Review: Road of Bones by Christopher Golden

Review: Road of Bones by Christopher GoldenRoad of Bones by Christopher Golden
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror
Pages: 240
Published by St. Martin's Press on January 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

A stunning supernatural thriller set in Siberia, where a film crew is covering an elusive ghost story about the Kolyma Highway, a road built on top of the bones of prisoners of Stalin's gulag.
Kolyma Highway, otherwise known as the Road of Bones, is a 1200 mile stretch of Siberian road where winter temperatures can drop as low as sixty degrees below zero. Under Stalin, at least eighty Soviet gulags were built along the route to supply the USSR with a readily available workforce, and over time hundreds of thousands of prisoners died in the midst of their labors. Their bodies were buried where they fell, plowed under the permafrost, underneath the road.
Felix Teigland, or "Teig," is a documentary producer, and when he learns about the Road of Bones, he realizes he's stumbled upon untapped potential. Accompanied by his camera operator, Teig hires a local Yakut guide to take them to Oymyakon, the coldest settlement on Earth. Teig is fascinated by the culture along the Road of Bones, and encounters strange characters on the way to the Oymyakon, but when the team arrives, they find the village mysteriously abandoned apart from a mysterious 9-year-old girl. Then, chaos ensues.
A malignant, animistic shaman and the forest spirits he commands pursues them as they flee the abandoned town and barrel across miles of deserted permafrost. As the chase continues along this road paved with the suffering of angry ghosts, what form will the echoes of their anguish take? Teig and the others will have to find the answers if they want to survive the Road of Bones.

My Review:

The “Road of Bones” really does exist, and it really does go through some of the coldest places on Earth. And there really are bones buried under the road – the remains of the slave laborers and political prisoners who were forced to work on the road and in the mines and other extractive industries that it traveled between.

The history of this road is filled with tragedy. Whether it also harbors spirits like the ones that haunt this story – it probably depends on what you believe about ghosts, myths, legends and the supernatural.

With the knowledge that whether or not you believe in them, they still might believe in you. Or at least, might believe in killing you.

Or, more to the point that begins this story, there are plenty of people around the world who want to believe – or at least want to be titillated by the supernatural. And there are even more people who want to watch intrepid explorers venture into dangerous occupations and places from the comfort of their own cozy living rooms.

Felix Teigland produces just those kinds of “reality” TV shows – and he needs a hit to keep his company from going under. He’s decided that a TV series following the travels of a couple of intrepid explorers along the haunted and ice-bound “Road of Bones” has the potential of combining the deadly driving conditions of Ice Road Truckers with the spooky chills of Ghost Hunters into a megahit.

And Teig is all about selling the potential of things. He’s good at it – even if he’s not always good at bringing his ideas fully to profitable fruition. He always means well and he always plans to pay back all the people who believe in him.

Which is what brings his cameraman Jack Prentiss along on this journey. Jack says he’s just protecting his investment – meaning he’s watching out for Teig in the interests of getting back all the money he’s lent the man over the years.

But they are also pretty much each other’s only friend – so who else would either of them take on what will be, at best, a five day trek through a frozen hellscape that will kill them if anything happens to their vehicle or themselves.

They hoped for a great story. They expected long, dark nights and killing cold. What they found was the embodiment of the dark heart of the frozen land following behind them and picking them off – one by one in a reign of blood and terror.

And a saint blessing the dead but who had no power to save the living.

Escape Rating A-: I was willing to take this chilling drive into horror because of the author. Christopher Golden, along with Tim Lebbon, wrote one of the most haunting post-Katrina New Orleans stories to ever ride that slippery line between fantasy, history, myth and horror in The Map of Moments. I loved that book. So every once in a while I dip back into something else by either of its authors in the hopes of hitting that ‘just right’ level of chill.

Road of Bones hit that spot in a different way than I expected, but very definitely hit it. At first it reminded me of the more chilling Alaska stories that I’ve read. Fairbanks doesn’t get quite as cold as the place that Teig and Prentiss travel through, but it gets entirely too damn close – with even longer nights.

But the real chill in Road of Bones is what Teig and Prentiss experience as the darkest parts of the history of the place come to life all around them – with deadly consequences. An ancient myth, a battle between good and evil, rises up and gathers them into its grip. A myth that does not seem to care about humanity at all.

It reminded me quite a lot of Anne Bishop’s World of the Others, in that primal forces much vaster and wilder than anything humans could ever imagine are what is really in control of this world and everything in it.

All the spirits know on this Road of Bones is that something has awoken a malevolent spirit and it is their sacred duty to imprison it again – no matter who or what stands in their way. Because they are off and running.

At first, those ancient spirits of the land seem evil – at least from the perspective of the humans attempting to outrun them. All that the Teig and Prentiss initially understand is that the spirits are transforming every person they find into either a shadowy wolf or a reindeer with a rack of deadly antlers and relentlessly hunting them down.

It’s only at the end when they have a glimmer of understanding. And when it finally comes, it chills the reader to the bone.

This still isn’t my usual cup of reading tea – although I certainly needed a hot cup of something as I read it. I like to sidle up to horror rather than approaching it head on, and between the Alaska vibes, the history and the dark fantasy-type myths coming to life I was just about able to get there. I still wouldn’t want to read it alone or in a dark room – or too late at night. But I would recommend it to anyone who likes to get their chills from stories where something supernatural is very definitely out to get us.

