Category Archives: Horror

Recent Reads: Tor.com’s October 2017 Novellas

The Murders of Molly Southbourne
by Tade Thompson

Pub Date: 10/3

I don’t usually care for horror, and Tade Thompson’s The Murders of Molly Southbourne seemed like a fairly straightforward horror concept when I read the cover copy. However, I read pretty much all of Tor.com’s novellas, and I appreciate that doing so tends to get me to read outside my comfort zone and try new things. Still, I didn’t expect that I was going to start this book sometime after my midnight bedtime and find myself unable to put it down until I finished it an hour and a half or so later. It’s a compulsively readable, at times deeply disturbing fable with a compelling heroine at war, literally, with herself.

Molly Southbourne is brilliant, brave, and cruel in turns, an often unlikable woman who is nevertheless deeply sympathetic as she tries to find some way to live a normal life while dealing with a condition where anytime she bleeds, it grows a new molly who quickly becomes intent on killing her. Even Molly’s earliest memory is of murder, and she’s lived her entire life by a set of strict rules intended to keep her safe from her other selves, but it’s exhausting, physically and mentally. The mix of body horror and psychological is well-conceived and cleverly executed, and every word and image in the book feels methodically intentional. It’s a parable with several possible interpretations, all of them interesting, and Thompson makes smart use of classic fantasy and science fictional elements to touch on ideas about identity, cloning, family, and the effects living a life full of violence has on a person.

A Long Day in Lychford
by Paul Cornell

Pub Date: 10/10

I’ve loved Paul Cornell’s Lychford novellas since the beginning, but A Long Day in Lychford is very different from its predecessors and I’m still not sure if I think it’s a step forward or back for the series. Whereas the two previous books had something of a timeless feel to them—though they also dealt with the modern-day issues changing the landscapes of small towns—this one digs into the UK’s Brexit debate with mixed success. It’s a timely story, but it’s also a painful story to read.

After focusing more on Judith and Lizzie in the first couple of Lychford books, this one shows us a bit more about Autumn, who we learn is pretty much the only person of color in Lychford. After the Brexit vote, things get uncomfortable for her, and it causes a rift between Autumn and Judith that leads, albeit somewhat indirectly, to a magical mishap that needs to be fixed. It’s a definite change of pace from the first books in the series, and it feels more deeply personal and immediately relevant than the previous two novellas that dealt a little more broadly and abstractly with small town issues, but it’s also perhaps a little overambitious for its short page count. Things wrap up a little too neatly in the end, and Cornell’s main thesis is somewhat garbled by using a sort of metaphor about the border between Fairy and Lychford and tossing in some upsetting news about Judith that has some unfortunate implications re: her vote on Brexit. It’s possible to have too much nuance for a short novella.

Weaver’s Lament
by Emma Newman

Pub Date: 10/17

Emma Newman’s gaslamp fantasy series continues with a new mystery for secret mage-in-training Charlotte to puzzle through. Her brother Ben has settled into his role as an apprentice Mage, and he seems to be thriving at his new position at a mill in Manchester. The problem is that the mill seems to be haunted—either by ghosts or by rebellious workers—and Ben calls in Charlotte to go undercover and investigate. It’s a decent premise, and it’s never a bad time for a new book about workers’ rights, but everything about Weaver’s Lament feels a little rushed and its treatment of serious issues is perfunctory. Charlotte is a likable heroine, and she’s sensitive to the injustice and abuse she uncovers in Manchester, but secondary characters are given short shrift while Charlotte easily returns to her status quo at the end of the book.

Also, while I’m a fan of slow-burning will-they-or-won’t-they romances, it’s difficult to be invested in Charlotte and Magus Hopkins when they spend so little time together in stories that are so small in scope. Brother’s Ruin and Weaver’s Lament have both dealt heavily with uncovering largescale injustices that deeply affect the characters’ lives, and these things also form the primary barrier to the central romantic relationship of the series. However, there’s been very little forward movement on any front. The romance is limited to lingering glances and subtle chemistry, and the systemic injustice and probable evil of the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts isn’t confronted head-on and doesn’t seem likely to be any time soon.

