The artwork for this roundup is a detail of Terri Chieyni's cover art for Fiyah #21.
An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:
An Array of Worlds As a Rose Unfurling In Time by Shreya Ila Anasuya in Strange Horizons
Until the day I die, you will be the first person who discovered the edges and depths of me, including who I really am, not a daughter and not a son, fluid, indefinable in any language that Baba was taught.
And I will be the first person who found the same about you.
I missed this story back in December, and thanks to Vanessa Fogg mentioning it on Twitter, I went back and read it and it is absolutely marvelous : beautiful, wrenching, hopeful, and infused with both love and magic. At its heart, this is a love story, told out of sequence (the reason for this becomes clear in the story itself), as two lovers are kept apart by their families and the world they live in, and yet try to find a way to be together. It's a short story that feels like an epic love story and the prose is exquisite.
Coiffeur Seven by Kiran Kaur Saini in Strange Horizons
Today one of the minders rolls one Veena Kaur Chan into my hairbay for a shampoo and cut. New client, transferring in from Palliative. Brainstem stroke. Unsuccessful rehabilitation. Pancreatic cancer. Ouch. Triple whammy. As the newly implemented HairForce Systems Autonomous Limbic Interface for this sector, yours truly Coiffeur Seven, I’m programmed to review her past dos and execute a similarly efficient hairstyle that her minders can maintain throughout the week.
Another fabulous story from Strange Horizons in December last year that I missed but (luckily) managed to catch up on because it crossed my timeline on Twitter. This is a uniquely imagined and beautifully crafted science fiction story that has a sense of humour and a big heart. Coiffeur Seven is an AI / hairdresser working in palliative care, used to giving mostly short, easy to handle haircuts to new clients. But when Veena Kaur Chan interfaces with Coiffeur Seven, something unusual happens: Veena connects to the AI so intimately that it changes both Veena and the Coiffeur Seven and maybe even the palliative care system they both inhabit. There's a beautiful tenderness here, and I love how the story switches back and forth between "I" to "she" to "we" as the interface between Coiffeur Seven and Veena changes and deepens.
Memoirs of a Magic Mirror by Julia Knowles in Podcastle (narrated by A.J. Fitzwater)
It started when three magicians, two fairies, a couple of wizards, a witch, and one very drunken sage decided it was a good idea to give consciousness to a mirror that had to answer any question truthfully. Personally, I blame the alcohol.
If you know me, you know I have a thing for retellings of fairytales and reimagined fairytales. Here, we get Snow White as seen from the point of view of the mirror itself and Knowles pulls this off brilliantly by giving the mirror a very strong and forceful personality. What happens when the stepmom/queen asks her famous question about who is the fairest of them all is a perfect example of why this story is so damn entertaining. There are other twists and turns in the story too, and I love this take on a well known story.
Tadpole Prophecy by Avi Burton in Podcastle (narrated by Sarah Griffin)
There are guards by the jagged portcullis, but they step aside as we pass. They know the duty we have been sent here to do. They cannot change the prophecy. You grip my handle tighter and wonder what the guards fear more — you, or your destiny. I, linked to your thoughts by the bond we share, suggest that they are one and the same.
If I wasn’t me, you ask silently, do you think the guards would try and fight for their monster? Do you think that they would die for him?
People always die for dark lords, willingly or not, I say. That is their purpose. We have ours.
This is a sharp take on the chosen trope in fantasy fiction. Burton tells this story from the point of view of the chosen one's sword, as the sword and the chosen one enter the dark lord's castle in order to take him down - just like the prophecies have foretold. What happens in the dark lord's castle, and what has happened to "the chosen one" before that, is not your usual fantasy fodder. I love how this tale explores the problems of being chosen, and why someone, or a whole society, might want a person to believe they are chosen. This story reminded me of Summer Fletcher's excellent Why I Spared the One Brave Soul Between Me and My Undead Army at Cast of Wonders, so check out that too!
Lamia by Cristina Jurado in Apex Magazine (translated by Monica Louzon)
Hunger doesn’t forgive.
It’s a basic need that makes everyone equal, whatever their background, whatever they are, whatever they feel. It twists the guts of the wise and the foolish, of old women and little girls, of the fearful and of bullies. Hunger’s reach knows no boundaries, no barriers.
Lamia knows hunger. She has known it since the harvests withered, since water stopped falling from the sky, since the animals fled. Even so, she continued living with her family in the cabin on the riverbank.
