My favorite story this month was Mouth & Marsh, Silver & Song by Sloane Leong at Fireside.
An eldritch swamp-beast utters prophecy from the many mouths that princes cut from her with silver swords. Immiserated and alone, she struggles for compassion, or peace, or perhaps even a semblance of love.
Past this point I’m going talk about the story in depth, including the ending. I strongly recommend that you read the story first to have the necessary context. It’s very good.
How much there is to love about this story! The rich, peaty language; the normalized weirdness of the narrator’s magical body; the love-to-hate arrogance of the princes and the not-entirely-safe refuge of the princess. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s hard to talk about any of it without wanting to explain another part.
I’m not sure that my critical faculties are developed enough to discuss how the rich, deep language of the story works on my mind and emotions. Suffice it to say that it is rich and deep and strange and I love the feeling of just sinking into it like warm swamp mud, letting it bubble away above my head.
I greatly appreciate how much this story was willing to lean into its own weirdness. So often with this type of story, there’s something that “really” going on that’s obscured by the narrator’s viewpoint, like it turns out that the narrator is actually a dragon or a sumatran toad or whatever, but M&M,S&S doesn’t take the easy way. Instead, no, the narrator really is some sort of leech-rimmed gibbering prophet/goddess, just as strange as the story makes her out to be. There is no trick of the light here, just a bizarre, new idea well-rendered.
While, the arc of the narrative explores a well-trod feminist theme, contrasting a penetrative, violent, and non-consensual masculine approach to magic with a softer and more consensual feminine approach, and it affirms the core of that, it also is not willing to be 100% black and white in its presentation. As the protagonist’s mother says to her about the princes “you will hate and love them for it,” and, in her own way, she does. The prophetic songs that she sings and yearns to hear are, however violently and unpleasant the process of their creation, also a fulfillment of her magical potential.
In this light, it’s also interesting to consider the resolution of the story, with the princess and her own methods for engaging the protagonist’s prophecy. The princess’s methods–asking permission, honoring her, cutting her in a way to minimize damage rather than triumph–are unquestionably better. But, as improved as they are, they are not free of exploitation. The princesses of the ending are still using the protagonist’s magical gifts to advance their own political and social careers. The protagonist is cared for and even worshipped, but she is still cut open for her prophecies and is not even the primary beneficiary of the results.
I think, more than anything, the story’s willingness to embrace the ambivalence of its happy ending is what makes me love it so much. Things in life, even trauma and exploitation, are not as simple as good and bad. The ending is a happy one. We can rejoice at the narrator’s much improved life while still seeing that this is not the end–that there are still problems portending for her and her future daughters.
In all, Mouth & Marsh, Silver & Song is an excellent story that is well worth your time and attention.
Some of my other favorite stories this month
My favorite Christmas story even though I absolutely do not like Christmas stories:
All I Want For Christmas by Charles Payseur at Apex.
My favorite story that I loved for its steampunk aesthetics and I don’t even like steampunk aesthetics:
The Engineer of the Undersea Railways by Varsha Dinesh at Escape Pod
My favorite story featuring eyes on elbows:
Scallop by J. L. Akagi at Strange Horizons
My favorite story set in a magical metropolis haunted by eldritch particle physics:
Aster’s Partialities: Vitri’s Best Store for Sundry Antiques by Tovah Strong at Clarkesworld
My favorite warning that stories are dangerous, and if you’re not careful, they will devour you whole:
Incense by Megan Chee at Fantasy
My own stories this month
Leaving Room for the Moon at Clarkesworld
Your Own Undoing at Apex
Frost’s Boy at Lightspeed