March short story reading post

Photo of notebook with handwritten story notes

This post is a roughly tidied version of my March 2022 tweets about short stories. It’s extremely long, so I’m putting the rest of it below the cut. There’s a list of all stories at the very end of the post.

Parts will very likely end up in other posts in the future. There are ideas coalescing, including thoughts on e.g. stories of revolution, loss, communication, witness, and the metaphorical weight of birds — and thoughts on the emphases and accents of speculative fiction, and the evolution of stories on given themes.

Previous posts:

Background:

  • See Story Shapes — Three-Mood Stories for detail.
  • I like breaking short stories into progressions of three moods (rather than beginning-middle-end, etc). It’s a useful lens, simple and intuitive revelatory, and a straightforward starting point for comparing stories.
  • Each dot point is one three-mood shape — one way of reading the shape of the story.
  • I use “mood” very broadly.
  • Story notes are in regular text and dot points, and my general thoughts are in bold, in case that makes it easier to skip around. I often refer back to stories mentioned earlier — ctrl+F/search will likely be your friend.
  • Very often I am working my way back to well-known maxims from first principles — it’s me studying story structure in real time.
  • The tiny descriptions of each story are notes to jog my own memory.

Many of these stories are taken from the Quick Sips Reviews 2021 Recommended Reading List.

So, to begin…

  • The Loneliness of Former Constellations” — P H Low (Strange Horizons, 2021 — defunct interstellar supersoldiers, sword-wielding monster-fighters, friendship, domesticity)
    • meeting — learning — understanding
    • resignation — resistance — persuasion
    • touch — hold — embrace
    • fragile — persist — emerge
    • hints — consequences — hopes
    • denouements — ends — beginnings
      or (see below)
    • enforced domesticity — lethal adventure — finding home in moments within the violence

That “denouements — ends — beginnings” shape is useful because it highlights those terms as moods vs functions. The start of this story is (and feels like) the twilight of another. The middle is made up of two senses of final crisis, one belonging to the preceding story, the other to a story happening off-page. And the end of this story is about starting over/again/in a new role. It’s a version of an “elegaic — circuit-breaker — new lease” shape that seems to fit gentle stories of reinvention/redirection/new purpose and/or the processing of age & mortality.

That shape is adjacent to some common grief story shapes, but related to a few constant-revolution story shapes, too: stories about how to understand one’s role in an unwinnable battle that must nevertheless still be fought. And that phrasing explains the mortality connection.

You could also look at it as: “Enforced domesticity — lethal adventure — finding home in moments within the violence.” A blending of apparently separate elements.

  • Twilight of the Eudaemancers” — Elwin Colwin (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — advertising, magic, freelancing and the hustle)
    • ground down — performance —express
    • devalued — observed — admired
    • vs employer — vs exploiter — vs protegee
    • frustration — inconvenience — horror
    • metrics — grotesqueries — complicity
    • life — magic — life

“Twilight of the Eudaemancers” almost functions as a slice of life. But this is because it’s about perpetual cycles. When that becomes clear emerges you can see the full story shape — this is not a breaking free or tragic down-note, but a frustrated sigh of a story.

  • I Was a Teenage Space Jockey” — Stephen Graham Jones (Lightspeed, 2021 — bullying, brothers and friends, and one Halloween night at the arcade)
    • scrappy — magic — morning
    • loss — taken-from — winning
    • the way it is — specific instances — briefly beyond
    • days — evening — night
    • brothers — vs opposition — saving
    • arrival — defeats — wins

(This story has enormously charming central characters.)

The majority of the story is occupied with the increasing specificity of the context and the myriad aggressions and humiliations these 12-year-olds shoulder through. The magic arrives late, in the last third by length, and is it even there? But the boys believe it, and so it is. Even if it’s the magic of holding on to hope for brothers and friends, or the memory of triumphs at 12, and what that will mean later.

In “How to Break Into A Hotel Room” (see notes in the February post), Stephen Graham Jones does a *very* different story with related themes of childhood friendships and family. But there are some similar moods there, for all its horror: games, friendship, cheerfulness (forced), small specific competencies…

  • 10 Steps to a Whole New You” — Tonya Liburd (Fantasy Magazine, 2021 — your friendly neighbourhood soucouyant)
    • wondering — trying — finding out
    • discontent — playing with fire — catching light
    • willing temptation — willing seduction — willing destruction
    • failing powers — overpowered — powerful
    • offered — asking — getting

You could argue the second character in this story is an antagonist, but both characters’ paths are so similar — almost equal in unpreparedness and willingness. As a result, several of those story-shapes work, whoever’s point of view you read them from.

Also, while this is another story constructed around a numbered list, it flows in a linear, logical fashion. The list points out and strengthens that structure. Compare this to e.g. the sub-vignettes of Rachel Swirsky’s “Thirteen of the Secrets in my Purse” (see February notes).

  • Love, That Hungry Thing” — Cassandra Khaw (Apex, 2021 — bargains with fox deities, and a return to an abandoned, overgrown Earth)
    • bargains — losses — sacrifice
    • playing — tangled — cut free
    • wistful — resentment — alarm
    • wishes—resistance—gifts
    • laughter—voices—blood
    • willingly doomed—tension—saved against will
    • numinous—SF—human

The shape of the story isn’t immediately obvious, although it *feels* story-shaped. Looking for these mood progressions reveals some of the bones, the structures that hold the sensation of it being a story in place and make room for ideas and phrases to play.

Like Maria Dong’s “The Frankly Impossible Weight of Han” (see February notes), Khaw’s story is blending SF and the numinous/deities.

The two stories have different shapes with different apportionments of blame. But both are about humans learning the proper solutions to human problems: that they lie not with machines in the first, and not with gods (or at least, not without trouble) in the second.

Both stories could easily be Taught A Lesson stories, or Be Careful What You Wish Fors. Arguably they are. But in both, there is more of resignation, wistfulness, grief and (finally) pragmatic action than chagrin. Lessons are learned early, or always known & accepted. The stories are about tipping the balance back a little closer to true.

And perhaps that focus on humanity and what it will and can rely on (machines/divinity) for is one trick for making both the speculative and the numinous work together in a single story. (Particularly when it isn’t about the superiority of any one aspect).

  • Homecoming Is Just Another Word for the Sublimation of the Self” — Isabel J Kim (Clarkesworld, 2021 — returning to Korea for a funeral, and meeting the person she might have been had she stayed)
    • awkward — cautious — peace?
    • meetings — mourning — negotiating
    • wondering — loving — valuing
    • borders — observing — finalities
    • chances — losses — stakes
      Or possibly, and metaphorically:
    • departures — journeys — arrival

Stunning story.

It shares themes with Iona Datt Sharma’s “All Worlds Left Behind” and (slightly less so) Nicasio Andres Reed’s “Babang Luksa” (see February notes for both) : Themes of the entanglements of loss and love and language and borders and roads taken and food and worlds given and taken and lives lived with and without you.

While “Babang Luksa” feels more distant, and the end notes are very different (although arguably involve different metaphorical knives to the heart), those story-shapes could very neatly capture “Homecoming…”, too. The shapes of “All Worlds Left Behind” also resonate with it.

I’m gradually compiling little groups of stories that are interesting together and this trio (“Homecoming Is Just Another Word for the Sublimation of the Self”, “All Worlds Left Behind” and “Babang Luksa”) is definitely in it. That might be useful to you, if you study/teach short stories.

