Novella Review: The Last Witness by K. J. Parker

The Last WitnessThe Last Witness by K.J. Parker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Memory is a tricksy thing. When toyed like in the movie Memento, it’s a solid foundation for a slippery psychological thriller. One’s sense of self and purpose is only as good as what one makes of one’s memories.

In this fantasy-thriller novella, the roguish narrator is a dark hero–perhaps a superhero–with the ability to steal away specific memories from other people. He can do almost whatever he wants, and blank any potential witnesses. This doesn’t work out for his relationships with his family, nor his lover. They’re too complicated, with too many intertwined memories.

The cad becomes a memory-thief for hire, and there’s good money in it from the sort that would hire him. But memories stolen become his own, and it’s not always easy to tell which memories are which or from whom. He half-knows places and people like near constant deja vu . . . As the ultimate witness to so many crimes [because he took the memories on], assassins are often sent his way. But they can be blanked, too, while revealing their patron . . .

One day he takes on charity case, the victim has been assaulted and likely raped. He’s loath to own these memories, but he accepts the case and a few coins. In the avataristic realm where the thought-thievery takes place, the victim’s avatar shockingly appears to defend her memory. She, too, is a memory thief . . .

In a realm with two memory thieves whose lives become entwined, nothing can be trusted.

This tale appears in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Science Fiction Novellas: 2016 edited by Paula Guran, which I received directly from Prime Books. I’ve previously read this author’s “Heaven Thunders the Truth” and The Things We Do For Love.

[Check out my other reviews here.]

Anthology Review: Abbreviated Epics Edited by Juliana Rew

Abbreviated EpicsAbbreviated Epics by Juliana Rew
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This brief anthology of 20 extremely short pieces dubbed “epics” spans fantasy, various folklores, and sci-fi. Few of the tales are long enough for any truly satisfactory development. The standouts are either deeply moving are extraordinarily well grounded, or both.

My favorite tale, meriting 5 stars, is Deborah Walker’s “Beyond the Turning Orrery”. It’s a breathtaking work of beautiful prose in which a highly compromised narrator cannot fully comprehend the full extent to which his tiny steampunk world is contrived:

I picked a copper cricket out of the grass, and held it to my ears listening to the small tick of its tiny internal springs.

“If we’re wound, who winds us?” asked Dom.

I touched his chest. “How can you deny that?” I thumped his chest a little harder. I was afraid for him, and that made me scared.

My honorable mentions each receiving 4 stars are:
–Daniel Coble’s “Assault on the Summit” which extrapolates on the Lovecraftian mythos of Tibet’s Leng plateau. In the most remote locations, unknown and possibly alien cultures and beings preserve their sequestered way of life.
–Marissa James’ “The Blue Cup” confronts the uneasy relationship between a childhood fantasy and adult reality.
–Adria Laycraft’s “The Perfection of the Steam-Powered Armour”, set in a steampunk samurai society, this tale pits a tinkerer and his young son up against the powerful politics that undervalue his small family’s lives.

I rated and reviewed all of the component tales. Also included are:
Bondoni, Gustavo–“Rain Over Lesser Boso”–3 stars
Clark, Martin–“Through the Ocular, Darkly”–3 stars
Coate, Steve–“Fortunate Son”–3 stars
Gallagher, Siobhan–“Blade Between Oni and Hare”–3 stars
Harold, Elliotte Rusty–“Refusing the Call”–3 stars
McBain, Alison–“The Lost Children”–3 stars
Solomon, Ben–“Damfino Plays for Table Stakes”–3 stars
Teeny, Jake–“Toward the Back”–3 stars
Bowne, Patricia S.–“Great Light’s Daughters”–2 stars
Dunn, Robin Wyatt–“On a Train With a Coyote Ghost”–2 stars
Ishbel, Iain–HMS Invisible and the Halifax Slaver”–2 stars
Moore, Jordan Ashley–“A Wolf is Made”–2 stars
Rogers, Stephen D.–“Qinggong Ji”–2 stars
Tenser, Margarita–“The Committee”–2 stars
Walton, Jo–“Odin on the Tree”–2 stars
Royal, Manuel–“Heart-Shaped”–1 star
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “On a Train With a Coyote Ghost” by Robin Wyatt Dunn

2 of 5 stars.

With a nod toward a painting by the same name, this convoluted short tale blends elements of the supernatural into a fantastical modern folk tale. The pieces do not sit smoothly with each other. Also, the simplified language and sentence structure meant to reflect the young narrator are more jarring than helpful in this regard.

A child on a quest [to procure medicine for her grandmother] takes a train from her small Polish village into Russia to find the mystical healer known as Worker. She’s accompanied by a size-morphing ghost of a coyote from the Americas that has its own agenda, for better or for worse. This leans into Native American mythos of the supernatural coyote-trickster god.

