Featured Image from the cover art for “Strange Waters”, by Julia Griffin.
My short fiction recommendations are split into five categories: Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror and Space-Based Science Fiction; Part 2 – Earthbound Science Fiction and First World Fantasy; Part 3 – Second World Fantasy. Each category features a “Desert Island Pick”, while the remaining picks are listed alphabetically by author. Each title is accompanied by a short synopsis and a quick excerpt for the story. Excerpts may contain mild spoilers.
Not every story fits neatly into any one category. Some could work in more than one category, some defy categorization altogether. I did my best to place them where I thought they fit best. Links are included for stories that are available to read online, or to purchase information. Sometimes the traditional print magazines will make stories available online during award season, so I will update the links when possible.
Short Stories (<7500 words), Novelettes (<17,500), and Novellas (<40,000)
Second World Fantasy
Desert Island Pick
“A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” by James Beamon [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 98, July 2018; 5990 words]
I could probably conjure a thousand words to describe this fantastical re-imagining of the Crimean War, but you only need three: Zombie. Attack. Monkeys.
The deck shakes; all other sound is muted as our six starboard cannons fire wicked harpoons. Attached to the harpoons are giant chains. Three harpoons punch through the hull of the Russian ironclad. Our airship jerks as the chains go taut.
The Russian guns are still swinging skyward and nearly have us sighted. These cannons have caused the iron-hulled British vessel to belch black clouds. I imagine what they would do to our hull of wood.
The organ grinder slides the copper plate into his organ and closes the lid. He turns the cranks slow at first as if he is fighting it. Faster, now faster, “The March of the Janissaries” fills the air like the keening wail of a thousand grieving mothers.
The monkeys burst from the hold, a faceless black tide with brief flashes of white. They rush around us, past and over the organ grinder and me. I feel a million cold hands. They speed past so fast they sound like a crowd shushing me. Shhh . . . shhh.
They spread beyond us, onto the chains, where they stream down to the ironclad ship. The black furred bodies seem like oil spilling down the three chains, like the dark fingers of Şeytan.
The Best of the Rest
“The Privilege of the Happy Ending” by Kij Johnson [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 143, August 2018; 15,501 words]
Ada and her amazing talking chicken Blanche must run from the unstoppable horde of deadly wastoures ravishing the land. This may or may not end well.
The wastoures came. The trees shook and the tall grasses shivered, first from animals fleeing, every deer and mouse and marten and vole running for its life, but then from the wastoures themselves. They trampled the grasses as they poured like a flood across the clearing, eddied wherever they found some living thing to eat, crashed against the trees and scoured the bark with their claws and talons, until swarming they swept past. But always more.
The night was bright-mooned, alas. Ada saw a fallow doe pulled down in her flight (for she would not run faster than her fawn) and skeletonized quicker than a hen lays an egg, and the fawn even faster than she. The wastoures swirled around a pile of stones in the clearing until they unearthed a fox den and ate the kits. There was a great anguished roaring in the forest, which Blanche whispered surely was a bear pulled from her hiding place and killed.
“We Ragged Few” by Kate Alice Marshall [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, September 27, 2018; 25,051 words]
The rot hounds have breached the border, and Reyna knows that means her sister’s prophecy will come true. Convincing their leader Talgrun that they must find a new land for their people proves difficult, if not impossible.
“Omens are the crone’s art,” Ymaera said. “So what say you, crone?”
The old woman cocked her head one way and then the other, and in the thatch her crow cackled a laugh. “She speaks of omens but stinks of rot,” she said. “Of things not new and dead but old and dead. Old wounds, old grudges, old corpses cold and pretty.”
She split her lips in a yellow grin. Evahr’s hand gripped brief and tight on my shoulder, as if I’d be fool enough to leap, to shed blood beneath the beam. Acidic anger pulsed in my gut, but I was long accustomed to its slow, liquid pain. I no longer bit at every provocation like a wounded animal.
“This is not about my sister,” I said. Our sister, Imri’s and mine. Titha. Cold-born, blood still as a corpse’s and yet living. The cold spoke prophecy, and since Korohn’s time we had listened. Until Titha’s final Telling.
“Not about your sister, you say. Yet the first words you spoke to me were ‘we should not have stayed,’” Talgrun said, settling back in his chair as if weary of me.
