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November is a hard month when you work in retail so I've been focusing on finding fun stories. Basically, if a short story had baking in the title I was on it last month.

"A Recipe for Magic" by Kat Howard and Fran Wilde

A charming, charming story where magic and baking play a role in healing a troubled girl. At the Night and Day Bakery, Lux burns cakes, breaks bowls, and sets the oven on fire with her magic. Esme, the bakery's owner, finds her so difficult that she considers sending Lux on her way. However, a series of recipes set them on a different path, and Esme comes to realise just how much Lux needs someone to help her deal with her past. By the end of the story Lux is in a very different mental place; better able to use her magic wisely because Esme has shown her the way. Esme also helps Lux expunge her guilt about the past by explaining a crucial element of Lux's story.

Kat Howard and Fran Wilde have created a lovely story of friendship, mentoring, and rejuvenation. Plus, the descriptions of magical baking projects are quirky, and sound like the kind of marvels anyone would love to have on their table. Magical baking stories are the best, right? If you have recs just hurl them at me in the comments, please.

"Seven Kinds of Baked Goods" by Maria Haskins

I found this via Sara L. Uckleman's review at SFF Reviews. It's the story of a dwarf who is more interested in baking pastries that dispense justice than making excellent swords that kill people. When the reader catches up with Disa the dwarf, a plan has gone wrong and she's been caught by a minion who is determined to cause her horrible pain in order to extract a confession. The torture sessions give Disa a reason to disassociate, and this allows the reader to see slices of her history.

Disa was thrown out by her family for putting Dwarven craft into her baking, and left town with just Fang and Bleeder; a sword and dagger of her own devising, both of which have unexpected properties. After wandering the streets as a pick-pocket, she teams up with Leyra who needs a baker for her tea-shop (although Leyra's tea shop really provides cover for her assassination business). Keen to dispense justice to deserving people, Disa signs up. Behind all this plot is Leyra's desperate sadness over the death of her children, Disa's quiet desire for Leyra, and the friendship between the two women who make their own family in the absence of blood relatives. With a clever twist at the end, Disa and Leyra are able to set off on more adventures together, and I for one wouldn't mind reading about whatever they get up to.

"The Şiret Mask" by Marie Brennan

"The Şiret Mask" is such a fun story! I'm so glad I found out about it via Clowder of Two's review. Ooana's brother Codruţ has been alerted that the legendary thief Laperi will try to steal the Şiret Mask before The Festival of Change is over. Codruţ is enraged; even though the Şiret mask is by no means the finest work of art it is his, and he will not be beaten by Laperi. Meanwhile Ooana finds herself courted by a conte who her friend Viorica fears may not be all that he seems.

To give away anything else about this story would spoil its ending, but what unfolds next is the smart, daring, and sometimes wildly improvised plan to steal the mask during the chaotic whirl of the festival. This story has got con-artists, disguises, and daring chase scenes. And the festival setting allows for plenty of semi-plausible mis-direction. I particularly enjoyed Laperi's motivation for trying to take this second class mask (basically because it's a challenge, and because they want to add their own story to its history) as one of my favourite reasons for con storylines is 'because it was there and I'm great at stealing things'. A+ fun times, and if you're looking for a roaring adventure story with thieves I recommend you check this out now.

"City of Villains: Why I Don't Trust Batman" by Sarah Gailey

This is the Batman fiction I have always wanted! "City of Villains: Why I Don't Trust Batman" is written as a hypothetical treatise; a sort of directed imagination experiment:

Imagine that you live in a city of villains.

Your city has a billionaire playboy. He lives on top of the hill. You don’t know much about him, other than what you read in the papers about his romantic exploits and elaborate black-tie parties. You had a gig once offloading decorative antique suits of armor at his mansion up on the hill. You wanted to sign up for the gig offloading slabs of marble to be installed in his ballroom, but you hurt your back and got fired.

However, the story quickly includes enough personal detail to make the reader forget that this is a hypothetical scenario. It draws the reader in until "Why I Don't Trust Batman" feels like a personal outsider point of view from a specific blue collar worker who just happens to end up working for a variety of Gotham City villains.

The story uses this outsider perspective to critique the violence of 'the vigilante', the capitalism of the city's 'billionaire playboy', and ask pertinent questions about why, despite the billionaire's charity, poverty continues to dog the lives of many citizens. It refocuses the reader's gaze on the regular people who get caught in the crossfire when the vigilante attacks. It also interrogates the idea that 'the billionaire' is unquestionably a force for good. While I've seen the 'Batman as vigilante' critique before, I don't think I've ever seen his identity as 'Bruce Wayne, billionaire' so intelligently skewered before. This element of the story really added another level to the 'who watches the watchmen' strand of superhero lit-crit. And the section about how Batman feeds 'the prison industrial complex' was an especially interesting take on things.

"The Day the Wizards Came" by Rachel Swirsky

In contrast to most of the other stories I read in November, Rachel Swirsky's "The Day the Wizards Came" is quite serious. Like "City of Villains: Why I Don't Trust Batman" it's a critique of a beloved SFF institution (this time Harry Potter), and it focuses on the ordinary people who are affected by the intervention (or lack of intervention) of fantastical characters. In this story, wizards arrive and reverse the atrocities of September 11th. Many of the, now surviving, employees of the Twin Towers have vivid memories of the Towers falling. However, they are safe and alive. The wizards seem contemptuous of those memories, and can't understand why the 'Mundanes' go on so. Then, when the people complain that the wizards could have stopped many other historical disasters the wizards become angry. Finally, they enchant the people to accept their grand gesture without question. "The Day the Wizards Came" finishes up as a creepy tale that put me in mind of stories about the dark side of fairies, and ensured I'd never look at wizardry in quite the same way again.

"Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience" by Rebecca Roanhorse

I read this on Sarah's recommendation, and woah what a great rec. Again, a very serious story - this time about cultural appropriation, and the different ways people can be separated from their cultural roots. Jesse works for a company that provides virtual 'authentic' Indian experiences for 'the Tourists'. Needless to say, these experiences are less than authentic, owing more to Hollywood depictions of Native Americans than to actual Native culture. Jesse doesn't mind though. He's a top seller, with a fondness for Hollywood westerns, who will do anything that's required to improve his numbers. One day he meets a Tourist, a 'pale' man who claims he 'had a great grandmother who was Cherokee', and who doesn't seem to like Jesse's experience. However, he is curious enough to meet Jesse outside of the virtual world. The two men become friends but before long things take a sinister turn.

"Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience" is a take on the life-stealing trope, where one character replaces another and forces them out of their own life. Jesse tells his new friend, who he names White Wolf in the experience, all about his life, and discusses all his favourite films with him. White Wolf uses that knowledge, and people's preconceptions about Native Americans, to shape himself until people believe he is more of an "authentic Indian" than Jesse. Rebecca Roanhorse's story reminds the reader that real voices from marginalised races are often overwritten by white cultural output, and by white people who claim to be more of an expert on marginalised cultures than people with lived experience. This story makes an overused trope fresh, and really meaningful, by using it to examine modern day methods of colonization.

Other Reading

I also read three of the stories from Uncanny Magazine #19 (I still have "The Bone Plain" to go) so I could review them for SFF Reviews. All three stories were very strong, but if I had to pick a personal favourite it'd have to be Rachel Swirsky's "Elemental Love".

Short Stories!

Date: 2017-12-05 12:34 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I'm so glad you liked "Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience"! It's such a great story that left me so stunned when I finished reading. I'm thinking about making a list of recommended stories from 2017, and I know it would make the list.

And thanks for all these recs! I've bookmarked... well, pretty much all of them. Except for "City of Villains: Why I Don't Trust Batman," which I'd already read. I'd never thought of Batman in that way, and it really made me think.



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