Charles Payseur Reviews Short Fiction: Kaleidotrope, Fireside, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Diabolical Plots

Kaleidotrope 1/22
Fireside 1/22
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 1/1/22, 1/13/22, 1/27/22
Diabolical Plots 1/22


Another quarterly ushering in the new year is Kaleidotrope, whose winter issue features ten original short stories and seven poems. The tone of the publication tends toward the grim and hor­rifying, though often wrapped around a gooey heart. For instance, “Seven Times Seven” by A.C. Wise finds Jax, a child of an abusive father they can’t quite break free from, coming into contact with a dangerous faerie. Memory and guilt swirl within the story as Jax must face what they want and what they’ve done when things started going all wrong. The story is bloody and messy, and it doesn’t offer easy answers or short cuts through the dense mire of trauma, identity, and hope. But neither does it give into grief, guilt, or despair, and despite the vivid ugliness and brutality surround­ing Jax, there is also a sliver of light and warmth to keep them holding on. It’s a theme that echoes in “Enna Media Res” by H.L. Fullerton as well, as a former nun with a power to help people purge their sins has to face the past that she’s been run­ning from, in rather dramatic fashion. The piece looks at power and choice, and the cost of purging what some people think of as sinful. The action is intense, the ending cocky and defiant but far from an unambiguous victory. And things descend even further into horror in Nathaniel Lee’s “Systems”, which explores what happens when humans try to shape the natural world to their ambition and profit – at least, when one man tries to get crows to help with recycling and ends up authoring his own torment and nightmare. Don’t mess with crows. Just saying. Even Aimee Ogden’s cute (and totally not Batman fanfic) “A Gentleman’s Agreement” balances a smoldering story of a villain and super­hero very much into each other with the realities of violence, betrayal, and the line between good and evil. Though romantic at times, the piece is ultimately about people making choices that keep them alone, that maintain a distance and dance with death that might be fun while it lasts, but only seems to end one terribly final way.

Moving from the quarterlies to monthly releases, I’ll start with Fireside, which will be celebrating its 100th issue next month. For now, though, its ninety-ninth installment brings a number of sharp stories, including the haunting (literally) “Sheer in the Sun, They Pass” by Hester J. Rook. Flow­ing and strange, the piece finds a house full of ghosts, and among them two lovers who aren’t yet done with their transformations. Sensual and tanta­lizing, the story blurs time and mortality in a way that begs for close and careful reading. Hauntings recur, at least in a sense, in “The Night the River Meets the Sky” by Lina Rather, where a mother visits a daughter sacrificed for the greater good. That daughter now has whatever she wants, except for the life taken from her, the freedom denied her. Powerful and damning, the story doesn’t believe the lie of noble sacrifice, especially for someone who doesn’t get a real choice in the matter.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies delivered three issues in January, and one of my favorite pastimes is going through the issues to see how the stories have been paired in each one. Editor Scott H. Andrews always seems to manage to run stories together within an issue so that they amplify and complicated each other, and these issues are no exception. Issue 346 focuses on the aftermath of violent conflict, on situations where people are hungry for vengeance. And yet in both stories in the issue, the characters feel a deep need for peace, regardless of their own pain, regardless of what they might have to give up to keep it. In “To Embody a Wildfire Starting” by Iona Datt Sharma, Tishrel is a political prisoner just released after a revolution, returning home scarred and tired and uncertain of his next moves. An art­ist, he lost much for his devotion to his ideals, and yet even after torture, even faced with someone who has wronged him deeply and personally, he’s left having to weigh his pain against true justice. It’s a moving and beautiful story set against a fantasy setting of half-dragons (demi-asuric) and the humans who both envy and hate them.

Issue 347 is more interested in objects that at­tract attention, even greed, and how those objects twist history and people around them. Whether a chunk of obsidian, as in Marie Brennan’s “Chrysalis”, or a golden fiddle in Spencer Ells­worth’s “Three Songs to Fill Up the Shadow”, the objects act as vessels in the waters of history, pulling people in their wake, often enough pulling them under as well, into tragedy and loss. Issue 348, then, shifts over to look at creation itself. From a man who crafts gods, or at least their idols, in “Godmaker” by J.A. Prentice, to a world where people are made of out clay, fired in assembly-line ovens in Isabel J. Kim’s “Clay”. Kim weaves a story around a newly crafted being, Emmanuel 7.18, who was damaged during firing, though he still remains mostly happy. At least, until he really starts facing the reality of the world he was brought into, the waste and the unnecessary damage done to so many in the name of productiv­ity and efficiency. Creation, though, is something more than mass production, and the story explores just how in aching and wonderful ways.

Diabolical Plots started the new year with a pair of rather warm stories that center relationships. The first, “Tides that Bind” by Cislyn Smith, features the deep friendship and bond between Scylla and Charybdis as they move into the modern age. And the second, “Delivery For 3C at Song View” by Marie Croke, finds a part-djinn delivery driver having to deal with the extended consequences of a string of accidental wishes. Both are fun, with a conversational pacing and energy, and make for a rather charming issue.

Recommended Stories:

“Seven Times Seven”, A.C. Wise (Kaleidotrope 1/22)
“To Embody a Wildfire Starting”, Iona Datt Sharma (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 1/1/22)
“Clay”, Isabel J. Kim (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 1/27/22)

Charles Payseur is an avid reader, writer, and reviewer of speculative fiction. His works have appeared in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, Lightspeed Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, among others, and many are included in his debut collection, The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories (Lethe Press 2021). He is the series editor of We’re Here: The Best Queer Speculative Fiction (Neon Hemlock Press) and a multiple-time Hugo and Ignyte Award finalist for his work at Quick Sip Reviews. When not drunkenly discussing Goosebumps, X-Men comic books, and his cats on his Patreon (/quicksipreviews) and Twitter (@ClowderofTwo), he can probably found raising a beer with his husband, Matt, in their home in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

This review and more like it in the March 2022 issue of Locus.

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