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Short Stories Review Roundup: August – September 2015

October 12, 2015

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. Also, I’ve been listening to a lot of them lately (I burned them to a disc so that it’s always on when I’m in my car, which gets through a bunch of stories faster than you might expect, even with a relatively short commute.) This post is all podcasts from Podcastle.

Previous installments: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 (People reading free fiction to you! For free!)

Honored Guest by Ellen Kushner is a story set in her Riverside world, but although it ties in to those books, it’s not necessary to have read those first, since its protagonist is a new character, in a setting we haven’t encountered before. A young woman, Bright Phoenix, lives with her grandmother, a canny merchant who denigrates Bright Phoenix on her appearance and the low birth of her mother’s family. The only joy Bright Phoenix has is in her music… but then a foreign trader comes to their house, but what she’s trading for is not necessarily what it seems. I liked this story a lot, although it was pretty predictable in the “merchant who thinks she’s fleecing a customer is actually getting fleeced in return” kind of way. (And also I spent most of the story trying to rack my brains to figure out how it was connected to Riverside.) But I like Kushner’s writing, and the world she builds.
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In Little Gods by Tim Pratt, a man whose wife dies suddenly becomes able to see gods – both the big gods, like the Queen of Grief, but also the little gods, like the goddess of painful sense associations, and the god of bargaining and guilt. This story was just beautiful, full of love and pain, and really beautifully wrought. I’ve (thankfully) never lost anyone close to me, so I can’t really speak to how accurately Pratt captures the grieving process, but it felt real, and honest, and I love the idea that there is a god for each of the tiny things in our life, both good and bad.
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In The Behold of the Eye by Hal Duncan, the behold of the eye is where you store the things that strike you, the things that you find beautiful… and it’s also where your fairy lives, should you be lucky enough to have one. Flashjack the fairy gets captured in the behold of a young boy, which changes as he grows up and has to confront his own identity, and his own inner demons, which are all too real for Flashjack. I had a tough time with this piece, tougher than I think I probably should have. I really liked the concept, but something about the delivery didn’t quite work for me. I can see this piece being really powerful for anyone who’s ever felt like they had to hide a major piece of who they were, though.
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In The Goats are Going Places by Tina Connolly, a bad girl middle schooler is sent to live with her Aunt and attend a new school, where she quickly ingratiates herself with the popular kids and continues her old ways. But her Aunt’s a witch, and she’s not going to stand for that behavior without teaching her niece a lesson. This was fun, although the moral of the story was not particularly subtle, I still really enjoyed it.
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In Watermark by Michael Greenhut, a father receives letters from his daughter from beyond the grave, providing him with instructions on how to work magic to keep her sister from killing her in the first place. Quick and effective, and I liked the twist at the end, although it definitely left me feeling like it ended just as it was really starting to go somewhere interesting.
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In The Alchemist’s Feather by Erin Cashier, an alchemist is charged with producing a phoenix feather for the king, and his wooden homunculus and test subject is the one who must suffer for it… but maybe not as much as the young girl being kept prisoner for the alchemist’s future plans. This one kept me off my guard, never quite sure until near the end what exactly was going on, but unsure in a way that kept me intrigued rather than annoyed.
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In Jaguar Woman by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, a native woman who is now the concubine to a conquistador dreams of her lost life as a skin-changing jaguar. This was evocative but didn’t make much of a lasting impression, perhaps because it was pretty obvious where the story was going.
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In the society depicted in Amal El-Mohtar‘s And Their Lips Rang with the Sun, there are a group of women who are born with one of the sun’s sacred letters on their forehead, who are trained in the temple and perform elaborate rituals to call the sun every morning. But one of them notices an alluring stranger watching her, and she may sacrifice everything to find out more about him. I really appreciated the feeling that this had of being universal folklore – the author is Lebanese Canadian, but the story could equally well have been taking place in an ancient Central or South American civilization. The framing story – that it’s one half of a conversation an old woman is having in a marketplace – was novel, and definitely added something unique.
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In The Somnambulist by David Schwartz, a spirit trader uses his sleepwalking wife as an assassin, among other things, but needs her to rescue him when he gets trapped in the body of a squirrel. I didn’t care for this one at all. Surrealism is not my thing, and there were too many elements here that just seemed totally random and distracting from the story at hand.
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Väinämöinen and the Singing Fish by Marissa K. Lingen is a retelling of a Finnish folk/fairy tale about a brother who challenges the world’s greatest charmer and loses, and his sister who has to pay the price. I liked this one a lot. It had all the rhythms of a proper fairy tale, with some quite funny touches, and the relationship between the sisters and their brother was great, and the ending nicely landing in the grey area between happily ever after and tragedy.
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In The Sphinx in Thebes (Massachussetts) by Lord Dunsany, a rich woman demands a sphinx for a pet, so one is captured for her, and then asks her a riddle which she can’t answer, so it kills her. That… is the entire extent of the story (which is admittedly very short, only about 3 minutes long). But we don’t even get to know what the riddle was!
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Wolves Till the World Goes Down by Greg Van Eekhout is told from the point of view of Mugnin, one of Odin’s two ravens, who are flying through Midgard, seeing signs of the impending Ragnarok, before visiting Baldur in the land of the dead – Baldur, whose death played an important role in the prophecies surrounding the end of the world. I like Norse mythology, although I’m not as familiar with it as I probably could/should be, and Van Eekhout handles it deftly. But for a story about attempting to thwart prophecy to be effective, your readers should probably know what those prophecies are, and I was never entirely clear.
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In Monstrous Embrace by Rachel Swirsky, Ugliness offers a prince a choice – turn from his beautiful but treacherous new bride, and marry her instead, or be assassinated and have his kingdom crumble to ruin. I liked the conceit of this story that became apparent at the end – if a mysterious stranger offers you a midnight choice between marriage and death, do you trust her? Was she even telling the truth? But I really didn’t connect with the way the story was told – weirdly second person, jumping around in time, and I was never quite sure if Ugliness was a person or a god or a spirit or an embodiment or what.
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In Paper Cuts Scissors by Holly Black, Justin, a library science graduate student gets a job cataloging a private library whose owner has a unique talent – the ability to call characters out of books for elaborate midnight cocktail parties. But Justin has his own reasons for being there… namely his ex-girlfriend, who has the ability to fold things – including herself – into books. Another story that gets my personal favorite LibraryThing tag: “permeable boundaries between books and reality”. This unavoidably felt like The Eyre Affair, which is not necessarily a bad thing, and Sandlin’s library was a fun place to let my imagination run wild. But the emotional heart of the story, Justin’s and Megan’s relationship and how it ended, didn’t really ring true for me.
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In The Wages of Salt by Deborah Kalin, an archaeology grad student is leading a dig out on the salt pans, a dig which has found nothing and whose hired workers are getting restless. But then when she uncovers something that is potentially much more valuable, everything changes. I like the idea of this story better than I think I liked its execution – a large part of that is because I was thrown by the setting – I couldn’t tell if it was historical, or future Earth, or other-world, and that was really distracting to me. Also, for being (what seemed like) a senior graduate student, the protagonist seemed remarkably ill-trained for field work, especially one dealing with a culture other than their own.
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What about you, readers? Read (or listened to) any good short stories lately?

One Comment leave one →
  1. October 13, 2015 10:07 pm

    I’ve been reading more short stories lately because (I’m a little ashamed to say) I haven’t had as much time to read full length novels. But, from reading short stories, I’m beginning to appreciate more and more how skilled the author has to be to relay their story in such short a time!! These are wonderful times, will refer to this list for sure!

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