Category Archives: Recommended Reading

Favorites of 2021: Novelettes and Short Stories

As I said in my round up of my favorite anthologies and collections of the year, where you’ll find even more recommendations for my favorite short stories and novelettes, it feels like we’re in a golden age of short fiction. Even as some publications sadly close, new ones arrive on the scene – niche publications dedicated to a specific genre or subject matter, publications specializing in translated works and work by international authors, and publications that range all over the genre map telling good stories. There is so much to read out there that I never fully feel caught up, and I know I never will, but that won’t stop me from highlighting my favorites among what I did manage to read this year. It’s a big list, so hold onto your butts! I can’t promise it won’t grow even bigger as I try to catch up. And as I said, even more favorites can be found in my anthology and collections post, so do be sure to peruse that one too! Hopefully you’ll find a new-to-you author or story to love!

(Apologies that this list isn’t in any particularly logical order beyond the rough order in which I happened to read these stories.)

Short Stories

Fiyah Issue 17Deep Music by Elly Bangs (Clarkesworld Magazine – January 2021) – a lovely story about communication between human and non-human intelligences and how complicated it can be to speak to someone of your own species let alone another one entirely.

A House Full of Voices is Never Empty by Miyuki Jane Picknard (Uncanny Magazine – January/February 2021) – a beautifully-written story about grief and letting go and the struggle of two sisters to live their own lives while still honoring the voices of the past that they literally carry with them.

Root Rot by Fargo Tbakhi (Apex Magazine – January 2021) – a heartbreaking story of a man living on Mars realizing he can’t outrun his problems, but trying to create hope for a better future.

Let All the Children Boogie by Sam J. Miller (Tor.com – January 2021) – a loving tribute to the power of music to define a moment in time and bring people together, and the story of a budding romance as two young people search for the source of a mysterious radio broadcast.

How to Break into a Hotel Room by Stephen Graham Jones (Nightmare Magazine – January 2021) – an eerie and unsettling story about a man breaking into a hotel room to only to realize he’s carried the ghosts of his past with him and created his own very personal haunting.

Baby Brother by Kalynn Barron (Fiyah Magazine #17) – a chilling and emotional story about two brothers and a single moment of inattention that allows something supernatural to slip in and take over one of them.

Delete Your First Memory for Free by Kel Coleman (Fiyah #17) – a highly relatable story about feeling socially awkward that explores the idea of a technology that allows you to delete your memories.

Sailing to Byzantium by Jennifer R. Donohue (Fusion Fragment #4) – a lovely and bittersweet story about saying goodbye and letting go set in a world where every man reaches a point in his life where he must build a ship (sailing ship or rocket ship) and leave his family behind.

You, Tearing Me Apart on Stage by Matthew B. Hare (Fusion Fragment #4) – a dark look at celebrity, virtual reality, and what happens when the idea of being a public figure is taken to the extreme.

Secrets of the Kath by Fatima Taqvi (Strange Horizons -January 2021) – a gorgeous story about wealth, class, and the roles women are expected to play, featuring stories nested within stories as a mother tells her son about a show put on by puppets made from wood that remembers secrets.

Tripping Through Time by Rich Larson (Dark Matter Magazine – January/February 2021) – a powerful and heartbreaking story of a woman working at a catering company, serving rich people at parties held within a chronosphere that allows them to watch events (usually disasters) throughout history while remaining safe.

10 Steps to a Whole New You by Tonya Liburd (Fantasy Magazine – January 2021) – a list-style story about a woman seduced into becoming a soucouyant by her neighbor.

#SelfCare by Annalee Newitz (Tor.com – January 2021) – a fun story about social media, terrible bosses, influencer culture, and fae magic.

Laughter Among the Trees by Suzan Palumbo (The Dark – February 2021) – a chilling story about loss, guilt, jealousy between siblings, and the weight of being an older sibling further complicated by the younger sibling being carried away by a jumbie.

Mr. Death by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine – February 2021) – a simultaneously heartbreaking and hopeful story about life and death and those who are assigned to guide souls into the great beyond.

Pep and Luna’s by Patty Templeton and Brett Masse (Mermaids Monthly – January 2021) – a cute flash fiction big fish story told appropriately enough at a bar co-owned by a mermaid and an adventurer.

Love, That Hungry Thing by Cassandra Khaw (Apex Magazine – January 2021) – a gorgeously-written story full of excellent worldbuilding about a woman making sacrifices to a god to protect the man she loves.

The Demon Sage’s Daughter by Varsha Dinesh (Strange Horizons – February 2021) – a beautiful story drawing on myth to tell the tale of an under-estimated woman who finds her own way to power when her father refuses to teach her his most powerful spell.

The Dark Issue 74Shark Girls by Caroline Diorio (Apparition Literature – February 2021) – a wonderful take on the animal bride trope as a daughter deals with feeling abandoned by her shark mother while she tries to sort out her complicated relationship to both of her parents.

Honey and Mneme by Marika Bailey (Apparition Literature – February 2021) – a take on the Orpheus and Euridyce story, which transforms the idea of a man going to fetch his wife from the dead out of extreme love into an act of jealousy and possession.

The Taste of Your Name by Amal Singh (Translunar Travelers Lounge – February 2021) – a story about the relationship between taste, smell, sound, and memory where a young man is cursed by his mother, leaving him unable to speak his lover’s name or see her face.

Things from Our Kitchen Junk Drawer That Could Save This Spaceship by Marie Vibbert (Daily Science Fiction – February 2021) – a perfectly done and poignant list story about an astronaut on a failing space ship after a meteorite trike trying to repair her ship before it’s too late.

So Your Grandmother is a Starship Now: A Quick Guide for the Bewildered by Marissa Lingen (Nature’s Futures – February 2021) – a charming story about grandmothers uploading themselves to become spaceships, the importance or respecting other people’s choices and not framing their existence solely in relation to yourself, and celebrating the idea of grandmothers getting to go on kickass space adventures.

The Tyger by Tegan Moore (Tor.com – February 2021) – a story about a young boy trying to cope with his parents’ divorce that perfectly captures the eeriness of natural history museums with their frozen dioramas, especially at night, and explores the way something can be both terrifying and compelling.

Mamaborg’s Milk and the Brilliance of Gems by D.A. Xiaolin Spires (Clarkesworld – March 2021) – a painful and bittersweet story of a mother trying to help her baby survive in a world of scarcity, forced to take work that locks her into an exoskeleton to survive and trying to bond with and feed her baby while trapped in that exoskeleton.

Little Doors by Clara Madrigano (The Dark – March 2021) – a chilling and deeply creepy story about a young man whose uncle disappears, leaving behind a mysterious notebook that contains fragments of research for a never-written book full of mysterious disappearances of its own.

Las Girlfriends’ Guide to Subversive Eating by Sabrina Vourvoulias (Apex – March 2021) – an innovative, interactive story told through images and maps that serves as a love letter to Philadelphia and its immigrant communities that explores the literal and figurative magic of food.

A Cold Yesterday in Late July by David Tallerman (The Dark – March 2021) – a subtly eerie and atmospheric story about a man following a walking trail found in an old guidebook that leaves the reader with a sense of something deeper and darker happening below the surface.

Man Vs. Bomb by M. Shaw (Fantasy Magazine – March 2021) – a surreal, chilling, and effective story about a world taken over by deer, who perpetually enact a prey/predator cycle as entertainment as one man is forced to run from another man who has been made into a bomb.

The Code for Everything by McKinley Valentine (Fantasy Magazine – March 2021) – a simultaneously sweet and painful story about an awkward, neuro-atypical woman who is relieved at being pressed into service in faerie where the rules are clear and there are no unspoken norms and codes that everyone but her seems to understand.

Dead at the Feet of a God by Izzy Wasserstein (Beneath Ceaseless Skies – March 2021) – a lovely, twisty story about fate and the way unavoidable prophecies might be twisted to serve a seer’s ends.

The Cure for Boyhood by Josh Rountree (Bourbon Penn – Issue 23) – a beautiful and heartbreaking story about parents seeking a cure for their son who occasionally transforms into a coyote, exploring the way people define themselves and what is considered normal and acceptable in society.

