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. Djรจlรญ 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, Thuแปท goes looking for a dreadful enemy in a remote and dangerous part of space. In the past, we follow Thuแปท 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 Sรคrdal 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 Caรฑas 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. Caรฑas 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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Buy Malefactor

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August 7, 2021

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

 

Art is a detail of Martina Boscolo's cover for Apex #124. More about the artist here: https://www.artstation.com/jestervish


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



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The Child-Feast of Harridan Sack by By Kaitlyn Zivanovich in PseudoPod (narrated by Jasmine Blake)

The storybook mother goes on a quest to find Harridan Sack’s hut. She crosses rivers and braves dark forests to rescue her children,  but I am trembling in a police station while the detective nicely encourages me to admit maybe I murdered my preteen. Life is tough when a spouse is deployed. And I’m new to the area aren’t I? The neighbor said she heard yelling sometimes. Did my daughter and I fight a lot? 

Possibly one of the most harrowing, powerfully real, and terrifying horror stories I've read and/or listened to recently. Zivanovich expertly weaves together fairytale and reality, the terrible truths and struggles of parenthood, and the inescapable horror of real human beings doing terrible things. A mother comes home and finds her twelve-year-old daughter gone, the daughter she loves, the daughter who she has fought with as adolescence and puberty comes a-calling, the daughter who is nowhere to be found and who won't answer the mother's texts or calls. In a fairytale, there are things a mother must do in order to save her child. In the real world, there are also things that must be done, but the endings are not always happily ever afters. An outstanding story that had me by the throat from beginning to end.

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Hold on Tight to Me by Joy Guo in SmokeLong Quarterly

Ma is scrabbling up the trellis again. She has already cast off much of this world as extra weight, including me and Chao, her six-year-old grandson, but the muscle memory of climbing remains. 

A heartbreaking, yet also life-affirming, story about aging and dementia, and about seeing our parents as whole people, not just parents, but people who have a backstory, memories, dreams (shattered and otherwise), that shaped them and their lives. Guo's story is gentle, but sharp, a beautiful splinter of glass, working itsway toward the heart.

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Yaakov, Meyn Bruder by Filip Wiltgren in Kaleidotrope

She had eyes of smoke. I know it sounds like one of them literary similars, but it’s not. Look into her eyes long enough, and you’d realize they weren’t there at all. But of course, by then, it was too late.

I love the dark, ominous, atmospheric vibe of this story, the feeling that resistance is futile and that some things cannot be fixed and mended once they're broken, or once someone decides to break them. The beautiful woman in this tale haunts and taunts the protagonist, and lures away Yaakov into a terrible delirium and, ultimately, possible damnation. There's a strong current of cosmic horror here, and I love how the evil is not pinned down and defined, but remains terrible and menacing, right until the end.

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An Island in His Splendor by Christopher Caldwell in Baffling Magazine

The summer after Octavio Paz died, Eric stood on the rocks below Point Dume and tried to cast his heart into the sea. Lips swollen from crying, eyes puffy from sleeplessness, dizzy from grief, he invoked the compact he made as a child with a creature from the depths. His voice croaked. “Flounder, flounder in the sea, come up from the depths for me! Though you may not care for my request, I’ve come to ask it nonetheless.”

A story that begins like this, the summer after Octavio Paz died, grabbed my attention from the get-go. What follows is a twist on the fairytale trope where a magical creature must fulfill the wishes of its rescuer. I love how Caldwell turns things around here, finding hope, of a sort, even when the protagonist might not be looking for it. For more wonderful fiction by Caldwell, check out “Canst Thou Draw Out the Leviathan in Uncanny Magazine.

The Heart is a Spare Part by Hailey Piper in Baffling Magazine

I realized the town was too quiet just when I reached Gyrocore’s outskirts. No rust-bucket kids running loose, no cyber-centaurs lined up outside the saloon. It seemed I was the only bot on the street, my steel feet corroded after the long stroll from the train station.

A weird western love story that involves a whole lot of robots and other mechanical beings. Piper's tale is strange, quirky, twisted, and darkly funny, as well. It's definitely not your typical love story, but I adore how the characters try to find new ways of solving their problems, other than demolishing each other completely.  Another terrific story from a great issue of Baffling Magazine.

