Finding excellent short SFF can often feel like hunting for buried treasure. Sometimes it takes a guide to help fill in the map, connecting readers with fantastic fiction and showing where X Marks The Story–a monthly column from Charles Payseur.
2021 really isn’t slowing down, is it? At least for me, it seems like a blink since last year and yet here we are multiple months in to 2021. Cue internal screaming. The good news, though, is that there’s already been a ton of amazing short SFF put out this year. And if you missed any of it, then you’re in luck, because I’m here to help guide you through the wilds of short speculative fiction, to mark up your map with directions to some hidden gems. X-cited? Good! Let’s dig right in!
“Flight” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo (Fantasy #64)
What It Is: From the author of “Rat and Finch Are Friends,” the story that absolutely broke me last year, comes another obliterating read, this time in the pages of the freshly relaunched Fantasy Magazine. In the story, Jekwu and Izu are parrots living in a city growing increasingly dangerous for them. Where food is scarce and everyone seems to want them dead. For all that, though, the two are devoted to each other, in love and clinging desperately to the home they thought they had, the place their families fled to when escaping other dangers, other injustices. It’s difficult and shattering, grim despite (and because of) the warmth of the love between the two birds.
Why I Love It: Yes, the story is something of a queer tragedy, but it’s also a brilliant and beautifully rendered tale about danger and home, these two birds just trying to find security and peace to love each other and finding instead the cold and waiting jaws opening all around them. People with closed hearts and violent greed and hate. The story exposes the pressures between fighting for what they have and leaving, fleeing to somewhere better. And acknowledging that for some, better might not be possible. That some declines, some corruptions, cannot be fully escaped when the responsibility for doing so is placed solely on those most at risk of being destroyed. The story doesn’t pull its punches, and you’re anything like me, by the final word you might find yourself a puddle of tears, broken and hurting but still somehow wanting more. It’s an incredibly powerful read.
“The Demon Sage’s Daughter” by Varsha Dinesh (Strange Horizons 02/08/2021)
What It Is: A rare novelette from Strange Horizons, this piece unfolds in the second person, where you are Devayani, the Demon-Sage’s daughter, witness to his power and his dominion. For all that you are his child, though, he will not share with you the greatest of his secrets, the magic of resurrection, which allows him to revive his demon army when it is slain, to defy the gods themselves. The piece revolves around hurt and misogyny, and how poison a force that is. And, deeper, it’s a story of relationships. Devayani and her father. Devayani and her lover, a godly enemy of her father. And most importantly, Devayani and her maid, a princess with a cruel streak. And how all of them play into Devayani’s plan to uncover her father’s secrets.
Why I Love It: Devayani is in an impossible situation, shaped by her nature, her desires, and her frustrations. And it speaks as so real to me, the way she is in pain and the way she lashes out because of it. The web of lies and betrayals and hurts is elaborate and tightly woven, creating a tragedy that isn’t exactly a tragedy, that leaves the ground littered in corpses, yes, but that finds through that a way of taking control of the narrative and twisting it away from its expected outcome, recovering freedom, power, and affirmation. Paired with some amazing interaction between Devayani and her maid, her princess, her friend and tormentor and prisoner, it becomes this carefully balanced look at power and the quest for it. It’s intense and mythic and so good.
“The Patron God of Tawn” by Dustin Steinacker (GigaNotoSaurus 02/2021)
What It Is: In Syna’s world, cities are ruled over by mysterious gods who few people ever see. Just the children tasked to serve their needs and the Unfolders who relay the gods’ wills to the people, to the rest of the city government. Syna is an Unfolder, but that might not mean as much when the gods suddenly vanish, leaving in their wake a vacuum, an uncertainty, and a growing panic. It falls to her to try and find a framing for what has happened, a story that will allow people to hold to hope and to peace rather than fall back into chaos and brutality. It’s a fragile, often quiet story punctuated by moments of violence and wonder, and it comes out of the consistently amazing GigaNotoSaurus, which I definitely recommend everyone pay attention to.
Why I Love It: This is another story about taking control of narratives, and finding a story that avoids powerlessness and victimization. It’s also, for me at least, a story about doubt in a very profound sense, where Syna’s faith is tested and perhaps even broken. She’s devoted to her god, and yet she is also abandoned, and has to take the messy mix of emotions that abandonment stirs and find a way forward. And she pulls out a story that she wants to believe, that allows people to heal and take control of their own future, but she does it at the expense of her certainty, ever after haunted and unsure but not giving in to despair. And that reveals the blurred and perhaps illusory line between belief and desire, between pretending a story is real, and the story being made real in the telling, that is just fantastically captured through Syna and her story.
“Deal” by Eris Young (Escape Pod #769)
What It Is: Earth is recovering from the damage that humans have done to it, thanks in large part to the mysterious Visitors, aliens who resemble small, iridescent balls, and who are helping humans clean up their act. For Beulah, the Visitors are fascinating, wonderful—she’s trying to learn their strange, almost musical language, and she kinda really wants to know what they feel like. For her girlfriend, Kim, though, they are more menacing, frightening. And the story follows the two as they struggle, as they drift apart and come back together, as they find ways to be there for each other, and for themselves. It’s a wonderful story and available in audio as well, so if you’re looking to listen to your short fiction, definitely treat your ears to this one.
