Anthology time! Curated by Thea James for Tor.com and written by diverse, award winning voices, this collection of short stories is nothing short a work of art,.
This collection is excellent, the fine dining multi-course of science fiction and fantasy a good date with a great imagination would take you to. Even the weakest of the stories (I’m not telling which one that was), lends something to the tableau that makes the whole a joy to take in at once. All the stories are short enough to consume on a break or between tasks, and I’m sure whenever it is you finish the last one, it’ll be with that familiar feeling of loss that accompanies finishing a great book. The stories are all unexpected, sometimes disturbing, mostly mysterious and all so wickedly smart I kept repeating “wow” under my breath.
The best thing about these stories is that they capture my favourite part of fantasy and science fiction: where the magical or fantastic is mundane and almost part of the background, right up till the minute it’s not. Fans of authors like Sarah Addison Allen, Nnedi Okorafor and Sherri S Tepper – all skilled at presenting the magical not as anomalies, but as natural as grass or delightful as a sunny day – will really enjoy the short stories here.
MOOD RATING: The Tor.com compilation article does a good job of explaining a bit of each plot before each story, but honestly the best way to read each is to just go in blind and be surprised at what you find inside. Happy reading!
Delight, AKA Zizi Guru, is a fan of films that go bump in the night. Find her snarking on Twitter @Izeze
February is the month of love, right? Wrong. Get your fear on with these four shorts from horror anthology XX, available on Netflix for chill, or DVD if you’re into that.
Why do I love horror shorts?
The format allows us to get straight into the heart of the matter without the distractions of too much character building (I really don’t care about your yin yang relationship with your mysterious twin Gertrude, I just want to see you scream and lose your mind from being haunted by a little Japanese poltergeist) or any of the other fluff and padding they apply to full length horrors these days. (I’m judging you, endless American remakes)
Featuring stories created by women, XX presents some less-explored recurring themes: motherhood, sisterhood, and the female gaze. The first story, by far my favourite, is called The Box, and is based on the short story by the same name by Jack Ketchum. In this story, the focus is on the mother, an affluent white woman with the perfect little family of boy, girl and husband, who slowly starts to lose them one by one because of a mysterious box her son looks into whilst on the subway one day.
The family share a secret that they keep from her, and her role as mother is first eroded by each member’s continued resistance to eat, and then to include her on the mysterious malady affecting them. In the end she is left alone, without the things and people she used to define herself, desperately searching for the man with the box so that she too, can find her end. It’s haunting, disturbing and a perfect modern existential question: who are we as women, without those we were trained to serve and bring up?
The second story, The Birthday Party, attempts to lighten the mood with the funny but macabre story of a mother desperate to give her little girl the Instagram-worthy, Pinterest-inspired party of her dreams. There is only one problem: a man, implied to be mom’s lover and/or the father of the girl has quietly died whilst at his desk in their home. Hilarity ensues in the most horrible way as the hapless mother tries to cover it up but ends up traumatising the birthday girl and every other child in attendance, for life.
The most visually and atmospherically scary short follows, Don’t Fall, which centres on a sister out on a camping and climbing trip with her brother and some friends. She’s the most sensible and fearful of the group: the first to nope it out of there when the ubiquitous mysterious cave drawings are found; and – [redacted]. Watch and decide yourself what you think.
The whole film is brought full circle with the same theme we first encountered: a box, in the sad and unsettling Her Only Living Son. What to do as a doting and devoted single mother when you begin to suspect something is very wrong with your child? What about when everyone insists it’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be? What about when you find a box in your son’s closet that confirms everything and more? Can a mother’s love change a monster, or does love remain steadfast no matter what her child has become?
MOOD RATING:A solid, if slightly too serious, and limited anthology. I do love the change that the female gaze gives to even that most cliché horror settings, and I definitely will aim to look for more. Hopefully with more storylines outside of sad mothers and desperate image-focused women. But hey, baby steps are how we all began.
