One of the things I most enjoy about Tor.com, a website focusing on science-fiction and fantasy publishing, is their original fiction. Recently I’ve been pleased to see that some of their short stories have been published as ebooks, complete with gorgeous covers that are designed for each one. At around 30 pages per story, these make wonderful amuse-bouches between more lengthy reads and are usually less than £1 a piece on Amazon. And, if you’d rather read them for free, you can always seek them out on Tor.com itself. As the stories aren’t long enough to warrant individual posts, I thought I’d collect my thoughts together five at a time.
RED AS BLOOD AND WHITE AS BONE: THEODORA GOSS
Dark and moody as the black forests at its heart, this story unfolds in the eastern European country of Sylvania in the 1930s. Klara, a peasant girl turned kitchen maid at a noble’s castle, spends her life daydreaming about fairy tales. Handsome princes, disguised princesses and romantic balls are as familiar to her as the potatoes under her hands. One day, when she finds a naked woman desperately seeking shelter at the kitchen door, Klara has no doubt that this woman is a princess in need of aid. And she has arrived at just the right time to attend a grand ball at the castle. But what if Klara is in a different kind of fairy tale from the one she imagined?
Illustration by Anna and Elena Balbusso
PORTRAIT OF LISANE DA PATAGNIA: RACHEL SWIRSKY
This tantalising tale of love, art and obsession will strike a particular chord with those who’ve read The Golden Key. Lisane da Patagnia, the most brilliant painter of her generation, is charismatic, compelling and cruel, attended by a train of adoring apprentices. She lives with all the arrogance of one who knows none of her followers can ever come close to her genius. But even the most dazzling woman must fade and, in her final illness, Lisane calls for her erstwhile apprentice Renn. She has one last wish: for Renn to paint her on her deathbed. A simple request; and yet Renn knows there’s far more to it than that. What she’s been asked to do is anathema – forbidden. How far will her loyalty to her former mistress persuade her to go?
Illustration by Sam Weber
THAT GAME WE PLAYED DURING THE WAR: CARRIE VAUGHN
The bitter war has only recently finished when Calla Belan of Enith arrives in the chief city of Gaant, the former enemy. She doesn’t bother to hide who she is: there’s no point. The Gaantish are telepaths, able to read her mind in an instant. She has come to visit a former captor… a former prisoner… an old friend, who lies wounded in the hospital. There, at the bedside of Major Valk Larn, the not-quite-adversaries turn to business: the completion of an unfinished game of chess, left in stasis at their last parting. As the combatants resume their interrupted game, Vaughn weaves a beautiful, delicate story of hope and possibility rising from the ashes of war. It’s lovely: I wish I could read more about these characters.
Illustration by John Jude Palencar
THE ART OF SPACE TRAVEL: NINA ALLAN
Emily is head of housekeeping at the Heathrow Edison Star hotel: capable, thorough and very good at her job. Her boss Benny would be lost without her. As the hotel awaits the arrival of two distinguished guests – astronauts heading off to join the Second Wind Mars mission – Emily’s working life and personal life both face pressure. At home, her mother Moolie spends hours lost in her own world, her critical brilliance crumbling in the face of early-onset dementia (at least, that’s the official line). Armed only with Moolie’s hints, and with a little yellow book, The Art of Space Travel, Emily embarks on a quest to identify her unknown father, which swiftly becomes interwoven with her fascination about the forthcoming space mission.
Illustration by Linda Yan
THE LADY ASTRONAUT OF MARS: MARY ROBINETTE KOWAL
The story begins with an ironic inversion of expectations. Here is a little girl called Dorothy, living on the Kansas plains with her uncle Henry and aunt Em, but this Dorothy lives in the shadows of a rocket launch for the First Mars Mission. Elma, one of the crew on this first mission in the 1950s, meets Dorothy again in surprising circumstances thirty years later on Mars. Retired from flying, worn out by caring for her dying husband, and haunted by their decision not to have children, Elma has cobbled together a life for herself in the colony, but is sorely tempted when she is offered one last mission. This is a lyrical and engaging tale of choices made, choices regretted and the lure of second chances.
Illustration by Richie Pope