Five reviews this week:
The Blood That Pulses in the Veins of One by JY Yang (Uncanny)
May 2016; 2,900 words. One summary: An alien that is being held captive mulls over memories while awaiting rescue. Another summary: Cannibal aliens in love! It’s difficult to try to encapsulate this story in a couple sentences though because it’s so vast in scope; neither summary really does the story justice. I will say that “The Blood That Pulses in the Veins of One” isn’t for the faint of heart and was quite disturbing to me—there are detailed descriptions of vivisection and cannibalism, after all—but underneath the shock of that are grief and love and dedication, longing and stories upon stories to tell. Despite being just under 3,000 words, the story feels so much bigger, probably due to the density of the prose that works in a wonderful way to slow the pacing and allow us to focus on all the details. Worth a reread to get all the nuances in the narrative.
Breathe by Cassandra Khaw (Clarkesworld)
May 2016; 2,700 words. An experimental piece about fear of the ocean, about a mission gone wrong, about one person’s sacrifice to save their crew. The writing is beautiful and lyrical; I found myself immersed in the descriptions, allowing the language to pass over me like a bath. Khaw suggests breathing where the text says “Breathe” and I did so, finding that it had a curious effect combined with the language—where the story is more panicked, Khaw adjusts the flow of the words to be more hurried, more tense, and combined with the sparser command to breathe I found my own heart pounding as the anxiety of the scene became more palpable. Elsewhere, the regular command to breathe creates more calm, especially juxtaposed with the text; it’s an interesting effect that I enjoyed combined with the deep-sea setting. “Breathe” doesn’t feel like a gimmick; the command feels integral to the text, and didn’t feel repetitive as I was reading. Well-done.
The Mussel Eater by Octavia Cade (The Book Smugglers)
November 2014; 3,600 words. Karitoki tries to tame a Pania, a guardian of dolphins and whales and seals, by bringing her different oils for her skin and cooking her mussels—but the Pania proves difficult to tame. Any piece that’s rich with food imagery is going to grab my interest, and Cade’s descriptions and use of language in “The Mussel Eater” are exquisite. I’m reminded pleasantly of the Five Times structure in fanfiction, and adore that I’m seeing it in original fiction as well; it works wonderfully to build the tentative relationship between Karitoki and the Pania, to draw out the characterizations and wants of each. I didn’t see the ending coming, and yet it feels like the perfect way to wrap up this lush story that teeters on the edge of wildness. Gorgeous work.
The Sound of Salt and Sea by Kat Howard (Uncanny)
May 2016; 4,100 words. Rowan struggles to ride the bone horses that appear to corral the dead during the Dead Days. A gorgeous, slow-moving piece filled with so much sensory detail: a piece that I read more for the experience of being immersed in the world than for a story or narrative per se. The red asters, the salt, all the details of the lost things on Far Island; the mythos of a drowned island, the image of the dead communing with the living—all the choice details work together to create a bleak atmosphere dotted with moments of vibrancy, a gray-and-red palette that I found beautiful. A haunting story; I particularly loved the ending.
Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands by Seanan McGuire (Uncanny)
May 2016; 5,900 words. A first contact story and an apocalypse story rolled into one as, in one thread, the narrator struggles to survive with her children, and in another thread, the narrator discovers a horrifying misunderstanding at the core of the scientific research project she’s part of. I love this story; the pacing is perfect and led me to blaze through the story in record speed as I read on to see what was happening and why. As someone with a background in linguistics, I appreciated the details that McGuire focused on in “Ye Highlands and Ye Lowlands”—there are so many aspects of language that I feel are underexplored in science fiction, and the medium through which language is transmitted is one of them. I love the dread that creeps throughout the story, the foreshadowing that leaves you wondering even as the events transpire; the structure of the story works so well for the concepts it conveys. Brilliant story.