Sponsored by Sartorias, for the same cause as my Read-a-Thon For Mindfulness, only as a sponsored review at any time rather than as part of the read-a-thon. (If you missed the read-a-thon the first time, it's not too late to sponsor me to do something like this, for the same cause.)

An e-book anthology of reprint and original sf, fantasy, and horror. There are some stories I liked, and at the very very low Kindle price it’s worth checking out, but other stories are weighed down by the over-use of very familiar genre clichés and the failure to do anything new and interesting with them. The best stories also made use of very old plots and tropes – the stranger who comes to town and shakes things up, zombies, quests, mysterious aliens – but either gave a new spin to them, or freshened them up with wit, realistic detail, and good prose.

“The Blessed Days,” by Mike Allen. Inexplicably and universally, people go to sleep and wake up drenched in their own blood. Well-written and with a creepily intriguing concept, but the ending, which employs a standard horror trope, didn’t live up to the rest of the story. This is a bit of a nitpick, but given the level of thought Allen put into the implications of the premise, I wondered why we never learned if everyone was dangerously anemic, or if the blood was somehow replenished, or what.

“Soldier’s Home,” by William Barton. A war-weary soldier encounters aliens and robots. I didn’t get this at all. The story was hard to follow, there was too much description to too little point, the climax was sentimental, and I didn’t care for the moments of sexual violence.

“Segue,” by Keith Brooke. This story hits every “cynical white expat in exotic foreign country” cliché before coming to a conclusion so completely out of left field that I flipped back to see if I’d accidentally skipped a page.

“Dead Man Stalking,” by Alfred D. Byrd. Zombie vs. cephalopods! Exactly what it says on the tin, playfully executed with a hard-ish sf gloss – the cephalopods are aliens and the zombie is a medically altered, clinically (and legally) dead person set to wrangle them. A bit slight, but lots of fun. I liked the resigned, just-doing-my-job zombie narrator.

“Needle and Sword,” by Marian Crane. A warrior woman cursed into an old body meets a young woman who weaves spells into her needlework. An epic fantasy squished into a longish short story; it needed room to grow and breathe. Full of fantasy clichés, but the plot twist near the end has a lot of promise. Unfortunately, the story ends before it has room to fully explore its implications.

“The Human Equations,” by Dave Creek. A young man gets exiled from his space-Mennonite community for breaking a law no one bothered to tell him about; the cop who arrests and escorts him into tragic banishment learns a valuable lesson in humanity and forgiveness. It makes no sense that when people can freely travel from community to community, and breaking the law in another community means permanent exile to hell, it never occurred to the man’s parents to tip him off that in other places, there’s this thing called “stealing,” and it’s not allowed. Readable but cliched, predictable, full of expository lumps, and preachy. Reprinted from Analog.

“Guardian Gargoyles of the Gorge,” by Helen E. Davis. The silly title gave me low expectations for this story, but it was surprisingly enjoyable. Young Ingrid is determined to earn the title of Hero, normally reserved for men, by staying out all night in a supposedly gargoyle-infested gorge. There’s nothing surprising here, but the little details of daily life are well-chosen and evocative, and the story is quite sweet. Though it comes to a satisfying resolution, it also reads a bit like the first chapter of a Tamora Pierce-esque YA.

“Crocodile Rock,” by Linda J. Dunn. Pointlessly cutesy title. This starts out like a children’s story, complete with pee jokes and the space kids picking on the Earth-born kid who’s scared of zero-g. I was certain that the Earth kid was going to save the day and then they’d all be sorry. That’s not exactly where it goes. I liked the twist, but the conclusion feels like it either needed to be longer (and take the character in a new and deeper direction) or shorter (and lose the page of post-climax angst and unnecessary plot wrap-ups.) It’s also odd that a kid who keeps worrying about her family being desperately poor would find something that’s clearly of immense value, and then keep it a secret for months or possibly years because secrets are cool, without ever thinking that she might be able to use it to get some money for her family.

“The Girl Who Was Ugly,” by John Grant. I would not have placed this story next to “Crocodile Rock,” as it’s similar in setup, tone, and theme. Kids spend all their time playing sports very badly and switching from one beautiful body to another. The intro, in which it’s obvious that something is deeply wrong but it’s not clear exactly what, is well done. Then an “ugly” (not perfectly beautiful) girl shows up and shakes up the hero’s world by revealing that he’s in the middle of a hoary sf cliché. In a bit of “cleverness” which made my eyes roll, the hero hears “clones” as “clowns” and “genes” as “jeans,” and relays a page-long expository lump on clowns and jeans. The ending is poignant, but undercut by the barrage of clichés in the middle.

“The New Corinth,” by Roby James. A doctor investigates a child’s mysterious infection with an alien virus. The aliens are the best part of the story, and some nice worldbuilding went into them. The humans utter stilted dialogue, like, “He was not so deeply involved with the campaigns then, and his desire for immortality overcame his obsession for duty long enough for him to impregnate me,” and (as a physical description) “He was racially quite centrist.” The climax is absurdly melodramatic. If you're going to compare a character to Medea, it can be done more subtly than by having her write a note reading "I am become Medea."

“But Loyal To Her Own,” by Leigh Kimmel. The story of a girl kidnapped by mages and accidentally transformed into a dragon, only to find an unexpected new purpose in life. It could have stood to be longer, to more fully explore Sera’s character and the mages’ motivations.

“Earth, Ashes, Dust,” by Catherine Mintz. This seems to be the opening to a novel, not a short story; it stops rather than coming to a conclusion. In what appears to be a lost colony, human villagers must pay a tithe of servants and women to the all-male, genetically altered unmen. As you can probably guess from that, an undercurrent of dark sensuality runs through the story. I would have liked to have seen that played up more. The protagonist, a young girl waiting to be chosen, is a bit of a passive nonentity, but the backstory is interesting and the world has potential.

“The Witch Who Made Adjustments,” by Vera Nazarian. An elegantly stylized comic fable about a witch who comes to town and rearranges everything, metaphorically and literally. Playful and beautifully written, with wit and charm and delectable food descriptions. This story and Elisabeth Waters’ have the most distinctive voices in the anthology.

“Credo,” by Jonathan Shipley. Mildly amusing comedy about a possessed organ (the musical kind.)

“Shadow Chasing,” by Justin Stanchfield. This emotionally intense story of alternate realities would have been even stronger if the unnecessary and tedious technical details of reality traveling had been edited way down, and if the rules had been more straightforward. (At one point a character argues that they should deliver a little girl to certain death because if they don’t, she might die. That moment would have made sense if they thought she was doomed no matter what.) I also would have liked to have known the protagonist’s backstory.

“A Rhumba of Rattlesnakes,” by Elisabeth Waters. A really funny fantasy told in first person from the POV of a rattlesnake with human intelligence. She and her eight sisters were all born to a cursed Goddess (hence the snakiness), and if they don’t break the curse before they go into hibernation, they won’t survive the winter. And we’ve barely had a chance to live at all – we’re less than two months old! Oh noes! Can nine rattlesnake sisters evade cars, nuns (they live at a convent), and security guards with flashlights in time to break the curse? Totally adorable, and just the right length to not overstay its welcome.

Past Future Present 2011, edited by Helen Davis. Only 99 cents on Kindle. I’d say it’s well worth that.
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