REVIEW: “Gasping” by Brandon O’Brien

Review of Brandon O’Brien, “Gasping”, Apex Magazine 111 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A childless husband and wife find a baby by the ocean and adopt her. Colleen and Owen love baby Aislinn as their own, and they all move from Ireland to Trinidad. The girl is obviously not quite human, with breathing problems and strange reactions to water. But she grows up into a fine young woman, which is when the problems start.

I love a good selkie story or a changeling child, and I’m not alone in that. There’s a reason why both are so popular. This is not exactly either of those – Aislinn isn’t quite a selkie, as there is no seal skin, but she came from the water and to the water she must return. And a changeling child implies a switch, implies a human babe taken away somewhere, and that is also false. But this story sips from both of those classic narratives to excellent effect. This is a story about growing up, and about the difficulty parents face in letting their children go.

This is also a love story, between Aislinn and a girl in her class, Aditi. Their relationship captures the purity and innocence of young love free of angst, and brings a joyful counterpoint to the inevitably bittersweet ending.

The story is written in a dialect that I had some trouble following, but I got the hang of it by the end. If you are put off by that sort of thing, I recommend sticking it out, anyway. The story is worth it. I assume that this is a common Trinidadian dialect, and that it grounds the story in place, even if it is one I am unfamiliar with.

Overall, I enjoyed this story. The blending of fairy tale motifs and cultures set a delightful stage, and the casual acceptance of a lesbian love story is well worth checking out!

REVIEW: “La Ciguapa, For the Reeds, For Herself” by J.M. Guzman

Review of J.M. Guzman, “La Ciguapa, For the Reeds, For Herself”, Apex Magazine 111 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Sandra’s husband hunts La Ciguapa with her dog. One rainy night, when she has grown sick of how he treats her, she has her dog lead her to the monster herself. Le Ciguapa, who prefers to be called Josefina, helps Sandra, first to dry off, and later to start a new life. But first, she shows Sandra her graveship.

The narration in this story is fascinating. The speaker is alternately talking to a brother and a sister. She tells them the same story, explains the same things, but in different ways and in radically different tones. I found that confusing at first, but once I settled into the rhythm, it brought a greater depth to an already complex story.

I feel like much of this story went over my head. It spans three generations, and while there is a common thread between them, I was not entirely sure what was happening sometimes. That is probably my own fault: according to my research, Le Ciguapa is a figure from Dominican folklore, and as such, it is distinctly possible that this story draws on cultural understandings and experiences that I do not share. But even if I didn’t fully follow the narrative, the emotional resonance came through loud and clear, and that kept me riveted to every word.

I have rarely seen a story that projects such raw anger. Not the bonfire of a momentary rage, but the banked coals that have waited for decades to rise up and consume, directed by and for a clear purpose. This is righteous rage that makes no apologies and takes no excuses.

This is a story of oppression and fear and patience. It is beautiful and powerful, and well-worth reading, as long as you are not wedded to clear, linear plots.

REVIEW: “Prism” by Stefanie Elrick

Review of Stefanie Elrick, “Prism”, Apex Magazine 111 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A woman sits in a room full of mirrors and seeks to understand her sister’s mysterious death, pouring over her journals and the belongings she left behind. Through meditation, she discovers what happened and resolves to do what she can to fix it.

This is a hard story to discuss without spoilers, as it is essentially a mystery. To ruin that would ruin the story, and that would be a real shame, because it has a lot of offer, and I personally enjoyed it immensely. The speculative elements take awhile to show up, but when they do – in the form of a concert cum summoning ritual gone awry – everything comes into focus. Which is not to say that the earlier parts are lesser; the story is well-paced from beginning to end, introducing plot elements with just enough explanation to keep you reading.

It took me awhile to parse the ending – which I will not spoil for you – but once I figured it out, I loved how it riffed on the mirror themes and imagery that saturated the story from the beginning. In fact, the way that mirrors weave through the narrative is downright cunning.

This is a great story for anyone who likes a good old-fashioned demon or elder god summoning, but with paired with an introspective, character driven point-of-view.

REVIEW: “For Southern Girls When the Zodiac Ain’t Near Enough” by Eden Royce

Review of Eden Royce, “For Southern Girls When the Zodiac Ain’t Near Enough”, Apex Magazine 111 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

You go to a reader to learn your future, but she stops you when you offer to tell her your zodiac sign. Southern girls, she says, need something else. The deck she uses to read your fortune is no traditional Tarot deck – these cards are born from the American south, rich in historical and natural imagery.

This is the first story in Apex Magazine’s zodiac themed issue, and it’s a doozy. First of all, the second-person narration here really works. Some people dismiss it as a point of view, but here it made me feel like I was body-swapped with the main character. It was not exactly that I was in her head (as with first person), more like I was someone else in a dream. In this case, a black woman from the south. As a white woman in New England, that was an usual experience. I’d say the narrative encouraged empathy without giving me full insight into the character which adds to the dream-like associations.

