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
Pages: 512
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on September 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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 & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
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 & NobleKoboBook Depository
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.

Review: Star Eater by Kerstin Hall

Review: Star Eater by Kerstin HallStar Eater by Kerstin Hall
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, fantasy, horror
Pages: 448
Published by Tordotcom on June 22, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

All martyrdoms are difficult.
Elfreda Raughn will avoid pregnancy if it kills her, and one way or another, it will kill her. Though she’s able to stomach her gruesome day-to-day duties, the reality of preserving the Sisterhood of Aytrium’s magical bloodline horrifies her. She wants out, whatever the cost.
So when a shadowy cabal approaches Elfreda with an offer of escape, she leaps at the opportunity. As their spy, she gains access to the highest reaches of the Sisterhood, and enters a glittering world of opulent parties, subtle deceptions, and unexpected bloodshed.
A phantasmagorical indictment of hereditary power, Star Eater takes readers deep into a perilous and uncanny world where even the most powerful women are forced to choose what sacrifices they will make, so that they might have any choice at all.

My Review:

If absolute power corrupts absolutely, Star Eater is the story of a world that has put that absolute power in the hands of a mean girl clique. And it’s working about as well as one might think it would, because these mean girls have real power and are using it to destroy people’s lives AND play with politics, sometimes at the same time.

Once the reader is as far on that train as the worldbuilding will allow, the situation gets even more dire and much, much stranger, all at the same time, until the story reaches a conclusion that doesn’t quite feel like it was part of the book that we started with.

When the story opens, the protagonist, the point of view from which we will view this world, is about to be raped. It’s her duty as an Acolyte of the Sisterhood of Aytrium to present herself to the “Renewal Wards” once every few months in order to, well, propagate the species. Not the human species, but specifically the “Lace”-wielding (read as magic) members of the Sisterhood by allowing herself to be raped – and it is rape even though she gives forced consent for it to happen – by a man who has already been infected with the disease that men contract when they have sex with a woman who has “lace”.

If her visit to the Renewal Wards results in a pregnancy, if the child is male he will either be given away or killed. If the child is female, the birth of her daughter begins the countdown on her mother’s life. Because the only way that lace can be renewed is for women to literally eat the flesh of their comatose mothers.

You’re probably already creeped out. The person I attempted to describe this story to certainly was. It is seriously creepy and this world is utterly fucked up. There’s no other word for it.

The thing is, as bad as Elfreda’s situation is, and the situation of every single one of her Sisters, the situation on Aytrium as a whole is even worse than you’re imagining. The Sisterhood controls everything in Aytrium because they are the ones keeping the place literally afloat. All of Aytrium and the land that supports the city and everyone in it was jerked out of the crust of the planet below by the very first Sister of the Order. If they don’t keep pouring their power into the spells that keep the city floating, it will crash back down.

And maybe it should.

Escape Rating C+: This story is a hot mess and so is its protagonist Elfreda Raughn. And the story is not nearly as high-falutin’ or well-put together as the blurb would lead one to believe.

Elfreda is a rather unreliable narrator, and not necessarily in a good way. She’s unreliable both because there are so many things she doesn’t know, and because there are just so many things that she doesn’t LET herself know. So she gets surprised a lot, and so do we, and it’s pretty much never the good kind of surprise.

Although there are plenty of things about this world that honestly, I wish I didn’t know now that I’ve read the book. Or had it read to me. In the end, a bit of both.

In the beginning, the focus seems to be on Elfrida’s relationship with the Sisterhood, and that’s where the mean girls vibe comes in. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the Sisterhood has absolute power over the lives of everyone on Aytrium, especially the Sisters. While the power over everyone else is ordinary temporal power, the power over the other Sisters has a weird feel to it. It’s not just that Elfreda and the other Sisters regularly eat bits of their mothers, but the way that their mothers are kept comatose is referred to as martyrdom. And that Elfreda’s mother was martyred for political reasons and not because it was her time.