And that takes me through all the free/easily-accessible-on-phone stories in the Locus 2021 Recommended Reading List (for Tordotcom stories see January’s blog post, and the Apparition Lit stories are earlier on the blog.) I’ve also made notes on a few of the Fiyah stories and will look at more from the Locus list as I can.

  • Boundless” — Miyuki Jane Pinckard (Uncanny, 2022 — the love of married astronauts and their dogs, vs the consciousness of the universe)
    • loss — looking — determination
    • echoes — possibilities — hope
    • companionable — distractions — farewells
    • impatience — waiting — following
    • irritation — grudging acceptance — plans
    • faith — affection — trust

That last story shape is looking at the eternal present of the dogs. It provides a counterpoint to the human relationship — we see a number of quarrels there, but the dogs anchor the interpretation as a story of love and loss, hope and possibility vs e.g. denial/obsession.

In the accompanying interview, Pinckard mentions leaving a lot for the reader to fill in, so the ambiguity/ambivalence is built in, and little weights like the dog and the non-intervention of trusted parties work to guide interpretation.

  • The Kaleidoscopic Visitor” — Shaoni C White (Uncanny Magazine, 2022 — a feared and indescribable apparition might grant you what you want, if you can only express what it is)
    • resistance — power — potential
    • puzzled — shown — increments
    • attracted — refusing gift — understanding/acceptance
    • dread — rejecting — affection

This is a story which offers dramatic changes but doesn’t end on them — there’s potential and increments and quiet possibilities and new peace with the next step. Changing that last mood to eg blaze/chaos/revolution/full power, etc, would suit a story full of flash and fire — retribution & superheroes.

For comparison, Alyson Grauer’s “Lavender, Juniper, Gunpowder, Smoke” (see January notes), although doing something different (a child coming into power and learning confidence, and magic getting out of hand) has a similar shape.

The potential for world-altering change is planted, a path shown, and then the story pulls back, leaving the protagonist room to hope and go there in their own time

“Before Whom Evil Trembles” (a very different story of prejudice and rage) is an example of that blossoming-into-fire.

  • From February notes:
    • Before Whom Evil Trembles” — Nhamo (Anathema, 2021)
      • origins — stand — rise
      • gutters — streets — stage
      • viscera — tears — flame
      • work — endure — change
      • prove — suffer — disrupt
      • seed — stem — blossom
      • disgust — prejudice — power

“10 Steps To A Whole New You” (see earlier in this post), although rather more predatory, has that self-discovery—>emergence shape (vs the door-ajar ending of “The Kaleidoscopic Visitor”).

“The Kaleidoscopic Visitor” is also a lovely counterparts to the wishing stories — this isn’t “be careful what you wish for”, but “learning how to wish”.

A digression:

Ashley Deng wrote a post for SFWA on the cure trope vs writing about pandemics: “Sci-Fi Has a Cure Problem”. The article is relevant to door-ajar hopeful narratives (see notes re “The Kaleidoscopic Visitor”, immediately above in this post), but especially applies to earlier remarks on parallels in chronic pain / eternal revolution stories (see February notes — search “chronic” or “revolution”).

  • Tea and Owls” — Teresa Milbrodt (Apparition Lit, 2022 — a reluctant witch, a transforming watchmaker, rumours of war)
    • resenting calling — limitations — recognise cycle
    • rumours — survive fact — rumours
    • death — comfort — departures
    • dictated — undeclared — seeking
    • grumpy — dutiful — determined
    • expectations—approaching—distancing
    • small cures — big ills — new horizons

The situation in this story is not precisely what is being discussed regarding cures (see notes immediately above), but this is a story that deals with problems the characters can’t cure (except, there’s a final hint, by changing context).

It’s intriguing how many stories I’ve read lately are about NOT curing/solving something. They aren’t despairing (necessarily), but the situation is something to either exist within or reframe.

To the extent the stories function as metaphor or allegory (and many do, though not all, and some indirectly), they are often not about imagining speculative solutions (for our world or another). Rather, they use a speculative frame to consider the human element, & life as it is. That is a function more typically associated with literary-realist fiction (at least by me).

These stories aren’t usually bleak, though. There’s still a speculative emphasis of “this is how things could be” or “this is how we could survive”. But there’s that more allegorical translation/application to how we live now (vs if things/world were different, or in the future).

This isn’t strictly about “Tea and Owls”, btw. In the interview after the story, Milbrodt talks about the current concerns behind it, but the story isn’t super allegorical. It does strike that fatalistic-hopeful note at the end, though, which set me thinking.

Also, I’ve been thinking about ways to categorise short stories. For example, stories about:

  • the way things are
  • the way things were
  • the way things could be
  • a way you want to feel
  • [how to think about things]
    and permutations and combinations thereof

“The way you want to feel” would include many stories in aesthetic-first genres/modes, and ones with very strong classic structures: capers, horror, romance, gothic, etc.

  • The Dragon Project” — Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld, 2022 — a commission to bio-print a dragon, a conscientiuos designer, and a demanding client)
    • the job — the frustrations — the complications
    • competence — incompetence — triumph of A over B
    • designer — vs client — gratifying outcomes
    • incompatible principles — results of bad behaviour — rewards of good

Less an allegory than an extrapolation. Based on the rough classifications above, this is a story to read to get a feeling (amusement, exasperation, justification, charm). That strong clear classic story shape delivers it effectively.

Premee Mohamed’s “Episode 4: The Deflection of Probability” isn’t quite the same shape, but it’s related and is similarly concerned with delivering a small dose of speculative adventure in an extrapolated format (bake-off vs design):

Then compare this to Cooper Shrivastava’s “Aptitude”, which adapts a format (recruitment process) but is less an adventure (although it is compelling) than a philosophy:

  • From the January notes:
    • “Aptitude” — Cooper Shrivastava (Tor.com, Some of the Best of 2021)
      • determination — persistence — alternative
      • grim — nefarious — awe
      • tension — undermining — building
      • schemes — crimes — beauty
      • anxiety — concern/frustration — delight
  • Silver Bells” — Jaime Marvin (Apparition Lit, 2022 — trapped driving in a space-time vortex, in a dimension where it is always almost Christmas)
    • bleak — culpability — flashes of joy
    • stress — miscalculation — pursuit
    • spiral — dropping out — reaching out
    • present — past — way through
    • punishment — crime — friendship
    • ashes — play with fire — lights

It’s definitely adjacent to the purgatorial stories: confined, low-ceilinged world, culpability/complicity, perpetuation of cycles, the possibility of hope, stories cannibalising themselves, love… However, it has less of people biting at people, and the situation is to a degree voluntary (it’s self-exile).

It does have a rather neatly looped twist on Orpheus & Eurydice.

Another quasi-purgatorial night-driving story was Schweblin’s “Headlights”. A very different point and shape:

  • From the January notes:
    • “Headlights” — Samanta Schweblin (Mouthful of Birds, 2009/2019)
      • oddness — deepening peculiarity — inversion
      • bleakness — intensifying strangeness — velocity of approach
      • shock and despair — shock and fear — triumph and grief

No hugely significant patterns there, except I seem to like the strange accelerating bleaknesses of night-driving stories, whether the weird horror of “Headlights” or the delightful concise spiralling holiday panic of “Silver Bells” (which was a lot of fun).

(And there’s a fun note on how “Silver Bells” was written, at the end of the story.)

For all the alleged bleakness, “Silver Bells” is definitely a story-to-make-you-feel-a-certain-way (I was charmed and delighted). I also want to compare it to some of the other present/past/next story shapes.

