An Interview with AJ Fitzwater

Cinrak the Dapper CoverAJ Fitzwater was kind enough to drop by today to talk about their delightful debut collection, The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper. To kick things off, I will make introductions by shamelessly stealing from AJ’s author bio.

AJ Fitzwater, a professional dragon wearing a dapper meat suit, is a practitioner of the speculative from New Zealand. They attended Clarion UCSD in 2014, and have won two Sir Julius Vogel Awards. Their work has appeared in such venues of repute as Clarkesworld, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer Magazine, Glittership, Andromeda Spaceways Magazine, and a host of anthologies. Their first short fiction collection “The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper” will be out from Queen of Swords Press April 2020. A radio trained voice, AJ also does voice acting and podcast narration.

Welcome, AJ! Congratulations on the publication of The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper. For those who have not yet had the pleasure of being introduced to Cinrak, would you care to say a bit about what people can expect from the collection?

Thank you so much! Someone described Cinrak as “a warm hug”, and I didn’t know that is what I was going for until I got there. It’s all about a capybara pirate and her found family of rapscallions going on adventures on the high seas of Ratdom. There’s Loquolchi the marmot opera diva, Orvillia the Rat Queen, Mereg the Sharp as Cinrak’s rat mentor, Colombia the drag queen mer, Agnes the mysterious kraken, Xolotli the glass whale, and Benj the chinchilla cabin boy. I was aiming for fun, a smattering of ridiculous language, and a sideways twist into pirate unions and battling the biggest monster of all – ones personal anxieties, and learning to be a leader.

I’m sure you have or will get this question a lot, but I must know, where did the inspiration for Cinrak originate? Is she inspired by a real capybara? A real pirate? Inquiring minds must know!

The original story Wild Ride of the Untamed Stars began as an in house joke at a New Zealand natcon a few years back, when a participant brought their rats along as a Guest of Honour, and there was a rat based short story competition. Wild Ride won second prize, then went on to be published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

The character of Cinrak came about from two venues. When I was at Clarion, Jeff VanderMeer let us doodle in an ARC of Acceptance, so on a whim I wrote about wild capybara appearing in strange places in the text. Next, Tumblr was a great place for random educational reading, and posts about capybara came across my dashboard frequently, especially how social and chill they were with other animals. I wrote in my notebook “capybara = great negotiators/leaders”. The square angles of a capybara spoke to me of a dapper butch, I gave her a bow tie and a little saltiness, and let her go ham.

I love the voice of these stories, and the fact that they’re full of adventure and romance. They are charming, and above all joyful, which is something you talk about in your introduction to the collection. I was hoping perhaps you could expand on that concept a bit more – the idea of responding to dark times with joy, and the importance of telling happy and fun stories as well as grimdark ones, especially when it comes to queer characters.

I never expected my first book to be light and fluffy (pun intended)! I usually write very srs bznss stories about feminism and queerness, and my vision when I started writing a decade ago was a debut collection of serious speculative interrogation that shifted the conversation a tiny notch on the dial. Hopefully that will still happen!

But I’m happy to be surprised at the enthusiasm expressed towards the Cinrak stories. I think it was a way for my mind to organically find softness and kindness during troubled times. It’s been extremely difficult to find equilibrium and voice, to help and be helped, since the rise of fascism and authoritarianism, and the extremely troubled times my trans and gender diverse siblings are going through. I’ve written some difficult and angry stories since 2016, but they didn’t exactly bring the catharsis I was searching for.

In 2018, I did a New Zealand Festival event with Charlie Jane Anders where she spoke on writing joy into the dark times, turning queer tragedy into queer hope, and writing ourselves into the future. I remember getting to the end of the interview and feeling uplifted by her positivity, that there could be a way out from here. I began immersing myself in readings and discussions about spiritual sustenance, activism in the long haul, and the doing the work of hope. While all this didn’t trigger an immediate response in my writing, it simmered until I wrote another Cinrak story later in the year (for Queen of Swords Press Scourge of the Seas Of Time (And Space).

When it came time to create Ratdom, I went for the simple – I wanted a world almost devoid of homo-and transmisia. What would their history and political structures look like for that to happen? As for romance, it’s a very awkward thing for me to write, so I leaned into it and made Cinrak romantically awkward, allowing her the space to be loved for it.

Overall, you’re a very prolific short story writer, and you have a knack for capturing a unique voice for each of your tales. How do you go about finding the right voice for each piece? Is there anything special you do to put yourself in a particular mindset, or is it more a matter of each story talking to you in the voice that suits it best?

I have a magpie brain. I’m always chasing a shiny idea. I like experimenting with as many different themes as possible.
Usually my characters arise from that. Cinrak is an anomaly, as she was character first and I built the world to suit her. Sometimes the blender of my brain will throw back a very particular way of speaking for a character or narrative, and I let that lead. Character creation and consistency is one of the hardest things for me, and in early drafts I often find them talking in my voice, their emotional growth is flat, or I’ve recycled a thought pattern, narrative, or character style from a previous story. It’s always a challenge to keep my stories and characters fresh.

Switching gears, you currently reside in New Zealand, which is a place I’m ashamed to admit I know very little about beyond the media stereotypes of natural beauty and adorable animals. What’s something that you think would surprise outsiders about New Zealand? What are some places you like to bring guests, or recommend to people visiting for the first time?

Aotearoa New Zealand is a very driveable country. You’re never more than a couple hours from any coast. Most main centers are an easy few hours drive, bus, or train between, so you’ve got plenty of time to explore. The landscape changes dramatically very quickly. In Te Waipounamu South Island, for example, you can go from the rain forests of Westland, over the Southern Alps, and into the desert plateau of Central Otago within a day.

I prefer Wellington to Auckland. Wellington is quite maneuverable and centralized, with a lot of funky shopping, eats, and arts within the CBD. I’m glad it’s the home of this year’s Worldcon, I can’t wait to show all the great bookshops to my friends.
My home city of Christchurch has been going through dramatic changes since the earthquakes. Currently there’s a big lean towards arts and very centralized eating places, especially Euro style eating halls. We’re waiting for our new convention center and stadium to be built to bring big events back to the area.

I get the sense New Zealand has a thriving speculative fiction community. What, in your mind, are some fantastical or speculative elements about New Zealand, if any? Overall, do you think there’s particular flavor to New Zealand writing that sets it apart from writing from other places, something that would cause you characterize something as “New Zealand Literature”?

Aotearoa New Zealand is an isolated country, even from ourselves. It’s a series of islands that can’t be linked by bridges (as yet), with enormous biodiversity. We are a colonized land, still requiring a large reckoning of our racist history. M?ori and Pasifika cultures, land sovereignty, and political rights are essential parts of our country. And diverse peoples from the world over making their homes here have always been a part of us.

The isolation, environment, history, diversity, mythology I feel are intricate parts of our storytelling. The Quiet Earth is a good example of the isolationist story; a scientist deals with traversing the country and being trapped within its shores when the majority of the population mysteriously disappears. While NZ adult literature tends towards the realist, NZ YA is home to mythology and the fantastic, dealing often in environmental and resisting authoritarianism themes.

New Zealand literature also tends to have a very dry, dark sense of humour, also something that has come out of the isolation and can-do attitude. I have definitely found the sarcasm and humour in my prose doesn’t always sit right with overseas readers, but I don’t want to change it. I want readers to sit with the uncomfortable.

Switching gears again, one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about non-writing related jobs. What is the most unusual job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it, and has any aspect of that job worked its way into any of your stories?

This is a hard one. All my day jobs have been quite ordinary, with the occasional weird thing happening (usually customer related; I have a poop-in-a-shop story).

Ah yes. The time I was a meerkat. Helped me figure out I’m terrible with kids. A telecommunications company was doing a roadshow in schools and us high school age volunteers were put in animal costumes to match their TV advertising. Except we looked like Winnie The Pooh characters on meth. It was a very hot day, I was sweating buckets inside my full faced, head to toe meerkat costume, and every young child I approached to offer lollies or hugs I made cry or run away. Cinrak I was not.

