Future Tense Fiction – A Variety of Hope and Anxiety

Future Tense Fiction

After reading Broken Stars earlier this year, I became somewhat enamored by the idea of short story collections. I love that they can be incredibly focused while allowing the reader some room to explore outside the story. So when offered the chance to read Future Tense Fiction, a collection of works from well known contemporary authors from Slate’s column of the same name, I jumped at the opportunity. I’m not going to talk about the collection as a whole, mostly because it didn’t have the single guiding hand feel to it that Broken Stars did. Overall I came away fairly satisfied, with only a couple of the stories not leaving much of an impact. Mostly I wanted to take the time to highlight a few of the stories that touched me in different ways in the hopes of piquing your interest in the form and its strengths. 

First up: Domestic Violence by Madeline Ashby. The story follows Kristin as she tries to determine why a co-worker is running late. Janae, the woman in question, mentions that the smart home she lives in won’t let her out without solving riddles that her husband has devised. It’s a very simple premise, but the horror behind it stuck with me. Ashby’s prose is dripping with the small infractions men put women through on a daily basis that are easily exacerbated by technology. While I consider myself fairly cognizant of these attitudes, Ashby exposed a few other ways in which technologies that are touted as convenient may only be convenient for some. It was an enlightening read that will stick with me for a while, and will push me to continue considering the unexamined implications of convenience technology. 

Burned over Territory by Lee Konstantinou was my second favorite story from the batch. It takes place in a post-Universal Basic Income United States, in which everyone receives a monthly check from the government to support themselves. The story follows Viola, a former heroin addict, who is running for Chairperson of the Federation. The Federation is an organization that members give their basic income to, and in return receive housing, food and other basic necessities, allowing them to pursue what interests they may. I particularly enjoyed Konstantinou’s ability to explore a system of government and the trials it faces within a limited page count through the fairly realized character of Viola. Often a lot of the more “political” science fiction I’ve read pushes politics to the side, waving away issues with the creation of a new system, but Konstantinou places it front and center. Although the system itself is different, the same societal problems we experience in our society linger, making the election stakes feel incredibly real and giving the Federation a vitality I was not expecting. It felt like an honest attempt at an exploration of a more left-wing ideal of politics, highlighting that revolution is ongoing and will always have to deal with the same systemic problems we face today.

Mika Model by Paolo Bacigalupi was another of the more horrifying stories in the collection. It has a neo-noir setting and follows Detective Rivera as he is dragged into a murder case where the perpetrator is a sex robot. I know it sounds a little ludicrous, and Bacigalupi seems to give a wink to the reader by using the trappings and structure of a noir detective thriller. What makes the story so much more compelling, however, is Bacigalupi’s use of language and how specific characters interact with Mika, the robot involved in the murder. On the surface it is plainly a story about determining the humanity of a robot designed to be, effectively, a mechanical sex worker. Bacigalupi does not stop there and consistently urges the reader to pull on the thread to unravel something deeper. Ultimately, I came away with my stomach in knots, unable to cope with the extrapolation of this story to any sort of “other” people may encounter on a daily basis.

I’ll end with my favorite story of the bunch, Lions and Gazelles by Hannu Rajaniemi. The main gist of the story is that ultra-venture capitalists host a yearly competition in which startups compete with each other for funds. The novelty comes from contest being a race in which the entrepreneurs competing for cash enhance their bodies biologically. In the competition, mechanical modifications are forbidden, and the competitors, in a sense, become their own experiment while they attempt to hunt down a mechanical gazelle and win the prize. Having recently read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, along with taking up running, Rajaniemi’s story cut immediately to the heart of the sport. The main character’s arc was so thoroughly satisfying, and Rajaniemi perfectly captured the thrill of the chase with his prose. It was incredibly streamlined and had such purpose driving the story I was engrossed from beginning to end. If you’re a runner, this story is magical.

All in all, this collection makes me want to pay closer attention to short stories. There is a purpose to them, and when done well, it can get a reader to feel or think differently in only a few pages. There are a few other stories I would like to highlight here, but I feel like I would just come off as gushing. Future Tense Fiction is a delightful collection that captured my imagination in fourteen different ways. So if you’re at all interested in short stories and the power they can wield, I highly recommend picking up Future Tense. 

