APEX MAGAZINE Issue 121 (Jan./Feb. 2021) Edited by Jason Sizemore


A welcome return for Apex Magazine. The recurring theme for the stories in this issue seems to be the possibility of hope amid darkness and despair. I can’t think of a better feeling to evoke in this time.

“Root Rot” by Fargo Tbakhi — Apex Magazine returns after a hiatus with a testament to why they should keep publishing short stories. This story is powerful, melancholy, and beautiful. A man who has fled his home in Palestine for a better future on Mars has instead descended into a painful addiction-filled existence of lost love and continued brutal colonial oppression. Not an ‘easy’ read as it builds up hope for salvation only for devastation to overcome, but the language is stunning and the symbolism in the characters and setting to real lives and political borders is too important to shy away from. This is a modern-day prophetic lamentation.

“Your Own Undoing” by P H Lee — You don’t read stories in the second person. But, if I do, then I should give this a try I guess.

“Love, That Hungry Thing” by Cassandra Khaw — “Like coming home from the blizzard and letting your heartbeat thaw in hot water. That same kind of sweet, slow pain.” Humanity has left a post-apocalyptic Earth, but a group returns to that home left behind, with remanifested gods among them. In a Daji shrine in Tokyo, Ama, one of those returned, requests a boon of white fox messengers. For that wish, Ama is willing to sacrifice, for a selfless love. A lot of the details in this story are left vague to distill this story down, in simmering language, to that core concept found in the title. Love consumes.

“Mr. Death” by Alix E. Harrow — A story that had me chuckling from the start, even as it talks about the death of a two-year-old. A reaper gets assigned his first difficult death, a 30-month old soul to fetch and ferry, in consolation, across the river of death. But, of course, “two-year-olds are contrarian bastards and it takes several hours and a family-size pack of M&Ms to coax them across…” The voice in this story is perfection for someone who has to deal with the emotions of such a job. Can there be a way to cheat the system? Harrow takes the touching story in great directions.

“The Niddah” by Elana Gomel — Additional pandemics after SARS-CoV-2 culminate in an ‘ebola’-related disease where transfer of any blood becomes potentially deadly – or in a female specific manner, transformative. This creates a resurgence in oppression against women, including the resurgence of the niddah (which I had to look up.) Oh, how I yearned while reading this for more precise biology. This will be one for me to feature in Biology in Fiction, between its general accuracies of virology, mischaracterization of evolution, and how this particular disease stretches belief. However, the point of the story isn’t in the likelihood of the pandemic’s reality, as much as the social situation it creates and the symbolism of the metamorphoses it engenders. And the story succeeds in revealing those wonderfully. Depressing thought while reading: “…when science promised that the horrors of the past were… well, in the past.” If this line from the narrator has ever actually entered someone’s mind, they cannot not have ever actually listened to a microbiologist. A reminder that science communication really needs improvement still.

“Gray Skies, Red Wings, Blue Lips, Black Hearts” by Merc Fenn Wolfmoor — A girl in the City loses her soul while digging graves in the catacombs. Redcap Kestrel agrees to help her for just a promise, that the girl will wear a sleeve to prevent her soul from going off again, or being taken. Though Redcap Kestrel’s surreal journey she – and the reader – discovers more about herself as well as the fate of the girl’s soul. Chillingly atmospheric and allegorical.

“All I Want for Christmas” by Charles Payseur — So much packaged in such a small word count. A story that reminds me that the most important gifts are not material, and that children are far more clever than usually given credit.

“The Ace of Knives” by Tonya Liburd (Reprint) — Superb story now used in multiple classes as an example of code-switching, it has so much to offer beyond as well, including an example of horror that contains an uplifting, empowering ending, and of treating mental illness, pain, and ways of healing meaningfully, with respect. This tale is full of magic.

“Roots on Ya” by LH Moore (Reprint) — A gathering, Virginia 1906. A young woman suddenly wretches, beetles, bugs and black garter snakes spewing from her mouth as she falls to the ground. A root man springs into action to prevent the curse from its end. The term ‘root man’ evokes both the meaning of herbalism and healing and simultaneously the spiritual aspect of ancestry. What I liked here is the attention to both victim and the person responsible, now under a curse of their own. A short bit of folklore from a cultural perspective that I did not grow up amid, but which universally connects.

Stories can be found online at Apex Magazine, with selections free to read over time. But it deserves purchase by those who enjoy.


INTERFERENCE by Sue Burke

Interference
(Semiosis Book 2)
By Sue Burke
Tor Books — October 2019
ISBN: 9781250317841
— Hardcover — 320 pp.


One truth being demonstrated by the current global climate is that societies are always at risk for instability. This represents not just a facet of political, cultural constructs, but an inherent aspect of ecology, of biology. Through life, individuals increase in number, coming together into populations. Growing populations of one species associate with growing populations of other species. Limited space and resources breed competition both within and between the groups. Coexistence toward a common purpose only becomes possible through sacrifices in each group and a sharing of resources in ways that minimize the effects of competition. In biology that common purpose is a self-centered organismal drive to reproduce and pass on one’s own particular genetic makeup. Paradoxically, the greatest chance for attaining that selfish goal amid competing individuals and groups becomes through some measure of balance with others. Of cooperation.

But, that balanced cooperation is a tenuous balance. Whether biologically or socially, the scale may be tipped by resurgences in selfish natures that overcome rational regard for a bigger long-term picture of success. Sue Burke’s phenomenal Semiosis series is a fictionalized version of such concepts on both the level of ‘artificial’ societies of intelligent creatures and of natural biology. The novels recognize that the two levels are, in fact, intertwined.

The first novel in the series, Semiosis, chronicles the establishment of a human colony on a planet that the colonists name Pax. Fleeing conflicts and devastations on Earth, the humans arrive in the hopes of setting up a society founded on principals of cooperation and care. However, complications during their dangerous interstellar journey actually force them to land on an unintended destination, leaving them with the challenge of establishing Pax in a completely unknown land with limited resources.

Burke reveals the human developments on Pax in Semiosis through a broad sweep of time across generations, structuring her novel into relatively long chapters told from the unique point-of-view of one particular member of the Pax colonists and their descendants (mostly). Each chapter then provides a time jump, with some overlap of characters and societal memory that allow the reader to easily track the development of the human Pax culture. While some have criticized this structure, I found it essential and fascinating for the character-driven story.

