|Art by Mihály Nagy|
“The Sweetness of Honey and Rot” by A. Merc Rustad (8845 words)
No Spoilers: Jiteh loses her twin brother to the tithe of the Life Tree. As she lost her father before that. And through this grisly practice of sacrificing people to feed the Tree and sustain it’s shield isolating the village from the rest of the world, Jiteh sees the cage that she’s living in. The injustice that infuses this cycle of death and grief. She wants something more, something different, and slowly a method to give shape to her desire comes out. Though it doesn’t end up working in quite the way she anticipated. There is a draining weight to this story, a sense of happiness and joy contained in a fragile bubble. So easily shattered, and never whole again after that. And a growing realization that this system exists not to keep people safe from danger or harm (because that’s finding them anyway), but from change. The character work is at turns inspiring and heartbreaking, and Jiteh’s struggle shows how resistance and revolution can look like when it cannot exist openly.
Keywords: Tithes, Family, Queer MC, Trees, Bees, Sloths, Fire
Review: For me this story is a lot about resistance against a corrupt system, and especially a more religious and authoritarian one. The Life Tree is in control here, maintaining its power with the help of enormous murderous sloths (which is pretty kickass, I admit) and with ritual that allows it to get rid of seditious influences within the village. People are made part of the death that goes on, are made to participate and to help it continue. And so their own culpability deepens, and their own resistance to change. If they broke free, if things are not objectively like the Life Tree says, they would have to accept responsibility for their actions, for the deaths they allowed and the injustice they carried out. Jitah refuses, though, constantly working to try and weaken the Life Tree, to get it to leave them alone and open the borders. When her plan backfires, though, and more people are selected to die to feed the Life Tree, to undo her work, she is faced with a choice: give up, and hope that less people will die, or keep going despite the death, despite the weight it has on her for in some way causing those deaths. And I love that she keeps going, that she knows exactly what it will mean but also knows that the only way to be free of this cycle is to break it down completely, is to kill the Life Tree, and it’s a moving and rather terrifying moment when she has done all she could and has to wait to see what happens next. But it’s also a moment of hope, and a possibility that freedom is possible, that the next generation doesn’t have to face the same fate Jiteh and her family did. A fantastic read!
“Three Dandelion Stars” by Jordan Kurella (8408 words)
No Spoilers: Shai and Amarine are in love, living in the moments they can steal for themselves together and away from the watchful eyes of either Amarine’s noble family or Shai’s overly protective brother. And Shai has a wish, a wish that she and Amarine can marry and be happy together. It’s a wish that she’s offered a granting of by a swamp fairy, and though she knows that such wishes often come with a price, she agrees for a chance to live and love authentically. And the magic works, after a fashion. The true price of the bargain, though, isn’t exactly what she thought it would be, and not necessarily in the diabolical way that normally implies. It’s a story that plays with tropes and the shape of stories only to reject them, and craft its very own kind of appropriate happily ever after.
Keywords: Fairies, Magic, Queer MC, Bargains, Intolerance, Witches
Review: I think what I like about this story most is how it plays with form and with expectations. It’s a fairy tale, quite literally, that’s self-aware of it being a fairy tale. Amarine tells the stories of knights and princesses—stories that always erase away her and Shai’s relationship. That never quite getting around to showing two women being happy and free with each other. Even the villagers have this lack of imagination—the moment that Shai and Amarine marry and move in together, despite the love and affection they have for one another, Shai is labeled a witch, and Amarine as a princess needing to be rescued. And most everyone has a vested interest in pushing that narrative forward—for financial gain, for power, for revenge. Only Shai and Amarine are left out, and so they are vulnerable to the violence that the villagers can organize and direct their way. Only I love that the fairy bargain made here is only dangerous and “bad” if you accept the values of the dominant. For Shai and Amarine, there is no loss in walking into that fairy realm. In giving up the bodies that they had and embracing who they are elsewhere. Where many stories would frame this as the punishment they receive for defying the natural order, here it is viewed as a celebratory escape. It’s not that they are losing their humanity so much that they are gaining a world that is better for them, one where they don’t have to hide and where no one is going to come for them with weapons and torches. It’s a great way to twist how fairy tales normally end. I mean, there’s still blood and guts and dark magic, but it’s not a story that wallows in despair. Instead, it takes joy in how people who don’t fit in and who are marginalized can sometimes find a home and community, just one that the dominant views as evil or wrong. Another amazing read!