June 16, 2021

Book review: NO GODS, NO MONSTERS by Cadwell Turnbull


No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull


The official blurb:

One October morning, Laina gets the news that her brother was shot and killed by Boston cops. But what looks like a case of police brutality soon reveals something much stranger. Monsters are real. And they want everyone to know it.

As creatures from myth and legend come out of the shadows, seeking safety through visibility, their emergence sets off a chain of seemingly unrelated events. Members of a local werewolf pack are threatened into silence. A professor follows a missing friend’s trail of bread crumbs to a mysterious secret society. And a young boy with unique abilities seeks refuge in a pro-monster organization with secrets of its own. Meanwhile, more people start disappearing, suicides and hate crimes increase, and protests erupt globally, both for and against the monsters.

At the center is a mystery no one thinks to ask: Why now? What has frightened the monsters out of the dark?

The world will soon find out.

Why I loved this book:

In 2019 I reviewed Cadwell Turnbull's alien invasion / colonization novel The Lesson for B&N's Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog (read the review) and it's a book I still think about a lot. Before that, I was already a fan of Turnbull's short fiction (there are links to his short stories at the end of this review). All this to say: when I got a chance to read an Advance Reading Copy of No Gods, No Monsters, I was thrilled. And once I started reading, I was enthralled.

No Gods, No Monsters is an audacious, powerful, and often mind-blowing novel that takes you on a dizzying ride into a hidden, ancient world of monsters existing just beneath the surface of human society. 

When I started reading, I foolishly thought I kind of knew what sort of monster story this was, and that I more or less understood what kind of world it takes place in, but wow, was I wrong. Page by page, chapter by chapter, Turnbull removes the walls, the ceiling, and the floor of the reality I thought I was exploring as a reader, until I was falling into the starlit depths of an entirely different, fearsome and awe-inspiring universe.

"You ever feel like there's a world beneath this one?"
"What do you mean?" Ridley's breath rises and falls, his heart beating steady as a drum.
Laina struggles for the words. "Like we are a speck on some larger thing that we only catch glimpses of."

No Gods, No Monsters is a riveting, sometimes harrowing book as Turnbull explores the unseen power structures and secret power struggles that underpin the reality humans thought they understood. In particular, the book is the story of what happens when those secrets are laid bare for all the world to see. Just like in The Lesson, Turnbull anchors the speculative fiction / horror part of his narrative in a nuanced understanding of the power dynamics at work in the real world, a world riven by racism, bigotry, media manipulation, repression and oppression, but also a world of communities, loyalties, and love. 

Beyond the monsters and the monstrous and the monstrosities (human and otherwise), this is very much a story about communities - in the human world, in the monster world, and at the points where those worlds intersect. It's also a book about family (found and otherwise), and the yearning to belong, to matter to someone, and to feel like we have a place in the world.

Turnbull tells his story from several different points of view, pulling us into the lives of characters that have varying degrees of knowledge and understanding of the monster-world. The characters' storylines sometimes intersect and collide, and the way these various points of view reveal the world and the story to us bit by bit, illuminating it from different angles, makes for a gripping narrative that is so good it occasionally left me giddy.

There is one moment in the book that literally made me do a double-take as I was reading. I won't give it away, because it's a spoiler (and also, it's too damn good!), but I will say that it's the kind of storytelling choice that knocked the wind out of me. The impact reminded me of the knock-out moment in N.K. Jemisin's Broken Earth trilogy when we finally understand who has been narrating part of the story in second person for us. In a similar way, Turnbull manages to flip our understanding of the story, and the story-telling, on its head.

No Gods, No Monsters is an intense, rich, and intricate book that puts a uniquely imagined spin on many familiar horror tropes and themes: secret societies, werewolves, magic, cosmic horror, and much more. It's out in September, and you should pre-order it now. 

This is the first instalment in Turnbull's Convergence Saga, so there will definitely be more books to look forward to.

Buy No Gods, No Monsters. 

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For links to Cadwell Turnbull's short fiction and essays, check out his website.

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June 11, 2021

#FridayReads for June 11, 2021 -- checking out THREE-LOBED BURNING EYE

This week's #FridayReads is all about the speculative fiction zine Three-Lobed Burning Eye

Three-Lobed Burning Eye publishes stories with a weird / horror / dark vibe and it's always a great read. The issues are published free to read online, and they also publish print anthologies (with absolutely gorgeous covers and art). 

The latest one of these anthologies, Volume VII, was just published, and it contains 22 stories from issues 25 to 28, including fiction by Cat Rambo, Sara Saab, Kristi DeMeester, Mel Kassel, E. Catherine Tobler, Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam, Mari Ness, J.M. McDermott, Keffy R. M. Kehrli, and many more.

If you have a taste for the stranger, darker, somewhat surreal side of speculative fiction, this zine, and this anthology, might be just the thing for you.

  • Volume VII and all other Three-Lobed Burning Eye print anthologies are available from the 3LBE store.

More about Three-Lobed Burning Eye:

Three-Lobed Burning Eye (3LBE) is an online speculative fiction magazine, bringing you stories of horror, wonder, and the weird. 3LBE launched in 1999, and has published authors Laird Barron, Gemma Files, Kelly Barnhill, Mari Ness, Cody Goodfellow, Nadia Bulkin, and Kealan Patrick Burke. Each issue features six short stories. Beginning with issue 20, we offer audio readings, ebook formats, and online (responsive) format for mobile devices.

Our current publishing schedule is twice yearly, usually Spring and Fall, with a print anthology every other year.

All issues of the magazine are free online. Please consider different ways to support our publication and its authors, by donating and spreading the word. We also offer advertising opportunities.

