Best of For our New Year’s Day SHORTS column, we’re listing (in alphabetical order) our favorite short fiction works, both old and new, that we reviewed in our 2017 SHORTS columns and rated 4.5 or 5 stars. The title links are to the original, full SHORTS review.
“Alexandria” by Monica Byrne (2017, Fantasy & Science Fiction Jan/Feb 2017 issue): Byrne’s details paint a full, three-dimensional picture of a marriage; a husband who is not physically demonstrative in public, in-laws who never set aside their suspicions of him, and the love Keiji and Beth feel for each other. I was expecting an interesting story with a lighthouse at its center; I got a powerful meditation on the nature of love.
“As Good as New” by Charlie Jane Anders (2014, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version): A highly amusing mashup of a post-apocalyptic cautionary tale, a primer on how to best use magical wishes, and a commentary on the importance of theater and the arts. A few touching moments and insights are juxtaposed with the humorous critiques of modern entertainment.
“The Autobiography of a Traitor and a Half-Savage” by Alix E. Harrow (Dec. 2016, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version): A beautifully written and richly imagined story, exploring a half-breed Native American’s conflicting emotions and the difficulties of her life in a magical, alternative version of U.S. history.
“Caligo Lane” by Ellen Klages (2014, free online at Subterranean Press, reprinted and free online at Tor.com): What could be dry takes on an unlikely beauty of its own, as mapmaking and origami and the San Francisco fog combine to create a magical work of art that consumes life as well as rescuing it. It’s a haunting and heartfelt tale of love and loss as well as creation.
“The Cask of Amontillado” by Edgar Allan Poe (1846, free at Project Gutenberg): One of Poe’s truly memorable horror stories, a tale of vengeance, and more enigmatic and complex than it appeared to me on first read. Poe, as always, is great at atmosphere and setting. It’s a tense revenge tale with some black humor, and some interesting ambiguities about guilt.
“Come See the Living Dryad” by Theodora Goss (2017, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version): Theodora Goss has written a touching, quietly tragic tale of a woman with Tree Man disease who yearns to be seen as human, not as just a strange curiosity.
“Crispin’s Model” by Max Gladstone (2017, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version): Gladstone plumbs the depths of Lovecraftian mythos, bringing in touches of weird and ultra-weird from the very beginning and gradually ratcheting up the tension and utter strangeness right up until the very end. At the same time, he examines the transformative and transportive power of art.
“Das Steingeschöpf” by G.V. Anderson (2016, free at Strange Horizons, World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction): G.V. Anderson has skillfully combined an unusual type of magic, reminiscent of the Jewish golems, with realistic but enchanting details regarding the carving and repair process, and with the brooding atmosphere of Germany between the world wars. A lovely, poignant tale of love and loss.
“These Deathless Bones” by Cassandra Khaw (2017, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version): Frankly explores the dark side of life with lyrical and expressive writing. It engaged me with its strong-willed and unrepentant protagonist and its gradual and chilling subversion of my expectations.
“The Dragon’s Tears” by Aliette de Bodard (2008, free at Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue): De Bodard channels the Chinese fairy tale traditions, with dragons, ghosts, and brave adventurers, and weaves into them a story based on the Confucian value of caring for your parents when are old. This story is rich in symbolism, weaving together disparate feelings and values like hope, fear, sorrow, sacrifice and love, and exploring how our choices and values may change us.
“The Evaluators: To Trade with Aliens, You Must Adapt” by N.K. Jemisin (2016, free on Wired): N.K. Jemisin has created a race that is truly alien, and realistic misunderstandings and greed play a role in the way events unfold. It’s an intriguing mystery with a subtle element of horror that gradually comes to the fore.
“The Faerie Tree” by Kathleen Kayembe (2017, free at Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue): There’s a gnarled tree in the family’s front yard that’s full of faeries. Marianne thinks about asking the fairies for help getting rid of the beanpole man, but with faeries there’s inevitably a steep price to be paid for any assistance. Marianne’s folksy voice rings true, and her plight and willingness to sacrifice for her sister’s sake hits home.
“From the Editorial Page of the Falchester Weekly Review” by Marie Brennan (2016, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version): The primary concern in this epistolary story is Lady Trent’s unstoppable quest for scientific knowledge (and her unflappable wit). And the concluding letter is the perfect capstone to this little tête-à-tête.
