Review #14: Bearing Fruit by Nikki Alfar

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Mar 13, 2010 in Reviews

Published by: Fantasy Magazine, March 1, 2010

The Story:

In Bearing Fruit, a sixteen-year-old girl bathing in a river near her home finds herself smitten with a mango bobbing in the current. By the time it’s had its way with her, the poor girl finds herself suddenly with child. Of course no one believes her story, and she can barely believe it herself.  She doesn’t know much about how babies are made, but she’s pretty sure that fruit isn’t involved. Even though her closest cousins vouch for her chastity, the girl is still subtly shunned by her family and neighbors, so she sets forth on a journey upstream to find the father of her unborn child.

The Craft: Character Arcs

SPOILERS

If there’s one thing that will change a young woman, it’s getting knocked up by a frisky piece of fruit. Not only is her body going through a rapid change, but so are her relationships, her perceived value to her village, and her own self-esteem. At the beginning of the story, she’s innocent, virtuous, and carefree. Once the prettiest girl in the village, the pregnant girl finds that her prospects have dwindled, and the boy cousins who once safeguarded her virtue are now given more useful tasks, such as building a shelter for the family’s livestock.

It’s at this point that our young heroine departs from her initial character setup, no longer so innocent, virtuous, or carefree…at least in the eyes of her family. They’re relieved to be rid of her when she announces that she intends to set out on a perilous journey into the wild to find the father of her unborn child. With the company of her closest girl cousins, and armed only with sticks and their sharp tongues, they travel upstream not knowing what to expect. She’s quick to accuse the first soul they happen upon: a young boy attending a mango tree for an old widow. It turns out that he’s not the culprit, and though he does offer to escort one of the weary girl cousins home under suspicious pretenses, our heroine has learned she is no longer fit to judge other people’s choices.

Her physical changes quickly escalate after a brief encounter with a handsome thief using the trunk of a mango tree to stash his stolen goods. As our heroine makes her way further up the now tumultuous river, her pregnant belly weighs heavily upon her and she’s cursed with morning sickness as well. She comes upon an old man tending a mango tree, though our heroine is too disgusted with mankind to afford him any sort of respect. She discovers that indeed this man knows how her pregnancy came to be — that the mango was set forth on a journey to find his shy son a wife. Swept up in a lavish lifestyle, our again fair maiden has the opportunity to reclaim her respectability, though at the cost of her self-respect. The son never receives the tongue lashing she’d been saving for him, and though the life he offers her is not a bad one by any means, her thoughts circle back to that handsome thief and the life she might have had with him.

Bearing Fruit is a great, quirky tale with a bittersweet character arc. Going from innocence, to driven by fierce resentment, to settling for a life that isn”t her choice but is good enough. If she hadn’t found her drive, she would have remained at home, shunned. If she hadn’t decided to barter her self-respect for stability and comfort, she would have remained poor. But through her changes, she reaches an ending she can live with, even though it’s not her happily-ever-after that fair maidens are often promised.

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Review #13: Non-Zero Probabilities by N. K. Jemisin

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Feb 28, 2010 in Reviews

Red GatePhoto by Chi King Creative Commons

Author Website: nkjemisin.com
Published by: Clarkesworld Magazine, Sept 2009

The Story:

Every morning, Adele prepares herself for battle. She prays to the gods of her ancestors, bathes in fragrant herbs, then piles on her armor — trinkets such as the Saint Christopher medal her mother gave her, a hair clasp that doubles as a badge of courage, and a lucky pair of worn panties she’s particularly fond of. As Adele walks to work, she keeps an eye out for others who might not have taken care to protect themselves as dutifully as she does.

Her mistrust of public transportation is justified yet again when an elevated train jumps its track just a few blocks away. A tragedy, yes. A freak occurrence, yes. But accidents happen all the time, right? In New York City, these freak occurrences are piling up. The Lottery went bankrupt from too many winners. The Knicks made it all the way to the Finals and the Mets clenched the Series. People with cancer and AIDS are being spontaneously cured. It’s no wonder why tourists are flocking here for a taste of luck.

Too bad nobody told them they’ve got an equal chance of being brained by an improperly installed window A/C unit or roasted inside an exploding tour bus. In this time of certain uncertainty, people cling onto faith and superstition and whatever else will get them through the day. A fitting story for my thirteenth review…

The Craft: Beginnings

SPOILERS

The first paragraph opens with Adele preparing for battle with an odd mash of rituals. She prays to the Christian god and to those of her African ancestors. She bathes in a mix of herbs that leave her smelling like coffee and pumpkin pie. Then she adorns herself in personal trinkets that give her the protection and courage to face her day. The reader in quickly sucked into the story by these rich, odd, tantalizing details and by the undercurrent of humor. The parentheticals set a light tone, and the reader is left wondering what dangers Adele expects to encounter.

