I wish I'd written this review last March.
Carlos Hernandez and I were barely friends then. We'd met briefly at Readercon in 2014, became the most casual of Facebook acquaintances, collaborated on a story in January 2015 on a whim, saw it was good, declared ourselves unwilling to stop writing to each other, struck up a correspondence, and became true friends (and then some) pretty quickly after that.
In those early months of our new friendship, I read Hernandez my collection Bone Swans: Stories, which was about to come out in July 2015. He, in turn, read me his collection The Assimilated Cuban's Guide to Quantum Santeria, slated to debut in early 2016.
After experiencing his book for the first time, back in March, I could have said, with very little bias--or no more than I have for any other writer in our small, genre-loving, literary community--and with all honesty:
"I don't know the man very well, but his writing! Oh, boy. Let me tell you ALL about his writing."
But now I know the man very well, and love him still more, and there is no hope of any lack of prejudice to rein in my hand from lavish praise or sculpt this review down to the pithiest of paragraphs. But I can start with the first thing I said back then in summary, which I kept all these months to use as the subject line for my eventual review:
"This book is wholly irreverent holy beauty."
ACGTQS is a collection of twelve science fiction and fantasy stories. Most, but not all, take place on our world, right here and now--or maybe just a half a breath into the future. The technologies are plausible, the science keenly researched, and through his large cast of mainly Latin@ characters, Hernandez explores what it is to be human and broken. His characters are "people who have assimilated but are actively trying to reclaim their lives."
And his characters. His characters. He doesn't make 'em easy. "No es facil."
Nah, Hernandez does 'em "the Cuban way: mix a few shit-jokes and pranks in with the heartbreak"--and as we follow them through their stories, we end up, like them, diced up, bleeding out, trembling on the summit of revelation, or at the chasm-bottom of despair, caught in that breathless gulf between sob and guffaw, and for all this--or perhaps because of it--somehow more whole.
Murderers and murdered (though with a technology called the "eneural" dead sure doesn't mean what it used to mean), reporters, physicists, border police, martyrs, musicians, TV producers, teachers, faithless husbands, feral children (and aren't all children feral, after all?), each character is fully realized, each as faceted as a fly's eye, difficult, exquisitely complex, and so gorgeously, shatteringly human.
I have my favorites. "More than Pigs and Rosaries Can Give," for one--a story about the consequences of sucking ghosts from a bullet hole-riddled wall left over from the Cuban Revolution. For another, the three Gabby Réal stories: "The International Studbook of the Giant Panda"; "The Magical Properties of Unicorn Ivory"; and "Fantaisie Impromptu No. 4 in C#min, Op. 66."
When I first met Gabby Réal on the page (back in December 2014, just kind of out in the wild in a magazine called Crossed Genres), I instantly knew her for a friend.
Not all fictional characters are folks you'd want to go out for coffee with (well, Gabby would probably drink coffee; I'd drink tea), nor should they be. But Gabby is one of those rare fictions--a woman I want to be when I grow up. She stands alongside the mastercrafted science fiction heroines of Kage Baker and Lois McMaster Bujold. She's quick-tongued, brutally honest, flirty, feisty, and she's lived in the world and encountered its weirdnesses--piano's possessed by their late players, unicorns from another dimension, and what it happens to be like inside an Ailuropoda melanoleuca.
What's more, she's reported on it. Gabby always has a story to tell, and something to take from it.
Plus, I want to go out dancing with her. She's worth knowing. And it's also worth knowing that there are more Gabby tales to come, outside of the three you'll be finding herein.
I've heard Hernandez describe some of his stories fairly flippantly: "The Aphotic Ghost," for example, summarized tongue in cheek as "My Were-Jelly story." Or, cackling to himself, "The International Studbook of the Giant Panda," simplified into, "Oh, that's the one all about Giant Robot Panda Sex."
Neither of which is...untrue.
But while such goofball elevator pitches might get readers to the page, what they'll stay for is the zinging wit his characters often exhibit. The pacing and urgency and breastbone-puncturing adrenalin punch right to the heart of stakes that matter. So much, too, deals unflinchingly with the ferocious melancholy of loss, with gasping moments of drenchingly sensual beauty that surround you like the musk of a fully functioning animatronic animal suit and demand your total surrender.
This book flayed me, man. Pierced me right through--like a pigeon slaughtered by a child priest and offered up to some god in exchange for a desperate favor. (See what I did there? No? You will. Once you read the book.)
I do not regret becoming that sacrifice.
A FEW LINKS FOR YOUR EASE, COMFORT, AND REVELATION:
The author's website
The Awesomeness that is Rosarium Press
When: Sunday, February 7, 2016
What Time: 6 PM - 8 PM
Where: Nuyorican Poets Café
236 E 3rd Street, New York, NY 10009