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
Goodreads

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
Goodreads

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.

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
Goodreads

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: Starling House by Alix E. Harrow

Review: Starling House by Alix E. HarrowStarling House by Alix E. Harrow
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, Gothic, horror
Pages: 320
Length: 12 hours and 26 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Books on October 3, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

I dream sometimes about a house I’ve never seen….

Opal is a lot of things―orphan, high school dropout, full-time cynic and part-time cashier―but above all, she's determined to find a better life for her younger brother Jasper. One that gets them out of Eden, Kentucky, a town remarkable for only two things: bad luck and E. Starling, the reclusive nineteenth century author of The Underland, who disappeared over a hundred years ago.

All she left behind were dark rumors―and her home. Everyone agrees that it’s best to ignore the uncanny mansion and its misanthropic heir, Arthur. Almost everyone, anyway.

I should be scared, but in the dream I don’t hesitate.

Opal has been obsessed with The Underland since she was a child. When she gets the chance to step inside Starling House―and make some extra cash for her brother's escape fund―she can't resist.

But sinister forces are digging deeper into the buried secrets of Starling House, and Arthur’s own nightmares have become far too real. As Eden itself seems to be drowning in its own ghosts, Opal realizes that she might finally have found a reason to stick around.

In my dream, I’m home.

And now she’ll have to fight.

Welcome to Starling House: enter, if you dare.

My Review:

They’ve been telling stories about Starling House and the woman who built it, Eleanor Starling, since Eleanor first came to Eden over a century and a half ago. Some of those stories are even halfway true – but it doesn’t matter because no one in Eden has ever cared about the truth if that truth made them the least bit uncomfortable.

They’ve been telling stories about Opal and her mother Jewel since the day they came to town, too. And even though her mother drowned a decade ago, they’re still telling stories about her too. But mostly, they tell stories about Opal, and most of those are halfway true, too.

One of the stories that no one tells about Opal, because she never reveals truths about herself to anyone at all if she can help it, is that she’s more haunted by Starling House than anyone else in town – because the rest of them just complain about the eyesore, and the bad luck it brings to Eden. While Opal has been dreaming that Starling House was HERS, and has been dreaming those dreams since she was a little girl whose only even somewhat permanent address has been Room 12 at the Garden of Eden Motel since her mom brought her and her little brother Jasper to Eden.

Opal never knew that her mother brought them back to the only home that Jewel had ever known. At least, not until Opal lied, cheated, and inveigled her way into a job at the broken down and dilapidated Starling House. A job that looked to rival Hercules’ task of cleaning the Augean stables.

But Opal doesn’t care. Because Starling House seems to want her there – even if the current Starling, Arthur, claims that he doesn’t. But the house is true because it needs her, and Arthur is lying because of the same damn reason.

While the vultures that have always circled Starling House see Opal’s lies and secrets as a lever they can use to finally pry their way into a place where their dreams will come true.

Someone should have been careful what they wished for, because they’re about to get it.

Escape Rating A-: Starling House sits at the confluence of the River of Dreams and the Stuff of Nightmares, at the four-way stop between the darkest of dark fantasy, outright horror, the angstiest of angsty romance and power corrupts, catty-corner to the Inn of No One Believes the Truths that Women Tell because it’s inconvenient for their wallets, their consciences or even just their privilege.

At first, it’s Opal’s story, a story that is considerably more honest from the confines of her own head than it appears to anyone on the outside, but Opal lies like she breathes – especially to herself. Sometimes she even does as good a job of convincing herself as she does everyone else, but there are always cracks in the facade in her own head. Even if she can’t admit it.

The only love and the only weakness that Opal will admit to is her younger brother Jasper. She will do anything – and everything – to get him safely out of Eden. Because he’s been the only sunlight in her world since their mother drove her car into the river and drowned. And Eden is slowly killing him. Not just his spirit, although probably that too, but literally. Jasper has asthma, they have no health insurance and sometimes not enough for groceries, and the power plant has never met an environmental regulation that they haven’t bribed someone to let them off the hook for. The air is toxic and the whole place is a cancer cluster and Jasper needs to be somewhere else – even if Opal can’t make herself go with him

But Opal also has a weakness for Starling House and the children’s classic, The Underland, that the house’s first owner wrote from within its walls. Starling House captures her dreams, and she can’t resist following those dreams in waking life.

Which is where this story catches her and drags us all down to Underland with her.

Starling House takes all the elements of a gothic romance; the dark and creepy house concealing secret rooms and family secrets, an uber angsty romance between star-crossed would-be lovers both believing they’re not worthy of redemption, adds in myths and monsters from the depths of the imagination, sets it in a hard-scrabble, hard-luck town and then takes the whole story through a metamorphosis when the truth quite literally sets everyone – or at least everyone worthy – free.

