October 2, 2023

My Sci-Fi, Fantasy & Horror Short Fiction Roundup for September, 2023


The art for this roundup features a detail of the cover art for Fantasy Magazine #93, made by lumitar / Adobe Stock Image. More about the artist at https://www.etsy.com/shop/LumitarArt.

An audio version of this roundup is available on YouTube:


Bozpo Witch-Bane by Simo Srinivas in Fantasy Magazine

Outside is the palace of slaughter. Under its gambrels of boiling sky, there is the cold unforgiving sea; there are mountains ready to cradle your bones. Along its corridors of singing grass, there are horseback warriors who will cut you to pieces. There are witches, and there are cats.

Quite simply, this is one of my favourite fantasy stories I've read this year. Gorgeous, rich, lush prose and a story that is full of adventure and danger, betrayal and companionship, death and vengeance. AND it has two cats as its main characters! I mean, what's not to love about that? All I can say is: read this story and revel in the glory of such a brilliant, uniquely crafted fantasy set in a world I immediately wanted more of. There are sentences and whole paragraphs here that I had to read and re-read again just to savour the beauty.

The Cursed Universe Inside Your Eye by Angela Liu in Fantasy Magazine

You fish the knife out of your canvas bag, and a lighter with just enough fluid for one more flash of fire. This is your first time—but you’ve seen your mother do the same thing countless times before. Before she made her first mistake. Before you were forced to take her place.

Dark magic and strange powers are at play in this evocative and unsettling, yet eerily beautiful, story by Angela Liu. There are layers of pain and deception and spell-craft here, in a story that involves a daughter, the strange world inside her, and the magic and knowledge passed down to her from her mother. 

NegativeTheology of the Child from 'The King of Tars' by Sonia Sulaiman in Fantasy Magazine

An intricately woven, strange and deeply thought-provoking story where the narrator (literally, in more ways than one) goes inside The King of Tars, a medieval romance. I love the way Sulaiman burrows inside the text, with a narrator that is seeking out the characters of the story, traveling through a “realm of allegory and myth, of device and symbiotics”. Present and past, fiction and history, everything is braided together here, and there’s an evocative, lyrical vibe to this whole story that I absolutely love. So many lines here shine and glow:

“They, too, will have to find a way on that path between the shafts of light and shadow that make up this cosmos. I have done what I can to let in some air, to leave a hole in the veil through which it is possible to glimpse the mysterious and real.”


What It Means to Be a Car by James Patrick Kelly at TOR.com

๐Ÿš˜Welcome to Small Heaven, home of Jennet Harada. You are Ketrin Nanhola?

๐Ÿ—จYes, that’s me.

๐Ÿš˜My name is Seishin Toyota and I am pleased to be your car for today’s tour. You may take the front or back seat as you wish, but please mind your head as you enter. I look forward to telling you about my experiences at Small Heaven during your visit. Seat belt, please. You may be interested to know that I was Ms. Harada’s personal automobile prior to her first death in 2368.

I absolutely LOVE this science fiction story about an AI-controlled car dealing with a rather difficult passenger, and also dealing with the "stranded cloud presence" of its sort-of-dead previous owner, Ms. Harada. The story plays out in dialogue between Seishin Toyota and the passenger, Ketrin Nanhola, and Kelly brilliantly uses this format to reveal the passenger's ulterior motive for the ride, and the increasing trouble the car finds itself in.


Between Truth and Death on the Murmansk—Saint Petersburg Line by Zohar Jacobs in The Sunday Morning Transport

Two weeks of freedom from the rotten ice and the rotten food, from the frigid waters of the Kola Bay with their tang of salt and rust and oil and industrial effluent, from the barracks and the hazing and the bizarre alterity of navy life. Only the invincibly ignorant could claim that being one-eighth rusalka meant you were fated to be a frogman. Unfortunately, the invincibly ignorant were the vast majority of the military.

This is such gloriously mysterious and wonderful story. It is set in Russia and blends fantasy, history, and the present into a beautifully layered and complex weave. There's also strange time-skip/time-slip things happening throughout the story, where past and present, dream and reality, are layered one over top of the other, in a way that is both unsettling and dreamlike. Jacobs gives us a story full of sadness and war, and there is much here that is familiar from what we see happening after Russia's invasion of Ukraine. I just love the gentle and profound blend of reality and fantasy here, and I truly wanted this story to keep going because I wanted more of this world, and more of these characters.


