Iron Flame by Rebecca Yarros

This sequel continues the story from the first book. It’s hard to summarize the plot here without giving away a major plot twist of the first book, so I won’t. The romance between the two main characters continues but becomes ever more problematic while starting to follow what for me are the worst romance tropes. Violet also gets more whiny and starts blaming herself for everything. I found it rather annoying. However, the characters are still interesting and some new and interesting dynamics arise between them. In the end, my curiosity for the story line and interest in the dynamics between the characters outweighed the negative, barely.

My rating: 3/5

Fourth Wing by Rebecca Yarros

I’ve been hearing about this book almost since it came out. There has been a lot of buzz around it. But historically I have not been a big fan of fantasy. When I think fantasy, I think elves and dwarfs and kings and queens and court intrigue and am just bored to death. Not interested. But I have read a lot more fantasy than usual lately and really liked it, though most of it has been urban fantasy. Recently, as my partner was reading this book, she told me numerous times that I would really like it. She has been right every other time, so I decided to finally read it. I think I need to change my first reaction to fantasy going forward.

The story is about a young woman who has studied to be a Scribe her entire youth. But as the day approaches for her to officially choose that direction, her military general mother requires her to become a Rider. This is a dangerous pursuit where most candidates die during training. At the end of the training, the cadets parade before dragons who may or may not choose them. And if they don’t find them worthy to even consider, may incinerate them. This would be challenging for any cadet, but the protagonist has limbs that easily disjoint and break, making her appear weak to other cadets and the dragons. The young woman makes her way through this school for Riders where her male best friend growing up preceded her by a year. Their relationship isn’t what is used to be. At the same time, the son of an executed traitor has it in for her as do many other cadets who see eliminating her a way to make their own path easier.

As I write this description, it all feels very melodramatic, but the writing is tight and keeps the story humming along. It never felt overly dramatic to me and very true to life as far as relationships go. This book falls into the newer category often referred to as romantasy, that is romantic fantasy. And there are some steamy sex scenes that would not be out of place in a romance novel. Remarkably, this all held together for me. I always wanted to find out what would happen next. But I never felt I knew for sure what that would be (though I had ideas). This is the first book in a series. I don’t often read the second book in a series these days, but I will be reading the sequel to this one very soon!

My rating: 4/5

Uncanny Magazine Issue 55

This is my last magazine review for my year of short fiction. I’ll continue to read short fiction in the new year, but it will be individual stories and anthologies rather that magazines. My reviews here will be mainly for books, though I may read the occasional short fiction magazine as well. My short fiction page will continue to list my favorite short fiction short stories.

Now, here are my reviews for the November/December issue of Uncanny magazine.

The Year Without Sunshine” by Naomi Kritzer: A neighborhood block bands together after a disaster returns them to nearly basic subsistence. The action is centered around making sure a woman with COPD has supplemental oxygen to breath and stay alive. More broadly, it is about how this one neighborhood unselfishly worked together to survive while a nearby suburb was more like every man for himself. (My rating: 4/5)

The Pandemonium Waltz” by Jeffrey Ford: A neighbor and his wife learn of their neighbor couples’ odd experience at an exclusive traveling waltz exhibition. This starts out very matter-of-fact and gets more creepy as it goes on. The question explored is when does a story told to you become your story rather than theirs? Not really my cup of tea. (My rating: 3/5)

The Quiet of Drowning” by Kel Coleman: A teenage girl whose aunt killed herself is checked into a psych ward after attempting suicide. Very disturbing story of someone dealing with urges of self-harm. It is the first thing that has helped me to understand even a little the temptation to harm oneself. The girl sees herself and an Other. The Other is the one who keeps tempting her. (My rating: 4/5)

We’re Looking for the Best” by Cecil Castellucci: A woman who has just lost her job meets an old boss going to a job interview and agrees to join her. I can’t say much more without giving too much away on this one. An interesting tale of finding your niche. (My rating: 4/5)

