December’s Short Fiction Reviews

December Short Fiction

It’s January. I’m sitting on my sofa, swaddled in a blanket, fingers going white, watching the relentless news scroll by. I’m beginning to miss last year, when my news feed was only full of the deaths of beloved celebrities.

This is my monthly collection of micro-reviews for all the short fiction, new and old, I read last month. 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 it’s one of my favourites.

The Half Dark Promise by Malon Edwards

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This is the first story I’ve read set in Malon Edwards’ alternate US, but certainly not the last. The Half Dark Promise follows Michaëlle-Isabelle, not-entirely-human daughter of Haitian immigrants, walking home alone in a Chicago full of monsters. A story about liminal spaces and beings: the stolen children are far from their old selves but also not quite gone either; Michaëlle-Isabelle, in the in-between twilight, stands a chance because she’s more powerful than a normative human, the quiddity of which is inextricable from her Haitian-ness.

The world behind this story is palpable, but still for the most part implicit. I can’t wait to read my way around it.

The Green Knight’s Wife by Kat Howard

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How could I ignore a story recommended by the great Chaucer himself?

This story of the Green Knight hits the familiar landmarks while twisting the story slightly to the modern—the Green Knight is a knight with a axe who cuts off people’s heads, but he and his challenge are the subject of their own reality TV show.

Moreover and more importantly this is a story not about the knight but his wife. Through her eyes we see the stupidity of it all—the head chopping off, the challenge of it, the machismo, and the cruel trick—most stupidly of all, the assumption on everyone’s part that she will simply acquiesce to being a dumb part in the game. Howard deftly weaves Camelot into the modern day with her razor sharp insight and perfect prose.

This is a Ghost Story by Keffy R.M. Kehrli

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In audio format, it takes me that little bit longer to cotton on to what’s happening. So at first I didn’t realise this was a story about Kurt Cobain.

At least, it’s Cobain for me. I’m not enough of a music person to see the other references, if they’re there. This story speaks to the heart of me; raw, intense, Nirvana-worshipping, Hamlet-idolising teenage me. The me that lived for the bands I loved, inhaling the opiate oxymoronic fusion of fatalism and hope.

But this story is more than my limited teenage narrative. It’s snarlingly self-aware, castigating the protagonist (the reader?) for the familiar failings of logic, the egotism, the cowardice, in the standard interpretation.

I don’t know if I like this story. Not because it’s not good. But because it takes me back to a black place I no longer care to recall, and it socks me in the gut with the stark despair of a generation that failed to deliver on its fervour.

Caution: suicide is a central theme to this story.

Breathe by Cassandra Khaw

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Alice is at the bottom of an alien ocean to survey the harvest of the glowing Noctiluca Janus. She really, really doesn’t want to be there. Turns out she’s right.

So I don’t know how this was intended, but Breathe read to me as the story of an ordinary woman who happens to have an anxiety disorder and who chooses to become heroic. (As an ordinary person who happens to have an anxiety disorder, I may be biased.) Alice breathes though her panic, and when danger strikes unexpectedly, she’s the genius with a plan. Awesome.

When the Fall is All That’s Left by Arkady Martine

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A ship and her pilot fly through a star. This is what happens next. It’s about as cheerful as you’d expect.

This is a love story, and the story of an escape (it doesn’t matter from who). Achingly simple and awfully beautiful, as per Martine’s record, with some of the snappiest dialogue I’ve read in a while to leaven the sorrow, I think this story is perfect.

The Black Box by Malka Older

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Sumi has a Lifebrarian, a total memory recorder, installed in her brain aged one. The Black Box is the story of Sumi’s life, and, consequently, her Lifebrarian. One of WIRED’s recent issue of science fiction (as opposed to their usual science fact), this is a story about human memory and how technology will shape it, and thereby our lives and perception of ourselves.

Malka Older avoids easy ethical assumptions about humans allowing technology more and more space in our lives and our biology, never letting Sumi and her life fade from the spotlight in favour of the tech or its impact. Older excels at the prosaic detail and everyday voice that makes Sumi’s ordinary life seem so familiar and as a result so precious.

I also appreciated the smart little quirk about how infallible humans believe technology to be, versus the reality.

Charge! Love Heart! by Rhiannon Rasmussen

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A cute, fun little story set in Hawai’i, about James, a nerd, and Erika, maybe also a nerd, and the weird noises they keep hearing at night. Rasmussen absolutely nails the teenage boy voice, even down to the slightly skeevy ogling, and absolutely refuses to take her main character seriously. Hawai’i infuses this story, from the slang to the pastimes. Do read.

The Gentleman of Chaos by A. Merc Rustad

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If you’re after a solidly plotted, vividly written secondary world fantasy story with a trans man perspective character, The Gentleman of Chaos is for you. The protagonist is the king’s brother (though he believes him his sister) and his most elite bodyguard, trained from childhood. The king is an abusive slimeball. The Gentleman of Chaos is the aristocracy’s bogeyman, a mythic killer of corrupt nobles.

