I read a lot of great genre fiction this month, truly a fantastic August! Dragons, robots, and stellar phenomena abound!
The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories by Charles Payseur – I first encountered Payseur’s work with The Death of Paul Bunyan in Lightspeed Magazine. I remember listening to the audio version of the story, narrated by Stefan Rudnicki, while at work, and just hoping that not a single customer would call my phone during the 22 minutes of story. That story is reprinted in The Burning Day, and remains one of my favorite stories by Payseur, all these years later.
The anthology is a marvel of genre-hopping. From superheroes to space opera to several flavors of post-apocalyptic to fantasy western to cyberpunk to multiverse travel, Payseur covers just about any speculative fiction genre you could hope for. For all the genre-hopping though, the stories were expertly gathered and organized, as the thematic through-lines of Payseur’s work ensure the reader never feels unmoored even as the book wheels through story settings. Striving against an unjust word, longing and reaching out for connection, and queer desire and relationships all make frequent appearances throughout the anthology. This may perhaps be over-reaching and over-reading on my part, but I did enjoy seeing the images and ideas that the author returns to again and again, such as trees and people’s relationships with them (The Death of Paul Bunyan, A Lumberjack’s Guide to Dryad Spotting, and Snow Devils), and within that category lumberjacks, as well as the art and act of mythmaking (Dance of the Tinboot Fairy, The Death of Paul Bunyan again – I did say it was my fave, of course I would hone in on it), and dare I say, even Star Trek (find out for yourself – I was delighted and surprised by the references, both the explicit ones and the potentially implied ones that I’m not quite sure on, but I want to believe). Some of the stories are connected and coming across the shared setting felt like such a treat each time it happened.
Along with getting re-acquainted with my old friend The Death of Paul Bunyan, some new favorites from this anthology are:
Humans Die, Stars Fade – Oh, the scientific exploration of it all! Oh, the relationships of stars! Oh, the literal and figurative inspiration stars can gift on the humans who watch them! Oh, to tear up while reading about stars and their love!
Beyond Far Point – A delightful weird western, complete with everything you could want: robots, dragons, and a cool gunslinger.
Medium – This story reminded me of why I used to love superheroes, before the fatigue of 10 billion movies settled in my bones. This is huge – I have all but become an immovable wall in the face of the genre. A very human story about ghosts and abuse and power, and yes of course, responsibility, and also about being a weird, lonely young person made even weirder and lonelier by funny science.
I continued my read-through of Issue 5 of Hexagon this month, so slowly that Issue 6 is almost here already. Which is fine – I’m looking forward to the next issue after such a wonderful stable of stories as Issue 5 offered!
A Daughter’s Aim by Anna Madden – A woman goes dragon-hunting with her estranged father in the wake of her mother’s death. I’d want to call the landscape descriptions in this story “lush,” if not for the fact that the story takes place in fire-blasted dragon territory – oozing fire and dryness. Very evocative descriptions of heat and grief. A tightly-written story about the fallout from the death of a loved one, the difficulties of reconciliation, and the deaths of dragons.
Roll the Bones by Michael M. Jones – Games of chance at a casino, and the alternate lives such games can create for the player, win or lose. A dark parable about the way chance can make or break a person, and that circumstances are only ever seconds away from changing, even without the pressure to play the game.
Vultures on the Ground by V. R. Collins – Two mech riders find the ruined and overgrown skeleton of a mech even larger than theirs, from before some sort of endtime. I really enjoyed this one, it had a quiet and contemplative tone I haven’t seen carry a mech story before. The plains setting in this one breaks from the desert setting of the other stories a bit, but as someone who lives where the high plains meet the high dessert, I could see the continuation. I loved the descriptions of the environment as well, the plains and its long endless grass adding to the contemplative mood, while also adding a small touch of discomfort, that the plains could go on forever, that it would be so easy to get lost in it, that the mech rider’s job of mapping is so important as the grass grows ever onward. But the mech riders are there, and they will take note of whatever old-world bones lie in wait in the long grass.
Born Unto Trouble by K. A. Sutherland – Zoologist Elly arrives at the impoverished desert town of Little Ursa with an angry mother dragon hot on her heels, and has to find an egg thief with the help of the mayor before Little Ursa is wiped off the face of the earth. I really enjoyed the mild misdirect that happens early in the story, as well as the cool twist on dragon powers. Kindness and desperation and the rough edges that come from years in a worn-down desert town all run through the characters as they race against time and beasts that exist beyond the reach of the slow crawl of years.