|Art by Galen Dara|
There's some big goings-on at Fireside Magazine in 2018, and January kicks off with five original stories plus an original poem. The pieces can be rather short (the poem might be longer than a number of the stories), but that doesn't mean they pack less of a punch. The pieces range from deeply dark to lighter and so so cute, from epic and unexpected to unsettling and tense. The relationships that the pieces introduce, though, are complex and interesting and enlightening. From a father desperate to give his son a better life to a spouse unsure how to talk about what's happening to them without draining those they care about. The piece looks at impossible situations, or situations that seem impossible, and shows how people move forward regardless. To the reviews!
“Guardian” by Shiv Ramdas (346 words)
No Spoilers: This is a very short story that carries with it a feeling of myth. Of fairy tale. Where a host of small creatures called littlings find themselves at the fee of a being known as Sitka. The piece has a feeling of cycles to it, of a quiet kind of inevitability made a bit more interesting by the energy and violence of the littlings. The piece doesn’t shed an awful lot of light on the nature of the littlings or the Sitka, nor does it really set up where the story is taking place, outside of a forest, which for me is what gives it that more fairy tale feel, that it’s taking place one forest over, where a little bit of the old magic still lingers.
Keywords: Forests, Guardians, Eating
Review: I like the feeling of this story, the way that it sets up Sitka as someone or something that awakens for a specific function. It is a guardian, as the title suggests, but that role isn’t perhaps one that fits with expectations. Firstly, the threat is strange and rather magical, a swarm of creatures who can kill humans but who always wreck themselves on Sitka. They are voracious but they don’t seem able to resist flinging themselves at the guardian, who meets out the same fate time and again. Which is where the cycle of the story comes in, and the feeling that this happens time after time. It’s also where the darkness of the piece enters in for me, because while Sitka seems a guardian, it’s not entirely sure what their true aim is. At first it seems like this is a guardian of people. That it might even be a construct that human had made in order to protect them from the scourge of the littlings. Only as the story goes a bit further does something else seem more likely. That the littlings aren’t these tiny fey creatures, but rather are humans themselves, put into the role of the nuisance invaders because of their greed and their need for resources. At which point Sitka might be any number of things. Might be a mountain actually rising up to punish the humans who were trying to exploit it. Or something else massive and ancient, awakened to put down the threat posed by these smaller people. It’s a neat piece because it plays with how people tend to think of guardians as guarding for the sake of human. When, really, this guardian seems to have much different priorities. It’s a piece that fits a lot into a small space and really captures a nice dark twist. A great read!
“Beyond Comprehension” by Russell Nichols (3992 words)
No Spoilers: Brian is a father who has recently gotten custody of his son Andre, as well as gotten Andre a BookWorm, a sort of neural device that allows Andre to upload books directly into his brain without needing to see or hear the words. It’s something that’s both exciting and anxiety-inducing for Brian, who has dyslexia and who has suffered a lifetime of people treating him poorly for being black and “slow.” Faced with a son that can go _so much_ faster with regards to reading, Brian struggles a little with his own feelings, his fears and insecurities about what his role as a father will be for a son who can do things he only dreamed about. And the piece unfolds with a lovely and heartfelt voice, of a father hoping to give his son a better future, stuck still mourning for his own lost opportunities trapped by the stigmas that have followed him his entire life. It’s a complex and heartwarming piece about parenting, and honesty, and love.
