Welcome to the fourth post in my Short Fiction Time series! This series will include both reviews of short fiction and space dedicated to thoughts and discussions surrounding it/prompted by it.
This time, I will:
- review all the short fiction I read in April, 14 stories (…yes I ended up reading a lot of short stories) which include 5 Hugo Award finalists.
- review a YA anthology
- talk about my current relationship with YA books and what said YA anthology made me understand about it
I read a lot of short fiction this month (short stories are so underrated and yet are doing so much and I love this format a lot) so I decided to implement emoji tags for clarity:
- the 2020 Hugo finalists I review in this post are marked with a 🚀
- while I recommend most of these, my new favorites are marked with 🌠
St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid by C.L. Polk (Tor.com): a bittersweet sapphic story involving magical beekepers that has an atmosphere of inevitability to it, the cost of it all looming in the distance until the end. It only makes sense that tarot reading is featured in it – so much of this story in some way involves fate – and that its title names three saints closely associated with bees. Bees as a legacy that keeps drawing you in. There’s something mysterious about it, too, because the story doesn’t tell you anything more than what you need to understand it; it doesn’t have one word out of place. I really liked it.
Escaping Dr. Markoff by Gabriela Santiago (The Dark): sometimes if you explore the motivations of the unimportant side character you get something far more interesting that the original story! This is about the horror movie Female Assistant who is in love with the Mad Scientist, and it plays with these stock characters by following someone whose only characteristic is usually the obsession for and the total devotion to the male Mad Scientist. And maybe, if you give a character the space to be something more, the story might break in very interesting ways (involving erotic and queer twists, because why not). Fun and meta and really smart – I’d probably get even more out of this if I knew anything about horror movies, but we know that’s not possible – and wow, was that An Ending.
I found it because of Hadeer’s wrap-up, so thank you!
The Terracotta Bride by Zen Cho (not for free online): not my favorite from Zen Cho, also because I was told it was an f/f romance, and while it has sapphic characters, I wouldn’t describe it as such – not like I would with If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again. Still, it was a lovely read. It’s set in hell, where the main character – a Malayan girl named Siew Tsin – has been forced to marry a man; now the man has taken yet another wife, a terracotta wife. It’s a light, smart story about personhood and waking up from a paralyzed state of mind, with really interesting details in the worldbuilding and a lot of heart; I wish I could have had more of a sense of who the characters were.
A Catalog of Storms by Fran Wilde (Uncanny) 🚀: about a world in which the line between emotion and the weather is very thin, and maybe natural disasters are something more than a natural disaster, and sometimes the people are part of the weather and the weather is people. The lines in here are air-thin and it’s a story about family, about leaving or staying – and sometimes those things are their own kind of storm too. Don’t expect it to make too much sense, it’s one of those ambiguous/symbolic stories I talked about in my last short fiction time. I really liked the writing and the weirdness of it all, but it didn’t stay with me emotionally.
As the Last I May Know by S.L. Huang (Tor.com) 🚀: in this world, to use a weapon of mass destruction, the president has to kill a child himself.
This story follows the child, Nyma, and it’s about costs, the necessity of making something unimaginably difficult vs the overwhelming pressure that wars can put on a country, and as a story it doesn’t give you a clear answer about which path is worse. It has some beautiful poetry in it as well. The worldbuilding is very vague (and let’s just say that calling something “the Order” won’t help me take it seriously), but for the most part that wasn’t a problem. Powerful, hearbreaking, and thought-provoking.
The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny) 🚀: so far I haven’t found any of Sarah Pinsker’s short fiction to be particularly memorable, even though all of them are solid stories, and this one was no exception – a horror novelette about a mystery author who decides to write her new novel in an isolated cabin. The horror comes from a very unexpected place given the set-up (the premise sounds cliché? It’s not), which was clever, but I didn’t find this creepy at all – it was kind of boring, but horror is very hit-or-miss for me. Mostly a story about the importance of a good assistant.
The Archronology of Love by Caroline M. Yoachim (Lightspeed) 🌠🚀: new favorite. I love reading about space archaeology – the whole “the past of the future” set-up really appeals to me – and this was also a very emotional story on a human level. About grief and the subjectivity of memory, what is lost in the act of remembering, the love and understanding that are gained, the pain that slowly loses its edge but never quite stops hurting; about how destruction is so often tied with discovery. Everything related to the Chronicle technology was so interesting, and so was the answer to the mystery (mysterious mass death!). Also, women in science and side relevant gay couple.
