|Art by Mary Haasdyk|
It's another full month of content from Fireside Magazine, with five stories and one poem full of magic and family and cages. Whether the cage is more literal or figurative, though, varies from piece to piece. Sometimes the cage is a bargain there's no getting out of. Sometimes it's a future you're trying to avoid. Or a society's expectations that wrap tighter than chains. Or a promise made to a friend that takes on a life of its own. Whatever the case, the pieces show characters dealing with these constraints, these cages, and seeking perhaps to break free, to shatter the bars, to reach for freedom. To the reviews!
“Advice For Your First Time at the Faerie Market” by Nibedita Sen (1537 words)
No Spoilers: This is a darkly sweet story framed as a sort of good-bye letter from mother to daughter, a guide to a new life that the daughter really hasn’t known about, though her mother’s been trying to prepare her for it for the last sixteen years. It’s a piece with a core of hurt and desperation, where the mother had a rather impossible situation, and made a bargain that wasn’t just about her. And now it’s time for that bargain to be fulfilled, and it’s a fraught and uncertain road ahead for this daughter who now faces an entirely new world. The piece is heavy but also warm, building up this deep love and sentiment from the mother that comes free of strings, free of requirements, and with full knowledge that none of this is fair.
Keywords: Fae, Food, Bargains, Family, CW- Abuse
Review: Aww. Okay, first, for a story about essentially selling your child to the Fae this is a really heartfelt and sincere story, about what went into making that decision and how this mother has tried her best to prepare her daughter for what lies ahead. It’s tinged in sadness and sorrow because it’s a situation that had no way of ending happily in the short term (only in death or in bargain) but that still leaves the door open for a happy ending down the line. Because while most people who go into the Faerie Lands don’t exactly meet good ends, this daughter has been prepared and provided for so that she might be able to not only understand the rules of the place and not rush into any agreements without thinking about it, but she has skills that might make her valuable, that might put her in a position to negotiate terms that will suit her. And I love the food descriptions (my great weakness in SFF), the way that they give the Faerie Lands both an otherworldly quality to them but also a hint of the familiar. A hint of the nostalgic. Because for the daughter these are the tastes of growing up, the tastes of the home he’s never seen before. It’s a complex and I think appropriately careful story, acknowledging that the daughter doesn’t owe the mother anything, that this is still an injustice because the daughter never had a choice about any of it, but that there’s still love here and that it might still be something that turns out well. It’s not guaranteed, but I do love the way the story leaves that path open, and it makes for a beautiful and tender read!
“Amanda Draw Crows” by José Pablo Iriarte (838 words)
No Spoilers: Amanda has a gift of sight, able to draw the future using markers. She’s just a child, though, cared for by her mother who is always watching for Amanda’s father, a criminal who uses his daughter’s ability to stay one step ahead of those who want him dead. The story opens when he catches up to them, and unfolds as he forces her to show him what might happen with his various options. The piece is tense and full of pain, Amanda being used and ultimately having to make a choice about what to do about it, and how to save who she can in a situation where not everyone is going to be walking away unscathed.
Keywords: Prophecy, Drawing, Family, CW- Abuse, Death
Review: This is a pretty gutting story for the place it puts Amanda, a child who has a gift that she doesn’t really want to use, but that sometimes...just happens. Except that her father often requires her to force it, something that hurts her. And that dynamic is really strong, that here is this man who says he cares about her, who in some ways defends her (from things he brings into her life) and who has the ability to hurt her mother, and so represents a threat but also someone who she’s supposed to care about and maybe does for the small things he does to imply that he cares. But when it comes down to it, and he pushes harder and harder because the choices of his life seem to have left him with no safe options, Amanda makes the choice to try and save herself and her mother by misrepresenting as much as possible one of the paths in front of him, making it seem safe. The story does such a deft job with that moment, with the way that she knows she has to acts, because otherwise everyone is going to die, and it’s not hard to see that in that scenario her father doesn’t care for her. He’s just using her, and so she responds the only way open to her, even if that means his death. And it hits hard, because regardless of how much safer she’ll be because of it, there’s also a weight, and a sorrow, that this turned out this way. That, ultimately, there was no better way. Which does read as real, because sometimes there is no real safe path, no getting out from under a terrible situation (especially if you were acting thinking your magic daughter could always save you). A dark but great read!
“Not All Caged Birds Sing” by Sheree Renée Thomas (397 words)
No Spoilers: A narrator dreams, and in those dreams they are confronted by Dissies, beings who seem to want something of the narrator, though their exact nature is never quite revealed. The piece carries a heavy strangeness to it, borrowed from the dreams it draws, creating a disquiet that pervades, an unsettledness that lends the piece an almost stormy mood. The title evokes cages and different reactions to them, not just creating beauty and hope in the face of adversity but other, perhaps less positive reactions as well. Here, at least, the narrator seems to be struggling with things that make sleep something to be avoided, and don’t offer much in the way of relief.
Keywords: Cages, Dreams, Tears, Hunger
Review: This story is a bit difficult for me to make sense of literally. For me it draws heavily on poetry and a more fluid kind of logic, placing the reader with a narrator who is dreaming of Dissies, characters who are women but might also be something else, might be birds or might be caged or might be a lot of things. It’s possible that the Dissies revealed are mirrors of the narrator, that she is Dissy, and that she dreams of finding herself in different states—rage and sorrow, violence and hunger. To me, the idea that the narrator is meeting themself in dreams rings strongest, so that they are facing the ways they handle their own situation, which seems to be one where they are not wholly free. Where perhaps they face violence, where they have to stifle themself in order to get by. These versions of themself tell them to eat, sing with the command, and yet the narrator remains silent throughout the piece, quiet in the face of their waking and dreaming worlds. It is a bit of a haunting piece, dark and with a sense of desperation bleeding into the unconscious. It’s a lyrical, almost surreal, but beautiful exploration of what happens to those trapped (by family, or a relationship, or society, or whatever it is that is trapping you) , and it’s very much worth spending some time with to feel how it strikes you. A wonderful read!
