|Art by Ora Xu|
Four short stories and a poem make June's Fireside Magazine a wonderful buffet of short SFF, with works tackling ancient myths to futures post-apocalyptic. From noodle shops and court intrigue to strained familial relationships and diasporas. A lot of the works here deal with masks, with people playing roles in order to try and make their lives run smoothly. Only sometimes these masks are prisons, holding them back by trapping them in roles they aren't suited for. It's a rich and lovely look at short SFF, and I'll get to the reviews!
“Aging Elements” by Ben Francisco (1689 words)
No Spoilers: Retelling the story of Icarus and his father, this piece unfolds from the perspective of (presumably) Daedalus, who crafts wings for them to escape the Labyrinth. Daedalus here is a man who specializes in puzzles, but for all he prides himself on his ability to think of new and innovative things, to solve difficult problems, he’s still rather trapped in his own worldview, limited by what he believes possible and impossible. It’s something that Icarus has much less problem with, and once Daedalus helps him through his fear of flying, there’s nothing in the world that will stop him from exploring the mysteries of the world. It’s a relatable story that touches on generational change, betrayal, hope, and love.
Keywords: Flight, Wings, Myths, Exploration, Retellings
Review: I really like how the story captures the complicated feelings and situation that Daedalus is in. He’s old, though not dead by any means. But in some ways _he_ feels that he’s peaked, which is a mental space where, regardless of how much a person believes in their abilities, people become more conservative, less willing to strike out into the unknown out of fear of many things but mostly out of fear of losing the comfort they’ve managed to win for themselves. Daedalus is rather secure, doesn’t really need to prove himself any more, so he finds the rules he’s accepted about the world to be enough. That it’s flat. That the sun is actual a fire that isn’t incredibly far away. These are lessons that he tries to pass to his son but fails to do, because Icarus can see with his own eyes what is in front of him and can make his own opinions. Which is this great moment, because it also makes Daedalus second-guess himself, which is something he needs. Even if, ultimately, it doesn’t seem enough to get Daedalus to get back out in the world, pushing the boundaries of what is known. And the other thing I love about the story is that Daedalus isn’t just a foil, isn’t just a fool. He is needed by Icarus, is need to teach him how to fly, and to be confident enough to try new things. Icarus just takes that lesson and doesn’t stop where Daedalus would stop, and it’s a very strong point, that it was Daedalus that gave his son the tools to break free, to fly his own way, and even if that’s not really want he wants (to be left behind), it also is what he wants, and the conflict roils within him. And I do very much like how it takes this very old and classic tale and reimagines it, complicates it. A great read!
“Five Stories in the Monsoon Night” by Nghi Vo (3009 words)
No Spoilers: A woman visits a noodle shop that claims to be the best in the world, and pits her delicate palate against a powerful spice. Of course, there’s a story beneath her actions, and it turns out that there are stories beneath all the people being at the noodle shop that night. Her. The shop owner. The owner’s nephew, who helps in the kitchen. And the woman who arrives late, armed for trouble. The piece is tense, much more about the dance around open combat than about actually using the swords and hidden daggers on display. It’s about, as the title hints, the stories that these people tell to mask their truths and intentions, but also to reveal them. It’s a wickedly fun read.
Keywords: Noodles, Disguises, Royalty, Tattoos, Stories
Review: There’s a part of me that wonders exactly what counts as the five stories in the piece. The first by the noodle shop owner about where the recipe came from. The second from the Sister about her ability to read fortunes. The third by the noodle shop owner, about the origin of his tattoo. And either the fifth or fourth one by the narrator about how they came to be in this particular place at this particular time. But is the other story the one the narrator tells about having friends about to arrive, or the one that remains unsaid by the end, the one that goes back to how the narrator was in the position to be given this mission. Not that it matters overmuch, but it is a fun thing to speculate for me, because so much of this is about what these stories reveal, and what they conceal. How they are true but also lies. And what it means for all involved. And I just love how the entire story is a running battle, but not one of swords but words. It’s like if things came to actual fighting then the situation is a loss. A failure. Because their words are more than enough. Well, that and positioning. It’s about convincing the other person that there’s point in fighting. That the result is already decided. And that’s exactly what happens, just through the power of these stories. It’s fun and it shows a whole world of subtext and interpretation and posturing and I basically love it. The world building is strong, the character work great, and I love me some food descriptions in my SFF, so this one is all around a big win! Go check it out!
