The Best Short SFF of May 2020

I am growing very frustrated with the new wordpress editor, which erased the content of the original post for no reason I can fathom. Here are the recommended stories, but unfortunately I didn’t back up the text so the reviews are lost forever.

Burn, or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super“, by A.T. Greenblatt (Uncanny Magazine Issue 34, May/June 2020)

Decorating with Luke“, by Adam-Troy Castro (Nightmare Magazine Issue 92, May 2020)

Driving with Ghosts“, by Clara Madrigano (The Dark Issue 60, May 2020)

Martian Cinema“, by Gabriela Santiago (Strange Horizons, May 11, 2020)

Salt and Iron“, by Gem Isherwood (Podcastle #625, May 6, 2020)

Out of Body, by Jeffrey Ford (Tor.com Publishing, May 26, 2020)

Sleeping in Metal and Bone“, by Kristi DeMeester (The Dark Issue 60, May 2020)

Sea Change, by Nancy Kress (Tachyon Publications, May 22, 2020)

Clever Jack, Heavy with Stories“, R.K. Duncan (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #304, May 21, 2020)

“Eyes of the Forest”, Ray Nayler (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2020)

The Best Short SFF of November 2019

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

Must Read Stories

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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

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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.

 

The Best Short SFF of July 2019

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

Must Read

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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

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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.

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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 May 2019

Featured Image from the cover art for Apex Magazine Issue 120 by Godwin Akpan

Must Read

Raices (Roots)“, by Joe Ponce (Anathema Magazine Issue 7, May 2019) Short Story

Jerry lives on the US side of the US-Mexico border, recently joined by his long-estranged sister Lola and her son Macho. Lola and her family fled drug traffickers in Veracruz, but the authorities captured her husband David and older son Chucho at the border and they are now in legal limbo while they await their hearing. Then Macho gets a strange infection that gives him tree-like features, and soon the other migrant children follow suit. The emotional exhaustion Jerry experiences while just trying to help his family survive is palpable, while all rage and fear and paranoia of America’s current uptick in anti-immigrant nationalism project onto the children (they might set down roots, literally). “Raices (Roots)” is a gripping and beautifully composed story of people just trying to survive when no good options are available.

The-Dark-Issue-48-220x340The Wilderling“, by Angela Slatter (The Dark Magazine Issue 48, May 2019) Short Story

Readers are so used to getting twists and surprises at the end of a story we forget there are other strategies at the author’s disposal for creating a memorable resolution. Giving away the ending too soon seems counter-intuitive, but that’s just what Angela Slatter does in her story of a woman’s disturbing fascination with a beast-like child (or child-like beast?) that lives in the wild near her home. Once the last act of the story begins, we know with a fair certainty exactly how things will turn out—the trick is that we really, desperately hope it doesn’t happen, and like a maestro Slatter keeps stringing us along until damn near the last sentence.

“New Atlantis”, by Lavie Tidhar (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, May/June 2019) Novella

From the ashes of our broken civilization, the surviving human population fashioned a new utopian world intent on learning from the mistakes of the past. Scattered pieces of the old world remain, treated with novel fascination by the citizenry. 84-year-old Mai relates a story from her youth, of receiving a message from a former lover to meet him in New Atlantis (the London ruins) where he has discovered a working “Millennial Vault” of uploaded consciousnesses living in an artificial reality. Tidhar’s amazing sci-fantasy dreamscape depicts the overlap between a tech-heavy future past and a more pastoral future present, and people living a life at once simple and clear and obvious, but also completely alien. Mai begins by summarizing her tale: “I visited Atlantis. I came back. That is the story. Everything else, as the old poet once said, is just details.” That’s the understatement of a lifetime.

Highly Regarded

Fugue State“, by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due (Apex Magazine Issue 120, May 2019) Short Story

Arthur has lost interest in work and his hobbies, distressing his wife Charlotte. The reason for his dulling intellect seems to be his obsession with a cultish political figure known as The Reverend. Arthur insists he’s never been happier and can’t understand his wife’s objections. When Charlotte investigates the Reverend phenomenon, the answers don’t come in quite the way she expects. The authors take their time setting the table for an ending that is as disquieting as it is unavoidable. It’s tempting to read the “Fugue State” as allegorical to our present political climate, with Arthur suffering from a kind of supernatural Fox News Dad syndrome. But “ignorance is bliss” is an old saying, as old as messianic figures offering truth and salvation at a terrifying cost.

Dune Song“, by Suyi Davies Okungbowa (Apex Magazine Issue 120, May 2019) Short Story

With the world swallowed up by desert except for the village of Isiuwa, the elders keep the population confined by decree—anyone who leaves Isiuwa endangers all who remain. Nata’s mam was one such deserter, and Nata’s determination to know what her mother found outside the gates supersedes any poorly reasoned rules society imposes on her. “Dune Song” asks us, in expressive and lyrical prose, if freedom is worth the cost for its own sake rather than for the promise of reward.

Fireside 67All the Hometowns You Can’t Stay Away From“, by Izzy Wasserstein (Fireside Magazine Issue 67, May 2019) Short Story

Teenagers make great protagonists because they exist at a turning point between the youthful desire to transgress boundaries and the adult desire to uphold them. In Wasserstein’s multiverse drama, the 16-year-old narrator knows she’s living in a simulated universe and can “Snap” from one iteration of the world to another. She escapes her native reality, where her mother is terminally ill, to check in on alternate versions of their life in rundown South Topeka; sometimes they are happy, sometime they aren’t even there, and sometimes she runs across another version of herself looking for or running away from the same thing. Every time she Snaps, she alters each new reality just by her coming and going, but no one else is better or worse off for it. Anyone who has ever felt like a stranger in their own hometown can relate.

Also Recommended

“Canst Thou Draw Out the Leviathan”, by Christopher Caldwell (Uncanny Magazine Issue 28, May/June 2019) Short Story

I must have an affinity for weird whaling fiction. Like Nibedita Sen’s excellent “Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” (Nightmare Magazine #69, June 2018), Caldwell’s story draws the reader into a tense sea voyage tinged with supernatural menace. Beyond that, the two stories couldn’t be more different. Where Sen depicted a rapid and surreal decent into madness, Caldwell crosses whaling lore and the legacy of the Middle Passage in his tale of John Wood, a former slave working as a carpenter on a whaling ship who receives warning from a god of his ancestors about the ship’s fate. Complicating the “will they believe me in time?” narrative are his shipmates’ attitudes about John’s race and sexuality. Great characters, high stakes, and a well-executed plot.

