Friday, March 6, 2015

THE MONTHLY ROUND, A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 02/15

Welcome to the Monthly Round. Pull up a stool and take a look at what your faithful storytender has found for this, the shortest month of the year. Hopefully there's something from February for all tastes. and from a few newcomers to the Round. Nightmare Magazine, Unlikely Story, and Lackington's all make their first appearance on my tasting menu, alongside more familiar publications like Strange Horizons and Uncanny Magazine. There were a ton of good stories in February, for all that the month was short, but the following nine had a taste that I just had to share. I hope you enjoy!

Tasting Flight - February 2015


"Descent" by Carmen Maria Machado (Nightmare Magazine #29)


Art by Johnny Dombrowski
Dark and deeply layered, "Descent" is a Pinot Noir, a drink to get lost in, a drink that washes over the palate in waves, drawing the taster deeper and deeper. The story is beautifully structured with stories inside stories inside stories. The actual plot follows a woman attending a book club, drinking and petting the household dog. Only the host is distracted, distraught, and tells a story about her work as a teacher involving a recent school shooting. The action sinks, layer by layer, as the teacher hears a story from a student who had been present at the shooting, who in turn heard a story from her grandmother. And there, at the deepest point of the narrative, something is picked up, and follows the reader up each step in the narrative, from the grandmother to the student to the teacher to the woman at the book club, until it seems like it will climb its way out of the story itself and face the reader directly, and is much closer than anyone thought. It's a supremely creepy story, crafted with care and it hits like a tidal wave, lingering long after that first taste, the first feel of bitterness cut by sweet fruit. Like a Pinot Noir, the story takes the reader on a dark journey, layered with complexity, difficult to pull off but when it is, like with this story, it's a sublime experience worth revisiting again and again.

"Tiger Baby" by JY Yang (Lackington's #5)


Art by Derek Newman-Stille
About a woman who dreams of being a tiger, who sees herself as a tiger in a boring, mundane world, "Tiger Baby" is an APA, an American Pale Ale. The story follows a young woman, Felicity, disillusioned with the world. She is a tiger, barely contained, only at peace when she can slip away into her dreams and hunt and stalk. Everything around Feli is boring, not good enough, just as she seems to not be good enough for anyone else. At work she is overlooked. Her family prefers her sister over her. She goes through life just for those moments of being a tiger. Only as her life starts to encounter crisis after crisis; her parents wanting her to move out, getting fired from work, seeing her relationships become more and more strained, she decides to will herself to transform, to become the tiger she always imagined she was. Except it doesn't work out the way she imagined. I love that most stories would have shown the main character as somehow right, as better than the world. They would have transformed into a tiger and probably gone to kill those that hadn't recognized their greatness. But this story takes a much different approach. The woman transforms, but not into the tiger she thought she was. She transforms into a cat. And while there is a moment of disappointment, being a cat suits her, and she embraces her new life. She might not become a tiger, but it's something. Which is why I would label this story an APA, because American Pale Ales always seem to be trying to be something that they're not. They want to be IPAs, want to be brash and bitter, but what they end up doing, while not unpleasant, is to not quite capture that edge. And that's what this story captures so nicely, that yearning to be the tiger and actually becoming the cat.

"The Joy of Sects" by Joseph Tomaras (Unlikely Story #11)


Art by Andrew Ostrovsky
With a sly sense of humor and a unique blend of politics, religion, sex, and identity, "The Joy of Sects" is like a Belgian ale, surprising in how it manages to take such diverse elements and bringing them into harmony with each other. The story itself follows the aftermath of a successful Marxist uprising in America, which is something that I just haven't seen too much of recently. More and more people seem to think that Marxism is impossible, not worth thinking about, but the story does an excellent job of exploring a setting where it's not only possible, but rather effective at dealing with more modern politics. The main character is a trans woman sent to infiltrate extremist sects to see if they pose a threat to the new government. Which, while not being entirely fun, at least provides her with a challenge. When she comes across a sect that centers on physical and sexual transformation, though, she's finally faced with a challenge that might be too much. The story delves into this sexual sect, where people learn to use their bodies for extreme pleasure, and shows how people connect, how people deceive, and how power can shape how people view sex and gender. It's a powerful story, a bit deceptively so given the humor of the story. It's a mix of fizz and sweet ale with a strength that will make the world sway before half the drink is gone, which is about right for a Belgian ale.

"The Ticket Taker of Cenote Zací" by Benjamin Parzybok (Strange Horizons)

About a young poet, Eduardo, taking a break from his life and his boyfriend to try and get some writing done while spending time as a ticket taker at an old holy site, "The Ticket Taker of Cenote Zací" is a Corona and lime. Perhaps a little obvious as the story takes place in Mexico, at a small cave where people come to stare at a mystic pool, but the story is easy to drink with a twist of bitterness that makes it much more nuanced than beer alone. The conflict in the story arises when Eduardo starts to notice people going missing inside the cave. At first he ignores it, but as he starts to feel his creativity peak when he notices the people missing, the mystery of the cave slowly drives him on and on. The story builds slowly, raising the stakes sip by sip as Eduardo struggles with his own success in the face of his growing unease and obsession about the cave. And then his boyfriend comes to visit him, and for a brief moment things seem like they might work out. Except that Eduardo learns the price for his own feeding off the departed. And sense of loss at the end is so palpable, so devastating for Eduardo because he cannot even understand it fully. Like staring at the lime lost to the bottom of the bottle (this can't just be something I struggle with, right? That lime, still with flesh—delicious, beer-soaked flesh—that can't be fished back out the neck of the bottle...), the story leaves a hollow space in Eduardo and in the reader, an absence like a wound.

