Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Birthday Review: Short Fiction of Beth Bernobich

Beth Bernobich is exactly 1 day younger than yesterday's birthday subject, M. Rickert (which makes them both just a couple of months younger than me). Beth wrote a lot of exciting short fiction in the 2000s, then turned to novels -- a fantasy series collectively called River of Souls for Tor, and a fun YA fantasy, Fox and Phoenix. I hadn't seen anything for a few years, but just this year, under the name Claire O'Dell, she published an intriguing looking novel, A Study in Honor, the first of the Janet Watson chronicles, which (as the title of the first book and the name of the narrator suggest) puts versions of Holmes and Watson, who happen to be women and black, into a near-future dystopian US.

Here's a compilation of my reviews of her short fiction. (I also reviewed Fox and Phoenix for Black Gate.)

Locus, April 2003

Also of note is "Poison" by Beth Bernobich (posted January 20/27 at Strange Horizons), at 12,000 words perhaps the longest story yet featured at Strange Horizons. This story recalls Le Guin and Arnason, as well as Strange Horizons regular M. C. A. Hogarth, in that it depicts a human-like people with a different sexual nature. "Poison" is about a pair of tikaki, who can change their sex at will once they reach maturity. The narrator has not yet "ripened", but his/her companion, Yenny, has, and this ability makes Yenny a valuable prostitute. A new client, however, is using Yenny is some way as to make him/her ill, and the story turns on finding out what this client is plotting, which also reveals some of the story behind the tikakis' place in this alien society.

Locus, July 2003

I found the second issue of the overtly slipstream anthology Polyphony (edited by Deborah Layne with Jay Lake) even better than the first. ... Another fine story is Beth Bernobich's "Chrysalide", about a court painter whose success is based on her power to draw the "spirit", as it were, from her subjects to the painting, at a terrible cost.

Locus, April 2006

Asimov’s for June features one longish novelette and a passel of short stories. The novelette, “A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange”, is the first Asimov’s appearance for a very promising newer writer, Beth Bernobich. Simon Madoc is a mathematics student whose twin sister, Gwyn seems to have been driven mad by mathematics. We soon gather that this is in a parallel world of some sort: it feels a bit like Edwardian England but the city is called Awveline and the country Èireann, and other countries mentioned include familiar ones like Estonia and unfamiliar ones like Lîvod. Math is different, too: Simon is studying theories about the electrical properties of certain equations. And now Simon is at the center of a murder investigation, as several of his student friends have died in mysterious circumstances. This is all quite interesting, but in the end I wasn’t convinced. But I was intrigued: and I want to see more from Bernobich.

Locus, December 2007

September/October’s Interzone has a series of interesting stories … Beth Bernobich’s “A Handful of Pearls” is effectively creepy in portraying an unpleasant viewpoint character – a scientist whose girlfriend has left him – we slowly gather, because of his bad behavior – and we slowly are drawn into his abuse of a young humanoid girl they discover on an isolated island. What I wanted more of was the background – this seems to be set on an intriguingly different parallel Earth, but we don’t really learn enough about that.

Locus, September 2008

Somewhat belatedly I should mention a very fine story at Subterranean Magazine’s online edition for Spring. (I confess I have a hard time delineating the beginning and end of their issues.) “Air and Angels”, by Beth Bernobich, has an almost steampunk setup, with a young Victorian man meeting a fascinating pair of sisters, and being drawn briefly into their lives. The ladies are scientifically talented, and fascinated by astronomy – and it turns out they have a striking plan – which rather explicitly echoes a famous feminist SF story, given an intriguing alternate perspective by the Victorian setting.

Locus, October 2008

And among a host of first-rate work at Postscripts – the stories above, plus a fine Luff Imbry story from Matthew Hughes and solid work from Justina Robson, Eric Brown, and Paul DiFilippo among other, one story stands out. This is “The Golden Octopus” by Beth Bernobich (yet another writer exactly my age!). This intriguingly parallels her arresting earlier piece “A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange”. It follows the young Queen of Éirann (an alternate Ireland), as she juggles statecraft, her desire to support a researcher’s efforts to develop a form of time travel, her potential but unrealizable interest in her chief bodyguard and her politically more acceptable romance with the researcher, and finally a scary series of strange murders. The wrenching ending turns on the expectable but often unthought results of successful time travel.

Locus, December 2009

Speaking of PS Publishing and steampunk, they have put out Beth Bernobich’s first book, Ars Memoriae, a novella set in her somewhat steampunkish alternate history in which Queen Aíne rules in Éireann, a version of Ireland that occupies more or less the place of England as something like World War I looms. Commander Adrian Dee, still tortured by memories of another past, is sent by his Queen on a mission to Central Europe to uncover plots that may lead to a war involving the Prussian Empire, Austria, Montenegro … all this involving revolutionaries in Montenegro, a traitor in Éireann, and, naturally, a strong beautiful woman whose loyalties Dee cannot at first know … It’s fun stuff, but just a bit more routine than Bernobich’s previous Éireann stories. Still – there is surely more to come, perhaps even a novel, and Bernobich remains one of the most exciting newer writers we have.

Locus, September 2010

Beth Bernobich has not yet published a novel (though Passion Play is forthcoming this fall), but her short fiction has been very impressive, in particular several stories set in an alternate history dominated by a version of Ireland called Éireann. A Handful of Pearls collects much of her non- Éireann short fiction, which is also quite worth your while. The one new story, “Jump to Zion”, is fine work, if not her best, about a colony of former slaves who have escaped (where is not quite clear) only to form a new society again based on slavery. The heroine has struggled to buy herself something like freedom, but cannot guarantee the same for her daughter, and so is tempted by the violence urged by her former lover – only violence seems ever a mistake.

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