Short fiction recs! August and September 2019

The world is a mess out there, it seems. But if you need a break from the hectic, often demoralizing news cycle, you could do worse than seeking refuge in stories. Here are some stories I read through August and September: strange, lovely, magical, and often woven with themes of revolution and hope.

Stories of Magic, Darkness, and Love

“How the Trick Was Done” by A.C. Wise in Uncanny Magazine

Here’s the secret, and it’s a simple one: dying is easy. All the Magician has to do is stand with teeth clenched, muscles tight, breath slowed, and wait. The real work is left to his Resurrectionist girlfriend, Angie, standing just off stage, night after night, doing the impossible, upsetting the natural order of the world. 

An absolutely gorgeous, magical tale of Las Vegas magic, love, death, and revenge. A Magician callously fires his assistant and takes on a Resurrectionist who helps his career to new heights. But as she learns more about him, she begins to doubt her role. In the end, this is a story about those who take center stage and those who don’t, and of how that can change. Told with originality--from multiple view-points—and with dazzle and flair, like the best of magic shows.

“The Soul Mate Requirement” by Kelly Sandoval (reprinted in Kasma Magazine)

In the future, soul mates can be found through technology, through a mind scan and a database match. It works; Paula found her soul mate this way, and had a love like none she’s ever known. And then she lost him. But what is love anyway, and what are soul mates? Are soul mates only born? Can they be chosen, as well? Sandoval’s story looks deeply at love, relationships, compatibility, and what we choose. I’ve long loved the quiet power of her writing, her incisive and sometimes devastating look at relationships.  A beautiful and moving piece.

“Still Water” by Ian Muneshwar in Anathema Magazine

It had always been a slow river. He had learned as a child that a wicked current ran deep, pulling splake, perch, and speckled trout through its muddy heart. But the surface was calm, deceptively so.

Miles and Trent have hit a rough patch in their relationship, and decide that a getaway to Miles’ family cottage might help. It’s been a long time since Miles has kayaked on the river. Trent is afraid of the water, but the two of them go together. What follows is a strange, surreal journey of spiraling weirdness. During this river journey, the two men grapple with the changes in their relationship and with the trauma which Miles has recently experienced and which set off those changes. Something I greatly admire about Muneshwar’s work is how well he weaves naturalistic details and human truths with the strange and surreal. That talent is on full display here. A vivid, moving, haunting piece. (Content warning for sexual assault)

“The Skin of a Teenage Boy is Not Alive” by Senaa Ahmad story in Nightmare

There’s a demon-worshipping cult of high schoolers. There are parties in big, expensive houses. There’s a demon who’s called again and again into teenage bodies, and hates every moment within. Ahmad’s story captures all the horrors of adolescence. . . but also the intensity, the feeling of potential that is inseparable from the restlessness, and the feeling of being alive. This story flashes back and forth in time, as Parveen remembers her time in high school with the demon-worshipping cult, the demon, and her best friend Aisha. This story is also about teen friendships, and nostalgia and loss. A fierce, extraordinary story about the complexities of being a teenager and of life afterward.

"The Propagator” by Simone Kern in Metaphorosis

Marisol is a propagator. She works for VerdiCorp, and she has recently stolen some soil and is beginning to propagate corporate-owned plants—living, green things which literally bring health to people in a polluted world—to give away to people who can’t afford them. What she’s doing is illegal, a small protest in a terrible world. And it leads her to yet larger acts of resistance. . . This is an absolutely riveting, evocative story of a half-drowned Houston, corporate control, botany, grief, and the fight for reproductive justice. The future here feels all too real—beautifully realized, and chilling.

“A Bird, A Song, a Revolution” by Brooke Bolander at Lightspeed

Another story of resistance and revolution, set both in the distant past and the far future. It’s a gorgeous, sweeping story about the power of art (embodied here in the music of a bone flute), and of hope, revolution, and inspiration that echoes down through the ages.  I confess this tale had me tearing up a little at the end. Utterly magical.

