A- #AudioBookReview: What Feasts at Night by T. Kingfisher

A- #AudioBookReview: What Feasts at Night by T. KingfisherWhat Feasts at Night (Sworn Soldier, #2) by T. Kingfisher
Narrator: Avi Roque
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror
Series: Sworn Soldier #2
Pages: 160
Length: 5 hours and 2 minutes
Published by Macmillan Audio, Tor Nightfire on February 13, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

The follow-up to T. Kingfisher’s bestselling gothic novella, What Moves the Dead .

Retired soldier Alex Easton returns in a horrifying new adventure.

After their terrifying ordeal at the Usher manor, Alex Easton feels as if they just survived another war. All they crave is rest, routine, and sunshine, but instead, as a favor to Angus and Miss Potter, they find themself heading to their family hunting lodge, deep in the cold, damp forests of their home country, Gallacia.

In theory, one can find relaxation in even the coldest and dampest of Gallacian autumns, but when Easton arrives, they find the caretaker dead, the lodge in disarray, and the grounds troubled by a strange, uncanny silence. The villagers whisper that a breath-stealing monster from folklore has taken up residence in Easton’s home. Easton knows better than to put too much stock in local superstitions, but they can tell that something is not quite right in their home. . . or in their dreams.

My Review:

It’s not mushrooms this time. Not that there isn’t something creeping around the old hunting lodge that retired soldier Alex Easton inherited from their family in the remoter parts of their native Gallacia. And not that Easton isn’t still experiencing PTSD and a whole, entire and entirely justified case of the collywobbles at even the thought of anything that might possibly have to do with mushrooms after the fungus-powered monstrosities in Easton’s first outing, What Moves the Dead.

In fact, after the events in What Moves the Dead, it’s not at all surprising that Easton is searching for a bit of peace and quiet. It’s just a surprise that they’ve gone home to Gallacia to find either of those things. Because it is clear from Easton’s opening remarks regarding this trip to their homeland, the whys and wherefores of the whole thing, and their thoughts and feelings about Gallacia and anything to do with it that they would much rather have stayed in Paris.

As Easton makes VERY clear on the way to that hunting lodge they haven’t visited in the past ten years, at least in the conversation they are having with themselves inside the confines of their own head, they are feeling very put upon by this whole trip. Their reluctance, at least, is apparent in the conversation they are having aloud, the one between themselves, their very good horse Hob, their batman and general factotum Angus, and Angus’ mustache, which seems to convey rather strong opinions of its own in spite of not actually being able to say a word.

Besides, it’s all Angus’ fault. Well, Angus’ fault as well as Easton’s own sense of propriety – no matter how much they’d like to let THAT go hang itself at the moment. Because Eugenia Potter, that redoubtable English mycologist who so ably assisted them with the fungal infestation in the House of Usher in What Moves the Dead, has been invited to Gallacia to observe the local fungi, with Easton as her ostensible host.

Honestly, it’s to further Miss Potter’s romance with Angus, but no one is admitting that. It wouldn’t be proper.

Easton planned to arrive at the lodge a few days ahead of Miss Potter, expecting to find the place in reasonable shape, just needing a bit of restocking and tidying up. That’s how Easton remembers it from the last time they were there. But Easton also remembers a caretaker taking care of the place, a caretaker that Easton has been paying a salary to for years and years, and as recently as the preceding month.

So, it’s obvious when Easton and Angus arrive that things are not quite what they expected. The house is a mess, the caretaker is a few months dead, and no one seems to be willing to be employed to help Easton and Angus get the place cleaned up and cleaned out, in spite of the good wages in hard currency that Easton is more than willing to pay in this poverty-stricken village where those things are seldom seen or even heard of.

Which is the point where Easton should have rescinded the invitation to Miss Potter and run back to Paris as fast as their horse’s legs could carry them. Because there’s something uncanny about the caretaker’s death, and there’s something dangerous haunting the old hunting lodge.

At least, this time, it’s not mushrooms.

Escape Rating A-: I’m not sure whether to say that What Feasts at Night isn’t quite as creepy as What Moves the Dead, or to say that it is even creepier. Let’s say I’m creeping along that fence and not sure which side I’ll fall off onto.

What Moves the Dead was a creepy story that turned out to be a bit more scientifically inclined than anything that happens within it might lead the reader to expect.

What Feasts at Night, very much on the other hand, reads much more like a fever dream story about pneumonia and PTSD. Or a ghost story about PTSD. Or a nightmare about a ghost that’s strangely cured or killed through PTSD that only masquerades as being about pneumonia. Or all of the above.

