Today, I want to talk about two short narratives that are steeped in Americana.
Ursula Vernon’s writing is filled with compassion, weird shit, and sharply observed humour: in some ways, much of her short fiction and most of her novels as T.K. Kingfisher is reminiscent of Terry Pratchett at his best. (One could call her an American, feminist Terry Pratchett — but that would do her a disservice: Vernon is very much her own unique self as a writer and an artist.)
Lately I read “The Tomato Thief,” her Hugo-nominated novelette. Published in Apex Magazine, it’s a sequel of sorts to the short story “Jackalope Wives,” which won (among others) a Nebula Award for 2014. If “Jackalope Wives” is good, “The Tomato Thief” is even better.
A couple of weeks ago, I observed that it was rare to find older women as the protagonists of their own stories in SFF. Vernon’s Grandma Harken is an older woman in the mould of Granny Weatherwax (one reason why the Terry Pratchett comparison comes to mind) who alleges that she doesn’t particularly want to fix other people’s problems but seems to do it a lot anyway.
In “The Tomato Thief,” Grandma is really looking forward to the first harvest of her tomatoes. She lives on the edge of a desert, where it’s really hard to grow tomatoes, and she grows the best tomatoes around. When she discovers that her tomatoes are going missing — being stolen — she sits up on her porch waiting for the thief. It takes a while, but who and what she finds — a shapechanger bound by a ring in their tongue — leads her to put on her walking boots and go fix another problem.
There are train gods and their oracles. A desert landscape that feels real and a character in its own right. A talking coyote. And Grandma Harken standing up for her desert, kicking selfish interlopers in the arse and taking names.
You did not steal an old lady’s tomatoes. It was rude, and also, she would destroy you.
It’s an excellent novelette, and I seriously recommend it to your attention.
While I’m talking about things to recommend to your attention, let me add Margaret Killjoy’s The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion, out from Tor.com Publishing this August.
This is a peculiar little novella, but an appealing one. In a future (but not very far future) America, anarchist and vagabond Danielle Cain arrives in the anarchist/squatter community of Freedom, Iowa, looking for an answer to what spurred her best friend Clay to commit suicide. Freedom was the last place he spent any amount of time, and although she’s aware her quest is quixotic, she’s committed to it nonetheless.
In Freedom, she finds both a community that appeals to her, and magic. Magic that’s killing people. It turns out that Clay was part of a ritual that summoned a guardian spirit (a three-horned deer) that killed people who preyed on others. Now that the guardian has turned on its summoners, the community is torn between trying to unsummon its guardian, and keeping it. Danielle finds herself, along with tattoo artist Brynn and a houseful of anarchists, at the centre of efforts to prevent more bloodshed.
This is a really interesting novella, thoughtful, well-characterised, well-constructed, and tightly paced. Killjoy blends horror and social commentary in a sharp first-person narrative that builds to an explosive conclusion.
I recommend it.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign