Short fiction recs! Jan-Feb 2021
It’s March. As people have been saying online, it feels as though it’s always been March. A year since the pandemic truly hit American shores. Time has been distorted since then, and the last few months here in America have felt particularly surreal, twisting and pulling time out of all recognition.
But after a bitterly cold freeze, it’s warming out now where I live, and Spring hesitantly steps near. And some amazing fiction has been published in the last few months—dark, angry, strange, beautiful, and lit with hope. Here’s some of what I’ve loved.
Stories in Strange Horizons
"The Karyobinga Sings to Jiro" by Ryu Ando
Are we truly all the same person? he said aloud to the darkness. Is my pain everyone’s pain?
A just-over-flash-length-piece of grief and mystery. Jiro is an elderly widower in a dying small town, grieving the loss of his wife. He lives alone, and his son is trying to get him to move. And then one day a mysterious bird appears in the night, calling his name. . . This is a strange, enigmatic piece which reads like poetry to me; the spare words seem to evoke a whole ocean of loss beneath the surface. Mysterious, sad, strange, and lovely.
“Yearning” by Maya Beck
What are you doing out here every week? he asks me, as he has before. Praying? In some kind of trance? Just sitting around a fire with your eyes closed?
We’re yearning, I told him.
For what? You already got your freedom.
A beautiful, painful, and complex story set in the sharecropping era of the American South. The Civil War has ended, yet not all are truly free. The narrator of this story leads his fellow sharecroppers in a weekly ceremony of what they call “firesouling” or “firesailing”: they all gaze into a fire, while he leads them on mind-journeys into the future. He deflects them from the worst of possible futures; he takes care to lead and show them only happy futures. Futures where a Black man can own his own land, where a museum can proudly showcase Black American history, where his people are prosperous and free. And then one day the landowner’s white son asks to see his own future. . . This is such a gorgeously wrought story. There’s difficult subject matter here, obviously, and the story is also one of tangled family roots and futures. But in that future, there is hope. The ending is stunning and beautiful.
“The Demon Sage’s Daughter” by Varsha Dinesh
Lotuses bloom vividly everywhere a piece of your father has landed. They’re beneath your feet, climbing the walls. Great lotus leaves brush your face when you move, enfolding you in shadow over and over. Your princess sits slumped on the floor, blowing her nose into one.
And oh, I loved this lush, fierce tale of gods and demons, of ambition and vengeance. Devayani the demon-sage’s daughter wants to know her father’s resurrection spell. But he doesn’t think she’s worthy. This story twists and turns in the most satisfying way, filled with cunning plots and counter-plots, and striking imagery.
Stories from Fusion Fragment
Fusion Fragment Magazine launched only last year, but is already gaining a reputation for their strong fiction, which tends to be science fiction or sci-fi tinged, often with a dreamy and surreal quality (disclaimer that I have a story appearing there myself soon). I read the January 2021 issue (Issue 4) straight through and loved every story. I’ve only summarized three here, but I urge you to look at the entire issue, which includes gorgeous reprints from Lora Gray and Jennifer Hudak, and original science fiction by Eileen Gunnell Lee and Matthew B. Hare.
Sailing to Byzantium” by Jen Donohue
She’d been to launches, of course. Everybody had. They tried to make it into a celebration of life, a gathering of friends and family, but Maggie always hated it. Her mother told her she just didn’t understand, and maybe that was part of it. Everybody had to arrive at their own truth, just as every man had to build his own ship
In a world which seems much like our own, one thing is very different: at some point in life, every man builds a spaceship and flies away. No one knows where he goes, or what happens to him; even the men can’t explain it. It’s just what they do, like birds migrating when the time is right. Maggie has received word that her father is building his ship, and so she returns home to help him and say goodbye. This is a quiet story of grief and loss which feels almost unbearable at times; it’s so poignantly understated, so quietly heartbreaking in its small details, in the description of day-to-day life and routines as Maggie and her mother prepare to say goodbye to their father and husband. Absolutely, heartbreakingly beautiful.
“Wormwood” by Edward Ashton
Worse than all the nukes in the world going off at once, they said. There were supposed to be mile-high tidal waves, and shit getting kicked up into space and then falling back down on our heads, setting the air on fire and boiling the oceans. I guess I wasn’t one-hundred-percent clear how long it was supposed to take for all that stuff to get rolling, but considering that the damn thing was supposed to drop into the ocean right off the Jersey shore, ten minutes seems like long enough.
Another intimate family drama played out against a science fiction setting. Only in this case, the backdrop is of an apocalypse that. . . might not be happening at all? Greg, his wife Elena, and their young adult daughter Kate are all facing the end-of-the-world in different ways, apart from one another. But during the course of this story, they come together again. A quietly moving tale of the distances and tensions within a family. . . and of the ties between them, as well.
"The Ten Thousand Lives of Lucia Kim" by Maria Dong
So, she thinks. This is what it’s like to be dead. It only took three attempts.
Luciana Kim is dead by her own hand. But her problems are hardly over. For she comes to life in a strange world and is almost instantly murdered. And comes to life again. And dies, again. This is an afterlife depicted as a kind of video game, where Luciana must try to learn the rules; with each new life, she lives a little longer, gets a little stronger, accumulates points and masters the rules a little bit more. This is an intense, furiously-paced action story. It’s also a mysterious and surreally resonant piece about a young woman who did not want to live, who still suffers with each new “lifetime,” but who continues to get stronger and smarter, who continues to persevere, who learns to keep going.