Though it’s not without problems, Weaver’s Lament is still an entertaining read. It just feels like it could have used about a hundred pages more of breathing room, mostly so that it could do a bit better justice to the new friends Charlotte makes at Manchester. It’s not always a good thing when a story leaves you hungry for more.

Switchback
by Melissa F. Olson

Pub Date: 10/24

Switchback is a decided improvement over its merely workmanlike predecessor, Nightshades, which introduced Melissa F. Olson’s near future noir world in which humans are reacting—sometimes poorly—to learning that vampires exist. Whereas Nightshades was full of clunky exposition and worldbuilding, everything about Switchback is more relaxed and self-assured. It’s a better-plotted mystery with a more satisfying overall arc, and Olson makes the wise choice to focus more on Lindy, the vampire consultant who is more interesting that the rest of the main cast put together. While there are still some mysteries surrounding Lindy’s past, by the end of Switchback she feels like a fully realized character. “What if the world suddenly knew vampires are real?” is a question that has been answered many times in fiction, and I’m not sure there’s much new ground to cover on the issue, but Switchback retreads well-worn paths confidently while shifting focus to a fresher perspective than Nightshades had. I wasn’t sure about continuing with this series after my lukewarm feeling towards that book, but after this one I’m rather looking forward to seeing what Olson does with it next.

Recent Reads: Space Opera, Cosmic Horror, Hippo Mayhem and More from Tor.com

Starfire: A Red Peace
by Spencer Ellsworth

Pub Date: 8/22/17

The first in a trilogy of short novels, A Red Peace begins with the ending of and intergalactic war fought between natural humans and the genetically engineered hybrids who have spent years being used as fodder for humanity’s wars and slaves for their industry and agriculture. It seems as if justice has won the day until John Starfire, the leader of the Jorian-cross rebellion, reveals his final solution to end the oppression that he’s dedicated his life to fighting. The book follows the points of view of Araskar, a high-ranking vat-grown soldier in Starfire’s army and Jaqi, a Jorian-cross who just wants a tomato but who gets roped into helping some strangers instead. Jaqi is whip smart and wryly funny, a perfectly reluctant and wonderfully competent heroine who’s a joy to read about. Araskar takes a bit more time to grown on you, but it’s easy to become invested in him uncovering the truth about his heroic leader and coming to terms with what that means for his own future. A Red Peace is a clever, fast-paced space opera with a classic sci-fi sensibility, memorable characters, big ideas and an even bigger heart. I can’t wait for book two, Shadow Sun Seven, coming out November 28.

A Song for Quiet
by Cassandra Khaw

Pub Date: 8/29/17

I want to say I loved this little book, the second in Cassandraw Khaw’s Persons Non Grata series, but the truth is that I am just Lovecraft-homaged-out these days, which made it a tough read for me. That said, A Song for Quiet is a definite improvement upon Khaw’s previous Lovecraftian novella, Hammers on Bone. It’s better paced, with a more interesting main character in Deacon James, and it does a much better job of capturing the sense of truly cosmic horror that Lovecraft was known for. There’s less of Persons in this one, with Deacon as the main point of view character and the one whose actions are of the most consequence in the narrative. Khaw’s prose is lovely as always, and the book tries to answer a worthy question: What fate does an unjust world deserve? I’m just ready for this new-Lovecraftian trend to have a rest for a few years. In the meantime, Khaw also has a delightful urban fantasy romance out from the Book Smugglers earlier this year. Bearly a Lady is nearly perfect.

The Twilight Pariah
by Jeffrey Ford

Pub Date: 9/12/17

The Twilight Pariah is either a somewhat tired paint-by-numbers ghost story or a solidly-written horror story with a nicely cinematic quality, depending on how many horror flicks you’ve watched in your time and how much you like the genre. Its collection of shallow characters go through the motions of a fairly standard issue plot without any in depth examination of their motives. The only characters who die are ones that don’t matter, and the “mystery” is fairly tidily explained at the end of the book. It would have worked as a movie, where the stock characters would have been played by unrealistically attractive young people and even low-end CGI could have been combined with some creepy music to make the monster feel menacing. As a book, not so much.

