A Small Price to Pay for Birdsong • 2011 • Fantasy novella by K. J. Parker


The story draw me in from the first line and didn’t let go: Given the first scene in the prison when the genius musician Subtilius waited for his last hour without finishing his best piece of music, I catched Iron Maiden’s Hallowed be thy Name as an earworm (although the music is completely different).

As setting, Parker gives us an alternate baroquian world,  touching the idea of Mozart (impersonated by Subtilius) vs. Salieri (by the unnamed narrator) but develops it in a completely different form.

The unnamed narrator is a renowned assistant professor who knows all about symphonic structure but misses the genius „wings“ of his student Subtilius. The story explores the reason for this failure: it is all about letting go your sorrows, in this case mostly worrying about money:

like a duke scattering coins to the crowd from a balcony. Of course, the old duke used to have the coins heated in a brazier first. I still have little white scars on my fingertips.

This is one sample where Parker’s narration is executed masterfully: the little picture of burned fingers when he grabbed hot coins signing him forever. This worrying about money drives the next impulse in the wonderful exposition: Subtilius escapes the prison and asks his teacher for help with a symphony written in his style only enormously better, and ready for selling. Is it plagiarism when the creator asks for it, and how does the co-creation of teacher and student work? By accepting this positively perverted piece of work, he took mental wounds, just like the physical wounds when he grabbed the coins, and similarly, it will hurt forever. It was true, that he wasn’t able to produce such a work at that time, but nevertheless, it hurt. Subtilius exactly knows how to manipulate his teacher, just like every child knows how to find his parents‘ sensitive wounds. Manipulative, cruel, murderous, but at the same time ingenious. This exchange, and the question how artists set free their creative wings, drive the story.

There is one interesting moral discussion, which stayed with me quite long: is the live of an unimportant person less worth than a creative masterpiece made for millenia? The characters in the story find different answers.

Parker escapes the easy twists, finds better turnings in the course of the plot, and comes to a great ending which picks up the story’s title.

A clever tale with twists, an innovative background focusing on music, complex development of characters, a lovely narration with may little wow-effects. Just don’t expect any action scenes.

I highly recommend this masterpiece, also as an introduction to Parker’s work!

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean Online, Winter 2011. Read in The Best of Subterranean. It won the World Fantasy Award. Available online.

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He Who Grew Up Reading Sherlock Holmes • 2014 • Short story by Harlan Ellison

A couple of unordered pastiches featuring unnamed characters. A puzzle, you have to figure out how all belongs together, who did what, when, and why.

I really like many of Ellison’s stories. This is not one of it. In fact, I think it is a bloody piece of arrogant crap. At least, its short enough.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean, Summer 2014. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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The Dry Spell • 2009 • Magical Realism short story by James P. Blaylock


Summary:  Harper dares the heavens to rain using his garden gauge and hose. His rain dance seems to be successful.

Review:  A charming, quiet story less for the magical realism impact than for the main protagonist’s interaction with his wife. Just don’t expect any action or aweness factor at all.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean Online, Winter 2009. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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The Screams of Dragons • 2014 • Urban Fantasy novelette by Kelley Armstrong


Summary:  Bobby dreams of screaming dragons, golden castles, and green meadows. He is abused by his grandmother, ignored by his parents, uncorrected by the elders of nearby rural village Cainsville. Would you consider it as a spoiler that Bobby didn’t choose the good side but turned evil?

Review:  This prequel story to Omens was too predictable in my opinion. It stays on the edge of paranormal and horror, tends towards a heavy-handed psychological interpretation of child abuse.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean, Spring 2014. Cainsville-series Prequel. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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The Tomb of the Pontifex Dvorn • 2011 • SF novelette by Robert Silverberg


Summary:  Human dwellers formed the culture of Majipoor since many thousand years. The first pontifex remained a figure of myth and poetry. The main protagonist Simmilgord wants to uncover his true history. A position as curator for a new museum in the city where Dvorn was born and died comes in handy. He and his archaeologist friend Lutiel travel there full of hope and scepticism.

Review:  A very slow start full of buzzwords which are probably only meaningful for Majipoor fans, which I am not (yet). The story is about truth and how we work with it. The scientific background with local amateurish excavators, bullying chefs, and self-doubts feel authentic, and I liked the character developments. Some day, I’ll have to read more of Majipoor, escpecially Lord Valentine’s Castle.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean Online, Winter 2011. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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Sixteen Questions for Kamala Chatterjee • 2016 • SF short story by Alastair Reynolds


Summary: A physician found an anomaly hidden within the Sun. She explains her lifetime project of drilling deep to discover an alien artefact.

