It was a short month, but a busy one, and according to my spreadsheet, it was my favorite month of sci-fi/fantasy short fiction since August. I suppose that’s what mining “Best of the Year” lists will get you. Let’s jump in!
As I mentioned in my magazine review post, I liked pretty much everything in the February issue of Clarkesworld. That said, if I had to pick a favorite, it would be R.P. Sand’s “An Ode to Stardust,” with Gu Shi’s “Introduction to 2181 Overture, Second Edition” and Amal Singh’s “Going Time” strong runners-up. But honestly, it was a really strong issue, and my spreadsheet (on my usual 20-point scale) was dotted with 16s and 17s. Check out the magazine review for further thoughts on all of those–this post will focus on other (or older) publications.
I also posted the second edition of my 2022 Recommended Reading List, much of which was short fiction, and some of which will be reprised in my February favorites section.
- “The Bone Stomach” (2022 short story) by Ziawa Jande. A beautiful piece of folklore, made even more powerful by how the folk tale intertwines with the life of the lead character on the eve of her grandmother’s death. The levity added by her grandmother’s frequent interruptions is the cherry on top of an overall wonderful piece.
- “The Meeker and the All-Seeing Eye” (2014 short story) by Matthew Kressel. An absolutely tremendous piece that made the Nebula shortlist (and was robbed of a shot at the Hugos by Puppy shenanigans). I’m slowly circling back to popular short stories from before I got into contemporary short fiction, and this one is a winner, with a story of exploring the galaxy searching for knowledge that the lead slowly realizes is more sinister than he’d thought.
- “Termination Stories for the Cyberpunk Dystopia Protagonist” (2022 short story) by Isabel J. Kim. This one is extremely meta (the main character is called “Cool and Sexy Asian Girl”), but there’s a good enough story underneath to provide some real backbone, and the reflections on what kinds of stories we tell, and how they affect others, delivers an unexpected poignancy.
- “Solidity” (2022 novelette) by Greg Egan. On one hand, this is a sciency “figure it out” sort of story after an inexplicable apocalypse leaves reality constantly shifting. But at the same time, it’s a story about finding a better way forward when it would be so easy for everyone to look out for only themselves. And it’s wonderfully told.
- “Phoenix Tile” (2022 short story) by Guan Un. It’s a trickster story, in a rich setting with a pantheon of deities whose power depends on those who believe in them. It should be a winner for fans of trickster stories.
- “Falling Off the Edge of the World” (2022 novelette) by Suzanne Palmer. Palmer has gotten a lot of attention for a lot of sci-fi novelettes, but this one really stands above the rest for me–an incredible tale of two survivors of a spaceship crash dealing with the isolation of decades waiting for rescue, and the subsequent fallout of discovery. Tremendous stuff.
- “Our Quiet Guests” (2022 short story) by Thomas Ha. This is horror–not my preferred subgenre–and it has a bit more gore than I prefer, but there’s some real emotional development as the lead gradually loses faith in his family’s rules for appeasing their terrifying guests.
- “The Empty” (2022 short story) by Ray Nayler. A small-scale, poignant tale about a temp worker at a trucking company doing her best to make a difference, even when it seems the whole world is against her.
- “The Six Deaths of the Saint” (2022 novelette) by Alix E. Harrow. A girl is visited by a war goddess and becomes a terrifying and nearly unstoppable warrior. Only the priest and the prince who discovered her seem to have a bigger game up their sleeve. I could kinda see where it was going, but it was written well enough to be very much worth the read regardless.
- “Dollbot Cicily” (2022 novelette) by Will McIntosh. A programmer struggling to make ends meet–with a daughter forced by child services into what was essentially indentured servitude–finds that her image has been manufactured into a popular sexbot, and decides to take her revenge (albeit on the users of sexbot, not the manufacturers who co-opted her image). So much going on here, between the dystopia, the revenge plot, the lead working through her own trauma, and even a bit of exploration of the sexbot owners. That makes it deeper than a simple revenge tale, even if revenge is the main calling card.
Others I Enjoyed in February
- “E.I.” (2022 short story) by Kola Heyward-Rotimi. More of a world-building story than one with a driving plot–set in a future where a sentient Earth gets a vote in all major projects–with a bit of reclamation of cultural artifacts that Durham, NC residents will recognize.
- “The Dragon Project” (2022 short story) by Naomi Kritzer. A cute, fun story about a specialist in organic 3D printing that gets an ambitious request from a difficult client.
- “Company Town” (2022 short story) by Aimee Ogden. It’s a labor strike in a town owned by Amazon, with a portal fantasy wrapped in the middle of it. Perhaps tries to do too much in a short space, but the main plot is gripping.
- “Carapace” (2022 novelette) by David Goodman. A military sci-fi novelette with an AI protagonist. Not going to transform the subgenre, but well-worked.
- “On the Hills, the Knitters” (2022 short story) by Steve Toase. I had no idea there was a magazine dedicated to surrealist/absurd/slipstream fiction! This one is. . . a bit surreal, with a group collecting around the corpse of a woolen elephant and clashing with the locals. I’m never quite sure what it takes for this style to really click and stick in my memory, but I certainly enjoyed the read.