The original colonists and their first descendants learn about their new habitat as any intelligent organism would: observation, trial-and-error, and attempts at controlled study. They arrive to a planet covered already with lush life, including plant, animal, and bacterial. (I don’t recall fungus, protists, or archaea specifically named, but I could be wrong, and I assume they too are there?) Though the life on Pax elicits visual familiarity to the colonists compared to Terrestrial species, it also clearly is different in bizarre, unpredictable, and – at times deadly – ways.

Semiosis really should be read prior to its sequel Interference, and I highly recommend you do so if you haven’t yet. However, it isn’t a particular spoiler to summarize some details of the first novel that are present in its promotion or reviews in general. The colonists discover that the species of Pax demonstrate unique characteristics both cellularly and behaviorally compared to those of Earth. The plants particularly demonstrate signs of intelligence beyond those of Terrestrial origin. Gradually, through the generations the colonists discover that one of the plant species, that they name rainbow bamboo, has intelligence and sentience to a degree that permits communication. The plant, in turn, recognizes the potential benefit the new human arrivals could bring to its biological success and makes efforts to ensure their survival. Eventually the plant takes a name, Stevland, in honor of one of the original colonists and becomes an integral part of the new Pax society. Eventually he also gets his own point-of-view chapter(s).

Through those first generations on Pax the colonists and Stevland must learn the process of cooperation for the needs of mutual survivorship and success among the other species of Pax, and also another potential alien threat. After their arrival, the humans discover beautiful architectural remnants of another civilization amid the jungle-like vegetation that surrounds their first settlement. Dubbing the creators of these ruins ‘the Glassmakers’, they wonder where they all went. As they learn communication with Stevland they learn more about these aliens – also colonists to the planet. Eventually, the Pax colony is faced with the return of these Glassmakers and the threat they may bring.

Interference continues the story of Pax’s development in a time after the climax of Semisois. Like the first novel, Interference consists of relatively long chapters from the point-of-view of different central characters. However, it differs in that the time-scale is far less epic. Instead the novel focuses on one particular time period and converging events that threaten the colony’s continued existence as a cooperative between humans, Stevland, Glassmakers, and surrounding native species.

However, before getting to Pax, the first chapter of Interference starts us back on Earth. Amid rapidly changing political situations on Earth and intra-system colonies, a group of individuals is chosen for a mission to seek out the Pax colony and reinitiate contact with any who have survived. Here then arrives the first ‘interference’ of this sequel: a group of Earthlings arriving into the ecosystem of the Pax community. Though humans biologically make up a part of that community, they are certainly no longer of Earth in culture. How will the Earthlings want to interact with their human counterparts? What will they make of Stevland or the Glassmakers. Likewise, how will those non-human parts of the Paxian community take the new human arrivals? Not only do readers get to see these questions unfold from the point-of-view on those on Pax, we also get point-of-view chapters from those coming from Earth, a mixed population themselves of factions and motivations.

Before these Earth representatives arrive, Stevland becomes concerned about another form of ‘interference’ building on Pax itself. Fires seem to be breaking out on the edge of the territory that his roots and associated biological network run. Land-coral attacks from the plains beyond are on the rise. At Stevland’s urging, the ruling council of Pax sends a party out to investigate what the threat may be.

The arrival of the humans from Earth largely puts a pause on this second plot concern, until the final pages as that land coral threat looms more large. In the meantime, members of the Earth and Pax communities wrestle with changes that their introduction brings, and secrets that they withhold from one another before trust can be established. The technology that the Earthlings bring also provides Stevland with new possibilities, including the discovery of other rainbow bamboo life on a separate continent of the planet. Stevland is not alone. Moreover, some of the newly arrived humans intend to return to Earth, giving Stevland the opportunity to spread his genes to another world.

Interference thereby continues themes of Semiosis, broadening first contact situations and raising the question again of who is ‘native’ or ‘invasive’ in biological communities. Who is ‘good’ and who is ‘bad’. Is it a problem for one species to make use of another for selfish reasons if that also provides some benefit to the other? Is Stevland an alien plant that will slowly take over worlds like in Little Shop of Horrors, or is it a relationship that actually will help humanity build itself up from internal squabbles into a stable (at least temporarily) community?

Burke’s choice to stick with the structure of Semiosis, but compressing the timescale of the novel, produces one giant chapter that dominates the bulk of the text. The flow of Interference comparably suffers, and so does the character development. Burke now tries to follow many characters and viewpoints within one time period, rather than focusing on one per temporal episode. We’re with a given character in Interference longer, but know them no better than the one who just had one chapter in Semiosis.

The separate, but intersecting, potential threats to Pax in Interference could have been better developed across the novel (especially the coral threat and its investigation) by making the book slightly longer. The ending felt a little rushed, especially with it also ushering more questions/possibilities for a future in the final chapter and epilogue.

When I first read Interference, all material I could find on it indicated that it was intended as a duology, and readers commented how this seemed odd given some thing were left unresolved, and that Interference ‘felt’ very much like a middle novel of a trilogy. I agreed somewhat, though felt uts resolution was fine, as the future of any community is always precarious and may go for the good or for the bad in terms of a particular species. Stories never end, after all, and the next chapter doesn’t HAVE to be told. Star Wars should have certainly taught us that by now. But, I now see that another book is planned by Burke for the future, and the series is now indicated as a trilogy on Goodreads. Whether this is a response to reader/authorial/editorial interest in another novel or not, I have no idea. But I do welcome it.

Even though I find more fault in Interference than I did in Semiosis in terms of its structure, it remains a strong example of biological speculation and first contact science fiction. One of the delights of this second volume is the chance to get to know the Glassmakers more before expanding the scope of Pax and Stevland’s reach even more. There may be faults in the biology at times in the Semiosis series, and writing for humans from a hypothetical alien intelligence point of view will always be fraught with some degree of anthropomorphism. But, it still provides a solidly imaginative narrative that entertains while also educating about broad ecological principles and addressing themes of life, politics, and society.

More on the Semiosis series can be found at Burke’s website. The third novel, Usurpation, is not planned for until 2024. Until then, Tor Books is releasing an unrelated novel by Burke this year, Immunity Index. Given that I’m a microbiologist I’m very excited to read this one, though I fear I might be harsher in reactions than I was to transgressions of botany in the Semiosis series! Regardless, I hope to have a review of Immunity Index out to coincide with its release in May.


IT CAME FROM THE MULTIPLEX: 80s MIDNIGHT CHILLERS Edited by Joshua Viola

It Came from the Multiplex: 80s Midnight Chillers
Edited By Joshua Viola
Hex Publishers — September 2020
ISBN: 9781733917759
— Paperback — 316 pp.


