by Gillian Daniels
“The Half Dark Promise” by Malon Edwards (Published: January, 2015)
A happily-peculiar story about a girl facing her fears by literally hacking them to death with a machete. Of course I’m completely on-board.
Young Michaëlle-Isabelle, who has just moved to the South Side of Chicago from La Petit Haïti, is haunted by the half-formed creatures that lurk in the dark. This is a fractured Chicago, one recognizable as our own until the surface of this nightmare city is breached. Children walk together to and from school to avoid the nebulous, tentacled creatures waiting to absorb them. The main character is teased mercilessly for her epidermolysis bullosa which, here, manifests not just as a connective tissue disease but the ability to make a protective chrysalis with one’s own skin. Her peers don’t react very well to this. On top of everything else, Michaëlle-Isabelle has what’s described as a “steam-clock” heart developed by her pulmonologist mother. There’s a steampunk fairy tale quality to this girl’s childhood, a sense that she’s both far removed from our world and not that far away at all.
The layers of calculated weirdness are lovely but the central strength in Edwards’ narrative is its lyricism. Michaëlle-Isabelle’s narration is sure, but vulnerable, as she bounces between her worries concerning her friend, Bobby Brightsmith, and her parents. Her Haitian Creole phrases and syntax, meanwhile, are folded neatly into descriptions. All these things carry the reader smoothly through the uneasy, non-linear story arc.
“And You Shall Know Her By the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander (Published: February, 2015)
This high-velocity, violent, pulp-kaleidoscope adventure mess is what dreams are made of. That, and late 1980’s/early 1990’s action anime and daytime American action television, but I digress. After a humanoid artificial intelligence, Rack, gets his synthetic-brains blown out by the Ganymede mobsters that have hired them, Rhye, his foul-mouthed, tough-as-nails, the-muscle-in-the-relationship, android partner in crime, struggles to save him while hacking a computer. She’s pushed into a cyber world to retrieve her original target, and Rack’s consciousness, utilizing his interface program which “develops metaphors for abstract environments.” The resulting dreamscape is sculpted by Rhye’s own fury, turmoil, and past as a soldier and death-match fighter. Her hope to find Rack in one piece guides her through, and her venom towards the mobsters (and perhaps everything else) pushes her forward.
Rhye is deeply sardonic, her colorful metaphors as rich, lurid, and sometimes scatological as the images she encounters. A skeletal ferryman drives her through a river “choked with old shopping trolleys and used condoms and rafts of yellow-brown foam.” When she hits land, the houses are “two-story brick hulks sagging at crazy angles, their multi-car garages gaping like slack-jawed drunks at a nudie bar.” In contrast, Rack is suspiciously subdued, the gentler force in their relationship, until the narrative picks up from his perspective.
The style may not work for everyone, given its graphic nature, but I hope more timid readers are willing to risk it. It’s a fun, terrifying ride with high emotional stakes. “And You Shall Know Her By the Trail of Dead” also has an absolutely killer ending and I think we could afford a few more foul-mouthed, gun-toting heroines like Rhye.
“Military Secrets” starts like a YA dystopia via a particularly nasty private school. Authority figure Mother Immaculata demands every student who has lost a father during the war step forward and stand in a red-tape box. The eventual ending, however, is an unapologetic plunge into chilling reality.
The main character has lost her father to a greater conflict never quite explored here. We are given hints of it, though, and the fact that neither her or her mother seem to be mourning in the “right” way. Hell, they even seem to think he may, indeed, have just gone missing. Whether her father is alive or dead, eventually, our viewpoint character must face her grief in the only real way that makes sense to her. A story of childhood loss and a mysterious bus with far too many people on it.
“Medu” by Lisa Bolekaja (Published: Crossed Genres Publications, May, 2014)
Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, edited by Rose Fox and Daniel José Older
At Readercon this past year, I picked up the anthology Long Hidden, read a few stories, some of which grabbed me and some of which didn’t, and set it aside. I’ve revisited the collection several times in the past year with pleasure and have discovered a piece that gripped me immediately. Set in a Wild West that’s a bit more demographically accurate than mid-twentieth century films where the cattlemen tend to be all white, Lisa Bolekaja gives us a warm, relatable heroine with some fantastically creepy powers.
Lil Bit is a thirteen-year-old traveling with her father and his cattle across Kansas. She’s of mixed-race in the sense that her father, Gabriel, is Latin and her mother, Odetta, is black, but she also has features that don’t entirely gel with the rest of the human race. Her hair, for one thing, is fully tactile, poisonous, and can be retracted back into her scalp. She prefers to hide it there, ashamed of her heritage as Medu (see: Medusa). Lil Bit just wants to keep her dad happy with her appearance and safe from harm. Once it’s revealed they’re being pursued by both bounty hunters and a more supernatural force, her priorities begin to shift.
I found this story sweet. It’s delightful to watch Lil Bit come into her own identity. I’d like to make a conscious effort to seek out more of Bolekaja’s fiction, especially if it’s all as satisfying a read as this one.
“Black Dog” by Neil Gaiman (Published: HarperCollins, February, 2015)
Neil Gaiman’s short novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, came out last year, and for me, reading it felt like slipping on a comfortable sweater. It revisited many of the themes the author has been playing with since his days writing the much-beloved Sandman comics. Memories, the maiden/mother/crone triad, and mythological figures entering into our daily lives — Gaiman staked out his territory a while back but that territory remains rich with material to mine. Ocean is a spiritual sequel to the comic book series, one that has distilled its story through a decades-long career. “Black Dog,” meanwhile, is an actual sequel to Gaiman’s 2001 novel, American Gods, a story about a man’s encounter with the many deities Americans carry with them, but the material feels a lot more raw.
Once again we join the quiet main character, Shadow Moon, on a journey. Instead of traveling cross-country in North America, he’s found himself in a small, friendly, English town. There, he meets an eccentric but otherwise enormously kind couple, Moira and Oliver. They inform Shadow of grim local legends, the sad fates of cats in the village’s ancient history, and a black dog that haunts the fields. When the couple offers to take Shadow in when he’s unable to find a hotel, he accepts. The stage seems set for a dark betrayal of some kind, but the couple has their own problems to worry about first.
This piece stands on its own despite its connection to the novel. Shadow in American Gods often felt like a cypher, but three years after the events of the novel, he’s filled out more as a character. He still encounters mysterious strangers who aren’t as mortal as they appear, but along with Neil Gaiman’s writing, Shadow has matured. He’s become a hero and protagonist in a way that feels real. The story stumbles into moments of despair that earn the collection’s strange title, “Trigger Warning,” while retaining familiar themes. Still, slipping back into this universe is as comfortable as when I first encountered it years ago.
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.