December 12, 2020

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup - November 2020


An Important Failure by Rebecca Campbell in Clarkesworld

This novelette was published earlier this year, but I was reminded of its existence by the wonderful Vanessa Fogg, and realized I had not included it in a roundup previously. I'm including it now because it is quite simply one of the best stories I've read this year. It's set in British Columbia, the part of the world where I live, and takes place in a not-too-distant future when climate change is having a dramatic effect on the flora and fauna, and human society. It's a story about trees, and it's a story about violins and music and about growing things, and it's a story about people who live their lives in a world where their choices are shaped the changing climate. I love how Campbell makes the BIG theme, climate change, affect individual lives on such an intimate, personal level rather than go for some big Dramatic Apocalypse. Reading this story, I am also struck to my core by the exquisite beauty and sharpness of Campbell's prose, and by how deftly she captures the feel, sounds, and scents of the Pacific Northwest. It is really something to read a story like this that moves through the future of places I know by heart: the north shore, Vancouver Island, Burnaby, Vancouver. And Campbell captures it all with such gentle precision.

To Sail the Black by A.C. Wise in Clarkesworld

The ghost ship Xanthic Promise sails the black, powered by the slumbering heart of a dying star. And its captain, Antimony Jones, stalks its decks in a swirl of crimson coat and fox fire lighting, dogged by voices. The recent dead, the long dead, and the dead-to-be, all murmuring as to how she’s only three months into her command and it’s all coming undone.

Tales about space pirates is obviously one of the best science fiction genres, I think a lot of people will agree with me on this one. And Wise's story is a riveting, salty, bloody tale of space pirates and ghosts, and about a very strange ship, crewed by the dead and the living, and maybe with a will (and a voice) of its own. It is also a ship that might be foundering, because people are dying under terrible circumstances on board, and when Captain Antimony Jones really begins to listen to those voices in her head, and to the ghosts that are tied to the ship even beyond life, she realizes she must do a terrible thing if anyone is going to survive.

Silver Door Diner by Bishop Garrison in Fiyah #16

If you need a shot of hope and joy at the end of the world, then this scifi short story from Fiyah might be just what the doctor ordered. A boy walks into a diner, looking for a slice of apple pie and some conversation. He gets both, but in this diner, nothing is really what it seems. I love this story for its wistful sweetness, with a twist of science fiction surprise, and I also love that it keeps its sweetness and its quiet hope, even as it deals with the heavy specter of war, and even as it speaks about the things, and about the people, that might destroy our world forever.

What Friends Don't Tell Friends About Basements by Corey Farrenkopf in Bourbon Penn

What do you do when you grow up in a house where there are literally monsters in the basement and it's been your family's task for a couple of centuries to make sure they don't get out? It's bound to cramp your style when you're 16, especially if you have to watch over the monsters on your best friend's birthday when you had other plans. This story captures the intricacies of friendship perfectly, and the complications that may occur when you worry you might be drifting apart and then your best friend insists she wants to see what's really down at the bottom of the basement stairs... Farrenkopf has a great eye for the details of friendship and a sly sense of humour.

Biography of Algae by Martha Riva Palacio Obón in Strange Horizons

A lyrical story that weaves together science and personal memory, history and future, Earth and space. The nature of life on Earth, its history and evolution, and the possibility of other, unknown kinds of life on our own planet, and the possibility of life in other parts of our solar system, are al at the heart of this beautiful story. I love the way Obón brings together so many different strands--space exploration, the evolution of algae, depression, and a longing for the sea--into an evocative fictional tapestry.

This story is from Strange Horizons' special issue featuring work by writers from Mexico. It's also available to read in Spanish.

Five Tips For Sealing Away an Ancient Evil by Ann LeBlanc in the anthology If There's Anyone Left 

So, you’ve managed to bypass my wards, evade my deathtraps, navigate my maze, and reach the inner chamber. You’ve ignored all my warning signs—helpfully printed in large accessible fonts and translated into multiple languages—as well as the gorgeous mural depicting the dangers within. You’ve made it this far, and so it’s unlikely you’re going to do the right thing and NOT open the vault.

