EDIT: Okay, so I’m an idiot. I scheduled this post on April 9th, and didn’t actually bother to check if it posted. Apparently, for whatever technical reasons, it didn’t. So here I am, posting it now, shortly before I’m due to post March’s reviews. Nice work, me.
Congratulations to me on my first late!post of the year! It’s been a busy March, and at last spring is here, and the trees are coming into leaf under the bright sunshine, and it’s very hard to stay inside typing, sorry.
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.
- Clay and Smokeless Fire by Saladin Ahmed
- That Lucky Old Sun by Carrie Cuinn
- ★ Tower of the Rosewater Goblet by Nin Harris
- ★ The Venus Effect by Joseph Allen Hill
- By Degrees and Dilatory Time by S.L. Huang
- Plea by Mary Anne Mohanraj
- Unauthorized Access by An Owomoyela
- The Witch’s Knives by Margaret Ronald
- The Dancer on the Stairs by Sarah Tolmie
Clay and Smokeless Fire by Saladin Ahmed
‘Clay and Smokeless Fire’ is as you might be able to guess a djinn story. It’s part of Slate’s Trump Story Project, “imagining America’s future under President Donald Trump.” Ahmed’s story gives us a djinn disillusioned by the slow diminishment of our world. He witnesses an ICE raid on a boy and his mother, a boy he had seen promise in, and believes he can do nothing. But he is proven wrong.
This story is beautiful and heartbreaking at once, full of love for mankind and contempt for it too. Ahmed shows both the worst side of men (“[t]hey tore at each other like dogs at any chance”) and the best (“[i]t was not often one saw the spark of God’s light shine so brightly from within human flesh”). This story demonstrates clearly where hope for mankind is to be found in this age of President Trump.
That Lucky Old Sun by Carrie Cuinn
Given that I read this story based on its title, knowing nothing else about it, I certainly didn’t expect this story to go down the way it did.
Not giving away too much about it—you’ll figure it out once you’re reading it—’That Lucky Old Sun’ is about a little girl and her mother, and their last day together.
The dread that infuses this story is palpable from almost the moment you begin reading, stemming from the contrast between its child’s eye view and the hints, gradually becoming confirmations, of something sinister under the surface.
★ Tower of the Rosewater Goblet by Nin Harris
Tower of the Rosewater Goblet enfolds itself, layering realities upon one another by use of different fantastical sources to make the story. The reader must discern the truth for themself amongst the differing texts.
This is a story in love with stories, and in love with the mechanism of distribution of words. It opens and closes with printing presses. It invokes the power of printing alongside the choice of what to print: whose story gets told?
Opposing the democracy of the printing press is the Storyteller’s academy, an elitist gatekeeping institution, that steals students’ stories for the glory of the masters while only graduating the acceptably conformist. If stories are told by the academy, they are told by the masters, for the masters’ purposes.
This fantasy story’s prose is achingly beautiful, and the protagonist so great: her tenacity, her courage, her familiar hurts. Just go read this. You won’t regret it in the least.
★ The Venus Effect by Joseph Allen Hill
Joseph Allen Hill’s ‘The Venus Effect’ generated a lot of buzz on social media upon its release as BLM-themed fiction, as well as being really fucking good. Having read it, I’m so glad I heard about it.
‘The Venus Effect’ uses as its main device the act of a policeman shooting an innocent black man dead. The story takes this and metafictionalises it: that policeman won’t stop unexpectedly showing up and killing the protagonist. The black comedy of this, alongside the charming use of authorial voice, mitigates to some extent the emotional impact of the thing itself—racially-motivated police murder—while emphasising the tragedy of each story being cut short so incongruously.
Also, I can’t get over how smart this story is. The prose is dense with allusion and run-on sentences that leave you breathless. It’s pacy, it’s clever, it’s beautiful at times, and it even has room for compassion in its heart. It’s so, so fucking good.
By Degrees and Dilatory Time by S.L. Huang
I did start reading this story, about a man whose cancer surgery replaces his own eyes with high-tech synthetic ones, a long time ago, but somehow lost track. I’m glad I picked it up again. This is a simple, sensitive exploration of the loss of part of yourself. Without any fancy plot, Huang gives the main character, Marcus, room for nuance and conflict and growth. The close perspective makes Marcus immediately relatable, his emotional journey gripping.
Plea by Mary Anne Mohanraj
I had heard that this story was a tearjerker, and I finally downloaded the audio version when Charles Payseur, in his excellent taste, awarded it his Sippy Award (“The “There’s Something in My Eye” Sippy for Excellent Making Me Ugly-Cry in Short SFF”). It lives up to the award.
On a planet that’s not this one, humans live alongside pacifist, sea-dwelling aliens. Generations after colonisation, some humans are born adapted for the sea themselves. When violent reactionaries make life in human society dangerous for those who are different, some choose to go and live alongside the aliens. However, the aliens only accept those who have no violent impulses themselves.
‘Plea’ is about the violence of hatred; not just the very literal, but also violence that maims lives as well as people, that warps individuals’ trajectories from what they otherwise might have been. What’s more, the story does it with a heart-wrenching twist I didn’t see coming.
Unauthorized Access by An Owomoyela
‘Unauthorized Access’ is a future-set science fiction story about data—its value, and thereby its ethics—and the hackers who seek it out and expose it. I felt as if this could have been—maybe should have been—longer, forming the better part of a pacy, clever action novel I would have very much enjoyed getting stuck into. As it was, I ended the story grasping for more.
The Witch’s Knives by Margaret Ronald
A delightfully weird riff off the conclusion of Beauty and the Beast that posits a narrative in which the Beast, while made human, isn’t cured by true love’s kiss, and his bride journeys far in search of a permanent solution to his curse, only to find no such easy answer. The witch at the end of the line doesn’t have an easy answer, but she does have a valuable one. An intense dive into emotional abuse and the value of finding yourself worthy of fighting for (with a big knife).
The Dancer on the Stairs by Sarah Tolmie
In this fantasy story, a woman, we presume from our world, is transported to another realm where all society inhabits a tower, up or down according to rank, and everyone is bound by strict rules of protocol. Except, that is, on the stairs.
This story goes deep into Tolmie’s fantastical society as well as into our protagonist’s life as she travels the social ladder in this new world she has found herself in. Disability plays a pivotal role in the plot—not really the protagonist’s, as she is alien to this world, but her husband’s, who is not only blind to the key protocol in tower society but also has long non-verbal periods.
This is a small epic with a dramatic climax, and I loved inhabiting Tolmie’s fascinating, well-thought-out world.