From the author: 17 great stories I read in December, 2020.
An audio version is available for this installment. Listen online →
The Little Witch by M. Rickert at TOR.com
The introduction blurb for this story says,
Every Halloween, an elderly woman hands out candy to a young trick-or-treater who’s dressed as a witch each time, looking exactly the same age. With each passing year, the woman grows more attached to the little witch and her odd nature. But she is no ordinary child, and an uncanny relationship develops between the two of them that may prove dangerous and deadly.
I love this story with all my witch-adoring heart. It's an absolutely fantastically creepy, yet charming (how about that combo?), story that starts out by anchoring itself quite solidly in the real world as we know it, and then proceeds to quietly and deliberately twist that real world and turn it upside down and inside out. At first, it seems it's just that little girl who is uncanny, yet we realize bit by bit that there is a heck of a lot more going on here than that. Brilliant dark fiction by Rickert.
The Wrong Girl by Angela Slatter in Nightmare
Ilsa stares at Will a moment longer. His face writes cheques that his nature can’t cash, she thinks, watching as he blushes, eyes flicker down, those thick lashes seeming to take a bow. Such a pretty face.
A chilling horror story from the masterful Angela Slatter that cuts deep into the dark heart of relationships between friends, siblings, and lovers. Will is a man who mistreats all the women in his life, and who is unable to see his own shortcomings with any real clarity. His friend, Ilsa, on the other hand, sees through him with unsettling ease. She's kept her distance from him, resisting his advances that they should be together, but then... then Will finds a way to wheedle his way into her home anyway, with disastrous, tragic results. A cold-blooded tale with a rather terrifying and satisfying ending.
Let Shadows Slip Through by Kali Napier in New Gothic Review
A taut, tense, and thoroughly gripping piece of dark fiction that twists ever deeper into darkness and horror as you read it. It starts out as a tale about a woman on the road with her young sun, and while you realize very soon that everything is definitely not OK, there's a turn at the end that gave me chills.
The Last Bookseller of Saint Paul by Jordan Hirsch in Apparition Lit
In a future version of Saint Paul, Minnesota, Allibel uses what remains of the once mighty Mississippi River to deliver books to buyers. The world, the climate, society, and the people in it (including Allibel) have changed in subtle and drastic ways after a catastrophic event called The Fallout, but Allibel is determined to keep her book business going. I love this story for many reasons, including the authors mentioned as Allibel is going through her book inventory!, but maybe especially for the way it sees a way forward not just in spite of the changes the world has undergone, but also because of them. There's a wonderful gleam of hope at the end.
Renovation of a Finite Apartment by Toby MacNutt in Strange Horizons
This is a very strange, very deep, and utterly beguiling story about a being that is living among humans, in a human body, but who is decidedly not human inside that human skin. MacNutt never spells out in so many words what kind of being we're dealing with here, but it really doesn't matter. What matters is the searing loneliness and profound feeling of being Other and Lost that pervades every facet of this being's existence in our world. I love the way this story looks at human beings from the outside, and I love the quiet, piercing voice of the alien protagonist telling us their story.
Open 27 Hours by LP Kindred in Speculative City's Afrofuturism issue
Prepare to get very hungry while reading this story! A young woman is talking to her friends about amazing dishes they've eaten and mentions Nobavgo casserole. She remembers the dish distinctly, and remembers that it was the last meal she shared with her mother, but she cannot remember where she ate it. As it turns out, one of her friends says she knows exactly where she ate that dish, and what follows is no ordinary restaurant visit. A wonderful, magical story about food and family, friends and memories.
And The Ones Who Walk In by Sarah Avery in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
The girl who had never known hunger turned her back on that house and walked, her hands empty, right out of the city. She did not say goodbye to her mother. That first day, as the road stretched through farm villages, she found public wells to stop at for water. No one troubled her when she lay down for the night under a roadside tree. Even this far beyond the gates, the city’s luck protected her.
Sarah Avery's story is a thoughtful and finely crafted tale inspired by, and something of a sequel to, Ursula K. Le Guin's famous "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas", published in 1973. Here, we follow a young woman who has decided to leave Omelas (though the city is never named in Avery's text), and soon realizes that the world outside is no easy place to navigate, even when you've made up your mind that you cannot live with the injustice you left behind. I love the carefully crafted fantasy world Avery's characters move through, and I love how Avery interrogates the challenges of the outside world, and what happens to all those "walkers" who have decided through the years to walk away from the "blessed city". This is a great tale in its own right to, especially when Crocus, the protagonist, meets a woman with a baby and finds out that some people are doing all they can to get to the place she left behind.
What My Flies Keep for Me by Shaoni C. White in Podcastle (narrated by Abra Staffin-Wiebe)
There’s a dead body on the floor. This is a bad thing. I’m having trouble recalling why that’s the case, but I’m sure it’ll come back to me soon. I fastidiously clean the blade of the knife on the shirt that the body is wearing, because the knife is my brother’s and it’s rude to return things you’ve borrowed in poor condition. That’s what the flies resting on the curve of my ear are telling me.
I am a sucker for stories that take a really far-out premise and just runs with it and makes it compelling in its absolute strangeness and weirdness. Here, we find ourselves in a world where insects (bees, ants, flies) belong to a person and "keep" a part of their personality, a part of them, outside their body. It's a fascinating way to externalize a part of a person's personality, and reflect on what we might be like if that part of us was missing. Here, someone has stolen the protagonist's flies, the ones that keep... well, a part of them. What part that is, is part of the mystery to be figured out. I adore this story. It's strong and compelling and I particularly love how the world seems to the protagonist when they have lost that one, vital part of themself, and how the world changes when that part, and the flies, return.
