This month's roundup includes some amazing stories stories I read and loved in July. I'm posting it a bit later than usual because I was traveling in July and early August! For more story picks by me, check out my quarterly Short Fiction Treasures column in the July 24 issue of Strange Horizons at http://strangehorizons.com/non-fiction/short-fiction-treasures-quarterly-fiction-roundup-7/
The art for this roundup includes a detail of Sergio Rebolledo's cover art for Clarkesworld #202. The artwork is titled "Autumn Pond" and you can find out more about the artist at https://www.sergiodesign.ca/illustrations.
An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:
Blue by Margaret Jordan in Fantasy Magazine
The world ends with a press of bodies huddled together on the beach—
—electric with terror—
—the sky incandescent with smoke. It’s so dark. Black-orange-bloody-bruised. Flashlights throw long beams across the sand. Police lights flicker blue and red, blue and red, blue and red, and the Ferris wheel on the pier glows an obscene neon. No one thought to turn off the calliope. It echoes off the empty boardwalk, cheerfully macabre. The ocean groans.
A gorgeous and harrowing story about August who survives a blazing inferno by sinking, almost (surely) drowning, and who is fundamentally changed in the process. Disaster, and the magic that entered her as she sank into the ocean, haunts her and affects everything she is and does. Fear goes deep, but August also meets a new group of people who have been changed by the world too, and from there Jordan builds a story of fragile, strengthening hope and and a new way of life.
Dave the Terrible by Brent Baldwin in Flash Fiction Online
Dave the Terrible never wanted the unholy scepter, but you couldn’t refuse your mother’s dying wish. He hefted the gilt scepter from his nightstand each morning and used it to gaze upon the past and the present and sometimes even the future. It had come with a mist-cloaked fortress in the mountains that had a stone fireplace and a cozy library, so things weren’t all bad.
All the stories in this issue of FFO are beautiful and piercing in their own way. This story, by Baldwin, is a gorgeously crafted tale that weaves together grief and fantasy. Dave has inherited the unholy scepter after his mother dies, and the things the scepter shows and says to him do not necessarily make it easier for Dave to find his way back into the world. It's a lovely piece in every way.
When the Forest Comes to You by E. M. Linden in Flash Fiction Online
Keith drops from the monkey bars. He stumbles, because it’s high for a five-year-old, but the ground is that soft bouncy stuff that doesn’t hurt. He runs past the bins into the scrappy copse behind the playground. The big kids come here sometimes. It’s small, bordered by two roads, and even right in the middle he can still see the bus stop through the trees. To him, it’s a forest.
A wrenching and quietly devastating story about childhood and parenthood, and about longing for something you can't have, and then finding it, under circumstances that are not what you first imagined. There's a tenderness to Linden's prose here, even when it turns darker, that broke my heart.
Patrice by Meredith Gordon in Flash Fiction Online
Before her spine lilted and twirled and began to spiral, before gym teachers and office ladies at school shook their heads, before doctor appointments, before she had to stand there naked in cold exam rooms, heat hissing from radiator ribs bolted to the floor, before her father died and her mother remarried a man who wanted his “own” child, Patrice had been happy.
Strangeness permeates the everyday in this story about Patrice, about children, about pregnancy and birth, and parenthood. There's a quiet weight to Gordon's prose that makes the story sink deep inside and stay with you.
The Indigo Mantis by E. Catherine Tobler in Podcastle (narrated by Christiana Ellis)
Indi shook her head, leaning away from his touch. “You said you had a lead,” she said.
She rested a green forearm on the pine bar, studying him. He looked no different than he had at their prior meetings, always a cop and never just a friend. The way he held himself, he was ready for anything; she didn’t think the beetles stood a chance if they leapt for the pine’s trunk. This part of the tree wasn’t Joe’s regular beat; he’d come up from the understory two days before because he wanted to help her, said he had a lead and —
“You said you knew who killed my father.”
A noir-ish murder mystery with a mantis superhero at its heart, this story is so much fun, and also truly intriguing as we follow Indi's adventures among ants, bugs, and the memories of her father and his death. I love the world Tobler creates here, with all its perfectly drawn characters, milieus, and situations. And having a mantis as a secretive crime fighter, haunted by her own dark past and the memories of her mother, is brilliant.
What Remains, the Echoes of a Flute Song by Alexandra Seidel in Clarkesworld
The city lay ahead in its bone ash sleep, but there was no need to pass through it. There was never a need to move forward. And yet.
The flutist pulled out their flute. It was old and had not always belonged to them. It was cut from palest ivory, the green thin as blades of spring grass. They found a tune.
Greetings, the tune said, greetings to the stone, the archways, the windows, and the lintels before me.
The skeletons of cities ever had such magnificent echoes.
A story by Alexandra Seidel is always a gift, and this one is an exquisitely wrought science fiction tale, set in a future where cities and technology remain, but where the inhabitants are long gone. A flute player walks through this world, carefully picking their way through the ruins and remains of the past, and then they find A Person. Seidel's story is suffused with both light and terrible sadness, and it is achingly beautiful.
Death Is Better by Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe in Lightspeed
Six minutes and a behemoth. That is all that stands between us and freedom.
I glance at Abiola’s face. The helmet she wears prevents me from seeing her expression, but I catch the steely determination in her dark eyes. She’s ready. There’s no backing out now. I resist the urge to look behind us. I don’t want to appear fidgety and unsure in my little sister’s presence. Besides, the real threats are not the guard bots behind us, deactivated for ten minutes by my crudely assembled EMP jammer.
