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I’m back, sorry about the missing time

Nice to see y’all again! I had to take some time away for my health this summer, but now the site is up and running again with a new look and a new/old mission. Staring this month I will be going back to reviewing individual zines, in addition to producing my monthly recommendation lists. Also more novel reviews, along with comics, movies and TV. There will soon be a “Best of” list for the missing months of June through September, I promise. Sorry about the hiatus, and thanks for still reading!

Zine Review: Beneath Ceaseless Skies #313 – Special 12th Anniversary Double Issue

It’s not surprising that K. J. Parker often appears in these Special Double Issues of Beneath Ceaseless Skies: his wry wit and adept deployment of dramatic irony have the “literary” part of “Literary Adventure Fantasy” locked up. Nor should it surprise that he continues to find novel ways of expressing the themes that weave throughout his fiction. “Many Mansions”, like many a Parker story, is a first-person narrative. The narrator, Father Bohenna, is a scholar (NOT a magician, he insists) from an institution called the Studium, dispatched to a remote region to investigate accounts of a witch bedeviling residents at an alarming pace. There are two early indications in the story that Bohenna isn’t the most reliable voice: his casual misogyny and inflated self-regard (“I reserve my conversation for the select few who can understand and appreciate it. I most certainly don’t chat up women in taprooms”). That his adversary in the story turns out to be a woman—referred to as a witch because society doesn’t afford women the benefit of a scholarly education—suggests that he will suffer some comeuppance for his hubris. In Parker’s best stories, though, meeting the reader’s expectations is often a red herring, and this story is exceptional. Parker lays a lot of pipe in its first act and keeps piling on new layers throughout, so that its matryoshka doll of an ending leaves one to ponder if Bohenna’s punishment is equal to his sin.

Richard Parks is also no stranger to BCS anniversary specials, also being an author of considerable skill and stature. His new story “A Minor Exorcism” is part of his Yamada no Goji series, and follows demon hunter Lord Yamada, who for lack of anything better to do with his time, joins his associate Kenji on a matter of slight concern. They soon learn the concern is anything but small, and as the danger compounds, so diminishes their chances of their survival. “A Minor Exorcism” distinguishes itself with colorful characters, generous humor, rising tension, and an exciting climax.

There’s an old adage for fiction writers, that it is better for your protagonist to get what they need, rather than what they want. This has been the gold standard approach to character growth for much of our history as a storytelling civilization, though current trends in popular entertainment lean toward wish fulfillment fantasies that conflate ‘need’ with ‘want’. In her stunning weird western romance “The Heart That Saves You May Be Your Own”, Merrie Haskell uses the second person to tether the reader to her hero, Tabitha, and in doing so we feel her wants as deeply as she does. Tabitha wishes to court her intended, Roland, the traditional way—by hunting and butchering a ‘corn (an abbreviation for unicorn). This ritual means to establish a young woman’s purity and comes with a significant elevation in social status. It impressed me the way Haskell constructed a society and culture that at first glance notably skews from our own (and not just because it’s normal for unicorns to walk through extra-dimensional doors and hang out with virgins who want to kill them), while a deeper look reveals a little less skew. Women may court the men in this scenario, but the pressure to perform their gender roles—and the stigma of failing to do so—is just as oppressive. Heterosexual norms are still paramount, while the polite acceptance of queerness is grudging. The choice Tabitha faces at the end is to decide whether her goals align with her community’s goals, and this is where Haskell’s use of the second person enhances the story’s emotional intelligence: we can’t help but recognize her anguish, and her accedence, as our own.

The issue closes with “A Tally of What Remains”, by R.Z. Held. It is the story of Helena, a blood mage who watched her entire family die from a disease that continues to ravage the land. She now uses her farmhouse to care for the sick and dying, but an antagonistic survivor forces her to confront the way she has dealt with her grief. It’s a smart and compassionate story, on a subject that resonates in light of current events.

This is a fine issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies from start to finish, with the Parker and Haskell stories of particular distinction.

The Best Short SFF of May 2020

I am growing very frustrated with the new wordpress editor, which erased the content of the original post for no reason I can fathom. Here are the recommended stories, but unfortunately I didn’t back up the text so the reviews are lost forever.

Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super“, by A.T. Greenblatt (Uncanny Magazine Issue 34, May/June 2020)

Decorating with Luke“, by Adam-Troy Castro (Nightmare Magazine Issue 92, May 2020)

Driving with Ghosts“, by Clara Madrigano (The Dark Issue 60, May 2020)

Martian Cinema“, by Gabriela Santiago (Strange Horizons, May 11, 2020)

Salt and Iron“, by Gem Isherwood (Podcastle #625, May 6, 2020)

Out of Body, by Jeffrey Ford (Tor.com Publishing, May 26, 2020)

Sleeping in Metal and Bone“, by Kristi DeMeester (The Dark Issue 60, May 2020)

Sea Change, by Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications, May 22, 2020)

Clever Jack, Heavy with Stories“, R.K. Duncan (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #304, May 21, 2020)

“Eyes of the Forest”, Ray Nayler (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2020)

The Best Short SFF of April 2020

Featured Image from the cover of Mithila Review Issue 13, by John Glover

Must Read Stories

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Art by Flavio Bolla

The Hummingbird Temple“, by C.C. Finlay [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #300, March 26, 2020] Novelette

All nine heirs to the throne are conveniently gathered at the castle when the king dies, setting off an assassination free-for-all expected to produce a new Dynast by morning light. Lin, the so-called “Orphan Dyness” and least likely to inherit the throne even if she survives the night, is looking to do just that as she battles her way to safety in spite of an increasingly outrageous series of attempts on her life. There is a novel’s worth of world here, but Finlay keeps things fleet and fun all the way through to a gratifying payoff. Watch out for those blood ants!

The Breaking“, by Vanessa Fogg [Mithila Review Issue 13, March/April 2020] Short Story

Fogg’s best stories are about the always frustrating, occasionally illuminating inconstancies of communication. In “The Breaking”, she fashions her pet theme into a breathtaking cosmic horror allegory for our time. Years ago, the sky split open and the Angels arrived to wreak havoc on civilization. Not everyone could see The Breaking when it happened, and those who couldn’t refused to believe those who did. Jenny and Jamie were among those who witnessed it, while their parents could not. Several years on civilization has changed dramatically, but has at least figured out how to keep the Angels at bay. Now Jamie says he can hear the Angels speaking, though Jenny knows that’s impossible and he seems to be the only one. Is he deluded or is history repeating itself?

To Balance the Weight of Khalem“, by R.B. Lemberg [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #300, March 26, 2020] Novelette

When Belezal was a child, they were forced to flee one war torn country, only to settle in Khalem – another land consumed by war – when denied their last best option for life in a peaceful land. Older now, Belezal has earned the right to study in Islingar, the place that had once turned them away.  The journey there forces them to confront the uncertainties about who they are and where, if anywhere, they can call home. Lemberg’s fluid prose is captivating, but that should come as no surprise to their readers. The depth of feeling it invokes is particularly resonant in this story.

 

More Recommended Stories

The Pride of Salinkari“, by Elizabeth Crowe [Strange Horizons, April 6, 2020] Short Story

Salinkari is a land of rigorous educational discipline, though their ethical principles detour slightly from the Aristotelian path. They take the teaching profession very seriously in Salinkari, so when a former student from a well-connected family takes his own life before he is deemed to have reached his “pinnacle”, it may cost ethics instructor Ekeithan his reputation and his career, possibly even his life. A beautifully paced philosophical page turner with great characters and an enticing dilemma at its core.

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Art by Chorazin/Adobe Stock Art

A Moonlit Savagery“, by Millie Ho [Nightmare Magazine Issue 91, April 2020] Short Story

A ghost called a “pop” haunts a hostel in Bankok, feasting on the entrails of sleeping tourists. One day, to her surprise, she befriends a traveling artist names Seb who isn’t afraid of her at all. With little experience in matters that don’t involve gorging on human viscera, can our spectral narrator trust her feelings for him? A delectable little supernatural fantasy that cleverly reverses the usual ghost story formula.

Our Souls to the Moon“, by Tamara Jerée [Strange Horizons, April 20, 2020] Short Story

The climate is poisoned and inequity is rampant at every turn, but hey, at least rich people can get high looking at the Neptunian moon Sao through a specially designed telescope(!!!). Bimi and Adal are fired from their job assembling said telescopes, though for entirely arbitrary reasons. Adal has been meeting with some eerie lunar cultists who are promising something far greater than a cheap high – for a steep price, of course. And it takes quite a leap of faith to trust they can deliver on their word. Jerée conjures a vivid dystopia with full-bodied, expressive prose.

