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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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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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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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Shiny Shorts: Halloween Reads

We are deep in spooky season folks, and tomorrow is the spookiest day of them all. Just in time for Halloween, I have some recent haunting short fiction to recommend.

The Midnight Host by Gregory Neil Harris published in Fiyah #12: Chains finds brothers Donnie and Koda headed to the middle-of-nowhere North Virginia with their grandmother to visit their Aunt Pearl. One of the first things they notice on arriving at Pearl’s is a line of brick dust surrounding her property, which they mishear as being to keep away ants. The line is actually meant to repel haints, and Pearl sends the boys to the neighboring property to gather more. Next door, they meet Harlowe, who works for Mr. Hammond. He agrees to give them the brick dust, but seems very eager to get them off the property. As Donnie gathers dust, Koda wanders off and accidentally cuts himself on a piece of farm equipment. Harlowe tries to shoo them away again, despite the fact Koda is bleeding, and at that moment Mr. Hammond appears, seemingly solicitous of the boys’ health, offering bandages and cold drinks. That night, the boys return to Mr. Hammond’s property, intending to cut through his field on the way to town. They discover the fields watched over by an unsettling group of scarecrows, and the tobacco being worked by trapped black souls, bound to the land and forced to endlessly work the fields until they pay off an un-payable debt. Because Koda bled on the land, and because they accepted Mr. Hammond’s hospitality, now they are in danger of being bound too.

He scrambled over the fence and hurried to catch up to his brother, studying the nearest scarecrow with distaste. Even in the thin moonlight, there was something wrong with it. It looked too real. This one was a middle-aged white man with an unforgiving expression and pale grey eyes that practically glowed in the dark. A frown was evident above the thick, chest-length beard, and deep lines etched his sunburned face.

Harris effectively creates an atmosphere of tension and a sense of mounting dread. The first appearance of Mr. Hammond positively oozes menace even as he seems to express concern over the boys’ well being. While overtly supernatural and frightening things do occur, the true horror comes from the all-too-real system of “debt” keeping black workers enslaved on the plantation, pushed to the extreme of binding them to the land even after death, making for an unsettling supernatural tale rooted in real-world horror.

Luna Station QuarterlyThe Pet Owner’s Guide to Reptilian Hauntings by Jerica Taylor in Luna Station Quarterly is a bittersweet story with touches of humor. Maggie finds herself haunted by the ghost of her son Jason’s lizard, Howard. Meanwhile her wife, Kiersten, is deployed far away, and Maggie is trying to cope with solo parenting – getting Jason to the bus, and various after-school activities, while keeping herself going and helping her son come to terms with the concept of death.

Maggie immediately blames herself for forgetting something important in Howard’s care and feeding. His heat lamp is still on, but had she forgotten some supplement? It had been a terrible idea to get a new pet right before Kiersten left; animals were her wheelhouse. Maggie hugs her son, wipes his nose and encourages him to head downstairs and eat his cereal while she figures out what to do.

Howard’s ghost turns up in odd places, lurking by the coffeemaker and on top of the refrigerator. The desires of dead lizards, Maggie discovers, are largely unknowable, if Howard wants anything at all. She does her best to do right by the lizard, and even develops a strange fondness for his ghost, despite the inconvenience he adds to her life. Through Howard’s ghost and Maggie’s shifting relationship to him, Taylor explores loneliness, and the stress, guilt, and resentment that can come with solo parenting, parenting in general, or being separated from a loved one no matter how good the reason for their absence. It’s a lovely story that manages to make the idea of a lizard-based haunting sound almost soothing and therapeutic.

The Sloppy Mathematics of Half-Ghosts by Charles Payseur in Strange Horizons is another bittersweet story, but in a wholly different way.

Aboard the ghost ship Nine Lives there are the living, the dead, and a great many cats. And Jourdain, who likes to sleep in the observation nest, body caught somewhere between ship and stars—between everything. He half-sleeps, and half-dreams of a city he can almost taste, smog and sweat and endless endless streets alive with celebration. Then, with a shiver he’s not felt since he was beaten to death behind a theater ten years ago, knowledge crawls up his spine and into his half-conscious mind. “Napoleon is dead,” he whispers.

