My previous Short Fiction Treasures column was all about science fiction, so it’s only fair that the theme this time around is fantasy.
One of my favorite types of fantasy is old fairytales reimagined and reinvented. A prime example of spinning a brilliant new tale from old threads is “A Princess with a Nose Three Ells Long” by Malda Marlys in Fantasy Magazine. Marlys takes the Norwegian tale “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” and turns it into a story of Dagrun, a headstrong troll princess who grows up in “a castle flanked by fjords, so very far from everything that the winds rarely raised its banners.” The troll queen, Dagrun’s mother, has orchestrated a royal marriage for her daughter, but the troll princess has other plans. Marlys’s prose has the perfect lilt and melody of an old-school fairytale, even as she finds a delightful new perspective on both trolls and princes, and a different happily ever after.
Also in Fantasy Magazine is the exquisitely crafted “The End of a Painted World” by Sam Kyung Yoo, a story set in a world where there is powerful magic in ink and paint, and where paintings can both come to life and risk destruction and death. I love the way magic and art are twined together and woven into the very fabric of this world, and I love the story’s emotional depth and lyrical power.
The most recent issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is a great read. One of my favorite stories from this issue is Tade Thompson’s “The Sweet in the Empty,” a gorgeously wrought tale that has the rich texture and delicate shimmer of history, folktale, and legend. There’s a mysterious oasis, an abducted child, and a father who was once a celebrated warrior, setting out on a perilous quest to rescue the son he once lost. Thompson deftly draws you into the lives of his characters and into the landscape and societies of Ethiopia and the Arabian Peninsula in ancient times. He tells his tale with restrained, yet well-honed, emotional sharpness. It’s a tale well worth savoring.
Another one of my favorite stories in this issue of F&SF is E. Catherine Tobler’s “Remembered Salt,” an exceptional and wonderful story about a sentient house (with legs) that has lost its resident witch and is now flying through the skies, emptying itself of its contents while trying to remember its past and its purpose. There are shades of Oz, Baba Yaga, and other tales here, as Tobler delves deep into the complexities of companionship and loneliness. It’s a story with a unique protagonist and a unique point of view, and Tobler infuses it with a surreal and wistful soulfulness. There’s a quiet depth here, as the house, and we, find a new understanding of home and belonging.
In “Bride of the Gulf” in khōréō, Danai Christopoulou braids history and legend, myth and memory together into a compelling tale that gave me goosebumps at the end. A young woman in Thessaloniki is haunted by fragments of emotions and memories she cannot fully comprehend. The story’s narrator soothes her with a song, but old memories, and a very old story, still breach the surface. Christopoulou anchors the story vividly in the present day but allows magic and history to poke through the fabric of reality, revealing the hidden truth beneath.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies publishes “literary adventure fantasy,” and in a recent issue, I thoroughly enjoyed the marvelous “Discreet Services Offered for Women Ridden by Hags” (how can you not love that title?) by Stephanie Malia Morris. Morris spins a tale of monsters and magic and a fractured family, set in Washington, D.C., in the early 20th century. Bernice is the woman offering the discreet services in question, following in her mother’s footsteps as she helps women who are “ridden” by hags, AKA soucouyants. When Bernice’s sister Angélique turns up on Bernice’s doorstep, the sisters’ troubled past, and the fate of their mother, comes back to haunt the present. It’s a captivating tale about the costs of magic, about living with monsters, and about the monstrous things people are capable of doing. The scenes when Bernice confronts her mother and her sister are magnificent in their depictions of the magical powers at work and the emotional devastation that follows.
Also in Beneath Ceaseless Skies is “What the Mountain Takes, What the Journey Offers” by Jae Steinbacher, a quietly profound and beautifully layered novelette about coming to terms with your ancestors, the gods, and your own life choices. It’s a story that made me think of Ursula K. Le Guin as I read it. Ilhani sets out on a long journey and a difficult quest to find a remedy for their wife’s ailment, knowing full well that any remedy will require sacrifice: “Petitioning Mother for help always comes at a cost, but what choice do I have?” Steinbacher weaves a compelling tale, and an intriguing world, with profound depth.
“A Timely Horizon” by Karen Lord in Sunday Morning Transport has a similar contemplative, quietly compelling vibe. Here, we find ourselves in a world where humans have found a way to pass on memories and insights not just through time, but between alternate timelines and worlds, by communing with trees. In their life, each person receives a seed and when that seed is planted, a tree grows. That tree can then tell the story of your life, such as it is and was and might have been. It is an exquisite and thoroughly intriguing story. I love Alina, the story’s protagonist, because she has such a rare calm and maturity to her, and I love the way this story finds a heart and a soul in its slow unfolding.
Podcastle is a fantastic place to find excellent reprints and excellent original fantasy fiction. One of my recent favorites is “Wapnintu’tijig They Sang until Dawn” by Tiffany Morris (narrated by Samantha Loney). Here we meet Pi’tawgowi’sgw, a creature from Mi’kmaq legends that finds herself alone in a dramatically changed world where she must learn to adapt and survive. Morris has a beautiful and incisive way of interweaving descriptions of nature with the thoughts and sensory experiences of Pi’tawgowi’sgw, making for a powerful prose that glimmers: “The sky was filled with diamond shells, husks of voices glittering in the vast blanket reflected on the water.”
