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.
“The Dryad’s Shoe” by T. Kingfisher (2014, free at Fantasy magazine, $2.99 at Amazon for magazine issue)
“The Dryad’s Shoe” is a charming Cinderella retelling that features Hannah, a young woman who is far more interested in gardens and bees than fancy gowns and dukes’ sons. When the local duke holds a masquerade ball for his son, an enchanted titmouse informs Hannah that a nearby dryad-tree wants to grant the girl gifts of spectacular dresses so that she might meet the Duke’s son. Hannah, ever practical, uses the gown as a bartering tool with a servant girl, who allows Hannah access to the Duke’s orangery in exchange for the gown so she can attend the ball. More balls follow, and more dresses, and practical Hannah takes her destiny into her own dirt-encrusted hands.
“There’s going to be a third dress,” said the titmouse finally. “Dryads like things that come in threes.” “Poison ivy comes in threes.” “Magic’s similar. You don’t notice you’ve run into it, and then it itches you for weeks.”
T. Kingfisher includes many familiar aspects of various Cinderella tales such as the magical bird, an enchanted tree, and of course the finery and frippery. Her portrayal of the stepmother and stepsister characters is even-handed and realistic: the stepmother isn’t evil, simply uninterested in Hannah, and the older stepsister shares that disinterest. The younger, Anabel, is kind-hearted and has an excellent eye for stitchery. Hannah’s stubborn refusal to give up her passion for plants in favor of mooning over the Duke’s son was refreshing and funny without seeming repetitive or heavy-handed. Kingfisher’s writing is simultaneously straightforward and clever, hiding little twists of language and humor in a story which could entertain children as easily as adults. ~Jana Nyman
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Tadiana’s review of “The Dryad’s Shoe”:
What if Cinderella were more interested in gardening than in dancing and dresses and noblemen’s sons? Sometimes it’s difficult to do your own thing when the world ― or your fairy godmother/dryad in the tree ― wants you to do or be something else. But a girl who’s sufficiently determined can figure out a way.
“Why didn’t you go to the ball?” squawked the bird. “That was the point!”
Hannah rolled her eyes. “Don’t be ridiculous. What would I do at a ball? A bunch of people standing around being snippy at each other and not talking about anything of any purpose. I caught a bit of it from the servants as I was passing through the manor. No thank you.”
“There’s dancing, though!”
“I don’t dance,” said Hannah shortly. “Dancing’s not a thing you just pick up in a garden.”
This is a humorous and quirky tale, with several twists on the old fairy tale. The snippy conversations between Hannah and the magical titmouse sent by the sentimental dryad are entertaining, and it’s heartening to see Hannah stick to her guns and continue pursuing her own dreams. “The Dryad’s Shoe” is a bit one-note, but it’s an entertaining read and carries a positive message. ~Tadiana Jones
“Charlotte Incorporated” by Rachael K. Jones (2016, free at Lightspeed Magazine, $3.99 at Amazon for magazine issue)
This is an intriguing little story set in a society divided into “incorporated” — those with bodies — and “Unincorporated” — those who are “brains in a jar” given temporary bodies (sometimes not even whole ones) in order to do their jobs. The main character has been saving for years, working hard, to get herself a custom body, “something completely unique.” When an accident throws a monkey wrench into her plans to “do it the old-fashioned way,” she turns to the black market, leading to a difficult decision.
What makes this story work is the sharply vivid detail Jones employs throughout, making Charlotte and her hopes come wholly to life. One sees the detail in how she tweaks her body’s design (“thickening toes, brightening the little white crescent moons at the base of the nails …”), her wonderfully unexpected “favorite expression … When she is incorporated she’ll frown all the time, and no one will be able to tell her no”), the lovely precision of the unincorporated keeping cacti, and her complaints about what the online sims lack: “hey don’t make puddle-stomping apps or mud pie-tasting apps. No one writes programs that let you run with a grocery cart down the cereal aisle, then coast on the back axle until you hit the shelf.” Her dream of the body she wishes also comes as a beautifully phrased surprise:
Charlotte’s corpus will be sixty years old, because she loves the way corpi droop at that age. Sort of like weeping willows. She’ll store extra fuel in thick padding on her belly, waist, and hips. Her black skin will be prone to flaking because Charlotte plans to try every scent of lotion they sell . . . Her hair will be thick, black, kinky, and unruly — like dendrites — and she’ll never try to tame it.
