I’ll be covering highlights of the January through April issues, and a more in-depth review of the May and June issues.
In “Ghostweight,” by Yoon Ha Lee in the January issue, Lisse and the ghost that is stitched to her resurrect a mercenary war kite to wreak vengeance upon the Imperium for the slaughter of her people, though Lisse is unaware of the dangerous ties to the tragedy held by her lifelong ghostly companion.
There was a great deal to love in “Ghostweight.” The idea of being able to speak to one’s ancestors for guidance is very tantalizing, and the relationship that develops between Lisse and the ghost is very tender. The author uses the tie between Lisse and her ghost to introduce tremendous tension towards the end of the story, tension that really plucks at the heartstrings.
When Lisse remembers that, “she tried to bite one of her fathers…” the author skillfully kills two birds with one stone. It implies a much different family norm without weighing the work down with backstory. It also gives the story an exotic feeling. Cultures all over the world have very different ideas of what constitutes marriage and family, but the vast majority of fiction that I’ve read uses a traditional Western norm.
When one pictures a magical aircraft, a gigantic kite is not something that immediately leaps to mind. Lee’s descriptions of the war kite made it interesting and easy to visualize. The way in which it was powered added tension and risk to the story.
In “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees,” by E. Lily Yu in the April issue, a small village boy picks up a rock, throws it at a wasp nest, and unintentionally creates an anarchist revolution in another land.
Handled differently, a story about sentient insects would have fallen flat considering the number of computer-animated movies on the subject. I feel that if one is going to anthropomorphize an animal, one needs to be very well-acquainted with the animal’s behavior. I noticed in her author’s biography that she keeps bees. I think her expertise and understanding of the insects kept the story from becoming campy or cliche.
Her prose was elegant and easy to read. I loved how a very small action, throwing a rock at a wasp nest, began a sequence of events with tremendous consequences. The story developed very organically, with a very unexpected ending.
In “Three Oranges,” by D. Elizabeth Wasden in the February issue, Stalin orders his Parisian operative back to Russia, and he must return with the Three Oranges, fruit imbued with mystical power.
“Three Oranges” was magical, and reminded me very much of an Impressionist painting in which detail is hinted and implied rather than being bold and clear. It also had a very complex protagonist with complicated motivations, further entangled with the madness that ruled Stalinist Russia.
I am developing a fondness for Russian folklore, and I’ve noticed that the stories never really turn out the way one would expect. For example, the tale of a Russian soldier with an extremely kind heart ends with him wandering the earth for all eternity, unable to enter the gates of heaven, despite having done virtually nothing that would be perceived as evil to the modern Western mind. The unpredictability of Russian stories makes them entrancing, and “Three Oranges” had the same sort of feel to it. I also noticed that my favorite Russian-born author, Ekaterina Sedia, left a note in the “Three Oranges” comment section.
January-April: Weaker Stories
I rarely read a story whose premise itself is flimsy. I liked the premises of ”Matchmaker,” by Erin M. Hartshorn, and “The Book of Phoenix,” by Nnendi Okorafor, but both had problems with the authors’ realization of their ideas.
In “The Book of Phoenix,” from the March issue, Phoenix, a genetically-engineered woman of African descent, is at a loss to explain the suicide of her best friend. Trapped inside Tower 7, studied and prodded by scientists, Phoenix seeks the source of her friend’s sudden distress, unaware that her search would lead her to live up to the meaning of her name. Literally.
I found that I liked Phoenix and I could clearly feel her loneliness. I love the African folklore references and the cosmopolitan nature of Phoenix’s understanding of the outside world. The power she develops is very interesting. But, a few problems lessened the story’s impact for me.
Her friend seemed like a fairly well-adjusted guy, all things considered, so whatever he saw that made him commit suicide had to have been earth-shattering. Without giving away any spoilers, let me say that, though horrific, her discovery of the source of his distress was a bit of a disappointment.
Some of the elements of the story were a little clumsy. Her friend’s method of suicide was eating an apple rather than his usual diet of crushed glass. To me, that felt a little like the author was saying, “Look, I’m doing the opposite of normal,” rather than creating an unexpected, but understandable reversal of the audience’s expectations.
In “Matchmaker,” in the April issue, a dutiful Jewish daughter visits yet another shadchen (matchmaker) at her mother’s behest. Her mother fails to mention the matchmaker wasn’t human.
I could personally sympathize with the protagonist’s predicament, having felt the pressure from a very staunch, traditional family member. I also liked the notion of there being a Jewish community on a spaceport with alien converts.
It had a number of infodumps and was frequently guilty of telling, not showing. I would have liked to have seen a demonstration as to why the protagonist remained unmarried. Cultural pressure is clear and well demonstrated, as is her mother’s desire that she marry, but other than talking about her being plain, the lack of demonstration makes it less important to the readers as to whether she finds a mate or not.
Considering a match to a non-human is a critical part of the story, readers really have to feel sorry for the protagonist to be willing to empathize with her mating with a bad-smelling alien she doesn’t love. To me, the stakes weren’t high enough for the protagonist to consider it.
Another issue subtly undermines the tension, but I think it could have been used to increase it. Citizens of the space port can select the sex of their babies. It is not implicitly stated, but is implied that males are more desireable and are selected for. That should make it even easier for a girl to find a husband when there are more males than females.
I feel the author could have used this to ratchet up the tension even more. If readers had seen a picture painted of a sympathetic character who has qualities to make her so undesirable to the desperate male population that her only recourse is to consider aliens, I think I would have felt differently about the story.
