The Best of Cast of Wonders 2015

written by David Steffen

Cast of Wonders is the young adult fiction podcast.  They have a broader definition of YA than you’ll typically find on bookshelves, especially in terms of the protagonist’s demographic–who need not be young adults.  The podcast continues to be edited by Marguerite Kenner.

This has been a momentous year for Cast of Wonders. They announced their big news at WorldCon in August, and more widely in metacasts in October.  Cast of Wonders is changing owners, from Wolfsbane Publishing to the Escape Artists family of podcasts.  Escape Artists, before last year, consisted of Pseudopod, Podcastle, and Escape Pod.  The non-audio publication Mothership Zeta launched last year two to make a family of five publications instead of three.  Along with this change in ownership comes a major increase in pay for writers whose work is published as well, bringing them up to SFWA’s qualifying rate for original fiction.  This change all has gone into effect as of the beginning of 2016.

In 2015, two of my own reprinted stories were published in Cast of Wonders.

  • “This Is Your Problem, Right Here” which starts out as a plumber explains to the owner of a water park how her pool filters have stopped working because almost all of the trolls are dead.
  • “Marley and Cratchit”, a steampunk secret history prequel to A Christmas Carol, which begins with Bob Cratchit as an alchemist and Jacob Marley as his business partner and financier.

Cast of Wonders published 30 stories in 2015.



The List

1. “The Mothgate” by J.R. Troughton
A mother and daughter hold their ground against monsters from another dimension.

2. “Wine For Witches, Milk for Saints” by Rachael K. Jones
Puppetism is both a curse and a blessing. It can be transferred but never cured.  When a child is inflicted with puppetism, any other medical conditions they have are rendered into a puppet analog of the condition that is much easier to fix.   A Christmas story set in an Italy where strategic transfers of puppetism are the basis of the medical system.

3. “Setting My Spider Free” by Caroline M. Yoachim
Humans, living in towers that rise above the clouds, have crafted a symbiosis with a race of giant spiders.

4. “Fairy Bones” by Guy Stewart
Fairy remains are discovered in owl pellets by a scientist and her visiting nephew.

5. “Amicae Aeternum” by Ellen Klages
Before leaving on a generation ship, how can you say goodbye to your best friend?

Hugo Novella Review 2014

written by David Steffen

And the last of the shorter categories for the Hugo this year, covering stories from 17,500 to 40,000 words. The longer categories are often misses for me because I feel they have a lot of word bloat, but when I do like one of them they have so much space to grow.


1. “Equoid”, Charles Stross (, 09-2013)
This story is part of Stross’s Laundry series, wherein Bob Howard works as an agent for the secret British government organization for known only as “The Laundry” which serves the purpose of investigating and handling invasions of Lovecraftian monsters. This particular story involves an outbreak of outbreak of unicorns which are not the lovely pure animals we’ve been led to believe and even most of the people in the Laundry aren’t aware that they’re real.

This story is awesome, scary like few stories are, and simultaneously hilarious. Cosmic horror from the POV of a cynical career buraeaucrat. Even the smallest details are filtered through the funny point of view, so that even the recurring descriptions of a character’s beard had me rolling. I also loved how the story made HP Lovecraft part of the story, but not as the prophet you might think they’d make him considering their role, but rather of a crackpot who occasionally stumbled across something real, and knew just enough truth to be a dangerous idiot. I highly recommend this story and now I want to read more of the Laundry series.


2. “The Chaplain’s Legacy”, Brad Torgersen (Analog, Jul-Aug 2013)
In the previous story “The Chaplain’s Assistant” the eponymous chaplain’s assistant forestalled the annihilation of humanity at the hands of the technologically superior mantis race by provoking in them an interest in religion. The mantises have no religion of their own and they decided to study this strange phenomenon before destroying their opportunity to do so. Now it appears that the mantes may be growing impatient, feeling they’ve learned everything they can learn, and hostilities may recommence. Humans have now had time to prepare defenses against mantis attacks and the war might begin anew, but perhaps not as one-sided as before. Now the chaplain’s assistant is meeting with the Queen of the mantes and desperately needs to prove to the mantes that humans still have something to offer.

I thought this was a solid story. I appreciated it giving a fair shake to religion which traditionally SF doesn’t do. I admit I found the particular form of the mantes a little hard to take seriously (tiny flying saucers fused with giant praying mantises) but the story was good enough to overcome that as the chaplain’s assistant did everything he could to prolong the peace, and maybe even form a permanent truce. Good action, good characters, well told. This and the previous story are going to be repackaged as a novel published by Baen so I imagine that will be a solid offering as a package deal as well.


3. “Six-Gun Snow White”, Catherynne M. Valente (Subterranean Press)
A wild west retelling of the Snow White story, in which Snow White is the daughter of a wealthy landowner Mr. H in the Montana Territory and his Crow wife. Snow White is the name given to her by the second Mrs. H, her cruel stepmother to mock her native heritage. Snow White is a crack shot with a gun but is otherwise naive to the ways of the world, but she runs away to make her own way.

