Review: The Dead Take the A Train by Richard Kadrey and Cassandra Khaw

Review: The Dead Take the A Train by Richard Kadrey and Cassandra KhawThe Dead Take the A Train (Carrion City, #1) by Cassandra Khaw, Richard Kadrey
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, horror, urban fantasy
Series: Carrion City #1
Pages: 391
Length: 12 hours and 59 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Nightfire on October 3, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

Bestselling authors Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey have teamed up to deliver a dark new story with magic, monsters, and mayhem, perfect for fans of Neil Gaiman and Joe Hill.
Julie Crews is a coked-up, burnt-out thirty-something who packs a lot of magic into her small body. She’s been trying to establish herself in the NYC magic scene, and she’ll work the most gruesome gigs to claw her way to the top.
Julie is desperate for a quick career boost to break the dead-end grind, but her pleas draw the attention of an eldritch god who is hungry for revenge. Her power grab sets off a deadly chain of events that puts her closest friends – and the entire world – directly in the path of annihilation.
The first explosive adventure in the Carrion City Duology, The Dead Take the A Train fuses Khaw’s cosmic horror and Kadrey’s gritty fantasy into a full-throttle thrill ride straight into New York’s magical underbelly.

My Review:

If someone told me that the Miskatonic River had sent a tributary (or a tentacle) down from Innsmouth to Manhattan, I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised. At all. The eldritch horrors of this book are VERY eldritch indeed, but it’s the human monsters that really make this story scream.

Besides, as a couple of the book’s characters remark, if the eldritch monster had actually BEEN Cthulhu it would have been much easier to deal with. Instead, Julie Crews and her ‘Scooby gang’ are stuck between the rock of The Mother Who Eats and the hard place of a fake archangel who thinks they have the chops to eat Mother. And certainly plans to scoop up Julie and her friends to pave the way.

But that’s not where we start. Where we start is most definitely at the human dimensions. Julie Crews is a down-at-heels, down-on-her-luck magic worker with plenty of brass, always willing to deliver a kick in the ass, with a knack for surviving stuff that no one should even know about, let alone throw down with.

So we begin with Julie, taking a job she knows she shouldn’t touch with someone else’s bargepole, from her lying, cheating, stealing ex-boyfriend. The one who trashed her and her reputation, stole credit for jobs that she did, and used that credit to slither his way onto and up the corporate ladder at the primo magical legal firm, Thorne & Dirk. (I always wanted it to be ‘Thorne & Dick’ and you probably will too.)

But the job pays real cash money, albeit not enough and under the table, and Julie needs that money to make her rent and pay for her many illicit, illegal and expensive habits – like cheap booze, epic amounts of drugs and high-quality magical equipment.

Her life has already gone more pear-shaped than the average person would expect to survive – and Julie doesn’t. Expect to survive, that is. People who do the kind of work she does and take the kind of damage she regularly takes don’t live to see 40. Or even 35. She’s the last and ONLY survivor of her class from magical training. And Julie’s 30th birthday is coming up fast.

What she doesn’t expect is for her best friend Sarah to show up at her door with one packed bag, a whole bunch of new verbal and physical twitches and dark shadows under her eyes that deserve their own zip code.

What neither Julie nor Sarah ever admit is that they are each other’s ‘one that got away’, or would be if either of them had ever womanned up and actually asked. They’re better together, always have been and always will be, whether they define that together as besties or roommates or the love of each other’s lives.

Something that they’ll have to test ALL the limits of, to hell and back (literally), when Julie’s ex and Sarah’s ex decide to fuck with them in entirely different ways at the exact same time. Putting Julie, Sarah, their friends and ALL of New York City into the crosshairs between the claws of a creature straight out of the Cthulhu Mythos and the many, many mouths of the Mother Who Eats.

Escape Rating B+: First and most importantly, this is your trigger warning that The Dead Take the A Train is a bloody, gory, gruesome reminder that urban fantasy as a genre is the uncanny child of mystery and horror, much like the uncanny babies being born in yesterday’s book, A Season of Monstrous Conceptions.

Meaning that, yes, while there’s a mystery at the heart of this story, there’s a monster or two – or ten – chewing that heart with their fangs as blood drips down their chin. Or chins, however many they just happen to have.

To the point where the horror elements go so far over the top that they come down in a splat of blood and viscera on the other side.

Second, for the first half of the story, both Sarah’s ex-husband Dan and Julie’s ex-boyfriend Tyler were so full of smug, self-congratulatory, evil, white dudebro entitlement that I just couldn’t hack listening to their perspectives. They both exhibited the kind of asshattery that is all over the news and if I wanted to listen to that there are entirely too many real places for it these days.

Which means that I switched from audio to text at that halfway point. I was finding the story compelling – if sometimes gross to the max – but every time the narrator retched out one of their perspectives I wanted to scream. I’ll confess that I gave up too soon, because just as I switched to text the dudebros started getting what they deserved and that was awesome.

While I fully admit that the above may be a ‘me’ thing and not a ‘you’ thing, the relentless drumbeat of just what terrible excuses for human beings Dan and Tyler were nearly threw me out of the story entirely, and that’s absolutely the reason this is a B+ and not any higher. Your reading mileage may vary.

Howsomever, the narrator, Natalie Naudus, is one that I absolutely love, and she does a terrific job of voicing stories that feature last-chance, hard-done-by, bad luck and worse trouble heroines, just like Julie Crews, who would be able to stand, scarred but never broken, right alongside similar characters that Naudus has voiced, like Opal Starling in Starling House, as well as Emiko Soong in Ebony Gate, Zelda in Last Exit, and Vivian Liao in Empress of Forever. (Also Charlie Hall in Holly Black’s Book of Night, but I read that one entirely in text.)

