REVIEW SUMMARY: This week’s short fiction selection encompasses the fiction and nonfiction in the June 2013 issue of Apex Magazine.
BRIEF SYNOPSIS: The universe-altering power of love’s first kiss; the inescapable seduction of story; the tempting sweetness of the loss of control; the implacable nature of youth exposed to war…this issue of Apex Magazine eschews the darker end of the dark fantasy spectrum to present four richly diverse short stories and an insightful nonfiction article on religion and geekdom.
PROS: Each story feels like the right length to accomplish its ends; diverse settings and characters make each story an experience in its own right; skilled storytelling abounds; for this reviewer the stories stayed away from the darker nature of humanity.
CONS: Those looking for more impact from weighty, issue-centric Apex stories may consider this light fare; one story has a big reveal that feels as if it is presented too early for maximum impact.
BOTTOM LINE: Near the end of this review I discuss my own personal reasons for not being a frequent reader of Apex Magazine. Those issues are entirely a matter of personal taste, as the quality and expertise of the Apex staff and authors featured has been and remains high, as their 2013 Hugo nomination for Best Semiprozine attests. What drew me in to this issue was the presence of authors I have enjoyed in the past and an intriguing article about whether or not Christianity and SFF geekdom can coexist. I was not disappointed in the stories or the nonfiction articles in this issue. I found each story enjoyable in its own right, even when I felt changes to a few of the stories would have made them better. The stories are emotionally satisfying and the variety of story types made each story stand out as its own entity. The nonfiction pieces were all very good and well worth taking the extra time to read them. To top things off, artist Julie Dillon has a knockout illustration featured on the cover. The entirety of the June 2013 issue of Apex Magazine is available free online for your enjoyment. I would encourage you to take advantage of it now.
“Karina Who Kissed Spacetime” by Indrapramit Das
“I always remember snow speckling the orange cone of streetlight that held my first kiss.”
A man remembers his very first kiss on a cold night under a streetlight, an event that shattered time, leaving him to trace, in his recollections, the inevitable path this relationship would take, living and reliving it despite its ultimate heartbreak. In the poetic manner of all those who have loved and lost, Das’ protagonist recounts the events of his junior year at university, following the advice of his first kiss, Karina, as she encourages him to ‘not waste this year’.
Whether one reads this as the creative musings of a man with a broken heart, a literal interpretation of multiple time streams or a combination thereof, the story is thematically common to us all. In that commonality we can empathize with the protagonist as his experience reflects our own.
“Titanic” by Lavie Tidhar
With the ill-fated maiden voyage of the “unsinkable” Titanic as his backdrop, Lavie Tidhar has penned a tale examining the dangers of obsession and the price of redemption. This short story is a clever blending of real historical events and a well-known character from classic literature. It is not a huge mystery who this character is, nor is it meant to be well-hidden, however the story loses something in the way of suspense by revealing the identity of the protagonist by name earlier than it needed to be revealed. The story would have been more effective had the narrator not named himself until his final, desperate act. As it stands “Titanic” is an entertaining story that ends in a meaningful manner.
“Call Girl” by Tang Fei (translated by Ken Liu)
Fei’s story begins by playing heavily on the assumptions that arise from the title of her story, making it one of the more creative uses of a title that I have seen in some time. The way the young protagonist is described and the setting that Fei places her in feeds those assumptions in a way that begins to build a level of discomfort before surprising the reader with the true seduction of this tale–that of a well-told story. For a Western reader the imagery that Fei utilizes is excitedly different, giving the reader a taste of culture that fires the imagination. It feels wrong on some level to judge a story written in another language and translated into English by the same standards used to judge stories written in English, but in so doing the one minor strike against this beautifully strange tale is that the ending does not have the clarity that the rest of the story managed.
“Reluctance” by Cherie Priest
Walter McMullin is piloting the single-seat dirigible, Majestic, over the plains of Texas, a teen in the employ of the Dirigible Express Post Service, on his way to the mobile gas dock-cum-town, Reluctance, in the hopes of rest and a transfer to a more spacious ship. On his way he scans the ground, hopeful of espying the Goodnight-Loving trail with its long and winding line of cattle being driven to Utah. Cattle may not seem particularly exciting, but to Walter’s mind anything that breaks up the dull, dry monochrome of his route is a welcome sight. He soon gets his wish, but not in the form he was expecting: there are cattle, to be certain, but those that he sees appear to be dead. As he approaches where Reluctance should be, he begins to grow concerned. Gone are the warm and glowing lights he expects to welcome him, replaced by the dim flicker of a handful of lights and an eerie silence that bodes no good. Low on hydrogen, his choices are few: ignore his intuition and land, or crash to the ground somewhere over the dark and empty plains.