Foie Gras“, by Charles Payseur [Fireside Magazine Issue 78, April 2020] Short Story

With little room to establish setting and character (much less tell a story), hitting your targets through very tight widows is the only option when writing flash fiction. Payseur nails the bullseye in this quickie about a holographic Napoleon trying to conquer the galaxy and the civilian techno-wiz standing in his way. It also made me laugh out loud, which I assure you is no mean feat.

As the Shore to the Tides, So Blood Calls to Blood“, by Karlo Yeager Rodriguez [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #301, April 9, 2020] Novelette

A tale of brothers and betrayal, which I guess is kind of the norm in brother-centered stories.  What sets Rodriguez’s apart is the depth of the worldbuilding – a myths-inside-myths bloody layer cake of a mini-epic where the very world was created by such treachery, so that its people can’t help but follow suit.

 

Review: The Last Emperox (Interdependency Book 3), by John Scalzi

Last EmperoxRecommended – Through no fault of its own, The Last Emperox couldn’t have arrived at a better time. John Scalzi’s novels are uniformly brief and briskly paced, with rapid fire action and dialogue—in other words, ready-made for binge reading. And with the current coronavirus pandemic forcing people to spend most of their free time at home, that’s what many people are doing. Haven’t read the first two books in Scalzi’s Interdependency trilogy? Each can be gobbled up in a single sitting while you hunker down for the evening, then you can slide right into the freshly printed one by day three. The series is also thematically timely; civilization coming apart at the seams through neglect, short-sightedness and inaction in the face of an unforeseen cataclysm sound familiar? Though completed months prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, alarming echoes of current day events reverberate from the pages of The Last Emperox. It’s a not uncommon trait in science fiction, nor is it surprising coming from this science fiction author, who has managed to keep his finger on today’s pulse for much of his writing career.

For those unfamiliar with the premise of The Interdependency, it is set fifteen centuries into our future in an empire spanning multiple star systems. All these systems, save one, are incapable of supporting human life on their own, so each depends on the whole to survive. The whole is, not unexpectedly, ruled by a small cadre of wealthy elites whose families control all commerce between systems. Intersystem commerce is only made possible by traversing the Flow, naturally occurring streams that cheat the otherwise untenable distances of time and space. Discovery of the impending collapse of the entire system of Flow streams is therefore a civilization-ending disaster.

I found the opening volume of the trilogy (The Collapsing Empire) entertaining, if uneven; too reliant on long passages of exposition, overly plot-centered and heavy on oration. The abrupt ending was also jarring, coming right as the story was picking up steam. This was likely intentional—a feature of its being intended not as a standalone but as the first third of a complete story—but I still found it lacking. I thought the first sequel (The Consuming Fire) was a little more comfortable in its own skin and possessed of a much more satisfying (if only temporary) outcome. The Last Emperox is perhaps the most neatly balanced of the three volumes, a harmonious convergence of well-oiled plot machine, smart-alecky dialogue and fully rounded characters.

The ostensible hero of the story is Cardenia Wu-Patrick, also known as Emperox Grayland II, the reluctant leader of the Interdependency in this time of unfathomable crisis. When The Last Emperox begins, Grayland II has just survived another deposition plot (following a prior assassination plot) only to find myriad others sprouting up hydra-like in their place. None of this bodes well for her and her scientist-lover Marce Claremont’s goal of figuring out how to transport the entirety of Human civilization to a single planet that has neither the room nor the resources to handle a sudden, massive influx of migration. Grayland is also aided by shrewd, potty-mouthed Lady Kiva Lagos, tasked with unraveling the various plots against the Emperox, as well as the artificial construct known as the Memory Room, which houses facsimiles of all the previous Emperox. This is where Scalzi’s grand design engages with current events: questions of having the leadership qualities necessary to mitigate a catastrophe are front and center, of the willingness of the few to sacrifice the many for personal gain, of the wisdom (or lack thereof) in concentrating power in the hands of those few to begin with, allow Scalzi to flex his philosophical and political muscles with his customary piquancy.