Now that The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper is out in the world, what’s next for you? What are you working on, or have coming up that you want folks to know about?

I have another book coming out! “No Man’s Land” is my WW2 shapeshifter land girls novella from Paper Road Press in June 2020. I also have a story I am exceedingly proud of, How To Build A Unicorn, in Fireside Fiction’s April 2020 issue.

I’m working on two different novella ideas, both science fiction. One is about a genderqueer person looking for their lost mothers on a desertified planet – at the moment its a bit of a mash up between Mad Max Fury Road and the brain ship genre. And the other is about an orbital pilot who has an accident, finds themself in not quite the right life, and with the aid of a veterans counselor goes in search of their missing pieces – a bit Murderbot, a bit brain ship, possibly a prequel to the previous novella.

All of those sound amazing! Thanks for stopping by!

You’re welcome, and thank you for the opportunity. I hope people enjoy Cinrak and her buddies.

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Hope and Transformation: The Four Profound Weaves

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of R.B. Lemberg’s gorgeous novella, The Four Profound Weaves, which will be published by Tachyon Publications in August, and is currently available for pre-order. The story takes place in Lemberg’s Birdverse, featuring familiar characters who have previously appeared in stories such as “Grandmother-Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds“, which was a finalist for the 2015 Nebula Awards.

Four Profound Weaves CoverThe same beautiful and poetic prose found in Lemberg’s other Birdverse stories is on full display here. The world is vibrant, rich, and Lemberg does a wonderful job bringing it to life and fully immersing the reader. Many of the themes touched on in other Birdverse stories are explored here as well –  transformation, hope, the role culture and context play in self-perception, and the idea that self-discovery is an ongoing process and that people are constantly in a state of evolving and becoming.

The story centers on Uiziya and nen-sasair, both of whom feel something missing in their lives, leading them to set off across the desert together on a journey of self-discovery. Despite transforming in body to the man he always knew he was, nen-sasair still isn’t sure where he fits in life. There are those who persist in seeing him as an eccentric woman who dresses in men’s clothing and builds mechanical wonders as men do. He longs to go into the men’s quarter of the city, and lift his voice in song with other men, but fear holds him back. Will he be accepted, or will he always be an outsider?

Uiziya’s aunt was a great weaver who long ago promised to teach Uiziya her art, including the secret of the Four Profound Weaves, but she vanished, and now Uiziya has been waiting over half her life for her return. Like nen-sasair, she is a grandparent, but life with her family is not enough for her. She is restless and tired of waiting, determined to find her aunt and demand answers. At the same time, Uiziya is afraid as well, uncertain whether she is willing to fully embrace the cost that comes with learning to weave from death itself as her aunt does.

A story floated like stars in the darkness that pulsed with the insistence of pain. I would catch them one by one, all the diamondflies my aunt had made, and I would know again the truth of the wide-open skies where the ancient wind meanders from sandwave to sandwave, revealing and hiding its secrets.

The theme of transformation at the heart of the novella is reflected in the imagery Lemberg uses – ever-shifting things like wind and sand and song, and even death, which is a transition from one state to the next. In their acknowledgements at the end of the book, Lemberg reveals that the novella is the first book written after their father’s passing. Thus, the book itself is an act of transformation, an act of becoming, and moving from a state of grief to one of hope, which death is often paired with over the course of the novella.

The meditations on death throughout the novella, and the different characters’ perspectives on death are deep, nuanced, and thoughtful. Uiziya’s aunt feeds on death and teaches her that true art can only come from sacrificing those you love. The Collector, who seeks to gather the four cloths that represent the Four Profound Weaves, sees death as an element of power, a power he can use to stop things from ever changing – a state that is worse than death.

“I want things to remain, sacred and sovereign and unchanging. I want to preserve what is best. It is a noble purpose… The landmass’s truest and brightest, its art, its desire, its will, stripped of the perversions and impurities of flesh and stored away to be treasured forever.”

Uiziya ultimately comes to a new understanding of death through her journey. It is not an end point, or a means to an end. It is a form of change, and the true power of it lies in bringing new life to the dead by giving them a voice and reconnecting them to the living. Giving them hope, and giving their loved ones hope that they haven’t truly lost those they care about.

Faith and belief are also a central themes in the book – both in the sense of structured, shared beliefs that shape a culture, and a more personal, interior kind of faith. Nen-sasari and Uiziya both have faith that their journey will be rewarded, and that their transformation will be complete one day. They both feel something missing in their lives, but ultimately it doesn’t bring a sense of hopelessness, only a realization that they are partway through their journeys, again circling back to the idea of transformation and life being a constant state of motion and discovery.

The Four Profound Weaves is a beautiful novella. I would be remiss if I failed to mention that as a physical object, the book is beautiful too. The interior illustrations by Elizabeth Story (who also designed the cover) are absolutely gorgeous, and the whole book just has a lovely, well laid out feel. Pre-order now, and be assured you will have something lovely to read come August.

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Shiny Shorts: Distances

In the midst of this time of social distancing, in addition to highlighting short fiction to enjoy while staying away from other humans, I thought it would be interesting to consider stories that deal with various forms of distance. It might be physical, emotional, or even the distance between perception and reality. Either way, all these stories offer some take on the idea of distance, how can be be bridged (or not), and what it means.

Yo, Rapunzel! by Kyle Kirrin published at PodCastle offers a fresh and charming take on that early social distancer, Rapunzel. In this case, instead of a princess passively waiting rescue, Rapunzel is quite content to be alone. In fact, the story opens with this irresistible line: And lo, the Princess said: “Motherfucker, I am content.” She has a Dragon to keep her company, the mural she’s painting, plenty of board games, and a Time Wizard who drops by occasionally to refresh her supplies. Of course that doesn’t stop an endless stream of Knights from demanding to be given Heart Quests in order to prove themselves worthy of  her hand. Despite her repeated protestations that she has no interest in getting married, and is in no need of rescue, they continue to show up, and so she dutifully sends them away with impossible tasks hoping to never see them again.

The Princess dropped her head into her hands. “Please tell me you’ve got a Quest in mind. I am so fucking tired of this.”

“Uhhh,” said the Dragon. “Drink the ocean? Swallow the stars?”

“Too figurative,” said the Princess. “He’ll just come back in the morning with a loose interpretation and a scroll full of shitty poems. It’s fine, I’ll figure something out.” She crossed the room and threw open the window. “Yeah, what you want?”

Everything changes when a Knight arrives with an adorable mini donkey named Steve. He is as uninterested in completing a Heart Quest as she is in giving one, going through the motions of accepting one in the same way she goes through the motions of giving them out. Intrigued by this break in the pattern, she invites him into the tower to play board games, and friendship develops between them.

The story is refreshing in its inversion of tropes, its foul-mouthed princess, its uninterested knight, its tame dragon, and the way it places friendship on equal footing with romantic love. The solution to the fairy tale conundrum isn’t a forced bridging of distance, where two strangers are thrown together, and expected to marry immediately because of destiny or a completed quest. Their friendship grows based on mutual interest, respect for each other’s boundaries, and a mutual decision to spend time together, while continuing to give each other space when needed. The story has a wonderful and engaging voice, and it has true heart beneath the light tone while still being a lot of fun. Plus, how can anyone resist an adorable mini donkey named Steve? Even if he is a bit of a dick sometimes.

Fireside Quarterly CoverThe Imperishable Birds by Vajra Chandrasekera in Fireside Magazine explores the distance between symbol and object, and the distance between  perception and lived reality.

Kusul burns the birds on camera. The shot is wide so that you can see all seven birds, yellow-billed babblers that won’t sit still long enough to catch fire. Whenever she lights a match and squats to hold it under their tails, they flutter up and come down again a few feet further away, so she crab-walks over to them and lights another match.

