My Favorite Short Fiction: August 2016

It’s been a long gap between Favorites posts here on my blog, and in fact between any posts at all. Some of that silence was spent writing, some of it working, and some dealing with life’s distractions that couldn’t be avoided, but for a lot of it, I was just a little lost. Not unpleasantly–overall, it’s been a good year–but it’s lacked structure. My first attempt to get that structure back is to start logging my short fiction reading (and listening) again, and more consistently produce these posts each month with the stories that affected me most.

So here goes. I read most of the top pro SFF markets in August, and here are the four stories that made the most impact, the ones I wanted to read again and tear apart to understand why they felt so good the first time.

There Is No Road Through the Woods
by Dagny Paul, in Pseudopod
A good story is a good story anytime, but they can definitely be helped or hurt by the circumstances surrounding the first time you read them. I was primed for this gorgeous coming-of-age horror story by the Netflix show Stranger Things. I expect Dagny Paul is getting tired of the comparison, which is also brought up in the show notes on Pseudopod, and I won’t elaborate on it too much, because her story deserves to be appreciated on its own. Sufficed to say, if you like the one and haven’t tried the other, go do that. This is a classic “there’s something strange in the woods” story, but in this case, the horror isn’t necessarily either old or natural. It’s hard to say more without spoiling it, but if this post only talked about one story, it would be this one. I can’t recommend it enough.

First Light at Mistaken Point
by Kali Wallace, in Clarkesworld
Some of my favorite stories all pull off variations on the same trick, beautifully melding together a speculative mystery and a personal character story. Similar to one of my Nebula nominations from last year, “The Cork Won’t Stay” by Nate Southard, Wallace’s tale mixes the fantastic with the all too common tragedy of mundane human life. The really special thing that few authors can pull off so well is that both threads on their own would be beautiful, readable stories. Together, expertly woven, they become something wonderfully new.

Fall To Her
by Alexis A. Hunter, in Apex
This is the shortest story on the list this month, almost flash, but it is in no way the smallest. In 1300-odd words, Hunter managed to immerse me in a situation both recognizable and distantly speculative. She takes a story idea as old as Homer and spins it not only in a new way, but in a fresh and vibrant one. You can sell me nearly any SFF concept if I believe that the character believes it, and the first-person narrator of “Fall to Her” is completely believable in the expression of their tragic addictive need. The best flash is an effective uppercut, knocking you out before you know what hit you, and this accomplishes that better than most.

The Starsmith
by Jonathan Edelstein, in Escape Pod
Half of my picks this month are audio stories, both by the amazing crew over at Escape Artists. Maybe it’s not completely fair to lump audio stories in with all the others, being that they are produced as well as written, but I’m going to do it anyway, because I care less and less these days what medium a story comes in, as long as it’s compelling and smart. Edelstein’s “Starsmith” is those things in spades. At its core, this is a fairy tale, and once you’re through it, you’ll probably recognize which. But the layers built over that core are what makes this really special. The world is primarily a science fictional one, but there are fantasy elements so deeply embedded in it that I would hesitate to put it into either genre. To put it in pop culture terms, it feels more Star Wars than Star Trek: it feels like the world has existed a while. Things are broken down, things have moved and changed. There is history and culture and tradition. Edelstein does more to create a fully realized world in forty minutes or so than many novelists ever manage. It’s a great achievement.

So that’s it. Those are the ones that made me smile, laugh, and then curse their authors for doing things I want to be doing, and I have no higher compliment to give. I hope to stick to my short fiction reading schedule and publish one of these every month for the foreseeable future, because reading with this wrap-up in mind helps me to establish not only which stories work for me, but why, and that has been one of the most useful writing exercises I’ve come across yet.

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