REVIEW: “Mother Jones and the Nasty Eclipse” by Cherie Priest

Review of Cherie Priest, “Mother Jones and the Nasty Eclipse”, Apex Magazine 108 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

I love political fiction. I particularly love when it’s well-written and thoughtfully constructed, tying past and present together with real human emotion and nuanced sentiment. “Mother Jones and the Nasty Eclipse” is somehow both vague and direct. The speaker is never named beyond the title, and the listener not at all, though it’s pretty clear from context that Mother Jones (the historical figure, not the magazine) is speaking to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

There isn’t much of a plot here, in the traditional sense. It’s more a story of the legacy of one woman, who fought and struggled and endured insults from her enemies, speaking to another such woman still in the midst of her own story. It’s a call to action for all of us, to not give up even in defeat, to stand up, brush ourselves off, and continue with whatever long, slow fight we’ve committed ourselves to in this life. It’s refreshingly lacking the cliches and saccharine sentiments usually present in such stories, and more inspiring than most (at least to me).

Depending on your political leanings, this story might not land as well for you as it did for me, but I thought it was timely and well-done.

REVIEW: “Cold Blue Sky” by J. E. Bates

Review of J. E. Bates, “Cold Blue Sky”, Apex Magazine 108 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A robotic AI was used to commit a felony. Her memory has been wiped, but the police bring her chasis in to see if they can find any scraps that might help. The twist? She remembers everything. The narrative switches back and forth between her present day observations of the police, and her memories of the crime.

The most interesting part of this story is probably the choice of protagonist. The story is told from the point of view of the AI, who has very little idea of what is going on. She has almost no experience beyond her programming, and is not depicted as particularly intelligent. In fact, the AI’s are repeated described as “nascent sentience” and “below legal limits,” implying that they are not quite smart enough to quality as truly sentient. It bring up questions about what makes a being self-aware, a person, without really dwelling on the matter. The fact that she can narrate a story and be a point-of-view character answers the question by itself.

The world could be a near-future of our own, but the themes of AI exploitation and the sabotage of a huge corporation strongly suggest a cyberpunk influence, which I quite enjoyed. The caper itself seemed unique, relying entirely on her use as a computer. It’s more common to see AI robots interacting like humans, whether they are our equals, superiors, or slaves. Here, she is clearly something other, and that makes for an interesting dynamic and point-of-view.

REVIEW: “Stars so Sharp They Break the Skin” by Matthew Sanborn Smith

Review of Matthew Sanborn Smith, “Stars so Sharp They Break the Skin”, Apex Magazine 108 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This is a weird story. It’s not told in anything close to chronological order, the point of view shifts between third and second, and the main character’s perceptions of reality are so damaged that we as readers have no way to know what is objectively happening at times. However, if you find weirdness more intriguing than off-putting, or you really like the idea of reading about a veteran of an experimental war fought using weaponized psychic trauma, then you should forge ahead!

It’s hard to say what this story is about. War? Trauma? The fragility of perception and human connection? Is it a love story, a warning against war, a tale or healing? I think it’s all of the above. Without giving too much away, Cal (the disabled veteran of the very strange war) goes through a lot of shit in this story, but comes to a better place.

For me, most of this story skirted the line between “awesome” and “too weird,” but the ending really came together for me. I still have questions about what was and was not real, but the emotional story, the story of Cal and his ability to cope with his losses, came to a satisfying conclusion.

REVIEW: “What to Do When It’s Nothing but Static” by Cassandra Khaw

Review of Cassandra Khaw, “What to Do When It’s Nothing but Static”, Apex Magazine 107 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This is a glorious blend of the strange and the heartfelt, a story about aging and moving on from loss, set in a world in which a team of five (formerly six) little old ladies mentally link up to pilot a mecha and fight giant monsters. We don’t see them do this at any point, but it colors the whole story with a sense of the bizarre. And while the monsters never appear on-screen, the psychic link up is vital to the plot, as the narrator is trying to come to grips with the grief of losing one of her sisters.