This is a clever and gripping story with a dark sense of FUN. I love how LeBlanc weaves backstory and plot into each numbered step, and how it all brings us to a suspenseful conclusion. LeBlanc's story is part of the If There's Anyone Left anthology, and it's an anthology full of these kinds of stories: well-written, entertaining flash fiction with heart, and often with a sense of fun whether it's overt or more subtle. This anthology project is focused on the voices of "marginalized members of the sci-fi/spec community—this includes people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, members of marginalized genders, and disabled people." Read more here.

It Is a Beautiful Day On the Internet, and You Are a Horrible Bot by Aimee Ogden in the anthology If There's Anyone Left 

Another fantastic story from the If There's Anyone Left anthology. I started reading this anthology late one night just to get a feel for what kind of fiction it contained, and I was so charmed and thrilled by what I read that I kept reading way, WAY past my bedtime. Ogden's story puts a new spin on the old "AI that gains sentience and causes havoc" trope and instead of disaster, well, it turns out this particular bot causes some chaos, but maybe not of the apocalyptic kind...

The Silent Partner by Theodore McCombs in The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy

Mr. Roberts has come to old Mrs. Fowler's house, looking to buy a very valuable piece of furniture from her: a Nakashima table, made by George Nakashima when he was interned at Camp Minidoka during WW2. That dark bit of history makes Mr. Roberts uneasy, but not so uneasy that he doesn't want to acquire the table. Mrs. Fowler is apparently in need of cash, so he's reasonably sure he'll be able to make deal. What follows is a haunting, languid piece of horror where an unnamed presence, and the sins of the past, quietly twist and tilt reality, and by the time Mr. Roberts understands, really understands, what is going on in Mrs. Fowler's house, it is much, much too late. An excellent piece of fiction.

Nobody Lives Here by H. Pueyo in The Dark

My favourite kind of horror story is often the kind which seems anchored in reality, but where reality is threaded through, eaten through, slowly but surely by a strange, uncanny, gathering darkness. As is the case in this story where Sara is living in her first apartment in a building with no other tenants.

There is no one here, no one but me. Out of ninety apartments—ten in each of the nine floors—only mine has someone inside, but most have already been sold.

She should be enjoying her new digs, but instead she is haunted by memories of her parents' home, haunted by the sounds and the mess, and the dirt and the mold and cockroaches there. She is also increasingly haunted by sounds that shouldn't be there: sounds and noise from the other, supposedly empty, apartments in her building. This story tightens like a noose as you read it, until you can feel the fear right on your own skin.

The Bottomless Martyr by John Wiswell in Uncanny Magazine

Content Note: self-harm and suicide

 The first time Rang died, it stopped a typhoon.

When Rang dies, she saves the world, or at least her part of the world. But if that's her power, shouldn't she die again and again in order to save her people? Rang thinks so, at least at first, and she dies again and again and again. It hurts every time, and when people around her catch on and demand her death... she accepts that too. Until... well, it's complicated. Wiswell's story is wrenching and devastating AND hopeful, and that's it's brilliance. As Rang is brought back to life again and again, she grapples with the troubling, magical power she seems to possess. I love the brittle loveliness of this story, and the gentle way it looks deep into the heart of abuse and pain, and into how you may find a way out of a terrible situation.

To Look Forward by Osahon Ize-Iyamu in Fantasy Magazine

A powerful, exquisitely crafted story about childhood, and play, and friendship, and about how adults can intrude on, and constrict, the freedom of a child's imagination. In the story, we follow a group of children playing on swings, some of them joyful and daring, some a bit clumsier, but all of them finding a kind of iridescent, internal power as they play. Adults intrude, asking about work and studies and obligations, but even then, each child tries to hold on to some part of themselves, some truth, as they look forward to what it is they want to do with their life, and with their power. There's a sense of possibility here, of anticipation in spite of the adults encroaching on them, as the children try to hold on to their magic, even as they are being pushed to let it go in favour of more "real" pursuits. 

