SFM: Yu, Murray, Robson, Ronald, Navarro

Short Fiction Monday: There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few recent stories that caught our attention.

“The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight” by E. Lily Yu (Sept. 2016, free at Uncanny, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

In this fairy tale with a bit of a modern twist to it, the old witch of Orion Waste decides it is time for her to go off to new adventures, so she offers her job and hut to the chandler’s clerk, who was just making a delivery of goods to her. The crone’s parting warning to her replacement is not to meddle in what is not her business, nor help unless she is asked, but of course the chandler’s clerk isn’t listening as closely to this advice as she should be.

The new witch quickly learns her craft and becomes quite competent at compounding charms for luck, for illness, for biting flies, and for more cream in the cow’s milk, and at turning away those who ask for poison, curses or power.

A few of these were subtler than the rest, and several lied smoothly. But the crone had left a tongueless bell, forged from cuckoo spit, star iron, and lightning glass, which if warmed in the mouth showed, by signs and symbols, true things. In this way the witch could discern the dagger behind the smile.

Then one day a handsome knight with a golden beard and fern-green eyes appears, and ends up inviting her to join him on his quest to kill dragons. Eager for adventure and romance, the witch agrees. It might be a good time to remember the old crone’s advice … but at least she takes the glass-and-iron bell with her.

E. Lily Yu deftly captures the style of old fairy tales, with richly imagined details, delightful turns of phrases, conflicts between good and evil, and the way well-intentioned actions sometimes go afoul.


“Of Sight, of Mind, of Heart” by Samantha Murray (Nov. 2016, free at Clarkesworld, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)

You pick up a newborn baby from the hospital. You name him Ben, ignoring the manual’s advice not to name him at all. Your mother doesn’t approve, but tries to be supportive anyway. Ben grows quickly ― far more quickly than a normal baby.

Ben is healthy, intelligent, and active, everything he was engineered to be. It doesn’t say it in the manual, but you know from the center that when they grew kids up quick in the lab, that even though they’d been screened for mental disorders, without mothers (or sometimes fathers) something would go wrong with a lot of them. They’d get depressed, they’d wig-out, they couldn’t work well in a team. Without mothers.

This is a poignant tale, narrated in second person, about a woman’s love for a child who grows up and away from her too quickly. The manuals try to discourage attachment, but this bright child finds his way into her heart. The story gradually discloses the disquieting reason why the woman is raising this child, raising the stakes. It ends on a note that is ambiguous, but troubling either way it is interpreted. The juxtaposition between the intimate portrayal of maternal love and the larger world troubles is particularly well-done.


“The Eye of the Swan” by Kelly Robson (Oct. 2016, free on Tor.com)

Diane was married at age sixteen to William, the son of the Duke Tremontaine, two years before the story begins. The duchess, William’s mother, never cared about Diana enough to prepare her to manage their great household. Now, two years later, the old Duke and Duchess have recently died, and Diane has been feeling overwhelmed and useless in running the house, and is feeling threatened by other noblewomen in their society, who are ready to pounce upon any weakness. She wants to find a way to be more than just a figurehead in their home. Though untrained, Diane is intelligent and observant. I expected her to find a solution, but the method she lands upon for increasing her consequence in the household and in society was a pleasant surprise.

“The Eye of the Swan” is a mannerpunk story, a fantasy focusing on high society and manners. Readers who like fantasies set in Regency- or Victorian-inspired worlds will appreciate this tale of a young woman searching for a way to give her life more meaning and substance.

“The Eye of the Swan” is a stand-alone prequel short story that ties into the TREMONTAINE episodic series written by various authors, which is in turn a prequel to Ellen Kushner’s WORLD OF RIVERSIDE series. Tremontaine is “inspired by Elizabethan London, 18th century Paris, and 1980s New York.” This is a very queer-friendly world, but only a couple of minor characters in this story are acknowledged as gay.

It’s a bit of a slight tale ― I really would have liked the story to have continued a little longer ― and there’s no fantasy element in it other than the imaginary (though rather realistic, in a historical sense) setting. But Diane’s character is complex and well-drawn, and the setting is appealing, at least for a Regency enthusiast like myself. It’s a nice introduction to the Tremontaine world and one of its more intriguing characters.


“The Witch’s Knives” by Margaret Ronald (Oct. 2016, free at Strange Horizons)

Leah leaves her troubled husband behind and travels for eight months, from Chicago to the Turning City and the Rail Queen, to visit the witch and tell her that the curse she set on Leah’s husband still hasn’t been broken. She fell in love with a beast (“even though he was a monster, he was so beautiful, and sad, and even the times when he was a beast, he couldn’t help those…”) and confessed her love to the beast. He turned human, they married, and it was wonderful, like a fairy tale ― but then they realized that he still, sometimes, turns into a beast.

Only sometimes, and never to the extent it had been before their marriage. There were no shattered windows, no shredded saplings . . . just words, and fury fueled by pain. But now it was worse, because afterwards he’d be so very sorry and horrified by what he’d done and saying I don’t understand, it should have worked, why am I still like this? And never quite said, but unspoken louder and louder as the weeks passed, why isn’t your love enough to save me?

“The Witch’s Knives” explores the story of Beauty and the Beast and what might happen after the curse is broken … or is it? The links drawn to an abusive relationship are too overt for my taste, but it’s still a poignant tale. As the witch notes, you can’t love someone out of a curse. The witch presents Leah with one of her many knives and, despite the witch’s assurance that the knife can’t be used on anything living, the gift carries rather ominous undertones.


“Reverse Documentary” by Marisela Navarro (Nov. 2016, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

Dino is creating a documentary film for an upcoming film festival, about the damages caused by vandals painting graffiti on trees in the woods of his town. Dino’s life is troubled; he’s being haunted by the ghost of his former girlfriend Jennifer, who was killed in an auto accident in another man’s car. Dino interviews a man named Wade for his film, but somehow Wade ends up asking more questions (about Dino and his difficulties with life and Jennifer’s ghost) than answering them: Dino’s film is becoming “reverse documentary” of the title. Wade also introduces Dino to his cousin Alexis. They begin a relationship, but Dino is having trouble moving on from his obsession with his failed relationship with Jennifer and her ghostly presence in his life, and Jennifer’s ghost, for reasons difficult to discern, apparently isn’t ready to let Alexis become part of Dino’s life.

“Reverse Documentary” is told in a rather vague, disjointed manner. The periodic “film clips” were an interesting idea, but they and the story generally suffered from a lack of clarity. Both Dino’s obsession with old relationship with Jennifer, and his issues with his new relationship with Alexis, felt superficial, which made it difficult to feel engaged by this story or in any way horrified by the supernatural element.


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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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