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Phantoms of the Midway by Seanan McGuire
McGuire’s Persephone retelling, centred on a fading American circus, is a beautiful and sweet story, that recasts its central couple as women, and Hades as not an abductor of Persephone but as the person willing to tell her the truth about herself. It’s a moving, emotional story, and one with a bite at the end; the way McGuire changes the nature of the six-month deal is absolutely brilliant, and impressively new. Talk about coming out of the gate strong!
The Justified by Ann Leckie
Leckie takes an Egyptian myth and makes it science fictional; there are traces of the same interests in power as she shows in the Raadch trilogy and in Raven Tower, but compressed, and reworked into the form of the myth, which she follows pretty faithfully – with her own twist, and a change of agency that turns the whole thing on its head in interesting ways.
Fisher-Bird by T. Kingfisher
Kingfisher’s aggressively Southern retelling of the Twelve Labours of Hercules is a fun fable, but the telling suffers from the strength of voice; the story works, and is very close to the standard Greek myths, but the Fisher-Bird is a frustrating narrator, and the story feels longer than it needs to be. If you’re a fan of this narrative mode, though, you’ll love it.
A Brief Lesson In Native American Astronomy by Rebecca Roanhorse
This is a sort of flipside to McGuire’s story, thematically; it’s about loss, and grief, and being driven to extremes by grief. It’s very well written, and the way Roanhorse extends contemporary Native concerns into the future is excellently done; the impacts of fame are well handled, and the love that makes the central character make the decisions he does is well portrayed and believably written.
Bridge of Crows by JY Yang
This is a beautifully told melancholic story; it feels similar to the videogame Journey, in its aesthetics, but its story is more revolutionary, and more pending, than that. The way Yang builds their narrative through a series of sacrifices and the results of those is expected, but the conclusion to the story is less neat than we might usually expect; instead, it is left open, in a very intentional and interesting narrative choice.
Labbatu Takes Command of the Flagship Heaven Dwells Within by Arkady Martine
If you’ve read A Memory Called Empire, you have some idea what to expect here; playing with history, narrative, and different forms, to give different perspectives on a singular set of events, reset into space, and without clear answers or truths in many cases. It’s a very effective display of Martine’s talents, and feels like there are many more stories in this world at its corners waiting to be told.
Wild To Covet by Sarah Gailey
Gailey’s rural resetting of the Thetis myth didn’t work as successfully as McGuire’s; while powerful, it felt like it moved a certain amount of intentionality onto Thetis, and a degree of cruelty towards her child, while also absolving the men around her of responsibility, in some key ways. The story is inevitably beautifully written and the end cruel and right, but as a whole it left a sour taste in my mouth.
¡Cuidado! ¡Que Viene El Coco! By Carlos Hernandez
Hernandez’ story feels a little sickly sweet; which is surprising, given the darkness of what it is dealing with. It’s well-accomplished, and the science fictional elements are small but well-presented in a way that is very effective, but at the same time, the end feels rather too neat and simple, and excessively wholesome, in a rather frustrating way. In a volume of children’s stories, it might have fit; here, it felt out of place.
He Fell Howling by Stephen Graham Jones
This was a rather uninteresting werewolf origin story; the twist at the end is mildly interesting and plays with the Lycaon myth, but fundamentally, it’s a horror story that isn’t particularly doing anything new in the genre it’s playing in. Well written but unoriginal.
Curses Like Words, Like Feathers, Like Stories by Kat Howard
Howard’s fascination with stories, and the power of stories, and stories as magic is one I share, and this story was, inevitably, one of my favourites in the volume; it’s a beautiful and simple story, that mixes its frame narrative with its internal narrative, and splits and moves across timelines while being completely clear. Howard’s control of the narrative strands is fantastic, and her ability to use few words to make you feel for a character is brilliant.
Across the River by Leah Cypress
Cypress’ story feels unusually melancholy for this collection; but appropriately so for much of Jewish folklore, of which this is a reworking of two different pieces. It’s well told, although at times a little pat, and the Jewishness of it is never something Cypress allows the reader to lose sight of; it’s very much engaged with a modern religious tradition, and working with that in clever ways.
