Short Fiction


Burning Girls and Other Stories: Great opening, strong close, uneven in between

Burning Girls and Other Stories by Veronica Schanoes

Veronica Schanoes’ collection Burning Girls and Other Stories (2021) started strong, hit a rough patch for a lengthy time, then ended strong. It is, therefore, the epitome of the mixed bag. Of the thirteen tales, I found one to be a standout, two others good, a few solid ones and a number that didn’t do anything for me. I won’t go through each one, but here are my responses to several of the stories.
“Among the Thorns”: This is the opening piece and is also the one I thought stood out amongst the collection. Not only is it a strong opening story, but it’s also a killer opening line and paragraph:

They made my father dance in thorns before they killed him.

I used to think that this was a metaphor, that they beat him with thorny vines, perhaps. But I was wrong about that.

They made him danc... Read More

The People’s Republic of Everything: An experimental collection

Reposting to include Skye's new review.

The People’s Republic of Everything by Nick Mamatas

I don’t know if I simply wasn’t in the right mood for Nick Mamatas’ short-story collection The People’s Republic of Everything (2018), or if I’m not the right audience for his preferred themes and overall style, but this book and I just could not mesh.

There was one story, “Tom Silex, Spirit-Smasher,” which gripped my attention and had everything I look for in short fiction. The story focuses on Rosa Martinez, whose elderly grandmother might — through quirks of legality regarding her first marriage and the question of ownership of her first husband’s pulp publications — own the rights to a series of stories revolving around psychopomp Tom Silex. The character work is strong, the ... Read More

The Planetbreaker’s Son: Excellent introduction to this multi-faceted writer

The Planetbreaker’s Son by Nick Mamatas

PM Press’s Outspoken Authors imprint published The Planetbreaker’s Son (2021) by Nick Mamatas. The slim book includes the titular novella, the SF story “Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring,” a personal essay called “The Term Paper Artist,” and an interview with Mamatas hosted by Terry Bisson.

Honestly, the quirky interview with these two guys was worth the price of the book for me.

In a brief statement at the beginning of “Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring, Ring,” Mamatas thanks Jeffrey Thomas for an invitation to write in Thomas’s shared-world “Punktown” setting. (The story was originally published in 2018, in the anthology Transmissions from Punktown.) Punktown is a science-fictional megalopolis, filled ... Read More

Fireheart Tiger: The seduction and threat of power

Fireheart Tiger by Aliette de Bodard

Princess Thanh was a royal hostage for many years in the northern country of Ephteria before being sent back to her home country of Bình Hải. Two years after her return, she’s a disappointment to her mother, the empress, who hoped that Thanh’s time in Ephteria would give her insights into that country’s government and culture, making her more useful as a diplomat. It’s especially important now that an Ephterian delegation is arriving, certain to make demands and threats that will encroach on Bình Hải’s independence. But Thanh is a quiet, somewhat uncertain person — too thoughtful and discreet, according to her mother — rather than a power player. Thanh is also hiding a secret: since a disastrous fire in the Ephterian palace, small items in her vicinity have a mysterious habit of catching on fire. And the only real relationship she had in Ephteria was a clandestine love affair with Princess... Read More

The Physicians of Vilnoc: Penric and the plague

The Physicians of Vilnoc by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Physicians of Vilnoc (2020) is another installment in Lois McMaster Bujold’s PENRIC AND DESDEMONA series which is set in the same world as her award-winning FIVE GODS / CHALION trilogy. You don’t need to read the CHALION books first, but I highly recommend them. Most of the PENRIC AND DESDEMONA novellas can stand alone, but it’s best to read them in order if you can.

The Physicians of Vilnoc is the eighth story if you go buy publication order but the ninth if you go by internal chronology. The very short installment called Masquerade in Lodi was the latest to be published (as of... Read More

The Orphans of Raspay: An action-packed PENRIC story

The Orphans of Raspay by Lois McMaster Bujold

Those of us who are big fans of Lois McMaster Bujold, now age 71, are always thrilled to have a new story from her. These days she’s been writing novellas and most of them are PENRIC AND DESDEMONA stories, a spin-off from her award-winning FIVE GODS / CHALION trilogy.

