The Best Short SFF of February 2020

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

Must Read Stories

Prosper's demon
Cover art by Sam Weber

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

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

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

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

More Recommended Stories

If you take...
Cover art by Robert Hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Short SFF of January 2020

Cover Art for FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue #13 by Steffi Walthall

The list is a little light this month. Due to time constraints a few of my regular reads – Interzone, Uncanny, Fantasy & Science Fiction – will be pushed to February.

Must Read

Le Jardin Animé (1893)“, by Victoria Sandbrook [GigaNotoSaurus, January 1, 2020] Novella

Dr. Zaynab Murad comes to the home of the mechanist Mme. Lefevre, whose “children” – the sentient automatons she created – are training to perform the ballet Le Corsaire in front of an audience. Lefevre, whose own ballet career was ruined by a devastating injury after her debut performance, wishes “to prove that my dancers are as exquisite as the Imperial Russian Ballet. More exquisite.” Zaynab has been hired to surgically repair Madame’s legs so she can be ready for the performance, but the mechanist’s attitude is frustratingly obtuse and much of Zaynab’s medical advice goes unheeded. The thematic and narrative parallels between Le Jardin Animé (1893) and H.G. Wells’ classic The Island of Dr. Moreau are too evident to be a coincidence, though it can be said that Sandbrook’s novella is far less cynical, and less gruesome. It is just as phantasmagorical and compelling, and perhaps – with its laser-sharp eye for visual and emotional detail – more exquisite.

 

More Recommended Stories

The Ancestral Temple in a Box“, by Chen Quifan, translated by Emily Jin [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 160, January 2020] Short Story

A refreshingly optimistic sci-fi story, in which Sonny visits the virtual Ancestral Temple, and learns his late father’s plans for the family business may not be as conservative as he feared. It’s nice to read a story that embraces the changes new technologies will bring, and demonstrates that with the right approach these changes can be beneficial to everyone. Sinophiles will also enjoy its glimpse into one of China’s distinctive regional cultures.

Nightmare 88
Cover art by Ddraw / Fotolia

Familiar Face“, by Meg Elison [Nightmare Magazine Issue 88, January 2020] Short Story

Annie’s wife Cara was murdered, and the suspect still at large. Now Annie and a group of hers and Cara’s closest friends plot a way to trap the killer with the help of the facial recognition system she uses for home security. The story features a spot-on depiction of ASL grammar, integrated nicely into the tension and pacing of the narrative. A suspenseful tale flavored with a pinch of near-future speculation.

The Candle Queen“, by Ephiny Gale [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #295, January 16, 2020] Short Story

A short, sweet, and very original story of a queen who must wear enchanted candles on her head to keep the world from ending, and her handmaiden, Anne, who devises ways of relieving the queen of her burden.

How Quini the Squid Misplaced His Klobučar“, by Rich Larson [Tor.com, January 15, 2020] Novelette

A hacker plans to steal a precious work of “gene art” from the titular crime boss – not for money, but as revenge for getting stiffed on a job. Larson’s futuristic heist story is full of all the usual sleights-of-hand and double crosses one expects; it is the author’s talent for mixing outrageous future technology with genre tropes that gives it a jolt of the unexpected.

Asimov's Jan 2020
Cover Art by Dominic Harman

“The Antidote”, by Dominica Phetteplace [Asimov’s Science Fiction, Jan/Feb 2020] Short Story

The narrator works for a company called The Antidote, which offers “Aspirational Betterness” through psychotropic drug therapies tailored to the specific genetic makeup of each client. She agrees to help an hacker who wants to steal the code to the company’s drug fabricators. A darkly funny story of a gene-edited future.

“All That the Storm Took”, by Yah Yah Scholfield [FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 13, Winter 2020] Short Story

Winifred and her sister Alicia tried to ride out hurricane Katrina in their home, and Alicia paid with her life. But that doesn’t mean she was gone for good. A deeply felt and haunting story.

Claudette Dulac and the Devil of the North“, by Genevieve Sinha [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #294, January 2, 2020] Short Story

When Claudette’s father disappears while hunting the Devil of the North, Claudette straps on her mother’s trusty ‘Lectric Oathkeeper and heads north to find him. She joins forces with an inventor seeking fame for besting the Devil. This story is a rollicking good time, lightning-paced and spilling over with colorful characters.