Why I Love It: I love the way the Visitors and their presence are so different for the characters, and how that speaks to how each approaches change and healing. Because yes, the Visitors have made things better, have stopped a lot of damage and have allowed people to start working toward a future again. But they’re also a reminder of that damage, of a powerlessness and pain, and for some that reminder is traumatic, even as for others it’s a source of strength and affirmation. It’s a quiet and beautiful story about this relationship, these two women, and the world they move through. About how recovery and progress are complicated, looping things at times, and how they need to start from a place of love, caring, and trust. It’s an achingly lovely read.
“Mouth & Marsh, Silver & Song” by Sloane Leong (Fireside Magazine #87)
What It Is: Fireside Magazine has had a somewhat disrupted last couple of months, and most of this year so far has been spent putting out stories that were first published in their final print Quarterly in 2020. This one, however, I think is original to 2021, and is a wonderful twist on the trope of the Chosen One, and specifically on the mechanism for choosing a Chosen One. Because here the narrator is a giant leech who, when cut by silver, sings through her new mouth the prophecy of kingship. The cuts are always taken, though, and leave the narrator hurt, angry, and distrustful of humans. Until, that is, a princess comes along in the hopes of breaking the cycle of violation and injury.
Why I Love It: I like that the story explores the implications of a lot of these Chosen One ideas. That these princes are worthy of rule because they undergo this trial. Brave this danger. Only that’s the embodiment of might makes right, where all a person needs is the wealth enough and cruelty enough to take what he wants. And it’s great to find a story that engages with while reaching for an alternative. For something kinder, more consensual. That cares, even for a being most would consider a monster. And I love the way the story finds a way forward that centers consent and respect, and gives the narrator a happier future, one where her voice is finally hers.
“Fanfiction for a Grimdark Universe” by Vanessa Fogg (Translunar Travelers Lounge #4)
What It Is: Translunar Travelers Lounge has a mission to focus on the fun side of SFF, so at first glance this story might seem out of place. After all, the situation is dire—Jenna and the narrator have been betrayed, pushed to the very brink of destruction. They’ve lost friends, lost worlds, lost almost everything. But at what might be the end, Jenna finds something that the narrator has been holding onto. Something that needs explaining. Fanfiction. And while it might seem a little random, there’s a wonderful reason for it that steals hope and warmth and a bit of fun from even the grimmest of places.
Why I Love It: This is a fantastically meta bit of fiction, telling a story and then revealing how fanfiction complicates the story, as in this setting a kind of cross-dimensional perpendicularity leads to the existence of a planet where what Jenna and the narrator are going through is the plot to a comic book series. One that has attracted fanfiction writers. And seeing fanfiction from the perspective of the fictional characters finding these stories about themselves is fascinating and played here to such interesting and emotional results. It’s heartbreaking and heartwarming all at the same time, capturing the transformational nature of transformative fanworks. And tucked into that is a wonderfully romantic and resilient story about these characters finding strength in their own stories and potential despite all the horrible things they’ve been through. It’s a beautiful piece I can’t recommend enough!
Exploring historical erasure and theft as well as the power of community, “Daughters With Bloody Teeth” by Marika Bailey (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) finds a woman and wolf joined together in a body ripe with power and hunger and hope.
Anchoring the first full issue of Mermaid’s Monthly, “From Witch to Queen and God” by L. D. Lewis is a tale of the sea rising in anger as embodied by a woman, a witch, a would-be god, trying to push back an invasion and injustice. It’s sharp and glorious.
To dip back into some anthologies from last year, “Nine Tongues Tell Of” by Haralambi Markov (from Eurasian Monsters) tells a story (partly in podcast script format) of two people finding each other in the ruins of their lives and reaching for freedom together. “Yat Madit” by Dilman Dila (in Africanfuturism: An Anthology), meanwhile, reveals a very political scenario about the future of democracy and the fragility and corruptibility of systems designed to protect democratic values. From the wonderful Community of Magic Pens, “Write Me a Soul” by Jennifer Lee Rossman is a warm and yearning look at conjuring a person into existence, told in a kind of CYOA style that I loved. And “Book and Hammer, Blade and Bone” by Ann LeBlanc (in the amazing Silk & Steel) imagines a connected labyrinth of underworlds, and one woman who finds herself in the wrong one, all tucked into a careful study of history and love.
Reminding me that dolls are always creepy, “A Resting Place For Dolls” by Priya Sridhar (The Dark) still manages to tell a very human story about exhaustion, burnout, and the unsustainability of denying and burying emotions.
And lastly (but not leastly), “The Mathematics of Fairyland” by Phoebe Barton (Lightspeed) finds a person reeling from grief trying everything to reach through time and space, blending science and magic, to retrieve what they have lost.