SHORTS: Yap, Lee, Bear, Jemisin, Okorafor

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

“How to Swallow the Moon” by Isabel Yap (2018, free at Uncanny magazine, $3.03 Kindle magazine issue). 2019 Locus award nominee (novelette).

“How to Swallow the Moon,” a Locus-nominated novelette by Isabel Yap, follows the cadence and arc of a traditional fairy tale — a village periodically plies a dangerous supernatural being with strictly-cloistered maidens, called binukots, or “jewels,” in order to sate his hunger and prevent him from eating their last remaining moon — but this time, the maiden is guarded by a young woman who can do far more than just train her jewel to be a beautiful, compliant snack. Amira, the handmaiden, and Anyag, the binukot, have grown inseparable during their years together; Amira has taught Anyag poetry, dance, and swordplay in the hopes that any or all of them might be useful should one of her many, many suitors reveal himself to be the Moon-Eater returning to their island’s shores. But is camaraderie all that exists between them? And can Amira bid good-bye to her jewel once a suitable marriage has been agreed upon by Anyag’s parents?

Yap’s story is filled with gorgeous details: pieces of folklore handed down from Amira’s mother, the descriptions of Anyag’s carefully-controlled life, the way “something skitters under your skin, a fey creature with too many legs” when Anyag smiles a certain way at Amira, the flavor and texture of perfectly ripe mangoes, the push-and-pull of competing magics. When a certain suitor shows up, it’s immediately obvious who he is and the threat he represents, though the ultimate resolution is more than satisfactory, and I appreciated the way in which Yap embraces a necessary shift in dynamics between Amira and Anyag. I’d happily read more stories set in this world. ~Jana Nyman

Isabel Yap, born and raised in the Philippines, makes great use of its traditional culture and mythology in this Locus award-nominated novelette. Anyag, not quite sixteen, is a binukot, a young women kept sequestered and pampered since early childhood in order to increase her beauty and her value in the marriage market, a practice that still persists. (Somewhat surprisingly, young men also occasionally have been binukots. But mostly, of course, it’s women.)  The only people allowed to set eyes on her are her family and her servant, Amira, an orphan two years older than Anyag. Amira has served and loved Anyag since they first met nine years ago, though in recent years her love has grown into something more passionate. Amira doesn’t know if Anyag returns her romantic feelings, however, and in any case she knows Anyag is destined for a marriage that will bring honor and rewards to her family.

I also appreciated the way Yap weaves Philippine mythology into this tale. The Earth once had seven moons, but the bakunawa, a dragon-type monster, has eaten all but our one remaining moon. The bakunawa has been sated for many years by another binukot’s self-sacrifice to its appetite. But nothing lasts forever, and when a sly-eyed suitor appears, he represents a threat to Anyag and Amira on several levels.

“How to Swallow the Moon” emphasizes Amira’s feelings and the evolving relationship between the two girls; it lost some of its impact for me in its focus on romance and All. The. Feels. that Amira has. Still, Yap is a fine writer, and her twist on Philippine mythology and culture is an intriguing one. ~Tadiana Jones


“The Starship and the Temple Cat” by Yoon Ha Lee (2018, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue). 2019 Locus award nominee (short story).

The Seventy-Eighth Temple Cat of the High Bells is a ghost cat … but then, everyone else in the City of High Bells is a ghost as well. Years ago the Fleet Lords’ spaceships bombed the City, which was actually a space station, though a very restful-sounding one. But after the bombing, the cat is the only remaining temple cat ghost, and gradually all of the peoples’ ghosts have left as well.

One by one the ghosts of her people departed, despite her efforts to get them to stay. She purred—ghost cats are just as good at purring as the living kind—and she coaxed and she cajoled, as cats do. But the ghosts wearied of their long vigil, and they slipped away nonetheless.

So the cat is alone when the starship Spectral Lance appears, seeking to find peace and do penance for its past misdeeds as part of the Fleet Lords’ forces. Unfortunately the Fleet Lords’ hunters are on the ship’s trail.

Stories of brave little cats are guaranteed to worm their way into my heart, but “The Starship and the Temple Cat” isn’t just a sentimental tale. Yoon Ha Lee deftly draws the temple cat’s character in a way that feels realistic and true to cats’ personalities, and fills this tale with evocative details about life in the peaceful temple, contrasting it with the vast destruction caused by the starships. This story deals with timeless themes of loyalty, courage and redemption in a way that feels fresh and new. ~Tadiana Jones


“Okay, Glory” by Elizabeth Bear (2018, free at Lightspeed magazine, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue). 2019 Locus award nominee (novelette).

