It's been a while since I’ve done one of these. I’d set a rhythm of reviewing short fiction bimonthly and then. . . just lost the rhythm. Life intervened, I would say, although in truth I have not been particularly busy (okay, I’ve been busy panicking over U.S. politics? But that’s not really productive. . .)
Anyway. I’m still reading, even if I’m not writing very much. Reading helps. It always helps.
Here are some stories that have stood out for me over the past few months. They’re beautiful, moving, and alternately shot through with darkness and light. Maybe some of these will help you, too.
Free to read online
Zombies in Winter by Naomi Kritzer in Persistent Visions
A zombie story that doesn’t unfold as you’d expect. When the narrator’s friend Tom falls victim to a plague which robs him of personality and mind, the narrator steps in to care for his best friend—even though his friend no longer recognizes him. The narrator cares tenderly for the zombie that Tom has become, in tribute to the man Tom once was. This is a quiet, tender, heartbreaking tale. Editor Heather Shaw explains it all in her introduction to this piece: “I bought ‘Zombies in Winter’ by Naomi Kritzer because it’s centered on a beautiful example of compassion and of a close, platonic, male friendship.” I’ve only read a few pieces from Naomi Kritzer, but everything I’ve seen from her is suffused with humanity and generosity (Read her So Much Cooking --another plague story!—if you haven’t already. Also, read more from Persistent Visions, a relatively new magazine which is consistently publishing top-notch work).
Das Steingeschopf by G.V. Anderson in Strange Horizons
Another story of quiet heartache, although the love featured here is of a different kind. In an alternate pre-World War II Germany, a Jewish craftsman (more precisely, a man who is perceived and treated as Jewish) begins his first commission for the Schopfer’s Guild. His task is to restore a valuable statue. But the statues in this world are not like ours; they are living statues made of a material called Queckstein, which draws upon the sculptor’s emotions, memories, and self. To restore this statue, the narrator must draw deeply upon his own emotional memories. This is a beautifully crafted, aching story of untold love. The foreboding atmosphere of pre-World War II Germany, under which the narrator faces prejudice (of more than one kind) is finely evoked.
The Dancer on the Stairs by Sarah Tolmie at Strange Horizons
This is one of the most fascinating stories I’ve read all year. A dancer wakes on a mysterious staircase, in a mysterious world. She’s disoriented (like the reader), and only slowly begins to grasp the rules of survival on the staircase and beyond. Few fantasy stories show really alien cultures, but this one does. The people in this world are human, but their culture of rituals and dance feels both truly unique and convincingly detailed. This slow-burn of a story reminds me of some of Ursula K. LeGuin’s “thought-experiment” stories: stories that create alternate worlds to explore philosophical abstractions. A truly different, thought-provoking tale.
The Death of Paul Bunyan by Charles Payseur in Lightspeed
Johnny Appleseed is working in Chicago (“Green spaces. Planned communities. Beautification projects”) when he gets the call that his old lover, Paul Bunyan, is dead. What follows is a moving, startlingly original take on American myths—not just the folk heroes of Bunyan and Appleseed, but the myths surrounding the settling of America, the clearing of the forests and taming of the land, our Manifest Destiny. The premise sounds as though it may be satire or humor, but it’s not; Payseur takes his premise with dead seriousness. This story is immediately compelling, gorgeously written, and shot through with loneliness and regret. The accompanying author interview, in which Payseur discusses his story’s themes, is also well worth reading.
A Lumberjack’s Guide to Dryad Spotting by Charles Payseur in Flash Fiction Online
This flash pairs well with Payseur’s story above; it’s another tale set in the North Woods of Wisconsin, featuring a pair of (more down-to-earth) lumberjack lovers. Longing and desperation suffuse this tightly written flash piece.
