A.C. Wise is the author of numerous short stories appearing in print and online in publications such as Clarkesworld, Apex, Lightspeed, and the Best Horror of the Year Vol. 4. In addition to her fiction, she co-edits Unlikely Story, an online magazine publishing three issues of fiction per year with various unlikely themes. Follow her on twitter as @ac_wise.
by A.C. Wise
In terms of beginning as you mean to go on, Helene Wecker has set herself up beautifully with her debut novel, The Golem and the Jinni. It is a novel of opposites. It starts quietly and builds to a full blaze. It is full of the small, intimate details of life, yet sprawling and epic at the same time. The streets of historic New York City are gorgeously drawn and feel real, but also steeped in myth and the fantastic. In all cases, neither side overwhelms the other. The way opposites come together throughout the book – where they temper each other and where they clash – is where the novel’s strength lies. All of the tension and balance is encapsulated perfectly in the main characters, Chava a stoic woman of clay, and Ahmed an impulsive man of fire – a golem and a jinni. The story offers multiple levels of conflict – between the characters on a personal level, on a cultural level, on a generational level, and along gender lines. Wecker makes you care deeply about each character, and presents each point of view with such clarity it’s easy to find yourself simultaneously agreeing with completely opposing opinions. The relationships in the novel feel organic as people grow beyond their prejudices or grow into them more deeply. Even the characters who don’t spend much time on the page make a strong impression, leaving you with the sense of fully developed lives extending beyond the narrative as written. I certainly hope Helene Wecker does indeed go on as she began.
Continuing the theme of brilliant debuts, Meda Kahn’s “Difference of Opinion“, which appeared in Strange Horizons in September 2013 is the author’s first published story. Much of the story’s beauty lies in showing real characters who are allowed to have complex relationships with each other and not have everything turn out perfectly or even happily for them. Life is messy, and sometimes fiction should be as well. Not all conflicts have solutions, nor do they need them. Kahn’s main character, Keiya, is autistic and the author doesn’t shy away from showing the sharp edges where her experience of the world clashes with the experiences of neuro-typical characters around her. Themes of self-perception versus external perception and the damage that can be done by trying to force another person’s reality to fit into your worldview run throughout the tale. Another part of the story’s beauty is in its rejection of the too-often seen ‘cure narrative’; no cure is wanted or needed. The story delivers on the title’s promise – one way of experiencing the world isn’t better than another, it comes down to a difference of opinion.
In the interest of full disclosure, “Geddarien,” my recommended starting point for Rose Lemberg’s work was reprinted in the architecture issue of Unlikely Story, which I co-edit. Personal connection aside, I would still recommend it is a starting place for Lemberg’s work. The story struck me and stuck with me from the first time I read it when it was originally published in Fantasy Magazine in 2009. The story is haunting, resonating long after its last word, which is appropriate for a story centered around music. The story deftly balances whimsy and magic, the idea of dancing houses, with the horrors of the Holocaust and the persecution and murder of Jews. Much like Pan’s Labyrinth, the story can be read for a happy ending or a tragic one, depending on your belief in the magic presented. At the heart of the story is the relationship between the young protagonist, his grandfather, and his grandfather’s tales. In addition to music, “Geddarien” is a story about stories and the way passing them from generation to generation creates history and memory and allows the past to survive. For an interesting companion piece to “Geddarien,” read Lemberg’s “A City on Its Tentacles” in Issue 1 of Lackington’s Magazine. It also holds story and family at its heart and underscores stories, and faith in stories, as a means of preserving life as a mother struggles to save her daughter by journeying through story to an impossible city.
Closing out this post with another strong debut, Sophie Werely’s “Ansa and the Lost Thing,” published in Daily Science Fiction, was the author’s first professional publication. It’s another story that resists easy answers and wrapping things up neatly for the sake of a happy ending. Like “Geddarien,” it centers on family, and can be read as a straightforward tale of loss or something more supernatural depending on your belief in magic as presented in the narrative. Here, two sisters cope with their father’s disappearance and their mother’s illness by building a trap for a unicorn in order to wish their father home. Memory is also key to this story, but rather than tales passed from generation to generation keeping memory alive, the cause of the father’s disappearance is rooted in him forgetting to remember himself. The story puts a different spin on the theme, but both “Ansa and the Lost Thing” and “Geddarien” link memory and story to life – whether it’s the stories we tell others or the stories we tell ourselves.