But if The Last Emperox represents the culmination of the trilogy’s strengths, so too do its faults climax. Taking its cue from Marvel, Star Wars, and most other blockbuster franchises, Scalzi’s Interdependency espouses an axiomatic neoliberal worldview, one in which the predations of the greedy elite class can only be countered by putting our faith in other, more benevolent ruling elites and the martial forces they command. This strategy can acknowledge class struggle while discreetly tip-toeing around it, since (according to this philosophy) the unwashed masses have no other legitimate recourse for bettering their condition than to hope someone rich and powerful will handle it for them. It is even more frustrating that this novel both acknowledges and shrugs at this position in the same breath.

Reservations aside, I still enjoy a good blockbuster as much as the next person. So shelter in place, microwave some popcorn and have a rollicking good time with one of the more appealing sci-fi writers of his generation.

2020 Hugo Nominations – Impressions, Surprises, Disappointments

Here we are again with my second annual post on the final Hugo ballot! First of all – Congrats to all the nominees! Of course, as nominators, things only rarely go the way we hope, but that doesn’t mean every single work and human on this list isn’t well-deserving of the honor (except Rise of Skywalker – honestly, what a complete turd pile of movie that was). So, on to my personal reactions.

Best Novel

The Nominees:

The City in the Middle of the Night, Charlie Jane Anders (Tor; Titan)
The Ten Thousand Doors of January, Alix E. Harrow (Redhook; Orbit UK)
The Light Brigade, Kameron Hurley (Saga; Angry Robot UK)
A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (Tor; Tor UK)
Middlegame, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
Gideon the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir (Tor.com Publishing)

My Ballot:

The Light Brigade, Kameron Hurley (Gallery/Saga Press)
Tiamat’s Wrath, James S.A. Corey (Orbit)
A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (Tor)
Edges, Linda Nagata (Mythic Island Press)

Impressions

It’s impossible to look at this list of nominees and not point out that this is the first time the category is made up entirely of novels written by women. This should, of course be contrasted with the fact that the best novel category has fielded a male-only slate of nominees 21 times in the award’s history, as recently as 2009. For those keeping score, an all-woman list needs to happen at least 20 more times for the playing field to be equalized.

I should also point out that the six novels on the list are all quite excellent: unique, diverse, exciting, entertaining and compelling. Overall, a phenomenal group of choices for ConZealand voters to pick from.

Some other firsts:

Though she has been nominated 4 times as Mira Grant, this is the first time Seanan McGuire has been nominated in this category under her own name. I personally feel that Middlegame is her best work under any name, so I’m pleased to see it honored here.

With the additional exception of Anders, who was also nominated for  All the Birds in the Sky in 2017, all the other nominees are Best Novel first-timers. Kameron Hurley’s The Stars are Legion just missed the cut a couple of years ago. As with McGuire’s, I think The Light Brigade is her best-to-date and I’m very excited about the nomination.

The other three first timers – Martine, Muir and Harrow – also happen to be their authors’ debut efforts. Quite a feat for each of them!

Surprises

Maybe Middlegame a little – though it shouldn’t be a surprise considering how popular McGuire is with Hugo voters. Same with Hurley. The Light Brigade is easily my favorite of the bunch, and Hurley has gotten some love from Hugo voters in the past. Perhaps due to my own overwhelming preference for it, I’ve felt that it hasn’t received nearly the attention it deserves. I thought it was on the bubble, so I’m very mildly surprised it got through.

Disappointments

Tiamat’s Wrath, obviously. As much as I’m a fan of The Expanse I haven’t nominated every book – previously, only Abaddon’s Gate and Nemesis Games have made my ballot. I thought this one was especially deserving, possibly the best in the series.

Certainly I was rooting for Edges, too, but its chances were so low it’s hard to classify it as a disappointment. Nagata has her fans among the Hugo crowd so there was definitely a chance, but it was still the longest of long shots. Indie-pubs don’t get as much attention and have never had any traction with Hugo voters. I only put it on the ballot because it was among the most thrilling and imaginative sci-fi novels I’ve read in recent years, and I felt it deserved to be there.

My fave – The Light Brigade, obviously. Fingers crossed.

If I were a betting man – City in the Middle of the Night. One cannot underestimate Anders’ sway with the Hugo crowd. Her debut All the Birds in the Sky came very close to overtaking The Obelisk Gate in 2017, only dropping a smidge behind it on the 6th pass:

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In a year that, for now, appears to have no clear favorite, I’ll go with the horse that lost her last race by a hair’s breadth.

