Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Adventures in Short Fiction: March 2019

March has been an interesting month on several fronts, and there have been more distractions than usual from reading - some good (i.e. involving dogs) and some less so. With the Hugo ballot deadline, awards shortlists starting to be announced, and a peak month for exciting novel releases in what's already feeling like an overwhelmingly good year, the habit of keeping an anthology or some stories going on the side has been trickier to maintain. Also, awkwardly for this column, for most of the month my go-to short fiction fix has been Worlds Seen in Passing, the enormous collection edited by Irene Gallo which collects many of the highlights of's outputs over its first ten years. Around 75% of the stories are ones I haven't read before, and the quality is as high as you'd expect, but after over a month on the unicorn nightstand I'm still only just halfway through (it doesn't help that it's a 550-page doorstop hardcover that's impossible to read while commuting). Reviewing half an anthology is not the direction I want to take my life in just yet, but luckily I've also managed to put a few other things in my eyeballs between sled dog updates this March...

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issues 270 - 272

I've been loving my Beneath Ceaseless Skies subscription so far, and these three issues - covering February and the first half of March - maintain the streak of stories which hit the right notes of worldbuilding, narrative and characterisation in a limited space, while always feeling like they're a window into so much more. Rating especially high on this front is Alix E. Harrow's "Do Not Look Back, My Lion" (Issue 470), in which Eefa, a woman who plays the stay-at-home husband role to her soldier wife struggles against the martial constraints of her society which threaten to destroy everyone else in her family. The casual reordering of family roles and decoupling from gender expectations reinforces the sense of an empire rich in its own history, tradition and bias which constrains Eefa and leads to her increasing desperation to try and protect those she loves. "Adrianna in Pomegranate", by Samantha Mills (Issue 471), also deals with families and grief, following a "calligromancer" in a world where written words hold power, and his attempts to overcome prejudice against his magic - as the ability of men to effectively practice calligromancy in this society is routinely called into question - and to recover his lost child. In both cases, the focus on small family dramas in a magical setting is also welcome, demonstrating that not every story in a sweeping fantasy setting needs to be a world-changing quest: the lives of ordinary people and families, away from dramatic events, are just as compelling.

In Issue 472, "The Boy Who Loved Drowning" is a fascinating story, about an apprentice to a diviner whose job is to dive to the bottom of a lake and capture true answers to questions. This method of divination is dangerous and antagonistic, with diviners trained to fight against the lake and its dangers to find their answers: at least, until Kal comes along. Unlike his master and her peers, Kal learns how to work cooperatively with the lake to find answers, but his ability is inevitably seen as a threat by the older generation and leads to the lake providing an answer that's as inevitable and fitting as it is brutal.

Rating: 8/10
Fireside Magazine, January - March 2019 (mostly) (read online)

This quarter of Fireside packs a big punch into its short-side-of-short fiction offerings. The vast majority of stories here are well under 1,000 words - the shortest don't even stretch two pages on my e-reader - but even when they're just fleeting images or brief moments between characters, these pieces often leave an impression that goes way beyond the space they take up.

Having said that, the story which stuck with me most from this selection is one of the longest: "By the End of the Week", a fabulously subversive magical girl story by Brandon O'Brien. O'Brien sets up expectations in his first section - a high-performing student forced to do a group project with a girl he sees as lazy and fixated on partying - and proceeds to completely turn the set-up on its head by revealing that Kelly is not lazy, but trying to save the world from aliens without compromising her secret identity or failing at school. It's a great piece of coming of age 2.0: a text that focuses on self-actualisation milestones like establishing self-worth and boundaries, and understanding when you need to let another person make their own choices about you and focus on doing what makes you satisfied rather than seeking approval from those not disposed to give it. Derek doesn't come around at all to Kelly by the end, and seems to learn nothing from the experience of working with her, but the narrative is nevertheless fairly gentle with his perspective even while it shows up the unreliable, limited perspective of his narration, and gives the ultimate victory - with just a hint of bittersweetness - to Kelly and her ability to make it through the week.

Of the flash fiction-length pieces, the first pair in March were particularly memorable: "Parasitismo", by Alberto Chimal and translated into English by Julia Rios, is a deeply unsettling take on the psychology of myth involving brain-eating mermaids, and "The Blanched Bones, the Tyrant Within" by Karen Osborne, a lush story about women sacrificed to a dragon who find something rather different in the cavern they are sent to find it. Special mention must also go to February's "Symphony for the Space between the Stars", about a spaceship trying to fulfil its directives and keep its crew happy long after the crew themselves have departed. The theme reminded me of the achingly creepy Soviet short film of "There Will Come Soft Rains" by Ray Bradbury, but it's nowhere near as hopeless, and the journey to understanding and connection which the ship takes is well-realised and delightful.

Finally, a bonus from the archives: since it became a Nebula finalist, I finally got around to reading "The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington". P. Djeli Clark's story takes one line from a Mount Vernon historical record - the purchase of nine "negro teeth" for George Washington's dentures - and spins a myth of personhood and the subversion of control which takes place against an unfolding magical alternate history. As the tale of each tooth is told, the story goes from ascribing them to archetypes ("a blacksmith"; a "Bonny Lander") to offering up names, histories, hopes, dreams, alternate dimensions, and lives lived with as much humanity as possible under the constraints of slavery. In contrast, the famous wearer is given no agency or development and is a passive recipient of each tooth's strange magical powers. I had to revise my Hugo short story nominations after reading it, and you should certainly check it out too.

