Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: BCS, Strange Horizons, Samovar, and Mithila Review

Beneath Ceaseless Skies 6/18/20
Strange Horizons 6/2/20, 6/8/20
Samovar 4/20
Mithila Review #14

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #306 opens with ”Kill the Witchman” by William Broom. A man is drugged and brainwashed with a mission to kill the witchman and his son. As he hunts them he lives in an almost eternal present with no idea of the past and little conception of the future. When he finds the pair, it turns out his relationship to them is more complex than he expected, and counter-brainwashing is attempted. I liked both the presentation of the man’s experience in his original brainwashed state, and also the synthesis that he makes of everything thrown at him. The second story is ”The Augur and the Girl Left at His Door” by Greta Hayer. This particular augur can tell the future based on what he observes of your skin and the lines of your skeleton. He is old and wise enough to have learned that full knowledge of the future rarely brings anyone any joy. When he adopts the titular, unnamed girl, he raises her with much love but without teaching her his arts. This upsets her and strains their relationship, but they remain devoted to each other.

The first story in Strange Horizons this June is ”The Bee Thing” by Maggie Damkan. A young woman had escaped her small town and proceeded to do well at college, find love, and generally be successful – until her head turned into a literal beehive, and the constant buzzing makes it hard for her to do much of anything. Her boyfriend has left her and she’s returned home to try to avoid sinking into depression by working at her parents’ store. It’s not working. I read this as a pretty clear metaphor for mental illness and the toll it can take on everything in your life. In ”The Present Only Toucheth Thee” by Kathleen Jennings, two beings have intertwined fates over the millennia. One seems near immortal, building a book over eons, while the other is continually reincarnated. It’s a beautiful, macabre story that muses on how such a relationship might finally end.

Samovar‘s translated story for the Spring is ”The Green Hills of Dimitry Totzkiy” by Eldar Safin (translated by Alex Shvartsman). The titular character is from Moscow, but gets translated to a realm where he is the only demiurge, continually creating the world around him. He’s surprised, then, when a family shows up from somewhere else, the wife chained to her husband’s coffin and asking for hospitality. What follows is a back and forth involving an animated deck of cards, reincarnation, and intergenerational power struggles. Strange doesn’t even begin to describe it, but this is definitely worth your while. While you’re there, check out the translation of an excerpt of an 11th-century Sanskrit novel, as well as the poetry.

Mithila Review: The Journal of International SF/F is up to its 14th issue, which I’m glad to see. This time out the authors are split about 50/50 between North America and the rest of the world, and the stories span all kinds of genres and settings. Leaning more towards science fiction, you have ”Your Dinner” by Derek Anderson. In this world, demons on a space station are promised a fine dining treat, eating a live human bred for the purpose. We get the perspective both of the victim and of one of the demons with some doubts about the whole thing. The concept is well executed. ”Iterations” by Chris Monson gives us a guide who leads hunting expeditions on an alien planet. He’s used to sleeping with his female clients; this time it’s his ex-girlfriend and her husband on his expedition. When he’s stung by one of the aliens, he seems to become adrift in time, looping back to key moments in their relationship.

Blood Relations” by J. Clark imagines a Southern family that gets caught up in the low-budget horror movie business, and it completely changes their fortunes. We get to see how Hollywood’s influence echoes through multiple generations, even as the parents go in very different directions.

Moving towards the fantasy end of the spectrum, ”The Call to Neigh” by Daniel McKay imagines an Egyptian archaeologist who has been professionally frozen after the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, and who is struggling through marriage counseling with his wife. When he is finally once again granted access to artifacts that represent the most dramatic find of his career, he takes one home, an object closely associated with a previously unknown horse god. He slowly begins to transform under its influence, which changes everything about both his work and his marriage. Finally ”The Trial of Tesslin Van Glaise” by Chloé Agar imagines a young girl put on trial for learning magic, which is forbidden to women. It turns out that her very abusive uncle forced her to learn it as part of his own agenda. Luckily, a separate mage inquisitor decides to intervene in her defense, which gives her a fighting chance. This is a satisfying story, although it feels like the first chapter of something bigger.

Recommended Stories

”The Trial of Tesslin Van Flaise”, Chloé Agar (Mithila Review #14)
”The Bee Thing”, Maggie Damkan (Strange Horizons 6/2/20)
”The Augur and the Girl Left at His Door”, Greta Hayer (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 6/18/20)

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 August 2020 issue of Locus.

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