As much as the first half of The Dead Take the A Train drove me around the twist, when the story hits that second half it hits the ground running hard towards a slam bang finish. Along the way we have Julie’s slightly otherworldly ‘Scooby gang’ coming together, with teasing clues to American Gods-type backstories to come, the set up of an almost impossibly compelling magical version of NYC with hints of The City We Became with even more blood and guts and eldritch horrors, and, to cap it off in a blaze of glory, a fulfillment of one of Shakespeare’s most famous sayings (from Henry VI, Part 2 if you’re looking for a hint.)

The Dead Take the A Train is the first book in the projected Carrion City series by Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey. There’s certainly plenty of carrion to pin a horde of stories on. If this first book is a taste of what’s to come, I can’t wait to see what I’ll be reading next – absolutely with the lights on!

Review: A Season of Monstrous Conceptions by Lina Rather

Review: A Season of Monstrous Conceptions by Lina RatherA Season of Monstrous Conceptions by Lina Rather
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, historical fantasy, horror
Pages: 161
Published by Tordotcom on October 31, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

In 17th-century London, unnatural babies are being born: some with eyes made for the dark, others with webbed fingers and toes better suited to the sea.
Sarah Davis is intimately familiar with such strangeness—she herself was born marked by uncanniness. Having hidden her nature all her life and fled to London under suspicious circumstances, Sarah starts over as a midwife’s apprentice, hoping to carve out for herself an independent life. As a member of the illegal Worshipful Company of Midwives, Sarah learns to reach across the thinning boundary between her world and another, drawing on its power to heal and protect the women she serves.
When the wealthy Lady Wren hires her to see her through her pregnancy, Sarah quickly becomes a favorite of her husband, the famous architect Lord Christopher Wren, whose interest in the uncanny borders on obsession. Sarah soon finds herself caught in a web of magic and intrigue created by those who would use the magic of the Other World to gain power for themselves, and whose pursuits threaten to unmake the earth itself.

My Review:

Sarah Davis, widow and apprentice midwife, knows all too well that some babies are born who are not meant to live in this world, because she was nearly one of them. But in London in the winter of 1675, when this story takes place, there has been a sudden epidemic of babies being born who are not meant to live in THIS particular world, but rather, a different one where their horns or tails or fur or fangs or even gills would not be the least bit strange or embarrassing for their families. Or otherwise instantly fatal.

It’s not really surprising that this sudden and vast increase in strange and frequently stillborn babies results in accusations of witchcraft and consorting with the devil. (The Salem Witch Trials are still 18 years in the future at this point.)

Actually, from the descriptions of some of the babies, I’m not sure we’d avoid bandying about accusations of witchcraft if it happened TODAY. Demonizing women for their pregnancies or the causes or the results thereof is just as pervasive today as it was in the late 17th century – or any other.

But Sarah is a midwife. She is also, herself, one of those strange children, but when she was born such children were not nearly so common, and her strangeness was one that could be easily snipped away. Literally. She was born with a tail, and an ability to touch on something that her fellow midwives refer to as the ‘Other Place’.

In other words, Sarah has magic. Many of the midwives have a bit, but Sarah has a lot – she just can’t consciously tap into it.

Sir Christopher Wren, very much on the other hand, has money and influence. He has an education and is a well-known scientist as well as an architect. And his wife Faith is very near to term with their second child. A child who was conceived for the sole purpose of opening a gate between this world and that ‘Other Place’ in order to fix the overlap or incursion between the worlds that is causing conditions in both this place and the ‘Other’ to go so very much askew.

Wren believes he’s using Sarah for her power. And he is because he can and he believes he’s right to do so because he knows best. He isn’t and he doesn’t.

Sarah, on the other hand, knows enough. Maybe. Hopefully. Just possibly. Enough.

Escape Rating A-: You remember that Year’s Best collection of Dark Fantasy and Horror that I reviewed last week? A Season of Monstrous Conceptions would have fit in perfectly because it sits right at the haunted crossroads between the two. I went into this book expecting it to be firmly on the Horror side of the fence, and that’s the way it started out, but it crawled over into that crossroads and just a little over to the Dark Fantasy side and planted itself there with its too many eyes and too sharp teeth and crashing worlds and glared at me until I felt sorry for it and realized that I liked it a whole lot more than I ever expected.

This ‘season’ takes place as alchemy was giving way to chemistry. Folk medicine and midwifery, both the practice of women, was being supplanted by trained doctors and surgeons, exclusively male provinces. Magic was fading and logic was taking its place.

This story sits at that juncture. On the one hand, the events taking place are utterly eldritch but clearly quite real. The evidence of babies born with compound eyes, gills and multiple limbs, sometimes all in the same poor creature, is hard to dispute, but it’s not the only thing going wrong in this winter of 1675.

What makes the story interesting revolves around the disparate potential solutions. The magical midwives know it’s happening, believe their magic can fix it, but don’t know quite enough of the science of how the multiverse works to get their fix quite right.

Wren has all the scientific knowledge necessary, as well as the flexibility of mind to accept otherwise unpalatable solutions, but the magic the midwives use is a trade secret he has no access to. His science is just enough to tell him that it’s not enough, either.

Sarah is our point of view character because she stands as the knife edge of balance between all the various factions and forces. She wants to believe that Wren sees her as an intelligent and capable person in her own right, instead of just someone he can use. She already knows that the midwives are using her. She’s caught between the magic she has and the training she gets that does not know how to help her access it. She sees that things are going horribly awry but can’t fix them on her own.

