November 11, 2021

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup for October, 2021

 


The art for this month's roundup includes a detail of Maurizio Manzieri's cover for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction November/December 2021. More about the artist: https://www.artstation.com/manzieri

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:

Broad Dutty Water by Nalo Hopkinson in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

Hopkinson's story is a marvel of adventure, action, humour, near future science fiction, climate change scifi, and cyberpunk. It's set in a future where many of the world's cities have been drowned by the rising oceans, and where making a living, and living!, is made harder by climate change. The main character is a headstrong and resourceful young woman named Jacquee, and there is an opinionated pig named Lickchop, various (useful and maybe glitchy) wetware implants, and a very dangerous flight. Make no mistake: this is no grimdark post apocalyptic world. This is a world where life might be hard, but it's also full of people finding new ways to live, incorporating technology and science into their communities, and people working together and caring for each other and the Earth. I wanted more more more of both Jacquee and Lickchop after reading this, and I can only hope to meet them again in another story.

A Vast Silence by T.R. Napper in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

A tense, taut cyberpunkish thriller that starts off with a man and a woman sharing a ride and then turns into an riveting life-and-death chase through a stark Australian landscape, with danger and death lurking at every turn. There's espionage, murder, and high tech shenanigans and this story just kept me on the edge of my seat throughout.

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Stronger
, by K.J. Parker in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

They say he’s nine feet tall with the body of a man and the head of a bull, unimaginably strong, perpetually hungry. He ate the whole complement and crew of the first of their ships. They shot arrows and threw spears at him, but he barely noticed. Only when he’d quite finished cracking the bones for the marrow did he turn his head and look at the rest of them. The calculating expression on his face they put down to mental arithmetic.

So they made a deal. He would leave them to themselves, provided they fed him.

A wicked sharp take on an old myth. While monster, the minotaur, does not appear until the end of this story, its presence looms large throughout the tale. It takes place on an island where one people has been subjugated by another, and where every year, the population has to send some citizens as tribute to a monster. One young man has lost his mother this way, and has hatched a scheme to find out what really happened to her. I love the worldbuilding in this tale, I love the characters, and I do so very much love the ending.

The Burning Girl by Carrie Vaughn in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Mother Ursula ruled the abbey of St. Edith, but she bowed her head to this young man, deferential. He spoke to her in Latin. I recognized two words: puella incendiara. The burning girl.

At a gesture from Ursula, one of the nuns ran back to the hall and returned with an unlit candle, one of the big beeswax ones used to light the chapel sanctuary. I knew what this meant: these knights had demanded a demonstration. At the sight of that candle, I nearly cried. I did not understand, did not want to understand, but I knew what was happening.

Ursula held the candle to me. “You must show Sir Gilbert what you are.”

I adore this fierce and fiery story by Vaughn. It's set during what might seem on the surface to be the Norman invasion of Britain, with the Saxons being beaten badly by the invaders, but there is magic and strange forces at play that certainly have not featured in any history book. Our narrator, Joan was placed in an abbey as a small child because of her strange power over fire. But when Sir Gilbert comes to claim her, threatening to destroy the abbey if Joan does not come with him, the abbess lets him take her away. As it turns out, Sir Gilbert is not the cruel master Joan feared, but rather, he's gathered a group of people with strange abilities, and they are helping William the Conqueror. However, things don't exactly go the way Sir Gilbert had hoped... Fabulous, gripping alt-history fantasy.

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Anomaly by Chelsea Obodoechina in Anathema

After a serious accident, and after almost dying on the operating table, Jane is suffering from crippling headaches. The doctor she sees tells her its stress, that there's nothing really wrong with her, and no one seems to be taking her problems or her pain seriously. Instead of helping, they offer condescending advice and subtle (or not so subtle) put-downs. Obodoechina makes us feel Jane's frustration vividly, and then slowly unravels Jane's reality, revealing the true nature of what is happening to her. It's a sharp and fierce story where the horror of how people treat Jane is worse than the strangeness that is happening to her, or maybe transforming her. And when Jane finally goes beyond the pain, she finds a new power there. 

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Flight 389 by Jon Padgett in Nightmare

This time I will definitely die, Jeffords thinks. He feels that this conscious thought affords him a certain immunity from such a fate, though logically he knows that’s nonsense.

A great horror story that tightens as a vice. It starts out as a story about a man on flight and we realize immediately that he is expecting disaster to strike at every moment. At the same time, there's also an unease, or even a feeling of terror, lurking beneath the usual worries a person might have about flying in an airplane. Slowly, as Padgett unravels the story, we realize what is actually occurring. Fantastic writing, blending the everyday horror of the fear of flying, with something more deeply terrifying.

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Something Aquatic. Something Hungry. by Corey Farrenkopf in Necessary Fiction

The Misguided Merman lay on the quarried stone of the breakwater, orange hull tilted to the sky, rigging trailing into low tide mud. A halo of gulls orbited. The smell of a week’s old catch tainted the air. James recognized his uncle’s fishing boat from a distance as he jogged near the wharf on Commercial Street in Provincetown, sweat slicking his t-shirt to his chest.

Oh, this is such a deliciously twisted story of life near the ocean, with the sea at your doorstep, and the secrets that might lurk below the surface of a man's life, and below the surface of the water. When his uncle's boat turns up in the harbour after being missing, James goes looking for some answers and what he finds is something that is maybe best left alone.

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Memoranda from the End of the World by Gene Doucette in Lightspeed

[For internal use only]

RE: YOUR COMPANY-ISSUED BREATHING APPARATUS

Attached, please find your personal company-issued Breathing Apparatus, for immediate use within all corporate campus unfiltered air locations!

This includes all outdoor locations, such as: the parking lots; the parking garage; the smoker’s hut; the paths between the buildings; the shuttlebus waiting area; the tennis court; and the corporate golf course. It also includes a limited number of indoor locations, such as: the shuttlebus; any area listed as “Under Construction”; and the employee bathroom on level two in the north wing of building H.

Equal parts harrowing and hilarious, Ducette tells the story of a terrible and quite unexpected apocalypse, as it is happening. The story is told through announcements and emails and other forms of communications and it's done with such panache and so much sly, dark humour that you cannot help but chuckle (somewhat guiltily) at every step into further horror for humanity.

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Litany in the Heart of Exorcism by Sarah Pauling in Flash Fiction Online

Do you understand?

On your skin, do you feel the white sand the priests threw in fistfuls from the blessing-basin? Do you feel it crusting over your eyelids? It sticks between your cheek and the temple floor like a binding. It powders the sigils on the stone.

A twist on the usual exorcism tale, this is a raw and sharp story about a woman undergoing an exorcism to rid her of the demon that everyone believes has invaded her body and mind. But as the interior dialogue within the woman unfolds (or rather: the interior dialogue between her and the demon bonded to her) we realize that she is no mere hapless victim of an evil spirit. No, what's happening here is something much more complex and tragic. Wonderfully evocative and powerful prose. 

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The Trumpet Player by Nicole Givens Kurtz in Fiyah

In its latest issue, Fiyah takes on the theme "Love, Death, and Androids" and the issue is full of great stories that put new twists on the future of artificial life and artificial intelligence. In this story, a trumpet playing bot named Jazz is looking for a place to make music with other bots, while also dealing with humans who have low, or downright terrible, opinions of bots. It's a quiet and profound story that deals with bigotry and everyday acts of resistance. I say it's quiet, but it's also vibrating with tension and conflict, and I love how it imagines music as an expression of individuality, community, and freedom in more ways than one.

