Review: The Clockwork Russian and Other Stories by Josh Roseman

January 26, 2016 in General Topics

A solid cover, I have to say

A solid cover, I have to say.

The Clockwork Russian and Other Stories culls from author Josh Roseman’s genre fiction publishing history, delivering everything from first contact with aliens to a boy and his dog switching bodies, and does it all for $2.99. This really is a no-brainer. The best thing I can say about this collection is I found several of the characters and worlds deserving of longer works. Perhaps readers can hammer the author’s inbox until he concedes to making such novels. We’ll see.

Roseman’s writing style cuts fat down to the bone. This makes his fiction optimized for quick bursts of reading, such as on a subway. Still, any anthology is by nature a mixed bag, and even in the case of these tales–the majority of which were vetted by semi- and professional publication in paying markets–some ring truer than others.

We hit the ground running with “27 Jennifers”, which is about middle of the pack in quality compared to its stablemates. I won’t spoil the setup, which is clever. I will say that while I thought a little too much detail might have been cut from the prose, overall this tale was a solid read.

Next up is one of the anthology’s stronger installments, “Bring on the Rain”. Here, a reluctant scout searches for a desolate future’s most elusive resource–water. Comparisons to “Max Max” are inevitable, but Roseman ups the scale of conflict by including land ships–oceangoing vessels converted for terrestrial use. Our lead doesn’t really deserve the word “hero”. There’s nothing noble about what he and his allies have done in the past, and this grayscale tone made him an interesting character. On a personal note, I want to add that this is the story that first made me aware of Roseman’s writing. It was published in a pro market, and deserved to be.

Leaving that battered, arid landscape we come to “Greener”. Divorced Scott finds himself bouncing around a future sexual quagmire, pining for happiness that seems forever just out of his reach. I actually didn’t care for this tale. I found it not rooted enough in a requirement of the genre–that if the speculative aspect were removed, the story wouldn’t function. Roseman posits home STD tests. That isn’t sufficiently more exotic than simple blood tests at a clinic. We’re left with a romantic drama containing sci-fi trappings, and the main characters couldn’t carry the rest.

Happily, “113 Feet” is much stronger, detailing a young woman’s nigh-obsessive quest to revisit a shipwreck for…I can’t spoil it. Another common aspect of Roseman’s writing is the use of flashbacks staggered with the present. I think this tale perhaps makes the best use of that in this anthology. The story also gets high marks for having accurate subject matter, and its conclusion is satisfying. Roseman displays an excellent instinct for knowing when to obscure information from the reader. He’s particularly strong in that regard with conclusions. My one and only beef with “113 Feet” is I found the central character’s statement that they weren’t “going to get killed” ill-timed; it defused some of the tension and should have probably been cut.

“Belief” toys with a mystery box, in this case a strange message broadcasted by unconventional means. It joins “27 Jennifers” in being sort of the middle of the pack, in my opinion, though the forensic way our protagonist pieces together what’s to come was enjoyable. I also found his plight sympathetic, as he discusses the drudgery of contemporary life compared to the exciting futures of fiction enjoyed as a youth. I think many of us can relate to that disappointment. Did I mention, by the way, that this is the second divorced male lead in this anthology? More on that in a moment.

At last, we arrive at the flagship story of John Bach, private eye, in the steampunk murder-mystery “The Clockwork Russian”. This tale’s eponymous placement was well-founded. Roseman paints a gritty, frigid noir thriller wrapped in the embrace of alternate history.

Please understand, I’m not a big fan of mysteries. In many ways they have the same problem as romantic comedies–the plots and endings are too predictable. But even so, this one engaged my attention and kept it. It reads like a piece from someone who’s been writing exclusively in this genre for decades, with an entire team of editors at their backs.

Is it my favorite in the collection? Not by a mile, only because of my own sub-genre preferences, but steampunk *and* mystery aficionados should definitely take note. There’s an argument to be made that this one alone is worth the price of entry for buffs of these fiction landscapes, and it’s almost novella-length.

On its heels comes “Amid the Steep Sky’s Commotion”, sorely in need of a better title. There are bigger problems, too. In the wake of a detective discharged from prior police service, who solves a murder/conspiracy plot within steampunk trappings while hiding a homosexual relationship, Roseman grants us…the exact same template. Only this tale isn’t as good.

And I probably had that reaction in part from having just finished the prior piece. “…Commotion” isn’t as long as “…Russian”, I didn’t find the details as interesting, the setting as compelling, nor did I care much about the protag and her plight. It was kind of like coming across one of those me-too films after you’ve already watched the blockbuster whose success it piggybacked upon. This story serves no purpose in the anthology. Still, it’s hard to ding the collection as a whole for extra fat when it’s already such a good deal.

With this said let’s pause and discuss one of the anthology’s most interesting phenomena. See how I mentioned the sexuality of both John Bach and the female protagonist in the following story? And noted two earlier males who featured in other tales, who were both divorced? I normally couldn’t care less. I’m not one of those who chooses to focus on demographic characteristics of characters, because I’m more interested in the struggles and situations in life that have defined the shared human experience from the beginning of time. You’d think that’s a hallmark of Roseman’s writing, too, since he plays with undefined protagonist gender as a trope in this anthology, even calling the reader’s attention to it in one post-story note.

But I couldn’t help but notice a pattern in this anthology. Virtually every heterosexual character in a relationship is dealing with the jetsam of a past divorce or love affair otherwise gone awry. Meanwhile, every homosexual relationship is star-crossed, sweet and life-affirming. Roseman should throw his heteros a bone (no pun intended). The same scenarios over and over blurred the reading experience.

Some might wonder if the anthology finishes on a weaker note, especially since it’s been first released in ebook format, which is notorious for front-loaded hooks giving way to middling finales. That’s not the case here. “Survivor” grants us not only an enjoyable survival tale (as you might imagine), but a likable protagonist, who endures the kind of ending I just love to see in fiction. Following that is “A Dog and His Boy”, perhaps the lightest fare present, but a welcome inclusion among its more dire kin.

It’s at this point we most expect Roseman to step up to plate and bunt. He’s won the game by now, so there’s little motivation to knock the skin off the ball, right? Wrong.

With “Stand Up”, the author belts one way out in right field, over the cheap seats and into the parking lot.

“Stand Up” is that good. I won’t spoil the premise. Roseman is proud of this one, he notes. I think he should be. If this piece isn’t expanded into a full-length book, it at least needs to be optioned by a production company into a film. If either boon does not befall it, then I’d call that a loss not just for genre fans, but anyone who enjoys a good story. It’s easily the best tale here, in my opinion, charging out the gates past a stable full of strong horses. That it hasn’t been published by *someone* is an indictment against the small press fiction markets. Read it.

Following this last full length tale, we’re treated to desert shots of smaller tales. These were nice, but ultimately I didn’t find any of them terribly memorable.

Overall, while Roseman’s debut anthology has a few scattered issues–and could use some trimming–it’s hard to ignore how high its stronger tales soar, and the bargain price just seals the deal. I recommend it.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me state that I am a friend with the author, though that did not factor into my review.

Rating: 4/5 stars.