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Renay: For this edition of Short Business, picture me ushering Jodie into a small room with a single light bulb swinging from a chain in the ceiling, a small table, and two chairs. I hustle her into a seat and say, "So I've heard you been reading some short fiction. It's time to talk about your favorites with me, OR ELSE." Never let it be said that I don't have a sense for the dramatic.

We've both made a pact to read and talk more short fiction — Short Business has been great for that — but I thought it was time for a dedicated moment to talk about the five favorites we may not have had time to review so far this year. Jodie, what's your first choice?

Jodie: I'm going to start with "Toad Words" by Ursula Vernon (flash fiction). "Toad Words" is a reworking of Charles Perrault's fairy tale "Toads and Diamonds" where two sisters are gifted with the ability to speak objects into existence. In the original tale one girl produces jewels, diamonds and flowers while the other brings forth frogs, toads and snakes. As you can imagine this causes conflict.

In Ursula Vernon's version things are a little different — the girl's gifts do not work out as expected and the sisters are not set at odds with each other but instead co-operate in order to benefit the whole world. The sister who can speak toads learns to bring forth endangered species by speaking particular words (which leads the story into an appreciation of the different subtexts and tones of words). Her sister bankrolls the project. David Attenborough would be all over this story.

"Toad Words" is one of the most good-hearted fantasy stories I read in the runup to Hugo nominations and one very close to my heart. I've been following amphibian ecology more since I saw a documentary about a conservation team fighting to save one species of frogs from a malignant fungus I've been following amphibian ecology. I loved this story — it was just nice in the best way possible and really rooted in mixing magic with a grounding practical realism, which is a huge fiction ping point of mine. Thanks for highlighting this smart, wry fictional pick me up, Renay.

Renay: Aww, "Toad Words". I'm so glad you liked it! I remember when I first saw that on Tumblr last year. It's so great. :D

I've read a lot this year, but two of my favorites are from 2014 because last year I was not as responsible as I could have been. Oops! My first favorite story is "The Magician and Laplace's Demon" by Tom Crosshill (novelette, published 2014 by Clarkesworld). It's about a universe controlling AI chasing down and exterminating magicians in order to understand their power. I'm still not sure I totally get it, but to me it's a story about loneliness. It's about thinking you know everything about humanity, but not understanding joy or excitement and feeling isolated, and because you don't understand and are frustrated there may be something you can't understand or solve, you end up destroying it. Except I'm not so sure of the ending — faith is hard to erase. Generally, it evolves further into something the power structure can't ever truly know, instead.

Jodie: See, part of why I love this short fiction roundup idea is that I get regular access to new recs from someone I know. It's so much easier to approach stories I haven't heard much about with your rec in mind. Definitely going to look into this one.

My second choice is "Stone Hunger" by N. K. Jemisin (novelette, published 2014 by Clarkesworld). Cecily told me I should read Jemisin's The Awakened Kingdom before Hugo nominations closed, but I just ran out of time to read stories over 17,500. However, I did read this shorter Hugo eligible work by Jemisin and enjoyed it enough to nominate "Stone Hunger" in the novelette category.

This story has a strong opening that made me want to know more about the world and see the setting of the city that 'winches its roof into place against the falling chill of night.'. Jemisin is so good at creating cities and making place important to her stories — one of the things I remember most about some of her novels are the setting. And I think Jemisin's ability to write memorable, specific settings makes the main character's power — the ability to draw energy from her surroundings and manipulate materials — a smart, appropriate choice. I also liked the feel of the main character — her feral fight for survival, her vengeful practicality set against clear moral limits and how focused she is on her senses. All this combines to give her a visceral presence in the text and to make her third person story feel as direct and forceful as a tale told by a first person narrator.

I get the feeling that asking for longer stories is some kind of blasphemy in short SFF circles, but nevertheless I'd like to see expanded "Stone Hunger" expanded. I want a whole novel about the main character and the city. I want to know so much more about the stone-eaters, how the city full of monsters works and what becomes of the girl after she's taken under Ykka's wing. Recommended for fans of Jemisin's novels. *hint*

Renay: I want to get around to The Awakened Kingdom, too, but I wanted to get all the way through the trilogy first. I have the last book on my shelf right now — soon!

