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. We’ll put our favorites at the top.
The Oiran’s Song” by Isabel Yap (2015, free at Uncanny Magazine)
“The Oiran’s Song” is the tale of a young man who is sold into service with a traveling group of Japanese soldiers; this is a better fate than what befell his younger brother. It’s also the tale of a young woman who entertains soldiers through various methods, traveling with them for as long as her services are required. It’s also about human cruelty and kindness. It’s about oni and snow and blood and vengeance and the fragility of hope. The brutality of war and human depravity are ever-present, but Yap never victimizes her characters: the terrible things which happen to them are not the only things which define them. Akira and the oiran Ayame have not lost their essential selves, even though those selves may be distorted by the people who have abused them. The simplest way to describe this novelette is as such: It’s brutal and lyrical and realistic and fantastic all at once, and I highly recommend it. If you’re a fan of Japanese folklore, this will have special appeal to you, but fans of fantasy should find it enjoyable as well. ~Jana Nyman
“Glitch” by Hugh Howey (2014)
Detroit, which has been revitalized by a technological revolution, is hosting a robot gladiatorial competition. The engineers who create the robotic combatants use the funds for further AI development and their discoveries drive technological advances in many fields. Everybody wins. But when one team’s robot develops a strange glitch, the engineers wonder what it means. I got a lot out of this short powerful story told in the first person by a female software engineer (thank you for that, Mr. Howey!). “Glitch” is about evolution, emerging behaviors, consciousness, progress, and peace. It’s Asimov for the 21st century. I read “Glitch” in audio format ($1.95 at Audible, read by Gabra Zackman, 30 minutes long) and I loved it. In ebook format it’s available free to Prime and Kindle Unlimited users, 99c otherwise. ~Kat Hooper
“At the End of Babel” by Michael Livingston (2015, free at Tor.com)
This short story has a great Native American slant on a dystopian setting: Tabitha Hoarse Raven is one of the last of the Acoma Pueblo tribe. Almost all of her tribe have been slaughtered by government soldiers for refusing to sufficiently assimilate. It’s “English is the official language” taken to the extreme. But Tabitha is determined to dance and sing the songs of her people once more. She travels to her tribe’s ancient, ruined pueblo at the top of a mesa one last time, to perform the traditional religious dances to her gods.
She summoned memories as she wandered through the ruined pueblo. Soon, she could almost hear the laughter of old women, see the sad eyes of young men. She could almost step to the shake-crack-shake of rattles keeping time to the beat of a stretched-skin drum. She could almost smell the scents of kettles that steamed with chiles, corn, and shredded meat. She summoned them until she was with them, until the ghosts of the forgotten swarmed about her.
If you strip away the unusual overlay of Acoma Pueblo culture and beliefs from this story, it’s a bit thin, a rather standard dystopian short story. But the story is worth reading for the immersion into their culture, including some brief retellings of legends of the Pueblo people, and for the evocative writing. ~Tadiana Jones
“The Jester” by Michael J. Sullivan (2014, free at Audible)
“The Jester” is a scary Indiana Jones style adventure featuring Michael Sullivan’s loveable rogues, Hadrian and Royce. They’ve been hired by a greedy noblewoman to lead an expedition to find a treasure hidden in a mountain. As the story opens, they’re falling down a deep shaft to, they assume, certain death… and it gets worse from there. This story is exciting and memorable and, though it’s part of Sullivan’s RIYRIA CHRONICLES, can easily stand alone. In fact, it makes a good introduction to Sullivan’s heroes and I think most new readers will be eager to read more. I listened to the audio version of “The Jester” which, at the moment I’m writing this, is free at Audible. This story is 1 hour long and nicely read by Tim Gerard Reynolds. You can also purchase a Kindle version for 99c at Amazon. ~Kat Hooper
“Zapped” by Sherwood Smith (2015, free at Tor.com)
I’m a longtime fan of Sherwood Smith, but I found this short story rather unsatisfying. Laurel, a ninth grader, discovers one day that she has the ability to “zap” objects from place to place. Her family (she has three parents, two mothers and a father) has recently moved to San Diego, and Laurel briefly uses her powers to become a basketball star for her school, since she never misses the basket. But using her powers in basketball feels slimy, and Laurel quickly abandons it and tries to sink back into obscurity, though she occasionally can’t resist the temptation to use her powers at school to do things like trip up bullies. Soon Laurel finds that there are a few other students at her school with paranormal powers, such as the ability to see memories or to become unnoticeable at will, and she joins their secret group. “Zapped” is well-written and deals with some significant issues, including exploration of alternative sexuality, bullying, hate crimes, and identity. But the story felt inconclusive and somewhat unfinished. It may be that this is going to be part of a novel, but by itself it didn’t impress me as much as Smith’s work usually does. ~Tadiana Jones
“Dragon Winter” by Judith Tarr (2014, free online)
This novelette is available free online or as an audiobook from Audible for $1.95. The audiobook version is just over 1 hour long and is narrated by Christine Marshall who does a great job with it. The story is about a woman named Charis who is a leader in her home and matriarchal community. Every year her people plant seedstones that, in the spring, emerge as Dragon Warriors that go out and kill the raiders that threaten their village. Over the years, the seedstones have been diminishing, which means that the village may need to start defending itself in the near future. Charis is worried about this, as is her husband. Judith Tarr’s prose, as always, is lovely, but “Dragon Winter” failed to engage me. The characters all feel foreign and distant, as if they’re part of a painting, or perhaps a myth. It’s difficult to understand them or relate to them. I also didn’t really get the point of the story. It’s about war and sacrifice, but it didn’t cause me to think of these topics in any new or deep way. ~Kat Hooper