Inherently as an anthology, It Came from the Multiplex embodies variety not just in its contributors, but in the style, tone, and depth of its stories. Even when looking at their shared genre of horror or theme of 80s movie nostalgia, the fourteen offerings vary considerably in their approach to those molds. Readers are likely to approach the collection through the lens of their expectations, perhaps based on the excellent B-horror-VHS-inspired cover art, or recognition of a handful of contributing authors. Readers might interpret the variation in stories they discover, and distances from their expectations, as indicative of differing ‘quality’.

I tend to enjoy a pretty wide-range of fiction and styles, but still of course have things I don’t care for. I found It Came from the Multiplex to be rather consistent in quality. The majority of stories are good, there are a handful of excellent ones that stood out to my preferences. And there were a few that I liked less. If you are a very particular reader, and are looking for one or two ‘kinds’ of horror stories (or only particular approaches to the thematic prompt), there might be a lot less for you here to enjoy. If you are a general fan of horror short fiction, you should be satisfied with a spectrum of enjoyable reads. If, like me, you are a sucker for cult horror movies and metafiction about them on top of that general interest, you should love the hell out of a good percentage of the offerings, well exceeding the price of admission.

Before I get to comments on each of the individual stories in the collection, two additional comments about the art. Not only does the cover fit well, but stories are also accompanied by illustrations. Growing up with a horror diet of Edward Gorey art in John Bellairs’ novels and Stephen Gammell drawings in Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, spooktacular images are almost an essential element for me to really dig into a horror tale. Readers of an ebook edition of this might miss out on this, but a repeating cartoon of a creature appears in the header of each verso page. Subtle differences between them create animated tentacle waving as readers flip through the pages. While certainly not a huge deal, it is a whimsical little addition.

On to the stories!

“Alien Parasites from Outer Space” by Warren Hammond An enjoyable lead story that immediately brought to mind plots and spirit of SF/horror B-movies in the Body Snatchers vein. Set in a drive-in theater with a group of teenagers, the story didn’t really fit into the 1980’s theme so much as the 1970’s, though my memory only really goes back to the mid to latter 80’s for experience.

“Return of the Alien Parasites from Outer Space” by Angie Hodapp Consistent with the tendency of sequels to not be quite as good as their original offering. This directly continues the events from the first story, and the overall tone stays consistent. But, the story went into directions completely different from what I had in mind after finishing the first. The danger of a sequel, I liked my version better, even though this was technically good.

“Negative Creep” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro After two relatively light-hearted, tongue-in-cheek entries things go more creepy with a story that we see from the start won’t go well. Through flashback we learn of a supernatural entity stalking a group of teen cinephiles. As some of them wind up dead, the survivors try to figure out what draws the force’s attraction. One of my favorite stories in the collection, this contains a host of 80s references from music to film, but also has depth beneath it all, themes on the growing culture of noise and distractions, and silence.

“Helluloid” by Dayton Ward & Kevin Dilmore Another story with a group of teenage characters, this time featuring a self-described necromancer who conducts a summoning ceremony in an old movie theater basement with her boyfriend and others. You can guess how things will go. Even if predictable it’s an enjoyable read.

“Rise, Ye Vermin!” by Betty Rocksteady A welcome addition of a female voice in a collection that like the 80s skews far too much toward the male point-of-view. The villain of the story, a theater owner, actually reminds me a lot of a John Bellairs villain, but here those standing against him are a pair of employees who have been trying to keep their lesbian relationship a secret from the close-minded town. Rocksteady does shock and gore well, and this story is no exception, another standout.

“The Cronenberg Concerto” by Keith Ferrell Another standout selection of the collection follows here, by an author who It Came from the Multiplex honors at its start with a dedication in memorial. The first of what I would characterize as disturbing horror stories in the collection, building from the previous. As the title indicates, the plot involves a fan of the body-horror films of David Cronenberg. The creepiness builds as the reader realizes what is happening here, and Ferrell accomplishes this through some of the most ‘literary’ crafting of sentences and voice in the collection.

“Creature Feature” by Gary Jonas Imagination reins in this entry, both from the author in crafting it and within the minds of the protagonist and the readers, as one tries to guess what horrific secrets lie behind a curtain. A man is tasked with making precisely timed deliveries to a theater that appears closed to the public, yet constantly showing footage to an unknown audience. His rules: Never be late. Don’t ask too many questions. His curiosity and friendliness with the young woman working there draw him into discoveries.

“Invisible” by Mario Acevedo As with Ferrell’s story, one that makes the reader squirm by seeing through the eyes of a disturbed character, a serial killer at a drive-in. There are several twists in this one, but despite them I could always tell where things were going. It still works in achieving its effect at bringing the horror to you.

“Screen Haunt” by Orrin Grey A young woman writes and directs a film inspired by a missing sister. Melancholy and disturbing, it reminded me a lot of the types of stories in another movie-themed collection I read, Lost Films from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. Most of the stories in the collection don’t fit into Halloween time when I actually read this collection, but this one sure does, with the creepiness of costumes at the fore.

“The Devil’s Reel” by Sean Eads & Joshua Viola Parents at a Baptist Church don’t want their children to be attending a lock-in movie night at the local theater where they might watch questionable material. But the new theater owner talks them into it with the wholesome movies he promises to show. Only he lies. Oppressive religion is a staple of horror, I’d even say a cliche. Here at least it is turned a bit in that they are proven right to suspect. I guess this is really a story that goes in the direction of: what if movies really are Satan trying to corrupt the youth?

“On the Rocks” by K. Nicole Davis Two couples settle in for an outdoor summer showing of The Howling in a natural amphitheater. The sun goes down and a full moon rises for the start of the show. Then mayhem. A shorter entry that doesn’t aspire to too much, but ends with a perfect final sentence.

“Coming Attractions” by Stephen Graham Jones Teenagers sneak into a supposedly haunted theater and end up investigating what lies behind panels in a men’s room that was remodeled when putting in urinals to replace the previous, more communal set-up. Creepy terror awaits. I usually love Jones’ work. This is good, but didn’t stand out to me compared to some of the others after one read.

“Late Sleepers” by Steve Rasnic Tem Another big name author in horror, I’ve liked much of the short fiction I’ve read by Tem, but the one novel I’ve read I found simply okay. This one is great. Home for Thanksgiving, a college student wakes at night after being at odds with his family, now feeling not quite right, with a hazy memory. Going out for air he finds himself at the local small theater, showing weird clip montages and an independent feature for those who can’t sleep – all the way until dawn. Tem perfectly captureslate night eerieness and the paradoxical relief and discomfort that the genre can offer.

