The Best Short SFF of October 2019

Featured Image from the cover of FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 12 by Sophia Zarders

Must Read Stories

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Cover: “Athlerrod” by Ferdinand Dumago Ladera

One Found in a World of the Lost“, by Shweta Adhyam [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #287, September 26, 2019] Short Story

A gutty, starkly imagined post-apocalyptic fantasy with elements of classic Hindu mythology. Pavitra will never be the hunter her twin sister Gayatri was, so Gayatri’s death weighs heavily on her and their family. Meanwhile, the departed Gayatri finds herself in a strange world where lost children are turned into stone pillars at the behest of a strange creature called a yakshini. There is so much to admire about this story: the unexpected way the sisters’ separate narratives unfold and draw together, the stunning visuals, the warmth of the family’s love for each other amid such a bleak and desolate landscape. It also has a key ingredient that separates great storytelling from the good – a feeling of timelessness.

“Corialis”, by T.L. Huchu [FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 12: Chains, Autumn 2019] Short Story

Establishing a colony on Corialis, a “goldilocksed” moon orbiting a gas giant in a distant solar system, is more troublesome than it should be. Thandeka is absorbing much of the blame for the setbacks, but she suspects there is more to this moon and its simple, single celled organisms than the colonists are willing to accept. Huchu’s story is exactly the kind of sci-fi I love: nicely detailed examinations of the relevant scientific and ethical issues, with well-drawn characters and tight, but eloquent, prose. More so, it is a story that refuses to take the idea of colonization for granted, and its vision of African nations spreading out among the stars is vivid and vital, and places it strongly within a growing canon of similar works.

More Recommended Stories

The Butcher, the Baker“, by Mike Allen [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #289, October 24, 2019] Short Story

Trukos is the golem-like protagonist of Allen’s gripping dark fable about the relationship between creator and creation. The baker Auntie Mayya fashioned the near-indestructible Trukos from the ingredients of her trade, and he has unquestionably followed her directions since his conception. Until now. The setting and backstory are unique, and Trukos’ journey is memorably grisly.

zeitgeber
Cover Art by Sally Deng

Zeitgeber“, by Greg Egan [Tor.com, September 25, 2019] Novelette

I have always had an affinity for Egan’s provocative hypotheticals, and he’s drummed up a solid one in Zeitgeber. A strange malady has afflicted a significant portion of the world’s population with a disruption to their circadian rhythms, causing them to reverse their relationships with night and day. Society finds a way to accommodate to this new reality, so when a cure is found, a return to “normalcy” is met with resistance.

The Other Side of the Line“, by A.T. Greenblatt [Fireside Magazine Issue 72, October 2019] Short Story

The “Line” didn’t just separate the world with an unpassable barrier, it split Amy and Paolo’s house in two, stranding each on opposite sides. Paolo was able to send her a message but Amy is having trouble doing the same, because she knows it can’t be done without a leap of faith, and a sacrifice. A quick, smart and touching “what-if?” fantasy.

Touchstone“, by Mette Ivie Harrison [GigaNotoSaurus, October 1, 2019] Novella

Everyone in Lissa’s age group – except for Lissa – has been summoned by the touchstone to receive their calling in life and it’s made her something of an outcast. But the touchstone’s revelations are entirely private, so if she tells everyone she got her calling, who will disbelieve her? A great premise rendered with suspenseful and well-paced storytelling, Touchstone is an excellent meditation on the nature of power and the social contract.

Fireside 72
Cover Art by Amanda Makepeace

The Haunting of 13 Olúwo Street“, by Suyi Davies Okungbowa [Fireside Magazine Issue 72, October 2019] Short Story

A captivating haunted house story set in Lagos, Nigeria, told from the perspective of the house. Something terrible happened in 13 Olúwo Street, leaving the ghost of its traumatized victim within its walls. Attempts by western media to exploit the tragedy are far more detrimental than anything its spectral occupant can scare up, and the house just wants her to be happy and comfortable. The story is both a de-colonization of the traditional haunted house narrative and a rumination on what it means for a house to be a home.

Some Kind of Blood-Soaked Future“, by Carlie St. George [Nightmare Magazine Issue 85, October 2019] Short Story

You are the Final Girl, the only survivor of the slumber party massacre that killed off most of your friends and family. Soon you discover that no matter where you go, there is a mad slasher waiting to off a gathering of blissfully ignorant teenagers, so you just level the fuck up and roll with it. Dare you even imagine a future not drenched in death and gore? A funny, frantic and appropriately visceral story – also an unexpectedly heartwarming one.

Novel Reviews (10/7/2019): Gods, Monsters, and Mercenaries

The Monster Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson (Tor, October 2018)

monster baru
Cover Art by Sam Weber

Highly Recommended – The start of Seth Dickinson’s sequel to The Traitor Baru Cormorant backtracks a little, relating moments just prior to Tain Hu’s execution, as Baru fastens her chains and whispers in her ear before leading her down to the bluff where the waves will crush her against stone. That the two lovers share an intimate moment in plain view of witnesses without breaking their cover serves as both a reminder of the shocking events that transpired at the end of Traitor (as if anyone could forget) and of the new normal for readers. Now entrenched as a cryptarch in the Masquerade, Baru still has her secrets from the empire of masks but she can’t hide from us anymore.
The specter of Tain Hu’s death haunts Baru throughout The Monster Baru Cormorant. While her betrayal of Aurdwynn moves her closer to her goal—the destruction of the Masquerade—the loss of her lover at her own hands creates a split in Baru, where she must weigh her desire for revenge against the emotional cost of carrying it out. Her ambition drove her when she started, then quashed, the rebellion on Aurdwynn. Now entrenched in the imperial capital city of Falcrest, Baru finds herself amidst a dizzyingly complex and layered political guessing game with countless enemies looking to expose her secrets. Her mentor, the cryptarch Cairdine Farrier, deposits her right into the middle of a conflict with their mysterious neighbor to the south, the Oriati Mbo. Baru’s journey takes her on a collision course with old friends, vengeful military commanders, and a unique culture that stands in sharp contrast to the Masquerade.
Like its predecessor, The Monster Baru Cormorant has a dense and purposely convoluted plot, though you can add temporal and perspective shifts to all the thumbing through reports and notes and accounting ledgers this time around. If this kind of storytelling wonkiness didn’t put you off in the first book, you should have no problem adjusting to the heightened, brutal swirl of intrigue this time around. The first novel’s greatest strengths—its emotional core and its expansive world-building—remain intact.

