SFM: Dickinson, de Bodard, Andrews, Lemberg, Bourne

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. 

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“Please Undo This Hurt” by Seth Dickinson (2015, Tor.com)“Please Undo This Hurt” by Seth Dickinson (2015, free at Tor.com) 

Not speculative fiction, but a very insightful and poignant story of Dominga, an EMT on the verge of burnout after the man she loves breaks up with her. Her friend Nico is in a tough spot as well, after breaking up with his girlfriend because he thought she deserved better, and losing his cat to a coyote attack. Dominga and Nico feel so overwhelmed with the uncaring universe around them that they just want a way out of it: not suicide, that would be selfish, just a way to erase every speck of their existence from the world.

In my job I see these awful things – this image always comes to me: a cyclist’s skull burst like watermelon beneath the wheels of a truck he didn’t see. I used to feel like I made a difference in my job. But that was a long time ago.

So I hold to this: As long as I can care about other people, I’m not in burnout. Emotional detachment is a cardinal symptom, you see. 

It’s an incredibly depressing story, and if you’ve read The Traitor Baru Cormorant you know just how much like a punch in the gut Seth Dickinson can makes things feel. ~João Eira


“The Breath of War” by Aliette de Bodard short fiction book reviews“The Breath of War” by Aliette de Bodard (2014, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsOn the war-torn planet Voc, heavily pregnant Rechan is making her way from the city into the mountains, a journey fraught with danger. She is seeking Sang, her “stoneman,” a living being that she carved out of stone when she was sixteen, and whom she hasn’t seen since. Each woman carves a Stoneman when she reaches adulthood, and gives it breath. Stonemen always remain with the women who carved them because, on Voc, babies will be stillborn unless the mother’s stoneman gives breath to the child at birth. But Rechan’s stoneman has never been seen by anyone except Rechan herself.

Rechan has never admitted to anyone what happened when she went into the mountains as a girl and carved her stoneman. But she was young then, and angry with the rebel armies who brought fighting and suffering to Voc. And that affected her carving decision.

[S]he stood in front of the stone, and saw into its heart. And knew, with absolute certainty, that it wasn’t a stoneman that she needed or wanted to carve.

I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around the central concept of giving breath and life to a stone carving, which in turn gives breath and life to your children, but you just have to roll with it. This story makes some interesting points about the effects of war and violence, and how our experiences and desires shape our lives. The war-torn setting contrasts interestingly with the theme of families and birth. “The Breath of War” was a finalist for the 2014 Nebula Award in the short story category. ~Tadiana Jones


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“A Questionable Client” by Ilona Andrews short fiction book reviews“A Questionable Client” by Ilona Andrews (2013, free at author’s website)

This is a cool prequel to the first Kate Daniels novel, Magic Bites, telling about Kate’s first meeting with Saiman, who’s shifty in more ways than one. It’s kind of amusing to find the massively wealthy Saiman, who can assume any shape (Chris Hemsworth? Richard Armitage? You got it!), doing his best to proposition Kate from their very first meeting. Kate, bless her, has excellent reasons for telling him no. Being Saiman, he also has an underhanded matter he’s involved in that creates mortal danger for both himself and Kate, which Kate handles with her typical kickassery and humor. This short story is a great extra for Kate Daniels fans and a nice introduction to this urban fantasy series for anyone who’s not familiar with it and is interested. ~Tadiana Jones

Here are Jana’s thoughts about the same story:

“A Questionable Client” by Ilona Andrews short fiction book reviews“A Questionable Client” by Ilona Andrews

I’m generally not a fan of the urban paranormal fantasy genre, especially with its reliance on were-everything-under-the-sun: Were-tigers! Were-rats! Were-jaguars! Were-fireflies! I tend to get distracted by questions like, “If a person changes into a larger animal, where does that extra mass come from? And if they’re changing into a smaller animal, where does the extra mass go?” Add that to my low tolerance for plots that focus exclusively on romance, and I end up not being impressed by most UPF novels/series.

But Tadiana liked “A Questionable Client” and I know she (and Kelly and Terry) like Ilona Andrews’ work, so I thought I would give it a shot. To my surprise, this was both a good short story and a good introduction to Kate Daniels as a character. She’s clever and pragmatic to a fault; her occupation is magical mercenary for hire, and she reacts to dangerous situations in realistic ways, even when facing down shapeshifters and witches. In the story, a suspiciously high-paying bodyguarding gig goes sideways, and Daniels must resist the advances of a powerful man while keeping him and herself safe. How she does so, and the resolution to the story itself, impressed me and even made me chuckle at times.

