Monday, September 4, 2017

Quick Sips - Fireside Fiction August 2017

Well September is a busy month at Fireside Fiction. With four flash fiction stories, one short story, and the first three installments of a serial novelette or novella, it manages to pack a lot in there. Given that, it's no surprise that the themes and feels of the stories range quite a bit, from happy in the face of oblivion to heartbroken at the end of a beautiful relationship. The stories look at gods and prophets, loves and robots. These are stories that all explore what it means to be human and what it is that humans create. All the bullshit and abuse but also the beauty and the compassion. It's a difficult batch of stories to fully fit under any thematic umbrella, but the quality is certainly high and the overall feeling rather triumphant. To the reviews!

Art by Daniel Stolle

“A Silhouette Against Armageddon” by John Wiswell (861 words)

Awwwww! This is like the sweetest story ever, finding a dead man rather annoyed that the End Times have roused him from sleep only to find someone trying to dig into his grave. The main character is a bit of a crab, his constant complaining giving the End Times a bit of a crotchety feel, which is a very interesting and refreshing way to frame it. And in many ways it’s his disappointment that drives the early part of the story, his remembering a life that, while it probably wasn’t all bad, had lost much of its luster with the death of his husband many years ago. It’s that central loss that drives a lot of his grump, this feeling that he’s been left behind and everything following has been a series of misadventures—that he’s felt entirely whole. Given all of that, and the arrival of the End Times, well...perhaps it’s not the biggest surprise how the story wraps up, but an incredibly joyous and intimate moment that the story manages well in a very short space. It’s a lesson in voice and in payoff at the flash level, really, the entire world just the confines of a coffin and the memories of the main character, broken only a single time when the lid opens and there’s a glimpse of something more. And I love that while there is that glimpse outside, at a burning sky and sides being drawn, that the characters are not made into soldiers in this conflict that they want nothing of. The main character makes no secret that he really didn’t care to be buried, but that he had some hope that if he was, if he did this thing that his husband wanted, that they would be reunited somehow, even if the main character was never Catholic. And the story is a touching and wonderful look at the power of that faith, of the love that they shared, of the main character finding that despite all the pain and hardship there is something more, something beautiful to hope for, and that sometimes hope pays off. It’s a wonderful story and a fantastic way to kick off the month!

“Naming” by Sarah Gailey (The Fisher of Bones, chapter 1) (1193 words)

This story begins a new serial project from Fireside, the first that I’m experiencing from them, and the opening certainly sets the hook, drawing me into a world with heavy religious overtones, a pervasive magic, a corrupt Chancellor, and a main character named Ducky who’s not quite ready for the role she’s being thrust into. This first chapter seems mostly to draw the broad strokes around what promises to be an interesting and complicated story. It’s hard to pin down the tone too much from what’s here now, because so much leans on the religious elements, giving the whole thing a mythic feel. Ducky’s father, Fisher, is a Prophet, and he is dying. The names are part of what make me hesitate about the tone, because Ducky isn’t something that lends itself to the most serious of takes, and yet there’s little to imply that the story is funny. Which is not to say that the story isn’t working with satire, but it’s a bit early to be applying labels and from what’s here I’m more than willing to wait and see where the story will go. The world building is already cannily done, imagining a world where most live in a place dominated by a Chancellor who values labor, who has banished the gods in favor of toil. And yeah, I think we’re all living in something like that, though it’s interesting to find work and religion at opposing sides, for all that religion has been coopted by capitalism these days. And the character work is sharp and moving, Ducky a child largely ignored by her father in favor of his religious duties—duties which are now being passed to her, whether she wants them or not. It’s wrenching to watch how people treat his upcoming death, so many of them only seeing him as a religious figure and only Ducky thinking of him as a person, as a parent. And I like how the story sets the stage for whatever comes next, placing onto Ducky’s shoulders the weight of prophecy and hope, salvation and magic. It’s a great way to kick off the series, and I’m very excited to see what happens next!

“Until the Day We Go Home” by Caroline M. Yoachim (897 words)

This story marries a dark premise with a desperate hope surrounding imprisonment, illusion, and escape. It finds a sort of internment camp of human children stolen into the Fairy Realm to be replaced with Changelings. The camp is grim, and the children end up having to be parents to each other, generations arriving all at one, separated by years and years. The only relief that the people in the camp has comes in the form of a magical candy that allows them the briefest of escapes from the camp and into worlds full of beauty and space. For the main character, the arrival of the candy is one of the few things to look forward to, but it’s not the only thing that makes the camp livable. Indeed, there is a great amount of love and care in the camp, the children and parents forming families that live and work together and survive in the harsh environment of the Fairy Realm. And fuck, this is dark and beautiful, the mood a subtle magic that banishes the romantic connotations of Fairies and Changelings. In the popular portrayals, the humans are treated to constant balls and festivals, are the favored playthings of the Fairy, and yet this tells a different and much more unsettling story. Where the Fairies use humans not for play but rather to escape the barren waste of their own world. To give their own children a better hope beyond their borders. Because at its heart the story implies that the Fairy Realm’s main lack is in kindness and empathy, that even the Fairies know that their young will have a better life on the other, human side. It makes for a troubling and rather heartbreaking read, the children and their parents all waiting for a day of freedom that will bring with it a separation from the family they’ve made. And I love how the story handles that, with a bittersweet flavor that lingers, that gives strength to those left behind even as they must live with the constant wrong being done to them. It’s a difficult, bracing story that you should definitely check out!

“Junebug’s Magical Magnificent Mercurial Barbershop” by Malon Edwards (461 words)

This is a very short story about magic and about hair and about tradition. It finds the main character watching as his son De’Vontay’s hair is cut for the first time. And with this cut something else is happening as well, an imbuing that will start the child out on a path that runs back through his family, through his parents. At the same time, there seems to be a note of heavy sadness in this ritual, even as it is something that seems to give and shape power, that marks a new stage in De’Vontay’s life. And perhaps part of that is that it’s happening so young, that even at the age of four this young man has to be brought into something he shouldn’t have to be concerned about. At least, it feels to me as if this ritual is something that the parents wish they didn’t have to share with their child yet, that it marks a transition from being solely a child into having to be aware of the magic and powers of the world, having to be conscious of what’s going on, or else he might end up a victim at a very young age. I like the magic of the piece even as things are vague about what everything means. What isn’t vague is the way the story expertly builds the scene, this Chicago barber shop with Junebug in command and the old men nearby, holding things together with their presence and a power earned with age and survival in what seems a very hostile environment. There is a wonderful sense of world building here, too, all the events carrying a power to them, a relevance to the characters. And while it’s not quite revealed what the importance is, what the context is, it conveys a nice scope to the story, that this is larger than just this family, and yet at the same time this family, and all families, carry within them something huge and vital. A link in a great chain building a way forward. So definitely spend some time with this story—it’s great!

“Cycle” by Sarah Gailey (The Fisher of Bones, chapter 2) (1275 words)

This serial picks up from Ducky’s ascension into the role and name of Fisher to find things...not as cheery as they could be. Following the loss of her father, the camp’s leader for so long, the Gods’ whispers lead Fisher to finding something of a plot afoot—a possible conspiracy that sounds like it doesn’t really trust Fisher. Of course, how much this conspiracy trusted the old Fisher, and what kind of a role they might have played in his death, is something tickling the back of my mind right now. It’s a full chapter, though, compact but full of import. Fisher seems to want nothing more than to get comfortable in her new role and with her new powers, and yet the situation doesn’t seem to want to give her that time. To cap things off, there’s a reveal at the end that promises to be...rather significant in her life and probably in the lives of the entire camp. And for me this chapter begins to shape the stakes of the series, more than the previous chapter that mostly established the background, here we meet many of the characters and get a sense of what the conflict might be. The situation is tense and stark, the desert dangerous and there’s something unsettling about the Gods that are supposed to be helping Fisher. The setting is a bit more clear now, though, and the relationship between Fisher and the Gods a bit more explicit. The magic isn’t entirely revealed yet, but what’s here is strange and dark and deep. Essentially, this chapter is all hooks, and given the way they shimmer in the light, the way they tease and tantalize, one of them is bound to snag your attention. Another great chapter, and I’m very excited to see where it goes!

