February 2, 2020

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


Mechanical Connection by Frances Rowat in CossMass Infinities #1 

The first issue of Cossmass Infinities includes several terrific stories, and this is one of my favourites. There's real power and panache in the prose here, like in this bit from the beginning of the story: "Phosphorus Jack isn’t one of the glossy uptown heroes, all cloak and jewel-tones. He’s a hopped-up vigilante, a little guy in dark leathers snapping and crawling with white sparks. Can’t fly, but he’s got the jetwing for that, the weird jet-powered cross between a surfboard and a thyroidal boomerang." It's a fabulous and original mix of superhero story, mechanically inclined scifi, friendship-tale, AND a taste of steampunk. The hero, or superhero, is Phosphorous Jack, but "Without the hood, Phosphorus Jack is Jennifer Jackson, a neighbourhood girl." I love how deftly and insightfully the story deals with both complicated family relationships, and a budding friendship between two very different people. This story is now available to read online. (To read the rest of the issue, you'll have to buy it, and it's definitely worth picking up.)

Lusca by Soleil Knowles in Fiyah #13 

You wring your hands, cold and clammy and rough. Skin of teeth, salty with sea brine cuts into the humanlike fat of your palms, and you stare down the edge of oblivion. The wind whips you, sings to you. A full, fat, yellow moon casts a sultry pall over the water, the light disappearing into its mirror image on the sea. You take one step, then another.

Issue 13 of Fiyah is a real tour-de-force, including this fierce and ferocious monster tale by Soleil Knowles. We know right from the get-go of this story that the water, specifically the ocean, calls to our protagonist in a way that frightens her mother so much that she fears giving her daughter baths, and fears her being out in the rain. We know that this girl is powerful, that she is different from anyone else she knows, and we feel her longing, her pain, and her anger at being shut out  by those around her, never feeling safe or as if she belongs. We also know that she always, always hungers. Knowles's prose is so strong it pulls you right in under the girl's (flaking, itching) skin, and the ending is one glorious surge of power. One of the best monster stories I've read recently.

The Girlfriend’s Guide to Gods by Maria Dahvana Headley in TOR.com 

Maria Dahvana Headley riffs on mythology, dating, sex, love, death, and on how we can make, unmake, and remake ourselves and our lives again and again as we learn more about the world and ourselves. The story takes on a large part of the Greek pantheon, including the story about Eurydice and Orpheus, and plants itself (mostly) in our own time and our own world, weaving in strands of fiction and fantasy and fairytale along the way. A quote: "This is the second myth: that your boyfriend from freshman year of college will teach you how to fly. The only way to learn to fly anything, you’ll know by now, is by getting on it. Magic carpet. Pegasus. Dragon of darkness. It’s all the same old shit." Headley's prose is fiery and divine from start to finish. I read her take on the tale of Beowulf, The Mere Wife, last year, and this story feels akin to that book, even if it's a very different tale, told in a very different voice. For another fabulous short story by Maria Dahvana Headley, read her "Read After Burning" in the anthology A People's Future of the United States.

Yo, Rapunzel! by Kyle Kirrin in Podcastle 

I won't even try to sum up this story in any sort of rational way. Suffice it to say, that if you want to liste to (or read) an outrageous, foul-mouthed, highly original, and ridiculously guffaw-out-loud hilarious take on several well-worn fairytale and fantasy tropes like heart quests and princesses in towers, you MUST read this. (And believe me about the foul-mouthed thing: this story involves enough F-bombs to level a small, fairytale land...or kingdom.)

Le Jardin Animé (1893) by Victoria Sandbrook in GigaNotoSaurus 

This novella blends steampunk and alternate history with exquisite scenes that delve into the joys of both dance and music, and I enjoyed every beautiful, finely detailed, well-crafted bit of it. We follow Dr. Zaynab Murad, a recently widowed Syrian woman living in America. After her husband's death, she accepts a position with Mme. Lefevre, Philadelphia's finest mechanist, meaning she creates automatons, finely made robots that might, or might not, be as soulful and unique as most humans. Lefevre's finest creation is Azimuth who has been created for a very specific purpose. But Azimuth is rebelling against her mother and has her own ideas of what she wants to do with her life. The conflict between Azimuth and her maker/mother is both deep and complex. It also has severe repercussions for Dr. Murad, as well as everyone else in the household. The ending is both heartbreaking and, painfully, satisfying.

Dead Horse Club by Jude Wetherell in Reckoning #4 

Reckoning is a magazine of "creative writing on environmental justice", and their fourth issue is guest edited by Arkady Martine and Danika Dinsmore. Wetherell's story is a dark, evocative piece of fiction that is set on Barren Island, "the only place or locality in or near the city of New York for the destruction of garbage and dead animals in the city, and...the only proper place for the rendering of the same". Wetherell's prose is gorgeously wrought as she imagines the horses that rise again from the detritus and debris left behind in the waters and on land, returning to haunt the place where their bodies were taken.

