Short fiction recs! March-April 2021
I thought that I didn’t get much reading done last month, but I present to you seventeen short story recs today, and there is still more amazing fiction that I didn’t have time to list here. I know we often say this on repeat, but it’s true: we’re living in a golden age of short stories.
Khōréō is a new quarterly magazine, dedicated to “elevating the voices of immigrant and diaspora authors.” The editors are particularly interested in fiction that explores themes of migration, and this shows clearly in their debut issue. The stories here brim with themes of family, diaspora, generational loss and change; with belonging and reclamation and what it means to make a home. These are fresh and surprising stories, that have innovative forms and put new twists on old tropes. I wanted to share each of the stories in this issue, because they are all worth reading, and this is a magazine that is worth watching.
“The Impossible Weight of Han” by Maria Dong
In the weeks before his fatal crash, it is Mr. Rutherford’s intention that the first thing copied by his Frankly Impossible Machine™, or FIM, will be an orange.
Just before his wife’s death, Grant Rutherford completes his life’s work, the creation of “a machine that extracts energy and matter from ambient sources to create exact copies of anything it scans.” But in the wake of his own death, his machine begins churning out copies of itself—copies that cause chaos throughout the world. Stopping the machines requires a chain of connections stretching from America to Korea: from the Korea-American friend who distributes his machines without realizing the consequences, to her cousin in Korea, the cousin’s mother who is a mudang (urban shaman), and ultimately a Korea goddess. This is a story about grief, but it’s also a story about connection, and how grief connects us all. It’s an intricate story, wonderfully put together; it’s about ghosts, oranges, and poetry as well as sorrow. It’s poignant, but there are notes of humor and whimsy amid the poignancy. Moving, original, and lovely.
"The Taste of Centuries, the Taste of Home” by Jennifer Hudak
When Grandmother arrived here, she appeared right in the middle of Skip Brook, ankle deep in cool water, carrying a small sack over one shoulder and a baby—my mother—in her arms.
A lovely portal world story that’s also a tale of migration and diaspora. In this tale, a woman has left Earth with her baby to make a new home in a beautiful forest-world. That woman’s granddaughter, the narrator, is happy where she is, yet she cannot help but be curious about the world her grandmother left. Making challah with her grandmother, keeping to rituals from an ancient past, becomes a way to keep alive a connection to a world she’s never seen. A warm, gentle, and gorgeous story.
“All Worlds Left Behind” by Iona Datt Sharma
Amarnath Noy wasn’t an allegory, for all that you found your way there through a magical doorway in the woods.
This is also a portal world story, but the metaphor is used in a different way, and the grief is sharper. In Sharma’s story, the protagonist lives on Earth, in our world, and it is a different world that’s being lost. Priya’s great-grandfather wandered through a portal in West Bengal and discovered a fantastical world of dwarves and elves, rakshasas and devis. He led an army into battle, overthrew an evil tyrant, and became a hero. Priya’s grandfather spoke the language of this portal world fluently, and bequeathed that gift to his early descendants. But with each generation, the gifts of magic and language fade a little. Now, Priya is losing her father, her guide to this fantastical world, and she finds that she is unable to truly navigate this world on her own—she can’t even order a favorite dish at a restaurant there. This story speaks of loss—loss of language, loss of culture, particularly in the face of a parent’s passing--in a way that will be familiar to many children of immigrants. It’s a gorgeous, aching story that sings with regret and loss in a way that feels powerfully honest.
“A Little History of Things Lost and Found” by Shingai Njeri Kagunda
In most stories of lost and found, usually there is a thing—a totem—a tangible source of grounding for the story’s holder to find what they have lost. Muta’s mother did not leave her with anything but the names of the trees and their histories.
A beautiful story of trees and promises, family and loss. A story that entwines personal grief with environmental devastation and the history of a movement for environmental conservation and human rights in Kenya (the Green Belt Movement founded by Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari M. Maathai). The interweaving of the historic with the personal, the balancing of the voices of the trees with the voices of the human woman who hears them, is masterful. Although weighty issues are invoked, there’s a lovely kind of delicacy to this story, and it ends with hope.
“Vampirito” by K. Victoria Hernandez
Four a.m. is rush hour for vampiro taqueros like the Gomez family. Vampiros are bartenders, bouncers, night guards, cooks—”We’re the backbone here! We do the jobs day-people don’t want to, and during the hours they won’t!” they boast. It’s a kind of pride that only gets more exhausting as time goes on.