Amber by Sandra M. Odell in Daily SF

Every morning Mom says, "Today is the day I get my new body."

And I lie and tell her, "No, Mom, that's tomorrow."

Then she happily squeals like a rusted nail yanked out of scrap metal. "I'm so excited! I can't wait to wear a dress again!"

This story comes over all soft and almost as quiet as a whisper, but it still broke my heart. Odell spins a science fiction tale about death and grief and loss, about how we might hold on to things even when cold reason says we should let go, and Odell does all these things with nuance and subtlety. The story takes place in a future where there's a way to let your loved ones live on, in a way, after death. But this afterlife is not without risks and perils. As in all of Odell's work, there's an emotional honesty here that makes the story even more poignant and piercing. 

Poise and Grace by Kyle Richardson in Flash Fiction Online

A beautifully written, wonderful flash fiction story about Dint, who has just finished the project her father built her to do, and who now faces a rather terrible fate. But before that, she has some unexpected time to herself. I love the prose and voice of this story, and I absolutely LOVE the ending.

Body, Remember by Nicasio Andres Reed in Fireside

For all the glow of the town somewhere above and behind him, and despite the winking of vessels mingled with stars, it’s a timeless moment. He’s a silhouette alone in the night by the sea. He could be anyone, alive at any time. The dark weight of Vesuvius behind him, casting its shadow over every age. And then he hears a voice wake the skin at the back of his neck.

A story about an archeological dig near Vesuvius. Italy, that is also a story about the life of Jun, about the things and the people he has lost or left behind, and about the things that haunt him. Reed's story is quiet and moving and unsettling in the way a dream or nightmare might be unsettling, skirting so close to what we know is real, but introducing a sliver, a ripple, of utter, inexplicable strangeness. I especially love the unique setting of the story, and the way it weaves together Jun's past with the haunting place he finds himself in now.

The Smell of Night In the Basement by Wendy N. Wagner at PseudoPod, narrated by Kara Grace

They said they were vampires. Sometimes I believed them and sometimes I didn’t, but I didn’t really care. I got enough to eat. There was always plenty of drugs and dancing and people to fuck. The screams bothered me sometimes, but not so much I wanted to leave the basement or Luca. Not that he would have let me leave.

This story is strong stuff, so be warned. The content warning at PseudoPod says "gutter vampires and exploitation", and there's a lot of that here. Wagner's story is told from the POV of a girl who is being kept as a pet by a vampire, a vampire who leads a gang of very nasty, very un-sparkly, and very un-glamorous vampires. When a new girl is brought into the basement, things get topsy-turvy and dangerous, fast. There's a real raw, ragged edge to this story, and it pulls NO punches when it comes to violence and sex. It's a great read and puts a feral twist on the vampire-infatuation trope and does something new with a classic monster.

The Genetic Alchemist's Daughter by Elaine Cuyegkeng at PseudoPod (narrated by Rebecca Wei Hsieh, first pub'd in the anthology Black Cranes)

A gorgeously crafted, darkly compelling, and devastating horror / scifi story about Leto, a young woman who was genetically designed by her mother, Ofelia, to be "perfect". Her mother's genetic alchemy business involves, among other things, the creation of Prodigals, AKA new genetic copies of "failed" children; and the creation of Seraphim, AKA "flawless" embryos that grow into exactly the kind of children their parents require. Leto is deeply involved in her mother's business, and when a wealthy woman approaches Ofelia to replace all three of her daughters with improved Prodigals, meaning all three originals will be annihilated, it sets in motion a harrowing chain of events for Leto. The slow and deeply unsettling reveal of what is actually going on is masterfully done and the ending is a tour de force.

The Lachrymist by Kat Howard in Lightspeed

She crafts each tear deliberately: water, salt, and memory, in perfect proportions to honor what is gone. She saves each tear that falls.

