|Art by Maria Nguyen|
Well I wasn’t really planning on reading or reviewing this issue of Anathema Magazine. I’ve known about it for some time and been excited about everything I’ve seen it do, but as my reviewing queue has been full, I’ve been hesitant to start. Well, thanks to a slow December I decided to just fucking do it. I cannot guarantee right now that I’ll be able to continue reading and reviewing the publication, but with a range of stories like this issue I really hope I do. The work here is challenging, often gutting, but shines with a beauty and a power that cannot be denied. These stories are sharp and focused and for me focus on magic and on change. On bodies and transformations. On betrayals and a hope for a better future. So yeah, a bit unexpected, but let’s get to the reviews!
“The Pull of the Herd” by Suzan Palumbo (5725 words)
No Spoilers: Agni is one of the doefolk (think selkies, but deer instead of seals), though one who’s never been comfortable in her deer skin. For her it’s never fit right, and growing up she spent as much time out of it as she could. Now living with a human, Diya, she’s much freer than she was, but her connection to her family and to her herd still remain, even though she’s something of an outcast. And so when the herd is put in danger because of the lusts of human men wanting to take wives, Agni is torn between her loyalties to her herd and her need to stay herself and free. It’s a wrenching and careful piece, weaving together notes of grief, guilt, and uncertainty in the face of what Agni knows but isn’t believed about—that she is whole in all her complexity. And it’s not exactly a happy story, either, but it is beautiful and heartfelt and poignant.
Keywords: Deer, Skins, Queer MC, Shape Shifters, Threats, Family
Review: I love the ways that Agni’s situation, the feeling like her skin doesn’t fit, works into the broader context of the world the story introduces. Because it gets at the ways that people even in threatened or marginalized groups can be made even more vulnerable when the protection of their group is taken from them. For Agni, she is who she is, and though there are some in her family and in the herd who accept her and her differences, there are also those who blame her for them, for the complications that they make. And yet when Agni escapes and finds a home where she feels she belongs and can maybe be safe, circumstances happen again and again that show her that this still isn’t her world. That as long as what drives people is greed and hate, then there really is no way for her to be truly safe. Because she’s an outsider everywhere but in the thin spaces where she still doesn’t fit. That even through she has found a way to come to peace with her skin and what it means for her, she’s never really able to find a way to be comfortable. There will always be a pressure and a constriction, brought on by intolerance and hate. And the story renders it beautifully, in the way that Agni still tries to save her family, in the way she tries to trust her human love. It all builds to this wrenching feeling, pulled in opposite directions, never allowed to just be because there will be blood in any case. And it’s a difficult but very rewarding read, brilliantly imagined and viscerally heartbreaking. Go check it out!
“A Shoal of Lovers Leads Me Home” by Ama Josephine Budge (4025 words)
No Spoilers: Kwakua is part of the Khana, a group that was changed following a devastating war that left much of the Earth basically uninhabitable. They have been made adaptive and quick, able to filter out most pollution, though they have become more vulnerable to predators in the process. Living in trees in a tightly knit community, Kwakua and her lovers Abenana and Faneyo are having a child, with Kwakua the one carrying it and giving birth. Upon what is supposed to be a happy occasion, though, Kwakua feels only a sort of watchfulness, a sense of impending. It’s vague and unfocused, but it keeps them distant and gives them the feeling that something big is going to change. Because the climate is still changing, getting hotter. Because all futures seem to be narrowing to something bad. Or at least something transformational.
Keywords: Post-Disaster, Change, CW- Pregnancy/Childbirth, Family, Queer MC
Review: The piece for me has a great sense of waiting for something to happen. Kwakua has the sense of change but doesn’t know what shape it will take. All she knows is that the world around her is more and more dangerous, and there’s a longing or a sorrow in her that is getting between her and her lovers. That is leaving her isolated. And I like that the story builds up this broken world and these people who are supposed to be able to survive it and then shows that even they are finding it difficult in the hostile waste humanity made of the Earth. And I like that the story basically takes the characters to a point where they have to see that they haven’t changed enough. That if they want to really reach that reborn world they were promised, it might mean taking steps they don’t want to. I feel the ending is a bit ambiguous and possibly incredibly tragic, but I also feel that there is a reading and an argument to be made that the ending really turns around the tragedy that is unfolding in the burning of the world that the characters all knew. It pushes them to further break from the cycles of what is comfortable, pushing them to keep adapting, to keep changing, to keep surviving even if it means transitioning from the land entirely. For me the piece has this feeling of destruction and rebirth, and most of the characters seem to be waiting for a return to the familiar, to something comfortable and known, when what Kwakua seems to find is that to survive they might have to forsake the known and embrace the unknown and new. A fine read!
“Paper Magic” by Kerry Truong (5400 words)
No Spoilers: Tanyu is a medical student, though perhaps not in the traditional sense. The medicine he studies is magic based, built around the idea of like properties. He’s an excellent student, but trauma from his past prevent him from dealing with blood, something that haunts him both literally and figuratively. Still he’s determined to keep at it and pass his certification exams. Because that’s what’s expected of him. Because that’s what he seems to be good at. Because that’s what he thinks he wants. A random meeting with a paper magician, though, opens his to what might be a new possibility.
