Review of Clarkesworld, Issue 88

cw_88_700Clarkesworld kicks off the new year with new fiction and a translated story by multi-Hugo Award winner, Ken Liu, as well as new fiction from Yoon Ha Lee. Liu shines bright once again in this issue, showing once again why he is one of the genre’s top short story authors (the best, some might argue). Could this story lead to a three-peat Hugo? The year is young.

The issue also contains two reprints, including a story by Hugo-nominee, Aliette De Bodard, and Hugo winner, Robert Charles Wilson, and a collection of non-fiction articles.

So, without further ado, I kick off my short fiction reviews this year by discussing the three new pieces of fiction in Clarkesworld, Issue 88.

“The Clockwork Soldier” by Ken Liu   Star Starred Review

Alex is a bounty hunter, commissioned by the most powerful man on Pele to find his runaway son, Ryder, and bring him home. She collects the teenager with ease and the two travel aboard her ship through hyperspace to his home planet. While Ryder is roaming the ship, Alex decides to snoop through his computer and comes across a text adventure computer game that the boy has written. She plays the game as a young girl who is accompanied by a clockwork soldier in a palace.
As a bounty hunter, Alex has learned to avoid empathizing with her prisoners. But there is something about this text adventure that draws her into the boy’s world. She believes that the game will reveal the true reason why the boy was running from his father and why the father was so desparate for him to be returned. She is successful in remaining distant from her prisoner, but begins to empathize with the text adventure’s character as she embarks on a quest of self-discovery. The result is a revelation that makes her reconsider not just the boy’s inner struggles, but her own.
This is the first short story I have read in 2014 and if it is any indication of what is to come, we are in for a tremendous year. Ken Liu articulates a clever story with great pace and narrative creativity. While the ending (and the reveal) are readily apparent to the reader, it never loses its appeal. He pays homage to Philip K. Dick, speaking of a PKD threshold that should not be surpassed. This speaks to free will — the ability to be creative. Liu also touches on the theme of faith (believing without seeing), which is integral to the internal change that Alex must undergo.
Ken Liu continues to demonstrate that he is one of the premier short story authors in the genre and this title is guaranteed to satisfy readers of all sorts.

“Grave of the Fireflies” by Cheng Jingbo (translated by Ken Liu) 

Cheng Jingbo’s mythic tale is about a queen and her daughter, Rosamund, who live on an ark-like planet that was built because the stars that make life habitable were suddenly extinguishing. They travel toward younger stars, pass through an asteroid belt, and arrive at a planet known as the Weightless City. An inhabitant of the planet brings the queen to their leader – a magician who lives inside of a lumbering robot. The queen enters into the ear of the robot, never to return, leaving her princess daughter an orphan. Rosamund seeks to discover the fate of her mother and her path leads her to understand the cause of the dying stars and her mother’s secret past.

The story, ably translated by Ken Liu, reads like a fable. It is both an origin story and a love story, expressing the lengths that a person will go to in order to find love. The result is not always happiness and in this case, it has dark consequences (both literally and figuratively). While the story was well-crafted and rich with surreal imagery, I can’t say it left a marked impression on me. It was a thoughtful story that read more like a fable rather than having a protagonist who must overcome internal and external struggles. This made the narrative interesting, but I failed to connect on any real level with the characters. I have been striving to read more stories by people of different cultures and I definitely found this story worth my while to read. I hope translated works will continue to make their way into magazines like Clarkesworld, broadening our scope to understand the different forms stories can take and level-setting our Western expectations for character and plot.

“Wine” by Yoon Ha Lee

The planet of Nasteng is under attack by an alien culture’s insect drones. The Council of Five, certain the defeat was imminent, solicits the help of two mercenary lords to save them from destruction. Their employment comes at a hefty price, but money is not the greatest cost in saving the planet.

The Falcon Councilor, in exchange for obtaining the beacon that delivered the mercenary lords, suffers from a wound that requires her to remove her face periodically so that it doesn’t scar over with crystals. Her sacrifice appears beneficial as the mercenaries begin to take back portions of the planet. Falcon’s general and lover, Ruharn, discovers a dirty secret that has plagued the planet and threatens to usurp the Council’s plan to win the interplanetary war. Ruharn realizes that the livelihood of Nasteng does not just depend on destroying their enemy – it depends on destroying something that their people covet.

This story started out a little slow for me, but it gained a lot of traction. The Falcon and Ruharn are both inventive characters with unique motives and voices. The prose at times seemed a little overworked, which made the pacing a little slow at times, but the description is vivid and the plot is engaging. This story was thematically consistent with “Grave of the Fireflies,” dealing with a planet’s survival and perpetual youth. Enjoyable read.

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  1. I really liked reading your review of these stories. As you of course know, I reviewed the Liu story for SF Signal, but what you don’t know is that my original intention was to review all three of these. I decided not too as I was having so much trouble finding a way to write the reviews for the other two as I had so many issues with them. Not that I haven’t successfully written negative reviews before, but something just wasn’t clicking with me this time.

    I suspect the second story just lost something in translation, or at least that is what I would like to think. There was some beautiful imagery but the story felt so disjointed to me and I could not engage in it. I had similar feelings about the third story. It was interesting but odd and hard to follow at first and then it really picked up…then it was shockingly disturbing which was hinted at but I didn’t expect it to go entirely where it did and then it ended. As I was reading I continually had the feeling that somewhere on the way to the printer some pages had fallen out as there were gaps in the story that made the transitions a bit jarring.

    I was ultimately very disappointed that both of those stories got vetted for publication in the magazine as they feel like they have flaws in execution that mar whatever the author was trying to say.

    • Thanks. I struggled a bit with parts of the last two stories as well. There were some ideas that I really liked, such as the planet being used as an ark. I agree — the disjointedness made the stories challenging.


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