Weekly flash fiction, book reviews, and writing thoughts.
Author: S. G. Baker
S. G. Baker has spent her entire life on the eerie High Plains of the Texas Panhandle. Her most recent short-story, "Thirsty Ground," is featured in Road Kill: Texas Horror by Texas Writers Vol. 2. She’s graduated from West Texas A&M University with a degree in English and two short-stories published in the WT English, Philosophy, and Modern Languages periodical The Legacy.
She carried the moon with her – a rounded orb of lunar rock, lit by the invisible reflection of a missing sun, somehow an echo of the real thing hanging in the night sky. She cradled it in her palms like an offering and whispered, “Where is my sun?”
So many had heard her question and gone mad seeking the answer. ‘In the sky’ would not do, nor would any variation. Though she witnessed the sun, and its distant twin cousins, every day, she asked still.
Flicking her gaze to me, she said, “Where is my sun?” Her question burned like the drag behind my belly button pulling me toward her; I had moved too far into her range. Pain weighted her calm eyes, dense as the devastating iron that collapses the hearts of stars.
The very marrow of my bones grew heavy, the next step forward like escaping the grasp of an event horizon. When I reached her, however, I placed my hand atop the tiny moon, soft, powdery dust clinging to my palm. My eyes met hers as I pushed the orb lower. “Your son was at the space station,” I said, “when the life support failed.”
No tears reached those cold eyes, but her voice quivered. “Where is my son?”
“He died at the space station,” I repeat. “You know this. You cannot keep using his gift from his moon landing to drive people mad like this.”
At last, she dropped her hands, the orb clutched at her side. It dimmed and flickered out, releasing its painful weight on my body. I inhaled deeply, expanding crushed lungs.
“My son, my sun,” she murmured, “strangled in the sky that he loved so much.” She brushed her thumb across the gift from her astronaut, her head hung in silent grief.
Foundryside explores what might happen if a master key could open any lock because it could converse with the laws and rules of reality, as well as what might happen if it came across a human who could understand and talk back to it.
In a city that runs on industrialized magic, a secret war will be fought to overwrite reality itself–the first in a dazzling new series from City of Stairs author Robert Jackson Bennett.
Sancia Grado is a thief, and a damn good one. And her latest target, a heavily guarded warehouse on Tevanne’s docks, is nothing her unique abilities can’t handle.
But unbeknownst to her, Sancia’s been sent to steal an artifact of unimaginable power, an object that could revolutionize the magical technology known as scriving. The Merchant Houses who control this magic–the art of using coded commands to imbue everyday objects with sentience–have already used it to transform Tevanne into a vast, remorseless capitalist machine. But if they can unlock the artifact’s secrets, they will rewrite the world itself to suit their aims.
Now someone in those Houses wants Sancia dead, and the artifact for themselves. And in the city of Tevanne, there’s nobody with the power to stop them.
To have a chance at surviving—and at stopping the deadly transformation that’s under way—Sancia will have to marshal unlikely allies, learn to harness the artifact’s power for herself, and undergo her own transformation, one that will turn her into something she could never have imagined.
Robert Jackson Bennett is a two-time award winner of the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel, an Edgar Award winner for Best Paperback Original, and is also the 2010 recipient of the Sydney J Bounds Award for Best Newcomer, and a Philip K Dick Award Citation of Excellence. City of Stairs was shortlisted for the Locus Award and the World Fantasy Award. City of Blades was a finalist for the 2015 World Fantasy, Locus, and British Fantasy Awards. The Divine Cities trilogy was nominated for a Hugo for Best Series. His eighth novel, Foundryside, was released in 2018 to wide acclaim.
My friend told me about Foundryside because the main character is a rogue and she knows I like playing such characters in various RPGs. I’m drawn to that chaotic-neutral and neutral-good mentality. That was the hook, anyway. Turns out she just had the right pitch to get me to read a fantastic book.
What I Liked
Foundrysideexplores what might happen if a master key could open any lock because it could converse with the laws and rules of reality, as well as what might happen if it came across a human who could understand and talk back to it. The story takes place in the wake of a civilization once vast and grand but now dead and fabled so long ago that present day feels more like the end of time. Even the scraps left behind from that powerful civilization have become worth staggering amounts of money, so that the worth of the key initially drives the plot forward, but eventually the value of life–a value few of Tevanne’s varied populace share except where one’s own skin may be concerned–becomes the true spine of the story.
Sancia. The most beastly female character I’ve ever read. She’s stronk. Multiple characters (all men) call her ugly. She’s still hardy, resilient, and good-hearted, capable of getting herself into bad situations for the right reasons and back out of them with a whole lot of ass kicking. (Almost like she holds inherent value as a person, despite lacking conventional attractiveness to the male gaze. Wild.) I love her.