Sisyphus in Elysium by Jeffrey Ford
Ford’s story is another weak one; while the ideas in it at times are strong, fundamentally it’s all about a man finding redemption and being rewarded with a woman, and it’s not a particularly interesting version of that trope. The moments when it seems to be working against that grain are undermined by other narrative choices Ford makes, leaving us with rather of an old-fashioned story, really.
Kali_Na by Indrapramit Das
Das’ story is a story about hope in a cyberpunk future, and about community and compassion; it’s a powerful and fascinating one, engaging with modern living faith and thinking about extensions of that faith into the future, and how it might look. It’s not actively predictive, but the predictive possibilities of it lend the character at its centre ever more depth; and her choices have weight and potency to them as we see ourselves reflected in them.
Live Stream by Alyssa Wong
Wong’s Actaeon retelling opts for one of the versions of the myth in which Artemis is revenging herself on a predator; it is also a parable about GamerGate and revenge porn and harassment mobs, sadly a fact of life for women on the internet as it currently is. It’s powerful, and dark, and pulls no punches in holding up a mirror to our culture and demanding we look ourselves in the eyes; brutally brilliant. It’s also hopeful, and a discussion of female agency and power and reclamation of both those things, and Wong makes that balance and shift with grace and skill.
Close Enough for Jazz by John Chu
Chu’s story is less a retelling of a myth than playing around the neglected corners of a mythology; but it’s a fascinating piece of play. The characters and world he build feel very real, and the dilemmas involved feel all too believable; there are points when reading this was a struggle, because the issues involved hit very close to home to me as a reader. It’s a simple little story, and one whose conceits fit together excellently with the characters playing in them.
Buried Deep by Naomi Novik
The Minotaur has been retold by any number of writers, perhaps most lastingly by Mary Renault; Novik’s crack at the myth feels rather half-formed, rather than full-fledged. The attempt to have it both ways with the Minotaur and Theseus both as heroic, positive figures feels forced, and the characters feel paper-thin.
The Things Eric Eats Before He Eats Himself by Carmen Maria Machado
Machado’s story is a brief one; it feels rather slight, and like Machado was more interested in some of the specific moments of imagery she includes than anything else, but given how powerful the final images are, perhaps she earns that a little!
Florilegia; Or, Some Lies About Flowers by Amal El-Mohtar
El-Mohtar is playing, again, with Bloduewedd; but this time, her engagement feels angrier, and more grown up. The story is told with a passion and frustration about the limitations placed on Bloduewedd, and the way she is treated; and the way El-Mohtar plays with and changes the story are powerful and beautiful, and her choice of narrative beats emphasise the importance of agency to her narrative.
The Mythic Dream
As an anthology, the variety of stories is incredible, and while there is a distinct tendency towards the Greek myths (nearly half the volume), it is actually the recentring of women and the centring of queerness into these stories that emerges as the strongest theme. Some don’t quite feel like they fit the volume, in some cases because they rub against that recentring; but the overall standard is excellent, the narrative flow of the stories as a whole and the order they’re in is brilliant, and the stand-out stories (McGuire, Martine, Howard, El-Mohtar) are truly spectacular. This is apparently the last collaborative anthology between Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe, and they’re going out on a real high.
In these sixteen exquisite stories Kat Howard deftly weaves in and out of the countries of myth and hagiography to write the lives of women untold and unexplored.
A woman being written into her boyfriend’s fiction is at first flattered to be his muse, but then finds her real life literally consumed and overtaken by his. A desperate young woman makes a prayer to the Saint of Sidewalks, but the miracle she receives isn’t what she expected. A painter spies a naked man, crouched by the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, transform into a beautiful white bird and decides to paint him, and becomes involved in his curse. Jeanne, a duelist and a sacred blade for God and Her holy saints, finds that the price of truth is always blood. And in the novella “Once, Future” Howard reimagines the Arthurian romance on a modern college campus as a story that is told, and told again, until the ending is right.
