Writers of the Future Vol. 38 ARC Review (Part I)

It’s finally here! A huge thank-you to the lovely folks at GalaxyPress and Writers of the Future for including me in the advanced reader group for the third year running.

I might be a little excited about this. But since I’ve gushed over how much I love the WOTF anthology and contest plenty enough before, let’s plunge right into the review.

Like previous years, I’ll be doing “mini-reviews” of each short story in the anthology, and splitting the review into two posts so it isn’t so ridiculously long that not even the most desperate reader has the stamina to get through it. And finally:

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions, grumblings, rants, and fangirl gushing are my own.

Let’s go!

L. Ron Hubbard presents Writers of the Future Vol. 38 (edited by David Farland)

Genre: Adult science fiction, fantasy, and horror (anthology)

Bookmarkedone rating: (included in Part II)

“Agatha’s Monster” by Azure Arther

Rating: 3 out of 5.

TW: parent hitting a child, some suspense/drama, trauma over a loved one’s violent death, which is pretty gory

I’ve sort of been rooting for all the monsters since reading Frankenstein…and maybe before that. So as soon as Arther’s yellow-eyed, clawed, cat-eating cuddly little Martin popped onto the page, I settled in.

There’s a lot to keep track of in this one–Agatha herself, all the members of her family, the weird hybrid magical world that includes gigantic monsters and knife fighting, medieval-style tunics and leggings, but also something like TV broadcasts, your standard public school, and travel by car. It can be a little confusing if you’re not paying attention. But on the other hand, it’s definitely unique.

And Arther does a really good job of hinting at her backstory without teasing the reader, keeping you guessing until the climax when everything suddenly falls into place. It’s a potent mixture of coming-of-age, learning who you want to be and where you belong, and learning to deal with grief in your own way.

I guess my only hesitation with this one is that I don’t understand Agatha’s family dynamic. I could be reading into this, but…I don’t like her mom.

There. I said it. Maybe it’s fine, but when Agatha was fighting back against her internal emotional struggle and her mom just slapped her–I shut down. I started reinterpreting everything else (why was Agatha the one doing all the breakfast prep by herself? What’s the relationship really like here?), wondering if this was actually as unhealthy as I thought it was.

That’s not really addressed in the story. She gets her happy ending, and everything goes on. As if the family dynamic is fluff, instead of a bunch of sharp-edged, grieving characters lashing out at each other.

So…yeah. Monster hunting trauma? Great! POC representation? Terrific! Unhealthy family dynamic? Um, no. Not up for that here, sorry.

“The Magical Book of Accidental Destruction: A Book Wizard’s Guide” by Z. T. Bright

Rating: 4 out of 5.

TW: subtle commentary on gender/gender roles/sexuality, some rude humor, alcohol use

There’s so much to love about this story. The notes of Arabic-inspired fantasy. The found family dynamic. The speculative element on the nature of internet algorithms dropped into not a sci-fi like you would expect, but a high fantasy. The fact that the protagonist is a book wizard!

I know I should be focusing on the magical elements, but frankly, I’m obsessed with how the characters interact, how sharp-edged and broken they all are in their own different ways, sometimes hurting one another, and sometimes being everything they need.

It’s really nice to have a found family/sibling dynamic once in a while instead of the Hollywood standard romance. And I think this is the kind of tension/resolution that I was hoping for in “Agatha’s Monster.” The messy, painful process of learning when to hang on and when to let go. We know nobody’s perfect, but that doesn’t mean you ignore the imperfections. It doesn’t mean that you don’t try every day to learn, to be better, to love in return.

I don’t want to spoil the story, so I’ll just leave a couple of my favorite quotes to give you an idea of what you’re in for:

I spent the night crying and breaking things and drinking strong beverages. Not necessarily in that order.

I have a note scribbled in my Kindle copy here that just says “mood.”

