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Review: “The Book Of Apex Volume IV,” The Apocrypha

You may remember a year ago I reviewed the stories contained in The Book Of Apex: Volume IV Of Apex Magazine. This anthology reprinted the fiction from Apex Magazine issues #30-44, in it’s entirety (or so I thought.) Turns out, there was at least one story from each issue left out of the collection! So far as I can tell, all of these were reprints when they appeared in Apex, but I’m a completist. And so, I give you the omitted stories from Apex #30-44!

  • This Creeping Thing, by Rob Shearman. (***)
    From issue #30, originally appearing in Love Songs For The Shy And Cynical. Susan has trouble loving, but once she gets there….once she gets there, her love can move mountains. I didn’t like this one, and I can’t explain why. It just rubbed me the wrong way. It wasn’t poorly written, though. You may like it okay, I just didn’t. CONTENT: Sexual content, non-explicit. Mild profanity. A cat gets euthanized after being hit by a car, so I suppose that counts as violence. Occult-wise, we have ghosts….
  • The Yellow Dressing Gown, by Sarah Monette. (*****)
    From issue #31, originally appearing in Weird Tales #63.2. A museum curator obsessively tracks down the yellow dressing gown worn by a famous artist during the last days of his life, alone in his gallery painting away while he slowly went mad from syphilis. This one was delightfully creepy! I highly recommend it if that’s your thing. CONTENT: Brief sexual innuendo. No profanity that I can recall. No overtly-depicted violence, although the aftermath of a murder or suicide is dealt with. The story is also fairly creepy, it should be pointed out. Occult-wise….there are implied to be some supernatural figures that don’t overtly appear in the story but hover around the fringes. I won’t say more because spoilers.
  • The Prowl, by Gregory Frost. (*****)
    From issue #32, originally appearing in Mojo: Conjure Stories. A former slave tells the tale of how he came to America, his troubles once he arrived, and the strange creature that came along with him in disguise. I cannot stress enough the high level of quality in this tale, nor how much I enjoyed it. Go read it–you won’t be sorry you did. CONTENT: Mild profanity. Some frank but non-explicit discussion of sex. Violence, occasionally a bit gory. I don’t think the plateye quite counts as occult content, but he is a semi-spiritual figure, so that may depend on your definition.
  • Useless Things, by Maureen McHugh. (***)
    From issue #33, originally appearing in Eclipse 3: New Science Fiction And Fantasy. A woman battles the New Mexico desert, the economic downturn, and the general ups and downs of life. This tale contains doll-making, burglary, illegal immigrants, cheating spouses, all kinds of stuff. I didn’t connect with it, personally, but I do have to admit that it was well-written. Just not up my alley. Unlike most of the stuff published in Apex Magazine, I don’t think there was anything fantastical or speculative about this story. Very bleak, which I’m not usually a fan of. CONTENT: Mild profanity. No violence. The only sexual content comes when the protagonist breaks down and uses her doll-making skills to craft specially-ordered sex toys in order to make ends meet.
  • Lehr, Rex, by Jay Lake. (****)
    From issue #34, originally appearing (so far as I can tell) in Forbidden PlanetsAn Imperial scout ship is dispatched to the rescue when a twenty-year-old distress signal is finally received from the INS Broken Spear. On arrival, however, the rescuers discover that the now-delusional Captain Lehr has no intention of leaving, and that there may be more to their mission than meets the eye given the planet-buster stored in the hold of their ship. What was on the Broken Spear that the Empire deems so dangerous? This was a very fun story, with a twist that I at least did not see coming until the very end. CONTENT: Very mild sexual innuendo. Some sci-fi violence. No profanity.
  • Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life, by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. (****)
    From issue #35, originally appearing in Interzone Magazine #229.  I can’t describe this story. It wasn’t my favorite, but it was obvious that the author put a lot of effort into shaping exactly how much is revealed and when, and to describe that would be to upset the balance she worked so hard for. Like I said, I wasn’t a huge fan (and that’s a subjective judgement I can’t quantify), but it was a well-written piece nevertheless. Some would call it beautiful. CONTENT: Mild sexual innuendo. Some implied violence. No profanity.
  • The Chaos Magician’s Mega Chemistry Set, by Nnedi Okorafor. (****)
    From issue #36, originally appearing in Space And Time #101.  Ulu wants to be a chemist like her uncle, and spend her days protecting the land from pollution and other threats. Ulu is a very orderly little girl. So, her dad stops at Ugorgi’s store and buys her The Chaos Magician’s Mega Chemistry Set. Ugorgi’s store is a very interesting place, full of things that shouldn’t exist–a six-legged dog, for example. But when a “laboratory accident” disrupts the local space-time continuum, it’s up to Ulu and her chemistry set to make it right…. CONTENT: Brief profanity. Mild violence. No sexual content. Occult content….that depends on the conclusions and definitions of the reader.
  • Blocked, by Geoff Ryman(****)
    From issue #37, originally appearing in The Magazine Of Fantasy & Science Fiction. This one was….confusing. I first took it to be a dream, (it does begin with “I dreamed this….”) but now I think that the narrator was speaking figuratively. I didn’t like this story, per se, but I do have to admit that it was well written. It was quite a scathing indictment of humanity’s discontent…. CONTENT: Brief profanity, mild innuendo, and no real violence despite some very adult themes such as suicide.