After that killer opening, Payseur treats readers to a weird (in the best sense of the word) journey that revels in beautiful language, and is suffused with longing. Even the dead, and the half-dead, can dream and desire things, and Napoleon has the power to grant wishes. The Nine Lives sets sail for Heart of the Universe to ferry the Emperor of All Things to his final rest, and perhaps get some of their own wishes seen to along the way. There are swashbuckling fights, and disdainful cats tasked with holding the ship together, and sex that manages to be intimate and tender and passionate despite, or perhaps because, of the lack of fully corporeal bodies involved. Payseur delivers a story that is queer and wistful with prose to leave the reader breathless and feeling like they do have been on an epic journey to the center of the universe and returned changed.

The Skin of a Teenage Boy is Not Alive by Senaa Ahmad from the August issue of Nightmare Magazine makes possession into a game played by bored, rich teenagers. The right kind of kids go to the right kinds of party, where the high school’s demon cult full of beautiful boys and girls invoke demons to possess their classmates.

It happens at one of their houses, a place built like a modern-day cathedral. The kind of hovel that has a saltwater pool with a vanishing edge and a wine cellar with someone’s entire life savings down there and red-glazed tiles cutting swoops into the Los Pueblos skyline. Six-day-old moon, a wide goblin grin from above. The hot strobe of synth-pop booming everywhere. The hazy, electrostatic currents of teenage bodies thrilling with vodka and happiness hormones.

Or rather ,one particular demon is summoned in a seemingly endless cycle to possess the young and stupid, causing them to harm themselves in its attempts to escape. The story moves fluidly through time, giving it a kind of timelessness quality, and Ahmad’s prose creates an almost dream-like feeling, with everything happening at a remove and no real consequences on the line. The style suits the story, underscoring the cyclical nature of demon possession, and also being young and feeling invulnerable. The demon cult kids and their classmates treat possession casually, like a demon is a trendy accessory, or a rite of passage, but they don’t appear to believe in their own mortality, or their ability to hurt those around them. Amhmad perfectly captures a sense of ennui that is frightening in its own right. Against this backdrop, best friends Aisha and Parveen search for a way to fit in, with Parveen acting the part of the perpetual outsider who will never be exactly the right kind of kid, trapped by a set of arbitrary rules that define popularity, just as the demon is trapped. The prose feels like a living thing, flowing and vibrant, carrying the story along and perfectly conveying the party atmosphere as well as the sense of alienation and being adrift, even among supposed friends.

Echoes CoverDeep, Fast, Green by Carole Johnstone from Echoes: The Saga Anthology of Ghost Stories is a standout story in an anthology full of incredible stories. In fact, I highly recommend checking out the whole anthology for nearly 800 pages of Halloween reads. Among so many incredible stories, Johnstone’s is one that keeps coming back to me, haunting me, if you’ll pardon the pun. Pinky lives with her mother, her mother’s boyfriend, and a great uncle who she thinks of as Gramps. Gramps is haunted, and as a result, the rambling old estate they live in is haunted as well, manifesting Gramps’ decades old trauma from his time on the crew of a submarine that sank with most of the crew still on board.

When it’s bad, the lights flicker, dim. Go black. Nothing to do but suffer it. Nothing to see but dark and the red small glows ae fags. Stink squatting over your head. Diesel and smoke and bad hydraulics, old cackleberries and jock roast, shit and sweat. The heat like a morass, sucking you down, drowning you dry.

Pinky is the only one who can calm Gramps when his PTSD manifests, but even she can only do so much. Some traumas are too deeply ingrained, and the only way to dig them out is to relive them by sharing the pain, something both she and Gramps are both reluctant to have him do. Meanwhile, Pinky’s mother and her boyfriend are largely useless, leaving Gramps’ care to Pinky, only interested in inheriting the house when he finally dies. Johnstone takes the idea of a character haunted by his past, and dials it all the way up. The prose is claustrophobic, the sense of the submarine closing in, the feeling of being trapped and drowning palpable. The idea of submarine-as-ghost, and a traumatized character acting as a conduit letting a haunting out into the larger world is a wonderful and terrifying one, and Johnstone handles it perfectly, creating a narrative that is wrenching, heartbreaking, and deeply unsettling all at once.

What are your favorite haunting Halloween reads, recent or otherwise?