Perhaps I was growing more temperate as the cold leached years from my bones. I did not tell him that my sister had warned us—that she had died to warn us, and we had not heeded her. Two years now since Titha had spoken her prophecy, and still Talgrun listened to the crows and their mistress.
“Your husband has brought a bounty, and you will share in it,” Talgrun said. “Celebrate, and put this beast out of your mind. The threat is no more. You slew it, and a fine trophy it will make for your home.” Your home, not his. He did not claim it, as was his right: a final insult masked as a gift.
Perhaps I had not grown so temperate after all.
“Beneath the Sugar Sky” by Seanan McGuire [Tor.com Publishing; 39,193 words]
The sequel to McGuire’s Hugo-and-Nebula-winning Every Heart a Doorway. This time Rini, a young girl from a nonsense world, crashes Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, looking for her mother Sumi. There’s just one problem with her request: Sumi was murdered as a teenager, and never had any children. Rini is not deterred.
“—and that’s why she can’t be dead,” concluded Rini. Her story had been long and rambling and at times nonsensical, full of political coups and popcorn-ball fights, which were like snowball fights, only stickier. She looked around at the rest of them, expression somewhere between triumphant and hopeful. She had made her case, laid it out in front of them one piece at a time, and she was ready for her reward. “So please, can we go and tell her to stop? I need to exist. It’s important.”
“I’m so sorry, dear, but death doesn’t work that way in this world,” said Eleanor. Each word seemed to pain her, driving her shoulders deeper and deeper into their slump. “This is a logical world. Actions have consequences here. Dead is dead, and buried is buried.”
Rini frowned. “That’s silly and it’s stupid and I’m not from a logical world, and neither is my mother, so that shouldn’t matter for us. I need her back. I need to be born. It’s important. I’m important.”
“Everyone is important,” said Eleanor.
Rini looked around at the rest of them. “Please,” she pleaded. “Please, make the silly old woman stop being awful, and give me back my mother.”
“Strange Waters” by Samantha Mills [Strange Horizons, April 2, 2018; 6183 words]
Mika is lost at sea and desperate to be reunited with her children. Finding her homeland isn’t the problem; finding the right year is.
Strange waters flowed beneath the hull of her fishing boat, illuminating the midnight darkness with phosphorescent swirls of yellow and green. The thick scent of pepper and brine tickled her nose, and she knew that a juggernaut swam far below, vast and merciless and consuming shield fish by the thousands.
Mika squinted up at a familiar night sky, at the Dancing Girl, the Triplets, the Mad Horse. She had fished off this coast for nearly twenty years, eight of them lost in time. She’d seen green waters, pink waters, blue. She’d been to Candorrea when it was a loose collection of fishing villages, and she’d been to Candorrea when the buildings were so tall she could hardly look at them without shaking. No matter what century she washed up in, however, the constellations were there to guide her home.
It was a windless night. Mika pulled out her oars and set course for Maelstrom, keen to find out when she had landed.
“Blessings” by Naomi Novik [Uncanny Magazine Issue 22, May/June 2018; 2267 words]
A sideways reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, in which all the fairies get hammered and the blessings go a little off script.
“Oh, wealth’s all well and good,” said the third, from out of the depths of her dark cloak. She was a shadowed fairy, and rather alarming even to her companions, but she lived nearer the father’s house than any of the others, in a deep cave somewhere up in the mountains. The baron had known better than to slight her, of course, but his lady had gone beyond that, and sent the invitation with a personal note written in her own hand that they very much hoped to have the pleasure of her company, and a small package of sweetmeats. It was not the traditional sort of courting sent to shadowed fairies—the kind of lord who really wanted their attendance was more likely to send a gift of the knucklebones of plague victims—but the sweetmeats had been carefully made with rotted walnuts and pig’s blood, and at the feast, the fairy had discreetly been served a plate of raw calves’ liver dressed with a sauce of nightshade on a plate of tarnished silver. She had refused the fairy wine, but the hostess had quickly had a word with her steward, and a great goblet of steaming beef blood fresh from a newly slaughtered ox had been brought to the table, laced heavily with old brandy, and the fairy had drunk the entire thing down.