Delight, AKA Zizi Guru, is a fan of films that go bump in the night. Find her snarking on Twitter @Izeze
Once, the earth opened up and sighed. Long and low, his sigh rolled across the air until it reached the cosmos. In the cosmos it wisped and faded, became an echo which continued the journey – for nothing truly stops in the realms of the gods. Earth’s deities heard both the sigh and its echo, others only the echo. Still it moved and changed and lived. Still gods listened as it passed and wondered – what does it mean?
So they made their way to earth. One by one, and pantheon by pantheon. They came to hear and see and taste. Settling above the earth, they blinked into view – tiny lights, perched and curious. Pantheon constellations; proud and singular burning things. So they made the sky. They looked down at the earth and he looked up at them.
Who are you? What do you want? What was that sound you made? All of these are questions that the gods could have asked. But they are, by their nature, proud beings. So they sat and waited for an explanation to come. And still, they sit. What are a few millennia of waiting to the ageless, after all?
Since then, the earth has not sighed again, because what he once lamented, he now has. A hundred thousand admirers, and amongst them, hopefully – several dozen friends.
SACRED – a legacy
My mother had a jewel. Quite a worthless one, in the estimation of any competent jeweler. Old, certainly, but not worth the time it’d take to polish for sale. It was a beautiful, murky red. In the light, it shone alternately brilliant at one angle then absorbed light and refused to reflect the next. When I left home, she gave me this jewel and told me to always keep it close. I asked why, and she said I would know when I needed to know.
Because asking one’s mother if that’s her best impression of a psychic hack is poor form and also counter-productive to continued living, I took the worthless thing. When I settled, I put it in my jewelry box and over the years when I missed home, I held that stone and felt comforted. Then came the call – your mother is ill.
So I went home, sure that this was goodbye and determined to smile with her just one more time. Death was camped outside her door, I could feel it as I entered. My mother was never a frail woman, but whatever illness was determined to take her had turned the shoulders which bore the weight of the world and of my wayward ways, and turned them into brittle things. Like too vigorous a hug would end it all – that was how she looked.
“Do you have it?”
Why I brought that worthless jewel with me, I cannot say. But I had. and I handed it to my mother. She smiled, and the effort shook the musculature of her cheeks.
“Come back tomorrow, I must rest.”
“But I just got here. I have so much to tell you…”
She was, as ever, uncompromising. So I left, and hugged my father, and cried with my sister. And drank with my brother. Not in the house, of course. In the yard. Sleep took me in the small hours just before dawn. And when I woke I went to my mother. Because the sun was up and that meant that it was tomorrow.
The jewel sat on the made-up bed, reflecting strangely brilliant light. My mother sat at her dresser, running a large-toothed comb through her hair and humming. Shocking, I know.
To this day, I don’t know what that jewel is, or what it did. My mother never explained, because what is sacred need not be named.
As NaNoWriMo gets underway, I’ve finally completed my Inktober work! So I’ll be releasing the rest of these shorts whilst I work on (hopefully) something approaching a cohesive novella for December. Stick with me, I’m trying!
NATION – a concept
Wandering is a kind of peace, to be sure. An open world, full of people to know and to love and to miss in fond memories when others’ cadence, others’ smiles capture one’s attention. Wandering is a practice of solitude.
But even the nomad came from somewhere – a land which called them mine. A land where the slant of noses and the colour of eyes was a mirror. Even the nomad, in solitude, was once a native, in plurality. And sometimes, when the nomad lays down their head to sleep in a place which almost feels like home, they can hear the whisper of their origin, asking when they’ll come home?
DISGUISE – a comfort
His body felt heavy. Not in the way a body does when you eat too much then struggle to move, but in the way that you do when you’ve been outside of yourself for too long and you must relearn what it’s like within flesh. He lifted his arm, or thought he did, because when he relaxed his muscles there was to tell-tale dull thud of meat hitting concrete. And he was, as far as he could tell, lying on a concrete floor.
Remember that you are youtself. You are simply… also somebody else.
