Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Quick Sips - Apex #81

After an absolutely packed January issue, Apex Magazine is back down to its normal output. Three original stories this month and four poems. I debated reviewing the reprint (which I do recommend people go out and read) but as it's quite long and I'm a bit crunched for time (sorry!), I'm just looking at the original work this month, which is still amazingly good. The fiction hits just the right balance of dark and all hell and yet compelling and entertaining and fun, and the poetry mixes subversive elements with plain ol' weird. Everything works and captures the darkness that Apex is known for, while not really getting bogged down in grit or grim. Anyway, to the reviews!

Art by David Demaret


"The Beast at the End of Time" by Benjanun Sriduangkaew (4000 words)

To me this story is about endings and betrayals. About purpose. In it, a woman awakes after a long sleep. A beast. Unaware completely of herself, of her purpose, of her past. There is a very tech feel to the story, and indeed if I follow it the setting is built around the idea that nanomachines inhabit the air, the world, able to refabricate matter into different matter. Buildings into new buildings, trees into fields of animal pelt, people into marble columns. It's a surreal place, one where the last of humanity lives trying to survive fabricators that have turned on them, that are reshaping the world toward one purpose, toward one aim. It's a story with a mystery at its core, who the woman/beast is, who Nabaat is and what Enmaten, the woman she meets in the near-waste the world has become, is hiding. What Nabaat is hiding from herself. The answers come and when they do it is to the sound of bullet firing and world ending. Betrayals layer each other, betrayals of others and by other and of self and by self. It's a complicated story and one I barely think I understand but it's also intense and haunting and beautifully rendered. And in the end I think the story reveals just enough. Enough motivation, enough pain, enough of the beast that lurks inside to be compelling and rather disturbing. It is not a happy story, but as this is a publication that likes to keep things dark it is fitting, and it is quite well done. There's just enough of everything to keep the tension crisp and the ending brutal and lingering. A great read!

"Anabaptist" by Daniel Rosen (4500 words)

This is a rather interesting story about faith and about experience and about journeys. It focuses on Ephraim as he searches for his brother Jakob, who left their home to find a reason that the sun stopped coming up one day. The two are part of a religious community and aren't allowed to leave, aren't really allowed to know the truth about their situation, their world. It's not difficult to read into that, to see the ways in which their religion blinds them from the wonders of their world and how it fails to account for the varied and wonderful experiences contained within it. The story is about Ephraim's awakening to the world outside, which is very different from what he thought. There are a few interesting twists that make the setting more complex, more layered than it seemed at first, that brings the scope out. Ephraim's experiences are sexual in many ways, the discovery of himself and his desires, the things that no one ever explained to him. And in many ways his story is one of seduction, of being enthralled by the wonders of the world and the universe, though there is some harmony that he finds between his faith and the new worlds that open up. I'm not quite sure what to think of the ending, the implications of what he does, and [SPOILERS] his turning his back on the people he met. I can see that it might be saying, in a way, that people face that truth differently, because his brother is eager to return and he is not, but by the description of what happens to Ephraim there is a bit of moralizing, making his choice the "greater" one by virtue that his is the experience we are left with. Or at least that was my reading, and whatever the case I think the story is worth thinking about, even if I personally don't much care for Ephraim's "revelation," because it does do a good job of showing how isolation and misinformation (especially in regards to religion) can seriously mess kids up when they become adults. Which is well captured here. So yeah, a story worth thinking about.

"The Four Gardens of Fate" by Betsy Phillips ( words)

Here's a great story about psychics and about fate and about justice. It takes an interesting and a very nice look at family, where Kayla is a young woman adopted as a child by two women and brought into their family, made a part of their psychic heritage, for good and, ultimately, for not-quite-so-good. And I love the uncertainty of the story, the way that it seems almost to question itself in the telling, as if it's only giving options and not necessarily what happened. But then, in that it mirrors well its approach to having the Gift, how things are less sure from a distance and then, the closer they draw near, the more immutable they become. And for Kayla it means being draw into a world that's steeped in injustice for those who have come before her, about balancing out some scales that have too long been weighed toward the privileged and wealthy. The character work in the story is great and it's interesting to see a story that features an extended family working together to solve a problem. The action in the piece is nicely rendered, fun and deep and rather creepy. I loved the actual way the foretellings worked, slightly different for each person, and I really liked the ending, the way it all came together, or might come together, the way that in many ways it's the best possible outcome but is still horrifying, still a bloody mess with that laughing jack in the middle of things. There's a lot to like about the story, so definitely do not pass this one up! 