In an alternate Los Angeles, vampires live openly among non-vampires, taking the night jobs the “day-people” don’t want. But although these vampires don’t drink human blood and don’t fit all the old myths, differences still set them apart and make them a target for hatred. The use of supernatural creatures as a stand-in for ethnic minorities and allegories for racism is not new, but in Hernandez’s hands this trope takes on a new, blistering force. Something I particularly appreciate is the way she depicts a multitude of identities/intersections among vampires: race/ethnicity, national origin, and skin color are additional identities which intersect with vampirism; the light-skinned grandfather from Spain, for instance, looks down upon his dark-skinned son-in-law from Mexico. A dark, forceful, unsettling ride.
More Stories: Haunted Homes and Hard Science Fiction
"A House Full of Voices Is Never Empty" by Miyuki Jane Pinckard in Uncanny
When I was eleven and you were eight I told you about the scarf and you didn’t believe me. I guess you couldn’t hear. You left our birth country before the magic—or the curse?—could take ahold of you, seep into your bones and swallow you.
The story of a house that is haunted by objects. . . but it’s a comforting haunting that the narrator doesn’t wish to let go of. A dead aunt’s scarf sings the songs that the aunt once sang. A chair remembers the father who once sat there. Shoes speak of a mother’s dreams, and other objects remember and speak of a home and people left behind half a world away. The narrator loves these memories, these haunted objects and house, but her sister has other ideas. . . A beautiful story about loss and family, about memory and letting go. Delicate, understated, and hauntingly poignant.
“A House is Not a Home” by L. Chan in Clarkesworld
I think I’m reasonably lucky, only having five parents. I guess my donors didn’t have too many risk mutations. Some of my classmates have been spliced together from eight, nine, even twelve donors. I don’t envy them the task of juggling their Chinese New Year dinners.
An older story from 2020, one that I’m glad I finally read. In a future Hong Kong, Lian and her friends are “jigsaw children”; their genomes are constructed from multiple donors and they’re raised in “Children’s Centers” by professionals dedicated to helping these children fulfill their greatest potential. Lian and her cohort are supposed to be the hope of China, the future of humanity—healthier and better than any generation before. Lian accepts all this as a child. But as she becomes an adult and years pass, the status of jigsaw children changes; social and scientific views change, and she begins to wonder about life in other countries, and about a life other than the one that was envisioned for her. This a complex, thoughtful novelette with a world that feels fully realized: it’s not a simple dystopia, but something that feels complicated and real. The characters also feel complicated and real, as Lian and her friends navigate adulthood in a way that’s not dissimilar to non-jigsaw children in the real world. An immersive, thought-provoking, and moving read.
More Stories of Beauty and Horror, Darkness and Hope
“Wives at the End of the World” by Avra Margariti in The Future Fire
In an amusement park by the promenade, the neon lights burned out, the rides unblinking, unmoving, I say, “I want to take you on a tour of our greatest hits.”
You stare at the dark water in the distance but offer me a sidelong smile. “Okay.”
At least now we have a purpose. We’re no longer wandering aimlessly through a wasteland. We’re on a mission, two wives revisiting all that brought us here, together.
Such a gorgeous, gorgeous piece. In the midst of apocalypse, while scavenging for food and running for their lives, two women decide to revisit the places that are special to them. They go to the amusement park where they had their first date. They slow-dance in an antique shop. In the midst of horror, they—and this story--find romance, beauty, and hope. They find a way to keep going.
“A Subtle Fire Beneath the Skin” by Hayley Stone in The Future Fire (reprint, first published in the anthology Sword and Sonnet)
“. . .Gennesee used to paint epics of plague and war in her own blood on the walls. She tried strengthening the spells with heroic couplets, but the subject and form clashed.”
Gennesse is a poet who can commit murder with meter and rhyme, with sestinas and couplets. She’s an assassin who uses and is used in turn. But unexpectedly, in the midst of war, she learns that words don’t have to be murder—they can offer hope and joy, and be salvation as well. This is a wonderful story about the magic of words, and also the magic of stories, cleverly told. It ends in bittersweet hope, and reminds us of the power of words, for as this story says: “What is writing, after all, but one’s heart and mind tattooed upon the skin of a page?”
“A Test of Time” by Catherine George in Luna Station Quarterly
When the baby is nine weeks old, Bree begins to suspect she is a time machine.