Thin Air, by Richard K. Morgan (Del Rey, October 2018)

Thin Air
Design: David G. Stevenson and Susan Schultz; Illustration: Christian McGrath

Hakan Veil is a gene-enhanced gun-for-hire on Mars, strong-armed by the local police into playing bodyguard for Madison Madekwe, an auditor looking into corruption in the state-run lottery. When Madekwe disappears on his watch, Veil finds himself in a morass of corrupt officials and police, organized crime, corporations with conflicting interests and a revolutionary movement.
Thin Air spins off from Morgan’s 2007 novel Thirteen (known as Black Man in the UK), another noir-ish action novel about a gene-enhanced soldier caught in a whirlwind of corruption. While the action in that novel mostly took place on Earth, in Thin Air we get a first-hand look at COLIN (Colonial Initiative)-run Mars, and what life is like for an exiled “overrider” there.
Morgan’s knack for electrifying, hard-boiled prose and his dark, fatalistic worldview have long been his strongest assets as a writer, and he delivers the goods in Thin Air. He also has a good eye for detail and lived-in futuristic settings and kinetic action. But so much of the novel feels like old hat: the same bitter, violence-prone hero and cynical outlook, the over-the-top, bone-crushing action grind. The novel is fairly long and tries for an epic sweep, but often it is more bloated than sprawling.

Edges (Inverted Frontier Book 1), by Linda Nagata (Mythic Island, April 2019)

Edges // Linda Nagata
Cover Art by Sarah Anne Langton

Must Read! – The remnants of humanity hide in the furthest reaches of known space on the planet Deception Well, on the lookout for any appearance of the Chenzeme, automated alien warships programmed to eradicate all life in the universe. They believe their worst fears realized when a Chenzeme ship arrives in their system, but the crisis is short-lived: Urban, a long absent member of the expedition that founded the settlement on Deception Well, discovered how to overtake the Chenzeme ships and has piloted this one, called Dragon, home. The new scientific endeavor he proposes would take humanity backward through its frontier to the Hallowed Vasties—the legendary systems surrounding the cradle of their civilization devastated by the Chenzeme incursion—to uncover both the artifacts of their past and to discover what has replaced them.
Edges is the first volume of a new space opera series by Nagata, who most recently has penned a sequence of stunning near-future military thrillers (The Red Trilogy, The Last Good Man). If it sounds like a lot of backstory for a first-in-a-series novel, it is. Inverted Frontier is a sequel series to her Nanotech Succession, four standalone novels that speculate, across huge leaps in time, how humanity might evolve through the use of nanotechnology. While there is a lot of future history to unpack, Nagata provides more than enough background for Edges to work as an entry point for new readers. I would also propose that new readers then take their own backward journey of discovery and read the Nanotech novels in reverse chronological order, starting with its far-future conclusion Vast, and ending with the near-future prequel Tech Heaven.
Edges takes its time setting the table: it is more than a third of the way through before the expedition makes its first major discovery. The slow burn is worth it; Nagata depicts a human civilization so far removed from our present understanding that time is almost meaningless, and the notion of life correlating to physical presence was long ago abandoned. Its technology a hybrid of human and alien, both near-unfathomable in complexity and capability that even the brilliant minds who wield it don’t always fully understand it. All this background comes in handy when the crew of Dragon encounter something so sublime and terrifying it regards the Chenzeme with little more than curious indifference. Nagata raises the tension one notch at a time as the ship moves closer to its destination, and by the end, somehow creates stakes that even a god would fear. Edges will satisfy any readers of Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Trilogy jonesing for a new “big idea” space opera operating on that scale.

 

The Best Short SFF of September 2019

Featured Image from the cover of Lightspeed Issue 112 by Galen Dara

Must Read Stories

A Bird, a Song, a Revolution“, by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019) Short Story

Bolander’s expressive cat-scratch prose and narrative gymnastics grow more audacious with each published story, while she has honed her vision into a diamond-hard stare. As a young girl, Whistlecage has a transformative experience when she learns to play the flute at the urging of an old witch. Far in a post-disaster future, another young girl finds Whistlecage’s flute in the wreckage of a museum, and it seems there is some magic left in it yet. Like “The Only Harmless Great Thing”, this is a story about bold ideas and hard truths crossing generational distances, of art as cultural memory and revolutionary impulse.

Sacrid’s Pod“, by Adam-Troy Castro (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019) Novelette

Most of Castro’s AIsource Infection stories have debuted in the pages of Analog, so it was a pleasant surprise to find one out in the wild, and a great one at that. “Sacrid’s Pod” isn’t dependent on any of the other stories or story sequences and serves as a great primer for those unfamiliar with Castro’s future history. Sacrid is a teenage girl consigned to a life sentence in an inescapable prison by her ultra-orthodox parents as punishment for transgressing their culture’s religious doctrines. Her unusually helpful AI-jailer assists her as she engineers a different kind of prison break. More than a quarter century into his writing career, Castro still displays an near-miraculous talent for twisting every genre trope imaginable into something new and exciting and fun.

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Cover Art by Dominic Harman

“Winter Wheat”, by Gord Sellar (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2019) Novella

This was the first story I encountered in my September reading, and it set quite a standard for everything that followed. “Winter Wheat” is the intimate yet epic story of a farming community upended by the introduction of bioengineered climate-resistant wheat. The story’s protagonist, Jimmy, can’t grasp the science of farming, a fact that frustrates him when his father’s attempts to create his own strain of wheat conflicts with corporate control of production. With its memorable setting and characters, and an intelligent, multi-layered take on some vital near-future issues, this may be my favorite sci-fi story of the year.

More Recommended Stories

The Last Stellar Death Metal Opera“, by Elly Bangs (Escape Pod 697, September 12, 2019) Short Story

Raya wants to hurl a brown dwarf into a collapsing star to save a planet of octopodes from the gamma ray burst of an impending supernova, despite the fact that the resulting collision will incinerate her and make her the first human to die in several millennia. Why? Because that would be metal as hell, of course. Then the “frickin’ Unimind”, the human race’s AI caretaker, arrives to muck the whole plan up. In truth, the conflict between Raya and the Unimind never rises above mild tension, but the spectacle of Raya’s plan and her motive for doing it are the stars of the show. If you fail to read this story with a big old stupid grin on your face from the first page to the last you should probably stop reading things.

Breaking the Waters“, by Donyae Coles (Pseudopod 666, September 20, 2019) Short Story

Coles’ piercing fever dream of a story is accompanied by W.B. Yeats classic poem “The Second Coming” (and also a content warning, which should be heeded), the perfect tone-setter for this tale of a young girl named Bootsie and her monstrous pregnancy. As much a story of containing Whitmanian multitudes as it is about birthing biblical Legions, it’s also as eerie and unsettling as any horror story you’re likely to read this year.

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Cover Art by David Hardy

“Homecoming”, by Gardner Dozois (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October 2019) Short Story

A bittersweet capstone to the late Dozois’s long and legendary career in SFF, about a very old wizard who makes one last trip home, and a young girl who beseeches him to send a little bit of magic her way. The kind of story that might be a little too perfect for its own good, but who’s going to complain?

“The Albatwitch Chorus”, by Stephanie Feldman (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2019) Novelette

Asimov’s always throws a little “spooky action” (pun intended) at readers this time of year, and for the second year in a row Feldman has written one of my favorites. Sonia moves in to an old witch’s house, and takes on her ex-husband’s teenage daughter as an apprentice as she starts her own witch’s shop. When the intelligent, racoon-like albatwitches that live in the nearby woods start making incursions on Sonia’s property, she knows they’re after something and that can’t be good. The albatwitches are too fiercely unknowable to be the antagonist here; the real conflict  is between the stubbornly pragmatic older woman Sonia and the fearlessly naïve youth Gina, who believes the albatwitches are trying to befriend her.

“Four Accounts of the Discovery of Orchard Street (From The Knowledge: An A-To-Zed of That City We Almost Know)” collated by S.R. Mandel, cartographer (Galaxy’s Edge Issue 40, September/October 2019) Short Story

This is probably the first time I’ve dropped a story on this list just because I didn’t know what else to do with it, only that by some strange impulse I read it over and over at least a half dozen times and found new pleasures in it each time. There’s nothing else I can say about it that you can’t glean from the title. Just let it happen.

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Cover Art by Beeple

Dave’s Head“, by Suzanne Palmer (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 156, September 2019) Novelette

I marvel at Palmer’s gift for pasting together what seems like a bucket list of absurd story concepts and not only weaving them into a compelling narrative but imbuing them with a deep, rich mythology that reaches out beyond the boundaries of the story. In “Dave’s Head”, an engineer and her senile uncle go on a road trip with their roommate, a sentient animatronic dinosaur head called Dave, so Dave can find others like himself at a long-shuttered theme park. It’s a testament to the good will Palmer has engendered with her readers that we’re willing to swallow the wacky pill she hands us, no questions asked, knowing the rewards and surprises that await us.

“In the Stillness Between the Stars”, by Mercurio D. Rivera (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2019) Novelette

Another spooky story from Asimov’s, this one a little more traditionally Asimovian. A psycho therapist is woken from cryogenic sleep early in a colony ship’s voyage to help a woman who appears to have woken her nightmare up along with her. Well-drawn characters and sturdy, suspenseful plotting, and a whole lot going on in the background for SF geeks to chew on.

Sweet Dreams are Made of You“, by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (Nightmare Magazine Issue 84, September 2019) Short Story

You’re probably smarter than I am and won’t try to read a magazine literally called NIGHTMARE right before bedtime. Though just in case that’s not warning enough for you, for fuck’s sake don’t read “Sweet Dreams are Made of You” and then try to go to sleep. Wolfmoor’s testimonial-style horror vignette about a game called Vore that you play in your dreams – until it crosses over to the waking world – has all the punishing beauty of a black metal song and the suffocating dread of a dream you desperately want to scream yourself awake from.

 

August’s Best Comic Books

Featured Image from the cover of Doctor Mirage #1 by Philip Tan

Best Graphic Novel/Collected Edition

SparrowhawkSparrowhawk [Boom! Studios] – writer Delilah S. Dawson, artist Matias Basla; cover by Miguel Mercado

Dawson’s pitch black Victorian-era fairy tale is the story of Artemesia, the illegitimate daughter of a British Naval captain, unwittingly pulled into Faerie so the evil Faerie Queen can switch places with her and wreak havoc on the human world. Sparrowhawk drips with fatalism from the moment Artemesia finds herself on the wrong side of the mirror. Dawson understands the first rule of tragedy – that the hero must make all the wrong choices for perfectly understandable reasons.

Best Single Issue

House of x 002.jpgHouse of X #2 “The Uncanny Life of Moira X” [Marvel] – writer Jonathan Hickman, artist Pepe Larraz; Cover by Pepe Larraz and Marte Gracia

A much discussed issue that lives up to the hype. Jonathan Hickman’s re-invention of Moira MacTaggart’s origin and timeline might be the most audacious retcon in the history of comics, with implications that stretch far beyond the already massive story he and Pepe Larraz are telling. But there’s more to this chapter than the lives and timelines of the newly-dubbed Moira X: this is also one of the most gratifying accounts of the Magneto/Professor X rivalry we’ve had to date. And with Hickman now taking the reigns of the X books for the foreseeable future, it means he’s only just getting started.