Further regarding structure:
“Silver Bells” begins in the middle, flashes back to the beginning, and then cuts forward to the end. I wanted to compare it to other stories with a similar approach.

Tobi Ogundiran’s “The Tale of Jaja and Canti” (see the February notes) uses a similar structure to open up space, both for a retelling and for the discovery of a world (and the parameters of what to expect).

Nate Southard’s “The Blisters on My Heart” (see here in February notes) uses the structure to create a closed, claustrophobic loop of noir-ish inevitability, while creating a bumpy ride and showing the stakes of (chronologically) earlier interactions.

Marvin’s “Silver Bells” does use a little of the “I guess you’re wondering how I ended up here” mechanic of this structure. You do have questions about space-time here, and how someone has ended up perpetually on a snowy, anxious drive to a celebration they will never reach.

But the flashback isn’t a hard cut. It folds in all the love and anxiety and stress and self-accusations and familial justification that’s been fairly well-flagged. The situation is less an outgrowth of past events than a snow-globe microcosm of them.

  • Nonstandard Candles” — Yoon Ha Lee (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — two cartographers map a darkening universe)
    • work — numbness — transcendence
    • focussing — faithful — glimmer
    • learn — record — create
    • looking out — looking down — reaching in
    • knowledge — lacunas — wonder

(I particularly love the line: “The map is its own reward.”)

“Nonstandard Candles” is about journeys and choices and creativity and which ways cause and effect flow, and what makes the world, and art, and darkness.

I noted in January that it was fairly common for short stories about creativity to have a fairly linear structure that echoes that theme, or models an aspect of the creative process. “Nonstandard Candles” does that to an extent — transcendence through competence and dedication.

  • The Goblins of South India” — Naethan Pais (Apparition Lit, 2022 — a woman cares for her cursed sister into extreme old age, and wonders if goblin magic could cure her)
    • determination — perseverance — grimness
    • love — exhaustion — flagging
    • curses & wonders — realities & rumours — dealings & consequences
    • faithful — hopeful — failing
    • hopes — facts — realities

Like MH Ayinde’s “The Techwork Horse”, Tochi Onyebuchi’s “Presque vue” and Miyuki Jane Pinckard’s “A House Without Voices Is Never Empty”, this story follows a lifetime (at least).

In how it uses that lifetime to structure the story, “The Goblins of South India” is closest to “The Techwork Horse” (see the February notes), in that a childhood hope/belief in a myth takes a lifetime to come to fruition. In Ayinde’s story, the payoff was in the character’s emergence into full power. But in Pais’ “Goblins…”, that life (for all its patience) breaks on the strength of the myth, which does not bend to flatter need or desire.

Interestingly, “Goblins…” does follow a version of the “establish link — enforced wait — recognition” pattern previously notes (and with voices!)

From the February notes:
And you could summarise both “The Techwork Horse” and “Presque vue” as: “bond (to marvellous thing) — frustration with the bond (its existence/incompleteness) — communication (recognition of a voice)”.

Time/aging contribute to the story’s momentum/tension — Pais enhances it via the extreme version of aging in this community, which adds extra weight & consequences to choices. Cf the urgency of compressed lives in “The Book of the Blacksmiths”. And see my notes following “Presque Vue” (in the February notes): “a story shape that might feel too tidy/simple if it weren’t stretched over a lifetime, so that time itself provides the tension/frustration of the narrative, and the effort required of the character or the test they must pass is, ultimately, to have lived.

  • Small Offerings for a Small God” — Virginia M Mohlere (Luna Station Quarterly, 2022 — a person condemned to walk the earth encounters a demanding but forgotten deity)
    • demands — choices — rewards
    • impressions — resolving — focus
    • fatalism — persistence — release
    • casual — faith — returned
    • abandoned — missed — remain
    • punishment — penance — company
    • movement — exhaustion — rest

“Small Offerings…” also has a mirrored shape, not just in the characters’ fates marching in step (see also Tonya Liburd’s “10 Steps to a Whole New You”, earlier in this post), but in the way their positions are gradually exchanged, in terms of substantiality and ability to help the other.

Also there’s something in the shape of the story that reminds me very slightly of Yoon Ha Lee’s “Nonstandard Candles” (earlier in this post). Which arguably is also about small gods, if on a more cosmic scale. I think it’s these two structures: “fatalism — persistence — release” and “casual — faith — returned“. Although it’s penance vs creation in “Small Offerings…”, those patterns resonate with these patterns from “Nonstandard Candles” “work — numbness — transcendence” and “focussing — faithful — glimmer“.

Something to do with creation & expiation (especially of the impossible-to-expiate) requiring endurance and faith, perhaps. At any rate, noting it as a pattern to keep an eye on (and possibly compare to Shrivastava’s “Aptitude” and Bangs’ “Space Pirate Queen of the Ten Billion Utopias”).

(Cooper Shrivastava’s “Aptitude”, for example, is also, in its way, about small gods and does have some echoes in creation, persistence and frustration — more so with “Nonstandard Candles” than with “Small Offerings…”)

  • A Sunrise Every 90 Minutes” — Victoria Zelvin (Flash Fiction Online, 2021 — an astronaut orbiting earth realises something is wrong below)
    • panic — reassure — wait
    • fragile — strong — peace
    • alone — together — enough

This is a very short story, and until the last lines (which aren’t a twist or a change) I wondered if it would feel like a vignette — a situation waiting for a story. But there’s just enough finality in tone to pull the story shape down and anchor it. You can feel the character’s shoulders adjust, their breath come under control, as they accept the probable absence of any twist or change. Yes, somewhere there’s a bigger story, but it’s for someone else.

I think the closest in shape I’ve read is Atreyee Gupta’s “Cocoon” (see the January notes). It is far more interior, the external situation is in the past, and the current situation more cut-off and to a degree more chosen. But it also approaches inevitable mortality with calm: “wonder — acceptance — release“; “haste — slowness — peace“.

  • The Stars Above Eos” — M Darusha Wehm (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — the love-across-difference between a heavily augmented post-human and the digital record of their almost entirely human beloved)
    • love — loss — love
    • trust — support — gift
    • living — lives — death
    • difference — together — reassurance

Loss and time and virtual selves and what is human and what makes you YOU are obviously not uncommon concerns in science fiction, but this is a consciously positive take on the possibilities. Here are a few others for comparison (tweeted about previously):

  • José Pablo Iriarte, “Proof by Induction” (Feb)
  • Isabel J Kim, “Homecoming is Just Another Word for the Sublimation of the Self” (this post)
  • Miyuki Jane Pinckard, “Boundless” (this post)
  • B Pladek “All Us Ghosts” (Feb)
  • Martin Cahill “The Book of the Blacksmiths” (Feb)
  • Bianca Sayan, “Sheri, At This Very Moment” (Feb)

“Proof by Induction” is closest in terms of preservation of a self as it was, and questions of supportive love, but the moods are very different — almost the opposite. “numb — pressing — look elsewhere“, “lack — pursuit — dissatisfaction“; “as was — wishing — what is“, etc.

I was looking back for stories that have a similar shape to “The Stars Above Eos”, but most have a strong element of grief/release/letting go, which emphasises some of the choices in “The Stars…”. It’s not NOT about mortality, but it’s not elegaic, either.

  • Paper Suns” — Kemi Ashing-Giwa (Anathema, 2021 — a youth tasked with feeding the vast, slithering creature on which his city is built stumbles onto secrets in tunnels during a blizzard)
    • workaday — disaster — discover
    • rumblings — tremors — avert
    • collide — seize — slide
    • pecking order — solitary — renegotiate
    • politics — practicalities — visceralities
    • geopolitical — human — latter in the former

This story’s uses a solid structure for a story about discovering how a world works. It reveals it first to the reader (the everyday with hints of the wider world), and then to the character (as they learn more).

