August has arrive and with it the approach of autumn, which means at Apex Magazine it's a month for stories about death, beauty, and the vastness of space. There's three fiction pieces and four poems in this issue and a solid theme of complicity, murder, freedom, and dissolution. These are stories that examine the morality of killing and the morality of letting others kill. The burden of living chained and the desire for freedom. The small ways that beauty grows and flourishes even in the darkness. It's an issue full of blood and hope, and I'm just going to get to those reviews!
|Art by Marcela Bolivar|
"The Gentleman of Chaos" by A. Merc Rustad (4100 words)
This is a story, to me, about identity and abuse, about murder and about killing. About family and all the fucked-up-ness that goes along with that. It features a man under the thumb of his brother, the king, who views him as a woman. As She, his loyal tool and assassin, his security from other assassins and from the Gentleman of Chaos most of all, part myth and part bogey and part shadow and all killer. And I love the way that this story handles identity and truth, the way that it handles the stories we tell and prioritizes the truths that we hold in our hearts. Those that reflect who we are. Because the main character is bound to serve his brother but only as She, only as his sister. Which…well, it's a great way of examining how that sort of coercion can threaten to erode a person's sense of self but also how it can strengthen it, how it can temper the main character's true self. It's not something that the story takes lightly or quickly, and there is a lot of trauma and pain in this story. But it's also a story about surviving and about getting free of control and burden and misgendering. [SPOILERS] And names are very important to the story. Not only is Free the name of the daughter that the king forces the main character to have, but the main character himself is known by three different names. The first, the lie, is She, who is bound to protect the king. The second is the Gentleman of Chaos, a title that the main character eventually uses to dispose of his brother. In many ways those two names are outward facing personas, though, as I read them. They are both stories that the main character tells, the first because he has to and the second because he wants to, because he has the skills and the desire for change, for justice. The last name is Vessai and reflects the true self that he has to keep hidden to everyone but those he cares about, those he truly wants to keep safe. And, btw, I LOVE that this didn't turn more tragic than it was. [SUPER SPOILERS SERIOUSLY] There is a fake-out scene that nearly had me a brokendown puddle of sad before the reveal and then was all cheers even though it meant someone died this is not a queer tragedy and yay to that! I mean, it's a very dark tale filled with murder and death but it's also a story about being in a shit situation and getting out, making the world a better place. It's dark but because Vessai stays true to himself he's able to break the hold the kind has on him and it's just a great story with a lot of feels and a nice sense of action. Queer assassins FTW!!! So yeah, definitely go read this one!
"I Remember Your Face" by E.K. Wagner (7000 words)
This is another story about killing, about an assassin, but it's very much different from the last, takes place in a sprawling post-disaster world where the area revealed is still recovering from what seems to be a nuclear war. The story unfolds across two distinct times in Ket's life. In the first she is a young girl living in a compound with her parents as part of some dissident movement. One that ends poorly. This is in many ways a revenge story and I loved how the story used crows to help tell it, crows that are very good at remembering faces even down generations. And how the story plays with that, [SPOILERS] by having Ket unable to remember the faces of her parents but able to remember the man she feels is responsible for their deaths, is strongly done. And it's the quest for revenge, for confronting the man who was largely responsible for taking her parents away from her, that drives the story. She's an assassin but there's more to this than her mission. It causes her to act erratically, to make mistakes. And it causes her to ultimately confront the part of herself that feels and cares and doesn't want to become the person who creates the same situation she was victim of, but at the same time can't let go of her need for revenge. I thought the end, with all its blood and tragedy, was handled well, was heavy and wrenching. It is a bleak tale, one about the cycle of violence and revenge, about the shallowness of it and the way it consumes lives. And it's about how situations sometimes create situations where there is no winning, just a series of compromises that leads to death and suffering and regret. A fine read!
"Fall to Her" by Alexis A. Hunter (1400 words)
This is a story about distance and about finding something in the dark. About space and about songs and about longing. The story is told in the second person and involves a woman who works in space, in a suit doing construction. And yet something out in the void is alive and is calling. Is singing. And the main character hears and is enthralled. Wants to join it wants to know it wants to embrace it because it promises something definite and alive and knowing. It promises a sort of destruction, at least of the lines separating the main character and this other presence. It's a story that mixes in poetry, mixes in the song of this other being that seems to find in the main character a kindred desire and drive. The story unfolds around the absences where the main character is pulled away, kept separate. Evaluated by medical personnel. And I love the way that it's this call and response, the way that the story revolves around the absence in both characters, the way that the song seems to pull through the screen and to the reader, beckoning them into that same dissolution, the warmth and the comfort and the knowledge of it. The way that it handles that idea of looking into the void, that it might not really be happening but for that voice calling back. But for that song promising that it's not done, that despite the distance there is a gravity that the two have for each other that is greater than any planet or star, that they don't have to run because all they need to do is let go of everything else and they will fall to each other. A lovely story!
