Thursday, October 28, 2021

Questing in Shorts: October 2021 (not intentionally spooky)

Hello friends and welcome to another edition of Questing in Shorts, where we read some short fiction magazines and talk about good stories and have a jolly old time. This month, we are going to chat mostly about stories that happened in September, because somehow I lost a month, and I have not even downloaded any of the subscription things that landed with me in October. That's OK, this never promised to be a current column anyway and, despite how it feels to this reviewer sometimes, stories do not in fact have an expiration date...

Adri tries to read, October 2021

On the subject of "things that aren't timely but are interesting", I got to be on a jury for this year's British Fantasy Awards, specifically in the Best Magazine category! We had an amazing list of magazines - some of which I was already familiar with, some not - and after a really tough judging period, it ended up being Strange Horizons who took home the award for 2021. I'd recommend anyone who hasn't checked out Black Static, The Dark, Interzone, Ginger Nuts of Horror (waves to fellow review zine, doing amazing work to be competing in a category with a strong short fiction bias!) and FIYAH Literary Magazine. In chatting to my fellow jurists, I also put a couple of other publications on my radar and I'm excited to stick them in my review rotation in the not too distant future.

Apex Magazine 124 + 125

Apex stories don't often come with sweet bits, but I was entranced by E. Catherine Tobler's "Without Wishes to Bind You", which also features leprechaun mythology. In it, Michael is looking for the woman he loves with the help of Pudgy, a leprechaun he managed to catch and is keeping with him by not using all three of his designated wishes. Pudgy, of course, has his own take on the situation, and his own reasons to try to find Heather. This is a story of two folks moving past exploitation and into mutual trust and working towards a goal, and it's a really pleasant surprise. Of course, this being Apex, we go straight back into the dark science fiction with "How to be Good" by R. Gatwood, in which a man apparently without empathy trying to live a good life on his own terms ends up working for a government agency, which effectively uses him as a last resort torturer when they can justify doing so for a "greater good". Renwood is a very creepy character, even as we can see the ways in which he tries to justify what he's doing. Old school science fiction has pretty much exhausted any merit in the "let's set up a scenario in which the only good course of action is to be very, very bad" premise, but Gatwood's story sidesteps that by not making Renwood's actions excusable, regardless of his intent. Also very noteworthy, and very creepy, is Kelly Sandoval's "What Sisters Take", about a group of three girls whose twins are all cuckoo-like parasites feeding off them, and "Osu", by Kingsley Okpii, a story about a child who is taken as an alusi - a human conduit - by an Osu deity. Ike has the potential to wield great power with his deity, but what he really wants is to go home to his mother: a desire which ends up being thwarted as he realises what his selection as an alusi actually means.

Issue 125 brings a pairing of stories dealing with food, beauty, health and body horror: there's Candyland by "Maggie Slater", in which a woman reconnects with an old friend who hasn't seen her since she turned into a candy-person and which brims with the awkwardness of two people confronting the changes they have gone through since they last met. And there's "Next to Cleanliness" by Rose Keating, the episodic story of a woman working with a creepy doctor on various forms of "cleansing". Both stories hum with feelings of fatphobia and body "wrongness", and use their weird elements to great effect in otherwise very mundane scenarios. "Cottonmouth", by Joelle Wellington, brings an almost fairytale like vibe to its deeply unpleasant scenario: protagonist Grant finds a Black girl hidden in the forbidden attic of his grandfather's home, and visits her three times to try and make her his (in a literal sense). However, Innana has her own plans to overcome her captivity, and has been there much longer than Grant realises, ready to capitalise on all of his mistakes to regain her own freedom. There's some interesting science fiction here too, notably Discontinuity, by Jared Millet, which deals with people finding their way into alternate universes during FTL "breaches", and what it means to discover that your past has been rewritten while you've been travelling the galaxy. It might be less "weird" than the other stories here but it's no less creepy, and the whole issue is worth diving into.

Giganotosaurus, August - September 2021

I rarely have anything bad to say about Giganotosaurus' story selection, and "Teaching to the Test" by Sarina Dorie and On Milligan Street by Peter M. Floyd both maintain the streak. "Teaching to the Test" features a woman teaching in a highly unusual classroom: her students are all infected with a zombie virus that only affects children. Sometimes, kids recover from the virus, and the government's "No Infected Left Behind" act means that teachers like Miss Sanders spend their days in artificially cheerful rooms, teaching students who are chained up to only be somewhat dangerous to her, knowing that most of them face no future at all. The only way for her students to prove their recovery is through passing a test, but the one student who shows promise in her classroom has learning difficulties that have nothing to do with his infection, leaving him trapped with no way for Miss Sanders to devote time to really help him. The actual story of "Teaching to the Test" isn't particularly complex (and it involves a rather unexpected reversal for one character), but the way it builds up the setting of a public school classroom whose teacher is being systematically failed, and is struggling in turn to help her own students, is really compelling, as are the discussions of Miss Sanders' past.