- “Trucker” (2022 short story) by Buzz Dixon. Shipping has been automated, and climate disaster has made the Southern US unlivable. But a group of geriatric former truckers have the chance to play the heroes, like in the old stories.
- “Parebul of the Mother, Asked in Moonlight” (2022 short story) by Victor Forna. A woman tries to move on from abusive relationships and keep her kids fed and housed. I can see the pieces that have impressed so many, but a cultural context so different from my own makes for a challenging read.
- “The UmHlosinga Tree” (2022 short story) by Nick Wood. A man from a domed city ventures into the dangerous outside air to cut down a rare, isolated tree to fund his retirement, but ends up confronting old ghosts.
- “The Healer” (2022 short story) by Jennifer Marie Brissett. A young man seeks help for his sister after her sexual assault. What he gets is not what he expected. Really interesting themes underneath the dreamlike, time-bending narrative.
- “The Sufficient Loss Protocol” (2022 short story) by Kemi Ashing-Giwa. Bite-sized space opera with a deeply dislikable agent of empire just trying to do her job. An intriguing read, but perhaps a bit too compact to be as powerful as it may be in a bigger space.
- “Always Home” (2022 short story) by Jeff VanderMeer. An (artifically) intelligent biosphere tries to figure out how to handle one of the few remaining humans infringing on the ecosystem. Look, VanderMeer gonna VanderMeer.
- “Destiny Delayed” (2022 short story) by Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki. A Nigerian dystopia in which people have discovered how to extract people’s destinies. . . and of course, they have monetized it.
- “Elsewhere, Elsewhen” (2022 short story) by L. Chan. A beautifully described time travel story with a secret history and a romance. There’s a lot to like here, but there were times I felt the temporal mechanations were too intricate for full emotional impact.
- “Have Mercy, My Love, While We Wait for the Thaw” (2022 short story) by Iori Kusano. There’s a ton going on here, with examinations of guilt, PTSD, and revolution. I generally liked what we got (especially the tight, personal aspects), but I felt the revolutionary aspects would’ve been better served with more breathing room.
- “Bonsai Starships” (2022 short story) by Yoon Ha Lee. I haven’t been quite as wowed by Lee as some others have, but you can always count on him for a fascinating premise that’s beautifully written. This is another story that was a good read but might’ve stuck with me longer if it had been expanded.
Novels and Novellas
- The Sharing Knife (2006-09 series) by Lois McMaster Bujold. An adventure fantasy romance set in a magic-infused analogue of frontier America, with a lot of emphasis on working for better interpersonal relationships. As always with Bujold, a reliable hit.
- Lone Women (2023 ARC, novel releases March 28th) by Victor LaValle. Gothic horror in early 20th century Montana, and make it Black. Lots of social commentary without letting up one whit on the tension. My early leader for favorite of the year.
- The Ten Percent Thief (2023 ARC, novel releases March 28th) by Lavanya Lakshminarayan. A mosaic novel about a tech dystopia in what was once Bangalore. Not every chapter is a hit, but the ones that are hit very hard.
- The Golden Enclaves (2022 novel) by Naomi Novik. The final entry in the Scholomance series is a bit uneven but includes the best moments in the entire trilogy, making it well worth the read for fans of the first two.
- Bloodmarked (2022 novel) by Tracy Deonn. The sequel to the outstanding Legendborn doesn’t quite recapture the magic of the opener, but it’s an easy and entertaining read and moves the pieces into place for a big finale.
- They Made Us Blood and Fury (2021 novel) by Cheryl S. Ntumy. Very much the series opener in an African fantasy epic. The story felt a little too simple at the beginning, but it grew into depth and complexity that make a fascinating setup for the sequel (which is, notably, already out).
Other February Reads
- Infinity Gate (2023 novel) by M.R. Carey. It’s an epic setup, though multiversal sci-fi instead of fantasy, with intriguing portraits of three characters who will play key roles in a war spanning a seeming infinitude of worlds. Review to come shortly.
- Rose/House (2023 novella) by Arkady Martine. It looks like an AI-infused locked room murder mystery, but it reads more like a philosophical fever dream. Beautifully written, but don’t look for a neat ending. Review to come.
- The Fifth Head of Cerberus (1972 novel) by Gene Wolfe. Another one that doesn’t wear its interpretation on its sleeve, this consists of three novellas set on a pair of French-colonized planets. I found two of the three fascinating and the other difficult to engage, but the whole is still well worth the read, for certain types of reader. Review to come.
- And Put Away Childish Things (2023 novella) by Adrian Tchaikovsky. A dark subversion of the wonder of portal fantasies, with the excellent storytelling and jaded protagonist I’ve come to expect from Tchaikovsky, but perhaps not hitting the heights of some of his other novellas. Review to come.
As I mentioned earlier, in addition to novel and magazine reviews, I posted a 2022 Recommended Reading List.
My January round-up includes a list of Team Tar Vol On’s semifinalists, and I’ve begun two of the six. Expect personal reviews, probably in late March or early April, and full team scores to come in late April. But I’ll throw out a little tease here: I think I’ve found a new favorite of this year’s competition. . .