The Orphans of Raspay (2019) is the seventh of these novellas, if we go by publication order, and the eighth if we go by the story’s chronology. Most (but not all) of the novellas have a self-contained story with a satisfying conclusion, but I’d still recommend that you read them in either publication or chronological order so you can experience the development of Penric’s relationships. It is not necessary to read the CHALI... Read More

Remote Control: A gently moving and thoughtful novella

Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Remote Control (2021) is the newest novella from Nnedi Okorafor, a quiet, interior-focused and episodic work that is at times a haunting, tragic coming of age tale of magic and mystery, at other times a concisely and sharply effective observer of modern trends, and, depending on the reader, at other times a frustratingly vague story full of unanswered questions. Overall, I enjoyed it quite a bit, finding it to be the sort of story that lingers in the head.

Six-year-old Fatima lives a happy family life in a near-future Ghana despite her frequent bouts with malaria. But when a meteor shower filled with “beautiful green streaks decorating the sky” drops at the base of her favorite tree a “seed [that] glowed a bright green [with] light seeping from it like oil,” it changes her life and those of everyon... Read More

The Women of Weird Tales: Some of the Weird Tales ladies get their due

The Women of Weird Tales by Greye La Spina, Everil Worrell, Mary Elizabeth Counselman and Eli Colter

If I were to ask you to name some of the famous writers who had work published in the pages of the legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales, odds are that you might reply with some of the following: H. P. Lovecraft, whose Cthulhu stories sprung up in Weird Tales; Robert E. Howard, who placed his Conan stories therein; Robert Bloch, Henry Kuttner, perhaps Clark Ashton Smith. Readers who are ... Read More

Across the Green Grass Fields: A weaker entry in a highly praised series

Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire

I’ve been hit and miss on Seanan McGuire’s WAYWARD CHILDREN portal series, finding some of the novellas lyrical and emotional and others frustratingly slapdash. Her newest, Across the Green Grass Fields (2021), unfortunately falls closer to the latter end of the spectrum.

As one expects by now, we have a young girl who steps through a doorway into another world. We meet Regan first at seven, part of a best friends trio with Heather Nelson and Laurel Anderson. Quickly, though, she gets drawn into one of those cruel moments of childhood where demarcations are drawn. When queen bee Laurel arbitrarily shuns Heather, deciding she isn’t “girly” enough, Regan, learning quickly “this is what it costs to be different,” goes along with it. Years... Read More

The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories: Historical horror done to a turn

The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories by Marjorie Bowen

At the tail end of my recent review of D. K. Broster’s Couching at the Door, I mentioned that I so enjoyed this volume of creepy stories that I was minded to immediately begin another book from British publisher Wordsworth Editions’ Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural division … and I’m so glad that I followed through on that! My latest discovery from this wide-ranging series is Marjorie Bowen’s The Bishop of Hell and Other Stories, and in retrospect the two books have happily paired quite well together. Both were released in the 1940s (1942 for the Broster book, 1949 for the Bowen) and are the products of British authoresses more well known for their historical fi... Read More

A Very Scalzi Christmas: The lighter side of Christmas

A Very Scalzi Christmas by John Scalzi

I spent part of Christmas Day 2020 reading A Very Scalzi Christmas (2019), a (mostly) humorous collection of short Christmas-themed pieces by, naturally, John Scalzi. As Marion so aptly commented in her review of Scalzi’s highly similar collection Miniatures, “this collection of works does verge on the silly. It jumps the border of silly. It tap-dances and cartwheels through the world of silly, shrieking ‘Wheeeee!’ ” It’s the same in this case, except with a few more serious pieces to offset the absurd and satirical ones.

Of the humorous pieces, I had two favorites: First, there’s “Jangle the Elf Grants Wishes,” in which Jangle’s boss, the head of the Department of Non-Mater... Read More

Couching at the Door: Another winner from Wordsworth Editions

Couching at the Door by D.K. Broster

Once again, I find myself thankful to the British publisher Wordsworth Editions, and in particular its Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural division, for turning me on to an author who I may not have ever discovered otherwise. In the past, I have written here of several other writers brought to my attention by this extensive and wonderful series of economically priced books: Ambrose Bierce in Terror By Night, Alice and Claude Askew in Aylmer Vance: Ghost-Seer, and May Sinclair in Read More

How to Fracture a Fairy Tale: Grim undertones to Grimm

Reposting to include Skye's new review.

