by KJ Kabza (Pink Narcissus Press)
KJ Kabza seems to specialize in altered states, dream states, and has a range from flights of fancy to gut-wrenching terror. I have to say I really liked the black-and-white, full-page pen-and- ink illustrations, which were enticements to read on.
We begin with “The Leafsmith in Love,” a charming clockpunk story with a bit of alchemy and magic thrown in at the right places. I enjoyed it. Usually a collection starts with the best story, so I was almost prepared to be disappointed by the next one. Nope. I laughed aloud with delight at “The Color of Sand.” You should buy this book for that story alone.
Didn’t think I’d like the title story, “The Ramshead Algorithm” at first, as it was set in the one place in a confusing clash of universes where our laws of physics applied, but the protagonist was soon back in our world, and dealing with a tangled mess that slowly revealed a secret past that made the first odd location make sense. It resolved in a way I’ll be thinking about for a long time.
“Night and Day” asks serious questions about whether a man’s dream-life or his human life…are real. It turns out they are intertwined and the fulcrum is someone’s second sight. Then after an illustration in which a horse has cut gems for eyes, “The Flight Stone” tells the chilling tale of an orphan girl who never wants to stop riding air horses, and will do absolutely anything to herself to keep her position.
Oooh! “Steady on Her Feet.” In this clockpunk tale the characters, the expected complications, the unexpected resolution– bright with promise and peril –left me breathless.
“The Soul in the Bell Jar” is a sort of mash-up of a gothic horror story and Frankenstein’s monster, but with animals and eccentric, wealthy relatives, told from the viewpoint of a visiting child. As I stated at the beginning of this review, Kabza excels at dream states. Such things viewed by a child certainly qualify as such.
In “Heaventide,” which is a bit of a gender-bender tale, a tribe has persons grows up to be either a man or a woman, and our protagonist has been misgendered but is being forced into the female role. S/he fights to be who s/he knows to be with every weapon available.
Laurel, the Passenger who is the POV character in “WeDon’t Talk about Death” is a companion for Allie, a Pilot who needs an alert person to be with her and anchor her when she experiences Unreality in piloting a spaceship across dimensions. They cross a war zone in the present—and for Allie—past, emotional tense. And they come out more honest on the other side.
The haunted Ghost Bikes in “All Souls Proceed” weave in and out of a Southwestern town as it yearly experiences The Day of the Dead and the wisps of the dead in between each season. This is more of a mood piece than a story, but then the subject sort of requires it.
Ah, the grand finale. The opening illustration for “You Can Take It With You” is a series of rock climbers tied together, with a wildly oversized one who seemingly jumps and takes the rest with them. That’s sort of an analogy for the story’s crappy, short-term digital afterlife. This novella (novelette? Hard to do a word count in digital form) is about how one newly-uploaded resident copes with it. “…there is no justice in a world into which everyone comes confused, isolated, and frightened—and which tries to keep everyone that way.” So they go on a quest to find justice. It’s rather like Phillip K. Dick’s Ubik meets Ready Player One.
You will treasure this collection by KJ Kabza.