The Best Short SFF of 2019 – Part 3: Fantasy

My “Best of 2019” is split into three parts: Part 1: Dark Fantasy/Horror; Part 2: Science Fiction; Part 3: Fantasy. My choices in each category are not ranked; they are presented in alphabetical order by the author’s last name. Each title is accompanied by a quick introductory statement and a short excerpt from the story. Excerpts may contain mild spoilers. For the purposes of this column, short fiction is defined as less than novel-length, or under 40,000 words.

The Best Short Fantasy Fiction of 2019

BCS 287One Found in a World of the Lost“, by Shweta Adhyam (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #287, September 26, 2019) 6979 words

Pavitra blames herself for her twin sister Gayatri’s death at the hands of a wild boar. While Pavitra reckons with her guilt, the departed Gayatri finds herself in a strange world, in the company of a mystical creature called a yakshini.

“I am… Gayatri,” said the girl, and it felt wrong. As if she were lying. No, worse. As if she were stealing. “Who are you?”
The creature sighed. “I have been under a curse so long I have forgotten my name. But I am a yakshini, and I remember the way back to my home. Will you accept a reward for having saved me?”
The girl bit down the ready refusal on her tongue and said, “What kind of reward?”
“What would you like? Safety and stability, escape from Bhoomi’s wrath? Beauty? Immortality? Simply name it.”
Desire exploded in the girl’s heart at the mention of safety and stability, rest… She quashed it. What would she do in such a world? She was a hunter. But she’d been right, these were gifts that would benefit her pack, gifts worth taking risks for. Even if they came with a large sense of foreboding.
“Can you make me invulnerable?” she said, giving in to the image of her death, the boar’s tusks sinking into her and what it would mean for them all if she did indeed die.
The yakshini’s deer-face grinned; she nodded eagerly. She plucked a handful of leaves from a nearby bush and murmured some words over them. As her shloka reached its crescendo, she crushed the leaves and drew a shimmering circle, vertical in the air, with the juice they left on her fingers. The shimmer covered the circle for a moment, then retreated to its edges. Through it, the girl looked into a whole other world, one that was as hard and dry and scrubby as her own was green and wet and mossy, with stone pillars taking the place of trees as far as her eye could see.

BCS 268The Beast Weeps With One Eye“, by Morgan Al-Moor (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #268, January 3, 2019) 6663 words

High Sister Nwere leads her people on a perilous flight from their homeland as they are menaced by a murderous onslaught of ravens. Exhausted and all but defeated, she strikes a devil’s bargain in a last ditch effort to save them all.

I dropped to my knees and pressed my hands to the moist grass. I drew in a deep breath and twisted my tongue and lips to match the breath of the earth beneath me. “Heed my call, Ancient Land, and lend me your wisdom. My people need shelter.”
The land sighed under my palms. The old voice filled my head. “I hear you, High Sister, and I have what you seek. Though the ravens fade into oblivion when compared to what lies here.”
“I have lost many lives on the road, Ancient Land. Show me this sanctuary, whatever it may be.”
“You stand upon the abode of the Keeper of Sorrows, and of him and this place, I shall speak no more.”
My fingers dug into the dirt. “You must talk. By the will of the twin Elders, Arowo-Ara and Ufefe, Striders of Thunder and Lightning, I implore you to show your secrets.”
The voice grunted in pain. I hated my cruelty, I hated to use the Elders’ names to threaten another being, but time was of the essence.
“So be it,” whispered the land.
A sudden quake rushed beneath our feet. Gasps filled the air, and I clung to the dirt as my body swayed. Above us, shades of crimson spilled across the sky, as if the clouds had bled. Screams erupted. Our hunters jumped to their feet while the children wriggled into their mothers’ arms.
Across the river, three trees burst into smoke, and behind them stood a walled structure that had not been there before.

Lightspeed 112A Bird, a Song, a Revolution“, by Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 112, September 2019) 5224 words

Whistlecage – so named because of the caged songbird she carries around – meets an old witch who promises to teach her a thing or two about making songs.

“Would you like to hear my bird?”
Now the witch is mocking her, Whistlecage thinks. It’s almost a relief. But when she looks up at her, prepared to take her lumps as best she can, the witch is fumbling with one of the bits hanging at her belt. A smooth, hollow spar of bird bone, bored through with holes. She catches Whistlecage’s eye and holds it fast as she raises the thing to her lined lips. Her fingers dance spider steps down its length.
And the bone sings to the bird.
It starts as an imitation at first, good enough that the bird whistles back. But it doesn’t stop there. It takes the bird’s song and expands it like an unfurling pelt, twisting all sorts of new sounds and flourishes and ups and downs into the tune. The girl has never heard anything like it. There are drummers among her people, and those who sing stories on special days, but this is different. This is a sound that fills the contours of her insides like it was carved from ivory for the purpose, something she has never known she needed. It is an instant connection between her heart and the old woman’s. Just like that they are the same, because of the song.
The feeling wells up in her and spills out of his eyes.
“There are more singers and whistlers in the world than you’ll ever be able to meet, child,” the witch says, “and each one carries as many songs within them as stars in the sky. You’ll never be able to hear them all, and when you grow woman-sized you’ll lie awake at night haunted by that. All you can do is learn how to sing your own and hope that someone somewhere remembers.”

for he can creepFor He Can Creep“, by Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com, July 10, 2019) 7903 words

The poet Christopher Smart is locked away in an asylum with his faithful cat, Jeoffry. Years before, Smart made a deal with the devil, and now the devil has come to collect his due. Though Jeoffry might have something to say about that.

Jeoffry is curled at his usual spot on the sleeping poet’s back when the devil arrives. The devil does not enter as his demons do, in whispers and the patterning of light. His presence steals into the room like smoke, and as with smoke, Jeoffry is aware of the danger before he is even awake, his fur on end, his heart pounding.
“Hello, Jeoffry,” the devil says.
Jeoffry extends his claws. At that moment, he knows something is wrong, for the poet, who normally would wake with a howl at such an accidental clawing, lies still and silent. All around Jeoffry is a quiet such as cats never hear: no mouse or beetle creeping along a madhouse wall, no human snoring, no spider winding out its silk. It as if the Night itself has hushed to listen to the devil’s voice, which sounds pleasant and warm, like a bucket of cream left in the sun.
“I thought you and I should have a chat,” Satan says. “I understand you’ve been giving my demons some trouble.”
The first thought that flashes into Jeoffry’s head is that Satan looks exactly as Milton describes him in Paradise Lost. Only more cat-shaped. (Jeoffry, a poet’s cat, has ignored vast amounts of Milton over the years, but some of it has apparently stuck.)
The second thought is that the devil has come into his territory, and this means fighting!
Puffing himself up to his utmost size, Jeoffry spits at the devil and shows his teeth.
This is my place! he cries. Mine!

Haunting of Tram Car 015The Haunting of Tram Car 015, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing, February 19, 2019) 28576 words

Hamed and Onsi are agents of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, investigating a haunting in an unusual location. They soon learn this particular spectre might be more than a minor nuisance.

“Good morning, unknown being,” he said in loud slow words, holding up his identification. “I am Agent Onsi and this is Agent Hamed of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities. We hereby inform you that you are in breach of several regulations governing paranormal persons and sentient creatures, beginning with Article 273 of the criminal code which forbids trespass and inhabitation of public property owned by the State, Article 275 on acts of terrifying and intimidation of citizens . . .”
Hamed listened stupefied as the man rattled off a series of violations. He wasn’t even certain when some of those had been put on the books.
“ . . . and given the aforementioned charges,” Onsi continued, “you are hereby instructed to vacate these premises and return to your place of origin, or, barring that, to accompany us to the Ministry for further questioning.” Finishing, he turned with a satisfied nod.
Rookies, Hamed grumbled quietly. Before he could respond, a low moaning sounded in the car. There was little doubt where it came from, as the gray smoke had stopped its slithering and gone still.
“I think it understood me!” Onsi said eagerly.
Yes, Hamed thought dryly. And you probably bored it to death. If it was already dead, you might have just bored it back to death.
He was about say as much when there was a sudden terrible screeching.
Hamed moved to cover his ears at the sound, but was sent stumbling back as a jolt went through the tram. He might have fallen flat had he not reached out for one of the stanchions—catching the vertical pole by a hand. He looked up to see the gray smoke swirling furiously like an angry cloud, screaming as it swelled and grew. The lamps that lined the walls flickered rapidly and the tram began to tremble.

augur-cover-issue-2.1Clear as Quartz, Sharp as Flint” by Maria Haskins (Augur Magazine 2.1) 1009 words

Jenna doesn’t like to heed Grammy’s warnings, not before she was with child, and certainly not now.