“Special Makeup” by Kevin J. Anderson Probably the most widely recognized name among contributors to this collection, this story seemed to fit least into the overall theme – and decade. To boot, I couldn’t find anything particularly remarkable about it. An unfortunate end to the shows.

It Came from the Multiplex also features: Foreward by Bret & Jeanni Smith, Introduction by Paul Campion, Listing of Cast and Crew, and Acknowledgments. Cover by AJ Nazzaro. Story illustrations by Xander Smith and Header Art by Aaron Lovett


FIRST GEAR by Patricia C. Lee

First Gear
(Sadie Hawkins Mystery Book 1)
By Patricia C. Lee
Phoenix Literary Publishing — August 2020
ASIN: B08CCDKDMN
— eBook


If you are looking for one last relaxing ‘beach read’ as the summer winds down, an enjoyable mystery/thriller I’d recommend would be First Gear, a quick escape from pandemic-driven anxiety with a plucky protagonist and compelling supporting supporting characters. Previous author of a paranormal romance series, Patricia C. Lee here turns to a mystery series featuring Sadie Hawkins, a recently divorced Texan who has inherited her uncle’s logistics company. In contrast to her short stature, Sadie exudes an air of fierce power. Moving on in her personal life while trying to make a success of her business, she meets challenges with her enterprising and tenacious nature.

Desperate to develop her business, Sadie accepts a job moving a collection of antiquities, including a mummy, despite the suspicious details of the job. The client needs the transfer done immediately, and is willing to pay extra. With the documentation looking legit, Sadie accepts. However, arriving at the delivery destination at night, she finds no one there to accept delivery. As she waits, an assailant attacks her, and she later awakens to find the cargo stolen and a fresh corpse replacing the mummy. With the police suspecting her of theft and murder, and her client mysteriously vanished, Sadie begins investigating what has occurred to save herself and her business.

I’m unclear why Lee would name her series protagonist Sadie Hawkins. Its familiarity feels distracting, and it gives the present-day story a clashingly archaic feel. I knew the name in context of a dance, but had no concept of what it was, or why it was so named. Wikipedia helped, but I still don’t see how the reference even symbolically relates to the character. Beyond her name, I adored everything else about Sadie. She isn’t trained in investigation or law, but finds herself in a situation where she must solve a crime through her inherent skills and drive. Though tough and independent, she is hardly perfect. She makes some questionable choices and errors, and at times she needs help from her friend Tanya, her ex-husband (who she doest still speak with), or new acquaintances she meets.

There are a few points in the novel where Lee writes something that is inaccurate. The first I noticed is when a line confuses The Munsters and The Addams Family. At another point an idiom incorrectly uses the wrong homonym. The thing is, being written from Sadie’s point of view, I don’t know if these are authorial errors, or an indication of Sadie’s character. Even if the former, it ends up working splendidly well, because it makes Sadie seem so lovably sincere and passionate about her observations, even if they aren’t technically precise. That sums up Sadie so well.

The mystery aspect of the plot takes several chapters to really get set up, and even after the crime, the mystery and action doesn’t take up the fore quite as much as Sadie’s character development and the introduction of other characters. The crime is more of a backdrop for getting to know protagonist and cast. This may be an issue for those that care more about figuring out plot clues and details in the mystery genre, but those that accept the crime element as a simple backdrop shouldn’t be bothered.

Lee clearly introduces the reader to a host of secondary characters as a way of establishing relationships and plot points for future entries in the series. I thought that decision works fine here, it makes me want to read more about them, such as a radio host (potential love interest?) that Sadie calls into for contact/comfort as she sits alone at the delivery spot with a no-show client. However, the use of all these secondary characters in each volume of the series would be excessive, and Lee could consider both abandoning some, or more slowly adding others in the future.

Very often mystery series will succeed based on some ineffable quality of just ‘clicking’ with a reader, while another – perhaps just as competently written – will fail. I think there are ways that Lee can still greatly improve her Sadie Hawkins series to make it stand out more and be balanced between all elements one might look for in a mystery novel. Yet, First Gear represents an ideal novel to test out if you are looking for this genre of light read. You can get through it in a couple/few sittings, and can determine even sooner if it is a series you want to get into, right from its beginning.

I received this not expecting anything special, even potentially finding it poor. Instead, I enjoyed two evenings of pleasant reading while at a lake cottage on vacation, and would look forward to reading more of the series.


THE DARK ABOVE by Jeremy Finley

The Dark Above
(William Chance & Lynn Roseworth Book 2)
By Jeremy Finley
St. Martin’s Press — July 2019
ISBN: 9781250147288
324 Pages — Hardcover


Sequel to “The Darkest Time of Night”, “The Dark Above” continues to answer questions from the first book while expanding the cast of characters and venturing further into the SF/paranormal. I wouldn’t recommend starting here if you haven’t read Finley’s debut novel. However, the two novels make for a satisfying whole and quick enough read, so starting now wouldn’t require much commitment beyond the norm.

For those who haven’t read “The Darkest Time of Night”, it begins with the disappearance of William, the seven-year-old grandson of a US Senator and his wife Lynn. With William at the time of his disappearance is his brother, who now in shock only speaks four words of what occurred in the woods between their house and their grandparent’s: “The lights took him.”

These words, along with circumstances and location of William’s vanishing lead Lynn to bittersweet and fearful memories from her past – taboos from her childhood growing up beside the woods, and work she did as a young wife as secretary for a secretive professor in the astronomy department at the University of Illinois. A past where she became involved with a group investigating reports of UFOs and alien abductions, stories that time and again spoke of beams of light.

Starting much like a conventional crime mystery / political thriller, “The Darkest Time of Night” soon reveals conspiracies and sci-fi elements strongly reminiscent of the The X-Files, a relation that the novel even references. “The Dark Above” continues that trend, with development of the SF themes into a further paranormal realm. In publicity and reviews, some have also referenced Stranger Things for comparison to this series. Yet, similarities to that more recent show go no further than use of ‘government conspiracy’ and characters with powers. Both also were in The X-Files though, and the tone of these novels remain closer to that than any of the real themes/setting of Stranger Things.

“The Dark Above” begins years following William’s recovery by his grandmother Lynn and her friend Roxy at the close of the first book. Now grown up, William still struggles to come to grips with his experiences, the missing memories, and the guarded, public revelations his grandmother has made amid remaining secrets and uncertainties. Failing to return to college, William has run off to escape media attention and find some distance from his family. But, he finds himself unable to run from nightmares, and knowing the dangers he represents according to what Lynn has learned.

