Friday, February 16, 2018

Short Fiction Recs: December 2017 and January 2018



This winter has brought such a treasure of great stories that’s it’s been more of a struggle than usual to keep up. Here are just some that I read and loved in December and January.

Flash

“Out From Behind a Rock” by K.C. Mead-Brewer at Cotton Xenomorph

This was the debut story in Cotton Xenomorph, a new literary journal of poetry and flash fiction. It exemplifies much of the other fiction I’ve seen in Cotton Xenomorph since: not outright speculative fiction or fantasy, yet seeming to tilt in that direction. Reality that feels askew, or that’s related from an unusual vantage point. Mead-Brewer’s piece is particularly strange (while also being set in a plausibly real setting); it’s violent, disturbing, breath-taking. Its central image is also dazzling, and the last line is haunting. Mead-Brewer is a writer to watch, and Cotton Xenomorph (which has also published stories far gentler than this one) is a magazine to follow.

“Mother’s Rules for a Burned Girl” by Rebecca Mix in Flash Fiction Online

I love how an entire story can be contained within 1000 words. Rebecca Mix achieves that in this searing tale of dragons, abuse, rules, and breaking free.  

“Milk Teeth and Heartwood” by Kathryn McMachon in Syntax and Salt

A creepy, creepy tale of a haunted wood, and of that which takes root and grows within.

“Landmark” by Cassandra Khaw at Clarkesworld

An aching tale of love over long (very long!) distances. Khaw is the one of the best prose stylists I know, and I love the way she writes of bodies here, of how physical touch becomes poetry. Every line here is a poem.


Short Stories

“The Feast,” by K.C. Mead-Brewer at Carve Magazine.

 Another story by K.C. Mead-Brewer, in a literary journal which is new to me. Mead-Brewer enters the world of the overtly fantastical for a lovely, haunting, infuriating, and piercing tale of giving and giving and hunger which can never be satisfied.

“In the Beginning, All Our Hands are Cold,” by Ephiny Gale at Syntax and Salt

Everyone in the village is born without hands; the children get along just fine with elbows and teeth and toes.

The story of a village where children are born without hands. . . but when they are old enough, they walk to a forest to pick out the hands that fit just right. This is such a strange and wonderful story. It’s a tale about friendship, the paths you choose, the paths you didn’t foresee, and the twists that life takes. It’s a gentle story filled with warmth, light, and the inevitable heartbreak that comes with life. Poignant and filled with love.


A disquieting fever-dream of a story, told in the format of a three-act play. A young woman comes to paint a crumbling old tower on the Straits of Malacca. What unfolds is a mash-up of English Gothic horror with a Malaysian monster story, a riff on “Bluebeard” set in the tropics and with more than one twist. The near-overwrought language expertly evokes the mood of Gothic tales. An eerie, atmospheric piece.


 And oh, this is a change of pace! A group of cyborgs steals a restaurant-ship to escape the luxury resort where they’ve been forced to wait upon humans… And hijinks ensue. Horrifying, grotesque, hilarious hijinks. I laughed aloud several times while reading this. You’ll never encounter a restaurant like this anywhere else, and the menu served is fascinatingly, mesmerizingly disgusting. This is a cautionary tale against chasing those stars on Yelp reviews. . . and in chasing external validation in general. There’s some poignancy in that lesson learned (or rather, not learned). But oh my, this is fun as well.

Boneset by Lucia Iglesias at Shimmer

The story of a bonesetter and the price he will pay to write his magnum opus. A strange story of gorgeous prose with unusual and hypnotic rhythms. It’s both gruesome and whimsical, richly inventive and utterly entrancing.

The Poet and the Spider by Cynthia So at Anathema

You saw the Empress once, when you were still a pillow-cheeked and blossom-mouthed child. She was tall and severe, and the train of her yellow dress flowed behind her for miles and miles, a river of pure gold. You stood behind your mother and wanted to bathe yourself in that river, and the Empress turned, her crown twinkling like a cosmos of cold stars, and she looked at you. 