“The Staircase to the Moon” by M. K. Hutchins (664 words)
No Spoilers: This story involves three generations of goddesses, being who are expected to sacrifice themselves in order to become bricks for their worshipers to use to build homes and walls, roads and waterworks. The narrator is the middle generation, the daughter who must use the bricks of her mother to provide for her people, who knows that when she uses them up it will be her turn to give for the good of her people. The piece is short but powerful, deftly building up the feeling of being expected to give everything, even life itself, for the sake of others, something that happens especially to women now and always. It runs with darkness, but refuses to bow to it, ending in hope and light and the breaking of cycles.
Keywords: Bricks, Goddesses, Family, Generations, Invention, Sacrifice
Review: I really like how the story treats sacrifice and generational pressure, how these goddesses are caught in what is in some ways a trap of power and compassion. Where they are expected to die for their people, to become the tools that will help others strive. Given how motherhood especially is treated, it’s a familiar thing that seeks to recreate this urge to self-sacrifice because that’s what’s best not for the goddesses but for the people. Except, as the story explores, it’s not even best for the people. It’s easiest. And perhaps the most comfortable. But not best. Because what the narrator does is prove that there are new ways of doing things, new ways of approaching the problems of the world. Innovation is possible, and invention, so that the bricks of the past can be more dearly spent, so that there isn’t such a pressure on her to die. And I especially love how the story frames the conversation between the narrator and her daughter, where that line of sacrifice breaks down because the narrator doesn’t actually *want* her daughter to have to die in this way. Because the narrator doesn’t really *want* to die, but rather feels obligated because of the sacrifice that her mother made, because she carries this guilt and weight that pulls her toward the traditions. But she’s already gone against tradition is helping her people advance technologically, and she already weakened the chains holding her down that breaking them isn’t a dishonor to the sacrifices that came before, but a way of celebrating that they’re no longer necessary, and that the moment was bought in part by those sacrifices, a bending arc toward something better, a world where these women are not required to die so that others might thrive. It’s such a complex situation but the story walks the line carefully and powerfully, reaching an ending that is hopeful without having to be tragic, where people the narrator can work alongside her daughter rather than being replaced by her. And it’s a wonderful story!
"The Brightest Lights of Heaven" by Maria Haskins (3462 words)
No Spoilers: Rae and Moira are friends. Best friends, able to lose themselves in the fantasies they build together, the games they play. They've jumped off the roof as dragons and broke bones for the sake of one another, but it doesn't stop Moira's dad from taking her away to Australia. Before she goes, though, there's one last game to play, one that will bind them through the years and make sure they don't forget each other. The piece is heavy with loss and with darkness, with violence and hunger. The game that they decide on carries a sharp edge, and Rae as narrator isn't exactly reliable—something that makes a lot of sense given the nature of the game.
Keywords: Friendship, Promises, Demons, Murder, Family
Review: I like the darkness of the story, the way that it builds up to the revelation of what's really going on. Rae as narrator is good at controlling the information she's feeding to the reader, making things seem as if they're one thing before it comes out that it's not the case, that this isn't the case of Moira's game stalking her, killing those around her, but rather that her own transformation has worked all too well. And that the magic that links them is more important to them than anything else—it defines them more than family, more than friends or lovers. It's definitely a horror story, though, where there is no real turn away from the darkness. This is not a piece where the demons are banished and the power of friendship ushers in a new light. Rather the friendship and the story lean into the darkness, embrace it fully. The girls have only each other, and they find in the dark magic they conjure a way to stay together, to not have to lose this beautiful connection that they had. Not that it's all that...healthy, but then with life sometimes what's healthy isn't the be all and end all. For Rae and Moira, the game is a way for them to resist the insistence from adults and everyone else that life has to have a trajectory to the mundane and miserable. By embracing the dark they embrace the magical and reach for a world where they never have to give up what's most important to them. And it's a dark and thrilling experience!
“Three of Swords, King of Cups” by Ali Trotta
This piece opens with a tarot-alluding title and an emphasis on hearts (which makes sense, given the first card noted, the Three of Swords). The narrator details their relationship with their heart, an organ that they keep outside their body, sometimes honoring it and sometimes trying to destroy it. Sometimes giving it away, sometimes having to remind it of its value. The piece follows these different states, the mercurial nature of the narrator’s heart and their feelings toward it. And I love the way that it paints this vivid picture of the heart and how people treat it, how in turn it treats them, the shifting dynamic reflecting the moods and situations of the narrator, their willingness to love, their bitterness, their hurt, their hope. And it reveals in turn a bit of their personality, because it shows them as compassionate, more upset about their heart being to easy to feel than being too hard. They are compassionate, and empathetic, and their heart seems to bleed (again hearkening back to the title cards). But the piece is not all heartbreak, not all pain. The King of Cups lends a bit of balance, a bit of diplomacy, so that the narrator knows how to handle their heart, knows that even when it’s hurt and guarded it can be healed, can be refreshed. That even when the heart seems atrophied and dying all it needs is to be reminded of its worth and beauty. So that what might be seen as a weakness—being easy to care, basically being a bleeding heart—becomes a virtue, becomes a strength. Because the narrator’s magic is that they can give out their heart again and again and again and be ready, after a bit of self care, to do it again. It’s a lovely and wonderfully imagined poem, bright with an edge of darkness, and it’s very much worth checking out.