Even if more of those people than would ever have imagined at the beginning of this descent into dreams choose to take their hard-won freedom and spend it in that same hard-luck town that might just have won a freedom of its own.

So, even though the angst of the romance sometimes goes way over the top, described in overblown language of desire and denial – at least within the confines of Opal’s head – and if the monsters and the myths turn out to be relics of bad choices and just desserts, the story of Opal, and Arthur and Eleanor descending down into Underland takes the reader along for the wildest of wild rides. Often in the wake of the Wild Hunt itself.

And even if some of both Opal’s and Eleanor’s secrets become obvious to the reader very early on, the journey is still well worth taking with them.

I took this journey in audio, with Natalie Naudus as the most excellent narrator. As a narrator, she seems to specialize in heroines who think that everything is all their fault and that they have to do it all alone, and her voice made me think of her other characters, Emiko Soong in Ebony Gate, Zelda in Last Exit, and Vivian Liao in Empress of Forever. Opal is a fine addition to that illustrious company of women who stand on their own two feet but ultimately get by with a little help from their awesome, kickass friends.

I loved the author’s Fractured Fables, A Spindle Splintered and A Mirror Mended, so I’m looking forward to her next book whenever it appears. I already have Natalie Naudus’ next narration in my TBR/TBL (To Be Read/To Be Listened) pile in The Dead Take the A Train.

Review: Thornhedge by T. Kingfisher

Review: Thornhedge by T. KingfisherThornhedge by T. Kingfisher
Narrator: Jennifer Blom
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, fairy tales, fantasy, retellings
Pages: 128
Length: 3 hours and 43 minutes
Published by Tor Books on August 15, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

From USA Today bestselling author T. Kingfisher, Thornhedge is an original, subversive fairytale about a kind-hearted, toad-shaped heroine, a gentle knight, and a mission gone completely sideways.
There’s a princess trapped in a tower. This isn't her story.
Meet Toadling. On the day of her birth, she was stolen from her family by the fairies, but she grew up safe and loved in the warm waters of faerieland. Once an adult though, the fae ask a favor of Toadling: return to the human world and offer a blessing of protection to a newborn child. Simple, right?
If only.
Centuries later, a knight approaches a towering wall of brambles, where the thorns are as thick as your arm and as sharp as swords. He’s heard there’s a curse here that needs breaking, but it’s a curse Toadling will do anything to uphold…

My Review:

Once upon a time, there was a beautiful princess who was cursed by an evil fairy godmother to prick her finger on a spinning wheel’s spindle and sleep for a century – along with everyone else who inhabits that castle. This isn’t that story. That’s the story that was made from this one, when the truth needed to be spindled in order to make the story fit a more conventional mold.

Because in all the stories, evil is supposed to be ugly and anyone beautiful must be good. Which is what makes it a story, because in truth, evil often wears a very pretty face – all the better to hide the rot within. But that’s not the way the story is supposed to go – so it didn’t.

The truth, or at least this version of the truth – is considerably different – as the truth generally is.

Toadling has watched seasons change and years pass beyond counting, guarding the thornhedge that surrounds the darkling woods that encase the decaying castle where the beautiful princess sleeps a troubled, enchanted sleep. Once upon a time, Toadling was human. Once upon a time, she might have been that princess.

Once upon a time, she made a terrible mistake that put her exactly where she is, standing guard, doing her sometimes human, sometimes toad-like best to perform her self-imposed duty of keeping the princess safe – and keeping everyone else safe from the princess.

Just as Toadling is almost, almost sure that all knowledge of the lost princess and the crumbling tower has slipping out of time and mind of the rest of the world, her sanctuary is invaded in the kindliest and most annoyingly frustrating – at least for Toadling – way possible. The knight Halim has a burning need to solve the mystery. If there’s a princess imprisoned in the crumbling castle, he’ll certainly rescue her – after all, he is a knight – if not either a very good or very successful one. But his primary motivation isn’t the princess, it’s solving the puzzle.

Which, in the end, he does. Just not the way that Toadling feared. Or even worse, hoped.

Escape Rating A: Thornhedge is a fractured fairy tale. In fact, Thornhedge and A Spindle Splintered are fractured versions of the same fairy tale, that of Sleeping Beauty. But they have been fractured along very different fault lines.

It’s because they start with different questions. A Spindle Splintered asked whether there were ways for Sleeping Beauty to escape her destiny, and what would happen if she tried, and then proceeded to play out those variations across the multiverse.

Thornhedge goes back to the beginning of the story and asks a fundamental question about why it was necessary for the princess to be ensconced in that castle so thoroughly in the first place. The answer to that question sets the fairy tale entirely on its head but also makes the story considerably more interesting.

