SFM: Gladstone, Chiang, Bolander, Johnston, Swanwick, Vaughn

Short Fiction Monday: Our weekly sampling of free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are some great stories that caught our eyes this week:

“A Kiss With Teeth” by Max Gladstone (2014, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle Version)

Within the first two paragraphs “A Kiss With Teeth” has outlined an unusual premise: a vampire masquerades as human in order to be an ordinary husband and father. He isn’t blending in to feast on blood or evade capture, but simply to give his wife and especially his son a fighting chance at normalcy. What unfolds isn’t so much normal as delightfully odd.

Perhaps my favourite aspect of the story is the frank presentation of how the lives of this family play out. Such observations as:

His wife Sarah has not tried to kill him since they married. She stores her holy water in a kitchen cabinet behind the spice rack…

These statements, as frank as they are, lent a charming quality to the story from the beginning. For me, it was easy to get behind the idea of this family working because these benign details existed. It made their successes and their problems more engaging to read. This tale could almost be described as ‘cute’ at times, and in the best way ― especially juxtaposed with the traditionally un-cute main character.

Most of the story revolves around the child of Sarah and Vlad (yes that is the name of the vampire, and I didn’t even mind one bit) and their efforts to provide the most normal life they can for their son. Vlad’s inner struggles do eventually and slowly take the forefront of the narrative, until the deeply satisfying end. ~ Skye Walker


The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang (2007, originally published in Fantasy and Science Fiction, free at Web Archive). 2008 Nebula and Hugo award winner (novelette)

Arabian Nights meets time travel in this Hugo and Nebula award-winning novelette, containing a story ― or more precisely, three stories ― within a story. Fuwaad ibn Abbas is brought before the caliph in medieval Baghdad, to whom he tells his story, as “a warning to those who would be warned and a lesson to those who would learn.”

Fuwaad tells the caliph that one day he chanced to enter a shop in the market place that was filled with a wondrous assortment of goods. He visits with the aged proprietor of the shop, who shows him a large ring powered, the old man says, by alchemy. It is a portal, a gate through time that will take you either twenty years into the past or twenty years into the future, depending on the way you step through it. But before Fuwaad tries the gate, the proprietor tells him three tales of others who have gone through the gate: one who makes his fortune, one who lives to regret going through the gate, and a third who finds something entirely unexpected. And Fuwaad has his own story, as he seeks the chance to fix a mistake he made many years ago.

The stories relate to each other thematically as well as sharing some of the characters, each story shedding a different light on what was told before. Ted Chiang is a talented SF author, but I think The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate is the first work of his that I’ve loved as well as admired. He channels the Persian storytelling style so well, while offering insights into life, time, repentance and forgiveness. ~Tadiana Jones


“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander (Nov. 2016, free at Uncanny Magazine; $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Like her Hugo and Nebula nominated piece And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead, “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” doesn’t shy away from coarse language or unsettling themes. On that note, be aware that this story deals with some weighty and terrible realities. It deals with these ideas in a new way, and unflinchingly.

In this story a cosmic harpy-like creature recounts one of her stints in human form. During her time as a mortal woman something horrible happens to her that leads to that life ending – “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” is the retelling of those events in a distinct and new way.

The themes of violence and victims are characterized in this story. Quite pointedly, our main character is more than a victim. What matters to the harpy is told with such unflinching rage and presence that a poetic quality emerges in her words. The subject matter at hand is grotesque, which is a reality the harpy narrator doesn’t shy away from. Given these attributes I strongly feel that this story would be as aptly labelled as horror as it would be fantasy. Fiction, like reality, can contain monsters – and aren’t always who we think they are.

Equal parts brutal and interesting, “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” is also a haunting take on what it means when we choose the stories that get told. This isn’t a story you’ve heard many times before, and therein lie both its strength and its heart-wrenching point. I loved this very short story from beginning to end, as it spoke to me with a voice I didn’t know I needed to hear. I still can’t get “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” out of my head. ~ Skye Walker


“The Garden of Three Hundred Flowers” by E.K. Johnston (2016, free Kindle version)

Note: Some spoilers for A Thousand Nights. Only 40% of the free Kindle file is this story; the rest contains sample chapters from three of the author’s novels, including the two discussed below.

In the weeks, months and years after the events of A Thousand Nights (a young adult fantasy retelling of the Scheherazade framing story for One Thousand and One Nights), the narrator and her husband, the King, have defeated the demon that possessed him for so long and was responsible for killing the three hundred girls who came before the narrator, now the Queen. But the King is still haunted by the things his hands have done, and perhaps irretrievably broken. So the queen sets him a penance that will help both him and the kingdom to recover, which he pursues over the next several years while she takes on the burden and power of running the kingdom. Her story is interwoven with their son’s comments from his future perspective.

