Review: Philippine Speculative Fiction IV (3 of 4)

It has been awhile since the last, but here is part 3 of my story-by-story review Philippine Speculative Fiction IV, edited by Dean Alfar and Nikki Alfar. Here are my thoughts on stories thirteen to eighteen, with my thanks to each author for sharing their story with us.

I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum but nevertheless, fair warning: Here There Be Spoilers.

“Breaking the Spell” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz

I remember a famous writer was giving advice on the use of different POV modes to aspiring authors, and he was asked when he thought it was appropriate to use a second person point of view. His answer:  don’t. While I don’t quite agree–a result of a childhood steeped in Choose-Your-Own-Adventures perhaps–second person present tense is hard to pull off, especially as in the case of this story, where the viewpoint character has actual characteristics (a young girl with long black hair and a beautiful voice).

The good news is Ms. Rochita pulls the second person POV off well… the only thing is, I’m not sure what the use of second-person really added to the story. The other POV in the story is set firmly in the third-person, and works just as well. Perhaps the shift in POVs is meant to higlight the different worlds (literally) inhabited by the main characters, but again, I think it would have been fine without it. POV necessity aside, while I did have some plot quibbles (why were such dangerous items being stored in a residence?), I really enjoyed the airy, almost fey character of the prose and I’m all for hero(ines) who break out of established gender roles.

“The Dance of the Storm” by Isabel Yap

I liked the first line of the story “It is raining when he first sees her”–although perhaps unintentionally, the first paragraph left me with the mistaken impression that the POV character was a kapre, at least until the last line of said paragraph. The prose is very well done, very fluid (pun unintended), so much so that it took me awhile to realize that this was the second straight story–going in sequence–that was told in present tense. I particularly like the second section of the story, with the short contrasting sentences used to show confusion and ambivalence. The story maintained an ethereal atmosphere all throughout, and was exactly the length necessary to tell its tale and tell it well. My only quibble was that some of the poetic structure of the prose bled into the dialogue, making the latter feel a bit stiff and unnatural–but then, I don’t know if Ms. Isabel purposefully sought that kind of formality of speech.

“Dino’s Awesome Adventure” by Carljoe Javier

I’ve always been a fan of the geek-underdog–Chuck, Spider-man, Beauty and the (just kidding)–so I was predisposed to like this story from the start. The opening paragraph was good, drawing me in with promises of temporal hijinks which had me sketching out possible ways by which the story might play out. While the prose is solid and the dialogue was well done and natural to the (mental) ear, the main problem I had with the story was that it played out with little in the way of surprises, not just for me but for the main character. The wisdom of the selected manner of “winning over” the girl aside, what disappointed me was that once the main character came up with the plan, said plan went off with very little in the way of a hitch; technically there was one, but the main character hardly has the chance to react to that before it was resolved. I suppose I was simply expecting more things to go wrong… There just wasn’t as much tension or conflict in the story as I would have liked.

“Beats” by Kenneth Yu

One of the things I’ve learned recently, especially since I started reading short stories, is that while characters and plot are the most essential pieces of a story in my eyes, there are tales in which it is the setting that is paramount, where my accustomed diet of motivation and conflict are replaced by dense descriptions and lovingly crafted metaphors. “Beats” is one of these milieu-focused stories, and it allows Sir Kenneth to construct a riveting vista in the space of about three pages (from submersion to rescue). The milieu story calls for a deft hand at world-painting, and Sir Kenneth does that very well, with flourishes of specific terminology that shows the extent to which the story was researched–or the immersion he may perhaps actually have in hobbies of the sea.

That being said, milieu stories just don’t grab me like others do, but this tale was crafted well enough that I could appreciate excellence when I saw it. I did enjoy how the title played in to the overall theme of the story.

“Hopscotch” by Anne Lagamayo

This story continues the trend for this batch of tales, namely good openings. “They weren’t to play there…” are words that give off a feeling of “wrong” to me, either because of the possible danger inherent in a warning, or on the other hand simply because the right of people to play is one I hold sacred. I also found the use of dialogue without quotation marks to be quite novel–on second reading, it made me wonder if this was meant to represent the impersonal conversation of the children through their sound gear. On third reading I wondered if I was just over-thinking things.

The gentleness and cruelty of children is showcased in the story, and those are familiar, human themes; they contrasted well with the stark post-apocalyptic setting. I did find it a bit too short though and felt that it ended abruptly; I would have liked to have a better idea of what the “thing” was (although I could simply be slow on the uptake). What I did find confusing however was the shifts of tense and of POV without linebreaks, but again I’m not sure if this was a stylistic choice.

“First of the Gang to Die” by Paolo Jose Cruz

Again, as with the other stories in this batch, I am pulled into this by the opening–it’s not exactly rare to begin a story with an ending/funeral, but it still works to pique the interest. Actually, my interest was piqued by the title itself, which promised that this would be a story of friendship and death, both good ingredients for a story.

The prose is solid and the first person narrator adds enough color to keep things interesting and personal as he tells his tale. The dialogue on the other hand is… well, almost totally absent. This was my main problem with the story, the fact that most, if not all, of the tale was told via exposition rather than scenes… even the most crucial, most interesting part of the story–the Storyscape–is revealed as if by a lecture, rather than by giving the reader a chance to see it unfold. Again, there are instances where the show versus tell dichotomy doesn’t tilt in favor of “show” but I didn’t find that to be the case here. The advantage of the first person perspective is the ability to establish a connection between reader and character, a level of intimacy that helps immerse the reader in the fictional world: in this case however, I didn’t feel that, and that’s a shame, especially in a story about friends. The end result was that the story felt more like a long synopsis of a full-length novel rather than a short story.

Standard review disclaimer: I’m certainly no book critic – literary criticism makes my head hurt – nor the most diverse genre reader, but hopefully my thoughts on what struck me and what confused me, what immersed me and what took me out of the tale, can be of help to you guys. Besides… who doesn’t like talking about the stories they’ve read? ^_^

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