Short fiction recs! October and November 2018
December has flown by, Christmas is upon us, and I’m only now getting to my roundup of fiction read in October and November. Better late than never, as they say. Here are some of my favorites from the previous two months.
Stories of horror and hope, darkness and light
The goddess Mebuyen keeps her house near the river, where the dead walk toward their final destination. But the dead are no longer moving on. They are not walking down the river. So Mebuyen takes them into her house, and tries to figure out why. . .
This is an aching story which addresses an ongoing, real-world horror. Yet even as that horror is made plain, the narrative holds compassion toward multiple characters. The victims are rendered in vivid, heartbreaking detail, but one of their murderers is also shown as human. There is an entire system at fault here, larger than any one individual. This is a beautiful and astonishing work: delicate, restrained, compassionate, and humane even as it brings violent horror and evil (and their consequences) to life.
“How to Swallow the Moon” by Isabel Yap at Uncanny
And oh, this gorgeous, gorgeous story. Sometimes you just need a shot of pure beauty and hope, of uplift, and this fairy tale delivers. A monster that eats moons. A sheltered maiden and the loyal servant who loves her. A mysterious bridegroom. This is a dazzling story of magic and passion. And it’s a story of not accepting the roles that others prescribe for us, not accepting standard narratives of suffering and loss. As this story say, “Not everything has to be a sacrifice.” A joyous tale, full of love and light.
“For the Removal of Unwanted Guests,” by A.C. Wise at Podcastle (reprint)
A young man moves into his first house and finds a witch as an unwanted houseguest. This is a quiet, lovely story that has flashes of darkness, but mostly brims with warmth and tenderness and hope.
"A Catalogue of Sunlight at the End of the World" by A.C. Wise in Clarkesworld (reprint)
As a generation ship prepares to leave Earth for a new home among the stars, one man who will stay behind contemplates his life. This is a quiet story of ordinary love and loss, of marriage and family and work and life on a slowly dying Earth. Although quiet, it’s also deeply moving and beautiful. The ending had me in tears.
“Triquetra” by Kirstyn McDermott at Tor
A deliciously dark, menacing, Gothic fairy tale. Snow White has grown and has a beloved daughter of her own. But her evil stepmother still lives, and at every new moon Snow White (or “Fairest,” as she is called here) goes to visit her. Slowly, Fairest has come to believe that her little daughter is in danger. Will her stepmother and her stepmother’s magic mirror help—or will they betray her again?
“The Names of Women” by Natalia Theodoridou at Strange Horizons
I have this flutter in my chest. Thebes, the defeated city, smolders before us, Athens already behind us, and I flutter, I flutter, I can't speak.
This is a haunting retelling of the Greek myth of Philomela. A sense of foreboding builds throughout the story, as Philomela journeys with her evil brother-in-law, Tereus, toward a violent end. The author plays with time, history, and myth throughout this story; a blood-drenched battlefield has electronic speakers blaring recordings; the characters watch a revival of Medea in a modern-seeming theatre. Philomela sees her future; she looks at the stars, and in the constellations she sees all the women of myth who have been victimized, betrayed, and wounded. This is an ambitious story that takes the myth of Philomela as a stand-in for a larger story of violence, oppression, and resistance. It’s a technically innovative and accomplished tale. It is also deeply immersive and moving. The final lines are both satisfying and haunting.
“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” by Zen Cho at the Barnes and Noble Science Fiction and Fantasy blog
Zen Cho’s short stories are always a delight, and this is one of my favorites yet. An imugi, a giant serpent of Korean myth, hopes to become a dragon. To achieve this takes great spiritual discipline and at least a thousand years. But every time this imugi attempts the final step, something gets in its way. . . This is a story of persistence. It’s also a story of failure, and of how failure can lead us to lives we never would have imagined. It sparkles with Cho’s characteristic humor; the narrative touches upon some dark subjects, yet always with a certain lightness of touch. It is also, in the end, deeply poignant. A lovely, fun, thoughtful, and moving piece. One of her best.
Selections from Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Beneath Ceaseless Skies is one of my favorite magazines. I tried a little harder to keep up to date with their stories this fall, and here are some that I loved.
