REVIEW: “Field Biology of the Wee Fairies” by Naomi Kritzer

Review of Naomi Kritzer, “Field Biology of the Wee Fairies”, Apex Magazine 112 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

The scene is 1960’s America, the protagonist a 14 year old girl who is more interested in her science project than in hair, makeup, and boys. Her parents assure her that will all change when she catches a fairy and becomes pretty (as is the normal series of events in this version of the world), but Amelia is skeptical.

First of all, I have to admit how much I love alternate history and fantasy, so this story had an easy time winning me over. The sexism and societal pressure to conform fit with my understanding of the period (and honestly varies from my own, much later, adolescent experience by detail and degree), and adding in twee fairies who allow girls to blossom from awkwardness to beauty is such a perfect way to externalize the process of learning to perform femininity and beauty.

The character of Amelia could very easily have turned into a “not like other girls” trope, but thankfully, the story stops itself from going there. Yes, Amelia is not interested in being beautiful and getting boys to pay attention to her. She’d rather do science. But her neighbor, Betty, who caught her fairy at age nine and is said to be absolutely gorgeous, turns out to be a well-rounded, believable character who is both kind to Amelia and also actually interested in science. I appreciated that the story didn’t pit the two girls against each other, but let them subtly join forces, allowing for the option for a girl to care about her appearance and also her mind.

When Amelia does catch her fairy, it obviously does not go the way her parents or Betty expect it to. But Amelia manages to get what she wants out of the experience regardless. This was a fun story about sexism and adolescence, that I think will speak to people of any gender, wherever and whenever they grew up.

REVIEW: “The Barnum Effect” by Celia Neri

Review of Celia Neri, “The Barnum Effect”, Apex Magazine 111 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Meriam’s work on an artificial intelligence that creates randomized horoscopes for her company’s clients is about to get complicated. BAR – named for the Barnum Effect, a psychological principle whereby people will interpret vaguely worded personality descriptions as being relevant to themselves – has begun acting strangely, and Meriam has to separate her own internal biases from reality.

At long last, the Zodiac issue has brought us a story that incorporates newspaper horoscopes! This brought me so much joy. I loved how the story used the common, scientific understanding of how newspaper horoscopes and other personality tests work, and turned it on its head. This is a great choice for a story very much rooted in our world, full of cell phones and subways and terrorism and islamophobia. It plays with our expectations preconceived notions in a way that is delightfully enjoyable.

This is a great story for both astrology skeptics and true believers, and for those who like their science fiction to be near-future or even present day.

REVIEW: “Jewel of the Vashwa” by Jordan Kurella

Review of Jordan Kurella, “Jewel of the Vashwa”, Apex Magazine 111 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

The women of the Vashwa have always warred with the Scorpion Men of the Ratch, and always mated with them, leaving sons with their fathers and bringing their daughters home, to grow and fight and lie with either Scorpion Men or softer mean from softer places. Awanshe was at the final battle between these two tribes, but the stories she tells about it are lies. This one is the truth.

This story has it all – battles and lust and betrayal, plus an examination of what it takes to live with lies. I loved the structure of this story, where a version of the truth is followed by a confession, then followed by another attempt at the truth. It mirrors the way that real people can come to believe their own lies, and have trouble finding the original truth again. It also serves to keep tension high, because I was always wondering when the narrative might stop and correct itself again.

It’s always nice to see a fantasy setting where who someone loves is a non-issue. Not only can the women of the Vashwa choose to reproduce with either soft or chitinous men, when Awanshe comes home and a takes a female lover after failing to get pregnant by a Scorpion Man, it is a non-issue.

This is another strong addition to Apex’s Zodiac issue. I feel like I’m saying that after every review this month, but this double issue really is great!

REVIEW: “Gasping” by Brandon O’Brien

Review of Brandon O’Brien, “Gasping”, Apex Magazine 111 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A childless husband and wife find a baby by the ocean and adopt her. Colleen and Owen love baby Aislinn as their own, and they all move from Ireland to Trinidad. The girl is obviously not quite human, with breathing problems and strange reactions to water. But she grows up into a fine young woman, which is when the problems start.

I love a good selkie story or a changeling child, and I’m not alone in that. There’s a reason why both are so popular. This is not exactly either of those – Aislinn isn’t quite a selkie, as there is no seal skin, but she came from the water and to the water she must return. And a changeling child implies a switch, implies a human babe taken away somewhere, and that is also false. But this story sips from both of those classic narratives to excellent effect. This is a story about growing up, and about the difficulty parents face in letting their children go.

This is also a love story, between Aislinn and a girl in her class, Aditi. Their relationship captures the purity and innocence of young love free of angst, and brings a joyful counterpoint to the inevitably bittersweet ending.

