Tag Archives: fiction

2017 Writing Year in Review

This past year was a good one for placing fiction but an even better one for placing book reviews. Find below a list of writing highlights from the past twelve months, with loads of links to free content.

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A writing retrospective
Sometimes the work is slow, and in the midst of day-to-day endeavors it feels like not much is getting done. But looking back over the course of the year, it turns out a surprising amount of work does indeed get done, regardless of how it appears on any given morning. And then some of that even gets published. So here, for a moment in the sunset of 2017, I offer a comprehensive look back at what I’ve been doing over the course of the previous year. Four stories were published, including two fantasy pieces in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and ten book reviews in publications like Black Gate, Strange Horizons, and Grimdark Magazine. And it turns out I accidentally sort of wrote a book, which you can also find below.

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Fiction
Another chapter in my “Wizard’s House” series, an epic dark fantasy, British pumpkin soldiers, and hard scifi on first contact and universal dissolution. The first three you can read following the links below; the last is available in the magazine for purchase.

The Wind’s Departure,” Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Harvest,” Bracken Magazine issue 4
Deathspeaker,”Beneath Ceaseless Skies
“Color of the Flame,” MYTHIC Issue 2

 

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Book Reviews
Most of the fiction I read this year found its way into print as book reviews. You can find links to almost all of them below. For the MYTHIC reviews though, you’ll need to purchase the issues if interested.

Strange Horizons
Wicked Wonders, by Ellen Klages
ODY-C: Cycle One, by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward

Black Gate
The Man Underneath: the Collected Short Fiction of R. A. Lafferty, vol. 3
The Language of the Night, by Ursula LeGuin
Howl’s Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones
In Calabria, by Peter S. Beagle

Grimdark Magazine
Three Books to Get you Stuck into Warhammer 40,000”

MYTHIC
Press Start to Play, edited by Daniel H. Wilson & John Joseph Adams,” (Summer 2017)
Federations, edited by John Joseph Adams,” (Spring 2017)
The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Karen Joy Fowler,” (Spring 2017)

Ten Generations cover

Books
Making Stars Physical will hopefully be a part of next year’s end-year review, and I hope to very, very soon be able to unveil the cover for this forthcoming work. The folks at University of Pittsburgh Press are doing an amazing job with this, and I’m quite excited. In the meantime though I put together a small work for my father for Christmas that chronicled the history of our family in America. Along the way I found a document my grandfather had prepared of his recollections before his death, which I edited and included in the work and which blossomed into a 60-page book. I printed it via Createspace, so if any of my family are reading this update and are interested in a copy, it is available. The cost covers printing alone; it was meant to be a gift, and it includes my grandfather’s unpublished writings, so I will not make any money on the sales.

 

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Books Read:
I hope to get over this soon, but in the meantime I have a compulsion to review every book I read here on my blog. The list below are the books I read and reviewed in 2017 that did not have reviews published elsewhere.

How to Tame a Fox (and Build a Dog)
Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works
Lighthouses & Keepers: the U.S. Lighthouse Service and its Legacy
One Summer, America 1927
Beginning to Pray
Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing
Son of Laughter
Dancing Bees: Karl von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language
With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God
The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate
Kindling the Divine Spark
Death and Life of the Great Lakes
Knowledge for Sale: the Neoliberal Takeover of Higher Education
Victoria: the Queen
Praying with Icons
The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University
How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything
Octopus! The Most Mysterious Creature in the Sea
Good Boy, Achilles!
St. Siluoan the Athonite
The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World

As always, thanks for reading, and here’s to a great 2018!

Writing Life (for now)

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I snapped the picture above a couple years ago in Brescia, Italy. I was there teaching some astronomy lessons at a portable planetarium in a local school, part of a teaching exchange program that had taken me and Christine to Rome, Assisi, Gorizia, and ultimately Venice. I didn’t do much writing while I was there, but I occasionally find an image or photo that I captured on the trip that seems to fit with what I’ve been writing lately. This lane of Roman stones in Brescia, softened by green, was part of a tour we were given of the ancient corners of the city by our host. People have paced that lane for centuries, but on that particular afternoon we saw no one.

