- “On the Day You Spend Forever with Your Dog” by Adam R. Shannon
- “Girls Who Do Not Drown” by A.C. Buchanan
- “Captain Midrise” by Jim Marino
All three stories in this issue of Apex are short (4/3/5K) and might as well be called fantasy. The metaphorical intent of the time travel motif in “Dog” overwhelms any scientific or even fantastic effect it might have. A man adopts a dog who’s been hit by a car but, three years later, has to put it to sleep, so keeps cycling through those years until something is revealed to us and something else comes clear to him. As with many cyclical stories, too little is done with too many cycles, straining the reader’s patience. (In other words, this did not hit me like Where the Red Fern Grows or J. T.) “Girls” uses a faintly pompous tone to tell us about Alice, who “looks every bit the boy she isn’t” and her inversion of a fairy tale (ironically, from the Isle of Man) involving a glashtyn (sea-creature which drowns girls). This wish-fulfillment lacks grit and drama.
A New York City reporter introduces us to “Captain Midrise.” Part of what the tale illustrates is how the miraculous becomes commonplace and how some people really do ask, “What have you done for me lately?” Whether due to age or some psychological blockage or some other problem, The Golden Crusader can only sort of slowly tack along at a sixth-floor level these days, though he still does his best to rescue people from burning 22nd floors and so on. A problem with this tale is that it doesn’t have much plot for its 5K length or has too much wordage for its plot. With a story like this, it’s more the latter, though all the incidents are interesting. The mixed reactions of people (from continued love to contempt) are portrayed well, the semi-superhero is striking, and the skewed view and tone make it notable.
- “Master Brahms” by Storm Humbert (science fiction short story)
- “Godzilla vs. Buster Keaton or: I Didn’t Even Need a Map” by Gary A. Braunbeck (fantasy novelette)
- “Toward a New Lexicon of Augury” by Sabrina Vourvoulias (fantasy short story)
“Brahms” is a murder mystery in a house which had seven identical occupants: six clones and one original. It opens with the realization that there are now six, as one of them has just been killed. This is conceptually somewhat like a contrived monoverse version of “And Then There Were (N-One)” (Sarah Pinsker, Uncanny #15) though it’s stylistically more like older SF. Unfortunately, the character isn’t appealing and the ending isn’t satisfying. “Augury” is an odd blend of wizards and witches in a near-future dystopia. (Comparisons between it and Lisa Goldstein’s 1987 novel, A Mask for the General, would likely be instructive). Evil city leaders are trying to gentrify an unwilling neighborhood which culminates in a cleverly conceived, low-key magic duel but the protagonist’s casual racism and the simple “coercion vs. coercion” conflict are also unsatisfying.
“Map” has things in common with this month’s “The Gift of Angels” (Nina Allan, Clarkesworld #146) in that the protagonist deals with the death of a family member in a story steeped in reverie with minimal speculative elements. It’s different in that the death is more immediate and, rather than referencing Proust and French cinema (and Bradbury and 12 Monkeys), it references Buster Keaton, Godzilla, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and several Hollywood films. The most significant difference is hard to articulate and I’ll try after saying that this one deals with an isolated and depressed older brother dealing with his sister’s death from AIDS. She’s left him, among other things, her last painting and, in the sole speculative element, a magic computer program which basically gives him a grief counseling session designed to help him achieve a conceptual breakthrough to help change his life.
The most significant difference is that, while this actually touched on grief more effectively in a way (mostly by having it be the recent death of a close relative), it was a less satisfying story. It’s nearly as long as “Angels” but that story had what seemed like a very complex web of nuanced reflections and a sneakily interlocked plot. This also achieved a “there and back again” effect but with fewer pieces and the reveries were longer, so sometimes failed to sustain interest despite some remarkable and beautiful concepts (the painting, the balloon, and so on). Perhaps most importantly, there was something that smacks of, as mentioned, “grief counseling” and even “motivational speaking” about this in which the protagonist (and we) are pushed toward a particular result rather than the internally-driven unfolding effect of “Angels.” Perhaps it’s just a matter of taste (and perhaps an unfair comparison) and I think this is a notable story but, between them, recommend “Angels” as the better one.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.
- “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.