Told in the second person, the main character of this story dreams of becoming Court Poet after seeing the Poem of The Land written on the flowing train of the Empress’ dress. To achieve her dream, the main character dares seek the help of the Spider Sisters of the West “who, like the Empress, are lovers of rhythm and metre, and strict critics.” This is such a gorgeously, gorgeously written fairy tale, written with lovely imagery, humor, and heart. And wonderful characters, too, with wonderful names! (e.g. the Spider of Bruises and Plums, who becomes the main character’s poetry mentor). I smiled so many times while reading this.

“On the Highway” by Francesca Forrest (available as an Amazon single)

This was released just before the New Year, and it’s a chilling New Year’s Eve tale set on a cold, lonely highway. It’s a story of ghosts, love, marriage, and (possibly, or possibly not) second chances. The author packs a lot into this slim story, and it takes unexpected turns within a small space. A sharp tale that leaves an echo.

“The Glow-in-the-Dark Girls” by in Senaa Ahmad in Strange Horizons

A moving, brutally gorgeous tale of girls who were made to be weapons.

Presque Vu by Nino Cipro in Liminal Stories

And oh, this story bent my mind and cratered my heart. A surreal tale of millennial angst in a town where people are haunted by housekeys that appear in throats, mysterious postcards, phone calls. . . and real wraiths that call for car rides. Clay is a driver for an Uber-like car service, picking up both wraiths and humans. Like everyone else in town, he’s haunted. And he’s hollow, detached, just trying to get by in life. “Presque vu” (I had to look this up) is a term for that tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon, where you know the name of something but can’t quite recall it. And that title has a fitting resonance for this story, which somehow manages to obliquely convey a mood and theme which I know but can’t quite put into words. But I do know that it’s something to do with the sadness of this modern world, and with an underlying horror which we are all trying to ignore. But there’s also the warmth of community in this story: friends, lovers, and neighbors come together toward the end, and it’s enough, if only for a moment, to help keep the darkness at bay.  


“A Cookpot, a Knife, a Pile of Rags,” by Virginia Mohlere at Cicada Magazine

She can’t stand the taste of apples. It’s the flavor of waking up from a nightmare, the flavor she chokes on in the dark. Can’t stand the smell of them, not even the sight.

And oh, this story of my heart. This fierce, gorgeous, painful, and ultimately healing retelling of the tale of Snow White. A Snow White who, traumatized by her past, walks away from her prince and eventually finds new strength in herself, with the help of a new friend.  

She will walk until she reaches the top or until her body cannot walk anymore, she has decided. Her second great decision: the first was to walk away, and the second is to walk on.

Novellas

Pretty Marys All in a Row by Gwendolyn Kiste (Broken Eye Books)

A house of urban legends and nursery tales come to life, the five “Marys” of the title. There’s “Resurrection Mary” a ghost who hitchhikes along a lonely stretch of highway. “Bloody Mary,” who appears in your mirror if you chant her name three times. Twists on “Mistress Mary” who grows her garden quite contrary, “Mary Mack” dressed in black, and an incarnation of the Welsh legend of the Mari Llyd. The Marys have lived together like sisters for untold years, haunting separately and then coming back to their house to feast together on the fear they’ve gathered from their hauntings. But a change is coming. And “Rhee” (Resurrection Mary) must fight to save herself and the others, and to remember who she used to be. This novella is stylish and elegantly written, atmospheric and with an often sly wit. Compelling and highly recommended.

“The Frozen Sea Takes Everything I Love,” by Meryl Stenhouse at The Fantasist

People who lived on the land, who saw the changing of the seasons, who heard the rush of meltwater over the soil did not know, would never know, that 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.

