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 new monthly column from Charles Payseur.
Get X-cited for some X-cellent short SFF! (Okay yes I grew up on X-Men comics I could do this all day.)
I hope you’re wearing comfortable shoes, because we’re ranging far and wide today to track down some speculative treasures. From ghost cats to librarian witches and alien nightmares, there’s something for everyone in this installment of X Marks the Story. So join me in exploring the wild reaches of short speculative fiction, and let’s get to it!
What It Is: Coming in a special issue of Strange Horizons featuring transgender and nonbinary authors, “A Snow, A Flood, A Fire” stars Lupita, a trans woman stuck in an awful job as a security guard at a museum, hoping that she can work her way out of mistakes she made when she was younger and her world was imploding. The changing nature of employment, learning algorithms, employer greed and entitlement, and the dream of economic mobility all collide in a plot that kept the reading experience for me fast and tight and devastating. (And for fans of this story, I also recommend checking out “Dream Job” in January’s Terraform SF, which also explores themes of employment and the traps of late capitalism).
Why I Love It: Perhaps it’s a sign of the times, but stories exploring the future of employment and capitalism seem to be on the rise. For me, it’s a constant reminder of the realities of growing up and entering the workforce in a time where so many things that previous generations take for granted are in shambles or completely gone. Retirement contributions, healthcare, vacation, sick leave, debt forgiveness—the present isn’t exactly a cheery place for many hoping to live and maybe reach for that dream of comfort, security, and autonomy. “A Snow, A Flood, A Fire” finds Lupita working as a security guard, constantly surveilling museum patrons for threats, but also the subject of scrutiny herself from her employers. She is watched and constantly judged by a learning algorithm designed to squeeze every last ounce of productivity out of her without regard for her emotional well-being. The story captures so much of what it feels like to work for an employer who doesn’t trust their employees, who treats their workers like lazy leeches trying to steal from the company by simply…checking phones or going to the bathroom. And Lupita’s situation is even more dire, her past preventing her from doing the one thing she wants, the one dream that she’s held onto to keep her invested in the system—to start a family. It’s vivid and wrenching and so, so real. And I love how the story shows that there’s only so far a person can be pushed, only so much that can be squeezed, until they stop having anything left to lose. Until they see that to make a change they have to take risks and fight back. Because when Lupita is presented with a situation where she can either remain loyal to her employer, who is actively trying to destroy her, or rebel, the choice is that much clearer, and I loved how she fights back, using the very program designed to keep her down and bending it to work toward her liberation instead. It wasn’t an easy read for me, but it’s a rending, wonderful story.
What It Is: The ghost of a cat prowls the vacant corridors of a temple space station, the City of the High Bells, that was annihilated as part of a larger conflict. Alone and lonely, the cat refuses to give up its vigil lest the memory of its home fade completely. When Spectral Lance, a sentient ship who had been a part of the original destruction of the temple, returns as part of a pilgrimage of atonement and repentance, cat and ship meet and find themselves once again at the center of violence and conflict.
Why I Love It: Perhaps you missed the part where there’s a ghost cat. In space. And an angsty sentient ship (who would much rather recite poetry than fight). Because of course I loved this story, for all its heart and its quiet moments. Told a bit like a fairy tale, like a myth, it casts these very non-human characters in a very human war, one that has robbed them both of those they cared most about. Their original missions dust in the solar winds, they are weightless, adrift—until they find in each other a renewed sense of purpose and community. For me, the joy of the story comes from the way the characters wake up, trying to overcome the inertia of their loss. Each feels alone, with their happiness and their sense of purpose behind them. Until they meet, and it felt like a spark is introduced, a kick that gets them both moving, that allows them to realize what they really want, and find through their cooperation a way to achieve it. Alone, they will flare out and fade, but together they manage to reach an escape velocity, to find the freedom of open space and the vision of how they can move forward through it. For all that the characters are pursued by war, theirs is a quest for peace, and it’s beautifully done.
What It Is: Mack is a bit of a recluse in a rather small colony on a distant world, founded by rationalists who sought to escape secular violence on Earth in this rare novella from Clarkesworld Magazine. The colony itself was able to travel faster than many of its cargo ships, though, and the last is now finally set to arrive just as another milestone approaches—the colony’s third winter, a time when the planet is lit by its more distant binary star. It’s important as the colony’s first winter killed three quarters of the original settlers. Generations have passed, though, and the colony is in better shape. And some of the younger people want to risk a touch of winter in order to retrieve whatever cargo their ancestors sent from Earth. Mack is assigned to guide them. What could possibly go wrong?
Why I Love It: Dear reader, so much goes wrong. And in some disturbing, awesome, skin-crawling ways. The novella crosses science fiction and horror wonderfully, revealing just how little rationality really matters in the face of the great and terrible unknown. Or, perhaps that’s a little harsh. But it does show that a rationality based solely on lessons learned on Earth is sorely lacking when looking at the universe outside our limited experience. For the colony, which operates on a kind of conservative logic designed for physical survival, there’s a lack when it comes to fostering growth, creativity, and a deepening understanding of how things really work on this alien world. Which, it turns out, is way more alien than the colony originally thought. And from there “Umberlight” becomes a tense, nightmarish wonderland of lethality. The pacing is expertly managed, from experiencing the dull grind and care of moving through an alien world where the most dangerous thing is the heat and radiation to moving through the same world but suddenly alive with very active and very hungry dangers. Thrilling and breathtaking!