Taste of Marrow
by Sarah Gailey

Pub Date: 9/12/17

Sarah Gailey’s first Tor.com novella, River of Teeth, got a ton of acclaim, but I didn’t love it, overall. It wasn’t terrible, but it definitely felt unfinished to me. What I did love about it was the concept, however, and there were a couple of characters who I found myself getting attached to in spite of myself. Taste of Marrow both finishes the story that began in River of Teeth and focuses mostly on my favorite characters: Adelia, Hero, and Archie. Where River was a fairly straightforward heist-gone-bad story, Taste is a nuanced, character-focused follow up that’s all about consequences. There’s fewer hippos and less mayhem, but there’s far more depth of emotion and meaning in this story where everyone’s chickens come home to roost. Gailey writes her characters with a wonderful mix of tenderness and sharpness that works far better in this less frenetic book than it did in its predecessor. Still, Taste of Marrow is only one half of a wonderful whole. Obviously, you want to read this pair of books as soon as possible, but if you want to read them together you can also wait until the omnibus, American Hippo, comes out in May 2018.

Book Review: Return of Souls by Andy Remic

I won’t be reading anything else by Andy Remic. I didn’t care for most of his first Tor.com novella, A Song for No Man’s Land, but it got interesting right at the end. Unfortunately, Return of Souls doesn’t deliver on what little promise its predecessor held. Instead, it doubles down on everything I didn’t like about the first book in this planned trilogy and adds a heaping dose of blatant misogyny that makes it a deeply unpleasant read.

Spoilers at the end, so beware.

Once again, we’re following Robert Jones through his time in World War I, only he’s come somewhat unhinged since the events of the first book and we’re now navigating his deteriorating mental state and his journeys through a sort of dark, war torn Wonderland, still pursued by the walriders that were introduced in A Song for No Man’s Land. Though all his friends died in the last book, this time around Robert is joined by a mysterious young woman named Orana who also seems to be running from the walriders. I’m sure that there are other things going on in this novella (I think I remember Bainbridge’s ghost showing up at least once), and I still get the feeling that Remic has some point that he’s trying to manfully make about war or something, but all of that is eclipsed by the sheer disgustingness of Robert’s relationship with Orana.

I mean, come on.

First off, Orana is barely even a character at all. Instead, she seems to be a sort of generalized embodiment of Remic’s ideals of womanhood, created to both tempt Robert and to motivate him to new acts of chivalrous heroism. Over and over again, Orana is described in infantilizing and fetishistic terms as childlike, naïve and in need of protection. When Robert and Orana finally have sex, even Robert feels as if he’s raping her, and indeed it’s difficult to understand exactly how this strange child-woman in need of rescue could be truly consenting. Either way, it’s gross to read.

But, wait! It gets worse. After about a hundred pages of detailing Robert’s creepily paternalistic relationship with Orana, the final revelation of the book is that Orana was a walrider all along and was, I guess, using Robert Jones to help her reach her home? Or maybe she was just tricking him deep into walrider territory? Or maybe Orana’s transformation really is just a misogynistic commentary on the inherent duplicitousness of women? I don’t even know, and it’s hard to care very much. Robert Jones is a highly unlikeable and, frankly, boring character, and honestly, by the time I got to the end of the book I was just ready for it to be over. Unfortunately, there’s no real ending here, just this major revelation and a sort of teaser for the trajectory of the final book in the trilogy, which I just don’t think I can bring myself to read.

I’d like to say that it’s not Return of Souls, it’s me, but I’m having a hard time even thinking of reasons why other people might enjoy this title. Its pace is slow, and its prose is only workmanlike. Its horror elements are sloppy, and its fantasy elements, drawn from real-world mythology, are poorly researched and badly implemented. Robert Jones is a character in turns profoundly dull and remarkably despicable, but he’s at no point enjoyable to read about. There’s no humor to speak of in the book, no spark of fun or joy to speak of; rather, it’s just unrelentingly dark and almost nihilistic in tone. But, hey, maybe that’s your thing. I won’t be back for more, though.

