Short fiction recs! Feb and March 2019. Also book recs and an essay!
Hmm, I meant to start publishing these short fiction round-ups monthly, but time got away from me (as it often does), and it seems I’m on a bimonthly schedule again. As always, there was way too much good fiction published for any one person to read, and I know that I missed a lot. But here’s a selection of some of what I did read, and love, in February and March.
Stories of Magic, Stories of Horror
“Dustdaughter” by Inda Lauryn in Uncanny
Moonless midnight. She had never heard it described that way, usually her father making the declaration “At least they won’t see the dirt on her too good.” A teacher using her as an example of what you would look like coming out of the Le Brea Tar Pits—when she became the official playground monster. Her mother not going to the school to raise hell against a teacher becoming her child’s bully. “That’s the way it is for girls like us, Dust. Might as well get used to people treating you this way.”
But moonless midnight felt like part of the sky. Like the universe needed her to exist.
Dust has never felt like she quite fit in. She's never felt understood by her mother, who gave up a precious gift and wants Dust to do the same. But after Dust revives the dead, her mother takes her to meet a group of special women, and Dust is given a choice she never knew she had. An absolutely gorgeous, uplifting story of community and empowerment. Utterly magical, in the very best sense.
"Circus Girl, Hunter, Mirror Boy" by J.Y. Yang in Tor
Another story of magic. In a half-drowned city of witches, wraiths, and sea-magic, a one-time circus girl encounters the boy in a mirror who she knew long ago. But the Mirror Boy, who she once loved, is in trouble and so is she: a Hunter is after them both. Told in three parts from the viewpoints of these three different characters, this is an enchanting, mesmerizing tale.
"Adrianna in Pomegranate" by Sam Mills in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Wise magicians know that writing changes the world.
A gorgeous secondary world fantasy in which written words are literal magic. And everything about the writing—the choice of papyrus or vellum, the type of ink, the use of a bone stylus or swan quill—affects the spell. Benedetto and Sidony have different approaches to magic, and a complicated past. But as the story unfolds, what binds these two magicians becomes clear, and Sidony must stop Benedetto from a terrible misuse of his art. The rich descriptions of paper, ink, and all the details of writing-magic are a delight. But in the end, this is also a story of what must be communicated in spoken words, heart to heart.
“Green is for Wishes and Apples” by Kathryn McMahon in Luna Station Quarterly
A tale of beauty and horror, of magic and desperation and dread. After Abigail’s parents and brothers were killed in a car accident, her grandmother took her in. Her grandmother taught her about apples, herbs, blackberry jam. . . and a little about magic, too. Now her beloved grandmother has passed away, too. Maybe Abigail shouldn’t do what she’s about to do. . . but she’s desperate enough to try, anyway. A story of quietly building tension and horror. . . until the final, electrifying lines.
She would be the first to put a foot on Death’s neck; it was only that it would not be her own foot she used.
Anell Nath is a House scientist for a countess, and dedicated—like all the other scientists we meet in this world—to eternal victory over Death. The world-building in this story is utterly unique; it’s a world that mixes magic with real biology and an alternate biology that seemingly draws upon ancient classical ideas. I absolutely geeked out over the science, both real and invented (this is a story that references both “angiogenesis inhibitors” and “germinative animalcules”), but the world as a whole is one of fascinating depths. And in the end, it’s an absolutely amazing blend of fantasy, science fiction, and sheer I-can’t-believe-it-went-there horror.
“Mean Streak” by L’Erin Ogle in Metaphorosis
The voice in this story is extraordinary; I can’t stop thinking about it. In sharp, evocative prose, the author takes us into a town that hangs witches, a family that shelters one, and a resentful, rageful teenage girl with a mean streak. This is a deeply uncomfortable---indeed, downright harrowing—look into the mind of the type of person who would burn witches.
“A Strange Heart, Set in Feldspar” by Maria Haskins in Pseudopod (reprint; first published in the anthology Abandoned Places.
