SFM: Anderson, Harrow, Beagle, Baldwin, Lechler

Short Fiction Monday: There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about.

“Das Steingeschöpf” by G.V. Anderson (Dec. 2016, free at Strange Horizons)

“Das Steingeschöpf,” or the “Stone Creation (or Creature),” is set in Europe in 1928, where the aftermath of WWI mingles with foreshadowings of the Holocaust. A young German, Herr Hertzel, tells of his trip from Berlin to Bavaria, on his first assignment as a journeyman to repair a living, moving statue. All Steingeschöpfe are made of a magical stone called Queckstein (“mercury-stone”) that absorbs some part of the energy and memories of its creator to become animated. When Hertzel arrives in Bavaria, he’s deeply concerned to find that the statue, a massive man-beast called Ambroise, with twisted ram’s horns and a heavy, dragging tail, is a centuries-old masterpiece that he is unqualified to repair. Ambroise’s owner begs him to do it anyway: Ambroise’s eyes and mouth have deteriorated, making him unable to see or speak well, and she can’t afford the cost of a more experienced carver. And she loves Ambroise, who has been with her family for many years.

As Hertzel carves a new mouth and eyes for Ambroise, he recalls his apprenticeship training and his friendship with Franz, another apprentice. Hertzel gradually discloses his deeper affection for Franz, and the difficulties in 1920’s Europe for gays as well as people who, like Hertzel, appear to be Jewish. And as Hertzel works with carving the Queckstein, he knows some of his memories of Franz will be taken by the stone … but perhaps that’s a mercy.

G.V. Anderson has skillfully combined an unusual type of magic, reminiscent of the Jewish golems, with realistic but enchanting details regarding the carving and repair process, and with the brooding atmosphere of Germany between the world wars. “Das Steingeschöpf” is a lovely, poignant tale of love and loss. ~Tadiana Jones


“The Autobiography of a Traitor and a Half-Savage” by Alix E. Harrow (Dec. 2016, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

In the early 1900’s, the land west of the Mississippi River is a place where the land is fey, constantly shifting and changing, evading the Easterners’ efforts to conquer and settle the land. Oona, a half-breed Amerind, is one of the few people who have the ability to be a “mapmaker,” forcing the land to hold to a particular shape and keep it.

Without us, the land won’t lie still. It writhes and twists beneath their compasses, so that a crew of surveyors might make the most meticulous measurements imaginable, plotting out each hill and bluff and bend in the river, and when they return the next day everything is a mirror image of itself. Or the river splits in two and one branch wanders off into hills that shimmer slightly in the dawn, or the bluffs are now far too high to climb and must be gone around. Or the crew simply disappears and returns weeks later looking hungry and haunted.

Oona works for a company of surveyors of the Imperial American River Company, who are exploring the frontier, helping them by stabilizing the land. She’s viewed as a traitor by Native Americans, despite the fact that she despises her job and especially hates the leader of the company, John Clayton. It gradually becomes apparent why Oona is forced to work for Clayton. She may be able to escape his tyranny, but such freedom will carry a heavy cost.

“The Autobiography of a Traitor and a Half-Savage” is a beautifully written and richly imagined story, exploring Oona’s conflicting emotions and the difficulties of her life in an alternative version of U.S. history. The story is given additional heft and humor by several quasi-scholarly footnotes, discussing, for example, Sir Marcus Polo and his memoir of his exploration of the western frontier in America. I liked the play on the concept of “settling” the land.

I have a couple of minor quibbles: Clayton is a cardboard villain without much depth, and I was bit distracted by the notion, mentioned in one of the footnotes but not really relevant to the story, that in this world the lines between the various Amerind tribes have blurred. But otherwise this was an excellent story, examining the darker side of manifest destiny.

Full disclosure: Alix Harrow is a former reviewer with Fantasy Literature, but I never met her and that didn’t affect my rating of this story or my decision to review it. ~Tadiana Jones


“The Story of Kao Yu” by Peter S. Beagle (Dec. 2016, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

Kao Yu is a middle-aged judge in ancient China, renowned for his fairness and honesty. He spends much of the year traveling from town to town to assist with legal cases. Kao Yu is sometimes assisted in making decisions by a chi-lin, a multicolored Chinese unicorn who will suffer no dishonesty in its presence.

More than once—and the memories often returned to him on sleepless nights—he had pleaded with the criminal slouching before him, “If you have any hope of surviving this moment, do not lie to me. If you have some smallest vision of yet changing your life—even if you have lied with every breath from your first, tell the truth now.” But few there—tragically few—were able to break the habit of a lifetime; and Judge Kao Yu would once again see the dragon-like horned head go down, and would lower his own head and close his eyes, praying this time not to hear the soft-footed rush across the courtroom, and the terrible scream of despair that followed. But he always did.