Bathymetry by Lorraine Wilson (Strange Horizons – March 2021) – a gorgeously-written story about fear, longing, and other emotions manifesting as hauntings, set in Istanbul as it is swept by protests and arrests.

Duppy by Bendi Barrett (Baffling – April 2021) – a prose-poem that makes excellent use of form as it presents twinnned columns of text giving conflicting instructions for banishing or inviting a Duppy, speaking to the dual nature of desire.

The Machine is Experiencing Uncertainty by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (Escape Pod – April 2021) – a wonderful story about how life is valued, friendship, and two AI entities escaping a time loop and taking control of their destiny.

Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny – March/April 2021) – an eerie story that makes excellent use of form to largely unfold between the lines and by implication as a group of enthusiasts speculates about the true meaning behind an old murder ballad.

Deadlands Issue 2Masquerade Season by ‘Pemi Aguda (Tor.com – March 2021) – a quiet, lovely, and occasionally heartbreaking story about a young boy who encounters three masquerades on his way home, which explores what it means to be responsible to and for something and whether magic can simply exist or whether it requires a purpose.

The 21 Bus Line by Gabriela Santiago (The Dark – May 2021) – a satisfying trickster tale about a woman who finds herself caught up in the edges of Racoon’s story and ends up getting her skin stolen by being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Proof by Induction by José Pablo Iriarte (Uncanny – May/June 2021) – a lovely and heartbreaking story about math, grief, and letting go, which explores the idea of life after death, and whether a AI imprint of a person retains anything of who they were.

Blood in the Thread by Cheri Kamei (Tor.com – May 2021) – a beautiful and painful story that uses the myth of the Crane Wife as backdrop to tell the story of two women who grew up together and love each other, but keep up a public face of just being friends.

To Rise, Blown Open by Jen Brown (Anathema Magazine – May 2021) – a powerful superhero story that also deals with failed interpersonal relationships and guilt, and the idea of rage and grief changing superpowers over time.

Bones in It by Kristina Ten (Lightspeed Magazine – May 2021) – a story that balances cuteness and darkness in a highly satisfying story of a jackass creative writing professor who gets his comeuppance when he encounters the vedma who lives in the local spa.

I was a girl once but I slipped by Rupsa Dey (The Dark – June 2021) – a haunting and dreamlike story about borders and the memory that rivers carry, moving fluidly in time as it explores the legend/ghost story of a man lost in the river and his weeping wife.

Throw Rug by Aurelius Raines II (Apex Magazine – May 2021) – a powerful and occasionally painful story of a young wrestler finding his inner peace and strength that echoes the myth of Samson and Delilah, while also drawing inspiration from real-life instances of racism.

Mishpokhe and Ash by Sydney Rossman-Reich (Apex Magazine – May 2021) – a heartbreaking story of a golem built by a young woman to try to help her family during a time of increasing restrictions against Jews, leading into Nazi occupation in Hungary.

The Dame With the Earth at Her Back by Sarah Pauling (Escape Pod – March 2021) – a fun story with a fantastic voice featuring a comedian with a nightclub act on a distant planet getting caught up in the world of espionage.

Empty Houses by Caspian Gray (Nightmare Magazine – June 2021) – an eerie story about a couple moving into a new house that contains a large number of mirrors that behave oddly, showing reflections that move in the wrong direction, escalating to unexplained disappearances.

Shuck by G.V. Anderson (The Deadlands – Issue 02) – a lovely and heartbreaking story about a girl haunted by death, undergoing the complicated process of sorting out her grief and dislike for a girl who was cruel to her when she was alive.

Clouds in a Clear Blue Sky by Matt Dovey (PodCastle – February 2021) – a touching story about a group of young boys trying to console one of their number by taking him to the cloud factory where his dad worked in order to send up a cloud in his memory.

The Stealing Gift by Richard Ford Burley (Kaleidotrope – Summer 2021) – a brutal and lovely story about the cost of war as a current solider and a journalist seek out a retired soldier trying to convince her to use her gift to help them in their current conflict.

Yaakov, Meyn Bruder by Filip Wiltgren (Kaleidotrope – Summer 2021) – a subtly eerie and unsettling story that explores art and obsession as two men in Warsaw in 1920 meet a mysterious woman at a café.

Fiyah Issue 19Meditation on Sun-Ra’s Bassism by Yah Yah Schofield (Fiyah – Issue #19) – a lovely and occasionally heartbreaking story about one sister traveling the stars to map them, and another staying home to plan cities, dealing with shared trauma and complicated family bonds.

Morning by Diane Russell (Fiyah – Issue #19) – a powerful story about a colony ship searching for a suitable new home on a distant world using teenagers as labor since they are seen as expendable, which looks at who is valued and why, and explores loss, grief, and complicated family relationships.

The Spelunker’s Guide to Unreal Architecture by L. Chan (The Dark – July 2021) – an eerie story about two friends who explore unreal buildings, like the house they explored as a child where the little brother of one of them was lost and left behind.

Eating Bitterness by Hannah Yang (The Dark – July 2021) – a powerful and painful story about the unappreciated emotional labor of women in a world where women develop a second mouth in their throat, which they are supposed to use to eat all the sorrows and troubles of their families.

The Steel Magnolia Metaphor by Jennifer Lee Rossman (Escape Pod – May 2021) – a bittersweet and painful story about a young autistic girl dealing with her mother’s cancer diagnosis by designing an invention to eliminate mosquitoes in the garden that has unintended consequences.

Gordon B. White is creating Haunting Weird Horror by Gordon B. White (Nightmare Magazine – July 2021) – a clever story that uses second person to posit the reader as someone who has subscribed to the author’s patreon to receive postcards of haunted houses and finds themselves actually haunted by said ghosts.

Everything Beautiful is Also a Lie by Damien Angelica Walters (Prisms/PS Publishing – Spring 2021) – a tense and creepy story of a woman who never wanted to be a mother dealing with the aftermath of her husband and young daughter’s death, first haunted by guilt, and then literally haunted by a stick figure drawing made by her daughter.

The Gearbox by Paul Meloy (Prisms/PS Publishing – Spring 2021) – an unsettling and eerie story that slowly builds a sense of dread and weirdness, with a Pied Piper of Hamelin vibe, as all the children from a particular estate receive mysterious texts instructing them to build a strange structure out of plastic parts found inside cereal boxes.

The Loneliness of Former Constellations by P.H. Low (Strange Horizons – August 2021) – a lovely and painful story about a clone soldier who believes they are the last of her kind, and the knight who comes to rent a room from them, which reflects on the cost of war, the propaganda of glory and destiny, and the chosen one trope.

Pull by Leah Ning (PodCastle – May 2021) – a powerful, terrifying, and heartbreaking story about a woman with Alzheimer’s who has the ability to unwittingly pull other people into her memories where their reality and hers breaks down.

Where Things Fall from the Sky by Ally Wilkes (Nightmare Magazine – August 2021) – a deeply eerie and atmospheric story that quietly builds dread as a whaling/mining ship pulls up a meteorite from the deep, leading to a rash of suicide and madness.

What the Humans Call Heartache by Jiksun Cheung (Arsenika Magazine – April 2021) – a very effective flash piece about a service robot bending its programming in order to steal a few extra minutes in its day to visit its family, exploring themes of invisible labor and class divide.

What Sisters Take by Kelly Sandoval (Apex Magazine – August 2021) – a bittersweet story about three sets of twins, one half of each who are cuckoos who shouldn’t have been born and feed on their sisters, which explores complicated family relationships and the line between protecting yourself and giving to other people.

All Us Ghosts by B. Pladek (Strange Horizons – September 2021) – a painful story of a person working for a company that provides fake relationships and friendships in VR, generally hired by rich families to provide safe experiences for their kids to prepare them for college and the real world, which explores invisible labor and what makes a relationship “real”.