The fever dream aspects of the story, particularly as the pneumonia, or the wandering local vampire/ghost creeps its way into the dreams of both Alex Easton and the grandson of the bitter old woman they finally manage to hire to take care of the house, manage to both make the story even creepier AND slow it down at the same time. Because for the longest time not much happens except in dreams and that’s not a quick process until the end. Not helped at all by the fact that no one local will really EXPLAIN anything about what might be happened, and Easton clearly didn’t get told the right stories when they were growing up.

But at that point, where the dream and the ghost and Easton’s PTSD all emerge on the same battlefield, it’s chilling and riveting and every frightening thing the reader has been expecting all along. It just feels like it takes a while to get there. But then, that’s what dreams do.

One thing that does kick the story along, frequently, often, and with more than a bit of a rueful laugh, is that it’s clear from the volume of conversations that Easton has with themself that the author has never met a Fourth Wall she wasn’t more than willing to batter her way through head first, whether using her protagonist’s head or even her own.

Which is one of the things that made listening to What Feasts at Night so much creepy fun, as the narrator, Avi Roque, has a rough, smoky voice that is perfect for Easton as it lets us inside their wry, sarcastic, self-deprecating head even as they tell both themselves and us that they realize that they should have known better at so many points along the way of the story they are now telling, if only they hadn’t let their logic get in the way of observing what was actually happening around them.

I enjoy Alex Easton’s voice, even when I’m not nearly so certain about the story they are telling. Horror is not my jam, but in this case I’m here for the characters, and Easton’s perspective is compelling even when the story they are in the middle of is creeping me right the hell out.

#BookReview: The Holy Terrors by Simon R. Green

#BookReview: The Holy Terrors by Simon R. GreenThe Holy Terrors (A Holy Terrors mystery) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: horror, mystery, paranormal
Series: Holy Terrors #1
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House on February 6, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Six people locked in a haunted hall . . . Cameras watching their every move . . . And then someone dies . . . This first in a spine-tingling new paranormal mystery series from New York Times bestselling British fantasy author Simon R. Green will make you doubt your judgement - and believe in ghosts!
Welcome to Spooky Time, the hit TV ghost-hunting show where the horror is scripted . . . and the ratings are declining rapidly. What better way to up the stakes - and boost the viewership - than by locking a select group of Z-list celebrities up for the night in The Most Haunted Hall in England (TM) and live-streaming the 'terrifying' results?
Soon Alistair, a newly appointed Bishop, actress Diana, medium Leslie, comedian Toby and celebrity chef Indira are trapped inside Stonehaven town hall, along with June, the host and producer of the show. The group tries to settle in and put on a good show, but then strange things start happening in their hall of horrors.
What is it about this place - and why is the TV crew outside not responding? Are they even on air?
Logical Alistair attempts to keep the group's fears at bay and rationalise the odd events, but there are things that just can't be explained within reason . . . Can he stop a cold-blooded would-be killer - even if it's come from beyond the grave?
This locked-room mystery with a paranormal twist is classic Simon R. Green, featuring his trademark humour and imagination, irresistible characters, and thoroughly entertaining plotting.

My Review:

Four strangers locked in a haunted building overnight with two TV “personalities”, their every action and emotion covered by hidden cameras, all in pursuit of a payday that’s not going to be nearly as generous as their agents led them to expect.

Sounds like the perfect setup for a “Reality TV” program. Or a joke. Or, in this particular case, a joke of a reality TV show that is desperate to recapture the market share it lost much longer ago than its presenter is willing to admit. Or allow.

Put another way, a has-been comedian, a wannabe almost-celebrity chef, an outspoken bishop and an actress whose career isn’t what it used to be, walk into a haunted town hall to film an episode of ‘Spooky Time!’ with its resident medium AND its indefatigable host.

There should be a punchline coming for that joke. And there certainly is for at least some of the participants. At least for the ones that survive the night.

Anyone who has any illusions left about the exact amount of ‘reality’ present in a so-called reality TV show needs to check those illusions before the first page – because they’ll all be spoiled although the plot of the book certainly is not.

From the moment the time-locks ominously click shut and the lights start to go out, it’s clear to the participants that something has gone even wronger than they expected after seeing the dilapidated state of the place they’re supposed to be spending the night. But in the gloomy, shadowed and downright spooky atmosphere, it’s all too easy to chalk up their fears to the idea that something supernatural might be stalking their number.