My writing lately has focused on keeping up with fiction reviews and research. For a while I was doing a good job (probably a pathologically good job) of posting a review of every book I read on this blog. It was fun. It helped me keep the books I had read straight in my head, helped me to enter into conversations with the authors and the concepts they were engaging. I hope to do that here again, but it got to be less fun. It started to feel like an obligation. Also, I started publishing my reviews elsewhere. (If you’re interested, my latest review appeared at Grimdark Magazine not long ago and I have others forthcoming in Mythic Magazine and at Black Gate.) So, things have been quiet here for a while.

As far as research goes, I have a few grants that I’ve been working on, one of which I hope will be bearing fruit shortly (and perhaps sending me back down certain cobbled lanes). My forthcoming work of nonfiction, Making Stars Physical: John Herschel’s Astronomy, is at the presses now (in some kind of possibly literal sense) with University of Pittsburgh Press. We’re looking at a Spring/Summer 2018 release. I just saw copy on the book for their spring catalogue, complete with lovely blurbs from colleagues, so that was encouraging.

In fiction, I can’t stay away from Diogenes Shell and his floating house. There have been three installments in his saga to date, with a fourth, “The Wind’s Departure,” out today in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. If you have a minute, take a look at it. Diogenes tries to keep his promises, confronts the god, and returns home– after a fashion.

Promises, I have come to understand, are the aureate chains that tether a wizard’s life, the margins that hem and structure his magic. We live by the promises we make, just as we draw power from the promises the world keeps with itself.
-Diogenes Shell, in “The Wind’s Departure”

Check it out, stay in touch, and as always– let me know what you think.

Good Boy, Achilles!

Good Boy, Achilles!Good Boy, Achilles! by Eddie Ellis

Darwinian evolution did something to theology. Suddenly it became much less straightforward to see humanity as the center of the created order. Man was not the apex of creation but rather a species that happened to have had a series of successful random adaptations. More importantly, perhaps, nature red in tooth and claw put to the question the idea of humans as somehow mediating between God and the world in a chain of being where the higher animals were below us (and in our care) and the angels above.

On the other hand, it’s still pretty clear that humans play a role in the natural order, perhaps even a central role—even when seen in a purely materialistic context. We tilt the world toward change through our actions or inactions. (Climate change offers just one example of this.) More than broad ecological effects though, we have physically transformed certain species through the millennia-long experiments of domestication. Even if the rest of the animal kingdom could care less about humans, we in a very real way have some kind of role or responsibility to discharge vis a vis our dogs and cats, cattle, horses, and fowl. All these species are to some extent our own creation and have helped make human society possible. Dogs, for instance, have in some contexts and with a great deal of truth been claimed as our greatest and most enduring invention.

But which way does this responsibility go? Could it in some respects be reciprocal?

Theologically, you could respond to the idea of a unique relationship between humans and at least certain portions of the natural world (domesticated species, for instance) in a couple ways, specifically in light of humanity’s painfully evident inability to properly steward and protect these creatures (as well as ourselves). Classically, this fact is referred to in Christian theology as the Fall or as humanity’s fallen nature.

You could take the stance that this brokenness extends to the rest of the physical world as well as to humanity itself (St. Paul’s expression about the entire creation groaning). A theological view of animals in this case might hold that whatever redemption they have or need is mediated through mankind. C. S. Lewis comments on this somewhere when he responds to a question about animals in heaven by saying something like it is the role of humanity to mediate between God and nature and restore creation—that whatever kind of relationship animals might have with a Creator, it is through their relationship with man.

If that seems to anthropocentric, another theological tact might be that the rest of the world is still pure and unspoiled and that it was only man that went wrong, that this taint doesn’t extend beyond humans. Lewis again provides an example of something like this in his Space Trilogy, where only the planet Earth (the “silent planet”) has been occupied by the Enemy, and the creatures and animals on other planets in the solar system live in harmony with each other and their creator. A theological view of this might claim that animals still have an unobstructed relationship with God and that the responsibility of care might run the other direction— that they might be charged with helping to deliver us.

