Charles Payseur Reviews Short Fiction: Diabolical Plots, Lightspeed, Fantasy and F&SF

Diabolical Plots 3/22, 4/22
Lightspeed 5/22
Fantasy 5/22
F&SF 5-6/22

April Fool’s Day brought a special extra story to Diabolical Plots, and fans of the Teenage Mu­tant Ninja Turtles might want to check out Josh Strnad’s “Food of the Turtle Gods”. Then, in “She Dreams In Digital” by Katie Grace Carpenter, an intelligent starship tries to keep a garden alive following the loss of its human cargo. The story is stark and grim, with the crush of time and space pushing in on the ship, threatening the last beauty that humanity could save, the garden that acted as their sanctuary but could not save them. Despite the seemingly hopeless situation, though, and the apathy of a galaxy that did not blink at the passing of humanity, the story resolves into something joyous and free. Things took a culinary turn in May, though, with Kel Coleman stepping in as guest editor of a special Diabolical Plots issue themed around food. Amanda Hollander provides the first story, a rather humorous twist on a vampire-human-werewolf love triangle in “A Strange and Muensterous Desire”. Packed with puns and a preoccupation with making the best grilled cheese sandwich, the story doesn’t apologize for going all in with some silliness and camp. Joy infuses the writing, and the plot is a romp of dedicated culinary skills, high school drama, and some para­normal danger the narrator remains mostly clueless of. It’s a brilliant work of speculative comedy. The humor is cut with more serious tones further into the issue, though, with Allison King’s “The Many Taste Grooves of the Chang Family” offering a balanced take on family, memory, and practical jokes. Dealing with a father with dementia, two siblings try to care for him while they sort through their own memories of a childhood tradition of being taken out to eat at what was to them a very lackluster restaurant. What could have been steeped in loss and sorrow, though, retains a sense of playfulness and hope as the family is reminded that, even with the challenges they have, there will be reasons to smile and laugh as well. It provides a warm and tender experience. And “Mochi, With Teeth” by Sara S. Messenger closes out the issue. Featuring June, a would-be witch who finds a spellbook she can’t read, the work focuses on iden­tity and distance. June’s goal is to reconnect with a part of herself she feels is lost, or at least frayed, a thread that stretches back to her grandmother and the heritage that seems largely closed off to her. Despite what has been lost, though, the story emphasizes the importance of intent and desire, and the result is something magical and emotional and wonderful!

May’s Lightspeed covers a lot of thematic groups. It opens with Grace Chan’s action-packed “Nobody Ever Goes Home to Zhenzhu”, which features a business partnership that might just recover from one partner running off unannounced to visit his home world. Given his return has to do with a covered up genocide and lots of personal tragedy, the road forward isn’t going to be clean or painless. Tobias S. Buckell keeps things focused on inequality and injustice in the sharply satirical “The Plastic People”, where a group of wealthy friends living in orbital estates surrounding the ruined Earth “adopt” a feral young boy from the surface. It’s not at all a feel-good piece, but it is an effective and unsettling look at how distance and wealth breed corruption. “It Came Gently” by Aigner Loren Wilson also images a world where scarcity has left people primed for horror. Only here the threat is not just human corruption, but a kind of invasion that people are only too willing to welcome. The issue turns a bit in Lauren Ring’s “Magical Girl Burnout Bingo”, where a small number of heroes are preventing the world from falling deeper into devastation, except the pressure to save the world is not an easy weight to carry, especially for the young people tasked with the duty. For one in particular, who’s lost her magical powers, things seem bleak indeed – at least until she finds that though her powers are gone, she still has skills and experience that might spare others from suffering. Andi C. Buchanan also uses people with powers to explore the threat of disaster next to hope for the future in “If We Do Not Fly at Sunset”. The story’s narrator is genderqueer and fae and moves through a world inching toward full climate disaster, knowing they can escape it, can enter a different and magical world. That doesn’t make them give up on the human world, though, or on their own chances for finding something beautiful and real with those who have no such escape ladder. Lina Rather finishes the issue up with “The Cheesemaker and the Undying King”, a rather grim fantasy that finds cheesemaker Tana losing her wife in a war with a pestilent king. A king who, as it turns out, has a taste of Tana’s cheese. The piece returns to the idea of corruption and rot and resistance, and for all that things seem impossible for Tana, an older cheesemaker against the vast powers of a conquering and inhuman monster, she doesn’t lose herself to despair. She never gives up in trying to spare others the pain she felt at the loss of her wife.

