February 28, 2021

Book review - ALL THE MURMURING BONES by A.G. Slatter


All The Murmuring Bones
is a brand new novel from A.G. Slatter, AKA Angela Slatter. The book is an intricately woven, hauntingly beautiful, gothic tale by one of the best storytellers in the business, and you'll encounter mer-folk, witches, sea witches, a singing automaton, a kelpie, a strange, black lake, devious men, dangerous women, and a lot more besides.

It's a tale infused with dark fantasy and horror, and it has the darkness and depth of old-school fairytales, the kind of tales where magic is a natural part of the world, where terrible things might happen to good and bad people alike, and where bargains with magical creatures often come at a very high price. All the Murmuring Bones is also a compelling mystery novel where we follow Miren O'Malley's quest to unravel the mystery of her parents' disappearance years ago, and to uncover the truth of how the now benighted O'Malley's once gained their outrageous fortune. 


 

The official blurb:

Miren O’Malley was orphaned as a young child and brought up by her grandparents on their isolated, rambling estate, Hob’s Hallow. Long ago her family prospered due to a deal struck with the mer: safety for their merchant ships in return for a child of each generation. But for many years the family have been unable to keep their side of the bargain and their fortunes have suffered as a result. When Miren’s grandfather dies, her grandmother plans to restore their glory – but at the price of Miren’s freedom.

A spellbinding tale of dark family secrets, magic and witches, and creatures of myth and the sea; of strong women and the men who seek to control them.

All the Murmuring Bones is set in a world familiar to fans of Slatter’s work. We’re in her Bitterwood Bible and Sourdough universe, where magic and shapeshifters and all sorts of unpredictable and dangerous fae creatures lurk everywhere. In this book however, we’re seeing that world from a somewhat different point of view since the story takes place long after most the stories from the Sourdough and The Bitterwood Bible short story collections have become legend and history, though the murmurs of those tales still suffuse the world.

Miren O'Malley’s parents disappeared when she was a child, and she’s grown up at the family estate Hob's Hallow, where she has been sheltered and shaped by her grandmother every step of the way. In the wake of her grandfather's death, Miren is being groomed by her grandmother for a marriage that is meant to save and secure the dwindling family fortune (in more ways than one), but Miren wants no part of it, and things do not go according to grandmother's plan.

In the disastrous aftermath of her betrothal, Miren leaves Hob's Hallow fiercely determined to find a way to keep her freedom. Armed with an old letter from her long-lost mother, and with her intended husband likely to hunt her down, Miren sets out on a dangerous journey to find her parents, and to lay bare the true nature of the deal the O'Malleys once struck with the sea-dwelling mer. On that journey, Miren encounters all manner of characters and creatures--some of them helpful and all of them perilous in one way or another--because this is a world where magic permeates everything and percolates everywhere, even when it's not always on display or practiced openly. Much like the heroines of the old fairytales, Miren must walk down many dark paths before she is fully able to grasp and use her own burgeoning powers, magical and otherwise.

Unravelling the mysteries of her parents' disappearance and the origins of the O'Malley fortune will fundamentally shift Miren's understanding of herself, her family, and her family's legacy. And once she knows the truth, she must decide what to do with the terrible knowledge she has gained, and how she will use it to reshape her own life and future.

Reading All the Murmuring Bones, I was reminded once again of how much I love the women in Slatter's stories. Miren O'Malley is strong-willed and fierce with an ornery, defiant streak that really appeals to me. Beyond Miren, there are a lot of other women in this story, and they are all compelling because they are as complex and complicated as women in the real world. Sometimes they are good, sometimes not. Sometimes bad things are done to them, and sometimes they do bad things to others. But no matter what, these women always find ways to grasp and wield power, in ways that might be petty and mundane, or grand and terrifying. Even the most downtrodden of these women, the ones who seem poor and weak and frivolous to others, find ways (big or small) to try to influence some small sliver of the world. They work with the shades of grey of the real world, struggling and fighting to make a space for themselves in a society that often conspires to restrict or take away their freedom. And no matter what, they are never reduced to evil caricatures or one-dimensional, pretty paper dolls.