Mundane and magical, profane and reverent, romantic and uncompromising, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone journeys into the liminal spaces of contemporary fiction and unfurls them.
I first encountered Kat Howard’s fiction in her novella length collaboration with Maria Dahvana Headley, The End of the Sentence, and then again in her debut novel, Roses and Rot, a brilliant dark fairytale retelling. A Cathedral of Myth and Bone is the first time I’ve really engaged with her short fiction, with its arresting title, especially for an architecture and myth geek like myself.
A Cathedral of Myth and Bone takes sixteen of Howard’s stories from the last decade (the oldest, and the first in the collection, is from 2010; the most recent is original to the 2019 collection), and allows the reader to luxuriate in her thematic and aesthetic approach. That approach comes wearing purple crushed velvet and listening to The Sisters of Mercy, Paradise Lost, and at its lighter moments, perhaps Evanescence; this is one of the most beautifully goth collections of stories I’ve ever had the pleasure to read.
The stories are melancholic, and even formally tragic, without ever defaulting into cliches of how that should look; nothing in A Cathedral of Myth and Bone comes without cost, without payment, and nothing comes easy, but equally, nor is anything worthless, or without consequentiality. These stories reframe their narratives, often repeatedly; ‘Once, Future’, the original novella-length piece in the collection, most obviously engages with the idea of retellings and myth-patterns in its engagement with Arthuriana, but there is a theme of creating one’s own story and seizing control of the narrative running through the entire collection.
One stand out piece in this regard is the one that closes the book, ‘Breaking the Frame’; in it, Howard tells the story of how a woman goes from passive muse to active changer of the art to creator herself. In so doing, she changes the narratives the art also depicts. The layering of the story is typical of Howard’s work; the surface, simple read is true, but misleadingly simple, as depths reveal themselves with more consideration. Technically, the story also shows off Howard’s skill at creating verbal portraits; ‘Breaking the Frame’ rests on a series of photographs, and Howard’s brief descriptions of each are precise and powerful vignettes that really convey the imagery.
A very different story using a similar technique of narrative interspersed by something else is ‘The Calendar of Saints’, Howard’s homage to Ellen Kushner’s Riverside. It is simultaneously very familiar, in that regard – the sense of faded grandeur, the honour at the point of the blade, the ritual – and very different; a much more religious world, and the whole story centres on faith in an alternate Catholic Church whose nature and differences are slowly revealed as the story moves. The ending is tragic, unexpected, and beautiful, a signature Kat Howard ending judging by this collection.
It is hard not to talk about every story in the collection, but I would be remiss if I did not return to ‘Once, Future’, since it (length-wise, at least) dominates the volume. In it, a modern class on Arthuriana decide to test the narrative inevitability of the story, and it turns out to be a lot stronger than anyone (or almost anyone…) had anticipated; Howard’s take on the Arthurian myth, and modern engagements with it, is brilliant, and her characters’ approaches to the events of the various parts of the corpus (such as the Green Knight) are well thought out and intelligent, while still letting the essential course of the story shine through, and the tragedy of Arthur slowly unfold while also fighting against it.
What may not have become obvious so far is the centrality of women to A Cathedral of Myth and Bone. In all the stories, women are central; every story is about a woman, with the exception of ‘The Speaking Bone’, which is about a place, and even still the only solid characters are women, and ‘Painted Birds and Shivered Bones’, about a man and a woman. Howard’s women are not the simple maidens of much genre fiction; they are abused women, they are angry women, they are women with agendas and minds of their own, and in every case, they want control of their own stories, whatever that takes. The opening story, ‘A Life in Fictions’, is the weakest in this regard – the ending feels a little like a failure to really take agency back, especially in light of later approaches to similar dilemmas – but the women of the collection are universally intelligent and dedicated, in their different ways, and very different to each other.
If a collection can be said to reveal the author, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone reveals Kat Howard as a mythographer, as a woman demanding the right to her own agency and to control her own fate, as a goth… and above all, as a bloody brilliant writer.