The first horse makes itself from the bones of other horses scattered in the bay. It sews its parts together with the spines of baitfish. It drags itself from the water and bleaches on the island shore until it is pocked-white, picked clean as it can be by the flies and the birds and the mites that make caves of its marrow.

Physics by the Numbers by Stephen Granade in Escape Pod 

This is something as unusual as a science fiction story that is, mostly, about scientists and their work in the lab, more than about any kind of space and time shattering science. There's a bit of romance, and a whole lot of algorithm shenanigans going on, as well as some workplace politics. And Granade makes it all both gripping and invigoratingly fresh. Nevaeh works on a project where no one ever feels safe: the algorithm might end up getting you fired for...well, something, though no one quite knows what it is you might do or say to cause you to get the boot. Excellent narration by Stephanie Malia Morris.

Beldame by Nickolas Furr in Diabolical Plots 

Furr's story is a lovely, wistful, thoroughly delightful take on a SFF staple: the portal fantasy. What would you actually do if you found yourself standing before a door that could take you to another world? A world of adventure and wonder and magic where everything would change. This is exactly what happens, quite unexpectedly, to the protagonist of this story, when they get off at a bus stop in a small town in Kansas "where all the houses faced west and I met the whispery old crone who sat at the intersection of two worlds". Their choice, and how they deal with that choice afterward, puts a very human, real-world twist on a well-used and well-loved trope.

The Last Ship Out of Exville by Phoebe Barton in Kaleidotrope 

They call me the Sorceress, because holding together a community like Exville takes a little magic. We’ve got outcasts from Earth and Luna, Martian dustpunks, Venusian hotshots, and Belter wanderers, and all of them with their own ideas of how to live together. It’d be even harder if we didn’t have all those fascists on Callisto growling at our door.

A fierce and fiery spark-plug of a science fantasy story by Barton, set in space where a small colony of outcasts and rebels have cobbled together an existence on Exville (formerly known as Leda Station), away from the fascists on Callisto. But a good thing seemingly can't last forever, and when the armed forces threaten Exville, something's got to give.

The Duchess of Drinke Street by Tim Chawaga in Interzone #284 

Chawaga's story takes place in a future where the oceans are rising, swallowing up coastal regions. It's set in New Lagos, a "NautiCity" that has sailed away from the mainland and the old city of Lagos. On Drinke Street in New Lagos, food vendors of all different kinds sell their wares, and the famous food reviewer Rina Priestly is the one they all want to woo. In the story, we follow one man's attempts to get a positive Rina review for his cupcakes. He starts off making Red Sauce Bao Cakes, and ends up trying many different recipes through the years, never quite achieving his goal, though he does become more closely acquainted with Rina in the process. This is an inventive and compelling deep-dive into food, the culinary arts, and the elusive secrets of authentic Taste. It's a story that made me yearn for food I didn't even know existed.

Salvage by Andy Dudak in Interzone #285

Dudak's scifi story is both weird, harrowing, and wonderful in its scope and audacious imagination, as it puts the reader into a far-off version of our universe's future. Humanity is scattered on various worlds in the Galaxy, and on one of those worlds, Aristy is walking through the crumbling remains of an old civilization:

Statues congest the silent lanes and marketplaces of the crumbling, overgrown village, figures life-size and life-like except for the glowing veins suffusing their ceramic flesh, children and adults and elders fixed during a long-ago, fateful moment. Aristy makes her way among the familiar faces of Picti Street. The morning mists burn away from the vine-curtained, root-clutched stone facades on either side. It’s early now, but it was nearly dinnertime when these villagers were transformed a millennium ago.

At the heart of this story, is a mysterious occurrence that happened a thousand years ago, when billions of sentient creatures were suddenly, and almost simultaneously, turned into statues of themselves. I won't spoil the mysteries and weirdness of the story, but it's a riveting read.

Familiar Face by Meg Elison in Nightmare 

A tense murder mystery is intertwined with a subtle and terrifying science fiction / supernatural horror story in this chilling tale by Meg Elison. Annie's wife Cara has been murdered. No one knows who did it, or why, but the death haunts Annie and her group of friends. And Annie's life does not get any easier when the camera installed at the front door starts alerting her to the presence of a "familiar face" outside, even when no one's there. 

Someone’s at the front door, the robot spoke again. Their phones vibrated at the same time.....

In the entryway, Annie checked her phone.

Your camera thinks it spotted a familiar face.


Cara is at the door.

I love how this story features a big and gregarious cast of characters who all end up playing a role in the story's conclusion. It's a dark and brilliant story that is hard to shake off once you've read it.

