DAW, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0700-1
What happens when a creature, or a thing, or even an abstract concept, takes on human form for a day? That’s the question that the contributors to the anthology Human for a Day attempt to answer. The results are quite predictable – humans can love, hurt, hate, and more – but, at the same time, spectacular.
Ian Tregillis’s The Mainspring of His Heart, The Shackles of His Soul is set in a steampunk version of 19th century Canada, at a time when the Netherlands is the center of power. Our hero is a clockwork servant (or “Clakker”), an android of sorts created to perform menial labor. He is doing his thing on a ship to Quebec, and his superiors have no idea that he is plotting to escape when they land, so that he can find this alchemist that is said to be able to help Clakkers become humans. He has the help of Willem, the lieutenant of the ship, whom Jax is in love with.
And just when things seem to be going great, the author throws a sucker punch that has me biting my lower lip in dismay. Okay, those are not tears welling in my eyes, oh no. I hate it when that happens, but good for the author for pulling this on me in the first story of anthology. Still, the bittersweet ache this story arouses in my heart is a good feeling to experience, and I wouldn’t change any word in this story if I were given the power to do so.
Jay Lake’s The Blade of His Prow is about a very ancient immortal who had been a soldier all his undying existence. After so many killings and transient relationships, life seems empty, until, at least, he is given a reprieve. This one presents a pretty good look into the shattered psyche of someone who has lived too long.
Seanan McGuire’s Cinderella City is set in the same setting as her short story The Alchemy of Alcohol. It can somewhat stand alone, but the villains are the same goons from that last story. This time around, bartender and alchemist guru Mina has an even more unusual visitor to her bar. The city of San Francisco – apparently cities become sentient after reaching a certain population density, becoming something like a guardian spirit – has been made into human. This is not a happy outing, however, as killing her in her mortal form would destroy the entire city and everyone in it (duh, like nobody could see that coming). Can Mina help the city stop whoever it is that is trying to pull the big plug on the city?
This one is fun, but it is spoiled by the ending where the good guys refuse to get rid of the bad guys permanently because the bad guys are “family”. Yeah, we see how well that worked out for He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, right? 130 episodes of the original cartoon series in the 1980’s, oh my god.”He’s getting away!” “Shut up, it’s time to pose for the rolling credits!”
Anton Strout’s Tumulus is about a desperate couple who, wanting a child really badly, make sure that they are there to plead their case on that one night every 100 years, when the dreaded banshee creature Mongfhionn comes back to life as a human. That is a punishment for Mongfhionn’s many sins during her lifetime, and she’s not exactly a benevolent fairy godmother. What happens next? This one doesn’t really fit with the rest of the stories in this anthology, and it’s a fairly forgettable story ruined by a somewhat hopeful ending that doesn’t fit the story as well as I’d have liked.
The Sentry by Fiona Patton makes me cry. The cynical part of me insists on thinking of this story, of a long-dead soldier somehow coming back to life after they finally found his body, as an overly sentimental type of pap that should be left to Nicholas Sparks and his ilk. But what the heck, it’s always nice to read a story that turns me into an emotional mess, so I’m going to give this one my two thumbs up. Those last few pages…
Erik Scott de Bie’s Ten Thousand Cold Nights is about samurai swords that take human form to take it out on one another. This one has a great concept, but it just goes on and on that my enthusiasm for the story is completely dissipated by the time it limps to the denouement. I guessed correctly what would happen early on, which is probably why this short story feels much more interminably long than it actually is.
Dylan Birtolo’s Mortality has an angel, Deniel, sent down to Earth as a human being for a day, to help those he come across find or regain their faith. If you are thinking that this probably won’t end well, you’re right. Like the previous story, I correctly guessed what would come just after a few pages, so this one is far too predictable for my liking.
What happens when a dog turns into a human and his favorite owner falls for him? I believe I have read or watched that story before, even before Tanith Lee serves up The Dog-Catcher’s Song. Still, this one still manages to deliver some hard knocks to my cynical heart, and the bittersweet ending hurts so good. I actually went and hugged my dogs after reading this story. No, don’t tell anyone!
After all that gloom and doom, it’s a nice change of pace to read Laura Resnick’s Mortal Mix-up. A vampire diva ends up switching bodies with a vampire wannabe girl due to a spell, and the poor thing goes all Victoria Beckham over the horrible incident. This one is frothy, light, and forgettable, but hey, it’s an opportunity for me to regain my equilibrium after all those sad stories about falling in love and having other emotions being such burdens on the soul.
Jean Rabe’s Band of Bronze is, surprisingly, the most violent story of the bunch. One night every year, the Mad Hatter statue in a park comes to life and he can animate a few other statues to tag along with him… as he goes on a bloody rampage to clean up the criminals and other low-lives stinking up “his” park. The contrast between the nature of some of the statues and the brutality they commit makes this one a most cheerfully demented tale to savor. But ouch, how can anyone do that to the poor duck!
Tim Waggoner’s Zombie Interrupted is a story set in the same world as his novels that feature the zombie PI Matthew Richter. In this one, Matthew turns human for a day, which is a great opportunity for him to finally get busy with his girlfriend and make a baby. Alas, he gets sidetracked by a very important mission as the clock ticks away… This one isn’t bad at all, and I find that it’s an intriguing introduction to the author’s novels featuring that zombie guy. Still, the plot is lightweight and the story doesn’t really grab me, at least, not enough to make me want to look up those other books.
Eugie Foster wins the most bombastic title for a short story with her contribution Beneath the Silent Bell, The Autumn Sky Turns to Spring. This tale of reincarnated lovers, angry psychotic lovers… or something… is written in such a deliberately opaque “I want to be an Asian literary goddess!” manner that my eyes just glaze over. I find myself actually craving for Amy Tan’s usually dull and plodding narrative.
Jody Lynn Nye’s The Very Next Day is the most embarrassing story that I’d ever admit to liking, as it is a gentle yet moving story about Santa Claus coming to be as a human being and helping a cynical newspaper writer believe in Christmas again. Seriously, admitting to liking this story is like showing off one’s collection of beanie babies to one’s friends at a goth convention. So just pretend that you didn’t read this, okay?
Kristine Kathryn Rusch demonstrates why you really should treat cats nicely in The Destroyer: they may get to become human for a while and really bring the whoop-ass down on you. This one is interesting, and even disturbing in a nice way, thanks to the author’s steady narrative even as the protagonist – a cat who becomes increasingly disillusioned and even bitter about how people treat his kind – becomes more violent.
David D Levine’s Into The Nth Dimension is about two comic book superheroes who find themselves cast into the real world. Is this the right time for them to finally give in to their mutual lusts or would they go back to being superheroes? I have fun first imagining Batman and Robin in the lead roles, and later, the Tick and Arthur. Actually, the Tick and Arthur fit the profile more perfectly, but somehow I find myself cringing when I think of them getting down even for a second. I know, I’m so shallow.
Jim C Hines closes the anthology with Epilogue. I am not giving a synopsis of this one because this one is too easily spoiled. I’ll just say this: this is the bleakest and most heartbreaking story of them all. I close this anthology conflicted as to whether I want to scream at the author and the editors for the very sadistic act of slotting this story last, or to thank them because, the sadist that I am, I love having my emotions whipped up into a lather when I am reading.
There are some weak links in this anthology, but at the end of the day, Human for a Day connects with me, makes me feel, and works up my feelings. If you don’t mind me saying this, it actually makes me feel human while I am reading it. It is impossible for me not to give this one a well-deserved keeper status.