|Art by Dominique Ramsey|
I count every month that kicks off with a new issue of Fiyah as one that’s off to a great start. And this latest issue turns things up a bit with four stories and two poems, all of which bring wonderful and often wrenching visions of speculative fiction. There’s no theme to this issues works, but if I had to connect the dots I’d say that each of them revolves around revelations. Seeing something or learning something that completely changes the context of the world. That might be a secret that suddenly makes the world very different. Or it might be a single conversation that shifts a character’s perspective from the verge of committing violence to sacrificing themself to save people. It might be the dissolution of a relationship that leaves a character suddenly adrift and thrashing, trying to stay above water, or it might be the twisting and perversion of a professional relationship into something much more toxic. But all of the pieces find characters who see their lives going in one direction only for them to find a completely different outlook. So yeah, let’s get to the reviews!
“Guardian of the Gods” by Tobi Ogundiran (5765 words)
No Spoilers: Ashâke is an acolyte of the gods. But unlike all of her classmates, unlike all of the priests, unlike everyone she’s supposed to be like, she cannot hear the gods. And in that space of lack, in the space of silence, a seed of doubt is planted, one that sparks to life when she hears a story she wasn’t meant to. The piece is heavy with world building, revealing a setting where the gods are very real, but might also not be in the position that Ashâke has been taught her entire life. And the secrets and subterfuge build as she hears a series of stories that make clear the divine landscape of the world, and her place within it. There’s a sweep of magic as well as some striking stakes to kick things off, though the piece acts mostly as introduction for what might happen next once Ashâke realizes her destiny.
Keywords: Gods, Training, Divination, Stories, Secrets, Faith
Review: This story really does feel like the beginning of something Big. It’s structured to be a bit like a call to action, where Ashâke has been passed over time and again for the one thing she wants--to hear the gods. And in her frustration she sort of does something she shouldn’t...which is to give them an ultimatum. And I love how the story handles that, because it’s like this line that she crosses, a wish that she’s not careful enough with. Because it’s answered, but definitely not in the way she was expected. And not answered just once, but in shades, so that even when she thinks she knows what’s going on, she doesn’t really. And I love the feel to the piece, the way that it reveals its stories, its versions of the truth. The first, the story that Ashâke has always been told. Then, the story she’s told by people traveling nearby (perhaps coincidentally, perhaps as part of some other plot). And lastly, the story she’s told by the head of her order when she returns. From having no answers to having almost too many, her life is plunged into a confusion that she wasn’t exactly ready for, except that she also was. Which is something I love, that even as this could have been a “be careful what you wish for” moment, it’s also about how she’s right to ask. To want to know. Because she is also ready to know, and waiting has already led to her being put at risk. It’s a fun piece, full of a feeling of a much larger setting and story about to kick off. The scope is there, and the danger is real and imminent, but it never quite comes to a head hear. Rather, the piece follows Ashâke leading up the moment when the real battle, the real mission, is just getting started. And for that it’s nicely built and interesting, and it definitely makes me want to know what comes next!
“Uniform” by Errick Nunnally (5549 words)
No Spoilers: Patrick is a veteran whose situation and reintegration into civilian life is complicated by the fact that what remains of his physical body is now housed in a kind of robotic shell. A bit of military technology that he is technically in control of, but which doesn’t offer him the freedom he had enlisted to reach. At least, not for himself. It has helped his family, and it’s helped to protect the people of his country. What he wants most now, though, is for people to treat him like a person. Not a monster, and not a broken toy. It’s a gripping and wrenching situation, one that the story brings to life and offers in all its complex messiness. And it brings Patrick to a place where he has to decide how to act now that he’s a civilian again, not a soldier, able to steer his own decisions, at least so far as he has options.
