May’s Short Fiction Reviews

May Short Fiction

Both May and June have come and gone, and the time is long overdue for my short fiction roundup for the month of May—a collection of micro-reviews of all the short fiction I’ve read in the past month.

What dark days we live in now. I remember May fondly: a time before I’d even registered to vote at my new address; a time before the referendum extinguished my political optimism; a time before I’d started smoking fifteen cigarettes a day just to deal with the stress of living in this country.

Let’s look back at May and pretend for a few minutes we’re still there. Click on any story in the table of contents to jump right to it; or just read on below the cut. The star (★) next to a story indicates I think it’s a must-read.

A Thing with Teeth by Nino Cipri

(read/listen)

This is the first of three flash stories collected by Keffy R. M. Kehrli’s Glittership podcast—my favourite SFF podcast right now.

A Thing with Teeth is a short, swift gut-punch. The wife of a soldier searches for fulfilment—literally—following her wife’s death. It’s a deep dive into grief and longing, and how to process death when the ordinary rituals can’t be performed.

Big Thrull and the Askin’ Man by Max Gladstone

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Though it’s been floating about in my head for some time that I ought to start Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence, I haven’t yet got around to it, so this story actually ended up being the first Gladstone I’ve (knowingly) read. And what a great advertisement!

I loved the dialect voice of this story. The Oceanic accented reading came across really well in the podcast, which is just as well, because a bad reading can make or break an audio story, for me anyway.

Not only that, but the story was fricking charming also. I bore easily reading super-traditional, hypermasculine orc interpretations, so the simple device of the great warrior Thrull being female hooked me in right away. And it was funny! All in all, a super nice short story and a lovely introduction to Max Gladstone’s prose for me.

Chimera by Gu Shi, translated by S. Qiouyi Lu and Ken Liu

(read/listen)

Published in March of this year, Chimera is the first thing I’ve read by Chinese author Gu Shi—and it is an epic.

I exaggerate a little, but it’s certainly the longest story I’ve listened to in podcast format.

Hopping between the present day and very near future and a hundred or so years from now, Chimera is the story of a genius scientist, an ordinary musician, and their miraculous son, as well as the science that would change the nature of humanity.

The plot hums along evenly, hooking the reader gently by the nose. The only downside for me was that all the characters—with the exception of the nameless scientist around which everything revolves, who is a perfect HBIC—tended to grate.

The Face of Heaven So Fine by Kat Howard

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One of Glittership’s flash pieces, this is a quick riff on an immortal, queer Juliet (as in Romeo and), along the theme of stars. Dense as I am, I didn’t actually figure that out until the very end. Honestly, I wanted more—more story, more about Juliet, more about our obscure protagonist. Can’t quite figure out if that’s a good thing.

And Never Mind the Watching Ones by Keffy R. M. Kehrli

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Glitterfrogs!

As you’d expect from Keffy Kehrli, this story is about the queerest thing I’ve read in a long time (and that really is saying something). Mirroring queer teen alienation with LITERAL ALIEN FROGS works really well. I get the feeling this will stand up well to re-reads.

Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds by Rose Lemberg

(read)

A long read, this one, and one that plunges you deep into its secondary world from the get-go. Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds is about, wait for it, a cloth made of wind; and also about the family of the person who made it.

Lemberg’s invented gender system is fascinating as well as really solid. But not content to rest on this, the characters inquisit their own genders and their culture’s gender roles relentlessly throughout. This questioning and growth isn’t confined to the young characters either, which is doubly refreshing.

This story has been nominated for a whole host of honours, not least being a finalist for the 2015 Nebula award for novelette. Read this—you won’t regret it.

Swan-Brother by Gabriel Murray

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Only a couple of lines into this story by an author previously unknown to me and I was crowing to myself—dude is an Aubrey/Maturin fanboy, I’d bet my hat. Larded with the kind of historical naval detail you get in Patrick O’Brien, C. S. Forster and co., I felt instantly at home. Whether or not this was intended, it played well into the story’s creeping revelation about the protagonist.

However sad this story becomes—and it does—at least there’s a badass, ridiculously dressed French lady warlock.

Dragon Brides by Nghi Vo

(read/listen)

Published in April this year, Dragon Brides tells the story of a, well, dragon bride, but long after the meat of her story has occurred. It features an elder protagonist who goes once again in search of her dragon’s old lair after years of being a badass queen and mother. Up in the mountains alone, she finds the remnants of a hoard, and begins to understand what it is to be a dragon.

This is a story of ‘difficult women’, and their history.