But as the Bishop says to the Actress, that doesn’t add up. It’s clear, at least to him, that they are being led astray by their own guilts and fears. And even though there is an entirely different sort of ‘leading astray’ that the Actress would prefer to do to the Bishop, she’s willing to trust him to see her through this long and particularly dark night.

Escape Rating B-: I ended up with a LOT of mixed feelings about this one, some of which may have to do with having no love or even liking for so-called reality TV. (Although, honestly, if the author has any love for that genre it’s a particularly twisted version of it.)

It’s clear from the outset that all of the so-called ‘supernatural’ events are planned and prepared, that the show is on its last legs and the guests were chosen for their gullibility, their expendability, or both. And because they were relatively cheap – just like the all-night rental of the supposed ‘Most Haunted Hall in England.’

Particularly as, in spite of all the horror implications of the blurb and the Goodreads genre assignment, the title of the series to follow has it right, The Holy Terrors is a mystery and not horror at all.

Which means that the reader’s enjoyment of and/or absorption in this story relies on either getting caught up in the mystery or being charmed by its characters – many of whom are not charming at all.

Although the Bishop and the Actress certainly are, and their increasing charm with each other does help carry readers along. Which is a good thing, because ‘whodunnit’ was obvious long before the big reveal – complete with a bit of good old-fashioned villain monologuing – at the end.

As the first book in a series that looks like it will follow the adventures of the Bishop and the Actress as they have more mysterious and possibly spooky adventures, there’s a fair amount of heavy lifting to be done that doesn’t feel like it’s completely done by the book’s end.

Because I’m not totally sure what the newly christened “Holy Terrors” will actually be doing in their future adventures – beyond that they’ll be doing them together. It’s not clear even at the end of this book and I’ve been guessing throughout.

Not that I won’t ‘tune back in’ to find out when the next book appears. I just hope it’s a bit more clear by then AND that it doesn’t sidle quite so close to the territory the author has already occupied by Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny Belcourt.

One final note to say thanks for the memories, the facepalm and the headslap – not necessarily in that order and definitely not as the Actress said to the Bishop – which is what all of the above are referencing.

This entire story – and quite possibly the series intended to follow – is part of a long-running British tradition of jokes and/or clichés (your mileage may vary on which they are) of double entendres that begin or end with “as the bishop said to the actress” or the other way around. Phrases that take on a sexual overtone, undertone, or alternate meaning by adding that phrase that either way is roughly equivalent to a joke ending, “that’s what she (or he) said”.

It niggled at me through the whole book as something familiar, but I was caught up just enough in the mystery at hand and the bell didn’t ring until AFTER I finished the book. Because that phrase, in popular parlance in British in the 1930s, was one that Simon Templar, The Saint, used frequently and often in the original books by Leslie Charteris – of which I read as many as I could find back in the dark ages after seeing bits of the TV series starring Roger Moore in syndication way back when.

I don’t remember that phrase from the TV series, but in the books, Templar used it frequently, often and as intended. Honestly, I’m not even sure I was quite old enough to get the double entendres at the time I read the books, but the whole thing stuck in my memory and thereby hangs that facepalm and headslap.

Because if this series continues, the whole entire thing has the potential to be a series of investigations where the Bishop and the Actress are going to have a LOT to say to each other. And quite possibly do with and to each other between solving mysteries.

Review: The Good, the Bad and the Uncanny edited by Jonathan Maberry

Review: The Good, the Bad and the Uncanny edited by Jonathan MaberryThe Good, The Bad, & The Uncanny: Tales of a Very Weird West by Jonathan Maberry, C. Edward Sellner, Keith R.A. DeCandido, James A. Moore, Greg Cox, Josh Malerman, Carrie Harris, John G. Hartness, Jennifer Brody, Scott Sigler, Laura Anne Gilman, Aaron Rosenberg, Jeffrey J. Mariotte, R. S. Belcher, Marguerite Reed, Maurice Broaddus, Cullen Bunn
Format: eARC
Source: publisher
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, horror, short stories, steampunk, Weird West
Pages: 350
Published by Outland Entertainment on December 19, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Gunslingers. Lawmen. Snake-oil Salesmen. Cowboys. Mad Scientists. And a few monsters. The Old West has never been wilder! THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UNCANNY presents sixteen original and never-before-published adventures by some of today’ s most visionary writers who have spun wildly offbeat tales of gunmen, lawmen, magic, and weird science. Saddle up with Josh Malerman, Scott Sigler, Keith DeCandido, Cullen Bunn, R.S. Belcher, Greg Cox, Jeffrey Mariotte, Laura Anne Gilman, Aaron Rosenberg, Maurice Broaddus, John G. Hartness, Carrie Harris, James A. Moore, Marguerite Reed, C. Edward Sellner, Carrie Harris, and Jennifer Brody! These tales twist the American West into a place of darkness, shadows, sudden death, terror in the night, bold heroism, devious magic, and shocking violence. Each story blazes a new trail through very strange territory – discovering weird science, ancient evil, mythic creatures, and lightning-fast action. Edited by Jonathan Maberry, NY Times bestselling author of A DEADLANDS NOVEL, the Joe Ledger Thrillers, V-WARS, and KAGEN THE DAMNED.

