Short Fiction


Ring Shout: The horrors of racism and hatred made tangible

Reposting to include Marion's new review.

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’... Read More

The Tangleroot Palace: A solid collection

The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie Liu

I’m a big fan of Marjorie Liu’s MONSTRESS series, so I was eager to pick up her collection of short stories, entitled The Tangleroot Palace (2021). Unfortunately, while there was a lot to admire in terms of the prose itself, the stories didn’t do much for me, though they were solid enough. I’ll note, however, as I always do when reviewing a collection, that I’m a tough audience when it comes to short stories, generally preferring longer, more developed works (though one of my favorite books this year will be a collection of stories).

Liu’s collection brings together a half-dozen stories and the eponymous novella. As noted, the prose is strong throughout, especially considering the stories were written while she was still in her twenties and thirtie... Read More

A Psalm for the Wild-Built: Tea and empathy

A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers

Becky Chambersfirst novella in the MONK AND ROBOT series, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (2021), is a lovely and optimistic tale of a tea monk who, while seeking an answer to the question of “What am I looking for?” meets a robot looking for an answer to the question of “What do you need, and how can I help?” More generally, the robot is trying to answer the question of what all people need, but upon the moon of Panga (or anywhere you might find humans, truthfully), that’s not exactly a simple question to answer.

Sibling Dex, the tea monk, is an acolyte of Allalae (God of Small Comforts, represented as a bear), one of the six gods of Panga. Dex has been a tea monk for only a few years, having left Panga’s only City in searc... Read More

The Rock Eaters: Strongest story collection I’ve read in some time

The Rock Eaters by Brenda Peynado

It has been quite a while since I’ve read a collection of short stories that so completely and consistently won me over. I’m typically satisfied if roughly half the stories in a collection work for me and thrilled if three-quarters do. But Brenda Peynado hit it out of the ballpark with The Rock Eaters, with stories that range almost entirely from good (a few) to excellent (most) to wonderfully, lingeringly strange and powerful (many). It’s easily the best story collection I’ve read in years, a must-read mix of fantasy, science fiction, magical realism, fabulist fiction, horror, and even a realistic story in there, with all the inherent blurring of genre lines those arbitrary categories convey. Think of a George Saunders or Kelly Link type of story, though Peynado is absolutely her own writer; there is nothing derivative here.

The book’s strengths are both plenti... Read More

Seven of Infinities: The intricate plot is the star of this tale

Seven of Infinities by Aliette de Bodard

Vân opens the front door to her room to see that the avatar for the mindship The Wild Orchid in Sunless Woods is in the common access area used by Vân and her student, Uyên. Sunless Woods is there to tell Vân that the poetry club in which they are both members is considering ousting Vân on the grounds that she is “commonplace” and “vulgar,” limited by her birth into poverty rather than as a privileged member of the scholarly and wealthy class. It’s a judgment with which Sunless Woods does not agree, so she’s come to warn Vân.

Vân fears this action for several reasons: she’ll lose her job as a private teacher for the wealthy Uyên; but more than that, she risks exposure. For Vân has a mem-implant that is not only unconventional but illegal: a conglomeration of sharp minds and not an ancestor at all. But that problem quickly takes second place ... Read More

SHORTS: More Hugo and Locus Award finalists

In this week's SHORTS column we wrap up our reviews of most of the 2021 Locus and Hugo award finalists in the novelette and short story categories.

“50 Things Every AI Working with Humans Should Know” by Ken Liu (2020, free at Uncanny magazine)

One eventually gets the list the titles implies, but first the story opens with an obituary of the list’s author — “WHEEP-3 (‘Dr. Weep’), probably the most renowned AI AI-critic of the last two decades.” The obit explains how WHEEP was created/trained by Dr. Judy Reynolds Tran, the odd and at times controversial relationship between the “strange pair who whose lives were inextricably entwined,” the three phases of WHEEP’s career, culminating in “advice aimed at advanced artificial intelligence,” and fin... Read More

Beowulf: He was the man!