This is the first time in my personal voting history that more than one of my picks made the final tally, so I hope I’m wrong and one of them takes home the rocket!

Best Novella

The Nominees:

To Be Taught, If Fortunate, Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager; Hodder & Stoughton)
“Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom”, Ted Chiang (Exhalation)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing)
This Is How You Lose the Time War, Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone (Saga)
In an Absent Dream, Seanan McGuire (Tor.com Publishing)
The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes (Saga)

My Ballot:

“New Atlantis”, Lavie Tidhar (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction May/June 2019)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015, P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com)

Impressions

Excellent work in this category, and a laudably diverse list to boot. Happy to see old pro Ted Chiang – whose first Hugo nomination dates back nearly 30 years to 1991 – nestled among the more recent Hugo luminaries. Seanan McGuire would otherwise be the godparent of this group: her first nomination/win was for the Not-a-Hugo formerly known as the Campbell, all the way back in 2010, which seems like an eon ago in Hugo time.

Tor.com has dominated this category so thoroughly for the last several cycles. I like seeing other publishers get a slice of the pie.

Surprises

None. Four of the nominees in this category also scored Nebula nods, and the other two – McGuire and Chambers – are well-established Hugo favorites.

Disappoinments

Next to Clark’s story, “New Atlantis” was my favorite of the year in this category. Standalone novellas have been the trend for the last few years, only a handful of magazine-published entries have made the cut recently. This year there were none.

My fave – The Haunting of Tram Car 015, obviously.

If I were a betting man – This is How You Lose the Time War. I don’t even think it’ll be close.

Best Novelette

The Nominees:

“For He Can Creep”, Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com 7/10/19)
“Omphalos”, Ted Chiang (Exhalation)
“Away with the Wolves”, Sarah Gailey (Uncanny 9-10/19)
“Emergency Skin”, N.K. Jemisin (Forward)
“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye”, Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny 7-8/19)
“The Archronology of Love”, Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed 4/19)

My ballot:

“By the Warmth of Their Calculus”, Tobias S. Buckell (Mission Critical; Solaris)
“Sacrid’s Pod”, Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019)
“For He Can Creep” Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com July 10, 2019)

Impressions

Chiang scoring dual nominations is further evidence that he is one of the true SFF luminaries of our time. Very few authors inspire this level of devotion among multiple generations of fans. It is especially impressive for someone whose output is so sparse; he has published only 17 stories in 30 years time, nine of them nominated for Hugos (and there would have been a tenth had he not turned it down for personal reasons).

Surprises

Gailey is no stranger to Hugo nods, but I’m a little surprised to see this particular story here. It’s perfectly fine, but didn’t make that much of an impression on me when I first read it. I am looking forward to revisiting it.

Considering she’s the only Hugo newbie of the bunch, one might classify Carroll’s nomination as a surprise, though after also scoring a Nebula nomination it’s hard to call it that.

Disappointments

I always thought the Castro story was a longshot, but I was really pulling for Buckell to make the list. “By the Warmth of Their Calculus” has all the makings of a modern day classic, and also serves as a welcome rejoinder to Tom Godwin’s excessively cynical Golden-age classic “The Cold Equations”.

My fave: “For He Can Creep”, obviously.

If I were a betting man: This category is a tough one, but I’d put my money on Carroll ftw.

Best Short Story

The Nominees:

“Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, Alix E. Harrow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 1/31/19)
“As the Last I May Know”, S.L. Huang (Tor.com 10/23/19)
“And Now His Lordship Is Laughing”, Shiv Ramdas (Strange Horizons 9/9/19)
“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island”, Nibedita Sen (Nightmare 5/19)
“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, Rivers Solomon (Tor.com 7/24/19)
“A Catalog of Storms”, Fran Wilde (Uncanny 1-2/19)

My Ballot:

“Such Thoughts are Unproductive”, Rebecca Campbell (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 156, December 2019)
“The Message”, Vanessa Fogg (The Future Fire 2019.48)
“The Robots of Eden”, Anil Menon (New Suns; Solaris)
“Blood Is Another Word for Hunger”, Rivers Solomon (Tor.com July 24, 2019)
“A Bird, a Song, a Revolution”, Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019)

Impressions

Voting in this category usually finds the widest dispersion among the largest number of works, so it’s hard to be either surprised or disappointed by any of the results. That said…

Surprises

I’m more surprised by what didn’t make it than what did. I really thought the Bolander story was a shoe-in. Shows how much I know.