The imagery is striking and the prose lovely and evocative. In under 1,500 words, Chandrasekera delivers a gut punch of a story that captures the outsider, colonialist mentality of the Director who is only interested in forwarding his vision of what he thinks Kusul and her family should be. He barely sees Kusul, or anyone else in his film, and casually talks about using CGI to edit reality to fit his worldview. He transforms people into caricatures, flattening them into pieces he can move around, trying to further shorten the distance between symbol and object and make reality conform to him. The story does an excellent job of highlighting the grossness of misery porn, and the ways in which those who claim to “give voice to the voiceless” end up silencing those very voices by drowning them out with their own.

Forgive Me, My Love, For the Ice and the Sea by C.L. Clark in Beneath Ceaseless Skies deals with both physical and emotional distances that the protagonist must travel. Laema promised her lover that she was done with the sea, but with her lover falsely imprisoned, she agrees to sail with the Pirate Queen Issheth to the bottom of the world and arrange for her death, either by accident or assassination, in order to win her lover’s freedom.

For the next month, we sailed through wild seas, farther and farther from land. It felt like the world had gone as mad as Issheth and the ocean had turned devil, not the beautiful, if temperamental, creature I had fallen in love with. We had nights of blissful calm, only to be wracked by vicious storms all day—or the opposite. The further south we sailed, the longer the days became. One night lasted only a couple of hours. Frost coated everything—ropes, rails, coats, even beards for those of us that grew them.

To Laema, Issheth seems like a woman haunted, prone to wild changes of mood, but she soon learns they have more in common than she first realized. Issheth lost her wife to the sea, and the true purpose of her journey is to seek the goddess and ask to speak to her wife one last time. A relationship grows between them, one built on respect, attraction, and shared sorrow. Laema’s perspective shifts, as does her purpose on board the ship. She still seeks to free her lover, but her expectations for their relationship cannot stay the same. She has already betrayed her by breaking one promise, even though it was for the purpose of saving her, and she knows things can’t go back to the way they were. Laema can only hope that giving her lover space and time to deal with things will allow their relationship to heal.

Like Chandrasekera’s story, this is another piece with stunning imagery and gorgeous prose, though the settings of both stories are vastly different, and the imagery us employed to different effect. And like Kirrin’s story, Forgive Me, My Love, For the Ice and the Sea, reframes the standard quest trope as well as the way they relate to relationships and love. Laema knows there is a very real possibility she will lose the person she loves, but ultimately she chooses her lover as a person rather than attempting to preserve their relationship by any means necessary. It’s a lovely story on many levels, and well worth a read.

Rat and Finch Are Friends by Innocent Chizaram Ilo in Strange Horizons is a beautiful and heartbreaking story of friendship, love, and loneliness, that explores physical distance as well as the distance between the stated intention to protect and the lived reality of the harm done by that attempt at protection.

At twelve years old, Izu is sent off to boarding school. He’s afraid he’ll be lonely there, but he’s buoyed by his father’s parting gift of the Frog and Toad series of books and his wish that Izu find a best friend the way Frog and Toad found each other. At school,  Izu meets Okwudili, and discovers like that him, Okwudili can transform into an animal.

They said Nnemuru, my father’s mother, was a falcon when she was alive. Her wings were so radiant the rainbow envied them. She was beautiful. She was feared. They also said she swooped down on people’s farms and destroyed their crops. Nnemuru was found dead on a Sunday morning, her back pierced by the pointy cross on the church steeple, her wings arched and stiff. People called it witchcraft.

Izu inherited his grandmother’s power and can transform into a finch, where Okwudili can transform into a rat. As a child, Izu’s father could transform into a crow until his older sister clipped his wings and scraped off the mark on his neck that allowed him to change, all in the name of protecting him. She tries to do the same to Izu, but his father stops her, but also extracts a promise from Izu that he will keep his power hidden lest someone else try to take it away from him.

The friendship that develops between Rat and Finch quickly becomes something more, and the story creates a parallel between Finch’s attraction to Rat and his ability to transform. He’s asked to suppress both for his own good, and it is utterly heartbreaking. Even as his aunt and his mother try to take away aspects of Izu’s true self “for his own good”, Izu’s relationship with his father remains beautiful and heartening. He supports and understands Izu, and does his best to allow him to be himself until he feels he has no choice but to hurt him as well. The story is truly bittersweet in the way it explores relationships between friends, lovers, and family, and the way love brings people together and sets them apart, leading them to hurt each other in the guise of caring. In this way, the story shares similarities with both Clark’s story, and Chandrasekera’s story – in the way it presents the flipside of Laema’s choice to do what is best for her lover, not what is best for herself, and in the way Izu’s mother and aunt refuse to see Izu for who he is, fitting him into their own narrative of what is best and justifying doing him harm.

How We Burn by Brenda Peynado in Lightspeed Magazine explores the distance between generations and again, the idea of parents’ controlling their children’s lives in the name of protecting them.

Look at how bright we burn. I’m driving my spaceship with a hacked joystick and my friends in the side-seats: Tiger, Grizzly Bear, and Joshua Tree, my boyfriend. And me, Sequoia—all named after extinct species, as if our light could bring them back.

Tiger, Grizzly, Josh, and Sequoia view themselves as rebels, bucking their parents and grandparents’ unfair rules. They steal spaceships, hack the controls to drive them manually and recklessly, and take drugs, wanting to experience the world on their term, including the freedom to make their own mistakes. They consider each other siblings, but they also wonder what it would be like to have real blood siblings and build families by choice and outside of strict government control. When the group is arrested for joyriding, Sequioa ends up in a cell with a Procreator named Thalia,who lives off the grid and shuns society’s rules. Her lifestyle is both fascinating and frightening to Sequioa, and leads her to further questions the true shape of the world, and the possible lies her generation has been told.

The voice of the story is slick and stylish, and even at novelette length, it seems at times to rush by at breathless speed, mirroring Sequioa, Grizzly, Tiger and Josh’s headlong rush into danger of their own choosing. At other times, the narrative slows, allowing for quiet contemplation of the contrasting worldviews presented in the story. Rather than painting things in black and white, with the kids as clearly right and the parents and grandparents as joy-killing villains, both generations are presented with sympathy and both viewpoints are understandable. Sequoia’s parents and grandparents lived through scarcity and the near-destruction of the environment. Their rules are there to preserve society as a whole and ensure the survival of humanity. At the same time, Sequoia’s generation is stuck with a mess not of their own making, forced to follow handed-down rules that restrict their freedom and their choices through no fault of their own. There’s plenty of food for thought in the story and it’s wonderfully-written, with dazzling turns of phrase, characters with real depth, and a world that feels fully fleshed out and lived in.

I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I did. What brilliant short fiction have you been reading lately? I’m always on the lookout for more things to read.

 

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ICFA 41

March 18 – 21, I will be attending the 41st International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (aka ICFA). I’ve heard nothing but good things about the conference, and I’m looking forward to finally experiencing it for myself. This year’s theme is Climate Change and the Anthropocene, which promises to be a rich and fascinating topic. I’m moderating one panel:

Ripped from the Headlines: Using Speculative Fiction to Address Contemporary Issues
Saturday, March 21, 2020 from 2:00 – 3:30 p.m. in Vista B

Panelists: Akbar Shahzad, Erin Roberts, Agnes Gomillion, Nick Wolven, Erica L. Satifka, A.C. Wise (M)

Other than that, I plan on taking in the conference, attending other panels and readings, and spending time with friends. If you see me around, please say hi! The full schedule for the conference can be found here. Given the wide range of topics and presentations, and the smart people delivering them, I look forward to learning new things!

