BRIEF SUMMARY: A mechanical woman; a man on fire; a savage adventurer and a man in search of such an adventurer are the protagonists in the works reviewed this week.
PROS: Two selections have the nostalgic feel of old pulp adventure stories; skillful wordplay; poetic imagery; pacing that makes you lean into the story.
CONS: One story takes a disappointing turn and feels like a cheat.
BOTTOM LINE: There is a lot to like in the stories this week. The three works of fiction demonstrated that a short story, even when it has a definitive beginning, middle and end, can be the ideal springboard into a larger work while the poetic selection of Catherynne M. Valente shows that stories are not bound to a strictly prose format. The lack of foreknowledge that one short story is actually a piece of a larger created universe leads to some bitter disappointment, especially when contrasted to another story which is up front about a similar status right from the beginning.
“Work Sets You Free” by David Barnett
“What did it mean to be a hero” is the question that Gideon Smith ponders as he sets out not to be a hero himself, no sir, but to track down the famous Captain Lucian Trigger, Hero of the Empire, who features prominently in the serial adventures that Smith loves to read. For a hero is needed, and Trigger is just the man for the job. Smith soon finds out, in a rather unpleasant way, that once you set your foot out the door you are bound to discover adventure, heroic or not.
Barnett’s is a really fun story, the kind of young men’s adventure story that gets your guts all in a twist for the injustice of it all as you ache for the would-be hero to come into his own. I literally read quicker as the story progressed, willing Gideon Smith to extricate himself from the perilous clutches of The Impoverished Sisterhood of the Stoney Resurrection. This is melodramatic fare with some really nicely placed literary nods and a protagonist you can easily get behind and root for.
This novelette was procured and edited for Tor.com by Claire Eddy. Kudos are to be given for announcing up front that this story is introducing a protagonist who is front and center in Barnett’s upcoming novel, Gideon and the Mechanical Girl. I cannot wait to go adventuring with Gideon Smith again.
“Warm Up” by V.E. Schwab
By contrast Victoria Schwab’s short work disappoints by not alerting the reader up front that this story is purportedly an introduction to the world she has created in her upcoming novel Vicious. I say disappointing because right up until the last act this was one killer story. The protagonist, David, is a man come back from the dead. This miracle is not what it should be as he is not the man he was when he died, instead some mysterious condition has befallen him in which everything he touches is consumed with intense heat. While trying to learn some manner of control he has succeeded in destroying his marriage and the life he once had. But things are looking up. David is ready to re-enter the world. But how long can he remain in the world without his condition causing harm once again?
I was captivated by Schwab’s prose and felt compelled to keep reading, drawn in to David’s story and his mysterious powers and just where this would all lead. Unfortunately near the end of the story David unexpectedly enters a side street off the main road, and the story does as well. A previously unmentioned religious angle enters the story and with no time for development quickly ends the story. It feels wholly out of place with what has gone on before and deals the reader an unfair blow. Had I known beforehand that this is part of a larger work, or an introduction to a larger world, I would have seen and judged the story differently. After the fact it is hard to reconcile the obvious talent with the bitter feeling about the direction the story took, a direction unsupported by what came before.
This story was acquired and edited by Miriam Weinberg.
“The Thing Under the Drawing Room” by Jedediah Berry
Berry has a wicked-cool imagination, a fact born out in his genre-blending debut novel The Manual of Detection. Here that imagination is on display in a story that feels like a mixture of Robert E. Howard Conan stories, Lovecraftian mythology, and classic and contemporary fantasy. The barbarian Gotchimus has entered the House of Derby for one reason, to vanquish the spirit of an old god in a contest of possession known as The Sundering Game, so that he and his family may gain a place at the Hall Atop the Hill. Gotchimus arrives and meets his two competitors as well as various members of the city while he awaits the Sundering to begin. Only the first to sunder will gain the prize and Gotchimus is determined to be the victor, at any cost.
From the opening paragraph you are made aware that this story is going to be fun. At times it feels as if it might cross the border into farce but mercifully does not, and in that way maintains a feeling of homage to the authors and stories have inspired it. This story too feels as if it could be part of something bigger, in the same way the various Conan stories are self-contained but are part of the greater epic of that character’s adventures. I hope to read more about the life and times of Gotchimus in the future.
This story was published by Interfictions Online.
The titular story of Valente’s newest short story collection is a rhythmic jumble of thoughts and emotions and Japanese-culture imagery wrapped around the thoughts of a young girl, one of many, who pilots a much larger robotic body. The title lets you in on the theme, these are the melancholy musings of a girl who is both enamored by and haunted by her role in this future society. The giant robots have to be operated by girls and it does not take much reading between the lines to understand that the process of climbing inside and interfacing with this machine is a painful one, both physically and perhaps psychologically. On the other hand there is something cool and powerful and addictive about something that would traditionally seem so masculine that is instead entirely feminine.
I’m endlessly fascinated by Asian culture; the colorful imagery, the pop culture that at once seems so familiar and so foreign. As I read I had the beat of the Asian pop music I find so easy to fuel my morning cardio routines tripping through my head and I couldn’t help but compare it to earlier memories of reading Ian McDonald’s short story “Sanjeev and Robotwallah” from the Cyberabad Days collection. Valente is a challenging, creative, bold author and I highly recommend her work.