Sci-Fi & Fantasy Short Fiction Roundup: December 2018

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

“Belt 71” by Pascal Blanché, for Clarkesworld #147

In December, at the tail end of the year, I read stories of strange and familiar shapeshifters, the Moon and her hounds, an alt-historical Beatrix Potter, post-apocalyptic dentistry, the dangers of mining on Earth and other planets, the trials of Martyrs, and the tribulations of a future shrouded in smog.

The Island of Beasts“, by Carrie Vaughn, in Nightmare
A woman in chains is brought to an island and unceremoniously dumped by her captors. She’s been banished from the mainland not just because she is a wolf-woman (a rare thing even in a world where wolf-men are known to exist), but because she is “too dangerous to keep and not valuable enough to bother taming.” On the island, exiled men of her own wolfish, shapeshifting kind approach her with rather selfish plans for her life on the island. However, she turns out to be more strong-willed, and less easily swayed, than they might have thought. Vaughn spins a gripping and wonderfully rich yarn, the kind of enthralling read that makes me want to curl up in a comfy chair by the fireplace and lose myself in every beautifully crafted word. (The podcast version is also excellent, narrated by Stefan Rudnicki).

The Coal Remembers What It Was“, by Paul R. Hardy, in Diabolical Plots
In this story, as its title reveals, the coal really does remember what it was. When a piece of coal burns, it remembers and reveals the creature it was, the place they lived, the world that once existed. Elsie, our storyteller, remembers too. She remembers growing up in a coal-mining town; remembers her dad covered in coal dust; remembers her mother, working her fingers to the bone to keep the family happy, fed, and clothed. Elsie also remembers the day when the coalmine, and the coal in the ground with all its memories, claimed the town and almost everyone in it. Hardy captures Elsie’s voice perfectly, and tells a vivid, compelling tale that hooked me from the beginning.

Girls Who Do Not Drown“, by A.C. Buchanan, in Apex Magazine
“This is an island that sends all its girls into the sea,” Buchanan writes, and proceeds to tell us about the girls that leave and the girls that stay, the girls that come back and the girls that are lost forever beneath the waves. Then, Buchanan tells us about Alice, who is young and drunk, who feels lost and hopeless, who is sad and fearsome all at once, and who is smoking on the beach when she meets a glashtyn, a shapeshifter that means to carry her into the sea. Buchanan’s prose cuts like a razor; if you remember adolescence, and if you’ve lived in a place where you felt hemmed in on all sides, you might love this story as much as I did.

Beatrix Released“, by Shaenon K. Garrity, in Escape Pod
Until I listened to this simultaneously delightful and harrowing tale, I did not know that I needed to read a twisted, alternate history take on the life of Beatrix Potter, but apparently I did. Garrity’s story is written in the form of diary entries by Potter herself, and it captures a mind of whimsy and brilliance that feels absolutely right for the character. This young Beatrix is a talented artist, but her talents extend far beyond illustrations and children’s stories, and as the tale progresses, it pulls you down the strangest, darkest, loveliest rabbit hole, full of cute (and rather intelligent) mice, ducks, dogs, cats, and…oh yes, there’s also a nefarious plot involving undercover work for the British government, and a whole lot of explosives. Fabulous narration by Katherine Inskip.

Mouths“, by Lizz Huerta, in Lightspeed
“Times were strange, and those who survived the collapse had a jarring mixtape of skills. Plumbers were holy men, exorcising the encampments of the demons of human waste.” In Huerta’s uniquely imagined post-apocalyptic world, plumbers, as well as sex workers and dentists, are highly prized and well-regarded. Somewhere on the Pacific coast of this changed and changing world, a woman called Fai has to trek far away from home to find a dentist after she injures her jaw. Fai finds the dentist, a man called El Buitre, and he heals her (after a fashion), but the process changes both Fai’s life and body in unexpected ways. Huerta’s future is a fascinating one, and his story is evocative and powerful, told with prose that is at once terse and finely wrought.

Russula’s Wake“, by Kay Chronister, in The Dark
In this quietly unsettling story, the monstrous and the everyday exist side by side in the same isolated farm house, and within the same family. Jane is raising her three children by herself after her husband’s death. While she is human, her late spouse was something else—and so are the children. The older two already “nourish” rather than eat, and even their mother fears to look at their true faces. And while the youngest still seems fully human as she plays with and cares for the farm’s barn cats, Jane knows it won’t last. Chronister’s story finds the unsettling darkness that hides in the seams of ordinary life, and picks away at them until they burst open, giving us a glimpse of the darkness within.