Book Review: A Whisper of Southern Lights by Tim Lebbon

A Whisper of Southern Lights is the second novella I’ve read by Tim Lebbon, and it’s probably the last. I didn’t care much for Pieces of Hate a couple of months ago, or that book’s bonus novelette “Deadman’s Hand,” but I thought I would check this one out nonetheless. Generally Tor.com’s novellas are of good quality, and I thought that perhaps I just needed to give Lebbon’s Assassin Series a second try. Unfortunately, I liked this entry of the series even less than the previous installment.

The basic plot of this series is that this guy, Gabriel, is an ordinary man whose wife and children were murdered by a demon, Temple, after which Gabriel is made immortal and set to hunt Temple across time and continents. Over hundreds of years, the two immortal enemies meet and fight several times, but neither comes out ahead, and there doesn’t seem to be any actual purpose to their struggle. Indeed, when Gabriel and Temple do brush up against regular mortals, it tends to be fatal one way or another.

In A Whisper of Southern Lights, Gabriel is hunting for Temple in the chaos of the Second World War. He finds him in Singapore, where both of them are working to discover some knowledge possessed by a soldier who is being kept by the Japanese as a prisoner of war. However, for all that this sounds as if there would be some specificity to the tale, everything about this book is vague and generic. Even the racial slurs and the venom with which the soldier character thinks about the Japanese are entirely boring because it’s so obviously exactly the sort of thing I feel ought to be expected from this series as it moves into this setting. Gabriel continues to be a completely non-descript character, and Temple is still a caricature of evil. The man with the snake in his eye is as mysterious as ever, and the mythology of Gabriel, Temple, and their eternal struggle is still murky and ill-defined.

Worst of all, though, is that there’s very little reason to care about any of the characters at all. Even the soldier who is a temporary point of view character isn’t very likeable. He’s a random sort of fellow, not highly educated or a deep thinker, and without any particular virtue to make us root for his continued survival except that he is human, while Temple is not and even Gabriel is something else by now. It does seem unfair that some random guy would get caught up in their conflict, but with no real sense of what the conflict is even about and little enough to like about any of the characters, it’s hard to get invested in the events of the novella.

It seems as the Tim Lebbon wants to convey something deep and profound about the nature of war or of good and evil or humanity or something, but it’s hard to convey much of anything if you can’t string together a coherent story and make readers care about it. Your mileage may vary, but I’m getting off this ride before I waste any more of my time on waiting for it to come to some kind of point.

This review is based upon a copy received from the publisher through NetGalley.

A Whisper of Southern Lights will be released on May 10, 2016. 

Let’s Read! Up and Coming: Part 12

Reading Up and Coming, even though I feel like it’s been a frantic and sometimes frustrating pace, has been totally worth it. This final group of authors has produced some of my favorite stories in the collection, and made for an altogether pleasant last day of reading.

Nicolas Wilson

Nicolas Wilson starts things off with “Trials,” which I mostly liked very well. It’s a very Star Trek-ish novelette with some fascinating aliens and a mostly compelling plot in which a man travels to a dangerous ice planet and has to negotiate a treaty with the people there. Though it’s somewhat (if not entirely) corrected by the ending of the story, the only serious issue I had with “Trials” was the narrator’s motivation being “earning” a woman’s love so he could steal her away from someone else. It’s not romantic or interesting; it’s infantilizing and unattractively obsessive, and that he transfers his affections so easily to the alien woman he meets only serves to reinforce that the narrator sees women as interchangeable objects rather than as people with agency of their own.

Wilson follows this up with “Multiply,” a cute piece of odd couple romantic comedy about a pair of AIs traveling together. It’s not bad, but it’s a fairly pedestrian premise with an execution that doesn’t really rise above workmanlike. I chuckled a couple of times, but the banter between the characters became grating about halfway through the story.

