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Book Reviews: September 2020

Burning Roses
S.L. Huang
Hardcover / Ebook
ISBN: 978-1250763990
Tor.com Publishing, September 2020, 160 pgs

Genre fiction sees many retellings of fairy tales and myths and otherwise well-known stories. The bulk of them are only slightly tweaked or embellished; sometimes perhaps genderswapped but with little else altered in the core narrative. What makes Burning Roses special is the way Huang takes iconic characters and recontextualizes them from the beginning, drags them through a wonderfully syncretized but intelligently altered history, and then renders the fullness of that history into character development, ending up with complex people, complicated relationships, and beautiful intersections of personality and culture. To simply say this is a tale of Red Riding Hood and Hou Yi misses the brilliance displayed within the confines of a very slender volume.

From the beginning, Huang uses solid visuals to immerse the reader in the tale. Red Riding Hood—Rosa—and her situation are immediately interesting. She’s old, but she’s still got plenty of fight in her; importantly, she keeps a rifle handy at all times. And she’s in exile far from home, staying with her close companion Hou Yi, who keeps a bow close by. Within two pages of friendly verbal sparring, the reader gets a sense of a deep but careful relationship, of secrets and secret pains, boundaries kept with iron wills and unspoken contracts, plus long held regrets. Then: the action starts on page three, with giant flaming birds attacking a village, and the two legendary women are off to fight monsters and save lives.

Part of the fun is riding along as these two negotiate and renegotiate their relationship, relayed through clever but grounded dialogue and just the right amount of introspection. What adds to the fun is the action: The stakes are high, not to mention personal, and the tension gradually ratchets up as the story moves along. The action works even better because these two are not magical, unkillable heroes. They can get hurt, just like anyone else; they can miss their shots; they can die. They are deeply flawed people, on the run from the things which haunt them, but inevitably driven to fight.

Just the above would make this a good, fun book. But Huang takes things to a deeper level, layering the narrative with veins of subtext on bigotry, the anxieties of confronting bad habits, and notions of family, examining these concepts through subtle angles and lenses provided by shifting backgrounds and perspectives. On a surface level, the idea of the hero archetype is challenged, as well as cultures of idolization; going deeper, we get to a rich conversation around legacy, and the values and meanings of legacy, and especially the relationship of legacy to the people we care about or the cultures we live in.

Particularly exciting is the way this book twists the Red Riding Hood fairy tale. Burning Roses then incorporates scenes from a number of other familiar stories, placing Rosa at the center of each. They are dramatically changed in ways which gives them an edge, a darkness, but which leaves them recognizable, and which, told together, inform the character of Rosa at the beginning of the book: messed up and self-loathing.

The bulk of the focus is on Rosa, though Hou Yi also has her own narrative arc, also full of regrets and blood and bad decisions. Those arcs eventually overlap, both braiding together and colliding. But ultimately, this book is about family, and sacrifice, and perhaps most of all, the long, painful road to redemption.

Evil in Technicolor
Joe M. McDermott, ed.
Paperback / Ebook
ISBN 978-1952283031
Vernacular Books, October 2020, 372 pgs

Evil in Technicolor came about as a sort of response to the COVID-19 crisis. The situation reminded the publishers at Vernacular of a horror movie; and something about the quarantine experience inspired them to put together an anthology. “The many authors I brought in on this project agreed the kind of horror story they wanted to do was the sort of thing that one would expect from old Hammer Horror movies . . . the classic era, when these dreams and nightmares were black and white and technicolor.”

An apparently new publishing company with only three titles to their name (two of them forthcoming this year), publishers Eric M. Bosarge and J.M. McDermott nonetheless landed serious talent to round out the table of contents: from authors on the rise such as Haralambi Markov, who has appeared in Uncanny and Tor.com, to respected novelist Molly Tanzer, to genre notable Nick Mamatas.

As horror goes, these tales lean towards the atmospheric rather than the bloody, and evoke the ’60s and ’70s Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing era of film. Some take the brief more literally than others, utilizing recognizable set pieces and characters, but placing them in different situations. Craig Laurance Gidney offers a moody tale of a girl out of place in “Myth and Moor,” featuring Emily Brontë as a protagonist, told in a narrative style reminiscent of the period, but which is both readable and convincing. Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s creative “Hammerville” begins with one Dracula getting staked only to awaken in the castle of another (younger) Dracula—essentially the iconic role of two iconic actors as real Draculas, thrust into the same world together.

Stand-out stories include “Forgiveness Is Warm Like a Tear on the Cheek” by Malorum Gates series author Stina Leicht. Classic scary house fare—a mysterious house with a dark past—made modern through voice and interesting characters. It centers on Jason, a rocker who is trying to keep the band together, but who has some depressive tendencies, including self-harm. He feels drawn to the shadowy house, which his friend tells him to avoid. The story is laced with painful emotions, delivered with some lovely moments of writing, and grounded in interesting but real people and their occasionally strained dynamics. Better, it all resolves in a somewhat unusual way.

E. Catherine Tobler’s “Blue Hole, Red Sea” is well-crafted and elegantly put together. At the same time, it’s tense and quietly gripping. Helen Dane is a diver and an archaeologist working in a field dominated by men. She discovers a strange passageway amongst the ruins and ends up at a mysterious temple on an impossible beach. What she discovers there changes everything for her. The story is a great dark adventure piece, but the deeper notes on gender, power dynamics, and self-doubt make this a wonderful read.