BCS 277The Thirty-Eight Hundred Bone Coat“, by R.K. Duncan (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #277, May 9, 2019) Novelette

Navid’s job is to dredge the river for bones that his father can use to enchant the coats his mother makes. A nobleman comes to them offering a lifetime of riches for the titular item, which would make the wearer impervious to harm. With only thirty days to complete the task and his family’s honor, not to mention their financial future, at risk, Navid gambles his life and his freedom on securing the materials they need in time. An intense story with a captivating sense of urgency.

The Wiley“, by Sara Saab (The Dark Magazine Issue 48, May 2019) Short Story

This wild, alt-history sci-fi horror story follows Manon, a rare woman tech guru in Silicon Valley who struck gold during the dot-com craze of the early oughts. A spectral being borne of her own loneliness haunts her, though it may be her salvation when her revolutionary software spawns a devastating computer virus. Thoughtful and circumspect as much as it is creepy and discomfiting, with gooseflesh-inducing visuals at the climax.

Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island“, by Nibedita Sen (Nightmare Magazine Issue 80, May 2019) Short Story

Sen has a knack for drawing blood from a stone in her stories; she excels at creating expansive narratives from self-imposed formal restrictions. In this very short tale of terror (or possibly wonder? A little of both?) she never deviates from the guidelines the title establishes but still paints a broad and memorable portrait of the history of a near-annihilated people’s diaspora. There is also an undercurrent of satire with some pointed, if affectionate, jabs at academic writing (“If I have to deal with one more white feminist quoting Kristeva at me…”).

“Gremlin”, by Carrie Vaughn (Asimov’s Science Fiction, May/June 2019) Novella

Vaughn’s generational epic typifies the brand of widescreen, high-concept, character-and-action-driven novellas Asimov’s is famous for. It begins with a Russian fighter pilot who finds an unusual creature (with an unusual appetite) riding along on her missions against the Nazis in WW2 and follows the legacy of her family’s relationship with the creature through the centuries to come. The author’s concise prose and her eye for detail serve the story well.

 

 

 

The Best Short SFF – January 2019

Featured Image from this month’s Fireside Magazine: Illustration by Galen Dara for Mary Soon Lee’s “Lord Serpent”

Must Read

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Cover Art: “Galbourne Ridge” by Tyler Edlin

The Beast Weeps with One Eye” by Morgan Al-Moor (Beneath Ceaseless Skies #268, January 3, 2019) Short Story

The Bjebu have been chased from their homeland by a murderous horde of ravens; in desperation, High Sister Nwere strikes a deal with Babawa-Kunguru, the Keeper of Sorrows, for the safety of a new homeland. She soon learns that the cost may be too much for them to bear. Riveting action and suspense from the first sentence to the last, with a brilliant and complex protagonist and breathtaking worldbuilding.

 

Highly Regarded

Hand Me Downs” by Maria Haskins (GigaNotoSaurus, January 2019) Short Story

The story of a teenage troll (the “real” kind, not the internet kind) named Tilda who wants to go to a famous dance academy while battling stereotypes about her identity. A heartfelt story about self-love and family ties, with nice touches of macabre humor.

The Great Train Robbery” by Lavie Tidhar (Apex Magazine Issue 116, January 2019) Novelette

In a dream-like fantasy world called the Escapement, the Stranger realizes that agents of the Colossi plan to rob the train he is on to acquire a dangerous new weapon. But is it too late to stop them? A carnivalesque reverie told in classic cliffhanger style.

 

Also Recommended

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Cover Art: “Pearls and Stardust” by Julie Dillon

Nothing to Fear, Nothing to Fear” by Senaa Ahmad (Uncanny Magazine Issue 26, January/February 2019) Short Story

11-year-old Amina has a mad scientist for an older sister who insists on using her as a guinea pig to test her “mechanical marvel”. A sweet-natured tale of sibling rivalry and bonding.

“The Savannah Problem” by Adam-Troy Castro (Analog Science Fiction and Fact, January/February 2019) Novella

Draiken abducts a hired killer and attempts to get him on board for his plan to fight the conspiracy while they is pursued by a mysterious ship with lethal intent. The latest in a cycle that began with “Sleeping Dogs“.

On the Origin of Specie” by Vajra Chandrasekera (Nightmare Magazine Issue 76, January 2019) Short Story

A tax protester is thrown into a hellish, lightless tower that slowly funnels its prisoners toward the bottom.

“The Willows” by Delilah S. Dawson (Uncanny Magazine Issue 26, January/February 2019) Novelette [will add link when available on 2/5]

An unsettling variation on Algernon Blackwood’s classic horror story, which finds a young music star and her partner haunted by the sinister history and character of the family retreat where they’re recording their new album.

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Cover Art: “Playing Cello in the Sea Against the Night Sky with the Red Moon” by grandfailure

Beyond Comprehension” by Russell Nichols (Fireside Magazine Issue 63, January 2019) Short Story

Brian is a father with dyslexia who feels left behind when his young son Andre receives an implant that downloads books directly into his brain. Very moving.

Burrowing Machines” by Sara Saab (The Dark Issue 44, January 2019) Short Story

A chilling monster story about a London tunneling project that unleashes something terrible.

Venus in Bloom” by Lavie Tidhar (Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 148, January 2019) Short Story

A bittersweet vignette about life on a colonized Venus, as loved ones remember a recently deceased florist who wanted the planet to remain a “wild untamed” place free from the ravages of terraforming.

 

 

2018 Recommended Reading List (Part 3)

Featured Image from the cover art for “Strange Waters”, by Julia Griffin.

