September 11, 2021

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

The art for this month's roundup is a detail of Alejandro Burdisio's "Little Town"--the cover art for Clarkesworld #179. More here: https://www.artstation.com/burda

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



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A Hollow in the Sky by Alexander Glass in Interzone #290/291

The wasps were restless. Brother Mateo knelt down by one of the colonies – the one nearest the orchard, in the shadow of the monastery wall – and tried to understand what might have disturbed them. He wore no mask or gauntlet, only the storm-hued habit of his order, but the wasps let him be. They did not feel threatened, then. And yet the colony was singing, the keen plainsong of the vespiary.

This story is part of an excellent double issue of Interzone. Glass's scifi tale has wasps, a future monastery, memories, regrets, and space aliens. It feels like a fresh take on alien-encounter scifi, and I also love how this story has a very satisfying payoff where a very small choice in the beginning ends up having a major impact on the ending. I am a big fan of scifi stories with a focus on characters and people and relationships, like this one. By the way, it's well worth springing for this issue, not least because it's full of gorgeous artwork in addition to the great fiction.

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Immortal Coil by Ellen Kushner in Uncanny Magazine

Marlowe is going to outlive him. Of this, he is sure.

He has seen him on the streets of Blackfriars, of Southwark, in Bladder Lane, near Aldgate…

I am love this gorgeously crafted piece by Kushner. The prose is enchanting, and the story vivid and imaginative as we find ourselves delving deep into the lives (and deaths) of Kit (Marlowe) and Will (Shakespeare). Will is in his 40s and Kit, well, he's been dead for years, or so Will thought. Until the ghost of his friend appears, looking no older or worse for wear than the day he died all those years ago. Marlowe leads Shakespeare on a merry chase of sorts through the book stalls before they meet each other in earnest. And what he has to tell Will is that there is a choice, a bargain, to be made. This story reminded me of another favourite story of mine, one from ShimmerRapture, by Meg Elison.

The Wishing Pool by Tananarive Due in Uncanny Magazine 

I am a sucker for stories of how wishes can get turned around and twisted, and in Due's story, there is indeed a twist (or two) in how the wishing pool makes wishes come true. We follow Joy, who has come to check up on her ailing dad. He's not doing so well after Joy's mom passed away, and living alone in a rundown cottage in the woods might not be great for him. The cottage and the surrounding woods hold many childhood memories for Joy, memories both good and ... not so great, and the wishing pool beneath the oaks is one of the strongest memories she has. I love the eerie undertow to this story from the get-go, and I love the payoff at the end as we're left wondering what it might cost you to see a wish come true. 

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Candide; Life-, by Beth Goder in Clarkesworld

Seva sets her microenvironment to play the Overture to Candide on loop. The intensity of the first few measures is a roar that lifts her entire body. She conducts compulsively, her arm twitching in time to the music; she doesn’t care who sees her. When the main theme comes in, that soaring melody that runs up against the frenetic pace of the whole but is never swallowed, her heart feels like it is transcending her chest. This is music!

The third time through, she makes an emotion capture.

Goder's story deals with profound themes like art, creativity, and relationships. It is a quiet story, told in a deliberate and carefully crafted way, and there is so much going on beneath the surface of the prose. The way Goder lays bare the manipulative, dismissive cruelty some people employ to retain the power in a relationship, or to steal another's thunder, is brilliant. And the way this story talks about how art is crafted, how we find inspiration, and what the value is of the art we create, is inspirational and powerful. 

The moments of her life bleed into the work, creating an experience that is full of her memories and thoughts and feelings.

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Follow by T.R. Siebert in Future Science Fiction Digest

Anna follows the ghost across the galaxy, curled up into a ball inside her pod. She spends an eternity like this—drifting past stars and planets and the deep, never-ending void in between. Drifting, just in general. She sleeps little, thinks even less.

If she died like this, she wouldn’t even notice.

This science fiction story is haunting and wields so much emotional power, as it describes Anna's quest to find Neda, the woman who was her closest friend. Neda is also the scientist who designed the amazing nanobots that keep Anna alive as she travels through space and tracks her friend on planet after planet, through communities that were once full of life, but are now empty and abandoned. Siebert weaves together so much science and so much heart in this story, as we realize the urgency of Anna's quest, and just how wrenching and conflicted Anna is about Neda. Beautiful story, beautifully told.

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Where Things Fall From the Sky by Ally Wilkes in Nightmare

Spitzbergen, 1881. The whaling station stinks, metallic and rank, even though it’s slap-you-in-the-face cold.

