Story Picks for 2013

Some brief thoughts on my favourite short fiction of the year, though I haven’t read anywhere near as much as I’d have liked! Way too many stories and not enough time.

Singing Like a Hundred Dug-Up Bones

by Alex Dally MacFarlane (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

This is my favourite story of the year, one I just had to revisit several times over. On the one hand, it’s a no-brainer for me, as I have something of a weakness for lost and lonely characters finding their own place in the world. But there’s more to this story, and I’m going to feel free to spoil it below:

A sad, alienated woman named Knowe comes across a community of spirits whilst digging up burial mounds near her Orkney-inspired home, spirits who share their history with her through long-forgotten songs. In doing so, they show how the voices of ancient women have all too often been silenced, their roles in history covered as surely as their own remains beneath the earth. Knowe grows while bonding with these long-deceased women, finally finding the worth in her own voice, and her own space in her community.

It’s a beautiful and warming tale, evocatively told, and filled with startling imagery of earth and bone:

Out by the mounds, the ground thaws slowly. Frost-got grass and heather crunch under Knowe’s boots. There’ll be no digging for at least another month, probably closer to two. Knowe walks alone, wrapped in winter wools and hides, but the day is mild enough that she goes un-hooded, letting the wind grasp at her long hair.

Her mound-hair: peat-dark and thick, blowing over her face that’s pale as dried-out bones after the long, dark winter.

I can’t recommend this one enough. Next up, and in the same vein…

Found

by Alex Dally MacFarlane (Clarkesworld Magazine)

I love seeing non-standard character types in Science Fiction, so how cool is it to see a genderqueer character navigating a spaceship around a bunch of asteroid colonies?

I feared many things, but this was what stuck in me like a blockage in an air supply pipe, like a star anise’s point in a throat: what if people didn’t understand me. I imagined people like Thyme being so rare that they laughed. I imagined the people whose languages used gendered pronouns insisting that I choose male or female. I imagined every one of these one million people needing to be told that I was un-gendered, a different gender—if I didn’t even know what to call myself, how could I expect to be taken seriously?—the way I had needed to tell everyone I knew in the asteroids when I was younger. I imagined giving up.

I told myself to stop being foolish. How could one million people have only two fixed genders?

Found has some thematic similarities with Singing…: aside from those the title makes clear, there’s also the matter of hidden/suppressed knowledge and identity—the main character has spent so much time already having to explain who and what they are, and is now confronted with the imminent arrival of long-lost ancestors, and repatriation to their homeworld. The fear and uncertainty of such a thing—of constantly having to justify their existence, of never feeling represented within their own people’s traditions, of possibly never finding a place to belong—is conveyed with pained, palpable uncertainty and longing throughout.

Nova Verba, Mundus Novus

by Ken Liu (Daily Science Fiction)

I won’t waste words in a weak attempt to convey what is so great and fun about this brief, brisk story. It’s only about 700 words, so no excuse not to read it right now. Go read it, now!

Sparg

by Brian Trent (Daily Science Fiction)

An adorable story about an alien pet left to fend for itself in the house when all the humans vanish. Picturing an ugly little tentacled monster making a hash of preparing breakfast is just one of the highlights:

In the empty apartment, he clutched the silver bowl with one tentacle to hold it steady. With another, he attempted the far trickier business of whipping the batter as he’d seen his owners do many, many times. The bowl was bigger than he was. The counter was sticky with flour, egg, and ink.

It’s hard not to get drawn in and find yourself rooting for poor little Sparg.

The Color of Sand

by KJ Kabza (The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, July/August)

This is one of those stories where my smile just kept on growing the further I got into it. A ridiculously imaginative fantasy piece with sea voyages, magic rocks, talking cats, giant children, and with a plot so twisty-turny and an ending so sweet it’s all but irresistible. I’d wish I could read stories like this more often, but then this one one be rendered less special for it.

You First Meet the Devil at a Church Fete

by Shannon Fay (Interzone, #246)

Here’s the thing: I hate stories told in second person. Hate them. It’s a gut reaction. Usually I can’t get more than a paragraph in before becoming irritated beyond belief, no matter how well-written, no matter how intriguing the premise. And yet…

This one works. Hell, more than that, I couldn’t imagine it being told any other way. You First Meet the Devil… charts the life of a certain fifth member of a certain band as he is offered a Faustian bargain, and then follows the repercussions of the choice he makes. A great, imaginatively told story, and winner of 2013’s James White award, with good reason.

Some others that stuck with me for one reason or another:

The Barber and the Count by Michael Haynes (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

Boat in Shadows, Crossing by Tori Truslow (Beneath Ceaseless Skies)

City of Chrysanthemum by Ken Liu (Daily Science Fiction)

Dysphonia in D Minor by Damien Walters Grintalis (Strange Horizons)

The Flight Stone by KJ Kabza (Daily Science Fiction)

The Revelation of Morgan Stern by Christie Yant (Shimmer, #16 (also at Drabblecast))

The Siren by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam (Strange Horizons)

Tell Them of the Sky by A.T. Greenblatt (Daily Science Fiction)

Theories of Pain by Rose Lemberg (Daily Science Fiction)

The Urashima Effect by E. Lily Yu (Clarkesworld Magazine)

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