Events soon expose William back to the world and into the sights of media, hostile government agents, UFO/alien conspiracy believers, and the clandestine group that his grandmother once worked for long ago. Other select individuals returned by the aliens begin to show signs of activation, unleashing global calamities. As William flees danger and tries to discern who he can trust, his connections to the others who have been changed by the aliens grows stronger, leading them together.

In the meantime, Lynn and Roxy want to find and help William, but Lynn’s daugher (William’s aunt), who has taken her father’s seat in the Senate places her in uneasy alliance with the government agencies who want to control William at any cost.

“The Dark Above” thus ends up reading like a Koontz-like thriller with fast moving action and intrigue alternating between the points-of-view of William, his grandmother, and his aunt. A key strength of the first novel was featuring a pair of elderly women as the main protagonists. While they are not lost here, the dominance of William in this half of the story removes that. Nonetheless, change can be nice, and the switch to a grown up William helps keep the schtick of Lynn/Roxy from getting worn.

The twists and turns as multiple groups hunt William works well, with him not clear if any of them are telling him the truth, lies, or somewhere in between. Things begin to slow, however, as William discovers the group that controlled Lynn’s work in the past. In one chapter, through a series of letters in the group’s possession, both William and the reader learn the facts behind the past, going back to his great-grandparents and Lynn’s childhood that briefly appeared in the prologue to the first book.

“The Dark Above” thus fills all the unresolved questions set up from the start of the book, and while it’s ending implies that more books could follow, it still nicely wraps the series up to satisfaction as a cohesive pair. I enjoyed, but didn’t particularly love “The Darkest Time of Night”. With the expanded cast and increased action/pace of “The Dark Above”, I actually prefer the sequel a little more. However, these novels really sit best together as a sum greater than their isolated parts.

The science part of the SF in the second novel becomes utterly ridiculous, so much that it might be better to call this fantasy with aliens. I was able to just suspend disbelief and enjoy the silliness of the plot and the attempts to ‘explain’ things paranormal by throwing in nonsensical statements about DNA and genetics. Partially this is because I’m used to doing this already as a fan of The X-Files. It’s also because there are other aspects to the novel I appreciate, such as its turn toward the apocalyptic genre, where the key people returned by the aliens serve as symbolic Four Horsemen.

Together, “The Darkest Time of Night” and “The Dark Above” end up being an amalgam of popcorn genres, from drive-in ’50’s UFO flicks to Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Fans of these kinds of genre elements looking for a thriller with some engaging characters and surprises – even amid the very cliched realm of UFO/alien lit – should enjoy these.


LAST ONES LEFT ALIVE by Sarah Davis-Goff

Last Ones Left Alive
By Sarah Davis-Goff
Flatiron Books — January 2019
ISBN: 9781250235220
288 Pages — Hardback


A friend and I have a disagreement each time The Road comes up in conversation. I find the novel overly sparse and dull, and its literary accolades frustrate me given that genre has done the same themes well for years (albeit also poorly). My friend explains that both the novel and movie resonate with him as a father, and I concede that’s a connection I wouldn’t have.

Last Ones Left Alive represents an opposite of The Road in a couple of respects. Davis-Goff employs a feminist focus where McCarthy wrote of masculinity, and she reverses the parent-child relationship and point-of-view so that it is the younger generation bearing the responsibility of care. For whatever reasons, although being male myself, I found Last Ones Left Alive‘s take on the post-apocalyptic setting and characters for more relatable and interesting.

Orpen has grown up living in relative isolation on an island off the coast of Ireland with her mother, Mam, and Mam’s partner Maeve. There are no reasons to travel off the island, and many reasons not to. Civilization has collapsed and zombie-like monsters called skrake prowl about, savage remnants of what used to be human. Mam and Maeve have raised Orpen to defend herself, but also to be extremely wary of both the unnatural skrake and natural dangers, including what the human male could present to a young woman.

Orpen has had no choice but to leave the island in search of survivors on the mainland, in the fabled Phoenix City, a bastion of peace protected by a class of warrior women called Banshees. As the novel begins, Orpen trudges on blistered feet, pushing Maeve in a wheel barrow, a dog at their side:

Around us the landscape changes constantly. The road shifts beneath me, twists and slopes, and every time I look up, the world presents me with something new and I feel fresh too. Despite myself, despite everything. The world ended a long time ago, but it is still beautiful.

We are moving.

Looking at her lying slumped in the barrow makes my chest feel like it’s collapsing in on itself. She is so small- “scrawny” is the word. She never used to be small. I look away, and twenty paces later I’m at it again, watching the closed-up face with the sweaty sheen.

We move. We rest again. The dog beside us, the nails on his paws clacking against the road. I can feel the hesitation off him. He’s asking me do I know what I’m doing and don’t I want to go home.

I do, I tell him. But I can’t.

Maeve’s lined skin is being burned by the sun underneath its grayness. I take off my hat and put it on her lightly, so most of her face is in shadow. I can pretend she’s asleep. I stop again and rearrange her so she’s facing forward, facing into whatever’s coming at us. She’d feel better that way. I feel better. Maeve wasn’t one for looking too often at me anyway, unless for a fight.

I’ve a new pain, then, the sun pounding down on one stop at the top of my forehead.

We move. My fear so big, so palpable, that it could be an animal walking beside us. I try to make friends with it.

pp. 2 – 3

Davis-Goff’s writing thus moves fluidly, a mixture of hopeful, imaginative descriptions punctuated with short, hard truths. She gives Orpen a voice of utter exhaustion, yet propped up from despair through resilience. Through the clouds of melancholy and fear poke shines of her faith and wonderment.

A short novel, Last Ones Left Alive has the feel of a perfect novella, though I don’t know its word count for where it technically falls. The pace starts off wonderfully, immersing the reader in Orpen’s world amid a struggle to figure out precisely what is going on. After a short time, action breaks out, and soon Orpen meets other humans. Things slow after the initial start, as Davis-Goff takes us both deeper into Orpen’s character and provides flashbacks into her life before on the island with Mam and Maeve. Falling onto the literary side of things, the novel is never really about action, and the skrake play minor roles in comparison to the focus on Orpen’s maturation and discoveries.

Last Ones Left Alive is a coming-of-age tale about a young girl’s self realization, but also evolving from what she has internalized from parental instruction to form her own perceptions of the world in its beauties and dangers. Her guardians and protectors lost, she rapidly learns to be this herself, for self and others.