  • Wolf Trapping, by Kij Johnson(****)
    From issue #38, originally appearing in The Twilight Zone Magazine. A disturbing tale of obsession and its consequences, how far we will go to achieve the thing we want. Richard is living alone in the woods, observing the wolves and their behavior. One day he stumbles across a lone woman doing the same, but whereas Richard strives to remain detached and not affect their behavior, this woman wants to join the wolves and be a part of their pack….. CONTENT: R-rated language. No sexual content. Some disturbing and gory violence.
  • Undercity, by Nir Yaniv(*****)
    From issue #39, originally appearing in Hebrew in Dreams Of Aspamia #19, in English as a bonus novellete in The Apex Book Of World SF II. There is a city that exists beneath the Tel Aviv that you know. No, that’s not quite right…you couldn’t dig your way to the Undercity. It exists in another plane entirely, a cold, sunless echo of the world that we live in. And tomorrow the two Tel Avivs will switch places….I’m not entirely sure I “got” what the author was trying to tell me here, but I was very much pulled into his world. This was a dark, very atmospheric tale, and whether or not I completely understood it, I have to say that I loved it. CONTENT: No profanity that I recall. Some mild sexual content, fairly non-explicit. Mild violence.
  • Sacrifice, by Jennifer Pelland. (***)
    From issue #40, originally appearing in Dark Faith: Invocations. A woman sits by her father’s bedside as he lays dying of lung cancer. A voice offers to allow her to trader her life for his…. OR A man stands outside his daughter’s funeral, mourning with every fiber of his being the deal he made to save his own life at terrible cost…. Was this well done? Yes. I have to admit that it was. Did I like it? No, I really didn’t. You should have noticed by now that I’m really not a fan of stories that cast God as a sadistic old creep. CONTENT: R-rated language. Mild sexual references. Mild violence and the heavy subject of death and sacrifice.
  • Sonny Liston Takes The Fall, by Elizabeth Bear. (****)
    Also from issue #40, originally appearing in The Del Rey Book Of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Sonny Liston was a boxing legend back in the day, until the day he faced off against a young up-and-comer by the name of Cletus Cassidy. Cassidy? He went on to change his name to Muhammad Ali. Liston lived a hard life, full of controversy, and died the way he lived. Elizabeth Bear spins a poignant tale of this controversial figure, and I’ll admit I had no idea about any of this. Prizefighting legends from fifty years gone aren’t really my specialty, you see. I did enjoy the tale though…. CONTENT: R-rated language. Fighting violence. Mild sexual innuendo, non-explicit.
  • Simon’s Replica, by Dean Francis Alfar. (****)
    From issue #41, originally appearing in the Philippines Free Press. An aging queen, feeling her mortality creeping up on her, commissions a perfectly accurate replica of her lands so that the golden age of her kingdom will be remembered. I have to admit that I did see the ending coming, but it was still a pleasant tale. CONTENT: No language, no sex, and no violence.
  • The Glutton: A Goxhat Accounting Chant, by Eleanor Arnason. (****)
    From issue #42, originally appearing (so far as I can tell) in Tales Of The Unanticipated #22. Here we are treated to an epic poem by an alien race very different from our own. This is my first encounter with the Goxhat, but apparently their culture has been the author’s pet project for quite a while now…. CONTENT: No sex or profanity, some violence.
  • Relic, by Jeffrey Ford. (**)
    From issue #43, originally appearing in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet Of Curiosities: Exhibits, Oddities, Images, and Stories From Top Authors And Artists. Out at the end of the world, there is a church to a maybe-saint by the name of Ifritia. It only holds services four times a year, once for each season, and its main claim to anything resembling fame is the supposed relic of its namesake saint in a shrine behind the church. Father Walter is ordained by no particular higher authority; he simply built the church and recalled that the preachers from his boyhood were called Father. Sister North simply joined the church one day after an infrequent sermon. I feel like this story was supposed to tell me something, but I missed the message. Without whatever it was supposed to tell me, the simple almost-plot left much to be desired. Maybe it’s something you’d enjoy, but I wasn’t particularly impressed. CONTENT: No profanity. Some violence, some non-explicit sexual innuendo.
  • The Patrician, by Tansy Rayner Roberts. (*****)
    From issue #44, originally appearing in Love And Romanpunk. In the Australian outback, there is a town built of Roman stone, in the Roman style, and committed to the Roman way of life….as long as the tourists are looking, of course. But there are monsters that called Rome their home, and they are drawn to things that are Roman….there are also those who hunt them, on a quest to rid the world of its monsters. I absolutely loved this story, and I am very much looking forward to tracking down a copy of the collection it originates in. Roman monsters, monster-hunting, immortality, this tale has it all. Highly recommended. CONTENT: Mild profanity (At least, I don’t recall any that wasn’t mild, but its possible it slipped my attention. I was kind of distracted by the sheer awesomeness of the tale.) Some violence, usually perpetrated against dragons or manticores or lamia or some such, but occasionally extending to their victims as well. Some sexual content, not too explicit.

