Five reviews this week:
Balin by Chen Qiufan, translated by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld)
April 2016; 11,000 words. As a youth, the narrator’s father gives him a birthday gift, a mythical creature known as paoxiao. The narrator names the paoxiao Balin and soon discovers that Balin has a unique talent: imitating people’s movements perfectly. However, this talent becomes a joke as the narrator and others abuse Balin for amusement, turning him into a puppet of sorts. “Balin” is as much about the narrator as it is about the titular character: it’s a story about family, memory, relationships, and empathy; the past and the present flow between each other, creating a poignant story. The scientific grounding of the story lends realism and weight to the fantastical premise; the narrator’s character development and revelations left me tearing up at the end. A wonderful if difficult story.
The Bones of the Matter by Cassandra Khaw (See the Elephant)
May 2016; 3,500 words. Mei Fong worries whether her girlfriend Nadia will be faithful to her and returns home to her mother for help. Her mother creates an elaborate spell per Mei Fong’s request, but Mei Fong realizes that some things can’t be fixed with witchcraft. A fun story with gorgeous writing; I found my mouth watering over the descriptions of food, everything so vivid that I could practically see, smell, and taste the meals in the story. All the characters are wonderfully rendered, each with their own personality; Mei Fong’s mother in particular is a dazzling and memorable figure. I’ll definitely be revisiting this story, if not simply for Khaw’s fantastic language use: Inside, however, space arches like a cat beneath its owner’s attentions, lengthening into impossibility. Great work.
Of Blood and Brine by Megan E. O’Keefe (Shimmer)
January 2015; 3,200 words. In a world where people are identified by scents, Child struggles to earn her own name and open her own perfumery. A mysterious, scentless woman visits Child, asking her to copy a smell, as well as to create a new one—this particular task is nearly impossible, but the woman is willing to pay a high price. The plot is fascinating in itself, but is secondary to me to the language, imagery, and worldbuilding in this story. The choice in detail is so specific, creating a vivid atmosphere and sensory experience that’s unlike any other story I’ve read. Gorgeous work, compelling from start to finish; I can tell that this story will linger with me for a long time.
Touring with the Alien by Carolyn Ives Gilman (Clarkesworld)
April 2016; 12,000 words. Avery signs up for a job transporting an alien and his human translator Lionel. Along the way, her interactions with Lionel cause old memories to resurface as she questions the nature of her existence and experiences. This is such an unusual alien invasion story, a different take on first contact; what I loved in particular about “Touring with the Alien” is how a concept that was so difficult for me to comprehend initially—how can an unconscious creature be sentient?—became clear at the end; I, too, questioned with Avery whether consciousness is as important as we believe it to be. I loved Avery as a character; her development along with Lionel’s really drives the story. A fascinating read, one that also focuses on empathy and relationships.
Yuanyuan’s Bubbles by Liu Cixin, translated by Carmen Yiling Yan (Clarkesworld)
December 2015; 7,300 words. As a child, Yuanyuan loved blowing bubbles; as she grows up, this whimsical hobby turns into a massive undertaking that may be the only way to save her drought-ravaged home. I loved the lighthearted nature of this story, how there were very real stakes at hand, but only a brief moment of tragedy—the sense of wonder that pervades throughout the story was enough to compel me to keep reading. Liu balances fantasy/magic realism and hard science to wonderful effect, creating a story that’s fun and full of verisimilitude.