REVIEW: “The Standard of Ur” by Hassan Abdulrazzak

Review of Hassan Abdulrazzak, “The Standard of Ur”, Apex Magazine 113 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Adam has been sent from the British Museum to determine whether newly-stable Baghdad is safe enough to regain custody of a priceless artifact from their country, the Standard of Ur. His desire to see the recently discovered first city for himself leads him to take a detour that he may not live long enough to regret.

In this near future, climate change has ravaged the Middle East to the point that Adam and his guides can only go outside wearing special sun suits. To do otherwise risks almost immediate burns. Adam’s home in England, of course, has not been so strongly effected yet. It’s a prescient, chilling detail that highlights exactly who will suffer first from climate change.

The story weaves an engaging plot with some serious considerations of western imperialism, both its impact on the political situation in the Middle East and the theft of cultural artifacts from myriad countries, without ever getting bogged down. These are simply facts with the world of the narrative, facts which are deeply meaningful to two of the main characters for different reasons. The political awareness is deftly woven into the fabric of the narrative, and I appreciate the skill that takes.

If you like antiquities, ancient cultures, and politically aware writing, this story is not to be missed.

REVIEW: “Bargains by the Slant-Light” by Cassandra Khaw

Review of Cassandra Khaw, “Bargains by the Slant-Light”, Apex Magazine 113 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

The devil cuts a girl open, fulfilling the same contract night after night. As he repeats his handiwork, he finally asks her why she asked for this.

Demons and contracts are a familiar sight for readers of horror and dark fantasy, but this is nonetheless a rare story, told from the point-of-view of a devil who does not exactly relish his task, but who will perform it to the utmost of his ability. It’s also rare in that the purpose of the devil is not torture or payment – he is cutting into this girl because she asked him to. That is the boon she bargained for. It may sound strange, but once she explains it, I think you’ll find it makes perfect, if heartbreaking, sense.

This is a creepy, haunting meditation on the heart. Honestly, I would expect nothing less from Khaw, whose work has appeared in Apex several times in the last year.

REVIEW: “With Lips Sewn Shut” by Kristi DeMeester

Review of Kristi DeMeeser, “With Lips Sewn Shut”, Apex Magazine 113 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

When girls are born, their lips are sewn shut to keep them silent, a prerequisite to making the fine lace that their families depend on for income. While boys run wild in the fields and under the night sky, girls stay inside, without even names. That is how it has always been, in the place where our narrator grows up.

Did that premise send a shiver down your spine? It should. This is one of the creepiest feminist fairy tales I’ve read in a long time, and I loved it. The tone is cold, but never barren. The narrator may not have learned to speak out loud, but she uses the emotional range of language beautifully.

There are subtle hints threaded throughout, suggestions of a wolfish, bestial nature within the boys, who grow into men. The details are vague, but the implication is clear, and it adds another layer to the plight of the girls. Without their mouths sewn shut, would they share this wildness? Is that why they must be silenced – to keep them domesticated? The story does not say one way or the other, but I like to think that it is, that sewing their mouths shut denies them their wolfish nature.

In a story about silence and names, it is fitting that nobody is referred to by name until the end, not even her brothers, who we are told do have them. The story is structured such that we do not need them, and it adds to the sense of universality that is often evoked by folklore. What changes at the end, you may ask? You’ll just have to read the story to find out.

REVIEW: “Talking to Cancer” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

Review of Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali, “Talking to Cancer”, Apex Magazine 112 (2018): Read Online. Originally published in Fiyah Magazine 2 (2017). Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A woman who can cure cancer by talking to it comes to terms with the fact that she can also cause it. This is a rich story about responsibility and gifts, but also forgiveness and acceptance.

Whens she was a girl, Layla learned that she could talk to cancer when she asked it not to kill her mother, and it listened. But it turns out that this gift is double-edged, and in moments of anger, she can also cause cancer to begin growing in a person. As far as premises go, this is a great one. It’s simple, but powerful. Cancer inspires so much fear and so much pain, that the stakes are automatically high.

Layla is a gloriously rich character, someone who has dedicated her life to healing, but also has darkness within her. She’s not an angel, but is instead a real woman with real struggles and real emotions, who is not always her best self. The twists of the story challenge her, forcing her to decide who she wants to be. That kind of internal experience is exactly what I love to see in a short story, so I was not disappointed here.

