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.
“Jackalope Wives” by Ursula Vernon (2014, free at Apex Magazine, podcast available)
Ursula Vernon’s “Jackalope Wives” is the winner of this year’s Nebula Award and World Fantasy Award for short story and deservedly so. It certainly has my vote. It isn’t clear where the story is set. All we know is that on the outskirts of town lies a desert, and in the desert the jackalope wives comes out at night to dance a wild dance. What are jackalope wives? This isn’t immediately clear, we are drip fed tantalising details of their long ears and smooth coats which they shed in order to dance. They entrance the young men of the town and one in particular. But what happens when you catch a jackalope wife is not what you might expect and wise grandmas must come to the rescue of foolish boys. I was entranced by this story, by the jackalope wives, by the irascible grandma and by the other strange creatures we meet on the way. From the first line “the moon came up and the sun went down” I felt plunged into the world which I imagined full of moonlight and the songs of animals. There wasn’t a line I didn’t enjoy, an absolute pleasure to read. ~Katie Burton
When the sun goes down and the moon comes up, the jackalope wives take off their rabbit skins and dance in the moonlight to the notes of wild music. (“And now you will ask me about the musicians that played for the jackalope wives. Well, if you can find a place where they’ve been dancing, you might see something like sidewinder tracks in the dust, and more than that I cannot tell you. The desert chews its secrets right down to the bone.”) But, so the story goes, if a man steals a jackalope wife’s rabbit skin and burns it, the jackalope wife will stay in human form and he can keep her. Grandma Harken’s moody, semi-magical grandson tries to do this, but loses his nerve when the girl screams in pain and gives her half-burnt rabbit skin back to her. When she puts it on, she’s not only got severe burns but is caught between her two shapes, human and jackalope. It’s up to Granny Harken to try to fix the mess her grandson has created.
This is a fantastic short story, evocative of Native American legends. I loved Vernon’s writing in this:
The Patterned Man stared at her, unblinking. The ravens laughed to themselves at the bottom of the wash. Then he dipped his head and bowed to Grandma Harken and a rattlesnake as long as a man slithered away into the evening.
Grandma Harken (love the implications of her name!) is a memorable character: she’s impatient and abrupt, but also caring (though she tries to hide it with her grumpy comments) and insightful. This story is enjoyable not only on the surface, but on deeper levels, as it explores themes of selfishness, sacrifice, and respect for the ways of nature, among other things. ~Tadiana Jones
Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan (2013, Kindle Single, $2.99, Audible $3.30)
This 61-page novella is an introduction to Robin Sloan’s book Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore which Terry loved. Based on this story, I’m pretty sure I’m going to love it, too. In Ajax Penumbra 1969, it’s summer in San Francisco and Ajax Penumbra has been sent by his university to find an ancient and possibly dangerous book called the Techne Tycheon. It seems like a dead end until he stumbles upon the 24-hour bookstore. With their knowledge and with a little help from the guy who was his geeky college roommate, he sniffs out the trail of the book. I enjoyed every moment of Ajax Penumbra 1969. I found it exciting, funny, and well-written (I loved the section written in second person — it’s so hard to pull that off). I loved the setting and the SF nostalgia…both the Science Fiction nostalgia, which there’s lots of in this novella, and the San Francisco nostalgia. I learned some really interesting things about San Francisco! I was sad when Ajax Penumbra 1969 ended, which obviously means that I need to pick up Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore soon! Fans of that book will not want to miss this novella. I listened to the audiobook version of Ajax Penumbra 1969. It was 1.5 hours long and Ari Fliakos does a great job with the narration. ~Kat Hooper
Heaven Thunders The Truth by K.J. Parker (2014, free at Beneath Ceaseless Skies)
“I was sure I’d come to the right place when I saw the hands nailed to the doorpost. I sighed. It shows the right spirit, I suppose, but there’s no actual need for it.” We never get to know the name of the protagonist in this K.J. Parker novelette. We do know that he has a snake living inside his head which grants him various sorcerous abilities, and when we meet him a man is trying to hire him to take care of the bewitchment which befell his daughter. How does he know she is bewitched? She doesn’t obey his orders to stop dating a local ruffian and marry instead the man her father has chosen for her. The snake, which nobody can see, readily discovers where she’s been hiding, and the cause of her father’s predicament. She is pregnant, not from the local ruffian, but from her brother, who isn’t actually her brother because they had different mothers, and because her father isn’t actually her father. I’ll grant that this novelette has a higher density of extramarital affairs than is usual, and after the king royally summons the protagonist, it will only get worse.
