Sci-Fi & Fantasy Short Fiction Roundup: September 2019

Illustration from “A Bird, a Song, a Revolution” by Galen Dara, from Lightspeed Magazine #112

This month, we read stories of the horrors of history, impossible apparitions on the Moon, stolen free will, magic and revolution, fairytales remade and reimagined, bloody ceremonies with reluctant participants, resurrection via electricity, the perils of thinking parenting the chosen one, and more.

A Bird, A Song, a Revolution“, by Brooke Bolander in Lightspeed #112
Before the flute is a flute, it is a bird. This is the first act of magic.” Brooke Bolander’s latest story begins a very long time ago, “when the world is still young and shaggy-coated with lingering winter.” We follow a flute, the magic of a song, and of humanity itself acrossh the ages, through the upheaval of climate change and environmental destruction, and into a troubled future. Along the way, Bolander spins a moving and compelling tale that sweeps through history, connecting our distant past and our maybe not-so-distant future in a way that left me feeling giddy. There is magic in this tale, and people willing to fight to transform society and the world, and though none of it comes easy, it offers enough to send a slim beam of light into this reader’s heart. In many ways, this story feels connected (at least in spirit) to Bolander’s beautiful and heart-piercing novelette “No Flight Without the Shatter“.

The Best Scarlet Ceremony Ever!“, by Shaenon K. Garrity in Drabblecast
The people living on Oakes Isle do things a little differently than those on the mainland. They place a great importance on the Ceremonies, for one thing—showing proper reverence to the Goddess, respecting the bees, attending the Sacred Orgies… The usual. But the Wakefield family is nothing but trouble, and everyone knows it: they even turned up to the maypole dance fully clothed, to the great consternation of the other attendees. Garrity’s story about what happens when one of the obnoxious Wakefield kids has to take a starring role in the totally crucial, and totally bloody, Scarlet Ceremony is captivating, dark, and an absolute riot from start to finish. Excellently narrated by Renee Chambliss.

The Hundredth House Had No Walls“, by Laurie Penny at Tor.com
Laurie Penny’s exquisitely crafted reimagined fairy-tale moves effortlessly between the Country of Myth and Shadow and the real world, creating a powerful fable that shows you the realm of fantasy from a fresh perspective. Once upon a time, a man comes to the fallow Fields of Fancy and brings them and the surrounding lands around them back to life with his stories. His tales shape the very substance of the earth and its inhabitants according to his whims and wishes—but eventually he becomes bored with the power he holds over the world and goes looking for something else, something more, in New York City. There, he finds a woman, and finds her much harder to bend to his will. While there is love between them, there is no easy happily-ever-after. It’s a fairytale romance with a real difference.

And Now His Lordship is Laughing“, by Shiv Ramdas in Strange Horizons
In this harrowing tale set in British-ruled India during the Second World War, a woman named Apa makes dolls from jute, putting a bit of her magic into each one. When the Governor of Bengal demands she make a doll for his wife, Apa refuses, and the Governor’s vengeance on her and her community comes wrapped up in the horrific British policies that brought about the famine in Bengal in 1943. Ramdas builds the tension of the story masterfully, painting a vivid portrait of Apa’s world, and of her pain when it is ripped apart. The tension tightens like a vice as we follow Apa’s road to the Governor’s palace and the human cost of the famine is laid bare. A brilliant story, and profoundly moving.

The Homunculi’s Guide to Resurrecting Your Loved One From Their Electronic Ghosts“, by Kara Lee in Escape Pod
What if there was a way to bring back the dead? What if human souls had soaked into the electricity and electrons in our devices, and what if you, under certain circumstances, could make a trade with the strange beings called homunculi that dwell in their wires, in the domain of electromagic? Kara Lee’s mysterious and fascinating guide to resurrecting your loved ones by electronic means is a potent and singular blend of magic and science fiction, with a bit of horror thrown in for good measure. Excellent narration by the inimitable Katherine Inskip.

Dear Parents, Your Child Is Not the Chosen One”, by P.G. Galalis in Diabolical Plots
P.G. Galalis crafts an utterly delightful and enchantingly funny take on the “chosen one” fantasy trope, told in a series of letters from the teacher of Intermediate Feats & Virtues at Avalon Preparatory Academy for Adventurers to the parents of one of her students. (As it turns out, there might be a slippery slope from “stalwart” to “rapscallion”, and the descent into wickedness might not even stop there.) While the story is lighthearted, it makes some good points about valuing our children for who they are, and allowing them to find their own paths, rather than pushing them into becoming what you would like them to be.

Madness Afoot“, by Amanda Hollander in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Sept/Oct
Cinderella gets a humorous, thoroughly entertaining makeover in this sharp and witty story by Amanda Hollander. It’s another tale told in letters, these a series of exasperated missives written by the fairytale prince’s sister, Orsolya, to her husband, Ignats. Through them, we soon learn that the prince is, well, not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, and probably not the best decision-maker in the realm, either. But with the help of a representative for the Cobbler’s Union, and some behind-the-scenes machinations by his sister, things just might turn out happily ever after anyway. Hollander’s epistolary prose is barbed and hilarious, inserting a few new wrinkles into a familiar old tale.

Fairest of All“, by Ada Hoffman in The Future Fire
Like so many old-school fairytales, Ada Hoffman’s contribution to The Future Fire deals with awful things being done to children. Also like those old-school fairytales, it also shows us children who persevere and endure and finally learn how to save themselves and others. I love how Hoffman weaves together a very traditional fairytale vibe with themes like polyamory and neurodivergence. Set in the faerie realm, this story has a king made of thorns, a leafy-haired queen with poisonous hands, cloud-otters, faerie jaguars, and gates that will take you to freedom if you have your heart’s desire in hand. It’s a beautifully wrought, aching and painful, yet ultimately hopeful story, with characters that really got under my skin.

Cratered“, by Karen Osborne in Future Science Fiction Digest
In this riveting story by Karen Osborne, a survey team has been sent to the Moon to help set up an augmented reality facility. Things start going haywire when two of the scientists encounter something utterly impossible in Mare Crisium. Karen sees her old house in Pasadena seated improbably in the crater’s center, while Arjun sees his mom’s house in India in the same spot. And after that, things get even weirder. I love everything about this science fiction/high-tech horror story; it has a bit of a Bradbury vibe (reminiscent of “The Third Expedition” from The Martian Chronicles), and Osborne also injects a political subtext and some real emotional heft by allowing the isolation of the Moon expedition to play out against the backdrop of an Earth riven by war and environmental decay. If you love sci-fi-horror, consider it a must-read.

The Witch of the Will“, by Aaron Perry in Beneath Ceaseless Skies
On her 105th birthday, the Hedgewitch of Feckless Lovers’ Lane decides to stop brewing potions for a living and do something truly spectacular, and promptly uses her magic to steal the king’s free will, writing down everything he will do in life on a parchment, and sealing it away. It’s the beginning of a compelling tale of free will, destiny, magic, and what things are worth dying (and killing) for. Eventually the witch is pitted against a man called Canute who willingly lets her take his free will away, only to turn rather monstrous once the deed is done. As Canute’s true purpose is revealed, the witch must use every means and scrap of magic at her disposal to fight him as she searches for a way to undo her own spell. Fabulously gripping fantasy with an epic flair, tucked into a novelette-format.

What’s the best SFF short story you read in September?

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