|Art by Tangmo Cecchini|
January might not bring a fan-appreciation issue like in the last few years, but it doesn't mean that there isn't a lot to read, with three short stories and a novelette that definitely bring the strange and luminous to Apex Magazine's usual run of dark SFF. The pieces all deal with memories, and with something strange and almost magical brushing against the more "mundane" realities of the worlds they reveal. Our world, in some cases, but not always. And it's certainly a mix of interesting and delicately-imagined settings, ripe with injustice, hurt, and longing, and before I spoil too much, let's get right to the reviews!
"The Pulse of Memory" by Beth Dawkins (5100 words)
No Spoilers: Cal is a youth on a ship with a strange and rather deadly law—that all people may only live to sixty-five, so that their memories are not corrupted, so that they can be devoured by special fish that house their memories and pass them along to the next generation. That way, nothing is lost. That way, young people obtain skills through those memories that allow them to more easily integrate into the system of the ship. What the ship is doing, and where it is going, isn't really the point of the piece. Instead, the focus is on this means of limited reincarnation, and the cost of it. The loss, and the life, and the ways that Cal is drawn to the fish. To the memories. To the life that their grandmother introduced them to. And it's a dark piece exploring memory, and life, and utility. It's a kind of mystery, a question that is never full answered, and it moves with a strange and pressing force.
Keywords: Memories, Fish, Space, Family, Generations
Review: I like the way this story builds up this situation, from the way that Cal is indoctrinated to the system, which admittedly is a bit creepy. At the same time, though, there is I feel a certain appeal to it, to the idea that nothing is lost, to the idea that people can live on in their memories. It's something that Cal is definitely taken in by, through the words of their grandmother. But I also feel that there's something even darker going on as well, where Cal is being prepared to take part in a backlash against this system. In a plot to destroy it. Because they are driven to take in more and more memories. More and more lives. Which does open them up to Repair, a persona that they take in that is powerful enough to take over their body. To try and reach them about the history of loss and sorrow that goes along with this system. For me, it's a piece that doesn't so much condemn the practice of passing along memories as it condemns the way this system is run without consent. Where people are killed who don't want to participate. Where everything that isn't desired is suppressed. And yet it also acts as a poison within the closed circuit, where the memories themselves, the lives that have been recycled, are pissed about it. And no amount of romanticizing it, no amount of dogma that Cal takes in, can really get over that desire in humans to live. That there is never enough time, and that lives do not always fit neatly into plans that are constrained to sixty-five years. It's a rather difficult read, not necessarily because of any specific content but because of the ways that Cal completely believes in the system, that it has their best interests at heart, until he realizes that it's more complicated than that, by which time it's already too late. Which is where a lot of the piece's darkness and tragedy comes in, and it makes for a great read!
"The Great Train Robbery" by Lavie Tidhar (9200 words)
No Spoilers: The Stranger and his new traveling companion, the Kid, are riding a train following a rather violent confrontation in the last town they were in. The two are a bit of a weird pair, but both are handy with a guy and both are looking for something. For the Kid, it seems to be a person, for the Stranger, it's a certain cure that he's been desperately searching for, though the why of it is a bit mysterious. There's also Loretta, an aerialist thief who roams about with a troupe of fellow high fliers and their dangerous leader, Carl. The piece unfolds in the Escapement, a place that carries a dreamlike quality and mixes fantasy, science fiction, and a quasi Weird Western aesthetic while layering the experience over top a more modern and mundane world that might be accessible with drugs or might be something else entirely. It's a deeply odd read, an adventure that does feel like something out of a pulpy adventure. At the same time, there are enough hints of something deeper, and darker, going on that make this compelling, resonating, and fascinating.
Keywords: Drugs, Trains, Theft, War, Escape, Alternate Reality
Review: I love the weirdness of this piece, the way that it unfolds in this place that is so strange and fantastic, and yet also has this hint that something else is going on. Whether the Escapement is the dream/hallucination/etc., or whether it is the "real world" is something that might seem obvious in context (the name seems a dead giveaway, no?), but it seems to go deeper than that, where people in the Escapement view that other world as the mirror, as the shadow, and their own experiences as "real." Even the Stranger, who might be someone who in that other world has a child with an incurable disease, in the Escapement is an adventurer, a gunslinger, someone who can _do something_. For the people in the Escapement, the lives on the other side seem dull and tedious. It's something like our world, where they work and come home and have pets and that sort of thing, where the Escapement is exciting and alive and allows them to approach their problems through metaphor and projection. It's this experience where the Strange deals with maybe feeling powerless by being someone with some amount of power. Only, of course, as the story progresses, even that is challenged, and I love how the piece builds to this moment of shattering confrontation, where the action of the Escapement takes place in the shadow of a war between titans for whom everyone else is an insect. And the Stranger and everyone else have to face that even in this world where they feel like they have some control, they control nothing. It's something that Loretta can see, and can understand, and it makes this piece that is otherwise energetic and fun something that is more nuanced and a bit more melancholy. Here we see that even given this vast Escapement, people aren't really able to, well, escape. They play at it, and their adventures feel a bit more cinematic and exciting. But there's also a brutality and an ugliness that remains, and it makes for a captivating and complex read. But it's definitely a piece to spend some time with, with some beautiful prose, stunning action, and nuanced characters. Go read it!