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Faithful Delirium by Brent Lambert in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

The goddess’s pained cries screeched out of the tent and up to the heavens, as they did every night. The wounds of a war the holy priest Volgrum had never witnessed still plagued her. But he knew every story there was to know about her. Many Queens and Pharaohs had thrived and lived long lives at her blessing. History said those who dedicated themselves to her in this life were given the positions they rightfully deserved and granted eternal bliss once the physical existence came to an end.

A wonderfully rich and layered tale by Lambert, and a story that explores and challenges a lot of the ideas and ideals celebrated by religious zealots and "true believers", in fantasy and in the real world. Volgrum serves his goddess with absolute conviction, as he has done for a long, long time. He cares for her and tries to follow her wishes, even when they are difficult to decipher. War and violence is often the result. The ending is perfect, with Lambert giving us a twist, and then another twist, on what happens when true believers almost lose faith.

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Factory Baby by Frances Ogamba in Yaba Left Review

I look at the child―quite big for a three-month-old―and see the thing that has engulfed him. It moves fast, receding and reappearing in his face. The skin of his hands grows transparent and something scaly shimmers, and then vanishes.

When a neighbour brings home a new baby that will not stop screaming, the narrator soon realizes that something is not quite right. The mother is exhausted, and the screaming won't stop for weeks, but when it finally does stop, things get better... or do they? A chilling story that tightens like a vice.

(If you want to read more by Frances Ogamba, check out The Dark, for example.)

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Gordon B. White is creating Haunting Weird Horror by Gordon B. White in Nightmare

You’ve enjoyed a few of his stories and you follow each other on Twitter, so when you see that horror and weird fiction author Gordon B. White has started a Patreon, you think, “Sure, I’ll throw him a couple of bucks.” You pick the $7 tier—Postcards of Lesser Known Haunted Houses—thinking it might be a lark to get a picture and a microfiction each month for your modest contribution.

Darkly funny and also legitimately terrifying, this short story by White about what happens if you support the (fictional?) Gordon B. White on Patreon is absolutely amazing. Once the postcards start arriving, the Patreon supporter has.... misgivings about the enterprise, but as it turns out, it's not so easy to escape the grasp of this particular author. Clever, scary as hell, and with a sense of humour sharp enough to cut, this one's a must-read.

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He Leaps for the Stars, He Leaps for the Stars by Grace Chan in Clarkesworld

Yennie glanced out the window. An ice storm, a froth of glassy dust, was blowing in over the bone-colored hills. He was on Enceladus; his therapist was on Mars. He wanted to describe how sometimes his body felt hollow, and other times he felt his skin could not contain all that was within him—but he didn’t have the words. Half the solar system divided them, and more.

Oh my goodness I love this story. Science fiction with a tender, gentle heart and spirit, this story is bittersweet and lovely through and through. It's a story about pop idol Yennie who lives a seemingly blessed yet hollow life and is worshipped and followed with intense interest by his many fans. Beneath the surface he shows the world, he is looking for a kind of freedom he has never experienced. To quote Chan herself, it has a "lonely pop idol on Enceladus, superfans, quantum entanglements, tender queer feelings, duplication, and duplicity". There's also a caring android and prose so gorgeous it made slow down and re-read several passages just to savour the beauty of it all.

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Data Migration by Melanie Harding Shaw in Strange Horizons

Go for a walk in your sector. Count the cars you see on the street. How many green stickers do you see? How many red? Write down your answers every day and see how it changes over the week. Ask mum or dad to explain why some of the cars are being taken away. Make a graph of your results on a poster.

A beautifully crafted story about society caught up in, and trying to deal with the severe repercussions of climate change, and trying to make people live in a way that will make it possible to survive. I love how this story describes this future society as a series of assignments, tasks, and lessons for kids, and as a teacher replying to their students. We glimpse the harsh and sharp edges of this society through someone who is trying to soften the world, to make it easier to bear, for the kids that have no other choice but to live through it.

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A Softness of the Heart by Lulu Kadhim in Fantasy Magazine

Louise made the cocoa for the two of them now. She did just as she was taught by Aunt Violet: broke a dark chocolate bar into tiny pieces and melted them with great sloshes of almond milk. And she always made a third cup, for the ghosts that Aunt Sinna tried so vehemently to banish from the house.

