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Shiny Shorts: Monster Summer

October isn’t the exclusive domain of monsters. Maybe it’s because I just finished re-watching  Gravity Falls, with its perfect summer of monsters, but monsters and summer seem like they should go hand in hand. After all, sometimes the oppressive heat makes monsters of us all, and we need a reminder of the chill of autumn creeping in. While not all of these stories are shiver inducing – some are more tragic, while others speak of hope – they all explore different facets of classic monsters.

Fiyah 15 CoverThe Black Menagerie by Endria Isa Richardson in Fiyah Issue #15 features shape-changing creatures, but the true monster of the story is fear itself, and what happens when people try to control that which they don’t understand.

Alta has lived in San Francisco for a very long time, longer than a single human lifetime. Her house, which bears a plaque identifying it as The Black Menagerie, is filled with all manner of animals, just as her body is covered with tattoos of animals, which she calls her siblings. She has been called by many names over the years, including witch. Her specialty is fear, drawing it out of one body and into her own, cultivating and tending it. Depending on perspective, she might be tending that fear and taking it into herself to protect others, or she might be honing it to use as a weapon.

She is no stranger to what fear can do to a body. She knows how to pull fear from people, ride it out of them–because fear needs to be kept and her body can keep it better than ours–but it has always been a choice, a relationship. Rituals are followed; roles are acknowledged. A door or a window is left open, and thus she is invited to complete the haunt.

The story is beautifully-written, full of evocative language and imagery as it explores humanity’s relationship to fear. Do we view fear, or the object of our fear, as an enemy, something to be caged and kept at bay? Or do we view fear as a companion, a healthy emotion ultimately keeping us safe? Are we willing to learn to walk beside our fear, understand the thing that makes us afraid, and cultivate a respect for it, or do we ultimately let fear make us destructive towards ourselves and others? Alta’s role as a woman, and as a Black woman specifically, plays into this dual-sided exploration of fear. How she is perceived often depends on who is looking. Fear of the “other” and dehumanization of women and Black people are themes threaded through the story, with parallels drawn to animals and the way they are treated by humans throughout. Alta is self-possessed and comfortable in her own skin; it is those viewing her from the outside who are the problem. They are the ones who ultimately weaponize their own fear, seeking to turn it against Alta simply for being a confident Black woman. A thread of sexuality and desire runs through the story as well, tied to the idea of comfort in a body versus the attempt to control, possess, or shame women for their sexuality. What is monstrous is in the eye of the beholder, and like many of the best monster stories, “The Black Menagerie” holds up a mirror to show us that what and how we fear says more about ourselves than it does about the things that frighten us.

Baba Yaga and the Seven Hills by Kristina Ten in the July Issue of Lightspeed is also set in San Francisco, and sees the titular witch of Russian mythology coping with the modern world. After a life (or more) of feeling unappreciated, Baba Yaga’s chicken-legged hut takes off on its own, forcing her to go in search of it. Along the way, she finds herself contending with roommates for the first time in her life, and seeking the advice of modern day magicians.

Why San Francisco? Baba Yaga needs help—serious help, magical help—and she knows San Francisco to be a place of magic. The city built on seven hills. Vehicles that drive themselves. Eyeglasses that hold alternate universes. Buildings that stay standing when the ground beneath them splits in two. If anyone can help her, they will be in San Francisco.

In the course of her search, Baba Yaga learns that magic doesn’t always look like spellcraft. Sometimes it looks like community, and making sure those around you feel loved and are fed. Magic potions aren’t always brewed up in cauldrons, sometimes they are baked into pot brownies to serve as a peace offering, take the edge off anxiety, and ultimately bring people together. Marketing can be its own form of magic, as can technology, leading an old witch to consider new perspectives, including kindness to roommates, even and perhaps especially, if your roommate also happens to be your house.

It’s a charming story, and sticks mostly to the light side of things, though Baba Yaga does occasionally still find herself with a craving to eat children. Ultimately, it is a story about turning over a new leaf, learning to see things from another person, or house’s, point of view. San Francisco is lovingly described, making it a character in its own right, vibrant and full of life, and possessing its own unique brand of magic, the way certain cities do.

The Dark August 2020 CoverBobbie and Her Father by Gillian Daniels in August’s issue of The Dark gives off a distinct Frankenstein vibe. Bobbie is a young girl who we first meet sitting on the couch, watching TV, a normal enough activity, but from the start there is a sense of something off. Bobbie isn’t allowed to open the door to strangers, which is normal enough as well, but what isn’t normal is that Bobbie has never interacted with another human other than her father. Naturally, she’s curious, and when one of her father’s co-workers comes looking for her father, Bobbie can’t resist opening the door, the first step to her world coming disastrously undone.

