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ARC Review: Writers of the Future Vol. 39 (Part II)

And we’re back, reviewing the second part of the anthology, filled by winning stories from the “most enduring and influential contest in the history of SF and Fantasy.”

Not like it’s a big deal or anything.

If you want to catch up on part I, you can click the link here, but otherwise, let’s charge ahead!

“Fire in the Hole: A Dan Shamble, Zombie P.I. Adventure,” by Kevin J. Anderson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

TW: ghosts, zombies, vampires, demons etc., domestic abuse, language, death by alcohol poisoning, child with unknown parentage

The cover art story!

I didn’t expect to enjoy this one.

I’m not a big fan of zombies. And this promised to be very silly.

That said, it’s funny with a lot of heart. It’s simple and straightforward, with clear heroes and villains, and cheerful, likeable characters. It’s complete with quotes from both The Hobbit and Spiderman, if that gives you any hint as to what sort of story this is.

Plus dragons. Y’know.

And after all the solitary wizards and secret worlds of fantasy (not that they aren’t magnificent), it’s nice to see everyone magical and unmagical just going about their lives together. Happily. So what if you’re a zombie and he’s a salamander and she’s a water sprite? There’s room enough for us all.

I think I could get used to stories like that.

“A Trickle in History,” by Elaine Midcoh

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

TW: plans for suicide rather than capture/execution, xenophobia, war, discussion of the Holocaust, mild language

Almost a decade ago, a writer friend told me about a little-known history fact related to World War II. It was the first time I’d heard it, and I was quite awestruck, while she carried on to say that she wished someone would either write a story or literally time travel to erase one of the darkest horrors in history (I’m a little fuzzy on which she said at the time).

Well, the story is here. Someone’s done it.

“A Trickle in History,” is a story of the last surviving Jewish people in the world, trying to go back in time to stop the Holocaust.

It’s tragic. It’s painful. It’s kind of beautiful. I think it’s an important story to hear right now.

Besides. I have a soft spot for time travel.

Rebecca’s eyes widened. “You want me to kill—”

“No,” Albert interrupted. “We want you to live.”

Midcoh, Elaine. L. Ron Hubbard presents Writers of the Future Vol. 39 (Kindle Locations 5709-5711). Galaxy Press, Inc.

Are there flaws? Plot holes? Paradoxes? Are there things left broken, imperfect?

Yes to all of these. But now that this story is written, it will inspire the next one, starting where it left off.

I imagine that friend of mine might like reading it.

“The Withering Sky,” by Arthur H. Manners

Rating: 4 out of 5.

TW: violence/murder, horror, addiction, alcohol, language, possible warning for claustrophobia and agoraphobia

Ahh, this one.

I don’t read horror a lot. It’s more that the horror genre makes a little care package, selects a few stories, some spooky shadows, creaky noises, and its weirdest new monsters, wraps them in brown paper and twine, and drops them on the rooftop under the garrett window, delivered via crow.

They sort of show up and insist on having my attention. Like a toddler reaching grabby hands for your face.

He hopes that you enjoy the story and apologises for the ever-shifting doom mural that consequently appears on your bedroom wall. He is working on removing this effect from his prose, but for now asks that you think of it not as a bug, but as a feature.

Hubbard, L. Ron. Writers of the Future 39 (Kindle Locations 5856-5858). Galaxy Press, Inc..

I could tell this was a good one because I wasn’t scared reading it so much as–look, if there’s a name for that emotion, someone tell me. You know, when you know what’s coming, feel it clenching in your gut, but you keep hunting a way out, any way out, dreading calmly. The pages were flicking by.

It’s disgusting. It’s horrible. The place is stark and unfriendly and miserable. It’s definitely not the kind of story world you’d take a willing vacation in.

But there’s something real there. Something I recognize.

That desire the protagonist has to wander, to keep moving, moving–you decide if it’s good or bad, but it’s familiar to me. It’s something I understand.

“The Fall of Crodendra M,” by T. J. Knight

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

TW: drug use/addiction, alcohol, language, planetary destruction

I was immediately interested in this one when the author mentioned the topic of real vs. virtual life. It’s something I think about probably more than most people because of all the live music performance–and when Ye Olde Plague struck the lands, I started to wonder if it would come back at all, if people would care to leave the comfort of their homes and trudge out to squeaky theatre seats to hear us play old music by (mostly) long-dead composers.

It didn’t go the way I thought it would. Which, generally, is a compliment.

A serene waterfall, a battlefield with smoke and mute gunfire. All that has happened in the universe, captured for our collective imaginations. Watch, and forget your troubles.

Knight, T. J. L. Ron Hubbard presents Writers of the Future Vol. 39 (Kindle Locations 7054-7056). Galaxy Press, Inc.

It’s funny. Both “The Withering Sky,” and “The Fall of Crodendra M,” feature the Vitruvian Man. Not as a plot point. Just casually, as a description.

Anyway.

Normally it annoys me, a story where it could all have been avoided, if people just cared, if government wasn’t utterly blustering and useless. When the main action is just to make the protagonist feel good, rather than to change anything at all.

Maybe it did a little. But more than that–

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the times when a feeling jolts me too fast for me to think things through–is it right, is it wrong, why I feel it in the first place.

Sometimes it’s nice to stop thinking and just go. Forget if it matters. Just do what you need to do.

Live.

“What Is Art Direction?” by Lazarus Chernik

I…do not really know what to make of this one. I’ll leave it to the actual illustrators and art professionals to judge its worth.

The statistics were interesting.

