REVIEW: “Where Gods Dance” by Ben Serna-Grey

Review of Ben Serna-Grey, “Where Gods Dance”, Apex Magazine 118 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This is a story about grief, and the unbearable loss of a child. The narrator tries again and again and again to hold onto some small bit of what he has lost, with disastrous results.

This is more of a mood piece than a clear narrative, but that works well for such a short story. It invokes a host of complicated emotions, far more than could be fit if they need to be tied to a strict progression of scenes. I appreciate the way Serna-Grey refuses to shy away from the confusing tumult of the narrator’s feelings, nor from his increasingly desperate decisions.

REVIEW: “The Prison-house of Language” by Elana Gomel

Review of Elana Gomel, “The Prison-house of Language”, Apex Magazine 118 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Dr. Sophia Abdoul is unique, as a linguist who finds human language painful to speak. That condition has driven her to study as many languages as she can, both modern and ancient, in a search for the mythical ur-language that pre-dated them all. This makes her the perfect person for the army to ask to help with an experiment that has gone awry – the subjects have begun speaking in tongues.

Sophia is a wonderful example of a protagonist who is not traditionally “likable,” but who is still sympathetic and enjoyable to read about. Because of her unique condition, she has trouble connecting with people, who all seem to constantly want to talk. She is acerbic and utterly certain that she is smarter than everyone around her. She’s also perceptive and witty and a wonderful narrator, reflecting both on what is happening around her in the present, and some traumatic experiences from her past.

At its heart, I believe this is a story about language and how it both divides and connects us. It connects us to each other, but divides us from the rest of the world. It divides Sophia from the rest of humanity in much the same way. The mysterious experiment that she is drawn in to help repair and explain takes it a step further, showing her exactly why she is the way she is, and what she can do that others can not. It’s a good ending, that doesn’t wrap things up too neatly.

REVIEW: “Cold Iron Comfort” by Hayley Stone

Review of Hayley Stone, “Cold Iron Comfort”, Apex Magazine 117 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Amadis believed their father when they said they could come home any time if things didn’t work out with their fairy lover, Kinnear. So when they start to recognize Kinnear’s manipulations for what they are, they find a portal and catch a bus back to their father’s junkyard. The abuse is slowly revealed through flashbacks, until another character in the present day finally calls it what it is. The author does an amazing job of using the trope of the fairy lover as a way to talk about abusive relationships.

It is worth noting that Amadis is not the main characters given name, but one which they select upon returning to the human world, after struggling with their gender identity for years. Though I lack first hand experience of the same, I thought that Amadis’ struggles with gender were well-described, and nicely integrated into the story. It also adds to the appeal of fairyland – the fae, of course, are much more fluid around gender than the average human.

There’s so much more that I could say about this story, from the pleasure of seeing a latinx narrator in a fairy story, to the way the plot incorporate and subverts common fairy tropes, to the wonderful relationship Amadis builds with the older woman who takes her in, but I’ll leave you to discover some of that for yourselves. Overall, “Cold Iron Comfort” is a lovely, thoughtful story about relationship, identity, and true family.

REVIEW: “Necessary and Sufficient Conditions” by Wole Talabi

Review of Wole Talabi, “Necessary and Sufficient Conditions”, Apex Magazine 117 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This is a story about revenge. Yemi Ladipo is on a quest to murder the man who took everything from him, Professor Olukoya. It would do the story a disservice to say that Yemi learns that the truth is more complicated than it seems, because this story is so much richer than that cliché would suggest. The truth does not exonerate Olukoya, so much as flesh him out.

The story really picks up – transitioning from pure revenge in a science fiction setting to something unique – when Professor Olukoya begins to explain why he did what he did, so many years ago. His reasons are not enough to move Yemi, but it’s up to each reader to determine whether or not one death is worth it for the greater good. It would be easy to make the professor either tragically misunderstood by the protagonist, or a simple villian, and I’m glad that the story went in neither of those directions. Talabi does not let this story rest in simplicity, which I appreciate. The conclusion goes one step further, forcing Yemi to really confront difficult truths.

I haven’t touched on this yet, but the fact that this story takes place in a science fiction future in which an African country is at the forefront of technology is both a lovely change of pace (and something we should see more of), and a relevant plot point that I will not spoil for you. Highly recommended for anyone who likes their science fiction both character driven and fast-moving.

REVIEW: “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart” by Izzy Wasserstein

Review of Izzy Wasserstein, “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart”, Apex Magazine 117 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

The city of Traverse huddles atop a giant spiderweb, with strands for streets and buildings perched atop it all, stretching out from the Drop in the center. Many of its residents are magic workers, but magic has a side effect in this place – its use slowly transforms the practitioner. But all of that is simply the stunning backdrop upon which this story takes place.

Danae thinks that Pliny, the bookseller and Bibliomancer, has given her a job like any other: to deliver a package to a client in the further out along the web. The adventure than ensues forces her to confront some truths about the people and the world she lives in, but also about herself. At it’s heart this reads as a coming-of-age story, at least to me. Danae must decide who and what she wants to be, and reach for that potential.

The story is good – I enjoyed Danae and wouldn’t mind reading more about her – but what I truly fell in love with here is the world. I would happily read another dozen stories set in in Traverse. It’s not just that it’s unique, but that the city feels like it could easily contain that many stories. It feels rich and nuanced with shadows and layers that we can’t quite see.

REVIEW: “Bone Song” by Aja McCullough

Review of Aja McCullough, “Bone Song”, Apex Magazine 116 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Featuring a miller, a dead woman, and a macabre violin, this story has all the pieces of a dark fairy tale. In fact, I recognized aspects of “The Two Sisters,” a murderous folk song with many variants. However, picking up on that reference is not necessary to enjoy the story.

Bone Song” packs a surprising amount of heartbreak into less than 800 words, but also a lot of beauty. The crux of this story is communication – what the dead woman wants to say from beyond the grave, and what the miller hears, and the vast chasm between the two. It’s a subtle story, as is befitting its brevity.

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: “The Pulse of Memory” by Beth Dawkins

Review of Beth Dawkins, “The Pulse of Memory”, Apex Magazine 116 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

It is generally agreed that, on a generation ship, nothing can be wasted. But what about memories? In this unusual story, people have discovered a way to recycle the memories of the dead, so that no knowledge or experience will be truly lost. How is this feat accomplished? Through fish. The fish eat people before they die, and then teenagers eat the fish when they come of age, thus gaining the memories of the people that fish dined on. It’s morbid, but effective.

The brilliance of this story lies not in the idea of memory-eating fish (though that’s a pretty great conceit), but in the way it shows how different people respond to this practice. Society is not a monolith, even in the constrained environment of a generation ship. Some people feel an almost religious reverence for the fish, others are disgusted by them, and some yearn to do away with them entirely. It’s a rich and organic source of conflict, and one that is too rarely used in most stories, making this story all the more sweet for really exploring it.

For such a strange (and at times, confusing) story, Dawkins keeps us grounded with a strong point-of-view character. Cal’s love for the fish, and for the role they serve in society, provides the reader with a hand to hold from beginning to end. This story gives us a unique take on generation ships, a staple of science fiction, and I’m grateful to have read it.