Thursday, August 16, 2018

Quick Sips - Apex #111

It’s a special Zodiac-themed double issue of Apex Magazine this month, guest edited by Sheree Renée Thomas (who also just guest edited the SEUSA Strange Horizons special issue in late July). There’s A LOT of fiction and as with most of the Apex special issues, poetry is back! There’s actually six short stories and well as six poems in this issue, making it perhaps the biggest I’ve read from the publication. And it all swirls around the idea of the Zodiac, of divination, of astrology. Not always literally, though the actual signs and horoscopes make an appearance or two. Instead, the stories look very much at the stories that we tell. At the ways these stories then become everyone’s stories, our minds making them personal, intimate, and topical. Because our lives have a way of getting into the stories we tell and the stories we take in, and then we might mistake our pulling them out again like a bit of magic and mysticism. But there’s a lot of different takes on stories and truth to find in these SFF works, and I should just quit talking about reviewing them and get to reviewing them!

Art by Stacey Robinson

“For Southern Girls When the Zodiac Ain’t Near Enough” by Eden Royce (2500 words)

No Spoilers: Told in the second person, you are a woman seeking advice about the future. Come to divination because life seems that impossible and unknowable that maybe that’s the only way to put a shape to it. You’ve found a reader online, a woman named Butter, and in her home you are made guest as she gives her reading, revealing twelve cards that speak of a past, present, and possible future. The piece moves with each card flipped, deepening the portrait of you and your problems while also offering guidance. Not the future, exactly, not as it will be. But rather the future as it could be, for better or worse. The piece is magical and does a wonderful job of using voice. The voice of the cards, mysterious and magical. The voice of Butter, more practical and wise. And the voice of you, sitting there, full of fears and hurts and doubts, but still trying to find ways forward.
Keywords: Divination, Cards, The South, Plants, Food, Advice
Review: I love the choice to tell this story in second person, because of the way it grounds the reader in the main character’s perspective. The way it speaks outward. Because the story is about this woman looking for a voice, looking for for something to listen to. And she finds it and we, through her, can find something of that as well. Because the advice that she is given is advice that we all can take, as well, to be strong but to know when to care for yourself. To be fierce but also to remember compassion. The story is a sort of step-by-step guide for those struggling with the urge to quit, to give into despair. It’s an urging to take stock, take a breath, and then keep going. And I love that the story creates a deck of cards that have nothing to do with the traditional divination tools. This is a deck that speaks to the characters interacting with it. A deck of the South. That tells them in much more intimate ways what their hurts are and what their hesitations are and how they can perhaps move out of their grief and towards positive action. Not in order to shun the stars and the moving heavens, but rather to drawn them down to Earth in order to lift the characters (and the reader) back up. For me at least, the character begins the story low and lost, but finds herself in the end, _through_ her connections to the South, but _among_ the stars, once more ready to venture out into the unknown. A great read!

“Prism” by Stefanie Elrick (5000 words)

No Spoilers: The narrator of this story has lost her sister in a sort of accident. This, years after losing her mother, puts a strain on her, and pushes her to experiment with forces that she might have been better off leaving well alone. For me, at least, the implication is that the narrator and her sister are twins, though the narrator has always felt overshadowed. Her sister was in a rock band, one that apparently dabbled in the occult, and when that got out of hand, well... The piece is dark and strange and follows the narrator’s attempts to make contact with her sister, and her dreams of being electrocuted, and gives it all a sharp and dark edge. There’s a sense of something lurking just out of sight, just under the silver surface of a mirror. Waiting. Hungry. And the story takes that mirror and shatters it, and lets the shadows and light dance and die.
Keywords: Sisters, CW- Suicide, Electricity, Mirrors, Portals
Review: The piece is told in the first person by the narrator, but there’s a definite blurring of lines between her and her sister. The one, maybe dead from an accident on stage, maybe taken to some place magical and dangerous. The other, left behind, dealing with the aftermath and her own complicated feelings about her sister. The two of them, together, joined by their blood and their image, able to reach out to each other when it should be impossible. On one level the piece seems to me about an doors and mirrors. About what each of the sisters opens, and what they walk through. There’s an almost dreamlike quality to the prose, and indeed dreams play a roll in the story, leading the narrator into a place where she can find her sister, becoming her in order to experience what happened. And I’m not entirely sure what to ultimately take away from the piece. That mirrors can be traps, perhaps, and that for all both sisters looked beyond the surface of their mirrors, they refused to ever really look at what was there. At themselves, and their issues. Instead they ran away, pushed into realms that were not safe to travel, and ended up lost. Except that by the end they’ve found themselves again. or found themself. And seriously, it’s a weird piece, but one definitely worth checking out and wrestling with for the vividness of the prose and the power of the narration. Indeed!

