REVIEW: “Ghost Marriage” by P. Djèlí Clark

Review of P. Djèlí Clark “Ghost Marriage”, Apex Magazine 105 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Ayen is wandering the desert, exiled because of her husband, who has been wreaking chaos and death ever since he died She just wants to unbind herself from his restless spirit so that she can return home and live her life in peace. From this unsettling start, the story unfolds with slavers, a witch, a penitent bull, and forgotten gods in order to tell a story about a young woman finding her own way and her own strength.

It’s nice to see a story that incorporates multiple African cultures, instead of homogenizing the heritage of an entire continent for purposes of fantasy. I’m not sufficiently informed to say how well each was handled (I’m pretty sure they were all based on cultures that exist in our world, as I recognized the Himba from Okorafor’s Binti trilogy at one point), but I enjoyed seeing the attempt.

This is not a particularly short story, coming in at almost 12,000 words, which gives it plenty of space for twists and turns. This story has more scope than most short stories (possibly because it is a novellette), so we get to follow Ayen on a real journey. That being said, be sure to set aside enough time to enjoy it and not feel rushed. It’s certainly worth the time!

REVIEW: “Work, and Ye Shall Eat” by Walker McKnight

Review of Walker McKnight “Work, and Ye Shall Eat”, Apex Magazine 105 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

The story opens three months into an unknown apocalyptic situation. All we know is that the staff of a colonial re-enactment village have been walled in with two layers of electric fencing, and they have no idea why. Is is a virus? An alien invasion? They are told simply to plan for the future, which Karen, their general manager helps them to do, getting the tradespeople to teach the actors and salespeople useful skills and making sure they plant enough food to survive the winter.

This is the calmest apocalypse I’ve read about, which makes the slow-growing menace all the more powerful. Karen becomes an increasingly unreliable narrator as she struggles to keep her people inside the walls, but it remains satisfying to read, because it’s so believable, so normal. In the end, I don’t really know what happened, except that it isn’t good. I’m not normally a huge fan of ambiguity, but in this case I think it works.

REVIEW: “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow

Review of Alix E. Harrow “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies”, Apex Magazine 105 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

It turns out that most librarians are secretly witches. They can smell what kind of book you need, and intuit the size of your fine from the slope of your shoulders. Our narrator isn’t just a witch and a librarian: she’s someone who cares about her patrons. So when a black teenage boy comes in with waves of yearning billowing off him, she does everything she can to help. But how far will she go?

The whimsical premise caught my attention, but the emotional depth captured my heart. Why do we read? To fill holes in our souls, obviously. To escape from circumstances that have become unbearable. I’ve always been a proponent of the holy power of escape, so I was tickled to see this story directly challenging those who look down upon it.

This story is about more than just the power of reading (I know: there’s nothing “just” about the power of reading, but bear with me). It’s also about rules, and when to break them. The narrator shows us how to do it, too: with joy and conviction. She knows that the consequences are worth it – not just for the sake of the kid she’s helping, but for her own sake, as well.

Highly recommended for anybody interested in the healing power of stories.

REVIEW: “Origin Story” by T. Kingfisher

Review of T. Kingfisher “Origin Story”, Apex Magazine 104 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This is a remarkably beautiful story, for one so gruesome. But I think that is at least half the point – there is grace in the blood and the guts, as in everything else, and when you start a story that reads “[t]he last of the fairies worked in a charnel house,” then you have no right to expect something different.

Of course, the fairy doesn’t just do the work the foreman asks of her; she does her own work, as well. After the human employees go home, she uses the scraps of meat and bone and skin to make her own creatures. Mostly, they are small monsters, and are not the subject of this story. No, this story is about her greatest creation.

The fairy in question is explicitly not a good fairy, but I don’t think she is evil, either. Just dark. Different. Her creations are described as frightening, but not harmful. And in this story, she is motivated by a desire for justice. Her actions are not pretty, but they come from a sense of rightness and a desire to bring some justice to one who she perceives died unfairly.

