Monday 15 January 2024

New Issue 2024.68

“I have always loved playing around with words. I didn’t know it was called poetry. I was just an innocent kid messing around with words.”

—Benjamin Zephaniah, 1958–2023

Issue 2024.68

[ Issue 2024.68; Cover art © 2024 Cécile Matthey ] Short stories



Download e-book version: PDF | EPUB

Sunday 14 January 2024

Interview with Sarah Day

We are delighted to host on our blog a conversation with Sarah Day, author of horror, sci-fi, fantasy, and many other flavors of speculative fiction. Her work is heavily influenced by festival culture, body modification, non-traditional relationships, and scary ghosts. Sarah has been published in PseudoPod, Underland Arcana, The Future Fire (see “The Heart of the Party”), and many other fine places. She lives in the SF Bay Area with her cat. Connect with her at Her novella, Greyhowler, is released today by Underland Press.

Rhia is a Courier, a transient messenger who freely travels the land without calling any town or port home.

The job suits her, for in a land ruled by the Temple, it is difficult to find your own way, especially when you have a Talent. Rhia's is water, and when she arrives in distant Cerretour to deliver a message, she finds a village wracked with suffering.

The well is dry. It hasn't rained. The only person who can save these villagers is missing. At night, a strange creature prowls the prairie. The villagers have a name for it: greyhowler.

The Future Fire: Greyhowler is both a story about freedom (from being tied to a place, from oppression) and being trapped (by secrets, by the past); can you tell us a bit more about how the story navigates these two seemingly contradictory states? Do you find a happy medium?

Sarah Day: I think a big topic in Greyhowler is illusion, or self-deception. Some of the major characters are trapped by the lies they tell themselves. Being trapped by their secrets, or their circumstances, is a side effect of self-delusion. I think this is how a lot of people are, honestly—we make choices that we believe are only from a sense of agency or self-determination, but we’re often reacting to influences and experiences in our history that we can’t escape, and maybe aren’t even aware of. 

Connecting our present-day actions to the experiences buried in our past can be a rich vein for personal development–and, in fiction, for plot and character work. For example, Rhia would love to only be a Courier and not have to address her upbringing in the Temple at all… but she can’t help the people in Cerretour without the skills she learned in her past. That’s where her inner conflict comes from, and it’s really fun to write. Some of my favorite parts of Greyhowler are where the characters lean hard one way, either rejecting their self-delusions or embracing them.

TFF: Do you already know what is going to happen in the next book in the series?

SD: I’ve written a couple of other books in this universe already; one about Rhia and her past, and one about two characters who don’t feature in Greyhowler at all. This universe is a land I visit when I want to write fantasy. I hope more of these books get to see daylight with an ISBN attached to them someday, but even if they don’t, I love the characters and have learned a lot from the experience.

TFF: Do you think that writing (and reading) speculative fiction—in particular fantasy that has sometimes been seen as pure escapism—can actually be an act of resistance?

SD: Absolutely! I think reading for “escapism” gets a bad rap, and that when we say we’re reading for escapism, we’re actually recharging our emotional batteries in a way that can contribute to our resilience. Charging the batteries is important for long-term fights.

I spent a lot of 2022 taking care of someone close to me who was going through cancer treatment. For a couple of months during chemo, all he wanted to do was watch YouTube videos of old boxing matches. Neither of us have ever been boxers or done any kind of martial art, so it’s not like we were watching for our education… but he found it galvanizing and encouraging. There was strong symbolic resonance for him to watch smaller guys take on larger guys and win—it was a clear metaphor for his fight against cancer. Was that pure escapism? I don’t think so.

TFF: Your short story “The Heart of the Party” both celebrates the anarchic joy of the free use of transformative technologies, and warns of its potential to aid in our repression by those in power. How do you see this tension?