How to Fracture a Fairy Tale by Jane Yolen

One year after Tachyon Publications published The Emerald Circus, a collection of Jane Yolen's fantastical short stories based on various fairy tales and legendary people (both fictional and real), it has followed up with a similar collection, How to Fracture a Fairy Tale (2018). Like The Emerald Circus, this is a compilation of Yolen’s older, previously published stories, spiffed up with new author’s notes in which Yolen briefly discuss each story and how she “fractured” it with significant departures from its original source material. These end notes for each story also include a poem by Yolen that’s linked... Read More

Serpentine: A tiny tale of great significance

Serpentine by Philip Pullman

Serpentine (2020) is a tiny tale set in between the two trilogies that have defined Philip Pullman's writing career. Whilst at a mere seventy pages it may seem, by Pullman's standards, brief, it plays a vital function in understanding the adventures the future Lyra will embark upon in the THE BOOK OF DUST.

A note from the author explains that the story was originally written 2004, before Pullman had any idea that he would return to Lyra and her world.

Yet the story marks a pivotal point in Lyra's understanding of herself and her relationship with her daemon, Pantalaimon; this very understanding will, in fact, dictate the entire course of the subseq... Read More

Sleep Donation: A strange and thought-provoking tale

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

Sleep Donation by Karen Russell

In the near future, an insomnia epidemic has struck the United States. It’s caused by a dysfunction in orexin and those who acquire it can’t sleep. Eventually, they die. But there is a therapy that can help prolong life and, in some cases, even cure people. Donors can contribute sleep to those afflicted with the disorder. Babies make the best donors because their sleep isn’t contaminated by nightmares.

Trish is the top recruiter for a charity organization that finds sleep donors. Her sister died from the disorder and, when she tearfully tells the story to potential donors, she can get many of them to sign up. When she discovers a baby who turns out to be a rare universal sleep donor, Trish works with the baby’s parents to keep them on... Read More

And Go Like This: For readers and writers

And Go Like This by John Crowley

I don’t usually pay attention to the media blurbs on the covers of books, but the Newsday quote on the cover of John Crowley’s And Go Like This (2019) so perfectly describes this story collection that I must share it:

“Transforms the lead of daily life into seriously dazzling artistic gold.”

“The lead of daily life” in these stories comes from mostly average people going about their mostly average lives. In this collection you won’t find many of the plot fixtures we’re used to seeing in speculative fiction. There are no spaceships, battles, dragons, kings, or magic spells. There are a few speculative elements, but what makes Crowley’s fiction most compelling is the way he closely examines the souls of normal folk, portrays them in such a charming wa... Read More

To Hold Up the Sky: A bit too cool and hard sci-fi for me

To Hold Up the Sky by Cixin Liu

In my review of Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, I stated I thought the novel had gone on too long and noted that while it wrestled with “a lot of big ideas … I just wished such questions had been surrounded by richer characterization and a defter writing style.” It turns out I had pretty much the exact same reaction to Liu’s recent collection of short stories, To Hold Up the Sky (2020).

To speak generally of the collection, Liu offers up a lot of intriguing thought experiments and creates some truly evocative imagery. Unfortunately, these strengths were, for me, mostly outweighed by a paucity of engaging or compelling characters, a lot of heavily talky exposition in nea... Read More

Ring Shout: The horrors of racism and hatred made tangible

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

In Ring Shout (2020), P. Djèlí Clark melds two types of horror, Lovecraftian monsters and the bloody rise of the Ku Klux Klan in 1922 Georgia, as a group of black resistance fighters take on an enemy with frightening supernatural powers.

As Ku Klux Klan members march down the streets of Macon, Georgia on the Fourth of July, Maryse Boudreaux, who narrates the story, watches from a rooftop with her two companions, sharpshooter Sadie and former soldier Cordelia “Chef” Lawrence, a bomb expert. They’ve baited a trap for the “Ku Kluxes,” who are hellish demons that hide in disguise among the Klan humans, taking over the bodies of the worst of them. The trap works, but the silver pellets and iron slags contained in the bomb aren’t enough to kill the three monsters that rise out of the wreckage ... Read More

Allison V. Harding: The Forgotten Queen of Horror

Allison V. Harding: The Forgotten Queen of Horror by Allison V. Harding

Unless you are an aficionado of the famous pulp magazine Weird Tales, or have read some of the many anthology collections derived from its pages, the chances are good that you are not familiar with the author Allison V. Harding. This reader had previously encountered the author in the 1988 collection Weird Tales: The Magazine That Never Dies, which contained what is probably Harding’s most famous story, “The Damp Man.” I had hugely enjoyed this chilling tale and wanted to read more by this nearly forgotten writer, but there was one problem: No collection of Harding’s work had ever been compiled, and her appearances in various collections are few and far between. And this is somewhat surprising, given that, during the peri... Read More

Yellow Jessamine: A paranoid antiheroine in a dissolving city

Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling

Having thoroughly enjoyed Caitlin Starling’s 2019 novel The Luminous Dead, I was very happy to learn that I wouldn’t have to wait long to read more of her work.