My Review:

I don’t normally start reviews by talking about the author’s – or in this case the editor’s – Foreword. In fact, I very seldom read the Foreword because I’m too interested in getting to the actual story – or in this case stories – to take the time. And they’re generally not all that fascinating. But I read this one and got hit with a sense of nostalgia so strong that I can’t resist mentioning it here. Because the editor and I grew up with those same Westerns on TV pretty much all the time in our childhood, and because we both emerged with the same favorite, The Wild, Wild West.

Not that awful 1999 movie. I mean – and the author meant – the one, the only, the original TV series with Robert Conrad and Ross Martin. I still remember, and can hear Ross Martin’s voice in my head, talking mostly to himself, as he often did, as he was whipping up “the spécialité de la maison of the Hotel Desperation!” to get them out of whatever fix they’d gotten themselves into in that act of the four acts that made up each weekly episode. It’s a VERY fond memory.

So, if you have that same fondness for Westerns – especially those that touched on, or were touched by, or dipped their whole entire six-shooters into the very, very weird, or if you’re a fan of more recently published ‘Weird West’ inspired stories such as Charlaine Harris’ Gunnie Rose series and Laura Anne Gilman’s Huntsmen, or if you just plain love it when the things that go bump in the night are armed with fangs, claws AND six-shooters, this collection might just be your jam.

It certainly was mine. It was mine so much, in fact, that this is one of the rare occasions when I’ve rated each story in the collection individually, so that you can get the full-bodied flavor – complete with actual bodies, for each and every one.

“The Disobedient Devil Dust-up at Copper Junction” by Cullen Bunn
Mad scientist meets even madder gremlins as Professor Dimitri Daedalus and his Navajo partner Yiske arrive in remote Copper Junction Utah, summoned by the Professor’s old mentor to be his next sacrifices to the gremlins tearing up every single human tool in town with applied chaos and malice, only to end in fiery glory sailing off a cliff. Good fun. B

“Devil’s Snare” (Golgotha #1.5) by R.S. Belcher
In spite of being part of a series, this story stands quite well alone. Love-lorn scientist/engineer Clay Turlough, who combines bits of both Dr. Frankenstein AND his monster, gets dragged out of his latest attempt to ‘save’ his ladylove by a more strictly medical case of a poisoned boy, his widowed mother, and the man who is a bit too invested in both. A-

“Bad” by Josh Malerman
Borderline horror about two idiots who think they can rob the most secure bank on ‘The Trail’ by pretending to be one of the bank’s regular depositors. A pretense they intend to enact by literally stealing the man’s face. A hard read because the murdering bank robber wannabes are really, really TSTL to the point where the story is just blood, guts and idiocy. D

“Bigfoot George” by Greg Cox
Gold fever grips a gang of humans claiming a strike in Bigfoot country. The ringleaders think they can treat sasquatch the way they treat their fellow humans – only one of those fellow humans isn’t to both the humans and the sasquatch’ detriment. The humans are nasty in ways that are all too familiar, but the heel-turn of their not-so-human companion is epic enough to nearly redeem their mess – if not them. C+

“Story of the Century” by C. Edward Sellner
A tale of angels and demons, vampires and newspaper reporters. A reporter with a nose for news follows a bounty hunter on the trail of a demon who can wipe out whole towns in a single breath, only to find herself the last witness to an epic confrontation between celestial and demonic forces that wakes a legacy she had no idea she possessed. B

“The Stacked Deck” by Aaron Rosenberg
A card sharp with a magic touch wins his way onto a gambler’s paradise of a riverboat cruise only to learn that the stake he’s playing for is his soul and the deck has been stacked by a demon who believes he holds all the cards. The weird side of the weird West with a fascinating magical system of drawing cards from the ether. Maverick would have fit right in. And won. B+