Now it so happens that on one trip Kao Yu is asked to pass judgment on an imprisoned pickpocket, who turns out to be a young woman of surpassing beauty named Lanying. He is instantly entranced by Lanying, and unexpectedly tempers his judgment of her with mercy, cutting her sentence in half. He spends many sleepless nights thereafter dreaming of Lanying, and grumping at his devoted servants during the day. When he next passes through the area, he arranges to have dinner with Lanying, and ends up spending the night with her. But Lanying, though lovely and refined in her manners, is a hardened criminal, and the judge’s heart will end up conflicting with his duties and his devotion to justice.

“The Story of Kao Yu” is a melancholy tale, another story of love and loss, and the choices we make when any choice will bring pain. Peter S. Beagle has told a tale of a very different unicorn here, one who embodies justice. Beagle effectively and respectfully captures the style of an ancient Chinese legend, while making some timeless points about our human weaknesses. ~Tadiana Jones


“Dragons of Tomorrow” by Kathleen Baldwin (Nov. 2016, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

“Dragons of Tomorrow” is a short tale about a young family surviving in what is left of the world after a cataclysmic event. It opens with two children hunting, and they find more than they bargained for.

My issues with “Dragons of Tomorrow” revolve around its trouble with presenting an engaging story. The characters were strongly reminiscent of the family dynamic at the beginning of The Hunger Games, and therefore didn’t lend any new life to the post-apocalyptic setting.

Its main strength comes from an excellent sense of flow; the pacing in this story is what kept me reading through to the end. Additionally, the premise of ethereal dragons and the end of the world as we know it implied something larger that I wanted to see come to light.

Unfortunately, even with the pacing and the interesting addition of dragons, “Dragons of Tomorrow” fell somewhat flat. I kept feeling like a revelation or new idea was coming, but it never got there for me. The story seemed to end before anything had been explained or explored more fully. Overall, my interest in the premise was outweighed by little to no new insight, and the somewhat stock characters. ~ Skye Walker


“The Beautiful Bird Sits No Longer Singing in the Nest” by Kate Lechler (2016, free at PodCastle)

This short story is told from the point of view of a disturbed woman, kept in a locked upper room of a large home, where she looks out over the desolate English moors. She spends her days with a loathsome caretaker, Grace Poole, and longs for her husband, who visits her only rarely. And she sees mystical visions about her, including in the tapestries that hang on the walls that enclose her:

They seem to move around me as if enchanted. Women and men on the hunt for fleeing hart and hare. They are old—threads poke from their faces, and one man’s cheek is eaten by moths—but despite this, they are free. They slip between the boles of trees, they tumble into meadows full of wildflowers, they jump horses over streams.

Are these visions due to madness, or is it something more?

Like Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, this story retells parts of the classic Jane Eyre from Bertha Mason’s point of view. Kate Lechler portrays Bertha sympathetically; there are echoes of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and the reader wonders how much of Bertha’s mental trouble is caused by the restrictions and prohibitions placed on her.

Another full disclosure: This recently published tale is by one of Fantasy Literature’s current reviewers so, per our usual policy, I won’t give it a star rating. But it’s well worth reading! ~Tadiana Jones


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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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SKYE WALKER, on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (but hanging around since 2007), is from Canada, where she is currently a University student studying Anthropology and Communications. When she isn’t reading or doing school work (or reading for school work) she can be found in one of three places: in a tent in the woods, amid a sea of craft supplies on a floor somewhere, or completing the task of finishing her ‘Must Watch’ movie list. Skye was practically born with a love of fantasy and science fiction (as her name might suggest). These days her favourite authors include Ursula Le Guin, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Chris Wooding. Skye is in fact a Jedi (we know you were waiting for it).

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4 comments

  1. Skye, I read “Dragons of Tomorrow” as well, but you beat me to reviewing it. :) I agree with your rating, though. That story fell flat for me as well, though I hadn’t gotten around to analyzing exactly why it was unsuccessful. I think it was that not enough happened, and the writing wasn’t strong enough to make up for the deficiency in plot. Which is to say that I agree with your analysis as well!

  2. I read it a couple times to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. “Not enough happened” is the essence of the problem I think, and a concise summing-up of my issue with it too! There was a good idea there… I was looking for a lot more though.

  3. Did you read the comments to “Dragons of Tomorrow” on Tor.com? I just did, and #11 (by dptullos) has a very good critique of the fundamental basis for the plot, that hadn’t occurred to me.

    • Oh wow, yes that comment is a good one. Summed up (if anyone is reading along): This story relies on the rationalization of what is essentially an act of mass murder by the ‘righteous’ perpetrator as a plot device, or a way of making the protagonist special for surviving it all.
      Thanks Tadiana for pointing me towards the comment, it’s a good chunk of food for thought.

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