Blind Eye Books, $16.95, ISBN 978-1-935560-51-7
The Long Past & Other Stories is actually a collection of three stories, all set in the same alternate universe where America, in the 1800s, is a land with dinosaurs as well as theurgy and magicum (the terms for woo-woo in this setting) mingling with more familiar elements. I had said in the past that setting is Ginn Hale’s bigger weaknesses, as many of her previous stories had rather loosely drawn backdrop lacking in detail. Here, it’s the reverse: the setting and the atmosphere are exquisite, but the stories themselves leave me feeling like I’ve eaten a light meal and I’m still hungry for more.
The Long Past kicks off the show, and it’s arguably the most ambitious story of the three. It’s 1864. Some great war had recently calmed down, although a great flood and various magical damages had changed the landscape considerably. There was an uneasy peace in the land, but magical rifts have opened and it’s time for the Inquisition to rise again and… oops, wrong story. Anyway, the rifts. So, we have mages coming together to decide how to undo most of the damages in the land, and some of those mage folks arrive in Colorado Territory. Grover is startled to discover that the son of the family his mother was once a cook for, Lawrence, is alive after all. The mage is with some others to look at the sea that has formed over the lands that spanned what was formerly Kansas to the Gulf of Mexico, and clearly all is not okay with those people. Lawrence, in particular, doesn’t seem to get along with the creepy Tucker twins.
In the meantime, Grover and Lawrence were friends that eventually added some benefits into their playtime, if you know what I mean. Now that Lawrence is back from the dead, will the benefits come back with him too?
This one has many things that could have made it a great read. There is still a great deal of racial tension lingering despite the emancipation of slaves some time ago, and no matter how close Grover can be to Lawrence and the man’s family, there will always be a gulf separating them, and this lends some poignancy and weight to the underlying tension between the two men. I could have overlooked the predictable plot and the way the story sags a bit in the middle if other things were done differently.
But the tensions between Grover and Lawrence never really come to a head – it is as if the author included these elements just to show off how woke she is, without going a bit more to make them feel less perfunctory. Also, there is a cartoon-like clear divide among the cast. The good guys are all uniformly woke, goody-goody, and nice, while the bad guys are total racists, assholes, cruel twats, et cetera. This simplistic black and white portrayal of the good guys versus the bad guys also dumbs down the mature, poignant elements to some after school PSA level, and robs the story of nuances that could have made it a richer, more grown up, and more emotionally resonating read.
And then there’s Grover who begins to pull out great ideas to save the day, one after another, out of his rear end even if it’s about matters that are outside of his range of expertise or speciality. He’s a talented dinosaur trainer and some kind of archaeologist, but watch as he just looks at a situation and voila, comes up with accurate analysis or totally useful solutions in a heartbeat – even on woo-woo matters that should have been Lawrence’s expertise. Poor Grover, who starts out a human character, has morphed into a black guy version of Wesley Crusher.
Next up, it’s 1893 and as a result of the events that took place in the previous story, woo-woo stuff has become quite a bad word. The mages are now herded off to circles by the templars… oops, wrong story again. It’s all about painful collars instead as the theurgists want all magic users to wear them to ensure their good behavior. This is the backdrop for The Hollow History of Professor Perfectus, which sees Abril and her girlfriend Geula making a living by putting on magic shows. Abril uses her ability to manipulate objects from afar to do the good stuff, but they are careful to also let the audience know before the show ends that everything is basically smoke and mirrors. No magic here, no indeed! Geula is concerned that Abril is slowly wearing herself out using her abilities, but they need to make a bit more money before they can both move out west to join the Village People in getting their own place and carving out their own lives, away from the drama about mages and what not.
Both Geula and Abril have less than pristine pasts, and Geula’s offers them an opportunity to make $700 – just what they need to go west – if they can locate a girl from a charity house who has gone missing. Their quest will lead them to a plot which is straight out of a very famous novel by Ira Levin.
I find this the best story of the three, despite it being shorter than the previous story, because it is far better handled. Both characters are fine in their own right. While the story won’t surprise folks who are familiar with Ira Levin’s story or the movies made out of that story, it’s still done in a way that is entertaining. The pacing is better, with no awkward pauses for exposition (which the first story suffers from quite a bit), and the social justice elements are incorporated far more cohesively into the whole thing and thus feel less like the author poking me in the eye and screaming at me to look at how woke she is.
Interestingly, while the stories here are far from sexually explicit, this one has the lights going out before anything naughty even happens between the two ladies. I guess the author knows her audience well, and those people aren’t here for lady bits in full display. But it’s perfectly fine to know whether the blokes are cut or uncut, though!
Lastly, there’s Get Lucky. It’s 1896, and finally, things seem to have settled down into some semblance of sanity. Woo-woo folks are emancipated too, so we are down to more standard Western romance drama to come between gunslinger Dalfon Elias and his boo Luc “Lucky” Spivey. This one has quests to capture bandits, dead girls to angst over, and various other drama to keep the story going. This one is alright, but it’s also the most forgettable story because I feel that this is just a standard Western romance given a steampunk gloss. Nothing here stands out in a way to make me go, “Wow! That’s cool!” like the other two stories did now and then, and I also find myself distracted by how Luc, supposedly the less genteel one of the two blokes, seems to slip in and out of “ghetto” speak depending on what seems like the author’s whims. Also, supposed outlaws and ruffians here can seem a bit too well spoken to be believable.
The setting is definitely the star attraction in The Long Past & Other Stories. There are obvious homages to HG Wells, Jules Verne, and of course Ira Levin among others, on top on the author’s own touches, and I like the end result; it’s just fabulous. I really want to love the characters and their stories as much as the setting, but the closest I ever come to doing that is while reading the second story. And it’s not even that memorable. The three stories are all easy to read and the author’s narrative is as always clean and engaging but I don’t know. I just don’t feel much for the characters and their stories, no matter how hard I want to.