“Desert Justice” by Maurice Broaddus
A black man with a righteous cause, the will to back it up and the grief not to care if he goes down in the fight takes up a magical badge to battle the evil spirit of the dead Confederacy that white men are using to vilify, subjugate and lynch blacks who stand up for themselves in the west after they fled the ‘legal slavery’ of the sharecropping system. If you enjoyed the author’s novella Buffalo Soldier you’ll love this one too. I certainly did. A

“In the End, the Beginning” by Laura Anne Gilman
A still heartbreaking but slightly more hopeful alternate magical version of the white man’s invasion of the west. It can’t be stopped, but powerful spirits CAN, if they are willing to sacrifice themselves and their magic in the cause, alter the means by which it happens, in the hopes that the ones who can’t be stopped are the best of their kind and not the worst.  A

“Nightfall on the Iron Dragon Line” by James A. Moore
The inevitable train story because no western or weird version thereof would be complete without one train story. The concept is interesting, and a story about a lawman bringing in a dangerous criminal always works in westerns but this one needed to be longer for all the disparate elements – especially the worm and the Chinese engineers – to come together. C

“Simple Silas” by Scott Sigler
This is straight up horror and the story relies on the protagonist having an undefined intellectual disability (because they were back then) in a way that just makes the whole thing more uncomfortable than compelling. D

“Hell and Destruction are Never Full” by Marguerite Reed
A bounty hunter captures a man for more money than she’s ever seen in her life and doesn’t want to hear about the real reason the bounty was set – until she comes face to face with a vampire and his renfield who plan to shut up a witness and get a meal out of it at the same time. That this has a happy ending is a big surprise. It’s not the standout in the collection but it was pretty good all the same. B

“The Legend of Long-Ears” by Keith R.A. DeCandido
A meeting that never happened between two legends, Calamity Jane and Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves. Calamity is a seer who drinks to keep her visions of the future at bay, while she does her best to keep the chaos agent known as Long-Ears from taking more lives than he’s due. She saves Reeves but can’t save them all. However, she saves so many that Long-Ears himself travels the west telling any who will listen the tale of his greatest and most respected enemy. This one seems like the quintessential weird west story, or at least one branch of it, with legends meeting, native spirits interfering, respect between enemies and tragedies all around. A+

“The Night Caravan” by Jennifer Brody
A post-apocalyptic tale where the desert has returned, while technology and fallout have bred monsters and settlements are far apart while travel puts you in danger of being ridden by one of the monsters. The mix of high tech and low villainy with a mythical utopia that is probably a boondoggle makes the story interesting. B

“Dreadful” by John Hartness
A middle-aged widow and a tired vampire-hunting cowboy team up to wipe out a nest of vampires that is eating their way across the west like locusts. Separately, they’re victims, together they might just be enough to get the job done. And if there’s an after, they might have a chance at being happy in it, together. B+

“Thicker Than Water” by Carrie Harris
Families are terrible. His brothers are human monsters. Her sisters are sea monsters. But family is family and blood is thicker than water, even when the deck of the ship is awash in it. This one just wasn’t my cuppa, and I’m trying really hard not to think about what the tea in that cuppa would be made of. C

“Barnfeather’s Magical Medicine Show and Tent Extravaganza” by Jeffrey J. Mariotte
Another one a bit too high on the creep-o-meter for me, about a magical circus tent that steals children and eats them to keep itself and its avatar powered – or perhaps the other way around, pursued by a lawman hoping to rescue children who are already gone. C

Escape Rating B: I had to do math to get to an overall rating, just as I did for the review of a previous collection by this publisher, Never Too Old to Save the World, which is going to end up on my Best Books list for this year because I’ve referred to it so often.

I enjoyed this collection, well, not quite as much as Never Too Old, but still quite a bit. Even the stories that went too far into horror for my personal tastes, or the couple that just didn’t work for me, still added to the overall feeling of ‘those thrilling days of yesteryear’ even if it was a weirder and more uncanny yesteryear than The Lone Ranger ever imagined.

Or perhaps especially because it was a whole lot weirder and considerably more uncanny. Just as marvelously as The Wild, Wild West so often was.

