Alembical 2: A Distillation of Three Novellas
by Tony Pi, David D. levine, J. Kathleen Cheney, & Walter H. Hunt
Edited by Lawrence M. Schoen & Arthur Dorrance
Review by Cathy Green
Paper Golem Trade Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780979534980
Date: 01 June 2010
Links: Paper Golem Press / Show Official Info /
The novella can be an odd length to write, given that it neither fish nor fowl, but I sometimes think it may actually be an ideal length for a science fiction or fantasy story since it allows a decent amount of space in which the author can develop plot, character and setting (with a short story of under 10,000 words, something's often got to give), while at the same time does not run overlong, a good thing given that some stories have at their hearth "hey wouldn't that be neat" concepts that won't support a full length novel let alone a trilogy. So I'm glad Schoen and Dorrance chose to focus on novellas with this anthology.
The anthology opens with "The Paragon Lure" by Toni Pi. Pi's story is a classic caper story involving a gentleman art thief, but with a twist – the thief is more or less immortal, among other things. This is not a spoiler, as Pi reveals this fact in the sixth paragraph: "the earring in the photograph could well be sister to the one I stole four hundred years ago from Bee." Felix Lea belongs to a secret society of near immortal shape-shifters. Aside from the jewel robbery itself, which does not go as planned, what makes the story interesting is Pi's explanation of how the shape-shifting works and his development of the society of shape-shifters, complete with rivalries and faked deaths. The shape-shifting works via lightening trapped in amber or silk. The lightening seems to be the the energy trapped in the object. In the case of amber, that energy appears to come from the cut short life of the insect trapped in the amber, and in silk it seems to come from the cut short life of the pupal silkworms. It's as if the lost potential of those lives allows the protagonist to make the transformation. I thought it was an interesting concept.
David D. Levine's "Second Chance" is the shortest of the three novellas and the only science fiction story as well. Cloned astronauts grown during the voyage and implanted with the memories of their original selves are on a decade long mission to Tau Ceti, where they will be wakened as they approach the system. Unfortunately Chaz is revived without a full set of memories because his original counterpart was hit by a car and killed before the second set of memories (including the majority of the memories relating to mission training), so the shipboard computer had to make due with the first scan done early in training. Also, Chaz is revived later than the other astronauts, making him odd man out among the tightly knit crew, a feeling exacerbated by his being the only one recruited from private industry and having grown up blue collar working his way through school as a welder. And to make matters worse, only three of the five modules meant to make up their ship seem to have survived the voyage, and they've lost communication with Earth despite the fact that the remaining equipment all seems to be functioning within normal parameters. So Chaz is forced to deal with the isolation of the mission, his isolation from the rest of the crew, who seem to dislike him for no reason that he's aware of other than the lack of knowledge of the of the second half of their training, and the isolation from himself given that he's missing two years that everyone else has plus he's got the knowledge that his first self was not still living. Chaz has to learn to cope with the mysteries of his second life while trying to figure out the mystery of why the ship is cut off from Earth, and the answer to both questions is not what he expected.
The final and longest novella in the anthology, J. Kathleen Cheney's "Iron Shoes" was the story I was most looking forward to reading, having been blown away by Cheney's earlier short story "Masks of War", published in Fantasy Magazine last year. "Iron Shoes" did not disappoint. Cheney has crafted a lovely story of romance, magic, intrigue, and horse racing set in upstate New York early in the last century. Imogen Hawkes, recently widowed, is doing her best to keep her late husband's horse farm afloat, but the bank has gone back on it's word and sold her mortgage to the nasty Mr. Hammersly, who wants the Hawks family land and Imogen's hand in marriage. And the horse she bought sight unseen turns out to have a forged pedigree and to be a puca, a fact that she recognizes immediately, being part Fae herself. Given that someone appears to be using magical means to prevent her from winning the upcoming race, thus depriving her of the much needed winner's purse, she enters into a bargain with the puka. Having a trainer who spends a lot of his time in the form of a horse turns out to be useful. Cheney nicely develops the theme of the title, as Imogen frees the puca from literal iron shoes and herself from the metaphorical ones she's wearing consisting of the expectations and limits on behavior imposed by her mother, her late husband and society in general.
Schoen and Dorrance have put together a great collection in Alembical 2. It's a must buy for anyone who enjoys short form science fiction and fantasy. I look forward to seeing what they do for Alembical 3.