short stories

Zombies V. Unicorns (edited by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier)

Alaya Dawn Johnson’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is a gut-wrenching story of fear and love, showing the point of view of a zombie with brains (not the edible kind), and how a functional, intelligent zombie might be very like a serial killer. Icky, powerful stuff, with a strong thread of unrequited love which got under my skin.

Margo Lanagan’s “A Thousand Flowers” looks at the medieval tradition of unicorn stories, and tells a tale of courtly love and a disgraced, pregnant lady through the eyes of three different narrators. It’s a beautifully written piece that unfolds slowly.

Diana Peterfreund’s “The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Unicorn” comes from the same world as her novels Rampant and Ascendant, and the story “Errant” which appeared in Kiss Me Deadly. In this, she tells the story of Wen, a girl with unicorn-hunting heritage whose family refused to let her go to be trained properly in Rome, thanks to their religious beliefs. Wen is charged to care for a helpless infant unicorn at a time when her whole town is being terrorised by a larger, deadlier example of the species. Caring for the unicorn means lying to her family and possibly rearing a monster who will turn on her… it’s a powerful, page-turning character story, and I was disappointed when it came to an end.

Meg Cabot’s “Princess Prettypants” makes fun of the kind of unicorn any right-thinking hipster loves to hate – up to and including rainbow-coloured farts! It’s a very cool teen story about friendship and loyalty and bad choices. Those of you who were angry and frustrated at the recent don’t-sext-your-boyfriend-or-we’ll-shame-you ad campaign will enjoy a particular aspect of this story, in which one girl and her unicorn help a friend to get revenge against a badly behaved dude at a party.

I also really enjoyed Naomi Novik’s “Purity Test,” Maureen Johnson’s “Children of the Revolution” and Scott Westerfeld’s “Innoculata.”

short stories

A Mixed Bag of the Fantastical and Strange

"Bloodlines," Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Fantasy - a passionate, slightly wicked tale of family, broken love, revenge and witchcraft. I loved that it was basically the story of the women of a family, and the combination of love, loyalty and being utter bitches to each other.

"Where Shadows Meet Light," Rachel Swirsky, Fantasy - I wasn't sure how to feel about this one.  I think it's just too damn soon to be telling ghost stories about Princess Diana.  But the story is smart and sensitive and really quite lovely.  Still.  Too soon.

"Abandonware," An Owomoyela, Fantasy - I was really gripped by this story of a boy who deals with his sister's death by booting up her antiquated old computer, and finding an obsolete computer program that may or may not be able to predict the future.  Ultimately I was disappointed in the ending of this piece, as I had been hoping for answers to the questions asked, but the build up was so excellent and the characterisation so spot on that I like it despite the letdown.

Alex Daly MacFarlane, "The City of Lobster, or, The Dancers on Anchorage St." Fantasy - a clever and strange story of the "weird tourism" subgenre which made very little sense but I still felt very drawn to.  Lobsters are AWESOME.

"Braiding the Ghosts," C.S.E. Cooney, Clockwork Phoenix - a dark, rich story of witchcraft and ghosts, and an evil grandmother.  The detail of this one was impressive, and I liked the YA protagonist very much.

"Surrogates," Cat Rambo, Clockwork Phoenix - a clever piece of surrealism about a marriage in a world where anything and everything is at your disposal.  The story seems a lot more whimsical than it actually is, and there's a nice thread of angst and quiet despair all the way through it.

"Dreadnought," Anna Tambour, Asimov's June - a very odd piece, as all Tambour's stories are!  This one asks why humans would want to leave their lives on Earth, and what it would take to make them leap aboard a spaceship to go elsewhere, and why it's important to eat your greens and listen to your mother.  There's a grotesquerie to this one, and I really didn't like (funnily enough) the demonising and mockery of the absent mother, or indeed any of the characters at all, but I've always enjoyed Tambour's twisted prose and this is a story that makes you think, even where it isn't overly likeable.

It's all in the way they use their wands

The Way of the Wizard, edited by John Jospeh Adams.

There were some seriously outstanding stories in this collection.

Desirina Boskovich's "Love is the Spell that casts out Fear" is another of those stories that makes me flail somewhat incoherently. It just works. She puts little effort into making the fantastic land where half the story takes place make much sense; that's not its purpose. But she manages to evoke a wonderful, if fragile, place nonetheless. And it's counter-poised against a very real story of possible tragedy in the 'real' world. How the two work together is in itself a magical thing.

