a Hat by L. Ron Hubbard and On “Magic Out of a Hat” by Orson Scott Card
“Magic Out of a Hat” is a really interesting look at how to write a short story, as presented by the founder of the contest. But since it’s technically writing advice and thus nonfiction, I’ll skip over it here and let you draw your own conclusions.
On to more stories!
The Dangerous Dimension by L. Ron Hubbard
I am always pleasantly surprised when I read a Hubbard story. I guess it’s because I heard of him first through his…kookier reputation.
He is, however, a fine writer.
“The Dangerous Dimension” was a stabbing gasp of fresh air after I spent two weeks critiquing nonfiction essays.
Ha. It’s a gasp of fresh air any day.
The urgency of that story, the idea that given ultimate power, even the most educated, the most brilliant person will do exactly the opposite of a good thing, will fall flat on his face, will be utterly ruined–
It’s probably quite accurate, although I say so begrudgingly. Wishing, as always, it were otherwise.
I say this a lot, but the story is gorgeous. It feels like a Halloween story C.S. Lewis’ Professor Kirke would tell his fellows to laugh at their shaken expressions. So many tweedy little professors somehow being the most adventurous of us all. My brain was still echoing with it a long time afterward, the shock of its awe throbbing in my skull.
And although I may bring the curse of Equation C down upon my head–
I cannot entirely dismiss the possibility of the negative dimension.
How to Steal the Plot Armor by Luke Wildman
Content Warnings: some mild language, innuendo.
Luke Wildman might win the best bio this year. I mean, who doesn’t want to read a story written by “a figment of your imagination?”
The story itself is from your typical Once and Future King-style wizard’s perspective…which means it’s not typical at all.
It’s also quite funny.
There were a few unladylike snorts of laughter coming from my corner of the book hoard. The wizard is just so done with everything, and frankly, I don’t blame him, not one bit.
Sometimes I think we all want the noisy world to leave us alone with our books and our tea (or stronger beverage…)
It’s really, really delightful. And not in a silly, jokey, are-you-kidding me type of way. Although on the surface, it’s very fairytale-like with touches of D&D, the plot is honed brilliantly so everything comes full circle and nothing is quite what it seems. Tropes are turned on their head. And there’s a serious, dark note underneath all the humor about what it means to be a hero.
In other words, it’s fabulous. I would very much like a novel of this wizard’s adventures, Mr. Wildman, if you are listening, please.
This illustration might be my favorite too–I love all the magical objects just hanging inside the frame, the soft colors of the wizard’s blue robe, the “please get out of my house” vibes, everything.
The Redemption of Brother Adalum by K. D. Julicher
Content Warnings: violence, battle sequences
I think this story is the answer to the question posed by “The Widow’s Might.” Julicher knows what happens when there is unlimited power, even with the best intentions. “The Redemption of Brother Adalum” is crushingly sad, but at the same time–it’s a relief. It’s a relief to see that the struggle is there, the struggle even within yourself, knowing you can’t be the measuring rod of goodness to the world, that you have failed and will fail again, and that’s okay.
Maybe I’m reading too closely again. But isn’t that what these types of stories are for?
And could we please give the author a round of applause for using a monastery setting and not making it exceptionally cultish or including the “evil Abbess” trope?
Also bear spirits. Did we mention bear spirits? Like a best friend? Except with a psychic connection? And a bear?
The Argentum by Anj Dockrey
Content Warnings: mild flirting, themes of death, some peril.
This is kind of like Ursula K. LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” in the sense that after reading it, you don’t want to do anything except stare into space.
All those colors, the shapes, the smells of that world. One of the main reasons I have trouble with interplanetary sci-fi is that I don’t like the idea of living in a place that’s hostile to human life–I like feeling safe to breathe. “The Argentum” is the first story about a planet humans were clearly never meant to inhabit that I would buy a ticket to visit right away. There’s all the pain and struggle and grime and death that infects such stories. But that world–it is one of the most beautiful places. The food, the sunsets, the rocks and minerals, the characters–
And can we please award this one the prize for cutest sci-fi fluff romance of the year?
Even though the author seems to say that hope is a coping mechanism and faith is an evolutionary advance to keep us from despair and destroying our mental selves?
I doubt that’s the way she really meant to phrase the sentiment, so I’m not sure if it’s fair to complain about that. There are also lot of characters, which are a little difficult to keep track of, but my real complaint is the ending.
That’s it. I was really kind of angry after I finished reading this one, but then I realized most of what I was angry about was that I don’t feel like the ending is the end of the story. I want to know what happens next.
Kind of desperately.
(Anj, if you’re reading…Please?)
That’s about the halfway point for the anthology. There are still great things in the second half (including Brittany Rainsdon’s “Half Breed!”), so be sure to stay tuned for the second installment.
In the meantime, may you always have a bookmark when you need it, a cuddly dragon, and very happy reading.