This story will make you feel the cold. An intensely atmospheric, gritty, tense story of survival in an alternate-history where the seas of Europe are frozen and traders sail their ships over ice. There are similarities with another story of Meryl Stenhouse’s which I love, Gone to Wrack and Ruin. Both this story and her previous one are grounded with details that make their worlds feel real, lived-in as few fantasy worlds are. And as Stenhouse said in a recent interview, both these stories “are about older women struggling to protect their families when they have little to no personal power or agency.” I love that about these works. I love the fierceness of Marta, the matriarch of “The Frozen Sea Takes Everything I Love.” And I love the sense of realism, of unsparing narrative honesty, in a unique secondary world.  






Wednesday, January 31, 2018

New story: "Wild Ones" at Bracken Magazine


I’m thrilled to announce that my latest story, “Wild Ones,” is now up at Bracken Magazine. I have loved this magazine since it’s first issue, and am so happy to be appearing there now, alongside absolutely lovely artwork, poems, and other stories.

Bracken Magazine’s tagline is “lyrical fiction and poetry, inspired by the wood and what lies in its shadows.” “Wild Ones” indeed takes it setting from the woods. It’s the story of a mother and her teenage daughter, and of the wildness within us all.

Some notes on inspiration:

--Years and years ago, I read Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising and fell in love with its invocations of Celtic mythology and Old European legends. The scene where Herne the Hunter leads the Wild Hunt against the Dark has never left me.

--There is a patch of woods near my home, a tiny scrap of forest hemmed in by suburban development. I like to walk there, especially in the fall.

--The fall is my favorite time of year. And the sound of the autumn winds rushing through trees is like nothing else.  





Sunday, January 7, 2018

2017 Writing Roundup



I am late with this, as with everything these days.

I had only one piece of fiction published this year: “Taiya,” which appeared in the fall in The Future Fire. But this one piece has received more attention than any other short story I’ve written. It’s received some wonderful reviews. Maria Haskins and A.C. Wise both featured it in their recommendations. It’s listed in the 2017 Nebula Suggested Reading List. And today I found out that it’s also featured on The Book Smugglers website in “12 Short Stories as New Year’s Resolutions.” 

(Click on those lists above, please. They feature amazing, amazing authors and works that I love, and I am still stunned to be listed alongside them.)

It means so much to me that “Taiya” has gotten this attention. It means so much to me that this story resonates with people. This was one of those stories from the heart; this was the first story which truly scared me to write. I described some of its inspirations and background, and some early reviews, in this post.

Since writing “Taiya,” I’ve finished other stories which scared me to write. I hope to keep doing so.

Other news and thoughts, since this is supposedly my 2017-in-review post:

If you missed it, the lovely Gwendolyn Kiste interviewed me about my writing on her blog here  (and you should definitely also check out her work!)

I’ve posted several of my older stories at Curious Fictions. This is a new website which reprints previously published fiction, and my author page is here. As Curious Fiction’s Twitter account states, it’s a site that allows you to “Read great stories on the go, tip authors for stories that you love.” There’s a lot of great stuff there now by many writers I follow and love. Also, I know that there will be some very cool changes and announcements from this site soon, so keep an eye on it!

Early in 2017, the lovely Meryl Stenhouse invited me to join an online critique group of talented writers. In terms of my writing development, this was the probably the most significant development of the year, and certainly one of my personal highlights. My friends in this group have seen the holes in my stories and pushed me (gently but firmly, with much cheerleading) through revisions which I hated but which absolutely needed to be done. They have pushed me in other ways to take risks in my work. They have made my stories better. I’ve come upon new opportunities through this group. And I have learned from critiquing and reading their wonderful stories, as well as having my own stories critiqued by them.

In 2017, I’ve also made friends with more writers online, as well as continuing old friendships. Their support means everything to me. Advice to new writers: find your writing support group. So many of us live with families and friends who are not writers (sometimes they’re not even readers), and who don’t understand. You need people who do.

2017 doesn’t look very productive on paper for me—not from a publication standpoint. But I did write some new stories I’m proud of, and I sold some stories, and as of today I have five new stories which should see publication in 2018. I’m also involved in some exciting group publication/community projects. I am looking forward to many things.