A completely different take on the idea of wizardry is provided by Simon Green, in "Street Wizard". The idea of providing a 'day in the life of' can be a bit tired, but Green's whimsy does it service here, and suggests a slightly different take on the mundanity of late-night streets.

Poignancy is revisited in "The Secret of Calling Rabbits", by Wendy Wagner. It's not quite Watership Down, but heartstrings may not go unmoved. It was bizarrely nice to see a non-human character as the wizard.

Krista Hoeppner Leahy takes a classical turn in "Too Fatal a Poison" by revisiting the Odysseus story of Circe enchanting the sailors into pigs. What I adored about this story is that, rather than making Circe the focus - and don't get me wrong, I'd read good Circe stories all day - it's two of the ordinary sailors who are examined. This is more about the impact of magic - and warfare - than it is about the magic itself. And that's quite sobering, in an anthology that could all too easily have ignored ordinary people.

Families and their issues are the focus of David Barr Kirtley's "The Family Tree." Again, this is not a story that lauds magic and its users. Rather, it asks the rather pointed question: what happens when most in the family are magical? How do you deal with conflict, and jealousy, and the conflagrations that inevitably occur - especially when you're living on top of each other?

Finally, Genevieve Valentine's "So Deep that the Bottom could not be seen" brings in ecological and environmental damage, and is about someone who may not be a wizard at all. I loved the characters, and... well, the vibe of the thing. If you suppose magic is natural and connected to the land, how can the current environmental crisis not have its effect?

It's an interesting anthology. For myself, I've discovered recently that for fantasy to really work for me, it has to have more than simply magic and a vaguely interesting plot. Not all of the stories managed it. But the Valentine, the Leahy, and the Boskovich in particular make this a worthwhile anthol for me.

short stories

This Woman's Army

Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories, by Sandra McDonald is a gorgeous, clever collection - I love collections of stories where they all appear to be part of the same world, and build upon each other - Susanna Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu being one of the best of this type.  McDonald's stories are clever and witty with an edge of surrealism, and her world a strangely altered version of ours.  Indeed, I'm not sure if all the stories are in the same world at all, but the sensibility and authorial voice are close enough that they read beautifully as a set.  I particularly enjoyed the integration of queer themes, including gay, lesbian and trans characters, many the protagonists of particular stories.

Some of the stories have been published before, but these are my favourites of the 2010 material:

Diana Comet and the Lovesick Cowboy - this quirky piece shows our heroine through the eyes of a miserable, drunk cowboy she hires as her guide on a journey, and his own inner journey to come to terms with himself.  Only that description makes the story sound a lot more saccarine than it is!  I was impressed at how the story danced the line between misery, instrospection, and sly humour.

The Goddess and Lieutenant Teague - a fairly gruelling but powerful story about war and friendship and illicit same-sex love in the army - the twist being that the army is entirely composed of women.

Diana Comet and the Collapsible Orchestra - the most melancholy of the stories featuring Diana herself, this one depicts her in later age, amid a flurry of colourful characters and other people swept up in forbidden love, while she contemplates her own regrets and life.

The entire book is worth reading, though, especially if you're interested in themes like gender and sexuality, if you enjoy subjects like adventuresses, cowboys and imaginary tourism, or if you like your angsty fiction wrapped up in humour and surrealism.  This is one of those collections where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Somebody is out there!!!

... well, maybe.

I love the Fermi paradox. Where is everybody, given the number of stars that might have planets? It's marvellous ground for any SF writer, so Nich Gevers and Marty Halpern had the brilliant idea of an anthology around the idea: Is Anybody out There? I've been dying for some good hard sf, and this seemed like a good option. Happily, there were some good stories here - and one awesome one.

Alex Irvine starts off the anthol with "The Word He was Looking for was Hello." This is one of those stories that combines both a very personal story - Dalton is a lonely man - with an immensely varied imagining of how aliens might be attempting to communicate with us.

Now I know every story I love I love for personal reasons, but I love Michael Arsenault's "Residue" for more personal reasons than perhaps usual: it's because it reflects conversations that my darling and I have had, could have, and undoubtedly will have at some stage in the future. He captures the relationship between this couple perfectly, for mine.

