This week’s stories are about the push-pull between honoring tradition and celebrating the new, about how hard it is to make peace with your past, and about how good it feels to make men pay for being pigs.
This week’s stories also all come from the same source: Uncanny Magazine. I know I just encouraged you to subscribe a few weeks ago, so I won’t go into that. I’ll just point out that several of the stories in our Best Of The Year So Far roundup were published here first.
Many new magazines take more than a year to really get up to speed, find the right voice and balance, and attract top-shelf stories from both new authors and established ones. Uncanny managed that in less than six months. Their commitment to publishing stories by diverse voices has also served them well, proving (as if we needed more proof) that making diversity a priority in no way affects the quality of the fiction.
Below are my favorite three stories from Issue 5. Only one is available online right now, the other two won’t be until August. You could (and should) read them now by buying the issue.
The Rainbow Flame by Shveta Thakrar
Wiping sweat from her forehead before it could spill into her eyes, Rupali stirred a large iron cauldron over a searing fire. Swirls of silver, shards of sky, and the thorny notes of a forgotten folk melody all danced through the boiling beeswax. It was different every time, like a legend passing from mouth to mouth and changing in the telling. She drew in a breath through cracked, parched lips, and the oppressive air scorched her lungs. Impatience shot through her. Would she always be the one heating the wax, never the one lighting the flame?
She reached for a small jug and poured creamy cow’s milk into the mixture. The principles of Ayurveda demanded the milk be heated, but the final ingredient, a honey made from blue lotus pollen, could only be drizzled in once the cauldron had been removed from the flames.
Then there was the matter of the binder, a drop of blood.
She cringed. How much would it cost her this time?
At sixteen, she was the latest blossom in a lush garland that stretched, petal by petal, back to the beginning of their family, the only keepers of the rainbow flame in all Kashi. It was a thing to be proud of, belonging to an old and important lineage, carrying out the ancient ritual. She knew that, yet part of her wondered if playing this role should really make her feel so sick afterward.
The mixture bubbled and spat, calling her back to the moment. With a sharp knife, Rupali pierced her thumb. Though she’d done it many times before, the rush of pain still made her gasp. A single, perfectly round droplet appeared on her skin, thick and red like pomegranate juice, rich with unspoken dreams. Bracing herself to be scalded, she thrust her hand over the cauldron.
The crimson drop hissed as it hit the golden wax, and starbursts bloomed behind Rupali’s eyelids. She saw images of indigo palace walls threaded with silver stars, flying sheep with dazzling purple wings, grinning orange puppets manipulating their human masters. They floated before her eyes, vibrant and swaying to an eerie, wordless music.
Something tore free of her spirit and joined the contents of the cauldron.
I love what this story has to say about the need for stories. And what it says about the push-pull of the importance of, the need for, tradition and the importance of progress and the need to create new tales. It’s about what happens when creation gets stagnant, which is rarely good for worlds that thrive on the energy generated by narrative. This is Thakrar’s best story yet.
Image Credit: jell on Flickr
Ghost Champagne by Charlie Jane Anders
My comedy set is off to a pretty good start, and then I notice my ghost at a third row table, right between the canoodling pierced hipsters and the drunken yuppies.
Some days I hardly notice my ghost, but lately she’s in my face a whole lot more. Today she’s wearing a lacy loligoth dress that I wish I owned in real life, and a little hat over her wavy dark hair, which is a little shorter than mine. She’s drinking a Sidecar or an Old Fashioned, because yeah, even ghosts must obey the two–drink–minimum rule at Sal’s Comedy Cellar, and she watches me go through my set with the usual disaffected look on her face, like been–there–done–that–and–died.
I do what I always do: ignore her. Even when she knocks the candle off her table and turns the floor into a minefield of broken glass and hot wax. Fuck her. Remember the toolkit. Keep going, look past her—I try to gaze instead at my boyfriend Raj, sitting on a stool in the back. The ghost doesn’t matter. She had her chance to be alive, she obviously blew it.
Full Disclosure: Charlie Jane Anders is my editor. But y’all are already well aware of what a great writer she is, so I doubt you’d accuse me of conflict of interest.
Anders is really great at creating characters whose voices careen away from you right from the beginning, and they’re so engaging you have no choice but to follow. I was immediately caught up in the protagonist’s life and patter and strange haunting and found even the boring parts of her life fun to read because, hey, that ghost is her. It’s all up in her face. How can one be haunted by one’s own ghost? It’s awesome.
Image Credit: dithie on Flickr
Catcall by Delilah S. Dawson
Trigger Warnings: Child abuse, underage girl dealing with forced contact and intimidation, bullying
I was doing my homework at the dining room table last night, and my dad came in from cutting the grass. I knew he’d been drinking, because he was always drinking when he was in the yard. But he was drunker than usual, and I didn’t know that until his fist slammed into the table just a few inches away from my Calculus book.
“Why do you dress so weird?” he said in a haze of moldy wheat breath.
“Because I like it,” I answered. I moved the book over, sighed, and tapped my pencil against the table. “Do you mind?”
“Hell, yeah, I mind. You look like a lesbian. Short hair and baggy shirts and army boots. Is that what you are?”
I bit my lip and forgot everything I knew about numerals. My dad hadn’t talked to me much since I’d gone through puberty, and I’d just gotten accustomed to being ignored most of the time and staying out of his way when he noticed me. I wasn’t ready to have this conversation, but his other fist landed on the other side of my book, and I could feel his sweaty shirt against my back. My mom wouldn’t be home from work for another hour, and there was nowhere else to go, nowhere at all.
I took a deep breath.
“Yeah, maybe I am gay. Is that a problem for you?”
I didn’t know if it was a lie or a truth or a half–truth, but does it matter? He shoved my face down into the math book, the paper cold against my cheek.
“No, you’re not.”
I exhaled, my hands in fists. “Make up your mind, dad.”
He growled and pressed harder, and I closed my eyes and wished that he would quit, that he would just explode, that he would catch fire and scream and go away forever with his stupid face and bad breath and bigotry.
Something popped overhead.
“What the hell?” He released me and backed away, staring at the dining room chandelier. All four bulbs had exploded, and tiny bits of hot glass covered the table, my book, the arms of my sweatshirt. His bloodshot eyes jerked back and forth from me to the chandelier. His hands were covered in glass, red with tiny cuts and burns.
“Did you do that?”
I smiled, or maybe sneered. “Yeah, maybe I did. Is that a problem?”
“You didn’t. You can’t.”
I didn’t blink, didn’t waver.
“Make up your mind, dad,” I said.
If you’ve been reading this column for a while you know my fondness for revenge and They Got What Was Coming To Them stories. That’s exactly why I like this one. It’s for every girl and woman who is sick of the neverending cavalcade of unwanted touches and roaming eyes and disgusting words and everything else that comes with rape culture and wishes she had the power to do something about all of it.
If I believed in misandry, I could call this story MISANDRY MISANDRY MISANDRY without fear or shame.
Image Credit: Adam on Flickr
Woman at Exhibition by E. Lily Yu
Midnight Hour by Mary Robinette Kowal