Rating: Future Tense Fiction – A Highly Recommended Cornucopia of Stories for your Fall Reading/10

-Alex

P.S. If you can’t get enough of talking crows, this collection has a story for you. 

Hollow Kingdom – Crow And Tell

51yagnhv-1l._sx329_bo1204203200_Kira Jane Buxton’s Hollow Kingdom, for better or worse, is one of the most unique books I’ve read in recent memory. Buxton treads new ground within the zombie genre, exploring the apocalypse through new eyes. Buxton veers so sharply off the beaten path that Hollow Kingdom feels like something entirely new. Whether readers find the playful departure from typical zombie fare refreshing or off-putting, though, will likely boil down to personal taste and maturity. This is not a genre-defying, revolutionary work of literature, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a fun diversion for some.

Hollow Kingdom follows protagonist Shit Turd (S.T. for short, and no, I am not joking), a Seattle-dwelling domesticated crow. S.T.’s owner, Big Jim, succumbs to the zombifying disease that has already spread to most of his known world. Following a few hilarious attempts to heal Big Jim (including delivering a cocktail of Walgreens-brand over-the-counter medications to the decaying human), S.T. takes Dennis, his basset-hound companion, on a journey to find the cure. This is where the novel veers wildly off the usual zombie-apocalypse path and represents the turning point where I expect readers will choose either to skip this story or see it through. S.T. and Dennis realize the infection is incredibly widespread and has left thousands of Seattle’s domestic pets trapped in their homes. They take it upon themselves to unite two worlds–the domestic and wild animals–to free those trapped in their homes and ostensibly find a way to cure their human compatriots

Following in the footsteps of its whimsical premise, Hollow Kingdom boasts idiosyncratic prose. It is littered with strong cussing and references to brand name products (S.T. considers Cheetos a delicacy). The jokes and irreverent language take a scattershot approach: volume over accuracy. Many of the quickfire puns or references land with chuckle-worthy gusto and others breeze by forgettably. On the whole, I enjoyed the less serious tone. There’s something enticing about a swearing crow with human-like behaviors; it led me to swiftly devour the book despite a few other misgivings.

This brings me to the story. The recap above only covers the first few chapters and overlooks some of the more spoilery aspects of the novel, but there are tons of fun set pieces in this 320-page read that I never expected. Some of it’s great, like a diversion to the aquarium during which S.T. talks to an octopus; Aura, the bird equivalent of the internet; and S.T.’s interactions with wild animals to whom he only feels tangentially connected. Other elements fell short, though I suspect those faults boiled down mostly to personal taste. The zombies are underexplored and under described, and I get it–it’s not a book about the zombies or even the humans who became the zombies. But this caveat opens up some story holes that left me saying “Huh?” more than once. The cause of the zombification, and the later stages of it, are both underdeveloped. It’s not an outright knock on the book, though. I’ve already said it, but it’s worth reinforcing that these problems may cause no issue with other readers. I just wanted a more traditional zombie story within the fun and carefree packaging of Buxton’s prose.

The characters of Hollow Kingdom slot neatly into my personal disconnect between prose and story, resting right in the middle. It’s intriguing to explore the zombie apocalypse through the lens of animals, and S.T. interacts with a bevy of them. Cool, crazy, smart, stupid–the gang’s all here, and meeting them as the human-ish S.T. is a fun romp through an interesting cast of fauna.

Hollow Kingdom is one of those books that requires a specific palate. It’s a read that I’d recommend to friends with a distinct checklist of “likes” in a novel, or to someone seeking a completely new take on zombies and the impact of their spread through humanity on other living beings. At its best, it’s an amusing adventure through S.T.’s zombie-ridden world, and if the premise sounds interesting, it’s worth checking out.

Rating: Hollow Kingdom – 6.5/10
-Cole

A Little Hatred – If The Shoe Fits, Drop It

35606041Reviewing A Little Hatred, the first book of a new trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, from the perspective of “should you read it?” is a waste of everyone’s time. If you have read The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings you absolutely know this will probably be the best book that comes out this year, so you should obviously read it. If you haven’t read these books, or don’t know who Joe Abercrombie is, then you should get out of here and go read them. Seriously, please do not keep reading for your own good. As with everything involving Abercrombie, it is best to go in as blind as possible and you will thank me later. So instead, I am going to do something a little different with this review. Without spoiling anything, I will be talking about the emotional gauntlet it put me through. But first, some general bookkeeping about the novel.

