Zadayi Red by Caleb Fox
I can't remember the last time I was drawn into a book quite as deeply as I was
drawn into Zadayi Red. The novel opens with the story of Sunoya, a young
medicine woman who is haunted by visions of the most holy relic of her people, a
cape of eagle feathers, torn and desecrated. She undertakes a vision quest to
discover the truth behind her dreams, visiting the spirit world to see the
thunderbird for guidance. The cape, it seems, is being endangered by the actions
of the Galayi (the name for the prehistoric Cherokee culture that provide the setting
of the novel). The most sacred law is that no Galayi may kill another, and the
Galayi are breaking this law, and this is destroying the cape.
Sunoya is a fascinating character. She was born with a webbed left hand, the mark
of a medicine woman. But, she was also born with a webbed right hand -- a curse
that should have led to her being strangled in her crib, if her mother and aunt
hadn't cut the webbing and hidden the truth from the tribe. Sunoya struggles under
the burden of her destiny; was she born blessed or cursed? Will her actions save
the Galayi, or destroy them?
It's a measure of debut author Caleb Fox's talent that the second time I picked up
the book, I was surprised by his name. The day before I'd read the first sixty or so
pages of Zadayi Red, absorbed by Sunoya's story, and Sunoya was such a
convincing female character that I had come to think that the author must be
Unfortunately, only the first third of the book is focused on Sunoya. Sunoya winds
up the virgin "mother" of a boy named Dahzi. Dahzi was born with a webbed left
hand; Sunoya knows he is a gift from the gods who will one day restore the cape of
eagle feathers. However, while Sunoya struggles through the book with the
question of whether she is a gift or a curse, the author never lets us forget that
Dahzi is the child of prophecy, the savior of the Galayi. He tries to humanize
Dahzi by giving him the lusts and fears and jealousy of a normal man, but it
somehow all comes off as false. In the spirit world, Dahzi must confront his fears,
and winds up facing down a pack of dogs and a pair of log-sized snakes. It was
mentioned in passing earlier in the story that Dahzi is afraid of dogs, although there
are other scenes where he's in the company of dogs without blinking an eye. If he
had a fear of snakes before reaching the spirit world, I must have skimmed over it.
His flaws feel tacked on as obstacles for him to overcome rather than as integral
parts of his being.
Dahzi's worst sin as a character is that, as the savior foretold by prophecy, he never
encounters any circumstances in his various quests where the dangers confronting
him ever feel convincing. When he's hurt or lost, he always gets rescued.
Shamans, spirit animals, and little people are all watching out for him. He catches
too many lucky breaks, and there is never any possibility that he might fail, or that
the prophecy might somehow be false. Sunoya makes sacrifices throughout the
opening scenes; her choices are difficult. Dahzi makes no sacrifices, and doesn't
make many choices.
Fortunately, Dahzi isn't the only character in the book. The supporting cast around
him is filled with quirky, fascinating characters that really flesh out the prehistoric
Cherokee culture, making it come alive. As Dahzi meets these various minor
characters, I remained engaged as Fox explores the various Galayi traditions
surrounding food, war, the spirit world, bathroom habits, and sex. In his author
notes, Fox says the culture in the book is part research, part imagination. The fact
that it all felt so seamless and authentic is testament to his skill as a world-builder.
Hopefully, Zadayi Red is just the first of many books we'll see from Caleb Fox.
Future Bristol edited by Colin Harvey
I'm a fan of tightly themed anthologies, preferring those with a single subject to
more wide-ranging collections united merely by genre. Still, I had to wonder when
I picked up Future Bristol if I'd finally met a collection with such a narrow theme
that it might not work. The book is a collection of science fiction stories set in
Bristol, England. All the authors have some connection to the city; editor Colin
Harvey says they have written these stories in "celebration of the city that we moan
about but also love."
Having never been to Bristol, or even England, I found myself worried whether or
not the stories would hold my attention. I shouldn't have been concerned. This
proved to be a fine collection, with one good story after another. Not knowing
much about Bristol, I had difficulty judging how "Bristolly" each story truly was.
Some did a good job of bringing the city to life, while others felt driven by
character and plot with the city only a tacked on backdrop.