She now covered her mouth and belched out a thin trail of smoke. “Well and good indeed,” she went on, “until someone takes it from you,” and rose from the table in turn.
“The Thought That Counts” by K.J. Parker [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250, April 26, 2018; 8683 words]
Lawyer, moral philosopher, and fraudulent alchemist Constantius takes up the case of a young artist named Sinneva accused of murdering her clients with the bewitched portraits she paints. Suing for her acquittal proves a little too easy for the arrogant Constantius.
“My learned friend made a perfunctory effort to connect the status of the alleged victims to their dreadful fate, as though my client had sought to strike down the flowers of our society. The fact is, all her customers came to her clamouring to be painted; she didn’t choose them, they chose her. Twenty-eight rich, famous, influential, talented men and women were painted by my client and have suffered no ill-effects. Once again, the facts don’t simply speak for themselves, they shout at the tops of their voices.
“Recently, the wise and distinguished Senate of this city ruled unambiguously that there is no such thing as witchcraft or sorcery. But witchcraft and sorcery, I put it to you, are precisely what my client is accused of; tacitly, because to say so openly would be to invite ridicule. Therefore, for consistency’s sake, if for no other reason, I call on this rational, truth-loving court to dismiss these ridiculous charges and let my poor, long-suffering client go free. I rest my case.”
God, I’m good, though I do say so myself. The magistrate shook his head, blinked a couple of times like a dazzled rabbit, and said the magic words: case dismissed. You could have heard a pin drop.
I left, quickly.
“The Lady of Butterflies” by Y.M. Pang [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2018; 8952 words]
Lady Rikara, First Sword of the Kejalin Empire, becomes the companion and protector of Morieth, a mysterious woman who appears out of nowhere in the Emperor’s garden with only fleeting impressions of her life before. Soon, political circumstances threaten to cause a rift between Rikara’s personal feelings and her loyalty to the Empire.
Morieth stopped, saw the Queen, and fell into the bow we’d practiced. Eriha approached with measured steps, gems dangling from her gathered hair. Her face was perfectly painted, carefully blank. Her eyes locked on Morieth. I could’ve been one of the asters.
“I hope you are enjoying your stay,” Eriha said. “The Emperor was most…welcoming, was he not?” She raised a hand, and I bit back a warning. I remembered how she’d killed that tiger. Even now, many years later, a single blow from her would break bones or worse. But Eriha only slipped index and middle fingers around a lock of Morieth’s hair. I shook my head. What was I thinking? This was the Queen, she wouldn’t do something like that, and even if she did.…
Eriha rolled the fine gold strands between her fingers. “Such an oddity you are, appearing out of nowhere and capturing the Emperor’s heart. What boneskin magic did you use, butterfly girl? What is your goal?”
Morieth spoke. Her Kejalin was accented but unhesitating. “No goal. Just…survive.”
I didn’t know what to make of her answer. Nor did Eriha, it seemed, for she dropped her hand, held Morieth’s eyes for a moment, then turned away. Eriha stalked off, trailed by silent attendants, and I struggled to find the right words to say to Morieth.
“The Sweetness of Honey and Rot” by A. Merc Rustad [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #254, June 21, 2018; 8915 words]
Jiteh’s village is protected by the Life Tree, which demands human sacrifice to sustain itself. After taking her father and her beloved twin, Jiteh questions whether the Tree’s protection is worth the cost.
Jiteh pounds her sandals against the cobbled path that loops behind their family hut to the bee hives stacked in tiers. Fog sweeps in thick damp breaths across her village as if the ancient mountains far beyond the forest have sweated off layers of mist.
The bees are slow, readying for the winter. She walks the hives, brushing her fingertips against the wooden slats. “I wish I was a bee,” she tells them. “I’d fly from here, far beyond the Boundary. I’d find flowers no one has ever seen and make the sweetest honey and give none of it to the Tree.”
The bees don’t answer her in words, but she feels their sluggish sympathy. Ever since she was little, barely upright on her feet, she has loved the hives. She’d sit amidst the swarms, stick her chubby hands into the honeycomb without being stung. The Treekeepers blessed her skill and named her one of the tenders of the hives.
She loves the bees, even though they can’t help her. No one can save her brother.
Jiteh presses her palms against her mouth and screams.