Galaxy Press, Publisher. Writers of the Future Vol 38 Advance Reading Copy (Kindle Location 1303). Galaxy Press, Inc.

Though I wasn’t sure I was wrong, I had an apology to make.

Can we say “character development?”

Galaxy Press, Publisher. Writers of the Future Vol 38 Advance Reading Copy (Kindle Locations 1305-1306). Galaxy Press, Inc.

And of course I’d be totally remiss if I didn’t talk about Ari Zaritsky’s accompanying illustration. In case you aren’t familiar with the WOTF anthology, every story is paired with a full-color image created by one of the winning illustrators from the competition. And Zaritsky’s is pretty gorgeous.

It’s not just the colors, the rich dark browns against the golden desert sand and blue sky. It’s the way he draws BW, the protagonist, that really caught my attention.

We don’t get a lot of description of her in the story. Just that she has her head shaved and wears a monk’s robe. She’s tough, or tries to be, but Zaritsky’s version of her–

She’s beautiful. Her eyes are an arresting blue, like the desert sky behind her, full lips a dark burgundy shade that hints at lipstick. She has an eyebrow piercing and earrings and a tattoo on her face. The expressions of the other two characters are easy to read, but hers–it’s as if she’s waiting for you to make some choice before she decides if she’s going to be derisive or angry or simply sad. She’s beautiful and feminine and mysterious. Zaritsky painted this tough character so tenderly, as if he really knows her, as if he knows how hard she fights to be strong.

It’s time to move on before I spend the whole post talking about this story.

“The Squid is My Brother” by Mike Jack Stoumbos

Rating: 5 out of 5.

TW: tentacles, symbiotes, innuendo

Okay, I’m just going to say it. I loved, loved, loved this story.

“The Squid is My Brother” is the story of an ordinary girl trying to fit into a new school–except she’s a “third-generation Neptune,” a foreign exchange student from space with a tentacled symbiote attached to her back. But it’s not a Venom type symbiote. Michaela calls it her “Brother,” and it’s just that–a friend so close that it’s part of her, a protector and confidant.

It’s so sweet and so weird. It’s perfect.

And the writing style! It’s this gorgeous combination of blank, blunt prose like you’d find in a telegram message and Michaela’s young, sometimes stinging voice as she fights back against a hostile new environment.

Examples?

Had to apologize again for telling them, “Concussion builds character.”

That’s my girl.

Galaxy Press, Publisher. Writers of the Future Vol 38 Advance Reading Copy (Kindle Location 1457). Galaxy Press, Inc.

And no, as I try to explain to caretakers, can’t see through my spine; spine doesn’t have eyes.

Galaxy Press, Publisher. Writers of the Future Vol 38 Advance Reading Copy (Kindle Locations 1488-1489). Galaxy Press, Inc.

I worry I will fail lunch…there is no teacher for lunch…The other students sit in groups, and I can’t tell the rules for who sits where and why.

Again, mood.

Galaxy Press, Publisher. Writers of the Future Vol 38 Advance Reading Copy (Kindle Locations 1577-1579). Galaxy Press, Inc.

This is the school story to end all school stories. Stoumbos has done it, everyone else go home!

Why? Because the bullying isn’t “why are they picking on our awesome middle grade hero everyone loves” but “she’s different, and different is scary.” It’s something plausible and painful, something real, instead of a plot device.

And the illustration of Michaela quietly drawing while her Brother’s pink tentacles frame her curly black hair? I think I love it just as much as the illustration of BW from the previous story.

It’s beautiful. I could read a whole novel of this. Scratch that, I’d devour a novel of this. Stoumbos, if you’re reading, can I have a novel, please?

It balances the overwhelmingly ordinary with the extremely weird so well. It’s creepy and sweet and it’s about being brave when you’re scared, about being who you are and holding your head up until everyone else accepts you.

It’s good, okay? It’s good.

“Gallows” by Desmond Astaire

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

TW: mild language, infrequent strong language, alcohol use, themes of loss and trauma

On to the next!