Mother Love by Clara Madrigano in The Dark 

Madrigano's story deals with a mother-daughter relationship that is wrong and deeply unsettling on pretty much every single level, with a mother who is more predator than caregiver, and a daughter who has to deal with a hunger, and a legacy, that warps her own existence in the world. Darkly lyrical and twisted enough to chill you to the marrow, this is a fabulously well-written piece of fiction. The opening paragraph, even all by itself, is a gem:

Here’s my mother’s story: picture two snakes fighting on the desert. No one is there to see it; nobody will care about the eventual outcome. Both snakes will bite and maybe poison each other and they’ll end up their lives like that, fangs sunk into each other’s body, both the meal the other wanted. Now, picture this: my mother is one of the snakes, and I am the other. My mother was hungry enough to bite, and I was the prey she longed for the most. 

Paris In Love by M. Bennardo in Syntax & Salt 

Taken from what is sadly the final issue of Syntax & Salt, Bennardo's story is a gorgeous piece full of both sorrow and regret and longing, as well as love, though it's not the happy kind. Here we meet a fragment left of the Iliad's Paris, living on long after his fateful encounter with the goddesses and the golden apple, and long after Helen is gone. I love how this piece reimagines the tale and the mythology of Paris and Helen as it ruminates on the reality, and our perception, of love and life.

Where a Good Town May Take Us by Andi C. Buchanan in Abyss & Apex 

In this surreal story, a town is on the move. At irregular intervals, it deconstructs itself and puts itself back together in a new location, while its inhabitants follow along, settling in to new places, never knowing how long they'll stay or what will come next. There's a dreamlike sense of unmoored lives and rootless existence in this piece, that resonates deeply with me. The sense of an ever-changing town that makes change seem somehow safe and predictable...until things change in more fundamental ways than just a new location and a new landscape outside the window.

Badass Moms in the Zombie Apocalypse by Rae Carson in Uncanny Magazine 

Some stories are exactly what their title tells you they are, and then some. This is one such story. Here we meet some real badass moms dealing with childbirth and child rearing during a massive zombie apocalypse. How do you give birth safely, when the smell of blood will attract the ravenous horde? Why would you risk your life, and the lives of others, to do so? And what would you be willing to risk and sacrifice for your child, and for your beleaguered community? An action packed and emotionally satisfying story from Uncanny #32.

One Song Ending by E.A. Petricone in Apparition Lit 

This story is part of Apparition Lit's outstanding experimentation-themed issue, and it's about Carlos, who works in a lab with a whole lot of rats. Petricone blends everyday science and...something not so everyday, in a tale that is gripping and compelling. With quiet but sharp-eyed insight, it deals with themes like sickness and science, the realities of research, family and death, and with the choices we make and how they affect other lives and the world around us. It made me cry along the way, and the ending puts a twist on things that I, at least, did not exactly expect.

One Hand in the Coffin by Justin C. Key in Strange Horizons 

There is a rather long list of content warnings at the beginning of this story, and for good reason: this is strong, dark, disturbing stuff, but it's also a powerful and compelling read. Twins Corey and Alisha have lost their older brother Michael under very traumatic circumstances. Michael wasn't an easy sibling to live with in life, and when he's dead, he still won't leave them in peace. After Corey makes an ill-fated birthday wish, the twins' lives turn ever more nightmarish as Corey's therapy puppet becomes possessed with what seems to be the malevolent remnants of Michael's spirit. Excellent horror that packs a big emotional punch.

For Thine Is The Kingdom by Jennifer R. Donohue in Truancy

A compelling twist on some of the most well-known and well-worn fairytales, Donohue's story starts with the irresistible opening paragraph:

She never woke up.

She crossed that threshold into death’s dream kingdom with the juicy tang of poison apple on her tongue from that single blushed bite. It was to do with her heart, she knew, and she knew her heart was no longer of any use to her, only her wits.

Soon, the woman of the story meets another woman in the same strange world she now finds herself in, and they end up trying to find their way in this realm, together. Dark, yet full of hope and inner fire.

Luchadora by Melissa Mead in Cast of Wonders 

When Alejandra was nine, her mother died of dehydration. When she was ten, Alejandra made her father bring her to the Luchadores’ barracks. The three ancient wizards who would choose the boy who would become the next Luchador weren’t pleased. They almost sent Alejandra’s father to the hellstone mines, where men died with their limbs charred black.

I love this story about the fierce and determined Alejandra to bits. It's entertaining, has some nice twists and fresh takes on how to defeat "evil", and I especially love how it combines the fighting style of the luchadores with magic in a world where grumpy wizards and a very knowledgeable old bruja help train and foster new adepts. "Luchadora" has a real fairytale vibe, mixed with some weird western, includes a delightful friendship, and some seriously awesome magical luchador moves. Wonderful narration by Sandra Espinoza.

Listen to the audio version.

(First published at Curious Fictions. Art is a detail of Nilah Magruder's cover art for Uncanny Magazine #32.)

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