The Puzzle Box by The Apocalyptic Four

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The Puzzle Box

by The Apocalyptic Four:

Eileen Bell

Randy McCharles
Billie Milholland
Ryan T. McFadden

Published by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy

Canadian release date: Fall 2013, U.S. release date: Winter 2014

Reviewed by Kris Rudin

This is a very cleverly constructed book, which wraps four stories (by each of the four authors) in an outer, framing story (no specific author information is given for this wrapper – one can only assume it was a collaborative effort among all the authors), all combining to form one whole tale. It is somewhat reminiscent of Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man, with this type of construction. It is not possible to go into more detail about how these all come together without spoilers, so we’ll just look at the individual pieces.

The framework story concerns Professor Albert Mallory, a down on his luck archeologist, whose drinking and gambling ways have left him in a financial bind. Then he finds an ancient puzzle box, and things get very interesting. By interspersing bits of this story with the four other stories, the full story is constructed. And while the inner stories could stand on their own, this framework story cannot: the inner stories help complete it.

“The Awakening of Master March” by Randy McCharles is the story of a roadie, and wannabe musician, named Warlock. He encounters a young woman who is part of a coven of witches and when she learns his name, she invites him to join, as the coven in incomplete. Warlock gladly agrees, because he wants to ask her out. When Warlock is left alone in a room to solve a riddle, given as part of his initiation, he discovers a strange puzzle box on the mantel. Opening the box unleashes powers that Warlock is ill-equipped to handle, despite his name. McCharles uses a wry sense of humor throughout, and gives us good insight into the mind of the hapless Warlock, though the other characters are less well-developed.

In “Autumn Unbound,” Billie Milholland brings us the tale of Greek gods, Titans and mortals, which, as usual, involves lots of in-fighting amongst them all. Of course, there is a box involved, which Pandora may or may not have opened, but to tell more would reveal too much. Again, there is more than a bit of humor in this one, which Milholland handles quite well.

The third inner story, “Angela and Her Three Wishes” by Eileen Bell, is also humorous at times, and is about a young punker named Angela who has a strained relationship with her mother. On her way to work one morning, she spies an odd box in the back of an abandoned car, so she grabs it. When a co-worker inadvertently opens the box, a genie appears and tells Angela he has been tasked with granting her three wishes. As usual, making wishes that do not have unintended consequences is a part of the story, but there is more beyond this, which is what makes the story shine. Suffice it to say that Angela discovers some truths about her family and about herself, because of the genie and his wishes.

The last story, “Ghost in the Machine” by Ryan T. McFadden is the one story that doesn’t contain much humor. It is a tight, fast-paced thrill ride about Sam, a comic book artist who finds a puzzle box on the nightstand at his girlfriend’s house. This story kept me riveted to the page, as Sam tries to unravel the mystery of the box, and where it takes him. Of the four stories, it was the most SF-feeling, as the others were definitely in the realm of fantasy.

The four distinct voices of the stories work very well in the overall construct. While each story was very enjoyable on its own, taken together with the framing story they formed a unique book, and a good mystery, that was very satisfying.

Overall, it was a very fun read!