I’m not sure what the prose equivalent is of a standing ovation, but that’s what I want to open this with. This was absolutely pitch-perfect. “Rivers Run Free” is the opening tale in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2018 anthology, and holy flying crap what a way to start. Seriously. Just… I mean… magic. Again, that whole standing ovation thing.
To be more eloquent about it, though, what we’ve got here is a mythology built on a simple enough concept: rivers can, if they so desire, form themselves into humanoid beings—it’s dangerous, it costs them so much, but it’s possible. And humanity in the form of the Luteans (an empire of sorts) has of course figured out a way to completely use (and abuse) them in this form, enslaving them to power gears and turn wheels and provide power until the rivers are spent and broken and die. Dowsers are the slavers, hunting down rivers wherever they can find them, to drag them back to Lutea, and we join the story with a group of rivers running from them, about to desperately gamble for their continued freedom.
What follows is a tale of how ugly humanity can be, and through Payseur’s telling there is a brilliant “layered otherness” lens to it. The rivers use varied pronouns, there is queerness here, and even among their own there is need to hide facets of themselves. There is so much pain and potential hopelessness in this tale, but Payseur gives just enough to the reader that at the end I was nodding to myself. So I stand and applaud.