3LBE is edited by Andrew S. Fuller.


The latest issue of 3LBE, issue 32, was published in November of 2020. It's available to read online, and if you want to sample the fiction of this excellent zine online, this is a great place to start.

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June 9, 2021

Writer spotlight on Julie C. Day - STORIES OF DRIESCH, UNCOMMON MIRACLES, and THE RAMPANT

One of my favourite writers, who also happens to be a pretty amazing human being, is Julie C. Day. Day holds an MFA in Creative Writing and a M.S. in Microbiology from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Her short fiction has been published in several magazines, journals, and anthologies, including Black Static, The Dark, Podcastle, Interzone, and the Cincinnati Review. Her brilliant, weird, dark fantasy novella, The Rampant, was released in 2019 by Aqueduct Press, and was a Lambda Literary Award finalist. Her short story collection, Uncommon Miracles, was released by PS Publishing in 2018.

Day is also the Editor-in-Chief of the charity anthology Weird Dream Society, released in 2020. All proceeds from that anthology goes to RAICES, a nonprofit education and legal services organization that envisions a compassionate society where all people have the right to migrate, and human rights are guaranteed.

Stories of Driesch

Right now, and throughout 2021, Day is hard at work on a project called Stories of Driesch, which is being published in the form of one new story every month this year at the Vernacular Books website. At the end of the year, the stories will be gathered up and available all together as a mosaic novel. What I've read of Driesch so far is compelling and fascinating, and set in a uniquely imagined sci-fi/cyberpunk world.

The official blurb for the first story, "Shattered":

Debts must be paid, & black market Limm-Glass makers, Lottie & Elham, are struggling to get the job done. Meanwhile, Lottie’s implanted Limm-Glass AI is malfunctioning.

“Shattered” is the first in a series of 12 stories set in the city of Driesch. In this cyberpunk-ish city, consciousness is a commodity. And the self is an augmented, fractured creation. Death detectives work with memories in storied Limm-Glass. Children are outfitted with secondary Glassed-personalities. Black market operators acquire and trade virtual Glassed-slaves, and man-made tools utilize modified and unmodified versions of both the living & the dead.

You can read more about the already-published stories on Julie C. Day's website, and then you should head over to Vernacular Books and read the story-instalments:

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If you want to read more of Julie C. Day's work, I highly recommend both her short story collection, Uncommon Miracles, and her novella, The Rampant.

Uncommon Miracles


The official blurb:

A grieving man travels through time via car crash. A family of matriarchs collects recipes for the dead. A woman gains an unexpected child in the midst of a bunny apocalypse. An outcast finds work in a magical slaughterhouse. Julie C. Day’s debut collection is rife with dark and twisted tales made beautiful by her gorgeous prose and wonderfully idiosyncratic imagination. Melding aspects of Southern Gothic and fabulism, and utilizing the author’s own scientific background, Day’s carefully rendered settings are both delightful and unexpected. Whether set in a uniquely altered version of Florida’s Space Coast or a haunted island off the coast of Maine, each story in this collection carries its own brand of meticulous and captivating weirdness. Yet in the end, it is the desperation of the characters that drives these stories forward and their wild obsessions that carry them through to the end. It is Day’s clear-eyed compassion for the dark recesses of the human heart and her dream-like vision of the physical world that make this collection a standout.

My review:

One of the first stories I read by Julie C. Day was “One Thousand Paper Cranes” in Kaleidotrope. It’s included in this collection, and it’s a remarkable story about siblings, hope and grief, the longing for the world to change, and the visceral horror of being changed when society decides to “make you better”.

As in many of her stories, “One Thousand Paper Cranes” skillfully subverts the familiarity of everyday life with darker shades of the weird and the strange. I love the feeling I often get while reading Day’s stories, that you know the places she describes, that you might even know people like these, but you still feel as though anything could happen, or has already happened. That unsettling feeling permeates Day’s work, and it’s one of the reasons I find her stories so interesting and compelling.

The stories included in Uncommon Miracles straddle the lines between science fiction, fantasy, horror. One thing that binds them together, and sets Day’s work apart, is her characters. She creates characters that may be fragile, flawed, and troubled, but she always describes them with a clear-eyed and unsentimental sense of compassion and understanding that adds to the richness and emotional depth of her stories.

There are stories in this collection about rabbits as apocalyptic emissaries, the difficulties of building a stellar nursery at home, and about Margery who keeps her lover in a hamster cage. As you might surmise from this, you never know what or who you might encounter in a story by Day, or how the everyday world will be twisted and turned into something new, eerie, and unsettling, but then, that’s exactly what makes this collection so very good.

(Note: the beautiful cover art is “Fawn” by Tiffany Bozic.)

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The Rampant

Synopsis:

The Rampant is a queer-girls-in-love, coming-of-age short novel that is harrowing, heartbreaking, and darkly funny.

Christianity it turns out got a whole lot of things wrong. It’s ten years since the hordes of old-world Sumerian gods arrived in Southern Indiana ready to kick off the end of the world. Massive tornadoes, tsunamis, government collapse: it all started out so strong, but the Rampant, the final herald of the apocalypse, failed to show. Both people and gods have had to adjust.

Sixteen-year-old Emelia Bareilles and Gillian Halkey have spent most of their childhood stuck in this seemingly never-ending apocalypse. Now the two friends are resolute: they will travel into the lands of the dead and force a change.

