Short fiction recs! May-June 2023
My short fiction recs from late spring/early summer. Tales of horror and magic, beauty and grief, discovery and wonder and strength.
“Sasabonsam” by Tara Campbell in Strange Horizons
I sit high in the mahogany tree, my long limbs dangling toward the earth. My eyes, if you could see them, would gleam at you in the moonlight. I am alert, but I let my arms swing idly with the breeze. They look just like the vines drooping from the branches, don’t they?
This is an older story, which I only just discovered thanks to a recommendation online. It’s a tale about a sasbonsam—a monster of West African folklore—and its prey. It’s a tale of curling tension and deliciously dark twists. The sasabonsam eats humans and feeds on their regrets. But in the end, who is the predator and who the prey?
“Lullaby for the Unseen” by Nelly Geraldine Garcia-Rosas in Weird Horror
Ariel. It is because of him that I have this scar.
He was my classmate. A very thin kid, shorter than me, with greasy black hair and sunken eyes that showed dark bags under them, maybe bruises, I do not know.
An exquisitely creepy little flash tale about a haunted house, the boy who lives there, and a girl who loves looking at the things she should not.
“Undog" by Eugenia Triantafyllou in Strange Horizons
There’s a dog in this house. A not-quite-a-dog. An undog. I heard its whimpering the first week I slept here, the thump, thump, thump of its bulky legs on the old tiles. I found long brown hair mixed with dust bunnies where the walls met.
Oh, this story. Triantafyllou does so much under 2000 words. This is a story that seems to start off as horror—and it is a kind of horror—but not the way you think. This is a story about quiet cruelty, about subtle wounds, about the slowly suffocating nature of certain family relationships. It’s about the pain that the “undog” and the narrator share, in different ways, and the bond they find. It is so beautifully, exquisitely done, and it made my heart hurt.
“One Heart, Lost and Found” by Kat Howard in Lightspeed
I came to the city to find an egg. A robin’s egg, to be precise, an oval of pale, perfect blue that echoed the spring sky. Inside, not a robin, but an emerald. Inside the emerald, a wizard’s heart.
The narrator of this lush, magical tale has a gift for finding the lost treasures of others. But what of the narrator’s own heart? What has this person lost, and what—if they pursued their own freedom—could they find? A tale of a magical subway system, an unexpected guide, and a quest that takes an unexpected turn.
“Interstate Mohinis” by M.L. Krishnan in Diabolical Plots
Time spun in recursive loops since I died in a scream of metal and flame and asphalt on the Parthibanur State Highway. There was no cremation. What could they consign to the flame? A scorched knob of my torso? My jawbone, still glued with tissue? A lone filling snugly hidden within a lone tooth?
A nameless woman has died and come back as a mohini, an irresistible seductress who devours men. But it doesn’t matter how many she eats—she’s always hungry. Then one day she sees a beautiful woman in a green sari, and knows a different type of hunger. . . This is a darkly gorgeous piece, written in Krishnan’s sharp and lyrical prose. An aching story about forgotten and abused women, about hunger and loneliness, about desperation and mythology and grief.
“To Helen” by Bella Han in Clarkesworld
I am waiting for Helen on her fiftieth birthday. On the table, there’s a crystal drinking glass and a vase with rare orchids; I can’t tell if the flowers are genuine or not. Faint piano notes and a cold scent drift in the air. Beautiful men and women sit on white leather sofas, all appear to be in their twenties. I feel a little uneasy.
This quiet opening perfectly sets the stage for Han’s brilliant, chilling story. A tea-time meeting between old friends: sunlight and elegance and beauty. But there’s just a hint of unease in the scene. And this unease steadily increases as the story unwinds, as the reader comes to realize that the flowers are not the only thing in the room that may be artificial. In this dystopian near-future science-fiction story, the invention of the Surgery grants eternal youth to those wealthy enough to afford it. Helen Yu was among the first recipients, and on her fiftieth birthday she still looks twenty-five. Her friend, Xiao An, was able to afford the surgery ten years later, just before the age limit, and so now looks forever thirty-five. They are both lucky. But what is luck and happiness, in this world where Xiao An and her husband must work themselves to the bone to make sure they can afford the Surgery for their own daughter; where everyone is desperate to stay forever young; where the elderly are pushed out of the main cities, out of sight, into slums and cities built just for them so that no one else has to be bothered by the sight of wrinkles and age? As Helen and Xiao An speak over tea and scones, the cracks in the façade of perfection become more and more apparent. The sweep of capitalist and societal pressures is evoked here, but also the more intimate, personal disappointments of life. A quietly haunting, unsettling story that slowly builds in emotion until it reaches a final striking, nearly surreal image.
