Friday, February 17, 2017

THE MONTHLY ROUND - A Taster's Guide to Speculative Short Fiction, 01/2017

Welcome to 2017! Yes, I know it's already February but the Monthly Round is officially entering into its fourth calendar year with a look back at the stories that made January great. So sidle up to the bar and let me pour you something to take the edge off.

This month's tasting flight ranges a little on the long side, with three novelettes and three short stories. There's just about any genre you could want. Fantasy horror? Steampunk? Sci-fantasy? Near future sci-fi? Magic realism? January is a month that often feels washed out for me, full of bitter colds, short days, and long nights. So I wanted my tasting flight to be just the opposite, stories full of colors and flavors, hungers and fires. These are stories that carry with them the heavy weight of winter, yes, with grief and imprisonment and loss, but they are stories that react to the winter by pulling together. By sharing warmth. By starting fires.

I'll add in some shots for good measure, featuring stories about witches and people with power who don't quite fit in the world around them. It's a great time to be a fan of short SFF, and if you're a skeptic then maybe these will convince you!

Tasting Flight - January 2017

Art by Geneva B.
"Chesirah" by L.D. Lewis (Fiyah)
Notes: Shadow tinged with a growing fire, underscored by a taste of oaken ashes. Pours a rich brown that glows when held up to the light, full of hope and stars.
Pairs with: Amber Bock
Review: Chesirah is a Fenox, a person who combusts and reforms and who, because of that cycle, are vulnerable. Chesirah has been controlled from a young age, owned and abused, and is finally ready to set an escape plan into action. Things don't go exactly to plan, though, and fire and death are rather hot on her heels. I love the world building of this story, the way that it blends fantasy and science fiction to create this situation and these characters, to show Chesirah trying to get away from her old life, from the systems and people who have made her into an object, something to be owned. It's not something that's taught her a lot of trust, but I also like that the story, for all its violence and darkness, is about hope. Is about the power of people coming together to help people, free of coercion or threat or manipulation. Chesirah doesn't have a lot of experience dealing with people, with her own freedom, but the story doesn't imagine that everyone would gleefully put her back into a cage (though there are some people who want exactly that). It shows the world as filled with injustice, but also with people trying to change that. And the story examines performance in many ways, with having to perform to survive as opposed to performing as resistance. These things can look the same, a stifling of one's inner fire to pass under the radar of the oppressors, but I like that this skill comes to be so vital to Chesirah's future, that it becomes a weapon she can use to help first herself and then others like her. It's a fun, uplifting story that I would probably read whole novels of.

Art by Gabriel Björk Stiernström
"A Series of Steaks" by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (Clarkesworld)
Notes: Sly with a rich coppery color like diluted blood. Open and bright with only a slightly bitterness that quickly gives way to a sweet and warm finish that's lingers and lifts.
Pairs with: Red Ale
Review: This story features a young woman named Helena struggling to escape the mistakes and injustices of her past by working to raise money with forged beef. Not technically illegal, it's not exactly smiled upon either, but printing fake beef pays the bills. When someone finds out about what she's running from, though, and blackmails her into taking an assignment that's more than she should be able to handle, it's up to her and her assistant, Lily, to set things right and maybe even get some payback. First, I love the premise of this story, the idea of forging beef. Helena is a wry young woman just wanting to save up so she can make an honest living, but things just aren't working out that way. It's like she's living under a cloud of terrible luck, which only seems to get worse when she's forced to take on a very difficult and large order. And I just love how she gets herself out from under that cloud, how Lily, who at first seems completely clueless, has much more depth than anyone assumes, and how together they start to take control of their destinies. The prose manages an engaging voice and lasting humor throughout. It's a story about a con as weird as forging beef but it keeps the stakes very real. Because underneath the fake meat there is this lingering acknowledgement that Helena is vulnerable because she isn't rich, because she's a woman, because she doesn't have connections. And yet each of these things becomes its own kind of strength, allowing Helena to fight back and get the last laugh in glorious fashion.

Art by Aaron Nakahara
"Mag, the Habitat and We" by Lia Swope Mitchell (Apex)
Notes: Unexpected, with a brashness that borders on bitterness but leans more spicy and alive. Pours a foggy dark that reveals only strangeness and possibility.
Pairs with: India-style Black Ale
Review: So there are some…things living in Mag's house. That look vaguely like rats but that are sentient, that are aware, and that love Mag, just as they imagine she loves them. And yet there are these things that must be considered. Health inspections for one. And the We of the title know that if they don't pass inspection then there's going to be trouble. Only they would be in more trouble if Mag were to find out what's really going on in her house. And this story is just absolutely adorable and creepy and wonderful. The prose reflects the thoughts and priorities of the We, of this colony of creatures that the reader is allowed to glimpse but never too closely. Theirs is a strange and violent world and it's just sort of matter of course if some of them are crushed or killed. They are eaten by the rest of the colony and life goes on. And watching as they try their desperate best to make Mag's house ready for inspection is great, the colony moving along multiple fronts all at the same time, all working as one body, one mind. It's chilling because of what's going on but it's also rather charming because the creatures just seem so…innocent. Even as yes, I understand that they're little monsters but I want one! I want a colony of my very own even if they do have some sort of mind control. Even if they might secretly want to eat even those they love. It's just how well the story develops, that even as the horror blossoms fully into "OH FUCK NO!" there's still this little voice that won't stop saying "but maybe yes."

