Thursday, February 27, 2020

Questing in Shorts: February 2020

Since Thursday Morning Superhero went monthly, we've had a more flexible Thursday schedule here at Nerds of a Feather, and with that has come the potential for a new commitment for Questing in Shorts. Starting this month, I'm going to be putting out this column on the last Thursday of every month, so fans of the novelettes, the flash fics and of course the shortbois can set their schedules and come visit me then. That little piece of information aside, it's been a busy month with some great collections and new-to-me magazines, so let's dive straight in!

Of Wars, and Memories, and Starlight by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press)

Aliette de Bodard's Subterranean press collection is as beautiful as you'd expect on the outside, with a Maurizio Manzieri cover and the standard level of Subterranean finishing. It's also an excellent collection that's largely comprised of pieces from the Best Series-nominated Xuya universe, which ranges from alternate history Earth stories in which the Western part of North America is colonised by China, and the Aztec empire of Mexica survives into the present day in a loose alliance with the power now called Xuya. The collection contains one piece from this Earthbound continuity "The Jaguar House, in Shadow", an intriguing political thriller which, along with the opening story "The Shipmaker", sets up the rest of the intergalactic political, cultural and technological traits of the Xuya universe very nicely. De Bodard's stories dealing with cultural clashes of some kind are highlights for me: from "The Waiting Stars", the tale of a young Dai Viet woman who has been taken from her family and raised in the Galactic Empire, to "Scattered Along the River of Heaven", a story of conflict and war and cultural revolution told two generations after the fact, de Bodard is quietly unflinching in her portrayals of displaced characters and their struggles to find connection with the different cultures they are surrounded by and yet, to some extent, alienated from. The absolute highlight on this front is "Immersion", a Nebula and Locus winning short story which alternates between Quy and another woman from the Rong people, both of whom wear Galactic (western culture)-made "Immersers" which allow them to communicate with Galactics but at the expense of their own culture and personhood. For Quy, who wears the Immerser briefly to help her family with business transactions, the experience is unpleasant but temporary; for the other narrator, it has become her permanent reality. The story's sense of isolation, and the various losses which the casual dominance of Galactic culture in this part of space has created, come around into a perfect, heartbreaking, circle by the end as the second narrator finds tentative connection in her isolating, but unique, understanding of both Rong and Galactic culture.

That's just a snapshot of what there is to enjoy here: "Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight", a triptych of loss and filial piety in a world where siblings can be spaceships, is always worth a read, and this is also the first time I've read fairytale retelling "Pearl" originally published in The Starlit Wood. Also present here are two stories from de Bodard's Dominion of the Fallen universe: unfortunately, I don't get on as well with this series, and so I skipped rereading "Children of Thorns, Children of Water" - though, as it's a Hugo finalist, you probably shouldn't. "Of Birthday, and Fungus, and Kindness", the second Dominion story, is also the longest in the collection and original to this collection: it's a bit of a difficult one to assess having only read the first book in the series, but I did find it a fun read, combining delicate political machinations in a post-apocalyptic Paris ruled by the houses of fallen angels with the slow and hilarious disaster of a highly persistent mushroom infestation. I'm still keeping my fingers crossed for a complete Xuya collection someday, but while we wait for that, this is an excellent start.

Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie (Dialogue Books)

This collection is one where the situation and format in which I read it made a huge difference to my interpretation and enjoyment. Having originally picked this up as an ARC, I'd been fitting in stories here and there around my commute, but I was bouncing off most of them as my exhausted Tuesday-brain struggled to put together the weirdness and to switch from one story to the next (the formatting, which didn't have page breaks after each story, really didn't help with this) . Frustrated but not totally put off, I found the physical book in a bookshop, bought it, opened it back up at the beginning, and read it in one sitting at a coffee shop - with very different results. Of course, that's not to say that Nudibranch - a collection which takes its name from the group of vibrantly coloured, delightfully bizarre sea slugs - is not a weird book. From the adopted-son-turned-farmhand-turned-government-weapon of "Saudade Minus One (S  ̶  1 =)" to the eponymous backwards time traveller of "Daishuku" to the transdimensional tongue-protecting monks of "Filamo", Nudibranch is, by turns disjointed, disorienting and completely at home from everything to mundane slice-of-life flashes to high-concept time travel. While it starts with the very high concept flash piece "Logarithm" (which, alas, did nothing for me), and is quite definitely a literary fiction collection in its sensibilities, there's also a lot for fans of speculative fiction and shortform worldbuilding to enjoy here, with some lush writing to boot.