"Love Letters to Things Lost and Gained" by Sunny Moraine (Uncanny #2)


Art by Julie Dillon
A mix of bitter loss and bold defiance, "Love Letters to Things Lost and Gained" is a white IPA, ethereal but with enough bite to knock you back on your heels. The story follows a woman who has lost an arm, and while she was still unconscious had an artificial one grafted on, a piece of advanced technology that allows her to retain her sense of feeling. And yet, the act of giving her a new hand was not a consensual one, and the woman struggles with the feeling that she has been violated by having something foreign forced onto her. Slowly, though, she begins to view the arm as, while not really of herself, a tool that she can use, a tool that she doesn't hate, even if it does seem more about the rest of the world than it is about her. And then, just as she's beginning to adjust, she's offered a chance to take part in an experimental procedure that would grow her a new arm of her actual flesh. It's a prospect that would erase her dilemma with her new hand, and yet she can't bring herself to participate. Not because it wouldn't be easier, but because she refuses to value "real" flesh over her artificial flesh. It would be agreeing to erase her loss, and she refuses. IPAs always speak of rebellion to me, and white IPAs are a sort of ghostly bitterness that can be seen here, the character angry and stubborn and yet full of resolve to be her own person, to not allow others to define her in order to make them more comfortable.

"The Language of Knives" by Haralambi Markov (Tor.com)


Art by Sam Weber
A story about parents and children and loss and expectations, "The Language of Knives" is a Bloody Mary, a complicated mix of ingredients requiring special care and preparation. Much like the cake that parent and child set about making out of the body of their lost loved one. Husband and father, his death is a point of argument between those he left behind, for while he was alive he was the favorite parent, was the strong adventurer, a hero of legend. And while the remaining parent struggles to connect to their daughter, there is a chasm of misunderstanding between them, of resentment and need. The story is complex and quite interesting, the concept of baking a cake from a dead person something that I haven't seen before. And it that ritual that the daughter and second father participate in that both defines their distance and brings them together. Because by working on the cake the second father can see just what of his husband remains in their daughter, and how despite his desire to keep her close and safe, he has to let her go, has to let her out into the world to find her own way. Like a Bloody Mary, no two destinies are ever completely the same, like the cakes made of the dead, like the lives made by children. They have to find their own flavor.

Shots:

"Sea Anemone" by Ursula Kovalyk (Words Without Borders)

This story is a Smoking Slovak, which is Slovak whisky mixed with just a little bitter and placed into a glass that has been held inverted over a smoldering maple plank to capture the flavor of smoke. In the story, an old woman remembers her time as a burlesque dancer under the name the Sea Anemone. Though now old and run down, that memory has never left her, and though on death's door, that past and experience will not leave her. They linger, a palpable smoke that lifts from her body when she is discovered dead. It's the memory of a better time, a freer time, and one the woman was desperate to cling to, living with the smoke inside her, with its delicate balance. And when she passes, that moment is gone, and the smoke dissipates, the moment it represented truly gone. It's a lovely story, full of the sense of faded glory, of the woman living for that past and unable to really exist in the world that has left her behind. Nostalgic and lonely, the story evokes the past even as it slips through the cracks and is lost.

"Gold Dress, No Eyes" by Alexis A. Hunter (Flash Fiction Online)

A piece that explores the aftermath of a deadly attack on a galactic cruise ship, this story is a Beautiful Corpse, a mix of gin, blue Curaçao, Lillet Blanc, lemon juice, and a dash of Absinthe. The story is almost entirely scene, a description of the elements floating inside the dead ship, a body and a host of objects that reveal a tragic history. The story, like the drink, takes a lot of different elements to make something innately melancholy. It hits hard and leaves the head swimming, the universe spinning slowly. Everything seems to fall away, leaving only the artifacts behind, the objects that once had such meaning and importance but, cut away from the lives that touched them, are becoming simply things. The story captures that moment of transformation, much to late to do anything about it except feel the loss. Powerful and layered, the story, like the drink, begs to be taken slowly, to let it settle and sift and hit before it drifts away.

"She Opened Her Arms" by Amanda C. Davis (Fantastic Stories of the Imagination)

A story about a young girl coming to terms with her younger brother, who has special needs, this story is a Fae Done-Away, a mix of cucumber vodka, mint, grapefruit juice, ginger-infused syrup, and club soda. In the story, the girl watches over her brother, and when a strange man shows up and tells her that he's not really her brother, she pauses. According to the man, who might not really be human at all, her real brother was taken by the Fae and replaced with an impostor. And at first she believes him, and rushes off to save her brother, to swap him back. But as she does, she realizes that even if she succeeds, she's only be swapping the boys back. Which would mean losing the person she's known as her brother, losing the boy she loves as her brother. And so she stops, because even with his needs, her brother is still important to her, more important than having a brother who doesn't need her help or doesn't embarrass her occasionally. It's a sweet story, full of magical flourishes, just like the Fae Done-Away.

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