March 6, 2024

Stories I Have Read (And You Should Too!)

 Now that we're in a new year and things have settled down a bit in my life (if not the wider world, lolsob), I thought I would start a new series consisting of just what the title says: Stories I have enjoyed that deserve a wider audience. I subscribe and/or am a patron to several genre SFF magazines, and also find links to other stories in my internet travels, so I thought I would lump several of them together every so often and recommend to my readers (*waves*). 

With that in mind, let's look at the January/February issue of Uncanny Magazine.

There are three stories in this issue I really enjoyed. The first, "Do Houses Dream of Scraping the Sky?" by Jana Bianchi, deals with a subject I have had to wrestle with of late in my own life: grief. The protagonist is cleaning out her grandmother's house after her grandmother's death, and both she and the house are struggling:

I put the plastic bags on the sideboard before opening my arms and resting my face against her feverish wall, and House blew her nose by flushing the toilet of the hallway bathroom.

“Hush, now. I’m here. I’m so sorry,” I remember saying, caressing her. The tap started dripping faster, and I strove to keep my own tears at bay. “Yeah, I know, I know. I’ll miss her too.”

As the protagonist goes through the minutiae of her grandmother's life, discarding and sorting and fighting with House over what to keep and what to give away, both of them slowly work through the stages of grief and come to an acceptance, and a remembrance of love for the person who has left them. 

At the end of the story, House--who is a well-drawn and layered character--seems to vanish. But the protagonist picks up one of her grandmother's plants to take with her:

“Goodbye, House,” I said, and closed my eyes. “I love you.”

That night, when I arrived here, I put the snake plant vase in the balcony. I took a shower, I ate something, I played some video game. Then I decided I’d go to bed earlier, and as I soon as I got my head in the pillow—

Precisely. I hear the noise in the balcony, and when I arrived there the snake plant was somehow planted amongst my herbs. When I came back to this very same room, I felt my bed hugging me back for the very first time. 

This is a gentle little story of love, loss, and recovery. It hit home for me due to my own life circumstances, but I know others will appreciate it also. 

"A Recipe for Hope and Honeycake," by Jordan Taylor, takes a different emotional tack: this is the story of Bramblewilde, an outcast fairy who has adopted a human village and is trying their best to fit in with the people around them. But the villagers are uneasy around her, and she is not really trusted:

The villagers heard Bramblewilde’s cart before they saw it. Bramblewilde’s husky voice and the chiming of the cart’s fairy bells wove between the market stalls, which were set up in one of Squire Rothchild’s empty fields. The scent of lavender, likewise, drifted in on the cool spring breeze, twining among the scents of freshly baked bread, livestock and beer, cured meat. 

The villagers turned their heads at Bramblewilde’s approach, and Bramblewilde’s voice dimmed under their stares.

As a harsh winter sets in, and various catastrophes including a fever overtake the village, Bramblewilde struggles with how to help them, since she knows the people would likely not extend their hand in return:

They regretted offering no help to their neighbor with a sickly cow.

They regretted not feeding the children at the gate from their meagre stores.

And yet, had the shoe been on the other foot, what would the villagers have done? No one, they thought, would have helped Bramblewilde.

Surely the villagers deserved whatever hardships they got.

Or did they?

So Bramblewilde consults the sentient bees of her hive (this story, like the last, has great non-human characters) and receives an answer. They whip up the titular honeycake, infused with the magical hope of Faerieland, and start taking slices of it to the villagers. At the end, they visit the nearby Wood, on the border of their outcast Faerie, and discover the god Pan, who gets the last slice of their cake. 

“But look!” Bramblewilde gazed up at the sky. “The sun is shining. And I have brought you something, my lord.” They folded back the green cloth covering the last slice of honeycake. “Perhaps you would like to try a bite?”

“What is it, little one?” Pan asked.

“Hope,” said Bramblewilde.

This is a story of pulling together in the face of adversity and helping one another. I'm sure it was written as a post-pandemic story, as so many are nowadays. It's definitely a comfort read. 

"A Contract of Ink and Skin," by Angela Liu, is the polar opposite of these: it's a short, eerie horror story of death, tattoos, and ghosts, and packs quite a punch. It's also told in second person present tense, which is usually a dicey POV, but this one works:

The earliest versions included uglier things: ground up insect eggs and corroded bronze, but the ink you receive is pure, made only from blood of the Cursed.

They inject it into your eyes first because that’s the easiest way to tell you’re different. The black ink mixed with blue and red, a purplish nebula pooling into the whites of your eyes.

It takes three months for your body to fully heal, but you’ll be able to see the dark patterns within just a few days. The ink aches in their presence, sweating through the pores in your skin, but that ink is your shield, your bridge, your right to a Contract.

As the protagonist is injected more and more with the magical ink, the blood of the Cursed, she begins to separate from the people around her, and see and experience more magical things. The imagery in this story is fantastic and haunting:

The warm threads of ink envelope your throat, tracing the soft line of your shoulders and hips. The black globes of your eyes see them before you feel them. A hurricane of dark light. A taste like cinnamon and electricity fills your mouth. 

No one tells you that the longest night is the night when you are finally offered your Contract.

It’s been three months, and your body has healed, but it no longer belongs to you. The Inked are here to serve, and you will, just like all those before you. This is the Contract of your ancestors, the way they chose to survive the hunger, the love of the Cursed. The cost of peace paid by the ink on the skin.

This story is just under 1500 words, but wow. It's worth the price of admission all by itself. 

Finally, from the Sunday Morning Transport, comes "Rude Litterbox Space," by Mary Robinette Kowal, an SF tale of an intelligent physics-teaching cat who talks via a communications mat. Elsie is aboard a ship approaching an FTL jump gate when she realizes things are going wrong:

Elsie pushed off from the window and went to her communication board, which was laid out on the floor. It was a flexible mat with touch sensors mapped to different words and phrases. Yucky. How could she explain to her valet that the approach to the jumpsite was all wrong? She toggled the board to her science words and phrases, hoping the predictive text could follow this higher level of thought. She pressed: Velocity. Angle. No. Gravity. Strain. Ship. Litterbox.

We follow Elsie's attempts to save the ship and her battles with a ship's captain who views her just as an upstart pet:

“For crying out loud . . . You’re one of them.” The captain’s voice dripped with condescension. “There’s nothing an animal can do better than a person.”

“With all due respect, sir.” Her valet’s voice was chilly with the script she’d had to deploy multiple times. “The Confederation of United Planets recognizes that personhood is not limited to humans. Elsie is a person.”

“It’s a cat.”

But the bridge crew recognizes that Elsie just saved their lives, and bring her tidbits at the end. 

This sounds pretty fantastical, to be sure, but it's based on the real-life exploits of the author's communication-mat-using cat. At Kowal's Instagram, there are regular video snippets of Elsie talking by pressing buttons on her mat. Apparently she has a vocabulary of around 120 words

So that's it for this installment. Others will be forthcoming, as I read stories I think should be shared. Thanks! 

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