Disappointments

Again, hard to gauge disappointment in this category. Along with Bolander, I thought “The Message” was a beautiful story and a very relevant one. I can probably count the number of Hugo voters who have even heard of The Future Fire on one hand, so really another longer than long shot there.

My fave – “Blood is Another Word for Hunger”, obviously. Honestly it’s so rare that any of my Short Story picks make the final list, for me it’s already a win.

If I were a betting man – High-concept stories usually grab the most attention from Hugo voters, so for me it’s a toss-up between Sen and Wilde.

Other Categories of Interest (to me, at least)

I only voted in two other categories:

Best Series, where enough of us Expanse fans got together to pull off a nod for the authors Corey. I also drop Cherryh’s Foreigner on my ballot every year, and every year I hang my head in despair.

The other was Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form, where there were a few unexpected pleasantries. Us was the only one from my ballot to make it, but I’m happily surprised to see two streaming series – Russian Doll and Good Omens – grab nominations. I hope this trend continues. I also had Claire Denis’ High Life on my ballot, along with two uneven but commendable indie films, Fast Color and Starfish. Personally, I would like to see more films like these make the Hugo Ballot. Marvel and Star Wars are fun (usually) though they hardly represent the best that genre filmmaking has to offer. Yeah, I’m one of those snobs. Big studio franchises get their awards at the box office; Hugos should be for artistic merit. Don’t @ me.

That’s all for now. I look forward to perusing all the remaining works and people on the ballot before casting my final votes.

The Best Short SFF of March 2020

Featured Image from “Investigate” by Andis Reinbergs, cover art for Beneath Ceaseless Skies #298-299

Must Read Stories

 

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Cover by Patila/Adobe Stock Art

A Study in Shadows“, Benjamin Percy [Nightmare Magazine Issue 90, March 2020] Short Story

“A Study in Shadows” is a grim, phantasmagoric character study of the appropriately named Dr. Harrow, a psychology professor who engages in a field study “on the belief in the invisible”. He has a penchant for manipulating his subjects to induce a state of terror, unleashing deadly havoc but always escaping the consequences of his actions. The calmly anecdotal tenor of the prose is what really twists the knife.

“Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars”, Mercurio D. Rivera [Asimov’s Science Fiction, March/April 2020] Novelette

A tour de force of old-fashioned Outer Limits-style existentialist sci-fi, “Beyond the Tattered Veil of Stars” follows internet reporter Cory, who is handed the story of a lifetime when his ex-girlfriend Milagros creates an extraordinarily complex simulated reality. Milagros generates a race of beings more suited to problem solving than humans, and by throwing one cataclysm after another at them she uses their virtual solutions to solve real world problems like climate change and cancer. Things go horribly wrong, of course, when her creations turn out to be even better at solving problems than she could have anticipated.

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Cover Art by chainat

Escaping Dr. Markoff“, Gabriela Santiago [The Dark Issue 58, March 2020] Short Story

I love stories that create their own rules and teach the reader how to follow them. Santiago’s second-person narrative deposits you in a mad scientist b-movie, where you pine for the nefarious and charismatic Dr. Markoff while you are both complicit in and victimized by his dastardly schemes. It’s a flick with a flexible fourth wall, continually re-shooting and re-editing itself, wandering offscreen and backstage at its leisure and blurring the line between performance and reality.

Tend to Me“, by Kristina Ten [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 118, March 2020] Short Story

Nora is stuck in a pattern of taking on the interests and hobbies of whomever she is dating at the time. She has no real interest in any of these activities (which include rock climbing, scuba diving, beekeeping, gardening, auto repair), in fact she often actively disdains them. Her life shifts gears in a totally unexpected but weirdly logical way when she starts dating an acupuncturist. Ten’s very short story is propelled by sly, ticklish prose and a generous empathy for its characters.

More Recommended Stories

The Amusement Dark“, Mike Buckley [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 162, March 2020] Novelette

A sober and engrossing story about people looking for meaning in life after humanity loses the war against the AI. The peculiar, murky relationship that develops between the humans and their new “benevolent” oppressors is fascinating.