I am genuinely hopeful for some things in 2018, and trying to be hopeful for others.

Hug your loved ones, my friends. If it’s cold where you are (as it is now for me, here in the Midwest-transformed-to-Arctic-tundra), stay warm; wear layers; wrap yourself in a thick blanket and drink tea and eat hot soup. Here is a splash of color from warmer climes:






Artwork from the artist Likhain, sent through the post from Australia. The painting on the right was a Christmas present to myself, and is the original cover art for my novelette, The Lilies of Dawn. I wish I could truly show you the detail in the work, the glitter of gold and silver. Likhain so generously gifted me with the extra painting on the left, and the cards below also showcase her extraordinary talent.









Monday, December 11, 2017

October-November 2017 Short Fiction Recs

Snow is falling in thick flurries past my window as I type this. Winter is finally here; the nights are long and the daylight brief.

Stories are lights in the darkness. At least, the right ones can be. And even dark stories can bring comfort; they can give shape and a semblance of control to that which is chaos; they let us know that we’re not alone, that others have been through the darkness, too. 

This past fall brought so many wonderful stories of dark and light, often in the very same piece. I can’t hope to read more than a tiny fraction of all the worthy work being published these days. But of all the great stories out now, here are some that I did find and love. I hope you love some of them, too.  


Stories of Sea and River 



Gone to Wrack and Ruin by Meryl Stenhouse at Empyreome Magazine


Oh, what a creepy, eerie read!  Yeva and her granddaughter Lusine eke out a precarious living from the sea, gutting fish in warehouses and collecting wrack from the shore. There finally seems a chance at prosperity when Lusine’s new husband gets a job on the largest fishing boat in the city, iron-sided and driven by steam. But things go wrong. . . and then more wrong. The sea will claim what it will, and all the sacrifices the city offers cannot stop it. I love all the gritty details in this piece, how they create the sense of a real, lived-in world—from the descriptions of fish-gutting and whale-butchering to the other references to the city’s structure and economy. I love the slow escalation of weirdness which builds and builds, taking unexpected turns. Dark and mesmerizing.

The Better Part of Drowning by Octavia Cade in The Dark 

In this piece, the horror and weirdness kick off right from the start. There are giant, terrifying, man-eating crabs (which also sing!). There are children desperate to live, and those above who exploit them. There’s sweet chowder and sugar and darkness. This is gripping, visceral stuff. Octavia Cade is one of the best horror writers I know. 

Glasswort, Ice by Emily Cateno at Lackington’s Magazine 

She’s old enough to remember when the ice whales first crept into the subway tunnels and changed everything, when their underwater song fogged the harbour with ice and froze the freighters in their moorings. She’s old enough to remember the first icicles dripping off the washers and dryers of basement laundry rooms.

This is strange, rich, and gorgeous. Ice whales are besieging a city with their song. An old woman has lived 72 years with their songs. But perhaps, just perhaps, this might one day change. An evocative piece that had me feeling the cold. A story of sisters, persistence, and keeping faith.

River Boy by Innocent Chizaram at Fireside Fiction.

A haunting, wistful tale of a River Boy caught between his human family and his supernatural one, between dry land and his underwater home. The trope of a character caught between human and supernatural worlds is a common one in fantasy. . . yet Chizaram gives it fresh life. Heartbreaking, and truly lovely.

1,000-Year-Old Ghosts by Laura Chow Reeves in Hyphen Magazine

Every time he comes back, he feels more foreign. He says “néih hóu ma,” but she responds in English. She practices with Anne. She learns new words every day.

“One day Anne’s children will not know how to speak our language,” he tells her. 

She wants to say, "Maybe that will be for the best. They will stop longing for things they cannot have. There will be no reason to leave. Not everyone can live in between things. Not everyone can survive being split into two. There are fish that die in saltwater.”