All the Murmuring Bones is a rich and lush page-turner, twining together strands of gothic mystery, fantasy, horror, and fairytale. If you're already a fan of Slatter's work, this is obviously a must-read. And if you've never encountered her work before, then this book is a perfect entryway into her magical, mesmerizing universe.

(This review first appeared at mariahaskins.com)

 

February 7, 2021

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


 

Philia, Eros, Storge, Agápe, Pragma by R.S.A. Garcia in Clarkesworld

This is a spectacularly good science fiction novella that weaves together military sf, heart-pounding action scenes, political intrigue, family drama, artificial intelligence as friend and family and foe, AND has a deep love story at its heart. If you've read Garcia's The Sun From Both Sides from 2019, you're on familiar territory, because this is a sequel/prequel to that story. The main character is Eva who has retired from her military and political career and settled down with Dee, a man with his own complicated past. Then, it appears that Eva's "Sister", the AI she bonded with at birth, is trying to kill her, and Eva is pulled back into a world and a war she thought she had left behind. It's an intricately layered, powerful story that plays out in the past and the present, and is set in a unique and vividly drawn universe with a cast of fabulous characters. Give me more of this future-verse, please!

Intentionalities by Aimee Ogden in Clarkesworld

Sorrel never intended to confer a child to the Braxos Corporation. But Sorrel had never intended a lot of things that managed to happen with or without her say-so.

Motherhood is at the center of this heartbreaking story by Ogden, but it's a take on motherhood that I haven't seen explored and laid out quite like this before. In this future, where companies own and trade pretty much every part of every human being's life, Sorrel has managed to get herself so deep into debt that she sees no way out. Except that there is one way: to carry a child and give it up to the corporation once it turns five years old. I love how Ogden makes Sorrel a seemingly rather clueless and rather irresponsible adult who agrees to give up her child without really realizing what that will mean. She is not a bad person, she is just incapable of living a good life inside the terrifying corporate system that dominates this world. The tragedy is that once Sorrel DOES realize what she is actually going to lose, it's too late to stop the wheels from turning. Gutting and riveting from start to finish.

Yearning by Maya Beck in Strange Horizons

I called it "yearning" at first, but by the time word had spread to all twenty-two of us croppers, a divide had resulted: half called it firesouling, and half called it firesailing. All thought it was vodun, but still, all followed my lead to the campfire where I held the weekly ceremony.

Beck's quietly powerful story, is set in the time of sharecroppers, soon after the end of slavery in the United States. The weekly ceremony the protagonist tells us about, involves a kind of deep magic that brings the whole community either backwards in time to see their origins, or forward in time to see where their descendants will end up. In the story, they guide Elder Sunday into the future and it is a rather joyous trip, but afterward, an unwelcome visitor joins them by the fire. There's a subtle power in this story, and I love the way it explores how a community is trying to come to grips with the injustice that defines their world, and yet find hope for the future, and draw strength from the past. 

Scallop by J.L. Akagi in Strange Horizons

Scallops are ringed with eyes. They have hundreds of them. Over two hundred eyes tucked under the edge of their shells. Inside each of these eyes are mirrors, like a telescope. Human eyes have retinas. Scallop eyes have mirrors.

This isn’t poetry. It’s biology. But sometimes those are the same thing.

There are definite shades of body horror in this unsettling, evocative, but also tender story about a woman who suddenly starts growing eyes in the most unexpected places. However, this story is more than the kind of horror that makes you cringe. It's about transformation and identity, it's about love, and about the secret parts of ourselves that we often hide from others, even those closest to us. That line from the opening of the story, "This isn’t poetry. It’s biology. But sometimes those are the same thing." echoes through the whole piece as people turn into trees, into snakes. A strange story that will stay with me for a long time.

Winter's Heart by Vanessa Fogg in Hexagon Magazine

At the core of Winter’s realm, there are no beating hearts. No moving blood or warmth. Not even breath.