Revealed•The terrible truth about why humans were created – and why we’ll never discover aliens. •A tale of three wishes, after the end of the world. •A family reunion in which some of the attendees aren’t human any more – but they’re still family. •TFW you try to solve a problem with time travel, and now you have two problems. •The love affair between the man who can see the one true foreordained future and the woman who can see all the possible futures. •And a coda to Anders’ bestselling All the Birds in the Sky, answering the burning question of what happened to Patricia’s cat.
Charlie Jane Anders has been building her genre bona fides for some time; beyond her role as cofounding editor of io9 with her wife Annalee Newitz, she’s been nominated for the Nebulas, Sturgeons, and Hugos multiple times, winning a Hugo in 2012 for the titular story of this, her first short fiction collection.
Six Months, Three Days, Five Others is an interesting collection; while seemingly disparate at first glance, comprising a mixture of science fiction, fantasy, science fantasy, and urban fantasy, stories, there are some themes which emerge from the six stories in the collection. The biggest of those is Anders’ interest in romance and love; an oft overlooked idea in genre fiction, love of various kinds is either central to or plays a major role in every story in this set.
“The Fermi Paradox Is Our Business Model” is an odd choice to open the collection with, as the least strong story collected. While amusing, and while the characterisation works very well, the aliens are far too human as characters, despite their apparent physical differences. They’re rescued somewhat by the way Anders threads a tense romance between them through the story, and the execution of their relationship. The plot itself feels like a joke extended rather too far, and the ending of the story feels like it demonstrates that Anders didn’t quite know where to go with it.
“As Good As New” is a rather stronger tale; Anders takes a traditional fairy story, resets it in a postapocalyptic landscape, and subverts it. The banality of much of the story, in contrast to its actual events and weightiness, is brilliantly balanced, and adds a lot of humour to what could otherwise have become more a philosophical problem than a piece of fiction. The role of fictional drama of various kinds within the story itself is also rather masterful, and really lets Anders play with narrative.
“Intestate” is another odd story that could almost only have come from Anders. In it, she plays between mimetic fiction and speculative; the open-endedness of the story is not just about the events afterwards, but about the reality of the shared ideas the characters have within it. The combination of themes of posthumanism and technological personal upgrades with family strains and tensions is handled well, and the balance between the two, with each reinforcing the other, works fantastically. It could have seen the characters a little better fleshed out, but overall, it is effective.
“The Cartography of Sudden Death” is an odd time travel story. The drive that pulls Ythna through the story is powerful, but often eclipsed by simple events, and Jemima’s motivation and characterisation is basically completely blank. The action is fast-paced and well written, really punchy stuff, and it’s an interesting take on the inevitable rise and fall of empire and society, but the flat characterisations and lack of motivation of the primary actors makes it feel a little hollow.
“Six Months, Three Days” is the longest story in the collection, and one of the quietest; it is about a relationship between two clairvoyants, whose clairvoyance work in different ways. There aren’t world-shattering events involved, and the stakes are almost entirely personal; Anders keeps the story on a very human level, and the friction between the two main characters is far more powerful as a result. It’s a little solipsistic, and the engagement with free will versus clairvoyance can feel a little light and frivolous, but really, this is a beautiful story about love, and about male arrogance.
“Clover” closes the story with another small, quiet, domestic romance. Anders’ strength of writing, using the supernatural to simply exaggerate the mimetic, is on full display in this story; the ups and downs of a relationship, the strains and difficulties of romance, are emphasised but not created by the minor magical elements of the story. It’s a beautiful piece, and the way Anders writes both the cats and the humans involved in the tale is incredibly well done, although one suspects cats aren’t quite this human. It’s worth noting that although this ties into All the Birds in the Sky, and has greater poignancy if you’ve read that novel, it stands perfectly well on its own and retains all its own beauty.
Six Months, Three Days, Five Others isn’t a perfect collection, but its strongest stories are absolutely brilliant, and Anders’ writing of romance is truly a wonderful thing to read. More, please!
