Short fiction recs! October and November 2019

It's nearly the end of December, and I'm only now writing up this post. I binge read books this fall, and read less short fiction than usual. But here's some of what I did read, and love, in October and November.

Magic, beauty, gentleness, and love

"The Sloppy Mathematics of Half-Ghosts" by Charles Payseur in Strange Horizons

Aboard the ghost ship Nine Lives there are the living, the dead, and a great many cats.

This is a story that lives up to its name, and presents a world like none I've seen before: a weird, wild, wonderful world of ships that sail between the stars, powered by ghost-passengers and crewed by both humans and cats. It's a rollicking story of a race to ferry a dead Emperor to paradise, with wishes (wishes for anything!) as the prize. It's the story of Jourdain, a half-ghost haunted by trauma. And it's a story, ultimately, of joy and beauty, told amidst dazzling world-building.

“The Boy on the Roof” by Francesca Forrest at Fireside

In a world of drought--a world which may be only a few steps removed from our own—a traveler comes upon a boy chained to a roof, a boy who is an offering to be wedded to clouds in hopes of rain. The traveler herself has a past connection to this ritual. Despite the trappings of future dystopia, this is an oddly gentle story: beautiful, strange, and delicate as clouds.

"A Cut-Purse Rethinks His Ways" by Kate Heartfield in Timeworn Lit

Pinch leaves his lover and throws a six-pence over London Bridge into the river Thames. But somehow, strangely, the things that he thought lost keep coming back. A gentle, lovely story of magic, love, and of what returns.

(Note: Timeworn Lit is a new literary journal "focused on historical fiction with a splash of the speculative." I confess that I've only read a little way into its first issue, but so far it's all lovely and I hope to read more).  

"Windrose in Scarlet" by Isabel Yap in Lightspeed

Red Riding Hood and the Beauty from "Beauty and the Beast" meet in this fierce twisting of fairy tales. Everything Isabel Yap writes is lovely, and this intense, gorgeous fairy tale is no exception. A story about monsters, prisons, love, and freedom.  

"The Lie Misses You" by John Wiswell at Cast of Wonders.

A deceptively spare but absolutely heart wrenching tale of a young woman who's gone off to war. . . and of the lie her family tells to keep her strong, until she can come home. A story told from the viewpoint of the lie itself. I honestly teared up at the end of this one; it's one of the most poignant things I've ever read, and the idea is just stunningly executed. Wonderful.  

Darkness and Horror

 “The Domovoi” by Avra Margariti in Mithila Review

A young woman crosses an ocean to serve as a maid for a mysterious couple in a large, dark mansion. While there, she also befriends a Domovoi—a house spirit who, like she, has immigrated to America from Russia. This dark, Gothic tale unspools with slowly building tension and dread. It's beautifully written and immersive; once I started reading, I couldn't stop.

Mina isn’t like me. She wouldn’t go walking at midnight, and she would never have listened to your lies. That’s why she’ll survive. Proper young ladies like her always do.

Lucy Westenra is a side character in the story of Dracula: a victim, Mina's free-spirited friend who is preyed upon by Dracula and dies. But in Kiste's story, she comes to fierce, aching life. A beautifully imagined retelling, with a most satisfying ending.

“Personal Rakshashi” by Suzan Palumbo at Fireside

A rakshashi is a type of demon, and when Priya is only a child she encounters her own personal rakshashi. This is such a quiet, intimate, and aching story of loneliness, anxiety, shame—of one girl's own personal demon. Within a short space, Palumbo evokes so much; this story is beautiful and deeply moving.

"Knowing Your Type" by Eliza Chan in Three Crows Magazine

She was nothing more than a petite Asian girl. He could handle her.

Richard is on a date with Manami, a woman from Japan. He's thinking that Manami might be The One: a perfect mate whom he can shape to his specifications, who will cook and clean and care for him properly. Richard is about to be surprised. . . Chan establishes the protagonist's character quickly, to excellent effect, and then executes a wonderful buildup of slow, surreal, and most satisfying horror. Especially satisfying in its take-down of certain pernicious stereotypes.

“As the Last I May Know” by S.L. Huang at Tor

And this story is amazing. An absolutely devastating, terrifying realization of a classic thought experiment. What would a nation, a person, do for their country in war?

Stories from earlier in the year

As the year winds down, I've also been catching upo n stories from 2019 that I earlier missed. Here are some that I recently found and loved.