Unsatisfying expository on why an American coyote ghost resides in Eastern Europe never gels, but rather distracts from the quest at hand. Worker must choose between helping the girl and the ghost. Both play their part–one as the trickster, the other with earnestness.

This tale appears in Abbreviated Epics, a Third Flatiron Anthology, edited by Juliana Rew.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “Qinggong Ji” by Stephen D. Rogers

2 of 5 stars.

The American tall tale centers on a character that’s larger than life in action, such as Pecos Bill lassoing a tornado. A certain amount of absurdity is allowable, but the tales aim to be consistently true to themselves.

This tale hybrids a tall tale with kung fu movie heroics. However, the inconsistencies start from the opening line which ends with “. . . Ji was born an orphan.” Perhaps this impossibility means to state she was orphaned shortly after birth. The tale moves on quickly, with Ji already a young woman flitting from village to village by the end of the next paragraph. This makes it curious that her birth was mentioned at all.

She soon enters a new village in the Valley of Seven Echoes where she is rudely greeted by a guard. She is polite in response, but to the question What do you want?”, she replies “To repay your hospitality.” Since she has in no way been shown hospitality yet, one could wonder whether she speaks ironically and plans to exact revenge. Apparently not–her original treatment is brushed off.

Soon she wins over the villagers with her song of her life. She plays this on her possibly magical musical instrument of extraordinary ability.

Ji played a song that told the story of her life. Her audience wept at the hardships, cheered at her successes, and marveled at her bravery, for her story began with the love of her parents and ended with her love of all living things.

The love of her parents? Just a page earlier, the story states she was born an orphan . . .

This tale appears in Abbreviated Epics, a Third Flatiron Anthology, edited by Juliana Rew.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “The Lost Children” by Alison McBain

3 of 5 stars.

Many traditional characters from mythos and folklore, such as The Wicked Witch of the West and Maleficent, have received revisionist treatment turning their untold tale into a humanized one. Here, the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur gets a fresh telling with an altered situation.

King Minos refuses to sacrifice his favorite bull to Poseidon. His wife loves the bull even more and births twin minotaurs after “loving” the bull. The king is, as expected, angry, embarrassed, ashamed. When the female and male twins hit their teens, the king seals them in a labyrinth and forces his wife to feed them lest they starve.

Years later, the oracle sends Athenians to the Minotaurs to sacrifice a boy and girl in order to stave off a plague. Little does everyone know that the minotaurs are rather non-violent. But since the children do not emerge from the labyrinth, everyone is satisfied.

Except the plague rages. And another couple kids are sent in. Then a third set. By the time of the third pair of “sacrifices”, the queen has been stricken with plague so Theseus enters the labyrinth . . .

This tale appears in Abbreviated Epics, a Third Flatiron Anthology, edited by Juliana Rew.
 
 
 
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Novella Review: What Has Passed Shall in Kinder Light Appear by Bao Shu

3 of 5 stars.

Certain phrases hold deep meaning around the globe without having to explain the time and place they denote: Ground Zero, Tiananmen Square, the 38th Parallel. Recent historic world events are both humanized and contextualized when given fresh perspectives in this novella translated by Ken Liu.

The first twist–for English audiences, at the very least–is a Chinese national as narrator providing a non-Western POV for everything from WWII to the Gulf Wars, The Cold War to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, with distant reports of 9/11 and firsthand accounts of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre.

The second twist is a cause and effect game-changer. World events unfurl in reverse order. Narrator Xie Baosheng is born the day of the Mayan 2012 Day of Apocalyse, not that anything of note happened that day. His first memories are of his country’s pride in hosting the Beijing Olympics [2008], but then the world seems consumed with USA rough handling of Afghanistan and Iraq culminating in the 9/11 stunning blow to NYC that shuts America down [2001]. Slowly, computers and cell phones disappear. Technology reverts and the world appears dumber for it. The free markets of China clamp down into isolationism as the narrator attends the Tiananmen protests while in college [1989].

Seventy years of Baosheng’s life and love, and the militaristic and cultural wars raging around him, help make history accessible if not totally recognizable as Nixon visits China, wars erupt in Vietnam and Korea. And late in his life, aggressive Japan rapes China while a distant threat named Hitler emerges in Germany to ravage Europe . . .

This tale appears in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Science Fiction Novellas: 2016 edited by Paula Guran, which I received directly from Prime Books.

[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “Toward the Back” by Jake Teeny

3 of 5 stars.

It’s said that everyone is the hero of their own story. However, in this humorous short tale, that might not be the case for the cowardly “Cheech and Chong” orc duo trying to find any excuse not to enter battle.

