SHORTS: Arnason, Allan, Schwab, Kosmatka

There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about.

“The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” by Eleanor Arnason (1999, originally published in Realms of Fantasy, June 1999, reprinted in 2004 and free online at Strange Horizons)

This sweet little story was right up my street. Not only is it told in a slightly kooky, fairy-tale style, it’s also all about words (hoorah!). A poor Grammarian sends each of her children out into the world one by one. She can’t give them much but what she can give them is a bag of words; nouns for the first daughter, verbs for the second, adjectives for the third, adverbs for the fourth and prepositions for the fifth. Each daughter travels with her respective bag and stumbles upon a place desperately in need of what she carries, be it nouns for the shadowy uncertain land, adjectives for the bleak desert or verbs for the town of terrible lassitude.

What I loved most was the way the words come to life as each bag was opened:

The third daughter thought for a while, then unslung her unwieldy bag, placed it on the bone-dry ground, and opened it. Out flew rosy and delicate like butterflies. Dim followed, looking like a moth … One by one the other adjectives followed: rich, subtle, beautiful, luxuriant. This last resembled a crab covered with shaggy vegetation. As it crept over the hard ground, plants fell off it ― or maybe sprang up around it ― so it left a trail of greenness.

The story trips along with the comforting inevitability of a fairy story and there are several humorous details and clever titbits to entertain along the way. The only thing I didn’t like was the very last sentence, which I thought a bit weak, but I’ll leave that for others to judge. All in all a perfectly charming read. ~Katie Burton


The Art of Space Travel by Nina Allan (July 2016, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

This poignant science fiction novelette is set about 60 years in our world’s future, when space travel is still difficult and often ― as in the case of an excursion to Mars that provides the backdrop for this story ― a one-way trip. Emily is the head of housekeeping for the Edison Star, a large hotel near Heathrow Airport, where two of the astronauts slated for the lifelong Mars trip will be staying for one night before they leave for China to train for their mission. A media frenzy is erupting, and Emily’s boss Benny, the manager of the Edison Star, is completely uptight about making the astronaut’s stay as smooth and pleasant as possible.

This story is mostly about relationships, primarily between Emily and her mother, Moolie, a bright metallurgist, suffering from early-onset dementia caused by the toxic substances at an aeroplane crash site that Moolie was hired to isolate and analyze.

If you didn’t know her how she was before, you wouldn’t necessarily spot that there’s anything wrong with her.

It’s all still inside, I know it—everything she was, everything she knows, still packed tight inside her head like old newspapers packed into the eaves of an old house. Yellowing and crumpled, yes, but still telling their stories.

The relationship theme is also explored in Emily’s lifelong yearning to know more about her unknown father, which her mother evades, telling Emily various conflicting stories who her father might or might not have been. The Art of Space Travel is a book within this story (as well as a commentary on the theme), imbued with additional significance because Moolie once told Emily that the book belonged to her father.

Not a whole lot happens plot-wise in this novella, and the very ending is one of those artsy non sequitur endings that irritate me when I don’t really get why the author chose to end on that particular note. But it’s well-written story with some interesting layers of meaning. For readers who are interested in an understated, literary tale that is more about ideas than events, The Art of Space Travel is worth the time to read. ~Tadiana Jones


“Warm Up” by V.E. Schwab (2013, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

I read V.E. Schwab’s Vicious, a dark fantasy about superpowered antagonists, a couple of weeks ago, and found out that she published a Tor short story set in the same universe at about the time Vicious came out. “Warm Up” follows a day in the life of David, an EO (Extra-Ordinary; i.e., a superpowered person), who’s had a rough time with life since he was resuscitated from clinical death, after being caught in an avalanche while mountain climbing. Fittingly, since he had temporarily frozen to death, he had a new superpower when he was revived: his hands burn anything he touches, despite the fact that David always feels cold … no matter how high the thermostat is set.

Unfortunately, it was difficult for David to learn how to control his power, and his wife left him when he accidentally burned her badly a few days after he was revived. He’s been a recluse ever since, refusing to leave his home, but now, nearly a year later, he’s finally ready to venture into society again.

The title “Warm Up” amusingly references the fact that it was a warm up act to the full novel (I’m assuming this was a deliberate allusion by Schwab), as well as the main character’s superpower. It’s well-written but bleak. Eli’s religious ramblings, a substantial component of his character in the novel, still grate.

“Warm Up” doesn’t stand particularly well on its own; there’s not all that much of a story here. It’s more a character study of a person who (if I recall correctly) very briefly appears in Vicious. But as an introduction to the world of Vicious, or viewed as an outtake from the novel, it’s reasonably interesting, and sheds some additional light on that world. ~Tadiana Jones

I listened to the audio version of “Warm Up” after Macmillan Audio released it in August 2019. It’s a good introduction to Vicious and made me want to pick up that novel soon. Jeremy Arthur gives a nice audio performance. ~Kat Hooper


“The One Who Isn’t” by Ted Kosmatka (July 2016, free at Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

A woman is teaching a young child the names of colors, the names of objects. When he asks for her name, she replies only, “I’m the one who isn’t you.” When it’s time for him to sleep she tells him disturbing stories about pain and repeated death, laden with hidden meaning that gradually becomes clear to the reader. Odd snatches of programming language breaks in between some of the events of the story are an additional clue to what’s going on beneath the surface.

Ted Kosmatka deliberately hides the truth initially, but in the end the revelation is intriguing, as is the world that has been created by the woman with this child, and her reasons for doing so. The world-building here felt a little weak and illogical, and the programming language bits were more confusing than enlightening. The woman’s ultimate intended method of using this child as an instrument of revenge was left too vague to really resonate with me. ~Tadiana Jones


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KATIE BURTON (on FanLit's staff September 2015 -- September 2018) was a solicitor in London before becoming a journalist. She was lucky enough to be showered with books as a child and from the moment she had The Hobbit read to her as a bedtime story was hooked on all things other-worldy. Katie believes that characters are always best when they are believable and complex (even when they aren't human) and is a sucker for a tortured soul or a loveable rogue. She loves all things magical and the more fairies, goblins and mystical creatures the better. Her personal blog is Nothing if Not a Hypocrite.

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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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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research 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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One comment

  1. I loved “the Grammarian’s Five Daughters.”

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