Review #10: Stranger by Patricia Russo

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Feb 13, 2010 in Reviews

Published by Fantasy Magazine, February 1, 2010

The Story:

The Blue Heart clan prides itself on its hospitality, offering a complete stranger room in their already cramped underground quarters on the eve of the stinging rains. It’d be barbaric to leave a man above ground to be burned alive, so there’s no doubt one of the clan’s nests will make room for him. It’s only a matter of which one.

Roday watches as the families scramble with their last-minute preparations to go underground, helping out when she can. But she’s an old woman with no family of her own, not much use to anyone. Sure the other women smile at her, make polite conversation, but no one will offer her accommodations during the stinging rain. Roday holds onto hope despite herself, hinging her fate on the strength of thinning family lines. But when the stranger comes to her, his accent thick and his words bent sideways to her ear, Roday learns that her life might still be useful to someone after all.

The Craft: Beginnings

SPOILERS

The opening sentence is a mouthful at nearly sixty words, completely glossing over the introduction of the stranger for some interesting details and world building. We quickly learn that family gossip is important to these people, and that they’re living in a polyandrous society, possibly matriarchal. The end of the paragraph sets an urgent tone, women working to beat the oncoming stinging rains that will force the clan below ground. This paragraph works overtime, giving us setting, some characterization, some interesting details, and a looming problem.

In the next few paragraphs, the problem intensifies. We find out that families are arguing about family lines and obligations to take relatives in. The importance of family ties is reinforced here. Resources are slim and space is tight, but there’s no doubt that some family will offer to provide shelter for the stranger, because that is the Blue Heart clan’s way. And yet the reader feels uneasy about Roday’s situation. Her own position has not been secured, and although she has a hard time admitting it to herself, it’s obvious that everyone is avoiding her. And so we come to Roday’s real problem and the premise of the story — what worth is an old woman to anyone?

This story hits at a fear that all readers can relate to. It’s easy to slip into Roday’s point of view, feeling useless, hopeless. Then the stranger enters her life, and despite his odd manners and twisted speech, he reaches out to her in his own way.  He knows the importance of life, and is trying to atone for the three lives that he’d taken. He’s hurting, and Roday doesn’t understand why he won’t take the Blue Heart clan’s offer for safety, to live. But for the stranger, living is not enough.

This very effective beginning makes the ending really resonate. The themes of obligation and kinship set up in the first few paragraphs of the story run strongly and effectively through the entire piece. The forces that make Roday an outcast in the beginning are the same ones that deliver her salvation. The solution is a simple one in plot, but huge in characterization. The stranger saves her with a tie of kinship, a priceless gift to Roday, and her very life brings the stranger closer to fixing and unfixable wound in his own heart.

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Review # 8: After the Dragon by Sarah Monette

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Feb 4, 2010 in Reviews

Author Website: www.sarahmonette.com
Published by Fantasy Magazine, January 25th, 2010

The Story:

Megan had a run-in with a dragon that left her with one good eye, one good hand, one good breast, and a heart scarred worse than her burnt flesh. She hates life. She hates everybody, including the doctors and nurses helping her to rehabilitate. Her mother’s trying to be useful, flitting around Megan’s hospital bed, doing all those things a good mother does — except looking at Megan like she’s still a real person.

The dragon that nearly killed Megan was the second to strike American soil that year, the 177th overall. Upon its death, its flesh and bones returned to their mineral state, and Megan’s dragon left a pool of glass along the sandy Oregon beach where five others had perished. Megan wishes more than anything that she’d been the sixth, but for better or worse, she’s a survivor.

The Craft: Beginnings

SPOILERS

The story opens with despair, Megan in a nondescript hospital room, waiting to die. A counselor offers some grief therapy options, and immediately Megan becomes hostile, showing the burned side of her face. She feels like she’s being dehumanized. These first three (short) paragraphs do a lot of work. We get a little bit of setting and genre — assuming the dragon is literal at this point, but this is from Fantasy Magazine, so it’s probably a good assumption. There’s a lot of insight into Megan’s state of mind. She’s clearly at her wit’s end, snapping at people without provocation, though she’s quick to justify it in her own mind. What hooks me is the mention of the dragon and the question it puts in my mind of how Megan ended up burned by it. Megan’s character doesn’t immediately hook me — her outburst almost feels like she’s keeping the reader at arm’s length too, but she seems real, and that’s enough for me to keep reading.

