LURE by Tim McGregor

Lure
By Tim McGregor
Tenebrous Press — 18th July 2022
ISBN: 9781737982302
— Paperback — 170 pp.


Tim McGregor has quite a knack for historical/folk horror that mercilessly goes for the gut. Last year I had the chance to read and review his brilliant novel Hearts Strange and Dreadful. And so I jumped at the chance to check out this novella. Both stories feature strong, evocative writing and slow-building dread to depict a community and family unraveling, and both share feminist themes of female oppression by society and the horrific, dark consequences of this as the women discover retributive empowerment. It continues to be a fitting moral for the day.

Lure is set in Torgrimsvaera, a shabby fishing village on the shores of a fictional land, isolated from the surrounding land by the unforgiven sea and an impenetrable ring of mountains. Atop a hill looking out over the sea sits the village chapel. Within, strung from the ceiling dangles the skeletal remains of a sea monster, a deity-like creature slain in village legends of yore. Fifteen year old Kaspar Lensman, the son of the village preacher gazes at in wonder, questioning what may be truth or fiction, but unable to dwell on such matters due to immediate need. The village is going through a period of want, hauls from the sea decreasing and fishermen and their families going hungry. This puts the Lensman family in worse straits, for they’re dependent on the goodwill of the village. Uriah earns no salary, and members of the village are simply expected to tithe a portion of their haul to feed the Reverend and his kin.

After the disappearance of his wife, Reverend Uriah has grown harsher, and more distant. The added pressures of reduced yields from the sea and increasing frequencies of storms makes things even more difficult to bear. Responsibility falls upon Kaspar to go to the dock and try to beg for scraps that he might bring home for his sister Bryndis to cook, something that might temporarily fill their bellies, particularly that of their simple and optimistic younger brother Pip who the elder siblings love so. Pip’s energy and enthusiasm proves draining for Kaspar and Bryndis alike amid the harsh realities of entering adulthood in oppressive Torgrimsvaera.

More frail and timid than the other men around him, Kaspar remains mostly overlooked and scorned. He dreams of marrying his childhood friend and first love Agnet – the only person who seems to really understand or appreciate him – but Agnet has been forced into marriage with Gunther the Brave, a hulking giant whose power on the briny seas is matched only by his salty personality and callous cruelty to Kaspar and to Agnet.

Equally powerless to the whims of the men in the village is Bryndis, who longs to marry a young, kind-hearted man close to her age. But instead, Uriah has arranged her betrothal to an older widow now in need of a replacement wife. While Kaspar strives to win his beloved Agnet from the clutches of the brutish Gunther, strong willed Bryndis ponders defiance and prays for release. But both know, deep down, that they are ultimately powerless.

One day a woman is seen out in the sea, diving beneath the waves and resurfacing distantly. Cries of mermaid go out, and the fishermen rush out to capture the creature of legend. They fail, but the wounded mermaid ends up in a secluded spot where Kaspar and Agnet used to meet, where Kaspar still goes for quiet reverie. Kaspar’s attempts to play his secret of the mermaid’s location for his advancement lead to the village caging the creature. As people argue over the significance of the mermaid’s appearance and what to do with her, Kaspar’s guilt leads him to clandestinely release her back to freedom.

The mermaid returns to the sea, but does not stray far. Some in the village decide to go after her. And then the bloodshed really begins, as the mermaid – or the luremaid, more aptly – turns the sea into her hunting grounds for the men who give chase, and sings a siren call to the women of the village: a transformative song of madness and revolt. With nowhere to run and their only source of food inaccessible, the men face cold slaughter and society teeters toward collapse.

Lure oozes with harsh atmosphere: the natural brutalities of the cold sea and chilly salted winds, the social tyranny of tradition, and ancient horrors from the realms of near-forgotten legend. McGregor permeates the novella with such dark atmosphere to slowly unfurl the plot, the descent of the village and the characters into damnation. The superb text is coupled with fantastic interior illustrations by Kelly Willliams, such as the one below.

McGregor matches the dark atmosphere with a protagonist who is blinded to the doom around him by his own ignorance and self preoccupation. Kaspar is a fascinating main character and point-of-view for the novella. He has qualities and perspectives that put him much closer to the position of females in the village. Yet, he also clearly still has privileges associated with being male that he can’t recognize, most particularly an expectation to get what he wants, or what he is ‘owed’, and a selfishness to abandon any real solidarity or support for the women in his life if it’s interfering with his goals. Yet, his gullibility and lack of self awareness make him also sympathetic, readers wondering if he has a chance for growth and reform.

