The Best Short SFF of 2019 – Part 1: Dark Fantasy/Horror

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 Dark Fantasy/Horror Fiction of 2019

 

Nightmare 83The Skin of a Teenage Boy is Not Alive“, by Senaa Ahmad (Nightmare Magazine Issue 83, August 2019) 4967 words

Parveen is more than ready to move on from high school, but for now she figures to get her kicks hanging out with the demon cult kids. Turns out demon possession isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, for the demon or the possessed.

The music clicks off. Now it is shivery and quiet, only California crickets lisping into the dark. The night closes upon them, an enigmatic fist. And when it opens its fingers again, Benny is possessed.
He tries to speak, but it doesn’t quite work. His eyes are wet, black. Crawling with unrecognizable stars. They know it is Benny and not Benny. The way anyone knows that something is wrong. There is a face underneath his face, and it is very, very old. The face swivels on its neck to look at them.
Say something, one of the cult kids whispers, practically palpitating with fear and excitement.
Benny, who is not Benny, hisses: What a waste. What a fucking waste.

Fireside 69The Brightest Lights of Heaven“, by Maria Haskins (Fireside Magazine Issue 69, July 2019) 3398 words

Moira and Rae are childhood best friends who grew up playing some pretty imaginative, and pretty immersive, games together. The two are devastated when Moira’s family decides to move away, but Moira has an idea for a game they can keep playing no matter how far apart they are in distance or years.

“I had a vision, Rae.” Her voice was an unfamiliar, hoarse whisper, skittering up my spine. As if she’d found another voice in the dark. As if another voice had found her. “You are a daemon escaped from the deepest depths of the void. And I am a daemon hunter blessed by the brightest lights of heaven. We are enemies henceforth. Before we both turn twenty-five, one of us must kill the other.”
My palm stung and I felt dizzy. I already knew it was more than pretend, more than imagination. Moira had always made our games seem real, but that night was different. I felt the blood and smoke twitch together between our palms, as if we had stirred up something sleeping, something dormant – whether within or without, I couldn’t tell. I felt it shudder and twine, snaking around my flesh and bones. Words and smoke and blood binding me, changing me. Changing Moira, too.

FSF 11-12-2019“Shucked”, by Sam J. Miller (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2019) 4181 words

Adney and Teek are an adventurous young couple vacationing in Italy, where they are approached by an older man who wants to pay them $10,000 dollars for an hour alone with Teek. The guy makes them both a little uneasy, but who couldn’t use that kind of money?

“One hour…doing what?” Teek asked.
The man put both hands on the table. They were big, coarse. Hairy. The sight of them thrilled her, as if she was the one he wanted to grab hold of. “We’re not children here. I don’t think I need to spell it out. I’ll respect your boundaries, of course, but I’m not paying you to talk.”
“Can we have some time to think about it?” Teek asked.
“You cannot,” the man said, and this, too, was thrilling to Adney, and the thrill unsettled her. She imagined the most degrading of demands being issued to her in that same imperious, commanding tone. But of course it wasn’t her he’d be degrading.
Teek looked at her, pretty eyes wide, like, What the fuck, this is so bizarre, but also like, What do we do?

“Bird Thou Never Wert”, by James Morrow (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2019) 7726 words

The infamous Darko Cromdahl, an author of weird fiction who mysteriously vanished in 1955, is soon to be memorialized with a volume in the American Literary Icons series. But his former lover and fellow writer Marsha Waszynski has a story about Cromdahl for the series editor – of a talentless hack who won fame, and lost everything else, by unnatural means.