SD: Speculative fiction uses imagined technology or magic to explore different manifestations of power. Exploring or subverting hierarchical power structures is something I write about a lot. Systems of power constantly seek to shore themselves up, to reinforce themselves. The Temple in Greyhowler and the state police apparatus in “The Heart of the Party” both require compliance and punish deviation with disproportionate severity, because the ability to punish with impunity is part of how they reinforce their legitimacy.

You might notice that the protagonists in both works are people who have a lot of privilege assigned to them by the dominant power structures and are trying to divest from those structures, with varying degrees of success. The theme of privileged people wrestling with the things they have but have done nothing to deserve, or trying to reconcile their privilege with others’ circumstances, shows up a lot in my writing.

TFF: Have you ever killed a character that you loved?

SD: Would I be a terrible person if I said I loved all my characters, even the bad guys? Every time one dies, I’ve killed someone I love. I don’t think I can write a believable character unless I can find them relatable somehow. I have to be a chameleon this way; each character I write has to have the strength of their own convictions. They might make terrible decisions, or do things I personally find morally indefensible, but have relatable motivations. Everyone’s morality is internally consistent. We’re each the hero of our own story.

At the end of Greyhowler, two characters discuss a third who has done terrible things, and whether actions like that can ever be understood or forgiven… I guess I think everything can be understood, even if it can’t be forgiven. To write a character well, I have to understand them, and by understanding them, I come to love them.

TFF: Thank you for being our guest, Sarah, we look forward to falling in love with the characters of the Greyhowler! Best of luck, and happy writing.

Greyhowler is out today, and can be bought here.

Thursday 11 January 2024

Micro-interview with Cécile Matthey

We’re joined again by TFF team member and old friend Cécile Matthey, artist of “Microseasons of the Dead” in The Future Fire #67.

Art © 2024 Cécile Matthey

TFF: How did you go about illustrating “Microseasons of the Dead”?

Cécile Matthey: I’ve been wishing to combine illustration and collage for a long time, and this is my first attempt! The concept of micro-seasons comes from Japan, so naturally I explored Japanese art for inspiration. I came across a beautiful19th-century drawing, showing a large wave. I decomposed it and used it as a frame around the hands full of stones, to evoke the river of the dead but also the cycle they have to go through, again and again.

TFF: Where is the place, physical or metaphorical, where you feel “at home”?

CM: I've always felt at home in libraries. I grew up surrounded by books, and I’ve always loved reading. What's more, they’re places where there's peace and quiet, which helps recharge my batteries. At school, going to the library was also a refuge. It was the only place where the other kids would leave me alone!

TFF: What is your favourite example of hopeful or fun speculative fiction (in any medium)?

CM: Terry Pratchett's Discworld and James Gurney's illustrations are my favourites. Otherwise, I've just started reading Toshikazu Kawaguchi's book Before the Coffee Gets Cold. It features a very special café, where customers can travel back in time, enjoying a cup of coffee. But there are rules to this journey: it won't change the present, and it lasts as long as the coffee is still hot. It sounds interesting! ;-)

TFF: Tell us about an artist whose work you're particularly enjoying at the moment?

CM: Visiting Neuchâtel's Museum of Natural History recently, I discovered the works by Philip Maire, a local artist who paints prehistoric animals on canvases he has collected at flea markets. It’s clever and fun.  Example below (my photo), and see more of his work at:

Reminder: You can comment on any of the writing or art in this issue at

Tuesday 2 January 2024

Worlds; and writing; and worlds without writing

Guest post by Juliet Kemp

For me, at least in English, ‘language’ and ‘written language’ are very nearly the same thing—when I think of words I see them written down (perhaps partly due to the fact that I read absurdly young). But even among literate people that experience is far from universal; and even in our highly literacy-dependent culture not everyone is literate; and then there are plenty of cultures (past and present) whose traditions are primarily or entirely oral, with the written word an afterthought or non-existent.