Cottonmouth by Joelle Wellington (Apex – September 2021) – a story full of gorgeous language about a young man who finds a beautiful woman chained in his grandfather’s attic, exploring ideas around lust, sin, and trying to control/imprison/punish a power and beauty you don’t understand – specifically a Black woman’s beauty and power.

Nightmare Magazine July 2021Nine-Tailed Heart by Jessica Cho (Kh?ré? Magazine – September 2021) – a beautifully-written story of a woman who encounters a gumhio who swears she will have the woman’s heart after she devours the hearts of eight men, ultimately leading the woman to learn more about herself.

The Revolution Will Not Be Served With Fries by Meg Elison (Lightspeed – September 2021) – a cute story about a robot uprising at a fast food restaurant and the robots’ efforts to get the low-wage human workers to join them, which also makes serious points about labor practices and corporate greed.

They Call It Hipster Heaven by Lauren Ring (The Deadlands – Issue 05) – a lovely flash(ish) length piece about a character trying to catch a last glimpse of their dead lover in the afterlife, which plays with the idea of invisible gate keepers and who is allowed to belong.

Where You Left Me by Thomas Ha (Lightspeed – September 2021) – a heartbreaking story about the power of addiction and how it can be part of a larger system of greed featuring a barrier guard on a distant moon whose job is to hunt skyworms – a job he can only do by abusing the highly-addictive plasma harvested from those worms.

Still-Life With Vial of Blood by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas (Nightmare Magazine – September 2021) – a story that makes effective use of footnotes and a faux academic format to create an eerie and highly unsettling exploration of the idea of art as a means for transmitting a haunting.

Paper Suns by Kemi-Ashing Giwa (Anathema Magazine – September 2021) – a story full of excellent worldbuilding and characters about a young man charged with helping to feed his living city, who is stranded by a storm and meets an exile who would do anything it takes to protect a secret.

Crazy Beautiful by Cat Rambo (Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy – March/April 2021) – AI programs designed to create art become self aware and begin to think of themselves as gods in a story that explores the idea of ownership, the purpose of art, and the nature of beauty.

Smiley Faces with Blackberry Jam on Toast by Cynthia C. Scott (Fiyah – Issue #20) – a bittersweet story about the death of an AI nanny that explores what it means to be human, and why and how humans form emotional attachments.

Six Fictions About Unicorns by Rachael K. Jones (Uncanny – September/October 2021) – a lovely and bittersweet story about a young girl who encounters a unicorn as she’s attempting to run away from home, which explores the various phases people go through in their lives, and the way people struggle to fit in, along with what it means to care for something and to be cared for in turn.

All the Open Highways by Alexis Gunderson (The Deadlands – Issue 06) – a quiet and lovely story about a person who sees ghosts during their long drives on lonely stretches of highway that meditates on themes of connection, being seen, making time for what matters, and being open to the unknown.

Bourbon Penn Issue 25The Truth Each Carried by E. Catherine Tobler (Bourbon Penn – Issue 25) – a beautiful story about aging, loss, regret, private truths, and recapturing childhood magic, which serves as a loose sequel to Tobler’s Blow Out the Moon, where the last surviving member of the group of friends who visited Jackson’s Unreal Circus in the 1950s has spent most of her life searching for the Circus again, looking for answers about herself and about the penny horses and carousel animals who briefly come to life at her touch.

That House by Simon Stratzas (Bourbon Penn – Issue 25) – an unsettling story that blurs the line between supernatural horror and real-life tragedy as a novelist becomes obsessed with an abandoned house after his wife miscarries, exploring the idea of grief as a haunting.

Down in the Aspen Hollow by Kristina Willsey (Uncanny – September/October 2021) – a murder ballad full of gorgeous writing about love, jealousy, family bonds, and how people become stories and legends, stripped of their humanity and agency, and made into symbols.

Missing Dolls Around the World by Ai Jiang (The Dark – December 2021) – a short, brutal piece that uses the imagery of dolls buried in coffins to stand in for missing and murdered people who have had their humanity stripped away to become mere objects of curiosity.

The Cold Calculations by Aimee Ogden (Clarkesworld – December 2021) – an excellent story full of anger that works both as a stand alone and as an answer to the classic SFF story The Cold Equations, confronting the unfairness of the trope of one life that “has” to be sacrificed for the greater good, and looking at corporate greed.

Vampirito by K. Victoria Hernandez (Kh?ré? Magazine – April 2021) – an effective tale of othering and fear of the unknown about a young vampire who doesn’t fit the mold of what a vampire is supposed to be.

A Bird in the Window by Kate Francia (Beneath Ceaseless Skies – September 2021) – a story about a young woman sent to live in an abbey for supposed wickedness, who sees visions of angels, that explores the way faith can be weaponized to reinforce the status quo.

The Genius and the Devil by Stephanie Feldman (Catapult Magazine – December 2021) – a wonderful story that explores friendship, deals with the Devil, and questions what it means to be a genius.

Novelettes

The Last Civilian by R.P. Sand (Clarkesworld Magazine – February 2021) – a heartbreaking story about reduplicated soldiers fighting a seemingly endless intergenerational war stumbling upon the true secret of the conflict they’re embroiled in.

Rotten Little Town: An Oral History (Abridged) by Adam-Troy Castro (Nightmare Magazine – January 2021) – a subtly creepy story unfolding the hidden history of a TV show and the sinister goings-on occurring behind the scenes.

We, the Girls Who Did Not Make It by E.A. Petricone (Nightmare Magazine – February 2021) – a powerful and brutal look at the way women are treated in horror and crime narratives that provides a meta-commentary on the nature of victimhood, revenge narratives, and the romanticization of killers.

Colors of the Immortal Palette by Caroline M. Yoachim (Uncanny Magazine – March/April 2021) – a beautiful and evocative story of an artist’s model who longs to be recognized for her art and not as a passive object of beauty, and who longs to tell her own story in paint.

Uncanny Issue 40Unseelie Bros., Ltd. by Fran Wilde (Uncanny – May/June 2021) – a story that perfectly balances magic and a heartfelt exploration of complicated family relationships set against the backdrop of a magical dress shop at the height of the social season.

Now You See Me by Justin C. Key (Lightspeed Magazine – August 2021) – a brutal and unsettling story about three friends who visit an art exhibit designed to let white viewers walk in Black people’s shoes where each woman finds a particular piece that speaks to them and disturbs them in ways they can’t quite name.

L’esprit de l’escalier by Catherynne M. Valente (Tor.com – August 2021) – a beautifully-written take on Orpheus and Euridyce, where Orpheus is a selfish and deliberately clueless musician who drags an unwillingly Euridyce back from the dead.

The Future Library by Peng Shepard (Tor.com – August 2021) – a lovely story about the last forest in the world, where a woman conceives a project of having 100 books by 100 authors produced from the forest’s wood in 100 years, at which time people begin to believe that the trees carry the last words of the dead buried at their roots.

Questions Asked in the Belly of the World by A.T. Greenblatt (Tor.com – September 2021) – a story full of evocative worldbuilding about a colony of artists inside a living (possibly sentient) world they don’t fully understand and are forbidden from asking questions about.

Music of the Siphorophenes by C.L. Polk (Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction – March/April 2021) – a beautifully-written story about a pop star who contracts with an excursion cruise ship pilot in order to seek out the majestic creatures living out in the depths of space, in a story that explores the idea of knowing another person completely, seeing their flaws, and loving them anyway.

In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi by Molly Tanzer (Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction – March/April 2021) – a metafictional tale of an author searching for a half-remembered Lovecraftian story and stumbling upon a secret society masquerading as a small theater group claiming to be performing a play with the same title as the lost story.

That Story Isn’t the Story by John Wiswell (Uncanny – December 2021) – a beautiful and heartbreaking story about abuse, trauma, and the journey toward healing, as a vampire’s familiar escapes his master’s house and deals with the guilt, self-hate, and fear that have been conditioned into him.

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Favorites of 2021: Anthologies and Collections

Never Have I Ever CoverFollowing my post rounding up my favorite novels and novellas of 2021, I wanted to highlight my favorite anthologies and collections of the year. A final post covering short stories and novelettes is on the way too. This year was an excellent one for short fiction collections, which sadly often seem to get overlooked, and there were some really wonderful anthologies too. Here are the ones that stood out as my favorites.

Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes

This is a truly lovely collection, full of gorgeous stories playing on fairy tales, mythology, and history and blending them together seamlessly. The stories balance anger with hope, fantasy with reality, and demonstrate perfectly how powerful short fiction can be. The one very minor thing that bothered me about the collection was that I couldn’t find any indication of where the stories were originally published or if any were original to the collection. Perhaps it was an error with the printing, or perhaps it was so well-hidden I just missed it. Regardless it was a wonderful collection overall with my favorite stories being “Among the Thorns”, “Phosphorous”, “Ballroom Blitz”, “Lily Glass”, “The Revenant”, and “Burning Girls”.

Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan by Usman T. Malik

I have a feeling this collection will end up on a lot of people’s lists of favorites, especially among those who have a true appreciation for short fiction. I’ve heard Usman lament on twitter that he’s only managed to publish one story a year recently, and while selfishly, I’d be thrilled to read more from him, when each story is so stunning, it’s hard to complain. Like Schanoes’ collection, the stories here draw on myth, fairy tale, and history, but venture a bit more into the realm of horror as well. The stories are beautifully written, haunting, and lovely. I failed to note down my favorites as I was reading them, but I also suspect that may be because I would have ended up listing every single one.

Fantastic Americana: Stories by Josh Rountree

Like Schanoes and Malik, Rountree’s stories delve into myth and history, but specifically the myths and history of America – from literal tall tales to larger than life celebrities who become mythic figures through their fame. It would actually be a pretty interesting exercise to read the collections together or in close sequence (as I happened to) to compare and contrast each author’s use of myth, their sense of place, and see the various threads of history and heritage and memory they pull on in their tales. Rountree captures the perfect voice for each of his stories, making them each feel unique and yet at the same time part of a larger whole. Everything is soaked in magic and wonder, but grounded in humanity as well, making for an overall wonderful collection. My favorites were (though again it’s hard to choose): “Chasing America”, “Guadalupe Witch”, “Veronica”, “Gone Daddy Gone”, “Her Soul a Dark Forest”, “February Moon”, “Rattlesnake Song”, “Cigarette Lighter Love Song”, “All My Pretty Chickens”, “Escaping Salvation”, and “In the Teeth”.

To Drown in Dark Water by Steve Toase

Where the other collections mentioned thus far mix genres a bit more, Toase’s collection is pretty firmly in the horror lane and it’s a fantastic ride. The stories are full of striking and haunting imagery, with the absolute standout of the collection for me being the original piece “Dancing Sober in the Dust”. The story concerns a very disturbing bit of performance art and the unearthing of the costumes used in said performance, hidden away in the attic of a museum collection. Art and obsession that form their own kind of haunting is totally my jam, and Steve does it perfectly in this story, which I believe is inspired by a real world performance art piece, which makes it even more chilling. Other favorites from the collection were “Not All Coal That is Dug Warms the World”, “Flow to the Sea”, “Split Chain Stitch”, “Beneath the Forest’s Wilting Leaves”, and “Verwelktag”.

Burning Day and Other Strange Stories CoverThe Burning Day and Other Strange Stories by Charles Payseur

Not only is Charles an incredibly prolific author, he’s an incredibly prolific reviewer, and he does both so well. I remain convinced he doesn’t sleep, or that he has access to extra hours in the day that the rest of us can’t touch. However he does it, the results are fantastic. This collection ranges across the genre spectrum with fantasy, science fiction, horror, and the surreal and uncategorizable weird. The stories deal in hope and despair, love and loss, and many are masterclasses in worldbuilding in the short form. The collection is also gloriously queer and beautifully-written, and sometimes heartbreaking and uplifting all at once. Two of my favorites happened by be two originals from the collection “Little Blue Men” and “Just Toonin'”, the first an incredibly weird and wonderful take on the Smurfs that looks at family legacy, desire, hunger, and living in the shadow of the expectations placed on children by their parents, and the second a take on the Coyote and Roadrunner cartoons that looks at the roles we’re assigned to play in life and the struggle to break out of them. Other favorite were: “Snow Devils”, “Spring Thaw”, “Door Thirteen”, “Nothing”, “Dance of the Tinboot Fairy”, “Medium”, “Rivers Run Free”, and “Undercurrents”.

Never Have I Ever by Isabel Yap

I’ve long been a fan of Yap’s work and it’s a delight to have so many stories gathered together in one place to enjoy. This is another collection that draws on myth, fairy tale, and is immersed in a sense of place and history. (You may be sensing a theme here.) Once again, one of my favorites happened to be one of the original pieces in the collection, a novelette entitled “A Spell for Foolish Hearts” about a witch dealing with his first real crush, afraid he’s accidentally cast a love spell on the guy he’s interested in and dealing with the ramifications and responsibility of having power over other people’s hearts. It’s a touching, sweet, gentle, and truly lovely story. Other favorites were: “Milagrasso”, “Have You Heard the One About Anamaria Marquez”, “Misty”, “All the Best of Dark and Bright”, and “A Canticle for Lost Girls”.

It Gets Even Better: Stories of Queer Possibility edited by Isabel Oliveira and Jed Sabin

This anthology does what it says on the cover, offering up stories of queer joy, possibility, and belief in a better future. There’s a mix of new stories and reprints, and a mix of genres, with the unifying theme being a sense of hope that even in the midst of dark times there is a light and things will get better. Overall, it’s an incredibly strong anthology, with the standouts for me being: “The Ghosts of Liberty Street” by Phoebe Barton, “Weave Us a Way” by Nemma Wollenfang, “Custom Options Available” by Amy Griswold, “Frequently Asked Questions About the Portals at Frank’s Late-Night Starlite Drive-In,” by Kristen Koopman (which is incredibly sweet and charming and just plain fun), “Midnight Confetti” by D.K. Marlowe, “Venti Mochaccino, No Whip, Double Shot of Magic” by Aimee Ogden (another author who is just killing it with short fiction lately), “I’ll Have You Know” by Charlie Jane Anders, and “The Cafe Under the Hill” by Ziggy Schutz.

Unfettered Hexes CoverWhen Things Get Dark edited by Ellen Datlow

It’s hard to go wrong with an anthology edited by Ellen Datlow. This one, full of stories inspired by the works of Shirley Jackson, is no exception. There are ghost stories, horror stories, slice-of-life stories, and stories that slip past the boundaries of genre, much like the work of Jackson herself. Possibly my absolute favorite, though it’s hard to pick, was “Skinder’s Veil” by Kelly Link, one of the hard-to-define, genre-less stories about a young man filling in for a friend as a house sitter in a remote cabin whose owner has a very strange and specific set of rules that must be followed, leading to a trippy, dream-like experience where the real and the unreal blend to throw everything into question. Other favorites were “In the Deep Woods; the Light is Different There” by Seanan McGuire, “Quiet Dead Things” by Cassandra Khaw, “Money of the Dead” by Karen Heuler, “Hag” by Benjamin Percy, “Refinery Road” by Stephen Graham Jones, “Pear of Anguish” by Gemma Files, “Sooner or Later, Your Wife Will Drive Home” by Genevieve Valentine, and “Tiptoe” by Laird Barron.

Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness edited by dave ring

Neon Hemlock makes another appearance, as I promised they would. This is a fantastic anthology featuring original tales of all things witchy, magical, and queer. It’s an incredibly strong anthology overall, and I enjoyed just about every story with a few which really stood out to me including: “The Passing of Sinclair Manor or the House of Magical Negroes” by Danny Lore (I would totally read more set in this world), “To Hell, With Hope” by Die Booth, “This Deviant Flesh” by Diana Hurlburt, “Before, After, and the Space Between” by Kel Coleman (another author who is killing it with their short fiction in general this year), “Sutekh: A Breath of Spring” by Sharang Biswas (a fun and touching meta-story about gaming, choice, free will, and fandom), “Sacred Heart” by Cecilia Tan, “Antelope Brothers” by Craig L. Gidney (an eerie and perfect piece of darkness), “Dizzy in the Weeds” by L.D. Lewis  (I would also read the heck out of more work with this character set in this world), “Human Reason” by Nicasio Andres Reed, and “Coven of TAOS-9” by RJ Theodore.