“The mythic Garuda was a fabulous creature who once served as Lord Vishnu’s preferred steed,” said Skelter. “My employer believes that he, Kalioghast, summons his bird from the Hindu netherworld, but I suspect he simply cast a spell on an ordinary eagle.”
And then it happened, Ms. Tunbridge. The quill possessed me. My hand pirouetted across the blank sheet, leaving behind bold ellipses and emphatic squiggles. I had no trouble believing the phial held eagle blood, for the nine-word verse that emerged before my eyes was formed of vibrant reddish-black characters. In thrall to the quill, I produced a second verse, then a third, then a fourth—fourteen in all. My hand jerked automatically to the top of the page and gave the sonnet a title, “Cardiac Allegro.”
I set down the feather, recorked the phial, and perused the result of my literary fit, realizing that Garuda had wrought a poem to rival anything in The Oxford Book of English Verse . Darko read “Cardiac Allegro” and in a quavering voice declared it “as haunting as a half-remembered dream.”

Anathema_CoverIssue8.jpgStill Water“, by Ian Muneshwar (Anathema Issue 8, August 2019) 5953 words

Miles and Trent take a trip out to their family cabin to try and repair their fractured relationship. While kayaking down river, their surroundings start taking on a sinister air.

Miles rowed furiously, his paddles raising ropes of water that slapped across the front of the kayak and soaked through his shorts. The air chilled; a great grey bank of clouds had choked the sunset and settled across the sky; cold raindrops cratered the river.
“Trent?”
Miles’ glasses had begun to fog with the heat of his desperate, heaving breaths. He let himself pause, for just a minute, so he could see again, and listened. But Trent, if he could hear, didn’t respond; there was only the slow crescendo of rain on the water, wind through the treetops. When his glasses cleared, he found that Trent had disappeared beyond a bend in the river. The orange life preserver was nowhere in sight.
He took himself to the middle of the river. It wasn’t long before he found the current that had carried Trent away. In all his summers swimming and fishing here, he’d never felt the water pull like this. The kayak skimmed across the surface, as if it was pulled along by some great, invisible hand. His gut tightened as he felt himself lose control of the kayak, of the direction he was taking.

The-Dark-Issue-47-220x340An Open Coffin”, by H. Pueyo (The Dark Issue 47, April 2019) 3067 words

Amélia goes to work for General Estiano to care for a corpse that lies in rest at his house. The corpse has been on display for decades and attracts many devotees, who appear daily to fawn over it.

One by one they came in, congesting the front room with their presences and handbags. The second one to greet me was Jair, a spindly man with sunken eyes, who hugged me like we were old friends.
“I reckon you must be close to General Estiano,” I said.
“Yes, yes, we joined the army in the same year!” Jair opened his arms, as if trying to embrace the whole room, coffin included. “Have you met him before?”
“We didn’t have the chance to meet face to face.”
“Of course. You’re too young to remember that time, after all.” Jair sat on the couch, watching as the women placed white lilies around the body. “This death . . . Amélia, right? This death, Amélia, it took us all by surprise. It ruined the christening of my son, such was our shock.”
“Some people simply can’t be replaced, right?”
Jair looked at me for a second, but his bloodshot eyes went back to the crystal box lying on the other side of the room. Then, he smiled, nodding.
“You’re right—you’re absolutely right.”

The-Dark-Issue-48-220x340Wilderling“, by Angela Slatter (The Dark Issue 48, May 2019) 5540 words

LP is middle-aged and childless, and tired of people judging her for it. Most people would be terrified if a feral child with long, sharp claws for nails suddenly decided to use their property for a hunting ground, but LP almost feels an affinity for it.

Whiskey didn’t even see it coming.
Which meant the kid was silent, like stealthy as a fox, light as a breeze, because the kid’s fingers—closer up now, LP could see how long the nails were, black ragged things—were around Whiskey’s thick neck before he knew it. That neck was broken in a freakishly swift motion—there was no doubt the cat was dead, the way it hung in that strong, nasty little grip.
But LP couldn’t muster even a lick of sympathy for the feline. Too many years of him tearing up her favorite cushions and couches, her craft supplies and works-in-progress, her clothes whenever he could get his paws on them, and the smell of piss in the house because Kurt wouldn’t get the fucking animal neutered. There were deep red scratches on her arms, the latest in a series of Whiskey’s “love taps” while she slept; she’d got infections from them three times before. LP felt the first genuine smile in a long while lift her lips, and imagining life without Whiskey distracted her from watching the kid tear him open and feast on his innards. She kind of glanced off to the side, so she saw but not quite.
When the cat was no more than a sack of bloodied fur and bones, the wilderling tossed Whiskey on top of the little iron table again, almost well-mannered, and disappeared back into the woods.