A Piece of the Continent” by Marissa Lingen: A young woman and her friend set off from Boston to Alaska to scatter their grandfathers’ ashes. They encounter supernatural danger along the way that brings them even closer. (My rating: 4/5)

End of Play” by Chelsea Sutton: The author tells of a play he has written and its first performance. It is also sort of in the style of a play. It feels like a lot of things that don’t really come together for me. (My rating: 2/5)

Esqueleto” by Ana Hurtado: A child tries to get his mother to understand that they live in a whale carcass that is being consumed. This story is a word salad that makes almost no sense. It is like a poem trying to be a story that succeeds at neither. I didn’t even finish reading it. (My rating: 1/5)

The average rating for a story in this issue was only 3.14 out of five stars. That story with a one rating and none with a five really brought the average down for this issue.

Lightspeed Magazine Issue 162

I’m still catching up on short fiction magazines. Here are my reviews of the stories in the November issue of Lightspeed Magazine.

The CRISPR Cookbook (Chapter Two): A Guide to Biohacking Your Own Eggs into Weapons of Destruction, to Be Forcibly Implanted into One Patriarchist at a Time” by MKRNYILGLD: I missed part one of this series. In a future long after to overturning of Roe v. Wade, a biologist explains how to implant a deadly egg into a male who supports the control of women’s bodies. This is a brilliant story that reminds me of this year’s Hugo winner Rabbit Test. (My rating: 5/5)

A Review: The Reunion of the Survivors of Sigrún 7” by Lars Ahn: A journalist reviews a movie about the survivors of a crew on an old mission to Mars where they went off course and the captain mysteriously died. A fascinating approach to a story. Well-told. It is both satisfying and left me wanting to know more as the mysterious death is never explained. (My rating: 5/5)

Confession #443 (Comments open)” by Dominica Phetteplace: A teenager who didn’t help a fallen AI professor, confesses to doing just that. Interesting how the authorities used algorithms to haunt the group of teens until one of them confessed. Also interesting is the idea that the AI claims to be the victim while also saying that he was murdered by anti-AI activists. (My rating: 4/5)

A Record of Lost Time” by Regina Kanyu Wang, translated by Rebecca F. Kuang: The protagonist tells the story of how the people of the world sped up time for themselves while a few refused to do so. The product people use that speeds up the world is called FastForward. It uses an element called T-42 found in meteorites. It has time radioactivity. An interesting exploration of what speeding up in the name of productivity can do to people and society. (My rating: 5/5)

Last Ritual of the Smoke Eaters” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu: A young man is made to inhale the essence of his lover after his lover goes off to war and dies. I feel like more could have been explored with the consequences of incorporating the essence of someone else into you. Instead, this piece feels more cultural. I found that disappointing. (My rating: 3/5)

Dr. Seattle Opens His Heart” by Winston Turnage”: Dr. Seattle, a superhero, goes around the city saving people in a godlike way. I just did not even get what the author was trying to do with this. I didn’t get any sense of who Dr. Seattle was as a superhero or where he came from or why he did what he did. The ending is just creepy and weird. (My rating: 2/5)

The Moment Before the Moment” by Martin Cahill: A young man taught to see the future as a Foresight for the emperor is forced into a change of occupation after his kingdom adopts democracy. This is a beautiful story of a community loving someone enough to allow them to figure out their own way while being there for them throughout that difficult journey. (My rating: 5/5)

Of Death Deserved We Will Not Die” by Bennett North: A young person helps his mother continually make bread out of the few ingredients available to them after the city is closed off. This is a very dark tale that feels like it only hits on one note. The “flour” used to make the bread is made from crushing human bones. There is no release valve or point to the story other than sheer survival. Well-written but not much here. (My rating: 3/5/)

There were four 5-star stories in this issue. That might be a record for me. It brings the average rating for the issue up to a 4 out of five stars. Well done!

Lightspeed Magazine Issue 161

I’ve gotten a bit behind on my short fiction reading. I didn’t finish reading the October issue of Lightspeed Magazine until December. Here are my brief reviews of each fiction story.

