REVIEW: “Master Brahms” by Storm Humbert

Review of Storm Humbert, “Master Brahms”, Apex Magazine 114 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Seven versions of Master Brahms live together – six synths, or clones, and the original. Synths don’t like to think about being synths, so the original allows them each the illusion of such as much as possible. Things come to a head when six Brahms find that the seventh has been murdered by one of the remaining six, and the house computer has been compromised by whichever is the killer.

This is a satisfying closed room murder mystery. The murder is intriguing, but is also not the main point. No, the real question of this story is: which Brahms is the original? Deep down, that is the only question that matters to any of them, and the murder is just a way to bring that question into the foreground for them. I’ve read plenty of stories about clones, but I don’t recall ever seeing one about how a clone would psychologically cope with being a clone before. This is fresh, fascinating territory.

REVIEW: “Godzilla vs Buster Keaton, Or: I Didn’t Even Need a Map” by Gary A. Braunbeck

Review of Gary A. Braunbeck, “Godzilla vs Buster Keaton, Or: I Didn’t Even Need a Map”, Apex Magazine 114 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Glenn’s sister, Janice is dying of AIDS. She is raunchy and funny and loud, and refuses to sanitize her experience for anyone’s else’s comfort. Glenn is withdrawn and hurting and really, truly trying his best, but he doesn’t think it’s good enough. Before she goes, she arranges for him to receive a gift that she hopes will help him.

This story is a poignant, realistic depiction of people dealing with death in all of the messy, ugly, ways that real people do. And yet, in the end, the story circles around to a kind of peace that defies expectation. If I give you too many hints into how we get there, it might deprive you of fully experiencing the journey, and that would be a shame.

REVIEW: “Toward a New Lexicon of Augury” by Sabrina Vourvoulias

Review of Sabrina Vourvoulias, “Toward a New Lexicon of Augury”, Apex Magazine 114 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

In this magical post-apocalyptic story, the Mole Street Mob, composed of witches, brujas, and cunning folk, only wants to protect their community from gentrification. Of course, that puts them at odds with the city government, and that rarely ends well.

The world-building really makes this story. It’s drawn in light brush strokes, but the result is evocative. There was some terrible event years ago that restructured society. Electricity is dearly expensive. Witches exist not only on the fringes of society, but in law enforcement and city planning. And yet, in some very fundamental ways, their society is very similar to our own. Racism still keeps some people marginalized, and those at the top still abuse their power. Which means that the disenfranchised need to be all the more cunning with their use of magic, since it is neither secret nor rare.

I loved how Alba, the main character, used her augury to plan the big magical working they need to do. It didn’t deliver a fully formed plan for the gang to use, but offered her hints and glimpses and partial instructions that she had to piece together. Divination is too rarely used to good effect, and this felt like a unique and rewarding interpretation of the subject.

All in all, a moving story about the power of resistance, and of love.

REVIEW: “For Sale: Fantasy Coffins (Ababuo Need Not Apply)” by Chesya Burke

Review of Chesya Burke, “For Sale: Fantasy Coffins (Ababuo Need Not Apply)”, Apex Magazine 113 (2018): Read Online. Originally published in Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany (2015). Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Eleven year old Ababuo wishes she could have a fantasy coffin, the fantastic, intricately carved creations favored by the rest of the residents of Accra, Ghana. She will never have one, however, because she is Nantew yiye, which means that she can never be buried in the ground, even though it also means that she will die soon.

This is a chilling look a the reciprocity between life and death, made all the more chilling because the agent is a child. Seeing a child reduced to a tool in this way made my stomach churn, but I can’t deny that this is a powerful story. Just not a comfortable one. If you’re anything like me, expect to take some time to let this story settle after you’ve finished if.

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.