He stitches her up with clear thread, as if one more scar on her face would somehow be painful to her. One less scar wouldn’t give her the ability to dance or go outside. It will just be another line on her skin when she looks in the mirror and brushes her hair before bed, alone for hours in the dark, pretending she sleeps the way he sleeps.

Add to the idea of Frankenstein’s monster the awkwardness of being a pre-teen girl, cut off the from the world, and therein lies the story’s true monstrosity. Much like Frankenstein’s monster, Bobbie is a created thing, born of her father’s hubris, and much like Frankenstein’s monster, she is ultimately an innocent, a victim of the circumstances of her creation. Bobbie is stronger than any human, constantly having to be aware of the dangers of her own strength. She is deeply lonely, and merely wants to be loved, and that is her tragic downfall. The story is by turns heartbreaking and frightening, and while it is not without its death and gore, at its heart, it is a story of monstrous loneliness rather than monstrous rage. At the end of the day, Bobbie is like any other child, trying to find her place in the world, wanting be liked and understood and to form a connection with another human being, proving she too deserves to be considered part of humanity.

Slipping the Leash by Dan Micklethwaite published by PodCastle is a unique take on a werewolf story, one that may or may not actually contain a werewolf at all. The story is short, hovering just around flash length, but it packs in a lot, including war-related PTSD and family trauma. Aloysius “Louie” Proctor only wants to play music, but he knows he shouldn’t. He supposed to be content with being a family man, working a job he hates, keeping his head down and staying away from devilish things like smoky clubs and hot jazz.

All of these rules, these enforced expectations, they bristle the hairs on the nape of his neck. They carry him back to patrols in the forest, with gunfire and mortars, and the bark of trees splintering close to his head. Ears always ringing. Nose always streaming with the cold and the fear. Teeth always chattering, chewing through cigarettes before they caught light. And he couldn’t re-spark the Zippo, because what about snipers? Couldn’t retreat or go AWOL, because what about Freedom and what about God? What about whatever his daddy would say?

But despite what he knows he’s “supposed” to do, music has its hooks in Louie, exerting a pull as sure as the moon. There’s a crackling energy and rhythm to the prose that evokes the music Louie so wants to play. Micklethwaite perfectly evokes the tug-of-war beneath Louie’s skin, desire versus duty, true self versus the person he’s been told he should be. Werewolf imagery is effectively employed here, giving the story a sense of urgency, a sense of something buried rising to the surface. Is Louie truly monstrous, or is he simply slipping out of his day-to-day skin for a few brief and glorious moments of freedom?

In tangentially-related news, with the return of Apex Magazine next year, my Words for Thought review column will be coming back as well. Hopefully, in the interim, you’ve enjoyed Shiny Shorts. The year isn’t done yet, and I may post one or two more columns here as the mood strikes me, and either way, I’ll be on twitter shouting about short fiction and hopefully helping people find new stories to love. Happy reading!

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No Man’s Land Review

No Man's Land CoverNo Man’s Land is a new novella from author A.J. Fitzwater, published in June by Paper Road Press. Set in North Otago, Aotearoa New Zealand during WWII, the story follows Dorothea “Tea” Gray, whose brother Robbie has gone off to war to be a sapper. Wanting to do her part, Tea joins the Land Service, and takes over Robbie’s former job shearing sheep and working on the MacGregor farm. Tea is joined by three other Land Service girls, Alison, Carmel, and Izzy, and a young man named Grant whose illness kept him from joining the service.

On the day she arrives at the farm, Tea is followed by a strange, shadowy dog, and her feeling of something odd going on only builds from there. Her senses are heightened, and she hears her brother’s voice in a way she becomes increasingly sure isn’t just her own inner monologue or wishful thinking. Grant and Izzy are secretive around her, as if they know more about Tea than she knows about herself. She hears a persistent hissing, like something calling to her, especially when she’s around water. She also experiences sensations, sights and sounds, she’s certain don’t belong to her, and might just belong to her brother Robbie on  distant continent in the midst of war. While trying to understand what’s happening to her, Tea still has to contend with daily life, the exhausting work of the farm, and not drawing the ire of Mr. MacGregor. Contrasted with the mundane world of the farm, hidden just beneath its surface, it seems there’s a whole other world waiting for Tea. Sometimes it seems as though there’s another being inside of her, one that frightens her, and that she can’t entirely control. Further complicating matters is Tea’s attraction to Izzy. All her life, Tea has been taught that a woman loving another woman, or a man loving another man is unnatural, not to mention illegal. Tea’s conflicted feelings strain her relationship with Izzy, who could be Tea’s closest ally, helping her understand the power within her, and her true magical nature.

A border collie, mostly black with a scattering of white on the bib and paws, yelped and skittered. Her shadow! It wasn’t male after all. The look the dog cast back at Tea made her shiver for a third time. The familiar-strange scent hit Tea, making her flinch. It was a scent she thought she’d only dreamed, one she associated with starlight, fresh-turned soil, warm cotton.

