This week I returned once more to Tor to look at another piece of short fiction. I was especially intrigued to read a story by Jeff VanderMeer, since he’s actually been on my radar for a while as one of the editors of The Weird. Side note that his wife, Ann VanderMeer, also edited The Weird, as well as some of the other Tor stories I’ve read for Short Tuesday thus far, plus edited this story as well, which adds a whole different layer of interesting. You can read the short story for free here…
I’ll be honest—I’m a bit flummoxed by this story! It documents one man’s interactions with an alien force that has engulfed the Earth; the narrative focuses more on the MC’s discovery of the world and the realization of what is happening than on any kind of plot. The aliens are of the parasitic variety, rather than laser gun toting sort, and the focus throughout is on the natural progression of the parasite—what happens to Earth’s flora and fauna, as well as how the parasite (called the “story-creature”) physically and mentally manifests itself in the MC.
And while I stood there in the shadows of the moonless night, beyond the street lamps, beyond the circling moths and with the nighthawks gliding silent overhead…while I stood there and pleaded, the story-creature sprouted out of the top of my skull in a riot of wildflowers, goldenrod, and coarse weeds.
There are many instances throughout where it’s difficult to get a sense of what’s happening, which adds to the story in my opinion. With a kind of Lovecraftian flair, the MC is presented with beings and creatures that don’t really make sense, and all he can do is relay what’s happening as best he can based on his human capacities. At the same time he is uncovering truths about himself; contact with the alien parasite has changed him in irreparable, unexpected ways.
I think this is the kind of story that really needs a few reads. The prose has such a driving momentum that you kind of can’t help reading onward, even as your brain is trying to parse what’s happening, so I felt like there was quite a lot I was missing. Even so, I like to think that there would be so many unknowns in the event of actual extraterrestrial contact that this story conveys that uncertain feeling exceedingly well. Who knows—maybe I’ll read through it again sometime and see how the story hits me a second time around.
I’m a huge fan of Stranger Things, so was immediately intrigued by Emily Henry’s When the Sky Fell on Splendor, which is obviously referencing the TV show with the cover. The alien component as well was interesting, since I’ve heard multiple people in the YA publishing sphere mention how aliens just kind of aren’t a thing for some reason, even though vampires, werewolves, mermaids, and their ilk have all had a turn in the spotlight. I #amwriting an alien book right now (lol, how cringy can I make this post? 😀 ). Even though my book’s more New Adult than YA, anything new even tangentially related to aliens right now is interesting to me, even just from a market research standpoint.
So I was pumped to read this book… and then it fell a bit flat for me. Something about the prose wasn’t connecting with me—perhaps too many details and flashbacks (oh, the many flashbacks!) that distracted from the main action. There are also too many characters in the MC’s friend group; I’d have cut at least two or three of them out. I understand that Henry was trying to illustrate how the unfortunate history of their town had influenced everyone a bit differently, but it was too many people to keep track of; I had to frequently backtrack to figure out who everyone was again. If there had been fewer characters, perhaps we could have seen more depth with the character development. A smaller, more careful approach is pretty much always going to be better than a scattershot method.
Huge, ending ruining spoiler incoming…
It turns out there aren’t even any aliens in this book. The cover’s basically a total lie; instead we discover that the entity the characters encountered in the beginning of the book is the soul of someone in the town. This fit with the navel gazey feel of the book, but I still felt a bit lied to as a reader. If I see an alien spacecraft on the cover, I want actually aliens, dammit. Don’t give me that huge tease, then only serve up misdirection. It was disappointing, rather than surprising. That was the point at which my three star review dropped down to two, since I felt it was kind of a betrayal of the audience.
So this is a sad pass for me, despite some fun moments throughout.
I feel a bit like Jenna Marbles right now. “We-put-out-new-videos-every-Wednesday-slash-Thursday-SUBSCRIBE!!!!” Sometimes life happens, and you run a little late. This week it was health stuff… But I’m here now and ready to rumble. 🙂
So this week I returned yet again to Tor.com to check out their original fiction. I was intrigued by this story by Lavie Tidhar, since I have a passion for and academic background relating to the Chinese language and culture, so “Yiwu” it was. You can read the short story here…
I liked this story… okay. I appreciated the focus on environmental details in the story, but there were just so many of them that it gave an overall jumbled effect.
The air smelled of hot leather, shoe polish, fried garlic, knockoff Chanel No. 5 perfume, uncollected garbage, frangipani and the recycled air blown out of a thousand air conditioners.