Whether writing as T. Kingfisher or under her own name, Ursula Vernon has a way of combining the magic of fairy tales with an earthy practicality. It shouldn’t surprise me that she could take a story rife with death and fill it with life and the spice of good humor, but somehow, it does. Like fairy magic, her voice transforms what sound like a deeply disturbing tale into something dark but not at all heavy.

REVIEW: “The Ghost Stories We Tell Around Photon Fires” by Cassandra Khaw

Review of Cassandra Khaw, “The Ghost Stories We Tell Around Photon Fires”, Apex Magazine 104 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This is a ghost story in space, a ghost story done up with all the creepiness and ambiguity the genre demands. It is also a love story, which seemed surprising to me until I thought about it. But what makes us want to bend the rules of death like love does? To say more – to try to tell you the plot – would require spoilers, and I would hate to deprive you of the experience of putting the pieces together. In the end, this is another story where the plot isn’t the important thing. The mystery, the meditation on love and loss and living, the lyrically sharp language: those were enough to draw me in and keep me hanging on Khaw’s every word.

This is a very human story, despite being set in space. I think the setting serves to highlight how universal the experience of loss and inability to let go really is. It also provides the a way for the main character to escape the inevitability of loss, but I think it’s contribution to the tone is actually more important.

I’ll admit that, when reading this the first time, I worried about how it would end. Would it dissolve into chaos and vagueness? Would the ending be either too firm or too soft to satisfy, after the beautiful mystery that came before? I should have had more faith. The ending delivers exactly what the story needs, not a drop more or a sentence less.

 

REVIEW: “The Best Friend We Never Had” by Nisi Shawl

Review of Nisi Shawl, “The Best Friend We Never Had”, Apex Magazine 104 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

The story starts with a woman named Josie returning to the space station where she grew up, seeking to recruit her friends for a hazy project on behalf of her employers, ARPA. Josie, is a conflicted, complex woman. She seems to have left home for a reason, after getting into some sort of trouble (though we don’t know what it is), yet here she is coming home. She wants to recruit her friends for this job that she clearly thinks will better their lives economically and socially, but she can’t directly tell them about it. The title itself suggests that she isn’t quite who the people from the past think she is, but that doesn’t make her unsympathetic. She keeps herself at a distance, maybe due to the secrets of her mission, but maybe out of habit. That distance made it difficult for me to get as emotionally invested as a prefer, but also suits her character.

I loved the world-building here. The slang is just different enough from our own to suggest linguistic drift, but rooted enough in current language that it was easy to understand. The important things – the hierarchy of haves and have-not’s, the general social order of the habitat (“hab”) – are well developed, while everything not critical to the plot is simply described for us to accept and get on with the story.

The end is not easy. The future world of this story is rife with capitalism and corporate greed (sound familiar?), and that rarely ends well for the lower classes to which these characters belong. Yet it isn’t without hope. I wouldn’t say that it offer any answers to the present-day issues it explores, but it also doesn’t consign them to inevitability – there is a sense that the struggle against them might someday bear fruit, even if we don’t see it today.

This is a long story. Apex didn’t include a word-count this time, but it took me over half an hour to read it. That isn’t a criticism, simply a warning so that you can give yourself enough time to get through it in one sitting.

REVIEW: “Symphony to a City under the Stars” by Armando Saldaña

Review of Armando Saldaña, “Symphony to a city under the stars”, Apex Magazine 104 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This is a richly layered world, where dimensions and universes unfurl from the sky, and you can travel through them by song and ships, and where virtual reality has almost eclipsed physical life, at least on earth. The plot is simple enough: boy loves girl, girl travels the stars, girl returns. But the strangeness of the world, the structure, and the deftly lyrical language elevate it to something more.

The plot is a little hazy at times, but not unpleasantly so. I don’t think that precise details are the point of this piece, anyway. Like music itself, this story is more emotion than plot. Love and longing, the yearning to be with someone, but the equally strong need to explore the world and see distant sights, suffuse this piece with all the beautiful sorrow of a minor chord. The music of the language carries you through to the other side, and the neat echoes between the opening and closing images serve as prelude and finale.

Strongly recommended for anyone who loves rich imagery and lyrical language.