‘Fallow’ by Ashley Blooms

It’s rare to find a story as beautiful as it is bleak, with the ability to crack you apart in just the right way. I avoid tearjerker books and movies guaranteed to make you cry, yet I love stories that leave you feeling like you’ve been knifed in the lungs. ‘Fallow’ by Ashley Blooms, is one, and you can read it in the May 2017 issue of Shimmer.

fallow-ashley-blooms

William is a ten-year-old boy living in a trailer on the edge of a fallow field. The dictionary definition of ‘fallow’ refers to farmland that has been left unsown because it needs to recover or because it’s unneeded, but it also describes an inactive or unproductive period of time. Synonyms include ’empty’, ‘neglected’, ‘stagnant’, ‘depressed’. The story defines it as ‘a word for places where things don’t grow’, and William has never seen anything grow in the field, even though the drunken owner, Earl, ploughs it anyway.

In the first scene, William plays spin-the-bottle with his best friend Misty and her sister Penny, but, bizarrely, the bottle never points at any of them. The game was William’s idea, and it’s like the world itself is somehow rejecting his attempt at affection. The girls eventually go home to their trailer and for reasons he cannot articulate, William plants the bottle in the field:

He doesn’t have the words to describe how the field reminds him of himself. The dark shape of it, the earth torn up and left to cool in the dark, a little steam rising. How it feels like maybe the field needs something only William has, and all William has is the bottle.

The next morning a baffled crowd gathers around a tall, green, glass statue that has inexplicably sprouted in the same spot. For William – an impoverished child who has just likened himself to a field where nothing grows – it seems to be the only productive, interesting thing he’s ever done, and it’s like a stand-in for his personal growth and self-expression. Although few people pay attention to William, lots of people now pay attention to the field.

Misty says the bottle-statue looks pretty, and William insists it looks a bit like him. He continues to bury things in the field, developing an understanding for what grows and what doesn’t, so that he only makes the field an offering if he thinks it will give him something in return.

There’s something there, in that refusal to give without getting, and I had it in mind when he tries to act on the crush he has on Misty. Unfortunately, his only understanding of intimate relationships come from his mother and the various men she brings home, and what starts out as a cute, sweet kiss between ten-year-olds quickly turns ugly. (TW: this story features sexual abuse between children.)

Blooms handles this with such sensitivity and care that William manages to be simultaneously repugnant and empathetic. You can be repulsed by what he does but feel for him and understand him all at once, in his poverty, loneliness and longing. It helps a lot, I think, that he’s a child who doesn’t know what he’s doing but is making an effort anyway, and he’s got enough self-awareness to see his mistakes.

Here, for example, he scares me:

Misty said she would meet him. She promised. William waits until his hands get cold, and then he walks home, feeling tired and hungry and something else. Something like anger, only smaller and meaner.

But here, I feel sorry for him:

Misty hasn’t even seen all the things that he’s made for her. She hasn’t mentioned them, not even once. William’s vision blurs and he looks down at his own two feet.

I love the way Blooms uses evocative, recurring details throughout the story. I could pick them apart for ages, but that would spoil the story for so just consider, for now, the bottle in the opening paragraph:

The base of the bottle has a deep crack running through it that snakes along the length, almost all the way through. The crack raises up a little, just enough to tear their skin if they aren’t careful.

It’s the one they use to play spin-the-bottle, and it functions as a tool for William to start expressing his confused, premature sense of sexuality. The crack carries the subtle threat of hurt and blood, and its cutting edge is recalled, when William’s mother is introduced:

William lives with his mother, who is beautiful, and younger than any other mother William has ever met. Her name is Shannon. She has white-blond hair and a scar in the crook of her arm and even that is beautiful–in the way that it raises up from the rest of her skin, in the way that it curves, in the way that it never changes.