At the same time, the whole setup leads to the Sisterhood, and all of Aytrium, being ruled by a group of middle-aged women who are more interested in playing power games against each other than they are in running the place. Also, it feels like there are no elders among the Sisterhood because of the martyrdoms. Which feels like it matters more than it should, because it removes the possibility of hard-earned wisdom as a bit of a check on how bad things are both for the Sisters and for everyone else.

So part of the story is the poisonous internal politics of the Sisterhood. A second part wraps around a threat to that power, in the form of a semi-organized resistance movement made up of regular people, particularly but not exclusively men, who seem to be just about completely disenfranchised.

An organization, using the term loosely, which Elfreda’s best friends, Millie and Finn, seem to be an integral part of every bit as much as they are Elfreda’s life. Millie is Elfreda’s counselor (read Sisterhood-licensed therapist) and Millie’s brother Finn is the love of Elfreda’s life and vice versa, even if that relationship can never be acknowledged or consummated.

Either of those two scenarios would have been enough for a book. The repressive government and the resistance thereto, or the internal political squabbling of the all-powerful Sisterhood with its religious underpinning and its combination of “corrupt church” and “religion of evil” tropes fully on display.

Except that it gets crazier and weirder from there in ways that didn’t seem predicated on what happened so far and needed a bit of deus ex machina plot and character rescue at the end to make the whole thing tie itself up in a very messy bow.

In spite of all of the above, I have to admit that there were plenty of points where as much as I marveled at just how much shit this protagonist could manage to get herself into, and just how fucked up her world was, I felt compelled to keep reading after kind of a slow start. Elfreda’s story is the “Perils of Pauline” on steroids, out of the frying pan, into the fire and then jumping from one active volcano to another.

This is a trainwreck book, as in I knew it was going to have LOTS of awful things in it to see and read but I couldn’t turn my eyes away even when I wanted to. Hence that C+ rating. I was riveted even as I was appalled, and not in a good way. More like I couldn’t stop turning pages or sitting in the garage listening because I just couldn’t believe how much weirder and crazier it was going to get.

I mostly listened to this in audio through the NetGalley app. As I said above, the story is a hot mess. I have issues with the app. But the reader did an excellent job. I’d be happy to listen to her again, hopefully in a better story.

Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuireEvery Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1) by Seanan McGuire
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, magical realism, mystery, urban fantasy
Series: Wayward Children #1
Pages: 173
Published by Tordotcom on April 5, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward ChildrenNo SolicitationsNo VisitorsNo Quests
Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere... else.
But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced... they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.
But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.
No matter the cost.

My Review:

What happens AFTER someone comes back from Narnia? Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy got off really, really easy when they came back through the wardrobe. (Well, Lucy didn’t – at first) But after years of growing up in Narnia and becoming kings and queens and having all sorts of adventures, when they popped back through the wardrobe at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe they all seem to have gone back to being their original ages without much peering back through that looking glass.

The children who are sent to Eleanor West’s boarding school for wayward children aren’t quite like the ones who went to Narnia and returned seemingly unscathed if not completely unchanged. These children, like Eleanor herself once upon a time, found their way through a doorway, a wardrobe or a portal that was meant just for them, taking them to a place that their hearts and souls knew as home.

But their homes spit them back out again, ejected them back into our so-called “real” world, into a place where they no longer fit. And since they were children, back to parents who could not believe the stories their children told about the places that they had been and the things that they had done.

Parents who were certain that their children could be “fixed”. That with enough time and therapy – and even medications – their “real” children would return to them.

Nancy is the latest of Eleanor West’s wayward children. She spent years in the lands of the dead – and she wants to go back. Just as the other children at Miss West’s want to go back to their own worlds.

Some of them might manage it. But lightning seldom strikes the same place twice. Some of the children will have to grow up and learn to live in the world that gave them birth rather than the one their hearts call home.

Unless one of the other children kills them first.

Escape Rating A: Seanan McGuire is an author who has been recommended to me any number of times. One of my friends absolutely adores her work. But I bounced hard off of her October Daye series years ago and just never managed to get into anything else of hers despite repeated attempts.

But the latest book in this series, Across the Green Grass Fields, popped up on another list of “must reads” for this year, and this week went to overcommitment hell in a handcart, so I needed something relatively short, and I decided to try one more time. I don’t know how many attempts this makes, but whatever it is it was finally the charm.

