Review: Lute by Jennifer Thorne

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

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

My Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Silver Under Nightfall by Rin Chupeco

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

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

My Review:

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

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

Let me explain…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Lucky Girl by Mary Rickert

Review: Lucky Girl by Mary RickertLucky Girl: How I Became A Horror Writer: A Krampus Story by Mary Rickert
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: holiday fiction, horror
Pages: 112
Published by Tordotcom on September 13, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Lucky Girl, How I Became A Horror Writer is a story told across Christmases, rooted in loneliness, horror, and the ever-lurking presence of Krampus written by World Fantasy and Shirley Jackson Award-winning author M. Rickert.
“Smooth and ruthless, Lucky Girl is M. Rickert at her ice-cold best.”—Laird Barron
Ro, a struggling writer, knows all too well the pain and solitude that holiday festivities can awaken. When she meets four people at the local diner—all of them strangers and as lonely as Ro is—she invites them to an impromptu Christmas dinner. And when that party seems in danger of an early end, she suggests they each tell a ghost story. One that’s seasonally appropriate.
But Ro will come to learn that the horrors hidden in a Christmas tale—or one’s past—can never be tamed once unleashed.

My Review:

Once upon a time there was a girl who survived the deaths of her entire family – because she was waiting to meet a boy in a deserted park on Christmas. People called her a “lucky girl” for her survival, but if this was luck it was certainly of the perverse variety. The kind of luck that generally described as “if it wasn’t for bad luck she wouldn’t have any at all.”

Once upon a time there was a college student who met four other lonely students at a diner on Christmas and invited them back to her low-budget student apartment so they could all be lonely together. They ended the evening by telling each other creepy stories that fit the season. She took one of those ghost stories and turned it into her first novel, launching her career as a horror writer.

Considering how difficult it is to make a living as an author, receiving the seed of that story that she turned into a career could certainly be considered “lucky” for some of the better definitions of luck. At least at the time.

But the girl who survived and the student who became the horror writer of the subtitle of this book are the same person. And just as young Ro the survivor is the same person as Goth writer Ro, so too the horror of her family’s murder, and the horror of that story she turned into her first novel turned out to be continuations of all the horrors she had already experienced.

Neither of which was going to EVER be over.

Krampusz és Mikulás (Krampus and Saint Nicholas) ca. 1913

Escape Rating C: Horror is not usually my cuppa. Come to think of it, Christmas isn’t either. So these are not exactly two great tastes that go great together. The combination is a bit more like black licorice and anchovies. There are people who like both, but they are also most definitely, acquired tastes that not everyone manages to acquire. And I can’t imagine combining the two in the same dish, although I’m sure there’s someone out there who has or will try it. Hopefully far away from me.

There are two stories in Lucky Girl that also feel like they don’t quite go together. The first story is the murder of Ro’s entire family after she sneaks out of the house on Christmas to meet a boy who has been leaving her anonymous cards. She doesn’t know who he is, she doesn’t know what he looks like, but she’s a teenager and the whole thing sounds more romantic than it does dangerous.

But it’s not nearly so romantic when he doesn’t show. When she returns to her family home, her family is dead and the house has been consumed in the fire that killed them. Ro doesn’t know whether it was all a horrible coincidence, whether she’s lucky to be alive, and/or whether her mystery suitor planned on kidnapping her for sex trafficking.

Whatever the cause or the intended result, it’s a non-fiction horror that leads her to pursue a career in fictional horror.

The ghost stories that Ro and her impromptu lonely hearts club share that Christmas night at college is supposed to be some of that fake horror. Ghost stories. Just stories. But one has that haunting quality that makes it seem like it might be more.

Still, the two stories, the real-life familicide and the holiday Krampus story, don’t seem like they are part of the same thing. One is all-too-real, while the other can’t possibly be. At least not until they both turn out to be, not just real, but worse than even Ro’s gothic imaginings ever dreamed of.

Because Ro’s origin story was real-world horror, and its denouement managed to be even more horrific real-world horror I can’t help but wonder if that real-ness was intended to make the other story, the ghost story that wasn’t just a story – seem more real as well. To make it seem more real than it could have been.

Ro’s own story, as horrific as it was, creeped me out but didn’t send my willing suspension of disbelief off gibbering into the night. The horror of that story was in its plausibility. The holiday ghost story, the Krampus story, would have been mythic-type horror if told on its own, but the two looped together just didn’t gel into one horrific whole, at least not for this reader. And the combination of the two did give my willing suspension of disbelief a very bad case of the gibbers.

Your reading mileage – quite possibly while in full flight from the gruesomeness – absolutely may vary.

