Short fiction recs! June and July 2019 (also a novella and novel)
This fiction round-up is terribly late, what with a summer of traveling and family and also just plain summer laziness on my part. But here goes: short fiction that I read and loved in June and July.
Stories from The Dark Magazine
“On Highway 18” by Rebecca Campbell
I love the slow-burn that is characteristic of Campbell’s work, and this is a great example of it: a seemingly realist portrayal of adolescent friendship and restlessness on Vancouver Island in the pre-Internet era of mixed tapes and Guns ‘n Roses. But from the beginning there’s a note of disquiet, which grows slowly as the piece progresses. Petra and Jen are best friends on the island, and they spend hours driving together, hanging out in the parking lot of 7-Eleven, going to parties in the woods. But Petra is headed to college, and Jen is not, and not all friendships are forever. There are hitchhiking ghosts in this piece (or are there?), and rumors of living girls who hitchhike to untimely ends. There’s a buzz of underlying danger. And there’s the heat and hunger of adolescent summers and the passion of friendship and the loss that comes when lives diverge. A haunting, atmospheric work.
“We Sang You as Ours” by Nibedita Sen
A terrible leviathan that lives in the sea, and the singing mermaids who bring him prey. A story of family—of closeness and love, and of patterns of oppression that are handed down from one generation to the next. This is gorgeous and dark and wonderfully imaginative, like much of Sen’s work. And in the end, it’s also a story of hope, of daring to imagine a different future.
“The House Wins in the End” by L. Chan at The Dark
This is not a haunted house story. This is what happens after.
Jia saw terrible things in the house where her family died. Ever since, she's been on the run. But the House follows her, appearing behind the doors of other houses, its rooms replacing the rooms of the places she rents. She can only escape by seeking out houses that are haunted by ghosts that are not hers. Until she comes finally to a house with a living monster, and must make a stand. . . A fierce story of hallucinatory horrors, ferociously paced and intensely creepy. But in the end, there's catharsis and hope.
More Stories of Darkness and Wonder
“The Weight of a Thousand Needles” by Isabel Cañas at Lightspeed
A crow with ruby eyes, a prince of Night, a jinn and a girl who tells stories. . . an utterly magical, ravishing fairy tale. And a reminder: “Be kind before you are clever.”
In a post-apocalyptic world where even the bodies of loved ones are harvested for maximal use (skin for leather, fat for soap, flesh for meat), one young woman has lost her mother and is trying to find her place in the world. A quiet, layered, and moving piece—gruesome, but also tender and lovely.
“Daughters of Silt and Cedar” by Rebecca Mix at Kaleidotrope
Murga is no fairy tale. She does not taste like sunlight, cinnamon, or anything sweet. She is the night wrapped in dark, wet weeds. Her lips sting of all things that drown. But so do mine.
A darkly gorgeous tale of abandoned girls and things in the swamp, of love and pain and finding home.
“Notes on a Resurrection” by Natalia Theodoridou at Strange Horizons
A boy comes back from the dead. Is it a miracle to be embraced? Or something else? A dark, moving, and immediately compelling story—told as a panorama from the numerous viewpoints of the boy’s family and community.
“Song Beneath the City” by Micah Dean Hicks at Lightspeed
Another story of mermaids, but this time of mermaids stranded in the sewage pipes beneath a city, in an underground cavern of light and trees. And the tale of what happens when a group of plumbers, following rumors and the lure of jewelry dropped down drains, descends underground. . . A strange, surreal fairy tale of theft and loss, of yearning and greed.
“Advice for Your First Time at The Faerie Market” by Nibedita Sen at Fireside
I marinated nightingale hearts in yogurt and onion juice, pressure-cooking them with cinnamon bark, turmeric, and slivers of mandrake root. I sliced fluffy mushrooms patterned like butterfly wings into fillets, and steamed them folded in banana-leaf squares.
