Charles Payseur Reviews Short Fiction: Samovar, Strange Horizons, Drabblecast, and Amazon: Into Shadow

Samovar 10/24/22
Strange Horizons 10/17/22, 10/31/22, 11/7/22
Drabblecast 11/22
Amazon: Into Shadow 11/22

Samovar also came out with an issue in Octo­ber, featuring two stories and poem presented bilingually. Mónica Bustos’s “Warm Beds”, translated by Analía Villagra, weaves together the fates of three people who come to exist only at different times of the day, all while sharing the same room, and same bed. While they never really interact, they become aware of one another and, for some of them, rather obsessed with the people they feel while disembodied. They are all caught acting out something they cannot escape, all leading to a meeting that will cast one of them as victim, one as fugitive, and one as accomplice. Who ends up in what role, though, is something Bustos waits to reveal, and in the play of fate and fiction there’s a lot to dig into and take away from this captivating story.

Samovar’s sibling publication Strange Horizons closed out October with a special issue centered on music. In KT Bryski’s “Folk Hero Motifs in Tales Told by the Dead”, music comes out of hope, dreams, and stories in the shadow of an almost mythic figure in the land of the dead – a trickster storyteller named Skullbone, who disap­peared long ago into a Maw from which there is no escape. Except that there’s a dead man who claims to have done just that, and further claims that he saw Skullbone in the Maw, and that the hero still plans on returning. Bryski explores stagnation and endings through this tour of the land of the dead, where the narrator, Haydn, has to choose whether to believe the newcomer about this new story, and what it might mean for all impossible things, like the music death has stilled, that might sound something like hope even against the cold ending of life and the infinite unknown beyond it. Music resounds as well in Sydney Sackett’s poem “After a line from Bob Dylan’s ‘Changing of the Guards”’, which builds from the structures and themes of the mentioned song to imagine Alice’s adventures outside of Wonderland, after the setting was swept with violence and unrest. The narrator is a refugee, someone escaping from the arbitrary and terrible turmoil of conflict, hoping to outlast the tyrants and chaos and madness of war. It’s an effective melding of sources, haunting and pow­erfully captured. Moving into November, Adam Fell uses loss and change to shattering effect in “SORRY I DON’T FEEL LIKE TALKING ABOUT GOLF TODAY”. There is a sense of rot and decay in the lines, confronting readers with a world constantly in conflict, not on the edge of extinction but in a wave of it, a pit of it, sinking deeper and deeper toward oblivion. And yet above that there is a veneer of the serene, of something that could be peace but is much more likely the final peace of death, stretching larger and larger. Fell’s moving piece unfolds under a title that shows a fraying, a need to confront grim reality when the rest of the world’s priorities seem fundamentally broken.

Checking in with Drabblecast, and November opened with the chilling “The Tenant” by Sarah E. Stevens, which explores a world where advanced aliens came to Earth only to make it more corrupt and authoritarian, presumably so that more humans would be pressured into giv­ing up time in their bodies to these alien Tenants. Without it, most people can’t get by, but the cost of hosting an alien is more than monetary, and the family the story features has to deal with the loss of time together, the loss of autonomy and privacy and peace of mind. Stevens does unsettling work in showing both how terrible, violating, and ter­rifying the process is, as well how little choice people ultimately have in opting in to it.

Amazon released a themed collection of seven stories, Into Shadow, in November. It opens with “The Garden” by Tomi Champion-Adeyemi, which features Leina, a woman following her mother’s journal on a strange journey through the Amazon to a special place where magic is still very much alive. To guide her through the physical landscape, though, she has Angelo, and together the two start to get to know each other, and challenge one another in interesting ways. Champion-Adeyemi blends poetry into the story, showing Leina’s inner journey even as she’s changing from car to train and more in her push toward the promise of the garden. It’s a quiet story but deep with personal history, hurt, and a need for healing, and it’s beautifully told. Alix E. Harrow tells a much bloodier story in “The Six Deaths of the Saint”, which finds a girl who is turned into a weapon – a monster to her enemies, a hero to her people, a tool to her prince. She embraces the roles eagerly, happy to have been saved from sickness and poverty, and yet as she dives deeper not only into violence but a cycle of failure, death, and repetition, she starts to see, and be shown, that there’s more to life than service and debt. Harrow does sharp work in exploring a magical orbit of greed and loss and sacrifice, and what it takes to achieve escape velocity.

Recommended Stories:
“Warm Beds”, Mónica Bustos (Samovar 10/22)

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 January 2023 issue of Locus.

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