This month, we read stories of mysterious dogs, silent songs on Mars, and witches wanted for Mars. We read about a singing conch-shell, robots playing music, werewolves, hair magic, extraordinary lifespans, and a very strange house. We read a lot of stories, and these are some of the best.
“Mama Bruise“, by Jonathan Carroll on Tor.com
The rather ordinary life of a married couple takes a turn for the weird as items in their house begin to disappear and reappear in unexpected places and mysterious letters begin to show up on their skin, spelling out names and words. At the same time, their dog is behaving ever more erratically and also displays some decidedly un-doglike behavior. As things get odder in the household, the wife comes to the conclusion that the dog might not really be a dog after all. Carroll’s story takes everyday situations—the quirks of pet ownership, the subtle shifts and fractures in a long-term relationship—and spins them into a darkly humorous, deeply unsettling tale. I love the way he expertly tightens the screws, increasing the suspense and deepening the strangeness bit by bit, until the everyday world is revealed in a new and different light.
“The Song Between Worlds“, by Indrapramit Das in Slate
In a far future, a rich family from Earth is visiting Mars for a fancy holiday getaway. There are all sorts of spas and touristy sights to enjoy, but Varuna, who has come along with their parents, craves something beyond the glossy attractions. Varuna is especially interested in the original human settlers on Mars, “the Martian Shepherds” known for “the ushengaan”—the silent song of Mars. Things come to a head when Varuna sets out on an adventure on the surface of the planet with Nayima, a local guide and a Martian Shepherd. Das tells a lyrical, wistful, and deeply moving story about life on another planet, about families, and about finding a real connection with the world around us. It’s also about cultural appropriation, and how tourism can mar and distort our perspectives—but in the end, Das shows us their exists the possibility of more authentic interactions, even between people from different planets.
“A Conch-Shell’s Notes“, by Shweta Adhyam in Lightspeed
“This is the story of a conch-shell, and the man who answered its call to adventure.” So begins Adhyam’s tale, set in the community of Peacetown, where the residents seek advice from a magic conch-shell when faced with difficult life choices. Kwa listens to the shell and chooses to set out to slay a dragon. Var also listens, but chooses to stay behind in the village and marry the beautiful, confident Shai. What seems at first to be a kind of ur-fable about choosing your destiny becomes more complex when we also follow the path of Shai, the woman Var marries. Adhyam crafts an insightful and thoughtful story with a barbed twist at the end. It picks apart the structure of the adventure-tale itself, baring our own assumptions about destiny and stories in the process.
“Witches for Mars“, by Eden Royce in Drabblecast
Maira is a witch, living in a future version of our own world where her kind face increasing persecution and threats of violence (their cats have already left). When Maira sees a mysterious message online seeking witches to emigrate to Mars, she is initially reluctant to consider it, especially since an earlier expedition to the planet came to a disastrous end. But after a nasty knife attack and visiting a mysterious website, she might just change her mind. Royce’s prose is lush, and her story deals with serious issues of bigotry and violence while effortlessly blending fantasy and science fiction, creating a layered and rich world. The story is beautifully narrated by Sara Makeba Daise. Look for Royce’s debut novel Tying the Devil’s Shoestrings, coming from Walden Pond Press in 2020.
“Professor Strong and the Brass Boys“, by Amal Singh in Apex Magazine
Robots and droids share the world with humans, but by order of an authority called the Palladium, and thanks to the Droid Rehabilitation Act, they are not allowed to do certain things: they enjoy no leisure time, for example, and cannot create or consume art. When Professor Strong, a droid and history teacher, becomes interested in music, rhe (the pronoun used by robots in the story) knows rheir new hobby is against the rules. Still, rhe keeps playing in secret and even finds other robots who share the same passion. When one of rhem, Yuyu, is apprehended and summarily decommissioned, the “Band of Robotic Brotherhood” perseveres, and even plans a public performance. Singh’s story puts a musical twist on the sci-fi trope of robots rebelling against humanity, and while there is darkness in this story, it also displays a wonderfully subtle sense of humor—and an infectious feeling of hope.