What It Is: A librarian in a small town in the American South struggles with her duties, the push and pull between connecting patrons with the books they need most and, well, protecting patrons from the books they need most, books that might be dangerous because of how powerful (or magical) they are. Something that’s much more complex a proposition when you’re a witch as well as a librarian. When she witnesses the journey and frustrations of a young man very much in need of a little help, of an escape from his crushing situation that magic could offer, something has to give. Apex as a publication focused on darker SFF, and this story does indeed feature a situation ripe with hurt, powerlessness, and fear. But it also maintains a conversational tone, a resilient feel, and a heartwarming impact. (For further reading, definitely pair this with “The Librarian’s Dilemma” by E. Saxey, which appeared in The Journal of Unlikely Academia in 10/2015).
Why I Love It: While “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” is bolstered by the strength of its narrator, and her desire to help people with the magic she has at her command. The story also explores what books can mean to people, and how they can be used to get away from the immediate pains and problems that they might not be able to do anything about. The narrator here watches a young man as he struggles with being part of a system that doesn’t really care about him. He looks to books for a way to make sense of the experiences he has, mostly fails to connect with things about the “real world,” but finds the idea of the portal fantasy to be captivating. Something he returns to again and again. And the librarian here tries to continue to direct him to books on the sly that might help him cope, that might help him wait out his troubles. Except that, really, there are some things that are too big to be escaped through books. Some pains can’t be waited out. Especially when there’s no guarantee that they will end. And I love the care the story takes with that idea, with looking at the power that the librarian has at this point not as a librarian, but as a witch. With access to real magic. And the story seems to ask what good that magic is if it’s not used. If it’s not shared. And I love that the story explores how wanting an escape is not a weakness or a moral failing. How it can reflect a tragic situation, one that the “real world” often offers no good solution to. And I also love how the story allows the characters to forge their own paths, to make their own decisions, with joy and with rebellion and with magic.
What It Is: Released both serially and as a single publication by Fireside Magazine, The Fisher of Bones follows a young woman named Ducky after the death of her father, a religious leader who vowed to take his people to a promised land. Losing her own name to become the new Fisher, her role is immediately complicated by resistance from her followers, skepticism in her abilities, and a series of misfortunes that people quickly put at her feet. Revealing the dangers of leadership, especially for a woman in a culture steeped in misogyny, The Fisher of Bones rises and falls and rises again as the story draws darker and darker, each step taking Fisher and her followers to a promised land she was forced to believe in. It shows just how much Fisher struggles with the expectations and double standards put on her, and how she manages to keep moving, her strength indomitable and yet…
Why I Love It: Experiencing the narrative of this story was an education in suspense, hope, and devastation. With each new chapter I was pulled between the desire for everything to work out, to root for Fisher, and the knowledge that, at its core, her mission is rather messed up. Indoctrinated into a religion by her father, pushed into leadership and then undermined, gaslit, and blamed for every setback, Fisher continues mostly because of the faith people have in her. She’s stuck, everyone expecting her to help them, to guide them, but not to make them have to actually, you know, respect her. The world she moves through is similarly bleak, full of desert and danger, and with each new complication it seems often enough that everything is going to come apart and crumble to dust and sand and blood. Every chapter I was biting my nails wondering what terrible thing was going to happen next. Or maybe things wouldn’t be so bad? Or maybe they’d be A THOUSAND TIME WORSE! Seriously, the story maintains a whiplash pace as it moves, the community drawing nearer and nearer to their final destination. Which, oh my glob, is just sharp and crushing and brilliant, like being eviscerated by a Thwomp. It shows just how much is expected of women in power, and just how impossible it still can be to actually survive. That sometimes you can be the most qualified person for the job, can fight and win and keep winning and then on the brink of being able to rest, of being able to actually hold the thing you’ve been fighting for…it can slip away. Just go and read this one, and if you’re into self-punishment, only read a chapter every two weeks.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Publication date: January 2018 Paperback: 504
Rowan and Citra take opposite stances on the morality of the Scythedom, putting them at odds, in the second novel of the chilling New York Times bestselling series from Neal Shusterman, author of the Unwind dystology.
Rowan has gone rogue, and has taken it upon himself to put the Scythedom through a trial by fire. Literally. In the year since Winter Conclave, he has gone off-grid, and has been striking out against corrupt scythes—not only in MidMerica, but across the entire continent. He is a dark folk hero now—“Scythe Lucifer”—a vigilante taking down corrupt scythes in flames.
Citra, now a junior scythe under Scythe Curie, sees the corruption and wants to help change it from the inside out, but is thwarted at every turn, and threatened by the “new order” scythes. Realizing she cannot do this alone—or even with the help of Scythe Curie and Faraday, she does the unthinkable, and risks being “deadish” so she can communicate with the Thunderhead—the only being on earth wise enough to solve the dire problems of a perfect world. But will it help solve those problems, or simply watch as perfection goes into decline?