Now if all this seems like a lot of theological throat-clearing for a review of a slim book about puppies written for kids, I would point out that the author of said book has a Master’s in theology and PhD in religious studies, as well as a clear theological message to communicate in his writing. In the fictional universe Ellis creates (centered around a boy named Jeremy who lives on a farm with his parents and their dog Ginger, who has just given birth to a litter of puppies), it is the dogs who still have a clear point of contact and communion with their Creator and who are charged with the care and stewarding of their humans. Humans are muddled. Not only do they not smell and hear as well as their canine caretakers, they don’t have the inborn instincts and understanding that dogs are born with in Ellis’s book. The puppies and their mother know the voice of God and even occasionally interact with His messengers, but it’s not apparent whether this ability extends to the other animals on the farm or the wild animals (primarily raccoons) that occasionally make a nuisance of themselves.

That last line was not offered facetiously, as this would have been an interesting wrinkle to explore in the work. If dogs are innately “good”, does this extend to other animals that classically represent domestication and companionship? And are wild animals (like wolves, for instance) distinguished by their inability to hear or heed the voice of the Maker? Questions like these, and the potential conflicts that might arise, would have been interesting things to explore in a work that otherwise is a very straightforward tale about a boy who wants a puppy.

Ellis is writing for children, so he keeps the narrative focused and simple. Jeremy wants one of the puppies, named Thunder, for his own, though his parents have explained that they’re giving away all the puppies because they cannot afford them. Jeremy’s universe is as tight and tidy as the narrative itself: a halcyon farm where his dad takes him fishing and his mom makes cornbread and engages in the occasional snowball fight, a world complete with faithful family friends, church, and a cozy barn with a litter of puppies. We don’t see any conflict or fracturing of this idyllic scene; all Jeremy can see is a puppy that his parents have denied him.

Tension builds throughout the book as one by one the other puppies are taken away and Thunder learns what it means to care for and protect his human, from whom he ultimately receives his true name. Ellis’s voice and descriptive prose is solid, as you would expect from someone accustomed to academic writing. His tone is never dry or awkward, and he spins out the warm, domestic scenes with ease. The book slides along toward its inevitable conclusion until a final departure in which Jeremy, with very little warning, takes matters into his own hands with all the simple and unfathomable logic of a child. It is in this final crisis that Thunder (in what feels like a riff on a classic Lassie episode) proves himself to be Jeremy’s dog and saves both the boy and their future together. (Strangely, for all the attention that Ellis pays throughout the novel in passing along wisdom about God, patience, and obedience through the parents to the son, there is no final discussion or consequence related to Jeremy’s final, reckless gambit.)

It’s difficult for me to offer a perspective on how this book would read for a young child except to say this: I think kids like complexity. I think they can handle a lot more ambiguity than we normally give them credit for. Good Boy, Achilles seems to harken back to a time when children’s book were much more straightforward and black and white: a boy and his dog, obedience and trust. But even a book like that needs some wrinkles. In the straightforward world that Ellis creates, I kept finding myself looking for the complexities, perhaps some along the lines of what I outlined above. In some respects this book might fit a niche similar to Charlotte’s Web, but Charlotte’s Web had a cast including not only a pig and a spider but also geese, a rat, and entire barnyard ensemble. Ginger’s puppies have ended up in a variety of homes by the end of the story. If Ellis follows their various adventures, I hope we learn more about what it means to serve and follow (or question) the Wounded One (the dogs’ name for Christ) in other, varied setting with a broader cast of characters.

When the Watcher Shakes

When the Watcher ShakesWhen the Watcher Shakes by Timothy G. Huguenin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Timothy Huguenin’s book When the Watcher Shakes is a solid debut novel by a solid new writer. The story explores a cultic, isolated town hidden in an Appalachian valley and is told with an easy confidence. Huguenin has a good handle on the tools of the craft: the writing is clear and precise, and the straightforward tone and pacing kept me reading even when the characters themselves felt at times a bit unrealistic. I was still turning pages up to the very conclusion of the novel, and apart from a few very minor typos, the work was artfully done. My main disappointments, outlined below, were in the depiction of the characters and in ultimately unsettled questions.

