Best of Apex Magazine - review #21 - She Gave Her Heart, He Took Her Marrow by Sam Fleming

There is a curious fey quality to this story, even Fay, with the odd man and his hat and the fog hiding the island, and... but it isn't a fairy story


She Gave Her Heart, He Took Her Marrow by Sam Fleming.

Chancery is autistic (or has Aspergers) - one day her only friend in the world, Annabel, decided to leave. Desperate for her to stay, Chancery went outside, experienced the strange events that followed, and which ended up with Annabel going to the shore and drowning herself. And there she meets Hedron, who saves her from pain, and... Hedron is clearly an odd person himself, who has no idea why, for example, the people who go into the sea are drowning. He's aware that Chancery is different because the others don't try to talk to him either. He keeps her alive. For five years with no one else around, but the Oilers, who come for the oil and who Chancery trades with for things like chocolate. Theirs is a strange but symbiotic(?) relationship. Eventually Chancery meets Kay, an Oiler who isn't people but a potential friend, and welcomes her despite Hedron's annoyance. Kay may be right that Chancery is fading, but she wrongly believes that Chancery survived because she is immune to the spores which cause others to Walk (there are some zombie-like remnants of people who are Hedrons eyes and ears and guards). When Chancery refuses to go back with Kay, she is kidnapped, and faces a future of medical testing, except Hedron comes to fetch her. Death follows for everyone but Chancery, and Hedron makes his intent to keep her alive and happy toothily clear. If she is, indeed, failing as Kay thought, I'm definitely not hopeful about where that goes.

It's an excellent idea, with a little more expanded weird than I was entirely happy with and that Chancery wasn't going to explain. I wonder if the first part, followed by the flashback and trail forward was better than starting at the start, but then Kay would have arrived halfway through... on the other hand it's difficult to feel concern for a character's previous life-threatening danger when you already know they survive. It might also have helped bridge the slight distance from Chancery which bugged me a little.

It's an idea driven story with a little weird romance that felt like it could have been a little tighter wound and wrapped.

And I don't think I'd have put it at the end of the book.

But then I'd have swapped out at least five stories so...

Best of Apex Magazine - review #20 - Pocosin by Ursula Vernon

Another Vernon! I guess at this penultimate place so her stories don't become brackets?


Pocosin by Ursula Vernon

I like well-written witches, and old gods, and they combined a treat here.
Women at the edges of things, and a god that doesn't fit the binary people tend to make of the world. I love how every detail is like a dust mote in a sunbeam, sparkling and then gone for the next to catch fire.

UV has her voice, she has multiple narrator voices, but there is a turn of the head, a slow smile, a sudden pin-sharp gaze, that makes her writing distinctive. I'm a fan.
The story of Maggie protecting a dying god from... well God, and the Devil, so he can avoid being part of their big bad squabble but go with Death and maybe come back again... it's quiet and sharp and made me smile and sigh.

Best of Apex Magazine - review #19 - Armless Maidens of the American West by Genevieve Valentine

Oh, this is the dark and strangely touching story I need...


Armless Maidens of the American West by Genevieve Valentine

This is another short piece, it reads fast and fluidly and it's in 2nd person (take that haters!)

It actually reads shorter than it is, because it carries you swiftly and clearly along, somewhere between a ghost story and a nightmare where a girl can survive having her arms cut off to wander at the edge of society, talked of but never talked to.

Imagined but never seen.

There's an underlying darkness but rationality and the individual impulse to kindness... helps, I think.

Strongly written and a brilliant idea that has everything a story needs plus that special spark of... something.

Best of Apex Magazine - review #18 - Build-A-Dolly by Ken Liu

This is as if the Toy Story movies spawned a desire for intelligent dolls that could suffer...


Build-A-Dolly by Ken Liu

I read, I was enthralled and horrified and OMG it was horrible, a nightmarish prospect and reminder of how much cruelty humans bring to the world.

It is short, entirely rocked, and bites deep.

The end scene, which blends multiple irresponsibilities, may give me nightmares.

I full on recommend it.