Right. Himself. As he remembered to know that he existed, this body he had taken began to obey instruction. Breathe in – cough and wretch, because the lungs have forgotten the rhythm of staying alive. Stretch the toes, then work the ankles… work your way through the joints. The process is long. Longer if you try to be a hero and get up too soon.
A hero he was not. Just a soldier who’d signed up to do some terrible things in service of a glorious end. Much like… whoever he’d landed up in. As the body which used to belong to somebody else gave over control to his mind, he rose from his incredibly uncomfortable position on the floor. Why couldn’t he land when the host was sitting down? Or sleeping on a bed? Why always this kind of undignified entrance… this time apparently after a long night of alcoholic over-indulgence.
His head was killing him, but still he moved through the empty apartment to find a bathroom. Flicking the lights on he regarded his newest disguise. Nothing to write home about, which was good, but disappointing. People liked attractive people, they gave them liberties. But they also remembered them.
Never snatch the pretty ones.
Well, he’d certainly followed that rule. Familiarising himself with his identity for the foreseeable future, the snatcher idly wondered what it would be like to be back in his own body again. Would his limbs remember the way of him? Would he smile like he used to? Or would he carry the tics and habits of his disguises back into himself and remain a stranger until he died?
After a long dry spell, I’ve decided to dip my toe back into some creative writing. And how fortuitous, it’s Inktober! The good folks over at Kugali Media have been kind enough to come up with prompts for those of us on the Mother Continent who need a little inspiration. So, for this month’s Sunday installations, I’ll be using selected prompts for the week and trying to bring them to life!
ANCIENT – a poem
“Do you think about us?” whispers the grave
A question and indictment;
a truth which burns – for I do not
In quiet times, perhaps I hear
In dark of sleep, perhaps I see
There is so little thought, given to these
Truths of the soul and soil
Yet from them we are born and live
Back to them our breath we’ll give
FAVOURITE FOOD – a memory
I remember less of the taste, or the smell, than I do of the
feeling. Warm, and full. Sated and smiling after a heavy meal of sadza and more
beef, tomato, onion and veggie stew than someone my size should have been able
to ingest – these were good times. Food brought out the best of us. On a full
stomach my father was hilarious, my mother magnanimous and my siblings happy. I
was content, after a fashion.
But things change, don’t they? Sometimes over long periods
of time – a young man with ambitions and dreams wakes up one day burdened by
the ghosts of the man he should be. A young woman with hopes and goals wakes up
one day to realise that she lives in a gilded cage. Other times change is fast.
Night to day. The best in us sleeps and neglects to wake the next morning and
we are once again tip-toeing through a maze of triggers and pain.
Then the day fades and the night comes, and once again the
best of us wakes. We sit around the table, we eat and we breathe. Then my
father makes a joke and we laugh, my mother pours wine and my siblings smile.
Today, I made my favourite food. I sat at my table, and I brought out the best in myself.
A God has died, and it’s up to Tara, first-year associate in the international necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrecht, and Ao, to bring Him back to life before His city falls apart.
Her client is Kos, recently deceased fire god of the city of Alt Coulumb. Without Him, the metropolis’s steam generators will shut down, its trains will cease running, and its four million citizens will riot. Tara’s job: resurrect Kos before chaos sets in. Her only help is Abelard, a chain-smoking priest of the dead God, who’s having an understandable crisis of faith.
But when the duo discover that Kos was murdered, they have to make a case in Alt Coulumb’s courts—and their quest for truth endangers their partnership, their lives, and the city’s slim hope of survival.
I came across Three Parts Dead a few weeks ago when I searched for something along the lines of “What to read if you’re in The Broken Earth withdrawal”. Google, being all-knowing as it is, spat out several interesting suggestions, and I couldn’t help but click on the link that mentioned lawyers riding lightning bolts and resurrecting gods (because… really?!). Falling somewhere in the general realm of urban fantasy territory, the debut novel in The Craft Sequence series seemed like a book that might just wow me, so I bought it and got stuck in.
Friends – you need to read it.