Abestown is a walled city in a forest, governed by a council of Historians and overseen by a sinister Head Historian who keep the inhabitants in line with threats of strange creatures beyond the walls (akin to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village). The town is governed in a stranger, more metaphysical way by the clocktower dominating its center. We see the town through the perspective of John, a hapless, easy-going wanderer who sights the town from a nearby highway and decides to investigate, despite having met Jerry, an old man who grew up in the town and departed but now lives on the mountain overlooking. Once inside the town, where the inhabitants are polite but suspicious, John’s inquisitive personality influence the thinking of Isaac, the town janitor and “watcher” of the title. Eventually and inevitably, John’s destabilizing influence transforms life within the town.

Huguenin puts all of the elements in place for a darkly unsettling mystery, and his writing style and skill is enough to clinch it, which make it disappointing when the hidden nature of the town is never truly revealed and the spectacular confrontations built toward (for example, between the Head Historian and Isaac) never are quite carried through. There are plenty of hints of darker things afoot—in the nature of the clocktower itself, for instance, which seems to predate the town itself in some ways, and in the supernatural strength of Rob Kai, the Head Historian— but these mysteries are never explored. Perhaps Huguenin is setting the stage for further work in which the history of Abestown, will be further developed. But if that’s the case, there are no obvious hooks that leave the reader on the line for another installment. Instead, we’re left to drift away from the walls and their mysteries like Lisa, the only character in the work who truly finds freedom.

These things were disappointing because of their potential. If the novel had been weaker, perhaps they wouldn’t have been so troubling, but When the Watcher Shakes was rife with interesting things popping up that were never followed out. One of the first things John notices in the town, for instance, is that he clearly hears the whistle of a passing train but none of the other townsfolk hear it. We come to realize that the council somehow has such a hold over the town that whatever the council declares to exist or not exist shapes the way the rest of the town experiences reality. (This gives rise to some clever wordplay, for example when Isaac realizes that when the train whistles he hears nothing, and that he has heard nothing several times before.) Again though, besides the power of suggestion, this is never fully explored—and the mysterious train that first gave John some understanding of how strange the town really was is never addressed either (though it is where John meets his ultimate, grizzly fate).

The town’s isolation is also never fully explored, and it gave rise to a few strange paradoxes in the novel. For instance, we learn that the newcomer’s name is one “Abe would approve of,” indicating Biblical names are probably preferred. There are other Biblical names as well (Isaac and Obadiah, for instance), but there are several more modern names: Lisa, Rob, and Jerry, for starters. The inhabitants of the town don’t know what trucks or cocoa are, but there is a restaurant in the town that serves “deer burgers,” and Rob, the primary villain, on several occasions refers to other characters as “punks.” Moreover, for a town that insists to live in such isolation and believes outsiders like John pose such a threat, the ease with which John first found the town and wandered into it seemed far too convenient.

The primary weakness of When the Watcher Shakes though was the characters’ impotence in enacting any real change in their circumstances. John seemed laughably naive and oblivious to his own danger in his insistence that an easy-going nature would get everything weird about the town sorted out. Isaac was a bit more developed, and it seemed he would become the hero to actually stand up to Rob, the Head Historian. He eventually did, but this confrontation was ultimately futile, and Rob was only destroyed by an accidental fluke. There was no final confrontation in which the masks came off and truths about the town were revealed. The only real crisis overcome by a character changing and overcoming odds was when Lisa, the abused wife of the Head Historian stood up to him to defend Isaac at his trial, but even that lacked an ultimate resolution between Rob and Lisa. (As an aside: the attitude of the town/cult leader to the women in his community was an obvious generalization hit upon heavily in the work.)

