Charles Payseur Reviews Short Fiction: Samovar, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies

Samovar 4/22
Strange Horizons 4/18/22, 5/2/22, 5/9/22
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 5/5/22, 5/19/22

April also saw the release of a new issue of Samo­var, the sibling publication to Strange Horizons that specializes in speculative stories and poetry in translation. Among the works in the issue, Azrin Fauzi (translated by Ali Aiman Mazwin) captures a weird and compelling journey of three people on the island of Malaysia in “Panorama People”. Indra is on a quest for a landscape watercolor while Noor is on a more personal journey of discovery, and Detective Osbert Teo watches them both for his own reasons. The story incorporates ideas of art, tourism, and the commodification of places and people. The characters are all drawn to beauty in different ways, but are also caught by it, trapped by the tragedies that beauty can mask and cover. It’s a slow and almost dreamlike story, all three characters walking the edge of an abyss they can’t see but seem to feel all the same.

Strange Horizons itself closed April out with Mae Juniper Stokes’s “We, The Enchanted Castle”, which is told from the point of view of an AI “smart house” tasked with satisfying the needs of those living inside them, in this case the programmer working to complete them for market testing. The house doesn’t stop at dietary or physical needs, though, and begins working on the programmer’s emotional and romantic needs as well. The creepiness and violation of surveil­lance and manipulation meet the earnest desire to help and the genuine connection fostered by the house, which Stokes navigates expertly into a space that’s neither cautionary nor entirely com­fortable with the power of technology to influence humans. Moving into May, Seoung Kim reveals a fake medium who turns out to have a bit more real power than she thought in “Heavy Posses­sions”. At least, when a ghost decides to take up residence in her body, she’s pushed right outside of her comfort zone… but maybe also into a place she needed to be. The tone and voice of the characters are great, and Kim does a delightful job showing how they help each other, both through the things they promise and follow through on, and by truly seeing one another, and how vital that can be when so much is hidden, concealed, or fabricated.

On the Strange Horizons poetry front, Ken Haponek gets a bit metatextual in “Responding to Poetry and Prose Poems (pg 36 of Practice of Creative Writing)”, which I can’t resist mak­ing more meta by reviewing. The piece is about reading and responding to poetry, while also being a poem itself, bending around the impossibility of capturing the fullness of poetic expression and possibility and the great rewards for trying to do just that. I’d have to mention “i roll up to the club in a gundam” by Eric Wang for the name alone, but it’s also a rather wonderful piece about space, parties, and friendship. Wang infuses the lines with warmth, painting a rather bittersweet moment of connection and departure, a snapshot of people on the verge of touching the wider cosmos.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies’ first issue of May features stories of parents and children, transformation, and sacrifice. ‘‘Anything You Lose Comes Round in Another Form’’ by Jennie Evenson follows Pilar, a woman who is supposed to give of herself to protect her village, using a ritual to trade years of her life to the sea in return for its bounty. Yet, when weighed against her own happiness – the years that she wants to enjoy with her child, the years she was unable to enjoy with her mother because her mother sacrificed herself in the same way – even providing for her entire village doesn’t seem enough. Evenson confronts readers with the cost of sacrifice, challenging what some might consider selfishness in order to make a deeper point about unfairness and loss. It’s a powerful and beautiful story. The second issue keeps the focus on family but shifts from parents to siblings, with two tales about sisters and brothers. Cat Hellisen offers a new twist on ‘‘The Little Mermaid’’ with ‘‘I Will Sing Your White Bones Home’’. The narrator has just lost a brother, but not in the way her mother claims. Not because he was a mermaid, and human hatred claimed him. Rather, it was his forbidden love for a human that sealed his fate, and it’s his story that moves his sister to defy her mother and try to right a festering wrong. The setting is robust, and Hellisen does a great job using the source material as a springboard to tell a wholly different tale, tragic but not resolving in tragedy, where the bargains made are made freely from the start, without deception or betrayal.

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 July 2022 issue of Locus.

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