I don’t often write about short fiction I like, or, I don’t talk about it as much as I’d want. The main reason I don’t do that, the main reason I don’t review every short story I read, is that I feel like no one really cares.
But I do. I am here to have fun and write the kind of content that makes me happy, which is short fiction reviews, even though I’m not even sure I’m that good at writing them. My goal for 2019 is to read what makes me happy and not what I feel like I should read, and I want to do the same with posts.
So here’s what I read lately! They’re all free online, so go check them out if they sound interesting to you.
Birch Daughter by Sara Norja (Fireside Fiction) – ★★★
A Finnish-inspired story about a girl and her adventures in a world in which the fair folk is always whispering and singing, you can make bargains with the matriarch of bears, and people can turn into trees. It’s sweet and dreamlike and it has a cute f/f romance – the main character falls in love with the bears’ beekeeper – but the characterization was… absent and I felt very little. However, I liked the writing, and I will always appreciate magical stories (it felt like a fairytale would feel) about f/f couples who get a happy ending.
Bargains by the Slant-Light by Cassandra Khaw (Apex Magazine) – ★★★★½
If you’re looking for dark, creepy, disturbing stories, Cassandra Khaw never disappoints. This one is really short, and it’s about a woman making bargains with a demon, graphic dissection, and what it means to love. Love as pain and love as monstrous, even more than the only actual “monster” that there is in this story. As I always have a weakness for stories that explore the dark sides of romantic love and as I find Khaw’s writing hypnotic, this story worked for me.
The New Heart by Natalia Theodoridou (Fireside Fiction) – ★★★
A woman who is a heart maker – she sculpts then sells new hearts – meets the woman she has been in love while in school, Sereena. And Sereena is asking for a new heart. I wasn’t familiar with this author before and this was an interesting story, but mostly because of the premise and concept (new hearts, and what they can do) and the beautiful writing. The story itself felt somewhat underdeveloped and I felt like it had the potential to be more than what it actually ended up being. Anyway, this story has the three things I like the most in short fiction – great concept you won’t find in novels, beautiful writing, and gay – so I’m not really disappointed.
Do Not Look Back, My Lion by Alix E. Harrow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) – ★★★★
This was really interesting. It’s set in the kind of queer-accepting matriarchal society I like to read about, it’s a fantasy story about loyalty, war and family, and it’s f/f. But I have to say that I struggled with picturing everything and everyone and the worldbuilding, while really intriguing, was maybe… too much for a story so short? As in, I see a lot of potential here and the length didn’t do it justice. But this did undo the “damage” one of this author’s previous stories (which I didn’t like) did – I’m really interested in checking out Harrow’s longer fiction now. Her debut The Ten Thousand Doors of January will be out this year.
The Cook by C.L. Clark (Uncanny Magazine) – ★★★½
Another new-to-me author! One could argue this very short story has no substance and barely any plot, but I don’t agree – I find stories that focus on the aspects of fantasy we rarely see in the actual fantasy books subversive and this was a very interesting way to look at a fantasy story. I say “we rarely see this” not only because it’s a story about two women of color falling in love, but also because it’s a story about a fantasy war… in which we don’t see the war. We don’t know anything about the war, and it’s intentional. The focus is on something else, and as fantasy tends to be very focused on the violence, I really liked this choice. It reminded me of the way Aliette de Bodard writes sci-fi – there’s a war, or there’s been a war, but the characters, their relationships, the more “domestic” aspects are what we’re focusing on. Another thing I appreciated here were the food descriptions – it’s set in an inn – and I think I would have loved this if it hadn’t been so short. It ended up feeling rushed to me.
The Imitation Sea by Lora Gray (Shimmer) – ★★★★½
This one needs trigger warnings for suicide, death of a gay character and mentions of substance abuse.
I’m not sure where to start with this one. Maybe with the fact that it’s one of the most beautifully written things I’ve read in a while? So many details (the sights, the sounds, the smells!), so much emotion, and perfect symbolism. How have I not heard of this writer before?
This is a surprisingly subtle story about familial abuse, told in second person. You are the boy who has been in love with another boy for years – a boy whose parents are forcing an “angel” on. The “angel” is the sci-fi twist of the story: it’s a mechanical object that is always monitoring the person. Protecting them, yes, but from what? From everything that the boy’s family considers bad, of course. As this is a queer story, you probably know what I’m talking about, and that this is a metaphor for families forcing their “religion” (read: bigotry) on children. It’s also a story about trying to fix what’s left behind in wake of a tragedy, when you know that what you’ll get will be only a pale imitation of what once was. Haunting, and if I’m always hesitant to recommend sad queer stories, I have to say that I can’t not recommend this either, if you feel like you can read this.
The Oracle and the Sea by Megan Arkenberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) – ★★★★
This was a… difficult one to go through. Mostly because – like the one before – it’s a very sad story, this time about a country living under a dictatorship. It’s so atmospheric you can feel the sea, the salt, the bitterness. You can feel the weight of hopelessness it has, how it talks about being an artist, about being pretty much powerless. And it’s beautiful in its own way, if you can call “beautiful” something that shouldn’t be this relevant. Also: the main character is bisexual.
Everything Under Heaven by Anya Ow (Uncanny Magazine) – ★★★½
It took me a while to get this one – when I got to the end, my reaction was “…and?” – and I’m still not completely sure I got it, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. On the surface, it’s a story about two women, one who wants to hunt dragons and one who wants to cook them, as they travel together and maybe fall in love. However, I think it’s more of a story about culture and the different ways people can express love. I really liked the food descriptions in here, and I always appreciate stories that talk about the ties between food and culture (which is the main reason I’m really anticipating this year’s YA Hungry Hearts anthology).
A Note On Short Fiction Reviews
- One could read this post and think, “Acqua, it’s great that all short stories you read this month were three stars and up!”, but that’s not really true. I choose not to review the short stories I don’t like: no one needs me to repeat many times “I didn’t get this” in a post – because yes, most short stories I end up not liking are short stories I didn’t get; it’s uncommon for me to end up thinking I know where you were going with this and I think you messed it up.
- One could read this post and think, “Acqua, it’s great that all short stories you read this week but one were queer! Queer short stories must be really common” and then they wouldn’t be that wrong. Yes, I look for them, but short fiction is far more diverse than any genre of novels. On one hand, I love this, on the other, is just another sign that publishing can do better but is still behind – and I know that, sadly, there are some concepts publishers still see as a “risk”, because “novels about that wouldn’t sell”.
Have you read any good short fiction lately?