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There are fantastical stories with actual transgender characters, some for whom that is central and others for whom that isn’t. And there are stories without transgender characters, but with metaphors and symbolism in their place, genuine expressions of self through such speculative fiction tropes as shapeshifting and programming. Transgender individuals see themselves in transformative characters, those outsiders, before seeing themselves as human protagonists. Those feelings are still valid. Cisgender people can never quite understand this distancing. But though the stories involve transformation and outsiders, sometimes the change is one of self-realization. This anthology will be a welcome read for those who are ready to transcend gender through the lens of science fiction, fantasy, and other works of imaginative fiction.
K. M. Szpara, in his introduction to Transcendent, explains where this anthology came from: a submission to Lethe Press’s Wilde Stories 2015, their year’s best of gay speculative fiction. As a result of that, Steve Berman of Lethe Press gave Szpara a call, and asked him to edit a similar anthology, but trans themed… to which, thankfully for us and for history, Szpara said yes. Collecting the year’s best trans speculative fiction must be an incredible challenge, and to narrow that down from however many submissions Szpara received to the fifteen he eventually chose must have been a monumental task; I don’t intend to comment on all fifteen stories, but to highlight those I think are best – and those that I think don’t fit so well into the collection, for whatever reasons.
It’s hard to pick out the best stories to talk about in a collection where the standard is so high; but one of the best is E. Sexton’s ‘The Librarian’s Dilemma’, which is barely speculative fiction (and increasingly mimetic as time advances), and that is absolutely brilliant. It’s a relatively short story that draws on queer love to help boost the tension felt by its central character between preserving texts and ensuring access for as many as possible; Sexton walks that tightrope without ever providing an answer to the titular dilemma, and the transness of the central character matters but isn’t what the story is about.
Transcendent is full of stories like that; Bogi Takács’ story ‘The Need For Overwhelming Sensation’ is a queer, kinky space fantasy that looks at assumptions, power, and politicking, whilst also being about a beautiful and sweet queer sub-dom relationship. The presentation of nonbinary gender is natural, as one might expect from eir work, and the way e challenges assumptions about kink is fantastic, but the transness of the story is almost incidental. The same is true of A. Merc Rustad’s ‘Where Monsters Dance’, in which the protagonist’s girlfriend is a trans woman; the story is largely about parental abuse of the protagonist by their step-father, and the psychological protective mechanisms one builds to deal with abuse, among other things, and it is a fascinating, powerful, and moving story.
A few of the stories in Transcendent are very directly engaging with being trans. The volume opens on one, ‘The Shape of My Name’, by Nino Cipri. Their story is a fascinating take on time travel and on the emotional complexities it can lead to, with the mixture of certain fate and changing destiny a major theme; Cipri writes about being trans powerfully in the story, and is interested in the circularity a time travel narrative can allow. Everett Maroon’s ‘Treasure Acre’ also plays with time travel, but rather more simply; it’s a very short story, about the way that the struggles we have to face as trans people make us who we are, and although we could wish them away, it might not actually be better to not have them. Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam’s ‘Everything Beneath You’ is the most personal to me; it engages directly with the wish to be neither male nor female, and the possible consequences of that, whilst also telling a tragic love story in a very mythic fashion. Stufflebeam’s embrace of myth is powerful, and her use of mythic motifs works excellently.
One theme I singularly dislike that runs through a number of these stories is nonhuman, magical transformations as a metaphor for trans experiences; this is strongest in Alexis A. Hunter’s ‘Be Not Unequally Yoked’, but Transcendent also sees it occur in ‘The Thing On The Cheerleading Squad’ by Molly Tanzer, ‘into the waters i rode down’ by Jack Hollis Marr, and ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ by Holly Heisey. Each of these stories has their own strengths, and some of them, notably Marr’s, also have trans characters outside their metaphors, but at the same time, it is still frustrating to see selected as some of the best trans fiction stories that conceptualise being trans as essentially not human.
That said, of that set of stories, Heisey’s ‘Contents of Care Package to Etsath-tachri, Formerly Ryan Andrew Curran (Human English Translated to Sedrayin)’ really does convey powerfully and movingly a lot about the experience of transition and the reactions to it of different people; the three parts of the story are fascinatingly written with different approaches to transition, with the last being cathartic and heartbreakingly beautiful in its simplicity.
