REVIEW: “For Sale: Fantasy Coffins (Ababuo Need Not Apply)” by Chesya Burke

Review of Chesya Burke, “For Sale: Fantasy Coffins (Ababuo Need Not Apply)”, Apex Magazine 113 (2018): Read Online. Originally published in Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany (2015). Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Eleven year old Ababuo wishes she could have a fantasy coffin, the fantastic, intricately carved creations favored by the rest of the residents of Accra, Ghana. She will never have one, however, because she is Nantew yiye, which means that she can never be buried in the ground, even though it also means that she will die soon.

This is a chilling look a the reciprocity between life and death, made all the more chilling because the agent is a child. Seeing a child reduced to a tool in this way made my stomach churn, but I can’t deny that this is a powerful story. Just not a comfortable one. If you’re anything like me, expect to take some time to let this story settle after you’ve finished if.

REVIEW: “Recite Her the Names of Pain” by Cassandra Khaw

Review of Cassandra Khaw, “Recite Her the Names of Pain”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 263-270. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Three sirens share an apartment in New York, adapting to a modern world that doesn’t need them to tempt heroes to bind themselves to the masts of ships just to prove their bravery and worth. Ligeia and Parthenope, at least, have shed their previous life and moved on. The third siren (the story alternates between 1st person POV from her perspective, and 3rd person POV where she is only referred to as “the siren”; however, (and I’ll admit I spent far too much time researching sirens after reading this story) I’m pretty sure she’s Leucosia), however, cannot escape the cries of the people who call to her. She hangs out at the archipelago to offer prophecy — what people need to know, not what they want to know. Sometimes, those words are the most dangerous of all.

REVIEW: “She Searches for God in the Storm Within” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

Review of Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali, “She Searches for God in the Storm Within”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 233-245. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

Content note: Domestic and sexual abuse, religious violence.

This was a beautiful, painful, powerful story, full of strength and fury and might. In any other context, I think I would have given it full marks. In the context of this anthology, I felt let down by the fact that — while there was a strong heroic woman warrior at the center of the story — there was no poet that I could find: all of Helene’s words are a byproduct of her actions, not the other way around. I could make up a reading of the story whereby “poetry” is more than just words, it is also actions, but…I actually want my poets to deal in words and not just deeds, because that is one of the things that makes poets special. So I ended up a bit disappointed in this story, sadly. I wish I could’ve read it first in another context, divorced from expectations of content, for then I would’ve been able to appreciate it a lot more.

REVIEW: “With Lips Sewn Shut” by Kristi DeMeester

Review of Kristi DeMeeser, “With Lips Sewn Shut”, Apex Magazine 113 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

When girls are born, their lips are sewn shut to keep them silent, a prerequisite to making the fine lace that their families depend on for income. While boys run wild in the fields and under the night sky, girls stay inside, without even names. That is how it has always been, in the place where our narrator grows up.

Did that premise send a shiver down your spine? It should. This is one of the creepiest feminist fairy tales I’ve read in a long time, and I loved it. The tone is cold, but never barren. The narrator may not have learned to speak out loud, but she uses the emotional range of language beautifully.

There are subtle hints threaded throughout, suggestions of a wolfish, bestial nature within the boys, who grow into men. The details are vague, but the implication is clear, and it adds another layer to the plight of the girls. Without their mouths sewn shut, would they share this wildness? Is that why they must be silenced – to keep them domesticated? The story does not say one way or the other, but I like to think that it is, that sewing their mouths shut denies them their wolfish nature.

In a story about silence and names, it is fitting that nobody is referred to by name until the end, not even her brothers, who we are told do have them. The story is structured such that we do not need them, and it adds to the sense of universality that is often evoked by folklore. What changes at the end, you may ask? You’ll just have to read the story to find out.

REVIEW: “And the Ghosts Sang With Her: A Tale of the Lyrist” by Spencer Ellsworth

Review of Spencer Ellsworth, “And the Ghosts Sang With Her: A Tale of the Lyrist”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 189-203. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I’m not a huge fan of 2nd-person narration when the narrator’s “you” is directed at me, but when the audience of the narration is not the reader but a clearly defined character who is listening to an oral tale, then I like it very much. I sometimes feel that a lot of modern fantasy storytelling has lost some of its connection with its oral past, and that we don’t write enough stories that are designed to be read aloud any more. (Having a 6yo means I spend a lot of time reading stories out loud.)

Not only does the narration capture the oral aspect of this thousands-and-one-nights-inspired story, the story itself works well not merely read aloud but performed; it would be a lovely choice for someone to recite around a campfire as the late summer sun is setting.

And it had a fabulous, vengeful ending.

REVIEW: “The Bone Poet and God” by Matt Dovey

Review of Matt Dovey, “The Bone Poet and God”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 175-186. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

I’m not sure I’ve ever read a fantasy story aimed towards adults (in the sense of “not a children’s book, rather than “containing ‘adult’ content”) where the main cast of characters were anthropomorphised animals. I found it an interesting narrative choice, for other than the ways in which the characters interact with each other as a result of disparities in, eg., size and strength, none of them seemed particularly animal. If anything, Ursula the bear felt more human than many of the other magical poets featured in this anthology. Ursula’s story is one of figuring out how one is supposed to be themself. Ursula climbs the mountain to find God thinking that only God can help her choose who she wants to be. In the end she finds God, but what else she finds is not what she expects.

This story comes with a somewhat heavy handed moral; but I don’t mean this as a criticism. The story is a vehicle for teaching a lesson; the lesson is overt; and the lesson is a good one.

REVIEW: “Heartwood, Sapwood, Spring” by Suzanne J. Willis

Review of Suzanne J. Willis, “Heartwood, Sapwood, Spring”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 163-172. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This is the first story in the anthology to be set in the future — a post-apocalyptic future where humanity has broken into factions and the enemy fears the power of the written word. In such a world, libraries become the bastions of rebellion and words tattooed upon skin provide one last barrier of protection — tattoos made from ink created from the ashes of the books that were burned, libraries filled with books made of word indelible not upon vellum but upon a different sort of skin.

This story in all rights should be horribly, terribly gruesome and macabre. But it just isn’t, and that is what makes it so magical.