January/February 2021 Short Fiction Roundup


Here is the first bimonthly roundup up my short fiction reviews from those markets that publish with a greater frequency than monthly or bimonthly. Right now that includes Daily Science Fiction, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Abyss & Apex is another one I will feature, but given that it’s quarterly the January – April content will all just appear with the March/April post.

Given the number of stories, for these I’m only reviewing/mentioning the ones that I enjoy most. I may eventually review Fantasy Magazine fully as it is a more standard monthly publication. However, right now it’s so short, and half the content of the first two issues has fallen into the only two categories of things I absolutely don’t go for. So I’ve included it in this for the time being.

Many of these are available for free to discover if you are not a regular reader of them. I hope that those who enjoy and become fans of the outlets will be able to support them.

I still have several regular January/February issue reviews to put up before getting started on March/April, but they should go up in the near future.

Fantasy Magazine – Edited by Arley Sorg & Christie Yant

“Things to Bring, Things to Burn, Things Best Left Behind” by C.E. McGill (Issue 63, January 2021) – A stunning fantasy that seems to cover familiarly trodden territory at cursory glance, but weaves together several deep themes into a modern direction. At story’s start the protagonist, Oz, is about to commit suicide, only being stopped by a knock at the door and the arrival of an official group from town. His name has come up in the draw for choosing the next sacrifice to the god of the mountain. Oz’s journey to the mountain leads to greater self-discovery, reconciliation with his past, and a lesson in sacrifice. I love how the tone of the story feels set in conventional current world, yet with elements of magic and fantasy, or the beliefs of another era. This fits perfectly with Oz’s life journey.

“Kisser” by David James Brock (Issue 64, February 2021) – This story will resonate with any who have had the stress dream of teeth falling out. Perhaps I shouldn’t have read it right before going to sleep! However, where the story could go full down the route of horror, it only brushes against dark fantasy in its setup, a man who finds his teeth actually coming out. A great character study that investigates how the man’s obsession with peripheral details of life (including outside of control) can compound to be more harmful than letting go – and how he might move past that.

“Flight” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo (Issue 64, February 2021) – Written from the third-person point-of-view of gray parrots, this story shows the interactions of these birds among one another in a community being changed by humans. The story revolves around the general theme of disruptions of natural processes by humans, the uncertainty and unbalance it creates and how other animals may adapt. It also illustrates how the cruel violence and disregard of intelligent humanity goes beyond the ‘red in tooth and claw’ (or beak) of biology. Beautifully written.

Daily Science Fiction – Edited by Jonathan Laden & Michele Barasso

First time I’ve ever reviewed something from this treasure of an online story outlet. So, I’ll start off by just saying in general they are something fans of SFF should subscribe to (it’s free), and if you enjoy it, consider supporting. With a story every day, usually flash-fiction length, they publish a fair amount that is solid, if not Earth-shattering. Occasionally there is something I’m not a fan of, and sometimes there is something that really resonates. Here’s a couple that did:

“The Union” by Tim Yu (26th January 2021) – Regarding this story that features an impending alien invasion of Earth, the author notes: “If we really faced an existential threat and had to unify, what would be the new benchmark normal to unify into? How would we funnel all of human diversity into that normal?” The optimist in me says that I don’t know as this is the most likely answer, but with the sadness of profound realism I feel it’s up there in probability. Well written, and I hope to see more from Yu. Perhaps a story with marine biology next?

“Echo Recovery” by Jennifer Linnaea (5th February 2021) – Beautifully written SF/Fantasy about relationships, making music together, and grief. The Songmaster of the Great Theater at Noti Station accompanies a reptilian-like Vhatian singer named Gyen to Gyen’s hibernation pod after the unexpected death of Gyen’s human song-twin Digne. While Gyen can flee the emptiness in repose until a new song-twin matches to him, The Songmaster, who was in love with Digne, cannot escape the grief process and going on with the business of writing music and managing the dual species singers. The language and emotions of the story are like music.

Strange Horizons – Edited by Vanessa Rose Phin

“Yearning” by Maya Beck (4th January 2021) – A man guides a group of sharecroppers through a ritual they dub firesouling or firesailing, a passage of the spirit into the bodies of ancestors past and descendants future. Through this they observe, and yearn for, what was and what might be. Even with violence past there are visions of a hopeful future. A wonderful piece of Afrofuturism within the fantasy genre that makes a good story with a strong voice.

“A Serpent for Each Year” by Tamara Jerée (1st February 2021) – Perfect flash fiction on grief, death, and celebrating the passage of time in a life.

