The artwork for this roundup is a detail of Hazem Asif's cover art for Tasavvur. Read more about the artwork and the artist at Tasavvur's website: https://tasavvurnama.com/cover-art-spring-2022-issue/
Hazem Asif is a multidisciplinary international illustrator, designer and social design activist based in Lahore, Pakistan. He is a graduate from Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts campus in Doha, Qatar with a BFA in Graphic Design and MFA in Design Studies with a focus on speculative design, south asian futurism, and world building.
Hazem has exhibited internationally, and has worked in a wide range of markets, such as Publishing, Editorial, Film and Academia. Hazem currently works as a Science Illustrator at Lahore University of Management Sciences.
For more short story recommendations by me, check out my latest Short Fiction Treasures column at Strange Horizons. Also, consider supporting Strange Horizon's Kickstarter: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/strangehorizons2019/strange-horizons-2023/description
The audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:
You, Me, Her, You, Her, I by Isabel J. Kim in Strange Horizons
You are the unalive thing possessing her body. Her body was printed three days ago from blueprints transferred moments before the motorbike crash over the bridge. Her flesh and fat and keratin and bone are accurate to prior specifications, except for the absence of a few cosmetic scars on her arm which her family had requested not be replicated.
A haunting and beautifully crafted story that dives deep into what it means to be a person, to be human, to be an artist. It's also a story that is very much about art and creativity, about how and why we make art and where the ideas and the craft come from. In Kim's story, an artificial intelligence, the "unalive thing", is inserted into the new body of Valentine, a young woman who recently died in an accident. The AI is only meant to inhabit Valentine's body for a couple of months while her real brain is restored and placed back in the body before her "resurrection". The story doesn't focus so much on the resurrection of a person who died in (what seems like) an accident. Instead, it focuses on the experience of the artificial mind that is inserted into the body and provided with as many of Valentine's experiences and memories as possible in order to impersonate her until the real Valentine can return. But while inhabiting Valentine's life, the AI becomes ever more interested in Valentine's art, and then in art itself and how it is created, and where the ideas and inspiration come from. It's a thoughtful and thought-provoking story with an original take on sentient AIs and creativity.
The Harp by E.A. Petricone in Strange Horizons
The story Mirra had always heard was this: Poppa provoked some angry spirits, but when they set upon him Nonna bewitched them with her harp and made a deal. On the first night of every month, for the length of a soccer game, Nonna performed a concert for the spirits, and in exchange they left Poppa in this world.
Mirra is a young teenager, grumpy and sarcastic and quite happy to roll her eyes at the rest of her family: her baby sister Evie, her mom, her grandparents... everyone. Mostly she finds them embarrassing and boring and she can't wait to get old enough that she can move out and get away from them. And when she's tasked with helping her grandmother prepare the harp for the spirit concert...well, she doesn't take that task very seriously. I love how Petricone captures Mirra's tween/teen state of mind, and then also captures what happens to Mirra when the spirit concert goes wrong. It's a sharp and dark story that was inspired by the artwork that accompanies it.
Before Hand Meant Hand, by Nathan Alling Long in Lackington’s
The theme for Lackington’s final issue is “prehistories” and in this story, we go back to a time “before hand meant hand, we simply had these things at the ends of our arms, which were not even called arms”. It’s a story about humans living before developed language, and I love the slipstream rhythm of this story and I love how evocative it is. It’s a mysterious thing to try to capture what life would be for humans before the development of language as we know it, but there’s a gorgeous, lyrical quality to this story that is absolutely captivating. A story that should be read, rather than described, I think. Dive into the tale and the whole issue. Lackington's will be sorely missed. Thank you for the fiction, Lackington’s.
Time, Wolf, Emit, Flow by Anna Madden in Metaphorosis
I love this twisted and twisting story of a gate/portal, and two worlds seemingly ripped apart and sundered. In Time's world there are memories of the Shapers, beings who brought technology and a better world, but the Shapers have now disappeared, leaving Time's world to destruction and disarray. Time is intent on finding a way to fix the polluted world and save its weakening inhabitants who take the shape of various creatures depending on their mood and need. When Time finally manages to assemble and repair a Shaper gate, things take a very unexpected turn. It's a brilliant, wonderfully crafted story with luminous prose.
Bring Your Own Spoon by Saad Hossain in Tasavvur
Have I told you lately that I love science fantasy? Well I do, and "Bring Your Own Spoon" is a great example of this blended genre. It's set in a nearish future version of Dhaka city, ravaged by pollution and environmental degradation, a place where people's lives are precarious, and where almost no one relies on growing their own food anymore, instead getting their sustenance from replicator-like machines. Oh, and did I mention there are Djinn!? In this world lives Hanu, who likes to cook using scavenged and naturally growing ingredients, something that is seen as extremely suspect by most everyone else. Hanu is visited by Imbi, one of the Djinn now inhabiting the world. Imbi is so impressed with Hanu’s cooking that he suggests he start a restaurant, something that seems impossible to Hanu, but which brings about all sorts of changes. The story is a delightful and fabulous romp through a rather dystopic future, where the bright light and hope is Hanu’s cooking: fragrant with spices and mango and more. Hossain’s descriptions of smells and tastes are divine and I basically wanted to eat everything described in the story.