There are also a couple of stories which are simply not up to the same standard as the rest of the anthology; Benjanun Sridungkaew’s ‘The Petals Abide’ has the potential to be a fascinating piece, and the way she uses gender in the story is important in its straightforward acceptance of a variety of gender identities, but the whole thing should have been about half the length, and the literary quality of the language is such that it tends to tip into convolution and self-parody rather than beauty. E. Catherine Tobler’s story, ‘Splitskin’, feels like it isn’t sure quite what it’s trying to be; somewhere between a circus tale and magical realism about the gold rush, it never really works as a piece of fiction until the very ending, which is beautifully written.
The anthology closes on a very interesting story which brings together multiple themes discussed above; Penny Stirling’s ‘Kin, Painted’ in one sense is a metaphorical discussion of being trans and trying to find one’s gender, and in another sense, given the explicit inclusion of trans characters of a variety of genders, is not about that at all. Stirling’s story is a fascinating meditation on art, and how art derives meaning from its context; ou writes about growing up, discovering oneself and one’s community, and about the idea of family, whilst also having built an incredibly queer world in the background.
Transcendent isn’t perfect, as no anthology can be; I think there’s too many stories which treat being trans as a metaphor, and some which just aren’t up to scratch in here. But overall, Szpara has done a fantastic job of selecting stories to showcase a range of trans narratives and voices, and his work should be applauded.
Disclaimer: I am a friend of Bogi Takács, one of the writers in the anthology, and of K. M. Szpara, the editor. Transcendent 2, also published by Lethe Press, is forthcoming, edited by Bogi Takács.
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Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time is a collection of indigenous science fiction and urban fantasy focusing on LGBT and two-spirit characters. These stories range from a transgender woman undergoing an experimental transition process to young lovers separated through decades and meeting in their own far future. These are stories of machines and magic, love and self-love.
Love Beyond Body, Space & Time occupies an important place in science fiction: not only centring queer voices and narratives, but also centring Indigenous voices and narratives, a group all too often left out of discussions of the genre. Not all the writers in the anthology are themselves Indigenous, a point Nicholson acknowledges in her Editor’s Letter, but all the stories feature Indigenous characters, cultures, and themes.
Love Beyond Body, Space & Time opens with three nonfiction pieces. Nicholson’s opening letter is largely a disclaimer about this not being her story to tell, but the others are more interesting; a piece on two-spirit stories as survivance stories in science fiction by Grace L. Dillon, and a piece on the historical and present day role of two-spirit people in Indigenous communities by Niigaan Sinclair. Both are fascinating essays, situating some of the things the anthology is doing in a wider cultural discourse and a wider social model, and providing multiple possible frameworks with which to approach the stories within.
There are a couple of absolutely outstanding stories in Love Beyond Body, Space & Time. Daniel Heath Justice’s ‘The Boys Who Became The Hummingbirds’ reads as a fable, with a very obvious moral; it’s well written and beautiful, as the best fable are, and with the poetic style and lack of specificity that much living myth has. Its queerness is explicit, varied in kind, and powerfully central to the story, and to the model of diversity in which Heath Justice is invested in the tale.
In stark contrast, ‘Né Łe!’ by Darcie Little Badger is straightforward science fiction, albeit with mythic resonance; it’s also a sweet lesbian romance story, that is impressively moving in its simplicity and with very strong characterisation over its short length. In similar vein is ‘Valediction At The Star View Motel’, a lightly fantastic story of young love, passion, and memory; Nathan Adler takes on the racism faced by the Indigenous community, including some of the racist policies applied to them, whilst also keeping at the core of the story the simplicity of young love.
The strongest story in Love Beyond Body, Space & Time, by my lights, is Gwen Benaway’s ‘Transition’. Benaway writes a transition narrative that deals with the difficulties of being trans in a cis world; the way every day involves armouring up and self-defence strategies to keep cis violence from breaking out against one. It’s also a story of community and history; Benaway builds into the very bones of the story the acceptance of trans people by at least the Indigenous community she chooses to present. The mythic fantastic creeps in around the edges of the story, which is essentially mimetic, and ‘Transition’ emerges as emotionally resonant and incredibly powerful.