The Lachrymist has shelves upon shelves of bottles, her tears held in them. Colored glass and plain, faceted and smooth, sun-darkened and ice-clear.

She stores them to preserve the memories. She stores them against need.

A gorgeous, beautiful, dark and gleaming fantasy story that has the soul of poem. It's brimful with sadness, it's about memory and loss, and about the importance, and maybe the peril, of remembering and being remembered. Howard's prose is always a treat to read, and that is true for this story. There's a rhythm and melody to the words that draws me in and keeps me spellbound.

Listen to the audio-version of the roundup.

First published at Curious Fictions. Art is a detail of  Joseph Diaz's "Monk's Mirror", detail of cover for Clarkesworld #167.  

November 9, 2020

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup - October 2020


The Gwyddien and the Raven Fiend by J.T. Greathouse in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

This is a marvelous, richly textured fantasy tale involving deep, dark magic and people who have been ravaged in one way or another by that magic. It's set in a world where sorcerers and creatures from beyond the human world stalk the lands, and sometimes sink their claws into people, demanding life and death and sacrifice as their due. Llewyn, the Gwyddien of the story, is a man who, as a child, was altered by magic in order to serve as the eyes and hands of The Gray Lady. He works to defeat demons and other fiends, but when he arrives in a place called Nyth Fran, that work takes a turn he did not expect. I love every bit of this tale and Greathouse's storytelling skill is such that I am now craving more stories about Llewyn and the characters he encounters on his quest. If you enjoyed the recent Witcher series, I think you might find this story right up your alley.

Everything and Nothing by Jenny Rae Rappaport in Lightspeed

Start with a romance: a man and a woman who are wildly and irrevocably in love with each other. Or two men. Or two women. Or two people, because life is beautiful and complex. Just know that these Lovers are important.

Rappaport's story starts out as what seems like a "classic romance" story. Young woman, young man, star-crossed lovers, etc. But here, that trope is reshaped and re-imagined as we follow the lovers through their lives, and as we come to realize that there are other love stories woven into that first love story. I love how this piece deals with the reality of love and living together, and how it acknowledges that things seldom work out the way we thought they would when we were in the first blush of infatuation.

Everquest by Naomi Kanakia in Lightspeed 

Fair warning: I am An Old who played Everquest and Ultima Online when they were still in beta-testing, and Everquest blew my mind and ruled my waking hours in a way that no other online game has really done before or since. This story captures so much of the joyful, frustrating essence of what it felt like to play that game in the olden days. While the part of the story set in the real world deals a lot with the way a game can both isolate and transform a person's life, it is the parts set inside the game that really get to me. The way it's possible to almost, almost live in a fantasy world and become your character, to interact with other people inside the game in a way that is different than you're able to interact with people in your everyday life... all this is captured really well. A must-read if you ever quested in Norrath, I'd say. It's also a story that illustrates the familiar online phenomenon where your "imaginary" online character is, or seems to be, a better incarnation of who you want to be than what you ever manage to be in the real world.

Gretel by Nancy O'Toole in Luna Station Quarterly

I do love fairytales retold and re-imagined and re-shaped. Here, O'Toole puts Hansel and Gretel in the present day, with a dimwit of a father, a mother who dies when the children are young, and a stepmother who finds the new kids an inconvenience. Gretel is the one telling us the story here, and the beginning of the story, when we first get to know her and her mother, is exceptionally powerful stuff. So is the encounter with the witch in the woods, when Gretel and Hansel find out just how much terrible magic can be wrought with gingerbread. Gretel's voice is captured so well, and gives the whole tale a gritty and compelling edge.

The Angel Finger by K.C. Mead Brewer in Craft

This story--about two sisters, a dog, and an extra finger--utterly wrecked me. It's a tense and taut horror-tinged story from the first sentence to the last: stretched taut like a piano wire that could snap at any moment. I love it all: the conflicted relationship between the sisters, the good dog who ends up in such terrible trouble, the well-meaning and clueless parents, and the young girl who feels she is bad bad bad, but who cannot stop herself, either. The ending is emotionally crushing, yet absolutely right.

