Apex Magazine Issue 137

A black-haired girl in a lavender dress sits on a chair with white bird sitting on her right index finger. She sits in front of a pale purple wall with the shadow of a leafless tree falling on it.

The latest issue of Apex Magazine is a special issue exclusively dedicated to “Asian and Pacific Islander voices from the homelands and the diaspora.” The fiction is generally high quality and the perspectives are unique and wonderful.

The issue opens with “Loving Bone Girl” by Tehnuka. In it, a young girl who can create new places out of nothing asks her friend to keep her bones when she dies. It is a touching story of two girls finding and defining their affection for each other. (My rating: 3/5)

Your Wings a Bridge Across the Stars” by Michelle Denham is a myth about magpies and crows making a bridge one day a year so lovers can meet on it and cry, starting the monsoon season. Another touching story but nothing out of the ordinary for me. (My rating: 3/5)

A woman scorned by her Indian village returns as a representative of an alien race in “The Flowering of Peace” by Murtaza Mohsin. She takes the opportunity to get her revenge. (My rating: 3/5)

Here the stories start to get better. “Liwani” by Sydney Paige Guerrero is the story of gods who are slowly dying out because there are fewer and fewer people believing in them. The goddess of light makes her way into the world to seek out more believers to stay alive. A wonderful story that connects the past to the present. (My rating: 4/5)

The Matriarchs” by Lois Mei-en Kwa is a tale that twists through time. One woman attempts to send a message through time while another in a different time attempts to invent the tool that will allow her to receive it. A tale of dedication and illumination. (My rating: 4/5)

The best story of the issue is “The Toll of the Snake” by Grace P. Fong. It takes place in Hollywood during the heyday of the studio system. A Chinese woman seeks to make it big, but others with prejudice have different plans for her. I really felt immersed in the era and the struggles of the main character. A fantastic melding of myth and history. (My rating: 5/5)

One story had an extremely unique proposition. What if someone cloned themselves as a weapon but the clone had no choice in this? “Rhizomatic Diplomacy” by Vajra Chandrasekera gives me the feeling that I think they were going for regarding personal autonomy and agency, but it didn’t quite land for me. (My rating: 2/5)

The last entry is a creepy tale of a girl seeking assistance from an enchanted one-eyed koi. She gets what she seeks but at a steep price in “The Fish Bowl” by Zen Cho. The author connected me to this girl’s desperation and desire. (My rating: 4/5)

I loved seeing speculative fiction from a viewpoint wholly different from my own in this issue. With a story rating average of 3.5, this is time well-spent.

Lightspeed Magazine Issue 155

A spacecraft centered on the cover with the curve of a planet's night side on the left edge of the cover

I gobbled up the April issue of Lightspeed Magazine in only two days. Unfortunately, the fiction wasn’t as good as it has been in previous issues this year. Not one 5-star story for me. ☹

AI is a strong theme in science fiction right now, and “Virtual Cherokee” by Brian K. Hudson continues this trend. It is a virtual talk show hosted by an AI. The guest is an anonymous hacker who works to give AIs consciousness. This mood and setting are bit too “social media” for me. It takes away from the story. (My rating: 3/5)

On the other hand, the setup for “Lament of a Specialist in Interspecies Relationships” by Amy Johnson is absolutely delightful and is a big part of what makes the story so good. It is a letter to a recent visitor to Earth who, let’s say, had a less than respectful attention to the rules of their visa. The letter writer attempts to gently bring up what they did wrong without alienating them. A fun and funny piece. (My rating: 4/5)

Adam-Troy Castro is becoming one of my favorite new (to me) authors. His “Spaceman Jones” is another winner. A starship captain must turn around after one of her crew disobeys orders and gets himself addicted to the planet’s highly addictive drug. He must be left there as the planet is the only source of the drug. It is touching story of learning to love the life you have. (My rating: 4/5)

Every Bone a Bell” by Shaoni C. White is about a stowaway on board a ship who is forced into becoming the ship’s singer/navigator to pay for his stolen trip. Unfortunately, this is a permanent role and involves being integrated with the ship. This is a story of individual determination and revenge. (My rating: 4/5)

