REVIEW: “Bad Penny” by Carrie Laben

Review of Carrie Laben, “Bad Penny”, Apex Magazine 100: Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

If there’s one thing that irks me (and there are many things that irk me), it’s making history too tidy. I hate it when people assume that any one group or country was a monolithic entity with everyone in agreement. No, people of the past were as fractured and contentious as we are today. Which is one of the reasons why I so enjoyed reading “Bad Penny” – the whole story is about a town in western New York that ceded from the Union to support the Confederacy during the Civil War. Enough Northerners supported the Confederacy (or at least objected to the war) that there was a derogatory nickname for them: Copperheads. Real life details about the nickname and its overlap with the name of a poisonous snake not native to the region are both used to excellent effect in this story.

You’re going to want to pay attention to names and family relationships as you read, because this story takes place in 1946, but deals with the aftermath of a decision made in 1861. I didn’t play close enough attention to the third paragraph, leading to confusion until I started again from the beginning. This was my fault, and not a flaw in the storytelling.

This is a ghost story, but it’s the most complex ghost story I can remember reading. It’s about history and family and the difficulties of righting a wrong decision, how people get swept up in romantic notions and what that can lead to. It’s a story that rewards rereading; there’s too much nuance and foreshadowing and layers of detail to pick up in one go.

REVIEW: “Tumbledown” by Kameron Hurley

Review of Kameron Hurley, “Tumbledown”, Apex Magazine 100: Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston

“Tumbledown” is a short story that feels like a novel. It’s expansive. It takes its time. It develops an entire alien world, and it doesn’t take any short cuts. It’s also unusually long for a short story, coming in at 8700 words. Most venues have a cut-off at 7500, or even 5000 words.

The epic scope is both this story’s greatest strength, and its only weakness. A strength, because there is a lot going on in this story. Not only does Hurley build a fully realized alien world and colonial society, she grapples with the experience of disability. The main character, Sarnai, is paraplegic and living on an inhospitable ice planet where survival of the fittest reigns. But of course, Sarnai is surviving, and continues to survive a heck of a lot as the story progresses. From my perspective as an abled-person, she is a bad-ass, not because she overcomes disability, but because of who she is as a person. We repeatedly see how she has to act as if she were less-than, in order to make the people around her comfortable, and how their perceptions restrict her more than any physical limitations.

The length is a weakness because it’s hard to hold the whole story in your head at once. In a novel, there are natural breaking points, and the tension rises and falls, so you can pause and reflect. Here, the tension keeps rising until the denouement. There is no way to safely step back, and yet there is so very much to take in. I recommend saving this story for a time when you can focus and read it uninterrupted, for maximum enjoyment.

Beyond all of that, beyond the length and the deft handling of disability, this is a fantastic adventure story, a true SF example of the “man v. nature” plot-type. I tend not to love those stories, but “Tumbledown” was an exception.

REVIEW: “The Man in the Crimson Coat” by Andrea Tang

Review of Andrea Tang, “The Man in the Crimson Coat”, Apex Magazine 100 (2017): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

The story opens in a bar, where a woman named Jo watches a piano man with a shiny cybernetic hand, so we know right away that we’re reading some sci-fi noir. That could go in the direction of parody, but instead takes itself just seriously enough to tell a great story. The world is both futuristic and retro, but never campy. It suggests that even in a future with advanced technology, society will still need seedy bars and cheap motels. People will still be people. It’s an appropriate mood for a story about the importance of human connection.

The narrative interweaves a present-day adventure with back story that eventually makes a seamless whole. I found the flashbacks hard to get into at first, but they eventually yield some of the most touching material, particularly on a second reading. They’re not extra, but necessary to the plot, and I admire the way Tang structures them, concealing and revealing in just the right amounts.

The ending is perfect – both surprising and inevitable – and illuminated the whole story that preceded it.