REVIEW: “Behind Her, Trailing Like Butterfly Wings” by Daniela Tomova

Review of Daniela Tomova, “Behind Her, Trailing Like Butterfly Wings”, Apex Magazine 103: Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Some stories sneak up on you. “Behind Her, Trailing Like Butterfly Wings” is one of them. There are so many tiny details that only have meaning in retrospect, so many moments in the opening that only come together in the final paragraphs. This is a story that makes you work a bit, piecing things together. That’s not a bad thing, but it is something to be aware of in choosing the right moment to read it.

This story takes place in a dying, almost post-apocalyptic, world. The human population has divided into nomads who walk the road, following the mysterious and mostly unseen Wandering Woman, and those who remain in towns, called oases. Anomalies called mouths (which I won’t spoil for you with an explanation) are opening up at random, and their spreading threat is responsible for the breakdown of what we would consider the normal modes of society. Life is in flux, and it’s unclear if a new status quo will ever be achieved, or if this is the end. But there’s also a normalcy to the world. People adapt, they survive, they create relationships and families and tribes. I found it to be surprisingly hopeful, for all that uncertainty.

I must confess, this story did not work for me on my first reading. Too much of the world and the characters were mysterious until the end, and I felt dissatisfied. However, I enjoyed it much more on my second reading, when I was able to fully appreciate the skillful way the author dolled out information.

This is a great choice if you’re in the mood for something cerebral, and well-worth a re-read!

REVIEW: “The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft” by Nick Mamatas and Tim Pratt

Review of Nick Mamatas and Tim Pratt, “The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft”, Apex Magazine 102: Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

I am a huge fan of the recent trend of people deconstructing Lovecraft’s work to create new stories, particularly when those stories tackle the racism that crept through his oeuvre. “The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft” is an excellent addition to that growing collection.

Jim Payne just wants to sell his great-grandfather’s letters from Lovecraft, get his money, and go home. He has no skin in this game (beyond the desire to get out of debt), and no interest in either his great-grandfather or his famous correspondent. But when he drives down the rutted, unmarked, dirt road dotted with bestial statues, and knocks on the door of a ramshackle house in the hills of New England, it’s no surprise that things get complicated.

Everything about this story fits together nicely. Jim is a wonderful narrator: observant, wry, and with a low tolerance for bullshit, which makes it easy to follow him through his adventure. The plot itself is perfectly compressed without feeling either too big for the word count or too small to be interesting; it’s just right. I thought that the racism – both in Lovecraft’s work and in modern America – was deftly handled, but as a white woman, I defer to the judgment of those who have personally experienced it.

Recommended for fans of Lovecraft, low-key horror, or either The Ballad of Black Tom (Victor LaValle) or Lovecraft Country (Matt Ruff).

REVIEW: “Untilted” by K. A. Teryna

Review of K. A. Teryna, “Untilted”, Apex Magazine 102: Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This is an intriguing bite of the slightly surreal, translated from Russian. It begins with a strangely written letter, full of deliberate misspellings and random asides. We quickly learn that the note (and the boy who wrote it — Marcus) are more than they seem. He gives the note to a stranger, a woman named Dahlia, and claims it is a contract. We only find out what the contract is about slowly, as the night progresses, growing ever stranger and more nonsensical.

While this isn’t a strongly “fantasy” story, it is every bit as weird as one. Because the tone is so sensible, and the world so very much our own, the strangeness stands out in stark contrast, even if most of the oddness could be explained as the actions of an imaginative child. This is the opposite of the traditional fantasy or science fiction story, where the narrative has to convince us that wizards or faster than light travel are not only possible, but plausible. It’s even different from that type of story where the main character discovers that the world is full of secret magic. There’s no curtain drawn back to reveal a hidden world, just a constant reminder that this child — Marcus — is behaving very strangely. And when he turns out to have access to real magic, that’s probably the most normal thing to happen in the whole story.

Marcus and the Dahlia take turns narrating, sharing quick spurts of both the present narrative and their pasts. There’s a mixture of wisdom and naivete to be found in both of them, which is the source of much of the story’s charm. Though it delves into heavy themes — mostly coping with grief — it never becomes heavy or self-important.

REVIEW: “An Unexpected Boon” by S.B. Divya

Review of S.B. Divya, “An Unexpected Boon”, Apex Magazine 102: Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Wow. I loved this story. It has a wonderfully realized non-western setting (this one takes place in Vedic era India), two well-rounded main characters whose points of view complement and add to each other, and a nuanced, sympathetic take on mental illness.