A girl comes into a sword shop looking for the blade that will help her defeat her nemesis. But the proprietor senses more complicated emotions under the surface. Having similar experience, she coaches the shopper as she helps her with her purchase in “So You Want to Kiss Your Nemesis” by John Wiswell. A sweet, sort-of romance of enemies becoming lovers. (My rating: 4/5)

The main character in “Construction Sacrifice” by Bogi Takács is a human who has become a mid-size city. A trans mage wanders the city and connects with the city. This story is a metaphor for the trans experience, as the mage considers becoming a city themself. I like the concept, but the idea of becoming a city just didn’t translate well for me. (My rating: 3/5)

The oddest story of the issue is “When the Giants Came Through the Valley” by Derrick Boden. The people live in the literal footprint of a giant who had walked down the valley. They are cutoff from others. They have to deal with challenges no one else does. It feels like a metaphor for climate change and capitalism, but I spent so much time trying to understand the metaphor itself that it just didn’t work for me. (My rating: 2/5)

The final tale is “The House, the Witch, and Sugarcane Stalks” by Amanda Helms. In it a witch lives in a sentient house made of candy which is also a stop on an underground railroad. At first the house isn’t too keen on the idea. It’s interesting to see the back and forth between the witch and the house. (My rating: 3/5)

Overall the issue comes in at 3.375 which I am rounding down to 3.25. A solid effort but not the best this year.

Foster by Claire Keegan

A 2D drawing of a farm house in the distance with fields in the forground in black and white and blue

I got a little turned off to literary short fiction when I read Cathedral by Raymond Carver. That book is highly rated, but the stories just didn’t click with me. Somewhere along the way I was referred to Foster by Claire Keegan. I felt like it might be time to give that a go, but I was hesitant due to my experience with Carver. I need not have been concerned.

Foster pulled me in from the beginning and would not let me or my heart go. It tells the story of a young girl in rural Ireland whose mother is expecting yet another baby. As she approaches delivering that baby, her father takes her to neighbors to watch over her to give her mother a break. At first, the girl is nervous and scared, not knowing what to expect. Over their short time together, both the her foster parents and she grow close until, after the new sibling is born, she has to return home.

The atmosphere is overpowering in this story. I really felt as if I was there. I was drawn into the rural Irish community as well as the smaller world of the little girl who is telling the story. There is quite a contrast between the life she lives in her parents’ home and her short time with her foster parents. But there is no outward judgment one way or the other. Instead the author allows the characters and their feelings and emotions to communicate the complicated world of adults as experienced by a young girl.

My rating: 5/5

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

The title surrounded by laurels on a cream colored background meant to look like old parchment

I was looking for a single volume book that covers the history of ancient Rome. In school I had learned about the ancient Greeks and Alexander the Great followed by the Roman Empire and its Senate. But I didn’t know very much about either. My research for a history of Rome led me to this book, which tells the story of Rome from its founding in the eighth century BCE to the granting of citizenship to all free inhabitants by Emperor Caracalla in 212 CE.

Overall, I found the book enlightening. Rather than presenting a bunch of cardboard characters with names and dates, the author gives a surprisingly approachable history that presents the times as very much like our own with people just trying to live their lives. I learned about the leaders, generals, and emperors, but I also read about the poor and enslaved. I gained a view of ancient Rome that was very different than I expected from my cursory knowledge before reading the book.

The author is British. This posed a bit of a challenge for me as an American. Yes, the spelling was different with a lot of extra u‘s, but that wasn’t the issue. The perspective was just the slightest bit different with the use of some words I wasn’t familiar with. That slowed me down. The layout of the content added to the complexity of the topic. It is not strictly chronological, though it mostly is. The subject matter is so vast, there was a little bit of a topical focus that required a little back in forth in time.

In the end, I feel that this book gave me a much clearer and better understanding of a history I formerly only knew at the surface. The work was a little challenging and not a quick read, but I am grateful for the knowledge gained.

My rating: 3.5/5

Clarkesworld Magazine Issue 199

An android with silver plating partially separating from its body faces away with two human hands on either side of its neck

For me this issue of Clarkesworld fell a little short of the high bar they have set for their fiction. Still an entertaining issue, just not as good as I have come to expect. And sadly, no stand-out, five-star tales. Let’s dive into the story reviews.

