Review: Apex #113

Apex #113, October 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Bargains by the Slant-light” by Cassandra Khaw (fantasy short story)
  • “The Standard of Ur” by Hassan Abdulrazzak (fantasy short story)
  • “With Lips Sewn Shut” by Kristi DeMeester (fantasy short story)

Bargains” is an overwritten and talky flash piece in which a woman is having trouble with love and makes a deal with an atypical Devil to have her torso cut open and her heart slowly replaced. Some horror fans not put off by the excess verbiage and lack of action may find something here. “Sewn” is another “oppressed women/evil men” tale in which a (perhaps inadvertently) ambiguous mother both sews the daughter’s lips shut and works for her freedom while the evil brothers are also temporarily drafted until they become talking, free, happy, evil animal-men and chase the fleeing sister through the woods, which chase has at least one botched element which interfered with any even visceral excitement it may have had. “Standard” is a mishmash of tenses and POVs, not to mention probably a mishmash of science fiction and fantasy. In 2103, Iraqis have been brain-chipped to suppress sectarian hatred (damn specific chip, there). A blonde British boy arrives to decide whether Iraq is stable enough to merit the return of an ancient Sumerian artifact. The opening is interesting enough but, if it’s an SF story with a psychological twist, some things don’t work and, if the end is fantastic, it’s even more absurd. Despite that, it feels like it’s supposed to be a supernatural fantasy and, even if not, it’s certainly an unsophisticated “postcolonial” revenge fantasy.

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Review: Apex #112

Apex #112, September 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Field Biology of the Wee Fairies” by Naomi Kritzer (fantasy short story)
  • “River Street” by S. R. Mandel (fantasy-like short story)
  • “Coyote Now Wears a Suit” by Ani Fox (fantasy-like short story)
  • “A Siren’s Cry Is a Song of Sorrow” by Stina Leicht (fantasy-like novelette)

River Street” is a metaphor of around 700 words (some of which read like accidental Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest entries) which is probably about life and death and such.

Coyote” is about how awful it is to be a closeted “gay, transgender, crossdressing… academic” in Hawaii until a trickster god “helps.” The “god” could easily be a figment of the narrator’s addled imagination. Some may find it fast-paced and amusing while some may find it slapdash and tiresome.

The other two stories are about how awful it is to be female, especially in the South of the past.

Siren,” which smashes the short story barrier by 39 words due to 2,140 words of agonizing before any movement begins, features a pair of siblings in 70s or 80s Texas trying to become mermaids (not even the word “siren” appears anywhere but the title) because being a girl is the worst conceivable thing anyone could be cursed to be. All males bully, rape, and kill all females all the time and the narrator has been upset since her parents took her to a museum “as a means of expanding [her] educational horizons” and she saw and somehow understood (in a twisted way) what skulls signified when she was “only a little over a year old”! Her life actually only gets worse from there. It’s preposterously overdone and that’s the only fantastic element in it; there are no mermaids in the frame of the narrative and possibly none at all.

A reader’s reaction to “Wee Fairies” will probably be a macrocosm of his or her reaction to the title but, either way, it’s immeasurably superior. In this one, a girl with scientific aptitude and a dislike of beauty finds 1962 Virginia (and, especially, one male teacher) uncongenial but, after interacting with her fairy (which almost every girl gets, but only the protagonist experiments on and comes to understand), she triumphs. The fairy, while definite, is an obligatory fantasy element in an essentially mainstream story, the ending, while apt, is underwhelming, and the whole thing is reminiscent of Naomi Novik’s “Blessings” (Uncanny #22, May/June 2018) but some may enjoy it.

Review: Apex #111

Apex #111, August 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “For Southern Girls When the Zodiac Ain’t Near Enough” by Eden Royce
  • “Prism” by Stefanie Elrick
  • “La Ciguapa, For the Reeds, For Herself” by J. M. Guzman
  • “Gasping” by Brandon O’Brien
  • “Jewel of the Vashwa” by Jordan Kurella
  • “The Barnum Effect” by Celia Neri

This Zodiac-themed “special issue” is guest-edited by Sheree Renee Thomas. All stories are short and all are fantasies (the last is a technofantasy). All but the first and last are in the first person. The first is in the second person and is one of three consecutive stories which refer to “you” heavily throughout the story. The first three are in the present tense while the next two are not purely, plainly, in the past. The second, third, and last are not entirely in English. The second is sprinkled with a sort of Spanglish, the third is is what I assume is a Dominican dialect, and the last is filled with minor ESL-isms and/or typos an editor and/or proofreader should have fixed.

