January delivered plenty of “Best of 2021” recommended reading lists, and so February was my heaviest month of short-fiction reading since I jumped back into the form in 2020. I made plenty of additions to my Hugo Nomination Draft, and I had such a good time reading that, even after going back at the end of the month and lowering some of my first impression scores, I still have some of my biggest lists of favorites and near-favorites–even my third group has plenty of stories that I quite liked and were on more than a few end-of-year top lists. So let’s dive into the short fiction I enjoyed in February, with a novel review roundup and SPSFC update at the bottom.
- “Paper Suns” (2021 short story) by Kemi Ashing-Giwa. There’s some worldbuilding jargon up front, but this survival tale on an ice planet builds tension early and only increases as it builds to an interrogation of societal power.
- “Ina’s Spark” (2021 novelette) by Mary Robinette Kowal. A straightforward tale of a wizard who must win a deadly competition or else be banned from magic for life, with the excellent storytelling and exceptional presentation of a traumatized lead that I’ve come to expect from Kowal.
- “The Revolution Will Not Be Served with Fries” (2021 short story) by Meg Elison. We’ve seen revolutions against capitalist overlords, and we’ve seen everyday decisions taken out of the hands of people and given to AIs. But Elison still managed to surprise me with an excellent and enjoyable short.
- “Undercurrency” (2021 short story) by Sam Beckbessinger. Plenty of short fiction that I read (including the previous entry on this list) goes full on revolutionist, but “Undercurrency” features a lead trying to work within a capitalist system to try to invest sustainably and combat climate change. I love the willingness to tell a messy story that eschews easy solutions, and the deeply human story at its core is very well-told.
- “Masquerade Season” (2021 short story) by ‘Pemi Aguda. A beautifully-written story with unexplained magic that hits some surprising depth in a short space while never putting a word wrong.
- “Shelter” (2021 short story) by Mbozi Haimbe. A small-scale story with the white-knuckled tension of a disaster blockbuster, this tale of a mother and sun trying to survive an acidic dust storm may be the most gripping piece I’ve read all year.
- “Where the Old Neighbors Go” (2020 short story) by Thomas Ha. Simultaneously a story about gentrification and a clever tale of a battle of wits with malevolent magical creatures.
- “The Red Mother” (2021 novelette) by Elizabeth Bear. An engaging story of a wizard trying to save a Norse-inspired land from a dragon, complete with a riddle battle! I’m not sure every aspect of the ending totally clicked, but that’s the only thing keeping it off the top of my favorites list, as everything else about the story was excellent.
- “The Machine is Experiencing Uncertainty” (2021 short story) by Marc Fenn Wolfmoor. Another entry in the ongoing “AI has achieved self-awareness and isn’t a terrifying killing machine” subgenre (don’t be fooled by the opening line). If that sort of story appeals to you, this one is nicely done and well worth the read.
- “Five Years Next Sunday” (2021 short story) by Idza Luhumyo. I felt like I wanted a little more explanation to make the background make sense, but “Five Years Next Sunday” is an excellent exploration of people’s willingness to overlook the needs of others in order to benefit themselves.
- “Shandy” (2021 short story) by Gabrielle Emem Harry. A really fun story of a girl going to her ancestors for help and getting a much louder personality than she’d bargained for. Not really breaking new ground but such an enjoyable read.
- “The Walls of Benin City” (2021 short story) by M.H. Ayinde. Again, one that doesn’t necessarily break new ground, but tells an engaging and uplifting tale of finding a fresh start in a brutal post-apocalyptic world.
- “A Cold Yesterday in Late July” (2021 short story) by David Tallerman. A dreary, atmospheric story about aging and loss with an excellent sense of foreboding.
Other Shorts I Enjoyed in February
- “Feral Arcade Children of the American Northeast” (2021 short story) by Sam J. Miller. A well-written, small-scale story that I expected to get a little bigger but still enjoyed. I imagine this one hits harder for people who grew up in the 80s.
- “Sunta” by Kemi Ashing-Giwa (2021 short story). I wasn’t 100% satisfied with the ending, but this interplanetary exploration/monster story has enough tension to make it well worth a read.
- “All the Open Highways” (2021 short story) by Alexis Gunderson. A quiet, quality tale about ghosts and aging.
- “Innocent Bird” (2021 short story) by Rachel Swirsky. A beautifully-written, melancholy story about an impossible choice between romance and the lead maintaining her life as she knows it.
- “The Captain and the Quartermaster” (2021 short story) by C.L. Clark. Another compelling story about romance in impossible circumstances and the difficult choices it forces–this one in the middle of a devastating and protracted war for independence.
- “The Lamentation of a Veteran of the Sand Wars” (2021 short story) by Chinelo Onwualu. A solid story with a clever twist about the dead fighting back against those who would destroy their homes to mine fuel.
- “Every Word a Play” (2021 novella) by Meridel Newton. A woman raised by the Fae trying to prevent every word from being twisted to her disadvantage.
- “Small Monsters” (2021 novelette) by E. Lily Yu. A story about escaping abuse and trying to find friendship and carve out a new life. This one seems almost universal on best-of-the-year lists, and I’d be surprised to not see it up for awards. And it’s a good story, although I enjoyed “Masquerade Season” and “That Story Isn’t the Story“–both of which dealt with similar themes–just a bit more.
