SHORTS: Swirsky, Scalzi, Wong, Sriduangkaew, Heisler, Brookside

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. 

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsGrand Jeté (The Great Leap) by Rachel Swirsky (2014, free at Subterranean Press)

“Mara, please wake up. I’ve made you a gift.” But gifts can be complicated: often there are strings attached, and the giver may not be completely in tune with the desires of the recipient… may, in fact, be giving the gift primarily for his or her own reasons. Mara, a young Jewish girl in the final stages of cancer, lives alone with her father Jakub, a free-lance inventor, and their aging German Shepherd in a secluded home in the countryside. The gift that Mara’s father so hopefully presents to her is a life-sized android, with prototype technology that takes images of a person’s brain to create artificial neural clusters, replicating the original person’s brain. Mara realizes, horrified, that her father is creating an android version of herself, a robot (or golem?) to replace her when she is gone. Her dismayed father offers to destroy the android, but Mara stops him for reasons she doesn’t entirely understand. And so begins an elaborate dance of Mara and Jakub ― and, later, the android ― as they decide what to do with the android, and struggle with the anger and guilt and love that bind them.

This is an elegantly constructed story told in three acts, each from the viewpoint of a different character. The plot is fairly simple; the story focuses on the thoughts and feelings of the characters, which are all beautifully realized. Their remote home and the icy winter weather echoes the cold and isolation each character feels. Jakub and Mara’s Jewish culture and background lend additional poignancy and depth to an already deeply moving story.

Terry Weyna briefly discussed this novella in her June 6, 2015 article here on Fantasy Literature, Magazine Monday Special Edition: Nebula-Nominated Novellas, 2014. Grand Jeté also received a best novella nomination for the 2015 World Fantasy award. But I found this bittersweet story so touching that I think it deserves one more mention here in our short fiction feature. Highly recommended. ~Tadiana Jones


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“After the Coup” by John Scalzi (2008, free at Tor.com)

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“After the Coup” is a short story by John Scalzi set in the same world as his novel Old Man’s War and its sequels Ghost Brigade, Last Colony and Zoe’s Tale. While the focus is on one of Scalzi’s minor characters from the first two books, this is really just a fun snippet of interplanetary diplomatic relations resolved by good old-fashioned alien vs. human hand-to-hand combat.

Scalzi always writes amazing character dialogue and fully half of this 20-page story is a simple discussion. In this conversation, Scalzi is able to subtly but clearly set exposition, motivation and the structure for the story itself. And he does it with his usual humor, which typically draws out a couple of laugh-out-louds.

The battle scene is creative, sharply written, and comes to a satisfactory conclusion. ~Jason Golomb


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” by Alyssa Wong (2015, free at Nightmare) NEBULA AWARD WINNER

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsAlyssa Wong’s “Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers” is an apt and fitting story for a publication that calls itself Nightmare Magazine. A sensory delight of a horror story, dark, beguiling and, incidentally, featuring a lesbian protagonist. It tells the story of a young woman living in New York who, like a twisted vampire, feeds on people’s thoughts rather than their blood. She can not only hear these thoughts but see them in all their ghastly glory.

Harvey doesn’t look much older than I am, but his thoughts, covered in spines and centipede feet, glisten with ancient grudges and carry an entitled, Ivy League stink.

On one unforgettable date she unexpectedly sucks up the thoughts of a murderer and finds that nothing ever tastes so good again. Gone are the days when she is satiated by petty thieves; now she craves so much more. Forever hungry, she must seek out dangerous playmates.

While normally something in me reels back from stories set in the modern day, particularly those incorporating modern technology, I enjoyed this story immensely despite the Tinder (or “Tindr”) references. The revolting but fascinating descriptions of people’s ugly, writhing thoughts were inspired. It is a credit to Wong’s gift for trapping me in a story so quickly that I could almost understand the protagonist’s fevered revulsion, coupled with desire, as she smells and tastes the essence of evil people. Alyssa Wong is fast becoming one of my go-to authors for interesting, unexpected short fiction. ~Katie Burton


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“The Occidental Bride” by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (2015, free at Clarkesworld)

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThis is the most unusual arranged marriage story I have ever read. In a post-European-catastrophe world, Heilui Lan, a scientist, purchases Kerttu, a brilliant biochemist, as a wife. Neither woman’s motives are what they seem. Heilui is marrying under coercion from her government. Kertuu worked with terrorists to create genocidal weapons. The government plans to use that fact.