“Yung Lich and the Dance of Death” by Alex Fox (narrated by Eric Valdes), also at Podcastle, is a darkly funny take on necromancy in the modern world. Yung Lich is a recently resurrected man looking to get attention for his mixtape (on CD), but it’s not easy to make a living (?) as a musically inclined undead. Yung Lich is also part of a necromancer’s devious plan, but he might not be the pushover his resurrector imagined. I adore the ingenious setup and the understated sense of humor in this story.
The afterlife is a proven fertile ground for fantasy fiction. In “Miz Boudreaux’s Last Ride” by Christopher Caldwell in Uncanny Magazine, a bargain with the dead gets the domestic and dynamic duo Davion and Tommy into serious, Hitchcockian trouble. Caldwell has a wickedly masterful touch with characters, dialogue, and the craft of magic as he spins a tale of a desert town called Paloma Negra, and what it might take to undo a messy old knot of spellwork. (This story is a sequel of sorts to “Femme and Sundance,” published in Uncanny in 2021.)
Elou Carroll’s fierce and inventive “You Row and You Burn” in The Deadlands also involves the afterlife: “The best thing about being dead is no longer needing to breathe. The worst thing about being dead is, well, being dead.” The story’s recently deceased protagonist is hunted by the Ferrymen, those who ferry the dead from the world of the living to whatever lies beyond. No one is supposed to leave the boat in those waters, and, according to the rules, there is no way back, but what do you do if you don’t want to be dead?
One of the most devastatingly beautiful pieces of fantasy fiction I’ve read recently is “The House of Linear Change” by Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe in Lightspeed. Here, the world surrounding the narrator is not solid, and every object might turn, or be turned, into something else: “It is very easy for a thing to change. I know this because I am a thing, too.” The world twists and turns and changes constantly, and there’s a fluid power and beauty in Ajeigbe’s masterfully expressive prose.
Another story with a strong and resonant voice is Jordan Kurella’s “The Wreck of the Medusa” in Apex. Kurella tells a wicked and passionate tale of love and lust, pirates and monsters, set aboard a cursed ship. There’s a bold and lusty edge to this story that captivated me from the first paragraph: “What I saw last night, reflected back from the depths, was not my face. Not the one I see in the grime of The Medusa’s portholes, nor in the glint of a blade before I thrust the knife into my bread (or into another man).” There’s a great monster hiding in the depths of the ocean surrounding the cursed ship, but what haunts the tale even more are the monstrous deeds that humans, lovers and enemies both, are capable of.
“The Words That Make Us Fly” by S. L. Harris, also in Apex, is an evocative story about a young man named Prentiss, and about the magic and transformative power of Words (with a capital W). In Harris’s story, magic can be wielded by writing or spray-painting Words on walls and buildings. Prentiss was supposed to learn how he might wield this magic, but he has lost King, who was supposed to teach him, and he has lost his friends, and now he despairs. Harris captures Prentiss’s desperation and anguish, and the joy and freedom of tapping into the power running through the veins of the world, and yourself, in brilliant detail, turning this into a captivating and heartrending story.
I love stories like this, stories that imbue the seemingly everyday, regular world with magic and transformative powers. Another great example is Pedro Iniguez’s “Magic Lucha” in Worlds of Possibility. In Iniguez’s story, Julio, a young boy with a traumatic past, goes to a lucha libre tournament in Oaxaca with his abuela. At the arena, Julio ends up witnessing a clash, not just between the luchadores, but a magic battle between his grandmother and a very wicked witch. I love the way this story finds hope, healing, and a sense of community in the dust and sweat of lucha libre.
A father brings home a magic door in the harrowing “La Puerta” by Ren Braueri at Cast of Wonders (narrated by J. M. Bueno). To the delight of his two children, the door can lead to many different worlds and places, depending on when it’s opened and who opens it. At first, this seems like a rare gift and opportunity, but the door eventually leads to disaster. It’s a compelling story about a family, and two siblings, torn apart by guilt and loss, and I love how it goes beyond the tragedy into a place of hope.
“Hers” by Fernanda Coutinho Teixeira in Strange Horizons is set in a time and place that feels only too real and familiar. Beatriz is a young woman seeking an abortion, but she is not allowed to make her own decisions about her body. Instead, she ends up trapped in a system intent on making her go through with an unwanted pregnancy. But Beatriz is not as powerless as those around her might think, and when she decides to stay pregnant, she becomes more powerful than anyone imagined. There’s a wonderfully surreal and phantasmagoric edge to Beatriz’s transformation, and I love the way she is endowed with the power to not just endure, but undo the injustice inflicted on her.
I am a big fan of stories that blend fantasy and horror, and a great example of such a story is “Rattenkönig” by Jenova Edenson in Diabolical Plots. Three friends head out on an ill-fated road trip and from the get-go, Edenson gives us that terrific sense of foreboding you get in a horror story where you know, and even the people in the story know, that they ought to turn back. I won’t give away the plot on this one, but it’s an unsettling, twisting, ultimately devastating read, taken from Diabolical Plots’ special telepathy issue, Diabolical Thoughts.
Another story that straddles the line between horror and fantasy is Monte Lin’s “The Dream Market” from Translunar Travelers Lounge: “You begin this dream in the middle, as always, knowing that the merchant is named Nihtcargast and sells nightmares.” Here, memories and trauma surface and take shape in the realm of dreams and nightmares, but in the dream market, trades can be made. Nightmares and memories can be traded and exchanged for something different, maybe even a chance at healing and understanding. I love how Lin captures the terrifying and unsettling weirdness of nightmares, making the market disturbing and scary, while also, eventually, turning it into a place where change and restoration are possible.