In turns both fantastical and familiar, this graphic short story collection with South Asian roots is immersed in questions of gender, the body, and existential conformity.
The eight delightfully eerie stories in Apsara Engine are a subtle intervention into everyday reality. A woman drowns herself in a past affair, a tourist chases another guest into an unforeseen past, and a nonbinary academic researches postcolonial cartography. Imagining diverse futures and rewriting old mythologies, these comics delve into strange architectures, fetishism, and heartbreak.
Painted in rich, sepia-toned watercolors, Apsara Engine is trans illustrator Bishakh Som's highly anticipated debut work of fiction. Showcasing a series of fraught, darkly humorous, and seemingly alien worlds—which ring all too familiar—Som captures the weight of twenty-first-century life as we hurl ourselves forward into the unknown.
Bishakh Som is the illustrator and coauthor of The Prefab Bathroom: An Architectural History, and her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Buzzfeed, and the Brooklyn Rail, among others. She has also been published in We're Still Here: An All-Trans Comics Anthology, Beyond II: The Queer Post-Apocalyptic & Urban Fantasy Comic Anthology, The Graphic Canon Volume 3, and many more. Som is currently based in Brooklyn, NY.
This was astounding and incredibly moving - I was in tears at one point. All presented in graphic form, these short stories have some shared characters and themes but each is unique. Sometimes the stories don't quite match their images, but in the best way, making a kind of third story.
Relationships, time travel, mythological creatures (some more dangerous than others) that may or may not just be in the mind, queer and trans experience, architecture and this interesting element where there is often a character that just talks all the time, too much, to fill the space.
Note: This interview taught me that an apsara is a Hindu celestial courtesan and that adds some layer of understanding to the stories for sure.
This is a beautiful, strange collection of short comic stories. Almost every one contains a sci-fi or fantasy twist somewhere in it. My favorites were the ones in which these fantastic elements took over the whole story by the end. In "Pleasure Palace", an older Southeast Asian woman on vacation tells a rude young American man a fairy tale, which may or may not be her own tragic past as a queen in exile from her own kingdom, and the death of her female lover. In "Swandive", a nonbinary master's degree student befriends a trans scholar at an academic conference. They are both Desi, and together they build a dream city in which people they love, and people who look like them, can thrive. In "Love Song", a young girl has encounters with increasingly larger magical beings. The collection also contains stories of privileged and unhappy New Yorkers- "Come Back To Me", "Meena and Aparna" and "I can see it in you" all focus on women who seem unsatisfied with their lives. I definitely recommend this collection, though some stories are uncomfortable, all are worth reading.
I just felt lost for much of this book. The stories are sort of sci-fi, sort of fantasy, but mostly take off in directions that I could not or did not wish to follow. And it's a shame because there were some interesting moments in the middle of several of the tales that had some insight into the human condition and transgender issues before twirling off into the whatever. At the end of almost every tale, I was left wondering either "What just happened?" or "What's the point then?"
I already have a graphic memoir by the same author on hold at the library and I'm tempted to cancel it after reading this book, but I'm going to go ahead and read it anyway and see if it helps me understand these tales any better.
p.s., Oh, and the lettering irritated the hell out of me. There are serifs everywhere on every letter, and yet whoever did it cannot bother to completely cross the letter T? Aaarrgh!
Rep: queer women of color; trans and non-binary characters
Warnings: self-harm (bloodletting), body horror, mentions of transmisia, some nudity
Apsara Engine had me a bit interested from the first story, but most of the stories were too puzzling in what they wanted to portray that, overall, I came away from this book confused as to what exactly was the common thread through this anthology. The stories are too different from each other, and are too subtle in their metaphors, if there were any, to have me be sure of anything that they were trying to say. A couple of stories had some merit, like the one about the non-binary person who had a common ground of being queer and desi with a cartographer, or the one with the weird dog-with-girl-face hybrid (FMA vibes, anyone?) who wanted to have a say while her 'mistress' was going on and on. The others, well, frankly, left me going 'what is even going on', like the story about two friends catching up, and one barely giving the other room to speak, and them fighting on and off - it ended on a bizarre note. Then, there was the one about the tourist (who may have also been a queen) and her actions didn't make sense. And the one about the Indian guy whose ex-girlfriend probably time-traveled to encounter him at a party - what was even that story about? The artwork didn't impress me, either - while the backgrounds are done well enough, the characters themselves sometimes were disproportionate in design. Overall, it came across as lacking any direction to its stories, or visually pleasing artwork.
Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from The Feminist Press at CUNY, via Edelweiss.
Apsara Engine was unlike any other graphic novel I've read. Kumar Som's art was absolutely gorgeous and the stories left me with a lot to ponder. If you're a fan of speculative fiction and short stories, there's a lot to enjoy here.
Strange short stories dealing with trans and queer desi identity, power in relationships, and architecture. The artwork wasn't really to my taste, except in the story where an architect improvises the design of a utopian city. But there are some beguiling tales here, and Som has a delicate way with metaphor.