Review: We Are the Crisis by Cadwell Turnbull

Review: We Are the Crisis by Cadwell TurnbullWe Are the Crisis (Convergence Saga #2) by Cadwell Turnbull
Narrator: Dion Graham
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Convergence Saga #2
Pages: 338
Length: 9 hours and 7 minutes
Published by Blackstone Publishing on November 7, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

In We Are the Crisis—the second book in the Convergence Saga from award-winning author Cadwell Turnbull—humans and monsters come into conflict in a magical and dangerous world as civil rights collide with preternatural forces.
In this highly anticipated sequel, set a few years after No Gods, No Monsters, humanity continues to grapple with the revelation that supernatural beings exist. A werewolf pack investigates the strange disappearances of former members and ends up unraveling a greater conspiracy, while back on St. Thomas, a hurricane approaches and a political debate over monster’s rights ignites tensions in the local community.
Meanwhile, New Era—a pro-monster activist group—works to build a network between monsters and humans, but their mission is threatened by hate crimes perpetrated by a human-supremacist group known as the Black Hand. And beneath it all two ancient orders escalate their conflict, revealing dangerous secrets about the gods and the very origins of magic in the universe.
Told backward and forward in time as events escalate and unravel, We Are the Crisis is a brilliant contemporary fantasy that takes readers on an immersive and thrilling journey.

My Review:

This book is a monster. The kind with tentacles that slither into the sort of places where even fools’ hindbrains stop them from rushing in and angels rightfully fear to tread.

There are also monsters in this book, because that’s the premise behind the entire Convergence Saga, which began with No Gods, No Monsters. Which is both a play on the old anarchist slogan, “No Gods, No Masters.” as well as part and parcel of the whole mind screw of the series so far.

Because there are certainly people acting monstrously on both sides of the human/monster divide.

That divide was made apparent in that first book, as the ‘things that go bump in the night’ walked out of the shadows and confronted a line of cops who got scared and/or trigger happy and killed them all. Even though that particular set of monsters, werewolves one and all, did nothing overtly threatening. They merely threatened the human belief that garden-variety humans were at the top of the food chain.

Which they were suddenly and obviously not.

We Are the Crisis continues the exploration of a universe where at least some of the creatures who have always walked among us have come out of the monster closet and in a bid to live their lives openly among us. (Also, it is very much a continuation that expects the reader to have already been introduced to the multiple threads of this story in No Gods, No Monsters. In other words, start there, not here.)

Some humans are afraid, and some of those who are afraid are acting out of their fear in the most monstrous way possible. But isn’t that exactly what humans do?

But it’s not just about this world, and that’s where the story picks up its tentacles and shakes them at the reader along with shaking the reader’s view of what is going on and where it’s going on at and who is pulling the strings and the levers.

Because this is a story of the multiverse, one where the monsters are emerging on multiple worlds, generally with catastrophic results, at least for themselves. Those worlds are converging – and so are those catastrophic results.

And that crisis? It’s spreading, from one to another, like a multiverse-wide case of the plague. One that everyone is going to catch – unless someone, some monster, finds a better way. Even though they’ll more than likely die trying.

Escape Rating B+: The story so far, with the separation of its many and various threads and its detachment from its characters, reads like a kind of fever dream. Or at least it feels that way when read by its marvelous narrator Dion Graham.

I’ve listened to both books in the Convergence Saga, and Graham’s voice always hypnotizes me. He gives a terrific performance the perfectly matches the laid-back nature of the storytelling, ashe voices the character who stands outside the story and observes all the crises as they occur – and relates those crises and how they got there to us.

His narration carried me through points and places where even when it was clear what was happening in the moment the way it all fit together was totally obscured, which is exactly the way the story was being told – amidst not one but multiple fogs of a war yet to come.

(Full confession, I would cheerfully listen to Dion Graham read the most boring book in existence and I’d still be utterly enthralled. However, at least so far, the Convergence Saga has been anything BUT boring. Confusing at points, but never, EVER dull.)

Part of what makes this story so compelling is its blend of commentary about the real present with the historic paranormal with the outright fantastic. The treatment of the monsters and the meteoric rise of a well-funded organization to put them down has entirely too many parallels to both history and the present for that to be coincidental, and it makes the treatment of the so-called monsters just that much more chilling because it is just that much more real.

At the same time, there’s a dawning revelation that is easy to overlook – particularly in audio because the references to it flash by so quickly – that although the same kind of thing is happening to all these people – it’s not happening in the same universe. That the woman who met – and disliked – the real Aleister Crowley isn’t part of the same history as the woman who was mentored by a vampire which isn’t the same universe as the man who detaches from his world to view all the others.

So that crisis, which at first feels like it’s happening very fast and all over, diffuses across multiple worlds and then draws itself back in again. Just in time for what looks to be a resounding cataclysm that will hopefully be resolved in the third book in this projected trilogy.