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Cover by Mondolithic Studios

“A Feast of Butterflies”, Amanda Hollander [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2020] Short Story

A constable is instructed to arrest, without evidence, a young girl from another town who may be connected to the disappearance of five local boys. The girl has some unusual habits and is definitely hiding something, but she’s not the only one. An eerie little dark fantasy, and a devilishly satisfying one.

“The Last Legend”, Matthew Hughes [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2020] Novelette

Ever down-on-his-luck Ardal flees town after assaulting his bully of a co-worker. After a sequence of further misadventures he stumbles upon a house in the woods beset by mysterious enchantments, its sole inhabitant afflicted with a strange kind of memory loss. Hughes charming, episodic meta-adventure lives up to its title in the literal sense.

Rat and Finch are Friends“, Innocent Chizaram Ilo [Strange Horizons, March 2, 2020] Short Story

Izuchukwu is in trouble with his school and his family when he is caught kissing a boy. He is also an “amusu” who can transform into a finch, and he’ll be in more serious trouble if they find out about that. A smart, well-crafted and poignant coming-of-age fantasy.

Where the World Ends Without Us“, Jason Sanford [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #299, March 26, 2020] Novelette

This exciting and suspenseful novelette draws together the characters and storylines from Sanford’s two previous “Grains” stories. This time, Alexnya is being prosecuted for Frere-Jones’s crimes (from “Blood Grains Speak Through Memories“) by the inflexible grains, who zealously “protect” the earth from the people who would harm it. A glimmer of hope arrives when she crosses paths with Colton’s day-fellow caravan (from “The Emotionless, In Love“). There’s enough context to anchor new readers, but the other stories are well worth investing your time in.

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Cover Art by Thomas Chamberlain-Keen

Coffee Boom: Decoctions, Micronized“, by D.A. Xiaolin Spires [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 162, March 2020] Short Story

A fun caper story about a coffee-obsessed waitress who discovers she can create the perfect cuppa joe, if she can just get her hands on a newly invented mini-collider. A fresh and quirky concept, well-realized.

The Spoils“, Aliya Whiteley [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #298, February 27, 2020] Short Story

Citizens of an underground-dwelling civilization covet pieces of a massive, recently deceased creature known as an Olme for its magical properties. Most have little idea what to do with their cut, but Kim knows exactly what she wants and how to get it. Or, at least she thinks she does. “The Spoils” is the kind of story that gradually peels back its layers to reveal a wider and deeper world than it shows at first glance.

 

Review: Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed

Beneath the RisingHighly Recommended – Premee Mohamed’s globe-trotting sci-fantasy cosmic horror alt-history adventure debut doesn’t exactly shatter genre conventions as much as pants them and run away giggling. The novel has a kind of nervous energy that is both puckish and disarming, like a court jester whose council the king values.
Beneath the Rising begins in Alberta, Canada, not long after the September 11, 2001 hijackers failed to bring down the World Trade Center in New York. Many of the world’s biggest problems have already been solved—or soon will be—thanks to teenaged super-genius Joanna “Johnny” Chambers, a multi-billionaire who has been making earth-shaking scientific breakthroughs since the age of four: rewriting the laws of physics, curing every illness from HIV to Alzheimer’s, etc., and who now has her sights set on renewable energy. You would think this gender-reversed take on the “boy genius” trope would be the hero of the novel, but that burden rests on the shoulders of Johnny’s long-suffering, distressingly ordinary best pal Nick Prasad, who also narrates. Soon after Johnny shares her latest triumph with Nick, an extra-dimensional eldritch terror called Drozanoth harasses and tries to threaten Nick into handing over Johnny’s newest invention. Johnny already knows exactly what Drozanoth is, where it comes from and what it wants. With their families’ lives and the world’s survival at stake, Johnny drags the hapless Nick into a world of international conspiracies and secret societies, Ancient Ones and Elder Gods, as the two teenagers search for a way to stop unimaginable evil from overrunning the Earth.
Despite being a little plot-heavy at times, Beneath the Rising is an attention grabbing romp that separates itself from the pack with its brisk pace, acerbic humor and fiendish world-building. Mohamed exploits the contrasts between the two lead characters to great comedic and dramatic effect. Johnny—white, pretty, blonde, rich and absurdly good at everything—can’t help but take the lovelorn, otherwise friendless Nick for granted. For his own part, Nick must tamp his pride down and keep his unrequited feelings in check just to hang on to her coattails, but he’s also self-aware enough to question the wisdom of his devotion. Mohamed never lets us forget that these differences matter: conflicts born of class, gender and race periodically bubble to the surface in the tension between them.
Sometimes I felt the novel was too narrowly focused on Nick and Johnny, leaving secondary characters to serve as little more than props and obstacles. But overall, Beneath the Rising is way too imaginative and way too much fun to miss.