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Queer Rodents and Joyful Resistance

The Voyages of Cinrak CoverWhen there’s injustice in the world, it’s natural to get angry. It’s natural to despair and want to fight back, but joy is also a form of resistance. A.J Fitzwater reminds us as much in the introduction to their delightful debut collection, The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper, Capybara Pirate, which is currently available for pre-order and will be published in April by Queen of Swords Press.

The fizzle started low in Cinrak’s stout belly. It wove around her ribs, along her spine, and ruffled the fur on the back of her neck.

Teetering atop the orphanage’s great oak, the capybara instinctively turned her broad snout toward the silver sliver of harbor glimpsed through the straight-backed buildings of Ratholme. The oak tried to be as tall and as graceful as possible for its charge, revelling at being a stand in for a pirate ship.

This is how we first meet Cinrak – a young orphan dreaming of sailing the high seas, whispering her desires to the sturdy oak that serves as her ship until she can get to the real thing – and it’s impossible not to fall in love with her the moment she sets paw on page. In short order, Cinrak sees her dreams come true, proving her salt and not only becoming a pirate, but a captain and an extremely dapper one at that.

The best way to describe this collection of intertwined short stories is joyous. It’s fun, it’s charming, it’s packed full of adventure and glittering prose. The voice of these stories is perfectly suited to a rollicking sea adventure, with a rhythm and music all of their own. Honestly, the collection had me at dapper lesbian capybara pirate. I can’t imagine a more promising or intriguing combination of words to lure one into picking up a book, and the collection lives up to that promise. There are pirates and queens, mer-people and sea-beasties. There’s queer love and found family and swashbuckling. What more could you want? Cinrak sails the high seas, uncovers dastardly plots, and rides a star, and that just covers a few of her adventures. Grimdark, anger, and grief, all have their place, but so does happiness. Especially when it comes to queer characters, it’s important to see them being brash and triumphant and resplendent, reveling in who they are and winning the day. Cinrak does all that and more, and it’s a pleasure to follow this lesbian pirate cabybara on her adventures.

Again, you can pre-order the book now and I highly recommend doing so. This is a collection you don’t want to miss.

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Shiny Shorts: Ghosts in the Machine, Far From Home

It’s a new year, which means a whole new crop of short fiction to enjoy! January is off to a fantastic start, with new issues of magazines bringing forth haunting, beautiful stories. The month is only half over, but a few stories have already caught my eye, boding well for a year of wonderful fiction. Three of these stories feature characters far from home, longing for what was lost, or making their own way in the world, forging new paths and new futures. The other two explore the blurred line between technology and the supernatural, bringing back lost voices, and finding justice.

Fireside January 2020 CoverGreen Tunnels by Taimur Ahmad in Fireside Magazine packs an emotional punch in a very short space of time, telling the story of Alice, a young girl growing up among the stars who is trying to recapture the feeling of home.

Dad reaches into his pocket and pulls out a slightly battered picture. He holds it gently, like it is a flower that might bruise if touched too carelessly. He stares at the image for a long moment. His shoulders ease downwards, the subtle tightness in his body unwinding just a bit.

Alice barely remembers what it was like to feel the sunlight on her face, or breathe in the scent of green grass. Much of her longing is reflected from her father, which is part of what makes this story so effective. Alice sets out to recreate a garden in her room, nurturing flower and plants and mushrooms grown in a lab, transforming them from something functional into something beautiful. She does this as much for her father as she does for herself. With deep empathy, she recognizes his longing, and also the change just seeing a photograph of growing things brings about to his mood. While Alice’s father holds out the hope that they might go home one day, on some level, Alice seems to understand that they will never return to Earth, and home must be something they carry with them, paradoxically helping her father let go of the past by memorializing it and making it anew. It’s a beautifully-written story, and Ahmad does a wonderful job of infusing it with loss, longing, and hope.

Familiar Face by Meg Elison in Nightmare Magazine presents the simultaneously chilling and comforting idea that facial recognition software might allow the dead to communicate with those they left behind. Annie recently lost her wife, Cara, and is coping with her grief as best she can. Her roommates support her, and the caring network Elison depicts is wonderful to see. As Annie tries to process her pain and find a way to move on, the camera in their home begins insisting that it sees a familiar face at the door – Cara’s.

Annie stepped forward and opened the door anyway. She didn’t believe Cara would be there. She didn’t believe she had seen what she had seen. There was nothing on the doorstep. Fog swarmed in the streetlights and droplets of it landed on their parked cars.

As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Cara’s death wasn’t ordinary, but that she was the victim of violence. The facial recognition technology built into the home’s security camera becomes the key to unraveling Cara’s death, and giving Annie a sense of closure and justice, if not peace exactly. Elison leaves it up to the reader as to whether Cara’s ghost is actually haunting the machine and Annie, or whether it’s merely a means to allow Annie to get in touch with her intuition and process her loss. Leaving enough room for either interpretation makes the story all the more powerful, and takes nothing from the eerie and atmospheric encounters Annie has with Cara’s ghost. The characters’ use of signing, and the way they adapt it into a highly-personal mode of communication adds an extra layer of poignancy to the story. It’s refreshing to see cameras and facial recognition software depicted as a means of broadening communication – and highlighting that communication isn’t limited to speaking aloud – rather than being painted as the big bad in a speculative story, especially one with horror overtones.

Miss Karami’s Academy for Time-Warping Ladies by Kat Otis in Kaleidotrope Magazine sets a very different tone than the first two stories. It is charming, cheeky, and above all, fun. It still deals with a character far from home, as Elzbieta finds herself exiled to Miss Karami’s Academy for warping time in an un-lady-like way. It’s not that women shouldn’t manipulate time, only that they should do it within certain socially-acceptable boundaries, a skill Miss Karami purports to teach her students. Of course, there’s always wiggle room, and the students of Miss Karami’s, Elzbieta and her twin sister Ryska among them, find a way to get firmly up to no good while putting on the face of innocence and making the stuffy Chronology Protection Agency look foolish to boot.

I suppressed a grin as I warped threads to slow the cup’s flight, then carefully plucked it out of the air before it could hit something and shatter. Miss Karami had sworn to me that manners were an effective weapon, when wielded properly—it looked like she was right.

The story presents a different angle on the idea of being far away from home allowing a character to establish a new life. Rather than mourning home, Elzbieta is more cranky than anything else, but she quickly discovers a new kind of freedom and the ways in which the very rules set to bind and limit her can be twisted to her advantage. Otis plays with the idea of women’s power lying at least partially in their tendency to be underestimated, and their ability to use society’s perceptions of them against that same society. It’s assumed Elzbieta, Ryska, and the other students of Miss Karami’s couldn’t possibly be clever enough to stage a cover-up, thus they must be just what they appear on the surface – up to mischief, but only the frivolous and silly girlish kind. Elzbieta and Ryska are delightful characters, the tone of their banter and interactions is perfect, and I would happily read more stories set at Miss Karami’s school.

Uncanny January February 2020 CoverMy Country is a Ghost by Eugenia Triantafyllou in Uncanny Magazine returns to a more melancholy and bittersweet take on the loss of home. In the process of immigrating to a new country, Niovi is forced to leave her mother’s ghost behind.

Foreign ghosts were considered unnecessary. The only things they had to offer were stories and memories.

Niovi had prepared herself for this, and yet she had hoped she wouldn’t have to leave her mother behind.

She gave the necklace to the impassive woman and let herself drift down the aisle as if a forceful gust of air ushered her away.

Niovi underestimates just how much of an impact cutting ties with her ghost will have on her. More than ties to her mother specifically, her mother’s ghost is a link to her heritage, her traditions, an entire life she’s leaving behind. Food and cooking play an important role in the story. Niovi struggles to prepare food for the Saturday of Souls, finding herself at a loss without her mother’s guidance her, and finding her relatives back home of no use either, seeing her as “other” and almost a traitor now. Triantafyllou perfectly captures the idea of a character caught between worlds. Niovi is trying to build a better life for herself, pursue opportunity, but fears that to do so, she will have to let go of who she is – assimilate as a ghostless person with no ties to her heritage and home. However, over the course of the story, Niovi learns there is balance to be had, she can move forward while still carrying the past with her, honoring her family, while still building a future for herself. This story is at once heartbreaking and filled with hope, and a gorgeous exploration of what it means to leave home and find a new one.