And it’s an adventure-compatible shape, too: it’s a shape well-suited to stories of external events. (Not that you couldn’t model a robust internal story on it — there’s vigour and reversals there that are less subtle than commonly appear in introspective stories.)

  • Daughters With Bloody Teeth” — Marika Bailey (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2021 — a woman eaten by a dog must discover who she is now, and who she was, and what she can do about it)
    • jagged — whole — vengeance
    • distress — comfort — confidence
    • outcome of the hunt — mending — the hunt
    • bewilderment — understanding — taking action
    • reassembly — a home — return in judgment

The note this story ends on is lovely: sly, feral, righteous, bloody-grinned and triumphant. (See notes on endings vs “The Kaleidoscopic Visitor”, earlier in this post.)

I’d like very much to read this story alongside Maria Dahvana Headley’s novel The Mere Wife (and not just because of the Miranda Meeks cover art). Something about hills and mothers and generations and ferocity — the stories are doing different things but there are echoes there.

  • Deal” — Eris Young (Escape Pod, 2021 — a character learning the language of aliens struggles to communicate with their partner)
    • wondering — reaching — touching
    • working around (lack of understanding) — failure (to communicate) — persevering
    • alien — human — echoes
    • exasperation — frustration — kindness
    • assumptions — anger — patience

Like “The Stars Above Eos”, earlier in this post, “Deal” is a benevolent story about love without full understanding. But comparing the story-shapes, you can see this one is about beginning to reach that peace, while “Eos” was about a life lived in it.

But “Deal”, although still open-ended, is not as ambivalent or decisive as “Boundless” (earlier in this post, and also dealing with a relationship and different speeds and issues of communication).

  • The Enchanted Gardener” — Jessica Yang (GigaNotoSaurus, 2021 — a magical gardener uninterested in love is sent to sleep by an enchantress, subject to the usual solution)
    • prickly — reaching — twining
    • injustice — defended — defending
    • antagonists — family — protecting
    • alone — protected — together
    • fighting — subjected — learning

It’s a story that’s balancing being (a) complete in yourself with (b) valuing family and friends. The emphasis on the former (although family prompts the realisation) — so it’s interesting that the shape (as it feels to me) leans more into the latter.

Digression prompted by the asexuality representation in “The Enchanted Gardener”:

It’s been really interesting watching certain ideas being more explicitly highlighted and fought for in fiction — whether eg climate issues or ace representation. There are patterns around how groundswells and ideas are introduced.

The progression is not strictly linear (and this is me noticing patterns in what I’ve read, published for audiences not necessarily familiar with an idea to begin with), but there are distinct patterns.

There’s:

  • the early vigorous declarative stage
  • the revolutionary stage
  • the didactic stage
  • the patient educative/supportive stage
  • the careful release into the broader ecosystem
  • the part where themes try on non-typical story shapes
  • the concept becomes endemic.

Climate change (in spec fic at least), in the earlier stages of its current iteration was very grab-you-by-the-shirt-collar-in-the-street-and-shout-at-you, but it’s beginning to feel endemic.

Ace-spectrum stories frequently still fall in a stage of patient explanation of the best way to communicate about it, but I’m seeing fewer didactic pieces.

Obviously there are always stories and writers just doing their thing, and this isn’t strictly linear. But occasionally you see these rolling swells of ideas gathering power, and it’s interesting to see what they crest into.

Reading this way also makes me appreciate heavily shouting/didactic pieces more, because it shows their necessity and purpose and what they’re setting the groundwork for. Not to disparage vigour, by any means. Occasionally, however, it seems a majority of stories on a topic share a similar intensity, and it’s useful to consider why that is, and that it’s necessary, and to keep an eye open for how representation of that topic might evolve in the future.

Anyway.

  • Mulberry and Owl” — Aliette de Bodard (Uncanny, 2021 — after years of living on the run, a rebel seeks out the decommissioned conscious ship that once hunted their compatriots)
    • determination — bargains in — bargains out
    • hope beyond hope — echoes after loss — life beyond deaths
    • arrival — hopes of survival — understanding
    • ominous welcomes — gritted practicalities —chances

The story could very easily end on acceptance and release after achieving an end, so it’s interesting to hypothetically play with the ending of it — to see how that would shift the third mood (would it need to?), and what strands of the story are revealed if those tensions shift.

As it is, this is not a coming-to-terms-with-loss story shape, but a coming-to-terms-with-life.

(Also, connected to the last remark, and for the purposes of tracking these things: it’s not a permanent or failed revolution story, but a story shaped by rebellion rendered obsolete).

I particularly like the visual ornaments of de Bodard’s spaceships, and the way bots aren’t written as clinical and other (as is the case even in many stories where they are benevolent). And also the vicious glory of the Owl.

Tweet from Aliette de Bodard: Ha, thank you! I really wanted to have a female spaceship who wouldn't be nurturing *at all*
  • A Short Story in Seven Looks” — Sarah Turi Boshear (Pseudopod, 2021 — a very short story, and a script from a vengeful fashion show, the concept of which traces a career)
    • the promise — the rise — the breaking point
    • rags — riches — power
    • deal — steps — treacheries
    • supplication — maintenance — knives
    • promises — whirlwind — weapons
    • exhaustion — anxiety — triumph

(I definitely mistyped that as rags to ruches, which is… not inaccurate.)

I loved this very short story as a variation on three things: the numbered story, The Phantom of the Opera, and the dress motif in fairytales. I’m not sure I’d call it a retelling. To the extent it might be, it’s lifted one motif and tweaked its specifications, which is a very effective approach for what is (almost?) a flash piece.

Considering this as a list story, Boshear has chosen a form with built-in coherence and natural linkage/progression (both a list and the script to a fashion show), which gives it a different musculature to some other list stories.

Compare it, for example, to Rachel Swirsky’s “13 of the Secrets in my Purse” (see February notes), which would be only a list of objects without all the internal links and little emotional ramps the author builds in.

And Malcolm Devlin’s “The Knowledge” (also a list/retelling, also in the February notes) uses the list (of directions) as misdirections, while building the associated anecdotes into a mythology.

Tonya Liburd’s “10 Steps to a Whole New You” (earlier in this post) looks like a numbered list, which adds a flair, but is closer to expository chapter headings — the list itself describes the story rather than outlining how the story conforms to some external list structure.

John Wiswell’s “We Are Not Phoenixes” (see February notes), on the other hand, isn’t a list but could almost have been one — just add a few dot points, really. And it’s perhaps closer to Boshear’s “Seven Looks” in the context-relevant flow of the narrative.

“A Short Story in Seven Voices” uses the structure of a known list type (the script of a fashion show, the dramatic progression and little vignette sub-narratives). This imports a partial story framework from the get-go, opening room for stylish embellishment (in flash fiction!).

That overarching narrative structure lets the vignettes follow similar shapes without feeling repetitive. They are all “situation (outfit) — implication — intensify implication”, except for “Look 5”, which is “situation (outfit) — implication — spark of realisation/resistance“.

Being vignettes, those final moods are too light to land with the finality needed for a whole story. But the cumulative situations and implications build, and “Look 5” tugs the thread that will bring it all together in “Look 8”. “Look 8” IS final, but only lands because of the meanings behind it.