Every Heart a Doorway sits at a very creepy corner between urban fantasy, mystery, dark fantasy and magical realism, imbued where snarkitude has blended with the macabre in a way that left me half expecting to find Wednesday Addams pulling the strings and telling the über-chilling campfire stories.

At the same time, it felt like an inside out version of Marie Brennan’s Driftwood, where instead of remnants of dead worlds crashing together it’s a story about lost refugees from closed worlds clinging together in all-too-frequently manic desperation.

To make the story even more compelling, on top of this marvelous creation, this place where children who have “seen the elephant” or whatever perspective-altering strange and terrible wonder applies to the world they visited, we have a murder mystery. Someone is killing the children, and it’s up to those few among them who have been, not to bright and happy worlds but rather to somber underworlds, to find the killer among them before it’s too late.

And it’s utterly marvelous every single step of the way.

I’ll be back to see who next comes to Miss West’s the next time I need a short book to take me out of whatever. Because this series is a portal to a fantastic world all by itself. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s Down Among the Sticks and Bones the next time I want to step through that door.

Review: The Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher

Review: The Hollow Places by T. KingfisherThe Hollow Places by T. Kingfisher
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, horror
Pages: 352
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on October 6, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A young woman discovers a strange portal in her uncle’s house, leading to madness and terror in this gripping new novel.
Recently divorced and staring down the barrel of moving back in with her parents, Carrot really needs a break. And a place to live. So when her Uncle Earl, owner of the eclectic Wonder Museum, asks her to stay with him in exchange for cataloguing the exhibits, of course she says yes.

The Wonder Museum is packed with taxidermy, shrunken heads, and an assortment of Mystery Junk. For Carrot, it's not creepy at all: she grew up with it. What's creepy is the hole that's been knocked in one of the museum walls, and the corridor behind it. There's just no space for a corridor in the museum's thin walls - or the concrete bunker at the end of it, or the strange islands beyond the bunker's doors, or the whispering, unseen things lurking in the willow trees.

Carrot has stumbled into a strange and horrifying world, and They are watching her. Strewn among the islands are the remains of Their meals - and Their experiments. And even if she manages to make it back home again, she can't stop calling Them after her...

My Review:

At the beginning, this reminded me way more of The Doors of Eden than it did Narnia – at least until it talked about The Magician’s Nephew and “the wood between the worlds”. Because that was a “between” place, and so is the place that Carrot and her friend Simon find themselves in when they step into a passageway between her uncle’s Wonder Museum and Simon’s sister’s coffee shop next door.

A passageway that leads someplace else. An elsewhere that is MUCH scarier than most of the places in the multiverse that those Doors of Eden led to, and much more inherently frightening than that wood between the worlds.

Physically, it sounds a lot more like the Barrow Downs of Middle Earth – at least a version of the Barrow Downs where the evil trees of Mirkwood had moved in and taken over. There’s also a “between” very much like this one, without the creepy trees, in Dragon Age: Inquisition, and I have a feeling there was a Doctor Who episode that had more than a bit of the same feel.

Or at least featured a similarly misplaced school bus. (It’s Planet of the Dead, which is a little too on the nose)

(My mind wandered a bit as I was reading, especially at the beginning, because it kept getting pinged by hints of so many familiar things!)

But the place that Carrot – her name is really Kara but her uncle still calls her Carrot – and Simon find themselves is definitely somewhere at the seriously creepy, downright Lovecraftian edge of the multiverse. Well, Lovecraftian if you squint and see tree roots as tentacles.

As Carrot says, everything in Lovecraft had tentacles. As scary as this story is, the tree roots will definitely do.

The story begins innocently enough, with Kara discovering a hole in the wall of the museum. A hole probably caused by a tourist. Because tourists make all the messes.

Kara and Simon both seemed to be afflicted with nearly terminal curiosity. Kara has returned to her tiny hometown of Hog Chapel, North Carolina, to a rent-free room over her uncle’s eclectic museum, after her unsatisfactory marriage ends in quiet divorce. If home is the place that when you have to go there, they have to take you in, then the Wonder Museum is certainly Kara’s.

