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

Tor.com -- June 2015

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Tor.com, June 2015

Trigger” by Courtney Alameda
"Waters of Versailles” by Kelly Robson
The Deepest Rift” by Ruthanna Emrys

Review by Harlen Bayha

The oddly-named “Trigger” by Courtney Alameda isn’t about the Lone Ranger’s horse as I had strangely hoped. It does have gunfire, though, so it lives up to the title's literal promise. Micheline is a daughter of the Helsings, a family of warriors with certain magical abilities to combat supernatural evils. Her quest to build up her hunting skills so she can later fill her father’s and mother’s shoes as both paramilitary-junta-leader and ghost-eradicator leads her to push herself into working twice as hard as anyone else at the Helsing Corps academy, which is based in modern-day San Francisco.

After Micheline, her Father, and a team of hunters fail to kill a particularly dangerous monster, it causes so much trouble they have to cordon off San Francisco’s entire Embarcadero district. During the embargo on the Embarcadero, Micheline concocts a brazen and dangerous plan to find the beast that nearly gets her and her team killed while providing trigger-pulling excitement and vehicular mayhem. The end result of her stunt, and how her father reacts to it, tell the story about how very different Micheline’s San Francisco is from ours, and how her world deals with monsters in their midst.

While formulaic in some ways, it carries the joy and drive of a youthful heart at its core, which makes it quite enjoyable.

In “Waters of Versailles,” Kelly Robson showers us with sycophants, entitled royalty, and a bizarre father-daughter relationship with deep undercurrents of repressed feelings. The story takes place almost entirely in Versailles, where Monsieur Sylvain de Guilherand has hooked up indoor plumbing for the first time, using slapdash piping materials and custom toilets. He succeeds only because of help from a captured water nixie he’s hidden in the grottoes and tunnels below the palace.

The drab characters around Sylvain make him seem like he’s the only person in the entire palace with a plan, but while he seems to have the most motivation and drive, he also seems to have the least self-knowledge. Some of the slower, languid courtiers can see him for what he is, but it takes a long time for him to acknowledge it to himself, and to realize that he truly belongs elsewhere entirely.

He cannot fathom the relationship he has developed with the nixie he captured, either. Her simple requests become demands after he denies her time and time again, as he follows some militaristic ideal of how he believes a master should act. He doesn’t realize why the nixie does what she does until it's nearly too late. Recommended for its portrayal of flawed humanity and slightly bawdy (yet historically plausible) toilet humor.

Ruthanna Emrys’ “The Deepest Rift” flies us to a distant planet hosting the known galaxy’s deepest canyon, teeming with life. There, a first-contact team made up of inexperienced researchers try to prove whether the local flying manta rays have developed a language, or are just fulfilling a genetic imperative when they create sculptures from their bodily secretions on the side of the rift. If the researchers discover language, they can continue their studies. If they fail, they will likely be sent to opposite ends of the galaxy on separate assignments, which weighs on the heart of Star-eye, a deaf psycholinguist, and her three companions, who have all come to love each other.

Victor Mosquera’s pastel illustration of the trip down the rift lends the piece a foreboding, adventurous feel, setting the stage for a later reveal of something mysterious, but the story’s slow burn ends with a fizzle, as the researchers discover just another small piece of a larger puzzle. They barely manage to convince their inspecting proctor to provide them a recommendation for more funding, which they all believe is unlikely to come.

The story’s focus fluctuates back and forth from the science of first contact with a new species to Star-eye’s relationship with her research team. Unfortunately, Star-eye’s negativity and frustration with both situations make her a difficult hero to identify with, and her team’s identities all seemed interchangeable and undeveloped, so the love story lacked the spark of conflict or romance. Recommended for those who want to reconsider language and what different species’ paths to it might take.

Harlen Bayha believes in humanity, the greatest fairy tale of all. His fiction is easier to understand than quantum mechanics, but probably not as funny.