Only one male character appears in Last Ones Left Alive, one of the people Orpen encounters while on her journey to Phoenix City. Based on what she has been taught of men, she nearly kills the man upon meeting him in order to protect herself, little different from if she ran into a skrake. However, the behaviors of the man soon show her the faultiness of a simple anti-male perspective. Unlike skrake, humanity is complex.

The novel ends with many questions unresolved, several possible futures for the fate of Orpen, secondary characters, and the role of the Banshees. While I was happy with the ending, I imagine some readers wanting more closure and answers could be disappointed. I do not know if a sequel is planned, but one could easily work. Though satisfied with where things sit, I would certainly not turn down more.


UNWELCOME BODIES by Jennifer Pelland

Unwelcome Bodies
By Jennifer Pelland
Apex Book Company — February 2008
ISBN: 9780978867683
247 Pages — Paperback


This impressive debut collection from a Nebula-nominated author features enough moments of stunning brilliance to make a reader yearn for more of Pelland’s imaginative writing. Over the last decade Apex published her novel, Machine, in 2012, but no further collections of her promising short work have appeared. Until that changes, if you are unfamiliar with the unsettling plots that she writes in a beautifully flowing prose, you should check out Unwelcome Bodies.

Each of the stories in the collection is accompanied by a short note discussing the seeds of its creation, usually a random ‘what-if?’ thought that Pelland runs with to develop into a character-driven story, often featuring a female protagonist. The collection dwells among the thematically dark, with a current of personal introspection running throughout. Characters struggle to discover themselves, to define themselves, set against worlds that highlight their imperfections, situations that entrap them with limitations.

The collection begins strongly, with two stories that subverted my expectations, after starting with plots that seemed familiar. “For the Plague Thereof Was Exceeding Great” is an alternate history where mutations in HIV have enhanced its transmissibility and lethality, resulting in a strain that is almost guaranteed to pass through the air or general contact. The point of view of two women, who will soon come into contact, provide two societal reactions to the pandemic. Here, Pelland portrays the power of mortal fear and the actions that people can be driven to when faced with horrible disease. The story at first seems to be a run-of-the-mill post-apocalyptic story of disease, but Pelland takes it through interesting angles within the confines of her characters. She produces something horrific, but also with undertones of humanity and compassion. This quality ends up permeating all of her work here.

The second story in the collection, “Big Sister/Little Sister” ended up being one of my favorites. It shocks and disturbs, while also still leaving the reader with tremendous empathy for the tale’s protagonist, despite her abhorred actions. Not all of Pelland’s stories include monsters, but even here with the most evil, there is something there broken and sad that the reader can see in pity, and a realization that we all have a bit of similar injury in ourselves.

The third story, “Immortal Sin”, led me to begin worrying that Pelland’s horror (like Stephen King’s) would be largely drawn from very negative experiences with religion. (The first story on HIV features a religious cult.) Taken on its own, this tale is actually a great little work of theological musing, portraying a disturbed man with a simplistic view of absolution. The irony of the ending is fantastic. Thankfully the remainder of the tales did end up showing that Pelland was not relying on cliches of extreme religious fervor as her sole horror (or speculative) fuel.

Later stories in the collection demonstrate that Pelland has a wildly inventive mind, that while going toward the dark side of things, isn’t always going to produce something that one might classify as ‘horror’. With “Last Bus” she even provides a touch of sweetness. Speculative elements of science fiction also feature into several of the tales, particularly the world of “Brushstrokes”, a longer story featuring world building that could easily form the foundation for deeper exploration. Depicting a dystopic, caste-separated society of humans who have been taken from Earth, it focuses on a forbidden romance between two men of different castes.

“Captive Girl” and “The Last Stand of the Elephant Man” might easily be episodes of The Twilight Zone, or Black Mirror, and both stories rank with my favorites in the collection. The first tells the story of a woman whose body has been cybernetically connected since childhood to serve as a monitoring system for possible alien attack. The story tackles issues such as disability, body image, power differentials in relationships, exploitation, and objectification all while telling a heartfelt tale of basic human emotions: needing to be loved, a desire to sacrifice or serve, devoted affection. These can be good, but taken to extremes they can step into the horrific. The second story – a novella – flips the disfigured ‘Elephant Man’ of history into a future Earth where he is traded a ‘normal’ body so that his can be used by the wealthy in a culture where disfigurement is a la mode, even a fetish. The irony in this tale is superb, and it paints a poignant picture of what society considers ‘beautiful’ through the ages, and the differences between what selfishness and human compassion might engender.

I could go on and write more about each specific story in the collection – or even more words about the ones already mentioned. But suffice it to say I loved the collection with the exception of “The Call”, which even the author seems to dismiss in her notes on the story, as an experiment on second-person written entirely in questions that she now never will have to want to do again.

Fans of horror, or even just simple fiction on the darker side will find much to love in Unwelcome Bodies. The stories almost all contain something uncanny and discomforting, yet Pelland uniformly portrays all of her characters with compassion, writing in a haunting prose that lingers sweetly through any fears.


This review is part of the Apex Book Company back catalog blog tour, all through the month of September 2019.

They are offering 25% off everything in the Apex store all month long with discount code SEPTEMBER. So order now to support a great company and discover more of their catalog.

NEXHUMAN by Francesco Verso

Nexhuman
By Francesco Verso
Translated by Sally McCorry
Apex Book Company — August 2018
ISBN: 9781937009656
228 Pages — Paperback


The discarded detritus of human civilization has overwhelmed the near future Earth, submerging society in kipple junk that many turn to scavenging for survival. This dystopic landscape of garbage has triggered further ecological misbalance, cultivating new endemic pathogens to menace humanity. Coupled with technological advances in bodily transformation and the expansion of immersive artificial realities, people are left disconnected from the natural world, and emotionally from one another.

Teenage Peter Payne lives with his mother and elder brother Charlie, but spends his time out working for Charlie by scavenging among the kipple, and running with The Dead Bones, a gang led by Charlie. Although his elder brother’s presence dominates his life, Peter doesn’t look up to Charlie with much respect. Sibling rivalry and Charlie’s abuse of Peter for personal gain span years, back to a horrific accident that left Peter with artificial limbs.

Whereas Charlie and other members of The Dead Bones look to the broken world and respond with further cruelty, Peter’s temperament eyes the world seeing the flashes of beauty that still remain, including a young woman, named Alba, who treats Peter with smiles, conversation, and a yearned-for general kindness that is otherwise absent from his existence.