Simon lives next door, also rent-free, over his sister’s coffee shop and earns his keep as her barista. Both Kara and Simon are theoretically adults, but seem a bit frozen in time and lack of maturity. They bond together because neither of them quite fits in, and they have way too much time on their hands, and much too much imagination.

So when Kara discovers that hole in the museum’s wall, she and Simon just have to investigate. When the hole leads to a corridor that simply doesn’t fit within the geography they know, they don’t board it up. They go back to get better supplies for further exploration.

The world that they discover on the other side of that hole in the wall will provide both of them with nightmares for the rest of their lives. If they can manage to make it back alive. And lock the door behind them.

Escape Rating B: I don’t usually care for horror, and I knew this was horror when I picked it up. But I love this author’s voice so I was more than willing to give it a try. After making sure that ALL the lights were on.

At first it did remind me of The Doors of Eden rather a lot. The idea that there was an opening to a “between” place that opened into who knows how many different worlds is something they have in common. And what Mal, Lee and Kay found on the other side of that “between” was every bit as scary as what Kara and Simon found.

But Doors was more science fictional. It might not be real science, but it did its best, and a very damn good best it was, to sound like it was based on something real. Or at least real-ish.

The Hollow Places, even though it started with the same kind of weird, wacky museum as The Museum of Forgotten Memories, took a turn straight into things that go bump in the night in very short order. Because there is definitely something lurking in those hollow places, those bunkers, and it is coming to get Kara, Simon, Beau the cat, and if it can get fully established, all the rest of us.

At the same time, so much of what happens in that other world reads like a kind of fever dream and it feels that way to Kara and Simon as it is happening. Beau just wants to kill any monsters that enter his territory. Or honestly pretty much any other thing that looks like prey that enters his territory. He’s very cat.

What makes the story work are the characters of Kara and Simon. (Also Beau, I loved Beau). To say that they are not adulting well probably sums up their surface. They’ve found a place where they can manage. It’s not exactly comfortable, but they’ve made their lives work. They’re not brave, they’re not heroic, they’re both unlucky in love and not with each other (Kara is straight and Simon is gay) but they hold each other up when the situation is at its absolute worst with a bit of common sense, a whole lot of bravado and just enough of the snarkitude that I read this author for.

Still, Kara and Simon are profoundly there for each other even when neither of them is willing to articulate precisely what it is they are there for, because that way lies madness and they both know it. I started this book for the snark – didn’t get quite as much of it as I was hoping for – but I finished it for them. And Beau.

The ending reminded me of something completely different from anything I was expecting in a horror novel. This may have started with The Magician’s Nephew, but it ended with The Velveteen Rabbit. Because Kara loved the tatty, stuffed and badly taxidermied animals that were such a big part of the Wonder Museum. She loved them enough that for one brief moment, when she needed all the help she could get from whatever place she could get it from, all those animals became, as the Rabbit so poignantly described, Real.

Review: Ring Shout by P. Djeli Clark

Review: Ring Shout by P. Djeli ClarkRing Shout by P. Djèlí Clark
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, fantasy, historical fiction, horror
Pages: 192
Published by Tordotcom on October 13, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns with Ring Shout, a dark fantasy historical novella that gives a supernatural twist to the Ku Klux Klan's reign of terror.
D. W. Griffith is a sorcerer, and The Birth of a Nation is a spell that drew upon the darkest thoughts and wishes from the heart of America. Now, rising in power and prominence, the Klan has a plot to unleash Hell on Earth.
Luckily, Maryse Boudreaux has a magic sword and a head full of tales. When she's not running bootleg whiskey through Prohibition Georgia, she's fighting monsters she calls "Ku Kluxes." She's damn good at it, too. But to confront this ongoing evil, she must journey between worlds to face nightmares made flesh--and her own demons. Together with a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and a Harlem Hellfighter, Maryse sets out to save a world from the hate that would consume it.

My Review:

Ring Shout is perched rather comfortably at the top of a pyramid whose sides consist of horror, very dark fantasy and historical fiction. That pyramid feels like a fitting image, as its top comes to a sharp point – just like the heads of the Ku Kluxes that Maryse and her compatriots are hunting.