That sense of danger, damage and sexuality is significant, and heightened when you realise that William’s relationship with his mother is a bit worrying. She’ll come home drunk and dance with him, or crawl into his bed, her breath fever-hot against his neck as she tells him things she has no one else to tell to. When William kisses Misty, he ‘thinks of his mother and wonders if he is doing it right’. Which is not to say that his mother is a bad person – Blooms gives her enough character for us to understand that, like William, she seems to be trying her best in difficult circumstances. Shannon’s working all the time to care for herself and her son, and she goes on dates because, like most people, she wants a partner who loves her; who can hold that against her? She might be likened to a cracked glass bottle, but it’s worth noting that the bottle was the least broken one that Misty found among the ‘tired things, slowly fading towards the same color of rusty brown’ in the barn. The sense of poverty and stagnation is palpable and unnerving without being overwhelming.

And that, I think, is also why this story is so good – it’s brutal but delicately so, incredibly thoughtful and nuanced. I hope to see more of Blooms’ work.

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Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light by Sarah McCarry

Stephenie Meyer has a new book out. I still haven’t written one. She probably has four cars. I’m wondering if someday owning a small house with enough space for one cat to be happy is too lofty a life goal for a freelance editor. I’m glad I chose this career but I obviously didn’t do it for the money.

blue-is-a-darkness

Artwork by Jasu Hu

I’m thinking about this not because I’m feeling sorry for myself (well, not much) but because the day before I found out Meyer had churned out another manuscript I read what will probably be one of my favourite pieces of fiction this year: “Blue is a Darkness Weakened by Light” by Sarah McCarry, published on Tor.com. It’s a sardonic take on paranormal YA and a haunting depiction of loneliness and neglected ambition. The main character, as she no doubt knows, is a cliché who moved to a big, cold city with her “pockets full of dreams” only to find that “the people-clotted streets are lonelier than anywhere I’ve known”. She works as an assistant to a literary agent and spends all her time not writing her own novel. At the moment, she’s critiquing a draft of the fourth book in a YA paranormal romance series. It’s junk but it makes a ton of cash. In this latest installment, the hot new boy at school turns out to be a vampire.

The narrator knows an actual vampire (or at least that’s how she thinks of him), who buys her drinks every night after work and is helping her critique the manuscript. He’s a debonair, unthreatening kind of a monster and he’s not trying to kill her, turn her or even sleep with her. He really does seem to be just a friend, and you get the sense that the narrator wishes he was more of a romantic cliché, because then he could save her from poverty, obscurity and death. Like in Twilight, which the story often alludes to.

It disdains the cheap tropes of paranormal YA romance, and that, of course, is a big part of why I love it. I’ve found the genre too boring and sexist to ever be even a guilty pleasure. McCarry’s story also dips into the tedious aspects of editing – “Consider deleting second and third use of ‘lion,’ I write in the margins. To avoid repetition.” I don’t know how many times I’ve had to make notes about avoiding repetition since I started editing books.

On the other hand, I also admire McCarry’s story because of the way it explores the desire that could lurk behind the scorn we have for romance, and the pitiful appeal of cliché. Erica Jong sums it up in Fear of Flying: “all the romantic nonsense you yearned for with half your heart and mocked bitterly with the other half”.

The narrator obviously doesn’t think much of paranormal YA or the book she’s critiquing, but the author has four cars and seems happy and friendly. The narrator, however, is “penniless and unhappy and not in the least a pleasant person, so perhaps Rosamunde and her authoress have made better choices after all”. Rosamunde is the protagonist of the series and she embodies the (apparently profitable) silliness of other female paranormal YA protagonists:

Rosamunde has proven a magnet for supernatural entities of all kinds. Two werewolf brothers, several half-demons, and one fallen angel have told her she is beautiful, but she doesn’t believe them. Rosamunde is certain she is only average. Her skin is soft and smells of roses. She enjoys bubble baths, the Brontës, and Frappuccinos.

The narrator, in contrast to a life of hot scented baths and overpriced drinks, spends her weekends in the library because “[t]he building has heat and you do not have to pay anything in order to sit all afternoon and cry like a teenager into your open notebook”. The self-deprecating misery is just the right pitch of wry exaggeration, while the poverty is quietly, keenly on point, running throughout the story and driving it forward with increasing force.

I share an apartment with four other girls in a part of the city that will not be cheap for much longer. Once a month a black family moves out of my building and a white couple moves in. My roommates, like me, all came here to do things other than the things they are now doing.

