|Art by Lorna Antoniazzi
Finally I’m getting to the end of my initial reviews of things released on the last day of September. There will definitely be spillover into at least next month, but today I’m looking at the first part of the extra-huge latest issue of Augur Magazine, which has been quiet on the release front since December. They make up for the absence with 16 different pieces, spread over fiction, poetry, and graphic fiction. Today I’m looking at the first three stories and three poems, which build up a rather grim thematic feel centering loss and grief. With characters who are imprisoned in various ways, either literally or more metaphorically. It’s not an easy bunch of works to approach, and readers will do well to mind the various content warnings posted before the stories. But it’s a beautiful start to what is shaping up to be a fantastic issue, and I’ll jump right into my reviews!
“Prism” by S. D. Brown (short story)
No Spoilers: The narrator of this story is in prison for an unknown reason, prevented from graduating college and prevented from raising the child that is taken from her as soon as she gives birth. What remains of her time in prison is full of memories and desires. Desires for music, desires to be with her son. Desires that lead her to discover a way to move beyond her cell, out into the world, if only for a short while, and for a heavy price. And it doesn’t bring her much peace, either internally or with her roommate, and things sort of boil over as time passes and her future shrinks into the shadows of her cell. The piece is heavy and grim, spots of hope darkened by a system ripe with tragedy and pain that the light can penetrate but not dispel.
Keywords: CW- Prisons, Family, Music, Teleportation, CW- Pregnancy/Childbirth, CW- Cancer
Review: The story does a great job of capturing the narrator’s anger, the ways that she might act out a bit because of her pain, because her desires, her wants, are met with such strict punishments. When she wants music, she is mocked, she is hated. And the way that hurts pushes her to do things that only get her into more trouble, that only lead to her experiencing more pain. But the need to act is there, in her bones, the need to try for things even if they seem impossible. Unfortunately, she’s operating at such a disadvantage. Black and not wealthy, a woman whose wants don’t align to the narrow avenue that seems open to her. And she ends up in prison, her child stolen from her, everything around her dangerous, sharp. Her one escape becomes a strange power that comes from the music she loves, that allows her out of her cell if only for a while, to meet with the son she never got to know. Only it, too, takes a heavy toll, and each time it happens she comes back less, drained, weaker. And still has to deal with those who want to exploit her, that was to take her power or else sever her from it. The piece is difficult in how grim it gets, and I’d pay special attention to the content warnings at the beginning of the piece. But it’s also a powerful and real story about want and about cost and about injustice. We never get to find whatever it is that she “did” that led to her imprisonment, but in many ways it doesn’t matter. “Guilty” or not, the punishment is inhumane, dehumanizing, and the result is only a deepening of the tragedy and pain. It’s a gutting, complex read, but one very much worth spending some time with. A powerful experience!
“Flowers of Cerrado” by H. Pueyo (short story)
No Spoilers: Priscilla is living in a ravaged city following an “attack” by something most people believe to be a demon. A demon that rampaged, killing so many, including Priscilla’s best friend, Isabel, and the father of Priscilla’s unborn child, Leandro. Still reeling from her own losses, Priscilla has to find a way to try and still help people, because despite everything she still has powers gifted to her by a maned wolf--powers of healing and light that might be able to save some people, even if they were unable to prevent the catastrophe from unfolding. The piece plays out in an aftermath, with a haunted, broken feeling. But through that there is a hope, too, a recognition that helping others is about more than mending bones, that it means maybe being a force of good, and walking the world with a warmth and love despite the hate and horrors out there.
Keywords: Magic, Loss, Demons, CW- Pregnancy, Healing, Powers
Review: This is a strange piece for me, a story about a woman with powers given to her so that she’d help others. A woman who has lost a lot because of what people call a demon. But that isn’t a demon. Is in fact just a concentration of negative energy and emotions. The eruption of something that had been building in the city for a long time. And it’s something that can feed itself, feed on the negative emotions that it causes, growing stronger and stronger. It threatens to take Priscilla, to grow inside her like a child, to make her into a tool of that negative energy, that encostos. A vessel for it. because she is weighed down by her grief and her pain, by her apathy and her lack of kindness. But she’s reminded of that, reminded that she has power still, even if she couldn’t save the people she loved. She still has power over her body, still has power over what future she wants to move towards. She just needs to move, to let go of the past and start healing herself. Which is no easy thing, given what she’s lost, given how precious it was. But at the same time, she needs to make the call, to let the encostos grow and build inside her or to let it go, to wash it away, and to take a risk on the future. For me, despite the content warnings (which I do recommend people check out), the ending I thought implied a birth, that Priscilla was going to have her child, rather than she was terminating it. That, at least, might be the more optimistic interpretation, as it still imagines a future for her and her child, a future without Isabel and Leandro, but still a future worth living, and for Priscilla a way to steer a course forward without being anchored to the past by grief and anger. She releases her fear and her pain, and embraces where she is, and where she’s going. At least, for me the piece ends on a rush of hope, a swelling of light, and it makes for a wonderful read!
“What Lies Within” by Isha Karki (short story)
No Spoilers: This story twists the fairy tale of the princess and the pea, reworking it into something sharp, bloody, and unsettling. It focuses on Swarna, a woman who becomes the wife of a visiting businessman, a man who wanted access to forbidden riches and seems to have “settled” on Swarna instead. He brings her back to his home with a bed made from trees from her home and a pie of mattresses that tower up. It’s a story that builds to an acute horror, the situation at first seeming only a little off but increasingly defined by Swarna’s forced silence, pain, and exploitation. There’s a great flavor to the piece, a focus on food and sustenance, but also of hunger, and the grim reminders of colonialism, misogyny, and abuse.
