SFM: Howey, Yeh, Bolander, Ford, Sullivan, Smith

Short Fiction Monday: There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few stories we’ve recently read that we wanted you to know about.

“Peace in Amber” by Hugh Howey (2014, $1.99 Kindle, $3.95 Audible)

“Peace in Amber” is Hugh Howey’s tribute to Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, a surrealistic novel in which Vonnegut explores his personal memories of the bombing of Dresden. Like Slaughterhouse-Five, “Peace in Amber” is also a personal reflection: Hugh Howey’s experiences on September 11, 2001, when he witnessed the collapse of the World Trade Center from the deck of the yacht he was captaining.

Like Vonnegut’s story, “Peace in Amber” is jumbled and bizarre, with scenes that shift perspective and jump around in time. Billy Pilgrim and Montana Wildhack are there, in the zoo. Howey uses their segments to philosophize about living our lives in the past, present and future.

Hugh Howey and his wife Amber Lyda (for whom the story is titled) narrate Brilliance Audio’s version of “Peace in Amber.” You can also purchase an ebook version for $1.99. If you haven’t already, I’d recommend reading Slaughterhouse-Five first. The homage to that classic is a major part of what makes “Peace in Amber” so successful. ~Kat Hooper


“Cottage Country” by David K. Yeh (May 2016, free at Apex Magazine, Kindle magazine issue).

Pete, a solitary man who prefers to live off the grid, buys four hundred acres of land in northern Ontario with his inheritance from his grandfather, and builds a cabin where he lives with his rescue dog, Jackson. One winter day, Pete is out exploring his land when Jackson disappears. Pete soon finds his tracks, which are joined by a second pair of tracks that initially look like a child’s … but the tracks don’t look quite human. Helped by his memories of discussions about the dangers of New World sidhe with his grandfather, and by a tailless fox that gives him some guidance and advice, Pete finally finds his dog, unable to move, at the foot of a lightning-blasted hawthorn. Pete needs to find a way to save his dog and deal with the angry sidhe that threatens him and everything that lives on his land.

This tale is set in our world, but one in which snowmobiles and jet contrails and dogs rescued from animal shelters exist side by side with sidhe who fairy-ride your animals, and wildlife that unexpectedly speak to humans. David K. Yeh weaves Pete’s recollections of his past relationship with his grandfather into Pete’s current experiences, drawing some thought-provoking parallels between the events and characters of the past and those of the present. I sensed some hidden wounds in Pete’s past, and a sense of loss and displacement haunts all of the characters, in one way or another, but the tone is lightened by Pete’s kindheartedness and the roots he is putting down in his new home.

The end notes to this story indicate that a sequel to “Cottage Country,” called “The Bog Man,” appears online in Electric Spec. I can’t wait to read it. ~Tadiana Jones


And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead by Brooke Bolander (2015, free at Lightspeed Magazine, Kindle magazine issue). Nominated for a 2015 Nebula award and 2016 Hugo award (novelette).

Any story that features the line, “Who would have thought Hell had pink flamingos?” sounds like it has a healthy amount of levity, right? In the case of And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead, it’s not so much levity as a rare break in the fast-paced, ill-tempered string of profanities that came before.

It’s not that this novelette doesn’t contain story, rather that the protagonist of this tale has a very distinct ― and rather colourful ― narrative voice. This holds true throughout the story. The main character’s bravado, pessimism, and liberal use of curses remain a convincing testament to her as a person and a character. Throw in a helping of cyborg-related racism and a dash of mobsters, and And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead is what you get.

I enjoyed this story for a few main reasons. First, I like that there was enough backstory given to keep me satisfied without it dominating the word count. Second, the strong consistent character of the protagonist, for me, solidified her as a person worth reading about. Last, although the foul language may absolutely be seen as gratuitous, I had a good laugh at some of the more creative turns of phrase.

Overall I found And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead enjoyable if not particularly groundbreaking. ~Skye Walker

Editor’s note: This novelette was also reviewed in our May 2, 2016 SFM feature by four (!) other reviewers, an instructive example of how widely opinions on one work can vary.


The Thyme Fiend by Jeffrey Ford (2015, free at Tor.com, Kindle version)

The Thyme Fiend is a poignant ghost story/murder mystery set in Ohio farming country in 1915. Emmett is a 14 year old boy who sees terrifying visions and ghosts in his dreams unless he drinks thyme tea before going to bed. (Thyme tea or thyme sachets under the pillow are an actual old folk remedy for nightmares.) One day Emmett rides his bike to an abandoned farm to explore. When he throws a rock in the farm’s well, it makes no splash. Emmett looks into the well and sees a skull at the bottom.