bloodisanotherwordforhunger_fullBlood is Another Word for Hunger“, by Rivers Solomon (Tor.com, July 24, 2019) 6971 words

On learning that the master of the house was killed in the war, 15-year-old slave girl Sully slaughters the rest of her owner’s family while they sleep. Her rage is not sated by their deaths, and the etherworld takes notice, sending her a family of her own.

“Yes, yes, yes!” Ziza called as she descended from the spirit realm down a tunnel made of life. Breathing things, screaming things, hot, sweaty, pulsing, moving, scampering, wild, toothy, bloody, slimy, rich, salty things. Tree branches brushed her skin. Sensation overwhelmed her as she landed with a soft, plump thud into the belly of her new god. Ziza took in the darkness, swum in it. It was nothing like the violent nothingness of her home for the past two centuries. For here she could smell, taste, feel. She could hear the cries of the girl carrying her, loud and unrelenting.
Sully had never been with child before, and she didn’t understand the pain that overtook her so sudden as she shoveled the last gallon of dirt over the graves of her masters. Spasms in her abdomen convinced her she was dying.
As she fell backwards to the ground, her belly turned giant and bulbous. She stared up at the crescent moon and spat at it for the way it mocked her with its half-smile. Sully hated that grinning white ghoul, and with all the spite at the fates she could muster, she howled and she howled and she howled at it. She howled until she became part wolf, a lush coat of gray fur spiking from her shoulder blades and spine. It was magic from the dead land that Ziza brought with her, where there was no border separating woman from beast.

Nightmare 87Methods of Ascension” by Dan Stintzi (Nightmare Magazine Issue 87, December 2019) 5708 words

The unnamed narrator tries to reconnect with his estranged brother Robert, despite Robert’s penchant for transgressing boundaries. Robert’s latest kick is a series of streaming videos by a new age guru called Rudyard Vespra, who promises enlightenment through “ascension”.

“You may not have known about this portal before beginning my program and that’s okay. I’m here to help. I’m here to help you access those hidden parts inside yourself, so you can release your full potential, release what has always been inside since the beginning of time.”
The video ended and I thought Rob was snoring again, but then I turned and saw that he had his palms pressed into his eye sockets.
“I fucked my whole life up,” he said, heaving a little. Then he started crying so hard he couldn’t breathe. I stayed quiet. He’d get it out of his system, and we’d move on, pretend it never happened. “Why couldn’t somebody just tell me what to do?”
He said more words that aren’t worth repeating and eventually the crying stopped.
“Would you like another drink?” I said when it was over.
He said yes, and then he said, “If only I had something like this when I was eighteen.” He pointed at the TV. Vespra’s face still lingered there. “This shit, if I had had this shit, I would have been fine.”

Nightmare 84Sweet Dreams are Made of You” by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor (Nightmare Magazine Issue 84, September 2019) 2417 words

Vore is a new kind of game, one you play in your dreams. Until it crosses over into the waking world.

The game begins:
There’s a girl with long hair, wet from drowning, and a white dress stained at the hem by mud. She smiles. You can’t see her face, but you know she smiles. “Do you want to play Vore?” she asks. “Do you want to play? Do you?”
This is the last chance for you to terminate the experience. If one of you says no, you’re woken up and given a refund. You will not be allowed to be partnered together in any future attempts to play.
Say yes.
She will gently eat your faces, pushing her mouth of vacuum into your skull cavity, sucking you clean until there’s just a ring of bone and hair at the back of your head. Don’t worry: you can still see.
It’s exhilarating, being eaten into facelessness. You are made anonymous, unburdened of all your shame and responsibility and social expectations.
She ties your bodies together with wire. She’s just begun.