Even more sympathetic a character is Pip, epitomizing the innocence of childhood, suffering without any guilt. Along with the oppressed Bryndis, then, this makes all three of the Lensman children objects of reader empathy and hope, even if they are mostly imperfect with flaws.

But this is horror, and McGregor steers the ship of this tale to its ruthless conclusion. In this, the lure of the title is perhaps not referring to just the luremaid of the plot, but to McGregor himself, as he enchants the reader through the pages and their developing terror.


A PSALM FOR THE WILD-BUILT by Becky Chambers

A Psalm for the Wild-Built
(Monk and Robot #1)
By Becky Chambers
Tordotcom Books — July 2021
ISBN: 9781250236210
— Hardcover — 147 pp.


A week from my writing this, the second Monk and Robot book (A Prayer for the Crown-Shy) gets released. I haven’t had the chance to read that one yet, but will eagerly grab a copy. This seems like a good time to put up a review of the first book – last year’s A Psalm for the Wild-Built – to get this on the radar of anyone who hasn’t discovered Becky Chambers’ series yet. If you’ve already read the first novella, check out this review of the sequel from my reviewing colleague Sharvani, over at Fantasy Book Critic.

Humanity has settled the moon of Panga and built a utopic civilization in balance with the other biological inhabitants, leaving areas unsettled as preserves for other species. Now absent from their civilization are the robots, artificial workers that gained sentience and chose to depart into the wilderness, centuries ago, in search of their own purpose and destiny. The robots have since faded into cultural myth.

Sibling Dex of the Meadow Den Monastery has begun to feel directionless, restless for deeper connection to others and life. They decide to leave, to drift the Pangan countryside serving as a tea monk: a wandering attendant who ministers to any who need a break: a sympathetic ear and that perfect cup of hot tea that can warm the heart and soul.

New to the role, Dex at first stumbles at finding just the right brew to match the needs of their guests. But, they quickly learn and adapt, gaining experience to become one of the most sought-after tea monks around. Just as they begin to feel as if they found their strength of purpose, and settle into the familiarity of their routine, Dex finds something unfathomable emerge from the forest wilderness to reignite their insecurity and feelings of inadequacy.

A robot named Splendid Speckled Mosscap enters their camp and enthusiastically declares they have returned to honor an old promise to humanity. Mosscap poses a simple question of Dex: “What do people need?” The tea monk is at a loss for words of how to reply.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a peaceful novella, an embodiment of that feeling of a nice cup of tea. There is little to it in way of a conflict, at least in the typical sense that one might find in a SFF plot. It’s a journey of empathetic friendship between two characters who discover one another over conversation. Dex and Mosscap are two very different individuals. A humble tea monk, Dex is timid and restrained, but also lacks self confidence. Mosscap bursts with curiosity and an assured optimism. Biological and artificial, they each view one another with a good bit of initial confusion and bewilderment.

Through their existential conversations and building friendship comes the discovery of each of their unique points of view, a celebration of their differences, and a perfectly matched partnership that gives them each greater purpose than they could have apart.

As I began A Psalm for the Wild-Built, I wondered how much I would like it. Most fiction relies on antagonism in polar opposite to the main character(s), with conflicts, setbacks, and dire threats aplenty. So often SFF tends toward the darker side of things. Even if not full-on ‘grim-dark’, there’s usually some amount of violence or tragedy to be overcome. Dystopias are the norm. I’m used to that; I enjoy that. The only other case of a more optimistic type of SFF story that I can think of reading is The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. It’s a beloved novel for many, but I couldn’t stand its optimism and peaceful resolutions. I wondered if I just didn’t like bright idealism.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built showed that I can go for that flavor of things. For whatever reason, the characters and world created by Becky Chambers here just worked. The conversation between Mosscap and Dex might not read as profound by all, but it should prove fascinating and worthwhile. Chambers illustrates personalities and a relationship of how two individuals coming from two different backgrounds and experiences can find a way to bridge. It requires a calm, an openness; an appreciation of life, open ears, and a patient tongue.

Reading the novella is like a retreat into the wilderness, a moment to appreciate beauty and meditate with one’s own thoughts and in close fellowship with a few. Chambers writes it with a simplicity and bright joy of words that matches the characters and premise. All of which enliven the novella into a page-turner without the need for extensive, complex plotting.