Rating: 8/10 (with a 9 for "The Secret Lives")

FIYAH literary magazine: Issue 9

This is the first unthemed issue of FIYAH and its stories weren't quite as memorable for me as those in the two preceding it, although there's still plenty of cool concepts, especially in the stories that focus on illness and death. This issue's novelette is by Nicky Drayden( a Nerds of a Feather favourite): called "The Rat King of Spanish Harlem", it dives deep into a concept combining body horror and societal change, through the eyes of Alicia, a woman working for a debt collection agency who wants the world to be a kinder place but isn't prepared for it to happen as a viral epidemic which she herself is resistant to. The disease, which affects people at work as well as her husband Javier, turns formerly mean people into kind, collaborative individuals (yay), then causes them to grow tails (hmm) which become intertwined with other infected people (nope) in ways which affect their identities and bodies still further (NOPE). For Alicia, watching this change happen from the outside, and particularly the way it affects her relationship with a husband who she was ready to leave before the infection, is a deeply complex experience: one which brings benefits and horrors in equal measure which she has no power to control. It's a weird, well-executed story with no easy answers.

Similarly good, though dealing with much darker and more difficult subject matter, is "Notes on the Plague" by Shamar Harriott, which tells of a world in which black men suddenly start coming down with a mysterious, fatal illness which only affects their group. It's a premise that draws as much on the AIDS epidemic as it is of the racist devaluing of black lives, particularly those of men, in our own societies, and the protagonist - a queer black man who watches his friends and lovers start to disappear - sits in a heartbreaking front seat to watch the devastation the epidemic causes with no compassionate response from the authorities.

Rating: 7/10
Clarkesworld Issue 150 (March 2019) (read online)

There's a hefty dose of death and decay and adaptation at extraordinary costs in Clarkesworld this month, including a reprint of Catherynne M. Valente's fantastic "The Future is Blue", set on a post-apocalyptic trash island, as well as a story of failed birth and hopeful exploration in D.A. Xiaolin Spires' "But, Still, I Smile", the slow death of a former astronaut in "When Home, No Need to Cry" by Erin K. Wagner, and a world so dystopian that the inhabitants have literally forgotten to laugh in Rich Larson's "Death of an Air Salesman". The last focuses on a pair of characters who both rent the same sleeping cubicle for a few hours a night, and their attempts to actually get to know each other like human beings in a world where such behaviour has been all but forgotten. It's impressive how the naively sweet romance between the protagonists is maintained despite the constant stream of small, awful details of their lives: the narrator has no cultural referents beyond gory cartoon images or hardcore pornography, and in their first experience of sex the two are unable to pay for the privacy settings necessary to not have their encounter filmed and, presumably, broadcast. Grim but rewarding.

"Treasure Diving", by Kai Hudson, also contains moments of hope within its precarious society, this time an aquatic people reliant on energy from a radioactive substance which kills their workers even as it keeps their homes alive. And then there's the gleeful carnage of "The Thing with Helmets", with its casual death-bringing aliens and accidental roller-derby inspired first contact and glitter-infused helmets of unimaginable power and corruption. Put together, it's not exactly an uplifting issue, but there's enough points of light to make it a great read even when you're caught in the midst of its miserable themes.

Rating 7/10
The Inconvenient God and The Lilies of Dawn (Annorlunda Press)

Annorlunda Press is a small independent publisher which releases standalone short fiction in both e-book and print form. In a shameless "judge a book by its cover" exercise, I treated myself to paperback copies of the two stories that come with cover art by Likhain: Vanessa Fogg's The Lilies of Dawn, from 2016, and The Inconvenient God by Francesca Forrest, published in 2018. Sure enough, both are gorgeous (if I'm being picky, The Inconvenient God's cover is a little darker than the screen version above, but it's still amazing and The Lilies of Dawn comes in such a fetching pink that it all balances out). Potential readers might like to know if these novelettes recommend themselves beyond the pretty covers, and I'm delighted to report that they very much do! 

This pair of stories are both about the mortal world's dealings with gods, though the similarities end there. The Inconvenient God begins with an official arriving at a university to "decommission" an annoying minor God of mischief: a process which usually ends up with the God becoming mortal, unless they already ascended from mortality to godhood in the first place. From there, it jumps off into a beautifully constructed tale of empire and assimilation, asking pointed questions through its narrative developments about how our institutions define and alter their own histories, and who gets to decide what is worth remembering. Like the stories in Beneath Ceaseless Skies mentioned above, there's a beautiful balance here between presenting a narrative that works at novelette length, while providing a window on a world that feels real and complex and full of untold potential.

The Lilies of Dawn
accomplishes a similar feat, although there's a core of sadness and loss here which, somehow, feels more irreparable than The Inconvenient God's matter-of-fact treatment of lost languages and forgotten pasts. The protagonist, Kai, is the daughter and heir of a woman tasked with looking after a beautiful, god-touched lily field, whose plants provide medicine and healing but are now under threat from an army of cranes. When a mysterious visitor shows up promising to save the flowers, Kai has to balance her hopes for the future of her family, her people and her now sick mother with caution about what this stranger represents - which, sure enough, turns out to be much more than he had initially told her, and somewhat less than he promised. It's a story which provides no answers to its conflicts even while it shows us the sympathetic side of everyone involved, and there's a tragic inevitability to its conclusion which hurts in the best possible way.

Ratings: 8/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke.