We’re getting ready for our first trip in two years. I’m sure this is something a lot of families are going through this summer, after a year of lock downs and social distancing. But I do feel some trepidation despite the vaccines. Covid is by no means over, and the other variants are having a heavy impact. So, we’ll travel up to Maine and social distance there, on a cottage at the coast where we can watch the ocean. Read and do some writing. Play guitar. Visit family.

Just… take a pause and relax.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be far different than last year’s vacation. I stayed home and played video games for a week. We went nowhere, did nothing. Yeah, I’m looking forward to this.

But there is much to get done before I go, not least of which is getting to this review. Onward!

A Father’s Hand, by Stephanie Kraner – In this story, the robot revolution has seemingly not gone well for humanity. Or maybe it has. I certainly was left wondering what the background was, but it’s irrelevant to the tale of a boy and the adopted robot father who saved his life when the robots came to kill the humans. Only now the boy and the robot are literally stuck together. Its going to take another curmudgeon of a robot with a cynic’s eye to help resolve the dilemma. I don’t often find stories told from the view of a child to resonate, but this one did, quite strongly. It plays to his naivete without pandering to readers with childish language, and has a warm, fuzzy center, despite also being filled with much pain.

Dontay’s Bones, by Danian Darrell Jerry – Voice carries this piece. Voice and strong writing, with one hell of a surreal story to fill the margins. I took a lot of trickster god vibe from this story of Dontay and his contentious relationship with the more-than-meets-the-eye drug-dealer Nardo, despite its modern urban setting and the purple Cadillac that colors the narrative from start to finish. An interesting choice to set this in the 90’s, or at least that’s what I took from some of the references (Arsenio Hall; Yo! MTV Raps). Culturally that’s my own peak, about a decade after high school, and helped root me firmly in the narrative setting, though for younger readers those references might get missed. Definitely a writer to keep an eye on in the future.

Goodwill Objects, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman – Another story where the surreal meets the real and an interesting juxtaposition following the previous one. This one is a love story, or rather the story of a man who has suffered from a bad break up. But when a package arrives from his former girlfriend, our protagonist is left to piece together her message as the world beings to turn upside down in bizarre ways. Gonzo writing here, wrapping itself around a message about how the world can seem to flip during moments of great change. Loved this, and loved the way the author chose to end it.

The World, A Carcass, by Rich Larson – I have to start by calling out the gorgeous world building in this novelette. At heart it’s a relatively simple story of a princess being forced to marry against her will by the king, her uncle, after her father has died and her mother been sent away. It’s also a story about revenge, and the patriarchal use of women as tools for men to acquire more status and power. But oh boy, that hardly scratches the surface of the gorgeous details the author built into this setting. From corpse kites to glowing dusk flowers, the author details a culture that is both entirely alien to us, yet grounded in details we can understand and relate to. It’s really very well done and impressive, and at no time do these details ever feel like an info dump. Plus I just happen to like stories where the powerless become empowered. Excellent read.

Severed Fruit, by Pan Morigan – I’ve had the pleasure of having one of my published stories panned by reviewers because the protagonist – really everyone in the story – is a terrible person. This story definitely falls into that category, yet maybe I wrote such a story because I like to think even the irredeemable person has something in them worth caring about. Maybe this author did, too. A woman on her death bed should make for a sympathetic character, but I suspect it’s difficult when that person has become such a monster to the world around them. This is a story with a lot of depth to it if you choose to read past the surface and plunge into the sad, tragic, terrible life of a woman fighting to stay alive despite not being worthy of the life she’s created. I really did love this story, if that’s not clear.

Molly Whuppy, by Corey Flintoff – I’ve listened to Corey Flintoff’s voice for years on my local NPR stations and had no idea the reporter had turned to fiction. It’s a solid turn, too, if this story is any sign. This smacks of an old story told to kids at bedtime and collected in their favorite book of fairy tales and fables. Indeed, it’s apparently a far older story than this version (I’m not familiar with the folk tale this is based on), and I hope all of them are equally as fun. Here we find a girl cast forth from her home with two sisters, who are all too eager to ensure they are the ones left alive. But it’s Molly’s clever wits that helps them all survive, and Molly who comes out on the top in the end. Delightful tale with a wonderful protagonist in the best tradition of clever, brash, daring young women.