Bringing Down the Sky“, by Alan Bao, in Clarkesworld #147
Bao’s story is set in a future where smog is suffocating and plentiful, and where clean air is a rare and expensive commodity people are willing to pay a lot of money for. It’s set in a village in China where the locals make a living going up Big Sky Ridge, looking for clean air they can capture in special canisters for later sale. Theirs is a small-scale operation in a business increasingly dominated by bigger “sky-running” companies; inevitably, outsiders come along, looking for a way to make a bigger profit. Bao’s science fiction tale has a grimy, lived-in texture I really loved, and his world and characters feel both real and complex. This is not a story about good and evil, but a story about human beings trying to make a life and a living in a hard world.

The Glint of Light on Broken Glass“. by Jennifer R. Donohue, in Truancy Magazine
As opening lines go, this one is a gem: “The Moon sits on the windowsill of the butcher shop, smoking cigarettes. The butcher doesn’t mind, much, because the Moon is good company…” It’s the start of a story about the literal Moon, who occasionally comes to Earth with her dogs (knocking out the WiFi whenever she visits), and a hard-working butcher suffering through a string of failed assistants (who are also failed boyfriends), until finally, one night, something goes terribly, horribly awry for them both. Donohue skillfully weaves together gleaming threads of lunar folklore with the cigarette-stained, bloody strands of real life, crafting a moving tale that contains both love and horror.

Salting the Mine“, by Peter Wood, in Asimov’s
On a planet far away from Earth, human settlers and alien locals co-exist rather happily. Once upon a time, something terrible (referred to as “the Event”) occurred here, wreaking havoc with the climate, but the aliens don’t like to talk about it. The humans set up a mining operation when they arrived, but when trouble on Earth left them cut off from communications and trade, the mine eventually closed. The locals are quite happy with the way things are, but things change when a ship arrives from Earth, and someone wants to start mining again… Wood’s story is an entertaining page-turner with great characters, a subtle environmental message, and a good sense of humor.

A Martyr’s Art“, by J.P. Sullivan, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
In J.P. Sullivan’s thrilling fantasy tale, a special group of people called Martyrs has the power to take on the hurts and injuries of others, healing the afflicted in the process. A Martyr can heal, whether the “injury” is a hangover or a mortal wound received in a duel. Chalcedony is a Martyr serving the powerful Lord Sebastien, though her servitude feels to her like slavery. A chance to change her fate arrives when a ship with a mysterious and seemingly incredibly valuable cargo comes to the City. Sullivan’s story is lush in every detail, and it kept me enthralled from start to finish.

What’s the best SFF short story you read in 2018?

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Sci-Fi and Fantasy Short Fiction Roundup: November 2018

The B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog

“The Word of Flesh and Soul” by Rovina Cal

This month, we read stories about the power of words to change the world, stories about the moon and Mars, stories about Little Red Riding Hood, and wolves haunting the forest, and soldiers haunted by war, and dreams of all sorts.

Toward A New Lexicon of Augury“, by Sabrina Vourvoulias, in Apex Magazine
In a North American city in a near-future world ravaged by climate change and ruled by predatory companies and politicians, a group of brujas—witches—are fighting for a better, more just, society using whatever magic they have at their disposal. This riveting story is full of poetry and politics, and it hones in on the power of words: “...it all starts with words, don’t you know? And ends that way, too.” Vourvoulias delves deep into themes of resistance and sacrifice, illustrating the despair and hope we all might feel when we try to change the world. If you like this story, I highly recommend you check out Sabrina Vourvoulias’s novel Ink, recently rereleased by Rosarium Publishing. (You’ll also find it recommended on this blog’s list of 50 Science Fiction Essentials Written By Women.)

Other People’s Dreams“, by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, in The Magazine of Fantasy & SF Nov/Dec 2018
A beautifully written story about a world where some people can sense other’s dreams, and where some are also able to craft dreams, both for themselves and others. Bardo is an apprentice at a dream store, a renowned establishment owned by the enigmatic Rowan. When Rowan receives an unusual request for a dream that must be crafted off-world, old memories of guilt, death, and family are brought to the fore, and the work puts Rowan’s very life in danger. Hoffman expertly pulls you in to her compelling world. I loved the vivid descriptions of both the characters and the dream-crafting itself.