Beowulf: A New Translation by Maria Dahvana Headley

A couple of years ago I read Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife (2018) which was a finalist for the Locus Award in 2019. Set in a wealthy suburb, the story was a promoted as a “modern retelling of Beowulf” and told from the perspectives of the mothers. I admired this novel and was therefore eager to read Headley’s new translation of Beowulf which also happens to be a Locus Award finalist in the Horror category this year.

While The Mere Wife was billed as a “retelling,” Beowulf: A New Translation is, as promised, a new modern translation of the epic poem. In the introduction to the piece, Headley explains her love of the poem (she’s been obsessed with it since seeing an illustration of Grendel... Read More

SHORTS: Hugo and Locus Award finalists

This week's SHORTS column features some of the 2021 Locus and Hugo award finalists in the novelette and short story categories.

“Wait for Night” by Stephen Graham Jones (2020, free at Tor.com)

Chessup is a day laborer working as part of a crew outside of Boulder, Colorado, helping to clean up a creek that was filled with trash in the aftermath of a flood. At the end of the day, looking to borrow a battery from the crew’s bulldozer to jumpstart his old car, Chessup finds something very old tangled up in the roots of a tree that the bulldozer had pulled down.

With visions of selling his discovery to a pawnbroker for cash, Chessup sets about removing it from the tangle of tree roots. He’s about to leave when his co-worker Burned Dan, who wears a bandanna over his fac... Read More

Upright Women Wanted: Subversive roaming librarians in a near-future U.S.A.

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

After being betrothed to a man she doesn’t love and watching her secret lover, Beatriz, get hanged for aberrant behavior and possession of unapproved reading materials, Esther decides to run away. So she hides herself in the wagon of the traveling Librarians, the distributors of all approved reading materials, who are passing through her town.

When the stowaway is discovered, Esther attempts to convince the librarians that she always wanted to be one of them but, in reality, she is hoping their good morals and upright behavior will rub off on her so she will no longer feel deviant.

But that’s not going to happen, as Esther soon learns, because there’s a good reason why these women have chosen to remove themselves from regular society and become itinerant librarians. They don’t fit into the conservative, patriarchal social order endorsed by the approved reading materials t... Read More

Riot Baby: A short, intense, emotionally draining novel

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Tochi Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby (2020), a finalist for the Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards for Best Novella, is a mind-expanding story about growing up Black in America. Kevin, the titular “riot baby,” was born in South Central Los Angeles during the riots of 1992 which were sparked by the acquittal of the LAPD officers who beat Rodney King after a traffic stop turned into a high-speed chase.

Before Kevin is born, Onyebuchi sets the scene by introducing Ella, Kev’s big sister. As a child, before the family moves to Harlem, we see Ella witnessing gang activity as she rides the school bus through South Central Los Angeles. On a day when it’s too hot to be inside, we see her watching a woman she calls her grandmother sweep bullet ca... Read More

SHORTS: 2020/21 Awards finalists

This week's SHORTS column features some of the 2020 Nebula and 2021 Locus and Hugo award finalists in the novella, novelette, and short story categories.

“A Guide for Working Breeds” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad (2020, free at Tor.com, originally published in Made to Order: Robots and Revolution)

This is an absolutely delightful story! A grumpy robot, Constant Killer, who makes a living by engaging in robot deathmatch and assassination games, is obliged to mentor a chirpy, innocent new robot who is having problems with its life, ranging from “how do I remove illusionary dogs from my optical feed” to dealing with adverse working conditions at a cheap automated café. What begins as a meeting between opposite personalities gradually evolves into an unlikely friendship.
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Fugitive Telemetry: Murder on the Preservation Express