This had me pining for faerie food I’ll never taste. An absolutely marvelous, wonderful story of food, love, and faerie. This felt like it was written just for me, as it hit so many of my buttons: mothers and daughters, food as love, and a trip to faerie land.
“Four of Seven” by Samantha Mills at Escape Pod
Camelia grew up on the space colony of Excelsior, the fourth of seven sisters in a poor mining family ruthlessly exploited by the mining company. Camelia escaped to a better life, but to her shame she doesn’t make enough money to buy out any of her family members’ employment contracts and save them as well. She can only do what she’s able to do—and if that means carrying her little sister up a mountain for medical care, that’s what she’ll do. A tense, moving story that beautifully speaks of sisterhood, guilt, and love.
Humans who believe only in forward progress, in never looking back, have begun terraforming a planet for colonization. But an intelligent species already lives on this planet, and that species is having trouble adjusting to the massive changes in the ecosystem which the humans have begun. A quietly heartbreaking story of a different kind of First Contact
“Who Should Live in Flooded Old New York?” by Brooke Bolander in the New York Times
This is part of a series in the New York Times,
Bolander’s “op-ed” is written from a future New York City drowned by the rising seas of climate change. The immediate issue under debate are the laws which punish trespassing and salvaging in the flooded “no-go zones” of the city, but the op-ed then broadens into a larger look at what should be done in general with Old New York City and the people who still live there, and with the people of other similar, drowned cities in America. Within a small space, Bolander does some amazing world-building. This is a deeply atmospheric look into a ruined world, and raises questions that are deeply relevant to the here-and-now.
“Ahura Yazad, the Great Extraordinary” by Senaa Ahmad at Lightspeed
An absolutely gorgeous story about an ancient Persian trickster in Canada; a barn full of magical creatures; growing old, growing up, and accepting change. Here’s just a sample of the lyrical, dreamy prose:
It’s one of those nights where fog billows in organza clouds across the grass and the moon is smeared and adrift in the hazy sea above, and the air is damp and dreamy with the promise of rain, doom, and gloom. It’s glorious.
“The Brightest Lights of Heaven” by Maria Haskins at Fireside
And ohhh I loved this. A very dark, truly spooky tale of best friends and the games they play. This story is about those moments of childhood when fantasy and reality blur, when the sheer force of imagination really did seem enough to alter the world. Those moments are caught beautifully, disturbingly, in this unusual tale of horror and magic.
Desdemona and the Deeps by C.S.E. Cooney, published by Tor
A jewel box of delights, of decadent beauty, industrial horror, and magic. There's darkness here, especially in its allusions to real-world horror ("Phossy Jaw" was actually a real condition once suffered by workers in the matchstick industry). But there is also hope and triumph in a most satisfying ending. This journey to fairyland (two fairylands, actually) reminds me a bit of Catherynne Valente's Fairyland series with its lavish details of fairy-wonder. . . but starring decidedly adult characters in adult situations. And Cooney's voice is always her own.
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho
An absolutely charming magical Regency Romance with dragons, faeries, and a winsome couple at the center whom I shipped so hard. Zacharias is England’s new Sorcerer to the Crown, and he has his hands full navigating the political treacheries which come with the job, as well as some personal troubles that he’s keeping secret. . . Prunella is a powerful magician but also an orphaned young woman of uncertain status at a girls’ school that teaches girls NOT to do magic. The two meet, sparks fly, and England will never be the same. This book provides some delightful twists on the usual Regency romance, and I’m not just talking about the magic and dragons. Zacharias is a freed slave of African descent, and Prunella is Indian-British. It’s remarkable to see people of color in a setting/story that’s usually depicted as absent of such people. . . and Zacharias and Prunella aren’t the only ones. There’s delightful magic from Malaysia and China here, as well. Zen Cho touches on some serious themes of imperialism and empire, but she does so with a certain lightness of touch. This is a fun, warm romp through magic and romance, and Prunella in particular (charming, mendacious, conniving, and utterly ruthless) completely stole my heart.