 

The Best Short SFF of February 2020

Featured Image from the cover illustration by Alyssa Winans for “St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid”

Must Read Stories

Prosper's demon
Cover art by Sam Weber

Prosper’s Demon, by K.J. Parker [Tor.com Publishing, January 2020] Novella

The unnamed narrator of K.J. Parker’s delightfully cynical novella is an exorcist in a world where demon possession is  common – though, tragically, the ritual to remove them almost always results in the death of the host. When he learns that the greatest genius of their age, philosopher/scientist/artist Prosper of Schanz, is possessed, he must choose between turning a blind eye to his duty and risking the gallows by causing the beloved man’s death. Parker’s kaleidoscope approach to world-building, where fractured mirror pieces of our own history and culture are combined to create new patterns, is always a joy to dive into. And I can’t get over that sucker-punch of an ending.

St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid“, by C.L. Polk [Tor.com, February 5, 2020] Short Story

The fortune teller’s daughter Theresa is deeply smitten with her schoolmate Lucille. Just as Theresa is about to seize her chance, Lucille is targeted by the abusive, controlling Gerry. The bees (yes, bees!) can help, for a price. This author quickly became one of my favorite fantasists when her novel Witchmark arrived a couple of years ago. “St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid” serves as a great reminder why: the refined prose and emotional intelligence stand out, but most impressive is the way she makes the mythic and the magical feel at once both common and uncanny. A wise, generous take on first love and the meaning of sacrifice.

More Recommended Stories

If you take...
Cover art by Robert Hunt

If You Take My Meaning“, by Charlie Jane Anders [Tor.com, February 11, 2020] Novelette

Anders new novelette is set on the planet January,  following the events of her terrific novel The City in the Middle of the Night, as the seeds of Sophie’s dream of unification are being planted and the accompanying moral dilemmas are explored. There is enough context for unfamiliar readers to catch the drift of what’s going on, but if you haven’t read the novel (and are planning to) you may want to hold off on this for spoilery reasons. Which also means to say, if you weren’t already planning to you should definitely read The City in the Middle of the Night.

Ngozi Ugegbe Nwa“, by Dare Segun Falowo [The Dark, Issue 57, February 2020] Short Story

The title character is an aspiring model who, while stuck in an hours long traffic jam, buys an ornate mirror from a strange old woman. The sinister looking glass shows Ngozi parts of herself she would otherwise want to keep hidden. The sustained tone of eeriness and dread is impressive, as is the genuinely ghoulish imagery.

BCS 296
Cover Art: “Ice Road III” by Rytis Sabaliauskas

The Moneylender’s Angel“, by Robert Minto [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #296, January 30, 2020] Short Story

The narrator and his partner Gareth – the former money collector of the title – find a valuable magical object that could change their fortunes for the better. First they must confront the secrets they’ve been keeping from each other. I really enjoyed the sensory details in the prose and the nice, fluid world-building. A tender and open-hearted queer romance.

The Aetherised Chamber“, by Stewart Moore [Pseudopod #690, February 21, 2020] Short Story

Late 17th-century natural philosopher Mr. Waites – who is NOT the greatest scientist of his age thanks to the incomparable Mr. Newton – is trying to perfect his God-Machine. Waites wishes to glean the secrets of the universe with his invention, using his nearly dead (and perpetually disappointed) father as a conduit to the vast reaches of the unknown. Surely, nothing could go wrong. Old school weird fiction at its best: grisly in all the right places, with an appetizing garnish of grim humor. (Podcast narrated by Alasdair Stuart.)

The Cliff of Hands“, by Joanne Rixon [Diabolical Plots #60B, February 17, 2020] Short Story

This quick but inspiring fantasy adventure follows Eešan’s journey to fulfill an important rite of passage – leaving her mark on the fabled Cliff of Hands – in spite of the disability that makes it nearly impossible for her to do so. An exciting, suspenseful tale with a hero you can root for.