Stories I’ve been reading so far in January

In November of last year, I put up a post with some of my favorite stories of 2012 that were published by zines that aren’t considered “pro-paying markets” by SFWA. (Typically, this means they pay less than $0.05 per word.)

This year, I wanted to be a bit more proactive and not wait until November to talk about stories I enjoy. So consider this post the first of many (or so I hope) that may appear throughout the year, highlighting recent stories I’m especially fond of.

I’ve been making an effort to direct my reading to zines that don’t always get as much attention as the best-known ones do. That’s a subjective criterion, and I’m sure at times I’ll mention stories from across the spectrum of zines (including justly renowned and oft-reviewed pro-paying publications). But even though I think the world would be a better place if more people engaged in dialogue about the stories in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Apex, Strange Horizons, et al., those aren’t really what I hope to focus on the most.

So with that in mind, here’s some of the stuff I liked best so far in January:

“Désiré” by Megan Arkenberg, in Crossed Genres. I’m happy that Crossed Genres is publishing in magazine format again (and now paying pro rates!), because this story is my favorite of 2013 so far. I was skeptical at first — it’s a story about an artist (which can be a self-indulgent topic for writers) and is composed entirely of snippets of found documents and interviews (which can often result in bloated and impersonal stories).

But this story is fascinating, and it makes good use of its unconventional format. I was won over long before the end. And the world it paints is big and compelling enough to fuel a dozen stories.

Désiré is a composer of operas in a future (or perhaps alternate) society that has somehow retained wholesale the trappings of 18th and 19th century European aristocracy. There are titled nobility, masquerades, afternoon carriage rides through the park, and little acts of chivalry sprinkled throughout the story. But there’s also a war, and the true heart of the story is the guilt that Désiré feels at how his operas contributed to the nationalistic feelings… as well the shifting reactions of his audience to his evolving work as his awareness grows.

“Remembering the Days That Hurt Us” by Crystal Lynn Hilbert, in Kaleidotrope. Like Arkenberg’s story, this one is about the indirect effects of war on people and nations. This time, the protagonist is Doe, a retired mage who served in a modern military during a vicious war. Doe was part of a unit or agency composed of operatives with magical abilities of tactical utility, but is now haunted both mentally and physically by the things he did and saw while in combat.

The story takes place some years after Doe’s time in the military has ended, and follows the relationship of Doe and a young man who is his assigned “medic”. It wasn’t entirely clear to me what this arrangement entails, but the role of the medic felt a bit like a cross between a physical therapist and a buddy in an addiction program. The medic is on call to respond at a moment’s notice whenever Doe is in need, to soothe the lingering pain and (presumably) to keep him from doing anything destructive. (Unlike other veterans, Doe himself is inseparable from the weapon he wielded.)

A friendship and more develops between the two men. The story doesn’t going anywhere too surprising, but it’s interesting reading while it lasts.

“The Third Attractor” by Mjke Wood, in Abyss & Apex. While attending a conference on chaos theory, a young mathematician meets a renowned Jesuit-cum-jazz musician-cum-mathematician name Fr Johnson. After some starts and stops, she ends up discussing with him a new discovery she has made while using chaos theory to analyze music–a discovery that appears to provide evidence for the existence of a human soul.

There’s no doubt that the premise behind this one stretches credulity–especially since both the main characters are quick to discard all other possible explanations for the findings. But Wood takes his time introducing the characters and their dilemma, so it’s possible to look past those rough edges if you squint just right.

As a Roman Catholic myself, I was very happy to see a religious character (a priest, no less!) with varied interests. If anything, the Catholic aspect of Fr Johnson’s character is the least well developed. We know what kind of jazz he plays and what kind of math he does–but we never know exactly what his relationship or role is in the Church. That does make his sudden retreat into dogma at the climax feel a bit abrupt and artificial–but ultimately this is a story that suggest science and religion can play in harmony, so long as both sides are willing to make compromises.

“Corentin the Divine” by Eric M Bosarge, in Buzzy Mag. This one is an interesting counterpoint to “Désiré” in the sense that it also takes the form of snippets from interviews. (Though I think the format is a lot less successful here, and it does ultimately come off as too impersonal.)

In this case, the interviewer is attempting to uncover the truth about a celebrity magician and apparent cult leader named Corentin. A wide range of people relate key events that led to his transition from one to the other, and many attest that Corentin’s magic is no illusion. There are some genuinely creepy moments along the way, and I liked both the plot and the weirdness. Unfortunately, the climax requires the interviewer to take an active role in the story… but the rest of the story hasn’t given us enough information about the interviewer to be invested in that moment when it comes.

“The Shadow Artist” by Ruth Nestvold, in Abyss & Apex. An enjoyable chiller, set in Alaska during the time of the midnight sun. This story concerns a vindictive pantomime artist who (three years after a traumatic break-up) learns how to cast a shadow across the continent and over his former lover’s life…

I love this idea, even if the notion of a pantomime artist (especially in this odd corner of the Arctic) is vaguely ridiculous, and even if the pettiness of the protagonist is unattractive. But it’s a tale about the temptation of revenge, and how distance can remove our compassion. Interesting stuff!

EDIT: Updated to add disclosures, which I originally forgot. To the best of my knowledge, I haven’t interacted with any of the writers mentioned here. (Alas!)

I’ve sold stories to Kaleidotrope and Crossed Genres… And, as usual, I’ve submitted to all the zines mentioned and probably will again.


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