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Homesick: Stories

Homesick CoverThere are certain stories that stick with you long after you finish reading them. Nino Cipri is a master at crafting such stories, and that mastery is on display in their debut collection, Homesick, recently released from Dzanc Books. Last week I posted an interview with Nino, where they discussed the collection and the theme of home that echoes through the stories. Home isn’t always a comforting place, and Cipri captures that perfectly in. In “A Silly Love Story” Jeremy’s closet is haunted, forcing him to share the space that should be a refuge with an entity he doesn’t understand. In “Which Super Little Dead Girl TM Are You?” home is certainly not a safe place. It is the place where one of the girls died, betrayed by those who were supposed to love and protect her; for another, it is a place she is no longer welcome, as evidenced by her parents’ horrified faces when she came back from the dead. In “Dead Air”, Maddie tries to avoid talking about her home completely, until she finally agrees to bring her girlfriend with her for Thanksgiving to meet her mother and the truly unsettling nature of her hometown is revealed. In “She Hides Sometimes”, the protagonist finds pieces of her parents’ house vanishing and shrinking, mirroring her mother’s decaying mind.

Even when home is frightening or unwelcoming, there is still a pull, a compulsion to return, and Cipri captures that perfectly as well. In “The Shape of My Name”, my absolute favorite of their stories (though it’s hard to pick just one), the lure of home and the treachery of it are inextricably bound. Heron, a trans man, returns to his home over and over as he loops through time. Born in the 50s, he jumps forward with his mother to visit their house in the 1980s, then later, travels back to visit his great uncle in the 1920s. As a very young child, Heron remembers a strange visitor arriving at their door one night in the midst of a storm. As a young man, his
mother jumped forward to the furthest point in the future the time machine would allow her to go, abandoning the family. For Heron, home is fraught. It’s where he fished with his dad, talking about his favorite TV shows; it’s where his father later committed suicide. It’s where his mother refused to acknowledge him, and his identity, but where his mother’s distant cousin from the future first encouraged him to introduce himself by whatever name he chose, allowing him to see for the first that gender was something he could choose for himself too. Home is where he goes to recover from his gender affirmation surgery, and the place he goes to confront his mother with his true self, closing the circle by returning as the stranger he remembers coming to the door when he was four years old.

Home is many things, and Cipri explores its facets and complications, its comforts and terrors throughout the collection. The stories range from horror to science fiction, fantasy to surreal slipstream. The majority of the stories are also beautifully queer, some suffused with hope, others touched with sadness, and many blending the two. While the majority of the stories in the collection are reprints, the collection closes out with an original novella (or perhaps a novelette?), centered on three scientists who uncover the remains of an ancient, intelligent, non-human species, who must contend with their troubled relationships with each other, as they sort out their duty to the past.

Overall, it’s a wonderful collection, bringing together many of my favorite of Cipri’s stories. If you’ve never read their work, Homesick is the perfect place to start. If you have read their work, the collection is the perfect opportunity to revisit their stories and immerse yourself in the comforts, and terrors, of home.

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Lost Transmissions

Lost Transmissions CoverI was lucky enough to snag a review copy of Desirina Boskovich’s recently-released Lost Transmissions: The Secret History of Science Fiction and Fantasy and let me tell you what, as soon as I get a coffee table (yes, I swear I’m an adult) this book will be going on it. Physically, it is a beautiful book, with glossy pages full of gorgeous art and striking photographs, and it’s the kind of book that lends itself to browsing, again perfect for a coffee table. One can dip in and out, finding essays of interest, or as I did, read cover to cover and find something fascinating on each page. The wide range of topics  means there’s bound to be something for everyone, even folks who don’t think they like science fiction and fantasy. (I may need to test this theory on my father.)

Lost Transmissions divides itself into broad sections: Literature, Film and Television, Architecture, Art and Design, Music, Fashion, and Fandom and Pop Culture. As the title suggests, the essays delve into some of the lesser-known, infrequently explored, and hidden histories of SFF, for instance touching on films that never made it to the screen, or examining the cross-pollination between seemingly disparate fields like literature, fashion, and architecture. In addition to Boskovich, authors contributing essays to the collection include Christie Yant, Grady Hendrix, Paul Tremblay, Charlie Jane Anders, John Chu, LaShawn M. Wankak, Jeanette Ng, Genevieve Valentine, K.M. Szpara, and many more.

The essays are accessible and engaging. None felt as though they were tossing up barriers of entry, require extensive knowledge of entire canons of SFF for the subject matter to be meaningful. Again, because of the sheer breadth of subjects covered, and because of each author’s particular area of focus within the larger categories, the book offers a pleasing mix of new discoveries and deeper dives into familiar subjects. Or at very least, that was my experience. With the subjects I knew something about, the essays felt like revisiting an old friend. With those I had no knowledge of, it did indeed feel like finding a lost transmission, and uncovering a secret history.

