Apex Magazine is an online magazine I’ve reviewed once before, stating some reservations about the change in editorial command. I’m happy to report that the summer’s issues indicate that the magazine is as strong as ever. The June, July and August issues contain something to satisfy nearly every fantasy reader.
The August issue opens with the stunning “Waiting for Beauty” by Marie Brennan. This twist on the classic fairy tale “The Beauty and the Beast” will stop your breath. The devotion of the Beast to his Beauty is transcendent and sad.
Kat Howard’s “Murdered Sleep” is equally extraordinary, though in a completely different way. Kora has long heard rumors of an impossibly wonderful party, full of masks and decadence. One day she receives an invitation: “Heavy, black stock, printed in silver-gilt, and sealed with bordeaux wax. Impressed upon the surface of the wax was a pomegranate, split, seeds spilling like blood.” It’s a lovely picture in a story full of them, images of the impossible in a bright party that is nonetheless made of the dark. Kora makes her choices and changes the nature of an eternal place, and Howard writes of it with elegance. I expect to see this story on awards ballots next year.
“The Armless Maidens of the American West” by Genevieve Valentine plays with the theme of this figure from fantasy, one that I always associate with Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, but which is a nearly universal symbol of the cruelty of men toward women. The particular armless maiden in this tale has been living in the woods for decades, written about and interviewed, treated “like she was a rabbit or a disease.” It’s a strange story, told in the second person, making the reader — a waitress at a diner, a character we all become as we read — as responsible for the treatment of this woman as anyone else. It’s an interesting experiment in form, but not entirely successful as a story; it becomes too involved in the figure of the maiden to tell much of a tale about her. Valentine is the subject of this issue’s interview, which goes into some detail about the history of the armless maiden as a symbol in folklore and fairy tales.
I’m always thrilled to read science fiction and fantasy from other cultures, so this issue’s reprint, “Undercity” by Nir Yaniv, translated from the Hebrew, was a special treat. The story is about two cities that change places overnight, one under sunny skies and one below the earth in a perpetual gray light, and how people react to both the warnings of the coming change, the change itself, and the opportunity to change again. Its images, dialogue and characters all seem to genuinely come from a different culture, though one oddly familiar from weird tales that have come to us from South America, Africa and other very different places. I enjoyed it.
The July issue opens with Ken Liu’s “The Silk Merchant.” A young man sets out to discover the rare shimmer silk that his father spent his fortune attempting to acquire, and he finds it. But more, he discovers genuine love. Liu writes beautifully throughout, but perhaps nowhere as descriptively as when he is writes about gathering the silk:
My skin threatened to crawl away from me. Thousands of spiders writhed in a dark mass over the tree. Each spider was the size of my thumb, and the skittering sound they made was like sand being rubbed against a skull. As I approached, they retreated like a receding wave, leaving thick silvery strands of silk behind.
That passage should make readers stop to check there’s not something crawling on their legs — and that reaction doesn’t go away no matter how often you read it.
Alec Austin’s “Ironheart” is about steampunk zombies. Yes, you read that right. In this story, soldiers are reassembled from spare parts and sent back into battle, powered by necropotence engines. The question is whether anyone truly human is doing battle against the Sidhe anymore, or whether it’s an ongoing war by one fantastical race against another. Interwoven with the larger story of a long war is the tale of Kade and his sister, both taken from their homes as children to become soldiers, and Kade’s search for the sister from whom he was soon separated. Despite the theme, the story lacks emotional punch. The causes of the war are never discussed, and we never see the Sidhe or learn what they hope to accomplish with the war.
“Coyote Gets His Own Back” by Sarah Monette begins when a man shoots and kills a coyote. Normally that’s that, but in this case the coyote seems to have an afterlife in which it haunts the ranch owned by its killer. The style of this short piece is that of a narrator matter-of-factly explaining what happened, which suits the content.
Kij Johnson’s “Wolf Trapping” is an odd, unsettling story about a woman who wants to live as wolves do. She barges into a behaviorist’s work; he tries to save her from herself, but she has her own ideas about what she wants from her life, and she will not be dissuaded. Even as winter comes on, she believes that she can get the pack to accept her as one of them. There is nothing overtly fantastical about this story, but it has a power that will grip you long after you’re finished reading. This issue of the magazine also contains an interview with Johnson which I wished contained some information about the inspiration and research for this story — but at least there is much about Johnson’s reading and writing habits.
The June issue contains Brit Mandelo’s story, “Winter Scheming,” about a woman who physically abuses the people she loves. One of her former partners appears intent on getting revenge, even if it requires haunting her. It’s a disturbing story, not just because of the vivid descriptions of abuse, but also because of the odd ending, in which revenge is complete. The story is followed by Seanan McGuire’s poem, “Wounds,” a mélange of fantasy images that perfectly complements Mandelo’s story.
“In the Dark” by Ian Nichols is about coalminers and their songs — not songs of the mines, nor of the dark, but of everything else on earth, sung to dispel the agony of their work. One day a gypsy comes to their town — a beautiful young man whom all the women find entrancing, but especially Myfanwy Cook, Morgan Jenkins’ girl. Morgan drowns his sorrows in much more than he usually drinks at the pub while his sweetheart flirts with the gypsy boy, until the bartender cuts him off. Then Morgan finds the beer walking him to where the gypsy is camping; he tells himself it’s just so he can warn the gypsy of the played-out mine shaft nearby, where a man could fall and never be seen again, and he tells himself that that’s all he’s going to do, but the reader knows as well as Morgan seems to that the gypsy is probably going to have an accident with that mine shaft. But when he gets to the gypsy’s campsite, the man is singing, and Morgan, who has a voice of his own, sings the dark songs along with the gypsy. Those songs have power in this place, more than the gypsy knew.
Geoff Ryman’s “Blocked” is a science fiction tale of a civilization that is retreating from invading aliens into an underground world that has been created for them. At least, everyone believes that there are aliens about to invade, because that’s what the government says. The first-person protagonist of the story is a Cambodian man, a wealthy man, who has the money it takes to flee to the underground sanctuaries, and to take a new wife and her children along with him. But he has his doubts. Ryman gets inside the Cambodian culture in a way I’ve not read elsewhere. The story is as sad and frightening as Orwell’s 1984, a dystopia for the 21st century. Ryman is also interviewed in this issue of Apex, and he speaks at length about the writing that has resulted from his experience with this country.
I continue to find the reprint stories generally more powerful than the original stories published by Apex: the Yaniv, the Johnson and the Ryman stories are the best of these three issues. There is one exception, and that is Kat Howard’s story, “Murdered Sleep,” which I found extraordinary. Still, there is much good writing to be found here, and the subscription is definitely worth the price.