Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Questing in Shorts: May 2019

Another month ends, another set of short stories is here! Like last month, I seem to have been on a mini themed collection kick, with two unsettling volumes from the nexus of speculative and literary fiction. Of course, there's some magazine reading to go around too, and I've already got plenty more lined up for next month's reading.

Let's dive in:

Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

Machado is new to me as an author, and I therefore didn't know what to expect from this collection, but visually we were off to a good start: It's not my usual habit to review books based on how physically nice they are, but I think it has to be noted that Serpent's Tail have produced a volume that's positively pettable, and could also be useful when sending visual "GO" signals over long distances with its neon green cover. The niceness of the volume sets off an intense and brilliant set of stories full of sex, death and the mundane made dangerous, which play with the concept of voice and empowerment in various, usually heartbreaking ways. Machado's women record their own worlds and experiences because nobody else will, and they are not believed in a world which is literally not set up for their existence. It's relateable and queer and stunning in both the literal and metaphorical senses.

The standout among standouts is "The Husband Stitch" (Read online), a painfully good opener which really sets the scene for Machado's talent. It balances the mundane world of a woman who marries her childhood sweetheart young and then raises their child, with an overwhelmingly claustrophobic sense of threat from the outside world; a threat compounded by the lack of belief anyone else places in her, and the lengths she has to go to claw out any respect for her space and autonomy. This is physically represented in the story through a speculative device: the protagonist has a ribbon tied around her neck, for which she has, and needs, no explanation, telling her husband he also can't touch or ask about it. The narrative's regular return to the ribbon and to what it means to each character culminates in a shattering, exhausted betrayal, that feels inevitable even as we're desperate to stop it happening.

The rest of the volume takes us through many of the same themes in new and inventive ways, and while nothing quite reaches the outstanding heights of "The Husband Stitch", it doesn't need to do be gripping, high quality work. My honourable mention here has to be "Especially Heinous", a novella told in the form of capsule synopses for 12 seasons of fictional Law and Order: SVU episodes. I have not seen any Law and Order: SVU, but luckily the story is accessible with no prior knowledge of anything but the most general tropes about police procedurals. Again, sex, death and misogyny are out in force, along with an increasingly bizarre interlocking narrative about betrayals, doppelgangers, ghosts with bells for eyes and an endless parade of rape victims whose murders go unsolved but not uncatalogued. Brilliant stuff.

Rating: 9/10

Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah

Here's the second of this month's debut collections which straddles the line between literary and speculative fiction. Adjei-Brenyah's volume of 12 speculative stories sits, as the inside cover quote from Roxane Gay suggests, in a spot quite close to the vicious satire of Childish Gambino's "This is America", or of the film "Sorry to Bother You", taking elements of racism and capitalism and holding a magnifying glass to their most absurd and dangerous elements. It's a collection with lots of big speculative ideas and not a lot in the way of catharsis, from the opening story, "The Finkelstein 5", about the backlash to a man being acquitted for murdering five black children with a chainsaw; to the trio of stories at the Prominent Mall's clothing department, where a nameless star of sales survives Black Fridays where customers and salespeople fight for their lives over bargains in the winterwear department, only to be passed over when a talented white woman starts working in the same section; to outright science fictional stories like "Through the Flash", in which a community finds itself infinitely reliving the day before a nuclear attack, working through their newfound impunity for both their best and worst impulses.

Because of its heavy satirical elements, it feels even more impossible than usual to write an objective review of Friday Black, because any reader's reaction is going to depend on whether they are willing to suspend their disbelief over the elements which are called out and exaggerated. All I can say is that for me, Friday Black very much hit the mark, where similar stories (for example, Robert Jackson Bennett's Vigilance: the perfect example of a "YMMV" satire among our team) didn't work for me. "Zimmer Land" was probably the point where this was most noticeable, a short story in which Zay, a young black man, works at a theme park where guests (who, unsurprisingly, all appear to be racist white conservatives) get to live out experiences like foiling terrorist plots and taking down suspicious people in their neighbourhood in a supposedly safe environment. The combination of meaningless, politically motivated violence and the platitudes about self-actualisation which the park's management justify it with is on-the-nose to the point of absurdity, but Zay's characterisation and spin on the events around him, even as park management takes the "experience" in a direction he's deeply uncomfortable with, makes the experience engaging, real, and exquisitely difficult.