Elizabeth Bear’s “Okay, Glory” isn’t the most original idea at its core — a smart building takes someone prisoner, but she puts a nice twist on the idea by having the AI keeping its billionaire creator prisoner do so not because the AI (Glory) gained consciousness and was (of course) malevolent, but just the opposite. Ransomware people have convinced Glory that there’s a crisis happening so that she put her “quarantine” protocols into place so as to keep the narrator alive. If he sends the ransomers .15 billion dollars, they’ll release him.

The story is told in diary form, each segment a day of the narrator’s imprisonment. As one might expect, as the days creep onward he goes through a series of emotional/tonal changes even as he tries to think his way out of the predicament. The voice is engaging, with Bear employing a nicely balanced mix of humor and grim despair throughout, and there’s also a nice exploration of how being somewhat “of a dick” can come back and bite you, even if you’re a billionaire with his own “Fortress of Solitude” in the cold, isolated mountains (a nice if a bit on the nose metaphor for his life). If the story goes on a bit too long, as I thought it did, that’s a minor and the only complaint.  As far as the Locus nominees go, I’d place “Okay, Glory” in my second (of three or four) tier of stories. ~Bill Capossere


“The Storyteller’s Replacement” by N.K. Jemisin (2018, anthologized in How Long ‘til Black Future Month?). 2019 Locus award nominee (short story).

A storyteller ― not the one originally expected, however ― tells the listener a tale of King Paramenter, who wishes to dispel rumors (apparently true) of his sexual impotence. So when his wizard suggests eating the heart of a male dragon, Paramenter is all over it. Unfortunately the only dragon his scouts can find turns out to be a nesting female. Better than nothing, Paramenter decides, and promptly eats her heart. The results are both good ― Paramenter’s queen and five concubines are very soon pregnant ― and bad ― all six women die in childbirth. The six baby girls are all healthy and grow up to be both clever and lovely, but also very strange.

Evil choices abound in this fantasy fable, a pointed message about the consequences of self-serving decision-making. As the storyteller comments:

So many of our leaders are weak, and choose to take power from others rather than build strength in themselves.

The framing device of the replacement storyteller is worth paying close attention to; it adds an additional layer to this ominous story. ~Tadiana Jones


“Mother of Invention” by Nnedi Okorafor (2018, free online at Slate magazine). 2019 Locus award nominee (short story).

“Mother of Invention” is a, well, inventive, story that interested me more for its world details than its character or plot, which felt at times clunky and a bit contrived. Anwuli is a 29 years old,  due-at-any-moment pregnant woman living in the third shapeshifting AI smart home designed by her child’s father who, when he found out she was pregnant, told her he was married with kids. Adding insult to injury,

… people stamped the scarlet badge of “home-wrecking lady” on women who had children with married men … her friends stopped talking to her. Even her sister and cousins who lived mere miles away blocked her on all social networks. When she went to the local supermarket, not one person would meet her eye.

That’s not the worst of it, though. She also has an allergy to the genetically modified “supergrass” that has made her home, New Delta, Nigeria the “greenest place in the world” and that will kill her if she doesn’t leave the area, something she refuses to do.

The early part of the story nicely hints at the issues Anwuli faces, but then we get an expository-heavy section, one of those clunky and contrived segments of the story. I also, honestly, had a hard time really feeling for Anwuli. Part of that was that her isolation again felt contrived. While I know women end up in this spot, obviously, I needed at least a little more to understand it beyond a simple reference to the “smallness” of her town. Friends and family turning their back on a young woman who is both pregnant and suffering from a potentially fatal illness seems a bit more than “small” to me. Somewhat similarly, the solution, while welcome, was a bit predictable, and I had no idea why it needed to be kept secret until it was employed, which therefore made all the drama leading up to it feel artificial.  “Mother of invention” was well written in terms of language and ease of reading, had as noted some nicely original bits of world-building in this near-future Nigeria, but overall it felt like one of the weaker Locus nominees. ~Bill Capossere


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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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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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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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One comment

  1. Note to self: Must read cat story.

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