A ghost story with a gentle, and imaginative, heart. Louise is dealing with the ghosts gathering around her after her aunt dies. The ghosts used to be drawn to her aunt, but now it seems Louise attracts them too. But these ghosts aren't all bad, even if they might be restless and somewhat demanding. Lovely and hopeful.

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Shuck by G.V. Anderson in The Deadlands

No one, not even Bridget, could remember how it started, and yet by the winter term, it was common knowledge that she’d taken over the old smoking area and, for a price, would answer one—just one—question about the death of her friend, Samantha. Year Nines were especially bloodthirsty. Balancing on the threshold between childhood and everything after, they demanded to know things like: Did her brains wash off your parka afterwards? Did she die right away? Did you actually see her head come off?

Oh, what a gorgeously wrought, raw, and utterly devastating story this is. Bridget who can't quite let go the memories of Samantha and the night Samantha died. Her life still spins tightly around this death, and she can't quite seem to break free of the influence Samantha had on her in life: a fraught, painful, and complicated legacy that seems to be seeping through her, and seeping into her life, like a slow-moving nightmare. And then there's the dog, the one with the red glowing eyes, haunting her steps. The same dog she saw right before Samantha's life ended. The ending carries a fierce, profound sadness with it and this is another terrific story from The Deadlands.

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Kudzu by Elizabeth Kestrel Rogers in Diabolical Plots

For Caris, the mech did all Her body had been, still was, still would be, ravaged by cystic fibrosis. It wasn’t so bad that she needed a transplant, but she’d been on disability for some time, each paycheck slim, each breath feeling numbered and tighter than the last.

A science fiction story about Caris, who earns a living by working a mech, joining her own body and mind to the machine and heading out in the ravaged world in order to clear it, clean it, maybe even make it better. There's a joyfulness and brightness beneath the surface of this story, beneath the tale of a world changed and almost destroyed, and I love how it embraces that joy, in the end, without making the story sappy or glossy.

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Across the River, My Heart, My Memory by Ann LeBlanc in Fireside

I am Michelle’s artificial pancreas, stolen cleanly and carefully from her gut. The surgeons are quick; before I can finish my hard reset, they place me inside you.

I don’t even have time to say goodbye to Michelle’s other organs. I know her heart — and all its memories of Tobin — is dead. Did the taser kill the others too? Why am I the only one awake — alive?

I can’t say goodbye to Michelle, because she’s dead.

Such a uniquely imagined scifi story, I absolutely adore it from start to finish. The narrator, our point of view character, is a pancreas, yes, an ornery and rebellious pancreas that still carries all the memories of the woman it once belonged to, In fact, many of the organs in this story are repositories of memory, of the life experience of individuals, meant to join their voices and their experience, inside whoever accepts them. And when such organs, who are indeed sentient, are stolen and put into a new person, well.... that can lead to some very interesting complications.

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What Sisters Take by Kelly Sandoval in Apex

I don't know when my sister came along. My mother, so ready to accept, so unwilling look, says she didn't see the doctor much, back then…..Maybe my sister was whispering in her ear even then. She's always been able to twist people.

Three sets of twin sisters grow up in the same neighborhood, and in each case, one sister is born a monster (though they appear human) and are slowly devouring their sibling. It's horror, but it's also something deeper: a heartbreaking and deeply unsettling story about childhood and the relationship between siblings, and about identity. There is a dark magic swirling at the heart of this tale, and I love how Sandoval shows that there is a choice to be made, even for the monsters (or the monstrous part in all of us), and that we can save ourselves and others even when it is frighteningly difficult.

Without Wishes to Bind You by E. Catherine Tobler in Apex

Michael is afraid to go farther. Pudgy pushes him on.

They walk through the shrouded city, the sound of footsteps all but obscured. Pudgy holds hard to the band of the broken fedora that perches crooked atop Michael's bent head; the knees of Pudgy's trousers are soaked from kneeling against the brim.

