Thursday, February 4, 2021

Short Fiction Round Up: January 2021

Editor's note: Our second new contributor this week is Elisabeth R Moore, a writer who you may know as The Space Lesbian on Twitter and elsewhere! Elisabeth's profile will be landing next week but in the meantime we didn't want to keep you from her first set of short fiction recommendations for us:

Hello and welcome to my column covering short fiction! This month’s selection is inspired by all of the “Best of 2020” lists that December spawned, with me reviewing a story for the April 2020 issue of Clarkesworld, a September 2020 issue of EscapePod and the Autumn 2020 issue of Kaleidotrope. In terms of more recent fiction though, I loved Strange Horizon’s fiction this month - a strong start to the new year!

The Scholar of the Bamboo Flute by Aliette de Bodard (Silk and Steel)

The Scholar of the Bamboo Flute is a typical de Bodard story: the setting is a 19th Century Vietnamese-inspired fantasy school, the main character is a poor scholarship orphan and the love interest is -- it is later revealed -- a fantastical creature. At the heart of this story is a question every duelist must ask themself -- "what will I do to win?" In an elegant and deft twist on the familiar question, de Bodard explores what happens when the answer is "not that." The story builds slowly, but its final scene crashes over the reader like a metaphorical wave. While the romance itself lagged in the first part of the story, it came together beautifully in the end, offering a hopeful ending for both characters.

AirBody by Sameem Siddiqui (Clarkesworld)

In a near future where people can rent bodies remotely, a Karachi resident Meena Khan rents the body of Arsalan, a Washington DC resident. While Meena cooks, Arsalan grapples with his past as a member of Urdu diaspora, which ends up creating a wonderful camaraderie between him and Meena. Soon it becomes clear that this is not the story about one but two outcasts who are grappling with their position within their culture. Meena's and Arsalan’s one day together, inhabiting the same body, allows them to watch each other make the same kinds of mistakes. Both watch the other and think “this is not me,” even while they paradoxically are each other. The story is beautifully rendered, emotional, and a wonderfully sensuous read.

More than Simple Steel by Aimee Ogden (EscapePod)

A story about a pandemic that killed all the adults is a complicated thing to read in a pandemic that’s killing all of our grandparents. And yet Ogden pulls this story off with skill and style. A young boy named Micah lives with thirty other children in an abandoned school. When a newcomer with a baby and a gun shows up and threatens to ruin their home, how do they react? I loved this story; it was beautiful and heart-wrenching. It asked important questions about growing up, bravery, and how to be the person your family can be proud of. I cried at the end.

In The Garden of My Ancestors Statues by Marissa Lingen (Kaleidotrope)

Lingen’s signature style is stories that shine light in unexpected places. The mythical troll, usually the villain in the archetypal European fairy-tale, is rendered here as a tragic hero and an artistic outcast. In achingly simple language, Lingen evokes a fantasy setting in which trolls are being used and abuse by villagers -- hired for their amazing work in masonry, but then forced to work until sunrise so they turn into statues and don’t have to be paid. But the last of the trolls won’t stand for this, and hatches a daring plan. Kind and gentle, Lingen's prose always makes space for the outcast to shine.

Secrets of Kath by Fatima Taqvi (Strange Horizon)

Taqvi’s story about the wife of the village’s rich man, her son, and the local putliwallah is beautifully written. The trope of the storyteller -- in this case the puppeteer with the magic puppets -- who acts as the voice of the voiceless is used effectively and powerfully in this story. The opening paragraphs of the narrative are perfect: with deft and elegant strokes, Taqvi begins the story with the putliwallah entering the village, though the amorphous use of the first person plural implies early that this is a story of the collective, told through one man; not a lone hero’s undertaking. Throughout the story the pronoun play continues; the village’s rich man’s wife tells the story predominantly in the second person, watching her young son in the audience and addressing him repeatedly. And while I don’t want to spoil the ending, let me assure you: it’s perfect.

POSTED BY: Elisabeth R Moore is a writer, birder and grad student living in Germany. When she's not writing strange stories about scary plants, she can be found crocheting, hiking or biking. She tweets at @willowcabins.