It took me a long time to come around to short fiction. For years I insisted I didn’t like it. Why read a short story when I could read a whole novel? What was the point of getting just a tiny taste of a world when I could sink into something long and sprawling? I could tolerate a collection of short stories by a single author who I already loved, but reading a bunch of short stories by people I’d never heard of? No, thank you.
What finally changed my mind were novellas and novelettes, especially those from Tor.com Publishing. Lengthwise, they worked as a good stepping stone between novels and short stories. More importantly, what with the incredible diversity (in characters, authors, and editors) and the fascinating stories, there was no way that I, a huge fantasy and science fiction fan, couldn’t not want to read them. And the more I read, the less frustrated I felt. Gradually I learned the cadence of short fiction, how it is often more interested in asking questions and exploring moments than in providing answers or sweeping narratives, how it makes up for breadth with depth. I learned that what mattered was the story itself rather than how much of the world the author decided to show.
So here we are with my new monthly feature highlighting recent short fiction from across the speculative spectrum. I hope that if you aren’t a short fiction geek, these recommendations will guide you along your journey of discovery. And if you already love short fiction, consider this your TBR recommendations list. Now let’s get reading!
After Life by Shari Paul
Set is awakened once more by a dark ritual. Denied true death and barred from Duat (the underworld of the ancient Egyptians), Set is trapped in a cycle. Every few decades a new master wakes him and sends him out into the world to kill rulers and consolidate power on behalf of the man who holds his sacred amulets. Set has no choice but to comply with whatever order he’s given—but while he may be enslaved, he has not yet given up on resistance. Unlike most “ancient mummy brought to life in the modern world” stories, Shari Paul’s story allows Set be engaged and interested in learning about his brave new world. With a hint of anti-colonialism, Shari Paul shows what might happen when the oppressed turn the oppressors’ weapons against them.
The Dark — Issue 46, March 2019
Before the World Crumbles Away by A. T. Greenblatt
A hopepunk love story set at the beginning of the end of the world. Climate change is wreaking havoc on the world and earthquakes are slowly eating the city alive. Elodie turns to science to ease her fears as she puts the final touches on the board game-playing android she’s been building. Marina, meanwhile, sells faceless portraits by the seaside as she tries to pay off the debt incurred by her brother when he bought her a set of optical implants. As the two women grow closer, the world collapses around them. Some can only see an endless journey of pain and suffering, but Elodie and Marina find a sliver of happiness.
Uncanny — Issue 27, March/April 2019
The Blanched Bones, the Tyrant Wind by Karen Osborne
A girl walks up a mountain to be eaten by a dragon, finds empowerment instead. Karen Osborne adds a twist to the twist, turning a tale about a girl facing down death into one of vengeance and righteous fury. A story this short is hard to talk about without giving away the whole plot. Suffice it to say, it is as beautifully written as a poem and as sharp as barbed wire.
Fireside — Issue 65, March 2019
Boiled Bones and Black Eggs by Nghi Vo
In this Asian-inspired fantasy, a girl is sent to live with her aunt in her tavern in a distant land. There she learns to cook for the living as well as the dead. No one is denied a meal—a policy that gets tested when a pompous, penny-pinching corpseified lord turns up on their doorstep. He’s willing to eat everything in sight but unwilling to leave, until the aunt is forced to take evasive action. With only a few choice words, Nghi Vo paints a vivid picture. I loved everything about this story.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies — Issue 275, April 11, 2019
Carry On by Seanan McGuire
“This woman had mass. She was allowed to occupy space. When she flew, she probably didn’t need to step onto a scale.” Seanan McGuire will go down in history as one of the great writers of the 21st century, but if for some reason you still haven’t had a chance to read her work, Carry On is a great place to start. In this harrowing near future, airlines charge by weight—of luggage and ticket holder combined. Mary finds herself on the wrong side of the weight limit and makes some hard choices about what to cut.
Nightmare – Issue 78, March, 2019
Example by Adam-Troy Castro
Another near-future dystopian story, this one featuring an America where politicians have made the death penalty the law of the land. To maintain the fantasy that the law is always right, anyone condemned to death must be executed—even if their conviction is vacated. This is the situation Hector Ortiz finds himself in: an innocent man facing lethal injection. Disturbing, yet eerily plausible.