Runners Up

Die 006Die #6 “Grind” [Image] – writer Kieron Gillen, artist Stephanie Hans; cover by Stephanie Hans

After a brief hiatus, Gillen’s and Hans’s take on the LitRPG genre returns with its best issue yet, with Gillen’s furious, high-concept plotting and Hans’s widescreen, dust-blown layouts perhaps the most perfect pairing in comics right now. This chapter finally gives us some background on Ash’s cyberpunk little sister Angela, who makes a heart-wrenching choice at the end.

BR 2019 002Blade Runner 2019 #2 [Titan] – writers Michael Green and Mike Johnson, artist Andres Guinaldo; cover by Christian Ward

I don’t usually go for movie tie-ins, but in all honesty, so far this is turning into the Blade Runner sequel I wish we had gotten on the big screen. Set around the same time frame as the original film but with a completely different set of characters, Blade Runner 2019 feels like period piece set in an imagined future’s past. In this issue, Aahna Ashina’s search for a tech tycoon’s missing family leads her to a “skin doctor” deploying some radical new strategies for hiding replicants on Earth.

Best First Issue

Dr Mirage 1Doctor Mirage #1 [Valiant] – writer Magdalene Visaggio, artist Nick Robles; cover by Philip Tan

Shan Fong Mirage has always been one of the most interesting characters in Valiant’s stable, and Visaggio’s approach, illuminated by Nick Robles’s sleek and trippy art, looks ready to deliver the goods. When the story begins, Shan’s husband Hwen is dead, their TV show cancelled, and her ability to communicate with ghosts is gone. Then a teenager named Grace shows up at her door and turns everything upside down, claiming that they are the ones who are dead and living in hell. The last panel left me wanting more.

Runner Up

Tommy Gun 1Tommy Gun Wizards #1 [Dark Horse] – writer Christian Ward, artist Sami Kivelä; cover by Christian Ward

A retelling of the prohibition-era Untouchables saga, where Capone’s main racket is dealing magic, not booze. Nice retro art stylings, distinctive characters, great world-building, and a touch of goofy humor thrown in just for the hell of it.

 

My Top 10 Current Series (Ongoing or Limited)

(Minimum of four issues and at least one issue published in August)

1 

Im Hulk 22The Immortal Hulk [Marvel] – writer Al Ewing, artists Joe Bennett and Ryan Bodenheim (guest, issue #21); cover by Alex Ross (issue #22)

With an unhinged Banner cycling through his various alter egos by day, and the unchained “Devil” Hulk ruling the night, Ewing and Bennett are still twisting and shaping the Hulk mythos into the flat-out best comic of any genre on the stands today.

2

Die 006Die [Image] – writer Kieron Gillen, artist Stephanie Hans; cover by Stephanie Hans (issue #6)

The first couple of issues of this Lit-RPG extravaganza were a bit too feverish in their pacing, but the story has since settled into a steady rhythm, and the deeper Gillen and Hans dig into the inner lives of the characters and their world, the better this series gets.

3

Fairlady 5Fairlady [Image] – writer Brian Schirmer, artist Claudia Balboni; cover by Jeremy Saliba (issue #5)

Getting a “Complete Fairlady Mystery” every month has been a joy – but the latest (issue #5) comes with a cliffhanger(!!!) and word that the series is on hiatus until next year.

4

Green Lantern 10The Green Lantern [DC] – writer Grant Morrison, artist Liam Sharp; cover by Liam Sharp (issue #10)

The Myrwhydden issue (#7) is the highlight of the Morrison/Sharp run on Hal Jordan’s Lantern, and following it with a Green Arrow team-up and some multiversal madness shows that the emphasis of the book continues to be pure, dorky fun.

5

House of x 3House of X/Powers of X [Marvel] – writer Jonathan Hickman, artists Pepe Larraz (House of X) and R.B. Silva (Powers of X); cover by Pepe Larraz and Marte Gracia (House of X #3)

Yes, Hickman’s plotting can be convoluted, and the unusual intertwining of the two ostensibly separate series doesn’t help at all, and the info-dumpy text pages muck up the pacing, but goddamn if this isn’t an exhilarating ride.

6

Sabrina 4Sabrina the Teenage Witch [Archie] – writer Kelly Thompson, artists Veronica Fish and Andy Fish; Cover by Veronica Fish (Issue #4)

“My life needs to pick a genre already”, Sabrina laments. She may be overwhelmed by the three way tug-of-war of horror, romance and teen comedy, but Thompson and the Fishes have found a sweet spot between the teen melodrama and supernatural shenanigans that makes me wish this was an ongoing, rather than a soon-to-be-concluded mini-series.

7

miles 9Miles Morales: Spider-Man [Marvel] – writer Saladin Ahmed, artist Javier Garrón; cover by Patrick O’Keefe (issue#9)

Ahmed and Garrón have been killing it lately, taking Miles’s life/superhero balance in a fun new direction while conjuring up a terrifying new nemesis in the Assessor.

8

Mary Shelley 5Mary Shelley: Monster Hunter [Aftershock] – writers Adam Glass and Olivia Cuartero-Briggs, artist Hayden Sherman; cover by Hayden Sherman (issue #5)

Sherman’s art is still the star of the show, though Glass and Cuartero-Briggs have built a deliciously macabre sandbox for him to play in. The latest issue rounds off the first arc in horrific, viscera-drenched fashion and sets up a new direction for the series, whenever it may resume.

9

Captain America 13Captain America [Marvel] – writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, artists Adam Kubert, Jason Masters, Sean Izaakse; cover by Alex Ross (issue #13)

Coates’s long-game saga of the Captain-without-his-America transitions from Kubert’s roving multi-angle layouts in the prison break arc “Captain of Nothing” to Masters’s more traditional three-quarter straight shots. The story doesn’t miss a beat, but man I really loved having Kubert on this book.

10

Fallen World 4Fallen World [Valiant] – writer Dan Abnett, artist Adam Pollina; cover by Rick Leonardi (issue #4)

Matt Kindt and Clayton Crain are irreplaceable, but this long awaited follow up to the Rai/4001 A.D. storyline holds its own. One year after the fall of New Japan, Rai has sworn off violence while he tries to help humans and positronics build a new world together. That all changes when the authoritarian AI known as Father resurrects in the body of unstoppable nanotech super-soldier Bloodshot.

