by Gillian Daniels
Kia and Gio by Daniel José Older (Published: January, 2015) Tor.com
As a child, Kia deeply admires the teenage Giovanni to the extent that she fantasizes about marrying him, plotting out their destiny in a Powerpuff Girls notebook. This is something never quite in the cards, however, as Gio is a) her first cousin, b) gay, and c) still a teenager and a great deal older than her. Instead, they spend their time hanging around their predominantly Latin neighborhood, developing a close friendship based on mutual respect and their favorite manga, Ishigu.
The central action takes place many years afterward, however. Kia now fantasizes about where her cousin has disappeared to as she works at a botánica stocked with “little potion vials and sacred pots” and other items that, at seventeen, she’s too jaded to care about. She reminisces about a childhood where she was more confident in herself and in her cousin. The day she chooses to dwell on his presence is a day where she encounters a paranormal event that reminds her of a disturbance years ago.
A sweet story with a strong YA-flavor, but one that dives rapidly into darker waters. Older knows how to breathe life into the people that populate his worlds. The connection between the main characters is rich and fun, portraying Gio as someone worthy of Kia’s admiration but still, fundamentally, a teenager. It’s easy to see why, grounded in a dissatisfying present, she longs for a bond that may be gone for good.
Returned by Kat Howard (Published: January, 2015) Nightmare Magazine
Know what’s terrifying? Being with someone you despise forever. What might be a little worse is having that story — your story — reframed as a romance.
This deliciously pessimistic retelling of Orpheus journeying to the afterlife is brought to you by Kat Howard. Our Eurydice’s tale unwinds in second person, describing a numb but grimly beautiful Underworld where the Queen of the Dead gives out ice cold kisses and smells of pomegranates. The narrator prefers this affection to her living, breathing suitor, who may not be as well intentioned as legend claims.
The story presented is unstuck in time. It’s not a gilded, mythical past or a mundane present, but some jumble of both. The main character variously remembers being bitten by a snake, drowned in a bath, or hit by a car. In this version, her rescuer manages to get her out of the Underworld and his success is celebrated on TV and websites with listicles like, “Romantic Gestures Sure to Win Her Heart.” Eurydice, however, has not risen from the dead with any feeling of gratitude. She is discontent and, furthermore, infuriated.
I like watching Howard break open this myth so effortlessly. Her prose are as merciless as the fates of her characters: “You’d walk away, leave, if you could, but whatever tether pulled you with him out of death, whatever magic reconstituted the pieces of your immolated body around your peregrine soul, still hasn’t snapped.” Nightmare Magazine’s horror is best when it balances its high body count with elegant descriptions. This is no exception.
A Universal Elegy by Tang Fei, translated by John Chu (Published: January, 2015) Clarkesworld
Tang Fei presents a nightmare of a relationship between a human woman with an unspecified illness and an interstellar being with unspecified power. The narrator writes letters to her brother, hopeful this boyfriend, this time, will work out, even if she has to travel light years from home to make it work.
She describes an ideal lover named Hull who takes care of her after a failed relationship. He is Dieresian and looks like a “handsome Caucasian.” Though completely devoted, our heroine observes how he washes maybe once a year, wants to push her into being a part of the rest of his culture, and ends up insulating her from making any meaningful connections to his home world. He gently but firmly has her take red pills, ones that she confides she hates in letters to her brother. They make her less human, she claims, but may “evolve [her] from a monkey to a person.” It seems as if she is not only desperate to make things with Hull work, she’s also desperate to shed her former identity.
The translation by John Chu often verges on being as lyrical as his award-winning, “The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere,” but the voice belongs to Fei. Our main character is relentless in her hope that the relationship will succeed. She speaks of mental synchronicity between her and Hull, a connection that transcends the ones she has found on Earth. The audience is teased with the idea that our main character’s otherworldly encounters may be hallucinatory, part of the mental illness suggested early on. It places this science fiction odyssey closer to the realm of liminal fantasy. Later events that involve body horror and dismemberment don’t contradict this reading, a parade of the comically grotesque that reflects the narrator’s growing disgust and dissatisfaction.
Soft Currency by Seth Gordon (Published: December, 2014) Escape Pod
In an alternate United States, money has been gendered since World War II. Women use coupons to pay for groceries and magazines and men use American dollars to buy newspapers and gasoline. The rationale for such firm gender segregation is feeble, but it’s easy to go with it when one considers the strange reasoning for a number of gendered items in our world, ie. pink razors and “manly” scented candles.
This story takes place around Cassie Levine, a Jewish teenager in 1970’s Boston. She works for Glick’s Grocery where the owner makes illegal exchanges of coupons for dollars so women can buy “masculine” goods. This isn’t the centerpiece of Cassie’s life, but the question of currency and gender becomes the catalyst that alters her world view.
Seth Gordon draws a society here that isn’t inherently evil. Women aren’t confined to the home by every last member of society, even if they do have trouble buying gas. Due to the nature of the currency, they have to be accountants and take on fairly self-sufficient work. They also have to learn a unique version of mathematics in school. Cassie even defends the currency at first, suggesting, ““Besides, men have enough places where they don’t let us in. We deserve something for our selves.” It’s not a grim dark reality, just a fractured one.
To be up front, I provided feedback on an earlier version of this piece in a critique group years ago. I believe, however, I would find myself drawn to it regardless. Its trappings are science fictional but I read it as a fable. Like M.T. Anderson’s “Quick Hill,” a story I reviewed a few months ago from the collection Monstrous Affections, this is recognizably America, just a version more honest about its deep-seeded issues. Science fiction audiences may bounce off the implications of the currency — I wondered about foreign exchange rates and men who just really want to read LIFE — but by and large, this story is an immensely satisfying read.
Gillian Daniels is a writer of prose, poetry, and criticism. After attending the Clarion Science Writing Workshop in 2011, her poems and fiction have been published in Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Electric Velocipede, Flash Fiction Online, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine among others. Her reviews are available at The New England Theatre Geek blog and other venues. She is a transplant from Northeast Ohio and is highly suspicious of her home in the New World, i.e. Boston.