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)

Second World Fantasy

Desert Island Pick

A Song of Home, the Organ Grinds” by James Beamon [Lightspeed Magazine Issue 98, July 2018; 5990 words]

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Cover Art by Saleha Chowdhury

I could probably conjure a thousand words to describe this fantastical re-imagining of the Crimean War, but you only need three: Zombie. Attack. Monkeys.
The deck shakes; all other sound is muted as our six starboard cannons fire wicked harpoons. Attached to the harpoons are giant chains. Three harpoons punch through the hull of the Russian ironclad. Our airship jerks as the chains go taut.
The Russian guns are still swinging skyward and nearly have us sighted. These cannons have caused the iron-hulled British vessel to belch black clouds. I imagine what they would do to our hull of wood.
The organ grinder slides the copper plate into his organ and closes the lid. He turns the cranks slow at first as if he is fighting it. Faster, now faster, “The March of the Janissaries” fills the air like the keening wail of a thousand grieving mothers.
The monkeys burst from the hold, a faceless black tide with brief flashes of white. They rush around us, past and over the organ grinder and me. I feel a million cold hands. They speed past so fast they sound like a crowd shushing me. Shhh . . . shhh.
They spread beyond us, onto the chains, where they stream down to the ironclad ship. The black furred bodies seem like oil spilling down the three chains, like the dark fingers of Şeytan.

The Best of the Rest

The Privilege of the Happy Ending” by Kij Johnson [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 143, August 2018; 15,501 words]

Ada and her amazing talking chicken Blanche must run from the unstoppable horde of deadly wastoures ravishing the land. This may or may not end well.

The wastoures came. The trees shook and the tall grasses shivered, first from animals fleeing, every deer and mouse and marten and vole running for its life, but then from the wastoures themselves. They trampled the grasses as they poured like a flood across the clearing, eddied wherever they found some living thing to eat, crashed against the trees and scoured the bark with their claws and talons, until swarming they swept past. But always more.
The night was bright-mooned, alas. Ada saw a fallow doe pulled down in her flight (for she would not run faster than her fawn) and skeletonized quicker than a hen lays an egg, and the fawn even faster than she. The wastoures swirled around a pile of stones in the clearing until they unearthed a fox den and ate the kits. There was a great anguished roaring in the forest, which Blanche whispered surely was a bear pulled from her hiding place and killed.

We Ragged Few” by Kate Alice Marshall [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #261, September 27, 2018; 25,051 words]

The rot hounds have breached the border, and Reyna knows that means her sister’s prophecy will come true. Convincing their leader Talgrun that they must find a new land for their people proves difficult, if not impossible.

“Omens are the crone’s art,” Ymaera said. “So what say you, crone?”
The old woman cocked her head one way and then the other, and in the thatch her crow cackled a laugh. “She speaks of omens but stinks of rot,” she said. “Of things not new and dead but old and dead. Old wounds, old grudges, old corpses cold and pretty.”
She split her lips in a yellow grin. Evahr’s hand gripped brief and tight on my shoulder, as if I’d be fool enough to leap, to shed blood beneath the beam. Acidic anger pulsed in my gut, but I was long accustomed to its slow, liquid pain. I no longer bit at every provocation like a wounded animal.
“This is not about my sister,” I said. Our sister, Imri’s and mine. Titha. Cold-born, blood still as a corpse’s and yet living. The cold spoke prophecy, and since Korohn’s time we had listened. Until Titha’s final Telling.
“Not about your sister, you say. Yet the first words you spoke to me were ‘we should not have stayed,’” Talgrun said, settling back in his chair as if weary of me.
Perhaps I was growing more temperate as the cold leached years from my bones. I did not tell him that my sister had warned us—that she had died to warn us, and we had not heeded her. Two years now since Titha had spoken her prophecy, and still Talgrun listened to the crows and their mistress.
“Your husband has brought a bounty, and you will share in it,” Talgrun said. “Celebrate, and put this beast out of your mind. The threat is no more. You slew it, and a fine trophy it will make for your home.” Your home, not his. He did not claim it, as was his right: a final insult masked as a gift.
Perhaps I had not grown so temperate after all.

Beneath the Sugar Sky” by Seanan McGuire [Tor.com Publishing; 39,193 words]

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Cover photo illustration by Sean Rodwell; Cover design by FORT

The sequel to McGuire’s Hugo-and-Nebula-winning Every Heart a Doorway. This time Rini, a young girl from a nonsense world, crashes Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, looking for her mother Sumi. There’s just one problem with her request: Sumi was murdered as a teenager, and never had any children. Rini is not deterred.

“—and that’s why she can’t be dead,” concluded Rini. Her story had been long and rambling and at times nonsensical, full of political coups and popcorn-ball fights, which were like snowball fights, only stickier. She looked around at the rest of them, expression somewhere between triumphant and hopeful. She had made her case, laid it out in front of them one piece at a time, and she was ready for her reward. “So please, can we go and tell her to stop? I need to exist. It’s important.”
“I’m so sorry, dear, but death doesn’t work that way in this world,” said Eleanor. Each word seemed to pain her, driving her shoulders deeper and deeper into their slump. “This is a logical world. Actions have consequences here. Dead is dead, and buried is buried.”
Rini frowned. “That’s silly and it’s stupid and I’m not from a logical world, and neither is my mother, so that shouldn’t matter for us. I need her back. I need to be born. It’s important. I’m important.”
“Everyone is important,” said Eleanor.
Rini looked around at the rest of them. “Please,” she pleaded. “Please, make the silly old woman stop being awful, and give me back my mother.”

Strange Waters” by Samantha Mills [Strange Horizons, April 2, 2018; 6183 words]

Mika is lost at sea and desperate to be reunited with her children. Finding her homeland isn’t the problem; finding the right year is.

Strange waters flowed beneath the hull of her fishing boat, illuminating the midnight darkness with phosphorescent swirls of yellow and green. The thick scent of pepper and brine tickled her nose, and she knew that a juggernaut swam far below, vast and merciless and consuming shield fish by the thousands.
Mika squinted up at a familiar night sky, at the Dancing Girl, the Triplets, the Mad Horse. She had fished off this coast for nearly twenty years, eight of them lost in time. She’d seen green waters, pink waters, blue. She’d been to Candorrea when it was a loose collection of fishing villages, and she’d been to Candorrea when the buildings were so tall she could hardly look at them without shaking. No matter what century she washed up in, however, the constellations were there to guide her home.
It was a windless night. Mika pulled out her oars and set course for Maelstrom, keen to find out when she had landed.

Blessings” by Naomi Novik [Uncanny Magazine Issue 22, May/June 2018; 2267 words]

A sideways reimagining of Sleeping Beauty, in which all the fairies get hammered and the blessings go a little off script.

