Recommended Reading for June and July 2020

Hi y’all. This is part one of me trying to make up for lost time. No reviews, unfortunately, just a link and a brief synopsis of each story. Next week I’ll have recommendations up for the months of August and September. Thanks for reading!

We, the Folk“, by G.V. Anderson [Nightmare Magazine Issue 93, June 2020] 6,120 words

An author travels to the countryside to research a bit of folklore about a fabled mask, the Dorset Ooser, used for the ritual punishment of sinners. She discovers that just talking about the Ooser stirs up feelings of terror in anyone who’s encountered it.

The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, by Zen Cho [Tor.com Publishing, June 23, 2020] 33,158 words

A former nun falls in with a gang of bandits, and things get complicated when she learns about the spoils they’re trying to sell.

Nine Words for Loneliness in the Language of the Uma’u“, by M.L. Clark [Clarkesworld Issue 165, June 2020] 20,873 words

Diplomat Awenato is the only survivor of a terrorist attack that targeted his delegation. Now he is the only Uma’u on a foreign space station, and must temper his grief over the loss of his life mate with his desire for revenge.

Dégustation“, by Ashley Deng [Nightmare Magazine Issue 93, June 2020] 3,509 words

A heartwarming coming-of-age story about mushroom people and self-cannibalism.

“The Staircase”, by Stephanie Feldman [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2020] 4,335 words

A group of friends decide to test an urban legend about an old staircase. That goes about as well as you might expect.

The Augur and the Girl Left at His Door“, by Greta Hayer [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #306, June 18, 2020] 3,914 words

The town augur can read a person’s future by examining their skin. When an infant is left at his doorstep, he decides to raise her himself, even knowing what her future holds.

“Knock Knock, Said the Ship”, by Rati Mehrotra [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2020] 5708 words

An indentured crewperson and an eccentric AI hatch a plan to save the day when their ship is hijacked.

Two Truths and a Lie“, by Sarah Pinsker [Tor.com, June 17, 2020] 11,892 words

Stella has been making up lies about her past for so long it has become an automatic reflex. To her surprise, one story she thought she had fabricated turns out to have really happened. So why can’t she remember it?

“The Black Menagerie”, by Endria Isa Richardson [FIYAH Literary Magazine, Summer 2020] 6,952 words

A young writer comes under the spell of the proprietor of the titular Menagerie, who can channel fear.

“Last Night at the Fair,” by M. Rickert [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2020] 2,467 words

An elderly woman recounts a whimsical night from her youth, of sneaking off to the fair with her future husband.

We Came Home From Hunting Mushrooms“, by Adam R. Shannon [Nightmare Magazine issue 94, July 2020] 2606 words

A group of friends go hunting together, as a strange affliction that causes people to be “forgotten” sweeps the world.

Seven Dreams of a Valley“, by Prashanth Srivatsa [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #307, July 2, 2020] 3501 words

While guarding a condemned witch, the watchman begins having vivid dreams of life in another land.

The Rack – Zine Reviews for Late June 2018

Rounding out the month of June with the latest from Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Compelling Science Fiction, Lightspeed, Shimmer, Strange Horizons and Tor.com.

 

Apex Magazine Issue 109, June 2018
Jacqueline Carey’s “Suzie Q” is a demonic fantasy about Suzanne, who develops a “slutty” reputation as a young teenager that she hopes to escape when she goes off to a famous summoning college called Holyfields. College, of course, has a different set of abusers for her to contend with and later, after she is expelled for lashing out against them and living on the streets, she has no choice but to contend with the demon that has been growing inside her for all those years. “Suzie Q” is a solid character study with a well-earned ending.
There is only one other story in this month’s Apex – “Three Meetings of the Pregnant Man Group” by James Beamon. It comes exactly as advertised, except instead of involving some scientific breakthrough that gets men pregnant à la “Junior”, in this story men are host to gestating alien parasites per an interstellar trade agreement with the Skoicks. There are some fun bits, but it’s one of those stories that isn’t quite doing what it thinks it’s doing.