"Winter's Heart" is sharp and shimmery like ice and snow. It's a story about the Ice Queen, told by someone who used to live in her realm, but left with a man, had a family with him, and is now dealing with her own conflicted emotions about her past, and her present. Fogg always writes complex, compelling mothers and children, and she is a master at capturing the sweetness and wistfulness and conflicted nature of love, and that holds true here . This story hit me right in the feels because I know this mother. Sometimes, I am her.

Sailing to Byzantium by Jennifer R. Donohue in Fusion Fragment #4

Maggie’s mother said “Your father is building his ship” the moment she answered the call, before the holographs fully resolved. The world dropped out from under her.
“What? It’s too early.”
Her mother shrugged, holographic hands palm up, helpless. “Why don’t you try to tell him that, Maggie? I tried already. Come home.”

Maggie's father is building his ship. This is not an uncommon thing in the world of this story, but it means that Maggie's father is leaving, and will never come back. Donohue's tale is an aching, heartbreaking story about family and grief, and ultimately about death, even if it's death by leaving forever in a rocket ship you built in your own backyard. This story has a certain Bradbury vibe for me, and the title, of course, is from a lovely poem by William Butler Yeats.

Where the Stones Fly by Steve Zisson in Selene Quarterly vol. 3 issue 2

A quirky and thoroughly enjoyable alternate history tale that gives the reader a new take on the history of early airplane development, with a group of workers and craftsmen building an airplane our of rock: "Rock could fly. Pigeon Hill granite could soar." There's real human depth and complexity to this story that also involves union organizing, and the often tense rivalry between different granite quarries,. I love stories that take a strange premise like this and really make it, well, soar. Part of a great issue of Selene Quarterly.

The Long Tail by Aliette de Bodard in Wired

Nanites were war weapons, and the Conch Citadel was a ship full of them. They hadn’t run into variants before, not on this ship. Mutations usually didn’t show up on the scans because the sensors weren’t calibrated for random, unknowable varieties. But they’d heard the stories.

A space adventure where a crew is scavenging parts from an old, derelict spaceship where reality and unreality are layered on top of each other, and where the threat of falling under the spell of that unreality, the (technical) ghosts of the past, and the threat of dangerous nanites, is ever-present. What makes this story even more fascinating and compelling for me, is the idea of "lineage memory" where members of the crew can share in each others' recollections. 

Song of the Raven And Crow by Avra Margariti in Zooscape

A little while ago, Rosanna used to feel hollow all the time, a dead husk. She knew she wasn’t made of flesh and bone like the rest of her family, but of sackcloth, crude stitches, and moldy cotton unevenly stuffed inside her belly and wings. Her adopted family gave her their own down feathers to fill the empty places inside her. They gave her a home in the clouds.

Oh how I love this fierce and feathery story about Rosanna, a ragdoll raven; her family of crows; and her Mama, "Mother Crow, the leader of their clan of avian deities and former witch familiars". Rosanna tries to be happy with her crow family, but is haunted by the truth of how she was made, and the quest her maker, a witch, created her to carry out. And when Rosanna goes looking for the witch, things come to a head... 

Bast and Her Young by Tegan Moore in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Any moment now the sun-disk would break the horizon and Amun would climax, the spirit would take her, and her father—her father the god, Amun, but also her father the great pharaoh Aakheperkara Thutmose—would appear before her, her dynasty incarnate, embodying an unbroken line between the gods and man like a column of light reaching from the earth to the heavens. The Spirit of Kingship would greet her, would whisper to her the secrets of pharaohs past, and she would be imbued with the all wisdom of her god-king-father.

At least, she thought that’s how it was supposed work.

I do love tales of ancient Egypt, and in this story, Moore follows Hatshepsut in the early days of her reign as she seeks to establish her claim to the throne by receiving the Spirit of Kingship in an ancient ritual. But the spirit that appears to her is not her father, the old king, as she expected. Instead she is visited by an older and much different creature from Egypt's past, and this presence refuses to leave Hatshepsut alone once it has been summoned. I love how this story delves into the everyday world, lore, religion, and politics of ancient Egypt, and Moore's Hatshepsut is a powerful and compelling character.

Colombina by Jelena Dunato in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Pick me up, girl.