Stand alone or series: Book 2 in the Arc of a Scythe trilogy
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher
Format (e- or p-): Print
In the future, dead isn’t really dead unless a Scythe is involved. Rowan and Citra know this better than anyone–both were apprentices under the Honorable Scythe Farraday, and under his teachings learned the value of human life in a post-mortal world. When illness, old age, and accidental deaths are reversible–all thanks to an all-knowing Artificial Intelligence called The Thunderhead–someone needs to step in to cull mankind from overpopulation. Enter the Scythedom, and the hooded, bejeweled members that make up its ranks. Scythes operate completely autonomously, without any direct influence or interaction with the Thunderhead; as a self-governing body, it is important that the Scythes are seen as wholly separate from the supercomputer that benevolently runs all other facets of human society.
With great power, however, comes great responsibility. The Scythedom alone has control over life and death–each Scythe has a quota to fill, lest the world fall into overpopulation and chaos–and with this power, inevitably, comes corruption. Rowan and Citra learn this the hard way when their former master chooses to fake his own gleaning, rather than remain a part of a Scythedom that allows sociopathic killers, like Scythe Goddard and his lackeys Rand and Volta. In Scythe, Rowan escapes the machinations of Goddard and execution at the hands of the Scythedom, but is forever an outsider. Now, in Thunderhead he is Scythe Lucifer–an avenging angel in black robes who hunts down corrupt and power-hungry Scythes, burning them and scattering their ashes so that they cannot be revived. Citra has also grown in power and ability, becoming fully ordained as Scythe Anastasia and companion to the Grand Dame of Death herself, Scythe Curie.
Though they are apart and their lives couldn’t be more different–Rowan an outlaw, Citra a rising star in the Scythedom but also amassing many enemies–Rowan and Citra are both in grave danger, especially when it becomes clear that someone is attempting to glean Citra and Scythe Curie and frame Rowan’s “Lucifer” for the job. Inexplicably, a third human finds his life intertwined with Citra and Rowan’s–an earnest boy named Greyson, who has loved the Thunderhead his entire life and who now finds his devotion tested in ways he can scarcely imagine.
All the while, the Thunderhead watches in quiet dismay–and it plans and schemes, with only the best intentions for its human wards at heart…
Thunderhead, the second novel in Neal Shusterman’s Arc of a Scythe series, is utterly awesome.
I loved Scythe when it first came out for many reasons, but mostly because of its thought-provoking premise concerning human mortality. What happens when we are no longer mortal? What does humanity become when youth can be requested at any given time, and throwing oneself off buildings is what passes for a routine teenage act of rebellion? Shusterman explores this theme beautifully and in more depth in this second novel through the lens of Citra’s young beginnings as Scythe Anastasia. Her method of gleaning–giving her carefully selected subjects a month to conduct their business, close any open loops, and even choose how they want to die–is a fascinating insight into human behavior. More fascinating in this go-around, however, is the way her method is scorned or carefully regarded by other Scythes; some find her gleaning an act of mercy and wisdom, and many of the younger Scythes start to flock to Citra, eager to accept her as a possible leader. Others, however, do not take so kindly to her new ways and yearn for the blood-soaked days of Scythes like Goddard. These followers of the so-called new order of Scythes think it a waste, unnatural even, to deny their power and want higher quotas and the freedom to glean as they wish.
Enter the eponymous Thunderhead.
The Thunderhead is a supercomputer made of the sum-total of humanity’s knowledge. It is a benevolent rule, but it is also intensely aware of the problems in its perfect, supposedly peaceful universe. The Thunderhead is bound by the rules and the people who created it–but it is not without recourse. While we’re familiar with Rowan and Citra and their struggles, it is utterly awesome to get to know The Thunderhead as a character in its own right in this second novel. Like I said, it’s a kind of benevolent overlord–certainly, it thinks of itself as such and tells readers as such in each of the novel’s many interstitials and epigraphs–but even an artificial intelligence’s intelligence can be tried. The Thunderhead, when given hits at its genesis and when seeing the horrors that Scythes can inflict upon each other, doesn’t really seem so benevolent after all. (I really cannot wait to discover what happens with all of the threads concerning The Thunderhead’s creation in book 3.)
The other new character introduced in this novel is a human: Greyson. A nondescript young man from an emotionally distant and utterly disinterested family, Greyson grows up devoted to The Thunderhead. When he passes tests, or struggles with rejection and lonliness, it is The Thunderhead who consoles him and who acts as his erstwhile parent. So, when the time comes to pick a career, Greyson decides to work for The Thunderhead–and in return, The Thunderhead gives Greyson the hardest job of his young life. Greyson is The Thunderhead’s gamble in this book–while the AI cannot interact with Scythes and cannot break the rules foisted upon it and the Scythedom, it can use others to help enact its plans. For better or for worse, the lonely but intensely moral Greyson is the perfect vessel for this action. I loved reading about this character, his slide into undercover work, his self-discoveries and doubts, and the choices he ultimately makes with both Citra and Rowan’s lives on the line.
And then, there’s a whole bunch of other really dramatic stuff that happens in this second novel–involving old foes and friends, Rowan’s past actions, and Citra’s future. It’s all REALLY, really intense, and I can’t really talk about any of it without spoiling you. Suffice it to say, the action in this second book is real, as are the stakes. Ending on a dramatic cliffhanger, Thunderhead is every bit as tantalizing, thought-provoking, and badass as its award-winning predecessor.