As the first published entry (but not chronologically the first story in the series) this book packs in a lot of information about its setting, and manages to never once fall into the trap of info-dumping. From the first scene, where our heroine is literally thrown out of a flying building into a desert, to our introduction to gods and how they work, Three Parts Dead simply keeps it moving along, trusting the reader to understand and sort the information being given. Gladstone manages to straddle the line between informing and badgering his reader through effective use of dialogue, and character perspectives. What the priest knows, our novice Craftswoman Tara Abernathy does not – so he explains. What Tara knows, priest-technician Abelard does not – so she explains. And in this way you’re introduced to a brilliant new world of weird.
No matter what genre you’re writing in, making your characters believable is no walk in the park. They may all exist as fully fleshed out beings in your mind as the writer, but getting that across to the reader without overwhelming them… well.
But just as with his world-building, Max Gladstone works to deliver a main and supporting cast of characters who are their own people (and gods, and entities in between). Their motivations are entirely their own, and he builds his story around them. So when we get to the conclusion of our caper, and all is revealed (wow, are there some revelations going on) you sit there and think… ‘oh yeah, that makes perfect sense, actually. Of course these folks would do that!’
For much of the story, I was happy to sit back and coast along on the tide of excellent storytelling. Then I’d stop and think… ‘hold on. That’s odd. I could have sworn… oh. OH.’
And really… that’s the best kind of storytelling. Read this book!
Honourable Mention: Describing Diverse Characters
There is a certain fear that one feels when one sees the kind of beautiful cover art that Three Parts Dead has. Immediate memories of fumbling attempts in creative writing classes where people described Black hair as everything from ‘wiry’ to ‘ coiled like tiny snakes’ (true story) only to see the picture they were trying to paint and think… Am I being Punk’d?! I’m not even going to go into all the things that I’ve read and heard any skin tone darker than an eggshell be compared to. Let’s just say “like fresh mud” is on the better end.
So how excellent was it to get to the end of this book and realise that I’d been given, through narration, self-description and character perspectives an image of what each character looked like and not once cringed? Very excellent, I tell you. Which is no small part of why I’ve decided to read the whole Craft Sequence. So, kudos for not being cringe to Mr. Gladstone.
Mood Rating: First of all, read this book. Second of all, be wowed. Third of all, read the rest of the series. And drink water.
Linda, AKA TAGG herself, loves great music and terrible movies. Find her being boring on Twitter @ThatLFM
Scandroid is a self-titled, full length album released in November, 2016. A cyberpunk tale, this album follows its protagonist Red as he roams the streets of Old Tokyo for the elusive revolutionary sound which will gain him entry to Neo Tokyo – a flying behemoth in whose shadow the ruins of Old Tokyo lie. Accompanied by a suite of lyric videos that serve as visual aids as you delve into this cyberpunk dystopia, Scandroid is an album well worth experiencing. So, let’s begin!
The year is 2517, and we are in Old Tokyo. This synthwave track sets a steady pace, the strings a constant companion for the occasionally driving, occasionally frantic drumbeat. Older minds than mine note that the sound is reminiscent of the Blade Runner movie score (the original, not that other one) so I’m just going to roll with that assessment. By itself, 2517 puts you in mind of a relentless march towards something, and as an intro track, serves to bring you calmly into the storm that is the…
This is what we’re looking for in Old Tokyo. A dance-worthy rhythm carries Red’s story to our eardrums. Lyrically heavier than 2517 (which is not hard, to be honest), Salvation Code gives context to the listener. Red searches for the Salvation Code, whose transmissions, “coming from [Red’s] savior” are “analog and digital” – indicating that the end goal is to bring the two together. But who’s this savior? Why is there a divide? Is Red alone?
At least one of our questions is answered rather swiftly. Red is not alone in the streets of Old Tokyo. Aphelion, an android, also walks the “empty streets”, and the two seem to strike up a romance. The lyrics strike a sombre note, and the synth beat gives you the feeling of being swept up in an epic, if tragic love story. Aphelion being the point in the orbit of a planet, asteroid, or comet at which it is furthest from the sun, you can understand why we get such lyrics as “so far away from you, my winter has begun”. This song is half-ballad, half-dance track and leads smoothly into the rest of our journey.