“Oh, wealth’s all well and good,” said the third, from out of the depths of her dark cloak. She was a shadowed fairy, and rather alarming even to her companions, but she lived nearer the father’s house than any of the others, in a deep cave somewhere up in the mountains. The baron had known better than to slight her, of course, but his lady had gone beyond that, and sent the invitation with a personal note written in her own hand that they very much hoped to have the pleasure of her company, and a small package of sweetmeats. It was not the traditional sort of courting sent to shadowed fairies—the kind of lord who really wanted their attendance was more likely to send a gift of the knucklebones of plague victims—but the sweetmeats had been carefully made with rotted walnuts and pig’s blood, and at the feast, the fairy had discreetly been served a plate of raw calves’ liver dressed with a sauce of nightshade on a plate of tarnished silver. She had refused the fairy wine, but the hostess had quickly had a word with her steward, and a great goblet of steaming beef blood fresh from a newly slaughtered ox had been brought to the table, laced heavily with old brandy, and the fairy had drunk the entire thing down.
She now covered her mouth and belched out a thin trail of smoke. “Well and good indeed,” she went on, “until someone takes it from you,” and rose from the table in turn.

The Thought That Counts” by K.J. Parker [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #250, April 26, 2018; 8683 words]

bcs 250
Cover Art: “Legendary Passage” by Jereme Peabody

Lawyer, moral philosopher, and fraudulent alchemist Constantius takes up the case of a young artist named Sinneva accused of murdering her clients with the bewitched portraits she paints. Suing for her acquittal proves a little too easy for the arrogant Constantius.

“My learned friend made a perfunctory effort to connect the status of the alleged victims to their dreadful fate, as though my client had sought to strike down the flowers of our society. The fact is, all her customers came to her clamouring to be painted; she didn’t choose them, they chose her. Twenty-eight rich, famous, influential, talented men and women were painted by my client and have suffered no ill-effects. Once again, the facts don’t simply speak for themselves, they shout at the tops of their voices.
“Recently, the wise and distinguished Senate of this city ruled unambiguously that there is no such thing as witchcraft or sorcery. But witchcraft and sorcery, I put it to you, are precisely what my client is accused of; tacitly, because to say so openly would be to invite ridicule. Therefore, for consistency’s sake, if for no other reason, I call on this rational, truth-loving court to dismiss these ridiculous charges and let my poor, long-suffering client go free. I rest my case.”
God, I’m good, though I do say so myself. The magistrate shook his head, blinked a couple of times like a dazzled rabbit, and said the magic words: case dismissed. You could have heard a pin drop.
I left, quickly.

“The Lady of Butterflies” by Y.M. Pang [The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, November/December 2018; 8952 words]

Lady Rikara, First Sword of the Kejalin Empire, becomes the companion and protector of Morieth, a mysterious woman who appears out of nowhere in the Emperor’s garden with only fleeting impressions of her life before. Soon, political circumstances threaten to cause a rift between Rikara’s personal feelings and her loyalty to the Empire.

Morieth stopped, saw the Queen, and fell into the bow we’d practiced. Eriha approached with measured steps, gems dangling from her gathered hair. Her face was perfectly painted, carefully blank. Her eyes locked on Morieth. I could’ve been one of the asters.
“I hope you are enjoying your stay,” Eriha said. “The Emperor was most…welcoming, was he not?” She raised a hand, and I bit back a warning. I remembered how she’d killed that tiger. Even now, many years later, a single blow from her would break bones or worse. But Eriha only slipped index and middle fingers around a lock of Morieth’s hair. I shook my head. What was I thinking? This was the Queen, she wouldn’t do something like that, and even if she did.…
Eriha rolled the fine gold strands between her fingers. “Such an oddity you are, appearing out of nowhere and capturing the Emperor’s heart. What boneskin magic did you use, butterfly girl? What is your goal?”
Morieth spoke. Her Kejalin was accented but unhesitating. “No goal. Just…survive.”
I didn’t know what to make of her answer. Nor did Eriha, it seemed, for she dropped her hand, held Morieth’s eyes for a moment, then turned away. Eriha stalked off, trailed by silent attendants, and I struggled to find the right words to say to Morieth.

The Sweetness of Honey and Rot” by A. Merc Rustad [Beneath Ceaseless Skies #254, June 21, 2018; 8915 words]

Jiteh’s village is protected by the Life Tree, which demands human sacrifice to sustain itself. After taking her father and her beloved twin, Jiteh questions whether the Tree’s protection is worth the cost.

Jiteh pounds her sandals against the cobbled path that loops behind their family hut to the bee hives stacked in tiers. Fog sweeps in thick damp breaths across her village as if the ancient mountains far beyond the forest have sweated off layers of mist.
The bees are slow, readying for the winter. She walks the hives, brushing her fingertips against the wooden slats. “I wish I was a bee,” she tells them. “I’d fly from here, far beyond the Boundary. I’d find flowers no one has ever seen and make the sweetest honey and give none of it to the Tree.”
The bees don’t answer her in words, but she feels their sluggish sympathy. Ever since she was little, barely upright on her feet, she has loved the hives. She’d sit amidst the swarms, stick her chubby hands into the honeycomb without being stung. The Treekeepers blessed her skill and named her one of the tenders of the hives.
She loves the bees, even though they can’t help her. No one can save her brother.
Jiteh presses her palms against her mouth and screams.

Don’t miss Parts 1 and 2 for the rest of my 2018 favorites.

You can also check out my monthly Best Of columns for more great recommendations!

2018 Recommended Reading List (Part 1)

Featured image from the cover art for The Dark Issue 37, “Boy with a Torch Facing Smoke Monsters” by grandfailure

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 fit into 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 links when possible.

Short Stories (<7500 words), Novelettes (<17,500), and Novellas (<40,000)

Dark Fantasy/Horror

Desert Island Pick

Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” by Nibedita Sen [Nightmare Magazine Issue 69, June 2018; 5402 words]

nightmare 69
Cover Art by Andrey Kiselev

The Guild of Natural Philosophers is sponsoring Captain Bodkin’s final whaling voyage; their representative on the ship, Arcon Glass, has some unusual – and grisly – demands in exchange for the Guild’s support.