Two other notes on this story, for tracking purposes: – it’s partly about creativity, and follows (literalises/intensifies) a creative career path – it ends on a blaze of glory, vs e.g. ashen bleakness or exhausted relief, which could both have been used.

  • My Country Is a Ghost” — Eugenia Triantafyllou (Uncanny, 2020 — when ghosts must be left behind at borders, a ghostless character must learn other ways to remember)
    • loss — compounded — refracted
    • letting go — resenting — holding differently
    • exchanging — resisting — giving in
    • how this works — substitutions — recreations
    • bleak — wounded — cautious joy

Loss, immigration, ghosts, language, community — here are two stories I’d pair with this one (although there are many other stories working with similar themes): Iona Datt Sharma’s “All Worlds Left Behind” (see February notes) and Shaun Tan’s “No Other Country” in Tales From Outer Suburbia.

They aren’t the same shape, although there are echoes in “All Worlds Left Behind” — neither a displacement nor an allegory of grief but a concentration of it onto what else is being lost, language and food and landscapes and a place in a long flow of time.

But “All Worlds Left Behind”‘s bracketing of the workaday centre by rites and ritual parallels the structure of “My Country Is a Ghost”, bookended by little bureaucratic rites of passage and banishment at one end, and the Saturday of Souls at the other, with employment and reason and change in between.

I’m charmed by that “ritual — unsupported — ritual” shape. It makes me think of Maria Dong’s “The Frankly Impossible Weight of Han” (see February notes), which bridges the structure’s use in stories of immigration and loss on the one hand, and the over-reach of magic/tech on the other.

Looking at the use of ritual structurally, it seems to be a way to first summon a story and peel apart a world, and then at the end to stitch through many disparate layers, to mend and make new. And of course ritual brings with it layers of language, formulation, knowledge, history, time, family, the numinous brushing the physical, a way of altering the world or being acknowledged and changed by it, and (rendered bureaucratic) all the ways that can be made soulless.

(I’m talking generally about how ritual, broadly defined, interacts with story structure there, rather than any particular ritual.)

Oh heck, why not. Here’s Gail Simone’s flight attendant thread.

It’s not exactly set out as a short story, but the conversational foreshadowing in the introduction and the addendum both add to the extremely classic Gothic shape: “a door is opened — something comes through it — the door is closed but the hint of dread knowledge remains“. And those very natural digressions and recursions are integral to the shape — without them, it would feel more like an anecdote than a story. They lean on and anchor the narrative shape.

  • Jenny Come Up the Well” — AC Wise (Podcastle, 2021 — a revivalist preacher comes to town, and a girl who feels judged meets a girl far stranger than she is)
    • solitary — glimpse of alternative — purpose
    • desperate — helping another — building for futures
    • incomplete — another story — the right endings

This story belongs to a tradition of stories where another (bright but not fully seen) plot briefly draws the protagonist in. It’s a shape I associate with coming-of-age and portal fantasies (and this is in a way a reverse portal fantasy).

A base shape for such stories:

  • Narrative A (and/or protagonist) is jammed/stalled
  • Narrative B (begun elsewhere) sails in, shakes things loose, stuns the protag/draws them in
  • Resolution of B (full, partial or reeling off-stage) gives impetus to A and purpose to the protagonist

In a portal version, of course, the protagonist stumbles into the world of narrative B.

There’s a corollary here to the closed door/lingering dread of the end of a Gothic story shape, except the residual emotions are usually more positive (and the door-closing is reluctant).

  • Bandit, Reaper, Yours” — Jen Brown (Baffling Mag, 2021 — sent to assassinate their lover, someone who lives by violence must make a choice)
    • resignation — persuasion — realignment
    • regret — exasperation — certainty
    • confrontation — unexpected reaction — the “foolish” choice
    • duty — alternatives — decision
    • weighty — chatty — violent

Or you could rephrase “duty — alternatives — decision” as “unquestioning — hesitating — decisive“, which in either case creates a tidy story-shaped character arc for a very short, single-room story.

  • Deadbeat” — Jacob Budenz (Baffling Mag, 2021 — a demon in love with a warlock, judged for his uses of his powers)*
    • faint praise — mild aggravation — domestic reassurance
    • small uses of big powers — lack of communication about big things — reassurance about small things
    • not quite there — not quite enough — not quite understood

*Note: “Deadbeat” is a flash fiction piece which is very close to being slice of life or vignette — arguably it is more vignette than story (not a criticism). The story shape in it is extremely subtle, and the title does a lot of lifting (appropriate, especially in flash fiction). It’s easy to see ways to intensify the story shape (e.g. by adding more drama or tension or consequences or importance), but if you try that as a mental exercise, you’ll see it would break the very delicate slice of life Budenz is creating.

  • Peristalsis” — Vajra Chandrasekera (The Deadlands, 2021 — the dead (perhaps) watch a show about the living (perhaps) who watch a documentary about the dead)
    • recursion — division — collapse
    • consumers — consumed — consuming
    • accounts & recountings — warnings — revenants
    • worlds — choices — survival

The words in this story are a lot of fun, and the facts are inherently nebulous, but even while sorting through the meanings, there’s an undeniable story shape to this: it kicks off, flies, lands; it’s a life, or the history of a fandom or a revolution or a distraction.

And it’s definitely running alongside the purgatorial stories. There’s the same sense of a limited horizon, of love having meaning but also consuming itself, of stories cannibalising stories, of a degree of complicity or culpability, of the possibility (but not the certainty) of escape — although these effects are split between the viewers and the viewed, which dilutes or masks the echo.

  • Embroidery of a Bird’s Heart” — Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas (Strange Horizons, 2022 — the narrator is visited regularly and reassuringly by her dead grandmother)
    • care — worry — reassurance
    • a second chance — information — support
    • gift — wonder — gentleness
    • left — returned to — accompanied

I might have cried a little. For a story apparently about death/loss, this followed a very different shape to many I’ve read lately. It doesn’t have that common “bereavement — processing — release” shape (or at least, not at all with the meanings I’m used to!).

If this story is at all about letting go, it isn’t about letting go of your dead.

Also it has two themes I appreciate directly (protagonists who worry and significant, accurately-observed textile work), and another I appreciate on behalf of friends (corgis in fiction).

(And apart from the attention to surfaces, it’s dramatically different to the last of her stories I read, “Still Life With Vial of Blood” — see February’s notes.)

  • A Manslaughter of Crows” — Chris Willrich (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2021 — in a fantastic city, a gifted cat investigates a mystery involving politics, maps, and the strange behaviours of birds)
    • tracking — pursued — pursuing
    • enquiries — dangers — conclusions
    • job — personal — philosophical
    • individuals — allies — coordination
    • aloof — grudging — appreciative

This is a long story/short novella, and it’s moving towards a more complex structure. It’s nearing the point where it would probably be fairly easy to subdivide the main sections into 2 or 3 clear moods. But it is still a single central story.

It’s also adjacent to some structurally strong genres (fantasy mystery / comic noir / political thriller) which builds in fairly robust classic story-shapes, for the worldbuilding and characters to riff around.

  • Diamond Cuts” — Shaoni C White (Uncanny, 2021 — a painful play must be performed every night to keep magic in the world)
    • pain — script — revisions
    • loss — bitterness — partnership
    • acceptance — suffering — resistance
    • world — trap — door
    • serve — begrudge — reverse

As a story about creativity, it deals with costs and value and what it’s worth to go on with the show. So its shape does echo an aspect of the creative process, literally rewriting the script.

