REVIEW: “Rose Briar, Briar Rose” by Miranda Schmidt

Review of Miranda Schmidt, “Rose Briar, Briar Rose”, Luna Station Quarterly 29 (2017): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

I love fairy tale retellings, especially when the retelling tells a part of the story that the traditional tale omits. The inspiration for Schmidt’s story is Sleeping Beauty, but it is the story of what happened in a period often glossed over — after she fell asleep and before she was awakened. How many princes came and kissed an unconsenting princess before one finally woke her up? Well, in this story, it wasn’t a prince at all that woke her, but woman who loves the princess for her thorns, and not in spite of them.

An unusual twist on a usual tale, I enjoyed Schmidt’s interpretation of Sleeping Beauty very much.

REVIEW: “Dune Song” by Suyi Davies Okungbawa

Review of Suyi Davies Okungbawa, “Dune Song”, Apex Magazine 120 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Nata intends to leave the safe community of Isiuwa, to go out into the dunes. She has tried once before, been captured and narrowly avoided death at the hands of the chief in punishment, but she is determined to make her escape from this village that she hates. The chief insists that for anyone to go would anger the gods and doom Isiuwa, but Nata does not believe this. Like her mother before her, she is determined to see what lies beyond the walls, and to find freedom.

There is a lot going on in this story. On a political level, this story takes a long, hard look at the type of governance that seeks to protect people by limiting their freedom. Because, of course, the people in charge of Isiuwa are permitted outside the bamboo fence. They say they do it to the protect the people, that it is a burden and not a privilege, but that does not change the fact that they are the only ones who could possibly know what is out there. Everyone else must take their word for it. Most of the citizens seem unbothered by this fact, even if they do not all believe in the religious explanation provided by their chief.

But of course, it is the personal level of the story that most interests me. Nata’s challenging relationship with a mother who left years ago, before Nata was ready to question the truths passed down to her, informs much of the story. Her absence is almost a presence for Nata. I also appreciated her friendship with a younger boy, one whose mother also left for the dunes. So often, when we read about someone defying authority, they have to do it completely alone. I liked seeing Nata with an ally.

This is an engaging first story in Apex’s Afrofurism special issue, which is also the last issue of the magazine.

REVIEW: “A Fool’s Baneful Gallantry” by Derek Lubangakene

Review of Paul Lubangakene, “A Fool’s Baneful Gallantry”, Apex Magazine 119 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Three travelers journey across an inhospitable desert, hoping to escape the Guild which pursues them. Their quest is feeling increasingly futile to at least one of their members, a wyrmrider named Adzala, whose wyrn they abandoned eight days ago. The situation grows increasingly dire, until Adzala finds out the truth of why the spellcaster is being hunted by this Guild.

This is probably the most high fantasy story I’ve read in Apex, with a world rife with magical creatures, spellcasting, and political intrigue. Also, a lot of fighting: this is a pretty harsh world, where nobody trusts each other, apparently with good reason. There’s a depth to the world, a sense that there is more happening here than we see in the story. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the author has a novel set in the same world – it’s certainly rich enough for one. It’s also nice to see a fantasy set in an alternate Saharan Africa, instead of the more typical pseudo-European settings.

I had trouble getting emotionally invested in this story. While there is certainly a strong setting, I had some trouble orienting myself in regards to the characters. Jasiri, their fighter, stands out as the only character to push back against the harsh, distrustful norms of the setting to truly care about people and reach out, but he is the only character whose personality felt strongly developed to me. Still, if you’re looking for a fantastic setting and a tense plot, this story delivers.

REVIEW: “Two Monsters Down in the Dark” by E. H. Mann

Review of E. H. Mann, “Two Monsters Down in the Dark”, Luna Station Quarterly 37 (2019): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Ellie and Benji are ransacking a dragon’s lair, hoping for gold and money that will “keep us for years, if we’re careful.” Clever, quick-witted, little Benji is convinced the dragon is dead and the lair is empty of everything except treasure there for the taking. But “trollblood” Ellie, “big and strong and slow of thought and speech”, for the first time in her life refuses her brother.