Riffing on fragments of historical text, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Rampant uses and refutes the known details and rules of the Sumerian underworld. As they travel through the lands of the dead, Emelia and Gillian meet loved ones and strangers trapped in a system they didn’t create. Each step makes them more determined to help create a better, godless world. In the end this is a story about the inequities of power, human self-determination, and the various ways in which we love each other.  

My review:

As you might be able to tell from the synopsis, this novella is one heck of a ride. It's funny, it's dark, it's utterly and beguilingly strange, and deeply heartwarming, all at the same time.

I have never read another apocalyptic story quite like this, with the way it blends teenage sass and romance with Sumerian mythology and end-of-the-world angst. Day has fashioned a fast-paced horror/dark fantasy story about two queer girls in love who try to save the world by bringing about the Sumerian Rapture (which might seem to be an odd way of saving the world, but hey, in this case it might actually work!).

The characters are wonderful in all their fiery, gnarly teen girl glory, and their “road trip” adventure through the underworld is phantasmagorically trippy. Day keeps the story moving at a fast clip, and one of the best things about this tale is the often hilarious, sometimes brutally honest and forthright dialogue between the two main characters. The bond between Emelia and Gillian is what kept me hooked from the first page to the last.

Buy The Rampant.

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Find out more about Julie C. Day on her website.

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June 7, 2021

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


The audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube.



Before Whom Evil Trembles by Nhamo in Anathema

You are the kind of ballerina whose whispers paint red the sky under which you sleep. The kind who stays behind and rides the air long after everyone else has gone home to rest.

You are the kind of ballerina who does not know rest.

Because it is the only way out of this room, and you have to get out. You have no choice.

Nhamo's story is a masterpiece of lyrical, evocative prose and a story that is sharp as a razor. A ballerina with a harrowing backstory works herself to the bone in order to succeed in her chosen artistic profession. The memories of her past never leave her, and the world around her won't let her forget that they do not believe she fits in or belongs, or that she can become what she longs to be. And yet... below the surface, the ballerina has a strength that is only revealed at the utmost end. I love how this story weaves together memory, the power of ancient deities, and present day hostility. An outstanding story from an impressive new issue of Anathema.

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Worth the Whistling by Adriana C. Grigore in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

The people in the village did this thing to keep the soul from finding rest after they hit and burnt and killed the body. They never stoked their kilns enough to ash the bones. They let them burn for days, smoking softly, then scraped off the charcoal flesh, threw the bones in a bag, and took them to the Whistling.

A haunting story about a community where violence and murder are always close at hand, and where the bones of those who have been killed, are put in a strange area called The Whistling. Agneta has lived at the edge of the Whistling for as long as she can remember, learning how to "write the bones" from her grandfather who is now gone. Carving words and memories into the bones works as a kind of magic to free the ghosts that linger in the Whistling, but the work must be done carefully so as not to raise the ire of the villagers. Then, one night, Agneta watches as yet another woman is murdered, and afterward someone comes knocking on her door, and they are not a ghost... yet. A sorrow-filled, beautifully written, moving story about ghosts and people who linger, bound by memories and darkness and tendrils of love, and how to set them, and yourself, free.

The Woods Echo Back by Tania Fordwalker in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

In the next snare, the one by the lake, they find the lindwurm.

Utterly still at first, she looks like a patch of spring snow spread alongside the taut rope, luminous in the early morning light. She is wolf-sized, hawk-sharp, white and regal as a swan. The trees thin out at the lake’s edge, admitting a seep of rising sun between the narrow trunks that traces her motionless form in pale gold and rose and snow-shadow blue, from sleek head to arrow-tipped tail.

I love every bit of this wrenching and gorgeous story about Shon, who rarely speaks and has recently lost his mother who was one of the few people who really understood him and brought some joy into his life. He lives in a cottage in the woods with his father, a trapper, a man who is harsh in word and deed, and who does not treat Shon with any kindness. But when Shon and his father find a rare and magical lindwurm in the woods, everything changes. I won't give away anymore of this story, but I love the lindwurm (you will too!), and these characters. It's a rich and compelling tale and the ending had me at the edge of my seat. 

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My Lakeside Graveyard by Peter S. Drang in Flash Fiction Online

My lakeside graveyard’s all I got. I inherited it from my Pop, like he did from his Pop, and you get that old picture. I’m king here—ruling over my quiet darlings. And I wear all the crowns: sole proprietor, groundskeeper, gravedigger.

This is some great, flash-sized horror. The setting is creepy and the narrator unsettling as soon as the story opens. There is a graveyard, but there isn't enough space for all the dead that need to be buried there, so, while some corpses are "planted", others must be dug up and ...relocated. But one old corpse is not happy about this procedure and resists, and, well... things get worse from there. Fabulous horror that will definitely haunt me.

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Balfour In the Desert by Fargo Tbakhi in Strange Horizons

When he looks at the stars, they are different than before. When he can no longer look at them from pain, he looks to his feet, scraped and bleeding and coated in sand. He has forgotten his name. He searches for it in the sand on his feet, looking to create through geomancy some knowledge of himself or of his world which has disappeared into timelessness. Somewhere ahead of him, the creature is running. When he finds it he will kill it, and things will be different.

Balfour is journeying across the desert, hunting a creature that fascinates and frightens him. He is really utterly lost as he travels through the changeable landscape with "the Arab". Balfour himself is changeable too, vacillating between helplessness and senseless cruelty, between the rags he wears in the desert, and his memories of the fine clothes and suits, the power, he once wielded (though he cannot quite remember who or what he was then). In his moments of cruelty, he almost remembers himself: who he is, who he is supposed to be, why he is even in the desert at all. This story is a shapeshifting, harrowing, haunting fever-dream. It's about revenge and retribution, and more besides, and it lingered in my mind long after reading.