If you want to know about the plot, all you need to know is that it takes place a good number of years after the first trilogy and is focused mostly on the children of our characters from the previous series. The characters and action are best in class for the genre, possibly for books as a whole. The worldbuilding is good but might be the weakest part of the book; however, there is a nice focus on the current political climate that will likely resonate and stir up a lot of emotions in readers.

Jumping back to feelings, I would describe the emotional experience of A Little Hatred as ‘harrowing’. Imagine you are trapped in a beautiful room, with lots of nice furnishings and cool gadgets to play with. It creates some nice nostalgia in your brain and you feel warm and happy in the room – like you could live there forever. Then imagine that you are told there is a bomb in the room somewhere with an unknown timer, and after a bit of panicking, you try the door only to find yourself locked in. That is the emotional experience of reading A Little Hatred. At this point in my experience with Joe Abercrombie, I am familiar with the drill. Joe writes something that seems pleasant from one angle but is horrific from another. What I have enjoyed about his books is that even if you know the shoe is going to drop, it’s still incredibly hard to see the foot wearing it.

A Little Hatred knows all of this and leans into it. There is a really clever dichotomy between the older generation who know how the world works, the new cast who are filled with naivete. Abercrombie cleverly writes it so that the reader sitting perfectly between the two generations, is pushed and pulled between them. The novel is a prescription for anxiety that I didn’t want but couldn’t help but be addicted to. One of the things about Abercrombie that is so frustrating, in an intentional way, is his commentary on “progress”. Abercrombie turns his dark meditations towards the ineffable march of human technological progress and the stagnation of human emotion or intellect. It is a depressing paradox that he is unfortunately good at illustrating. One of the things that I want from these new books is for the world to finally see some progress – for humanity to finally improve and grow and get better. A Little Hatred does an amazing job of showing a possible light at the end of that tunnel. But, as only the first of a three-part story, we have no idea if that light will turn out to be a new dawn or a meteor coming to cause an extinction-level event to my trust and love.

A Little Hatred is confusing and emotional and my review will likely change two books from now when Abercrombie shows that I was wrong about everything – including things like who my parents are. The book is a gift of anxiety, lost sleep, depression, excitement, and betrayal. I don’t know why I keep reading his books, all they do is upset me for a month afterward because I can’t stop thinking about them. Everyone would probably live a happier and more carefree life if they never picked up a piece of Abercrombie’s haunting fiction. I highly recommend it, probably the best book I have read this year.

Rating: A Little Hatred – 10/10
-Andrew

Middlegame – I Didn’t Quite Go Cuckoo For It, But Still Great

71e9du8wynlI wanted to start this review with a reference to Changes by David Bowie, but maybe that’s a little too on the nose? What about The Future’s So Bright by Timbuk 3? Probably still not quite right, and due to my lack of pop culture references to alchemy I may have to change my angle of approach. See, I know all of this may stick out as odd to you now but if you actually go and read Middlegame by Seanan McGuire you’ll notice the super-hidden and not obvious at all references I’ve made to the fact that the book is about time travel. It will also become obvious to you that they weren’t very funny and I should probably just review the book itself. The fact that I’m about to do that is another coded message to you that I hear your constructive criticism, that I’m listening to you. I’m always listening to you.

Middlegame starts in media res with our two protagonists in the midst of failing to save the world, one of them bleeding to death and the other unable to do anything about it. Through some magic that is essentially the entire premise of the book, everything is reset and we get to experience the story that led them there, sort of. This is a somewhat difficult story to parse critically without ruining a lot of the feeling of discovery, as the idea that our protagonists can essentially reset their current timeline in order to go back and try to fix something that went wrong means that we are often given information that either quickly becomes obsolete or that has significantly more importance than we’re originally led to believe. As such, I’ll try to give the barebones rundown of the setting before we move on. The world is nominally the same as ours but for the fact that the magical practice of alchemy is real. This has led to the formation of a shadowy organization called the Alchemical Congress, and it is because of their unwillingness to go along with the plans of one of their members named Asphodel Baker that our story is set into motion. Baker, in pursuit of godlike power, writes a set of children’s books that contain coded messages relating to a large number of important alchemical MacGuffins, and it is this act that sets our story into motion.

