This month brought stories of horror and hope, post-apocalyptic worlds and the afterlife, the power of art and literature, and of desert dogs and Scorpion Men. In other words, it was a great time to be a reader of science fiction and fantasy short fiction.
“No Flight Without the Shatter“, by Brooke Bolander, at Tor.com
In a ravaged future of humanity’s own making (one that seems less far-fetched, and less far off, by the day), an orphaned girl called Linnea lives with a group of Aunties who appear somewhat human, but are really the last surviving specimens of various extinct animal species. Around them, the world is falling apart, but the Aunties have an escape plan of sorts. “No Flight Without the Shatter” is a haunting, furious lament about the terrible and careless things humans have done to themselves, the Earth, and particularly to the animals we share a planet with. I haven’t stopped thinking about it, and if you like it, I highly recommend you pick up Bolander’s novelette The Only Harmless Great Thing, which glows with the same incandescent, righteous anger, but not without a glimmer of a hope peeking in from the edges of the page.
“Rapture“, by Meg Elison, in Shimmer
If you need a story to illuminate a dreary day with a brilliant ray of light or lift you up if you’re feeling down, then this sublime, fantastical tale about the power of literature is your perfect medicine. Philip K. Dick Award-winner Elison’s main character is Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the story takes place in an afterlife populated by writers of prose and drama and poetry, vividly imagining what happens when an author’s words still move readers, long after that author is gone. “Rapture” is like a luminous fan-letter to both readers and writers, an ode to the enduring magic and import of the written word.
“In The Sharing Place“, by David Erik Nelson, in Asimov’s Science Fiction September/October 2018 issue
In Nelson’s sci-fi/horror tale, children are brought to a strange, hidden shelter in the wake of a loved one’s death in order to “process their grief.” If they fail to suitably process their grief, they might suffer Rejection. What Rejection entails, precisely, isn’t spelled out at first, though the reader soon realizes it has something to do with the Bad Song that has somehow altered the world, and the people, outside the Sharing Place. Nelson expertly ratchets up the tension until everything comes to a head, and comes undone, as the children’s caretaker decides to leave through the ominous Waiting Room. There’s a dark undercurrent of terror tugging at everyone and everything in this bone-chilling tale, which has an unsettling vibe not unlike the stories of Ray Bradbury or The Twilight Zone.
“Desert Dogs“, by Drea Silvertooth and Lian Rose, in Cast of Wonders
Kei has come to a stable at the edge of the desert seeking a very specific kind of driving lesson: she wants to learn to master a desert dog, a strange creature part mechanical, and part modified giant lizard, bred to be used for long-haul transports through the unforgiving terrain. Her teacher is the elderly Arlo, a blind man who drives a desert dog called Sarge. As they journey into the wastes together, we soon realize that Kei is not exactly who she has told Arlo she is. What follows is a captivating tale of friendship, betrayal, hope, and desperation, set in a world in which life is hard, the husks of decaying, poisoned cities loom everywhere, and where a desert dog can make up the difference between lost hope and a new chance at life. The audio version features excellent narration by Stephanie Malia Morris.
“The Anchorite Wakes“, by R.S.A. Garcia, in Clarkesworld #143
Sister Nadine is an anchoress, meaning she is bound to the community and, specifically, to the church she serves in ways that are both obvious and veiled. She cannot leave the church, but she prays and watches the congregation as others come and go. Some of the local children are more interesting to her than others. There was Dennis, the troubled boy who came to speak to her before he disappeared. And now there’s Louisa, a child who shows a deeper interest in Sister Nadine and her duties than anyone else. Garcia pulls you into this uniquely imagined universe with lustrous prose. I love the way she blends religion and technology, creating a world that, seen through Sister Nadine’s eyes, seems filled with visions and magic.
“For All His Eyes Can See“, by Steve Rasnic Tem, in The Dark
Tem’s beautiful, profoundly unsettling story blends nightmarish weirdness with cosmic horror and science fiction. Peter lives in a broken city populated by broken people. He dreams of “clouds boiling black across the sky, and the earth churning noisily below.” These days, he shares a place with Clarice, who gathers items and objects from the devastated landscape. Peter has the ability to touch an item and see something of its history, and this “sight” is what Clarice seems to particularly like about him. It’s why she keeps him around, he thinks, but as the story unfurls, a more terrifying truth is revealed. Tem brilliantly captures everyday human frailties and fears, twisting them together with vertigo-inducing, surrealistic horror.
“Jewel of the Vashwa“, by Jordan Kurella, in Apex Magazine
Kurella’s story stabs its a barbed hook into you from the opening paragraph: “I watched my love die in the claw of a Scorpion Man. I watched him sever her in half; watched as her long hair dripped down to the ground…” What follows is a fierce, furious tale of love, war, jealousy, and vengeance. Scorpion Men have long been at war with the women of the Vashwa, but some, like the protagonist, are the offspring of both worlds—”chitinous daughters.” It’s a world of strife and passion, and when two people try to bring peace, things do not go as planned… Kurella tells her tale with a commanding voice, almost as if it is being sung by a fire, and the rhythm of the prose adds to its power. (“Jewel of the Vashwa” is part of Apex‘s spectacular Zodiac issue, guest edited by Sheree Renée Thomas.)
“Solace“, by Nora Elghazzawi, in Foreshadow
This is a gentle story about adolescence, love, and magic woven into everyday life in a garden that becomes a place of hope. Laila is 19 and trying to decide what to do with her life in the wake of a battle with an an eating disorder, while also struggling with the grief over her brother passing. College looms, as do her conflicted feelings for Gabe, a local boy with his own complicated past. Elghazzawi spins a tender story about characters who feel real enough to step off the page, inhabiting a world where sadness mingles with joy and disappointment with hope, where small acts of caring might be the magic that makes new things grow. The story comes from Foreshadow, a new serial YA anthology published online. The quality of the first issue bodes well for its future. Recommended for both YA readers and adults.
“A Bond as Deep as Starlit Seas“, by Sarah Grey, in Lightspeed
When I finished reading this science fiction story, I only wanted more. I wanted a whole book following this world and these characters. Grey tells us a story of Cleo, an aging, sentient ship (“a lumbering old Juno-class cargo beast”); Jeri, her captain; and what happens when Jeri decides to sell the ship she loves and upgrade to something better, something newer. It’s a rollicking, thrilling SF adventure that plucked every one of my heartstrings like a maestro. Compelling storytelling from start to finish.
“The House of Illusionists“, by Vanessa Fogg, in Liminal Stories
Vanessa Fogg’s luminous fantasy tale takes us to a school of magic where children come from all over the Empire to learn the wondrous art and craft of the Illusionists. It seems like a wondrous place, but outside the school’s boundaries, beyond the city, a war rages. As it creeps ever closer, desperation, fear, and despair grows among the teachers and students—but some of them have a plan to use their powers of illusion to save themselves. Fogg has crafted a beautiful, devastating tale about the power of hope and art in the face of oblivion, about the magic we choose to believe in so that we might be able to face the pain and horror of the world. This story broke my heart, and gave me hope.
Did you ready any great SFF stories in August?