Isabel Yap’s The Oiran’s Song (Uncanny Magazine) tells a story about a war-torn world that is truly grim and dark. As I have said elsewhere, so often the narratives that claim to focus on the griminess and grittiness of war as an act of edginess focus on the people who are inflicting the pain while the victims figure as nameless grist for the mill. Yap’s story reverses that trope, telling the story of a youth who has been sold into service in an army unit during what is apparently a civil war. Note how the details of the politics do not matter for the people who are being used, abused, and churned up by those fighting. We never get any sense that there is a point to the war, or even an end in sight. I find this kind of story heartbreaking and difficult to read, but for me it reaches deeper into the tragedy of war because it centers the existence of those lives used up and destroyed.
This is a hard read, and Yap frames it with beautiful, emotional language that never blinks as it tells its truths:
Winter will always remind you of three things: the smoke rising from the fire that burned your home; the cold floor you slept on as a pageboy in the teahouse; and the peculiar shade of your brother’s skin, the way his bruises grayed like melted snow. This color does not make sense in your mouth: spoken, tasted. But you see it every time you close your eyes. His body being folded like a paper fan, broken apart like ceramic. The few nights you could lean next to him, he smelled like wine and another person’s sweat.
When you were twelve, at the onset of war, the teahouse sold you to some passing soldiers. You bundled up your clothes and stopped by Kaoru’s room. He held you, and you exhaled into his chest, where bruises were patterned delicately: stains of the floating world. You didn’t know it then, but the pleasure quarters were starting to crumble. “Goodbye, niisan,” you said.
Your brother did not tell you to be happy, which would have been cruel. Instead he said, “Live well, Akira.” His eyes, when they rested on your face, were loving, sad, and afraid.
Rose Lemberg’s Grandmother-Nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds (Beneath Ceaseless Skies) is a coming of age story set in her Birdverse secondary world, about a young person finding out who and what they are and what course their life may take by way of a quest. I’m not going to synopsize the plot except to say that the core of the story, for me, is the concept of making decisions in life in terms of our relationships to others and how we understand our self.
In the Birdverse universe, relationships and language and magic intertwine so tightly they can’t be fully pulled apart because none of them exist in isolation from each other. Language and linguistics underpins the Birdverse. If you enjoy asides on and playing with etymology and language change, if you love fascinating cultural explorations and inventive customs and traditions that feel lived in, this is the story for you. This world feels “real” in the sense that I can imagine myself wandering into it, and it comes alive in striking and evocative writing.
One day grandmother-nai-Tammah spoke to me, as if to continue a conversation we had never begun. “Beyond the city,” she said, “in the heart of the desert, the sandhills crest and fall, shifted about by the hand of the wind. Sometimes the wind blows so mighty it cuts through the layers of sand, through the years, revealing bones of perished animals too winsome to exist. People of the Surun’ treasure these, and so do the Maiva’at. The best of their weavers know how to listen to the bones. In plain threads of spidersilk they then embroider these beasts, fantastical and forgotten, onto carpets dyed with weld and madder.”
I nodded, not feeling the need for speech.
“Each tribe has its own designs, shapes formal and solemn to embody the memories of the bones. Each tribe has its own materials—spidersilk and wool, sisal and reeds and thin leather cords. Yet only among the snake-Surun’ is there a tradition of weaving from air.”
She said nothing more, expecting perhaps a question.
Later, Gitit-nai-Lur would ask me why I had not asked, her eyes bright with secrets and dreams of the desert. “A cloth of winds! A whole tradition of it, not just a single fragment but a whole carpet, carpets! Oh, such a treasure to bring back from a trading venture, to unroll before the ruler of the city!”