If it sounds like I’m handwaving the magic a little bit, it’s on purpose. I didn’t feel like the restraints of alchemy were really all that consistent within the text, and it felt more to me like the means to an end of telling the story McGuire wanted rather than a cohesive and living framework in which the characters lived. I don’t, however, think that’s necessarily a bad thing, as it led to a somewhat whimsical and unique feel to the magic that I enjoyed quite a great deal. McGuire’s choice to write portions of the narrative in the style of Baker’s children’s stories goes a long way to making that aspect of the story feel fundamental and coherent. The magic feels like storybook magic, which fits the story McGuire tells in Middlegame.

The characterization of our two main protagonists is great. Not only does McGuire do a great job of writing the protagonists, Roger and Dodger, she also does a great job of exploring the unique powers that the two were born with and grow into over time. I suppose I should have expected this in a book about using time travel to fix the mistakes you made in the past to save the future, but I was extremely surprised by a number of the twists and misdirects in the book. Each setback for the pair feels real and is written well enough to instill a sympathetic sense of loss in me when I think back on them. I thought McGuire did especially well writing the pair as children, their dialogue and internal monologue was believable without being over the top and really helped cement the two as real people in my mind.

I wish I could say the same for the antagonists. My main gripe with the book is that neither Reed, our main antagonist and the homunculus made by Baker, nor his assistant feel like real people. I’m guessing that’s on purpose due to the fact that they’re both constructs made by other alchemists, which McGuire takes pains to point out throughout the course of the book. While that is something of a mitigating factor, and I did enjoy getting to see the inner workings of their heads and their descriptions of how they interact with the world, they were always just a little too arch, just a skosh too pantomime evil to ever truly feel real. I enjoyed reading their segments the same way I enjoy laughing at Skeletor in images of the old He-Man show. Regardless of how close they come to succeeding, or how much danger they put the protagonists in, their motivations never feel like something I could understand or be threatened by.

I was enchanted by Middlegame. The world felt inhabitable in a very inviting way. I enjoyed the somewhat “take it as it is” magic system, I liked the protagonists a lot, and I thought the time travel mechanic that McGuire uses was a clever and unique twist on that style of story. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sequel at some point down the line and will absolutely pick it up if it comes to be, though in my research I haven’t turned up any mention of whether that’s actually planned or not. I wouldn’t necessarily bump other stuff out of your to-be-read queue, but definitely try to make some time for this book.

Rating: Middlegame – 8.0/10
-Will

This Is How You Lose The Time War – Long Title For A Short (Great) Book

71uzngwnyelI didn’t want to write this review. Strong start, right? I want to clarify that my reluctance to write critically about This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone is not out of laziness or a lack of motivation. I loathe having to review writing I find profound in some way, through its message or its romance or a myriad of other sweet words to describe mostly indescribable experiences. I think mainly it’s a concern that I won’t do the piece justice. That my halting and insecure attempts to explain to others why it was that I was touched by a book won’t sufficiently get across the magic of the story. I’m so glad I didn’t have to review the Divine Cities series or The Night Circus for this specific reason. What else is there to say, really, when a text brings you to tears and rekindles a neglected but essential part of yourself? The fact that This Is How You Lose the Time War is one of these special stories was not super great for the part of me that is a reviewer. However, part of me that screams out for something bright and hot and dangerous to warm the essence of myself by, the part of me that fell in love with reading in the first place? That part of me needed this book.

To give you a brief rundown, there is a time war going on in the book This Is How You Lose the Time War. Yes, I was shocked as well. Our main characters, Red and Blue, are time traveling super agents from two separate futures. In one, a hyper-technological race of humans who have augmented themselves to be nearly wholly made up of machine have won and dictate the future. In the other, a hyper-advanced race of humans that has used biotech to augment themselves and their universe with what would be called “nature” if it weren’t used so unnaturally have won and dictate their future. The bulk of the story takes place as correspondence between these two agents at various points in the past and future as their paths overlap. What starts as a taunting letter to a respected foe eventually leads to a surprisingly touching and meaningful romance between the two. Sounds like a spoiler, right? Nope, literally laid out on the back of book blurb. That’s normally the kind of thing that would spoil my enjoyment of a story somewhat, but the fact that love is inevitable, that the future is inevitable is a huge part of why the story works as well as it does.