In early summer, before solstice-night, when the child is not yet so heavy inside her, Jenna climbs the hill to the ring of stones. She knows she shouldn’t, but it’s the kind of day when nothing seems perilous, not even those pale-grey sarsens looming on the tor. The breeze is soft, and the first bees, drunk on nectar, buzz through the pink sheen of heather spread across the moor. Father’s sheep graze on the hillsides while the herding dogs lounge in the sun, their keen eyes on the lambs and ewes.
Jenna climbs the hill because she hears the stones sing.
Don’t listen to that old stone-song, Grammy told her. That’s what everyone says. Yet it is hard to ignore that call once you’ve heard it.
The first time Jenna heard the stone-song was in midwinter, that night when she let Keff into her bed while everyone was at the sun-feast. Only Grammy’s wooden god watched them from the wall. When Keff moved inside her, the song thrummed so low and deep within she thought it was her own heart beating.
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.

FIYAH Issue10_150“In That Place She Grows a Garden”, by Del Sandeen (FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 10: Hair, Spring 2019) 5290 words

When a new principal takes over at her mostly white high school, Rayven is forced to cut her four-years-long locs because they suddenly violate the school’s dress code. Then something other than hair starts growing in their place.

Kids milled around her, some grabbing books out of their lockers, others walking to class. She peeked at her reflection in the small mirror stuck inside her locker door, wondering why she continued to look for something hopeful.
A pop of yellow caught her eye.
Rayven reached up, expecting the worst because it wouldn’t be the first time one of Queen Mary’s finest had snuck an object into her hair—the end of a broken pencil once, a hermit crab shell another time.
“Ow,” she breathed. When she’d pulled on the yellow thing, whatever it was, it stung, as if she pulled her own hair.
Rayven rifled through her bookbag until she found the compact. She held its mirror behind her as she gazed into her locker door reflection.
A yellow flower poked from her ‘fro.
Even the shrill bell went unheard.
She tugged at it and again, felt that sting. Her fingers burrowed deeper, straight to the roots. And indeed, the base of the flower felt like roots. Plant roots. Growing from her head.

Apex 117The Crafter at the Web’s Heart“, by Izzy Wasserstein (Apex Magazine Issue 117, February 2019) 6071 words

In the city of Traverse, magic users become what they practice. Danae is all about spiders, and when she takes a delivery job for some extra cash, she runs afoul of a dangerous fly-cult.

A shiver from the web reached me before I’d registered the sound. I didn’t need to turn around to know the knife had missed me by less than a meter.
I leapt forward, threw myself through the back window of the nearest shack. Shocked, dirty faces stared back at me. I didn’t have time to explain. I darted across, ducked out a side window onto a disturbingly uneven platform.
It shifted, tilted above the void. I didn’t look down. Brought it back into equilibrium. My balance has always been good.
Flies might not be the brightest, but it wasn’t like there were a lot of places I could’ve gone. They’d find me if I didn’t keep moving. I scrambled through a gap in the wall of the next building—empty, thankfully—and out onto the web in front of it. Fortune smiled: the commotion I’d sensed in the web was a caravan, a cheap one, just departing from a hovel of an inn. I rolled under one of the carts, grabbed onto the undercarriage. Not a comfortable ride, but I was out of sight of the flies.
The cart moved slowly, and that bought me time to catch my breath and to think. Back then, I wasn’t used to attempts to murder me, especially when they could’ve just stopped creeping and taken the damn book.
By the time my heart stopped feeling like it wanted to cut its way free, I’d had time to come up with a plan. I needed to know what I was carrying, and why these scum-feeders were willing to kill for it.

many-hearted-dog_FINAL_sm-323x500Many-Hearted Dog and Heron Who Stepped Past Time“, by Alex Yuschik (Strange Horizons, June 17, 2019) 5869 words

Dog and Heron have been business partners for a long time, but Heron experiences time in a different order, and this complicates their relationship.

“There is the past and the not-past,” Heron said, blood dripping from their arm onto the nightingale floor. “Which is this?”
“The not-past, you idiot.” Dog grunted as he peeled back Heron’s sleeve. He was in Heart of Storms, shoulders tense and eyes alive with lightning. With a tsk, he tore off a clean strip of bandage. “Hold still.”
This often happened when Heron stepped through time, the uncertain landings. It surprised them, frustrated Dog, and had caused an assassin hiding behind a shelf of scrolls to loose a throwing star that had grazed Heron’s left arm. But Heron was not a master of the deadly arts for nothing: their knife caught the assassin’s ear at more or less the same time Dog’s knife stabbed the assassin’s hand to a pillar.
Lacquered cabinets gleamed in the next room, shelves full of scrolls stacked in neat columns, a brush and ink still perched on their stands obediently even though it was the dead of night. The last time Heron had visited the not-past, they had been stealing a chicken for their and Dog’s dinner. “Well, I see we are currently embroiled in at least one shenanigan.”
The assassin moaned weakly at their hand, still pinned, and Dog carefully brushed debris away from a noblewoman’s body. “This magistrate job was the stupidest thing we ever did. If you sashay off into the past again, kindly tell my former self I’m an amateur and a fool.”

 

You can find Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror HERE

You can find Part 2 – Science Fiction HERE

Additional Reading:

The above choices are based on my own personal tastes from my own reading experiences, and are meant to be taken as such. There are many other “best of” and “recommended reading” lists that offer up quality reading choices for short SFF. Here are a few:

Maria Haskins, author and translator

Charles Payseur, author and proprietor of Quick Sip Reviews

Eugenia Triantafyllou, author

A.C. Wise, author

Locus Recommended Reading List 

Rocket Stack Rank 2019 YTD (aggregate list), compiled by Greg Hullender and Eric Wong

More links will appear as I find them!

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 – March 2019

Featured Image from the cover for Lightspeed Issue 106 by Grandfailure

Must Read

tram car 015
Cover by Stephan Martiniere

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 (excerpt only), by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com Publishing, February 19, 2019) Novella

Set in 1912 in the same alt-history story universe as the author’s A Dead Djinn in Cairo, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 excels on multiple fronts: as a [magical] detective yarn, as a chilling, classically structured haunted house story, and as a vehicle for historian Clark’s speculative re-imagining of modern Egyptian civilization. The story follows Hamed Nasr, an agent for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, and his eager but inexperienced new partner Onsi and they investigate the titular event. The intricate detail imbued in the story’s setting is the star of the show—I would be happy to get lost wandering the streets of Clark’s Cairo—but that takes nothing away from the wonderful cast of characters and sublime plot execution. The climax is a true nail-biter, with a resolution that resonates. Extra points for a protagonist who can wax anthropological about folklore.

“A Mate Not a Meal”, by Sarina Dorie (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, March/April 2019) Novelette

At first, Sarina Dorie’s alien spider love novelette “A Mate Not a Meal” seems like it would be a better fit for Analog’s more character-driven sister magazine Asimov’s. Taking place on a tech-free giant spider planet with a tight 1st person POV of its giant spider protagonist, it’s hard not to wonder for a time how it fits in with Analog’s stated goal to publish “stories in which some aspect of future science or technology is so integral to the plot that, if that aspect were removed, the story would collapse.” It does find its way into Analog’s wheelhouse, though explaining how is too much of a spoiler to reveal here. The spider hero of the story is Malatina, whose mother and sister are murdered and eaten by a male spider who tricked mother into believing he wanted to mate with her. This is a not infrequent occurrence on giant spider world, and Malatina must figure out on her won how to tell the difference between a man who truly loves her and one who just wants to devour her liquified insides. Her dilemma is human-relatable, but also convincingly spidery. The narrative is riveting and suspenseful and harrowing and action-packed and romantic and yes, also full of science that the story couldn’t live without.

