Friday, February 20, 2015

The Audio File: PodCastle

Guest post by Sam McDonald.
So it seems my last article about free audio alternate history proved rather popular and now I'm back for more. I promised to cover PodCastle, sister podcast to Escape Pod, and I'm going to make good on my promise in this installment of The Audio File. PodCastle is the youngest of the three Escape Artists podcast. It's amazingly talented staff dedicate themselves to bringing you the best audio fantasy week after week. Said staff included (but is not limited to) Dave Thompson, Anna Schwind, Anne Leckie, MK Jemisin, LaShawn Wanak, and Rachael Swirsky. Their hauntingly beautiful theme music at the beginning and ending of each podcast is courtesy of Shiva in Exile.

Unlike Escape Pod, the original text of the stories isn't on PodCastle's website, but it is usually linked to. I've got quite the haul of stories this time, and in my research I even found a few I missed in my article on Escape Pod.  Don't worry, I'm sure they'll appear in a future article, but for now, settle in because it's story time...

The Calendar of Saints by Kat Howard
Narrated by Amal El-Mothar
Originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

This story has multiple departures from our history.  First, Ignatius of Loyola founded a religious order known as the Sacred Blades. Whenever there is a dispute in Catholic doctrine the two debating sides will supply their own duelists, the aforementioned as Sacred Swords, and whoever wins is considered the one in the right (it is believed that God will guide the victor's hand). It also appears that Catholic history is considerably different than our world. There are several saints of science such as Galileo Galilei and Tycho Brahe. Also, God is referred to as a women and the Church is more gender egalitarian than in our world.

The story focuses on a Sacred Blade named Jeanne. Though she doesn't exactly believe in God, Jeanne does believe in the Truth and the rules of the Sacred Blades. Jeanne has been chosen to wield the sword of Ignatius himself, and she'll need it more than ever for a duel that could decide the future of the Catholic Church.

When I first saw the word saints I admittedly wasn't sure this was going to be the story for me. I'm happy, however, to report I couldn't have been more wrong. The glimpses we get of the alternate history of this Catholic Church are tantalizing, and ever so often we get little fact files on different saints to really help flesh out the world. As for the narration, Amal did an excellent job bringing the story to life and capturing all of the emotions present in the story.

The fact that this story could make someone like me, never the biggest fan of religion, care about its characters and hang on its every word shows Kat's skill as an author. A unique take on alternate religious history that I very much recommend.

Biographical notes to "A Discourse on the Nature of Causality with Air-Planes" by Benjamin Rosenbaum
Narrated by Graeme Dunlop
Originally published in All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories

Our story takes place in a world where India, China, Gabon, Japan and Malaysia are the dominate world powers, North America is balkanized and airships are the only means of air travel.  Our protagonist, Benjamin Rosenbaum, has been commissioned by a wealthy Rajah to write an alternate history story set in a world where something other than airships is used for air travel.  Benjamin, however, soon finds himself caught in an assignation plot against the Rajah and must rise to the occasion.

If ever there was a story that needed a sequel it was this. India as the dominate world power?  Jesus considered an avatar of Vishnu?  An Irish-Iroquois hybrid nation?  There's so many details about this world that are just begging to be elaborated on and that I'm desperate to know more about. I liked how we get shown little hints at the impact India had on Western culture, like how people with otherwise Western names sometimes have Sri in front of their names. The Eastern cultural dominance is also apparent in the philosophical discussions throughout the story.  If you're only experience is with Western Philosophy it can be a little confusing, but not too much so.

There's certain narrators who are always associated with certain stories to some people. For me, Graeme will always be Conan the Barbarian, but he still did a very good job narrating this story. Words fail to properly convey the sense of awe and wonder this story provided me with.

A swashbuckling alternate history that leaves you hungry for more.

Wane by Elizabeth Bear
Narrated by Marguerite Kenner and Alasdair Stuart
Originally published in Interzone #203

This story is set in the same world as Elizabeth Bear's New Amsterdam series.  In this world Native Americans were able to mostly repel European colonization thanks to the use of magic.  By the 19th century the European settlements, huddled along the coastline, have yet to gain their independence; and obviously New York is still called New Amsterdam.