Full Review: May Issue
Both short stories provided a good contrast to the fiction that had appeared in previous issues, and they were well written, with unique qualities.
In “Whose Face This Is I Do Not Know,” by Cat Rambo, A.J. finally decides to stop being a wild thing and move back to being a human. Tragedy forces A.J. to return to its creator to try to stabilize the rapid shifts in its body’s appearance.
Rambo’s protagonist, A.J., is an interesting creation that no pronoun can really describe, but she is female for the duration of the story. She is a compelling character that’s clearly defined, for the most part. Rambo also handled a classic sci-fi premise, the escape of a lab experiment, in a new and interesting way.
It was also written in first person perspective in the present tense, which immediately made it stand out from the crowd. Personally, I feel it is much more difficult to write in the present tense, and the author managed the risk quite well.
I do wish A.J.’s motivations for returning to the lab that created her were a little more clear. Is it grief? Seeking something familiar? A.J.’s feelings once she has gone back to see Dr. Basil are quite understandable, but I’m left thinking, “Why would you go back to that?” People return to ugly situations all of the time, mostly because the familiar feels better than the unknown. I just couldn’t quite tell if this was the case for A.J.
In “The Architect of Heaven,” by Jason K. Chapman, Trent Bishop becomes so involved with his work that he doesn’t even notice the woman he loves has slipped away on a ship bound for distant galaxies. The only way to find her is to build another ship, pushing technology to the limit in order to find her before she dies of old age.
“The Architect of Heaven” had a solid plot, and its characters were very clearly delineated. I liked the dialogue, which sounded real and also displayed each character’s personality. It was a new take on a very old story, that of a lost lover, and damage left behind.
Without giving any spoilers, I think it could have been more compelling if we had seen an example of why Irene DeSart had been worth spending an entire fortune and a lifetime to seek. I do realize, however, that space in short fiction is quite limited, hence the “short,” but it would have been interesting to see even a small demonstration of Irene’s sterling qualities.
Full Review: June Issue
In fiction, we begin with “Semiramis,” by Genevieve Valentine. Two spies are stationed at the Svalbard Seed Vault, where seeds from all over the world are stored and protected. As temperatures warm and the oceans rise, the loss of arable land incites chaos that threatens the safety of the seed vault, making the spies very nervous, indeed.
The story had characters with which readers could relate, and I liked the different relationship between them and how it is expressed. I love how their relationship develops without them ever talking openly about it, even to themselves. The tie between the subject matter and the title was good, Semiramis being the queen for whom the Hanging Gardens of Babylon was built.
Despite the good bones in this story, I didn’t feel an urgent need to find out what happened next. I believe it was because the lead characters, Lise and an unnamed male, saw lots of terrible things happening, but nothing bad actually happens to them. The author makes the tension rise with the turmoil that erupts around them, and the risk their occupation as spies imposes should put them in more danger than the average Joe. Adversity is what shows us what characters are made of, and it is very difficult to pull off an interesting story in which characters simply live.
Though the story is about two people, the author’s view of environmental issues is inextricable from the fabric of the tale. When an author bases a story on a current political controversy, he or she runs the risk of the setting and premise becoming very dated very quickly depending on how the political winds blow. This may not matter for a short fiction work in a monthly periodical, but it is something to consider. (I discuss a similar issue regarding a different story here on my blog.)
In “Trickster,” by Mari Ness, a paralyzed, grieving mother is asked by the Trickster God to slay the God of Silver. Will her quest avenge the death of her child, or has the Trickster manipulated another mortal to join the wrangling games of the gods?
The story was incredible. It had an ancient Greek view of the gods, impossibly powerful, petty children that ensnare mortals in their squabbles, toying with them without regard for human pain. The author managed to weave tangled plot threads together in a cohesive and compelling fashion. The pain of this mortal mother plucks at the heartstrings, and even if I do not condone her actions, I most certainly understand and sympathize.
Having read six issues, I noticed a few trends in the magazine. Several Clarkesworld stories did something that made my job much harder. It is incredibly easy to leave out a protagonist’s name when an author writes in first person. Sometimes it’s intentional, to create an impression that the protagonist either can’t or doesn’t wish to be noticed. Writing a story’s description is difficult without a leading character’s name, and having to re-read a story several times to see if I missed the one time a protagonist’s name is mentioned is quite irksome.
I think there are some things it could do really hook readers in a tough marketplace. The stories are of decent quality, and several of them are fantastic, but the issues do not seem to yet deliver consistently that are addictive page-turners. Readers have to feel drawn to protagonists. They have to care for characters that have wide appeal. The characters have to take tremendous risks that have consequences for themselves and others. The should be so drawn in that he or she cannot wait to turn the page to find out what happens.
The authors of the nonfiction articles are clearly passionate about their material, but the readers need a clear hook to see why they should care about the article. I found that as I read I really only felt drawn to the articles on subjects that interested me. That seems like a natural thing to do, but think of what would happen if readers are sucked into subjects they would not ordinarily have read? Wow.
The availability of podcasts seems to be a popular feature. I love the comment section after each story, which makes it fun to discuss the stories with others. The magazine is available in virtually any format a reader could desire: print, electronic editions, subscriptions, and yearly anthologies. I absolutely love the cover art, which will make or break sales for any type of written work. Overall, I believe Clarkesworld to be a solid periodical.