“In the Shade of the Pixie Tree” by Rodello Santos (2017, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 99c Kindle magazine issue): The weather, the section titles and the way they shift across the page (reflecting the non-linear timeline of the story), and the gradual reveal of the nature of the pair’s distress and Bekka’s reaction to it, make this short story delightful to unpack.
“A Kiss With Teeth” by Max Gladstone (2014, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle Version): A vampire masquerades as human in order to be an ordinary husband and father. He isn’t blending in to feast on blood or evade capture, but simply to give his wife and especially his son a fighting chance at normalcy. What unfolds isn’t so much normal as delightfully odd.
The Litany of Earth by Ruthanna Emrys (2014, free on Tor.com, 99c Kindle version): Lovecraft’s body of work makes for interesting reading and, obviously, is a tremendous influence on modern horror, but the current manifestation of “Lovecraftiana” is a much-needed shift toward inclusivity for the genre.
The Man Who Painted The Dragon Griaule by Lucius Shepard (1984, free sample story at Baen, Hugo and Nebula nominee (novelette), World Fantasy Award nominee (novella)): It’s a fanciful world, filled with wondrous, lively details that make this novelette highly readable. Shepard has created a complex, layered story filled with ideas and symbols that are a delight to try to unpack.
“Margin of Error” by Nancy Kress (2003, free sample story at Baen): Deals with humanity’s use of nanotechnology, its drawbacks as well as its benefits. This story packs a particularly serious punch, one that has remained with me through the years
“Masked” by Rich Larson (2016, free at Apex, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue): What I loved about “Masked”, aside from the concept, which is richly cast and budding with detail, was the way Larson captures so well the bitchy, selfish but ultimately vulnerable spirit of the young woman, even inventing a slang dialogue that really brought her and her friends to life.
The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang (2007, free at Web Archive): Arabian Nights meets time travel in this Hugo and Nebula award-winning novelette. Ted Chiang channels the Persian storytelling style so well, while offering insights into life, time, repentance and forgiveness.
“Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch,” Kelly Barnhill (2014, free on Tor.com, 99c Kindle version): This is a charming story about faith and the bone-deep satisfaction of achieving your heart’s true desire, a story which grows sweeter with every time that I read it.
“Our Talons Can Crush Galaxies” by Brooke Bolander (2016, free at Uncanny Magazine; $3.99 Kindle magazine issue, Hugo and Nebula award winner (short story)): Equal parts brutal and interesting, it’s also a haunting take on what it means when we choose the stories that get told. I loved this very short story from beginning to end, as it spoke to me with a voice I didn’t know I needed to hear.
“The Pirate Captain’s Daughter” by Yoon Ha Lee (2009, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies): I was enchanted by Lee’s words and imagery. Even though it is a strange and fanciful world that Lee has created, he grounds it with the real struggles of a young girl to find her place, and the anxious oversight of a parent who knows better than to interfere.
“Probably Still the Chosen One” by Kelly Barnhill (2017, free at Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue): There are some distinct and surely deliberate echoes of the Narnia tales, but Kelly Barnhill has created an original, humorous twist on the classic tropes that I found absolutely delightful.
Red as Blood and White as Bone by Theodora Goss (2016, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version): A kind of reinterpreted fairy tale, but one which draws more on the style of those tales than on a specific story. The plot is imaginative and engrossing and, paired with the complex protagonist, makes for an engaging short read.
“Red Bark and Ambergris” by Kate Marshall (2017, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 99c Kindle magazine issue): Marshall’s writing is vivid and evocative, befitting a main character whose talent lies in the sense of smell, and insightful as to human emotions and relationships. The unexpected ending of this story was a master stroke, bittersweet and brilliant.
“Report” by Donald Barthelme (1967, originally published in the New Yorker, free at Jessamyn.com): “Report” is an anti-war story, but if offers other observations about mid-20th century living, and human nature. “Report” rewards the reader upon rereading, if only for the weird and brilliant prose.
“A Rose for Ecclesiastes” by Roger Zelazny (1963, text and audio free on EscapePod, Hugo nominee (short fiction)): This story is charmingly dated, both in some of its social references and especially in that it features a highly developed civilization of human-like Martians. Still, it’s a well-deserved SF classic. Roger Zelazny’s writing is wonderfully rich, immersing the reader in a world that’s both strange and strangely familiar.
“Second Person, Present Tense” by Daryl Gregory (2005, free in print and audio at Clarkesworld): A story about consciousness and self-identity and how they might be shifted when brain chemistry is altered. There are questions about consciousness that neuroscience hasn’t been able to answer and they can be frightening to think about. Here Daryl Gregory turns them into a twisty heart-wrenching story.
