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: “Siren” by Alex Acks

Review of Alex Acks, “Siren”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 271-288. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I started this story, got interrupted, and then had to restart it a week later, because the initial paragraphs are complicated enough that I need to reread them in order to make sense of what followed.

This is due, in part, to the fact that the first page is in 2nd person narration (which regular readers of my reviews will know…I don’t really like). When the narrator tells me “your species thinks that space is silent”, it’s hard for me to know who/what is being talked about, or who it is that is talking.

A page later, things flip to 1st person POV. The “I” there seems to be the “You” of the previous page; and yet another page later, the “I” becomes “We”. That “We” is an angel of intergalactic death, whom we learn is on a self-imposed exile from their home, “a small planet, blue with oceans, utterly unremarkable” (p. 275). But when they decide to go back home, and they return home, suddenly it is not clear what home means or what their purpose is, at home.

In the end, the angel finds its purpose and its use, and simultaneously I made my way into the story. It’s hard to do alien minds well, and I found Acks’s account distinctive and convincing. And there were space pirates, so, you know, all around: an A+ story, despite my slight wobbles at the beginning.

This story has a particularly interesting author’s note; I have enjoyed the extra dimensions these notes have lent to many of the stories in the anthology, and would love to see more collected volumes start doing this!

REVIEW: “Recite Her the Names of Pain” by Cassandra Khaw

Review of Cassandra Khaw, “Recite Her the Names of Pain”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 263-270. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Three sirens share an apartment in New York, adapting to a modern world that doesn’t need them to tempt heroes to bind themselves to the masts of ships just to prove their bravery and worth. Ligeia and Parthenope, at least, have shed their previous life and moved on. The third siren (the story alternates between 1st person POV from her perspective, and 3rd person POV where she is only referred to as “the siren”; however, (and I’ll admit I spent far too much time researching sirens after reading this story) I’m pretty sure she’s Leucosia), however, cannot escape the cries of the people who call to her. She hangs out at the archipelago to offer prophecy — what people need to know, not what they want to know. Sometimes, those words are the most dangerous of all.

REVIEW: “A Voice in Many Different Forms” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu

Review of Osahon Ize-Iyamu, “A Voice in Many Different Forms”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 247-261. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I often wish that I liked 2nd-person narration more than I do (which is quite little) because too often it gets in the way of my ability to enjoy good stories. I don’t like being told what to do and how to feel, and too often that is how 2nd-person narration comes across to me.

So it was in spite of the narrative choices, rather than because of them, that I got sucked into the rhythm and the feeling and the emotion of Ize-Iyamu’s story. This is the first story in the anthology so far that I would classify as ‘horror’, in so far as classifications and genres matter. There is a darkness underlying Tola, and the different voices he uses when he speaks his poetry. The unnamed addressee of the 2nd-person narration has their own battle cries and battle poems, but they are of no defense against Tola’s darkness.

They are, however, all the offense the poet needs.

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: “She Searches for God in the Storm Within” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

Review of Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali, “She Searches for God in the Storm Within”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 233-245. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content note: Domestic and sexual abuse, religious violence.

This was a beautiful, painful, powerful story, full of strength and fury and might. In any other context, I think I would have given it full marks. In the context of this anthology, I felt let down by the fact that — while there was a strong heroic woman warrior at the center of the story — there was no poet that I could find: all of Helene’s words are a byproduct of her actions, not the other way around. I could make up a reading of the story whereby “poetry” is more than just words, it is also actions, but…I actually want my poets to deal in words and not just deeds, because that is one of the things that makes poets special. So I ended up a bit disappointed in this story, sadly. I wish I could’ve read it first in another context, divorced from expectations of content, for then I would’ve been able to appreciate it a lot more.

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.