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

On Spec #93, Summer 2013

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On Spec #93, Summer 2013

“A Pilgrim at the Edge of the World” by Sarah Frost
“Feathers for Tray” by Tyrell Johnson
“Unknown and Unseen” by Albert Choi
“Aghostic” by J.P. Boyd
“Repair Parts” by Camille Alexa
“The Ash Queen” by Leslie Brown
“Meet” by L.D. Wilton
“Wizard’s Sacrifice” by Shen Braun

Reviewed by Colleen Chen

When I first started reading “A Pilgrim at the Edge of the World” by Sarah Frost, I groaned inwardly—I thought, “Oh, not another story of an adolescent boy who has to do some sort of journey in order to come of age in his tribe, which is called ‘The People.’” That is basically what this story is. However, I did find several elements that distinguish it from its peers. The main one is that the People are actually not people as we know it—they’re feathered and beaked and scaly-skinned, and their ancestors are rumored to have had the ability to fly.

The other distinguishing factor of this story is that the writing is quite lovely, lyrical and well-paced. We observe in vivid, rich detail Kaainka on his journey through the desert and to the river with its great lizards. He survives an elephant stampede, he forages, he outwits wild dogs. A few times, he thinks of giving up. And then, he meets his goal.

I’m not sure if I missed something, but I would have liked a little more conflict in the story, some hardship to really show Kaainka’s growth to adulthood. Without it, this story is an enjoyable read for its language and its images, but evokes a “That’s it?” reaction at the end, and thus is not particularly memorable.

“Feathers for Tray” by Tyrell Johnson takes place in a dystopian society in which physically imperfect people are expelled into a Town somewhere west of “the real world.” Its residents, arranged into pseudo-families, have no means of escape save for jumping into the water (or sometimes onto the rocks) from the Screaming Cliffs bordering the Town.

The story begins when the narrator gets a new “sister,” Tray, newly expelled from the “real world.” She is gorgeous and appears to be physically perfect, and she can’t answer the question of why she’s been sent there, because she doesn’t know. As the narrator falls in deeper love with her—she represents some ideal of purity and perfection to him—people in the Town are getting increasingly upset at their inability to figure out what physical malformation she suffers. They call her before them, strip her naked, and judge her—and what happens after the judgment rocks to the core the dysfunction that has held the Town in stagnant apathy.

It’s hard for me to find plausible that modern-day society could transition to a place in which people would be expelled for minor physical imperfections, but this story is good nonetheless—as a fable and a metaphor for ugliness and beauty, and the meaning of freedom and confinement. There was enough richness in the back story that it could easily be turned into an engrossing YA novel.

“Unknown and Unseen” by Albert Choi details a day in the life of an assembly-line factory worker—a day which is exactly the same as any other day, anonymous, tedious, repetitive—in which each worker is depersonalized to the point where he sees himself as an object, a mere cog in a machine. And then, one of the workers commits suicide. It sends a ripple through the groups of workers, and in the narrator, the ripple is enough to shake a small something free.

The trappings of the story are all sad—a bunch of workers suffer terrible lives and one kills himself because he can’t stand it anymore, and the rest of the workers go back to work and continue their terrible lives. The subtle transformation the narrator goes through, though, leaves the reader with a feeling of hope—of a small shift in perspective that opens up a universe of liberation, even if nothing appears to change at all. I found the story effective and powerful.

“Aghostic” by J.P. Boyd, is the one lighter-veined story in this issue. I’m still not entirely sure I understand the definition of the title word, coined by the protagonist, cosmologist Wolfram Krone—I think it’s a person who, as opposed to the ever-uncertain, non-committal agnostic, is a person who commits to a view solidly based on rationality. (I may have just offered a definition even more confusing than the one in the story.)