Review: Last Exit by Max Gladstone

Review: Last Exit by Max GladstoneLast Exit by Max Gladstone
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Format: audiobook
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, urban fantasy
Pages: 400
Length: 21 hours and 3 minutes
Published by Tor Books on March 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Ten years ago, Zelda led a band of merry adventurers whose knacks let them travel to alternate realities and battle the black rot that threatened to unmake each world. Zelda was the warrior; Ish could locate people anywhere; Ramon always knew what path to take; Sarah could turn catastrophe aside. Keeping them all connected: Sal, Zelda’s lover and the group's heart.
Until their final, failed mission, when Sal was lost. When they all fell apart.
Ten years on, Ish, Ramon, and Sarah are happy and successful. Zelda is alone, always traveling, destroying rot throughout the US.
When it boils through the crack in the Liberty Bell, the rot gives Zelda proof that Sal is alive, trapped somewhere in the alts.
Zelda’s getting the band back together—plus Sal’s young cousin June, who has a knack none of them have ever seen before.
As relationships rekindle, the friends begin to believe they can find Sal and heal all the worlds. It’s not going to be easy, but they’ve faced worse before.
But things have changed, out there in the alts. And in everyone's hearts.
Fresh from winning the Hugo and Nebula Awards, Max Gladstone weaves elements of American myth--the muscle car, the open road, the white-hatted cowboy--into a deeply emotional tale where his characters must find their own truths if they are to survive.

My Review:

There was a serpent gnawing at the roots of the world. Zelda, June, Sarah, Ramon and Ish go on the road trying to do something to slow it down or keep it at bay or just stop it. If they can. Because they believe they must. Because they tried before – and they failed.

But, and it’s a very big but that fills the sky with thunder and lightning and cracks the ground all around them every place they go – is that “last exit” they’re searching for the last exit to get OFF the road that is heading TO hell, or is it the last exit to get ON that road. Differences may be crucial – and nearly impossible to judge when the critical moment arrives with the ring of boot heels on cracked and broken pavement.

Ten years ago, five college students (Sal, Zelda, Sarah, Ramon and Ish) who all felt like outsiders at their preppy, pretentious Ivy League school (cough Yale cough) discovered that they each had a ‘knack’ for exploring the multiverse. So, they decided to go on an adventure instead of heading out into the real world of adulting, jobs and families.

They wanted to make the world better – or find a world that was better – rather than settle for and in the world they had. So they went on ‘The Road’ and explored all the alternate worlds they could find within the reach of their “souped up” car.

They found adventure all right. And they were all young enough to shrug off the danger they encountered and the damage they took escaping it. But what they did not find was anyplace better. They didn’t even find anywhere that was all that good.

They helped where they could and escaped where they had to and generally had a good time together. But, and again it’s a very big but, all the worlds they found had given way to the same terrible applications of power and privilege and use and abuse that are dragging this world down. They found death cults and dictatorships and slavery and madness everywhere they went.

The multiverse was rotting from within, because there was a serpent gnawing at the roots of the world.

So together they embarked upon a desperate journey to the Crossroads at the heart of all the multiverses, the place where there might be a chance to not just shore up the forces of not-too-bad in one alternate world, but in all the alternate worlds all at the same time.

They failed. And they lost the woman who was their heart and their soul. Sal fell through the cracks of the world. She was lost to the rot that was destroying not just the alts but their own world as well.

That could have been the end of their story. And it almost was. Without Sal, they fell apart. Individually and collectively. Sarah went to medical school and raised a family. Ish raised a tech empire. Ramon tried to destroy himself, tried to forget, and ended up back where he started.

And Zelda stayed on the road, sleepwalking through ten years of loneliness, doing her best to plug the holes in this world where the rot was creeping in.

Because it was all their fault – it was all her fault. She lost Sal, the woman she loved – and then everything fell apart. She feels duty-bound, obligated and guilt-ridden, to fix it.

It takes ten years, and a kick in the pants from Sal’s cousin June, for Zelda to finally acknowledge that the only way she can fix what she broke, what they broke, is going to require more than a little help from their friends.

If they’re willing to take one final ride on the road.

American Gods by Neil GaimanEscape Rating A-: In the end, Last Exit is awesome. But it takes one hell of a long and painful journey to reach that end. Because it starts with all of them not just apart, but in their own separate ways, falling apart. And it ends with all of their demons coming home to roost – and nearly destroying them – as they relive the past and do their damndest to push through to either some kind of future – or some kind of sacrifice to balance out the one they already made when they lost Sal.

The reader – along with Zelda and Sal’s cousin June – starts out the story believing that it’s all about the journey. Or that it’s a quest to reach a specific destination that may or may not be Mount Doom. It’s only at the very, very bitter end that they – and the reader – figure out that it was about the perspective all along.

A lot of readers are going to see a resemblance to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, but I haven’t read that so it wasn’t there for me. What I saw was a sharp comparison to American Gods by Neil Gaiman – both because it’s very much an “American Road Story”, even if most of the Americas are alts, but especially because of that sudden, sharp, shock at the end, where the reader has to re-think everything that came before.

I listened to Last Exit all the way through, and the narrator did a terrific job of differentiating the voices. There was a lyricism to the characters’ internal dialogs that she conveyed particularly well – it was easy to get caught up in each one’s internal thoughts and understand where they were coming from, even if the sheer overwhelming amount of angst most of them were going through was occasionally overwhelming – both for the characters and for the listener.

Part of what makes this a densely packed and difficult story and journey is that the main character and perspective is Zelda – who is just a hot mess of angst and guilt and regret. We understand why she blames herself for everything – whether anything is her fault or not – but there seems to be no comfort for her anywhere and you do spend a lot of the book wondering if she’s going to sacrifice herself because she just can’t bear it a minute longer.

The story feels a bit disjointed at points because the narrative is disjointed both because Zelda keeps telling and experiencing snippets of what happened before interwoven with what’s happening now and because the alts themselves are disjointed. It’s clear there’s some kind of organizing geography, but I just didn’t quite see it. To me, the alts all sounded like various aspects of the fractured future Earth in Horizon: Zero Dawn and I stopped worrying about what went where.

There were a lot of points where I seriously wondered where this was all going. Where it ended up wasn’t what I was initially expecting – at all. But it was one hell of a journey and I’m really glad I went, even if I needed a cocoa and a lie-down to recover from the sheer, chaotic wildness of the ride..