An achingly gorgeous, yearning piece. The connection to the sea is more tangential than the stories I’ve listed above, yet it’s there. The narrator’s grandmother pickles painful memories in jars of salt-water to forget them. She tries to forget her husband, who so often left her to cross the sea. She doesn’t pass on the language of her birthplace to her daughter or granddaughter. This story is quite short, yet so sharp and beautiful. A haunting and complex tale of diaspora, assimilation, loss, and memory.

Also see Yosia Sing’s review (and I thank them for pointing me to this story via their blog!)

Stories of Love and Grief

Chasing Flowers by L. Chan at Podcastle

The sky is raining ashes, grey snow; the air is heavy with hope. Once a year, the gates are open. Once a year, the dead are free for a month and then to return.

In modern-day Singapore, Mei drifts through life unable to truly connect with anyone, downing pills and hurting herself to deal with her inner pain. In the Chinese afterlife, Lian means to escape to the land of the living. Their stories intersect in this gripping, immersive tale of the Chinese Ghost festival, hell, and enduring love. Keen and beautiful prose, and striking imagery and feeling. 

When One Door Shuts by Aimee Ogden at Diabolical Plots

A different story of love and the dead. In this world, doors have suddenly appeared on every house—doors which bring back loved ones who passed away. But the dead come back only at a cost. This is a somber tale of family and mourning and love, and the suspicion that you’re not as loved as much as another. Quietly devastating.

Strange and Shimmering

Hare’s Breath by Maria Haskins at Shimmer

It's Midsummer’s Eve and even this close to midnight there’s no darkness, only a long, translucent dusk that will eventually slip into dawn.

Britt and I are fifteen, and she has just come back from That Place, the one the adults won’t talk about even when they think I’m not listening. Something’s happened to her there, but I don’t understand what it is, and she can’t find the words to tell me.
This is one of the most exquisitely beautiful and heartrending things I have ever read. Swedish folklore and Midsummer’s Eve magic frame a tale of real-world horror—of a real moment in history, and a crime which was not limited to Sweden. This crime is revealed only slowly, and the oblique glances at the horror make it only the more devastating. Sunlight, flowers, song, magic—these are all contrasted against the darkness, sharpening both shadow and light. This is the story of those who can’t fit the roles society demands, who can’t make themselves “fit into small rooms, into narrow and cramped words.” And it’s the story of what society does to people like this, how it tries to cut them to fit. Haskins’ control of her story is remarkable; it’s so perfectly crafted, delicate and shimmering and utterly devastating.


The Atomic Hallows and the Body of Science by Octavia Cade at Shimmer

Another pick from Shimmer Magazine, and another pick from Octavia Cade. Cade doesn’t just write chilling horror; she also writes of science and science history. Here, she spins a strange, surreal tale from the lives of the scientists and others involved in the development of the atomic bomb. Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn discover nuclear fission in Europe; Oppenheimer leads his team in the desert of New Mexico. Niels Bohr and others make appearances. Dorothy McKibbin, an office manager with the Manhattan Project, witnesses the first testing of the nuclear bomb.

At 5:30 am, a light from the sands flashes toward them, a spear from the waste land stabbed out and shining. The leaves are transubstantiated and the trees turned to brief gold about her--lovely and gleaming in the sterile sunlight. 

"I'd never have thought that light had a taste," she says. That taste is lemony, with undertones of burning.  

This is a surreal tale of bold, striking imagery. The atomic blast is a spear, and Lise Meitner’s fingernails become spears, too. Glyphs appear on Robert Oppenheimer’s neck and paintings appear on the back of his knees. Armadillo-like plates grown on Dorothy’s McKibbin’s tongue. Bodies and minds are transformed. This is a story of war, guilt, betrayal, transformation, and consequences. Cade’s prose shines and startles. I confess that it’s a work I don’t fully understand, yet it’s spellbinding, and worth more than one read.  

Flash Stories

Elemental Love by Rachel Swirsky in Uncanny Magazine

A beautiful prose-poem of light. You, dear reader--dear human--are a miracle.