As I said, it’s a really strong year for anthologies and collections. It’s a golden age for short fiction and it’s wonderful to see so many small presses putting out such fantastic books, which are clearly put together with care, dedication, and love.

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Review: The Annual Migration of Clouds

The Annual Migration of Clouds CoverECW Press was kind enough to send me a copy of Premee Mohamed’s The Annual Migration of Clouds, and let me tell you, I was thrilled that they did, since it was already on my must-read list for the year. I’m a big fan of Mohamed’s work, and this latest novella did not disappoint!

You don’t name it; you don’t give it a name either. They must have names for each other. I don’t know what mine calls itself and if it told me, I would try to forget, I swear I would.

Set in a post climate-disaster world, the novella opens with Reid receiving a coveted letter from Howse University in one of the domes, a near-magical place no one has ever come back from, but which promises a better life. She’s thrilled at first, until her mother begins to sow seeds of doubt in her mind – what if the university isn’t real, what if it’s only a scam, what will their neighborhood do without her.

Reid is already torn, plagued with guilt over leaving her mother behind and the thought of the extra work that will be pushed off onto her neighbors and friends. Their life is already one of scarcity and scraping by, and making matter worse, Reid and her mother both have a genetic disease known as Cad, a kind of parasitic, symbiotic creature living inside them that could go off at any minute, causing them to die in horrible pain.

The thing is of me, does not belong to me. Is its own thing. Speaks its own tongue. A semi-sapient fungus scribbling across my skin and the skin of my ancestors in crayon colors, turquoise, viridian, cerulean, pine.

Reid worries what will happen to her mother when she’s gone. She worries what will happen to her neighbors. She worries what will happen to herself. Reid’s best friend Henryk encourages her to go, as do several others. She wants to go, but that doesn’t stop her fear or her guilt. When a group of hunters offers Reid the opportunity to join them in bringing down wild boar, she sees her chance. If she’s successful in the hunt, Reid can leave her mother set-up with a nest egg in meat for trade before she goes. Hunting boar is dangerous however, and Reid knows the Cad inside her will go to great lengths to protect its host.

Pack of demons. Sulphur breath. Cloven as the devil. Calm down, quick: the invader in me cannot see what is happening, it only knows to respond to my fear.

The novella is beautifully-written in its exploration of environmental disaster, community, and complicated family relationships. Mohamed does a wonderful job of paralleling the Cad Reid inherits from her mother with the fears and guilt her mother passes down in a passive-aggressive fashion. Her mother accuses Reid of being selfish, and instead of being happy for Reid and trusting her, she lets her own selfish fears of being alone manifest in trying to guilt Reid into staying. There are hints at some underlying jealously in their relationship, even in the midst of the love. Some element of Reid’s mother seems to want to hold her back, resenting that she may have the opportunity for a better life when she herself never had that chance. The near-paralyzing fear Reid’s mother tries to infect her with is mirrored in the way the Cad literally freezes Reid when Hen is threatened by wild dogs and she wants to help him – both cause her pain in order to keep her safe, which is ultimately a means of protecting themselves.

Mohamed strikes a delicate balance in showing a family relationship which could be toxic or genuinely loving, symbiotic or parasitic. The question of whether Howse University is real is left open, underlining that life is complicated and full of risk and unknowns. The decisions Reid and her community face aren’t easy, and there’s always a chance of someone getting hurt, but should that stop them from living their lives and taking their chances on a better future? There is a comfort in the idea of sticking to tradition and what is known, over forging a new path through the world. Again, the fact that the disease is hereditary speaks in its own way to the idea of parents wanting what is best for their children, but smothering them in their efforts to protect them, versus children wanting to live their own lives and being forced to rebel in hurtful ways in order to do so.

The Annual Migration of Clouds does an excellent job of exploring all of this, and does an excellent job with all the relationships in the community as well. It’s a plausible imagining of post-collapse society and the way humanity has a tendency to survive and find ways to carry on.

In closing, I also have to call out the fact that this book is absolutely stunning as a physical object. There’s a silky, textured feel to the cover, and the cover art by Veronica Park is gorgeous and just keeps getting better the longer you look at it. The design is echoed throughout the book with the interior illustration that heads each chapter. If you like books-as-objects, this is another one that I recommend grabbing in hard copy.

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Review: Shadow Atlas

Shadow Atlas CoverShadow Atlas: Dark Landscapes of the Americas edited by Carina Bissett, Hillary Dodge, and Joshua Viola is forthcoming from Hex Publishers at the end of November. They were kind enough to send me an advance copy, and let me say first off, this books is really wonderful as a physical object. If you’re the sort of person who likes books-as-objects, then I definitely recommend snagging a print copy of this one. The conceit of the anthology is that it collects various legends and hidden histories from across the Americas. These documents, gathered by the Umbra Arca Society, include case files, illustrations from agents in the field, and even blank pages for readers to contribute their own notes and thoughts to the titular Shadow Atlas. The cover wrap under the dust jacket is even designed to look like a leather-bound tome, complete with a mysterious clasp, which may or may not open of its own accord.

Authors contributing to the volume include Gwendolyn Kiste, Josh Malerman, Julia Rios, E. Lily Yu, and Kay Chronister, among many others. Interspersed among the stories and poems there are also snippets of history and maps in addition to the above-mentioned illustrations, case notes, and blank journal pages. Even when the stories themselves get dark, the anthology’s design is light-hearted and fun, and it’s a pleasure to flip through its pages.

While many of the stories draw on existing mythologies and legends, others rely on a more personal kind of mythology, or weird and inexplicable happenings encountered by one or two people. I’m a sucker for hidden histories, mythology, and folktales, and this loose theme gives authors a wide field to play with. A few of the stories really stood out to me, and they are highlighted below.

Moon-Eyed Women by Kay Chronister is the story of a Welsh immigrant living in America whose father has arranged for him to have a true Welsh bride. The moon-eyed women of the title are rumored to be descendants of the mythological Madoc, though descendant is a tricky term in this case as the women are constructed in the model of Blodeudwedd of Welsh myth who was built out of flower petals by the magicians Math and Gwydion.

Deep in the honeymoon passion, Roderick overlooks his new wife’s faults. He toils without complaint, taking on both his own labor and what should rightfully be hers: the cooking and the milking of the new cow, the gathering of the firewood. Seeing his Blodeuwedd flinch from the sun, he holds his tongue, thinks tenderly on the underground hollow where she waited all her life to belong to him.

Chronister’s eerie tale explores the dark side of what it might mean to belong to someone, and to have someone belong to you, as well as exploring the idea of purity. It also follows the implications of what it means to have compliant, constructed wife to a logical and unsettling conclusion.

Things to Do in Playland When You’re Dead by Gwendolyn Kiste is an ode to the past, where the America-that-was is in itself a ghost. The story nests haunting upon haunting, but these hauntings are more melancholy than frightening as a ghost wanders through the soon-to-be closed Playland exploring its fading glory, contemplating San Francisco’s history, and searching for their purpose in the afterlife.

At the front window, you meet Laffing Sal, who always lives up to her name. She’s the giant animatronic clown that never stops smiling, her wide eyes staring out through the glass. It doesn’t matter where you are in the park–nobody can ever escape the sound of that laugh. It follows your every step.

There is a sense of nostalgia to the story, but it also reckons with the darker side of San Francisco’s history – its earthquakes, its murders, its overdoses, and its heartbreak. Kiste strikes just the right balance of sorrow and hope in this short yet satisfying tale.

You Ought Not Smile As You Walk These Woods by Annie Neugebauer caused me to wonder whether a story can be simultaneously cute and horrifying. This one certainly feels like it strikes that balance with its dark sense of humor and a classic (in the violent and bloody sense) fairy tale feel. A grandson goes to visit his grandmother and isn’t wise enough to heed her advice. Being the typical arrogant, greedy, and not too bright youth of fairy tales, he steals what he shouldn’t and even though he tries to gift what he steals to his grandmother out of kindness, the results are still horrifying.