 

—Have you ever had foie gras? the vampire asks. —No? What about escargot? He is amused by how little I know about the world. I am bemused by how little rich people know about lack.

It’s this lack – of money, love, recognition – that lies at the core of all her desperate longings, that make her want to be Rosamunde even though she knows Rosamunde is absurd. She can pick apart the shortcomings of paranormal romance with academic precision, and yet that narrative still appeals to her because it’s so much better than the life she’s living. Notably, none of the characters have names, except for Rosamunde and the high-school vampire, Marcus.

McCarry tells the story with skilfully executed minimalism: it’s sparse and straightforward, stripped of quotation marks and sentiment. I enjoy the way this sort of style leaves an open space into which your own thoughts and feelings pour, should the story move you, and “Blue is a Darkness” certainly does. The effect is evocative and leaves a lingering sense of subtle, satisfying melancholy. I get drawn back in and find that the story has more to offer. I want to read it again and again.

 

Wednesday: Finnegan’s Field by Angela Slatter

Wednesdays are short-story days. My recommendation this afternoon is ‘Finnegan’s Field’ by Angela Slatter, a dark fantasy published on Tor.com in January. I love posting about Tor’s stories simply because they each have their own cover art, and I like this quaintly eerie piece:

finnegansfield_storyfull2

The girl in the picture is Madrigal Barker, who somehow reappears, without explanation, three years after she disappeared from her tiny hometown. The town is in Australia but the population is of Irish heritage, and they know that “when children go under the hill, they don’t come out again”. Except Madrigal. Everyone’s happy about it and quietly ignores the fact that she hasn’t changed at all in three years, but Madrigal’s mother, Anne, doesn’t think that the daughter who’s come back is the same one who was lost. And of course she’s dead right.

What follows is partly the horror story you’d expect, but it eschews tired convention by turning into more of an investigation as Anne tries to figure out what exactly it is that’s different about Madrigal and track down the person who took her. Even though she has, in fact, spent the past three years in the other world of fae mythology and there’s nothing Anne can do about that, Maddie only ended up there because a human led her to the doorway in the hill. And Anne is determined to find the culprit.

Besides being a quick, satisfying mystery, I also like Finnegan’s Field because it’s a touching story with relatable characters and some tough, haunting choices. Angela Slatter knows how to pack an emotional punch and I find her horror thoughtful and elegant.

Wednesdays: Razorback by Ursula Vernon

I’ve decided that Wednesdays will be dedicated to short fiction.

On Sunday I had the displeasure of spending seven hours at a small community market trying to sell books and jewellery and making no money whatsoever. The day would have been a total failure but it presented me with one of those increasingly rare occasions where I have nothing to do but read. I had expected as much, so: Kindle, short stories.

Apex-Magazine-80

My favourite was ‘Razorback’ by Ursula Vernon, in issue 80 of Apex Magazine. It’s a retelling of a folk story known as Rawhead and Bloody Bones. An odd thing about this piece of folklore is that it has two very different incarnations in the UK and the American South. The story originated in Great Britain, where Rawhead / Tommy Rawhead / Rawhead and Bloody Bones is a bogeyman with a scalped head who is used to frighten children.

Somehow, when the story migrated to the American South, Rawhead became a razorback hog befriended by an old witch. When Rawhead is killed by a hunter, the witch is devastated at the loss of her only friend, and brings him back to life as a bloody-boned skeleton with a skinned head to take revenge. Ursula Vernon recommends reading S.E. Schlosser’s version of the tale, which is a proper piece of folkloric horror that borrows from Little Red Riding Hood: “[W]hat have you got those big eyes fer?’ the hunter asks, when the undead Rawhead comes for him, and the boar replies, ‘To see your grave’.