In the end, it’s Sarah’s choices that define both her course and her solution. Watching her use her power but not letting it or anyone around her use her, and her own personal why of it all, makes her a terrific perspective on this story and makes this story a surprising and creepy and often surprisingly creepy delight from beginning to end – just perfect for this Halloween week.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 10-29-23

It turned out to be a FANTASTIC reading week. Everything I picked up was really, really, good, and an excellent reading time was definitely had by moi. That they all turned out to be “A-” reads makes it seem like they all fell short in one way or another, but I think that was mostly because all but one of the books was a continuation in a series that may not have risen above its predecessors but didn’t fall below them either. They were each just what I expected, no more but no less, either.

The problem, however, is that I usually chose which book cover to feature next to the recap based on which book got the highest grade – and that’s a bit of a conundrum this time around!

Howloween is the day after tomorrow, and after that we’ll all be falling towards the holidays at breakneck speed. And it’s going to start getting dark too damn early next Sunday – not that it hasn’t already been trending in that direction.

But there’s been a bit of a theme going on here at Reading Reality. I’ve been reviewing horror or at least horror-adjacent books for the last few days, and that trend will continue through Halloween. Then we’ll have a blog hop to get the month started right.

Of course, I have a cat picture for this spooky season. If you’ve ever seen the meme of the little black bat as the darkness who gives cuddles, at left (or above left) there’s a picture of Lucifer proudly sitting in front with Hecate hiding below. That little bat may be the darkness that GIVES cuddles, but Lucifer and Hecate are the darkness that DEMANDS cuddles.

Happy Halloween!

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Silly Pumpkins Giveaway Hop  
$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Fall Seasons of Books 2023 Giveaway Hop

Winner Announcements:

The winner of the Howl-O-Ween Giveaway Hop is Alisa

Blog Recap:

A- Review: Under the Smokestrewn Sky by A. Deborah Baker
A- Review: A Duke’s Lesson in Charm by Sophie Barnes
A- Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: Volume Four edited by Paula Guran
A- Review: Phantom Pond by Juneau Black
A- Review: Night Train to Murder by Simon R. Green
Stacking the Shelves (572)

Coming This Week:

A Season of Monstrous Conceptions by Lina Rather (review)
The Dead Take the A Train by Richard Kadrey and Cassandra Khaw (audiobook review)
Thanks a Latte Giveaway Hop
Long Past Dues by James J. Butcher (review)
The Wolfe at the Door by Gene Wolfe (review)

Stacking the Shelves (572)

You can tell that winter is coming on by the size – or the lack thereof – of this stack. Not much is published in November, December and even January, so not much shows up on NetGalley and Edelweiss in the months preceding. Except for Spring! books, which have already begun. I always think I’m going to catch up a bit in November and December, at least as far as making a bit of a reduction in the size of the virtually towering TBR pile – but it never happens. So many books, so little time!

For Review:
The Autobiography of Benjamin Sisko by Derek Tyler Attico
Relics of Ruin (Books of the Usurper #2) by Erin M. Evans
Remedial Magic (Course in Magic #1) by Melissa Marr
Rogue Sequence by Zac Topping
What Feasts at Night (Sworn Soldier #2) by T. Kingfisher

Borrowed from the Library:
Making it So by Patrick Stewart

If you want to find out more about Stacking The Shelves, please visit the official launch page

Please link your STS post in the linky below:

Review: Night Train to Murder by Simon R. Green

Review: Night Train to Murder by Simon R. GreenNight Train to Murder (Ishmael Jones #8) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: mystery, paranormal, urban fantasy
Series: Ishmael Jones #8
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House on March 3, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

When a body is discovered in a locked toilet cubicle on the late-night train to Bath, Ishmael Jones is faced with his most puzzling case to date.

When Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny are asked to escort a VIP on the late-night train to Bath, it would appear to be a routine case. The Organisation has acquired intelligence that an attempt is to be made on Sir Dennis Gregson's life as he travels to Bath to take up his new position as Head of the British Psychic Weapons Division. Ishmael's mission is to ensure that Sir Dennis arrives safely.
How could anyone orchestrate a murder in a crowded railway carriage without being noticed and with no obvious means of escape? When a body is discovered in a locked toilet cubicle, Ishmael Jones has just 56 minutes to solve a seemingly impossible crime before the train reaches its destination.

My Review:

Reading Reality is having a bit of a theme going in the days leading up to Halloween, and this visit with Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny Belcourt is just horror-adjacent enough to be a part of it.

And I was having a hankering for some high-quality snarkitude and this author ALWAYS delivers!

Ishmael Jones is a fascinating character – to himself most of all at times. He’s an alien. Specifically, he’s a version of E.T. with no way to phone home because he doesn’t remember where it is. When he crash-landed his ship in 1963 the ship’s last act was to transform him into a human adult the best that it could – and erase all his memories of who and/or what he used to be.

It didn’t exactly do a BAD job at Ishmael’s transformation. He blends in just fine. But he doesn’t change or age, so he’s looked like a man in his mid-30s for almost 60 years at this point and has the same problem that vampires often do in paranormal stories. He has to move on every so often before too many people start to notice too much.

Ishmael’s solution has been to work for a series of agencies so black and so secret that they don’t even know what their own right and left hands are doing – let alone anyone else’s. They keep his secrets and in return he keeps theirs and does the kind of dirty work that actual humans aren’t capable of for very long – if at all.

His work and romantic partner, Penny Belcourt, knows as many of his secrets as Ishmael himself does. They met on a case, the first one in this series, The Dark Side of the Road, a story that began as a rather typical English country house mystery that went seriously far into the Dark Side of multiple Forces.

