Welcome back to the Short Fiction Spotlight, a space for conversation about recent and not-so-recent short stories. Last time around we discussed a new Ted Chiang novelette, “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling.” To continue that theme, this week I’d like to talk about two more recent novelettes—both, in this case, published in Lightspeed—that have caught my eye: “Paranormal Romance” by Christopher Barzak and “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” by Ken Liu.
Generally, I’m fond of the novelette. It’s a length that seems to lend itself, as plenty of people have argued before me, to speculative fiction: long enough to explore, short enough not to sprawl. These are both on the short end of the novelette spectrum, of course, but I think they’re also both solid stories—though in somewhat different ways.
Christopher Barzak’s “Paranormal Romance” is in one way exactly what it says on the package: a paranormal romance, set in the contemporary sphere with some of the usual trappings of the “para-romance” end of the urban fantasy genre. For example, the protagonist is a witch who works in love magic and advertises her services publicly. Plus, folks all know about the existence of werewolves and the like. She even gets set up on a blind date with one. But, on the other hand, it’s also a comedic subversion of the tropes of the genre. The werewolf guy isn’t irresistible, the protagonist ends up interested in another woman, and the details of life are so mundane that it feels far less like a paranormal romance story and more like a slice-of-life drama.
I’m generally a fan of Barzak’s work, particularly when it’s personal and down-to-earth, dealing with regular people’s lives in fantastical ways. (There’s a lot of that in the collection of his that was recently released by Lethe Press, Before and Afterlives, which I reviewed in a previous installment.) “Paranormal Romance” is doing that also, and in the process puts a fresh spin on a familiar tale. It’s not quite what we’d expect, based on the title—and yet it sort of is, too.
As one of those people who does, actually, read a lot of urban fantasy—sometimes even on the paranormal romance end of the scale—I found this story to be great fun. While a serious, contemplative, slow-moving piece like the Chiang novelette we discussed last time around has its pleasures, so too does a playful story. I appreciate the intertextuality/pastiche that’s going on in “Paranormal Romance” and how the generic frame is subverted and reshaped throughout the story.
It’s also not a sharply parodic sort of pastiche; it’s not making fun of the genre. It’s just jumping in the sandbox and making a different sort of castle out of the toys available—in this case, giving us a bad blind date story where the witches end up going off together at the end to see what sort of connection they might have. There’s no mystery to solve, no magical showdowns, no “I want you, but I can’t because you’re a [werewolf, etc]!” back-and-forth drama—just people and their little personal conflicts that add up to plenty in their own contexts.
“Paranormal Romance” is about feelings and romances, sure, but that’s not a downside. The complications of family, friendship, and sexuality are all being worked out, here, in an entertaining way, through the conventions of a genre that often gets the side-eye from mainstream speculative fiction writers and critics. I enjoyed the result.
Our second novelette, though, is a whole different kind of story messing around with generic frames and reinterpretation: Ken Liu’s “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King.” In this piece, the combination of historical fiction and the fantastical creates a thoroughly engaging story of a regular man who, by responsibility and choice, becomes a kind of hero. Liu’s meshing of myth and history is skillful; his focus is both general and intimate, providing the reader with enough detail that—whether or not they’re familiar with the figures in the narrative—the protagonist and his world come to life.
This sense of realism is what makes the piece strong, narratively. Though we’re following along as the litigation master goes through his fairly eclectic and occasionally comedic life, we’re simultaneously coming to understand that he is something special, whether he acknowledges it or not. The presence of the Monkey King as friend and mentor, too, is a hint at the protagonist’s significance from the beginning—one which then comes full circle at the end.
The Liu story is not playful in the same way as the Barzak. It’s no pastiche. It takes its narrative seriously, as well as its argument about courage and the weight of history. But, despite the distinct differences, each piece seems to have at its core a positive emotional freight—a sense of goodness in the world. Though the litigation master dies—and in a remarkably ugly way—he has done what was right and what will matter through history. He has his friend to keep him company in the end, to tell him stories to dull the pain. It’s a paradoxically hopeful closing.
I also appreciate that the Liu story is simultaneously about texts and their function as living history. The decision that Tian makes—to save the book that records the events of the massacre, at the expense of his own life and suffering—is made because he understands the importance of keeping history alive. And, not only does he save the book, he creates the children’s rhyme with its hidden truth. The continuation of history is, much like Liu’s story itself, reliant on narrative: it must be told and kept alive. The sense we get while reading this piece is that we, too, are participating in Tian’s closing effort to do right. Perhaps that’s where the resonance of what I might call hope in the ending comes from.
Both of these novelettes are in their own way positive stories about the good in people and the potentiality inherent in the future. Both might end on beginnings, as well: the beginning of the witches’ romance, the beginning of the truth getting out about the massacre after Tian’s death. I think they’re engaging to read as a pair, because of these things and more—even more generally, they’re of similar lengths and coming from the same magazine. They’re quite different, of course. But they’re also a little bit, intriguingly, similar.
Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.