SHORTS: Emrys, Edelstein, Goss, Forrest, Yang, Kinney, Deeds

Our weekly sampling of  free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about. 

The Litany of Earth by Ruthanna Emrys (2014, free on Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

Aphra Marsh lives in San Francisco, listening to the sounds of the sea and relishing freedom after spending years in an American internment camp. Her crime: belonging to a peculiar heritage, a dark legacy, and a little New England town called Innsmouth. World War II is over, now, and Aphra works in a bookshop, exchanging what “Enochian and R’lyehn” she remembers from her childhood for glimpses at her boss Charlie Day’s spellbooks. Charlie is mortal, but curious about the occult, and Aphra is … something else.

One day a stranger comes into the shop, asking after old and forbidden texts, and he’s not a good enough liar to hide that his interest is more than merely superficial. He wants Aphra’s help in tracking down what he calls “Aeonist fanatics.” She isn’t in a position to refuse — but perhaps there is something to be gained.

While some readers may call Ruthanna Emrys’ prose slow, I prefer to say it’s deliberate, each word specifically chosen and placed for the greatest effect. This novelette is neither as wordy nor as labyrinthine as Lovecraft’s work, for which I’m grateful, since it shows that Emrys is interested in actually telling Aphra’s story rather than showing off thousand-dollar words and navel-gazing philosophy. Lovecraft’s body of work makes for interesting reading and, obviously, is a tremendous influence on modern horror, but the current manifestation of “Lovecraftiana” is a much-needed shift toward inclusivity for the genre. ~Jana Nyman

Editor’s note: João Eira also reviewed “The Litany of Earth” in our SHORTS column on Sept. 14, 2015 and rated it 5 stars.


“The Shark God’s Child” by Jonathan Edelstein (March 2017, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 99c Kindle magazine issue)

Edelstein’s story is set in a fascinating world, a kind of cross between the world of Ursula Le Guin’s EARTHSEA CYCLE and the short Pixar film Lava, a Micronesian-like archipelago where the islands are gods/heroes long ago turned to stone, though once every hundred years or so an island god awakens and returns to the stars, a cataclysmic event for those living on the island.

The story begins with a bang, as six-year-old Mei barely survives the awakening of her own island, Dakuwanga (the shark-god). The rest of the story follows Mei through her youth and into motherhood as she moves through different stages of life and different islands of the archipelago. The islands are awakening at a faster rate, seemingly connected to one island’s empire-building, and eventually Mei herself gets caught up in the conquest and what is happening to the islands/gods.

It’s a wonderfully vibrant setting, brought nicely to life throughout, and I loved the underlying idea as well as the particular gods we see, such as the shark-god and the poet-god. Edelstein tells his story efficiently and concisely, and to be honest, I would actually have preferred to have spent more time with both the setting and the character; I can easily see this story stretched out to novella or even novel length. Strongly recommended. ~Bill Capossere


“Come See the Living Dryad” by Theodora Goss (March 2017, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

Dr. Daphne Levitt, an American university professor, travels to Great Britain to investigate the murder of one of her ancestors, Daphne Merwin, as part of a book she is writing. The Victorian-era Daphne suffered from an extremely rare genetic disease known as Lewandowsky-Lutz dysplasia or “Tree Man” disease, which can result in crippling wooden branch-like growths, especially on the hands and feet. She ended up as the star attraction in a Victorian freak show, and was married to Professor Lewison Merwin, the proprietor of the quasi-scientific show. The police arrested a habitual drunk, semi-homeless man, Alfred Potts, for her murder, and he was hanged shortly after.

Dr. Levitt feels a connection to her ancestress, especially because she shares a milder form of the same disease. As she reviews the evidence, including a knife and a blood-stained nightgown, she realizes that it is pointing her to a different answer about the murder.

This novelette alternates between excerpts from Dr. Levitt’s book The British Freak Show at the Fin-de-Siècle, passages from the Victorian-era Daphne’s personal journal, and newspaper clippings and correspondence. Together, they create a sympathetic picture of a woman striving to live with dignity against all odds, and her great-great-granddaughter’s search for the truth.

I would rather be back on the streets of London, begging for crusts of bread. Am I insensate, a piece of wood for him to move about as he wishes? Am I the mythical creature he likes to call me? No, I am human, whatever I may appear to be. I breathe, I feel, I love.

