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.


THE BEST SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY OF THE YEAR, VOLUME 9


22609311The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year
(Volume 9)
Edited By Jonathan Strahan
Solaris – 12th May 2015
ISBN 9781781083093  – 624 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


CONTENTS:
“Slipping”, by Lauren Beukes (Twelve Tomorrows: MIT Technology Review SF Annual 2014)
“Moriabe’s Children”, by Paolo Bacigalupi (Monstrous Affections)
“The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family”, by Usman T. Malik (Qualia Nous)
“The Lady and the Fox”, by Kelly Link (My True Love Gave to Me)
“Ten Rules for Being an Intergalactic Smuggler (The Successful Kind)”, by Holly Black (Monstrous Affections)
“The LONG HAUL, from the ANNALS OF TRANSPORTATION, The Pacific Monthly, May 2009”, by Ken Liu (Clarkesworld, Nov 2014)
“Tough Times All Over”, by Joe Abercrombie (Rogues)
“The Insects of Love”, by Genevieve Valentine (Tor.com, 28th May 2014)
“Cold Wind”, by Nicola Griffith (Tor.com, 16th Apr 2014)
“Interstate Love Song (Murder Ballad No. 8), by Caitlín R. Kiernan (Sirenia Digest #100, May 2014)
“Shadow Flock”, by Greg Egan (Coming Soon Enough)
“I Met a Man Who Wasn’t There”, by K.J. Parker (Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014)
“Grand Jeté (The Great Leap)”, by Rachel Swirsky (Subterranean Magazine, Summer 2014)
“Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They are Terrifying”, by Alice Sola Kim (Tin House #61)
“Shay Corsham Worsted”, by Garth Nix (Fearful Symmetries)
“Kheldyu”, by Karl Schroeder (Reach for Infinity)
“Caligo Lane”, by Ellen Klages (Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014)
“The Devil in America”, by Kai Ashanti Wilson (Tor.com 2nd Apr 2014)
“Tawny Petticoats”, by Michael Swanwick (Rogues)
“The Fifth Dragon”, by Ian McDonald (Reach for Infinity)
“The Truth About Owls”, by Amal El-Mohtar (Kaleidoscope)
“Four Days of Christmas”, by Tim Maughan (Terraform, Dec 2014)
“Covenant”, by Elizabeth Bear (Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future)
“Cimmeria: From the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology”, by Theodora Goss (Lightspeed, Jul 2014)
“Collateral”, by Peter Watts (Upgraded)
“The Scrivener”, by Eleanor Arnason (Subterranean Magazine, Winter 2014)
“Someday”, by James Patrick Kelly (Asimov’s Science Fiction, Apr/May 2014)
“Amicae Aeternum”, by Ellen Klages (Reach for Infinity)

Ninth in Strahan’s series of yearly collections, this is the first one I’ve read and it’s now a series I’ll be striving to fit into the reading list for years to come. It tends to favor the longer length of novella over shorter works, a factor that I’d a priori consider a major strike against. I’m not a huge fan of novellas, but there are certainly cases where they work exceptionally well for my taste. Most of the ones in this anthology do just that. As I write the paragraphs that follow I realize that a lot of the stories also tend towards the darker side, particularly the fantasy. I tend to like that style/ambience in stories, but obviously some readers may shy away from it.
The six stories that volume 9 begins with are all superb, representative of the quality and variety to come. I had already enjoyed both Ken Liu’s story and an earlier print (original?) of Holly Black’s fun space adventure with a compelling pair of characters (one human and one alien) and the interesting themes of monstrosity and the discoveries during coming-of-age. Kelly Link’s beautiful story is part urban fantasy and part fairy tale on family and friends set at Christmas. Similarly, Bacigalupi’s story is a fantasy hailing from the same original themed collection, but this one (unlike Link’s) is full of a darkness, a broken world, that I’d expect from him. Used to the SF stories I’ve normally seen from him though, this was a nice change done just as well. (I really need to read Monstrous Affections it seems). I’d already also read the latter story by Alice Sola Kim in Tin House that was reprint in Monstrous Affections too, and it is equally superb, though grounded in realism.
I have MITs Technology Review fiction issue on my shelf to read, and experiencing Beukes’ story from it in Strahan’s anthology makes me more eager to get to it. I’d only read Beukes’ The Shining Girls prior (which I found over-rated, but okay). The hard sci fi from her in this story is superb, featuring competitive sports and artificial enhancements taken to the next level. The tech is interesting here, but the humanity and depth of her protagonist is even more astounding.
Among those opening six, Usman T. Malik is yet another that blew me away with its effective treatment of terrorism and violence from a large scale focused down to the personal human level. This one just won a Stoker Award, and understandably, it is perhaps more horror than SF – and I recognize Malik mostly from appearances in Nightmare Magazine. Malik has another really powerful story in the themed collection Truth or Dare, that I’m reviewing next up. If you haven’t checked out his fiction yet, try either of these recent reprints. A latter story by Nix previously read in Fearful Symmetries also is truly horror in genre, though also a great story. I remember it vaguely from reading prior, but I think I enjoyed it this second time round even more.
The vague disbelief that I was so thoroughly enjoying these relatively long stories without growing restless or annoyed that I couldn’t finish in a bus ride finally broke with the seventh story, Abercrombie’s adventure from the Rogues collection. I have no idea if this is the case, but it felt as though I was supposed to already know these characters from somewhere, and I found it difficult to get into. Ultimately the story just kept going and I was long past caring. Swanwick’s story later from the same collection had the same effect. Egan’s also felt as though it was just a part of something larger, not a tale of its own.
Valentine and Griffith have a pair of stories that have a sort of ephemeral fantasies that have a beauty in the language but a strong tinge of darkness in their plots and ambience. Fitting in to this kind of story, Amal El-Mohtar’s “The Truth About Owls” is one of my favorites from this anthology. She does an absolutely beautiful job relating the life of her protagonist with interludes about the biology/behavior of owls, with mythology, and with language. I read this one right before going to sleep one night and it made a fantastic bed time story.
Lastly, there were a few cases that surprised me, both negatively and positively. (Abercrombie was kind of one too given that I loved the only other thing of his I’ve read: Half a King.) First, the story by Wilson is on an important and relevant theme of racial issues, explored partially through a fantastic lens. I expected to adore it and be moved. Instead I found the structure and length to be an impediment. Second, Ellen Klages is represented with two stories here, I found this surprising, inexplicable. One would have sufficed and given room for something else. I didn’t find either bad, but neither impressed me to understand why both were here. Third, I really enjoyed Schroeder’s SF adventure. I haven’t liked a lot of his stuff in the past in Analog, but this is probably because they were mostly serials. Here it felt just right, and his strength in telling a good story with hard SF elements and a bit of optimism fit perfectly amid the other types of stories in the collection.
Any serious fan of SF/Fantasy should find things of joy here, and readers who don’t normally read the genre may find the novella lengths that mostly make this up to be perfect for dipping into some of the best authors in the fields. They vary from the simple entertainment to the literary, from the fantastic to the realistic. Although I’d read a decent number of those included in this before, almost all that I had (if not all) were ones that initially had really impressed me. (The only ones not already mentioned above are “Someday” from Asimov’s and Theodora Goss’ story, which is a fantastic achievement in making a compelling story out of something that reads like a nonfiction, a history.) I appreciated reading all these stories a second time, affirming to me that anthologies are useful even if you’ve read the fields somewhat well.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Solaris via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.