My customers will call me Gallows, and I am a discerning bartender. Everyone’s got a story to hide, and I enjoy stealing it out of them.

Galaxy Press, Publisher. Writers of the Future Vol 38 Advance Reading Copy (Kindle Locations 1829-1830). Galaxy Press, Inc.

If you like time travel and intrigue, “Gallows” might be just the thing. It ponders the classic questions of time travel–can we change the past? Is the future predetermined–while our protagonist slowly goes from a respectable corporate compliance officer contentedly living a boring life to a more and more murdery headhunter.

It’s kind of great.

Especially since Gallows is the “I don’t think I can die,” reckless type and his partner is in the background doing a facepalm.

I honestly wish Burkey had gotten more time in the story. Not only is it cool that his partner in crime is a woman and there’s a simple friendship instead of an awkward romance, Burkey is just awesome. She’s cool in the controlled, restrained way of side characters that make you back up a step because you know they could be really scary.

They’re a great combo.

Every once in a while, the little voice in my head tells me something is a critically dangerous idea. But I’ve come to learn that I am smarter than that voice, and I ignore it.

Galaxy Press, Publisher. Writers of the Future Vol 38 Advance Reading Copy (Kindle Locations 2126-2128). Galaxy Press, Inc.

And more than that, the story pokes at the political side of things. What happens when governments get involved with time travel? What kind of power does that have in a military/reconnaissance context? Or as Astaire puts it, what does it mean “to address tomorrow’s threat before it arrives?”

Interlude: “Boos and Taboos” by L. Ron Hubbard

Since this is a previously published essay on the writing craft, I’m going to skip the review and leave you with a few quotes. Even cutting this post in half, I’m getting carried away and I need more room to gab about fiction!

Writers were originally minstrels, of course, and the minstrels used to wander about sleeping in haystacks and begging their wine, getting paid only in gifts. We have become elevated to respectability as far as the world is concerned, but we still live that cup-to-lip existence of our long-dead brethren, and our lives, whether we strummed a lyre or a typewriter, are pretty identical.

Galaxy Press, Publisher. Writers of the Future Vol 38 Advance Reading Copy (Kindle Locations 2322-2325). Galaxy Press, Inc.

(awkwardly shuffles out of frame with violin). Well, some of us have “become elevated.” I still get called a bard on a regular basis. And I like it.

Dear me, can’t we have some really interesting females in pulp?

Galaxy Press, Publisher. Writers of the Future Vol 38 Advance Reading Copy (Kindle Location 2359). Galaxy Press, Inc.

(sounds of bookmarkedone screaming and cheering for revolution)

Okay, you get the idea. Moving on.

“The Professor Was a Thief” by L. Ron Hubbard

Rating: 3 out of 5.

TW: mild language, alcohol and tobacco use

So I might be a little harder on this one because the other Hubbard stories I’ve read (“Borrowed Glory,” Vol. 36, “The Dangerous Dimension,” Vol. 37) were out-of-this-world gorgeous. “The Professor Was a Thief” was good, but…not that good. At least not for me.

To be fair, it’s charming. It’s the story of Pop, an aging newspaperman about to be replaced and forced to retire, just when the biggest story of his life falls into his lap. It’s simple and straightforward and good-hearted, with the kind of feel-good ending that wouldn’t be out of place in a lot of musicals. But along the way, Hubbard uses his gift for escalating the conflict, just a little at a time, spinning out the yarn so you keep turning the pages. You can’t help but root for Pop, even if you have a pretty good hunch about how things are going to go. Sometimes you just need a story where the good guys win, especially after a grim tale like “Gallows.”

“Lilt of a Lark” by Michael Panter

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

TW: mind control, references to a “witch,” hangings, some violence, infrequent strong language, innuendo

“Are you a legend, bird boy?”