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Mishpokhe and Ash by Sydney Rossman-Reich in Apex

In Hungary around the time of Hitler's reign, a Jewish girl named Magda builds a Golem. She builds it to help out around the house, and the Golem does whatever Magda teaches it to do. She tries to teach it to be something good in a world that is becoming ever worse for Magda and the people around her. She teaches the Golem not to lie, or steal, or hurt anyone, and while the Golem obeys, the wisdom of those rules are not always apparent to the Golem. Eventually, the war and the persecution of Jews catches up to Magda and her family, and by then, the relationship between Magda and her creation has changed. There is a painful weight of sadness and grief in this story, a darkness that becomes ever deeper, and almost consumes both Magda and the Golem. Powerful and devastating.

All This Darkness by Jennifer R. Donohue in Apex

Nobody ever says we have coal in our veins; they don’t have to. We have black half-moons under our nails when we wake in the morning; we ooze like oil when we skin a knee, split a knuckle fighting. We aren’t afraid of the dark or closed spaces. We don’t crave the daylight like some people. 

I love the voice and vibe and darkness of this gorgeously wrought story, of the children living in a town where the mountain and the coal mine looms over everything, and always has. But then the mine closes and the town begins to shut down too, shops and schools and more goes away bit by bit, as if the town is dying. But the children find a place to belong anyway, picking up the pieces of the broken mountain and the broken world. 

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Peristalsis by Vajra Chandrasekera in The Deadlands #1

This is that kind of show. We know when another year has passed when the new year birds hoot in the background. There are only two kinds of show: the kind where people grow older and the kind where they don’t. We, the fandom, love the first kind best. We love this show so much..

A profoundly surreal and haunting story about a TV-show (or is it?) and the audience watching it (if that is what they are). There's a sense of a ghostly, unspoken, barely perceived connection between the show and the audience, as if they are all connected but in ways even they themselves cannot understand. The story is beautiful and unsettling with a sense of existential dread seeping through in every part. This is a story that I keep turning over in my head: it's a stunner from this excellent first issue of The Deadlands.

(Note: "Peristalsis is a series of wave-like muscle contractions that move food through the digestive tract. It starts in the esophagus where strong wave-like motions of the smooth muscle move balls of swallowed food to the stomach."

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Pros and Cons of Spending the First Weeks of Your Son's Life in the NICU by Timothy Mudie in Daily SF

Pro: The doctor you meet with says you did the right thing bringing your son in when you did. You caught whatever is happening early. So perceptive of the little changes happening in his behavior.

Con: You register the words but hear the tone, see the look in her eyes that says: You are a failure as a parent. There is something wrong with your baby because there is something wrong with you.

This story cuts deep for me. It's so raw and jagged, so tender and lovely and painful. I spent 10 days in the NICU with my son, many years ago now, and every bit of this story rings true. It made me cry and yet it doesn't end in grief and hopelessness. Thoroughly wonderful.

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Weaving by January Adams in Fireside

A week before Lauri declared an end to our friendship by throwing a cheesecake into the river, I found the Tessitura sitting in her closet. At the time, I had no idea what it was or what it was called. It just looked like a small roll of Scotch tape in a curved container, with thin, gold-trimmed red ribbon where the tape should be.

The roll was warm to the touch and buzzed faintly. I held it to my ear to make out the sound: a soft hum, blended with a rush of expectation and potential. 

Oh, this story is a TRIP. It's about transformation, of a person and of relationships, and it's about things ending and new beginnings, and how things can end even though we don't forget them and even though we carry the memories with us. I love how the story seems to say that endings are not automatically bad -- sometimes, often, relationships end and it's not anyone's fault, it's just Life. I also love the mysterious item, the Tessitura at the heart of the story, and how its enigmatic nature reveals itself bit by bit. A warm, heart-healing story.

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Taking Control of Your Life in Five Easy Steps by P H Lee in Nightmare

In order to address the problems of your life, you must address the underlying causes.

Understand that your reality is not the only reality. There is another reality, which we only perceive through mirrors and reflections.

Masterfully chilling and sharp as a razor's edge, this story is horror that cuts very deep. In the story's intro, Lee says, 

Taking Control of Your Life in Five Easy Steps” is inspired by and dedicated to all the people who have tried to sell me their quick and easy surefire fixes for my mental illness.

The way this story uses the list format, the way it uses the strangeness and creepiness of mirrors and reflections, and the way it twists itself into darker and more disturbing territory in the telling... it makes for beautiful, deep horror that has the unsettling ring of truth.

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Queen Minnie's Last Ride by Aimee Ogden in Apparition Lit

Well, darlin’? asked the ghost in the spook gun at Ruth’s hip. Death had never yet hammered flat the teasing lilt to her voice, nor sanded smooth its hoarseness. You going to shoot, or not?

A weird and wonderful western-flavoured story where we find out the terrible, harrowing truth about Ruth's spook gun. A spook gun in this story is a gun that "held on tight to the last soul it had killed". And the ghost in Ruth's gun is the ghost of the ferocious and indomitable Queen Minnie, who tries to lure Ruth away from the life she is living, whispering desires and dreams into her head that are hard to resist. Ruth is trying to find a way to free herself from Queen Minnie without trapping someone else as a ghost in the gun, and without cursing someone else with the dangerous ghost within her spook gun. This is a fabulous story, and I love the intertwining of western and speculative fiction here. And Ruth is one heck of a protagonist.