Away With the Wolves by Sarah Gailey (Uncanny) 🚀: I thought I would never read anything by Sarah Gailey again after how angry one of their short stories made me last year (STET, which tried to tackle a heavy, ecology-related topic with so much ignorance it was appalling) but since they got nominated for the Hugo again, here I am. And… I finally liked something written by this author! It was my fifth try. Anyway, this is a story from the Uncanny special issue about disabled people in fantasy, and it’s pretty much about accessibility for a werewolf who has chronic pain in her human form, which is a great concept. It had one (…and then two) really heartwarming female friendships, a happy ending, and the atmosphere was really good as well. Really straightforward, and sometimes that’s exactly what a story needs to be.
Water: A History by KJ Kabza (Tor.com): we don’t get many stories about elderly queer characters, much less in space! This is about an old sapphic woman on an arid planet in which water is the most important thing and going outside the colony is dangerous. About the importance of intergenerational friendships and the risks that make life worth living. It hits in a very specific way when read while on lockdown after a particularly arid spring (that’s why you should research stories before reading them, Acqua), but I didn’t find anything about it particularly remarkable aside from that and I don’t think it will stay with me.
Always the Harvest by Yoon Ha Lee (in the Upgraded anthology, reprinted on Lightspeed) 🌠: Hello! I’m in love. Who knew biopunk horror could be heartwarming? Anyway, this is a weird, sweet romance between two outcasts, and it’s set in a creepy space city that rearranges itself cyclically, has a strong preference for well-intentioned body horror, and is the perfect setting for a story that involves replacing body parts. Gorgeous writing featuring artistic murder, the usual asides of weird for the sake of alliteration that I love so much about Lee’s descriptions (“a pipe, rattling as of librarian lizards realphabetizing their movements”) and the occasional very specific and cursed™ detail (of course tentacles are “ever-popular” as a replacement). Another new favorite; I will never not love stories about cities.
Of Roses and Kings by Melissa Marr (Tor.com): queer, fucked up twist on Alice in Wonderland with lots of murder and various other questionable things, because what’s morality in such a place? It really doesn’t hold back and I couldn’t have asked for a better ending, but I have to say that, as with all books that try to make Alice in Wonderland darker, a lot of whimsy is lost in the process, and I miss it. Still here for the unapologetically toxic stories about loyalty, especially since I don’t often get a sapphic version!
(Very predictably of me, I always love when we do. Please give me novels like that!)
Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny): an older story and a Hugo nominee back in 2017, because who said that newest stories should get all the spotlight. Anyway, this is as much about a supernatural (phoenix-like) creature’s revenge as it is about the way stories are always centered and making excuses for rich white men. My overall opinion is that it’s really well-written (as usual for Brooke Bolander) but that there’s such a thing as too straightforward and unsubtle in a short story, and Our Talon Can Crush Galaxies really sits on that limit.
If You Take My Meaning by Charlie Jane Anders (Tor.com) – you probably already know about my new favorite book The City in the Middle of the Night (if not: here’s the review!), and this is set in the same universe. This novelette isn’t going to make any sense without having read the novel, but since I recently did, this was the epilogue I wanted the book to have even though I knew it wouldn’t fit, and it was perfect. The integration with the Gelet is in progress! People mess up and try to reach for the way to right certain wrongs, which also includes more mistakes! More direct digs at Xiosphanti culture and more subtly at America’s worst points! (That line about Xiosphanti believing in repression way more than was healthy or realistic… yes.) So many things are said about culture, understanding, and the importance of community vs the corruption and relative irrelevance of the people in power. And finally we also get some insight into Alyssa’s thoughts, as one of my main disappointments had been that by the end of the book I still felt like I didn’t understand her at all.
Meanwhile I’m wondering whether what this novelette said about love a certain trio is meant to be interpreted as polyamory, a really strong friendship, or neither – because who needs to categorize things in structures that are so singularly unhelpful once one has gone through integration? Anyway, I love that for them and love that they have their priorities in order. (What’s this kind of arrangement for, if not to sleep in a pile like cats? I approve.)
Why They Watch Us Burn by Elizabeth May (Toil & Trouble) – women accused of witchery find power in each other while in their prison; I listened to it on scribd. It wasn’t bad, but I wanted it to be something different from what it was once it turned out to involve religious abuse, because that aspect was used as a prop for the message (an effective-if-unnuanced exploration of how the not-like-other-girls line of thinking is misogynistic and contributes to victim blaming) instead of being explored like something in its own right. I don’t want to read a portrayal of forced penance if you’re not going to do anything with it – I’ve already had enough of that.
This month’s anthology was Hungry Hearts: 13 Tales of Food and Love, edited by Elsie Chapman and Caroline Tung Richmond. I read it for free thanks to the scribd free trial: I chose it out of all the anthologies on my TBR because it was the most expensive (12€ for an ebook? No thank you) and as it turns out, that was a good choice – for all the wrong reasons, the main one known as “at least I didn’t pay for this”.
But let me explain why.
