My favorite story last month was “In the End, It Always Turns Out the Same” by A.C. Wise, which appears in The Dark Issue 37. It’s a smart, dark take on the Scooby Doo formula that pauses and asks, “Aren’t they too young for this?” Like poetry and space opera? Go read “I Sing Against the Silent Sun” by A. Merc Rustad and Ada Hoffmann, which appears in Lightspeed Magazine Issue 97. In this harrowing yet hopeful story, a poet-revolutionary is hunted by a god of silence. (Also, this story makes me happy because of its genderfluid and nonbinary representation.) I also enjoyed “The Sweetness of Honey and Rot” by A. Merc Rustad, which appears in Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue 254 (21 June 2018). It’s a story about the costs of resistance, and it features original, inventive worldbuilding and gorgeous, detailed prose.
“In the End, It Always Turns Out the Same” by A.C. Wise
Meet Greg, Helen, Tricia, and Rooster. They’re the Super Teen Detective Squad, and they solve mysteries. There’s always some sort of monster that they investigate that always turns out to be someone in disguise. Greg is the leader and the rich one, Helen is the pretty one, Tricia is the smart one, and Rooster’s the dropout. This story takes the premise of Scooby Doo and lets it become strangely and disconcertingly real. Here’s my favorite example: “Greg isn’t certain how his father made all his money. He thinks it might have something to do with weapons and a military coup in a far away country. All he knows is that his father is not a good man.”
Very subtly, this story poses fascinating questions about patterns, how we get stuck in them, and how dangerous that can be. Greg, Helen, Tricia, and Rooster are each defined by their roles, and none of them are able to speak beyond their narrow roles or their haunting traumas. As A.C. Wise writes, “the Squad isn’t just what they do, it’s everything they are.” Ostensibly, the Squad is investigating missing children, ghosts, and a murderer, but this case doesn’t fit their usual pattern, and the Squad isn’t able to reckon with that. The bus driver, Old Man McGinty, can see the ghosts of the town’s traumas, the covered-up suffering and scars of abuse; he even solves the mystery himself—but no one listens to him. In fact, the rest of the town thinks Old Man McGinty is the bad guy. After all, it fits the pattern.
I really enjoyed this story. I wish I could read a longer version. It’s bold and surprising, dark and unsettling, yet also witty and fun. If you like Scooby Doo, go read this!
“I Sing Against the Silent Sun” by A. Merc Rustad and Ada Hoffmann
Li Sin is a poet and a revolutionary. With their spaceship Vector, they’re committed to traveling across the Principality and speaking out against the ruthless tyranny of the Sun Lords. Or rather, Li Sin was committed to speaking out against the Sun Lords, until Li Sin was tortured into silence by worshipers of the Gray Sun, the god of silence. Li Sin has been silent since then, but when the story opens, Li Sin is informed by an old friend that the Gray Sun has awoken, that it will hunt down Li Sin, and that it desires to erase them from the universe.
This story is a fabulous example of epic space opera performed within the confines of a short story (technically, a novelette). You can read the story in one sitting, yet the world feels huge, the universe truly vast. That’s partially due to the imaginative worldbuilding, a dark universe portrayed in clear, detailed prose. But the story also achieves its space opera grandeur through savory, science fictional poetry. Li Sin’s poetry breaks up the prose and is also incorporated into the story, into the dialogue. Indeed, the climax of this story is a poem. (How do you fight a god of silence? With poetry, of course.) That was a real treat. I like poetry, I like science fiction poetry, and I appreciate fiction which appreciates poetry. Rustad and Hoffmann have done great work here, gorgeously writing an imaginative world, crafting beautiful poetry, and skillfully intertwining the two.
“The Sweetness of Honey and Rot” by A. Merc Rustad
Jiteh’s village is protected from the outside world by the Life Tree and by the magical boundary it creates. In order to sustain itself, the Life Tree regularly chooses tithes: villagers whom it infects and turns into food. It is an honor to be chosen, everyone knows. But Jiteh has seen her brother and father devoured by the tree, and she dreams of a life free from its grasp.
The story’s central concept—a tree that “protects” a village in order to prey upon it—stuck me as delightfully original, and with prose this gorgeous and detailed the story really comes to life:
The thorns have been plucked from his skin and the wounds packed with savory spices. His eyes and mouth are sewn shut and painted with sweet jelly. Salt and honey glaze his naked flesh, and his chest rises and falls in slow, sedated breaths. He’s been fed nothing but cream and honey for the fifteen days since he was chosen as tithe, and his body is gloriously plump and ripe.
Also, it must be said, this story features incredibly badass sloths: “Those who defy the Life Tree and disobey, those who resist the Way of Life, those ones are ripped to pieces by the sloths.” I thought sloths were slow and cuddly? But who cares! I love the image of vicious warrior sloths!
I find it interesting that both of Rustad’s stories—while different in terms of setting and plot—are so similar in terms of theme and tone. These stories are about resistance. They’re dark and grisly, yet still fundamentally hopeful. I’m reminded of another one of Rustad’s recent stories: “Now Watch My Rising” which appeared in Fireside Fiction in May. All three of these stories are deeply grim yet nevertheless fiercely hopeful. “Now Watch My Rising” is flash fiction, so go read that, and if you like it, you’ll probably also enjoy “I Sing Against the Silent Sun” and “The Sweetness of Honey and Rot.” I sure did.