“Bubbles and His Biped” by Mary Berman (984 words)
No Spoilers: MacKenzie is one of the few survivors of the apocalypse, which seems to have come in the form of murderous plants and giant cockroaches and some nasty diseases. Most people are dead, but for MacKenzie things are...well, not all that bad. She’s alive and she’s got her cat, Bubbles, and she’s got something that might be a plan—to head to Tampa to find out if her family survived. Of course, the best laid plans of women and cats... The piece is charming and conversational, the horrors of this world tucked behind a devil-may-care attitude from MacKenzie, who is much more interested in enjoying what she can from this new world. Is it a manifestation of PTSD? A way of repressing the horror/despair? Or is it a genuine satisfaction with how things have played out?
Keywords: Cats, Apocalypses, Queer Characters, Travel
Review: This is definitely the funnest story of the issue so far, and will probably be a particular delight for cat people. Of course, that might be because there’s a cat (kitty!) or because MacKenzie has Big Cat-Person Energy, completely cool with the world as she knew it being destroyed and also completely cool stabbing some chumps who wanted to eat Bubbles. That Shania shows up is one of those moments in a world ravaged by these rather extreme conditions of a chance meeting that just feels right. That must be fate, because how do the two women who have known this cat most end up alive and in the same place and time? Has this all just been the machinations of Bubbles, intent on giving his bipeds something of a happy ending? Or at the very least concentrating them together so that he can maximize skritches and treats? Dear readers, you’ll have to make your own minds up about that. But it’s again, a very fun read, with a lot of ideas thrown out briefly without a lot of context but with enough feeling to let us know that yes, the world is basically fucked. Humanity is basically fucked. But there is a new status quo slowly forming, and it might just be the cat people who inherit the Earth. Which, personally, I am 100% okay with. It’s sweet, it’s darkly funny, and it features a goofball of a cat (kitty!), so what more do you need? A delightful story!
“Long Distance” by Raquel Castro, translated by Julia Rios (308 words)
No Spoilers: This is the shortest of the stories from the publication so far and features a narrator and their interactions with their mother over the phone. The piece builds a stark dichotomy between the calls that are affirming and kind and the ones that...are not. All the while playing with the mystery of the situation, the uncertainty to the reader of what’s Really Going On. There is mention of some sort of accident, and there seems to be a lot here that is hidden beneath the surface of what is said over the phone, what is hurried along so that things don’t have the chance to get deep enough to stir up the pain of what has happened.
Keywords: Phone calls, Family, Distance, Accidents, CW- Verbal Abuse
Review: I do like how the story deals with distance, how it sets up this gap between the narrator and their mother. Because of something that happened, some trauma that neither of them really want to talk about because of how large it was. For the narrator, though, this distance seems to be about their safety. They are putting up these boundaries, these distances, in order to insulate themself from pain, from violation, because their mother obviously can’t hold back, can’t respect them enough to have a more intimate relationship. Because she steps over the line again and again and again, to me probably leaning on the feeling that she is owed that, that as the narrator’s mother she gets to do these things with impunity and the narrator has to accept them. Only the narrator seems an adult, and doesn’t have to. And has done what they can to put this distance between them because otherwise they are forced to endure violation after violation. What the specific situation is remains a mystery, remains something that the narrator chooses not to disclose, and I like that because it’s insisting on their own right to own that, to not have to disclose it and relive the pain of it. They are dealing with so much already. And it’s a delicate portrait of this very messy relationship, one that the narrator doesn’t exactly want to sever forever, because they want a loving mother they can talk. But that’s not what they have, at least not all the time, and it maintains the distance necessary for them to protect themself as much as possible. A wonderful read!
“The Telegrapher” by Rešoketšwe Manenzhe
This piece speaks to me of memories and family, of hurts and scars. The piece is told by a narrator who has found photographs of themself and a man whose relationship to them is heavily implied but never stated. Because it seems that this must be the narrator’s father, at least biologically. And yet that word is never used, for me implying that there’s a deep rift there, an estrangement that has something to do with a fire and a radio. It also deepens the mystery of the title, which I assume has something to do with the radio. Was it broken because it was receiving messages. Because the person who broke it did so to make something. Was he running from something, or avoiding something, or... For me there’s a lot in the lack of context that the poem moves around, this great big hurt that exists but is never given definite shape. The narrator has been hurt, has these intense feelings about the man in photos, but at the same time doesn’t seem to way to really give those feelings space. Like admitting they had them would be admitting that this man has some hold over them, some right to be a part of their life. And what I feel from the piece is an anger at that, at the way that the narrator is assumed to belong to this man, to have to hold his hand and earn his regard. They seem to be blamed in part for what has happened, when it seems to me that they blame this man for it all. For the fire and for the radio and for these pictures that cannot make up for anything. The piece is a bit haunting, unresolved, the narrator slamming this door but it feels like it’s not a door that can be closed fully. That there remains a space for feelings to slip in and it only makes them angrier about it all. And it’s a powerfully understated piece, full of this very messy relationship and situation and it definitely makes me want to spend more time with the poem. A great read!