Alice is struggling. She lost her husband two years ago, and now she’s the single mother of three children. She’s taken them on a vacation to Sweden to reconnect with old family roots, but the kids are quarreling and she’s so, so tired of it all. And then they meet a man who offers to guide them on an unusual tourist attraction, an abandoned mine. . . I love the way that Haskins writes so powerfully, honestly about motherhood —about the ambivalence we can feel amidst the love. This is a strange, dark story of finding our way, of realizing what it is we want.
“The Bones and Their Girl” by Sylvia Heiki in Syntax and Salt
Such a strange, gorgeous, and mysterious flash piece of bones and the girl who contains them. Haunting.
“Silver Wings” by Joyce Chng in The Future Fire
Ethnic Chinese superheroes eating hot pot together? Yes, please. The narrator of this story is daughter of the legendary Silver Wing, leader of the crime-fighting Spandex Club. As you might guess from this description, this is a fun, kickass superhero story. . . but it’s also a poignant tale of a complicated mother-and-daughter relationship. In the end, a rebellious daughter learns to fly in her own way.
“Quiet the Dead” by Micah Dean Hicks in Nightmare
Stray spirits stirred in the dark. They lay like oil slicks across the asphalt, pulled their misty bodies in and out of the doors of Swine Hill’s pork processing plant, and drifted storm-like in Kay’s wake. Her every hot breath was full of the dead.
There is an extraordinary sense of depression and hopelessness in this piece—one of the strangest, most atmospheric horror stories I’ve read in some time. In a dying small town, where the pork processing plant is the main employer, three siblings are just trying to keep it together. This is a town haunted by ghosts, and each sibling is haunted, too—in very strange, different ways. The imagery of this piece is just haunting. And the final line, and the tenderness it holds, is shattering.*
*Note: Hicks’ claustrophobic portrayal of a hopeless community reminds me powerfully of Gwendolyn Kiste’s novel, The Rust Maidens (see below). Kiste’s novel portrays despair in a working class neighborhood in Cleveland in 1980; she evokes urban decay in the Rust Belt. Hicks’ short story depicts the despair of a dying, rural small town. But the feeling is much the same.
Science Fiction Stories of Space and Sea
“From the Void” by Sarah Gailey in Shimmer
No one thought to rouse me from stasis until half of the crew was already gone.
A stunner of a tale. A priest of the Void wakes from stasis to a ship dying of a mysterious plague. Now, all alone, the priest herself resists illness, struggling to stay healthy long enough to properly bless and anoint each body before giving it to the void of space. An intense story of horror, duty, and grief.
“Ghosts of Bari” by Wren Wallis in Shimmer
The repeating glyph brightened gradually, insistently around us: Listen.
“Ghosts of Bari” is the last story of the last issue of Shimmer Magazine. In a famously haunted region of space, the crew of a salvage ship comes upon a seemingly abandoned combat cruiser—“a floating fortune,” the narrator says. But the combat ship is more than it appears. This starts off as a tense mystery, with a foreboding sense of horror. . . and while it is indeed horror of a type, there is sadly nothing supernatural about it. This is a haunting story of war, memory, flight, and the injunction to bear witness, to remember and listen to the testaments of survivors. Layered, thoughtful, and beautifully done, this elegiac work packs a punch and is a fitting end to a magazine that will be much missed.
“For Whatever We Lose” by Jennifer Donohue in Luna Station Quarterly
Jennifer Donohue breaks your heart so quietly, skillfully, easily. It’s like a knife you don’t notice until it’s already twisting. A beautiful astronaut story about grief, memory, dreams, and loss.
“Treasure Diving” by Kai Hudson in Clarkesworld
Every hive has one: a hypera reactor powering everything from the lights to the water pumps to the nutrient farms. Without glowhearts, they’d be back to the days of darkness and starvation, each estuary only able to support one or two hives, everyone scrabbling for food and warmth.