Art by John Picacio
"Bodies Stacked Like Firewood" by Sam J. Miller (Uncanny)
Notes: Confidence cut with a wounded bitterness, but brightly golden like the flame of a flickering candle poised over a stack of papers waiting to be consumed.
Pairs with: American-style IPA
Review: Kelvin has made the trip from New York to Albany to attend a memorial for his friend Cyd, a transman who killed himself. It's with that devastating opening that the story delves into literary theories about time travel and the nature of freedom and struggle and an impromptu plan to give Cyd one thing that he wanted—a conflagration. This is apparently the first of Miller's stories where it struck me directly that "Oh shit these are shared-setting stories" because this one makes some direct references to "The Heat of Us: Notes Toward an Oral History." Which is nicely fitting for a piece that is quite concerned with literary theory, with making connections between texts. Cyd had a theory about The Great Gatsby and the story keeps coming back to that even as Kelvin and Link, another of Cyd's friends, bond over their shared loss and shared guilt and shared anger about the situation. The story is about cycles of injustice and death, about how people can fail each other and fail themselves. How it is really through others that meaning starts to take shape, that the heat builds, that the spark is lit that starts the fire that pushes toward actual change and progress. The story is heavy with grief and with the question of what to do in the face of that grief. Curl inward and smolder away to nothing? Or reach out, find others, and make sure that the mistakes of the past aren't mirrored in the future. It's a difficult read, its magic rooted in oppression and pain and yearning, but it's also a beautiful read with a relentless hope even in the face of despair.

“Requiem for the Unchained” by Cae Hawksmoor (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
Notes: Raucous and unafraid, with a laugh in the face of destruction and a bright shine to cut through any storm. There's a recklessness to the flavor and a slight confusion but also a power that cannot be denied.
Pairs with: Citrus IPA
Review: In a world where the dead have become a storm threatening everything, kept at bay only with a certain technology that borders on magic, one woman battles against the elements, the dead, her enemies, and her own grief. The pilot of a ship designed to repel the dead who might otherwise swarm ships and wreck them, the main character is in a bit of a sorry state when she gets a job offer. Unfortunately, it's from the man she blames for getting her wife killed. Work is work, though, and against her better judgment she akes the job because she can't stand the thought of losing her ship. The world the story reveals is one of a heavy darkness, where ghosts are real and like a sea that airships must sail through. The character work and voice of the main character is great, capturing the wounded and stubborn pride that's about the only thing keeping her going. That, and her personal dislike of the man offering her work. As the story moves, the main character moves from someone on the verge of giving up hope, on the verge of wanting to die, to someplace else. No less hurt and grieving for her wife but determined to make her time alive count for something. And given the shit that she sees, it's a good thing, because I for one am eager to think that someone's going to be made to pay for what happens. It's a harrowing and thrilling story that howls with the voices of the dead and kept me on the edge of my seat.

Art by Sam Wolfe Connelly
"A Human Stain" by Kelly Robson (Tor)
Notes: A deceptive sweetness draws down into a vast and hungry abyss that devours light. Seductively delicious with a surface so blackly opaque it might conceal anything in its depths.
Pairs with: Chocolate Stout
Review: Helen needs a break from Paris, mostly because she's run out of luck and lenders, but it seems like fortune isn't completely against her because a friend offers to have her tutor his young niece in a remote estate in the Alps. Helen finds the situation…odd, not least because the boy she is to tutor is distant and seems obsessed with slipping away to the basement. The boy's maid is silent, her mouth ruined from some mysterious incident in the past, and the story does a great job of setting the scene—the remote estate, the creeping darkness, the shapes floating in the water, the locked door in the basement. This is not a story for the faint of heart, and things get bloody pretty fast, the nature of the house revealing itself to Helen even as she finds she understand more and more. Now I'm a bit of a lightweight when it comes to body horror but there's something compelling about this, about the gore and the violence and consumption at work here. The hunger that is maddening and plays on the Helen's nature, her drive to eat through situations and cities and leave only the bones as she slips on to her next adventure. Unfortunately for her, the story shows that there are other hungry things lurking in the world. And it brings a strong sense of the gothic, only instead of lifting the sheet to find that there's a logical explanation for everything is embraces the fantastic in the most nightmarish manner possible. So make sure to read this one with the lights on.

