Omenana came out just before I started doing reviews here at QSR (though I did read the issue and covered one of the stories in my new-at-the-time Monthly Round at Nerds of a Feather). Six years later and it’s still a wonderful source of SFF short fiction and a publication I look forward to diving into every issue. This latest is no exception, and the works are a nice mix of epic, intimate, gripping, chilling, and inspiring. I love the magic of the stories, the sharp edge of horror, and the beautiful hope that still clings to the narrowest of ledges. It’s a great issue, and I’ll get right to my reviews!
“A Magician” by Rešoketšwe Manenzhe (1154 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is...a bit confused we’ll say. And telling a story about themself, about who they were before...before they died and became a ghost. The piece is conversational in many ways, rambling, as the narrator attempts to reveal who they are. Who they were. And what might truly be going on in the place where they’re at now. It’s a creeping story, one that captures a sense of fun but also manages a building dread. The revelations, when then start to fall, are brutal and shattering, and the story walks a line between a kind of babbling fun and something much, much more grim and difficult. It’s a weird mix at times, but I feel the story sticks the landing nicely and provides an entertaining and sharp experience.
Keywords: Ghosts, Hauntings, Magicians, Murders, Afterlife
Review: I love the voice of the story, which has this earnest kind of confusion about it. The narrator doesn’t always remember what they’re doing, who they were. They mix things up and then bluster forward. Details are a bit mixed up. And what might have been at one point a ghost and a friendly introduction to the afterlife becomes...something else. And I really like the slide from this fairly personable fellow to the truth come oozing out, that this afterlife, this haunting, isn’t about the living. Not really. The narrator isn’t haunting so much as being haunted. By their past, by the fragmented memories of it. They were a violent person when they were alive, a killer, and their transgressions are coming home to them here where they are denied even a cage, are caught in this cycle of forgetting and remembering, perhaps trying to run from the truth of what they’ve done and what they were but ultimately unable to escape it. Stuck outside the cycle of death and rebirth because those they murdered managed to tie them to this afterlife as a ghost. It’s a rather pathetic existence and one captured very well, for all that at first it might seem harmless. As all the details come to light, though, it becomes more obvious that this is a kind of punishment, a just reward for the things the narrator did while alive. Not that they’re being physically tortured exactly but that they’ve been put in this place where they can’t do harm, where they can’t relish their memories, their victories, their victims. It’s all been washed away and in its stead is only the ghost of what they were. So in a sense they’re haunting themself, I guess, and it’s an effective and powerful punishment that makes for a complex and well executed story! A great way to kick off the issue!
“Drummer Boy in a World of Wise Men” by Tobi Ogundiran (4623 words)
No Spoilers: Dele is a boy who three years ago lost his father, who just left one day and never returned. His father was an unrivaled drummer, and since his disappearance Dele’s one connection remains music, playing a strange drum he found with his father’s things. Except now a strange mist and stranger men have arrived in his life, asking questions, looking for a certain drum they say Dele’s father owes them. The piece is tense and alive with magic, with music, and with family. Dele is in a position where all he wants is his father back, but the reality of that makes everything...complicated. And he’s about to get a crash course in all the things his father never told him about. It’s a tightly paced, exhilarating piece.
Keywords: Drums, Music, Portals, Family, Magic
Review: I really like that at the core of this story is this boy yearning for the return of his father, and finding that his desire is s strong, and the magic in his blood so potent, he can make it happen without exactly knowing how. It’s a power that surprises a lot of people, but it’s also a power that gives the work its hope. And I mean I like the world building, too, the way the magic works, the idea of these alternate dimensions and this one at least with these hungry forces pushing their way in, wanting to control the magic of the gateways, of the drums. For Dele, it’s just a way to connect to his dad, but that ends up being so much more than even he thought, the music that flows into him, that speaks to him, part of a song that not everyone would be able to hear. He can understand it, he can start to control it, because he’s drawn in by the legacy of his family, his father, who has essentially sacrificed himself so that the world isn’t overrun. Only Dele doesn’t accept that the sacrifice is necessary. At least, he doesn’t believe that it’s final, and I really like that about him, about his character, that he’s not willing to accept that his father is gone so long as they’re both alive. It’s true that he has never been taught to use his power, but it’s also true that he doesn’t need to be taught, that he can teach himself, that the music itself can be a teacher when there is no one else, and it can be a very powerful teacher. Already he has been able to do things that shouldn’t be possible, and all because of his desires, his will, his want to have his father with him again. It’s a lovely, moving piece that has plenty of action, a decent amount of horror and chills, and just this heart that won’t quit. I really like the way it builds its elements together, presenting this story of a boy who isn’t going to stop until he’s freed his father, until he’s found a way to get what he wants. A wonderful read!
