June was a brilliant month for speculative short fiction. (Though these days, that describes every month?) This month, I read and loved stories about families and transformation, survival and endurance, strange things in the walls, strange things in the water, meddling kids, weird whales, and very impossible books.
“Heron of Earth“, by Vajra Chandrasekera in Clarkesworld #141
“She is the last human ambassador to the kingdom of the birds: the dinosaurs have claimed the empty Earth again, and they don’t care what she calls herself.” Some stories sing with a voice so strong and strange and beautiful, they pierce you like an arrow. This is one of them. In a post-apocalyptic future, Earth has been observed and reshaped from afar by the Sentimentals, using bots and genetically engineered humanoids. Now, only one watcher remains, and she is driven by a dogged determination to continue her mission. Her name is changeable, but Heron/Cormorant/Petrel keeps up her vigil, even as she is no longer sure anyone cares about her observations, even as she tracks something new and unexpected making its way in the world. It’s a tense, haunting tale, and Chandrasekera’s prose is a wonder —dreamlike, exquisite, and soaring.
“A Thousand Tongues of Silver“, by Kate Heartfield in Lackington’s Issue 17 (Spring 2018) – Gothics
History, alternate history, politics, and magic intertwine in this story from Lackington’s excellent “Gothics” issue. Heartfield tells us the story of a book, as told by the book itself—and not just any old book here, but the famous Codex Argenteus, also known as the Silver Bible. This uniquely imagined, gloriously inventive tale involves Ostrogoths, royal machinations and intrigue through the ages, Queen Kristina of Sweden, and layers of deception and deceit. Being Swedish, I read a lot about Queen Kristina in school, and I love Heartfield’s take on this historic character. A wonderful story to savor.
“The Thing In the Walls Wants Your Small Change“, by Virginia M. Mohlere in Luna Station Quarterly
Caro is a young woman who has just moved into a new apartment in a new town and is trying to settle into a new life, hoping against hope that she can get away from the dark family history that, eventually, comes back to haunt her. From the start, Mohlere infuses this story with delightful bits of whimsical everyday magic: coins that disappear, strange noises in the walls, and a grandmother who has taught Caro how to appease the house spirits. What I really love about this one is how Mohlere intertwines heartwarming fantasy with the heart-wrenching realism of a woman who is bruised and scarred but not defeated by her past. It’s a hard combo to pull off, but Mohlere’s deft touch with characters and plot makes both the real and fantastical elements shine.
“The Quiltbag“, by Ashok K. Banker in Lightspeed Issue 97
This story, about a very strange (sentient) bag and a woman who likewise turns out to be more than she seems, is an absolute delight. Banker gleefully and hilariously skewers bigotry, sexism, and racism while serving up a fabulous slice of inventive speculative fiction (and if you’ve ever been questioned and searched by immigration officials, you’ll probably get an even bigger kick out of this one). Banker’s writing is incisive and funny, and the unexpected ending left me gasping.
“In the End, It Always Turns Out the Same“, by A.C. Wise in The Dark
This horror story is profoundly terrifying in a way that goes beyond jump-scares and monsters. You might think you recognize Wise’s monster-fighting gang of youngsters and their dog tooling around together in a vehicle and unmasking evil around town, but I’ll bet you’ve never read this kind of tale about those meddling kids. There’s a chill of existential dread and wrenching horror lurking here that is hardly the stuff of cartoons. What if your world wasn’t what it seemed, but you couldn’t even remember what it was supposed to be like? What if even your memories and your sense of self were suspect? What if everyone and everything around you seemed as empty and hollow as the extras and props on a movie-set? Wise’s story is deeply unsettling, with the real monsters donning masks in order to be recognized as monsters, while everyone, including our “heroes,” is unable to see the horror as it really is.
“Lanny Boykin Rises Up Singing“, by Jess Barber in Reckoning
This novelette can be found in Reckoning, “a nonprofit, annual journal of creative writing on environmental justice.” It’s not a typical venue, but it is quite possibly one of the best stories I’ve read this year. Lanny and her best friend Junebug live in a small town where jobs and opportunities are scarce. They’re about to graduate from high school, and on top of the usual challenges of adolescence, Lanny keeps waking up in the middle of nowhere after having…changed into something else. Barber expertly captures Lanny’s conflicted reaction to her unpredictable “affliction,” as well as the vibe of small town life, high school frustrations, the tension between Lanny and her dad after her mom’s disappearance, and the highs and lows of friendship. I particularly love the sharp, funny dialogue. Every layer of this slow-burning story works perfectly, and it kept me captivated from start to finish.
“Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep“, by Nibedita Sen in Nightmare Issue 69
Nibedita Sen’s enthralling story takes place aboard a whaling ship in an alternate world reminiscent of our own past. It’s so fantastically dark and rich and eerie, I read twice just to savor the details. Aboard this whaling vessel, a captain leads a crew hunting whales across the oceans while a strange scientist on board works to find a way to imitate whale song. The lived-in details of the killing and butchering of whales gives the story a visceral reality, even as a mysterious darkness gathers ominously closer, beneath and around the crew. Sen expertly ratchets up the tension, delivering a knockout ending that will stay with me for a long time.
“A Tale of Woe“, By P. Djèlí Clark in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Author P. Djèlí Clark has an uncanny ability to pack his tales full of worldbuilding without slowing down the narrative, and a knack for creating characters you want to follow anywhere. This story showcases all those skills. It’s set in a world where some people, called Soothers, are able to see the sorrow in others, and are able to manipulate that grief, either to help make the emotional burden easier to carry, or to cause pain—even death. The protagonist, the fierce and determined Rana, serves the Goddess of Sorrow, and is on a secret mission in the city of Aruth. She is kidnapped, but quickly turns the tables on the perpetrators. Masterful fantasy from one of my favorite writers.
“Stones in the Water, Cottage on the Mountain“, by Suzanne Palmer in Asimov’s July/August 2018 Issue
In this story, several alternate timelines seems to intersect, maybe even interact, in the same places—a trail in the woods, a creek, a cabin, a mountain. In some timelines, the place is a restful refuge. In others it’s bleak or full of danger and death. I was particularly struck by Palmer’s exploration of how our lives are affected both by our individual choices (school, marriage, travel), and by large-scale factors in the world around us (climate change, disease, ecological disasters). Worth reading more than once.
“When Shadow Confronts Sun“, by Farah Naz Rishi at Podcastle
A moving story about belonging, family ties, and dark magic, this captivating tale by Rishi is beautifully narrated for Podcastle by Nadia Niaz. Sana is visiting Pakistan with her father and brother; while the two men look forward to getting back to life in America after the visit, Sana doesn’t want to leave. In order to stay, she takes drastic measures, summoning a creature that might help her, but might also put her family in danger. I love this story’s sense of magic hiding just beneath the surface of modern life, and its complex weave of the twin snakes of tension and love that twist and hold a family together. There is darkness here, but also, maybe, the hope of something better to come.
What’s the best short story you read in June? Let us know in the comments.