REVIEW: “The Standard of Ur” by Hassan Abdulrazzak

Review of Hassan Abdulrazzak, “The Standard of Ur”, Apex Magazine 113 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Adam has been sent from the British Museum to determine whether newly-stable Baghdad is safe enough to regain custody of a priceless artifact from their country, the Standard of Ur. His desire to see the recently discovered first city for himself leads him to take a detour that he may not live long enough to regret.

In this near future, climate change has ravaged the Middle East to the point that Adam and his guides can only go outside wearing special sun suits. To do otherwise risks almost immediate burns. Adam’s home in England, of course, has not been so strongly effected yet. It’s a prescient, chilling detail that highlights exactly who will suffer first from climate change.

The story weaves an engaging plot with some serious considerations of western imperialism, both its impact on the political situation in the Middle East and the theft of cultural artifacts from myriad countries, without ever getting bogged down. These are simply facts with the world of the narrative, facts which are deeply meaningful to two of the main characters for different reasons. The political awareness is deftly woven into the fabric of the narrative, and I appreciate the skill that takes.

If you like antiquities, ancient cultures, and politically aware writing, this story is not to be missed.

REVIEW: “The Fiddler at the Heart of the World” by Samantha Henderson

Review of Samantha Henderson, “The Fiddler at the Heart of the World”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 217-230. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

There are some stories I shouldn’t try to read in public. Stories set in emergency rooms are on generally on the list. Stories set in emergency rooms and told in such a visceral way are high up on that list. Even when they are stories with happy endings — as when Dr. Jessie takes in the power of the fiddler at the heart of the world and harnesses it so that no one dies on her ward that night — there is something horrible about them (in the old-style use of ‘horrible’, full of horror…). I had to read this story reminding myself not to cry in public.

So many of the poets in this anthology are poets by some combination of choice necessity, and birthright. Dr. Jessie’s story is different from the others, because she becomes the conduit for the fiddler almost unconsciously. All she knows is that she fights on the side of life, with whatever means she has.

Henderson’s story also differs from some of the other stories in this anthology because the poet is not the viewpoint. We see the events unfolding through the viewpoint of Berto, the janitor, who isn’t one of the plainfolk, like Dr. Jessie is, but rather one of the half-fae people who can see and talk to the gods. He knows the power that Dr. Jessie calls upon unknowingly, and thus the reader knows it too; but like Berto, all the reader can do is stand on the sidelines and hope there isn’t too much to mop up in the end.

REVIEW: “Dulce et Decorum” by S. L. Huang

Review of S. L. Huang, “Dulce et Decorum”, in Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler, Sword and Sonnet (Ate Bit Bear, 2018) — 205-215. Reviewed by Sara L. Uckelman. (Read the review of the anthology.)

This is the story of how Emily Shen seeks out Valentina (sometimes Knyazev; today, Knyazeva), hedge-magician and curator of the poetry of war museum, at the suggestion of her friend Chand, for help dealing with the last remnant of her beloved grandfather — his treasured gun. This gun represents everything she hates — war that goes against her pacifist views, and a reminder of the fact that her beloved grandfather was not what she is:

Besides, the pistol feels like it doesn’t represent Yeye so much as it represents all the pieces of him I didn’t know or didn’t understand (p. 209).

It’s a story of how she must grapple with “the cognitive dissonance” — the cognitive dissonance that comes from being a pacifist raised by a war veteran, of the dissonance that comes from the juxtaposition of the two themes of the anthology: poetry, so beautiful, so vital, so full of power; and war, so ugly, so atrocious, so deadly. Valentina offers to write her a poem of her grandfather, noting that it will be “Messy. And human” (p. 214). Like life. Like war. Like poetry itself.

Huang’s telling of how is so full of piercing sentences that I could write a review just quoting all the ones that cut quick. But then I’d basically be replicating the story here, so I’ll just end this review with: Go read the story for yourself.

REVIEW: “Talking to Cancer” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali

Review of Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali, “Talking to Cancer”, Apex Magazine 112 (2018): Read Online. Originally published in Fiyah Magazine 2 (2017). Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

A woman who can cure cancer by talking to it comes to terms with the fact that she can also cause it. This is a rich story about responsibility and gifts, but also forgiveness and acceptance.

Whens she was a girl, Layla learned that she could talk to cancer when she asked it not to kill her mother, and it listened. But it turns out that this gift is double-edged, and in moments of anger, she can also cause cancer to begin growing in a person. As far as premises go, this is a great one. It’s simple, but powerful. Cancer inspires so much fear and so much pain, that the stakes are automatically high.

Layla is a gloriously rich character, someone who has dedicated her life to healing, but also has darkness within her. She’s not an angel, but is instead a real woman with real struggles and real emotions, who is not always her best self. The twists of the story challenge her, forcing her to decide who she wants to be. That kind of internal experience is exactly what I love to see in a short story, so I was not disappointed here.

This is a masterful, engaging story, and I highly recommend heading over to Apex to check it out!

REVIEW: “Coyote Now Wears a Suit” by Ani Fox

Review of Ani Fox, “Coyote Now Wears a Suit”, Apex Magazine 112 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

Kupua is not thrilled when her family asks her to come down to the courthouse to get somebody she didn’t even know out of jail, but when the person in question turns out to be Coyote, things get downright weird. For starters, what is Coyote even doing in Hawaii?

This is one of the best takes on Coyote I’ve seen in ages. He (or is it she? Tricksters are so hard to pin down, much like our narrator) breaks Kapua’s life open with chaos that is anything but innocent. Sometimes, depictions of Coyote lack bite, but not here. This Coyote isn’t concerned about pain, or a bit of collateral damage. He isn’t being cruel without reason – everything he destroys, from Kupua’s relationships to her secrets, needed to end for her to move forward – but I got the sense that this was a test as much as a kindness. If Kupua hadn’t risen to the challenge, Coyote would shrug and walk away.

This story is jam-packed. It not only has one of the most popular trickster figures in literature, this story takes a cold, hard look at the discrimination faced by native Hawaiians, stares down issues of gender and sexual orientation, and pulls no punches. All that, and the story is a roller coaster of excitement from start to finish.

REVIEW: “River Street” by S.R. Mandel

Review of S.R. Mandel, “River Street”, Apex Magazine 112 (2018): Read Online. Reviewed by Joanna Z. Weston.

You stumble upon River Street while looking for something else, but it draws you in, and soon you are strolling along its hills, drawn inexorably onward by curiosity and frank enjoyment.

This is a weird little piece, the sort that makes me wonder if I’m missing something. But the description of a meandering street that pulls you in and then pushes you to an unknown destination stuck with me long after I’d finished reading. Is the street good or bad, is this about being trapped or being freed? Maybe those are the wrong questions.

If you don’t consider plots and protagonists to be critical parts of a story and are in the mood for something a bit more experimental, give this bite-sized story a try. You may be pleasantly surprised.