Collection Review: The Book of Apex Volume 4

Back in September, editor Lynne M. Thomas announced that after two years she will no longer be editing Apex Magazine. Thus it was a pleasure to accept a copy of The Book of Apex: Volume 4 of Apex Magazine for review, edited by Lynne M. Thomas, as it allowed me a chance to celebrate Thomas’ Apex reign by reviewing some of the best Apex had to offer in its 4th year. Most of these stories are well written and highly original. Still, some were of course more to my tastes than others. Here are the highlights:

In A.C. Wise’s “My Body, Her Canvas,” a young man gives himself, body and soul, to an artist who is determined to tattoo her nightmarish masterpiece onto him, and I mean that literally; she uses his skin to exorcise her nightmares. The man allows himself to be used, and the artist sees him as little more than a canvas and a scapegoat. A darkly beautiful story about artistic expression and obsession and, perhaps, the way we treat those who love and believe in us the most. I always appreciate stories about visual artists and art in general, so this story was especially resonant to me.
The final story in the collection, Lettie Prell’s “The Performance Artist,” also speaks of the limits and lengths of artist expression, though in a different manner than Wise’s. A well-known and controversial performance artist, Anna Pashkin Bearfoot, unveils her newest piece in stages over a month. First she simply sits while videos of interactions between people and machines are projected around her. The second day she sits beside a machine that is typically used to “transfer human consciousness into a computer.” On the fourth day, it is revealed that as part of the piece, she will use the machine to download herself, which will eliminate the need of a physical body and, to some members of the populace, is considered death. The exhibit gets progressively more controversial and interesting from there. Written in the style of an unbiased observation more similar to a report or a review than a traditional narrative, the main character in “The Performance Artist” could be said to be the art itself rather than the artist or the observers. This is a story that I don’t think will ever leave me, as I felt, reading it, as though I were observing the art installation firsthand.
I was particularly impressed by both of Mari Ness‘ stories here. I had not read her work before, but I will certainly be doing so in the future. In “Copper, Iron, Blood and Love,” a child of a raven and a murderess (the mother tries to kill her children “in the hopes of bringing the raven back,” and the youngest, our protagonist, is the only one who survives) grows up silent and gossiped about in the town where she resides. Word gets out of the mysterious, silent raven’s daughter, and men come to try and get her to speak, but this is not the whole story. The fairy tale twists and turns and digresses; the most interesting parts of the story, for me, were the stories the townspeople and the people from neighboring towns tell, as well as the brief mentions of the way the townspeople interact with the remaining ravens, and the legends and customs that have grown up around them. Some excellent fairy tale world building.
Mari Ness’ second story in the collection,“Labyrinth,” is darker and stranger. People accused of crimes are sentenced to the labyrinth, where they must find their way to the center and then engage in a fight to the death with a “dancer” who plays the part of judge. If she or he is able to kill the offender, then it is agreed that the gods have found him or her guilty of their crime. Our protagonist is the dancers’ leader and one of the most talented dancers herself. She has seven sons and daughters, all of whom are expected to become dancers themselves. Finally it is time for one of her daughters to enter the arena, where they will dance together. Ness manages to reveal a lot about the world using very little space, but it is what she does not reveal that terrifies and makes the story pack a real punch.
In the surreal, fast-paced “The 24 Hour Brother” by Christopher Barzak, a young boy experiences the full life of his baby brother, who runs through his life cycle in the span of 24 hours. Although I feel I have read similar stories, this is still a devastating tale told with a bare-bones prose but worth checking out.
And then there’s the wonderful “Armless Maidens of the American West” by Genevieve Valentine, who is fast becoming one of my favorite writers. A small town is partly shaped by the silent presence of an armless maiden in their woods, who they largely ignore in the flesh but tell stories about as though she were a legend. The main character is one of the only people who has ever encountered her, when a researcher comes to town hoping to meet the maiden and interview her for a study on armless maidens. The armless maiden could call to mind for the reader any number of situations people speak around instead of directly addressing: victims of rape and mutilation, the mentally ill, or simply those who do not quite fit with the status quo. But this story also suggests that the most important thing, even more important than making metaphors of people who may not belong, is communication.
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