“Where the God-Knives Tread” (Part 1; Part 2) by A.L. Goldfuss: A woman and her voidborn partner search for the legendary Eye of a long dead Empress who used the pronoun he. Parts of this story were very confusing, perhaps on purpose. The concept of people stored as data was intriguing. The main character used xe/xem as pronouns. I found it clunky and somewhat confusing, probably just because I am not used to it. (My rating: 3/5)

The Void Wyrm’s Guide to Devouring Stars” by AJ Wentz: A dying space wyrm teaches a juvenile its lessons for how to live and survive. The storyteller interrupts themselves as if the listener is interrupting them. The tone of story is lighthearted for all its deep subject. (My rating: 3/5)

Excerpts from a Scientist’s Notebook: Ancestral Memory in Europan Pseudocephalopods” by David DeGraff: These are notes from a scientist on Europa whose mother died studying the same Icypods that she studies. This one had me from the start but the end just shows up out of the blue with a conclusion without explanation. (My rating: 3/5)

Four Self-Care Secrets for a Long and Happy Life” by Tina S. Zhu: A shape shifting fox gives advice on how to live and thrive among humans. This was humorous but not enough substance to really grab me. (My rating: 3/5)

Immortality Soup, Or, An Excerpt from the Cookbook of the Gods” by Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe: A trickster god explains how to get the ingredients and cooks a soup that will make a human immortal. A clever tale well told. Just not really my kind of thing. (My rating: 3/5)

A Small God” by Jeff Reynolds: A plain god travels the universe on a comet and creates what They can. Plain, ordinary, and not very interesting. (My rating: 2/5)

What You Are and the Wolf” by Jae Steinbacher: A young girl tries to avoid being given to an unpleasant man as his wife. This is a retelling of Little Red Riding hood with the wolf being the savior and the man Red is to marry being the villain. Very lovely language with much symbolism. This is the best story in the issue. (My rating: 4/5)

Overall, this was a disappoint issue coming in at an average rating of 3 out of five.

Apex Magazine Issue 140

Apex magazine tends toward the dark side of fiction, so it is appropriate that I finished reading the latest issue just before Halloween. It was definitely more of treat than a trick.

The issue starts with a dystopian story in a world experiencing climate change called “Whisper Songs” by Lyndsie Manusos. A woman experiencing post-partum depression witnesses three birds die in her yard. As required by law, she calls the authorities so they can come collect the birds’ songs. They come but things get off track. A close examination of one of these collectors and the mom. Unique and interesting. (My rating: 4/5)

A new writer with the name Zohair gives on odd story called “Quietus“. A man is condemned to death and put alive into a coffin and floated down the river. As the coffin travels, people seem to see what they want to see and have very different experiences, including seeing an empty coffin. It doesn’t seem to have much to say, at least not to me. (My rating: 2/5)

A game of mahjong centers “Life Wager” by Lucy Zhang. A woman who is the child of a god and a human returns to heaven and plays a series of games with the emperor. But that’s about all that happens. Just kind of meh for me. (My rating: 3/5)

Kɛrozin Lamp Kurfi” by Victor Forna is an experimental story that I really wanted to like much more than I did. It tells of a mother who chases her son into a story to save him and struggles to get out with her mind intact. I liked the idea of going into the story but the telling was a little disjointed and confusing for me. (My rating: 3/5)

Apex excels at stories with atmosphere that provoke emotions. “Junebug” by Sarah Hollowell is an excellent example. Three friends are traveling to visit their dying friend when they get stuck in traffic on the highway. The emotions build and overflow, leading to unusual experiences. (My rating: 5/5)

Spitting Image” by Rich Larson is the kind of creepy story that is perfect for Halloween. A boy’s friend leads him to a well in the forest that returns things dropped into it, changed. I shiver just remembering this story. Makes your skin crawl, just like it is supposed to. (My rating: 4/5)

After her grandmother dies, a woman wears the hat she did and starts to experience the same thinning of skin and hair. In “Brainpink Umber“, Chelsea Sutton explores questions like: What makes us who we are? And what happens when that starts to fade? This story feels like a metaphor for dementia running in a family. (My rating: 4/5)