Instead of a ‘fridged’ heroine who gets top billing but does nothing to earn it, we get a lovely story about friendship and duty and guilt and spending a lifetime making up for someone else’s mistakes and cleaning up after someone else’s messes and finally, finally participating in your own rescue.

Because this isn’t really the Sleeping Beauty story at all, but in a totally different way than Sleeping Beauty wasn’t actually Sleeping Beauty’s own story.

Instead it’s a story about friendship and guilt and learning to be – not who you are supposed to be, but who you really are. That the lesson turns out to be just as much for Halim the Knight as it is for Toadling the fairy is just the teeniest, tiny part of what makes Thornhedge such a lovely read.

Or in my case, reread. I read this for a Library Journal review a few months back, and loved it as I do all of T. Kingfisher’s work, but not quite as much as I did Nettle & Bone. Listening to it now brought all the best parts back – particularly the perspective of the princess turned Toadling in her frustration, her longing, and her utterly justified anger at everything that brought her to this pass. Including herself.

The way in which she rescues herself, and Halim, and finally gets the future she wants now and the home she wants later, was beautiful. As is Toadling, even if neither the reader nor Halim notice it at first. Because this is Toadling’s story, and she’s the heroine, and heroines are supposed to be beautiful. So she is, and so is her story.

Review: The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw

Review: The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra KhawThe Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw
Narrator: Susan Dalian
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, horror
Pages: 112
Length: 2 hours and 54 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Nightfire on May 2, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

From USA Today bestselling author Cassandra Khaw comes The Salt Grows Heavy, a razor-sharp and bewitching fairytale of discovering the darkness in the world, and the darkness within oneself.
You may think you know how the fairytale goes: a mermaid comes to shore and weds the prince. But what the fables forget is that mermaids have teeth. And now, her daughters have devoured the kingdom and burned it to ashes.
On the run, the mermaid is joined by a mysterious plague doctor with a darkness of their own. Deep in the eerie, snow-crusted forest, the pair stumble upon a village of ageless children who thirst for blood, and the three 'saints' who control them.
The mermaid and her doctor must embrace the cruellest parts of their true nature if they hope to survive.

My Review:

Three different stories, all irreparably skewered and vivisected, are stitched together to make one bloody, creepy, startling ode of a horror story in The Salt Grows Heavy. But as haunting and compelling as the story is, I didn’t pick this up for its story.

Because what makes this tale stick in the mind and the ribs and the craw isn’t the story nearly as much as it is the soaring, lyrical language in which it is told.

After repeated Disney incarnations, in the popular imagination The Little Mermaid is a romance with a happy ending, even though the original Hans Christian Andersen version was a lot more equivocal.

The Salt Grows Heavy takes that romantic tale and sieves it through a much gorier and grimmer lens – much like the original, unexpurgated Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Then it strips the skin from the story’s bones and makes it a whole lot bloodier.

This so-called mermaid did not leave the sea for love of any prince. She was captured by a rapacious king who kept her as his literal trophy wife through sorcery and brutality. When we first meet her, she has already had her revenge for decades of rape and torment. Her daughters, just as much monsters as their mother, have killed and eaten the entire kingdom.

Paul Fürst, engraving (coloured), c. 1656, of a plague doctor of Marseilles (introduced as ‘Dr Beaky of Rome’). His nose-case is filled with herbal material to keep off the plague.

She decides to leave those bones to her daughters, and set out on a journey. After all, the marrow has literally been sucked out of her revenge. But she does not travel alone. One brave or foolish soul, if not a bit of both, volunteers to accompany her. It is ‘her’ Plague Doctor, someone who has secrets of their own, hidden behind their profession’s iconic mask.

So they set off on a journey, two monsters together. For she is most definitely a monster, and the Plague Doctor is a patchwork creature not unlike Frankenstein’s monster, made of bits and pieces of dead things with a mind of their own.

What they find along their way is something that neither of them ever imagined. They find beauty, and love, and nature “red in tooth and claw”, including their own.

But if the Plague Doctor is Frankenstein’s monster, then the doctor himself – or themselves – can’t be far away. With an entirely new – and even more rapacious – pack of monster acolytes to carry out their bloody, gruesome work.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up because I loved the author’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth, in spite of not being all that much of a horror reader. What I loved about that earlier book was the absolutely unholy lyricality of the language in which the story was told. It was horror as poetry and it captured me from the very first.

Therefore, The Salt Grows Heavy is one of the very rare occasions where I picked a book, not for its story, but for the language in which that story is told; haunting, creepy and beautiful at the same time.

The story combines The Little Mermaid, Frankenstein, and The Lost Boys (both the movie and the original Peter Pan interpretations fit) by sticking them into a blender, bones and all, and watching the blood fountain up as the blades gnaw at their meat.