In the next few scenes we learn more about Megan’s encounter with the dragon, a very visceral description of how it had mangled her body, and how upon death, dragons revert to their mineral form. These two very important points set up the reality that Megan’s living in, clearly not our own. There’s a lot of good visuals here, with the iron and quartz and obsidian bones, as well as the glass that I saw so clearly in my mind. They’re haunting images, images I found myself going back to while reading the story. Despite the hideousness of its creation, it’s beautiful at the same time, which sets up one of the themes running through the piece.

And finally, we get some sense of Megan’s past, what she was before the incident — a blonde surfer girl who hadn’t been able to live up to her mother’s expectations even when she was whole. Now Megan has to deal with her mother refusing to see who she’s become post-dragon, and Megan’s having a hard time figuring that out herself. Good mother-daughter conflict is set up here. We can see that Megan has a long road ahead of her, and she’s obviously not going to be getting much emotional support from her mother. The tone of this is on the dark, emotional, angsty side, not something I readily relate to, but nothing offended me either. As an opening, it’s done everything it needs to, leaving me with a bunch of questions I want answered, and the only way I’m going to get them is to keep reading. Mission Accomplished.

The middle and ending come logically from this opening. Megan struggles with her identity after her reconstructive surgery, and there’s a poignant scene where she smashes her bathroom mirror so she doesn’t have to look at what’s in it. But she doesn’t throw the pieces away. Instead, she puts them back together in sort of a mosaic fashion, giving the reader a little hope that Megan will find her beauty again, even if it’s not the beauty she once had. And when she befriends a heavily tattooed breast-cancer survivor at the gym, Megan finally starts piecing together a way to learn to love herself.

On first read, this story didn’t do much for me, mostly because I had a hard time dealing with the angst thing, but boy, ten minutes later, it just hit me like a truck. It’s a very moving piece, well-written, well thought out. Awesome beginning.

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Review #3: The Wing Collection by Eilis O’Neal

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Jan 7, 2010 in Reviews

Author Website: http://www.eilisoneal.com
Published by: Fantasy Magazine,
January 4, 2010

The Story:

The Wing Collection is a delightfully creepy story about Emily and her cousin Jeffery, who has recently come to live with Emily and her parents. Jeffery is a bookworm, and Emily is decidedly not, but they put their differences aside after school one day when they come across a magnificent storefront that houses an impressive display of disembodied wings. The wings vary in size and type, coming from birds and bats and insects, including some suspicious specimens that belong to endangered species.

The wings become Jeffery’s obsession, though Emily tags along on their frequent trips to the shop, not sure what to make of her cousin and his odd behavior. She takes it easy on Jeffery though, since he’s dealing with recent abandonment issues, but when his reading habits shifts suddenly to the occult, Emily decides she can no longer let Jeffrey keep his secrets to himself.

The Craft:
SPOILERS

Reading this story is like opening up a series decorated gift boxes, each one bigger and more mysterious. Its characters are both approachable, and I enjoyed seeing Jeffery through Emily’s eyes and I shared in her interest to find out what made her strange cousin tick. The stakes rise constantly in this story, starting off with the odd store and its even odder owner. Then when Jeffrey gets the idea to start dabbling in magic, suddenly the sky is the limit, and the anticipation of what’s to come really builds.

The importance of physical objects stood out to me in this piece: the postcards, the feather, the books. Each packed a lot of emotion to be such small things, and it’s obvious how important they are to the characters. I think this physicality came into play in the absence of emotional relationships between the characters. Emily was on the verge of connecting to Jeffery as a real person with her almost accepting him as family, but I got the sense that Jeffery was too focused on finding his mother to reciprocate that feeling.

I think the ending worked for me, as ambiguous as it was. It disappointed me some as I read, but after pondering it for a day, it’s starting to grow on me. The image of the postcards is effectively repeated here, and the story’s focus shifts to Emily and her interpretations of what she meant to Jeffrey. She’s living in the aftermath of his disappearance, which has a direct impact on her own life, and still she keeps his secrets. It’s sort of sweet, sentimental, and deep in a way that encourages the reader to think through the story again.

If there’s one thing to learn from this piece (and there’s a lot more than one, but I’m just saying…) it’s how the author structures the scenes, building up suspense and mystery, then ending the scene on a tease. She shows us the pretty box, then lets us shake it, maybe take a peek, but you’ve got to keep reading to find out what exactly is inside.

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