Our weekly exploration of free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we’ve read that we wanted you to know about.
“The Mouth of the Oyster” by Adam-Troy Castro & Alvaro Zinos-Amaro (Nov. 2017, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 99c Kindle magazine issue)
In the aftermath of a deadly plague that struck their area in ancient China, the narrator and his wife, Li-Fan, are among the survivors. But the plague has left its mark on them: the narrator has lost his sight but is otherwise still a healthy man; Li-Fan is frailer and weakened, especially on her right side. Still, as the couple learns to cope with their disabilities, they realize how lucky they are: their family business flourishes with the plague-caused deaths of many of their competitors, and their physical limitations have caused the couple to draw closer to each other and more in love.
Then one day Li-Fan brings home a man named Jin-Kwon: a maker of eyes. Not just inanimate glass prostheses, but eyes that can actually see. And not just eyes that see, but eyes that will be able to magically view one of life’s facets, whether it be beauty, other men’s desires or weaknesses, or other things:
“In the golden lands, where this technique was perfected, tradesmen used to willingly carve out one of their own eyes, to replace it with one that could better serve their respective professions. Healers implanted eyes that could diagnose illness. Portrait painters implanted eyes with flawless understanding of shading and pigment. Investors implanted eyes that could spot opportunities for profit. Soldiers implanted eyes that could discern the weakest points of their enemy. … The options are limited only to the imagination of the buyer.”
The narrator’s decision-making process is the heart of this story. As he reflects on his options and considers and rejects various choices, he takes into account his wife’s wise counsel. Their meaningful relationship and communication enriched this allegorical tale. His ultimate decision was a surprise in one sense, but the way it played out was predictable ― except that his philosophical musings in the end were a little too esoteric for me to fully appreciate.
“The Şiret Mask” by Marie Brennan (Nov 2017, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 99c Kindle magazine issue)
Brennan has a lot of fun with a classic Mysterious-Master-Thief tale. The Şiret Mask is the newest goal of “that infamous master criminal, Laperi,” he of the “airship full of minions . . . the Vulpe Cerului.” We learn this when, like all good master criminals, Laperi sends a note to the current owner of the mask (the obnoxious brother of our narrator’s good friend) declaring the mask will be his by the end of the Festival of Changes. Brennan offers up an annual masquerade, a mysterious Comte, a cloaked and hatted figure framed against the night, a thief dangling from a rope, plans gone awry, slips of paper tucked away, childhood sweethearts, arrogant nobles, dashes and derring dos …
I’d say the identify of Laperi is predictable, save that Brennan makes no attempt to hide it, letting the reader in on it from the very start (or close to it). The tropes are all here, and the writing is wonderful; I think I might have known that was Brennan even without her name attached; it has that same wonderfully wry and joyful voice from her Lady Trent series. Enjoyable as it is, it’s also a bit frenetic, there’s little true sense of any risk (either of harm or of failure), and there’s not much depth to it — a nice little lark.
“A Vortal in Midtown” by Ashok K. Banker (Nov. 2017, free at Lightspeed, $3.99 Kindle magazine issue)
A vortal (i.e., a vertically integrated portal, whatever that actually means) materializes in New York City, floating six feet above the ground. It slowly grows from microscopic size to pea-size and larger, punching holes in anything that runs into it. When the vortal is orange-sized it causes a vehicle to crash and ends up looking like an odd hole in the cracked windshield of the SUV. Susan Khan, an insurance adjuster, arrives on the scene and notices something strange; when she touches the barely-visible vortal, her hand is stuck. As is the hand of the female NYPD beat cop who tries to remove Susan’s hand from the windshield. And what is it that they sense on the other side of the vortal?
It’s an interesting set up but Banker doesn’t take the speculative element quite far enough, being more interested here in exploring the character of Susan Khan, a Pakistani immigrant and a lesbian, and her interactions with Jenny Smith, the police officer who initially comes off as intolerant but who reveals more depths as the two women deal with this crisis. While the ending of “A Vortal in Midtown” seems to wrap up the tale, Banker indicates in the related Author Spotlight that there’s more to come. The socio-political commentary (diversity: YAY! Bigotry: BOO!) is awfully clunky and in-your-face, but I have to admit I got a little choked up toward the end.
A Human Stain by Kelly Robson (Jan. 2017, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)
This horror novelette is set in a remote German mansion on a lake. A headstrong young woman finds herself down on her luck and being chased by her debts when a good-natured friend offers her a job, which she takes at face value. She has never been a private tutor before, but how difficult could it be to teach a German child English?
The main character of A Human Stain is Helen, a vivacious and clever woman who has, by her own admission, had been travelling quite freely around Europe in wealthy circles until some recent heartbreak. Character-focused stories are by far my favourite kind. The interesting things the reader learns about Helen from her own thoughts, paired with her distinct voice, made for a protagonist I had no problem engaging with. She is not entirely likable, but the arrogance she carries with her was something I thought made her delightfully human.
Unfortunately, this strong main character alone didn’t sustain me through the novelette. The horror is slow to unfold, which was working for me throughout most of the story. The build-up felt meticulously paced and I was certain a great terrifying revelation was coming at the end. What occurred was definitely horrifying, but I had a challenging time parsing it. I found the ending baffling ― here was a story with a palpable building suspense, a clear mystery, and then no culminating moment.
As much as I had liked Helen, I had also looked forward to a horrifying twist ending that never fully materialized.
~ Skye Walker
Sometimes a “bit of a lark” is just the thing, especially when Brennan writes it.
I read “The Şiret Mask” too; it’s a light fantasy crime caper. Fun read, even if there’s not a lot of depth to it.