Review: And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin

Review: And Then I Woke Up by Malcolm DevlinAnd Then I Woke Up by Malcolm Devlin
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: dystopian, horror, post apocalyptic
Pages: 176
Published by Tordotcom on April 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

In the tradition of Mira Grant and Stephen Graham Jones, Malcolm Devlin’s And Then I Woke Up is a creepy, layered, literary story about false narratives and their ability to divide us.
"A scathing portrait of the world we live in and a running commentary on what’s story, what’s truth, and what’s not."—Stephen Graham Jones

In a world reeling from an unusual plague, monsters lurk in the streets while terrified survivors arm themselves and roam the countryside in packs. Or perhaps something very different is happening. When a disease affects how reality is perceived, it’s hard to be certain of anything…
Spence is one of the “cured” living at the Ironside rehabilitation facility. Haunted by guilt, he refuses to face the changed world until a new inmate challenges him to help her find her old crew. But if he can’t tell the truth from the lies, how will he know if he has earned the redemption he dreams of? How will he know he hasn’t just made things worse?

My Review:

“How long a minute is depends on which side of the bathroom door you are on,” or so goes one very old joke about the theory of the relativity of time. Which may not exactly reflect what Einstein was thinking, but it is still unarguably true. That “minute” takes a lot longer if you’re the one on the outside of the door holding it in than if you’re the one on the inside of the door letting it out.

And the measurement of those 60 seconds can still take the same amount of objective time while still seeming to be of different duration on the opposite sides of that door.

But what happens to objective “truth” when truth becomes so mutable that all perspectives are considered equal? This may not be of earth-shattering importance when it’s a question of whether a particular dress is blue and black or white and gold. But when the differing perspectives revolve around an issue of even middling importance, such as the size of the crowd at a particular presidential inauguration, or something larger and more fundamental, such as whether an ‘impromptu’ event in the U.S. Capitol was a peaceful demonstration or an attempted coup, those differences of “opinion” can be crucial. And the tribalism that lies behind them can make those perspectives impossible to change.

To put it another way, the way that Jonathan Swift put it, “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” There’s also a version from Upton Sinclair, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

And Then I Woke Up is a story about what happens when all truths are created equal, when every perspective on every issue is considered equally valid. To the point where the concept of any objective truth is under attack by what one side considers to be the barbarians at the gate and vice versa.

To the point when those who oppose us not only look and sound like monsters, but they become actual, rotting, shambling, tear out our throats and feast on our flesh murdering creatures so terrible that the ‘fight or flight’ response kicks in and we fight.

It’s a nightmare scenario, when our friends and loved ones don’t just turn on us, but turn into monsters by doing so.

Unless it isn’t that at all. Unless we’re sick and they’re doing their best to keep us from infecting them.

Or the other way around.

Escape Rating B+: I’ll admit that I wanted an unequivocal ending to this, where the point-of-view character does finally wake up, take the red pill or the blue pill, and learn what is real. The frightening thing about this story is that what is real depends so much upon our own perspectives. Those on one side see monsters in anyone who opposes them, and those on the other see sick people who can’t accept what seems like the truth of their circumstances or the way the world really works.

And I’m trying not to assign value to either side of that equation, because that’s the whole point of the story. That what we believe becomes our truth – whichever side of whatever divide we are currently on.

The point is hammered home with the way that the plague seems to work, at least as defined by one side of this divide. It’s that some people have so much charisma, are so invested in their own beliefs in their own side, that they sway followers into their perception of what the “truth”, the true narrative, really is.

What stuck in my mind after I turned the last page was the question of which side truth was really on? Are the ones who saw monsters and killed them the ones with the right answer? Or is it the side who finally tried to sway the “monster-killers” with isolation, compassion and sanitized news?

Because that divide, plague-driven or not, seems like it is headed this way at breakneck speed. And there are way more people pouring fuel on that fire than there are trying to find a way to divert the coming conflagration.

Which is the part that scares me most of all. Because as much as I wish I KNEW, in the context of the story at least, it feels true – if not very comfortable in the least – that the main character doesn’t. And neither do we.

Review: Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms edited by John Joseph Adams

Review: Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms edited by John Joseph AdamsLost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms by John Joseph Adams, James L. Cambias, Becky Chambers, Kate Elliott, C.C. Finlay, Jeffrey Ford, Theodora Goss, Darcie Little Badger, Jonathan Maberry, Seanan McGuire, An Owomoyela, Dexter Palmer, Cadwell Turnbull, Genevieve Valentine, Carrie Vaughn, Charles Yu, E. Lily Yu, Tobias S. Buckell
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: action adventure, fantasy, horror, science fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Grim Oak Press on March 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From the legends of Atlantis, El Dorado, and Shangri-La to classic novels such as King Solomon’s Mine, The Land That Time Forgot, and The Lost World, readers have long been fascinated by the idea of lost worlds and mythical kingdoms.
Read short stories featuring the discovery of such worlds or kingdoms―stories where scientists explore unknown places, stories where the discovery of such turns the world on its head, stories where we’re struck with the sense of wonder at realizing that we don’t know our world quite as well as we’d thought.
Featuring new tales by today's masters of SF&F:
Tobias S. BuckellJames L. CambiasBecky ChambersKate ElliottC.C. FinlayJeffrey FordTheodora GossDarcie Little BadgerJonathan MaberrySeanan McGuireAn OwomoyelaDexter PalmerCadwell TurnbullGenevieve ValentineCarrie VaughnCharles YuE. Lily Yu

My Review:

Here there be dragons – or so say the old maps. Or so they say the old maps say – although not so much as people think they did.

Just the same, once upon a time the map of the ‘real’ world used to have more blank spaces in it. Long distance travel was difficult and time-consuming, long distance communication was an impossible dream, life was short and the road was too long to even be imagined. But speaking of imagining, I imagine that every place’s known and unknown stretches were different – but in the way back each city, country, people or location only had so much reach and stretch.