"Permanent Fatal Errors" is Jay Lake's view of a genetically altered space crew, and their interactions. The thing I liked about this anthology was that sometimes the reference to Fermi was blatant, and sometimes it was tangential while still vital. This story falls into the latter category.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch contributes "The Dark Man." Set in Rome - which doesn't get nearly enough of a look-in when it comes to SF, in my mind - it neatly deals with both the Fermi paradox and with the crazies who get attracted to the idea of aliens. The characters are wonderful.

Finally, Pat Cadigan's "The Taste of Night" is one of those stories that makes me want to flail my hands in the air and sputter a bit, because explaining why it's good is just hard. It reminded me a lot of James Tiptree Jr's "Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light", which probably helps explain its appeal. Like Irvine's, it combines the intensely personal with suggestions of there being something more. The characters are wonderfully delineated, the poignancy is not overdone, and the sf elements are subtle as well as necessary. Magnificent.
short stories

Subterranean Magazine

"The Bohemian Astrobleme," Kage Baker, Subterranean Magazine, Winter - an odd sort of gentleman's gentleman espionage caper which I found charming and quirky despite the fact that some of the gender politics made me want to throw a brick at it.

"Elegy for a Young Elk," Hannu Rajaniemi, Subterranean Magazine, Spring - a clever and thought provoking story of a man living in a quantum world - or the world that has been left behind by the quantum world.  Science fictional and fantasy constructs dip in and out of the story which is mostly about how some things, even the most complex of science, can best be captured and explained through poetry.  I liked it a lot, and it made me seriously consider reading Rajaniemi's debut novel The Quantum Thief.

"Ghosts in my Head," Cory Doctorow, Subterranean Magazine, Summer - possibly more of a philosophical argument than a story, this is nevertheless a short and succinct little piece of science fiction with a lot to say in its small space.
short stories

Kiss Me Deadly, edited by Tricia Telep

This anthology of short paranormal romance stories for YA readers has a greater variety of topics than The Eternal Kiss, which was purely about vampire lovers.  Indeed, the three stories I liked best in this anthology don't really count to my mind as paranormal romance at all - all of them contain only subtle romance cues which require a great deal of squinting at in order to see at all.  This is by no means a problem to my mind - all three are excellent YA stories and if a paranormal romance cover & packaging gets them read more widely, then all power to the editor.

"Errant," Diana Peterfreund, Kiss Me Deadly - a smart, thoughtful story which explores the history of Peterfreund's Unicorn Hunters series (Rampant and the upcoming Ascendant). A warrior nun comes to a manor to perform a ceremonial unicorn hunt in honour of the daughter of the house's impending marriage.  I enjoyed the way that the story was all about the growing friendship of those two women, who came from such different worlds and had such different perspectives.  The climax of the story is about empowerment, and challenging the idea that women are property and need a male 'protector.'  The conclusion was far different than I had expected it to be, and I loved the fact that the traditional tropes and ideas of how aristocratic women in particular are "supposed" to behave in historical stories were challenged right to the end.

"The Spy Who Never Grew Up," Sarah Rees Brennan, Kiss Me Deadly - a devastatingly clever and cracky logical extension of the Peter Pan story, in which the boy who never grew up is recruited to serve Queen and Country as a secret agent right out of the spy novel tradition.  Meanwhile, one of Wendy's descendants comes to terms with her family's history with Peter, and insists that her own kidnap to the "land of nightmares" is on her terms.  No one writes charming sociopaths quite as well as Brennan, so it should come as no surprise that she is able to handle the iconic character of Peter Pan, deftly achieving that essential balance of flippancy, earnestness and maniacal selfishness.  She also throws in some very important metacommentary on various social issues from the original story, which made it especially crunchy and enjoyable to read.  Plus, ninja fairies.  NINJA FAIRIES, PEOPLE!