This 80’s hit is surely one of the most recognisable songs in the world, and the cover fits perfectly in the theme of this album. Now that Red and Aphelion are on this journey – analog and digital – we start to hear more of the retro sounds of the 80’s (to which this album can easily be seen as an homage) which are integral to the Salvation Code. The song serves as an anthem, declaring that the current world order is something that we “can do without”. The Salvation Code will help Red and Aphelion usher in something else, and they are marching towards that future.
This instrumental track zooms in at breakneck pace, invoking images of our revolutionaries running through the streets, fleeing forces unknown, going towards a, you guessed it, destination unknown. The song alternates dizzy highs and vertigo inducing drops which simulate the kind of adrenaline rush one might experience whilst running for one’s life.
After this frantic chase, Connection offers us a different look at the situation in which Red and Aphelion find themselves. Themes of defecting, deactivating and stepping outside of the accepted parametres of human-machine relationships are dominant here. Red and Aphelion are essentially, well, engaging in some very taboo intimacy. The pair forsake perfection in favour of making connection, and the uptempo electric guitar in the chorus brings us along for the ride. The lyric video is a voyeuristic look at our singer playing an arcade driving game, overlaid with lyrics, sound waves and all sorts of grainy goodness as he tries to drive inside the lines. Make of that what you will.
In my opinion, the sexiest song on this album, Datastream seems to be a flashback to a past relationship. Whether this is Red or Aphelion’s reverie is a little unclear to me, but given that Red is our POV character, I’m going to say this is his memory. Which makes the lyrics very interesting, given that Red is most likely fully human. Synth, electric guitar and an ever-present drumbeat drive this song forward, pushing home the intensity of the lyrics and the sentiment behind them. The chorus speaks for itself:
Open yourself to me Prepare to entwine Breathing in binary Our systems aligned Searching for frequencies And scanning through time Both lost in the datastream That’s linking our minds
This song, another flashback, gives more insight into Red’s past. Through the lyrics, and the lyric video, we learn that Red’s previous lover is gone, replaced by a clone, and that whilst the streets of Old Tokyo are frequently referred to as being empty, they are, in fact, littered with drones and have other residents. Red, though human, is made of “blood, circuit and bone”, which may explain his quest to find a new path outside of binary thinking. At the end of the lyric video, we see Red and Aphelion meet for the first time. The song itself is frantic, putting you in mind of the kind of haphazard behaviour one might exhibit whilst listless due to loss.
Awakening with you
This is the origin story of how we came to have an Old and Neo Tokyo – the awakening of Atom 7k and EEV. Watch the lyric video because, well – the story is awesome.
Atom & E.E.V
A soulful instrumental, Atom & E.E.V gives you time to sit, hydrate, and think about what you’ve just listened to, learnt about and… yeah… enjoyed. I’ve got to say, by the time I arrived at this point in the album I was ready to call myself a retro synthwave fan and buy merch. Let this song mellow you into the oncoming conclusion of this concept album. Here, we get a glimpse into what the Salvation Code may sound like, as analogue instruments solo over heavy, pulsing digital instrumentation.
Perhaps symbolically, this video sees us enter the game we’ve so far only seen from the analogue world. In the lyric video Red is on a motorcycle, driving to… look, at this point I don’t know if the destination is still unknown. But all this time, we’ve been watching Red. And we get a look inside his head, where he’s thinking about Aphelion, and how, in the streets of Old Tokyo, they look up and dream of Neo-Tokyo, who’s shadow hovers above. Our lovers and dreamers are determined as ever to make it to their personal heaven, and the Salvation Code is the key.
