Four Stories for the Weary Traveler

In keeping with my recent reading habits, here are four more stories I’ve read in the last month or so that made my heart do that flip-flopping thing it does when a good story waltzes by. Maybe it’s a mood I’m in, but all these stories seem to be relatively unadorned, heartfelt, and life-affirming. And very, very worth your time.

midwayMidway Relics and Dying Breeds, Seanan McGuire, Tor.com

This has been one of my recent favorites. It’s a winding, world-building story about a gypsy-carnival-caravan meandering up and down the future West Coast, and the young woman who cares for their Indricothere. Because they have one of those. Named Billie.

Even though it’s set in the future—some happy vision of the world in which environmentalism has taken hold and carnivals now travel on the backs of megafuana rather than tractor trailers—the entire thing exudes a perfect sense of nostalgia. Partly, it’s the magic of circuses. All of us have popcorn-and-neon memories buried in our brains of going to the carnival when we were kids. And partly it’s the sense that the entire carnival is chronologically-misplaced, out of sync with the world:

“The pace of the carnival is an old thing, old and tired and slow, speeding up only when it comes time to illuminate the midway and chase down its prey. We were as much a living fossil as Billie. Maybe that was why I loved her so dearly. She was out of her time, and always would be, until the day that gravity proved to be too much for her huge and hammering heart.”

But I also loved this story because I have a serious weakness for Things Working Out the Way They Should. Even when I see their literary quality or cleverness, I still have trouble swallowing the sad, broken ways that stories sometimes end. “Midway Relics and Dying Breeds” ends just the way I like: A wrong righted, and whole new futures and adventures unfolding like maps before our protagonist.

doofy-lionTaxidermist in the Underworld, Maria Dahvana Headley, Clarkesworld

Maria Dahvana Headley is a name I probably should have known (Nebula-nominated, novelist, editor, etc.) but I totally didn’t. So I had no expectations at all when I fell into her irreverent story of love, whimsy, and taxidermy.

Louis is a taxidermist in a museum who is abruptly snatched down to Hell to be the Devil’s Own Taxidermist. He spends a small eternity trying to properly stuff and mount ghosts, and the story is interspersed with the most lovely journal-entry discoveries:

“Discovery:

One cannot fill a ghost with sawdust and stuff it until it stands. It will sag and bulge, and after a short time, one will have not a proper mount, but an abomination akin to Frederick’s Lion, eyes incorrectly aligned, teeth pushed out like falling fences.”

(If you don’t know what Frederick’s Lion is…it’s what happens when an 18th century taxidermist tries to stuff a lion without ever having seen one, and produces something like Winnie-the-Pooh’s worst nightmare).

But of course, the Devil isn’t the most straightforward of men, and the story falls into a surprisingly sweet, surprisingly funny love triangle.

Dream Cakes, Kelly Jennings, Strange Horizons

Flash fiction and I are not close friends. When we meet at parties, we give awkward half-waves and hope we never end up alone in the room together.

Mostly, it’s because I read it and think, “Gee, that’s a great idea for a story! You should write one.” They feel half-formed, vague, sacrificing either clarity of setting or character or plot to cram an idea into 1,000 words or less.

But I liked “Dream Cakes.” I still want more of it, still feel vaguely cheated that I don’t know precisely where and when we are and how everyone got there, but it carried a surprising amount of emotional heft for its size.

In neat, efficient prose, we get a glimpse into the life of Ella. A soldier comes into her bakery asking for a dream cake—asking for a new fate, a new life. Ella gives it to him, in the form of a spiced-sugar cake.

“They always wanted more—ceremony, drama, fancy words. Ella didn’t know how she did this, if it was magic or what it was; she only knew that this catching of the fabric of reality, this momentary snagging of fluid potentiality into the mix, the sweep of disorder into re-ordering, required no words, no gestures, no sacred dance.”

I rather liked the idea of baking as the instrument of magic. Speaking as someone who recently made the world’s worst sweet potato cake (even though I followed the recipe! I swear I did!), there are surely alchemical elements.

Hunting-Monsters-300x446Hunting Monsters, S.L. Huang, The Book Smugglers

Not content with ruling the book-blogging world with an iron (read: nerdy and fun) fist, the Book Smugglers have recently embarked on a publishing venture. Their first call was for subversive fairy tales. And man, “Hunting Monsters” is exactly that.

It’s a dark mashup of Little Red Riding Hood and Beauty and the Beast but, like any truly subversive retelling, it’s more than that. It’s an examination of the structure of the fairy-tale world, where there are men and beasts and women locked away. It’s about vengeance and honor and rifles. I mean, just look at the cover.

It’s also compelling for its…earnest-ness? It’s a story with its heart on its sleeve, deeply felt and utterly un-cynical. Even while it explores very dark territory, it remains unerringly life-affirming. Because that’s what fairy tales do.

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