Southern Girls” involves a woman, who seems like a placeholder more than a specific individual, getting a Tarot reading with an odd deck which speaks from and to a Southern nature. There is a magic voice doing most of the reading which could be stage magic and otherwise nothing fantastic occurs. “Prism” (Gemini) is a tale of twins (sort of) which tries to blend music, mirrors, and the occult into a revelation of self but is initially dull and consistently overwritten. (It also has an impressively dead metaphor: “The music is deafening, but now I can’t hear it.”). “La Ciguapa” (Libra) treats of the Dominican succubus but, like “Southern Girls,” seems to have stick figure characters in search of a plot as it more or less conveys that men are scum and “a Black woman” will judge at an apocalypse. “Gasping” (Aquarius?) describes “white people” finding a superficially human sea creature in Ireland and raising it in Tobago. The style did not make for an easy read. “Jewel” has a half-scorpion storyteller open with two lies before (possibly) telling the truth about her jealousy breaking a truce between the Scorpion Men and soft people who procreate with each other when they aren’t killing each other. “Barnum” (the protagonist is a Pisces) is about people developing an AI to write horoscopes but, when one of the developers survives a terrorist attack after following the advice of hers, she decides its sentient. The story’s biggest problems are its underlying silliness and its problematic English, though the protagonist seemed like an individual experiencing a bit of trauma and allowing need to collapse ambiguity.

Review: Apex #110

Apex #110, July 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “The Chariots, the Horsemen” by Stephanie Malia Morris (fantasy short story)
  • “When You’re Ready” by M. Ian Bell (science fiction short story)
  • “Kerouac’s Renascence” by Tal M. Klein (science fiction novelette)

This issue also includes a reprint and a translation as well as the Patreon-funded original novelette and the usual two originals. I did like aspects of the first and third originals but the sum didn’t work for me.

In “Chariots,” the protagonist and her mother can fly, or could, if the patriarchal figure wasn’t literally keeping them down. It’s mostly well-written and has a well-realized protagonist but is thematically simple and unsubtle.

Ready” is about a boy who meets a boy and loses a boy and, undaunted by an apocalypse that should render such things even less likely, takes narcissistic mad scientist steps to regain boy. It’s stylistically very dull and is a case where the present tense specifically contributes to that problem. With yet another example of the “and… or… and… or…” structure, it has no real plot or climax.

Other than wondering why I was reading it in a “speculative fiction” magazine and its downer subject, I was mostly enjoying “Renascence.” A man dying from Huntington’s is leaving his suicide journal to his sister while on a cruise. However, it then tried to qualify as speculative fiction two-thirds in with a ludicrously presented “too bad even for TV” twist and then withheld the obvious conclusion for too long as though it were a big reveal. Also, by the end, the narrative device of the journal had come to seem inconsistent and inappropriate.

Review: Apex #109

Apex #109, June 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Three Meetings of the Pregnant Man Support Group” by James Beamon (science fiction short story)
  • “Suzie Q” by Jacqueline Carey (fantasy short story)

This could be seen as the “sex is bayud, m’kay” issue.

Suzie Q” is another puritanical story and another revenge fantasy in which a woman goes insane from sex and, eventually, people make the mistake of pissing her off one too many times. Very basically and easily plotted with a puerile and repressive attitude (towards bad sex, anyway, if not good violence). Bizarrely, the markedly superior story between the two is “Three Meetings,” which drops elements of Aliens, Butler’s “Bloodchild,” Barnes’ “Fifty Shades of Grays,” maybe Varley’s “Manikins,” and other similar “weird alien sex” stuff into a blender, though it leaves the lid off so that all the action, energy, and plot fly out, leaving just a really weird and creepy residue. The “skoick” have arrived on Earth and want our… men? Turns out Earthmen are easy, when the gender-incomparable aliens are capable of delivering “mind-blowing interspecies sex” (along with dribbles of tech), even when it results in becoming a gestating device for a mind-controlling alien parasite. Aspects of this are remarkable and, obviously, it has all sorts of gender/orientation/etc. resonances but it falls short of its predecessors, particularly regarding the heavy approach to theme and the previously mentioned plotting. Despite a couple of semi-random, semi-forced efforts to ramp up the tension, it lacks a real driving plot and is just the three scenes.

Review: Apex #108

Apex #108, May 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Stars so Sharp They Break the Skin” by Matthew Sanborn Smith (science fantasy short story)
  • “Mother Jones and the Nasty Eclipse” by Cherie Priest (2700 words)
  • “Cherry Wood Coffin” by Eugenia Triantafyllou (fantasy short story)
  • “Fifteen Minutes Hate” by Rich Larson (science fiction short story)
  • “Cold Blue Sky” by J.E. Bates (science fiction short story)

The original fiction in this month’s Apex is entirely in present tense and more than once in second person. Therefore, despite having linked to it in my last “Links” post, I’ll link to this gem again: Michael Swanwick cites Ursula K. Le Guin on present tense (with a teaser on second-person). Leaving technique aside, the issue brings us sharp stars, nasty eclipses, cold skies, coffins and hate. Whee! Let’s go!

