Short fiction recs! Sept-October 2020

 

It’s already the end of November, and I’m only now posting this recommendation list of stories I read in September and October. I have no specific excuse for my lateness, only gestures vaguely at the world at large. But this weekend for me is a quiet one, with drizzly gray days perfect for curling up with tea and stories. If you’re reading this, I hope you’re staying safe and well. And here are some lovely stories to read.

 

“The Angel Finger” by K.C. Mead-Brewer in Craft-Literary

Most nights, Morgan lies awake thinking about cutting off her sister’s finger. The extra one on Angela’s left hand, the one she calls her angel finger.

A brilliant, absolutely nerve-wracking and unnerving piece of contemporary rural gothic. K.C. Mead-Brewer is one of my favorite writers, and much of her fiction occupies a liminal space between the genres of horror/fantasy and literary, and this is one such example. “The Angel Finger” isn’t quite fantastical; there aren’t any supernatural elements—or are there? This uncertainty, the ambiguity of it, gives the piece both heightened tension and a kind of terrible hope at the end. 


 “Doorway, Smile, Kiss, Fox” by Jeremy Packert Burke in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

 As I walk through the city, stray dormer windows bloom from the cobblestones; bulbous tumors of brick protrude from tower walls; a clerestory rises from the middle of a fountain that throws droplets of water, golden with sunlight, across the square. Each week I take this path and mark the new chaotic architecture—the stele and spires sprouting from the earth; old columns that reach a little closer to the sun; small brass door knockers that bud from the stones like mushroom rings. These things grow the way trees, and love, and cancer do: too slow to see but constant.

 A city growing chaotically out of control.  A “mnemosyne”—a person who carries memories transmitted through blood. A king who uses and discards mnemosynes. This is a fascinating, wrenching tale of memories, loss, tyranny, and quiet defiance.

 

“Girls with Needles and Frost” by Jenny Rae Rappaport in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

We stitch the violet stars in secret, our needles flashing faster at the thought of being caught. We dye scraps of fabric with forgotten berries found deep within the forest. We hoard it carefully under mattresses and behind bureaus, as we wait to make tiny beacons of hope.

 The women of an occupied city plot revolution, trusting in an ancient legend of violet stars and a summoned dragon. Roza, a seamstress, is at the heart of this revolution. But the plots surrounding her become increasingly entangled, as she catches the eye of an enemy soldier and realizes that she must betray everyone she loves to survive and save her city. A gorgeous, rich novelette filled with wonderful tension—both romantic and political.

 

“Everything and Nothing” by Jenny Rae Rappaport in Lightspeed October 2020

Just know that there were Lovers, and that they were marvelous and twisted, and in the end, they went out in a blaze of glory. We teach our children not to emulate them, but they are children and they are foolhardy, so what can we do?

 Another story of love and war from Rappaport, very different and no less moving. The narrative takes the form of a woman speaking of an ancient legend of Lovers, and of how her child fell deeply, passionately in love during a time of war. But the story twists and turns on itself, and in the end becomes something very different from what the beginning suggested. This is a lovely tale about different kinds of love; of how ordinary, personal relationships can also be mythic, and of how love is not only for the young. 

 

“The Bone Stag Walks” by KT Bryski in Lightspeed Magazine

The Bone-Stag walks at midwinter, sharp-antlered, hard-hoofed. . . The Bone-Stag comes like driving snow. His hooves tap upon the rooves. They tap once upon the door. His voice rasps like a shroud dragged over frozen ground. “Oxen in boxen and hooves on the rooves. Bring flesh and wine for the starveling deer.”

 A chilling fairy tale, and a haunting reworking of older tales. A grandmother and her young grandchild, alone in their house in the woods. A menacing deer of bones. An old crime that can’t be forgotten. And hunger—physical hunger, and more. A gorgeous, shivering delight that speaks with the voice of old fairy tales/myths, but also speaks with modern sophistication, shifting viewpoints among its characters and slowly peeling back layers to reveal the truth at the heart of this haunting.

 

“Down to the Niflhel Deep” by Maria Haskins in Kaleidotrope

A figure in the shape of a man is sitting in the boat, wearing a swirling cloak—a weave of tattered dusk and ragged gloom. Roan trots over and sits down by the prow, looking at the man who does not smell like a man at all.