 

The Best Short SFF of August 2019

Featured Image from “Fare” by Francesco Giani.

I apologize for the brevity and lack of depth in the write-ups, or any mistakes abound. I’m finishing this up late at night from a hospital bed so braining is hard: this month’s list brought to you by oxycodone!

As always if you like what you read, consider paying for an issue or subscription. Even though many of these zines make their publications available to read for free on the internet, they still have writers and staff to pay and rely on income to do so. Please enjoy these great stories!

Must Read

The Skin of a Teenage Boy is Not Alive“, by Senaa Ahmad (Nightmare Magazine Issue 83, August 2019) Short Story

Parveen’s best friend Aisha falls in with “Benny and his dumb demon cult” who want to get possessed for kicks, but Parveen doesn’t quite fit in with that crowd. The tone of the story is like one long teenage shrug, but gliding under the surface is a desperate adult awareness of time skipping past all our youthful idealism.

Still Water“, by Ian Muneshwar (Anathema Issue 8, August 2019) Short Story

Miles and Trent are on a couples counselor-inspired jaunt to the wilderness, where their fraying relationship is further tested when their surroundings get a little off-real. A great character study and relationship drama, but what really distinguishes “Still Water” is the slow transgression from its natural setting to a not-quite natural one.

Your Face“, by Rachel Swirsky (Clarkesworld Issue 155, August 2019) Short Story

Swirsky excels at presenting the reader with a deceptively simple setup, before sneaking up on you with a shiv to the gut. In “Your Face”, a mother talks to a computer scan of her late daughter, wanting to know how much she remembers before she died.

More Recommended Stories

Elegy of a Lanthornist” by M.E. Bronstein (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #284, August 15, 2019) Short Story

An astute portrait of an academic studying the obsessive writings of a long dead poet from lost culture, and the object of his unrequited affections. The ending is sudden, and shocking.

Henrietta and the End of the Line“, by Andi C. Buchanan (Translunar Travelers Lounge Issue 1, August 2019) Short Story

A colorful and powerful story about refugees searching for a new home on a train that is also a squid.

No Matter“, by Kendra Fortmeyer (Lightspeed Issue 111, August 2019) Short Story

A time traveler drops in on a young married couple, claiming to be his future daughter, but not hers. What could have been nothing more than a one joke premise turns into quite an emotional storm.

Getaway“, by Jennifer Hudak (Podcastle #585, July 30, 2019) [narrator Jen R. Albert] Short Story

A gut-twisting body horror fantasia about Leena, who swallows some bad lake water while on vacation, and the ensuing illness becomes a blessing in disguise when she discovers she can now escape from her body. Heed the content warnings.

“Verum”, by Storm Humbert (Interzone #282, July/August 2019) Novelette

Rev is losing business to a new verum designer, Gina, whose doses offer users a more immersive experience. Great world-building and characters, and a nice reversal at the end.

Fare“, by Danny Lore (Fireside Magazine Issue 70, August 2019) Short Story

Deshaun really needs to get to the public kennel, more than his distracted cab driver knows. The “real time” feel of the narrative guides the rising tension.

More Real Than Him“, by Silvia Park (Tor.com, August 7, 2019) Short Story

Morgan steals another designer’s robot, only to strike up a bond with the other woman as she designs it to look and behave like her favorite Korean actor. Oh, that poor robot.

Copies Without Originals“, by Morgan Swim (Translunar Travelers Lounge Issue 1, August 2019) Short Story

A wonderfully drawn character study of a robot who keeps following its programming to maintain an art museum long after the human race has gone extinct (or has it?).

 

 

The Best Short SFF of July 2019

Featured Image from the illustration for “Blood is Another Word for Hunger”, by Xia Gordon

Must Read

FSF 7-8
Cover art by Mondolithic Studios

“Mighty are the Meek and the Myriad”, by Cassandra Khaw (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2019) Short Story

After England’s devastating war against the robots ends, the plan for reintegrating the automatons mostly involves “hats and parasols and cutout mustaches made of cheap aluminum”. And also corgis. If that gives you some indication of the tenor of Cassandra Khaw’s id-poking sci-fantasy treat, I’ve got news for you: this is the kind of story that turns on a dime. Full of tragedy and cynicism and caustic wit, and bolstered by the author’s inexhaustible energy and descriptive ingenuity (at one point, a character’s eyes are “like cracked ice…The uneven striations in her irises compounded the effect, invoking the impression that her pupils had somehow shattered.” WTF.), by the end we get the idea the author doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks speculative fiction is supposed to speculate about.

Blood is Another Word for Hunger“, by Rivers Solomon (Tor.com, July 24, 2019) Short Story

Solomon’s crimson-hued tale of Sully, a teenaged slave with “a heart made of teeth” who turns on and kills her captors, is the kind of story that blocks all the emergency exits.  The disturbance caused by Sully’s actions knocks something loose in the ether and she gives birth to Ziza, a fully-grown teenager who died as a slave centuries before. Soon, Sully’s rage births an “army of revenants” in place of the racist whites she exacts her vengeance on. This story keeps the reader suspended somewhere between the malicious logic of a fever dream and the order imposed by a conventional narrative structure. What it doesn’t do is allow the comfort of escape.

More Recommended Stories

creep
Cover art by Red Nose Studio

For He Can Creep“, by Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com, July 10, 2019) Novelette

Christopher Smart lives in an asylum, where Satan looks to hoodwink the beleaguered poet into writing an epic apologia for his benefit. Smart’s loyal cat companion Jeoffry isn’t having any of that. An absurdly entertaining bit of escapism, especially for lit nerds.

Thin Places“, by Kay Chronister (The Dark Issue 50, July 2019) Short Story

The townspeople of Branaugh operate under an uncanny state of affairs, one that does not suffer newcomers well. School teacher Miss Augusta knows what it means when the new lighthouse-keeper’s daughter arrives at her door, and though the other townsfolk implore her to send the girl away, she can’t bring herself to do it. Chronister’s unsettling anti-fable offers a world where community, and the security it promises, is a site of horror rather than of safety.