A terrific science fiction story about two siblings, trying to flee those that have bought and imprisoned them. I love sibling stories with a passion, and the bond between sister and brother here gives the story added urgency and depth. Ajeigbe captures a world, and the terror and agony and determination of those trying to escape, with sharp and devastating clarity.
No One Ever Finds Her by Matthew Keeley in Coffin Bell
The warmth of black fur against her spine and under her fingertips goes. Now, wetness on the back of one upturned hand and the cold of hard tile under the other. Soothing candle glow dissipates and she opens her eyelids to squint at white and shine. She has been spat out, starfished on the disabled cubicle floor.
I love love love this strange and winding story of magic and displacement, about being lost and finding yourself in new places and new bodies. Gorgeous.
A World Unto Myself by P.A. Cornell in Apex
I’m one of the fortunate ones. Most decommissioned robots wind up recycled or squeezed into storage units with other obsolete models while their fate is decided—sometimes over decades. I don’t know why my owner brought me to the abandoned scrapyard rather than trade me in. Nor why instead of placing me next to the compactor with the other machines, he walked me over to an old, metal bench and told me to sit before leaving me.
A quiet, beautifully crafted science fiction story that has a wistful, thoughtful vibe I love. I love tales of old robots, of how they may find ways to change and exist in a world that is so different than the one they were made for.
Interstate Mohinis by M.L. Krishnan in Diabolical Plots
In the way of Death runs the Vaitaraṇī river. We are flayed open to its woe. We are always aware of its currents in gurgling lungfuls of unease.
Time spun in recursive loops since I died in a scream of metal and flame and asphalt on the Parthibanur State Highway. There was no cremation. What could they consign to the flame? A scorched knob of my torso? My jawbone, still glued with tissue? A lone filling snugly hidden within a lone tooth?
The mystery of the afterlife, of existing as a monster, or at least something others perceive as monstrous... Krishnan captures it perfectly in this story. I love the voice of this story, the feeling of bewilderment and of being lost and searching for your identity and purpose even after death.
Exquisite Corpses by A.M. Guay in Three-Lobed Burning Eye
Mariah came late to the woods, wobbling into the weak firelight on her newest legs. Bared by her jean shorts, each long tan thigh was ringed with a fine, crimped seam like an empanada. My parents always wanted me to be a model, she’d told me at orientation, her smile the wrong shade for her skin. They were thrilled. I was only five-two when I died.
Beauty and the expectations of others - how to behave, how to look - feature heavily in this story by Guay. There's a Frankenstein-esque kind of body horror here that is both darkly funny (in a painful way) and harrowing.
A Song For the Centipedes by Neal Auch in Three-Lobed Burning Eye
The crib filled up with centipedes.
They came at night — a great pilgrimage of arthropods. They poured in from faucets, electrical outlets, light fixtures. They squirmed through hairline fractures in the walls, making their way from the dark hidden places of the cottage and coming together, at last, finding one another, at last, in the crib. It was the place where, one after another, the babies had not slept.
I love this dark and twisting story where horror, despair, and anger creep ever deeper into the world of one woman, sitting by a crib. The past is full of death and grief and pain, haunted by sounds and memories from the forest, and we glimpse that past in terrifying flashes of dread. There's an aching, hollow sadness here, and Auch's language gives even the darkest, most horrible moments a deep and beautiful lustre.
The Spirit of Bois by Karyn Díaz in Fiyah
Carnival again. It was one of Bois Man’s favourite times of year. He would come down from his forest repose to mingle with the revellers, imbibe Guinness, and engage in stick fighting. J’ouvert morning was a time of revelry but also of spirituality, making it the perfect time for his kind to walk among humans. This time of year, the veil grew thinner than a whisper. The revelry, the ecstatic energy, the sensuality, the intoxication, the thumping bass, and the rhythmic drums called the spirits to celebrate in the same way that it called the living denizens of the land, the people dem.
The latest issue of Fiyah Magazine is Carnival-themed, and Díaz’s story is a terrific romp through a Carnival full of people and spirits. There is such great detail here, in the history and the revelry and the characters of the spirits gathering together with the human beings, and I especially love the way Díaz describes the connections –deep and ancient, new and fiery—between revelers and spirits. There’s such joy here, and the story captures both the mood of festive partying and the deeper layers of meaning and history beneath the feast. It’s a grand story with real depth and real heart.
Petunia by Lerato Mahlangu in Fiyah
Tamani loves his long baths, be it on the coldest day in winter or the hottest in summer. He lies in the tub allowing the bubbles to run over his skin and the water to warm his body, he thinks about how his art supplies need refilling, how far the craft will take him, the house and how lonely it tends to get, and he worries about his mama and his stagnant life. Sometimes he imagines farfetched possibilities of finding a suburban house of his own with an evergreen lawn, an abundance of petunias and a woman with whom to share love. But thinking excessively exhausts him, so he shuts his eyes and listens to the soothing sound of bubbles going pop, pop, pop.
Oh, this is such a gorgeous and powerful story about Tamani, who isn’t exactly like the other people in his town. His mother won’t let him attend the festivities because of past mishaps, and because he’s struggling with how to handle the visions, and the magic, that swirl through his life. And then Tamani sees something, and meets someone, who changes what he thought he knew about himself, and who gives him a task to complete ahead of the year’s carnival. It’s a quest that will transform Tamani and also transform his relationship with his mother and his community. It’s such a brilliant story, and I love the way it describes both Tamani’s outer world, and his inner world.