Recommended Age, Grade, and Reading Levels
- Age: 18
- Grade: 12
Part District 9, part Lost in Translation, part Stranger in a Strange Land. TRIPTYCH was nominated for two Lambda Literary Awards and named one of Publisher's Weekly's Best Books of the Year.
Kalp is a widower, burdened with an unimaginable grief, who escaped his dying world with nothing but his own life and a half-finished toy for a child that will now never be born.
Gwen is a language expert covertly recruited for a United Nations initiative to integrate a ship-full of alien refugees into life on earth. She becomes Kalp's teammate and lifeline. Basil is the engineer who lives with, and loves them, both. But he has no idea how to defend his new relationship against the ire and condemnation of a violently intolerant world.
TRIPTYCH is a poignant, character-driven science-fiction story about tolerance, love, loss, and the desperate attempt to find connection in a world that no longer makes sense.
About the author
J.M. Frey is an author, voice actor, and professional smartypants. She’s appeared in podcasts, documentaries, and on television to discuss all things geeky. Her debut novel TRIPTYCH was nominated for two Lambda Literary Awards, and garnered a place among the Best Books of 2011 from Publishers Weekly. Since then she’s published THE ACCIDENTAL TURN SERIES, a quadrilogy of meta-fantasy novels, and THE SKYLARK’S SAGA, a steampunk adventure duology. Her queer regency historical fiction novel THE WOMAN WHO FELL THROUGH TIME was honoured with a Watty Award in 2019. Her life’s ambition is to step foot on every continent – only three left!
Excerpt: Triptych (by (author) J.M. Frey)
THE DAY dawned crisp and (too early) sweet.
September light dropped heavily over the stretching acreage of the farm, drenching the quiet world in the warm sepia of all the best nostalgia. The sky was the sort of open blue that prompted content, indulgent thoughts of a step-ladder and a spoon, just to see if it tasted as ripe as it looked. For a breathless second, even the birds and the insects seemed to share in the gentle glory of the early autumn sunrise, too awed to break the hush with the busy matter of attracting a mate.
It was, of course, promptly shattered by Gwennie's shrill demand for breakfast.
She was always better when someone else did the waking, lazy-eyed and pillowy and pliable.
"S'comin', s'comin'," Mark mumbled into the comforter. He heaved himself upright. His wife cracked a sandy eyelid in sympathy as he poked sleep-warmed feet into the chill morning air.
Dawn feedings were Mark's responsibility. He had to get up to do the milking, anyway. He hinged upwards like a rusty door, legs crooked and then holding him up as if gravity was some sort of recent miracle and he hadn't quite gotten the hang of moving with it just yet.
Safe from the comfort of her down duvet, Evvie winced as Mark ricocheted off the corner of the solid wood dresser?-?an heirloom from his own grandfather's farm, if you could call such a battered and scuffed piece of sturdy wood an "heirloom"?-?as he struggled to pull on a pair of jeans that he'd left crumpled on the foot of the bed the night before.
A year ago, Evvie would have appreciated the flex of his biceps, the fact that he'd neglected to put on anything else under the denim; that meant he was feeling frisky and nothing but good things would come of it when he got back in from the chores.
Now it meant that he was too bleary to remember anything as banal as underwear.
The only things Mark and Evvie were doing in this bed nowadays were cuddling the baby, failing to sleep, and cultivating a lovely matched set of shiny purple bruises under their eyes.
Awake now, Evvie tracked the sound of her husband stumbling downstairs, the clatterbang of the fridge door opening and closing, the gurgle of a small pot being filled with tap water, the metallic swish of it being placed over an element, and the slow crescendo of bubbling as it boiled on the stove. Gwennie's cries subsided into desperate, miserable sniffles and breathy gasps; it took everything Evvie had to stay in bed, denying the itch in the marrow of her bones to go and gather her daughter up, press her close, and soothe.
Dawn was for Mark and Gwennie, special daddy-daughter time.
The stairs creaked as Mark padded back up them, bare feet on bare wood. The door to the next room made a soft hiss in counterpoint as the wood slipped over the new carpet in the nursery. Mark said something gentle, his voice a low, crooning buzz filtering in through the wall that separated Gwennie's room from theirs, repeated in surreal electronic stereo on the other side of her head through the baby monitor. Finally, Gwennie's hitching wails wound down into even, soft breathing.
Evvie unclenched her teeth and worked her fingers out of the knots they'd balled into the blankets, amazed that even after so many months Gwennie's discomfort could cause such acute anxiety in her stomach.
