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 – 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

uncanny26
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 5, 2019

My first bit of short fic reading for the New Year includes a Must Read debut!

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #268, January 3, 2019

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

When the folded paper icons that sustain her people fail, Dreya realizes she is losing her power and the Company will soon unmake the town. The setting is the strength of Beth Cato’s “The Blighted Godling of Company Town H”, where a factory town on one of many worlds run by the Company sustains itself by the power of its godling. The Company hasn’t reached out to Town H in a long time, and the surrounding towns, along with their people and their godlings, are disappearing. Only Mother has the power to unmake the town, but Dreya and her people may not be strong enough to stand up to her. This is an engaging underdog narrative for a time, though the solution to Dreya’s and the town’s problems comes too easy. Cato builds a fascinating mythological framework to hang the story on.
Toronto-based debut author Morgan Al-Moor continues this issue’s theme of a people faced with extinction in “The Beast Weeps with One Eye”. The author wastes no time getting down to business: when his story opens, the last of the Bjebu have already fled their homeland, pursued by a murderous swarm of ravens determined to finish them. High Sister Nwere is desperate to end her people’s plight and strikes an ill-advised deal with Babawa-Kunguru, the Keeper of Sorrows: Babawa-Kunguru will call off the ravens and give ownership of his land to the Bjebu in exchange for three offerings of sorrow. After collecting the first of his offerings Babawa-Kunguru promises that once he has collected them all, the Bjebu will know the deepest of sorrows. Al-Moor strikes a perfect balance between narrative momentum and expansive world-building, distilling a wide-ranging history and mythology into its essential parts and parsing it out among the various plot points and character moments. It’s a skill even the most experienced authors falter at from time to time, so kudos to a first-time author for pulling it off so well. This is an exciting parable of triumph and loss, with great characters in an inspired setting.

Uncanny Magazine Issue 26, January/February 2019

uncanny 26
Cover Art by Julie Dillon

Delilah S. Dawson’s new novelette “The Willows” gives Algernon Blackwood’s famous 1907 novella of the same name a modern-day makeover. Rather than a journey down the Danube beset by a supernatural menace, in Dawson’s redux The Willows is an old family estate where its inhabitants journey back through its troubled family history. April and O’Leary are music stars who sojourn at O’Leary’s remote family home to record their new album. Steeped in generations of O’Leary ancestors, the property and its surroundings emanate a spectral presence causing physical and psychological transformations in the young couple. The strongest element of Dawson’s narrative is the dissociation – from time, place, self – April both experiences herself and witnesses in her partner. April acts the role of an “O’Leary woman”, a change she is as conscious of as she is absent from: “This place is wriggling under my skin like worms turning soil, like little carrot roots grasping deep. I realize I’m wearing someone else’s old, faded apron over my dress, over the growing bump of my belly. I don’t know where I found it, don’t recall putting it on. But it feels like mine.” And O’Leary soon assumes the character of the O’Leary men, who have specific expectations of how an O’Leary woman behaves. An effective exercise in atmosphere and tone, offset by a sometimes too hurried pace.
Whether she is writing hard SF or fantasy, Marissa Lingen’s stories focus on the ordinariness of things we might find extraordinary. It is fortunate that worlds of ordinary magic are no less enjoyable for readers to escape to. In “The Thing, with Feathers”, Val is a lighthouse keeper in a post-disaster world where not so pleasant things come crawling out of the water. She can also heal with magic, and one day a man with a connection to her past comes looking for help, disrupting her solitude. I always enjoy Lingen’s nimble prose and her pragmatic world view.
Senaa Ahmad offers a sweet-natured tale of sibling bonding titled “Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Fear”. 11-year-old Amina obsesses over Amelia Earhart, her older sister Huda is a mad scientist, and their younger brother Sameer is a pestering third wheel. Huda builds a mysterious “mechanical marvel” in their garage she wants to test on Amina, though she’s not sure how dangerous it might be. There’s a gentleness to this story that distinguishes it, and the prose is graceful and poised. Sibling rivalry magnifies little conflicts while the adult characters and their myriad concerns fade into the background; there is an authenticity of perspective here that stories of childhood often lack.
In Inda Lauryn’s “Dustdaughter”, the nine-year-old title character (“Dust” for short) sneaks into her Grandma’s funeral where her presence causes Big Gram to take a deep breath and open her eyes. Dust thinks she is being punished for what happened at the funeral when her mom sends her away to the home of a woman named Star, but she soon comes to realize Star can help her better understand her unique lineage and special gifts. A hopeful story of self-realization and community support.
Weathermen battle the tempestuous climate by naming and defining different weather disturbances in Fran Wilde’s “A Catalog of Storms”. When her oldest daughter Lillit shows her aptitude, her mother has to send her away to live with the other weathermen. She then tries to hide evidence that her youngest daughter Sila has the same gift as her sister. A very cool premise that literalizes the term “weatherman” and has fun with the concept. I was taken by the fate all weathermen face – to one day become weather themselves, a concept that works its way into the stirring climax. On the downside, the characters were suitable but never got their hooks in me. Not even Sila, who narrates: her voice is often too weary and wizened to be convincing as a child’s.
Civilization has collapsed, and people have broken up into various collectives and tribes in Natalia Theodoridou’s “Poems Written While”. A trans man known as Daddy looks after the kids and recites for them long lost poems about the stars, which are no longer visible in the sky. His favorite of the kids, Luz, likes to bring home strays. Her latest, a woman named Nora, sets Daddy’s heart aflutter. Details of the story’s setting are sparse; there were wars and climate change, etc.; now Daddy’s people appear to live in an abandoned factory. The generic aspect of this post-apocalyptic backdrop doesn’t do the story any favors, though its depiction of the concerns facing trans persons in such a future is noteworthy, and I found the characters’ relationships gratifying. Young children enthralled by the literature of the distant past sans the allure of mass entertainment might be a tad idealistic, but it pecked at my heartstrings, anyway.