And then there was the era of European exploration and eventually industrialization. For good or ill, and quite frequently ill, those blank places on the map got smaller and were filled in. Which didn’t stop and probably downright inspired a whole library’s worth of stories about imaginary places that might exist whether on – or in – this planet or those nearby.

But as the terra become increasingly cognita, the well of those stories dried up. Which does not mean that the urge to explore what might be beyond the farthest horizon has in any way faded.

This is a collection intended to feed that human impulse to go where no one has gone before – and report back about it before we invade it with, well, ourselves. Some of the stories that explore that next frontier are fantasy, some are science fiction, and a few trip over that line from fantasy into horror.

And they’re all here, vividly described to make the reader want to be there. Or be extremely grateful that they are NOT.

Escape Rating B: Like nearly all such collections, Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms has some hits, some misses and one or two WTF did I just read? in a convenient package for exploration.

Let’s get the WTF’ery out of the way so we can move on to the good stuff. The two stories that were set in strange hotels, Comfort Lodge, Enigma Valley and Hotel Motel Holiday Inn just did not land for me at all. The second made a bit more sense than the first but neither worked for me. Of course, YMMV on both or either of those particular trips.

Three stories were misses – at least from my perspective. They weren’t bad, they just didn’t quite live up to their premise. Or something like that. The Light Long Lost at Sea was a bit too in medias res. There’s a world there with lots of interesting backstory but what we got was more of a teaser than a story with a satisfying ending. The Expedition Stops for the Evening at the Foot of the Mountain Pass had some of that same feel, like there was huge setup for the story somewhere else and we weren’t getting it. But we needed it. The Return of Grace Malfrey is one that had a fascinating premise that kind of fizzled out.

One story in the collection hit my real-o-meter a bit too sharply. That was Those Who Have Gone. It does get itself into the “did I find a hidden civilization or was I dreaming?” thing very, very well, but the way it got there was through a young woman on a scary desert trip with her 30something boyfriend who she is rightfully extremely afraid of. That part was so real it overwhelmed the fantasy place she fell into.

There were a bunch of stories that I liked as I was reading them, but just didn’t hit the top of my scale. They are still good, still enjoyable, and hit the right note between teasing their premise and satisfying it. In no particular order, these were Down in the Dim Kingdoms, An Account, by Dr. Inge Kuhn, of the Summer Expedition and Its Discoveries, Endosymbiosis and There, She Didn’t Need Air to Fill Her Lungs.

Last, but very much not least, the stories I plan to put on my Hugo Ballot next year, because they were utterly awesome. The Cleft of Bones by Kate Elliott, a story about slavery, revolution and rebirth as seen through the eyes of an absolutely fascinating character. The Voyage of Brenya by Carrie Vaughn, which is a story about gods and heroes and the way that stories turn into myths and legends. Out of the Dark by James L. Cambias, one of two space opera stories, this time about a corporate hegemonies, a salvage crew consisting of lifelong rivals, and a pre/post spacefaring civilization in which Doctor Who’s Leela would have been right at home.

Three stories were utter gems from start to finish. Pellargonia: A Letter to the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology by Theodora Goss, which consists entirely of a letter written to the afore-mentioned journal by three high school students who took the founding principles of the journal – that imaginary anthropology could create real countries – and ran with it all the way into Wikipedia, the nightly news, and a civil war that has captured one of their fathers somewhere that never should have existed in the first place.

The Orpheus Gate by Jonathan Maberry reaches back to the Golden Age of lost kingdom stories by taking the utterly science driven great granddaughter of Professor George Edward Challenger (hero of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World) and putting her on a collision course with a friend of her great grandmother’s – a woman who challenges the scientist’s belief in everything rational and provable in order to force the young woman to finally open her mind to a truth she does not even want to imagine, let alone believe.

And finally, The Tomb Ship by Becky Chambers, which is a story about a loophole, about the evil that humans do in the name of a so-called ‘Greater Good’, and just how easy it is to fall into the trap and how hard it is to even think of a better way. Or even just a way that lets the protagonist sleep at night with a somewhat clear conscience. That it also feels like a tiny bit of an Easter Egg for The Outer Wilds was just the right icing on this gold-plated cake of a story.

Review: The Route of Ice and Salt by Jose Luis Zarate

Review: The Route of Ice and Salt by Jose Luis ZarateThe Route of Ice and Salt by José Luis Zárate, David Bowles
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: Gothic, horror, vampires
Pages: 196
Published by Innsmouth Free Press on January 19, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A reimagining of Dracula’s voyage to England, filled with Gothic imagery and queer desire.
It’s an ordinary assignment, nothing more. The cargo? Fifty boxes filled with Transylvanian soil. The route? From Varna to Whitby. The Demeter has made many trips like this. The captain has handled dozens of crews.
He dreams familiar dreams: to taste the salt on the skin of his men, to run his hands across their chests. He longs for the warmth of a lover he cannot have, fantasizes about flesh and frenzied embraces. All this he’s done before, it’s routine, a constant, like the tides.
Yet there’s something different, something wrong. There are odd nightmares, unsettling omens and fear. For there is something in the air, something in the night, someone stalking the ship.
The cult vampire novella by Mexican author José Luis Zárate is available for the first time in English. Translated by David Bowles and with an accompanying essay by noted horror author Poppy Z. Brite, it reveals an unknown corner of Latin American literature.

My Review:

Everyone thinks they know the story of Dracula – and we all do. Sorta/kinda. Not necessarily because we’ve read the original but because we’ve seen one or more variations of it. The Count’s story is part of the cultural zeitgeist. We ALL know who he is.

(If you haven’t read the original, it’s available in ebook free from your local public library AND from a host of online retailers including Amazon. If you want to get the flavor of the story there’s also an excellent full-cast recording by L.A. Theatreworks that I highly recommend – especially for Halloween.)

