by Austin Gragg
Welcome to “Graggonspeak Monthly.” Each month, this online column reviews short fiction and poetry releases in science fiction, fantasy, and horror from the previous month. This column jumps around from mag to mag in search of great reads worth your attention. To best utilize your time reading these reviews, I’ll stick to mentioning my favorites from the chosen publications each month. Think of this as reader’s advisory from a former librarian and fellow SFF geek.
The bigger sibling to this column “Graggonspeak Quarterly” appears in Space & Time Magazine’s regular publications. Please check out the quarterly Graggonspeak for book reviews, news, and more.
I hope you’re doing well, dear readers. This month, we’re reviewing some August 2020 publications from: The Arcanist, Metamorphosis Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Two smaller publications and two larger—all publishing excellent writing worth reading.
The Arcanist—August 2020 Fiction
Relatively new to the SFF scene, The Arcanist publishes “bite-sized science fiction, fantasy, and horror.” My only complaint about this publication is the lack of an “about” section on their website, which prevents me from more directly praising the editorial staff. This mag is free to read.
This story, about a trans woman who inexplicably becomes pregnant, hit me hard. As a Cis man, I will obviously never truly understand the struggles trans people experience. But good fiction helps us communicate our human experiences, and this story showed me trans issues in a new light. The prose is vivid, powerful, and beautiful throughout.
At the story’s mid-point, the protagonist remarks on how questions about her baby, asked by strangers, are the same questions she used to ask herself in the mirror pre-transition. It’s a powerful moment that had me reread those questions with new context and moved me deeply. Piper’s prose and honesty demands your attention and deserves it.
This story is about a killer having breakfast with their child; and while nothing in this story particularly wowed me, the tale is undoubtedly relevant to today’s world. It delivers a chilling effect with deft skill. I saw a strong relevance to the current US economy and current sociological discourse in the US, despite the story’s more predictable wrappings. In this piece, Rogers leans into, effectively, more modern-literary tones. Some readers may not like this style, but it’s one that is growing in popularity—and is well used here.
Roger’s bio plainly states her interest in “all things weird in the world of psychology”—and this story hits the mark here. Very short, listed as a two-minute read, the tale might have you reflecting on current affairs in the US. As I am a former librarian with a passion for issues regarding homelessness, I see stories like this one as particularly important.
Strange Horizons—August 2020 Poetry
Free to read, Strange Horizons is a weekly fiction and poetry magazine most avid SFF fans will already be aware of. We’re looking at the August poetry lineup this time around. We can clearly see the protests demanding racial justice have birthed many great poems, who will hopefully affect their own positive change in the world. You’ll see I don’t spoil much of these poems, but I hope my thoughts on them inspire you to give them a read.
With dreamy yet horrid visuals, Adair has composed a work as surreal as Jacek Yerka’s paintings—and as assaulting as Harlan Ellison’s words which accompanied them in the 1994 publication Mind Fields. In fact, this poem reminded me a lot of “Internal Inspection” from that book. For me, within this poem, I found a story of self-conflict much like Hailey Piper’s “The Mother Stitch” in The Arcanist. A “medium” sized poem (by my magazine standards)—not a single line of the thirty-nine lines is wasted and its three stanzas act almost like three acts in a story. I feel deeply for the dragon and disturbed by its captors in the E.R.
A story about a person holding a being captive because of their cosmic origin, I read this poem as a story of spiritual oppression. The POV appears to be the oppressor. This poem captures perfectly what I think are the moments before the oppressed rise up. We sense the fear of the oppressor, but the poem doesn’t lead us into rejoicing for a coming revolution or justice. Rather, it forces us to sit in the suffering, the longing for the tables to turn, the anticipation of it. It makes us want for hope.
The oppressor’s claim, that allowing the oppressed to exist, is such a mercy, worthy of praise or maybe justified by its kindness, is chilling in its realism—because we know it’s just spin. “I wonder how long it will take / for you to reshape a gap / large enough for you / to come out. / Will you let me live.” These lines, setting up the end of the poem, are harrowing. Particularly the choice to state the last line, rather than ask it.
While reviewing the August releases from Strange Horizons I noticed a familiar name: Zelda Knight. Knight bought my story “Love in the Apocalypse” earlier this year for a July 2021 publication date in Aurelia Leo v.2. In this interview, she joins her co-editor, Ekpeki Oghenechovwe Donald, to discuss their recently published anthology, Dominion: An Anthology of Speculative Fiction from Africa and the African Diaspora—and from early reviews (from some very respected names in SF) I can say with confidence this book will have a large positive impact on SF. Please check out the interview and the anthology. Cat Rambo, former SFWA president says, “…it’s an important anthology, one that will help shape this decade of reading.”
Beneath Ceaseless Skies—August 2020 Fiction
The premiere place to find the best of the best new secondary world fantasy. BCS has found many incredible stories which always garner high-level praise and recognition. In 2017, EiC Scott H. Andrews earned the World Fantasy Award for Special Award, Non-Professional for his work on the magazine.
Lingen has a rather impressive body of work I admire. Set in a magical academia, this story will be well-met by fans looking for more fiction in the same vein as “The Name of the Wind.” However, this story is much more of a personal character dive than the exploration of the setting and ideas focused on by Rothfuss. I enjoyed the vivid prose and dialog which painted entire characters with little help from exposition. Most notably, the accident magical disaster in this story is unique and made magic in an academic fantasy setting feel fresh for the first time in a while.
Metamorphosis Magazine—August 2020 Fiction
Like BCS, Metamorphosis Magazine aims to publish more literary works. In the semi-pro magazine arena, they’re a publication to pay attention to.
This story is strange. So strange I thought I might have been reading one of Strange Horizon’s most peculiar stories—but this is a Metamorphosis Magazine tale, through and through. This story feels part ghost story, part science fiction dystopia, and part examination of humanity’s need for socialization. The less I say about plot, the better. It pulled me in with the ghost story vibes at the front and kept me reading for the odd world unfolding before me. This story might be a hard sell for some readers, who like to neatly categorize their fiction—but if you’d like something ethereal and genre-blending, this story will absolutely satisfy.
You too, can speak the language of dragons! Write to me at Graggonspeak@gmail.com or send mail to PO Box 4195, Independence, MO (I LOVE actual letters and often write back)—to chat stories or poetry, share opinions, or ask questions.—Austin Gragg
Austin Gragg lives in Independence, Missouri and shares his hometown not only with Harry S Truman, but two of his favorite fantasy authors, Jim Butcher and Margaret Weis. Austin is a member of the Horror Writers Association and was a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest. He is also an Associate Editor at Space & Time Magazine — the longest still publishing semi-pro SFF mag. When he isn’t writing, reading, or spending time in his garden, he can be found playing Dungeons & Dragons with his partner, friends, and a pride of small domestic lions. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram (@austingragg), Facebook (@graggwrites), or visit him online at www.austingragg.com