When visiting my local bookshop the other day, I noticed A Psalm for the Wild-Built featured on a corner cap as a staff recommendation. Notably, it may have been the only book there without an accompanying handwritten, signed note explaining the choice. Considering this, though, I realized the cover did all the speaking required. The art, title, font, and blurb from Martha Wells says it all, with a sparse charm to match the novella’s core.

Just writing this makes me regret that I didn’t request an ARC of A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. I’ll have to channel the patience and peace of Monk and Robot to calmly await July 13th when I can pick this up in the store now. If you haven’t started the series yet, this still gives you plenty of time to read a copy of A Psalm for the Wild-Built before the sequel’s release. Just don’t forget to collect some leaves of your favorite tea and to set a pot to boil.


OUT OF THE CAGE by Fernanda García Lao (Translated by Will Vanderhyden)

“… Out of the Cage is a grim tragicomedy, a family saga that parallels the absurdities of political upheavals. Related with a short crispness that makes the novel fly by even without much action, it contains a wealth of subtext for continued analysis and appreciation.”

Read my entire review of Out of the Cage HERE at Speculative Fiction in Translation.

Deep Vellum Press – March 2021 – Paperback – 168 pp.

THE BLACK PHONE: STORIES (20th CENTURY GHOSTS) by Joe Hill

The Black Phone: Stories
(20th Century Ghosts)
By Joe Hill
William Morrow & Company — December 2021
ISBN: 9780063215139
— Paperback — 480 pp.


First published in 2005 as 20th Century Ghosts, Joe Hill’s debut collection of sixteen short stories has been reprinted and rebranded as The Black Phone to coincide with another short story found within, now adapted into a film by Blumhouse Productions and directed by Scott Derrickson of the original Doctor Strange film. Blumhouse debuted the film at a festival in September 2021, with Universal slating it for broad release in January of this year. The film tie-in version of the collection therefore released just prior, in December. However, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic pushed the film into February, and then ultimately until now, June 2022. With the film now finally released to strong reviews, it seemed the right time for covering this copy I received. There is currently a new Goodreads giveaway for the collection as well, for anyone interested in winning a copy.

Of all the stories found within, “20th Century Ghosts” works the best as a representative title for the whole collection. “That Black Phone”, not so much. But, the latter does make some sense for adaptation into a film. It’s the most conventional horror story within the collection, with a plot that calls to mind real-life, serial-killer horrors and fictionalized retellings alike. And the characters of “The Black Phone” are closest to what one might find in something by Hill’s father, Stephen King.

The story of “The Black Phone is very simple. A young teen is abducted off the street by a fat man who works as a clown. The man gets the boy close to his van by drawing his attention after clumsily ‘losing’ a cluster of black helium-filled balloons from his van. The boy awakens locked in a basement, with only an old-style rotary phone hanging from the bare walls. The man seems on edge, both from keeping the abducted boy hidden in his basement, and from hallucinations of the phone ringing. But that can’t be possible. The phone doesn’t work. They boy hears the phone ring himself, and when he answers he hears the voice of one of the man’s past victims, a voice offering encouragement and the hope of escape.

Even with how well this general plot fits the mold of standard horror film plots, it remains unclear reading the few pages of “The Black Phone” of how it could be effectively expanded into a full length movie. And Ethan Hawke is a far, far cry from descriptions of the abductor in the short story. The short story is good, but its clear that the film is taking the basic plot and some visual elements of the story to craft something more complex, and perhaps more interesting, though also more derivative of King’s work in the opinions of some reviews I’ve read.

Though “The Black Phone” is good, other stories in this collection are clearly superior, with more originality and emotional resonance. Many fall into the category of horror, some simply the darker side of fantasy, and one of the best is actually on the conventional side of literature, and sweet. Hill also employs darkness and horror with a varying touch. Some stories, like “The Black Phone” are full-on horror from start to finish, while others only give a small dose of dread or terror, even just subtly implied.

And that calls to mind the stylistic tendency that does seem to unite most (if not all) the sixteen stories in the collection: Hill’s penchant for leaving things implied, for reader’s to form a complete image of their own, constructed from the pieces he provides. For some casual readers this could make the stories here feel unfinished, cut-off just when a clearly stated resolution or final image should be divulged. Hill’s stories typically lack any sort of coda, and even leave off directly telling the reader how things ‘conclude’.

