8 extraordinary stories I read in July

I read a lot in July, novellas and novels, short story collections and anthologies, and of course, zines, zines, and more zines, all stuffed full of fantastic stories.

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Gert of the Hundred, by L.S. Johnson in Beneath Ceaseless Skies 
“From the window she watched as he passed Nicholas, paused to speak to him and tousle his hair. “Please don’t hurt him again,” she said aloud. “He won’t come back.”
Above her head the cobwebs shivered, but there was no other response; not from the spiders or the birds, the mice or the wind, not from the trees in the forest or what lay in the darkness within.”
Oh goodness how I love this story. It is thick with magic and world-building and flawed, complex characters in a fantasy/fairytale-ish setting, and it hooked me from the first sentence to the last. Gert lives in a village where she is tolerated but not loved. In her past, she almost died but made a bargain with a powerful creature in order to save her life. That act carried a price, and when the people building a new tower in the forest fall ill and Gert tries to cure them, the time is nigh when she’ll have to pay that debt.

Note: Beneath Ceaseless Skies is working hard right now to increase their support on Patreon in order to pay writers more. (This will help the zine stay a pro-paying market.) If you can, please consider supporting them on Patreon.)

Ahura Yazda, the Great Extraordinary, by Senaa Ahmad in Lightspeed 
“If he has to die, let it be like this, on a night without stars, delivered from the world by the heavens themselves, in a blaze of electricity, in thunder and blood, with a storm pounding at his ears. Certain of himself as he’ll ever be. Let this be the way. A trickster’s goodbye.”
A Persian trickster living in Canada with his wife and children. Memories of a glorious past. A menagerie of strange and magical beasts in his barn, including a shadhavar that dreams perilous, deadly dreams. This story is so good it takes my breath away. The prose is exquisite, with a lyrical gleam and a silken rhythm that is thoroughly seductive. Ahmad has a wonderful talent for capturing the nuance and subtlety of interactions within families, and that skill is on full display here.

The Girls Who Come Back Are Made of Metal and Glass, by L’Erin Ogle in Metaphorosis
“I look over and there Kate is, back from the dead yet again, even though there are rules about that sort of thing. No one else has ever come back more than twice. It’s like three strikes and you’re out—you’ve officially become too expensive or too troublesome to revive any more. But Kate’s returned from dying at least half a dozen times.”
A group of girls are held at a facility. They die, but they come back, and they have powers, too. Powers that are strong enough to frighten the people who keep them from leaving. Power enough to break out? Maybe. Ogle’s story is fierce and dark and fiery, full of girls who are strong and mean and good and terrible, all at once.

Ulek Mayang or The Seven Exiled Sisters, by Nin Harris in Kaleidotrope
“Here beneath the waves, Tujuh ruled her own small kingdom. Even though she was the youngest of the seven exiled sisters, she was their inexorable leader in all things. She was a knife, sharpened to be used. She had sharpened the knife herself, waiting for the day when she could twist it in revenge.”
This is a rich and evocative story of vengeance, family, and magic. It’s a story that weaves together many lives and destinies into an intricate and beguiling tapestry of a tale. I love how fairytale blends with myth and fantasy here, and how vividly drawn the world and the characters are.

Soul Cleaver Clarence, by Matthew J. Jarvis in Cast of Wonders 
“This is it, CLEAVER,” Rangdor cried, catching sight of Clarence, “the day you defeat your first knight! RA!”
“Another one?” Clarence groaned.
“No, no. This one is young, perfect for you to sharpen your teeth on!” Rangdor’s tail crashed into a nearby tree as he wheeled around.”
A dragon wants to follow his dream of becoming a sculptor, but runs into trouble because his draconic father disapproves. Then, he gets some unexpected help…from a knight with problems of her own. This story about the strife and trouble (and friendship) that can arise between knights and dragons, and between parents and children, is pure charming FUN. It’s read by full cast, and if you have kids, they can listen in as well.

Note: Cast of Wonders is part of Escape Artists, and EA also produces Podcastle, PseudoPod, and Escape Pod. The EA podcasts are fabulous venues that publishes amazing original fiction as well as wonderful reprints turned into glorious audio. Right now, they are working hard to raise the rates they pay writers. Please support them if you can: EA Podcasts on Patreon.

No Other Life, by Isabel Cañas in Nightmare 
“It was my singing that drew you to our house in Tahtakale that autumn night. I sensed you before I saw you, as a bird senses the gaze of the garden cat from the shadows. I was drawn to the door, unlatching it with slow hands so as not to wake my grandmother.
It was dark. I saw no one. And yet the raised hair on my arms, on the back of my neck, told me someone was there.
My breath died in my throat.”
Reading this lyrical and dark horror/love story, I was absolutely seduced by the gorgeous prose and the melody of it. Every sentence here feels a bit like a song, and the result is absolutely mesmerizing. Read it for the horror, read it for the enchanting descriptions of a time and a city long gone, and read it for the sheer beauty of the language.

A Forest, or a Tree, by Tegan Moore at TOR.com 
“It’s pretty here,” Piper said. “I bet it’s a good place to camp.” She raised her eyebrows at May.
“Yeah,” May said obediently. It was pretty. The undergrowth was leafless, sparse, dry twigs and branches hatching together and turning the forest hazy. Ancient cedars pillared into the sky. There was something awful, May thought, awful in the original sense of the word, about looking up. Something about the stature and the patience of the old trees made her feel small, just one story in an endless cycle of nearly identical, pointless stories.”
A spine-chilling horror story that creeps up on you, step by deliberate step. It’s also a horror story that is acutely aware of what the reader expects from a horror story like this, with a group of young women camping in the woods. At every turn, the characters reflect on the horror-storiness of their (mis)adventure, but this meta-perspective is used deliberately to increase the tension. It is atmospheric and darkly funny as well, and the dialogue and interaction between the group of friends is captured perfectly.

Advice For Your First Time at the Faerie Market, by Nibedita Sen in Fireside Fiction
“I learned to scatter powdered obsidian acorns over your mac and cheese. I learned to peel and dice those jewelled, deliquescing fruits, ready to splash juice all the way up to your wrists when the knife met them, and to bake them into flaky hand-pies or freeze them into popsicles. I learned to fold the yellow butter from knobs of fungus, smelling like hot tarmac and summer afternoons, and melt it over toast.”
A beautiful and deliciously fabulous story about a mother, her advice for her daughter, and the price you pay for favours in the faerie market. It’s also a story that describes strange and wonderful foods the faeries desire in such gorgeous prose that you might end up craving the strangest dishes…


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