From the author: 15 + 1 great stories I read in October, 2020.
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The Gwyddien and the Raven Fiend by J.T. Greathouse in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
This is a marvelous, richly textured fantasy tale involving deep, dark magic and people who have been ravaged in one way or another by that magic. It's set in a world where sorcerers and creatures from beyond the human world stalk the lands, and sometimes sink their claws into people, demanding life and death and sacrifice as their due. Llewyn, the Gwyddien of the story, is a man who, as a child, was altered by magic in order to serve as the eyes and hands of The Gray Lady. He works to defeat demons and other fiends, but when he arrives in a place called Nyth Fran, that work takes a turn he did not expect. I love every bit of this tale and Greathouse's storytelling skill is such that I am now craving more stories about Llewyn and the characters he encounters on his quest. If you enjoyed the recent Witcher series, I think you might find this story right up your alley.
Everything and Nothing by Jenny Rae Rappaport in Lightspeed
Start with a romance: a man and a woman who are wildly and irrevocably in love with each other. Or two men. Or two women. Or two people, because life is beautiful and complex. Just know that these Lovers are important.
Rappaport's story starts out as what seems like a "classic romance" story. Young woman, young man, star-crossed lovers, etc. But here, that trope is reshaped and re-imagined as we follow the lovers through their lives, and as we come to realize that there are other love stories woven into that first love story. I love how this piece deals with the reality of love and living together, and how it acknowledges that things seldom work out the way we thought they would when we were in the first blush of infatuation.
Everquest by Naomi Kanakia in Lightspeed
Fair warning: I am An Old who played Everquest and Ultima Online when they were still in beta-testing, and Everquest blew my mind and ruled my waking hours in a way that no other online game has really done before or since. This story captures so much of the joyful, frustrating essence of what it felt like to play that game in the olden days. While the part of the story set in the real world deals a lot with the way a game can both isolate and transform a person's life, it is the parts set inside the game that really get to me. The way it's possible to almost, almost live in a fantasy world and become your character, to interact with other people inside the game in a way that is different than you're able to interact with people in your everyday life... all this is captured really well. A must-read if you ever quested in Norrath, I'd say. It's also a story that illustrates the familiar online phenomenon where your "imaginary" online character is, or seems to be, a better incarnation of who you want to be than what you ever manage to be in the real world.
Gretel by Nancy O'Toole in Luna Station Quarterly
I do love fairytales retold and re-imagined and re-shaped. Here, O'Toole puts Hansel and Gretel in the present day, with a dimwit of a father, a mother who dies when the children are young, and a stepmother who finds the new kids an inconvenience. Gretel is the one telling us the story here, and the beginning of the story, when we first get to know her and her mother, is exceptionally powerful stuff. So is the encounter with the witch in the woods, when Gretel and Hansel find out just how much terrible magic can be wrought with gingerbread. Gretel's voice is captured so well, and gives the whole tale a gritty and compelling edge.
The Angel Finger by K.C. Mead Brewer in Craft
This story--about two sisters, a dog, and an extra finger--utterly wrecked me. It's a tense and taut horror-tinged story from the first sentence to the last: stretched taut like a piano wire that could snap at any moment. I love it all: the conflicted relationship between the sisters, the good dog who ends up in such terrible trouble, the well-meaning and clueless parents, and the young girl who feels she is bad bad bad, but who cannot stop herself, either. The ending is emotionally crushing, yet absolutely right.
Ghost Collecting by Sheila Massie in Flash Fiction Online
There are only two reasons why anyone would answer an ad like that. One. They don’t believe in ghosts and they want to get a spectacular, maybe even collectible, vintage chair for cheap. (Nothing about this chair was spectacular or collectible.) Two. They collect ghosts.
If you need a sweet and delightful ghost story this fall, then Sheila Massie's got you covered. A rocking chair is for sale, but it comes with a ghost. And when the ghost collector goes to have a look, they have an ulterior motive...
A Layer of Catherines by Elizabeth R. Moore in Strange Horizons
Fair warning: I love time travel / alternate timeline stories with messy timelines or heart-wrenching situations or any variation on this theme. Hence, I absolutely love this story. It's not the science or the inherent timeloopiness of the story that matters here. What gives this story its heart, is the pivotal relationship (and the pivotal incident) between two sisters. There's a dreamlike, out of this world quality to the way the tale plays out, and I love that sense of something taking place, impossibly, in the seams and doorways between Here and Then.
The Foreclosure by Marc Abbott in Nightlight
Sometimes, you want to read an honest to goodness horror story where you KNOW something bad is going to happen, AND THEN IT HAPPENS, and it gives you chills at every step. In this story, a man visits his friend who has just acquired a house in a deal that definitely sounds to good to be true. As it turns out, it's definitely way too good to be true. This is my kind of horror: creepy and atmospheric, building up tension with peeks and hints and whispers (and an ominous mail carrier), until the evil reveals itself. Great narration by Matt Peters.
Teeth Long and Sharp as Blades by A.C. Wise in PseudoPod (narrated by Tonia Ransom)
This tale wound and twisted its way into my mind as I read it, as a young woman tells us of how she was attacked by something or someone, how she almost died, but how she lived. As she says in the tale:
Have you ever thought about how fairy tale heroines are like final girls? We survive poisoning, curses, imprisonment, mothers who want to cut our hearts out and hold them in their hands. But we survive, and our survival is an object lesson: act this way, and you’ll be all right. Be pure of heart. Be kind to strangers. Don’t go into the woods at night.