“La Ciguapa, For the Reeds, For Herself” by J.M. Guzman (4700 words)

No Spoilers: A pair of siblings listen to a voice in the darkness. La Ciguapa, a story, though their story means different things to different people. For the children’s father, and grandfather, la Ciguapa was a monster to be persued, a monster whose denial of their lusts could only mean evil and the need to be punished. For their mother, Sandra, though, and for the girl sibling Zoraida, la Ciguapa is something else—a comfort and a provider of safety and soothing. And also a promise. Of death, yes, but not necessarily on the individual level. Instead, there’s something of the end of the world tucked into the words la Ciguapa says, a way of taking the intentions and stories of those who mean her ill and twisting them back into something like justice. It’s a story that carries a sense of strangeness and myth, of magic bleeding through into the world, but mostly where it needs to, where magic is necessary for change and for the right stories to finally slip free and run loose through a world redefined by them.
Keywords: Monsters, Memory, Justice, CW- Suicide, Generations, Apocalypse
Review: This story speaks to me of folktales and generational injustices finally being made right. Not easily. Not neat and not without pain or blood. It’s a story of inheritance. And for Zoraida, that inheritance is a legacy of being strong, of moving on, of reaching for a better world. It’s her who is working to end the world and bring about something better. Her brother has an inheritance as well, but from a line of men who have been insecure, violence, and entitled. Who have written their own stories across everything and everyone. And so it’s him who doesn’t want to listen and who doesn’t seem to recognize the coming changes as a good thing. And the story treats both characters with nuance and respect, for all that it also treats the brother with a healthy amount of disappointment. Because he could have broken the chain, and helping to form this new world, and instead did his best to take himself out of that situation. And there’s a tragedy there but also a refusal on the part of the story and la Ciguapa to pause and make it all about him. This is not his story, though he is a part of it. If he’s not going to help, though, then he’s going to either be used in the name of change or he’s going to get out of the way. And there’s something affirming and powerful in that, wrapped in prose that flows forward like a river, like a wave, unstoppable and strong and very, very good. Definitely make the time to check this one out!

“Gasping” by Brandon O’Brien (3500 words)

No Spoilers: Aislinn is found as an infant by the Brownes, an Irish couple moving to Tobago to live out their retirement. Aislinn is plagued by breathing issues, though, which no specialists can seem to find the root of. The Brownes suspect they might know what it the cause of them, but they push that potential knowledge aside in the face of having a child and helping her grow. And it’s a wondering flowing story, one with a sly voice and a plot that centers on Aislinn’s eventual relationship with a woman named Aditi. The two are almost instantly in love, though it takes them a while to wake up to the fact, and there’s a whirlwind romance feel to their courtship and prospects. They meet in college and want to go on together, to study abroad and continue to be together, and it all seems so perfect. Until it isn’t. The story is fun and charming and very careful about its darkness, about the sadness it reveals which isn’t all tragedy, which isn’t really bad, even. longer as good as it was.
Keywords: Water, Orphans, Queer MC, School, Family
Review: The voice of the story is what hooked me from the start, giving the work a spoken feel to it. This is a sort of Changeling story for me, where Aislinn is found and taken in but isn’t really part of this world. She fits in well enough, and in some ways she lives a charmed life, especially when she meets Aditi and the two begin their relationship. At her heart, though, Aislinn just doesn’t belong in this world, is part of something darker and deeper, and so all of this seems to be just borrowed time. In some ways it speaks a bit to having a genetic breathing disorder, living with a clock always ticking away in the background. And just when it seems her future is brightest, and she can reach for anything she wants...something happens to change that. To take it away and shift the expectations of the situation. It doesn’t exactly extinguish them, but it does completely alter what Aislinn’s future will be, from the thrills and passion of post-graduate work to the unknown of the sea. Which isn’t exactly sad or tragic, though the love it breaks between Aislinn and Aditi is certainly worth mourning. It’s more a recentering within the world of the characters, and hole for those who came to know Aislinn on the land. And really it’s an entrancing and beautiful story about love and nature and finding where you truly belong. A wonderful read!

