REVIEW: “Fugue State” by Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due

Review of Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due, “Fugue State”, Apex Magazine 120 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Charlotte is struggling with some dementia-like changes in her husband, Arthur. Since taking a new job advising a popular fundamentalist preacher, Arthur has transformed from a brilliant political correspondent at the paper where they both work, to somehow who struggles to sound out the word “acetaminophen” or understand that it is Tylenol. When a stranger tells Charlotte that the preacher is up to something terrible, and that she has to go to his event that night and stop him, Charlotte thinks that maybe she has found a way to understand what is happening to her husband.

Despite what you might think from the summary, this is a slowly building horror story. Yes, it centers a relationship, but that is not what the story is ultimately about. What is it about? That’s harder to say, because it is so subtle, and so rich. It’s about relationships, yes. It’s about wanting to understand a loved one, and thus acting against what might be your better judgment. It’s also about mind control, and about the comfort that can be found after giving up your free will to someone or something more confident than yourself. It’s absolutely terrifying. This is psychological horror at some of its best, holding up a dark mirror to real life that made my stomach curdle.

REVIEW: “Dune Song” by Suyi Davies Okungbawa

Review of Suyi Davies Okungbawa, “Dune Song”, Apex Magazine 120 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Nata intends to leave the safe community of Isiuwa, to go out into the dunes. She has tried once before, been captured and narrowly avoided death at the hands of the chief in punishment, but she is determined to make her escape from this village that she hates. The chief insists that for anyone to go would anger the gods and doom Isiuwa, but Nata does not believe this. Like her mother before her, she is determined to see what lies beyond the walls, and to find freedom.

There is a lot going on in this story. On a political level, this story takes a long, hard look at the type of governance that seeks to protect people by limiting their freedom. Because, of course, the people in charge of Isiuwa are permitted outside the bamboo fence. They say they do it to the protect the people, that it is a burden and not a privilege, but that does not change the fact that they are the only ones who could possibly know what is out there. Everyone else must take their word for it. Most of the citizens seem unbothered by this fact, even if they do not all believe in the religious explanation provided by their chief.

But of course, it is the personal level of the story that most interests me. Nata’s challenging relationship with a mother who left years ago, before Nata was ready to question the truths passed down to her, informs much of the story. Her absence is almost a presence for Nata. I also appreciated her friendship with a younger boy, one whose mother also left for the dunes. So often, when we read about someone defying authority, they have to do it completely alone. I liked seeing Nata with an ally.

This is an engaging first story in Apex’s Afrofurism special issue, which is also the last issue of the magazine.

REVIEW: “A Fool’s Baneful Gallantry” by Derek Lubangakene

Review of Paul Lubangakene, “A Fool’s Baneful Gallantry”, Apex Magazine 119 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Three travelers journey across an inhospitable desert, hoping to escape the Guild which pursues them. Their quest is feeling increasingly futile to at least one of their members, a wyrmrider named Adzala, whose wyrn they abandoned eight days ago. The situation grows increasingly dire, until Adzala finds out the truth of why the spellcaster is being hunted by this Guild.

This is probably the most high fantasy story I’ve read in Apex, with a world rife with magical creatures, spellcasting, and political intrigue. Also, a lot of fighting: this is a pretty harsh world, where nobody trusts each other, apparently with good reason. There’s a depth to the world, a sense that there is more happening here than we see in the story. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the author has a novel set in the same world – it’s certainly rich enough for one. It’s also nice to see a fantasy set in an alternate Saharan Africa, instead of the more typical pseudo-European settings.

I had trouble getting emotionally invested in this story. While there is certainly a strong setting, I had some trouble orienting myself in regards to the characters. Jasiri, their fighter, stands out as the only character to push back against the harsh, distrustful norms of the setting to truly care about people and reach out, but he is the only character whose personality felt strongly developed to me. Still, if you’re looking for a fantastic setting and a tense plot, this story delivers.

REVIEW: “All Votes Will Be Counted (We Promise)” by Paul Crenshaw

Review of Paul Crenshaw, “All Votes Will Be Counted (We Promise)”, Apex Magazine 119 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Take one part 1950’s aesthetic and one part friendly totalitarian government, mix them well, and you’ll get something similar to this wholesome American dystopia, reminiscent of “The Lottery.” Mr. Clausen is sick of being called to vote almost every evening after work, but this is the price of living in a direct democracy – the people must vote on every issue, from whether to launch more laser satellites, to issuing more war bonds. Mr. Clausen suspects that these votes do not really matter – after all, who could tally them so quickly? – and he’s about to learn the truth.

