Short fiction recs! January--February 2023
It’s been a busy (and still cold!) spring, and this round-up is later than usual. Nevertheless, here are some stories that I read over January and February—stories strange and dark, warm and hopeful, rich and lovely.
Stories of Memories, Dreams, and Nightmares
"Flower, Daughter, Soil, Seed" by Eugenia Triantafyllou in Uncanny Magazine
Your great-great-grandmother was a yellow daffodil. Where she was born people called her narcissus. Her many heads blossomed from a loamy opening in the forest on a particularly chill spring day. They rose hungrily, searching for a few precious rays of sunlight. Her stems pushed against each other and against the cold wind.
A flower is born, and dies. But from her death a daughter springs forth, with memories of her mother. This is a gorgeous story of survival, migration, resilience, and change. And it’s also a story of coming home, of both finding and accepting sweetness and love.
“Tell Me the Meaning of Bees” by Amal Singh in Diabolical Plots
On a sunless morning, in the city of Astor, the word ‘caulk’ vanished.
The word didn’t announce its vanishing with trumpets or a booming clarion call. It faded away slowly in the middle of the night, like the last lyrics of a difficult song. The ones who didn’t use the word ‘caulk’ could not even tell what had gone wrong—the non-engineers, the artists and intellectuals—because for all intents and purposes, they would have spent their entire lifetimes not caulking anything.
A strange, rich story about a city where words—and the concepts behind the words—unpredictably disappear. And about two Keepers—an old man and an old woman—whose job it is to invent new words to replace the ones lost. But when the word-disappearances become more unpredictable and dangerous, the Keepers decide that they must make a perilous journey to the Tapestry of all words to investigate the problem. A surreal, lovely fable of vivid images and concepts. A story of unexpected warmth, in its delicate depiction of the relationship between the two Keepers.
"Amma's Kitchen" by Rati Mehrotra in The Deadlands
I can always tell what dish my customers will order. Knowing what the dead crave is my gift. Or my curse. It’s hard to know which.
In a diner for the dead, Amma makes whatever food the dead wish for. Fish pakora. Goat curry. Pink candyfloss. Foods of precious memory, foods of home. She’s created a warm, cozy place for her regulars. Her food comforts and satisfies, and helps the dead ultimately move along. But Amma is tired, and it would be nice for someone else to do the cooking for a change. This is such a warm, lovely story of food and memory, one that takes a turn to sudden poignancy at the end as the story of Amma’s own life is revealed.
“We All Fall Down” by Ai Jiang in The Dark
When you told your husband you loved the rain, a secret you whispered at the end of your wedding vows, rather than leaning in to kiss you, he looked as though he wanted to strike you. It was he who taught you to fear storms and it was he who brought you to the town of Fountain—a place of unending rain.
Ai Jiang’s stories are so wonderfully strange, dark, and atmospheric—and this is no exception. This is a story about a city where it never stops raining. A story about time and the freezing of time, about the promise of immortality and the lure of death. And about what humans want when we say we want to live.
“Until It Has Your Reflection” by Katherine Quevedo in Nightmare
I hold the crayon to the mirror, ready to swipe it across my reflection’s neck just as my husband, Tomas, instructed. Make a quick horizontal line, then break the crayon against the glass. Snap it like you would your reflection’s neck.
Mirrors always have something of the uncanny to them. This story leans into that uncanniness hard, in a tale that feels like an original new urban legend. A lean, tense, swift-moving nightmare of mirrors, images and control.
“The Dream Market” by Monte Lin in Translunar Travelers Lounge
You begin this dream in the middle, as always, knowing that the merchant is named Nihtcargast and sells nightmares. He runs a claw through the porcupine-like quills on the top of his head. “Nightmares are burnt soft-boiled eggs, you see.”
I have a weakness for magical street market stories, and oh, Monte Lin’s tale delivers. A narrator wanders through a dream-market, trading nightmares, memories, and dreams. All three are different faces of the same thing, a magical cat vendor says. This is a story that is at once nightmarish—the narrator’s nightmares really are surreal horrors—and also strange and lovely, with an ending at dawn that promises growth and new beginnings.