No Man’s Land is gorgeously-written, wrapped in beautiful cover art by Laya Rose Mutton-Rogers. Fitzwater has a real gift for prose and sensory description, which they deploy to great effect, creating a sense of breathless disorientation around the ebb and flow of nature, the magic within Tea, and the chaos of war. The language is the kind that snaps you up and gets you lost in the best of ways, but at the same time, the characters, especially Tea, keep the story grounded. We get snippets of Grant and Izzy’s perspectives as well, but for the most part, we’re in Tea’s head, right alongside her as she experiences frustration – from her mother unpacking all her practical clothes and filling her suitcase with clothing designed to help her catch a husband, to the way the men on the farm goad her and tease her and expect her to fail at “men’s work”, and her conflicted feelings about Izzy and the growing power she discovers within herself.

Need and desire are an underlying current in all of Tea’s thoughts and actions – not just physical desire, but the desire to be respected, taken seriously, and to do something that matters, especially when it comes to the war. With her brother so far away, Tea feels helpless, made worse by the fact that she feels trapped by the box of expectations placed around her as a woman. She wants to break out, forge her own way in the world, but at the same time, she’s afraid. All her life she’s been taught there’s a natural order to things – magic belongs in stories for children, and women are meant to be wives and mothers and nothing more. Even though Tea doesn’t truly believe either of those things deep down, she’s been conditioned to accept them. The war forms a backdrop, but the conflict in the novella is far more personal, as Tea wars with herself, and what she’s been taught to believe about the world versus the larger possibilities of who she is allowed to love, who she is allowed to be, and what she’s allowed to do with her life.

No Man’s Land brings to the forefront women’s history, and the kind of stories that often go untold in war narratives, shifting the focus from soldiers on the front line to those doing vital work back home. Farm labor is just as important to keeping the world turning, but history often overlooks jobs considered “menial” or “women’s work”. The novella also touches on queer history and rights, particularly in the epilogue taking place years after the war. Tea’s self-discovery is rooted in history and a personal journey, but soaked in the magic and wonder of the hidden world existing alongside ours. It’s a lovely book, and I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy right now.

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Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora

Dominion CoverDominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora edited by Zelda Knight & Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald brings together an incredible group of authors, spinning tales of near-future science fiction, post-apocalyptic worlds, distant and mythic pasts, and more, imagining what might be, and what never was. The anthology officially comes out in August, but I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek.

As the title states, the common thread binding these stories is Africa and the African Diaspora, but the stories themselves range across the genres and sub-genres of speculative fiction, from horror, to fantasy, to science fiction, and everything in-between. A wide variety of voices and styles are on display here, and there’s a little bit of something for everyone. The editors assembled a strong collection, with several stories that were true standouts for me.

“Red_Bati” by Dilman Dila is a charming and touching story of a robot dog programmed with sentience by his former owner, who finds himself scooped up as salvage. With only the ghost of the old woman who was his former charge as his companion, he must plot his escape or risk being scrapped for parts. Red_Bati sees himself as a human trapped in a robot dog’s body, and at its heart, the story is a very human one as Red_Bati copes with feelings of obsolescence, abandonment, and searches for his place in the world.

Once his battery ran down, he would freeze and that would damage his e-m-data strips. Though these could be easily and cheaply replaced, he would lose all his data, all the codings that made him Red_Bati and not just another red basenji dog, all his records of Granny. He would die.

“A Mastery of German” by Marian Denise Moore explores the idea of inherited memory, and the ethics of gene editing. The story touches on how easily history can be lost, especially Black history, by looking at whose stories get preserved and told, versus whose stories are forgotten because they’re merely “ordinary” people. Moore raises complicated questions about how science might be deployed to pass skills and knowledge from generation to generation, and how easily the ability to do so might be exploited and corrupted.

Somewhere in the world, there is a man, seventy years old, a native New Orleanian who has never left the city save for the occasional Category 5 hurricane. He has a sixth-grade education but he has always held some kind of paying job. However, if you ask him a question in German, he will answer you without hesitation in an accent reminiscent of the region around Heidleberg.

“Sleep Papa, Sleep” by Suyi Okungbowa Davies edges into horror territory, with an unsettling story of a son who finds himself drawn into the family business of grave-robbing and body harvesting, despite his best efforts to escape and make a life for himself elsewhere. When he sells pieces of a corpse from an unmarked grave, he finds himself haunted by the remains of his father, and he must confront his choices – his guilt over leaving, his decision to return, and his unwitting breaking of taboo.

There are mud tracks on the floor tiles that he didn’t notice before. They run from the door, but don’t end at Max’s feet at the entrance to the kitchenette. The TV’s light is insufficient, so Max squints to follow the tracks, which he notices are odd because while one is a complete footprint, the opposite foot has most of the sole with no trace of toes.

