fantasy and science fiction book reviewsApex Magazine is a monthly e-magazine that publishes two short stories, one reprint story, a nonfiction piece and an interview in each issue, together with the occasional poem. In the three issues I read, the reprint fiction tended to outshine the original fiction — which doesn’t mean the original fiction was bad, just that it couldn’t quite live up to the standard set by the well-chosen older stories. The interviews are thoughtful and generally go well beyond the usual topics, either to discuss the author’s work in considerable detail or to go into areas not normally explored in most interviews. The nonfiction is variable in topic but uniformly strong work. A subscription to Apex Magazine seems to be worth the $19.95 per year asking price, though the most recent issue suggests some caution.

In the December 2011 issue (No. 31), the editor-in-chief, Lynne M. Thomas, explains in her notes (a column entitled “Blood on Vellum”) that the new year would see additional nonfiction and less poetry: “I am exceedingly picky about poetry, and I prefer to focus on publishing only the pieces that take my breath away.” That is a sensible procedure to follow, given the iffy nature of science fiction, fantasy and horror poetry; some is excellent, but most is terrible.

The first story in this issue is “The 24 Hour Brother” by Christopher Barzak. It tells the tale of the short life of the narrator’s brother, Joe, who is born, grows to adulthood, and dies all within 24 hours. Joe not only learns to speak quickly, with a mastery of language that many never experience in their lives; he is writing haiku almost the moment he returns home from the hospital where he was born. The story is ultimately not so much about Joe, but about the narrator and Joe’s effect on him, his realization that we are all alien, and the need to forget that which it is unbearable to remember. It’s a sharp, clean, sad story.

“Faithful City” by Michael Penzer is a less satisfying story about a world that seems to have undergone a sort of environmental holocaust. Only one city survives, and it calls to those it wants. The question is what exactly does the city want to call the people for? Unfortunately, the answer to that question doesn’t seem to be entirely clear even to the author.

“The Yellow Dressing Gown”, the reprint in this issue by Sarah Monette, is the story of Michael Overton, one of the curators of the Samuel Mather Parrington Museum. Overton’s specialty is eighteenth-century textiles, with an emphasis on women’s clothing — not the sort of thing one would expect of the “loud, bustling, back-slapping man, red-faced and brash and quite, quite stupid.” But Overton is exceedingly good at what he does, even if he does consume more than his share of the museum’s resources. Overton especially likes to find clothing worn by this or that celebrity, a famous criminal of a bygone era or an actress from the days when acting was not an honorable profession. Overton’s mania for collecting has as its particular focus the dressing gown of the artist Ephraim Catesby. He’s certain that a local descendant of Catesby’s has the gown, though she denies it. But when that descendant dies and Overton gets his hands on that gown, it becomes clear that sometimes having your most fervent wish granted is the worst thing that can happen to you.

There are two poems in this issue, both unobjectionable. Sandi Leibowitz’s “To a Gentleman Who Is Visited” is about the ghost of a woman who had been an anorexic in life, but sees no reason to continue dieting in death. F.J. Bergmann’s “A Woman of a Certain Age” is about a woman who seeks lovers much younger than she — by centuries.

E.E. Knight contributes a nonfiction piece about holiday movies for those who love science fiction, fantasy and horror. I had forgotten that some of these movies feature anything to do with Christmas — “Gremlins”? “12 Monkeys”? Really? But Knight’s enthusiasm is contagious, and before you know it you’ll be popping corn for an evening of mistletoe and blood.

This issue’s interview is with Jennifer Pelland, an author new to me. After reading her interview, though, her book of short stories, Unwelcome Bodies, and her new novel, Machine, are now both on my want list.

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe January 2012 issue (No. 32) starts off with Cat Rambo’s “So Glad We Had This Time Together.” Those of my generation will read those words and immediately flash on Carol Burnett’s variety show, a staple of our childhoods — and will therefore not be surprised that this story is about television. More specifically, it’s about a reality TV show called “Unreality TV” in which the contestants are a ghost, a vampire, a werewolf and a demon, all locked up together in the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. What could go wrong with that premise? Well, quite a lot, actually, and Rambo clearly has a glorious time spelling out the details.

“Sweetheart Showdown” by Sarah Dalton seems to owe much of its plot to Suzanne Collins’s HUNGER GAMES trilogy. Indeed, it owes rather too much to Collins. The story is about a beauty pageant in which the contestants have all sorts of artificial enhancements, down to and including the ability to infiltrate the minds of their opponents. The contest culminates in a fight to the death between the two finalists. It isn’t so much a parody of the Miss America and Miss Universe pageants as it is a new arena for young people to realize that they are the bread and circuses of their time.

Jim C. Hines is more than a writer: he has also worked as a rape counselor. His nonfiction piece, “Writing About Rape,” gives the aspiring writer excellent advice on how to write about this subject in a way that is accurate and not merely shorthand for a story’s villain. Even more to the point, Hines gives instructions on how not to be sexist when portraying this crime of violence. It’s trickier than even an experienced writer might think.

“The Prowl” by Gregory Frost is the reprint story in the January edition, and it is excellent. I’ve long been a fan of Frost’s writing, so this story came as a genuine treat. It is about a creature known as a plateye, one who arrived in the United States on a slave ship from the coast of Africa in the eighteenth century. The story portrays slavery in the unsparing first person account of a man who knew the plateye, and what the plateye did for him.  It’s a wonderful fusion of history with folklore. In his interview, which follows the story, Frost talks about doing research, the best books about writing, story structure and more.

fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe February 2012 issue (No. 33) is the weakest of the three issues that I read for this column. The first story is David J. Schwartz’s “Bear in Contradicting Landscape.” It’s about an author who meets one of his characters on the Chicago elevated train one day, just past Division Street. It’s an old trope, but the story is nicely written. Carrie Vaughn’s poem “Caverns of Science” follows. It is opaque, failing to reveal itself even after repeated readings. A.C. Wise’s “My Body, Her Canvas” is about a tattoo artist and her subject, who appears to have reduced himself to nothing but a surface for ink. The fantasy or horror aspect of this story is implied, and may be merely the protagonist’s mental illness, a technique that does not quite work here. The reprint story is Maureen McHugh’s “Useless Things,” which appears in her recent collection, After the Apocalypse. It’s an odd story set in a world that is only a step or two away from our own, in which the Great Recession was just a touch deeper. McHugh writes well, but her world is terribly bleak, as the interview that follows the story seems to confirm. Alex Bledsoe’s nonfiction piece, “No Mortals Allowed,” competently explains why real vampire or werewolf societies could never exist.

This last issue makes me leery about what comes next. I hope that its weakness is not because the pile of stories left behind by Catherynne Valente when she left the post of editor in October 2011 has now been exhausted. Watch this space for a follow-up in a few months.


  • Terry Weyna

    TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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