Alyssa Wong

I read and loved Alyssa Wong’s “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” last year when it first came out, and if anything I loved it more the second time around. It’s definitely a story with several shades of meaning and multiple layers of genius to explore. “The Fisher Queen” is a similarly marvelous story about a young woman who finds out that her mother might be a mermaid of the sort that her people usually eat as fish, and in “Santos de Sampaquitas,” a young woman must deal with a god in order to protect her family. The beauty of Alyssa Wong’s language makes all three of these stories compulsively readable and highly enjoyable without distracting from the richness of her settings and the resonance of the themes she explores. Going into this project, Alyssa Wong was one of the writers I was almost certain I would nominate for the Campbell, on the strength of “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” alone, and her other stories here only made me more sure of that choice.

Eleanor R. Wood

“Fibonacci” has an interesting structure and a lovely cadence to its storytelling, but very little plot and not much in particular to say about its subject matter. Still, I liked it the best of the three stories Eleanor R. Wood offered here. “Pawprints in the Aeolian Dust” has a premise that I enjoyed at first, but it moved along so slowly and methodically that I found myself bored and losing focus about halfway through. “Daddy’s Girl,” about a woman whose father is an android in need of repairs, is fine, but nothing particularly special, and its sweetness turned cloying at the end.

Frank Wu

I wanted to love Frank Wu’s “Season of the Ants in a Timeless Land,” but it’s another story that I, sadly, just found my mind wandering throughout. The romance, such as it was, was unconvincing, and none of the characters were compelling enough to keep my attention very long. I also found the religious allusions and the mysticism of the ending off-putting.

Jeff Xilon

From Jeff Xilon come “H,” a very short stream of consciousness in which a drug is used to make soldiers into a sort of hive mind and “All of Our Days,” about a man who misses out on a chance at immortality when he takes too long enjoying having a body. Neither of these were awful, but neither one stands out as very accomplished either.

J.Y. Yang

I loved “A House of Anxious Spiders” so, so much. J.Y. Yang’s imagery of people fighting with spiders that live in their mouths and then losing their voice until a new one hatches is clever and powerful, but never cutesy, and Yang doesn’t shy away from an insightful examination of the ways in which even people who love each other can hurt each other deeply. Sook Yee’s and Kathy’s cruelties to each other will feel almost too familiar to anyone who has argued about something real with a person who knows you well. In “Temporary Saints,” a woman prepares the bodies of children who were briefly able to perform miracles, and “Song of the Krakenmaid” finds a woman dealing with an interesting cryptid and a cheating girlfriend.

Honestly, I’m not sure how I’ve never come across any of J.Y. Yang’s stories before since they are relevant to basically all of my interests, but you can be sure I’ll be keeping an eye out for them in the future.

Isabel Yap

I didn’t love “Milagroso” in spite of its interesting ideas, and “Good Girls” was at times actually unappealing to me, but I love “The Oiran’s Song” passionately. It’s brutal and sad, but it’s also remarkably beautifully written, and Isabel Yap has a distinctive voice that I look forward to reading more of.

Jo Zebedee

I read just enough of this excerpt from Inish Carraig to send me over to Goodreads to find out more about the book, which confirmed that it is not one for me. However, though it only has a few reviews, they all seem to be very positive so far. If you like post-alien invasion stories, this one might be one to pick up.

Jon F. Zeigler

On the one hand, I love an original fairy tale, and “Galen and the Golden-Coat Hare” is a well-conceived and nicely written one. On the other hand, I dislike the deeply conservative message of this one, which frames poverty as a virtue that should be preserved and justice as the upholding of a fundamentally unjust status quo. Zeigler plays with some interesting fairy tale conventions, and there’s a clever conclusion to the story, but I just can’t bring myself to consider the ending a happy one.