For all that though, Huguenin’s writing was strong enough to make Abestown feel like a real place and the characters come to life. Though portions of the narrative seemed a bit contrived, the terseness of the prose itself kept the overall story gripping. When the Watcher Shakes is an example of a writer setting out to create, testing his narrative grasp, and finding it true. I look forward to his next offering, and I hope it rises to the challenges his own stories set forth.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you followed Potter through all the years of his Hogswarts residency and found the idea of a secret magical history of England compelling but were not quite carried away by the novels themselves because they were books for kids featuring a tedious, angsty protagonist, then Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell might be the actual history of magic in England for grown-ups that you’ve been looking for. It also helps if you have some experience reading period pieces like Austin’s novels, but none of that is to say you should consider this something like Jane Austin meets Harry Potter.

What Susanna Clarke has done instead in this massive and layered tome is two independent things, both which would have been impressive on their own. Firstly, she creates a believable history of magic in England, stretching from the Middle Ages and complete with footnotes to imaginary (but believable) sources, historical figures, and anecdotes. Secondly, she uses this history as a backdrop for the novel’s actual narrative, the story of the rebirth of magic in England in the early 1800s. But even more impressively, she does these two things simultaneously. The history is woven into the story, and the story is intimately related to the history.

Clarke gives the old England you believed in as a kid (and probably the England many Americans still believe in): fairy princes, sorcerer-kings, and enchantments. But we only get glimpses of this landscape through snatches of histories or accounts of old books given in passing. When the novel opens, all of this has faded away. England at the time of the Napoleonic Wars is a place where gentlemanly societies of magicians practice “theoretical magic” (discussing the history and nature of magic but not working any actual magic). This begins to change when the two magicians of the book’s title arise independently and set about to restore “practical magic” to England, primarily by putting it to service defending the nation against Napoleon.

The characters and setting are expertly constructed, and much of the novel’s effectiveness comes through the rivalry and friendship of the two primary magicians. Strange is young, ambitious, impulsive, and comes to the practice of magic almost by accident. Norrell is overly cautious, introverted, plodding, and arrived at his power by years of careful reading and study. The central conflict of the novel arises over their different approaches to magic: Norrell wants to reinvent or formalize magic as a scientific discipline and rid it of any traces of wild, fairy magic. Strange, on the other hand, is comfortable dabbling in the less controllable aspects of magic. He uses dark magic when necessary on the battlefield beside Lord Wellington, for instance, and he eventually pursues the essence of madness itself in an effort to summon a fairy servant.

These aspects of magic horrify and disgust Norrell. The irony though is that in order to begin his own path to power, Norrell entered into a bargain with a fairy to raise a young woman from the dead. This single lapse comes to haunt Norrell’s entire career. Eventually Norrell’s attempts to deny or cover this up and to keep Strange from embarking along a similar path lead to his ultimate rift with Strange. At the same time, the door this act opened for a malicious fairy to begin working mischief in England must ultimately be closed, at great cost to both magicians. (As an aside, the way Clarke handles the absolutely alien, whimsical, and chilling nature of fairies in this book is another one of its strengths.)

It would be difficult to summarize the entire, immense work, which begins with Norrell’s attempts to make magic respectable and useful to the government and then the actions of Norrell and Strange and their magic in the Napoleonic Wars. In the background of everything though is the looming question of the history of the Raven King, a boy-king who walked out of the lands of Fairie in the Middle Ages, established a kingdom in northern England, and ruled it for three hundred years before departing and taking a good portion of English magic with him. As the results of their own actions, inactions, and misunderstandings grow, Strange and Norrell come to realize they will need to summon help from this wellspring of English magic itself.

Clarke’s book is intimidating in its size. The particular copy I was reading was a paperback advance reading copy that weighed in at exactly 777 pages. This wasn’t the first time I had attempted to get through it. On this attempt though I had a crutch of sorts (in addition to some time in bed with an illness): the recent BBC miniseries. Watching the six-episode miniseries as I read through the book spurred me along and added a layer of engagement and I tried to figure out what had been done differently in the television adaptation and picked out specific speeches or passages pulled out of the book verbatim.