Audiences see the average book cover in less than one second. If an illustration attracts them, they will look at it for approximately two seconds and may read the title. If, in those two seconds, they decide the illustration “speaks” to them, they will engage with it for an average of five seconds, reading the first sentences of a blurb. Every step of this progression increases their likelihood of buying and reading the whole story.

Chernik, Lazarus. L. Ron Hubbard. presents Writers of the Future Vol. 39 (Kindle Locations 7703-7707). Galaxy Press, Inc.

“Constant Never,” by S. M. Stirling

Rating: 2 out of 5.

TW: Christianity vs. paganism, religious prejudice/insults, battle violence, animal and human sacrifice, attempted sexual assault, slavery, misogyny, themes of robbery/rape, some graphic deaths

Oddly enough, the one I thought I’d love, the incredibly historical fantasy story complete with dragons and references to the Sigurd myth–yeah, sorry, S. M. Stirling, this was emphatically not my cup of tea or tankard of any other more suspicious substance.

I hate Karl.

I realize that is more or less the point of the narrative. But it reminds me far too much of reading the story of Es-Sinbad of the Sea in the 1001 Arabian Nights, shoving snacks in my mouth and waiting for him to die.

It’s an odd sort of story where you don’t root for your protagonist a little bit.

But options for hero in this story are slim–the man who uses the faith of Christianity as a shield for every selfish, vulgar, repulsive decision he makes, or the man who slaughters many and kills a man for human sacrifice.

It’s funny. The story is meant to mimic the Lay of the Volsungs–a story with a lot of blood and gore and many other highly regrettable choices.

I’d take Sigurd over Karl every day of the year, no questions asked.

Sorry.

“The Children of Desolation,” by Spencer Sekulin

Rating: 5 out of 5.

TW: cancer, cult behavior/youth gangs, drugging, action/fight sequences, language

But this one might just be my favorite!

Oddly enough, it does share one similarity with “Constant Never.” The Ouroboros, the snake eating its own tail. Just like the Vitruvian Man, it’s in the background, twinning two stories that appear back to back.

The anthology isn’t themed beyond the greater concept of speculative fiction. It’s an odd coincidence.

I loved almost everything about “The Children of Desolation.” This wasn’t just a pawn game like “White Elephant,” or a quest for survival in a horror landscape or anything like it.

It’s about a man who loves his family and wants to do the right thing. It’s about the price of blood spilled, about revenge and loyalty and mercy.

I love this so much. The characters (grumpy old man, small blind girl, and giant dog), the setting (a dystopia that somehow manages to still be beautiful), the conflict, the plot twists, the criminal underworld, debt collectors–argh, this thing is good!

And it’s good in a way that tells you the author understands life, too. What matters most. What makes life worth keeping.

And we are getting a novel of this loveliness? Really?

“Timelines and Bloodlines,” by L. H. Davis

Rating: 3 out of 5.

TW: nudity, assassination, battle, bomb threat, mention of rape/prostitution, modern witchcraft, language

I can’t really say the same about “understanding life” as in the previous story.

It’s another numbers game, a mental exercise. Fundamental question: if you kill someone in the past, what happens to their descendants? How many people do you wipe out of existence with one life?

It’s the same theme that appears in “A Trickle in History,” but the two handle the idea in very different ways.

It’s interesting. The characters are a little more rounded than in some hard sci-fi. It’s compelling. Sometimes it’s hard to see just how things will turn out. And the science-y explanation of how time travel works is actually quite fascinating.

Are there paradoxes that were ignored? Probably.

Am I annoyed at the “let’s see the only woman in the story naked…twice?” Yes.

But for the most part, I can’t complain about the style or the quality of writing. It flows well. And at heart, the characters are trying to save what’s most important to them, whether that’s one person or the whole world.

“The Last History,” by Samuel Parr

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

TW: death, murder, corpses, blood magic

If “The Children of Desolation,” was my favorite, then “The Last History” comes very, very close indeed.

And with the possible exception of the cover, this also might be my favorite illustration.

Fun fact about this anthology. Descriptive text has been added for each of the illustrations in the eBook version so those who are visually impaired can still enjoy the experience. They’re included with links like footnotes at the end of the book.

I was reading the one for “The Last History” illustration, and I had to go back and look again, because I was so busy squinting at the tiny letter system in the arched stone that I missed the fires and the stained glass.

It’s beautiful, anyway. I think my favorite part is how clearly you can see the personality of the characters in the image, even though they’re so small in comparison.

He stands tall, feet apart, balanced, ready to take on the world or run and jump in the air. She stands quietly, reserved, in dark colors, like a shadow.

It’s gorgeous.

There’s the Chinese Civil Service Exam, transformed in a world of calligraphy-based magic. There’s an elderly woman protagonist and an army of young students. There’s a talking frog.

Seriously, what more could you ask for?

Oh, maybe a discussion of unbalanced society and innate unfairness despite appearances, the violence of fighting for justice, character depth and tension, and the love of parent and child, student and teacher, hmm?

Lovely story. Exactly what I didn’t know I wanted to read.

Final result?

Usually when I get the new volume in my hands and finish reading it, I’m ready to attest that it’s better than the year before. Not sure I can keep saying that. Right now, I’m just thinking of all the stories I’ve collected since the first ARC I got from GalaxyPress–Luke Wildman’s “How to Steal the Plot Armor,” Brittany Rainsdon’s “Half Breed,” Leah Ning’s “Yellow and Pink.” A few more of Hubbard’s stories.

I’m not sure I can keep comparing anthologies because each one has had at least one story I grab and hold onto, glittering even among the rest.

Whatever you say, I’ve been to the outer reaches of the universe, fallen into dark tunnels, met dragons, traveled through time (twice!), and taken a train from a city underneath the earth.

It’s been an adventure.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
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