A leprechaun story, set in a world ravaged by climate change. Yes, it is indeed awesome. Michael is trying to find his way back to Heather. Heather who told him all about how to catch a leprechaun, except that Michael caught Pudgy a different way altogether. This story is aching and tender, even as Pudgy and Michael traverse a terrible landscape, even as Michael holds back his wishes, even as Pudgy clings to Michael, trapped by the magic that binds them. The story shifts between Pudgy and Michael's trek, and letters from Heather to Michael, and once the mystery of those letters is revealed, we understand that there is a bond of a different kind between man and leprechaun. A strikingly original, uniquely imagined, and emotionally powerful blend of sci-fi and leprechaun-fantasy.

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The Soul Catcher by Leila Martin in CossMass Infinities

All souls caught with ease on this clear night. But only five appeared, and of these, two have lost their luster. This is becoming a trend. Some kind of disease? He’s angry, but what can I do?

Oh, what a gloriously dark and ominous tale this is. It's written as a series of journal entries by "the soul catcher" and as the story unfurls, we soon realize that the true task and purpose, and the true nature of the work, is not quite what the journal writer believes. And when the truth starts to reveal itself, everything unravels. Or so we think. The solitude and quiet dedication and desperation of the narrator in this story reminded me of Susanna Clarke's novel Piranesi, and I mean that as very high praise.

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Divine in the House of Hunger by Dare Segun Falowo in The Dark

A devastating horror story that is firmly anchored in the horrors, cruelty, and injustice of the real world, describing reality with razor sharp clarity before revealing an even deeper rot and evil beneath. There's a sense of dread and inescapable destruction lurking here as we follow Divine into a new household in Lagos. Divine has worked her fingers to the bone for years, offering her services as an impeccable housekeeper in many homes, hoping to earn enough to do something better with her life. And then, she meets Mrs. Arowolo... Masterful horror. 

The Spelunker’s Guide To Unreal Architecture by L Chan in The Dark

In this bone-chilling and twisted (and twisty!) read by Chan, two friends have spent years finding and exploring buildings that aren't quite what they seem and that might not quite be part of our world. They also share a backstory, and a traumatic loss, that has scarred them both, and now, in the latest house they enter, that past comes back to haunt them (literally). Chan builds the suspense and horror expertly, and there's a real depth of friendship and grief and guilt running through this story that gives it an emotional heft and makes it linger, long after reading. 

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Black Leg by Glen Hirshberg at TOR.com

Some places—schools, office complexes, even other malls—feel eerie with no one in them, because it always feels like there should be someone in them, right? Or has been, moments before. But these Southern California sidewalk worlds . . . they feel eerie because the thousands of people who pass through them leave no trace. 

At TOR.com, the intro-blurb for this story says, "Haunted by stories he hears while on jury duty, a documentary filmmaker finds himself in an abandoned mall at the dead of night." And that is the bare bones of this story. Beneath the surface, as Hirshberg peels back the skin of the everyday world and the veneer of what we might think is reality, lurks a terrifying darkness that gathers you in close. I love how this story gives you that sense of vertigo, as if you're falling into an abyss you didn't even know was there right in front of you. 

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Him Without Her and Her Within Him by Aimee Ogden in Zooscape

A tender, aching story about adolescence and grief and death. Ogden tells the tale of a son who is losing his mother and who feels the world, and life, is slipping away from him. When he shapeshifts into a bird, he is able to find some relief, but it's not enough to heal the hurt he's feeling. Ogden skillfully captures how difficult it can be to communicate our true feelings to others, even those we love, and how the world can shatter us even when we decide to go on living. Beautiful and heartbreaking.

A List of Historical Places Frequented by a Boy and His Dog by Eleanor R. Wood in Zooscape

1.) The tree fort your friend built, that you so longed to play in, but instead only visited once. When you realized I couldn’t climb up and play too, you never went back. I marked it for us anyway.

Well, if you would like your heart broken by the thoughts of a Very Good Dog, then this wonderful and quietly shattering story is for you. A dog remembers, and each memory is filled with both longing and love. For another wonderful dog story by Wood, check out "What the Sea Reaps, We Must Provide" from Diabolical Plots and also available at Podcastle, narrated by Summer Fletcher.

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A Smell of Jet Fuel by Andrew Dana Hudson in Lightspeed

We met on the 107th floor of the South Tower. She was standing in quiet contemplation, watching fire spread through the building across the plaza, smoke and paper billowing out into that baby blue sky. I was nursing a thunderous hangover, neglecting my tour group, which had all gone to the southern side of the observation deck to watch the second plane’s approach. She wasn’t supposed to be here.