Ishmael and Penny are the coyly-named Organization’s best agents, so it’s not exactly a surprise for them to be ordered to report for a top secret, rush-rush and hush-hush job, not even to London’s St. Pancras Station. It’s just annoying and both of them are at least somewhat annoyed by being handed tickets to an express train to Bath with not nearly enough information about their instructions to guard a high-ranking politician who has just been promoted to an equally high-ranking top-secret job on said politician’s imminent journey to take up his new post via that London to Bath train.

The trip will take less than two hours. It shouldn’t be that difficult to keep the man alive for that length of time on a moving train that will not stop to take on anyone or anything until it reaches its destination.

But if it were an easy job the Organization wouldn’t be putting its best agents on the case. And they are, so it isn’t. It’s just that it’s even more clandestine and hush-hush than even Ishmael and Penny suspected. And they suspected a lot, and everyone, from the very beginning.

Escape Rating A-: There are two things I find pretty much endlessly fun about this particular series. One, of course and always, is the author’s trademark snarkitude. It’s a signature that follows him everywhere from urban fantasy like his Nightside series to science fiction such as his Deathstalker series to the genre-mashup that is the Ishmael Jones series.

The other thing is a particular feature of the Ishmael Jones series, and it’s that this series is a genre-mashup of pretty much everything. It’s a bit of SF in Ishmael’s alien origins, a bit of urban fantasy in that he often faces monsters that are believed at the outset to be things that go bump in the night, and there’s generally a bit of horror in that whatever he’s investigating leaves a thoroughly gruesome trail of dead bodies and parts thereof.

But ultimately – or at its heart or a bit of both – the Ishmael Jones series are mysteries. Someone gets dead early on in each book, if there isn’t already a corpse laying around at the start. It’s up to Ishmael and Penny to figure out whodunnit and put a stop to them one way or another before the story reaches its inevitably grisly end.

What makes the mystery so much creepy fun is that as the mystery deepens there’s always a sneaking suspicion that the perpetrator is paranormal in some way, and that in the end that suspicion is nearly always a very tasty red herring. This particular mystery takes that assumption one better, as there is, for once, something actually paranormal going on but it isn’t either the monster or even the victim.

Because one of the things that this series does so very well, and with so much high-quality snark and occasional sheer bloody-mindedness, is that the worst monsters in this or any other universe are inevitably human. And that’s what keeps me coming back to this series, over and over and over again.

If this series sounds like it might be your jam, or if you’ve ever wanted to see just how far a classic-type mystery like a country house mystery or a strangers on a train type mystery can be led very, very far astray, take a look at The Dark Side of the Road and see if you like the view from that side.

I’ll be continuing with my journey with Ishmael Jones and Penny Belcourt with the next book in the series, The House on Widows Hill, the next time I have a yen for either high-quality snark, horror-adjacent mystery, or a bit of both!

Review: Phantom Pond by Juneau Black

Review: Phantom Pond by Juneau BlackPhantom Pond: A Shady Hollow Halloween Short Story by Juneau Black
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: ebook
Genres: cozy fantasy, cozy mystery
Series: Shady Hollow #4.5
Pages: 32
Published by Vintage on September 26, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo

In the woodlands around Shady Hollow, there’s a legend about a mysterious creature known as Creeping Juniper. According to local lore, she’s a sort of witch who dwells deep in the woods, casting spells on the shore of Phantom Pond. It’s a harmless old tale, until a prank goes wrong. When a young creature goes missing, all the clues point to Creeping Juniper. But to solve the mystery and rescue an innocent victim, Vera Vixen and her friends need to find a place that doesn’t appear on any maps. Can they discover the location of Phantom Pond before it’s too late?

My Review:

Every society seems to invent a holiday where its denizens can let their hair down, or at least loose the stays on the stricter rules of society, for a day or two – even if they don’t turn those rules completely topsy-turvy.

That’s what Halloween with its trick-or-treating and fake-scary haunted houses – along with the occasional TP’ing of selected houses – has come to be today. However seriously it might have started.

After all, ghost stories are fun as long as no one takes them TOO seriously!

Which leads to Phantom Pond overlooking Shady Hollow, that very cozy little mystery town where all the citizens are anthropomorphized animals. It’s very charming, and so are they. But they are very definitely people, no matter their species, and they are capable of and subject to all the foibles and peccadillos that we are.

Phantom Pond is set on Mischief Night – a VERY accurate re-naming of Halloween – which begins just like one would expect, with decorations and trick-or-treaters and activities for the children as the adults look on indulgently while sipping adult beverages.

Just as our Halloween has its folktales both new and old, and presents a fine opportunity for telling the creepiest stories in the potentially scariest circumstances, Shady Hollow has its own such tales, the most popular and prevalent of which is the story of the witch ‘Creeping Juniper’ who has been stealing adventurous and/or misbehaving children for a century or more.

When one of the little Mischief Night revelers doesn’t turn up the following morning, not at home, not at her best friend’s house, not anywhere – and a vaguely threatening missive from Creeping Juniper is found in her place – everyone fears the worst.

Especially ace reporter Vera Vixen, off on a not so mad quest to comb through ALL the legends of Creeping Juniper to figure out just where the witch’s lair might be hidden.

Only to discover that this year’s Mischief Night has played one last trick on the unsuspecting residents of Shady Hollow.

Escape Rating A-: The premise of the entire Shady Hollow series might seem like a bit of a Mischief Night prank, but it’s honestly adorable, and sits right at the intersection between cozy small town mysteries and cozy fantasies like Legends & Lattes. If Zootopia had taken place in rural Bunnyburrow instead of the metropolis it might look a bit like Shady Hollow.

