The Tuesday List: Tiny Steps

Today is the day!  We leave for our trip to Glasgow and Inverness, a trip we’ve been planning for over a year.  So in honor of our big trip, I’m making a list of stories featuring tiny steps with big effects.  This could be transformations, or parallels steps, or anything that seems small but has big consequences.  So here goes!

1. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson

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This little novella published by Tor is a Lovecraftian retelling, in which the main character must figure out how to follow a young student at her school from their own world–with monsters of all sorts and a fixed number of star– into the real world of cars and cell phones and baristas.  And all she has to do is step through the right doorway.

2. The Wanderers, by Meg Howrey

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The true space age is upon us, but before we can blast off for Mars, we have to do the test run.  In a seventeen month long experiment Helen and her two crew partners will simulate every possible aspect of leaving the surface of the earth, making the journey, landing, staying for a few weeks, and then leaving to come back to earth.  In this fascinating thought experiment, Howrey creates real conditions for what three people who barely know each other would go through on the longest space journey humans have taken so far.  And all without leaving the dust of Idaho.

3. Hammers on Bone, by Cassandra Khaw

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This novella isn’t about stepping through a doorway, or simulating a long journey, but about stepping into another being.  John Persons is a tentacled alien god-being who has assumed the body of an actual human, and is a private eye in seedy London, tasked with taking down the sinister step-father of a latchkey kid with a little too much savvy for a boy his age.  Chaos, of course, ensues.

4. The Girl from Everywhere, by Heidi Heilig

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Nix is a scholar, a historian, a sailor… and a time traveler.  All she needs is a map, and she can go anywhere in the time it was created.  Swept up by her father’s quest to get back to her mother, when Nix was just a baby, she steps from one world into another, sometimes even into fantasies, with a change of wind and sail.

5. Kabu Kabu, by Nnedi Okorafor

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This book of short stories has the best prologue I’ve ever encountered for a collection.  A young woman, running late for the airport, takes the most unexpected cab to the airport, but instead of dropping her off at the terminal, it takes her directly to her destination–her family’s home in Nigeria where she’s expected for a wedding.  And then the reader is treated to a series of short stroies that represent some of the best of Okorafor’s writing, even among her novels.  These stories have presence, the characters stick with you, and they are both speculative and nostalgic in a way only someone who has really been there can manage.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss

In this metafictional Sherlock Holmes mystery, all the greatest villains of 19th century horror fiction finally give us what we’ve all been waiting for: amazing daughters who kick ass and do things their own way.  But what is the true mystery?  Is it the real reason Mary’s mother sank into illness verging on madness and died, years after the supposed death of Dr. Jekyll himself, or is it the secrets of the Societe des Alchemists, to whom Dr. Jekyll  may have belonged?  Or is it the story of what happened to Hyde, in the end?

The biggest mystery, of course, is why we didn’t get this story sooner.  It’s a madcap dash through Victorian London, from the slums of Whitechapel–home to Jack the Ripper himself–to the manicured gardens of Regent’s Park, all the way to the docks and beyond, chasing after murders and mysteries, with the reader holding on for dear life to follow the disjointed narrative and the zigzagging story at the same time.  The idea that all the classic science fiction and horror “geniuses” of their day might have left a trail of pissed off and capable women in their wake is all too realistic, and the found-family feeling of the novel holds it together long after the initial mystery is solved.

While some readers might be put off by the narrative style and what could be considered derivative use of existing stories, Goss brilliantly captures the feeling of a Holmes mystery, the immersive style of a Dickens drama, the melodrama of Dorian Gray and his ilk, adding a modern sensibility about character and agency that will make many readers feel right at home.  The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter fits in well with other transformational works like Cat Valente’s In the Night Garden and Kij Johnson’s The Dream -Quest of Velitt Boe, in which women are monstrous, or genius, or both, but most importantly they are present.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is a fast-paced read that keeps the story chugging along with significant narrative action sequences connecting stationary chunks of exposition, usually character backstory told by the characters themselves, lending both context and a deeper insight into each woman and the reason for her strong connection to the others.  It’s a satisfying story that at the same time begs a sequel or a series.  The more one learns about these extraordinary women, the more one wants to know.

 

 

 

 

Framed as the newest case for Holmes and Watson, brought to them by Mary Jekyllafter the death of her long-suffering mother, the story is set up as a multi-layered fictional novel being written by Catherine Moreau, long after the case has been solved, but with commentary from Mary and Catherine and all the other women whom they have befriended and are part of the story in their own ways.