Gregor. Not, as I at first expected, an over-good character. He’s cheery (hilariously so), moral, and capable of flexible thinking concerning his goals to remake the world (or one city) into something decent. Tragedy dogs his steps and the twists to his character arc tugged at my heart strings.
Orso. An absolute terror of a genius. Comes off as an impatient arse, which he is, but only because he has high standards, and when the people around him reach those standards, he will go to hell and back with them. Oddly charitable, despite this, and willing to acknowledge his own mistakes. Would absolutely try to impress this guy, but probably fail.
Berenice. The absolute coolest-blooded character. Smarter than pretty much everyone, on-par with Orso, and not afraid to say so out loud. Perfectly aware of her worth and a total orderly opposite of Sancia’s chaotic nature. Might be living in denial about some of her own traumas. Easily my favorite.
Clef. A relic of a civilization so ancient that most understanding and knowledge of its denizens has been lost. Talks in such a way that he reminds me of the speech patterns of modern-day young people (very relatable), almost as if his past might be our present world’s future, if humanity ever figured out the key to the coding of the universe. Plucky and indescribably ride-or-die for anyone whose name is Sancia.
Other brilliantly-wrought characters make appearances in Foundryside, but these four make up the main group.
Changing perspective. The narrative of Foundrysidedrops information about the function of the world from the mouths of different characters, which coalesces into new, wild ideas about reality as these characters interact with each other. Tevanne has functioned the same way for always, with four houses hoarding 99% of the wealth, leaving the rest for those living around the fringes. Such power derives from convincing those at the bottom that things have always been this way and always will be, too dangerous for resistance or change. But as people from all classes and social strata of this town interact–a thief trapped in poverty, a former soldier attempting to generate law enforcement, a genius desperate for a piece of the pie, and brilliant inventor –they begin to broaden their understandings and to recognize that sometimes reality is only a matter of perspective.
The ending of Foundryside–explosive and twisty and clever–takes readers so far from the beginning. The characters never leave the city of Tevanne, yet the end has you feeling like they’ve traveled across the world on an epic journey, so far away and changed are they from who they were at the beginning. Triumph and tragedy intermingle, engendering unresolved problems and promising more thrilling adventure to come in the next book.
What I Disliked
Nothing. I loved it all.
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Worry had just begun to gnaw at me when I felt the thin silver chain wrapped around my fingers twitch. In what I thought looked like an ancient river bed, I paused, swinging the pendulum hanging from my hand back and forth. Slowly, slowly. At the bottom end of the chain hung a smooth orb of iolite, tinged a dusky purple. It spun a little, but remained vertical. Not a good sign. Maybe I had imagined it.
There had been so many directions to choose from, so full of possibility, and only one the right choice. I chewed my lip, looking around myself again. It was the way big, smooth rocks poked out of the dirt here, as if worn away by constant water flow. But it wasn’t like underground rivers had to follow their old routes exactly. This one could have looped miles away, leaving me here, with vulnerable friends counting on my help.
The pendulum chain twitched again. I paused, squinting at the dangling orb in the failing light. It spun and spun as I swung it around myself. But then, when I had walked several hundred feet to my left, the chain at last leapt away from the ground, hanging at an angle almost horizontal.
I grinned. This was it.
I ran almost a mile back the way I had come and clambered over a huge limestone deposit. At the top, I shouted down to the forest of tall, spindly trees below. “Northwest!”
As one, the trees shook to life, digging roots through leaf loam and dry dirt as they shifted northwest, edging around the limestone that had blocked their path along their river.
The tree passing me ran a cluster of twigs through my hair. “Well done, Wanderer,” it whispered with rustling leaves. “Thank you.”
Fifteen minutes of hope. That was all it took to drive me into standing in line for a week, winding step by step through the bottom of a valley alongside hundreds of other travelers from the world over, all sharing that same hope with me. No one maintained the line, yet in it we stood, hemmed in by long-standing tradition set down by years of previous hopefuls. Old stalls set up along the line sold food and supplies at intervals. I told tales of my wanderings to those around me and heard more in turn. Line mates became friends became family, until they reached the end of the line and departed, never to return.
For the destination of this line was a single sandglass set upon a stone pedestal, containing fifteen minutes’ worth of black sand within. From where I stood, I could see it at last, glinting in the setting sunlight. A woman took her place on a worn stump set before the pedestal, hands clenched as she stared into the upper glass bulb. Then she smiled, laughing as her eyes filled with tears, spirited away to the past. From here, only the mirage of images danced inside the glass, disclosing none of her secrets to onlookers. Fifteen minutes of perfect, detailed memory. But only once, never again.
