|Art by Kat Weaver|
"The Skinner of the Sky" by M. Bennardo (2207 words)
A nice little story about the ruler of a small principality, a Prince who wants to build a great lighthouse to bring trade to his city. He is haunted, though, by his own ambition, haunted by the price that he's willing to pay to get the aid of a supernatural creature, the Skinner of the Sky, whose nocturnal scrapings keep the prince up at night, rob him of his appetite. Because when offered the proce of service to be bits of the prince's own skin, the prince balked and instead agreed that the Skinner could take stars from the sky. It's an interesting story, one sold on the power of the prince's fear and guilt and revulsion. The voice is convincing, tortured in many ways, reminiscent of Poe in some ways, the way it avoids the cost of its own problems. It's the prince who avoids paying, and allows this creature to take the stars, not really understanding that without the stars a lighthouse really won't be of much use because ships need the stars to sail. But in prioritizing his own skin he seals the fate of his city, his people, and in many ways the world. It's a creepy little story that does a good job of letting the full weight of implications sink in slowly but with a weight that can't be ignored. A good one.
"Kin, Painted" by Penny Stirling (4218 words)
This is a story of growing up, of finding your way, of feeling unsure of what to do and who to be. More than that, though, it's a story about choice, and about never having to give up choice, never having to settle or pick just one thing. It's about freedom and about agency, about finding the strength to try and figure out yourself and it being okay to not have all the answers. The story follows the main character, a member of a family of artists who all are artists and also living pieces of art. They choose what they want to be, what they want to do, and live as art with the Duchess and their family. The story is really amazing in how diverse it manages to be, showcasing a wide range of relationships, queer and straight, poly and nonbinary. It's just a great thing to see, because it's treated so naturally, which works into the themes of the story, the idea that no one has to be any one thing, that there is no wrong answer, even when you don't have an answer. It's strong and it's powerful and it just does so much so well. It's a growing up story, but it's not quite about finding your place, more about coming to terms with the idea that every person is worthy of love and respect regardless of what they do, and that in a world ruled by love how people can thrive and produce their best work, how this situation is not only best for the individual but best for the group at large, because people will do better, will innovate more, when they are allowed to express themselves. It really is a good story, told in a series of styles that move and shift and hops from art to art, colors to colors. Slow but very strong, this is one to definitely check out.
"Facing the Wind" by Mat Joiner (2545 words)
This story makes a good contrast to the last one, approaching the idea of freedom and love in another way. Here Talizander is chasing after his partner, or former partner, Shirrem, who nine years ago became wind, or rather became part of a people that are wind, was transformed into one of them because of her desire to join them there, to be free. It's something that Talizander hasn't gotten over or really forgiven, but his love for Shirrem is transformative in its own way. He finally manages to find her, or she finds him, and they share a moment as she tells him that she wouldn't return to her body, that it was a prison for her and that she prefers being one with the wind. (SPOILERS!!!!) But Talizander doesn't want to lose her again, and so does what is left for him, asking to be made like her, to join into that new existence. Here there is a choice to be made, forced because these two people cannot follow their hearts and being what they were. But that Talizander decides that he has no attachment to his body is well done and interesting, because it's obviously something that defines him in some ways but only because he never had a choice. Given a choice, he chooses to transform because what he wants is to be with Shirrem. It's a deeply romantic story, and one that allows both character to retain their agency and will and purpose. Another nice story.
"The Glad Hosts" by Rebecca Campbell (4657 words)
Well this one is a bit creepy, the story of a woman, Mai, who leaves Earth behind in favor of the always-spring of Shanti. However, shortly after arriving on the planet she is infected by spores, put into quarantine, and becomes host to unknown creatures. As host, she is no longer really herself. The spores change her brain chemistry, make her love them, make her willing to take them to term. It's a creepy and rather difficult story to read because there is the lack of consent here, the lack of Mai wanting any of this. In this new state she is given a new perspective on her old life. In some ways it allows her to impartially see who she was, what she did. It allows her to face what she had been afraid of, allows her to be a "better" person because she is not hurt any longer, is not in pain at all because of the spores. And I do believe that people are more able to be decent and nice when not in pain, but she also loses a great deal with the loss of that pain. She loses what made her human. She becomes instead something else, and the story does a great job exploring that, showing her ascent through the infection, losing touch with what made her human, until all that remains is the life bursting out of her. Sad and rather tragic, the writing brings the situation to terrifying and melancholy life and it is well worth checking out.
