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

Tor.com -- April 2013

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Tor.com, April 2013

“The Testing Guide” by Joelle Charbonneau

Reviewed by Louis West

While I enjoyed this selection, two of the stories were mauled by bad editing/posting by the publisher – “The Testing Guide” and “Sing.” Disappointing since I generally equate Tor.com with exceptional quality work.

“The Testing Guide” by Joelle Charbonneau. The presentation of this really confused me. The introductory/preface paragraph talks about the novel, The Testing, during which Cia (Malencia) is chosen. In contrast, this short story is about Zeen, Cia’s older brother, who graduates hoping he’ll be selected for The Testing, but isn’t. Ignoring the misleading summary paragraph, this story reads well enough, but is weak in its portrayal of a dangerous world still recovering from a series of wars and natural catastrophes. I did like the interplay between Zeen and Cia plus Zeen and his father. Those scenes intrigued me enough to consider reading the novel.

In Greg Benford’s “Backscatter,” Claire has crashed her survey ship on an iceteroid in the Kuiper belt and only has her wits, the ship’s smartass AI and pure, dumb luck to find a way to survive. Who knew that her only way off was to discover a flower-like alien life-form, “a biosphere in vacuum,” thriving under the feeble sunlight in the bitter cold? A fun tale, especially the constant, flippant banter between Claire and the AI she calls “a personality sim with a reserved sense of propriety.” A definite read.

“Rag and Bone” by Priya Sharmia paints a horrific environment where the wealthy buy “unwanted” body parts and tissues from the poor to extend their own lives. Class warfare simmers between the dispossessed of brutal, 19th century industrial slums and the super-rich merchant princes with all the advantages of 21st century genetic and tissue manipulation technologies. Tom, a “rag and bone” man like his father, must walk the thin line between the two classes since he makes arrangements with financially desperate “donors,” gathers samples of skin, blood, bone and flesh, then hands everything over to agents of the rich. Sometimes the donors disappear, fully harvested. It’s a cold, soulless profession, and Tom does it well. But when Tom encounters widowed sisters untouched by the ravages of the sex houses, he has a change of heart and decides to protect them, a decision that leads to the end of his life as he knows it.

An excellent read set in a gut-wrenching world.

Karin Tidbeck’s “Sing” starts off badly because the first two paragraphs are set in a future time, or, alternatively, most of the rest of the story is a flashback, but nothing in the text indicates this—no scene breaks or font changes. I had to figure it out myself after laborious, multiple back and forth reads.

However, setting aside the issue of story format, I quite enjoyed this tale. Kiruna is a truly alien environment: an ecology based upon parasitism where the rising of one moon silenced all speech, but not song, and the rising of the second moon silenced the sounds of the birds. The birds have compound eyes and mandibles and their feathered wings buzz and twitch like a cross between an insect and a hummingbird. And the people have found a way to make peace with this brutal ecology by submitting to the parasitism of the birds, which changes each person in different ways. But some don’t survive the change. Of those that do, some can sing in a way no human voice was ever meant to sound.

Petr, from a heavy gravity planet around the star Gliese, has come to Kiruna to study the interstellar colonization of planets by lichens, trying to source them all back to a common origin. Aino, a tailor, is one of the natives who didn’t quite survive the change but did learn to sing. In spite of her stick-spindly figure with oddly moving joints, Petr comes to care for Aino, and they become embroiled in a relationship. His attentions give her a confidence she’d never had, while Petr comes to love this new world and decides he wants to undergo the change. His experience encourages Aino to make choices for her life that she once never imagined were available to her. A riveting story and compelling world.

“Do Not Touch” by Prudence Shen paints a reality where paintings sometimes “eat” kids who ignore the “do not touch” signs. This is a refreshingly irreverent portrayal of the behind-the-scenes struggles of overworked museum staff trying to manage the chaos from school groups that spawn kids who don’t believe in the rules. Lane’s a rescue specialist. He gets to go in after the kids, while enduring the painter’s emotion-laden environment of the painting, and haul the usually traumatized kids back out. But this time, it’s different. A kid fell into Georges Seurat’s Le Cirque then fled the clowns to see the Moulin Rouge instead. Now he wants to stay. Lane, with his enticing associate, Eugenie, must explore outside the realm of the painting’s frame and somehow get all three of them back.

Exceptional imagery, excellent mix of characters and a reality that sounds quite enticing. Highly recommended.

Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” is a playful comedic tragedy that blends old Thai traditions with modern day rural life around the time of Loi Krathong. The festival of wishes, the locals call it, occurs during the twelfth lunar month when people float their wishes down the river on lotus-shaped boats or fly them in candle-lit lanterns. The village of Doi Saket is uniquely set on the shores of the Mae Ping River, for legend says it was here that Neng Tanapong, the drowned daughter of a Brahman priest, had first read the wishes in the lotus boats passing above her dead eyes and made them come true. The village chief, Puu Yaybaan, and the two monks, Sûa and Mongkut, Ink Readers who interpreted all wishes too water-damaged to be legible, have discovered a way to personally enrich themselves from this festival. They secretly make some of the wishes come true, then encourage people to contribute more monies to ensure that their wishes do too. Of course, most of the funds went to this triumvirate, a long-kept secret until a local boy, Tangmoo, overheard their plotting. Sûa, the monk, killed Tangmoo for his inadvertent transgression.

Still, one must be careful about what they wish for. Tangmoo had wished to learn where the wishes all went, knowledge he gained by dying. And Sûa, who had always wished to see the river goddess Phra Mae Khongkha, had the misfortune of witnessing the murder of Tangmoo. He paid for his wish with death and mutilation. But then, “maybe this was all coincidence, like so much of life.”