March 31, 2017

Monthly short fiction roundup – March, 2017


As usual, I feel like I didn’t read enough this past month. Just like my TBR-pile of novels and anthologies and collections is ever-growing, so is the list of short fiction I should be reading. Still, I did read a lot, and here are 15 fabulous stories from around the web.

The Worldless, by Indrapramit Das in Lightspeed. “Sometimes the starship looked like a great temple reaching to the sky. All of NuTay’s customers endless pilgrims lining up to enter its hallowed halls and carry them through the cloth that Gods made.” Every now and then you read a science fiction story that makes you remember exactly why you fell in love with the genre in the first place. This is one of those stories. It’s a story that deals with the small universe of relationships and love, while also creating a dizzying and believable, vast future-verse where humans can travel between worlds, but are still haunted by the all-too-familiar specters of poverty, oppression, and inequality. The language is inventive and evocative, the characters are original and complex, and the world-building is stunning. Breathtaking.

Come-from-Aways, by Julian Mortimer Smith in Lightspeed. “The fog brings the wreckage in, and it’s the wreckage of a space-faring civilization. Those are the local facts. There are various theories to explain those facts, and they depend on who’s doing the telling.” The visuals of this story had me gasping for breath. There’s a scene when the main character heads out into the mysterious fog in his boat, and ends up…well, let’s just say, somewhere other than the ocean. A mysterious and strange, yet oddly heartwarming read.

Dos and Don’ts, by Paul DesCombaz in Flash Fiction Online. “Don’t forget about the sense of taste. The creature certainly won’t. Do watch the creature lean over Esme’s body.” This story got right underneath my skin. The list of “dos and don’ts” is used very deftly to build tension and ratchet up the horror bit by bit. An excellent scare!

Stepping Out of Stream, by Marie Vibbert at T. Gene Davis’s Speculative Blog.  “The sound fills the space, fills my chest. It should rip tiles from the walls like a wire torn free. Beauty slides effortlessly off ear-buds and simulator-shades like water around salmon.” Vibbert’s science fiction short story is a vivid slice of life that drops you right into a near-future world where people avoid interacting with their surroundings, and other people, even when they literally bump up into each other on public transit. The prose is fluid and beautiful, and the story has vibe that is both wistful and hopeful.

LIKE/ NOT LIKE, by Natalie C. Parker in The Hanging Garden. “Good girls don’t curse, good girls don’t have sex, good girls don’t shout or drive fast or dream big. But the one that haunts you is this: good girls don’t use firegift.” A sharp and well-told story that deals with how society tries to shape, and often distort, how we judge ourselves and others. What do good girls do, and what are they not supposed to do? What does it take to be a good girl, and what do you have to give up, if you don’t want to be “bad”? I love how the story twists and turns the subject as the main character grapples with who she is, and what she can be. (Btw, if you’re on Tumblr, you should definitely follow The Hanging Garden!)

One Thousand Paper Cranes, by Julie C. Day in Kaleidotrope. “The brain is constantly rewriting memories and cutting off unnecessary neurochemical connections, allowing the next version of a person to step forward. Dried lizard skins. Caterpillars forgotten in a flurry of butterfly wings. People are never who they were before.” I really love this unsettling, strange, and dark story. I love good stories about sibling relationships, and Day captures the magic, and the love/hate bond really well. There’s darkness here, pain and violence lurking just below the surface, and the longing for something different, for the world to change. And then there’s the visceral horror of being changed, having society decide to change you, to make you “better”.

The Cold, Lonely Waters, by Aimee Ogden in Shimmer.  “In the end, it’s loneliness that drives the mermaids outward from Earth, not curiosity. But fear plays its part in the story, too, as fear always does.” Mermaids in space. I really don’t want to say more, except that: in this story, there are mermaids, and they are traveling in space. A must-read.

Balancing Act: Or, Things They Don’t Teach You in Circus School, by Christina Dalcher in Syntax & Salt. “His name will be Emil and he will walk the highwire as if he is one with it, swaying to a rhythm no spectator can feel, oblivious to the gasps and intakes of breath fluttering through the house.” A very short love story that is also absolutely heartbreaking. The prose is wonderful, and in just a few sentences, Dalcher brilliantly captures the characters, their romance and tragedy, and their circus-world, in piercing and illuminating detail.

