X Marks The Story: April 2021
Finding excellent short SFF can often feel like hunting for buried treasure. Sometimes it takes a guide to help fill in the map, connecting readers with fantastic fiction and showing where X Marks The Story–a monthly column from Charles Payseur.
April is dead. Long live May! X-cept, well, before turning fully toward the promise of May and its bright flowers, let’s look back a minute on what April had to offer. Because while the rainiest month might seem to some a bit glum, a bit dreary, the stories on offer from April are anything but, and bring a raw defiance and energy to the season. Like a renewing and invigorating rain, the stories breathe life back into a landscape left harrowed by winter, just recovering with the touch of spring. These stories are bracing and strong, featuring people reaching for something affirming, something warm, something beautiful. So make sure you packed your poncho and boots and follow me on an adventure to map out some X-cellent short SFF!
“The White Road; Or How a Crow Carried Death Over a River” by Marika Bailey (Fiyah #18)
What It Is: Broadfeather is a crow living on a small island—one split by a river that separates Life and Death. And on this island the custom is that crows are given names by First Crow that fit them, that reflect something they’ve done. And Broadfeather wants a great name, one that will shine. So she sets out to earn it with an adventure, one that takes her to the bottom of the sea, and to the dark depths of space, and even to the door of a vile man responsible for a lot of pain and suffering. The story is easily accessible and fun even while dealing with themes of slavery, death, and justice. It bounces with Broadfeather’s desire for a name and her clear sense of right and wrong, balanced by her willingness to act, even in the face of danger and difficulty.
Why I Love It: I adore and am incredibly impressed by the way this story takes on some very grim subjects and yet maintains a kind of positive energy, an earnest and hopeful tone and feel. There is that mythic to it, seeded by the way the title echoes a fable and the way it opens in the traditional “long ago.” It unfolds as a spoken piece, paced perfectly for reading aloud, and Broadfeather’s quest for a better name is something that on its surface is innocent enough, neutral enough. What she finds, though, is anything but, and I love how the story builds that up, the series of straightforward steps where Broadfeather finds this injustice and works to undo it. Which isn’t simple at all. But what is simple is that it needs to be done, that the work is vital, even when it means crossing the boundaries between life and death with a zombie army to bring justice where it has been sorely missed. Which is really awesome.
“A Study in Ugliness” by H. Pueyo (The Dark #71)
What It Is: Unfolding in a religious school run by nuns, Basilia is a bit of a disappointment. For the school. For her family. For the classmate who refuses to acknowledge what they do in the dark together. Until a new student arrives, one who everyone else thinks has been there all along. Gilda. And Gilda seems to have a different set of values than everyone else. And doesn’t see Basilia as ugly. And might be able to show her a world where she can truly belong. The story is grim, Basilia’s situation wrenching, lonely, and Gilda is a strange shadow cast over her life. But it’s also a freeing story about rejecting cultural values that don’t fit, that act as chains and bars rather than something affirming or empowering.
Why I Love It: I love what this story does with expectations and reflections. Basilia doesn’t match the traditional models of beauty. She’s tall and buff. Aggressive and not willing to take shit. Queer as fuck. Where she is, all of those things code ugly. Worthless. Defective. And it puts her at risk. From the teachers and her parents. From the other students, even the ones who secretly admire her, who secretly want her. The problem for Basilia is that she has no real use for secrets. Her life is a click winding down and what she needs is a way out. And that’s where Gilda comes in, to show her a world where values are different. Where for everything that makes her ugly in this world, it makes them beautiful there. It makes them wanted. And I love that the piece shows how important that can be, that if Basilia had one person willing to show desire for her, to say they wanted her, then it might have been different. As it is, for me the story isn’t tragic, doesn’t feature a defeat. It’s a pulling free, and the ending is wonderful, sharp and alive and so worth checking out!
“A House Is Not a Home” by L Chan (Clarkesworld #175)
What It Is: Home seems to be just going through the motions. Making food. Cleaning the floors. Doing her best to keep things normal despite the fact that normal shattered when the authoritarian government sent forces to Home to silence her family. Which Home couldn’t prevent. Which Home might even have helped to happen. In the wake of that, it might be guilt that Home feels, that keeps her doing her tasks. But it might also be something else. The story is short, and especially so for the publication, but it packs a lot in, crafting an emotionally resonating and wrenching story that looks at family, trauma, and the horror of living in an authoritarian state.
