As expected from one of the flagship markets for short and novelette-length speculative fiction, the volume is great. The pieces span from high fantasy to space opera, and skip through magical realism and surrealism along the way past a fairy tale. The tone varies from the serious contemplation of an aspect of race relations to the more fun-loving romp through a more traditional high fantasy setting.
Picking stories that stood out from the crowd has less to do with quality and more to do with my subjective taste, maybe even my subjective taste at the moment I read each. “The Barrens” was a tense spin on a classic horror archetype that kept me turning the page (maybe I was due for a tense tale). “Argent and Sable” was high fantasy at its most fun (maybe I was due for a taste of childhood nostalgia). “Unstoppable” was a brilliantly rendered fairy tale (maybe I’m envious of being able to perfectly land the “fairy tale voice”… okay I am envious of that, but it’s still a great story).
“Tender Loving Plastics” by Amman Sabet — This story gives a view of foster parent as robot through the eyes of one child to go through the system. In a series of snapshots as the viewpoint character ages, Sabet uses the juxtaposition of inanimate object as a “parent” to provoke thought about the idea of the foster system as it is currently, in real life, structured.
“The Barrens” by Stephanie Feldman — Feldman takes the classic horror setup of a teenagers in a remote area (the Barrens) and infuses it with tension for the entire novelette. The point of view shifts, giving 3rd person thoughts of each of the teens as they move through the story, as well as provides a 1st person over-arching narrative structure that suggests the Barrens may have agency of its own. Just in case the narrative structure was too vanilla, folk tale (which may be more real that myth) is woven into the tale as well. All of the threads drive the story relentlessly forward.
“Inquisitive” by Pip Coen — “Inquisitive” is, by at least one measure, the coming of age story of the arrogant, genius. A child genius from a underprivileged family rises through a cutthroat authoritarian world using her wit and ingenuity as a weapon against everyone who underestimates her.
“Argent and Sable” by Matthew Hughes — This novelette expands on characters and setting established in a prior issue, which I had not read. So, there’s some background that I missed before reading this, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the heck out of this story. It’s high fantasy at its finest. It leans into wizards with colored robes, magic items, and demons. The rules of the magic are soft, and the names appropriately fantastic. “Argent and Sable” knows what it is, a pure fun romp.
“The Bicycle Whisperer” by Lisa Mason — In a few short pages, Mason tells a sweet tale about autonomous bicycles, artificial intelligence, how AI-powered devices might react to mistreatment from their human owners, and uses this amalgam to reflect on the very real, and very complex, nature of domestic abuse.
“Unstoppable” by Gardener Dozois — In impeccable “fairy tale voice,” Dozois tells a gripping tale of a prince’s unwavering dedication to achieving his “heart’s desire.” The tale is gripping and doesn’t let go as we watch the protagonist inch ever closer to achieving his heart’s desire, no matter the cost.
“Crash Site” by Brian Trent — A science fiction novelette that plays approaches space opera. Multiple parties race to recover a wrecked ship, and unpleasantness ensues for most everyone involved. The handwavium is spot on, the tone serious with the right amount of fun sprinkled in.
“What You Pass For” by Melanie West — In a short story that addresses race, specifically perceived race, West turns a trope on its head and creates a narrative that challenges the reader to examine not only a literal historic practice, but more broadly how perception, performance, and appearance intersect to influence (or perhaps define) how society treats its members.
“Ku’gbo” Dare Segun Falowo — This is a beautifully surreal jaunt through a dreamlike environment. The imagery is vivid and striking, the prose beautiful, the structure complex. This is short fiction showcasing language as art.
“Behold the Child” by Albert E. Cowdrey — Imagine the kid from the Omen embroiled in a custody dispute as told through the eyes of one of the divorce attorneys. It’s an interesting point of view and take on what consequences might actually follow from a young child who can wield power that he has no ability to control.
“The Properties of Shadow” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman — An interstellar artist and her assistant deal with an unwanted intruder.