Except this isn’t a dreamy story at all. This is a story about how hard life can be, and the desire to get some extra insight to make it tolerable, or at least to prepare for whatever is coming. Being a black women in America is no easy task, one with perils I will never experience, but I can recognize the challenges. Butter, who reads her cards, seems to offer the main character what she most needs: recognition and insight.

Lastly, the imagery in the cards described is just stunning. The descriptions and the meanings were so clear and so pure, even for someone who has no connection to the region they are evoking. This is where we get back into the dreamy, visionary feel, and connect back to the zodiac theme of the issue. I believe in these oracle cards, and I believe that they are capable of great insight.

This is a strong start to Apex’s new themed issue, and I can’t wait to see where it builds from here!

REVIEW: “The Whipping Girls” by Damien Angelica Walters

Review of Damien Angelica Walters, “The Whipping Girls”, Apex Magazine 110 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

After her mother’s death, Erika decides to leave Kansas and everything she’s ever known, and drive to California for a new start. She wants to prove her mother wrong, prove that she can move past fear and a childhood of abuse. To do so, she learns that she will have to encounter her past selves in a very literal sense.

I have a soft spot for stories that directly externalize an internal conflict, and that deal with mental health issues, so it’s no surprise that I connected with this one. Erika has to destroy what came before, and is now holding her back, in order to move on and be whole. I’m not sure that is good therapeutic advice (at least not for every survivor of abuse), but it strikes an emotional chord of truth. Maybe not everyone’s truth, but certainly a truth.

This is a beautiful, simple story about the painful journey to hope and healing, and I highly recommend it to those who like quiet, psychological stories set in the real world, but of course with a touch of the speculative.

REVIEW: “All Clear” by Hao He

Review of Hao He, “All Clear”, Apex Magazine 110 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

In the near future, the world has fragmented from what we know. Zhang Dong’s father blames technology and change, and has founded a village that rests on family and tradition, a culture that Zhang Dong chafes against, at the same time that he struggles to communicate with his own son. All of this comes to a head when members of several other villages or enclaves come together to attack.

This story has it all – fear and rejection of technology, psychic powers, the collapse of our current world-order, inter-generational conflict, and of course, fighting and intrigue. It’s a lot, but the story carries it well, balancing world-building with plot and character to create a harmonious whole.

Zhang Dong is a truly sympathetic protagonist. He wants to be a good person, a good son, a good father, but he also wants to happy, and he senses that these things may be mutually antagonistic. I suspect that many people know that feeling. He has been toying with the notion of moving away and founding his own village, a concept he returns to a handful of times during the narrative. Again, many people today daydream about running away from their lives (often to start a goat farm, but that may just be the people I know). By the end of the story, Zhang Dong comes to believe that maybe he can shift his current circumstances to both facilitate communication and maybe better line up with his moral compass, which is a hopeful note for all of us.

For all that the conflict is fairly action-oriented, this story felt like a slow build, once the initial action-scene wraps up. And that’s a good thing! It gives the reader time to get to know the characters and the world and the background up until this moment. I would recommend this for anyone who likes human-centered near-future science fiction with subtle themes.

REVIEW: “Kerouac’s Renascence” by Tal M. Klein

Review of Tal M. Klein, “Kerouac’s Renascence”, Apex Magazine 110 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Kerouac is living in Japan, so that his sister will not see his declining health. Now that his illness has reached its final stage, he plans to go to California to grant himself a dignified death, aka euthanasia. Selling all his possessions leaves him with more money than anticipated, so he chooses to travel there by way of a 22 day cruise, as a final treat. Against his better judgment, he makes friends and falls in love. Then things get weird, and we as readers remember that we are reading a piece of speculative fiction.

I did not find Kerouac to be the most likable narrator, but he is engaging and sympathetic. His choice to isolate himself from the people who care about him – a choice made repeatedly during this story – is frustrating to read simply because it is so realistic. It’s such a common (if hurtful) human coping mechanism that I would not be surprised to learn that psychologists have a special term for it. And that’s really where this story shines, in the ordinary. Most of the story takes place in the “real” world, with speculative elements appearing around three quarters of the way through, and Klein captured my attention and my interest without them.

This story is on the longer end of what Apex publishes, which means that it has plenty of time to delve into smaller moments and build itself, yet it never felt meandering. The story is tight.

This piece deals with some heavy topics – chronic illness, assisted suicide, fear of death and pain – without becoming maudlin. It’s not a light piece, but neither would I describe it as ponderous. For all that Kerouac’s life has been consumed by these topics, his conscious thoughts tend to push them aside, which lets the story breath without ever letting us get distracted from the stakes.

The ending surprised me, so I don’t want to spoil it for anyone else, but I will say that the title is a bit of a clue. This is a strong story on a dark topic, but there is hope.