I've been interested in the New Amsterdam series for quite some time, and I was very eager to give this story a try. I can honestly say this story was...meh. That's not to say I thought this story was bad, but I didn't quite care for it either. As stated before, this story had a really interesting setting, and a surviving Aztec Empire is always a bonus. As for the story itself, well it didn't quite capture my attention.

Let's talk about the narrators. Marguerite did an excellent job voicing her characters, but as for Alasdair...I find myself questioning if he was the best choice for this story. When he's paired with the right story Alasdair can work absolute wonders. Here, however, he kind of dropped the ball. There were a lot of characters Alasdair needed to make sound distinct, but they all sounded so similar I had trouble keeping track of who was who.

This might not exactly be my cup of tea, but maybe you'll enjoy it. I'll say it's at least worth checking out.

Nor the Moonlight by Andrew Penn Romine
Narrated by Cheyenne Wright
Originally published in Broken Time Blues: Fantastic Tales of the Roaring 20s

Set in a dieselpunk 1920s Paris, this is the story of two lovers dealing with the effects of the First World War.  Several former soldiers are seeking treatment for the wounds they received in the war. Many have found hope in the surgeries of Pablo Picasso. He claims that his surgeries will make the wounded whole once again, but his patents are often turned into bizarre and gruesome living sculptures.

Andrew captured the cynical and disjointed style of the great writers of the 20s, such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald, perfectly. Cheyenne did as excellent job of conveying that feeling as well. I liked how even though the story featured a gay romance at its center it wasn't treated any differently than a heterosexual romance. I know I said that this is a dieselpunk story, but the descriptions of Picasso's surgeries does add in a few biopunk elements as well. Speaking of which, if you pay attention you can probably pick out a few references to Picasso's paintings in his surgeries.

It's dark, cynical and haunting. Definitely worth checking out.

The Osteomancer's Son by Greg van Eekhout
Narrated by Ben Phillips
Originally published in Asimov's Science Fiction

Some of you are probably familiar with Greg van Eekhout though his novel California Bones.  This is the story which inspired that novel.  Magic in this world, known as Osteomancy, involves drawing power from the bones of prehistoric and mythic creatures. This can be accomplished a number of ways, but is most effective when the bones are eaten. After this the Osteomancer takes on an aspect of the creature. Of course, if you eat a fellow Osteomancer's bones you get all of their accumulated powers.

Our protagonist Daniel is the son of a well known black market Osteomancer. California is an independent nation and is ruled in the iron fist of a dictator known as the Hierarch and he's taken Daniel's daughter hostage.

This story really spoke to the paleontology nerd in me, and I loved how the La Brea Tar Pits played such a central role to the story.  I also liked how the powers generated by eating bones aren't always what you think they might be. For example, eating kraken spine apparently grants the power to summon lightning. It was a nice touch that the bones of Osteomancers are said to be brown, the color of bones in tar. Daniel's relationship with his father came across and complex and nuanced; overall very well written on Greg's part.

As far as narration goes I think Ben did a spot on job. This story does a good job of standing on its own merits, but I'm intrigued, and I'm definitely going to check out California Bones at some point.

I've been hooked by this story and you will too.

On Bookstores, Burners and Origami by Jason D. Wittman
Narrated by Brian Rollins
Originally published at SciFi.com

This story takes place in a world where the Civil War dragged on slightly longer than in our world, but still ended in a Union victory. A media mogul named Tobias Hornbee contributed lots of money to the rebuilding effort, and was able to use this to launch a presidential campaign.  Most people focus more on his help rebuilding than on the fact that he holds a near monopoly on the nation's printing presses. President Hornbee has been trying to suppress most literature on the grounds that it doesn't conform to his ideas of optimism.

Several booksellers have been subversively selling banned books in defiance of Hornbee. Hitomi, our protagonist and an immigrant from Japan to Minneapolis, is involved in such an operation. Besides the President, the booksellers also face Burners, a movement to destroy all written works. Fortunately, Edgar Allen Poe has recently come out of hiding to help the bookseller cause.