Yellow Jessamine (2020), Starling’s new novella, is completely different from The Luminous Dead but similarly features creepy atmosphere, a background of family trauma, and relationships filled with dysfunctional tension and longing.

Evelyn Perdanu is a wealthy woman in the city of Delphinium, a city that is slowly dying now that its surrounding empire has fallen to a coup. Evelyn is involved in shipping, and is also an herbalist specializing in “fixes to unfixable probl... Read More

Driftwood: A strong story collection with a great setting

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Driftwood by Marie Brennan

Driftwood (2020) is a charming, meditative, and often poignant collection of linked stories by Marie Brennan that mostly succeeds both in its individual tales and as a whole, though I had a few issues. But given that one of those is it was too short, it’s still an easy book to recommend.

The book’s general setting is the titular Driftwood. Think of it as a beach whose tide, instead of washing up the pebbles and the sea’s detritus, washes up instead dying worlds. Except instead of piling up on a sandy strand, the worlds just edge farther and farther inward, getting ever smaller before eventually disappearing forever. Or as one character explains to another whose world has just started the process:
Bits [of a world] just vanish. People die... Read More

Drowned Country: An enchanting sequel

Drowned Country by Emily Tesh

Drowned Country (2020) is the second and concluding novella in Emily Tesh’s GREENHOLLOW DUOLOGY, following 2019’s Silver in the Wood. This review will contain some spoilers for Silver in the Wood.

When we last saw Tobias and Henry Silver, Tobias had become an ordinary mortal man, and had been reunited with Silver — who had been presumed dead, but instead had been saved by the Wood itself, becoming its guardian Wild Man in the way that Tobias once was. It turns out, though, that this idyll lasted only a few months before the two men fell out. Now Silver sulks alone in his manor house, using his powers to accelerate its ruin.

S... Read More

SHORTS: Brown, McGuire, Muir, Headley, Bryski, Goss

SHORTS is our column exploring free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we've recently read that we wanted you to know about.

While Dragons Claim the Sky by Jen Brown (2019, originally published in FIYAH Magazine Issue #10: Hair, available online for $3.99; free audio recording on PodCastle (Part 1 and Part 2), read by C. L. Clark)

While Dragons Claim the Sky tells the story of a skilled young mage as she takes a chance on discovering more of the world and her... Read More

The Heirs of Locksley: Archery and mischief with Robin Hood’s children

The Heirs of Locksley by Carrie Vaughn

The adventures of Robin Hood's three children continue in The Heirs of Locksley, the second novella in Carrie Vaughn's ROBIN HOOD STORIES series. It takes a unexpected four-year leap forward from The Ghosts of Sherwood. The eldest, Mary, is now twenty and still hasn't met the young man she's semi-betrothed to, and her feelings have shifted from fear and uncertainty to irritation that William de Ros still hasn’t bothered to come meet her; in fact, she's beginning to wonder if he even exists. John (named after Little John) is in his later teens now, and the youngest, Eleanor, is thirteen.

Robin's old enemy King John died a few years ago, and his thirteen-y... Read More

Where the Veil Is Thin: A mixed bag of fairies

Where the Veil Is Thin edited by Cerece Rennie Murphy & Alana Joli Abbott

Where the Veil Is Thin (2020), an anthology of stories about fairies and spirits, began as a Kickstarter. The project was successful, and the book is now widely available. Editors Cerece Rennie Murphy and Alana Joli Abbott have brought together a diverse group of authors with a wide variety of writing styles and approaches to the fae. While the tag line on the back cover says “These are not your daughter’s faerie tales,” some of the stories do read as if they might be intended for a youthful audience, while others are definitely not for kids. The stunning cover art is by Anna Dittmann.

The collection begins with a brief introduction by Jim C. Hines. In it, he... Read More