Asimov’s Science Fiction, January/February 2019 (Part 1)

asf_janfeb2019_400x570
Cover Art by Michael Whelan

Some of the more interesting shorter works in this issue are covered here; next week I will review the two novellas by Alexander Jablokov and Robert Reed.

“You” are traveling through a system in the Barrens when you happen across a damaged pod with a barely alive passenger in it, in Suzanne Palmer’s sobering rescue story “Taking Icarus Home”. You trace it to a station occupied by “Sunrunners”, thrill-seekers who pilot ships close to the local star for sport. Your encounter with the callous Sunrunners takes up the bulk of the word count and trying to get information about your nearly dead passenger from them is like pulling teeth. Palmer’s story has a sturdy structure and pacing. There is a lack of urgency to the narrative that is unusual and refreshing unless you consider that someone’s life is at stake. The second person POV didn’t work for me here.
The HR Director of Sensus, Inc. fears losing Murphy, the company’s most productive (and underpaid) employee, while Murphy fears something far worse in Jay O’Connell’s “The Gorgon”. Tension builds at a nice pace in the story, as HR guy probes for Murphy’s reasons for wanting to quit, and information about an AI known as The Gorgon comes trickling out. After all that buildup, though, I found the ending abrupt and unsatisfying.
“What if” speculations are a staple of science fiction, and especially in time travel stories. One such “what if” has haunted the narrator of Leah Cypess’ “All the Difference”: what if she had married Steve instead of Jason? It is fortunate that technology exists allowing people to visit themselves in a different timeline, so she gets to peek in on her marriage to Steve to see what she was missing. The premise begs a lot of questions (like: what happens to you from the other timeline while the “real” you steers the ship? Wouldn’t the choices you make alter that timeline? Etc.), though it’s for the best that Cypess hand waves past them. It’s a decent enough yarn, even if it tilts a little toward the melodramatic (Was he holding me back, or was I the one holding him back?!?!).
Middle-aged Miriam makes her way through a sprawling future Middle-Eastern metropolis in Lavie Tidhar’s sci-fi vignette “Neom”. The first two-thirds of the story are an imaginary travelogue, mostly a descriptive account of daily life in the city, littered with goose eggs connecting it to the greater Lavie Tidhar Expanded Universe. The story, when it arrives, concerns Miriam finding the battered carcass of her robot friend Hameed, and everyone else’s indifference to his demise.
In Sean Monaghan’s “Ventiforms”, Tailé travels to the remote planet Zephierre where her son Brendon toils away on a massive art installation for the famous artist Shilinka Swintalla. Some weeks before, Brendon locked himself inside his robot and now refuses to stop working, risking his health. Swintalla takes Tailé to her son so she can convince him to return with them. The ventiforms, enormous wind instruments shaped from the natural environment, are very cool creations. This is an awfully long story that places few obstacles in the protagonist’s path to achieving her goal. It’s more like a series of minor inconveniences culminating in a slightly less minor inconvenience. Swintalla and her people come across as decent folk, though the fact they let Brendon continue doing what he was doing for so long without launching a serious effort to retrieve him makes them all look like assholes.

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

* “Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Fear” by Senaa Ahmad (Uncanny 26)

*** “The Beast Weeps with One Eye” by Morgan Al-Moor (BCS #268)

* “The Willows” by Delilah S. Dawson (Uncanny 26)