Keywords: Medicine, Magic, Blood, Paper, Queer MC, Trauma
Review: I love Tanyu and love the way his situation is built up so that he feels so strongly that he knows what he’s meant to be. A doctor. A healer. Because that’s what people need. Because that would make everything so easy, be so fitting. Especially with the way his parents died. Especially with the prestige that he could earn for being a doctor. He, too, ends up seeing his own trauma surrounding blood as a weakness that he should fix, that he should just do better about. And I love that the story doesn’t hold up that idea. It doesn’t frame his trauma as his fault or weakness, and doesn’t make the case that he’s lesser for having this wound that will not heal. Instead, the story does a great job of making room for him to do something else. Even though it might mean disappointing people. Because the truth is that maybe society as a whole would value him more as a doctor, but it won’t make him as happy as doing something else. He’s good at many things, and just because he could be a good doctor and that’s what so many people want doesn’t mean he has to be a doctor just to ease those people’s regrets. Instead, he begins to see that what makes him happy should guide him, and he can choose to pursue something that’s not necessarily in national best interests because he’ll still be doing something important. Something that will help people. And he won’t be having to hurt himself in order to do it. It’s a heartwarming read, full of challenging the expectations and values that societies have, and it’s an absolutely wonderful read!
“Control” by Davian Aw (4625 words)
No Spoilers: Jan and Chris are business partners, after a fashion, in a venture that promises to help people work out and eat healthy without ever actually having to do so themselves. By swapping bodies using a kind of virtual reality, where Jan and Chris can exercise in the clients’ bodies while those clients spend time in Jan and Chris’. And at first it seems like a great idea, and a definite way to earn a lot of money quickly. But with this tech comes a lot of thorny issues of identity and sensation and, ultimately, violation. The piece is quiet and gets really dark. There’s this sense of hope that carries the idea behind the scheme running into the grinding wheels of reality and the awful things that humans can do to one another.
Keywords: Virtual Reality, Body Swapping, Sesnses, Money, Queer Characters, CW- Rape(?)
Review: Wow. This story. I just love how it challenges the boundaries of bodies, how it grows this feeling of who Jan and Chris are and their friendship and relationship, and how it all builds to this moment of pure horror and shock and yeah, wow. There’s a feeling through the piece for me of slipping, of the characters having to sort of trade away pieces of themselves. Of their lives. And on one level that seems to them like it’s okay. Like it’s worth it. Like it’s like any other job. And in a way it is, because all jobs involve this kind of bargain of time for money. But this one goes much deeper than that and isn’t just about giving some time to work out people who can’t be bothered. It also means that they are letting people into their own bodies, and what happens then is rather...well...fucked up. And it really gets into how that works and the levels of violation involved in what happens to Chris and how she reacts to it. Because the pair are trying to earn money in many ways to escape the cycle that hurts them, that kills them. And yet they find that in trying to get around that cycle, they’ve walked into a trap. They’ve trusted where they shouldn’t, and they have to deal with that. And they have to deal with how they deal with that. It’s an utterly shattering piece, coming as it does in a deconstruction of bodies and minds and identity, and it’s very difficult read because of it. It’s also an incredibly good read, though, full of a kind of hope and crushing sorrow that make it shine. The prose is careful and beautiful, and the impact is devastating. Be careful with this one, but definitely make some time for it, because it’s amazing!
“Versions of the Sun” by A.J. Hammer (4075 words)
No Spoilers: Framed as a nested story, this one follows an unnamed narrator as she writes about finding a sort of tomb in the desert and taking from it a scroll, on which is written a confession of an ancient religious figure. The piece draws in with the promise of some hidden secret from a past age, covered over in superstition and fear. And yet what could easily have been a story about a mummy’s curse or similar horror turns out to be a much more philosophical and pastoral story about the world, and about divinity, and about organized religions. It finds a faith in vastness of the world and of the universe, and beauty and awesome power in the connections all around us. And through the two narrators the story reaches into the past and pulls something out, presenting though another layer to the reader to take to heart as well.
Keywords: Deserts, Religion, Prophecy, Cities, Gods
Review: I love stories that pull off interesting layering effects, and I feel this is a great example of a layered narrative that does something interesting with the format. Because on the shallowest layer of the story, the frame is that of a sort of letter or journal entry. And in that, a similar journal entry or confessional is revealed. And between those two points is a great deal of time and circumstance. To the narrator of the letter, the narrator of the confession might as well be a fiction. So much time has passed that there’s no telling if the person was real or not, or if this was some sort of parable. Similarly, to us as readers, despite the authenticity with which the letter is written, there’s no way for us to know if as fact or fiction (well, we’re coming across it as fiction so we can guess, but more imagine if we found the story detached from that context). And so we become another layer in the story, the narrator of the letter guiding our hand to reach past her and to the older narrative to grab hold of the lessons that she’s talking about, the vision of God in all things, in the world and stars. And then pulling that hand back out, through her layer again, and then into our world. Always there is a divide of doubt and time, where the factual truth is lost but the spiritual truth remains. So that we are part of this chain, looking back on something that could be as old as time—someone looking out at the natural world and being filled with inspiration, with hope, and with love. And wanting move than anything to pass that along, to carry it forward because of how important it can be, how vital to pushing back against greed and visions of god that serve the powerful and corrupt. And it’s an interesting read well worth thinking about!