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

Tor.com -- October 2012

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Special Double Review

 

Tor.com, October 2012

“Foundation” by Ann Aguirre

“Jacks and Queens at the Green Mill” by Marie Rutkoski
“King of Marbury” by Andrew Smith
“The Commonplace Book” by Jacob Clifton
“Too Fond” by Leanna Renee Hieber

Reviewed by Louis West

“Foundation,” by Ann Aguirre, is a YA dystopian story about Robin, a boy whose parents retreat to an underground bunker complex to wait out the effects of a global bio-terror attack. But the world never recovers. With his dreams shattered and the world shrunk to an underground community of one-time societal castoffs, Robin has to discover a way to not just survive, but thrive.

Ann is a USA Today Bestselling author of romantic SF, urban fantasy and YA dystopian novels. “Foundation” is in keeping with her YA story themes. While dystopian tales can often end on a nihilistic note, this story traces Robin’s sojourn both into and back out of his despair as global society collapses around him then reforms itself into something new. An interesting read.

Marie Rutkowski’s “Jacks and Queens at the Green Mill” tells of Zephyr, a shade who can also take the form of a human girl. She lives in the Alter, an alternate world where humans view her kind as terrorists and the Great Chicago Fire was in fact a genocidal extermination of the shades by humans. This story is set in the same world as Marie’s newest novel, The Shadow Society.

Zephyr confronts Joe, a young man and nightclub guard, who’d seen her materialize. She’d come to retrieve an automatic, a type of gun that didn’t exist in her people’s reality. As she plays a game of cards to get the gun from Joe, their interplay oscillates between predator toying with her prey and a man and woman intrigued with each other. The dance of tension between Zephyr and Joe is riveting, but I wish that Zephyr had given in to her desire to hear the jazz music and accepted Joe’s invitation to enter the club. However, that would have meant yielding to the call of her physical shell, not her true self who only wants to see more humans dead. An excellent story. It makes me want to read the novel.

“King of Marbury,” by Andrew Smith, is a YA tale set in the same world as Andrew’s newest novel, The Marbury Lens. It’s about Conner. His best friend, Jack, had been kidnapped by a creep. But the creep died during Jack’s rescue, and Jack blames himself. Now he’s “mostly concerned about getting away from himself” and uses a special lens to escape into the world of Marbury, dragging Conner with him. Jack doesn’t want to stop, but all Conner cares about is fixing his friend and ending the bleed through of Marbury into this world.

The story flirts with the edge of horror as Conner struggles to neutralize the Marbury lens without being sucked through once more. It also presents the possible science behind these Marbury lens' in a way that did not detract from the tension of the plot. I enjoyed this. It read like a roller-coaster ride—once on, you can’t get off until the rush is over.

Jacob Clifton’s “The Commonplace Book” is a cross between a quantum engine future and a Pride and Prejudice past, all melded together in a fictional steampunk 19th century New York borough present. The story reads like a Jane Austin novel, but was quite ponderous to follow until the tension picked up about a third of the way through. Afterwards, the rest was thoroughly entertaining, except for the missing scene breaks on page 14, 19, 21 and 28. They proved quite troublesome, and I had to stop, back up and reread those sections several times until I figured out what was going on.

Adelaide, older sister for her siblings and caretaker for her aging father, is a tech genius. She seeks to give her quantum engine-driven computer-like Commonplace not just a voice, but to evolve it until it can master chaos computation and even “break the crystalline barrier between man and machine.” Meanwhile, her friends seek to find her a man, and she struggles to get the perfect Nanny for her siblings. The pleasure of the story is three-fold. First, the story’s complex social dynamics and how the characters speak is authentic to the style championed in Jane Austin’s works. Second, is the seamless way in which the author weaves time-disparate technologies into the story. Examples include quantum computers, holography, a crude internet, an early telephone, talking pictures, the Turing test and nascent Artificial Intelligence. Lastly, is how all the various plots are nicely resolved as Adelaide achieves all of her heart’s desires. Aside from the slow start and scene break disjunctures, an excellent story.

“Too Fond,” by Leanna Renee Hieber, touches upon the fragile intersection between love and horror by posing a critical question: When a loved one dies, do we tie their ghost to this world if we do not relent in our grief? This is a paranormal romance reminiscent of Leanna’s dark and twisted award-winning Gaslamp Fantasy sagas set in 1880s New York. A recommended read.

Tor.com, October 2012

“Foundation” by Ann Aguirre

“Jacks and Queens at the Green Mill” by Marie Rutkoski
“King of Marbury” by Andrew Smith
“The Commonplace Book” by Jacob Clifton
“Too Fond” by Leanna Renee Hieber
 
Reviewed by Michelle Ristuccia

“The Commonplace Book” by Jacob Clifton is a novella that appears as part of Tor.com's Steampunk Week. “The Commonplace Book” is a good choice for readers who are interested in reading steampunk but aren't yet confident of steampunk lingo and other conventions. For more seasoned steampunk enthusiasts, the story provides plenty of interesting and unobtrusive deviations from stereotypical steampunk settings.

“The Commonplace Book” tells the story of Adelaide Babbage's attempt to improve her machine, named The Commonplace Book, without sacrificing her personal growth or social status. Unfortunately, developing sentient machines is not a pursuit that most of her fellows can follow – except her best friend, Sebastian. That is, until Maximillian Willoughby arrives in Lytton to sell his newfangled talking pictures to Adelaide's father, Lord Babbage, entertainer extraordinaire. But Max finds Lord Babbage to be a hard sell, and Ada's friends fail to trick her into meeting Max. To make matters worse, Ada has already half-convinced herself that she doesn't have the time or energy to spare on the pursuit of romantic liaisons, what with attending to an increasingly needy machine and searching for a nanny that meets her siblings' impossible demands. Sebastian's insistence and Max's charm force Ada to reevaluate her priorities and forge a new balance for her life, one that fits the new Adelaide that she wishes to become.

Jacob Clifton crafts a story that feels delightfully bigger than its word count suggests. Adept characterization pulls the reader along on a smooth track, free of the bumps of awkward exposition and obsessively detailed scenery that a lesser writer would have included for the sake of the setting – steampunk New York at the advent of talking pictures. There is never any question that “The Commonplace Book” is about Adelaide Babbage and the colorful people that surround her, from her little sister, Wild Charlotte, to her nemesis, cruel Miss Lucia Mapp. Even Ada's machine appears as a mere shadow to her social adventures, moving against the backdrop in parallel. Jacob Clifton's writing is clever, with a good mixture of cynicism and realism to counter the Victorian-esque romantic tension that carries us to the climax. The only thing I felt the story needed was more closure.

The last scene, which serves as a kind of epilogue, I found to be too subtle. The story asks, does the Commonplace Book achieve chaos computation (the Singularity, or sentience)? Similarly, does Ada achieve a fulfilling love life? The answer to both seems to be “what is success?” And, “who decides?” Admittedly, Ada does find a man that she enters in a relationship with, an accomplishment that she despairs of ever reaching or even caring about at the beginning of the story. And, yes, “The Commonplace Book” does become more than a punch card machine that only answers questions. The ending is completely in character with the low-level cynicism that drives the comedy and gives the story its voice. But I, personally, like stories to end with a bit more flourish, and if there is going to be a yes, I like it to have a capital Y.

Despite this, “The Commonplace Book” has a thorough quality that too many touchy-feely romances go without: meta subtext. The reader easily understands why the characters interact the way that they do, and what sort of society they live in, and it is not too difficult to extract how these themes might provide comment on our own society. Jacob Clifton successfully provides us with a moving story that feels real from word one.

King of Marbury” by Andrew Smith is a horror short story that follows Conner Kirk as he tries to rid himself and his friend Jack Whitmore of the demented other world of Marbury, only to have Marbury leech out into the real world instead. The introduction by TOR describes the story as one where the reader is left to decide whether Marbury is real or in the characters' heads, but I found this a little misleading. Conner does question his own sanity, but he blames his decent into madness on the Marbury lens itself and it seems clear that Marbury is a real place. The mystery of the story centers on Conner's discovery that the Marbury lenses work differently for different people, while the action focuses on Conner's utter failure to stop Marbury from continuing to affect his and others' lives.

From the very beginning, “King of Marbury” is a compelling read, but I found certain aspects of the voice distracting. Mainly, the narrative constantly refers to events that happened in the characters' past. The narrative is in first person from Conner's perspective, and Conner frequently addresses the reader as Jack, and so he assumes that we know things that we do not, which left me feeling like the text was only one tenth of the story, and all of it a tangled ball of yarn in jarring variegated colors. I'm also not a big fan of crude protagonists who like to drop the f-bomb. What kept me engaged was the science fiction laced through the plot – from mention of Haley’s Comet to the building blocks of matter, and therefore reality, itself. From a science fiction perspective, “King of Marbury” reminds us that we know so little about the universe and where it all came from, and how we as observers fit into the big picture.

On the first read through, there are many eye-catching descriptions and unique ideas that stand out, but the plot may be hard to put together. I'm all for not knocking the reader over the head but “King of Marbury” goes a little far in the other direction, pushing the genre from simple horror to bizarro, which can be an acquired taste. Rest assured, however, that those connections await between the lines, for those readers who are willing to walk through the mind-altering fog of nightmares.

Jacks and Queens at the Green Mill” by Marie Rutkoski is a short story that details a confrontation between the supernatural Shade, Zephyr, and the nightclub guard who inexplicably knows what she is and won't let her in without a fight. When Zephyr demands that he hand over his gun, they settle on a game of Black Jack to decide their battle of wills. Yet, both of them know that Zephyr need not respect the outcome of the game. She can take what she wants.

This story was one of the shortest released by TOR this month, so it has less development of the setting and the plot is more to the point, despite the fact that it is set in the world of Rutkoski's novel, The Shadow Society. For instance, the setup at the beginning takes only three short paragraphs, only one of which centers around the history of the world, and then the reader gets to see Zephyr change from one form to another. Marie Rutkoski does a good job of giving the reader exactly what they need to get a feel for the world and the characters, without having to delve into wordy details, leaving the emphasis on dialogue and action. One positive benefit is that the text does not heavily foreshadow which choice Zephyr is going to make, a mystery that holds together the dramatic tension of the plot until the climax.

The ending could use a little more oomph, perhaps needing a better sense of the immediate consequences of Zephyr's decision. However, it is a clean ending and the story does not feel like a shameless excerpt or teaser for Rutkoski's books. While we don't know what will physically happen to Zephyr after the story's end, we do know that she is disappointing her superiors for the sake of following her moral compass, and it is this character development that is more important to the story. All in all, the tight prose entices me to seek out more of Marie Rutkoski's work.

Too Fond” by Leanna Renee Hieber is a ghost story that was part of TOR's celebration of Halloween. In “Too Fond,” Eloise Brown thinks she has found a man that can fill the hole in her heart left by her late lover, but when she discovers that the flirtatious Mr. McGill is already happily married, her outlook on life shrinks to the size of the mourning lockets that she fashions for her customers.

The tone of “Too Fond” is reminiscent of classic ghost stories told around camp fires, but the details of the gothic alternate history, along with the romantic touch, update the campers to adults who have put their kids to bed on Halloween. As is appropriate for its short length, the story focuses on only the bits of setting that directly affect the characters, so that even some of the back story comes on a need-to-know basis. In fact, the protagonist never leaves her father's shop and all of the direct action occurs there. It is good, then, that the protagonist has a unique occupation that is well and succinctly described. This narrow picture window serves to show the reader how small Eloise's world is even before the story starts, an impression that is further solidified by her wanton ignorance of the other ladies' gossip and the details of Mr. McGill's life. Her physical world is her work, and soon the rest of her life shrinks to fit inside.