At the other end of the spectrum, ‘Aliens’ by Richard van Camp is a frustrating piece, which if the reader accepts and enjoys the voice in which it is told might well work. However, it feels too mannered for the attempt at naturalism it is making, and the treatment of gender diversity as a big secret and major revelation at the end of the story is a frustrating one, playing into a number of harmful tropes and a deeply problematic presentation of gender diversity. Similarly, in ‘Imposter Syndrome’, Mari Kurisato writes a transition narrative that uses an alien transitioning to human as a metaphor for gender transition; seeing human trans people in fiction is powerful, whereas in this collection especially, this treatment of transness felt painfully out of place. Kurisato’s style and characterisation are excellent, and there are some really brilliant ideas in the piece, which makes the fundamental failure all the more frustrating.
Failing in a different way, ‘Perfectly You’ by David Robertson just doesn’t emotionally connect. This attempt to tell a romantic story feels strained and emotionless, essentially empty of real content; there isn’t really enough ground on which to build the payoff Robertson wants to give, and the strongest parts of the story are those in which he is building that ground.
In the end, Nicholson has engaged in an important project in Love Beyond Body, Space & Time, centring Indigenous queer people, but it’s a deeply flawed execution of that project; we need more anthologies like this, but next time, more stories like Heath Justice’s and Little Badger’s, please!
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FAIRYTALES FOR LOST CHILDREN is narrated by people constantly on the verge of self-revelation. These characters – young, gay and lesbian Somalis – must navigate the complexities of family, identity and the immigrant experience as they tumble towards freedom. Set in Kenya, Somalia and South London, these stories are imbued with pathos, passion and linguistic playfulness, marking the arrival of a singular new voice in contemporary fiction.
Fairytales for Lost Children came across my radar primarily through Roxane Gay, but the idea of a selection of short stories based around immigration, homosexuality, and African life was immediately appealing.
Osman’s collection is a short one – barely 150 pages – and made up of 11 stories and illustrations; the art is line drawings in what we might describe as a traditional African artistic style, but also incorporating Arabic and elements of modern political cartooning into it. They bear at first glance little relation to the stories they illustrate, but give a flavour of Fairytales For Lost Children; the mixed cultural heritage, the imagery of gender-transgression, and in many cases a certain flirtiness to the portraiture combine to create a sense similar to that of the stories.
Those stories are a revelation. Osman’s writing is incredibly human, incredibly gentle, and incredibly visceral; by gentle, I don’t mean that Fairytales for Lost Children pretends life is better than it is, but rather than Osman slips into the lives of his characters, brings the reader with him for a brief snapshot, and then slips out again. Whether it is Zeytun, the protagonist of ‘Earthling’, a schizophrenic lesbian who has to deal with the loss of her sister, or Hassin, of ‘The Other (Wo)Man’, an immigrant in London who is isolated and longs to build a relationship, Osman creates whole characters, human characters, in a very short space, and brings them painfully to life. There is a degree to which most of these stories are tragedies, but at the same time, some have true catharsis at their close, such as ‘Earthling’; despite being on the surface horrendous stories, they have a sense of rightness and closure about them too.
Fairytales for Lost Children is ineluctably erotic; almost all the stories include Osman describing sex, although the stories of women loving women tend to have less of this, but ‘My Roots Are Your Roots’ is practically pure pornography, beautifully evocative erotic writing that mixes at once the idea of immigrant communities, the homophobia that traditional families sometimes bring with them, the exclusion from both community and country that this can create, but also the idea of the gay community and the community of love. It’s a strange story, at once dark and light, sexual and playful but also threatening; of release and ending all at once, wonderfully.