“This ain’t no place for dogs, if you don’t mind me saying.” The voice is hoarse and thin beneath the cloak. “She’s gone, you know,” the shape adds, not unkindly.

 Another story that reworks old tales to create something both mythic and new. A dog loves his girl, and is willing to do anything to follow and rescue her—even if that means descending to the Underworld itself and braving all the challenges of Hell. An utterly gorgeous, lyrical, and poignant tale.

 

“An Important Failure” by Rebecca Campbell at Clarkesworld

This was the largest surviving Sitka spruce in the world, and maybe people still wanted to see it, even if the busloads of school kids were rare, and the marine biology station at Bamfield had been shuttered for years. . . They waited for the breeze to still. There was a kind of quiet he never felt in Vancouver, even now when it was marred by shuffling men. Or cougars. Then the chainsaw flooded them and he heard nothing but its whine as it cut through the trunk. . .

In a near-future of climate disasters, pandemics, and loss, Mason is a luthier, a maker of stringed instruments. And he has a dream: to create the greatest violin ever for the violin prodigy he met when she was only a child. To do this, he will source the best wood, the best materials, wherever and however he can, breaking all laws as he must. This is an absolutely gorgeous, heartrending story of passion and art, of what people will do for their dreams. And it’s also a story of disappointments and unmet expectations, of loss and deferred dreams—and of creating in the midst of loss, of trusting in a future where art and beauty can bloom.  


“The Cat Lady and the Petitioner” by Jennifer Hudak at Translunar Travelers Lounge

It would be impossible to say how many cats live in the house with the cat lady. Even she isn’t entirely sure. If you ask her, she’ll tell you that the house has exactly enough cats: no more, no less. A cat curled in every corner, on each cushion, and on each available lap.

 And this is just a sheer, fun, rollicking delight. A house of cats and one badass cat lady. A dutiful young woman knocking on houses for her first day on the job. Interdimensional portals, and unexpected allies, and answering the call to adventure. And did I mention the cats? The cats are all badass, too. A wonderful, warm-hearted adventure.

 

“To Look Forward” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu at Fantasy Magazine*

We are the ones who dare, back and forth; our hair whipping over, our hearts full of joy. Our bodies burn bright and clean and crisp, glistening when we reach the sun. A healthy tan has coated our skin, our foreheads drip with sweat, our palms firm and slick. We are: over and over again, up in the air; not known to each other, but known to the sky. Mid-jump, mid-action, mid-reaction, mid-air; always there, on rusted swings, on creaking chains, on hot-sun days, back and forth and over, once again.

 And oh, I loved this piece. Four friends are on the verge of graduating from junior high, already pressured by family and society to declare what they want to do in life: what jobs and careers they’ll take, what course of studies they’ll pursue to get those jobs, what track they’ll take through life. Some already know what they want. Some don’t. But all have a light inside. This is a gorgeous, glowing story of young people resisting pressure and finding their own way, of claiming one’s ambition and joy.

*(Note: this is a story from the first issue of the newly rebooted Fantasy Magazine. It's filled with wonderful stories and poems, and I urge you to read through the entire issue). 


“A City of Red Midnight: A Hikayat” by Usman T. Malik in Tor

“. . . the Red Bazaar is a wondrous place, with its air bathed the color of firebrick, its ground soft like a baby’s palms, its niches illuminated with oil lamps and coal pits. It is set up like a Friday marketplace, busy with street food in carts large enough to need two horse-pulls. Stalls made of wood and thatch flank the market square. Bright canopies with incense-filled doorways beg to be entered, swinging doors lead to taverns overflowing with—may Allah forgive me—wines of a hundred species as well as tea shops with myriad teas and mounds of mithai and delicacies from every part of the world.

Five writers have come to Lahore, Pakistan for a science-fiction convention. As they drink tea and discuss the nature of stories, they are approached by a traditional storyteller, a qissa-khwan, who offers them a demonstration of his craft. What unfolds is a treasure-box of nested stories, featuring sorcerers and tricksters, enchanted women and clay puppets, a magical red bazaar and a Queen of Red Midnight. Malik’s deft storytelling is utterly magical, encompassing beauty, horror, and wonder.

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