But one of the things that gets lost in adaptations of the original work is that Dracula is an epistolary novel. It’s a story told in documents – not just letters but also newspaper accounts, diary entries and, as expanded upon in The Route of Ice and Salt, the terse entries in the captain’s log of the ship that brought Dracula’s crates of Transylvanian soil to Britain. And, unbeknownst to the captain and crew of the Demeter, Count Dracula himself.

Not that the captain doesn’t eventually find out about the vampire – just before he dies.

However, The Route of Ice and Salt is not a retelling of the original Dracula story. Rather, it’s an illumination and expansion of a dark and hidden place in that more famous tale. In the original, we read the terse prose of the captain’s official log. We learn that when the ship reached its destination, the crew was missing, presumed dead. And the unnamed captain was discovered lashed to the wheel of his doomed ship with a rosary clutched in his cold, dead hands.

This is his story.

Escape Rating A-: Dracula may be the entry point for this story for many readers, but the Count isn’t exactly THE point of the story. The Route of Ice and Salt is cult classic of Mexican fantasy, first published in 1998 by a small comic book publisher that didn’t survive its attempt to jump from comic books to prose. This is the first translation of the work into English, and it’s a creeping fever dream of a story that picks up on themes that were subtext in Dracula – and other early vampire stories – and moves them from subtext to explicit text.

The still-unnamed captain of the Demeter is gay, horny and has very explicit thoughts and feelings about his crew that he keeps to himself in the dark of the night but never indulges. For reasons that have explicitly to do with keeping discipline aboard the ship, maintaining the chain of command and the acknowledgement that his crew can’t really give consent because he’s their master while they’re aboard.

And that, if they report him to the ship’s owners when the Demeter is back home, he’ll not just be fired – he’ll be prosecuted, imprisoned and quite possibly killed. Just as his first lover was – something that he is still blaming himself for years if not decades later.

That blame brings up a second theme, the question of what, and who is truly the monster in this or any other monster tale. The captain sees himself as a monster, both for his own part in his lover’s death and for the desires that his society and his church consider monstrous.

It’s only at the end that he comes to the liberating realization, in the face of a literal bloodsucking fiend who has murdered his crew, that he is not a monster at all – no matter what anyone else might say.

But those aren’t reasons to read The Route of Ice and Salt. As much as it has to say in its own subtext, it’s the way that it says it that are the reasons to read the story.

This thing is creepy as hell. If you like horror of the creeping, crawling, looming variety, if you enjoy that sensation of drowning horror as you read deeper into something that you know is going to keep you up half the night, this is an excellent story of that type. I finished at 2 am and I honestly should have waited until morning because it left me seriously creeped out.

The language of the story is beautiful. At times it’s lush and poetic, and then it turns sharp as a knife – or a tooth. I suspect it’s even more lyrical in the original Spanish but the translation is quite lovely. In that aspect it reminds me of Nothing but Blackened Teeth although their language and vernaculars are literally at least a century apart. But still, that same sense of sinking into a pool of beautiful words – only to have the story almost literally jerk you down into its depths of nightmarish horror.

If you’re looking for a truly creepy Halloween read, take The Route of Ice and Salt.

Review: Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw

Review: Nothing but Blackened Teeth by Cassandra KhawNothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, paranormal
Pages: 128
Published by Nightfire on October 19, 2021
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Cassandra Khaw's Nothing But Blackened Teeth is a gorgeously creepy haunted house tale, steeped in Japanese folklore and full of devastating twists.
A Heian-era mansion stands abandoned, its foundations resting on the bones of a bride and its walls packed with the remains of the girls sacrificed to keep her company.
It’s the perfect wedding venue for a group of thrill-seeking friends.
But a night of food, drinks, and games quickly spirals into a nightmare. For lurking in the shadows is the ghost bride with a black smile and a hungry heart.
And she gets lonely down there in the dirt.

My Review:

Four funerals and a wedding, not necessarily in that order. But…not necessarily NOT in that order. Or at least that’s what I thought might be the ending of this story as I was listening to it.

And drowning in it. Or being buried in it. Or both. Definitely both.

There are so many ways of looking at this bruisingly creepy, completely absorbing and utterly weird story. Especially as our point of view character, Cat, has such a history of mental and emotional damage that we’re never quite sure whether the story she’s relating is happening in the real world, whether the real is being viewed through a skewed and drunken lens or if the entire surreal experience is all just in her head.

At the same time, it’s also the kind of horror story that’s been heard and seen and done before. It could be something out of The Final Girl Support Group, except that Cat knows that if it is she’s not going to be the final girl.

After all, the damaged and the deviant always die first in those stories – and Cat is both. If the tropes get followed to their bitter end, the survivor of this tale is going to be golden boy Phillip. Unless this isn’t that kind of story.

Except when it is.

Five 20 somethings still clinging to their school friendship, in spite of the emotional baggage they gave each other then and throw at each other now, get together for one last attempt to pretend that they haven’t already gone their separate ways.

Three guys, two girls, an interwoven knot of friendship and rivalry with teeth and claws, gather in a haunted mansion to fulfill one girl’s dream of getting married in a haunted mansion. The darker it gets, the drunker they get, the more the fractures of their once tight-knit group come to the surface.

Letting the spirits of the house get into their heads, allowing the resentments they’ve hidden to surface, pushing them into a devil’s bargain with the house, the spirits, and each other.

Escape Rating A: This is a story of youth and hubris. They’re young, they’re still at the stage where they believe they’re immortal. Except for Cat. She knows it’s all an illusion, and that’s why she’s the narrator. She’s been on the outside looking in, on the group, on her own life. She sees beneath the surface of both her friends and the house they’ve paid to occupy for a few nights.

