Paul Jessup’s March Short Story Roundup

It’s warm, the snow has melted, and the birds are here. All while the tiny fingers of new flowers are pushing through the rough earth. Dare I say it? There is a dangerous sense of hope in the air, that soon we shall round the bend and get closer to the end of the pandemic. Of course, this isn’t exactly a given. There are people refusing the vaccine, others moving about like everything is normal and fine again, and the air is drenched with a promise of a new wave of outbreaks on the horizon. And yet, that sense of hope is unshakable, it hooks into our skin and won’t let go. 

Let’s keep that hope inside as we take a look at March’s short story roundup. Yes, this is a little later than usual, my apologies. I had a book release at the start of April (The Silence that Binds- buy it now! Don’t be the last kid on your block without one), so my mental facilities were focused on that. But now my brain is free, and so I’m going over my notes from all the short story new releases I read last month, and giving you a list of my personal favorites here.

And oh, what a month for short stories. I seem to be saying that each and every month, but it really feels like we’re living in a golden age of short stories. By this I mean there is a cornucopia of excellent fiction published each month, a lot for free and online, and a few more in print and sold at your local bookstore. It feels like it’s almost impossible to keep up with it all, and I consider that a bounty of word riches.

So first! Let’s go with an old favorite of mine, the great Fantasy Magazine. The two I selected as being choice short story meats are Man vs. Bomb by M. Shaw and The Code for Everything by McKinley Valentine. Man vs Bomb was an absolute joy to read, a short story that thrills you with the way it bends reality inside out. The cleverness, the whimsey, the humor, it’s just all spot on and brilliant. I mean, it starts with a naked man running for his life while a bomb chases him, and if that doesn’t scream oh my god read this, I don’t know what will. And it’s not just a smart start, the follow through is great. Let’s just say the bomb is not a bomb, not in the way you’re thinking, and leave it at that.

The Code for Everything is also really good, but in a completely different way. Here we have a cat named Noonday and a little girl waiting for the faeries to arrive. But the faeries are always late, and then it gets more twisted up and interesting from there. In a way it reminds me of the more playful contemporary fantasies of Neil Gaiman, with a bit of folklore and a sly wink at the reader.

Moving on from Fantasy Magazine we turn to Apex, and The Amazing Exploding Women of the Early Twentieth Century by A.C. Wise. The prose in this is the kind that sings and begs to be read out loud. Really, you should listen to the podcast of the story, so you can hear the way the words sing. I’m a sucker for proetic posery, and lines like I was about your age, twenty years old. My specialty was burning. call out to be tattooed on your heart. 

Next up we take a nod towards Uncanny Magazine, and The Sin of America by Catherynne M. Valente.  Another short story with fantastic prose, but that’s no surprise given the author. Here we play with the ideas of sin eaters, grief, agony, despair, and the rough cut center heart of Americana. It’s the kind of story that flirts with catharsis but denies us one, because that’s not this kind of story. That would be an easy way out, and America doesn’t deserve that.

Now with a bruised heart we turn to Bourbon Penn and The Cure for Boyhood by Josh Rountree. A short story about shapechanging and coyote boys, that feels like it’s talking about fifty different things at once. His parents force him to be a normal human boy through a violent magical ritual, and it’s hard not to see this as being about parents forcing their child to be something he’s not just in order to fit in. It has many layers, and the story is well written and literary and still has me thinking about it a little each day.

And then we turn to Sleeping Beauties by Tiffany Promise, a good bit of flash fiction in OkayDonkey Magazine. Another beautifully well written story about using sleep itself as a weapon against trauma. It’s a topic touched in other stories before (one that comes quick to mind is some issues of The Sandman that riff on Little Nemo, and the poor kid being locked in a basement and abused), but it still does it exceedingly well.

So here we go, moving onto Podcastle and The Book of May by C. S. E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez. This story modernizes the classic epistolary format, moving it away from physical mail and into email. It discusses death, urns, trees, and does so with an interesting flair, using hyperlinks to take the story outside of itself and give it a strange credibility, even though it is fantasy. I kind of wished more online stories would do this, and use the internet to break the fourth wall and give the fantastic a real weight.

And now, zoom, we move onto Brightly, Undiminished by Sarah Grey, in March’s issue of Lightspeed. I am a sucker for all things witchery, especially when it’s tautly written and propels the reader from scene to scene on the edge of their seat. The magic in this story has that same deep, haunted magic that Theodora Gross talks about here. All in all, a story that I turned to a few times, looking at how everything worked in the story, and why it just felt so good to read and enjoy.

And next we turn to Clarkesworld, and the story Submergence by Arula Ratnakar. A really cool bit of biopunk hard-sf, which creates some super cool imagery of worm machines, genetic modification to share thoughts and memories between the living and the recently dead. The joy in this story is the technology itself, which is strange and foreign and extremely well detailed. It fires up the engineering imagination in each of us, even if some of it seems stretched a little past plausibility, it’s still cool and interesting. The kind of story that makes you wonder what exactly the future could hold, and what all these possibilities could really be when they take shape.

The last story, and perhaps my favorite this month (which is saying a lot! So many good stories, each varying in genre and style), is Where Oaken Hearts Do Gather by Sarah Pinsker in March’s Uncanny Magazine. I usually lump magazines stories together, but I felt like this one needed to end this roundup, and leave you with something that lasts beyond the edges of the page. This one is also told in a very unique way, but instead of through email it’s told through the edits of a Wikipedia article on a folk ballad. I’m a huge fan of the childe ballads, so it was thrilling to read it over, and see the clever turns the story takes. Really cool.

All right, that’s it for March! I’ve already started April’s short story reading, and all I can say it T. S. Eliot was wrong. April is not the cruelest month, especially not for short stories. I’ll see you then, and until next time, stay safe and read a lot of short stories.

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