May’s Fantasy features Dominique Dickey’s “Drowned Best Friend”, a moving story where Joseph, a young trans man, deals with isolation and bullying. Dickey is sensitive and compassionate as they reveal the complex guilts that Joseph carries because of his role in the accidental death of his best friend. That incident acts as an anchor, pulling him toward a past that doesn’t fit him, but one he doesn’t want to lose, because the ghost of his friend remains tethered to him, haunting him, though not in a par­ticularly sinister way. The push and pull of the past and future make for a compelling read, especially as Joseph tries to make new connections and balance his guilt and the fear he’s betraying his first best friend. Meanwhile, “One Day the Cave Will Be Empty” by K.J. Chien provides an equally complicated look at family and love as a couple finds they have birthed what might be a monster. Their Pearl is a kind of mer-person, and they immediately hide her away. What has been hidden has a way of being discovered, though, and as Pearl grows she yearns more and more to be seen. But that moment of discovery might be nothing like the nightmares that have kept her parents sleepless some nights. It’s a tense piece that seems at times to border on horror, but which finds a new and beautiful path to tread rather than resolving in intolerance and death.

May’s F&SF opens with an editorial very much focused on music. Fitting, given that the first story of the issue is Fawaz Al-Matrouk’s “The Voice of a Thousand Years”, which follows Ibn Hashem, an old man and scholar who finds a voice speaking to him from a musical instrument. In attempting to help the voice, though, Ibn Hashem is faced with the difficulty of his task, and the personal sorrow he still feels at all that he has lost and all that he has witnessed the world lose. Yet, despite failure after failure, Al-Matrouk keeps the story reaching toward something whole and freeing. It’s a feeling reinforced in Ai Jiang’s “Give Me English”, where language itself has been monetized and the poor are rendered Silent because they lack the words and understand­ing to express themselves and be understood. Inside that world, Gillian is trying to get by, to not let down her family, and yet everything seems to be pushing her toward Silence. Despite that, the story shows the power that comes from not leaning into the corrup­tion that powers this system – the power of language, compassion, and identity that can’t be stripped away or sold. Music returns as a focal point in “The Hun­ger” by James Enge, where an escaping slave meets up with a famed warrior in something of a desperate misadventure. The two find themselves in a place where the dead walk and attack and seem only to be soothed by the beat of music. It’s an interesting and action-filled fantasy that shows that some battles are not fought with strength alone, and that not all undead hungers are for brains.

Taemumu Richardson’s first professional publica­tion is “Nightmares Come from Stolen Dreams”, with a narrator for whom entertainment is a way of life. In the post-disaster setting of the story, it means the difference between life and death, as she travels with a giant snake, performing and making sure that her reptilian partner stays well fed on people who won’t be missed. When someone decides to try and steal the secrets of the snake’s powers, though, things go from bad to bloody, and Richardson manages a breathless and harrowing experience in her debut. Jae Steinbacher’s “The Angel’s Call” continues both the action and the focus on post-disaster settings in a world where the Call has transformed some people into “angels” complete with wings and powers. Bron, a trans person trying to deny the angelic changes boil­ing inside them, just wants to be left in peace. Not really an option when they and their partner Kayla, a trans woman, stumble across a religious camp with a grim and violent secret. It’s a bloody story of identity and fighting against the pressures to be predatory, and winning that fight in a rather profound and wonderful way. The issue ends on a flash fiction story by John Wiswell, “The True Meaning of Father’s Day”. Lighthearted and clever, the piece finds a group of friends (who happen to be time travelers) arguing over who’s going to pick up the bill for lunch. But as they seek to one up each other in their attempts to cover the meal, one of them might have taken things to a whole other level.

Recommended Stories:

“A Strange and Muensterous Desire”,  Amanda Hollander (Diabolical Plots 5/22)
“The Cheesemaker and the Undying King”, Lina Rather (Lightspeed 5/22)
“Give Me English”, Ai Jiang (F&SF 5-6/22)

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 June 2022 issue of Locus.

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