“Reluctance” is a story set in Cherie Priest’s alternate-history Clockwork Century universe. That being said, if you are unfamiliar with these stories there is absolutely no learning curve to this tale. Through the experience of Walter, and the voice of his friend who died on the battle field acting as his conscience, the reader is shown the world in which the story takes place. Walter’s easy, laid-back demeanor in the early part of the story is soon replaced by tension and fear which ratchets up the suspense. Near the climax of the story it looks as if the it will take a certain path but Priest veers ever so slightly off of that to bring the story to a natural conclusion. “Reluctance” satisfies while acting as a free first hit that may drive readers to seek out more of her work in this universe.
“An Interview with Cherie Priest” by Maggie Slater
An informative interview that first discusses the inspirations and thought-processes behind the featured story and its young protagonist and then branches out to a broader interview about writing and Priest’s Clockwork Century series.
“Words From the Publisher” by Jason Sizemore
Sizemore offers up information about this issue’s features and the authors who wrote them. This issue marks four-plus years in a digital incarnation and in that time many authors who are well-known and lauded today have graced the pages of Apex Magazine.
“A Believer in Fandom: Can Geek and Christian Mix?” by Caroline Symcox
I have not read many issues of Apex Magazine, for reasons I will get into when discussing the Editor’s article below, and it was the title of this article more than anything that had me requesting a copy for review. As a Christian I find it frustrating at times to be a SFF fan. Not because of non-believers, but because of the vitriol that pours out of the fingers of some bloggers and those who comment on blogs in regards to all religions. Frankly I find vitriol of any kind annoying but am particularly disturbed by positions in which interesting discussion (about religion or simply about SFF) is stymied before it even begins by statements that paint people of faith as unintelligent and worthy of disdain. Symcox broaches this subject in a manner I found quite refreshing. Instead of lamenting this behavior or taking up a position that is equally antagonistic, yet from the other perspective, she posits several ways in which religion and SFF culture can mix, do mix, and should be allowed to mix. In the end what this article amounts to is a declaration for passion for SFF fandom that is not mutually exclusive from a passion for religion. I highly recommend this and express my utmost thanks to Caroline Symcox for writing it and to Apex Magazine for publishing it.
“Blood on Vellum: Notes From the Editor-in-Chief” by Lynne M. Thomas
In addition to hints about pulling out all the stops for the big Issue 50 due out next month, Thomas offers up a brief tease of the stories featured in this month’s issue. I have read Apex Magazine on occasion and have found the quality of stories to be worthy of praise. The plainly stated submission guidelines state “We want the stories it scared you to write. We want stories full of marrow and passion, stories that are twisted, strange, and beautiful. We want science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mash-ups of all three—the dark, weird stuff down at the bottom of your little literary heart. This magazine is not a publication credit, it is a place to put your secret places and dreams on display. Just so long as they have a dark speculative fiction element—we aren’t here for the quotidian.” It is this “dark speculative element” that often does not appeal to me personally. It is a matter of personal tastes, not a statement about darker SF/F/H, nor a statement about the quality of stories presented.
With this issue, Lynne Thomas points out that Apex “often publishes stories that touch fictionally upon the hard truths of the horrible things that people do to one another in real life: rape, domestic violence, abuse, torture, and the like.” There is a place for stories like this and they can do many things from confronting issues to setting a reader on the path to healing. Beginning with this issue, in deference to their readers who may have experienced these horrible incidents in real life, Apex will be posting “trigger warnings” for those stories. It just so happens there were none of those stories in this issue, but I wanted to give a shout out to Apex Magazine for their choice to acknowledge the trauma that many readers have experienced at the hands of other human beings and their desire to not have the fiction featured in Apex be a vessel for re-traumatizing those that are on the road to healing. As someone who has not experienced this trauma, I like the idea that I can use that information to gauge how I want to be entertained/educated with the fiction I choose to read. Well done Apex!
The cover illustration, entitled Underwater, is by Chesley Award-winning and Hugo and World Fantasy nominated artist Julie Dillon. I am particularly drawn to the perspective of this image, with the viewer placed below the mermaid creature, looking up from the depths. While the presence of a mermaid-like character and the sea-life communicate to the viewer the setting, the perspective and use of light gives the image depth and presence. You can almost smell the salt-water tang on the air.