Book cover: The Best of Apex Magazine vol 1This anthology collects the best stories from the first six years of Apex Magazine, including several award-winning shorts, the readers’ Stories of the Year and some careful editorial selections to round it out. Expect 21 helpings of the surreal, the shocking, the strange and the rather beautiful.

Whether you know and love Apex Magazine already or pick this collection up as a taster, you’ll find it’s a little bundle of joy – assuming that nuanced, sometimes edgy speculative fiction that frequently left me in tears is your cup of tea. It’s certainly mine.

The anthology kicks off with the award-winning Jackalope Wives by Ursula Vernon, which I loved so much that I had to flail about it straight away. If I’m brutally honest, it’s a tough opener – it’s so absurdly good that it sets an impossibly high bar. Having fallen fast and hard for Grandma Harken, I found the next few stories less rewarding (although Advertising at the End of the World by Keffy R M Kehrli deserves a shout out for its oddly poignant post-apocalypse).

Liz Argall’s Falling Leaves was the next story to really grab my attention with its gorgeous prose providing a sharp contrast to the difficult subject matter. This manages to encompass issues of privilege, the urge to violence (against oneself or others) and learning to live in the face of despair. It’s very powerful stuff, and one I’ll be revisiting one Friday.

Overall, though, I found the second half of the collection much more to my taste with story after story punching me in the feels and leaving me teary-eyed on public transport (yes, this happens a lot. You’d think I’d learn not to read on the Tube, but short stories are such a good format for it). Particular stories of note:

Sarah Pinsker’s Remembery Day is worth a read for excellent incremental world-building, plus I’m a sucker for themes of memory and sorrow

Amal El-Mohtar’s The Green Book – seriously, between this and Madeleine I just need to go read everything this lady has ever written. This is haunting in every sense, as well as being a bravura execution of implied world-building, and was one of my favourites in the collection.

Peter M Ball’s L’esprit d’escalier. If you’re familiar with postsecret, imagine it used as graffiti with an almost Gaimanesque air.

Ian Tregillis’s Still Life, a fairy tale for lovers about a Timesmith (a Timesmith!) in a city that has fallen out of time. Keep a hanky handy.

Genevieve Valentine’s Armless Maidens of the American West is narrated by someone with odd ideas of comfort, but it packs a punch with its payload of ideas about confronting fear and your own foolish fantasies, and accepting that a better future starts with you. Like Aliette de Bodard’s Lullaby for a Lost World, I may have read more into this than was intended.

…and then another beautiful story by Ursula Vernon, Pocosin. Maggie Grey is every bit as fascinating as Grandma Harken in this distinctly American mythic tale of witches and gods and death in the swamp lands. This tale delivered a million pin pricks to my heart with its talk of tiredness and needfulness, and the unexpected small kindnesses that help get us through.

The collection closes with She Gave Her Heart, He Took Her Marrow by Sam Fleming. It’s as cold as deep winter, with a howling gale rattling around the chimney pots and a fire on the hearth giving out less heat than you’d like – a great story, but a hard ending.

Of course, this isn’t the end – Apex is still going strong, and I look forward to a second volume in due course.

****

Full disclosure: I received a free copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. I recently joined the slush team, and aspire to spotting a story that makes it into Volume 2.