I’m such a pretty, delicate thing, hidden behind the gondola’s cushion. You feel me before you see me: the soft velvet of the cushions suddenly replaced by the roughness of my lace and the cool touch of my silk. Your fingers are smooth as you gently pull me from the shadows. 

When I was a kid, I used to read my uncle's old comic books when I visited my grandparents' house (they kept them in a closet in his old room), and one of my favourites was The Gauntlet of Fate (Ödeshandsken in Swedish). The gauntlet is picked up by a new person in each issue, and adventures ensue. "Colombina", an excellent fantasy-romance about Caterina, a young woman who is in love with a man without money, while her family wants her to marry a rich man she despises, reminds me of those gauntlet stories. Caterina finds a colombina mask, and when she eventually slips it on... magic, dangerous magic, is triggered. I really love that the story is told from the point of view of the mask itself. It gives the story, literally, a unique perspective.

The Badger’s Digestion; or The First First-Hand Description of Deneskan Beastcraft by An Aouwan Researcher by Malka Older in Constelación Magazine

"There's a Beast in Vulup that could use a crew member for a short time....it's not work, at least not in the Aouwan sense of the word. It's a volunteer Beast. Strictly occasional and unpaid."

In Malka Older's dizzyingly strange and intriguing story, a scholar visits another country. A country where the inhabitants can join together as various types of "Beasts"--dragons, kestrels, sea serpents, badgers, etc.--that perform important tasks in society. It's a kind of cooperation and transformation that is decidedly magical: the people become a creature, each of them part of its body, performing a part of its function. Older's focus is not really on the way the Beasts work, but how the society they are part of works. The visiting scholar notes many differences between their own home country and this new place, and notes the ways that working together as Beasts affect both citizens and society. It's an intricate and utterly charming story that has a real Ursula K. Le Guin vibe in its focus on society, and how different types of magic and/or technology might influence the way people live together.

My Mother's Hand by Dante Luiz in Constelación Magazine

Horácio is haunted by his dead mother's spirit, and it's not just that her spirit is still around to abuse him, she literally controls parts of his body, even after death. In order to free himself from her influence, and to reconcile the past with who he is now, he must embark on an almost impossible quest. There's a very dark sense of humour woven into this gutting tale, and the scenes when Horácio finally finds his mother's grave are...well, go read this story. A terrific story from this wonderful first issue of Constelación Magazine

Constelación is a quarterly speculative fiction bilingual magazine, publishing stories in both Spanish and English. Writers can submit their stories in either language. Fifty percent of the stories we publish in every issue will be from authors from the Caribbean, Latin America, and their diaspora.

I Will Teach You Magic by Andi C. Buchanan in Cossmass Infinities #4

My child, this is my promise to you: I will teach you magic.

We will find snatches of time together, on sunless mornings before you make your way down the outside staircase to the school that does not want you, and in the evenings as I brush out and braid your hair... I will teach you magic in the roof gardens at night and hurriedly in the doorways of shops closed on a rest day. You will learn to learn anywhere, in brief snatches of time, looking out for intruders all the while.

Buchanan is a must-read writer for me. I love their stories so much, and if you haven't read their fabulous, ghostly-strange novella From A Shadow Grave, you should remedy that ASAP. "I Will Teach You Magic" is a wonderful, tender story about parenting and love. It's also a story about disability and physical pain, and about how the process of teaching a child to use magic can be a tool to help them live a better life, even when that magic might not be permitted by society. I love how this story interrogates how society and its institutions view and control the use of magic. It adds real depth to a moving piece of fiction. 

From Witch to Queen and God by L. D. Lewis in Mermaids Monthly

The witch walks out of the sea on two legs alongside her men, armed to the teeth with fury meant to carry them through Eros's liberation.

Well, holy whoa, this story is amazing in every way. It's an absolutely radical, unique take on Ursula, the Sea Witch from The Little Mermaid, reimagining her as a much more powerful and complex character. Here, she is leading the overthrow of a government and a society built on the slave trade, at the head of an army made up of the people she's saved from drowning beneath the waves. Using her potent magic, she walks on land in the attack, but what she is attempting to do stretches the utmost limits of her power. It's a smashingly good, hugely entertaining story from this first issue of Mermaids Monthly.