Fusion Fragment—Special Novelette Issue
January’s issue of Fusion Fragment featured three novelettes, including my own urban fantasy, “How to Travel Safely in Faerieland.” I’ll not review my own story (thought I’d still invite you to read it!) but I will happily review the other two strange and wonderful tales.
“The Day We Returned to Sunnytown” by Angela Liu
I should have deleted the message. Should have checked it off with all the shop newsletters I was too lazy to unsubscribe from. But there were a number of details that made this message more unsettling than you typical spam mail.
A woman receives an email from her own old Hotmail account. An email with details that no stranger should know. And thus begins a mind-bending mystery about the 1990s Internet, childhood sweethearts, virtual reality and tech, office work, and a life that doesn’t seem quite real. An unsettling story with unexpected twists and turns, and real poignancy at the end.
“The Meiosis of Cells and Exile” by Octavia Cade
The journey to Dzhambul was not so very terrible. The train was cold and uncom-fortable, the guards more so with their smooth young faces and their strong young hands gripped always on the sticks and guns they never went without. But Lina’s advantage was her age—she might have been adjudged a traitor, but at 74 she was as old as their mothers, as old as their grandmothers, and the smooth, strong young guards saw age as well as treason, saw cradle songs and milk, scraped knees and poppet dolls and were kinder than they could have been though that kindness was a fitful one, and embarrassed.
In 1950s Stalinist Russia, the Jewish biochemist Lina Stern was arrested, along with her friends, on trumped-up charges of treason. Her friends were executed in what became known as The Night of the Murdered Poets. Lina herself was allowed to live, protected by her fame and importance as a scientist, and sent into exile. Octavia Cade reimagines Stern’s story in a surreal and powerful work. “The Meiosis of Cells and Exile” is a story of resistance and survival, filled with details of science and history. It also uses elements of surrealism to imagine how Stern survived her circumstances; in this story, the scientist undergoes a kind of “meiosis”—a literal splitting of the self into different aspects that allow her to survive. Academician, feral child, scientist—these are the different identities that split off to aid the elderly woman and help her survive. A stunningly powerful story, beautifully written.
Older stories from 2022
Two stories that I’d earlier missed from 2022, and which I only found now.
“An Oldman Cometh and He is Overgrown” by Lyndsie Manusos in Lightspeed
Udo was an old man, a man I hadn’t seen in years and neglected to write. Sure, I wrote Tillie during the holidays; I sent gifts and trinkets I found on my travels. But I never sent a direct message to Udo. He was…a hard man. Selfish. Dramatic. Tillie was his only softness, rounding out his severe lines and smoothing his bark. He taught me everything there was to know about summoning. It was Tillie that taught me how to feel.
Years after leaving, a man returns to the summoner who taught him magic. It’s not a happy occasion, for Tillie, the wife of the grim Udo and a mother-figure for the narrator, is dead. In grief, Udo has summoned a multitude of souls that distress the quiet town. Now it seems that only Udo’s former apprentice can disperse these souls. This is a story about grief, yet it’s also about reconciliation and love. It’s warm, moving, and whimsical. A story with the feel of a Studio Ghibli movie—with that type of charm and magic and whimsy, but also threaded through with deep emotion. Beautifully done.
In Lily’s last vlog, she says she’s not scared of dying. I know it’s a lie because her gaze drifts off camera and she blinks three times, like there’s something in her eyes. Lily was always a bad liar, but I am a very good editor, so her six-point-five million loyal subscribers never have to know.
Lily was an influencer, famous for her online makeup tutorials and vlogs. And behind the camera, filming Lily but never seen herself, was Lily’s girlfriend. Now Lily is dead and her girlfriend is alone with her grief—someone Lily never acknowledged publicly. Someone that Lily’s fans know nothing of. Complicating the narrator’s grief is the digital resurrection and immortality of Lily. A company buys Lily’s YouTube channel and starts posting with an AI-version of Lily that mimics her appearance, voice, style, everything. A hologram version of Lily sells cosmetics at the mall. This is a powerful story about the unintended consequences of social media fame, about artificial intelligence programs, corporate greed, and loss and grief. And about what’s real underneath it all.
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