“Ootheca” by Mário de Seabra Coelho (15th February 2021) – Just in time for Valentine’s Day, a weirdly surreal fantasy with tinges of SF and a nod to Kafka. It explores relationships amid personal tics or details that one might focus upon in another, and judgements that humans make based on happenstance or accepted norms.

Tor.com – Irene Gallo (Publisher), Chris Lough (Director), and Bridget McGovern (Managing Editor)

“Let All the Children Boogie” by Sam J. Miller and edited by Jonathan Strahan (6th January 2021) – “My mind had no need for pronouns. Or words at all for that matter. This person filled me up from the very first moment.” Music can open up whole new worlds and one person can change how you look at the world. Sam J. Miller’s writing can do these things too, like the voice reaching out over the airwaves in this, speaking of a hopeful future possible. Though I get none of the pop culture references in this, despite growing up in the time period, Laurie and Fell’s story is universal, beautiful and uplifting.

“Shards” by Ian Rogers and edited by Ellen Datlow (27th January 2021) – Four out of five people survive a horrific Evil-Dead-esque night in a cabin in the woods. The horror does not end there. Excellent chilling story that confronts the absurdities of horror tropes. It looks deeply into how what becomes glossed over, or moved past, upon the dawn of the morning after, and the cue of the credits, might be the most horrifying of all. In some ways this starts as a sequel, but going places far different than the original, familiar tale.

“Judge Dee and the Three Deaths of Count Werdenfels” by Lavie Tidhar and edited by Jonathan Strahan (10th February 2021) – I have to admit that Tidhar is one author who writes wonderfully, but whose stories have just never seemed to fall into a style I appreciate, or carried a message that personally resonated. This, a mashup of horror and mystery staples, does fit squarely into two of my literary loves, and it works simply in how entertainingly intriguing the characters and set-up are. I’ll have to go back now and read the first story featuring this character. Once upon a time I would have found this needlessly long, but novelette/novella length has grown on me, particularly with recurring protagonists like these and the clever spin of the plot.

“The Tyger” by Tegan Moore and edited by Ellen Datlow (24th February 2021) – On the night of a wedding reception, a museum comes alive in ways different than before for twelve-year-old Jules. The story does not go in the direction I had expected from its summary, and ends so profoundly and amazingly that a synopsis could not do it justice. The title references Blake’s famous poem, of course, but Jules’ symbolic journey through the museum into adulthood features a prehistoric bear, rather than tiger, to make a fine atmospheric impact. And then again, the tyger here may be something completely different.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies – Edited by Scott H. Andrews

“As Tight as Any Knot” by M.A. Carrick (Issue #320, 1st January 2021) – This is set in the same universe as the new Orbit Books novel The Mask of Mirrors, which I’ve had my eyes set on recently. But, until now, I had no idea until now that the author is a pseudonym for writing pair Marie Brennan and Alyc Helms. Can’t recall reading Brennan, but I really enjoyed Helms’ Missy Masters novels for Angry Robot Books. Anyway… in this, Ondrakja sees a young beggar girl on a street corner and sees value in saving her from circumstances. “She knew what happened once someone vanished into the depths of Nadežra’s brothels.” The keyword there, is ‘value’. This serves as an introduction to the fantasy world of the novel, and the intrigues of its characters, that makes you curious to read more.

“Daughters with Bloody Teeth” by Marika Bailey (Issue #321, 14th January 2021) – Beautiful and evocative fantasy that plays with the individual and the collective ‘we’ within the framework of a wolf mythology. Beyond that, it speaks to human injustices and rights of self-authority. It takes a moment to really get into this and make sense of what is occurring, but also, I think my mind wandered from paying attention to subtle reveals of information at first, being just enraptured by the flow of the language.

“Bast and Her Young” by Tegan Moore (Issue #321, 14th January 2021) – A historical story around the ascension of Hatshepsut as Pharaoh, and her consolidation of power amid realization that she is not the first female Pharaoh. It is nice to see a retelling of Egyptian history/mythology, as it seems less common in fantasy than Greek or Norse. Moore gives Hatshepsut’s voice a bit of a modern colloquial twist that I at first found odd, but grew to appreciate.

“Her Black Coal Heart a Diamond in My Hand” by R. K. Duncan (Issue #322, 28th January 2021) – A dark chilling tale that explores the degrees of exploitation that can occur when creating art from the emotional hurt (or literal ghosts) of others, and from oneself. Rich language and turns in this story make it an engaging, compelling read.

“The Guadaloupe Witch” by Josh Rountree (Issue #322, 28th January 2021) – A witch finds confronted by a young man sent by her former husband to kill or capture her. The young man is a childhood friend of her now deceased son, her beloved she is now on a mission to restore. While the plot of this story is familiar, it proceeds in a tender and assured way that shows the true power of the eponymous witch.

