“Kiki Hernández Beats the Devil” by Samantha Mills (4959 words)
No Spoilers: Kiki is a musician at the end of the world. Or at least after the end of the world as we know it. Now everything’s overrun with demons hungry to make deals with humans, trying to twist those deals into more and more harm, more and more souls damned and dead. Good thing, then, that in this world a musician isn’t just someone who plays music—but also someone who fights back against the demons, using (in this case) rock and roll to send the demons back to hell. With a little help from a friendly hellhound named Ozzie. When Kiki stumbles across a toad demon who seems different and a fan of hers with a big problem, though, it might be more than a custom guitar and years of demon hunting experience can handle. It’s a fun, action-packed story, one with a great world building and style, and just enough heart to hit right in the warm fuzzies.
Keywords: Demons, Dogs, Music, Bargains, Guitars
Review: I really like the way the story balances humor and horror, the world overrun with demons but Kiki resilient and cocky despite it all, confident in her abilities because she’s never really lost. And I really like how the story plays with that, complicates that, looks at how in some ways she sells the idea that she has nothing to lose. That she doesn’t have the attachments that tend to make mortals vulnerable to demons, who are always about making deals. If you don’t want anything, if you act like you have everything already, it’s that much harder for a demon to get their foot in the door. But part of the story here is that Kiki finally comes up against a demon who can see through her act. Who knows how to hurt her and knows that what it will take is just, well, striking at the one being close to her. The one being she would do anything for. Her hellhound. And it’s so fucking wrenching reading Kiki realize that for all she says she’s untouchable, she too needs people, needs community, needs someone to care about. The demon makes that into a weakness, but Kiki refuses to let it stay that way. Because it’s so cynical to think that connections make people weak. Only by rejecting them, denying that they have power, are they turned into toxic ropes that bind people’s souls to hell. Instead, Kiki learns a little something about herself, and about the power of having people to fight with, and for. It’s not the weapon that’s important. Not the guitar that she cherishes. It’s the people that make what she does possible, that give Kiki the power to fight evil and win. And it’s a fun, rockin’, triumphant story, full of noise and action, and it’s so very worth checking out. Go read it!
“Squeezing and Entering” by Noe Bartmess (1500 words)
No Spoilers: Caeser is a part of the octopus Resistance, a collection of sentient octopodes who have banded together to try and emancipate their people...and maybe steal things for love and profit. At least, Caesar is on a mission to get some crafting supplies for his partner, Coral, which means he’s breaking into her rival’s store for the choicest of materials. He’s not counting on said rival returning after hours to put his whole plan in jeopardy. But what could be disaster might also be opportunity, if Caesar’s various arms (equally sentient as his core) can agree what to do next. It’s a fun piece that makes me want to figure out if there’s enough octopus stories out in recent years to merit a whole anthology. It’s cute and exciting and funny, too.
Keywords: Octopuses, Crafts, Collective Consciousness, Romance, Theft
Review: A lot of this story is just fun. I mean, Caesar is a hilarious narrator, in many ways a passenger in his own body, where each of his eight arms has a distinct personality and will. There’s the brave arm, the timid arm, the angry arm, the good-natured arm. Each one has different strengths (except maybe the oblivious arm), and together they make a character who has trouble relating to the singularity of humans. It also makes for a heist story with a full cast embodied in one octopus. Which it pulls off quite well, with plenty of chills and spills, near misses and comedic twists. Things don’t tend to go smoothly, but I love the sort of bumbling and determined way Caesar tackles the adventure, taking the initiative to score points on his partner’s behalf so that she’ll have the leg (or eight) over the competition. There’s just something so...cute? While still being almost vulgar at times? The world building is light but enough to sell the idea of genetically modified octopodes who have started a movement to free themselves and who don’t feel much of an obligation to be super nice to humans. The rivalry between Coral and the woman Caesar is stealing from is hilarious, almost cartoonish, but in a way that doesn’t really feel juvenile. It just feels fresh and fun without much in the way of grim or gritty-ness. Even the moments of light violence don’t seem too much, and ultimately I feel the story does a good job of mixing enough humor and visuals to make a memorable experience. It all just works, and is delightful, and that’s more than enough for me. A wonderful read!
“Calling on Behalf of the Dark Lord” by Catherine George (1640 words)
No Spoilers: Told in the second person, You are a chronically underemployed college graduate (English Lit, of course) who has quit awful job after awful job before becoming a telemarketer...for some sort of supervillain or other entity of evil intent. It’s really not that bad, though. There are even bonuses to the people who sign up the most followers in a month. It’s more secure and has been compensation than any of the other jobs she’s had, and if her friends want to neg on her for it, that’s their damage case. The piece is short but packs a lot in, from a sharp criticism of employment to a growing power where you are finally able bring your own flair and creativity to a job and actually get rewarded for it.