Anna Zumbro

I know it’s only a quirk of alphabetical chance, but I was a little disappointed that the last two stories in Up and Coming weren’t more impactful. “The Pixie Game” and “The Cur of County Road Six” are both extremely short stories about kids being kind of awful to each other, and “The Cur” is a particularly ugly.

Final Verdict:

Alyssa Wong, of course, is definitely on my Campbell ballot, but Isabel Yap and J.Y. Yang are strong contenders for the couple of slots that I still haven’t sorted out yet.

Let’s Read! Up and Coming: Part 8

I’m still struggling to get caught up to where I’d like to be with this project, but I’m also still on track to at least finish it when I originally planned. Sadly, today was not a day for stand-out stories, either bad or good, which made this section a bit of a slog to get through.

Samuel Peralta

Both of Samuel Peralta’s stories are highly conventional and rather cloyingly sweet. “Hereafter” is a time travel romance that may lean towards bittersweet, but it’s overall fairly low drama and ultimately low risk, with very little to say about time travel or the human condition. “Humanity” is interestingly put together, interweaving news clippings with the more personal story of a first responder tasked with rescuing a woman and her robot daughter from a serious car accident. It’s not bad, but the ending is expected, and the slight message doesn’t really justify the gravitas of the story’s title.

All that said, it may be that Peralta’s gifts are more focused on editing; many of the authors in this collection are ones who have had their first work published in Peralta’s ongoing series of SFF anthologies—the Future Chronicles, which is up to fourteen titles now, all available for under $6 each for the Kindle.

Andrea Phillips

Andrea Phillips’s “In Loco Parentis” is a compelling take on the future of parenting, though in a definitely “the more things change, the more they stay the same” way. Still, Phillips has imagined some interesting technology and tells a story that is firmly grounded in current trends in parenting and tech. I went ahead and read the included excerpt from Phillips’s novel, Revision, and then immediately wished I hadn’t; it’s gone straight to my to-read list, but there’s no telling at this point when I’ll get around to it, which is a bummer.

Mark Robert Philps

I didn’t expect to like this novella that much in the beginning, but “Dragonfire is Brighter That the Ten Thousand Stars” is much better than its unwieldy and moderately pretentious title lets on. The real accomplishment here, though, is in the world building. Mark Robert Philps has created a really interesting alternate history that could easily carry a whole series of longer works if he’s of a mind to write them. The plot here is relatively simple, with no particularly surprising twists, but it’s well-paced, highly readable, and overall nicely executed enough that I would be happy to read more by this author.

Monica Enderle Pierce

“Judgement” is a somewhat overlong sort of wild west fantasy, which aligns it with current trends in fiction, Monica Enderle Pierce doesn’t quite manage to pull it off here. I rather like her dragon-as-executor-of-frontier-justice idea, which is a concept I haven’t come across before, but none of the human characters were very interesting and the protagonist, Peregrine, is actively unlikeable. Furthermore, everything is tied up far too neatly at the end, with a surprise revelation of Peregrine’s conveniently useful magical abilities and a too-large infodump that tosses in several hackneyed ideas at the last minute.

Ivan Popov

“The Keresztury TVirs” is the first translated piece (from Bulgarian) in Up and Coming, but it’s unfortunately not that impressive. It’s a story about TV viruses told in the form of a review of a book about the history of their creation and usage as tools of propaganda and mind control. I suppose the story has a moderately interesting retro sensibility, but it just didn’t work for me.

Bill Powell

Due to formatting issues, I had a hard time just reading “The Punctuality Machine, or, A Steampunk Libretto.” It’s written as a short, farcical play, but half of the first word of almost every line was cut off in the epub version of the book that I’m reading on my Nook. Still, I was mostly able to muddle through, and I enjoyed Bill Powell’s clever wordplay and sense of comedic timing.

Stephen S. Power

“Stripped to Zero” is a solidly well-written and timely story about the steady creep of technology into our lives and the ways in which we’re always being watched, analyzed, and advertised to. It’s somewhat pessimistic, but not crushingly so. In “Wire Paladin,” Stephen S. Power continues to examine some of these same big ideas, but with a darkly funny twist at the end. I was glad to have read these two stories together, as they complement each other well. I didn’t like “Automatic Sky”—about a pair of somewhat star-crossed lovers—at all, but I expect your mileage may vary with it.