David Grace—born and raised in the Welsh valleys—had thought he’d known cold. A thin layer of ice on milk left out overnight, his sisters tracing patterns in the frost on the bedroom windows. But the last few weeks in the Arctic seas have taken him somewhere entirely different.

A bone-chilling and downright haunting tale of what happens when a ship on an arctic expedition hauls up...something from the bottom of the sea. A meteorite? That's what it seems to be. We do know that it fell from the skies a Very Long Time Ago and ended up at the bottom of the ocean. No matter what the object actually is, once it's on board the ship, things start going wrong and people start dying and disappearing and changing. Wilkes fills this tale with a crew of flesh and blood characters that pop off the page and make the dread and the deaths even more harrowing. Powerful and unforgettable tale.

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The Screaming Tree by Clara Madrigano The Dark

A brother and sister head back to their old hometown to rectify a strange situation with the plaque for their grandmother at the family mausoleum. For some reason, the plaque they had placed there after she passed away has disappeared. But what they find is not so much a mystery, as a profound and ancient horror. Madrigano expertly builds an unsettling atmosphere and the sense of inescapable terror. And what a finale! An outstanding read. 

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The Eleventh Hour by Karim Kattan in Translunar Travelers Lounge

What I have come to realize is that I am not entirely what I think I am. Or rather, I am simultaneously here and elsewhere.

An utterly strange and utterly beautiful story about a person who has come to realize that they are not what they seem to be, and they have gained this insight during a mysterious epiphany, during the eleventh hour of the day, "...the hour of the lull. A properly impossible island of an hour." Kattan threads filaments of worldbuilding, of repressive history, of memory, of submerged identity into the fabric of this quietly shifting tale, and I love how vivid both the narrator and their world become as the reality of what has happened, and what is happening, becomes clear. A surreal beauty of a story.

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My Sister Is a Scorpion by Isabel Cañas in Lightspeed

My baby sister didn’t used to be a scorpion, but she is one now. I don’t know if that sounds weird to you, but it doesn’t to me, because right after my sister was born, Abuelita turned into a white crane and flew away. 

There's a child's logic running through this story in the way that the older sister sees things happening in the world that her parents do not see. Whether she sees true, or whether she is imagining things... well, that's for the reader to decide. Cañas captures the voice of the child perfectly in her prose, and also captures the stubborn conviction of a child that will not accept the grownups' version of reality, even in the face of death.

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What We Leave Behind Us by Rob Costello in The Wondrous Real Magazine

A ghost story about returning to the place where we grew up and finding the echoes, the lingering memories of childhood and adolescence, coming back to haunt us. Beyond the emotional power of this story, I am also fascinated by the visceral details included about cleaning mussels, about cooking, about food and remembrance. There is so much regret and grief here, mingling with the ghost and her visitor.

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Birding With My Human by Sylvia Heike in Nature

A quiet and beautifully crafted piece about Willa, a young woman, and her robot. They go bird-watching in the same place as Willa went bird-watching with her grandpa when he was still alive. Watching the birds and counting the birds and identifying the birds is easy enough for the robot, but on this day, the robot feels as if they've somehow upset, maybe even disappointed, Willa. Lovely flash with a contemplative vibe I really love.

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For Rain Is To Wet and Fire To Burn by Robert Minto in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

On the fortieth dawn of our loss, the angels came.

Set in a uniquely imagined world, with angels that differ from the divine and powerful beings we might expect, Minto's story is a nuanced and finely crafted tale about grief and loss, and about what we can do (if anything) to make it through the pain. I love the mysterious vibe of the angels here, and how Minto captures the isolation and intense emotions of a parent who has lost a child. While the narrator's wife finds solace in her faith and community, he is only enraged further by any attempts to find meaning in his child's death. A gorgeously wrought story.

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Morning by Diane Russell in Fiyah #19

An echo is a time traveler fucking with the past, and a clone is an echo of a person, a mind fuck to everyone who’d known the original. That’s what I thought when they brought my sister back from the dead, and I had to look at that face, blank and new and familiar, aged to the point where she had died, yet free from the scars of our childhood. 

Two sisters, or rather: a sister and a clone, face a challenging quest on the surface of a distant exo-planet. Both of them are dispensable to the powers that be, and the surviving sister finds it exceedingly difficult to deal with the genetic copy of her sister, even when they have to rely on each other in the harsh new world. I loved this story for its fierce voice and the way it captures a complex, and complicated, sibling relationship, while also giving the reader an acute sense of what the world these sisters inhabit is like.  