Ghost Collecting by Sheila Massie in Flash Fiction Online

There are only two reasons why anyone would answer an ad like that. One. They don’t believe in ghosts and they want to get a spectacular, maybe even collectible, vintage chair for cheap. (Nothing about this chair was spectacular or collectible.) Two. They collect ghosts.

If you need a sweet and delightful ghost story this fall, then Sheila Massie's got you covered. A rocking chair is for sale, but it comes with a ghost. And when the ghost collector goes to have a look, they have an ulterior motive...

A Layer of Catherines by Elizabeth R. Moore in Strange Horizons

Fair warning again: I love time travel / alternate timeline stories with messy timelines or heart-wrenching situations or any variation on this theme. Hence, I absolutely love this story. It's not the science or the inherent timeloopiness of the story that matters here. What gives this story its heart, is the pivotal relationship (and the pivotal incident) between two sisters. There's a dreamlike, out of this world quality to the way the tale plays out, and I love that sense of something taking place, impossibly, in the seams and doorways between Here and Then.

The Foreclosure by Marc Abbott in Nightlight

Sometimes, you want to read an honest to goodness horror story where you KNOW something bad is going to happen, AND THEN IT HAPPENS, and it gives you chills at every step. In this story, a man visits his friend who has just acquired a house in a deal that definitely sounds to good to be true. As it turns out, it's definitely way too good to be true. This is my kind of horror: creepy and atmospheric, building up tension with peeks and hints and whispers (and an ominous mail carrier), until the evil reveals itself. Great narration by Matt Peters.

Teeth Long and Sharp as Blades by A.C. Wise in PseudoPod (narrated by Tonia Ransom)

This tale wound and twisted its way into my mind as I read it, as a young woman tells us of how she was attacked by something or someone, how she almost died, but how she lived. As she says in the tale:

Have you ever thought about how fairy tale heroines are like final girls? We survive poisoning, curses, imprisonment, mothers who want to cut our hearts out and hold them in their hands. But we survive, and our survival is an object lesson: act this way, and you’ll be all right. Be pure of heart. Be kind to strangers. Don’t go into the woods at night.

Horror and fairytale and urban legend are entwined here, and while we understand from the beginning who is telling us the story, there's a chilling, evocative edge to the tale as we slowly come to understand, or at least be able to guess, who she is telling the story to. Wise gives us just enough to hint at what kind of monsters might have been hiding in the darkness, and what kind of other monsters might be hiding in plain sight, and the result is a spine-tingling and gripping story. 

And This Is How To Stay Alive in Fantasy Magazine by Shingai Njeri Kagunda

Content warning: suicide.

Kabi feels dizzy. The ground comes up to meet her and dad is holding mum so he does not catch Kabi in time. The doctor keeps saying, “I am sorry. I am sorry. I am so sorry.”

For Kabi, the sounds fade but just before they do, somewhere in her subconscious she thinks she will find me in the darkness. Yes, she is coming to look for me.

But I am not there.

This story left me bawling my eyes out. It deals with difficult, painful subjects, including grief and bullying and physical and emotional violence. It also deals with the love and strife between siblings, between parents and children, and the messy, difficult, and sometimes devastating search for who you are and who you want to be. Be aware that this story is strong stuff, and also be aware that it is beautifully written. There are twists and turns here as a thread of magic is sewn into the story, and there's also a strong hopeful vibe as Kagunda explores the longing for redemption and the possibility of second chances. This story will stay with me for a very long time.