Rhiannon Rasmussen

I vaguely remember reading “The Hymn of Ordeal, No. 23” in Women Destroy Science Fiction, but only vaguely, and it didn’t make much more of an impression on me this time around. My love for second person point of view is well-known, but I just didn’t connect with this story the way I feel is intended. On the bright side, Rhiannon Rasmussen makes up for this by offering two more stories that I loved. “Charge! Love Heart!” is a kind of great, somewhat meta teen rom-com, and “How to Survive the Apocalypse” is a definitely great, very meta piece that pokes fun at a lot of zombie apocalypse tropes.

Chris Reher

From Chris Reher comes “The Kasant Objective,” about a crew hired to find a lost research team, only to find out that they are really being asked to aid in an alien invasion. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s frankly more than can be really effectively dealt with in a short story. The basic idea is moderately interesting, but this treatment of it was just too shallow to be good.

Ethan Reid

This excerpt from Ethan Reid’s sequel to his first novel seems fine, but I have basically negative interest in post-apocalyptic horror of this kind. For the right reader, I’m sure this is very good, but for me it’s a hard pass.

Final Verdict

Overall, today’s bunch was just average, but I do look forward to reading more in the future by Andrea Phillips and Rhiannon Rasmussen. I also think I might have to start buying some of the anthologies Samuel Peralta puts out, even if his own writing isn’t really my jam.

Let’s Read! Up and Coming: Part 7

So, I’m not behind, exactly, since I’m still well on track to finish this project by March 30th, but the last couple of days have not been particularly productive ones. Bad news always puts me in a bit of a funk, and it hasn’t helped that my partner has been home sick for a couple of days, which is a huge distraction. In any case, by the end of day on Monday, I was about a full day ahead of my reading schedule, and I don’t expect to be fully caught up until probably the end of day tomorrow. That said, I plan to finish the reading part of this project by Sunday evening and have the final few parts up by Wednesday afternoon.

On the bright side, today’s group of writers are some of my favorites yet, and there are several very strong possible nominees for Best Short Story in addition to at least one author that I can already tell you is likely to make my list of Campbell nominees.

Wendy Nikel

“Rain Like Diamonds” is a slightly underwhelming fairy tale, with an ending that is just a little too expected to be truly clever or particularly impactful. However, I adored “The Tea-Space Continuum,” which has a delightfully funny time travel paradox. Unfortunately, “The Book of Futures” was another miss for me. I like short detective stories, and I found the steampunk-ish setting intriguing, but the story just didn’t work. It actually had two endings; one was pedestrian, and both were trite.

George Nikolopoulos

I rather liked “Arise to the Surface” at first, even if it was obvious very early on what the story’s “twist” was, but it lost me when it had an alien woman with sexualized breasts. Randomly mammalian space people, seemingly for the sole purpose of describing sexualized breasts, is a major pet peeve of mine, and the rest of the story wasn’t good enough to overcome my distaste for that uncreative nonsense. “Razor Bill vs. Pistol Anne” is a very short, mildly amusing post-apocalyptic gladiator story, but it’s not particularly memorable.

Megan E. O’Keefe

“Of Blood and Brine” is a superb example of short fiction world building, and Megan E. O’Keefe backs it up by telling a compelling story as well. This one is eligible for the Best Short Story Hugo Award as well, and it’s definitely one to consider. I did skip her novel excerpt, however, as I’d like to read the whole book, though I’m not sure when I’ll get around to it.

Malka Older

“Tear Tracks” is a very good, but not great, first contact story. Malka Older does an amazing job with her world building, and I love the alien culture she’s conceived here, but the actual story is fairly slight and it gets a bit info-dumpy at the end, which makes it slightly insincere feeling. A+ ideas, but C+ execution.

