Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: Tor.com, BCS, Strange Horizons, Aurealis, and Fantasy
Tor.com 1/27/21, 2/3/21, 2/10/21, 2/24/21
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 1/28/21, 2/11/21
Strange Horizons 2/8/21, 2/15/21
Fantasy Magazine 2/21
The stories in Tor.com I read this month leaned heavily toward horror, with three edited by Ellen Datlow and the fourth a vampire story edited by Jonathan Strahan. “Shards” by Ian Rogers is a cabin-in-the-woods story in which four friends violently murder the fifth friend, due to a demonic artefact. In the subsequent year they all suffer terribly and psychotically. From Richard Kadrey, we get a tale of a post-plague apocalyptic cityscape in “Across the Dark Water“. The thief (there are few proper names here) hires a guide to take him to the Turk after the thief’s wife disappears/leaves him. After many harrowing encounters and only a little bonding, they make it to the Turk’s compound and we learn the secrets within. In “The Tyger” by Tegan Moore, Jules is a 12-year-old boy whose parents have divorced. A family wedding is held in his favorite part of the Natural History Museum, the “Path of Time.” Unfortunately his mother is drunk and sobbing over everyone she can find, while also trying to get him to recite his award-winning interpretation of the famous William Blake poem. He’s desperate to escape all of this, and is definitely scaring himself by encountering the familiar Path at night in a mostly closed museum. He’s walking towards a known destination, a terrifying display of Arctodus, a giant bear from Pleistocene times, but as things seem to change and shift around him, what will he find when he gets there? Moore ramps up the tension inexorably.
Finally we have “Judge Dee and the Three Deaths of Count Werdenfels” by Lavie Tidhar featuring the recurring characters Judge Dee (vampire) and Jonathan (human servant/companion/definitely not for snacking on). Wandering through 12th-century Europe, Tidhar skips over one adventure (“He tried not to think of the Monastery of the Old High Ones and the horrors that, well, no longer dwelled there. It had been a complex case and it ended inevitably in a shower of blood.”) and moves on to the titular case. A vampire count has been murdered, and multiple people are claiming to be the murderer, hoping to inherit his estate: his wife, vampire hunter Chrétien de Troyes, and an ancient vampire from Roman times. Judge Dee has his hands full sorting out a likely sequence of events while the various parties are figuratively and literally at each other’s throats. The story comes to a nicely clever and satisfying conclusion.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #322 features an R.K. Duncan story, always a treat. In “Her Black Coal Heart a Diamond in My Hand” an artist buys a basket of ghosts from a girl at the train station, almost certainly kin of hers. He uses them and an abandoned house to set up an artistic tableau highlighting the horrors of poverty. It becomes wildly successful, and he seeks out the girl again for more ghosts to use. While focused on the success that is finally in his grasp, he misunderstands and misjudges the girl very badly. I love the fantastic art forms and craftsmanship that Duncan imagines for his stories. Josh Rountree brings us another story from 19th-century central Texas in “The Guadalupe Witch“. A woman has left her abusive husband years after her young son died. It turns out that the “witch hunter” sent after her had been a friend of her son’s, although he is old enough now to have a young wife. In a very matter-of-fact way she continues about her business and he ends up accompanying her. Her goal is to resurrect her son, but along the way she might also set this young man before her onto a better path in life. I admired her attitude and wisdom.
Issue #323 features a debut writer, Cori Hall, with “Rose Kissed Me Today“. In a charming story, the kiss of the title starts a journey of transformation for a young woman from a very small village, one that will open up whole new worlds for her. We also have a rather complicated time-travel story from Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko in “When Your Being Here is Gentler than Your Absence Hard“. Quin has been sent back in time to protect Fallon Deere, a woman who will end up both directing important forces in the war that is brewing and, in at least one timeline, becoming Quin’s lover. There are a number of ways to be assassinated when magic can manipulate everything, and Quin expects this mission to end badly – but Fallon is just as wise and canny in this time as in Quin’s.
Strange Horizons features two novelette or near-novelette length stories from newcomers in February. The first is “The Demon Sage’s Daughter” by Varsha Dinesh. Devayani is the daughter of the title, and her father will not teach her his most potent spell. When Kacha comes around to “study” with the sage (but also to spy for the same spell and woo Devayani as well), his presence unlocks options for her. The story hints at many different ways to tell the story, but in all of them Devayani’s cleverness (and also impetuousness) shines through. Then we get a New Weird story, “Ootheca“, from Mário de Seabra Coelho of Portugal. In a city suffering under cover of a sleeping elder god, where technology is unreliable and also may lure “hags” who can transform people in grotesque ways, Bilal and Joanna strike up a torrid relationship. She is unfazed by the fact that he now has cockroaches for teeth (and the author doesn’t shy away from visceral descriptions of what that feels like for him), and in fact it turns out that she might have a particular motivation for choosing him specifically to pursue. Like the best New Weird, within all these surreal elements lurks a deeply felt, wholly human story.
Aurealis is a magazine I don’t get to as often as I’d like. The three stories in issue #137 all have a horror bent to them, but I especially appreciated “The Redemption of Declan Callahan” by Steve DuBois. Nick is a pro football (soccer) player who we quickly learn is deceased, and he’s listening to the titular Declan glowingly eulogize him – although they hated each other intensely in real life. Their styles were completely different, Nick the scrapper who made up for a lack of natural physical talent by sheer grit and perseverance; Declan the golden playboy skating through on talent alone, until that wasn’t enough. Now the ghost of Nick is faced with the real-life Declan and the memory of how he died; DuBois makes the sports metaphor pay off with a lot of layers.
Fantasy Magazine continues to find its footing after a hiatus and under a new editorial team. I found “Of Course You Screamed” by Sharang Biswas quite interesting. It’s the story of a woman ostracized and abandoned on an island for sadly typical reasons. The series of endings makes it stand out. Innocent Chizaram Ilo gives us “Flight“, a story of a colony of parrots in a city that has taken pest control to the next level, depriving them of the insects and grubs they need for food and threatening their society. Jekwu and Izu are partners, watching those they love get kidnapped and killed. A very moving tale.
“The Demon Sage’s Daughter”, Varsha Dinesh (Strange Horizons 2/8/21)
“The Redemption of Declan Callahan”, Steve DuBois (Aurealis #137)
“Her Black Coal Heart a Diamond in My Hand”, R.K. Duncan (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 1/28/21)
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 April 2021 issue of Locus.
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