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

Tor.com -- February 2016

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Tor.com, February 2016

Tom, Thom” by K. M. Ferebee

Breaking Water” by Indrapramit Das
The Great Detective” by Delia Sherman
Recalled to Service” by Alter S. Reiss

Reviewed by Natalie J. Havlina

K. M. Ferebee’s “Tom, Thom” offers a variation on a familiar theme: the changeling. Rather than stealing a mortal child and leaving one of their own in its place, the “other folk” in this story abandon a changeling in seven-year-old Tom’s bedroom but do not take Tom away. Tom’s mother adopts the changeling as a second son, even allowing him to call himself “Thom.” For a winter, Tom and Thom live as brothers. Then spring begins to creep in, Thom sickens, and Tom must confront the questions: why didn’t the other folk take him away when they brought Thom, and why did his mother take Thom in?

Tom, Thom” is a chilling story, beautifully written, that builds on a long tradition of Celtic tales and European superstitions. Ferebee stretches verbs, using them in novel or unusual ways that amplify their meaning and contribute to the story’s theme of otherness. Ferebee’s skill also exhibits itself in the feeling of dread that hangs over the story.

Breaking Water” by Indrapramit Das is a five-part story set in the city of Kolkata. A man named Krishna goes to bathe in the Hooughly River one morning and finds the body of a dead woman floating in the water. At the urging of a priest, he agrees to take her to a ghat for cremation. Before he can do so, the corpse gets up and walks away. She is only the first of many and by the next day hordes of the undead are wandering the city, causing traffic jams, biting the living, and overwhelming the police as they attempt to deal with the crisis. Krishna becomes an advocate for the undead, claiming the corpse he found at the beginning of the story as his wife. Eventually he starts a home where the undead can exist until they literally rot away.

The story is compassionate and thought-provoking, raising, among other issues, questions about what it means to be alive, the dehumanizing effects of violence and poverty, and the responsibility that adults in our own world assume when they must decide whether to discontinue life support. “Breaking Water” was difficult for me to read, however, because the descriptions of the rotting undead are so vivid. While this is a compliment to Das’s writing, I would not recommend this story to anyone with a weak stomach. I also found the change in perspective to be disconcerting. The story starts with Krishna’s point of view, then switches to that of a reporter who is following his career as “Guru Yama.” Both perspectives contribute to the story and enable the examination of different issues, but the effect is rather disjointed.

In a case of steampunk meets Sherlock Holmes, Delia Sherman takes the reader into an alternate Victorian London for a mystery featuring an absent-minded inventor, his clever assistant, and an automaton possessed by a ghost. “The Great Detective” opens with inventor Arthur Cwmlech and his apprentice, Tacy Gof, consulting Mycroft Holmes and his Logic Machine for help recovering Sir Arthur’s latest and greatest invention, the Illogic Engine, which has been stolen. The investigation has barely begun when Sir Arthur and the ghost of his ancestress, Lady Angharad, are kidnapped. Unable to get any help from an insulting and sexist Inspector Gregson, Tacy sets out to find her friends and solve the mystery herself, aided by one Dr. Watson, newly returned from service in Afghanistan.

This is a delightful story that incorporates both humor and discussions of more serious issues like sexism and the rights of beings with artificial (or ghostly) intelligence. Sherman makes effective use of figurative language, builds on the Holmsian elements, and throws in a dash of romance. My only criticism is that the pervasive fog of Victorian London fails to shroud the identity of the thief, so that the solution to the “mystery” came as no surprise. Catching the thief is only the penultimate event in the story, however, and the final resolution is so clever it literally left me clapping (just for a second).

The heroine of Alter S. Reiss’s “Recalled to Service,” Ao Laiei, is a necromancer and a veteran of the war whereby her people expelled the colonial government of Garland from her native Shoesi. During the war, Laiei raised the revolutionary leader, Uroie Aei, from the dead, only to have him disappear. Laiei has been searching for him ever since. The story opens with Laiei sitting in a cafe in a crowded city where she witnesses a bombing that sets her on Aei’s trail. Using her powers as a necromancer and her ability to communicate with inanimate objects, Laiei follows a set of stolen documents to a remote province and, ultimately, to Aei himself.

Recalled to Serviceis an enjoyable story set in a vibrant world that feels authentic. The fast-paced plot, woven around the background information, makes up for the somewhat flat characterization. Both Laiei’s powers and her attitude toward inanimate objects—she likes them more than people—are intriguing. I was very disappointed, however, by the device Reiss uses to resolve Laiei’s confrontation with Aei. Reiss failed to lay the groundwork for what appears to be a deviation from the world’s magical rules, rendering Laiei’s action unbelievable in the context of the story and entirely too convenient.