Shots:

Art by Archan Nair
"The Twelve Rules of Etiquette at Miss Firebird's School for Girls" by Gwendolyn Kiste (Mithila Review)
Notes: Spicy and nearly saccharine sweet but with a shadow that underlies the experience. A mask of cherry red that conceals a power and darkness that cannot be denied.
Pairs with: Not-So-Good Witch—mix of equal parts anise liqueur and cinnamon whisky with two parts grenadine.
Review: Framed as a list of rules at a special school, this story works by subverting expectations. Hogwarts this is not, and the story focuses on the ways that people and especially girls are taught to behave and act, rejecting their power and instead being made to conform to expectations. And it's true that there's a certain safety in that, but it resembles the safety of a caged animal, controlled and always at the mercy of its captor. The story features a nice and moving darkness and the promise that these rules exist because people are successful in breaking them, because despite everything there are girls who manage to escape, to form connections, to work together. The rules are designed to isolate and intimidate but beneath that is the story of how these rules fail. How they both fail to adequately prepare girls for their futures and how they fail to break the spirits of the girls who come to this school. There is a promise of the dark and the wild freedom of magic, and I like how the story chips away at the common depictions of magic schools as places of acceptance and learning. Because real boarding schools are traditionally anything but, designed to break willful children and make them more manageable. This story shows that not only is that damaging, but a poor substitute for the magic that can be used to fight back and reshape the world.

"A Song to Charm the Beasts" by Wendy Nikel (Fantastic Stories)
Notes: A burst of sweet flavors quickly sink into the strong undercurrent of heady alcohol, though even as the sweetness fades the memory of it lingers on.
Pairs with: Pied Piper—mix of four parts vodka with two parts raspberry liqueur and one part melon liqueur.
Review: Ofira's husband is missing, and word has reached her that he's being held in a place that many believe is myth. She knows better, though, and goes in prepared for what she might find. I love how the story mixes its elements, imagining a fairly Western setting with its sand and grim determination and saloons and danger, but adding in the supernatural and the musical. The story works with some classic tropes and ideas. A fiddle contest with a creature that is definitely not on the up and up; a reprieve but only if those leaving the town never look back; a song with a great power. In some ways the story resembles a gender-flipped retelling of the Orpheus myth by way of the Wild West, but it's not even that simple. Indeed, part of why I like it so much is that it doesn't really examine human weakness in the face of uncertainty. Orpheus looked back and was damned, but this story imagines what might have happened if things had played out differently. And I like how it shifts the themes, how Ofira is shown as competent and dedicated and fearless for her love, but that there is a tragedy here as well. She is tested and in every conceivable way passes, and yet still she's not exactly allowed to win. It's a wrenching and beautiful story that reveals a setting rich in imagery and import and music and magic, that lingers like a distant song carried by the wind.

"It Happened to Me: My Doppelganger Stole My Credit Card Info, and then My Life" by Nino Cipri (Fireside)
Notes: Light and dark exist in even measure and distinct only to eye. Once consumed the flavors mix and mingle, providing a complex and eye-opening experience that might leave your eyes watering.
Pairs with: Doppelganger— layer equal parts vanilla schnapps and whiskey.
Review: Any story that integrates Billy Joel lyrics this well will probably be one that I love. The piece introduces Nina and Nono, a young child and a maybe-imaginary friend. When mischief happens, it gets blamed on Nono. But when Nina's parents say that Nono was sent away to the Other Country, they disappear in truth, and maybe it would have ended there but that Nina receives a piece of mail from her former friend, which starts a correspondence that lasts throughout their childhoods and adolescences and into adulthood. Only both start to question what they're doing, and as their lives become painful and confused they wonder if maybe the wrong child got sent to live in the Other Country. It's a story that captures that bit of childhood magic that imaginary friends can be but complicates the fuck out of it by looking at how children are treated, at what it means to be "good" or "bad." The story builds on this idea of shadows and strangers, masks and reflections. Nina and Nono are linked but have been pulled apart, and the trauma from that separation is something that never heals right. It festers, leaving both dissatisfied with the world around them, with the roles pushed on them by others. So they fight back, and they question, and they start from a place of compassion and trust in each other, without reservation or stipulation, and their path to freedom moves from there. It's a strange story that packs an incredibly amount into such a short space, and it dissects identity and assigned roles, and finds a space for Nina and Nono to perhaps figure out what works for them.

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POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.

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