Vernon’s version, based on the American tale, is more heartfelt tragedy than horror. It’s not as gory and, like most retellings, ‘Razorback’ brings a sense of humanity and realism to the folklore, which Vernon does it particularly well. Rawhead is an unexpectedly charming, polite boar, as the witch Sal finds out, since she has the capacity to hear him speak:

“I see your momma raised you to be respectful,” said Sal, rocking.
Have to be ma’am. If you aren’t, she rolls over on you and squashes you flat.
“Huh!” Sal rocked harder. “Not a bad notion. Know a few people who couldn’t used a good squashing back in the day.
It does make you think before you speak, ma’am. He rolled a beady little boar eye up at her. You cook good cornbread, ma’am. Can I stay with you a little while?

When Rawhead is killed, Sal is not merely an angry and vengeful witch – she’s a lonely woman in mourning for a dear friend. The resulting story is not straightforward: things don’t go as planned and because she’s not accustomed to using violence or black magic, none of it comes easily to her, regardless of her determination. The horror elements are there, but the story is touching rather than creepy; one of those wonderful pieces of fiction about animal–human friendships. Readers who dislike or are wary of horror won’t have a problem with ‘Razorback’.

I also like Vernon’s take on witches, which I’ve also seen in her other fiction: they’re rock solid, independent, knowledgeable women who provide valuable but often taboo community services (like abortions) and are frowned upon as a result.

People want a witch when they need one, but they don’t much like them. It was a little too easy, when you saw Sal go by, to remember all she knew about you. […] She was a good witch and a decent person, but decent people aren’t always easy to live with.

“Razorback’ is accompanied by an in-depth author interview by Andrea Johnson (the Little Red Reviewer), so you can get a bit more insight into the story, which I always like to do. The edition also features a novelette by Ursula Vernon, titled ‘The Tomato Thief’. It’s also about a witch, so yes please.

War Stories edited by Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates

War StoriesTitle: War Stories: New Military Science Fiction
Editors: Andrew Liptak and Jaym Gates
Published: 7 October 2014
Publisher: Apex Publications
Source: eARC from the publisher
Genre: military science fiction short stories
Rating: 8/10

Military sf is one of the sf subgenres I’m least likely to read, but admittedly I haven’t read very much of it, so I thought it was worth giving this anthology a shot. From what I have read my assumptions are that it tends to be by men and about men, focusing on combat and toying with ideas for badass military tech – big guns, heavy high-tech armour, tanks, spaceships, drones etc. I like action, but it’s not enough to carry a story for me and is usually better on a big screen than in a book.

This anthology from Apex Publications was very quick to show me how narrow-minded those assumptions were. Divided into four sections – Wartime Systems, Combat, Amored Force, and Aftermath – it shows that this military sf is not just soldiers dealing death with their super tech. Instead, these stories focus on people – soldiers battling with their roles as professional killers, the difficulties that their families and partners go through, the people designing military technology, the people forced to live with war tech even if they’re not fighting, veterans struggling to live in the mundane world. War, as is argued in the introduction, happens in our minds and bodies as well as on battlefields.

This isn’t a male-dominated anthology either. In the acknowledgements, editor Jaym Gates mentions that it focuses on the perspectives of female and LGBTQ characters. So there are plenty of female authors, and most of the stories have major female characters. In fact, when I encountered a story without a major female character, it stood out as distinctly odd and old-fashioned. In addition, there are loads of LGBTQ characters and relationships, most of which are treated as perfectly natural rather than being spotlighted as something radical. I love seeing this in sff, and we could use more of it – LGBTQ relationships and good male/female gender balances that can just exist without having to be justified, as if we need to explain why we’re not sticking to the tired old straight-white-male tradition.

So a major drawcard was that War Stories seemed fresh and progressive to me (apologies to military sf fans who already knew the genre was so much more than I assumed it to be). There are some stories that are more conventional than others and as with any anthology I didn’t like everything, but most stories offered something memorable. I’ll go through my favourites and the ones that stood out.

Wartime Systems

This was a great opening section and I enjoyed it the most. It starts off very strong with “In the Loop” by Ken Liu, my favourite story in the anthology (I’m just a sucker for Ken Liu). Kyra’s father is a drone operator who becomes increasingly traumatised by having to make thousands of cold, calm decisions about whether or not to kill someone by drone strike. When Kyra grows up, she designs a programme to replace the humans controlling the drones, so that no one ever has to bear the responsibility for killing. In designing the programme, Kyra gets right down to the cold reality of war – that it’s about preferring the lives of one group over the lives of another, that different lives have different values. In this case, Americans are assigned the highest value, anyone ‘ethnic’ falls below that, and the lives of the poor and desperate are worth the very least. Kyra doesn’t agree with the ethics of this, but she has to admit that she thinks in similar terms – the life of her father meant far more to her than the thousands of people he killed. As usual, Ken Liu is brilliant at capturing the nuances of these psychological conundrums.

