In times of trouble, people often reach for sources of strength. For me, in this moment, I reach for stories that inspire. Not by ignoring the corruption that infects our world, but by imagining ways to push back, to fight, to burn brighter in the face of the snuffling winds and suffocating atmosphere. The stories I’ve enjoyed most from the first half of 2019 are those that find love thriving in difficult terrains. That show characters reaching past hurt to show kindness, but also to stand for what is right. To walk away from what can be walked away from, to face what must be faced, and to survive in hope of a new day.
So grab your sextant (teehee), your compass, and your reading glasses, and get ready to X-plore what you might have missed so far in 2019!
“Beyond the El”, John Chu (Tor, January 2019 )
What It Is: Connor is a food crafter, able to use a kind of magic to cook food with just his hands. It’s a skill that makes him useful in the restaurant business, but following the loss of his mother he’s been using it for something else—to try and recreate her signature potstickers. He has a complicated relationship with his family, and the story shows him facing what that means, and how he’s going to move forward.
Why I Love It: Family is an intensely complex thing, and I love how careful but fearless this story is at exploring what family means for Connor, with all the trauma, guilt, and hope that goes along with it. His relationship with his sister and with his parents is informed by his queerness, which in turn effects his ability to act on his attractions, to ask for help, and to be vulnerable at all to other people. It’s a piece that does not flinch from showing a messy situation and Connor’s messy solution to it, offering up an emotionally resonating and beautiful story of family, identity, and food.
“By the Storytelling Fire”, Jaymee Goh (Fireside Magazine #63, January 2019)
What It Is: Two people share a fire but stay to their separate sides as they map the distance between them. And they accomplish that through stories, each taking a turn to tell a different version of the same events, that together weaves a tapestry of care and longing, respect and hesitation. The nested narrative structure fleshes out the world while revealing what the characters mean to each other, and how great a risk they’re taking in giving voice to the feelings they’ve before left silent.
Why I Love It: This story is incredibly sweet and romantic, with an innovative structure and vivid, evocative language. And it walks such a careful line, fully aware of the problematic tropes of fairy tales, where love is often coerced and forced, assumed or taken. But for me it doesn’t feel cynical or disillusioned with the form of the fairy tale, but rather sets about drawing one that doesn’t fall into the common pitfalls, blazing a trail through that dark wood full of waiting teeth and finding instead the warmth of two people who would risk everything rather than violate the trust or consent of the person they care about. It’s cute and triumphant and honestly a balm in these troubled times.
“Tell the Phoenix Fox, Tell the Tortoise Fruit”, Cynthia So (Glittership Summer 2018, March 2019 )
What It Is: Following a long colonization, the island of Miraya is now relatively free, but not of the footprint the colonizers left behind, which includes a ritual where the island must sacrifice people to a monster that appears every ten years, that must be Appeased lest the island face a steeper price. And Sunae and Oaru are girls growing up in the shadow of that threat, determined to free their home of Appeasement, though they very different methods. And the piece explores how histories can be twisted to suit imperial intentions, and how they can be freed through a reclamation of the truth.
Why I Love It: Sunae and Oaru’s situation is so wrenching, forced to hide their love because if they’re found out they’ll be sacrificed in the Appeasement. And it’s a situation that shows the scars left by colonization, this anti-queer hate and institutional oppression which has only been accomplished through historical erasure, suppressing and destroying the cultural texts that revealed that the island’s greatest hero couldn’t mesh with the morals of the conquerors. As much as the piece explores hurts old and new, though, it also looks with hope to a future where the island can start to shake itself free from the lingering chains that still hold it even after the colonizers have gone. It’s a beautiful story that mixes poetry and history, and that features two women out to save their home from more than just a monster’s hunger.
“What Cradles Us But Will Not Set Us Free”, Nin Harris (Strange Horizons 04/01/2019, April 2019 )
What It Is: Kamala thought she was free of the house. That is, until she booked an AirBnB and discovers that it’s just been waiting for her—her and her entire family. The house makes monsters, drawing and twisting people to its will, exerting its power over them, and once it gets its hooks in, there’s no real pulling them out. That doesn’t mean that Kamala is going to give in to its influence, though, or its intentions towards her children.
Why I Love It: Well first off, the food descriptions are mouth watering and amazing and I am a sucker for food in SFF. More than that, though, the piece acknowledges that there are plenty of people caught in corrupt, violent, hungry systems that they can’t merely opt out of. That wanting to be free of the abuses of a system, both as victim and perpetrator, is not always enough. For all that it might have been bleak, though, the piece focuses on the power of family and especially found family in building resistance, and maybe changing the narrative so that, for future generations at least, there might be a better way, and a true freedom.