Although Tor calls this a fantasy, it’s not actually speculative fiction. Tree Man disease is an actual disorder; a Google image search shows heartrending images of a few people who suffer from this disease. But Theodora Goss has written a touching, quietly tragic tale of a woman who yearned to be seen as human, not as just a strange curiosity. ~Tadiana Jones


“Lampblack and Dust” by J.L. Forrest (2017, anthologized in Principia Ponderosa, $3.99 Kindle ebook)

Principia Ponderosa is an anthology from Third Flatiron Press. The theme is Weird West, and there were a number of stories I really enjoyed here. “Lampblack and Dust,” by J.L. Forrest, is my favorite, with the writer conjuring an eerie frontier and a main character, the Orioness Faireweather, whose narrative voice was so immediate I felt like she was standing next to me as the story unfolded.

“My rage told me to hurry after the Dusters, to conjure fiercely and unholster my ironpieces. Though now, drowning my heartache in the Ricka Saloon, I spin ink into my whiskey and the swirls tell me to nurture patience …”

As an “Orioness,” Faireweather has tattoo ink under her skin that allows her to do magic. When her brother and niece are taken by the dreaded inhuman Ice Dusters, Faireweather demands to ride along with the sheriff’s posse, but he refuses. They ride off on their motorcycles (not horses), and Faireweather follows.

In between the descriptions of a lurid and strange landscape, the suspense, and the action sequences, Forrest drops just enough hints about the witches, their history, and how they are viewed by the townfolk to make us feel that this is a real frontier, a real world with real joys and dangers. Forrest marries the retro-futuristic world with the sensibility of the American Old West.

The Ice Dusters are terrifying, and Faireweather’s magic wonderful, but the core of this tale is Faireweather’s love of her family: her guilt that she could not save her sister-in-law, and her commitment to save her niece at least. The imagery of the swirling ink on her body, and the magical beings like the ravens she releases, stayed with me after I’d moved on to other stories, and this is the first one I went back to for the pleasure of a reread. This story is complete and I don’t need any more, but if there were more stories set in this world I would certainly read them. ~Marion Deeds


“Auspicium Melioris Aevi” by JY Yang (March 2017, free at Uncanny, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Harry Lee is a clone, one of over fifty new genetic copies of Harry Lee Kuan Yew, a famous leader who almost single-handedly lifted his small island nation out of poverty. His skill set makes him a valuable resource in the modern world, so the Academy raises clones of the original Harry Lee and other famous people, giving them simulated experiences that match the original’s in order to hone the same skills in the copies.

These were faces familiar to anyone who had lived through the early twenty-first century: Leaders and thinkers, a catalogue of genetic excellence carefully curated and propagated by the Administrator himself. Pod-grown like heirloom tomatoes, they were made-to-order for clients, spending years in algorithmically-tailored training programs. Each one came with the Administrator’s mark of quality assurance.

 

If there was proof of the consistency of their training and genetic integrity, it lay in the patterns which emerged in their interactions. The Suu Kyis and the Hillaries seemed to get along well, for example, but the Modis and Merkels never did. And sometimes there were surprises, like the frequent friendships between the Gateses and the Ahmadis.

The clones who achieve the closest match are graduated and sent out to the nations and groups who have purchased them; the rest are, impliedly, destroyed. But the fiftieth Harry Lee clone feels the need to make different choices in the simulations than those he knows are expected of him. His sudden display of leadership qualities may be his doom.

I expected a resolution similar that of a 1957 Isaac Asimov novella, Profession, and there is some echo of that, but JY Yang gives us an ending that is more subtle, if disturbingly indeterminate. It’s not at all clear what Harry’s fate will be, and whether it will be good or (what seems more likely) bad. The Latin title, meaning “Hope of a better age,” which is the Academy’s motto, has a sting to it. ~Tadiana Jones


“The First Confirmed Case of Non-Corporeal Recursion: Patient Anita R.” by Benjamin C. Kinney (2016, free at Strange Horizons)

Anita R. died thirty years ago during a tornado when, annoyed that her husband hadn’t brought the cat down to the basement with them, she went upstairs to find it. For years she has been reappearing, in the form of a ghost, every time someone comes down the basement stairs. Each time she re-lives those last few minutes of her life and it seems like the cycle is going to go on forever. Fortunately, Anita R. is a scientist and, if there’s one thing she’s good at, it’s persistent experimentation. She is determined to break the cycle and to figure out what she has become. She finally has a breakthrough one day when Malati, a curious and similarly scientifically-minded girl, walks down the stairs.