But the house is creepy in ways that get under everyone’s skin. Cat, who has studied the folklore that this place is straight out of and rotting into, knows in her gut that there’s something lying under the surface of everything. And knows that no one will believe her until it’s too late, because that’s how these stories go.

The bones of all the women who were supposed to have been buried alive in this place. Cat sees them, she hears them, and the reader wonders whether what Cat is experiencing is real or a hallucination or a fever dream. The language is creepy, lyrical and moving in ways that remind the reader of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s drug-infused epic poetry.

And all of that works so incredibly well in audio. It feels like being inside the poem, inside the ghost story as it crawls around everything and everyone, sucks them under and starts to rot them from the inside. I read this book earlier in the year and it wasn’t nearly as good in my head as it was when the narrator put me in Cat’s head.

So if you’re looking for a creepy ghost story for this Halloween season, gather some friends and let Cat tell you one hell of a story.

Review: No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull

Review: No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell TurnbullNo Gods, No Monsters (The Convergence Saga, #1) by Cadwell Turnbull
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, science fiction, urban fantasy
Series: Convergence Saga #1
Pages: 387
Published by Blackstone Publishing on September 7, 2021
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One October morning, Laina gets the news that her brother was shot and killed by Boston cops. But what looks like a case of police brutality soon reveals something much stranger. Monsters are real. And they want everyone to know it.
As creatures from myth and legend come out of the shadows, seeking safety through visibility, their emergence sets off a chain of seemingly unrelated events. Members of a local werewolf pack are threatened into silence. A professor follows a missing friend’s trail of bread crumbs to a mysterious secret society. And a young boy with unique abilities seeks refuge in a pro-monster organization with secrets of its own. Meanwhile, more people start disappearing, suicides and hate crimes increase, and protests erupt globally, both for and against the monsters.
At the center is a mystery no one thinks to ask: Why now? What has frightened the monsters out of the dark?
The world will soon find out.

My Review:

The title of this book is a play on the old anarchist slogan, “No Gods, No Masters.” It’s a reference to the belief that no one should be above anyone else and no one should be below anyone else. That all humans should be equal

The “monsters” that have suddenly come out of wherever they’ve been hiding themselves have adopted the old slogan to put forward the idea that monsters aren’t separate from the rest of the population, that neither humans nor monsters should be above or below each other, that all should be equal.

It’s a question that has come to the forefront in the wake of an event that the amorphous, unreliable narrator of this story refers to as the “Fracture”, when a group of shifters – werewolves and their kith and kin – staged a peaceful demonstration of their ability to shift from wolf to human. A demonstration that took place in front of a bunch of cops and other bystanders, and was filmed in its entirety.

The video of the demonstration appeared very briefly on the internet, showing the full change from a line of wolves to a line of humans. The video went viral. Everybody saw it. People were debating the existence of monsters and what it meant.

At least until all the copies of the video were edited to eliminate the parts that showed the change. And the debate shifted, from people discussing what they saw to people arguing about whether or not they’d really seen it. About whether or not monsters really exist at all.

But even with and beside and under the debate, the world is changing. The “Fracture” has had an effect on everyone, whether believer or skeptic, monster or human. Even for those who have chosen not to rock their familiar world by admitting that there might be more things on heaven and earth than were dreamt of in anyone’s philosophy, nothing and no one will ever be the same.

Escape Rating B: There are multiple ways of looking at this story, because it feels like it says different things depending on how the reader approaches it, beginning with the debate about whether this is science fiction or fantasy. To which the answer is probably “Yes”.

The point of view characters, whether monster or human, focus the story on the perspective of the “other”, where being a monster is just one additional axis upon which a person can be considered “other”.

The story opens with the death of Laina’s brother Lincoln, where Laina is looking for the truth about why the cops shot him. Laina expects to find yet another police cover up of cops killing a black man for no particular reason. What she finds is a video of really, truly, seriously frightened cops shooting an out-of-control werewolf who only turns into her brother after he’s dead. That the video is left for her by an invisible woman adds to Laina’s desire for answers to questions she hadn’t even known were possible.

The story spins out from there. Laina releases the video. Mysterious forces edit the video. More monsters reveal themselves to their friends and family. More people have questions and search for answers – only to find that those answers are more dangerous than they ever imagined.

The story doesn’t so much proceed as it spirals outward in ever increasing circles and greater and greater number of perspectives, from the members of a co-op who learn that one of the members is a techno-mage and that factions of monsters are hunting all of them to a young politician and secret weredog and who is still desperate to learn what happened to the parents who disappeared when she was a child – only to discover that the forces that broke them want to take and break her as well.

Conspiracy theorists learn the lesson about being careful what you wish for because you might get it. Or it might get you. That it takes a monster to catch a monster – as one of last week’s books explored much less seriously  and considerably less well – and that the only ones capable of really damaging creatures who are seriously at the top of the food chain are others who are just the same.

The switches in perspective and narration made it a bit difficult to follow the story. They give a strong sense of the story being much bigger than what we see, but also make it harder to put everything in any kind of order. At the same time, because this is also a story of the multiverse, those hints that the situation is bigger than we imagine make a certain kind of sense.

Even if I occasionally wished we stuck with one perspective so we could figure out a bit more of what’s really going on.

One of the things that I kept coming back to in my own head was that we all know that there ARE gods and there ARE monsters, even if the gods are the kind that man creates in his own image and the monsters all walk on two legs all of the time. The certainty of both of those things does not prohibit the possibility that there are also gods or pantheons of gods of the omniscient and omnipotent variety, nor that some of the monsters that go bump in the night in fiction don’t also do it for real.

It becomes clear over the course of this story that the humans are capable of being way more monstrous than the actual monsters, and that the ones who believe they are godlike are the worst of all.

The end of the blurb leads readers to questions that the story itself doesn’t raise – at least not yet in the series. Why is this happening now? (At least for certain perspectives on exactly what “now” means.)