Davies effectively harnesses truly chilling imagery to ultimately tell a story about family, responsibility, and being caught between a sense of duty, and a desire to make one’s own way in life.

“The Satellite Charmer” by Mame Bougouma Diene feels epic in scope as it follows the transcendence and evolution of Ibrahima, who throughout his life has felt a strange connection to the mining satellite stripping and exploiting his people’s land. The writing is lovely, and the story’s structure itself mirrors Ibrahima’s journey, opening into something larger as the tale progresses, the language shifting to hold the reader at a greater distance as Ibrahima increasingly loses touch with his humanity and becomes something more.

The beam was death: he knew that; but to him it was life, in a way he couldn’t quite understand. His senses heightened when it dropped, turning the clouds a deep red, every action anticipated by just a fraction. The future was not so much ahead of him, but already waiting for him to reach out and touch, if only he could break out of his body. Sometimes it almost felt like he could; that if he took a step forward and over the cliff to certain death he wouldn’t fall.

“Ife-Iyoku, The Tale of Imadeyunuagbon” by Epeki Oghenechovwe Donald closes out the anthology on a strong note with a powerful tale of a woman repeatedly denying the expectations placed upon her, and refusing to play the role others would assign her. Like “The Satellite Charmer”, the story has a post-apocalyptic feel, and follows the transcendence and evolution of one character, Imade, as she becomes something more than human. A small group of people survive the fallout of nuclear war in Africa and develop powers as a result; the sacred charge to survive leads them each to make difficult choices according to their beliefs, however Imade alone refuses the idea of destiny, and refuses to be used as a vessel for the survival of her people. The story explores of power, the expectations placed on men versus women, and like “Sleep Papa, Sleep” the weight of  tradition and society versus personal freedom.

She felt the blowing of a chilled wind, but Mama Inkiru’s wrapper did not stir in the wind. Mama Inkiru sailed slowly to her, and now she realized why everything seemed to hazy to her, why the wind had no effect on her, why she cast no shadow: Mama Inkiru was dead.

Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora is currently available for pre-order. I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of this fantastic anthology and reveling in the wide variety of wonderful speculative tales within!

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Way of the Laser Review

Way of the Laser CoverWhat might crime look like in the future? Will a terrifying bot tell us we have 20 seconds to comply before blowing us to smithereens? Will replicants hunt each other across bleak, neon-soaked cityscapes? Will crimes be prosecuted before they even occur on the advice of vaguely creepy mediums floating in vats of goo? The Way of the Laser: Future Crime Stories edited by Eric M. Bosarge and Joe M. McDermott brings together eighteen all-new stories by authors including Julie C. Day, Paul Jessup, EN Auslender, Patrice Sarath, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, and Marie Vibbert, among others offering up their own answer to this question. It’s not a matter of whether humans will continue to commit crimes in the future, but how will we do it, why will we do it, and how  technology and good old-fashioned intuition will factor into solving those crimes?

The authors have a wide variety of answers, providing fresh takes on crime tropes from heists to the quintessential English country murder. Algorithms are employed to pinpoint likely suspects in Patrice Sarath’s story of miners looking to make one big score that will solve all their financial problems, while clones come into play in Mur Lafferty’s whodunnit, complicating the question of inheritance and whether a murder has even occurred at all.

One of the most affecting stories in the collection is EN Auslender’s “Kalopsia”, which despite the futuristic touch of targeted advertising beamed directly at potential consumers, feels very of the moment. It concerns a woman named Angkasa, whose very existence is made illegal through unjust immigration laws, and her story is heartbreaking and hits very close to home in the current political environment as she struggles to simply survive while constantly being bombarded by ads for things she can never afford to buy.

When she dared peer through the wintry onslaught at the maelstrom of cars lined up and stuck in the road, barraged by bullets of ice, Optotrex’s holographic ad glowed in purple and blue hallows, stinging the rain and ice that fell through with holy desire. It bade her with a 20 meter tall male swimsuit model to see through the storm at the one true way: Optotrex would see for you if you saw your way to Optotrex.

In “Speculative Execution”, Julie C. Day offers up a tale full of slick and stylish prose and excellent worldbuilding that at once feels futuristic and echoes the smog-filled streets of old London with its mudlarks and rag and bone men scrabbling at the edges of society to make a living. Automatons and AI ghosts haunt the streets, and no one is ever truly un-watched or alone.

Dim light from a waning gibbous moon, along with orange-hued streetlamps, illuminated the glass-paned storefronts. The face of the human automaton in the Spirit Mother display window seemed equal parts arch and menacing rather than simply blank, something about the rivets running along the circumference of its hairless metal skull. Something about its heavy metal eyelids and thin metallic lips. And then there was the “Reserved” sign that hung around its bare metal neck.