Keywords: Books, Dyslexia, Parenting, Cybernetics, Reading
Review: Immediately I love the relationship between father and son here, with Brian trying his hardest but still it seems a bit lost in over-thinking his role as a parent. He wants to “do things right,” which means a lot of things, some of them contradictory, some of them wound around the same biases that have made his own life more difficult. Because he’s black, because he has dyslexia, life has been particularly hard in many ways. Ways that he wants to help his son with, to spare him the same feelings of shame and helplessness. And yet in making that attempt, in working to try and give his son “better,” he is falling a bit into the value system that upholds his pain and the history of his oppression. Mostly, as I read it at least, this takes the form of a deep insecurity about his son. A feeling that in some ways he’s not smart enough or quick enough to teach his son. That what his son needs is the kind of book learning that he never got. But there are different kinds of education, and I love how the story gets Brian to a place where he’s willing and able to interact with Andre not just as an authority figure. Not just as a Father in the Old Testament sense of power and punishment. But rather that he’s able to be vulnerable with his son, to show him in turn that it’s okay to be vulnerable. That it’s okay to struggle. That they can take through things. That not everything can be learned in books, and much of what can be learned there needs context and experience. And it’s just a fantastic way of showing this moment where father and son both find in each other another person and can relate on that level. That they both can admit their weaknesses, their fears, and then try to help each other through them. It is an incredibly sweet and moving story and you should all go read it, like, immediately. Go read it!
“Ten Utterances of the Vampire Word” by George Lockett (371 words)
No Spoilers: This piece imagines a word that has power, and a woman who needs to speak it in order to keep her own hunger and decline in check. Only despite the devastation it leaves in its wake, despite the way she doesn’t want to unleash it on others, it’s not something that really makes anything better. It might sate her for a time, but there are diminishing returns, and the piece explores in a very short space how she deals with that, how she faces what is happening. The story never really reveals what the word is, but that’s not exactly the point. Rather, what the woman goes through, and her desperation to be heard in a way that helps, is what carries the action in this very dark and incredibly heartbreaking story.
Keywords: Words, Illness, CW- Suicide/Ideation, Silence, Vampires
Review: I love the idea of a word that is also vampiric. That leads the main character here again and again to speak the word aloud, which has the effect of draining the people around them, and which has a short term way of helping them, but which ultimately can’t be sated by just saying the word. And I love it because it speaks to something about suffering, and about pain, and about conditions. There are a few candidates for what the word might be, after all. Cancer? Depression? Suicide or ideation? Part of the power of the word here is that it provokes something rather immediate and visceral in people. The word has power. And for some people who are dealing with the effects of the word, of the condition underneath the word, it is something that there is a pressure to talk about. Like confessing it is a way of exorcising it. At the same time, though, it’s not something that can be talked away. There is no amount of saying the word that “cures” the person who is dealing with it, and I like that the story shows the desperation and the despair that creep into everything. That no matter how much she says it, she is still burdened by it, doubly so because she knows that she’s also kind of infecting others by talking about it. That she might be bringing people down because that’s how some of these things work. That even her husband, who asks her to talk, can’t really help. Is actually hurt by what she says. Because he doesn’t want her to talk about it—he wants her to not be afflicted. Which the story really nails in a very short space, framing this story-as-list in all its tragic grace and rending beauty. It’s a difficult piece, but also a wonderful read!
“Lord Serpent” by Mary Soon Lee (612 words)
No Spoilers: This story finds the Middle Kingdom under attack by an angry demon, the last of four to descend upon the nation in a single year. The other three were dispatched by great lords of the court, by the Emperor himself or the other highest ranking nobles and advisers of the court. This final one, though, a great snake known as Lord Serpent, is proving to be perhaps even more formidable. He has laid siege to a city, and nothing seems to have any power to stop him. Until, that is, a rather unlikely warrior steps forward with a rather unconventional way of doing things. The piece builds up a fantasy realm and sets the stage for a bit of classic battle...only to go completely against expectations in a rather delightful and inventive way. It’s a piece that looks at what heroes can look like, and how sometimes it’s not about strength or stamina or even cleverness. Sometimes it’s all about guts.
