SHORTS: Kusano, Swanwick, Howard, Tanzer

Our weekly sampling of free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are some of the stories that caught our attention this week. 

“Next Station, Shibuya” by Iori Kusano (Jan. 2017, free at Apex, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)

A poetic little story (under 4000 words) narrated by a city (or perhaps a city’s local spirit/deity) in second-person address toward Nagiko, a resident in whom the city has taken a particular interest.  I really liked the small details by which the city shows its love of Nagiko:

As you walked home from the station I made sure every streetlight above you was lit … There is always enough space for you at the standing noodle counters and a sweet head of foam on your nama-beer. You never wait more than a moment for any train. In every library the books you need fall into your hands …

There’s a lovely cadence in the city’s voice and our narrator is a sharp observer. The story unfolds in smooth and almost inevitable fashion given what we’re told, and it leaves the reader a bit at sea, wondering at the tone:  the city speaks of love, but is it a healthy one?  I quite liked it all, start to finish. ~Bill Capossere

 

Nagiko, a Japanese grad student studying “literary geography,” is researching the Toyko-area locations connected to various literary works. As she travels around the city, and to and from her apartment, she’s constantly being watched by the being narrating the story, which is insinuating itself into her life, showing its love for her in ways like lighting all the streetlights above her head, and somehow changing her very nature. There’s a feeling of dread in the air, an undeniable impression of stalking, despite the narrator’s professions of love and concern.

“Next Station, Shibuya” envelops the reader in a Japanese setting, culture and language. I was highlighting and Google searching Japanese words like crazy while I was reading this, but I loved the cultural immersion. I do wish we knew more about what will become of Nagiko in the end, but otherwise I enjoyed this short story. It’s both lovely and subtly creepy. ~Tadiana Jones


“House of Dreams” by Michael Swanwick (2013, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

“House of Dreams” is the fourth story in the ongoing saga of Franz-Karl Ritter, a Prussian military man now working for Britain’s intelligence agency in an alternate version of early 20th century Europe. Ritter and his wolf Freki, with whom Ritter can mind-meld as needed, are sent to Austro-German-Bavarian territory on a spying mission. This story begins with an odd scene in which Ritter is being questioned about his mission by a vagrant. It shortly is disclosed that Ritter has been captured and is being interrogated by two alienists who are using “dream therapy” to extract information and attempt to turn Ritter’s sympathies. They repeatedly immerse him in dream situations where Ritter is tempted to disclose his instructions and his local contact, or otherwise break down. Freki is loose and in hiding nearby, but Ritter is afraid to call on him for help in this situation.

Although all of the stories in this Tor.com series have their bleak aspects, “House of Dreams” struck me as the most somber one yet, as Ritter has an increasingly difficult time protecting his mind and his mission from these two ruthlessly invasive doctors, who can use both illusion and mind control against him. These experiences do, however, humanize the normally impassive Ritter. While the story ends on an interesting and somewhat humorous note, I did wish that more had been explained about Ritter’s mission. ~Tadiana Jones


“Seven Salt Tears” by Kat Howard (Jan. 2017, free at Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

In this brief mermaid and selkie legend-inspired story, Mara tells of growing up with her mysterious mother. She never knew her father (“He was a tide that went only in one direction, and that was away from us”) and she and her mother seem to live oddly isolated lives. But Mara loves her mother, who tells her wondrous tales of the ocean and the creatures that live in it.

She would tell me stories of impossible things, of seal-skins slid on and off as if it were nothing, of ways people remade themselves and plunged into those salt waters as if they belonged there. They were my favorite stories, these tales of the ocean that was both the same as the one outside and yet also full of wonders, just beneath the surface. When she told them, I would settle in, safe in my bed, and at the same time, carried away on the tide of her words.

Mara’s reminiscing about her past life with her mother alternates with scenes from the present, where the ocean seems to be creeping into her life and becoming a part of her. Kat Howard’s language is evocative ― I almost felt the sand and salt water in and around me ― but in the end this story was a bit of a letdown, leaving me dissatisfied with the nature of the bond between this parent and her child. ~Tadiana Jones


“Nine-Tenths of the Law” by Molly Tanzer (Jan. 2017, free at Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Donna is about to tell her husband Jared she wants out of their tired, joyless marriage when he’s escorted home after a “workplace incident.” It’s soon revealed that his work at the Denver Airport is mere cover, and (minor spoiler here as it’s revealed pretty quickly) he is voluntarily hosting an alien presence in his body as part of a mutual contact program. The alien is here to learn about Earth and humans, and a big part of that curiosity revolves around sex.

Personally, I had a hard time with the plausibility of the characters’ actions (or inactions) in this one. It felt a bit like an old classic-style sci-fi story where the neat idea is supposed to carry the story without being bolstered by much else, such as characterization, style, etc. One could unpack the story a bit for more depth, exploring the idea of agency, adultery, etc. But mostly for me this was a too-simple story told kind of plainly, with some nagging implausibilities. ~Bill Capossere

 

 


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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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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