My monthly sci-fi/fantasy magazine review was way busier than usual, with four different issues on the docket this month. But one of my heaviest reading months of the year ensured there was plenty of room for short fiction miscellany. In addition to my book clubs and a few impulse reads, I was able to swing by the library and dip my toe into a few stories from Never Whistle at Night–I’m not a big horror guy, so I didn’t want to read it cover to cover, but I checked out a couple familiar authors and well-reviewed stories, and I certainly encourage horror fans to pick it up. And I found some real gems in my spur-of-the-moment reading as well. There’s plenty to talk about, so let’s jump in!
This list starts with Clarkesworld, which had a fantastic month and dominated my favorites in my monthly magazine review. Thomas Ha’s “The Mub” and Hannah Yang’s “Bird-Girl Builds a Machine” stood out, as did part one of Thoraiya Dyer’s serial novella “Eight or Die.” But the one that really stole the show was Tia Tashiro’s debut short story, “To Carry You Inside You.” It did so much in such a short space, and I highly recommend people check it out. Take a look at my magazine review for more on these and others. But those weren’t the only gems I came across this month. My favorites list would be much the worse without:
- “The Falling” (2021 short story) by M V Melcer. I didn’t start reading Clarkesworld regularly until last year, but I was deep into sci-fi/fantasy social media in 2021, and I don’t understand why people weren’t shoving this one into my face. The chilling details of a society organized around escape from the disaster unceasingly dogging their heels are revealed slowly over the course of 4,000 words, and the lead’s perspective makes it heart-wrenchingly personal. This one hits like a ton of bricks, and if I’d read it two years ago, it’d have doubtless been on my award nominating ballot.
- “The Year Without Sunshine” (2023 novelette) by Naomi Kritzer. I’ve read a handful of Kritzer’s works at this point, and she has a true knack for near-future sci-fi with an uplifting bent. This one focuses on building community in a Minnesota neighborhood as the Internet and supply chains break down. There were times that I wanted a little more detail to make the collapse feel real, but this isn’t a story about the disaster so much as one about the response, and it’s an excellent read for fans of community-building stories.
- “The Job at the End of the World” (2023 short story) by Ray Nayler. Nayler is another master of near-future sci-fi, though his tends more toward the bittersweet, with individuals doing their best to make a better word balanced with vivid accounts of the world in collapse. In this case, we follow a professional rebuilder, traveling from fire to flood to storm to help put the pieces back together, all the while saving up for a life of his own. There’s a lot more reflection on life and the world than a true main plot, but it’s excellent nonetheless.
- “For However Long” (2023 short story) by Thomas Ha. Admittedly, quiet, personal, near-future sci-fi is extremely Stuff Tar Vol Likes. But this is another very good one, with the aging mother of a Martian immigrant reflecting on the distance between them, and how similar it feels to her own cross-country move decades earlier. Like I said, it’s a quiet piece, all about family and relocation, but I find it beautiful–especially as someone who lives a few hundred miles from my own parents and siblings.
- “Kushtuka” (2023 short story) by Mathilda Zeller, published in Never Whistle at Night. A rich man from Kansas seems to get whatever he wants from an indigenous community in Alaska, including scary stories. A lot of the direction is unsurprising, but it’s no less satisfying, and the tension is exquisite.
- “White Hills” (2023 short story) by Rebecca Roanhorse, published in Never Whistle at Night. More rich white people behaving badly, this time toward a mixed race woman who married into their money. There are times it feels a little over-the-top, but there’s some excellent domestic horror here.
- “Muna in Barish” (2023 novelette) by Isha Karki. Another story of racism, this one in a fantasy publishing context, where the ultimate direction of the story isn’t too much of a surprise, but it’s compelling.
- “Like Ladybugs, Bright Spots in Your Mailbox” (2023 short story) by Marie Croke. A witch is sending spelled postcards through the DC metro area, ringing in an era of joy and prosperity. Unfortunately, it catches the attention of those dedicated to ensuring the secrecy of witchcraft, and a junior witch sees an opportunity to make her career by tracking down the perpetrator. It gets more complicated than she expects.
- “They’re Made Out of Meat” (1991 flash fiction) by Terry Bisson. A flash fiction told entirely in dialogue, there’s not room for much beyond one central conceit and a clever closing line, but that’s enough for a pretty entertaining and memorable 800 words.
Others I Enjoyed in November
- “The Year of Rebellious Stars” (2023 short story) by Tanvir Ahmed. A fun little story set in ancient Arabia that really nails the narrative voice.
