Must-Read Speculative Short Fiction: January 2021

Ah, January! The start of a new year. Hope springs, life goes on, and new short speculative fiction appears in my inbox like magic. We have some returning favorites in this month’s spotlight and some brand new names. Lots of creepy fantasy and some distressing science fiction. Sorry to those looking for light and fluffy. This month, my ten picks are deep and dark.


“I Didn’t Buy It” by Naomi Kanakia

I’m a sucker for anything Naomi Kanakia writes. From her brilliant young adult fiction to her equally as brilliant short speculative fiction, if she writes it, I will read it. “I Didn’t Buy It” is a disturbing story about the life (or not-life) of a robot. Reznikov’s first owner is abusive and cruel, while his second is patient and kind. But what does he think of all this? Perhaps everything. Perhaps nothing at all.

Asimov’s Science Fiction (January/February 2021, volume 45)


“Imilla” by Vania T. Curtidor, translated by Monica Louzon

Lidia works in La Paz, Bolivia, but returns briefly to her hometown in the mountains to deal with a family issue. There, she unexpectedly becomes penpals with the achachila, or mountain spirit, of Huayna Potosí. Vania T. Curtidor looks at the ways in which colonized cities try to strip away Indigenous cultures and traditions, and the personal resolve it takes to hold onto them. Both the original Spanish and translated English language versions appear in Constelación.

Constelación Magazine (January 2021, issue 1)


“The Last Compact” by Brian Rappatta

An AI god archive is scheduled for demolition, but its human keeper—or chief priest, if you will—isn’t ready to let go. Can they find a way to salvage the matrices of Sancus and the other gods? Can they do it without getting caught by the AI’s parent company? This is a futuristic sci-fi story that feels real, despite it’s strange premise. A story about a human trying to do what they think is right.

Analog (January/February 2021, volume 141)


“Mouth & Marsh, Silver & Song” by Sloane Leong

Sloane Leong has written what will likely be one of my top ten short speculative fiction stories of the year—and it’s only January! A marsh monster bears prophecies to kings, but only when her skin is pierced by silver. Man after man slices her open, until the day a princess arrives with a vow of protection and respect. Gorgeously written, the kind of text that makes you marvel at how someone could manipulate the English language so well. “Her marbling, the color of bloodroot and oleander, was bare to the yellow sky, not an ounce of her glowworm skin untouched. A tapestry of a hundred diamond mouths brocaded the length of her honeydew limbs.”

Fireside Magazine (January 2021, issue 87)


“Peat Moss and Oil for Burning” by A. B. Young

By the end of this story, I was reeling. Stressed and reeling. At first it feels like a strange sort of fantasy story where a woman entertains the devil. As it unfolds, the metaphor reveals itself as something much more real and much more insidious. The writing is beautiful and cuts deep. It hooks you in with short paragraphs and haunting refrains. Although this was the first story by A. B. Young I’ve had the pleasure of reading, I am grateful to have such a powerful introduction. They are an author I’ll be keeping my eye on.

Baffling Magazine (January 1, 2021, issue 2)


“Raising Mermaids” by Dai Da, translated by S. Qiouyi Lu

Enamored with the Hans Christian Anderson fairytale “The Little Mermaid,” an alien immigrant on Earth illegally acquires a pet mermaid. Celtigar is told it’s just an animal, a beast that needs to be broken and tamed by civilized being. But his little mermaid is more than just a weird fish in an oversized tank. I don’t know what I was expecting with Dai Da’s story, but what I got was fantastic. And the ending, whew!

Future Science Fiction Digest by December 2020 by issue 9)


“Root Rot” by Fargo Tbakhi

Two Palestinian brothers separated by space, time, and tragedy. Life sent the two in different directions, leaving one with a family and a good life and the other with a rotten soul and a decaying body. A sad story of longing for what we cannot have, of a homeland lost, of a diaspora that feels untethered.

Apex Magazine (January 2021, issue 121)


“There, in the Woods” by Clara Madrigano

A missing boy, disappeared in the woods. A wife whose husband vanished in those same woods a while before. The boy is certainly dead, and Lucy knows more than she’s telling. She knows about the things that live in the woods, the things that never leave a trail of blood behind them. “She’s the wife of a missing man. She may be a widow and, if she is, then she may be a murderer.”

The Dark (January 2021, issue 68)


“Tyrannosaurus Hex” by Sam J. Miller

Two kids, a twelve year old girl and a seven year old boy, are overlooked while their parents have a grown-ups only dinner party. They head into the boy’s digital world through their ocular implants and she immediately realizes something is terribly, horribly, awfully wrong. Sam J. Miller’s story about an immersive digital world run amok has stuck to me for weeks. No pun intended, but I can’t get it out of my head.

Uncanny Magazine (January/February 2021, issue 38)


“Wolfsbane” by Maria Dahvana Headley

“It’s winter when the wolf comes into our wood.” Apparently I was in a dark fairytales mood this month. Maria Dahvana Headley twists Little Red Riding Hood into something bloody and brutal and so, so satisfying. Men as wolves who destroy and frighten, women as witches who refuse to break. A young witch and her sister encounter the big bad wolf, and he doesn’t get the victory he feels entitled to. By the way, this entire issue is full of horror heavy-hitters. Nightmare went all out for its hundredth issue.

Nightmare Magazine (January 2021, issue 100)


Alex Brown is a librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black person all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter, Instagram, and her blog.


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