“Our Lady of Turquoise Country” by Monica Joyce Evans takes place in a virtual game world populated by AI gods that wear the aspects of Egyptian and Aztec deities, which is at times reminiscent of Tad Williams’ Otherland series. Evans’ story feels epic in scope, while being relatively short in length, and packs and emotional punch as the protagonist is given a second chance to save a virtual child and help her grow.

Another standout in the anthology is “Sister Thrush” by Marie Vibbert, where the protagonist is drawn into a shady underworld by his hacker kid-sister who has paid the price for her crimes and is now on the run in the form of a mechanical bird. The story offers several clever twists, while also being a touching story of family caring for each other and fighting for each other while simultaneously frustrating the hell out of each other.

With a wide array of stories imagining the way crime might occur, be prevented, and solved in the future, this anthology is well-worth the read for SFFH authors doing what they do best – speculating about what changes the future might bring, and more importantly, examining the humanity at the core of those changes.

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Read the Rainbow 2020

Pride Story Bundle AuthorsThe Pride StoryBundle is here, and I’m delighted to once again be a part of it! This year’s bundle includes my Nebula-finalist novella, Catfish Lullaby, alongside a fabulous collection of queer books at a pay-what-you-wish price. If you choose to pay at least $15, you get all 11 books included in the bundle, and you can also choose to have a portion of your purchase support the Rainbow Railroad, a wonderful organization that helps LGTBQIA+ individuals escape persecution and relocate from countries and areas where they are unsafe due to their identity and/or sexuality.

As I’ve done in past years, I wanted to once again put together a Pride Month recommended reading list to help you queer up your summer TBR pile. As an extra happy bonus, several of my recommendations happen to be included in the Pride StoryBundle! And now, on to the recommendations…

General Resources

As always, the Lambda Literary Awards is a great place to look for queer reading recommendations across all genres including speculative fiction, poetry, romance, non-fiction and more. A list of this year’s finalists and winners can be found here.

Author and reviewer extraordinaire Bogi Takács focuses on QUILTBAG+ fiction and in particular own voices work in eir reviews, and eir website is a wonderful resource for adding more queer titles to your TBR pile. E also has a Patreon with monthly book-buying guides and more.

Author and reviewer Charles Payseur offers monthly Queer SFF Short Fiction round ups through his Patreon , another great source for your shorter fiction needs.

Author Xan West/Corey Alexander’s website is another excellent resource for queer fiction with a focus on romance, erotica, and kink, featuring various fiction rounds ups and useful links and resources.

Novels, Collections, and Anthologies

A Spectral Hue CoverTranscendent 4: The Year’s Best Transgender Speculative Fiction edited by Bogi Takács. This series continues to impress, gathering the best trans speculative short fiction of the year in one convenient place, and helping to highlight stories that readers might have missed. It’s always a wonderful collection and a great way to potentially discover new-to-you authors.

A Spectral Hue by Craig Laurence Gidney. Conveniently part of this year’s Pride StoryBundle, this novel is simultaneously gorgeous and eerie, positing art as both a haunting and a sanctuary, depending on your perspective.

The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper by A.J. Fitzwater. Also conveniently part of this year’s Pride StoryBundle, this is an utterly delightful collection which recounts the daring adventures of one incredibly dapper lesbian capybara pirate and her gallant crew. Joyous and queer, full of found family, romance, and excitement. You can read a fuller review of the collection here and my interview with the author here.

Capricious 9: Gender Diverse Pronouns Issue edited by Andi C. Buchanan. I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll mention it again since it’s also part of this year’s Pride StoryBundle and because it’s always worth highlighting this wonderful collection of stories exploring diverse pronouns and identities in a speculative fiction setting.

The Rampant by Julie C. Day. This novella is a finalist for the 2020 Lambda Literary Awards and offers a fresh take on the apocalypse as best friends Emilia and Gillian try to bring about the Sumerian rapture rather than prevent it, while dealing with their own various losses, griefs, and their budding romance. A more detailed review of the novella can be found here.

The Luminous Dead by Caitlin Starling. I’ve recommended it before, and I’ll recommend it again – a tense and claustrophobic sci-fi/horror novel, which finds Gyre, a caver, alone on a dangerous expedition with only her handler, Em, for remote support. In addition to being an excellent sci-fi horror novel, the novel provides a fascinating exploration of unreliably characters and power dynamics through the growing attraction between Gyre and Em.

Pet CoverGamechanger by L.X. Beckett is an epic, sweeping sci-fi novel that explores climate disaster and recovery in both the real and virtual worlds, and features a wonderful rivalry to romance relationship. A more detailed review can be found here.

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi. A powerful YA/Middle Grade novel that explores the concept of monstrosity hidden in plain sight, along with the monstrous nature of angels. Reviewed in more detail here.

Escaping Exodus by Nicky Drayden. A novel with a richly-built world featuring living generation ships, unforgettable characters, dark secrets and impossible choices. I’ve loved everyone of Drayden’s novels so far and this is no exception.