The Brightest Lights of Heaven“, by Maria Haskins (Fireside Magazine Issue 69, July 2019) Short Story

Haskins often writes about characters who sidestep conventional moral boundaries in favor of their own spiritual reality, and while the results are usually capital-D Dark, there is also a poignancy that creeps up on readers willing to reset their own parameters (temporarily, one hopes). “The Brightest Lights of Heaven”, about a pair of childhood best friends who make an unbreakable pact that transcends time and distance, is devilish fun, and quite touching in its own twisted way.

“The Work of Wolves”, by Tegan Moore (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July/Aug 2019) Novella

“I wonder what my dog is thinking” is a premise with more than a few miles on it. In “The Work of Wolves”, author Tegan Moore flips the coin by giving us Sera, an enhanced-intelligence search-and-rescue dog who has to figure out what her new handler is thinking in time to save the day. Engrossing with a nice brisk pace, it’s a quintessential Asimov’s piece: just hard-enough sci-fi to satisfy our inner lizard brain, though with the emphasis squarely on character-driven plotting and action.

Black Matter“, by Vivian Shaw (Pseudopod #655, July 5, 2019) Short Story

The premise of Shaw’s story, in which a consulting necromancer (ahem, contingency communications specialist) for the NTSB investigates a plane crash by interviewing the deceased witnesses, reads like a modern day paranormal fantasy while the narrative builds like something out of pulp-era Weird Tales. It also has the feel of a “pilot episode”, and with its pitch perfect first-person narration and provocative hints of larger forces at work, a return trip would be welcome.

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Cover art by Julie Dillon

How the Trick is Done“, by A.C. Wise (Uncanny Magazine Issue 29, July 2019) Short Story 

There is a cool casualness to A.C. Wise’s prose that contrasts nicely with the sometimes startling events that punctuate her narratives. “How the Trick is Done” is a tale of death and resurrection and revenge, in which Angie, the magician’s assistant/girlfriend (and true progenitor of his most famous trick) decides it’s time to part ways with the man. It’s an understandable choice: the women he uses and discards can do the real magic he takes credit for. The story has an unusual structure that works despite itself—we already know what happens to the magician from the start, yet Wise manages more than a few surprising moments before events come full circle.

The Best Short SFF of June 2019

 

Recommended Stories

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Cover by Grandfailure/Fotolia

The Harvest of a Half-Known Life“, by G.V. Anderson (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 109, June 2019) Short Story

Anderson builds an arresting and intricately detailed post-apocalyptic culture where social mores have been re-shaped by climate disaster: technology is taboo, for example, but harvesting the flesh of the dead has a vital role in sustainable living. The narrator – verbally called “Gwinaelle”, though her true name can only be conveyed in sign – is caught between the life that has been planned out for her and her yearning to “follow the ghosts” and explore the ruined world. It’s an engaging narrative but what stood out for me was its introspective nature, the onus it placed on the reader to not fall back on easy choices and lazy assumptions.

“Apologia”, by Vajra Chandrasekera (Future Science Fiction Digest Issue 3, June 2019) Short Story

An acerbic take on the commodification of white liberal guilt, wherein a poet is unleashed through time with recording drones in tow to experience firsthand the plight of systemically oppressed peoples, all for the edification of viewers back home. The narrator is the project’s producer, who divines to portray the subject as “our collective finger of condemnation pointed at a mirror, and then holding that pose, turning our heads a little, shifting hips, finding our good side in the light of truth and reconciliation.” That the narrator is aware of their own hypocrisy – perhaps even fetishizes it – is all the more disturbing.

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Cover Art by Cynthia Yuan Cheng

“Late Train”, by Anthony Ha (Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet no. 39, June 2019) Short Story

While taking a late train home after a night of revelry, three friends have a discomfiting encounter with a homeless woman. The youngest and most naïve of the three unthinkingly invites the woman to overshare the details of her life, a narrative that gets more and more outrageous as it goes and opens them up to a literal multitude of possibilities. The slow build to a mind-expanding climax is well-rendered, and I appreciated the subtle symmetries and synchronicities built into the story’s structure which are especially effective in a second readthrough.

Bootleg Jesus“, by Tonya Liburd (Diabolical Plots #52B, June 17, 2019) Short Story

The rural town Mara lives in has no magic, so the “unique gifts” that normally manifest in people once they reached a certain age aren’t fostered there. But somehow Mara can activate her “Bootleg Jesus” statuette by asking it a question, and get cryptic yet actionable advice from it. This ability takes on a new urgency when she wishes to save a friend from an abusive situation. I really enjoyed the idea of a world where magic is common except in this one place, and the author uses it to weave a compelling, heartfelt story with empathy and smarts.

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Art by Samuel Araya

A Forest, or a Tree“, by Tegan Moore (Tor.com, June 26, 2019) Novelette

Small disturbances and unforeseen circumstances pile up to bedevil four friends on a hiking trip in the wilderness, while something uncanny stalks them from the edges of their perception. An odd little horror piece; surreal and spooky with an offbeat aesthetic of arbitrariness to distinguish it. The characters jump off the page from the get go, which is always a good sign.

Many-Hearted Dog and Heron Who Stepped Past Time“, by Alex Yuschik (Strange Horizons, 6/17/2019) Short Story

Dog and Heron are partners who have “a profitable business stealing things, protecting things, or killing things.” As the title suggests, Heron can move back and forth through time, though they need someone (currently Dog) to anchor them in the timeline. The plot, involving the killing and resurrecting of a magistrate to sniff out a conspiracy, is a bit of a red herring. The story is really about what the titular characters mean to each other, a relationship that is somehow enhanced, rather than hindered, by the fact that one of them experiences it out of order.