This Is How You Remember by Phong Quan at Cast of Wonders (narrated by Andrew K. Hoe and Rasheedah Prioleau)
An epic, sprawling space opera in short story format. Quan's science fiction tale plunges us deep into a future and a universe full of huge battles, strange aliens (both friends and enemies), death, loss, grief, and LOVE. Because in addition to being a tale about war and space battles. this is very much a story about the deep love and friendship between the alien Speaker El, and the human Jon. They went through a lot together, but when they meet up on Earth again, in Jon's childhood home, after a long time apart, nothing between them is the way it used to be. I love the worldbuilding here and the characters, and I adore the whole universe it's set in. Over on Twitter, Quan calls it "a postcolonial mil SF space opera about war, love, loss & diaspora with Asian-American characters..."
The Skin of Aquila Cadens by Chris Panatier in Metaphorosis Magazine
A scientist has travelled to a planet in the Vega star system, giving up many years of her life in order to study the results of her research in person. The aim of the research is to find new worlds for humans to inhabit by sending genetically engineered "bugs" to several exoplanets. Some of the bugs are supposed to perform various terraforming tasks, while some are meant to occupy any native species they find and modify them. This is a quiet, fascinating story about life and science, and about what we might choose to do with our lives when we find ourselves growing old, far from home. I love how this story gets progressively stranger and more intimate as it goes, and by the end it is, literally, transformative.
Fear of Lying by M. Darusha Wehm at Toasted Cake (narrated by Tina Connolly)
A wonderful slice of scifi flash about a negotiator from Earth, tasked with working out a bargain with an alien species. Both sides want something from the other, but the problem is that the aliens don't exactly negotiate the way humans are used to. I love the worldbuilding and the wry sense of humour as the negotiator contemplates the conundrum. Also, Connolly is a wonderful narrator, as always. This story was originally published on Wehm's Patreon.
Tru Luv by Sarah Pinsker at EscapePod (narrated by Mur Lafferty)
I love this near-future scifi story about a new device that helps people find their perfect match, and what happens when the Tru Luv company sets up an event at a small bar called Meetspace where Molly works.
They were easy to recognize, pushing up their winter coats’ sleeves and glancing at the insides of their wrists every two seconds instead of their phones, each hoping for their algorithm-matched Prince or Princess or Princex to cross into range and light up their implant.
It's a quiet story, but insightful and with a real sense of humour, and I love how human it is, how it includes a new technology and the nifty, deftly interwoven worldbuilding of this near future that underpins it. Evne if it's about tech, it's really about human beings, and how lives can be affected by how we choose, or choose not to, use new tech and apps.
The State Machine by Yudhanjaya Wijeratne in Slate
I really like stories that take the old "AIs are bad and will destroy us" trope and do something new with that premise. And that's exactly what Wijeratne does in this story. Yes, the artificial intelligence that is basically "running society" is problematic to be sure, but it might not be bent on destroying humanity. A deep and thoughtful take on artificial intelligence and society in the future.
An Indefinite Number of Birds by Kurt Hunt in Fantasy Magazine
The return of Fantasy Magazine has been great news for SFF fiction, and so far, they've published some really profound, wrenching pieces, often with a dark vein pulsing through them. This story by Hunt is a love story that delves deep into the misunderstandings, misfiring communications, and unspoken insecurities that can seriously fracture a relationship. A sharp, heart-piercing story.
Felt Along the Seam by Kelly Sandoval in Flash Fiction Online
I’m standing in the school bathroom, peeling off a ghost, when the new girl walks in.
Peeling off ghosts is how Brooke deals with the pain and darkness in her life. Usually, no one really notices what she is doing, but Ash, the new girl, does notice. They become friends, and maybe something more to each other, and there's a solace in that for both of them. And then Ash asks Brooke to teach her that trick of peeling off the ghosts... This is a gentle and profoundly moving story about friendship and adolescence and how we deal, or not deal, with the pain we encounter in life. Gorgeous flash by Sandoval.
Daughters of October by Megan Chaudhuri in Cossmass Infinities #3
A blue vertical line. The test worked. A red horizontal line. Kateryna was pregnant. And next to the words Superpower Antigen Detection, a smeary gray-green blotch.
“Mama,” Kateryna said, her voice strangely girlish for a no-nonsense math teacher, “what does that mean?”
Vira’s fist closed over it until the plastic creaked, as if she could crack the stick open. As if she could pry out the answer that would tell her if she was going to welcome an ordinary grandchild into her beloved apartment. Or if she was going to sell that apartment and use the money to bribe her daughter’s way into Switzerland, to plead for asylum from a government that claimed its superheroes while still in the womb.
This story is set in an alternate history version of our world where the second world war played out a lot differently, and the Americans were defeated by the Soviets in 1957, AND where the emergence of superheroes played a part in the war effort. This intricate and fascinating alt history world is the backdrop for a suspenseful and thrilling story about Vira, her daughter Kateryna who is pregnant with a baby who may, or may not, be a superhero. This is a rich, wonderfully layered story that kept me on the edge of my seat from start to finish and I love how it tells the story of a larger world by telling a very small, focused story about family, and what we might risk in a repressive society, in order to save the ones we love.
Iterations by Christian Monson in Mithila Review
I think I might have mentioned before that I love scifi with screwed up timelines and where we're dealing with multiple realities. This story starts out as a seemingly straightforward tale of a couple going hunting on an alien planet, led by a guide who has some backstory with the wife. The alien wildlife includes a very strange creature that is so dangerous that everyone tries to avoid confronting it, but once that confrontation happens in the story... well, we're off on one heck of a wild ride. This is a hugely entertaining, rollercoaster of a story and I just loved the twists and turns it takes.