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.

REVIEW: “Captain Midrise” by Jim Marino

Review of Jim Marino, “Captain Midrise”, Apex Magazine 115 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

The Golden Crusader is not what he used to be. His flying is slower, and more unsteady. He never gets more than six stories above the ground, and he seems to float more than glide, a strange balloon bobbing far above the sidewalk. He still foils crimes, still saves people, but tourists and locals alike miss the excitement of the old days, when he was a blur of motion speeding through the city.

This is the story of a journalist trying to understand what has happened to the city’s hero, to his hero. The idea that people would turn against a superhero for a lessening in their impossible powers should be ridiculous, but it’s painfully plausible. People do not like seeing that their heroes can be flawed, can be imperfect, can suffer, and there’s no reason to expect that wouldn’t extend to the kind with superpowers and capes.

I appreciate the restrained tone that Marino used. It sets us up for the ending, where journalist and hero finally talk, and we get a final, uncomfortable glimpse into the truth: that for all his powers, the Golden Crusader is only human. Recommended for anyone who likes superheroes and is in the mood to reflect a bit on what the presence of one might actually be like.

REVIEW: “Girls Who Do Not Drown” by A.C. Buchanan

Review of A.C. Buchanan, “Girls Who Do Not Drown”, Apex Magazine 115 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

On an unnamed island in the cold ocean, girls grow up knowing that the sea may kill them as they grow up, when glashtyns will come to lure them beneath the waves. That is the way it has always been and the way it will always be. For Alice, this destiny is complicated by the fact that everyone else thinks she is a boy. But when a glashtyn comes for her anyway, she realizes that if the water horse can see what she really is, then someone else may figure it out too. She walks into the ocean.

The writing and the storytelling here floored me. It’s a simple story on the surface, but Buchanan brings forward every ounce of pathos, delivering it to the reader like an offering. There is violence here, and a deep isolation, but it never feels overwrought. If anything, the descriptions are surprisingly restrained, and the mirroring of supernatural and real-world themes is allowed to speak for itself.

I am not ashamed to admit that the ending of the story made me cry. It is a good ending, and more hopeful than I would have believed. I won’t spoil it beyond what you can infer from the title, but this is a beautiful, resonant story.

REVIEW: “On the Day You Spend Forever with Your Dog” by Adam R. Shannon

Review of Adam R. Shannon, “On the Day You Spend Forever with Your Dog”, Apex Magazine 115 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This is a story about love and loss and time travel. What if a physicist had to put their beloved dog to sleep? What if they already had theories about time travel? What if they wanted to just one more day with their pet?

I appreciate that this story never descends into the saccharine, despite the sentimental subject matter. This could easily devolve into something sickly sweet, and while there is certainly a place for rainbow bridges and pets looking down on us from above, this story is not that. Instead, it evokes feelings of loss and hopelessness and desperation, finally focusing in on what it really means to love someone who you are destined to lose.

But don’t think this is all emotion – the specifics of time travel within this story are both unique and detailed. While time travel is definitely used as a metaphor, the story also works as science fiction, with a well thought out explanation of how it works and why.

I think this story will speak to anyone who has ever loved an animal, but be warned, it may make you cry.