The Best Short SFF of 2019 – Part 3: Fantasy

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

The Best Short Fantasy Fiction of 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

You can find Part 1 – Dark Fantasy/Horror HERE

You can find Part 2 – Science Fiction HERE

Additional Reading:

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

Maria Haskins, author and translator

Charles Payseur, author and proprietor of Quick Sip Reviews

Eugenia Triantafyllou, author

A.C. Wise, author

Locus Recommended Reading List 

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

More links will appear as I find them!

The Best Short SFF of 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 October 2019

Featured Image from the cover of FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 12 by Sophia Zarders

Must Read Stories

BCS 287
Cover: “Athlerrod” by Ferdinand Dumago Ladera

One Found in a World of the Lost“, by Shweta Adhyam [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #287, September 26, 2019] Short Story

A gutty, starkly imagined post-apocalyptic fantasy with elements of classic Hindu mythology. Pavitra will never be the hunter her twin sister Gayatri was, so Gayatri’s death weighs heavily on her and their family. Meanwhile, the departed Gayatri finds herself in a strange world where lost children are turned into stone pillars at the behest of a strange creature called a yakshini. There is so much to admire about this story: the unexpected way the sisters’ separate narratives unfold and draw together, the stunning visuals, the warmth of the family’s love for each other amid such a bleak and desolate landscape. It also has a key ingredient that separates great storytelling from the good – a feeling of timelessness.

“Corialis”, by T.L. Huchu [FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 12: Chains, Autumn 2019] Short Story

Establishing a colony on Corialis, a “goldilocksed” moon orbiting a gas giant in a distant solar system, is more troublesome than it should be. Thandeka is absorbing much of the blame for the setbacks, but she suspects there is more to this moon and its simple, single celled organisms than the colonists are willing to accept. Huchu’s story is exactly the kind of sci-fi I love: nicely detailed examinations of the relevant scientific and ethical issues, with well-drawn characters and tight, but eloquent, prose. More so, it is a story that refuses to take the idea of colonization for granted, and its vision of African nations spreading out among the stars is vivid and vital, and places it strongly within a growing canon of similar works.

More Recommended Stories

The Butcher, the Baker“, by Mike Allen [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #289, October 24, 2019] Short Story

Trukos is the golem-like protagonist of Allen’s gripping dark fable about the relationship between creator and creation. The baker Auntie Mayya fashioned the near-indestructible Trukos from the ingredients of her trade, and he has unquestionably followed her directions since his conception. Until now. The setting and backstory are unique, and Trukos’ journey is memorably grisly.

zeitgeber
Cover Art by Sally Deng

Zeitgeber“, by Greg Egan [Tor.com, September 25, 2019] Novelette

I have always had an affinity for Egan’s provocative hypotheticals, and he’s drummed up a solid one in Zeitgeber. A strange malady has afflicted a significant portion of the world’s population with a disruption to their circadian rhythms, causing them to reverse their relationships with night and day. Society finds a way to accommodate to this new reality, so when a cure is found, a return to “normalcy” is met with resistance.

The Other Side of the Line“, by A.T. Greenblatt [Fireside Magazine Issue 72, October 2019] Short Story

The “Line” didn’t just separate the world with an unpassable barrier, it split Amy and Paolo’s house in two, stranding each on opposite sides. Paolo was able to send her a message but Amy is having trouble doing the same, because she knows it can’t be done without a leap of faith, and a sacrifice. A quick, smart and touching “what-if?” fantasy.

Touchstone“, by Mette Ivie Harrison [GigaNotoSaurus, October 1, 2019] Novella

Everyone in Lissa’s age group – except for Lissa – has been summoned by the touchstone to receive their calling in life and it’s made her something of an outcast. But the touchstone’s revelations are entirely private, so if she tells everyone she got her calling, who will disbelieve her? A great premise rendered with suspenseful and well-paced storytelling, Touchstone is an excellent meditation on the nature of power and the social contract.

Fireside 72
Cover Art by Amanda Makepeace

The Haunting of 13 Olúwo Street“, by Suyi Davies Okungbowa [Fireside Magazine Issue 72, October 2019] Short Story

A captivating haunted house story set in Lagos, Nigeria, told from the perspective of the house. Something terrible happened in 13 Olúwo Street, leaving the ghost of its traumatized victim within its walls. Attempts by western media to exploit the tragedy are far more detrimental than anything its spectral occupant can scare up, and the house just wants her to be happy and comfortable. The story is both a de-colonization of the traditional haunted house narrative and a rumination on what it means for a house to be a home.