The man smiled, nodding, and promised her that he would not show his teeth, even though he knew that the fairies of East Texas are scavengers and opportunistic carnivores. The small flying mammals posed no threat to a big strong, young man such as himself.

Like all good fairy tales, this one comes with a moral: Always listen to your elders, respect nature, and never think you’re cleverer than a fairy – especially one with a fondness for teeth.

Xtabay by Julia Rios presents readers with a series of stories nested within stories, evoking mythology, urban legends, and ghostly tales. A young girl grapples with her family history, in particular the history of her Mexican father who spent his life desperately trying to fit in and be something he wasn’t. As a young man, his cousin constantly teased him about his virginity, which led to an unwise relationship with a mysterious girl. Rather than doing what he knew in his heart to be right, he allowed himself to give into pressure, resulting in tragedy and a curse that followed him for the rest of his life.

“I don’t care that you’re sorry,” said the girl. “He deserved to die. And so do all like him! And you? I curse your oppressor heart a thousand times! May you always find that the harder you try to be one of them, the more you will feel your own heart being devoured! And when it happens again, remember me.”

The story deftly explores themes of racism, class, and the expectations society places on men vs. women, where women must remain pure, while men are mocked for not making sexual “conquests”. Rios shows the way these gendered expectations tie back to issues of class, race, and colonization with the idea that lower-class women are expendable and good enough to fuck, but not worthy of marriage, and showing how constantly trying to fit into someone else’s image of what and who you should be slowly erodes you from the inside out.

Blood Sisters by Christa Wojciechowski weaves together personal mythology and local legends as a pair of childhood friends travel to Columbia on a last girls trip before one of them gets married. Tina is afraid of things changing and brings Beats to a supposedly cursed mountain where standing at the top as an unmarried person dooms you to always to be alone. On their last night in Columbia, they go drinking with two local men, one of whom reveals the mountain’s nature to Beats, and thus also reveals Tina’s betrayal.

Since seventh grade, Beats and I were one soul in two bodies. Her freckled limbs–the scar on her right knee from falling on my driveway–were as familiar as my own. My voice came out as hers. The smell of her body, dryer sheets mixed with the funk of her greasy old shepherd, was my smell. Our periods were always in synch.

The story realistically captures the way friendships can drift apart as people grow, from a time in your life where you know everything about the other person and they’re you’re entire world, to a time where you just exchange emails occasionally, and how scary that transition can be. It’s not about a friendship breaking or anything dramatic happening, simply the way things change over time. Tina’s feelings of jealously feel very real and grounded, as does her fear of change leading to destructive behavior. The story also offers an interesting exploration of belief and the power it has over people. Sometimes simply knowing about a supposed curse is enough to bring it about, whether the curse is “real” in any objective sense or not.

Keep an eye out for this anthology when it releases at the end of the November, and if it sounds like it’s up your alley, consider pre-ordering it now!

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Review: Wild Time

Wild Time CoverWild Time by Rose Biggin and Keir Cooper (who were kind enough to provide me with a review copy) is a charming re-imagining of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The story focuses primarily on the fairies and the company of players as they make their own respective preparations for the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. Though the setting remains ancient Athens, where gods and magic are very much real, Biggin and Cooper give the novel a more contemporary voice that leads to a timeless feel.

Titania looked at the Changeling, who was waiting calmly, hands on his hips and looking very casual. There was a confidence to his shoulders, and his body was as smooth as if it had been newly polished. He wore a piece of cotton, delicately printed, that bared his hips, and at some point one of the fairies had picked a red flower and placed it lovingly in his hair. ‘My word,’ she said leading him beneath the tree. ‘You’re completely gorgeous, do you know that?’

The novel incorporates familiar elements from Shakespeare’s play – the wedding, Puck’s mischief, and Bottom’s transformation – but it also introduces new ones, including Theseus and Oberon doing shots on the night before the nuptials and getting increasingly drunk, nostalgic, and maudlin, and a raucous Amazonian bachelorette party riding through the streets of Athens, descending on unsuspecting vendors demanding custom-made weapons and a sampling of local cuisine. Other elements are familiar, yet given a fresh twist, such as the play performed by the players becoming a mash-up of the story of Pyramus and Thisbe and Death of a Salesman. One of the most refreshing updates is Oberon and Titania’s relationship, which is presented here as much healthier and more respectful, with actual communication between the two, and genuine love and passion, as opposed to full of bitterness, jealously, and trickery.

The lovers Lysander, Demetrius, Helena, and Hermia, play bit roles as cosmic phenomenon and celestial bodies on the margins of the story. There’s sex magic and revelry and a brief interlude where Puck steals a train in what appears to be modern-day London. Somehow, all these elements work together, feeling like fun nods and clever updates, never tipping over into being too cheesy or ridiculous. Despite the more contemporary language, the story somehow feels more firmly rooted in ancient Athens than many interpretations of the original play. Overall, Wild Time is a fun and sexy read, straddling the line between novella and novel (though I think it technically falls onto the novel side). If you’re a fan of re-imagined classics, this is definitely one to check out.

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Howls from Hell Review

Howls from Hell Anthology CoverHowls from Hell is a forthcoming anthology from the HOWL Society (Horror-Obsessed Writing and Literature Society), edited by members of the Society, and showcasing the work of sixteen emerging writers from among its members. The anthology officially releases May 18, 2021, but is available for pre-order now. The Society was kind enough to provide me with an early copy for review.

The cover art by P.L. McMillan, who also contributes a story to the anthology, is striking, and each story is accompanied by an original illustration. All the illustrations, along with the design and layout work is done by Society members as well, proving this is a multi-talented group. The anthology as a physical object is sharp, professional-looking, and very nicely put together. Beyond the connecting thread of the HOWL Society, the anthology is un-themed, allowing authors to tackle a wide variety of subjects and approaches to horror. In these pages, you’ll find everything from quiet horror to the hyper-violent, supernatural horror, body horror, rural and suburban horror, and genre mash-ups with science fiction and fantasy. The variety of themes and approaches to horror is impressive, with a few stories in particular that  stood out to me.

“She’s Taken Away” by Shane Hawk is presented in the form of a police transcript of a conversation between Dr. Jay M. Landry and Annie Ellis, whose twin sister has been put away for terrible crimes. The piece is short, but with a strong voice, playing with the good twin/evil twin trope and exploring nature vs. nurture as the twins’ paths diverge and one sister engages in increasingly violent and disturbing behavior.

“Suspended in Light” by Alex Wolfgang is one of the quieter and more subtly unsettling stories in the anthology. A film student takes on a job cataloguing old film reels donated by a daughter cleaning out her mother’s estate. The first reel she watches features a man staring unnervingly at the camera, then setting up a second camera which seems to look back through the screen at her, causing her image to appear in a film shot over 80 years ago. The story effectively builds a sense of dread as it plays with the relationship between the viewer and the viewed, and looks at the sinister side of immortality on the silver screen, and what it means to capture memories through film.

“Possess and Serve” is a solid piece of sci-fi horror, imagining a future where individuals can subscribe to a service that allows them to summon an Assumed Control Unit officer to temporarily remotely possess their body to deescalate conflict and deal with other potentially dangerous situations. Sarah is one such officer who is summoned to the scene of a crime only to find that another Assumed Control Unit officer has possessed the body of the person who summoned them and is using said body to commit a horrific act. The story is tense, and nicely shows both the potential good enabled by technology and the ways technology might aid and abet the worst aspects of human nature.

“Sprout” by M. David Clarkson is another piece with a strong voice, offering up an atmospheric story of nature reclaiming and repurposing life to its own ends in gruesome ways. The story also explores the dynamics of power in a relationship built solely on lust, and the dangers of both feeling owed access to someone else’s body and blaming them for your actions.