It wasn’t quite as cohesive a story as Nothing But Blackened Teeth, but as I was listening to it, that didn’t matter AT ALL. I was so caught up in how she was describing EVERYTHING that I couldn’t stop listening – no matter how gorge inducing the scene she was describing might have been.

But I discovered, as I did with Nothing But Blackened Teeth, that the story lost its punch for me when I attempted to finish by reading the text. It wasn’t half so compelling a story in my head as it was when I felt myself inserted into the head of that misnamed mermaid.

So even when we see the even awfuller stuff coming – when she sees it coming – it was her voice that allowed me to let it come and let the experience play out to its bloody, bittersweet end.

The Salt Grows Heavy is a tale to be listened to with rapt attention – with ALL the lights on.

Review: Lute by Jennifer Thorne

Review: Lute by Jennifer ThorneLute by Jennifer Marie Thorne
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, horror
Pages: 274
Published by Tor Nightfire on October 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Wicker Man meets Final Destination in Jennifer Thorne's atmospheric, unsettling folk horror novel about love, duty, and community.
On the idyllic island of Lute, every seventh summer, seven people die. No more, no less.
Lute and its inhabitants are blessed, year after year, with good weather, good health, and good fortune. They live a happy, superior life, untouched by the war that rages all around them. So it’s only fair that every seven years, on the day of the tithe, the island’s gift is honored.
Nina Treadway is new to The Day. A Florida girl by birth, she became a Lady through her marriage to Lord Treadway, whose family has long protected the island. Nina’s heard about The Day, of course. Heard about the horrific tragedies, the lives lost, but she doesn’t believe in it. It's all superstitious nonsense. Stories told to keep newcomers at bay and youngsters in line.
Then The Day begins. And it's a day of nightmares, of grief, of reckoning. But it is also a day of community. Of survival and strength. Of love, at its most pure and untamed. When The Day ends, Nina―and Lute―will never be the same.

My Review:

Hugh Treadway has every intention of going right on and having his cake and eating it, too. As this story begins, Hugh plans to continue having all the privileges and reaping all the benefits of being the Lord of Lute island, just as he always has, but Lute has other plans.

Which means that this is not his story – even though it should have been. Because Lute seems to have had enough of him dancing the dance but unwilling to take the chance of having to pay the piper.

Every seven years, on the longest day, the day of the summer solstice, the island of Lute takes seven people. They die. It’s not necessarily a gruesome death – or even a painful one. Often it’s an accident. But the island, or the spirits that dwell within, choose who will pay that piper among those present on the island on The Day.

And in return, Lute enjoys prosperity – no matter how well or how poorly the economy of Britain, or even the entire world, happens to be doing. The weather is milder and even sunnier than anyone has a right to expect. There’s always enough food and no one goes hungry. Lute takes care of its own and its people take care of each other. And there’s peace – even in the midst of war.

Lute has the only war memorial in Britain with no names on it. No Lute resident has ever died in any war her country has fought. EVER.

But in return, she takes seven people every seven years – one for each of those years of peace and prosperity. Long, long ago, the people of Lute made a bargain with the Shining Ones, the Tuatha dé Danann, and that bargain is kept. Or so the legend goes.

American-born Nina Treadway, the Lady of Lute, doesn’t believe in The Day. She’s sure it’s just superstitious nonsense. That the very specific death toll on that very particular day is either chance or confirmation bias – that the deaths have been recorded on that day to keep the legend alive.

But she’s never experienced The Day, either. She met Hugh Treadway on a cruise, seven years ago on The Day. Hugh thinks he’s going to take them all to the mainland for an anniversary trip so that he can avoid, yet again, the potential consequences of The Day. When Lute keeps them home, Nina gets to experience The Day for herself – as she and her children are held hostage to a potential fate that she refused to believe in – until it was too late.

Escape Rating A-: I usually say that I prefer to sidle up to horror, rather than hitting it head-on, and that’s so very true of the story in Lute. It’s easy to believe, right along with Nina, that whatever happens in Lute on The Day isn’t quite what actually occurs, so the dread creeps up on the reader just as it does on Nina.

But once it’s there, it’s really, really there. Particularly as, just as in the Final Destination movies, the cause of the horror isn’t a specific villain or monster. Not that there doesn’t turn out to be a villain in Lute – just that the villain isn’t the cause of The Day. More like its result.

More than anything else, though, the thing that Lute kept reminding me of was Shirley Jackson’s famous short story, “The Lottery”. Not that anyone gets stoned, and certainly not that there’s any overtones of scapegoating that many readers see in “The Lottery”, but the impersonal nature of the choosing, that for once the game is not rigged, and that the sacrifice seems to be made for a real benefit and not just superstition.

