November seemed to disappear in a flash. I wrote a lot, and I didn’t read as much as I wanted to read. But then, that pretty much describes any and every month of the year… Here are 14 stories I read and loved.
An Unexpected Boon, by S. B. Divya in Apex Magazine. “Kalyani kept Mithraba close over the next few days and nights, watching the lightning beetle’s glow. She decoded his yes and no patterns on the first night: Two light flashes meant yes; one was no.” S.B. Divya tells a gripping story about magic and family and hard choices in a hard world. The perspective switches between Kalyani, a child who sees and experiences the world differently than the other people in her village; and her brother who is trying (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) to understand her, and allow her to be as she is. This story is both deeply moving and full of insight, revealed in the small details of how Kalyani navigates the world. I love the quiet way the magic in this story plays out, and I also love that I never quite knew where it would take me. A wonderful read.
Boneset, by Lucia Iglesias in Shimmer. “The blind Bonesetter’s townhouse enacts the architecture of a skull. Windows imitate eye sockets the Bonesetter has known. The front door comments on the vigor of the jaw, swinging up and down on mandibular hinges.” What a strange and deeply unsettling story this is. It deals with what we end up paying to get what we think we want, about what we lose and gain as we go through life, deciding what we really want and what really matters to us – and how often our choices don’t turn out the way we thought. The prose is evocative, and there are passages in this story that are so painful they made me wince. An excellent read.
The Atomic Hallows and the Body of Science, by Octavia Cade in Shimmer. “Lise knows about war. It’s camps and commandants and compromises, the long slow defeat of the self. It’s escape and humiliation and death. It’s exile in a colder country, it’s someplace without a home, always remembering the time when she had one—a home built of atoms and equations and friends when all of them were free from shame and her hands were clean enough under natural light.” In this masterfully written story by Octavia Cade, she uses people and events from a dark time in our history, and the history of science, and re-shapes it all, infusing the non-fiction material with a lustrous poetry. Her prose is glorious: it sings and shimmers and chills me to the bone. Utterly brilliant.
The Better Part of Drowning by Octavia Cade in The Dark. “It looked at Alix as she looked at chowder—intelligently, as if she were something to be devoured, and the soft crab-crooning that came from it raised hairs all down the length of her.” The second story by Octavia Cade in this roundup. (Have I said she’s fabulous? She is.) This story is another must-read. A vivid fantasy world, souls trapped and devoured, crabs feasting on human flesh, children struggling to stay alive in a harsh world… This story grabbed me from the first paragraph and would not let go.
Baby Teeth, by Lina Rather in Gamut. “Laura watched from the window while Mama took the salt packets they’d pocketed from a Speedway and sprinkled a circle around the house to hide them from the monster.” My favourite kind of monster story, is the kind of story where I’m not quite sure what the monster is, or where the it’s lurking; those stories where the monsters claw at us from within, as much as from without. This is a perfect example of such a story. Lina Rather draws you into the darkness through a real world that is vividly drawn in all its poverty and despair, its everyday life of school and work and just scraping by. And just beneath that veneer of reality, lurks fear and horror, and Rather captures it all with a sharp eye for details as seen through a child’s eyes.
A Recipe for Magic, by Kat Howard & Fran Wilde in Barnes & Noble’s SciFi & Fantasy Blog. “All the best baking requires balance: that agreement struck between substance and air, between sense and whimsy. Same for spells.” This is a wonderful story about second chances, redemption, magic, and magical baking. It’s a sweet story, to be sure, and the prose is nothing short of luscious, but there’s a twist of darkness and bitterness running through it. If you’re looking for a short story that pairs perfectly with the holidays, offering hope and light when things look dark and hopeless, this might just be the thing you need.
Judo | جو- دو, by Rasha Abbas in Strange Horizons (special issue celebrating SFF from the Arab League community and diaspora). ““I think I should take up a sport,” I said to her and she said that it was a good idea. I said, “I’m thinking of judo,” then fell silent, waiting to see what she would say, to know if I would have to pretend it was just a joke.” Oh, what a quietly wrenching story! Loneliness, the loss of home and family, new chances in new places, quiet grief, the pain of the past resurfacing in memories and dreams… There is so much pain and loss and fear moving just beneath the surface, and I found myself re-reading this story several times to savour every nuance.