"On Milligan Street" is a story about what happens when a deadbeat friend comes back into your life with one last "too good to be true" offer. The offer, in this case, is the discovery of a set of archives which can tell anyone who finds them exactly what the future holds. When Dorothy meets with Manny, he claims to have visited Milligan Street, the site of these archives, and is keen to show Dorothy what he's found. Dorothy, who was close with Manny during wild college years but has since outgrown Manny's substance abuse and inability to get his shit together (not that she's much better), goes along with the plan out of a sense of indebtedness, and discovers that it's not actually a lie, but that Manny has less than altruistic motives in taking her there. Again, "On Milligan Street" isn't a particularly complex or dense story, but it throws interesting characters into a compelling, action packed scenario, and I found Dorothy an easy character to like (fear of heights and all).

FIYAH Literary Magazine, Issue 17

The feeling of awkward, overthinking anxiety leaps off the page in Kel Coleman's "Delete Your First Memory For Free", where a group of friends visit a memory deletion clinic (why? because they're young, and they're looking for something to do. No further reason necessary). Protagonist Devin walks around with a litany of intrusive moments from fucking things up with various acquaintances, including their crush Fatima, and the memory deletion offers an opportunity to figure out what life might be like for them without the weight of those memories. The technology of this near future world - with its slightly evolved social media and of course the memory deletion itself - is well realised, and the process of memory deletion and the way it affects Devin's first person narrative is really well done, introducing the unreliability of their conclusion in a subtle but clear way. I left the story really hoping the best for poor Devin, who definitely deserves nicer things. Also on the "deserves nice things" list is the protagonist of "The Techwork Horse" by M.H. Ayinde, a lowborn woman in a world where only the highborn know the language to control technology, and humans are at war with the (apparently also techwork) feverborn. Bola lives near a "broken" horse, who she visits and spends time with throughout her life despite not being able to ride or communicate with it. Bola's commitment to her horse, despite the lack of understanding from literally everyone else in her life, is hard to read at times, but I was very happy to have stuck with it to get to that end.

Also within this issue are two horror stories, though of quite different types. "All in a Day's Work" by Jade Stewart is a satisfying, pulpy action story about a freelance demon slayer (freelance because they prefer to work alone, obviously!) and their team-up with a member of a coven for a big job. I'd happily spend a whole book with Walker, who is a smart talking nonbinary delight of a protagonist, perfect for this story, and there's a lot of interesting bits of worldbuilding about the slayer world, interspersed with some good solid does-what-it-says-on-the-tin demon slaying. Meanwhile, "Baby Brother" by Kalynn Bayron tells the story of Morgan, whose baby brother changes following an accident that they were both involved in, straining their family's relationships. There's a somewhat predictable twist to this one, but the atmospheric telling makes it worthwhile even if you figure out early on where it's going.

Questing Elsewhere

Fantasy Magazine Issue 71 is another excellent issue: It begins with a weird but heartwarming (and very queer) story of transformation in "Sounds for Crustaceans" by Addison Smith, and ends with a creepy transformation of a different kind in "An Arrangement of Moss and Dirt" by K.P. Kulski. I also really liked Mark S. Balien's catalogue story, "Lost Portals", which is about portals that close or become obsolete, and which combines the catalogue itself with the story of the person creating it in a really engaging and powerful way, delivering a powerful gut punch in the middle of a story that's already all about loss.

In Mermaids Monthly's August Issue, space mers make a welcome reappearance in "Twenty Thousand Last Meals on an Exploding Station" by Ann LeBlanc, where a woman who has been augmented into a mermaid, despite the change inviting discrimination from others on the space station (there are very strong, intentional parallels to the trans experience here), is trapped in a time loop which only she is aware of, and which ends each time with the station exploding. Having done all she can to try and stop the disaster, Riles has given up and is now using her three days to try every restaurant on the space station, when her sister unexpectedly shows up in one of the loops and starts making things more difficult, in the kind of way that only family can.

This column wouldn't be complete without a bit of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and while the selection I read this month included some intriguing historical fantasy reads ("What the Wind Saw" by Evey Brett and "A Bird in the Window" by Kate Francia) the one that I really want to highlight is "In Case You're the One to Devour a Star" by Tamara Jeree, about a woman who is part of the Fire Keepers, people who work with dragons for the knowledge they provide, at huge cost to their health and lifespans. Jeree's protagonist travels away from her home to find a partner, and the story opens with her meeting her wife-to-be and chronicles their relationship from that point. The power of this story comes in how the protagonist's illness is treated: there's no quest, or bargain, or anything her lover can do to change her eventual fate, and the narrative is instead about how the two of them build a life and memories with the time they do have. It's quietly heartbreaking and totally wonderful.

 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