Two Ways of Living, by Robert Reed in Clarkesworld. “The dog is what trips me. I don’t see it and suddenly I’m falling, somebody saying, “Bad bad,” and then I’m lying limp on the floor. “Sorry bad sorry,” her dog says.” That’s how Reed’s story starts, and since I’m a sucker for any story that involves dogs, I was a goner from the get-go. The main character is extending his lifespan using cutting edge technology, and he keeps running into the same woman and her (talking) dog over and over again. The relationship between the three of them is both touching, disturbing, and darkly hilarious. And that dog? I want to meet him.

Luminaria, by John Hornor Jacobs in Apex Magazine. “Victoria watches her. She is old enough, and changed, that her thoughts have become a wave front, many things moving at once across time: consideration for the woman before her, examination of the past, evaluation of the probable.” This is an exquisite story: a slow-burning, southern gothic tale that is mesmerizing to read. Right from the start you know there’s something twisted going on beneath the surface, and the slow reveal of what is actually happening as the main characters get ready for a very special birthday celebration is brilliantly done. Dark, ominous, original.

Waste, by Mary Elizabeth Burroughs in Apex Magazine. “I was born with a tongue, but the others were not. This is how it is: We who live on the edge of the Heap are different.” By the time I reached the end of this story, I had only one problem: I wanted to keep reading. Burroughs’ characters, living in a wasteland of garbage, refuse, and chemical waste on the outskirts of society, gripped me and grabbed me from the first sentence to the last. The hints of the larger world that surrounds them are intriguing, and I’m hoping there’s more where this came from!

Porcupine, by J.B. Park in Gamut. “He accomplished his tasks with a silent, dedicated fervor. The shovel in his hands, blisters breaking once more, a pale liquid running down its shaft. Things of that nature. The gun in his hand. Bury the bodies. Knife out, cut the rot.” A devastating story of war, death, and survival. There’s a strange creature in a cage, and while that creature might seem like some kind of monster, the real horror here is what human beings do to each other. This is a story that’s been stuck in my mind since I read it.

Seven Minutes in Heaven, by Nadia Bulkin in Nightmare. “A ghost town lived down the road from us. Its bones peeked out from over the tree line when we rattled down Highway 51 in our cherry red pick-up.” A brilliantly told story, that builds an increasing sense of unsettling, goosebump-inducing creepiness as the main character starts to uncover what really happened to her family and her town. Bulkin takes on ghosts and ghost towns, all well-used genre-fixtures, and gives them a very original spin.

In The Shade of the Pixie Tree, by Rodello Santos in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. “She feels the course of the venom, oozing towards her heart. There is a bone-shaking roar, as if she has been swallowed by a waterfall. Thunder booms, unending, above her and within.” This story starts as a rather sunlit fairytale, but a storm is gathering, and the tale twists ever darker as things go more and more awry. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I loved the fragmented timeline, and the way the structure of the story was actually a part of the story itself…

The Absolute Temperature of Outer Space, by Sandra M. Odell in Cast of Wonders. “He sets down his left hand, the rock crumbles, and he tumbles backwards in slow motion, head-over-heels. He lands on his back. The gash in his suit opens onto a gray and lonely nothing.” Loss, grief, and a child’s fear of moving to a new place (in this case, Earth) are beautifully captured in this story by Odell. The story captures both the raw feelings of missing someone who can’t come back, and the love and caring that can bring you back from the brink.

  (Originally published at

March 1, 2017

Monthly short fiction roundup – February 2017


I read a lot in February, it seems, but as usual I feel like I didn’t read enough: there are so many great stories out there, just waiting to be devoured. I’ve come to the conclusion, that if I could ever clone myself, I’d make one clone just for reading.

Anyway. Here are fifteen fantastic stories I read in February.

HEL 266, by Sara Rich in See The Elephant. “A thousand gigantic serpents slithered through the tops of the trees, catching her eye. Rustle. Shuffle. Hiss.” I love stories that start out solidly realistic, only to slowly but surely twist themselves into deep, dark horror, and that is exactly what Hel 266 does. It starts off as a scientific expedition to gather core samples from ancient trees, only to end up with visions of hallucinatory, existential, even biblical, terror. Vivid and terrifying, this story has haunted me ever since I read it.

