From the author: 16 fabulous stories I read in February.
An audio version is available for this installment. Listen online →
Hunt by Mina Li in Translunar Travelers Lounge
Mina Li braids together several different strands into a a fierce and ferocious fantasy tale. Princess Severna was married to Crown Prince Yorest at a young age, and for a while, he seemed to be a loving husband. But Severna soon realized the prince was not at all what the man he seemed to be, and she found herself trapped in an emotionally abusive marriage. Now, Yorest has disappeared on a quest to seek out the magical and mysterious "Kingmaker", and Severna has decided to head out on the same quest in order to claim the throne herself. A compelling, hard-hitting story that pulls no punches, and the ending? well, it is delicious.
Kiki Hernández Beats the Devil by Samantha Mills in Translunar Travelers Lounge
Kiki Hernández, "rock legend of the Southwest", wields a guitar called Mona Lisa, "a fine-tuned devil-killing music monster", and she plays old rock'n'roll tunes by Slash and Jimi Hendrix (among others) to defeat her enemies. Her pet is a hellhound called Ozzy, with "curling horns for ears and deep pits of flame for eyes" who can swallow devils in two bites apiece. Oh, and did I mention this is a rollicking, rousing, rambunctious tale that you won't soon forget? Samantha Mills has serious storytelling chops, and her talents are on full display in this wonderful story for Translunar Travelers Lounge.
A Hench Helps Her Villain, No Matter What, by Izzy Wasserstein in Escape Pod
Wasserstein puts some excellent (both kinky and hilarious) tweaks and twists into the super-villain vs. superhero genre in this fabulous story at Escape Pod. Hench is the loyal (and mostly obedient) henchwoman of super-villain Night Mistress, who is currently battling it out with superhero Patriotess. But being a loyal henchwoman doesn't always give you what you want from your villain, and when Hench ends up in a tight spot with Patriotess, she has a fight on her hands and eventually, a decision to make. A cheeky and subversively funny story that also includes the excellent quote:
“If the universe has a consciousness, it’s a bastard. If it has a sense of humor, it’s a cruel one.”
Ngozi Ugegbe Nwa by Dare Segun Falowo in The Dark
The object that had flashed gold swims past her. It is a mirror. A perfectly gilded pool of oval glass. The person who carries it bends under its weight. Usually, hawkers will carry more than one item of the goods they sell in elaborate strings and belts all around their bodies, but this one is carrying just this one object. The most perfect mirror Ngozi had ever set eyes on.
Ngozi buys a beautiful mirror, and once she has it in her home, things rapidly spin ever deeper into madness and horror. I love the twisted and nightmarish sense of terror and obsession that infuse this tale, and the sense that there really, truly, are some things you cannot escape once you've taken a wrong step. Vividly imagined and riveting from beginning to end.
How We Burn by Brenda Peynado in Lightspeed
In a future where humanity has come to the brink of what's sustainable to continue living on the planet, a group of humans have created a seemingly safe utopia for themselves. Their children are engineered from before birth, using the genetic material of several parents to avoid as many diseases as possible. In society, all possible precautions have been taken to keep these children safe from harm, but safety is not what the teens Sequoia, Tiger, Grizzly Bear, and Joshua Tree, crave. They crave thrills and danger, a future where they are not coddled, and they get their kicks using drugs, hacking computer systems and stealing spaceships, flying too fast, and dreaming of an escape from their "safe" existence. I love how this story imagines the clash between generations as something complex and fraught, rather than a black and white binary situation. A wrenching story packed with both action and emotion, that does not offer easy answers or clear-cut solutions.
The Oldest Solution by Priya Sridhar in Strange Horizons
Sridhar imagines the cosmic beings known as the Old Ones in a wonderfully original way in this story. Nisha is going to see Doctor Olk to find a way to deal with her anxieties and commitment issues. Doctor Olk is an Old One, and in the story, one possible treatment for various human problems, including the issues Nisha is struggling with, is to allow an Old One to possess you. A lovely and darkly humorous tale with a dizzying cosmic horror perspective.
Things Boys Do by ‘Pemi Aguda in Nightmare
I've actually read two fabulous horror stories by 'Pemi Aguda this past month. First, this downright bone-chilling tale of childbirth, revenge beyond the grave, and deeply troubling family relationships in Nightmare; and second of all, Aguda's equally harrowing and haunting story "Manifest" in Granta. Both stories touch in the idea of reincarnation and evil passed down to another generation, and both involve children. Neither story is a light read, in fact, they are violent and bloody and disturbing. Both stories also have a visceral, raw edge to them that makes the horror cut deep.
The Last Woman on Earth by Caroline Hadilaksono in Electric Literature
This is the first time I've picked a graphic narrative, AKA an illustrated short story, for my short story roundups. A small family is scratching out a living on a future Earth where most humans have already left the fading, dying planet. They have one ticket that would allow one of them passage off the planet, but they don't want to break up the family. Years pass, and then, a difficult decision is made. The story is told with a subtle and quiet simplicity, yet it is also so very heavy with emotion and power. Outstanding work by Hadilaksono.