To kill a king (please listen carefully; I’m only going to say this once) you need three things: opportunity, the forbearance of others, and a weapon. Opportunity doesn’t come much better than come straight here and tell me, you’ll be admitted right away, any time, day or night. The forbearance of others can take many forms, from active conspiracy to a guard falling asleep at his post; some you can plan for, others the snake can arrange, some are pure luck. The weapon? Spoilt for choice. Of course, you need one other thing. You need to want to do it.
It’s a tad predictable but as always, K.J. Parker’s unique voice is a pleasure to read in its wicked sincerity. ~João Eira
“The Masque of the Red Death” by Edgar Allen Poe (1842, free on Kindle)
When I reread Edgar Allen Poe’s 1842 short story, “The Masque of the Red Death,” a few days ago, it was both less and more than I recalled. The plot is simple: a deadly plague is ravaging the land, but the unfeeling Prince Prospero secludes himself in his castle with about a thousand of his friends. They weld the doors closed and give themselves up to pleasure and entertainment, culminating in an opulent masquerade party. But what this story lacks in plot it makes up for in a vividly realized setting, with dark Gothic and grotesque Baroque elements. The prince holds the party in seven magnificent rooms, each with a different color scheme, but the ominous black and red room at the end, the strange ebony clock, and the bizarre masqueraders lead to the uneasy feeling that the plans of the prince and his friends to avoid death may not be as foolproof as they thought.
The word “Masque” in the title could be shorthand for the partiers’ masquerade ball, or an alternative spelling of “mask,” recalling the mask worn by the ominous shrouded figure that appears at the party. In fact, in this story’s initial publication the title was actually spelled “The Mask of the Red Death.” But “masque” is also defined as a “short allegorical dramatic entertainment.” That’s a fascinating description of what happens at the end of the story!
Poe stated that he disliked didactic or preachy stories. But I think, perhaps in spite of this dislike, he created an allegorical story here with a strong moral message. ~Tadiana Jones
“Schrödinger’s Gun” by Ray Wood (2015, free at Tor.com)
In this 1930’s film noir type of detective story, Detective O’Harren gets a “heisen” implant in her head and the universe explodes for her with different possibilities. She can view the same scene in different universes, choose which possibilities to explore, see what clues show up in which universes, and pull a particular universe option into her own reality. This is a great help in solving crimes – even when it’s just one more dead mobster – but can wreak havoc with your personal life.
My baby girl, my joy, my Sarah — for those first few weeks I couldn’t look at her. Not without seeing a spectrum of all that she could or might or would never be, every glorious and terrifying possibility fanning out around her. I brushed against universes in which I slipped and dropped her off the balcony, or accidentally smothered her beneath a blanket. They were outside chances, but they followed me like specters. Rick was no better. He was suddenly a million different people — Rick if I said this, Rick if I said that; Rick who could fall out or back in love with me a thousand different ways — and I withdrew, not knowing which of him I loved.
I experienced my own personal multiverse of possibilities while I was reading this short story:
- In one universe I was entranced by the imaginative prose in this story, like this: “Shadows of those possibilities stretched out on either side of us, rows of doppelgangers interviewing and being interviewed, as though Kitty and I were caught between two mirrors.”
- In one universe I was distracted by trying to figure out how a futuristic surgical implant technology and procedure made its way into 1930’s Chicago.
- In one universe I was getting a kick out of the application of the Schrödinger’s cat thought experiment to this story.
- In one universe I was intrigued by the ambiguous ending. In another I was disappointed by it.
In none of these universes did I regret reading this short story. ~Tadiana Jones
“In Libris” by Elizabeth Bear (2015, free at Uncanny Magazine)
“In Libris,” by Elizabeth Bear, is a mid-length in-joke for anyone who has an advanced degree that required a thesis. Of course, the main character, Euclavia’s, advisor has suggested just one more book she should read, and that she should re-work just one chapter of her nearly-complete thesis. And of course the book is in the university library’s Special Collections section, which is overseen by the Special Collections librarian, who is very… special. When you realize that Euclavia’s university is a magical one, and that the book her professor wants her to use came from an “interdicted plane,” you can guess the troubles Eu and her centaur friend Bucephalus are going to have.
The story is still entertaining for the rest of us, too. It’s straightforward (even though it involves a labyrinth), and Bear seasons it with jokes about students who are ABD (all-but-dissertation), college slackers, and plenty of mythology. The characters of Eu and Bucephalus are not deep, but well-enough defined for the story; Eu is the driven student and Bu is more laid-back. I enjoyed the degree of equine detail we got of Bu, and the library/labyrinth adventures were fun. The story does not break new ground in any way, but it is a pleasant romp with two fun characters, and a nice, academic spin on the sword and sorcery “buddy” trope. It’s light, fast, and a fun read. ~Marion Deeds