When the skeleton is pulled from the well, it’s found to be the body of Jimmy Tooth, a handsome but simple-minded young man who had disappeared a few months before and was thought to have left town. Arriving home late with his father, Emmett doesn’t get his dose of thyme tea that night, and demons haunt his dreams. In the morning, his terrifying visions continue:

When two bony hands clawed through the fabric of the air, Emmett shoved the handful of thyme from the kitchen garden into his mouth and chewed, his teeth sparking off grains of dirt, the green peppery taste of the herb mixing with his saliva.

Sharp skeleton fingers pried an opening through which the boy saw fire and heard distant voices crying for mercy. The corpse of Jimmy Tooth stepped through that hole into the day, left foot missing, still dressed in the shreds of shirt and jeans. It moved toward Emmett unevenly from foot to tibia end and back, lurching forward with clear intent. The boy chewed faster as it approached and faster still. After two more steps, the grim skeleton evaporated, leaving no sign that it had come for him.

From that point Emmett needs to eat or smoke thyme at least twice daily as well as at night, to keep visions of Jimmy’s skeleton at bay, which leads the townspeople to deride him as the “thyme fiend.” When Emmett’s supply of thyme runs short, Jimmy Tooth makes his move … but what does Jimmy want from Emmett?

Although The Thyme Fiend isn’t a complicated tale, it has a few surprises for the reader, and it’s very well told. Jeffrey Ford uses a spare writing style which fits the early 20th century rural setting and young Emmett’s point of view. Emmett’s somewhat difficult relationship with his father, in particular, is a strong point of this novelette, and seems very true to the time, with both casual physical punishment and a love that the characters can’t quite articulate. A gift of a used bicycle constitutes an apology from his father, gladly accepted by Emmett. The drought- ridden land and the interactions between the characters are very realistically described, an effective contrast to Emmett’s nightmarish visions. ~Tadiana Jones


“The Viscount and the Witch” by Michael J. Sullivan (2011, free Kindle version, $2.95 Audible)

Fans of Michael J. Sullivan’s RIYRIA CHRONICLES will not want to miss this prequel story. I haven’t read the RIYRIA novels yet, but this story makes me want to. It tells how Royce and Hadrian, who at this point have known each other for less than a year, are travelling along a road when they meet an ugly woman who needs some help. Hadrian wants to help her, Royce doesn’t. By the end, both young men learn an important lesson, and they meet a man who will obviously play a part in the stories to come.

This tale is light and engaging and the protagonists are likeable. I could tell there were some in-jokes that I didn’t get, and I’m sure fans of the series will enjoy those. The audio version, which is 46 minutes long, is nicely narrated by Tim Gerard Reynolds. ~Kat Hooper


“Kingmaker” by Lyndsay Smith (2015, free at Tor.com, Kindle version)

This short story is an engaging (if not deep) look at a larger world Smith is building. “Kingmaker” is almost wholly devoted to its main character, Vera, as she fully embraces her role as merchant’s daughter turned expert spy. The reader gets a solid characterization of Vera from “Kingmaker,” perhaps to the detriment of the larger story here.

By the end of the story there is a distinct sense that “Kingmaker” belongs with more stories from the same world, rather than as a stand-alone. think that if I had the context of other tales Smith has told or is going to tell, many of the aspects of “Kingmaker” would have held more weight. As it stands, a lack of gravity took some of the shine out of it for me.

I enjoyed “Kingmaker” because I could connect with the main character, which is something that is important to me when I am reading. The plot was clear and logical, but overall it was missing a weightiness I was hoping to find right through to the end. ~ Skye Walker

Editor’s note: “Kingmaker” is a prelude to Lyndsay Smith’s 2015 fantasy espionage novel Dreamstrider.


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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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SKYE WALKER, on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (but hanging around since 2007), is from Canada, where she is currently a University student studying Anthropology and Communications. When she isn’t reading or doing school work (or reading for school work) she can be found in one of three places: in a tent in the woods, amid a sea of craft supplies on a floor somewhere, or completing the task of finishing her ‘Must Watch’ movie list. Skye was practically born with a love of fantasy and science fiction (as her name might suggest). These days her favourite authors include Ursula Le Guin, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Chris Wooding. Skye is in fact a Jedi (we know you were waiting for it).

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2 comments

  1. I did, in fact, read the sequel to “Cottage Country” late last night. “The Bog Man” is a straight-up ghost story, much less nuanced than “Cottage Country.” I would give it 2.5 stars, but then horror isn’t generally my cup of tea.

  2. Wow, so many choices this week!

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