|Art by Julie Dillon|
“The Tailor and the Beast” by Aysha U. Farah (5323 words)
No Spoilers: In this twisting (and queering) of the classic fairy tale, things go rather differently indeed, and instead of a daughter giving her freedom for her father, it’s the father giving up his freedom for his daughter, agreeing to take her place as captive. Not that for him it’s a great loss, as he’s in a rather nebulous place in his life, aging and having lost his inspiration when his wife died. Inside the Beast’s castle, though, he finds some of his old feelings returning, and whether it’s because of the magic of the place of the fire that the Beast seems to be stoking in him, who can say? But it’s a fun and charming slow burn romance, and I love it.
Keywords: Curses, Bargains, Fairy Tales, Queer MC, Transformations, Crises
Review: This is a delightful story about a man and his isolation, his mess, and him finding his way out of the woods, as it were. He’s not in a good place following the death of his wife, and he’s been fighting a losing battle for some time, retreating from the things that used to inspire him. His sacrifice when his daughter becomes trapped is automatic, unexpected only because he’s not really a typical man who would consider such a trade feminine. For him, though, it just makes sense, marking both his surrender to his own uselessness and a kind of retreat from a world where he has no more value or respect. And what he finds in the Beast’s castle is...a touch of magic. And a setting that reflects in many ways what his life has become. It’s tattered, sad from disuse. And the Beast is a melancholy jailer, aloof but not unkind. Long suffering but a bit hoity. Neither man seems to consider that they might develop feelings for each other, but it...just sort of happens. Because I think both see in the other a mirror of themselves. A man who has made some mistakes and lost a bit of their vitality. Their hope. And it takes meeting each other to sort of knock them out of that spiral, to get them to reconsider and see that just because they’re older, just because they’ve lost people, just because they’re sad, doesn’t mean their lives are over. There’s still so much to do and experience, and so they take a chance on life, on (maybe) love, and it’s beautiful and fun and heartwarming and awwwwww. It takes a fairy tale that is all about the power of a woman to redeem and calm a beast and makes it instead about how it’s never too late to live. To start something beautiful and magical. And I am all for meet cutes in short SFF, and you owe it to yourself to check this one out. It’s fabulous!
“This Is Not My Adventure” by Karlo Yeager Rodríguez (2015 words)
No Spoilers: Kevin in an adult now, dealing with the death of his mother, the lingering scars from the dissolution of his marriage, and a heavy disappointment with how his life has turned out following a childhood that included adventures into a wardrobe and a world where he was a king, fighting in the battles between Good and Evil. That’s supposed to be all in his past, though, as he’s not supposed to return to that portal world. His own life feeling out of control, though, how else is he supposed to cope other than escaping into a place where the rules seem simpler, where he is vital and important. It’s an interesting twist on some classic tropes.
Keywords: Portals, Quests, Escape, Grief, CW- Death of a Parent, Goats
Review: First and most, the story is rather cute. The descriptions of the fantasy world with its talking animals is fun and there’s the great dissonance between the setting and the man Kevin has become. He’s tired and he’s sad and he’s stressed, and he just want things to be simple again. Only there is no going back, no escape from his problems in this way. Which isn’t to say there’s no help for him. And I love that the piece cuts to the heart of the problem, and one that in some ways was fostered by Kevin having been a king and hero. Which is to say, he wants his problems to be things that he can face and fight. Wants there to be clear lines, clear sides, when life is never really that simple. He’s stuck thinking that this is all an adventure, a quest, something that he’s supposed to take on and defeat, complete, or similar. And what he finds is that that way of looking at life really isn’t all that great. That, most importantly, it cuts him off from something that he seems to desperately need—help. Because if he is the chosen one, the hero, then he’s not supposed to take a break, or let others take charge. It’s _his_ adventure, and he’s supposed to be the person in command. And the title shows the lie to that, as Kevin is faced with the prospect that maybe what he needs to do, maybe what he’s always needed to do, is give up that need to do everything himself. What he needs is for some people to help, for some people to take control of the things he’s not able to do. He needs a break, and needs to be taken care of a bit, and for all that he resists it, he also recognized that when that aid is freely given, it’s not something he should run away from. And it’s a lovely read that does some interesting things with the tropes of portal fantasies!
“The Fifth Day” by Tochi Onyebuchi (5400 words)
No Spoilers: This is a strange story about a narrator who spends their days digging. Graves. And filling them in again. Over and over and over again, spending each night supposedly in a kind of sleep where they aren’t supposed to be active. The meaning behind the rituals is fogged, lost in memories that the narrator cannot access or does not want to. As things cycle, though, slight changes happen, opening room for memories to return and for the narrator to hear a different voice urging them to act. The piece mixes religious elements with historical and contemporary tragedies, with a particular focus on patterns, cycles, loss, grief, and exploitation.
