Sci-fi/Fantasy Collection Review: Lost Places by Sarah Pinsker

I first read Sarah Pinsker when “Two Truths and a Lie” was a Hugo Award finalist for Best Novelette in 2021 (it won). Three or four stories later, she’d become one of my absolute favorite short story authors, and picking up a copy of her second collection, Lost Places, was an easy decision. 

Lost Places contains 12 stories, 11 previously published elsewhere and one new novelette. While there are two or three sci-fi stories in the collection, the majority fall on the fantasy side of the speculative fiction genre, with two secondary world fantasies joined by a host of real world stories laced with a heaping dose of the uncanny. 

Those uncanny vibes perhaps come through the clearest in the novelettes that bookend the collection: Hugo/Nebula-winning “Two Truths and a Lie” and the brand-new “Science Facts!” The former follows a compulsive liar visiting her hometown and finding one of her lies is true, sending her down a rabbit hole investigating the creepy local children’s show that seemed to shape so many lives. It’s not a story that offers a lot of clear answers, but the atmosphere is absolutely outstanding. If you like stories that feel a little bit like The Twilight Zone, you won’t find many better. “Science Facts!,” a story of middle school girls on an extended camping trip, also eschews neat resolutions and leans heavily into the strangeness, with campfire tales and an odd perspective choice building the atmosphere until it comes to a head in the climax. 

The theme of urban legends is tackled more directly in the shortest (and most beautifully-titled) piece in the collection: “Left the Century to Sit Unmoved,” about a swimming hole notorious for the occasional patron that disappears without a trace. But instead of building the atmosphere like the novelettes, this one instead examines the psychology of the people who choose to swim there regardless. It’s a little hard to get into that headspace, as a reader with a pretty significant practical streak, but it’s a beautiful and fascinating reflection regardless.

The collection contains three works of near future sci-fi, all building up to central characters taking steps to confront injustice far bigger than they can tackle on their own. It’s a theme I really enjoy in short fiction, and it’s addressed most chillingly in “Escape from Caring Seasons,” about an elderly woman trying to free her wife from an AI-controlled retirement community hospital. The dystopia is terrifyingly plausible, the story keeps the reader on the edge of their seat, and it does a fabulous job at hitting the little nuances that make the world feel lived-in—the community planner seeing her work twisted, the hunt for missing persons outsourced to private drone-operators paid by the result, etc.—it’s exceptional. 

But “That Our Flag Was Still There” and “Everything is Closed Today” are quality stories in their own right. The former’s portrait of American patriotism may be a bit over-the-top, but there’s a strong emotional core to the story. And the latter provides a refreshing pre-Covid take on a lockdown story, delving both into dealing with boredom and collective action against injustice, without falling into the familiar tracks that have characterized lockdown discourse for the last few years. 

I didn’t find the two secondary world fantasies quite as strong as the rest of the collection, but that certainly doesn’t make them bad. “The Court Magician” is a classic “price of magic” tale that’s well-told and earned Pinsker her first appearance on the Hugo shortlist. It doesn’t necessarily transcend the trope, but it’s a high-quality example well worth reading for fans of such tales. And “The Mountains His Crown” features farmers trying to survive when the whims of the emperor threaten much of their crops. Again, it’s a well-told story, and it may share some thematic DNA with the three sci-fi pieces, though this one is fantasy through and through. 

Perhaps another “price of magic” story, though taking place in our world, is “Remember This For Me,” in which a notable artist suffers dementia that she attributes to a mystical muse that delivers artistic inspiration at the price of memory. It’s not always clear exactly what the reader should take at face value, but it’s a compelling story with enough grounding in reality to strike a chord with anyone who has cared for someone suffering dementia. 

There wasn’t much that underwhelmed about this collection, but I did struggle to see the point of “I Frequently Hear Music in the Very Heart of Noise,” which seemed more like a rundown of famous creatives who lived in New York than a story in its own right. Perhaps this one hits harder for New Yorkers and music history nerds, but while the writing was engaging, there just didn’t seem to be much weight behind the story. 

The collection’s other old New York story, on the other hand, was one of my very favorites. I’d read “A Better Way of Saying” when it was originally released, and I adored it as a slightly magical period piece. It just perfectly captures the voice of “somebody’s Jewish grandfather telling a story of how it was in his day,” with all the asides and digressions that entails. Keeping with one of the running themes of the collection, it’s another “do the best you can where you find yourself, even if your actions seem small” story, and I found both theme and storytelling were wonderful. 

But the crown jewel of the collection is the Hugo/Nebula/Locus Triple Crown-winning “Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather.” This was at least my fourth time reading this story, and it gets better every time. It’s a lovely experiment with form—told via a debate in the comments of a fictional lyrics explainer website—that simultaneously delivers an atmospheric, mysterious, and bloody tale centered around a folk ballad and attempts to pinpoint the circumstances around its creation. This one is exceptional. 

For me, it was a little disappointing that most of the highlights were pieces I’d previously read. But I’d already read the two Hugo and Nebula winners in the bunch, so perhaps that shouldn’t have been a surprise. Looking more objectively, this is an extremely strong collection. There are multiple fabulous stories and really only one weak spot, with the majority ranging from good to very good. This is no themed anthology, but a significant chunk of stories deal with various perspectives on urban legends and liminal places, and another significant chunk feature people making little decisions to try to make the world better, even if wholesale changes are beyond their capability. As someone who enjoys both, it’s an exceptional group of stories. 

Recommended if you like: the uncanny, ordinary people doing the best they can for the good.

Can I use it for BingoIt’s hard mode for Five Short Stories, and it’s also Published in 2023 and features Mundane Jobs more often than not.

Overall rating: 18 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.


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