There were four of them: father, mother, brother, and Lamia.
A rich, twisted, and harrowing tale about Lamia who we first meet in a world that is fading and dying, where she is fading and dying, or so it seems until her strange husband arrives and she becomes pregnant. But that’s just where the darkness begins. Jurado’s tale is marvellously dark and twisted as it delves ever deeper into horror as we see Lamia’s grief and loss, and eventually her transformation into something else, and into myth, monster, and legend.
The Cure for Loneliness by M. Shaw in Apex Magazine
I’m pretty sure I’m photosynthesizing. That’s what I mean when I say this year made me a real plant lady. I promise this isn’t another weird quarantine derangement thing, like losing track of time or holding conversations with taxidermy. I still need to eat, but not much.
A deliciously trippy story about loneliness and pandemic isolation, and what happens when a philodendron cutting is put into a jar of pickle juice (later, another cutting takes to some tequila). Shaw tells a story about relationships, and the odd (physical and emotional) headspace people find themselves in when cut off from the people and places they were connected with in the before-times. It’s a pandemic story with a sense of humour and a lovely surrealistic vibe that includes a stuffed cat, an ex, and so so many plants. I love the unsettling, slightly off-kilter feel of the story where reality is growing and changing in unexpected ways.
The Language Birds Speak by Rebecca Campbell in Clarkesworld
She was left doubting what she had heard anything like “[ ],” which was a word both unfamiliar and true. It might be an exhausted mother hoping for meaning in the noise. Nevertheless she muttered it, testing the sound: “[ ]. [ ].”
I finally got around to reading this novelette and it is a harrowing and magical read. Gracie knows that her son, Alex, is not a regular child. His speech is delayed, and when he does speak, the words are strange, not like any language Gracie knows though it also seems oddly familiar to her. The words Alex speaks also seem to affect the world, and other people, in unexpected ways. And once Gracie sets off to try to figure out what is going on with her son, things get deeper and stranger and more dangerous than she could have imagined. A masterfully told story where the line between science and magic become blurred and eventually indistinguishable.
Bishop’s Opening by R.S.A. Garcia in Clarkesworld
Space romance, space battles, space ships, space food, space SHENANIGANS. I cannot overemphasize who rich and spectacularly entertaining this science fiction novella by Garcia is. Garcia has become a must-read author for me: she's a marvellous storyteller and worldbuilder, and here she weaves together a glorious romp of courtly intrigue, love and lust, and old family troubles coming home to roost. It's the kind of story that sucks you in and keeps you hooked, and if you want more, I also recommend her novella Philia, Eros, Storge, Agápe, Pragma, also in Clarkesworld.
Clay by Isabel J. Kim in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
The clay that makes bodies is found underneath the Fissure Basin. If you dig past the white sand, there is dark clay below. It dries to a pale finish when fired. There is no chemical difference between the clay that makes bodies and the clay that doesn’t.
In a world where people are crafted from clay rather than born, Emmanuel 7.18 works as a courier. He was damaged in the kiln when he was made, and was deemed unfit for the kind of work he was originally created for. “The Emmanuel mold was a delicate build. They were meant to be decorative, to serve in court.” His courier work brings him to Abe’s door. Abe is not like anyone else Emmanuel has met, and his work with clay is about making bodies by hand, rather than in a factory. This story is quietly harrowing but not without hope as it draws us into the strangeness and the hidden wounds and pains of its world.
In the Beginning of Me, I Was a Bird by Maria Dong in Lightspeed
Birds don’t last. Their hearts beat so fast, the seeds burn them out. We didn’t know that yet—the sky had only just split open, the almost-microscopic seeds floating down on thorn-tipped maple wings to drill their way into whatever they landed on. Sometimes it was soil, or water, or concrete—but often, it was flesh.
Oh, the beautiful strangeness of this piece where there is an alien invasion happening when “seeds” fall from the skies, penetrating humans, and when the humans die, their consciousness can then move into new creatures to escape death. Two souls chase and follow each other through the tale, through the world, from Starbucks to an apartment to the deep seas. Absolutely gorgeous prose and the kind of enigmatic alien presence I adore.
Shadows of the Hungry, the Broken, the Transformed By Izzy Wasserstein in Cossmass Infinities
Justine’s shadow watches her. It stands under the lamp post across from her flat, her smoky semblance, flickering and shifting under the gaslight. She’s at her window, tea cooling in her hands. Though the shadow has no eyes, Justine is certain that it stares at her, just as she is certain it is hers. She would know it anywhere.