My second selection is "She Commands Me and I Obey" by Ann Leckie (short story, published 2014 by Strange Horizons). This story was part of the Strange Horizons fund drive, and I was all "Come on, friends, let's donate so I can read this!" And then we reached it, and of course my life exploded between part one and two so by the time part two came out, I was swamped until 2015.

Predictably, most of what I like about this story I can't really verbalize, welcome to my inexperience with original short fiction. It's a quiet story, very internal to the main character, Her-Breath-Contains-The-Universe. It's a little coming of age and a lot sport-as-politics, which was a neat conceit. Of course these days we do spend a lot of time watching politics when we already know the outcome, predicted by who has the most clout, money, and support, but this story subverts that, and wraps it up in a lot of complicated interpersonal relationships and political motivations between the characters.

Jodie: I'm saving this until I've read Ancillary Sword and I'm mentally preparing for maximum excitement. Leckie's universe is amazeballs. Should I listen to the podcast version, too?

Renay: The story has very little to do with any of the events in the Imperial Radch novels, so it's pretty safe to read whenever, although it is a pretty nice, light story to the heavier topics in Ancillary Sword. When I finished I decided it was telling the story of a place that had been colonized. And as for the podcast: I'm not sure! I can't listen to audiobooks or fiction podcasts. I'm the weirdo who gets super massive second-hand embarrassment from them.

Jodie: I always forget listening to spoken word fiction stresses you out because I know you love SFF podcasts so much. I've actually never listened to a podcasted story. I did like audio books when I was a kid, but I would need a really good rec, and probably better technology, to get back into them.

Moving on to the next story on my list: "Among the Thorns" by Veronica Schanoes (novelette, published 2014 by Tor.com). "Among the Thorns" is a rebuttal to an anti-semitic fairy tale "The Jew in the Thorns" and wow did that story need a rebuttal. "Among the Thorns" imagines that the Jewish man killed in the original fairy tale had a daughter, Itelle. Itelle determines to get justice and eventually joins with a female Jewish maggid, The Matronit, to destroy the man responsible for her father's death. I seem to be reading a lot of revenge stories right now ("Stone Hunger", "The Fisher Queen") and it's interesting to seeing different stories' perspectives on what vengeful justice looks like.

Like Schanoes novella "Burning Girls", "Among the Thorns" takes a long but intriguing road to the revisionist meat of its plot. While revising and rebutting "The Jew Among the Thorns" is clearly a key purpose of presenting this story, Schanoes' spends a large amount of time establishing the details of Itelle's family relationships and uses almost a digressive, layered style to tell this story. Shanoes fleshes out Itelle's life, and her family's life, rather than just spiriting her heroine straight to the main action. This makes her short story feel novelistic despite its shorter length and shows a marked difference from original fairy tales which are often so short on details.

Last year, Ana and I co-reviewed Schanoes' novella "Burning Girls", so we decided to read this story together as well. The two stories contain similar elements: female magic, fevers linked to powers, and a focus on family and Jewish life. I think we both enjoyed "Burning Girls" more but we also both came away from "Among the Thorns" wanting more stories from Schanoes.

Renay: I've never read Schanoes, which I should correct. :)

And I know, I'm so weird. I can totally handle audio conversations, but start reading to me and it's an IMMEDIATE anxiety reaction. Which is a shame, because I have so many friends who do podfic that I would LOVE to listen to? The only podfic I've ever listened to all the way through was a podfic made for one of my stories, which was AWESOME (it's here!), and probably okay because I already knew all the words. XD

My next favorite is "Three Cups of Grief, by Starlight" by Aliette de Bodard (short story, published 2015 in Clarkesworld). This is probably not a surprise at all. Aliette de Bodard is easily my favorite short fiction author along with Ken Liu (secretly my dream is for them to collaborate on a novel one day, at which point I will read it, lie down, and die from happiness). She does some brilliant things in such a small space, and her futures feel so different in the greatest way. Of course some of that is the setting, which is notably not Western, but it's the way she writes about technology and the way humans interface with it, too, that makes it so wonderful.

