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 – April 2019

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

Must Read

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

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

The-Dark-Issue-47-220x340
Cover Art: “Drawlloween Swamp Thing” by Iren Horrors

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

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

 

Highly Regarded

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

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

FIYAH Issue10_150
Cover Art by Olivia Stephens

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

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

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

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

 

Also Recommended

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

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

Interzone 280
Cover Art by Richard Wagner

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

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

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

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

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

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