You can find Part 2 – Science Fiction HERE

You can find Part 3 – Fantasy 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 November 2019

Featured image from the cover of Uncanny Magazine Issue 31, by John Picacio

Must Read Stories

FSF 11-12-2019
Cover art by Bob Eggleton

“Shucked”, by Sam J. Miller [The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2019] Short Story

Adney and Teek, a young couple vacationing in Italy, are approached by an older man who offers them a modestly indecent proposal: $10,000 for one hour alone with Teek, the “most handsome man in this or any city.” The sexual boundaries of their relationship are loosely defined, so after getting over their initial discomfort, Teek agrees to the man’s terms. Who couldn’t use a little extra cash? Thematically, this story recalls Miller’s excellent 2016 short “Things with Beards”, by prompting the reader to ask how well we can really know another person, or even ourselves. But “Shucked” is far more unnerving, and far less optimistic, in its explorations than that story. I love the way Miller integrates some of Adney’s anxieties about their relationship early on, then uses them to sneak the fantastical element in later. Miller’s command of short-form narrative puts him in a league of his own.

“Bird Thou Never Wert”, by James Morrow [The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2019] Novelette

Drawing its title from perhaps the most famously terrible line of poetry in English literature, Morrow’s weird tale relates the circumstances of the 1955 disappearance of author Darko Cromdahl, as told by his former lover and fellow author Marsha Waszynski. According to Marsha, Cromdahl was a boorish narcissist and talentless hack who couldn’t figure out if he wanted to be the next Lovecraft or the next Asimov, despite ample evidence he wasn’t capable of being either. So how did he write all those timeless classics of horror and science fiction? “Bird Thou Never Wert” is the best kind of genre satire: hilariously self-deprecating, but also exemplary of the genre it satirizes.

 

More Recommended Stories

BCS 291
Cover art: “Tower of the Winds” by Alexey Shugurov

The Forge“, by Andrew Dykstal [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #291, November 21, 2019] Novelette

A captivating high fantasy mystery, in which the two most likely suspects in the King’s murder must determine how the assassin accomplished his mission in the most politically expedient way. Masterful plotting, especially for a non-linear narrative that juggles multiple mysteries at once.

“How I Came to Write Fantasy”, by Michael Libling [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2019] Novelette

A Canadian teen living in Paris strikes up a friendship with fellow migrant Jake, who spins a patently absurd tall tale about living under a 400-year-old curse that causes him to pursue his perpetually reincarnated lover across the centuries. Absurd, that is, until present circumstances start matching up with Jake’s story. Finely drawn characters in a lively and emotionally resonant story.

“The Quarantine Nursery”, by Aimee Ogden [Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Nov/Dec 2019] Short Story

While a superflu ravages the world, the affluent have their babies raised by robot nannies inside the titular structures, meaning their children grow up without the benefit of human touch. The story has a day-in-the-life structure that gradually peels back the nuances of its near-future world. A very thorough and emotionally honest examination of a plausible science fictional premise.

Black Flowers Blossom“, by Vina Jie-Min Prasad [Uncanny Magazine Issue 31, Nov/Dec 2019] Short Story 

An otherworldly horror disguised as a human finds unexpected kinship – one that lasts several lifetimes – in Prasad’s libidinous horror-noir story. The prose is a tantalizing mix of the hard-boiled and the sensual.

The Etiquette of Mythique Fine Dining“, by Carolyn Rahaman [GigaNotoSaurus, November, 2019] Novelette

Ava is a new hire at Mythique, a high-end restaurant famous, and controversial, for serving food made from magical animals. As if the high-pressure environment and routinely abusive boss weren’t bad enough, Ava’s advancement is hindered by her friendship with co-worker Zach, who is kind and helpful but has serious boundary issues. Engaging and believable from the start, with wonderful characters and a memorable and well-detailed setting.