However, one day that small spot of beauty in Peter’s life is savagely torn apart when Peter witnesses The Dead Bones take Alva and rip her into pieces. Peter realizes that Alba is a nexhuman, an advanced artificial human body that has had a human consciousness uploaded. Charlie and his gang have taken the one spot of beauty in Peter’s life to use for violent, carnal thrills, and ultimately profit from the sale of Alba’s parts. Society doesn’t consider nexhumans as really alive, and thus there is no murder, but Peter cannot see how this brutality could be any less heinous.

Peter sets out to recover Alba’s parts with the dream of restoring her to consciousness and life, to then profess his love and devotion to her. However this obsession places him squarely against his brother, alienates him from his mother and friends, and puts him at risk of more bodily harm.

Francesco Verso’s Nexhuman is thus a melange of Frankenstein and transhumanist cyberpunk, adopting the term kipple from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick. The plot is relatively straightforward, but the short length of the novel is packed with grand ideas of biology, transhumanism, consummerism, and human interactions. Sally McCorry’s translation of Verso’s Italian into English flows lyrically and brightly even through passages of dark violence to contrast with the dim, dank rubbish of the novel’s setting.

As a piece of speculative fiction set in the near future, Nexhuman contains both scientific and technological details to enrich the story. As a microbiologist I was ecstatic to see microbes mentioned repeatedly, where changes in the microbial communities that form the base of all life end up effecting the human characters in significant ways. While praising this inclusion I have to also criticize the errors in some of those details though. The text sadly conflates different groups of microbes: protists, bacteria, viruses, etc. To what degree the confusion between a bacteria and a virus here (for example) is due to translation or in the original I’m uncertain. But even with those errors I’m glad the subject is there, with changes in other organisms highlighted alongside the changes in human biology that the Nexhuman setting provides.

The overarching theme of transcendence amidst global ecological changes sits central to all aspects of Nexhuman. The increasing separation of humanity from the natural world and traditional human relationships drives people further into existences of distance and artifice. The ultimate expression of this is, of course, the uploading of a mind into the nexhuman form to live past death. To overcome that defining natural relationship of mortal fate. How diverged from the human body can one be while remaining ‘human’? Can virtual relationships supplant the absence of physical ones? Can existence in the world still proceed when no longer balanced with the rest of ecology? Can we transcend the biological when that foundational ecology it is built upon breaks apart under the weight of human impact?

Verso writes his characters dealing with these questions in largely non-judgmental strokes, leaving it up to the reader to see a mixture of both the promisingly good and disturbingly bad in Peter, secondary characters, or the world of the novel in general. There is much nobility in Peter, yet his obsession over Alba is also disturbingly intense and possessive, bearing little consideration over whether she would actually be grateful for his help, have any romantic feelings for him, etc.

Peter’s relationship (or really non-relationship) with Alba thereby illustrates the separation that has occurred between people in Nexhuman. Individuals have a harder time understanding both the nature of themselves, and of the Other. Peter defines Alba solely through his own emotions and desires. A nexhuman woman who simply smiled and is kindly polite to him is now an object of sexual obsession, someone who he imagines with be beholden to him when he ‘saves’ her. The lack of emotional interaction between people has left everyone, even Peter, with an ability to look past selfish considerations. Though he occasionally wonders if Alba would stay with him or reject him were he able to restore her body to life, Peter never fully seems capable of looking at her realistically as someone apart from his desires.

The thematic depth and elegant prose of Nexhuman make it a powerful and throught-provoking read that will also entertain without requiring a large time commitment. I originally picked up a copy of this on Rachel Cordasco’s recommendation (Speculative Fiction in Translation), as a possible text to use in a Biology in Fiction course I teach. With all the discussion this book could provoke, I certainly intend to use it. I hope you’ll check it out too if you’re intrigued.


This review is part of the Apex Book Company back catalog blog tour, all through the month of September 2019. Look for one more review of an Apex title here later this month.

In the meantime, they are offering 25% off everything in the Apex store all month long with discount code SEPTEMBER. So order now to support a great company and discover more of their catalog.

THE KRAKEN SEA by

The Kraken Sea
By E. Catherine Tobler
Apex Book Company — June 2016
ISBN: 1937009408
125 Pages — Paperback


From its beginning, Tobler’s The Kraken Sea percolates with atmospheric prose, establishing a lusciously murky fantasy that its cover promises in vivid, dark tones. Although featuring touches of the horror genre, the novella taxonomically fits somewhere between dark fantasy and ‘weird fiction’. But at its core rests the familiar plot and themes of a mainstream coming-of-age tale, a protagonist in search of discovering – and accepting – themselves.

Jackson is a fifteen year old orphan in the care of nuns and their overseeing priests in a late nineteenth century New York hospital. But Jackson is different than the other orphans there; a monstrous nature lies beneath his surface, ready to break forth when he loses control. Tentacles undulate inside him, and scales form upon his skin. Aside from Sister Jerome Grace, others look at him with uncertainty and fear, leaving Jackson unwanted and ashamed.

But this changes when the sisters bring Jackson to a train enshrouded in smoke and steam, where they explain that he has been picked to live with someone across the country in San Francisco. A woman named Cressida owns and runs an entertainment establishment there named Macquarie’s, and she has been searching for a boy with unique characteristics. A boy like Jackson.

Arriving at Macquarie’s, Jackson discovers a foreboding world of magic and cut-throat business rivalries. Bronze lions guard the entrance to consume anyone they deem unworthy, physical spaces within shift, and a shadow-eating kraken lurks in the basement depths. Everywhere, secrets abide for Jackson to discover, including those of his origin, Cressida’s intentions, and the allegiances of Mae, a mysteriously attractive lion-tamer from a rival gang.

Some themes of The Kraken Sea, and the names of certain characters, directly reference the Greek mythology of the Moirai, AKA the three Fates. I’m not particularly well-read in classical mythology and in general find it overstuffed with confusing complexity, like comic universes. Though the novella uses this mythology as a defining aspect, it isn’t the only stone Tobler includes in her foundation for the story. She balances that Greek myth with elements of Lovecraft, steampunk, and general YA literature to create a nice blend that never goes too far down one road.

Although I don’t favor the novella length in general and I found this did drag a bit in its middle I still enjoyed the overall mystery and adventure of this. Above all, the weird, dark atmosphere of the text is superb. Tobler’s writing is beautiful, her words richly evocative of the magically strange world The Kraken Sea is set in. Cressida, with the live fox she wears around her neck, represents a powerful, memorable character who steals scenes and the imagination.