Absolutely recommended–and I cannot wait for book three.
“On The Smugglers’ Radar” is a feature for books that have caught our eye: books we have heard of via other bloggers, directly from publishers, and/or from our regular incursions into the Amazon jungle. Thus, the Smugglers’ Radar was born. Because we want far more books than we can possibly buy or review (what else is new?), we thought we would make the Smugglers’ Radar into a weekly feature – so YOU can tell us which books you have on your radar as well!
On Ana’s Radar:
Here! A new novella set in the award-winning, critically-acclaimed Xuya universe by Aliette de Bodard!
Welcome to the Scattered Pearls Belt, a collection of ring habitats and orbitals ruled by exiled human scholars and powerful families, and held together by living mindships who carry people and freight between the stars. In this fluid society, human and mindship avatars mingle in corridors and in function rooms, and physical and virtual realities overlap, the appareance of environments easily modified and adapted to interlocutors or current mood.
A transport ship discharged from military service after a traumatic injury, The Shadow’s Child now ekes out a precarious living as a brewer of mind-altering drugs for the comfort of space-travellers. Meanwhile, abrasive and eccentric scholar Long Chau wants to find a corpse for a scientific study. When Long Chau walks into her office, The Shadow’s Child expects an unpleasant but easy assignment. When the corpse turns out to have been murdered, Long Chau feels compelled to investigate, dragging The Shadow’s Child with her.
As they dig deep into the victim’s past, The Shadow’s Child realises that the investigation points to Long Chau’s own murky past–and, ultimately, to the dark and unbearable void that lies between the stars…
This middle grade debut looks amazing:
When best friends Tai and Mila are reunited after a summer apart, their friendship threatens to combust from the pressure of secrets, middle school, and the looming dance auditions for a new talented-and-gifted program. A memorably raw story about a complex friendship between two very different African American girls. For fans of Jason Reynolds’s Ghost and Rebecca Stead’s Goodbye Stranger.
Jamila Phillips and Tai Johnson have been inseparable since they were toddlers. In Pirate’s Cove—a low-income housing project in Texas—Mila’s single father does everything he can to support his kids and his community. Tai lives across the street with her grandmother, who is the only family she needs. As summer comes to a close, Tai can’t wait for Mila to return from spending a month with her aunt in the suburbs. But both girls are grappling with secrets, and Mila is different when she returns, seeming to put all her energy toward the upcoming dance auditions for the new talented-and-gifted program.
Paula Chase’s middle grade debut is driven by universal themes of friendship and budding romance, while also exploring complex issues that affect many young teens. Full of ballet, basketball, family, and daily life in Pirate’s Cove, Paula Chase’s memorable novel is perfect for fans of Ali Benjamin’s The Thing About Jellyfish and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich’s and Audrey Vernick’s Two Naomis.
And speaking of awesome-looking Middle Grade, check out this one coming from no other than Daniel José Older!
From New York Times bestselling author Daniel José Older, the astounding first book in a new series that blends history and fantasy like never before.
It’s 1863 and dinosaurs roam the streets of New York as the Civil War rages between raptor-mounted armies down South. Magdalys Roca and her friends from the Colored Orphan Asylum are on a field trip when the Draft Riots break out, and a number of their fellow orphans are kidnapped by an evil magistrate, Richard Riker.
Magdalys and her friends flee to Brooklyn and settle in the Dactyl Hill neighborhood, where black and brown New Yorkers have set up an independent community—a safe haven from the threats of Manhattan. Together with the Vigilance Committee, they train to fly on dactylback, discover new friends and amazing dinosaurs, and plot to take down Riker. Can Magdalys and the squad rescue the rest of their friends before it’s too late?
Ok so I seem to be on a MG kick but CHECK THE NEW BOOK MIDDLE GRADE NOVEL BY VICTORIA SCHWAB!
Cassidy Blake’s parents are The Inspectres, a (somewhat inept) ghost-hunting team. But Cass herself can REALLY see ghosts. In fact, her best friend, Jacob, just happens to be one.
When The Inspectres head to ultra-haunted Edinburgh, Scotland, for their new TV show, Cass — and Jacob — come along. In Scotland, Cass is surrounded by ghosts, not all of them friendly. Then she meets Lara, a girl who can also see the dead. But Lara tells Cassidy that as an In-betweener, their job is to send ghosts permanently beyond the Veil. Cass isn’t sure about her new mission, but she does know the sinister Red Raven haunting the city doesn’t belong in her world. Cassidy’s powers will draw her into an epic fight that stretches through the worlds of the living and the dead, in order to save herself.
I am really looking forward to reading Americanized which I hear is excellent!
The hilarious, poignant, true story of one teen’s experience growing up in America as an undocumented immigrant from the Middle East.
At thirteen, bright-eyed, straight-A student Sara Saedi uncovered a terrible family secret: she was breaking the law simply by living in the United States. Only two years old when her parents fled Iran, she didn’t learn of her undocumented status until her older sister wanted to apply for an after-school job, but couldn’t because she didn’t have a Social Security number.