“The River of Blood and Wine”, by Kali Wallace [Asimov’s Science Fiction, Nov/Dec 2019] Novelette

Sunan was born on the colony world Xiva, soon-to-be dismantled thanks to his efforts to show the authorities that one of the world’s native species, the Pitka, is intelligent – a fact the early colonists worked hard to keep from colonial authorities. The story does a great job of personifying Sunan’s internal conflict over his home world, and the ending is powerful.

 

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 Best Short SFF – September 2018

Reminder: While many of the stories in this column are available to read free online, these venues pay the authors for their work and rely on income from readers to do so. If one or more of these zines consistently publishes fiction that you like, please consider buying a subscription. Or, if you read a story or stories that you especially like, consider purchasing the issue it appears in. If the story is available to read online, clicking on the name of the story will send you there; subscription/donation/purchase information is available at each site. For stories that are not available to read online, there is a link to that zine’s home page. Thank you for reading and supporting short form SFF!

Apex-Magazine-112Must Read

“It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog”, Maria Haskins (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #260, 9/13/2018) Short Story

Ten years ago, Susanna walked into the woods with her little brother, and came back home without him. Now, it’s time to return and face the secret she’s been keeping from her family all those years. A haunting dark fantasy, with prose that cuts deep.

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

Catching a fairy is a rite of passage every girl is supposed go though when they hit their teens, but Amelia regards it with something between disinterest and disdain. Can a stupid fairy help her win the science fair and get accepted to the boys only science club? Since the twee little sprite won’t leave her alone, she decides to find out. Count this among Krizter’s sharpest tales.

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

Bette’s older brother Cary was brutally murdered and she doesn’t just want to know how, she wants to experience it for herself. Her classmate Hiram has a reputation for helping people “see” things, and together they journey to the site of Cary’s murder to find the truth. A somber, elegiac meditation on grief and the beauty of life.

Highly RegardedClarkesworld 144

“The Witch of Osborne Park”, Stephanie Feldman (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2018) Short Story

A moody, low-key supernatural drama about a mother trying to defend her daughter from a neighborhood bully. Well drawn characters and an appropriately ominous tone.

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

A beautifully conceived, often terrifying sequel to Snow White, where the princess wants to take her daughter and flee from her disturbed husband. As if he wasn’t enough of an obstacle, she still has her hated stepmom and that insidious mirror to deal with.

“The Grays of Cestus V”, Erin Roberts (Asimov’s Science Fiction, September/October 2018) Short Story

This SF story of an artist trying to cope with the dreariness of her life on a frontier planet burrows under your skin. Roberts makes effective use of color to elucidate the protagonist’s state of mind.

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

Zhang Lei is Lunar-born; now he hides out on earth after killing someone in a violent hockey game. He waits to hear about his asylum status while hiding from gangs of Lunar “brawlers” who want to hunt him down and kill him. An exciting narrative in a complex, expansive setting.

BCS 259Also Recommended

“How to Identify an Alien Shark”, Beth Goder (Fireside Magazine Issue 59, September 2018) Short Story

Whatever you do, don’t argue with the alien sharks about economic theory.

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

Spanning several planets and periods of time, the reader pieces together the personal journey of a religious devotee who wants to make a difference.

“CARBORUNDORUM>/DEV/NULL”, Annalee Flower Horne (Fireside Magazine Issue 59, September 2018) Short Story

A near-future teen drama in which smart houses can be more harmful, (especially to young women) than helpful.

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

Jenny Lim battles the demonic minions of Boss Lonely to rescue an old west ghost town from a terrible curse in this reversal of the “white savior” trope.

“Cold Ink”, Dean Wells (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #259, 8/30/2018) Novelette

This industrial steampunk thriller finds Hester’s estranged lover Verity showing up at her door with a whole lot of deadly trouble in tow.