Nightmare — Issue 78, March 2019
The Girl and the House by Mari Ness
A lonely girl moves into a haunted house. You know the rest of the story, or you think you do. I’ve reread this story several times over the last month because it’s just so damn good. Mari Ness takes all the trappings of Gothic fiction and strings them together into something that looks both like a story and the critique of a genre. It’s wonderfully refreshing, particularly the fierce feminist undercurrent.
Nightmare — Issue 79, April 2019
Gundark Island, or, Tars Tarkas Needs Your Help by Matthew Corradi
A young boy and his best friend discover an alien on an island in the middle of a lake in upstate New York. After his bestie moves away, he and the alien strike up an odd little friendship built on a foundation of classic science fiction stories. Eventually the boy gets older and also moves away, but he never forgets his buddies. Growing up doesn’t have to mean letting go of the things that make you happy, even if they are childish and silly. This has the same goofy-yet-earnest feel of an ‘80s science fiction adventure story, which makes it impossible to pass up.
Lightspeed — Issue 107, April 2019
In Search of Your Memories by Nian Yu, translated by Andy Dudak
In a near-future China where a person’s consciousness can be uploaded, a restorationist tries to recover a man’s memories. Whole memories are cut or missing from Liang Sheng’s mind for no apparent reason. With so much of himself gone, he feels untethered and distant. But are his memories lost, or are they misplaced? Erased, or written over like a palimpsest? Although written in a way that captures the tone of a civil servant in a sprawling bureaucracy, Nian Yu leans on vivid descriptions and textual nuance that make the story sing.
Clarkesworld — Issue 151, April 2019
The Librarian by Robert Dawson
Being a librarian myself, there was no way I could pass up the opportunity to feature this little story. A robot librarian roves the stacks in a near-future library. Years pass and patrons stop coming in, books go missing, and budgets keep getting cut until it’s just the robot librarian in a sea of old books. Sad, amusing, sweet, with a kicker of an ending.
Nature: Futures — March 27, 2019
On the Lonely Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
In this Gothic-esque fantasy, two young people stuck in an old house in the middle of nowhere gain and lose love. Balthazar, an ill socialite, is sent to the seaside in hopes that the saltwater will ease his symptoms—or at the very least make his death a little less painful. He’s joined by his new caretaker Judith, a woman with neither money nor family. Alone in that rambling house by the ocean, the two grow close, knowing full well that not even love can stop the inevitable. But is Balthazar dying or turning into something…else?
Uncanny — Issue 27, March/April 2019
An Open Coffin by H. Pueyo
This story by H. Pueyo is a discomfiting and surreal nightmare, the kind of horror that unsettles not through shock and gore but through a series of increasingly disturbing events. Amélia is hired by the elusive General Estiano to take care of an embalmed body on display in the family home. Every week visitors arrive to pay their respects, but Amélia soon comes to fear them and their creepy adoration of the nameless corpse. More specifically, she is terrified of what they do to the body during their visits…
The Dark — Issue 47, April 2019
Painless by Rich Larson
Mars may have been human once, but now he’s something more. Something worse. He feels no pain and can regenerate, and the men who bioengineered him have used those abilities to turn him into an unstoppable killer. When Mars decides he’s had enough of being an enslaved assassin, he plots his escape…except that there are unintended consequences of his actions, and he’s soon drawn back into the killing game to finish what he started.
Tor.com — April 10, 2019
Professor Strong and the Brass Boys by Amal Singh
Apex may be going on hiatus after next month, but in the meantime it continues to publish some top-notch short SFF, including this story about androids that learn to play music. Professor Strong, like most droids, performs his task without question, and he has no life outside his programming. Droids aren’t supposed to have leisure time or develop personal interests—doing so risks being decommissioned. Despite threats hemming in from all sides, however, the professor and a few other service droids form a band. Resistance against oppression takes many forms. Sometimes even a song can be a protest.
Apex Magazine — Issue 119, April 2, 2019
With Eyes Half Open by Frances Pauli
What do you do when you find a bear who is really a man? Sixteen-year-old Miranda finds herself asking that very question. Tired of adults keeping magic from her, she steals a grimoire from her aunt and teaches herself how to see magic. During an ill-fated trip to the circus she discovers a prince trapped in the form of a bear being held captive by a sinister ringmaster. Or is he? By the time Miranda gets around to asking that very important second question it may be too late. As the ringmaster says, “The circus is more serious than it appears.”
Metaphorosis — April 19, 2019
Alex Brown is a high school librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.