Must-Read Speculative Short Fiction: May 2021

May’s featured short science fiction, fantasy, and horror brings a rather unexpected trend of melancholy. Stories of death and anger, of learning painful lessons, of carving a life out of grief. Some of these stories have moments of hope peeking through the cracks while others are bleak and brutal, but each of them are excellent in their own ways.

 

“Before Whom Evil Trembles” by Nhamo

“You are the kind of ballerina who does not know rest. Because it is the only way out of this room, and you have to get out. You have no choice.” An intense story about an “Arabesque” ballerina and the constant, soul-crushing racism she experiences growing up in France. For years she compartmentalizes her torments so she can do her craft, stifling her anger and resentment until she can’t feel anything. What happens when that dam finally breaks?

Anathema Magazine (May 2021, issue 12)

 

“Bones in It” by Kristina Ten

“Besides the vedma who lived behind the stove in steam room three, the banya in Grand Lake Plaza was the same as any other budget day spa on Chicago’s West Side.” I love stories that drop mythological creatures into modern society as if it’s perfectly normal that they should be there doing the same weird, magical things they’ve done since the very beginning. Here, two Russian immigrants run a bathhouse that is haunted by a relatively harmless vedma, but one that is only harmless because they appease it. When the banya is gentrified into a day spa, a petty tyrant college professor crosses paths with the hungry creature.

Lightspeed (May 2021, issue 132)

 

“Dancing With Ereshkigal” by Sameem Siddiqui

A couple living in a space colony decide to bear each other’s children and raise them together. One day, one of the pair stumbles across the Sumerian goddess Ereshkigal, the queen of the underworld, in a tunnel. The experience changes the narrator in ways they don’t quite understand. Life goes on, sometimes happy, oftentimes not. And then there’s Ereshkigal, always waiting and watching. The pieces—a future in distant space and ancient mythology – shouldn’t fit together, but Sameem Siddiqui somehow makes it work.

Clarkesworld (May 2021, issue 176)

 

“Disenchantment” by P.H. Low

A powerful story that touches on the experiences of being the daughter of immigrants living in a Western land. The girl’s parents only want the best for her, but all she can see is how she isn’t living up to their expectations. She is their dreams made real, and she doesn’t want that responsibility. As she carves out a new life of witchcraft and spellwork, she finds that she’s traded her parents’ high hopes for her own low expectations. I’m looking forward to reading more of P.H. Low’s work in the future.

Fantasy Magazine (May 2021, issue 67)

 

“Empty Space” by Sidney Maris Hargrave

Andy and Mars have a teleporter, but it doesn’t work in the way they expect. Andy can never get it to work right, and he’s constantly ending up with parts of his body in the wrong place. It seems to work fine for Mars, until they realize too late that with each use Mars loses another small piece of what makes them them. “You, in particular, never wondered where those pieces of yourself went. That’s where I come in.” Sometimes there is strength in destruction.

Fireside Magazine (May 2021, issue 91)

 

“Mishpokhe and Ash” by Sydney Rossman-Reich

“When Golem opened her eyes for the first time, she saw Magda.” Set in an alternate history version of World War II around the German occupation of Hungary, “Mishpokhe and Ash” tells of a girl, Magda, and the metal golem she creates. It’s a love story in a way, platonic or familial in a robot kind of way rather than romantic. The Golem was built for a specific purpose that she is increasingly unable to meet, despite her best efforts. I loved the way Sydney Rossman-Reich peppered in Hungarian and Yiddish words, and especially that they weren’t italicized in the text.

Apex Magazine (May/June 2021, issue 123)

 

“Of Claw and Bone” by Suzan Palumbo

In a land where “bones hold magic,” an abused wife gives her newborn daughter a squirrel skull to keep her safe. As the girl grows, she chafes at being passive and quiet. When she acquires a jaguar skull, she becomes a creature of claws and sharp teeth. Her town and her cruel father want to keep her down, but she is a predator now, not prey. Suzan Palumbo’s story is a good reminder that it’s okay to fight back.

The Dark (May 2021, issue 72)

 

“The Steel Magnolia Metaphor” by Jennifer Lee Rossman

I don’t encounter a lot of autistic ownvoices short speculative fiction, so I’m extremely grateful to have read Jennifer Lee Rossman’s new story. Astrid is a young autistic girl whose mother is slowly dying of cancer. While she lives, Astrid builds a machine of steel magnolias to kill the mosquitoes in their backyard, taking a metaphor and making it real. Like Astrid, I also have a hard time with metaphors. I’m so used to seeing autistic and other neurodiverse traits framed as negatives that it was refreshing to see the main character’s experiences centered and respected.

Escape Pod (May 27, 2021, episode 786)

 

“The Swamp Exchange” by Laura Barker

Two sisters, one wedding, and a lifetime of resentment. The sister getting married makes an impossible, disrespectful demand of her other unmarried sister, which dredges up memories from a childhood marred by unsettling events involving a serial killer. Although the twist at the end was expected, I appreciated the way Laura Barker laid the path that brought the reader to the conflict and reveal. A noteworthy, discomfiting story.

Apparition Lit (May 6, 2021)

 

“Wives at the End of the World” by Avra Margariti

What would an apocalypse story look like if the apocalypse was a side character? Well, it would probably look a lot like Avra Margariti’s bittersweet little romp. In it, a couple wander through the remains of a post-apocalyptic world, just the two of them eating Fruit Loops in an abandoned corner store and revisiting sites that remind them of their past lives. Even when the darkness gets cold and hard, at least they have each other. “‘Til death, and undeath, and whatever the hell comes next.”

The Future Fire (April 2021, issue 2021.57)

 

Alex Brown is a librarian by day, historian by night, author and writer by passion, and a queer Black person all the time. Keep up with them on Twitter, Instagram, and their blog.

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