This story is about how different types of people deal with grief at different stages. One is the son of a scientist, the other is the daughter of a scientist who is now a spaceship, and the third is the scientist's student. They all struggle with the loss of this woman in their own ways, but I found the daughter's reaction the most heartbreaking and relatable. I came away from this story thinking about generosity and, surprisingly, tough love. Which is amusing when you consider that the tough love in this story is between spaceships whose concept of time is so drastically different than someone who is not a ship. It was a lovely and thoughtful story about losing a mother and a mentor, and it makes me so excited to see what she publishes next, and for her novel, The House of Shattered Wings, which comes out in August.

Jodie: I read her story "The Breath of War" recently and, from what you've said about "Three Cups of Grief, By Starlight", it seems like her writing is very interested in family and maybe in mother/child relationships in particular. I will definitely keep this story in mind.

Cracking on to my last two stories — I considered doing full length reviews of both of them, but I figured one long post about confusing short fiction was probably enough.

"Late Nights at the Cape & Cane" by Max Gladstone (short story, published 2014 by Uncanny Magazine) is a story about a villain who gets sick of losing and the way his friends help him out of a monumental mess. The idea of showing a story from the villain's perspective, and setting up villainy as a form of fated labour, may not be original (what is though, right) but I never really get tired of that concept. Doc's villain friends help him deal with his pride and set everything straight so no one gets vaporised. Then they go back inside to drink and (probably) hook up — hurray! The whole story is told by the vaguely mysterious and inhuman, but very down to earth, Stella, who has an easygoing, wry narrative voice.

I did not fully understand the world building in story; I couldn't work out if it was set in an existing superhero or games universe I was already supposed to know about, if it was an offshoot from another of Gladstone's works or if it was based on some kind of mythology. There's a Super-League and there are portals to different worlds, which reminds me of Wreck-It Ralph so maybe the characters are from superhero games? No clue. I just liked the down and out, drink 'til it's better, bar setting, as well as the dialect and the descriptions of the bar's clientele. I should probably start working my way through Gladstone's Craft Sequence soon.

Renay: Yes. [personal profile] samjohnsson has recced Gladstone to me so many times I'm sure he's given up on me reading him at this point. I promise I will, Sam! I even put him on my "read it or else 2015" list, which will loom over me as the end of the year approaches.

My next story comes from 2015, too. Cecily recced me "Cat Pictures Please" by Naomi Kritzer (short story, published 2015 in Clarkesworld) and I was so utterly charmed by it. (It's like she's our short fiction dealer.) I read it several times and it just got cuter and cuter each time. I am just super weak to adorable, friendly AIs like this one who like humans and want to help us but just don't get us sometimes. It's a very interesting look at the distance between different types of people, too. But I need more cheerful AIs in my future. This is a really, really short story, barely over 3000 words, so it's super easy to spoil. Totally worth a quick read!

Jodie: Super excited about this one! Everyone just keeps talking about how nice it is — I can't wait to get to it.

The last story I'm going to talk about is "The Bonedrake's Penance" by Yoon Ha Lee (novelette, published 2014 by Beneath Ceaseless Skies). [personal profile] forestofglory mentioned this novelette when she guest posted at Lady Business and I'll be making sure to follow up on some more of the recommendations from that post.

"The Bonedrake's Penance" deals with big political themes, ties those to personal relationships and is set it a very mystical combines the feel of deep space with classic fantasy. It has a good chance of roping wildly different SFF fans and I'm hoping we'll see it on the Hugo ballot. The political side of this story is concentrated on neutrality and the desire to preserve rather than curate. The personal side focuses on the mother/child relationship between the bonedrake, a sort of skeletal dragon, and a human child she has adopted. They make cupcakes and the child explores as it begins to realise its homelife is not the norm.