Relevant to comments on another Shaoni C White story (“The Kaleidoscopic Visitor” — see earlier in this post), “Diamond Cuts” ends decisively & dramatically (vs in delicate potentiality). Amusingly, however, the blazing glory happens earlier in the story. I say amusingly, but it fits with what’s happening to magic in this story. Pain then glory then (blessedly) dust.

An aside on story shapes:

Something I loved about Turning Red is that it takes what more commonly would be told as a superhero or possession story and makes it… not that. (Dash of kaiju, true, but only a dash.) Also the unquestioning acceptance of usually-concealed big visible magic (beyond the plausibly/lyrically-deniable) in an otherwise very down-to-earth familiar world. Iona Datt Sharma’s “All Worlds Left Behind” (see Feb notes) is the last thing I read that did this.

But — and this might come as a surprise — I REALLY like when potentially standard-issue stories are poured into the ‘wrong’ mould. My go-to example of this has been a WWI story poured into a (poorly fitting) WWII mould vs a WWII story poured (effectively) into a Cold War mould — so it is nice to have a non-war example!

  • The Constellations Are Unrecognizable Here” — Andrew Joseph White (Strange Horizons, 2021 — on a hospital spaceship, survivors of galactic wars struggle for their identities)
    • violence — frustration — desperation
    • admiration — confronted — breaking
    • repairs — grief — blazing
    • scarred — suffocated — clawing
    • hope — forced stagnation — too far (far enough?)

An interesting approach: this story-shape of desperation and fighting for your life is framed against a setting of a successfully-completed and ongoing rescue. The enormities of war are off-page, behind glass — this violence is nested in benevolence.

And although there’s a blazing quality here, it’s not without its own harm. Comparing this to the gentle, lyrical “The Kaleidoscopic Visitor” (much earlier in this post): both stories share a cautious, incremental hope.

It’s worth comparing to “Diamond Cuts” (a little above), too. A different topic (perhaps), and a decisive ending. BUT: an enclosed world, stars, pain, affection in a trap, power derived from someone else’s ongoing suffering…

And some of those three-mood shapes could be borrowed for “Constellations…” — rewriting a script that will be played out on flesh and hearts.

  • Nine-Tailed Heart” — Jessica Cho (khōréō, 2021 — suffering after being abandoned by a lover, a woman meets a nine-tailed fox who promises to eat her heart)
    • bloodless — stirring — beating (heart)
    • bleak — drawn — desire
    • puzzled — shamefaced — decisive
    • encounter — evade — seize

A lovely classic return-to-life/come-into-power story-shape. To the slight extent it is a retelling (and about retellings), it plays with changing definitions of key terms in the tale, and is a nice example of myth-as-catalyst / myth-as-tutor.

It’s also a story which made me keep a little running list of some fun micro-dynamics to try out, which I always appreciate.

  • A Gift from the Queen of Faerie to the King of Hell” — Cara Masten DiGirolamo (Fantasy Magazine, 2021 — in an enchanted New York, the narrator meets a mercurial lover through a tattoo shop, and chooses to bargain for their soul)
    • rivalry — suspecting — to battle
    • love — quest — challenge
    • binding — search — stakes
    • borders — deeper world — fight
    • tease/promises — follow-through — hold on

A classic story-shape for a retelling of a classic story, “Tam Lin” — a story fairly central to urban fantasy retellings specifically. Keeping that strong centre lets the story riff on settings and characters, interactions and ways and means.

An aside on pronouns and grammar: many stories work hard to clarify to the reader a character’s appropriate pronouns and (not always hard enough) to link those pronouns back the relevant antecedent noun — but in “A Gift…” DiGirolamo lets prounouns bloom and blend like rainbows in oil, slicking and shifting across a single paragraph.

Much of this is a point of the story, but it’s done in the same tone of bashful-defiant apparent-unselfconsciousness of some of the other interactions, and with enough deftness that once you trust the syntax, it’s linguistically and narratively charming.

(That “not hard enough” comment is about copy-editing and clarity, not about word choices or the pronouns themselves — the broad impression I’ve received is that a proportion of copyeditors have been overly cautious about engaging with pronoun usages unfamiliar to them, but as they’ve educated themselves further, they’ve again started being more robust in checking for clarity as well as accuracy.)

  • Fanfiction for a Grimdark Universe” — Vanessa Fogg (Translunar Traveler’s Lounge, 2021 — on the eve of possible destruction, the narrator describes their researches into fanfiction written in other realities about their own world, and what it has taught them)
    • flustered — earnest — passionate
    • curious — engaged — relying on
    • alternatives — hope — confession
    • worlds — possibilities — chances

As in another story about inter-world fandoms, Max Gladstone’s “To Make Unending” (see January notes) , they are a catalyst here for hope, although possibly(?) not for change.

However, “Fanfiction for…” is a monologue, or at least only one side of a dialogue. This narrowing to a single voice in a single moment sort of shrink-wraps a story around the narrative musculature. You can see the story shift & transition in a way dialogue, action & description might disguise. It highlights some of the force and challenges of writing a monologue. (My residual year 12 writing assignment angst resurfaced.)

The three-mood shape is a lovely lean hope-shape. And since it starts with opening possibilities, it’s primarily about that — information on the world is seeded throughout.

Oh, and for the purposes of tracking these themes: obviously it’s a story about creativity, but more about its purpose/value than the process.

  • Give My Body to the Moths” — Riley Neither (Fireside Fiction, 2022 — the guilt of a traitor to resistance and love)
    • bitter guilt — betrayed love — bitter defiance
    • already lost — what’s been lost — what can be given
    • ashes — memory of flame — flicker

Slim hope, again, but a very different and more bitter hope story-shape. Also, an ending on fire that’s not a conflagration — this also belongs to the eternal revolution/minimum necessary rebellion stories, with emphasis on a final spasm of defiance having some meaning, about burning up almost unseen as part of a chain of defiance — vs the implied continuing efforts of individuals within community in some other stories (see notes on revolution etc in February’s readings).

  • Diamonds and Pearls” — JL George (Fireside Fiction, 2021 — language loss and acquisition and its function in a relationship, in a world where each language’s words are spoken and learned as gems)
    • play — distraction — earnest
    • learn — withdraw — effort
    • valuing — hesitate — strive
    • casual — alarmed — deliberate
    • attraction — falling — committing

This story deals both with loss of a language & culture (cf, in a slightly different direction, Sharma’s “All Worlds Left Behind” — February notes) and with language competence as an analogue for communication in relationships (see Young’s “Deal”, earlier in this post, with aliens).

There are more story-shape echoes with “Deal” (e.g. “working around (lack of understanding) — failure (to communicate) — persevering“). But whereas some stories use alienation and language as a metaphor for separation (neutral or bad) from people or place, in “Diamonds and Pearls”, languages (re)acquisition is concerned with access to yourself.

And I love love loved the *visual* of all the different gems. Also it’s an allusion rather than a retelling, but considered as a type of retelling: it takes a fairy-tale image and makes it both a clear literal reference to a concept & an effortful choice, rather than a curse/blessing.

Anyway, in case you can’t tell, I’m really enjoying this reading project as a way to look at the echoes and patterns between/across stories.

  • All the Open Highways” — Alexis Gunderson (The Deadlands, 2021 — ghosts from time to time appear in the narrator’s car on long nighttime drives)
    • unexpected — expected — seeking
    • dismissive — tolerant — sympathetic
    • youth — midlife — age
    • politeness — tolerance — generosity
    • ominous — sad — kindly
    • information — theories —revision

I very much enjoyed this story. Towards the last third, I was expecting it to do something like “Embroidery of a Bird’s Heart” (see earlier in this post), but it didn’t at all. Although I would certainly include it in a list of stories that in some way contemplate the role of psychopomp (which, to my delight, most of the actual grim reaper stories don’t really do — so often that function is more about a character coming to terms with life/death/role/career).