Baker, by Sheila Massie in Flash Fiction Online. “The demons, yetzer ra, the appetite for evil, lay with their humans: perched on their shoulders, pressed against them in intimate repose like mother and child, or with their backs resolutely turned, as though seeking escape. But all Rafael’s magic was used for the day. There was never enough.” I love this story’s original take on magic (and baking!) and how the magic here has a price as well as a pay-off. Massie masterfully creates a world that is dark and full of despair and evil, but where there are still people who try to change it, who try to persevere. Brilliant flash.
When One Door Shuts by Aimee Ogden in Diabolical Plots. “The front door of Mia’s parents’ house is painted emerald green on the outside, off-white on the inside, with a knob contrived to look like real brass. No one has opened it for six months. Mia hates that door, has hated it for its full half-year of disuse. Ever since the front door of every house on the street became a portal into death.” Mia’s sister is gone, Mia is not, but she feels as if her family wishes she had been the one to disappear. Ogden’s story perfectly captures the pain of sibling rivalry, and the kind of dysfunctional family dynamic that shows up in some form or another in most families, no matter how well-adjusted they seem to outsiders. A quietly devastating story, where even hope is shot through with sadness.
The Wife of Fabian Vitalik, by Mariah Montoya in Metaphorosis Magazine.”…she was famous for her shape-shifting. When he’d first seen her high up on the stage, twirling and morphing into other things, the audience had gone wild for the black sleekness of her cat’s fur, the shine of her teapot porcelain surface, the perfume that wafted from her petals when she mutated into a lilac bush.” Montoya’s story is a captivating exploration of the more difficult sides of love and married life. What happens after you marry a shape-shifter? When you have to spend your days together in the ordinary world? I love how the story explores the relationship between the husband and his shape-shifting wife without really judging either of them, just laying bare the love and strife between them. An excellent twist on a fairy-tale theme.
Chasing Flowers, by L Chan at Podcastle (narrator – Julia Patt). “Lian ate regularly for fifty years before she realised that the food tasted of nothing but fire and ashes. Before she realised that she wasn’t hungry and had never been since her death.” This is a beautifully written (and beautifully narrated) ghost story about two women, alive and not, and how their lives touch in life and in the afterlife. It’s a story full of emotion: longing, loss, love, the hunger for something more than what you have and what you had… A haunting tale in more ways than one. Gorgeous prose. You might just want to listen to this one more than once.
The Catalog of Virgins, by Nicoletta Vallorani (translated by Rachel S. Cordasco) in Clarkesworld. “At the bottom of it all, even, a wide-open Iron Maiden whose cavernous belly bristles with nails. Men have tools of sorrow and joy that reveal the stuff they’re made of.” Fairy-tale and fantasy blend with science fiction in this remarkable tale by Vallorani. It is dark and evocative and haunting as we follow a woman trying to break free from her tormentors, and as we hear the voices of the women who came before her. Unsettling and memorable.
Everyone’s at Our Place Even Though We’re Gone, by Chloe N. Clark in Ellipsis Zine. “We’d been together not that long, a couple of months, when he told me “I carry a lot of ghosts,” and I thought he meant it metaphorically. But he didn’t.” A deeply moving story about hope and life, death and sacrifice, and what we might do for the people we love. Clark’s prose is light as a feather here, and yet it pierces right to the heart of things.
SunDown, by Acan Innocent Immaculate in Munyori Literary Journal. “…he really did hate the snow. He understands it better now, though. It did not choose to be here; it was forced into this situation by the dying sun. It is just like him.” A heart-piercing science fiction story that somehow manages to be hopeful, even though it plays out at the end of the world. I love the way the child’s point of view is used here, and how real that child’s emotions and interactions are, all of it playing out in a doomed world. I also love how the relationships feel so true and real, avoiding the trap of easy sentimentality. The story comes together beautifully at the end, even as it devastated me. (And yes, this story made me cry.)
For more short fiction picks: