The first issue of Fiyah came out this past January. The publication’s goal, edited by Justina Ireland and Troy L. Wiggins, is to showcase black speculative fiction–by, for, and about black people. Based on the six stories in the first issue, it’s going to be a magazine to watch. They’re all fantastic stories and while I think “Chesirah” is the best of them, I thoroughly enjoyed reading them all. Altogether, I think this collection of thematically resonant stories is a tremendous accomplishment.
What does it mean to be Black and look at intersectional issues of equality through the lens of science fiction and fantasy? Where are those stories in the canon? There is Black excellence out there waiting to be discovered and not tokenized.
There aren’t any tokens here, but Black excellence abounds.
Note: these reviews are full of spoilers. The issue’s been out since January.
I was immediately pulled in by the dialogue and voice in Malon Edwards’s “Long Time Lurker, First Time Bomber” and as I read through it, I not only appreciated those things, but also the way it’s constructed.
There are many layers to this story, but they all revolve around Rakaya and her feelings about having killed her lover, Rashon. She was paid by the State of Illinois to set off a bomb at a beach in the city-state of Chicago and, despite her best efforts, Rashon was there. Rakaya uses some of the money she was paid to have his consciousness transferred into an android.
Most of the story takes place at Big Mama Black’s business, a combination beauty shop and biotech facility. Big Mama Black is not someone to be trifled with and she’s Rashon’s mother and apparently in charge of the Energy Guild. The Energy Guild implants solar cells into the skin of people so they can collect power and then sell it back to the State of Illinois—the implication is that this is one of the few ways people have to earn a living, after the city-state of Chicago either used up or took all the resources from surrounding communities.
The implantable solar cells aren’t the only awesome tech in this story, as there’s also Rakaya’s lurksuit—a kind of black market tech used by the Assassin’s Guild—and apparently sentient, as Rakaya’s lurksuit is actually the narrator of the story. It’s both goad and voice of reason when Rakaya gets stuck and it was pretty much my favorite thing.
I was thoroughly captivated by pretty much everything in this story and found myself rereading passages and being pulled in again as I was working out what I wanted to say here. I’d love to read more in this setting—I suspect that this story shows only a small part of the entirety of this world.
Brent Lambert’s “Police Magic” opens mid-conflict in an arid post-apocalyptic setting and is a story about two brothers making their way from Atlanta to San Diego in search of a woman they know only as the Profeta de Profetas. Kalup is intensely protective of his younger brother, Adrian, who has been afflicted by what’s called police magic: a magic that is aggressive, angry, and brutal.
When the Twisting happened—when magic started to come back into the world—it primarily affected the police, with disastrous results—so it’s known as police magic. While only uses his power when necessary—such as in the opening scene–he knows that eventually he’ll give in to it and run mad. While this is an unsubtle means of illustrating the dangers of some kinds of power, it’s undeniably effective
Shortly after the opening confrontation, Kalup and Adrian finally arrive in San Diego and meet Nya. They discover that there are more kinds of power in the world than just destructive: Nya’s power is that of protection: the opposite of police magic. And she’s been waiting for Adrian and Kalup, because she know that with them, she can perform a ritual to transmute police magic, so that when more magic comes into the world it doesn’t latch onto the fear and anger that’s been festering. I found the ritual to be the most moving part of the story: they each must forgive the spirits of brutality, dominance, and fear, each of whom take on the form of someone in Kalup’s past: a police officer, his kindergarten teacher, and his mother.
I have mixed feelings about this story: I loved the concept and the thematic underpinnings, but the execution wasn’t as smooth as it could be, with prose and dialogue that read awkwardly in places. That said, I found this story to be quite moving and well worth the time to read it.
“Revival” by Wendi Dunlap is quite powerful—the narrator is pregnant and in prison, waiting for her execution. Pregnancy is forbidden in this extraterrestrial colony since the last pregnant woman was torn apart by her child—who may not have even been fully human.
There’s strangeness happening on the planet as people have stopped aging and their wounds heal more quickly on this alien world than they did on Earth and until the elders understand what’s happening, pregnancy is punishable by death. This is an interesting juxtaposition, as the settlers came to this planet for freedom but as Serene thinks, “fear and execution are perhaps the only lessons we have mastered.”
She’s steadfast and calm—but not resigned—in the face of her impending death. Her sister and lover implore her to do what she can to save herself. Serene maintains that her pregnancy was her choice—and she repeatedly reminds them that one of the reasons they fled Earth was to escape the prisons and prejudices that bound them.
The Earth they fled is one that puts children in prison for transgressions easily forgotten, one where whiteness always brings darkness and pain behind it. In hoping to escape, they have only created a new version of what they left behind. This is a story about choice and the change that can come from the choices—and new beginning as well.
I loved this story. It’s gorgeously written with vivid descriptions and characterizations. I especially liked the use of mansplaining as an infodump for the reader. The theme of choice resonates and ultimately, it is this which saves Serene’s life and the life of her child.
DaVaun Sanders’s “The Shade Caller” is explicitly a story about otherness: the main character, Kandiri, is a Sonu, bearing the visible mark of his parents’ sin and forced into penitence to Mother Night. The story opens with him being accused of theft as he’s about the undergo a ritual that would cause him to be Seen by the other people. Kandiri is lesser, Unseen, and he is the first of his kind to be allowed the ascension rites. The Unseen, the Sonu, have their skin eaten by the teeth of the sun, exposing their internal organs. This is about as unpleasant looking as it sounds and the descriptions are hard to read—as well they should be.
