My Recommended Reading List (novellas, novelettes, and short stories) for 2021 is now up: https://maria-is-reading.blogspot.com/2022/01/my-recommended-reading-list-for-2021.html
The art for this roundup includes a detail of the cover for Lightspeed #139 by Grandeduc / Adobe Stock. More about the artist: https://www.shutterstock.com/g/grandeduc
An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:
Red Is Our Country by Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko in Lightspeed
It’s hard to tell what you’re thinking, sometimes, but I’ve been watching long enough to guess. Of course I have—did you think we wouldn’t care, when your expedition crossed the borders into our country? You haven’t seen my drones, but they’ve been following you faithfully ever since you entered the dead zone, and they caught it all on camera.
I love this compelling, tense, and taut story about an expedition to Mars that has gone very much awry and keeps getting worse for the crew. With the Martian setting and the tone of the story's mysterious narrator, it has a bit of a Bradbury vibe (and I freaking love Bradbury), as the crew struggles to complete their mission while also staying alive. While they struggle and fight, they are being watched very closely by Someone with their own agenda and their own territory to protect. I was on the edge of my seat right until the end.
The Cold Calculations by Aimee Ogden in Clarkesworld
Once upon a time, a little girl had to die. It’s just math. Wrong place, wrong time. Bad luck; too bad, so sad.
But stories have authors, from the gauziest fantasy to grim autobiography. And when once upon a time becomes so many, many times, surely someone must think to ask: had to die? On whose authority?
It’s simple physics, of course. Natural law.
Unless, of course, someone’s been fudging the numbers.
Ogden's story is a response to, and an evisceration of, the well-known sf-story "The Cold Equations" where, because of various seemingly tragic but scientifically unavoidable circumstances, a girl has to die to save others. Ogden, both incisive and brilliant in her fury here, picks apart those equations and circumstances, posing important questions about what stories we choose to tell, how we choose to tell those stories (whether they are set in the past, present, or future; and whether they are speculative or not), and about how we manipulate all the moving parts of a story (characters, science, tech, etc) in order to tell the story we want to tell. A passionate and profoundly thought-provoking read about history, future, power, storytelling, science, community, and characters.
Stolen Property by Sarah Lamparelli in Black Static #80/81
Ethan was lying, though he might not have called it that. He was lying as he followed Wayne over the cresting pass, primeval Montana glaciers filling their view, the remote valley spilling before them as the thin morning air whipped through their lungs and chapped their faces. He was lying as they began their descent, switch-backing down the mountain until the scrub of elevation flowered into a thick, ancient forest that sprung up to engulf them, skittering shale giving way to a dense soil that filled the treads of their boots. He was lying when they found the bodies, two of them, split open in the brush just off their path, marked by a storm of bluebottles that stirred with their approach, the static buzz of wings filling the space between the trees.
A masterfully told horror story about a hike that goes wickedly, terribly wrong and then gets worse in a way that keeps twisting the horror into stranger and darker places. This one grabbed me by the throat from the get-go and kept me there until the end. Two men are on a hike far out in the wilderness. They don't really know each other, having met in the woods, and we understand almost immediately that at least one of them, maybe both of them, is not who they seem to be. Two dead bodies turn up right from the beginning, so we know this is going nowhere good. One of my favourite horror stories from 2021.
Never a Gentle Master by Brittany N. Williams in Fireside
This story is wild, harrowing, and terrifying ride from start to finish and I felt like I barely breathed once while reading. Kae’s family has magic, a lot of it, and when the story begins, they know they’re facing trouble from a man named Qual who has been meddling with death magic. Even knowing that, the family is not quite prepared for what happens when they, and their home, comes under ferocious attack. This story is strong stuff, and I wasn’t quite sure just how Kae would make it out, but in the end, there is a way, one way, and she takes it.
The Plague Puller by Manish Melwani in Nightmare
An unusual and tender ghost story about Ah Keng who finds the body of his friend Leung, dead from cholera, in the street and sets out to bring him safely to the House of Death.
...Leung’s so-called friends had clearly tried to roll him into the canal, but they’d put neither back nor heart into the job. They’d just left him here, for the buffalos and buffalo-herds to find. No care for his body, nor for his ghost.
It's a story set in a place ravaged by cholera, where death is ever-present (for the pandemic reader, there are shades of the present here for sure). Melwani captures that place in fine detail here, exploring how hard it can be to keep your humanity, and to remember that the unfortunate dead were once as human as you are. Ah Keng cares for his dead friend, and his dead friend’s ghost, just as he cared for him in life. It’s a gentle and haunting tale of friendship, love, life, and death, and I love how subtly and beautifully Melwani builds the world and the characters here.
Distant Fire of Winter Stars by Jonathan Louis Duckworth in Flash Fiction Online
Five miles from town, just me, my rifle, the deer blind, the white field getting deeper the more powder falls. Here’s me in a pile of myself, one foot corked at a ninety-degree angle, still caught in the bottom rung of the slick ladder. There’s the vast pale dark held up by the skinny pines reaching into the nowhere.
A wonderful story about family, and coming to terms with the death of a parent. In this case, the protagonist finds themselves in dire straits in a wintry forest, but there's a bit of magic in their possession: a flask his dad gave to him just before he passed away. I love the emotional tone of this story, and I love the magic woven into the everyday, and I adore the way it all pays off in the end.
