SFM: Barnhill, Clark, Goss, Smith, Polansky

Short Fiction Monday: Our weekly exploration of free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. We’ve found some excellent stories this week!

 

“Probably Still the Chosen One” by Kelly Barnhill (Feb. 2017, free at Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Eleven year old Corinna discovered a strange metal door in the cupboard under the sink of her home, which is a portal to the magical land of Nibiru, where she is hailed as their Princess, their Chosen One. After spending a year and a day in war-torn Nibiru, where she learned swordfighting, battle tactics and survival skills fighting with the Resistance against the Zonnier Hordes, she is returned to our world. The High Priest who brings her back tells her he’ll return for her in a week, and not to go anywhere. So she doesn’t, not wanting to miss her chance to return … even when it becomes apparent that time runs far more quickly on our side of the portal, so years pass while she waits, hopefully.

What begins as a poignant tale of a girl who sacrifices opportunities and choices to remain in the home that is her only connection to this fantasy place where she is a princess ― a place that becomes more hazy and dubious to Corinna as she ages ― gradually morphs into a humorous juxtaposition between the magical world Corinna still longs to return to and the difficulties of single parenthood, with yelling kids and diapers. When the chance to return finally comes, she almost doesn’t recognize it.

Corrina dug her hands into her pockets. “Assuming I am the Chosen One,” she said slowly.

 

“You’re probably still the Chosen One,” Cairn said.

 

“Well. I’m not admitting that I am.”

 

“Don’t you read stories?” Cairn said, exasperated. “If you doubt you’re the Chosen One, it pretty much proves that you are.”

But this also a heartwarming story of a character realizing that there is a problem, figuring out a way to try to fix it, and holding to her opinions despite being told she’s not supposed to have any (“Or brassieres. You’re not supposed to have those either. Or opinions. Did I say that already?”). It’s great fun to see certain characters get their comeuppance. There are some distinct and surely deliberate echoes of the Narnia tales, but Kelly Barnhill has created an original, humorous twist on the classic tropes that I found absolutely delightful. ~Tadiana Jones


“The Things My Mother Left Me” by P. Djéli Clark (Dec. 2016, free at Fantasy magazine, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue)

In this wondrous African-centered fantasy, fifteen year old Tausi is left an orphan by her father’s death. Her mother, who practiced magic even though doing so is a terrible crime in the Ten Chiefdoms, had died five years before. Tausi’s seven aunts move in like a pack of jackals, wanting to marry Tausi off for their own advantage.

Seven crocodiles they were, all with their mouths wide, ready to eat her up. But like the clever birds that fed between those sharp teeth, she was determined to outwit them.

Tausi gathers all her money ― red-gold and blue silver ingots ― and makes a break for it from her avaricious aunts, planning to head to the big city. But Tausi is sidetracked from her plans by the arrival of the Great and Wondrous Circus, with a huge emerald-and-ivory striped Jangu cat, a horned Jab Man, and an acquisitive circus master.

Tausi also finds that her mother, the Bandit Queen, is still revered by many people. She was a courageous woman who defended magic users and, Robin Hood-like, shared stolen money with the poor. The circus master promises Tausi passage to the city if she can bring him her mother’s great spear, which Tausi can’t remember seeing. But the process of searching for it, and some telling discussions with the Jab Man, bring Tausi closer to some truths about her legacy from her mother, and her own deeply hidden powers.

P. Djéli Clark cites the folklore influences of this story are as primarily precolonial to modern Central Africa, but including Western Africa and Eastern Caribbean. It’s an enchanting but forbidding world, which contains glorious emerald cats and winged baboons, but also broken moons and Witch Hunters in black robes who execute magic users. I was also captivated by the painting Clark commissioned from artist Jason Reeves of Tausi and the cat Nundu, as he was seeking inspiration for this work.


I read this colorful and imaginative story twice and was even more impressed by it on second read. Clark comments in an Author’s Spotlight that “The Things My Mother Left Me” is an origin story, and that more adventures are planned for Tausi and Nundu. I definitely look forward to reading more! ~Tadiana Jones


Red as Blood and White as Bone by Theodora Goss (May 2016, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

Interesting retellings or new treatments of fairy tales end up being some of my favourite stories. Red as Blood and White as Bone is one such story, which draws on fairy tale lore while maintaining a unique plot and characters.

The story concerns a girl and her desperate wish to be a minor character in a fairy-tale like story. She is convinced that she couldn’t be the main character ― she isn’t a beautiful princess ― but she doesn’t see why she couldn’t still be part of such a story. This assertion is both interesting and heartbreaking to me, that this person does not see themselves as worth being a main character, but is excited at the prospect of being part of the narrative at all.

Overall, Red as Blood and White as Bone is a kind of reinterpreted fairy tale, but one which draws more on the style of those tales than on a specific story. The plot is imaginative and engrossing and, paired with the complex protagonist, makes for an engaging short read that feels like it must have been much longer to fit it all in. ~ Skye Walker

Editor’s note: Tadiana Jones also reviewed Red as Blood and White as Bone in our May 8, 2016 SFM column and rated it 4.5 stars.


“A Pest Most Fiendish” by Caighlan Smith (Nov. 2016, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

In the steampunk-flavored “A Pest Most Fiendish,” Caighlan Smith introduces readers to the intrepid Miss Philippa “Pippa” Kennedy Kipling and her faithful assistant, the Porter, who travel far and wide in search of employment contracts. The type of work they do is quite specialized: the identification, capture, and removal of supernatural creatures, ranging in size from teeny-tiny to mammoth. The current job in question is for a Mr Bradbury, whose own employers have tasked him with building a luxury resort within a cavern known as the Banshee’s Dormitory. But teams of workmen keep disappearing, and it is up to Miss Pippa and the Porter to determine why and how to put a stop to it.

The word that came to my mind most often while reading “A Pest Most Fiendish” was “cartoonish,” in that Miss Pippa’s tendency to talk circles around her conversational partners (and her affinity for laughably oversized and overclocked weapons) reminded me of classic Bugs Bunny adventures. I adore those cartoons, so it’s a positive association for me, particularly in an early moment when Miss Pippa takes Mr Bradbury aside to explain the circumstances leading to the Porter’s automated aspects.

The revelation of what’s causing the disturbances was appealing, though not much of a surprise; what truly captured my interest were the small hints dropped here and there about Miss Pippa’s own background. I’d happily read more stories featuring the adventures of Miss Pippa and the Porter. ~Jana Nyman


“meat+drink” by Daniel Polansky (Oct. 2016, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

In the world of “meat+drink”, all the romanticism of the vampire story has been stripped away to reveal a dead-eyed reality of what it means to be undead.

I found the premise of this story to be its most interesting feature. All the elements were there for me to enjoy “meat+drink”: something cleverly related to outside mythology, a protagonist with some conflict and depth, a weird twist or two. It should have added up to something I would love. Even with its odd grammatical peculiarities ― which I couldn’t decide the effectiveness of ― the world seemed too inflexible to hold a dynamic story. Perhaps that was the point, to fully display an anti-vampire story, and in that I think it just wasn’t for me.

Overall, the dreariness of the world ultimately made me walk away more befuddled than satisfied. ~ Skye Walker


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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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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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One comment

  1. “Things my Mother Left Me” sounds absolutely wonderful, and I love that this is the first in a series with these characters.

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