“And Now His Lordship is Laughing” by Shiv Ramdas in Strange Horizons

 And this. . . this is dark magic. Darkness that is rooted in the tragically real. Apa’s great love and skill is in making dolls out of jute fiber, a traditional but dying craft in her region of Bengal, India. Her fiber dolls delight her grandson and others. But unfortunately, they also catch the eye of the British governor of Bengal, who demands one for his wife. Interwoven with Apa’s story is the terrible story of the Bengal Famine of 1943, and of how British policies led to the horror.  This is a bleak, black, furious tale, expertly told; it speaks of dark lords and a history not widely known, not acknowledged, in the West.

“Sacrid’s Pod" by Adam Troy-Castro in Lightspeed

Hello, Sacrid Henn.
I’m aware that you’re terrified.
I’m also aware that you are paralyzed, deaf, and blind, your only sensory input being my voice.
A young woman wakes in a mysterious pod, her only company an artificial intelligence “caretaker.” This is an incredible story—tense, chilling, and breathlessly compelling. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot here, but suffice it to say that it’s an incredibly satisfying escape room-plot thriller, as well a story of resistance and one that paints a fascinating far-future world with intriguing human-alien AI interactions.  

“His Giant Heartbeat” by Natalia Theodoridou in Podcastle

And I loved this. Such a strange, strange, haunting piece. A quiet tale of worldwide loss, where only one man retains a beating heart. Beautifully written, like all of Theodoridou’s work.

Every time you make a telephone call or send an email or fire off a 2 A.M. drunk text, a tiny piece of your soul tags along in the electrons that carry your message.

This is a strange, surreal blend of science fiction and fantasy, a guide to the resurrection of your loved one from the traces left in the detritus of the Internet, the litter left behind on the Information Highway. It’s a lyrical, bewitching guide that starts out as fun and inventive. . . and then in the last lines turns suddenly, achingly, poignant. Gorgeous

The Last Stellar Death Metal Opera” by Elly Bangs in Escape Pod

Raya’s got a brown dwarf star on a leash, planning to sling it into another star to save a civilization. Unfortunately, she has to contend with an AI trying to stop her mission. . . This is a fun, thought-provoking tale of immortality and meaning which is also gloriously, thrillingly metal.

Selections from Translunar Travelers Lounge

Translunar Travelers Lounge is a new online magazine of speculative fiction, helmed by editors (and talented writers) Aimee Ogden and Bennett North. Translunar Travelers Lounge is devoted to publishing fun speculative fiction. What counts as “fun” is subjective, of course (and you can read more on the editors’ thoughts about it here), but from the inaugural issue it’s clear that “fun” does not exclude weight or moments of darkness. The inaugural issue is packed with stories that are lyrical, light, funny, wildly inventive, and moving. They show a great range of what fun can be. I admit that I’m probably biased as one of my own stories is in this issue, but it’s a lovely magazine that I want to highlight here. I recommend reading the whole thing (I enjoyed every story), but the following stories were among my favorites.

"1078 Reasons" by Aidan Doyle 

Rival magical grandmothers in Japan who’ve been competing for the affection of their granddaughter. . . but who then have to team up to rescue her from the shadow realm. The very definition of fun, this is a delightful romp with badass grandmas, demons, a scooter, and a wonderful magic system based on numbers.

"The Idaho Ghost Job" by Laura E. Price 

An alternate steampunk past with magic, a haunted doll, an annoying landlady, and the kickass, bickering Teachout sisters. It's funny and wonderful and I know I need to catch up with more on this pair of relic-hunting, ghost-fighting sisters (the author has written a series of stories featuring them )

Beautiful, strange, and moving. A squid-train that lays down its own tracks, carrying passengers fleeing from strange flood waters. . . A train of passengers who have all been transformed. A quietly poignant, lovely story about trauma and change.

And oh, if you like strange, magical worlds then you want to read this one. A magical steampunk Singapore in an alt-World War II: fairies that weave clouds into an air-defense; mechanical beasts powered by dragon oil, and a gender-flipped twist on the Chinese legend of the Cowherd and Weaver. Gorgeous, like all of Chan’s writing.


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