Fear of deportation kept Sara up at night, but it didn’t keep her from being a teenager. She desperately wanted a green card, along with clear skin, her own car, and a boyfriend.
From discovering that her parents secretly divorced to facilitate her mother’s green card application to learning how to tame her unibrow, Sara pivots gracefully from the terrifying prospect that she might be kicked out of the country to the almost-as-terrifying possibility that she might be the only one without a date to the prom. This moving, often hilarious story is for anyone who has ever shared either fear.
On Thea’s Radar:
First up on my list is a new novella that can be read as a standalone in the Witchland series, which I just received in the mail:
Before Safi and Iseult battled a Bloodwitch…
Before Merik returned from the dead…
Ryber Fortiza was a Sightwitch Sister at a secluded convent, waiting to be called by her goddess into the depths of the mountain. There she would receive the gift of foretelling. But when that call never comes, Ryber finds herself the only Sister without the Sight.
Years pass and Ryber’s misfit pain becomes a dull ache, until one day, Sisters who already possess the Sight are summoned into the mountain, never to return. Soon, Ryber is the only Sister left. Now, it is up to her to save her Sisters, though she does not have the Sight — and though she does not know what might await her inside the mountain.
On her journey underground, she encounters a young captain named Kullen Ikray, who has no memory of who he is or how he got there. Together, the two travel ever deeper in search of answers, their road filled with horrors, and what they find at the end of that road will alter the fate of the Witchlands forever.
Next up, a fantasy novel I received in the mail recently:
I was seven years old the first time my uncle poisoned me…
Outwardly, Jovan is the lifelong friend of the Chancellor’s charming, irresponsible Heir. Quiet. Forgettable. In secret, he’s a master of poisons and chemicals, trained to protect the Chancellor’s family from treachery. When the Chancellor succumbs to an unknown poison and an army lays siege to the city, Jovan and his sister Kalina must protect the Heir and save their city-state.
But treachery lurks in every corner, and the ancient spirits of the land are rising… and angry.
And then this book, also from the mail (and with a blurb from Ann Leckie):
After the climate wars, a floating city is constructed in the Arctic Circle, a remarkable feat of mechanical and social engineering, complete with geothermal heating and sustainable energy. The city’s denizens have become accustomed to a roughshod new way of living, however, the city is starting to fray along the edges—crime and corruption have set in, the contradictions of incredible wealth alongside direst poverty are spawning unrest, and a new disease called “the breaks” is ravaging the population.
When a strange new visitor arrives—a woman riding an orca, with a polar bear at her side—the city is entranced. The “orcamancer,” as she’s known, very subtly brings together four people—each living on the periphery—to stage unprecedented acts of resistance. By banding together to save their city before it crumbles under the weight of its own decay, they will learn shocking truths about themselves.
Blackfish City is a remarkably urgent—and ultimately very hopeful—novel about political corruption, organized crime, technology run amok, the consequences of climate change, gender identity, and the unifying power of human connection.
And last but not least, this new title from Claire North that I am dying to read:
From one of the most powerful writers in modern fiction comes a dystopian vision of a world where money reigns supreme, and nothing is so precious that it can’t be bought….
The penalty for Dani Cumali’s murder: £84,000.
Theo works in the Criminal Audit Office. He assesses each crime that crosses his desk and makes sure the correct debt to society is paid in full.
These days, there’s no need to go to prison – provided that you can afford to pay the penalty for the crime you’ve committed. If you’re rich enough, you can get away with murder.
But Dani’s murder is different. When Theo finds her lifeless body, and a hired killer standing over her and calmly calling the police to confess, he can’t let her death become just an entry on a balance sheet.
Someone is responsible. And Theo is going to find them and make them pay.
And that’s it from us! What books do you have on YOUR radar?
It is with the utmost delight that we are proud to announce that Girl Reporter by Tansy Rayner Roberts, the novella we published in December of 2017, has been nominated for TWO Aurealis Awards: Best YA Short Story and Best Novella! The prestigious Aurealis Award is an annual, juried literary award for Australian science fiction, fantasy and horror fiction and we couldn’t be prouder.
The full shortlist is here and congratulations to all nominees!
If you haven’t read Girl Reporter yet, you can find the novella as both ebook and paperback through all major retailers:
Women To Read is a monthly column from A.C. Wise highlighting female authors of speculative fiction and recommending a starting place for their work.
Trigger Warning for this episode: Rape.
Welcome to another edition of Women to Read. Hopefully you enjoyed last month’s recommendations! February is a short month, and by coincidence, all my recommendations happen to be short stories. It also just so happens that three of the authors are Canadian (not that I’m biased toward the country of my birth). Finally, all four stories touch on themes of women’s bodies, their uses, and their autonomy. It’s almost like current events have put the topic on people’s minds… but I digress. Onward to the recommendations!
That night her labor begins, and what emerges is not a human child, not exactly. It is unsexed, its eyes sealed, its skin dark gray, like a hairless rabbit kitten, with an open pocket that runs from breastbone to privates, and its lungs and liver hanging outside its body.
Birth and pregnancy are central themes that recur throughout, and Campbell weaves the story’s sections together to explore the idea of potential – that anything can be monstrous or miraculous before it’s born – along with the idea of women as vessels for ushering in new life, with no inherent value of their own. This includes exploration of a “gravid” nuclear bomb awaiting test detonation, as well as the tale of Gaea’s children being forced back inside her body at the beginning of the world.