Most of the other stories in this section look very closely at the way tech affects personal lives. In “Ghost Girl” by Rich Larson, an albino child who would normally have been kidnapped by human traffickers for muti, is protected by a drone left over from a war. In “The Radio” by Susan Jane Bigelow, a cyborg struggles with issues of purpose and identity after the war ends and her side abandons her on the planet as if she were nothing more than a piece of dead tech. “Non-Standard Deviation” by  Richard Dansky also explores the idea of the tech itself as sentient beings affected by war, although in a very different way.

Then “The Wasp Keepers” by Mark Jacobsen shifts the focus from fighters to civilians. In a post-war Syria, Western powers have enforced peace by assigning wasp drones to monitor every adult. The wasp can kill the person it observes, which is exactly what happens to a seventeen-year-old boy at the start of the story. It’s written from the POV of his mother, who was a social media activist during the war. I like this story partly because it depicts a more nuanced Islamic society than you typically see (no one is obsessed with religious propriety) and because it addresses issues of perspective and understanding in war. The Wasp Keepers are considered miraculous because they ended the war and kept the peace, but all the information they gather fails to reflect the complexity of people’s lives and the difficulty of the choices they’re forced to make.

Combat
This, of course, conforms more to the idea of what I thought military sf was, but I was still impressed with what I found.

“All You Need” by Mike Sizemore is a bit vague about exactly what conflict is being fought and how the characters fit into that, but I enjoyed it for “the girl and the gun” – the depiction of the relationship between a girl (an assassin) and her sentient sniper rifle. The story has a kind of quiet, assured tone that sticks with me and makes me want to go back and read it again.

“One Million Lira” by Thoraiya Dyer also features a brilliant assassin – a Muslim woman who shoots people through the left breast partly because her culture made it difficult for her to look men in the eye, and partly because her mother – a famous actress – died of breast cancer. That alone is the kind of thing to pique my interest, but this story is also notable for how much worldbuilding, conflict (cultural, military, personal) and character is woven into a few words.

“Light and Shadow” by Linda Nagata is a bit heavy on the combat for me, but I do like the tech ideas she explores in this story. Soldiers wear skullcaps that enable monitoring and communication but also alter their mental states, suppressing difficult thoughts and emotions, keeping them calm and focused even when they’re tired and traumatised. Most soldiers find it easier to wear skullcaps all the time, but one woman puts it on only when she absolutely has to, despite the harrowing psychological effects of taking it off.

Armored Force
Like the Combat section, this is another aspect of military sf that I expected to see a lot of, but wasn’t particularly excited about. However, Yoon Ha Lee immediately blew me away with her contribution. Her surreal stories tend to be so bizarre that I often have to read them at least twice to make sense of them, but her weirdly beautiful imagery and incredible ideas are worth the effort. “Warhosts” is by far the most imaginative story in this collection. In a distant future, mankind has developed sentient nanotech that later took control over them (whether this happened planet-wide or only in a small region is unknown and unimportant). Now the nanotech fight their own small-scale wars – or perhaps just war games – using humans as armoured mechs. I don’t mean that the humans wear armour – the nanotech invades their bodies’ systems and forces them to grow terrible plating and protrusions. Their bodies are covered in sores that the tech use as entry and exit points. The humans are in constant pain, but kept alive and fit enough to fight each other. This military horror sf is told from the POV of a nanotech ‘scout’ whose job it is to understand the personalities and culture of the humans in order to improve their fighting abilities.

“Suits” by James L. Sutter is the story without a significant female character, but what’s interesting about it is that it’s told from the POV of a mech technician – a specially cloned midget who is never allowed off the army base and does little more than work on the mechs. He’s knows virtually nothing about the war he’s helping to fight until one traumatic day when his officer takes him out to work on a malfunctioning suit.