E.K. Johnston takes the less expected path with this introspective story, though the more realistic one. There is respect and trust between the King and Queen, but not romantic love; the King is too scarred by his experiences. Still, she helps him find the pathway to peace, and he helps her and gives her the freedom to develop her skills and talents.

The promotional description for The Garden of Three Hundred Flowers” calls it an “interstitial short story by E.K. Johnston set between her novels A Thousand Nights and Spindle,” but it’s better described as an epilogue to A Thousand Nights. I don’t recommend reading it if you haven’t read that novel; not just because of the spoilers, but because the novel provides some significant background that illuminates this bittersweet tale. ~Tadiana Jones


“The Fire Gown” by Michael Swanwick (2012, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

“The Fire Gown” is the second story in Michael Swanwick’s THE MONGOLIAN WIZARD series of short stories on Tor, set in an alternate 19th century Europe where magic works both good and evil (the first story, as well as the fifth, were reviewed in our June 20, 2016 SFM column). Franz-Karl Ritter, formerly an officer in the Werewolf Corps, a type of K9 Corps where men share a mind link with their wolves, has now accepted a position in Britain’s intelligence agency, working under Sir Tobias Willoughby-Quirke. While they investigate magical troubles, their larger goal is to stop the fearsome Mongolian Wizard from taking over Europe.

When the Queen of England is murdered by a magical red gown that burst into flame when she put it on, Ritter is charged with investigating the crime. He and Sir Toby suspect that the Mongolian Wizard is to blame. Ritter’s investigation takes him to the tailor’s shop of Knopfman and Rosenberg, where a Jewish dressmaker created a dress for the queen. But the underlying plot against England is deeper and more dreadful than they imagined.

There were some amusing plot points, such as the fact that Britain is ruled by King Oberon, and his murdered queen was Titania. This fantasy mystery is given more depth by Ritter’s brusque but intuitive manner in his investigations, his relationship with his wolf Freki, and his unexpectedly poignant interactions with the Jewish dressmaker’s daughter, who defends her father, their business and, indirectly, her people. ~Tadiana Jones


“Amaryllis” by Carrie Vaughn (2010, free at Lightspeed, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue). Collected in Amaryllis and Other Stories (2016) by Carrie Vaughn. 2011 Hugo award nominee (short story).

In a post-apocalyptic future, humanity has survived and has even managed to retain some of its technology. But there is an emphasis on maintaining a sustainable, environmentally-aware society. In Marie’s community by the ocean, for example, there are strict quotas on fishing as well as on having children. Marie’s mother committed a serious crime by removing her birth control implant and having her without authorization. Their household was broken up and Marie was taken away and given to others to raise.

Now Marie is a grown woman, the head and heart of her household that runs the fishing boat Amaryllis. But because of her birth circumstances, she still sees the prejudice against her. The most immediate threat is from one of the scale masters, who is always finding that their boat has brought in too many pounds of fish, which puts their fishing license and livelihood at risk. A young woman in her household, Nina, is begging Marie to ask the official committee for permission for their house to have a baby, but Marie is afraid that her own past will be held against her entire household.

Carrie Vaughn has created an intriguing future, where a strong culture of ecological sustainability has affected all aspects of life, including stringent population control. Households are required to prove their ability to care for themselves as well as any children they want to have. Those who are given approval for a child are given a coveted green-and-red banner as a symbol of the privilege they’ve earned. The plot of “Amaryllis” is fairly straightforward, but it’s well-written, the world-building is fascinating, and the characters are well-drawn. As usual, this issue of Lightspeed included an author interview in which Carrie Vaughn offers some interesting background and additional insights into the story. ~Tadiana Jones


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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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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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3 comments

  1. Thanks for the heads-up on “A Kiss with Teeth,” Skye. I read it and loved its take on parenting troubles and being yourself.

    I also read “Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” a couple of weeks ago and thought it was a very strong and moving story–much more readable for me, despite the rape/murder topic, than Bolander’s “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead.” This feels like it would be very cathartic for victims of sexual aggression to read.

    • I’m glad you like “A Kiss With Teeth” too! I hadn’t fully considered the parenting aspects, though it is central to the story. It makes for a good reread :)

  2. I’m glad you both liked “A Kiss With Teeth!” It was my first introduction to Gladstone’s style, and he definitely did not disappoint.

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