SHORTS is our column exploring free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. Here are a few stories we’ve recently read that we wanted you to know about.
While Dragons Claim the Sky by Jen Brown (2019, originally published in FIYAH Magazine Issue #10: Hair, available online for $3.99; free audio recording on PodCastle (Part 1 and Part 2), read by C. L. Clark)
While Dragons Claim the Sky tells the story of a skilled young mage as she takes a chance on discovering more of the world and her place in it.
This novelette has all the adventure and emotion and betrayal and triumph of a full-length novel in an expertly crafted smaller package. Brown clearly thought through the workings of the world, or at least did an excellent job of tricking me into thinking the world was wide and diverse. The real clincher that makes this a 5 star novelette for me were the main characters. They are both flawed and loveable, with distinct voices and points of view. I couldn’t get enough of them and their dynamic — I would pick up another story set in this world or about these characters in a heartbeat.
I listened to While Dragons Claim the Sky on PodCastle, and the narration is fantastic. Clark has great skill in differentiating between characters and hitting the emotional beats of the story. ~Skye Walker
“Juice Like Wounds” is the story of a portentous event that takes place in what is probably my favorite book in Seanan McGuire’s WAYWARD CHILDREN series, In an Absent Dream. In the novella this event takes place offstage; in this shorter work we get the full story of this adventure.
Lundy is a young girl who has found her way from our mundane world through a magical portal to the Goblin Market — a wonderful, weird, and remarkable place that’s also rule-bound, based on the immutable concept of “fair value” in trade, and generally unforgiving of mistakes. Lundy and her two best friends, Moon and Mockery, enchanted by the idea of being heroes and taking back a place that has been wrongfully taken over by a person (literally) turned monster, and hopefully also getting some valuable pomegranates in the process to trade in the market, decide to try to reclaim a pomegranate grove from its monstrous possessor, despite the Archivist’s warnings to Lundy:
“They are the makers of monsters, and their workshops are their own hearts. Given time enough, they become terrible things, takers of children and stealers of dreams. But they never don the feathers they so feared, and they sometimes grow enough in strength to steal things that were never meant to belong to them, and so they feel themselves acquitted.” The sorrow on the Archivist’s face was painful to behold. “Good children should not sport with monsters. There are always costs.”
It’s Seanan McGuire’s insightful narration that raises this story far above the norm. She sees right into the hearts of these characters, illuminating their flaws and foibles as well as their admirable qualities. ~Tadiana Jones
For those of us needing just a bit more necromancy to fill the long days between Harrow the Ninth and Alecto the Ninth, Tamsyn Muir has provided “The Mysterious Study of Doctor Sex,” which … does not quite do what it says on the tin. Oh, there’s a very mysterious study — the study itself is a mystery and contains a locked-room mystery which, also, has a smaller puzzle inside it — but the good doctor’s name refers to his being a part of Sixth House, not, ah, you know.
Teenaged Palamedes Sextus and Camilla Hect are brought into this mystery by Archivist Zeta, who highly esteems the pair despite their being thirteen (though, in their professions and with their capabilities, being thirteen isn’t much of a limiter). A room that’s been sealed for four hundred years is finally being opened, which the Archivist knows will intrigue Palamedes; when the small group of assembled scholars is finally allowed entrance, they discover signs that the room has been altered sometime within the last few hundred years. How, by whom, and to what purpose can only be solved by the dynamic duo of Palamedes and Camilla.
I enjoyed getting to see more of the Sixth House than is hinted at in Gideon the Ninth and Harrow the Ninth, as much because the Sixth House are scholars to the absolute limit of the word, but also because it’s so fully alive (despite all the skeleton-constructs tootling around) in comparison to the Ninth House. The various mysteries are tied up nicely, Camilla and Palamedes are a perfectly-matched pair, and there’s a tremendously significant “she” mentioned early on. Do your best not to giggle overly much — one mustn’t disturb the thalergy! ~Jana Nyman
“The Girlfriend’s Guide to Gods” is a beautifully written, powerful story about self-healing and self-discovery, told through the metaphor of Greek mythology. Headley narrates the story in second person, and casts several figures from myth (Orpheus, Icarus, Zeus) as bad boyfriends and husbands that “you’ve” been involved with.
In some ways, it’s so real it hurts, and at times it’s bitterly funny too. And then after the Zeus section, the story takes a turn for the even better. Headley shows “you” first descending into a dark place and making peace with it, then rising up and recreating yourself from all the bits and pieces of your life — becoming a powerful mythic being in your own right.
The prose is gorgeous, and the story will strike a chord with anyone who spent too much of their youth sitting on the sidelines watching their partners have all of the fun. ~Kelly Lasiter
“The Bone-Stag Walks” is a story that puts you right at the centre of a folktale. It opens on an eerie note and doesn’t let the reader know which way it’s going to land until the very end. Like the best invented folklore, “The Bone-Stag Walks” feels like it’s steeped in something true and is haunted by it. Even though “The Bone-Stag Walks” is not wildly dissimilar from a handful of other stories I’ve read in this genre niche, I think the tone and imagery were masterfully crafted.
I listened to this story on the Lightspeed Magazine podcast, where the narration is exceptional. There’s something about hearing a folksy, woodsy story aloud that I deeply enjoy. I highly recommend listening to this one if you are able and so inclined. ~Skye Walker
“A Country Called Winter,” a 2020 Locus Award nominee, is a lovely, atmospheric retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” (not really a spoiler, IMO; the names Kay and Gerda are a dead giveaway). Vera, who narrates the story, emigrated to America with her mother as a child, from a cold European country they call, in English, Winter. Very is studying for her masters in Boston when she meets and falls in love with Kay, a wealthy and handsome European undergrad who’s a couple of years her junior.
This retelling has a very different take on the characters, subverting the original story — none of them, except perhaps Kay, is what I might have expected, even allowing for the modern setting. Gerda is an edgy TA who teaches a college literature class and is a member of a band called “Robber Girl” (nice touch). But the relationship conflicts between Vera, Gerda and Kay are only part of this tale; there’s a whole separate part of the plot dealing with Vera’s background and how her long-lost past begins to pull her in a direction she never expected.
It’s not the most earth-shattering story in the world but I found it truly delightful. The story ended a bit too soon for me, though; I’d love to know what happens next. I’m rooting for the ice troll prince! ~Tadiana Jones
Editor’s note: Kelly Lasiter also reviewed “A Country Called Winter” in our June 15, 2020 SHORTS column and also rated it 4 stars.