The unofficial theme for this Short Fiction Treasures column is “arts, crafts, and work.” When I was considering which stories to include, I was thinking about how much I enjoy the vivid sensory details and close-up descriptions of specific jobs, or of how to do or make something. Whether the art, craft, or work is the main theme of the story, or whether it’s there as background and setting, it can add a level of immersion and satisfying texture to speculative fiction that I find irresistible.
So, here are ten short stories and three novellas that prominently feature and explore various kinds of work, craft, and art.
Ten Short Stories
Weaving in the Bamboo by Eliza Chan in Translunar Travelers Lounge
“I paint the picture with my words, a light brush across the paper. Wet my lips like dipping into the ink, long flowing phrases deftly pressed into the parchment.”
Eliza Chan’s story is a trippy, mesmerizing exploration of the art and craft (and in this story, the magic) of storytelling. It’s a tale about the power of words and the limits of that power. It is also very much a story about family and ambition, and how we sometimes don’t know what it is we leave behind or give up until it’s too late to get it back. The tale spins and whirls as it entangles the reader (and the teller) in memories and places and lives that were or might have been. Eventually, we understand why the story is spun this way, and that revelation adds another layer of magic, and sorrow, to the tale.
Small Magics by Juliet Kemp in Flash Fiction Online
Two siblings who are also immortal beings—a brother called Tew and a sister sometimes called Elda—live side by side with humanity for millennia. Each sibling has their own way of interacting with the world, and each is dedicated to making that world a better place for the people who live in it. But while Tew has grand designs of tearing down the old to create something new and better, Elda works on a smaller scale. She weaves or knits beneficial magic into garments, and she feeds the people around her, giving comfort and nourishment and salvation wherever she can. Each sibling finds the other’s approach lacking as they travel through the years together, and I really appreciate how this story emphasizes the importance of “small magics” without denying that big changes are also necessary at times.
Wait For Night by Stephen Graham Jones at Tor.com
A man is toiling as a day laborer, hauling debris and trash from a creek alongside a crew of weathered workers. The work is hard, but there is a paycheck at the end of it all as well as a pair of lace-up Red Wing boots, and that’s what counts. As the men work, a bulldozer pulls down a giant willow from the creek bed. Later, when everyone else is gone and his car won’t start, the man discovers something quite unexpected tangled in the roots of that tree. What follows is an epic, bruising battle between very old foes. Stephen Graham Jones is a master at reeling you in with carefully observed, perceptive details of everyday life before peeling back the skin of that everyday life and revealing the dark veins and lustrous bones beneath.
True In His Fashion by E. Catherine Tobler in Three-Lobed Burning Eye
This sumptuous vampire story is full of passion and fashion, and it is enriched with lush, sensuous details of fabrics and lace, threads and ribbons, gems and pearls. Our protagonist is indeed a vampire, but he is also a craftsman, a maker of fine things, and Tobler skillfully works details of that craftsmanship into every aspect of the story, making this a carnal delight.
“Taken as they are with their own needs, no one truly notices me. It is often the case and how we are so often able to prey on people in public. As one might gather the pleats in a skirt, one might also gather shadows into a corner, so that a neck can be exposed.”
Dresses Like White Elephants by Meg Elison in Uncanny Magazine
Elison’s story about a drag queen looking to acquire a dress by making a very specific (and magical) trade has heart, salty language, and the kind of perfectly captured details that make you see and feel and even hear the texture and sheen and rustle of fabric. There’s a real sense of intimacy in how this story describes both the clothes, the people trading them, and the craft of sewing itself. Like this sharp observation about dresses:
“The way a man holds a dress changes completely if he’s worn one. Watch a man handle a dress without knowing how one works, or how much power is in it. Watch him bunch it in his fist like its structure means nothing to him; see him treat it like laundry.”
Now Watch As Belinda Unmakes the World by Lynette Mejía in Flash Fiction Online
I’ve thought of this evocative, beautifully written story a lot since I first read it in 2016, and it has become one of my touchstones when it comes to outstanding flash fiction. It’s a story about a mother, sitting at her sick daughter’s bedside, working on her sewing. She is making, and unmaking, a cross-stitch picture, but there is much more to her handiwork than needle and thread. Mejía takes great care to describe the craft of embroidery, just as she takes great care to describe the weight of grief when your child is suffering. In the end, it’s a story where each stitch, each word, is magic.