Everyone’s at Our Place EvenThough We’re Gone by Chloe Clark at Ellipsis Zine

An absolutely lovely flash piece of ghosts, love, and the burdens we share. I’m awed by how Clark does so much in so few words.

Novelette


 Hungry Demigods by Andrea Tang in GigaNotoSaurus

And oh, this story hits nearly all my buttons. Food. Food magic. Family and cultural code-switching, and can I mention food again? This is the warm, wonderful tale of a Chinese-French-Canadian-baker-witch in Montreal, her family, and the cursed young man she’s trying to help. Within the first few paragraphs, I’d fallen utterly in love with Isabel Chang and her snarky, code-switching banter. This story is charming and delightful, with a wonderful lightness of touch; yet there are also some truly poignant moments about family and the difficulties of love. Also, there are both beignets and cha siu bao.

For a more extended analysis, check out Charles Payseur’s review

And for a more spoiler-y take (with excerpts of some of my favorite lines!) see Yosia Sing’s review 

Novella

Water into Wine by Joyce Chng. Published by Annorlunda Books

Xin has inherited a vineyard on another planet from their late grandfather. In the wake of a divorce and other transitions, Xin decides to uproot their children to try to fulfill their dream of being a vintner—even though they have no experience in the field. Xin’s mother comes along, and is a comforting figure of support. Xin’s vineyard has just started to put forth the first flower buds, and they and their family have just started settling into a new life, when war comes to their new home.

This is a lovely, moving tale of family, love, war, identity, and endurance. It’s about ordinary people--not military heroes, not political leaders—just trying to survive war and its aftermath. Xin and their family undergo many changes during the course of this novella. Near the beginning of the piece, Xin reveals that they had been taking hormones to suppress menstrual periods and had been “living openly as a man.” However, after some time on the new planet of Tertullian VI, Xin decides to discontinue the hormone treatment and claim a gender identity which is neither man nor woman.  Through the course of this novella there is love, death, and suffering, but also warmth in family meals and celebration. There is growth and transformation. Yet there are no easy resolutions, no simple happy endings. There is an emotional honesty to this piece which I adore. The prose is spare and graceful, seemingly delicate. Yet underneath is steel.

Nonfiction

The Shape of the Darkness as it Overtakes Us By Dimas Ilaw in Uncanny Magazine

If you read anything at all on this list, please, please read this essay. Dimas Ilaw reminds us why stories matter.

If you are a writer struggling to create in dark times, you need to read these words:

You don't know me and probably my words will never reach you. But I want to say to you: you have made a difference in my life; you continue to make a difference. You tell me there are things that continue to exist outside of evil, beautiful and defiant and brilliant as fire. You tell me to look at the sky. How high it is, dear reader. How it stretches endlessly on. 

If you are a reader who has been told that stories don’t matter, that your reading is frivolous, then you need to read these words:

Reading transforms us as much as it gives stories flesh. Is this not what is needed now? When tyranny would have a monopoly on what must be believed or heeded; when dictators would have us cower in fear, too starved of words to resist or dissent.
Readers join the massive chorus of resistance. You refuse to let voices be silenced. 

Everyone: read the whole thing. 



Friday, November 24, 2017

Review: Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng


The moment I heard the premise of Jeannette Ng’s debut novel, I knew that I wanted it. Victorian missionaries in Fairyland? Dark Gothic alt-history inspired by the works of the Bronte sisters? This sounded like the book of my dreams.

And indeed, Ng’s novel is a dream that does not disappoint. It’s a rich, strange, increasingly nightmarish phantasmagoria of both horror and beauty. It’s impressively erudite and sly. It draws the reader expertly in, builds steady tension, then lays shocking plot twist after plot twist. It’s a novel that opens into landscapes of wonder, and becomes a moving, even rapturous, journey.  