Babylon System, by Maurice Broaddus – I clearly haven’t read enough of Maurice’s work, because this piece was wonderful. A story about prison, but so much more. About determination, understanding, breaking the system from within, martyr’s and victims, and the oppression of capitalism when tied to the chain prison system and forced slavery. You could strip out the speculative here and still have a hell of a fine story, but the speculative gave it a new tinge of what might come, that palpable sense that the author is divining a potential future and delivering it to us in a form we can digest so that we can better understand where we’ve come from and where we are headed. You need to get this story into your head, folks.

Drunkard’s Walk, by James Enge – Spells that go awry are a time honored tradition in fantasy. In this story, the effects are at first subtle, and then become dire as the protagonist – the titular drunkard who spends much of the story considering where he’ll get his next drink – realizes the extent of the problem and sets about to remedy it with the assistance of a local boy. While the story itself is solid, it felt almost as though this story wanted to go somewhere, and instead stood in place and spun for a while before finding its exit. A fitting metaphor for the challenge our drunkard faces, though I found myself more interested in the future of the boy who had assisted him. That kid’s got an interesting life ahead. I believe this is a short story set in a wider universe of popular novels featuring the same character, so that bodes well for my own drunk characters.

The Plus One, by Marie Vibbert – At first I didn’t really think I would enjoy this piece. It felt like another “detective in space investigating a murder,” which is a fun genre but one I’ve seen plenty of recently. However, the protagonist held my attention, along with her doting husband, and the story hinged less on there being an actual murder and much more on potential issues with colonizing other planets. Issues tied up with how capitalism – with its profit-oriented goals and lack of compassion for the individual – will handle scarcity of even the most basic resources, like food and water. Or oxygen. It turned out to be a far more interesting question than I’d imagined, and the story reminded me a great deal of Ian McDonald’s stellar Lunar series, but with a more personal focus and a main character I connected with.

Refugees, by Robert Grossbach – Settle in for a while, because this novella is fun. Morty, a self-effacing and caring man, is on trial for doing right by illegal aliens and giving them a place to stay. Unfortunately for Morty, these aliens are literal aliens, refugees from their homeworld, and the place he provides proves to be too small for their, ah… shall we say active reproductive cycles. Our sexual revolution refugees cause no small amount of headaches for Morty, and that’s all I’ll say about the story because I don’t want to give any more away. It’s an excellent read, light and breezy, yet touching on current topics of illegal immigration in a way that illuminates some of the way conservatives react when faced with new groups of beings moving into their space. Really dug this (pun intended).

When the Water Stops, by Eugen Bacon – The last story of the issue is as short as the novella was long. The story is a series of snapshots, revealing something like what might be the end result of the confluence of climate disaster and religiosity. Hard to phrase what it says and what it means without giving it all away, but it’s every bit as deep, though short, as the previous piece was light, but long. I keep re-reading it’s slim four pages and thinking what each of the sections and the people within them represent. One is clear and obvious, the rest… are best left up to the reader to determine, and that’s all a writer can ask.

Along with the stories, we get articles in the usual Departments. I’m particularly enjoying Arley Sorg’s contributions to the issue. I’d often skipped the non-fiction articles, but I’m reading all of them now thanks to his inclusion. I really should have been reading them all along, but, well… there’s so much to read and so little time in my day!

Note: I’m trying to add links to authors sites now, or their twitter feeds, when I can find them. If you’re one of the authors in this review and have a different preference or I couldn’t find a site for you, shoot me an email and I’ll update the posting.

And remember: sign up for my newsletter on the right margin of this page and get these reviews fresh in your inbox when I post them!

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