The Best Short SFF of February 2020

Featured Image from the cover illustration by Alyssa Winans for “St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid”

Must Read Stories

Prosper's demon
Cover art by Sam Weber

Prosper’s Demon, by K.J. Parker [Tor.com Publishing, January 2020] Novella

The unnamed narrator of K.J. Parker’s delightfully cynical novella is an exorcist in a world where demon possession is  common – though, tragically, the ritual to remove them almost always results in the death of the host. When he learns that the greatest genius of their age, philosopher/scientist/artist Prosper of Schanz, is possessed, he must choose between turning a blind eye to his duty and risking the gallows by causing the beloved man’s death. Parker’s kaleidoscope approach to world-building, where fractured mirror pieces of our own history and culture are combined to create new patterns, is always a joy to dive into. And I can’t get over that sucker-punch of an ending.

St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid“, by C.L. Polk [Tor.com, February 5, 2020] Short Story

The fortune teller’s daughter Theresa is deeply smitten with her schoolmate Lucille. Just as Theresa is about to seize her chance, Lucille is targeted by the abusive, controlling Gerry. The bees (yes, bees!) can help, for a price. This author quickly became one of my favorite fantasists when her novel Witchmark arrived a couple of years ago. “St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid” serves as a great reminder why: the refined prose and emotional intelligence stand out, but most impressive is the way she makes the mythic and the magical feel at once both common and uncanny. A wise, generous take on first love and the meaning of sacrifice.

More Recommended Stories

If you take...
Cover art by Robert Hunt

If You Take My Meaning“, by Charlie Jane Anders [Tor.com, February 11, 2020] Novelette

Anders new novelette is set on the planet January,  following the events of her terrific novel The City in the Middle of the Night, as the seeds of Sophie’s dream of unification are being planted and the accompanying moral dilemmas are explored. There is enough context for unfamiliar readers to catch the drift of what’s going on, but if you haven’t read the novel (and are planning to) you may want to hold off on this for spoilery reasons. Which also means to say, if you weren’t already planning to you should definitely read The City in the Middle of the Night.

Ngozi Ugegbe Nwa“, by Dare Segun Falowo [The Dark, Issue 57, February 2020] Short Story

The title character is an aspiring model who, while stuck in an hours long traffic jam, buys an ornate mirror from a strange old woman. The sinister looking glass shows Ngozi parts of herself she would otherwise want to keep hidden. The sustained tone of eeriness and dread is impressive, as is the genuinely ghoulish imagery.

BCS 296
Cover Art: “Ice Road III” by Rytis Sabaliauskas

The Moneylender’s Angel“, by Robert Minto [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #296, January 30, 2020] Short Story

The narrator and his partner Gareth – the former money collector of the title – find a valuable magical object that could change their fortunes for the better. First they must confront the secrets they’ve been keeping from each other. I really enjoyed the sensory details in the prose and the nice, fluid world-building. A tender and open-hearted queer romance.

The Aetherised Chamber“, by Stewart Moore [Pseudopod #690, February 21, 2020] Short Story

Late 17th-century natural philosopher Mr. Waites – who is NOT the greatest scientist of his age thanks to the incomparable Mr. Newton – is trying to perfect his God-Machine. Waites wishes to glean the secrets of the universe with his invention, using his nearly dead (and perpetually disappointed) father as a conduit to the vast reaches of the unknown. Surely, nothing could go wrong. Old school weird fiction at its best: grisly in all the right places, with an appetizing garnish of grim humor. (Podcast narrated by Alasdair Stuart.)

The Cliff of Hands“, by Joanne Rixon [Diabolical Plots #60B, February 17, 2020] Short Story

This quick but inspiring fantasy adventure follows Eešan’s journey to fulfill an important rite of passage – leaving her mark on the fabled Cliff of Hands – in spite of the disability that makes it nearly impossible for her to do so. An exciting, suspenseful tale with a hero you can root for.

The Best Short SFF of June 2019

 

Recommended Stories

Lightspeed 109
Cover by Grandfailure/Fotolia

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

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

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

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

LCRW 39
Cover Art by Cynthia Yuan Cheng

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

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

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

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

a forest or a tree
Art by Samuel Araya

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

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

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

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