“Concessions,” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

“Concessions,” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali.
Novelette. Published in Strange Horizons, March 2017.

Join our discussion below, in the comments!


This one’s garnered a fair bit of attention, and a wide range of discussion! Here’s Jonathan Strahan singling the story out on Twitter:

A.C. Wise outlines some of the story’s strengths and themes:

The story shines in its relationships – between Bilqis and Sule, a relationship palpably suffused with love; between Bilqis and her mentor Miriama, a relationship of respect, but weighted with expectation; between Bilqis and Isa, her mentee, a protective relationship; and between Bilqis and Dorian, a relationship between colleagues turned deadly and sour. (…)
The question of spiritual survival (i.e. faith) versus physical survival (i.e. the ability to make a living) plays a central role, showing the potential complications and conflict inherent in the relationship between the two in a post-apocalyptic setting.

Charles Payseur has a lengthy and worthwhile review. Here’s one of his observations:

It’s a tense story, with a bleak landscape of encroaching desert and devastation and people living on the fringes, having to decide between living on their own terms and being able to contribute to larger solutions. I love how the story takes a complex approach to that idea, to the conflict of living free from concessions versus engaged in work that suits your skill and ability. For Bilqis it’s not that delivering children in the desert is not valuable work, but given what she might do…

Rocket Stack Rank gives “Concessions” a full five stars. They describe the story as “Sophisticated and Moving, with Good Characters,” and writes:

Every event is nicely foreshadowed. For example, we’re warned about the “catchers” long before we meet them. Bilquis moans that the hinterlands aren’t fit for good fruit (i.e. a child) and Miriama tells her the fruit doesn’t need to stay put (i.e. she could move away). (…)
The entire story is rich with metaphors. For example, Bilquis already has several “children”: Isa, most obviously, but also children of families she’s helped, like little Bilquis.
In the short space of this novella, some of the characters become very vivid. Isa, Sule, Miriama, and Bilquis herself. And the narration and dialogue are perfect.

Alexandros Zochios reviews the story for Tangent Online, describing it as “a story with deep political messages [that] provokes the reader to take sides.” Some of Zochios’s observations on the story:

The greatest asset of the story in matters of writing technique is the descriptions. Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali describes this barren world with rich similes and expressions that add energy, as well as beauty, transforming it into a less sterile and harsh land. She communicates her main character’s affection for the settlers and her husband almost seamlessly, thus making the reader care for this world and understand what is at stake when the time comes for Bilqis to make her choice.
What also got our attention was the character’s faith. Bilqis doesn’t practice her faith like the others.She has broadened it by incorporating other practices as well (such as the “aether” (…)).

The Mithila Review have interviewed Muhammad-Ali, on this story and her other work.

It was incredibly important to me to write a story about a Muslim woman. First of all, I want to write the types of stories that I would like to read. (…)
I wanted Bilqis to reflect back the same types of emotions that every other human being experiences. I wanted her humanity to be the first thing any reader recognizes about her.
As for Bilqis burying her religion, she didn’t. Not really. She buried the outward signs of her faith, much like her mother did, much like so many Muslim Americans do in order to safely interact in a society that isn’t always tolerant and welcoming. Bilqis resigned herself carrying that faith in her heart. And… in subsequent stories, that may become a problem for her.


What did you think? Read the story, and come discuss with us in the comments!

 

“If a Bird Can Be a Ghost,” by Allison Mills

Apex #99
Apex #99, August 2017
Cover by Dana Tiger

“If a Bird Can Be a Ghost,” by Allison Mills.
Short story. Published in Apex #99, August 2017.


Tangent reviewer Stephanie Wexler writes:

Allison’s graceful story shines on a difficult and heart wrenching topic; childhood grief. It is a treat watching Allison weave Shelly’s world where she is never quite alone, liberating herself by accepting her future through loss.

A.C. Wise tags Mills, and this story in particular, in her September “Women to Read” post:

It’s a beautiful story exploring family, loss, grief, and love. It packs an emotional punch, while offering moments of lightness and humor as well, and overall, it is an excellent starting place for Mills’ work.

Charles Payseur observes:

…it reveals a kind of haunting, a kind of ghost, that is much different than those normally portrayed in media. These ghosts are lost, not really all that dangerous though there is a feeling they could be, if pressed. (…) [Shelly] starts wanting to find one particular ghost, to heal one particular grief in herself. And yet the story explores how that’s not what ghosts are about. The ghosts don’t really exist for the living. Most of the time they don’t even remember the living that much. The ghosts are their own people with their own ways, and Shelly learns (slowly, with a few hiccups) that though she can interact with the dead, can help the dead, their presence or lack isn’t about her desires and demands.

