July 7, 2021

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

The artwork for this roundup is a detail of  Paul Kellam's cover art for Fiyah #19. More about the artist here: https://www.artstation.com/deericku

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:


To Rest, and to Create by L.A. Knight in Fiyah #19

If you don’t disclose, you can’t ask for accommodation…

We understand things are difficult, but these accommodations just aren’t reasonable…

We’re sorry, you’re just not the right fit for this company…

There are so many ways to say the same thing. So many ways to lie so very sweetly and tell me that of course the company doesn’t mind hiring a disabled autistic person, of course they encourage a diverse work environment, of course they’re accessible.

Knight's story delves deep into real world problems about accommodations and employment, about living and making a living when you are disabled and autistic. It is also truly and legitimately a feel good story, as in: this story made me feel good when I read it. In the everyday world of this story, there are doorways to be found to other worlds, but the process of finding one and going to those other worlds has been regulated by the government until it is not easily accessible to everyone, and if you miss your opportunity when you're young... well, then you might feel like it's too late and it's never going to happen and you're doomed to struggle through as best you can. But maybe there is hope, and maybe there are possibilities you didn't even know existed. If you're feeling down, this story might just make your day a whole lot better. This story is from the Sound and Color issue of Fiyah, and as it turns out, sound and colour play a vital role in this story and how it ends.


SPF by Justine Teu in Reckoning

Apricot died, three days into the heat wave. She had just turned three, with no underlying health issues, but temperatures had soared to 120 degrees that weekend, and not even the full strength of Dani’s air conditioner could keep the cat cool, much less alive. One minute, Apricot was a spry thing, young enough to live forever, and the next, she was gone, immobile under a bed sheet, claws still clinging to thread. 

This is a story about the impact of climate change, wrapped up in a story about relationships and maybe even love. Dani and Hugo are on again, off again, maybe happening, maybe not as a couple, and there are so many things about Hugo that drive Dani nuts. Including how he seems unable to allow death and tragedy to really touch him, just as he seems unable to admit even to himself that climate change is having a serious, and terrible, impact on everyone's lives. Quietly powerful, with so much complexity beneath the surface.


How To Become a Witch-Queen by Theodora Goss in Lightspeed (originally pub'd in Hex Life)

After the funeral services are over, you return to your rooms in the castle, escorted by your ladies-in-waiting. As you walk down a corridor, you pass the chamber where your own coffin, the one made of glass, is displayed. Visitors are allowed to see it Mondays through Thursdays, from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon, along with other national treasures...

What is there to say about this magnificent story, except WOW. Goss spins a beautiful, steely tale about Snow White. Snow White the widowed queen, the mother of several children, the strong and capable woman who has spent her life in the shadow of the fairytale she became part of, and who has also spent most of her life being quiet in order to avoid strife and struggle. But once her husband the king dies, she seizes the chance to make herself anew.


Empty Houses by Caspian Gray in Nightmare

I caught a glimpse of us over his shoulder in one of the mirrors. But where I was wrapped around Austin, my reflection was momentarily still: watching us and smiling gently. And I know, I know, I know, but: at the time, it felt like a gesture of welcome.

I love stories about mirrors, and its one of those horror tropes I find both fascinating and creepy as heck no matter what the context. This story uses the mirrors, and the idea of a haunted house, perfectly while also skewing the tale until it becomes something different than I might have expected as I started reading.


As I Wait For the Killing Blow by M. Shaw in Fireside

My first feathers came in just a few days after my granddaughter Sima was born. Black as a raven’s, but that doesn’t mean much in the beginning. I could end up black all over, or a stormy grey color, or violet with blue speckles, for all I knew. The turning never brings the exact same form twice, just as no two children need the exact same monster to help them come into adulthood.

Shaw's story is fierce and wondrous as it imagines a world where grandparents turn into monsters after their grandchildren are born. Tradition says that once a grandchild comes of age, they must hunt down this monster and slay it, or be slain by it. What seems brutal and terrible, is cherished as a rite of passage here, and yet, what happens between monster and monster-hunter does not always go according to plan, or tradition. I love the way this story deals with family relationships (odd as that may seem!) and the way Shaw twists the tale in the telling.