In the alternate-history world of this novel, the Faelands (also known as Arcadia) were discovered on the fourth voyage of Captain James Cook, when “the greatest navigational mind became impossibly lost and thus impossibly discovered a different realm.” As with all other lands discovered by the English, the English of this novel decide that the Faelands must be opened to trade and to the Gospels of Christianity. Reverend Laon Helstone has seemingly disappeared while trying to bring the Good Word to the Fae. His sister Catherine Helstone sails to Arcadia in search of him. She takes up residence in Gethesmane, the strange castle where her brother was staying and to which, she is assured, he will soon return. Mysteries surround her as she waits. When her beloved brother finally arrives, the mysteries only deepen. The Pale Queen follows on her brother’s heels, and she and Laon are pulled into sinister fae mind-games which they cannot even begin to comprehend.

 One of the most immediately impressive feats of this novel is how well the author nails the mid-nineteenth century narrative voice. Catherine’s story feels almost as though it could indeed be a real novel from the Victorian period. It’s as though plucky, spirited Jane Eyre had been transported to Fairyland and the weirdness and horror that’s always lurked in the Bronte novels turned up to 11 (incidentally, I kept imagining her brother Laon as the spitting image of Jane Eyre’s St. John Rivers). Jeannette Ng completely inhabits her Victorian narrator’s mind, and a consequence of this is that the story takes the characters’ Christian faith with absolute seriousness. That’s a rare thing in the fantasy genre, and in contemporary literary fiction in general as I’ve seen it. I started the book expecting an obvious take-down of the main characters’ colonialist attitudes. Indeed, a contemporary awareness of that cannot help but hover in the story’s edges. But Ng isn’t going for obvious take-downs here. Her story is subtler, more nuanced than that. Catherine and Laon sincerely believe in Christ and in bringing His message to the fae. They both have doubts, and they anguish over these as they passionately debate abstract points of religion with each other and with the book’s sole fae convert. They are woefully in over their heads (as becomes increasingly and painfully clear), but the novel does not scorn them for this. It takes them seriously.

And beyond the novel’s impressive style—the skilled evocation of Gothic Victoriana, the dazzling display of erudition and wit, the gorgeous and startling imagery and invention--is a moving story with a claim on the heart. Catherine Helstone is a winning character, in the tradition of all plucky Gothic heroines who brave a sinister castle’s halls in search of answers. Not all the answers are to her liking, but she does not turn away. About a third of the way through this novel, the brooding story plunges as though off a cliff into ever deeper psychological horrors (even as fae magic also grows wilder and more enchanting). Emotions reach a pitch worthy of Wuthering Heights and the great English Romantics. I was utterly swept up.

To summarize: two Victorian missionaries travel to the Faelands to save the Others’ souls. In the process, both confront their own darkness and sins. This is a gorgeous, haunting book. I’m very much looking forward to following Jeannette Ng’s career.


Note on faery magic: In the Faelands, the sun is a pendulum swinging over the flat earth. The moon is a fish. There are whales swimming through the soil. And yes, you absolutely want this book. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Review: Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra (coming out from Harper Voyager in 2018)


Disclaimer: Rati Mehrotra is a friend, and I received an advance review copy of this book from her.


I’ve been looking forward to Markswoman since first hearing about it. Rati is an accomplished short fiction writer (see links to her short stories at https://ratiwrites.com/ ) and I was eager to see what she could do in the long form. Reader, I was not disappointed.

Markswoman takes place in a world I’ve never seen before: a seeming post-apocalyptic Asia which mixes science fiction and fantasy. In the distant aftermath of a Great War, five Orders keep peace over the numerous clans of Asiana--Orders of warriors who are telepathically bonded with their magical knives. Kyra Veer is the last of her clan and a young warrior in training in the sisterhood of the Order of Kali. As the novel opens, she is completing the last task needed before becoming a full-fledged Markswoman of her Order. Kyra’s future should be relatively set after this. But, of course, there is no smooth sailing for our heroine: intrigues and adventure abound as Kyra fights a threat to her Order and long-buried secrets come to light. This is a world of warrior women (there is only one Order made up of men); ancient technological artifacts left behind by mysterious visitors from the stars; lush valleys and harsh deserts, and a multitude of cultures. The most obvious inspiration for the world is South Asia, but there are touches of East Asia as well, and the author’s own original inventions.