Howsomever, the way that Lute works kept me riveted not just because of the way the horror creeps up on Nina and the reader but because of the way that the creeping horror forces Nina to reckon with herself and her own issues.

In the end, Lute is Nina’s story in a way that it never was Hugh’s, even though it should have been. The sacrifices and the responsibilities of being the Lady of Lute make Nina even as they break her husband and their marriage. And the story worked for me, even as horror, because in spite of just how serious and in the end terrible the situation gets to be, there still manages to be a bit of sweet and a sort of happy ending mixed in with the bitter.

Lute turned out to be the perfect book to read – and review – this Halloween season.

Review: Silver Under Nightfall by Rin Chupeco

Review: Silver Under Nightfall by Rin ChupecoSilver Under Nightfall by Rin Chupeco
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, epic fantasy, fantasy, Gothic, horror, steampunk, vampires
Series: Reaper #1
Pages: 512
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on September 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Full of court intrigue, queer romance, and terrifying monsters—this gothic epic fantasy will appeal to fans of Samantha Shannon’s The Priory of the Orange Tree and the adult animated series Castlevania.
Remy Pendergast is many things: the only son of the Duke of Valenbonne (though his father might wish otherwise), an elite bounty hunter of rogue vampires, and an outcast among his fellow Reapers. His mother was the subject of gossip even before she eloped with a vampire, giving rise to the rumors that Remy is half-vampire himself. Though the kingdom of Aluria barely tolerates him, Remy’s father has been shaping him into a weapon to fight for the kingdom at any cost.
When a terrifying new breed of vampire is sighted outside of the city, Remy prepares to investigate alone. But then he encounters the shockingly warmhearted vampire heiress Xiaodan Song and her infuriatingly arrogant fiancé, vampire lord Zidan Malekh, who may hold the key to defeating the creatures—though he knows associating with them won’t do his reputation any favors. When he’s offered a spot alongside them to find the truth about the mutating virus Rot that’s plaguing the kingdom, Remy faces a choice.
It’s one he’s certain he’ll regret.
But as the three face dangerous hardships during their journey, Remy develops fond and complicated feelings for the couple. He begins to question what he holds true about vampires, as well as the story behind his own family legacy. As the Rot continues to spread across the kingdom, Remy must decide where his loyalties lie: with his father and the kingdom he’s been trained all his life to defend or the vampires who might just be the death of him.

My Review:

I wasn’t sure what I was getting myself into this book, and now that I’ve read it I’m still not entirely sure. Except that it was fantastic. Heart-pounding, fingernail-biting, stay up until 3 in the morning to finish fantastic.

But the question about whether this is fantasy or horror still feels a bit up in the air.

Let me explain…

Remy Pendergast is a Reaper. In this world that means vampire hunter. But Remy only hunts so-called “rogue” vampires – ones who are causing mischief in human-controlled countries like Aluria. Vampires also have fiefdoms of their own where the rules are undoubtedly different.

Where Remy wouldn’t exactly be welcome because he’s famous for hunting their kind.

Not that Remy is exactly welcome in his own country, either. And not because he’s a Reaper. There are plenty of Reapers in high positions in Aluria’s government. In fact, his father used to be one of them.

But his father, who is a cantankerous old bastard at the best of times – of which he has damn few – is also in the midst of a lifelong feud with the head of the Reaper’s Guild – who also happens to be the Royal Chancellor. A man who is just as big a bastard as Remy’s father, and who is taking his feud out on the son now that the father has publicly retired.

And that’s just the tip of the really massive and ugly iceberg of why Remy is persona non grata in his own country – unless they need something killed and everyone else is too scared or too prissy to get their hands dirty.

That’s where the zombies come in. Well, not really and not exactly zombies. But sorta/kinda and close enough.

Someone is creating monsters that at first seem to be super-duper enhanced vampires. But they’re not. They’re mindless husks who regenerate at will and seem to be impossible to kill. Upon closer scientific study (this world is steampunk-ish so there’s plenty of mad science at least of the medical variety) it’s revealed that these mindless husks were never vampires – and that vampires are immune to the infection that creates them.

Lord Malekh and Lady Song, leaders of the Third and Fourth vampire Courts, have come to Aluria to ally with its Queen in order to combat what they call “The Rot” and whoever is behind that threat.

They need a human liaison. They both want Remy (in more ways than one) – who isn’t at all sure what he wants except to get out of Aluria for a while. The political temperature is getting way too hot for him and his father’s demands are becoming even more outrageous than they always have been.

And he’s tempted. Even though becoming a vampire’s familiar is against the law. Even though he’s fought vampires all his life. Even though a vampire killed his mother and he was born from her corpse.