This is just one of a series of posts I did on this anthology. You can find the others here:
Part One (My personal favorites….)
Part Two
Part Three
Part Four
Part Five
-Apocrypha (The reprinted stories from the relevant issues, not included in the anthology)

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Review: “Divergent” by Veronica Roth

Title: Divergent
Author: Veronica Roth
Series: Divergent #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Katherine Tegen, 2012

I know, I’m late to the party. I have this bad habit of avoiding high-hype books out of a sense of general stubbornness, not because I really doubt their quality (a certain series involving glitter-ridden “vampires” excluded, of course) but partially from general cantankerousness, partially from convenience (I heavily rely on the library, making high-demand books somewhat inconvenient at times), and partially from the fact that my “to-read” stack has become a full set of shelves, crammed to bursting, and lower-priority works have overflowed into a series of boxes until I can get things under control. This procrastination only gets worse when there’s a perception of market glut; i.e. “Twilight is big! Let’s ride this angsty faux-vampire thing all the way to the bank! Oooh….look at the sales numbers on The Hunger Games…..” This last is unfair, I know…there are some seriously good dystopian books coming out now. It’s just a matter of digging through the glut to find the gems. I’m hoping to read The Maze Runner soon, and I’ve heard good things about The Blood Red Road as well. In the case of Divergent, my sister is obsessed. Some of the other YA dystopian stuff she’s into holds no interest for me (Matched, for example), but this looked interesting. Plus, my wife wants to see the movie, and to watch it before reading it would be pure heresy. Thus, I borrowed my sister’s beloved copy and dove in (Thanks Chloe!)

In the unspecified future, Chicago has become a self-sustaining dystopian fortress. Within its walls, the citizens are divided into five factions based on their most dominant character trait–Amity, the peaceful; Abnegation, the selfless; Candor, the honest/impartial; Erudite, the learned; and Dauntless, the brave. Children are raised in the faction of their parents until the age of sixteen, when they take a test that tells them which faction best fits their character/thinking/instincts. They then choose their faction, once and for all. They are free to choose a different faction than their test indicates, providing some thin semblance of democracy, but once the choice is made it cannot be changed…and if you can’t make it in your chosen faction, you become one of the Factionless, the faceless untouchables that perform the menial labor for the entire city.

Beatrice “Tris” Prior has been raised in Abnegation all her life, but she doesn’t feel she really fits in. She wants to be good and selfless, but the fact is that politeness and seeing others’ needs isn’t what she’s good at. If she ends up in another faction, its likely she’ll see her family only on rare occasions (“Faction before Blood” is the motto of the new society), but Tris frankly isn’t sure she can stay in Abnegation for the rest of her life without going crazy. Things only become more complicated when her test comes back inconclusive–Tris could be suited for Dauntless, Abnegation, or even Erudite. The test overseer informs her that she is Divergent, and that to tell anyone her secret could get her killed. The test results are wiped and the overseer pretends there was a problem with the readings, while Tris leaves the test that should have given her guidance with only more questions. Right up until the moment she makes her choice, she doesn’t know what she is going to do, but once she decides there is no going back….