Selfishly, Evvie considered the day ahead: raspberries to rescue from the cooling nip of nights outside, to wash and sort through and start to mash up for jams; vegetables to pick and preserve; weeds to pull; a garden to tuck in safe under a blanket of home-grown fertilizer and straw for the coming winter.
All with a baby strapped to her back.
She snuck out of bed, chilly toes creeping along hardwood floors, to steal the first warm shower and a few moments of privacy. She loved her husband. She loved her daughter. But God, did Evvie Pierson love hot showers, too.
* * *
THEY HAD a brand new cordless telephone. They'd made good on the spring's run of calves, and indulged in the expense of the unit because of the baby. It was top of the line, and Mark had been very proud when he had installed it last month. Very few people around them had cordless phones.
Now Evvie could go up or down stairs while talking any time she liked. She could keep the phone with her even when she was in the nursery, in the pantry, or downstairs folding the laundry. If she activated a feature on the base, it acted as a two-way walkie-talkie. Mark took the handset out to the barn every morning in case there was a call or an emergency with Gwennie.
Knowing Mark was just a button-push away, Evvie spent the early morning cleaning and preparing bottles, using the food processor to mash up some vegetables into a glutinous mass soft enough for Gwennie to smear artfully on every surface except her own tongue, and preparing lunch. Gwennie was very tactile, loved touching things, brushing her fingers against the tails of the barn cats, the trunks of the trees, curling sweetly in the ends of her mother's hair.
Evvie made grilled cheese sandwiches for the adults. Waiting for Mark to come in to eat his lunch, she passed the time?-?far more time than she'd probably like to admit to her circle of friends?-?playing a game of dishtowel peek-a-boo that Gwennie tired of before Evvie did. Mark appeared briefly for the sandwiches and some underwear?. “
"Zipper's rubbin'," he complained, this time with a hint of the smirk that his wife remembered so well?-?then struck out again to finish clearing all the bales out of the hayloft before dark.
The boys from the neighbour's farm would be by tomorrow afternoon to help Mark pull up the moulding floorboards and replace it; wet hay caused everything else around it to go off, and paradoxically, started fires. It was the MacKinnons who'd bound and stacked the hay before it was properly dried in the first place in their haste to get the work done last year, and their father said they owed. The MacKinnons were good for that?-?paying back.
When Mark had disappeared, Evvie washed each dish carefully and stacked them in the plastic drying rack under the window. The sun glanced off the rapidly evaporating water, filling the small kitchen with light. Gwennie tried to grab at a reflection of the sun off Evvie's watch, patting her fat palms against the wall beside her high chair with futility.
They played that game for a while, too, Gwennie laughing, trying to smack the light between her hands or grasp it with fingers still smeared with green paste.
Evvie moved Gwennie into her carrier at noon and they spent the next hour shuttling baskets, garden tools, water pitchers, a soft, much-gummed plush frog, and a wheelbarrow of fertilizer out to the garden at the bottom of the backyard. It butted right up against the marching line of corn stalks gone golden with the end of summer.
That would be Mark's next task, ploughing under the stripped stalks. The world smelled of clean dark soil, the faint perfume of the apple orchard belonging to their neighbours far upwind, and the crisp lingering after-scent of the morning's brief hoary dew.
With Gwennie content with her frog, Evvie bent to her task, old gathering baskets dappled with the brownish and pink stains of many years duty at hand, carefully reaching around the thorny tendrils of the raspberry bushes, plucking the dark fruit away from the leaves and lifting them gently into their new homes to keep her fingers mostly free of sticky juice. She had to reach and stretch carefully so the prickly edeges of the leaves never got to close to Gwennie.
The buzzing sound was soft enough that Evvie didn't notice it right away. She flapped a glove-clad hand at her ear, hoping it wasn't a late-season mosquito trying to get in one last meal, or a fly bothering Gwennie.
It grew louder, too loud to be an insect, too large. She thought maybe it was Gwennie, making sounds with her chubby baby lips, and Evvie craned her head around to smile at her.
What she saw was Gwennie looking up, mouth open in awe, wide blue eyes reflecting the sky and...
The aircraft swooped down so low that Evvie couldn't deny the urge to duck. It buzzed the top of the corn, sending the crowns of dried seed husks flying in clouds of pellets.
The plane turned in midair, belly up like a swimmer at the end of a pool, then waggled and flipped upright with a barrel roll straight out of the movies, sharp nose pointing at them.
What the hell kind of plane looks like that? Evvie thought. What aircraft can even maneuver like that?