“Court of Birth, Court of Strength,” by Aliette de Bodard
For those who have read de Bodard’s Dominion of the Fallen novels, this is a most welcome return to her world of fallen angels and magic-wielding mortals in post-apocalyptic Paris. For those who don’t know this world, it’s an excellent introduction. This story features gorgeous writing; a lush, evocative atmosphere; a tense, dark plotline, and um, a bit of heat. Look, any story featuring Asmodeus, that ruthless and charismatic fallen Angel, is bound to be hot. And this stand-alone story tells the tale of how Asmodeus first meets Samriel, his lover in de Bodard’s first Dominion of the Fallen novel, A House of Shattered Wings. For those who haven’t read the novels, however, this story should stand on its own. A tense, compelling tale of mystery and hard choices, told from the viewpoint of a surprisingly sympathetic Samriel.
“Shadowdrop” by Chris Willrich
And oh, this is utterly delightful. In a wonderous city of monsters, hellhounds, magicians, huge headless statues and more, certain black cats really do cause terrible luck to any humans who cross their paths. But Shadowdrop, unluckiest of all the black cats, doesn’t want to bring bad luck to humans. And when she learns of a threat to her city, she must work with the other black cats to save her home while also doing her best not to cross any humans’ paths. This is a rollicking, funny, sweet, spooky, and utterly charming tale of adventure, mystery, and wonder.
“The Oracle and the Sea” by Megan Arkenberg
An Oracle is kept prisoner in a house by the sea. Like the main character itself, this story is mysterious and elegant, fatalistic and sad. It’s also a tense and steely game of wills between prisoner and guard, between political prisoner and the force of the State. Lyrical, melancholy, haunting.
"In the Ground, Before the Freeze" by Margaret Ronald
I loved this story so much. A mountain woman and a man from the lowlands. Dark magic and myth and legends. And entwined with it all, a very real, relatable story of marriage, of the difficulties and love and the little things about a relationship that can drive us up the wall. . . and also keep us believing in a future together.
"The Hollow Tree" by Jodan Kurella
A dark story of family secrets, a fairy, and a girl who will do anything to protect her mother. Creepy, lovely, and powerful.
“Magma on the Inside” by Kat Day (published on her website, The Fiction Phial)
He was young, and his skin was still soft. For now.
As a young troll, Adamite has soft skin. But grown trolls are not soft; to be considered mature, they have to turn themselves to stone. This is a searing story of how people turn themselves hard, of how they suppress their softness, of generational abuse. It says things that I’ve wanted to say, but had trouble articulating. In the author notes, the author makes clear that she wrote this story specifically to address an aspect of toxic masculinity (all the characters in the story are boys or men), yet of course this terrible process of hardening and abuse applies to other people as well. A viscerally painful, thought-provoking story.
An Inconvenient God by Francesca Forrest, published by Annorlunda Books
An official from the Ministry of Divinity has come to Nando University to decommission a minor trickster god. She thinks it should be an easy job, but the god has other ideas. . . This is a fun and charming story, much like trickster god Ohin himself. Or at least, as Ohin first appears. For the official soon discovers that Ohin might not be a god after all, and that he doesn’t even know what he is or how he came to be. A mystery unfolds, one which our narrator is determined to solve. Forrest’s writing in this book reminds me a little of Zen Cho’s; she addresses some weighty issues (in this case, issues of imperialism and loss of culture and language), yet she addresses these heavy issues with humor and a lightness of touch. There’s a gentle humor and warmth throughout this piece, and in the end, there’s a true poignancy as well. The world-building is also fresh and original; I’d love to see more stories set in this world. A heart-warming, thought-provoking read.
The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart by Stephanie Burgis
I checked this out for my 11-year old daughter (who loved it) and ended up also reading it myself. Aventurine is a dragon who gets enchanted into a little girl, but never ever loses her dragon spirit. She's been told by her family that she should find a passion--and when she has her first taste of hot chocolate, she knows exactly what that passion is. I'm sure most of us can understand. This story is warm and funny and charming, with winning characters and twisty plot turns that are also wholly satisfying. Beware, though--all the descriptions of chocolate treats will make you hungry! Best to read with a cup of hot chocolate at your side.