The main problem of the book is its sheer volume. The plot meanders, and though many of these meanders are pleasant and interesting (even the pages-long footnotes from the history of English magic) about midway through the novel things start to get a bit old. There are dozens of characters, and Clarke can’t introduce one without giving several pages of background history of who they are and where they come from. This lends a thickness and verisimilitude to the work, which again is one of its strengths, but it also becomes at points a bit of a slog. That said, all the various plots are tied together nicely in the novel’s climax, but getting there was helped along by being able to stop every couple hundred pages and sit down and watch the next installment of the television version.

Clarke’s tone in the novel is wry. There were parts where I laughed out loud because she captures so perfectly the stuffiness of Norrell and the British ministers and has them interact in ways that seem incredibly droll and believable. Stylistically, her strongest juxtapositions are between the philosophies of Norrell and Strange. Norrell represents a kind of “scientific magic,” perfectly sanitized and reasonable. Strange, on the other hand, discovers the pathways behind mirrors and tries to learn to read the Raven King’s language, which we learn is like barren trees written on a winter sky. He represents the poetry and wonder of magic. It is this tension—between reason and wonder—that is the central engine at the novel’s core, sputtering and coughing and rifted but ultimately renewed, like magic itself.

Threads: A Neoverse Anthology

Threads: A NeoVerse Anthology, Volume 1Threads: A NeoVerse Anthology, Volume 1 by Aaron Safronoff

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Neoglyphic is in the business of creating new ways to tell stories. It’s a transformation a long time in coming, the creation of media that unites story-telling, music, graphics and interactivity. Perhaps it’s been underway for years in the video-game industry, but it hasn’t yet carried over into electronic reading platforms. What I mean is this: prose itself is reaching the place where it can be transformed, for better or for worse. Publications are looking for submissions that blur the line between creator and audience, that find creative ways to use the now-fluid electronic medium to make stories more interactive. Again, some video games have been doing this very well for years, but they remain a specific platform and niche. Neoglyphic, it seems, is working to bring this transformation to story-telling itself, to transform how readers (not just players) engage with text.

To do that though, they have to position themselves as purveyors of story. They have to assemble writers and narratives, and they have to show that quality story-telling—with all the editing, advocating, and disseminating it entails—is part of what they do and what they do well. To this end, Threads: A Neoverse Anthology was born. Neoglyphic cast the net out for stories, and the anthology was their wide and varied catch.

What they caught was a school of strange fish, some frightening, some lovely, all of sleek and flickering hues, all from different depths and of different shapes and sizes. The stories in this volume, in other words, are of a huge variety. They range widely in polish and style and run the gamut from literary realism to psychological horror, from golden age scifi to technological thriller and on to lighthearted fantasy. (Full disclosure, this anthology includes my contribution, “Gold, Vine, and a Name,” which I will not be discussing below.)

Many of the stories feel like pieces of larger works (and the editor explains that this is indeed the case for some of the stories—that they are stand-alone chapters from novels, for example). This increases the feel (whether intended or not) that the work is meant to function as a patchwork showcase of sorts, of a collection of resources Neoglyphic can draw on in their quest to take storytelling in new and different directions. Whether this turns out to be the case remains to be seen, but there’s the sense here of launching, of piloting some new projects to see where they might go or how they might develop.

The anthology was organized around a contest, and the first three stories appearing in the collection are ranked in prize order. After that, the stories are alphabetical. This may have been to ensure the rest of them were treated equally, but it meant there wasn’t editorial freedom for structuring the flow of the anthology by giving the order of stories some organizational structure. What the book lacks in unified flow though, it more than makes up for in the artwork Neoglyphic created to accompany each story and tie them together. Each story has an introductory illustration by the same artist, and the cover (recreated as a full two-page spread at the conclusion of the volume) brings elements of each tale together in a dynamic mishmash that makes the collection of narratives leap off the page.