Highly Regarded

Nightmare 78
Cover by Yupachingping

All the Hidden Places“, by Cadwell Turnbull (Nightmare Magazine Issue 78, March 2019) Short Story

The savviest genre authors use conventional story elements to manipulate readers’ expectations. “All the Hidden Places” is the story of Sherman and Nikki, a father and daughter journeying from the Virgin Islands to Sherman’s family home in Michigan through a plague-ravaged America where the infected turn into violent raving lunatics. Sherman is hiding something from his daughter, and if only she can figure out what that is, she would have a better understanding of their circumstances. Skillful tone-setting, subtle atmospherics, and the easy relatability of Sherman’s overprotective father and Nikki’s bright but confused teenager, elevate the familiar setup. What really sets it apart, though, is the interplay of foreshadowing and misdirection, which guides the story to a chilling and inevitable conclusion.

Also Recommended

FSF 3-4-2019
Cover by Kent Bash

“The Unbearable Lightness of Bullets”, by Gregor Hartmann (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2019) Short Story

A police detective investigates a finance-related murder with broader social implications. Another of Hartmann’s wonderful stories set on the far-future frontier world of Zephyr; like the others, it stands on its own while rewarding fans of the previous stories. There is a nice little undercurrent of tension between the philosophically minded Inspector Song and her faith-oriented partner that lends the story extra weight.

Self-Storage Starts with the Heart“, by Maria Romasco-Moore (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 106, March 2019) Short Story

James can’t deal when his best and only friend Christopher moves away. Storing your loneliness can get expensive, so he builds his own discount loneliness storage apparatus and his equally lonely neighbor Emil convinces him they can start a business together. Author Moore makes building a world around a casual absurdity look easy, not to mention building a story around a protagonist with entirely selfish motives.

Curse Like a Savior“, by Russell Nichols (Apex Magazine Issue 118, March 2019) Short Story

Junior is a tech who repairs malfunctioning “Halograms”—religious-themed hologram devices—but there’s something different about Mrs. Fisher’s potty-mouthed Jesus. Nichols transforms what could have been a one-joke premise into a devilish surprise.

Hands Made for Weaving, With Nails Sharp as Claws“, by Eden Royce (Fireside Magazine Issue 65, March 2019) Short Story

This beautifully written story follows the efforts of the world weaver, who rescues magical creatures when they accidently slip through the veil between worlds. Full of wonderful imagery and memorable characters.

“How I Found Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers”, by Lawrence Watt-Evans (Asimov’s Science Fiction, March/April 2019) Novelette

This long-gestating, standalone sequel to Watt-Evans’ Hugo-winning classic is the most perfect tribute imaginable to Asimov’s late, legendary former editor Gardner Dozois. A private investigator tracks the source of a mysterious object called a “neural resonator” to the titular diner, which is also a waypoint to the multiverse. A first-rate illustration of the kind of classically structured sci-fi Asimov’s has trafficked in since its inception.

The Best Short SFF – February 2019

Featured image from the cover of Apex Magazine issue 117, by Julia Griffin

In addition to being the shortest month of the year, I faced some unexpected life changes in February and was unable to produce my zine review column on a weekly basis. While my writing time suffered, my reading time thankfully did not, and I found plenty of quality short fiction to celebrate this month.

Must Read

message2 Pear Nuallak
Art by Pear Nuallak

The Message” by Vanessa Fogg (The Future Fire Issue 48, February 2019) Short Story

Science fiction has always assumed that if Earth received a message from deep space, it would have civilization-altering consequences. Here, Vanessa Fogg charts a near-future course for us where scientists find such a message and it is just consumed, rather inelegantly, into our mass-media culture. Sarah is the teenaged daughter of the scientist who discovered the enigmatic, indecipherable Message fifteen years before, but its effect on her life has more to do with everyday concerns like “will my parents ever stop fighting?” and “does my best friend Chloe really love me?”. That second question forms the heart of Fogg’s story. Sarah and Chloe live half a world apart and have never met – and may never meet – in person, yet to Sarah the intimacy of that relationship is as deep and true as anything she can see or touch. Fogg disperses so many thematic and narrative strands and covers so many relevant scientific and sociological issues it is an absolute marvel how she weaves them together into a cohesive whole. Inventive, intricate, incandescent; stories like this are the reason I have a “Must Read” category in this column.

The Crafter at the Web’s Heart” by Izzy Wasserstein (Apex Magazine Issue 117, February 2019) Short Story

Traverse is a mythical city suspended over a chasm by a massive spider’s web, whose magic users become the thing they specialize in. Danae is headed for spider-dom, but first she must escape the predations of a dangerous fly cult and unravel a conspiracy that threatens to upend everything she holds dear. “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart” is a jaw-dropping feat of imaginative world-building bolstered by an exciting and suspenseful chase plot.

Reviewed in the February 16, 2019 edition of The Rack.

 

Highly Regarded

Thoughts and Prayers - Sarula Bao
Art by Sarula Bao

Thoughts and Prayers” by Ken Liu (Slate – Future Tense, January 26, 2019) Short Story

When Abigail Fort loses her daughter Hayley in a mass shooting, she decides her daughter’s death needs to mean something and allows a gun control group to use Hayley in a high-tech lobbying campaign. Then, out come the trolls. Abigail’s sister-in-law helps her get fitted with a new digital armor to filter out all the virtual attacks and disturbing, unintended consequences ensue. Liu’s mastery of near-future speculation and his grasp of the core issues is illuminating. An effective use of shifting perspectives, especially when we get a troll’s take on the proceedings.

This Wine-Dark Feeling That Isn’t The Blues” by José Pablo Iriarte (Escape Pod #666, February 7, 2019) Short Story

Abigail can’t accept losing her lover Savannah, but she has suspicions about the true nature of existence that, if true, could help her chart a new course. A moving story with a brilliant twist, stunning in its economy of plot and language (it is only 1600 words long). The less said, the better: just read (or listen to) it. A content warning accompanies the story; be aware that it deals with suicide.

 

Also Recommended

Interzone 279
Cover Art by Richard Wagner

Counting Days” by Patricia Lundy (Daily Science Fiction, February 1, 2019) Short Story

Another brief and powerful story about a touchy subject; DSF won’t let you see the text without first reading the content warning – kudos.

“The Backstitched Heart of Katherine Wright” by Alison Wilgus (Interzone #279, January/February 2019) Novelette

Katherine, the sister of the famous Wright brothers, Orville and Wilber, can thread herself backward in time – an ability that comes in handy when one of the boys keeps getting himself killed. The bittersweet ending packs an extra punch if you know how things turned out in real life.

Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” by J.Y. Yang (Tor.com, 1/23/2019) Novelette

It’s not everyday you get to describe a story about a young woman pursued by a serial killer as “easygoing”, but that’s what you get here, and somehow it works.

Reviewed in the February 16, 2019 edition of The Rack.

The Rack – Zine Reviews for the Week of February 16, 2019

Featured image by Ashley Mackenzie from “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” by J.Y. Yang

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #270, January 31, 2019

BCS 270
Cover Art: “Dreams of Atlantis” by Flavio Bolla

The narrator of Natalia Theodoridou’s short vignette “To Stab with a Rose” reveals an odd custom from her homeland, involving dancers on a frozen lake in spring choosing lovers by offering them a rose or a knife. The rose means you get no play, and the knife means you get cut and the lovemaking lasts for as long as the wound stays open. Unceasing war has since forced her to flee her homeland, and she now works as a servant in a foreign land. She pines after a fellow servant girl, who’s not in to her like that, while frequently being summoned to the bedchamber of her mistress, who is. As an internal monologue about her pain over the loss of her homeland and customs there are some nice passages here. Trying to keep a sense of one’s own culture in a place that doesn’t understand or accept it is a double-edged sword – the very thing that keeps you grounded in your identity can also distance you from others and leave you vulnerable to exploitation. The conflation of love with open wounds is an interesting, if grisly, metaphor.
When we meet the healer Eefa at the beginning of Alix E. Harrow’s “Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, she is fleeing the city of Xot and the Emperor’s endless war machine. Eefa’s pregnant wife Talaan, a famed warrior and the Emperor’s Lion of Xot, tracks her down and convinces her to return, promising her that their new daughter will be a healer like her, not a soldier. Eefa relents and returns with her, but soon learns that the Emperor’s will trumps even that of the great Lion of Xot. Harrow builds an interesting culture in this story, one where women are bred to be soldiers and pregnancy isn’t an excuse to keep one from the battlefield. I liked that titles such as “husband” and “emperor” were not gendered when describing a person’s role in society. The choices that Eefa and Talaan make at the end are touching, and the final image is stark and memorable.

