“Without Wishes to Bind You” by E. Catherine Tobler
“How to Be Good” by R. Gatwood
“What Sisters Take” by Kelly Sandoval
“Survival, After” by Nicole J. LeBoeuf
“Osu” by Kingsley Okpii
“Eilam is Forever” by Beth Dawkins
Reviewed by C.D. Lewis
This year’s July/August issue of Apex offers 6 new short stories. The new works include fantasy and science fiction; first-, second-, and third-person tales; and present and future settings. Each comes with a footnoted content warning–sometimes empty, sometimes disclosing potentially alarming contents such as a child exposed to torture or animal cruelty. A number of reprints also appear in the volume, but are not reviewed. Most of the new tales are recommended; the issue is definitely worth the read.
E. Catherine Tobler’s post-apocalyptic urban fantasy “Without Wishes to Bind You” opens on security systems still keeping watch over vacant and desolate structures, through which a survivor travels while relying for his future on lore about leprechauns. Between the third-person depiction of the protagonist trying to return through a wasteland to the woman he loves and the intermittent letters from the woman to the man about the worsening circumstances around her home, Tobler crafts a mood both gloomy and longing. “Without Wishes to Bind You” offers a hopeful note in its characters’ estimation of what treasure means when one has the kind of empty and running down existence one finds in a dystopic waste.
R. Gatwood’s dark SF story “How To Be Good” opens on Renward, a calmly meditating sadist who keeps a lifelong discipline of good conduct, just like he promised his mother. Switching between perspectives, the reader looks on with horror at the happy Renward, who believes he’s channeled his desires in an ethical direction—then observes Renward’s government employer who shudders at the thought of setting Renward on captives but orders it anyway. In a world that has seen whistleblowers prosecuted for showing the public the wrongs committed in their name by their own governments, “How to Be Good” makes a worthwhile comment on officials who allow torture. (The reviewer heard Senior Justice Guido Calabresi explain in a pre-9/11 speech the technique he would use to enable torture if he thought it should proceed when the case came before him; the discussion of officials using their office to support torture wasn’t merely academic even before the War On Terror.) By setting up a protagonist who works diligently to conduct himself ethically despite lifelong sadistic impulses, “How to Be Good” avoids the easy road of directing reader ire at some misguided renegade who might conduct torture, and stop there: Renward is clearly doing his best, after all, and looses his gift only at the instructions of authority figures he has entrusted to call him only when genuinely justified. This leads blame up the chain of command to those who know what they want done is wrong. “How to Be Good” raises some traditional but worthwhile questions about evil and culpability, and the impact of convictions on the moral implications of bad acts. A delightful twist emphasizes who the real monster is.
Kelly Sandoval opens the dark urban fantasy “What Sisters Take” on a protagonist whose pulse was the only heartbeat at her mother’s first prenatal visit. Creepily, she and two other girls in the same situation were born with a hungry twin. Since it’s a horror story, their parents don’t notice anything amiss and don’t lift a finger to protect the regular girls from the predators who followed each from the womb. This dark urban fantasy pits frightened and uncertain children against one another in a grim exaggeration of childhood rivalry, cliquishness, bullying, and dependence. Sandoval’s “What Sisters Take” is a fantasy about love and cruelty and childhood and growing up and it’s beautiful.
Nicole J. LeBoeuf’s weird urban fantasy “Survival, After” opens on a scene that recalls Stephen King’s Christine or Maximum Overdrive, as automobiles come to life and predate upon the population. But it’s not just the cars. Trees, apparently. And other horrors and weirdness. “Survival, After” feels in early pages like the protagonist’s problems might be fueled by failed expectations or broken promises, but the tale comes to run on the kind of logic one finds in dreams. The second person story-telling asks you to imagine seeing weird things, undertaking escapes, surviving horrors, and personally transforming into a glowing synesthete who hears color and can no longer understand colorless human speech. After surviving in a transformed town the normal seems alien, incomprehensible. Maybe it’s better to be a monster, and maybe the monsters are more human than soldiers at the barricades encircling the town, fearful of weirdos like you. It’s not clear whether the creature in the story’s climax is the brother the protagonist set out to protect after realizing there was no going home, but this would give a stronger feeling the climax is connected to the protagonist’s goal and that the resolution offers hope for success. Written during the pandemic lockdown, “Survival, After” builds a strong contrast between the feeling of struggling to survive alone in a world gone weird, and the joy of connecting at last even in a dangerous, alien land.
Kingsley Okpii’s Afrocentric fantasy “Osu” opens on an oral history delivered to the narrator, explaining to him what he’s already heard about how he became the vessel (osu) of the god Min-ochi. The narrator is dubious this is an honor: it took him from his mother, and his story goal is to reunite with her. When his attempted return proves a disaster, he develops a new perspective on what a great honor it is to be the vessel of Min-ochi. The narrator’s transformation doesn’t involve direct conflict, but flows from his discoveries regarding events beyond his control that occurred before the first scene. The setting and world-building feel solid, easily supporting stories, but instead of a climactic conflict culminating in a difficult choice, the reader is presented with a sort of travelogue showing what the protagonist discovered when he tried to return to his childhood and failed. It’s interesting, but it feels like it could be so much more.
Beth Dawkins’ “Eilam is Forever” is dark science fiction set on a starship whose A.I. has trouble, over the generations, with the vessel’s human leadership. Exactly who the villain is, is an exercise for the reader. Solid SF.
C.D. Lewis lives and writes in Faerie.