And if that all sounds like as terrific of a reading time to you as it did to me, start with the first book in the series, Shady Hollow. You won’t be disappointed.

What makes Phantom Pond in particular both so cute, so cozy and such a wonderful Halloween story is the way that it manages to showcase the close-knit coziness of the town and lampshade the creepy, kooky, mysterious, spooky and all together ooky vibe of the best scary stories. Once Mischief Night is over, the story shifts seamlessly but oh-so-realistically scarily into a bit of a thriller, as the whole town searches for a missing little girl and it seems like time is running out.

Then it turns the whole scenario on its head, one more time, into the best kind of cathartic happy ending about mysterious misunderstandings until all their, and our, fears are laid peacefully to rest but no character is left under a ‘Rest in Peace’ marker.

If you’re looking for a Halloween story with just the right amount of scares but not too much, Phantom Road is perfect. If you love small town mysteries with just a touch of magic, Shady Hollow might be your jam, and very tasty jam it is indeed.

I’ve visited Shady Hollow every time there’s a new mystery, and I’ve loved the place each and every time. Which means I have plenty of treats in store this holiday season. The next full-length mystery in Shady Hollow is coming early next month at Twilight Falls, and I have a winter solstice story to catch up with this season at Evergreen Chase.

Happy Holidays!

Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: Volume Four edited by Paula Guran

Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: Volume Four edited by Paula GuranThe Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: Volume Four by Paula Guran
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, fantasy, horror
Series: Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror
Pages: 400
Published by Pyr on October 17, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror series returns with a splendidly startling fourth volume!

From paranormal plots to stories of the supernatural, tales of the unfamiliar have always fascinated us humans. To keep the tradition alive, fantasy aficionado Paula Guran has gathered the most delightfully disturbing work from some of today’s finest writers of the fantastique!

No two mysterious shadows are alike, and the same can be said for the books in this series. T he Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, Volume 4 contains more than three hundred pages of mystical fiction. Reader beware and indulge if you dare, because these chilling tales are sure to spook and surprise!

My Review:

I don’t normally do this, but this was just one of those times when I couldn’t resist rating each of the stories in this collection individually. As all collections are, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, particularly as it straddles two genres that sometimes stride along happily side by side exchanging anecdotes and experiences, and sometimes travel miles apart with dark caves, sucking swamps and haunted forests in between. That only one of those two genres is my usual jam gave the feeling that I should “show my work” so to speak, as any collective will reflect that for this particular reader the two great tastes don’t always go great together. Readers who prefer to read on the horror side of the fence will likely have a similar reaction but with the emphasis on different stories. In the listings below, (DF) represents Dark Fantasy and, of course, (H) is for Horror.

It also felt like these stories made up an important collection, one that should be read and shivered over, not just in the run up to this Halloween, but for Halloweens to come, whenever readers are looking for a wide-ranging collection of stories that go bump in the night.

Without further ado, the stories in, and my commentaries and ratings upon, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: Volume Four.

“Shadow Plane” by Fran Wilde (H with a hint of SF) A story about vlogging and mountain climbing that turns into a much older tale about medical experimentation, the things we do in the shadows – and the things the shadows do to us. Chilling and compelling. (A-)

“The Dyer and the Dressmakers” by Bindia Persaud (DF) Dyes for clothing come from dyers, literally in this tale about dying for the art of dyeing at the pleasure of the crown. Fell flat – or rather colorless – for me. (C-)

“Red Wet Grin” by Gemma Files (H) The old horror of possession and body snatching – although a twist on that – mixed well with the new horrors of COVID lockdowns, nursing homes, and the kind of greed that turns a blind eye. Great story with thoughtful conclusion that chills on multiple levels. (A+)

“The Lending Library of Final Lines” by Octavia Cade (DF) In a dying seaside town made for dying in, a woman sells the last pages of books to folks ready to commit suicide by crab. Eating the pages is magic, pulling them into the story just long enough to drug them, and let them be drug to death. Interesting but the incuriosity of the protagonist leaves the reader not having enough to give it depth because she refuses to have any, (B-)

“Men, Women and Chainsaws” by Stephen Graham Jones (H) A young woman pours her life’s blood, into the Chevy Camaro that her parents died in, so that the car can come back to life a la Christine along with her parents’ spirits to help her reenact their deaths with a one-victim version of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. (B)

“The Woman Who Married the Minotaur” by Angela Slatter (DF) Ultimately bittersweet and utterly romantic, this is exactly what the title says it is, the story of a contemporary woman who marries the immortal minotaur from the Labyrinth on Crete. They have a sweet and surprisingly normal life together, but love made him mortal, and in the end, they wouldn’t have had it any other way. (A)

“The Voice of A Thousand Years” by Fawaz Al Matrouk (DF) A beautiful but sad story about the power of education and knowledge set against the recalcitrance of religion, personified in the story of one old man who discovers a magical instrument and does his best to give it new life even at the cost of his own. (A+)

“Bonesoup” by Eugenia Triantafyllou (H) A bit of a variation on Hansel and Gretel where the ‘wicked’ witch merely wants to save the life of her grandchild by giving other children sugar to replace their bones even while she reserves the meat for her granddaughter who finally figures out how to return the favor. A fairy tale retelling that is every bit as scary as they used to be before the Grimm Brothers made them not so grim. (A-)

“Challawa” by Usman T. Malik (DF) Historical dark fantasy that tips into horror at the very end as a woman returns to her family homeland in India to write a story about the horrors of the early matchmaking industry, only to end up in an exchange of historical tales and ghost stories that leads to a deadly reenactment, that is needed to remove the foreign invaders AGAIN. (A+)