Tor.com 1/23/2019 & 1/30/2019

HIs Footsteps
Cover Art by Kashmira Sarode

I love the groundwork Mimi Mondal lays for her story “His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light”. Binu is a trapeze artist for the Majestic Oriental Circus in India, who also plays the character of Alladin for a real-life jinni’s illusion show. The jinni, Shehzad Marid, trusts only Binu with the care of his lamp. This makes Binu his de facto master, though Binu doesn’t see it that way. While performing at the wedding for the raja’s daughter in Thripuram, a devadasi (holy courtesan), convinces Binu to let her run away with the circus, which has deadly consequences for all of them. There’s so much to savor in story—the warm friendship between Binu and Shehzad, the unconventional daily life of the circus troupe—that the letdown of the story’s ending sank lower than it should have. The climax makes up its own rules, and the resolution comes too easily.
Lynette grew up in the circus. After spurning the advances of the escape artist, he chains her up and throws her in the water tank to drown. She is rescued by a boy in a mirror who becomes her boyfriend/companion, even though he is only present as her reflection. He disappears when she is sixteen, only to reappear years later when someone is hunting down anyone with a connection to him. The title of J.Y. Yang’s new story “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” is a bit on the nose, don’t you think? I appreciated that all three title characters had a POV section of the story, though in some ways I would have preferred it stay with Lynette, who is the hero and whose section has the longest word count. Magic is an accepted part of daily life so there’s a weird casualness to everything that goes on in the story, even when it seems like the characters should act with a little more urgency. The writing has an unforced charm, like most of Yang’s work; I suppose not every story has to ratchet up the tension to 11, even when the protagonist is being hunted by a serial killer.

Apex Magazine Issue 117, February 2019

Apex-Magazine-Nook-117
Cover Art by Julia Griffin

The brilliant concept that drives Izzy Wasserstein’s “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart” is that magic users transform into the thing they specialize in. In Danae’s case, it’s spiders, and she has a complicated relationship with her houseplant of a mother. Danae works as a courier for Pliny (books of course), who sends her on a job to clients who turn out to be fly cultists, who want to sacrifice her in a mysterious ritual. What starts as a straightforward chase story evolves into a meditation on cities and the people and myths and social structures that hold them together. Traverse is a mythical city filled with as much corruption, inequality, and structural decay as any real one, suspended over a chasm called the Drop by a massive spider’s web—an astounding visual metaphor, and one that Wasserstein uses to weave together a variety of thematic strands. Danae muses on the perception gap between rich and poor: the weave is tighter in the rich parts of town, where folks don’t have to worry about gaps in the walkway, while Danae prefers “to get clear of those claustrophobic streets” where she can “dash across open spaces” and “feel the web… beneath her bare feet.” An outstanding tale in a vivid and inventive setting.
Amadis escapes from their abusive Fey lover Kinnear, who doesn’t give up so easy in Hayley Stone’s suspenseful “Cold Iron Comfort”. The story does a good job of depicting the trauma abuse survivors suffer, and the climax contrives a clever solution to Amadis’ plight. I liked the way the author expressed Amadis’ gradual understanding of their gender fluidity.

Recommended Stories (***Must Read; **Highly Regarded; *Also Recommended)

*** “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart”, by Izzy Wasserstein

* “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy”, by J.Y. Yang

The Best Short SFF – January 2019

Featured Image from this month’s Fireside Magazine: Illustration by Galen Dara for Mary Soon Lee’s “Lord Serpent”

Must Read

bcs 268
Cover Art: “Galbourne Ridge” by Tyler Edlin

The Beast Weeps with One Eye” by Morgan Al-Moor (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #268, January 3, 2019) Short Story

The Bjebu have been chased from their homeland by a murderous horde of ravens; in desperation, High Sister Nwere strikes a deal with Babawa-Kunguru, the Keeper of Sorrows, for the safety of a new homeland. She soon learns that the cost may be too much for them to bear. Riveting action and suspense from the first sentence to the last, with a brilliant and complex protagonist and breathtaking worldbuilding.

 

Highly Regarded

Hand Me Downs” by Maria Haskins (GigaNotoSaurus, January 2019) Short Story

The story of a teenage troll (the “real” kind, not the internet kind) named Tilda who wants to go to a famous dance academy while battling stereotypes about her identity. A heartfelt story about self-love and family ties, with nice touches of macabre humor.

The Great Train Robbery” by Lavie Tidhar (Apex Magazine Issue 116, January 2019) Novelette

In a dream-like fantasy world called the Escapement, the Stranger realizes that agents of the Colossi plan to rob the train he is on to acquire a dangerous new weapon. But is it too late to stop them? A carnivalesque reverie told in classic cliffhanger style.

 

Also Recommended

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Cover Art: “Pearls and Stardust” by Julie Dillon

Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Fear” by Senaa Ahmad (Uncanny Magazine Issue 26, January/February 2019) Short Story

11-year-old Amina has a mad scientist for an older sister who insists on using her as a guinea pig to test her “mechanical marvel”. A sweet-natured tale of sibling rivalry and bonding.

“The Savannah Problem” by Adam-Troy Castro (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, January/February 2019) Novella

Draiken abducts a hired killer and attempts to get him on board for his plan to fight the conspiracy while they is pursued by a mysterious ship with lethal intent. The latest in a cycle that began with “Sleeping Dogs“.

On the Origin of Specie” by Vajra Chandrasekera (Nightmare Magazine Issue 76, January 2019) Short Story

A tax protester is thrown into a hellish, lightless tower that slowly funnels its prisoners toward the bottom.

“The Willows” by Delilah S. Dawson (Uncanny Magazine Issue 26, January/February 2019) Novelette [will add link when available on 2/5]

An unsettling variation on Algernon Blackwood’s classic horror story, which finds a young music star and her partner haunted by the sinister history and character of the family retreat where they’re recording their new album.

the-dark-issue-44-1-220x340
Cover Art: “Playing Cello in the Sea Against the Night Sky with the Red Moon” by grandfailure

Beyond Comprehension” by Russell Nichols (Fireside Magazine Issue 63, January 2019) Short Story

Brian is a father with dyslexia who feels left behind when his young son Andre receives an implant that downloads books directly into his brain. Very moving.

Burrowing Machines” by Sara Saab (The Dark Issue 44, January 2019) Short Story

A chilling monster story about a London tunneling project that unleashes something terrible.

Venus in Bloom” by Lavie Tidhar (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 148, January 2019) Short Story

A bittersweet vignette about life on a colonized Venus, as loved ones remember a recently deceased florist who wanted the planet to remain a “wild untamed” place free from the ravages of terraforming.

 

 

The Rack – Zine Reviews for the Week of January 12, 2019

Apex Magazine Issue 116, January 2019

Residents of a generation ship maintain continuity by passing memories of the deceased to the ship’s youths in Beth Dawkins’ “The Pulse of Memory”. Every adolescent’s rite-of-passage involves eating a fish that houses memories of the deceased; the catch is that everyone must “willingly” submit to death at age 65 and be fed to the fish, before their memories degrade. Cal watches his beloved grandmother go to her death just before he gets his own fish. He savors the experience so much that he later steals a second fish he hopes will contain his grandmother’s memories. Setting the table for this weird and wonderful premise makes for a solid first half; later it devolves into a muddled conspiracy thriller that squanders its potential.
In a dream-like fantasy world called the Escapement, the Stranger realizes that agents of the Colossi plan to rob the train he is on to acquire a dangerous new weapon. But is it too late for him and the Kid to stop them? “The Great Train Robbery” is pure escapism from Lavie Tidhar, one that refers to the ordinary world as a somber contrast to the wondrous happenings of his imaginary one. Not even a dose of bittersweet reflexivity can compete with the vanishing snake oil salesmen, shape-shifting criminal masterminds and monstrous stone giants of this carnivalesque reverie told in classic cliffhanger style.
Images of butterflies appear in unusual places throughout a Romanian neighborhood in Marian Coman’s “The Small White”. The story’s young narrator (referred to only as Four-Eyes) befriends a girl who may be connected to the appearances. This is not a pleasant story to read: the children are nasty to each other, the adults are nasty to the children, and the government is nasty to everyone. The general air of nastiness is undercut by the beauty and hopefulness of the butterfly images before that too is quashed.
A.J. McCullough’s flash piece “Bone Song” is macabre, yet melodic prose poem about a miller who fashions a musical instrument from the bones of a dead woman he finds washed up on the banks of the river.

