Charles Payseur Reviews Short Fiction: Baffling, Fusion Fragment, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Cast of Wonders

Baffling 7/22
Fusion Fragment 7/22
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 7/28/22, 8/11/22, 8/25/22
Cast of Wonders 7-8/22

I’m starting this month with July’s Baffling, which features seven stories with LGBTQIA+ elements. The issue opens with a mix of messy fun and danger with Fruzsina Pittner’s “The Serpent Crouches in the Heart of the Unravelling”. Written in second person, you are cast as a kind of dimensional fixer, a witch sent through time and space to confront and return serpents from beyond back to where they came from – before they can do too much damage to reality itself. Armed with magic and experience, no confrontation is ever safe, but you have a good reason to stay alive. Pittner condenses a lot of worldbuilding into the action of confrontation and flashback, with a subtle twist of romance and drama to keep things engaging and lively. The use of second person is particularly effective, drawing the reader into an immediate and cerebral danger and anchoring you with only your attraction to lost causes that might not be so lost. Nadia Sham­mas takes things in a more intimate and sensual direction in “First Kiss”, which constricts the action to the inside of a closet, to two women rather desperately making out. Rather than second person, it’s a first-person narrator that invites the reader in, and through whose senses the reader experiences this erotic but also deeply strange encounter – one that centers the taste of blood and the culmination of a ragged and almost cannibal release. Shammas paints a vivid picture that isn’t for the faint of heart, but that offers a compelling look at desire, shame, and relief.

The July Fusion Fragment is full of stories of family, cooperation, and loss. It also has a de­lightful science fiction noir featuring a sentient shipmind playing at being a hardboiled detective in Mahmud El Sayed’s “A Ship Called Moon”. Moon wants to avoid being decommissioned, and the best way he knows to do that is to get lost in the strange and petty dramas on the fringes of space, which keep him far away from his former superiors. Or so he thinks. El Sayed captures a charming voice in Moon, and manages a tight pacing with plenty of twists and turns, including a doozy toward the end that lands masterfully. It’s a great example of genre blending done right, with explosions, double-crosses, and a science fiction mystery wrapped up in classic noir style. Shifting gears entirely, Uchechukwu Nwaka’s “Magic Tusks at the End of the World” introduces a kind of high-fantasy Destined One in Mayokun, an outsider of mixed blood who has always been more shunned than accepted in his tribe. When he’s discovered to be chosen, however, sentiments shift, and yet even as he is filled with purpose he finds a hollowness as well. Through confronting his feelings – and his people’s great enemy – he’s able to get a better perspective and see options he never knew existed. Nwaka builds an interesting and grim world, but not one without hope or pos­sibility, and there’s a sharp commentary on being able to see villainy even where it passes itself off as virtue. Lauren Ring closes out the issue with a rather novel take on generation ships in “The Loneliest Passenger on the Hook-Death-Kill”. Evoking card games of deception and competing goals where some players are secretly killers and the rest are trying to catch them, the story follows one player in a ship-wide game who is just tired of it all. I found the portrayal of conspiracy as gameplay, and of generational cyclical abuse as culture, both fascinating and relevant. The depictions of burnout, distrust, and a deep desire for safety and something genuine are incredibly well done, and Ring ties everything together in the weight of the fact that all these games have their inevitable ending, where winning simply isn’t possible for those who don’t want to play.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies closed out July with an issue featuring stories exploring and twisting ex­pectations of Arthurian fantasy. The first issue of August kept the action rooted in fantasy but con­tributes to what I imagine will be a trend following the Roe v. Wade reversal in the United States, focusing on abortion and pregnancy in a sharply speculative way. Both stories look at need and at women put into dangerous situations made worse by cultures around them that blame victims rather than offering aid or relief. In August’s second is­sue came two stories built around magic, purpose, and death. Riley Neither’s “Imagine a Thief with Golden Fire in Their Voice” introduces a powerful magic user as narrator – a former thief who was chained and abused by their mentor who, now dead, cast powerful spells to prevent them from ever telling the truth. Now free from their mentor’s abuse but not those silencing spells, they must face a world who venerates their abuser’s memory, and expects them to use their power to resurrect her. It’s a complex and deeply emotional journey, and Neither does a careful and beautiful job of creating a system of magic from elements and opposites, finding in the narrator’s unique perspective of the world a powerful key to finally unlock their chains and embrace a cleansing free­dom. It’s wonderfully done. Adam Breckenridge focuses on a man devoted to being an instrument of the shadows in “The Death Artist”. When Dominic’s shadow calls on him to kill a great bird person who has been functionally immortal for a long time, it takes him on a journey through philosophy and passion and violence, secure in the knowledge that death isn’t the menace that some people think. Breckenridge provides mov­ing and spiritual prose that isn’t afraid to pause or ponder, all while finding a haunting comfort in the inescapable and embracing nature of death.

July saw Cast of Wonders turn 500 with “Ysarin” by Simon Pan. The story follows Rin, who is raised by his grandmother in a city that is hostile to them because they come from a people known for their travelling ways and almost magical sing­ing. Rin wants to assimilate, though, convinced that only through the study of the instrumental music of the city and not the vocal traditions of his family can acceptance and success be found. Pan creates a richly imagined world and a wrenching portrayal of cultural loss and internal conflict. For all that pain laces the narrative, though, it works its way toward a synthesis of identity and expression, with Rin’s heart finally finding a way to express its complex and messy truths. A fitting way to celebrate the publication’s anniversary!

Recommended Stories:
“The Serpent Crouches in the Heart of the Unravelling”, Fruzsina Pittner (Baffling 7/22)
“Ysarin”, Simon Pan (Cast of Wonders 7/22)
“Imagine a Thief with Golden Fire in Their Voice”, Riley Neither (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 8/22)

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 October 2022 issue of Locus.

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