So my “boss” here at QTL, Andrew, who I have spoken of in reviews with both great love and great annoyance, has a large number of things that he loves in books (magic schools as an example), as well as things he tends to strongly dislike. One of these latter things is time travel. I understand and agree with him in most cases, as it’s generally done poorly, lazily, or merely competently which tends to gum up the workings of a book and mess with pacing enough to take the reader out of the flow of the story. I recently found a book I thought did it well in Middlegame, but after reading TIHYLTTW I have to compare stories involving time travel to a new standard. I love the way it’s handled in this book, and the ways in which we are exposed to the various eras that our characters play their futuristic-and-incredibly-dated-at-the-same-time- exactly game of phone tag in are beautifully described without lingering. I loved the idea of one of our agents, having lived as a north atlantic fisherman for the last ten years in an individual strand of time, seeing a pattern in the spots on a seal and interpreting that for the letter it was. I loved the future strand where an agent commits genocide by uploading a computer virus to the wrong place at the right time. I cannot think of an individual vignette in the story that wasn’t both useful and beautiful. This is a book with no fat on its bones and an exquisite skeleton.

I do want to take a moment to gush about the prose in this book. I thought, in the first chapter or two, that it was a little overwrought, a little too self-assured in its prettiness to the point that it almost came across as cocky. I don’t know if that’s quite the right way to describe it, but that was the first impression I got. Something akin to “don’t you just think you’re so clever?” But that’s the thing, it really is that clever. Each word is important, each description is purposeful, and the way unimaginable worlds are described varied from beautiful to horrifying and back within sentences. For those readers who go outside, and have been to the Badlands in South Dakota, this book has the same foreboding and otherworldly beauty that the terrain in that national park does. I’ve never gotten that particular feeling from a story before. I felt like an alien while I was within its pages, eyes wide open and toiling to comprehend the vistas being laid out before me. Oh, and for those of you who know me from my cosmic horror reviews, the description of the Garden made me want an entire horror series taking place there, not being there for longer within the story is the most acutely painful thing about this book to me.

You’ll notice I haven’t reviewed our characters yet. I’m not going to as I worry I’ll spoil something, some of their development or a line from one of their letters might be that one important jenga piece to the whole tower. I can’t begin to pick apart what’s the really important stuff and what’s the stuff that’s just gorgeous and luxuriant. While you “meet” another one or two sentient creatures in the story, we really only have the two main characters, Red and Blue, and as such we are given a surprising amount of space to stretch out and learn about them even within a novella. Their growth was superb and believable, their tit-for-tat taunting and one-upsmanship was fun, and parts of their stories broke my heart despite the fact that I guessed the twist. I love them and truly, truly hope we get more of them in a series or a short or really anything in the future (whichever one it ends up as).

Well I loved it. That part is obvious if you’ve gotten this far. I could not imagine this story being made better by being longer or shorter than it was. Each individual vignette was poignant and beautiful. Each letter Red and Blue exchange buoyed my heart and broke it once more. I was blown away by each world visited, each timeline changed, and each trivial fact about their respective childhoods. What’s more, everything I just mentioned that I loved meant something. It was all important to the conclusion of the story and it was wrapped up in a way that literally had me audibly “wow”-ing on an airplane, earning me several suspicious looks from the man in the seat next to me. I will be reading this multiple more times in the future, and this may end up being one of my few “yearly rereads”. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is.

Rating: This Is How You Lose the Time War – 10/10
-Will

Children Of Ruin – Oh What A Wonderful World It Could Be

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So, we have a sequel to Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky – which is very interesting. We loved Children of Time here at The Quill to Live. Our review can be found here, but to make a long story short every one of us who had the chance to read Time came out of the experience listing it as a favorite book. However, we also assumed the story was over. Time’s narrative ends in a really good place and felt like it was a very strong stand-alone novel. If you had asked me if there would be a sequel a year ago I would have said, “God, I hope not.” Despite this, Tchaikovsky sat down and wrote a follow-up novel called Children of Ruin, and if he feels that there is still more story to tell then I trust him enough at this point to read it. As usual, my trust was well rewarded. There are mild spoilers from Children of Time ahead.