Fiyah 13 CoverThe Transition of Osoosi by Ozzie M. Gantrell in Fiyah Magazine is a novelette that once again blends technology and the supernatural. Mal is a young, black Choctaw man, thus a citizen, but not considered a “True American”. He is followed by cops, under suspicion, and constantly at risk of losing his life simply for existing in the world. He’s also an extremely skilled hacker, and along with his best friend Machine, he sets out to enlist the skills of the Anansi, a top-tier hacker collective who manifest themselves as African gods.

Still shaky from the turbulent introduction, I concentrate on the leader, the one who’d first spoken, and offer my thanks. He waves it off with one of his eight hands. His avatar wears the form of a dark skinned, handsome man with long dreads tipped in gold. Bulbous shades hide his eyes. Steel plates feather along his ribs in shades of iridescent black-blue.

With the Anansi’s help, Mal believes he can bring a measure of justice to the world, and change the way non-True Americans are treated. Change requires sacrifice however, and the Anasi ask Mal how far he is willing to go. He says he will gladly give up his life, but simply willing to be a martyr for the cause is too easy. To effect real change, Mal will have to transform himself, betraying those he loves, and giving up everything that made him human.

The blend of cyberpunk aesthetics with African mythology is brilliantly done, strongly hinting at the possibility that Mal is dealing with actual gods, and not simply very talented hackers. The exploration of empathy and the idea of sacrifice is also beautifully done, as Gantrell looks at the role technology might play in creating a kinder world. Mal and Machine’s different approaches to this idea set them up in opposition while working toward the same goal. Machine creates a VR experience which in essence summons the ghosts of water protectors in North Dakota, immersing the viewer so completely that it actually manipulates their emotions. Where Machine sees this creation of empathy as a voluntary process, Mal sees the potential to create a kind of empathy bomb, giving people no choice in having the pain they’ve caused turned back on them.

The story is wonderfully written, presenting justice and change as a double-edged sword. In order to win, Mal must lose part of himself, but is it worth it for the greater good? According to the ToC, this novelette is Gantrell’s debut publication, and what an incredible start. I can’t wait to read more of her work.

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My Favorite Books of 2019

The Luminous Dead CoverI recently posted about my favorite short fiction of 2019, so now it’s time to look at the longer fiction I read this year, including novels, novellas, collections, and anthologies, and highlight a few of my favorites.  I’ve included an honorable mentions section for work published before 2019, divided out in order to hopefully be more helpful for folks looking at recommended reading for nomination purposes. Even though I made a pretty good dent in my TBR pile, I know there are plenty of things I missed, so please do share your own favorites too!

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James – a dense and twisting story full of myth, magic, pride, and passion, where a man named Tracker finds his life irrevocably intertwined with the shape-shifting Leopard, and experiences triumph, defeat, love, and loss, as he tries to protect himself and those around him.

The Ebon Jackal by E. Catherine Tobler – bringing the Folley & Mallory series to a close with a bang, this book deftly weaves together the stories of three generations of women, all bound together by their ties to Egypt and the god Anubis who seeks to remake the world according to his own design.

Riverland by Fran Wilde – the powerful story of two sisters facing abuse at home who fall into a magical world beneath the bed and discover their family’s long ties to an otherworldly river that they must fight to save while also learning to save each other. Reviewed in more detail here.

Storm of Locusts by Rebecca Roanhorse – the second installment of the Sixth World series finds monster hunter Maggie Hoskie with new allies and facing off against new foes, while still contending with her past and trying to heal the wounds there.

The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling – a tense and claustrophobic horror/sci-fi novel where cave diver Gyre must struggle to survive while unraveling a mystery, and untangling her complicated relationship with her unreliable handler, Em, who may be the only thing keeping Gyre alive. Reviewed in more detail here.

Amnesty by Lara Elena Donnelly – the final book in a decadent and stylish trilogy, dealing with the painful fallout of a life of espionage, war, lies, and politics.

Gods of Jade and Shadow CoverThe Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow – a gorgeous debut novel full of adventure, romance, and journeys to other worlds, all while the titular character, January Scaller, fights to carve out a place for herself in a world where she’s repeatedly told she doesn’t belong. Reviewed in more detail here.

This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone – a richly-written epistolary novella telling the story of two mortal enemies whose lives repeatedly collide as they move up and down the strands of time, falling in love even as they seek to undo and destroy each other.

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia – a beautiful and stylish novel of gods meddling in human lives, as Caseopia is tasked with helping the god Hume Kame restore his power and defeat his brother who seeks to steal his kingdom.

Echoes: the Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories edited by Ellen Datlow – a hefty collection packed full of unsettling stories that explore a broad spectrum of ghosts and hauntings. (A few favorites are highlighted in my short fiction list.)

The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher – an evocative and eerie take on Arthur Machen’s The White People, which delves deeper into the otherwordly, the uncanny, and the horrific, as Mouse seeks to uncover her step-grandfather’s mysterious past after she’s tasked with cleaning out her hoarder grandmother’s home.

Gamechanger by L.X. Beckett – a dazzling tapestry weaving together multiple story threads, set in a period of recovery after an environmental collapse, where gamer and advocate Rubi Whiting must uncover the truth behind her mysterious new client and the charges against him, while protecting her father, and dealing with a growing attraction to her number one in-game rival. Reviewed in more detail here.

Escaping Exodus CoverThe Mythic Dream edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe – a fantastic anthology full of talented authors putting new spins on old myths. (A few favorites are highlighted in my short fiction list.)

Desdemona and the Deep by C.S.E. Cooney – a lush and decadent tumble into fairy land where the titular character, Desdemona, must accomplish a daring rescue in order to undo the dark bargain her father made and save the lives of a group of otherwise doomed miners.

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi – a powerful story that explores the idea of monstrosity in a world where monsters have supposedly been eliminated, confronting the notion of evil hiding among those we love the most. Reviewed in more detail here.

A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinsker – a novel that tells the intersecting stories of two women brought together by music as they each in their own way try to build a better world out of the collapse of the old one.

Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden – the story of a woman born to lead who discovers the dark truths that power the living generation ship where her people live as she fights to right old wrongs and repair broken relationships along the way.

Honorable Mentions (AKA books published before 2019)

Radium Girls CoverTemper by Nicky Drayden – a story set in a world of twins where one is assigned the characteristics of vice and the other virtue at birth, exploring the nature of good, evil, free will, divinity, and the complications inherent in families.

The Radium Girls by Kate Moore – a powerful, non-fiction account of the girls who painted luminous clock faces during WWI, slowly poisoning themselves in the process, and their search for justice against the factories that employed them.

How Long ‘Til Black Future Month by N.K. Jemisin – a stunning fiction collection from an amazing author.

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters – dripping with Gothic atmosphere, a story of a country doctor pulled into the lives of a family seemingly cursed with bad luck, living in a crumbling English estate, which may or may not be haunted by something malevolent. Reviewed in more detail here.

Greener Pastures by Michael Wehunt – a delightfully unsettling collection of dark fiction from a wonderful author.

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang – the first installment in what promises to be a brilliant trilogy exploring power, magic, and the horrors of war.

The Rust Maidens by Gwendolyn Kiste – an effective body-horror novel, where girls begin to mysteriously rust and decay, mirroring the decay of their industrial town, which also explores friendship, and the pressure to conform to societal expectations.