Galaxy Press, Publisher. Writers of the Future Vol 38 Advance Reading Copy (Kindle Locations 3650-3651). Galaxy Press, Inc.

So anybody who’s been reading this blog for very long and knows about my musician background can guess how eager I was to read this one from the moment Malkoriahmavrovianmolossus the Lark rode into view, strumming his cannotina.

I love the little poetic turns in the prose, the expressions, the alliteration, the rhythm and music of it all. I know that’s a personal weakness, but seriously, how can anyone not appreciate a good song verse tossed into a short story?

Narrow wynds and buildings huddling tight as whispering thieves….kissed by snowdrifts

Galaxy Press, Publisher. Writers of the Future Vol 38 Advance Reading Copy (Kindle Locations 3735-3736). Galaxy Press, Inc.

“Not all lies are like music, remember.”

Galaxy Press, Publisher. Writers of the Future Vol 38 Advance Reading Copy (Kindle Locations 3905-3906). Galaxy Press, Inc.

Delectable, right?

And then I turned the page to the illustration and realized my mistake.

It’s a picture of Malk in his motley, strumming his three-stringed instrument.

It’s basically a glorified ukulele. I’ve been tricked into rooting for ukulele-man.

I don’t know if that translates to non-orchestral-musician people, but that’s–that’s a pretty good prank to play on me. There’s a totally different vibe for ukulele players and orchestral musicians in terms of our disciplines (and sometimes personality?). Like comparing Malk to Kvothe the Bloodless, really. A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Macbeth. And as I kept reading, it became increasingly clear how much of a loveable idiot Malk really is. There are times that the association with a stereotypical D&D bard who rolled the dice very poorly was impossible to ignore.

And then there’s the idea that a monarch who has just forcibly taken control of a kingdom wouldn’t even, I don’t know, carry a short knife for personal protection? Are we serious? You were so clever until now!

Anyway.

It’s still well-written for all that, the little details fitting together. The sort of story you probably need to read twice to feel satisfied that you’ve caught all the twists and turns. And even if Malk is a bit of an idiot, when he gets down to the actual enchanting with music–well, I can’t complain. It’s just the way I’d have it.

Even if it would have been nice to meet some of the other mythic bards in this world. Who knows. Maybe Panter will write about a Raven next.

“The Mystical Farrago” by N. V. Haskell

Rating: 2 out of 5.

TW: partial nudity, enslavement, freak shows, abuse, implied rape, discussion of gender roles/identity, sexism, some gory details

This one…was not my favorite. I wanted to like it, at the beginning. Haskell’s a Renaissance faire kid like me and she reads Anne McCaffrey. It opens with a spooky circus. The protagonist stands in a cyclone of raven feathers in the illustration, coat and lace-up boots undeniably steampunky. Surely this would be a perfect fit for me, right?

Afraid not.

The story centers around the “crysallix,” a very tall half-bird woman. Cool, right? Well, apparently she’s a very tall half-bird woman that no man can come within six yards of without feeling the apparently overwhelming and uncontrollable desire to possess her due to the scent that an unmarried Farrago naturally exudes.

No.

I have so many problems with this I don’t even know where to start. We’re expected to believe that there’s a race of creatures that mankind has no choice but to rape because of their scent? Is that what you’re really telling me?

We’ve seen this kind of story before, going all the way back to some versions of siren songs, the persistent hot Faerie Queen trope, or even for a more modern example, the Veela in the Harry Potter series.

It’s dumb. I mean, come on. In our modern era, where we have so much knowledge, so much history behind us to learn from the mistakes of others, you’re telling me that we’re still repeating this lie about a seductively beautiful woman creature that robs a man of all reason and self-control?

It’s creepy and gross and it sends a horrible message to the reader because every single character just accepts it as “the way things are.” At least in some of the old stories, there was a way out through sheer force of will.

It’s especially weird, because I think Haskell intended this as a feminist story.

