A female pirate captain sails the Unwritten Sea on her ship, the Improbable Dragon. Her crew includes her daughter, who is still unnamed despite growing into a young woman, for the Unwritten Sea has its laws and traditions, and a pirate must have the soul of a poet, and write a poem to the sea with enough power in it to move a ship. But the pirate’s daughter knows that she is no poet, and despite assiduous practicing and countless tries, nothing she writes can even move a toy boat across a small pot of water. If she can’t succeed, she will have to leave the ship for a life on land, parted from her mother and the seagoing life she loves.
Although this tale is fairly straightforward at its heart, Yoon Ha Lee’s language is magical:
No one traveled the Unwritten Sea save by poetry. For the little fisher-boats that never ventured far from shore, a scrap of chant handed down from parent to child might suffice. For the dhows and junks that ventured into the sea’s storms, cobwebbing the paths of trade between continents, more sophisticated poetry was required: epics in hexameter, verses structured around jagged caesuras; elegantly poised three-line poems with the placement of alliterating syllables strictly dictated. A poem would guide a ship only so far ahead and no farther, and one had to use a fitting poem for the weather, the currents, the tides, the color of light on the foam and the smell of the wind.
I was enchanted by his 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. The ending had me off Googling an unfamiliar word that is key to the resolution of the story, but once I understood that word better, I found the resolution of the story unexpectedly fitting.
This short story was a finalist for the 2010 WSFA Small Press Award. ~Tadiana Jones
“Nine” is set in the Star Motel outside Phoenix in 1902. The motel, “the only formal place for colored folks to stay headed west on the lonely, desert highway,” is run by three tough women who have a past of their own: Tanner (“round as a dishpan, wide as the door”), Flo (who “arrived with a belly brimming over its due date … out of the swamps of Florida”) and Jessie (“good at disappearing inside herself”). That past comes back to haunt them on one of their regular Friday “jook” nights (“Single people always ran off the job on Fridays, soon as the boss paid them”) in both violent and supernatural fashion, which is all I’ll say about it so as to avoid spoilers.
I loved the voice, tone, atmosphere, and characters of “Nine.” Jones does an excellent job creating a sense of time and place, and there’s a nice understated matter-of-factness to the diversity of the characters, as in this description of Tanner — “None of them had the nerve to ask her if she was a man or a woman, but she saw their longways looks anytime she entered a room” ― or this one of Flo: “[She] could outlast a man [and] openly bedded other women.” I also liked the use of magic (‘juju”) in the story, the way it is woven into their lives so naturally.
That said, what prevented this from being an excellent story for me was the plot, which felt a bit flat, too nebulous, and ended just a bit too abruptly. But I’d certainly be interested in reading another Kima Jones story. ~Bill Capossere
The narrator, his wife Leah, and Gregory and Camille, an engaged couple, take a vacation trip to a cabin by a lake. The four of them are in a poly relationship, and are looking forward to four days of swimming, walking, drinking and sex. But their vacation takes an unexpected detour when Gregory steps into a fairy ring of small red and white mushrooms ― and disappears. The other three rally from their shock and take an amusingly logical approach to solving the problem. But once in Fairyland, you have to play by the rules … unless you can find a way to bend or break them.
Despite some ominous undertones, this is generally an amusing story, with lots of affectionate banter between the four characters. They’re all likeable, and Tim Pratt deserves credit for making their poly relationship actually relevant and integral to the plot of the story. ~Tadiana Jones
“Assassins” by Jack Skillingstead and Burt Courtier (Feb. 2017, free at Clarkesworld)
“Assassins” has an intriguing premise—the titular character performs her killings not in the real world but in the “vast meta story that was Labyrinthiad.” Its brevity (under 3000 words) robbed the story of some of its potential, I thought, as a few points felt they skimmed the surface a bit too much or were a little inconsistent with other points in the story. And there’s an unfortunate moment where the character does something dumb in order for the plot to progress. But it’s fluidly told and, as noted, I did like the premise, though I wish more had been done with it. ~Bill Capossere