Justine has lost her shadow after suffering a devastating loss. She is trying to go on with her life, talk to others who have also lost their shadows, but the loss and grief of what's happened is interfering with her studies of the delicate magic of heartweaving.
“Heartweaving, pulling as it does from oneself, is a very different skill. It allows one to create the warp’s essence as one works, allowing for greater control and improvisation, while also requiring great focus and precision.”
Wasserstein’s piercing story captures so many shades of grief and love and sorrow, and also shows how difficult it is to find a way to live our lives when we have been fundamentally changed by loss.
The Long Way Up, by Alix E. Harrow in The Deadlands
When her husband dies in an accident, Ocean cannot get over it and move on like all her therapists and friends tell her to. Instead, she goes on a long journey to get him back. But when she finally finds him at the end of that long travail, nothing turns out the way she thought. Harrow’s story, with its beating heart and its dark sense of humour and its clear-eyed depiction of grief and trauma and love, strikes a deep chord. If you’ve gone down to hell to find a loved one and faced the truths you find there, you’ll know the truth of this story.
It Takes a Village by L Chan in Augur Magazine 4.2
A deeply unsettling and disturbing tale about a judge headed to a village to investigate a crime. But this is no ordinary village: it’s populated by “dolls”, artificial humans crafted to serve their human owners. As the judge enters the village of the dolls, he soon realizes that he might be in way over his head. A beautifully crafted tale where nothing is as it seems, and where the darkness beneath the surface gets ever deeper and ever more dangerous.
Every Quivering Fold of Flesh by Jennifer R. Donohue in The Future Fire
The carcass of a very strange creature has washed up on the beach in a small community, and three friends have gathered for a beach party right next to the remains:
“Beach parties were a thing you did, not because you wanted to, but because you felt compelled. It was a ritual from before. Before when, nobody much wondered. And even with the giant mystery thing washed up just a few feet away, there was nowhere better to be.”
Donohue’s story is about transformations, and captures the confusion and heady excitement of adolescence and friendship and change, of growing up in a small community and looking for a way to be and become yourself, and all of it is woven together with such skill and such darkness that I find it irresistible.
Markets: A Beginner’s Guide by Shalini Srinivasan in Fantasy Magazine
A rich and subtly layered story, where the real world of grief and adolescence, loss and friendship are intimately woven together with an unsettling, though not necessarily sinister, magic of banyan trees. In the story we meet Lavanya. Her mother is sick, dying slowly. One day, a stranger comes to the door, and Lavanya knows he is perilous:
“The dead-rose man went deader and rosier, and his ear hair curled into long dry-blood tendrils. Roots, maybe, ends tender and pink. They twisted in and around and replaced his eyes in a way that made Lavanya feel dizzy.”
Magic lurks everywhere in this story, and it (in the form of the dead-rose man) comes calling every year as Lavanya grows up, as her life and her body and her friends change around her. The magic calls to her, but Lavanya resists, at least for a long while. I love how this story delves into the relationships, games and everyday rituals, in Lavanya's circle of friends, and how this story captures the way friendships change through adolescence, and how painful and confusing that change can be. The emotional depth of this story, and the subtle way the magic creeps ever closer to Lavanya, set this story apart.
From Earth to Io, With Love by Adelehin Ijasan in Fiyah
Here's a story that will be haunting me for a while, just like a good episode of the Twilight Zone. It's a science fiction story about a teleportation trip from Earth to Io, and it starts out as if it’s setting up a sci-fi adventure, perhaps, but the sharp turn it takes into horror is brilliantly done. I literally gasped reading this, and I love the nightmarish vibe here. This story is part of a fantastic issue of Fiyah that is well worth your time to check out.
To Make Unending by Max Gladstone in The Sunday Morning Transport
In the twenty-second year of the Seventh Bale, six thousand years since the last High King of Men and Elves fell beneath the waves, and twelve thousand more since the wilting of the Rose, on a cold autumn day beneath the silvern trees in the Lady’s Seat of Calberthrel, Celabrim Cindercloak returned from long ranging in shadow to find his son playing with a calculator.
The Sunday Morning Transport is a new speculative short fiction venue, set to publish one new story every week, and this is their first ever story. Gladstone gives us a high fantasy tale with a definite Tolkien-feel, but with a difference: in this world, the high elf children play a version of DnD where the game involves playing a version of our human world: sending emails instead of questing, figuring out office politics instead of fighting orcs, etc. It's a clever twist and Gladstone uses it to explore how parents might always worry that their kids are wasting their time on frivolous pursuits, and how those kids can surprise them with their skill and abilities in the end.
