SFM: Muir, Emrys, Sanderson, Kingfisher

Short Fiction Monday: 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. 

“The Deepwater Bride” by Tamsyn Muir (2015, Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine July/August 2015 issue, Kindle)

Sixteen-year-old Hester Blake is having an unconventional summer: octopodes are in the laundry, deep-sea fish keep showing up in a pond, and salty, oily rain falls from the sky. Normal people are worried about global warming, but the Blakes belong to a long line of seers and scribes, and Hester and her Aunt Mar see these trials as heralds of the “crawling Night Lord’s ascendancy.” When Hester finds a goblin shark impaled in a tree outside a teenage girl’s house, she realizes that “[o]ne of the pelagic kings has chosen a bride.” Her initial urge to document these occurrences in the family journals morphs into something more when she becomes friends with the improbably-named Rainbow Kipley.

“The Deepwater Bride” was recently announced as a nominee for a 2015 Nebula Award (Novelette), and it’s a well-deserved nomination. Tamsyn Muir perfectly captures Hester’s transition from petulance and superiority to furious desperation, and Miss Kipley is a fitting foil with her irrepressible cheer and spray-tans; their growing friendship feels natural even as they encounter increasingly unnatural events. Muir maintains a deft hand throughout the novelette, blending the mundanity of Barbie’s Dream Car with foreshadowed horror of the Night Lord and the madness to come. Passages in which trees wept salt water or a “caul of cloud obscured the moon” are evocative of the weird, eldritch horrors found in the best H.P. Lovecraft stories, while building on his legacy by featuring characters and situations outside of Lovecraft’s limited scope. I’ve really been enjoying this modern renaissance of Weird Fiction, and I sincerely hope Muir writes more stories in this vein. ~Jana Nyman


“Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” by Ruthanna Emrys (2014, free at Tor.com, Kindle)

“Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” will have a definite appeal to anyone who, as a child (or teenager or adult), was convinced that if they opened their closet door at the right time or came around the right bend in a forest trail, they’d stumble into Narnia, Lyra’s Oxford, or Sengoku-era Japan. Ruthanna Emrys presents the land of Tikanu, which overlaps with our own in varying ways: some gentle, some more intrusive and dangerous, but always magical. Citizens know each other by their shared reverence of the moon and their cherished mint cuttings.

The story is broken into seven segments (an auspicious number), with recurring characters and an ornate quality to the prose which lends an air of solemnity. Tikanu’s magic is as real as the endless digits of pi, and seemingly impossible events, like an infestation of ifrits, are given the same gravity as childhood illness. Celebrations and Feast Days share commonalities with recognizable events like Passover, further emphasizing the next-door nature of Tikanu.

If you’ve ever felt not-quite-at-home in this reality, “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” might give you some hints as to why, and will certainly have you peering into every herb garden you see, on the off chance that a tiny snake is waiting for you. ~Jana Nyman


“Perfect State” by Brandon Sanderson (2015, Kindleaudio)

The God-Emperor Kairominas (“Kai”) knows that he’s just a brain in a vat and that his virtual medieval world was created just to make him happy. But when the masters behind the scenes dictate that he must reproduce, he decides to rebel and choose the woman whom they’ve deemed least compatible with him. When Kai and Sophie meet for a blind date in a different virtual world, Kai’s nemesis shows up just in time to prevent Brandon Sanderson from having to write a sex scene.

“Perfect State” is the kind of story that pushes all the right buttons for me (after all, I love The Matrix) and I didn’t want it to end. I wish it had been a novel. I loved the premise, the setting, the plot, and the characters (though sometimes Kai’s beliefs are a little inconsistent with his “concept”). This story is fun, but Sanderson manages to explore a few interesting existential ideas, too, such as personality, free will, determinism and, of course, the nature of reality.

“Perfect State” is available as a Kindle Single, but I listened to Audible Studio’s version, which is wonderfully narrated by Christian Rummel. I loved his interpretations of Sanderson’s characters. The audiobook is available by itself or packaged together with another Sanderson story, “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell.” ~Kat Hooper


“Telling the Bees” by T. Kingfisher (2015, free at Strange Horizons)

There was a girl who died every morning, and it would not have been a problem except that she kept bees.

With this intriguing beginning, we are introduced to an unnamed girl who lives alone in small cottage. Early each morning, after a long, sleepless night, she dies. A few hours later she gasps and shudders her way back to life again. Then she goes to tell her bees that their old master has died, and she is the new master, because bees require respect and must be informed of deaths, or they will abandon the hive and leave. And having a little honey to scrape over her black bread is one of the few pleasures left to the girl.

“Telling the Bees” is a quiet, extremely short story. It’s also a little enigmatic, and it took me a few reads through it to tease out the details and fully understand the context.

Sleep like death and death like sleep are common curses. It is inevitable that they become tangled. Fair folk and wicked queens are not always precise in their diction.

There are consequences for imprecision, and it is always someone else who has to pay.

This subtly horrifying portrait of a life where sleep has been replaced by a temporary death gained heft for me when I realized that it is based in part on an old traditional custom that one must inform one’s bees of key events in the household, particularly deaths, or the bees may stop producing honey or leave the hive. I would have liked to have known more of the girl’s backstory (could she be Sleeping Beauty?), but that may well have marred the overall impact of the tale. There’s a little bit of heartbreak in each of the details in this fine story. ~Tadiana Jones


“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson (2013, Kindleaudio)

True to her name, Silence Montane doesn’t say much. That’s what makes her the best innkeeper on the edge of the forest commonly referred to as “Hell.” There are three rules in this forest: “Don’t kindle flame, don’t shed the blood of another, don’t run at night. These things draw shades.” But the shades are not the only deadly creatures in the forest, and Silence is more than an innkeeper, as a few of her more unsavory guests are about to discover…

We’re used to long works by Brandon Sanderson, but he does a great job here of quickly setting up a scene, introducing a few complex characters, and giving us the “rules” of Silence’s world. I thought some of these rules felt arbitrary, but if Sanderson writes more about this world (which I think he will) I could probably be easily convinced to believe. The plot of “Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” is creative, exciting, and fairly intense. It’s easy to root for Silence, a woman we hardly know but would like to learn more about.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” was originally published in Dangerous Women, an anthology edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois. It is now available as a Kindle Single, but I listened to Audible Studio’s version, which is nicely narrated by Kate Reading. The audiobook is available by itself or packaged together with another Sanderson story, “Perfect State,” which I really loved. ~Kat Hooper


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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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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches 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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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. “Perfect State” and “Seven Commentaries” both sound great–onto my TBR pile they go!

  2. My take on “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land”: 4.5 stars. I’ve always wanted to open a wardrobe and find a path to a hidden magical land. This Tor short story is the next best thing.

    The magical land of Tikanu is best accessed through wild mint. You may find “books of lore in odd corners of the library, bright purple toadstools in the woods, symbols scribed delicately in spiderwebs.” Rebel spirits called lillim may sicken your child by stealing life from it, but the gnarled wood golems who work in the Tikanu library are willing to offer advice and help.

    I loved the whimsical, fantastical details of this magical land that lies so near to ours. There’s not much of a plot here, and at times it comes across a bit kumbaya, with Jews and Moslems, traditional families and gays, “ants and golems, spirits and small winged things” all feasting together, but it’s a heartwarming and lovely tale.

    Thanks so much for finding this one, Jana!

  3. wow–lots of good recs this week. Looking forward to checking these out!

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