And being hunted by.

The bones of the story come straight out of fantasy – albeit a fantasy so dark that it sidles up to horror and oozes over the border.

In this version of our world, there are other worlds that exist in other dimensions. Worlds that contain beings that think we’re food, or toys, or both. This is a classic trope in fantasy, particularly urban fantasy.

But this is where Ring Shout bleeds over into historical fiction – and is made all the more horrific because of it.

The film The Birth of a Nation was every bit the disgusting phenomenon that is described in the story – without the special showing on Stone Mountain, which is its own kind of horror.

What takes this story from historical fiction to fantasy and horror is the result of that showing. That the film was a spell that allowed the beings that Maryse calls Ku Kluxes to invade our Earth with the intent of taking over. As invaders do.

An apologist would claim that it was the Ku Kluxes that committed all of the evils, fostered all of the racial hatred and hate-motivated violence that the Ku Klux Klan was infamous for. But this isn’t that kind of story. This isn’t about the myth of the so-called “Lost Cause” and there is absolutely no whitewash.

Because this isn’t a story about aliens doing bad things. This is a story about humans being so evil that they invite the aliens in so they can indulge in more evil without even the tiniest bits of remorse or conscience.

And that’s what Maryse and her friends are fighting. They’re fighting the monsters. They’re fighting the humans who have given themselves so far over to the monster within that they have become the monster.

It’s a fight that is righteous, but it is not a fight without casualties or costs. But Maryse’s cause is just, and just like so many champions of just causes that face overwhelming odds, she comes with a fiery sword with which to smite her enemies – once she recognizes, for once and for all, who and what they really are.

Escape Rating A+: I picked this today because this is Halloween weekend. I knew this book would be scary, but from the blurbs I wasn’t totally sure whether the horror was more Lovecraftian or more metaphorical.

The answer to that question is “yes”. Absolutely yes. It’s not one or the other, it’s very much both. And all the stronger – and more frightening – because of it. Because we all want to believe that human beings just couldn’t be that bad without outside interference, even though we know that they can be and are.

Thinking about this story, I realized that this would still be horror-tinged fantasy without the historical elements. It feels like that version could have been an episode of The Twilight Zone – or maybe it was. But that version isn’t half as scary as the one with the historic elements.

Because human beings always behave way worse than we like to think about, or than the white-bread-vanilla TV of the original Twilight Zone era was willing to portray. Ring Shout draws a lot of its fear-factor from the fact that we know humans are awful. That power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely and that white people in the U.S. have had one type of absolute power or another over people of color since the founding of the country.

With that historical element, Ring Shout is utterly compelling. We feel both the horror of this story – and the horrors of the present that it invokes.

At the same time, it is a story, an extremely dark fantasy bordering on Lovecraftian horror. As Lovecraft himself was someone who hated a lot of people, I love that a writer has used his kind of horror to tell a story where the hero is a black woman – someone Lovecraft would have hated on both counts.

I also love Maryse as the hero because she so fits the fantasy hero mold – even though she shouldn’t. She’s the prophesied champion, she has the legendary sword, she even rescues her male lover who actually gets fridged – in grave danger and under threat of death. The role reversal was marvelous.

In a peculiar way, Ring Shout also felt like a bit of a shout out to A Wrinkle in Time. Not just because the Ku Kluxes seemed to come from someplace like Camizotz, but really because the three Aunties felt like Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Whatsit, who in their turn are the representatives of the Three Fates and pretty much every other trio of wise, prophesying and/or witchy women who have ever graced a myth.

Which Ring Shout also feels like it is.

Last but not least, reading Ring Shout felt like it was another side to the same dice that rolled up The Deep by Rivers Solomon. That this is another story that takes a piece of the horrors of the African American experience and gives it the power for its own people that it should have – instead of being about the power of everyone else.