North of this organ he has placed a preserved section of the dense mass of tissue that lies beneath the oil organ; sailors call it the junk, for it provides no oil and has no use. His research, he explained to me, concerns itself with the spermaceti organ’s role in producing the unearthly noises that whales issue forth. He proceeded to demonstrate by connecting a number of wires and waxed cotton threads to the sac and tissue, then setting up a number of small drums at various angles to both. From his tools he produced a small instrument that he pressed against the soft swollen side of the wax and glycerine-filled organ and blew on—and lo, a low note echoed and swelled to great size and shivered off all corners of the room in a manner that rose the hairs on my arms.

The Best of the Rest

“Bondye Bon” by Monique L. Desir [FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 5, Winter 2018; 4810 words]

The slaves of Andre Plantation rose up and overthrew their captors, and helped establish the United Tribes of Mother Africa in what was once the Southeastern United States of America. So why does Heloise’s Manman keep that creepy white man locked in her closet?

The familiarity of his face frightens me. He is dressed in ratty clothes: a grimy black shirt with frills at the throat and his sleeves with their stained ruffles set off the sickly paleness of his skin. He doesn’t try to move — no point in doing that, his wrists are shackled together with a chain, connected to a bolted plate in the wall. He looks up at me, eyes bright in the dark and smiles, baring his white, straight teeth.

It’s Easy to Shoot a Dog” by Maria Haskins [Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #260, September 13, 2018; 4470 words]

bcs 260
Cover Art: “Swamp Relic” by Piotr Dura

As a child Susanna struck an unholy bargain to acquire her beloved dog; a decade later the bill comes due.

They even burned a witch in town, just after Easter. She went to look, but though the woman’s hair was shorn and she was already burning, Susanna could tell it wasn’t anyone she knew. After, when the bones still smouldered, the priest in his stiff black cassock puffed himself up before the crowd, assuring them the witch’s spells and crafts would all unravel now that she was dead. Susanna stood there until dusk, waiting to see if anything would change, but the world remained the same as far as she could tell.

Triquetra” by Kirstyn McDermott [Tor.com, September 5, 2018; 11,826 words]

Snow White is all grown up now, living in a castle with her husband and daughter. Her wicked stepmother and that awful mirror are locked away, but one of them may be the key to saving her daughter from a horror worse than she faced in her own youth.

“You—” I cough, backing away from the table, away from the woman now supporting herself by its edge. “You spelled me!”
“Only your memory, Fairest. My needs are precise.”
“You—you wretched creature! I wish you had died on my wedding day!”
Smiling, she sinks back down into her chair. “No, you don’t. There is too much kindness in your heart, even now, even for such a wretched creature as myself.”

Black Fanged Thing” by Sam Rebelein [Shimmer Magazine Issue 41, January 2018; 4823 words]

Every sundown, a strange beast stalks the streets of town dragging its clatter of bottles behind it. Each bottle contains a slip of paper, one for every adult. If anyone wishes to know what is written on theirs, all they have to do is ask…

The pathetic, hunched little figure shuffled laboriously past Jude’s home, tugging those bottles on twine behind itself. Sisyphus against thousands of boulders.
The thing passed, and vanished around the bend at the other end of the lane. The neighborhood became silent. And the sun sank.
Phil sniffed. “Tomorrow, then,” he said.
“Tomorrow,” said Jude.

“Yard Dog” by Tade Thompson [FIYAH Literary Magazine Issue 7, Summer 2018; 2947 words]

fiyah 7
Cover Art by Mariama Alizor

Yard Dog plays music so glorious he can reduce the room to tears, turn the drinks sour, render all drugs useless. No one knows who he is or where he comes from, but before long someone comes looking for him.

Shed said it slower and louder. “Please. Have you. Seen my. BROTHER. Thank you.”
“I don’t know you or your brother. How did you get in, anyway? We’re not open. Get the fuck out of here.”
The way I heard it, Shed just smiled at her and went to use the john, but never came back out. Hours later when tempers had cooled somewhat, Sue got curious about him, had one of the men check the bathroom. They found his raggedy clothes, a trail of blood, strips of skin, meat and other fluids leading from the door to one of the stalls. Al said it was like he had shed his skin, which is how come we called him Shed. It wasn’t till later that we figured he was looking for Yard.

One for Sorrow, Two for Joy” by LaShawn M. Wanak [Fireside Magazine Issue 54, April 2018; 3471 words]

The Undertaker knows how to get the crows to take people’s sorrows away when they lose a loved one; but they also want something from her she refuses to give.

Walking down a sidewalk, hot tears streaming down her cheeks. Not aware of where she is, only knows that she’s been walking, walking so long that there are blisters on her feet, but the pain is nothing, nothing. A crow lands at her feet, pecking at the pavement before looking up at her with one black, bright eye.
—what you looking at? Think you can bring her back? Unless you can take away my pain, go, shoo, take off!

In the End, It Always Turns Out the Same” by A.C. Wise [The Dark Issue 37, June 2018; 3565 words]

One by one, the children on Richard McGinty’s school bus route are disappearing. So the sheriff does what any good sheriff would do, and calls the Super Teen Detective Squad – who’ve got their own issues to work out.

Lately she’s been having recurring dreams about murdering Greg. In fact, she’s dreamt about murdering every single member of the Teen Detective Squad. More than once, she’s woken with blood on her hands. She has no idea where the blood comes from. The only thing she knows for certain is that it isn’t hers. Sometimes she wonders if she’s spent so much time thinking about becoming a monster that she’s turned into one after all.

Space-Based Science Fiction

Desert Island Pick

Umbernight” by Carolyn Ives Gilman [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 137, February 2018; 18,059 words]

clarkesworld 137
Cover Art: “Arrival” by Artur Sadlos

The colonists on Dust don’t know much of what happens to the surface of the planet when it faces Umber – the planet’s second star – they just know it’s deadly. When much needed supplies are dropped right in the middle of Umbernight, a brave few will find out why.

The road had sprouted all manner of creatures covered with plates and shells—little ziggurats and stepped pyramids, spirals, and domes. In between them floated bulbs like amber, airborne eggplants. They spurted a mucus that ate away any plastic it touched.
We topped a rise to find the valley before us completely crusted over with life, and no trace of a path. No longer could we avoid trampling through it, crushing it underfoot. Ahead, a translucent curtain suspended from floating, gas-filled bladders hung across our path. It shimmered with iridescent unlight.

The Best of the Rest

Traces of Us” by Vanessa Fogg [GigaNotoSaurus, March 1, 2018; 6572 words]

Two sentient starships cross paths in the vastness of space, each carrying a passenger that has been waiting a long time to connect with the other.