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For Lack of a Bed by John Wiswell in Diabolical Plots

She meant to run a hand over its arm rest, but immediately found herself sitting on it. Sinking into the cushions felt like a hug from a friendly giant. The honking and crying and thrumming of the city outside their apartment seemed to calm down.

Noémi suffers from chronic pain and sleep is hard for her to come by, at least until her friends tells her about a free couch. As soon as Noémi touches the couch, she knows there's something special about it, and soon she is getting the very best sleep of her life, untroubled by pain. As it turns out, the couch has its own secrets AND its own agenda, and that is not altogether good news for Noémi. Wiswell's stories are always a delight, and this one is no exception. (John Wiswell won the Nebula Award for his brilliant story Open House On Haunted Hill, also in Diabolical Plots.)

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Homebody by Kyle Winkler in Coffin Bell

The first time they came as cartographers from Britain. They couldn’t say who they worked for, except that the Tableau was based in London, Bishkek, Kinshasa, and Montevideo. They were working hard in Eastern Europe, too. This was months before the New Berlin Wall fell.

I'm not sure I can accurately describe how strange and haunting and also darkly funny this story is. It's set in the (not too distant) future, where two strange men from an even more mysterious organization called Tableau come to visit KB, the story's narrator. They seem to have a serious interest in her neighbour, a man called Yardley. Eventually, KB is recruited to perform various tasks for Tableau, finding things, taking things, and spying on Yardley. "Yardley told me he was never lost. He said he was constantly in the process of being found by himself whether he wanted it or not." This is a darkly brilliant story about maps, cartography, and finding patterns in the body that mirror or echo the world, and it got right under my skin (and oh, the things you might find under your skin in this story...).

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The Steel Magnolia Metaphor by Jennifer Lee Rossman in Escape Pod (narrated by Ellora Sen-Gupta)

This is a funny, poignant, and heartbreaking story about Astrid who really doesn't like metaphors or hugs; and it's about her relationship with her family, especially her mom, who has cancer. Astrid has made a steel magnolia, full of razor sharp metal flowers, and it can kill mosquitoes. Her invention was inspired by her mom's love of the movie Steel Magnolias, but Astrid hasn't watched the movie, and she has a hard time understanding why she'd want to watch it, once her mother explains that it is not a movie about magnolias made of steel at all, and in fact includes no robot trees at all. I love Astrid and her mom, and the way their relationship is both loving and fraught in this story. Wonderful, through and through.

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Langsuir by Nadia Mikail in Cast of Wonders (narrated by Fash Wahab)

This story begins by telling us that in Malay folktales, the langsuir is a woman who has died giving birth to a stillborn child. After death, it roams the world, looking for its child and when it can't find it, it enters other homes and drains other children of their blood.

We soon realize that this story is told from the point of view of an owl, and owls particularly fear langsuirs. The reason why is because a langsuir can "Keep" an owl, meaning, it enters its body and uses it to seek out its prey. 

“My grandmother told me: keep away from women having difficult births. They can sense you there. After death, they will rise up, and find you. We don’t know what it is that attracts them to owls.”

But the owl narrating this story doesn't just fear the langsuir that hunts it down; this owl also feels compassion for the woman she once was, and even the creature she becomes. A beautifully told story of pain and horror, and also of the possibility of redemption. Be warned that this story is strong stuff, so do check out the content warnings!

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Unseelie Brothers by Fran Wilde in Uncanny Magazine

Sera and Rie stood before the broad oak doors, wound with metal vines for hinges, set beside a narrowly arched, darkened window. Sera remembered those details and shivered. It was all a little bit strange, the way the story changed each time her aunt told it, and to whom: how she and her sister Serena spent all they had on their gowns—The Butterfly Gown and The Gown of Flowers—or that they’d gotten them last minute, at discount, or that they had been surprised with them by a well-off relative—and then how well they’d done at the ball, how lucky Mr. Saunders and Mr. Sebastian had been.

A sumptuous adventure that involves the most amazing clothing, created by the Unseelie Brothers, working in a shop that may appear whenever and wherever, and where the price you pay might not be due just in money... There are so many amazing magical dresses here (and pieces of jewelry), and though all the dresses are striking and often beautiful, the effect they have on the wearer can be unpredictable. I love how this story has a dark edge as it explores the dangers inherent in any deal you make in a fairytale, but that it also is full of friendship and love and humour.

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The 21 Bus Line by Gabriela Santiago in The Dark

I wish I could tell you if the bus looked normal when I sat down. I wish I could tell you if the other passengers looked normal.

But I had a backpack full of comics just begging to be read, and honestly, nobody ever really looks at anybody on the bus.

What an absolutely wonderful, utterly weird, and profoundly trippy and unsettling story this is. A woman gets on the bus. There is a very strange woman in a peculiar fur coat on the bus, and as she strikes up a (rather one-sided) conversation, things get increasingly bizarre AND increasingly menacing. Pitch-perfect dialogue, a deeply surreal vibe, and so many twists and turns make this story stand out for me. The strangeness, and the change that seems to come over the world and the bus and everyone on it is beautifully done by Santiago.

This story is part of a fabulous issue of The Dark that also includes the haunted house of family horrors in Crooked House by Nina Kiriki Hoffman; the devastating ghost story Water Child by Frances Ogamba; and the unforgettably harrowing and fierce Of Claw and Bone by Suzan Palumbo.

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The Last Stanza of General Pfeil, by H.L. Fullerton in Lackington’s #23

The theme for this issue of Lackington's is "battles" and in this particular story, a general goes to visit the place where she once fought in the war, a place where she won victories but where so many other people lost their lives. Fullerton links art and poetry with war and violence in intricate, uniquely imagined ways and there is so much depth and nuance to this story as the general goes to find a part of her past, and maybe create something new from what once was. I will be thinking about this story for a very long time. If you want to read more by Fullerton, check out The Boy Who Was Mistaken For a Fairy King, from Annorlunda Inc.