Two things seem to link Okojie's diverse set of protagonists. First, quite a few of them find themselves shifting from high concept slipstream weirdness into utterly mundane scenes of London life (I mean, who can't relate to turning into a giant human liquorice and then popping over to the Horniman Museum?) Second, and more interestingly, the characters of Nudibranch almost all come undone at the ends of their stories. Some of the moments are ambiguously metaphorical, like the protagonist at the end of "Cornotopia", who goes into an experimental treatment for post-trauma depression and ends, once the treatment apparently begins to work, by shrivelling up "like a carcass that had finally stopped tricking people into thinking it could breathe"; or a horror-like cutaway like "Point and Trill", a story which begins as the mundane tale of a struggling couple going on a night-time paintballing retreat, and then takes some very dark turns. Then there's the quite literal falling apart of the liquorice protagonist at the end of "Kookaburra Sweet" and the bizarre yet fitting sacrifice of the big-dreaming protagonist of "Mangata". Regardless of how it happens, what runs through this collection is the sense that these are people who, once their varied circumstances play out, then effectively come apart, exciting the stage in a variety of morbidly fascinating literary flourishes. It may sound a bit much, but I still managed to finish the collection in one sitting without feeling overwhelmed by morbidity, so its not nearly as grim as all that. In the end, I'm glad I persevered (and spent money on!) Nudibranch, a collection whose strongest images I suspect are going to stay with me for quite some time.

The Dark, January 2020 (Read Online)

Catching up with back issues of The Dark was part of my to-do list this month, and as you can see from the issue I've decided to review, I mostly got there. January's issue, as always, brings two original and two reprinted stories, with both of the originals dealing with abuse and highly problematic parent-child relationships. In Clare Madrigano's "Mother Love", a woman looks back on her relationship with her mother, a woman with "a hunger she couldn't control". Its a story that turns the heat up gradually, even as it effectively sets out its destination in its metaphorical opening paragraph; as we learn more about the narrator's childhood and what she went through, things gradually get more and more strange, until the eventual conclusion seems both utterly unhinged and, somehow, completely unsurprising. "Forwarded", by Steve Rasnic Tem, also has a protagonist - this time a man named Tom - looking back on his time living under his father's roof, as well as the terrors he inflicted in turn on his younger (now also grown) brother. Unlike "Mother Love", which remains purely in the psychological horror realm, "Forwarded" offers some speculative terror in the form of an old imaginary friend, who turns up at a rather inconvenient time to further complicate Tom's engagement with his past. While neither story takes its premise anywhere particularly imaginative, both offer challenging but compelling perspectives on their respective horrors.

The first reprint in the issue is a creepy delight (well, not literally a delight, this is a horror magazine after all) from Angela Slatter ("No Good Deed"), featuring a woman who wakes up in a rather unexpected location after her marriage to Adolphus, with only the voice of a dead woman to explain her circumstances and lead her to survival and justice. Perhaps my favourite in the issue, though, is the second reprint, "The Man at Table Nine" by Ray Cluley. Cluley's protagonist is Nicola, a Polish woman now working as a waitress in a restaurant somewhere in the UK. Already dealing with bigoted coworkers and thinly veiled threats about her job security, Nicola is further challenged when she is asked to serve a bizarre regular: a man who apparently owns the restaurant chain, and who orders food and drink but never appears to eat it. As Cluley's portrayal of the guest gets increasingly bizarre and the reader theories start to get discounted (he's not a vampire, you guys!) the story builds a mystery that begins to feel oddly unthreatening, given Nicola's wider circumstances. Its not until the story's closing lines where the hammer drops and I shout "no" in the middle of my office lunch table, to everyone else's bemusement. Well worth checking out
Three Crows Magazine, Issues 4 and 5 (read online)

Image: Three Crows Magazine Issue 4 Cover

Three Crows is getting quite a lot of attention due to their recent interview with Tamsyn Muir, which is well worth reading for reasons out of the scope of this column (they've done other great work on this front too - their interview with Marlon James is also excellent). What I'm here for, as always, is the fiction, and I'd been drawn to this magazine by the fact that it's based outside of the Anglosphere and I'm trying to diversify out of US and the occasional Canadian-based magazine.

