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Tor.com -- May 2012

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Tor.com, May 2012

“At the Foot of the Lighthouse” by Erin Hoffman
“About Fairies” by Pat Murphy
“Dress Your Marines in White” by Emmy Laybourne
“Legacy Lost” by Anna Banks

Reviewed by Colleen Chen

I’m not sure if Tor.com’s four new stories for May are typical, but these all had something in common: all are excellent storytelling, but all are somewhat dark. Fortunately, each story comes with a rather amazing illustration, so you can add another dimension to your immersion into shadows of various forms.

“At the Foot of the Lighthouse (Todai Moto Kurashi),” by Erin Hoffman, is about a Japanese-American girl brought to an internment camp in the Arizona desert as a result of 1942’s Executive Order 9066. The alternate history offered here is a metaphor for the real one, and the speculative element—involving a secret power in the girl’s family—is introduced subtly, then explodes into the entirety of the story in a jarring ending twist.

This is a disturbing, highly personal story (check the links to the author’s blog for a fascinating background to it) that gives us a unique perspective of a shameful incident of history, and within it, patterns of behavior motivated by issues of group identity. Stories such as these have relevance in a greater conversation about where we are going as a human race. It’s told in elegant, guileless prose, a child’s voice, mundane and yet horribly surreal, as she struggles to deal with her loyalty to a country that has betrayed her.

I recommend two reads for this story, as it takes on completely new meaning once the surprise ending is revealed.

“About Fairies” by Pat Murphy highlights the darker side of fairy lore. Jennifer, the story’s narrator, is helping develop an online fairyland for a toy company’s line of fairy dolls. Not much external action is shown in this story—she finds an abandoned mirror that her cats become fond of, her dad passes away in his nursing home, and she has some discussions about significant themes such as jumping from bridges, and the real Peter Pan vs. the Disney version. But the reader gets the sense of much happening internally, a growth of perspective as Jennifer’s mundane “slice of life” is interposed with an otherworldly dimension of the fairies.

This story is deep, well-crafted, and beautifully written. Its speculative element requires no suspension of belief, no entering of an alternate dimension; it shows reasons why we even speculate and will feel very real and relatable to many readers. This is a piece to sit with and savor.

In “Dress Your Marines in White” by Emmy Laybourne, Dr. James Cutlass is writing a report of a demonstration of the strength of the MORS compound, a biological weapon that affects each blood type in a different horrible way. Four Marines from the stockades were recruited for the human-subject demonstration.

Laybourne is effective at showing how unbearable the memories are to James, because as a reader, I was tempted to skim the more painful scenes. But then I would have had to skim the whole thing, because all of it is painful. We get a flavor of James’ dying optimism with regard to his career and family life, and then we see this traumatic cleaving of his psyche as something goes horribly wrong in the demonstration. James’ emotional reaction shows something far different from what he feels compelled to write in his report.

Part of what’s disturbing about this story is that it shows how easily we can agree to create horrible things that none of us really want to happen. Beyond its sociopolitical and ethical implications, it speaks of the psychology of control—and how that can make something that is totally out of control. A skillfully done story, worth one read and more if you can take it.

“Legacy Lost” by Anna Banks is the prequel to a novel, introducing an underwater merworld that coexists unbeknownst to humans. As prequels often are, this feels more like the beginning of a story—an explanation or a myth—rather than a complete story in and of itself.

We are told in the introductory paragraph that the ending will be tragic, which ruined it a little for me. Why did Tor have to include that? It made me not want to read the second half, because it became predictable—after the mer-Prince meets the Princess Nalia, who he’s always hated but ends up falling in love with, it’s obvious that someone is going to die and things would just fall to pieces.

The other thing that bothered me was the same thing that bothered the Prince’s mother—that he’s “as shallow as a clam pool” for falling in love with Nalia only because she’s really beautiful. I suppose this is realistic in that males are visually oriented, and it’s the biggest reason for falling in love in most everything that’s ever been written, but I still find it annoying, and it made me not care about the characters.

The prose itself is lovely, the atmosphere of the story magical. I would have loved  reading it as a teenager or young adult, before my middle-aged cynicism set in.