Performance Review by Maryan Mahamed in Fiyah

Mahamed gives us the devastating story about Slip, a robot (similar to an Alexa or Siri unit) who thinks too much and too deeply, and thus ends up failing test after test, and getting rejected and returned by most of the humans who end up owning him. Slip enters each home, each situation, hoping to be able to figure out what is expected of him, hoping to find a way to fit in, and yet no one seems to appreciate his complex thought patterns, since they do not appreciate that he might be more than they believe he is. There's a deep sense of sadness and loneliness to this story, and the depiction of a robot experiencing grief (and getting rejected for that too) is brilliantly explored here.

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Happy Trails by Theodore C. Van Alst, Jr. in Apex Magazine

I love this raunchy, raw, and rousing story about Coyote, being absolutely out of his head drunk, and wandering around the streets on Saint Patrick's Day. He's even too drunk to switch to human form, which is causing him no end of aggravation. In the end, chaos follows Coyote on his happy trails, and the ending is a truly spectacular blow-up. This story is part of Apex' #126 with special focus on Indigenous creators.

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Bespoke Nightmares by Carolina Valentine in Strange Horizons

The sign on the door said Dreams Not Sold Here, and I mostly stuck to it. Dreams were extensive and exhausting projects, not to mention expensive. Nightmares, on the other hand, were quick. On a good day, I could stitch up a hundred off-the-rack ones: 

Crafting nightmares is the business of this story's protagonist, and she tries to make it abundantly clear to all potential customers that dreams are both difficult and extremely expensive to make. But some people won't take no for an answer, and if they are very rich, they may also be used to get whatever they want with their money. When such a person comes to the shop, the crafter of bespoke nightmares makes him a dream, warning him that dreams don't usually turn out the way you thought they would. Valentine's story is a wonderfully dark slice of beguiling fantasy, and the crafting of dreams and nightmares adds a luscious, rich texture to it. And the ending, well... he was warned.

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Fiat, Fiat, Fiat by Eliot Fintushel in The Dark

Oh, what a terrifying and twisted tale this is. Benjy grows up with Albert. Albert who is his friend, sort of, but who is also a deeply frightening child that is getting his hands bloody with all sorts of misdeeds even in elementary school. When Albert's family members begin to die, Benjy realizes that Albert is buying himself new powers from someone or, maybe, something, and tries to stop him the old-fashioned way. A chilling story about evil and childhood, and about what may linger even when you think you've defeated the evil.

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Open Highways by Alexis Gunderson in The Deadlands

A beautiful, wistful story about ghosts, and about the possible religion of rabbits, from the October issue of The Deadlands. Here, the ghosts haunt the highways, appearing in the protagonist's car for only a moment or for a brief stay. Each encounter is vivid, yet dreamlike, and often the ghosts ask the protagonist to pull over, to stop for a while with them, but what might happen if you stop on the side of the road with a ghost? What would befall you then? The answer to that question is not what you might expect. It's a hauntingly gorgeous story, and one that made me consider not what we might have to fear from a ghost, but what it is a ghost might need from us.

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The Children Will Lead Us by Andrew Kozma in Mythic #17

I am a recruiter of children between two and four, no older because they only last a few years before piloting burns them out.

In Kozma's eerie and unsettling story, spaceships are able to travel faster than light through space because it is piloted by a child with a brain pliable enough to allow them, with the use of technology, to "fold" space. The children are only useful for a few years, then they age out, and are often so profoundly changed by the work that their families do not want them back. In the story, a ship has returned from its scheduled trip, but the entire crew, except for the child pilot, is gone. When the investigator / recruiter arrives to interview the child and try to figure out what happened, he discovers that the fabric of space and time, reality itself, might be a lot more pliable than he thought. I really love the ominous vibe of this story, and the way it explores what humans are capable of doing to each other, and to children, in the name of progress and profit.

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The Promise of Iron by Benjamin C. Kinney in Kaleidotrope

Eszter pressed her forehead against the narrow window, watching the war-engines roll down the boulevard. The thirty railless cars progressed in perfect synchrony, shaking the tenement floorboards beneath her feet. She stared down at the stubby barrels of cannon, the smoked-glass lenses of eyes, and the mane of pistons emerging from each pressure engine. She wished the machines would pause there, beneath her window, where they seemed close enough to touch. But the automata continued their implacable roll southward, beyond her reach.

I love this story about a girl called Eszter who is trying to survive in a Jewish ghetto with war on the doorstep and troops marching in the streets, in a world where the armies are not made up of just people but also fearsome automatons. Eszter has a knack for, and a keen interest in, working with automatons, and is hoping her skill might help her and her brother survive. But when her brother disappears, things quickly go from bad to worse and Eszter has to be both ingenious, brave, and lucky in order to make it through. It's a story about resilience and resistance, and about loyalty and trust -- things that are hard to come by in this world. I love the intricate, yet effortless world-building, and characters that pop off the page and make you want more. 

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Obstruction by Pamela Rentz in Fantasy Magazine

Confession: this story about Nellie, a supernatural being or deity or spirit, who left her home and finally returns to the place she left behind, had me crying in a public place. Nellie is Karuk, Native American, but she chose to leave her home and everything she knew behind and travel the world, rather than disappear when the world changed centuries ago. When she finally goes back, she finds the place both the same and fundamentally altered. She also finds a TV crew shooting a show called “Wild River Ultimate Warrior Challenge!” right in the river she's dreamed of all these years. A subtle, powerful story about belonging, about the allure of both leaving the place you're from, and the ever-present pull of returning. To quote Nellie: 

"Leaving wasn't a mistake. But staying away so long was."

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Bright Lights Flying Beneath The Ocean by Anjali Patel in Escape Pod

A profoundly moving story about two siblings, separated by political and societal forces beyond their control. One sister is a scientist and is trying to find a way to reunite with her sister. There's such a deep and dark current of sadness running through this story, the sadness of being separated from a person you love, a person you want, need, to see again, but can't get to because the world is a mess. The idea of people separated by emigration, by political barriers, by time and space... all that is beautifully captured by Patel. 

"Tasha, when I figure this out, I will become light and flash through the cables to find you, and when I do, you will become light, too, and I’ll bring you back with me. For an infinitesimal fraction of time, we’ll both be bright lights flying beneath the ocean."

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Personal note: this roundup was recorded after the death of our citron-crested cockatoo Cheeko. She was a beautiful, gentle creature and I miss her more than I can say.



 

November 9, 2021

16 story picks in honour of Anathema's IndieGoGo campaign

(I also posted this special flashback short story roundup on my Patreon.)

Anathema: Spec From the Margins is one of my favourite SFF zines and right now they are running an IndieGoGo campaign, raising funds so they can keep publishing more great work by Queer/Two-Spirit POC/Indigenous creators.

My short fiction recommendations for this week is 16 stories from Anathema over the years. Read some great speculative fiction, and help support more work:


You should also read the magazines latest issue: The Africa Issue. Cover Art: "Confessions", by Mikoto.

The stories!