The ship contained the memories of over a thousand individuals. Recorded patterns of synaptic firing, waves of electrical and biochemical activity: the preserved symphonies of a human mind.
The minds currently conscious in and around the ship were not the same as their flesh-and-blood progenitors, the human beings of Old Earth. These new minds had had centuries to meld with one another and evolve; to modify themselves. They delighted in sensory inputs unimaginable to Homo sapiens—some could sense the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Some could consciously track the movement of a single electron or see all the radiating energies of a star.
Yet the second ship requested the recording of a single unmodified mind from the first.

Fleeing Oslyge” by Sally Gwylan [Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 140, May 2018; 9216 words]

After the invaders overrun her home town, Senne takes refuge with a group of soldiers searching for the rest of their unit. Not everyone in the group may be trustworthy.

Better the cold mist and these days of hunger and endless walking than trying to hide in broken Oslyge. Better this than letting myself be taken to the camps the Tysthänder, the Peace Hands, claim are for our safety. Our safety in this time of transition; that’s what their bulletins said. No one is sure whether the invaders—“project administrators” as they call themselves—are of human stock, as we are, or are alien.
Their guards are human enough.

“Inscribed on Dark Water” by Gregor Hartmann [Interzone #277, September/October 2018; 8205 words]

interzone 277
Cover Art by Vince Haig

Olani is a young marine biologist interning at a fuel refinery on the frontier planet Zephyr. She’s not getting much out of her time there: most of the crew either ignores her or treats her with disdain and she basically just mops up shit all day. When an inspection crew comes to the plant she has an opportunity to advance her career and she must decide if she’s the kind of person who will do whatever it takes to get ahead.

Olani was a child when Pico erupted. The supervolcano vomited up so much gas and debris that Zephyr’s albedo increased. Light bounced off the cloud tops and back into space instead of heating the atmosphere. The temperature fell inexorably. As a kid, Olani had fun doing unusual things like playing in snow in an equatorial city. Only later did she understand why adults were whispering and crying.

It was touch and go for a long time. If the sea had frozen over, the oxygen produced by phytoplankton wouldn’t have been released to the atmosphere and everyone would have suffocated. Ocean, bless them, had kept that from happening. If you were looking for heroes of applied marine biology, Ocean was the place to find them.

“Prophet of the Roads” by Naomi Kritzer [Infinity’s End, Solaris; 4721 words]

The Engineer was an AI that once shaped the course of human development; now it exists only in fragments. With the solar system mired in violent conflict, Luca hopes to reunite the fragments and return human society to a state of peace and prosperity.

I was on a ship in orbit, so I didn’t watch people die; I went down, searching for survivors, since we’d been told they were well-prepared, defiant, probably equipped with pressure suits and subdomes and any number of other possibilities. Instead, we found bodies of civilians. In the moments before death, people clung to one another, uselessly trying to shield their loved ones from the vacuum of space that was rushing in around them.
In the dream, I look for the Engineer, but do not find it. Everything is destroyed. Everything.

The Hydraulic Emperor” by Arkady Martine [Uncanny Magazine Issue 20, January/February 2018; 6601 words]

Kinesis Industrial One hires Mallory Iheji to win an auction for a rare and mysterious Qath box. The reward – a long lost film made by her favorite artist – should be more than worth her risk, but the Qath only accept personal sacrifices as payment and more than a few participants are willing to give up anything to get it.

I’m not into aliens the way the Qath groupies are into aliens. A Qath box doesn’t do anything. It doesn’t tell you anything about someone else’s mind; it won’t let you out of yourself, even for a minute. It’s just not human, which apparently gets to some people: the strangeness of it, of owning something made by otherwise life, otherwise minds. The Qath are the only aliens we’ve got, and they don’t interact with us much—but they like their auctions. Their auctions and their little boxes. What Kinesis Industrial wanted with one I wasn’t sure I wanted to know.

The Wait is Longer Than You Think” by Adrian Simmons [GigaNotoSaurus, May 1, 2018; 7813 words]

Like most humans, John is a social animal. He’s marooned on a remote planet with a Kinri named Colophinanoc and the Kinri can’t conceive of why anyone would require social interaction to maintain their mental health. And any possible rescue is years away.

Colophinanoc was a captive audience. It was crucial that Colophinanoc didn’t feel like a captive audience.
If that happened, Colophinanoc would surely suggest that they leave off the fishing boat and work on the traps—which they did separately. It had not taken long for Colophinanoc to come up with a dozen or more tasks that they did separately.
He waited; watched the sunken fan tree where they had herded the fish. In his impatience, the words came to fast. He couldn’t wait anymore. “Yeah, so there we are, Sully and I, trying not to bust out laughing at Nanooni and—” the slightest shiver runs through the reed boat, Colophinanoc shifting, Colophinanoc getting sick of him.

The Freeze-Frame Revolution by Peter Watts [Tachyon Publications; 41,275 words]

freeze frame rev
Cover Art by Elizabeth Story

The starship Eriophora treks across the galaxy, waking various crew members for a few days every thousand years or so when it needs assistance building gates for other ships to fast-travel through. These are not ideal conditions to stage a mutiny, but Sunday Ahzmundin is going to try anyway.

Back when we first shipped out I played this game with myself. Every time I thawed, I’d subtract the duration of our voyage from the date of our departure; then check to see when we’d be if Eriophora were a time machine, if we’d been moving back through history instead of out through the cosmos. Oh look: all the way back to the Industrial Revolution in the time it took us to reach our first build. Two builds took us to the Golden Age of Islam, seven to the Shang Dynasty.
I guess it was my way of trying to keep some kind of connection, to measure this most immortal of endeavors on a scale that meat could feel in the gut. It didn’t work out, though. Did exactly the opposite in fact, ended up rubbing my nose in the sheer absurd hubris of even trying to contain the Diaspora within the pitiful limits of earthbound history.

(Though The Freeze-Frame Revolution is slightly over the word limit, the author considers it a novella and Hugo rules allow some leeway for stories within twenty percent of the limit if the committee deems it appropriate. I am unsure if other awards have similar caveats.)

Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries) by Martha Wells [Tor.com Publishing; 32,446 words]

Murderbot takes a job protecting a group of scientists who are trying to negotiate the return of their data from the company that fired them, but its true goal is recovering information about its own troubled past.