Homesick: Stories by Nino Cipri. The debut collection from a masterful short fiction writer. You can read my interview with the author here and my review of their collection here.

I could go on and on, but how about some short fiction to mix things up? I do love a good short story, and these are some fantastic ones!

Short Fiction

Familiar Face by Meg Ellison. A haunting short story that explores technology as a means of communicating with ghosts, as well as touching on friendship, loss, and grief.

Clarkesworld Issue 154 CoverForgive Me, My Love, For the Ice and the Sea by C.L. Clark. A gorgeously-written secondary world fantasy where the protagonist is faced with the painful truth that she may have to lose her lover in order to save her.

Rat and Finch Are Friends by Innocent Chizram Ilo. A lovely and bittersweet story of friendship, budding romance, and characters who are forced to hide their true selves in order to survive.

Many-Hearted Dog and Heron Who Stepped Past Time by Alex Yuschik. A beautiful and twisting story of love, loyalty, friendship, time-travel, and sacrifice.

Shattered Sidewalks of the Human Heart by Sam J. Miller. A story exploring monstrousness through the lens of classic cinema brought to life.

The Devil Squid Apocalypse by Alex Acks. A bad-ass musician helps save the world from invading squid monsters with the power of music. What more could you want from a story?

These are just a few of the many wonderful queer reads out there that can help bulk up your summer reading list. On that note, since one can never have too many recommendations, what are your own favorite queer reads, long or short? Drop them in the comments and share the summer reading love!

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Shiny Shorts: Second Chances and New Perspectives

Here we are coming up on the end of May, which seems hard to believe. At least in this corner of the world, spring is upon us. Flowers are starting to bloom, leaves are getting greener, and everything is  bursting with color and life. At the same time, we’re not quite out of the dark and the world is still in a precarious state. It’s a good time for self-care, and stories and art are exactly that. In that spirit, I offer up five stories mixing melancholy with hope. They are bittersweet and occasionally frightening. They deal with liminal spaces, change, and coming to see things differently. They are about second chances and new perspectives, and I hope you enjoy them as much as I did!

Apparition 10 CoverThe Bear Wife by Leah Bobet in Apparition Literary Magazine is a take on the animal bride trope about seeing a person for who they are and not what anyone else expects them to be. Sanchez has been living with Betty Nosemaskwa since July, and now that winter is coming on, things are starting to change. She’s sluggish, slow, and sleeping most of the time. Dishes are piling up, the laundry is going undone, and the locals – something Sanchez is not – have repeatedly suggested the best thing for him to do is steal her bearskin, take control of her, and shape her into a proper bride.

He couldn’t have said when she faded. Between the rolling heat of August and the September leaves, before the snowstorm, she had already retreated to the house, and then two rooms. Before he could trace what had come over her, if it had entered by window or door, she took to her bed and stayed there, and he was here, coping with the remains.

It’s the way most animal bride tales go. A skin is stolen, and one party in the relationship is forced into a shape not their own, made to change to fit the other party’s worldview until something breaks and the whole thing falls apart. Sanchez, however, insists it’s not like that with him and Betty. He puts aside his fear – after all, a bear is a powerful creature that could destroy him – and he puts aside any thought that things could be easier if he followed the locals’ advice. Sure, he could have an “easier” woman, but then that woman wouldn’t be Betty anymore. So he meets her on her terms, instead of dictating his own, caring for Betty and trusting in her and their relationship even as she fully transforms in preparation for her long winter hibernation.

It’s a beautiful, touching, and quiet story, and can – at least to my mind – be read as a metaphor for someone coping with depression, or a neuro-atypical person who under other circumstances might be asked to be the one to bend and fit a neuro-typical world view. The story works perfectly on both levels, as the inversion, or refutation, of the typical animal bride story, and as a push-back against the world asking certain people, generally the most marginalized ones, to change, bend, and confrom, instead of shifting to accomodate them. Whichever way you choose to read the story, it’s a lovely one.

We Are the Flower by Claire Humphrey, a PodCastle original, is a bittersweet ghost story. MC comes across an exact replica of her bike down to the stickers and a tag with her initials on it. Every detail is so much the same that she knows it has to be her bike, despite the fact that she’s currently riding hers, and that the bike in front of her has been painted white and decorated with flowers – a sign that it has been turned into a memorial to commemorate a rider killed in traffic.

That’s what you do when someone dies in a bike accident. You paint their bike white and you set it up where they died. On rural roads people set up roadside crosses. In the city, you make a ghost bike.

That’s what you do when someone in the cycling community, a frequent rider, a bike lane advocate, dies. Someone like me. That’s what you do.

I said it like twelve different ways to myself, and it didn’t feel real.

Only it did feel real, because of some things like how I didn’t really know how I’d come to that corner that day, or where the other version of my bike had gone, or why the fuck I’d turned into a bird.