This is a masterful, engaging story, and I highly recommend heading over to Apex to check it out!

REVIEW: “A Siren’s Cry Is a Song of Sorrow” by Stina Leicht

Review of Stina Leicht, “A Siren’s Cry Is a Song of Sorrow”, Apex Magazine 112 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This story is intense, and deals with the sexual abuse of a pair of little girls. Consider this your trigger warning for the review.

The narrator and her little sister wish they could be mermaids. If they were mermaids, then nobody would be concerned with what lay between their legs, and they would never have to become women, no longer be soiled and concerned with being good girls who dress demurely and cover up and never disappoint a man or speak up.

The beauty of this story is so much in the story itself, that I find that I have to discuss specific plot points. If you are averse to spoilers, feel free to skip to the last paragraph.

The narrator is so devoted to the idea of mermaids, that when she discovers Hans Christian Anderson’s story, she tears it out of her book in horror and rewrites it for her sister. It should go without saying that her new version has a much happier ending. It says so much about the narratives that we accept about women that the original has had any staying power (and maybe to the magic of Disney). I loved seeing this little girl recognize the misogyny inherent in the little mermaid being willing to give up her literal voice and her body for the love of a man who didn’t know who she truly was.

Mid-way through the story, they find some real witches and psychics, and go to ask one to turn them into mermaids. When she touches their hands, she realizes what’s going on in their home. She tells them that changing what they are isn’t the answer, and that even if it were, that they are too young to make that choice. That their problem isn’t being in the wrong bodies, but being unsafe in their own home. The whole story broke my heart, but for me, this was the heart of it, the moment that drives home that these girls believe the problem is them and their bodies, and not the people around them. It’s not a shocking revelation or new information, but the way it’s framed punched me in the gut. (On a lighter note, I like the implication that it is possible for someone be born in the wrong body, and for those people, getting a spell to turn them into a mermaid is entirely acceptable)

This story is intense, but it’s dealing with issues that are a reality for far too many women. That said, it’s beautiful and it will break you open in the best possible way. It deals with it’s subject matter in such a tender, yet straight forward way. Please remember that this story comes with a trigger warning, so keep that in mind, and take care of yourself.

REVIEW: “Coyote Now Wears a Suit” by Ani Fox

Review of Ani Fox, “Coyote Now Wears a Suit”, Apex Magazine 112 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Kupua is not thrilled when her family asks her to come down to the courthouse to get somebody she didn’t even know out of jail, but when the person in question turns out to be Coyote, things get downright weird. For starters, what is Coyote even doing in Hawaii?

This is one of the best takes on Coyote I’ve seen in ages. He (or is it she? Tricksters are so hard to pin down, much like our narrator) breaks Kapua’s life open with chaos that is anything but innocent. Sometimes, depictions of Coyote lack bite, but not here. This Coyote isn’t concerned about pain, or a bit of collateral damage. He isn’t being cruel without reason – everything he destroys, from Kupua’s relationships to her secrets, needed to end for her to move forward – but I got the sense that this was a test as much as a kindness. If Kupua hadn’t risen to the challenge, Coyote would shrug and walk away.

This story is jam-packed. It not only has one of the most popular trickster figures in literature, this story takes a cold, hard look at the discrimination faced by native Hawaiians, stares down issues of gender and sexual orientation, and pulls no punches. All that, and the story is a roller coaster of excitement from start to finish.

REVIEW: “River Street” by S.R. Mandel

Review of S.R. Mandel, “River Street”, Apex Magazine 112 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

You stumble upon River Street while looking for something else, but it draws you in, and soon you are strolling along its hills, drawn inexorably onward by curiosity and frank enjoyment.

This is a weird little piece, the sort that makes me wonder if I’m missing something. But the description of a meandering street that pulls you in and then pushes you to an unknown destination stuck with me long after I’d finished reading. Is the street good or bad, is this about being trapped or being freed? Maybe those are the wrong questions.

If you don’t consider plots and protagonists to be critical parts of a story and are in the mood for something a bit more experimental, give this bite-sized story a try. You may be pleasantly surprised.