The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn by Usman Malik (2015, free at Tor.com, Kindle version). Nominated for 2015 Nebula award (novella).
When I began this story I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it wasn’t what unfolded. The title evoked images of a myth retold or a fairy tale, but this story was something altogether different than what I had in mind. The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn isn’t so much about magic as influenced by it, and isn’t so much a retelling of a fairy tale but nostalgia for what a fairy tale is.
This novella focuses on Salman and the stories (or one particular story) his grandfather told him when Sal was a young boy. Sal is a young professor when his grandfather passes away, and he finds the story from his childhood written in his grandfather’s journal, with some notable changes he’d never heard.
I didn’t love The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn, but conversely I think it’s a beautiful and brilliant tale. Brilliant like staring at the sun too long, rather than witty or particularly quick. I walked away from it once or twice before really sitting down to read it all the way through. Although I found the beginning a bit long, it was a story worth going back to. It is rich and deep in ways some stories are, utilizing lovely prose to unfold the tale before the reader.
Overall, if you have a bit of time to sink deep into something lyrical and steeped in myth, I would recommend giving The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn a read. It wasn’t what I was expecting, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. ~ Skye Walker
Editor’s note: Tadiana Jones also reviewed this novella in our SHORTS post on April 11, 2016 and rated it 4 stars.
“Those Who Watch” by Ruthanna Emrys (May 2016, free at Tor.com, reprinted from The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu, an anthology of new, original stories inspired by H.P. Lovecraft).
This tale about a highly unusual library would have fit in well with the books and libraries theme that I adopted for my reviews in last week’s SHORTS post. Elaine has just been hired as a reference librarian at a small rural Louisiana community college library in Louisiana. She’s far away from her home and her supportive boyfriend, but grateful for a job in her field at a place that actually cares about being a good library for its patrons.
On her third day, Elaine makes the mistake of treating a book casually: she tucks Cults and Sects of Eastern Bavaria under her arm while hooking a rolling stool with her ankle. The book retaliates with a sharp sting, marking the inside of her arm with a tiny spiral galaxy tattoo. Her boss Sherise examines the sore spot on her arm and treats it with a first aid kit, but doesn’t offer any explanation other than, “Be careful with the religion books. Powers want respect, and so do the words around them.”
Elaine, abashed and unwilling to make waves at her new job, doesn’t ask for any further explanation, at least at first. But as the allegorical sculptures that guard the doors of the reading room begin to obscurely threaten her and other supernatural forces in the library make themselves felt, they force her to assert herself and prove her worth to herself and to them.
Elaine is an enjoyably unusual main character, a young woman with body issues (“fat ass and weak ankles”) and prone to panic attacks, but with intelligence and determination. This story contains multiple references to Lovecraftian lore, and I probably missed most of them, not being a particular fan of his work. But the theme of respect resonated for me: respect for books, for powers that we may not fully understand, and, not least, for ourselves. ~Tadiana Jones
“The Mongolian Wizard” by Michael Swanwick (2012, free at Tor.com, Kindle version)
When I saw Skye’s review of “The Night of the Salamander,” below, which is the 5th in Michael Swanwick’s THE MONGOLIAN WIZARD series of short stories, I thought it would be worthwhile to also review this, the first story in this series of an alternative 19th century Europe inhabited by wizards and magical creatures.
Junior Lieutenant Franz-Karl Ritter is an officer in the Werewolf Corps, a variant of the K9 Corps, except that the men have wolves with which they share a mind link. Ritter is responsible for security at a conference of European wizards in Schloss Greiffenhorst on a snowy mountaintop in the Riphean Mountains. On the third day of the conclave, Sir Toby Willoughby-Quirke barrels into Ritter, knocking him flat, then politely introduces himself. Sir Toby soon sets up a military demonstration using a platoon of two-inch high toy soldiers, who march in formation and display their shooting abilities, then disappear into the walls of the castle, ostensibly to hunt down rats and mice. But the miniature soldiers aren’t what they seem to be, and neither is the boisterous Sir Toby.
The Mongolian Wizard of the title is an ominous presence in the background of the tale, a powerful wizard who has taken over Russia and is on the path to invade the rest of Europe. With the choice to name this story after a character who doesn’t appear, Swanwick tips his hand to the fact that this story is introducing us to a world and characters that will be revisited in future tales (the series is currently up to seven stories, all available on Tor.com). Nevertheless, this is a reasonably satisfying story, told in a clear, fairly precise manner, befitting the military man Ritter’s point of view, with an attention-grabbing setting. An unexpected turn at the end added a welcome note of depth to the tale, and sharpened my desire to continue reading this series. ~Tadiana Jones
“The Night of the Salamander” by Michael Swanwick (2015, free at Tor.com, Kindle version)
With a perhaps misleading title, “The Night of the Salamander” is one in a series of stories about the main character, Ritter. Given that this is the fifth tale and I have not read the other four, this story did quite well for itself.
“The Night of the Salamander” is quite short and deals with one particular night during a particular war in which magic is being used by both sides to try and turn the tide, resulting in an apparent stalemate. Ritter is at a high class social function when he is called away to deal with a peculiar murder case. “The Night of the Salamander” may begin with a magical entity called a salamander, but very quickly veers into other territory.
I enjoyed the pacing and mystery of this short story. The author gives enough insight into the world this tale is part of to pique interest in other tales without relying on them. Perhaps its greatest strength was that even though I have not read the other stories about Ritter, I had no problem following what was going on – and it didn’t feel like everything about the world was being explained all over again. If the other stories are anything like this one, it’s an easy series to jump in to.
The only issue I would take with this short story is that it felt very short. “The Night of the Salamander” could have stood to gain a couple paragraphs, whether to build tension or nuance. A little more weight to the story would have gone a long way to make me feel a bit more engaged. As it stands, I’m sure I’ll read the other stories in this series at some point, but they aren’t at the top of the To-Be-Read pile. ~Skye Walker
Oh, fine! Now, in addition to all the books I have to read, and all the books I *want* to get to read, you guys give me a raft of short fiction that I really want to read! The things I put up with!
Oh good! My job here is done. Until next week. :)