BCS 254Beneath Ceaseless Skies #254 (6/21/2018)
The Sweetness of Honey and Rot” might be my favorite story yet from A. Merc Rustad. A village is protected by the Life Tree, which demands human sacrifice to sustain itself. Jiteh has lost two beloved family members – her father and most recently her twin brother – and despite the Tree’s promise not to take too much from any one family, it is becoming clear that its promises are empty ones. This leads Jiteh to question whether the Tree is really protecting them at all, or just imprisoning them for its own benefit, and she starts looking for any exploitable natural weaknesses it may have. I was taken with the way Rustad utilized their remarkable descriptive powers, especially in the beautifully macabre sacrificial imagery. The story opens with the fate of Jiteh’s twin: “He sits on the edge of his cot, thorns popping like seedlings from between his knuckles and poking through his sweaty scalp in a blood-slicked crown. “I’m scared,” he whispers.” There’s something to be said for a story that can send chills up your spine from the get-go.
Jordan Kurella’s “Three Dandelion Stars” is a darkly-tinted fairy tale about a forbidden romance between noble-born Amarine and commoner Shai. Shai wants to be married, but Amarine is more hesitant. Shai makes a deal with a swamp fairy to get her wish, but as with all fairy dealings, the price may outlast the reward. I liked the author’s depictions of the ambiguities and anxieties that circle Shai and Amandine’s relationship, and the various conflicts that simmer throughout and erupt at the climax bring the story to a gratifying close.

Compelling Science Fiction Issue 11, June 2018
There’s a little more miss than hit among the six original stories in the new Compelling, but one of the them stood apart for me.
Adam R. Shannon’s “Redaction” plops us into a future where people can edit out sections of their memory by “dropping markers”, and later choose whether to remove the recollections that fall between two markers. This comes in handy for Crackle Marigold, a paramedic who has to witness some pretty horrifying shit on a nightly basis and is happy to redact most of it so he can keep doing his job without burning out. Crackle’s partner Jesús is anti-redaction, and when he offers Crackle the shocking reason why he has no problem functioning with all his memories intact, Crackle must decide – knowing that Jesús has most likely revealed this information to him before and will do so again – if he should keep his memory of the conversation, even if it means holding onto another memory he’d rather let go of. It’s a provocative idea, well-executed, and with a fitting conclusion.
The issue’s lone reprint, C. Stuart Harwick’s “Dreams of the Rocket Man” from the September 2016 issue of Analog was just as good for me the second time around, and well worth the read if you missed its initial publication.

Lightspeed 97Lightspeed Magazine Issue 97, June 2018
I had a mostly lukewarm response to the original stories in June’s issue of Lightspeed, with Rustad’s and Hoffman’s collaboration the brightest light among them.
I Sing Against the Silent Sun” by A. Merc Rustad and Ada Hoffman is part of Rustad’s Sun Lords of the Principality story cycle but stands just fine on its own. Radical poet Li Sin faked their death to escape the Gray Sun’s persecution, but the Sun Lord eventually uncovers the ruse and the pursuit begins anew. The spectacle of a poet-hero tossing off subversive verses while fleeing from a powerful tyrant is pleasantly alluring, and the authors’ shared penchant for opulent prose makes for a nicely operatic space fantasy.
Emma Törzs’ “From the Root” has an interesting premise: Marya is a “regenetrix” – someone who can regenerate lost body parts – living in Victorian-era London. Pregnancy is a death sentence for her kind, but no one has ever been able to figure out why. As Marya’s due date approaches, the story’s narrator – a midwife and a regenetrix herself – is determined to test out her theory on the subject and save Marya’s life. The story’s conclusion was a little too tidy for my taste, though the solution the narrator finds is a clever one.
Lina Rather’s “A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Lighthouse of Quvenle the Seer” follows a woman (in the second person “you”) who travels across the stars seeking revelations about her future. The titular guidebook is itself a seer of sorts. The premise predicts its own unsatisfying conclusion, in metafictional fashion. Ashok K. Bankers “The Quiltbag” finds an interstellar traveler who is profiled by a certain system’s customs agency but turns the tables when the nature of the bag they wish to search is revealed.