If you are unfamiliar with Children of Time, well then you should be reading our first review linked above and subsequently to that, reading that incredible book. If you have read the first book, or I haven’t scared you off, know that Children of Ruin is an impressive piece of writing. Part of the massive power of Time’s story is how Tchaikovsky manages expectations and constantly surprises you with how the book develops. Over the course of the story, we get to see how the humans and portiids approach and solve problems – and the results that Tchaikovsky presents are always imaginative, alien, and thought-provoking. This is part of why I was concerned with a sequel story. Now that I was wise to Tchaikovsky’s methods, I was concerned that Ruin might lack the sense of surprise and wonder from book one. It does not.

Children of Ruin opens in a very similar manner to its predecessor. You get to see a terraforming team working on a planet to make it ready for human life. This is a massive oversimplification but: things go horribly wrong, everyone almost dies, and it results in a supervirus rapidly evolving a new kind of animal to live on the newly transformed planet. We saw coming out of the end of book one that the humans and portiids had found a way to exist together without killing one another. At the start of Children of Ruin, these two groups are starting to work together and launch an expedition to the stars to explore a mysterious beacon calling for help (which are of course the octopuses). Thus we have the two timelines in the book. In the past, we get to see the development of this new animal species – octopuses. In the present, we get to see our humans and portiids from Time investigating what is going on with this new species thousands of years later.

On some level, Children of Ruin follows a very similar formula to Children of Time. The structure of the narrative is extremely similar, and both books focus on how an animal with very different senses and thought patterns might approach civilization if they were the dominant species. If the only difference between the books was seeing the evolution of spiders and octopuses respectively, it would be a worthwhile read. The octopuses approach communication and thought visually in the book, just like they do in real life, and it results in some of the most imaginative, well written, and captivating first contact scenes I have ever read. Fantastically, that is not the only difference between the two books, and the additional changes in Ruin elevate it to the same greatness of Time.

Tchaikovsky clearly knew going into Children of Ruin that his readers would be coming to the table with more information than they did with book one. He knew people would be expecting the unexpected and looking for out of the box answers to the problems he presented in the story. To combat this, it felt like Tchaikovsky just keeps nesting additional boxes and misdirects in the story. He plays with the expectations set by book one to create new opportunities for surprise and experience. It is a brilliant display of talent when it comes to themes and misdirection, and it meant that despite being a much wiser person when I read Ruin that I still got taken on a wild ride.

In addition to the powerful narrative, Ruin builds upon the strengths of Time allowing Tchaikovsky to prominently display his skills as a writer. The worldbuilding is incredible, with the book having a true alien atmosphere that you can immerse yourself in. The book has powerful emotional moments of shock, horror, and excitement that will have your heart racing as you read it. I think one area that was already great that got better was the characters. The cast of this book is phenomenal and I felt deep emotional connections to all of them. This ties into the one thing I didn’t like about the book. I felt that the stories of some of these incredible characters didn’t feel fully explored by the end of this story.

Children of Ruin, much like its predecessor, is an incredible piece of science fiction that I firmly believe will be considered a classic in the future. It is original, entertaining, thought-provoking, surprising, and takes an already very high bar and sets it higher. You owe it to yourself to read these magnetic books and experience life through a new set of sensory organs. Both Time and Ruin are two of my favorite books in recent memory.

Rating: Children of Ruin – 10/10
-Andrew

A Lush And Seething Hell – If This Is Hell I’ll pass On Heaven

91dsajyop2lI am not a religious man. Despite my Catholic upbringing and coming of age in the American midwest, the world of the spiritual has never called out to me. I’ve never felt the rapture of religion or the whisper of the divine. As such, I find myself sorely lacking in vocabulary to describe my experience with A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs. Comprised of the novellas The Sea Dreams it is the Sky and My Heart Struck Sorrow, this “anthology-lite” as I’ve come to think of it is beyond normal description for me. Had I truly submerged myself in the dogma of Catholicism, with its near-magic and incensed ritualism, I might be able to better put into words how these stories affected me. As it is, however, I can only imagine that this is what people who have had spiritual revelations felt like in the aftermath: my nerves are raw and frayed, and I feel as if I have been exposed to something separate from me and all the experience I’ve had up to this point.