Honestly I was rather confused. Some frames wowed me. The book operates from a space of trans-temporality, which is hard to grasp but pretty cool. Yay desi queers. But I feel like there were some significant larger themes that slipped through my fingers, which led to a slightly unsatisfying read. Story is a 2.5 but the art makes it a 4.
Brilliant story telling with futuristic artwork designs - I loved reading this collection of stories in a graphic novel! The narration and artwork blended in very well and gave this surreal dimension to every story.A must read!!!
If you like speculative fiction, brief but deeply enticing graphic novel short stories with their own detailed worldbuilding, gorgeous watercolor art, strange creatures, indictments of microagressions, visions of trans futures, narratives of gay love, and a commitment to dialogue and characters that are consistently fully realized even in the shortest scenes-- this is the book for you. I think its closest cousin that I've read is Jillian Tamaki's BOUNDLESS, but Som's architectural mania, interest in spaces and place, and exquisitely detailed visuals + the unique lens into particular characters' lives make this a unique and unbeatable treat.
Where do I start? It's hard for me to summarize without totally giving away the arc of each story, but here are the highlights that made me text four different people screenshots of pages: --a white woman encounters a white man she met once at a party at a coffee shop in Brooklyn. She drags on a leash a creature named Kiki, who is three, and who has the face of a brown-skinned young child, but the body of a cat. The woman narrates Kiki's training regimen and explains how she is blogging about Kiki's care. Kiki seems to be trying to speak. The woman says Kiki has athsma. --Two trans Desi academics meet at a conference. One, a trans woman geographer, gives a stunning talk; the other, a genderqueer person named Amrit, talks at her/flirts with her for a long time about their experience as being both South Asian and trans. The geographer invites Amrit to her room and draws a map in blood on the wall. The map comes alive; it is a real future of realized, cohesive, beautiful trans South Asian community. It may also be a spaceship. --A shy, potentially visionary South Asian architect is dragged to a party by his white girlfriend, who ignores him. She meets a mysterious woman in the kitchen who turns out to be her boyfriend's ex, who may be a time traveler. The white woman is the same woman as in the first story of the anthology; this story reveals that her narrative from the first story is incomplete or misremembered. --There is a story where a girl goes on a solitary walk; she feeds bread to a bird, an apple to a bird-cat, and then her own finger to a sphinxlike creature with wings, who carries her into the sky. The narration is a lesbian's letter to a lover.
Som has a knack for women's interior monologues, for tragedy depicted in monochrome as a memory, for older women's sexuality and desire and wisdom, for compassionate renderings of people carelessly dealing with others, and for the complexities and non-linear temporality of friendship and love. Her art is gorgeous and worth thumbing through each story several times; her writing is hyperspecific and boundlessly invigorating. The stories are perfectly consumable, lush, and full of surprises.
One of my favorites of the year so far! This collection of eight graphic stories is marvelous, sinister, winking, wry, full of swerves and shocks and queer disruptions. All of these stories are committed to proliferating representation of South Asian queer femininity and among other things use the weird/uncanny to slice through and/or expose the creepy banality of contemporary gentrified Brooklyn.
3.5 stars...beautiful artwork and thought-provoking short stories with interesting dialogue/character interactions...I'm not sure if I really got a lot of it (as I'm not the intended audience) and I was always left with wanting more, but the journey sure was eye-opening. Definitely worth a re-read.
Incredible. I liked Som's memoir in pieces, Spellbound, but this is incredible. I don't know which one she did first, but this one feels more artistically evolved somehow? They way she tells stories now feels more like she is using pictures and text in harmony, no longer having the pictures merely serve as illustration.
This book is eight short stories with occasional interlinking. I have never read any other comics author that speaks from a transfeminine South Asian perspective, and, to be honest, I don't read enough comics by transfeminine people in general. I noticed little touches, such as a character in one story that was very feminine and confident, but still in some panels exhibited the bone structures in her face of someone transfeminine, as opposed to a cisgender woman. The character is not made to be seen as ugly, but as beautiful in a different way.
Also, I don't move through the world so visually different as the author / characters, as while I am transfeminine, I am not South Asian. As an Ashkenazi Jew, I have conditional white passing privilege in the parts of the United States I hang out in. That said, I really appreciated the way characters were able to not only live their South Asianness and their transness, but also to fully intertwine them. I think about this a lot with my Jewishness, especially with my interest in Jewish feminism and queer / Jewish overlapping!
The two comics authors who this work reminds me most of (but of course with different lenses than these comics authors) are early Jessica Abel and mid career Adrian Tomine. Lots of communication done through body language, through silences, moments of awkwardness. But there are elements, not only lens wise, that are entirely Bishakh Som: the interest in technology, cartography, history, spirituality. This is an incredible work.
I'm really looking forward to what she does next! :)
The absolutely stunning art on this book's cover really drew me to it. Most of the interior art isn't quite as fantastic but it's still unique, highly expressive, and beautiful in varied ways. The stories are the same. Some are of ordinary middle-class twenty- and thirty-something lives, usually with white and/or East Indian main characters. Others are fantasy, science fiction, or a marvelous combination of both. One of my favorite is the title story, "Apsara Engine," about a variety of people in various residences around the world and apparently in space, with events and relatives connected in complex ways. Another memorable story is "The Pleasure Palace," about a young man visiting India who becomes fascinated by an older woman, her stories, and her life. She has her own unique interests in him.... "Love Song" is bizarre, gripping, and thought provoking. Som is transgender and brings unique and nuanced insights into romantic relationships between people of various gender identities and sexual natures.
