This roundup includes 14 amazing SFF stories I read in July.
Your Name Is Oblivia by Vincent Tirado in Fiyah #15
Tirado’s story takes place in a bar called Styx and Stones (love that) where the patrons can order “memory-based drinks”, meaning drinks infused with memories of specific experiences and emotions. They can order ten memory-based drinks and pay with regular money, but after that, they have to pay by giving up one of their own memories. The drinks are made, and the memories harvested, by a bartender named Oblivia. Oblivia tries to be a good employee. She tries to follow the strict rules laid down by the bar’s owner, Mr. Edgewise, but she has a tendency to slip up, again and again. She also can’t remember how long she’s worked at the bar, or what, if anything she did before. Even when she’s in her own apartment, she feels no real connection to the items there or the place itself. And when Oblivia connects with a customer who calls himself Don who doesn’t seem to be looking for the usual kinds of memories, things take a turn. This is a story that hits so many of my sweet spots. I love how it’s set in a bar, and how well it captures the bar setting and the social aspects of being a bartender. I also love how it delves into the elusive nature of memories and identity, and how losing memories of our past might impact who we are, how we relate to the world, and how well we can understand ourselves and others. It’s a story that will stick with me for a long time.
The Black Menagerie by Endria Isa Richardson in Fiyah #15
An evocative and intricately woven tale of magic and shapeshifting that plays out both in the past and the present, and that skilfully laces together horror, history, and fantasy. It traces the life, and the changeable nature, of a woman called Alta who has lived a longer than life most people do. It’s a story of desire and fear, and—more subtly, maybe—about power: in relationships and society. I love stories about shapeshifters, and this one delves deep into that subject. Richardson’s prose has a gleaming, lyrical quality that is completely mesmerizing. This is a deep story worth reading and re-reading.
...a row of white windows that overlook the street where Alta stands, having walked this early morning from North Beach to Russian Hill. Her reflection gleams in oiled blacks and white, caught in a larger dormer window inset beneath the gabled roof. The new sun sketches the line of distant rooftops behind; roughly, and then fine. The reflection in the window bleeds, burns in the new light, and twists into something no longer a woman.
The Limits of Magic by Samantha Mills in Apparition Literary Magazine
“There is no magic that can stop a war. There are, of course, numerous ways that magic can start one.”
An epic fantasy tale that somehow fits into the size of a short story. It’s about love and revenge, lost lovers and children left behind, it’s about rebellion against an unjust and oppressive society, and maybe, just maybe, it’s also about hope. Mills weaves a devastating and powerful tale of a woman who has lost almost everything in her life, but who is still willing to risk even more in order to set the future right.
The Night Soil Salvagers by Gregory Norman Bossert at TOR.com
But none of this is what the Night Soil Salvagers do. Not as they would have it. What the Night Soil Salvagers do is lessen the burden of the city on the Earth. On a good night—and what night is not good to the Night Soil Salvagers?—one will greet another with, “The city is light tonight.” And the other will reply, “Let it be so light that under the moon it rises up.”
An utterly strange, utterly beautiful and sublime story by Bossert. I don't even know quite how to describe this tale, except that it is the story of the Salvagers, the city they work in, the music they make, their exploits beneath and above. It's also, more specifically, a tale of the salvager named Parch; Florens, the woman the Salvagers call "our heart"; and the antinode:
The Night Soil Salvagers keep a garden in an open space within the city. They did not create this space, though they have nurtured it; it was always there, inevitable, a rest in the rhythm of the city’s beating. Florens called it the antinode.
Gloriously strange and enchanting.
Public Service by Julie Reeser at Daily SF
Reeser's story is a wonderful slice of near-future science fiction that quietly and deliberately subverts a multitude of superhero tropes. Sure, there's a town in trouble, there's a hero that saves the townspeople, and there are bad guys getting caught. But what kind of trouble is it that they all need to be saved from? And how, exactly, is the superhero saving everyone? And, maybe most importantly, who are those "bad guys", really? A gentle but incisive tale.
Burn or The Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super by A.T. Greenblatt in Uncanny Magazine
Watch Sam burn.
Or sort of burn. Well, more like light up, then burn. But only his head.
Sam’s trying not to focus on the things he can’t control. Like the twenty-four people sitting in front of him, watching him impassively. Or that he’s underdressed for his audition. Or that this old community center is impossibly stuffy, with a whiff of sour milk lingering in the air. Or that this might be a terrible idea.
Another excellent and subversive take on all those familiar superhero stories, and one that specifically takes on the idea of what happens when you gather up a group of superheroes in the vein of The Avengers or Justice League. Sam thinks he might have what it takes to be a superhero. He even passes the required "audition" to join the superhero team. But what happens next is nothing like what usually happens in the movies when someone gets elevated to superhero status. There's a gentle and darkly humourous undercurrent to this story, and an unusual vibe of everyday kindness and goodness under difficult circumstances that really appeals to me. A wonderful tale by Greenblatt.