Strange Horizons January 7, 2019

Three generations of a Vietnamese-American family deal with the consequences of an untested new technology in T.K. Lê’s “2086”. The narrator recalls that at age 8 their neighborhood was the first to receive a teleportation device. Several early users of the device vanished, including the narrator’s Bà Ngoại (grandmother). The family has trouble accepting that Bà Ngoại is gone, and the narrator believes Bà Ngoại’s presence is still with them in some form. The narrator’s recollection of their childhood perspective of the events is convincing and relatable. I was moved by their mother’s reaction to the loss of her own mother, and how the technology created a frustrating uncertainty (is she dead? Just missing? Still here somehow?) about Bà Ngoại’s fate.

GigaNotoSaurus January 1, 2019

Maria Haskins offers lighter-than-usual fare in “Hand Me Downs”, the story of a teenage troll named Tilda who wants to go to a famous dance academy while battling stereotypes about her identity. Her high school dance instructor wants her to wear a troll costume on stage—because being an actual troll isn’t “trollish” enough—and dance to music offensive to her culture. Her father, who already prefers she studies something more practical, doesn’t want her subjected to such humiliations and demands she give up dance altogether. There are nice touches of macabre humor mixed in with Haskins’ heartfelt intentions; overall, it’s an affecting story of self-determination.

 

Recommended Stories (***Must Read; **Highly Regarded; *Also Recommended)

** “Hand Me Downs” by Maria Haskins

** “The Great Train Robbery” by Lavie Tidhar

2018 Recommended Reading List (Part 2)

Featured Image from the Cover Art for “Yiwu” by Feifei Ruan

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)

Earthbound Science Fiction

Desert Island Pick

Nine Last Days on Planet Earth” by Daryl Gregory [Tor.com, September 19, 2018; 11,913 words]

nine last days on planet earth
Cover Art by Keith Negley

In 1975 a meteor shower seeds the planet with strange alien life forms. This story looks in on nine different days throughout the long life of LT, who seeks to understand them and help the world adjust to this new reality.

This was the popular theory: that aliens had targeted Earth and sent their food stocks ahead of them so there’d be something to eat when they arrived. LT had spent long, hot days in the apartment listening to the boyfriend while Mom was at work, or else following him around the city on vague errands. He didn’t have a regular job. He said he was an artist—with a capital A, kid—but didn’t seem to spend any time painting or anything. He could talk at length about the known invasive species, and why there were so many different ones: the weblike filaments choking the trees in New Orleans, the flame-colored poppies erupting on Mexico City rooftops, the green fins popping up in Florida beach sand like sharks coming ashore.

The Best of the Rest

“Down Where Sound Comes Blunt” by G.V. Anderson [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, March/April 2018; 4557 words] 

Ellen is doing a field study of a newly discovered, intelligent sea creature. She is also searching for her father, who disappeared in the midst of his own study. Ellen hopes to get one of the creatures, a female, to trust her enough to show her where she keeps her eggs.

Ellen wonders if their mutual subjects entranced him as much as they do her, whether he ventured out against his better judgment for another blissful hour in their midst.
The ice below her creaks, creaks, creaks – footsteps on an old staircase. She shivers, burying herself into her oversized thermal jacket. She replaces her headphones and listens to the colony’s chatter from below. The twist of a dial slows it down, makes it indecipherable. Makes language out of noise.
She closes her eyes, leans against her rucksack, and clicks her tongue in near-perfect mimicry.

Meat and Salt and Sparks” by Rich Larson [Tor.com, June 6, 2018; 7373 words]

Cu is an uplifted chimp, the only of her kind, who works as a police detective. Her current case has her investigating a murder that appears to have been committed by remote control.

“Yeah,” Huxley says, letting the bag fall to his lap to sign back. “No receiving or transmitting from interrogation. As soon as she lost contact with that little graft, she panicked. The police ECM should have shut it down as soon as she was in custody. Guess it slipped past somehow.”
Acting under instructions, Cu suggests.
Huxley see-saws his open hands. “Could be. She’s got no obvious connection to the victim. We’ll need to have a look at the thing.”
Cu scrolls through the perpetrator’s file. Twenty years’ worth of information strained from social media feeds and the odd government application has been condensed to a brief. Elody Polle, born in Toronto, raised in Seattle, rode a scholarship to Princeton to study ethnomusicology before dropping out in ’42, estranged from most friends and family for over a year despite having moved back to a one-room flat in North Seattle. No priors. No history of violence. No record of antisocial behavior.
Cu checks the live feed from the interrogation room. Heart-rate down, she signs, tucking the tablet under her armpit. Time to talk.

What is Eve?” by Will McIntosh [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 95, April 2018; 10,145 words]

lightpeed 95
Cover Art by Elizabeth Leggett

Ben is shipped off to a new school with the other “good kids”, the ones who follow instructions and always behave and turn in their homework and get good grades. They are told they have a special new classmate, and that it’s important to act normal around her. It’s not easy to act normal around Eve.

It was taking up two seats pushed together. It was black, and lumpy with all of these folds, and, oh God, were those her eyes or her ears? She had four legs and no feet and she was wearing a purple dress and weird round patent leather shoes and a bow in her hair, only it wasn’t hair, it was more like black spaghetti, and I couldn’t breathe.
The thing in the seats flexed, and suddenly it wasn’t lumpy anymore—it was hard, and sharp, with pointy barbs sticking out of it. It hissed like a giant punctured tire.
“Direction,” the man’s voice said through my earpiece. “Do not stare. Put a damned smile on your face and find your seat and look at the board.”

Theories of Flight” by Linda Nagata [Asimov’s Science Fiction, November/December 2018; 7247 words]

Yaphet is a “player” living in a simulated reality ruled by an AI called Goddess. He dreams of flying, though their laws forbid it.

A burnt leaf, edged in incandescence, rose up into the fog, higher and higher, halfway to the treetops before the glow of heat left it.
Never before had Yaphet seen a leaf fall up. He stood entranced, watching the flight of the embers, until his father called him again.
When he was seven – almost eight – after much experimentation and failure and reassessment (though he was too young to know such words or describe what he was doing) Yaphet launched his first successful fire balloon.

“Love Songs for the Very Awful” by Robert Reed [Asimov’s Science Fiction, March/April 2018; 5785 words]

Bodden volunteers for a radical new brain experiment. The researcher, Heidi, can’t help but fall for his charms, even though she knows he’s a creep: she has the data to prove it.

Bodden’s name would float over the table, and people would look at me, signaling their curiosity if not out-and-out concerns. The man was gorgeous, sure. Maybe that was reason enough. And he was certainly young and possibly vigorous. Was I the sort of lady that liked lustful distractions? Bodden also had a talent for funny words and warm, caring noise. When empathy was necessary. But he was one of three sociopaths in our study. Every week, without fail, he came into the shop, undergoing another comprehensive scan for money. And every week, he proved himself to be a self-absorbed boy. No smart professional woman could have feelings for a creep like that. That’s what the glances were saying, and the silences, and those thoughtful sips of coffee while the tea drinker offered little details from last night’s date.
Bodden and I were together for ten weeks. Then it was finished, and I was shocked to discover how sad that made me feel.

Sour Milk Girls” by Erin Roberts [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 136, January 2018; 6447 words]

clarkes 136
Cover Art: “Vukileyo!” by Artur Sadlos

Teenager Ghost is an orphan under the care of The Agency, who hold onto the troubling memories of their wards’ prior lives and return them when they come of age. Ghost learns that the new girl, Princess, still has all her old memories and Ghost resents her for it.

