There is so much free or inexpensive short fiction available on the internet these days. Here are a few stories we read this week that we wanted you to know about. 

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“Tea Time” by Rachel Swirsky (2015, free at Lightspeed Magazine)

A wonderfully impressionistic examination of one small cranny of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. In this case, the focus is on the eternal tea party held by the two lovers—the March Hare and the Mad Hatter, who speak to each other only in quotations, and who must face the possibility of slain Time being resurrected.

I thoroughly enjoyed this story. First, as a sucker for structure and experimentation, I loved the non-linear nature of it, the sudden shifts and veers, the many allusions and quotations, the inclusion of several parodies of poems from the source work and a run of riddles. In true impressionistic fashion, one can let it just wash over you and build up into a feeling as much as a story.

One reason this works so well, what keeps it from turning into abstract self-indulgent “mush,” is the sharp detail used throughout, whether it is in the specific types of tea being consumed (Lapsang Souchong, Earl Grey, Assam) or the description of various types of hats (“Felt derbies in charcoal and camel and black … Gibuses covered in corded silk for nights at the theatre … The ratty purple silk top hat, banded with russet brocade, that he keeps by his bedside”).

What also prevents this from becoming simple wordplay is the surprising depth of characterization Swirsky creates in just under 5000 words, as when, for instance, she describes the Hatter’s frustrations at his customers’ orders:

A hatter should never be forced to construct hats at the behest of a deck of cards … Hats, always red and black, black and red. The hatter tried to give them vibrant yellows and restful blues, verdant greens and shimmering purples. When that failed to appeal, he offered hues only slightly off-true. Why not wear a scarlet bonnet or a crimson coronet with wired vermillion lace? …

Certainly not, the cards replied, clutching their hearts and diamonds, brandishing their clubs and spades. …

Who would not go mad from monotony as much as mercury? Day after day, an endless scape of red and black, black and red, black, black, red, red, black, red, black, red, black.

As playful as it all is, as witty the lines, as fun as it is to see glimpses of other Carroll characters — Alice, the Cheshire Cat — there’s a true emotional weight to the tale, and some thoughtful exploration of time and love. And tea of course. A uniquely enjoyable read. ~Bill Capossere

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsMagic Stars by Ilona Andrews (2015, $1.99 at Amazon)

Magic Stars begins the new GREY WOLF series, a spin-off of Ilona Andrews’ KATE DANIELS series, in which Derek, a 20 year old shapeshifter who can turn into a wolf, takes center stage, although fans of Kate and Curran will be pleased to know that they make a brief appearance. This novella gets off to a jump start, with Derek on a job, tracking down a group of men who murdered an entire family. Derek’s actions when he finds the men are a mix of interrogation and revenge. He elicits the information that the men were after a mysterious glowing rock in the Ives family’s possession, on orders from a local warlock, but they were unable to find the rock. As Derek approaches the Ives home a little later, he finds more trouble: three unfamiliar shapeshifters looting the home (the warlock is extremely determined to get hold of this rock fragment) and 16 year old Julie, Kate Daniels’ adopted daughter, also looking for the rock. And that’s only the beginning of this night’s troubles. It’s frankly amazing, how much near-fatal trouble Derek and Julie get into in one night.

The excitement level in Magic Stars is high, with one magical peril quickly succeeding another, although the climactic scene felt just a little flat to me. The Andrews’ urban fantasy works are not necessarily deep or profound, but they are very well crafted and action-packed. Their world-building is excellent, becoming more intriguing and complex with each succeeding book, and with characters who are tough (both mentally and physically) and sympathetic but have human — or inhuman — flaws. Derek is embittered because of some painful past experiences that have left him deeply scarred, while Julie is accepting instruction in magic from one of Kate’s most terrible enemies, rationalizing that it’s a necessary risk and that she needs to learn more about both this enemy and his magic. *cue heavy foreshadowing of future troubles*

You will want to have read at least a few books in the KATE DANIELS series before you take on Magic Stars, the more the better, since there are several spoilers for key events from that series in this 64-page novella. ~Tadiana Jones

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Price You Pay is Red by Carlie St. George (2015, free at The Book Smugglers)

The second novelette in Carlie St. George’s SPINDLE CITY MYSTERIES trilogy, The Price You Pay is Red, finds Jimmy Prince investigating the murder of Sarah “Snow” White, renowned actress and heiress to the WH Pharmaceuticals fortune. The first installment (The Case of the Little Bloody Slipper) incorporated elements of the Cinderella story, and this installment features everything one could expect from Snow White: a stepmother, a huntsman, a fair maiden, a mirror, two dwarves, and a nightclub called The Poisoned Apple. The wasting disease known as The Needles still runs rampant throughout Spindle City, and WH Pharmaceuticals, which has a monopoly on the medication that treats this disease, may not be exactly on the level when it comes to putting altruism before profits.

The “detective story” aspects of the series take center stage in this novelette, which may not work for some readers, but hit all the right buttons for me. Readers are also given a closer look at Prince’s personal life and his motivations, particularly his desire to distance himself from his wealthy parents. However, The Price You Pay is Red suffers a little from “middle child” issues — closing up plot threads from The Case of the Little Bloody Slipper and setting up the finale in The Long and Silent Ever After while simultaneously dealing with the murder of a famous actress AND further developments with The Needles. If you know fairy tales, you may guess Whodunit pretty quickly, but the Why and How play out very nicely. There’s a lot going on (almost too much), and some of the noir-style trappings feel more forced than they did in the first installment, but the characters and setting are compelling enough to compensate. ~Jana Nyman

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews“The Secrets of the Universe” by Kat Otis (2015, free at Daily Science Fiction)

The challenge for any writer working with Daily Science Fiction is its word length restriction ― 1500 words maximum. Within that fairly tight demand Kat Otis delivers a sweet fantasy story. Contessina is a young woman coming of age in a second-world universe that could be 15th century Florence. In the first paragraph we learn that Contessina’s brother Piero encountered a god, who gave him keys. Keys, says Contessina, are the domain of women. Contessina then recounts the keys she’s been given since she was a little girl: the key to her dowry chest, the key to the kitchen, the key to the garden because a woman cannot walk freely about the city; she’ll damage her reputation. She is every inch the privileged aristocratic daughter, ready to be married off to an old but wealthy merchant, but there are depths and dreams to Contessina that only her brother (and the cook) know of.

Otis deftly handles the language in this tale, and I would have liked to have seen more of the world she created here. The character of Contessina is well defined in a few brief paragraphs and even Piero, who is clearly a secondary character, is well drawn in a few sentences. This didn’t leave me questioning the assumptions of my life or change my world, but I enjoyed the way Otis revealed volumes with simple sentences, and I found the tale simply charming. ~Marion Deeds