The beauty of speculative fiction is that it encompasses such a wide variety of stories and formats for those stories to be told. Speculative fiction and online magazines have this incredible characteristic in common. Yet, online magazines don’t always get the attention they deserve. So, we here at Fiction Unbound have reviewed some of the best online science fiction and fantasy magazines being published today, and we have some recommendations for you. If you are a fan of science fiction and fantasy but don’t have the time to dedicate to whole novels or if you are simply curious about the genre, this is the place to start!
Here are three publications that deserve your attention. While many online magazines and podcasts are free, they also deserve support from readers like you.
Lisa Mahoney likes: PodCastle The Fantasy Fiction Podcast
PodCastle consistently presents outstanding fantasy fiction spanning the broadest range of speculative literature. Yes, the fantastic element is crucial to PodCastle stories, and sometimes they take place in worlds completely new, but often the setting is the present, in a place with a history and religions well-known to readers, making them easily relatable. “A Ghost Among the Mangroves” by Naru Sundar and read by Arun Jiwa, takes place in a Sri Lanka torn by Tamil Tiger and Sinhalese fighter violence, a place littered with ghosts. By assuming readers know this region’s history, Sundar is free to focus on his message. The narrator is a boy who loses an older brother to separatist violence and is recruited onto a path of increasingly dangerous vengeance despite his mother’s desperate attempts to stop him. Later he reflects upon the dangerous oversimplification that people can choose only the right or wrong side:
But this is a story of gathering the strength to make up for monstrous misdeeds and to walk a path of karmic redemption, in this plane and the next, as a ghost and as a man. Shankar’s mother has trouble forgiving herself, but she advises him to forgive himself. “Listen to me, Shankar. No sin is beyond forgiveness, not even yours. There is always a path to redemption, painful though it may be. That is the duty the Gods impose on us!” While Sundar doesn’t have to waste words building a background and history of his narrator’s childhood world, he does beautiful worldbuilding when evoking Shankar’s homeland through the senses:
Congratulations, PodCastle, for winning the award for “Best Podcast -- Fictional” at the Academy of Podcasters awards in August 2017! Subscribe to the weekly podcast or read it online. You won’t regret it.
Danyelle C. Overbo recommends: Shimmer
The first thing you’ll notice about this online publication is the artwork. I am a huge sucker for visualizations of the fantastic and this website is worth a look for the gorgeous, intricate art featured on each issue’s cover alone. They are a free publication specializing in contemporary fantasy short stories. Each bi-monthly issue has four short stories focusing on a central theme. You can purchase the issue right as it comes out or wait for the stories to be released for free over the course of the following two months. Back issue stories are all available as well and absolutely worth digging into. To support the magazine, you can purchase the current issue in pdf, epub, or mobile formats for $2.99 or buy an entire year for $15. They also offer collections of previous years’ short stories. Given the high quality of this fiction, that is a steal.
As I checked out their website, I decided to try a story from an older issue. The artwork for issue #36 from March of earlier this year immediately caught my eye. On the cover, a woman walks in mist out of watery depths beside a lighthouse, a flock of seabirds rising behind her. What’s especially nice is that the editors have recently elected to include word counts on each of the stories alongside their teaser introductions. This allows you to choose a shorter or longer story based on the amount of time you have. I, personally, love mermaids, so I read “The Cold, Lonely Waters” by Aimee Ogden.
I enjoyed being able to sit down and read a full story in a short amount of time. I often pick up fantasy and science fiction anthologies for this very reason. “The Cold, Lonely Waters” was chock full of lyrical descriptions and beautiful sea imagery, just what I wanted from a story about a mermaid. The premise is very unusual and exciting too - a spaceship in the form of a self-sustaining ecosphere traveling across the stars to colonize a new planet with a single singing mermaid. In a short amount of space, 3600 words, the author paints a complete picture of a future Earth where all humans have died off and currently populated by various types of mer-people who seek to travel the stars. They do not know where humans have gone, but it appears to be self-destruction, a very apropos story given our current events. I enjoy this kind of narrative tremendously, but I had trouble getting through the flowery language and slightly incoherent descriptions some of the time. It appears that the editors of Shimmer favor this kind of overly descriptive, carefully engineered fantasy language that, when overused, can make the stories feel stylistically overwrought and a bit heavy. However, overly exquisite language in fantasy is hardly a big criticism or a deal breaker. In fact, it is practically required for the genre. So, I’d definitely recommend you head over to Shimmer and read them as soon as possible if you love fantasy as much as I do.
Amanda Boldenow recommends: Beneath Ceaseless Skies
Beneath Ceaseless Skies is a literary magazine for the intersection of speculative fantasy and historical fiction with the depth and beauty of literary fiction. The magazine publishes two stories every two weeks, with a strict focus on fiction set in historical or the Tolkien concept of “secondary-worlds” that are a reimagined or subverted version of reality. An ideal example of a BCS piece is Fiction Unbound’s own Theodore McCombs’s story, “Ora Et Labora”, published in the July 6, 2017 issue. The story is dark, literally, opening in a "dark apse" during matins at the St. Riemann’s monastery (fun fact: Bernard Riemann is a 19th-century German mathematician and a clever namesake for a monastery serving God through equations – thank McCombs at your next trivia night – or better, have him on your team).
As someone who came to McCombs’s story with limited memory of AP European History, I did a lot of googling post-reading to (try to) determine what was fantasy and what was fiction. Ultimately my conclusion is it doesn’t matter, reasoning to follow. Obb, a 14-year-old novice monk, or oblate, who is yet to choose his new monk name, is sitting uncomfortably (flea bites will do that) in the apse scratching his legs with one hand and calculations onto parchment that will be used by local engineers and architects with the other. Lives hang in the balance of his mathematical accuracy, as a stray decimal or lazy rounding could result in a roof collapsing on a school full of children. No pressure.
Obb and his fellow monks and nuns are human calculators, securing their value in society through the insistence that only the clergy are worthy and able to understand God’s mathematical language (they are the "disordered" and set apart from the lay persons, the "ordered"). It is Obb's sister who first identified him as "disordered" and in need of oblation, to Obb's confusion and dismay. Lay persons who violate the rules of what the ordered versus the disordered may do are subject to punishment by a sinister Inquisitor. Obb doesn’t want to live the life of a disordered monk, though, and wonders why he has to be banished to the flea-ridden monastery and midnight mathematical torture sessions. Obb is plagued by confusion as to why his family sent him away, and insistent that he's been misoblated. As Obb builds rapport with other novices, though, it becomes clear that not only is he trapped by the acres of forest surrounding the monastery, but also by a society that would never welcome him back. Obb realizes, reluctantly, that his only “escape” will be made by climbing the ladder of the clergy hierarchy, potentially pitting his own survival against those who’d dare to risk the survival of all boys and girls “like him.” In describing Obb’s predicament and anxiety, McCombs strikes at fears and prejudices that have run rampant through real-world history and the present, darkly linking this secondary world to our own. The ostracization that forces boys and girls like Obb into the monastery is the roundabout circling us back to the reason why it doesn’t matter what, in the story, is historical and what is invented. X and y in the story’s equation can be filled in with fact or fiction, it doesn’t matter, as the answer will always be the same: darkness, embedded in humanity's past, present, and psyche; darkness from which there is little hope of escape.