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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Tor.com -- April 2016

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Tor.com, April 2016

From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review (A Lady Trent Story)” by Marie Brennan

Freedom Is Space For the Spirit” by Glen Hirshberg
There Will Always Be a Max” by Michael R. Underwood
Terminal” by Lavie Tidhar
Dune Time” by Jack Nicholls
The Destroyer” by Isabella Burton
La Beauté Sans Vertu” by Genevieve Valentine

Reviewed by Natalie J. Havlina

As the title implies, “From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review (A Lady Trent Story)” by Marie Brennan consists of a series of letters submitted to the fictional publication in the title. Mrs. Camherst and Mr. Talbot debate the authenticity of a cockatrice he has recently acquired and the professional rivalry between the two becomes evident. In the final letter, a third individual describes the dramatic revelation of the truth at the opening of Mr. Talbot’s exhibition of the cockatrice.

Brennan packs a fully developed story into a small space. The characters’ voices are convincingly Victorian and the manner in which the story emerges onto the pages of the Weekly Review is a believable portrayal of a scientific debate. The letters hint at a varied and fascinating world and leave me wanting to read more Lady Trent stories. I applaud Brennan for venturing into the under-appreciated epistolary form and her effective use of it.

In Glen Hirshberg’s “Freedom Is Space for the Spirit,” Thomas hurries to St. Petersburg at the urging of his old friend, Vasily. Following clues left by Vasily, Thomas searches a city he both recognizes and doesn’t recognize for Vasily and the compatriots with whom they dreamed of a new world during the communist era. Throughout the story, Thomas encounters mouthless bears wandering the city. Only when he finds Vasily does Thomas learn the terrible fate of their friends and Vasily’s connection to the bears.

Based on the length of “Freedom Is Space for the Spirit,” I feared reading it would be a chore. I was wrong. The plot intrigued me and Hirshberg’s portrayal of a disillusioned and nostalgic former activist is convincing. His descriptions create a strong sense of atmosphere and drew me into post-Soviet Russia. I found the ending disappointing, however, because I’m unsure what Vasily was trying to accomplish.

There Will Always Be a Max” is the latest installment in Michael R. Underwood’s “Genrenaut” series. As a Genrenaut, King journeys to other worlds to serve as a hero—a “Max”—and then reports back to Genrenaut headquarters. In “There Will Always Be a Max,” King travels to a post-apocalyptic world to rescue three survivors who, while attempting to retrieve a water filtration system from a ruin, were attacked by the local gang of thugs and then left stranded. King’s attempt to transport them safely back to the enclave where they live results in a high speed chase and plenty of opportunities for King to demonstrate what it means to be a Max.

As an action story, “There Will Always Be a Max” is fantastically entertaining. Underwood lays his premise, identifies the stakes, and then launches into an action sequence that is both exciting and easy to follow. Unfortunately, the way Underwood presents the Genrenaut idea in this story put me off. I found the constant references to King as a hero/Max and to the story as a story of a particular genre to be distracting, annoying, and reduced the characters to cardboard figures present only to give King an opportunity for heroism. The Genrenaut idea may be intriguing for some readers, though, perhaps gamers and fans of graphic novels.

In the future of Lavie Tidhar’s “Terminal,” people can buy one-way tickets to Mars. Each individual travels in his or her own small jalopy and the jalopies travel in a swarm, their occupants communicating with each other by radio. “Terminal” describes the experiences of two such travelers, Mei and Haziq, as they travel toward Mars and reflect on their decisions to make this irreversible journey.

Terminal” is a well-written meditation on universal themes, enriched by well-chosen details, effective figurative language, and touches of humor and romance. The transitions between the characters’ perspectives are a bit jarring and can be confusing, but the story’s substance justifies the work required to keep up.

In “Dune Time” by Jack Nicholls, Tariq’s parents send him to stay with his brother, Hasan, at an isolated observatory on the edge of the Sahara desert. Bored by the isolation and frustrated by his separation from his activist friends, Tariq dismisses Hasan’s reference to the Berber legends of unseen spirits who call to each other across the desert. One morning, Tariq wakes from an unnaturally long sleep to find that Hasan has disappeared. Using the observatory equipment, Tariq figures out what happened, then sets out to rescue his brother from the desert and the djinn.

Dune Time” is a beautiful example of magical realism. The setting is so vibrant and so convincingly portrayed that the realistic blends seamlessly into the fantastic. Nicholls draws on the unique characteristics of the desert to build tension and create a satisfying plot. Tariq and Hasan are believable and relatable. I highly recommend this story.

The Destroyer” by Tara Isabella Burton takes place in an alternate version of ancient Rome teeming with futuristic technology. An inventor clones herself to create the narrator, then goes on to replace almost every part of the narrator’s body with artificial, “perfect” pieces. When the narrator rebels, seeking her own humanity, the mother sinks into a depression, then invents and detonates a device that destroys everything but the mother’s own creations.

The Destroyer” is well worth reading. Burton juxtaposes creation and destruction, explores the nature of love, and raises questions about technological ethics, all while telling a story rich in irony that held my attention. It also engaged me emotionally, as I found the daughter sympathetic and the ego-maniacal mother distasteful.

The protagonist of Genevieve Valentine’s “La Beauté Sans Vertu,” Maria, is a model living in the future. She is picked up by the House of Centifolia and, after a successful season, is cast to be the grand finale in a big show. Centifolia dresses her in an elaborate silk dress designed to fall apart as she walks along the runway, ultimately leaving her naked. Maria rebels on the day of the show, walking past the doors to the show’s venue and out into the woods, never to be seen again.

La Beaute Sans Vertu” is a harsh critique of the fashion industry’s negative effects on society and the industry’s poor treatment of models. The story opens with a punch, describing one of the industry’s more shocking practices, and holds attention with further fascinating and distasteful details. Valentine brings beauty and vitality to the story by interweaving references to a pertinent fairy tale.