The sun’s out and so are my legs, and it’s almost May—but nevertheless it’s time for my monthly collection of mini-reviews of all the short fiction I read last month.
March’s short fiction intake is inflated by two factors: one was my twenty-two hours on buses on my way to and from Edinburgh. Story podcasts? Actually the best way to spend a long solo trip.
The second was Lethe Press’ 15th anniversary sale, which reduced ALL THEIR EBOOK TITLES to ONE DOLLAR FIFTY EACH, which was ABOUT ONE QUID in pounds sterling. (I went a bit wild.) The first book I’ve started on is Heiresses of Russ 2015—an anthology of the year’s best lesbian short fiction—straight away. GIVE ME ALL THE QUEER SHORT FICTION IN MY FACE RN PLS THX.
(Steve Berman, head of Lethe Press, was even generous enough to throw in a couple of extra titles for free on top of my enormous order! So yeah, for all your queer fiction needs, go, GO NOW, to Lethe Press.)
So without further ado, click through to read about all the short fiction that passed through my skull this month.
I’ve selected five favourites from this month’s crop to share upfront—but this month it was tricky to winnow it down to just five. My favourite fiction I read in the month of March was:
To Follow the Waves by Amal El-Mohtar
In an alternate Damascus, Hessa is a dreamsmith, crafting bespoke dreams for her wealthy clientele through painstakingly-made coronets of jewels. But dream-carving is an art, and art needs inspiration.
This 2011 story by El-Mohtar is an examination of what it means to be a muse as well as steamy queer almost-erotica. This story’s podcast made me blush on the bus.
Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land by Ruthanna Emrys
You won’t find the land of Tikanu plotted on any map. Tikanu grows and spreads idiocratically like the wild mint that is its augur. The people of Tikanu live by the sea, and in the suburbs, and in cities, spread across the world. Tikanu is a land of magic.
Like wild mint this story crept into my heart and thrived there. It’s the story of a handful of women of Tikanu, native and immigrant, and the magic they use to mend their lives, and each others’. Magic that is sometimes mathematics and laws and sometimes the community of women—family, friends, lovers—and nonetheless magic for that.
Foxfire, Foxfire by Yoon Ha Lee
I only just picked up a Yoon Ha Lee story for the first time this month, and I’m so glad I got here at last. Foxfire, Foxfire, published in March, is the story of a gumiho—a Korean fox spirit, infamous for shapeshifting to ensnare humans and eat their livers—who, at 99 livers, is just one short of being able to become human for good.
Lee’s gumiho inhabits a nation rent by civil war in which huge, Jaeger-like mechs do battle alongside soldiers. When the gumiho targets an injured mech pilot as their final victim, it turns out they’ve bitten off more than they bargained for.
Magic and technology are inextricable in this beautiful adventure story set in what seems to me a mythic echo of Korea.
Coral Bones by Foz Meadows
Shakespeare’s play The Tempest ends with Miranda, daughter of the sorceror Prospero, married off—apparently happily—to Prince Ferdinand, the only man aside from her father and island native Caliban she’s ever met.
Foz Meadows’ novella Coral Bones takes issue with this happy ending. Miranda’s friendship with the fairy Ariel—gendered male by Prospero but immutable by no means—allows her the escape she didn’t realise she would need until almost too late.
Ariel’s plan means Miranda travelling to Queen Titania’s fairy court—not alongside Ariel, but another fairy, familiar to Shakespeareans if not to Miranda.
Through self-doubt and abduction to magic and granted wishes and belonging, Coral Bones is a miniature genderqueer odyssey, and I adore it. Though this is a rare non-free recommendation, I do heartily recommend acquiring and reading Coral Bones, available from Rebellion Publishing. Read it as a standalone or as intended, as the first part of the Monstrous Little Voices collection of Shakespeare-adapted novellas.