Keywords: Marriage, Food, Chickpeas, Dreams, Beds, CW - Abuse
Review: On the one hand, I love SFF stories that feature food, and this one definitely brings that element alive, Swarna remembering the food of her home as vibrant, as able to literally speak. It’s a huge source of joy for her, and the largest part of what she seems to miss about her home. It’s also, however, where the grimness of the piece starts to invade, because the desire for exploitation that Swarna’s husband holds is about food. Exploiting that food for profit, and not really out of enjoyment. The culture, the importance, all that is stripped away, and what remains is the potential for markets, for wealth, for trade. But it builds slowly, the horror, starting with just a worrying point, a single spot of discomfort, a pea felt through so many layers of mattress and blanket. It’s a wonderful complication of a fairy tale that I don’t really see used in SFF all that much, and the result is uncomfortable and chilling and just fuck, yeah, not at all easy to read. but it speaks to the situation that Swarna is in, all alone, having been taken in ways that she didn’t understand and now knows she doesn’t want. Subject now to the whims of her husband, to his desires above all else, even when that comes on the corpse of her mother, on the perversion of her beliefs and culture. It’s a grim and sharp story, claustrophobic and nightmarish and that ending! Wow! Really, it’s something you have to experience yourself, and I highly recommend you do so, with all disclaimers that it’s a difficult, shattering read!
“Divining Manëtuwàk at the Banks of the Wabash” by D. A. Lockhart
This piece speaks to me of language, of place, of a person driving out to a place of seldom-traveled countryside and discovering, or rediscovering, something speaking to them. The poem itself is a voice speaking a kind of instruction, a kind of direction, leading the You of the piece to take in the world around them, this land marked by road and invasive species of plants, the implication running deeper, toward all the ways the land has been invaded. And You are asked to peel some of that away, the language of the piece for me speaking to a kind of reclaiming, a reassertion of the older names, of shrugging of the ways that things have been invaded, colonized. If not quite literally, because that kind of damage can’t just be shrugged off, then at least metaphorically, choosing to know things by those names that connect through You to a deeper and older system of naming and thinking about things. As the poem progresses, the use of names changes, stops using those that would be familiar to most anglophone readers and doesn’t bother to give that much in the way of context. Readers who lack the linguistic or cultural knowledge of what’s being said (myself included) have to wonder what exactly is happening while still being able to understand the shape of it, the image of it. But we’re not centered, and the returns mentioned in the end, the ancestors, speak to taking things back from the colonized, returning to a language and relationship with the setting, with the world, from before the roads and before invasive grasses to when things were a lot different. It’s an interesting poem, in some ways lonely to me but with a rising power, a connection that erases the loneliness and provides a source of identity, purpose, and power. A great read!
“His Dream” by Jamies Collier
This is a strange read for me, one that evokes dreams and the dream-like, the language and the form of the poem broken, disjointed. There’s a narrator, and there’s a Troy, and there seems something between them, something young and hot and twisted by something. A trauma. An incident. Or something less concrete. But there’s something for me kinda horrific about the poem, chilling, like the narrator has seen Troy die, or come across his body, or imagined doing so. It’s so difficult to parse dream and reality, fantasy and gutting truth here, and I think that’s a big part of it for me, that for the narrator the dream is almost as good as reality, reflect if not what happened then a version of it. Who Troy is...is unknown, ultimately. A friend, a lover, an idol, even the narrator themself, seeing themself from the outside. The piece has all the structure and cadence that one might find with a blackout poem, winding over the space of the page, not quite meeting up but evoking something real and haunting and difficult. For me it speaks of loss, and the scars of that loss, like leaving someone behind you had a crush on and finding out later that they’ve died somehow, or been killed. And being shaped by that loss, that absence. That imagining becoming something like a spell, a magic. The dream is just strange and a bit of a nightmare, blending desire and loss, joy and pain. Whatever the case, it’s a wonderfully imagined piece, painting just enough of a picture for the reader to fill in the blanks, to add their own baggage and imagination to the mix, to create something personally harrowing as the poem keeps things ambiguous and disconnected. It’s a great effect, and a wonderful read!
“Out of Myself” by Manahil Bandukwala
This is another rather strange poem and one that builds around a central image of the narrator growing two heads, red colored, with teeth sharp and able to cut through the coating on their body. For me it speaks to a kind of freedom, the heads monstrous but necessary to get through the barriers, the labels, the containment that is on them. As the title to me implies, there is an effort here to escape themself, the narrator wanting to break out of the constraints that they feel are too much, at least right now. The heads they grow seem to be a response to something immediate, a reaction that might not even be entirely conscious, entirely voluntary. They grow the heads that rend, that clench, that tear, that might protect them from something they are feeling, might protect them from some sort of attack from without. Or within? For me the piece looks at this way of making something invisible immediate and tangible. The narrator seems to have these desires welling in them, battling, but also holding a kind of tender power to them. The heads are muscular and strong, like dinosaurs, at the same time seemingly outside the narrator’s control but reflecting some deep truth within them. And the way they are described is...almost triumphant. Admiring. And ultimately I think affirming, that here the narrator feels they can finally bring out this part of themself and express it, have it expressed, in a way that people can’t really reject or hurt. The heads are powerful and terrifying, able to defend themselves, and they don’t seem to give too much of a fuck what other people think of them. For the narrator, for the poem, they are a source of something deep and long hidden making itself known, and I rather love it. A fantastic read!