Emma Osborne

“The Box Wife” was hard to read as it features one of my all-time least favorite sci-fi tropes: a sexbot. Even when it’s used in the best possible way, even when it’s done to interrogate or subvert as it is here, I find this trope viscerally upsetting. Still, it was promising enough for me to move on to Emma Osborne’s other stories. I rather liked “Zip” which is reminiscent of good Star Trek, but “Clean Hands, Dirty Hands” was another fairly dark and unpleasant story to read; I liked its Australian gold rush setting, which is pretty unique, but it’s an extremely grim tale, and I increasingly find these days that I’m simply not in the market for that kind of bleak grimness.

Chris Ovenden

“Upgrade” has a moderately interesting premise, but it reminds me far too much of last year’s film Advantageous, which explored similar ideas much more effectively. “Peace for Our Times” has got to be at least the third or fourth “deal with the devil” story in this collection, and it’s one that doesn’t manage to be either very insightful or fun. “Behind Grey Eyes” does manage to be fun, but I’m unfortunately just not a fan of zombies-as-metaphor in general. I’m not super impressed by any of Chris Ovenden’s stories here, but he’s objectively talented and I feel like he’s an author who is going to publish something any day now that I’m going to love. In the meantime, I could easily imagine any of these stories being someone else’s favorite even if they aren’t for me.

Steve Pantazis

Steve Pantazis’s novelette, “Switch,” would make an excellent episode or two for a futuristic cop show that I might enjoy watching, but it’s of a genre that I find unreadably boring. I can tell that it’s well-written and nicely structured and paced, but there’s no more boring protagonist for me to read about than a slightly dirty, but essentially decent policeman.

Carrie Patel

Carrie Patel is an author who has gotten a good amount of buzz in the last year, but this is the first time I’ve actually gotten to read any of her stuff. I don’t know what I was waiting for. “Here Be Monsters” is a shipwrecked story that is fantastic and horrific in turns, with a wonderfully ambiguous ending. I’m not always into unreliable narrators, but I enjoyed this one. Also, the abyssus is a great creepy monster. “The Color of Regret” is a total change of pace, and its speculative elements aren’t as central to the story—in fact, Nasrin’s ability to see auras is almost incidental to the plot—but the tale straddles the worlds of family drama and revolutionary intrigue in a compelling fashion. The Buried Life is a novel that’s been on my to-read list for ages, so I skipped the excerpt from it here.

Sunil Patel

Sunil Patel’s first contact tale, “The Merger,” is one of the funniest stories so far in Up and Coming, and I laughed out loud more than once while reading it. Paresh is lovable, and his wife Sita is a constant delight. Plus, there’s very little that I find funnier than unconventional contract negotiations. Especially with aliens. In contrast, “The Robot Who Couldn’t Lie” had me in tears well before the end. It’s nice to see an author with this sort of range in their writing, and this is further highlighted by Patel’s third story, “The Attic of Memories,” which I didn’t like as well as the first two but which is something entirely different again. The only thing that all of these stories have in common is a professionally polished quality that is often lacking in work by writers at the beginning of their careers. I can’t wait to see what Sunil Patel does next.

Laura Pearlman

From Laura Pearlman, we get a trio of very amusing stories that made me laugh even more than “The Merger.” First up, “I am Graalnak of the Vroon Empire, Destroyer of Galaxies, Supreme Overlord of the Planet Earth. Ask Me Anything” is exactly what it sounds like—an AMA with the leader of an army of radish-loving alien invaders. “A Dozen Frogs, a Bakery, and a Thing That Didn’t Happen” is a fabulous and very clever modern fairy tale. I wasn’t sure at first about “In the End You Get Clarity,” but it’s not like other superhero stories, and by the end I loved it.

Final Verdict

Carrie Patel and Laura Pearlman are both in their final year of eligibility for the Campbell, and either could be a strong choice, but the sheer versatility of Sunil Patel is what I found most exciting in today’s reading. I wouldn’t pick Megan E. O’Keefe and Malka Older for this year’s award, but they’re both writers to watch for, each with a first novel being published this year.