Even though Malekh and Song are clearly in love and engaged to marry each other. Remy can’t understand why either of them wants him when no one else has ever wanted to do anything except use him for their own purposes.

He has a chance at having the kind of happiness that he never expected to even get a glimpse of. And he’s so, so certain that someone will take it away from him – unless he does it to himself first.

Escape Rating A+: Clearly, the setup for this is ginormous. It’s also endlessly fascinating. I got stuck into this and absolutely could not get out until I finished the last page at about 3 AM. It was just that good.

To the point where I’ll probably be squeeing uncontrollably more than reviewing per se. But I did love it so, so hard.

While the blurbs reference the anime series (and videogame) Castlevania, I think that’s because of the vampires, the politics and the monsters. I haven’t played or watched that so it’s not where my mind went. Instead, I kept seeing Remy as a younger, less confident Geralt of Rivia, in a world where hunting magical creatures gone rogue is needed while the people who do it are reviled. I would call it a bit of a coming-of-age story for The Witcher but I’m not sure Remy is fully adulting even by the end of the story – although he’s finally getting there.

Where I started with this review was that I still wasn’t sure whether the book was horror or fantasy. It was presented to me as horror and the scientific experimentation with zombie-like monsters who roam the countryside and infect others definitely has that vibe. There’s even a Doctor Frankenstein who is entirely too proud of his work even if he doesn’t use electricity to achieve his goals.

And then there’s the vampires, both the rogue vampires and the sexy vampire nobility. Which pushes the whole thing towards the paranormal which is an offshoot of horror.

But the form of the story reads like a big, sprawling epic fantasy. The world is huge and vastly complicated. The political agendas have political agendas and everyone is trying to knife everyone else in the back. The grudges seem to last for centuries – and not just among the vampires who have the excuse of living that long.

Basically, the politics behind everything are beyond Byzantine – as much as that is still an understatement if I ever heard one.

All of that makes the story feel epic in scope in a way that horror seldom is. And most of what is truly horrible in this story isn’t the monsters. It’s all the endless betrayals. It feels like the foundations of Remy’s world get pulled out from under him over and over as he keeps learning that under the corruption of everything if you scrape it away there’s yet another layer of, you guessed it, rot and corruption. Nothing he thinks he knows turns out to have any bearing on any truth.

That the triad relationship between Malekh, Song and Remy becomes both his only source of solace and a never-ending well of betrayal AT THE SAME TIME is just the icing on what is an utterly decadently delicious devil’s food cake of a story.

Whether it’s horror or fantasy or gothic or all of the above it’s riveting and downright compelling every step of the way. But whatever genre it falls into, I’m absolutely thrilled that the story isn’t over. Silver Under Nightfall is the first book in a projected duology, so there’s more dark, deadly and decadent delights to come!

Review: Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher + Giveaway

Review: Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher + GiveawayNettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, fantasy
Pages: 256
Published by Tor Books on April 26, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

After years of seeing her sisters suffer at the hands of an abusive prince, Marra—the shy, convent-raised, third-born daughter—has finally realized that no one is coming to their rescue. No one, except for Marra herself.
Seeking help from a powerful gravewitch, Marra is offered the tools to kill a prince—if she can complete three impossible tasks. But, as is the way in tales of princes, witches, and daughters, the impossible is only the beginning.
On her quest, Marra is joined by the gravewitch, a reluctant fairy godmother, a strapping former knight, and a chicken possessed by a demon. Together, the five of them intend to be the hand that closes around the throat of the prince and frees Marra's family and their kingdom from its tyrannous ruler at last.

My Review:

“The world isn’t fair, Calvin.” “I know Dad, but why isn’t it ever unfair in my favor?” While the quote is from The Essential Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson, the sentiment is one that could easily be attributed to Marra, the central character in Nettle & Bone. Throughout this proto-fairytale, Marra frequently bemoans the unfairness of her world, even as she continually puts on her world’s equivalent of “big girl panties” and just keeps right on dealing with that unfairness.

I call this a “proto-fairytale” because it reads like just the kind of story that will be a fairytale someday, after the events have passed through the hands of this world’s versions of the Brothers Grimm AND Walt Disney in order to shape, knead and mold this “adventure” – in the sense that an adventure is something terrible that happens to someone else either long ago, fair away or both – into the kind of morality tale/object lesson that fairy tales end up being once they become “tales” rather than “history”.

This is also a tale that can be looked at as either “this is the house that jack built” or it’s opposite where “jack” goes on his journey of tasks and errands so damn mad at the situation that sent him that by the time he reaches his destination he tells everyone to stick it where the sun don’t shine.