Straw and Gold by Kate O’Connor

(read/listen)

As you may be able to guess from the title, this is a Rumpelstiltskin story. O’Connor genderswaps the protagonist and additionally makes them blind. This is a sensual, supernatural queer romance. Aw yiss, queers up in yo fairytales!

Three Points Masculine by An Owomoyela

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Published May 2016, this title caught my eye browsing Lightspeed for audio fiction—I already knew of An Owomoyela as a quality author who is also non-binary, and naturally, given my interest in gender politics and that I’m masculine of centre myself, I leapt on this story.

Ultimately, though this story ended up not pushing all my buttons—it’s military fiction with a very American voice, despite being set in what seems a secondary world, and though it’s hardly played straight this kind of story never appeals to me.

Nevertheless, there’s real anger in it and real injustice. It foresees a society where transitioning between the binary genders of male and female is

Between Dragons and their Wrath by An Owomoyela and Rachel Swirsky

(read/listen)

Of the two Owomoyela stories I read this month, Between Dragons and their Wrath is my favourite by a country mile. Published February this year, it introduces us to Domei and their friends Hano and Kwesi, street kids in in the war-ravaged nation of Rho. Situated as it is between two warring nations, the particular weapon of war that has brought Rho to its knees is the use of dragons.

There aren’t really any dragons in this story. And that’s my favourite thing about it. The dragons were driven through Rho years before this story opens. What remains is their leavings—scales, blood, shit—and contact with these are powerful enough to change a human irreparably if not outright kill them.

The allegory for real-world developing nations in the aftermath of war, particularly with landmines, is stark. It’s this bluntness of metaphor that makes the story powerful.

Your Orisons May Be Recorded by Laurie Penny

(read)

I love Laurie Penny as a political and cultural commentator with all my tiny queer, pinko heart, so obviously I was going to be 100% onboard as soon as she started writing SFF.

Your Orisons May Be Recorded follows a gender-non-specific angel in the celestial call centre that the heavens have become, and their relationship with their co-worker, a demon, following the big merger of Heavenly and Hellish (corporate) bodies.

Penny’s style—in this story in particular—recalls Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, and her humour is black as pitch and corkscrew-crooked. (As a recovering Londoner, the real-world sections are note perfect—especially about Centre Point. (Fucking Centre Point.))

Basically this story was almost tailor-made to push my happy buttons, and oh, it did.

This is Not a Wardrobe Door by A. Merc Rustad

(read/listen)

I love podcast fiction. I do. It’s my primary method of fiction consumption. So trust me when I say that this podcast very nearly made me turn off this wonderful story and throw my phone across the room in frustration.

I’ve nothing against the reading itself. It’s the multiple narrators. It was a great idea. But in implementation, with wildly differing sound qualities and volumes, it made the podcast very difficult to listen to. Do yourself a favour and read this one with your eyeballs or screenreader.

A meta take on portal fantasy, reminiscent of Seanan McGuire’s recent Every Heart a Doorway, This Is Not a Wardrobe Door concerns what happens to people on both sides when their doors suddenly close for good. Snappy pace and lovely prose make this a very worthwhile read.

The Cedar Grid by Sara Saab

(read/listen)

This story draws out the often-implicit theme of extra-terrestrial science fiction—i.e. the human race as diaspora, Earth as intrinsic home—and lies it parallel to the contemporary migrant experience—first generation and beyond—of the notion of an ancestral home seperate to the lived one.

In this context, Saab explores grief and anger, and touches on the roots of sectarianism and extremism. There’s a lot to unpack in this story, but it’s not heavy—it’s handled with a light, plot-driven touch that makes it very readable.

Increasing Police Visibility by Bogi Takács

(read/listen)

The third piece of Glittership’s flash fiction bundle, this story, in contrast to others I consumed this month, really benefits from Keffy’s quality podcast reading. Here be science—and my rebellious artist’s eye tends to bounce right off formulae and the like, so Keffy’s gentle, steady tones laying it out right into my ears really helped me to absorb more than I would have.

Janó works at border control. Kari is a police analyst. The story is about how you live within the machinations of a police state; the micro-aggressions the police state inflicts; and an allegory for racial profiling in our day and age.

The Men From Narrow Houses by A. C. Wise

(read)

I don’t even know how not to gush about this story. I also don’t know how to say next to anything about it without spoiling it.

I will say this:

It’s about a girl. And it’s about a fox.

Through Wise’s hypnotic prose style, the imagery here is carnival-weird, nightmarish. And rich, so rich you think you could bite it and taste the blood and the dirt.

Read this story out loud to yourself in a darkened room. Soak in it. Let it get inside you and stand your hairs on end.

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