What struck me was how nobody takes the voting seriously. It’s mostly a social occasion, with the teens flirting and giggling, the women gossiping in the corner, and the men ribbing each other about their work days. Something that is ostensibly supposed to make people more engaged in the political process actually makes them less engaged. One person actually says that he just votes for everything. When Mr. Clausen starts to question what is going on, everyone keeps asking him why he can’t just go along with it like everybody else, as if voting doesn’t really matter.

The world and the government grow steadily more and more creepy as the story progresses, and as we and Mr. Clausen both learn more about what is happening. Eventually, he is forced to confront the worst of what can happen when “the will of people” is honored in word, but not deed, and conformity is all that matters. The conclusion is open-ended, but it is hard to imagine any resolution to the situation that could be described as happy. It’s a haunting picture, and one that I’m sure will stick with me.

REVIEW: “Professor Strong and the Brass Boys” by Amal Singh

Review of Amal Singh, “Professor Strong and the Brass Boys”, Apex Magazine 119 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Lispector Strong seems fairly content with ris life as a history professor, until one of ris students ask what rhe does for leisure. Under the rules of their society, droids like Professor Strong are not allowed leisure. This leads rhim to a lot of soul searching, and eventually to music, and an understanding that droids are perhaps not treated fairly under the current laws.

This story deals with art and justice, two concepts that the people within it would argue apply only to humans. It is a surprisingly gentle story, because Professor Strong is, at heart, a gentle being. Logical, kind, yet determined, rhe senses that there must be a better way, and is determined to do what rhe can to get humans to see the other droids as something other than servants. Rhe does not go about this through battle, either verbal or physical, but through music.

The end is more ambiguous than I would have preferred, but I don’t know that any other ending would have felt genuine. This story is asking big questions, and a neat ending might imply an easy solution. I respect the emotional honesty of the ending, which leaves the consequences of Professor Strong’s actions still unknown. What matters – what makes the ending work – is that Professor Strong acted. Rhe made a decision, and accepted the risks.

REVIEW: “O Have You Seen the Devle with his Mikerscope and Scalpul?” by Jonathan L. Howard

Review of Jonathan L. Howard, “O Have You Seen the Devle with his Mikerscope and Scalpul?”, Apex Magazine 118 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

It’s rare to find a fresh take on Jack the Ripper, yet that is undeniably what we have here. The narrator, an expert on conspiracies, is being paid to study what many consider the first serial killer. Either through imagination born of careful study or technology, he is reliving each victim’s last hours, growing increasingly angry about their circumstances, and frustrated that he can not save them.

There are no grand conspiracies here (in fact, the narrator laughs in the face of most conspiracies, citing human nature as far too unreliable to maintain a complex cover up among hundreds of people), and absolutely no drive to romanticize or understand Jack. His background and motives are completely unimportant. What matters are the victims: the hardships they endured and the lives that were cut brutally short. What matters is a London in which a woman screaming would have drawn no attention. What matters is a humanity that denies the humanity of others, and the disgust which our narrator feels towards that attitude.

The research that went into this story is impressive. I have not fact-checked it, but the details of location and history feel true to me. It paints a vivid picture, though I sometimes found myself getting bogged down by too many street names. That is a personal tolerance, however, and those with a better head for names and facts will likely have a different experience.

Be warned, this is a lengthy story, coming it at nearly 10,000 words, so you’ll want to leave enough time to really enjoy it. I found that it required a fair bit of focused attention, and would not have wanted to feel rushed through it. That said, it’s a unique story with a strong theme that is well worth the investment of energy.

REVIEW: “Curse Like a Savior” by Russell Nichols

Review of Russell Nichols, “Curse Like a Savior”, Apex Magazine 118 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Junior thinks this is going to be a quick job – just slip, in repair Mrs. Layla Fisher’s Halogram (currently displaying a Jesus who cusses up a storm), and move on. He doesn’t care what anybody else believes, so long as they let him do his job in peace. Unfortunately for him, it seems that Mrs. Fisher has other ideas.

This does a great job of mixing light fun with some more serious themes. On the one hand, anybody who has ever worked a customer service job will recognize Junior’s struggle to do his job without getting drawn into a long, emotionally taxing conversation with the client. But then we have the Halograms that are at the center of this whole transaction, holograms of famous people, specifically of the sort who people idolize – religious figures and inspiration writers and politicians ranging from Jesus and Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. and Maya Angelou. As the conversation with Mrs. Fisher goes on, the subject of faith comes to the forefront, and the story transitions from an almost frivolous look at futuristic customer service, to something much deeper and more challenging.

The ending took me by surprise. It’s much more unsettling than I expected, and made me rethink everything that came before it. Fortunately, this is a short enough story that it’s not a hardship to reread it!