Whether your interest lies in cosmic horror, pulp illustration, Warhammer role playing, the fashion of Alexander McQueen, the architecture of Syd Mead, or the music of Janelle Monae, there is something here for you. By the same token, if none of those appeal to you, or you are venturing a toe into speculative waters for the first time, there’s still a veritable treasure trove to be found. Dive deep, or skim the surface, skipping to points of interest – either way, I highly recommend picking up a copy of this gorgeous book. Hidden history awaits you!

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Shiny Shorts: Monsters and Memory

With Apex Magazine ceasing monthly publication, my review column, Words for Thought, is a bit up in the air. It may come back in some form, at some point, but in the meantime, I want to keep highlighting short fiction. So in that spirit, I intend to sporadically post reviews here of a few stories that have caught my eye, magpie-like, hence the name Shiny Shorts. Happy reading!

Colonized Bodies, Desiccated Souls by Nin Harris, published at Diabolical Plots, casts British colonizers in Malaysia as literal zombies, mindlessly devouring people and resources. In response, Penghulu Udin forms the Persatuan Pertahanan Manusia Sejagat – PPMS – training others to fight back and defend humanity.

Even in their present state the British could barely handle the heat of the tropics. Penghulu Udin discovered he was exceptionally good at killing the undead. He could spear them, decapitate them, blow them up or use the bamboo blowgun the way his Dayak ancestors had before they had travelled to Selangor to build a new life by marrying into the Javanese community.

He is joined in the PPMS by his love, Salmah who fights at his side. Their life isn’t easy, but at least they are together. However, one night while they are on watch together, Udin discovers Salmah has been keeping a secret that will change everything.

Harris does an excellent job of conveying atmosphere and creating tension throughout the story. Like the best zombie fiction, the trope of the unreasoning undead is used here to confront a larger issue, in this case colonialism. The British are consumers, and Udin and his people are the product as only the British are subject to  infection while Malaysians who are bitten simply die. Zombies here are the perfect metaphor for the ugly reality of the sun never setting on the British Empire. The British colonizers are immortal in Harris’ world, even if the life they possess is hideous. They continue blithely on, and everyone else suffers the consequences. There is a lot to unpack in this relatively short story as it explores the fate of people caught in the crossfire of empires, and what it seems they must inevitably become in order to reclaim control.

Where Nin Harris uses zombies to examine colonialism, Danny Lore uses werewolves to examine class in Fare, published in Fireside Magazine. Like Harris’ story, Lore’s is also short, but packs a punch. Werewolves are a known quantity in this world. Most are registered, and there are even swanky, government-sponsored kennels where wealthy and middle class people can ride out their transformations. DeShaun, however, is not registered, and he knows people from his neighborhood are not welcome at the Midtown Kennels. He has no desire to hurt anyone, he simply wants to get home before the moon changes him.

The change always starts at the back of DeShaun’s neck, and it takes everything not to claw the beast out — to not let it peel him open along his spine like pages of a book.

Lore’s prose is visceral and claustrophobic, creating tension through their descriptions – the suffocating heat in the cab, the cracked seats, the barrier separating DeShaun from the driver. The oppressive atmosphere creates a sense of urgency, making me want to squirm right along side DeShaun as he struggles for control. The story works perfectly as a sharp little bite of horror, but it’s more than that as well. Lore weaves in an examination of class, wealth, and privilege. The cabbie isn’t even aware of the existence of kennels in the Kingsbridge Armory where DeShaun and those like him go during their transformation. For the privileged, transforming into a werewolf is almost a holiday, and proud parents snap photographs of their children’s first change. As with so many things in life, privilege wipes away what could be monstrous, and replaces it with comfort and safety. The story is beautifully-written, and delivers satisfying horror as well as a reflection on society’s inequalities.

Apparition Lit CoverHis Heart is the Haunted House by Aimee Ogden in Apparition Literary Magazine takes on ghosts, beautifully twisting the trope of the tortured monster hunter. Karyn is a ghost, tied to a nameless monster hunter,  and she isn’t the only one. There are other ghosts – Tish and María-Belén and Easterday and more – all people the monster hunter failed to save. They are his burden to bear, the guilt he carries with him every day as he tries to ease his pain in all the usual ways – alcohol, cigarettes, and being an emotionally closed-off loner.