However, this should not equate to the stories being interpreted as ‘unfinished’. Hill does provide plenty of details and contexts on how things will likely proceed from the moment the text of the story stops. His literary endings easily segue into film-like images that should spool through the reader’s mind. Often those ending moments also involve that little injection of horror, in a frightening realization and grim interpretation of where the story really has gone, despite expectations and assumptions.

The highlights of this collection for me were “20th Century Ghosts”, “Pop Art”, “You Will Hear the Locust Sing”, “Abraham’s Boys”, “Dead-Wood”, and “Voluntary Committal”. The last of these is a novella that concludes the main collection. I’ve written before how I dislike novellas, with their long length, at the end of things when my instincts call for a winding down. Despite this, the slow build unease of the plot and its understated horror were a success. “Dead-Wood” is on the opposite end of the length spectrum: a flash fiction done very well, touching on an aspect of ghosts I’ve often wondered about as a biologist. “Abraham’s Boys”, taken from an anthology on Van Helsing, is a powerful take on the effects of horror and trauma on the Dracula character, and his family, well after the novel concludes. It looks at the absolute violence and horror that define that character traditionally considered heroic and ‘good’. “You Will Hear the Locust Sing” is a wonderful creature horror-Kafkaesque mash-up, with bits of gore and humor alike. “Pop Art” is a touching story of friendship that shows Hill has talent well beyond the fields of horror genre tradition (which, interestingly, father King has often showed as well with works like “Rita Hayworth and The Shawshank Redemption”.) Finally, “20th Century Ghosts” is a well done ghost story of longing and memory – not ghosts for terror – that also displays a nostalgic love for the ‘ghost’ of cinema past.

Besides these stories, “Best New Horror”, the aforementioned “The Black Phone”, and “The Last Breath” were solid tales with a lot going for them, but also limitations. Like “The Black Phone”, “Best New Horror” felt very familiar, and predictable. Featuring a writer protagonist also seemed too well worn in this genre of horror, or any. Nonetheless, it’s still an entertaining horror read. “The Last Breath” has great atmosphere and is a fun idea, but falters at the end with predictable inevitability. It’s a case where Hill could have (and probably should have) ended it sooner, leaving the obvious conclusion unspoken and implied alone.

“In the Rundown”, “The Cape”, “The Widow’s Breakfast”, “Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead”, and “My Father’s Mask” all failed to really captivate me, though they had moments of inspired brilliance (“The Cape”) or a fun foundation from horror geekdom (“Bobby Conroy Comes Back From the Dead”).

If you are counting along, that’s fifteen stories, and I mentioned at the start that this a collection of sixteen. Don’t skip the acknowledgements, because Hill places a meta flash fiction within, “Scheherazade’s Typewriter” like a hidden CD bonus track. It’s worth the quick read.

While all the stories of The Black Phone (20th Century Ghosts) may not connect for readers, short horror fiction fans should find several tales within that make it worth reading, particularly when Hill’s general style works for personal tastes. If you only know of Hill vaguely and indirectly through the Blumhouse The Black Phone movie, or another of his numerous TV/film adaptations (and enjoyed any of those) you should definitely give his writing a look.


MANATEE SUMMER by Evan Griffith

Manatee Summer
By Evan Griffith
Quill Tree Books — 28th June 2022
ISBN: 9780063094918
— Hardcover — 288 pp.


In their last summer before graduating into middle school, best friends Peter and Tommy are determined to complete their Discovery Journal: a catalog of one hundred unique species of wild animal found within and around their native Florida town. They’ve reached the nineties, their goal near their reach. But, Peter can’t imagine the remaining discoveries topping what they’ve just come upon within a canal – a manatee.

Manatees hold special, almost mythical place in Peter’s heart. His beloved grandfather loves telling a story of how he once came upon upon a herd of manatee when out on his boat, and had the chance to swim among them. Grandfather’s story becomes more embellished and seemingly exaggerated with each telling, but the core message of the peaceful, transformative encounter remains constant. The experience bared a deep human connection with the environment beyond anything he had felt before.

Now, Peter feels as though he has had the chance to share in that, an experience all the more poignant in light of his grandfather’s current mental deterioration from Alzheimer’s Disease. When not out discovering animals with Tommy, Peter has to devote himself to the growing responsibilities at home, helping his single, working mother care for her father.

The boys see the manatee again in the canal, but are horrified to see it dying, a large Z-shaped propeller wound cut into its back. Peter springs into action and calls a nonprofit manatee advocacy and rescue group who take the manatee back to their facilities to save and attempt rehabilitation of the female, who Peter names Zoe. Traumatized over how this could be allowed to happen, Peter decides to help the group fight for the manatees, particularly against the mean Mr. Reilly, the president of the town boating club.