Something hard and sharp welled against the underside of her ribs. She flattened herself against the ground, tugging desperately at the straps of the carrier, wriggling to pull Gwennie around, shield her under her body as the craft came at them again. Thoughts of sprays of bullets and missiles pressed fervidly against Evvie's forehead, and she felt her face get hot, heard Gwennie squeal. Blood pounded against Evvie's skin, and she could taste her heart in the back of her throat.
What the hell was happening?
The world erupted in a bang.
Evvie squeezed her eyes shut, but she could hear the skidding slide of the aircraft digging into the turf of the backyard, some sort of scream, the shrill protest of metal being bent away.
There was a vicious tug on the baby carrier and she felt the straps tear. It took Gwennie, ripped her out of the carrier, a foot on the strap, slamming Evvie's chest back into the ground.
"Gwennie!" Evvie screamed.
Suddenly Evvie was flying through the air. As soon as she had registered the cold pull of bare, dry fingers?-?too long, too thin, too strange?-?on her arms, they were gone. Tossed away like an empty corn husk.
"Gwennie!" she shrieked again, then "oof!" as all of the air was driven out of her lungs, her ribcage coming up hard against the ground.
Stars sparked against Evvie's eyelids. Blackness swooped up but she pushed it away, desperately, everything burning as she tried to suck in air, tried to flip over, to push herself up, to crawl, but she had no air, couldn't move at all... Gwennie!
Evvie's vision swirled into single focus.
The craft was...it...
There was a flying saucer in her strawberries.
Gwennie screamed. God, screamed and Evvie...
She reached out, up; she was still on the ground, legs too shaky to support herself. Evvie sucked in a breath and suddenly it was like the stones had been lifted away from her limbs, and she had the ability to move again. She pushed onto scraped hands and knees, scrabbling to get close, arms up, and no, please, a knife, it has a knife and...against her little throat, pale and...her chest heaving, jerking, and it was holding Gwennie by her arm, like it... That's not how you hold a baby!
Evvie swallowed, trying to work up the spit to speak, to scream, to beg, oh God, and it tasted like ash. "Give her back! Please!" The thing looked at Evvie, only looked at (through) her.
What the hell is it?
The short snout wrinkled, the bat-wing ears flattening against its head, like the barn cat's. The ears were ridges of articulation, fingerling joints, a yacht sail of flesh and bone, but oh so very expressive. Angry. A flash of fangs and the knife and Evvie screamed too, because you can't?-?someone can't cut out your heart without making you scream.
She's a miracle, look at those little fingernails, Mark had once said, and the words rang between Evvie's ears like a frosted gong. Can you believe we did that?
We didn't invent it, Evvie had replied. But it sure as hell feels like it.
Evvie sensed, suddenly, someone behind her.
"Please, please, no!" and the knife flashed again, only it wasn't a knife flash, it was an explosion, just a small one, and the air reeked suddenly of cordite and fireworks and copper.
There was the flat crack of a gunshot.
The thing's head ceased to exist.
The long padded fingers spasmed once, went limp, trailed behind the body as it slumped backwards.
Evvie reached out, still kneeling, and grabbed her daughter out of the air where the thing's hands used to be.
Relieved, she said, "Mark!" Because who else could it have been? Gwennie howled again and Evvie tucked her in close to her chest, running a hand over the baby's shoulder, her throat, looking for blood, for broken bones, just to feel Gwennie's skin (hot and tingling, whole, alive) against her own. Something red and sticky on Evvie's fingers, but she couldn't see where it was coming from.
Whose was it? Was Evvie hurt? Would the adrenaline fade and would some bone suddenly protest its previous ignored agony? Her ribs, her whole side throbbed, raw and scraped and bruised, and she spared a second to hope that bruises were all she'd gotten.
"Mark," Evvie said again, and stood up, turned to him, to bury herself in his arms, to hold Gwennie between them and shelter her. "Something's wrong. Call an ambulance!"
"M' not Mark," said the woman with the smoking gun.
How many clichés could I live through in one afternoon? Evvie thought. Barely live through?-?God, Gwennie!
"W-who," Evvie managed to stutter, and Gwennie was screaming still, furious and terrified and unable to understand, and frustrated at her own inability to articulate her terror. "W-what?"
"The less you know, luv, the better, innit?" another voice behind Evvie added, and she turned to face it.
A man this time, but he was dressed the same as the woman: all dark and durable with no loose hardware. Just tough pants, thick boots, a vest with too many pockets and straps, a blank black ball cap. No badges. No emblems. No indication of rank. Only empty Velcro fuzz where they might have sat on the top of each arm. Wind- (explosion-) blown and militaristic. Guns in hand, big and boxy. Official-looking, but without any insignia that she knew; it reminded Evvie of the Navy Seals. Something so (covert) dangerous they had no need to advertise.