Rating 8/10.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issue 276 and 277 (Read Online: 276 277)

I am cherry-picking my coverage of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, because after the last batch that I reviewed in March there were a couple of issues which weren't too memorable for me. I'm fairly certain that this is my fault and not the stories themselves - having looked back over the list of stories published, I definitely remember having very good feelings about stories like "Undercurrents" by Charles Payseur (in Issue 274) and "The Red Honey Witch" by Jessica Paddock (Issue 275) - I suspect I just read them at the wrong time. However, the pair of stories from Troy L. Wiggins and Dayna K. Smith in Issue 276 really made me sit up and pay attention. Wiggins' story, "Fury at the Crossroads", brings a strong sense of place and character to a post-disaster world in which humans have gone to war with the Gods, dealing with an agent named Fury who, along with her haint mentor/companion Junebug, is trying to find the source of a taint of the land she's in - a mystery which will bring her directly into conflict with those now trying to claim this land away from the deity Fury serves.

In "Hangdog", Dayna K. Smith delivers me the historical werewolf story I didn't realise I wanted so badly. It centres around Grinn and Buddy, a pair of shapeshifters on the road who find a hanged soldier who has apparently been killed for being a werewolf. Of course, werewolves don't die of hanging, so poor Jonas is still alive and he soon manages to rub some of his bad luck off on the pair as they are accosted by another man, who turns out to be the only non-werewolf in a lineage of shapeshifters and wants Grinn or Jonah to give him the legacy his family have denied him. As a standalone story, the elements that go into this are little bit on the conveniently coincidental side, but that's more than made up for by the great worldbuilding, particularly the visceral descriptions of the shapeshifters and what their wolfiness does to their sense of self and their interactions with other beings. From the biography, there's a novel version of this universe in the works and I'm already fully signed up for more adventures with Grinn, Jonah and Buddy as and when they come our way.

Issue 277 delivers two bone-themed stories of which the highlight is R.K. Duncan's fable of an accomplished diver trying to do the impossible for his family business, "The Thirty-Eight-Hundred Bone Coat". It's heavy on the elements that make Beneath Ceaseless Skies' "Literary Adventure Fantasy" so much fun: an engaging self-contained story among ordinary people in a world which feels like it goes far beyond the tiny corner we get to see. The city of Ranzak's history, geography and magic all comes into play as Navid's family are tasked with creating a powerful coat made from the enchanted bones of rebels which now lie in the silt of the city's river, on an ambitious deadline. Navid is the best diver in the city, and loves his job, but it takes more than skill for him to find the materials he needs, and things might not turn out the way he hopes. It's a classic-feeling story in an inventive world and I'm always on board for aquatic adventures.

Ratings: 7/10.

FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 10: HAIR (Link/Soundtrack)

FIYAH's hair themed issue is here, bringing with it a trio of slipstream-type short stories jumping from modern day settings, which all contain black women dealing in some way with hair that isn't hair: flowers, snakes and feathers respectively. The first, "In That Place She Grows a Garden" by Del Sandeen, deals with a setting that should be familiar to anyone who pays attention online: a girl in her junior year at high school who falls foul of the dress code for her dreadlocked hair. When she bows to the pressure to cut it off, she finds herself instead sprouting flowers - and protected by the creatures that pollinate them. It's a story framed as a small but jubilant victory in a world that's otherwise against the protagonist, and it's evocative stuff. The second story, "My Snakes" by Frieda Vaughn contains a mixed race protagonist whose mother has no idea what to do with her hair, and her relationship to painful relaxers and their impact on her self-perception and the way others see her. Stranded through the story, which is told in snatches of scenes over decades, is the myth of Medusa, and the light speculative elements as the protagonist finds dead snakes on her pillow and laments their lifeless obedience during her years of relaxers, finally restoring them in an act of triumphant ownership over her own body. Shari Paul's "No Late-for-School" changes tone again and uses the form of a blog entry to tell an event in the life of Delilah, whose now-ex boyfriend gets her into some magical trouble with an ex-girlfriend and transformative magic. This might be the first time I've specifically seen blog language and format used to this effect in fiction, and the mode of narration fits the story perfectly, letting Delilah tell her story with humour and agency and to put what is objectively a pretty horrifying incident into her own slightly understated, social media-fied context.

Having put together these three similarly-premised (though distinct) contemporary stories, the issue's novelette takes the plunge into high fantasy for "While Dragons Claim the Sky" by Jen Brown, the story of two women in a world where magic is channelled through hair, and hairdressers therefore hold the ultimate potential for power. Omani is eager to go to the best magical academy in the land, but finds that getting the scholarship money she needs to attend from the empress herself is going to be harder and more problematic than she thinks - until Myra walks through the door of her mother's salon with an invitation to join a major tournament that could win them both the attention of the Empress, if Omani's magic can help her win. On reaching the capital and learning more about the political world she's about to enter Omani ends up bound up in acts of rebellion that go well beyond her expectations and comfort zone. It's a refreshing change of pace from the contemporary stories before it which offers a great alternative take on the issue's theme, rounding off another good set of stories from this Hugo Semiprozine finalist.

Rating: 7/10

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.