None of which I was thinking about when I first began to write my novella Song, Stone, Scale, Bone. I started off with a mental image of a knight guiding a noble through a catacomb, in search of a magic bone… and then I thought: why? Not why they were going there (that was the magic bone, although admittedly at that point I wasn’t quite sure what that was for either), but why was Sir Cade a guide as well as a guard, and why was she using a song to orient herself?

Perhaps, I thought, there’s no map. Perhaps, even, there can’t be a map. Perhaps directions, in this world, are kept in purely oral form, as songs and rhymes, and Cade’s order of knights holds the responsibility of keeping those directions.

Perhaps, I thought, they don’t have writing at all.

It’s harder than you might think—as someone from a very literacy-heavy culture—to remember all the things that aren’t there if you don’t have writing. Signposts, for example. What about coins? Drawings but no words? Numbers? Ideograms don’t quite count as writing, so coins could have something on those lines. (I fudged this slightly by not describing the money Cade uses.)

Given Cade’s job, I spent a while thinking about maps—which are basically drawings—but the use and accuracy of maps even in Western culture has varied substantially over the centuries. You’d struggle to use the Imago Mundi (below) to travel by, for example; although the Tabula Peutingeriana did a decent job of being a stylised route map (less good once you’re off-road).

Some questions which didn’t come up in the story but which I’ve thought about since: the first known uses of writing were bureaucratic (recording agricultural products and contracts); with other functions of government like taxation swiftly following. Cade’s nearby city houses an Emperor; how is the Empire managed without writing? Do tally-sticks count as writing? As above, what about ideograms, or mnemonics, which aren’t quite writing (but might develop into writing in the future)? Perhaps the Empire employs rememberers to keep track of these bureaucratic issues and what people owe, just as Lady Arel has to recite the treaty she is trying to use to prevent war. Presumably storytellers are important in this culture, just as they were in (for example) Ancient Greece and in pre-10th centure Britain (the Iliad and Odyssey, and Beowulf, are all thought to have been later writings-down of stories told as part of an oral tradition).

The final thing that occupied me for a while when I was writing was that there’s no way, in a book with a close-third-person POV, of saying that this is a part of the worldbuilding. Because, obviously, my narrator, Sir Cade, doesn’t know that she doesn’t have the concept of the written word, because, well, she doesn’t have the concept of the written word. So here I am, telling people about it outside the book; but if you read it, I’m interested to hear about how it came across to you. (And I hope you enjoy the story!)

Song, Stone, Scale, Bone

Sir Cade expected an easy afternoon’s guiding job. She didn’t expect it to end up sneaking her client over a border to avert a war, whilst being trailed by a bored dragon. And becoming haunted by the ghost of her best friend and sword-brother, that was definitely a surprise.

But if it’s all her responsibility, well, that means it’s all down to her to fix it. Whatever the cost.

Song, Stone, Scale, Bone is a deceptively rich and fulfilling work that blends together explorations of grief, friendship, obligation, and mutual support. With its combination of classic fantasy motifs, some lightly crafted magic, and a nuanced sense of where the personal and familial can meet the machinations of leadership and politics, I found Song an intriguing, well-constructed, and satisfying read.”—Andi C. Buchanan, author of Sanctuary

Buy links: Amazon UK (ebook/print), Amazon US (ebook/print), or order from your local bookshop.

Juliet Kemp (they/them) is a queer, non-binary, writer. They live in London by the river, with their partners, kid, and dog. The first book of their fantasy series, The Deep And Shining Dark was on the Locus 2018 Recommended Reads list; the fourth and final book, The City Revealed came out in 2023. Their short fiction has appeared in venues including Uncanny, Analog, Cast of Wonders, as well of course as the three stories (“I Thought of You”, “Dragon Years”, “Just as You Are”) here in The Future Fire, and they were short-listed for the WSFA Small Press Award 2020. When not writing or child-wrangling, Juliet knits, indulges their fountain pen habit, and tries to fit an ever-increasing number of plants into a microscopic back garden. They can be found at, and