Clarkesworld kicks off the new year with new fiction and a translated story by multi-Hugo Award winner, Ken Liu, as well as new fiction from Yoon Ha Lee. Liu shines bright once again in this issue, showing once again why he is one of the genre’s top short story authors (the best, some might argue). Could this story lead to a three-peat Hugo? The year is young.
The issue also contains two reprints, including a story by Hugo-nominee, Aliette De Bodard, and Hugo winner, Robert Charles Wilson, and a collection of non-fiction articles.
So, without further ado, I kick off my short fiction reviews this year by discussing the three new pieces of fiction in Clarkesworld, Issue 88.
“Grave of the Fireflies” by Cheng Jingbo (translated by Ken Liu)
Cheng Jingbo’s mythic tale is about a queen and her daughter, Rosamund, who live on an ark-like planet that was built because the stars that make life habitable were suddenly extinguishing. They travel toward younger stars, pass through an asteroid belt, and arrive at a planet known as the Weightless City. An inhabitant of the planet brings the queen to their leader – a magician who lives inside of a lumbering robot. The queen enters into the ear of the robot, never to return, leaving her princess daughter an orphan. Rosamund seeks to discover the fate of her mother and her path leads her to understand the cause of the dying stars and her mother’s secret past.
The story, ably translated by Ken Liu, reads like a fable. It is both an origin story and a love story, expressing the lengths that a person will go to in order to find love. The result is not always happiness and in this case, it has dark consequences (both literally and figuratively). While the story was well-crafted and rich with surreal imagery, I can’t say it left a marked impression on me. It was a thoughtful story that read more like a fable rather than having a protagonist who must overcome internal and external struggles. This made the narrative interesting, but I failed to connect on any real level with the characters. I have been striving to read more stories by people of different cultures and I definitely found this story worth my while to read. I hope translated works will continue to make their way into magazines like Clarkesworld, broadening our scope to understand the different forms stories can take and level-setting our Western expectations for character and plot.
“Wine” by Yoon Ha Lee
The planet of Nasteng is under attack by an alien culture’s insect drones. The Council of Five, certain the defeat was imminent, solicits the help of two mercenary lords to save them from destruction. Their employment comes at a hefty price, but money is not the greatest cost in saving the planet.
The Falcon Councilor, in exchange for obtaining the beacon that delivered the mercenary lords, suffers from a wound that requires her to remove her face periodically so that it doesn’t scar over with crystals. Her sacrifice appears beneficial as the mercenaries begin to take back portions of the planet. Falcon’s general and lover, Ruharn, discovers a dirty secret that has plagued the planet and threatens to usurp the Council’s plan to win the interplanetary war. Ruharn realizes that the livelihood of Nasteng does not just depend on destroying their enemy – it depends on destroying something that their people covet.
This story started out a little slow for me, but it gained a lot of traction. The Falcon and Ruharn are both inventive characters with unique motives and voices. The prose at times seemed a little overworked, which made the pacing a little slow at times, but the description is vivid and the plot is engaging. This story was thematically consistent with “Grave of the Fireflies,” dealing with a planet’s survival and perpetual youth. Enjoyable read.