“Her Suffering, Pretty and Private” by Aimee Ogden at GiganotoSaurus
She’d had a pair of seamstresses to work for her, once upon a time, to do all the fussier piecing and hand-sewing. Sacred seas, she’d had customers once, too. A hundred years’ sleep had changed those things and so many more besides.
A remarkable retelling of the tale of Sleeping Beauty, one focused not on the sleeping princess or her prince, but on the city that slept a hundred years. A people who never agreed to the sleeping curse and who now, awakened a hundred years later, must try to live in a strange new world of motorcars and electricity, a world where the newly awakened are out of step and out of time. Adalène was the seamstress who once made the royal princess’ christening gown. Now she struggles to survive, her specialized skills considered too rarified and expensive in a world where cheap factory-made cloth is available. Ogden’s premise is beautifully realized in this quiet, and quietly angry and moving piece, about the ones who aren’t the titular heroes of the fairy tale, who didn’t get to choose their fate, who were caught up in another’s curse. . . but who do their best to pick up the pieces, to move on, to piece together what contentment they can from new lives. A lovely, rich, and unexpectedly tender piece.
The May 2023 Special Wuxia/Xianxia issue of Strange Horizons
The Chinese fantasy genres of wuxia and the related xianxia have become increasingly popular in the West, with the international success of television dramas such as The Untamed and Love Between Fairy and Devil, and English translations of wuxia/xianxia novels both classic (Jin Yong’s The Legend of the Condor Heroes) and new. In May, Strange Horizons had a guest-edited issue devoted to wuxia/xianxia, and the entire issue is worth a read. Although I spotlight only the fiction here, the poetry is also lovely and moving, and I urge everyone to read those and the nonfiction pieces as well.
“The Ocean Remembers the Wave” by L. Chan
Huizhong found the femur of his beloved in a tavern located in a Sambo spaceport. The tavern was the sole source of light in the sector; all around the crab-like carapaces of worker drones whistled past, hauling cargo and following paths marked out in infrared paint.
Wuxia in outer space! Chan deftly blends space opera, cyberpunk, and the spirit and tropes of wuxia fantasy into a lyrical adventure-quest, loosely based on the epic sea voyages of the great Chinese Admiral Zheng He. A lone warrior, Huizhong, searches the empire for the bones of his beloved, battling with both blade and song. I inwardly cheered to see classic wuxia scenes in this novel setting—fighting with a fan! Trashing a (spaceport) tavern! A gorgeously, brilliantly inventive piece, with some real poignancy as well.
“One for Sorrow, Two for Mirth” by Tina S. Zhu
Poppy had been asked by Leaping Crane to prove herself capable, to demonstrate that she was ready to strike out on her own after journeying together for six years. Leaping Crane had made her promise to guard a woman for a week and introduced her to Diana, no last name given. Diana greeted them in foggy San Francisco, curtsying as they dismounted from their horses.
Wuxia set in the American Wild West! Poppy Chan is a wandering cowboy warrior, trained by the legendary Leaping Crane. When she accepts the assignment to guard a rich white woman from the East, she has no idea that the woman’s past intersects deeply with her own. What follows is rollicking adventure with traditional wuxia themes of revenge, duty, family and magic. There’s tragedy in Poppy’s past, but her spirit is irrepressible, and there’s a certain lightness of touch to this tale. A delightfully fresh reimagining of wuxia in a magical Wild West.
“The God of Minor Troubles” by Megan Chee
He had been on the moon when he received the summons, dozing beside one of the shallow pools of liquid silver that dotted the moon’s surface. The heavenly rabbit who had been sent to summon him thumped its hind legs to get his attention. “Lord Dǔníng! Your presence is required in the Golden Sky Palace! The Immortal Emperor himself commands it!”
“Very well,” Dǔníng said, cracking an eye open. “I will be on my way shortly. In five minutes.”
Unfortunately for Duning, he falls asleep and is late by quite a bit more than five minutes. And so while the Immortal Emperor gives Duning’s brothers and sisters such titles as God of the Hunt and Goddess of Scholars, Duning gets named to the most minor position of all: the God of Minor Troubles. This last story in Strange Horizon’s special issue has the most traditional setting—a magical world of immortal beings, heroes, and bandits that is recognizable to any fan of wuxia and xianxia. Yet, like the other authors, Chee gives her own fresh spin to the genre. Duning thinks he’s been given a lowly position, and is annoyed with having to attend to the minor vexations of mortals. But when he attends to the insomnia of a cranky old warrior one night, he and the mortal both learn that minor issues, and help in seemingly small matters, can be important indeed. A charming, warm-hearted tale of unexpected heroes.