This is a dark story, full of body horror and fear, but also hope: Kandiri discovers the truth of what he and the other Sonu are and when he learns that no matter what he does, what he sacrifices, what rituals he undergoes, he will always be Unseen to the others, he makes the choice to embrace his nature. He knows that he and the others aren’t cursed and as he comes into his own, he chooses to show mercy to the Seen who have been so awful to him and the other Sonu. By showing mercy, Kandiri lives up to the name given him by the Shade Caller he meets right before the ceremony: “Shenthis. ‘One who is kind and powerful.’”
There are so many layers to this story—the capriciousness and narrowmindedness of the villagers, the desperate desire to be accepted by those around you, and the importance of solidarity with others like you. I’ll be thinking about this story for quite some time. I also suspect that this story has links to African mythology or history that I’m completely missing, which means that I’m probably also missing a lot of what’s going on here. I’ll be looking to rectify that over the coming weeks.
The nameless narrator is the last of his species in V.H. Galloway’s “Sisi Je Kuisha (We Have Ended)”—a humanoid race covered in grass, nyasi. The story opens as they and their father are running from hunters who speak a mixture of Lingala and Swahili, as well as another language the narrator can’t identify but which they think may be French. These clues help the reader identify the locale and time of the story: the Congo, probably near the beginning of the colonial period.
The hunters trap the narrator’s father and kill him by pieces while the narrator hides in a tree. During the night he descends and comes face to face with one of the younger hunters, the chief’s son. The young man asks the narrator for one of the blades of grass that makes up their coat for they are reputed to be an aid to virility. The narrator calls this a ridiculous myth but goes along with it while seething with anger, an anger the young man simply does not notice.
The narrator chooses to take revenge on the chief: he kills the young man and then stays near the village to see the result. What happens is that the chief goes becomes obsessed with catching the narrator, becomes unstable, is replaced, and then heads into the wilderness to find the narrator.
While the external conflict is between the last Eloko and the humans, the central conflict in this story is between the last Eloko and his anger: “broiling rage twisted around a stump of loneliness so blunt that at times it caught my breath.”
When the narrator decides to leave the village, the chieftain follows and they become companions, of a sort. When they finally speak to each other, the narrator learns the chieftain’s son was also the last of a lineage—in this, the narrator and chieftain are alike. It’s a strange sort of kinship and it is this which moves the narrator out of their anger and into recognizing their sorrow and grief at being the last Eloko.
I found this to be a haunting and almost indescribably sad story about endings. A thoroughly engrossing read.
The final story in this issue, L.D. Lewis’s “Chesirah”, is so good—in my opinion, it’s the best story in the issue. Chesirah is a fenox, a type of humanoid who cycles through active and dormant phases, with fire being the catalyst. She’s been a slave nearly her entire life, kept by men who delight in cruelty. Chesirah needs to be free and has been planning her escape from the dollmaker Nazar for months. When the time comes, her escape is a bit more dramatic (and fiery) than she intended and she finds herself at the spaceport not knowing what to do. While she figures out the logistics, she goes into a restaurant—all she knows is that she wants to leave.
After she orders her meal—being unable to read or count money–Chesirah is accosted by a wealthy man who owns many of the ships in the spaceport. She doesn’t know how to get him to leave her alone—mainly because she can’t, because he’s a jerk who thinks he is entitled to her attention. One of the other patrons swoops in and makes it awkward for him, then asks Chesirah if she’ll answer some questions after he leaves. This is Esperanza, and with her partner, Vannish, they own and operate the Cirque Nocturne, which appears to be a loose collective of people who aren’t classified as “Common Men”.
They ask Chesirah if she would like to join them, but a poor choice of words on their part causes Chesirah to flee—right into a confrontation with the wealthy man. During this scene, Chesirah is given contradictory instructions, none of which she’s able to comply with—she will not allow herself to be taken into slavery again. The confrontation ends in a conflagration larger than any Chesirah has been able to create before.
When she comes back to herself, she finds herself on a ship with Esmerelda and Vannish, who have rescued her—with no expectation of payment or even gratitude. This is the first kind thing that anyone has ever done for Chesirah—this sets the course for her decision to learn more about the Cirque Nocturne—not just because she doesn’t quite know how to be free, yet, but because she realizes that she can help others the way she has been helped. She also hopes that by helping other fenox that she can learn more about her people—their history has been systematically taken from them as they’ve been enslaved, supposedly for their own good.
Chesirah’s voice and drive for freedom makes for compelling reading and the setting—a fusion of science fiction and fantasy elements—takes it to the next level. I’d love to read more about this world and about Chesirah and the Cirque Nocturne.
I hope that Fiyah has a long and successful run—speculative fiction by, for, and about black people is critically important.
Not unsurprisingly I felt like an outsider afforded a momentary—and lucky—glimpse into a world with experiences and context completely unlike my own. I’m not going to lie and say that it was always comfortable—it wasn’t—but it was exhilarating as well, to see such art be born into this world.
I’ll be buying Issue 2 as soon as it drops (in two days).