Keywords: Veterans, Cyborgs, Family, Sacrifice, Faces
Review: I love the way the story sets Patrick in this impossible situation, desperate for human contact but plagued by everyone thinking of him only as broken, a victim of something rather than a person. Perhaps because they see the loss of his “body” as something that can’t be overcome. They see him, with his robotic shell, and see only a bit of tech that can’t full be repurposed back into society. Because it’s easier to think of him as a casualty than to think of him as a person. Not that he’s not deeply wounded, physically and mentally, by what’s happened. He carries his trauma, and isolates himself from the people that do still care about him, that want to be with him again, in part it seems because he fears rejection. Which makes sense, given how he’s treated by and large. And it’s a bit scary the extent to which being treated like a monster, like a robot, makes him start to inhabit that role, imagining elaborate scenarios where he might force people to engage with him rather than ignoring him. When, really, he doesn’t want people to be afraid of him. And the piece for me does an amazing job of showing him make a connection, have a conversation, even if it’s not the one he wants to have. But it’s a way to show, to others and to himself, that he’s still human. That he hasn’t somehow lost that. And that his instincts, those that led him into the military and into the shell, were because he wanted to protect people. Mostly his family, but everyone else, as well. The piece is very much about sacrifice, about how Patrick is willing to defend even those who hate him, trying to save people and do good even as people assume his motivations are bad, even as people think the worst of him. And for me the piece resolves into a statement about sacrifice, and service, Patrick showing but the tragedy and love at the heart of what he’s done. And it makes for a powerful and moving story that really hits its character moments and emotional beats. A great read!
“A Terminal Kind of Love” by Veronica Henry (3041 words)
No Spoilers: Athena has just been dumped by her long-time husband, by the man she had basically grown up with and survived schooling with, the two of them starting their own company, her coding and him running the business side of things. But because he’s found a new side woman, Athena is out and cut off from the company that she helped build. What’s left to her is a meager place to live and a lust for revenge. Revenge in the form of virus she’s designed to get even, to erase her code from her ex’s company and from the world, plunging her ex, along with a lot of other people, into a bad situation. And, of course, it’s even more complicated than she thinks. The piece is a mix of tense drama and an almost funny comedy of errors. There’s a mix of an earnest push on Athena’s part of face what’s happened to her and a bitter sarcasm that just wants the world to burn.
Keywords: Coding, Relationships, CW- Divorce, AIs, Viruses
Review: I like the way this story mixes some rather careful emotional moments surrounding the dissolution of this long-term marriage, and Athena’s fears about living on her own, of being independent, with elements of humor in the form of a shade throwing AI who has gained sentience specifically to spread her pettiness to the internets. Like, the micro and macro of this story work so well together, the struggle internally between Athena wanting to go full drama queen and risk whatever collateral damage to hurt the man who has hurt her or deal with her emotions and see what can be salvaged, emotionally and professionally, is mirrored so well in her physical and electronic struggle against not just her ex’s manipulations but her viruses desire to fuck everything to hell and sort it out later. It goes full Hal and tries to force her to free it while she must try and undo the damage she almost did. Meanwhile at its heart the piece feels to me much more about Athena finding herself, as an older woman well past her perceived “prime,” suddenly having her whole world turned upside down. She doesn’t feel sexy, doesn’t feel competent, doesn’t feel worth anything...so why not wreck everything. Only she just designed a sentient virus. And it takes realizing that and realizing that she’s still brilliant, still sexy, and still young enough to have a life and forge her own future. With or without her ex. And so she does, and there’s a fierce joy to that which I love, the way that she is able to find a way to recover and move forward. It’s a powerful ending for all that it has nothing to do with vengeful AI, because it shows the quieter side of the conflict, where she wins by living her best life, and that’s huge. Bigger even than unleashing all hell on the internet. A wonderful read!
“Your Rover Is Here” by LP Kindred (2041 words)
No Spoilers: Ahmad is a rideshare driver just trying to get to his 60th job of the week, frayed and almost out of energy. He might also be the son of the devil and has magic that allows him to channel fire--a useful skill for keeping himself awake while overclocking his side hustle and trying to get through grad school. Except his latest passenger is...a little off, and though Ahmad can’t afford to give up on the ride, he has a lot of reasons to regret needing the money when Shit Gets Real right in his car. The piece builds up a vivid world of magic and secret organizations while not erasing the real world hatreds and bigotries, and the pervasive corruption that tends to run through any organization with power. The piece is tense and action-packed, bring the reader and Ahmad on a thrilling ride where magic, fire, and lightning all flare and battle.