"She Shines Like a Moon" by Pear Nuallak (1510 words)
This is a quite strange story about a krasue living in London, separated a long way from her home. Old, she once had a family but they are all gone now and it's only her drifting around England, teaching and going out at night to feed and play with foxes and trying to catch the attention of a strange witch who seems to be avoiding everyone. I say it's a strange story but it is also a poetic one, with stunning imagery and a flow that stretches out the action, that makes some effortless world-building, a feat given that the world is London, England, but this is one slightly off, slightly different. I loved the way she visits a talk, a lecture on Thai monsters, of which she is basically one. The story focuses on being alone in a strange place, of being cut off from a culture of origin, trying to make something new that doesn't try to force her into boxes. The story moves effortlessly and the ending is all about new beginnings, about finding kindred spirits, and about reveling in your nature, in your self. It's a short story but an interesting one and maybe one to return to after doing a bit of research into krasue. Good times!
"Sometimes Heron" by Mari Ness (1300 words)
This is a short piece that is at turns funny and heartbreaking (which means that it is my kind of story). It focuses on a girl who can transform. Who can become many things. Who can change herself into animals or into a boy, who seems to be moving around a lot, who seems to be wounded by the world, an outcast, who wants to find a way to be where she is comfortable. The style of the story makes it a little hard to pin down, moving from creature to creature, form to form, broken by the times when she is a girl again and some feeling of her life comes through. Lonely and creative and perhaps a bit haunted by it, haunted that she can imagine so much but still feel so trapped, free and boundless and yet still hampered in some way, still limited. There is the victory of flight and relishing of being silent, of spying and hunting, that gives the story the feeling that the main character is quiet and unused to dealing with people, that she's not enjoyed a nourishing life, that she's been put down and abused. And in these moments of transformation she is able to deal with life, deal with the world around her. Not that any of the forms bring her lasting freedom. There is a sense that will only come slowly, given time and compassion, but for the moment there is a rush to witness her dealing with life, transforming herself to the situations she finds herself in, completely normal and vibrant and alive. For anyone who tends to perhaps live a bit in their own head, this is a story to identify with. At the very least, this is a story to spend some time with.
"Sang Rimau and the Medicine Woman" by Nin Harris (4689 words)
Another story in some ways about transformation, this one features Cempaka, the last daughter in a line of medicine women indebted to a magical Empress, one who has promised to come for one of their line for the crime of helping one of her admirals become human. It's not a fate that Cempaka is really running from, has never run from, not since the day as a child when she tasted the fruit from that magic realm. It's a story about tradition and lineage and about transition. The village that the family lives in is changing, first because of new religions spreading, then because World War II arrives with its death and chaos, but for Cempaka it's no longer the greater concern. Mostly alone, she has been looking for ways to unlock her magical abilities, buried under so many generations of humans. The debt the past demands, that Cempaka never asked for, becomes the thing that she longs for, not to surrender but to find a place for herself. Armed with her own powers, she feels able to stand, just as her ancestor did long ago, against the punishment that might come for her. And she seems strong enough, stubborn and wise enough, to maybe make it through. The story is a fable, a fable in the face of war and massacre, simple but complicated by a present that is moving away from the older beliefs. As I read it, Cempaka seeks to shrug off the burden of the past while retaining its strength, its power, to use it in a way that suits her, not abandoning it but also not letting it put her into a role she doesn't want to fit into. It's a deep story, shadowy and magical, at turns fun and tragic. But it's a nice way to close out what was a strong issue. Hurrah!
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