Variations of the same repeated with the next several in line. When I reached the sandglass myself, night had fallen and tiny stars winked overhead. Anything, I thought as I took my seat. I hoped for any of my memories from before I began to wander. Anything at all.
But when I flipped the sandglass and stared into the orb, precious sand running to the bottom, no images materialized. Nothing, not a single recollection, up until the last grain fell through.
The damp scent of recent rain hung over a nighttime city as I passed through its back alleys. I splashed through puddles painted royal purple and ocean blue from neon lights advertising a nearby club venue, the vibrant colors running together down the wet asphalt like a river of spilled paint. Music pulsed through the tiled walls nearest me, exploding louder when someone, no more defined than a mere shadow, entered the club through its side door. Once they had gone, only I and one other person walking ahead of me remained.
I whistled an impromptu tune in time to the beat vibrating through the soles of my shoes, meaning to alert the person ahead to my ambivalent presence. At the sound, they paused and turned to look back at me. Their face became illuminated in the honey glow of a wall light. Eyes silver as stars widened in a dark face, the light glinting along choppy strands of moon-pale hair. My breath caught in my throat.
It was my face.
The me ahead of me ran, shoes smacking wet pavement, and swung left down another passage. When I reached the opening and peered down the purple and blue-lit alley, they — or I or whichever — were gone.
I stalked forward, looking behind trash bins and parked scooters, but found no one. After I passed a night club, bass-heavy music bled from within when someone opened and closed the door.
Jaunty whistling started up behind me.
When I looked back, there I stood, expression startled. Like the other me was seeing our duplicity for the first time.
I ran. As I reached the first left turn, intuition niggled at me and I passed it, instead hooking the next right. When no one followed, I grinned, knowing I’d broken the time loop.
I was digging. Cold, dry flakes of snow bit at my bare fingertips, leaching the warmth from them. Knee deep in it, I didn’t dare move any farther forward. She had gone down right here, the snow too light to bear her weight, closing over her head with just a small impression to show where she had vanished.
Breathing hard, I shoveled armfuls of snow aside, sweat dripping into my eyes. I was up to my chest in it now, unable to feel my fingers anymore. How far had she sunk into this snow drift? She’d been tossing handfuls of flakes into the air, laughing at the way they glittered golden white in the morning sunlight. Leaping and dancing with the joy of the first snow.
I had yelled it. “Wait!” Just before she stepped off the ledge. I didn’t know this area, but I hadn’t liked the way the distant line of the rocky shelf curved around right next to her and vanished beneath the smooth plane of snow.
My fingers brushed against long hair. Then I unearthed a waving hand, and the other. Wrapping my fingers around her wrists, I leaned back and pulled hard. Only the snow packed around my knees kept me from sliding down after her. When her head came free, she gasped in a huge gulp of air, coughing up lungfuls of snow. I dragged her back a step, and another, until she rolled onto the safety of the ledge with me.
We lay there like crash-landed snow angels. When she caught her breath, she looked back at the drift that had almost claimed her, the hole fast filling with dry, slithery snow. Then she said simply, “We’ll have to warn the others about that.”
Orange sparks drifted upward into the night sky. Below them, flames fed upon fragrant pine boughs, leaping high and higher. The popping hiss of logs and branches lent the dancing flames voice, like a smoker singing to the tune of the whistling wind.
I had questions for the builder of this bonfire, for those fluttering sparks contained puffs of stardust, occasionally throwing off sunshine and sparkling colors. After I found it unattended, I waited, watching, long into the night, but the maker never returned. Nor did the fire burn down. As my mind grew weary, the crackling sounded more like laughter, and the flame tips looked like twirling fingertips.
Late into the night, one blink turned longer than the ones before, and on the other side of it, I found someone bent at the waist, peering into my face. This someone was made of fire.
I sat up straight where I had dozed against a tree trunk, drawing back from the heat of the flames.
The fire spirit squinted kerosene blue eyes in the approximation of a smile. “Well met, cousin.”
“Cousin?” I echoed. Behind it, the bonfire was nothing but embers.
In a voice like burning brush, the spirit said, “You have flames in your heart.” It then executed an exhilarated spin, shedding more colorful sparks into the grass all around.
I smiled at such delight. “And you have a star in yours.” Licking my thumb, I snuffed out a smoldering thread of my coat. “Which way from here, cousin?”
“Hopeward,” the fiery creature cried, dancing back onto its bed of coals. “Duskward!”
With a whoosh, the flames sank into the earth, leaving nothing behind but a patch of black soot. The final flaming tendril was a finger, pointing me toward the west.