“While Dragons Claim the Sky”, Jen Brown (Fiyah #10, April 2019)
What It Is: Omani knows that money is about the only thing that will help her family, that will drag them out of the cycle of lack that they are stuck in. As a coif mage, the only way she knows to get money is to attend a prestigious institution so that she can explore her theories and innovations in hair magic. Too bad school is so expensive… Enter Myra, a warrior who just might be the ticket to Omani’s dreams. The piece follows them as they reach for what they hope will allow them to finally help their families and their homes, and as they run into the darker realities of the world they live in.
Why I Love It: The world building of this piece is breathtaking, imagining a world of magic and dragons, bargains and violence. Both Omani and Myra find themselves desperate to help the people close to them, unwilling to heed the red flags raised in their path until its almost too late. Because what they assumed were defects in the system, problems to fixed in order to help people, turn out to perhaps be designed to maintain the status quo and concentrate power among those most willing to use it to abuse it. The piece is epic, sweeping, and full of action and compassion. Omani and Myra bring out the best in each other, even as their dreams threaten to twist into nightmares.
“The Ocean That Fades Into Sky”, Kathleen Kayembe (Lightspeed #108, May 2019)
What It Is: Set on a world where colonizing gods have subjugated the native divinities, this piece stars Coasts, daughter of Ocean and Land, who has taken the place of her mother Ocean in order to try and defy these invading gods and maybe retake the planet. Pretending to someone else isn’t exactly a healthy way to build an identity, though, especially when she finds herself in love with one of the invading deities. The piece interrogates colonization and resistance all while building a cast and plot that are balanced, intricate, and alive.
Why I Love It: The story mixes star-crossed romance, an incredibly complex power dynamic, and the horror of colonization in a way I don’t think I’ve seen before. The characters are gods, manifestations of the natural and human-made worlds, and they are familiar and tragic and terrifying. And amidst it all, Coasts in is an impossible situation, young and in love and yet living a lie that is becoming more and more unbearable. Any mistake and she might doom not just herself but her entire family, her entire world, and yet at the same time she’s found it doesn’t matter if she can’t have something of her own, if she can’t take a chance on love, even if it might destroy everything.
“Enchiridion of the Soltite”, Xue Xihe (Lackington’s #19, May 2019 )
What It Is: Framed as a guidebook to a country that is experiencing an authoritarian and xenophobic surge, the story introduces a philosophy and religion that is being brutally suppressed. It’s a maze, a map not to help people get from place to place but to get them to consider the journey, to inform their wanderings and open their eyes to the wonder and mysteries all around them. The story is structured into handy references, definitions, anecdotes, advice, and warnings, introducing a richly detailed world and history and a moment when so much seems in danger, threatened, when travel, hospitality, and open borders are more important than ever.
Why I Love It: The realm of Yon is full of interesting sights and customs, and the Soltites believe in the importance of exploring them, of experiencing them. Of staying in the practice of getting a bit lost. Mazes are very important here, not just because they allow people an interesting challenge, but because they reveal the nature of the universe, where things are never so simple as to have just one path. Life is a maze that everyone is constantly navigating, and the story brings that idea to life across the ruins and history of Yon, and in the stories and customs that the Soltites pass down. Wrapped up as a suppressed document passed in secret, a sort of passport for those willing to defy the current regime, the story exudes a sense of hope and resistance that I find especially timely and poignant.
“Canst Thou Draw Out the Leviathan”, Christopher Caldwell (Uncanny #28, June 2019)
What It Is: Unfolding on a whaling ship, John Wood is a former slave who has bought his freedom, and yet who still can’t risk being open about his sexuality because on a mostly white ship, he’s never really safe. As ship’s engineer, he’s witness to the ways that being different on the ship is dangerous, and even as he tries to keep himself to himself, there’s a part of him that can’t help dreaming of a better life. The dream is interrupted, though, by a series of increasingly dark and dramatic events.
Why I Love It: Can I just re-emphasize the gay whalers here? And okay, okay, that aside (or, more accurately, on top of that awesomeness), the story tackles a number of difficult historical abuses, linking death to death in the eyes of an angry god and showing the illusion of freedom that John managed to buy for himself. It shows that true freedom is not something a corrupt system will allow you to buy, that it will always be held out of reach, hostage to playing by the rules that made you slave in the first place. And as dark as it is, and as heartbreaking as it almost becomes, the story wrests joy from tragedy, love from despair, and refuses to sacrifice compassion on the altar of exploitation.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, and new short SFF is being published every day. For anyone who wants help finding more X-cellent works, definitely check out my reviews at Quick Sip Reviews or my Patreon, where I do weekly story recommendations. Until next time, cheers!