The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal – the sequel to the wonderful alternate history novel, The Calculating Stars, which finds the Lady Astronaut (aka Elma York) recruited for the first mission to Mars as the world continues to struggle with the climate change wrought by a meteor strike, set against a backdrop of social unrest and racial tension.

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My Favorite Short Fiction of 2019

Every year, I try to read as much short fiction as I can. And no matter how much I read, it never feels like enough. There are tons of fantastic stories out there, and I know I’ve missed many of them. That said, of the stories I have read this year, there are several I want to highlight in hopes that you’ll enjoy them too. It’s possible I’ll update the list as I continue to catch up. In that spirit, please share your own favorites in the comments or point me toward your own lists so I can see what you loved too!

Uncanny January/February 2019 CoverA Catalog of Storms by Fran Wilde (Uncanny Magazine, January/February 2019) – a gorgeous story about loss and one family’s contentious relationship with the weather. Reviewed in more detail here.

Beyond the El by John Chu (Tor.com, January 2019) – a story about messy family relationships and the magical and transformative nature of food. Reviewed in more detail here.

Monsters Come Howling in Their Season by Cadwell Turnbull (The Verge, January 2019) – another story of contentious relationships with storms, exploring compassion, guilt, and the humanity of AI. Reviewed in more detail here.

The Willows by Delilah S. Dawson (Uncanny January/February 2019) – a moody and atmospheric Gothic story where dark family history rises to threaten the present. Reviewed in more detail here.

Dustdaughter by Inda Lauryn (Uncanny, January/February 2019) – a story of hereditary magic and a young woman coming into her power and finding her place in the world. Reviewed in more detail here.

The Crying Bride by Carrie Laben (The Dark, February 2019) – another story of buried family secrets haunting the present, with Gothic overtones. Reviewed in more detail here.

In That Place She Grows a Garden by Del Sandeen (Fiyah Issue Ten: Hair) – a defiant story of beauty and refusing to conform to unfair societal expectations and standards. Reviewed in more detail here.

Fiyah Issue 10 CoverWhile Dragons Claim the Sky by Jen Brown (Fiyah Issue Ten: Hair) – a wonderful story of knights, dragons, and hair magic.

The Message by Vanessa Fogg (The Future Fire, February 2019) – a touching story of friendship, first contact, and the power of fan fiction to bring people together. Reviewed in more detail here.

Before the World Crumbles Away by A.T. Greenblatt (Uncanny, March/April 2019) – a quiet story about art, robots, the end of the world, and the value of hope. Reviewed in more detail here.

Treading Water by Tapanga Koe (Capricious, Issue 11) – a lovely story of fear, transformation, and finding acceptance of your true self. Reviewed in more detail here.

The Archronology of Love by Caroline Yoachim (Lightspeed Magazine, April 2019) – a story about unearthing the past and the ability of the observer has to impact history. Reviewed in more detail here.

Augur Issue 2.1 CoverRoots and Shoots by Laura DeHaan (Augur Magazine 2.1) – a story of friendship, artificial life, and the nature of humanity.

Moses by L.D. Lewis (Anathema Magazine, April 2019) – a painful story of unasked-for powers, family, and addiction.

Everything is Closed Today by Sarah Pinsker (Do Not Go Quietly) – a story of community and rebuilding in the face of an apocalypse shutting down the world through fear. Reviewed in more detail here.

Hey Alexa by Meg Elison (Do Not Go Quietly) – a surprisingly emotional story of virtual assistants fighting back against oppression. Reviewed in more detail here.

April Teeth by Eugenia Triantafyllou (Do Not Go Quietly) – a disturbing story of ritual sacrifice and one character’s refusal to go along with the status quo. Reviewed in more detail here.

The Judith Plague by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (Do Not Go Quietly) – a story of abused synthetic humans rising up to fight for their rights. Reviewed in more detail here.

Kill the Darlings (Silicone Sister Remix) by E. Catherine Tobler (Do Not Go Quietly) a gorgeously-written story seething with anger where women who have been literally shaped by the male gaze reclaim themselves. Reviewed in more detail here.

Lest We Forget by Elizabeth Bear (Uncanny, May/June 2019) – a heartbreaking story about the manipulation of memory and the cost of war.

Apparition 7 CoverIbrahim and the Green Fishing Net by Omar William Sow (Fiyah Issue Eleven) – a bittersweet story of lost love and second chances. Reviewed in more detail here.

Many-Hearted Dog and Heron Who Stepped Past Time (Strange Horizons, June 2019) – a beautiful story of time travel, friendship, loyalty, violence, and love.

The House Wins in the End by L. Chan (The Dark, July 2019) – a dark and unsettling story of what it means to survive a haunting.

Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart by Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld, July 2019) – a beautiful story of queerness, monstrosity, and a classic monster movie come to life.

For He Can Creep by Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com, July 2019) – a fantastic story of a cat, his poet, and a deal with the devil.

His Heart is the Haunted House by Aimee Ogden (Apparition Literary Magazine Issue Seven: Retribution) – a wonderful story of a ghost hunter and his ghosts that flips the script on the tortured loner archetype. Reviewed in more detail here.

Deepster Punks by Maria Haskins (A Punk Rock Future) – an atmospheric story of deep sea exploration full of suspicion, paranoia, and encounters with alien life. Reviewed in more detail here.

Vinyl Wisdom by P.A. Cornell (A Punk Rock Future) – a story about family, and honoring the past while yearning for the future. Reviewed in more detail here.

Music for an Electronic Body by R.K. Duncan (A Punk Rock Future) – an unsettling story about uploaded consciousness, and the unintended consequences of the power of music. Reviewed in more detail here.

One Thousand Beetles in a Jumpsuit by Dominica Phetteplace (Lightspeed, August 2019) – a story of robots, adaptation, and survival in a harsh environment.

When Are you Wearing by H.L. Fullerton (Capricious Issue 12) – a lovely story about memory, fashion, and feeling stuck in a rut. Reviewed in more detail here.

Fare by Danny Lore (Fireside Magazine, August 2019) – an innovative take on the werewolf trope that explores class and the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Reviewed in more detail here.

Lightspeed June 2019 CoverThe Weight of a Thousand Needles by Isabel Canas (Lightspeed, June 2019) – a gorgeous, fairy tale-like story of a powerful being caught in a spell, and the woman tasked with freeing him.

Still Water by Ian Muneshwar (Anathema, August 2019) – an eerie and tense story about navigating relationships, navigating seemingly calm waters, and the dangers lurking beneath the surface of each.

The Surviving Child by Joyce Carol Oates (Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories) – an unsettling story dripping with Gothic atmosphere, which takes place in the aftermath of a murder-suicide that may be more than it seems.

The Puppet Motel by Gemma Files (Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories) – another story that oozes with atmosphere about a rental property literally getting under the skin and into the head of the woman hired to care for it.

Deep, Fast, Green by Carole Johnstone (Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories) – an incredibly visceral and claustrophobic story about a man haunted by the horrific deaths that occurred aboard the submarine he served on years ago. Reviewed in more detail here.

Dave’s Head by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld, September 2019) – a charming story about a robotic dinosaur and the challenges of dealing with family.

The Sloppy Mathematics of Half-Ghosts by Charles Payseur (Strange Horizons, October 2019) – a gorgeous and poetic story about ghosts, cats, ships sailing the stars, and seeking one’s heart’s desire at the center of the universe. Reviewed in more detail here.

And Now His Lordship is Laughing by Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons, September 2019) – a powerful story of a woman overlooked by a colonial government, and the subtle ways she uses her particular skills to enact her revenge.

The Devil Buys Us Cheap, and the Devil Buys Us in Bulk by M. Bennardo (Mithila Review, October 2019) – a story about the insidious nature of guilt and temptation, and one woman’s efforts to resist them.

Labbatu Takes Command of the Ship Heaven Dwells Within by Arkady Martine (The Mythic Dream) – a stylish story of family pitted against family and a starship captain taking her due.