Moonboys“, by Stephen Graham Jones, in Lightspeed 
Two brothers are on the moon. They have imagined and dreamt about going to there for pretty much their whole lives, and now that they’re there, something has gone wrong. This is a science fiction story that isn’t really about tech or science. It’s about the bond between siblings, a thread that ties you to each other from childhood, a time of sharing dreams, and lives, and backyards. Profoundly moving, this is also a story about love and loss, and it packs a heavy emotional punch without a big word count.

Rotkäppchen“, by Emily McCosh, in Shimmer
I have an undying love for the story of Little Red Riding Hood, and for the many retellings of that fairy tale. This story by Emily McCosh is a stirring new take on the classic. Adeline is an old woman who was once a girl who wore a red cloak and met a strange wolf. She is now herself a grandmother, and her son has mysteriously died—killed by bears in the woods, people say. There is both good and perilous magic hiding in those woods, and McCosh weaves her own magic and wonder into every sentence of her story. The joy of a good retelling is in seeing someone twist and turn an old jewel and find new facets, making it sparkle in new ways under different light. That’s exactly what McCosh does here.

Soldier’s Things“, by Tim Lees, in Interzone #278 
A soldier is back from the war, broken and shattered, the cybernetic implants in his head destroyed. In Lees’s future, soldiers are programmed to make them more reliable fighters, but when the programming fails, one soldier finds himself lost in more ways than one. The world away from the fighting seems alien, and the people who haven’t fought in the war can’t comprehend its true horrors. Lees masterfully explores the suffering and loss triggered by a conflict that is mercilessly using up the world, and the people in it. This is a powerful story that resonates as both great science fiction and a harrowing parable about the costs of war.

Radio Free Heartland“, by Corey Mallonee, in Cast of Wonders
Tessa is only a kid, but she has already shot a man. In the aftermath, her mom told her she had to leave home, and at a rest stop off the highway, she meets Smoke. Smoke tells her he can take her to a city where she’ll be safe, but as it turns out, the city isn’t exactly the kind of place you drive to… Quietly compelling, Mallonee’s story deals with difficult issues like sexual assault (implied rather than graphically depicted) and growing up without the support of friends or family. It also offers up one of the most uniquely imagined magic rituals I’ve seen in a story recently, involving an old radio. The narration by Karen Bovenmeyer is wonderful.

You Can’t Grow Corn on the Moon“, by Brendan William-Childs, in Vulture Bones #3
This sci-fi story starts out in a slaughterhouse on Earth, where Manuel dreams about emigrating to Mars, while Nina is haunted by memories of what happened when she was there. A company looking for new recruits to fuel its planetary expansion will impact both of their lives. William-Childs tells a rich and layered tale set in a future solar system with limited options and limited resources. It’s a story about friendship and fraught relationships, and, ultimately, about how to make a life for yourself after your dreams have turned to dust.

My Name Is Cybernetic Model XR389F, and I Am Beautiful“, by Monica Valentinelli in Uncanny Magazine
Darkly funny, and with an edge razor-sharp enough to cut those who try to justify or condone sexual harassment and misogyny, Valentinelli’s story is a thing of spiky, angry beauty. It is told from the perspective of a cyborg working as a custodial engineer in a lab as it tries to make sense of the seemingly erratic behavior of another cyborg, and the increasingly strange actions of a human, Senior Engineer Robert Brandt. I love the way Valentinelli breaks down the cyborg’s responses to the rather questionable situations it is asked to endure, eventually leading it to take dramatic action.

The Only Way Out Lies Farther In“, by David Tallerman, in The Dark
This is one of the most terrifying stories I’ve read recently. Tallerman doesn’t frighten with gore or jump-scares, but by build a framework of tension around you and then expertly tightening the screws until you can barely breathe. A family goes into a rather mundane-looking maze and somehow while they are walking through it, everything changes. When they come out (did they come out?), their lives are never the same. There’s a soul-chilling, existential dread lurking beneath the everyday surface of this one.

The Word of Flesh and Soul“, by Ruthanna Emrys, at Tor.com
A ravishing, riveting story about an ancient language, “the tongue of the originators”—a dialect so powerful that those studying it risk being physically, and maybe mentally, transformed. Only fragments of the writing still exist, and access to them is controlled by a secretive group of mostly male academics. However, Polymede Anagnos and Erishti Musaru are determined to publish their own revolutionary findings, no matter what the cost. Emrys’s story is a luminous tale of language and love and determination, of risking everything because of your passion. The author has expanded her stories to novel-length before, and I can only hope that at some point, there will be a novel set in this world, too.

Read any memorable stories in November?

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