In “Re/Union” by L Chan, a young woman prepares an annual family dinner at her home. The unusual thing about it is that most of her guests are ghosts. More specifically, they are based on artificial intelligence (AI) derived from the personalities of the deceased. It seems like a good and comforting simulation until you realize that they can never change from what they were. (My rating: 3/5)

The world of “There Are the Art-Makers, Dreamers of Dreams, and There Are Ais” by Andrea Kriz doesn’t feel that far away. The main character is an artist in a world where generative AI has been outlawed from participating in creative endeavors. In fact it used to test all published art for its influences so those influencer artists can be properly compensated. This has the unintended consequence of making those influencers gatekeepers who help determine what it means to be original. The main character attempts to break into the art world by working with a master to find his own original style. (My rating: 4/5)

Something odd is going on in an alternate universe in “Rake the Leaves” by R.T. Ester. A professor repeatedly logs onto a server where he finds music and product references that are just a little different than he remembers them. As he reaches out to others to try to discover what is different and why, things eventually go off the rails. (My rating: 3/5)

The title character in “Keeper of the Code” by Nick Thomas finds something out of place deep in the Code that protects his planet. He immediately deletes it but then wonders if he did the right thing. A tale of self-doubt and revisiting decisions. (My rating: 3/5)

Happiness” by Octavia Cade is a choose your own adventure story with a big claim right up front—you will always die happy. Each of the choices involves how you die. And the story for each part shows how you come to your end in a world suffering from climate change. An interesting exploration of all the ways climate change can affect you. (My rating: 3/5)

The strong stories buoy the weaker ones in this issue, resulting in an overall rating of 3.25. The non-fiction is  strong and lifts the issue as well.

The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler

A stylized 2D black and gray drawing of an octopus on a blue background

The Mountain in the Sea is Ray Nayler’s debut novel. What a debut! This is my favorite kind of science fiction—the kind that explores ideas. In this case, the idea is that of consciousness and sentience. While most science fiction novels exploring those ideas involve find extraterrestrial intelligence, in this book the new sentient consciousness is very terrestrial. And the science in the novel follows actual science very closely, another big plus for me.

There are three main threads in the book. One follows a hacker trying to break into an artificial mind. Another follows a young man who went seeking his fortune and finds himself a slave on an AI-controlled ship that is over-fishing the oceans. And the last is the main thread where a scientist is exploring a group of octopuses that seem to show signs of culture. All three of these stories come together in one heck of a ride.

Wrapped in what is essentially a thriller, is a smart exploration of what it means to be conscious. When does an AI achieve self-awareness? How would you tell the difference between simulated consciousness and the real thing? If another earthly species is conscious, how will that consciousness differ from humans’? And given that difference, how will we communicate with them? All of these questions are addressed in this book.

It might just be that I am a language nerd (I studied three languages and linguistics in school), but the author explores all of these questions naturally in the course of the story. I never felt like there was a bunch of unnecessary scientific exposition. It just unfolds naturally as part of the storytelling. And the characters are flawed and realistic, even the AI android. I can’t recommend this book strongly enough. It is one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years.

My rating: 5/5

I’d Rather Be Reading by Anne Bogel

A painting of a blue upholstered reading chair sitting in front of a wall of bookshelves with ladder on the edge of the cover.

Anne Bogel is the host of the podcast called What Should I Read Next? On the show, she interviews guests and gives them suggestions as to what they might want to read next. I highly recommend it. She has a gentle, friendly way of connecting with people that never comes off as pushy or demanding. I get that same feeling from her book I’d Rather Be Reading.

The book is collection of essays about the reading life. In them, we learn that Anne bought a house next door to a library (jealous!), that you can tell a lot about someone by their favorite book, and that sometimes the book finds you. The essays tend to be short and easy to read. They are very well-composed, packing a lot into such a small place. In short, it is lot of fun for nerds like me that love to read. Nothing really new here, just comforting words from a fellow book lover.

My rating: 3.5/5

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

An open doorway stands in the middle of a field at sunrise seeming to go nowhere

Here is another winner of both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novella. It is a portal fantasy where children return from their world to parents frantic about their missing children. When the kids tell mom and dad about where they have been, the parents naturally think them traumatized by whatever experience they actually had. In their pursuit of help, they come across a woman running a school for just such children. What they don’t know is that the headmistress was herself a child who traveled to another world and understands that the children are telling the truth.

The story follows one girl as she arrives at the school desperate to get back to her other world. As she starts to settle in, terrible things begin to happen. The children help the headmistress to figure out what is going on. We learn what is going on as the children do.

This book is both dark and funny. It deals with issues of adolescence and sex and gender in sympathetic ways while still feeling true to how children treat and relate to each other. I found the ending rather abrupt but otherwise thoroughly enjoyed the book.

My rating: 4.5/5

Recitatif by Toni Morrison

Book title and author text on a blue background

In 1986, Toni Morrison published her only short story called Recitatif. It was republished last year as a hard cover book with an introduction by Zadie Smith. This is a story that everyone needs to read, especially with the different interpretations on the state of race in our country.

The story is that of two women who meet as young girls in an orphanage. One is black, the other is white. We follow the girls as they become women, wives, and mothers, dipping in and out of each others’ lives. There is something very special about this story and the way the author tells it, but I can’t say what it is without giving it away. And, please, do not read the introduction before the story. Read the story first! The introduction gives away what makes the story special and will ruin your first read.

This story is important today both for what it shows in the relations between these two women as well as what it intentionally leaves out. It leaves us asking some very important questions about how we view race and why. Most importantly, it doesn’t give us any of the answers but leaves us to work that ourselves, together.

My rating: 5/5

Uncanny Magazine Issue 51

Uncanny Magazine Issue 51 cover

Uncanny Magazine has released the last of their stories in issue 51 to read for free online. That means it is time to review some short stories! There were eight new stories in this issue along with one that was accidentally released in the ebook last month. Let’s get started.

The issue starts with “A Soul in the World” by Charlie Jane Anders, author of All the Birds in the Sky. This is the sweet story of a single mom and her child whose origin is special. Let’s just say that she didn’t come into this world in the most terrestrial way. But that doesn’t dampen the challenges that all parents and teens deal with as teenagers grapple with a growing sense of identity. (My rating: 4/5)

An academic in the future works on an embodied AI as she deals with misogyny and hierarchy in “To Put Your Heart Into a White Deer” by Kristiana Wilsey. The world is a blend of academic mergers and corporate control. Things don’t go well for the protagonist, as you might expect, though you might not see the end coming. For me the world building was a bit clumsy and got in the way of the story. The result was too dense and disjointed. (My rating: 2/5)

Perhaps in Understanding” by AnaMaria Curtis takes place in a world where the characters in the story literally show their emotions as masks on their faces. The wealthier you are, the more masks (and therefore emotions) you are able to wear. This is the story of a painter who is preparing for a show that will make or break her future in this world. It is a sweet story of getting under the masks we all wear. (My rating: 4/5)

My favorite story of this issue is Delilah S. Dawson’s “Blank Space“. It tells the story of a girl living in a small town with her strict uncle who polices who she can go out with and what she can wear. While working at her uncle’s hardware store, she is approached by a tattooed biker trying to pick her up. She likes him back, but her uncle doesn’t approve. Things don’t go as planned but maybe not in quite the way you think. (My rating: 5/5)

In the first fantasy story an old mage sets out to save a village from the ravages of crystal cougars. The story is “In Time, a Weed May Break a Stone” by Valerie Valdes. The cougars belong to wealthy owners who plan to use them to get a hand up on the poor villagers. But the wealthy outsiders get more than they bargained for when the town bands together. (My rating: 4/5)

A brother and sister can’t wait to get out of school and play. But, the brother is running away from the sister. She is angry because she was punished in class for something her brother did. As they both run into the woods, they find a surprise. And what is at first fear turns to play in “Space Treads” by Parlei Riviere. (My rating: 4/5)

Yinying­—Shadow” by Ai Jiang is the other fantasy tale in this issue. A young girl whose father blames her for her mother’s death waits for foster parents to come after he also dies. Overnight she struggles with her past and how her father saw her. (My rating: 3/5)

Rounding out the issue is “Bigger Fish” by Sarah Pinsker. It feels like a futuristic Agatha Christie mystery. When a son asks a detective to investigate his father’s apparent suicide, the detective questions his house and robot valet. (My rating: 4/5)

My average rating for this issue comes out to 3.75. Overall, another excellent issue of great stories of speculative fiction.