REVIEW: “Words in an Unfinished Poem” by A. C. Wise

Review of A. C. Wise, “Words in an Unfinished Poem”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 1-21. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

The gunslinger waits in the saloon for the one person who can help them find the final word that will finish their poem. Sewn into their coat are the shell casings of every person they’ve ever killed, each inscribed with a single word, a poem ever changeable and rearrangeable.

We never learn the gunslinger’s name in this story, but we learn so much more about them…the curse that haunts them, the grandmother that raised them, the memories that they cannot escape. This is not a “pen is mightier than the sword” story but rather a “the pen is the sword” story, as for the gunslinger their words and their bullets are one and the same, each as deadly as the other.

This was a beautiful and sad story, told with glittering words.

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: Sword and Sonnet, edited by Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler

Review of Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

It is said that the pen is mightier than the sword, but in this collection of twenty-three stories, pen and sword come together in a glorious celebration of female and non-binary battle poets. Some of the poets eulogise — or problematise — battles after they happen; others fight battles through their poetry, with the very fact that they write a weapon in a greater war. Not all of the poets are in fact writers; some only need the spoken or thought word. Some fight for revolution. Some fight for peace. Some fight for a sense of self; some, to protect others. The diversity of topics and plots is both broad and deep.

In the editor’s introduction, they note that one of the editors “once received a rejection for a story featuring a battle poet with the comment that ‘unsympathetic protagonists were a difficult sell'”. Maybe that’s true: But I couldn’t tell you because there were no unsympathetic protagonists in these stories. Even the protagonists who have, whether rightly or wrongly, ended up on the wrong side of history are still poets that one can feel something for.

Each story is accompanied with an author’s note of how the story came to be, or what the author hoped to do via the story. These little “biographies” of the story I really enjoyed, particularly how many of them went along the lines of “I intended to write an entirely different story altogether, but ended up writing this one instead.”

As is usual, we’ll review each story individually and link the posts back here as they are published:

  • “Words in an Unfinished Poem” by A. C. Wise
  • “A Subtle Fire Beneath the Skin” by Hayley Stone
  • “As For Peace, Call It Murder” by C. S. E. Cooney
  • “She Calls Down the Future in the Footprints Left Behind” by Setsu Uzumé
  • “Candied Sweets, Cornbread, and Black-eyed Peas” by Malon Edwards
  • “El Cantar de la Reina Bruja” by Victoria Sandbrook
  • “The Other Foot” by Margo Lanagan
  • “Eight-Step Kōan” by Anya Ow
  • “The Firefly Beast” by Tony Pi
  • “Her Poems Are Inked in Fears and Blood” by Kira Lees
  • “The Words of Our Enemies, The Words Of Our Hearts” by A. Merc Rustad
  • “Labyrinth, Sanctuary” by A.E. Prevost
  • “Heartwood, Sapwood, Spring” by Suzanne J. Willis
  • “The Bone Poet and God” by Matt Dovey
  • “And The Ghosts Sang With Her: A Tale of The Lyrist” by Spencer Ellsworth
  • “Dulce et Decorum” by S. L. Huang
  • “The Fiddler at the Heart of the World” by Samantha Henderson
  • “She Searches for God in the Storm Within” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali
  • “A Voice in Many Different Forms” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu
  • “Recite Her the Names of Pain” by Cassandra Khaw
  • “Siren” by Alex Acks
  • “This Lexicon of Bone and Feathers” by Carlie St. George
  • “Dark Clouds & Silver Linings” by Ingrid Garcia

These stories reward both reading and rereading, both to oneself and to others.

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 Wish-Giver” by Ana Mardoll

Review of Ana Mardoll, “The Wish-Giver”, in No Man of Woman Born (Acacia Moon Publishing, 2018): 150-156 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

A young child braves a fiercesome, wish-granting dragon to ask for their heart’s desire — and the one wish the dragon cannot grant because it has already been granted. All the child needed was for other people to see what had always been true.

Every trans child needs a dragon at their back to protect and affirm them. While the stories in this collection are not written for cis people, this is one that spoke strongly to me and I hope will to other cis people as well. Not every child gets a literal dragon, but maybe we can be metaphorical dragons and step up and speak the truth when the truth is needed.

This short story is the perfect endcap to the anthology, encapsulating in it everything that is good and affirming in all the other stories (I think it’s not surprise that this is the only story in the anthology that doesn’t have a content note.)

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.