Magic letters, terrifying emails, recipes for cooking Great Beasts, living stars, and a strong craving for something like durian… all of this and more can be found in some of the excellent stories I read in May.
“When the Letter Comes,” by Sara Fox in The Book Smugglers
I felt a fierce joy reading this funny, moving, and bittersweet story. Fox plays brilliantly with fantasy tropes—a letter from a school of magic, chosen ones, a war between good and evil—twisting them all around. What if the magic school is not for you? What if magic exists, but doesn’t solve all the problems you thought it would? This is a story that perfectly captures the hopes and fears of adolescence, and the challenges of becoming who you are (even when it seems the world is against you). If you’ve ever longed for that magic letter, or for that hidden portal to somewhere else, this story will really speak to you.
“The Pine Arch Collection,” by Michael Wehunt in The Dark
I read this story near midnight, in a dark house, shivering beneath the covers, and I could barely sleep afterwards. It’s that kind of horror story. It burrows into your thoughts, into your skin, into your dreams. It’s written in the form of email correspondence between various people, and early on, the line blurs between what might be staged and what might be real, with a strange and unsettling darkness bleeding into reality. There are shapes moving through the woods, into houses. Characters disappear. And the most mundane and everyday details suddenly seem to twist and warp. Excellent and terrifying.
“The Barrens,” by Stephanie Feldman in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (May/June 2018 issue)
“The Barrens” is a haunting, complex tale, simultaneously frightening and strangely uplifting. Feldman skillfully draws together the treacherous physical world of the Barrens with the shifting inner landscape of the mind of a teen headed into adulthood. There are chilling scenes of horror, vividly drawn characters, and music that serves both as a beacon and bait. Common coming-of-age fears—what to do when high school is over, how to avoid losing touch with friends when you move away, how to find your place in the world—are woven together with the literal monsters lurking in the woods.
“Godmeat,” by Martin Cahill in Lightspeed
A rich, layered story about a looming apocalypse, ancient beings trying to take over our world, and…cooking. It’s about Hark, who cooks the meat of the world’s ancient, divine Great Beasts, and Spear, who hunts and kills them. It is full of vivid imagery and conflicted emotions. What bargains are we willing to make in order to save our own skins? What are we prepared to sacrifice to escape pain and annihilation? Cahill masterfully braids together cosmic horror and violence and tragedy (the butchering of the Great Beasts) with the most outlandish, exquisite recipes. The end of the world was never so tasty.
“Five Functions of Your Bionosaur,” by Rachael K. Jones in Robot Dinosaur Fiction
I have a weak spot for this poignant and tender science fiction tale by Rachael K. Jones. It starts with a toy/companion given to a baby, and becomes a story about love and friendship and loyalty that spans a lifetime. Jones fits a whole lot of heart and soul into this perfectly crafted tearjerking tale. If you crave robot dinosaur fiction, there will be more stories published on the Robot Dinosaur Fiction website until August, and they will all eventually be part of a flash fiction anthology.
“Variations on a Theme from Turandot,” by Ada Hoffman in Strange Horizons
I barely know how to discuss this strikingly original story, except to urge you to read it. To quote the story itself: “Imagine if someone was trapped in a story… If the story refused to change, no matter what they did or how they argued.” There’s an opera, performed on stage, with singers and orchestra and a director. But there is also the separate (yet connected) world of the story they create on stage, a world that is different each night, and inside that story, one of the actors/characters tries desperately to change the way the story plays out. It’s about storytelling and character motivation, but it’s also about free will, love, and life, and about how hard it can be to break a cycle of violence.
“Mother Jones and the Nasty Eclipse,” by Cherie Priest in Apex Magazine
This is a story that will light a fire in your belly. It might make you feel angry, sad, and strangely hopeful all at once. Maybe you’ll love it, like I did, because Priest’s writing feels like the blood and bones of history raised up from the ground, speaking to you. It’s a blistering piece of fiction, giving us one woman’s voice, her words are sharp as a knife with a wicked edge, as she speaks about resistance and revolution, about hopes dashed and rekindled. Every sentence is a firebrand.
“Humans Die, Stars Fade“, by Charles Payseur in Escape Pod
This is a highly original science fiction tale about the life of stars (specifically an x-ray binary star system) and human exploration of space. Several space expeditions meet an untimely demise while trying to explore and investigate a star system, unaware that they, too, are being explored. It’s a story that gives a new perspective on the life (and death) of stars, and puts a new twist on astrophysics. It’s also about friendship and loneliness, and how we cannot always follow the paths our friends take, because the darkness they seek is self-destructive. Payseur’s prose is elegant and piercing, and Veronica Giguere’s narration brings it to beautiful life.
“Bride Before You“, by Stephanie Malia Morris in Nightmare
This is an absolute gem of a story, with prose that pulls and drags you into a new world, and into the mind of a character, from the very first paragraph. It’s about a set of twins, and their troubled, guilt-ridden mother. One of the twins grows up in the light of his family’s love; the other grows up hidden away in the dark, knowing her family is trying to forget she exists. The evocative writing gives us the voice of the sibling who has been set aside and forgotten, but who will not allow the world to ignore them forever. It story spirals toward a dreadful reckoning, that might yet contain a sliver of hope.
“Jiak liu lian“, by Yap Xiong in Arsenika
What a lovely piece of flash fiction this is, seemingly all about durian fruit, and an all-you-can-eat durian buffet catering to tourists. Some of the visitors crave the fruit, while others need a bit of help getting used to its taste and smell. The prose is a feast for the senses, so vivid I’d swear I could taste and touch the words. It’s a subtle tale, too, because it twists little by little until you realize that it’s a also a story about craving something else entirely. Brilliant flash.