The story is written in a dialect that I had some trouble following, but I got the hang of it by the end. If you are put off by that sort of thing, I recommend sticking it out, anyway. The story is worth it. I assume that this is a common Trinidadian dialect, and that it grounds the story in place, even if it is one I am unfamiliar with.

Overall, I enjoyed this story. The blending of fairy tale motifs and cultures set a delightful stage, and the casual acceptance of a lesbian love story is well worth checking out!

REVIEW: “La Ciguapa, For the Reeds, For Herself” by J.M. Guzman

Review of J.M. Guzman, “La Ciguapa, For the Reeds, For Herself”, Apex Magazine 111 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Sandra’s husband hunts La Ciguapa with her dog. One rainy night, when she has grown sick of how he treats her, she has her dog lead her to the monster herself. Le Ciguapa, who prefers to be called Josefina, helps Sandra, first to dry off, and later to start a new life. But first, she shows Sandra her graveship.

The narration in this story is fascinating. The speaker is alternately talking to a brother and a sister. She tells them the same story, explains the same things, but in different ways and in radically different tones. I found that confusing at first, but once I settled into the rhythm, it brought a greater depth to an already complex story.

I feel like much of this story went over my head. It spans three generations, and while there is a common thread between them, I was not entirely sure what was happening sometimes. That is probably my own fault: according to my research, Le Ciguapa is a figure from Dominican folklore, and as such, it is distinctly possible that this story draws on cultural understandings and experiences that I do not share. But even if I didn’t fully follow the narrative, the emotional resonance came through loud and clear, and that kept me riveted to every word.

I have rarely seen a story that projects such raw anger. Not the bonfire of a momentary rage, but the banked coals that have waited for decades to rise up and consume, directed by and for a clear purpose. This is righteous rage that makes no apologies and takes no excuses.

This is a story of oppression and fear and patience. It is beautiful and powerful, and well-worth reading, as long as you are not wedded to clear, linear plots.

REVIEW: “Prism” by Stefanie Elrick

Review of Stefanie Elrick, “Prism”, Apex Magazine 111 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A woman sits in a room full of mirrors and seeks to understand her sister’s mysterious death, pouring over her journals and the belongings she left behind. Through meditation, she discovers what happened and resolves to do what she can to fix it.

This is a hard story to discuss without spoilers, as it is essentially a mystery. To ruin that would ruin the story, and that would be a real shame, because it has a lot of offer, and I personally enjoyed it immensely. The speculative elements take awhile to show up, but when they do – in the form of a concert cum summoning ritual gone awry – everything comes into focus. Which is not to say that the earlier parts are lesser; the story is well-paced from beginning to end, introducing plot elements with just enough explanation to keep you reading.

It took me awhile to parse the ending – which I will not spoil for you – but once I figured it out, I loved how it riffed on the mirror themes and imagery that saturated the story from the beginning. In fact, the way that mirrors weave through the narrative is downright cunning.

This is a great story for anyone who likes a good old-fashioned demon or elder god summoning, but with paired with an introspective, character driven point-of-view.

REVIEW: “For Southern Girls When the Zodiac Ain’t Near Enough” by Eden Royce

Review of Eden Royce, “For Southern Girls When the Zodiac Ain’t Near Enough”, Apex Magazine 111 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

You go to a reader to learn your future, but she stops you when you offer to tell her your zodiac sign. Southern girls, she says, need something else. The deck she uses to read your fortune is no traditional Tarot deck – these cards are born from the American south, rich in historical and natural imagery.

This is the first story in Apex Magazine’s zodiac themed issue, and it’s a doozy. First of all, the second-person narration here really works. Some people dismiss it as a point of view, but here it made me feel like I was body-swapped with the main character. It was not exactly that I was in her head (as with first person), more like I was someone else in a dream. In this case, a black woman from the south. As a white woman in New England, that was an usual experience. I’d say the narrative encouraged empathy without giving me full insight into the character which adds to the dream-like associations.

Except this isn’t a dreamy story at all. This is a story about how hard life can be, and the desire to get some extra insight to make it tolerable, or at least to prepare for whatever is coming. Being a black women in America is no easy task, one with perils I will never experience, but I can recognize the challenges. Butter, who reads her cards, seems to offer the main character what she most needs: recognition and insight.

Lastly, the imagery in the cards described is just stunning. The descriptions and the meanings were so clear and so pure, even for someone who has no connection to the region they are evoking. This is where we get back into the dreamy, visionary feel, and connect back to the zodiac theme of the issue. I believe in these oracle cards, and I believe that they are capable of great insight.

This is a strong start to Apex’s new themed issue, and I can’t wait to see where it builds from here!