The Magazine of Horror by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki in Apex

Good morning. I would like to allay your fears that what you have heard are rumours, but I cannot. We do take what we do here very seriously, as storytelling is a life and death matter. You saw our pay rates. We are committed to paying handsomely for the best horror story existing in the world at any moment. And should we fail to pay the funds, we pay in other ways.

This is darkly funny meta-story about something many writers might occasionally consider: what would you be willing to give in order to get published? And not only published, but paid very handsomely. In this story, publication comes at a steep price, but one the writer in the story is still willing to pay.

Gim of P by Benjamin DeHaan in Apex

Nothing ever happens in our world surrounded by P. P is what we call the material that makes up our world, and it’s what we call our world. PP, PET, PE, PS. So many Ps. We don’t know what it is or what it means. It’s a material between the living and dying. You can’t eat it, but it can be used for clothing, eating utensils, ropes, and among other things.

An ingenious science fiction story set in a cramped, dystopian world full of algae. I love the intricate details of everyday life in this strange world, and the way you feel that parts of this tiny universe are definitely familiar... 


Shalom Aleichem by Y.M. Resnik in Diabolical Plots

Every Friday night the angels came, and every Friday night they freaked me the fuck out. Which is probably why I didn’t get a million-eyed, one-footed guardian of my own like the rest of my family. This was totally fine with me. I was in no way jealous that my siblings had angels to accompany them to college while I was stuck sitting alone in an empty dorm room. Who needed a creep-tastic companion whose face consisted of a bizarro series of interlocking cogs and wheels forever whirring?

Resnik's story made me smile. It's a story about being an awkward adolescent AND being able to see, or maybe hear, the angels that are everywhere in the world, though not everyone is aware of their presence. Resnik turns this into a meet-cute where two people get to know each other because of, and in spite of, the presence of their extremely impressive angels.


Student Living by Ashley Deng in Nightmare

2. Basement n.

base·ment | \ หˆbฤs-mษ™nt

1. A room underground, with the weight of a building or more bearing down upon its precarious ceiling.

2. The place where the shadows are overly familiar.

3. Home, though. Despite the things that lurk in the dark.

A horror story told in footnotes? Can you do that? After reading Deng's story, the answer is a resounding "hell yes". It's an impressive feat of subtle storytelling, and the author has this to say in the story notes at Nightmare:

“Student Living” is something of a love letter to the makeshift nature of living on a budget as a student. It’s bleary-eyed mornings and caffeine fueled nights with our faces slammed against readings and lecture notes. I wanted to write something that encompassed my love of that experience while also reflecting all the ways it felt, y’know, just a little off."


The Greenhorn by Taylor Rae in Apparition Lit

In a village of dragon-slayers, you must be tough to survive. Our lives are carved into the rocky hide of the Boneback Mountains, where the clay earth refuses to be tamed into farmland. There’s only one path to greatness in a place like this: killing dragons.

The dragons feed on us, and we feed on them. Their hollow-boned wings become our beads; their teeth become knives; their scales become armor. As my father would say, the only good dragon is a dead dragon—and they taste best when the meat is young and soft.

This is a terrific slice of life fantasy set in a society that fears and kills dragons (kind of a "How To Train Your Dragon" vibe), and where one girl goes against everyone's accepted wisdom about the beasts. I love the way Rae depicts the dragons, but I also love the way the relationships, both good and bad, between the young people in the story are handled, and I especially love the way we get to see a new friendship take shape. And hey, a story about vegetarian dragons is definitely worth a look, am I right?


A Scarcity of Sharks by Kelsey Yu in Reckoning

Bruce is seventeen feet long and would’ve weighed around two tons when he was murdered by a trophy hunter. Killing rare creatures for sport is supposed to be a relic of the past now that most of the world’s wild animals are some level of endangered. But for some, the desire to prove something runs deeper than the fear of punishment. Thanks to a bartender’s tip about a local bachelor party bragging about plans to go shark hunting, the Marine Conservation Enforcement Guard made it to the dock in time to confiscate the kill. A year in jail and ten thousand dollars later, Bruce’s murderer has apparently paid his debt to society, but it was too late for this white shark.