 

And then there are the ones who get towed helplessly in the wake of someone else who won’t let them go. The ones who don’t get to do, who only get to be carried around. The ones used to abrade the old scars of someone else’s guilt and shame.

Karyn and the other ghosts can briefly take possession of the monster hunter, nudging him towards certain actions, but it’s never long enough. They never get to do what they want to do, or resolve any of their own unfinished business. They simply get dragged along in the monster hunter’s wake, symbols he never sees or acknowledges. They are embodiment of his failure, letting him artfully wallow, but never recognized by him as human beings whose lives were lost. It’s a wonderful take on the tortured hero, motivated by a fridged woman’s death.

Ogden’s choice to never name the hunter is deliberate, framing the ghosts he carries as more real than he is, and reducing him to the cookie-cutter trope instead of them. The narrative is cleverly shifted, giving the ghosts more agency than the hunter, and the way the ghosts use their influence to steer the monster hunter toward  shedding his ultra-masculine loner persona is another lovely touch. The story is beautifully-told, refuses to go in expected directions, and is highly satisfying, particularly in an issue themed around retribution.

When Are You Wearing? by H.L. Fullerton in Capricious Issue 12 plays with the idea of memory and time. There have been a few recent short stories pairing food and memory, but Fullerton’s focus on clothing is a neat change-up, with lush, gorgeous descriptions of fashion that are every bit as mouthwatering as a good meal.

You are Narcissa Bloom. Once you made clothes, spent your imagination on hems and neck lines, buttons and zips, cut and fit. You remember every stitch, every thread, every look as it taxied down the runway and flew off hangars. Your closet bursts with memories – all the labels bear your name. All the clothes you’ve ever owned… They own you now. That’s how this works. This is what the time warlocks have done.

Narcissa is trapped, surrounded by memories and struggling with how to move forward in a world where time has become meaningless. Each item of clothing in her closet recaptures a day gone past, sparking nostalgia and recreating the emotion she felt at the time. She can revisit her first date with her lover, Fee, endlessly, but how can they create new memories together?

The story can be read as a metaphor for creative stagnation, something most artists fear. You’re only as good as your last dress, last story, last painting. How do you keep things fresh and new and not simply recreate what people loved about your work before? Making something new is a risk – people might hate it. In the same way, the future is a risk, an unknown, while the past and memories are safe, because they’ve already happened. Clothing can evoke memories every bit as strongly as a smell or a certain dish can, and Fullerton captures that perfectly, offering up a sensuous feast of pattern, color, and texture.

Fiyah 11 CoverIbrahim and the Green Fishing Net by Omar William Sow in Fiyah #11 is another story steeped in memory. Maam Iba is an old man, his eyesight failing. He’s lived a good life, which has given him children and grandchildren, and he seems happy. But every day near sunset, he goes down to the beach, sits in a plastic chair with a book he does not read, and stares at the water, watching for the man he loves.

He holds his book open, turning the pages when he remembers to do so, and the young men say to each other that he’s a well-read man. When the sun starts to harden in preparation for its dive, children run along the beach, and the older little ones say to the younger little ones that he’s watching for sharks. Only the occasional younger little one is ever right, when they tell the older little ones that no, he’s waiting for a friend.

In his youth, Ibrahim fished with his friend. Out on the water, free from the strictures of society and isolated in their own world, they were able to love each other – hold hands, touch each other’s skin, kiss. But when Ibrahim fell ill, his friend was forced to go out alone in order to make money for medicine. His boat returned empty, and Ibrahim never saw his friend – his love – again.

Sow offers up a lovely, contemplative story of a heart large enough to encompass multiple types of love over a lifetime, and explores the contrast between interior and exterior lives. Those around Maam Ib perceive him only as an old man and fit him into their vision of what an old man should be, incapable of imagining the passions he experienced as a young man. This is a love story, beautiful and poetic, but it’s also a meditation on faith. Ibrahim never gives up belief in his lost love even though he has no reason to believe he will see him again. Faith and hope are threaded throughout the story, giving it a dream-like, magical quality. Rather than dwell on loss and sorrow, Ibrahim looks forward joyously, even toward the end of a his life. In a way, Ibrahim is the ideal Fullerton’s Narcissa Bloom strives toward – someone informed by the past but not caged by it, with his eyes always on the horizon and what comes next.

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