This book garners all sorts of comparisons to The Hunger Games, and I can see the similarities, but I think the differences are far more significant–and I think Divergent is better, on the whole. Both books feature an oppressive social system, a strong-willed female protagonist who narrates the work in first-person POV, and an incredible amount of violence perpetrated against children. At the same time, even these elements bear only a passing resemblance to each other. While neo-Chicago’s faction-based society is clearly flawed, it was founded with the best of intentions while Panem makes no bones about being a bloody dictatorship that televises an annual live-action adolescent death-match. Katniss and Tris definitely share similarities (bravery, a strong survival instinct, and the determination to protect those they care about,) but there are also marked differences. For one thing, Tris is a very active character. Most of what happens in the book happens because makes a decision and does something. Katniss is more reactive, largely as a product of the plot, but the former still makes for a more interesting character. Then of course there’s also Katniss’s angsty whining for the first half of Catching Fire, followed by her slow descent into madness during Mockingjay. I wasn’t too big a fan of those elements. Tris manages to still have a love interest without being quite so whiny about it. Just my opinion.*

The writing here was tight and action-packed, flowing so smoothly and keeping me so engaged that I’ve ended up staying up later than I intended several times over the past week, lost in the ruins of Chicago. That said, there are elements of Divergent that I’m a bit conflicted about. The world itself is overly simplistic, for one thing. And yet….maybe that’s the point. The idea of a society where everyone is defined by a single character trait is ridiculous, on the face of it, but on closer examination Divergent makes it work much better than I expected when I started the book. For one thing, the factions aren’t necessarily built around the only character trait that its members exhibit, but the one they want to emphasize. It can require bravery to be selfless or honest, or even simply to leave your faction and family for a new one at the choosing ceremony. You can have brave Abnegation, honest Amity, or even Dauntless who recognize that violence isn’t always the best option. Beyond that, there’s also the simple fact that this is a dystopian vision. A society based around these factions wouldn’t work? Exactly. That would be why it’s falling apart…. I am less thrilled by the underlying anti-intellectualism necessitated by the plot, but even here Ms. Roth makes it clear that its not learning and knowledge itself that is bad, but the underlying human nature–i.e., a lust for power. You see this moral decline in both the Erudite and the Dauntless, and to some degree even in Abnegation. If we explored Candor or Amity a bit more in this book, I suspect we’d see the same decay in their values, and I expect exactly that from the other two books in the trilogy. The problems we see come to fruition in the book are the result not of a particular character trait, but of each faction valuing their chosen ideal to the point where they dismiss or denigrate the others. The faction manifestos included in the back shine an interesting light on the original ideals of each faction, as well as how they’ve drifted from that original conception. The point was that each virtue was supposed to be the best way to ensure the common good, not that each virtue was an end in itself. Thus we see Dauntless emphasizing bravery in defense of the weak, and Amity admitting that fighting to defend another is also laudable. We see Erudite going out of their way to emphasize that while knowledge is a powerful tool, it must be wielded as a tool for the greater good and not a weapon for their own gain. If you’ve read the book, you’ll recognize how far each of these factions have fallen from their initial ideals…and the original good that underlies the corrupted society they’ve inherited.

Divergence itself confuses me a bit, and I hope this supposed anomaly is explored further in the next couple books. Initially, it appears that divergence is simply displaying the character traits of multiple factions, thus making the placement test inconclusive. If this is all it was, you would expect most people to be divergent, and this apparent disconnect is the source of quite a bit of griping from other reviewers. However, one of the effects of divergence is the ability to mess with whatever simulation they’ve got running in your head, thus implying its more of a neurological anomaly. Since the test itself is a simulation designed to force the subject into specific situations requiring particular traits, that fits, as does the apparent genetic nature of it. As for the apparent rarity of divergents, events soon prove that while they are not the norm they certainly aren’t as rare as everyone assumes. Two of the main characters prove divergent, as do at least two minor characters and several others that are only mentioned in passing.

CONTENT: Brief R-rated language, but otherwise PG-13 on the profanity front. Strong, occasionally gruesome violence, including a potential attempted rape. Some sexual innuendos and references, but nothing too explicit.

*Keeping in mind, I read Catching Fire on a very slow night at work, reading almost the entire first half at basically one sitting. That’s a lot of concentrated angst, and had I read it over a longer span of time I may have reacted slightly less negatively.

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