“The Ashes of Vivian Firestrike” by Kristen Koopman (short story)
No Spoilers: Spinning out of Murder and Mayhem: Stories from the Intersection of Magic and True Crime with Amy and Christy, a podcast that is what it says on the box, this story looks at a certain elementalist/quasi-celebrity and her supposed death. Vivian Firestrike was an activist, a woman who had no patience for corruption and wasn’t above getting her hands dirty. Powerful and skilled and not exactly the most patient, she enacted change aimed at helping people, at making the world work for everyone, and for that she became an enormous target. One that people would challenge because they couldn’t stand to see her successful and powerful. It’s a story that looks at the ways that double standards work, and at how, frustrated by them, one woman might have made a rather dramatic transformation to be free...or might have died in a burst of fire and ash. Or both, really. You decide!
Keywords: Magic, Duels, Curses, Queer MC, Transformations, Fire, Phoenixes
Review: I adore the way this story is framed, as a mini podcast episode expanding on a disagreement between the two hosts. And it reveals so much about them and about this argument, the ways that the narrator (Christy) finds it rather ridiculous that all the evidence of Firestrike’s death should be thrown out just because people want to believe that she’s alive and her co-host’s (Amy) belief and hope that what happened wasn’t a woman being silenced by a complete asshole but rather a woman deciding that she needed some time away from the spotlight, away from the constant threats, to be able to spend her time with her loved ones and feel at peace. Because really Firestrike never set out to be a celebrity. She came into the public eye dramatically, but more to fight corruption and an inept bureaucrat than to be famous. Instead, pushing for change made her something of a hero, and because she’s a woman, and because she’s strong, it also made a lot of men think that she needed to be “taken down a peg,” revealing the dangers of being a woman and visible. Still, she used her visibility to push for change, to try and lead from the front. Until she was cursed and found her powers turned against her, her body unable to touch anyone without burning them, to touch anything without destroying it. And I think the piece does such a good job building up the events, making it clear what the narrator thinks, only to reach an ending where I am 1000% on team Amy. Because it’s more than just wanting to believe that the story doesn’t end in tragedy. It’s about seeing how brilliant Firestrike was, and how much it makes sense what she was able to do, and how she slipped the net that was supposed to destroy her, and instead became something beautiful and free. A fantastic read!
“Split-Tail” by A.C. Wise (short story)
No Spoilers: This story is told by alternating view points--a mermaid in love with a human man, a sea-witch with a bargain to offer. It’s not precisely a retelling of the older fairy tale, but it also isn’t not a retelling either, using the Little Mermaid to craft a moving, evocative, and sexy take on love and bodies, on the precarious place of being between, split between worlds. And the piece looks sharply at desire, and sex, and the ways that those things course in some people, the ways they rage like the sea, and calm, and rage again. It’s not a piece without shadows, and not a piece without hunger. It relishes in the chase, in the freedom of pursuit rather than just the contentment of achievement, and the prose is electric, charged, and a lot of fun.
Keywords: Mermaids, Seas, Sex, Transformations, Bargains, Queer MC
Review: I love the way this story takes on the original fairy tale and twists it, doing a lot of things at once while building a setting and situation where merpeople live under the water under a kind of strange puritanical curse. The piece looks at sex shaming, at the ways that people are pressured into changing themselves for those they desire, going as far as to try and cauterize the parts of themselves that led to the attraction between them and their partners, their lovers. All out of this desire for purity that doesn’t actually help anyone, that is based entirely on the morality of denial, the refusal of pleasure as evil. And the piece brings the narrators back to a place where they can reject that while they face the wounds that mentality that left them with, the mix of expectations that don’t meet up with their hearts or their lusts. The prose sizzles, moving the characters through waters that should be boiling from the heat of them. It’s a refreshing and yearning take on sex and sexuality, on these characters who are finding parts of themself wake up, strengthened by use and hungry for more. It’s a wild, freeing story about the ways people can reject the rest of the world’s baggage when it comes to sex and embrace something they know, they feel is right. It’s got some nice bisexual energy to it, which I always appreciate it, and I just love the way it queers the source material, building something new and wonderful out of what has always been a kinda fucked up story. It’s a fantastic take on mermaids, bargains, and finding release through finding release. I definitely recommend checking it out!
“Skin Hunger” by Wenying Wu (short story)
No Spoilers: This story opens with a woman paying a visit to a witch. The intent is deadly...at least at first. But when the woman realizes that the narrator, the witch, is a person rather than a monster, the trajectory of the story shifts from violent tragedy to something different. The piece is full of darkness and night, eerie songs and thorny wild roses that bloom on their own time, in their own way. It’s a story that seems to soak these things up, refusing to see them as lesser or signs of corruption, rather learning to appreciate them, seeing through new perspectives their beauty and power. And through all that it’s the story of two women learning a bit about each other and opening doors within themselves and each other that they didn’t know could open. It’s a lovely and moody piece of attraction and doubt, a quite short but slow burning and sensuous read.
