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Tender + Monster Portraits
by Sofia Samatar (and Del Samatar)

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted April 2, 2024

Tender / Monster Portraits

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Samatar's first collection was a finalist for World Fantasy, British Fantasy, and Locus awards. Individually, the first story, "Selkie Stories Are For Losers," received the most award consideration, being a finalist for Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, and British SF, but without any wins. I thought it odd that it was first (you shouldn't start with the best), so I figured the stories were presented chronologically, but that is not the case. It jumps back and forth as to original publication, with two stories previously unpublished. Besides, as good as "Selkie Stories" is, it is not the best. One of the new ones, the penultimate entry, is a novella, the other nineteen are short stories (at least according to ISFDb).

I won't give too many details, and while I won't mention all of them, the collection as a whole gets a strong recommendation. It is the type of book I am afraid I cannot do justice, since I am not the writer, not able to express my thoughts as well as the author. Most are mythological in nature, even if set in contemporary times, but a few are science fiction, with one I would label steampunk. The narrator of "Selkie Stories" doesn't like that type since they remind her of her mother who had disappeared after her coat (skin) had been found in the attic. "Ogres of East Africa" is similar to the later collection I'll mention below. One of my favorites is "Walkdog," which is hilarious, while at the same time tragic. The narrator gives a few other names for Walkdog, but not the one that came to my mind, the Jersey Devil. It is written in the form of a class assignment, "Know Your Environment," addressed to the teacher in second-person, with quite a few comical asides. The reason she chose to write about Walkdog is she believes it was responsible for the disappearance of her friend Andrew Bookman, her teacher's nephew. The tragedy comes from thinking about what really happened to Andy.

"Olimpia's Ghost" is written in epistolary style, similar to another story mentioned within, E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Sandman." Gisela's letters are addressed to her older cousin, Sigmund, which made me think of Freud, but I am probably wrong about that. I am sure I missed, or misinterpreted things in other stories, including ideas, concepts, and personages from unfamiliar cultures. A couple might be slightly autobiographical, exploring Samatar's dual heritage. There are stories of witches, ghouls, and Fair Folk (who might actually be vampires or similar creature), along with angels, and maybe some demons. Then there are the science fiction tales, including the title story, for which "Tender" is used as a noun, not an adjective. The main character is a tender of toxic materials at a nuclear waste dump site. "How To Get Back to the Forest" and "The Red Thread" are different types of post-apocalyptic tales. "Request for an Extension on the Clarity" is about a woman aboard an orbital habitat, a way station between Earth, the moon, Mars, and beyond. She wants to go beyond, but not having the training, and not wanting to return to Earth, she always applies for an extension of her job on the Clarity. What I would consider steampunk is "A Girl Who Comes Out of a Chamber at Regular Intervals." Said girl is an automaton, created by a man for a specific purpose, to poison the King.

My favorite is the previously unpublished novella, "Fallow." I wasn't sure it was science fiction at first, or if so perhaps another post-apocalyptic story on Earth. Descriptions of the landscape were vague, and there is a Castle mentioned, so I thought maybe it was set in the past. But Fallow is another planet, and at first I thought the Castle was its moon, but it is part of the original space-ship that brought them to Fallow. Samatar and her mother are Mennonites, traditionally a pacifistic religion. Many wars had been fought on Earth, with many more threatening to break out, so the group decided to build an Ark to leave Earth behind. Fallow is not that hospitable a planet, but they have managed to fabricate dwellings for living, and for agriculture and animal husbandry. One of the confusing descriptions in the beginning was the color of the 'sky,' actually a roof over the habitat. Within any group there will always be disagreements, several of which the narrator Agar explains. Originally accepting the negative opinion concerning the Young Evangelists, she has changed her mind at the end. But by then she is afraid it is too late. As I said above, I recommend the complete book, but "Fallow" is worth the cost of admission on its own..

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Monster Portraits is a very thin book. Even though there are more stories than in Tender, each is very short, just a page or two; flash fiction. I'm not sure which came first, the stories or the illustrations by Sofia's brother Del. I also don't know if they did travel to different places around the globe looking for information, or if it was just a thought experiment. Probably the latter. The monsters described include the Huntress, the Sexy Zebra, the Early Ones, the Knight of the Beak, the Abyss, and the Perfect Traveler. All illustrations are black and white, which I assume were ink or maybe charcoal in some cases. Most are fairly simple, but a few have dark backgrounds so it is difficult to see details. The monsters themselves are well drawn and unique. Some are scary, a few seem benevolent, and then there is the Sexy Zebra, which could be either or both. I couldn't find a picture of her online, and didn't want to risk damaging the spine of the library book with my scanner. The Perfect Traveler is a good representation of Del's talent, and Sofia's words describe them brilliantly. A good companion book to Tender.


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Sofia Samatar

Stories: 2012-2017
Collection: 4/18/17

See review for details

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Monster Portraits

Monster Portraits

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