Thursday, June 24, 2021

Questing in Shorts June 2021: The Triumphant Return!

 Yes that's right, Questing in Shorts is BACK, bay-bee!

Put on your dancing shorts and boogie with me

It's been six months, during which time the subscription folder on my e-reader has been relentlessly filling itself up with enticing things. Sadly, since the start of the year my mind has mostly been elsewhere (and by elsewhere I mean "taking on the general capacity and aura of a mossy pond"). I had a few exceptions, mostly to catch up on 2020 stories from Omenana and FIYAH before Hugo nominations ended in March, but on the whole it's not been a good time for me and short fiction.

But! as of the start of this month, I've been feeling the short fiction itch again, and I've spent some time trying to come up with a system that will help me keep track of all the short fiction I read in a way that actually reflects the way I read short fiction (so, not sitting in front of a spreadsheet trying to type things in every ten minutes). After some thought, I decided to give in to the instinct that this was a problem that could only be solved with new stationery.

For once, though, new stationery really has been a gamechanger! Behold, Adri's first 2021 short fiction review notebook, courtesy of Whirling World on Etsy:

I decided to pick up a few pre-formatted review notebooks, but as they're set up for books I quickly realised that I'd need to change a lot of things to make this work for short stories. I printed out a set of form stickers to go in the middle of the page so I could quickly write in double the number of reviews, and wrote in the publication instead of a "finished date". I completely ignored the formatting of the TBR pages at the front to just put in a big ol' list of magazines (limited to things I have ebooks of, with apologies to Baffling Magazine and Omenana, both of which I read online - I needed to fix the folder backlog first!)

An incomplete list of things

I also gamified things for myself: after finishing a magazine, I rolled an eight-sided dice (because my e-reader shows eight documents per page) and read the corresponding magazine from the first page of the folder. This meant I mostly read things that I'd added more recently, but it kept me interested, and picking things randomly confirmed that I'm really happy with my current subscriptions: nothing ever came up that I was disappointed to have to read next.

And I filled this whole notebook! With 61 stories, from Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Giganotosaurus, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Mermaids Monthly, The Future Fire and Anathema. The whims of the dice I didn't read any Uncanny or FIYAH despite having a couple of issues of each, nor did I get to the first issue of Constelacíon, so those are on the list for next time. but needless to say there's still plenty of stuff within these 61 stories to talk about...

Mermaids Monthly

A new publication to this column, Mermaids Monthly was set up by Julia Rios and Meg Frank with a simple, one-year mission: to publish content about mermaids. This month, I read their March, April and May issues, and I did indeed get a lot of delightful mermaid art, comics ("Fat Mermaid In: Wardrobe Malfunction" is a great piece from the May issue), poetry and of course short fiction, covering everything from surrealist slipstream to survivalist horror and everything in between.

A lot of Mermaids Monthly's content is flash fiction, which combines with the art and poetry to create a big, slippery mash-up blend of mermaid and siren myth where individual pieces feel subsumed into the whole experience. That's not to say that each piece doesn't stand on its own merits, of course - everything is really good! - but that Mermaids Monthly really benefits from being read as a single publication from start to finish, leaning into the thematic coherence and letting the different interpretations work together.

That said, there are some stand-outs, and as a longer-short fan it was longer stories that really caught my attention. In April, "A Minnow, Or Perhaps a Colossal Squid" by C.S.E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez is a story about a magical world where debtors are transformed into fish while their debts are being repaid, and it alternates between Estrella, a caseworker charged with doing this magic, and a naturalist studying deep-sea sirens whose debts allow her to pursue her research in unexpected ways. The split perspective between Estrella's present on Mariposa, and the research notes of Ven. Damiana Cardosa y Fuentes, provides a great mix of worldbuilding and the sirens themselves are excellent (you'd expect no less from Mermaids Monthly, of course). In May, "The Incident at Veniaminov" is the story of an indigenous community visited by a cruise ship with a sinister agenda, in which Mathilda Zeller weaves together questions about identity with an action packed story (involving cannibalism) with excellent results.

Apex Magazine

Also new to my subscription folder is Apex Magazine, back off hiatus this year and publishing some magnificent things. I read issue 122 (March-April), which is full of stories that riff off of themes of survival, vengeance and memorialisation in one way or another. "Black Box of the Terraworms" was a weird highlight for me: the story of a strange terraforming intelligence as it battles the "gods" of a planet it is trying to make habitable to humans. The way the terraformer's objectives change as it takes on the perspective of the gods makes this a really interesting ride, combining a science fictional concept with a creation-myth story structure to brilliant effect. Elsewhere, I am a sucker for a documentary-style story and Sam Miller's "A Love that Burns Hot Enough to Last: Deleted Scenes from a Documentary" hit all my buttons in that regard, giving a range of testimonials about the life of Ti, a singer with the ability to channel magic through her songs. Ti's story - which, we know from the start, has a tragic ending - is offered up alongside the story of one of her fans, Brent, a closeted soldier who goes to one of her military concerts and is caught up in her magic. Brent's life, we learn, is changed for the better by being able to come out and build a life with his boyfriend as a result of their concert experiences; but Ti's magic can't alter the challenges of her own life and her own inability to follow her desires.

