In December, at the tail end of the year, I read stories of strange and familiar shapeshifters, the Moon and her hounds, an alt-historical Beatrix Potter, post-apocalyptic dentistry, the dangers of mining on Earth and other planets, the trials of Martyrs, and the tribulations of a future shrouded in smog.
“The Island of Beasts“, by Carrie Vaughn, in Nightmare
A woman in chains is brought to an island and unceremoniously dumped by her captors. She’s been banished from the mainland not just because she is a wolf-woman (a rare thing even in a world where wolf-men are known to exist), but because she is “too dangerous to keep and not valuable enough to bother taming.” On the island, exiled men of her own wolfish, shapeshifting kind approach her with rather selfish plans for her life on the island. However, she turns out to be more strong-willed, and less easily swayed, than they might have thought. Vaughn spins a gripping and wonderfully rich yarn, the kind of enthralling read that makes me want to curl up in a comfy chair by the fireplace and lose myself in every beautifully crafted word. (The podcast version is also excellent, narrated by Stefan Rudnicki).
“The Coal Remembers What It Was“, by Paul R. Hardy, in Diabolical Plots
In this story, as its title reveals, the coal really does remember what it was. When a piece of coal burns, it remembers and reveals the creature it was, the place they lived, the world that once existed. Elsie, our storyteller, remembers too. She remembers growing up in a coal-mining town; remembers her dad covered in coal dust; remembers her mother, working her fingers to the bone to keep the family happy, fed, and clothed. Elsie also remembers the day when the coalmine, and the coal in the ground with all its memories, claimed the town and almost everyone in it. Hardy captures Elsie’s voice perfectly, and tells a vivid, compelling tale that hooked me from the beginning.
“Girls Who Do Not Drown“, by A.C. Buchanan, in Apex Magazine
“This is an island that sends all its girls into the sea,” Buchanan writes, and proceeds to tell us about the girls that leave and the girls that stay, the girls that come back and the girls that are lost forever beneath the waves. Then, Buchanan tells us about Alice, who is young and drunk, who feels lost and hopeless, who is sad and fearsome all at once, and who is smoking on the beach when she meets a glashtyn, a shapeshifter that means to carry her into the sea. Buchanan’s prose cuts like a razor; if you remember adolescence, and if you’ve lived in a place where you felt hemmed in on all sides, you might love this story as much as I did.
“Beatrix Released“, by Shaenon K. Garrity, in Escape Pod
Until I listened to this simultaneously delightful and harrowing tale, I did not know that I needed to read a twisted, alternate history take on the life of Beatrix Potter, but apparently I did. Garrity’s story is written in the form of diary entries by Potter herself, and it captures a mind of whimsy and brilliance that feels absolutely right for the character. This young Beatrix is a talented artist, but her talents extend far beyond illustrations and children’s stories, and as the tale progresses, it pulls you down the strangest, darkest, loveliest rabbit hole, full of cute (and rather intelligent) mice, ducks, dogs, cats, and…oh yes, there’s also a nefarious plot involving undercover work for the British government, and a whole lot of explosives. Fabulous narration by Katherine Inskip.
“Mouths“, by Lizz Huerta, in Lightspeed
“Times were strange, and those who survived the collapse had a jarring mixtape of skills. Plumbers were holy men, exorcising the encampments of the demons of human waste.” In Huerta’s uniquely imagined post-apocalyptic world, plumbers, as well as sex workers and dentists, are highly prized and well-regarded. Somewhere on the Pacific coast of this changed and changing world, a woman called Fai has to trek far away from home to find a dentist after she injures her jaw. Fai finds the dentist, a man called El Buitre, and he heals her (after a fashion), but the process changes both Fai’s life and body in unexpected ways. Huerta’s future is a fascinating one, and her story is evocative and powerful, told with prose that is at once terse and finely wrought.
“Russula’s Wake“, by Kay Chronister, in The Dark
In this quietly unsettling story, the monstrous and the everyday exist side by side in the same isolated farm house, and within the same family. Jane is raising her three children by herself after her husband’s death. While she is human, her late spouse was something else—and so are the children. The older two already “nourish” rather than eat, and even their mother fears to look at their true faces. And while the youngest still seems fully human as she plays with and cares for the farm’s barn cats, Jane knows it won’t last. Chronister’s story finds the unsettling darkness that hides in the seams of ordinary life, and picks away at them until they burst open, giving us a glimpse of the darkness within.
“Bringing Down the Sky“, by Alan Bao, in Clarkesworld #147
Bao’s story is set in a future where smog is suffocating and plentiful, and where clean air is a rare and expensive commodity people are willing to pay a lot of money for. It’s set in a village in China where the locals make a living going up Big Sky Ridge, looking for clean air they can capture in special canisters for later sale. Theirs is a small-scale operation in a business increasingly dominated by bigger “sky-running” companies; inevitably, outsiders come along, looking for a way to make a bigger profit. Bao’s science fiction tale has a grimy, lived-in texture I really loved, and his world and characters feel both real and complex. This is not a story about good and evil, but a story about human beings trying to make a life and a living in a hard world.
“The Glint of Light on Broken Glass“. by Jennifer R. Donohue, in Truancy Magazine
As opening lines go, this one is a gem: “The Moon sits on the windowsill of the butcher shop, smoking cigarettes. The butcher doesn’t mind, much, because the Moon is good company…” It’s the start of a story about the literal Moon, who occasionally comes to Earth with her dogs (knocking out the WiFi whenever she visits), and a hard-working butcher suffering through a string of failed assistants (who are also failed boyfriends), until finally, one night, something goes terribly, horribly awry for them both. Donohue skillfully weaves together gleaming threads of lunar folklore with the cigarette-stained, bloody strands of real life, crafting a moving tale that contains both love and horror.
“Salting the Mine“, by Peter Wood, in Asimov’s
On a planet far away from Earth, human settlers and alien locals co-exist rather happily. Once upon a time, something terrible (referred to as “the Event”) occurred here, wreaking havoc with the climate, but the aliens don’t like to talk about it. The humans set up a mining operation when they arrived, but when trouble on Earth left them cut off from communications and trade, the mine eventually closed. The locals are quite happy with the way things are, but things change when a ship arrives from Earth, and someone wants to start mining again… Wood’s story is an entertaining page-turner with great characters, a subtle environmental message, and a good sense of humor.
“A Martyr’s Art“, by J.P. Sullivan, in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
In J.P. Sullivan’s thrilling fantasy tale, a special group of people called Martyrs has the power to take on the hurts and injuries of others, healing the afflicted in the process. A Martyr can heal, whether the “injury” is a hangover or a mortal wound received in a duel. Chalcedony is a Martyr serving the powerful Lord Sebastien, though her servitude feels to her like slavery. A chance to change her fate arrives when a ship with a mysterious and seemingly incredibly valuable cargo comes to the City. Sullivan’s story is lush in every detail, and it kept me enthralled from start to finish.
What’s the best SFF short story you read in 2018?