Like Faded Joy by Ashley Bao in Cast of Wonders
Written by Ashley Bao, and wonderfully narrated by Aikaterine Chen, this is a powerful, heartrending story about twin sisters who grow up so close together that they can barely imagine their lives apart. Music plays a big role for both girls as they grow up, with their mother pushing them hard to excel. I love the precise descriptions of instruments and sound and the tactile sensation of creating music. While music shapes the older twin’s life, the younger twin’s path is haunted, quite literally, by the ghosts of the family and by the ghosts of strangers that come to visit her, looking for release. This is a story about music, and about the push and pull of family. I especially love how candidly Bao describes the twins’ relationship, showing how a bond can be both incredibly strong and terribly fraught.
Slipping the Leash by Dan Micklethwaite in Podcastle
A werewolf story where the wolf might or might not be flesh and blood, but regardless, it hides, crouched beneath a man’s skin, trying to bite and claw its way out into the world. Aloysius Proctor “has survived a war, and survived the clap, and he is married to Delilah, with whom he has fathered two beautiful children,” but at every step of his life, he is haunted by memories of violence and horror. He carries so much pain and darkness inside that he can barely keep it contained, can barely keep his human shape. His only release is the transcendent act of expressing some of the turmoil within music, on a stage, and thus sharing it with others. Micklethwaite’s prose shivers with tension and terror and captures the act of playing music, and of allowing others to hear what’s inside of you, with tender brilliance. Wonderful narration by Austin Malone.
Miss Beulah’s Braiding and Life Change Salon by Eden Royce in Lightspeed (originally published in Black From the Future: A Collection of Black Speculative Writing)
Royce’s story is rich, heady, and as enchanting as any spell. A djinn, or more specifically a jiniri—a female djinn—runs a beauty salon where she styles hair and sells wishes, though the payment she requires is not exactly given in coin or dollar bills. Royce's prose is languid and glistening with beguiling hints of backstory glinting through. I love the intoxicating details of the jiniri’s profession, and it all makes for a decidedly wondrous story that is steeped in details of scents and hair and the art of hairstyling, as well as the art of living.
Your Name Is Oblivia by Vincent Tirado in Fiyah #15
In Tirado’s story, the job of being a bartender is at the center of the tale, even though this is a bartending gig with a difference: at Styx and Stones, the patrons can order “memory-based drinks,” i.e., drinks infused with memories of experiences and emotions, and they pay by giving up their own memories. Having worked as a bartender, once upon a long ago, I’m partial to stories that capture the vibe and social aspect of bars and bartending, and this story definitely does that. It also deftly explores the formative, yet elusive nature of memories and identity, as the bartender Oblivia makes a fateful connection with one of the bar’s customers.
The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg (Tachyon Publications)
R.B. Lemberg’s new fantasy novella, set in their wondrous Birdverse, is a story about “two trans elders who must learn to weave from death to defeat a sinister ruler who murders rebellious women and hoards their bones and souls.” It is a story about resistance and friendship, about how change (even painful change) can be a necessary part of life, and it’s also a story about hard-won hope. The craft of weaving is an integral part of the tale, and that craft takes on a deeper meaning in a world where the elements can be used to craft cloth:
“Wind: To match one’s body with one’s heart
Sand: To take the bearer where they wish
Song: In praise of the goddess Bird
Bone: To move unheard in the night”
It is exactly the kind of story you might want to read when the world around you seems harsh and hopeless. As a bonus, I recommend Lemberg’s masterful novelette “Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds” from Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather (Tor)
Lina Rather’s science fiction novella about nuns in space feels even more current these days than when it first came out, what with a deadly plague striking down an unsuspecting population, the sins of the past haunting the present, and the threat of the duplicitous force called Central Governance looming large over a future where humanity has colonized many worlds. One of the things that really stood out for me as I read this book was the emphasis on everyday life and labor. It’s there in the tactile details of the work done by the Sisters of Saint Rita onboard their living ship as it traverses interstellar space, and it’s there in the practical, hands-on work they do in the far-flung colonies they visit. It makes for a captivating space opera with some honest-to-goodness dirt under its fingernails.
The Frozen Sea Takes Everything I Love by Meryl Stenhouse in The Fantasist
There are so many things I love about this gripping, harrowing story: Stenhouse’s exquisite prose, of course; that the protagonist is an older woman; and the working-class setting that makes this a fantasy tale with calloused hands. But maybe what I love most of all is the gritty, evocative worldbuilding that is twined into every paragraph, vividly bringing to life the world itself, the characters, and the courage, skill, and strength needed to sail across the ice of the cold, frozen North Sea.
“...ice had a voice. Sometimes it sang under the iron runners, a grating harmony that you heard through your ears and through your bones. If the sails were belling full its frozen voice would rise to a scream that travelled faster than your ship, faster than the wind.”