Rocket Stack Rank is middle-of-the-road on this one:

Pro: The basic mechanics of dealing with ghosts are fascinating. The way grandma apologizes to Joseph for sending him on to the next world is amusing and poignant at the same time. And the way the police are so matter-of-fact about it all is pretty funny.

Con: There isn’t much of a plot here. Shelly does learn some lessons, but there’s little real cost to it.

And Maria Haskins is definitely delighted:

I love this story so much it makes me hurt. I have a weakness for stories that manage to break my heart, and then stitch it back together, and this is such a story. Weaving together magic and spirituality, life and afterlife, childhood and adolescence, grief and family – with all its guts and glory – this story is both haunting (in more ways than one), and deeply moving. A must-read.


What did you think? Read the story, and come discuss with us in the comments!

“Hexagrammaton,” by Hanuš Seiner

Hexagrammaton, by Hanus Seiner
Illustration by Jeffrey Alan Love

“Hexagrammaton,” by Hanuš Seiner. Translated from Czech by Julie Nováková.
Novelette. Published in Tor.Com, May 2017.

This one grabbed me from the start; it wasn’t until I started writing this post that I realized it was by Hanuš Seiner, whose “Terra Nullius” I’d found so intriguing a few months ago.

(And hey, sorry for the unannounced hiatus, everybody! Things have been cuh-razy. I’m back, scouring the web for stories that catch my eye and look fun to talk about!)


Maria Haskins recommends this story highly:

I’m not sure I can even properly describe the premise of this unique and captivating story. Aliens have visited the solar system. They have infected? blessed? some humans with a virus that rewrites their genetic code into…something else. The aliens have left, but the infected humans are stuck, halfway to their ultimate metamorphosis. Now, a woman might have found something that will change everything. Mathematics, genetic reprogramming, fear, loneliness, a longing to explore the universe… All I can say is: read it. It’s a trippy, disorienting story that is well worth savouring.

Charles Payseur calls this “a strange story full of hauntingly lovely possibilities.” In his review, he discusses the themes of ciphers and translations:

I love the layers of the story. There are sections told in a journal that parallel those told by the main character, a man who in the journals was part of the Vaían movement and in the other was not. And the story really to me becomes about movement and possibilities. It’s about codes and ciphers, with reality itself being no more than a code that, with the right key, can be translated into something else. So the journal portion of the story translates into the story of the man taking this traveler to the ships, becomes something else entirely. The idea that reality can be translated in that way is fascinating and it creates the possibilities by which the story can find a way for humans to push out into the stars.  It just lingers on this idea that with a code so complex as reality, each translation loses the code that came before, erases it in the act of translation, and so you have to commit to it fully in order to create this new text.
(…)
It’s a beautiful story that changes with each reading, with each new interpretation, and it’s an amazing experience. 

Rocket Stack Rank does not recommend. While it feels “there are lots of really interesting ideas in here,” overall “The whole story is a confused mess. (…) What really happened here? It’s way too long to be this confused.”


What did you think? Read the story, and come discuss with us in the comments!

“A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power,” by Rose Lemberg

Beneath Ceaseless Skies – Art by Jeff Brown

“A Portrait of the Desert in Personages of Power,” by Rose Lemberg.
Novella. Published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, July 2017 (issues #229 and #230).
Part of Lemberg’s Birdverse series.

Content notes: BDSM; negotiation of consent.


Charles Payseur raves about this one at Quick Sip Reviews. It’s worth reading his entire piece, but I’ll excerpt a few different notes:

I have of late lamented that there was not enough queer smutty stories appearing in pro SFF venues. Here is one that captures the scope and awe and magic of fantasy and builds a world that is both shatteringly real and peopled by characters diverse and raw and hurt and yearning for something they can’t quite give breath to. (…)

The web of characters the story creates is one that, like the Grid of the world, is weakened by absences and a general distrust. And while some of the characters seem to think the only way to counter this decay is to create one person to anchor the web and dominate, Tajer and the Old Royal push for a different way, a more subtle and in many ways more precarious way. They seek to strengthen not by creating a powerful single point but by working on the bonds between each person and strengthening those bonds with affection and trust. (…)

(plus OMG THE CHARACTERS!!! They are all so awesome and if everyone doesn’t want all the Marvushi everything then YOU HAVE NO TASTE! There are just so many great characters all orbiting around each other and I love them all and can’t wait to read more amazing BirdVerse stories!)

On the other hand, Rocket Stack Rank is unenthusiastic:

Pro: The world is very elaborate and well-thought-out. Dialogue and narration are flawless.