[But... just as a nit-picky bit of bitching that's more general than this story -- not everyone responds to bullying by being mean to others. Not everyone who is bullied secretly wants their bully to like them. Not even when it's all middle-class girls bullying each other. Sometimes it may even be that the bully wants the person being bullied to interact with them, to respect them. I get a little freaked by the repeated portrayal of bullied kids themselves being bullies when they can, because perhaps in the back of people's minds that makes bullying natural (she'd do it if she had the power) and in some ways deserved (she's being bullied because she's nasty)

Amy could as easily be mean to Dolly for reasons other than being bullied -- bullies get nice toys too.

And... how come it's always girls get shown in these contexts? Boys always have to be victims of physical assault bullying, as if boys are immune to words and snubs]

Best of Apex Magazine - review #17 - Still Life (A Sexagesimal Fairy Tale) by Ian Tregillis

1. I am curious that two stories seem to use sexagesimal to indicate they're about time.

2. I wish that there hadn't been an error in my print copy of the book that meant two pages of this story were out of order and my having to hunt about when the story flashed forward unintentionally did not make my experience of the narrative an untroubled one.


Still Life (A Sexagesimal Fairy Tale) by Ian Tregillis

A clockmaker in a place without time, falls in love with a man who doesn't age, though she does. She uses up her life trying to win his heart, and then to undo the harm she's done while trying to win his heart.

It's a classically formed fairy tale, with some neat images and ideas, and well written. I suspect a live-action movie would be epic, the written version certainly catches the heart and mind

A happy ending! (Unless the description of Time as a puppy makes you sad he can't win the girl... that's probably just me)

I'm not entirely sure how Tink ends up with Valentine, but her love for him was also pretty sudden and I probably shouldn't fight the happy ending (after so many complaints).

I could have done with this a little earlier, to cleanse the palate.

Best of Apex Magazine - review #16 - L’esprit de L’escalier by Peter M. Ball

It's a long way down...


L’esprit de L’escalier by Peter M. Ball

A guy walks down a never-ending staircase to scatter his dead lover's ashes. He goes further than anyone has been recorded going and keeps on. Along the way he has written things about their relationship, some truths, some lies, mostly trivia.

It is a metaphor.

And when I finished I thought it would have been cool to put this at the end of the anthology -- but then a book full of sad stories with this at the end... maybe not. I don't know what is at the end yet but maybe pushing oneself to read another story keeps one from dwelling a little too much (and now I'm extending the metaphor beyond the story)

It's not perfect, but it has a lot to be said for it, and says a fair bit for itself.

(Or reading a large amount of downward trending fiction makes the effort of an endless staircase to nowhere shinier)

Best of Apex Magazine - review #15 - The Green Book by Amal El-Mohtar

There's a weird desire for people to call stories told in letters etc experimental, as if entire books hadn't been written that way for a goodly number of years. I suspect it gets the tag now because so often the work fails... This one doesn't.


The Green Book by Amal El-Mohtar

If a story warns you that there won't be a neatly wrapped up ending is the lack of an ending a problem? (Not in this case)

AE begins with a library collection style note, telling us that we'll be reading a letter by Dominic to persons unknown, in which he's copying part of a book that has become the obsession of his master, Leuwin. We're told there are pages that accompanied this letter missing -- and it's a warning that this is over, and that however it ended we're maybe not going to find out (or the note would read differently).

The letter gives an urgency to the copied material -- Dominic is seeking help, to save his master from his obsession with a small green book... that he now knows writes itself, at least in part. The letter also explains the helpful notes through the rest of the story which detail hand-writing, missing pieces, stains etc. It described the book of the title and then we move to the copied contents.

Through several writers and sections we learn that someone, a woman, was tortured and killed and somehow remains in the book -- at the beginning of which is an invocation to Hecate(?) -- the blank pages of the book demand to be written on, and the Sisters (we suspect are not good people) think is magic and give it to Leuwin as a curiosity.
He discovers the woman trapped in the book. And gradually they write to each other and fall in love. Eventually he is obsessed with freeing her, she is scared he'll get himself killed, and both can see the end of the book -- of communication -- coming closer with every word written. They argue and fall to silence.

Dominic, in copying the book, ends up also in brief communication with Cynthia -- too scared of being drawn into magic to reply. His letter ends with Leuwin's return, and the threat that the Sisters may not let Dominic survive his knowledge of them.

And, as warned, that's all we get.

The writing is ace and the format, even with dropping two levels into the story, doesn't distance from the emotion.