While this is a fast-moving, vividly-drawn story, it’s also dark. It’s hard to read the protagonist’s treatment by his moustache-twirling villain of a brother. But it’s also hard to look away from, the unfolding of the plot and its secrets toward the end irresistible.

That Which Stands Tends Towards Freefall by Benjanun Sridaengkaew

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Set in a future Thailand, our main character, Rinthira, once helped to create an immensely powerful AI to help fight a war. When that AI committed an atrocity, Rinthira abandoned her creation, and the war too. Now, that which she walked away from has sought her out, and she must choose again.

The sheer complexity of this story invites re-reading—there is so much in every paragraph of this story, you can feel the weight of the world and its characters behind the prose. There might be novels in here. As a short story, it’s well-crafted and enjoyable military science fiction.

The Need for Overwhelming Sensation by Bogi Takács

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Our protagonist Iryu can produce the raw magic that powers spaceships. E’s found their place aboard eir ship and under eir master’s command. Eir master supplies the loving pain that Iryu needs to remain balanced, and which also allows em to make eir magic.

Until a politician comes along, begging their help.

This story so perfectly traces the outline of a loving, trusting D/s relationship, it was a joy to read Iryu and eir Master Sanre’s interactions. Beyond them, though, the story shows us the danger of trusting in normative thinking. Things are not what they might seem to unschooled eyes, here.

I can feel the weight of worldbuilding behind the words in this story. I could certainly stand to read much more set in this universe.

.identity by E. Catherine Tobler

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A virus infects the AI of a generation ship, endangering everybody aboard. What might sound like an unremarkable plot is simple enough to showcase the beauty of E. Catherine Tobler’s prose, her themes, and her characters. The voice of Daidala, the AI, is pitch perfect, and the slow intimacy of the love story terrifically sweet.

We, As One, Trailing Embers by E. Catherine Tobler

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Certainly the strangest story I’ve read this month. Tobler’s protagonist is one of a pair of conjoined twins—except a more fantastical take. Our narrator is the Beast, and their sibling is Beauty, and they live with a travelling circus, where they pose daily, godlike, to be wondered at and desired. But they don’t only pose.

I really really really don’t know how to talk about this one. I don’t know whether this is #ownvoices, and I don’t know how to critique this accurately given that plus the fact that I’m not disabled myself. But let’s have a go.

This story, appropriately, has all the wild, whirling, glamorous horror of a real circus, and an action-packed finale. Whether the main characters are human or something else is beyond me—it’s not their non-normative bodies in ability or gender than make them so, but their fairytale monstrosity—but they are not evil, unlike the villainous Mr Hoyt.

Ultimately I see the surpassing of boundaries in this story. Why be human, when you can be bigger, better, wilder?

The Last Sailing of the Henry Charles Morgan in Six Pieces of Scrimshaw (1841) by AC Wise

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I love weird and experimental formats, not to mention the found footage genre, which is absolutely what this story is: the found footage of the 19th century. I am just in love with the idea of a story told by engravings in driftwood and whale ivory.

Not only that, but this story is exactly my flavour of creepy. The Henry Charles Morgan, a whaling ship, encounters something in the middle of the sea. I won’t go on, but this gave me the shudders something chronic.

Go read this creepy little story of six pieces of scrimshaw. It’s brilliant.

A Sister’s Weight in Stone by JY Yang

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Man, this story is rough.

Little Phoenix and her sister Jade are en route from their home village of Sam Sui to Singapore—in an alternate history where dragon-princes rule the seas and airships ply the skies above them—when Jade is taken from the ship by a dragon-worm in service to a prince.

Little Phoenix, alone in Singapore, seeks a way to return her sister to her. If she can make a bargain with the dragon-prince, maybe she can get Jade back.

A story about stories, this, and how they shape the world around you; and about the back-breaking labour that grief can be. As such, of course it’s pretty tragic, although not entirely without hope.

Hurricane Heels by Isabel Yap

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Okay, so: I did read Hurricane Heels (as in, the first story in the series Hurricane Heels, also titled Hurricane Heels) by Isabel Yap in December. However, I’m going to hold off on reviewing it until I’ve read the rest of the stories. So hang about, I’ll write this up soon.

Spring Festival: Happiness, Anger, Love, Sorrow, Joy by Xia Jia

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Five little stories make up one in this piece by renowned Chinese author Xia Jia. Themes surface and twist through each story, tying them together. A baby has to make important choices on his first birthday party in one; in the next, all Lao Wang wants to do is avoid being dragged into the Spring Festival Gala; then, Xiao Li mother takes her to a futuristic matchmaker; Yang attends a high school reunion on a foggy night; and finally Grandma Zhou celebrates her 99th birthday with her family.

In the author’s note, Xia states that she wanted to write some stories about ordinary lives. I found the ordinariness of these slices of life utterly charming. Not being myself Chinese, it’s quite probable that some of the themes here are going right over my head. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this story, with its bittersweet reflections on the passing of time and our connections to the people around us.

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