Wild to Covet by Sarah Gailey (The Mythic Dream) – a beautifully-written story about what it means to be a woman caught in the grip of prophecy who fights back against destiny.

The Gorilla in a Tutu Principle, or Pecan Pie at Minnie and Earl’s by Adam Troy Castro (Analog, September/October 2019) – a charming story of impossible encounters on the moon, and alien beings using the comedy of Laurel and Hardy to initiate first contact.

Omenana 14 CoverTiny Bravery by Ada Nnadi (Omenana Magazine, October 2019) – a story of super-human abilities, friendship, and finding a place to fit in.

A Strange Uncertain Light by G.V. Anderson (Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2019) – a story that weaves together past and present, bringing together a woman gifted (or cursed) to see ghosts, and a woman fighting to free her best friend from the clutches of an unscrupulous doctor.

You Were Once Wild Here by Carlie St. George (The Dark, December 2019) – a touching noir story reminiscent of Twin Peaks, set in a world of monsters and those who hunt them.

The Devil Squid Apocalypse by Alex Acks (GigaNotoSaurus, December 2019) – a story of music and a kick-ass older protagonist fending off an alien invasion.

The Lawman’s Boy by Setsu Uzumé (Bourbon Penn, December 2019) – a stylish weird western where the sins of the father are literally visited upon the son, and the ghosts of the past haunt the present.

Adrianna in Pomegranate by Samantha Mills (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, February 2019) – a gorgeous story about grief and the magic inherent in the act of writing.

The Tentacle and You by John Wisell (Nature, February 2019) – a fun story about the changes you can expect during the slow, tentacle-based invasion.

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An Interview with Gwendolyn Kiste

Gwendolyn Kiste was kind enough to drop by today to talk about her new novelette, the Invention of Ghosts. To kick things off, I’ll make introductions by way of shamelessly stealing from Gwendolyn’s author bio.

Gwendolyn Kiste is the Bram Stoker Award-winning author of And Her Smile Will Untether the Universe, from JournalStone; the dark fantasy novella, Pretty Marys All in a Row, from Broken Eye Books; and her debut novel, The Rust Maidens, from Trepidatio Publishing. Her short fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, Shimmer, Black Static, Daily Science Fiction, Interzone, LampLight, and Three-Lobed Burning Eye as well as Flame Tree Publishing’s Chilling Horror Short Stories anthology, among others. Originally from Ohio, she now resides on an abandoned horse farm outside of Pittsburgh with her husband, two cats, and not nearly enough ghosts. You can also find her online at Facebook and Twitter.

Welcome, Gwendolyn! You are an incredibly prolific author, and now you have a new novelette out in the world. Without giving too much away, would you care to tell folks a bit about it, and where they can find it to read it for themselves?

Invention of Ghosts ArtFirst off, thank you so much for having me on your site! It’s so wonderful to be here talking with you!

My new novelette is called The Invention of Ghosts, and it’s part of the Charitable Chapbook Series at Nightscape Press. One-third of proceeds from all the books in this series go to charity; for mine, I chose the National Aviary, a bird sanctuary in Pittsburgh and one of my very favorite places.

As for the story itself, it’s all about two best friends in college who get wrapped up in the occult. As they delve deeper into the spirit world, the tenuous threads of their friendship begin to fray, and they become haunted in a way neither of them could ever expect. This is one of my more surreal tales, and I’m so excited for it to make its way into the world. It should be out sometime this winter, hopefully by the end of December or early January. The print run is a limited edition, and there are only a few dozen copies left at this point, so for those out there who are interested, it’s available exclusively from Nightscape Press.

It sounds wonderful, and the fact that friendship is at the heart of the story seems to be a recurring theme in your work. Which makes a nice segue into the next thing I wanted to talk about… Your novel, Rust Maidens, might be described as industrial horror, or perhaps economic horror, and of course body horror plays a big role too. The central image of girls turning into manifestations of rust and blight is so evocative. Did the novel start with the imagery, or did it grow out of the more mundane elements which are every bit as horrific – the pressure to conform, the fear of losing your livelihood, the idea of a town itself crumbling away as industry dries up?

The very earliest kernel of The Rust Maidens was definitely rooted in how much pressure there is for us all to conform. I had this image of girls in an oppressive neighborhood breaking free in some horrific way. Originally, the concept was that they all died and then got up out of their graves and just went home, much to the horrors of their families. However, that sounded a little too much like a zombie story—and I love zombies, but that isn’t what I wanted for this one—so I decided to shelve the whole idea for a while.

Then about six months later, I wrote a ghost story that was published in Black Static called “Songs to Help You Cope When Your Mom Won’t Stop Haunting You and Your Friends” that took place in Cleveland in 1980. I had so much fun researching that era, and I didn’t want to leave it behind quite yet, so I decided to revisit the previous idea of the girls in the oppressive neighborhood. From there, I blended it with yet another story that I wrote and didn’t want to let go: a coming-of-age body horror tale called “Reasons I Hate My Big Sister.” Each of those story concepts gave The Rust Maidens a huge puzzle piece of its existence, so the book had a bit of a Frankenstein-esque origin.

Also, I don’t think I’ve ever mentioned this before, but that earliest idea with the girls getting up out of their graves was going to be called Something’s Happening to the Girls on Denton Street. I thought that title would have had an interesting, almost campy horror quality to it in the vein of titles like Let’s Scare Jessica to Death. But once I started developing the newer version of the story, I decided a simpler, more evocative title would work better. Still, I just couldn’t let the original title go, so I named the neighborhood in The Rust Maidens Denton Street, and I worked that old title into the opening of the back cover description. It even became a sort of tagline for some of the book promotion, so it makes the campy horror fan in me happy that I still got to use it somewhere after all.

I also wanted to talk a bit about your novella Pretty Marys All in a Row. I love the idea of characters from urban legends, ghost stories, and rhymes forming a kind of club based on a common name. What was the inspiration behind the novella? What is your favorite non-Mary related urban legend or ghost story, and would you ever want to explore it fictionally?

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated with urban legends and folklore. My husband grew up loving them too, so it’s long been a favorite topic of conversation for us. One evening on a road trip, we got to talking about Resurrection Mary again, and we started discussing how there are so many folkloric characters named Mary. We went through three or four right away, and instantly I imagined all of them together, sharing some kind of strange, unlikely bond. The story blossomed from there.

As for non-Mary legends, it’s hard to pick only one! If I had to narrow it down, though, it would probably be the person hiding in the backseat of the car, and the service station attendant trying to warn the driver before it’s too late. That one still gives me the shivers whenever I think about it, how someone is doing their best to help you, but you’re afraid of them rather than the real threat. Prior to this question, I’d never thought about incorporating that urban legend into a story, but now that you’ve got me thinking about it, maybe I will someday. It certainly unsettles me enough to be worthy of a horror story!

Switching gears a bit, but still somewhat related… You currently reside in the Pittsburgh area, a city that’s had its own share of ups and downs with industry. Did the city have any impact or influence on you while writing Rust Maidens? What are some of your favorite spots in Pittsburgh, either places you go to gather inspiration, hidden gems, or places you like to recommend to people visiting for the first time?

Overall, I would say that Pittsburgh didn’t have a huge influence on The Rust Maidens; the novel was definitely intended as an homage to my home state of Ohio. That being said, since I wrote most of the book in Pittsburgh coffee shops, being surrounded with so many reminders of the Rust Belt probably didn’t hinder my process, so maybe I do owe a bit of a debt to the Steel City for that. (Don’t tell Cleveland, though; there’s a big rivalry between the two cities!)

As for Pittsburgh, there are so many great spots to visit. I’ve already mentioned it but my favorite attraction is without a doubt the National Aviary. I’m a huge bird lover, and I’ve gotten so much inspiration from just spending an afternoon there with my husband. There’s also the Andy Warhol Museum and the Carnegie Museums, which are such amazing places and host so many cool events year-round.