"The Hounds of Ulster," Maggie Stiefvater, Kiss Me Deadly - a story of two punk folk musician teenagers who love each other, but probably not in that way, and how one loses the other to the fairies.  What would otherwise be a slight story punches above its weight thanks to intense characterisation, vivid details, and the sheer power of authorial voice.  I was left feeling rather bereft, as ultimately I think this could be the first chapter of a novel with hope at the end, rather than a brief and rather painful anecdote of loss.
short stories

Story of the Year (so far) (for me)

"The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen's Window," by Rachel Swirsky, Subterranean Magazine, Summer - a magnificent piece of fantasy fiction which follows the epic afterlife of a magician from a matriarchal society, brought back again and again into new bodies to share her wisdom.  It's a feminist story, and one that explores all manner of gender issues, but also one which fits into a long history in our genre of stories about characters who has the rare opportunity to witness the passing of aeons and the change of social structures, in the apparent blink of an eye.  It's rare to find fantasy fiction which strikes such a good balance between an emotional arc, and an exploration of the mechanics and ramifications of magic, worldbuilding, etc.  It could possibly be argued that this is actually a science fiction story that happens to be about magic.

And, as I described it recently to a friend, it's kind of like The Forever War, if it was written by Joanna Russ.

Basically any other awesome stories (novellas) I read this year, have to top this one.  It's that good.

Godlike Machines

I am so in love with Big Dumb Objects. And Small Dumb Objects. And grand, time-spanning, galaxy-sweeping space opera. Godlike Machines (ed. Jonathan Strahan) was, basically, written for me.

The opening story is "Troika," by Alastair Reynolds. Told be a cosmonaut to an old woman, Nesha, it details humanity's reaction to an astonishing object appearing in our solar system - the Matryoshka. Reynolds has delicate character development, gripping plot development, and an all-too-real visualisation of near-future Earth. This story made me sigh with pure pleasure. A novella, it could easily be a full-length novel; in some ways it reminded me of Clarke's Rama sequence. I have nothing bad to say about the characters, or the narration, or the climax. This one goes straight to the pool room of All Time Favourites.

Stephen Baxter's "Return to Titan" was perhaps not as infatuation-producing as I have not yet read any of the Xeelee sequence; but it's still a good yarn, about going to Titan - obviously; the reasons for doing that and the weird things the explorers discover. The characters were intriguing, and not very likable overall.

Cory Doctorow's "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" seemed a bit aimless, after the first two which have such strong, driving, and relentless plots; still the characterisation is a marvel, and some of the ideas are breath-taking.

Having recently read "A Map of the Mines of Barnath," I was immensely pleased to read "A Glimpse of the Marvelous Structure" by Sean Williams. This one goes up alongside "Troika," for my money; the characters are drawn sparsely but believably; the plot unfolds gently, relentlessly, and suprisingly; and - and - I just loved it!

How can you make a story about a BDO sad and poignant?? Robert Reed manages it in "Alone," but I'm still a bit bemused. This is another story going straight to my favourites list... a machine on an enormous ship, alone for enormous swathes of time: would it want to know its provenance? Is it possible to be self-contained to such an extreme, for any sentient? *sigh* it's just wonderful.

And finally, Greg Egan's "Hot Rock" is yet another take on what exactly a godlike machine could be. In this case, it's a planet. Explorers from two different worlds come together to a wandering planet, which - despite having no sun - still manages to be balmy and atmospheric. Once again interacting with aliens is the theme of the day; managing your own prejudices and expectations, and figuring out how to make the best of a situation for everyone involved. In this case, it was the action that pulled me along; the characters are interesting enough, but not quite at the same level as Alone or Reynolds' cosmonaut.

Basically, this anthology has ruined me for space opera for a while. It will be hard for anyone else to compete.

Subterranean Spring

I figure that since it's spring in the southern hemisphere now, it's ok that I'm reading the (northern) Spring issue of Subterranean... right?

Maureen McHugh, The Naturalist. I don't like zombies, I don't like horror. This is one heck of a study of an individual under trying circumstances, though. I think the thing that makes it most enthralling is that McHugh does not attempt to make Gerrold a hero, or even really an anti-hero. He just... is. Warts n all. And then there are zombies.

Hannu Rajaniemi, Elegy for a Young Elk is... one of those stories where words fail me. I just flail my hands in the air, saying "it's just... good... and... a bit weird but good weird. Y'know?" The idea of post-humanity and AIs taken in a really awesome direction, with the humanity still achingly there. Also, a talking bear.

Gord Sellar, The Bodhisattvas - a fairytale, in a way, of the far future and physics. And love.