10 Steps to a Whole New You by Tonya Liburd in Fantasy Magazine

It began, as most things do, simply enough. In a simple neighbourhood, on the edge of a town. Too urban to be rural, too rural to be urban.

Women grew old. Some women aged with their children, grandchildren, family around them. Some grew old alone, isolated, bitter. Others might grow old and die sick, in pain.

Then there was you.

This story is a chilling, compelling delight. Azelice is fascinated by her charismatic new neighbour Francine right from the start, and Francine also shows an interest in Azelice. Even though Azelice has some real misgivings about Francine's strange propositions, she is also ready to try and see if Francine can really do what she says she can do. Once Azelice understands exactly what Francine is after, well... by then it's not just too late, but Azelice doesn't WANT to back out even knowing the price she might pay. There's a wonderful dark undertow to this story, and Liburd's prose is compelling as it weaves together Trinidadian folklore and horror.

Things to Bring, Things to Burn, Things Best Left Behind by C.E. McGill in Fantasy Magazine

Clearly, judging by the number of people they brought to drag him out of his house, they weren’t expecting him to come as easily as this. Oz knows exactly what they’re thinking—what’s wrong with him? Is he up to something? He’s become fluent in dirty glances and sidelong looks over the years.

“What things?” asks one of the councilmen.

“My things,” Oz says, and shuts the door again. To his surprise, they don’t force it open. Even they wouldn’t deny a dead man his last request, it seems.

This is a wonderful, sharp take on a common fantasy trope: sacrificing a person to keep a community safe from a dangerous entity. In this case, there's a mountain that requires the sacrifices. Names show up in the magical hearth and then that person must be sent off to be eaten by the mountain, never to be seen again. Oz has lost his mother to the mountain, and now it's his turn to walk the long way to is own death. He packs his things and heads out, thinking he knows what will happen, but as it turns out, the mountain requires something from him that is much more difficult for Oz to give than his life. I really like how this story explores the idea of sacrifice, and what it means to sacrifice yourself, and I also like how it twists and turns this fantasy trope and finds new facets to it.

The Van Etten House by Carrie Laben in The Dark

The way I remember it, I got the call about the Van Etten house first, from a guy I knew who hauled crates of vinyl from record fair to record fair all over the state. His name was Clint, and though it’s probably unrelated, I never saw him again after that weekend. 

As soon as they find the dolls in that upstairs room in the Van Etten House, SO MANY DOLLS all boxed up and covered in dust, I got the best kind of horror-story chills and tingles. Laben's story doesn't spell out in so many words exactly what the dolls are, if they are effigies or sacrifices, or what kind of terrible magic has been wrought with them, but there are hints and glimpses of it throughout the text. I love that this story doesn't explain it all, but allows the unsettling strangeness of the old house and its contents, and the effect it may or may not have had on those who came to empty it after its owner died, remains mysterious and haunting. 

Your Own Undoing by PH Lee in Apex Magazine

You look at me and you don’t recognize me.  

It hurts that you don’t recognize me, your own familiar that you made from a part of your own soul, but there are more important things for us to deal with right now. I push through the hurt and speak to you, saying, “This is not a story you are reading. This is actually happening, and it’s actually happening to you.”  

This story kicked me right in my solar plexus. It's a story about magic, and deception, and it's about how terribly hard and painful, almost impossible, it can be to break free when someone has managed to convince you not to believe in your own reality. A scholar and sorcerer once took on an apprentice, but once the apprentice had learned enough, he tricked the sorcerer and bound them in a horrific state of deprivation and punishment and pain. The sorcerer's familiar keeps trying to break through the curse, to set them free, but how is that possible when the imprisoned person doesn't even believe they are a prisoner? A gutting, gripping story.