More stories of darkness and hope
“We the Girls Who Did Not Make It” by E.A. Petricone in Nightmare Magazine
We are not where we are buried. We are where they kept us. We float now, and see the low building in the woods from above, the long plates of rusted metal, the desiccated grass bundling against the sides like a pyre, the orb spider poised over a corroded edge. But when we were alive, we only knew the inside of the basement, where we had all the usual things girls have when they are being held and killed.
A horror story that burns with fury, that interrogates the typical serial killer tale, that asks in a rage, Why the focus on the killer? Why the fascination with prurient detail? Why the questioning of victims—the demand that they be more perfect victims, that they be more interesting, powerful, able to fight back? What about us? the women in this story scream, even as they exist within the basic framework of the classic serial killer tale. And yet this story is something more; it interrogates the horror story beats even as it follows them, even as it asks why and what an audience is getting from this story. Impeccably paced, almost unbearably tense, furious and horrific and breathtaking.
“Laughter Among the Trees” by Suzan Palumbo at The Dark Magazine
I was fourteen when we retreated South West on this stretch to the suburbs of Toronto—me in the back of my parents’ station wagon, the emptiness of Sab’s seat corroding our ability to speak. I couldn’t look through the rear window as we sped away. I didn’t want to acknowledge we were abandoning the search—leaving Sab behind.
Ana’s little sister Sabrina (“Sab”) is everything that Ana is not, and Ana can’t help but resent her for it. Sabrina was born in Canada, unlike Ana and her immigrant Indo-Caribbean parents. Sabrina fits in a way that Ana does not—“as if the city had been fashioned for her, unlike my parents and I who’d been transplanted too late.” Sabrina is charming, adorable, beloved, and easily makes friends everywhere she goes. And then one night, on a family camping trip, Sabrina disappears. . . This is a dark and gripping story, powerful and ultimately devastating. It’s about grief and guilt and jealousy and loss, about migration and assimilation and pretending that you are what you’re not. As Ana grows up, it becomes a story about living a life that isn’t really yours, until one day you can’t.
“An Infection of the Priests in the Body of God” by Matt Dovey at Translunar Travelers Lounge
They name me a god, and I wish I was worthy of the title.
My chambers are filled with supplicants. The sick and suffering are brought into my rooms of flesh and laid on beds of viscera, sequestered down sinewed corridors dim with blood-tinted light.
One of the most incredibly original stories I’ve read in a while. A story in which yes, evil priests really are an infection in the body of a god. A god who can heal, who wants to heal people, but whose ability is exploited and suppressed by the priests who control peoples’ access to the god’s healing body. Priests who claim to act in the god’s name, but in actuality serve only their own power and greed; priests who wound the god and keep the god on the edge of exhaustion, in torment, healing powers strained. Until one day the god meets a woman tending her dying husband. . . A dark, anguished story of striking imagery (content warning for body horror) and power. But one that ends in a hard-won hope.
“Gray Skies, Red Wings, Blue Lips, Black Hearts” by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor in Apex Magazine
“Mouthand Marsh, Silver and Song” by Sloane Leong in Fireside FIction
“I was born to the marsh with a memory of silver, acute as fear and soft as peat on my tongue.”
Another absolutely beautiful tale of magic and pain, told in silver-tongued prose. A cursed creature of the marsh, a prophet whose prophecies are forcibly cut and torn out by cruel princes who wish to be kings. Until one day a princess arrives to seek the marsh prophet’s help. . . A lovely, moving, ringing tale.
“And the Ones Who Walk In” by Sarah Avery in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
The girl who had never known hunger turned her back on that house and walked, her hands empty, right out of the city. She did not say goodbye to her mother.
A haunting take—a sequel of sorts, really--on Ursula K LeGuin’s classic “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” In LeGuin’s classic tale, a seemingly utopian city’s peace and prosperity are all dependent upon a terrible bargain: the misery and torture of an innocent child. Most people of the city accept this bargain as the price for the happiness of many. But there are those who cannot abide with this situation, and they are the ones who walk away. No one knows what happens to them, and LeGuin writes in the last sentence: “But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”
Avery’s story is about the ones who dare to walk away, and of what happens to them. And it’s about those who would walk in, who face such horror outside the magic walls of a protected city that they would indeed buy into this terrible bargain to keep themselves safe. . . and to keep their loved ones safe, too. This is a wrenching story that looks straight-on at evil and suffering, and that will make you feel both for those who walk away and for those who willingly walk in. A remarkable achievement.
“The Taste of Your Name” by Amal Singh in Translunar Travelers Lounge
“Alankrutha Nair,” I said, shaping my lover’s name, tasting every morsel of it; the saccharine sweetness of jalebi dipped in yogurt, the tang of tamarind in sambhar. A name I couldn’t forget.
A gorgeous, ultimately heartwarming story about the taste of words and names, about family and a family curse, and about love.
“Mr. Death” by Alix Harrow in Apex Magazine
“. . . they don’t recruit heartless bastards to comfort the dead and ferry their souls across the last river. They look for people whose hearts are vast and scarred, like old battlefields overgrown with poppies and saplings. People who know how to weep and keep working, who have lost everything except their compassion.”
The “Mr. Death” of this tale has reaped souls for three years, guiding them across the last river with compassion, working hard and doing a good job. Until he faces a job he might not be able to handle, that shakes him to his core: the untimely death of a child. This is an absolutely beautiful story, one that will break your heart and scare you, then mend your heart and uplift you. It’s about death and love and parenthood and children and the heartache of loving anyone in this world. It’s by Alix Harrow, so of course it will break you and then fix you; of course it’s generous and kind. You should read it, and you should read everything by this writer.