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Mysteries of Visiocherries by Rio Johan in Samovar

As with artists, it’s only natural for fruit engineers to experience arid periods of inspiration. Kwodvide, one of the senior fruit engineers in the Bio-Corporation, managed to design something to solve this problem: an inspirational cherry which he named visiocherry.

This story about a fruit engineer starts out as science fiction, but soon adds twists of a mystery tinged with horror. Kwodvide invents an amazing cherry, and while it seems to have amazing properties, it turns out to be rather more problematic and insidious than Kwodvide first thought. When Kwodvide disappears, the police realize he left behind clues, hidden in texts and documents he wrote, clues he seems to have tried to hide even from himself! A creepy and thought-provoking, mind-bending, and just plain awesome story that is part of a short story collection: 

His next book, Rekayasa Buah (Fruit Engineering), will be published this year. It's a whimsical science-fiction short story collection about fruits of which Mysteries of Visiocherries is a part. 

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Golden Girl by A. M. Guay in khōréō 1.2

Jasy has been taken from her mothers and adopted by a 'picture perfect' family that find her disappointing in almost every way. Guay spins a fantastic and deeply disturbing story that explores the problematic issue of transracial adoption, and also explores who is considered to be a good and worthy parent in world where some people are considered worthless and "wrong" by mainstream, "polite" society. I saw a description online of the story as reminiscent of Get Out and The Stepford Wives, and that is spot on. One thing I love is how Jasy is no meek victim, though she is certainly treated horribly, and finds ways to resist and even strike back. Part of a fantastic new issue of khōréō, which also includes a wonderful non-fic essay / review titled “Seeing Myself in Unexpected Places” by Jaime O. Mayer, about adoption and identity and families and more.

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The art for this month's roundup includes a detail of the cover for khōréō 1.2 and it is by Isabelle Lin.

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June 4, 2021

#FridayReads for June 4, 2021--checking out the #PrideStoryBundle

For this week's #FridayReads, I am spotlighting a great deal on a whole bunch of awesome books that is available right now, but only for a limited time. I'm talking about the 2021 Pride Story Bundle, curated by Catherine Lundoff and Melissa Scott, and available exclusively at StoryBundle.

This bundle features 16 ebooks (available DRM-free in various digital formats), and you can snap them all up for a bargain price. How does this work? Well, you can get all the details here, but here is the quick version:

For StoryBundle, you decide what price you want to pay. For $5 (or more, if you're feeling generous), you'll get the basic bundle of five books in any ebook format—WORLDWIDE.

  • No Man's Land by A.J. Fitzwater
  • Silver Moon by Catherine Lundoff
  • Dropnauts by J. Scott Coatsworth
  • Burning Bright by Melissa Scott
  • Highfeil Grimoires by Langley Hyde

So how do you get all 16 books? Easy:

If you pay at least the bonus price of just $15, you get all five of the regular books, plus eleven more books! That's a total of 16!

  • The Four Profound Weaves by R. B. Lemberg
  • Succulents and Spells by Andi C. Buchanan
  • City of a Thousand Feelings by Anya Johanna DeNiro
  • Mother of Souls by Heather Rose Jones
  • Blood Moon by Catherine Lundoff
  • Spellbinding by Cecilia Tan
  • Glitter + Ashes edited by Dave Ring
  • Queens of Noise by Leigh Harlen
  • Stone and Steel by Eboni Dunbar
  • Skythane by J. Scott Coatsworth
  • Stories to Sing in the Dark by Matthew Bright

And if you're able to pay $20.00 for the full bundle, then you can also donate part of the purchase price to Rainbow Railroad:

StoryBundle has always allowed its patrons to donate part of their payment to a related charity and once again we're supporting the Rainbow Railroad, a group helping LGBTQ people escape persecution and violent worldwide. If you choose, you can donate part of the bundle's price to them — a gift that can save a life. –

No matter how you slice it, this is an amazing deal on a collection of awesome books. If you're interested in the Pride Story Bundle, I highly recommend springing for the bonus books too, and I want to spotlight three of the bonus books because I've read them and I love them.

The Four Profound Weaves by R. B. Lemberg

R.B. Lemberg’s novella The Four Profound Weaves is a lyrical and gripping journey that begins in a sunlit desert full of sand and bones, continues into a city haunted by memories and ghosts, and eventually takes the reader into the the light-less depths beneath the earth. It’s a story that delves deep into themes like resistance, courage, and endurance. With both gentleness and sharp precision, Lemberg explores the importance of our connections to the world around us and to other people, and how powerful those connections can be in shaping us and our lives.

One of the things I love about this novella, is how it emphasizes that change is a vital part of life: both in the sense that we can change ourselves, and in the sense that the world, and the passage of time, will inexorably change us, too. 

Ultimately, the characters in The Four Profound Weaves must confront their own pain, their own doubts and ghosts, while also confronting a corrupting and evil force that intends to warp the world, to imprison and use people and magic for its own selfish and destructive ends.

For me, Lemberg’s novella emphasizes that resistance is important even when victory is not guaranteed, and even when achieving victory will not solve all the world’s problems. Resistance is an important act in and of itself, because it determines how we live, and how we treat and care for those around us. Finding courage for our friends, for other people; confronting evil in order to help others and ourselves, is important even if we do not win, and even if the victory is short-lived.

(Read my full review.)