Review: Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings

Review: Flyaway by Kathleen JenningsFlyaway by Kathleen Jennings
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, horror
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on July 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In a small Western Queensland town, a reserved young woman receives a note from one of her vanished brothers—a note that makes question her memories of their disappearance and her father’s departure.
A beguiling story that proves that gothic delights and uncanny family horror can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun, Flyaway introduces readers to Bettina Scott, whose search for the truth throws her into tales of eerie dogs, vanished schools, cursed monsters, and enchanted bottles.
In these pages Jennings assures you that gothic delights, uncanny family horror, and strange, unsettling prose can live—and even thrive—under a burning sun.
Holly Black describes as “half mystery, half fairy tale, all exquisitely rendered and full of teeth.” Flyaway enchants you with the sly, beautiful darkness of Karen Russell and a world utterly its own.

My Review:

Flyaway is seriously creepy and extremely weird. It also proves that a place doesn’t need to be dark, gloomy and cold in order to generate plenty of shivers and chills. There’s plenty to be scared of in the hot, dry and sun parched, and there are just as many lonely places in the Australian Bush as there are in the dark castles of Europe or the ghost towns of the American West.

And family is everywhere. If most people are killed by someone they know, and most accidents occur in or near the home, it makes entirely too much creeptastic sense that your relatives are the ones you need to be afraid of the most, especially in an isolated place like Inglewell. Because Bettina Scott has more reasons to be afraid of her entire family than any one young woman ever should.

At first I thought Inglewell was going to turn out to be a kind of Brigadoon. Was I ever wrong!

Also at first, I thought the problem was that Bettina Scott was being drugged by her mother. There was certainly something wrong with Bettina and that relationship. And in the end there definitely was – just not exactly what I thought at the beginning.

Actually nothing about this story was exactly what I thought. Flyaway is as grim as any of Grimm’s Fairy Tales in the original versions, without the moralizing lesson at the end.

There’s a saying that the world is not only stranger than we imagine, it’s stranger than we CAN imagine. But the world this author has imagined is way stranger than anywhere I’d ever want to be. Maybe that’s the point of that saying after all.

Escape Rating B-: This was weird. I know, I’ve said that already. But it was – very creepy and extremely weird. It’s also the darkest of dark fantasy, the kind that falls right over the border into horror.

It’s also the kind of horror that sort of, I think spirals out might be the best phrase, from a beginning that doesn’t seem too outre. Not that Bettina’s relationship with her mother doesn’t feel wrong from the very beginning, but at first it’s the kind of wrong that could have a logical explanation – or at least as logical as brainwashing, or drugs, or Munchausen syndrome by proxy. All horrible but not supernatural.

But as the story goes on, the story of Bettina breaking away from her mother, it’s interspersed with stories of supernatural horror that all take place in Inglewell, in the not too distant past. At first those stories don’t seem related, but as those stories catch up to Bettina’s “now’ we learn just how isolated, insular and downright creepy the area really is.

It’s like the isolation distilled the creep factor into something that really, really shouldn’t be running around in this world – but is. A something that every once in a while sucks in a new victim, and that entirely too many residents seem to accept as just part of life there.

But I left this book extremely glad that I don’t have to. I’m still creeped out. I really need a cocoa and a lie down after this one. This is not a way I ever want to pass again.

Review: Prisoner of the Crown by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: Prisoner of the Crown by Jeffe KennedyPrisoner of the Crown by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, Dark Fantasy
Series: Chronicles of Dasnaria #1
Pages: 160
Published by Rebel Base Books on June 12, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

She was raised to be beautiful, nothing more. And then the rules changed . . .   In icy Dasnaria, rival realm to the Twelve Kingdoms, a woman’s role is to give pleasure, produce heirs, and question nothing. But a plot to overthrow the emperor depends on the fate of his eldest daughter. And the treachery at its heart will change more than one carefully limited life . . .   THE GILDED CAGE Princess Jenna has been raised in supreme luxury—and ignorance. Within the sweet-scented, golden confines of the palace seraglio, she’s never seen the sun, or a man, or even learned her numbers. But she’s been schooled enough in the paths to a woman’s power. When her betrothal is announced, she’s ready to begin the machinations that her mother promises will take Jenna from ornament to queen.   But the man named as Jenna’s husband is no innocent to be cozened or prince to charm. He’s a monster in human form, and the horrors of life under his thumb are clear within moments of her wedding vows. If Jenna is to live, she must somehow break free—and for one born to a soft prison, the way to cold, hard freedom will be a dangerous path indeed…   Praise for The Mark of the Tala   “Magnificent…a richly detailed fantasy world.” RT Book Reviews, 4½ stars, Top Pick   “Well written and swooningly romantic.” Library Journal, starred review