I don't know if it was the fullness of world so abruptly taken away, or just my own desire, that wondered if this was a short story that comes from a novel -- that the Green Book etc are part of a larger story and a small piece of that world has been clipped out and presented here. That somewhere I can learn about the Sisters, and... well everything, the story is rich in sharp fragments of detail you want to explore further.

I liked the short short story - and I want to read more (not in this format, or well if there was a way to expand this but I don't think so... I just want more)

Best of Apex Magazine - review #14 - Blood on Beacon Hill by Russell Nichols

This story had pretty solid writing, quite possibly lost some parts in translation (the US is a land that gets peculiarly different from the UK in unexpected ways)...

and made me uncomfortable at several points.



Blood on Beacon Hill by Russell Nichols

The story opens in a court, with the son of a wealthy politically connected family on trial for statutory rape of the daughter of a wealthy politically connected family - the boy is black and the girl is white. Oh and the boy is a vampire born in 1899.

The problem with immortals sitting at the back of things, like the court, is that it's difficult to see why you'd want the potentially dangerous monster sitting behind you where you can't see it--

Sorry, I want to be detached and write a reasonable review and move on... but mostly I'm thinking that I really didn't need a black boy rapes white girl story in this SFF anthology.

This is what the story tries really hard to skirt and justify. A guy who may look 15 but is a hundred years older than that has sex with a 15 year old girl, and he knows that she is 15. He is powerless to resist her 15 year old self, even though he's a vampire, and can even fly, because of his teenage hormones and because he doesn't get sex very often being trapped in a 15 year old boy's body (are there no other vampires his age? or is there another reason he can't get a date? the prosecutor and I are both curious) The girl loses her virginity to him, possibly as part of a plot, but at the very least she is a cold calculating little underage betrayer who ends up getting him into court on rape charges for... telling the truth. Because he did the crime. He also serves her carnivorous plants that don't sound like they belong on the underage menu either but that's kind of beside the point... I have a privileged black youth in court who has committed statutory rape -- I don't care how inviting or forceful or drunk or flirty or privileged or whatever she was... his defence in the trial is that because he can't get regular sex he should somehow be forgiven statutory rape. The story goes to great lengths to make the teenage girl despicable, part of a plot, a temptress who forces herself on him...

But the guy only had to wait a couple of days, a week at most, and she'd have been legal (well possibly legal, I'm assuming, if the age of consent there is 18 he's definitely fu-- so maybe she wouldn't have waited but that's what men really need to learn -- don't rape, even if it's the only way you get/want sex, you don't rape)

He lives forever, and needs to move somewhere with a lower age of consent if he wants to drink hymens more often. It's not like he could have got away with this behaviour when he *was* 15.

I'm just not comfortable with a story that seems to want me to sympathise with the 115 year old protagonist's lack of self-control and has to make so much of an only nearly just 16yr old girl being a scheming honey trap. She's a teenager, with a father who clearly doesn't give any thought to her welfare -- because this rape case is not going to make her life particularly pleasant long after he's, maybe, won the election (lots of people judge the girl more harshly than the boy in a rape case) -- and can really claim to be young and led astray.

How do you avoid being on trial for rape? Rule number one - don't knowingly commit statutory rape. I feel like I have to keep saying this because... this story got published.

Why on earth would anyone write this around the statutory rape of a minor, when he could surely have been seduced by an 18 year old girl with very few changes - or is a story woven round a true accusation of statutory rape less problematic than one with a false rape accusation, in our current topsy turvey internet morality?

Or, just as a crazy womanish idea -- how about accusing him of assault/attempted murder for non-consensual theft of her blood rather than rape?

That, at least, would have helped with the first problem.

I found it hard to read beyond or around that, but then the ending, where he lets himself be killed by the mob (or flies away), only high-lighted that none of this mattered. And yes, that's where the second problem comes, because Teddy is black.

I have no idea what the comparison is for conviction and sentence length of rich white rapists versus rich black rapists. Rich white versus middle class or lower black... or middle class white versus middle class black... easier odds to calculate.

How much do dying folk hate immortals? Where do dying folk get their blood, or where did they get their blood? Do they drink human blood now, did they once drink human blood? Has Teddy killed a few dying folk back in the old days? I don't know, so honestly I can't tell how innocent he is.