Before Whom Evil Trembles by Nhamo

You are the kind of ballerina whose whispers paint red the sky under which you sleep. The kind who stays behind and rides the air long after everyone else has gone home to rest.You are the kind of ballerina who does not know rest.Because it is the only way out of this room, and you have to get out. You have no choice.

Nhamo's story is a masterpiece of lyrical, evocative prose and a story that is sharp as a razor. A ballerina with a harrowing backstory works herself to the bone in order to succeed in her chosen artistic profession. The memories of her past never leave her, and the world around her won't let her forget that they do not believe she fits in or belongs, or that she can become what she longs to be. And yet... below the surface, the ballerina has a strength that is only revealed at the utmost end. I love how this story weaves together memory, the power of ancient deities, and present day hostility.

Fossilized by Jessica Yang in Anathema

Yang tells us the story about what happens when Huayin's amah dies, and Huaying, eventually, hikes up the Tianran mountain where a god is said to dwell. "Fossilized" is a poignant, quietly powerful story about grief and family and language, and about the sometimes complicated bond between older and younger generations. It also ought to come with a warning: "this story will make you HUNGRY!" because the way food is described here (especially pork buns), is absolutely delectable.

Never Yawn Under a Banyan Tree, by Nibedita Sen 

Fair warning: there is so much delicious food in this story that it will probably make your mouth water. It is also wickedly funny as it deals with family, unladylike behaviour, sexuality, and a very hungry, and seriously food-loving ghost.

Eruption, by Jaymee Goh

What a fierce and fiery and deeply unsettling story this is, set in a society where the women once, not too long ago, made a hard choice, and carried it through to its sweet and bitter end. They changed the world, and were changed in turn. Beautiful, powerful, and heartbreaking.

A Complex Filament of Light, by S. Qiouyi Lu

Set in a frozen and forbidding Antarctica, this moving and aching story deftly explores anxiety, insecurity and depression, and how our sense of self, and our understanding of others, can be warped and distorted. There’s a strange encounter with an enigmatic presence in the icy wastes, and there are also powerful threads of light, hope and friendship woven into the story.

We Have Evacuated, Have a Good Day by Jendayi Brooks-Flemister

A story about a terrible storm, and a grandfather who lives alone and refuses to evacuate. I love how this story twists and turns through old memories, and through the grandfather's old house, as the storm worsens. There's a sense of something askew as we realize that the old man might have other things on his mind than just the wind and rising waters.

The Poet and the Spider, by Cynthia So

She peers down at you, her eyes fathomless and dark, and you feel a queer twang inside, as though someone is playing the guzheng between your ribs. You don’t think there’s any hope for you at all.

What a gorgeously written and exquisitely crafted story this is. Fairy-tale, fantasy, myth, romance and reality blend and twist together throughout this fantastic story by So. I was not sure where this tale was taking me, but I loved every step of the way there.

Death Comes To Elisha, by Iona Sharma

Death slumps on the table, head balanced on their elbows, and lets out an exasperated huff. I’m not here to collect.

Sharma’s story captures a mood and vibe that is both tender and sharp. We meet the fortune teller Elisha dealing the cards in Brooklyn, when Death comes to visit. “Does it turn out okay in the end?” is the question everyone wants Elisha to answer and the way that question is dealt with makes for a subtle, multi-layered and deeply moving story.

Tiger of the New Moon by Allison Thai

Hoa, a young woman trapped in a harsh life under her father's thumb, enters the woods and meets "Ông Ba MÆ°Æ¡i, Mister Thirty, the tiger with a taste for man’s flesh on every new moon". What follows once she meets that tiger is a monster tale that is also a love story. The horrors here are not so much of the beast's making, as of the humans in the tale. It's sort of a take on Beauty and the Beast, but also something much different as Thai blends fairytale and myth with the stark reality of being trapped in a situation you can't get out of... unless, perhaps, you have a tiger on your side.

The Future in Saltwater by Tamara Jerée

The god turned a soothing shade of black upon touching me for the first time and wrapped its eight suckered arms securely around my forearm. ----- The bulbous mantle of its body flattened as it sunk the needle of its beak into the soft flesh of my inner elbow. I winced.

In a world where the climate and the environment has been ravaged, a child receives a difficult quest from the strange, tentacled deity in the local temple. That might seem like a run-of-the-mill opening for a story, but here, things soon take a different and more harrowing turn than I expected as the child resists and even refuses the call. After all, it's not easy to just pick up and leave when you have responsibilities at home, including a sickly parent to care for. I love the rich and deep world-building that flows through this story, and I love how Jerée twists and turns the concept of quests and sacrifice here, ending up with a story that puts a new spin on the idea of a "chosen one".

There Are Ghosts Here, by Dominique Dickey

When Lucas’s and Louisa’s older brother Leo dies, it devastates their whole family. Another disaster soon follows, as their parents are killed in a car-crash. After that, the orphaned siblings grow up with their distant cousin Maisie and her family, but they never really come to terms with Leo’s disappearance. There is strange and unsettling magic at work right from the beginning of this story, and the way Dickey weaves together childhood, grief, death is masterfully done. And as we delve ever deeper into Maisie’s interest in, and power over, dead and buried things,  the story twists and turns in ways that makes it both deeply disturbing and profoundly haunting.

The Pull of the Herd, by Suzan Palumbo 

There’s a doeskin hidden in a cedar chest, and outside, in the woods beyond the town, deer-women slip their skins off together. Agni was once one of them, is still one of them, maybe. Except, she has never been able to slip the doeskin on as easily as the others. What a sharp and beautiful and aching story this is. When the herd is threatened, Agni faces some hard choices. Palumbo writes perceptively about how hard it can be to fit in, about being stuck between two worlds, torn by love and belonging on either side. About always feeling incomplete and full of longing, no matter where you go.

A House With a Home by Jon Mayo

Do you need a feel-good ghost story? One that’s somewhat unsettling at first, but then turns out to be life-affirming and even heartwarming? Well, look no further because Jon Mayo has written just the thing you need. This is a ghost story with a difference—with a ghost that does not want to murder or possess, but simply needs kindness and understanding (and maybe a video game or two).

Moses by L.D. Lewis

When she’s 12, Moses is bullied by a boy at school, and one day, he harasses her when she’s heading home with her younger sister Jordan. Moses lashes out, and suddenly, inexplicably, the boy is gone. No one ever sees him again, and Moses and Jordan are not quite sure what happened. Later, Moses serves in the military, fighting a war in a foreign country. There, she is confronted with the devastating reality of what she is capable of, and when she returns home, nothing is the same. This is a riveting, gritty story that follows Moses as she struggles to come to grips with her abilities and the memories that haunt her as she drifts through a life with Jordan as her only safe haven.

This is the Nightmare by Aysha U. Farah

What if you had a bot in your home that was supposed to take care of you, but you gave it your own flawed, problematic personality? And what if that bot wasn’t just able to walk around your house, and your city, but was also able to access your mind? That is just part of the premise of this tense and chilling story, part near-future science fiction and part psychological horror. Farah expertly builds the tension until you feel an abyss lurking beneath the protagonist at every step. In the end, reality and memory, and the cyberworld and the dreamworld, become almost impossible to tease apart.