I decided that this capacity to bring the city to life was an important element to
judge in the stories. I tended to appreciate the stories that had it a bit more than the
stories that didn't. Still, I also believe in judging a story holistically, with the
important question being whether I'd enjoy it beyond the context of the anthology.
With this in mind, I'm going to examine each story by both its overall appeal, and
"Isambard's Kingdom" by Liz Williams
A tale of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a famed British engineer, who must build a
bridge both in the real world Bristol, and in the spirit-realm. I thought this story
was a smart choice to lead off the anthology, as it succeeds completely as a
masterfully told story, and did an excellent job at making Bristol seem like a real
place to me.
"The Guerilla Infrastructure HOWTO" by John Hawkes-Reed
The first of many nanotech tales, this story does a terrific job with the narrator's
voice; the slangy, quirky language brings the city to life by making me believe this
must be the way that the locals sound. So, high marks for evoking Bristol in my
mind. Alas, I thought the story was a bit less successful in selling me on the
plausibility of the technology driven plot. If I understand the story right, the base
material the eco-protagonists are using to build an alternative mass transit is wood.
There's a reason we don't build railroads with wooden rails.
"After the Change" by Stephanie Burgis
The tale of superheroic angels who rise to save the city of Bristol in its hour of
darkness. A fun tale that worked in its own right, but it seemed like it could have
been set in any big city.
"A Tale of Two Cities" by Christina Lake
A very ambitious tale of corporate scheming, future drugs, virtual reality and
genetic naughtiness. Perhaps too ambitious; I confess I spent a good deal of the
story confused by all the elements getting tossed at me. There are jumps between
the narrator's future and the past future of her mother that means the author is
sometimes using future future tech as a way of explaining past future tech, if that
makes sense. On the plus side, the story feels like it genuinely belongs in its
"Pirates of the Cumberland Basin" by Joanne Hall
A well told tale of human trafficking in a future where the relics of a fallen Bristol
are plundered by high tech pirates, with a healthy dose of police work thrown in to
drive the plot. I thought the story was expertly executed, and also made good use
of the Bristol setting.
"Trespassers" by Nick Walters
I have to confess, I'm a sucker for pulpy SF, so I loved this weird and daring story
featuring space vixens and humans kept in alien zoos. I don't know how well it
evoked Bristol as a whole, but it did a good job of making the urban exploration of
an old train station come alive for me.
"Thermoclines" by Colin Harvey
I'm always nervous when editors include their own stories in an anthology, but
Colin Harvey actually turns in one of the strongest tales in the book. Set in a post-human world of bird men, Harvey makes the future culture of his story come alive
by focusing on the most human element in his post-human world: his young
narrator's desire for a girl visiting from a distant tribe. Curiously, though, this
story is one of the weakest in evoking a sense of the city of Bristol for me. It was
so far in the future, it could have been set anywhere.
"What Would Nicolas Cage Have Done?" by Gareth L. Powell
The story opens with a somewhat touristy description of walking around Bristol,
but the meat of the tale comes later when out of control nanotech wipes out all life
on earth. This turns out to be the true launching point of the tale; the story could
have started anywhere. The strongest part of the story is the budding love story
between the narrator and a girl he meets in a bookstore. I found the dialogue to be
very natural and plausible; often dialogue in short stories is simply there to push
the plot forward. Here, the dialogue has nothing to do with the gee-whiz tech that
will erupt a few pages later. As a result, it felt very real to me. It seemed like the
way people actually flirt, and makes the story feel like an actual window onto life.
"The Sun in the Bone House" by Jim Mortimore
Another highly ambitious tale that jumps around through various eras of Bristol's
past, mixed in with plot drivers from Bristol's future, until the whole thing closes
up in one giant time loop. We see everything from people living in bronze age
huts to people mining the solar system to build interplanetary structures. It was an
interesting experiment in past and future history, but as the story jumped around, I
had difficulty feeling any attachment to the various characters I met. It felt like a
novel's worth of plot and events jammed into a short story. It did bring to life past
Bristol, though wasn't as good at evoking future Bristol.
Overall, I thought seven out of nine of the stories were quite good, and the
remaining two had their moments. Not a bad success ratio for an anthology.
Read more by James Maxey