What follows is a tense, tough, awkward, horribly sad story of the highs and lows of sibling relationships and familial ties, of greed and betrayal, of the monsters that live in the dark, a story that brought me to tears.

REVIEW: “A Song for Hardy Connelly” by K. Noel Moore

Review of K. Noel Moore, “A Song for Hardy Connelly”, Luna Station Quarterly 37 (2019): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

Moore’s “Song” is divided into three parts, telling the stories of Hardy, Saraid, and Moïra, all linked to each other through blood but separated by their experiences.

Hardy Connelly was born Deaf, and a childhood bout with Guillain-Barré Syndrome left her legs weak and in need of artificial support. Those who don’t know her pity her:

Poor thing, they said. Cursed she must be. That’s no worthwhile life she’s living.

But if Hardy is cursed, it’s not because of either her Deafness or her weak legs. It’s because she’s a Connelly, a descendent of the Ò Conghalaighs who

had meddled with something from the Other Place that wasn’t meant to be meddled with,

and as a result, both Hardy and her aunt, Moïra, have the same golden eyes that herald the second sight.

I found this story hard to follow and a bit disjointed. Saraid’s relationship with Hardy and Moïra is never made clear, and I didn’t understand how her central section related to the bookending sections of Hardy and Moïra. It was also not clear to me what the titular song was — whether it was a component of the stories, or whether the three rather prosaic sections were to be understood as being a song.

I liked the way the story engaged with Deafness, particularly the different communicative valences that came into play. I did find it a bit strange how the speech via sign language was depicted, though: Both Hardy’s (who is fluent in sign language) and Moïra’s (who is not) signed speech is rendered into written speech with an a-grammaticality and unexpected sentence structure. I wish I knew more about sign language to know if this is a mirroring of the syntax of sign language, or if Moore was trying to indicate something else with this technique.

REVIEW: “The Mare of the Meuse” by Janna Layton

Review of Janna Layton, “The Mare of the Meuse”, Luna Station Quarterly 37 (2019): Read online. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman.

The first third of this story is straight-up historical fiction, tracing the lives of two young men caught up in the French Revolution, with little speculative about it (it is, however, gorgeously, shamelessly queer!). About a third of the way in, though, René and Armand pause in a field and encounter the titular mare, who is not at all what she seems.

The threads of René, Armand, and the mare weave together throughout the French countryside, as the two men seek to find a way to Armand’s mother’s village, and thence to Germany and safety and security away from the blood of revolution. No path can be straight or easy where the Mare of Meuse travels, but when Armand and René’s hopes are dashed, she is there to find a new way into the future for them.

This was a lovely and emotional story.

REVIEW: “Search for the Heart of the Ocean” by A. J. Fitzwater

Review of A. J. Fitzwater, “Search for the Heart of the Ocean”, in Catherine Lundoff, ed., Scourge of the Seas of Time (and Space) (Queen of Swords Press, 2018): 181-198 — Purchase here. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This story was described in Lundoff’s introduction as “a new installment of [Fitzwater’s] dapper lesbian capybara pirate saga” (p. 6). I can’t say that this naturally inclined me towards the story — despite the fact that I like lesbians, capybaras, AND pirates, the combination seemed…a little farfetched. I’m not against anthropomorphised animals, but I did feel like I spent more effort in the initial stages of the story suspending my disbelief than I would’ve liked; and the use of dialect in the dialogue compounded the feeling of work that went into reading.

Eventually, though, the effort faded away, and I got drawn into the story of Cinrak and the cabin boy Benj and the kraken that Benj befriends, and the heart of the ocean that both Cinrak and the kraken are seeking. There was a lot of beautiful language, and a happy ending. If lesbian capybara pirates tick all your buttons, then this is definitely the story for you.