Short fiction recs! February--April 2020

I normally post these short fiction recommendations on a bimonthly basis, but--gestures helplessly at the world around us now--I found my focus a bit lacking earlier this spring, and didn't get as much reading done as usual. Last month was a bit better, and as a bonus you get a longer rec list covering the last three months.

Fantastical worlds and alternate realities in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

“The Ordeal” by M. Bennardo

His father had told him of Alpinia’s trials by ordeal, but he had thought they must have certainly disappeared with so many other superstitious customs in so many other places at the dawning of the rational twentieth century.

In his work, Bennardo has often used fantastical worlds and situations to explore serious philosophical and ethical questions. In this latest story, he spins an alternate-history story of a young American man on his Grand Tour of Europe. While passing through the (fictitious) country of Alpinia to visit his father’s friend, the Grand Duke, young Waller is horrified to stumble upon a case of Alpinia’s justice system at work, in which a person’s innocence or guilt is decided not by evidence, but by a “trial of ordeal” with justice supposedly rendered by God. Waller does his best to use evidence and logic to push back against what he sees as a travesty of justice. But how do you reason against faith? What can you do when confronted with absolute, immovable faith? And what would the consequences be if Waller did indeed manage to destroy the Grand Duke’s adamant faith in God and Alpinia’s justice system? There are no easy answers at all, of course, and Bennardo’s story is a fascinating and imaginative exploration of these issues. A striking and original piece.

This is how you break a hawk: wait him out. It’s simple but not easy. Eventually he must sleep; if the falconer is alert to see the moment his hawk concedes, slips away to sleep despite his fear, then the bird begins to be his.

Beautiful speculative historical fiction about a pretender to King Henry Tudor’s throne, based upon the real-life story of Lambert “John” Simnel. If you were a boy who once believed he was king, how do you go back to life as a commoner? If you were a boy who’s always been used by others, trained to perform first one role and then another, how do you find your own freedom?  

One evening, I fall into the sidewise market by accident. Too hungry to think much or notice where I’m going, I take a wrong turn; pass under a stone arch I have not noticed before.

A hungry student stumbles into the sidewise market and upon a vendor of magical onions. Onions carved into the shape of the city of Khalem, the city in which this student resides, although not the city where the student was born. The student fled to Khalem years ago, fleeing war, and is now on the verge of leaving for yet another city, fleeing war again. This is a complex, layered story of war, exile, immigration, and running. It’s a story about a magical city that is chained in balance, and it’s also about the chains of family, and about being seen as other than you really are. Like all Lemberg’s stories, this is gorgeously written and richly textured. 

You were still a secret moon riding high in my belly when we came to Ksmal. The People of the Butterfly had lived in the valleygreen a hundred years before the war drove us out and into Ksmala arms, but a hundred years was not enough to make that place ours. Before that, our greatmothers and greatfathers sailed the broad seas for many years, when the land they once loved sank beneath the waves. Ksmal is not my home either, and it is not yours.

Like Lemberg’s story, Ogden’s takes on themes of war, flight, migration, and assimilation. The Butterfly People fled a valley where they had lived for a hundred years to live in a new world with the Ksmala. But the Ksmala demand a price for taking the Butterflies in: the Butterflies have to give up parts of their culture which they hold dear, and take on Ksmala ways. The narrator’s daughter is born and raised among the Ksmala, fluent in their tongue. Yet she’s not quite Ksmala, nor does she adhere to all the traditional Butterfly ways. She is something different, something new to her mother. This is a lovely and poignant story about cultural identity and loss, and the birth of new identities and worlds.

More stories of fantasy, in our world and others

“A Promise of Dying Embers” by Jordan Kurella in Diabolical Plots

A wizard, a dragon, a curse, and a quest. A niece carrying her uncle’s bones. A promise. This story is so, so lovely, full of aching and longing and, at the end, both loneliness and hope. 

Seven Scraps Unwritten” by L. Chan in Metaphorosis

A marvel of dense world-building within the space of a flash story. A tale told from scraps of found media—an excerpt from a thesis defense, a banned playbill, a diplomat’s letter. Together, they tell a story of government control, of erasure, and of resistance.

“The Sycamore and the Sybil,” by Alix E. Harrow in Uncanny Magazine

A gorgeous riff on the Greek legend of Daphne, who turned to a tree to escape Apollo. The narrator of this story also turned into a tree to escape a man. But is that the only use of her power? Is that the only thing that she, and other women, can do? A beautiful story of rage, hurt, resistance and power and hope.

“The Witch Speaks” by Rati Mehrotra in Lightspeed

Like Alix Harrow’s story above, Mehrotra’s story is also one about a witch. A witch in modern-day India, who fell in love with a man from a different faith, a man her family would never accept. “A witch does not need a name, a religion, a nationality” the narrator says—but most of the world thinks differently. It’s a tragedy about the difficulties of interfaith unions in modern India, told obliquely and through the frame of the fantastic. Delicate, affecting, and beautifully written.

“Kiki Hernandez Beats the Devil” by Samantha Mills in Translunar Travelers’ Lounge

A girl, her dog, and her devil-slaying guitar--Kiki Hernandez is a legend, roaming an apocalyptic American Southwest as she kills devils with the power of rock n’ roll. This rollicking story is an utter blast, and exactly as fun as it sounds.