Con: The protagonist is so powerful that the plot suffers. For the first ten thousand words, we’re not even sure what it is that they want, and the story really drags. Even then, the only problems that they have seem to be self-inflicted. This makes this very long story a real slog to get through. (…) Finally, I found the graphic S&M scenes at the end seriously disturbing.

Ada Hoffman at Autistic Book Party delves into the story’s treatment of sex, gender, and BDSM:

There’s also surprising depth to the kink in this story. Many nuanced issues around consent and negotiation are portrayed, including the question of whether and how someone as powerful as the Raker can ethically pursue relationships. Both characters make mistakes with each other, and then are quick to talk out those mistakes and fix them, which is basically my favorite romance trope ever.

Two other aspects of the romance provide refreshing representation. The kink in the story isn’t held to a perscriptive idea of what dominant and submissive partners should do: the Old Royal and the Raker are both tops, who negotiate complex and fulfilling interactions without either one psychologically submitting to the other. I also liked the way the Old Royal’s gender is handled. They’re gender fluid and undergo a magical gender transition every few years. They also preside over a festival where they help other trans denizens of Birdverse to do the same. In a very nice touch, Lemberg manages to make this aspect of the Old Royal’s gender clear without ever having to specify the anatomy of their current body.


What did you think? Read the story, and come discuss with us in the comments!

 

“We Who Live in the Heart,” by Kelly Robson

“We Who Live in the Heart,” by Kelly Robson.
Novelette. Published in Clarkesworld, May 2017.

Humans have taken to living in giant floating whales. I don’t know about you, but I’m curious…. particularly when reviews seem to be pegging this as a story with plenty of meat to it.

Rocket Stack Rank does not recommend:

Pro: The account of what it’s like to belong to (and join) a tight-knit group of “whalers” is entertaining.
Narration and dialogue are spot on, and the plot is pretty much about how Doc learned to love someone again.

Con: I found it hard to sustain suspension of disbelief, and that spoiled the story for me. (…) The ending didn’t work for me either.

On the other hand, Charles Payseur is enthusiastic:

We as humans are all different and the story does a lovely job of showing what that can mean, how people can still find value in each other and in their relative seclusion, forming loose bonds that perhaps don’t offer as much cohesion but don’t bind, either. That exist to be supportive and caring without suffocating. And I like how the story establishes that with the crew of Mama, how the main character comes to stand for this voice of freedom even as they do yearn for relationships and company. And I just love how the piece builds up the bond between the main character and Ricci, how it reveals the potential that people have to build each other up, even as it never loses sight of how people can also tear each other down and apart. It’s a story with a great sense of wonder and fun, and it’s an amazing read!


What did you think? Read the story, and join the discussion in the comments!

“The Person You Are Trying To Reach Is Not Available,” by Andrea Chapela

“The Person You Are Trying To Reach Is Not Available,” by Andrea Chapela.
Translated from Spanish by Andrea Chapela. Published in Samovar, June 2017. Short story.

Strange Horizons have published their second issue of Samovar, the magazine celebrating translated speculative fiction from around the world. Like last post, I’ve leaped on a brand new story which looks intriguing, so no outside reviews yet – we’ve got a clean slate for this one.

What did you think? Read the story, and join the discussion in the comments!

“Beauty, Glory, Thrift,” by Alison Tam

Cover by Melanie Cook

“Beauty, Glory, Thrift,” by Alison Tam.
Novelette. Published by Book Smugglers Publishing, June 13th 2017.


On a lost planet in the depths of space, goddess-sisters Beauty, Glory and Thrift split their time between stasis and bickering, forever waiting for new visitors to their forgotten temple. Enter a thief, who comes searching for treasure but instead finds Thrift—the least of the goddesses—who offers powers of frugality in exchange for her escape.

And the rest, as they say, is history.


This isn’t quite my typical reading material, which is exactly why I’m curious to try it. That, and the blurb sounds fantastic!

On the Book Smugglers’ Twitter account, they describe “Beauty, Glory, Thrift” as an LGBTQIA title, and also the first of the Book Smugglers’ “Gods and Monsters”-themed short story season.

No reviews yet — here’s our chance to beat the crowds… 😛


What did you think? Read the story, and join the discussion in the comments!

 

“Terra Nullius,” by Hanuš Seiner

“Terra Nullius,” by Hanuš Seiner. Translated by Julie Nováková.
Short story. Published in Strange Horizons, March 20th 2017.