This story has steampunk elements to it such as airships and pneumatic tubes, but on the whole I'd classify this as more of a Gaslamp Fantasy. Now as far as the narration goes, while I think that overall Brian did a very good job, I find myself questioning why a story with a female protagonist would have a male narrator. PodCastle has always had a wide selection of narrators so the choice struck me as a bit odd.

As for the story itself, overall I found it very enjoyable, though I'm not sure I exactly buy Edgar Allen Poe being a Confederate sympathizer. I liked the way that Jason presented the booksellers and the Burners as ultimately having the same goal, but just very different methods of achieving it.  For that matter, I liked how the Burners were depicted sympathetically and as misguided rather than truly evil. It was also nice to see a somewhat steampunk story with such a diverse cast as this had.

All in all an excellent Gaslamp Fantasy. I say give it a shot.

Titanic! by Lavie Tidhar
Narrated by Ian Stuart
Originally published in Apex Magazine

Dr. Jekyll is on the run from the authorities.  They haven't discovered his dark secret yet, but it won't be long, so he's decided to journey to America aboard the Titanic. The ship, however, is going have a fateful run-in with a kaiju, the most famous kaiju of them all in fact.

Okay, in case you haven't figured it out, this story is basically Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde meet Godzilla while on the Titanic.  There really isn't much to say about this story except that it was a lot of fun. Ian did an excellent job narrating, and if you're a fan of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen this story should appeal to you. For that matter, this story will probably appeal to most people.

It goes without saying that I heartily recommend this one.

Enginesong (A Rondeau) by Nathaniel Lee
Narrated by Bob Eccles
Originally published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

The is the point where we transition away from alternate history and move towards Historical Fantasy. Case in point, this story is set in the Old West where trains have gained sentience, grown legs and walked away. With so many town dependent on the trains for survival it isn't long before a posse is assembled to capture the trains. Yet our protagonist Bose begins to wonder, if a train can walk like a man, can a man haul like a train?

On the surface the story sounds like it has no right to work, but it absolutely does. I guess that just show's Nathaniel's skill as a writer, and yes, this is the same Nathaniel Lee who is assistant editor of Escape Pod. The central theme of this story is about change and making sacrifices for a great good. The story as a whole does an excellent job of presenting these themes, and the final lines are especially memorable and haunting. Bob Eccles' narration perfectly captured the emotional depth of this story.

For a Weird Western that packs an emotional punch, checkout this story.

The Hooves and Hovel of Abdel Jameela by Saladin Ahmed
Narrated by Rajan Khanna
Originally published in Clockwork Phoenix 2

Set during the Golden Age of Islam, or thereabout, this story follows a physicker who has received a call for aid by a hermit named Abdel Jameela. He has fallen in love and married a ghoul, which in this case refers to a human-goat hybrid creature of sorts. He wishes to move to the country of his wife's people, but to do that he must become part goat, and he'll need the professor's help.

This is another of those stories whose summary sounds crazy, but I swear that it works. One of the things I like about Saladin's writing is that he asks a lot of though questions about issues of faith and spirituality without pretending to know the answers. I liked that the professor was cool, rational minded and asked for evidence before agreeing to help Abdel. At the same time, I could sense the conflict the professor felt when confronted with Abdel's wife. Here is something that shouldn't exist, and that legends describe as evil, but appears not to be any worse than a typical human.

On that note, I liked how ghouls were presented as morally no worse than humans or any other race of creatures. I guess Abdul and his wife go to show that beauty really is in the eye of the beholder. As for Rajan's narration, well, I think you can guess by now that I thought he did a great job. I also thought that effects accompanying the wife's speaking added a perfect supernatural feeling.

If you're looking for a good spiritual noir then give this story a shot.