“You really fucking don’t,” I said. “Me, Flash, Whispers . . . we don’t have something real to share. All those cute, sweet memories of being a kid? Snatched off us when we got to the Agency and locked away where we can’t get ’em. All we know is school and the third floor and a few fosters who couldn’t be bothered to keep us. That’s it. That’s all we fucking got.”
Princess stared at me for a second, eyes wide, then walked out, saying I didn’t know and Sorry under her breath like she was doing a Whispers impression. I stayed for a while, playing back the couple of half-decent memories I did have, like the day I figured out how to get the computers in the back to do what I wanted, like a real hacker, or the times the Agency let us go down to the first floor and play with the babies, and then the ones that made my neck shiver, like all the times fosters sent me back ’cause I didn’t fit into any of the smiling family photos—too old, too dark, too “hard to handle.”

The Emotionless, In Love” by Jason Sanford [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #246, March 1, 2018; 28,352 words]

Colton escaped the influence of the nanobots called “grains”, and in doing so he sacrificed his emotions. Now he is helping a caravan escape them as well.

“Quiet,” Mita said, glancing around as if she could see the microscopic grains within the land. “Talking of this will jinx our travels.”
“Our caravan didn’t use the laser,” Colton protested. “The grains know the difference.”
“Drop it!” Mita snapped. She then sighed and shook her head. “Sorry. But you know everyone else will shit if they hear you talking boneheaded stuff like this.”
Anyone else in the caravan would have been insulted by Mita’s words, but Colton knew she was right. He didn’t understand how day-fellows saw the world. To him there were no jinxes. There were merely the grains, the microscopic machines which protected all the lands and existed in every animal and plant and insect and anchor. If the grains judged you wrong—decided you’d harmed the environments they protected—you were dead, jinx or no jinx.
Still, he’d been with these day-fellows the last eight years and had learned not to debate their beliefs. He also appreciated that Mita always used polite words such as ‘different’ to refer to him, instead of the terms the other day-fellows whispered behind his back.
Words like disturbed; sick; psychopath.

Yiwu” by Lavie Tidhar [Tor.com, May 23, 2018; 5305 words]

Esham works in the market selling lottery tickets that instantly grant the winners their heart’s desire. One day, when one of his regulars, Ms. Qiu, buys a ticket, something unusual happens and he can’t understand why.

It was just an ordinary day, the way Esham liked it. Order and routine, a knowing of what was expected. At the usual time, Ms Qiu emerged from the market doors. She crossed the road. She came to the stand and smiled at him and said, “Hello,” and asked for a ticket.
He sold her one. She scratched the silver foil with a 10-baht coin.
She looked at the card, almost puzzled, then shrugged and left it on the counter.
“No luck?” Esham said.
She pushed the ticket towards him. He glanced down, barely registering the impossible at first: the three identical symbols of a beckoning gold cat that meant it was a winning ticket.
He glanced up at Ms Qiu.
Nothing happened.
“Thank you,” Ms Qiu said.
She gave him a last, almost bemused smile, then turned and walked away.
Still nothing happened.
He stared at the good luck cats.
Nothing.
Ms Qiu crossed the road and walked away the way she always did, until she turned a corner and was out of sight.

First World Fantasy

Desert Island Pick

Field Biology of the Wee Fairies” by Naomi Kritzer [Apex Magazine Issue 112, September 2018; 4871 words]

apex-magazine-112
Cover Art by Joel Chaim Holtzman

At age fourteen, Amelia is supposed to find and catch her fairy soon. Every girl does: it’s a rite of passage. But Amelia just wants to use science to figure out what the deal is with all these stupid fairies.

When her mice weren’t running the mazes, she kept them in gallon pickle jars with holes punched in the lids, with newspaper to shred and ladders for stimulation. There were four pickle jars waiting for new occupants, clean and lined up under her window. She grabbed one, unscrewed the lid, and took it back downstairs.
Outside, the sun was low in the sky. She crunched her way across the snowy yard, back to the car, looking nonchalant. She didn’t see the fairy right away. She opened the car door, sat down in the passenger seat, and waited.
The fairy bobbed in front of her, maybe ten feet away. She looked at it, then looked away.
It came closer.
Closer still.
She could see the delicate folds in the fairy’s dress, the shining strands of its hair, the tilt of its head, when she sprang. She didn’t want to touch it—she wasn’t entirely convinced that touching the fairy wasn’t what actually made the magic happen—but she swooped up with the jar and brought the lid down, trapping the fairy inside. Then she screwed the lid down, took it upstairs to her room, and set it on a shelf next to her mice.

The Best of the Rest

The Ghoul Goes West” by Dale Bailey [Tor.com, January 17, 2018; 13,285 words]

Ben learns that his estranged brother Denny, a failed screenwriter, died of a heroin overdose. He travels to Hollywood to deal with Denny’s affairs and finds some things in his brother’s apartment that shouldn’t exist, not in this world anyway: a stack of videotapes of movies that were never made.

Retrieving The Ghoul Goes West, I glanced at the sticker on the case: Dimension Video. Then I turned on the television and slotted the tape into the VCR. The film opened with a black-and-white shot of the Amazing Criswell seated behind a desk, delivering a bizarre monologue about “the mysteries of the past which even today grip the throat of the present to throttle it.” The speech was portentous and theatrical, overcooked, the framing static. Then the image faded, to be replaced by a flat desert landscape with a saguaro cactus, obviously fake, on the right side of the frame. The credits came up on the left, each new name preceded by the sound of a pistol shot. Autry had first billing, Lugosi second, both of them above the title. The rest of the cast followed, among them Vampira and Paul Marco and Tor Johnson, Wood’s usual suspects. My only thought as the attribution credit came up—
Written Ÿ Directed Ÿ Produced
by
Edward D. Wood, Jr.
—was that I was looking at some kind of bizarre forgery. Then Lugosi, in full Dracula garb, appeared on screen, rising from a casket in a dim crypt that looked like a suburban garage. It was unmistakably him. By that point in my thesis research, I’d seen virtually every movie Lugosi had made three or four times. I knew the shape of his face almost as well as I knew my own.

The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington” by Phenderson Djèlí Clark [Fireside Magazine Issue 52, February 2018; 3649 words]

From a one line entry in a 1784 Mount Vernon account book (“By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire”), historian Clark spins nine fantastical stories of the men and women those teeth originally belonged to.

The second Negro tooth belonging to George Washington came from a slave from the Kingdom of Ibani, what the English with their inarticulate tongues call Bonny Land, and (much to his annoyance) hence him, a Bonny man. The Bonny man journeyed from Africa on a ship called the Jesus, which, as he understood, was named for an ancient sorcerer who defied death. Unlike the other slaves bound on that ship who came from the hinterlands beyond his kingdom, he knew the fate that awaited him–though he would never know what law or sacred edict he had broken that sent him to this fate. He found himself in that fetid hull chained beside a merman, with scales that sparkled like green jewels and eyes as round as black coins. The Bonny man had seen mermen before out among the waves, and stories said some of them swam into rivers to find wives among local fisher women. But he hadn’t known the whites made slaves of them too.

Flow” by Marissa Lingen [Fireside Magazine Issue 53, March 2018; 2956 words]

fireside 53
Cover Art by Galen Dara

The magical forest-dwelling naiads know Gigi is one of theirs by her “flow”, the way she carries herself, which marks her as her father’s daughter. Things change when a sinus infection permanently damages her equilibrium.

I return to the first stream I ever met. I walk so slowly through the forest, the tip of my cane making unfamiliar sounds against the rocks and the leaf mold of the path. I am exhausted from balancing on such a long walk. There are two naiads sitting by the stream, one of them visiting from a local lake I also know. I greet them eagerly, finding the right place to put my cane to step forward to the banks of the stream.
The stream naiad shrieks. The lake naiad steps in front of her protectively.
“What’s wrong with you?” I ask them.
They don’t answer. They are staring at me with wide, terrified eyes. I haven’t been there in a year, a full turn of the sun and then a little bit. But I didn’t think they would forget so quickly. They didn’t when I was away to college, when I was hanging out with other naiads somewhere else for awhile.
“Guys, come on, what’s your problem?”
The stream naiad quavers, “Who are you?”
The naiads don’t recognize me.

“Conspicuous Plumage” by Sam J. Miller [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 100, September 2018; 4704 words]

Bette is devastated by the murder of her beloved brother, Cary. She longs to experience his last moments, and she believes her schoolmate Hiram can help her with that.