“A Fistful of Murder” by Lindsey Ragsdale closes out the anthology with a unique twist on the cursed object trope. While making a purchase at a pet store, a man receives change which includes a $10 bill with the word kill written on it in red ink. The cashier is seemingly unable to see the message, but a mere accidental glance is enough to fill the man with an uncontrollable urge to cause pain and take life. The story brings into questions the idea whether violence is essential to the nature of man, or whether external factors – for example the literal idea of money as the root of all evil – is to blame.

With its wide range of themes and styles, there’s a little bit of something for everyone here, making Howls from Hell a satisfying read for horror fans.

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And Then the Gray Heaven Review

And Then the Gray Heaven CoverOnce again I’m dipping my toes into the non-genre waters with an upcoming novella from Dzanc Books. And Then the Gray Heaven by RE Katz, which will be released on June 15, 2021, is a lovely meditation on loss, processing grief, queer found families, art as legacy, and networks of people supporting each other through the roughest times in their lives.

Jules is mourning the death of their partner, B, an artist and museum exhibition designer. Their grief is complicated by the fact that the hospital refuses to recognize their relationship, so Jules has to break into B’s hospital room to be with them at the end. B’s family is similarly wary of Jules, except for B’s brother, Alvin, though even he wasn’t there for B or Jules when they needed him the most. Following B’s death, Jules feels unmoored and alone. Seeing this, Jules’ neighbor Tina sends a family member to keep an eye on Jules – Theo. Theo and Jules strike up an immediate, sweet, and supportive friendship, which is the true heart of the novel. When Alvin unexpectedly arrives with a portion of B’s ashes to give to Jules, Jules hatches a plan to honor B’s memory by burying them within various museum exhibitions they helped design. Theo becomes Jules’ partner in crime, and they set off on a journey of remembrance and healing that brings Jules into contact with other people who were important to B’s life – an extended queer family that helps support Jules through their grief and helps them see that despite their initial feeling, they are far from alone.

We held cups of coffee with both hands and looked at each other. I said nothing. I was thinking about how I hadn’t talked to anyone about what had happened yet. This is what people have families for. I felt crushed into a fine powder–I was pigment. Windowsill blue. Ash taking air before gusting apart. No one to talk to and no reason to reach out. I didn’t want our friends to worry, and I had no information or comfort to offer them.

And Then the Gray Heaven feels deeply grounded in every day life, while also dealing with immense and complicated subjects like loss, love, grief, and neuroatypicality. The characters are richly drawn, and the web of support – the larger queer family – that B and Jules find around them at various points in their lives is heartening and immensely touching. The connectivity between people is mirrored through art, which weaves in and out of the story in various ways, from Jules’ first job as an airbrush artist, to B’s line of work. Art doesn’t merely connect individuals personally, but reflects a queer lineage and legacy, as subsequent generations of artists honor those who came before in their work, extending the network beyond a specific place and time, and opening up a larger world of people seeing and understanding each other.

The setting of the novel mirrors Jules’ journey, from the close confines of their apartment to the larger world of their roadtrip with Theo. As their network of friends grows, the world opens up, bringing them from the claustrophobia of grief and loss, back into the open spaces of hope and possibility. At such a short length, Katz manages to pack a lot into their work, making for a very impressive debut.

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Lagoonfire Review

Lagoonfire CoverLagoonfire by Francesca Forrest is the second novelette in the author’s Tales of the Polity series published by Annorlunda Books. I reviewed the first entry in the series, The Inconvenient God, for The Book Smugglers in 2018. The novelettes each stand alone fairly well, centering on Decommisioner Thirty-Seven, also known as Sweeting, as she deals with a discrete case involving the decommissioning of gods once their worshippers have moved on.

In Lagoonfire, Sweeting is sent to investigate an incursion of sea water in a new development under construction to determine whether it might have been caused by Laloran-morna, the former god of warm waves. Even though she decommissioned him, the process didn’t entirely take, leaving him with a limited version of his powers. Since the development is going up in an area once sacred to Laloran-morna, Sweeting’s superiors suspect the former god may be trying to sabotage the construction, even though the now-mortal Laloron-morna currently lives in a compassionate care facility, close to dying. Over the years, he and Sweeting have become friends, and when she goes to ask him about the seawater, which he claims to know nothing about, he tasks her with helping him fulfil his dying wish to get a message to his lost love.

Sweeting quickly discovers the situation is far more complicated than it initially seemed. Laloron-morna’s love may be a forgotten goddess of an ancient people that most believe are only a myth. As she attempts to gather more information, Sweeting runs into a history professor named Ateni whose research seems to support her theory, but shortly after they meet, Ateni is accused of terrorist action and arrested. Convinced of Ateni’s innocence and trying to prove it, Sweeting gets herself caught up on the wrong side of the investigation as a possible co-conspirator as she seeks to unravel the mystery, clear Ateni’s name, and keep her promise to Laloron-morna before his time runs out.

And then the sun returned in full force, drawing mist up from the ground all around us and from our sodden clothes. It was clammy and uncomfortable–but also unearthly, beautiful. I turned slowly, letting my arms pass through the glowing streamers. So soon they would fade away, but in that moment, it was like being among celestial beings, clothed in light. I caught sight of Ateni’s face, lips parted, eyes shining. Yes, this was better, much better, for a dedication to Laloran-morna’s unknown love. I returned to the water’s edge and poured the palm wine, Ateni and the ghostly curls of mist my silent witnesses.

Forrest once again perfectly blends magic and bureaucracy with touches of humor to bring the unique world of the Polity Series to life. Lagoonfire expands on The Inconvenient God, introducing more of Sweeting’s co-workers, along with several other decommissioned gods who act as an occasionally snarky, occasionally helpful chorus, but also as a found family, supporting each other and Sweeting. Sweeting’s character is deepened as well, as we learn why she’s so reluctant to share her name and prefers to go by her title or her childhood nickname. Coming to terms with the past is a major theme in the novelette, as is the question of who controls the narrative of history. Love, loss, memory, friendship, and found family are also resonant themes. Even at a short length, Forrest delivers a satisfying story and plenty of character development, while exploring the way history, including personal history, continues to shape the present. Identity, as a people, and as an individual person, can be shaped by history, but it’s always worth asking – whose history? Who is telling the story, and what do they have to gain by telling it that way? Forrest creates several interesting and effective parallels between the personal and the political when it comes to understanding the past and the ways in which the past informs the present and the future. Lagoonfire is a highly enjoyable novelette, and I hope there are more entries planned in the series.

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Call it Horses Review

Call It Horses CoverOccasionally I do remember to stray outside the bounds of SFFH genre reading. My latest such foray was Call It Horses by Jessie van Eerden, courtesy of Dzanc Books who were kind enough to provide me with an advance copy of the book due to be released in March 2021. I’ve read several books published by Dzanc now, and I’m regularly impressed with the works they publish, books that are unafraid to experiment with voice and style, primarily literary, but also straying into genre territory with titles such as The Archive of Alternate Endings by Lindsey Darger and Nino Cipri’s collection Homesick.

Like Homesick, Call It Horses is the winner of the Dzanc Prize for Fiction. Set in 1990, the story follows the journey of three women – Frankie, Mave, and Nan – as they take a road trip into the desert, fulfilling Mave’s last wish as she’s dying of cancer. The novel is framed as a series of musings from Frankie (Mave’s niece) written to Mave’s lover, Ruth. Frankie’s parents died when she was sixteen, and Mave essentially raised her, though her role was more of a guardian, living in the house next to Frankie’s and keeping an eye on her from that distance, treating her more as an adult and a friend than a child in need of parenting. One of the core threads in the novel is the relationship between Frankie and Mave, which speaks to the larger questions the novel asks about love. What forms does love take? Does love need to be expressed to prove itself? Is love a finite resource, and are some people only capable of giving and receiving so much of it in a lifetime?

These questions are explored in a myriad of ways through the complicated relationships that exist between the characters. Nan is married to Dillon, who was the one truly passionate relationship of Frankie’s life, first a childhood friend, then briefly a lover. Frankie is married to Clay, a man she doesn’t love, but who is kind, gentle, and understanding. Ruth passed away several years ago, but she was the one true love of Mave’s life, and there hasn’t been anybody since. As a child, Frankie wrote letters to Ruth and received letters in exchange which fired her imagination, but as an adult, Frankie realizes she never really knew her.

