REVIEW: “Professor Strong and the Brass Boys” by Amal Singh

Review of Amal Singh, “Professor Strong and the Brass Boys”, Apex Magazine 119 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Lispector Strong seems fairly content with ris life as a history professor, until one of ris students ask what rhe does for leisure. Under the rules of their society, droids like Professor Strong are not allowed leisure. This leads rhim to a lot of soul searching, and eventually to music, and an understanding that droids are perhaps not treated fairly under the current laws.

This story deals with art and justice, two concepts that the people within it would argue apply only to humans. It is a surprisingly gentle story, because Professor Strong is, at heart, a gentle being. Logical, kind, yet determined, rhe senses that there must be a better way, and is determined to do what rhe can to get humans to see the other droids as something other than servants. Rhe does not go about this through battle, either verbal or physical, but through music.

The end is more ambiguous than I would have preferred, but I don’t know that any other ending would have felt genuine. This story is asking big questions, and a neat ending might imply an easy solution. I respect the emotional honesty of the ending, which leaves the consequences of Professor Strong’s actions still unknown. What matters – what makes the ending work – is that Professor Strong acted. Rhe made a decision, and accepted the risks.

REVIEW: “O Have You Seen the Devle with his Mikerscope and Scalpul?” by Jonathan L. Howard

Review of Jonathan L. Howard, “O Have You Seen the Devle with his Mikerscope and Scalpul?”, Apex Magazine 118 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

It’s rare to find a fresh take on Jack the Ripper, yet that is undeniably what we have here. The narrator, an expert on conspiracies, is being paid to study what many consider the first serial killer. Either through imagination born of careful study or technology, he is reliving each victim’s last hours, growing increasingly angry about their circumstances, and frustrated that he can not save them.

There are no grand conspiracies here (in fact, the narrator laughs in the face of most conspiracies, citing human nature as far too unreliable to maintain a complex cover up among hundreds of people), and absolutely no drive to romanticize or understand Jack. His background and motives are completely unimportant. What matters are the victims: the hardships they endured and the lives that were cut brutally short. What matters is a London in which a woman screaming would have drawn no attention. What matters is a humanity that denies the humanity of others, and the disgust which our narrator feels towards that attitude.

The research that went into this story is impressive. I have not fact-checked it, but the details of location and history feel true to me. It paints a vivid picture, though I sometimes found myself getting bogged down by too many street names. That is a personal tolerance, however, and those with a better head for names and facts will likely have a different experience.

Be warned, this is a lengthy story, coming it at nearly 10,000 words, so you’ll want to leave enough time to really enjoy it. I found that it required a fair bit of focused attention, and would not have wanted to feel rushed through it. That said, it’s a unique story with a strong theme that is well worth the investment of energy.

REVIEW: “Curse Like a Savior” by Russell Nichols

Review of Russell Nichols, “Curse Like a Savior”, Apex Magazine 118 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Junior thinks this is going to be a quick job – just slip, in repair Mrs. Layla Fisher’s Halogram (currently displaying a Jesus who cusses up a storm), and move on. He doesn’t care what anybody else believes, so long as they let him do his job in peace. Unfortunately for him, it seems that Mrs. Fisher has other ideas.

This does a great job of mixing light fun with some more serious themes. On the one hand, anybody who has ever worked a customer service job will recognize Junior’s struggle to do his job without getting drawn into a long, emotionally taxing conversation with the client. But then we have the Halograms that are at the center of this whole transaction, holograms of famous people, specifically of the sort who people idolize – religious figures and inspiration writers and politicians ranging from Jesus and Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr. and Maya Angelou. As the conversation with Mrs. Fisher goes on, the subject of faith comes to the forefront, and the story transitions from an almost frivolous look at futuristic customer service, to something much deeper and more challenging.

The ending took me by surprise. It’s much more unsettling than I expected, and made me rethink everything that came before it. Fortunately, this is a short enough story that it’s not a hardship to reread it!

REVIEW: “Where Gods Dance” by Ben Serna-Grey

Review of Ben Serna-Grey, “Where Gods Dance”, Apex Magazine 118 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This is a story about grief, and the unbearable loss of a child. The narrator tries again and again and again to hold onto some small bit of what he has lost, with disastrous results.