"Calabash" by Mike Jewett

This is an interesting poem told in short lines and quick images. The poem seems to be about shape in some ways, the distinct curves of the calabash, the way the poem draws it to hips, to grenades, the many uses of the gourd that becomes a way of drawing on the feel of a place, the feel of something lost perhaps, or left behind. The poem is full of reminders of shape and sound and taste, sensory details that lead back to the idea of the calabash, to what it might represent. Of course, part of me fears that I'm missing some experience or context that might help me understand the poem more, but from what I can see the poem goes through the way the calabash means many things to many people, is full of uses and seems to grow all over. The plant is a jack-of-all-trades, grows to need and in some ways reflects need, reflects what people want from it to adapt to their desires. It's something that links so many places, that creates something of a living tapestry of humanity, a common element that links us all by our varied uses of the calabash. But I could be entirely wrong about that. To me, that's what the poem seems to be pointing toward, but as I said I don't have much personal experience with the calabash, so I feel rather insecure in my analysis. But there it is. I did quite enjoy the poem, and very much encourage you to read it and make up your own mind. Yeah!

"Little and Red" by Crystal Lynn Hilbert

This is a nice subversion of fairy tale tropes, a way of twisting those messages that are about purity and taint and making them into something else entirely. And I love the way the poem uses food (confession: I am a huge fan of speculative food stories and poems), the way it makes that act, normally something assumed to be feminine and therefore frail/dainty/delicate, and turning it into something still rather feminine (consciously so here) but here rendered brutal/violent/visceral. That way of challenging not necessarily the action but the connotation of the action. Saying yes, here is a woman and she is cooking, but her cooking is what shows her strength and skill and cunning, not her weakness. She is one at home in the wild forest, the animals and "beasts" her customers and the men who linger hoping for victims her prey. It's a nice piece because it shows that here is a woman used to the darkness that surrounds and who embraces it because it's the only way to survive and thrive without becoming the victim of the story. That she was written to be weak and has refused, and instead turned what was to be her weakness (her femininity in baking and her innocence and her isolation) and made it her weapon and her armor. A great poem!

"Arrhythmia" by Heather Morris

This poem imagines a world where the heart resides outside the body, where people keep them in boxes and either display them or hide them or, as in the case of the narrator of the poem, kind of try to forget about them. And I like that idea that the heart is this burden for people, or at least the narrator, this thing that you have to lug about or else put away and never really look at. That it's not a loss to just never care about it or take it out. That in some ways it's too painful to pull out, that the reality of life is a constant struggle of wanting to leave your heart behind because it weighs, because it's used against those who feel. And that there is something free and freeing about leaving it behind, as the narrator muses, that sometimes that quiet of not feeling it, of not feeling, is very seductive. And I like the way the poem moves, the way it touches briefly the way that hearts are gendered, the way that it is all built up in ways to burden those who feel, who are expected to cherish their hearts and decorate them and make them into an object to be admired, to make themselves into an object to be admired. It's a nicely layered poem and the imagery of the hearts in their boxes is striking and well done. And the last line does an excellent job of lingering with so much implication and weight that it anchors the poem nicely, gives it some impact with its landing. Indeed!

"Paper Unicorn" by Laurel Dixon

Here's another poem that skews expectations and subverts some old and rather problematic tropes, this time about unicorns. Here, instead of the strictly noble creature who approaches only maidens, who is too timid to reveal itself to anything less pure, the paper unicorn is a different creature at night when, freed from the labels of others, it can go out aiming to misbehave. Can find perhaps something more sensual than a daylit field with a lone maiden. That innocence is only a paper mask the unicorn wears to hide its true nature, that it's the face it shows the world in part because that's what the world wants to see, wants to believe. That the unicorn is free in the dark because of this daytime deceit, and can finally find in the darkness the light and burning touch it craves. And to me there's a great sense of sensuality barely contained, of want and self and identity that is covered over so that people mistake what they see, mistake the gestures of the unicorn as somehow pure. That they refuse to see the truth underneath because it is more comfortable to maintain the lie, to maintain the system despite the illusion. It's the shortest poem of the issue and but it has a sense of rebellious energy that I find infectious, a fun that can't be avoided, and a desire that cannot be suppressed. A great way to close out the issue!

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