Charles Payseur Reviews Short Fiction: Zooscape, Anathema, and Escape Pod
Escape Pod 12/15/22, 12/22/22, 12/29/22
December is always a busy month for short fiction releases, and 2022 was no exception, with a number of publications slipping in new gifts to readers during the bustle of end-of-year festivities. Among them was Zooscape, whose December issue includes the stunning “The Huli Jing of Chinatown” by Wen Wen Yang, which finds a fox spirit in America mostly passing for human, living in a building with other folkloric beings and generally working for her friends – and her hungers. She’s drawn to humans, both for intimacy as well as a need to feed, but when she meets Jack, she hopes that he’s one that will satisfy her appetites for more than food while also restoring some of her faith in a humanity that often hunts and exploits her people. Yang explores human prejudices and violence, keenly observing the lines of risk and yearning for safety that unite – and divide – the narrator and the humans she moves around. Amy Clare Fontaine’s “Where Does It Hurt?” is another work that explores the hurt and hope that ties humans and supernatural beings together through a focus on a character getting over a breakup with a werewolf. Or, if not getting over the breakup, finding in it something powerful for herself – a new way of embracing her desires and the wild freedom that she knew through her relationship, but without the pain and baggage of what she went through and survived. Fontaine’s attention to agency and authority makes the story pop, and avoids what could have been a depressing ending to deliver something more uplifting and affirming.
December marked the first time Anathema put out an entire issue of speculative poetry, and for fans of the form, it’s a must-read sampling across different genres and styles. The issue opens with Jessica Cho’s “Incarnate”, a poem flush with feeling and the imagery of seasonal change linked to the emotions experienced in the rush of a new relationship – cooling somewhat with the passage of time but never quite extinguishing. The narrator relates to a second-person “you” who seems larger than and different from them, like a force of nature or the world itself. And as this layered relationship between the two moves through the seasons of weather, they cycle closer together, their feelings growing deeper and stronger with the cold. Cho does careful and stirring work, leaving readers primed for the next cycle, the next year, the next adventure. Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe also evokes relationships and cycles in “Clay”, in which a narrator seeks to sculpt for themselves a new body that will fit them better – that will be perfect. As they create, however, and are moved by the act of molding the clay, they find the result isn’t anything like they expected, and yet… Ajeigbe interrogates the idea of perfection, the preconceptions of objectivity that it embodies, where perfection can be measured and universally acknowledged. Instead, the poem caresses and nurtures the truth that perfection and imperfection do not limit people’s capacity to appreciate, love, or value what is real and speaks to their heart.
Escape Pod closed out 2022 with a trio of original stories, including Heather Kilbourn’s defiant “Through the Mirror”. In it, Orca is a Mirror, a copied consciousness that can act as an AI for assisting people and systems in a vast human civilization stretching across many solar systems. With that many people, though, there are bound to be some rather fringe sects, and Orca finds itself pitted against one such, enlisting the aid of an unlikely accomplice to try to save a planet of people and prevent a religiously authoritarian regime from spreading. Kilbourn provides enough details to keep things moving quickly but doesn’t get bogged down with worldbuilding, providing a tight pacing, fun feel, and lots of charm.
“The Huli Jing of Chinatown”, Wen Wen Yang (Zooscape 12/22)
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 March 2023 issue of Locus.
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