Sunday, April 24, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The House of Nameless by Jason Fischer

Writers of the Future XXVIThe story recommendation of the week goes to Jason Fischer for "The House of Nameless," from Writers of the Future, Volume XXVI.

Since I learned I would be in Writers of the Future, Volume XXVII I've been reading stories from previous volumes, and let me tell you it is an ego-expanding experience. Most of these stories are really good! The story concepts are almost always terrific, and the writing is generally at a high level. Certainly some of the stories seem flawed to me, but even with those it is easy to spot the qualities that impressed the judges. Historically, the Writers of the Future Contest has produced many top-notch professional authors, and I am certain that will hold true for several of the past couple years' winners.

Last year's anthology, Writers of the Future, Volume XXVI, includes a number of tales that impressed me very much, especially the stories by Alex Black, Simon Cooper, Tom Crosshill, Jason Fischer, Laurie Tom, and Brad R. Torgersen. (I hope no one will take that as a negative comment on any winners I haven't mentioned -- as I said, even in the stories that don't work for me personally, the authors' talents are obvious; you don't rise to the top of a pile of several hundred submissions without some skills.)

Of all these excellent stories, my personal favorite is "The House of Nameless" by Jason Fischer, a strikingly original piece written at a very professional level. Told from the point of view of Raoul the Minotaur, "The House of Nameless" shows a struggle between various powerful gods, but it is not quite like any such story you have read before. The gods inhabit a bizarre and pliable universe, and most of them are determined not to return to the universe we know, which they refer to as the "One-Way-World." Key to the struggle over whether to return to the One-Way-World is the god "Nameless," who was deprived of his identity in punishment for a serious crime he is expected to commit some day.

Fischer does a wonderful job of blending bizarre story devices with anachronistically mundane elements:
But there was enough vinegar left in the old god to keep the ship at bay. Try as it might, The Cheerful Misogynist was grounded, straining against Yahweh's invisible hand.

Raoul and the others were out, rappelling down ropes or gliding on dreamt-up wings. There were enough holes in Yahweh's fence that they could slip through on foot.

Imogen was back to khakis and a T-shirt, and for some reason had the remote control for Raoul's entertainment center in her hand.
This story is great fun to read all the way through. "The House of Nameless" sheds funny or thought-provoking concepts at breakneck speed -- given the level of detail, I am not surprised to see that Fischer has written other work in this universe. The spirited pace does not not allow for elaborate characterization (which I suspect is why this story did not win the Gold Award for last year's contest -- Laurie Tom's "Living Rooms" focuses more on the main character and her emotional struggles), but the gods involved are quirky enough that they don't blend together.

Like all WOTF winners, Australian Jason Fischer is new to the field, but already he has appeared in numerous publications, including Apex, Aurealis, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, among many others, and he has been nominated for the Ditmar and Aurealis Awards among other honors. I believe he has a long and successful writing career ahead of him.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window by Rachel Swirsky

Subterranean Online Summer 2010I was late to the party on this one. The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window was already a Nebula Award finalist by the time I read it, and I suspect it will soon be a Hugo finalist as well. But it's too good not to recommend, albeit belatedly. This is Rachel Swirsky's third Story Recommendation of the Week, joining Aliette de Bodard as the only authors to receive three SROTWs.

Published in the Summer 2010 issue of Subterranean Online, "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window" is a fantasy novella, with elements of SF since it takes us far into the future (or a future).

"The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window" begins with the death of the title character, Naeva, a powerful sorceress. As she dies, she consents to have her spirit captured so she can be summoned after death, a decision made from misguided loyalty to her queen.

At first, Naeva is a pawn in a struggle between the queen and a potential successor. But the ages begin to pass, and Naeva is subject to summoning by an ever stranger succession of future generations. Naeva does not take well to being an ancient oracle, and many of those who summon her come to regret it. Naeva has contempt for most of the futures she glimpses, sometimes for good reason and sometimes due to her own prejudices. For example, she is absolutely unable to accept future societies where men are permitted to practice magic.

Finally, she is summoned by a very advanced future society attempting to catalogue all past knowledge. Even though Naeva is primitive by their standards, she remains a powerful sorceress with a force of will that may prove too much for the future.

It is difficult to extend a story over such a large span of time and keep the reader engaged, but Swirsky manages it admirably. Her writing is compelling throughout, and Naeva is a fascinating character. The thread of Naeva's story pulls you along despite the necessarily episodic story framework.

I read several excellent novellas from 2010 -- including strong work from such outstanding authors as Paolo Bacigalupi, Ted Chiang, George R.R. Martin, Paul Park, and Robert Reed -- but "The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen's Window" is my favorite of them all.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman

StoriesNobody who reads this blog needs to be told that Neil Gaiman is a pretty fair writer, but just in case anyone missed this one, the Story Recommendation of the Week is for "The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains" by Neil Gaiman, from the original anthology Stories, edited by Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio.

The first-person narrator of "The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains" is a very small but very dangerous man. He hires Calum MacInnes as a guide to take him to a mysterious cave in the black mountains on the Misty Isle, where a fabulous treasure awaits them. They converse on the journey, in beautifully written passages like this:
I thought about it. "Sometimes I think that truth is a place. In my mind, it is like a city: there can be a hundred roads, a thousand paths, that will all take you, eventually, to the same place. It does not matter where you come from. If you walk toward the truth, you will reach it, whatever path you take."

Calum MacInnes looked down at me and said nothing. Then, "You are wrong. The truth is a cave in the black mountains. There is one way there, and one only, and that way is treacherous and hard, and if you choose the wrong path you will die alone on the mountainside."
In the course of their conversations, we learn the two have reasons to fear and despise each other. Their past, and the nature of the treasure they seek, will lead them to some terrible choices.

Gaiman coedited Stories, an anthology designed to highlight the storytelling talents of a wide variety of authors from different genres. It includes a number of excellent writers, but none of them could hope to surpass the storytelling skills of Gaiman himself.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Aaron's Story Recommendation of the Week :: Iron Oxide Red by Gwendolyn Clare

Daily SFMy story recommendation of the week is for Iron Oxide Red by Gwendolyn Clare, posted at Daily Science Fiction in March 2011.

The first-person protagonist of "Iron Oxide Red" is an artist who discovers that when she cuts herself while painting, she bleeds paint. (I am saying "she," but unless I missed something all we know of the person's gender is that the protagonist is attracted to men, so it could as easily be a gay man.) What's more, the paintings with her blood-paint are her most powerful work, and she feels compelled to keep discovering new colors from different parts of her body.

For the first portion of the story, I feared Clare was satisfied just to show us the neat idea of a painter who bleeds paint. But by the end of the story, she effectively uses that concept as a springboard to examine deeper issues about the nature of art, and the artist's need to immerse herself compulsively in her own work in order to bring it to life.

Gwendolyn Clare is a very recent arrival to the genre scene, but has already appeared in such prestigious publications as Asimov's, Clarkesworld, and Abyss & Apex. "Iron Oxide Red" is a well-written, thought-provoking piece from another new author to keep an eye on.