"Not Like This" by Mary Soon Lee
Well fuck. This poem is about happier times. About more peaceful times. About any times other than the ones that are playing out for Atun and Xau, a horse-tender and king respectively. Or, I suppose, the poem is about wanting desperately to be somewhere else, somewhen else, because the reality of the situation is…not good. Caught up in a war going poorly with refugees trying to flee the conflict but caught because of storms and flooding. And Xau, using his cavalry as a living bridge across a treacherous water. And Atun, watching. And everything going poorly until it goes even worse. I love the hopelessness and the perseverance of the story, the sorrow and the pain that is captured so poignantly. It's a poem that to me works in how it uses the series of images in contrast. The happier times next to the bleak present. The hope and the joy next to the crushing defeat of trying to fight against nature and tragedy. And it works quite well in building the world of the poem and then making it compelling, making me care about what happens while giving hints to what the larger implications of the piece might be. And it's just a great example of fantasy poem with a darkness that very much fits the publication. A great read!
"Perplexities" by Peter Vanable
This story seems to me to be about wonder. And questions. And aging. It speaks to me of the great distance in the universe and also the sense of time. The question to find meaning in it all. And, under the grandness and the awesome sweep of the cosmos, the voice of the narrator noting the signs of age, that there is not all the time in the universe for them to answer these questions, and a lingering sense of what that implies. And I like the way that the poem is understated, that it builds longer stanzas only to end on single lines hanging out in space, mimicking that idea from earlier in the poem where the narrator muses on the preponderance of space in the universe. The nothing outweighing the something. And yet here the implication seems to be clear to me, that even in the spaces there is meaning. That there is no emptiness that is completely empty, even in a vacuum. That what fills the space is, essentially, t he questions. The mysteries. That when we as humans see a gap we immediately fill it with our curiosity. And that this aspect of it makes us as large as we can see, as old and as lasting, that our questions will remain even if we don't answer them. That even with the uncertainties and the unknowns of everything pushing down on us we continue to ask, continue to wonder. There's an element of dread in the final moment as well, which is only fitting given the publication, but I guess I read some hope here as well, not that we'll answer all our questions but that the void will never weigh more than our desire to understand it, illuminate it. It's definitely a poem to spend some time with!
"This Earth" by Frank Tota
This poem seems to me about scale and about beauty. About looking at something so that that it becomes an entire world, where a single tree is home to so much life, small and diverse and with its own grace and songs and images. And the narrators watches it from above as an observer, maybe even a researcher, taking things here and there and aware of what it means, of how much these small lives move. The poem is visual and sensual, revealing scenes both familiar and alien. And to me it's a great way of thinking about scale and about beauty, about missing the small things when we're concerned about the larger picture. About turning inward as well as outward in our hope, in our vision. And it's a quiet poem, one that takes that role of the observer, one that limits itself to a small moment, to a string of small moments, to what can be seen as the narrator watches and waits, as if everything here transpires in the space of one breath. It's a story about beauty that does a fine job of being beautiful itself, and it's definitely something to pin to the wall of your workstation to remind you that the world, that this Earth and the one described in the poem, are heavy with wonder and power and hope. Another great poem!
"The Labyrinth Keeper" by Anton Rose
This poem keeps things short with a vision of not the minotaur but those who keep the island where the Labyrinth dwells. Those who give the sacrifices of children. Those who keep it all going out of…fear, maybe? Or maybe tradition. The poem shows the narrator, who brings those to be sacrificed, as haunted by it. As hesitant and remorseful but still someone who is able to do it. Whether because it is a tradition or because there are enough other people equally culpable, they are able to continue this practice that kills people. The end hammers that in when the narrator imagines what the monster of the Labyrinth might look like. It nicely sums up the idea that the monster is not always without, that often it is within. Being short, the poem doesn't do much more than prescribe the problem. The way that the people participate in something that is obviously wrong. It's a nice springboard to imagining what the implications are, then, that they aren't the ones who throw off the traditions. They don't have to deal with the slaying of anything. But through them does something of the monster live on? Would the loss of the minotaur even matter when the blood is on their hands as well? Is there even a monster in the maze or is this just an excuse for the rather vile tradition? And would the tradition continue even after the monster's death because it is tradition, because it is tied up in who they are? The poem doesn't answer these questions but it scratches at the edge of them, opening up a nice moral labyrinth even as it evokes a mythic one. A nice way to close out the issue.