Speaking of perspectives, at least in the audiobook that I listened to they blurred into each other just a bit. The reader was good, and if his voice was intended to represent the unreliable narrator we begin and end the story with, he does a good job of representing that particular voice. But this story has a LOT of voices, all of whom are unreliable to one degree or another – some because they don’t know what they don’t know, and some because they don’t want to know what they don’t know – and the audio might have worked a bit better if there had been a few more narrators to help the listener keep track.

In the end, which is not an end but really just a pause, I’m intrigued. It feels like this book opens a tiny window into a much wider and deeper catalog of worlds and stories and possibilities and what ifs. This first book felt like a whole bunch of teasers and I want to see where they ALL lead.

Review: Murder in the Dark by Simon R. Green

Review: Murder in the Dark by Simon R. GreenMurder in the Dark (Ishmael Jones, #6) by Simon R. Green
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror, paranormal, suspense, urban fantasy
Series: Ishmael Jones #6
Pages: 192
Published by Severn House Publishers on December 1, 2018
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The sudden appearance of a sinister black hole in the English countryside leads to a baffling murder investigation for Ishmael Jones.

"The past is England's dreaming, and not all of it sleeps soundly..."
Ishmael Jones and his partner Penny have been despatched to assist a group of scientists who are investigating a mysterious black hole which has appeared on a Somerset hillside. Could it really be a doorway to another dimension, an opening into another world?
When one of the scientists disappears into the hole — with fatal consequences — Ishmael must prove whether it was an accident — or murder. But with no clues, no witnesses and no apparent motive, he has little to go on. Is there an alien predator at large, or is an all-too-human killer responsible? Only one thing is certain: if Ishmael does not uncover the truth in time, more deaths will follow...

My Review:

There’s an uncanny, unnatural hole in the fabric of the universe, and it’s up to an almost-but-not-quite-completely human to close this extremely dangerous door in the space-time continuum.

In a nutshell, that’s the premise of Murder in the Dark, this sixth book in the Ishmael Jones urban fantasy/paranormal/SF series.

What’s even weirder is that, at least so far, it’s also the plot of The Scavenger Door, the book I’m currently listening to. Considering that I started Murder in the Dark because I wanted to keep on reading Scavenger Door but couldn’t for a variety of reasons, I was really surprised to discover that I sorta/kinda was anyway.

The Ishmael Jones series exists at an uncanny crossroads between urban fantasy, paranormal and science fiction. The SFnal element is Ishmael himself. He’s an alien who crash landed his spaceship on Earth in the early 1960s. His ship did its level best to transform him into a human, but it glitched a few of the details. He hasn’t aged a day since he crashed. And he doesn’t remember a thing about his life before the crash. Both of these “glitches” come into play a bit in this story.

The stories in this series, for the most part, have been a play on the old country house murders. Ishmael met his romantic and investigative partner Penny Belcourt in the first book in the series, The Dark Side of the Road, when Ishmael was sent by his mysterious and secretive employers, The Organization, to look into the eerie and uncanny goings on at the country house where Penny lived with her parents. Penny was the sole survivor of that investigation.

In fact, most of Ishmael and Penny’s investigations turn out that way, the way that Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None turned out. Ishmael and Penny manage to walk away, but seldom do many – or sometimes any – of the people they are sent in to save. Even though they always manage to solve the original mystery.

Ishmael is starting to get a bit of survivor’s guilt over that fact.

But this story is a bit off of Ishmael and Penny’s beaten path, as they are sent in to secure a hole in the side of a hill in a seriously remote bit of countryside. No country houses in sight. Just a hole that swallows up everything that gets a bit too close – including one of the archaeologists that found it in the first place.

The Organization has sent a team of crackerjack scientists to investigate the unnatural hole, and sent Ishmael and Penny to keep the scientists safe while they investigate. When they arrive, both Ishmael and Penny believe that they are there to keep the scientists safe from the hole, and the hole safe from the scientists – along with anyone else who might happen to wander by.

It doesn’t take long for both of them to figure out that their real job is keeping the scientists safe from themselves – and each other.

Escape Rating B+: This was the right book at the right time, and not just for its surprising resemblance to The Scavenger Door. After yesterday’s terrific book, I was looking for something that also had a high snark quotient, and this author has always been good for that, no matter which of his many, many sandboxes he happens to be playing in at the time. And I was looking forward to swiftly sinking into a world that I already knew, and the Ishmael Jones series certainly has that box ticked off as well.

Last but not least, because I love this series and this author, I was hoping that this entry in the series would redeem the previous book, Into the Thinnest of Air, because that one didn’t quite live up to my expectations. But Murder in the Dark, even though it went to a different locale than the series usually does, was just a much better book.

All of the above being said, this is the sixth book in an ongoing series. I’m not certain that you need to have read them ALL to get stuck into this one, but reading at least the series opener, The Dark Side of the Road, would probably help a lot. Also it’s very good if you like creepy country house mysteries with even creepier monsters hiding in the shadows.

There are three mysteries in the dark in this story. One is the mystery that brings Ishmael and Penny into the picture, the mystery of the mystery of the unnatural hole. Who or what created it? What is it? Where does it go? What is its purpose?

The second mystery seems like it’s part of the first, at least at first. Who or what is killing the scientists?

And then there’s that third mystery, the one that lies behind the entire series. Who was Ishmael Jones before he became Ishmael Jones? Where did he come from? Why was he near Earth? How did he crash?

Ishmael has learned very few answers to those questions about himself. But he has learned that he really doesn’t want to know. Whoever he was and wherever he came from, right here and right now he’s exactly where he belongs, with Penny.

What’s surprising about those three mysteries is that they are not neatly tied up with a single bow. Rather, they are individually tied with separate bows, no matter how much someone tries to make it seem like the hole is responsible for the murders, possibly via the agency of someone who is a blast from Ishmael’s unremembered past.