Like the Linda Nagata story in the Combat section, “Mission. Suit. Self.” by Jake Kerr shows soldiers who have come to use their military tech as a crutch. Mechs enable people with battered, stitched-together bodies to be brutally functional in the field, and most soldiers prefer to spend all their time in the suits rather use their own faltering bodies. The plot of this story wasn’t particularly memorable, but I liked the idea about the suits.

Aftermath
Naturally the pace slows here. The high-action conflict has been left behind and the protagonists are back home fighting mostly psychological battles that are sometimes harder than facing guns and bombs.

In “War Dog” by Michael Barretta, the genetically engineered weapons of war persist even though the war has ended. This is a huge problem in the case of a deadly, infectious fungus that causes zombie-like behaviour (reminds me of the game The Last of Us). There are also human-dog hybrids who don’t pose a danger but are supposed to be wiped out simply because society considers them abominations. You could compare them to veterans who struggle the most in normal society – no matter how hard they fought or how much they sacrificed, they are ostracised from the societies they protected. In this story, a retired officer tries to protect one of the ‘war dogs’, and begins an intimate relationship with her.

“Always the Stars and the Void Between” by Nerine Dorman takes place during a space war fought by the African Federation and it’s worth mentioning for that alone – the battles are in the background, but for once Africa isn’t portrayed as a continent of sad, dusty victims fighting desperately with inferior tech. Sadly, but not implausibly, South Africa’s class and racial politics have not evolved at all (and may even have regressed), as is painfully clear in the protagonist’s personal relationships and experiences when she returns from the war to her family’s struggling farm.

In “Enemy State”, Karin Lowachee tells a story from the POV of a man struggling to have a relationship with a soldier who can’t handle normal life and keeps going back to war. He describes their relationship like a war – putting up defences, trying to break through barriers, treating his heart like fort.

So, overall, an excellent, eye-opening read that goes far beyond what I expected of this genre. War Stories will be published on 7 October and costs $5, but is worth a lot more 🙂

Short Fiction Review: A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong by K.J. Parker

winter2011-425x561In July I discovered K.J. Parker in Subterranean Magazine’s special K.J. Parker edition, featuring the stories “The Sun and I” (nominated for a World Fantasy Award) and “Illuminated” and the essay “Rich Men’s Skins”. I liked Parker’s work so much that I have since forked out the $48 for a signed limited edition of Academic Exercises, the first collection of Parker’s shorter works (I’ve been helplessly drawn to special editions lately). Justin Landon’s glowing review over at Tor was the final push I needed to buy the book, and stories like “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” convince me that it was money well spent even though I have yet to lay eyes on the book itself.

You don’t need to spend a cent to read Parker’s short fiction though – most of it is available for free at Subterranean Magazine, and you’ll find “A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong” in the Winter 2011 edition. The novella won a World Fantasy Award, although it’s really only fantasy because it happens to be set in the same fantasy world of the other Parker stories I read. It reminded me of Amadeus (1984), the Milos Forman movie about the twisted relationship between the brilliant Mozart and his mediocre rival Salieri.

In Parker’s story, a music teacher (our unnamed narrator) visits his student who has been condemned to death for murder. Immediately, you get a sense of the intimately tense relationship between them. The teacher loves, hates, admires, and envies the brilliant Subtilius, and is painfully aware of his own inferiority as a composer. You could say that he didn’t so much teach Subtilius as introduce him to more ways to be exceptional. Subtilius on the other hand is so comfortably, dismissively arrogant. He knows he’s a genius, but he doesn’t care about the music. He knows his teacher envies him, and, most importantly, he knows how badly his teacher needs the money he will make by selling Subtilius’ final composition. It’s unfinished, and there’s a superbly pathetic interaction between the two characters when the narrator suggests finishing the work.

“I could finish it for you,” I said, soft and hoarse as a man propositioning his best friend’s wife. “You could hum me the theme, and—”

[…]

“No offence, my very good and dear old friend, but you simply aren’t up to it. You haven’t got the—” He paused to search for the word, then gave up. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” he said. “We’ve known each other—what, ten years? Can it really be that long?”

