If the following ten short science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories are any indication, September was a month that was all over the place for me in terms of content and emotions. All chaos, no thematic ties. But hey, at least the stories are good.
Jane suffers devastating headaches that make it impossible for her to function. She discovers, after being dismissed by her disinterested doctor, that they are connected to the spirit of her mother, who died from medical neglect. Chelsea Obodoechina’s story about a Black woman with a chronic illness and the medical professionals who routinely dismiss her symptoms and concerns is something most Black people in the US can relate to. Most of us have similar stories, albeit without the “being haunted by our dead mothers” component, but few of us get the kind of vengeance Jane and her mother do.
Anathema (September 2021, Issue 13)
This was such an interesting story! In a Nigeria plagued by an autocratic ruler, a scientist and a former political prisoner work together on a new experiment. Akachi Nwosu develops the ability to harness lightning, and uses it to overthrow the enemies of the people. Wole Talabi digs into morality and ethics through Akachi’s actions. Is he a hero? A villain? A rebel working for the benefit of his people? A broken man exacting revenge on the people who tortured him? Both? Neither? Something else entirely?
Asimov’s Science Fiction (September/October 2021, Vol. 45, Nos. 9 & 10)
We’ve all read tons of stories about Death gods and soul collecting, but there is something special about Jelena Dunato’s story that stuck with me. Morana, an ancient Slavic pagan deity tied to death and winter, travels to Italy to retrieve the soul of a dying elderly woman. But the woman’s house becomes a battlefield as other Death gods seek to claim the woman’s soul. I think what I appreciated the most was how Dunato threaded in the complexities of being a migrant in a place that needs your labor but does not care about your life, where ties to family and land become both stronger and more tenuous.
Cossmass Infinities (September 2021, Issue 6)
A new P. Djèlí Clark story? Oh yeah, I’m totally there. This story blends science fiction and fantasy in fascinating ways. In this version of Marrakesh, magic is a gift from the gods, and people like Minette have deep connections to their deities. Minette has been working with a Martian captured during one of their three failed invasion attempts. Although some anticipate a fourth invasion, Minette believes the Martians just need to rekindle their own forgotten magic. Like all of Clark’s stories, he weaves Black diaspora culture and locales into a twisty tale about identity and connection.
Uncanny Magazine (September/October 2021, Issue 42)
“Lost Portals” is exactly what it says on the tin: vignettes of portals lost or destroyed and the envious man who keeps track of them all. I liked the way Mark S. Bailen tweaked the portal trope into something almost like an elegy for lost dreams. The main character, a “nervous and reclusive tea master” named Kobori, records the portals even as he’s blocked from entering the worlds beyond their doors, not as a way to witness but to revel in the thought that now others will be denied just like he was.
Fantasy Magazine (September 2021, Issue 71)
If you need a light-hearted story that will make you laugh as well as wince, then you need to read “Souls.” Nina is one of many winged creatures in charge of deciding where and how human souls should be reincarnated based on their actions and choices in life. Her coworkers can crank through a file in a matter of minutes, but Nina agonizes over each life for hours. To speed things up, they develop an algorithm, but, like nearly all algorithms, things go spectacularly wrong in unexpected ways.
Fireside (September 2021)
“I wrapped my arms around his neck, pressed my ear against his spine. I could hear his heartbeat going just a little bit faster. I pressed my lips against his ear, then unhinged my jaw and swallowed him whole.” It’s been a while since I last read a story by Ashley Bao, so it was a pleasant coincidence that her story was the first one I read in a new-to-me publication, Unchartered. The story is brief—a young woman eats her awful boyfriend—but is full of meaty details and delicious depth (puns intended). I’m in awe of Bao, who can write so wonderfully while only being a high school junior. She has a great writing future ahead of her.
“There is something about Juan Cavendra’s art that makes me want to close my eyes. The same something that forces me to keep them open in order to grasp a slight portion of the vastness that is every single piece of his artistic production.” This is the second short story in this spotlight to break from the typical narrative format. Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas structures this as commentary on a series of art pieces by the aforementioned artist, complete with footnotes of an increasingly unsettling nature. It’s creepy and intriguing all at once.
Nightmare Magazine (September 2021, Issue 108)
Three women, two of whom are sisters, collide in a summer cottage by a lake. After her sister’s death in the lake years before, Cassie and her family fell apart. Now as an adult, she returns, this time with her new girlfriend in tow. Her dead-but-not-dead sister and her increasingly distant girlfriend want things from Cassie that require cutting off parts of who she is. How long until she breaks? KT Bryski’s beautifully written story fills the spaces between the lines with contemplations on abuse and trauma, and asks how much of one’s self is too much to give.
LampLight (September 2021, Vol. 10, Issue 1)
“Shalini Rao’s hands trembled uncontrollably. It was the happiest day of her life.” Was it, though? In this future Delhi, all assigned female at birth children are implanted with a chip that electrocutes any man who touches her who is not part of her family. The idea is that she will be protected from harm—even as it fails to account for the harm perpetrated by those who share familial ties. A new woman moves from another part of India and, unlike Shalini, she doesn’t have a chip. Shalini must decide what freedom means to her, both with and without the chip. She had no say in having the chip put it, but having it removed will alter her life in ways she cannot plan for.
Fusion Fragment (September 2021, Issue 8)
Alex Brown is an Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).