White Noise by Kai Hudson

It starts out with something as mundane as a daughter giving her aging father a hearing aid. Then, it slowly descends into nail-biting terror, with a turn into edge-of-your-seat horror-thriller. What makes Hudson’s story stand out is how well it works on every level. The horror is firmly anchored in the real world, with perfectly captured details of family life: the joys and difficulties of intergenerational living the small indignities of aging; and the trials and tribulations of immigrants navigating a new country where people don’t always take the time to listen. Beneath that everyday surface, Hudson ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable levels. A definite must-read.

Anathema's IndieGoGo campaign has lots of great deals on subscriptions, some excellent swag, and even novel critiques!

 

October 27, 2021

Book review: The Hand of the Sun King (Pact and Pattern #1), by J.T. Greathouse


The Hand of the Sun King (Pact and Pattern #1), by J.T. Greathouse

The official My name is Wen Alder. My name is Foolish Cur.

All my life, I have been torn between two legacies: that of my father, whose roots trace back to the right hand of the Emperor. That of my mother's family, who reject the oppressive Empire and embrace the resistance.

I can choose between them - between protecting my family, or protecting my people - or I can search out a better path . . . a magical path, filled with secrets, unbound by empire or resistance, which could shake my world to its very foundation.

But my search for freedom will entangle me in a war between the gods themselves . . .

The Hand of the Sun King is a complex and beautifully written fantasy novel, the first in a series, about Wen Alder, a young man blessed with a great talent for magic and also a great talent for getting himself (and others) into trouble. We follow him from childhood as he tries to find his way in the world, navigating between the two main influences on his life: the Empire and its magic, represented by his father's side of the family; and the rebels who use an older form of magic and who oppose the Empire, represented by his mother's side of the family and in particular by his grandmother. (His grandmother is the one who gives him his other name, Foolish Cur, which describes him to a T for much of his life.)

These conflicted loyalties pull Alder in two opposing direction, and the defining struggle of Alder's life is his quest to not just find a middle way between the empire and the rebellion, but to find a different kind of magic between the two. As a child, he first learns his people's traditional magic from his grandmother. Later he ends up serving the Empire, honing his skills in the school of magic his father once attended. Though he is no blithe follower of the empire, his ambition still leads him to do the empire's work, even as he also continues to search for what he hopes will be a different magical path. In the end, Alder's choices have calamitous and violent repercussions for those around him and himself.

Greathouse creates a grand and intriguing world in this book. The depth and detail of the magic system, the various ways that people in the empire use and access magic, are fascinating. Many different peoples and many different kinds of magic exist under the rule of the emperor and I like how Greathouse describes a system of magic that reflects the political reality of colonization. The empire colonizes, uses, and abuses both people and resources to maintain and grow its own power and influence and they do the same with magic. Politics and magic are intertwined in ways that make Alder's quest a dangerous and radically political act on several levels.

On a personal level, beyond the politics, Alder is a person who is obsessed with magic and how to use it. He revels in it, loves it, obsesses over it and he is truly a powerful wielder of magic, though through much of the book, he has to learn the hard way how to use magic without destroying himself in the process. 

As good as Alder is at using magic, this is definitely not a simple story about One Good and Perfect Hero. One of the things I really appreciate about this book is that Alder is deeply flawed. His ambition and his pride often make him do rash, ill-advised, and even terrible things, hurting himself and others in the process. He has a hard time understanding just how frightening his power, and his personality, might seem to others.

Greathouse is an excellent writer, and I love how he gives us time to get to know Alder and his world, revealing the layers of the world, the characters, and the ways of magic, before ratcheting up the tension in the second half of the story as Alder and his existence are torn apart in harrowing fashion.  

The story ends with a mind-blowing bang that upends everything we've come to understand about the world so far. At the end we're also introduced to a new set of powerful characters, and I can't wait to see where Greathouse takes this story in the next book.

Buy The Hand of the Sun King.

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October 11, 2021

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup for September, 2021


The art for this roundup contains a detail of Julie Dillon's cover for Uncanny Magazine #42. More about the artist: https://www.juliedillonart.com/

For more recent short fiction picks by me, check out my latest Short Fiction Treasures column at Strange Horizons.

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:


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What Remains to Wake by Jordan Taylor in The Deadlands #5

If you read that Short Fiction Treasures column at Strange Horizons, which was all about speculative fiction that twists and turns fairytales and folktales into something new, you'll understand why I absolutely adore this evocative, strange, and chilling tale that is deeply rooted in the world of fairytales. Taylor's story is told from a place beyond death, and our point of view is a dead (or, almost dead) princess. Once upon a time, when she was born, a wise woman saw the terrible fate that awaited her. As such things go in fairytales, the wise woman knew the fate could not be avoided, but she tried to change the way it would play out. The result was not exactly a happily ever after. Instead, the result was a princess, buried in the woods, becoming part of the forest itself:

Spiders’ webs stitch shut her lips. Dirt weights her eyelids. Her hair has long turned to mold and leaves. The forest shifts around her, cycling through the seasons. She thaws. She freezes.

She sleeps.

Her roots tangle with those of the trees.

It is a dark, yet luminous, magical tale, and another outstanding piece of fiction from The Deadlands.

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If the Martians Have Magic by P. Djèlí Clark in Uncanny Magazine

Martian invasion stories is a classic subject for science fiction. Here, Clark uses it to spin a tale that blends political intrigue, spiritual and magical connections, and the complexities of alien-human communication into a riveting adventure. We find ourselves in an alternate version of  Marrakesh where Minette, a Mambo, used to negotiating with the powerful loa, is trying to find a way to broker a deal that will ensure the life, and freedom, of a group of Martians, left behind on Earth after the third Martian war. Clark is a master storyteller, creating vivid characters that must navigate a complex world where magic and technology are interwoven. I love how he draws you in to the tale's rich, vivid world and also makes you feel that this world extends far beyond the edges of the story itself.

Mulberry and Owl by Aliette de Bodard in Uncanny Magazine

This is an outstanding new Xuya story from de Bodard. (You can read more about the Universe of Xuya on de Bodard's website, but the short intro is: "Xuya is a series of novellas and short stories set in a timeline where Asia became dominant, and where the space age has Confucian galactic empires of Vietnamese and Chinese inspiration: scholars administrate planets, and sentient spaceships are part of familial lineages".) "Mulberry and Owl" delves deep into the complex realities of friendship, love, loyalty, and revenge, as well as the often devastating personal costs of rebellion. The story intertwines two storylines, past and present. In the present, Thuá»· goes looking for a dreadful enemy in a remote and dangerous part of space. In the past, we follow Thuá»· before she lost her friend and companion Kim Lan, when they were part of a group rebelling against the empire. de Bodard writes a tale where the sense of grief and loss, and the desire for vengeance, are drawn with delicate precision, and I love how she captures the grand, dizzying scope of history, empire, and space itself in such an intimate story.

The Giants of the Violet Sea by Eugenia Triantafyllou in Uncanny Magazine

A gripping science fiction / murder mystery set on a distant planet where humans from the Mediterranean once settled after leaving Earth. Themis returns to the community where she grew up, the community where her mother still lives and where her brother lost his life while swimming with the mysterious sea-creatures called venedolphins. As she tries to uncover the truth about what happened to her brother, she soon realizes that secrets lurk everywhere, and that many things (and many people) are much different than she previously believed. One of the many things I love about this story is how it explores Themis's complicated feelings around family, community, and identity, and the way we can sometimes feel a great need to leave the place where we grew up in order to see ourselves, and those around us, clearly.