Keywords: Loss, Memories, Sun, Earth, Wind, Moon, Graves
Review: In some ways this story has been the hardest of the issue for me to frame in a literal sense. The style is dreamlike, anchored by a narrator with holes in their memory, in a landscape that seems to be between worlds, where people bring their dead to be buried, to be devoured by the Earth and recycled. They are trapped in this space, kept by a long-ago bargain that they made in grief and in pain, manipulated into becoming something and allowing something that has meant death for generations and generations. The piece moves by repetition, by revolution, the narrator pulled slightly in different ways to start to resist the status quo that they’ve fallen into. Where the sun holds dominion over them, the moon whispers promises and entreaties. The thing is, the story also seems to leave the narrator much as they were, though maybe this time with a new task. There’s something heartbreaking and tragic about this, that the narrator remains so desperate to see their child again that they listen and obey these forces, the sun or moon, neither of which really seem trustworthy or good necessarily, and both seem very willing to use the death of the narrator’s child to manipulate them. The result is just more death, more tragedy, like the sun and moon are two gods jealous of each other, fighting for power and dominance, but both of them violent, always seeking an edge. Quick to point out the abuses of others while engaging in the same actions in what they hope is a less obvious way. The cycles continue, regardless of the god, because so long as the narrator chains themself in service to one out of desperation to see their child again, they end up falling into the same patterns, the same trap. It’s a bit of a surreal piece but vivid and interesting and definitely worth spending some time with!
“The Thing In Us We Fear Just Wants Our Love” by Julian K. Jarboe
This is for me a rather haunting poem about disease and support, about people sharing in a group in the hopes of making sense and community out of something they all have in common, and complicating the standard narrative about what the people in the group need or should be doing. It speaks to the ways that some group support can be both helpful and harmful. Because as it provides some people common ground to not feel alone, and counseling that is vital to dealing with what can be life changing diagnoses and conditions. But that perhaps in some ways the focus on that care and support pushes certain ways of framing survival and acceptance that...well, not that they don’t resonate with everyone, but that they might cover up different things that are just as important but harder to approach. If the process was just about accepting the changes, then the methods would be fine. But if a large part of the stress and struggle is with the things that don’t change, is with fear and doubt and memory, then the support for the changes, pushing acceptance, can turn harmful as well. And through all that, the disease itself is never really mentioned, is talked around. Which for me speaks to both the ways that this disease, whatever it is, is specifically terrible, as well as pulling things out, so that it speaks to how all life-changing diseases are motherfuckers. How they all carry with them this added burden, on top of the ways that life must change to accommodate. Because most diseases that have to be managed long term have periods where things are relatively the same as before. Where the monster is sleeping, as it were. And during those times, where does acceptance fit in? Where fear? Is it all just a cringe, a flinch, a bracing for impact? Can life go on as it did? Or... the poem is brief, but it brings up a lot of complex issues, and lingers on the contradictions of disease and acceptance, fear and treatment. And it’s very much worth checking out!
“‘Eating Disorder’ does not begin to describe it” by R.B. Lemberg
Well this is a rather difficult piece about eating, about security, and about war. For me, at least, it’s a poem that looks at the ways that people cope with trauma, with insecurity, with danger. With a war that seems at any moment will break down the door. Where the next meal is never a certainty, and so the call to be thin, to go without, to starve for the aesthetic, seems insulting at best and much more of a threat. A demand to give up power and agency when doing so would leave the narrator open to abuse and loss. The piece seems to speak to the specter of the war, perhaps a specific one but also perhaps a war that is less about dates and geography, a war that is about targeting those who are different, who are vulnerable. And that narrator has moved and moved and now finds themself in a place that was supposed to be free and safe and instead has invited that same war into its halls of power. It’s a betrayal, and one that shatters any illusion of safety. For me it leaves them without a real place to stand but in their own body, the castle that is themself, and so there is perhaps an urge to expand that, to make it more imposing, more fortified against the threats the world seems so intent on lobbing at them. They speak to a certain kind of safety in size, because it grants them presence, because it’s not being small, and even more vulnerable. It’s a complicated and powerful poem, one that examines where bodies fit into the larger tapestry of identity, immigration, and judgment. Where the marginalized are always scrutinized more, their very bodies weighed and prodded and assessed. It leaves no privacy, no security, but for inside their body, and the piece explores that with the image of unzipping a stomach, of hiding things within to sell later, treasures to be pulled out and sold. Memories and bits of life taken out, put into poems, and given in exchange for money. The effect is wrenching and complex, the relationship between body and self, body and value, traced and exposed. And it’s a fantastic read!
“goddess in forced repose” by Tamara Jerée
This piece speaks to me of expectation and appearance, told in the second person about a “you” with rows of teeth that shed over time, like a shark. And the focus seems to be about how this person, this “you,” is perceived. The weight of presentation and having to be so many different things at different times. There being a “correct” look for so many different situations. Having to physically file down their teeth or file them up. Having to look this way and that when it seems sometimes such a struggle just to exist. Just to be. And bubbling underneath all of this I feel is this great power that for me comes through strongest from the title. The implication for me at least that you are the goddess in question. That it might bring with it all these different people thinking and expecting things of you, but with that is the knowledge that you are a goddess. Not that the rest of the world always recognizes that. Not that even you can feel that all the time, especially when existing is hard and even the fucking mattress isn’t cooperating. But there is the feel for me that you are still powerful, still magnificent, even when other don’t recognize that, even when they dare to point out that you’ve worn the wrong teeth to this function. And it’s a poem that just has this realness to it, this feeling of burden that a person always carries. That you wear and that wears on you, being out and seen costing a price that you’re not supposed to talk about, that you’re supposed to hide in favor of the lie that it’s all easy, because people think it should be if you’re valuable. I like how it takes on beauty standards and in some ways finds power in them and in some ways is wrecked by them and in some ways rejects them completely. It leads to a place where there’s a feeling of being just tired at it all, needing a break everyone once in a while. A repose, though not really the one that's being forced on them now. And it’s a wonderful way to close out the issue!