Some Kind of Blood-Soaked Future“, by Carlie St. George [Nightmare Magazine Issue 85, October 2019] Short Story

You are the Final Girl, the only survivor of the slumber party massacre that killed off most of your friends and family. Soon you discover that no matter where you go, there is a mad slasher waiting to off a gathering of blissfully ignorant teenagers, so you just level the fuck up and roll with it. Dare you even imagine a future not drenched in death and gore? A funny, frantic and appropriately visceral story – also an unexpectedly heartwarming one.

The Best Short SFF of August 2019

Featured Image from “Fare” by Francesco Giani.

I apologize for the brevity and lack of depth in the write-ups, or any mistakes abound. I’m finishing this up late at night from a hospital bed so braining is hard: this month’s list brought to you by oxycodone!

As always if you like what you read, consider paying for an issue or subscription. Even though many of these zines make their publications available to read for free on the internet, they still have writers and staff to pay and rely on income to do so. Please enjoy these great stories!

Must Read

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

Parveen’s best friend Aisha falls in with “Benny and his dumb demon cult” who want to get possessed for kicks, but Parveen doesn’t quite fit in with that crowd. The tone of the story is like one long teenage shrug, but gliding under the surface is a desperate adult awareness of time skipping past all our youthful idealism.

Still Water“, by Ian Muneshwar (Anathema Issue 8, August 2019) Short Story

Miles and Trent are on a couples counselor-inspired jaunt to the wilderness, where their fraying relationship is further tested when their surroundings get a little off-real. A great character study and relationship drama, but what really distinguishes “Still Water” is the slow transgression from its natural setting to a not-quite natural one.

Your Face“, by Rachel Swirsky (Clarkesworld Issue 155, August 2019) Short Story

Swirsky excels at presenting the reader with a deceptively simple setup, before sneaking up on you with a shiv to the gut. In “Your Face”, a mother talks to a computer scan of her late daughter, wanting to know how much she remembers before she died.

More Recommended Stories

Elegy of a Lanthornist” by M.E. Bronstein (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #284, August 15, 2019) Short Story

An astute portrait of an academic studying the obsessive writings of a long dead poet from lost culture, and the object of his unrequited affections. The ending is sudden, and shocking.

Henrietta and the End of the Line“, by Andi C. Buchanan (Translunar Travelers Lounge Issue 1, August 2019) Short Story

A colorful and powerful story about refugees searching for a new home on a train that is also a squid.

No Matter“, by Kendra Fortmeyer (Lightspeed Issue 111, August 2019) Short Story

A time traveler drops in on a young married couple, claiming to be his future daughter, but not hers. What could have been nothing more than a one joke premise turns into quite an emotional storm.

Getaway“, by Jennifer Hudak (Podcastle #585, July 30, 2019) [narrator Jen R. Albert] Short Story

A gut-twisting body horror fantasia about Leena, who swallows some bad lake water while on vacation, and the ensuing illness becomes a blessing in disguise when she discovers she can now escape from her body. Heed the content warnings.

“Verum”, by Storm Humbert (Interzone #282, July/August 2019) Novelette

Rev is losing business to a new verum designer, Gina, whose doses offer users a more immersive experience. Great world-building and characters, and a nice reversal at the end.

Fare“, by Danny Lore (Fireside Magazine Issue 70, August 2019) Short Story

Deshaun really needs to get to the public kennel, more than his distracted cab driver knows. The “real time” feel of the narrative guides the rising tension.

More Real Than Him“, by Silvia Park (Tor.com, August 7, 2019) Short Story

Morgan steals another designer’s robot, only to strike up a bond with the other woman as she designs it to look and behave like her favorite Korean actor. Oh, that poor robot.

Copies Without Originals“, by Morgan Swim (Translunar Travelers Lounge Issue 1, August 2019) Short Story

A wonderfully drawn character study of a robot who keeps following its programming to maintain an art museum long after the human race has gone extinct (or has it?).

 

 

The Best Short SFF of July 2019

Featured Image from the illustration for “Blood is Another Word for Hunger”, by Xia Gordon

Must Read

FSF 7-8
Cover art by Mondolithic Studios

“Mighty are the Meek and the Myriad”, by Cassandra Khaw (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August 2019) Short Story

After England’s devastating war against the robots ends, the plan for reintegrating the automatons mostly involves “hats and parasols and cutout mustaches made of cheap aluminum”. And also corgis. If that gives you some indication of the tenor of Cassandra Khaw’s id-poking sci-fantasy treat, I’ve got news for you: this is the kind of story that turns on a dime. Full of tragedy and cynicism and caustic wit, and bolstered by the author’s inexhaustible energy and descriptive ingenuity (at one point, a character’s eyes are “like cracked ice…The uneven striations in her irises compounded the effect, invoking the impression that her pupils had somehow shattered.” WTF.), by the end we get the idea the author doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks speculative fiction is supposed to speculate about.

