Thursday, December 23, 2021

Questing in Shorts, December 2021: Winterval Edition

So, uh, where were we? My notes tell me I managed four half-sentences of reviewing for a November column before getting distracted, and that I haven't tried to review anything else since then, and this tracks with the very large reading-shaped hole in my memory (and the correspondingly large "replaying Breath of the Wild and doing a lot of other nonsense" entries). But today happens to be a significant milestone in my personal progress through time (i.e. it's my birthday, go say nice things to me), and in keeping with tradition in some parts of the world, I am here to offer you a gift. By which I mean, here's a short fiction column! It's a bit small this month, but it still contains good things! Welcome.

This being the end of December, I'd like to be able to offer some form of reading statistics or a year in review or something. Unfortunately, the choice is between not worrying about those things and doing this column regardless; or worrying about them, not doing them, not doing anything else, and not writing. If you're reading this, you know I stuck to choice 1, and the world is richer for it. Statistics are for nerds, anyway.

From the Bookshelf:

Let's kick off with anthologies! Tis the season I finally got around to reading Sunspot Jungle Volume 2, the second half of Rosarium Press' excellent, wide-ranging survey of genre. Editor Bill Campbell has picked out a set of stories from a whole host of the best current speculative fiction authors: Rebecca Roanhorse's award-winning Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience is in here, as are stories by Ken Liu, Sheree Renée Thomas, Bogi Takács, Nalo Hopkinson, and far, far too many other exciting names to list here. It's a really good collection, and I'm not going to go into picking favourites, but I will pick out two fun reading experiences. First, I enjoyed rediscovering The Language of Knives by Haralambi Markov, a story I loved enough the first time around that it went on the first Hugo ballot I ever submitted (2016, what a year!). Markov's story of grief and ritual combines powerful emotions with an intentional, razor sharp use of body horror and taboo, and the result is something that has stayed with me very strongly. Second, I got to find out that T.L. Huchu's The Library of the Dead had a short story in the world first!  I really like the premise of this world and its Ghostalkers, and it's always fun to find out that there's more in a world that you haven't experienced.

I also read Vampires Never Get Old: Tales with Fresh Bite, a YA vampire anthology! This is not a particularly common reading area for me, but there's always interesting potential in vampire stories, and as I had picked up the anthology to read SCKA finalist "In Kind" by Kayla Whaley, I wanted to check out the rest of it as well. There's some really strong stuff here, all digging into that intersection of power and sexuality and rules that do or don't keep us safe that is well served by both vampire literature and YA more generally. In Kind is a particularly great piece of writing, about Grace, a disabled girl left for dead by a caregiver father who then turns her death into a national campaign in which he is the victim because caring for her was difficult. This being a vampire anthology, Grace gets to become a vampire rather than die as a victim of caregiver violence, and with the help of her sire, Seanan, returns to take control of her own narrative from her father. We should totally also talk about "Mirrors, Windows and Selfies" by Mark Oshiro, a story in blog form about a teen vampire raised in isolation by controlling parents who insist there is nobody else like him, and that they'll be killed for revealing his existence, and "Vampires Never Say Die", by anthology editors Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker, which is a wildly enjoyable story about a teenage Instagram influencer who strikes up an online friendship with New York's president of vampires (right?), and throws her a very ill-advised birthday party. Because vampires need pocket friends too, you know?

Apparition Lit, Issue 16

A new-to-the-column publication! Apparition is a quarterly speculative fiction magazine that came highly recommended over the course of my conversations with a fellow British Fantasy Award juror. I'm always happy to make space in my already bursting-at-the-seams magazine folder (cries) for another publication, and I was pretty impressed with Apparition's offering of fiction, poetry and non fiction.

There's some very cool weird stuff in here, notably "Cocoon" by Atreyee Gupta: a story about a woman's slow, strange transformation into rock while exploring a cave, her thoughts about impending death combining with reflections on caving, her former partner and their divorce. It's creepy and bleak, and probably one to avoid for anyone with a strong aversion to horror that plays on claustrophobia or being buried alive - but a really impressive story. Lavender, Juniper, Gunpowder, Smoke by Alyson Grauer is a painful but, in its way, very cute story about Marie, a high school witch being bullied who ends up summoning her first magic in the form of a candle wax dragon that comes to school with her and causes gradually more problems throughout the day. It's a pretty straightforward story about handling emotions and becoming resilient in the face of other peoples' opinions, and I appreciated its focus on Marie's journey and her excitement for her own potential in a way that isn't really relevant to her bullies, even as I might have liked to see some real comeuppance on that side of things.

Finally, I have a soft spot for secondary world god stories, and Apparition had me covered with A Home For the Hungry Tide by Alexandra Singer: in which Tailwind, a minor god, is tasked to drive a ghoul away from a nearby town, only to be drawn into a conversation with her as she challenges him on her right to survival, and even more importantly to ensuring the survival of her baby. It's a story that goes in unexpected directions, and the character voices at the heart of it -  pompous, heroic Tailwind and the no-nonsense ghoul - are entertaining and brilliantly written. Excellent stuff.

Questing Elsewhere

I had high expectations for Martin Cahill's The Fifth Horseman, in Fireside's October 2021 issue, after seeing Twitter recommendations for it, and wow, this story does not disappoint. Its the story of the youngest sister of War, Pestilence, Famine and Death, who comes after her siblings and visits the few things remaining in an apocalyptic world after their devastation has been through. It's packed with grief, and the bitterness of endings, and the ways that we can be kind in those spaces anyway, and it's wonderful and heartbreaking to see the combination of the fifth horseman's work itself and her musings about always being behind her siblings, her loneliness and wish to be known. You have to read the story to learn what Cahill calls this fifth horseman: all I'll say about that is it really, really works.

"Traces" by A.E. Decker, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue 328, deals with a man who appears to have been captured in a fae realm by a "master" who buys memories from humans and keeps Chaser's in a box inside his coat. When he is called on to track a woman whose husband has sold the time he "owns" with her, Chaser instead becomes invested in breaking his master's hold and helping her to escape, but that escape plan also involves regaining his own memories and leaving his current identity behind, a result which he becomes more and more apprehensive of as the story progresses. The story does a great job of making Chaser's character compelling, and despite the horrors of his memory-less situation, making his choices to remain as who he is now and not return to a previous version of himself sympathetic and believable.

Finally, let's talk about Uncanny Issue 38, which contains the highly entertaining "Femme and Sundance" by Christopher Caldwell (a gay Black man and his new lover commit magic crimes and then go on the run from the magic police), the highly creepy "Tyrannosaurus Hex" by Sam J. Miller (at a fancy parents' brunch, an older kid checks in on what their younger friend is watching on his VR implants and discovers a very unpleasant procedurally generated world that his parents have no idea he's immersed himself in), and the highly feels-inducing "A House Full of Voices is Never Empty" by Miyuki Jane Pinckard. Pinckard's story is about two second generation immigrant sisters, one of whom still lives in a house packed with hoarded possessions that she hears speaking to her and that keep her company even as her family leave, and its a powerful take on heritage and what we hold on to through grief and change, with a much happier resolution than I dared hope for. It's rare I am disappointed when sitting down for an issue of Uncanny, and this one certainly delivers the goods.

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