Finally, this issue of Apex includes an interactive piece by Sabrina Vourvoulias which is highly worth checking out. "Las Girlfriends Guide to Subversive Eating" is set in a magical version of Philadelphia, and offers up a fictional culinary tour of the city where food is not just a guide to the history and diversity of the city, but a way for migrants and activists to offer each other the magic they need to survive, be that through mushroom-based cuisine that can heal ailments, tamales woven with spells for keeping ICE away and paperwork rolling smoothly, or gardens which encourage younger generations to engage with the heritage of their ancestor's homelands. The formatting is fun, and the break-up of text between different pages means it doesn't feel hard on the eyes, and while the technology doesn't quite hit full intuitiveness every time (the lack of "back" buttons at the bottom of each food stop makes scrolling back up a bit of a faff) it's still a great vehicle for a powerful, engaging piece of urban fantasy.

Art by Sunmi for "The Chicken House"

Strange Horizons

Right as I started clearing my backlog, Strange Horizons dropped four months of ebooks on Patreon collecting their editions from February to May, and I ended up reading the entire set, including April's Samovar, the Palestinian special issue and the trans/nonbinary special issue. This is, quite simply, too much Strange Horizons to summarise in a couple of paragraphs, but if you're diving in on the recommendation of this column in particular, those special issues are where I'd start: the Palestine special issue brings 3 stories and 6 pieces of poetry as well as an excellent roundtable. "PALESTINE IS A FUTURISM: THE DREAM" is a brilliant piece of all-caps fury/joy riffing off capitalist exploitation and extractive industries and imagining something still strange and affected by their presence, but somehow newer and more pure. "Queer Arab Dictionary" is also an amazing piece, its stanzas looking at current and future language and envisioning how a gendered language might be reenvisioned or pushed beyond the binary. When it comes to short stories, I loved the deeply wry, satirical "A Day in the Life of Anmar 20X1" by Abdulla Moaswes, in which the future President of Palestine attempts to curate his dream palace, and his tenure's success, as his land literally constricts around him.

May's Trans special issue also has lots of good poetry (I liked "Luna" by Alexander Te Pohe), as well as some fun stories. "Women Want Me, Fish Fear Me" by Paris Green is the story of a sex worker in a world where many people have animal genes transferred into them to increase their potential for particular careers. Green's protagonist has had fish genes transferred, but remains multiply marginalised with no other options available. The story unfolds in snatches of perspective, centring on an interaction with one particular client, and while the nuances are beyond my critical capacity as a cis reader, the detail and atmosphere is extraordinary and makes this well worth the experience. "A Welling Up" by Natalia Theodoridou and "The Chicken House" by Jenny Fried are also excellent - I enjoyed the latter, in particular, for its trans take on the Baba Yaga myth.

Other highlights:

After a year off from subscribing, I'm rediscovering exactly why enjoy Beneath Ceaseless Skies' brand of "adventure fantasy". The story that took my breath away this time was "Concerto for Winds and Resistance" by Cara Masten DiGirolamo, which tells the story of a city under repressive rule from the perspective of four members of a wind orchestra and the curious, magical piece their new conductor puts in front of them. On the subject of favourite city stories, "The City, My Love" by Alexandra Seidel (The Future Fire 57) covers centuries or development and migration from the perspective of a city and the humans it loves within it

"Just Enough Rain", by P.H. Lee, is available on Giganotosaurus (it's their May story) and I loved its matter-of-fact religious exploration and its hilarious romance, and the mother-daughter relationship at its heart. I also want to mention "A Remembered Kind of Dream" by Rei Rosenquist, one of very few short stories from 2021 I read at the start of this year: it's a post-apocalyptic queer found family story that's got that perfect combination of biopunk and hopelessness and human grit and I'm glad it's stuck with me to make it into this column.

Finally, Anathema brings its usual blend of heartbreak and hope to Issue 12 after an issue off (though their December showcase is, of course, very much worth your time). This time, there's more of the latter than the former: "Cirque Mécanique" broke my heart most successfully, but "Lady Fortune" and "To Rise, Blown Open" put it together again.

From the Bookshelves:

My lack of short fiction reading has stretched to anthologies and collections, but I did finally get through Never Have I Ever by Isabel Yap, which is a showcase from an outstanding short fiction writer. The stories that draw on modern Filipino events and culture are my favourites: Asphalt, River, Mother, Child, the story of an afterlife where innocent victims of Duterte's war on drugs have found themselves stuck, is powerful and brilliant in its characters and the way it presents their journey, and "Have you heard the one about Anamaria Marquez" is a creepy take on schoolyard rumour. There's also a new novella in this collection: "A Spell for Foolish Hearts" is about a mostly-closeted witch who starts to fall in love with a beautiful man at his workplace, with adorable and very supernaturally satisfying results. I had high expectations for this collection and it certainly didn't disappoint, and I feel like I've left this collection with even more love for Isabel Yap's storytelling than I had before.

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