Let’s say you’re an editor with some very interesting anthology ideas, and you’re fascinated by these concepts:
🍜 an anthology of interconnected stories that all take place in the same neighborhood at the same time, in which each story is full of tiny references to the others and forms a seamless web that enhances each story’s meaning;
🍜 an anthology that spans across genres, from contemporary romance and horror to gang rivalries and ghost stories and superhero tales, in which stories have little to do with each other in tone and themes and only have a tiny thread (here, food) to tie them together
Then, please, don’t be like Hungry Hearts. Only choose one of the two. If this had stopped at the first of the two points, if it had been an anthology of interconnected contemporary stories all involving food in some way, it could have been so good. I can only describe the result of trying to do cross-genre connected stories as a complete mess.
It doesn’t help that the individual quality of the stories themselves was questionable. While it’s true that I’m realizing that this kind of YA doesn’t work for me as much as it used to, most of these stories were incredibly bland and couldn’t even be saved by the food descriptions.
The only story I loved was The Grand Ishq Adventure by Sandhya Menon, a contemporary story about a girl who decides to go to restaurants alone to face her anxiety, which was wonderful in every aspect, from a beginning that draws you in (the voice in this story was amazing) to a delicious continuation and an ending with a sweet twist. There were other stories that worked, like the bittersweet Rain by Sangu Mandanna, the fiery revenge story Sugar and Spite by Rin Chupeco, and Panadería ~ Pastelería by Anna-Marie McLemore, which was like the dessert at the end of a meal. All of these were contemporaries or contemporaries with a slight magical twist, so that I could believe they coexisted in the same universe, and were well-written. All the other stories were either a boring blur or completely outside of the tone of the rest of the anthology.
I think the editors were going for something that felt not only like a story made by many interconnected parts but also a meal with many courses, and so were trying to get as much variety inside of it as it was possible, but the result was dissonant and messy.
There’s still a lot to love about this, from the diversity to the food descriptions (you really can’t go wrong with those) and especially the celebration of foods that mainstream white, western American society would consider “too weird”, but apart from these things, most of this was forgettable.
My rating: ★★
About Me and the YA Age Range
While reading Hungry Hearts, I started wondering if my lack of interest in it was also tied to me being tired of stories about high schoolers, which I started noticing while trying out series on Netflix. I don’t think I would have liked Hungry Hearts at any point of my life, but even in the stories I liked – with the exclusion of Sandhya Menon’s – I struggled to feel interested in anything they talked about. This is usually not a problem I have with short fiction.
But I do still like YA books, so this doesn’t make sense! I thought.
Then I looked at my reading so far this year, and:
of all the 45 books I’ve read so far this year, only 5 were YA.
I didn’t expect this at all. And yes, that’s counting Hungry Hearts. It’s not like I’m not liking them, not necessarily (there was a 5 star book!), but interestingly most of them were audiobooks, because YA books are easier to follow and less intimidating for me when I started to really try out the format this year. Would I have read any YA had I not wanted to try audiobooks?
I was surprised to find this out, because this was in no way a conscious choice; my TBR is still 50% YA and 50% adult, I’m just avoiding the YA books without even realizing I was doing so.
In a way, I thought this wouldn’t happen to me. I spent half of my teen years being a mostly-YA reader and following reviewers way older than me – way older than 20 – who read mostly YA; in a way, I grew up knowing that while it prioritizes (or at least, it should prioritize) teens, YA is in fact for everyone, and that sometimes a book’s age range depends more on the publisher’s ideas about effective marketing than on anything about its content. A lot of YA SFF is following characters who are so clearly aged down for marketing reasons that it gets kind of ridiculous.
Still, here I am, 20, tired of YA and yet not even noticing that until I tried some TV shows. But I did DNF several YA books this year, too – I just didn’t think much of it. I’m realizing that the main reason I keep coming back to YA even though it appeals to me less and less is that I don’t quite know where to find what I want in adult fiction, especially the non-SFF part of it, which I should try to explore more.
Also, it’s relevant to mention that in my experience YA-focused content gets a lot of attention on blog posts compared to adult SFF.
So, what does this mean?
- my main response, since I am who I am, is that my TBR could definitely handle a cut! It makes no sense for it to be half YA when YA books aren’t even a quarter of what I read.
- I will definitely still be reading YA, at the rate that feels natural to me – I’m not the kind of person who thinks excluding an entire age range from their reading on principle is a good idea. It’s just that the rate at which I reach for YA is currently really low.
- I probably should face the truth and start considering myself an adult SFF reviewer instead of someone who reviews that and YA in equal amounts, as if I were stuck in 2018. (Thinking back, a lot of my YA reading in 2019 was due to ARCs. Not requesting/barely requesting ARCs anymore is doing a lot for making me understand what I actually want to read and I strongly recommend it.)
Have you read any of these? Has your relationship with an age range category changed over time?