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City of a Thousand Feelings by Anya Johanna DeNiro

I first fell in love with DeNiro’s writing when I read her divine (literally) story “Faint Voices, Increasingly Desperate” in Shimmer some years ago. City of a Thousand Feelings is further evidence of DeNiro’s deft skill at writing stories that are both strange, beautiful and profound, full of surreal imagery and gleaming with lyrical prose.

In this novella, DeNiro blends bold brushstrokes of epic fantasy and social allegory with an intimately detailed and wrenching portrayal of a long and complex relationship between two people who have both been bruised and battered by a hostile world. 

 One of the many things I love about City of a Thousand Feelings, is how the story goes for difficult and complex emotional truths rather than facile answers as it deals with the fallout of trauma, grief, and defeat. Nothing comes easy here, and every small victory is dearly paid for, but even so, DeNiro shows us the power and possibility of hope and love, solidarity and friendship.

This novella also has one of my favourite quotes about love:

The hardest thing in the world–this world–is to allow yourself to be loved. Love is the groundswell and the bedrock, the tide and the shore.

(Read my full review.)

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Glitter + Ashes edited by Dave Ring

This short story anthology is such an excellent read, and if you love speculative short fiction, it's a must-read. What I particularly love about Glitter + Ashes, is its focus on hope, particularly queer hope, even in various post-apocalyptic futures. AND it includes stories by so many great writers:

  • Saida Agostini
  • Elly Bangs
  • Phoebe Barton
  • Christopher Caldwell
  • C.L. Clark
  • Josie Columbus
  • Trip Galey
  • Blake Jessop
  • Marianne Kirby
  • Jordan Kurella
  • L.D. Lewis
  • Otter Lieffe
  • Darcie Little Badger
  • A.Z. Louise
  • V. Medina
  • Michael Andrew Milne
  • Anthony Moll
  • Mari Ness
  • Aun-Juli Riddle
  • Lauren Ring
  • Adam Shannon
  • A.P. Thayer
  • R.J. Theodore
  • Izzy Wasserstein
  • Brendan Williams-Childs

The official blurb:

Glitter + Ashes: Queer Tales of a World That Wouldn’t Die is an anthology of post-apocalyptic fiction centering queer joy and community in the face of disaster. What does hope look like when everything is lost? Now, more than ever, we need to revel in the bright spots amidst the darkness.

The twenty-three stories (and two poems) contained here, as well as the roleplaying game Dream Askew by Avery Alder, imagine queer community in myriad futures interrupted by collapse. Post-apocalyptic futures glittering and bleak, challenging and eerie.

Glitter + Ashes is here to hold up a torch. Come gather round the fire.

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Pick up the Pride Story Bundle right now at StoryBundle!

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June 1, 2021

Writer spotlight: Kai Ashante Wilson

Recently, after a discussion on Twitter, I was thinking about books and writers that have meant a lot to me since I started writing fiction again in 2015. This is a subject I think about quite a lot, because there were specific books and writers that really helped jumpstart my writerly brain back then. One of the writers that really blew my mind and changed how I thought about genre fiction, is Kai Ashante Wilson.

About Kai Ashante Wilson:

KAI ASHANTE WILSON was the 2010 Octavia Butler scholar at Clarion writing workshop in San Diego. He won the Crawford award for best first novel of 2016 [my note: this was The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps], and his works have been shortlisted for the Hugo, Nebula, Shirley Jackson, Theodore Sturgeon, Locus, and World Fantasy awards. ---- Kai Ashante Wilson lives in New York City.

(Source.) 

I think the first story I read by Wilson was the novelette "The Devil In America" at TOR, which is one of the most gutting and powerful pieces of fiction I've ever read. I'll quote the blurb here, but the story is pretty much required reading as far as I'm concerned:

Scant years after the Civil War, a mysterious family confronts the legacy that has pursued them across centuries, out of slavery, and finally to the idyllic peace of the town of Rosetree. The shattering consequences of this confrontation echo backwards and forwards in time, even to the present day.

Nisi Shawl wrote an insightful essay in 2018 on this novelette at TOR.com--Sense from Senselessness: Kai Ashante Wilson’s “The Devil in America” , and you might even want to read Shawl's essay before you read Wilson's story. 

From Shawl's essay:

Using a nontraditional format, Wilson begins his story about an imagined nineteenth-century tragedy with a twentieth-century father’s reflections on real life anti-black violence in his own time. Just the victims’ names—Emmett Till, Amadou Diallo, Arthur McDuffie—evoke unavoidable brutality, the sort of waking nightmare that many an African American knows lies just below the surface of the mundane world. The reading doesn’t get any easier when Wilson brings his narrative skills fully to bear on describing the destruction of the fictional Rosetree.

So be warned: "The Devil In America" is a brutal and viscerally disturbing read. It is also beautiful and magical in the truest, deepest sense of the words.

Kai Ashante Wilson has published several short stories, and I'll leave links for those at the end of this post, but some of his best work comes in the novel The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps and the novella A Taste of Honey. These two stories are both set in the same world and both are science fantasy, at least in my opinion, though when I first read them, they felt more like fantasy than science fiction. However, as you will see if you read them, there is scifi in that fantasy, even when you might not see it at first.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

The official blurb:

Since leaving his homeland, the earthbound demigod Demane has been labeled a sorcerer. With his ancestors' artifacts in hand, the Sorcerer follows the Captain, a beautiful man with song for a voice and hair that drinks the sunlight.

The two of them are the descendants of the gods who abandoned the Earth for Heaven, and they will need all the gifts those divine ancestors left to them to keep their caravan brothers alive.

