|Art by Marcel Mercado|
December brings a somewhat dark collection of short SFF to Lightspeed Magazine, though in some unexpected ways. Women seek to thrive following the collapse of nations. A scientist goes looking for answers deep beneath the waters and finds some she did not expect (or want). A river goddess desires a man but has some very strange demands for their relationship. And baking with grandma takes on a positively wicked edge. Many of the stories feature women stepping out of their expected roles and navigating a landscape defined by misogyny and violence. Some find ways to flip the script, while others are pulled down under the weight of history and injustice. And it’s a wonderful collection of stories that I’ll get right to reviewing!
“Mouths” by Lizz Huerta (3570 words)
No Spoilers: Fai is injured in a fall, shattered two of her molars, and in a disaster-ravaged world she’s left leaving her home and heading north to a small settlement called Oasis where there’s a dentist who can heal her. But who she needs to make a deal with in order to fix her teeth. And the piece follows both her and the dentist, as they work together and their fates seem to become entwined. It’s a strange and moving look at a world that has been changed by climate change and chaos, only to find a new normal, full of people just trying to follow their hearts. Where that leads them, though, is often to strange dark places, though it is made lighter by the light people carry with them, through their own loves and hopes and skills.
Keywords: Post-Disaster, Teeth, Skills, Queer MC, Bargains
Review: This piece draws a compelling picture of a future where climate change has caused a collapse of most of the civilization we know, and yet things are not really a lawless waste. There are still villages and settlements and plumbers. The organization is different, with those with skills rising to the top of the hierarchy. Which includes dentists, who become healers, and baristas, who become whatever they can. Fai is a woman without a whole lot of skills, working a dangerous job because it needs to be done and because she wants to stay with her lover, Flaquis, who was away she Fai was injured. And the piece explores the strange kind of relationship that grows between Fai and the dentist. Not a romantic one for Fai, and not exactly a romantic one for him either, though his feelings about that are a bit muddled. She tries to learn as much as she can for her in order to give herself freedom, where he wants to find a way to tie her to him. Not realizing that the way he’s thinking about things is still very much trapped in that old world. When he doesn’t need to be bound to that anymore. And it’s a weird but rather moving look at the bargains people make hoping to be happy. And seeing that, even after the “end of civilization,” things aren’t necessarily stagnant. They are progressing now in different ways, pushed by adversity, and it’s interesting to see how these characters work toward a future where they can grow and thrive. Doing more than just waiting to die. Fighting for themselves and each other and for the spirit of moving forward, they push beyond what could be a more idle comfort and to something more fulfilling, if also more dangerous. And it’s just a fun, complex read about skills, and learning, and hope. Go check it out!
“Under the Sea of Stars” by Seanan McGuire (5530 words)
No Spoilers: Mixing horror with elements of historical sci-fantasy, this story stars Amelia, a woman from a wealthy family whose grandfather made a promise to find the origins of a mysterious woman who he found on the banks of a strange river. The river, and the woman, are mysteries, though as Amelia pierces beneath the surface with a crew of divers in diving suits, she discovers that some mysteries are best left unsolved. And her own personal connection to the river, and what lays under it, come clearer and clearer. The narration is framed as a scientific journal, a found text that details Amelia’s journey, and what she finds. Creepy and playing with the tropes of Victorian scientific exploration and the role of wealthy women in adventuring, the piece is something of a warning of following after the promises made after men who were obviously not the best of people.
Keywords: Waters, Exploration, Inheritance, Science, Mer-People
Review: This is a story about scientific discovery plunging into some dark waters and finding something lurking there that might better have been left alone. For Amelia, though, it’s also to do with family. With blood. But maybe not the blood that people might leap to assume. Because, after all, a lot of the horror comes from the way that her mother and grandmother’s blood asserts itself when she is down below the water, in a place that seems darkly magical. Really, though, I think it’s her grandfather’s blood that is much more damning. Because it’s that blood that ties her to the British, Western methods of science, that view living breathing societies as scientific curiosities to be dissected for the sake of knowledge. These are the times when European explorers and adventures went around lawlessly stealing relics and spreading death and fear. And Amelia joins in. Joins in and it’s that legacy that has much more to do with the fate she suffers, which might otherwise be a bit like coming home. She internalized too much of the misogyny and racism and says as much, finding horror as she discovers more about the power that she’s linked to. And for me at least a great deal of the horror is about the way her British adventuring mentality is what dooms not just herself but her companions, who she cares about only as a means to her ends, not exactly taking time to mourn when they drop dead around her. It’s a creepy and vividly rendered story, and a great read!
