Fiction River #30: Hard Choices, ed. Dean Wesley Smith

Saturday, 12 January 2019 10:28 Victoria Silverwolf

Fiction River #30: Hard Choices


Edited by

Dean Wesley Smith


(WMG Publishing, December 28, 2018, pb, 328 pp.)


"Equal Justice" by Annie Reed (non-genre, not reviewed)
"Payback" by Tonya D. Price (non-genre, not reviewed)
"Eric the Monkey" by Dan C. Duval (non-genre, not reviewed)
"Prospecting" by Ron Collins (non-genre, not reviewed)
"Toots" by Michael Kowal (non-genre, not reviewed)
"The Devil's Muse" by Laura Ware
"Clean and Godly in Denmark" by Diana Deverell
"Killshot" by Annie Reed (non-genre, not reviewed)
"Four Hundred Yards" by Dale Hartley Emery (non-genre, not reviewed)
"A Life with Meaning" by David Stier (non-genre, not reviewed)
"Nightmare Scenario" by Chuck Heintzelman
"Echo" by Leslie Claire Walker
"Haunted" by Jamie Ferguson
"Skinwalker" by Valerie Brook
"Missiles of October" by Dan C. Duval (non-genre, not reviewed)
"Girl with a Mission" by Dayle A. Dermatis (non-genre, not reviewed)
"A New Day" by Kendall Heintzelman (non-genre, not reviewed)
"They Taught Us Wrong" by M. L. Buchman
"Tendrils" by Leigh Saunders
"Little Byte and Big Pieces" by Valerie Brook

Reviewed by Victoria Silverwolf

A majority of the works in this book full of characters with tough decisions to make are not science fiction or fantasy. Many are crime and suspense stories, although the volume also offers historical fiction, war stories, and mainstream fiction.

The protagonist of "The Devil's Muse" by Laura Ware is a lawyer. He is one of the few human beings allowed to perceive the hidden world of supernatural beings. His latest client is a writer who sold his muse to Satan in exchange for a bestselling novel. (The muse is not the traditional goddess of ancient mythology, but only the writer's creative spark.) No longer able to write, he hires the lawyer to break the contract. The narrator learns why Satan wants the muse, and figures out a way to help his client.

The author creates a fantasy world populated by dwarves, trolls, elves, vampires, and demons. Although the setting is a familiar one, the solution to the writer's dilemma is unexpected, offering an allegory for the best strategy to use against writer's block.

"Clean and Godly in Denmark" by Diana Deverell is narrated by a robot vacuum cleaner. Because it also features a dog who speaks Spanish, it is more fantasy than science fiction. Both characters live with an aging woman, in order to help her with her daily household chores. The woman, at first disdainful of both, comes to cherish the robot, but hate the dog. The robot, against its will, has a secret, sinister duty. It must fight its own programming, and the schemes of the malevolent dog, to help its mistress.

This story provides a penetrating look at society's treatment of the elderly. The climax may be too gruesome for a satiric tale with a whimsical premise.

"Nightmare Scenario" by Chuck Heintzelman involves a secret government weapon that uses a viral infection to induce nightmares. The dreams are so terrifying that the victims die of cardiac arrest. Technology allows observers to experience the nightmares of test subjects without dying. A general, reluctantly sent into the imaginary world of a victim, faces a crisis. He must decide what action to take, without knowing if the emergency is real or only a dream.

The premise of this story is interesting, if disturbing. The conclusion is open-ended, which may frustrate some readers.

"Echo" by Leslie Claire Walker takes place after a future war. Some veterans of the conflict suffer from a psychological disorder that makes them feel separate from their bodies. The protagonist is one of these unfortunate ex-soldiers. The government places her in custody, intending to replace her consciousness with that of an important scientist.

This dark and cynical story has a powerful concept. Although the ending offers a tiny touch of hope, it still seems unlikely that the victims of this procedure will ever triumph over their oppressors.

A ghost appears to the main character in "Haunted" by Jamie Ferguson. It has an important message for her but cannot speak, only communicating with gestures. The protagonist eventually finds out what the ghost is trying to tell her, leading to a fight for survival.

The reader is likely to figure out the specter's message long before the woman does, lessening the suspense. What she discovers about a person close to her is overly melodramatic at times.

In "Skinwalker" by Valerie Brook, a teenage girl is on the run from killers. Her father is involved in organized crime. When her mother turns state's evidence against him, they both barely survive an assassination attempt. The mother remains under the protection of the government. The daughter travels across the country to hide out with the grandfather she has never met. When she arrives, she encounters a supernatural menace bent on destroying her.

The main character comes to life in a convincing way. Her struggle against the attacker is thrilling. The narrative style, although informal, is full of effective metaphors that allow the reader to share the girl's experiences.

"They Taught Us Wrong" by M. L. Buchman takes place on the Moon. The narrator loses the woman he loves, a fellow soldier, during a space battle. He manages to kill the enemy, but the fight destroys his ship, leaving him wounded and marooned in a crater with no hope of rescue.

Despite the space opera plot, this is really an introspective account of the narrator's meditations on love and war. It reminds me of Theodore Sturgeon's story "The Man Who Lost the Sea," but lacks that classic tale's poetic imagination.

The protagonist of "Tendrils" by Leigh Saunders is an alien who sneaks aboard human starships out of a hunger for new experiences. She is a squid-like being who is able to flatten her body and change colors in order to remain undetected. A disaster on one of the ships threatens the lives of its crew. The alien tries to save them, while running the risk of exposing herself to those who might see her as a dangerous invader.

The author creates a sympathetic character who is completely different from a human being. The way in which the alien perceives her environment is colorful and imaginative. Her self-sacrificing struggle to help the crew of the starship is inspiring.

No human characters appear in "Little Byte and Big Pieces" by Valerie Brook. The story takes place a century or so after an unspecified disaster wiped out humanity. The main character is a smart phone. He creates a body for himself from miscellaneous spare parts, in order to move and manipulate objects. (The narration always uses masculine pronouns to describe him. The only other character is a smart car, which the story treats as female.) After a difficult and dangerous struggle, he travels a long distance to complete his mission. The nature of his quest turns out to be ironic.

The author manages to make an inanimate object into a likable character. The reader appreciates his bravery and loyalty to his vanished owner. A major problem with the plot is that it is impossible to imagine how the smart phone managed to begin the process of assembling body parts for himself.

Victoria Silverwolf often faces the hard choice of which publication to review.