Keywords: Demons, Serpents, Rewards, Family, Gods
Review: This story takes a new stab and an old classic, that of the unlikely hero. What I love about it, though, is that it really commits to that. It wraps itself in a lovely fantasy setting, one painted in broad strokes up full of demons and emperors and very big and dangerous magic. And it doesn’t look at a young boy who everyone underestimates. Instead, it looks at an older laundry woman. Who, despite not being a warrior or a magician or anything so fancy as that, decides that she’s going to march herself up to Lord Serpent and do what everyone else has failed to do—kill him. And it’s just this moment that shows that, despite the setting being seemingly dominated by great lords doing great deeps, it often takes a person, really any person, willing to stand up against evil, to start to turn the tides against it. The woman goes not because she is the surest with a knife, but rather because she knows that she has nothing to be ashamed of as a laundry woman. That she is just as worthy as anyone else. That she is just as capable of living by the wisdom of the gods, and in that way she is just as capable of killing a dragon as the emperor himself. And it’s a lot of fun, to see it all play out, with a nice touch of action but really more of a quiet dignity that carries through. Definitely a story to check out!
“By the Storytelling Fire” by Jaymee Goh (1639 words)
No Spoilers: Two people share a fire, keeping to their side as they think about the things between them. Unwilling to go their separate ways, they decide instead to tell a story each, and through their tales they come to a deeper understanding about what they mean to each other, and what they want going forward. It is a brilliantly fun and romantic read, building up this relationship and one that the characters cherish and don’t want to violate, and through their care and effort and respect are able to bring to a new place.
Keywords: Fairy Tales, Sleep, Stories, Campfires, Adventurers, Love
Review: This is...THE SWEETEST FUCKING THING! Seriously this is a wonderfully original and refreshing take on fairy tales, on the idea of happy endings, and on relationships in SFF in general. I love it. For me, so much focuses on the ways that both people are so careful, so obviously not wanting to push or force the other into doing something that they don’t want. There is this awareness of coercion that is great and needed because this comes in the form of people telling fairy tales, where so often the romance is coerced. By magic or by need, by fairies or by some other power. Though it’s often promoted as romantic, these ways of establishing relationships are rather problematic and don’t really leave room for the characters to respect each other’s consent. And really I just love the way that they talk around saying anything too obviously because they know they were “supposed” to end up together and so perhaps they feel that if they end up that way that they are playing into the harmful tropes of fairy tales. That they are furthing the harm those kinds of stories do. And tbh I feel in some ways that I’ve seen some particularly salty takes on valuing consent in fairy tales where people think that...I guess that it undermines the foundations of the genre. That it wouldn’t be fairy tales without the problematic elements. And here we have a story that so joyously embraces the elements and feel of fairy tales while also refusing to go along with their history or their harms. It’s a story that’s very much about princes and princesses and curses and adventures, and it’s fun and lively and so so cute. It’s not cynical about fairy tales. Instead, it goes about to tell a story where it’s completely cool and romantic for these people to respect each other and bumble their way into admitting how they feel and it is the pure and good and romantic af and you should go read it immediately!!! So, so good!
“Teeth” by Sabrina Vourvoulias
This poem speaks to me of monsters and men, of teeth in all the ways that they are used to bite and rend, to attack and defend. The narrator of this piece confronts the visions of monsters that people imagine, the vampires and the chupacabras that stalk the night, and largely rejects them. Because, to me at least, those don’t really fit with the true monsters out there. The ones who really do prey on humans, and do it from the comfort and security of an official position, elected or appointed or hired. The piece looks at hunger, and at oppression, and at the stories that people tell. Stories that paint immigrants as monsters and imagine them as less than human. Stories that justify atrocities. But also stories that are used to try and push back against violence and hate. Stories told by people to try and keep safe, and avoid the true monsters who are out there patrolling the might. It’s a piece that benefits from a sense of space and length. It trails down the screen, full of voice, a sort of march in poem form, occasionally breaking out in chants. It’s a protest, a call to action, a walk of remembrance. It’s brave against the rhetoric of fear and othering that is running rampant from the mouth of the highest office in the US. And it’s not backing down from the slick smiles that promise violence and confinement and erasure. Indeed, it’s a poem that bares its teeth at anyone who would stand in its way, that shouts with the voice of a roaring crowd to be heard and seen. And it keeps a sharp focus on teeth—as a threat, as a tool, as a symbol, and as a promise. And it’s a wonderful read and very much worth checking out!