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Stones of Särdal by Karl Dandenell in Little Blue Marble

A quiet and resonant short story written as a presentation about a specific place on Earth-- in this case a building in a small community in southern Sweden--recorded to be included as part of the educational material on board a spaceship, headed away, far away, from our planet. I love the closeness and wistful vibe of this story, and the way it is both sweet and aching. Beautifully done.

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Your Brother’s Touchstone by Isabel Lee in Luna Station Quarterly

A gripping story about the bond between two siblings and the capricious magic that threatens to tear them apart. Phillip, the younger brother, can disappear, seemingly winking out of reality without warning, only to appear again in another location. His sister is aware of his ability, but hasn't told anyone else. After a conversation with her aunt, she realizes that her brother's abilities may be even stranger and more powerful, and maybe more dangerous to him, than she previously thought. I love how this story keeps the actual mechanics of Phillip's ability somewhat enigmatic, and I love how it depicts the love, and the secrets, that can exist in a family that seems "normal" on the outside.

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Black Wings, White Kheer by Rati Mehrotra at Podcastle (narrated by Suna Dasi)

Magic wings and magic food are two major parts of this beautiful story where a mother has to remember and deal with who she used to be, and who she might still want to be, in order to save her child. Mehrotra's story deftly explores the way motherhood sometimes seems to require that a woman sacrifices parts of herself in order to be a good mother. In the story, as in real life, that sense of needing to make yourself less than you are, safer and less complex, can come from outside or inside or both. It can be a powerful force and can make it difficult to feel like a whole person, no matter how much you love your family and your children. Mehrotra's story combines a sense of love and adventure with a darker streak and I loved that depth.

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Eating Opium From a Silver Cereal Box by D.K. Latta in Speculative North #5

One of the stories in a very good issue of Canadian zine Speculative North. We follow a man on a long, lonely space mission. He is all by himself, far away from Earth and everyone he loves. The story is split between his time on the ship, experiencing the harsh reality of being alone with nothing but a computer for company; and between his time as he signs up for the job, before he fully knows what it entails. A sharp and incisive sci-fi story.

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Every Next Day, by Rebecca Burton in Translunar Travelers Lounge

There's a brand new issue of Translunar Travelers Lounge in the world, and the whole issue is most certainly worth your time. That includes this wonderful story of family and identity and transformation by Burton. A mother disappears and the father grieves her passing as life changes for the child. At the end, there's a choice to be made, and I love how the story allows for the agony of that choice and the difficulty of finding your own way, and your own freedom, in the web of family bonds.

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A Girl Forages for Mushrooms by Ruth Joffre in Flash Fiction Online

After her parents' divorce, a girl splits her time between her parents, spending a lot of time with her father. She can see how hard his life is, how he's trying to find a new foothold in the world, how he is getting thinner, more unkempt. And then, she finds out he's kept one secret, close to the skin. A deeply resonant, lyrical, and ultimately darkly surreal piece about grief and loss that captures a child's view and reactions perfectly. 

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On the Spectrum by Justin C. Key in Many Worlds

In a society far in the future, a majority of humans are capable of telepathic communication, but not everyone is able to connect with others this way. These people are on the "Koinos spectrum" and can in some cases qualify for medical treatment in order to become "normal". Becoming part of the majority in this way seems both frightening and alluring to the narrator and his best friend. But what might you lose if you change such a fundamental part of yourself? And how might that affect the world around you? Key's story is deeply thought-provoking and it's part of an interesting new project spear-headed by author Cadwell Turnbull.

On Twitter, Turnbull called Many Worlds a short fiction project / writing collective, and "...a shared multiverse, co-created, co-owned, and co-governed by a collective of authors." More stories are forthcoming this fall!

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A Guide to Snack Foods After the Apocalypse by Rachael K. Jones in Diabolical Plots

A harrowing and unsettling story about two children trying to survive in a bleak and terrifying post-apocalyptic world haunted by monsters called "the Ganglies". The Ganglies emerge, whenever and wherever, literally from the shadows, to devour the bones of whoever gets in their way. Jones makes ingenious use of the list story structure here, and the list of snack foods the two children sample along the way is charming and occasionally revolting. It's a story that twists and turns and then twists again as the children try to figure out how to survive the Ganglies.

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Into the Sunset Eternal, by Tiffany Morris in Dose of Dread at Dread Stone Press

A sharp and jagged flash fiction tale of blood and sacrifice, and finding what you wished for in the most terrifying of places. Definite content warnings for self harm / suicide, but I really like how this story burrows deep into a place of personal pain and then drops the bottom out from under you as a gleam of cosmic horror peeks through.

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A Bird in the Window By Kate Francia in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

"When I sat at prayer, the angels laughed at me from the windows of the chapel. I wandered through my thoughts like trees. Behind every tree an angel waited. They winked at me until I lost the path"

A gorgeously crafted story, where a mysterious, veiled woman has been brought to an abbey and becomes an object of interest and speculation for the nuns and novices. Marguerite, who has been sent to live in the abbey by her family because of her "wickedness" forges an unexpected connection with the mystery woman, who turns out to be quite different than Marguerite had imagined. Marguerite's "wickedness" is that she is haunted by angels and visions. She sees angels everywhere, and they are a strange and often terrifying presence in her life. Much to her surprise, the angels also cluster around the newcomer, though she does not seem to be able to see them. Francia's tale is both beautiful and moving and it comes to a brilliant conclusion as the world, and the angels, seem to close in on both Marguerite and her new friend.

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Discontinuity by Jared Millet in Apex Magazine

A mindbending and dizzying science fiction story where a new way of faster-than-light space travel has been discovered. It's called "breaching", and while it works, it has some strange and frightening side effects. Those who travel space like this, risk losing their grip on their memories and reality, and some also suspect that reality itself is affected by the breaching. The story's protagonist, Lura Moraj, is piloting a spaceship on a vitally important mission, but her mind is becoming ever more troubled and fragmented as she breaches, again and again and again. As the story unfolds and we learn more about where Lura is going and why, we realize that what's at stake is something much bigger than just Lura's own sanity. It's a scifi story with a mysterious and grand vibe that gave me that awesome sense of vertigo I get from the best kind of science fiction.

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All Us Ghosts by B. Pladek in Strange Horizons

The ghosts in this story are not supernatural creatures, rather, they are the people who write and perform roles inside virtual reality worlds created for rich people. Hired by big corporations, the "ghosts" are often poor and disadvantaged workers, eking out a living by creating the "right kind" of relationships and life experiences for the adolescents of wealthy families, helping shape them the way their families want them to be shaped. Jude, one of the "ghosts", has been writing and acting out friendships and romantic relationships for Cam, and their connection has become deeper and more complex than Jude would like to admit. When some of the ghosts get together to pressure the company they work for to get better working conditions, Cam and Jude's relationship becomes even more complicated. A great story with excellent characters, deepened by the way it shows how social and economic standing can influence intimate relationships.

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The next two stories are from LampLight, and fair warning: I do have a story of my own in this issue. Maybe I am biased, but LampLight is a fantastic zine and this is a great issue, guest edited by E. Catherine Tobler.