The end is a bit flat and anticlimactic, and a plot point is presented as if it should be a real shock when really it’s hard to imagine it not having at least occurred to Charlotte. But the great detailed imagery outweighs the few plotting issues, making “Charlotte Incorporated” a success. ~Bill Capossere
“Tom, Thom” by K.M. Ferebee (2016, free at Tor.com, $0.99 at Amazon)
This is a poignant tale set in post-World War II-era England. Young Tom and his widowed mother live in a small town near the North Sea, near a dark forest, where Tom is not allowed to wander.
The truth is that he is afraid of the forest. He dreams of wolves filling it. Fast silver wolves, loping and silent. They slope between the evergreens and birch. They pant into air grown sweet with frost. They go in packs. Their eyes are gold. Their backs are brindled.
When Tom complains about his dreams to his mother, she comforts him that there are no wolves in the wood, that no wolves are left in England at all, but Tom knows better. One day a wolfish shadow touches Tom outside. When he goes into his home, a changeling is sitting on his bed.
K.M. Ferebee’s story has several twists on the standard changeling legends: Tom’s mother recognizes her true son, not confusing him with the changeling. Although it’s not entirely clear why, at least at first, Tom has not been taken by the “other folk” that left the changeling in his home. And the changeling, though wild in his eating habits, is quiet and withdrawn. He insists that his name is Tom as well, and Tom’s mother kindly agrees, convincing a reluctant Tom to go along with it by suggesting that the changeling be called Thom with an H. He and his mother protect Thom from superstitious and unkind villagers, and Tom and Thom grow closer. But Thom, physically, isn’t well, and Tom … still dreams of wolves.
This story has much of the same mythic feel and evocative writing as Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, and a similar sense of unease and haunting ambiguity. I actually thought that this ambiguity worked better in short story form than in a full-length novel, though that may be my own personal preference at work. In any case, this is a lovely, bittersweet tale. ~Tadiana Jones
“Monstrous Embrace” by Rachel Swirsky (2008, reprinted 2016, free at Lightspeed Magazine, $3.99 at Amazon for magazine issue)
Rachel Swirsky takes an old fairy tale trope — the marriage of a prince — and turns it more than a little askew by offering up a POV from Ugliness itself, who offers this self-description to open the story:
“I am ugliness in body and bone, breath and heartbeat. I am muddy rocks and jagged scars snaking across salt-brown fields. I am insect larvae wriggling inside the great dead beast into which they were born . . . Ugliness is my gaze, boring into you like a worm into rotting fruit.”
All this as prelude to its offer to wed the prince rather than his betrothed, whom, Ugliness warns, is not what she appears to be (Ugliness, on the other hand, is exactly what it appears to be). This is also the a nice twist on the old prince must marry someone ugly who will eventually turn out to be beautiful — there is a promise of transformation here, but not from ugly to beautiful.
I mostly liked the narrative voice here: its richness and sophistication and the way it moves so smoothly between past (the story of how the prince met his betrothed and her story before then), present (the eve of the wedding), and the future (what will happen if he marries the princess, and what would happen if he marries Ugliness instead). On the other hand, it does sometimes toe a mighty fine line between captivatingly poetic and ponderously elaborate. And it’s the kind of story that doesn’t bear too close a scrutiny with regard to several aspects, such as the seemingly binary nature of beauty/ugliness (for instance, are swamps really only ugly?). But if one can set aside the instinct to think too hard on this, and can just revel in the voice and premise, then “Monstrous Embrace” is a winner. ~Bill Capossere
“So Strange the Trees” by James Lecky (2015, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies, $0.99 at Amazon for magazine issue)
“So Strange the Trees” tells the story of short, gloomy Alquen, the master duelist, and his first brush with love. He catches the eye of one of Parasheeva’s Blossoms, an adept of a virgin cult, and they fall in love. Their relationship is doomed, though, by the vow she took when she joined Parasheeva’s Blossoms.
I liked this story—the writing was fluid and poetic, and the conclusion simple but powerful. I wish the characters had been more unusual, rather than functioning more as archetypes. And I wish the setting — a Renaissance-esque society in love with death, situated on a planet whose sun is on the brink of death — had been explored more fully. Still, if James Lecky writes more in this world, I will read it. ~Kate Lechler
Bill, I read “Monstrous Embrace” after reading your review. I liked the creative and interesting twist of having Ugliness personified tell the tale, and that there would be no easy out for the prince even if he heeded Ugliness’ call. I’m not so much a fan of the “Lady or the Tiger” ending.
Yes, the ending was one of those weaker aspects I had in mind. And I agree, I like how the option to marry ugliness was much more complex in terms of results than one might expect from a story like this.