Pro-bots & Robophobes
Whilst Datastream is the sexiest song on the album, Pro-bots & Robophobes stands out to me as the best track (we all have our opinions!). It captures the essence of this album in 4 minutes of story-telling, eerie and determined vocals with driving synth underpinning everything. The lyric video, with a totally different visual style to what we’ve seen before, offers us a glimpse into what the war which led to the divide between Old and Neo-Tokyo was like. Hint – it’s humans. We are the problem. Watch it below to get all the same feels as I did:
What is a concept album if not a mind-ensnaring tumble through the creator’s mind? Eden, which has an official video (yep, not a lyric video, a video video) pulls us firmly out of the digital world and into the analogue. And what a transition! Red (Scandroid’s Klayton – you may know him from Celldweller) wanders through “Eden”, where lyrics about an eternal where “I am yours and you are mine” are juxtaposed over a dead city. Presumably, this is Old Tokyo, through whose ruins he wanders, looking at old religious iconograpy, encountering a simple bot still running though its humans have long been gone. We’re looking at the fall-out of a war where two sides which worked hand-in-hand found themselves suddenly opposed – and destroyed Eden in their wake.
And so we reach the conclusion of our journey – without a lyric video to tell us what ever really happened. Singularity’s video brings us back into the arcade, but it’s a still image. So… Did Red finally make it to Neo-Tokyo only to discover it a barren “Eden”? Was the quest all for nought, as he wandered the brilliant streets whose vast foundation cast Old Tokyo into shadow? Where is Aphelion? Did Red starve to death (because there’s literally nothing edible in sight in Eden)? In the end, Scandroid leaves us with more questions than answers – which is fitting for a cyberpunk saga.
All in all, this was a solid album, displaying all the best parts of nostalgia whilst skipping over all the worst. Give it a listen if you’re looking to dip your toe into synthwave, cyberpunk, or retro music… or you just like concept albums.
Mood Rating: Enter the datastream, and get in touch with a world beyond the binary. Let Scandroid take you to a world where humans realised their potential as creators… then messed it all up. Because it’s so on brand.
Life just comes apart at the seams, sometimes, and DRTY DIANA is just what you need to remind you that you’re not alone. The web series centres on Nyaomi, a young woman who’s going through what we millennials like to describe as a lot.
Nyaomi is going through serious mid-twenties issues. She’s left her job, hasn’t found another one, and just can’t seem to get up the energy to deal with anything – not her friends, not her hookup, and definitely not the prospect of moving on. In fact, she’s so intent on not thinking about the future that she’s turned her home into a shrine to her glory days. Her walls are plastered with films and singers from her childhood. She rewatches her band’s old shows on YouTube and can’t let go of the things she wanted but never got. Somewhere through it all, there are moments of clarity and those moments feel both triumphant and crushing. Because, that’s what recognising your depression for what it is occasionally feels like.
DRTY DIANA presents a painful look at what the spiral of depression can do to you. Each episode explores a different topic. The beauty of this webshow is that it doesn’t present you with a character who’s clearly going anywhere (except down) and ask you to hold on through the storm so you can see the clear sky. It just shows you a woman. Going through it. That’s it, that’s the whole show. For those who’ve survived and are surviving depression, this show offers the kind of honest slice-of-life representation that I personally haven’t seen anywhere else. The fact that DRTY DIANA ended prematurely is only offset by the plus side that… I didn’t really want to see a resolution. Because life doesn’t often work that way, does it?
TAGG… Why should I watch this, tho?
Honestly… I don’t know. I first watched this show years ago when I was stuck in a serious pit and going through what’s been my worst period since. Nyaomi showed me that I really wasn’t the only person going through this. And also put a mirror up to me as the same time. Nyaomi has the perfect storm going on – unrealistic body expectations, friends with toxic positivity and friends who’re happy to just have someone to wallow with, a hope that outside change will spark inside change. And, of course, the dull, screaming inertia with which depression suffuses your body.
I’m not selling it well, but the ultimate takeaway is that DRTY DIANA helped me when I wasn’t even sure what I needed help with. And maybe it can help someone else.
Mood Rating: Watch this on a day you’re ready for your entertainment to challenge your reality. Or if you just want to watch some dark millennial stuff, man.
Akata Witch, the YA novel by Nnedi Okorafor is one of those books that isn’t just genre bending – it is genre redefining. And who better to narrate the audiobook than the enthralling Yetide Badaki? Read more