The one safe road between the northern oasis and southern kingdom is stalked by a necromantic terror. Demane may have to master his wild powers and trade humanity for godhood if he is to keep his brothers and his beloved captain alive.

(Fair warning: this book absolutely floored me the first time I read it. Then I immediately read it again, and it was just as good if not better when I re-read it. It widened my perception of how speculative fiction could be written, and what you could do within the genre. Hence, I am pretty much unable to write or talk about without raving about how much I love it, so be prepared for that.)

I’m not quite sure what to say about Kai Ashante Wilson’s glorious, enigmatic, and utterly spell-binding The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps that will do it justice. Maybe I should just say this: read it

Read it for a story-line that never goes where you think it might. Read it for characters that you desperately want to stay with, even when the story is over. Read it for Wilson’s intoxicating and dizzying prose that brilliantly flexes between crude and exquisite, earthy everyday and divinely terrifying. Read it for the sheer pleasure of a writer who masterfully bends, twists, and sculpts language to conjure and create another world – familiar enough in some ways to feel like it has to be our own world, yet so strange beneath that almost-familiar veneer that you’re gripped by a sense of vertigo.

I could read Wilson just for the beauty and strength of the prose, but there is a compelling story here, too, though it’s hard to describe without giving too much away. A bare bones version would be something like this: Demane has left his distant homeland behind and now lives in a strange country, among people who don’t quite know what to make of him, though they’ve seen enough of what he can do to call him ‘sorcerer’. As the story begins, he has been hired to help protect a merchant caravan, set to cross the strange and dangerous place called the Wildeeps – “where many worlds overlap”. One of the other men guarding the caravan is ‘the Captain’, a fighter of extraordinary skill who shares a deep connection, in more ways than one, with Demane. As the caravan approaches and enters the Wildeeps, a terrifying creature begins to stalk the men, and Demane’s true powers become crucially important to their survival.

Still, that is only the surface. What goes on beneath all that, inside all of that, is so much more, as Wilson’s fragmented tale keeps shifting and rearranging the puzzle pieces, revealing the many layers and the true depth of the world, and as the reader slowly realizes the true strangeness of the Wildeeps. I will say this: whatever you expect from The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, I have a feeling the story will surprise you.

Kai Ashante Wilson’s writing is addictive: shifting effortlessly between crude and base, ornate and almost ceremonial in tone. In some ways The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps reminds me of Gene Wolfe's Soldier of the Mist. Just like Wolfe, Wilson manages to tell a fragmented and often utterly mystifying tale while keeping my rapt attention from the first paragraph to the last.

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is a brilliant work of fiction, and one of my all-time favourite books.

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A Taste of Honey

The official blurb:

Long after the Towers left the world but before the dragons came to Daluça, the emperor brought his delegation of gods and diplomats to Olorum. As the royalty negotiates over trade routes and public services, the divinity seeks arcane assistance among the local gods.

Aqib bgm Sadiqi, fourth-cousin to the royal family and son of the Master of Beasts, has more mortal and pressing concerns. His heart has been captured for the first time by a handsome Daluçan soldier named Lucrio. in defiance of Saintly Canon, gossiping servants, and the furious disapproval of his father and brother, Aqib finds himself swept up in a whirlwind romance. But neither Aqib nor Lucrio know whether their love can survive all the hardships the world has to throw at them.

My review:

After reading The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps and all the short fiction by Kai Ashante Wilson I could get my eyes on, A Taste of Honey reaffirmed my opinion that Wilson is one of the most interesting and one of the best writers in speculative fiction today.

To be sure, A Taste of Honey is a very different kind of story than Wildeeps. It is set in the same world (though not in the same time period), but if The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps was a thrilling fantasy tale wrapped around a love story, then A Taste of Honey is a thrilling love story wrapped around a fantasy tale. (The fact that Wilson manages to pack these kinds of epic fantasy stories into the short novel / novella format is another one of his magic tricks.)

The story’s central characters, Aqib and Lucrio, fall in love (and lust) more or less first sight, and then have to maneuver around all sorts of obstacles to be able to see each other. While telling us that love story, Wilson also tells us the tale of the world and the society they live in, and the tale of the grander schemes going on within the world. There are god-like powers being wielded, magic, palace intrigue, psionics, and mathematics. (The way Wilson weaves together science fiction and fantasy when it comes to what is technology and science on one hand, and what is magic on the other, is one of the hugely enjoyable aspects of this story.)

All of that world-building is woven into a story that grows ever more desperate for the two lovers, because the clock is ticking: Lucrio has to leave Olorum ten days after meeting Aqib, and by the time the ten days are up, things come to a head in quite a dramatic fashion. And the end? Well, the end…is the kind of twist that makes you want to read the story all over again.

Wilson's world-building is extraordinary. I can’t help but, again, compare Wilson to Gene Wolfe. Like Wolfe, Wilson drops you into the story and then explains the world from the inside out. Wilson’s talent for dialogue is also showcased in A Taste of Honey: characters speak different languages and dialects, switching between them depending on need, company, and situation. (One of my favourite details in the story is how Lucrio has learned the language of Olorum, but is unaware that he has learned the more “uncouth” version of the language.)

I tore through this book, and in the end, I was left with a craving for more: especially more stories from Wilson that are set in this world of gods and men, science and magic, mathematics and psionics. A Taste of Honey is a blistering good read, and while there hasn't been any new fiction from Wilson for a while, I do hope there is more forthcoming.

Cover art for both The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps and A Taste of Honey is by Tommy Arnold.

Other short fiction by Kai Ashante Wilson: