Short fiction recs! July--August 2020


The world is driving me crazy, but you know what helps? Beautiful fiction, which can offer both escape and catharsis. And putting this list together—that helps, too. There are stories here of gentleness, hope, and magic. And darker stories, but of no less beauty. I hope you find something here that might help you.


Stories of Magic, Beauty, Comfort and Hope

“The Ransom of Miss Coraline Connelly” by Alix Harrow at Fireside

To the parents or guardians of Miss Coraline Connelly: Right now you’re thinking, Where is she? because this is what every parent thinks when they find an empty crib and a raven with a scroll in its beak. I have stolen enough children to know.

 This is so utterly delightful! The Queen of the World-Below finds that a little human girl is far more than she expected to handle (and as anyone who’s parented a toddler through those high-energy years will recognize). But the story also unexpectedly goes beyond humor and fae charm to real poignancy as well, as it explores why a Fae Queen might kidnap a human child, and why a human mother might hesitate in taking her back. In a very short space, Harrow takes us through multiple emotions and twists before bringing us home to a beautiful, satisfying end. 


“Addison and Julia Tell the Truth to Pemaquid Beach” by Marissa Lingen at Daily Science Fiction

Teens can be notorious for their truth-telling; I’m the parent of two teens, so I know! But this is what I love about them, too. This is a flash piece about two teen girls selling truths on the piece for a “reasonable price.” Truths can hurt, but not all—or even most. A lovely, warm bit of truth for your day. 

 “A Pale Horse” by by M. Evan MacGriogair at Uncanny

She climbs the small hillock to her car. There’s another vehicle parked beside it now. In the dust along the passenger side, someone has scrawled the words seeking a friend for the end of the world.

A story that is deeply resonant for us at this present time, when in so many ways things do feel more “end-of-the-world” than ever. A story about finding a new friend, and taking comfort in old friends, and sharing beauty. This story is a shining bit of magic and comfort and hope in a time that indeed feels apocalyptic. It’s also a story threaded through with Gaidhlig (also known as Scottish Gaelic) language; in a time of loss, the main characters are reviving a language that has itself teetered on the edge of loss. 


“The Wandering City” by Usman T. Malik at the website for the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University

A marvelous, magical, and witty tale of an Enchanted City which appears in modern day Lahore, Pakistan, to the delight of street vendors and tourist officials.

Tourism Development Corporation’s marketing kicks into high gear. Vloggers and bloggers are handsomely paid. Tripadvisor, Condé Nast, and other travel sites are contacted to update their databases. Flight traffic to Pakistan increases a hundredfold as EC-chasers, rich louts, and bucket-listers swoop in to catch a glimpse of the Enchanted City.

A wonderful blending of humor, satire, and contemporary politics/description with real magic. 


“The Ruby of the Summer King” by Mari Ness at Uncanny

The Summer King fell in love with the Winter Queen before they even met.

He dwelt in the heart of summer in bursts of fruit and green, a place the denizens of winter did not and could not even consider approaching. But even in summer, tales were told of her stark beauty, of her penchant for tracing a single finger over every patch of ice and snow she encountered, leaving patterns of fragile beauty in her wake. He learned that she never wore the same dress twice, though she only dressed in white and black and grey and darkest blue. That the color red felt abashed to even enter her presence, and she herself had only seen it once, when an attendant had pricked a finger on an icicle, dropping three bright drops of blood.

 A gorgeous, yearning fairy tale of a Summer King and a Winter Queen, of seasons and months and an impossible love.


 “Weaving in the Bamboo” by Eliza Chan at Translunar Travelers’ Lounge

I laugh. He is retelling the story in its most popular form. A tragedy of love, just as Lady White Snake, The Cowherd and the Weaving Maid and The Butterfly Lovers. But folktales are never motionless. Pieces are lost, misremembered, rewritten. They evolve with the changing winds and I am the kite.

 A dreamy and gorgeous weaving of old Chinese legends, a story about warpoets, about the power of retelling old stories, about how stories make the world. And it's also a story about family and home.

Darker Tales

“Real Animals” by Em North at Lightspeed

The bear has been stalking the taxidermy garden for ten weeks now, ever since Raffi showed up. Sometimes it disappears for a few days or a week, but it always comes back. Prowls the perimeter, looking for weak spots. From inside the taxidermy garden, Raffi feels the bear’s presence tugging on her, as though it has become the pole of her personal compass.