“I’m not your crew. I’m not a human. I’m a construct. Constructs and bots can’t trust each other.”
It was quiet for ten precious seconds, though I could tell from the spike in its feed activity it was doing something. I realized it must be searching its databases, looking for a way to refute my statement. Then it said, Why not?
I had spent so much time pretending to be patient with humans asking stupid questions. I should have more self-control than this. “Because we both have to follow human orders. A human could tell you to purge my memory. A human could tell me to destroy your systems.”
I thought it would argue that I couldn’t possibly hurt it, which would derail the whole conversation.
But it said, There are no humans here now.
I realized I had been trapped into this conversational dead end, with the transport pretending to need this explained in order to get me to articulate it to myself. I didn’t know who I was more annoyed at, myself or it. No, I was definitely more annoyed at it.

The list continues with parts 2 and 3.

You can also check out my monthly Best Of columns for more great recommendations!

The Rack – Zine Reviews for the Week of December 8, 2018

Tor.com, 11/14/2018

In Ruthanna Emrys’ new novelette “The Word Made Flesh and Soul”, the Originators wrote their ancient religious texts in Lloala, a language that can cause a physical metamorphosis in the utterer. A conservative, all-male cabal of scholars restrict access to the texts, but for a select few students who can view them under supervision. Young Lloala scholar Polymede is a novelty, a rare female student mentored by the stodgy Dr. Rallis. Polymede and her girlfriend Rish construct a radical new interpretation of the Originators’ texts but Dr. Rallis dismisses their findings out of hand, and Polymede forges Rallis’ sponsorship to present their findings to the editors of a respected Lloala Journal. The story offers salient criticisms of patriarchal hegemony in academia and the first half of the story, in which Polymede’s and Rish’s resolve to present their findings despite having little to no chance of success, is an appealing exercise in intellectual fantasy. The second half of the story, where the two women present in front of the editorial board, is too obvious in laying the groundwork for a pat resolution.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #265

BCS 265The two stories in this issue share the theme of fathers trying to protect their young sons.
Harald and Solveig are married scientists who study trolls in the wild in T.S. McAdams’ “Feral Attachments at Kulle Bland Bergen”. Trolls stole their 4-year-old son, Bragi, from them years before; when they come across a feral child in the woods, they take him home, suspecting (but uncertain) that the boy may be Bragi. This story perked my curiosity early on but did not hold it. I enjoyed the descriptions of Harald and Solveig’s field study, but I never got invested in either of them or in their grief over losing their son. Internal conflicts bat around while little happens in terms of plot, and at the end someone makes a choice and they get on with their lives.
Boden takes his young son Tal to the fights to watch his gladiator hero, the champion Branco, battle a challenger called The Drum in Dan Mickelthwaite’s “How the Mighty”. The fight eats up most of the word count while Branco and Drum remain a symbolic presence. For the two central characters, the stakes are minimal. I liked Boden and Tal and found their relationship heartwarming; Tal is rooting for the champ and has a lot of emotion invested in his hero’s victory, as children do. For his part, Boden has a bet riding on Branco’s victory. The fights are no place for a child, but the author gives no service to the implications of bringing a child to watch a bloodsport (it’s a sword-fight to the death). Boden’s main concern is keeping his son safe in a place that’s unsafe for most adults, much less a child. Moral dubitability aside, other than its second world setting there is no real speculative element.

Uncanny Magazine Issue 25

uncanny 25Amira is the servant and protector of noble-born Anyang in Isabel Yap’s “How to Swallow the Moon”. Amira has fallen in love with her charge and grows more anxious as Anyang fields suitors. It’s easy to get lost in Yap’s dazzling, melodious prose, and therefore forgivable the story is longer than it needs to be. There are some nice climactic twists once Yap stretches Amira’s unrequited longing to the breaking point. I also enjoyed the way the legend of a dragon-like monster called the Moon-Eater weaves into the tale. The ending satisfies even if the denouement struggles to find the right ending beat. Not among my favorites of Yap’s stories, but still a better-than-decent yarn.
All manner of magical creatures are totally NOT pining after the titular character in T. Kingfisher’s super short “The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society”. Three faeries, a selkie, and a pooka get drunk and swap stories of their encounters with the lusty Rose, who used them while they thought they were seducing her. The author’s trademark cantankerous humor and her knack for dramatic irony are the stars of the show. It’s a fun little time filler.
Naomi Kritzer’s “The Thing About Ghost Stories” is a matryoshka doll of a tale in which Leah, an academic who specializes in ghost stories, is unwittingly living a ghost story of her own. As usual, Kritzer’s ability to balance multiple threads, themes, and layers of meaning is impressive: the subtle and manipulative, but not insincere, way Leah has of drawing stories out of her subjects; her self-consciously pedantic way of classifying the stories; the way she describes watching her mother suffer from Alzheimer’s as living with a ghost.
Monica Valentinelli’s “My Name is Cybernetic Model XR389F and I Am Beautiful” has fun fiddling around with Asimov’s three laws when a scientist programs a “male” cyborg to harass a “female” one. A clever, but one-joke premise. Cassandra Khaw’s flashy apocalyptic fantasy “Monologue by an unnamed mage, recorded at the brink of the end” comes as advertised, as two magic-wielding lovers kept apart in life get to make magic together when Armageddon hits.

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

** “The Thing About Ghost Stories”, by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Magazine Issue 25, Nov 2018) Novelette

The Rack – Zine Reviews for Early May

The Latest Issues of Asimov’s, Uncanny, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Analog, and GigaNotoSaurus