Postcards from Natalie by Carrie Laben in The Dark
And oh, this blew me away. The narrator’s older sister, Natalie, has run away from home and sends postcards from the road back to “little Mandy.” The speculative element is slow to kick in, but the realist story of family conflict and love is so well done that I would have been perfectly happy without any fantasy. This isn’t just a realist tale, however. Slowly, subtly, we get hints of something more. The buildup is fantastic. The ending is somehow both uplifting and devastating—a kick in the teeth. One of the best stories I’ve read this year.
Shadow Man, Sack Man, Half Dark, Half Light by Malon Edwards in Shimmer
In a dark, steampunk Chicago lit by gas lamps, a little girl fights a monster. This is the sequel to Edwards’ previous publication in Shimmer, The Half Dark Promise, which you should go read now if you haven’t already. Both these stories are tense, beautifully written, atmospheric pieces singing with distinctive rhythm and snippets of Haitian Creole. The endings will make you want to cheer.
The Three Nights of the Half-Gent by Mario De Seabra Coelho in Strange Horizons
Coelho is a new writer to me. This is a gorgeous, mysterious, darkly evocative tale in which a dead man finds the courage to live.
Next Station, Shibuya by Iori Kusano in Apex
A lovely, quietly melancholy love story between a girl and a city.
First of Her Name by Elaine Cuyengeng in Lackington’s
Cuyengeng is killing it in horror. First, she came out with The House That Creaks in The Dark. Then she followed up with this horrific, horrific tale of ants? bees? a colony of social insects invaded by Something Which Does Not Belong. This story had me ranting/raving at dinner with my family the day that I read it. At the end, startlingly beautiful imagery is interwoven with the horror. Original and haunting.
For purchase (novella)
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson, published by Tor. Available for purchase at Amazon.
I’d heard so much about this novella, and about Wilson in general. This weekend, I finally made time to read it. And . . . it’s worth the hype. Aqib, minor royalty and son of the Master of Beasts and the Hunt, is walking the prince’s cheetah back to the Menagerie when he meets Lucrio, a handsome foreign solder from a visiting embassy. What follows is a whirlwind romance between two men which thrillingly captures the feeling of first love. But tension is also threaded through this story; Aqib and Lucrio met only ten days before Lucrio is to leave Aqib’s country forever. Moreover, they must keep their love secret, for homosexual relationships are forbidden in Aqib’s country (although not in Lucrio’s), and Aqib’s family is pressuring him to marry a woman of high social status so as to lift the family’s fortunes. The story flashes between the unfolding courtship and glimpses of a future where Aqib seems to have settled into a life without Lucrio. The drama of the story—will they be together? will they not?—had me flipping the pages furiously. A Taste of Honey isn’t just about the exhilaration of first love; it’s also a meditation on the choices we make, the alternative lives we might have had, and the love and loss that meet us no matter what fork in the road we choose. This is all wrapped in gorgeous, distinctive prose and set in a lushly realized secondary world of magic, mysterious technology, and sensuous detail. I loved the moments that highlight the cultural differences (and misunderstandings) between Aqib and Lucrio. I loved the author’s (justly praised) use of dialect in dialogue, and the evocation of complicated family dynamics. Most of all, I loved the characters and especially the character of Aqib. In the Tumblr/Twitter/Internet fandom parlance of today, Aqib is a “cinnamon roll”—a sweet, pure character you want to protect. Which certainly isn’t to say that he’s flawless. The young Aqib is adorably innocent, gentle, tender. He’s also haughty, completely clueless, and unthinkingly accepting of his privileges within his society’s class structure. And he’s passionate, brave, and strong in a way that’s not always recognized by others (for instance, by his abusive, stereotypically masculine older brother). A Taste of Honey is a lovely, passionate work with an ambitious plot structure (a non-linear chronology) and a twist which I won’t spoil here. But I will spoil the ending just a little bit to say: it made me happy. This story, although heart-wrenching in places, made me very happy. And to bring a bit of happiness and loveliness into the world is no small thing at all.