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In February, I continued to deliberately search out heart-warming stories. In March I'm going to try to branch out a little into some darker stuff, but February was all about trying to reset my mental clock after the long retail-job filled months of December and January. And while I may not have read a lot of stories in February, I still found some sparkly, sparkly gems that made me eager to get writing this post.

"The Witches of Athens" by Lara Elena Donnelly

Forestofglory tweeted about this story and I fell upon it with delight. It's the story of two sister witches in Athens, Ohio who each hold sway in their own magical court. In keeping with the prosaic, small college town setting, each court is centred around a diner. Each woman, and each diner, is very different. However, 'There is no law that says a student who eats the Court Street's gleaming eggs cannot turn and splurt ketchup on the fries at Union. Likewise, no geis prohibits Union-goers from the tiles and tables of the Court.' Therefore, the two women get a certain amount of crossover in their clientele, and occasionally the opportunity arises for the Court Street witch and the Union witch to collaborate.

The sisters set to work helping a flashy barista, Eli, and a shy customer, Jeremiah connect with each other. Eli and Jeremiah are each 'members' of a different court, and they're hopelessly in love with each other. Unfortunately, some key personality differences, and their inability to communicate, conspire to keep them apart. Eli is convinced that Jeremiah doesn't know he's alive. Meanwhile, Jeremiah just doesn't know what to say to Eli. The more Eli tries to talk to Jeremiah the more Jeremiah retreats into his shell. The more Eli retreats the more Jeremiah despairs. The two witches, caught in a similar case of emotional opposition themselves, watch as this push me pull me routine continues on despite their best magical efforts.

"The Witches of Athens" is a delicate story about the tension and attraction between opposites. Eli and Jeremiah's differences, and the problems they cause, are paralleled in the relationship between the two witches. The two women dress differently, revolve around very different styles of diner, and work different types of magic. And the fact that they are so different from each other leads the sisters to distance themselves from each other. Despite the fact that both sisters admire each other, and would like to be a bit closer, fear creeps in because they don't fully understand each other. As the witches work their magics to try to bring Eli and Jeremiah together, the reader sees the women edge closer together. When one of the boys makes a subtle misstep, and the witches' magics are disrupted, the reader sees how a small misunderstanding built on years of history and psychology can also pull the sisters apart. Lara Elena Donnelly sets up a delicious, double-layered, slow burn story, and leads the reader through a delicate dance of emotions. For a lover of the slowest of slow burns like myself this story is so. damn. good.

There is just so much to love about "The Witches of Athens". Let's take a quick look at how the two witches are described in the opening section:

The Court Street witch has full red lips and hooded eyes, long black hair like a curling river rapid. She reads palms and tarot cards. She dances naked under the full moon. She has, on occasion, turned fractious frat boys into toads. Her magic is stitched up fast like stage clothes, heavy with glitter. It may fray at the edges, but it has flash. It is pretty, fast, impressive, like gunpowder meeting a match.

The Union witch favors boot cut jeans and a Bobcat sweatshirt, a blunt end on her ponytail. Her magic lasts, like a well-dug posthole or a rough-cut rafter of hundred-year oak. Her spells are solid, unassuming, starting slow and slowly building, stone on stone, to form a sturdy wall.

In many other stories two women who are described like this would be dire enemies, with the Court Street witch cast as a femme villain out to destroy the world. "The Witches of Athens" rejects that narrative flat out, and writes a totally different story while still managing to create a narrative which addresses the fact that differences can create distance between people who want to be close. Masterful! Then there's the way the story affirms that different kinds of relationship (romantic and platonic) can be equally important and complex. Magnificent! And finally, as someone who has slung plenty of coffee in the last three years, I adored both the accuracy of the coffee-shop detail, and the poetic sense of romance the author manages to coax out of the act of serving someone a drink. Donnelly wraps this all up by giving Eli and Jeremiah a happy ever after, and the sisters a closer sibling relationship. "The Witches of Athens" is all that, a bag of chips, and a coke is what I'm saying. Get reading, get happy!