I liked this and would like to read more from this author. The art is good, sometimes stunningly so. I liked some of the stories a lot. The thing that put me off most is...there are subcultures of people (many found in the NYC area, where some of the stories take place), who consider themselves smart and worldly and intellectual, but who tend to overthink things and are very self-absorbed, all of which makes me see them as pretentious. This book has quite a few of those people, and they annoy me. The other thing is that I didn't understand what was going on in some of the stories. Some of that may also have been the utter self-absorption of the characters. I did like the diversity in ethnicity, age, sexuality, and gender, especially some of the trans characters.
This was strange and beautiful. There were a few stories I absolutely loved, full of so much creative and inventive storytelling. There were a few I felt totally meh about. So, pretty typical for a book of short stories. But overall I found this book so interesting and unique; I love graphic short stories, and the good ones in this were so good.
woah, this was fantastic. im very likely to pick this graphic novel up again in the future.
its stories were strange and stand alone haunting- yet upon being brought together i can clearly witness the motiffs that bind them to the author are personal themes of queerness, ethnicity, religion, social class and TRULY i loved reading this.
I haven’t come across a graphic novel quite like this. Som combines the mundane and mind-bending in a short-story comic format. The writing is at turns peotic and elegant while at other times takes you through mundane party conversation.
Som celebrates Hindu mythology, South Asian queer and trans life, friendship, dance, memories of past lives, and soaring hope for queer futures.
I never once knew where these stories were going. Readers of literary fiction, sci-fi or magical realism who’d like to dip their toe into the world of graphic novels will eat this up. I think these stories will stick with me for awhile. Wonderful!
There was one chapter that I liked--Swandive. The concept of "intersectional cartography" and how it could relate to trans identities in a futuristic setting was fascinating, inspiring, and heartwarming, but I do wish we could have spent more time on the idea because most of what was discussed within it seemed to also be a metaphor for writing and creation in general. In fact, I wish that single chapter was expanded into a novel of its own because most of the other stories I found uninteresting despite being visually captivating. I love how the author incorporated her background of architecture into every chapter of the novel, but I felt most of its significance and symbolic power within that sixth chapter. All in all, I'm glad I did read it, but I don't plan on reading it again.
These stories were captivating, and I loved the one called "swandive".
I line that stood out to me: "(...)You have to choreograph your own culture, cultivate your own tribe, you fashion your own paths - and that's amazing. So sometimes being unmoved, as you say, can have its benefits." (140) In the moment, while reading, I felt as if I had heard this line before and I couldn't place it, but really I had just become entranced in the story, so much so, that it felt close to my heart.
I dont know what to make of this collection. The review pull quotes made me feel like I was missing a critical link. I could not spot the specific South Asian cultural attributes for most of the stories, nor figure out the thread. Maybe this collection isnt intended for me, and that is completely okay too.
This book is so beautiful! I borrowed it from the library but I may need a copy just to admire for myself. The watercolors are astounding. This book has mysterious, lovely and sometimes disturbing vignettes. Each one is small and perfect like a jewel. About transness, fitting and finding place, and the South Asian experience surrounded by whiteness in the US. Highly recommend.
If only there was a way to save comics panels in the way that I save quotes by writing them down or just copy/pasting. I mean I could take a photo but alas, I have no space on my phone.
With Apsara Engine, Bishakh Som brings forth a beautiful collection of stories that will keep the reader on their toes. Unflinchingly, Som challenges cultural and gender norms and opens up new worlds and possibilities in these stories, inviting the reader to expand the limits of their imagination. Throughout the work, Som's interest in interrogating spatiality is evident not simply in the text but in the way that she presents her work, sometimes employing traditional comic-book techniques for a page but then switching it up in order to emphasize moments in stories that are meant to be seen as larger-than-life. Mixing in the fantastic with the more banal parts of everyday life, Som reminds us that even within what we consider normative there is always space for much deeper, richer possibilities — sometimes we just have to create that space ourselves.
Writing a spoiler-free review for a comics anthology is hard. I could write something longer, maybe but I'm too focused on like.........staff-pick writing or now. But I guess it's been awhile since I wrote a more thought-out review. Anyway, loved this collection.
This book is so wonderful. The art is beautiful and there are some interesting stories in here. There's a story about a guy that talks to a woman's pet griffon thing, there's another about an intersectional cartographer planning a city with her own blood, and an interesting one where a woman meets a surprise guest at some one else's party. There are plenty of other great stories in here too.
I really like the art in this book. The shapes of the futuristic architecture is striking and I love how malleable the characters are. Proportions can alter a little bit from panel to panel, but that gives the book a nice dream-like look. The muted colors really help with that as well. The use of dialogue boxes and conversation pauses are really cool too.
I bought this book on a whim and I'm so glad that I did. I can't wait to read more of Bishakh Kumar Som's books.