Shimmer Magazine Issue 43, May/June 2018
Sadly, just moments after I turned the last page in the latest issue of Shimmer, Twitter informed me that it would be one of the last. Just three more issues to go before the badger takes a bow in November – but the happy news is that the May/June issue features the best story they’ve published this year:
Freia is trapped in a dangerously abusive relationship with her “supervisor and ex”, Woden, in Anya Johanna DeNiro’s remarkable “Faint Voices, Increasingly Desperate”. Freia is a silk farmer in (presumably) Valhalla, little more than a slave in Woden’s magnanery. She longs to return to Vienna, her adopted home on Earth; her method of escape requires only that she bleed – a lot – so of course her captor diligently keeps her away from sharp objects. A co-worker absent-mindedly drops a needle near her, enabling her to make her first escape in decades. Freia gets a job and takes a lover, aware that her freedom has a countdown – it is only a matter of time before Woden comes to retrieve her. DeNiro’s story is a perfect storm of potent imagery, vivid characterization, and slowly rising tension that hits the boiling point. The tone set by the opening segment is as cogent as any I’ve encountered in recent memory. Freia’s circumstances demand a rigorous asceticism to mask her defiant soul. She has never educated herself on the particulars of the silk she harvests: “She keeps her cravings for knowledge in check. This is how she survives.” The silkworm cocoons cry out in confusion and terror as she drops them in boiling water to separate the strands, and she wears headphones to drown their voices out. DeNiro relates the moment in a strong, active voice, transforming conscious self-denial into more than a mere coping mechanism, but a way of channeling and storing energy – weaponized abnegation.
The rest of the issue also lives up to Shimmer’s reputation for curating outside-the-box genre exercises. Shimmer is known for. Katherine Kendig’s genial and eccentric “What the Skeleton Detective Tells You (While You Picnic)” is another highlight from the issue. The tale goes pretty much as the title advertises, its decorous, absurdist tone nudging the reader along. Of course people can just turn into living skeletons for whatever reason, and why wouldn’t a living skeleton become a private detective who wears a wide brimmed hat and long coat to hide her skeleton-ness, and feel self-conscious about wanting to flirt with non-skeletons, and certainly there is a Skeleton Forest, where people might choose to picnic. What kind of world are you living in?
A tried and true assumption about space exploration is put to the test in Octavia Cade’s “Gone to Earth”, as astronauts on Mars are afflicted with Earthsickness – a permanent and debilitating condition resulting from being cut off from a living environment for too long. The second person narrative “You, In Flux” is a disturbing and reflective take on postpartum depression, where you are a mother dealing with complicated feelings that are literally affecting every atom of your existence, and your partner is not engaged or supportive of your condition.
I’ll greatly miss reading Shimmer, which has always engaged with a wide range of voices and approaches to speculative fiction and has published many remarkable stories over the years. I’m eager to see what it has in store for the remainder of its run.

Strange Horizons, May 2018
Young, gay immigrant Ravi finds himself pursued by a jumbie, a malevolent demon of Caribbean origin, in Ian Muneshwar’s eerie folk tale “Salt Lines”. Ravi is followed home by the jumbie after leaving the club late one night, and resorts to the only defense he knows: laying a line of salt in front of his door. As the creature consumes each grain of salt, one at a time, in order to gain entrance to his room, Ravi calls his estranged father, hoping for comfort and advice. Suspension of disbelief is strained a bit regarding how quickly the jumbie manages to consume all the salt; I mean, really, how close to empty was the container? The ending is a surprise, in a “Wait, WHAT!?!” kind of way, but it is thematically consistent with the setup. The conversation with his father, punctuated by the cooing of Ravi’s sister’s new baby – whom no one even bothered to tell Ravi about – is heartbreaking.
The other works in May’s crop of stories are Octavia Cade’s “We Feed the Bears of Fire and Ice” – a grisly short piece about climate change deniers getting their just desserts after a worldwide ecological collapse – and the manic meta-fantasy “Variations on a Theme by Turandot” by Ada Hoffman, in which the lead in Puccini’s most infamous opera tries to change history so it will end the way she wants it to.

meat salt sparksTor.com (6/6/2018)
Rich Larson is a genre practitioner in the most literal sense possible, in that he practices genre the way a doctor practices medicine – collating as much knowledge about the craft as he can and applying it judiciously to achieve a desired effect. His new story for Tor.com, “Meat and Salt and Sparks”, is a drug cocktail of uplifted animals, detective noir, and cyberpunk futurism, and the result is both unnerving and gripping; Larson’s MO seems to be: “maybe you’ve seen this stuff before, but you’ve never seen it like this.” Cu is one of a kind – the only survivor of illegal brain enhancement experiments on chimpanzees, now a police detective (!?!), but isolated, lonely, depressed. Solving crimes is the only thing that motivates her to keep going. When an “echo”, someone who allows another person to link with them and live vicariously through their body, commits a murder, the path to finding the true culprit leads right back to Cu’s origins. Larson has a talent for providing the reader with vivid details – emotional and visual – as well as taking common sci-fi tropes and spinning them just enough to make them seem new again. The bond between Cu and her human partner Huxley is effortlessly heartwarming – he treats her like she is just another cop, while most people can’t get over the novelty: even perps want to take a selfie with her. “Meat and Salt and Sparks” is a nicely balanced work of fiction, with tone and pace and character and plot hitting all the right beats at all the right moments.

Compelling 11Must Read –
“Faint Voices, Increasingly Desperate”, Anya Johanna DeNiro Short Story
“Meat and Salt and Sparks”, Rich Larson Short Story

Highly Regarded –
“The Sweetness of Honey and Rot”, A. Merc Rustad Novelette

Also Recommended –
“What the Skeleton Detective Tells You (While You Picnic)”, Katherine Kendig Short Story
“I Sing Against the Silent Sun”, A. Merc Rustad and Ada Hoffman Novelette
“Salt Lines”, Ian Muneshwar Short Story
“Redaction”, Adam R. Shannon Short Story