The star story for me in this anthology is “A Thousand Faces Minus One” by A.C. Wise. Donovan is a musician whose life changed after a strange, romantic tryst in Paris. He went from being a loser with no prospects to being a popular rock star. When he sees Paris in the news, burning, things start to unravel, and he is no longer sure of what is real. He may be losing his mind, or someone might be out to get him. This one is immediately engrossing, rich in wonderful tension, sense of character, and a touch of the meta via dialogue. It’s a truly gripping narrative that becomes an emotionally effective story.

There are, doubtless, levels of appreciation that Hammer fans will achieve beyond my own. But even for beginners, reading this book is a good way to spend quarantine.

Entanglements
Sheila Williams, ed.
Paperback
ISBN: 978-0262539258
MIT Press, September 2020, 240 pgs

Editor Sheila Williams is perhaps best known as the Editor-in-Chief of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, which she has run since 2004, when the late Gardner Dozois retired. Other credits include a slew of anthologies, most collecting stories from Asimov’s; she’s also co-edited a few, such as 1990’s Why I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers and Other Stories with Charles Ardai, 1996’s Intergalactic Mercenaries with Cynthia Manson, and 2001’s A Woman’s Liberation: A Choice of Futures By and About Women with Connie Willis. Williams was up for a Locus Award for Best Anthology in 2002, and since 2006 has consistently appeared on major awards ballots, including a few Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award wins. It should therefore be no surprise that she has put together an excellent anthology of original stories for MIT Press.

The theme is “entanglements” and the book features ten stories that consider “the effects that scientific and technological discoveries will have on the emotional bonds that hold us together.” The authors are all notable and respected in the field, such as recent Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award winner Mary Robinette Kowal, and well-regarded Chinese author Xia Jia (with translation by multi-award-winning author Ken Liu). If a story in this book isn’t to a reader’s specific taste, it’s still going to be a well-crafted piece.

The mood and tone of the stories on offer varies greatly. Suzanne Palmer’s “Don’t Mind Me” is a witty, satirical polemic against censorship, wherein some kids are outfitted with headpieces to disrupt any images and sounds which might be considered “offensive.” Of course a few of the kids find workarounds. Nick Wolven’s “Sparklybits” shares a bit of that tongue-in-cheek but is also a bit more tense—an updated “imaginary friend” sort of tale, where the friend is an AI. The story centers on a primary mother figure, Jo, who is part of a group motherhood, and is trying to negotiate between the needs of the kid she is raising and the demands of the other mothers, all of whom spend far less time with the kid than she does. It’s a sharp treatment on class and privilege, as well as other power differentials, and the ways those issues relate to and impact motherhood. On the other hand, Rich Larson’s “Echo” is more existential, and a fairly somber examination of the complexities of people, memories, relationships, and attachments, with an effective result which will leave you feeling wistful, possibly even lonely. Annalee Newitz’s “The Monogamy Hormone” is, in sharp contrast, an absolutely fun story. Edwina is dating two people and feels like she should pick one or the other, so she takes a pill that is supposed to engender feelings of monogamy and help her focus on one relationship. It’s full of odd but cool science-fictional ideas, such as smearing helpful bacteria on the walls of children’s schools, and it leans younger in its vibe than many of the other pieces. It’s quirky in all the right ways, and you can almost feel the author happily grinning along through the narrative as you read it. Far from shallow, it’s limned with sly sociopolitical commentary.

Stand-out stories include Cadwell Turnbull’s “Mediation.” A family has an AI named Ally, similar to Amazon’s Alexa, but more advanced. Ally manages schedules and intervenes in squabbles to help find solutions. The mother, Dr. Lyons, is none too fond of the way Ally butts in and tries to adjust the way she deals with their frictions. The father died recently, and the mom is caught between managing the family in his absence and managing her students and career. As the story progresses, tensions build and Dr. Lyons is forced to make uncomfortable decisions. It’s a complex set up with a touching ending, and a wonderful meditation on good intentions going sour.

“Invisible People” by Nancy Kress, on the first page or two, seems to be a fairly simplistic, straightforward story. Tom and Jen are busy parents raising kids and one of their kids is . . . different. Agents show up at the door, and questions are raised about the adoption of their youngest, “different” kid, Kenly. As the plot thickens and the inevitable conspiracy is revealed, the story becomes a clever, nuanced philosophical discussion and thought piece around family, sacrifice, and altruism. The mastery is in the subtleties, and in the touching but not saccharine or overplayed delivery.

James Patrick Kelly’s “Your Boyfriend Experience” is possibly award-worthy. A driven tech guy has built the latest pleasure-model android and wants his boyfriend to test it out. This model is different from most on the market: It goes beyond the bedroom, serving as a complex companion, and its target market is women and gay men. The introduction of the android arouses complex feelings in the protagonist, Dak, who is both intrigued and horrified on multiple levels. Such as: Why on Earth would my boyfriend ask me to go on a date with this thing? The story is instantly relatable, full of real drama, and enriched by fascinating interpersonal dynamics. It’s human, it’s funny in many ways, and all told, it’s an example of great storytelling.

For me, the star of the book is Sam J. Miller’s “The Nation of the Sick.” A programmer is elevated by the success of his partnership with a visionary. He must contend with his brother’s addiction, sort through his own relationship to the past, and come to terms with his place in the world. But it’s not the “plot” which shines; rather, it’s Miller’s sense of character, of voice, and of narrative structure that make this piece something truly special. This is a story that should be entered into the canon of important literature.

All told, Entanglements a massively successful anthology, one which should put MIT Press on everyone’s radar.

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg

Arley Sorg grew up in England, Hawaii, and Colorado. He studied Asian Religions at Pitzer College. He lives in Oakland, and usually writes in local coffee shops. A 2014 Odyssey Writing Workshop graduate, he is an assistant editor at Locus Magazine. He’s soldering together a novel, has thrown a few short stories into orbit, and hopes to launch more.