“Quintessence” by Andrew Dykstal (Issue #324, 25th February 2021) – Deep within winter-covered Highfall peak, miners of a resource called quintessence are kept functioning and alive through expensive injections of red, rationed by the mining Company, but administered on-site by a witch. Loren’s brother-in-law Clyde is sick and dying of ‘crack-up’, but the newly posted ‘old’ witch Gristle refuses to provide Loren with additional red to save him. Wonderful world-building and characterization here, and exploration of consequences of the well-intentioned going too far in desperation. And the secret evils of corporations in search of profits.


CLARKESWORLD MAGAZINE #172 (January 2021) Edited by Neil Clarke


There are some excellent stories in this issue, complex and imaginative, but there are some let-downs compared to the best of what Clarkesworld has offered (for my tastes at least). Unfortunately, there are no translations in this issue, something that this outlet can almost always be relied upon to support. The novella here falls into a category that Clarkesworld novellas often are in (again for me): far too long for e-format and too short for a story I could best get into. And, with one third of the stories written in the second person that you of course will skip, you end up with a mixed bag for January’s issue.

“Intentionalities” by Aimee Ogden — Saddled with crippling debt and few options to dig herself out to secure any kind of stable future, a woman decides to apply for corporate support by offering her womb, carrying and delivering a child that will then be contracted after five years with her to go work for the company’s off-world mines. She comes to regret this decision and begins a campaign to fight a system that allows coercion of this horrible choice and ownership. Well written commentary on existing capitalist conditions that aren’t too far off from this scenario, all but literally.

“Deep Music” by Elly Bangs — Probably my favorite story of the issue for its themes and tones. Quinn takes care of aquids, squid-like water-creatures that have begun to appear on dry land and come into contact with humans. While some consider them as annoying pests that need to be removed or exterminated, Quinn is convinced they have intelligence, so gathers them and cares for them, trying to make sense of their communications. However, the owner of a rival aquid-removal service who treats the aquids with disdain begins to target Quinn (and the aquids) with hateful harassment. Quinn’s actions in response help solidify an understanding with the aquids in her care. Though the bones of the story and its ending will be recognizable to many readers, its lightness and familiarity feels welcome amid the rest of this issue, and the themes work in more modern ways as commentary on ‘troll-like’ relationships of harassment.

“Philia, Eros, Storge, Agápe, Pragma” by R.S.A. Garcia — I’m slowly growing to appreciate the novella-length story more when published on its own. But I still struggle with them in the contexts of short fiction magazines, particularly when having to read it on an e-reader or – even worse – a computer screen. This story is complex, organized in alternating passages between different times in the characters’ history. It serves as a prequel to a previous story by the author in Clarkesworld that featured the couple Dee and Eva. This recounts their meeting, when Dee rescues Eva who has crashed landed on a planet after a conflict that has left her paired AI “Sister” apparently malfunctioning. While dealing with loss of/changes in Sister that she had always been accustomed to, she begins romance with Dee and faces the enemy. I would have much preferred these two stories just as a novel, on their own. Nothing wrong with the writing here, so for readers who do love this novella length, the story will be successful and appreciated.

“The Last Civilian” by R. P. Sand — You did not read this story.

“Aster’s Partialities: Vitri’s Best Store for Sundry Antiques” by Tovah Strong — The most imaginative and magical of the stories here, reading more akin to fantasy than science fiction, it’s also the story that I felt benefitted from rereading. A magician named Syd who works in magical secrets of space and time is executed by the officials of Vitri. From drops of her blood upon the text of speels, her death gives birth to the narrators of the story, a ‘we’ that forms a house, with mirrors within that a form of Syd inhabits. The house consumes a man who dares enter, but then a curious child arrives, carrying with a necklace talisman that belonged to the magician. A fun story to read as I tried to figure out the nature of things as it unfolded. On some level about the persistence of a person’s influence beyond death on a city and its inhabitants, discovery of forbidden things by a new generation, and likely much more. Subsections are titled with a series of four numbers, but I haven’t figured out their relevance. Certainly a story to analyze but also just enjoy.

“Leaving Room for the Moon” by P H Lee — You start this story and all seems fine, only to realize it is yet another story to skip.

The issue also features “Science Fiction and Schmaltz: A Conversation with Connie Willis” and “The Ten-Year Journey: A Conversation with E. Lily Yu”, each by Arley Sorg, a 2020 in Review editorial by Clarke, and cover art by Yuumei.