Rockport Boys, by Megan Arkenberg in See The Elephant. “She’s not sure what it means, she says. Or maybe she’s too sure. Maybe she knows what she wants it to mean, and that’s what frightens her: not the knowing or the not knowing, but the wanting.” Arkenberg’s stories are always wonderful and evocative, and this one is no exception. A woman is telling the tale of a relationship, and of a place and time that she can’t quite let go of – or that won’t let go of her. There’s a sense that the people she met, and the very landscape they inhabit, are all shaped by a powerful and ancient malicious magic. The history of Salem and its witch trials, dreams, nightmares, visions, and memory, all these things are skillfully twisted together into a slow-burning, mesmerizing tale.

The Bells, by Lyndsie Manusos in Apex Magazine. “…I knew Bishop’s presence. He was like a plastic bag over my head. He knew every thought and everything I could, or couldn’t, feel.” In this tense and emotionally devastating story, there is a heavy presence of claustrophobic darkness and despair, though much of it moves just beneath the surface of the words. The marvel is the way Manusos manages to evoke that darkness and horror without explicitly showing us every detail of it. Even so, the weight of all the horrors we don’t see is crushing. This is not an easy read, but it is a masterfully crafted story and  absolutely worth reading.

How Bees Fly, by Simone Heller in Clarkesworld. “This is how you defend yourself against the demons of old, should they cross your path: You grind down their bones with a millstone and burn them; the ash you bury under a Blackwillow tree and salt the whole field where you happened to find them.” Heller’s science fiction story, set in an unidentified, alien landscape, is a masterpiece of deft world- and character-building. It describes an encounter between Salpe, midwife and tender of bees in her community, and two demons. The story is told from Salpe’s point of view, and Heller uses language in a very effective and skillful way to make the reader understand the world, as well as Salpe’s fears, hopes, and superstitions. By the end, Salpe is fundamentally changed by the encounter with the demons, and I found the story riveting from beginning to end.

London Calling, by Philip A. Suggars in Strange Horizons. “And then one morning she’d woken to the city’s voice. She didn’t mind that no one else could hear it.” London comes to life, quite literally, in this story; and a woman who is looking for a change, and to be changed, gets her wish, too. This story is sad and hopeful at the same time, and I love the aching weirdness of it. I also love how it deals with profound grief and loss, while still showing the hidden joys that life can bring us, when we least expect it.

A Nightingale’s Map of the City, by Suzanne J. Willis in Metaphorosis. “Julietta left the city long ago, much longer than Gustav cares to remember. So he holds the city close like a well-worn photograph, folded and re-folded and disintegrating with time.” The prose in this piece is so gorgeous that reading it is sort of like running your fingers through a treasure chest of the most exquisite gems and jewelry. Every word, every phrase, every sentence is a thing of beauty. The story itself is a strange and ethereal tale of love and hubris and memory, with the the giant Gustav haunting the city he once built for his beloved Julietta, now inhabited by mere mortals.

Zombies in Winter, by Naomi Kritzer in Persistent Visions. “The zombie plague lasted three weeks, and didn’t end civilization as we knew it.” A zombie story that is unlike any other zombie story you might have read or seen, Kritzer’s tale deals with the aftermath of the “zombie apocalypse”. What happens once the zombies are sort of defeated, but still live among us? What do we do with zombies that are our family and friends, and who can no longer take care of themselves? A truly original take, and so real it feels like this might have already happened…

Snow Devils, by Charles Payseur in Persistent Visions. “Before the Change snow devils were just pretty things, a breeze and a dance and nothing more. People used to say it was a spirit coming to say hi. Since the Change it’s another matter. The spirits have grown hungry, fat.” This is a lovely and very well-crafted tale set in a cold, post-apocalyptic world. A young man tries to find his place and purpose after losing his parents, and experiences the first intense throes of love, and lust, after a new family comes to the remote, isolated community. There is an undercurrent of fear and death and despair tugging at the edges of the story, but also a strong sense of hope and the possibility of forging new paths and new lives – as long as you’re willing to brave the unknown.