If they had seen the creature as equal to human, those who had abused her would have felt the slice of the guillotine. But because her kind did not speak a language easily understood, they were treated as less than. And the only voice she had in this world was when decent people saw wrong and strived to right it, but that did not happen often enough.

Galaxy Press, Publisher. Writers of the Future Vol 38 Advance Reading Copy (Kindle Locations 4617-4619). Galaxy Press, Inc.

She said we were always in danger among men.

Galaxy Press, Publisher. Writers of the Future Vol 38 Advance Reading Copy (Kindle Locations 4696-4697). Galaxy Press, Inc.

Always? Always, now? So you’re the type of writer who doesn’t believe a man and a woman can simply be friends? Isn’t that what you’re saying, between the lines?

Argh. The longer I look at this, the more I second-guess myself, turning it over, trying to prove to myself that I’m wrong about it, but never able to find any hint of it.

And it’s really a shame, because some of the little worldbuilding details like the cultural dress, feather stubble on the face, and the disguised beak are fascinating. It should have been a good story. It should have been.

But it was days after reading it, and I realized I was still angry. Not just angry, infuriated. In some ways, I still am. I think it’s going to fester with me for a long time.

“Tsuu, Tsuu, Kasva Suuremasse” by Rebecca E. Treasure

Rating: 2 out of 5.

TW: multiple violent character deaths, prostitution, themes of war, grief, and loss

So while I was already in such a chipper mood from the preceding story, this one starts with a funeral. I took some time before plunging into it, but I’m not sure it was enough.

Cons?

  • It’s winter.
  • It’s war.
  • Everyone is freezing, starving, and dying.
  • It’s really depressing.

Pros?

  • We’ve got another granny protagonist! You may not remember, but I dubbed 2021 “The Year of the Granny” in SF/F because of all the sweet elderly protagonists that kept popping up. I’m remembering in particular the fight with the crochet hook by Barbara Lund’s protagonist in “Sixers” in last year’s anthology. There’s something immensely satisfying in seeing these ladies go on adventures, proving that it doesn’t matter what age you are. You can still bring wreck and ruin to the world. Or, you know, save it, if the mood strikes you.
  • The primary relationship is grandmother/grandson
  • It’s steeped in Russian history and folklore.

But even with that, it’s kind of hard for me to really like the story. Granted, that might be more of a me problem than anything else, but I just don’t have the stamina to watch Emily crunch through mile after mile of snow, not even daring to hope they’re going to survive.

It’s not exactly a feel-good one. At least Emily tries her best. That’s more than a lot of us can say.

Interlude: “The Single Most Important Piece of Advice” by Frank Herbert

Normally I’d skip the interlude, but I know you’re curious what the Single Most Important is, according to the author of Dune, esteemed writer, etc., etc. And since he tells you in the first paragraph, I don’t feel like quoting it is really spoiling anything.

…concentrate on story…A good story makes interesting things happen to a character with whom the reader can identify.

Galaxy Press, Publisher. Writers of the Future Vol 38 Advance Reading Copy (Kindle Locations 5373-5375). Galaxy Press, Inc.

Now just do that, right? Like it’s easy.

Ah, writing.

That’s Part I!

Only 3,500 words or so later and now you understand why I split this. You’re welcome, darling. I know, I know.

But in all seriousness, thank you for reading all the way to the end, and please check out the second half of this ginormous review next week. There’s more great stories coming!

And if I’ve wooed you with my witty descriptions of the anthology and you’re desperate to read it yourself, guess what! My ARC review this year is so late that you can! The eBook edition of Vol. 38 is out now, and the paperback releases on June 28. I don’t get reimbursed for any sales, but hey, it’s worth it just to have more people enjoy “The Squid is My Brother” and “The Phantom Carnival.”

Oops. Did I say “The Phantom Carnival?” Just pretend you didn’t hear that.

Stay tuned for Part II and until next time, happy reading!


2 responses to “Writers of the Future Vol. 38 ARC Review (Part I)”

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