Keywords: Witches, Sickness, Bargains, Queer MC, Feathers
Review: I love how the story starts with this expectation, with this gravity pulling the characters into conflict. The narrator as something of a recluse, embracing the wild magics that mark her as witch, as well apart from the people of the village. She tends to her business and is free, and because of that she is labeled a monster, so that when sickness visits them the blame is put at her feet. The woman who arrives does so to kill her, to stop the illness, but sees in her no monster, but a woman striking and beautiful. And through the woman, the narrator starts to open her eyes again to the beauty around her, the reasons that she must have decided to make the forest her home. Things that maybe had faded as her role as witch solidified. And now through the newcomer she gets to vicariously experience it all for the first time, and come alive to the things that maybe she had given up on. Like companionship, and passion, and something to come from the village that isn’t a threat, that isn’t a person wanting her dead. And I just love the way that it happens, the first sight kind of shaken that the newcomer is, the slow burn romance that is mostly mutual pining and angst. The strange and almost haunting ways that the draw closer. The transformations that the narrator has always chosen and that the newcomer begins to experience as well, choosing the forest over the village for herself, choosing to stay instead of go, choosing peace instead of violence. Choosing love instead of hate. The piece is show but it packs a lot in, and the prose is gorgeous and poetic, setting a scene that feels like it might have been pulled from fairy tale and making it more intimate, quiet, and sensual. A great read!
“Finding and Falling, In Various Ways” by Juliet Kemp (short story)
No Spoilers: Quinn is a mage in debt to a necromancer, trying to climb out the money hole into solvency so they can afford to go back to training. Sophie is a private investigator tasked with tracking down a strange necklace. The two meet in a crypt and find that they might be able to help one another. Or, you know, they might just almost get each other killed a number of times, revealing a plot they didn’t see coming at all and nearly letting a rather evil person get their hands on a very powerful item. Mixed in with the rather madcap adventure, though, is a simmering romantic subplot and a hope that maybe not all stories end with the characters further in the hole than when they started.
Keywords: Knitting, Magic, Necromancers, Private Investigators, Queer MC
Review: I really like the energy of this story, the way that it sets itself up as something of a mystery, something of a romance, with a 100% tired narrator who really just want to get out of debt but who is something of a mess. And who knits to use their magic, which I think is delightful and which the story uses to great effect, showing how it works and how they manage to do some really kickass things with it. The chemistry between the characters is great, both of them a bit short of cash and trying their best to make it despite the predatory waters they’ve been made to swim in. The city itself is fun and complex, full of different peoples and feels, and Quinn especially seems like they’ve been around, bouncing from place to place to try and stay above water, sometimes managing to do all right but now firmly in the screwed over category because they owe money to a necromancer. One who maybe turns out to be a complete asshole and is quite willing to kill a few pesky interlopers in her quest to get the item that Sophie’s been sent to retrieve. The action is fun and gives the piece a dramatic fantasy flare, and the character work is amazing. I love the way that it seems so real, so almost-mundane, and yet is full of magic and mystery and heart. It manages to world build so that the setting seems lived in, vibrant and alive and relatable as hell. The conflict escalates nicely, beginning as almost flirting and becoming rather life and death, the resolution sexy and charming. It’s just a thoroughly enjoyable story, entertaining and fun and wonderful! Go read it!
"Insomnia” by R.B. Lemberg
This piece speaks to me of place, the narrator relating their relationship with a city that had defined them in many ways, that had been their home, that they thought they had this certain connection with. Only for that connection to be severed, only for the narrator be move, and move again, settling at last in the kind of standing pool of the suburbs, maybe not even of that same city. And they seem to me to be feeling a kind of erasure, an...erosion of their identity, of their being, the farther they move away from the city. But it’s not something they seem able to recapture, and these thoughts seem to slip in, to well up, during a sleepless night, the title for me a description of the conditions of these thoughts, for the way they return to the feelings of homes and place, to a time when they felt a rather visceral connection to a place and now...not so much. And I’ve never really lived in a city, not a large one, so in some ways I have some romanticized notions of what a city must be, powerful and in some ways terrifying but also, for people who are connected to them, there’s a sense of familiarity among the tall buildings and history. A solidness that offers a kind of security, a kind of shelter, a kind of grounding that the narrator seems to miss in the rest of the world. Cut off from their city, they drift, and once drifting, the waters seem to take from them as they move, a slow disappearance that they don’t seem able to do anything about. And I just like the way the piece echoes, the way I can imagine the sleepless narrator, adrift in the suburbs, feeling the transience of such spaces, the way everything seems made of particle board, ready to wash away. A wonderful read!
“Sirens” by Kat Riddell
This is a super short but also rather wonderful poem that for me manages to do a lot of things. At its shallowest, it’s still a story asking why people, and especially why women, would want to be a princess when being a siren offers a lot more in the way of protection and power and community. Princesses are often kidnapped, often treated as objects to be won, and even when they have agency, rulership is a rather isolating profession. Even with some friends, it tends to be dangerous, with people always trying to take your land or your life. But sirens are free of that, and have all the power they need in their voices, in the carnage they create, the desire they stoke and destroy. And deeper still I think the poem cuts to the way that we as a culture/society place value on “goodness” to mean certain things that really are about upholding the status quo rather than really benefiting people. More than just being a kind of mainstay of the kinds of fairy tales/fantasies that tend to hold to rather rigid and traditional gender roles, princesses are part of a monarchy, are about authority and the divine right of rulership. They’re essentially cops with fancy dresses, as much as any authoritarian ruler is the same. And questioning why a person would want to be that is a very good thing, because the poem offers up this nice alternative in a sharp way, pointing out that sirens get to actually enjoy their power and have some peace and all it means is that they’re labeled wicked. But they’ve already reclaimed wicked, already revel in it. They are wicked, and they will fuck your shit, so really, if there’s a choice, why pick princess? It’s a poem I could imagine as a meme, and it’s just a fantastic and joyous song of a poem. Such a great way to close out the original content of the issue!