“Three Laws” by Andrea Phillips (4659 words)

In a great twist on Asimov’s three laws of robotics, this story is part murder-mystery, part liability prevention analysis, and entirely charming. Playing out in a noir meets corporate bureaucracy tone, it finds Susan called to investigate the death of a powerful CEO by his bodyguard robot, Iris. It’s a clever setup, recalling I, Robot in having Susan confront the idea of a robot killing a human. Except that, of course, these laws aren’t really designed to prevent a robot from killing a person, but from killing its owner. It’s a distinction that the story recognizes and runs with and, given the state of laws in our society, especially regarding corporations, is rather fucking unsettling. Especially because, to me, it doesn’t just bring up the idea of what robots would be capable of, but rather that humans would create sentient beings to be slaves, chain them to rules based on owners and property, and then twist ownership into something that isn’t wholly human. The end result is a system where humanity is presumably in charge but, in practice, avoiding true ownership of anything as a way to avoid culpability, taxation, and responsibility. It makes the prospect of corporations being treated as people that much scarier, because if a business can own not only objects but sentient beings, humanity seems more and more domed. It’s a fun story, though, and I love the mystery aspects of it and how in some ways the whole thing could have been resolved much faster if even Susan viewed this robot as more than just an object. And it’s a great subversion of the source material, which imagined much clearer lines between good and evil, between choice and programming. Here free will doesn’t really enter into things at all, but rather a culture that promotes the good of business above the good of people. It’s chilling in some ways, but entertaining in all ways, and I heartily recommend giving it a read!

“Our Secrets, In Keys” by Suyi Davies Okungbowa (937 words)

This is a hitting and evocative story about love and about monstrosity, about two people trapped by their differences and their natures. The main character here is partnered with a kind of monster, or at least a kind of supernatural being, one whose primary power involves fire. They aren’t exactly safe to be around at times, when they’ve transformed, when light has made them into something driven by primal emotions. The narrator accepts this to a point, always very careful with them, and yet it opens this distance between them. The story is well framed with a look on keys, because the action of the story is primarily concerned with barriers. The barriers between the main characters and the opening of doors. The story makes a very subtle point as it moves (and even as the action of the piece is loud and mostly angry) about boundaries and who they are there to protect. The main character seeks to pierce all the barriers between them and their partner, and yet in doing so they do not wait or think about consent. They violate the space and the trust of their partner, using a key that should not have been used in that way, and in so doing letting something out that does the complete opposite of what they wanted. Instead of closing the distance between them, it tears it wide open, and the story is a rather tragic look at what happens when one person in a partnership decides to take actions without consulting the other. The story is about fire and about lust and about love, but also about violence, and how locks and doors come to be both prisons and protections. It’s a short piece but it manages to fit a lot in, and I love the way it builds the relationship, even if I’m rather heartbroken about how it all plays out. It’s an intimate and sensual story and it is definitely one you should check out immediately. Go read it!

“Increase” by Sarah Gailey (The Fisher of Bones, chapter 3) (1662 words)

Well the cracks are certainly starting to show in this small religious community, as Fisher puts everyone, herself included, on rations to deal with a coming food shortage, and she finds herself resisting on almost every front. It’s no large surprise that she finds herself having to spend so much of her time and energy just explaining everything she does, something I’m sure her father never had to deal with. There’s this tendency to simply not believe women, and it’s rearing its head here, showing itself in the way people don’t trust her, the way they talk back, the way they plot against her. Despite their’s being a religious community based (it seems) around the need of sanctuary, it’s obvious that some members of the community aren’t interested in helping others. Fisher’s job becomes more complicated as who strangers are found starving in the desert, and need to be brought in to save their lives. Things are still moving at a slower pace, bringing in new elements with each chapter. But the tension between Fisher and the rest of the group is becoming clearer and louder. I’m not sure how much longer simmering dissent is going to go before it boils over into violent action. I guess I’ll just have to wait and see! Whatever the case, it continues to be a quick and interesting read, layering elements and deftly world-building just enough to keep me riveted. More, please!


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