Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: BCS, Strange Horizons, and Mysterion
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 10/24/19, 11/21/19
Strange Horizons 10/19, 11/19
Beneath Ceaseless Skies opens issue #289 with Norse fiction from Rich Larson in “The Star Plague“. Larson ratchets up the tension masterfully as we learn of Bragi, a Viking rescued from some traumatic event by British monks. Bragi is entirely disaffected, which isn’t helped by a language barrier, as some force starts stealing corpses and he is expelled from the monastery. They then beg him to return when a monster starts ravaging the holy grounds, and Bragi has to form the fairly complacent monks into a fighting force of sorts. I was hanging on every word and, if I was disappointed by the ending, I have to say the bulk of the story was fantastic. The second story here is “The Butcher, The Baker” by Mike Allen. Trukos is a created being, and when he kills someone to uphold the honor of his creator, it impacts his relationship with her and the spell that binds him. All of the sudden his wounds won’t heal and he starts disobeying orders. This story depends crucially on the selection of viewpoint and I’m glad that Trukos is our focus throughout, including his struggle with the contrast between his experience up to that point and what he learns afterwards. This story comes to a satisfying conclusion.
In issue #291 I especially liked “Swimming Apart” by R.Z. Held, which features a more mature view of female friendships than we often see. Two mermaids who used to be good friends and partners in adventure meet up after their lives have diverged. One has gone to live largely in the human world, and had a child, while the other has stayed to protect the underwater community. As their casual expedition starts to go wrong, they realize that they’ve drifted apart too much to maintain the friendship they had, but they’re still able to work together. It’s followed by “The Forge” by Andrew Dykstal, a magical murder mystery. A king has been assassinated and it turns out that the quickly captured assassin is possibly insane and definitely immortal. The two obvious suspects as masterminds behind the plot are the captain of the guard and the royal Wordsmith (magician), who band together to try to unravel what really happened. The relationship between the two is equally mature as in Held’s story above, and the reveals proceed smoothly, with some lovely weird worldbuilding included.
Issue #292 has “The Petals of the Godflower” by Kyle Kirrin, a classic tale of rebellion against a particularly weird societal set up. In this frozen world, the human community is sustained by heat-generating flowers that grow from corpses. Most children are expected to commit suicide and live on forever through their flower when they’re into their teens, but our narrator has serious doubts about this promised immortality. As the pressure grows for her to go the way of her siblings, her actions become both more constrained and more drastic.
In issue #293, “Scapegoat” by Holly Messinger continues the Weird Western adventures of Boz and Trace, introduced in other stories. Boz is a black veteran and Trace is a white man who sees the supernatural, and when they come to the free black town of Hamilton in the 1880s they can immediately tell that something isn’t right. There’s a lot of history and racial dynamics to unpack in this tale of demonic possession, but I think Messinger strikes a good balance between lessons and adventures.
Strange Horizons featured a wide variety of stories and styles in the Fall, as they always do. “The Sloppy Mathematics of Half-Ghosts” by Charles Payseur is a surreal and beautiful story of warp/weft spaceships populated by humans, ghosts, half-ghosts, and cats. Jourdain is a half-ghost who realizes that the galactic emperor is dead, setting off a race to be the ship to escort the emperor to the center of the galaxy where wishes may be granted. “The Great Mandini and the Dead Man’s Hand” by Kevin Wabaunsee manages to smoothly ramp up the tension in a story that takes place entirely at a diner table. A young man is treating the magician Great Mandini to drinks and a meal, hoping to learn his secrets. As their conversation continues, we learn a lot more about both men’s histories, how they intersect, and how stage magic and real magic and card games can all have consequences. The encounter doesn’t end in a way either of them expect. A quieter story, “Whom My Soul Loves” by Rivqa Rafael, imagines that dybbuks are real, and that Osnat Rodriguez comes to investigate one who is possessing Mrs. Stein. As she tries to figure out who the dybbuk is and what it might need to continue its afterlife journey, we get to see the larger community context she works in. It’s a very kind story, with a satisfying ending.
Mysterion is a new-to-me venue, publishing regularly since 2018, focusing on Christian-themed speculative fiction. Its Nov/Dec issue opens with a strong piece of historical fantasy, “Fools Pass Under” by Kat Otis. It’s London in 1633, and the troll has woken up under London Bridge and is demanding human sacrifices to eat before going back to sleep. Senior Bridgemaister John Potter is the man on the scene who has to coordinate between the government and the populace, and, knowing the history of trolls and how these encounters play out, has to organize the offering of sacrifices. He approaches his job with as much humanity as possible, and in a denouement that I particularly appreciated, does not escape from the day without a profound stain on his psyche.
“The Forge”, Andrew Dykstal (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 11/21/19)
“Swimming Apart”, R.Z. Held (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 11/21/19)
“Fools Pass Under”, Kat Otis (Mysterion 11-12/19)
“The Sloppy Mathematics of Half-Ghosts”, Charles Payseur (Strange Horizons 10/7/19)
“The Great Mandini and the Dead Man’s Hand”, Kevin Wabaunsee (Strange Horizons 10/14/19)
Karen Burnham is an electromagnetics engineer by way of vocation, and a book reviewer/critic by way of avocation. She has worked on NASA projects including the Dream Chaser spacecraft and currently works in the automotive industry in Michigan. She has reviewed for venues such as Locus Magazine, NYRSF, Strange Horizons, SFSignal.com, and Cascadia Subduction Zone. She has produced podcasts for Locusmag.com and SFSignal.com, especially SF Crossing the Gulf with Karen Lord. Her book on Greg Egan came out from University of Illinois Press in 2014, and she has twice been nominated in the Best Non Fiction category of the British SF Awards.
This review and more like it in the February 2020 issue of Locus.
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