“Jewel of the Vashwa” by Jordan Kurella (3300 words)

No Spoilers: Awanshe is the daughter of a Scorpion Man, a people who share the desert with the sisters of the Vashwa in a precarious balance. The two groups give and take, sharing children—the men going to the Scorpion Men, the women going with the Vashwa. With the mingled blood, Awanshe is a fierce warrior, and the bearer of a terrible burden. A burden of stories of a great battle that claimed the lives of everyone she loved. And as the story progresses, the truth of that battle slowly creeps into the light. The piece is dark and chilling, featuring a narrator who is used to fighting first and talking later. And it’s really her story at the heart of the piece—what she chooses to tell, and what she chooses to conceal. Because the truth is something she left behind in the desert, and what really happened in that battle is something only she knows.
Keywords: Scorpions, War, Lies, Queer MC, Betrayal
Review: I love the uncertainty of this story, the way that it builds around an event that is only ever revealed by the narrator, by Awanshe, and she proves herself again and agian to be an unreliable source of information. Her relationship to the battle, to the people there, is what makes it all such a frought thing. She has built it all up inside herself and now reveals it again and again as truth, only to admit again and again that it’s a lie. The story is about her burden, and yet it’s never fully sure, at least not to me, whether she really unburdens herself. Each new story is as likely to be true as the one before it, and while the last iteration perhaps gives her the most reason to be wandering about with a different version of the same events every time she tells it, I don’t feel like even that is definitve. Indeed, part of what I feel the story is getting at is that all of these stories are true in some ways, even as they are all also lies. What they reveal is perhaps not factual accuracy, but rather the turmoil within herself, the anger and rage and desire for violence, but also the love and the guilt and the feeling that she has failed. It’s completely possible and perhaps even likely that the battle didn’t occur at all, and what happened was that she witnessed a peace she could not handle and fled before it, fled because she loved two people and yet couldn’t see herself with them, couldn’t see herself as a part of their lives and needed there to be no way of going back. Whatever the case, though, the story leaves it up to the reader to believe or not each version of the story, asking each time what her burden is, and why she bears it. It’s a complex and passionate story well worth your time and attention!

“The Barnum Effect” by Celia Neri (4900 words)

No Spoilers: Meriam is the head of the BAR project, in which she’s helped to create a simple AI that can create Zodiac horoscopes designed to make people feel as if the text is speaking directly to them. Through the use of predictive software, it compiles all manner of data into creating predictions for clients to use to boost use of apps and news services that feature the predictions. Only something is going a little weird, and seemingly random predictions are sneaking their way into client’s apps. More specifically, into the apps that Meriam herself uses. And they’re starting to get uncannily accurate. The piece is a slowly building mystery, with Meriam having to face her own assumptions about what she’s been doing as well as the prejudices of others. It’s fun and increasingly tense, with a wonderful payoff and a strong voice.
Keywords: AI, Predictions, CW- Terrorism, Sentience, Communication
Review: This story really brings everything back to the theme of the issue in a more literal way. Most of the stories have used astrology in some ways but few have gone all in with the idea of horoscopes and the like. And I just love that these bits of prediction turn out to be a way of really communicating. Because the story plays with the idea that all horoscopes try to captures just that feeling, that the Barnum Effect makes it so that these bits of showmanship feel to each person to be meaningful and accurate. And yet for Meriam there’s something that goes beyond the coincidental. The horoscopes really do seem to be trying to talk with her, and I like where the story goes with that, with her certain that she’s on the verge of something huge even as those around her don’t trust her judgement. And it’s a fun and wonderfully paced story, that begins with the relative boredom of being on a train commuting to work and shifts up and up until the stakes are high indeed, with Meriam having to put her career on the line in order to try and do right by this being who is trying to reach out and make contact. And it shows that sometimes skepticism can really get in the way of science, when there comes a time when a person has to make a sort of leap of faith in order to recognize what’s going on in front of them. Which makes for a fantastic read and great way to close out the issue’s fiction!


“How to Paint Mercury”, “How to Fly By Neptune”, & “How to Speak to Pluto” by Mary Soon Lee

The first of three poems on the theme of the issue, “How to Paint Mercury”, takes a look at the solar systems “first” planet, celebrating the moods and the beauty of one of the smaller celestial bodies around. And one of the fastest. The piece explores the dizzying speed and resilient of Mercury, the way that it has been marked by impact and can be defined by contrasts. There’s a personification involved in the poem, which is framed as advice (as the title implies), but not I think the same that falls into Mercury as god. This is not a humanoid figure, for all that the planet is gendered male. Rather I feel the piece seeks to try and find the qualities that make the planet both fragile and strong, seeing in him the need for speed, the insecurity of movement, and the need for reassurance. It’s told in couplets, which gives the poem an appropriately brisk pace and seems almost like a heartbeat, racing through space.

Where the first poem implored the reader to see, “How to Fly By Neptune” is full of advice how not to witness this more distant planet. It imagines him as an exile, as a criminal, as banished by the sun to the distant cold because of some great wrong. And yet at the same time I like how the piece implies his beauty all the same, recognizing that if a person were to look, were to _see_ Neptune, they might not be able to hold in their hearts the ability not to love him. To want to be with him. To want to sooth the just as the narrator wanted Mercury to be soothed. There’s a distance here, and a slower pace helped along by the fact that the stanzas now are three lines long. Here the distance from the sun has made things colder and less hospitable, and yet there’s still an eerie charm, and a danger that might be waiting siren-deadly for the unwary traveler.