Used a bit more sparingly and with greater care, these details could have done a great job setting the scene (I’m thinking specifically of Haruki Murakami, who’s an expert at this sort of thing), but here the narrative felt cluttered by details that gave the impression they were only there to grant exotic flair.
The sparse plot, too, I was only halfway invested in. Once we got to Esham visiting the lottery office, I was getting a bit excited, since it seemed like we were going to get a chance to peek at the wizard behind the curtain. I was definitely wondering if everything thus far was some sort of virtual reality… and maybe it is? But the author shields us from garnering any further truths, which just left me a bit frustrated. I wanted more of a concrete look at the realities of this mysterious world, but the simple ending just left me a bit annoyed. So I’ll give this three stars for some nice imagery and the tantalizing feeling of being just about to see the cogs that are making this world tick… But overall I just wanted more substance.
Again this week I returned to Tor.com to peruse their short fiction, and boy am I glad I did. No need to mince words here—this story was fantastic from start to finish, and eeeee, this author has an entire trilogy out as well as more short fiction, and wow wow wow wow wow, did I love this. (Also, can we take a second to appreciate the excellent artwork that accompanies each Tor story? Maybe there’s something to be said about a lack of a book cover being one reason why many readers overlook short fiction.) You can read the short story here…
So everything about this story is great—I have literally zero complaints. (Hell must be freezing over, huh?) The language was perfect: appropriately poetic when it needed to be, sometimes experimental, sometimes matter-of-fact. Plot-wise, we’re thrown into a near-futuristic world much like our own but with witches and spirits, etc. (Sidenote that all these ghouls and ghosties seem to have only existed for twenty years, and I want to know moooooooore in the best way possible. Can we get some longer fiction set in this world? Pretty please?) Yang’s voice keeps us feeling grounded without relying on an info-dump slog, and the main character right away feels like someone we can root for. And our MC has a problem—she’s woken up and every mirrored surface shows not her reflection, but instead a dude she’s aptly named Mirror Boy. She used to see Mirror Boy back in the day as well, but then he went away as her life became more stable. Now he’s back, with some pretty bad news: a serial killer is on the hunt for the MC, ready to make her his latest victim.
Also there’s some very cool ocean-based mythology woven throughout.
Does this seem like a lot for a short story? Don’t worry, I promise that everything wraps up at the end beautifully. Please, read this, then join me in feeling that achey, oh no it’s over feeling. Misery loves company.
The first in this science-fantasy series, The Queen’s Wing, is the best book I’ve read this year hands down, so suffice it to say that I was beyond excited to read The Stone’s Heart and bought it the day of release. The Stone’s Heart picks up pretty much exactly after the last book ended and introduces Petra, Bel’s bodyguard, as a new POV; the book shifts between their POVs throughout. It took me a little while to feel fully immersed in the book, but that was really a me-thing instead of a book-thing—sometimes you’re just not in that SFF mood, you know? But things clicked for me about a quarter of the way in, and I was fully along for the ride.
Thorne crafts great characters and excellent plots, with world building that’s just the perfect ratio of science fiction to fantasy. As I think I said in my review of the first in the series, whoever is doing the marketing for this series is picking the wrong comps (Sarah J. Maas and The Selection). I think a wayyyyy better comparison is the Lunar Chronicles series if it were aimed at slightly older readers. And can we talk about that last bit? Because this series is not YA; I don’t care what the marketing and the cover indicate. Yeah, it’s written in a YA-ish voice that’s going to appeal to YA fans, but these characters are too old for that designation, sorry. I get it, that’s where the money’s at, but… can we try the New Adult thing again? Pretty please? Because a couple books I’ve read this year fit super well in that category, and I just wish traditional publishing and bookstores would acknowledge that we can make this a thing if we all just take a trust fall together.
I really enjoyed the new POV; these characters are full-fledged, with their own hopes, dreams, and back stories. If you are a fan of courtly (and interplanetary!) intrigue, definitely pick this series up, since there are a ton of twists, turns, and back stabbings. Thorne is really skilled at writing plot twists that truly come from left field but feel absolutely plausible. There’s no listed third book on Goodreads, but I’m praying that the author has one in the works, since I’m on board for this series for the long haul—hoping it’s not a trilogy, so we can get more, more, more! And in the meantime, I might take a look at her back list, since she also writes under Ruth Frances Long and R. F. Long.