It can feel like a dream, reading Sofia Samatar. With prose that can haunt you or lull you by turns, entice you or create an ache in you heart, her writing resonates, no matter the story. A Campbell winner for best new writer with two brilliant, unconventional fantasy novels to her name (A Stranger in Olondria, and The Winged Histories), Samatar is also well regarded for her short fiction; her stories are frequently collected in year’s best anthologies and have garnered Hugo and Nebula Award nominations. Now, Samatar, writer Kelly Link, and Gavin Grant of Small Beer Press have assembled Tender, a collection of 20 stories from across her career. For readers of fantastical tales with literary heft, it is a book not to be missed.
Writing with a deft hand, and an eye toward the intricate, beautiful, strange, and weird experiences of being human, Samatar’s work is at its strongest when exploring what it means to live, to love, to hate, to fear, to laugh, in a world where reality is fraying at the edges. Whether it’s two women developing a deep friendship at a totalitarian summer camp, where those in charge may or may not be infesting the campers’ insides with bugs; or a young girl giving a report on a local mythological beast that may be connected to the disappearance of a fellow student; or a daughter resenting her selkie mother for leaving after finding her true skin, Samara’s stories interrogate the ways in which people stake a claim their own humanity in a world more uncertain and mysterious that they ever imagined.
Hardly a story in this collection didn’t leave me with a deep ache in my heart, and a thousand things to ponder. Samatar’s interests range from the hugeness of art, dreams, myth, society at large, science, sacrifice, love, and family, as well as the small things that can shape a life: choosing to care at just the right moment, tenuous friendships forged in dark times, the small spark of hope for a better world beyond this one, the dream the past is a landscape one can return to without pain. Her stories run the gamut of the human experience, as does her writing; while her prose is always lush, her styles can turn on a dime, moving from first person reporting to academic explanation of why one needs to stay on a space station for their career; to careening modern dialogue; to an epic, in-depth painting of a world among the stars awaiting the day Earth can be visited once more. Samatar has a chameleonic ability to change for the story at hand; no matter the shade, she displays colors that are vivid, and gorgeous.
While most of these stories are poignant but brief, the new novella “Fallow” is the longest, perhaps most rewarding entry. It follows three people living on a massive, artificial world that was launched from Earth; now living in space, they await the death of the last person on Earth, when they may return home. Stark, often terrifying, it is also a tale full of moments of shared, small tenderness, revealing the importance of compassion in a world where the faithful and the unquestioning survive. “An Account of the Land of Witches” is also new to the collection; an exploration of a world of dreams, in which witches use magic and dreams to build a community, a sisterhood, where everyone is taken care of, and their magic is used for the good of all.
Tender is a remarkably rich debut collection, ranking with the best of fantasy and magical realism—beautiful, often funny or hopeful, just as frequently dark and sorrowful. These are stories about people who refuse to back down, and constantly question the fraying realities they occupy. It stands proudly alongside the work of Kelly Link and George Saunders. Read it as soon as you can.