Short fiction recs! (and more) December 2019-January 2020

It’s the end of February, and I am only now writing up my recs for December and January. It seems that I’m always struggling to stay atop the flood of great short fiction being published these days, but that feeling was particularly strong this winter. I missed a lot these few months, preoccupied with other things. But here’s a sample of some lovely short stories (and more!) that I did find.

Augur Magazine

Augur Magazine has quickly become one of my favorite publications. This magazine offers dreamy, gorgeous fiction and poetry that plays in a liminal space between the “literary” and speculative fiction genres. Issue 2.3 (the latest as of this post) is particularly strong, and although I’ve selected only two stories here, the entire issue is well worth reading. 

“Remembrance of Worlds Past” by Andrew Wilmot in issue 2.3

One day a new planet appears on the edge of the solar system, a planet that’s twice the mass of Jupiter but moves through other planets, asteroids, and debris like a ghost—leaving no damage or trace of itself. A ghost planet which should not exist.

At the same time, the narrator of this piece is dealing with the illness and impending death of their partner—a huge, incomprehensible event which also feels like it should not exist. The story lines entwine in an aching, moving meditation on loss, memory, and death. Striking, gorgeously written, and with images that linger.

Paper, Incense, Need” by Sharon Hsu in Issue 2.3

You're already dead when you cross the ocean.

A ghost from China is summoned by the prayers of her niece in America. Childless in life, the ghost comes to care for generations of her descendants in a new country. A quietly beautiful story about family and heritage.

Re-told Fairy Tales and Myths

“The Kumiho’s Song” by Sarah Jinee Park in Truancy Magazine

The bit of bone swung from the grubby twine tied around her neck every time she bent towards a corpse. Round and white from a thousand years of sun, it looked more like a marble, like a gonggi stone that a child could toss into the air and catch on the back of her hand. But it was indeed the top knuckle of Min’s little finger, where she had spelled her heart one morning, lifetimes ago. 

A fierce little fairy tale of a fox-demon searching for human hearts to eat. But things take an unexpected turn when she comes upon a human child. . . In the end, there’s a lovely poignancy and melancholy in this tale alongside memorable elements of horror.  

“For Thine is the Kingdom” by Jennifer R. Donohue in Truancy Magazine

A princess bites into a poisoned apple. But instead of being woken by a prince, she meets another princess in a world that perhaps lies beyond sleep and death. And the two princesses forge their own new world. A lovely, dreamlike retelling of classic fairy tales.

And, oh, this story. An absolutely brilliant, surprising, timely, and resonant retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen”. A retelling that’s difficult to describe; it opens with physics and details of the Devil’s mirror; there are multiple footnotes, and yes, Greta is triumphant in the end. Go read it. One of my favorite stories of 2019.

"A Girlfriend's Guide to Gods" by Maria Dahvana Headley at Tor Magazine

This is the first myth: that your boyfriend from when you were fifteen will come and get you out of hell. He might come, but he won’t get you. 

A sharp, brilliant, funny, and utterly marvelous story about the myths a young woman might tell herself about dating Orpheus and other gods. And about how the real solution is to become a goddess in her own right.

More Stories of Beauty, Horror, Love, and Truth

"Notes from the Laocoon Program" by Phoenix Alexander in Metaphorosis

The orbital module fails to detach and we ignite in the full-mouth kiss of the planet’s atmosphere, spinning with a velocity that pushes us to the black brink of unconsciousness.

From this compelling beginning, Alexander spins a moving tale of danger, anger, love, weakness, and regret. The narrator is an astronaut on a mission to explore a mysterious planet. But his capsule has crashed; he's paralyzed; and yet more danger lurks outside. Trapped and raging, the narrator recalls his life in flashback, and all that's brought him to this point. And it's those flashback sequences, beautifully told, that give this story its heart. A gorgeous, immersive story.

“The Petals of the Godflower” by Kyle Kirrin at Beneath Ceaseless Skies

My mother smiles as my brother kills himself. She cheers as he jerks his birth knife sideways; she claps as he opens his throat.

From this shocking beginning, Kirrin unfolds a dark, compelling story about faith, doubt, and one woman who dares to question.

Trapper Man” by Ae Lhamon in Cotton Xenomorph

When the snow first starts falling, Todd is thrilled. School is canceled, and he gets to stay home and play in the snow with his little sister. Even his mother and father seem happy with the weather, going out to throw snowballs playfully at one another.

But the snow keeps falling. The storm gets worse. The electricity goes out. And there’s something waiting for them outside. . .

What follows is a masterful exercise in exquisitely building tension. The voice is absolutely superb, and the child’s perspective is done so well, to ultimately heartbreaking effect. 

“For Mrs. Q” by C.S.E. Cooney at Fireside

Is this a story or a poem? A prose-poem? Whatever it is, it is a delight: a fierce beating of wings, a hummingbird of beauty, a rapturous ode to love. Read it.

“--I will tell her that she has a cardinal where her heart should be, beating its wings on the first day of spring, how marigolds grow from the thickets of her hair, how in the midst of imagining this poem, I almost hit five lady joggers with my car—", 

This story is exactly what its title says. A young man, having created a deepfake girlfriend to get his parents off his back, turns to an Internet advice forum for help with the difficulties that have ensued. And indeed, a cascade of escalating difficulties has ensued. This story is absolutely hilarious, sharp, all too real, and pitch perfect in its depiction of Internet forum dynamics.