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I Wear My Spiders in Remembrance of Myself, by Kel Coleman in Apparition Lit

My earliest memory of the spiders is from preschool. I’m toiling over a pot of plastic spaghetti, and I look over my shoulder to ask the boy whose mom is friends with my mom if he wants meatballs with his serving. He’s building a wobbly tower out of wooden blocks, and our teacher kneels across from him making cutesy faces. She pats his head, and her fingers linger in his hair, squeezing and pulling at the dense curls.

A spider the size of a pea crawls from her mouth and drops to the floor like a black tear.

An amazing story that uses the appearance of spiders as a physical representation of the hurt and trauma, minor and major, that the characters encounter throughout their lives. Coleman uses this imagery, the idea of the spiders that appear and that will not go away once they've found you, so skillfully and with a poetic precision that is unsettling, devastating, and heart-rending. And in the end, Coleman also uses this imagery to tell a story about finding solace, finding love, and finding a way to live with the spiders in your life.

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The Failing Name by Eugen Bacon and Seb Doubinsky in Fantasy Magazine

What was his name? Alain, Divin, Rivlin, Yavan? At the time he told her, it was an unfailing name. She listened to its echo in the night breeze—such was her joy, she wanted to thunder with laughter. She raced to the river the next day and the next, but he never showed. Alain, Divin, Rivlin, Yavan was gone.

And then Jolainne’s mother gave her away.

This might be a short story, but it has the intricately layered feel of an epic as we follow Jolainne's fate after she throws a mango to save a young boy from being assaulted. She travels to Paris, she works hard, and is not treated well by any of the people she meets there, or any of the people she has to rely on. But there is magic and power in her, even so. An unsettling, disturbing story that is beautifully written.

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One Hundred Seconds To Midnight by Lauren Ring in Escape Pod 

A kaiju story like no other kaiju story I've ever read, this is a quietly devastating read by Ring. Here, the kaiju invasion and the horror and death it is causing play out almost in the background as the narrator waits for her plane at the airport. Much like the catastrophes we've seen play out in our own lifetime, the devastation doesn't end the world outright, rather, the terror of it seeps into everyday life and becomes a part of the news cycle, and occasionally, the reality of what is happening comes close enough to rip away whatever defenses we've built up. And when the kaiju in this story comes a-calling... well, the scenes at the airport are wrenching.

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To the Honourable and Esteemed Monsters Under My Bed by E.A. Bourland in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2021

It is hard to describe how delightful and funny and very sinister this epistolary story is. It's written as a series of letters from a child to the monsters under his bed, and they reveal the many terrible things that are happening, and have happened to him. As it turns out, those monsters are the least of his worries and may even end up helping him out. There's such an imaginative joy in the language and voice of this story, and I absolutely adore the juxtaposition of the dark subject matter revealed in the letters and the almost whimsical style of those letters. Brilliantly done.

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September 3, 2021

Book review: MALEFACTOR by Robert Repino

The official blurb:

Over a decade has passed since the ant queen began her apocalyptic war with the humans. In the aftermath, she leaves behind a strange legacy: a race of uplifted animals, the queen’s conscripts in the war effort, now trying to make their way in the world they destroyed. While the conflict has left deep scars, it has also allowed both sides to demonstrate feats of courage and compassion that were never possible before. And now, after years of bloodshed, the survivors have a fleeting chance to build a lasting peace.

But peace always comes with a price. The holy city of Hosanna—where animals and humans form a joint government—finds itself surrounded by wolves who are determined to retake the land. A powerful matriarch has united the rival wolf packs, using a terrible power harnessed from the Queen herself.

Soon, the looming violence pulls in those who sought to escape. The war hero Mort(e) suspects a plot to destroy Hosanna from within, and recruits a team of unlikely allies to investigate. Falkirk, captain of the airship Vesuvius, must choose between treason and loyalty to save the city. And D’Arc, sailing aboard the al-Rihla, learns that the wolves may have triggered a new cycle of life for the Colony, bringing a final reckoning to animal and human alike. Once reunited, the three outcasts begin a journey into wolf territory to face the last remnant of the queen’s empire. But while destiny has drawn them together, it may destroy them as well, for even love, courage, and honor may not be enough to stop the forces of destruction set to be unleashed on the world.



My review:

Malefactor is the spectacular finale to Repino's War With No Name series, and it is a harrowing, ferocious, and bitingly sharp tale that packs a real emotional punch, especially in its final chapters. 