Once she’s accepted her death, MC is left to figure out why her spirit – occasionally in bird form – is still around. Is she meant to avenge herself, forgive the people in her life who did her wrong, or is there some other unfinished business she’s meant to attend? The anchor point in her post-life, the person she finds herself continually returning to, is her housemate Chris, who’d she’d only just realized she had romantic feelings for right before she died. In fact, she’d been planning to tell Chris as much on the day she died. “We Are the Flower” is both a love story and a ghost story, bitter for the fact that MC and Chris will never get the chance to see how their relationship might have grown, but sweet for the fact that MC is given a chance to see it blossom in a literal sense through one last moment of contact. Chris saw MC truly in life, respected her and understood her in a way no one else did. That ability to see her clearly, and the connection they formed, extends to the ability to see her clearly after death as well, if only for a moment, giving MC the chance to resolve her unfinished business and move on.

Driving with Ghosts by Clara Madrigano in The Dark shares an initial set up with “We Are the Flower” as the protagonist encounters a vehicle that shouldn’t be there, in this case, her grandfather’s Packard Hawk, the car he had when she was young, even though her grandfather is long dead. The car was both a source of joy and pain for Marina; she loved going for rides with her grandfather, but also suffered abuse at his hands while they were alone on the road together – a trauma she has locked away and never shared with anyone.

Many times, while at Penn and, later, in New York, I Googled a particular combination of words: ghosts, cars, loved ones. I never found what I was looking for, an experience exactly like mine, but I found a lot about women and cars. Women who accepted rides from strangers and were never seen again. Women who accepted rides from men they knew and were never seen again. Rides you could book in a serial killer’s car, the real deal; the people who ran the business would even lock you in the car’s trunk so you could live the full experience of the female victims.

Marina sees the car again as an adult as she’s fleeing an abusive relationship with her boyfriend, Mark. There’s a certain lure to the car, and Marina is tempted more than once to accept its invitation and climb into the passenger’s side – whether to confront her grandfather, or merely escape, she isn’t sure. The car becomes the link between Marina’s past and present in more ways than one as she comes to terms with two abusive men in her life and the way they both made her feel powerless. The car, both ghostly and real, reflects the complicated nature of Marina’s relationship with both her abusers, a combination of desire and pain, freedom and captivity, and the way they took her love and used it against her, making her doubt herself and taking away her sense of control. Marina ultimately finds a way through her trauma to reclaim her power, given a chance through this haunting to confont her past and seize the wheel to steer her own destiny.

Fiyah 14 CoverUniform by Errick Nunnally in Fiyah Magazine is an utterly heartbreaking story about a soldier who has essentially become a ghost haunting his own life. In order to help his family, Patrick joined the Marines at age 17, signing over his body to be transformed into a living weapon. Now that the war is over, Patrick is trapped. He can’t go back to the person he used to be, and doesn’t know where he fits in a world that no longer has a “use” for him.

On the street, pedestrians crossed out of his path at their earliest opportunity. A targeting matrix flashed over the scene in front of him, doing the only thing it was good for without a weapons system to command: snapping photos. Faces everywhere captured his attention. He wanted to forget his face, but the longing for that vestige of humanity haunted him with the pre-data memory of what he looked like, who he wanted to be.

Patrick withdraws from his family, and from almost every aspect of daily life, other than occasionally riding the subway in an attempt to connect with some shred of his former self. Everywhere he goes, however, he finds himself feared and reviled by the very people he fought to protect, who now see him as an abomination. Until a little girl grows curious about him and asks whether he’s a robot, giving him a second chance to reconnect with his humanity, moments before a tunnel collapse puts the entire subway in danger.

“Uniform” is simultaneously beautiful and brutal, and absolutely had me tearing up by the end. It’s a story that speaks to trauma, and the way soldiers are made into part of the machinery of war, literally in Patrick’s case. Sometimes, the most painful and terrible aspect of war comes after the fighting, when soliders are asked to return home to a “normal” life when they have had their humanity stripped away in order to become more perfect killers, and then are expected to re-integrate into a society that can see them as nothing but dealers of death and violence. Patrick is insulted, called names, assaulted, and suspected of causing the very accident he seeks to save his fellow passengers from when all he has ever tried to do is protect the people he loves, and it is absolutely wrenching to see him suffering, knowing his situation is all too real. However, there are moments of joy in the story as well as Patrick forms a connection with the little girl on the subway, providing a spark of brightness against the story’s powerful exploration of loss, grief, trauma, othering, duty, sacrifice, and what it means to be human.

Smilers by Chip Houser in Bourbon Penn is an eerie yet surprinsingly poignant zombie story. It’s told from the perspective of Aiden whose older brother Zach is doing his best to protect him from learning the truth about what’s happening to those around him.

