Review: A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies by Alix E. Harrow

This is fifth review of the Nebula Award nominees in 2019. You can see the full list of short story nominees here. Scroll down for some of the other reviews this year or search by title. 

A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow is well written and well worth your time to read, but I want to get one small criticism out of the way right up front. The title is totally misleading. There is a compendium, and it plays a critical role at the end, but that is not the point of the story. Also, the arcane tone conveyed by the title doesn’t reflect the contemporary setting of the story subject. Ok, on to larger topics.

The story, in a nutshell, is from the perspective of a librarian who is also a witch (or vice versa). She sees unhappy people in her library from time to time and wants to help them, though there are rules about witch’s not giving people magical information that her kind have compiled over the centuries. In this story, there is a particular youth, an African American boy, who the narrator believes is having a difficult time and is seeking magic in this world and/or a portal to another one. The question is, does the narrator break the rules to help the child or not? Continue reading

Review: The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington by Phenderson Djèlí Clark

Review number four of the Nebula nominees for best short story. Scroll down to see earlier reviews. You can see the list of nominees here.

teethOh, this one made me laugh! A result of the conditioning of my shrunken social media brain, I suppose, but I love the occasional story built on lists and collections of things. At first I thought “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark was going to be more historical, perhaps referencing enslaved people who were listed in Mt. Vernon’s historical records, but no. This story does not attempt any such connections with actual people, but it is very entertaining.

Clark cleverly launches this farcical tale from one of those true historical oddities practically every American child learns in elementary school–the first president of the United States, George Washington, had false teeth. When facts like these are one of the predominant pieces of information one has about an important figure, it’s easy to slide away from fact and into fiction. The story dives into the pseudo-historical record of nine of George’s teeth and provides a little context for the tooth’s original source as well as its affect on the father of the country. Continue reading

Going Dark by Richard Fox depends on the band-of-brothers cliché

This is the third review of short story nominees for the 2019 Nebula Awards. You can see the full list of short story nominees here, and the previous reviews are here and here.

“Going Dark” by Richard Fox was published in the military science fiction anthology Backblast Area Clear, edited by Ellen Campbell. The plot is the thinnest of outlines of a war somewhere in the universe that looks a lot like earth (Maybe it is earth.) where human military leaders are supported by AIs that seem mentally stunted but have great physical attributes boosted by military technology.  They’re fighting some other intelligent species that seems intent on taking the planet for their own. It’s never quite clear whether the humans and their AI grunts are indigenous defenders of the planet or simply hired mercenaries. Problems with the “doughboys” (the AIs) ensue, and their human leader is tormented by the thought of having to leave his unit to their fates.

And that’s all I can say about that. The framing of this story’s conflict is so sketchy I had the feeling that I was not reading a short story, but a chapter perhaps of a longer work. The whole story depends on the band-of-brothers cliché we have all come to know and love, and sometimes reject as sentimental pap. Continue reading

“And Yet” by A.T. Greenblatt is all about choices

This is review number two of the 2019 Nebula Award nominees for best short story. You can see the first review here, and the list of nominees here

I would call “And Yet” by A.T. Greenblatt fantasy that borders on the weird. Plenty of tension as we follow the unnamed narrator through the rooms of a haunted house, but no real scares. The narrator is a young man who has some disability that requires him to wear leg braces and use a cane. He has completed his ph.D. and is planning to pursue physics—particularly the physics related to parallel universes, which is so well represented by this terrible house.

He has been here before, of course, as the result of a dare when he was a kid. The dare also resulted in his younger brother trying to follow him there and ending up in a terrible accident that disables him as well. Complications resulted in the brother’s death at age eight. Despite this, our narrator’s impetus to re-enter the house is never quite clear to me. He says it is for research purposes, but that seems thin. Perhaps it is to find a version of himself in the house without disability, or to simply disrupt the timeline and escape the house successfully in the hopes of disrupting the timeline for his brother’s sake. And it is entirely possible that the correct answer is there in the story, and I was just a poor reader. But never mind all that. Continue reading