Charles Payseur Reviews Short Fiction: Samovar, Strange Horizons, Drabblecast, and Diabolical Plots
Strange Horizons 7/18/22, 8/1/22. 8/8/22
Drabblecast 7/22, 8/22
Diabolical Plots 8/22
The end of July also brought an issue of the speculative translation publication Samovar. In it, Chen Chuncheng (translated by Jack Hargreaves) presents a strange and almost bucolic story of a person who manicures clouds so that they always appear fluffy and appealing in “A Cloudcutter’s Diary”. The titular cloudcutter is in something of a self-imposed exile, living remotely and alone mostly to try to figure out how to apply themself in life – to determine what avenue of study to apply themself to, and hopefully avoid any dead ends. There’s a touch of the absurd underneath a relatable feeling of indecision and a desire to make the “right” decision, without really understanding what that would mean. Chuncheng crafts a subtle but powerful tale of doubt, quietude, and serendipitous disaster. Moving to poetry, “Ablution” by Ricardo Jaimes Freyre, translated by Brittany Hause, finds a narrator and woman together, with the woman described as pale, sad, and sharp. The title brings to mind a repetitive task, a cleansing, and the way the narrator describes and relates to the woman gives the piece, for me, a feeling of the care needed to maintain a relationship. Through the poem there is a sense of the passion and the need that needs to be stoked for two people to stay together, tied to deep, religious imagery that speaks to devotion, faith, and communion.
Strange Horizons closed out July with Tanvir Ahmed’s stirring “The Miraculous Account of Khaja Bairaq, Pennant-Saint of Zabel”, which features an animate and sentient banner (the titular Khaja Bairaq), who witnesses one injustice too many and decides to act against the king of Zabel, who has enlisted a dragon to keep the Mongols at bay, but who allows the dragon to eat his people, and whose obsession with a wall to keep his enemies out leads to greater abuses still. The piece pairs a kind of humor with very serious and grim elements. A willful banner isn’t exactly an expected protagonist, and there’s a petrified melon as well, and yet Ahmed manages these with a sense of matter-of-fact magic and sly humor. There’s a refusal to accept that injustice must be endured quietly, that peace and freedom exist only in the next life – there’s a fire and spirit that Khaja Bairaq embodies that is compelling and raw and makes for an excellent read! Moving into August, and Omodero David Oghenekaro’s poem “Questions for the Fallen” finds a narrator speaking to someone who has been marginalized, hurt, and hunted – forced to inhabit a space they didn’t choose, because otherwise they faced an annihilating danger. The narrator offers a kind of choice or alternative, a vision of violent power, and the poem lingers on the question of whether this person will accept, and what that would mean for them, for the world they live in, and for justice. Staying with poetry, Sodïq Oyèkànmí’s “stream of dreams where my mouth asks not to be blood-light” also speaks of danger, where the narrator knows there are hands waiting to snatch – there are holes where people used to be and are no longer. These absences have weight to them, and a grim magic against which only a different kind of magic might prevail – the magic of faith and ritual. The poem lingers, though, on how potent the magics might be, and how final the consequences when faith and ritual do not succeed in preventing tragedy.
Drabblecast has also been active, putting out stories in July and August, including “Plans for Expansion” by Aliya Whitely, a story about a worker at a castle that claims to be haunted in order to draw in tourists. The narrator, a younger worker there, doesn’t want to become stuck, to become a part of the place, but a discovery by the owner of a secret room far below the castle turns that desire rather pointless. Whitely uses the literal to reveal the horror of being caught and transfixed in life – trapped in a capitalist sense in a situation that was supposed to be temporary, and for the narrator in a physical sense that’s unsettling and terrifying.
August’s Diabolical Plots pairs two stories with very different tones, one lighter and more comedic, one heavier and more laced with sorrow. “Take Me to the Water” by Sarah Macklin is the latter, a story where the narrator has been kept from a part of themself that they are just starting to realize and note the absence of. The story is careful but unflinching in the portrayal of abuse as something that doesn’t necessarily involve physical violence, though that’s not entirely absent. Rather, the more insidious abuse here is a kind of denial, a refusal to reveal the world and all its wonders to a child for fear of abandonment, and so deny that child the chance to truly be in their element.
This review and more like it in the October 2022 issue of Locus.
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