 An astonishing, strange tale of three people alone in an isolated Montana town, survivors of an apocalypse brought about by alien-possessed bears (and other alien-possessed animals). A story that is quiet despite surreal horror. Kay, a former art student, turns the bodies of the town’s dead people into art via taxidermy. Kay’s husband, Buck, is a hunter who patrols the grounds and insists on trying to hunt down the menacing bear. And Raffi is Kay’s best friend, the viewpoint character who keeps reliving the time before the apocalypse, who lost her husband to the alien-possessed bear, and who has always been in love with Kay. A strange, affecting tale of love, yearning, loss, and friendship under decidedly strange conditions. 

 “An Incomplete Account of the Case of the Bird-Talker of Yaros” by Eleanna Castroianni at Fireside

A historical fantasy set in Greece in the 1970s. A story set on Yaros , a secret prison island where the far-right military government of the time held political prisoners. This is a story that is devastating and heart wrenching, but also magical, mythical, and beautifully written. 

 “Slipping the Leash” by Dan Micklethwaite at Podcastle

“They don’t understand that Louie can’t help it, that he cannot stop tracking the shape of the moon; all of the moons, a whole multiplicity. Nobody warned him there were so many out there, their gravities wrenching and leading astray”

A story that may or may not be about a werewolf. A story that is definitely about a veteran traumatized by his experience in World War II. A story about war and its aftermath, about trauma and jazz music and self-expression and howling at the moon. Gorgeous and intense, with prose that sings.  


“Tara’s Mother’s Skin” by Suzan Palumbo at Pseudopod

Yes, Farrah, I cook the rice children throw when they pass on the road. It’s good food they waste when they pelt it at me.

Farrah has come home from university and is interviewing a neighbor woman about her life. A neighbor woman who is known only as “Tara’s Mother" because no one can recall her true name. An old woman who lives alone, bullied and ridiculed, the subject of rumors that she is really a monster. Farrah feels guilty for her own treatment of Tara’s Mother when she was a child. But Farrah knows better now, and thinks she can make it up to her. This is an extraordinarily creepy, disturbing tale of Caribbean folklore, of an old woman and outcasts and the bullied, of monsters and hunger and skin.


The Future Fire, July 2020 issue

I confess that I do not often read magazine issues straight through; I have a tendency to skip about, and to read issues only in pieces. But I did read the July issue of the Future Fire straight through, and it’s an issue so beautifully curated that I wanted to review it all here. These are stories that play off one another with overlapping themes of darkness and hope, of love and rebellion and dreams of a better world (Disclaimer: one of my own short stories, “The Shadow Catchers,” is also in this issue, although obviously I am not going to review that myself). 


“Dragon Years” by Juliet Kemp

A lovely flash story about a dragon and a girl. And it’s also about the weight of and responsibilities of an ordinary life, and about waiting, and a dream followed at last. Poignant and affecting in a very short space.


“A Stereoscopic Landscape View of Torino with Damsels and Distress” by Celia Neri

An utterly charming tale of an Italian countess with a mind for science, and the stereoscope that takes her on an unexpected journey. Wonderfully inventive, with a light touch even as it looks at some serious issues.

 “The Foraging” by Shelley Jones

A strange, enigmatic, and gorgeous tale of a world that progresses through different ages, and a bird woman on her solitary journey. A mysterious tale of birds and time and change.


“Strange Engines” by Jordan Taylor

A wonderful steampunk world of magic and Mechanicals and war, where a Queen can use the Divine Flame to light gunpowder and prime cannons. A dark, beautiful story of love, yearning, rebellion, and hope.


“The Facts are These” by M. Bennardo

M Bennardo takes us into another type of darkness, as he probes the recent urban legend of Momo. His tale is an evocative, unsettling, and thoughtful meditation on our darkest fears and desires.


“The Shadow Catchers” by Vanessa Fogg

I am not reviewing my own story, of course! But I wanted to note that its themes play off many of the other stories here, particularly “Strange Engines” by Jordan Taylor, I think.


 “Cascade” by AJ Fitzwater

And finally, AJ Fitzwater’s piece rounds out the issue beautifully. It’s an unusual story of time travel, in which a group of grieving friends discuss what steps they would take to change the past without changing the current world too much—and only for the better. A truly moving, poignant, and somewhat bittersweet tale of grief and love, that dares to imagine a better future and world.


Note that the poems by Avra Margariti and Hester J. Rook in this issue are also lovely and in keeping with the issue’s overall themes.


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