Late again, but I blame December. It’s always an intense month. Not to mention 2016’s last few kicks in the teeth. I would have integrated December’s list into this one for efficiency, but then we would have been here forever.
Read on below the cut for my micro-reviews of the short fiction I read in November. As usual, a black star (★) next to a story title means it was one of my particular favourites.
- Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies by Brooke Bolander
- City of Chimeras by Richard Bowes
- ★ Don’t You Worry, You Aliens by Paul Cornell
- The Learned People by Chelsea Eckert
- A Spell to Retrieve Your Lover from the Bottom of the Sea by Ada Hoffman
- Sometimes the Crossroads Come to You by Mikki Kendall
- ★ The Pirate Captain’s Daughter by Yoon Ha Lee
- Rusties by Nnedi Okorafor and Wanuri Kahiu
- Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home by Genevieve Valentine
- Old Domes by JY Yang
Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies by Brooke Bolander
A small, vicious creature, this story. While I originally thought that the creature this story makes its protagonist was a harpy (because harpies are the best and my favourites), on second reading I am willing to acknowledge that she might well be a valkyrie. Whatever she is, she is fucking glorious.
This is a story about which stories get told—which might as well be a quote from the story itself, as it’s very straightforward about this. In the situation of the murdered woman and the man who did it, whose story gets told, re-told, explored, dissected, wondered over? Three guesses.
But this murderer chose the wrong woman. So he doesn’t get a story. She does, and it’s foul-mouthed and violent and fantastical. If you don’t want to read about the topic of violence against women, give this a miss for now; but if you’re fucking angry and you want to read a story that’s fucking angry too, you could hardly do better than this one.
Also, you don’t see stories told in bullet points that often! So that made me happy.
City of Chimeras by Richard Bowes
A half-Fey finds himself in a mortal city of the New York/Los Angeles breed alongside his royal lover, caught up in fantastical gonzo nonsense enough for a Tarantino film including Fey feuds, human subterfuge, and half-animal kids living and loving on the streets.
Bowes portrays the adrenalin-spiked pace of the city well with his non-stop plot and wacky characters. When the twist comes, it’s a poignant surprise, and almost too real amidst the fantastical circus that is the rest of the story.
Personally, the sour note for me was the creepy Fagin character Caravaggio, whose assholery ends up being the main character’s saving grace somehow. But this story is complicated like that: there are no goodies or baddies.
★ Don’t You Worry, You Aliens by Paul Cornell
When this story was introduced I squealed aloud in my car, because this story is from where I’m from! And not just the UK, and not just the suburban hinterlands of the extra-capital UK, but the actualfax West Country. Early on the story even namechecks Cirencester, a town not twenty miles from my home.
Of course this only went to make the story itself more poignant for me. There has been a quiet apocalypse—that realistic sort where no one knows that it’s the end of the world at the time—and it all felt very familiar, very ‘right around the corner. It also recalled to me what I’ve read of the UK’s preparations for nuclear war in the ’70s, but up-to-date, with the BBC news on the radio once a week alongside the Facebook and Twitter bots submerging the internet in empty noise.
Sad. Sweet. For me, familiar. Plus there’s a dog (and it doesn’t die).
The Learned People by Chelsea Eckert
Being really poor sucks the heart out of you. That’s the awful truth this story draws upon. You yearn for love and normality but hunger twists you into something desperate and not always good.
The Learned People is about a very localised apocalypse brought on by the protagonist Eve’s inventor father. Eve’s loneliness in her newly-deserted town mirrors her isolation from the world at large and from her father before her father’s invention destroyed everyone’s minds, and oh god it is heartbreaking. Don’t expect a happy ending here.
A Spell to Retrieve Your Lover from the Bottom of the Sea by Ada Hoffman
I have never met a magical sea story I didn’t like. Ada Hoffman’s story continues that tradition, with the bonus trick of using second person perspective, a POV I will stan for to my dying day.
But this isn’t really a sea story. I mean, it is, but it’s ultimately about what you can and can’t do for someone else, and what they have to do for themselves. Though I don’t know if the author intended it, personally I read it as a story about depression, and loving someone with depression, and the deep dark place that that can be.
From that reading, both the hope and the ferocious tenacity of the protagonist really connected with me. The fucking grit of caring for someone with depression was beautifully depicted and painted heroic, as it should be.
Sometimes the Crossroads Come to You by Mikki Kendall
A very short little short, and the first of Kendall’s fiction I’ve read, though I’ve been aware of her activism for some time. This is a story about what you become at the crossroads when you—or one of your ancestors—makes a deal there. It’s a powerful little tale putting a whole new spin on its concept, including time travel (and who doesn’t love time travel?), but the futuristic setting is a mere sketch and I couldn’t get a handle on it.
★ The Pirate Captain’s Daughter by Yoon Ha Lee
This story is set upon a strange, semi-sentient ocean under three moons, where pirates sail by giving the sea poetry and your name is the heart of who you are.
The pirate captain’s daughter needs to write her first poem and earn her own name if she is to remain on the sea. But there is no poem inside of her.
Because this is a Yoon Ha Lee story, it’s impossibly beautiful. The Unwritten Sea is the kind of fabulous world you yearn for, ruled by the dream logic of poetry. The simple premise of the story is all the prose needs to hang on, embroidering around it to make something wonderful.
Rusties by Nnedi Okorafor and Wanuri Kahiu
Another apocalypse story, this; this one is set in Kenya, in Nairobi. Our protagonist Magana grows up in a world where cities across Africa are economically thriving due to a system of traffic-controlling robots called, due to their rusted housing, Rusties. She grows up knowing her trusted local Rusty, called Rusty Ndege by everyone around, likes her particularly, so she feels connected to it—but this doesn’t stop Magana being so involved in her own life that she fails to notice the change in the Rusties, or to give her pause when she eventually does something stupid.
I actually really enjoy the trope of someone missing the apocalypse (to a bigger or smaller degree) due to their own problems, like, in Magana’s case, her love life. It’s fun! And you know when whatever’s really going to happen happens that person will be more of us than we probably expect.
Everyone from Themis Sends Letters Home by Genevieve Valentine
A tricksy one, this story—the twist halfway through made me genuinely gasp, and, then, laugh—because of course! Of course that was it. A good twist, in other words.
So not to give anything away I’ll be vague. This story tackles head-on ethical questions about the value of individual time, calling to my mind contemporary debates about prison wages; not to mention the fucked-up-ness of nonconsensual human experimentation.
It’s also funny. Not laugh-out-loud hysterical but told with a wry humour, probably down to the epistolary format (another device I love in fiction). Sad, funny, good, and real.
Old Domes by JY Yang
A very Singapore story, Old Domes is the story of Jing-Li, who is a cullmaster of buildings—someone employed to kill the anthropomorphic spirits of buildings so that they can be replaced or re-purposed. But, newly qualified, Jing-Li is having some trouble with her first job, the old Supreme Court building.
I’m not Singaporean nor do I know anything in particular about Singapore, so there are bound to be shades of meaning and significance I’ve missed. Even so, I enjoyed Old Domes very much.
Yang uses the concept of building guardians to explore notions of land, history and countryhood. Singapore is a young and shifting country, and finding Singaporean history amidst the constant changes is a challenge. Yang strikes a good balance between mourning lost memory and celebrating growth and looking forward.