I’m going to break form to close off 2016, to give a few recommendations from everything I read this past year. Despite the claim by a lot of people that 2016 was the worst year ever (bear in mind the years where tons of people died of the Black Plague) at the very least we weren’t hurting for great reading material. I’ll be posting my Top Ten Novels later, but today I want to focus on short fiction, which doesn’t seem to get discussed as much as I think it deserves. So here are the six short stories that I enjoyed the most in 2016 (since I couldn’t narrow it down to an even five).
“Badgirl, the Deadman, and The Wheel of Fortune” by Catherynne M. Valente, published in The Starlit Wood (Saga Press, 2016)
C.S.E. Cooney has already posted a review of this phenomenal anthology, which reexamines fairy tales in a variety of compelling ways. Valente’s story is subtle fantasy – until the very end, this could just be a story about a father and his drug dealer, told from the perspective of the father’s daughter. Because I’m a teacher with lots of experience working with troubled youth, Valente’s use of the daughter’s narration stayed with me for days after I finished — knowing that little Badgirl is in danger and doesn’t really understand what’s going on makes this story tragic not for its fantastic side, but for its realism.
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I love short fiction that blends realistic, everyday struggles with the fantastic – in this case, Mishell focuses on a gender fluid character trying to hide their daily transformation from the people around them, which is the result of a spell by a god-like creature who was once her lover. “Fire in the Haze” is a love story, a tale of uprising and a treatise on gender identity, but the real triumph is the depth of character showcased not just in the protagonist, En, but the entire world that Mishell has constructed.
“The Seven O’Clock Man” by Kate Heartfield, published in Clockwork Canada (Exile Editions, 2016)
A French-Canadian town is terrorized by a massive Clock built to keep the local children in line – if any of them are caught outside past their curfew, the Seven O’Clock Man and his dog will add them to the Clock’s mechanized figurines. Blending character and action in a way that makes the reader’s pulse pound is tough in a short story, but Kate absolutely nails it; I was on the edge of my seat throughout the entire thing, as noble Jacques – who is forced to maintain the terrible Clock – tries to save his only son from being taken.
“Soil of Truth” by Nicole Lavigne, published in Second Contacts (Bundoran Press, 2015)
This Aurora Award-winning anthology is full of excellent stories, but I loved “Soil of Truth” in particular because it’s so authentically alien, focusing on a species of intelligent plants, the Frondulae, who discover another colony of their people, where things are not what they seem. The Frondulae and their society are constructed in rich, intelligent detail but at the same time are easily relatable, as the story is essentially about an apprentice trying to prove herself to her master. The air of mystery throughout the story makes it even more compelling.
“Ten Things” by Ron Collins, published in Galaxy’s Edge, issue 23 (November 2016)
I’m a huge fan of Ron’s work, particularly because of his blend of neat ideas and realistic characters. “Ten Things” is told from the perspective of an asteroid miner who realizes his girlfriend back home is cheating on him, complete with a running series of “ten things I’ll do” lists that make this short piece particularly hilarious, but also touching, as the narrator learns more about who his girlfriend really is. (You can still read it for free from Galaxy’s Edge here.)
“Why the Poets Were Banned From the City” by Jerome Stueart, published in The Angels of our Better Beasts (ChiZine Publications, 2016)
Early next year, I’ll be reviewing this collection and interviewing Jerome, so consider this a preview of how awesome his writing is. I could choose any of several stories to put on this list, but “Why the Poets Were Banned” is the most exquisitely written, in my opinion. Its root premise, that every creative writer was exiled because their writing provokes unwanted emotions in people, combined with the flowing, troubled reflection of a man who has just witnessed a traumatic event, come together in a really tight narrative. I’ll discuss that (and other things) with Jerome in 2017.
Please do check out the stories above if you’re looking for excellent short fiction, and stay tuned for my Top Ten Novels from 2016!
An Ottawa teacher by day, Brandon has been published work in On Spec, Third Flatiron Anthologies, and elsewhere. His short story, “Blaze-of-Glory Shoes” was published in The 2017 Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide on December 1. Learn more at brandoncrilly.wordpress.com or on Twitter: @B_Crilly