In Short: Babies and Monsters

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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June 1, 2017

Today’s reviews are of Khaalidah Muhammed-Ali’s “Concessions” (Strange Horizons) and Brooke Bolander’s “The Last of the Minotaur Brides” (Tor.com).

“Concessions” by Khaalidah Muhammed-Ali (Strange Horizons, March 2017)

This is a story about unintended consequences and pride. Bilqis is a doctor living in a remote desert community, exiled there after the Creed Wars. Food is becoming scarcer and there are roving bands of organ catchers—who are about as pleasant as you’d expect—it’s a hard life, but when the story opens, it’s the only one Bilqis can imagine for herself. She’s unwilling to renounce her Islamic faith. She’s also done something terrible and believes her exile to be punishment for her sin.

When Bilqis goes to a neighboring Christian community to tend to a pregnant woman who has fallen ill, we learn that there are very few healthy babies born anymore. Bilqis uses a kind of second sight to look at Soraya’s baby to figure out what’s going on, and when she gets interference from her own pregnancy because her intent is muddled—and this is the impetus for her disastrous trip to the ruined metro of Oberon.

Shortly after she finds the ultrasound machine she’s in Oberon for, Bilqis is taken captive by a former colleague-turned-catcher. At this point it’s revealed that Bilqis was, in large part, responsible for a cancer vaccine that also caused widespread and pervasive infertility.

She’s faced with a difficult decision upon her return to the desert community, but it’s also the only decision she can make. She’s been lost in a literal wilderness, blinded by her pride and self-importance. To truly make reparations for the harm caused by the vaccine, she must return to her home metro—and renounce the trappings of her faith.

Bilqis reminds me of Essun, the protagonist in N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. She’s angry, and prideful and she has done terrible things for the sake of her child. But while there is darkness in Bilqis, there’s also light.

I liked “Concessions” tremendously—I liked that the main character was religiously observant and that there were multiple religions represented in the story and that they didn’t always get along. I really liked the way the fantastical elements were quite subtle, and I especially loved that the central conflict of this story was around pregnancy.

“The Last of the Minotaur Wives” by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com, March 2017)

This story is a piece of flash fiction that was part of the “Nevertheless, She Persisted” series hosted on Tor.com in early March of this year. As with most flash fiction, both plot and characterization are compressed—to the benefit of this subject, I think.

The titular character—like all the other minotaur wives throughout history—is exiled to the labyrinth on grounds of monstrousness. As she moves through its dark corridors, she can hear the lords and ladies dancing above and she dreams of escape. When the oldest wife dies, Blue takes her to what’s called the drying place—the one place where there is light.

She waits. While she waits, she remembers the instructions from her forebears—this is the thread she must follow. She returns to the drying place and find the last set of instructions—and then, after generations of persistence, freedom.

This a gorgeously rendered story. There’s a haunted, lyrical quality to the prose that only adds to the atmosphere. It’s a short read, but definitely worth your time.

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