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WesternSFA


Exchange Students
edited by Sheila Hartney
Hadrosaur Productions, $14.95, 253pp
Published: February 2020

Hadrosaur Productions publish a lot of anthologies and, as with pretty much all anthologies, they're mixed bags. There's some really good stuff in this one and a whole bunch of decent if not great stuff, with only a few clunkers that had me scratching my head. My biggest head scratch revolved around the theme though.

It's a good theme, thought up by editor Sheila Hartney, and the title shows how simple and clear it is. Each story is a science fiction/fantasy look at an exchange student. That's it. And that gives writers a pretty substantial scope to work with. The more scope, the more possibility.

What surprised me is how many stories here still fell outside that scope by either not featuring exchange students at all or doing so without any reason for the exchange students to be exchange students, instead of something else entirely. It seems odd to me that writers chose to submit some of these odd stories and that the editor accepted them for a themed anthology.

Of course, most writers did focus on exchange students and the variety they explored is admirable. As you might imagine, many writers went with aliens but many didn't and what they went for instead is a big plus for the book, because of the imagination involved in not taking the obvious road. Two of my highlights involve respectively an exchange between Heaven and Hell and a quantum swap of fictional characters in alternate universes.

I also appreciated how many stories put imagination not just into the ideas but into how those ideas were put forward. That quantum swap story is told through the conceit of an exam paper, already marked. Another is recounted as the diary of a valley girl, hilariously sent to Miskatonic University. A third is comprised of notes recorded by a teacher throughout a particularly troublesome year. There are even a couple that are setups for bad puns.

Another frequent note I made, especially with my favourite stories, is that I wanted a lot more from them. I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I enjoyed them so much that I didn't want them to end, which seems to be a good thing, but I also thought a few were too obviously parts of bigger stories, which is less of a good thing. One in particular took a real left turn with its ending and, while that wouldn't have seemed out of place were this a chapter in a novel, it's much more problematic as a short story that purports to be complete.

I may have come across some of these writers in other anthologies; the notes at the end suggest that they're often prolific. However, the only name that I actually recognised is that of David B. Riley, who I mostly know from his work in weird westerns. I've reviewed one of his novels and an anthology he edited. In fact, that left turn story is his. I enjoyed it immensely but the ending, as appropriate as it is for the exchange student, leaves a bunch of questions unanswered and I wanted to turn to the next chapter.

If I had to pick a favourite story, I'd likely plump for one by Chisto Healy which takes one of the damned, who's getting used to daily torture in Hell, gets his dream opportunity to visit Heaven as part of an exchange program by God to restore some context to his own charges. The idea is excellent, but I liked the way it was told even better. I won't spoil the faux pas that poor Ted commits in Heaven but they're joyous. The story is called 'Home Is(n't) Where the Heart Is'.

There are other strong candidates too. 'The Pupil' is one, Riley's tale of a Martian judge being stuck with an assistant from Earth. A long story called 'My Book Report on Starlight' is another, writer Joachim Heijndermans taking his time but building a beautiful story of language barriers and how to get past them. 'Flunk, Juggle & Frog' by Jonathan Shipley is another story that I wanted to continue but couldn't, but it's well contained. 'Bessarabia' by Sean Jones is a wild superhero romp.

A few stories stood out not just as entities but for other reasons. 'A Coral Study' by Katherine Quevedo is a skimpy piece but it ends with some glorious emotion. 'Advanced Precognition' had to be short or the core idea would have got lost in itself but Emily Martha Sorensen knew that and wrapped it up at just the right length. Sherry Yuan's 'Starseeds' and Jennifer Moore's 'Take Him to Your Leader. Please' are also shorter stories that still did exactly what they needed to.

I won't call out the lesser stories, though I will highlight that I enjoyed many of the pieces that I haven't mentioned above, so comparing the contents won't help you. Some of the others are capable but predictable, a few exist for their twists and could have done more and a couple of others scored high on imagination but just didn't grab me. Maybe they'll grab you.

All in all, this is a decent anthology. I'll certainly keep my eyes open for more work from a few of these authors and I'll check my shelves to see if I have already picked up David B. Riley's 'Bonded Agent' because I absolutely want to read more about one of the characters he writes about here. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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