- “Godmother” (2021 short story) by Cheryl S. Ntumy. An intriguing dystopian AI story that doesn’t go quite how they usually do.
- “Jenny Come up the Well” (2021 short story) by A.C. Wise. I would’ve liked to see a little more about the magical struggle, but this is a beautifully-written story about the importance of representation and relationships with those who understand your experiences.
- “Undersea Lightning” (2021 short story) by Uchechukwu Nwaka. There were times where I had trouble following, but the exploration story in a post-apocalyptic future certainly doesn’t lack for tension.
- “Ghosts” (2021 short story) by Vauhini Vara. A story about loss, partially from the perspective of a fictional neural net. I wasn’t totally captured here, but I really appreciated the stylistic experiment, and I expect this one to hit really hard for some readers.
- “Sorry We Missed You!” (2021 short story) by Aun-Juli Riddle. A tale of family and memory told through menus of an outer space food truck stocked with potatoes.
- “Three for Hers” (2021 short story) by Filip Hajdar Drnovšek Zorko. An engaging story about the cleverness, patience, and strength of will that it takes to survive a sadistic alien overlord.
- “A Sunrise Every 90 Minutes” (2021 flash fiction) by Victoria Zelvin. A short-but-quality flash fiction about an astronaut drifting alone in space while the world burns beneath her.
We have made some tweaks to the format for the semifinals, and each blog is sending our three semifinalists to two other blogs, so that all 30 semifinalists will be read by three judging teams before we narrow down to seven to be read by everyone in the finals. Those seven will be chosen out of the top mean scores, but we have introduced some mechanisms to catch books that may be disproportionately hurt by bad luck in the judging selection. I’m not getting deep into the wonkiness here, though I’d be happy to explain further details to anyone who is interested–suffice to say that if a book scores 10/10 from two judging teams and 4/10 from the third, it’ll be sent to the finals despite being a miss for one team.
My team’s three semifinalists–Dusk Mountain Blues, The Last Shadow, and Gates of Mars—will be sent to Book Invasion and Meteor Reviews for further judging. And we will be receiving the following six new books for the semifinalists, chosen by Red Star Reviews and Fan Fi Addict:
- Dog Country by Malcolm F. Cross, a story of abuse and the traumas of war that received the highest first-round score in the competition.
- Of Cinder and Bone by Kyoko M., which features organized crime and dragons brought back to contemporary society, Jurassic Park-style.
- Age of Order by Julian North, a young adult sci-fi tale set in a dystopian future.
- In the Orbit of Sirens by T.A. Bruno, a first-contact novel that had its team’s highest score in the first round.
- Dead Star by Simon Kewin, a search for the mystery behind the rise of a harsh theocracy that has risen to dominate the galaxy.
- Zero Day Threat by R.M. Olson, a space opera meets heist novel.
While members of my team have already begun reading and reviewing, expect the team scores to begin trickling in late in April.
Novels and Novellas
- Full Fathom Five (2014 novel) by Max Gladstone. A mystery plot in a magical analogue of modern Hawai’i with strong prose, characters, and social commentary and an ending that doesn’t get too neat.
- Age of Ash (2022 novel) by Daniel Abraham. In keeping with what I expect from Abraham, this is an intimate, character-driven story about a couple people on the margins who find themselves wrapped up in an epic.
- The Queen of Blood (2016 novel) by Sarah Beth Durst. Like in Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series, Durst offers quite a few YA tropes but a willingness to get darker, with a likable main character just trying to stop the violence and a stunning forest setting.
- Reclaim the Stars (2022 anthology) edited by Zoraida Córdova. An anthology of mostly young adult speculative fiction short stories has a lot of depth but not many true stunners.
- A Chorus Rises (2021 novel) by Bethany C. Morrow. After a sweet and entertaining but structurally flawed series-opener, Morrow makes the intriguing decision to center the antagonist from book one, in an excellent YA character study with enough plot to keep the reader engaged and some fantastic social commentary.
- Daughter of the Empire (1987 novel) by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts. An episodic story with a sympathetic but ruthless lead, Daughter of the Empire is perfect for fans of political scheming novels.
Other February Reads
- We are Satellites (2021 novel) by Sarah Pinsker. A near-future sci-fi centered on a new technology that alters the mind, We Are Satellites asks plenty of excellent questions about ubiquitous tech in some excellent vignettes about the family of four main characters, but it pulls together for an ending that’s a bit too neat. Full review to come.
- The Invasion (2018 novel) by Peadar Ó Guilín. The Call was a gripping YA Fae survival horror, and The Invasion multiplies the monsters but loses the creeping dread that made the first book so good. Horror sequels are what they are. Duology review to come.
- Iron Widow (2021 novel) by Xiran Jay Zhao. A young adult sci-fi brimming with feminist rage–probably a bit too much rage for my personal tastes, but the construction of a misogynist society keeping its people in ignorance is top-notch. Full review to come.
- Ogres (2022 novella) by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Another story about an oppressive society keeping its people in ignorance, but with a completely opposite tone to Iron Widow. The second-person narration keeps the pacing slower and more quiet–which works in such a short space–building to a powerful ending.