Recognition by Victor LaValle in New York Times Magazine's Decameron Project
LaValle's story fits into our current pandemic world like a sharp knife fits between ribs. It’s set in New York during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis there, and it is amazing to read a story like this, with this kind of edge and depth, while we're still in the throes of this pandemic. It captures the devastation and horror of what happened in New York in a subtle yet powerful way, focusing on a seemingly very small, and very human story. Everything here is pitch-perfect, and there comes a moment in the tale when LaValle twists the knife of fiction with expert precision and it's a true goosebump moment for me.
The Wasp-Keeper's Mother by A.C. Buchanan in Kaleidotrope
As she makes it out of the crowded city streets and onto the highway, Kathleen notices her daughter’s ghost in the rear-view mirror. She’s expected that—it happens most times. What she didn’t expect was how young Tamara looks. The girl on the back seat is barely five years old, the seatbelt almost sliding over her head. Kathleen wonders if she should have brought a car seat but Tamara’s normally seventeen or so when she appears. There’s no way to know in advance.
A ghost story about a mother who feels that she has failed in life: failed her family and especially her children. Buchanan perfectly captures that terrible feeling of being stuck in a life that has not worked out at all like you planned, and still you seemingly can't do anything but continue on as you have before, and you’re unable to make things right. It's a devastating tale, full of quiet dread and despair, and it's beautifully written.
Actually Naneen by Malka Older in Slate
A quiet and thoughtful science fiction story about Shristi and her (rather old-fashioned) robot nanny, Naneen. At the time of the story, Naneen is looking after Shristi's children, but long before that, she was Shristi's own nanny. Naneen can't quite measure up to some of the more newfangled nanny-models, like the ones Shristi’s friends own, but there are other bonds, and other features, that might be of more importance than up-to-date technology. I love how deftly and perceptively this story explores the bond between humans and machines, and how that bond can affect people, and maybe robots too.
My Brother's Keeper by Casilda Ferrante in Unsung Stories
My brother Elijah is slumped in the chair, his hands curled into fists on the armrest, knuckles inked with black script. One hand says EVIL, the other hand says GOOD. I was beside him when he got those tattooed. He thought of me as the needle hummed. One brother evil, the other good; I don’t know which one I am anymore.
A ghost story that is also a story about sibling love, and hate, emotions twined tightly together here. It’s set in an afterlife that is not at all what the characters in the story had imagined would happen after death. I love how Ferrante unfolds the tale itself, and the motivations and emotions of its characters, bit by bit, and how, in the end, we end up in a much different place and with a much different resolution, than I was originally expecting. Gorgeously written and devastating.
The Wandering City by Usman T. Malik in Us in Flux
On a cool April morning, moments after the muezzin walks, sleep-drunk, to Mughalpura Mosque and before the discounted holometer at Lahore’s Abdus Salam Quantum Center starts beeping, the City flickers at the edge of a Florida wetland, and wanders into Lahore.
Oh, this story is exquisitely wrought, and gleams like a fairytale. It is set in Lahore, Pakistan, where a strange city appears, and strange things take place around the new arrival. Malik describes the premise like this: "A ninth century enchanted city appears at Shalamar Bagh, Lahore. How do Lahoris respond to this apparition?" It's a fantasy tale with its roots in One Thousand and One Nights, and it's thought-provoking and mesmerizing read.
Dégustation by Ashley Deng in Nightmare Magazine
You are a spore, barely more than a twinkle in your many parents’ breeding-breathing air. They are your family, among other things, living as a colony in the dim light beneath an abandoned office building. They fill the already-damp air with the encouraging words of hopes and aspirations for you and your siblings. And though you are nothing more than a speck in the air, the sentiment is warm, just as the earthy mulch you settle into that embraces you like a blanket.
A brazenly strange, utterly weird, yet also (somehow) very relatable story about a person who isn't really a human at all, though they live most of their life among us. In reality, they come from a people that pass for humans though they actually grow like mushrooms, and live in communities we never see. There's a deeply unsettling body-horror element here, but what makes it special is how it depicts an alien among us who is trying very hard to work out how to pass for human, how live with and among humans, and who is having some real trouble making it all work. In the end, their true nature asserts itself, and there is some peace to be found in that too. Wondrous and unforgettable.
Carving You Out of Memory by L Chan in Black Telephone Magazine
Black Telephone Magazine is a new publication, featuring "dark literary communications". The first issue is available now and features stories from a range of authors, including this wrenching and powerful piece by Chan. Golems, memories, and a past abusive relationship are at the center of this story, and Chan's beautifully crafted prose cuts deep.
Needles by Kali Napier in The Dark
An abusive father, a mother trying to keep food on the table and the lights on in the home, and a daughter who is trying very hard to keep herself in check--to not make trouble or get into trouble... this story is quiet on the surface, but beneath, there is a depth of pain and anger and determination. Maeve, the daughter, has powers of her own, but they are of little use to her when it comes to protecting herself or her mother from her father's wrath. What Maeve doesn't realize, is that maybe she doesn't see everything that is happening in her house. Excellent, well-crafted suspense and horror wrapped in wonderful prose.
Thanks for reading!
First published at Curious Fictions. Art is a detail of Erika Hollice's cover art for Apparition Literary Magazine #11 - Redemption.