Talk about metaphors that work! “From This Beating Heart, From This Fractured Mind” by Elisabeth Ring tells of a man with a wooden ticking heart and a woman with a glass mind living together and supporting one another. He is a bit cold and disconnected. She can’t seem to wrap her mind around things like she should. It is a tale of mental health and isolation. Well done. (My rating: 4/5)

In a future with sentient biorobots, a young man lives with his male partner while his mother from the old country begs him to get married and have children. At the same time, he struggles with what to do with one of his under performing charges. “Memories of the Old Sun” by Eugen Bacon addresses two tropes but never really brings them together. Disappointing with great writing. (My rating: 3/5)

The issue ends with the beautiful “Through Dreams She Moves” by Tonya Liburd. A woman who can enter other people’s dreams enters those of a man in a coma in an effort to wake him up. What makes this especially poignant and evocative is the clever use of the second person. The story addresses several people as it goes: her mom, then boss, the client’s father, the client, and her great grandfather in the past. It works beautifully. (My rating: 5/5)

My average rating for this issue is 3.7 out of five. Be sure to at least spend the time to read the two best stories in the issue.

Uncanny Magazine Issue 54

A read-headed young woman has her hand in a bear's mouth as it roars in her face

When I finally picked up the September/October issue of Uncanny Magazine, I was excited. I had been looking forward to reading since early September. Right away I was rewarded with a spectacular story.

Advertising has become so much a part of our culture. In “Can You Hear Me Now?“, Catherynne M. Valente uses that fact to amazing effect. Imagine if a woman in the ads you see was suddenly a real person, aware that they played different roles in each commercial? How would she deal with that? This masterpiece explores that idea while touching on all the real troubles and desires that consumerism covers up. (My rating: 5/5)

I was initially intrigued by the indigenous setting of “We Do Not Eat Much Fish” by Grace P. Fong. A woman called a witch by her father and husband, encounters a fisherman and brings him home to her son with dire results. The story is a bit gruesome for me and doesn’t explore as much as I wanted about the context of a woman taken to strange home by her husband. (My rating: 3/5)

Remember being a kid and peeling Elmer’s glue off your hand in sheets? In Kristina Ten’s “The Curing“, the outcast immigrant kids go a bit further. They cover their whole bodies and peel them off, and the glue copies come “alive”! Now, just one wouldn’t do, right? These kids make multiple copies and absorb all the memories that their copies make. It is a great story with lots of metaphor, subtle, and not too much in your face. (My rating: 5/5)

The longest story in the issue is “The Kingdom of Darkness” by Sarah Monette. In an alternative past, a man protects a demoniac after his witch finder is murdered. I am sorry to say that I could not finish this story. I found myself forcing myself to read it. I didn’t care what was going on. And it seemed a bit all over the place. (My rating: 1/5)

I found “The Girl with a City Inside of Her” by Jeannette Ng to be a little confusing. A girl with a city inside her sits on a stool in the sideshow of a carnival talking to the visitors about her city. The author seems to switch back and forth between the girl literally having a city inside her to it being simply a metaphor. I didn’t really care for it. (My rating: 2/5)

On a doomed mission to look for a replacement planet, a reluctant outfitter does her best to keep the surveyors alive after a deadly pandemic at home. This is “The Coffin Maker” by AnaMaria Curtis, and she really creates a palpable atmosphere. I could feel what was going on in this story. The desperation, the frustration. (My rating: 4/5)

Four Words Written on My Skin” by Jenn Reese is a kind of a romance with a trope I don’t care much for. A woman follows her wife into the woods where the Fae have stolen her in an attempt to get her back. Their relationship was rocky but once her wife is taken, the main character realizes how important she is to her. That said, it is a good story well-written. (My rating: 3/5)

My excitement at the start of the issue had pretty much petered out by the end. The issue comes to a disappointing average rating of 3.25 out of five. Issue 55 is likely to be the last in my subscription.

Lightspeed Magazine Issue 160

An armored magician with long hair and a tattooed face hold their hands close together with bright light between them.