Full reviews for these stories and more can be found in my bi-weekly column The Rack: 

Early September

Late September

 

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

Capsule Reviews – May 2018

Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland 8.1
From Darkest Skies, by Sam Peters 6.9
Before Mars, by Emma Newman 6.8
Blackfish City, by Sam J. Miller 7.8

Dread NAtionDystopias are popular settings for YA novels; while most imagine a future where a class of people is oppressed by a system of authoritarian social control, Justina Ireland’s canny new horror western Dread Nation locates its dystopic vision in America’s past. History diverges when the dead start returning en masse, hungry for human flesh, bringing an early end to the Civil War and the institution of slavery – but only in the barest sense. No longer forced to work on plantations, Black Americans are instead conscripted at a young age to train as soldiers to battle the “shamblers” (my new favorite euphemism for the walking dead) that are overrunning the country.
Jane McKeene is one such “attendant”-in-training, lucky enough to be receiving her education at the prestigious Miss Preston’s School for Combat in Baltimore in 1880. Her good fortune runs out when she and her class rival Katherine, along with runaway Red Jack, uncover an illegal scheme by the city’s mayor and are shipped off to Summerland – a frontier enclave in Kansas that promises to restore white Christian supremacy to America and treats its Black and Native American militia little better than chuck for the meat grinder.
Many of the story elements that make dystopian YA fiction popular are also staples of the western genre – love triangles between characters from different classes, lone heroes standing up to injustice, landscapes defined by violence and industrial transformation – so the familiar elements are a comfortable fit in Ireland’s reformulation. The classic western narrative, though, depicts the westward march as an act of heroic advancement, a taming of the “wild” frontier for the benefit of civilization. Dread Nation may offer an alternative history of the west, but its depiction of institutionalized racism and classism – where marginalized peoples are forced into a perpetual fight for survival amidst the stampede of “progress” – is little changed by the disruptive insertion of the shambler hordes.
Dread Nation’s genre-hybrid premise functions seamlessly on every level – as western, horror, YA, and alt-history (a toss-off General Custer joke is my favorite laugh-out-loud moment in the book). Jane is a fantastic protagonist, a trickster-like woman-at-arms who is loyal to her ideals and to the people she cares about above any nation or creed. Her budding friendship with Katherine (herself an excellent subversion of the “tragic mulatto” stereotype) is the most affecting relationship in the story. Of all the praiseworthy facets of Dread Nation, my favorite is how its episodic, cliffhanger structure – full of foot-dangling dangers and feats of boldness and bravado – parallels the classic (and historically, often woman-centered) newspaper serials Jane loves to read. Perhaps it will find a natural home as an adaptation for one of the online streaming services, whichever is gutsy enough to do it justice.

From Darkest SkiesSam Peters’ From Darkest Skies is a sci-fi crime thriller that follows Keona Rause, an intelligence agent who returns from Earth to the colony world of Magenta to solve the years-old murder of his wife, fellow agent Alysha. The twist is that he has secretly brought with him an artificial (and illegal) reconstruction of his late wife, whose memories and personality are culled from public records in this casually accepted, media saturated surveillance state. “Lys” can help uncover clues based on memories of the real Alysha’s recorded life, but Alysha’s private thoughts are as much a mystery to Lys as they are to the still-suffering Keona – and that hidden element unfortunately holds the key to explaining the choices that led to her death.
The novel’s greatest strength is its worldbuilding and its depiction of the nuanced relationship between advanced technology and the human mind. Lys can literally be housed inside tech that interacts with Keona’s thoughts; she can see what he sees and hold internal conversations with him as the action develops, and this dynamic results in some of the novel’s sharpest moments. Where From Darkest Skies falters is in the overly methodical pacing of its plot, which unfolds rhythmically and never raises the temperature above lukewarm. The lack of a clear-cut antagonist hurts it as well. The premise of the book also relies heavily on the notion that Keona is falling in love with Alysha 2.0, but I never found the supposed romance convincing.
Peters is a talented hard-SF writer, and From Darkest Skies is often a colorful and intriguing novel reminiscent of Alastair Reynolds space opera procedurals. It works better when speculating about a tech-steeped future for humanity than it does as a whodunit or an action thriller.