Horror and fairytale and urban legend are entwined here, and while we understand from the beginning who is telling us the story, there's a chilling, evocative edge to the tale as we slowly come to understand, or at least be able to guess, who she is telling the story to. Wise gives us just enough to hint at what kind of monsters might have been hiding in the darkness, and what kind of other monsters might be hiding in plain sight, and the result is a spine-tingling and gripping story.
And This Is How To Stay Alive in Fantasy Magazine by Shingai Njeri Kagunda
Content warning: suicide.
Kabi feels dizzy. The ground comes up to meet her and dad is holding mum so he does not catch Kabi in time. The doctor keeps saying, “I am sorry. I am sorry. I am so sorry.”
For Kabi, the sounds fade but just before they do, somewhere in her subconscious she thinks she will find me in the darkness. Yes, she is coming to look for me.
But I am not there.
This story left me bawling my eyes out. It deals with difficult, painful subjects, including grief and bullying and physical and emotional violence. It also deals with the love and strife between siblings, between parents and children, and the messy, difficult, and sometimes devastating search for who you are and who you want to be. Be aware that this story is strong stuff, and also be aware that it is beautifully written. There are twists and turns here as a thread of magic is sewn into the story, and there's also a strong hopeful vibe as Kagunda explores the longing for redemption and the possibility of second chances. This story will stay with me for a very long time.
How To Burn Down the Hinterlands by Lyndsie Manusos in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
Manusos's tale is an epic in short story form, and includes (among other things) magic swords, an ornery blacksmith with a serious grudge against the ruler of the land, the memory of a brilliant and fierce parent, and a cast of characters that I wanted to follow through at least another few hundred pages. Manusos brings it all too life and draws us deep into a rich and complex world, and into the life of a woman who has practiced her craft diligently for years, and is now being asked to create a magic sword for the ruler who executed her mother. The interplay between the blacksmith and The Armory, the group of fighters sent by the king to negotiate the making of the magic sword, is at the heart of this story and Manusos excels at making you feel for all involved. A layered, powerful story with prose that sings and shines from the first paragraph to the last.
I'm featuring two flash fiction stories from Breathe Fiyah, but really, you should read the whole collection. More about this flash fiction publication:
Breathe FIYAH is a flash fiction anthology created in collaboration between Tor.com and FIYAH Literary Magazine, co-edited by Brent Lambert and DaVaun Sanders.
These stories stand in testament to the power and vitality of Black voices in the face of centuries of institutionalized oppression. This flash fiction anthology features fantastical and science fictional imaginings of Black characters honoring forebearers and memories of the past, fighting the legacies that underpin the brutalities of the present, and demanding a future that’s freer than today.
In the words of co-editors Brent and DaVaun, “We must always give voice to that rage while refusing to let it destroy us.”
Sela, Thief by Zabe Bent in Breathe Fiyah (available at TOR.com)
Sela enters a corner store, exhausted after a day's work and all she wants to do is go home. However, she also has a singular power: to see and quite literally grab a hold of a person's thoughts and emotions and memories. And when the store owner is a racist... well, she decides to take action even though it is at the end of a very long day. Fierce, sharp and powerful fantasy flash that is wonderfully rooted in the real world.
Here Sits His Ignominy by Tobi Ogundiran in Breathe Fiyah (available at TOR.com)
Written as a letter to a king who sent his armies out to conquer rich lands, this story heaves and breathes righteous anger and determination. Because the people the king thought to conquer were not so easily defeated.
Your Pompous Majesty, is your breathing fast, your chest tight? Do you find your dreary castle even more draughty, your kingly robes sticky with cold sweat?
Devoured Stars Over Dublin by Méabh de Brún in Giganotosaurus
A rollicking and hugely entertaining story set in a version of Dublin where the Old Ones have claimed our world and are doing with it whatever the hell they please. There are cracks and fissures in reality that occasionally drop the inhabitants of other parallel universes into the muck and despair of this horrific Dublin, while the regular inhabitants scratch out a living in the dirt, ever hungry and dirty and fearful of their cruel overlords. Reg comes across a newly arrived human from a cleaner parallel universe and together with her significant other Niamh, she is looking to cash in on the selling of the new arrival, but things do not go exactly according to plan. This story plunges you into the muck of a starless world, and I only wish there was more to read about this world and these characters because I absolutely loved this.
In Isolation by Andrew Kozma in Reckoning
Reckoning has published a whole issue-full of content influenced and inspired by the COVID-19 pandemic, including this poignant and piercing essay/fiction by Kozma, reflecting on life and loneliness. It threads together daily life experiences in isolation with a scifi perspective, and the end result is both beautiful and haunting.
In addition to these stories, I want to give a shout-out to a novel: Susanna Clarke's weird, wonderful, and quietly unsettling Piranesi. In honour of that book, I'm including one of Clarke's short stories in this roundup.
Antickes and Frets by Susanna Clarke in The New York Times (also available in her short story collection The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories)
Clarke's story about the fate of the Queen of Scots blends historical fact with fiction and fantasy. As the darkness gathers for the Queen in her exile, things also slide closer to dark fantasy and horror. The historical figures take their appointed places, but Clarke adds in a magical twist that is concerned with embroidery, and the kind of terrible magic that a woman might wield with needle and thread, if she knows how to sew properly. I love how the threat of dark magic lurks beneath the surface of the real world here, and I think I'll have to read all of Clarke's short stories now. The theme of magic beneath the surface, hidden, but there to be used if one only finds the way to access it, runs through Piranesi as well.