As for locales more off-the-beaten path, Trundle Manor is a very nifty attraction for fans of the wondrous and weird. It’s a living museum dedicated to oddities, a kind of modern Wunderkammer. You won’t find anywhere else quite like it, so if anyone is ever in Pittsburgh, I certainly recommend scheduling a tour. You won’t soon forget it.

Speaking of residences, I have to ask about the abandoned horse farm, which is an evocative image all of its own. Have you every encountered any equine ghosts? Or any other types of ghosts around the farm?

No ghost horses, not yet anyhow, although my husband and I are always on the lookout! That being said, we do have what we call “Third Cat,” a little spectral feline that occasionally darts about the house alongside our two corporeal cats. My favorite part of this story is that my husband and I both started seeing Third Cat dashing in and out of rooms around the same time, but we opted not to mention it at first to each other, because we thought it was too weird. Then add to that the fact that a friend of ours has researched and written an extensive book about the paranormal in our area, and he told us that this exact phenomenon is very common in our region. So my husband and I are only one of many families with ghost pets apparently, which absolutely delights me to no end.

Changing topics completely, one of my favorite questions to ask authors is about non-writing related jobs. What is the most unusual job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it, and has any aspect of that job worked its way into any of your stories?

Gwendolyn KisteI’m never sure what qualifies as unusual per se, but for almost fifteen years, I worked in different aspects of the fashion industry, both behind and in front of the camera, and that was definitely a unique experience. There was a lot I learned it from it actually—my ongoing love of photography came from that time, for example—but more than anything, I probably figured out how to multi-task from it. I did fashion design and then I also did my own fashion show production, so putting together a collection and also coordinating all the details for a live event certainly helped me learn how to prioritize tasks and work with groups of people. It also helped me get over any fear of public speaking since I had to go in front of crowds at the shows.

Also, yes, it has worked its way into my fiction, quite recently in fact. I have a story called “The Maid from the Ash: A Life in Pictures” that will be coming out in the inaugural issue of Weird Whispers, a new weird fiction publication from Nightscape Press next year. The story is told with a wraparound device of a photography exhibit, and the plot deals specifically with issues of body autonomy in the fashion industry. It’s a weird little tale and one I’m very proud of, so I’m thrilled for it to make its debut in 2020.

Last, but not least, what’s next for you? What are you working on, or have coming up that you want folks to know about?

I’m slowly finishing up my second novel right now. It’s all about witches and witchfinders, whispering shadows and ghost birds. It brings together so many fairy tale elements that I’ve loved since I was growing up, as well as plenty of real-world horror too. I’m very excited and eager about getting the book out into the world (although I do wish it would stop dragging its feet, so I can actually finish it!).

I’m also hoping to put together my second collection in 2020. Most of the previously published stories are selected at this point; I just need to finish a couple of the new stories before I’m ready to put it together. I’m a big fan of short fiction, so it will be a lot of fun to have another collection. Still, that’s months away at the moment. Always so many projects to work on, and so little time in the day to make them all happen!

I look forward to reading both the novel and the collection when they make their way out into the world. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Thank you again, A.C.! You’re the best!

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New Zealand Fantastic

Paper Road Press, founded by Marie Hodgkinson in 2013, launched the first volume of a new annual series this year – Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy Volume 1. The press was kind enough to send me a copy, along with a copy of From a Shadow Grave by Andi C. Buchanan. Together, these two books offer a taste of the fantastic work being done by Paper Road Press, and the wonderful science fiction and fantasy coming out of New Zealand.

Year's Best New Zealand Science Fiction and FantasyIn addition to collecting some of the best work published in 2018, in Year’s Best Aoteaoroa New Zealand Science Fiction, editor Marie Hodgkinson pairs and groups stories in such a way as to allow certain narrative threads to emerge. The anthology opens with the stunning “We Feed the Bears of Ice and Fire” by Octavia Cade, where the remnants of humanity are left to make desperate and futile sacrifices to the creatures they’ve awoken with their lies, their abuse, and their neglect.

We blister under them. We bleed and freeze. They take no notice. We’re so small, compared to them, to the blizzards and firestorms of their bodies. No wonder they see us as nothing but fuel.

Cade’s story is a stand-out, even in an anthology collecting the year’s best, getting the volume off to a strong start with striking imagery, and seething with poetic anger. It also sets the tone for the next few stories in the anthology, which deal with apocalyptic settings and environmental disasters. Following this opening, the anthology allows readers to take a breath in the form of the lovely “The Billows of Sarto” by Sean Monaghan, a quiet story about an encounter with alien life on a distant planet, showing that humans can peacefully coexist with nature and appreciate it on its own terms without fully understanding it, or trying to exploit it for their own ends.

More and more billows joining the others. Dozens of clusters of six. Hundreds. More and more slipping from the trees. Wings unfurling. Taking flight. It felt as if they would fill the caldera. They would sweep Kaufman up in their whirlwind.

From distant futures and far-off planets, the anthology travels to an alternate past, where a glass-blowing Venetian witch uses her powers to turn the tide of war in “The Glassblower’s Peace” by James Rowland. Here again, Hodgkinson pairs stories to draw out themes, following Rowland’s story with “Mirror Mirror” by Mark English, a haunting story of reflections and parallel universes.

The anthology finishes on another incredibly strong note, book-ending the volume with my other personal favorite among a collection of amazing work. Andi C. Buchanan’s “Girls Who Do Not Drown” uses the mythology of the glashtyn to explore gender, the weight of expectations placed on women and girls, and what it means to find acceptance and fight for your place in the world.

It’s not that they don’t love their daughters. It’s just that this is how it’s always been, and that history is stronger than love, and that the sea is stronger than them all.

From a Shadow GraveBuchanan’s “Girls Who Do Not Drown” pairs nicely with their novella, From a Shadow Grave, which also deals with the weight of history resting on the shoulders of women, and one particular woman fighting to reclaim her story and make her own fate. Phyllis Symons seems destined to become a ghost story, a young woman from a poor family who falls for an older man who brutally murders her and dumps her body in a construction tunnel when she reveals that she’s pregnant with his child. From this establishing event, the story branches, presenting multiple version of Phyllis’ story. The common thread that ties them all together: her death is only the beginning.

All ghost stories start with endings, but you are a woman, not a story; a woman stumbling your way into adulthood in a world of music and hunger. Let’s start with you, not with him. Let’s start with, perhaps, the music you play on your gramophone that you won’t sell even though you should, because music eases the pangs of hunger more than the money it’s worth.

This powerful opening forms the thesis statement for Buchanan’s novella – women are more than stories, more than cautionary tales, or “what ifs” or “if she hadn’ts”. Phyllis is a living, breathing person with dreams and ambitions, cut short by violence. Buchanan presents the reader, and Phyllis, with multiple paths to explore those dreams and the possibilities of her life, and afterlife. In one branch of the tale, Phyllis’ ghost helps bring about justice and save others from her fate; in another branch, Phyllis is rescued by a woman from the future who becomes her lover; and finally, Phyllis rescues herself, clawing her way from her would-be grave to reclaim her story and discover her future on her own terms.

The concept of beginning with a murder, and then up-ending the trope, by making that only the beginning of Phyllis’ journey of self-discovery is a wonderful one. From a Shadow Grave offers a fresh twist on the murder ballad/ghostly revenge/urban legend trope, mashing them all together to create something new that incorporates time travel, queer love, found family, historical drama, the horrors of war, but most of all women rescuing themselves and each other, and carving out space for their lives in an unforgiving world.

These two titles are proof that Paper Road Press is a publisher to keep an eye on. Their upcoming titles for 2020 look intriguing, and I look forward to checking them out: The Lands Girls by A.J. Fitzwater, The Stone Weta by Octavia Cade, Red Mage by H.D. Woolf, and of course Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy Volume 2.

 

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