My Review:

This book comes with ALL the trigger warnings. Jenna’s story is not for the faint of heart, should not be read with the lights off, and probably should not be read just before bedtime. She has to survive a nightmare before she begins to step into the light, and reading her travails just before one’s own bedtime is likely to result in some epic nightmares.

I didn’t even risk it.

What keeps the first two thirds of this story from merely being page after page of increasing, unrelieved terror is that the story is narrated in the first-person, from the perspective of an older, wiser and cannier Jenna. A Jenna who clearly survived all of the terrible abuse she suffered in the first two thirds of the book.

It’s not just that the women of the imperial seraglio in Dasnaria are kept in a prison. Albeit a gilded, perfumed prison with regular, excellent meals as well plenty of companionship and entertainment. They are pampered pets who are raised not to even be aware that they are pets and playthings and not even considered exactly people.

It’s that Jenna is first abused by her own mother, who whips her, poisons her and punishes her to train her to survive what the outside world will do to her. And who is using Jenna to further her own ends and extend her own power.

Then Jenna is married off in a strategic alliance to a man who has murdered his four previous wives – because they couldn’t survive his constant abuse. Jenna’s parents, her father the emperor and her mother the empress, know that King Rodolf is a man who is only sexually aroused by beating women into terrified submission. All the emperor asks is that Jenna’s new husband refrain from damaging her face when he can see it.

The only “help” she gets from her mother is a servant who will provide her with enough drugs to keep the pain and terror at bay.

Jenna’s life is hard to bear, and difficult to read about. Just as she has reached the point where a quick death seems like her best option, her brother opens the bars of her cage, and sets her on the journey to freedom.

We’ve met her brother Harlan before in the Twelve Kingdoms series, of which The Chronicles of Dasnaria is an offshoot. A grown-up Harlan, exiled from his father’s kingdom of Dasnaria, becomes the consort of Princess Ursula in the absolutely marvelous The Talon of the Hawk.

Jenna’s rescue is clearly the first step in Harlan’s journey to become the man worthy of the Crown Princess of the Twelve Kingdoms. But the hero of Prisoner of the Crown is clearly the young, deluded, beaten, abused but ultimately unbroken Jenna.

Escape Rating B+: This is a hard book to rate, because Jenna’s journey from pampered child to determined woman take her through one dark place after another. We feel for her, we want better for her, but we spend most of the book terrified that she isn’t going to get anything approaching that better.

Although Harlan certainly provides a big assist, in the end, Jenna rescues herself, and that’s important for her story and her journey. She begins the book as a child who does not look beyond her cage, and ends by taking her life into her own hands and breaking free.

What makes the story so difficult to bear is that we see the cage tighten around her for so much of the book. Her hard-won freedom barely has time to register before the book ends – while clearly the story does not. She has taken just the first few steps on a journey that is far from over, but readers will have to wait until September to see how Jenna handles and protects her dearly-bought freedom. It’s going to be an exasperating wait.

But for those who have not read the previous series, The Twelve Kingdoms and its followup The Uncharted Realms, this is not a bad place to start as all of the action in this story takes place before The Mark of the Tala, the first book in the Twelve Kingdoms opens. We do meet both Harlan, the hero of The Talon of the Hawk, and Kral, the hero of The Edge of the Blade, as young men. In Harlan’s case, very, very young as he’s only 14 in Prisoner of the Crown. Prisoner, at least, presupposes little previous knowledge of this world. However, I suspect that the future books in the Dasnaria series are going to edge closer to the time period of The Twelve Kingdoms. If you get caught up in Jenna’s journey, there’s plenty of time to catch up with the rest of this world before the next book.

Jenna’s journey continues in Exile of the Seas. And I can’t wait to continue it with her.