I know that sounds rather overwrought and excessive, but so much of this book has infused me and singed the edges of all that I am that there’s no other way to describe it. The book’s cover art slowly wore away from my fingers as I read it, and over the week it took me to read and re-read and really digest the depth and weight of the stories it contained, I would find little black spots on my hands and forearms from the ink wearing away. It was almost as if I was physically consuming the book as I read it. I’ve received and reviewed a decent number of ARCs at this point, and while they’re never quite as well put together physically as a release copy of a book, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. I felt personally connected to the stories of Isabel and Cromwell, and felt that I was being marked just as they were by something incomprehensible and vast and somehow more than the paltry world I had experienced to that point. Jacobs uses the phrase “collapsed-time” in both stories to describe the fluidity and lack of form of time when experienced through a period of great pain or emotion, and that is exactly what I felt during my time with the stories. Time as I had known it ceased to act for me in the way it always had, and I felt myself separate from it in a fundamental and indescribable way.

I’m normally more lighthearted in my reviews and take less care in my attempts at mellifluous descriptions and language, but I don’t know that I could review something that I felt so profoundly without all of this extra…everything. I’ve waited to start writing this review for weeks now to see whether the feeling would change or stick with me, and if anything my experience with these stories has grown more profound in retrospect. I don’t know if I’ll ever find a novel or anthology or anything else that will impact me quite the same way. I never have before.

The book begins with The Sea Dreams it is the Sky, a tale about Isabel, an exiled teacher from the made-up South American country of Magera. While the country described in the story is imaginary, the trials and tribulations it undergoes at the hands of a totalitarian regime supported from behind the scenes by the United States are all too based in history. She meets her country’s most famous (or infamous) exiled poet Avendano, who is believed by most to be dead after being captured and tortured by the government. When he tells her that he must return to the country under strange circumstances, he gives her his apartment and access to his unfinished translation of an ancient and obscene text. In the process of continuing the translation she is drawn back to her country to search for Avendano and to try to reconcile what is currently happening to her with what has happened and continues to happen to her country. The story becomes more dreamlike and terrifying as it continues and Isabel is drawn further into the horror that has subsumed her home, horror of cosmic and sadly mundane nature. While there are great and unknowable forces at work in Magera, they are contrasted against the totalitarian regime of Vidal, and I found this comparison to be remarkably profound. Cosmic horror relies heavily on the fear of the unknown, that the forces at work against the protagonist are so vast and alien that the horror happening in the story is actually impersonal, because why would an ancient being with the power of gods actually care about a single individual? In stark relief against this is the specific pettiness of the horror Vidal’s government inflicts on its own people. Teachers, students, Marxists, and regular citizens who know the wrong people are intentionally targeted and disappeared in ways horrific enough that the description of Avendano reacting to the tortures that aren’t themselves described was enough for me to be truly unsettled. It is a trip down a rabbit hole into a twisted surreal wonderland that I wanted to leave but couldn’t get enough of.

My Heart Struck Sorrow, the second story of this anthology-lite, is a more classic cosmic horror tale of a researcher discovering a work of art that tells a story humans aren’t meant to understand. I want it to be clear that my description of this as “more classic” is not meant to imply that this is in any way less scary or meaningful for that fact. With as much horror as I read, it’s rare for me to be physically affected by a story, but in three pages my scalp was tingling and the hair on the back of my neck was raised. This story masterfully mixes both supernatural horror and terror of a mundane nature and is stronger for not relying on one or the other. Following a music researcher, Cromwell, as he explores recordings left to the historical agency he works for as part of an old woman’s estate, My Heart Struck Sorrow is a mysterious and haunting story about the magic the world used to, and may still, contain and a man’s desperation to tap into that regardless of the personal cost. I will say no more about the story, but, “He’s a bad man, Stackalee.”

I need to wrap this “review that isn’t really a review so much as me pouring my heart out about something that filled it too much” up. I’m sure you can tell from everything up to this point that I absolutely loved this book. I have never been impacted by stories the way I was with this, and the very act of reading cast a sort of glamour over me and my life for both the week I was actively reading it and each day since. Maybe it was the mindset I had going into the reading of this book. It could have been a strange cosmic alignment that changed me and made me more receptive to it. I’m not sure, but I had as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever felt while reading this, and to anyone looking for another great cosmic horror writer, look no further than John Hornor Jacobs.

Rating: A Lush and Seething Hell – 10/10 (I would give it more if I could)
-Will