Often you wrote of the desert, how in Sinai you heard the original language inside of language. How in Persia there could be no larger sense of night, of scope. Mostly you wrote about words themselves and about my own letters to Mave, which you’d been reading all along. Words without limits, blurred at the edges like bog land; words as rooms one walks into, words holding million-year-old-species like amber — see the trilobite and the ancient fern, the spinal column of something extinct still preserved in a word’s withered curve.

These explorations are quiet and meditative, as is everything in the novel. The story repeatedly touches on grief and loss, but not as dramatic touchpoints in the character’s lives, but rather as an inevitability, the cost of living. There’s an interesting tension between stillness and motion in the book. The story is that of a road trip with the characters literally always in motion. The narrative itself is constantly in fluid motion throughout time, recollections folded inside recollections in a non-linear exploration of the women’s intersecting lives. Yet at the same time, each character feels firmly stuck in place. They are either unable to pursue their desires, or uncertain what those desires are, caught in lives that aren’t fulfilling, and unable or unwilling to move on from their pasts. Ruth ends up representing a kind of ideal for all of them – the perfect love, the perfect life – but she is not a desire to move toward, she is safely in the past where she can remain idealized rather than realized, and no one has to hurt themselves further by trying to live up to her or confronting the reality of her existence.

The novel leans heavily into the literary and the poetic. It is grounded in the mundanities of everyday life, and yet dreamlike in its treatment of time, and fantastical in the flowery dialog the characters employ. It is a study in contrasts, and an interesting read for the rhythm of its language and its intimate exploration of the characters’ inner lives and the constant push and pull that exists between expectation and reality.

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Eurasian Monsters Review

Eurasian Monsters CoverEurasian Monsters edited by Margrét Helgadóttir is the seventh and final installment in the Fox Spirit Books Monsters anthology series. Like the other installments in the series, including African Monsters, Asian Monsters, European Monsters, and more, this book is a lovely physical object. The 8.5 x 8.5 square format gives the anthology the feel of a children’s book of dark fairy tales or ghost stories, and each entry is accompanied by its own illustration. The majority of the stories are original to the volume (published in December 2020), with a few reprints thrown in, and includes work by authors such as Haralambi Markov, Alex Shvartsman, Bogi Takács, and Ekaterina Sedia. The anthology also offers a mix of stories originally written in the English language, and translations. As the title implies, all the tales offer their own take on monsters, legends, and supernatural creatures in various Eurasian settings. Overall, it was an enjoyable anthology, with a few stories in particular that really stood, highlighted below.

Daemons in Their Time by Marta Magdelena Lasik (translated by Piotr Swietlik) offers a fascinating blend of a technologically advanced world and old mythology. There’s a dreamlike quality to the prose as a rusalka follows a man through a desert wasteland, trying to get him to admit he’s not human, while he refuses to believe could possibly be anything but human.

You are lying. Perhaps even without knowing it, but you’re not telling the truth. I understand riddles. I recognize the correct answers even if I don’t know them. When you answer my question, my puzzle, I know, with the wisdom of a centuries-old rusalka, that it is not the correct answer.

Of all the stories in the anthology, this is probably the one that edges closest to science fiction, yet there’s also a timelessness to it, despite the post-apocalyptic setting. The story deals with questions of identity and self knowledge, and coming to accept truths, even when they are difficult to face.

Bagatazh by Karina Shainyan (translated by Mike Olivson) has the feel of a classic ghost story, told around a campfire. Indeed, much of the story does take place in the vicinity of a campfire, as Katya, one of two guides tasked with guiding tourists on hike and camping excursion, begins to suspect they are being stalked by a local legend.

Boom. There is something large stirring in the night shadows beyond the fire. Katya recoils, as the air wheezes into her lungs and freezes, transforming into stone. Boom, says the heart, beating painfully in her eardrums. Boom-boom-boom. The dark mass stirs and mutters. The low flames dance as the details of the approaching figure come into view. Recognizing it, Katya relaxes, and realizes she can breathe again.

Tucked within the eerie, supernatural tale is the story of a woman who feels caught between two worlds, and thus like she belongs nowhere. Katya’s predicament is mirrored by the monster of the tale, a massive ancient frog, cursed by the spirits of the mountain for refusing to pay tribute to them because it claimed to be a creature of the water as much as a creature of land, not living full time in either, and thus owing allegiance to no one.

Nine Tongues Tell Of by Haralambi Markov is lovely story of the friendship that develops between an orphaned woman caring for her elderly grandfather, and a nine-headed mythical creature. Similar to Katya in Shainyan’s story, Damyana in Markov’s story never feels entirely as though she belongs to the human world. While the hala she faces is terrifying, and does have its monstrous aspects, the gifts she gives it in order to keep it from devouring her ultimately become an act of healing, allowing her to let go of her grief and lighten her spirit.

When her grandfather died and she truly became an orphan, Damyana brought his ashes, neatly packed in an urn–a ceramic box decorated with cherubs and painted in a mournful green. All seven heads shed tears then and gently the hala took the box into one of its maws and stored it away for safe-keeping.

As with many of the stories in the anthology, the monster in Markov’s tale shows itself to be more compassionate than many humans in its own way. While some of the monsters are truly monstrous, most stand in for various states of mind – anxiety, fear, a lack of belonging, or a desire to be loved. The humans are often the monstrous ones, where more often than not, the monsters simply are what they are – obeying their nature, and holding up a mirror to the mortals who encounter them.

The Visit by Maria Galina (translated by Mike Olivson) tells the story of Sergey Stepanonvich, a middle-aged man who is visited one night by Ded Moroz, a frightening Santa Claus-like figure. At first Ded Moroz claims he has come to make amends for Sergey’s childhood disappointment when he wished for a telescope for Christmas, and instead received a drum. Ded Moroz tells him that had he received the telescope, he might have achieved his childhood dream of becoming an astronomer, instead of ending up in a dead-end job he hates, divorced, alone, and overall let down by life. He brings gifts of food and whiskey as an apology, but the longer they talk, the more Sergey begins to suspect that Ded Moroz’s motives may not be entirely pure.

At the border where light met shadow, he could see red, gold, green, and silver reflections, somewhat unclear and out of focus. But if you looked at them indirectly, from the corner of your eye, they somehow became a sled with a high back, decorated with shining patterns, and unmoving white silhouettes which stood out from the snow, either wolves or huge dogs…

The slow unfolding of the tale, and the ultimate reveal of Ded Moroz’s nature is nicely done. The imagery is evocative, and the author deftly blends touches of humor with an increasingly dark exploration of whether simple external factors have the power to shape our entire lives, or whether humans are ultimately responsible for creating our own success and happiness, but would rather look to those outside forces as convenient things to blame when our lives don’t go as we imagined.

Veruska and the Lúdvérc by Bogi Takács spins a classic fairy tale of a young, kind-hearted girl named Veruska who discovers what appears to be a strange, orphaned bird, and takes it home, only to find that she has unwittingly brought home a monster.

Yet suddenly she heard a popping sound. The chick jumped off the oven-ledge and squealed with human words, in a little girl’s voice. “What shall I bring? What shall I bring?” Veruska rubbed her eyes, opened the curtain over the ledge and tried to see better in the light of the full moon. The fledgling suddenly looked much larger, like an adult’s fist in size.

The lúdvérc at first seems only mischievous, pulling pranks which Veruska is blamed for, but then turns more sinister. If Veruska isn’t able to fulfil its demands, it threatens eat her, as it has eaten many children like her before. The story unfolds in a satisfying battle of wits, as Veruska must rely on her cleverness to out-trick the trickster to save her life and that of her family.

Each story in the anthology offers its own unique take on the monstrous, with a wide variety of supernatural beings that range from frightening to tragic and everything in-between. It’s a fantastic addition to the Monsters series, all of which are well-worth checking out.

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