But many hurdles stand in Peter’s way beyond the hostility of Mr. Reilly. Peter discovers that his best friend Tommy has been hiding a devastating secret: Tommy’s family is moving far away. Meanwhile, Peter’s mother tries to dissuade her young song from getting involved in local politics, particularly considering the powerful Mr. Reilly could sabotage her real estate career. As the figurative storm clouds gather over the Florida community, literal ones appear in the form of a hurricane about to bear down.

Manatee Summer is a phenomenal book for young readers and adults alike. The plot is compelling and wonderfully paced, the characters are all richly detailed, relatable, and explored, and the themes of ecological and personal resilience shine strongly.

The novel drew my interest because of its fantastic cover and the description, both grabbing ahold of my appreciation for manatees. I wasn’t surprised to find the novel contain a good deal of content on conservation and ecology, but was surprised to see that is only half of the engaging story, and positive messages, that the novel provides.

As much as it’s driven by the manatee conservation plot, Manatee Summer is equally propelled by its character development, Peter maturing through his relationship with family, friends, and his antagonist Mr. Reilly. Taking things even deeper, Griffith also succeeds in having Peter’s relationships with others lead to significant developments in all of those secondary characters as well.

First we have Peter’s relationship with his mother and grandfather. Peter loves his Papa, dearly, and he’s appreciative of all his mother gives of herself for the family. But still, Peter also cannot help but feel upset over the sacrifices now expected of him, a young boy who should be enjoying a carefree childhood. This causes him to feel guilt, and he feels further guilt over the discomfort and embarrassment he feels over his grandfather’s condition. Alzheimer’s takes a respected adult who Peter looks up to and breaks that man down into a childlike distortion, stealing a dignity that forces the confused Peter to face aging and mortality.

With his mother too tired and too depleted to have any more energy to give Peter, Peter’s main source of support and relief comes through his friendship with Tommy. And what a brilliant, beautiful friendship it is. Griffith captures the Philia love between two young friends absolutely perfectly here.

Tommy succeeds as a fantastic contrast to Peter, a reserved, nerdy boy who loves facts, statistics, and vocabulary, but is leery of taking chances or putting himself into potential harm’s way. He’s a great balance to Peter’s daring and passioned rush to action. Moreover, the character of Tommy provides Griffith away to introduce complex ideas into a novel for young readers in a way that provides explanation alongside: an education.

Both Tommy and Peter have a certain pure innocence of childhood, good hearts and a curiosity to learn about the world, and make a difference. The strength of their friendship makes it all the more empathetically painful when we learn (with Peter) that Tommy and his family will be moving away, forcing the friendship to break. Though Tommy has known for a long time, his fear of facing discomfort and risk has put him into a state of denial and avoidance, unable to tell Peter the bad news. Which, of course makes it all the worse for Peter. Griffith handles this common painful experience in the lives of young friends remarkably well. As Peter pushes Tommy to change a bit more and take some calculated risks in this uncertain life, so too does Tommy bring Peter to new realizations.

With the unfortunate news regarding Tommy and his family coming to light, Peter begins to pursue a new, more unconventional friendship, with the college student who works with the nonprofit manatee protection organization. As she introduces Peter to a world of environmental advocacy and politics, he helps her communicate with a crush she has at the manatee rehab facility.

Just as Griffith handles the complexities of family and friendships with aplomb, focusing on the simple truths appreciated by children, so too does he tackle the complexities of enemies with Mr. Reilly. Mr. Reilly begins as somewhat of cartoonish caricature of a villain. He’s an angry bully, yelling at the kids on his lawn and flaunting his power around town to get whatever he selfishly desires. With little to no concern for others. His power comes from his money. And his money comes from pure chance, not his own initiative or toil. He simply won the lottery.

However, Griffith doesn’t just leave the antagonist as one dimensional here. As the novel progresses Peter (and the reader) begin to learn new things about Mr. Reilly. And despite his bitter fight against Peter, Peter’s mom, and the manatee advocates, Mr. Reilly begins to learn a little about other possibilities for life himself. Griffith shows that even enemies are human. Despite urges to characterize them as evil or irredeemable, childhood humility and optimism begin to crack that facade.