You’d probably think that a story about a frustrated ghost who keeps reliving her death would be depressing, but “The First Confirmed Case of Non-Corporeal Recursion: Patient Anita R.” is lively and fun. I found it refreshing that Anita didn’t mope about her inglorious death and the way she yelled at her husband before she died. What I liked best was the way she recognized and groomed the spark of potential she saw in Malati. As someone who also engages in this mutually beneficial mentoring process, I could relate to Anita, and I thought this story was touching.

I listened to the podcast version read by Anaea Lay. I can recommend it. ~Kat Hooper

Editor’s note: Tadiana Jones also reviewed this story and rated it 4 stars in our July 11, 2016 SHORTS column.


“Strays” by Marion Deeds (April 2017, free at Flash Fiction Online)

A pair of stray shoes follows Alison home one evening, whining at her door when she refuses to let them in. Finally she gives up and opens the door for them; they trot inside and settle down at the foot of her bed.

The next morning I kept tripping over them. They followed me into the kitchen and nudged my feet as I drank my tea. “No begging,” I said.

 

Rhona, sitting at the table drinking coffee, said, “Someone’s got shoes.”

 

“No, I don’t. I just didn’t want them to tangle with the ugly Christmas sweaters in the alley,” I said, and it was true. Those sweaters could be mean.

Anyone who’s ever adopted, or has been tempted to adopt, a stray cat or dog will get a kick out of this story. The love you get from an adopted pet makes the trouble well worth while! And Alison finds that the shoes help her out in an entirely unexpected way.

In keeping with our policy, I’m not giving “Strays” a star rating since it’s by one of our current reviewers. But I can tell you that it’s an absolutely delightful story and made me smile for a long time afterwards. ~Tadiana Jones


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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 now makes her home 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 James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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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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MARION DEEDS, with us since March 2011, is retired from a 35-year career with county government, where she met enough interesting characters and heard enough zany stories to inspire at least two trilogies’ worth of fantasy fiction. Currently she spends part of her time working at a local used bookstore. She is an aspiring writer herself and, in the 1990s, had short fiction published in small magazines like Night Terrors, Aberrations, and in the cross-genre anthology The Magic Within. On her blog Deeds & Words, she reviews many types of books and follows developments in food policy and other topics.

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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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12 comments

  1. I can see that I have to start readiing Ruthanna Emrys. I love her essays and her stories sound wonderful.

    And “Anita R” sounds like a great twist on the classic ghost story (and also a nice use of the scientific method). Kat, thanks for sharing that one.

  2. I LOVED Marion’s story. 5 stars!

  3. Jonathan Edelstein /

    Thank you very much for the kind words, and I’m very impressed that you recognized the Micronesian elements (the stone city at Deleur was inspired by Nan Madol, but so many people see islands and think “Polynesia”). Have you read “Abere and the Poisoner” (BCS, 9/15/16), my earlier story in the same universe?

    • Thanks, Jonathan! I’ll definitely read both stories. And Bill’s erudite mind never ceases to impress me.

    • I’d love to take intellectual credit, but I’d recently read something on the area so it was just what was in my head, I”m sure. But I will definitely read that other story–are you planning a cycle of tales in this setting (he asks, eagerly)

      • Jonathan Edelstein /

        I have two other stories in the same universe that I’m currently trying to find homes for, and a couple of half-baked ideas that will hopefully become stories in the future.

        The universe is kind of an Austronesian mashup – you’ll see that Abere and the Poisoner has more of a Melanesian feel to it. This is a region that’s fascinated me for a long time (among other things, I’ve published professionally about Fijian law, in the context of a court case challenging the 1999 coup).

        • I really enjoyed “Abere and the Poisoner;” I especially liked that it employs a different style/voice. I’ll look forward to the two new ones, not to mention those others once they come out of the oven . . .

        • Jonathan, are these going to show up in one place someday, maybe as a collection?

  4. I just read “Abere and Poisoner.” I’m a sucker for stories within stories so of course I was hooked. I loved, “…with obsidian skin and iron claws.” Wow!

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