White Noon by Aidan Doyle in Podcastle
Doyle's story might best be described as a kind of snow-covered weird western. Three sisters meet up after their mother, a warden, has disappeared and presumably died in the "the land’s deepest dreamstone mine", a place called Old Man's Dream. Two of the sisters, Inga and Kristin, want the third sister, Elin, to choose which one of them should inherit their mother's Warden guns, a set of weapons that only work in pairs. It's the start of a mighty adventure which includes a ride on the troll train, thunderguns, and "a belt buckle made in the shape of a dog’s face and containing a fragment of Light and Dark" (among other things). A fabulously entertaining ride.
You Can Check Out Any Time You Like by Rhonda Eikamp in Apparition Lit
The patient has forgotten what’s wrong with her.
That's the opening line of this surreal and soul-wrenching story about a patient who is suffering from a condition that neither she nor the various doctors treating her seem able to name or diagnose or treat accurately. She's subjected to several outlandish treatments, but nothing works, and in the end, she always finds herself back in the hospital bed. Reality itself seems to bend and shift around her, as if there are many versions of her, or of her world, but in none of these realities can she find release. A strange and haunting story that will stick with me for a long time.
John Simnel’s First Goshawk by Tegan Moore in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
The hawk has run out of foul names to spit at me. He does not blink, and so I try not to blink. The sallow light is golden in his livid golden eye.
One of us will break, and the other triumph. Though in the muffled dark of my room I wonder if I might instead go mad.
“Or perhaps you’re mad already,” the goshawk suggests.
John Simnel was a pretender to the throne of England in the 15th century. (There's a bit more at Wikipedia, and it sounds absolutely fascinating.) Here, Simnel's work as a falconer intertwines with his thoughts about his own part in a rebellion against the English king, and how he was used and "tamed" to play his part. It's an incisive and heart-rending story about a man who is trying to come to terms with himself and the world. Moore's prose is evocative and sharp as a claw.
The Mermaid Astronaut by Yoon Ha Lee in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
I do love a good fairytale re-telling, and in this rich and uniquely imagined story, author Yoon Ha Lee (author of the amazeballs Machineries of Empire series of books) puts a terrific scifi twist on The Little Mermaid. As the story explains, "[t]his particular mermaid had named herself Essarala, which means seeks the stars in the language of tide and foam." When a trading spaceship lands on Essarala's planet, she seizes the opportunity to go where few mermaids have gone before. What follows is a fantastic science fantasy space adventure, full of aliens, space travel, and (of course) the need to strike a deal with a witch in order for Essarala to get her legs. The price she must pay for that transformation turns out to be somewhat different than she first imagined. Part of fantastic science-fantasy issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
I’m Coming With You by PK Torrens in Kasma SF
Roberta Banda and Walu Mambwe are the first two people exploring an exoplanet. But what they find on the surface is nothing like what they expected, or what their sensors seemed to show them before they landed.
The landscape twisted out of shape. Ripples of leaves, petals and streams replaced by chunky heat-emitting pipes criss-crossed beneath her feet in layers upon layers. What she thought had been soil was in fact a network of dense and long pipes covered in vegetation.
It's the setup for a harrowing science fiction story that bends closer to horror as Roberta explores the exoplanet further. A fantastic and memorable read.
St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid by C.L. Polk at TOR.com
I was somebody’s firstborn child, the price somebody paid for gold and a spotlight. I was made to be given away to a woman with the wisdom of the bees. Mama sends me to school with perfect braids plaited up tight, buys me new clothes each spring and each fall, and though she wards me against sickness, accident, or ill-wish, she doesn’t love me.
No one has ever loved me, not for my whole life.
Theresa grows up in the house of the feared, rich, local witch Miss l'Abielle who has raised her as her own daughter. She grows up in a beautiful house, with a chauffeur driving her to school, and learning witchcraft. But while her life is rich in some ways, she has no friends until she meets Lucille at school and they form a bond that binds them in more ways than one. Other than Lucille, Theresa only has Mama's bees to confide in, and while the bees may listen, and even give you what your heart desires, that magic comes with a price. A rich and luminous tale about friendship and love, and how a person might be willing to pay whatever’s necessary to keep the one you love safe.
Even Robots Can Cry by Sam Kyung Yoo in Fireside
Simon is studying at university. He is consumed and overwhelmed by the workload, by his family's expectations, by the need to be perfect, and the pressure to live up to the image his parents have of what his life ought to be like.
Not wanting to do something is not a legitimate reason to not do it. He can do it, and that’s all that matters. This is how the world functions.
Life isn’t about doing or getting what you want.
Simon is also haunted by thoughts of his sister, the person who walked away from all expectations and family obligations, leaving Simon behind to carry all this weight all by himself. I felt this story in my very bones. It expertly captures the claustrophobic feeling of anxiety and mute desperation, that feeling of being trapped in a situation you cannot escape.
We Are the Moor by Sylvia Heike in Flash Fiction Online
We are one and we are many. We are shrubby willow and cotton-grass; we are moss and heather. All we need is this peaceful state of being. Enjoy the sun, listen to the birds, drink the mist. But there’s a new voice among us, and she won’t let us rest.
Night and day, she whispers about a man in town.
The moor itself speaks to us in this lovely, haunting love-and-ghost story by Sylvia Heike. Here, the moor is the plants and the ground and the souls that have gone into the moor's roots and stems and moss through the years, retaining sentience even though they've changed in the process. When a new woman becomes part of the moor, she resists the pull of it at first. An old love draws her back to where she lived, and died, and where the man she loved still resides. Gorgeous and moving.