The Projectionists, by E.M. Linden in The Deadlands
Hasan learns the rules. Grief shows that you remember. If people disappear—terrorists, traitors, not citizens—they never existed. But grief gets in the way. So in Hasan’s city, people do not grieve. No smoke and jasmine and blue beads to map the dead’s path to the next world. No mourning prayers, no tears or other defiances. No keeping vigil until the right moon sets. No bodies.
Linden's story about life (and death) in a place where terrible things have happened, and continue to happen, is a quiet, lyrical ghost story that cuts deep. Hasan and his father, and most of the people they know, have lost friends and family members, but it is impossible for them to express their grief or their anger openly for fear of repercussions. Linden expertly weaves together the stories of the ghosts, with the stories of those left behind, with the past and present horrors of their stricken community.
To Build Eternity, With Bones, by Gunnar De Winter in The Deadlands
Every summoning is a deal with the bone baron.
I see him dance toward us across the floes of ice. No one else on the ship can see him; I’m the only necromancer. His features are hazy. Across his gray skin, shadows dance independent of any light source. Not that there is not much light here, in the eternal night on the sea of shards.
The baron’s bowler hat is too small, and his mouth stretches into a rictus grin. It’s the only sharp thing about him, the smile seared into reality.
First off, you can read de Winter's story intriguing story notes for this story here: https://thinkingahead.substack.com/p/behind-the-story-to-build-eternity.
To quote the story notes:
The story’s protagonist is a young promising necromancer looking to make a name for herself (and please check out her name if you choose to read the story). Necromancers are a small, but powerful guild in the story’s world. Respected. Feared even. Also greeted with suspicion and superstition.
From that premise, De Winter weaves a bone-shivering tale about a necromancer hunting for a legend. It's a story about death and bones (gigantic bones) and what it might cost you to reanimate them. It is also a story about love and desire and ambition. I love the voice and vibe of this story, and I love the necromancer's relationship with the Bone Baron, the patron saint of necromancers.
Potemora in the Triad by Sara S. Messenger in Fantasy Magazine
There are always three: the father, the unfather, and the child. That’s why Vriskiaab threw my unfather off his back after she bore my baby sister, or so Vriskiaab tells me when he stops in the shade of a dune, his massive scales warm under my calves and the tail of him stretching behind me for leagues. My baby sister is soft and crimson-tacky in the crook of my arm.
A luminous and mysterious tale of scaled creatures (some more snake and some more human) traveling a strange desert and haunted by the stories and myths and fate that guides their lives and their actions. The narrator’s sister, the child in the triad, is named Baaiksirv, and as the narrator says, “Unlike me, she will have round pupils, and no scales anywhere, not even in a thin line down her spine. In that way, she is just like our unfather.” The triad has a dark purpose that will spell doom for one of the three, and this haunts the narrator and her sister more and more. I loved reading Messenger’s interview in Fantasy Magazine where she talks about her writing process, and the inspiration behind the story.
Linden In Effigy by Kay Chronister in The Dark
The witch died in the middle of May. Everyone said that after she was gone, her daughter stayed in their sagging old bungalow for three days without telling anyone what had happened.
Chronister’s story is set in a small community where modern life is intertwined with ancient and ominous magic, and where the ceremonies and sacrifices in the fen are a vital part of life. When the local witch dies, her young daughter moves in with a local family, and the spectre of the upcoming Saint Agnes' eve ceremony for the young women in the community looms large in everyone’s mind. Laurie, who now shares a room with the witch’s daughter, and Laurie's (former?) best friend Ellie both dread the upcoming ceremony that may have dire implications for them, and even more dire implications for the community and maybe the world if the girls don’t go through with it. Ellie plans to escape whatever fate is laid out for her, but Laurie isn't so sure. An excellent horror story that brings ancient magic into our own world and time, and I love the focus on the relationship between the young women, and between them and the community.
C(h)oral by Hamilton Perez in Kaleidotrope
A father has lost his only child to disease, and grief-stricken, he heads out to sea again. He used to be a sailor but left that life behind to take care of his child and now that he’s back, he tries to bury himself and his memories in the work on board. And it works, for a while, even though memories and a song haunts him wherever he goes. Perez’s story is a powerful tale of grief and loss, where the vivid details of life and work on board a sailing ship anchor the story’s lyrical spirit in the real world. I love the feel and texture of the prose and the world, and I love the mysterious nature of what happens at the end once we dive deep beneath the surface.
The Bones Beneath by Vanessa Fogg in Podcastle (narrated by Tatiana Grey)
The bare field is on the outskirts of town, several miles away. But she can still feel it as she walks to school. She feels the movement of buried bones there, the remains of the little creatures of the earth — mice, voles, and moles. Things that once saw light, and things that stayed underground, blind and digging. Hidden things, forgotten things.