"Sun, Moon, Dust" by Ursula Vernon

Speaking of HEAs for gay characters, Susan wrote about "Sun, Moon, Dust" a while ago, and I have been meaning to try it for yonks because it swept through my Twitter timeline like the most beautiful of storms. At the beginning of this story, Allpa receives a magical sword from his grandmother when she dies. Now, as he's a farmer a magical sword is not exactly top of his list of useful equipment, but he unsheathes the sword to see what happens. And when he does, three spirits, determined to instruct him in the ways of a warrior, appear right on top of the potatoes he's been lovingly cultivating. Allpa tries to apply himself because the spirits seem so keen, but he's more interested in his wilting crops than ransacking the neighbouring lands. His exasperated goat watches all of these shenanigans, and responds with perfect comedy timing.

"Sun, Moon, Dust" is a gentle takedown of the 'farm boy becomes king' trope. It quietly reminds the reader that farmers who stay farmers help the kingdom immeasurably, and that epic quests for glory may not be so great if you're one of the hero's neighbours. To subvert this story type without having a farm boy go out, do some bloody conquering, and then "repent" while the 'neighbours' remain, well, dead, and to do it without breaking and humbling a previously perfectly cheerful farm boy is quite something. Speaking of subversion, I was also pleased to see that the sword spirits include Sun, an older woman, and that Allpa is close to his grandmother (who sounds like she had quite a life). It's great to see this fantasy story feature experienced female voices.

So, this smart, kind layer of subversion would have been enough to make "Sun, Moon, Dust" memorable, but Ursula Vernon doesn't stop there. She imbues her story with Allpa's enthusiasm for developing his farm. In much the same way that Donnelly emphasises how much poetry and craft can be found behind a coffee counter in "The Witches of Athens", Vernon coaxes out what's really special about the farming life. And that's particularly cool because farmers are so often relegated to the background in fantasy stories despite literally feeding every single knight who ever rode across a page. It's also cool that in "Sun, Moon, Dust", as in "The Witches of Athens", an everyday craft leads to romance as Allpa teaches one of the spirits of the sword, the dashing Moon, how to work the land. The slow, shy feelings Allpa develops for this magical man of the sword are lovely and blushingly raw. Delightful.

Packing by T. Kingfisher

"Packing" is a lovely, tricky slip of a story that never quite lets the reader get a hold of what is happening. Is this story a metaphor, or is it straight up science fiction? Is someone building a new world, or moving to one? Is someone moving to a new land where you're required to bring your own seasons? Is the story a comment on real life climate change? Or are the characters off to colonise a new world because extreme climate change has destroyed their ecosystem? Is there some magical reason why the old place is 'already going, slipping away, each new summer tearing off strips. You can see the new flesh underneath' and the polar bear is 'already making his own way, trading his coat to the grizzly bears'? And who exactly is being spoken to by the narrator? I get the impression it's a child because they're being instructed, and told what they can and can't take, but that could just be me. If it is a child then that sets up a fascinating relationship in the middle of this catastrophic moving event, and poses more questions. Whose child are they?

Anyway, aside from all the questions brought up by the story's deliberately obscure construction, "Packing" is a bittersweet love song to ecology and nature. It gifts the reader a moment to dwell deep on the wonders of nature as one by one animals and plants are packed away to be moved to a new home. And it forces the reader to face a series of small losses which, once again, highlight the wonders of nature as the reader comprehends how much must be left behind when 'we can only bring what we can lift.'

I fell in love with this story partly because the narrator treasures the smaller creatures like the marvellously varied frogs, and values plants like 'the pallid coneflower' enough to give up their toothbrush to make space. The narrator spends so much energy on selecting each variety of animal and plant they'll take; maximising the space they have to transport them. Despite being a huge fan of elephants, it was hard not to feel bitter along with the narrator when, after all that effort to make the most of their space and to pack a varied selection of creatures, 'they think about how many frogs could have fit' in the boxes an elephant takes up. The sense of care and investment in nature written into the bones of this story is both immensely heartwarming and heartbreaking. Happily, despite all the tiny loses the narrator details, this hymn to the natural world ends with notes of hope and thoughts of 'The dragonflies clinging to the zipper pulls, with their great eyes reflecting the new shape of the world.' It may be sappy, but I was so glad for that joyous image and the knowledge they would be taking sunflowers wherever they were going.