Readers, including this one, will certainly be on tenterhooks waiting for that final book, because this story – and this crisis – is far from over.

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: Wild Spaces by S.L. Coney

Review: Wild Spaces by S.L. ConeyWild Spaces by S.L. Coney
Narrator: Nick Mondelli
Format: audiobook, ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: coming of age, horror
Pages: 122
Length: 2 hours and 28 minutes
Published by Dreamscape Media, Tordotcom on August 1, 2023
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Robert R. McCammon’s Boy’s Life meets H. P. Lovecraft in Wild Spaces, a foreboding, sensual coming-of-age debut in which the corrosive nature of family secrets and toxic relatives assume eldritch proportions.
An eleven-year-old boy lives an idyllic childhood exploring the remote coastal plains and wetlands of South Carolina alongside his parents and his dog Teach. But when the boy’s eerie and estranged grandfather shows up one day with no warning, cracks begin to form as hidden secrets resurface that his parents refuse to explain.
The longer his grandfather outstays his welcome and the greater the tension between the adults grows, the more the boy feels something within him changing —physically—into something his grandfather welcomes and his mother fears. Something abyssal. Something monstrous.

My Review:

Wild Spaces is the story of one boy’s coming of age. It’s the story of a summer that sharply divides a young man’s life between ‘BEFORE’ and ‘AFTER’. And it’s the story of something straight out of Lovecraft Country oozing its destructive way out of a cave on the coastal plains of South Carolina to wreak havoc on that boy and everyone and everything he holds dear.

On its surface, on the surface of the murky water that hides a monster, this is the story about the summer the boy’s grandfather came and outstayed his welcome. It’s about the summer that destroyed the family’s idyll and particularly the boy’s idyllic childhood.

It’s obvious to everyone, the boy, his parents and even his dog, that there’s something not right about his grandfather and this visit. In this summer of his 12th birthday, the boy is aware enough of his family’s dynamic to see that the advent of his grandfather is destroying them from the inside, fractured peace by broken piece.

The boy trusts his parents to fix things – as adults are supposed to do – as they’ve always done. But they don’t. And he can’t. He can’t even articulate what’s wrong, even though he knows the old man has broken something important within them all.

And then it’s too late.

Escape Rating B: Wild Spaces is a story about creeping dread creeping creepily along until it overwhelms the story, the family at its center, the soul of the boy at its heart and the life of the dog at his.

The dog, Teach, who may be the hero of this story because he’s the only character referred to by name, dies at the end, so take this as a trigger warning. Even more triggery, the first time the boy thinks his dog is dead, he isn’t, which makes the point where the dog really does die just that much more devastating at a point where the entire story has become a howl of devastation.

For a story that isn’t normally in my wheelhouse, I ended up with a whole lot of thoughts about the whole thing – sometimes as I was listening to it with no good way to write stuff down.

The narrator did an excellent job of adding to the creeping creepiness because his reading was in what felt like what would be the boy’s slight drawl of cadence. This was, on the one hand, perfect for the story and for being inside the boy’s head, and on the other, it drove me bonkers because I wanted things to happen faster – which leads to this being one of the few audiobooks where I raised the narration speed a bit.

I wanted things to go faster because it was obvious what was coming. That creeping horror is part of the story, it’s supposed to work that way, but I had reached the point where I was shouting at the adult characters to wake the eff up and stop effing up and get the old man out because it was obvious that he was bent on destroying them. And even worse, that they knew it and weren’t doing anything about it – because family.

The old man didn’t have to become a sea monster – which he does – because he is already a monster in human form and would have been a monster if he hadn’t transformed. It was also super obvious that he was trying to groom his grandson to become a monster just like him. Which could have been true and horror-filled horror with or without the actual transformation.

Which leads me straight to the boy transforming into the monster his heredity has doomed him to be. Which still could have been a metaphor for puberty, and going from last week’s Shark Heart, where a man turns into a Great white shark straight to this book, where a boy in the throes of puberty turns into a monster straight out of the Cthulhu Mythos (don’t all teenagers turn just a bit into monsters as puberty ravages them?) was a segue I just wasn’t expecting.

So if you’re in the mood for a short coming-of-age story that will drive you crazy and scare the crap out of you in a slow creeping kind of way, this might be your jam. I was more than interested enough to finish it – and I’m still thinking about it because damn! – but it’ll be awhile before I pick something like this up again. Not because this wasn’t good as what it was, but because it confirmed for me yet again that it just isn’t my reading wheelhouse.