In the center, there’s an interesting little flash piece about a guy who’s making a “Cherry Wood Coffin.” Coming deaths seem to impel him to start work and the wood, itself, tells him what to do. This is going to be a small coffin so it’s no surprise when a young mother arrives and tries to bribe the worker into doing away with the coffin. She learns why that’s a bad idea.

On either side of that are slightly longer pieces.

Mother Jones” is no story at all but simply an elliptical op-ed on politics, apparently triggered by current affairs, in which “I” monologue at “you.”

The “Fifteen Minutes Hate” is a puzzler for me. It riffs on Orwell (and Steve Allen’s “The Public Hating”) to tell us about a woman’s cilia-bearing phone crawling over her to wake her up and inform her she’s about to become the focus of the Hate. I was expecting her to have done something trivial, thereby pointing up the ludicrous nature of the Packs that patrol our internet and society. It also occurred to me that she might have actually committed some capital crime, thereby conveying an idea that, even then, vengeance is not justice, hate poisons the hater, etc. Instead (without spoiling the specifics) she’s done something that actually is reprehensible and non-trivial, even if it is in comparison to “some government infoscandal, [or] a nuclear aggression in Mashhad.” The point would seem to be on the vicious mobs but the point would have been sharper with a different protagonist and/or situation.

On either side of those are two tales that are longer still (though still just 4-5K words).

Stars” deals with a veteran of the psychic wars (to borrow the Blue Oyster Cult song title), who is recovering from a mysterious additional ailment, accompanied by a mysterious person for whom he has strong ambiguous feelings and it mostly comes clear in the end. It uses present tense with little justification, though a theoretical reason is asserted at one point, and shifts person with even less, though it is all intended to convey the psychic trauma the veteran lives in (rather than, y’know, just conveying the psychic trauma the veteran lives in). This will likely suit some people but did not work for me.

Cold Blue Sky” was certainly the tale I most enjoyed reading from this issue. The problem is in what the ending means. It opens with an “anthrobotic” model waking up when the cops come for her and we learn that’s she’s “evidence” in a crime. We learn the nature of that and more about her, her society, and the people who bought her. It’s told in a tense, clipped, fast-moving way that provides excitement and narrative thrust without actually being all that action-oriented and the first person narration, coming from the robot, creates an interestingly objective subjectivity. However, like “Stars,” this is in first person present tense which is either disastrous or quite clever, depending on how we’re supposed to take the ending, This story has generally been done before and I don’t know that it adds a lot even under a charitable reading but it was fine content.

Review: Apex #107

Apex #107, April 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Clap Your Hands” by Andrew F. Kooy
  • “The Sharp Edges of Anger” by Jamie Lackey
  • “Murders Fell from Our Wombs” by Tlotlo Tsamaase

All three pieces of original fiction are short stories (“Murders” falls a few words short of a novelette but may be counted as such) and are fantasies tinged more or less heavily with horror. The editorial opines that Apex‘s stories have lately been “a touch lighter than usual” and exults that “the dark times are back, and I think you’re going to love it!”

Clap Your Hands” introduces us to Five, whose mother died during his birth and whose evangelical charlatan father hates him. When Five is shown a moment’s kindness from a diseased woman, he prays for her and a miracle occurs. The father claims credit and uses it to bilk more people and marry the healed woman who is turned against the boy. He eventually runs away but the climax comes when the prodigal son returns. This is a schematic of a story more than a story, itself, seeming to be gasped out pell-mell rather than structured in time-lapse or given room to breathe in gradual evolution. The denouement seems out of focus. Still, the scenario and the boy’s life were interesting.

The Sharp Edges of Anger” is a pseudo-fairy tale in which female anger is made a concrete thing and is about brutal men (and some co-opted women) angering women and repressing them and their anger until things get worse.

In case “Logistics” in this month’s Clarkesworld didn’t satisfy your need for stories about tampons and such, “Murders Fell from Our Wombs” may suffice. A woman in a backwater town in Africa menstruates for seven days at a time, has murderous dreams, and wakes to find people really have been killed. Eventually she learns some things about this and herself and makes her way to the big city. This is told in the first person so I can’t really fault the story for poor grammar—it may just be the narrator’s voice—but it’s often hard to read. That aside, it’s still told in a rambling, fractured way with a similarly random, disjointed plot and was a labor to finish.