Kerttu is an outsider in Heilui’s home and family; Sriduangkaew remarks on Kerttu’s ice-colored hair, her pale complexion, her ignorance of the etiquette of the culture. Kerttu is a classical slave; educated, astute, and used to being controlled. In contrast to Heilui, who chafes under the constrictions of her forced undercover role, Kerttu has no expectation of autonomy. She has been property since she was six years old; despite her intellectual brilliance she no longer has any real sense of freedom. Kerttu’s unemotional responses add to the story’s suspense because we cannot tell how she is feeling or what she is thinking. By extension, we can’t predict what she will do.

Kerttu’s knowledge and past contacts with terrorists form the main thread of the plot. It’s certainly suspenseful, but the real treasure here is the layered, textured world-building and prose that’s as lush as syrup. Tiny descriptions ― the “guidance program” in the shape of a red-beaked crane, the bride gifts, the clothing, the meals ― are rich and vivid. Sriduangkaew strains in places to find the different, original note, but for the most part this story is like a haunting madrigal. ~Marion Deeds


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“The Sons of Vincente” by I.L. Heisler (2015, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe son of a gorgon is taken in by a kind stonesmith after witnessing his mother’s murder. The snakes are shorn from his head and he grows up like any human child, under the warmth and care of his guardian Piero, who names him Calvino. After he displays an unusual ability to “see the pictures hiding inside the rock,” Calvino goes to the city to study with the master sculptor Massimo. There he learns what happened to his mother and seeks a slow, careful revenge.

Heisler does a nice job of balancing action and thought in this story. In the moment of rage and hatred after seeing a statue depicting his mother’s murder, Calvino realizes that his powers as a gorgon did not disappear with the snakes on his head. He immediately sees himself as a monster: “Each curse is born of a singular wound. No two monsters are the same.” But he embraces his monstrousness to enact his vengeance.

I enjoyed this story and was captured by Heisler’s descriptions of art and sculpture. While the ending, which suggests that one cannot pursue a path of darkness without suffering some ill consequences to the soul or spirit, is a truism, I thought she did a wonderful job of making us care for Calvino while also finding him horrific. ~Kate Lechler


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsDe Bellow Lemures, Or The Roman War Against the Zombies of Armorica by Thomas Brookside (2010, $2.51 at Amazon.com)

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe basic concept of the zombie horror genre is quite simple: the dead come “alive” in sort of a sleep-walking-must-feed-on-any-living-thing trance; they attack in any way they can; they bite, they gnaw, they claw; the only way they can be stopped (generally speaking) is to physically remove their heads from their bodies.

The genre master George Romero placed his Night of the Living Dead film in a rural farm. Like Jason Voorhees’ Crystal Lake, dark, foreboding, remote and rural has become the standard-bearer location for hardcore horror (other examples include the Texas homestead in Chainsaw Massacre, Mel Gibson’s isolated farmhouse in Signs, the space frontier in Alien, or the secluded village in M. Night Shyamalan‘s The Village). Now move that rural location to Europe in the late 2nd century A.D. and swap out your town sheriffs for Roman soldiers. What you have is Thomas Brookside‘s exquisitely creative novella De Bello Lemures, Or The Roman War Against the Zombies of Armorica. Brookside’s role within his story is that of translator of an ancient document, recently discovered to contain a hidden text. “De Bello Lemures” is the published version of this text, originally written by Lucius Artorius Castus.

Without giving too much away, Castus has been assigned to move troops from Brittania and put down a rebel uprising on the mainland. While he’s mostly successful, let’s just say that the rebels who are “put down” don’t stay down. Also, Artorius, it’s suggested, is one of the real life characters upon which the legend of King Arthur is based. Brookside does a nice job of subtly working this into his story.

Brookside hits a home run with this self-published 100-page novella by thoroughly committing to his presentation of the story as a genuine Roman manuscript. The translator’s introduction analyzes the document’s discovery and provenance, even delving into the fact that if it were fiction, it would’ve been produced hundreds of years before the first “proto-novels” were written. Brookside includes numerous footnotes throughout the story, enhancing understanding of the Roman world through translation and cultural analysis.

Brookside’s writing is smooth, and he’s nailed the perfect tone that blends “ancient manuscript” with blood-and-gore zombie storytelling. ~Jason Golomb


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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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JASON GOLOMB, on our staff from September 2015 to November 2018, graduated with a degree in Communications from Boston University in 1992, and an M.B.A. from Marymount University in 2005. His passion for ice hockey led to jobs in minor league hockey in Baltimore and Fort Worth, before he returned to his home in the D.C. metro area where he worked for America Online. His next step was National Geographic, which led to an obsession with all things Inca, Aztec and Ancient Rome. But his first loves remain SciFi and Horror, balanced with a healthy dose of Historical Fiction.

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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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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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One comment

  1. These all sound really interesting, and I’ll be sure to make time to check them out over the coming week — thanks, everyone!

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