The strongest argument that can be used against racial prejudice in the justice system is that the colour of a person's skin doesn't predispose them to commit crimes against others -- if, however, you're faced with an immortal teenager who may or may not drink human blood from the vein and has self-control issues that have resulted in his raping a 15 yr old girl... is it wrong to feel threatened (whatever the colour of his skin)?

I know the blackness of Teddy's skin is meant to be big-time meaningful to the story. But combining two potential bigotries, and having one not unreasonable, blurs any point about the other. Is Teddy being treated more harshly than a white vampire would be? I haven't actually seen many depictions of white teen vampires having underage sex the same day they meet to be able to judge if a black teen vampire would be condemned for doing the same things story has a point. ('True Blood' is the only set of vampires I know where there's the possibility of a trial and I stopped watching somewhere in the second season? Other than that all the teen vampires I know would just be killed, whatever their colour)]

Teddy's defence is pretty much that he will never grow up -- and since there's no reason to believe he'll get any better at finding sexual partners given he's had 100 years of increasingly available options... Who's to say he won't move from statutory rape to just plain rape? Or serial statutory rape? Who can say that this isn't just the first time he's been charged? (because he didn't know his victim's family was as prominent and powerful as his own *and* willing to throw their daughter under the campaign bus)

“These fucking mortals, they’re scared of our power: We’re stronger, faster, smarter. We can fly, goddammit!

If you make a reasonable case for people to be wary it isn't entirely prejudice. Rabbits do not, in general, mix socially with foxes. Rabbits are not prejudiced... or perhaps they are but if so it's a survival trait.

Or I'll put my head on the block and point out that if an African American considers calling the police to be a potentially dangerous action, they may be prejudging perfectly honest, calm, and sensible people in uniform, but I couldn't say they were wrong to believe as they do.

Oddly enough, Teddy thinks that if the crowd kills him his father will get sympathy votes enough to win the election. So not that much prejudice against black vampires then, if a mob murdering one makes a rape charge go away. (We're not led to believe that immortals outnumber the dying folk)

Anyhow, Teddy commits statutory rape. He takes the girl home, at her insistence, so we can see his heartily dysfunctional family -- his sister has committed at least one murder and his mother rapes corpses so... yeah -- and since US politics is dirty top to bottom (maybe that's also a trope fiction writers should use less if they don't want people voting to drain the swamp) the dying girl turns out to be her father's tool in discrediting his father. He is upset because she 'betrays' him. Court case rumbles on. Teddy is upset because his father thinks not being in court will help and so decides not to wait for the bizarre venus fly trap test (which I'm pretty sure could be appealed), or to go to prison for twenty years, but commits suicide by mob.

If the mob kills him -- I'm a little hazy on how you kill him and if the mob know either.

It might be easier to read it as him flying away, because he can fly, and a rapist flying away from any responsibility is not an uncommon thing outside this story universe.

Well enough written story. But to what end?

Best of Apex Magazine - review #13 - Remembery Day by Sarah Pinsker

This is a good solid story to read, until it makes the tragic error of pointing out it's own logic flaw... or does it?


Remembery Day by Sarah Pinsker

This is narrated first person by the daughter of a veteran of a terrible and brutal war. Thankfully we get her name a couple of paragraphs in -- Clara. Oddly enough the first section, where Clara is polishing her mother's boots for the parade while trying not to let her mother see, gave me my first "huh?" --

I had seen Nana clean them before, but this marked the first time I was allowed to do it myself.

With an important, and slightly complicated, job like polishing boots wouldn't Nana have not just let Clara see her doing the work but had her do it while being supervised before letting her do the boots by herself when there was a time constraint?

Mama didn’t often wake up this early on days she didn’t have to work.

But she does today, which is good, but how do they get her up other years? Does she wake after the Veil has been lifted, there's a whole paragraph telling how Clara has seen her mother's reaction multiple times, and yet if she normally doesn't get up this early...

I find the suggestion that it's her mother's day, so closely followed by rejecting her mother's desire to skip the parade this year, a wonderful indication that Remembery Day is not for the Vets. That the 'allies' around the world all sing the same two songs (and have to have their ceremonies at less convenient times) a warning about what this world is really like.

We watch the parade with Clara, and after are introduced to the idea that the Vets are voting on something -- for reasons best know to SP that they're voting whether to have the Veil come down again is kept secret to the next section. I'm not sure that does anything positive.