“You were fifteen when you came to the Studium.”

“Ten years.” He sighed. “And I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher. But you—well, let’s put it this way. Nobody knows more about form and technique than you do, but you haven’t got wings. All you can do is run fast and flap your arms up and down. Which you do,” he added pleasantly, “superlatively well.”

Subtilius is being cruel and manipulative, but he’s absolutely right about his teacher’s abilities, and they both know it. The narrator’s problem is that he cares too much about the music (whereas Subtilius does not). He reveres it, he’s afraid of it, he feels pressured to create something worthwhile. At the same time he’s constantly stressed out by his work as a music teacher, the security of his post at the Studium, and, of course, his finances. His desire, his need to create is what cripples his ability to do so.

Then comes the loveliest bit of plot. Subtilius escapes and asks the narrator to help him get out of the city. As payment, he has written a symphony that the narrator can pass off has his own. Subtilius copied his style, but elevated it with his own genius so that it’ll be better than anything his teacher every produced.

It’s a relatively simple thing, but it really perverts the already twisted relationship between the two characters. The narrator has devoted his life to music, but remains a mediocre composer whose greatest achievement is a attaining a fairly modest teaching position at a college. Subtilius can write music that will be remembered forever, but makes it look effortless, like “something he churned out in an idle moment between hangovers”. When offered the symphony, the narrator is torn. He feels like Subtilius has stolen his soul in imitating him so perfectly. He finds the idea of accepting the transaction shameful and disgusting. But then he thinks of the money.

As I mentioned, money is something that constantly stresses him out and impairs his creativity. He already lives a very spartan existence, and he’s terrified of the possibility of real poverty. He’s also quite proud of having climbed above his very humble beginnings, but those beginnings are always at the back of his mind. This is something that’s developed throughout the story, but I particularly like way Parker hints at it towards the end of the opening scene in Subtilius’ jail cell:

I stood up. “Goodbye,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

“Oh, don’t go blaming yourself for anything.” Absolution, so easy for him to give; like a duke scattering coins to the crowd from a balcony. Of course, the old duke used to have the coins heated in a brazier first. I still have little white scars on my fingertips.

This kind of thing is part of why I’ve come to adore Parker’s writing – the image of the narrator’s little white scars from grabbing hot coins, and the way this conveys the sense of superiority and inferiority between student and master. It’s just so masterfully done. Subtilius is not rich, although he could easily be if he wanted to. He is, however, so rich in talent that he can write a brilliant symphony while hiding from the authorities in a bell tower, and then use that as currency. Giving his teacher the symphony is very much like the old duke maliciously tossing burning coins to the poor – the teacher wants that symphony so badly, but it will hurt and scar him to take it. Subtilius knows, and enjoys, his teacher’s anguish.

How the offer of that symphony changes his life is what drives the rest of this magnificent novella, exploring the nature and absurdities of creativity, talent and fame. The title refers to the success and genius that come at a great price, which is considered relatively small in comparison. At the start of the story, for example, Subtilius is in jail for murder, an act that is attributed to his artistic temperament. “The same essential characteristics that made him a genius also made him a murderer,” the Master of the college admits, and this is deemed acceptable, to an extent. After all, Subtilius has written music that will endure forever, while the man he killed was just a drunken thief who won’t be missed. “The most sublime music, set against a man’s life.” This question is posed several times in the story, but rather than lecture on the morality of the situation, Parker simply depicts it in all its beautifully discomfiting complexity.

After writing this review, I’m even more pleased that I bought the signed limited edition of Academic Exercises. If you’re also interested in it, Book Depository still had stock at the time of posting.

Short Fiction Review: July 2014

My favourite story for July – and one of my favourites this year – was “57 Reasons for the Slate Quarry Suicides by Sam J. Miller, from Nightmare Magazine. The story won a Shirley Jackson Award, and I can see why. It’s about Jared, a gay teenager, who has been viciously bullied by six boys at school. However, he discovers that he has a unique ability that he can use to take revenge, with the help of his best friend Anchal. What makes the story particularly interesting is that the whole thing is told in a list of 57 items – the reasons for the Slate Quarry suicides. It builds quite slowly, but the gruesome ending is just superb.