- “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle” (2016 short story) by Sofia Samatar. Another story that leans into the mythic voice, with a looping narrative that rushes past many key points and circles back to them. Really well-crafted, though I felt at the end that I expected to get more from it.
- “Our Grandmother’s Words” (2023 short story) by M.H. Ayinde. An anti-colonial tale about the power of language and the importance of resistance against a more powerful foe.
- “Quantum” (2023 short story) by Nick Medina, published in Never Whistle at Night. A deeply thematic horror story pointedly addressing a social issue–blood quantum and tribal membership–that I was barely aware even existed. As such, I didn’t have the emotional context for this to hit on a heart level, but I certainly appreciated it, and I imagine this will be a fantastic read for those closer to the issue.
- “Snakes Are Born in the Dark” (2023 short story) by D.H. Trujillo, published in Never Whistle at Night. Another horror story with obnoxious white people and terrifying comeuppance. I’m not sure this had quite the tension of “Kushtuka,” but it was nicely done and will probably hit for horror fans.
- “Interlude: Shelter from the Storm” (2023 short story) by Rajiv Moté. I can’t contextualize this as anything other than a fictional reflection on the controversial Middle Earth figure Tom Bombadil. This story takes place in a secondary world, but it’s a break from an implied further plot, focusing on a strange and powerful figure that has held himself out of a broader conflict.
Novels and Novellas
- The Grace of Kings (2015 novel) by Ken Liu. A Chinese-inspired fantasy with a narration style that feels like a throwback to the classical epics more than a contemporary epic fantasy and its third-person limited perspective. It takes a long time to set up all the pieces, but once they’re on the board, it’s a train wreck that makes it impossible to look away, with foolish advisors and overconfident leaders paying for mistakes in blood in a tale that spans decades, setting up a series but also serving as an excellent standalone.
- System Collapse (2023 novel) by Martha Wells. Murderbot is back, and suffering from PTSD in the immediate aftermath of the events of Network Effect. The exploration of Murderbot’s psychology is excellent, though it does mean there’s a little bit less of the endearing interactions with others. And the midpoint climax was truly excellent.
- The Spare Man (2022 novel) by Mary Robinette Kowal. The first of my Hugo finalist catchup reviews, it’s a murder mystery in space, with a fast-paced and fun narrative and a lot of entertaining cocktail nerdery. An ending that doesn’t fit all the mystery genre conventions robs it of a little power, but it’s still an entertaining romp.
- A Mirror Mended (2022 novella) by Alix E. Harrow. Another Hugo finalist, a sequel to A Spindle Splintered that recasts the villainous Queen from Snow White as a woman in an impossible situation looking for a different answer to her story. The main plot is deeply compelling, but adding an instalust romantic subplot, drama back at home, and a potentially collapsing multiverse makes this one feel a bit overstuffed.
- Legends & Lattes (2022 novel) by Travis Baldree. Another Hugo finalist, this one a cozy fantasy about an orc adventurer opening a coffee shop. It’s an extremely easy read–though worldbuilding is all vibes and no logic–but I wanted a little more character focus and a little bit less plot.
- Blood Over Bright Haven (2023 novel) by M.L. Wang. A deeply thematic dark academia about a mage trying to break into a sexist academy and finding a secret greater than she could’ve fathomed. The side characters tend to be written in service of the plot and theme, but the plot is propulsive and engrossing, one of my favorites of the year.
Other November Reads
- Flora Segunda (2007 novel) by Ysabeau S. Wilce. Despite only being 16 years old, this feels like classic YA fiction, with no dystopia or romance in sight, just a teenager getting herself into–and out of–a series of scrapes, with a delightful narrative voice. Full review to come.
- Children of Doro (2023 novel) by M.L. Clark. Inspired by The Brothers Karamazov, it’s a slow-building novel narrated by an AI, detailing the moral formation of the central characters and how they inevitably lead to the destruction of a planet, and what happened afterwards. Slower-paced than my preference, but it comes together nicely, and I suspect there’s a reader somewhere wondering where this has been all their life. Full review to come.
- The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi (2023 novel) by Shannon Chakraborty. The blurb is a recipe for me disliking it–an action-packed nautical adventure with monsters and demigods running about–and yet it was excellent. An endearing main character and a wonderful narrative voice help a lot, as do the vibrant world and a few wonderful little flourishes. Full review to come.
My team has named our quarterfinalists and are working hard on narrowing these seven down to two. Expect reviews to start trickling out in December and accelerating into January.