Some of the stories in this collection were especially striking on a first read. For example, Chuck Regan’s “Dysphoria” (the third-place winner) presented a grippingly horrific vision of a near-future alternate reality awash in chemicals. When most of the world has forgone a physical existence for a virtual one, a market has arisen to create and produce new psycho-chemical experiences. But who’s actually in control: the emotive artists creating them or the corporations selling them? “Say When” by Pamela Bobowicz and “Hotel Marietta” by Sabrina Clare were other stand-outs, literary pieces that look at issues of loss and how families (biological or adoptive) come together to cope. There’s a certain level of the saccharine in some of the works of the anthology, but these two do an excellent job of treating issue of the heart with earnestness and skill.

There’s great fantasy here as well: “Vanni’s Choice” by David A. Elsensohn and “Stormsong” by Tessa Hatheway, for instance, are solid and satisfying. In the first, we follow a thief breaking into the magical fortress of an enemy sorcerer and the choice she must make once she realizes the nature of what she’s been hired to steal. Elsensohn did such a great job building a world and a character in a manner of pages I wanted to follow Vanni directly to her next heist. Likewise, Hatheway’s “Stormsong” is a straightforwardly haunting tale of hubris and deep water.

“A Knight, A Wizard, and Bee— Plus Some Pigs,” by K. G. McAbee, is another fantasy piece in this volume that stuck out. The plot is straightforward—a knight arrives to slay a powerful wizard—but the tone and style is in the tradition of Terry Pratchett, and the humor makes it come to life. Like Vanni, I want to follow Bee and her new master across a few more pages. If a goal of the anthology was to generate readers for new adventures, McAbee and Elsensohn succeeded.

There were several good pieces in the anthology, but there was one that stood out above the rest. (No, I’m not talking about my contribution.) This was Katie Lattari’s “No Protections, Only Powers,” which the author admits in the introduction was written as an attempt to channel Stephen King. A young girl dabbles in some harmless witchcraft and makes a new friend along the way. In the background though, there are much darker things afoot. What makes this story so devastating is the way Lattari balances the details of suburban life and the shadowed view of a surly teenager but then makes those shadows hide genuinely frightening details that only become clear later on. Things are left unsaid or only alluded to, and the story becomes exponentially more chilling by its conclusion. Lattari has stepped into something deep in this one.

Where some anthologies have an overriding theme that ties the contributions together, this one has rather an overriding purpose: to tell and celebrate stories. It gives the work something of a patchwork feel, but it also means that whatever your tastes, if you have an appetite for short stories you’ll certainly find something in here to satisfy.

Mysterion

Mysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian FaithMysterion: Rediscovering the Mysteries of the Christian Faith by Donald S. Crankshaw

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was interviewing for a place in the graduate program for the history and philosophy of science at Notre Dame, there was a dinner attended by prospective students and a few professors. We had all gone through the interviews and met several of the faculty, and one of the senior professors at the meal that night asked if we had any remaining questions. I had one: I wanted to know about the relationship between the program and the university’s Catholic identity. “What does it mean,” I asked, “that this program is at a Catholic school?”

The professor seemed to appreciate the question. He paused for a minute, and then he gave what I thought was a great response. He said something like, “It means that we take religion seriously. It means we don’t discount it as a significant factor in history.” It did not mean that everyone I took a class from would be a Catholic or a Christian, and it did not mean that Christianity would be the dominant theme in every (or even very many) lecture. (Though it did mean there would be a crucifix hiding somewhere in every room.) But I appreciated his answer, and I thought it largely accurate.

Mysterion is a new anthology of science fiction and fantasy (featuring one of my stories) that takes a similar approach to Christianity. It is not a collection of stories by Christian authors, nor is it a collection of what I would consider “Christian fiction” (fiction written from a Christian perspective with the intention of inspiring or instructing or converting).

Rather, Mysterion is a collection of stories that take religion seriously as a feature of the world in which the fiction lives. The editors, as they explain in their introduction, recognize that Christianity is a big, messy, dynamic, fruitful thing, and one that, as the title of the anthology suggests, still harbors a multitude of mysteries. Rather than tidy, systematic modes of thought or practice, this anthology suggests (and I think the editors were trying to show) that Christianity—as a living, ancient tradition—can be a starting point for good fiction, and likewise good fiction can be an effective lens for examining and even questioning such a tradition.