No Blood of My Heart, No Breath of My Lungs, But Love by Stewart C. Baker in LampLight Volume 10 Issue 1

Being dead isn't so bad.

That is such a great opening line, and what follows is a darkly fascinating story about what happens when an old spirit awakens, deep in the bog where her body was once sacrificed by her community and sunk into the peat. Over the years, she has turned into a powerful presence and spirit with a deep love for those she was sacrificed to protect. There is darkness and death in this story, but things do take an unexpected turn as a new sacrifice is being brought to the bog.

To Escape the Hungry Deep by KT Bryski in LampLight Volume 10 Issue 1

As always, I'm a sucker for stories about siblings, and here, Bryski tells us a quietly devastating and terrifying tale of the bond between two sisters: one alive, one dead. When Cassie returns to the cottage near the lake where her sister drowned many years ago, she brings along her girlfriend and her guilt and all her insecurities about the past and the present. She has come back in an effort to put the past behind her, but deep in the lake, her sister has other plans. Bryski's tale expertly weaves together the fears haunting Cassie both in the murky waters of the lake and on land, in the cabin, with the woman she loves.

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September 29, 2021

Book review: THE CURSED TITANS (Tempest Blades #2) by Ricardo Victoria

 


The official book synopsis:

The triennial Chivalry Games have returned! After helping to destroy the Withered King, Alex and the rest of the group find out that saving the world has consequences. While he is secretly battling with depression and with the Alliance on the verge of collapse, a diplomatic summit and the Chivalry Games—to be held in the far off Kuni Empire—may give everyone the opportunity to turn things around. Alex builds a team to represent the Foundation in the Games, facing off against the best fighters in the world. When an ancient being tries to raise legendary nightmares known as Titans using the peace talks as a trap, Alex has to find a way to save everyone before it is too late. Alex must learn that he is not truly alone to save the world from the chaos of the Titans. In a world where magic and science intermingle, anything is possible. 

My review:

Just like The Withered King, the first book in Ricardo Victoria's Tempest Blades series, The Cursed Titans is an entertaining and action-packed blend of science fiction and fantasy, with a great sense of humour, an anime vibe, and filled with a group of great characters. Reading The Cursed Titans, I was struck by how well Victoria handles the large cast of characters: everyone has a backstory and distinct personality of their own, and everyone gets their own moments to shine. It's fun to read a story that features such a terrific group of friends, enemies, and frenemies.

There are a lot of fast-paced action sequences in the book, with the characters finding themselves in tight spots and having to finagle and fight their way out - usually by working together. I especially love how the magical weapons in the story, the various Tempest Blades, have a real mind of their own, and often display strong opinions about who should and should not wield them.

In the midst of monsters and mayhem, and a huge event called the Chivalry Games, Victoria explores some darker and more personal themes in this book, including anxiety and depression, and how difficult it can be for people to ask for help, and for others to realize they need help, when it might seem to people on the outside like they ought to be fine and able to handle everything being thrown their way. It's a nice touch to allow these characters, who often have outstanding fighting skills and wield astonishing magical weapons, to deal with real human problems, including mental health issues.

The importance of friendship is a crucial part of The Cursed Titans, with loyalties being challenged and strengthened through the story. I particularly like the bond between Joshua and Kasumi in this book. Joshua is dealing with some terrifying issues, like the fact that he isn't always entirely Joshua at all but rather a terrifying beast-like creature, and the people around him often treat him like a danger, a liability, and even a monster (and not totally without reason). In spite of that, Kasumi's friendship and loyalty is unwavering, and I really enjoyed reading about these two. 

Victoria has created a unique and rich world in his books where science fiction and fantasy mingle beautifully, and there is plenty of action and adventure woven into every part of the story. A solid, entertaining read with a grand cast of characters and a real human touch.

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Buy the book.

September 27, 2021

Read my latest Short Fiction Treasures Roundup at STRANGE HORIZONS


The theme for my latest quarterly column at Strange Horizons is "fairytales and folk tales". It's one of my favourite themes, and I've picked a pretty wide range of stories that do new things with old tales, or maybe tell new tales in and old style, or that just put a twist on the telling of tales itself.

Read my latest column.

September 11, 2021

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup for August 2021

The art for this month's roundup is a detail of Alejandro Burdisio's "Little Town"--the cover art for Clarkesworld #179. More here: https://www.artstation.com/burda

You can also listen to an audio version of this roundup on YouTube:



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A Hollow in the Sky by Alexander Glass in Interzone #290/291

The wasps were restless. Brother Mateo knelt down by one of the colonies – the one nearest the orchard, in the shadow of the monastery wall – and tried to understand what might have disturbed them. He wore no mask or gauntlet, only the storm-hued habit of his order, but the wasps let him be. They did not feel threatened, then. And yet the colony was singing, the keen plainsong of the vespiary.

This story is part of an excellent double issue of Interzone. Glass's scifi tale has wasps, a future monastery, memories, regrets, and space aliens. It feels like a fresh take on alien-encounter scifi, and I also love how this story has a very satisfying payoff where a very small choice in the beginning ends up having a major impact on the ending. I am a big fan of scifi stories with a focus on characters and people and relationships, like this one. By the way, it's well worth springing for this issue, not least because it's full of gorgeous artwork in addition to the great fiction.

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Immortal Coil by Ellen Kushner in Uncanny Magazine

Marlowe is going to outlive him. Of this, he is sure.

He has seen him on the streets of Blackfriars, of Southwark, in Bladder Lane, near Aldgate…

I am love this gorgeously crafted piece by Kushner. The prose is enchanting, and the story vivid and imaginative as we find ourselves delving deep into the lives (and deaths) of Kit (Marlowe) and Will (Shakespeare). Will is in his 40s and Kit, well, he's been dead for years, or so Will thought. Until the ghost of his friend appears, looking no older or worse for wear than the day he died all those years ago. Marlowe leads Shakespeare on a merry chase of sorts through the book stalls before they meet each other in earnest. And what he has to tell Will is that there is a choice, a bargain, to be made. This story reminded me of another favourite story of mine, one from ShimmerRapture, by Meg Elison.

The Wishing Pool by Tananarive Due in Uncanny Magazine 

I am a sucker for stories of how wishes can get turned around and twisted, and in Due's story, there is indeed a twist (or two) in how the wishing pool makes wishes come true. We follow Joy, who has come to check up on her ailing dad. He's not doing so well after Joy's mom passed away, and living alone in a rundown cottage in the woods might not be great for him. The cottage and the surrounding woods hold many childhood memories for Joy, memories both good and ... not so great, and the wishing pool beneath the oaks is one of the strongest memories she has. I love the eerie undertow to this story from the get-go, and I love the payoff at the end as we're left wondering what it might cost you to see a wish come true. 

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Candide; Life-, by Beth Goder in Clarkesworld

Seva sets her microenvironment to play the Overture to Candide on loop. The intensity of the first few measures is a roar that lifts her entire body. She conducts compulsively, her arm twitching in time to the music; she doesn’t care who sees her. When the main theme comes in, that soaring melody that runs up against the frenetic pace of the whole but is never swallowed, her heart feels like it is transcending her chest. This is music!

The third time through, she makes an emotion capture.