It’s Charles Payseur’s review of the piece that I found particularly intriguing, right from the premise:

This is a beautiful and rather haunting story that follows a dramatic confrontation, but only along its peripheral. The story explores the vast worlds inside of alien beings, where one human is diving over and over again to try and find the key to human survival in the face of an ever-adapting enemy. It’s a story of alien invasion, and a sort of invasion that humanity cannot hold out forever against, these aliens capable of taking their experiences and creating a sort of illusory world for their next generation to adapt safe and better, to learn how better to conquer and spread.

Christos Antonaros, at Tangent Online, writes:

An original idea, which dips the reader into the bottom of a river, and even deeper into the terrifying illusions created inside of the guts of five alien behemoths. The setting and structure of the story are attention-grabbing from the very first paragraphs. (…) At some points, especially during sections of dialog, the plot becomes confusing, but the author then gives the reader a plot-twisting conclusion that resolves any questions.

A.C. Wise, in her column for Apex, writes:

Seiner offers up a truly alien mode of being, as well as learning and communication. The story calls into question the line between reality and illusion, at times echoing the unanchored feeling of exploring a new world – neither the characters nor the reader are fully grounded, drifting and making their way through the landscape together.

Rocket Stack Rank is less impressed. The full review (spoilers!) gives the story two stars, saying “The concept is pretty cool,” but “The execution of that idea is awful, and the whole story is a confused mess.”

I’ll close with a return to Payseur’s comments, this time on the themes and resonance of the story:

It’s a hitting story about trying to break this echo-chamber of conditioned abuse that just prepares people for war. (…) What happens when people are so trained and programed just for conflict, just to believe that their illusion is real? There’s a lot going on in the story and it’s nicely built to show the depth of these illusions, how it gets into everything. (…) It’s a story that really dives into illusions and isolation and how the young and conditioned by the older generations. It’s chilling and yet not without a spark of hope. An amazing read!


What did you think? Read the story, and join the discussion in the comments!

“The Thule Stowaway,” by Maria Dahvana Headley

Uncanny, Jan/Feb 2017,
Cover by John Picacio

“The Thule Stowaway,” by Maria Dahvana Headley.
Novelette. Published in Uncanny Jan/Feb 2017.

Suggested by Mark Hepworth:

I love “secret history” style stories, which this combines with a carefully crafted nest of narratives.

This one has reactions all over the map, which should make for some interesting discussion!

  • Charles Payseur echoes our recommendation: “This story is something of a Master’s course in nested narratives, unfolding like a puzzlebox that defies reality and is much larger on the inside than it appears.”
  • Tangent Online reviewer Herbert M. Shaw calls it “overlong and burdensome,” and “a rejected plot from the Doctor Who storyboards, featuring Edgar Allan Poe.”
  • Rocket Stack Rank gives it four stars, judging it “rich, complex, rewarding to Poe fans.”
  • SF Bluestocking says: “Rather long and challenging, especially if you don’t know the works and biography of Edgar Allan Poe very well. I could see it being a great favorite for the right reader, however.”
  • Featured Futures sees pros and cons: “Would have interest to some fans of Poe (…) and to those who can get through its over-engineering to enjoy its rococo prose and sneakily involving action.”

What did you think? Read the story, and join the discussion in the comments!

“Aunt Dissy’s Policy Dream Book,” by Sheree Renée Thomas

Apex April 2017,
Art by Angelique Shelley

“Aunt Dissy’s Policy Dream Book,” by Sheree Renée Thomas.
Novelette. Published in Apex, April 2017.

Recommended on Twitter by @TroyLWiggins .

Stephanie Wexler at Tangent writes:

Raised by her Aunt Dissy after her mother died, Cassie’s ability to connect with people through dreams has become a torture. The sight overtakes her literally like a force of nature. Each dream vision somehow ends up scarring her physically. (…) There are so many elements to Cassie’s character intertwined with her gifts; the people she meets and helps, and her own journey for balance and self forgiveness turns this story into a wild ride.

Charles Payseur recommends the story, describing it thusly:

The prose is elegant and tied up in dreams because it is in dreams that Cassie has her Sight, that allows her to pierce the veil and see the future. Or some version of it anyway. She’s been told that she’ll not be lucky in love or money, but when a man shows up haunted by a woman he doesn’t know, things are pushed into wholly uncharted territory.

Rocket Stack Rank has mixed feelings, writing:

Pros: Cassie is an interesting character, and her gift is interesting in its own right.(…)
Cons: Her problems all seem to happen because she won’t tell that man his fortune properly. She sure seems to stick with that position for a long time, and it’s not clear why it means so much to her to keep it from him. (…) In the end, nothing has been resolved.


What did you think? Read the story, and join the discussion in the comments!