Oh wow, this story grabbed me from the first line and never let me go. A group of researchers have used the dead body of one of the world's last white sharks to make an underwater research vessel. But what happens when they take this robo-shark into the depths of the ocean will surpass their wildest dreams (and nightmares). It's wonderful science fiction, and I also really like how this story gives us a great group of scientists with a bit of workplace romance... Reckoning keeps publishing some really outstanding work, and if you're interested in more stories about environmental justice, this is definitely a zine for you.


Quantum Love by Sylvia Heike in Flash Fiction Online

The nights without Natalie are classically long, and without a fresh challenge to chew on, the computer passes the hours by remembering all the things it loves about her. Her curious human brain and intellect; how passionate she’s about quarks and hadrons; the gentle touch of her anti-static gloves.

A wonderful, charming sci-fi flash about a computer, trying to work out all sorts of complex problems, while also trying to solve the problems of the human it loves. Queenie, the computer, is keeping a close eye on the humans around her, and Heike turns the small and keenly observed details into a crafty love story that is also a love triangle of sorts. 


Holding Back the Darkness by Stephanie Burgis in Beneath Ceaseless Skies

The wolves are pacing outside my window again. Everard left them there to break my will. In the day they are men, rough and rude, slouching against the tree trunks and picking their teeth, and no power on God’s earth could draw me out amongst them, even to attempt escape. But at night... at night they are shadows and fangs, and even as I count the rosary for courage, the way the nuns taught me, I cannot keep the whimpers from rising up my throat.

I am always a sucker for wolves and girls, and in this werewolf tale with a twist, we meet a young woman trapped in a house by an unwanted suitor. The suitor, Everard, has hounded her for a long time, and now she has been imprisoned and is surrounded by wolf-men. I love how Burgis lays out the sharp and terrible predicament the woman finds herself in, and then twists the weave of the tale at the end.


Instructions for the Broken Hearted by Jordan Kurella in Lightspeed

You Will Need:

– a Heart in a jar
– a Knife (sharp)
– a Tarp


Lay down tarp on clean surface. Place prybar and knife within reach. Place self on tarp.

A gorgeous, dark, and devastatingly sharp story by Kurella that cuts deep into the pain and emptiness that can follow the end of a relationship, especially if that end came didn't just break your heart, but take it from you. I love the visceral, lyrical details, and I love the way Kurella finds hope in the devastation.

Eve’s Prayer by Victor Forna in Lightspeed

I just adore this short science fiction story structured as a space explorer’s prayer to the God that sent them forth in order to find new worlds. Forna’s prose wraps so many layers and so much depth of character- and world-building into less than 700 words. Beautifully done.


The Five Remembrances, According To Ste-319 by R.L. Meza in Clarkesworld

Metal parts that survived fire and shrapnel are no match for the saltwater rushing through the gaps in my armor, spilling between gears and wires, tainting my battered shell with the inexorable creep of rust. Corrosion is a ruthless god. The waves surge inland to drink the mortal corpses littering the shore. The ocean embraces the empty husks, rolling them out to the depths to fill and be filled. I long to sink with them beyond the reach of light’s prying fingers.

I think I've mentioned before that I am an unabashed fan of stories about aging, and abandoned, robots. In this story, we follow the agonizing, slow demise of a robot used for war, and then abandoned by its own. The robot is trapped, decaying, and then finds a new, unexpected purpose. Meza fits an epic tale of destruction and redemption into this short story, and I just adore every bit of it.


Sitting Shiva by Zachary Rosenberg in The Deadlands

His sister remains as he last saw her, with straight black hair, dark skin, and sundered skull. Her smile is hollow, her eyes windows to a vacant house. The wound in her head is dark as wine. The edges of her white skirt drip with tendrils of red that vanish like dew against the cream curls of the carpet.

A harrowing tale of death, grief, and life with Avram sitting Shiva for his sister Tamar. The problem is that Tamar is still there, clinging to the world of the living, as Avram clings to his own fear and pain. Avram fears the ghost of his sister, but he fears the outside world that took her from him even more. And while Rosenberg’s story is full of horrors – life, and light, is woven into its ending.


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