Fugitive Telemetry by Martha Wells

Martha Wells continues her popular and highly-acclaimed MURDERBOT DIARIES series with another novella, Fugitive Telemetry (2021), which actually takes place before the only novel in the series so far, Network Effect. (So you could read this one before that novel, but you do need to read books 1-4 first.) At this point in time Murderbot, the introverted and snarky cyborg who is the narrator and the heart of this series, is a fairly new resident on Preservation, a planet outside of the callously capitalistic Corporate Rim. Murderbot is a companion to and protector of Dr. Mensah, one of the few humans Murderbot has gradually learned to trust. Although Preservation society isn’t entirely accepting of s... Read More

Finna: It’s a LitenVärld after all

Finna by Nino Cipri

If you’ve ever gotten frustrated wandering through the endless maze of rooms that is IKEA, it’s not hard to imagine that there are hidden passages that lead, not to a secret shortcut to an exit, but to another world entirely. Nino Cipri’s Nebula Award-nominated novella Finna (2020) takes that concept and adds to it a timely set of social concerns, ranging from gender identity to the evils of capitalism generally and low-wage retail jobs in particular.

Ava is a sales associate at LitenVärld (Swedish for “small world”), the fictional equivalent of IKEA, down to the gigantic parking lot and blue-and-yellow box-shaped exterior, not to mention the labyrinthine interior layout. Ava is disgruntled because she’s been called in to work on her day off, when her only desire is to stay home, binge on Netflix and Florence and the Machine, and try to recuperate from her... Read More

Exit Strategy: Murderbot to the rescue

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Exit Strategy by Martha Wells

Murderbot, the snarky, introverted cyborg hero of Martha WellsTHE MURDERBOT DIARIES series, returns from its trip to Milu, the deserted terraforming facility in space. The cyborg Security Unit ― which has committed the unprecedented crime of hacking its “governor” that required it to obey orders ― was searching on Milu for additional evidence against the evil-ridden corporation GrayCris, as related in the third novella in this series, Rogue Protocol. Because of key evidence found on the Milu trip, Murderbot decides it needs to meet face-to-face with Dr. Mensah, who is technically Murderbot’s owner and possibly also its friend … though Murderbot would s... Read More

Tower of Mud and Straw: A poignant tale of love and loss

Tower of Mud and Straw by Yaroslav Barsukov

Lord Shea Ashcroft, a government minister, faced with a rioting crowd of protestors in the capital city, makes the call to have the military fall back rather than killing the protestors — and innocent bystanders —with poisonous gas. Some people praise his mercy, but half the city now lies in ruins from the mob’s violence, and the queen is not so appreciative of his decision. Shea is shipped off to the border city of Owenbeg as punishment, charged with overseeing the finishing of construction of a colossal tower to protect the border against enemy airships. The tower is already a thousand feet high, with plans to add another thousand feet on top.

Things get complicated for Shea in Owenbeg, on both a personal and a political level. The duke of Owenbeg, his military commander, and the chief engineer of the tower all resent Shea, especially when Shea makes it clear that he won’t just... Read More

Rogue Protocol: Can humans and bots be friends?

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Rogue Protocol by Martha Wells

Martha Wells’ endearingly grumpy cyborg Security Unit Murderbot returns with a vengeance in Rogue Protocol (2018), the third novella in the MURDERBOT DIARIES series. In Rogue Protocol, Murderbot heads off to Milu, a deserted terraforming facility in space, to investigate the past of a murky group called GrayCris, which we originally met in the first book in this series, the Nebula award-winning All Systems Red. GrayCris appears to be intent on illegally collecting the extremely valuable remnants of alien civilizations. To all appearances Milu is an abandoned project of GrayCris, but Murderbot sus... Read More

Hoka! Hoka! Hoka!: Cute aliens provide much entertainment

Hoka! Hoka! Hoka! by Poul Anderson & Gordon R. Dickson

Hoka! Hoka! Hoka! (1998), by Poul Anderson & Gordon R. Dickson, has been on my TBR list for years and, thanks to Tantor Media, which just released the first audio edition, it has finally landed in my audiobook player. As I anticipated, this collection of stories about the cute fuzzy aliens known as the Hoka, were really entertaining.