“How Selkies Are Made” by Cassandra Khaw (DF) Not as dark as it might have been. It’s a story and it’s a story about how stories get told. And it’s about how foolish humans can be when they’re in love. A woman promises the wrong man entirely too many things he’s not deserving of. After seven years of abuse, she takes her own fate into her own hands, without murder, without breaking her word, but with the help of a selkie. Of course, that’s not how the story gets told. And it’s a bit unsatisfying in the end because the husband really deserved a much worse ending than the loss of a wife he never cared for in the first place. But she kept her honor. (B)

“The Feeding of Closed Mouths” by Eden Royce (H) Her mother is a hag. Not metaphorically, but a real honest-to-badness hag. A monster who once helped her kill a former co-worker and rob a bank, both of which kinda deserved it. But asking a hag for favors seems to be a sure fire way of turning into one yourself, especially if you’re already halfway there. Plenty creepy with a well done heel-turn but not up to some of the other stories in the collection (B-)

“A Belly Full of Spiders” by Mario Coelho (H) Oh so very much horror about a boy who is no longer a boy rescued from monsters hiding in plain sight by a monster who truly is monstrous, with the help of one hell of a lot of spiders who turns out to be on a mission to save all the little children who are held captive in the dark. (B+)

“The Long Way Up” by Alix E. Harrow (DF) It’s a long way down to hell to retrieve her husband, but Ocean is determined to get Ethan back – no matter what it takes. What it takes is faith, trust and listening in this fractured, modernized, gender-reversed version of Orpheus and Eurydice (B+)

“Douen” by Suzan Palumbo (H) The story of a child ghost who, because she never got to grow up, is experiencing ghosthood through a child’s perspective but reacting with a ghost’s powers. The story is both creepy and innocent, and that both the ghost and the humans manage to reach reconciliation at all was a surprise but the story as a whole was more interesting than compelling. (C)

“The Ercildoun Accord” by Steve Toase (DF/H) The concept of conducting archaeology in the lands of faerie, with human tools and human concepts under tricksy fae contracts and conditions was both weird and cool and did a fantastic job of tripping – or rather, being tripped – over the line from Dark Fantasy to Horror in a well-executed combo of inevitability and resignation, even if the reader can’t imagine why ANYONE would be doing this job in the first place! (B+)

“Sharp Things, Killing Things” by A.C. Wise (H) Everyone has a guilty conscience – even if they don’t remember exactly what it is they are guilty of. Or it’s a story about dark small towns where everyone is up in everyone’s business and the cruelties inflicted in childhood ripple out in depressing waves from both the tormentors and their victims. Or it’s a straight up horror story about a town where the only way out is death and he’s going around making sure everyone takes him up on the offer. This one is really good of its type, it’s just not a type I personally care for. (C+)

“Swim the Darkness” by Michael Kelly (DF) This one reminded me of Shark Heart by Emily Habeck, but this story is much more gently told and is less about the girl who becomes a fish and more about parental regrets and the grief of losing a child when it’s supposed to be the other way around. The equivocal ending feels right, because the story has always been more about him than her. It’s possible to interpret this as him grieving so hard he follows, or him regretting so much he can’t let go. I liked the story better than Shark Heart, but it just wasn’t my jam. (B-)

“The Summer Castle” by Ray Naylor (DF/H) On the border between dark fantasy and horror, and not very clear about it into the bargain, it’s the last summer of childhood for two boys on the eve of war. The horror is all in the implications of that war but the story is a bit more amorphous and nebulous than I hoped for from the author of the totally awesome The Mountain in the Sea. (B-)

“In the Smile Place” by Tobi Ogundiran (H) If you put two other stories in this collection, “Men, Women and Chainsaws” and “Sharp Things, Killing Things” into a blender I think you’d get this story. Which makes it even weirder than it was when I read it. It combines the visitation of adult regret over being a young bully of “Sharp Things” with the haunted places and revenge of supposedly inanimate objects of “Chainsaws” into a single weird and creepy story. (B-)

“A Monster in the Shape of a Boy” (DF) At first, this is a dark fantasy about a boy training to become a monster hunter after he fails his first test – when a monster shaped exactly like himself surprises him so much he forgets his training and does not kill it immediately. His training is grim and dark as it seems designed to turn him into more of a monster than the one he was supposed to kill, only for the story to come full circle at the end and make the reader wonder who is really the monster after all. (B)

“Lemmings” by Kirstyn McDermott (H) It’s fitting that “Lemmings” is the last story in this collection, because I actually remember the video game Lemmings from its original release, and this is absolutely the last place I ever expected to see it referenced. The game’s  graphics were simple and the lemmings were suicidal, but underneath the pixelated gore was a story about scarce resources, preserving the tribe, and the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few and the few being ready, willing and able to throw themselves off a cliff to meet those needs. The way that this story takes that concept and merges it with a viral sensation and a viral plague takes the silly and makes it chilling in the extreme. (A-)

Escape Rating A-: I had to do actual math to get close to a collective rating for this one. There were several stories I straight-up loved on both the Dark Fantasy and, surprisingly for me, the Horror side of the equation, notably “Red Wet Grin” by Gemma Files, “The Voice of A Thousand Years” by Fawaz Al Matrouk and “Challawa” by Usman T. Malik.

If you’re looking for something appropriately spooky and scary to read this Halloween season, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: Volume 4 – and all of the previous volumes in this series! – are sure to give you just what you’re looking for. Especially if you’re looking for stories that HAVE to be read with the lights on.

