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Short Stories Review Roundup: February – April 2014

May 7, 2014

Time for another installment of short story mini-reviews! As I’ve said before, I’m doing these mini-reviews partly because I just think it is so neat that there is all of this fiction available for free online. This post is all podcasts from Podcastle (people reading free fiction to you! For free!).

Previous installments: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13

In Another End of Empire, by Tim Pratt, a dark lord receives a prophecy that one of the children from a small village will destroy him and his empire. But knowing that attempting to avert such prophecies by killing all the children usually backfires, he tries another path to prevent this destiny from occurring. Even though I found the ending entirely predictable from the set-up and the title, I still really enjoyed this story. I like stories where the ostensible bad guy is the protagonist (see: The Sundering, Dark Lord of Derkholm, Wicked), and I like stories about prophecy and destiny and fate and the attempted thwarting thereof, so this one hit a lot of good notes.
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In The Queen’s Triplets, by Israel Zangwill, when the queen has triplets, they are so alike that immediately after birth it becomes impossible to tell which is the eldest son, and therefore heir to the throne and betrothed to the princess. This was a fun take on the standard inheritance-based fairy tale that played around with not only the rule of three, but also of the conventions of the youngest son always being the one most likely to complete an impossible quest, and did it all with lots of Victorian “Well I never!”-ish hyperbole.
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Three Days and Nights in Lord Darkdrake’s Hall, by Leah Bobet, involves the only woman in Captain Stoneburn’s company being captured and held prisoner by the powerful Lord Darkdrake, but not necessarily for the reasons that she thinks. I liked a lot of things about this one, the balance of prose and dialogue, the slow parcelling out of relevant details, how well it evoked the tension and claustrophobia of its narrator. But in the intro to the podcast, mention was made of people finding the critical part of the ending too ambiguous, and I have to say I agree. I may not have noticed if it hadn’t been brought to my attention beforehand, but since it was, I focused on it and therefore didn’t find the story entirely satisfying.
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In The Mermaid’s Tea Party, by Samantha Henderson, a girl survives a shipwreck, only to discover that mermaids are real. The mermaids take her to an island, where a fellow castaway has been living for years, and scheming how to escape from “those fishy bitches”. I think there are a lot of elements in this story that are designed to make readers uncomfortable, particularly the grown man who’s been alone for a long time suddenly being thrown into contact with a pre-pubsecent girl. And boy howdy, they did their job – there’s nothing explicit, but this story still made me kind of squeamish. Really interesting plot, though.
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The next three stories are all stories by Garth Nix, starring Sir Hereward & Mr. Fitz. They’re collected in Sir Hereward and Mister Fitz: Three Adventures, but all three are also Podcastle podcasts.

In Sir Hereward & Mr. Fitz Go To War Again, Sir Hereward and his puppet-companion Mr. Fitz are mercenaries seeking employment. Or at least that’s what they’re claiming, to mask their true purposes. But they’ve barely arrived in town, let alone started working, before they find themselves in deeper trouble than they expected. I really enjoyed this one; Nix does a great job with his worldbuilding, doling out enough little clues to keep your imagination active without ever resorting to flat-out telling the readers what’s what.
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In Beyond the Sea Gates of the Scholar Pirates of Sarskoe, the pair of adventurers lie their way onto a pirate ship in order to gain entry into a guarded treasure cove… only to find out that there’s more defending it than they’d thought. I’d read this before, in Fast Ships, Black Sails, and didn’t love it then, but I liked it better the second time around, with a little more background into who Hereward and Fitz are and what they were up to.
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In A Suitable Present for a Sorcerous Puppet, Sir Hereward is recovering from a wound when he realizes his puppet-companion Mr. Fitz’s birthday is coming up soon. He asks the novice tending him to check the attic to see if there’s anything he could buy as a present, but again, she finds something more than what he was expecting. This one is shorter than the other two; still fun, but I wanted a little more, one more twist, one more complication.
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The remaining stories are all Podcastle Miniatures – flash fiction that’s typically less than ten minutes long.

The Orange, by Benjamin Rosenbaum, is a story of the orange who rules the world, and its ultimate fate. This was either exceedingly silly (and not in the good kind of way of being exceedingly silly), or I just didn’t get it. I could hand-wave up some deeper philosophical meaning if I tried really hard, but that would be giving this too much credit, I think.
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In The Voices of the Snakes, by Karina Sumner-Smith, a woman – or is she a woman? – has been alone with her snakes for a long, long time. This story didn’t grab me at first, but then I realized what it was about (which: maybe I was being dense?), and then I really started to appreciate its melancholy air.
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In All Flee the Vocab Quiz, Kristine Dikeman, vocabulary words are terrifying – but some are more terrifying than others. Somehow you don’t expect stories that are relying on Lovecraftian-style horror to be cute, but this one pulls it off.
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Scar Stories (by Vylar Kaftan): everyone’s got them, but some are more visible than others. This one got stranger and stranger as it went. I liked a lot of the elements but there were some that didn’t entirely gel with the rest.
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A Cask of Amontillado by Edgar Allan Poe involves a man bent on revenge inviting his “friend” to come to his not-at-all-suspicious basement to see about some wine. Just as good as when I first read it in junior high.
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In Okra, Sorghum, Yam, by Bruce Holland Rogers, a princess is sent to live with an old man to learn wisdom. I spent the entire time thinking this story was going somewhere other than where it did, and I don’t know that I entirely got the ending that was chosen.
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To summarize Marie Brennan‘s The Princess and The …: Hey, that’s not a pea! Definitely unsettling, especially given its short length.
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In The Kissing of Frogs, by Bruce Boston, kissing frogs and hoping for a prince is a fine plan… but the reality of what you might get doesn’t necessarily match the fairy tale. I don’t know if this one was also meant to be disturbing, but listening to it right after “The Princess and The …” made it read that way.
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In Bury the Dead, by Ann Leckie, the family comes home for Thanksgiving… even Grandpa, who’s been dead for 10 months. I get the point about moving on and the rearrangement that goes on in a family after one of them passes away, and this story had some nice moments, but as a whole it didn’t really grab me.
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Intelligent Design, by Ellen Klages, starts with J.B.S. Haldane’s quote “it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for stars and beetles” and runs with it. Despite the title automatically raising my biologist’s ire, I thought this story was a very cute version of the Judeo-Christian creation myth, and it made me giggle.
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Through the Cooking Glass, by Vylar Kaftan, is a “civilzation in miniature” story, in this case, where gingerbread men and women stand up on their cookie sheet in the oven of a bemused and vaguely horrified housewife. Kind of predictable – probably that’s unavoidable for anyone who’s read similar stories or seen the Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror VII – but still a few funny moments.
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What about you, readers? Read (or listened to) any good short stories lately?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 9, 2014 2:29 pm

    How great to see that I am not the only one trying to push Podcastle on the listening public.

    I liked the Sir Hereward stories you link to above, the first one is still the best – Sir Hereward and Mr. Fitz Go To War Again.

    And I want to say that I love, love, love The Mermaid’s Tea Party. I keep hoping for more by Samantha Henderson.

    • May 10, 2014 7:17 pm

      James – I have mostly been listening to them in order, so I get the benefit of the feedback, but I had to make an exception for the Sir Hereward stories.

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