“Silhouettes of Souls” by Precious C.K. (4891 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story lives in a village on the edge of a lake with a grim history and mythology. A practice of leaving young women pregnant outside of marriage to die on an island at its center. A story of one who cursed the man who had failed to come save her and the subsequent deaths of an entire wedding party. But it really doesn’t become a thing to the narrator until a group of British scientists to arrive to dispel the mythology and ground the tragedies surrounding the lake in a naturally occurring phenomenon. It’s something that brings opportunity the narrator’s way, as she’s able to find work as an assistant with the scientists. But it brings new troubles as well, though, and ultimately the story is a mix of hope and sadness, new beginnings and untimely ends.
Keywords: Family, Science, Lakes, Infidelity, Myths
Review: I like how the story balances a scientific inquiry and talent with storytelling against the inexplicable and the strange. The things that seem to defy explanations, the things that sometimes do so violently and mysteriously. The lake is a puzzle to the British scientists, a way in some showing how backwards the local population is. They are there not exactly to prove that there is something naturally occurring in the lake that is dangerous to human life, but to disprove that the lake is home to some sort of supernatural power. For the people of the village, it might matter little enough. What happened in the past, and even what the narrator witnesses and experiences are things that happen regardless of what the explanation is. These events leave wounds, even as they might also open certain doors. But I like the way the story doesn’t flinch away from the complexity of it. The strange mix of feelings that the narrator has, because she very nearly was also killed. Because maybe she could have stopped some of the tragedy that happened. Or maybe she couldn’t. Maybe the lake is home to something grim and hungry, something that saw what the scientists were doing as a kind of attack, and reacted in kind. At the very least, the story points to this idea that some things leave a mark that shouldn’t just be erased. That the influx of tourism looking to cash in on the grisly details of what happened on the island is...not always a great thing. I like how the story grapples with that, giving the narrator a scientific mind but also a deep appreciation for stories. Seeing the use of both separately and together. For me, the story looks at coincidence and patterns, science and belief, and pointedly doesn’t really make a call. It lets all of it sit together so that it’s on the reader to gather their own conclusions, to pull meaning out from the events of the story, from the observations of the narrator. And it’s a fascinating story, with a great handle on voice and character and an ending that is part unsettling, part chilling, and entirely enjoyable!
“The Game” by Alvin L. Kathembe (3024 words)
No Spoilers: This story is in some ways about a football match at a compound, informal, the field marked off by stones. More than that, though, it might be a story about the boys, and what it means to be a boy growing up in this place, this time. Escaping into football but not fully, not enough, not when all the pressures around them push them also into a more violent competition. The story focuses on the two best players of the lot, Oti and Kamau, and how they are different, and how they are similar, and how they’ve been set up by their fathers, by the world and its systems. The piece has a nice energy to it, almost nostalgic in the way it captures the game, but it descends into much more grim territory as the piece reaches its conclusion, and in the end it’s a complex and provoking piece that looks at sport and violence and the games boys play.
Keywords: Football, Games, Wagers, Friends, Fights
Review: At first this story seems like it’s going to be fairly straightforward, fairly...happy? The football match is interrupted by bullies, who the boys manage to chase away. The game might be decided by a single goal, with the two best players on opposing sides, and it seemed to me at least that it would be about the boys coming to an understanding about who won and lost. Maybe agreeing to call it a draw. But that’s not where the story goes. It goes somewhere a lot less positive, looking at the ways these boys are pushed into an escalating confrontation, not even fully aware that they have been manipulated, that they have been brought to this moment by their fathers who are having a game of their own. A wager. The stakes of which seem to be life and death. And they put those stakes on the boys’ confrontation, so that the outcome is not surprising to the fathers. Not shattering like it is for the boys, who move from feeling proud about confronting and chasing off the bullies to horrified about what happens. This is a story that really looks at the ways these all relate, the way that chasing off the bully is part of the same toxic cycle. The adults letting “boys be boys” out of some feeling that it will be good for them. That this is a necessary progression and education. When it’s not. When for one of the boys at least it’s the end. And in that the story is unsettling and complex in ways that are tough to dig into. It turns into that violence with such speed, such ease, that there’s the shock of it and the sinking feeling afterward that it’s not over. That there has been no lesson about sportsmanship or cooperation or any of that, but rather a lesson of violence, and one that is just going to play out again and again because the people who can see the pattern have no interest in trying to change it. It’s a wrenching, difficult read, but also a remarkable story!