The Hoka are creatures that look like large teddy bears and they’re known throughout the universe as being “the most imaginative race of beings in known space.” They have a fascination with human culture and they love to mimic it, often on a grand scale, but they’re not always able to distinguish fact from fiction when they read about humans. The Hoka dev... Read More

Artificial Condition: Murderbot’s search for answers

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

The illicit adventures of Murderbot continue in Artificial Condition (2018), the terrific sequel to Martha Wells’ 2017 Nebula award-winning novella, All Systems Red. Murderbot, a deeply introverted cyborg security unit, or SecUnit, who previously hacked the governor software that forced obedience to human commands, has illegally gone off the grid, eschewing the safety of a mostly-free life with a sympathetic owner in order to travel on its own. Disguising itself as an augmented human, Murderbot takes off for the mining facility space station where, it understands, it once murdered a group of humans that it was charged with protectin... Read More

We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep: Odd, unsettling, lovely

We Shall Sing a Song Into the Deep by Andrew Kelly Stewart

When she was a small child, Remy was rescued from death by a chaplain who oversees the monks on a submarine called Leviathan. They carry the world’s last nuclear missile and their mission is to wait, protecting the missile, until God tells them it’s time to deploy it against the wicked Earth on judgement day.

Remy’s job is to sing in the choir of eunuchs, a crucial role that keeps up morale. Her voice will remain high because she’s a girl (a secret that only the chaplain knows), so she is not in danger of being pulled out of the choir and sent to work in the engine room where the nuclear reactor is. That’s a dangerous job that soon leads to a wasting illness and eventual death. But as Remy hears her best friend’s voice begin to change, she worries about his fate and begins to question all she’s been told about the world.

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All Systems Red: We love this introverted killing machine

Reposting to include Jana's new review.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

The narrator of All Systems Red (2017), the 2017 Nebula award-winning novella by Martha Wells, is a once-nameless cyborg security unit or SecUnit that has given itself the name Murderbot (for reasons disclosed midway through the story). Using its own unprecedented and highly unauthorized initiative, Murderbot has hacked the governor module software that controls its actions and obligates it to be obedient. But instead of going on a killing spree, as one might expect given the name it adopted, Murderbot elects to spend its spare hours watching countless hours of video entertainment and trying not to interact more than is necessary with the group of eight humans that it’s responsible for protecting, a survey group of eight scientists ... Read More

One Day All This Will Be Yours: How I learned to love the time travel bomb

One Day All This Will Be Yours by Adrian Tchaikovsky

What’s a grumpy, misanthropic time traveling warrior to do? Governments and factions have misused time travel machines, each using their time machines to remake the past in the way they want it to be, over and over again. Time travel machines really are the ultimate weapon: if you go back far enough you can change history enough that your enemy never has a chance. Except that your enemy’s time traveling agents are cut off from those changes, so they’re still around to try to change history in a different way that favors them. And then there are Causality Bombs, “[f]or when regular time travel just can’t mess up continuity enough.” Now the past is irretrievably broken into shards and splinters.

So our surly main character, the last survivor of the time soldiers, has set himself up as a gatekeeper in a distant future to make sure it never happens again past hi... Read More

The Ghost Variations: A collection of 100 flash stories

The Ghost Variations by Kevin Brockmeier

The Ghost Variations (2021) by Kevin Brockmeier is a collection of 100 flash stories, all involving ghosts, though the meaning of that word is stretched in some of them. In structure, style, flavor, and tone, the collection reminded me most of Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman, although it also calls up echoes of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges.

The stories are grouped into various sections, such as “Ghosts and Memory,” “Ghosts and Nature,” “Ghosts and Love and Friendship,” and “Ghosts and Family.”... Read More

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