I liked the character of Snow White. You’ve got to admire the guts it would take to be a woman gunman in a world that doesn’t exactly reward that and makes you fight for it every step of the way. I really liked the early chapters of the story where all of it was told by Snow White in first person. I found her character voice as interesting or more interesting as the stuff that was actually happening, so I was disappointed when it dropped into a distant third person partway through the story. I’m not sure if the only difference was the voice itself or if the story itself was just weaker but after that point I didn’t feel like I was emotionally invested in the character anymore.


4. “Wakulla Springs, Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages (, 10-2013)
This story spans most of a century, mostly taking place at Wakulla Springs a beautiful natural wonder in Florida, a real life place that was used as a jungle-like setting for some twentieth century movies like Tarzan and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. This story follows a series of colored characters from a time when Jim Crow laws were the norm to the present day.

I reviewed this story in greater detail as a followup to my usual Nebula award reviews. To sum up, I thought that the characters felt very real, and it certainly had plenty going for it in terms of theme, but I didn’t rank it higher among the novellas because I didn’t feel that it had enough of a cohesive plot arc or character arc to really hold it together for me.


5. “The Butcher of Khardov”, Dan Wells (Privateer Press)
Orsus Zoktavir is a warcaster for the Khador army, one of those rare few who can control the powerful mechanical warjacks by his mind alone. As if this weren’t enough, he is a giant of a man wielding a deadly axe so that he is almost as deadly as a warjack itself. This story follows Orsus (in time-jumping fashion) from when he is a young boy through the events of his life that gave him the name “The Butcher of Khardov” where he is sentenced for slaughtering an entire village, and what happens after.

It’s no surprise that this story didn’t really enthuse me. It is the second book in a series based on Warmachine, a model-based tabletop roleplaying game that’s been around for ten years but which I haven’t played nor followed. Presumably the target audience of this story are players of that game who want to know more backstory for the characters they’re moving around the battlefield.

I decided to give the story a try anyway, on the chance that it might stand on its own. I didn’t have any trouble understanding the story. The concept of warjacks is simple enough and the story explained other concepts to my satisfaction. I didn’t think the time jumping did the story any favors, whiplashing constantly from past to future and back again with no apparent design. I didn’t feel convinced that the events in the story would actually transform a violent but basically sane young man into the psychotic war machine that he becomes in his more recent years. He kind of struck me as a rabid Perrin Aybara from the Wheel of Time series. In his older incarnation I didn’t care for him at all, and frankly thought the world would be a better place if someone did execute this rabid wolf before he turns on those he claims fealty to.

Review: Wakulla Springs by Ellen Klages and Andy Duncan

written by David Steffen

This was originally going to be a review of the Nebula-nominated novellas of 2013. But my time ran out while I was still reading Wakulla Springs, the first of the novellas I grabbed, so instead this is a review of just that one story.

The Nebulas are one of the two big awards in the SF community, this one voted by members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. You can find the list of all this years Nebula nominees here.

Wakulla springs is the story, or perhaps the stories, that spans more than half a century from (I think) the 1940s to the present day. Most of it centers around Wakulla Springs in Florida, the largest and deepest freshwater spring located near Tallahassee, and the Wakulla Springs Lodge, a real life hotel.

The first section’s protagonist is Mayola Jackson, a fifteen year old colored girl who gets a job working as a maid at the segregated lodge, in a hiring rush when a Hollywood film crew visits the area for taping the water scenes for a Tarzan movie in and around the springs. The other stories follow along with her family members as the decades pass, and as the American society changes around them from the era where segregation was the norm up to today.

The characters in this story were very believable. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this was based on a true family because they felt so real, especially since the location and at least some of the characters were real people of the time, such as Johnny Weissmuller who played Tarzan, and Edward Ball the owner of the lodge.

The story certainly had a lot going for in the way of theme, with the recurring incidents of Hollywood affecting this family’s lives.

It had plenty of conflict. Any story written empathetically in the time of segregation is going to have conflict, of course. The conflict here wasn’t violent, but was ever present nonetheless.

What it really lacked, though, was a cohesive plot arc or character arc. It doesn’t help that it’s split up into four separate stories that are sequential and each person’s story relates to the last, but it makes the story overall come off quite uneven. Even within each individual chapter that follows a single person, I didn’t feel like each one even had a real character arc or plot arc that would take the events or the person from one place to another fully rounded place in the way that I expect a story to take me. Things happened. There was conflict, but it wasn’t that the characters were really major actors in these events, things happened, and then the chapter ended. The parts never felt like a cohesive whole, and each part never felt complete on its own either.

It also really lacked a speculative element at any point in the story that I could discern. There were a couple hints at it, but one was likely a fatigue and stress induced hallucination, and the other was pure imagination on the part of the character. For a story published on, and a story that’s nominated for the Nebula, I really am looking for a speculative element.

I enjoyed reading the story. The story was well-written, the characters were very strong, and it had a lot going for it, but I didn’t feel like it really held together as a unit the way I expect a story to hold together. It was good, but not as good as I thought it could be.