Free subscribers receive one story a month. Paid subscribers receive one story each week, fifty weeks a year. For paid subscribers, there’s more: the opportunity to join in a conversation about story, to ask questions, and to help build a year’s worth of moments with authors including Max Gladstone, Karen Lord, Elwin Cotman, Kij Johnson, Kat Howard, Elsa Sjunnesson, Kathleen Jennings, Katherine Addison, Juan Martinez, E.C. Myers, Maureen McHugh, Tessa Gratton, Sarah Pinsker, Michael Swanwick, Brian Slattery, Malka Older, and many more.
Thermophile by Jack Klausner in The Dark
A quietly disturbing, creepingly surreal horror tale about two roommates and the ever-stranger behaviour one of them exhibits as his love for long, very long, hot showers goes beyond an annoyance into the realm of transformation. I love how this story is so firmly anchored in the real world, and then peels back our reality bit by bit until we are in the realm of true body horror.
Factory Mother by Sid Jain in Cast Of Wonders (narrated by Nadia Niaz)
The mushroom mycelia sundering in the pale, hot fermentation medium reminded Hanifa of her apartment building melting in Old Delhi: when concrete flowed like lava and spilled her life onto the streets.
I LOVE this slice of life (and slice of science) story by Sid Jain. We find ourselves in a future where the world has been ravaged by nuclear fallout and more. Hanifa's ravaged family has had to leave India behind and now live in a sort of refugee-town in the US. Hani has a job in a plant manufacturing mushroom-based protein and her life, and her work, are crushing her in a multitude of ways. Jain portrays Hanifa's workplace and her home situation with such gentle precision, and I love to read a story like this where the plot revolves around everyday life. Wonderful in every way. (Pair this with Sid Jain's Mist Songs of Delhi, narrated by Amal Singh.)
The Elements of Her Self by Kiyomi Appleton Gaines in Nightmare
When she opens her eyes, there is no light. Then she can’t tell if she’s really opened them or not. She tries to move her hands, to rub her eyes, but her limbs don’t respond. Her flesh feels unfamiliar, heavy, lifeless.
A gorgeous, evocative, and deeply unsettling take on "The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter" (if you've seen the beautiful and devastating animated movie The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, you'll have seen one breathtaking take on that story). Quoting Wikipedia:
The story details the life of Kaguya-hime, a princess from the Moon who is discovered as a baby inside the stalk of a glowing bamboo plant. After she grows, her beauty attracts five suitors seeking her hand in marriage, whom she turns away by challenging them each with an impossible task; she later attracts the affection of the Emperor of Japan. At the tale's end, Kaguya-hime reveals her celestial origins and returns to the Moon.
In Kiyomi Appleton Gaines's version of the story, things twist and turn in new ways in the tale and the ending packs a severe emotional punch.
New Meat by Jordan Shiveley in Nightmare
An outstanding flash fiction story by Jordan Shiveley who gives us a voracious and tense horror story that quivers with hunger and dread. The prose makes it feel like a taut string, ready to snap.
Worrywart by Effie Seiberg in Galaxy's Edge
Fairy gifts are great if they come from a smart fairy. A smart fairy knows not to deal in too many abstracts without defining them. But my fairy godfather, Morningflower, gifted me with “being able to confront my biggest problems head-on,” which meant that instead of having a baseline level of anxiety neatly tucked into my head, I had Bub.
I do so love this story by Seiberg, about a very curious (and rather hilarious) fairy gift that has been bugging the ever-living crap out of its recipient forever. What would it be like to have your anxiety by your side as a living, breathing, speaking creature that questions your every move, telling you all the things you fear are true? Seiberg imagines just that in a story that is funny, sharp, and pulls off an excellent ending as well.
Pod 530217-A by Emma Lindhagen in Baffling Magazine
On Thursday, I am killing Mx. Clark.
What does the future have in store for people who choose to be cryogenically frozen, hoping to be resurrected in some distant future? It's a question that's been explored in several works of science fiction, and I love Lindhagen's quietly devastating take on what might happen to them when the future has moved beyond whatever expectations and hopes people and families once cherished. I love the way Lindhagen approaches this subject and the way there is still a bit of light and humanity, even at the end of the road.