This is more of a mood piece than a clear narrative, but that works well for such a short story. It invokes a host of complicated emotions, far more than could be fit if they need to be tied to a strict progression of scenes. I appreciate the way Serna-Grey refuses to shy away from the confusing tumult of the narrator’s feelings, nor from his increasingly desperate decisions.

REVIEW: “The Prison-house of Language” by Elana Gomel

Review of Elana Gomel, “The Prison-house of Language”, Apex Magazine 118 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Dr. Sophia Abdoul is unique, as a linguist who finds human language painful to speak. That condition has driven her to study as many languages as she can, both modern and ancient, in a search for the mythical ur-language that pre-dated them all. This makes her the perfect person for the army to ask to help with an experiment that has gone awry – the subjects have begun speaking in tongues.

Sophia is a wonderful example of a protagonist who is not traditionally “likable,” but who is still sympathetic and enjoyable to read about. Because of her unique condition, she has trouble connecting with people, who all seem to constantly want to talk. She is acerbic and utterly certain that she is smarter than everyone around her. She’s also perceptive and witty and a wonderful narrator, reflecting both on what is happening around her in the present, and some traumatic experiences from her past.

At its heart, I believe this is a story about language and how it both divides and connects us. It connects us to each other, but divides us from the rest of the world. It divides Sophia from the rest of humanity in much the same way. The mysterious experiment that she is drawn in to help repair and explain takes it a step further, showing her exactly why she is the way she is, and what she can do that others can not. It’s a good ending, that doesn’t wrap things up too neatly.

REVIEW: “Cold Iron Comfort” by Hayley Stone

Review of Hayley Stone, “Cold Iron Comfort”, Apex Magazine 117 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Amadis believed their father when they said they could come home any time if things didn’t work out with their fairy lover, Kinnear. So when they start to recognize Kinnear’s manipulations for what they are, they find a portal and catch a bus back to their father’s junkyard. The abuse is slowly revealed through flashbacks, until another character in the present day finally calls it what it is. The author does an amazing job of using the trope of the fairy lover as a way to talk about abusive relationships.

It is worth noting that Amadis is not the main characters given name, but one which they select upon returning to the human world, after struggling with their gender identity for years. Though I lack first hand experience of the same, I thought that Amadis’ struggles with gender were well-described, and nicely integrated into the story. It also adds to the appeal of fairyland – the fae, of course, are much more fluid around gender than the average human.

There’s so much more that I could say about this story, from the pleasure of seeing a latinx narrator in a fairy story, to the way the plot incorporate and subverts common fairy tropes, to the wonderful relationship Amadis builds with the older woman who takes her in, but I’ll leave you to discover some of that for yourselves. Overall, “Cold Iron Comfort” is a lovely, thoughtful story about relationship, identity, and true family.

REVIEW: “Necessary and Sufficient Conditions” by Wole Talabi

Review of Wole Talabi, “Necessary and Sufficient Conditions”, Apex Magazine 117 (2019): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

This is a story about revenge. Yemi Ladipo is on a quest to murder the man who took everything from him, Professor Olukoya. It would do the story a disservice to say that Yemi learns that the truth is more complicated than it seems, because this story is so much richer than that cliché would suggest. The truth does not exonerate Olukoya, so much as flesh him out.

The story really picks up – transitioning from pure revenge in a science fiction setting to something unique – when Professor Olukoya begins to explain why he did what he did, so many years ago. His reasons are not enough to move Yemi, but it’s up to each reader to determine whether or not one death is worth it for the greater good. It would be easy to make the professor either tragically misunderstood by the protagonist, or a simple villian, and I’m glad that the story went in neither of those directions. Talabi does not let this story rest in simplicity, which I appreciate. The conclusion goes one step further, forcing Yemi to really confront difficult truths.

I haven’t touched on this yet, but the fact that this story takes place in a science fiction future in which an African country is at the forefront of technology is both a lovely change of pace (and something we should see more of), and a relevant plot point that I will not spoil for you. Highly recommended for anyone who likes their science fiction both character driven and fast-moving.