In other words, Nettle & Bone is a tale of accretion, where Princess Marra starts out with a vague plan that takes on weight, depth and followers as she travels. And it needs all of those things and people because her task is large and she is small. She plans to save her second sister – the one who doesn’t even like her all that much – from certain death at the hands of the evil prince who already murdered their oldest sister AND threatens their parents’ kingdom.

Which is another way that this is a story about fairness, privilege, and the actual powerlessness that afflicts people in positions of seeming power – at least if those people are female.

So Marra is on a quest to save her sister. She thinks she needs to kill the evil prince, so that’s the task she sets herself. But she needs magic to counteract the prince’s magic, so she goes looking for a witch. The witch sets her three impossible tasks, not unlike many such stories. And not unlike those stories, Marra completes the tasks she has been set. She makes the cloak of nettle thread, and brings a dog made of bones back to the witch. The witch herself presents Marra with the third, the moon captured in a jar because she’s so astonished by Marra’s completion of the first two tasks that she decides to help her with her quest.

And they’re off! Along with the witch’s familiar, a hen with a demon inside her. Otherwise known as Strong Independent Chicken, a bird who really exists and to whom this book is dedicated.

But the plan is barely a sketch – and one not nearly as easy to fill in as Marra originally thought – or hoped. Along the way they add two more members to their already assorted party – a soldier they free from the Goblin Market, and Marra’s family godmother, who is both a bit more AND a bit less than she seems.

Off they go in search of, not adventure, but a way of bringing a little more fairness into their world. Marra thinks they’re going to kill the prince. The soldier is just happy to be free of the Goblin Market. The witch is coming to speak to the dead and the godmother is coming to magic the living. The chicken and her demon are along for the ride, in the hopes of causing whatever mayhem they can on the way. And there’s plenty of that every step of the way!

Escape Rating A+: I was looking for something by T. Kingfisher AKA Ursula Vernon to review as part of this Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week because so far I’ve loved everything of hers that I’ve read, especially A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking and her Saint of Steel series (Paladin’s Grace, Paladin’s Strength and Paladin’s Hope). And because I enjoyed every single presentation she did on the recent JoCo Cruise – especially her stories about, you guessed it, Strong Independent Chicken. So I was looking for a book to review as a gateway drug for the giveaway and Nettle & Bone will be out later this month. So here we are.

Like the other books of hers that I have read, there’s a lot going on in Nettle & Bone and the story feels much bigger underneath than it is on the surface. On the surface, there’s the adventure of it all, which is marvelous and a perfectly good way of getting into this story and the rest of her work.

But underneath that there’s all this other stuff going on. There’s a lot in this story about the contrast between power and powerlessness, and the way that the perception of privilege depends on where you are in the neverending pecking order of the universe. It’s something that Marra comes to have a wider and more expansive view of on this journey. That’s partly because she’s a princess who is almost but not exactly a nun. While she thinks her mother the queen is powerful and can fix everything, she’s also aware that it is easier to travel as a nun than either a princess or a woman. Princesses are hedged ‘round with restrictions, while women in general are always subject to the whims and physical size and power of men.

Her whole quest is about reconciling the fact that those rules apply in the end to princes and princesses and even kingdoms. Someone is always more powerful and someone is always abusing that power.

At the same time, this is a women’s quest from start to finish. Although they have a soldier with them, and Fenris is certainly useful – as well as easy on the eyes – everything that happens in this story is driven by its female characters. The plan and the solutions they come to are not about men and arms and armies – it’s about women and soft power and seeing the truth of things. With the result that soft power turns out not to be soft at all, because power is a hard thing to seize no matter who is doing it.

In the end this is a story about feeling the fear and doing it anyway, even when you don’t know what you’re doing and aren’t in the least bit sure you’re going about the right way of doing it. Marra’s quest is to save her sister, and she does. At the same time, her sister also saves herself. And both the kingdoms. It’s never easy and it’s always on the knife edge of failing – but it gets done.