Review: The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher

Review: The Seventh Bride by T. KingfisherThe Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, horror, retellings, young adult
Pages: 236
Published by 47North on November 24, 2015
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

Young Rhea is a miller’s daughter of low birth, so she is understandably surprised when a mysterious nobleman, Lord Crevan, shows up on her doorstep and proposes marriage. Since commoners don’t turn down lords—no matter how sinister they may seem—Rhea is forced to agree to the engagement.

Lord Crevan demands that Rhea visit his remote manor before their wedding. Upon arrival, she discovers that not only was her betrothed married six times before, but his previous wives are all imprisoned in his enchanted castle. Determined not to share their same fate, Rhea asserts her desire for freedom. In answer, Lord Crevan gives Rhea a series of magical tasks to complete, with the threat “Come back before dawn, or else I’ll marry you.”

With time running out and each task more dangerous and bizarre than the last, Rhea must use her resourcefulness, compassion, and bravery to rally the other wives and defeat the sorcerer before he binds her to him forever.

My Review:

I picked up The Seventh Bride because I love T. Kingfisher’s work and especially because I love her stories of young women – often very, very young – who have found themselves in a seriously large and potentially deadly pickle of epic proportions. Who, instead of whining, “oh woe is me!” or their world’s equivalent, put on the big girl panties they may not even be old enough to actually have yet and set about the business of saving themselves and everyone around them.

Just like Mona in A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking and especially Marra in Nettle & Bone, Rhea is a young woman who is forced to adult really hard because the adults around her are either not up to the job (Mona) or are in positions of powerlessness relative to the evil aristocratic villain who is pulling everyone’s strings (Marra).

Rhea knows there’s something seriously wrong in the whole idea of a nobleman sweeping in to marry a miller’s daughter. Not because fairy tales don’t occasionally happen, and not that this won’t be one someday, but she knows it doesn’t happen to relatively plain girls in working-class families without some kind of magical intervention.

She’s also all too aware that no matter how the mysterious Lord Crevan might phrase his proposal, neither Rhea nor her parents have any real choice in the matter. He’s manipulating them all and he’s enjoying it.

Rhea’s just as aware that her parents are doing their best to pretend that this mess isn’t as wrong as it really is. She’s angry and frustrated because she knows there’s something rotten going on, and she’s exasperated almost beyond bearing that her parents keep trying to pretend that things might be okay after all. It takes a long time and a lot of thought for her to acknowledge that they are basically whistling past the graveyard and that they are hoping that if they pretend hard enough that things might not be quite so bad – although they probably will be.

But when Rhea arrives at Lord Crevan’s hidden country estate she discovers that actually – the whole thing is much, much worse than she imagined. That there are fates worse than death and that six of Crevan’s previous wives have all landed in those situations. And that Rhea is next unless she can find a way to stop him before its too late for her- and her hedgehog – if not for them.

Escape Rating A: The Seventh Bride is right at the crossroads between fairy tales, fantasy, horror and young adult. Or it is if there’s a skeleton buried under that crossroads.

It also reads like a bit of a ‘dress-rehearsal’ for Nettle & Bone, having been originally published eight years before Nettle. The two stories have a lot of the same elements, but as they are all elements that I love, that’s an excellent thing.

Like Marra in Nettle & Bone, Rhea is in an impossible situation, one in which she knows she’s utterly powerless. At least in any traditional sense of power. She’s low born, she’s young, she’s female, her family is dependent on the local lord’s goodwill. Even if Lord Crevan mistreats her – as she expects he will – if she refuses him her family will, at best, be thrown out of their house and livelihood. At worst, they’ll all be killed. She’s in that squeeze between the rock and the hard place. She expects the hard place to be hard, but her parents will survive her going there and it might not be AS bad as she fears. The rock will crush them all for certain if she doesn’t.

But that’s where the magic of the tale comes in, in its horrible, beneficent, and human aspects. All at once. Because if there’s one thing Rhea is good at, it’s making the best of her situation. There’s a band of sisters waiting for her at Lord Crevan’s estate – his other wives. She has allies – and she gives them hope. She finds a way to fight back that is both underhanded and subversive.

And why shouldn’t she? It’s not as if Crevan is playing fair.

The more she sees of the horror that she’ll have to endure if she submits, or is ground under, the more determined she is to find a way out. And the more she shows that he can be subverted, the more of his other wives are willing to help her do so.

The creepy factor in this one is very high. The sense of a band coming together is very strong. And the possibility of a villain getting EXACTLY what’s coming to him is EXTREMELY satisfying.

So don’t let the idea that this might be YA-ish stop you from picking up this marvelously creepy story of magic, helpfully intelligent animals (Rhea’s hedgehog friend is adorable), found sisterhood and evil getting hoist on its own pointy petard. (Especially as the ebook is currently on sale for 99 cents. It’s an absolute STEAL!)