Blood is Another Word for Hunger“, by Rivers Solomon (Tor.com, July 24, 2019) Short Story

Solomon’s crimson-hued tale of Sully, a teenaged slave with “a heart made of teeth” who turns on and kills her captors, is the kind of story that blocks all the emergency exits.  The disturbance caused by Sully’s actions knocks something loose in the ether and she gives birth to Ziza, a fully-grown teenager who died as a slave centuries before. Soon, Sully’s rage births an “army of revenants” in place of the racist whites she exacts her vengeance on. This story keeps the reader suspended somewhere between the malicious logic of a fever dream and the order imposed by a conventional narrative structure. What it doesn’t do is allow the comfort of escape.

More Recommended Stories

creep
Cover art by Red Nose Studio

For He Can Creep“, by Siobhan Carroll (Tor.com, July 10, 2019) Novelette

Christopher Smart lives in an asylum, where Satan looks to hoodwink the beleaguered poet into writing an epic apologia for his benefit. Smart’s loyal cat companion Jeoffry isn’t having any of that. An absurdly entertaining bit of escapism, especially for lit nerds.

Thin Places“, by Kay Chronister (The Dark Issue 50, July 2019) Short Story

The townspeople of Branaugh operate under an uncanny state of affairs, one that does not suffer newcomers well. School teacher Miss Augusta knows what it means when the new lighthouse-keeper’s daughter arrives at her door, and though the other townsfolk implore her to send the girl away, she can’t bring herself to do it. Chronister’s unsettling anti-fable offers a world where community, and the security it promises, is a site of horror rather than of safety.

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

Haskins often writes about characters who sidestep conventional moral boundaries in favor of their own spiritual reality, and while the results are usually capital-D Dark, there is also a poignancy that creeps up on readers willing to reset their own parameters (temporarily, one hopes). “The Brightest Lights of Heaven”, about a pair of childhood best friends who make an unbreakable pact that transcends time and distance, is devilish fun, and quite touching in its own twisted way.

“The Work of Wolves”, by Tegan Moore (Asimov’s Science Fiction, July/Aug 2019) Novella

“I wonder what my dog is thinking” is a premise with more than a few miles on it. In “The Work of Wolves”, author Tegan Moore flips the coin by giving us Sera, an enhanced-intelligence search-and-rescue dog who has to figure out what her new handler is thinking in time to save the day. Engrossing with a nice brisk pace, it’s a quintessential Asimov’s piece: just hard-enough sci-fi to satisfy our inner lizard brain, though with the emphasis squarely on character-driven plotting and action.

Black Matter“, by Vivian Shaw (Pseudopod #655, July 5, 2019) Short Story

The premise of Shaw’s story, in which a consulting necromancer (ahem, contingency communications specialist) for the NTSB investigates a plane crash by interviewing the deceased witnesses, reads like a modern day paranormal fantasy while the narrative builds like something out of pulp-era Weird Tales. It also has the feel of a “pilot episode”, and with its pitch perfect first-person narration and provocative hints of larger forces at work, a return trip would be welcome.

uncanny 29
Cover art by Julie Dillon

How the Trick is Done“, by A.C. Wise (Uncanny Magazine Issue 29, July 2019) Short Story 

There is a cool casualness to A.C. Wise’s prose that contrasts nicely with the sometimes startling events that punctuate her narratives. “How the Trick is Done” is a tale of death and resurrection and revenge, in which Angie, the magician’s assistant/girlfriend (and true progenitor of his most famous trick) decides it’s time to part ways with the man. It’s an understandable choice: the women he uses and discards can do the real magic he takes credit for. The story has an unusual structure that works despite itself—we already know what happens to the magician from the start, yet Wise manages more than a few surprising moments before events come full circle.

The Best Short SFF of June 2019

 

Recommended Stories

Lightspeed 109
Cover by Grandfailure/Fotolia

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

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

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

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

LCRW 39
Cover Art by Cynthia Yuan Cheng

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

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

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

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

a forest or a tree
Art by Samuel Araya

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

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

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

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

The Best Short SFF – March 2019

Featured Image from the cover for Lightspeed Issue 106 by Grandfailure

Must Read

tram car 015
Cover by Stephan Martiniere

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

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

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

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

Highly Regarded

Nightmare 78
Cover by Yupachingping

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

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

Also Recommended

FSF 3-4-2019
Cover by Kent Bash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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