Deep underneath, the earth is frozen. But it’s thawing near the surface. Fay feels the twitch and shiver of waking bones in the dirt, like the wingbeats of new birds trying to fly.
As A.C. Wise pointed out on Twitter, Fogg's powerful and wrenching story almost seems to be in conversation with Linden's story "The Projectionists" from The Deadlands. I love both these stories and highly recommend reading them back to back. In Fogg's story, we find ourselves in a community where terrible things have happened, and where regular people were the perpetrators of that terror. No one talks about it anymore, and everything is supposed to be fine and normal even though it's not. And while the people try to stay silent, the bones buried in the ground are restless and keep surfacing, reminding everyone of what they would like to forget.
A Belly Full of Spiders by Mário Coelho (narrated by Bryce Dahle) at PseudoPod
Alone in a dark basement, Davey’s learned to do much without his eyes. He can hear the groaning of a house that never settles. He can taste different flavours of humidity: rust, cloth, mould, sweat. When he sniffs, he knows what Mom and Dad are cooking upstairs. Baked potatoes, drizzled in olive oil and peppered with garlic. Sirloin steak, charred on the outside, bloody within.
Sirloin. Sir Loin, Lord Gone whispers in his mind, his voice like scratches. Sir Loin, knight of the rotund table. You don’t need a knight, Davey. You just follow what I say.
Fair warning: this horror story is not an easy read. It involves terrible things being done to children, though the details of what is being done are kept mostly off the page. These terrible things are only too real if you read the papers or listen to the news, and need no supernatural monsters as perpetrators. Coelho is well aware of this, and in the story, the supernatural presence is of a different kind. Lord Gone seems like a monster, a monster that is tormenting Davey in the dank basement where he has lived most of his life. But Coelho twists and turns our expectations expertly in this story, and I really love how we get to follow Davey past the point when you might think the story might end. It's not a story about hopelessness and insurmountable evil. No, in the end, it's way more nuanced and complex than that.
Excuse Me, this is the Quiet Car by Cara Mast (narrated by Lalana Dara) at Cast of Wonders
The magic of the quiet car is best when everyone follows the rules.
I’m halfway through the math problem I’ve been mulling over when a sudden bleep-bleep-bring-a-ling in the quiet makes me jump, slamming my knees into the fold-down tray table. Ouch.
And then, as if the phone ringing wasn’t enough, the man across the aisle from me picks up. “This is Paul Whitford. Yeah, hey Jerry, what do you need?”
If you've ever been really annoyed with the people who break the obvious, publicly posted rules, and disregard the care and comfort of others in public places (such as a train), then this story is definitely for you. People are supposed to be quiet in the quiet car, and when someone breaks that rule, the other passengers try to correct them. But what happens if the offender ignores them? What if they don't care about the rules or who they inconvenience? Mast's story is both dark and hilarious, and it has a very satisfying ending.
Safe Places by Sylvia Heike in Martian - the Magazine of Science Fiction Drabbles
A wrenching sci-fi drabble by Heike. I love the obscured words here, and the way the horror of what's happening is both revealed and hidden at the same time.
There Are No Monsters on Rancho Buenavista Isabel Cañas in Nightmare
Rosario was not the prettiest young woman on Rancho Buenavista, nor even the prettiest of her sisters; she was too aloof, too dreamy to be useful in a hardworking home. But that did not change the fact that her suitor Beto, Antonio’s cousin, was the most envied man. See, Rosario had secrets. Secrets have a way of drawing moth to flame, and Rosario’s lit her like a lamp.
A deliciously wicked flash fiction story about Rosario, and what happens when a man stalks her in order to find out her secrets. Cañas tells the story with such panache and with such a biting sense of dark humour that it had me charmed from the first sentence to the last.
Into The Thunder by Michelle Muenzler in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
It’s late morning when Syenok catches the worrying tang of blood on the wind. There, then gone again before she can confirm it. Still, in the wasted lands, blood is not a scent you ignore.
Not if you want to survive.
“Hold,” she says, cautiously reining in her strider. The two-legged raptor—a rosie, so called by most caravanners due to the pink roseate pattern painting its scales—twitches its tail in irritation, no doubt calculating yet another attempt to unseat her.
There are simply not enough stories about people riding domesticated monster-dinosaurs in speculative fiction, so I always rejoice when I read such a story. Muenzler gives us a rip-roaring, swaggering tale of Syenok and Olva, two outriders on a mission, riding their raptors when they run into some very dangerous thunderclaws. I love absolutely everything about this story, from the inspired curse-words, to the way Muenzler incorporates her world- and character-building into the action of the story, to the understated sense of humour. I also LOVE how the contrary nature of the raptor-mount pays off at the end of the story. Fantastic storytelling set in a world I wanted more of immediately, and with a duo of characters I'd follow into any adventure.