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Next up in our 2014 recap: April!

Art © 2014 by Jeff Ward

And what have people said about these ones?

Snakebit

Christina at Fairy Skeletons liked it:

"Snakebit" by Amanda Downum is a haunting, gritty speculative short story, on the long side for quick fiction but very worthwhile all the same. This selection is another one from Strange Horizons - I find that I really dig what they publish. "Snakebit" specifically has a deeply rooted sense of wistfulness and place. Its atmosphere and descriptions are superb, and the hints are gorgeous, just subtle enough to not be confusing but not horribly obvious.

Here's Lois Tilton's discussion:

An ambiguous fantasy. There’s no real evidence of anything supernatural in Lanie or her family; the reference to snakebite would seem to be something like a psychological disorder, or perhaps only metaphorical. Except that Lanie immediately sees that Jonas Crow is a killer, and possibly more. The author hints. Is the man older than he ought to be? What does he feed on? But nothing beyond hints. Readers may wonder; we’re meant to wonder, but not to know. What we don’t see is the conflict inside Lanie. We see her past traumas, her past wildness. We see her present discontent – but not to understand it. This only give credence to the supposition that her curse is something tangible and real, that her problems are more than human ones.

And Alicia Cole had mixed feelings at Tangent:

“Snakebit” by Amanda Downum paints a Texan gothic palette. Lanie, the protagonist, is the survivor of a snake-bit clan: wanderers and murderers, the lot of them. She’s left holding on to her bucolic life – raising horses and children – longing for the ghost of her brother Cody and the truth behind his disappearance. Downum’s writing is beautiful, but her vampiric twist falls flat. I was hoping for a different conflict – southern gothic vampires are a bit too en vogue as of late. The story arc holds the right note – southern speakeasy juxtaposed with the stale safety of the homestead – while the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist doesn’t ring completely true, nor does his part in the denouement. Lanie’s finale is a hard breath of smoke. The prose drips honey and whiskey over an opened wound. Lovers of southern gothic and vampire tales will enjoy this story.

The Final Girl

Alicia Cole really liked this one:

Who is the Final Girl? In the hands of Shira Lipkin, she is the perennial feminist survivor. While the speculative arc looms off camera – a dystopic culture hinting at atrocious violence, potentially not much different from our own – the bulk of this third person narrative takes place in group therapy sessions. Similar to Virginia Woolf’s insistence that the female writer seeks out “the pools, the depths, the dark places where the largest fish slumber,” Shira Lipkin tackles the dark subject matter of subjugated survival. The backdrop of the story remains fascinatingly vague. The foreground is sharply attenuated by the stressful memories and triggers of a final girl: after her survival, in the midst of her struggle, in the process of the author’s elocution, still falling. A must-read of speculative, feminist literature. Highly Recommended.

Charlotte Ashley at Apex was impressed:

The story is deeply upsetting, and it should be. The reader is left feeling guilty and complicit in the continued suffering of a narrator who isn’t even just one poor girl, but an infinite number of girls who have all been sacrificed to the same search for the sublime. Lipkin gives us horror via empathy, drawing us in to an inescapable space that the reader will not enjoy occupying. Hers is a powerful entry into a growing canon of similar narratives that include Damien Angelica Walters’ recent “Grey in the Gauge of His Storm”(Apex Magazine #53) and “Abomination Rises on Filthy Wings” by Rachel Swirsky (Apex Magazine #50). The point is not to enjoy the story, but to listen to a voice which is necessarily hard to listen to in our search for answers to difficult questions.

But Lois Tilton was less taken with it:

A sort of unnumbered list story, very short, on the phenomenon of serial killer survivors – the particular sort of serial killer who preys on young women. There are suggestions here that this might be the cinematic sort of killer, but the pain described is real. In any case there seem to be enough of these that their survivors – their last survivors – can form support groups. There are no names here, and “the final girl” seems to refer both to all such survivors and one in particular who never stands out as a person, who doesn’t have an actual story here but only stands for the phenomenon, a pain that never ends.

Pavlov's House

This, on the other hand, worked for Lois Tilton

Strong and effective tale about the human costs of survival in combat, even if the survivors aren’t entirely human. Sokolai’s confusion, his occasional regression into a fugue state, is quite convincing, both as human and dog. But only the human in him could come to believe he was created to be a monster, and want to be otherwise. It’s notable that Sokolai’s stress is greatest under conditions that normal people would call normal, but he can only find sanity by fleeing back to the battlefield.

Rich Horton wrote this one up for the print Locus, and also liked it:

Strange Horizons in April features "Pavlov's House" by Malcolm Cross, a fine SF story about "uplifted" (more or less) dogs who were created to be soldiers. The protagonist cannot adjust to civilian life -- a familiar theme that's given a stark edge by merging these issues with those arising from his unusual origin.

And Alicia Cole thought it was pretty good as well:

There is much left unanswered about gengineering, what the dogs themselves are, and the fascinatingly gruesome strain of biowarfare introduced at the beginning of the story, which keeps the world building from grasping the reader as thoroughly as it could.  Still, as a portrait of a traumatized soldier, engineered to a robotic killing-machine level, and his hunt for his own emotional core, this story is gripping; the titular concept is well fleshed out, Sokolai being the dog who responds to the toll of warfare.  Not recommended for those with combat-related PTSD. 

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