The struggles for Peter, his family, and his friends don’t simply vanish or all get solved in blithe happiness. Manatee Summer is profoundly optimistic and good hearted, showing the possibilities of resilience and passionate advocacy across realms of life. But it also shows that pain will still be there amid that – disappointments and inconveniences that need to be faced and worked through, or among.

My only critique with Manatee Summer would be that I thought it could have used an appendix or supplementary nonfiction material on manatees and manatee (and related) conservation. There’s a fair amount within the text of the story itself, but curious children and adults looking for more would likely appreciate something more concise and all-inclusive to turn to.

Manatee Summer is a book that young readers could enjoy on their own, or alongside adults. And it has a complexity and realism that would make it just as appealing to any adult on their own as well.

For any reading this upon its original posting, Manatee Summer is currently available through the Goodreads Giveaway program!


COMPOSITE CREATURES by Caroline Hardaker

“… a creeping terror of unease, a slow burn of little deceptions building to bitter tragedy, a dystopia of corporate power masquerading as a prosaic story of two people uniting as one in courtship and marriage. Though echoing familiar themes of post-apocalyptic genre fiction and feminism, Caroline Hardaker builds her debut novel with rich atmosphere and a purely unique symbolic take on character and the concepts of life. Readers demanding heavy action or instant answers would be advised to give this a pass, but lovers of character, nuance, and atmospheres of just-off-kilter disquiet should be enraptured and satisfied..”

Read my entire review of Composite Creatures HERE at Fantasy Book Critic.

Angry Robot Books – April 2021 – Paperback – 400 pp.

DEAR MISS METROPOLITAN by Carolyn Ferrell

Dear Miss Metropolitan
By Carolyn Ferrell
Henry Holt and Co. — July 2021
ISBN: 9781250793614
— Hardcover — 432 pp.


Fern, Gwin, and Jesenia are three young girls from very different backgrounds, living their lives of unique joys and struggles at home and at school that nonetheless unite them in the transformations of adolescence. They’re also united in a nightmare experience: captives of an abductor they know only as Boss Man, who has stolen them from the streets and placed them in his basement, a chamber of horrors hidden in an unassuming, dilapidated Queens home.

When authorities finally descend upon the home years later and rescue the “Victim Girls”, they discover only two of the missing young girls, now women, and one young baby. Neighbors look on at the scene of police, ambulances, and news vans. They wonder how this could have occurred right next door, without them ever suspecting. Among those is local newspaper advice columnist, Miss Metropolitan, who feels particular guilt for having failed to notice anything amiss right before her journalistic eyes.

As the rescued Fern and Gwin come to terms with their traumatic abuse and experiences of victimhood and unfathomable resilience, they also ponder the fate of Jesenia, who helped keep them strong, alive, during the ordeal – Jesenia who was forced to bear a child of rape. Meanwhile, others associated with the case, its aftermath, and the next generation, deal with the lingering unanswerable mysteries: Why did this happen? How did it happen? How have the survivors been forever changed? What has been lost?

Dear Miss Metropolitan is a fast moving mosaic of a novel, a narrative stitched together from multiple viewpoints, in different formats, jumping around in time between past and future. Chapters are brief, with standard prose or in the form of document clippings, transcripts, even photographs. Points of view can jump from paragraph to paragraph, narration and dialogue bleed together.

One gets the sense that Ferrell employs this stylistic structure in order to depict the elements of such a traumatic crime from many perspectives through time, as the ‘truth’ behind things and the labels used to describe the victims (survivors) of the abduction and abuse evolve. The publisher and many reviews have referred to this stylistic choice as innovative, but it is not really. Authors have been doing this for a long time. I just finished reading Jean Ray’s Malpertuis, a gothic ‘puzzle-box’ of a novel meticulously structured among perspectives to astounding affect. More modern, and far more effective, Marisha Pessl’s Night Film employs a mosaic structure of media not unlike what Ferrell does here with Dear Miss Metroplitan.

The problem with Dear Miss Metropolitan is that it all comes across as a meaningless cacophony; the artistic reason for including multiple perspectives and time jumps drowns out any insights into the larger scale contexts directly from within the crime as a victim/survivor or indirectly from viewing it from the outside as voyeur, from living it and knowing one’s past or from seeing it only second-hand after the fact. Ferrell fails to hit all the themes and perspectives adequately, and confuses what is there and done well with misapplied structural artifice.