The Taurus Pilot by Megan Navarro Conley in Anathema
Anathema’s latest issue dropped right on New Year’s Eve and it’s full of terrific fiction, including this compelling science fiction story about a giant mech fighting machine named Bastion and a mech pilot who has a stronger connection with Bastion than what should be technically possible. Even when their connection has been officially severed, something remains. This is a powerful story about war and how heroes are made and torn down, and about all the things you might lose in battle, or afterward.
Semsema of the Zabbaleen by Ramez Yoakeim in Anathema
Mama named me Soad, happy girl, on the birth roll, though she always called me Semsema. But she screamed my government name as the State Security goons dragged her away, a week after they took Baba.
Semsema grows up on the margins of a future society where most people have to scrounge for a living in a world changed and ravaged by climate change and environmental destruction. After her parents are gone, she stays in the landfill, trying to keep herself alive while waiting for them to come back. Years pass, and still she stubbornly keeps waiting and hoping and surviving, against the odds. I love the characters in this science fiction tale: Semsema is a stubborn soul, full of strength and life, even though the world she inhabits might seem bleak and hopeless. She never loses hope, and never loses her sense of self no matter what happens, and in the midst of the landfill, with all the garbage, her hope grows (quite literally) in an old takeout container.
The Truth Each Carried by E. Catherine Tobler in The Bourbon Penn
Trudy Morrison got the final call as she was flying down Highway 93 toward another penny horse in need of rescue. Chevy Apache windows open, summer air fingering through her silver pompadour, Trudy should have taken to the shoulder to handle the call properly when she saw where it was coming from, but she didn’t.
If you're familiar with Tobler's Circus world stories, you might recognize some of the characters in this story (though they are much older than when we met them in the story "Blow the Moon Out".) Trudy has discovered a very special kind of magic, hidden in plain sight: some carousel and mechanical horses can be brought to life. It's an uncertain and mysterious kind of magic, but Trudy has committed her life to it. Now, death and old age are creeping up on her and she looks back on her life and the choices she has made through the years, and finds that there are new things to learn, and maybe a new kind of magic, left for her to discover (and maybe an old friend, too). Find more of Tobler's Circus world in the short story collection The Grand Tour, and the novella The Kraken Sea.
Lazaret by Louis Evans in The Bourbon Penn
A surreal and claustrophobic story about a time and place where each person’s world has been shrunk to the size of barely a room, and where each day is a soul-crushing repetition of the days that came before it. Yes, this is a story about isolation during the pandemic, but it is also story about how small and cramped and lifeless the world may seem under other circumstances. It’s a harrowing, disturbing read where the longing for something more and something else is constantly gnawing at, and slowly consuming, the characters.
To New Jerusalem by Farah Kader in Fiyah (the Palestinian Issue)
“It’s here,” the passenger says.
The taxi rolls to a stop. The driver angles the car towards the curb but stays several meters away from an overflow of water that has reached the road. This street meets the shoreline, despite miles of skyscrapers still extending west. Some emerge from the surface water perfectly intact, while others are worn from decades of acidic water lapping up against their outer walls.
One of the many great stories from Fiyah's special Palestinian issue. Here, we find ourselves in a future wracked, and wrecked, by climate change, flooding, and rising sea levels. The protagonist has returned to New Jerusalem, an area of the Submerged world, and she is wading into the water, and into the past. It's a quietly harrowing and heartbreaking story about change and loss and memory, and about how we might go looking for our past, and how even though it is impossible to actually find that past, we may find memories to carry with us into the future.
Storm Waters by Cindy Phan in Truancy Magazine
Truancy Magazine #10 is, sadly, the publication’s last issue, and the zine absolutely goes out with a bang, bringing us a crop of strange, twisted, sharp stories. In Phan’s tale, a young boy and an old man have made a trade and each will receive something they need and desire. It’s a story that feels like an old folktale threaded into our modern world, and loved the darkness and fierceness of its magic, and its characters.
Some Things That Happen When You Have the Strength of Ten Men by Mel Nigro in Augur 4.2
There’s a new and wonderful issue of Augur Magazine in the world and highly recommend reading every single story in it. Mel Nigro’s story is one of my favourites from this issue: a powerful, deeply moving and emotionally charged piece about two siblings, growing up together, growing apart, and finding a way back to each other. I love everything about this fierce story, and I love how deep it goes into the relationship between two siblings in a troubled family, exploring what it’s like to be the strong one who thinks they have to shield and protect and fix everything, and what it’s like to be the younger one, the one everyone assumes is the weaker one that needs protecting. Sibling relationships are so profoundly important to many of us, and it is a real treat to read a story like this that explores the facets of such a relationship with such an empathetic and unflinching eye.
The Tinder Box by Kate Elliott at TOR.com
If you, like me, like twisted and / or reimagined versions of old fairytales, then this story by Kate Elliott might be right up your alley. Here, Elliott puts a new spin and a new perspective on Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Tinder Box”, where a soldier returning from war meets a witch and gains treasure and a very useful magical item in the process. Elliott’s story begins where the original story’s encounter with the witch ends, with the witch beheaded, and what happens after that turns out to be parts of a carefully thought-out plan. I love the way the original tale is twisted and turned and amended here, and Elliott’s writing is exquisite.