"The Small White" by Marian Coman, translated by Sebastian Simion (4200 words)
No Spoilers: This is a beautifully tragic story featuring a narrator navigating a strict school and an eroding political situation in Romania. The piece focuses on art that appears as if by magic on a number of houses. Butterflies. A bit of fragile beauty set against a world that seems to be descending into violence. The narrator seems to be a young boy who is tangentially connected to the art, drawn to it because of the power and peace and wonder that the butterflies evoke, and finding out who the artist is, though not really sure what it all means. It's a story that carries a certain...not nostalgia exactly, but that evokes childhood and a time of just coming aware of the darkness of the world, of the dangers and the uncertainty. The narrator's home life is full of quiet worry and a kind of desperation that no one talks about, but that definitely makes itself known by the end of the tale, which falls into horror, and darkness, and loss.
Keywords: Butterflies, School, Dreams, Family, Art
Review: I love the fragility of the butterflies and the beauty that they bring into this world, which at first seems full only of the tyranny of youth, of cruel teachers and endless homework and the sense of having to always toil without much in rewards. Because the setting is one where all the adults seem to know things are getting worse, and were never that great to begin with. There is something building, and in the background there is the sense that something is looming, ready to strike. Which, of course, it does, but only after the narrator has experienced some of the wonder of these butterflies for themself. And I love the way that the piece builds to that, how it feels so real in how it portrays and captures childhood, all of these characters carrying a kind of innocence about them, even as that innocence is shaped by the world they live in, the dangers that they cannot fully be ignorant of. And the piece does get into some very dark territory, building to the moment when the narrator is taken, when everything goes up in smokes and fire and death, showing that the beauty of the butterflies...that it was something that would both last and fade. That this time in the narrator's life would still hold a bit of nostalgia and magic, but that it would be covered by smoke and loss and hurt. It's a gutting read, so understated in its horror that it's almost surprising when it happens, even as it seems the only way the piece could have gone. It's difficult and complex, but that beauty doesn't every truly leave, and it gives the piece (for me, at least) an ethereal, wondrous feeling. A fantastic read!
"Bone Song" by Aja McCullough (750 words)
No Spoilers: The miller is a lonely man who one day happens across a body in the water near his home. A body that he takes. A body that speaks to him. That wants expression, for the woman the body once was, and never completely stopped being. Only it's time as a woman has ended, and so the miller makes the body into something different. Something new. And the piece is filled with a kind of haunting, a reaching yearning feeling and a sense, I think, of betrayal. The darkness here springs from the ways that the miller listens, and the ways that he does not, and it crafts together an almost tender but no less horrific abuse. It's short and nearly sweet, if not for the bitter notes that overpower with their need and grace and rage.
Keywords: Music, Murder, Crafting, Songs, Bodies
Review: I like how this story weaves together its elements, how it begins with this body and finds the miller filled with inspiration because of it. How the body wants to be shaped into something that can sing, that can give voice to its story and its longing, and how the miller takes that and twists it into something...well, pretty fucking messed up. And really that's what I find so compelling and dark about the piece, that he does almost exactly what the body wants. What the woman wants. He crafts her into an instrument that is able to tell everyone about the tragedy of her death. But here, just as when she was murdered, her agency is taken away. Her life is taken away. Not through a second death but in a way that is almost worse, because it's such a willful and selfish act on the part of the miller, who falls in love with the instrument and refuses to follow through on her desires. He keeps her to himself, listening to her tragedy but never really letting it move him to act, to try and make right the crimes committed against her. Her voice is one she meant to sway hearts, and in a way it did, but in a way that holds her captive and allows the one who murdered her to go free, that allows the person she loved to never know what happened. It's a nicely magical, almost fairy-tale-esque piece where one almost hopes that someone else happens along to hear the song and act, only the piece gives no real hope of that, and instead ends on the lingering loss that the miller has mistaken for affection. A nice read and a great way to close out the original fiction!