The descriptions of what happened to the “normal” world when magic struck, particularly the degradation of Atlanta’s skyline post-Shift, were well-written. I’m intrigued by the ways in which humans have had to adapt their behavior in order to compensate for periodic losses of technology, and curious to know more about why and how it happens. I’m more likely to give the first KATE DANIELS book (Magic Bites) a chance if I have some free time and I see it at my local library now than I ever would have been if I hadn’t read this story. ~Jana Nyman


“Geometries of Belonging” by Rose Lemberg (2015, Beneath Ceaseless Skies) short story reviews“Geometries of Belonging” by Rose Lemberg (2015, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsRose Lemberg offers us an interesting alternate world, rich detail, and lovely language in this fantasy novella. The magical system is beautifully realized and Lemberg gives “naming” magic a new spin. Names are all part of a vast “naming grid” that lives in the earth and in each human mind, and it supplies the combination and numbers of syllables that give “deepnames” their power.

Paret is a healer, focusing on healing imbalances of the mind. He works from a poor quarter in the city, but we soon discover that Paret is connected to a powerful lord, and his connection makes him the target of the lord’s political enemies. Paret, who talks about himself at first as “merely” a humble healer, is in fact something much more powerful.

The story itself is conventional to the point of being outright predictable, but I like conventional stories and I enjoyed having the time to spend absorbing the interesting world Lemberg has created. I think this might be a story set in a larger world and a larger work, but the tale presented here is complete and congruent. My only real disappointment was that the villain was stereotypical, and after seeing several other characters who were developed and realistic (like Paret himself), this was a let-down.

Read this for the unusual magical system and Lemberg’s ornate, beautiful language. ~Marion Deeds


“The Algebra of Events” by Elizabeth Bourne short fiction reviews SFF“The Algebra of Events” by Elizabeth Bourne (2015, free at Clarkesworld)

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsA non-solid alien race that communicates with each other through smell crashes on an uninviting planet when their ship’s probability engine malfunctions.

Panic tinged the conversation spray in the room containing the probability fields. The sym had been cut from the calculating engine and isolated. There was no question of reconnecting it. The calculation had damaged it beyond repair, and besides, the isolation had been done so quickly the sym’s delicate tissues were discolored with multiple hematomas. I’m no jampiri so I can’t say for sure, but it didn’t smell to me like the sym would survive. All we could hope for now was that the mechanicals worked and that perhaps, the sym had calculated the chance of finding a survivable planet in reachable distance.

Their otherworldly biology and mindset must try to adapt to their current circumstances, which are not ones to which they are well adapted, and not all of their efforts for survival and escape succeed.

This is a confusing story. Its shortness doesn’t lend itself well to the alienness of the species and all the odd nomenclature that accompanies it. The reveal midway is also fairly predictable, and what small part of a love story there is, is not explored well enough to feel meaningful. What stars I give this story are solely due to the otherworldly feeling of the alien race, which I think Elizabeth Bourne conveys perfectly. ~João Eira


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JOÃO EIRA, one of our guests, is a student at the University of Coimbra in Portugal, one of the oldest universities in the world, where he studies Physics and Economics. Having spent his formative years living in the lush vistas of Middle Earth and the barren nothingness in a galaxy far far away, he has grown to love filling his decreasing empty bookshelf space with fantasy and science fiction books. For him a book’s utmost priority should be the story it is trying to tell, though he can forgive some mistakes if its characters are purposeful and the worldbuilding imaginative. A book with no story can have no redeeming quality though. João probably spends more time fantasizing about books than doing productive things.

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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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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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7 comments

  1. I’m definitely going to read “Geometries of Belonging,” Marion. It sounds intriguing, and the sort of thing I might like.

  2. I wanted to like “The Breath of War” a lot more than I ultimately did — there just seemed to be too much missing as far as information about the larger world around the characters and the mechanics of why/how stone carvings need to receive life.

    But I’m adding “Please Undo This Hurt” and “Geometries of Belonging” to my definitely-read list. :)

    • Jana, I do agree that some sort of explanation of why/how the stone carvings are given life and in turn give it to children, would have helped “The Breath of War.” In fact, a few hours ago I edited my Goodreads review of this story to say that precise thing! Great minds and all.

      If you do try the Kate Daniels series, be aware that it starts a bit slow. The first book is decent but I thought it didn’t really pick up steam until the third book, which I loved.

      • Great minds, accidental telepathy… You say tomato, and I say potato! :)

        Thanks for the note about the first book–it seems like a series that I’d happily get from the library, but not one that I’d be desperate to have on my bookshelves. Of course, I could easily be wrong, and I may end up loving it!

  3. There seems to be a math theme here.

  4. The “extra mass” problem has always been a problem with shape-shifting for me, too. The only place I’ve seen it addressed at all, let alone well, is in the mosaic series WILD CARDS edited by George RR Martin, with Elephant Girl. She would absorb nearby energy and convert it to mass when she shifted to her elephant form (often causing blackouts) — and had to “discharge” energy when she shifted back.

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