The Best Short SFF of May 2019

Featured Image from the cover art for Apex Magazine Issue 120 by Godwin Akpan

Must Read

Raices (Roots)“, by Joe Ponce (Anathema Magazine Issue 7, May 2019) Short Story

Jerry lives on the US side of the US-Mexico border, recently joined by his long-estranged sister Lola and her son Macho. Lola and her family fled drug traffickers in Veracruz, but the authorities captured her husband David and older son Chucho at the border and they are now in legal limbo while they await their hearing. Then Macho gets a strange infection that gives him tree-like features, and soon the other migrant children follow suit. The emotional exhaustion Jerry experiences while just trying to help his family survive is palpable, while all rage and fear and paranoia of America’s current uptick in anti-immigrant nationalism project onto the children (they might set down roots, literally). “Raices (Roots)” is a gripping and beautifully composed story of people just trying to survive when no good options are available.

The-Dark-Issue-48-220x340The Wilderling“, by Angela Slatter (The Dark Magazine Issue 48, May 2019) Short Story

Readers are so used to getting twists and surprises at the end of a story we forget there are other strategies at the author’s disposal for creating a memorable resolution. Giving away the ending too soon seems counter-intuitive, but that’s just what Angela Slatter does in her story of a woman’s disturbing fascination with a beast-like child (or child-like beast?) that lives in the wild near her home. Once the last act of the story begins, we know with a fair certainty exactly how things will turn out—the trick is that we really, desperately hope it doesn’t happen, and like a maestro Slatter keeps stringing us along until damn near the last sentence.

“New Atlantis”, by Lavie Tidhar (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2019) Novella

From the ashes of our broken civilization, the surviving human population fashioned a new utopian world intent on learning from the mistakes of the past. Scattered pieces of the old world remain, treated with novel fascination by the citizenry. 84-year-old Mai relates a story from her youth, of receiving a message from a former lover to meet him in New Atlantis (the London ruins) where he has discovered a working “Millennial Vault” of uploaded consciousnesses living in an artificial reality. Tidhar’s amazing sci-fantasy dreamscape depicts the overlap between a tech-heavy future past and a more pastoral future present, and people living a life at once simple and clear and obvious, but also completely alien. Mai begins by summarizing her tale: “I visited Atlantis. I came back. That is the story. Everything else, as the old poet once said, is just details.” That’s the understatement of a lifetime.

Highly Regarded

Fugue State“, by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due (Apex Magazine Issue 120, May 2019) Short Story

Arthur has lost interest in work and his hobbies, distressing his wife Charlotte. The reason for his dulling intellect seems to be his obsession with a cultish political figure known as The Reverend. Arthur insists he’s never been happier and can’t understand his wife’s objections. When Charlotte investigates the Reverend phenomenon, the answers don’t come in quite the way she expects. The authors take their time setting the table for an ending that is as disquieting as it is unavoidable. It’s tempting to read the “Fugue State” as allegorical to our present political climate, with Arthur suffering from a kind of supernatural Fox News Dad syndrome. But “ignorance is bliss” is an old saying, as old as messianic figures offering truth and salvation at a terrifying cost.

Dune Song“, by Suyi Davies Okungbowa (Apex Magazine Issue 120, May 2019) Short Story

With the world swallowed up by desert except for the village of Isiuwa, the elders keep the population confined by decree—anyone who leaves Isiuwa endangers all who remain. Nata’s mam was one such deserter, and Nata’s determination to know what her mother found outside the gates supersedes any poorly reasoned rules society imposes on her. “Dune Song” asks us, in expressive and lyrical prose, if freedom is worth the cost for its own sake rather than for the promise of reward.

Fireside 67All the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From“, by Izzy Wasserstein (Fireside Magazine Issue 67, May 2019) Short Story

Teenagers make great protagonists because they exist at a turning point between the youthful desire to transgress boundaries and the adult desire to uphold them. In Wasserstein’s multiverse drama, the 16-year-old narrator knows she’s living in a simulated universe and can “Snap” from one iteration of the world to another. She escapes her native reality, where her mother is terminally ill, to check in on alternate versions of their life in rundown South Topeka; sometimes they are happy, sometime they aren’t even there, and sometimes she runs across another version of herself looking for or running away from the same thing. Every time she Snaps, she alters each new reality just by her coming and going, but no one else is better or worse off for it. Anyone who has ever felt like a stranger in their own hometown can relate.

Also Recommended

“Canst Thou Draw Out the Leviathan”, by Christopher Caldwell (Uncanny Magazine Issue 28, May/June 2019) Short Story

I must have an affinity for weird whaling fiction. Like Nibedita Sen’s excellent “Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” (Nightmare Magazine #69, June 2018), Caldwell’s story draws the reader into a tense sea voyage tinged with supernatural menace. Beyond that, the two stories couldn’t be more different. Where Sen depicted a rapid and surreal decent into madness, Caldwell crosses whaling lore and the legacy of the Middle Passage in his tale of John Wood, a former slave working as a carpenter on a whaling ship who receives warning from a god of his ancestors about the ship’s fate. Complicating the “will they believe me in time?” narrative are his shipmates’ attitudes about John’s race and sexuality. Great characters, high stakes, and a well-executed plot.

BCS 277The Thirty-Eight Hundred Bone Coat“, by R.K. Duncan (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #277, May 9, 2019) Novelette

Navid’s job is to dredge the river for bones that his father can use to enchant the coats his mother makes. A nobleman comes to them offering a lifetime of riches for the titular item, which would make the wearer impervious to harm. With only thirty days to complete the task and his family’s honor, not to mention their financial future, at risk, Navid gambles his life and his freedom on securing the materials they need in time. An intense story with a captivating sense of urgency.

The Wiley“, by Sara Saab (The Dark Magazine Issue 48, May 2019) Short Story

This wild, alt-history sci-fi horror story follows Manon, a rare woman tech guru in Silicon Valley who struck gold during the dot-com craze of the early oughts. A spectral being borne of her own loneliness haunts her, though it may be her salvation when her revolutionary software spawns a devastating computer virus. Thoughtful and circumspect as much as it is creepy and discomfiting, with gooseflesh-inducing visuals at the climax.

Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island“, by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare Magazine Issue 80, May 2019) Short Story

Sen has a knack for drawing blood from a stone in her stories; she excels at creating expansive narratives from self-imposed formal restrictions. In this very short tale of terror (or possibly wonder? A little of both?) she never deviates from the guidelines the title establishes but still paints a broad and memorable portrait of the history of a near-annihilated people’s diaspora. There is also an undercurrent of satire with some pointed, if affectionate, jabs at academic writing (“If I have to deal with one more white feminist quoting Kristeva at me…”).

“Gremlin”, by Carrie Vaughn (Asimov’s Science Fiction, May/June 2019) Novella

Vaughn’s generational epic typifies the brand of widescreen, high-concept, character-and-action-driven novellas Asimov’s is famous for. It begins with a Russian fighter pilot who finds an unusual creature (with an unusual appetite) riding along on her missions against the Nazis in WW2 and follows the legacy of her family’s relationship with the creature through the centuries to come. The author’s concise prose and her eye for detail serve the story well.

 

 

 

The Best Short SFF – April 2019

Featured Image from the Cover Art for Augur Magazine issue 2.1, by Janice Liu

Must Read

“Clear as Quartz, Sharp as Flint”, by Maria Haskins (Augur Issue 2.1, April 2019) Short Story

Jenna can hear the stones singing to her, much to the chagrin of her Grammy, who prays to the wooden god. “She heard that same song the day the baby quickened. Heard it again when Grammy laid her hands on her belly, shaking her head, muttering of ill-made children, saying that the stones would claim what the wooden god would not.” Maria Haskins’ dark fables often remind me of the classic films of F.W. Murnau and Carl Theodor Dreyer in her ability to distill the act of storytelling into pure emotion and bald imagery, displayed in acute yet elegant compositions. The title of this story is a more apt description of what it does than what it’s about, as it feels far brighter and deeper than its 1000 words should allow.

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Cover Art: “Drawlloween Swamp Thing” by Iren Horrors

An Open Coffin”, by H. Pueyo (The Dark Issue 47, April 2019) Short Story

Amélia goes to work for General Estiano to care for a corpse that resides at his house. The corpse has been on display for decades and attracts many devotees, who appear daily to fawn over it. “You must always let them in,” one servant tells her. “Don’t ask too many questions.” Brazilian author Pueyo uses classic literary devices to build her story—red herring, unreliable narrator, foreshadowing—while its reality unspools like a waking nightmare. It’s a sinister cautionary tale about the noxious behavior that ensues when people fall into the nostalgia trap.

 

Highly Regarded

How to Move Spheres and Influence People”, by Marko Kloos (Tor.com, 27 March 2019) Novelette

A new entry in GRRM’s Wildcards universe, this novelette tells the origin story of T.K., a teenager will partial left-side paralysis who gets picked on at PE by the mean girls. Her “card turns” one day during class and she discovers she has the power to control spherical objects with her mind. Her squeamishness after engaging in a mild act of revenge convinces her she’s better off just using her powers for good. That opens its own can of worms once the opportunity presents itself. Kloos built his reputation on military SF, but here he shows that his skillful plotting and ability to craft believable, relatable protagonists crosses over to other genres. The not-so-subtle ways T.K.’s tormentors bully her without running afoul of school authorities is effectively done. Context clues abound, so readers new to the Wildcards premise shouldn’t have any trouble getting the gist.

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Cover Art by Olivia Stephens

“In That Place She Grows a Garden”, by Del Sandeen (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 10, Spring 2019) Short Story

Rayven is one of the few black students among a sea of white faces at Queen Mary Catholic High School. She’s proud of her four-years-in-the-making locs, but when the new principal Mrs. McGee takes office, she declares that Rayven’s hair violates the dress code and makes her cut them off. Soon after, a flower sprouts from Rayven’s scalp, followed by an entire garden. And this garden doesn’t let anyone mess with it. Del Sandeen’s fabulist piece finds the right balance between pragmatism and the uncanny. The precariousness of Rayven’s circumstances give the reader plenty of reasons to root for her and she doesn’t disappoint, even when the people who should support her let her down.

Gaze of Robot, Gaze of Bird”, by Eric Schwitzgebel (Clarkesworld Issue 151, April 2019) Short Story

After a 95,000 year journey, robot J11-L arrives at the planet it was sent to terraform ahead of the generation ships that left earth. But those ships died off millennia ago, so instead J11-L fashions new life from the likeness of its only companion, a stuffed toy it calls “Monkey”. But even engineered evolution takes a long time to perfect. Thoughtful, gentle, optimistic sci-fi in the classic mold.

 

Also Recommended

A Conch-Shell’s Notes” by Shweta Adhyam (Lightspeed Issue 107, April 2019) Short Story

A crafty and engaging story about a village called Peacetown whose residents make their choices based on the whisperings of a magical conch-shell. Fruit-seller Kwai goes off on a magical adventure, while the shell’s advice pushes cookware vendor Var to become mayor. Shai is a fruit harvester caught in between the two men’s destinies and forced to question whether the conch-shell’s instigations really benefit anyone.

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Cover Art by Richard Wagner

“Everything Rising, Everything Starting Again”, by Sarah Brooks (Interzone #280, March 2019) Short Story

In this slow-burning apocalypse, people are dying en masse for unknown reasons, their souls turning into black butterflies and flying away. The oddly casual tone of the story, as the narrator wonders and worries and which family and friends she will lose next, is captivating.

“No Late-For-School”, by Shari Paul (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 10, Spring 2019) Short Story

Shari Paul’s broadly comical “No Late-For-School” is the story of a blogger named Delilah who one day finds a feather growing out of her scalp. Delilah uses a long blog entry to relate the outlandish tale of how she discovered the culprit responsible for her malady. Perfect comic timing and momentum build to an uproarious climax. The story also has some weight to it, as Delilah comes to realize she is in a toxic relationship.

“The One Before Scheherazade”, by Bianca Sayan (Augur Issue 2.1, April 2019) Short Story

As the title suggests, this is the story of the girl chosen to be queen-for-a-night right before Scheherazade captivates the King with her tales for 1001 successive nights. With one day left to live, she must determine what kind of queen she will be, and how she will be remembered. An ingenious premise and an engrossing character study.