The best way to ease the blistering heat of a late summer’s day or to occupy the long dark nights is through some damn fine short speculative fiction. These ten stories were some of my favorites from July. From death and tragedy to freedom and self-discovery, there’s so much to love in these science fiction, fantasy, and horror stories.
“Death Is Better” by Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe
In a future where people known as Pluisites are enslaved on plantations by aliens, two siblings attempt a daring escape. The younger sister, Abiola, is captured by a killer robot, and all hell breaks loose. “Death Is Better” is an action-packed short story. The worldbuilding is so good; it feels like it’s part of a larger story. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Oluwatomiwa Ajeigbe had a ton of backstory that didn’t make it into the final version. The ending is especially good.
Lightspeed Magazine (July 2023; Issue 158)
“Disparate Points in Space and Time” by Maxine Sophia Wolff
In the early 14th century, a young boy and his father arrive at a monastery. The father thinks his son is his daughter, but the monks see the truth. Years later the boy returns and becomes a monk himself. In a distant galaxy, two outcasts raid an abandoned alien settlement. The spiritual detritus attaches itself to one of them, Gim, which connects them to the monk. Maxine Sophia Wolff has written a wonderful story about identity and community, about realizing your truth and risking everything for it.
Kaleidotrope (Summer 2023)
“The Fall of Esther Park” by Lynn D. Jung
“I saw Esther Park dancing with the Horned Boy last night.” Told over four vignettes, our narrator recounts how nice girl Esther Park seduces and is seduced by a god. She begins the story as the ideal Korean American daughter and ends it becoming something powerful and wholly herself. Although the story is fairly serious, I loved the way Lynn D. Jung played with the famous line/meme “I saw Goody Proctor with the Devil.”
Apparition Literary Magazine (Issue 23)
“The Ghost Peach Pet Rescue” by Eden Royce
The first issue of the new slice-of-life fantasy stories is live, and it’s a corker. I very nearly put the entire issue on this spotlight, but I finally forced myself to choose one. Attah takes in stray legendary animals with disabilities. She has a three-legged gryphon, a late-developing chimera, even a one-eyed cockatrice. When a friend offers to bring by a new rescue, Attah whips up a dessert with some freshly picked ghost peaches. If you looked up the word “lovely” in the dictionary, this story would be the definition.
Tales & Feathers (July 2023; Issue 1)
“Grown Gown” by Derek Des Anges
I absolutely adored this story about a trans woman wearing a gown made of psychedelic mushrooms. Maggie drags herself to a film premiere ostensibly to debut an “experimental mycofibre dress,” but instead she hides in the bathroom. Maggie’s panic merges with an unexpected fungal chain reaction. It’s not just the dress that’s stressing her out but being newly out. If you’re not trans or nonbinary or otherwise elsewhere on the gender spectrum, you don’t know how momentous it feels the first time you dress in clothes that make you feel like you.
Baffling (July 2023, Issue 12)
“If Someone You Love Has Become a Vurdalak” by Sam J. Miller
Sam J. Miller takes a different tack on the vampire mythos with his story about addiction. Brothers Faraday and Planck may be twins, but they couldn’t be more different. Planck’s path diverged toward drug use and addiction and then to becoming a vurdalak, while Faraday’s led him to isolation and an inability to let himself love. Addiction here isn’t just drugs, it’s love: of family, of partners, of the self. This one hit a little too close to home for me, but it didn’t feel like trauma porn. It felt true in that unsettling way only fiction can manage.
The Dark (July 2023; Issue 98)
“A Machine for Living In” by Andrew Kozma
What Andrew Kozma’s flash fiction story lacks in word count, it more than makes up for in quality. Our narrator meets their old friend Joe for the first time in ages. Their friendship was rocky, then absent. Now it’s strained by the machine Joe’s built in his garage. A poignant story about a man so determined not to experience a great loss that he seals himself off it and everyone he knows.
Tree and Stone (July 2023; Issue 7)
“The Spirit of Bois” by Karyn Díaz
Speaking of slice-of-life stories, this one by Karyn Díaz is lush with description and vivid with patois. During a Caribbean carnival, spirits walk the land, seen but not truly seen. Bois Man—also known as Papa Bois, a spirit that protects the forest and all living things within it—comes down “from his forest repose to mingle with the revellers, imbibe Guinness, and engage in stick fighting.” Along the way, he encounters other beings from Caribbean folkloric traditions.
FIYAH (Summer 2023; Issue 27)
“Theses on the Scientific Management of Goetic Labour” by Vajra Chandrasekera
Two colonial outcasts join a magical society. Fuentes is a 30-foot-tall human while our narrator is from an unnamed land famed for its healing goetia, or sorcery. The Albionese rely on goetia mostly to summon demons to aid in their global conquest, but Fuentes and our narrator show that it can (and probably should) be used for less nefarious reasons. This short story is short, under 1500 words, but very compelling.
Uncanny Magazine (July/August 2023; Issue 53)
“Umeboshi” by Rebecca Nakaba
“At the beach at night, there is a red tide. Don’t eat the mussels, don’t eat the seaweed rotting on the sand, or the belly-up fish, or the night herons that watch you watch the glow that cascades with every crashing wave.” Our narrator receives a strange email chain letter that leads them on a surreal journey. It’s disorienting, this story, but in a way that feels strangely grounded. What is real? Who are you? What do you want? Rebecca Nakaba asks a lot of questions and leaves the answers to the ether.
khōréō (July 2023; Volume 3, Issue 2)
Alex Brown is a Hugo-nominated and Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), bluesky (@bookjockeyalex), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).