Once the action in this novel takes off, it really takes off. I hesitate to say too much about the plot, other than this: Marksowman is one of the most strongly plotted novels I’ve read, with twists and turns coming fast and furious. Yet the twists and reveals never come completely out-of-the-blue; the groundwork is carefully set, and each twist makes sense. There is romance amidst the thrills: part of the narrative is given over to Rustan, a young warrior of the only male Order in Asiana. While Kyra and Rustan’s romance is not surprising, it is handled deftly: there’s real chemistry between the characters, and I believed in their relationship and rooted for them.

It’s easy to root for all the characters here (with exception of the villains, of course). Kyra is stubborn, caring, devoted, and just a bit hot-headed. A calmer-seeming (but guilt-stricken and haunted) Rustan is a good foil. These two central characters are surrounded by friends and colleagues who are likeable, entertaining, and/or endearing. And they’re all embedded in a fascinating, intriguing world.

The worst part of this book? It ends on a cliffhanger that just might leave you screaming. The fate of more than one character is left in the air. I am greatly looking forward to more of Kyra and her friends, and to the mysteries of their world, with the sequel.

TLDR: An exciting, swiftly-paced adventure in a truly original world, with intrigue, romance, mystery, and strong characters to cheer on.





Friday, October 13, 2017

New story out: Taiya


A few weeks ago, my latest fiction story was published. It’s called "Taiya," and you can read ihere at The Future Fire. It’s a ghost story set in an imaginary country. And it’s been getting some wonderful reviews.

Maria Haskins included it in her September 2017 Short Fiction Round-up

A.C. Wise featured it (and me!!) in her series, Women to Read: Where to Start: October 2017 post.

The website Lady Business also has a lovely review (warning: spoilers! I’d suggest reading the story first before reading the very perceptive analysis here)

As a writer, I am of course always thrilled by good reviews and attention to any of my stories. But this one is particularly dear to me. I wrote it three years ago, and it was the first story that truly scared me to write. It wasn’t the (named) ghost in the story that scared me. What scared me was the feeling of exposure, of revealing something about myself that I perhaps didn’t want anyone else to see.

This is why some of us  write fiction. Because it lets us talk about truths we could not otherwise say.

I’m so thrilled to see people recognizing the truths in this story. Not only do I have readers who “get it”—some have pointed out truths to me in this story which I didn’t recognize myself, connections which I did not consciously plan but which are obvious in retrospect.Thank you so much to Djibril al-Ayad and the team at The Future Fire for giving this piece a good home (as they have given to other stories of mine!) And thank you to Eric Asaris for the eerie illustration which perfectly catches the mood.

Some notes on inspiration below:

--In the fall of 2014, I had only just learned of the Buddhist concept of Hungry Ghosts. I was fascinated by them—the idea of ghosts ravaged by hunger but unable to satisfy it, cursed with long, thin necks and tiny mouths so they could never eat as much as they wanted even in the face of abundant offerings. I wanted to write a story about them, but I didn’t know how.

--The summer before, I’d been reading a travel blog of Eastern Europe.

--I was taking long walks by myself. I was feeling sad.

Somehow, the idea of Buddhist Hungry Ghosts twisted and changed in my mind: they became not the eaters, but the eaten, ravaged into almost nothingness. And I took these mutant ghosts out of Asia and transplanted them into an imaginary European city. The story poured out in two and a half weeks, which is very quick for me. Then it took three years to sell. It was, for a while, That One Story. (And yes, this was the piece accepted at a new pro-paying market which folded before the story could be published.) But “Taiya” eventually found a home. I'm so happy to see it out in the world..

Update: Yosia Sing has an absolutely lovely review of Taiya up now as well! I really appreciate Sing's perspective here, and am so very very gratified to know that this story resonates.