Book Rec

Homesick by Nino Cipri

Nino Cipri's vision is utterly unique. For several years now, their stories have been gracing some of the top magazines of the speculative fiction genre, and Homesick is their debut collection. These surreal stories are by turns creepy, unsettling, hilarious, and tender. In “Which Super Little Dead Girl GirlTM Are You?”, the origin story of a team of superhero zombie girls is told in the form of a magazine quiz. In “Presque Vue,” a driver for an Uber-like car service wakes each day to strange house keys choking his throat. . . and earns his living picking up both humans and wraiths that glow with purple light. “Dead Air” is one of the most chilling stories I’ve ever read, a tale told in the form of audio transcripts from an artist who is recording interviews with the people she sleeps with. A one-night stand with one particular woman becomes much more, and what starts off as a sweet rom-com quickly darkens even as the relationship between the two women deepens. The ending is both chilling and heart-shredding. Like “Dead Air,” the other longer pieces also achieve particular power. “The Shape of My Name” is a moving story of time-travel, family, and identity. And in “Before We Disperse Like Star Stuff,” a novella original to this collection, a trio of researchers reunite to film a documentary about their great discovery: evidence of a prehistoric race of intelligent weasels with “human-level intelligence and a complex social organization.” The zany scientific premise is treated with unexpected seriousness; the humor in the piece (and it is indeed very funny) arises primarily from the characters’ interactions with Hollywood, the film industry, and with one another. In Cipri’s stories, friends, lovers, and family come together; they come apart, and then they find one another again. Love and tenderness coexist with the surreal. These stories are weird in the best of ways, and haunting.

TV Series Rec: The Untamed (also known Chen Quing Ling or cql)

I will admit it: part of the reason my short fiction reading slacked off so much this winter was because I fell headlong into the beautiful hell of a Chinese television drama known in English as The Untamed. It seems that nearly everyone who watches this feels immediately compelled to pull in as many other viewers as they can. I am no exception. I am an utter fool for this gorgeous show, and I want everyone to suffer with me. 

Why on earth should you watch it? Well, for one thing, the lead character, Wei Wuxian, is an absolutely precious sunshine cinnamon roll who must be protected at all costs and looks like this.

Wei Wuxian, the personification of sunshine. And of cinnamon rolls. 

But through a series of tragic events beyond his control, Wei Wuxian is forced to become a Dark Lord Necromancer to protect those he loves!

Wei Wuxian as Dark Lord Necromancer aka the Yiling Patriarch aka badass flute-player

The Untamed is a complex, epic series about clan rivalries, war, politics, complicated family relationships, morality, and power. And zombies, of course, since necromancy is involved. It’s also a swooning, slow-burn love story—an antagonists-to-friends-to-soulmates-across-two-lifetimes love story. This love story is between Wei Wuxian and a man who on the surface seems his polar opposite, a man he first met when they were both innocent teenagers. That man is Lan Wangji, shown below. 

Lan Wangji aka Wei Wuxian's soulmate. He's both righteous and ridiculously pretty.

Wei Wuxian is a cinnamon roll, but also free-spirited, a mischief-maker, chatty and flirty and expressive. Lan Wangji is a stickler for the rules, extremely reserved and stoic and generally inexpressive. When the two meet, sparks fly (and they almost immediately get into a fight). Watching these two fall for one another is a joy. And yes, they do fall for one another. The Untamed is based on the Chinese web novel Mo Dao Zu Shi (Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation) by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. In the novel, the romance between the men is explicit  and they are canonically married with an adopted son. Due to censorship issues in mainland China, this romance cannot be acknowledged in the television adaptation with explicit verbal or physical interactions, but let me tell you that the show-runners and actors did everything in their power to signal romance in every other way possible (including a love song and loads of marriage symbolism and aforementioned adopted son), and the result is one of the most intense, swoon-worthy romances ever seen. And when I say swoon-worthy, I mean that literally, for Wei Wuxian does, indeed, often swoon into his soulmate's arms.

Wei Wuxian, swooned into his soulmate's arms. The poor guy goes through a lot in this series.  

The Untamed is funny, sweet, cute, romantic. It also gets very dark, tragic, and absolutely traumatizing. It will break your heart into a thousand pieces and then put those pieces back together again. It shifts moods and genres: it's a murder mystery, a love story, a war story; it incorporates elements of horror and slapstick comedy. Besides the two main leads, there's a large cast of characters to fall in love with (and hate), and nearly all have their own complicated motivations and relationships.  

Have I tempted you into giving this a try? For yet more background on this show, Jenny Hamilton has the most comprehensive primer I've seen here

And my friend and writer Rati Mehrotra has a shorter write-up here.

The Untamed is streaming now on Netflix, YouTube, and Viki. Warning: the first two episodes are confusing as heck and may come off as oddly paced. You’re dropped straight into the action; there’s blood magic and zombies, and people are running around dramatically, but you don’t know who anyone is or why you should care. And the monster special effects are terrible.* But keep with it. At the end of the second episode, an extended flashback begins which eventually explains everything. As Jenny Hamilton writes of The Untamed in her primer: "This experience is an indescribable blessing. You do not want to miss it just because the first two episodes made no fucking sense."

And if you watch it all and then go back to those first two episodes, you will be absolutely devastated by what you see and now know of these characters.

*The monster special effects are terrible because, evidently, the producers of this show took the budget an American production would have used for CGI special effects and sank it ALL into wardrobe and hair. And by the end you will applaud this decision, for the sumptuous, gorgeous costumes and hair on these pretty, pretty actors are WORTH IT. 


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