All I Want For Christmas by Charles Payseur in Apex Magazine

This was the winner in Apex's 2020 Holiday Horrors Flash Fiction Contest (the judge was Mike Allen of Mythic Delirium), and it is a perfectly crafted, gutting piece of flash. Robby is waiting for Santa to come, but his childish anticipation is tinged with a whole lot of darkness. A very quick read that packs a big emotional punch. 

Mouth & Marsh, Silver & Song by Sloane Leong in Fireside

I was born to the marsh with a memory of silver, acute as fear and soft as peat on my tongue.

In Leong's story, a marsh-born creature, a monster to the rest of the world, is born and grows in the mud and water. The creature is blessed or rather cursed with a strange power: when cut with a silver blade, the wound becomes a mouth that sings a prophecy and that prophecy is required for a prince to become king, and so it has been for a long, long time. The creature is visited by many prince through the years, fighting some of them off while others cut a prophecy from their body. But things change one day, when a young woman comes seeking a prophecy. This a gloriously fierce and voraciously brutal tale, written in beautifully dark, lyrical prose, and I love this savage take on prophecy and monsters and how we might change our fate if given the chance.

La Camaraderie du Cirque by dave ring at Podcastle

Gather round, and let me tell you the story of Veronica’s Oiseau de Feu.

They were dark times, for me.  Every bloody day, Chuckles, Magda and Felix tried to trip me when I walked by, ugly faces snickering underneath their greasepaint.  My everything, Michel, ignored them, even when they pull that shit right in front of him.  It infuriated me.  He said it was to preserve “the camaraderie du cirque.” 

A fierce, sharp, and jagged story about love and lust, and about revenge and repercussions. Paolo feels ill-treated by everyone at the circus, like no one respects him or even really wants him around. He grasps and grabs at whatever affection and love he can get, but the snickers and sneers and slights he is subjected to eventually lead to a faceoff with his rival in love, Lars. And what happens in that moment, when Paolo's temper runs over, changes his life (and his understanding of who he is and what he is capable of) forever. A dark and twisted circus tale full of wonderful characters.

Wolfsbane by Maria Dahvana Headley in Nightmare #100 (exclusive paid content)

It's winter when the wolf comes into our wood.

Out there somewhere, a howl. Out there somewhere, a cry. In the dark woods beyond our house, something red is happening.

This story hits so many of my sweet spots all at once. It's a re-telling of Little Red Riding Hood; it's full of complex, forceful, difficult women; and the prose is absolutely glorious (no surprise since it's written by the masterful Maria Dahvana Headley). It's a story about resistance and revolution, about magic and violence, about sourdough and what it takes to defeat the wolves that will come for you and try to devour you and yours. Since it's exclusive paid content, you can only read it if you buy the issue or if you are a subscriber to Nightmare, but a) this story is worth paying for all by itself, and b) this issue of Nightmare (#100) is FULL of outstanding horror. 

AND if you want to read some more fabulous re-tellings of Little Red Riding Hood (which is  my favourite fairytale) I can suggest three stories that are available online:

How To Break Into a Hotel Room by Stephen Graham Jones in Nightmare

Once, coming up Mercer on a beer run not long after graduation, Javi had seen Lisa K. He was pretty sure it was her, anyway. It had been years, but she’d always had a way of standing. It was like she’d just been punched in the gut. Like she was waiting for the next punch.

Stephen Graham Jones knows how to you reel you in to a story. He'll reel you in with a character or a situation that seems somewhat familiar, like something that might have happened, or someone who might have lived, in your own town, been part of your own life. And then he takes the threads of that seemingly familiar strip of reality and twists them until the world splits apart and you feel chills crawling up your spine. Here, Javi is trying to pull off a small-time crime, getting into a hotel room and stealing whatever he can get his hands on. But right from the start he is haunted by thoughts of an old crime, a crime he's told himself he wasn't really guilty of, but that he has been unable to shake. And when the twist in this story comes, when Javi realizes that nothing about this night, or the hotel room, is what he thought it was, by then it is much too late for him.

Thanks so much for reading! See you next month!

 Listen to the audio-version of the roundup.

 First published at Curious Fictions. Art is a detail of Kenjay Reyes's cover art for Fusion Fragment #4.