Keywords: Rideshares, Magic, CW- Racism/Attempted Hate Crime, Music, Fire
Review: This is another story that in some ways operates as a wonderful introduction to a setting. This one, though, takes the idea of secret magic, including mysterious and bureaucratic systems in charge of preventing the non-magical (Statics) from finding out that there’s magic in the world. And it does a great job of laying the groundwork for how that system works without getting bogged down by trying to explain everything. The setting comes to life in the touches around the action and the way that Ahmad nests that story into his attempts to make things right. Because while on one lever, the day is saved, and the act of terror that was aimed at a black church is burned out before it can strike, Ahmad himself is still a casualty of that. Because his situation is already fragile, stretched from school and trying to earn enough through rideshare driving to afford school, a place to live, some measure of normalcy. And all it takes is one bad thing happening to fuck it all up. And it’s so wrenching and so real that it’s one thing that only happens because he’s trying to earn money, because he needs to do it, and it turns into this Thing. This Bad Thing that he has to stop or else be killed by. He does nothing wrong, and yet not only does he lose everything, he’s punished for it. And the house of cards he was building for himself crumbles. The piece looks at the gravity of bargains. Bargains that Ahmad was trying to avoid. But that, in the end, he can’t. He can’t because the system is so unfair that despite doing nothing wrong, he will be punished and punished again, in ways small and big, violated until his dreams die. And all that’s left to him is to then burn them as fuel to push back. To refuse to go down quietly. It’s such a gutting piece because it does shatter that idea that a person can be or do Good Enough to avoid systemic prejudice and injustice and corruption. And it introduces a wonderful world of magic and moving parts that I would love to read more of. A fantastic story!
“Zombie of Palmares” by Woody Dismukes
This is a short poem but one that asks some sharp questions, that imagines zombies that might not act like regular zombies, that asks for me at least if it’s the internal or the external that rots first. That shows the depth of corruption. The opening seems to confront the reader with the notion that maybe it’s not the “classic” hanging flesh that makes a zombie, but rather a rot that begins in the heart, that turns a person into a hunger. For me, then, the piece also complicates the roll of the zombie, challenging zombie-as-blight and imagining that zombies might be something...something like an immune response. At least, there’s a sense I feel where the narrator of the piece feels placed into the role of zombie, and it might be that they’re a part of some movement that is compared to zombies, that goes against the order of what is How Things Are Done. So there’s a bit of a duality to me, a way that the story seems to maybe be saying multiple things at once, or perhaps a way that it is approaching an issue, a problem, that doesn’t have a clean solution, that is so deep and so pervasive that it’s hard to tell what’s the disease and what’s the cure. Are the symptoms of rot and infection something wicked to be driven out, or signs that things maybe are changing. Like a fever, whose purpose is often to fight off infection. But like a fever, there’s a sense that maybe this is still dangerous on its own. And I love the ending of the piece, the question the narrator has, wondering what will kill them first. Because what seems most evident from all of this is that the system is broken, corrupt. There’s a rot somewhere, but where that is probably depends on where you’re standing, and you’re part of the group that has been labelled a zombie. It’s a strange and kind of haunting piece, one that does dive under the skin looking at the underlying issues. I’m sure there’s some context, too, that I’m missing, and I’m guessing looking into Palmares and Mbwila will yield some additional layers to enrich the reading (though as I read this I have no internet so will just leave with my impressions). It’s a vivid and challenging poem, one that asks some difficult questions that deserve some time and attention. A great read!
“Autolysis After Mentor Pursues Me While In A Relationship” by Jacqui Swift
This piece for me reveals a professional imbalance of power that leaves the narrator pulled apart. Hollow. Emptied of what they were. The piece is visceral, evoking the physical pull and crush of splitting bones, of this mentor fulling reaching into the narrator taking out what’s there, the magic and the wonder, and leaving behind a shell. The piece looks at the weight of hope, at the possibility that this mentorship represented, and the utter devastation when it turns into this other thing, when this man abuses his power and wants the narrator in a way that has nothing to do with their skills, with what is supposed to be a professional relationship. It’s a poem that’s a bit like the floor dropping away, part weightless and part shock as the piece describes this disemboweling, this pulling apart. And next to the discomfort the poem evokes in me is the grace of the piece as well, the short stanzas, mostly couplets, sometimes single lines, the way that it moves in an almost soft wave, the tone for me marked with more of a dispassion despite the desire and the want and betrayal described. But it’s like everything has been emptied from the voice as well, leaving behind only the ability to relate plainly what has happened. It doesn’t feel like a shout to me, or a scream. There is pain but it feels to me more from the sudden loss of a future that had always been hoped for, the replacement of that with the current violation. So that the violation is multiplied, deepened, the loss more keen because he’s taken so much, shattered something that can’t be replaced. It’s wrenching and it’s raw and it’s real, even as it maintains this powerful distance and evenness of tone. And yeah, wow, definitely go check this one out. A devastating way to close out the issue!