Before MarsBefore Mars is the third standalone novel set in Emma Newman’s Planetfall universe, though the events of all three are loosely connected and having read the other two is helpful, if not necessary. In this one, geologist and artist Anna Kubrin takes a position at a research station on Mars, but when she arrives, she makes two startling discoveries: that her wedding ring has somehow been replaced with a fake, and among her possessions is a painting she can’t remember painting telling her not to trust the base’s psychologist. Anna is worried she can’t trust her own senses: her father suffered from a mental illness that left Anna with deep emotional scars from childhood, and now she fears she is travelling down the same path.
Newman is an author I like more as a writer than as a storyteller, if that makes any sense. She is an astute observer of the various neuroses and frailties that plague the human condition, and her ability to navigate all the slippery pathways of the mind is often as frightening as it is exhilarating. Anna’s insistence on trusting her own observations as the other characters, and even the base’s AI, contradict the evidence she finds is the spine that makes Before Mars a compelling read. The novel’s structure, however, is maddeningly inducive, repeatedly contriving scenarios that shield the reader from receiving pertinent revelations well past the point at which such coyness can remain believable. Yes, I know that mystery stories are supposed to play their cards close to the vest, but there’s a big difference between keeping us guessing and just repeatedly slapping our wrists when we get too close to the cookie jar; between playing the reader like a piano and being flat out fucking mean.
I had the same issue with Planetfall, and that frustration was still fresh in my mind when the second book, After Atlas, was released. I skipped that one, but as the release date for Before Mars drew closer I remembered all the things I liked about Planetfall and blocked out all the things I didn’t. Given enough time between this and the next book, I’ll probably make the same mistake again.

Blackfish CitySci-fi and fantasy narratives that deal directly with structures of power usually feature a single, goal-oriented protagonist, often consumed with a desire for revenge or seeking to redress a perceived injustice. Even if the intent is to castigate or subvert the social and political norms that reinforce those structures, these stories tend to promote the idea of a lone genius/hero/savior as the essential component for radical change – the “great man” approach to history – who may end up shuffling the deck, but who rarely sets the cards aside altogether. Usually, the new structure that replace the old have same potential to commit future abuses – a truth the author usually avoids by simply ending the story on a high note.
In Blackfish City, Sam J. Miller uses a mosaic narrative structure much the same way Kim Stanley Robinson uses it in New York 2140: to procure a blueprint for radical social change by illuminating both the commonality and the diversity of experiences within a community of peoples. Set in the floating arctic city of Qaanaaq, in a post-climate disaster world ravaged by war and disease and the collapse of the old world order, Blackfish City follows multiple characters with interrelated storylines. Qaanaaq is a marvel of sustainable engineering, and home to refugees from all over the world, but political corruption and economic disparity have made living conditions all but unbearable for most of its citizens.
The various storylines converge around the arrival of Masaaraq, who rides into Qaanaaq on an orca she is “nanobonded” to. In a typical SFF novel, Masaaraq would be the messiah figure, and at first, she is perceived as such by many, and of course is equally perceived as a threat by the wealthy and powerful. But even those who stand to gain from joining Masaaraq’s quest for justice understand that solutions to complex social problems require more than just overturning the applecart and sticking it to the proverbial “man”. Selfish motives, however righteous, are not the answer: the effort requires collective action, and a desire to create and forge lasting solutions. These things are never easy, nor are they instantly accessible, and Miller is too savvy to tie everything up neatly at the end. The future its collection of heroes face is even more uncertain at the end than it was at the beginning, when they at least knew what they had to look forward to at the start of each day.
Blackfish City is laudable for its ambition, its finely imagined and nuanced setting, and captivating cast of characters. Mosaic novels are tough to pull off, and Blackfish City sometimes has to be forgiven for its uneven pacing and frustrating spurts of reticence. The thrill of watching the once powerless find the strength to fight together for their future more than makes up for it.