by Gillian Daniels
“This is Not a Wardrobe Door” By A. Merc Rustad (Published: January 2016) Fireside Fiction
A half-epistolary story that begins with a raw kick, Rustad challenges the idea that childhood is a finite space. This Narnia isn’t tied to an idealistic time that can never be reassembled.
Ellie, despite spending many formative hours in an alternate world, is unable to return to this fantasy land through traditional means. That closet door is very literally broken. Even Ellie’s friend on the other side, Zera, who has the Falcon Queen and the Forgotten Book at her disposal, can’t transcend her magical world to find Ellie again. No, Ellie has to find another way back. “This is Not a Wardrobe Door” is a straightforward story, but it communicates a revelation.
I’m frustrated that portal fantasies about discovering Narnia-like magical lands as a child often end in the child having to abandon that world as she grows up. On a metaphorical level, yes, you can’t return to the naive disposition you once had. You have to leave that era behind. Insert Garden of Eden metaphor here.
But the sense of discovery that portal fantasies represent, I think, don’t have to be sutured to one time of your life. One of appeals of Young Adult literature, for example, is that readers are never really done growing up. There’s always change in our environments and lives, new things to which we can adjust. Just because the run up to adolescence is fraught with identity politics and self-discovery doesn’t mean that exploration is over when you hit your eighteenth birthday. With any luck, adulthood gives us the chance to assemble the pieces of our childhood we valued best into a new home.
“The Iron Man” by Max Gladstone (Publisher: NESFA Press, February 2016) The Grimm Future, Editor: Erin Underwood
Editor Erin Underwood’s The Grimm Future is a collection that marries near, far, and alternate science fiction to fairy tales. It’s an admirable and enormously charming experiment. I consumed the anthology as soon as I got my hands on it. As a completist, I was also pleased to see that after each story, the Brothers Grimm fairy tale from which it borrows is added. What a fantastic idea.
The original work contains androids and relations resurrected through brain scans. Magic always bleeds through. Sometimes disparate elements are knit together with dream logic, sometimes connected with humor. Genre here is thankfully porous. Of the tales chosen, there are many successes. This includes the Dan Wells’ dark “The Shroud” and Jeffrey Ford’s heartening “The Three Snake-Leaves.” But Gladstone’s take on Iron John has stuck with me.
We follow the unnamed main character, a prince, from sheltered childhood through adolescence. He leaves the utopia kingdom of his parents with a strange android-like warrior, heading into the woods for adventure that reconstructs who he is as the best adventures do. The despair the prince feels at these changes doesn’t have a silver lining but a golden one, in keeping with the original story.
Gladstone’s rendition of “Iron John” thoughtfully creates science that functions like magic. The more resources a given kingdom has, the more plentiful its physical resolution of people and their characteristics, like skin and hair. There are hints this is a sort of hologram setting, one that fluidly blends into the use of fairy tale imagery and tropes.
The source material is rich with metaphor about family. Pain makes monsters of our heroes, sometimes, but once that pain is dealt with, those monsters are somehow more human. The prince’s relationship to the mysterious Iron Man is a father-son connection skewed toward the weird, a compelling knot begging to be untangled, difficult and ultimately rewarding.
“How the God Auzh-Aravik Brought Order to the World Outside the World” By Arkady Martine (Published: January 18, 2016) Strange Horizons
A visceral portrait of a god forced to re-make herself. So gruesome in detail, so spectacular in its body horror, I had to turn away from the screen every other paragraph. But how could I resist reading on?
Auzh-Aravik is on a mission to find her lost skin. Like the Summerian goddess, Inanna, she must descend to the Underworld to reclaim what was lost. Here, though, what would be the afterlife is actually “the world-outside-the-world.” There are no features to this non-land, no sense beyond nothingness. This fascinating negative space is ruled by her cruel sister, Saam-Firuze, who has a separate agenda.
Each word is beautifully wrought. This universe feels familiar but is suffused with something very alien. A layer of this story is about Auzh-Aravik’s relationship to her own body, in all its godly splendor and more practical uses. She uses limited resources, specifically teeth and entrails, to move toward her goals in an environment where she has to restart from nothing. She’s the sort of stubborn, masterful, and divine heroine I’m excited to see brought to life.
“Charlotte Incorporated” by Rachael K. Jones (Published: February 2016) Lightspeed Magazine
Speaking of bodies, Jones gives us a weirdly adorable story of a synthetic brain with big dreams.
Charlotte is desperately pushing, recycling, and saving for a body of her very own. Rather than being created with one, she and her kind must earn enough to purchase them. Her day job involves being incorporated into an ill-fitting “company corpus” that doesn’t match her gender expression at all. In her off-hours, Charlotte daydreams online, always designing the perfect body like someone devoting far too much time to character creation in the Sims.
The way Charlotte’s financial straits parallel real world struggles with poverty — where choices are often made between hospital stays and life savings — is brutal. Yet this yarn never quite loses its good humor. Charlotte, body or no, is a plucky heroine who would have a spring in her step if she had a leg with which she could do the stepping.
It also doesn’t hurt that the language is lovely. The details are sublime, from the textures of skin Charlotte lusts to have to the sickly cactus in her fish tank home:
“She sleeps suspended inside the biochamber, brain stem trailing its fine lattice of disconnected nerves, and she dreams corporeal dreams. The blueprint comes to life, the details exactly as she has selected. Perfection. Charlotte’s corpus will be sixty years old, because she loves the way corpi droop at that age. Sort of like weeping willows.”
This is a comic-drama with a great deal of thought put into its set dressing. The slice of this strange world we see is densely built and deeply satisfying.
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.