Goder's story deals with profound themes like art, creativity, and relationships. It is a quiet story, told in a deliberate and carefully crafted way, and there is so much going on beneath the surface of the prose. The way Goder lays bare the manipulative, dismissive cruelty some people employ to retain the power in a relationship, or to steal another's thunder, is brilliant. And the way this story talks about how art is crafted, how we find inspiration, and what the value is of the art we create, is inspirational and powerful. 

The moments of her life bleed into the work, creating an experience that is full of her memories and thoughts and feelings.

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Follow by T.R. Siebert in Future Science Fiction Digest

Anna follows the ghost across the galaxy, curled up into a ball inside her pod. She spends an eternity like this—drifting past stars and planets and the deep, never-ending void in between. Drifting, just in general. She sleeps little, thinks even less.

If she died like this, she wouldn’t even notice.

This science fiction story is haunting and wields so much emotional power, as it describes Anna's quest to find Neda, the woman who was her closest friend. Neda is also the scientist who designed the amazing nanobots that keep Anna alive as she travels through space and tracks her friend on planet after planet, through communities that were once full of life, but are now empty and abandoned. Siebert weaves together so much science and so much heart in this story, as we realize the urgency of Anna's quest, and just how wrenching and conflicted Anna is about Neda. Beautiful story, beautifully told.

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Where Things Fall From the Sky by Ally Wilkes in Nightmare

Spitzbergen, 1881. The whaling station stinks, metallic and rank, even though it’s slap-you-in-the-face cold.

David Grace—born and raised in the Welsh valleys—had thought he’d known cold. A thin layer of ice on milk left out overnight, his sisters tracing patterns in the frost on the bedroom windows. But the last few weeks in the Arctic seas have taken him somewhere entirely different.

A bone-chilling and downright haunting tale of what happens when a ship on an arctic expedition hauls up...something from the bottom of the sea. A meteorite? That's what it seems to be. We do know that it fell from the skies a Very Long Time Ago and ended up at the bottom of the ocean. No matter what the object actually is, once it's on board the ship, things start going wrong and people start dying and disappearing and changing. Wilkes fills this tale with a crew of flesh and blood characters that pop off the page and make the dread and the deaths even more harrowing. Powerful and unforgettable tale.

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The Screaming Tree by Clara Madrigano The Dark

A brother and sister head back to their old hometown to rectify a strange situation with the plaque for their grandmother at the family mausoleum. For some reason, the plaque they had placed there after she passed away has disappeared. But what they find is not so much a mystery, as a profound and ancient horror. Madrigano expertly builds an unsettling atmosphere and the sense of inescapable terror. And what a finale! An outstanding read. 

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The Eleventh Hour by Karim Kattan in Translunar Travelers Lounge

What I have come to realize is that I am not entirely what I think I am. Or rather, I am simultaneously here and elsewhere.

An utterly strange and utterly beautiful story about a person who has come to realize that they are not what they seem to be, and they have gained this insight during a mysterious epiphany, during the eleventh hour of the day, "...the hour of the lull. A properly impossible island of an hour." Kattan threads filaments of worldbuilding, of repressive history, of memory, of submerged identity into the fabric of this quietly shifting tale, and I love how vivid both the narrator and their world become as the reality of what has happened, and what is happening, becomes clear. A surreal beauty of a story.

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My Sister Is a Scorpion by Isabel Cañas in Lightspeed

My baby sister didn’t used to be a scorpion, but she is one now. I don’t know if that sounds weird to you, but it doesn’t to me, because right after my sister was born, Abuelita turned into a white crane and flew away. 

There's a child's logic running through this story in the way that the older sister sees things happening in the world that her parents do not see. Whether she sees true, or whether she is imagining things... well, that's for the reader to decide. Cañas captures the voice of the child perfectly in her prose, and also captures the stubborn conviction of a child that will not accept the grownups' version of reality, even in the face of death.

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What We Leave Behind Us by Rob Costello in The Wondrous Real Magazine

A ghost story about returning to the place where we grew up and finding the echoes, the lingering memories of childhood and adolescence, coming back to haunt us. Beyond the emotional power of this story, I am also fascinated by the visceral details included about cleaning mussels, about cooking, about food and remembrance. There is so much regret and grief here, mingling with the ghost and her visitor.

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Birding With My Human by Sylvia Heike in Nature

A quiet and beautifully crafted piece about Willa, a young woman, and her robot. They go bird-watching in the same place as Willa went bird-watching with her grandpa when he was still alive. Watching the birds and counting the birds and identifying the birds is easy enough for the robot, but on this day, the robot feels as if they've somehow upset, maybe even disappointed, Willa. Lovely flash with a contemplative vibe I really love.

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For Rain Is To Wet and Fire To Burn by Robert Minto in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

On the fortieth dawn of our loss, the angels came.

Set in a uniquely imagined world, with angels that differ from the divine and powerful beings we might expect, Minto's story is a nuanced and finely crafted tale about grief and loss, and about what we can do (if anything) to make it through the pain. I love the mysterious vibe of the angels here, and how Minto captures the isolation and intense emotions of a parent who has lost a child. While the narrator's wife finds solace in her faith and community, he is only enraged further by any attempts to find meaning in his child's death. A gorgeously wrought story.

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Morning by Diane Russell in Fiyah #19

An echo is a time traveler fucking with the past, and a clone is an echo of a person, a mind fuck to everyone who’d known the original. That’s what I thought when they brought my sister back from the dead, and I had to look at that face, blank and new and familiar, aged to the point where she had died, yet free from the scars of our childhood. 

Two sisters, or rather: a sister and a clone, face a challenging quest on the surface of a distant exo-planet. Both of them are dispensable to the powers that be, and the surviving sister finds it exceedingly difficult to deal with the genetic copy of her sister, even when they have to rely on each other in the harsh new world. I loved this story for its fierce voice and the way it captures a complex, and complicated, sibling relationship, while also giving the reader an acute sense of what the world these sisters inhabit is like.  

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I Wear My Spiders in Remembrance of Myself, by Kel Coleman in Apparition Lit

My earliest memory of the spiders is from preschool. I’m toiling over a pot of plastic spaghetti, and I look over my shoulder to ask the boy whose mom is friends with my mom if he wants meatballs with his serving. He’s building a wobbly tower out of wooden blocks, and our teacher kneels across from him making cutesy faces. She pats his head, and her fingers linger in his hair, squeezing and pulling at the dense curls.

A spider the size of a pea crawls from her mouth and drops to the floor like a black tear.

An amazing story that uses the appearance of spiders as a physical representation of the hurt and trauma, minor and major, that the characters encounter throughout their lives. Coleman uses this imagery, the idea of the spiders that appear and that will not go away once they've found you, so skillfully and with a poetic precision that is unsettling, devastating, and heart-rending. And in the end, Coleman also uses this imagery to tell a story about finding solace, finding love, and finding a way to live with the spiders in your life.

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The Failing Name by Eugen Bacon and Seb Doubinsky in Fantasy Magazine

What was his name? Alain, Divin, Rivlin, Yavan? At the time he told her, it was an unfailing name. She listened to its echo in the night breeze—such was her joy, she wanted to thunder with laughter. She raced to the river the next day and the next, but he never showed. Alain, Divin, Rivlin, Yavan was gone.

And then Jolainne’s mother gave her away.