And if the author ever writes a bonus scene of Rhea, Marra and Mona sitting down for tea in some place between the worlds, I’d love to be a fly on that wall – or at least a reader of that story!

Review: What Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher

Review: What Moves the Dead by T. KingfisherWhat Moves the Dead by T. Kingfisher
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: horror
Pages: 176
Published by Tor Nightfire on July 12, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From the award-winning author of The Twisted Ones comes a gripping and atmospheric retelling of Edgar Allan Poe's classic "The Fall of the House of Usher."
When Alex Easton, a retired soldier, receives word that their childhood friend Madeline Usher is dying, they race to the ancestral home of the Ushers in the remote countryside of Ruritania.
What they find there is a nightmare of fungal growths and possessed wildlife, surrounding a dark, pulsing lake. Madeline sleepwalks and speaks in strange voices at night, and her brother Roderick is consumed with a mysterious malady of the nerves.
Aided by a redoubtable British mycologist and a baffled American doctor, Alex must unravel the secret of the House of Usher before it consumes them all.

My Review:

I always thought it was cordyceps that was generally responsible for the zombie apocalypse, but not this time. Or probably not this time. After all, even at the end, we don’t know which genus and species is making the dead move.

But there’s definitely a fungus responsible for everything that has gone wrong with the House of Usher in What Moves the Dead. Because the dead are definitely moving – even if the rational and even scientific minds of the late 19th century are having a seriously difficult time with the old Sherlock Holmes aphorism. You know the one I mean, the one that goes, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”

And the truth is that no one really wants to think about what is making so many of the animals around the house – and some of the humans inside it – move as if they are dead. Or even after they seem to be, well, dead.

Lieutenant Alex Easton, late of the Gallacian Army, has come to visit a dying friend. Whatever they expected to find in the house of Madeline and Roderick Usher, it wasn’t what they actually found. It’s been nearly 20 years since they’ve all seen each other, and there are days when Easton feels every single one of those years – but both Maddy and Roderick – who Easton knows are roughly their own age – look as if they’ve aged twice as many years as have actually passed.

And both their faces have the waxen pallor of imminent death.

Easton wants to find a cure – or at least a reprieve, and enlists the assistance of Maddy’s American doctor, a redoubtable local Englishwoman with an almost obsessive interest in mushrooms, and their own batman turned (ex-military) aide-de-camp and general factotum – who has carried them out of worse and deadlier scrapes than this one initially seems to be.

But initial impressions can be, and in this case certainly are, deceiving.

How does one even begin to fight a mushroom who wants to explore the world of humanity – one body at a time?

Escape Rating A+: This didn’t go any of the places I thought it would – even after reading a synopsis of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic short story, The Fall of the House of Usher. (I know I read it in school, but that was a long time ago.)

I’ll admit that there were points where I kind of expected Cthulhu to rise out of that damn lake. The Great Old One might honestly have been a relief. At least Cthulhu is a creature that retired soldier Easton might have a hope of fighting.

While I don’t generally like horror, I very much do like T. Kingfisher’s work, as evidenced by my reviews of Nettle & Bone, A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking and Paladin’s Grace. I like her stuff even when I’m not all that fond of the genre it’s in, like this book and The Hollow Places.

What made this work for me is that it’s very much the author’s voice – which means that the story is driven by its signature characters. Not that there’s not a strong sense of creeping dread through the whole thing, but rather than the creep and the dread and the reason to keep going through both of those feelings is that the reader is invested in the characters – especially Easton and that redoubtable English mycologist, Eugenia Potter.

It’s Easton’s head that we’re in throughout the story, and it’s a fascinating place to be. For one thing, they never take themselves too seriously. And they are very good at thinking but not actually saying all the things that give the reader plenty of rueful laughs, generally at Easton’s own expense. They aren’t the hero of this tale, and they don’t pretend to be. But they ARE the person who gets things done – always with the fully acknowledged assistance of their friends, comrades and fellow travelers.

One of the bits that made them so much fun as a character is the way that their very existence both pokes fun at gender norms and exposes them for the idiocy that they frequently are at the same time. It’s not always easy for them to deal with, but it is in its own unique way simple. They are, due to a peculiarity in their native language, a soldier. And soldier is a non-gendered pronoun in Gallacian. (So what they have in their pants or what they prefer in their bed is immaterial to their address and identification – except to the impolitely curious.)

As a reader, I didn’t need the answers to those questions. I simply liked Easton, their perspective and their attitude, quite a lot and wouldn’t mind at all if they turned up in another one of the author’s works.

Because I’ll be there for it. No matter what is making the dead move the next time around. Or, for that matter, the living.

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.