I have so many questions about the world. Are all the pilots teams of little old ladies, and if so, why? If not, how did these grandmothers get the job? But of course, that doesn’t matter to the story. I just loved this so much that I wanted more. Some of the dialogue was confusing at first to my North American inner ear, but it really didn’t take long to adjust and figure out what the various interjections indicated.

This is a compact story, short enough to enjoy during a quick break. I recommend that you do so!

REVIEW: “Murders Fell from Our Wombs” by Tlotlo Tsamaase

Review of Tlotlo Tsamaase, “Murders Fell from Our Wombs”, Apex Magazine 107 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A village in Motswana is haunted by a serial killer. Every month, a woman is killed. Every month, a young woman watches the murder happen in her dreams, during her menstruation. This young woman, Game, wants nothing more than to escape her village, her poverty, her curse, and to attend university. One month, the pattern shifts, and men become the victims. This small shift causes a huge cascade in Game’s life, and forms the heart of the story.

It’s an enticing premise, braiding together a feminist sensibility with cultural awareness and a clear understanding of poverty and how all of these can trap a person, bend their lives in ways that they can’t really control. To call it intersectional feels like an understatement.

The setting is phenomenally realized, which makes sense, since the author is Motswana herself. She does a fantastic job of painting a clear picture of that world, both the isolated village that Game comes from, but also the city that she eventually moves to for university. I felt transported to a place far outside of my experience, which seems to me to be one of the best things fiction can do.

I wanted to like this story more than I did. It’s obviously brilliant, dealing with big, important themes with subtlety, grace, and intelligence. Despite that, I had some trouble following the plot. I suspect that this story just isn’t meant for me, a white middle-class American, and that is fine. I can still tell it’s a masterful story, and well-worth reading.

REVIEW: “The Sharp Edges of Anger” by Jamie Lackey

Review of Jamie Lackey, “The Sharp Edges of Anger”, Apex Magazine 107 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

In a world in which anger is a physical substance that can be pulled out of the body, women are expected to relinquish theirs whenever it bubbles up, to swallow it down or squash it. Rose refuses to do that. Obviously, there are consequences, both for her and her loved ones.

The structure of this story really works, touching on Rose’s life between the ages of 10 and 29. It’s hard to cover that much time in a short story, but Lackey manages it well. By letting the story span almost two whole decades, we get a comprehensive look at how Rose’s life plays out, rather than focusing on just one incident. This is necessary in order to tell the story that needs to be told.

The poignant depiction of how removing anger can also remove agency moved me, and the ending, though difficult to read, felt real and inevitable. Highly recommended for anyone (of any gender) whose anger has been silenced.

REVIEW: “Clap Your Hands” by Andrew F. Kooy

Review of Andrew F. Kooy, “Clap Your Hands”, Apex Magazine 107 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Fiction is rife with children unfairly blamed by their father for their mother’s death in childbirth. Fiction is also rife with corrupt revival preachers (just once, I’d like to see a revival preacher who doesn’t fake his own miracles). “Clap Your Hands” gives us a powerful combination of the two.

The story opens on a ten or eleven year old boy named Five, who has been abused by his preacher father, for his entire life. Despite this, he is essentially a sweet kid who loves listening to the Psalms, even as he fears hearing his father preach about hell and damnation (having heard a bit too much of that already). The first time someone shows him real kindness, he discovers an ability he didn’t know he had.

The speculative element in this story is subtle, but I didn’t mind that. It’s almost more magical realism than fantasy, dealing mostly with horrors of the human variety.

This is a dark story, without hope or redemption at the end. That being said, the prose is clean, clear, and lovely, which makes for a surprisingly enjoyable read. And it’s not long, which means there’s less time for the hopelessness to really sink its claws into you. Despite the dark ending, this is a well-crafted story and an engaging read.