While still mourning the recent death of her mother, Ilana is combing the depths of the ocean for hypera, the source of power which runs her world. . . but which also causes radiation sickness and death (including her mother’s). I’ve been a fan of Kai Hudson since first coming across her breathless horror story, “White Noise,” in Anathema. Here, Hudson again shows that she is an absolute master at action and suspense. This story starts off quietly, with deep and original world-building, before kicking into breathless high gear. Emotionally satisfying, and wonderfully crafted.
“The Story I Can’t Write About My Family” by Lynn Steger Strong at Catapult
I want to write it because I love my parents and have never not loved them, because they love me, because that has somehow, at least in our case, never been enough.
An aching essay on family.
Some books I’ve recently read and liked.
The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste
You want to get in on this one. Kiste is a rising star, and The Rust Maidens, her debut novel, has been nominated for both a Bram Stoker award and a This is Horror award for novel of the year. The Rust Maidens is an eerie, powerfully atmospheric piece, set in a working class neighborhood in Cleveland in 1980. Phoebe Shaw and her cousin, Jacqueline, have just graduated high school. They and their classmates should be looking forward to the future, but most of the girls in the neighborhood feel hopelessly trapped. Trapped by the prospect of dead-end futures, trapped by expectations of their families and their narrow slice of society—expectations of what and how young women should be. And then the young women begin transforming. . . The book is gorgeously written; the horror and transformations are indeed memorably creepy, yet Kiste also finds a strange beauty in the girls’ monstrous new forms, and in the general urban decay of her setting. Dark and claustrophobic in its despair, yet with glints of light. (I must add: I also loved the use of period music in this book, particularly the references to The Carpenters. This is a book with a soundtrack built right in.)
Pioneer Girl by Bich Minh Nguyen
Lee Lien has known the story all her life: of the American journalist named Rose who once frequented her grandfather’s café in Vietnam, and left behind a golden pin. Now Lee is an adult in the American Midwest, the holder of a Ph.D. in English but also jobless. She’s spending the summer working in her family’s Vietnamese café when she remembers the story of Rose and her pin, and recalls that Laura Ingalls Wilder had a daughter named Rose who grew up to be a journalist who covered the Vietnam War. . . This is a fresh, original look at the Asian-American immigrant experience, and it pressed so many of my buttons (The Little House in the Prairie series! The horrors of academia! Growing up Asian in the Midwest!). Full review here.
Snow White Learns Witchcraft by Theodora Goss
A lovely collection of fairy tales, both new and original, told in both stories and poems. “Red as Blood, White as Bone,” which first appeared in Tor online, is one of the standouts. My other favorites, “The Other Thea” and “A Country Called Winter” tell stories of contemporary young women but also explore an invented mythology with characters such as Mother Night and the Lady in the Moon. And my very favorite piece of all was not a story, but a poem: the heart-piercing, devastating and gorgeous ode to art, “The Nightingale and the Rose.” Goss’ pieces are by turn playful and tragic, delicate and piercing, and always filled with magic.
Florida by Lauren Groff
And this collection is stunning. I have no other words. Eleven stories set in Florida or involving characters from Florida, this book is heavy with humid, subtropical air; palmettos, crocodiles, the darkness of swamps and forest. Groff’s stories are seemingly realist—everything in this book could possibly happen—yet there’s a heightened sense to them, a kind of extremity of action and feeling, that tips many of these stories to a place that feels close to the fantastic. A boy is raised by a herpetologist father in a house full of snakes, next to a swamp full of reptiles. Two little girls are abandoned on a lonely island, left to survive and go feral on their own, as the older sister spins fairy tales of survival for the younger. There is a recurring character of a mother with a troubled marriage, who appears in several stories scattered through this volume. There is the recurring feeling of danger: danger from the wild, danger from panthers and crocodiles, from a blow to the head, from strange men. The tension in “Salvador”—in which a woman finds herself trapped in a store during a tropical storm with a menacing man who’s been salaciously watching her for days—is nearly unbearable. Yet there are also unexpected moments of tenderness and grace. A gorgeous, brilliant collection.