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.

“A Recipe for Magic” by Kat Howard and Fran Wilde (2017, free at Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy blog, free to download for Nook)

“A Recipe for Magic,” co-written by Kat Howard and Fran Wilde, features a curious kind of shop: at the Night and Day Bakery, magic spells are baked directly into pastries and confections, affecting both the baker/spellcrafter and the consumer of that treat. The level of artistry and skill affect the level of magic within the cookies or pie, and even an oven’s willingness to heat properly depends on the magic user. Esmé, who owns the bakery, has taken Lux in as an apprentice, despite the young girl’s impatience and willingness to cut corners; Lux is running from a dark event in her past, and until she confronts what happened, nothing she tries to bake or imbue with magic will come out quite right.

I enjoyed the underpinning concept, particularly with Esmé’s recurring reminders to have patience and to balance sweetness with bitterness, which are important things for anyone to remember both in baking and in life. Esmé’s point of view is the strongest, and I wish more of the story had been told from her perspective so that readers could have a better understanding for the unique elements of this world that are taken for granted. Lux’s backstory is a little convoluted at first, and the reasons for her behavior remain slightly murky. But I’d gladly read more stories set in this world, especially if they featured more charming illustrations by Wendy Xu. ~Jana Nyman

“Bitter Grounds” by Neil Gaiman (2003, free at Tor.com, originally published in Fragile Things collection)

In every way that counted, I was dead. Inside somewhere maybe I was screaming and weeping and howling like an animal, but that was another person deep inside, another person who had no access to the face and lips and mouth and head, so on the surface I just shrugged and smiled and kept moving.

He’s a man running away from his life (there are hints of a failed relationship), driving away from his home and then continuing to just drive, throwing his cell phone out of the car window, withdrawing all of his money from his accounts. He meets a stranger along the way, Jackson Anderton, an anthropologist who studies young Haitian girls who sold coffee door-to-door and were rumored to be zombies. When Anderton mysteriously disappears, the man gathers Anderton’s ID and scholarly papers and slips into Anderton’s role as an attendee and presenter at an anthropologists’ conference in New Orleans. There he meets more people who drift in and out of his life, each sharing cynical or disturbing thoughts or ideas or other things that seem to pull the narrator further along his path toward some destiny that awaits him.

 People come into your life for a reason.

“Bitter Grounds” is Neil Gaiman‘s bleak take on Haitian zombies in a New Orleans setting. I have to say, my first read of it has left me massively bewildered, flailing around on the internet in an attempt to make sense of what I had just read. It’s an elusive, subtle horror story, with hints of death and rot, grim humor, and quotes from Zora Neale Hurston, an African American author, folklorist and anthropologist, woven into the mix.

“Bitter Grounds” is a Gaiman story (like “A Study in Emerald”) that has layers and elements that reveal themselves more fully with study and rereading. A fan of Hurston or Haitian voodoo would doubtless find fruitful ground here. I would love to discuss and unpack this story in a literature course, complete with a study guide and a knowledgeable professor to help explain and analyze its elements. Even reading it twice, I felt like I was missing a lot … but I appreciated what I was able to catch. ~Tadiana Jones

“Big Girl” by Meg Ellison (Nov/Dec 2017, Fantasy and Science Fiction)

Meg Ellison’s story doesn’t have a problem-solving plot. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Franz Kafka, Ellison conceives of a transformation that is never explained, and studies its effect on the subject, a fifteen-year-old Oakland, California girl named Bianca, and the people around her. The story is concretely told. It takes us deeply into Bianca’s sense of isolation, and into the world of the internet.

Bianca wakes up one morning and discovers she is 350 feet tall, naked, and standing in the San Francisco Bay. The story intersperses Bianca’s reactions (she is baffled, and when planes and ships start arriving, she is embarrassed to be naked), with internet responses, news briefs and some excerpts from “redacted” files. Municipalities and local jurisdictions squabble over what’s to be done, an anonymous law enforcement source points out that at her size she isn’t a girl, “she’s a threat,” and nameless people on the internet make sexual jokes about the terrified teenager. When she is first reported, local news outlets describe her as a “sex doll” sculpture, before they realize she is a living person. The back and forth is smooth and plausible.

