SHORTS: Tambour, Vaughn, Kowal, Larson, Balder

Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we’ve read that we wanted you to know about.

“The Walking-Stick Forest” by Anna Tambour (2014, free on Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

This is an excellent dark and fantastical short story, set in 1924 in Scotland. Athol Farquar is a veteran of World War I who now lives a solitary life as a carver ― or, more accurately, a shaper ― of wooden walking sticks. He has a deep affinity for blackthorn wood and the forests around his home, and an equally profound distrust of people in general. However, his walking sticks are one-of-a-kind collectors’ items, incredibly expensive, and people will go to incredible lengths to obtain one.

Farquar was so strict about meeting his clients in various remote inns and waysides he designated, that one tin-can magnate broke a leg leaping from a train and a moving-picture actress came down with quite useless hysteria.

But ultimately his fame and talent lead to trouble, and a grave warning from a grateful woman.

I loved the plot and feel of this dark and disturbing fantasy, and Tambour’s lyrical writing, which evoked a strong sense of time and place. There was an odd insta-love moment that came out of nowhere and didn’t go anywhere; I think the story would have been improved with either more or none of the romance element. Still, this was a highly appealing story. Despite the horror element (not something I typically gravitate to), this is one of my favorite short stories from Tor.


“Bannerless” by Carrie Vaughn (2015, free at Wired, originally published in The End Has Come anthology)

This short story, which shares the same name with Carrie Vaughn’s recent novel, also shares with it the same post-apocalyptic setting and main character, Enid. Although this story was published earlier than the novel, it is set much later in Enid’s life, when she’s older and contemplating her retirement as a criminal investigator.

One of the most serious crimes in this world is having an unauthorized pregnancy, overpopulation being one of the factors that led to the fall of civilization. Official permission to have a child is evidenced by a woven banner. Enid, paired with a new and inexperienced investigator, Bert, is investigating a report of a bannerless pregnancy in Southtown. Once they reach the group household of ten people, the report is quickly confirmed, but as Enid continues her investigation into what happened and why, a more complex story emerges.

If you’re familiar with Enid from the 2017 novel Bannerless, it’s highly enjoyable to meet up with her again as a mature woman at the end of her long career. In spite of, or perhaps because of, her job, Enid is an insightful and compassionate person. “Bannerless” is not just a story of a detective investigation, but also a story of human nature, our bravery as well as our shortcomings.


The Worshipful Society of Glovers by Mary Robinette Kowal (July 2017, free at Uncanny, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

In a magical version of Victorian-era London, Vaughn is a journeyman to a glove maker, a strict master. In this world, gloves are magically imbued with different qualities matching their embroidery ― strength, height, chastity, cunning, etc. ― by brownies who cooperate with the glovers guild. Vaughn lives with his teenage sister Sarah in a dingy garrett, on the knife-edge of poverty. Sarah periodically has dangerous and uncontrollable seizures, and Vaughn knows that if he could get a brownie to help him with the magic, he could create a pair of gloves that would control her seizures. But he can’t afford a licensed pair, and no conscientious brownie will take the dishonest job of helping him create an unlicensed pair.

Vaughn’s life and world are vividly created, and despite the many problems in Vaughn’s and Sarah’s lives and some ominous undertones (like “pure white kidskin with golden chains around each wrist to preserve the young lady’s chastity”), it’s often an enchanting world. But Kowal isn’t interested here in showing us the lighter side of Victorian England, and as troubles mount, Vaughn’s situation becomes progressively bleaker. In the end, The Worshipful Society of Glovers is a hard-hitting, disturbing look at the problem of poverty and the unintended consequences of choices.


“Travelers” by Rich Larson (July 2017, free at Clarkesworld, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

A woman unexpectedly wakes up from coldsleep on a decades-long starship journey to a new world. The equipment shows her that she was thawed on an emergency basis for health and safety reasons, but she doesn’t understand the reasons. As she makes her way through the deserted ship to the medbay, she hears a man playing guitar. He’s tearfully grateful when she appears, telling her that he’s been awake for two months because of a similar emergency thaw. They can’t get into the medbay to try to get placed back into hibernation, and there appear to be several malfunctions on the ship. But something doesn’t ring true for the woman, and as she begins to investigate, danger takes the place of confusion.

“Travelers” has some initial similarities to the movie Passengers, where a couple on a starship awakes early from hibernation, but Larson takes this story in a different, more ghastly direction. In fact, I think it’s safe to suggest that Larson likely meant it as the story that Passengers should have been. It’s a straightforward and fairly brief horror story that would have benefitted from a little more world-building and character development, but it has some effective and chilling moments.


The Bridgegroom by Bo Balder (July 2017, free at Clarkesworld, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)

Alois is enjoying a visit home from the university, until an old man walks unsteadily into town, keels over and dies of a heart attack. The old man was the Bridgegroom, and Alois is politely but firmly informed that he is to replace the dead man as the new Bridgegroom ― an irrevocable appointment, a lifelong sentence to a solitary life in a cottage near a glacier, guarding a huge red metal Bridge that spans the glacial gorge. Alois isn’t sure what the Bridge really is or why it needs to be guarded, but he knows that he doesn’t want to stay there in isolation for the rest of his life. And then the Bridge speaks to him.

The Bridgegroom has an intriguing if somewhat familiar premise. It flows smoothly and it engaged me fully while I was reading it, despite a few questions that the plot raised in my mind (How was Alois chosen as the next Bridgegroom? Why wasn’t he better informed about and prepared for this contingency?). But after I finished the story, more questions came thick and fast. For example (HIGHLIGHT TO VIEW SPOILERS): Why did the humans who set up the Bridge leave a method for it to escape, and why was the Bridge aware of that method? Why is the caretaker necessary, if he doesn’t know anything at all about the Bridge or why he’s there? If the Bridge was responsible for the apocalypse, why is it now offering more technical knowledge and information to Alois?

None of these questions is insurmountable, but Balder didn’t deal with the many logical holes in her plot. Considering this is a novelette and not just a short story, it falls sadly short on the world-building, which is a shame because this tale has some real potential.

 


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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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6 comments

  1. Thanks for alerting me to “Bannerless”! It was really nice to see Enid again. :)

    • The title “Bannerless” actually fits this short story much better than the novel. I’ve been scratching my head a little over why Vaughn and/or her publisher decided to name the novel Bannerless as well, since it’s not a major element of that story.

      • Well, remember that the murdered man (Sero) was bannerless, which meant that the community was suspicious of him — and hinted at all kinds of secrets swirling around who would want to associate with him. So it wasn’t a major element, but it contributed to the overall atmosphere of secrecy.

        • **spoiler alert**

          Actually, wasn’t it just that they thought/assumed he was bannerless (but he actually wasn’t)? Memory is a little hazy now. In either case, though, you have a good point.

          • As I don’t want to spoil anything for readers who haven’t read the novel yet, I would prefer not to say. :P

  2. That occurred to me too after the fact. I’ve spoiler-tagged my last comment. :)

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