Asimov’s Science Fiction, May/June 2018
A pretty decent issue overall, with at least half the stories falling into the meh-to-average range. Among the other, better half:
The two novellas are entertaining, if unexceptional. David Gerrold and Ctein collaborate on “Bubble and Squeak”, about a couple who met while working on the set of a Hollywood disaster film who suddenly find their lives in jeopardy when a real tsunami hits southern California. It’s a fast-paced story with some nice drama and character moments. The other novella is also a collaboration, “The Wandering Warriors” by Rick Wilber and Alan Smale, and despite relying on a lot of cliché and contrivances, it milks its fun premise – in which an amateur baseball team finds itself inexplicably thrust back into Roman times – for everything its worth.
Sue Burke’s novelette “Life from the Sky” offers some alien maybe-life forms dubbed “spaceflakes” turning the world upside-down when they start falling from the sky. Burke’s present-day soft invasion story is a wry and well realized take on Trump-era internet culture, with a relatable protagonist and believable circumstances. The lackadaisical structure and tone of the story is appropriate for the setting and subject matter, but still doesn’t do it any favors.
Paul Park’s “Creative Nonfiction” is a well-written stream of consciousness oddity about a creepy relationship between a teacher and student in a near-future, quasi-dystopian setting. Cadwell Turnbull’s “When the Rains Come Back” envisions an anarchist not-quite-utopian future, with a touching relationship between a young girl who dreams of living on the moon, and her father, who wants her to grow up respecting their island nation’s traditions. Fascinating worldbuilding, wonderful characters, so-so plot execution. It’s the best story of the bunch, regardless.
Uncanny 22Uncanny Magazine, Issue 22, May/June 2018
Naomi Novik’s “Blessings” is the big draw in this mid-spring issue of Uncanny, and it doesn’t disappoint. Noble-born baby Magda’s parents invite six fairies to a dinner party hoping to secure at least one blessing for their child. The guests have a little too much to drink and the blessings get hilariously out of hand. The story skips forward to Magda as an adult, to show us the result of their shenanigans. Novik shows off her dynamic grasp of fairy-tale narratology in a very short story that is both perfect the way it is and makes you wish there was more.
The other stories in the issue are a mixed bag, but I enjoyed Kelly Robson’s “What Gentle Women Dare” about an 18th century prostitute’s encounter with the devil. Like most of Robson’s stories, it tends to be a little too slow on the slow burn, but few genres writers can match the genuinely grown-up elegance of her prose or the intellectual heft in her storytelling. Also, I don’t know if the term “suckstress” was actually in general use in 18th century Liverpool, but it should have been.
Greg Pak’s personal essay about growing up as an Asian-American D&D fanatic, “Dislikes the Sea, But Will Venture Upon It If Necessary”, is a must-read, and an early candidate for next year’s Best Related Work Hugo Award.
BCS 251Beneath Ceaseless Skies # 251, May 10, 2018
Two very short stories make up this issue of the venerable bi-weekly zine: Jonathan Edelstein’s refined “The Examination Cloth”, and Maria Haskins’ memorably grisly “The Root Cellar”. Haskins’ weirder-than-weird tale features a pair of child siblings – older sister/narrator Amadine and baby brother Jeremy – who suffer a gruesome ritual at the hands of their father, who insists he is protecting them from someone much worse. They later discover that he wasn’t kidding. Running on pure nightmare-logic, “The Root Cellar” sneaks under your skin with ghastly imagery and a beautifully sustained atmosphere of creeping menace.
Edelstein’s story is about a man hoping to pass an examination that will see his family’s fortune raised, if he can avoid succumbing to the spells woven into its tapestry. It’s a sturdy, well written tale.
Analog May June 2018Analog Science Fiction and Fact, May/June 2018
Not among the best issues of Analog by any stretch, but there are a few better than average stories:
Christopher L. Bennett has two previous stories set in the same universe as his new novelette, “Hubpoint of No Return”, but it is not necessary to have read them first to get up to speed. David is a researcher on the Hub Network, which facilitates travel and communication among thousands of inhabited worlds. When his “aquatic biocomputer” is stolen by the cat-like freighter captain Tsshar, he sets off on an odyssey to retrieve it. The Hub is a lively and colorful setting, and the characters are likeable and engaging. All the characters are likeable, which is part of the problem. There is no serious conflict, nor any real sense that the obstacles in David’s path are too great to overcome. The story moves so quickly, and the prose is so snappy and fun, that you probably won’t notice until it’s over that you didn’t once break a sweat. An amusing diversion, but hardly one that sticks around after the end.
The three writers I was most excited about when I first scanned the TOC all delivered pretty good stories that disappointed by failing to be great:
Marissa Lingen’s “Finding their Footing” follows recently single mother Anke and her children, trying to have a little adventure by visiting the Neptunian moon Triton before they settle down on the Jovian moon Callisto, where they will begin their new lives. Anke can barely afford the trip as it is, and when a complication arises she has to choose between abandoning their vacation plans or sacrificing a comfortable life when they reach their new home. Sifting through Anke’s past – the loss of the children’s father and their subsequent abandonment by the “family” they all belonged to, provides a strong emotional core for the story. Lingen’s worldbuilding skills are also commendable: the story’s solar system-wide society is well-furnished with fascinating culture, technology, and economics. My issue with the story – and it’s a big one – is that Anke’s dilemma is resolved too quickly and with relative ease, and the solution was obvious from the start.
Robert Reed’s “Two Point Oh” has a devilish little premise – aliens have recently crash-landed on Earth, and require human help to build a new craft to leave in. One of the 43 enterprises working on the project is having trouble getting the results they want, so they hire a mob boss with legendary “motivational” skills to help get things up to speed. Delivered with the author’s typical cunning and adroitness, it also moves a little to slowly and doesn’t quite live up to the promise of its setup. I felt much the same way about Sam J. Miller’s “My Base Pair”, which has a jealousy-inducing story idea readymade for an episode of Black Mirror – depicting a future where gene-hacked DNA can help you produce celebrity lookalike offspring – but the story, about a freelance writer investigating underground fight rings, doesn’t cover much of the ground that makes the idea such an enticing one.
GigaNotoSaurus, May 1, 2018
John the Human and Colophinanoc the Kinri are marooned on a distant planet. Rescue is coming, but it’s going to be awhile – years in fact – and for John, survival means more than just having enough to eat: he needs a friend. Unfortunately, the Kinri are a fundamentally solitary race, who can’t comprehend humans’ obsession with socializing. Adrian Simmons’ funny, lyrical, heartfelt (and heartbreaking) novelette “The Wait is Longer Than You Think” is the kind of story where the characters figure out how to do everything right, but it still goes wrong because the universe is a shitty and unforgiving place. Far from cynical or pessimistic, though, it evinces a healthy stoicism about the fate of its heroes, and revels in the small victories that make life worth the effort.

Must Read –
“The Wait is Longer Than You Think” by Adrian Simmons

Highly Regarded –
“The Root Cellar” by Maria Haskins
“Blessings” by Naomi Novik

Also Recommended –
“When the Rains Come Back” by Cadwell Turnbull