Charles Payseur Reviews Short Fiction: Fantasy, Lightspeed, and Xenocultivars: Stories of Queer Growth

Fantasy 3/22
Lightspeed 3/22
Xenocultivars: Stories of Queer Growth, Isa­bela Oliveira & Jed Sabin, eds. (Speculatively Queer) March 2022.

March’s Fantasy Magazine features a new story by Isabel J. Kim, who has been having a very strong year. ‘‘Christopher Mills, Return to Sender’’ focuses on death and resurrection as Chris awakens from his own personal hell, a giant mall without a smoothie place, thanks to the magic of his sister, who wants his help in getting justice for his murder. Easier said than done, though. What the story excels at is capturing this complex and dam­aged relationship between the siblings, all swirling around Chris’s life and murder, and moving Chris from a place where he doesn’t care about anything to someplace more vulnerable and open. Gabrielle Harbowy’s ‘‘The Dybbuk Ward’’ resonates well with many of the same themes, featuring a narrator dead from suicide who becomes a dybbuk possess­ing one the doctors who treated her. The story walks a tricky line, revealing characters whose mental health problems are literally caused by invasive spirits with unfinished business, but making sure to respect the complexities of disability, mental illness, and medical care. It succeeds in creating a resonating tale of recognition, care, and treatment that sees each person as unique and individual. In the issue’s poetry, Alex Jennings’s ‘‘Negative Detection’’ is a beautiful look inward as the narra­tor seeks sanctuary from fear and pain. He works to face something in his past – a person, a force, a death – while striving to live by his own rules and in his own way.

The March Lightspeed opens with a short work by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor. ‘‘The Heaven That They Never Knew’’ is a tense story about invasion and one person ready to risk, and give, everything in order to prevent it. It narrows in on a single, pivotal moment for humanity, and grounds it in an excellent and emotional character study. Julianna Baggot’s ‘‘The Historiography of Loss’’ finds a daughter looking for a father who abandoned her. She uses technology to return him to her, to answer for what he did. What she finds instead, though, isn’t about the past at all, but about a future she’s moving toward, and wants her father to be a part of. It’s a moving look at family and grief. ‘‘Hood Alchemy’’ by Nicole D. Sconiers also focuses on the complexities of the past and future, featuring a narrator looking back on the trends of her youth, the desire and ambition to be unbreakable, strong, and valuable. It captures something that feels almost right, almost safe, but for the failings of society to protect its most vulnerable, and the ways there are always those eager to sell lies as gold. Maria Dong furthers the themes of hunger and ambition in ‘‘Nine Tails of a Soap Empire’’ , where a woman who has swallowed an ember that makes her always burning to expand and conquer surveys the wealth and influence she’s built from magic soap. The story really digs into her hunger and the ways the pain has shaped it into something that’s almost a curse, almost a prison.

Finally, March also sees the release of Xenoculti­vars: Stories of Queer Growth, edited by Isabela Oliveira & Jed Sabin. Containing sixteen original stories, the anthology does a great job of showcas­ing stories featuring a range of queer characters and themes, all winding around plants and the natural world. It’s not always our world, though, as with ‘‘Folded into Tendril and Leaf’’ by Bogi Takács, a second-world fantasy where a pair of magic stu­dents face the obliterating weight of war, and try to do something to save each other from the jaws of corruption and violence. The story looks at the hard lessons of life, and the way that change is really only in one direction. Flowering seasons might cycle, but for plants as well as people there is no undoing harm done, though that doesn’t mean new growth and possibilities can’t flourish. In ‘‘Sapspear Syrup’’ by Bradley Scott the world is alien, and Cal is wor­ried about being a good brother to his sibling, Trix, following the death of their mother. The story shows that environment is key for growth, and sometimes the places that seem like they’ll provide the best elements turn out to be wholly unsuitable. The story captures something warm and fragile as the char­acters deal with their hurt and their hope, settling into a new world that seems at last to have what they need. And ‘‘The Princess and the P. Sativum’’ by Jennifer Lee Rossman explores a fairy-tale world where an evil queen must be thwarted by the efforts of a florimancer, Dahlia. Not that she doesn’t get a bit of help from her floral friends, and maybe an unlikely ally in a human who feels trapped in the cruel machinations of politics.

Most of the works, though, deal with the plants and people of Earth. Julian Stuart’s ‘‘The Aloe’s Bargain’’ follows a young girl named Vera who befriends an aloe plant. Together they learn what friendship means, and how to find people to trust, to help, and to care for. It’s a sweet and endearing story, as is ‘‘How to Make a Spell Jar’’ by EA Crawley, which is framed as instructions on a kind of spell, but one that varies greatly depending on the caster. In this instance, it finds a young person making a special jam for a 4-H fair and rather literally blow­ing the judges away.

There are many stories that deal with the climate dangers our planet faces. In ‘‘Reclaiming Our Roots’’ by Hanna A. Nirav, Earth has found ways to protect itself, forcing humans off the planet. Only much later can some begin to return, and only then by changing the ways they relate to the world and its plants. For Reina, longing for acceptance, it’s a place where she can finally assert herself and find recogni­tion for who she truly is. ‘‘To Build a Garden’’ by C.B. Blanchard finds survivors living in the ruins of a city maintaining a community that doesn’t look like the strict, oppressive structure that many places adopt when facing hardship. Instead, through the dangers and griefs, people build a garden, and help each other, and live by the rules that don’t force them to betray their own hearts. My favorite piece in the anthology, though, is likely ‘‘Uncharting Territory’’ by Jessica Yang, which finds humans mostly living in a great domed city, and one soon-to-be college student spending some time before school to survey some of the wilds outside the dome. Riding the edge of burnout and the high expectations of their family, they are lost in more ways than one when they get sick and are denied re-entry into the city. What they find instead, out in the wilds, is at least as much about knowing who they are as it is about discovering their true place in the natural world.

Recommended Stories:

‘‘Christopher Mills, Return to Sender’’, Isabel J. Kim (Fantasy 3/22)
‘‘Uncharting Territory’’, Jessica Yang (Xenocultivars)

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 April 2022 issue of Locus.

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