I think I would love this even more were it developed into a full-fledged novel, but it still serves as an entertaining read filled with intoxicating language and imagery that readers of dark fantasy will appreciate.


This review is part of the Apex Book Company back catalog blog tour, all through the month of September 2019. Look for reviews of other Apex titles in the upcoming weeks.

In the meantime, they are offering 25% off everything in the Apex store all month long with discount code SEPTEMBER. So order now to support a great company and discover more of their catalog.

THE MURDER BOOK by Lissa Marie Redmond

The Murder Book
(Cold Case Investigation #2)
By Lissa Marie Redmond
Midnight Ink — February 2019
ISBN: 9780738754277
304 Pages — Paperback


An unknown assailant stabs cold-case detective Lauren Riley at her desk late one night as she works alone in a Buffalo, NY Police Department. Barely surviving, and awakening in the hospital, she remembers only one clear detail of the man who attacked: he wore department issued uniform boots. Lauren soon learns the motive for the attempted murder by one of the department’s own. The cold-case murder book, the paper and photographic trails of outstanding murder investigations, is gone. Though her partner Shane Reese tries to ensure she recovers from near death, Riley instead becomes intent on discovering who assaulted her, and why they needed the murder book so badly. Discovery of a recent anonymous phone call to a now-defunct police hotline leads Riley to retired detective Charlie Daley to help track down a frightened witness who may have reawakened secrets thought covered up long ago.

I discovered The Murder Book, second in Lissa Marie Redmond’s Cold Case Investigation series, after happening upon the author at a signing at Barnes & Nobel. I’m always hesitant to start a new series, but I’m also one to welcome kismet and give support to a local author when it seems like a book I might enjoy. Often it ends up being mediocre, but I happily tore through The Murder Book and have now ordered the first novel in the series. 

There’s no shortage of mystery series out there, so the successful ones need to have something unique to set themselves apart, some sort of charm to endear themselves to readers. Most often authors accomplish this with iconic characters or setting, building a recipe that offers the familiarity of routine, spiced with something quirky or exotic. They also must offer entertaining stand-alone stories that still propel longer character arcs and an expansion of the cast and scenery. During this the writer needs to somehow pull off the trick of allowing their heroes and villains to develop, but without the essential nature of those characters to be altered.

Redmond’s professional background imparts the first special quality to her series. As a retired cold-case-homicide detective, Redmond has the expertise to infuse her plot and dialogue with details of authenticity. Set in Buffalo, the series contains local references that some readers might also appreciate. This aspect initially attracted me to wanting to read it, but I soon realized most of the references fall in the Southtowns. It might as well have been set in Boston, like a Spenser novel, for the lack of the familiarity I have with anything down there. Nevertheless, these details still provide a lived-in atmosphere to the setting that mystery series are known for.

Though it may be simplest to categorize the novel in the ‘mystery’ genre, The Murder Book isn’t the kind of story where the reader should search for clues to figure out ‘who done it’. Instead it could be more precisely characterized as a police procedural, about the investigative steps taken by Riley and her associates to bring her attacker to justice and resolve the old case that instigated the theft and her attack.

Like a procedure, Redmond writes with an instinctive, logical style that forms a well-crafted linear plot built from strings of revealed facts. While the identity of her attacker is at first unknown, Riley discovers his identity, and the gist of his motive, with relative ease. Rather than through the thrill of following that mystery, reader captivation arises through the intricacies of what Riley does once armed with her knowledge, the answer to those mysteries. Riley and her associates may know the truth, but that is far from sufficient to bring charges, close a case, or deliver justice to victims. The focus of this story is on how Riley and her associates can find a way to get the evidence they needed to prove who has stabbed her, and why it was done. One might think that the details of closing a case could get boring, but Redmond keeps the procedural aspects engaging by keeping the dangers to Riley ever-present. Knowing the identity of the person who stabbed her doesn’t help her much if they remain free and a threat to her. If anything, the tension gets worse as Riley knows more, but still feels vulnerable. Seeing how she overcomes that to outsmart the criminals and overturn power differentials fueled my enjoyment of The Murder Book

Starting with Riley, a cast of complex, fleshed-out characters makes Redmond’s job of holding reader interest easier too. On top of being at physical risk from her job, Riley also has a history of dealing with troubles in her personal relationships. Frustrated with herself over her attraction to the wrong men, Riley has an ex-husband who still induces sexual tension, and an abusive ex-fiancé. Yet, with the support of her daughter and other family members, Riley keeps finding an inner strength and stubbornness to keep going, unapologetically, to meet her challenges and surpass them. A good male support in her life is her devoted partner Reese, and the natural banter that flows between them makes their platonic relationship a big strength of the series. You actually get the sense that Reese has his own personal faults, and isn’t an ideal guy for a romantic relationship either, consistent with Riley’s attraction to, or connection with, a certain kind of guy – even if just in friendship.

Daley, the retired detective also provides a nice addition to The Murder Book, a voice of age and experience who is able to connect Riley and Reese to parts of Buffalo that normally keep distance from the police. I’m hoping we’ll see more of this character in the future, his maturity and realism allow a great perspective, connecting the detectives to not just elements of the criminal underbelly of the city, but also to economically marginalized communities who may fear police for very good reason. This latter theme ends up being a major component of the plot, and Redmond deals with it extremely effectively.   

However, the most fascinating character for me is David Spencer, a client of Lauren Riley’s side-job, whose story picks up from the main plot thread of the first book of the series. Though she began defending him, Riley is now convinced that Spencer has gotten away from murder. Though she has parted ways from her former client, he continues to appear in her life, as if taunting the truth about him that she knows. Dangerous and intelligent, Spencer represents something Riley shouldn’t want anything more to do with. But, his put-on charm and his perseverance at playing a sick game nonetheless draws her attention back in, holding hope that she might get proof of crimes that can put him away.

Even though I haven’t yet read the first novel of the series (A Cold Day in Hell) that unfolds this history between Riley and Spencer, I had no problem picking up on its highlights in relation to the main and sub-plots of The Murder Book. Moreover, it hasn’t detracted me from wanting to still read the first book, even knowing where it goes. Spencer represents a perfect series-long antagonist who will continue to plague Riley & Reese (and please readers) through future installments with his wicked genius. A Means to an End, the third book in Redmond’s Cold Case Investigations series comes out in September, but there is still plenty of time to dig into either of the other two meanwhile.