“Where You Go” by Somto O. Ihezue (4949 words)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is a woman who has lost a lot. Who was banished from her people because she did not want to submit to their initiation, which would have required a kind of defilement she did not want. So she went abroad, started a family...and promptly lost most of them. Her partner, her daughter. The only one left was a kind of adopted daughter, but that relationship was still everything to her. So when that daughter is lost into a puddle of water at the same time the city of Lagos is destroyed by the sea, it starts her on a journey to find out what happened. A journey that will bring her back to her village, and into some strange and dangerous place indeed, all in the hope of reuniting with what remains of her family. It’s a heavy story, hitting hard and holding nothing back as it explores family by blood and by choice, and what one woman will do to be with her daughter again.
Keywords: Waters, Family, Spirits, Eyes, Magic
Review: I really like this story’s take on family, on fierceness, on the narrator not bending to the weight of her ancestors, not bending to the obligations of blood. She chooses what she believes is right and wrong, and when someone seeks to violate her, to take away form her for bullshit reasons, she’s more than ready to burn that shit to the ground. Sometimes literally. Because a tradition that is violating like that isn’t worth carrying forward. And it’s something that’s a bit of a horror, especially to the beings who require adherence to the traditions, who require the living to keep them relevant and present after they die. But the narrator knows that it’s a losing game to follow the dictates of the dead, because the living are the ones who still have to, well, live. They’re the ones being expected and asked to give things up. To accept their own pain and loss. And if they don’t want to they are either banished or otherwise attacked. The narrator’s conception of family is one that is chosen, that is affirmed with each decision rather than forced because of an accident of birth. The piece has some great action to it as well, and a nice twist or two to keep things going. For me it feels like the opening to something larger, that this now kicks off the story of these two women on the run from am god, trying to find their way forward, trying to find what is right. But at the same time it is an entirely contained story about the bonds of family and souls, and the love between people who have shared grief, and who are willing to defy anything and anyone to not be torn apart. A fantastic read!
“Fair Trade” by Natalie Sifuma (3046 words)
No Spoilers: This story focuses in on Suleiman, a man who just wants to build a house for his wife, Habiby. Their current home is...not the greatest, though filled with love, and Suleiman just wants to provide for the woman he cares for. The exact how of it is something of a fetch quest, though, orchestrating a few key trades for the stones that he will use to build the house. If only things turned out to that simple... The work looks at the nature of trades, and the complexities of them, especially in a system where there are predators and people waiting to try and swindle and cheat. For Suleiman, who is fairly forthright and uncomplicated, things sort of get messy fast.
Keywords: Trades, Houses, Marriage, Magic
Review: Okay so I do like the way this story complicates the idea of trades, makes it so messy thanks to a system that isn’t really fair. It speaks to me of the kind of environment where corruption is common, where people don’t really have a way to seek justice on their own, where people without means get targeted and victimized or else have to rely on...alternate means of satisfaction, which feeds into a different but no less corrupt sense of justice and satisfaction. I feel for Suleiman, who just wants to build this house for his wife, and who has a plan to do it. Find shells, trade them for fish, trade the fish for stones. He manages to make a start of it, only to be robbed, and it’s there where things go astray. Because there’s no real way for him to get his stones back. If he goes to the authorities it might take a long time, might require bribes, might not find in his favor especially because the person responsible would also be the only one who could have proven the theft happened at all. And Suleiman, frustrated and angry, decides that he’s not going to let it go. But magic here might get him back the stones, but always comes with a price, and in the end this series of trades ends with Suleiman losing the things he valued most. It really shows that in this kind of system there’s no winning. And it’s grim in that sense, even as it’s something of a comedy, Suleiman the punch line to a joke he didn’t know he was telling. And it comes together nicely, sort of underlining that even in this system the way to go about things is to not be making deals behind your spouse’s back. Not if you expect them to not leave your ass when you step in it big time. And it’s a lesson that Suleiman probably isn’t quite ready to learn, but may he be an example to avoid for the rest of us. A wonderful way to close out the issue!