Time travel for tourists. Visit an old catastrophe and see it up close! In Hudson's story, we find ourselves in a group of tourists being shepherded through the terror of 9/11, seeing it all play out in the South Tower. The tour guide is our narrator, and we soon realize that not everything will go according to plan on this trip. As Hudson tells us in Lightspeed's author spotlight, this story is a riff on, and an homage to, Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder”, and as a fan of Bradbury, I have to say that this is a terrific read. The ending got me good, and reminds the reader that you really should be careful what you wish for. 

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Shandy by Gabrielle Emem Harry in Omenana

The thing about family is that sometimes when you hold them close, you must hold their grudges too.

A darkly funny story about Ibi who uses a bottle of la casera to summon one of her ancestors to help her with an exam, and ends up getting way more "help" than she bargained for. I love how this story takes the idea of ancestors coming to help and guide the living, and then twists it into something quite unexpected when Ibi's great grandmother runs into a great great grandmother and the sparks fly, putting Ibi's future in question.

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July 30, 2021

Spotlight on APEX MAGAZINE—an interview with editor-in-chief Jason Sizemore and managing editor Lesley Conner (plus: check out that sweet sweet Kickstarter!)

This week, I have a special treat for you. It's an interview with the dynamic duo behind Apex Magazine: editor in chief Jason Sizemore and managing editor Lesley Conner. Apex is a brilliant SFF zine, and they're running a Kickstarter right now to finance their work for 2022. If you haven't supported them yet, head over and pick up a subscription or some of the other rewards available.

Huge thanks to both Jason and Lesley for answering some of my questions about the zine and the business of running an SFF publication!

Q. What’s your background apart from being the people running Apex Magazine?

Jason: The roots of the magazine trace to the year 2004 with the birth of my first kid and my 30th birthday. I had something of an early mid-life crisis and needed a creative outlet. I was big into the saddle stitch zine world at the time and thought it would be fun to do something like that. It was fun. And fulfilling. Here we are in 2021, that kid is now a senior in high school, and I'm still doing the zine.

Lesley: I grew up in a small town in West Virginia, and graduated in 2004 from WVU with a BA in English. I've been lucky enough to call Apex my full-time gig for nearly ten years now. Other than that, I fill my time with keeping up with two teenage daughters and volunteering for Girl Scouts. I run an incredibly active troop, and volunteer for multiple levels within the organization.

Q. How did you first decide to get into the SFF-zine business?

Lesley: I wouldn't say that it was a conscious decision on my part. Jason and I had become friends after bumping into each other at multiple conventions over the years. He mentioned on Facebook needing someone to help out with marketing. At the time I was a stay-at-home mom and I thought it sounded fun! I'd get to help a friend, and do something new and exciting. So I volunteered. I had no idea that it would lead to a career that I am absolutely in love with, but I'm incredibly grateful. I couldn't imagine doing anything else.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about Apex’s history as a zine and what you feel some of its most important accomplishments are as a SFF publication?

Jason: There's a certain amount of hubris required to answer a question like this. Fortunately, I have hubris in great supply...

 Honestly, though, defining achievements is difficult. We've entertained many readers over the years. We've had stories win the Hugo and Nebula awards. I think we've done some positive things in helping boost the voices of marginalized and under-represented writers in SFF.  We've published very early work from notable writers such as Lavie Tidhar, Rebecca Roanhorse, Alix E. Harrow, and Cherie Priest.

All of these are things I'm proud of. Things I want to continue doing. Things I want to do better.

Q. You’re running a Kickstarter campaign for Apex’s next year, 2022. Can you talk a bit about the financial side of running a magazine like this and why you decided to finance your publication through a Kickstarter rather than the subscription model or other alternatives.

Jason: Prior to our hiatus in 2019 (due to personal health stuff), we financed the publication completely through subscriptions and advertising. Thanks to longevity, brand awareness, and quality of our content, we had accomplished the unthinkable—making an online zine profitable.