"Caring for Dragons and Growing a Flower" by Allison Thai in Podcastle

 And this one made me tear up. An alternate history story of Vietnamese dragons, war, and love told in letters. A delicate story that is all the more powerful and poignant due to its restraint.


Stories of the future, near and far

“Hustle” by Derrick Boden at Escape Pod

A ferocious, furious tale of a bounty-hunter in a hyper-wired gig economy only steps away from our own. With twists and turns both unexpected and satisfying, this is a sharp (and disturbingly timely) thrill ride.

“How Did it Feel to Be Eaten?” by Amit Gupta in Escape Pod

 I was an elderberry,” I announced, glowing with pride.

“How did it feel to be eaten?” he asked.
It seemed an odd question, but a response came unbidden, so I voiced it, “It was an honor.” My words surprised me, but they felt true.

A new virtual reality technology allows people to live entire subjective lifetimes—both human and non-human lives—within a short period of real time. A reporter goes to investigate the surprising spiritual use to which this technology has been applied, and finds himself drawn in far more deeply than he ever expected. I really love the way this story takes seriously both its technological sci-fi premise and the Buddhist concepts of reincarnation/samsara and enlightenment. This is a truly original and thought-provoking tale, with a gentleness and optimism that feels refreshing.  

“The Catafalque” by Vajra Chandrasekera in Kanstellation

This story pairs well with Gupta’s story above, for they are both takes on technology and religion. In Chadrasekera’s story, a combination of mind uploading and virtual reality has been used to create virtual “heavens” for people lucky enough to get in. In an apocalyptic world of ruin and decay, a desperate narrator is trying to get past “immigration” gatekeepers into a virtual Christian heaven before his mortal body dies. The narrator is actually registered as a Theravada Buddhist, not Christian, but they would rather not  the horrible didactic grind of Theravadist reincarnation where I’d have to be instantiated as a lizard for a thousand subjective years to pay off all my recorded demerits before I can even earn an incarnation capable of thinking in sentences again.” This is a sharp, satirical, and wonderfully creative tale that is also great fun for the reader, if not the narrator.

"Mid-Term Ecolit Examination Paper" by Priya Sarukkai Chabria in Mithila Review

A flash story which is a portrait of climate change, told in the form of the questions for an examination in eco-literature. Powerful, lovely, and heartbreaking.

"Annotated Setlist of the Miaela Cole Jazz Quintet" by Catherine George in Clarkesworld
(An older story from 2019, which I somehow missed until now)

A jazz quintet on a generation starship. A list story told as names of the songs they’ve created together. This starts out as a fun bop, but slowly a melancholy thread is revealed. This is a gorgeous, sad story with a lot of heart; it’s about what’s lost, and about what we try to remember and resurrect, even as we go forward.

There were those on the ship that wanted to look forward, not back, even if they weren’t sure what there was to look forward to.


The Gown of Harmonies by Francesca Forrest 

Do you need a balm for your heart? This is it. A pure delight, a tale of fairy magic and music and romance and triumph. Blind and orphaned seamstress Grazia Goodchild of the Atelier Aurora dreams of a fairy gown that plays music as the wearer dances--a gown that not only plays music, but harmonizes with music that others play. What is Grazia willing to risk to make her vision come true? And how will it affect those around her, and her world? This tale has a few surprising and wholly satisfying twists, and it's filled with warmth and wonder and love. 


This is How you Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone

While reading this, I started copying down lines I loved, and quickly realized I would have to copy the entire book. This is prose that's sheer poetry, dazzling and beautiful. It’s a rapturous enemies-to-lovers story about time travelers from rival agencies who are fighting to shape the future into competing visions. . . until they discover something else to fight for. “Red” works on behalf of the Agency; “Blue” works for the Garden. They come from very different futures, and they’re both the best at what they do. And when Blue leaves a note of professional appreciation (tinged with no small bit of boasting and taunting) for Red on a battlefield, she touches off a relationship she never foresaw. The two women begin leaving letters for each other throughout time, letters coded within tree rings, berries, the swirl of tea leaves. Letters that start out taunting and playful, gradually becoming more intense. There are passages like this:

Red wrote too much too fast. Her pen had a heart inside, the nib was a wound in a vein. She stained the page with herself. She sometimes forgets what she wrote, save that it was true, and the writing hard.

They fall in love, of course, and must outwit their respective agencies, who would kill them both for treason. How to Lose the Time War ranges over time and potential timelines, giving readers glimpses of starship battles, an alternate steampunk London, Opium War-era China, and a South America where the Quechua are building boats that may reach Europe before the Europeans can reach them. These worlds are fascinating, but Red and Blue’s love story is at the heart of the book. I love the way their letters trace the movement from curiosity and fascination to the slow and then sudden moments of vulnerability. This letter, one characters writes at one point, “is a knife at my neck, if cutting’s what you want.” For Red and Blue, such revelation of vulnerability is literally a matter of life and death. They must twist time to their own ends to survive, and the way in which their actions are foreshadowed—the way in which time paradoxes are resolved, and how it becomes clear that their relationship was fated, after all—is greatly satisfying.


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