Mrs Peak and the Dragon by Andrew Willett

This was a lovely piece of flash fiction about a world where dragons are real, and a woman who owns a sweetshop. To say much more would be to spoil the story, but I can say that this is an example of one of my favourite forms of flash fiction; a short story which quickly develops a distinct, detailed world that you'd happily dwell in for a novel's length of reading, which then pulls off a very neat trick at the end. "Mrs Peak and the Dragon" left me wanting oh so much more of this world, and Mrs Peak's story. It also reminded me of this very short writing prompt fill that popped up on Tumblr. It's well worth checking out if you want more imaginative stories about dragons.

"The Secret Life of Bots" by Suzanne Palmer

Jenny mentioned "The Secret Life of Bots" in her most recent SFF Short Story Project Update, and reminded me I'd been meaning to get around to this story for ages. I'm so glad she highlighted it because I ended up being charmed by the story of how plucky bot 9 and its robot comrades work to save a spaceship and, ultimately, the whole human race. Admittedly, "The Secret Life of Bots" is unashamedly a macguffin powered story where the creation of a world, the journey, and the saving of the day are more important than the overall concept behind why the day needs saving. And I understand that may not be everybody's thing. However, the wider, looser worldbuilding, and plot, provide a frame which gives Suzanne Palmer a reason to show readers the fantastic smaller scale worldbuilding of service bot life. Considering how fun that worldbuilding is, and how many delightful interaction the bots have, I can get over the fact that a plot device handily expires just as bot 9 needs to shift its focus to a wider problem. If you found the servitor society in Ninefox Gambit fascinating then this is a story for you.

"Riddle" by Ogbewe Amadin

Many moons ago, I did my dissertation on the European approach to witchcraft in the 1600s, and learned a lot of valuable lessons about how circular logic contributed to ideas about who could be a witches. So, when I came across "Riddle", a piece of flash fiction which cleverly ties the problem of circular logic and witches together, in a world where witches are real, I was very excited.

Indara hears that her Aunty Adesuwa is a witch. Her mother says witches are evil, and Indara knows her mother never lies. So, she starts to hate her Auntie. So far, so circular. However, when Indara confronts her Aunty she is pushed to work through her logic, and to confront the idea that her mother can make mistakes.

"Riddle" is all about Indara's journey to independence; learning to think for herself, base her conclusions on the evidence of her own experience, and separate herself from her mother. At the same time, "Riddle" contains a fair bit of deliberate ambiguity which complicates this theme. And Indara's limited perspective as a child, who perhaps doesn't always join all the dots in the same way an adult might, leaves the reader free to question Indara's final conclusions about her Aunty's witchcraft.

However, I'm not sure the story's ambiguity is designed to definitely contradict Indara's conclusions, and confirm that Aunty Adesuwa is in fact an evil witch. Instead, I think the story allows for a dual reading in order to underline that the reader doesn't have enough evidence either way to decide if Aunty Adesuwa is a good witch or a bad witch. All the reader knows for certain by the end of the story is that she is definitely a witch. If the reader makes any other judgement, they're making assumptions. They're following possible leads that the text and the characters lay down, but they're not reacting to solid evidence. I think that's a really smart commentary on how the study of history can be influenced by bias, selective judgement, suggestive sources, and all kinds of other things. Anyway, yes, a smart, short piece to add to your reading about witchcraft if that kind of thing floats your boat.

If you have feelings about any of the stories I've mentioned drop them in the comments section. And be sure to let me know what you read in February as I'm always looking for recommendations.

Date: 2018-03-07 10:02 pm (UTC)
forestofglory: E. H. Shepard drawing of Christopher Robin reading a book to Pooh (Default)
From: [personal profile] forestofglory
I'm so glad you read and enjoyed "The Witches of Athens" !


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