Dear Miss Metropolitan would work far more effectively by limiting aspirations and focus to the girls: their past, their ordeals, their strength, and their bravely facing the aftermath. Time jumps and perspective jumps would have even still worked fine. The mistake was to then also try and look at the outsider perspectives and needlessly use fragments from media text or photos. The majority of the novel indeed focuses just on the girls. The titular Miss Metropolitan doesn’t even really appear until almost the close of the novel, and her inclusion becomes far too little, too late.

This is a difficult novel to read due to the nature of its plot, a thriller based on real life horrors of the Ariel Castro case in Cleveland, Ohio. It’s a plot that also comes up frequently in horror fiction and crime thrillers. To Ferrell’s credit she does succeed in making this somewhat fresh, at looking at the themes of victimhood, survivorship, bravery, and guilt. She also does this without ever making the horror seem exploitative. However, she bites off too much to effectively chew by trying to make this a structural puzzle box that also reveals profound insights into multiple perspectives across space and time.


SON OF THE STORM by Suyi Davies Okungbowa

Son of the Storm
(The Nameless Republic Book 1)
By Suyi Davies Okungbowa
Orbit Books — May 2021
ISBN: 9780316428941
— Hardcover — 446 pp.


Though a scholar in training at the university of Bassa City, Danso itches for more than the typical Juri initiate. Within the walls of the ancient city, he hunts repositories for glances at forbidden texts the elite have secreted away. But, his gaze also goes to beyond the Bassai walls, yearning to know what lies beyond the Empire borders – wonders hinted at within the suppressed histories he’s dared read, mysteries seen glistening from the eyes of immigrants sworn to silence.

Danso is also physically atypical from those around him. He’s a Shanshi, one of mixed raced parentage with a lighter skin tone that the Bassai view as inferior. Though unable to ever attain the higher caste of society, Danso’s academic skills have placed him on course for a solid future, including arranged betrothal to Esheme, the head-strong daughter of Nem, an affluent woman who acts as the city’s leading Fixer, a tenuously powerful service that is one part feared and one part loathed by the Bassai.

Though on friendly terms, Danso and Esheme are opposites. The free-spirited and wistful Danso looks to horizons and mysteries beyond, with little sense of urgency or worry over immediate responsibility. Frequently late and disorganized, he bears a childish naïvety and aversion to facing discomforting truths that Esheme finds infuriating. With a parentage that also limits her social status in Basa, Esheme purposefully strides toward those challenges that stand in her way to greater power. And Danso is not necessarily a part of that plan. While Danso’s emotions can ultimately drive him to action, Esheme carefully suppresses her empathy from interfering with her ambitions.

The fragile coupling between Danso and Esheme strains further with the clandestine arrival of a stranger from the distant Nameless Islands to Bassa, a young woman named Lilong. Lilong is a Yellowskin, a people of dark-skinned heritage who are descended with an albinism mutation that lightens skin, eye, and hair pigmentation to an extreme of Otherness that long ago exiled them away from the Bassai mainland.

Lilong comes to the ancient heart of the Bassai Empire in search of an artifact that has been taken from her people, an ibor, a totem of bone rock that a wielder with inherent talent can use to channel supernatural feats at profound mental and physical costs. Lilong has one of her own, permitting her to change her appearance and track the totem to where it has ended up: the home of Nem and Esheme. Retrieving it and fleeing from Bassa, Lilong’s actions draw both Esheme and Danso onto separate paths that intersect with her own: three interwoven and transformative journeys.

Okungbowa models the continent of Oon and its Bassai Empire in the Nameless Republic series on the historical Benin Kingdom (Empire) of West Africa, and its city of Edo, later Benin City, eventually of modern day Nigeria where Okungbowa originally hails. (The Benin here bears no relationship to the present-day nation of Benin.) In this he creates an epic fantasy world filled with details and populated with characters that come 100% from West African root inspiration, a diversity of cultural and ‘racial’ elements from within a region that too often is viewed monochromatically by outsiders.

Such focus on West African diversity appears right at the start of the novel in a prologue set right at the literal intersections of political and cultural realms within Oon. Events are triggered in this setting to propel the plot threads of Son of the Storm that then entangle Danso and Esheme in Bassa with Lilong’s arrival. The opening third of the novel works hardest at the world building, most notably the class and ethnicity differences that define Bassai societal structure and views on immigrants. These reveal how such cultural struggles, injustices, and arbitrary ‘racial’ division is nothing remotely new to present day societies or immediate history. On the negative side, Son of the Storm does little to really subvert or transcend the Bassai racism or classism. Yet, I suspect this may be a theme that grows through the series to come.