The story has two point-of-view characters, First is Kalyani, a twelve year old girl who struggles with compulsions and has trouble reading people. I read her autistic, due to her frequent over-stimulation, dislike of being touched, and difficulty reading other peoples intentions and emotions, but I could be wrong. Next is her older brother, Aruni, who loves her but is also frustrated by her inability to fit in. I appreciated how warmly Kalyani was portrayed — autistic characters are often portrayed as cold or alien, but she came across as very sympathetic. She is engaged with the world, yet seems distant to others because her engagement does not quite mirror their own. Her relationship with her brother felt very real to me. He defends her against others and worries about her ability to survive in the world, but also resents her to a certain extent. By the end, they come to understand each other in a new way.

The boon referred to in the title offers Kalyani a way to engage with the world more easily, but does not change who she is, because she isn’t broken. When her brother says that he hoped the boon would make her normal, she replies “I will always be myself,” which is a touching message for all of us, but has particular resonance if we assume she is autistic.

This is a beautiful, engaging story that I highly recommend. Being neurotypical, I can not speak to the accuracy of the representation, but I thought it was deftly handled.

REVIEW: “The Case of the Mysterious Meat” by Kate Ingram

Review of Kate Ingram, “The Case of the Mysterious Meat”, Apex Magazine 101: Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This light noir tale won a high school literary competition, with the prize of publication in Apex Magazine. You might expect me to comment on the youth of the author, or to make qualified remarks about the quality of the work. Honestly, the constraints of the competition are even more interesting than the age of the writer! Yes, Ms. Ingram is currently a high school junior. But this piece was written for a competition in which the participants were given a prompt and had only one hour to write flash fiction in response. An hour, from inspiration to completion! I marvel at the audacity of the task. And yet, despite these limitations, Ms. Ingram put together a story that made me literally laugh out loud more than once (and let me tell you, that’s tough; I am easily amused, but it takes a lot to get more than a smirk out of me)

Recommended for those who enjoy noir stories with more than a touch of the ridiculous, and for anyone who is curious how the next generation of writers is coming along.

REVIEW: “Tree of the Forest Seven Bells Turns the World Round Midnight” by Sheree Renée Thomas

Review of Sheree Renée Thomas, “Tree of the Forest Seven Bells Turns the World Round Midnight”, Apex Magazine 101: Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

The main action is simple: Wilder is hiking through the Tennessee woods at night with his lover, Thistle, in order to meet her mother. The language is dense and lyrical, dripping with portent. In order to get the most of this one, you have to be willing to let yourself sink into that language without worrying too much about the plot. The narrative follows a meandering path though the present and the past, dipping into Wilder’s attempts to woo Thistle, into their relationship, and occasionally into his life before her, before returning to the present day. The point of this story is not the plot (though it’s a fine, well-developed plot). The point of this story is the characters, mood, and feeling. It is the dawning realization that all is not as it seems to the narrator, and the inevitable resolution.

While I admire the luscious language and the the languid journey, I personally found that this story moved too slowly for me, towards a resolution that I guessed at shortly after the opening lines. An inevitable ending isn’t necessarily a bad thing – sometimes it can allow the reader to focus on the journey over the destination – but it didn’t entirely work for me in this case. I kept thinking about how the details and diversions might come together in the end, when they were the point in and of themselves. Each memory, each observation, feeds the mood, giving it depth and weight. That is the point: to be fully immersed in the world, so that ending, once it arrives, has a gravity to it.

I want to emphasize that I didn’t dislike this story – I think it’s expertly written and executed – I just wasn’t able to sink into as fully as I wanted to. If you love to linger over dense prose, lyrical descriptions, and a beautifully meandering narrative, then this may well be the story for you.

REVIEW: “So Sings the Siren” by Annie Neugebauer

Review of Annie Neugebauer, “So Sings the Siren”, Apex Magazine 101: Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This story sneaks up on you, which is impressive for a 1000 word piece of flash fiction.

A young girl waits with her mother outside the hall where she is going to hear a siren sing for the first time. She asks all sorts of questions, as children are wont to do, and twirls out her excess energy in an innocent scene. That facade crumbles as we learn more about the details of how a musician plays a siren.

There is a beauty that can be born from suffering sometimes, if one is willing to work for it and lucky enough to find it. I believe that this is a story about how best to honor that choice, and whether it is better to turn away from the horror of the source in order to focus on the outcome, or whether we need to acknowledge both. It’s not an easy read, but it is powerful.