One section of the story relates the tale of a farmer who faked miraculous prophecies by writing them on the shells of eggs, then reinserted the eggs into his hens. Later, it is revealed that Mary’s sister and her husband have been doing something similar to her, faking the miracle of her rabbit children by inserting actual rabbits into her body. It isn’t clear whether Mary consents to this or whether she’s used, but either way, violence is done to her body. She is a means to an end, as was the hen with her eggs. Women’s potential, their ability to deliver the future through children or through prophecy, is the primary source of their worth.
Campbell also touches on the way women’s medical concerns are often dismissed or misunderstood, and the way their bodies are seen as wild mysteries that defy understanding altogether. Mary’s intuition about her child is ignored in favor of those around her who want a miracle or a scientific case study.
“An Incomplete Catalogue of Miraculous Births, or Secrets of the Uterus Abscondita” is a haunting story, full of disturbing and powerful imagery. The structure adds to the story’s effectiveness, the sections illuminating and enriching each other to build a truly unsettling whole. However, amidst the darkness, one of Mary’s rabbit-children does escape, and might be a true miracle, which can be read as hope making its way into the world.
Millie Ho is a Toronto-based author and illustrator. Her story, “Hehua”, recently published at Fireside Magazine,is a chilling tale of medical technology and who has access to justice. Cassandra lives in a world in which parents can pay for their own Wonder Kids–designer babies genetically corrected for disease, but also altered eye, hair, and skin color. (Unsurprisingly, choices tend toward a blue/blonde/white aesthetic.) People can also pay to be Edited in order to forget traumatic events or quit bad habits, though Editing can also be forced onto individuals. Cassandra’s incarcerated father, for example, is repeatedly Edited–a test subject in order to improve the technology for paying customers.
Hehua Cover Art – Fireside
As the story opens, Cassandra learns her friend and co-worker, Hehua, has been murdered. In addition to her grief, Cassandra also feels guilty. The last time they spoke, she and Hehua fought over Hehua’s choice to be Edited in order to lose her accent. They hadn’t spoken to each other since, and now it’s too late. Initially Hehua had been against the idea of Editing as being silly and superficial (or super fickle, as she used to say), just as Cassandra was against it, but Hehua’s new relationship with another of their co-workers, a Wonder Kid named Trevor, changed her mind. When Cassandra sets out on her own to investigate, she discovers Trevor may be the one responsible for Hehua’s death. Trevor is married, and Cassandra suspects he may have murdered Hehua to cover up the affair. But when Cassandra goes to the cops to voice her suspicions, she is told Wonder Kids can’t be murderers.
Akachi stands up as well. “I know plenty, Ms. Xu. You know what people sacrifice to have a Wonder Kid?” He pushes aside his blazer and points to his lower back. “My father gave up his kidney, for one. I know all about the struggles of normal people, but also what it costs to be valuable in our society.” He sits back down, his nostrils flaring. “There’s no way such a heavy price would produce a murderer.”
“Hehua” tackles racism, the justice system, and the sinister side of medical technology. The genetic manipulation and Editing in the story have obvious parallels in the eugenics movement, and in ideas about the ways immigrants should assimilate. Many parents choose to lighten their children’s skin before birth and make their features more Caucasian, and Hehua herself chooses to Edit her natural accent out of existence to fit in. Through the division between Wonder Kids and the rest of society, the story also reflects the all too real problem of justice being reserved for the rich and the white, and often the straight, cis, and male. Trevor is automatically presumed innocent because of his status as a Wonder Kid. Meanwhile, Cassandra a brown woman who hasn’t been modified in any way, has her concerns dismissed, calling to mind real world stories of how much harder it is to get justice for victims of color, queer folks, trans folks, and women.
Through the treatment of Cassandra’s father, the story also touches on the dehumanization that occurs within the criminal justice system. Her father is used as a lab rat, his suffering dismissed as acceptable for the betterment of society, while Hehua herself is used up and murdered by the same society. The story holds up an SFnal mirror to our modern-day world, but also provides hope. Like Campbell’s story, “Hehua” ends on a note hinting that things can, and will, get better.
Senaa Ahmad is also a Toronto-based author, and my recommended starting place for her work is “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” published at Strange Horizons. Like “Hehua”, “The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” is also about the overreach of science, but this time tied to the technology of war. The story centers on a group of girls who are used as living bombs, incinerating themselves and obliterating cities, but without dying. Or at least not right away. The story moves fluidly in time, looking ahead to when one of the girls, Nabeela is dying of radiation poisoning. Her symptoms are horrific: blistering and sloughing skin, rotting (or slowly burning) from the inside out. The girls are all volunteers, but primarily from poor families. Even though they are now treated like objects, Ahmad makes a point of saying the girls initially made a choice to become weapons, in order to give themselves a chance at a better future. While they may have known some of the risks involved, they couldn’t have known exactly what would happen to them until they were too deep to back out. However, even if they knew the full weight of what they were taking on, it wouldn’t make their fate any less horrific.