But I was struck by the *kindliness* of this (and of “Embroidery of a Bird’s Heart”).

Something else interesting about “All the Open Highways”: the moods are very delicately varied. There’s a restraint and common tone that would *almost* let me describe the story as a repeat of the same mood, e.g. politeness, except that would imply intensification and variation.

This is where the story-of-a-life structure comes into its own. “Highways” doesn’t foreground the main character’s aging. The passage of time doesn’t become a tool for tension or oppression in the story. But the spacing of those scenes across a lifetime it does subtly modulate the main character’s reactions and choices.

  • Shandy” — Gabrielle Emem Harry (Omenana, 2021 — a girl calling on an ancestor gets someone far more like herself than she expected, and with her own baggage)
    • invocation — success — fixing/maintenance
    • need — tolerance — determination
    • surprise — accustomed — firm
    • childish — friends — being the adult
    • supplication — coordination — stubbornness

This is another story of the accompanying dead, and very different in spirit and shape from “Embroidery of a Bird’s Heart” and “All the Open Highways” — although, in its way, just as affectionate and kindly (if more vigorously so).

Also, while “Shandy” isn’t a coming-of-age story as such, one way of looking at the shape has that really charming shift from childhood to adulthood — from being a person who pulls stories down on their own head, to becoming the sort of person who Happens to situations.

And it’s not about “growing up” in the sense of working out who you are, but in the sense of being old enough to fully deploy the personality you already had, and to become the grownup in a situation involving the people who used to look out for you.

The more I think about it, the more I like that sort of story shape for telling a story primarily about (and in favour of) a personality: “early intimations — making it work — deploying it deliberately“.

  • Now Is the Time for Expansion and Growth” — Sarah Pinsker (The Sunday Morning Transport, 2022 — after strange structures appear in the city, parents realise their child has begun building them in the backyard) 
    • intimations — unsettlement — joining in
    • ordinary — peculiar — hopeful
    • discomfiture — tolerance — engagement
    • external expectations — wonder — beauty
    • restriction—approximation—blossoming
    • harrassed — exasperated — inspired

This is a very mild-mooded story — not in the sense of the almost sotto-voce subtlety of some, but in that it’s about little ripples of change. Those three moods could be a robust, action-filled story, but this one has an overtone of everyday puzzlement and delight, and of characters who support curiosity, and are prepared to go along with where it leads.

The story has wider implications, but this choice of mood-level keeps it gentler, domestic (although not domesticated), bounded by the yard. If you imagine keeping the same setting/ events but heightening the emotion, the emphasis would shift to implications for the world.

This effect doesn’t imply that big emotions don’t belong in a domestic story — the opposite if anything. But the scale of emotions affects the way the story overlays the reader’s world/how much of the reader’s view it takes up. Something like that.

  • AP Practical Literary Theory Suggests This Is A Quest (Or: What Danny Did Over Spring Break)” — Isabel J Kim (Cast of Wonders, 2021 — after Danny inconveniently dies before a planned road trip, he goes anyway, and his friends try to resurrect him as they traverse a myth-steeped America)
    • inconvenience — avoidance — yielding
    • world — rules — hack
    • picked up — propped up — acknowledging
    • home — road — destination
    • friendship — received — given
    • personalities — flat affect — effort

Obviously many stories *have* a “problem—attempts—solution” plot. Relatively few, however, *feel* like that’s their shape. This one, being specifically about quest shapes, does. It’s still secondary, however, to the personalities of the friends. Again, though, that’s the point.

It’s another personality story, too, although not as personality *first* as, for example, “Shandy” (earlier in this post). That story flows a person through into the full force of their personality.

“AP Practical Literary Theory…”, however, alludes to a personality in its absence — the reactions of friends, the group formed around it — and then when it is regained, immediately proves why this particular person got into the fix they were in at the beginning.

For the purposes of tracking themes: this also deals with platonic love & friendship (c.f. “The Enchanted Gardener”, earlier in this post).

  • Heart Shine” — Shveta Thakrar (Uncanny Magazine, 2021 — a girl longs to find her way out of her unlovely city into a land of enchantment)
    • enchantment — disillusion — re-enchantment
    • seeking — sought — given
    • effort — fear — acceptance
    • loss — resistance — release

Looking at those last two readings of this story: those are shapes that frequently show up in processing-of-grief stories, which this isn’t. Of course it might have been a loss-of-wonder story and ended with acceptance. But it’s about regaining enchantment.

  • The Burning Girl” — Carrie Vaughn (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2021 — a girl with the ability to start fires is brought into a group of people with unique powers during the Norman conquest)
    • defeated — stirring — defiant
    • surviving — unfurling — deciding
    • afraid — alarmed — committing
    • alone — awkwardly accompanying — a family
    • doubt — proof — battle
    • spark — flame — blaze

Further to notes on “AP Practical Literary Theory…” above, “The Burning Girl” is another story (albeit with a very different tone & reason) where the protagonist’s personality is not fully established until the end. But I find that excavation equally charming.

Another story that starts with a girl with powers in a medieval convent, Kate Francia’s “A Bird in the Window” (see February notes) goes in a rather different direction. Yet there’s an echo in their shapes (“winkled out — coaxed out — breaking out; frightened curiosity — frightened longing — last resistance overcome; meetings — friendship — testing“), which I suspect belongs to the mode of both stories.

It’s consistent with… perhaps less a voice than an accent I associate with related stories. You can feel the presence of the particular tradition/sub-sub-sub genre to which both belong. A kind of mannered stately gravity wrapped around the potential for feral violence and delight. This probably describes the particular blending of earnest respect for (religious) history & belief in the liberating power of a potentially-pagan fantastic that gives rise to it.

I think I recognise it fondly but clearly because books in this mode and voice were always just next-door to the (less historical, more legendary) ones I was after, as a kid. (Not a criticism, a fond recognition.)

And I’m interested in the tones of voice certain types of stories commonly adopt. Not only for potential variation or subversion, either. Sometimes they are what I love in a subgenre, one of the few things NOT to tinker with. Sometimes the associations of an accent/tone/mode is strong enough to do the work of invoking/evoking a whole world or story type, leaving the author free to use the rest of the words to do other things.

And then also, yes: subversion, weaponisation, misdirection, surprise…

It’s something key tropes can do, too — a classic situation is fun to riff on. But a known and reliable trope can also carry a lot of narrative momentum/structural load, holding open space for the author to play with other things.

  • Innocent Bird” — Rachel Swirsky (Lightspeed Magazine, 2021 — wings a girl inherited from her absent mother begin to grow in when she first starts to fall in love)
    • balking (threshold) — refusing — deciding
    • fear — fury — exhaustion
    • incipience — unstoppability — inevitability
    • resistance — no communication — edge of understanding
    • love (pejorative)—love (selfish)—love (weary)
    • gift — rejection — persistence

I like the choice of pairing what looks like a defeatist story shape with a story that’s actually about first love/understanding/growing up. The events are hopeful/joyful/natural, but the tone is downbeat (or at least resigned). The ending is, I think, presented as right and good (as well as inevitable), but there is room to rail and mourn.

A split between events and their meaning, on the one hand, and the tone of the ending on the other offers a lot of scope — not just for undermining or questioning events, but also for leaving space for humanity and ambivalence and the loss that even good change brings.