Review: A Duke’s Lesson in Charm by Sophie Barnes

Review: A Duke’s Lesson in Charm by Sophie BarnesA Duke's Lesson in Charm (The Gentlemen Authors) by Sophie Barnes
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical romance, regency romance
Series: Gentlemen Authors #3
Pages: 274
Published by Sophie Barnes on October 24, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo

She was the last person he ever expected to marry…
Callum Davis, Duke of Stratton, never expected to get along with Emily Brooke, but thanks to his ward, he starts to realize she’s pretty good company. The more time he spends with her, the better he likes her. But rather than let their relationship grow at a gradual pace, a pretend courtship leads to a whirlwind romance that quickly collapses when Emily finds out what Callum has written about her. Now he must make every effort to prove his love for her is real, or risk losing her forever.
There is only one person Lady Emily Brooke must avoid at all cost, and that’s the Duke of Stratton. Since her debut, the man has threatened her safety by stepping upon her toes, spilling drinks on her gown, and sending her head first into a fountain. But when he invites her for a walk so the boy in his care can spend time with her dog, she cannot resist. What surprises her most is how charming the duke can be. Until a mistake on his part makes her question his feelings and his intentions.

My Review:

What has made this series so much fun is that it has followed the creation of a romance novel designed to capture the then-recently-late Jane Austen’s fans, not merely through the process of writing the thing but more specifically through the trials and travails of getting it published and into the hands of as many readers as possible.

The first book, A Duke’s Guide to Romance, planted the idea in the heads of three financially embarrassed dukes by a young gentlewoman who binds books in the back of her uncle’s popular bookshop. Along its merry way it introduces Anthony Gibbs, Duke of Westcliffe to Ada Quinn, the love of his life, AND gives both the dukes and the readers a peek into the way that books were printed and published in Jane Austen’s day.

The second book, A Duke’s Introduction to Courtship, moves the story about how books get made into the hands of the potential printers and publishers for the Gentlemen Authors’ completed novel. As Brody Evans, Duke of Corwin, learns the editing and publishing business from the ground up, he falls in love with the printing press’ crackerjack print compositor, Harriet Michaels. Who has done an entirely too convincing job convincing everyone, including Brody, that the print compositor is a young man named Harry.

Their book, A Seductive Scandal, is ready to be put into the hands of its readers. Which is where this third book and my envy come in. Book discovery has probably been an issue for authors, publishers and readers since the first text was chiseled into a stone tablet. It was a problem in Jane Austen’s day, it’s still a problem today and will probably still be a problem for as long as there are so many books and so little time. Meaning forever.

To convince people to buy their book, potential readers need to know it exists and believe that it will be worth their time to read. Which is where the Lady Librarian comes in. The Lady Librarian has the most popular book review column of the day, published in an equally popular and widely distributed newspaper. She has the Gentlemen Authors’ new novel at the top of her TBR (To Be Read) pile, and plans for her review to be published in the Mayfair Chronicle on the morning that A Seductive Scandal arrives in bookshops all over London.

Which it will be. Whether that review will be a paean or a pan is the saga told in A Duke’s Lesson in Charm. Because Lady Emily Brooke has come to believe, after years of clumsy contacts between herself and Callum Davis, Duke of Stratton, that this particular duke has no charm whatsoever.

Callum has no idea that the Lady Librarian is Lady Emily’s alter ego, while Emily is not aware that Callum and his two friends are the true authors of the book she’s been asked to review. The resulting misunderstandings, misidentifications and missteps threaten to scupper any possibility of A Seductive Scandal paddling the Gentlemen Authors’ respective fortunes away from the River Tick. And may just cost Callum and Emily the love of their lives.

Escape Rating A-: This final book in the Gentlemen Authors series is one that I have been anticipating with more than a bit of envy. The romance was lovely, but then ALL the romances in this series have been lovely.

What I was REALLY looking forward to was the story of a heroine who produces something extremely similar to what you are reading right this very minute. Lady Emily Brooke is a book reviewer. It’s the perfect ending to this series about getting a book to its readers, and I was just plain curious to see a bit of how this particular part of the process worked back then.

I do envy Lady Emily the reach of her publication and the size of her audience. She can literally make or break a book, which becomes the final bit of dramatic tension in this story.

But it’s hard to make an entire story about the solitary acts of reading and writing. We’d just be inside Emily’s head the whole way and probably not as entertained by that as she ultimately is by the book.

What we do have is a charming and sometimes fraught romance that manages to be both as filled with non-traditional female agency as the first two books in the series while still telling a story that is a bit closer to what is thought of as a traditional Regency romance.

Unlike the heroines of the first two books, Emily is a member of the ton in good standing. It’s Callum’s reputation that has taken a bit of a hit, both as a result of the behavior that wrecked his finances AND his quiet attempts to keep the bill collectors at bay by selling off some items that he won’t miss and letting go of some staff he can no longer afford to keep.

His title and his person seem to be the only assets Callum has on the ‘Marriage Mart’, and Emily’s father has some serious questions about Callum’s suitability to marry the well-dowered Emily. Her father’s objections are very nicely handled. Too often in historical romances, the father of the bride is a bit of a villain, but the Earl of Rosemont’s reaction to Callum’s suit for Emily’s hand hits all the right notes.

On the way to that suit, one of the best parts of the story is the way that Callum and Emily finally manage to get over their years of disastrous encounters through Callum’s adoption of his young cousin, and said cousin’s insta-love for Emily’s dog Heidi.

Once Heidi helps them leap over their initial apprehensions, their original animosity turns to real friendship, and then more, in the best enemies-to-lovers fashion – at least until a series of self-inflicted misapprehensions nearly breaks them apart.