The story is full of beautiful and evocative language, and the girls are wonderful characters. They are a family; they bicker but love each other because who else do they have? In a particularly lovely moment, one of the girls reads to the others from an old recipe book belonging to her grandmother, bringing home how much they’ve lost – their birth families, their connection to their histories, and even the sensory experience of a delicious home-cooked meal.
At the heart of the story (literally, structure-wise), and running as a theme throughout, is the question of the girls’ agency. They are debated on TV, in the media, and the public eye.
They call us weapons of mass destruction, or military mad science experiments, or a new generation of suicide bombers, or just bombs. They want to know, is this how science was meant to be used. Are we even human.
They are discussed as objects, and rarely given their own voice. Nabeela briefly has the chance to speak for the group, hailed as a hero and trotted around to various talk shows, but even then, it is only the other girls who truly see her. The girls even have handlers, underscoring them as assets, not people. However, the girls never lose sight of their own humanity.
“The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” is a gut-punch of a story, gorgeously told. It examines the cost of war and violence and, like Campbell’s story, the uses and questions of agency for women’s bodies. The obvious comparison made in the story itself is the Radium Girls of World War I, who painted radioactive watch dials and match heads, slowly and unknowingly poisoning themselves. Ahmad’s story also echoes the themes of poverty and justice as seen in Ho’s story. Who is seen as expendable, who is allowed to fully participate in society? Who benefits from war and who is ground up by it?
Lindiwe Rooney is a South African writer, artist, and anthropologist. My recommended starting place for her work is “In Her Bones” from January’s issue of The Dark, a story that follows a character named Ayanda. Ayanda’s father works for the gun-runner Yana Mwani. They are childhood friends, and Joseph is more or less completely under Yana’s thumb. But when a shipment is delayed, Yana’s son, Wekesa, comes to Ayanda’s home carrying the cleaver he supposedly uses to cut down his father’s enemies, bristling with threats.
The first time Wekesa Mwani came to Ayanda’s home, he didn’t bother to knock. He stepped through the door way as if it were his own, and wandered through the house until he came upon Ayanda’s family eating dinner.
Rooney evokes the image of an animal stalking its prey. Wekesa doesn’t commit violence at the table, but he makes it clear he could do so at any time. When he returns to the house a second time, he brings gifts, is full of cajoling flattery, and is invited in as a guest, leaving him protected by the rules of hospitality. Wekesa’s attitude in these two encounters reveals his personality – he believes himself untouchable, will bully or buy his way into whatever he wants, and feels the world is his for the taking. He assumes Ayanda is his for the taking as well, raping her once, and attempting it a second time. However the second time, Ayanda is ready with a kitchen knife, and cuts off Wekesa’s penis. As Jama Ibor, the medicine woman, is summoned to tend to Wekesa’s wound, Ayanda’s family wonders why she didn’t let justice take its course. She knows that even if Wekesa was cast out for his crime, he would still come after her, and after her family. By taking justice into her own hands, and violating the rules protecting Wekesa as a guest, she has exiled herself, but will keep them safe.
Meanwhile, Jama Ibor offers Ayanda a hefty sum if she will sell her what she cut off Wekesa. She can use it to make powerful muti, even if it is considered the forbidden kind. Ayanda decides she would rather take a lesser sum, but let Jama Ibor train her as an apprentice. Thus she reclaims her life, transforming herself from an object used and abused by Wekesa into something she can use herself. After tearing herself out of the tapestry of her family history, she allows herself to become a vessel for the gods. She will be barred from the afterlife and joining her ancestors, but she will be long-lived and powerful while she is alive. “In Her Bones” isn’t an easy story, given the subject matter, however Lindiwe handles it with grace. Nothing is gratuitous, and the narrative is centered firmly in Ayanda’s point of view. Her world is one of violence, from her father’s association with a gangster-king, to the physical violence done to her personally. It is with spiritual violence that she reclaims her life, but once her destiny is her own again, she turns to healing. Even her choice to wound Wekesa is about protecting her family more than it is about revenge, making this a powerful story on many levels.
That wraps up February’s Women to Read. Hopefully you’ve found some new-to-you authors to enjoy. Tune in next month–same Smuggler time, same Smuggler channel–for more recommendations.
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion Publication date: February 13 2018 Paperback: 368 pages
Melissa is a nobody. Wilf is a slacker. Bondi is a show-off. At least that’s what their middle school teachers think. To everyone’s surprise, they are the three students chosen to compete for a ten thousand-dollar scholarship, solving clues that lead them to various locations around Chicago. At first the three contestants work independently, but it doesn’t take long before each begins to wonder whether the competition is a sham. It’s only by secretly joining forces and using their unique talents that the trio is able to uncover the truth behind the Ambrose Deception–a truth that involves a lot more than just a scholarship.
With a narrative style as varied and intriguing as the mystery itself, this adventure involving clever clues, plenty of perks, and abhorrent adults is pure wish fulfillment.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Review Copy from the publisher
Format (e- or p-): ebook
The weight of expectations – good and bad – are at the centre of this fun Middle Grade mystery/adventure.
Melissa, a studious but underappreciated kid whose teachers and counsellors think she will amount to nothing. With money problems at home, Melissa helps other kids with their homework… for a fee.
Wilf, a slacker and sometimes chance thief, whose absent parents leave a hole in his life and a desire in his heart for company.
