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The Book of Apex Volume 4 edited by Lynne M. Thomas

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The Book of Apex Volume 4 edited by Lynne M. Thomas (Apex Publications, 2013) is an anthology of thirty-three stories from the first fifteen issues of the Apex Magazine edited by Lynne M Thomas — it’s now edited by Sigrid Ellis. This is a completely eclectic collection of stories, avoiding genre classification with the stories often ignoring traditional limits.

“The Bread We Eat In Dreams” by Catherynne M Valente is a rather delightful tale of a demon who, for reasons made clear at the end, gets kicked out of Hell and has to put up with the uncivilised humans who appear on her doorstep to start a town. She thinks them uncivilised because they burn her as a witch. Foolish humans. As if fire would trouble a demon. “The Leavings of the Wolf” by Elizabeth Bear wonders whether marriage is like a wolf that can as easily bite off your hand as lick a wound clean. So when a marriage ends, the wolf does take a final bite and leaves nothing but grief behind. That’s something that would challenge even a god. “The 24 Hour Brother” Christopher Barzak fulfills the old adage that you wait nine months for something to happen and then, almost before you’ve had a chance to draw another breath, it’s all over. “Faithful City” by Michael Pevzner is nicely ambiguous. This may be the last remnants of humanity holding out when the rest have achieved posthuman status, or the city may be completing the eradication of humans in this post-apocalyptic scenario. “So Glad We Had This Time Together” by Cat Rambo is a great joke, naturally extrapolating the current trend for reality television shows and wondering if the network would go for a version of Survivor in which some human volunteers have to live in a distinctly haunted house without dying or becoming a vampire or walking around like a zombie.

“Sweetheart Showdown” by Sarah Dalton provides a completely different way of becoming Miss Congeniality in this version of a beauty pageant. To the victor, the spoils, the exfoliations and the disfigurements. Or should that be the other way round? “Bear in Contradicting Landscape” by David J Schwartz is a metafictional fantasy in which an author may have written his ideal woman into his life only to find a bear has chased one of his characters back into the real world where the cats eat the rabbit (or something). It’s entrancing. “My Body, Her Canvas” by A C Wise is a provocative story about the inherent quality of submission in relationships. Where there’s reasonable equality, the compromises to enable people to coexist in peace are usually positive. But when there’s imbalance, the degree of dependence may mean the loss of one partner means the end of the other’s world. “A Member of the Wedding of Heaven and Hell” by Richard Bowes is, for me, a slightly rare moment of Christian fantasy in which one of God’s agents in the multiverse has to decide whether to compromise on dogma or take a hardline against evil in all its forms. “Copper, Iron, Blood and Love” by Mari Ness is an engaging slightly more traditional fantasy tale in which the youngest child of a human woman and a raven survives to become a blacksmith. “The Second Card of the Major Arcana” by Thoraiya Dyer pits the sphinx against a modern computer and riddles flow elegantly forward into the future to keep humanity safe.

“Love is a Parasite Meme” by Lavie Tidhar celebrates all that would be lost in an apocalypse. The few survivors could forget language once they had found each other and decided whether they could love each other or remember what happened at the end of detective novels. “Decomposition” by Rachel Swirsky tells a story of revenge by causing the disappearance of his enemies two girls except, in the midst of his victory, he finds himself caught up in quite different emotions. It’s a completely satisfying ending. Tomorrow’s Dictator” by Rahul Kanakia is a radically different human resource management story which takes simple spousal manipulation to a whole new level while also offering fringe benefits to a whole community. Perhaps being a dictator is something you start off doing out of love. . . “Winter Scheming” by Brit Mandelo continues the themes of revenge and manipulation through a fascinating ghost story which sees an abusive person forced to pay an unexpected price. “In the Dark” by Ian Nichols slightly changes the emotional edge from the darkness of jealousy and fear of loneliness to understated heroism when rivalry in love might get out of hand. “The Silk Merchant” by Ken Liu takes a different view of the nature of love, seeing sacrifice and loss as implicitly a part of true relationships. These six stories represent an outstanding core for this anthology.

“Ironheart” by Alec Austin plays a very elegant fantasy game in reinventing the horrors of trench warfare using a reanimation process to continuously recycle the soldiers as zombies. What kind of place is this to send a loving brother and sister? “Coyote Gets His Own Back” by Sarah Monette is a different take on revenge when a coyote does what she can to protest what happened to her. “Waiting for Beauty” by Marie Brennan is what the Disney fairy story fails to warn aspirant beasts. Sometimes, patience on its own is not enough. “Murdered Sleep” by Kat Howard also nicely subverts the notion of the fey with their eternal dance that never changes and the hunt that, in paradox, kills that which never changes. “Armless Maidens of the American West” by Genevieve Valentine takes a cold hard look at how people relate to a strange phenomenon on their doorstep, and wonders whether privacy comes at the price of humanity. “Sexagesimal” by Katharine E K Duckett reflects on the nature of memory and what it might be like if, after death, the memories of our lives sustained us (assuming, of course, that our memories were reliable).

“During the Pause” by Adam-Troy Castro interrupts the program to bring us an important announcement. Forget defcon and the Russians or Chinese, this is serious end-of-the world shit. We wonder whether you could do us a favour. We know it’s a lot to ask. . . “Weaving Dreams” by Mary Robinette Kowal is outstanding as an exploration of faerie lore on American soil, well, some of the time anyway. “Always the Same. Till it is Not” by Cecil Castellucci is a zombie story tinged with redemption and the possibility of an afterdeath life. “Sprig” by Alex Bledsoe confirms fairies are real and are on Facebook. Whatever! “Splinter” by Shira Lipkin warns us an other world experience can spoil our appreciation of this world when we come back, if we come back that is. “Erzulie Dantor” by Tim Susman finds a modern setting for a traditional voodoo tale. “Labyrinth” by Mari Ness creates a marvellous sense of ritual as family, friendship and tradition struggle for ascendancy in a setting where the hierarchy is inflexible. “Blood from Stone” by Alethea Kontis continues the idea of rituals, this time with a rather different end in mind and we see a rather unexpected price paid as a result of a sacrifice. “Trixie and the Pandas of Dread” by Eugie Foster wonders whether godhood is all that exciting a lifestyle. After all, even the most patient of people gets a little wearied of being wrathful all the time. “The Performance Artist” by Lettie Prell finishes with a download, or should that be upload? It’s all in the eye of a beholder or art critic, particularly if she becomes a florist. It’s all magnificently ephemeral.

Put all these snippets together and they should tell you there isn’t a weak story in The Book of Apex Volume 4 and several are genuinely outstanding. I confess to being somewhat remiss in following what’s good in the short story field. If you’re like me, this is an excellent book to read. It enables you to catch up with old friends and pick up many new names to watch out for.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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