“Hey,” I said to Hiram Raff, who was right where I thought he’d be, polishing shoes in a corner where hardly anyone ever looked. Off the high school baseball field, Hiram was all awkward stammers and intentionally poor posture, ashamed and afraid of the adulation he had unwillingly earned.
“Hey,” he said, a little nervously, like What does this person want from me?
“How you doing?” I asked, fingers rubbing at an invisible spot on the counter.
“I’m all right,” he said, and his ruddy, lovely face said he most certainly was not. I felt awful, like I was frightening a small animal for selfish reasons, but I could not stop now.
“I heard you can make people see things,” I said.
Lines appeared between his eyes, and at the edges of his mouth. Poor boy looked close to bursting—into tears, maybe, or, simply bursting. I was a monster, I knew, but I had to say what I’d come here to say. I owed it to my brother.
“Can you help me? Can you come on a road trip with me?”
I had two pieces of information about Hiram Raff, both of them ill-gotten, gossip-derived. Common knowledge. Things he was deeply, irrationally ashamed of, for reasons that were his own. The first was what I’d already said: that under certain circumstances he could cause visions—of the past, of the future, of fictional scenarios that had never been and would never be, and whether he or anyone else could tell the difference was subject to much conjecture. The second was that he was had a congenital, terminal case of politeness. Hiram was a boy who could never tell anyone No.

(Unlike most Lightspeed stories, Conspicuous Plumage is not currently available to read online, but only in a purchased copy of the issue.)

Asphalt, River, Mother, Child” by Isabel Yap [Strange Horizons, October 8, 2018; 7016 words]

The Filipino deity Mebuyen helps guide innocent souls to the afterlife. Usually she only gets infants, but now older children and adults who have been murdered by the police are coming her way. And her river isn’t washing them clean like it’s supposed to, so she can’t even send them on their way.

I think they took me to a side street. It smelled like pee. There was garbage on the floor. I prayed to the Lord that I trusted He would not put me in hell even if I am transgender. I don’t pray very often but I was scared. I kept thinking don’t let it be painful, I don’t want to die suffering. They asked me two questions and I answered, then the one that shouted at Jel came forward, and the one that dragged me told him to shoot. And he shot.
Babygirl sighs. “I’m glad I’m not in hell,” she says. “At least—I don’t think this is hell?”
“It’s not,” Mebuyen says.
“But what is this place? Does this mean I don’t have peace?”
Mebuyen hands her a glass of milk. “This is Gimokudan—my domain. You’re safe here. But as for your second question, I would like to know the answer too.”

Parts 1 and 3 have the rest of my faves for 2018.

You can also check out my monthly Best Of columns for more great recommendations!

The Rack – Zine Reviews for Late September

Apex Magazine Issue 112, September 2018

It’s easy to recognize Naomi Kritzer’s cagey humor in the title for her latest short story, “Field Biology of the Wee Fairies”. The saying goes that every girl will become pretty after they “catch their fairy”. But Amelia doesn’t care about being pretty, she wants to win first prize at the science fair, hoping stodgy old Mr. Crawford will let her join the boys-only science club. When Amelia’s fairy arrives, she tries to ignore it so it will go away. It won’t, so she traps it in one of her specimen jars and applies the scientific method to figure out what the hell is going on with these silly fairies, anyway. The real magic of a Kritzer story is the graceful tone and sly humor she effortlessly deploys in her perfectly plotted tales; this one is no exception. Just try to wipe that smile off your face before the story ends. I dare you.
A fun, frantic inner monologue chock full of Hawaiian slang makes up the misadventure tale “Coyote Now Wears a Suit”, by Ani Fox. Kupu springs the Sioux trickster god Coyote out of lockup because his auntie insists Coyote is family. Apparently, Kupu is the only one who can see that he’s a giant dog wearing a suit. Things spiral out of control from there, but Coyote isn’t a malicious god and everything that goes wrong also has a silver lining. It’s a nice, light, upbeat story, though maybe a little overboard with the gonzo attitude.
The heroine sisters of Stina Leicht’s “A Siren’s Cry is a Song of Sorrow” don’t want to escape from their lives due to suffering any extraordinary abuse; they’re weary of the ordinary abuse one suffers just for being born a girl. Enticed by mermaid lore, the girls seek magic that can transform them into the mythical creatures. The author’s points carry weight, and the girls are admirably rebellious in their refusal to internalize the world’s misogyny and conform to its stifling definitions.

Clarkesworld 144Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 144, September 2018

The entirety of Robert Bresson’s 1956 film “A Man Escaped” follows a convict on the run from police after breaking out of prison. The film does not explain his supposed crime or his presumed guilt or innocence; Bresson posited that, absent these details, the audience’s sympathies would be with the escapee, because everyone can identify with the desire to be free. In Kelly Robson’s new story “A Study in Oils”, Luna-born hockey player Zhang Lei is hiding out on Earth, with a noose attached to his carotid and a button that reads “KILLER: FAIR GAME.” The moon wants him back, and while he waits to find out if the authorities accept his asylum application, gangs of Lunar “brawlers” are out trying to hunt him down. Robson offers little information about his crime in the first half of the story, only that he feels bad about the death he caused. It’s easy to sympathize with someone who is being persecuted, and one has reason to suspect early on that the lunar authority’s idea of justice isn’t exactly fair. Robson is a master at unveiling her world-building in precise, subtle strokes: she lets the reader ask the “what is happening?” questions and slips the answers into unexpected places. Zhang Lei’s back-story unfolds in measured doses, and most of the suspense in “A Study in Oils” builds on the reader’s desire to see our sympathy for him justified. Robson is a writer who gains the reader’s trust and rewards it generously.
Chenghui hacks her way into an apprenticeship with Meixiu, the social media superstar Chenghui’s dying sister is most enamored with, in D.A. Xiaolin Spires “Waves of Influence”. Chenghui’s plan is to impersonate Meixiu and send personalized messages to her sister to keep her spirits up, but soon she becomes as shallow and self-absorbed as her mentor and loses sight of her original goals. Spires depiction of near-future social media saturation feels believable and inevitable. It’s not so much a cautionary tale as a “what choice do we have?” tale.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, September/October 2018

Cassandra Khaw and Jonathan L. Howard offer a reversal of the “white savior” trope featured in most West meets East stories; in “Shooting Iron”, a Malaysian woman become a wild west gunslinger to liberate an American ghost town whose residents are frozen in time by a 100-plus-year-old curse. As a child, rich girl Jenny Lim crash lands in Angel Gulch, where the residents haven’t aged a day since the 19th century, thanks to a curse authored by Boss Lonely, a demonic cattle rancher who made the town disappear from the map to win a contract with the railroad company. The story toggles back and forth between Jenny’s origin story and the present, where adult Jenny travels to the UK to dispatch some of Boss Lonely’s goons. “Shooting Iron” is pure, action-packed fun; the authors have a grand ol’ time mashing together b-movie western and horror stylings. I wish the “present day” story had been more consequential: it does nothing to resolve the conflicts or answer the questions raised in the “origin” plotline. My guess is Howard and Khaw were going for a pilot episode feel and perhaps are planning a sequence of stories in this setting.
Brian Trent’s “The Memorybox Vultures” has a knockout premise: Epitaph Incorporated preserves online identities for deceased clients, allowing them to continue to post comments and send notices after preparing a “memorybox”. Virtual representations of the deceased, called “quasints”, serve as proxies for the deceased to interact with their living handlers. Donna Lane is a handler who finds herself in deep trouble when one of her clients “deadposts” evidence that the governor of Connecticut has a history of committing sadistic and violent acts. Trent’s story hums along nicely for a while – interesting protagonist, suspenseful storytelling – then lets the air out with an ending that only avoids deus ex machination thanks to a flimsy call back to a thing that was barely mentioned early in the story. It plays like the author was writing himself out of a corner and sunk what otherwise could have been a terrific story.
“Emissaries from the Skirts of Heaven” is the latest, and possibly best, story set on and around the Frontier planet Zephyr. It also traverses an epic scale of time and distance to tell the intimate story of Grace, a devotee of humanity’s dominant theocracy (called Pathway) who seeks to reconcile the moral and ethical inconsistencies in her church’s doctrine. The story jumps to different points in Grace’s life: from her origins as an orphan from a broken home, to her time in the exclusive seminary-like “Diversity”, through her military service fighting against a growing heresy, concluding with her time as a counselor and medic on Zephyr. As a child, Grace hides in the closet while her parents are having a violent argument. She plays an educational game on her tablet, and after correctly answering a series of questions the program rewards her with cheerful music and a quick animation: “The girl, who looked like Grace, shrugged off her breather pack. Her arms became wings and she leapt into space. Angels materialized like fractal snowflakes and escorted her into the starry sky. Watching herself fly, Grace moaned with joy.” Adult Grace, wiser and tempered by experience, again hides away from violent conflict on a remote island on a distant planet, searching for the right answers. Grace’s personal journey drew me in, but I felt the story offered an incomplete picture of the war she hoped to avert. Were there factors beyond the theological that led some Pathway worlds to embrace the heresy? If so, will a theological fix be sufficient? Will it be enough to make up for the millions (billions?) of lives lost?
Geoff Ryman gives a gentle poke in the ribs to “woke” white South Africans in “Blessed”. Ryman’s second-person protagonist has her white guilt cred listed for the reader (you benefitted from apartheid, but “your older sister went to jail” fighting the good fight, etc.) as she tours the inside of Olumo Rock in Abeokuta, Nigeria. She loses her way, and a series of mildly fantastical events leads her to an unexpected conclusion. The story is amusing and full of puckish audio/visual cues (the snake that sounds like a crying baby is a goosefleshy one), and the point – that whites will never connect to the land the way native Africans can – is salient, if also an easy-to-hit target. It’s unclear what the final twist means to accomplish.