The Lily Rose, by Emily B. Cataneo in The Dark. “The walls heaved like the decks of a roiling ship and then more water ran down the crease. It trickled across the oak floor, soaked her house slippers, reached its tendrils beneath the rug that she had bought second-hand at an estate sale in Cambridge.” Lily Rose runs an orphanage inhabited by a band of spirited girls, but when disaster strikes, her whole life changes, and so does she. I love the way grief and death take physical shape in this story, and how the real world – the house, Lily Rose’s own body – are transformed. The story is beautifully told, with a restrained and carefully crafted prose that perfectly conveys both horror, grief, pain, and the lingering endurance of love.

The Last Dinosaur Rider of Benessa County, by Jeremy Sim in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.”Once you get to know a pleesaur, he likes to say, you’ll see they never do anything by accident.” Sim’s story is set in a weird-western, steampunk, dinosaur-inhabited kind of world, and I confess I fell in love with the setting and the protagonist pretty much right off the bat. I also confess I especially fell in love with Essie the pleesaur. The plot is a gripping western-ish tale of debts owed and old scores to settle, and my first thought as the story ended was: I’d love to read more of this.

Suddenwall, by Sara Saab in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I do love stories that break my heart, and Saab’s story broke it carefully and skillfully and completely. The two main characters are haunted by their past: by the war they took part in, by the atrocities they committed, and by the relationship they had. They are simultaneously bonded and broken apart by that shared past. Saab’s description of a society that commits genocide against people because of the language they speak, and how that society then turns against the soldiers who carried out that genocide… well, it’s a wonderful, but heartbreaking read.

Your Mama’s Adventures in Parenting, by Mary Robinette Kowal in Shimmer. “She skipped back in the wormhole, and the dark closed around her until all that remained was the memory of warmth on her skin.” Kowal’s story is that rare and wonderful beast: the kind of tale that makes you laugh and cry. There is time travel, space travel, and whole lot of other things all wrapped up in the silliness and fun and absurdity of keeping your sanity and your sense of humour while parenting (how do we survive all the stuff our kids do?). BUT it is also a brilliant story about aging and the relationship between parents and children, and about holding on to your dreams.

The Famine King, by Darcie Little Badger in Mythic Delirium. “The hands were gone. The lanky shadow was gone. But my window still chanted, “Hunger, hunger.”.” If you’ve ever experienced sleep paralysis (I have), then this story might bring back some frighteningly vivid memories. Add the specter of cannibalism, and a menacing entity that lurks everywhere and nowhere, and you’ve got a fantastic horror story. This is a visceral, and supremely goosebump-inducing tale.

The First of Her Name, by Elaine Cuyegkeng in Lackington’s. “I was born of the First, in the height of spring. Removed from Her presence and christened by my sisters, I was set among the cots of the scholar-explorer castes.” Oh, what a fabulous slice of delicious weirdness this story is! Delving deep into life inside a busy, squirming collective, Cuyegkeng’s tale beautifully captures the terrors and frenzy and purpose of a very different, non-human kind.

Marking The Witch, by Lina Rather in Flash Fiction Online. “Alina told the witch of chemistry—the hum of autoclaves, the orderliness of stoichiometry, always in balance; the near-sorcery of mercury II thiocyanate.” This is a delightful story of love, transformation, and the bargains we make in life, even when we don’t realize we are making those bargains. Lina Rather’s prose is playful, but there’s a depth beneath the playfulness. As the story makes clear: allowing magic and love into your life will change you. Or, as Alina’s grandmother (who can only speak in metaphors after being cursed by a witch – perhaps my favourite detail in this story!) says: “Love is a chrysalis, my dear, everything inside it transforms.”

Love Is A Cavity I Can’t Stop Touching, by Stephen Graham Jones in Gamut. “When I was fourteen, I ate a cooked piece of thigh meat off my girlfriend Sherry Wilkes.” You know a short story is good when it causes a physical sensation in your body as you’re reading it. This story gave me an actual pain in my thigh for the entire day after I read it. The heat of young love is captured perfectly here, and then Jones pulls you into another kind of darkness at the end… Brilliant stuff.