There are seven stories across these two most recent issues, and the best of them are very good indeed. In Issue 5, my favourite was "Thistle Eşref" by Luke Frostick, a long story about a hunter, Eşref, whose attempts to hunt down the dragon that's been terrorising the Kingdom lead him on a quest that's rather more epic and bloody than he bargained for. The character voice and the pacing of this piece are brilliant, with a lighthearted tone and constant weary asides from its main character that make it feel like a folksy tale by the fireside. The issue's opening piece, "In Dark Corners and Neglected Places" by Joanna Parypinski, offers a similar folksy feel, starting as a storytelling session by a grandmother keeping her granddaughter entertained during her knitting, and then turning into something significantly more sinister. And in Issue 4, the standout story was the deeply uncomfortable "Knowing Your Type" by Eliza Chan. Narrated by a controlling racist misogynist looking for a "perfect" Asian wife, the story revolves around Manami, the young woman who is the subject of the narrator's attentions, but who quickly makes it clear that she has no intention of being the victim of this piece. As we start to understand what Manami is doing before her predator arrives at the relevant conclusions, the story unfolds brilliantly towards a grim, and yet totally deserved, conclusion.

Unfortunately, what held me back from loving some of these stories felt more like an editorial issue than anything else. Despite some great premises, a few of the stories here lack the polish of the other venues I've covered in this column to date, and where particular stories are attempting to lean into a particular voice or style, the near-misses can be a challenge to look past. The most challenging story for me in this regard was Stephen Couch's "In Cube Eight", a weird space opera where a spaceship crew and its AI all dope up on psychadelic substances in order to attempt contact with an alien species (who have apparently been appearing as "elves" to people tripping throughout the ages). The premise is novel, and the narrative voice gets close to an old-school Kerouac-type tone which, if pulled off, would make this a really intriguing mash-up of genre - but there's just too many sentences that land a little too heavily, and line breaks that don't quite feel like they're in the right place, for this story to really shine. Its not a problem that prevented me from enjoying Three Crows as a whole, but it is something that I hope greater resources and attention might fix in future issues.

The Future Fire, Issue 52 (read online)

Image: The Future Fire Magazine Issue 52 cover

The second new venue in this month's roundup is officially my first British short fiction magazine (but hopefully not the last!) I've been somehow following The Future Fire on Twitter without putting two and two together and realising it's publishing exactly the sort of fiction that I want to read: progressive, diverse and socially conscious.

I'm slowly catching up on their back issues from 2019, but I wanted to jump straight in with their most recent edition for column purposes. There's one flash piece and four short stories in the prose offering here, covering everything from slipstream musings on a difficult childhood ("Pleiades for a New Generation" by Kathryn Allan) to a matter-of-fact witch in a hard, frontier land outsmarting an upstart Reverend with the help of her "friendly" local river ("The Third Angel Poured" by Julie Reeser). There's also a wonderfully weird story presented in the original Spanish and in translation: "The Salt in Her Kiss" by Malena Salazar Macia, translated by Toshiya Kamei, deals with a woman attempting to overcome the many male powers controlling her life in order to reach the sea; when she gets there, Ligeia proceeds to have an... encounter... with a pair of mermaids that causes an unexpected, but fitting, metamorphosis. In case you're wondering what can possibly follow mermaid sex, the story that really stole my hear was Aurelia Gonzalez's "The Wasteland Review", the story of a woman surviving in a post-apocalyptic world who discovers a radio, on which the planet's possibly last podcast is still being broadcast by two people who also have no idea if anyone is left to listen. It's a heartbreaking story that doesn't offer any closure or answers to the situation of its three separated protagonists, but its notes of hope and connection against all odds resonated with me well after I reached the end.

POSTED BY: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, 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. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.