The Middening by Allyson Shaw in Fireside

We made our own way, made our own fun, Mhairi and me. This was our place, the disused swimming pool built into the cliffside. Sure, there were junkies there before us, shooting up in the changing pavilion. There’s the wifey spray painted on the majestic hillside, her paps like two empty bags and a turned-up hair-do dripping down. But if you ignore all that, you can imagine that you are in some Planet of the Apes situation, and it’s just you left, and your survival is a triumph of things put right.

A wrenching and intense story about two friends growing up in a small community. It's also about the lure and power of the ocean, and about the pool they escape too, together. Mhairi and Kylie sometimes talk about a horse appearing near the pool, the Nucklelevee. Both Mhairi and Kylie have thoughts and dreams about getting away from the community, but when one of them finally leaves, it doesn't happen the way either of them might have thought. There's a grimness to this story, but it's also a love story, and I  adore every bit of it.


Machine Learning by Sylvia Heike in Stupefying Stories

A tiny, perfect sci-fi micro fiction that packs a real punch. I love flash and micro fiction so much and I am always amazed at how much emotion and nuance and depth can be contained into a Very Small Story. 


Final Warnings in Open Fields by Xander Odell in Daily SF

1. Plants want you dead. Don't waste time wondering why they turned against us. It is what it is.

A brilliant piece of flash fiction, written as a list of instructions and warnings, that packs a whole lot of emotion and backstory and world-building into a small word count. Odell captures the horrors and devastation of a post-apocalyptic world in a sparse, haunting story that tells you so many things without dwelling on them. I also really love this opening line and the way it does away with the whole "but why and how would that happen?" Dwelling on that is not what this story is about, and it's such a great writer-choice to put that out front like this.


The Penitent by Phoenix Alexander in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction July / August 2021

This is a mindbending story about a cat, a seagull, and an electron. It's also about the value of each life in the grand scheme of the world and the universe. It's about love and wrongs to be righted, and it has one of the trippiest shapeshifting scenes (and multiple POV scenes) I have encountered in a story. It's a twisted, mysterious, and ultimately enlightening tale.

Whatever Happened to the Boy Who Fell Into the Lake? by Rob Costello in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction July / August 2021

Picture Tick at twelve years old, on the day he nearly drowns himself to join Mama.

I give this story a rating of five broken hearts, meaning, I loved it. Costello's devastating tale about a boy called Tick, a boy who lives with his violent father; who has lost his mother under mysterious circumstances; and who almost, almost finds love, is beautiful, painful, and powerful. It's a story about transformation (Tick's and his mother's), it's a story about family and violence, and about curses. It's also about the call of the sea, and about how sometimes, it is impossible to escape the consequences of wrongs that were committed in the past, even before your birth, no matter how hard we try, or how much we wish things could be different.

(emet) by Lauren Ring in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction July / August 2021

Ring's story is an enchanting and quietly gripping blend of science fiction and fantasy. The main character is a software programmer working for a big company that is designing a new facial recognition system. She also makes golems out of clay to help her out around the house, just like her mom taught her. I love how Ring weaves together these strands of fantasy and scifi into a story that explores personal responsibility and the possibility to resist, even in situations where a person might feel like only a very small cog in a very big machine.

Note: This whole issue of the magazine is outstanding and my advice is really to buy it and read the whole thing because it has fabulous stories by Lauren Ring, L.X. Beckett, Chimedum Ohaegbu, Rob Costello, Michael Swanwick, Yukimi Ogawa, Bo Balder, Phoenix Alexander, Lisa Lacey Liscoumb, Priya Chand, S. Cameron David, Paula Keane, Maia Brown-Jackson, Rowan Wren, and Tato Navarrete Diaz. I will highlight three of these stories, but like I said, the whole issue is well worth your time and your money.


The Far Side of the Universe by noc at TOR.com (translated from Chinese by Michelle Deeter)

To quote the blurb for this story: 

When young Ira arrives for her appointment, she is prepared to be transported to The Gateway to Heaven, 6,070 light years away. But the technicians shepherding her through the process fear there’s more to it than what’s advertised.

A gentle and devastating story about a future where society allows people to leave the world, essentially die, but where their consciousness is sent into space to live near another star, or at least, that's the sales pitch. It's the gentleness and quiet devastation of this story that really gets to me, and the way we understand so much about what kind of society it takes place in, even though noc tells us so little about it. Deeply haunting.


Armed With Such Stories, I Roamed Into The Woods by Evan Marcroft in Cast of Wonders narrated by Elie Hirschman

The content warning for this story is "multiple profanities" and oh gosh, there are multiple, meaty, massive profanities here. Atticus has grown up with his mother's stories and tales about the creatures lurking in the woods beyond their home. "There was a fable for every lesson I should know." Now, Atticus's mother is sick and he must head into the woods to find an herb called fairymead, but in the woods he meets a stranger, and the stranger is Trouble. Marcroft spins a scary, dark and darkly funny story about growing up and parenting, about finding our courage, and about how we sometimes try to shelter children too much from reality when they'd be better served by some hard truths. I love the twisted fairytale vibe of this story and I love, LOVE the conclusion.


Ascend, Exalt, Love, Propagate, Rise! by Sarah Kumari in Escape Pod narrated by Hollis Monroe

This is an amazing story about resistance and revolution, and... sex with plants. It is absolutely bonkers in a way that I love. Jehanne is trying to start a revolution by causing the downfall of the EverReach company. He is doing this by participating in the drug-fuelled and ecstatic pollination event that involves a planet-encompassing plant called Mother Elethra, "our Beloved Patron, the Phloem of Invention, Oil Bringer, Loving Devourer, our Great Vine". Dive into this story and let its madness envelop you, maybe even devour you...


My Mirror, My Opposite by Y.M. Pang in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Fairytale retellings and reimagined fairytales is very much my jam and this is an exquisite and powerful reframing of The Little Mermaid. Here, the main character is the prince, not the mermaid, and his desire, or obsession, to join the sea. There is a lot of magic in this story and yet it is so firmly rooted in the real world, a world where abuse and trauma is inescapable for the prince. "...sometimes, when I stood on tiptoes and peered through my bedroom window at the water, I wanted the sea to sweep past rock and sand and reach where I stood, to drown my world in blue and carry me away on its waves." When the "fishgirl" and the prince meet, nothing goes the way the fairytales said. 


Welcome, Karate by Sara Saab in The Dark

This story has haunted my thoughts since I read it. Jock is back in her old hometown after years away, and she is buying a gym to set up a martial arts studio. On the surface, things seem OK, but Saab makes us feel just how brittle reality and life and Jock are beneath that surface. When she meets old acquaintances, you can feel Jock's hold on herself and her own past start to crack, and once she's back in the gym, trying to open the locked doors to the pool area, the revelation of what's inside seems both unavoidable and thoroughly surreal. 


The Chicken House by Jenny Fried in Strange Horizons

Today I will tell you that Sleep was a boy. It’s easier that way.

He was a boy. And he would collect broken glass and wear shoes with Velcro and a few of his teeth were fake, but he always forgot which ones. He lived on a small farm. It had once grown chickens for food and Christmas trees for money, but now it grew nothing.

A gloriously strange and heart-piercing story about Sleep who lives on a property where there are three buildings: a farmhouse, a tractor shed, and a chicken house. There's a new awful smell in the farmhouse where Sleep lives, and Sleep is afraid of the chicken house for reasons he can't quite articulate. The tractor shed, where the tractor sleeps, holds memories of Sleep's dad. There is a red dress made of feathers in that shed too, but Sleep doesn't know who it belongs to, but he can't stop thinking about it. Fried's unsettling, yet gentle story has the feel and rhythm of a fairytale, and there is a curse and a transformation at its heart.

Scoria by Liza Wemakor in Strange Horizons

In a low mountain quarry, an exile memorized the story of her shadow play. When means are few, motion pictures are stripped to light and limb. Scoria was a filmmaker without a camera, so she had to be the cinema herself: prop, stage, and animus gesturing in front of a fire. There was no other way. Civilization had rolled her away from itself like a festering log at a cooperage. What was she to do? Survive and die with only mourning in between?

A subtle lovely story about Scoria who is exiled from her community for not being productive enough. Mostly, it seems, the Council that exiles her doesn't know what to make of her, how to make her fit into their society and their notions of what and who she should be. Exile turns out to be not so bad after all and Scoria finds a place to belong instead of wilderness and loneliness. There's such a wonderful soft vibe to this story, and it has so much to say about creativity and art and relationships, and about finding a place to belong. 


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