One of the things I like about “Too Fond” is the layers of tragedy. On the surface, Mrs. McGill dies, Mr. McGill dies, and Eloise Brown's former crush is already dead. Beyond the deaths themselves is the manner of their occurrence. First, Mr. McGill neglects to educate his wife on gas lamps, and she dies while he is out. Then, in a morbid parody, Eloise fails to tell Mr. McGill of her infatuation before he falls victim to his obsession over his dead wife. The exact moment of Eloise's failure is subtle and brief, yet somehow it is far more damning to her character than Mr. McGill's moment of forgetfulness. When Mr. McGill passes on, Eloise gives in completely to her reverence of him and what could have been, tying Mr. McGill's ghost to herself and herself to an irrevocably lost past. The ending is as final as if Eloise has died, as if she has become her obsession, and we can imagine that the rest of her days will follow in a pathetic mockery of life. Even her last words in the text are only an exact repetition of what another character has already said.

Foundation” by Ann Aguirre follows Robin Schiller as he recounts his childhood experiences of moving with his parents to an underground bunker to escape the deadly Metanoia Virus. When the world above disintegrates into chaos, Robin and the other bunkmates decide that safety is not worth the cost of total isolation, and Robin finally gets to meet the only other boy his age in the shelter – Austen Shelley. Soon after, the bunker's faulty ventilation exposes them all to the Virus, and the survivors must forge back through to the real world on their own.

Foundation” has a compelling voice in its narrator, Robin, who provides us with an emotionally moving opening that leads us through the timeline of the Metanoia Virus outbreaks and his parent's decision to move them underground. Ann Aguirre does a good job showing the reader what it feels like to be isolated and powerless against a force of nature like the Metanoia Virus. Despite all of the company's precautions, the agent still leaks into the bunker, and exposure means certain death for those who are not immune. Even Robin's father, who is a doctor, can do nothing to give his patients a chance at beating the virus, yet he feels compelled to try anyway. Robin's mother has spent the majority of his childhood trying to limit their exposure to the virus, only to succumb to it in what must be one of the most protected places in the world. With such a powerful and ever-present enemy, self-imposed isolation seems a useless effort that only saps the meaning out of life. Coming to this conclusion, Robin and the other survivors leave the bunker towards the end.

The story also had a romantic subplot between Robin and Austen, which the pacing is centered around despite the lack of conflict. Their parents never say or do anything to censor the relationship, and it's not even a serious relationship until the end of the story. The conflict is so lacking in this thread of the plot that I didn't even get that Robin is a boy until halfway through. This left me disconnected from the character, emotionally hanging back in case my mental image of the story was to be punctured again. Yet, even so, I didn't mind that the romance takes a back seat. “Foundation” begins with the tragedy of the virus, and world building remains its focus. I only minded that the structure of the text seems to lend the romance more importance than it deserves, which contributes to the ending falling flat.

The ending loses its steam because of general pacing problems. After the shelter inhabitants fall ill, the survivors decide to leave for fear of being experimented on by the company that built the bunkers. This entire subplot, and indeed everything from this point on, is glossed over in an attempt to reign in the word count. I was left wondering what the main focus of the story was supposed to be. If the reader is meant to care about Robin and Austen's work in the College enclave they settle in at the end, then perhaps less screen time should be spent in the bunker and there should be more conflict surrounding their acceptance into the enclave. Or, if it's their decision to leave the bunker that is supposed to be the pivotal point, then perhaps we should hear more about the company man as an antagonist earlier on in the story. From the bunker on, I wondered if readers familiar with “Enclave” would be better entertained than I. The introduction by TOR describes Robin as someone who will influence the fate of many, but at the end we are only told that his pupil, the person he is telling the story to, is the first Wordkeeper. An ending that made this clearer might have balanced the entire story a bit better.