Review: The Horoscope Writer by Ash Bishop

Review: The Horoscope Writer by Ash BishopThe Horoscope Writer by Ash Bishop
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, mystery, thriller
Pages: 320
Published by CamCat Books on July 18, 2023
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Leo: You’ll step out the door, prepared for a normal day. But you’ll never reach your workplace. You will vanish, without a trace.
Who is The Horoscope Writer? It’s not Bobby Frindley. He’s an ex-Olympic athlete who has fast-talked his way into an entry-level position at a dying newspaper. He’s supposed to be writing horoscopes, but someone has been doing his job for him . . .
On his first night on the job, Bobby receives an email with twelve gruesome, highly-detailed horoscopes, along with a chilling ultimatum: print them and one will come true, or ignore them and all of them will.
Working with a skeptical co-worker, Bobby investigates the horoscope writer’s true identity, but the closer he gets to the truth, the more the predictions begin to be about him. Has he attracted the attention of a cruel puppeteer? Or is it possible that, like any good horoscope, it’s all in his mind?

My Review:

Human beings do their damndest to find patterns in things that don’t have them. The whole idea behind that concept, patternicity, is a huge part of what drives the plot and the people in the book Rabbits by Terry Miles, and its upcoming sequel, The Quiet Room.

We want the world to make sense, so we try to force that sense into the world whether it’s there or not.

Which may be part of why people faithfully read their horoscopes and believe the rather vague hints and warnings therein. Because it’s easy to make the predictions and warnings cover the events of the day after the fact, especially if one is looking for such coverage.

But in this story, the new ‘horoscope writer’ for a struggling regional newspaper in San Diego receives a full set of horoscopes from an anonymous ‘benefactor’ with an attached threat – or warning – or a bit of both.

If the horoscopes are published in full, only one will come true. But if they’re not, all of them will. While some are trivial, a few on the list are downright dire – but also very much against the odds. Former Olympian and hopeful journalist Bobby Frindley believes it’s all a hoax.

At least until the rare tiger leaps out of his zoo enclosure and kills a tourist – just as his horoscope predicted.

From that point forward, the story is off to the races as the horoscope writer turned fledgeling reporter becomes caught up in the global phenomenon of figuring out which of the day’s predictions are going to come true – and wondering who is trying to force the pattern and to what grisly end.

And whether that end will be Bobby’s, his friends’, his city’s, or just his soul.

Escape Rating B-: I picked up The Horoscope Writer because I reviewed the author’s debut novel, Intergalactic Exterminators, Inc. for Library Journal and had a blast, so I was hoping for more of the same.

I certainly got caught up in Bobby Frindley’s ride to fame and maybe fortune as he tries to cobble out a career as an investigative journalist in the waning days of newspaper journalism. But there were a couple of things that I kept tripping over as I followed Bobby’s trek out of the frying pan and into the fire as he latched onto one flawed potential father-figure after another.

The Horoscope Writer reads like the ‘evil twin’ of the late 1990s TV series Early Edition, where a kind of average guy receives a daily delivery of the Chicago Sun-Times (how the mighty have fallen) that is one day ahead. The protagonist has one day to right whatever wrong he reads in the prognosticating paper before it’s too late to fix.

But that early newspaper delivery turned out to be on the side of the angels, while the horoscopes that Bobby starts receiving are a lot more like horrorscopes, and that’s before the general public starts trying to make them come true – or at least the potentially ‘good’ ones, often with considerably less than good results.

Humans being human, because they are.

As much as Bobby as a character read like more than a bit of a ‘failure to launch’, he also read like at least one answer to a question that I’ve always wondered about, the fate of people like Olympic athletes in sports that don’t have long-term career prospects. He’s achieved a kind of fame and success that people dream of, but at a time when nearly all of his life is still ahead of him.

Bobby’s flailing around for a second act, and the one that lands in his lap turns out to be a doozy – or will be if it doesn’t get him killed.

Howsomever, while I found the story compelling to read in the earlier stages, particularly when it really seemed possible that the story was heading into true psychic or fantasy territory in some way, when Bobby started zeroing in on a more mundane agent – at least for criminally sociopathic definitions of mundane – it lost a bit of its fascination for this reader as it shifted fully into ‘bwahaha’ territory.

All things considered, The Horoscope Writer started out strong, and had some compelling dramatic possibilities along the way, but in the end wasn’t nearly as good as Intergalactic Exterminators, Inc. But I still have high hopes for the author’s next – especially if he leans back into SFnal territory.