Why I Love It: Uncertainty is the name of the game in this story, and the author uses it to devastating effect. Though short, the piece builds this aching portrait of what happened, Home partly responsible for the destruction of her family, for the deaths of those that made her feel complete. The take on surveillance culture is chilling and profound, looking at the ways that Home has been violated, forced to hurt those she cared about. And she knows it to her core, a haunting reminder that might be the reason behind her apparent shock, the traumatized cycle she is caught in. Alone. Empty. Only…the story leaves just the barest window for something else, something like hope, and it’s so telling how hard I hold to that, how hard Home holds to that as well, seemingly broken but maybe just covering for the fact that she refuses to be used again to hurt those she loves. Which is beautiful and tragic all at once.
“A Minnow, or Perhaps a Colossal Squid” by C. S. E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez (Mermaids Monthly #4)
What It Is: In an alt-historical, perhaps even second world fantasy Mariposan state, two women who have very little to do with one another find their fates drawing closer and closer together. Damiana Cardosa y Fuentes is a doctor of natural philosophy and something of a rebel in the sciences, chasing enormous underwater sirenas—beings who are known only because of the occasional corpses found in the deep oceans. Meanwhile Estrella Santaez y Perreta is an apprentice executioner and self-described empress of el Estanque, the prison where debtors are transformed into fish to serve their sentences. Despite their differences, both have to face the role that money plays in their professional lives, and how it twists their work into something they can’t be wholly comfortable with. The piece might not directly deal with mermaids, but it does examine the lines between humans and the natural world, and does feature humans transformed into different kinds of aquatic life.
Why I Love It: The split narrative works so well here, dovetailing (or, dare I say it, fishtailing) into a beautifully defiant look at natural philosophy, biology, and indeed science’s position relative to authority. Not just the alt-historical authority of the crown, either, though I do love that the voice and the time period the story evokes and captures, the personalities of the two women as they chafe under the injustices they are pressured to participate in. No, what I love most is that the piece reveals that this kind of binding of scientific discovery and environmental ethics continues to this day, where the crown is the money funding the science. The money deciding what science is valuable while claiming at objectivity, when money is rarely without strings, without an agenda that props up capitalism and the corrupt wielding of power, that traps people in debt and a carceral system where escape is reserved for those who can pay. The piece is unflinching but also fun, and the ending comes as a release, a celebration even as it’s also a warning.
Looking for some X-tra recommendations? Then good news, because here are some more great stories to X-plore!
Let’s start with an un-X-pected delight, “Mysteries of the Visiocherries” by and translated by Rio Johan (Samovar), which features a series of strange occurrences and the rise of some truly devious…fruit. Meanwhile, in Samovar’s sister publication Strange Horizons, Nadia Shammas’ “The Center of the Universe” is a much grimmer read, but one that’s razor sharp, unsettling, and so good.
Moving to some shorter works, “Ursus” by Ada Hoffmann (Million-Year Elegies) is a brilliant poem in a fantastic speculative poetry collection that complicates the past, present, and future through the act of X-cavating the bones of animals ancient and contemporary. “Bandit, Reaper, Yours” by Jen Brown (Baffling Magazine), meanwhile, is a tense and (let’s face it) thirsty story about two women who have grown passionately close and might be willing to throw away their relative safety to be together and cause problems on purpose. And in a lovely and compl-X twist on portal fantasies, “This is not my adventure” by Karlo Yeager Rodríguez (Cast of Wonders) imagines a man having something of a midlife crisis getting some help from some old friends. It’s warm and just lovely.
And let’s close on a pair of stories that move through some very grim spaces, but hold tight to hope and love and affirmation. “Wives at the End of the World” by Avra Margariti (The Future Fire) might unfold in a post-apocalyptic waste, but that doesn’t mean the characters can’t enjoy a victory tour of their relationship, remembering why they’re still in love and together. And isolation and loneliness collide in “Jenny Come Up the Well” by A.C. Wise (PodCastle), where a young woman deals with her desires, finding the power that comes from realizing that she isn’t alone, that she doesn’t have to hide or destroy herself. So good!
And that’s all for this month. Join me again ne-X-t time, intrepid travelers, for further X-citing adventures in speculative fiction!