Osman is also wide-ranging. His stories touch a mix of experiences; queer youth (‘Shoga’, ‘Fairytales for Lost Children’); queer life in Somalia (‘Watering the Imagination’, about being the parent of a lesbian; ‘Shoga’ again); about being an immigrant (‘The Other (Wo)Man’, among others); about mental illness (‘Your Silence Will Not Protect You’), but also a variety of different kinds of queerness. As well as homosexuality, and the gender-transgression of ‘The Other (Wo)Man’, there is the genderqueer protagonist of ‘Pavilion’, presented with humour and affection by Osman, but without becoming a comedic character; Fairytales for Lost Children never sympathises more with oppressor than oppressed, but does have a certain sympathy for the oppressor, the straight, the cis. Osman seems to understand the imperatives that make people discriminate against, attack, verbally abuse queer people; and he presents those who do this as human too, especially the relatives of the queers he is portraying.
It’s a fascinating, beautiful, haunting collection that won’t leave the reader happy, per se, but will leave one satisfied and wanting more all at once; Osman, in Fairytales for Lost Children, has unleashed a truly amazing collection on the world that every queer-basher, and every racist anti-immigrant demagogue, should be forced to read. It drips empathy off every page, and that’s a rare, and beautiful, thing.
Abruptly his stronghold folded. His names struck. He tore my mind-veil off. Before I could react, the names retreated, reformed his stronghold. All too powerful for me. He laughed. “The Raker’s daughter has taken a single two-syllable. Women, huh. Weaker even than your mother. So be more sensible than her, sweet Vendelin….”
Rose Lemberg is one of those amazing people on Twitter who, on seeing someone looking for diversity in their reading, will turn around and recommend a whole tranche of work… and discuss why finding intersectional genre fiction is so hard. She’s also absolutely lovely, and described the world in which this story takes place as an incredibly intersectional one, so I couldn’t really resist giving it a go!
Held Close In Syllables Of Light is, in some ways, standard secondary-world coming-of-age travelogue fantasy; Vendelin is in many ways the stereotypical protagonist of such a story, headstrong, struggling to find her place in the world or who she is, trying to live up to the reputations and expectations of those around her whilst not betraying either her friends or her principles. The personal conflicts that engenders are fantastically portrayed and Lemberg manages to write teenage angst without it feeling like teenage angst; rather, it feels like the disgruntlement, uncertainty, lack of belonging that we feel at that age and that is (dismissively) described as teenage angst in bad fiction. Held Close… also manages to portray a number of other characters, and while the Shahniyaz is rather two-dimensional and stereotypical in his evil, the allies of the protagonist are rounded out and interesting characters who add a lot to the story in the ways they act on and are acted on by Vendelin, which has an interesting impact on the plot.
Held Close… has a plot that at times feels a bit unfocused. It’s not just episodic, though it certainly is that, it also seems to lack a unifying theme other than Lemberg’s need to move the chess pieces for her set-up at the end; Held Close… in some ways feels like the long prologue to a standard epic fantasy novel, wherein the teenage protagonist is set on a coming of age quest that goes wrong and becomes a far bigger quest than anticipated. A number of things just don’t seem to have a pay off in the story, but Lemberg does manage to keep the reader’s interest, in part with a beautiful, visual writing style that creates a fantastical world wonderfully and that really manages to realise the secondary world of the setting.
It’s also an incredibly queer setting. Held Close In Syllables Of Light features a number of different societies, but the one that is portrayed in the best light is Vendelin’s native society. This is one in which polyamory is the norm, homosexuality is perfectly acceptable and even expected, and there seems to be no real judgement about consensual sexual acts in or out of marriage; the lack of nonbinary gender aside it is almost a queer paradise in its acceptance, and Lemberg’s obvious partiality to it does nothing to undermine its uniqueness. The other societies are different, much less accepting, and that is shown to be damaging to everyone involved; Lemberg clearly has no time for the restrictions on human sexuality that the modern West places on us.
In the end, I wish Lemberg had been more clear about what Held Close In Syllables Of Light was doing; as it stands, it feels more like the prologue to an Eddingsesque high fantasy than the new, mold-breaking story that both world and characters clearly want it to be. Since it’s available free in Beyond Ceaseless Skies #80, I do recommend taking the time to read it for its portrayal of these accepting societies, just don’t say you weren’t warned about the plot!