Magazine Review

Tar Vol Reads a Magazine (or Two): Reviews of Clarkesworld and GigaNotoSaurus (April 2024)

Hi, I am still here reading short fiction. I read two magazines each month, along with dips here and there into others. This is a review of the first two, for April 2024 


Clarkesworld rarely disappoints, and I’ve yet to see it ever disappoint two months in a row. So after my least favorite issue of the last eighteen months in March, April delivered one of my favorites, and it started from the very beginning. 

The Lark Ascending by Eleanna Castroianni follows an AI left intact following a raid on the home of a subversive musician living in a surveillance state. Though intact, constant surveillance means the lead can communicate only obliquely for fear of discovery, setting the stage for a delightful story of quiet rebellion on a personal scale that hits all the right notes and makes excellent use of the Vaughn Williams piece in the title. 

Tia Tashiro burst onto the scene last year with what may be my favorite debut short story since I got into short fiction, so I was absolutely thrilled to see her reappear on this month’s table of contents, and An Intergalactic Smuggler’s Guide to Homecoming did not disappoint. It follows a talented smuggler who has used her less-than-legal skills to simply get out of her dead-end, backwater home world, even though it cost her a relationship with the tech-savvy sister who stayed home to code. When a job smuggling a group of tiny, sentient creatures out of a genocidal war zone leads her back home, she’s forced to confront both her job’s unsavory elements that she’s so far successfully ignored, and the good things she left behind. This may not be the jaw-dropper that was “To Carry You Inside You,” but it’s gripping from the opening sentence and does a wonderful job balancing the excitement with both moral and personal dilemmas. This will no doubt be on my favorites of the year list. 

The issue’s longest piece is the novella The Indomitable Captain Holli by Rich Larson, which follows a potty-mouthed five year-old with a penchant for trouble whose virtual reality cartoon of a companion is leading her on a dangerous adventure with opaque goals. Throw in a robotic bugbear antagonist and an endless war between two self-contained residential towers in a desolate, post-apocalyptic landscape, and there’s danger and excitement around every corner. The narrative voice of the child protagonist is the true highlight here, stealing the show from the opening paragraphs and remaining a delight for the entirety of the novella, but four secondary perspectives allow the reader to grasp the true dangers in a way that the lead does not, making for a tense and thrilling ride with plenty to say about meaningless quests and a twist or two to keep the reader on their toes. 

As a big fan of SFF magazines, I’m always looking for magazine novellas that hit the heights of some of the separately-bound offerings from places like Tordotcom and Subterranean Press, and in “The Indomitable Captain Holli,” I have absolutely found one. 

In addition to the novella, the April issue has one more extended story, the novelette The Arborist by Derrick Boden. Another story from AI perspective, this tells of a project terraforming an incredibly hostile planet and the rifts the effort has created in the small crew in charge of the project. As a “terraforming gets complicated” novelette, it reminds me a little bit of “Old Seeds” by Owen Leddy, though I admit to appreciating Leddy’s deft handling of the themes more than Boden’s blunter approach. Still, “The Aborist” was engaging and certainly worth a read for fans of that type of story—it and “Old Seeds” would make an intriguing book club pairing. 

The Rambler by Shen Dacheng, translated by Cara Healey, feels more like a bit of magical realism than anything else, as a pedestrian bridge stretches its staircases and just…wanders off. There’s not a big overarching plot, but it’s not especially long and is engagingly written, with quite a bit of (often amusing) exploration on how a city bureaucracy addresses something they have absolutely no process to handle. 

Occurrence at O1339 by Kelly Jennings is another story from an AI perspective, featuring something like a cross between a first contact and a Turing Test, with the fate of the world in the balance. It’s a short and clever piece with an ending that made me smile. 

Finally, the shortest piece in the issue, The Oldest Fun by Natalia Theodoridou, is a disorienting tale in the tradition of school-based urban legends, recasting them as an ever-changing game with a penchant for drawing hard home kids, sometimes keeping them forever. A good read with some fun perspective shifts, though one I’m not quite sure what to take from in the end. 

The non-fiction section includes a short editorial congratulating Clarkesworld authors on award nominations, while gesturing at a less happy editorial that blessedly stayed in drafts, thanks to external events being not quite as dire as they could have been. There’s also a science piece on fruits as portrayed in science fiction and fantasy, from symbol-heavy mythology to the scarcity of strawberries in space. 

The two interviews are with Sofia Samatar and Ann Leckie. Samatar is an author I’ve read a little in the past and always seems to leave me feeling like I’m missing a hidden level of depth, so I haven’t gone out of my way to read her novel-length work, but the way she talks about her newest project sure makes me want to. Leckie has been a huge name in the last decade that I haven’t yet read, and I’m not sure this interview necessarily changes my ill-informed perception of her, but I have Translation State on the docket for June, so I’ll at least get a little more informed soon. 


This month’s GigaNotoSaurus entry is the novelette The Grandmother Hypothesis by J.S. Richardson, a story about multiverse travel from the inventor of the device that makes it possible, complete with stern warnings against making emotional decisions to travel the multiverse. It’s a story that starts with loss, and a lead whose grief drives her down so many unhealthy paths that there’s no way back to the person she once was. The multiverse element is interesting enough, but this is absolutely a character story—about a mother so consumed by grief that it takes over her life, but also about the possibility of building another life long afterwards. Really enjoyed this one. 

March favorites 

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