lightspeed 100Lightspeed Magazine Issue 100, September 2018

This special mega-sized anniversary issue features a few originals worth discussing.

Carrie Vaughn’s “Harry and Marlowe and the Secret of Ahomana” is a steampunk flavored sci-fantasy adventure in which an airship carrying a British princess and her military escort (the Harry and Marlowe of the title) crash lands on the previously uncharted South Pacific Island of Ahomana. The two passengers survive and their injuries are healed by the Polynesian natives, who possess technology far beyond what the Brits are capable of. The two castaways want to return home, but Ahomana has survived for generations by remaining hidden, and the island’s leaders won’t let them leave. I loved the backstory: aliens called Aetherians visited the Earth long ago and left behind artifacts that humans used to develop advanced technology. The central conflict of the story focuses on the contrast between the European powers who wield Aetherian tech to build weapons of war and the Polynesians on Ahomana, whose application is more constructive. Vaughn offers a modern twist on a familiar colonial adventure narrative, and I enjoyed that all the players have good intentions while their goals cross purpose. I have some nagging questions about the story’s inciting incident, and some reservations about the ending. Overall, it’s a solid adventure tale with likeable characters.
Most depictions of artificial intelligence in fiction focus on the aftermath of machine self-awareness; only on rare occasions is the evolutionary process the focus of attention. In Ken Liu’s “The Explainer”, an engineer responds to a service call for a domestic AI that has malfunctioned on multiple occasions (not letting a family member in the house, burning dinner, etc.). Because the model, called Allie, evolves based on its relationship with the household it serves, the engineer can’t simply check its programming, because many of the algorithms that govern its thinking are self-taught. Liu offers some interesting propositions on how AI could one day integrate into our daily lives, and displays his usual flair for lucid, well-crafted storytelling. The story offers little in the way of conflict or tension and is more like an interesting vignette your co-worker relates to you at the office.
Sam J. Miller’s “Conspicuous Plumage”, set in (or around) the 1950s, finds teenager Bette Rosenblatt devastated by the brutal murder of her beloved older brother, Cary, a college-aged dancer. She wants to understand, even experience, what happened to him in his last moments. Hiram, a classmate of Bette’s, has a reputation for helping others “see” things, and Bette convinces him to go with her to the murder scene. In Miller’s stories, the characters’ seek outward expression for their inner lives, often with fantastical results; Bette describes Cary’s body literally transforming into birds when he danced, a spiritual reality that trumps any objection from those who refuse to witness such grace. The tragedy of the story is that it is not just his art but his sexuality that demands expression as well; the inner life that makes him loved by so many also makes him reviled by others. We suspect what’s coming before Bette sees the truth of his death. That the truth of his life outshines the horror of its end is the story’s great achievement.
A group of young Mennonite girls find a robot behind a barn and name her “Hard Mary” in Sofia Samatar’s gentle, refined sci-fi novelette. Years later the company that made Mary sends a representative to reclaim their property, but the women of the town aren’t willing to give her up. The best thing about “Hard Mary” is its depiction of life in the town of Jericho, especially how its old-fashioned, gender-based division of labor affects the women in the community. The sequence depicting the everyday frustrations and obstacles the narrator, Lyddie, goes through just to do something as mundane as making breakfast is one of the story’s high points. While it is understandable that Mim – the independent, headstrong (and unmarried) member of the group who shows an aptitude for engineering – would want to defend Mary, we never come to understand why the entire community is so invested in protecting her. There is no indication that Mary is intelligent, much less sentient, or has any kind of personality, or has befriended anyone. Mary herself (itself?) gets little time on the stage, despite the long word count in a story named for her. My admiration for Samatar’s prose and her objectives can’t overcome my lack of involvement in the plot’s main conflict. Also, calling the big evil corporation “Profane Industries” is a little on the nose.

Tor.com (9/5/2018)

“Triquetra” is Australian author Kirstyn McDermott’s sequel to Snow White, in which the grown-up princess, trapped in her marriage to her not-so-charming rescuer, lives in a castle with her imprisoned wicked stepmother, and the cursed mirror she keeps locked away in a tower. Disturbed by her husband’s intentions toward their seven-year-old daughter, Snow knows they must escape but her husband has ways of keeping them on the castle grounds. Stepmother offers to help, but given their history Snow has no reason to trust her. Instead, she turns to the devilish mirror with disastrous results. The prince is a menacing figure, though his presence in the story is more abstraction than obstruction. The real villain is the mirror, meaning the greatest obstacle to Snow’s success is herself. “Triquetra” is riveting and often frightening, and feels like a genuine extension of the classic fairy tale, rather than a hip, postmodern deconstruction.

Subterranean Press

Rock, the glum yet over-stimulated protagonist and narrator of Charlie Jane Anders novella “Rock Manning Goes for Broke”, summarizes his life from age 4 through the end of high school in one chapter. Starting with his stunt double father throwing him off a roof to teach his boy the tricks of the trade, Rock grows up with a penchant for playing self-inflicted injuries for laughs. Even bullies have trouble bullying him, because they can’t do anything to him worse than what he’s willing to do for himself. As a teenager, the surreal slapstick comedies he makes with his best friend Sally Hamster make him an internet-streaming sensation. Meanwhile, poking out from the margins of his stream-of-consciousness biography is a portrait of an America slowly sliding into dystopia. A war overseas leads to the re-instatement of the draft while economic turmoil leads to rioting. Worst of all, a group of fascist street thugs called the Red Bandanas rise to prominence, and they want to exploit Rock’s fame to make propaganda films for their cause. Again, this all goes down just in the first chapter.
Anders’s talent for delivering absurdist humor with one hand and a knife to the gut with the other is in overdrive here. The pace and tone are set by the perpetual anxiousness of the story’s hero, and while that’s part of what makes “Rock Manning” so exhilarating, it’s also part of the problem. Anders never lets us come up for air, and the experience of reading it ends up being a lot like spending too much time around a hyperactive, attention-seeking teenager—exhausting, frustrating, leaving you glancing nervously at the clock and trying to conjure an excuse to slip away while he barrels onward, demanding the spotlight. There is plenty to reward readers who stick it through to the end, though, and Anders completists will not want to miss it.

F&amp;SF sepoct2018Must Read

“Field Biology of the Wee Fairies”, Naomi Kritzer (Apex Magazine Issue 112, September 2018) Short Story

“Conspicuous Plumage”, Sam J. Miller (Lightspeed Magazine Issue 100, September 2018) Short Story

Highly Regarded

“Triquetra”, Kirstyn McDermott (Tor.com, 9/5/2018) Novelette

“A Study in Oils”, Kelly Robson (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 144, September 2018) Novelette

Also Recommended

“Shooting Iron”, Cassandra Khaw and Jonathan L. Howard (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2018) Novelette

“Emissaries from the Skirts of Heaven”, Gregor Hartmann (Fantasy & Science Fiction, Sept/Oct 2018) Short Story