Keywords: Telemarketing, Employment, Bargains, Supervillains, Competitions
Review: There’s a Big Tired that underscores a lot of this story, and it’s name is being underemployed, probably because you graduated at the “wrong time.” Meaning, after the good paying jobs, the ones with benefits and such, have been taken off the market, and all that’s left is picking at offerings that don’t really offer a living wage. And I like how the story takes on the fact that there’s no real winning in that situation. If you take a job because you need the money, it’s often terrible, but people will have a bit of sympathy for that. Not much, and you can’t eat it, but it’s only when you start to find ways to get out of the hole, when you find a job that actually pays, that people really start to find fault with what you’re doing. Because before that, they don’t have to. You do. You hate your job and that’s comfortable for everyone else, especially those who also kinda hate their job but who make more money than you. Once that stops being the case, though, once you start earning more doing something you start to like, that’s when the barbs come out, the pointed comments, the undercutting. It’s handled well here, I think, where your friends seem to like you less the more you’re doing something that resonates with you. But really, at that point you don’t care as much. And I love that, as well, that it’s empowering to find something you like to do that pays you. Empowering to be able to flex creative muscles that you thought you’d never get to use at work. But being this villainy salesperson allows for that, gives you the chance to change the script, to make revisions, to sort of step into power as people find they like your offers way better than they like those of the dark lord. And it’s magic when it happens, a kind of transformation triggering that gives you the ability to work for yourself. And it’s another wickedly fun piece, taking aim at bullshit dead-end jobs and hitting the target dead center. A fantastic read!
“The Little Chouxmaker and the Elvis” by Mike Reeves-McMillan (3828 words)
No Spoilers: Viola is a cook...and maybe part of a secret magical police force that is trying to stop something evil from continuing in the heart of Las Vegas. But on the surface she’s a cook trying to make French cousine popular because that’s what she likes to cook, attending Vegas weddings sometimes overseen by Elvis impersonators. Sometimes overseen by kinda handsome Elvis impersonators who might be interested in going on a date with her. Not that anything about the date turns out to be normal. It’s a charming, nicely-paced story featuring magic, music, mayhem, and not a small amount of danger, and it hits all its strides smiling.
Keywords: Las Vegas, Elvis, Cooking, Magic, Power, Dating
Review: So people might not know that I have a soft spot for cooking in SFF. Food! I’ll eat it up (heh). But people might not know that I _also_ have a soft spot for Elvis. Irrationally, unintentionally, I am just fascinated. So that this story combines those two elements, in Las Vegas, and adds in magic and evil capitalism and it’s amazing! Really, I love how the magic system that the story builds is all about symbols and personal power, two things that exist in abundance in Las Vegas. And the story weighs the symbols of greed against those of joy. Both are present, both in some ways feeding off each other, feeding into one another, but there’s an edge, as well, a price to keep the wheels of the cart greased. And it takes human lives, human blood, human suffering. People don’t often like thinking about the darker side of Las Vegas, and in many ways the story doesn’t really get into that either. Not directly. But indirectly, it does show that the success, that the promise of Las Vegas, is built on human suffering and death. Because with gambling there is always the chance that you’ll strike out, and not everyone limits their gambling to what they can afford to lose. For Viola and the would-be Elvis, Warren, the gamble isn’t even that big. A date, a chance for a little information gathering. But it backfires big time, and puts them both in a place where they are dangled like a treat before the maw of Las Vegas. And I love how they get themselves out of danger, how it takes the both of them working together. They make such a great pair, a little hapless but easy to underestimate, and powerful when provoked. It’s a fun story with some light shadows but ones that resolve brightly with a bit of action and a few quips. A great read!
“Hunt” by Mina Li (4683 words)
No Spoilers: Severna was a dutiful wife and princess...and that really didn’t do her any favors. Her husband, Yorest, was dismissive, gaslighting, and unfaithful, using her and all too willing to cast her aside. But Yorest has gone missing just as he was to ascend to the throne. lost to the trial that awaits any who would be king—to hunt the kingmaker beast and eat its meat. But Severna has been training since he disappeared. Not to try and find and save him, no. To take the trial herself. The piece is far and away the darkest of the issue so far, dripping blood and hurt, but it’s also about overcoming that. About rejecting gaslighting and seeing abuse for what it is. And in that it’s a rather defiant and resilient experience.
Keywords: Hunting, CW- Abuse, Meat, Crowns, Rituals, Feasts
Review: Okay so this story takes a very careful time approaching the layered damage that Severna has been dealing with. The way that she has been abused, been convinced that the problems in her marriage are her fault for not trusting her husband, not listening to him, when really the problem is that Yorest is a complete asshole who has been manipulating her from the start. And it’s something that the story captures so well in my opinion that it’s almost difficult to read, because here we are shown just how he operated and how the entire court did nothing to stop him, how this was something only possible because his behavior was acceptable for so many people, expected and unsurprising. And so the story becomes a look at Severna stepping out of that, refusing the role that she was forced into, and discovering that she has a hunger. An ambition that goes so much further than what she’s been doing. She sees that she’s never been the one holding Yorest back. It’s been him holding her back, him preventing her from stepping into her power. And when she does it is bloody and a bit frightening, but also a kind of justice. A way for her to reclaim a bit of what she’s lost and use the pain and the lessons he taught her to fight back, to cut away his abuse and his lies and his pleading manipulations and put him down and take what she needs. To embrace her hunger and start something new, with the feeling that she’s not going to tolerate abuse. Not going to condone it. That in her kingdom, things will be different. And it’s an empowering if bloody end, one with a taste of copper and a burn like finally being able to run free. A great way to close out the first section of the issue!