This might be a short story, but it has the intricately layered feel of an epic as we follow Jolainne's fate after she throws a mango to save a young boy from being assaulted. She travels to Paris, she works hard, and is not treated well by any of the people she meets there, or any of the people she has to rely on. But there is magic and power in her, even so. An unsettling, disturbing story that is beautifully written.

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One Hundred Seconds To Midnight by Lauren Ring in Escape Pod 

A kaiju story like no other kaiju story I've ever read, this is a quietly devastating read by Ring. Here, the kaiju invasion and the horror and death it is causing play out almost in the background as the narrator waits for her plane at the airport. Much like the catastrophes we've seen play out in our own lifetime, the devastation doesn't end the world outright, rather, the terror of it seeps into everyday life and becomes a part of the news cycle, and occasionally, the reality of what is happening comes close enough to rip away whatever defenses we've built up. And when the kaiju in this story comes a-calling... well, the scenes at the airport are wrenching.

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To the Honourable and Esteemed Monsters Under My Bed by E.A. Bourland in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2021

It is hard to describe how delightful and funny and very sinister this epistolary story is. It's written as a series of letters from a child to the monsters under his bed, and they reveal the many terrible things that are happening, and have happened to him. As it turns out, those monsters are the least of his worries and may even end up helping him out. There's such an imaginative joy in the language and voice of this story, and I absolutely adore the juxtaposition of the dark subject matter revealed in the letters and the almost whimsical style of those letters. Brilliantly done.

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September 3, 2021

Book review: MALEFACTOR by Robert Repino

The official blurb:

Over a decade has passed since the ant queen began her apocalyptic war with the humans. In the aftermath, she leaves behind a strange legacy: a race of uplifted animals, the queen’s conscripts in the war effort, now trying to make their way in the world they destroyed. While the conflict has left deep scars, it has also allowed both sides to demonstrate feats of courage and compassion that were never possible before. And now, after years of bloodshed, the survivors have a fleeting chance to build a lasting peace.

But peace always comes with a price. The holy city of Hosanna—where animals and humans form a joint government—finds itself surrounded by wolves who are determined to retake the land. A powerful matriarch has united the rival wolf packs, using a terrible power harnessed from the Queen herself.

Soon, the looming violence pulls in those who sought to escape. The war hero Mort(e) suspects a plot to destroy Hosanna from within, and recruits a team of unlikely allies to investigate. Falkirk, captain of the airship Vesuvius, must choose between treason and loyalty to save the city. And D’Arc, sailing aboard the al-Rihla, learns that the wolves may have triggered a new cycle of life for the Colony, bringing a final reckoning to animal and human alike. Once reunited, the three outcasts begin a journey into wolf territory to face the last remnant of the queen’s empire. But while destiny has drawn them together, it may destroy them as well, for even love, courage, and honor may not be enough to stop the forces of destruction set to be unleashed on the world.



My review:

Malefactor is the spectacular finale to Repino's War With No Name series, and it is a harrowing, ferocious, and bitingly sharp tale that packs a real emotional punch, especially in its final chapters. 

If you're not familiar with the books, here's a quick intro to the world we find ourselves in: more than ten years ago, almost overnight, all the animals in the world that were once tame or wild or farmed, evolved into bipedal, fully sentient creatures capable of speech and conscious thought. Behind that transformation lurked a hidden enemy: an ant colony led by a formidable ant queen, hellbent on destroying all humans. After this Change, a terrible war began between humans and the animals they once dominated, and while the ant colony was destroyed (so it was thought, at least), the world was left broken.

Like all the books in this series, Malefactor is a wild, absolutely bonkers ride from start to finish. The rising threat of the united wolf packs, and the possibility that the ant colony has returned to wreak havoc on the Earth, means that every course of action is desperate and fraught with danger. Along the way there's a puppy in peril, giant fighter ants, a train fight/heist sequence that had me on tenterhooks, herbivores turning carnivorous, humans turning themselves into wolves, and, best of all: a combative, hilariously gnarly, odd-couple relationship between a bat and a beaver that made me laugh and broke my heart. 

The power struggles between (and within) the various wolf packs, and the machinations of the wolves' new human allies, provide some of the darkest scenes of the series (and that's saying something). It drives home the point that while the animals succeeded in throwing down the old world, it has not been possible to build a new world that is fit for anyone, human or animal, to live in. At least not yet.

We see this world through a few different points of view in this book, but the crucial ones, for me, are the the two main protagonists of the series: D'Arc (formerly the pet dog Sheba) and Mort(e) (formerly the house cat Sebastian). And while Mort(e) plays a big part in Malefactor, it is D'Arc that is at the center of the story. Her quest is intensely personal in this book as she finds herself lost at sea, then suffers a devastating loss, and finally has to fight to save her family and the fragile shared animal/human community of Hosanna. 

Throughout the books, the relationship between Mort(e) and D'Arc has been the heart of the story. From the beginning, they have been linked by the bond they shared even before the Change, back when they lived together as pets. While their bond isn't broken in Malefactor, they clearly have opposing views on how to live in this seemingly grimdark world. Mort(e), worn down and made ever more cynical by the years of strife and warfare, would rather withdraw and live out his days in whatever peace he can find away from the struggle. For D'Arc, leaving the fight to others is not an option. She still believes it's possible to overcome the old hatred and build something new: a society where humans and animals can live and work together.

As dark as this book may seem (and there are some truly bone-chilling moments here, one of which involves the deer turning on the wolves in a scene that will haunt my nightmares), there are gleams of light through it all. That light is there in D'Arc's dogged (ha!) determination to keep fighting for something better, even when it seems futile. And it's there in the loyalty and friendship that bind many of the characters together, even as the world seems to crumble around them.

This light is especially evident in the storyline that follows a bat and a beaver--enemies right down to the bone--on a madcap, seemingly impossible quest for freedom. Following these two characters, both deeply scarred and tainted by previous events, as they are thrown together by fate and necessity, provides some of my favourite scenes in Malefactor. They have both done terrible things for causes they thought were just. They have every reason to mistrust and hate each other, but they end up having to work together in order to save themselves and, maybe, the world. This storyline provides some darkly funny moments and some pivotal, emotional scenes as well.

In Malefactor, as in the earlier books in the series, Repino consistently returns to this theme: the importance of friendship, loyalty, and love between individuals as maybe the only source of hope of salvation in a world where brute force and extremist fervour seem almost impossible to defeat.

In my review of Mort(e) in 2016 I wrote: 

At its most basic, this is a tale of friendship and love. Mort(e) the (former) cat doesn’t believe in grand plans and prophecies. He fights and makes sacrifices in the struggle against the humans, but he is not loyal to, or motivated by religion or politics or ideology. He does believe in friendship and loyalty and love, because he has experienced those things: not with humans, but with Sheba the dog, before the world changed. Through every hardship and every battle, the memory of that sustains him.

While D'Arc/Sheba has in many ways left Mort(e) behind in Malefactor, and while they are separated for most of the book, I kept hankering for the moment when they would be brought together again. When they are finally truly reunited, Repino finds a way to pay off the emotional investment I've had in these characters and their relationship in a totally unexpected way that also felt absolutely, genuinely right. (And yes, it made me cry.)

Malefactor is an intense book, full of  brutal battles, daring escapes and rescues, heart-wrenching choices, terrible betrayals, and fragile hope. As far as I'm concerned, it's a must-read.

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