“But she wants to remember.”
“It wouldn’t do anyone any good if she ran into one of her friends in the grocery store who didn’t remember her. It has to be everybody or nobody, Nana.”

That it's Clara who explains to her grandmother makes the pressure backwards, from the next generation, more evident again. But... how is running into someone you recognise at the grocery store any different from seeing boots being polished that you don't recognise, or being crippled and scarred and not knowing how that happened -- or else believing a lie. The Veil doesn't sound like memories are being replaced, so somehow a bunch of people meeting at disability events etc don't wonder why so many of them are fuzzy about how they got crippled, or when they gave birth to children, and are good with that, and no one ever let's slip about Remembery Day, even though everyone else is keeping a big secret and stands have to be built? Does Kima never wonder why she has to get up early in the morning once a year, but doesn't ever recall what happens that day? That's easier than running into someone in the grocery store, realising they're under the Veil and pretending you mistook them for someone else?

Her explanation makes no sense, and for a while I felt the Veil was just a clever idea that needed a bit more attention to detail, and then...

It feels, creepily, like imposing a limited dementia on all the Vets.

And that makes sense -- that it is not that the Vets really vote for it, they're all over the world so they can be told that they've voted for it. But if you don't recall you're a war veteran, and no one can mention it to you, then you're probably not getting any kind of war veterans pension, no special services, no respect from the community because it's not like anyone can tell them you're a veteran, presumably there are still people crippled for other reasons. You can't supply battlefield history, or tell people what you did versus what the official history says you did... You can't speak out. You can't even be a terrible lesson in why war should be a last resort.

Kima appears to know, year to year, what's going on the one day she's allowed to remember her service -- so why does Clara feel she's in charge of the questions? Why does her mother only answer, with indirect stories, and put off talking about the war? Certainly she could look at her child growing up and say 'I must tell her about how her father died' or 'she's old enough to hear how I got injured' or at least be able to volunteer information, rather than passively responding. Unless, of course, she realises that there is something odd and wrong about the world, even just seeing it on Remembery Day, that though she clings to the idea she has control of her life, the truth is that she, and all the vets, are being silenced. And she doesn't break that silence because she knows, in her heart, that saying too much might mean she wakes up on Remembery Day one year and her daughter is dead and gone. She's putting off telling her daughter in the hope that one day she'll wake up and it won't be that same one day a year she lives over and over on a never ending loop of parades.

Who lost the war? And who won it? Or is it how they won that makes the difference to this nightmare?

And what do memories, kept so dark and buried, with no possibility of working through any trauma or grief, do to a person/personality? How many people are dying not from the effects of war but from the stress of the living under the Veil? With so many gaps, so many unremembered things, and no way to express or understand any of it.

It's a deeply disturbing thought, that I think would have benefitted from a tweak here and there to have really flowered, to grab a reader and keep them from a casual interpretation.

Best of Apex Magazine - review #12 - Keep Talking by Marie Vibbert

Seriously, a ray of sunshine in here would be appreciated...


Keep Talking by Marie Vibbert

But wait, isn't this a good story because it ends with Sarah getting her own job offer? (Given that the job she wants a) exists and b) she can hold on to it since Miranda was pretty helpful in the current translation and I'm presuming this will be about further translation of possible subsequent messages, which could dry up shortly due to the extinction event).

Only this is Gerald's story. I know it might seem like Sarah's because that's where all the SFF action is, but it's about a parent and his relationship with his child and the end is that somehow (almost magically) he and his daughter will be parted, and she may not have the emotional capability to find her way back to him.

There's no path that doesn't end in goodbye, and to emphasise that the doomed/already dead aliens are dancing behind his realisation...

I won't say the story doesn't grab, that the alien message isn't providing a thread of story and an alternative climax to the other story, the one in which Gerald tries to change his life and will probably fail, pull back, because he loves his daughter too much to leave. And in part I think there's an unfairness in the story that implies he might be clinging too tightly. As if somehow the events of the alien story and Sarah, with help from Miranda, being able to translate it, was predictable, was a demonstration of generalised genius not a problem Sarah solved as much by good fortune as her one particular trick that may not have a further application...

The aliens are the background. To a story in which Gerald is flailing and failing, and dancing towards a goodbye.

Like we all do.