The thing that makes this series work is that in spite of any supernatural or extraterrestrial red herrings that may appear while Ishmael and Penny are desperately trying to figure out who’s bumping off the people they’re supposed to save, the reality turns out to be that the biggest, baddest and deadliest monsters in any setting are human. The evil that people are capable of doing to each other is much, much scarier than any mythical beast or raygun toting alien. That in the end the most horrible monsters are just people doing bad things because they’re selfish and greedy. And it’s that grounding in human monsters and human evil that keep the whole thing from flying over the top, jumping the shark, and landing in a cesspit full of slime monsters.

This is a series that when I’m in the mood for it, I’m really in the mood for it and nothing else will do. So I’ll be back with Ishamel Jones and Penny Belcourt in Till Sudden Death Do Us Part the next time I need a story with the creep factor on high and the snark turned up to eleven.

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
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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: The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie M. Liu

Review: The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie M. LiuThe Tangleroot Palace: Stories by Marjorie M. Liu
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: anthologies, fantasy, horror, short stories
Pages: 256
Published by Tachyon Publications on June 15, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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New York Times bestseller and Hugo, British Fantasy, Romantic Times, and Eisner award-winning author of the graphic novel, Monstress, Marjorie Liu leads you deep into the heart of the tangled woods. In her long-awaited debut story collection, dark, lush, and spellbinding short fiction you will find unexpected detours, dangerous magic, and even more dangerous women.
“The Tangleroot Palace is charming and ruthless. Tales that feel new yet grounded in the infinitely ancient, a mythology for the coming age.”—Angela Slatter, author of The Bitterwood Bible
“Marjorie Liu is magic! Her writing is passionate, lyric, gritty, and riveting. She belongs high on everyone’s must-read list.”—Elizabeth Lowell, author of Only Mine
Briar, bodyguard for a body-stealing sorceress, discovers her love for Rose, whose true soul emerges only once a week. An apprentice witch seeks her freedom through betrayal, the bones of the innocent, and a meticulously-plotted spell. In a world powered by crystal skulls, a warrior returns to save China from invasion by her jealous ex. A princess runs away from an arranged marriage, finding family in a strange troupe of traveling actors at the border of the kingdom’s deep, dark woods.
Concluding with a gorgeous full-length novella, Marjorie Liu’s first short fiction collection is an unflinching sojourn into her thorny tales of love, revenge, and new beginnings.

My Review:

I picked this up not for her multiple award-winning Monstress, which I haven’t read yet, but for Dirk & Steele and Hunter’s Kiss, her marvelous urban fantasy/paranormal series that I read when they came out back in the late 2000s. I loved both of those series, but I’m kind of astonished that they came out way more than a decade ago.

But it has been a while, so I was happy to see this collection as a way of renewing my acquaintance with an author I very much loved. And I’m glad I did. There’s even a prequel for Dirk & Steele in this collection, at least if you squint a bit.

My favorite stories in this collection were The Briar and the Rose, Call Her Savage and the title story, The Tangleroot Palace.

The Briar and the Rose takes the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty, adds in a bit of magical possession and body-swapping, and wraps it in a bodyguard romance. Except that this takes place in a world of myth and legend, where an evil sorceress is maintaining her youth and beauty by possessing pretty young women and discarding their corpses. That sorceress is defeated by the love that develops between her female bodyguard and the true personality of the body being possessed in stolen moments when the sorceress sleeps. And it’s a powerful story about just how strong people can be when they have something, or someone to fight beside and to fight for.

Call Her Savage was fascinating because it hints at so much world and such a rich history that we don’t get to see in this story. There’s alternate history and revolution and wars and flawed heroines and politics and lost causes and fighting the long defeat. It reminds me a bit of Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune, but with an alternate 19th or 20th century instead of alternate early history. This is the one I wish there were more of. A lot more.

The Tangleroot Palace was lush and lovely and kind of perfect. On its surface its about a princess who runs away from home to find magic in order to save herself and hopefully save her kingdom from subservience to a brutal warlord. And underneath that it’s a romance about hiding behind masks to protect one’s true self, about the power of illusion and the power of agency. And of course nothing about the warlord or the kingdom or the subservience turns out to be quite what the princess was expecting. But the magic at the heart of the forest is all too real, even if, or especially because, it too is based on an illusion.

Of the rest of the collection, Sympathy for the Bones, Where the Heart Lives and The Last Dignity of Man were interesting and I’m glad I read them but they weren’t quite up there with my faves. After the Blood played with a supernatural/paranormal take on a post-apocalyptic story but didn’t give enough details to really hang together. Not that some characters weren’t hung or otherwise eliminated, but this one felt like it had been done before, and better, elsewhere.

Still and all, I’d have read this for those three favorite stories, and I’m glad I stuck around for the whole thing. It was just the right amount of lovely and romantic and creepy to while awhile a rainy evening with a cat on my lap.

Escape Rating A-: This is a strong collection, filled with stories that grip the heart, ramp up the adrenaline and occasionally wring the tear ducts. They’re not new stories, but they were all new to me, and I got completely wrapped up in every single one. They have the feel of feminist fairy tales, in that all but one of the stories are led by women, and are from mostly female perspectives. So these are heroine’s journeys – and occasionally villainess’ journeys, rather than told from the point of view that such stories are usually told.

Although the one story that is told from a male perspective, The Last Dignity of Man, while it was not among my favorites was one of the most purely lonely stories I have ever read. It was so sad and so heartbreaking and had so much possibility but the monsters, and there certainly were monsters, were more disgusting than scary, not that they weren’t scary too. Still, the idea of someone emulating a supervillain in the hopes that a superhero would arise to thwart them, just like in the comic books, was a great idea that I’d love to see explored more fully with less puking. Seriously.

The Tangleroot Palace reminded me just why I loved this author so much, and has made me resolve to get stuck into Monstress at the earliest opportunity!