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

Tor.com -- November 2012

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Tor.com, November 2012

“Wild Things” by Alyx Dellamonica

“How to Make a Triffid” by Kelly Lagor
“The Queen’s Army” by Marissa Meyer
“Heads Will Roll” by Lish McBride

Reviewed by Barbara Melville

Tor.com’s November selections begin with “Wild Things” by Alyx Dellamonica. Set in a world where magic is a form of pollution, our narrator Calla is in love with one of its victims, Aidan: a swamp man sporting beautiful plant-like attributes:

Instead of hair, he grew whisper-thin stems. Every morning we made a ritual of shaving his scalp, breaking those new-grown shoots. Once when time got away from us and they were left to grow a couple days, he broke out in catkins, a crown of fuzzy, pollen-laden locks of gold.”

Since victims of magic are outlawed, Aidan and Calla must keep their love a secret. But it’s not as simple as hiding away – we learn that Calla too is showing signs of contamination, and we follow their story as they attempt to cross the border.

This is my favourite from this month’s stories – the ideas and prose are breathtaking. The love themes are echoed through a striking plot, a beautiful world and strong, relatable characters. But what this story captures so well is the sheer oddness, inconvenience, and infectiousness of love – those glorious feelings which cannot be contained.

The second story to appear this month is “How to Make a Triffid” by Kelly Lagor. Joe is a scientist constructing a triffid, an act borne from the grief of losing his mother. I’m torn about this one. The story opens with unnatural, plot-serving conversations between Joe and his friend Andy. We’re rescued when the prose becomes more sophisticated, but then there’s another problem – the scenes of this story are too disconnected, resulting in some ugly visible joins.

This may have been a deliberate attempt to show the detachment of scientific inquiry, but this didn’t work for me. That’s not to say there isn’t some beauty in the cool science language used, and the human warmth Joe later injects into it:

I like to think about the subatomic particles within the atoms within the molecules within the nucleic acids within the DNA that makes up the plasmid and the bacteria and you and me and, eventually, my triffids. These particles have been around since shortly after time began and will still be around until shortly before time ends. Everything that makes us human, everything we think and feel, is mediated through the vibrations and interactions of these particles. These interactions are what created me and my memories.”

Joe’s questioning of life beyond our molecules is intriguing and relatable. Had the scene changes been a little more fluid, this could have been brilliant. But as it stands, I can only say it’s promising.

The third story is “The Queen’s Army” by Marissa Meyer, set in the author’s Cinder universe. Twelve-year old Z is conscripted into the Queen’s Army on account of his strength and intellect. Z doesn’t want to take this path, but has no choice in the matter. He is removed from his family, and modified genetically, heightening his senses and strength.

We watch as Z becomes the very monster he feared. Thematically, this is an interesting take on perfection destroying humanity. But the writing is nothing special – the characterisation is wooden (every character is a stereotype) and the plot is pretty standard. It isn’t a bad story, but it isn’t a core shaker – I don’t feel any different having read it.

For November's final story we are given “Heads Will Roll” by Lish McBride. Our narrator is the feisty Lena, an animal trainer – or should I say creature trainer – who works with a unicorn called Steve. Under the slightly more believable name Phantom, Steve participates in extreme fights with other impossible creatures. That’s pretty much it, really.

This is a story with the right ingredients, but the wrong method. The characterisation has potential, and I do like Lena’s voice, but there’re too many other problems. We have some good themes here – race, gender, purity, impossibility – but these aren’t embedded. We’re told they’re there. In fact, the entire point of the story is probably in the following paragraph:

That was the thing about humans. They found it so easy to discard the implausible and the unbelievable. People ignored anything that made them uncomfortable. A forgetful, ungrateful race that looked at unicorns and saw purity, and looked at me and saw the weakness they thought inherent in my sex. Gone is the memory of the unicorn as the protector of the forest, the guardian of the weak and innocent. Vanished are the warrior women of antiquity. The furies. The morrigan. The valkyries. Violence was in our blood, but humans have forgotten all that.”

I won’t deny that this is pretty – of course it is. But pretty is never enough for me. Is it too much to ask for some depth as well?