Bondi, smart and self-confident, a bit of a show-off but extremely capable kid whose home life is a bit on the expecting-too-much of him side.
To absolutely everybody’s surprised – even their own – the three are chosen to compete against each other for a prestigious scholarship contest and the winner gets ten thousand dollars. The rules are clear: each gets a folder with three clues to solve (with photographic evidence) in order to move to the next stage, they can’t discuss them with each other or anybody else for that matter. Each is given a personal driver, a credit card and a mobile.
After signing a non-disclosure agreement with their sponsor they set off toward success or failure.
And at first, Bondi is the one truly get into the game head-on while Melissa is dubious of if, thinking she is being pranked and that things smell really, really fishy. Meanwhile, Wilf is so certain he is going to lose anyway, he decides to just enjoy the perks and bucket lists his way around Chicago.
Eventually, they all start solving the clues which leads them down a rabbit hole of deception, lies and even more mysteries. The truth behind the scholarship goes beyond their wildest dreams and it’s only working together (against the rules) that the kids will be able to solve it all.
The Ambrose Deception is an engaging, fast-paced mystery with a side of cool educational tourism for Chicago’s landmarks and added visual/epistolary elements that enrich the narrative. I had a great time reading it – especially with the more character-driven elements of the story. Of those, my favourites were the close bonds that eventually formed between the drivers and the kids, and the slow reveal of what lies behind Melissa, Bondi and Wilf’s public personas as well as the thoughtful examination of how expectations of failure and success that are put on kids can be rather harmful. These are interwoven into what is a primarily plot-driven narrative that reminded me a little bit of The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin and which was a whole lot fun.
It’s that time of year again – it is award eligibility time! Today, we’re talking about the Hugo Awards and putting together our obligatory award eligibility post.
The Hugo Awards are a fan award and one of longest-running and most prestigious under the SFF umbrella. Each year the winners are announced at the World Science Fiction Convention (aka WorldCon). Worldcon 2018 will take place in San Jose, California from August 16th-20th–at least one smuggler will be in attendance!
Not everyone can make it out to WorldCon each year–but even if you cannot attend, know that ANY SFF fan can sign up for a supporting membership ($50) which gives you the right to nominate and vote for the Hugos – this year’s nominating process is already open!
For more information on how to become a member, check out the WorldCon 76 website and the official Hugo Awards website.
Delighted to be hosting the cover reveal for Greg van Eekhout’s new Middle Grade novel Voyage of the Dogs, coming from Harper Children’s this year.
Without further ado, behold! The smugglerific cover!
About the book:
“Who’s a good boy? Lopside and the canine crew of the starship Laika! This dogs in space romp will make you sit up and beg for more.”
– Alan Gratz, New York Timesbestselling author of Refugee
“Dogs in space? Who knew we needed that? But Greg van Eekhout proves we did! Voyage of the Dogs is a delight, and kids are going to love it.” – Spencer Quinn.
“A crackling page-turner about courage and wonder, full of warmth and heart and characters who jump off the page. It’s my favorite book of the year.” – Rae Carson, New York Times bestselling author of the Girl of Fire & Thorns series
Voyage of the Dogs tells the story of a diligent team of dogs who accompany their humans on a deep space voyage to establish a new outpost far across the galaxy. When the dogs wake unexpectedly from hypersleep with the ship damaged and their people nowhere to be found, they seek to fulfill the mission the humans began.
A few words from Greg van Eekhout
Voyage of the Dogs, my third middle-grade novel, features four intelligent dogs who wake up from hibernation on a long-range space mission to find their spaceship damaged, the escape pod gone, and their human crewmates missing. Abandoned in space, they must fight to survive on a dying ship and reach their destination. Their smarts and skills and courage will be tested to their limits, as well as their loyalty to each other and to their human masters.
The cover started with my amazing editor, Erica Sussman, asking me if I had any thoughts on what I’d like to see. My thoughts weren’t very complicated: I wanted to see a dog on a spaceship. And, also, I wondered if I should send in a picture of one of my own dogs, Dozer, as inspiration. It seemed like it might be helpful since the lead character in the book, Lopside, is loosely based on my own terrier mutt mix. Erica’s answer was pretty much this: “YES YOU ARE CONTRACTUALLY OBLIGATED TO SEND ME PICS OF YOUR DOG DOZER.” At least that’s how I remember it. After that exchange, I was pretty confident that the cover was going to turn out wonderfully. And, hey, it did! I love Lopside’s soulful, earnest eyes. I love his backpack full of tools. I love the way he’s perched on the control panel. I love the sparkly type treatment for the title. I love the spaceship stuff and the starscape in the background. Along with my editor, cover artist Mark Fredrickson, art director Alison Donalty, designer Aurora Parlagreco, and logo artist Oliver Burston did an amazing job. I would fly into space with this crew any time.
About the Author:
Greg van Eekhout is a science fiction and fantasy novelist whose books range from middle-grade to adult and include Norse Code, the California Bones trilogy, Kid vs. Squid, The Boy at the End of the World, and the forthcoming Voyage of the Dogs. His work has been nominated for the Nebula Award for best short story and the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy. You can find more about Greg at his website: www.writingandsnacks.com.