It’s been approximately a trillion years since I wrote an actual review. In my defense, the semester started and I went on comfort reading binge and didn’t think anyone needed to hear about precisely how much I like the Vorkosigan Saga or Jonathan Strange or Anansi Boys or The Grapes of Wrath. But I have managed to slip a few excellent, odd, wondrous short stories between the cracks. Not all of these are especially recent, but WHATEVER MAN.
Moths of the New World, Audrey Niffenegger, The Guardian
This is the best one (she said, displaying the keen, incisive vocabulary of a reviewer). It might be the best story I’ve read all year, or possibly for several years. If you only know Niffenegger from The Time Traveler’s Wife, it’s important to understand that there are much stranger, darker, and more whimsical corners of her literary expression. Like the delicious-looking Raven Girl or The Night Bookmobile, “Moths of the New World” is a tiny fantasy world both sweet and unsettling, like a witch’s gingerbread house.
Really, the first couple of paragraphs tell you exactly what you’re dealing with:
The book woke up in a strange man’s apartment.
The book had been published in 1928 in Minneapolis. She was exceptionally well illustrated, with many colour plates; most of the illustrations featured moths, larvae, pupae, caterpillars, cocoons. She had 364 pages, all clay-coated stock, and was cloth bound in faded saffron buckram with her title stamped in silver on the cover and spine. There was some foxing. Her title was Moths of the New World.
Or: the book was a small-boned light-haired woman with big brown eyes and a startled expression. She was shy and always wore nondescript clothing. She preferred to fade into the background and seldom spoke. Like most real books she spent a great deal of her time sleeping, but even so there were dark circles under her eyes. She had never met her author and because her original print run had only been 500 she was seldom read now. Most of her copies had been relegated to special collections and rare book rooms, or cut up and sold for the pictures. So Moths of the New World spent her nights and days dozing on her shelf in the Library, content to be left alone.
It’s a rambling love letter to libraries, books, and writers. It’s an unlikely coming of age story. It’s going to make your toes curl with glee.
The Earth and Everything Under, K.M. Ferebee, Shimmer
This one will make your toes curl with a strange, achy sense of loss and wistfulness, which is sort of Shimmer’s Thing. It’s not a fast-paced high-tension powerhouse of a story; it’s more a serious of crystal clear images that draw you into the American west, witchery, widowhood, and birds that burrow up from the earth:
“Peter had been in the ground for six months when the birds began pushing up out of the earth. Small ones, at first, with brown feathers: sparrows, spitting out topsoil, their black eyes alert. They shook and stretched their wings in the sunlight. Soon they were pecking the juniper berries and perching on rooftops, just like other birds. They were small, fat, and soft; Elyse wanted to hold them. But they were not tame and they would not come to her.”
The birds turn out to be messengers of a grisly variety, carrying letters from a witch’s dead husband. The afterlife never quite comes into focus, but I’m quite sure it’s not a place I’d like to be.
The Color of Paradox, A.M. Dellamonica, Tor.com
“The Color of Paradox” is a fast-paced high-tension powerhouse of story, which still manages to be thoughtful and sleek-edged. It’s a new take on the whole go-back-in-time-to-prevent-the-end-of-the-world thing, except it’s in the mid-twentieth century America and we’ve apparently done it dozens of times, delaying the end of the world for a few years or months but never quite evading it.
It’s written from the perspective of an exceptionally unlikable man named Jules, sent back to “ruin, spoil, or kill” a young boy who will eventually cause the apocalypse. But time travel is a brutal, strictly one-way process, and the bulk of the story is about Jules’s interactions with the agent sent before him. It’s a hurting, lip-biting kind of story.
As Good As New, Charlie Jane Anders, Tor.com
So get this: “As Good as New” is also about time travel and the end of the world. Which just goes to show you that there are infinite fractals of possible stories even in the most thin-worn tropes, because Anders’s story is also about genies in bottles, the love of theater, and following your dreams.
“Marisol got into an intense relationship with the people on The Facts of Life, to the point where Tootie and Mrs. Garrett became her imaginary best friends and she shared every last thought with them. She told Tootie about the rash she got from wearing the same bra every day for two years, and she had a long talk with Mrs. Garrett about her regrets that she hadn’t said a proper goodbye to her best friend Julie and her on-again/off-again boyfriend Rod, before they died along with everybody else.”
What an adorable and terrifying way to begin a short story. Marisol is a young (failed) playwright who happens to be the only person to survive the apocalypse. She finds a genie in a bottle—who was “the theater critic at The New York Times for six months in 1958”—and spends the rest of the story trying to find three wishes that will save the world, and also talking about theater with her sardonic genie friend. It gave me all the warm and fuzzies.
In the Sight of Akresa, Ray Wood, Tor.com
This one gave me zero of the warm and fuzzies. Maybe less than zero. Maybe I’m questioning human morality now. It’s about a young princess in a Viking-ish culture who falls in love with a slave woman her father brought home from war. The slave woman has had her tongue cut out, and the inherently cruel power dynamic between the two women (a princess with a voice, a slave without one) adds a chill that the story never shakes.
This is how they took your tongue:
There is a wedge, short and made of steel, used to prise apart the teeth. The skin on your lips splits as the slave-maker pushes it into your mouth. Hard Yovali hands hold you all over, keeping your arms behind your back, your knees on the ground, your face towards the sun. Metal crunches against your teeth, scraping, swiveling, pushing. Your incisors feel like they are bending inwards.
Yeah. Grisly. In the end, almost inevitably, the princess must choose whether to protect herself or her lover. And how have those in power always chosen?
Four Steps to the Perfect Smoky Eye, Claire Humphrey, Strange Horizons
This is another losing-faith-in-humanity kind of story, but in the end it’s about the disempowered snatching a little of themselves back.
Dad bought my safekeeper from the school. The company had some kind of booth at Parent-Teacher Night. He gave me this box tied with a purple ribbon. I opened it and saw the black plastic handcuff, decorated with a row of number keys and a port on the side to charge it.
“Oh. I thought it was going to be one of those tennis bracelets,” I said, trying not to freak. But by the time I got the words out my dad had my wrist wrapped in his big solid hand, and he snapped the safekeeper on and it was too late.
Safekeepers are creepy inventions designed to Protect Women (aaaaagggh no please). It sends out alarms if anyone hits you, or if you consume alcohol, or kiss, or are out too late, or generally seem to be having fun. It’s essentially the technological solution to the problem of policing young women’s morality. Okay, so it’s not the most subtle story on the planet, but it was short and snappy and got straight to the heart of a lot of stuff.