Short Fiction Reviews: January 2017

January Short Fiction 2017

I saw my first snowdrops of the year this week, on the day I turned 28. I’m fond of February, not only because it’s my birth month, but because it’s caught, suspended, between two seasons: it can be either the coldest month of winter, or it can be the prelude to spring. This year it seems to be the latter, for which I am not ungrateful.

So because it’s February, this must be my monthly collection of micro-reviews for any uncollected short fiction, new and old, that I read in January.

If you notice it’s a little shorter than usual, that’s because I spent most of January reading the short stories in GlitterShip Winter 2017 for my review, as well as some other books up for review in the next couple of months.

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.

What You Singing About? by TJ Berg

(read)

This one is a piece of flash fiction about a guy who meets the devil at his favourite breakfast cafe. Small and perfectly formed, without a spare word, yet with a distinct sense of voice. Go read this, it won’t take you five minutes.

See the Unseeable, Know the Unknowable by Maria Dahvana Headley

(read/listen)

It’s true that I have never, ever felt like I really got a Maria Dahvana Headley story. Her dreamlike surrealism is beautiful and pitch perfect, and I keep stumbling over it as she whisks the ground away from under my feet.

I felt the same about See the Unseeable, Know the Unknowable—luckily, the story was quickly so engrossing that I didn’t mind. It helped that I was having a bad day, so the lull of the poetic prose and the theme—escape, upward—was exactly what I needed to listen to at that moment.

When I think about it, it doesn’t seem the most obvious connection—but in the moment, in the story? Running away to join the circus and alien abduction are perfect parallels through which to explore new angles on both.

When We Die on Mars by Cassandra Khaw

(read/listen)

Heartbreak and vicarious hope in a couple thousand words. When We Die on Mars tells the story of twelve astronauts preparing for a one-way mission to Mars to begin terraforming the planet for eventual human colonisation, in the midst of the environmental destruction of Earth. It’s a love song for humanity, full of reverence for the small, quiet things that pass between people—both the things that would make you want to stay on Earth at all costs, and the things which make you certain you must leave to make a future for everyone else.

The Twelve Rules of Etiquette at Miss Firebird’s School for Girls by Gwendolyn Kiste

(read/listen)

A short little piece literally consisting of the twelve rules for girls at the eponymous school, this is a quick dash of fun. Miss Firebird’s School for Girls is deftly sketched in the background, a fantastical parallel to real-world institutions dedicated to reforming ‘bad’ children, with a turbulent undercurrent of uncontainable rebellion.

Next Station, Shibuya by Iori Kusano

(read)

Nagiko is a literary researcher in contemporary Tokyo. She lives alone, and wanders the streets of the city alone. She’s not from the city, but she fought to live in the city, and it is both stranger and more wonderful than she imagined.

The story of falling in love with a city is so familiar to me as to be written in my bones (I fell in love with every city I ever set foot in, my heart on my sleeve, but none ever so much as London), and so the familiarity of Nagiko’s story resonated through every atom of me.

Her reward for her devotion is the answer to something she was trying to solve, and to become something like an avatar for the city, one of many throughout history.

Nagiko is unromanticised, an ordinary girl: she drinks too much and she falls asleep on the train. Next Station, Shibuya beautifully depicts the many natures of a city, neon and trees alike. It is perfectly paced, as gentle and lovely as the plum blossoms it describes.

The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar by Rose Lemberg

(read)

The Desert Glassmaker and the Jeweler of Berevyar is another piece set in Lemberg’s Birdverse, where magic is made by drawing on the deepnames of yourself and the world around you. It’s epistolary, a series of letters between two people such vast distances apart that each letter takes a year to arrive. Along with the letters, the reader understands, go gifts: jewels in which are captured perfect miniature scenes a little like our photographs.

It is a slow love story, performed in words and gifts. It’s so tentative, so respectful, so beautiful, that my knuckles whitened as I read, fully expecting something to go wrong and break my heart.

But that’s not Lemberg’s style. The story’s denouement is a (literally) soaring, triumphant release. It banishes fear, affirming that yes, beauty and love and belonging are possible, for anyone, even against the most overwhelming of odds.

Painter of Stars by Wang Yuan

(read/listen)

Wang Yuan’s Painter of Stars has received a lot of positive attention since its release in Clarkesworld in December. Its scope is broad: a cleaning robot gains sentience, starts to create art out of dust—it becomes internationally famous, travels the world, brings peace—but in the end even it and its art can do nothing to stop the plague ravaging humanity.

The theme of the tiny effecting change on a huge scale, depicted in the robot’s microscopic art eventually bringing peace among nations, is paralleled by the robot’s own life. It goes from too lowly to even be noticed to one of the most famous beings on earth. But the small-scale shouldn’t fade in comparison—when the robot can do nothing for dying humanity, it returns home, to serve its former master’s daughter instead. Even the smallest service, Wang posits, is as valuable as the largest.

I personally found the prose a smidge too prolix, which is possibly a side effect of translation from Chinese. As a result the story didn’t grab me. However, many readers would disagree with me, so YMMV!

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