All in all – and I realize there’s been a LOT of all in this review – A Duke’s Lesson in Charm was a marvelous and utterly fitting ending to what has been a lovely Regency romance series. As always, I can’t wait to see what the author comes up with next!

Review: Under the Smokestrewn Sky by A. Deborah Baker

Review: Under the Smokestrewn Sky by A. Deborah BakerUnder the Smokestrewn Sky (The Up-and-Under, #4) by A. Deborah Baker
Narrator: Heath Miller
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, young adult
Series: Up-and-Under #4
Pages: 195
Length: 4 hours and 48 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tordotcom on October 17, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

The end of the improbable road.
Since stumbling from their world into the Up-and-Under, Avery and Zib have walked the improbable road across forests, seas, and skies, finding friends in the unlikeliest of places and enemies great in number, as they make their way toward the Impossible City in the hope of finding their way home.
But the final part of their journey is filled with danger and demise. Not everyone will make it through unscathed. Not everyone will make it through alive.
The final part of the enchanting Up and Under quartet reminds us of the value of friendship and the price one sometimes pays for straying from the path. No one’s safety can be guaranteed under the smokestrewn sky.

My Review:

We have come, at last, to the final chapter of Zib and Avery’s journey into and hopefully through the Up-and-Under. It’s a journey that has taken them from their ordinary and mundane homes – even if Zib’s and Avery’s definitions of ordinary and mundane are entirely opposite to one another – and sent them along the Improbable Road on an equally improbable journey through every single one of the elemental kingdoms in the Up-and-Under.

They’ve picked up friends along the way. And, even if they haven’t changed physically along their way, they’ve certainly changed quite a bit on the inside – just as they’ve changed the lands they pass through on the outside.

Even though, as their quest winds closer to its end, this particular part of their journey sees Avery backsliding rather a lot into the boy he was at the beginning. A boy who couldn’t quite wrap his logical and orderly mind around the immutable fact that the Up-and-Under was entirely mutable from beginning to end, that things absolutely did not work there the way they did back home in America. And that the way things did work in the Up-and-Under might not be what HE was used to, but just because things were done differently did not mean things were wrong or ridiculous.

It’s Avery’s bit of stubborn backsliding that pushes the story off the Improbable Road and into their very last set of adventures in the Up-and-Under. Adventures that will have a much bigger impact than any of them imagined when they began.

Because for every great change there are great consequences, and the time has come for someone to pay them. Whether or not anyone wins this last throw of the dice, someone is going to have to lose.

Escape Rating A-: I’ve enjoyed Zib and Avery’s journey through the Up-and-Under, so as a treat for this final entry in the series I decided to try it in audio. I still loved their story, but the audio wasn’t quite as much of a treat as I was hoping it would be.

The voice actor was terrific at differentiating the characters’ voices, but one of those characters is the voice of the narrator who is telling the story to us as the audience. Because of the nature of the series, that its protagonists are predominantly young adults or not quite that old the storyteller character took on an arch tone that arched so very high that it arced all the way over into condescension – which led me to switch to text at the halfway point. I liked the storyteller’s voice a LOT better inside my own head.

However, whether in text or in audio, Under the Smokestrewn Sky is the story that brings the journey through the Up-and-Under to its ending, and it’s a story full of surprises and costs and consequences – as it should be.

No matter the age of the protagonists, this has been the story of an epic fantasy quest that combines bits of Narnia with elements of Wonderland. Zib and Avery have been brought to the Up-and-Under to fix what’s gone wrong there, while for Zib and Avery the quest is to find their way home. It’s not going to end in a big battle between good and evil, because those concepts aren’t exactly the same in the Up-an-Under as they are back home. Instead, it’s a quest to put the out-of-balance back into balance – even if some of what they see looks like evil to Zib and Avery’s – especially Avery’s – eyes.

And, even though Zib and Avery are still children, this has been an adult journey which has to carry adult consequences for someone. A someone who might be either Avery or Zib – even if that doesn’t feel fair. Because part of the lesson Avery has to learn is that fairness doesn’t enter into the big answers to the big questions nearly as often as his life so far has led him to believe that it should.

Readers who started at the beginning of this journey in Over the Woodward Wall will probably not be surprised at how all the big questions that were asked at the beginning of the story get answered at its end. But following Zib’s and Avery’s journey to get there has been fantastic!

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 10-22-23

I did switch up one thing last week. I had originally planned to post my review of The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror this past week – at least until all the candy displays at Publix hit me with the clue-by-four that Howloween is coming up SOON and that I had enough horror or at least horror-adjacent books to do a bit of a theme around the howliday. So a switcheroo was made.

Last Sunday’s cat picture was a bit of ‘Tall Tuna is Tall – and confuddled!’ so this week’s picture is ‘Long Luna is Long’ – just not as long as Tuna. We need to get a picture of Tuna with some perspective in it to show just how big he is, but so far he has NOT been cooperative!

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Howl-O-Ween Giveaway Hop
$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Silly Pumpkins Giveaway Hop
$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Fall Seasons of Books 2023 Giveaway Hop

Blog Recap:

Silly Pumpkins Giveaway Hop
A++ Review: Generation Ship by Michael Mammay
A+ Review: Bookshops and Bonedust by Travis Baldree
A- Review: Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2023 edited by R.F. Kuang
B+ Review: Keep by Anna Hackett
Stacking the Shelves (571)

Coming This Week:

Under the Smokestrewn Sky by (Seanan McGuire writing as) A. Deborah Baker (audio review)
A Duke’s Lesson in Charm by Sophie Barnes (blog tour review)
The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: Volume Four edited by Paula Guran (review)
Phantom Pond by Juneau Black (review)
Night Train to Murder by Simon R. Green (review)