“Elegy for a Slaughtered Swine” by Rafaela Farraz at Podcastle
In the Portuguese countryside, two boys, Benedito and Ezequiel, grow up in the house of a rich man who is not their biological father. Now, this “master of the house” is dying from a strange condition, and the only thing that might save his life is a cure that will cost someone else their life. Everywhere in this tale, in the memories and lives of the characters, in the landscape and the lore of the local people, wolves are lurking. As Benedito narrates the story, we understand that he lives in a world where both magic and the horror run deep. When Benedito chooses to try to save Ezequiel, things grow increasingly dangerous and unpredictable for the boys as loyalties shift. I have a deep and abiding love for werewolf stories, and this one is outstanding—luscious and visceral in every detail.
“The Flowering“, by Soyeon Jeong (translated by Jihyun Park and Gord Sellar) in Clarkesworld
In an interview, a woman recounts the story of how her sister’s lifelong fight against their country’s oppressive regime brought about profound changes, but also had other lasting effects—not always positive—on the lives of those closest to her. Set in a seemingly not too distant future and told in vivid first person, Jeong’s compelling story has a wonderful, direct quality, bringing to life the nitty-gritty realities and repercussions of resistance in an authoritarian system. While it’s clear the interviewer sees the sister as a hero, the woman herself is still very much concerned with old sibling rivalries, slights, and injustices. The title refers to the way the sister and the rest of the resistance managed to overthrow the government’s restrictive control—by quite literally planting seeds of rebellion.
“While Dragons Claim the Sky“, by Jen Brown in Fiyah #10
This novelette by Jen Brown is a compelling fantasy tale set in a world where dragons roam the sky and magic exists, including the hair magic worked by Omani, a young woman who dreams of studying “coif magery” at the Imperial College. Omani has just received a highly prized acceptance letter from the institution when a fighter named Myra crosses her path. Myra wants to enter the famed Dragonscale Melées in the capital, and Omani offers her services as a hair mage to help her, in exchange for Myra taking her along. Once they reach the city, nothing goes as planned. Every part of this fantasy adventure is a delight, from the characters, to the setting, to the details coif magery. I would have happily kept reading an entire novel about these characters this world, and these dragons.
“On the Lonely Shore“, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia in Uncanny Magazine
Balthazar, an ailing young man from a rich family, is sent off to convalesce at the far-off Saltwater House. Judith, a young woman, is assigned as his companion. Once they arrive at the seaside residence, Balthazar’s health continues to deteriorate, even as something new kindles between him and Judith. Silvia Moreno-Garcia weaves a beautiful, haunting tale that mixes a Gothic sensibility with strands of horror, fantasy, and romance, pulling you deep inside its world and into the heat of a burgeoning relationship before slowly unveiling the truth lurking beneath the surface. There’s a powerful sense of foreboding behind every sentence; Moreno-Garcia writes prose so delicious I want read it aloud, just to taste words. Look for her next novel, Gods of Jade and Shadow, in August. Her earlier books include The Beautiful Ones and the sci-fi novella Prime Meridian.
“Vincent’s Penny“, by Chris Barnham in Dimension 6
Barnham’s story starts in London in 1941 with the intriguing line, “I’m a child this time. Five or six years old.” Soon, we are transported back to 1593, as a young boy named Sebastian meets some very strange men at his father’s inn. Sebastian tries to steal from them on his father’s orders, but is caught by Vincent, the group’s leader. This chance meeting leads Sebastian into Vincent’s employ in an organization that spans countries and centuries. Vincent has found a way to extend his lifespan, but doing so requires both magic and ruthlessness. I loved the heck out of this story’s grit and action. It plays around with fantasy and history, focusing on characters who tread a narrow path between good and evil. If you enjoy it and want to read more of Barnham’s time-hopping stories, you can pick up his novel Fifty-One, about a timecop from 2040 who is sent back to WWII London to stop the assassination of Britain’s wartime leader.
What’s the best SFF story you read in April?