I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but I’ve only just now had the brainspace to do it. 2014 is probably the first year in which I’ve read more original short fiction than any other kind of writing. When I read a beautiful story, I have an additional impulse to say what I love about it – the review mentality that I both loved and feared as a fic-writer. Anyway, if you were looking for a new story/author to check out, consider this an incomplete list of my glowing recommendations. (These aren't necessarily 2014 stories. They're just stories I really, really want to share with the world.)
Immersion by Aliette de Bodard
Sci-fi intimidates me. It often gives me the feeling of “I’m not smart enough to get it.” (I mean, I know smartness isn’t a prerequisite…but…yes.) But Immersion – while still having that fascinating bendy brain-magic that makes me go “Wowww” – is a story about culture and change and the lies we tell ourselves, and I loved it utterly. I went through a diaspora myself fairly recently, and have a strong sense of cultural displacement – but you don’t need to go through this to marvel at the layers and worldbuilding that Aliette worked into this story.
It also has shifting viewpoints, and second person - both of which I’ll always be a sucker for. I’ve read several more of Aliette’s stories this year, and they’re all lovely. I was especially charmed by Exodus Tides in Scattered Among Strange Worlds. I always like a good mermaid story.
The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Her Field General, and Their Wounds by Seth J. Dickinson
Sledgehammer-feelz. That’s how I would describe this story. It’s measured, painful, beautiful. And it hurts. A lot. The world created here is subtle and utterly fascinating. Reading this piece felt like drowning – the stakes were so incredibly high – and the characters, while heroic, were also deeply flawed – hateful, sympathetic. Real. (The title character is an accountant, which boggles my mind.)
I looked up more of Seth Dickinson’s work after and all that I've read are powerful. The choices the characters in his stories have to make are really impressive. Reading these stories makes me feel like I’ve learned more about humanity. If the above story didn't break you enough, you might want to read Anna Saves Them All.
A Guide to the Fruits of Hawai’i by Alaya Dawn Johnson
I read this all in one sitting. Afterwards, I put my head down and exhaled, went back a few pages, reread the ending, thought, this is what it feels like when a story cracks your head open, then put my head down again. I was drawn in by the characters, by the complexity of their feelings and motivations; I loved the setting of Hawaii and enjoyed the way the world was shaded in. It stays true to the vampire genre even as it breaks several tropes. And that ending. Wow.
You'll need to get the June/July issue of F&SF, edited by CC Finlay, to read this one, but I'd say it's worth it. I enjoyed the issue a lot, particularly the longer pieces.
The Sandal-Bride by Genevieve Valentine
I read this piece in Rich Horton’s The Best Speculative Fiction 2013, and it struck me because of its deceptively light tone and beautiful telling. It tosses you into a fascinating travel story, and then takes you along for the ride with characters that are extremely likeable. The narrator’s voice is a pleasure: “Expect more of the same,” I said, taking a drink from my canteen and trying to sound like a grizzled traveler and not like someone who used to live above an alehouse and still hated desert nights.” Every sentence is dual-purpose. I liked the author’s use of parenthesis. It’s a surprising, tender love story with the sort of ache I love.
Wistful journey stories are high on my list of Things I Really Like In Fiction. As are sadhappy endings and deserts, so.
We Are the Cloud by Sam J. Miller
This story did everything right for me. It took risks. It had painfully real characters. It was sexy. It took a concept that could very easily have gone over my head and grounded it in a way that made me go “Oh, I see.” It had arcs and character development and lots of feeling. It also had Megaman. (I haven't played much Megaman myself, but videogame mentions please my wee gamer heart.)
I’m kinda incoherent about this story – I just loved it so much. Reading it was a joy: the narrative, the dialogue, the way the characters move. How fucked up they are, but honest with it. It tackles some very, very important things, but the narration and pacing pull the reader along effortlessly. I don’t see stories that go for the gut this much. It's a nice wallop.
I also really liked Sam’s story in The Red Volume, which is a great anthology, which you should go check out.
Home by Gregory Saunders
I first read this story in The New Yorker, and I reread it after my tita got me Tenth of December as a Christmas gift. I could probably go on rereading it endlessly. It’s funny, off-kilter. Human. The internal monologue of the main character is both enjoyable and painful. The dialogue is genius. Without ever going into the details of war, it paints war’s fucked-up-ness really well. It’s also about crazy families. I love stories about crazy families.
Greg Saunders is an always-hit for me. He makes suburban America a thing of terrible, broken, hilarious beauty. His stories make me laugh and groan. You should also read The Semplica Girl Diaries. I’ll admit, my heart still does a funny dance whenever Filipinos or the Philippines is mentioned in a story or book – that’ll probably never go away. But his depiction of that warped future is haunting and fascinating.
Mothers, Lock Up Your Daughters Because They Are Terrifying by Alice Sola Kim
Speaking of crazy families…this story was insane, in the best possible way. It’s relentless. It uses first person plural, which is a perspective I rarely see (but I enjoy it plenty). I love Kim’s characters – she gets into their heads so well. It’s funny in parts, and terrifying in others. It also takes unexpected twists. I read this and thought this writer just gets it. Youth, the ouch of it; being in-between cultures; that feeling of being lost, ugly, guilty, not good enough.
After this I went and read everything else the author had available online. Her stuff is amazing. I strongly recommend all of it (running theme in this post, much?) but Beautiful White Bodies would be my first suggestion. It's engaging, weird, and captures quarter-life anxiety well. The ending didn’t work entirely for me, but everything else in the story did. Also – Filipino side character! Here I am, cheering, again.
Prudence and the Dragon by Zen Cho
I’ve been reading Zen’s collection Spirits Abroad and loving it utterly. It’s made me think a lot about how to portray my own culture, and my own experiences of moving abroad, in my work.
The characters in these stories feel familiar to me. They’re Southeast Asian so I delight in seeing the similarities between their Malaysian culture and my Filipino culture. They also deal with magic in a very no-nonsense, matter-of-fact way. Which is similar to how SE Asians treat supernatural things, but also similar to the treatment of magic in the fantasy books of my favorite writer, Diana Wynne Jones. They are frequently about friendship or platonic relationships, which I appreciate tremendously.
You should pick up the whole collection, but if I was to recommend a particular story – besides the phenomenal The House of Aunts, which the author identifies as her best-known work – I would recommend Prudence and the Dragon. Why? Because it’s utterly delightful. (And, maybe because I’ve just arrived in London and I enjoyed how the city is portrayed in it.) Read the opening section – the inventiveness is amazing. And all the characters in this story are out for my heart.
I feel I’d better stop here or else I’d just keep going on, and never get this post up at all. If I pull together enough other recommendations I might do a part two – or maybe I’ll have to save that for next year. In any case, I hope you give some of these stories a try, because they are beyond wonderful.