  • Flight” — Innocent Chizaram Ilo (Fantasy Magazine, 2021 — grey parrots cling to the life they’ve always known in an increasingly hostile urban environment)
    • the presence of death — survivors — death attends
    • omens — persistence — fate
    • bargains — scavenging — departures
    • acceptance — side-effects — consequences
    • inhospitable environment — denial — actively hostile environment

It’s another story about birds and inevitability — but a very different sort of birds and a very different sort of inevitability. It has stronger echoes of Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe’s “Illusions of Freedom” (see February notes). Both have bird-people and inevitability, but in “Flight” it is more impersonal and implacable, and with a different type of hinted fatalistic complicity.

Innocent Chizaram Ilo’s story, with its anthropomorphised birds, also (deliberately) leans more into the literary-fatalistic “so it is” than into the more speculative “must it be so?” (Again, see comments after ‘Illusions of Freedome” in the February notes).

There’s definitely a little pattern here of bird-folk vs the inevitable, although the metaphors, outcomes, and philosophies differ. (The opposition in all three stories is, however, some aspect of the human: the choices all must make; bigotry and violence; habitat destruction).

And I’m not saying I haven’t been directly involved in two books using some variation of the birds vs humanity metaphor.
(And at least two short stories and a comic)
(good grief)
(none of these observations are criticisms, is what I’m saying)

  • First Leaf” — Elise Stephens (Fiyah, 2021 — an old woman schemes with a young girl to circumvent the requirements of a race that grants a year’s invulnerability)
    • scheming — cheating — gleaming
    • gifts — effort — promise
    • anger — perseverance — granting
    • rootbound — breaking/reaching — growing

The blazing personality in this one comes early, and I rather like the way that this follows what pent-up anger might turn out to be, given an outlet, direction, and some peace.

  • We Are the Thing That Lives on the Moon” — Gillian Secord (Fireside, 2022 — an old, changed things is on the moon, and it’s been a long time since it’s eaten)
    • scuttling — striking — lurking
    • dry — hungry — appetite whetted
    • grated on — stirred up — strengthened
    • wincing — wishing — dining
    • pained — pensive — patient

I’ve mentioned previously becoming more aware of the split between perception of story proportion and actual use of wordcount. Looking at that first dotpoint, the first element actually takes up more than 2/3 of the story. This isn’t unusual for initial actions/set-pieces in short stories. But the main moods do tend to shift earlier — there’s a key change (or two).

Also, I love that title.

  • Phoenix Tile” — Guan Un (khōréō, 2022 — a minor deity whose power is fading schemes to extend their existence)
    • pieces — set them up — knock them down
    • twisty — tricky — flashy
    • inside — outside — beyond
    • lever — fulcrum — leverage
    • desperate grin — knowing grin — wry grin
    • (apparently): beg — irritate — risk

It’s a trickster tale, and I like how you can see that in the shape, especially the mechanics of it: setting up a domino effect that you can see in retrospect, or putting things in place which can be used for their natural properties. “Pieces — set them up — knock them down” as a description risks sounding simplistic, but it’s that fun, wry, stylish, urban-fantasy-noir-trickster sense of introducing the pieces — a self-deprecating flourish, an apparently self-revealing sleight of hand.

These comments are primarily my reader response but I LOVE hearing when/whether it intersects with the author’s own intention/impression:

  • The Patron God of Tawn” — Dustin Steinacker (GigaNotoSaurus, 2021 — a city’s patron wasp-god vanishes, and questions of purpose and faith arise)
    • loss — bewilderment — tending
    • uncertainty — certainty — guilt
    • responsibility — inability — feigning
    • purpose — lost purpose — new purpose
    • mystery — rent — humanity
    • end — aftermath — after

Starting a story at the end of things (world/era) can be — as here — an effective way to build a short story that is largely (not solely) about the worldbuilding. It focuses and gives urgency and context to the information, while also limiting scope (and therefore story length).

  • Sía” — Lizz Huerta (Lightspeed, 2021 — a woman now accompanied by her opinionated ancestors goes to a spiritual workshop with a questionable and appropriative instructor)
    • niggling — burning — blazing
    • acquiring — learning — using
    • arriving — gathering — surging
    • scepticism — sardonic — sweetness
    • miffed — exasperated — riotous (vs diminished)
    • locus — vehicle — power

I don’t often stop reading a short story for a bit near the end because I want to *savour* the end, but I did with this.

Also, for a story with a third mood that’s fairly blazing, the final note is much smaller — not in a bleak or peaceful way but in a very particular sound-effect that could be comic/petty, but which satisfyingly returns & attaches the story to everyday experience. There’s a neat little mechanic to how it’s done that ties together big feelings and strong personalities and triumph and compassion and satisfaction and just a soupçon of deserved glee at earned (and pursued) humiliation. It’s a story that gets everyone back in the van and drives off but can’t resist blowing a raspberry out the window before it pulls out of the parking lot, and honestly it would have been out of character NOT to.

Something else about “Sía” — it doesn’t take a grief-story shape, although it is bracketed by and run through with loss. Nor, although the story shapes would lend themselves to this, is it a coming-into-your-power story. The power’s there, and always has been.

And it could *almost* be a wish-fulfilment story if it weren’t for the degree of active consent/complicity/necessity of the narrator’s presence.

But for a witnessing story, there’s a lot more emotional involvement and intensification than is common to that sort of story (and I say this noting that I do also enjoy a good objective/distant witness-narrator).

Anyway: a vigorous and delightful story. And it’s already gone onto the roster of stories I seem to be recommending to a lot of people.

Something else about “Sía” — it doesn’t take a grief-story shape, although it is bracketed by and run through with loss. Nor, although the story shapes would lend themselves to this, is it a coming-into-your-power story. The power’s there, and always has been. But for a witnessing story, there’s a lot more emotional involvement and intensification than is common to that sort of story (and I say this noting that I do also enjoy a good objective/distant witness-narrator). And it could *almost* be a wish-fulfilment story if it weren’t for the degree of active consent / complicity / necessity of the narrator’s presence.

  • Venturing” — Jonathan Louis Duckworth (Beneath Ceaseless Skies, 2022 — a girl goes adventuring into the woods, and brushes up against the wilder world and the consequences that live there)
    • determination — fear — knowledge
    • outbound — too far — home but…
    • warnings — consequences — deeper warnings
    • restless — frightened — certain
    • “childish” — chance to learn better — refusal to change

This made me remember that from a monster’s perspective, a Gothic story is “a door opens — YOU get through — you’re pushed back into your own life but now you know what’s out there”. Not that the hero of “Venturing” is monstrous, but the mirrored shape pleased me.

Jonathan Louis Duckworth and I both have stories about journeys into the woods, and their consequences, in issue 352 of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, in case you want to compare treatments.

Some similarly-shaped stories end on hope, on the potential once the main character grows up a bit and is able to start a bigger adventure. While it’s 95% clear that will happen after “Venturing”, the tone at the very end is more equivocal — it will not be all joy.

Woods in stories as places that change you, that turn their back on you, that dissolve and erode you, that border and convey, that mystify and evade, that threaten, that pretend change, that shape you into who you will be, that confirm who you already are…

“They would not find me changed from him they knew— Only more sure of all I thought was true.”

— Robert Frost, “Into My Own”

And that’s the end of March! Edit to add: April’s post is now up.

For my reference, here’s a list of the stories, with links back to their first references:

14 thoughts on “March short story reading post

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