If you're not familiar with the books, here's a quick intro to the world we find ourselves in: more than ten years ago, almost overnight, all the animals in the world that were once tame or wild or farmed, evolved into bipedal, fully sentient creatures capable of speech and conscious thought. Behind that transformation lurked a hidden enemy: an ant colony led by a formidable ant queen, hellbent on destroying all humans. After this Change, a terrible war began between humans and the animals they once dominated, and while the ant colony was destroyed (so it was thought, at least), the world was left broken.

Like all the books in this series, Malefactor is a wild, absolutely bonkers ride from start to finish. The rising threat of the united wolf packs, and the possibility that the ant colony has returned to wreak havoc on the Earth, means that every course of action is desperate and fraught with danger. Along the way there's a puppy in peril, giant fighter ants, a train fight/heist sequence that had me on tenterhooks, herbivores turning carnivorous, humans turning themselves into wolves, and, best of all: a combative, hilariously gnarly, odd-couple relationship between a bat and a beaver that made me laugh and broke my heart. 

The power struggles between (and within) the various wolf packs, and the machinations of the wolves' new human allies, provide some of the darkest scenes of the series (and that's saying something). It drives home the point that while the animals succeeded in throwing down the old world, it has not been possible to build a new world that is fit for anyone, human or animal, to live in. At least not yet.

We see this world through a few different points of view in this book, but the crucial ones, for me, are the the two main protagonists of the series: D'Arc (formerly the pet dog Sheba) and Mort(e) (formerly the house cat Sebastian). And while Mort(e) plays a big part in Malefactor, it is D'Arc that is at the center of the story. Her quest is intensely personal in this book as she finds herself lost at sea, then suffers a devastating loss, and finally has to fight to save her family and the fragile shared animal/human community of Hosanna. 

Throughout the books, the relationship between Mort(e) and D'Arc has been the heart of the story. From the beginning, they have been linked by the bond they shared even before the Change, back when they lived together as pets. While their bond isn't broken in Malefactor, they clearly have opposing views on how to live in this seemingly grimdark world. Mort(e), worn down and made ever more cynical by the years of strife and warfare, would rather withdraw and live out his days in whatever peace he can find away from the struggle. For D'Arc, leaving the fight to others is not an option. She still believes it's possible to overcome the old hatred and build something new: a society where humans and animals can live and work together.

As dark as this book may seem (and there are some truly bone-chilling moments here, one of which involves the deer turning on the wolves in a scene that will haunt my nightmares), there are gleams of light through it all. That light is there in D'Arc's dogged (ha!) determination to keep fighting for something better, even when it seems futile. And it's there in the loyalty and friendship that bind many of the characters together, even as the world seems to crumble around them.

This light is especially evident in the storyline that follows a bat and a beaver--enemies right down to the bone--on a madcap, seemingly impossible quest for freedom. Following these two characters, both deeply scarred and tainted by previous events, as they are thrown together by fate and necessity, provides some of my favourite scenes in Malefactor. They have both done terrible things for causes they thought were just. They have every reason to mistrust and hate each other, but they end up having to work together in order to save themselves and, maybe, the world. This storyline provides some darkly funny moments and some pivotal, emotional scenes as well.

In Malefactor, as in the earlier books in the series, Repino consistently returns to this theme: the importance of friendship, loyalty, and love between individuals as maybe the only source of hope of salvation in a world where brute force and extremist fervour seem almost impossible to defeat.

In my review of Mort(e) in 2016 I wrote: 

At its most basic, this is a tale of friendship and love. Mort(e) the (former) cat doesn’t believe in grand plans and prophecies. He fights and makes sacrifices in the struggle against the humans, but he is not loyal to, or motivated by religion or politics or ideology. He does believe in friendship and loyalty and love, because he has experienced those things: not with humans, but with Sheba the dog, before the world changed. Through every hardship and every battle, the memory of that sustains him.

While D'Arc/Sheba has in many ways left Mort(e) behind in Malefactor, and while they are separated for most of the book, I kept hankering for the moment when they would be brought together again. When they are finally truly reunited, Repino finds a way to pay off the emotional investment I've had in these characters and their relationship in a totally unexpected way that also felt absolutely, genuinely right. (And yes, it made me cry.)

Malefactor is an intense book, full of  brutal battles, daring escapes and rescues, heart-wrenching choices, terrible betrayals, and fragile hope. As far as I'm concerned, it's a must-read.

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Buy Malefactor

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