Seven Cups of Coffee by A. C. Wise
This story, published last month, in A. C. Wise’s unflashy prose is a time-travel story and also a slow burning love story between two women, neither of whom is left unscarred by their seperate worlds.
The main character ranges across three time periods in her story: her lover’s 1940’s, her own native 1980’s, and a strange and wonderful 2020’s—the only time where queers like her can live openly, marry freely, build families together.
The heartbreak of this story is thus doubled. I won’t spoil it any further, but Seven Cups of Coffee is a story about how intolerance can twist lives out of shape, break people, ruin the rightful hope of happiness or love.
Although my top five represents my absolute favourite fiction I read last month, that doesn’t by any means denigrate the rest of the great stuff on this list. So in March I also read:
The Highwayman Come Riding by M. Bennardo
In a future where women have stopped growing old and dying (but men haven’t), a woman finds herself doing just that. When relationships have been stretched and made background noise by social media, to whom can she turn? This story is cerebral and sad, but I’m couldn’t get on board with its isolation-via-information-technology theme.
Sarah’s Child by Susan Jane Bigelow
After reading this as one of the stories in Heiresses of Russ 2015, I was pleased to see this on this year’s Tiptree Honor List. Sarah, a trans woman, longs for a child of her own—and another world seems to be intruding on her own, one in which her name is Jane and she has a little boy called Sheldon. This story reads simply but deals with complex emotions, like dealing with the limits of your life with the love that you’ve found.
Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight by Aliette de Bodard
This month was my first foray into de Bodard’s Xuya universe, and this, one of her most lauded stories, was a good place to jump in.
Three perspectives on bereavement, centred on three cups of tea. Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight necessarily riffs on memory—in this universe, the bereaved descendants should ordinarily gain a clone of their ancestor’s mind via an implant in their own brain. The survivors of Professor Duy Uyen aren’t ordinary, but they are all haunted by memory.
A slow, reflective, graceful story about the loss of a mother, and one that actually touched me, following my own mother’s death last year.
In the Age of Iron and Ashes by Aliette de Bodard
Another oldie, published in 2009, this story looks at war with an unsentimental eye; in particular, that ugly, inhumane thing, a city under siege. While I wasn’t so affected by this de Bodard story, I appreciate the honesty with which it addresses warfare: as a loss and a failing on humanity’s part.
A Salvaging of Ghosts by Aliette de Bodard
Another Xuya story, this time the most recent, published last month—A Salvaging of Ghosts follows Thuy’s short odyssey to find her daughter, lost and surely dead (as far as human interpretation of death goes) in the mind-bending wilderness of deep spaces, de Bodard’s take on the incomprehensibility of space and space travel. Once again, de Bodard demonstrates that she is aces at grief in fiction.
Mama, We Are Zhenya by Tom Crosshill
Another first for me, this 2011 story was the first by Tom Crosshill I’d read. Zhenya, the child narrator of this epistolary story about experimental quantum physics, video game tropes and virtual reality, quickly won me over. A great story, but caveat lector: if, like me, you dislike bad things happening to dogs in fiction, enter this story forewarned.
The Magician and Laplace’s Demon by Tom Crosshill
This story was a Nebula nominee in 2014 for Best Novelette, and I would have loved it just for Crosshill’s conception of magic as probability manipulation (even that description’s not right), but probability magicians versus emergent control-freak AI, both trying to remain unknown to humanity at large? That’s got to be one of my favourite fantastical wars in fiction, and I could have swallowed novels of it happily.
No Other Men in Mitchell by Rose Hartley
Published last month, rife with the detail of working class life in central Australia, this story chronicles the near-death of Dylan, an ex–road train driver (find out what road trains are by reading the story) and the dubious ‘help’ of his three dead mates.
Blackly funny with a strong colloquial voice, No Other Men in Mitchell is refreshingly different. (Podcast listeners beware—though I’m a fan of Stefan Rudnicki’s usually great narration, accents are tricky. The Australian accent in this podcast is… not great.)
Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee
Strongly influenced by video game tropes, this 2011 story wears the ancient Sumerian myth of Inanna’s descent to the underworld like a skin over its scifi heart and disruptive intentions. While I enjoyed the language and richness of the story and the blend of science fiction and myth, I struggled to find the point to this story.
The Governess with a Mechanical Womb by Leena Likitalo
Another story from last month, this is the first I’d heard of Finnish writer Leena Likitalo. The Governess with a Mechanical Womb takes place in a Finland a generation after a horrifying alien robot apocalypse, where two kids are supervised by a cyborg governess who once was human. A story about anger, grief, and how to live in an unliveable situation.
Nkásht íí by Darcie Little Badger
Little Badger tells us on her blog that ‘nkásht íí’ is a Jicarilla phrase meaning ‘I love (want) you’. This is the key that unlocks this story. There is love in this story—love that makes us stronger, and love that makes us dangerous. The strong friendship between two women of colour here is only the first thing that makes this story absolutely worth reading.
Knotting Grass, Holding Ring by Ken Liu
Not available for free on the internet, you can nevertheless find this story in either of two fantastic anthologies Long Hidden and Heiresses of Russ 2015. Liu invents a legend in this story, demonstrating how bloody history becomes folk tale, and how a complicated woman becomes a storied hero.
City of Salt by Arkady Martine
I’m new to Arkady Martine, but quickly discovering her talent for inventing myth. City of Salt is a story of a city in a desert, of fierce and destructive love, of strange and terrible magics. The colours of Martine’s story are so vivid, the textures so tangible, I wanted to live in this world—I wanted more.
Spores by Seanan McGuire
Nothing is creepier than fungus. This is an objective fact. Seanan McGuire employs that fact mercilessly in this horrible little story about a laboratory safety inspector’s worst fear coming home to her wife and child. Unless you have a very strong constitution, this story will make your skin crawl and you’ll be eyeballing your fruit bowl nervously for days.
Made Light by Melissa Moorer
Greta’s mother swallowed a lightning bug and, nine months later, she was born. Struggling with teenagerhood, Greta stumbles toward the light inside herself—with the help of the intriguing new girl in school. There is so much love in this little story—Greta’s grandmother in her attic room; her mother, recommending a cardigan; and Miranda, of course. A perfect picture of being a teenager.
Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker
Another recent story, this was published in February this year, this is set in a future in which the wealthy cruise the world in ocean liners stocked with their every need, including entertainment; and the rest of us continue to try to make lives for ourselves in the post-apocalypse. This is an unsentimental story of a connection between two very different women; about loss, and what it can do to us; and about shared humanity, and how it will keep us alive.
Je me souviens by Su J. Sokol
Though it spends most of the narrative dancing around the fact, this is a superhero story. And like the best superhero stories, it’s about hope amidst the darkest despair. It’s also just about the best treatment of the monstrous police trope I’ve ever read.
Bent the Wing, Dark the Cloud by Fran Wilde
This story is set in the world of Wilde’s recent hit novel and first in its trilogy, Updraft. Calli, wingmaker’s daughter helps her father create wings for the residents of the bone towers—facilitating the flight on which society depends. But the wingmaker’s shame is that his daughter cannot herself fly.
Calli describes a traditionally heroic arc in this story, rising to competence to save a loved one. But I felt disappointed by how easy it was, in the end, to overcome her lifelong fear of flying once she knew the cause. It was the only off note in this competent little story.
Seasons Set in Skin by Caroline M. Yoachim
A woman tattoos a brutal magic into warriors’ skin, whilst someone—something—on the opposing side searches for another way than war. Malevolent fairies and tattoo magic, superficially this story presses my buttons hard. More implicitly, this is a story about the importance of reconciliation in the face of a history of violence and hatred, and how difficult—maybe impossible—that task is.