“A Love Written on Water” by Ashok K. Banker (12460 words)
No Spoilers: This story starts in the divine realms, with a former king named Bhi’ash and a river goddess named Jeel. The two are involved in something of an altercation, one that makes them known to each other but also brings a bit of divine judgement down onto Bhi’ash, who is punished by being sent to the mortal realm to live out a lifetime once more. He goes without argument, something that further interests Jeel, who ends up coming up with a rather complicated plan about how she can approach him in the mortal world. The piece is sweeping and generational, weaving together divine elements and predestination in a way that still seems to leave room for drama and tension and suspense. It’s sensual, focused on the relationship between Jeel and Sha’ant, the reborn Bhi’ash and how their relationship builds and changes.
Keywords: Gods, Rivers, Marriage, CW- Pregnancy/Loss of a Child, Fate, Bargains
Review: This story does some interesting things with narrative distance, drawing the reader into a setting full of gods and a heavenly court that still manages some drama. Gods and former-mortals are punished with temporary banishment, leading to plots within plots to try and figure how to fit everything together. Complicated things even more is the idea of fate in the setting, where everything seems to be predestined. Which might seem to take away some of the punsh, but I feel that instead it deepens the experience, because it shows characters both submitting to their fate and trying to fight against it unknown. Fate is something that is reserved for the gods, after all, and so mortals can’t really know what’s in store for them. That the gods can doesn’t mean that they try to break that cycle. If anything, I think a lot of the story is about learning to accept the limitations that the divine put on mortals. Sha’ant is told entering his relationship with Jeel that he’s not allowed to question her, and he’s not allowed to try and stop her doing anything. And for me that wraps up a certain kind of relationship with religion itself, where believers are told not to question it. Not to stand against it. And Sha’ant doesn’t want to, and yet his observations of his wife make him eventually break. And he loses the relationship that he had. But he doesn’t lose his faith. He doesn’t lose Jeel, just the intensely sexual connection with her. And for me it makes room for a kind of religion that accepts the limitations of faith, but that doesn’t just accept everything. That does question, when necessary, as a way of maturing faith. It’s an interesting story, and definitely worth spending some time with.
“Grandma Novak’s Famous Nut Roll” by Shaenon K. Garrity (2670 words)
No Spoilers: Framed as a series of recipes sent out by a woman to her extended family—family recipes passed down by their grandmother, the matriarch of their family and the rock at the heart of the storms that beset them. As the recipes pile up, though, so do the clues pointing to a rather dark secret the family shares. A legacy and a nature that aren’t nearly so innocent as they first appear. Within that darkness, though, there’s also a light, no less heartwarming or affirming for being just a bit bloodstained and darkly magical. It’s a piece that takes the familiar and twists it just so, confronting the reader with a truth and a question about monstrosity and family and food.
Keywords: Recipes, Cooking, Magic, Hunting, Family, Traditions
Review: This story does a great job of capturing this rather light, familial voice and then slowly drawing into darker and darker territory. It does really sound like a mass email to family, filled with a sense that they are all on the same page, have survived all the same family gatherings. There’s a bit of an overly enthusiastic edge, too, that always seems to come up in large families, where everyone is very nice but also a little bit competitive and scary. But I think it works so well to contrast this slice of home life and the innocence associated with little old grandmas baking with something so intensely dark, where they are essentially all stepped out of fairy tales, monsters who go out at night to hunt humans. I also like, though, that the family isn’t really portrayed as real monsters. Yes, they hunt the night and kill humans, but there seems to be a justice to it, like how they seem to be aiming for a teacher who seems to be abusing kids. It’s all very subtly built, so it’s something that might almost pass as innocent, except hint after hint is dropped. Hunting, which might have seemed normal at first, becomes decidedly less so. And it’s creepy and it’s fun, still light and a little bubbly but sharp and devilish as well. For me, it seems to hint for the ways that people have to work in secret to protect themselves. How especially women have to form networks to help each other, especially when they are facing violence from men. And how that network is not always tame or meek. Often times there’s a great power there, and there’s something that society as a whole paints as monstrous and horrifying about women seeking justice, that here is still really dark, but is still about family and tradition and fun. So yeah, a wonderful read and a great way to close out Lightspeed’s original fiction for 2018!