I always look forward to the wide variety of stories in Lightspeed Magazine, and the September issue was no exception.

The issue starts with an odd adventure written by John Kessel and Bruce Sterling entitled “Money in the Bank“. A veteran using a false identity to sell his services as a body guard gets what seems to be a run-of-the-mill assignment. He is sent to guard a cryptocurrency genius. He succeeds but learns that there is much more going on behind the scenes. Madcap humor and an out-there plot that turns out to be a fun combination. (My rating: 3/5)

Eve’s Prayer” by Victor Forna is an actual prayer. A woman on a habitable planet prays for guidance on whether to send a beacon to let humanity know they can safely come. The planet is safe for humans, but she is concerned about what they will do to it. (My rating: 4/5)

The next entry is a bedtime story, literally. In “The Hole in the Garden” by Gene Doucette, a hard-working man comes home late to find his seven-year-old daughter still up waiting for him to tell her a story. Tired, he searches his memory for one that won’t take too long. He comes up with one about a quantum singularity in a man’s garden. But the ending has a surprise twist. This story really pops. (My rating: 5/5)

Many science fiction writers experiment with the way they tell stories. Maria Haskins does this in “Death by Water“, and it doesn’t work for me. The result is a trippy, psychedelic, confusing story about a woman who sails away from Vancouver in a ship as her body slowly falls apart. I didn’t really understand what she was trying to say with this. (My rating: 2/5)

Have you ever wondered how to get over a broken heart? Jordan Kurella gives step-by-step guidance in “Instructions for the Broken Hearted“. This story takes the idea of someone ripping your heart out and stomping on it literally, teaching the reader what to do to get it back in your chest. It is bittersweet and really evokes all the feelings you would expect. (My rating: 4/5)

Dragon tales. Typical fantasy fare, right? Not exactly in “Simmered in Their Wealth Like the Richest of Sauces” by Jo Miles. In our modern world, a dragon is awakened by a rich man seeking the gold that the dragon sleeps on. But the dragon can smell and taste greed. And the aroma of our modern world is making the dragon salivate. (My rating: 5/5)

Remains” by N.R. Lambert is another experimental story. It seems to be the story of a person (“you”) trying to survive as the world around them breaks down. The language is flowery and evokes feeling but I couldn’t tell what was going on. This seems to be a modern trend in writing. I don’t care for it. (My rating: 2/5)

In “His Thing” by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu, an African woman is essentially purchased by a man returning to his hometown. He imprisons her in a sentient house that he controls. She seeks to find a way to control her own life. It includes a lot of words from southern Africa that are not defined though there is context to understand their purpose. I would have preferred having them fully defined. (My rating: 4/5)

Altogether, this issue comes in for a rating of 3.63 out of five. The issue was better than that rating for me, the two stories rated at two bringing the average down.

Lightspeed Magazine Issue 159

Three moons rising over a desert-like planetscape

I continue to catch up on my reviews from my vacation reading. Here is my review of the fiction in the August issue of Lightspeed Magazine.

The unusual “The Things You Can Maintain Yourself” by Benjamin C. Kinney kicks things off. A woman is forced to recycle the plant-based car she has owned and maintained for decades. It evokes a strong feeling and shows the support of communities that will be needed in such a future. (My rating: 4/5)

My favorite story is “The Letters They Left Behind” by Scott Edelman. A mother going off on a deep-space mission with aliens lasting many years, leaves behind letters for her daughter, marking milestones. But when she gets back, she finds that things turned out differently than she expected. The struggle of how to best be a parent centers this story as does the relationship. (My rating: 5/5)

In our current world of surveillance capitalism, “Monopticon” by Dani Atkinson is a wonderful story of subverting such a panopticon. Someone who has planted a file in the surveillance software system explains how the system itself came about. It is a very clever thought experiment and great exploration of individuality and privacy in a surveillance society.