Glob and Teacup like to hang out at the back of the battling hordes where action can be avoided. Their commander, Riser Har’n’Zerk, always pushes them toward the front. He’s ordered them to ready themselves by donning human blood as face paint. Without human blood, the slacker duo daub on some mud when they next see Zerk approaching.

“What’s that on your face?”

“This?” said Teacup. “Just your typical, standard issued, human blood, sir.”

“Yes,” said Glob. “The blood of our forsworn and eternal enemy. Let the True Shadow stretch on forever!”

“Human blood? Why’s it so thick? And brown?”

“Well, you see,” began Teacup, giving Glob a sidelong glance, “with the angle of the sun in conjunction with the dilution of our perspiration–”

“Enough!” growled their commander. “Just make sure you add a fresh coat when you reach the frontlines.”

“Of course, sir,” said Glob.

“Indubitably,” said Teacup.

Satisfied, Riser Har’n’Zerk tramped through the other orcs and back to his center position.

. . . “You did great. Conjunction. Dilution. I knew you’d come up with some big words to confuse him.”

Teacup looked down, abashed. “It’s not all about who can swing their sword the fastest.”

This tale appears in Abbreviated Epics, a Third Flatiron Anthology, edited by Juliana Rew.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “Great Light’s Daughters” by Patricia S. Bowne

2 of 5 stars.

Creation myths are often strange tales, if not very strange tales. However, they’re also often a reflection of the culture from which they arise, showing the priorities if not social construction.

This tale is a creation tale for an unexplained culture. A Father Sky style god leaves for an undefined spell while his 7 daughters who are to be spinning clouds into light slack off and cause a bit of mayhem before discovering color and including that into their light. One invents rainbows along the way.

For world building, the strong gender roles in the society are clearly hinted, as is the perception of duty. The lack of consequences for slacking off is a surprise. So, too, is the lack of names for the 7 daughters. One would expect the names to be aspects of light or different minor types of light. The lack of names leaves the daughters nearly indistinguishable as they are called “oldest”, “second oldest”, “second youngest”, and “youngest.” The middle 3 don’t matter apparently.

While creation myths tend to have bizarre elements, and idioms tend to have bizarre turns of phrase [such as “fine as frog’s hair”], this creation myth also contains a quirky, nonsensical idiom in its repeated use of the phrase “fine as hen’s hair.” Repeating an image and action in myths is common, but not the use of idioms. Myths try to explain the unexplained by tying to what is solidly understood–such as what women’s work is. They don’t tie it down to something just as abstract when there are plenty of “fine” materials for comparison.

This tale appears in Abbreviated Epics, a Third Flatiron Anthology, edited by Juliana Rew.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “The Blue Cup” by Marissa James

4 of 5 stars.

Certain phrases often get bandied about, such as “needing to grow up,” or “stop living a fantasy.” Most children have an active imagination in a way that adults have often left in their past. This, of course, isn’t true of all adults. Some find that special way to tap back into that unbridled, happy creativity.

This tale hints at a rich, imaginative fantasy world infused with major steampunk elements. However, Joyce isn’t living in a fantasy–she’s washing some very real dishes while her loveless marriage to couch potato Greg stagnates. She mourns the passing of the excitement and love she experienced in the land of Radiance and everything she left behind by choosing to return to earthly reality.

Her memories of bizarre and fascinating creatures and lands open a door that perhaps she thought was forever closed . . .

This tale appears in Abbreviated Epics, a Third Flatiron Anthology, edited by Juliana Rew.
 
 
 
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Short Story Review: “Refusing the Call” by Elliotte Rusty Harold

3 of 5 stars.

Lord of the Rings was ground-breaking in its time. From its imaginative world-building to its reconfiguring of cultural mythos. While it didn’t invent The Quest, it brought an ancient trope back to the surface and in a serious way. Since then, many an adventure tale has kicked off with a wizard, a quest, a battle between all that is good and all that is evil.

This humorous vignette spoofs the sudden commonality of the fantasy adventure trope with a quick dose of reality.

“Jonathan Harris, I have come to fetch you on a quest of most urgent importance, for–”

“No.”

The wizard stepped back, his ominous pronouncement momentarily interrupted.

“Excuse me,” he said in a slightly less stentorian tone. “But what do you mean by ‘No’?”

“No means no.”

. . . .

“Did I mention there’s a princess? Quite comely she is too, with hair of golden flax and a face that would launch, well, maybe not a thousand ships, but I’m sure she could manage a rowboat or two.”

“I’m gay.”

This tale appears in Abbreviated Epics, a Third Flatiron Anthology, edited by Juliana Rew.
 
 
 
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