STP_Summer2013-1400px-425x561Most of the rest of my short story reading for July came from Subterranean Magazine, the Summer 2013 edition (free to download in ePub or mobi, or you can just read it online). It was here that I discovered the artful storytelling of K.J. Parker. I knew the name, but not that it’s a pseudonym for an author whose true identity has never been revealed. I hadn’t paid much attention to Parker before, but his/her story “The Sun and I” was recently nominated for a World Fantasy Award, and I wanted to check out the nominees I hadn’t read.

“We could always invent God,” the narrator says in the opening line, and proceeds to outline a plan for creating a religion. He and his friends are all highly educated but utterly broke and running out of wine, so they need  a scam to make some money. They pool their talents and their last few copper coins and design a system of belief tailored to fit people’s longings for religion, and improve upon the frustrations that have made other contemporary faiths unpopular. The result – the Church of the Invincible Sun – is an unbelievable success. With a few clever tactics and what looks like uncanny luck, the friends convince an entire city that they’re the real deal, and start raking in more gold than they ever imagined they’d have.

The absurd prosperity of the Invincible Sun unsettles some of the friends, including the creator and narrator, Eps. He even starts dreaming about the god he created, as if he actually were the prophet he pretends to be. The power of the religion just continues to grow, as if it’s somehow becoming what its creators say say it is

“The Sun and I” was part of a special K.J. Parker section in the magazine so I went on to read the other two pieces. “Rich Men’s Skins: A Social History of Armour” is a great essay on armour designs across the ages, comparing the rich warriors who owned expensive armour to common soldiers who were given mass-produced armour. Parker examines the ways in which the different classes relate to the way armour was designed, how wars were fought, and how they were perceived.

I can’t say too much about the story “Illuminated” without giving the plot away, but it immediately drew my attention to the intricacies of Parker’s writing. A professor and his female student investigate an abandoned ‘wizard’s tower’ of sorts, and examine the books that have been left there. There’s a mystery to be solved, but the story moves slowly at first, fleshing out the awkward relationship between the student and her sexist professor, and the sexism in the field of magic study. Parker engages your interest with character long before the plot gets going, and if the storytelling skill of “The Sun and I” hadn’t already convinced me to go and check out all of his/her other work, “Illuminated” did the trick.

I was pleased to find that this edition of the magazine included a Catherynne M. Valente story (I never need prompting to read one of hers) – “The Shoot-Out at Burnt Corn Ranch Over the Bride of the World”. If you liked the Old West voice Valente used in Six-Gun Snow White, you’d probably enjoy reading it here too. The story is a surreal allegorical post-apocalyptic fantasy western. In other words, it’s really weird. The US states are personified as witches an warlocks, and they’re fighting to the death to win the bride of the world, who narrates the story. It’s the kind of tale that I don’t really know what to make of, but that I enjoy purely for its quirky style and ideas.

The rest of the edition was ok, so I’ll go through it quickly. “Don’t Ask” by Bruce McAllister and W.S. Adams is memorable for its very graphic gore, as a soldier examines the body of his girlfriend, who was killed by a mine. I’m don’t like excessively gory stories, but in this case I found the juxtaposition of the shattered body and the reconstruction of the couple’s relationship appropriate. The story employs a commonplace sf trope at the end, but I like the way it resonates with the title.

“Stage Blood” by Kat Howard is a restyles Bluebeard as a stage magician who kills a woman in a glass coffin for one of his tricks, and keeps them all in a secret, magical room. Not the most memorable retelling, but a nice enough story.

“The Case of the Stalking Shadow” by Joe R. Lansdale is the only piece in this edition that I didn’t like. It uses an old-fashioned setup –  a ghost story told around lounge lit by a roaring fire, and transcribed by one of the listeners. I actually quite like this style, but the story revealed too much, in my opinion, and I lost interest.

Overall, a good edition of Subterranean. I’m very sad to see that this year’s Summer edition will be their final issue 😦