Those of us who have parented a newborn know how time seems to become unmoored during those sleepless nights, during those endless hours of rocking and feeding. As Catherine George puts it: “Time is untethered; the baby has untied it, released it to float up into the sky like a white balloon.” But for the new mother in this story, that sense of unmoored time becomes something even stranger; she finds the ability to manipulate time, to slow it and reverse it at will. The gentle dreaminess of this story slowly gives way to mounting tension as the danger in her current life is slowly revealed, and as she tries, again and again, to use her power to create a safer world for herself and her child. This is an ingenious and riveting time travel story, lyrically told.
“The Love Song of M. Religiosa” by Nibedita Sen in Kaleidotrope
“I wish,” Mantis says, “to seek their advice upon the matter of a She.”
The beetles rumble in interest. “A She?”
“I do not think it fair that I should lose my head,” Mantis explains. “After all, I might live a whole month after She and I are done, and I can think of a great many things I should like to do with my head in that time. Alas, her appetite is prodigious, and I fear I will be devoured.”
And this is just a delightful, rollicking, hilarious adventure quest set in an entomology research lab. Mantid is a praying mantis who desperately pines for the female mantis in the terrarium next door. . .but wants to keep his head when he meets her. As he escapes his terrarium and embarks upon his quest, he seeks advice from other insects and makes some observations of his own on the mating habits of graduate students. Absolutely delightful.
“With Nectar Comes the Sting” by Jennifer Hudak in Apparition Lit
It had been a while since any of us had really looked at her closely, even my dad. Even me. When we finally started paying attention, it was too late: she wasn’t Mom anymore. She was a swarm.
When the narrator of this story is only twelve years old, her mother becomes Hive Mind—what many people call a superhero. This is the story of both Hive Mind and her daughter, and it’s a furious, blistering story about middle-aged women, invisibility, rage, and bees. Both powerful and lyrical.
Barbareek’s head perches on the hilltop, watching the battle for the throne of Hastinapur unfold before him. His hands—several miles away—itch to pick up his bow and join the fray.
Based on a tale from the ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata, this is an epic story of war, family, vows, and boons, as seen by a decapitated head. There is a sense of unrelenting tragedy and horror, as young Barbereek helplessly watches his family members slaughter themselves. But there’s also a dry, bitter humor here that I really love, and a certain satisfaction in watching god-given boons, or favors, backfiring upon the people who wield them. A riveting story.
“The Stumblybum Imperative” by Christopher Hawkins in Fusion Fragment Issue #5
“That’s a Numblycrumb. They like wrongthoughts,” Sophie said, her voice small and distant. “If you think too many wrongthoughts, the Numblycrumbs come and they find you.”
Carol’s daughter Sophie has been watching a television show called The Stumblybums. Carol hasn’t been paying attention to what Sophie watches; she’s depressed in the wake of the end of her marriage, and even getting out of bed is a struggle for her. But the boy next door has some pills that help, and then Carol starts watching the show alongside her daughter. . . This is a slow, intense spiral into obsession and addiction, that you keeps you reading in ever-increasing dread. And The Stumblybums is certainly the Worst Children’s Television Show ever, an unholy Teletubbies-like show of plush and glitter and menace. A wonderfully dark, creepy, horrifying read.
“The Center of the Universe” by Nadia Shammas in Strange Horizons
. . . I know now a fundamental truth about those who are blessed to be in the center and those who wait for the light to touch on them from time to time: my suffering is compelling to the audience.
An absolutely brutal, stunning story told in the form of someone in a simulation, or media story scripted for an audience. A story about those who are not centered, not the main character; the supporting character, the “diversity” character. The one who only becomes compelling to the audience if there’s pain to be consumed.
“The Sin of America” by Catherynne M. Valente in Uncanny
There’s a woman outside of a town called Sheridan, where the sky comes so near to earth it has to use the crosswalk just like everybody else.
There’s a woman outside of Sheridan, sitting in the sun-yellow booth in the far back corner of the Blue Bison Diner & Souvenir Shoppe under a busted wagon wheel and a pair of wall-mounted commemorative plates. One’s from the moon landing. The other’s from old Barnum Brown discovering the first T-Rex skeleton up at Hell Creek.
There’s a woman outside of Sheridan and she is eating the sin of America.
I had to quote the entire opening of Valente’s story just to show off how good she is. This story is filled with her characteristically lush prose, her gorgeous and evocative details, her deep sense of setting. This is a story about real-seeming characters, and also a searing allegory; it’s tender, and then turns stunningly brutal. Gorgeous, horrifying, and brilliant.