As Bianca struggles to find her place, the story dips into fan-fiction-pornography and the whining of faceless interneters who resent that they can’t post sexually suggestive pictures of her whenever they want. The story moves strictly into Bianca’s point of view for quite a while; we see her figuring out how to survive and coming to grips with absolute isolation and loneliness. The story could have ended there but Ellison chooses to move it on and show us other changes in Bianca’s life. The story ends on a dreamlike fantastical note that approaches magical realism. (I say that as a fan of magical realism.) One of the best parts of the story is the way Ellison thinks about size; she mentions that Bianca, who is cold, has goose-bumps the size of Canada geese, a nice bit.

The story is strange and slippery, pulling me right in. It’s a story that left me thinking at the end about women, and about what makes us “us.” ~Marion Deeds

“The Tablet of Scaptur” by Julia Keller (Nov. 2017, free at Tor.com, 99c Kindle version)

Earth has become “a dark and dangerous place” in the 23rd century, a ruined world, and so one group of people has built a floating civilization high in the air above Earth, which they call New Earth. Life is definitely easier there for the privileged, but ― for reasons that are never fully explained in this story ― everyone has a small chip in their elbow, called the Intercept, that tracks whenever they are feeling strong emotions.

When Violet, the 15 year old main character, is handed a rock from Mars with mysterious markings on it, given to her by a desperate woman on the run, she calls her group of friends together to try to figure out what the markings mean … both their literal meaning as well as their import for New Earth. This group of teenagers, together with the improbably brilliant 7 year old sister of one of the gang, bands together to outwit adults and, perhaps, save the world? Or possibly they’re making a huge mistake. (But probably not, since teenagers are invariably smarter than adults in these fictional YA scenarios.)

“The Tablet of Scaptur” has some imaginative moments, but is also highly implausible, and relies on timeworn tropes like the genius child (who solves puzzles overnight that take trained adults months) and teenagers who save the day. This SF short story is a lead-in to Julia Keller’s new YA novel from Tor, The Dark Intercept. “The Tablet of Scaptur” is semi-standalone; the overarching plotline is not in any way resolved. But as an introduction to this world to help readers decide whether the novel is going to interest them, I’d say this story does the job. ~Tadiana Jones

“The Skull” by Philip K. Dick (1952, free at Project Gutenberg, originally published in If magazine)

In the 22nd century, a council of powerful men has lost patience with a pacifist movement, embodied in a religion called the First Church. They view this movement as having led to the non-violent but ― according to the Council ― stagnant society in the USA of their time. After all, they reason, war isn’t so bad; it’s a useful way to eliminate the incompetent and unfit.

The Council determines that the best way to solve their problem is to use their handy-dandy time travel machine and send someone back to assassinate the founder of this movement before he makes his world-changing speech in the 1960s. They find a prisoner named Conger and offer him a Get Out of Jail Free card if he’ll travel back in time and kill the Founder before he can make this speech. No one knows the Founder’s name or his prior history; he appeared out of the blue one day. But since he died in custody after giving his single groundbreaking speech, the Council is able to steal his skeleton. Conger carries the skull back in time with him to help him figure out who the right guy is, so he can kill him and bring back the new skull for comparison, and the Council can be duly satisfied that he’s killed their man.

I saw where the plot of “The Skull” was going from the very start, so it’s rather predictable in that sense. While the skull is a colorful (and ghoulish) touch, it seems a stretch that a two century year old skull would be all that helpful in identifying a living man. And the implications of the Council having a time machine at their disposal were never really explored; it’s just the means to an end for Philip K. Dick. But what was surprising, and rather interesting, is that the story turned out to be a modern-day [HIGHLIGHT TO REVEAL SPOILER]recasting of the role and message of Jesus Christ. If you read this 1952 short story, keep your eyes open for hints and connections. ~Tadiana Jones


  • Jana Nyman

    JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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  • Tadiana Jones

    TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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  • Marion Deeds

    Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town.

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