Friday, June 23, 2017

Quick Sips - Apex #97

It’s a trio of stories this month at Apex Magazine, including one story in translation and two entirely new tales. The issues offers a nice range of darker SFF, never quite descending as deep as the publication sometimes goes but still keeping things dark enough to fit with the overall aesthetic of Apex. The stories are about oppression and the battle between the characters and themselves. Between them and their pasts, their presents, and their futures. In each, the character must face their decisions, even when they can’t remember making them, and decide how to move forward, whether to give in to the weight of what has happened or to blaze a new trail and strike out into unexplored territory. The characters all find different answers to question of how to proceed, and in doing so provide stories rich in mood and pathos while still remaining fun and moving. So let’s get to the reviews!

Art by Irina Kovalova

“Elena’s Angel” by Aimee Ogden (4400 words)

Here is a story about divine inspiration as both a gift and a curse, about an artist named Elena who has been graced by the presence on an angel only to find that grace and peace have little to do with the arrangement. Because while the angel does indeed grant Elena with a sight and a talent to create works that are lauded and praised and valued, she also makes Elena into a prisoner of her talent and the weight to perform to the standards of the divine. I love how the story looks at expectations and talent. Elena is always accompanied by this angel, who pushes her, but it definitely feels a bit more classically demonic, the angel not really caring about Elena, only caring about the divine art that she can create. The story does a nice job of showing that the angel is not creative herself, simply feeds and feeds off of Elena’s abilities. It leaves Elena isolated and creates this space where people are jealous of the angel because all they see is the success, and for all they want it they ignore the costs that Elena always bears. The way she is controlled by the angel, the way her talents cease to be her own so that it is the angel’s vision that comes through on the canvas and has little to do with Elena or what she wants. And I like the ways that she attempts to fight back, this little war that she wages and feels like she’s losing. There’s a strong feeling of burning out here, that this urge to create can be glorious or devastating. It’s a piece with an environment of abuse and control and as such it’s rather dark, especially since it does seem this angel is divine and not demonic. But there’s also a hope to it, and the piece keeps toward that hope of freedom and release and art, even when things get dark, and it’s a fantastic read!

“Black Hole Heart” by K. A. Teryna, translated by Alex Shvartsman (1700 words)

This is a story about regrets and about inertia, about a veteran of World War II who returns from combat to find nothing remains of his life from before the war except for a rusty truck, which he decides to drive across country in search of his ex-girlfriend and his brother, who she ran off with. Only somewhere along the way he stops at a diner and...gets stuck. He stays, and this one decision seems to effect everything after that. It’s all he thinks about, and there’s a part of him that wonders what might have been, even as there’s another part of him that was told exactly what would have happened. And I do love the way that the story swirls around the hole in this man’s life, the sixty-five years in between that moment in the diner when he decided to stay and the moment that he’s living, possibly dying. That distance is never examined, except that the story drops hints that he hasn’t been unsuccessful, that he’s a prominent man in the town he settled in. And the story examines regret in this very interesting way, positing in some ways that the past is always a regret, that staying or going would have both led him to a place where he would have regretted something. By staying he regrets not having moved on but he’s shown in rather certain terms that if he left he’d have reason to regret that as well, and I like how the story calls into question his decisions without really making it a value judgment. He must live with all the possibilities that might have happened but didn’t, and has to live with how things are and went. Or, basically, we all live among black holes, around moments and decisions that, if we look at them too closely, might draw us into their gravity and never let us go. It’s a heavy, slow-moving piece that really captures the feeling of looking back and looking forward and having to choose what to do, even when you don’t know what’s best. A great story!

“Welcome to Astuna” by Pip Coen (3900 words)

This story tells a very different kind of tale than the other two in the issue. The first two stories were much more introspective pieces that looked at the weight of action and intent and emotion. They still featured Things Happening, but the primary focus was a bit more geared toward the metaphoric, whereas this story brings things around to a bit more of a tightly-packed plot focus which still delivers metaphor and nuance, but also more of an eye toward building to the ending and the surprises found there. The mood of the story is great, part noir mystery with the main character suffering from memory loss and therefore a bit out of shape in the strange city of Astuna, where memories can be bought and sold, won and lost. Jane wakes without any memory of her last eighteen years, and as she moves about the city trying to figure out what happened to her, it seems that she must have gambled them away. The world-building here is great, revealing a city where wealth abounds but is obviously built on the terror and exploitation of people like Jane. Waking up with no memory in a strange motel is terrifying and handled well and especially that sinking feeling when Jane realizes that she’s aged so much since her last memory. The setting is sort of like a cyberpunk Las Vegas and it’s a fun feel and a great place to set this little mystery. Jane moves through the world with a decisive speed, not wanting to slow down, just wanting to catch up with what’s happened. Eventually she does, and it’s a delightful series of twists and turns that throw past assumptions on their head. It’s a great use of memories and the unreliable narrative to build to t his moment of revelation and the lingering implications of the ending, which is fun and rather cinematic. It’s a fast and fun story and a great way to close out the issue!


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