REVIEW: “With These Hands” by LH Moore

Review of LH Moore, “With These Hands”, Apex Magazine 116 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Simeon, a free black man, is working on the construction of the White House, as a bricklayer. While he daydreams about a quiet life after this job, perhaps meeting a nice woman and settling down to have children, his friends Eugene and Clifford are not so lucky. They are slaves, on loan from their master, and will have to return to Virginia when this project is over. The speculative element of this story comes from what they decide to do to avoid that fate.

Simeon is a quietly perceptive narrator, but he can not see everything. Because the story is told through his point-of-view, we never find out exactly what Eugene and Clifford did or who they struck their bargain with. That uncertainty provides the impetus for Simeon to write down this story.

Juxtaposing the White House – symbol and seat of the U.S. government – with the reality of slavery, is a bold and decisive move. It forces the reader to confront just whose labor built so many of our monuments, all while telling an emotionally compelling story.

REVIEW: “The Small White” by Marian Coman

Review of Marian Coman (Translated by Sebastian Simon), “The Small White”, Apex Magazine 116 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Overnight, giant painted butterflies appear on the walls of some apartment buildings, to the delight of some seventh grade boys. As one boy discovers the secret behind the paintings, he also discovers the dark secret being concealed by a classmate’s family.

Though this is not South American (the author is Romanian), this story seems to me to follow in the tradition of magical realism. There is a dream-like feeling to this story, a sense that reality may come untethered at any moment, and the narrative does not attempt to explain the strangeness.

The ending felt abrupt to me, on my first time reading it. Nothing is really resolved or explained, yet the longer I sat with it, the more right it felt. I don’t think the mystery of the butterflies is really the point – the heart of this story is how people react to the unknown, how they interpret what they can’t explain, whether that’s impossible paintings, or other people’s secrets.

REVIEW: “The Great Train Robbery” by Lavie Tidhar

Review of Lavie Tidhar, “The Great Train Robbery”, Apex Magazine 116 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Train robberies are a staple of the movie western, a genre most people are at least passingly familiar with, and so sometimes they find they way into speculative fiction, warped and changed when divorced from their original context. This is a particularly trippy example.

On one level, this is about two gunslingers –one older and grizzled, the other young and reckless – on a train that’s about to be robbed. That part of the story is normal. Beyond that, we have a mysterious drug that gives people glimpses into parallel lives in another world – our world. We have monsters and thieving acrobats and a war between unexplained factions warping their world.

Reading this, I was tempted to ask which world was real – the fantastical one that contains most of the plot or the simulacrum of our mundane reality – but I suspect that is missing the point. My interpretation is that reality is fluid within this story, and can not pinned down by logic. Both worlds are real. Maybe differently real, but real all the same.

Highly recommended for anyone who likes their fiction on the mind-bending side.

REVIEW: “Teeth” by Jessamy Corob Cook

Review of Jessamy Corob Cook, “Teeth”, in Skull & Pestle: New Tales of Baba Yaga, edited by Kate Wolford (World Weaver Press, 2019): 150-176 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

In the final story of the anthology, Cook explores how it is that Baba Yaga ended up where and who she is. It’s not told from her perspective, though, but from the perspective of one of the three riders (the white one who rides at dawn; the red one who rides at noon; and the black one who rides at night show up as side characters in the traditional stories). The black rider is not who she seems, at first, and as we alternate between the black rider’s present experiences and her memories of her past, we are given pieces of both her story and Baba Yaga’s.

At the very last the 1st person POV shifts from the black rider’s perspective to the white rider’s, which I found a bit abrupt; however, I’m not sure the final resolution (which worked beautifully) could have been brought about without this change in perspective. I wonder what the story might have been like if the perspectives of the black and white rider had alternated throughout — but it’s not fair to criticise a story by saying “I wish it had been a different story”, so don’t take that as a criticism, but rather as a hope for another story I might someday read.

REVIEW: “Boy Meets Witch” by Rebecca A. Coates

Review of Rebecca A. Coates, “Boy Meets Witch”, in Skull & Pestle: New Tales of Baba Yaga, edited by Kate Wolford (World Weaver Press, 2019): 125-149 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Like Honigman (read the review of her story), Coates gives her Baba Yaga story a contemporary setting. The timing and location isn’t as clearly specified, but it needn’t be — it could be any late 20th/early 21st C high school, with the same bullies and the same awkward teenagers and the same secret hidden desires that every bullied child has of someday getting revenge.

Coates takes all of these familiar aspects, and the familiar character and story of Baba Yaga, and weaves them together with some quite unexpected turns for a very satisfying “revenge” story.

REVIEW: “The Swamp Hag’s Apprentice” by Szmeralda Shanel

Review of Szmeralda Shanel, “The Swamp Hag’s Apprentice”, in Skull & Pestle: New Tales of Baba Yaga, edited by Kate Wolford (World Weaver Press, 2019): 101-124 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

Despite the change of location — shifted from the Slavic forests to the southern American swamps — and the translation of the names — from Vasilisa to Queenie — the first half of the story is identical to the classic story of Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Fair. Once Queenie finds the swamp hag, the story shifts into something new, as the swamp hag sets her not impossible tasks but a variety of lessons, training Queenie to be her apprentice.

Unfortunately, this story didn’t quite do it for me. It was too repetitious of others in the anthology in the beginning, and the plot and motivation in the second half were not clear to me. I also found the overall “voice” of the story unclear; sometimes it slipped into dialect, sometimes it read in quite a high register, most of it was in the past tense, but sometimes it shifted into the present tense. I’m not against these types of things in principle, but I want to see clearly why an author choose the voice they do at each point. For instance, if the dialogue was in dialect and the narration in the high register, that would make sense; or if the entire story were told in dialogue, including the narration, that would also make sense, and would have been enjoyable. Similarly, if the shift in tense happened in particular scenes, or particular characters, that would make sense; but as it was, it was a sentence here or there, in the middle of a paragraph in the past tense, leaving me uncertain whether it was a deliberate choice or simply a mistake.

REVIEW: “The Partisan and the Witch” by Charlotte Honigman

Review of Charlotte Honigman, “The Partisan and the Witch”, in Skull & Pestle: New Tales of Baba Yaga, edited by Kate Wolford (World Weaver Press, 2019): 79-100 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology).

This story is the crown jewel of the anthology, taking the myth of Baba Yaga and transplanting it into World War II Poland. Chaja is a young Jewish girl in hiding who has already seen her brother and sister, Zivek and Rywka, die. When the farmers who are protecting her can do so no longer, the farmwife tells her there is someone in the depths of the forest that may be able to help her. So Chaja sets off to find Baba Yaga and beg of her to kill the three riders, the white, the red, and the black, who are roaming the countryside slaughtering her people.

This was a superlative example both of how to take a historic myth and completely reinvent it, and how to write good modern historical fantasy. Every word breathes life into Chaja and her siblings and friends, and I was riveted.