“One for the Wounded” by Phoenix Alexander in Metaphorosis 

The narrator of this tale is an assassin of time, someone who can rip away years or more from the lifespan of his victims. He suffers from a wound which impels him to use his gift to take revenge upon others. . . until one fateful night. The prose in this piece is so lush that it feels almost decadent. The author wonderfully evokes a rich world of aristocracy and luxury, of silks and velvet and glittering ballrooms. Compelling, immersive, and gorgeous.

"A Handful of Sky" by Elly Bangs in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Like Phoenix Alexander's story above, this is a marvel of world-building. A world where finely tailored clothes carry magic—where the rich wear garments made of dragon leather, spider silk, delight, and woven youth. In this world a disgraced and wounded tailor, Jorren, struggles on the margins of society. Until a rich and powerful client asks her to sew a garment made of the sky itself. . . This tale is pure magic, but it's also a fierce story of oppression, revenge, and revolution.

 “So You’re in an Alternate Universe” by Jeremy Packert-Burke in Metaphorosis Magazine

So, you’re in an alternate universe. It doesn’t feel alternate. Your mom is still your mom, who smells like fennel, with red-rubbed knuckles. Your dad still has his large tie collection: his wooden tie, his Yellow Submarine tie, his tie that looks like a large fish.

Hitler was still Hitler, and Stalin, Stalin. The sun outside is very yellow—is it too yellow? Is that the difference?

Are you in an alternate universe? Your best friend, Dylan, says that you are. He says that he's from the real universe, and he's replaced the old Dylan you used to know.

A lovely, ambiguous and questioning piece which perfectly captures the dislocation and dizzying change of adolescence. It also captures the wonder of that time, and the wonder of new worlds. Absolutely gorgeous.

Some Books I've Loved

As I mentioned, I spent the fall binging on books. Here's some of what I loved.

The Simon Snow Series by Rainbow Rowell
Carry On and Wayward Son

My teen daughter told me I HAD to read Carry On, the first book in Rowell's fantasy series, and kept at me until I did. So I finally picked it up and was unable to put it down. Immediately after, I bought the sequel. Carry On, as you may have heard, is a delightful and smart riff on Chosen One fantasy tropes, including but not exclusive to the Harry Potter series. But it's also more: it's a clever ghost story mystery with a heartbreaking reveal; it's a completely captivating slow-burn love story; it has a wonderful magical system in which magical spells are based on words and phrases given meaning by Muggles, er, Normals—that is, nursery rhymes, song lyrics, common phrases, lines of Shakespeare, and any phrase which has attained power through repetition by ordinary people of the world. It's laugh-out-loud funny; it's moving, sweet, poignant. And the book has a cast of winning characters with whom I almost immediately fell in love: Simon Snow, his best friend Penny, and his enemy/rival Baz Pitch. You've probably heard of the hype for this book; trust me, it's worth all the fanfiction and fanart and hype it's inspired. The sequel, Wayward Son, moves past the archetypal Chosen One/Harry Potter-esque fantasy structure which guided the first book, and into something a bit sadder and darker as the characters wrestle with the aftermath of the first book's Big Battle. But Wayward Son also has very, very funny scenes amidst the angst; our favorite trio goes on a road trip in America, learning about magic outside Britain and a world larger than they've known. . . and also about themselves, as well.

Strange the Dreamer duology by Laini Taylor
Strange the Dreamer and Muse of Nightmares

After her smug success in converting me to the Simon Snow books, my older daughter turned me on to this gorgeous, strange, lyrical fantasy series. And I fell in love yet again. Lazlo Strange, the hero of these books, is one of the most wonderful creations I've met: a librarian, a dreamer, a hero, and a genuinely good man. These books feature terrible darkness, but they are also ultimately stories of light, stories that celebrate good. These are books about forgiveness and reconciliation in the wake of war and horror; they're books about redemption and friendship and love. In times like now, I think we need books like these. And these books are also are magical and funny and epic and intimate, with sharp dialogue and a large and vivid cast of characters to love.  

Spider Love Song and Other Stories by Nancy Au

The debut short story collection by Nancy Au, this is a gathering of strange, shimmering stories that slide between realist fiction and outright fantasy, centered primarily upon Chinese-American communities in contemporary California. One of the best collections I've read, ever. My full review here.

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

I'm cheating a bit here; I finished this book just this week, not in October or November. But I wanted to add this recommendation here now before the end of the year. A marvelous road trip through both 1920s Mexico and Mayan mythology as a young woman helps the Mayan god of death regain his throne. My full review here.


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