Review: The eponymous questions are mixed in two interviews – one defending her doctoral thesis, the second an actual interrogation when she was already famous. Thus, the story isn’t linear in time, adding a lot to the narrative structure’s complexity. The questions sometimes seemed to be artificial and not en point. The plot is based on several explorations of Hard SF: solar heliospheric oscillations to get a view into the Sun, material science to survive temperature, pressure, and gravity. A post-human part over the course of the centuries also finds its way into the story leading to a way out speculative form of Solar Dragons. Drilling down into the Sun is a way of bridging two points which made the story fit nicely into the anthology’s title „Bridging Infinity“ without reusing the often read space elevators. The eponymous main character developed interestingly, always living for her project but at the same time staying human and missing human elements – we discover how the project affected her, as well as humanity.

The story makes an interesting deviation from the author’s usual huge doorstoppers, as he had to concentrate on the topic in just a couple of pages.

Meta: isfdb. Published 2016 in Bridging Infinity.

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The Crane Method • 2011 • Magical realism short story by Ian R. MacLeod


Summary: Professor Crane made a nuisance of himself in Oxford University of 1928: He steals the outcomes of his students‘ research in Anglo-Saxon history. One of his students wants to beat his professor and be famous for the discovery of a new burial site.

Review: Light adventure prose spiked with numerous details of the given research topic. You can smell the rat almost instantly, so the many puzzle details got boring. This is one of MacLeod’s inferior works, although his narrative craftmanship shines through.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean Online, Spring 2011. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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The Snowball Effect • 1952 • SF short story by Katherine MacLean


The head of the sociology department of a college has to proof within six month that it can sustain itself financially, similarly to other departments funded by outside benefactors. He influences the local ladies of a sewing circle to use his theory of exponential growth applied to organizations. They overperform.

Review: This only slightly amusing satire extrapolates from the math’s absurdity to a predictable outcome. Neither sociology works this way nor unbound exponential growth. The story aged well and I could imagine that it would happen nowadays nearly the same way.


Meta: isfdb. Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, September 1952. Read in The Big Book of SF. Available online.

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The Prayer of Ninety Cats • 2013 • Dark Fantasy novelette by Caitlín R. Kiernan


Summary: You are a movie enthusiast, paid for reviewing a restored black and white fantasy film featuring the Blood Countess.  This time, she is not a vampire but a witch, and you have to ignore your surrounding and suppress your bladder’s distress to follow the story to the end.

Review: The Blood Countess has been a historical Hungarian mass murderer, influencing folklore and the Dracula myth. The film is followed in two layers, one describing the film’s essential scenes in snippets of stage directions. The other layer constructively debates the material as a metafiction from a second person point of view. Both render the poetic and horrific atmosphere masterfully; it is astonishing how only a few dense but vivid snippets can bring to life a complete film and you think you really watched it. The story was not only dark but also amusing, as the reviewer preemptively formulated a review just like this one:

Pedantry and nitpicking is fatal to all fairy tales. You will write that there are people who would argue a wolf lacks the lung capacity to blow down a house of straw and that any beanstalk tall enough to reach the clouds would collapse under its own weight.

This is one case of fiction where the prose inspires awe in the reader without drawing him into the story itself. I found the metfiction more interesting than the film snippets, maybe because the fantasy content didn’t grab me. And I certainly didn’t leave out a walk to the restroom just to read through to the end of this novelette.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean, Spring 2013. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online. It won the World Fantasy Award 2014.

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The Indelible Dark • 2013 • SF novelette by William Browning Spencer


Summary: Noel lives off authoring detective stories. Now, that he’s switched to a dystopian SF story, the new setting intrudes into his life:

“Meditate on karma, my friend. The dark gets on us, and it’s indelible and we pass it along. You carry the suicide virus in your heart, and any chance encounter can infect others.”

Review: This metafiction isn’t easy to decipher. The narration switches tiers from chapter to chapter back and forth, sometimes lingering within the author’s reality, sometimes in the dystopia. It soon becomes clear, that not only the author writes the story but the story influences the author, just like the circular karma: „Our world has a fondness for the circular. That is karma, after all.“ The dark stains that seem to follow the author don’t seem to be coincidence, but the story leaves many threads dangling.

I liked the conceptual structure, but neither characters nor narration, nor structure sticked with me. I wasn’t tempted to think long about it.

Meta: isfdb. Published in Subterranean, Spring 2013. Read in The Best of Subterranean. Available online.

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