Aiden rests his chin on the back of the living room couch, watching his older brother mow down zombies in ZomPlex. The zombies grab at Zach’s avatar, mouths moving like they’re chewing. Aiden’s not sure if they’re supposed to be hungry or angry or both. Their facial expressions don’t match any of the cards from the game he plays on Tuesdays with Ms. Hampton. Zombies don’t make a lot of sense to Aiden, but that’s okay, lots of things don’t make sense to him; he’s barely seven.

Outside of Zach’s game, the zombies in “Smilers” aren’t ravenous flesh-eating monsters. Whatever is affecting people started with the oldest among the population, and it’s steadily working its way down to the youngest, allowing Aiden to stay innocent and oblivious for as long as possible. Instead of turning them into ravening creatures, the transformation turns people into empty, mindless things, esmiling in a way that looks wrong and painful, caught in a loop of whatever they were doing when they changed – whether it’s texting a friend, like the cashier at the corner store, or perpetually reading the same page of a newspaper, like Aiden and Zach’s father.

Aiden reads as neuro-atypical, with his own way of processing emotions and the way people express them. He’s been told that smiling means happy, so if the people around him are smiling, everything must be okay, right? Aiden’s main priority is getting his brother to take him to the pool. He knows he’s not allowed to go alone, and besides sometimes there are bullies. Aiden finds it easier to deal with bullies and the world in general when he’s his true self – safely inside the wolf masks that lets him sneak and howl and be strong and unfraid. It’s a disguise that allows him to see himself more truly, even if others don’t fully understand him.

The relationship between Zach and Aiden is touching, and painful at the same time, as it’s clear to the reader and Zach what’s happening, even if Aiden doesn’t fully realize it. The image of the empty smilers is a truly unsettling one, and there’s a growing sense of dread as the world narrows and the plague closes in. At the same time, there’s a sense that some part of Aiden does know what’s going on, and yet rather than give in to fear, he embraces joy and innocence – his brother’s last gift to him. Rather than bend to the world, he shifts his perspective to see only the good things, like a pool all to himself  and no bullies to stop him jumping off the high dive board over and over again. Rather than letting the world change him, and conforming to its rules, Aiden remains fiercely and fully himself until the very end.

As always, I’d love to hear your own recommendations for short fiction you’ve loved, whether it be old or new. Take care of yourselves, stay healthy, and happy reading!

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Lisette of the Raven Review

Lisette of the Raven, Ash of the Rook by Suzanne J. Willis is part of the Broken Cities line published by Falstaff Books. Each story, novel, or novella is a stand-alone, but occupies a shared universe. Lisette of the Raven, Ash of he Rook was published last September, and the author was kind enough to send me a copy for review.

Lisette of the Raven CoverLisette comes from a long line of executioners. She has always known it is her destiny to follow in her mother’s footsteps, and the footsteps of all the other women in the family who came before her. However, at thirteen years old, Lisette is losing her hearing, leaving her unable to do a vital part of the executioner’s job – hear the condemned’s last confession. She tries to hide the truth from her mother, but her mother finds out and apprentices Lisette to an echo-catcher, setting her on a different path. During one of the last executions Lisette assists her mother with, one of the condemned delivers an ominous warning: The mothers are coming.

Seven years later, Lisette is still part of the cycle of life and death, gathering the last remaining echoes of the condemned and sending them through the labyrinth gate and into the next world. She has her raven companions, and she is content in her work, but one day a rook made of ash comes to Lisette with a message from a nearby charcoal burner’s camp. Obeying the rook’s summons, Lisette meets Gem, a young man who asks for her help with some mysterious branches he removed from the labyrinth and burned without realizing how dangerous they were. Soon after meeting Gem, a woman appears wearing a cloak of raven feathers, raising children made of ash from the remains of Gem’s fire. She is one of the mothers Lisette was warned of years ago, seeking justice for her lost children, and Lisette and Gem soon find themselves tangled up in her quest for vengeance and fighting for their lives.

The woman wandered–no slithered–around the camp, bending to sniff at the food bowls and passing her hands through the flame. Everything she touched froze, so that even the flame and smoke became delicate sculptures of themselves.

Even at novella length, Willis manages to infuse this story with an epic feel. The world is lush and gorgeously described, and one of the main joys here is simply reveling in the beautiful prose. The novella is a visual feast, with a highly cinematic quality, leaving it easy to imagine the magical world unfolding on every page. Another of the story’s highlights is Lisette’s relationship with her ravens, particularly Julio, her closest companion. The way they communicate, trust, and protect each other is lovely. As animal companions in fantasy go, birds are more frequently associated with villains, acting as aloof and threatening omens, but Julio shows the affectionate and brilliant side of corvidae. There’s some nice exploration of loss, destiny versus freedom, and a reminder to look beneath the surface as things aren’t always what they seem towards the end of the novella. Overall, Lisette of the Raven, Ash of the Rook is a quick, but satisfying high fantasy read.

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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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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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