That danger immediately presents itself in the following few paragraphs when an elevated train jumps the track and crashes a few blocks away. The scene is compact, but full of details that touch the senses and give the reader a good feel for space in this urban setting. Adele battles her emotions as she goes to help, but can’t help feeling like the crash victims brought this on themselves. The last line of the scene sums it up brilliantly:

“They should have known better. The probability of a train derailment was infinitesimal. That meant it was only a matter of time.”

Obviously things are going wonky in this world, and if this scene doesn’t hook you in, I don’t know what will.

The next scene continues with more tasty details and humor, but we also get a sense of what’s really going on in her world, as her neighbor across the hall demonstrates, throwing snake eyes after snake eyes with a pair of dice. Crossing his fingers has some effect, though it doesn’t totally ward off the weird that is ravaging New York City. Adele takes the cue and succumbs to superstitions, careful to avoid breaking mirrors and opening her umbrella indoors. She also spends hours looking for four-leaf clovers, real ones, and not the knock-offs they sell in Chinatown.

The plot gets going soon after, centering around “A PRAYER FOR THE SOUL OF THE CITY”, a massive gathering of half a million people meeting at Yankee Stadium to pray the city back into shape. The event is on August 8th, considered a lucky day by the Chinese. But Adele soon realizes that while some people are intent on restoring order, others are embracing the chaos of their new world and adapting. After all, since she’s been walking to work, she’s lost ten pounds and has gotten to know her neighbors for the first time. She embraces the change instead of fearing it — a nice parallel to the times of uncertainty we’re living in today.

Not to sound like an obvious fan girl, but “Non-Zero Probabilities” is one of those stories that makes me glad that this mode of storytelling exists. I enjoyed every bit of it, and it’s no wonder its a Nebula finalist. Also, N. K. Jemisin’s debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms just hit the shelves last week, and you can bet I’ll be seeking out a copy.

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Review #1: A Rose is Rose by Georgina Bruce

Posted by Nicky Drayden on Jan 7, 2010 in Reviews

Author Website: http://thebeardedlady.wordpress.com
Published by: Strange Horizons, December 21st, 2009

The Story:

A Rose is Rose is a colorful, sensual tale that intertwines the stories of a body paint artist named Sashi and storybook illustrator named Sarah. Both artists struggle with their needs to express their creativity as well as their sexuality in what creates an interesting pair of love triangles, both tender and twisted at the same time.

Sashi finds herself in very intimate quarters with the King, fending off his advances as she paints his body in preparation for his upcoming nuptials, which are to be carried out in a grand style befitting India’s royalty despite the war and famine that has swept the land. The King and his bride will ride atop two adorned elephants through the streets in a wedding procession, and Sashi is tasked with painting the elephants as well. It becomes her obsession — these elephants being an emotional tether to the only memory she has of her mother.

Sarah is caught in a love triangle of her own, and it’s wreaking havoc with her creativity. She’s embarrassingly behind on the storybook illustrations for Ravi, her not quite friend/not quite lover, and in her compulsive delusions, Sarah has snaked her way into a metaphysical threesome involving sketches of Ravi’s wife.

The Craft:
SPOILERS

The interplay between first person (Sarah) and third person omniscient points of view worked well, sort of a sling-shot of momentum propelling the story along. The characters were instantly distinctive, and though there wasn’t much physical description, after finishing the story I felt as if I’d be able to pick them out of a lineup. The images the author painted in my head were incredibly clear. I could see the elephants parading through the streets, the intricacy of the postcards painted on Sashi’s nails, and the haunting, resonant image of the bloodied meat parcel.

The story is subtly otherwordly, with the characters from the two different worlds encroaching on each other until the clever twist at the end. I enjoyed how delicate this story was, though I found myself wishing the reveal about the elephants being eaten hadn’t been quite so harsh of a statement. I would have preferred to see Sashi discovering the elephants’ fates herself, or figuring it out on my own as a reader. Also, I had a hard time placing the setting of the story — the where and the when seemed somewhat generic. I think my mind settled on a near-future post-war India for Sashi’s story and a present-day India for Sarah’s story, though it’s quite likely that I missed some cues.

A Rose is Rose serves as an example of great character development, as each character has his/her own goals, fears, and desires — all of which inevitably clash with the other characters, making tension mount through the entire story. The characters have interesting backstories and histories that affect their actions, which are well-placed in the story and add depth without slowing the story down. The characters are both cruel and loving, which makes them realistic and easy to identify with and feel for.

Overall, this story is an easy, enjoyable read, and although subtly is its strong suit, it doesn’t leave you digging aimlessly for meaning and answers.

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