Card Sharp by Rajan Khanna
Narrated by Wilson Fowlie
Originally published in Way of the Wizard

I've got another Weird Western for you. This one follows a young man named Quentin who has been trained to be a Card Sharp. Card Sharps are people who draw magic from decks of playing cards, but each Card Sharp only gets one deck in their entire life, so they must choose their cards wisely. Quentin's going to need all the magical help he can get because he's on a mission to avenge his father's death.

This story had some great worldbuilding. I loved how the card's suits corresponds to different kinds of magic and their number corresponds to strength. The plot of a son getting revenge against the man who killed his father and married his mother gave this story a bit of Wild West Hamlet feel, and that's not a bad thing. Without giving too much away, though, I can assure you this story has a happier ending than Hamlet. It is always a joy to hear a story narrated by Wilson Fowlie, and he did a great job here as well.

Another Weird Western I reckon you'll like.

Maxwell's Demon by Ken Liu
Narrated by Aki Gibbons
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction

You didn't really think I wasn't going to find a Ken Liu story for this list did you?  This story follows Takako Yamashiro, a woman sentenced to the Japanese interment camps during World War II. Fortunately, she's been given the chance to get out of the camps and work as a spy to infiltrate a secret Japanese military program. Said program turns out to be an attempt to use the spirits of the dead to create perpetual energy machines, and it's up to Takako, a spirit medium, to to spot that from happening.

Wars are rarely completely black and white, and World War II was no exception.  While not anywhere near as bad as the Nazi concentration camps, the Internment Camps were certainly not one of the better moments in American history. Ken did an excellent job depicting the attitudes and mentality of the era, and the sense of injustice felt by Japanese-Americans. Aki did a perfect job of delivering the emotional punch this story packs.

As with most Ken Liu stories I got to learn something new.  In this case I learned about the traditional cultures of Okinawa as well as the Maxwell's Demon thought experiment.  Without giving too much away I can say that the ending is tragic, but also with a bit of hope as well. Wouldn't have expected any less from a Ken Liu story.

Do I really need to say how much I recommend this story?

After October by Ben Burgis
Narrated by Eric Luke
Originally published in GigaNotoSaurus

We end our list with a story leans more on the historical than the fantasy, but is still an excellent story, so I chose to include it.  Our story follows the Soviet Union from the beginning of the October Revolution to the height of the Stalin regime. It also tells the coming of age story of a young revolutionary named Fyodka. He's been trained in the magic of Old Russia since he was young, but he has abandoned that in favor of joining the revolution. Fyodka's uncle Grigor has been trying to research a way to magically defeat death. The question is, which of them will truly bring revolution to the world?

Like I said before, this is the coming of age story not just for Fyodka, but for Russia as a whole.  We see them go from wide-eyed optimism at the begin of the revolution to deep cynicism and despair under Stalin. I'd like to add that if you're looking for an epic Zombies vs. Soviets showdown then I'm sorry to say you'll probably be disappointed.  Having said that, this story is nonetheless an excellent depiction of the early years if the Soviet Union.

This story really give me a new perspective of the harshness of the Stalin regime. That's not to say I necessarily think Leon Trotsky would have been better, but the story really conveyed the sense of shattered dreams felt by the Soviets. Here were a people who threw off the chains of oppression and dreamed of bringing liberation to other nations; yet now these same people soon witnessed their nation crumbling at the seems.

For a new look at Soviet history I recommend this story.

Conclusion

So we've reached the end of the list and I hope I've peaked your curiosity. This is usually the point where I'd remind you that if you like what you listened/read to not be shy about dropping a donation to PodCastle. You should still do that, but I'd also like to call attention to one of the authors mentioned on this list. Saladin Ahmed is, as I've mentioned, an amazingly talented writer. He's also going to through some major financial hardship due to struggling with depression and flood damage over the last few years. He's recently released a collection of short stories, and every one of them is available totally for free on PodCastle.  Any amount you can donate will be a major help, both for Saladin and PodCastle.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this list.  Happy listening and I'll see you next time.

* * *

Sam McDonald is a college student from Shreveport, LA.  When not involved with his studies he can be found making and posting maps across the web and working on short stories that he hopes to have published in magazines such as Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and the Escape Artists Podcasts.

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