Their clothing freaked her out. Evvie decided to freak out as quietly as possible. Dry and dusty horror swept down her. She felt her cheeks get cold, the heat and adrenaline of anger and fear sliding away. Her joints seized and the bottoms of her feet itched; Evvie wanted to run, wanted to yell, wanted to cry and all she could do was stand and shake, and shake, and shake.
Evvie tightened her grip on Gwennie and the baby didn't seem to notice. The man started to lift one arm, winced, and switched to the other. He pointed at the plane-ship.
"Did you see where it came from?"
"N-no," Evvie admitted, because she hadn't; because she had been looking at the tired old baskets, and the thorns and the fat raspberries, now smashed and pulpy; red and black innards sprayed all over the lawn.
And what the hell was it?
As if real life was a movie, but nothing she had ever seen before. It was like in the commercials for that new Spielberg film with the bicycles.
A sudden whistling sound rent the air, high and long. Silver, tinnish, dying. It hurt Evvie's ears. They were wincing, the man and woman in black, but seemed otherwise unaffected; more concerned with catching their breath and arguing with one another than the shrill cry of the machine.
The sound made Gwennie wave her fists and howl.
Not happy, Mom, her squished face and watery blue eyes said. Seriously not happy.
The air reeked in turns of burnt plastic, churned turf, and the faint, sickening tang of blood and raw meat as the wind shifted, blowing the smoke first towards and then away from the pack of too-still people. A long, thin line of blood arched over Gwennie's smooth forehead, down her little neck. Evvie pulled her close, hiding her face, covering her ears. Maybe Evvie should have been more concerned about the ship, the twenty foot divot on the lawn, the noise.
Big blue baby eyes and a squall?-?Seriously, Mom, not happy.
Evvie jogged her once and thought, Hush, sweetie. Let Mommy cope. We've nearly been killed by aliens.
There was a flying saucer in the strawberries.
The word crashed around between her ears, echoing and squealing like icy mice.
Gwennie went silent and white, her little chest jerking with terrified gasps; something, maybe, in the tenseness of Evvie's body as her mother clutched her close, an instinct not to fuss, not to bring attention to herself in a time of danger. But the two strangers were both staring at her anyway.
The small gash on her forehead bled freely.
The man pulled a square of gauze from the miniature first aid kit in his over-packed vest pocket. He handed it to Evvie. The kindness of the action jolted her out of her paralyzed terror, out of the vacant numbness of shock and sound. Evvie took the gauze. Pressed it down. Her daughter whined.
"Oh my God," the woman breathed, looking down at Gwennie, and why, why was Evvie suddenly struck with the thought that this woman looked familiar? The stiff soldierish facade cracked and the woman showed a real emotion for the first time, a sort of confused horror, her eyes still zeroed in on the baby.
"I don't get it," the man said, without acknowledging that she had spoken. He was on a rant, too absorbed in an argument with himself to listen. It didn't look like that surprised her. "Why?"
Smile, Evvie thought, resisting the urge to just stare at the woman. Smile so I know who you are. I'll know you if you just smile.
But that was terrifying too, because who did Evvie know that could do what (kill like) this woman just had?
"Basil?-?" the woman said softly.
"Why?" the man repeated, hands zooming around like scared birds as he tapped at something that looked like a palm-sized notebook, but had a face like a television. He gestured at Evvie, at the divot, at the sky. "Why go to all that trouble to trigger a Flash?-?a temporal one no less, and who knew they could do that-and, and then just...attack some random family in the middle of Nowheresville the moment you get here? I mean, if they were going back in time to, I dunno, invade the Earth or sommat before we had the technology to fight back, why balls it up by attacking some random family? Why not hide? Why not go back further? It doesn't make sense. They're smarter than that, the little sons of a?-?Kalp used to be smarter than?-?"
"It's not random," the woman snapped off, interrupting. "And don't talk to me about Kalp after..." She trailed off, sucking in a breath. Scrubbed an eye with the palm of a fingerless glove, fingertips brushing along her hairline. She stopped, felt something there. Realization and cold disgust made her eyebrows caterpillar upwards. "They weren't after the mother."
Like Evvie was a mannequin, or a chess piece. (Trivial.)
"No?" Basil asked, unsure. He frowned, studied Evvie, his own face pale and round-eyed, with spots of colour still high on his cheeks from the exertion of shooting down the ship. He peered at her as if Evvie were vaguely familiar too, and all he needed was to get a good look.