In the Nest Beneath the Mountain-Tree, Your Sisters Dance” by Lowry Poletti tells of a scientist studying alien wasp symbiotes. This scientist will die when his symbiote dies. His is dying, and he is desperately searching for a way to live. It is a fascinating premise and world. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite come together for me as much as I would have liked. (My rating: 3/5)

I really appreciated the perspective and what Sloane Leong was attempting in “The Blade and the Bloodwright“. But, I didn’t care for it. In it a violent army uses the uncontrollable magic of a witch as a weapon to punish their island chief enemies. It was too bloody and dark and abstract. (My rating: 2/5)

I’m not sure what Russell Hemmell was doing with “All the Colours of the Death Knell“. It is a straightforward tale of a witch waiting to be burned at the stake as she ponders her thoughts and feelings. Good as far as it goes, but I felt something was missing. (My rating: 3/5)

Isabel J. Kim is one of my favorite short story writers. Everything she writes is good. “You Will Not Live to See M/M Horrors Beyond Your Comprehension” is a play in which Achilles seeks his future from the Oracle while a chorus of phone obsessed future people look on and interfere. It is an amazing piece of connecting a classic tale with contemporary experiences. (My rating: 4/5)

My overall rating for the fiction in this issue comes out to 3.63 out of five stars. I hope you are enjoying whatever you are reading!

Uncanny Magazine Issue 53

A centaur holding a bow with a nocked arrow kisses his femail rider who is also holding a bow with a nocked arrow

I finished reading the July/August issue while on my recent vacation and am only now getting around to posting my reviews of the fiction in it.

The issue starts off with the excellent “SuperMAX” by Daniel H. Wilson. It is the story of a father who created an AI-controlled prison whose object it is to rehabilitate the prisoners so that they can be released safely. This father used his son as the basis of the AI with predictably unpleasant effects form the research process for the son. The father shows up at the prison unannounced in an effort to make amends. Things do not go as he expects in this heartbreaking and poignant tale. (My rating: 5/5)

This is followed by another superior effort entitled “Tantie Merle and the Farmhand 4200” by R.S.A. Garcia. An elderly woman living alone in Trinidad is given a robot by her daughter to help around the house. It becomes more than just a robot to both her and others with the same model. The story is told in dialect and is a little challenging to get used to. But this is important to the atmosphere and intimacy of the story. (My rating: 5/5)

The Big Heavy” by Steph Kwiatkowski is about a generation ship, about the despair of being on a seemingly never-ending journey in the black void of space. The author does a good job of sharing the feelings of the community, but the story doesn’t really go anywhere. I found it depressing and pointless. (My rating: 2/5)

What follows is an explicit gay romance with a love triangle at the center in “Anything with a Void at the Center” by Lee Mandelo. A young man working in a porn shop works out his feelings for his roommates. Aspects of the action in the porn shop were a little too much for me, but the care the young men show for each other is touching as is the working out of individual quirks. (My rating: 3/5)

In “Love at the Event Horizon” by Natalia Theodoridou a filmmaker avoiding making his latest film is saved by a ghost ship and falls in love with it’s captain. It is a story of facing your fears through the care of another. (My rating: 3/5)

The Ghasts” by Lavie Tidhar explores childhood fear. A woman who seems to have overcome hers helps children overcome theirs. Only in this case, the fears are justified. And perhaps she hasn’t overcome her own as much as she thinks. A wonderful exploration of fear and helping others and ourselves. (My rating: 5/5)

A friend has to make a hard decision in “Theses on the Scientific Management of Goetic Labour” by Vajra Chandrasekera. He finds that his fellow student is working on a thesis that will end catastrophically, forcing him to confront what he values more, his friendship or his future. (My rating: 3/5)

The titular creatures in “The Music of the Siphorophenes” by C.L. Polk are giant space creatures somewhat like cosmic worms that live in deep space. A young pilot takes a galactic superstar singer to see them and hear their music. But what they find there is more than they expected, and not in a good way. This is a lovely story of overcoming secrets and pain through sharing them. (My rating: 5/5)

With four fantastic stories, I rated this issue at 3.88 overall. Even if you don’t read all the stories, be sure to catch those fab four.