And it’s utterly marvelous along every single step of its impossible way.

~~~~~~ GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

As part of my Blogo-Birthday Celebration Week I’m giving away one copy of ANY one of T. Kingfisher’s books, in any format, up to $30 (US) in value. That should be enough to get the winner any book of hers they want, including the new and coming titles like Nettle & Bone and What Moves the Dead. If you don’t know where to begin I highly recommend A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, Paladin’s Grace or the subject of today’s review, Nettle & Bone as excellent places to start!

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Review: Jekyll & Hyde Inc by Simon R. Green

Review: Jekyll & Hyde Inc by Simon R. GreenJekyll & Hyde Inc. by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 240
Published by Baen on September 7, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

A NEW MASTERPIECE OF MACABRE HUMOR AND ACTION FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES BEST-SELLING AUTHOR OF ROBIN HOOD, PRINCE OF THIEVES, THE NATIONALLY BEST-SELLING NIGHTSIDE SERIES, THE DEATHSTALKER CHRONICLES, THE ISHMAEL JONES PARANORMAL MYSTERIES, AND MORE!
HYDE IN THE SHADOWS
Daniel Carter was a London cop who just wanted to do the right thing. But during a raid on an organ-selling chop shop, he is almost torn to pieces by monsters. And no one believes him. Hurt and crippled, his career over and his life in ruins, Daniel is suddenly presented with a chance at redemption. And revenge. It seems that more than two centuries ago, the monsters of the world disappeared—into the underworld of crime. Guild-like Clans now have control over all the dark and illegal trades, from the awful surgeries of the Frankenstein Clan, to the shadowy and seductive Vampire Clan, to the dreaded purveyors of drugs and death, the Clan of Mummies. And there’s always the Werewolf Clan, to keep order.
Only one force stands opposed to the monster Clans: the superstrong, extremely sexy, quick-witted Hydes! Now Daniel is just one sip of Dr. Jekyll’s Elixir away from joining their company. At Jekyll & Hyde Inc.
 About Simon R. Green:
“A macabre and thoroughly entertaining world.” —Jim Butcher on the Nightside series
“A splendid riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, conveyed with trademark wisecracking humor, and carried out with maximum bloodshed and mayhem. In a word, irresistible.” —Kirkus, Starred Review of Simon R. Green's Night Fall
“[F]or those who want a fantasy-genre mash-up that doesn’t slow down.” —Booklist on From a Drood to a Kill
 “Simon R. Green is a great favorite of mine. It’s almost impossible to find a writer with a more fertile imagination than Simon. He’s a writer who seems endlessly inventive.” —Charlaine Harris
 

My Review:

I picked this book up because I usually enjoy the author’s fine line in snark. His characters generally manage to say the things we all wish we’d said, and that’s always good for a bit of a chuckle, even if the humor involved tends to have the whiff of the gallows about it.

In other words, I expected to enjoy this book, at least on some levels. Even when his stories are at their most macabre, there’s always been something in the banter and the byplay that has tickled me a bit. Even when, or especially because there’s frequently something awful going on at the time.

I expected to have a good reading time with Jekyll & Hyde Inc. I really did. I liked the concept of it taking a monster to catch a monster, and the idea of Edward Hyde still running around London almost a century and a half after he supposedly died – along with his alter ego and progenitor, Dr. Henry Jekyll.

The blurb makes it seem as if the Hydes are, if not exactly on the side of the angels, at least on the side of putting the monsters down and out of both our and their misery – because the monsters have certainly earned it.

I was looking for a fun, horror-adjacent story with a heaping helping of snark. I expected to end with a bit of a chuckle and the feeling of order restored to the world in one way or another. Something along those lines.

But at the end of Jekyll & Hyde Inc., all I felt was sad. And I’m really, really sad about that.

Escape Rating C: From the description, and from the opening of the story, I’ll admit that I was wondering if this was going to turn out to be a bit like the Secret Histories series, only with real monsters as the protagonists instead of merely human monsters with great technology.

But the Hydes as a group don’t seem to have any redeeming motives the way that the Droods did. The Droods believed that they knew what was best for humanity, and even if they were wrong about methods or results, even if they caused a lot of collateral damage, and even if some of their number were corrupt, their overall goals at least nodded at being righteous.

The Hydes, or at least Edward Hyde himself, just want to eliminate all the other monster clans so that he can be the top dog and rule the underworld. Daniel and Tina are just tools in his hands who don’t realize that they are being taken for a ride until very near the end.

The underworld the Hydes are taking out has all the creepiness of the Nightside, or even Neil Gaiman’s  Neverwhere, without any light shining in from John Taylor or Richard Mayhew or even the Marquis de Carabas. In other words, I was looking for a least a bit of a redemptive arc or the possibility thereof, and all I got was a breather between monster mashes.

The relationship that develops between Daniel and Tina may be intended to mimic some kind of romance, but just doesn’t have the kind of heart that the relationship between Ishmael Jones and Penny Belcourt has in that series. Or even the on again/off again relationship that Gideon Sable has with Annie Anybody in The Best Thing You Can Steal.

Something is just missing in Jekyll & Hyde Inc. It has all the grim and all the dark of many of the author’s previous series, but it’s lacking in the light moments – and the snark – that made Ishmael Jones and Gideon Sable and the Nightside so compulsively readable.

Qualities that I sincerely hope he brings back in his next book, whatever it might be. I’ll certainly be looking for it the next time I go back to see what Ishmael Jones is up to in Till Sudden Death Do Us Part and the rest of that series.