“The Secret Life of Bots” by Suzanne Palmer (2017, free at Clarkesworld): Neatly plotted, with a memorable and appealing main character, and a pleasing theme that touches on friendship, courage and ingenuity. Fans of WALL-E will particularly appreciate this whimsically poignant tale about an outdated robot with a can-do attitude.
“The Shark God’s Child” by Jonathan Edelstein (2017, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 99c Kindle magazine issue): This story is set in a fascinating world, a kind of cross between the world of Ursula Le Guin’s EARTHSEA CYCLE and the short Pixar film Lava, a Micronesian-like archipelago where the islands are gods/heroes long ago turned to stone, though once every hundred years or so an island god awakens and returns to the stars, a cataclysmic event for those living on the island.
“Singing of Mount Abora” by Theodora Goss (2006, free at Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue, World Fantasy Award (short story)): Kamora’s story reads like an authentic fairy tale, and Sabra’s story is brimming with the small, sometimes painful details that make her human and sympathetic. As the two stories to connect together through Coleridge, a woman with a dulcimer, and a name of an empress, I was caught in the enchanting web Goss wove.
“State Change” by Ken Liu (2004, free on the author’s website): Beyond the obvious symbolism of the main idea, which Ken Liu explores in various delightful ways, I love the way he ties in the lives of famous people, whose genius is reflected in the way they handle and use their souls. It’s a gentle tale, told with affectionate sympathy.
Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang (1998, Sturgeon and Nebula award winner (novella)): What really struck me about this story was how intensely seriously Chiang treats his subject matter. I really believed that if aliens do choose to communicate with us this story is an accurate representation of what could come next.
“Sun, Moon, Dust” by Ursula Vernon (2017, free at Uncanny Magazine, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue): On her deathbed, Allpa’s fierce grandmother gives him a magical sword with the spirits of three beings bound to it, promising that the spirits of Sun, Moon, and Dust will teach him to fight. A charming tale about taking pride in things one enjoys doing, even if those activities don’t seem likely to bring fame and glory upon one’s head.
“The Things My Mother Left Me” by P. Djéli Clark (2016, free at Fantasy magazine, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue): Using African folklore as an inspiration, Clark creates an enchanting but forbidding world that contains glorious emerald cats and winged baboons, but also broken moons and Witch Hunters in black robes who execute magic users.
“Usher II” by Ray Bradbury (1950, audio recording by Leonard Nimoy): An homage to Edgar Allan Poe‘s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “The Cask of Amontillado” and several other classic fantasy and horror works. Bradbury’s lyrical, evocative language lends itself well to the plot. It’s darkly enjoyable to watch Stendahl and his friend Pike, an out-of-work character actor, execute their twisted and vengeful plans.
“Utopia, LOL?” by Jamie Wahls (2017, free on Strange Horizons): An absolutely delightful story. Kit is a truly hilarious narrator whose commentary and digital side conversations with Allocator make for one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time. There’s a heartwarming and poignant conclusion to the tale, giving it an unexpected depth.
The Waiting Stars by Aliette de Bodard (2013, free to read online or download on author’s website, Nebula award winner and Hugo award nominee (novelette)): It’s highly imaginative in its portrayal of two vastly societies who have clashed with each other in war, both believing they are right. This novelette explores themes of imperialism and cultural deprivation, but does so with a grace and subtlety that is too often lacking in speculative fiction.
“The Walking-Stick Forest” by Anna Tambour (2014, free on Tor.com, 99c Kindle version): This is an excellent dark and fantastical short story, set in 1924 in Scotland. I loved the plot and feel of this dark and disturbing fantasy, and Tambour’s lyrical writing, which evoked a strong sense of time and place.
“Welcome To Your Authentic Indian Experience™” by Rebecca Roanhorse (2017, free at Apex Magazine, $2.99 Kindle magazine issue): A chilling take on tourism and the degradation of native cultures. When Jesse befriends one of his customers both in the virtual world and in the flesh, things start to go wrong for him. He is caught in a bewildering spiral in which reality and virtual reality become increasingly confused.
“Willing” by Premee Mohamed (2017, anthologized in Principia Ponderosa, $3.99 Kindle ebook): The theme of “Willing” is in the title; to what lengths will you go for love? And the language of “Willing” is deep, precise and beautiful, slipping between down-to-earth ranch talk and surreal, frightening beauty.