Karen Burnham Reviews Short Fiction: Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Giganotosaurus, Departure Mirror, and Flash Fiction Online

Tor.com 3/3/21, 3/24/21
Strange Horizons 3/1/21, 3/15/21
Giganotosaurus 2/21, 3/21
Departure Mirror Quarterly Winter ’21
Flash Fiction Online 3/21

Tor.com had two stories in March. A new Usman T. Malik story is always a treat. “#Spring Love, #Pichal Pairi” is his latest take on the pandemic, where the narrator is a reporter in Lahore who in­terviews a particularly woke, feminist pichal pairi. The pichal pairi of folklore is a female monster with backwards feet who devours men; Farah has achingly backward feet but is much more likely to attend a dance (or college abroad) than engage in cannibalism. Their romance develops along with his respect for her boundaries, but everything changes when a contagious disease sends everyone into lockdown. She refuses to quarantine with him, insisting on returning to her riverbank where many poverty-stricken people need her help. Malik is known as a horror writer, but this story eschews almost anything horrific until the very end. “Masquerade Season” by ‘Pemi Aguda fol­lows a well-worn path, where something magical discovered by a child is exploited by adults and thus diminished. In this case ten-year-old Pauly discovers three masquerades, supernatural beings in gorgeously elaborate African garb. They follow him home and state that they belong to him. He shows them off to his friends, and their dances are spectacular, but his single mother, a seam­stress, sees the fabric of their costumes and begs to borrow, just a little, to make the outfits for her richer clients shine. The masquerades are sadly diminished each time, and Pauly knows this isn’t sustainable, despite the new TV and games his mother’s success can buy. This story packs a lot of beauty and heartbreak into a short span of words.

Strange Horizons kicks off March with “Mouth” by Sasha Lapointe. This deeply symbolic story imagines a woman with no mouth; it was taken away when she uttered one particular phrase to her lover. Now she can only visit it, next to some hands, in the Native American Cultural exhibit of the local museum. This is a story that uses just a little bit of weird to illuminate a very important feeling and relationship with society. Next is a story that’s almost as weird as its title: “According to Leibniz (maybe this isn’t what he meant); Or, Rasharelle Little: Goddess of Postal Worker NBs” by Isana Skeete. The nar­rator is an asexual, non-binary person of color. Their Monad self (hence the Leibniz reference) is flanked by a Dyad – a headless chicken repre­senting their anxiety, among other mental health issues. After long regarding the chicken as an an­noyance (and totally repressing their feelings for the titular Rasharelle, their flirtatious co-worker in the postal service), they consider instead taking a kinder attitude towards it, which might change more about their life than just their Dyad. This story was challenging to get into at first because it takes about half the story to figure out what the Monad/Dyad language means, but it turns out to be a lot of fun.

Giganotosaurus has two interesting stories in February and March. February’s story is “The Patron God of Tawn” by Dustin Steinacker. Syna was the Unfolder of the she-wasp god, Eotrene, who had defeated the town’s previous god and taken up residence. Syna almost never beheld Eotrene directly, but was responsible for delivering her guidance to the people. The world is turned upside down when Eotrene abandons her tower, and it turns out that all the other gods have turned feral as well, not responding intelligently to humans anymore and behaving chaotically. As panic spreads throughout the populace, Syna comes up with a new theology that can help people make sense of this new turn of events. Does she believe it herself? “… she believes it each time. Believes it just enough.” March brings us “Slow Eshtyca” by Damien Krsteski. Vilma, a diplomat, takes Nadja from her hometown and brings her to a big city to assist with a never-ending war effort. We follow both characters in alternating sections as Nadja settles in as a remarkably gifted analyst, crunching numbers and figuring out how to interpret reports and direct resources in the war. Vilma shows her around the city, ostensibly so she’ll understand the need to protect it, but Nadja starts injecting small subver­sions into her recommendations, and eventually meets up with a rebellious underground. What will Vilma do as Nadja tries to escape her fate?

Departure Mirror Quarterly is a new venue which I’m picking up with issue #2. The lead story is “Tabula Rasa” by P.A. Cornell, where people’s memories are reset every five years. They usually cope by leaving notes for themselves, but this time when Shannon and Don wake up together, she remembers everything about the last five years while he’s still adjusting as normal. That gives her an opportunity to get away from her abusive relationship, and she grabs it with both hands. Mari Ness brings us a survey of how a subset of supernatural creatures have been weathering the pandemic in “A Preliminary Study of Humans Under Beastly Enchantments and COVID-19“. Humans under many different flavors of curses are interviewed by the researchers: for some, the pandemic lockdowns are no different than their long-term isolation in various castles and strong­holds; others lament that it’s getting even harder to try to meet the conditions that will let them break their curses. It’s a great imaginary romp covering a bunch of capsule scenarios. “Eleven Sentences” by Christopher Blake imagines a charming romance between two men who originally met in an interstellar juvenile detention center, broke out, and went on an interplanetary crime spree á la The Stainless Steel Rat (Harry Harrison). Finally the narrator will need to break into and out of a computational center on his own in an effort to make sure his lover can cheat death itself.

The Bottle Tree” by Marie Brennan is a novelette-length look at a school for psychic children, including very powerful but hard to control wildings. Julian is an older student mentor to Neeya, who is constantly getting “gutted” for failing to control her powers (a process whereby the teachers can cut a student off from their psy­chic powers for a period of time, leaving them feeling totally blinded and undercut). Julian’s been through this himself, so he knows how hard it can be, but he’s disturbed when he learns that Neeya has been literally bottling her feelings up in a particular tree on campus. He tries to empty the tree himself but gets in way over his head. One thing I found interesting is that, with the best of intentions and no villainous adults, the system depicted here is still clearly abusive. For another look at unintended consequences, we have “A Homecoming for Four Will Sunderlands” by Anthony W. Eichenlaub. Upon the conclusion of the Duplication War, the planet is ruled by a huge number of Quentin Alexanders, and Andrea Sutherland is surprised when four versions of her son Will return home. They each have different flavors of trauma since their war experiences were so different, and of course this family is only one variation on a story playing out millions of times all over the globe. Andrea needs to get through to a Quentin and get him to understand the challenges and needs of small communities and families such as their own, but that’s not a trivial task. I always appreciate stories that bring home, figuratively or literally, the human consequences of war without the theatricality of outer space battle scenes.

Flash Fiction Online has three original stories in March. My favorite is the charming “The Miss Marple Society” by Elizabeth Cleland. The titular society is a group of elderly women who keep themselves entertained by finding and solv­ing any number of mysteries in their small town, poking into everyone’s business in the meantime. When one of their members passes away, cryptic clues start appearing, leading them on another merry chase. There is also “A Sunrise Every 90 Minutes” by Victoria Zelvin in which Josephine, an astronaut who was supposed to handle the crew changeover on the space station by being alone for only a few hours instead gets stranded there as a catastrophe unfolds down on Earth. It’s a poignant portrait of isolation. Lastly, “The Door” by Ike Quigley is a tale of eldritch horror that unfolds through a series of voicemails that Henry leaves for his sister. It’s always great to see how much story can be packed into such small spaces.

Recommended Stories

“Masquerade Season”, ‘Pemi Aguda (Tor.com 3/24/21)
“The Bottle Tree”, Marie Brennan (Departure Mirror Quarterly Winter ’21)
“The Miss Marple Society”, Elizabeth Cleland (Flash Fiction Online 3/21)
“Mouth”, Sasha Lapointe (Strange Horizons 3/1/21)

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 May 2021 issue of Locus.

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