I know how you feel.
Evvie tried not to roll her eyes. It took some doing.
Mark was still in the barn with the phone. He had to be. Where was he? Had he heard any of it? Evvie's scream? The shots? The engine, now? Had he already called the cops? Or did the thump of rotten hay falling to the floor mask every other sound? Did he hear the grinding wail of the...
There's a flying saucer in the strawberries.
And finally, finally, the wailing sound began to fade, like a fan blade just unplugged still sluggishly exerting the last of its momentum. Thwip-thwip thwip...thwip...thwiii...
Where was Mark?
Gwennie whimpered once, mashing her face unhappily into her mother's bicep.
"They were after the baby, just the baby," Basil said, realizing the truth behind what they had seen: what had happened too fast, what was too fantastic for Evvie to digest just yet.
The woman got whiter.
Evvie's brother Gareth used to collect Asimov.
But how could Evvie possibly be living it?
Basil tapped his notebook television hard. "Why the baby? Why babies at all? Blimey, do you think they're targeting babies?"
"No," the woman breathed. She took off her ball cap and crumpled it up in a white-knuckled fist. Reddish brown hair, and a tumble of unmanageable pseudo-curls?-?not unlike Evvie's when the summer humidity got to it?-?were pulled back hastily into a clip, scrambling for freedom in all directions. The woman reached shaking fingers up, brushed the thin white scar at the edge of her hairline. On her forehead. "They're not going after random babies."
She ran her nails through her hair, scratching her scalp lightly. When she hit the clip she tugged it out, angry now; she tossed it at the flying saucer. It made a sharp pinging sound where it hit the side. The engine chugged once as if in reproach, an ugly thick sound. The high-pitched whine cut out abruptly, and Evvie felt the tension in her shoulders ratchet down a notch, fall away from her ears.
"Dammit," the woman hissed into the sudden, shocking silence. "They're going after us."
"Us?" Basil repeated, unsure.
The woman jerked her chin at the wound on Gwennie's forehead, and touched her scar again. "They're going after the Institute," she said softly. "That's not just a random baby, Basil. That's me."
But the woman looked like she was about the same age as Evvie, so how could?-?but, not at all because...
A snap somewhere in Evvie's chest, sudden tightness in her throat because yes, yes, of course.
That's who she was.
“Time travel, aliens, and the politics of sexuality combine with tragic violence in Frey’s deeply satisfying debut . . . The story is so well-grounded in the characters that it never once loses its course. Frey tells the story from varying points of view in distinct voices, imagining a world at once completely alien and utterly human.”
–Publishers Weekly, Starred Review
"A stirring adventure, as well as a tender love story, from a first time author who truly embraces the limitless possibilities the future may bring. JM Frey’s Triptych satisfies any sci-fi reader looking for a different take on the first contact motif, or anyone looking to explore the possible evolution of human sexuality and love."
"I couldn't put it down. It's a very impressive first novel and if Ms. Frey continues to do with science fiction what she's done in this book she might single-handedly be credited with reviving the entire genre. Bravo! Encore, encore!"
-Todd McCaffrey, The Dragonriders of Pern
“I was afraid we’d be left with a lot of technical asides and scientific musings to explore the aliens. Fortunately, nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of being cold and clinical, the approach here is warm and human. I won’t spoil any of what happens between them, but I will say I shed tears of joy and tears of sorrow for this unusual family, and that’s an accomplishment few authors can claim. Not only is this a wonderful story, but it’s a wonderfully told story.”
–Sally Sapphire, Bending the Bookshelf
“The big mindblowing debut I’ve seen this year has been J.M. Frey’s Triptych, and it’s from such a small press that I doubt it will get the attention it deserves.”
–Rose Fox, Genreville blog
“A brilliantly challenging piece of pure Science Fiction.”
–Dr. Mike Perschon
“J.M. Frey’s ability to draw one into her story is irrefutable. I am impressed by the strength of her plot and the way her characters come to life.”
–Jillian Boheme, Gathering Storm
“Just finished it. Miss it already. Write another! It was unput-downable!”
–Jill Golick, Ruby Skye, P.I. and president of the Writers Guild of Canada
“In Triptych, J.M. Frey takes a global first-contact story into microcosm as compelling domestic drama. She inhabits the alien, not as invader, or ambassador, but in a refreshing take as awkward, down-on-his-luck houseguest. Her characterizations include great sensitivity, nuance and imaginative detail. On top of all this, she successfully sets up a conspiracy that jumps through time for its payoff. Frey is a talent to watch.”
–Laurie Channer, Godblog