When we did our relaunch Kickstarter in 2020, I had hoped we would pick up right where we left off. This was a ridiculous hope. We've had a phenomenal 2021, but having to rebuild your subscriber base to pre-hiatus numbers will take awhile. I'd venture to say it's more difficult this time due to the pandemic, social discontent, and the evey-rising amount of noise on social media. A week doesn't pass where I speak with someone who doesn't not know that we're publishing again.

For these reasons (and multitudes more), we're relying on a hybrid model of direct subscribers and crowdfunding. I love Kickstarter and the opportunities it provides, but a crowdfunding project is a lot of work, so I hope we won't need another after this one. I wouldn't be surprised if we do, though. Maybe it's the future of online zines? 

Q. What are some cool perks you offer in your Kickstarter for those who might want to support you? What are the stretch goals?

Jason: We have the usual cool stuff like tuckerizations, critiques from Lesley Conner and myself, and swag packs. There's dinner with Apex at Worldcon. Signed hardcovers. Fancy bamboo bookmarks. Subscriptions.

The stretch goal I'm most excited about is funding an Asian and Pacific Islanders bonus issue. A very close second is including spot art by Justin Stewart with every story! 

6. Every zine has its own voice and vibe, its own personality if you will. How would you describe what Apex Magazine is all about?

LesleyApex's vibe is definitely dark. Jason and I both love those stories that push the edge of being almost too much to take. The darkness appeals to us. But that doesn't mean that they're stories without hope or emotion. Actually, I'd say that the perfect Apex stories are the ones that have the biggest emotional impact. The ones that feel like a gut punch or leave the reader reeling in an emotional storm. There are no rose-colored glasses in the Apex offices. Instead, we're looking for the gritty reality taken apart and put back together in a speculative story.

Q. Could you pick three stories from past issues that in your opinion captures what you look for in stories for Apex and represents the kind of tales you want to publish?

Jason: I love questions like this!

"Without Wishes to Bind You" by E. Catherine Tobler — I want to be surprised by the fiction we publish. This is a work that could be campy and silly, but comes across as sweet, earnest, and gritty with realism.

"Curse Like a Savior" by Russell Nichols — Subtly dark. Coated with a veneer of humor. A scary bit of prognostication by the author.

"So Sings the Siren" by Annie Neugebauer — Here's another that took me off guard. It's a really short piece, but strong enough to pick up a Stoker Award nomination!

Q. If you could give advice to the writers wanting to submit stories to Apex, what would you say?

Lesley: 1. Read a few of Apex Magazine's newer issues to get a feel for what kind of stories we're looking for. They're available to read online for free. 2. Follow the submission guidelines. They're also online for you to read for free.

I know that answer seems too simplistic or maybe even flip, but the amount of submissions we get where it is obvious the writer has never read an issue of the magazine or ones where the author blatantly didn't follow the guidelines is baffling. Doing these two things really will give you a step up.

Q. If you could go back in time and talk to yourself when you got into the business of running a zine, what insights – warnings or advice or otherwise! – would you give yourself?

Lesley: To know my own self-worth! If we're going to be completely honest, I owe a LOT to Jason Sizemore because he saw something in me that took me years to see for myself. He believed in me when I didn't. A huge part of my early years working for Apex was me building self-confidence, both in myself as an individual and in my own talent. It changed me as a person and in how I interact with the world. So yeah, if I could have learned that sooner, that would be great. The fact is, though, past-Lesley would never believe me. It took someone else endlessly challenging my self-deprecation to finally start to believe in myself.

10. In your opinion, how has the SFF field on the whole evolved in the time since you became part of it? What trends and changes have you seen?

Jason: The field has become more diverse and much more interesting. The genre short fiction I read now is lightyears better than it was in 2005. The old print digests are still producing great work and now we have Clarkesworld, Apex Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lightspeed...

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Editor bios:

  • The man with the titanium jaw, Jason Sizemore is a three-time Hugo Award-nominated editor, writer, and publisher who operates the genre press Apex Publications. He currently lives in Lexington, KY. For more information visit www.jason-sizemore.com or you can find him on Twitter @apexjason.
  • Lesley Conner is a writer/editor, managing editor of Apex Publications, and a Girl Scout leader. She lives in Maryland with her husband and two daughters, and is currently working on a new novel. To find out all her secrets, you can follow her on Twitter at @LesleyConner.