How To Burn Down the Hinterlands by Lyndsie Manusos in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction

Manusos's tale is an epic in short story form, and includes (among other things) magic swords, an ornery blacksmith with a serious grudge against the ruler of the land, the memory of a brilliant and fierce parent, and a cast of characters that I wanted to follow through at least another few hundred pages. Manusos brings it all too life and draws us deep into a rich and complex world, and into the life of a woman who has practiced her craft diligently for years, and is now being asked to create a magic sword for the ruler who executed her mother. The interplay between the blacksmith and The Armory, the group of fighters sent by the king to negotiate the making of the magic sword, is at the heart of this story and Manusos excels at making you feel for all involved. A layered, powerful story with prose that sings and shines from the first paragraph to the last.

I'm featuring two flash fiction stories from Breathe Fiyah, but really, you should read the whole collection. More about this flash fiction publication:

Breathe FIYAH is a flash fiction anthology created in collaboration between and FIYAH Literary Magazine, co-edited by Brent Lambert and DaVaun Sanders.

These stories stand in testament to the power and vitality of Black voices in the face of centuries of institutionalized oppression. This flash fiction anthology features fantastical and science fictional imaginings of Black characters honoring forebearers and memories of the past, fighting the legacies that underpin the brutalities of the present, and demanding a future that’s freer than today.

In the words of co-editors Brent and DaVaun, “We must always give voice to that rage while refusing to let it destroy us.”

Sela, Thief by Zabe Bent in Breathe Fiyah (available at

Sela enters a corner store, exhausted after a day's work and all she wants to do is go home. However, she also has a singular power: to see and quite literally grab a hold of a person's thoughts and emotions and memories. And when the store owner is a racist... well, she decides to take action even though it is at the end of a very long day. Fierce, sharp and powerful fantasy flash that is wonderfully rooted in the real world.

Here Sits His Ignominy by Tobi Ogundiran in Breathe Fiyah (available at

Written as a letter to a king who sent his armies out to conquer rich lands, this story heaves and breathes righteous anger and determination. Because the people the king thought to conquer were not so easily defeated.

Your Pompous Majesty, is your breathing fast, your chest tight? Do you find your dreary castle even more draughty, your kingly robes sticky with cold sweat?

Devoured Stars Over Dublin by Méabh de Brún in Giganotosaurus

A rollicking and hugely entertaining story set in a version of Dublin where the Old Ones have claimed our world and are doing with it whatever the hell they please. There are cracks and fissures in reality that occasionally drop the inhabitants of other parallel universes into the muck and despair of this horrific Dublin, while the regular inhabitants scratch out a living in the dirt, ever hungry and dirty and fearful of their cruel overlords. Reg comes across a newly arrived human from a cleaner parallel universe and together with her significant other Niamh, she is looking to cash in on the selling of the new arrival, but things do not go exactly according to plan. This story plunges you into the muck of a starless world, and I only wish there was more to read about this world and these characters because I absolutely loved this.

In Isolation by Andrew Kozma in Reckoning

Reckoning has published a whole issue-full of content influenced and inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic, including this poignant and piercing essay/fiction by Kozma, reflecting on life and loneliness. It threads together daily life experiences in isolation with a scifi perspective, and the end result is both beautiful and haunting.

In addition to these stories, I want to give a shout-out to a novel: Susanna Clarke's weird, wonderful, and quietly unsettling Piranesi. In honour of that book, I'm including one of Clarke's short stories in this roundup.

Antickes and Frets by Susanna Clarke in The New York Times (also available in her short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories)

Clarke's story about the fate of the Queen of Scots blends historical fact with fiction and fantasy. As the darkness gathers for the Queen in her exile, things also slide closer to dark fantasy and horror. The historical figures take their appointed places, but Clarke adds in a magical twist that is concerned with embroidery, and the kind of terrible magic that a woman might wield with needle and thread, if she knows how to sew properly. I love how the threat of dark magic lurks beneath the surface of the real world here, and I think I'll have to read all of Clarke's short stories now. The theme of magic beneath the surface, hidden, but there to be used if one only finds the way to access it, runs through Piranesi as well.

Listen to the audio-version of the roundup.

First published at Curious Fictions. Art is a detail of the cover art for Fantasy Magazine # 61 by Alexandra Petruk/Adobe Stock Image.