That definition is central to the story’s plot, as Wolfram’s rational but spiritually and emotionally empty life is enlivened by the appearance of a spaceship on his private rooftop space. Two aliens—or at least their robot extensions, sent in place of their own giant non-humanoid bodies—begin to show him and teach him all sorts of wondrous things about the universe. As for what they want—they ask Wolfram to get them baptized into the Catholic Church. Wolfram agonizes over how beings who know so much, whose technology is so advanced, could want something that they ought to know is just a superstition, a “ghost-tale.” But when he tries to argue with them, to convince them, they simply dance—evoking their wonder and joy at life. And through Wolfram’s encounters with them, he begins to question his world of aghosticism.

I find it hard to believe that aliens would choose Catholicism of all the available religions, but if I let go of my own aghosticism and just look at the overall message of the story—its celebration of the wonder of being and how faith in something can fill a material emptiness—it’s an enjoyable read with a pleasant “aftertaste.”

“Repair Parts” by Camille Alexa is a love story with an element of magical realism that turns the ending odd and rather sweet. Richard is a recent college graduate whose life experiences have so far come up short of his ideals, in both career and love. Then he meets a girl at a museum and experiences something like love at first sight. Pursuing his interest, he discovers that she’s moved to town to recover from a broken heart—a heart that “needs repair parts,” she says. They visit a country fair, where she buys a number of bits of broken jewelry, and they go back to her apartment, where she reveals what the broken pieces are for.

This almost feels more a vignette than a story, as little happens except the main character finds the love he’s been seeking, and it’s a little strange, but that doesn’t bother him. Still, the piece feels complete and the writing is beautiful and quite satisfying to my reader’s palate.

“The Ash Queen” by Leslie Brown tells the story of Cinderella thirty years after the fairy tale ends, and from the point of view of one of the stepsisters. Sister Mary Luke has spent the last three decades in a convent, keeping quiet in order to survive—and now the Dowager Queen lies dying and summons Mary Luke to her bedside. The confrontation tests Mary Luke’s years of training to keep her emotions calm and still.

My favorite part of this story was the ending, which completely changes the tone of the story and the likability of the main character. It also brings the story fully into present time, making the ending almost a starting place to begin a new story. Leading up to that it’s mostly just piecing together what happened through Mary Luke’s memories and thoughts, and thus it’s a bit slow and inevitably, more telling than showing. Overall, this offers an intriguing take on the fairy tale, although I’d rather know what happens next rather than see the past through another character’s eyes.

In “Meet,” by L.D. Wilton, a striking young man waits at a railway station for a woman who is very late. We get hints that he’s not quite ordinary, but we don’t learn who he or the woman are until she shows up—and she is a beaten-down, exhausted scarecrow who we learn has some sort of annual mission she must undergo, one that gets harder every year. I don’t want to give it away, so I’ll just say that this is a love story at the same time as a modernized take on a myth.

I feel somewhat ambivalent about this story; it executes its concept well, and I can imagine it would have a strong appeal to a YA audience. Both the writing and the concept lack a level of subtlety or depth that would give it appeal to a wider adult audience, but for what it is, it is done well.

The final story of this issue is “Wizard’s Sacrifice,” by Shen Braun. It’s told from the point of view of the governess in a wizard’s household, and begins when the wizard returns from six months of helping his king fight a war, completely drained and appearing as if he’s aged thirty years. He’s a wonderful father, whose love for his six children is apparent. However, there is a sinister edge to this father’s love, because the fount of every wizard’s power is the blood sacrifice of those he holds most dear. Flora is asked to help him make another sacrifice, and even though she’s done this many times before, now it seems she is finally feeling really bad about it.

I found that I couldn’t suspend my disbelief in this story—I didn’t find the characterization of either the governess or the wizard consistent. Both of them were portrayed in too positive and un-conflicted a light early on in the story in order to preserve the shock of the revelation of the evil in which they’d colluded together in the past. I cannot see that two people who have murdered those they love could act as they did here. Maybe I just needed more back story. But as it is, my reaction is that its concept is intriguing, but I felt that this story fell short of the ambitious goal of its execution.