If the common thread in each of these stories is some form of serious engagement with Christianity, this still leaves for an incredibly broad sweep of approaches, from the brutal (James Beamon’s “A Lack of Charity”) and the grim (Mike Baretta’s “The Physics of Faith”) to the straightforwardly inspirational (Laurel Amberdine’s “Ascension”) or the subtly powerful and historical grounded (Sarah Ellen Rogers’ “Horologium”). The pieces in here represent everything from hard science fiction to humorous fantasy to surrealist and (I’m excluding my own, though you can read a nice review of it here) are for the most part strong and stirring, asking deep questions and sounding some interesting depths.

Whether or not your own background or perspective is informed by the Christian faith, if you’re a fan of the likes of Lewis and Tolkien, some of these themes will be familiar. If you’ve ventured in the deeper waters of Swanwick, Wolfe, or Lafferty, you may have a few additional signposts for this voyage. But the stories stand on their own, regardless of the context of faith. None of them need a grounding in Christianity to work, in other words. For these stories, with the exception of one or two, the faith angle is not the only angle.

The anthology is lovely as a book as well. The volume is solid, weighty, and impeccably edited. I didn’t catch a single typo on my read-through. There’s a helpful short bio for each author in case you’re interested in searching out more of their work, as well as a thoughtful introduction by the editors. The cover art doesn’t seem to correlate with any specific story but rather with an overall aspect of the theme: narrow is the doorway and rough is the path that leads Elsewhere. (Look closely at the rune on the top of that doorway.)

I won’t go through each of the stories, as that would obviously spoil some of the fun of diving into them yourself, but I will offer some highlights. The volume opens with a strong piece by Daniel Southwell entitled “The Monastic,” about a religious hermit on an island in the midst of Lake Superior and of some of the ancient things that still linger there. “Forlorn,” by Bret Carter is a great ghost story with a unique telling that builds toward a satisfying twist.

“Golgotha” by David Tallerman, along with “This Far Gethsemane” by G. Scott Huggins, may have been my two favorite pieces in the volume. “Golgotha” tells the story of an earnest missionary’s encounter with a pagan deity who is more than witchcraft and rumors. It is told in the language of the day with a voice of a sympathetic narrator who provides a balance between the puritanical rigidity of the missionary and the stark reality of what he encounters. And it asks an interesting question about the cost of proselytizing, about what things are lost and what are gained with Christianity and civilization, but from a perspective other than simple post-colonialism. Rather, what if it’s the old god himself asking these questions?

“This Far Gethsemane” reminded me the most of any story in this volume of golden-age science fiction with the trope of introducing a new species and then using it to explore interesting questions about our own. In this case, the trope is pulled off expertly as Huggins tells the story of a human grad student horrified to find that missionaries have already arrived at the planet where she is doing her studies and moreover that some of the local lifeforms have accepted this religion. Even worse, some of them are willing to take the tenants of Christianity to their logical conclusion, even when it flies in the face of their own biology.

There were several good pieces here, and I could easily add to this list F. R. Michaels’ whimsically disturbing “Cutio,” Rachael K. Jones’ haunting “St. Roomba’s Gospel” (a reprint of a story first published in Diabolical Plots), Joanna Michal Hoyt’s timely historical piece “Cracked Reflections” and two I’ve already mentioned, the grimly apocalyptic (and effective) “The Physics of Faith” by Mike Barretta, which would have left a dusty taste in the mouth of one finishing the volume if it weren’t the lovely “Horologium” by Sarah Ellen Rodgers, which was an excellent piece to finish on, leaving one pondering the mystical and historical roots of devotion as well as its costs.

Mysterion is a collection of stories that take Christianity seriously, and as such explores the implications (and not simply the positive implications) of the faith. Whether or not that aspect of the anthology is compelling to you, the stories succeed in showcasing a variety of voices and offering a satisfying read. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy, one for your local library, one for your pastor, and one for all your friends.