The last of the three poems, “How to Speak to Pluto”, reveals an even more distant heavenly body, and one that might be a bit sensitive about the whole dwarf planet thing. The picture of Pluto is much more laid back that the previous two portraits, though, evoking a feeling of age, yes, and care, but also aloofness. Pluto is out there, and perhaps more than a little strange, and yet still has lots to offer, including a ready ear and a solidness that can be depended upon. Whereas Mercury was to be admired and Neptune shunned, the poems close on speech. On conversation. On an exchange, with Pluto a willing participant. And I like how it brings things back to just couplets, and yet the effect is so much different than with the Mercury poem. The pace is to me much slower here, not a rush to capture the blurring trace of Mercury but with time and leisure. Pluto does not rush or run, and finally out here the reader is asked to speak, to confess, and contemplate what lies beyond the solar system, on the edge of warmth bleeding away into the void. And all three pieces make for a wonderful tour of the neighboring planets, giving a taste for what’s just beyond our own front door. Some fine reads!

“Capricorn” by Tara Betts

I will endorse basically any poem about goats, because goats are cute. Just saying. And this poem takes a look at goats and what they might represent, and how they are, and what we might be able to learn from them as a symbol and avatar. Because there is a fearlessness to goats, to the way they jump and walk certain of their footing, seemingly unable to fall. They might not be the most graceful but they are relentless and stubborn as anything, using their horns to batter down what needs to be battered down. The poem moves in couplets, creating a picture for the reader to see and experience. Of these goats, jumping. Of what they might represent, like the perseverence to keep on going over difficult terrain. To never give in or give up. To push back, and carve from the world a place to be. The poem is partly elemental to me, evoking earth and air and the goat, between the two, defiant and free. And for me the poem seeks to wrap itself around the avatar of Capricorn, what the sign might mean to those who know it. How the personality tendencies can be seen in the natural world, in the animal the sign is embodied in. And the piece is a call to witness and to reflect and perhaps to draw inspiration from the goat. Which is kinda adorable as well as being powerful and moving and overall a great read!

“Celestial Mary (Galilean Daughter)” by Sherese Francis

This poem speaks to me of womanhood and gender roles. Of expectations and prejudices and possibilities. The piece is structured in three stanzas, two on top, side by side, and one beneath. Like a tree, perhaps, flowing up from the ground. Or a river diverging or coming together. Like a path forking or merging. And all beginning with a Bible verse and followed by ambiguity. And I love that the piece moves with a sort of duplicity, a multitude of ways it can be read or interpreted. The poem begins with either a Diagnosis or a gnosis, a recognition of illness or a declaration of knowledge. And what follows is a sort of list, a description of a person or people. Of a woman or women who find themselves difficult to define simply. Instead, they are many different, sometimes contradicting things, containing multitudes. And the poem for me builds up this profile and definition, trying to encapsualte all of this person, all of this idea of who this woman is. And for me I think the poem comes to be about living with all of these forces at work, being defined so many different ways, and having to make sense of it, having to move forward under the weight of so many eyes and judgement. It’s an evocative poem that builds and builds, challenging the reader to perhaps come away with ah clean picture while knowing there is none, that the joy is is the mess, in the chaos, in the many different roles all embodied simultaneously. And it makes for a piece very much worth spending some time with.

“A Theorized Form of Matter” by Ashley Adams 

This is a short and rather strange poem about a monster that can’t be seen, one who exists all around us, taking up space but not solid in the same way regular matter is. It’s something that can’t easily be pointed to and measured or tested. And yet it’s pervasive and seems to buttress life here, pushing and pulling at us. There’s a violence and a darkness to this force, which I guess makes sense in that it’s described as a monster, but the title implies to me at least that it’s something viewed with more of a disconnect by the people who deny it exists. That this isn’t a force that everyone feels equally, or that everyone feels as a negative thing. The sharpness, the pain, the danger—those might burden some much more than others, and I like the way that that gets revealed, the way that people who do feel it painfully try to deny it, as if denying it might make it pass over them or go away. And I feel like this form of matter, this force, this monster, could be a lot of things. Could be oppression, with the way that it tears at people, with the way that there are plenty who would deny it exists, despite the evidence. Or it might be something different, something truly unknown that is just now being explored. In any case, the poem begins to trace this absence, this form of matter that might or might not exist (but totally does) and reports on the frustration and fear that comes from knowing something but not being able to name it. It’s a creepy, difficult poem but also a nice way to close out the issue!


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