In some ways I think this story is a bit beyond me at the moment. Maybe it's the kind of story I'll come back to later and take more away from in terms of the big themes. I connected solidly with the family relationship and enjoyed working out the details of the character's lives from the details the story dropped, but I struggled to orientate myself when it came to the conflict between the bonedrake and the outside world. By the end of the story, I understood what the conflict was all about, but as I read the story I sometimes felt a little frustrated by my lack of understanding and that had an impact on my final feelings about the story's themes. It's probably a story I should return to later when I have a little distance.

Renay: My last story is a little heavy and once again I'm not sure how best to talk about it due to how it aligns with race (and there are definite trigger warnings on this one for racism and violence against women). "The Animal Women" by Alix E. Harrow (novelette, published 2015 in Strange Horizons), is a story about a girl who meets a group of women living on the edge of society and comes to befriend them. But it takes her longer than that to really understand them and the things they've been through, to really understand their kindness as well as their ferocity and how they were made that way by a hard world with hard, cruel people in it. I'm definitely still thinking about it pondering over the end. It's a thinky story for sure.

Jodie: I like that we both finished up with stories to think about. There's a certain kind of symmetry there. See you next time for a new crop of exciting stories. And if anyone has read any of the stories discussed here please jump into the comments and tell us what you thought.

Lady Business Short Fiction round up list.

Other Stories Read in March

text that says Renay's Section

"The Breath of War" by Aliette de Bodard [Beneath Ceaseless Skies 2014, short story]
"And You Shall Know Her By The Trail Of Dead" by Brooke Bolander [Lightspeed 2015, novelette]
"The Lonely Heart" by Aliette de Bodard [Lightspeed 2015 / Black Static 2009, short story]
"Indelible" by Gwendolyn Clare [Clarkesworld 2015, short story]
"Pockets" by Amal El-Mohtar [Uncanny 2015, short story]
"Everything Beneath You" by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam [Beneath Ceaseless Skies 2015; short story]
"Tomorrow is Waiting" by Holli Mintzer [Strange Horizons 2011, short story]
"The Apartment Dweller's Bestiary" by Kij Johnson [Clarkesworld 2015, short story]
"Ivory Darts, Golden Arrows" by Maria Dahvana Headley [Uncanny 2015, short story]

text that says Jodie's Section

"And You Shall Know Her By The Trail of Dead" by Brooke Bolander [Lightspeed 2015, novelette]
"The Truth About Owls" by Amal El-Mohtar [Strange Horizons 2015 / Kaleidoscope 2014, short story]
"Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land" by Ruthanna Emrys [Tor.com 2014, short story]
"Hunting Monsters" by S. L. Huang [Book Smugglers Publishing 2014, short story]
"Beautiful Boys" by Theodora Goss [Lightspeed 2015 / Asimov's 2012, short story]
"A Girl Who Came Out of a Chamber at Regular Intervals" by Sofia Samatar [Lackington's 2014]
"The Fisher Queen" by Alyssa Wong [Fantasy & Science Fiction 2014]

Short Business Reviews — March 2015

"The Mussel Eater" by Octavia Cade
"Anyway: Angie" by Daniel Jose Older

Supplemental Material

There's a short fiction recommendation survey running, and we'd love it if you took part!


Date: 2015-04-10 11:21 am (UTC)
dolorosa_12: (matilda)
From: [personal profile] dolorosa_12
This is a really fabulous list! Thanks in particular for recommending me 'Toad Words', which I'd somehow missed, and sounds fantastic.

Date: 2015-04-10 10:38 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
It's so great (also really short which is good if you're on the go a lot).

Date: 2015-04-10 03:08 pm (UTC)
forestofglory: E. H. Shepard drawing of Christopher Robin reading a book to Pooh (Default)
From: [personal profile] forestofglory
This post is so much yay!

Date: 2015-04-10 10:39 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
Glad you like it. Also, look I'm reading the stories you rec'd :)

Date: 2015-04-11 02:32 am (UTC)
forestofglory: E. H. Shepard drawing of Christopher Robin reading a book to Pooh (Default)
From: [personal profile] forestofglory
Yes, that makes me happy.


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