That opening third of Son of the Storms is an essential foundation to the wonder and developments with the remainder of the novel. I found the pacing to be excellent throughout, but readers who find themselves not gripped by the start of the novel should not be dissuaded from continuing. The characters also start built of seemingly standard archetypes of epic fantasy, warriors, those on quest, those born into a familial destiny of changing the world.

However, Okungbowa does a fantastic job at developing these characters through their journeys, often subverting expectations of fantasy tropes. He balances well between the three main characters, making each of them compelling and flawed, yet capable of growth. As Esheme turns increasing into something more villainous and callous, Danso slowly progresses from innocence (and frankly, stupidity) into getting some sense knocked into him. Lilong changes from an isolated and wary force of anger and vengeance into a more trusting partner who can begin to see possible hope for the future.

The only critique I have for the characterization is in how Danso does often seem molded to obliviously succeed to help move the plot forward. His flaws may limit how quickly he progresses or limit the reach of what he ends up capable of doing, but the supernatural abilities he turns out to be able to command through ibor seems to rely on ‘inherent talent’ without adequate explanation (as of yet.)

The ‘magical’ elements of The Nameless Republic series are particularly fascinating. They revolve around the aformentioned ibor (essentially, this is ivory) as a conduit to the supernatural. Okungbowa makes a point on his blog that this is not an epic fantasy with magic. He distinguishes magic from things supernatural, with ibor being a link to other realms. It may be a semantic issue, but Okungbowa has a lot of interesting notes on the background to the cultures of Oon on his website, and it’s well worth checking all this detail out after reading Son of the Storm.

Son of the Storm succeeds for me because of its rich characters (even secondary ones like Nem – or Zaq, a loyal muscled giant who serves as indentured servant in Danso’s family – become absolutely captivating. It also succeeds in how well it ticks all the boxes for what one might expect from an epic fantasy, while remixing them and casting them with inspiration from West African history to make it all significantly fresh and captivating. Okungbowa also nicely plays with reader expectations for who the protagonist ‘hero’ or antagonist ‘villain’ for the novel (and series) will be, with the trio of connected characters who have elements of each within them.

Warrior of the Wind, the second novel in the series was originally slated for release sometime around now, Summer of 2022. However, latest information seems to be that it has moved into 2023. So there is still plenty of time to catch up on things with Son of the Storm, if you haven’t gotten to it yet. Or if you already have read it, in the meantime for any Stranger Things fans, Okungbowa has a YA novel soon out, Lucas on the Line, writing as Suyi Davies.


MOMENTS ASUNDER by Dayton Ward

Moments Asunder
(Star Trek: Coda Book I)
By Dayton Ward
Gallery Books — September 2021
ISBN: 9781982158521
— Paperback — 304 pp.


After decades of not really reading any Star Trek tie-in fiction I decided to start up again. I wanted to reread the novels I tore through when younger, but knew I would be hard-pressed to catch up with where the fictional universe currently sat. I was curious to see what had happened to characters since movies and shows ended. So, I decided to both reread the older stuff while keeping up with newer novels released, starting right then.

Bad timing.

No sooner had I read the latest Star Trek: The Next Generation novel and the announcement of the new Picard series came. What would happen to these novels now? I feared they’d just stop, especially given other Star Trek franchises didn’t seem to have a new novel published for a terribly long time. The state of Deep Space Nine adventures particularly made me worry.

One other Star Trek: The Next Generation novel was released, with a note in it that the recent authors were hard at work at a way to bring closure to the novel line while merging it into the new continuity that Picard would establish. Until then, new releases seemed to be set during the time period the original show took place.

I felt the author’s and fan’s frustration. It annoys me so much that the film/television universes ‘need’ to take precedence over the novels. I would LOVE it if a show took all the constraints that a novel universe put on franchise and the writers were forced to come up with something that fits. Watching Picard now, I doubly wish it. Because the first season of Picard, at least, was far less enjoyable and interesting than what the novels seem to have produced in the last decades.

Irregardless, here we are, the start of a trilogy (Star Trek: Coda) that seeks to wrap up the novel universe of the franchise and bring things in line with the new continuities. Cue time travel and multiverses. These are two tropes that SF routinely uses to ‘reimagine’ and ‘reboot’ things, originating from comic books perhaps? It’s always a mess, and it usually leads me to abandoning things. As soon as multiverses came into the DC superhero TV shows, popping up all over, I stopped. I’m over the Marvel movies.

So, I came into reading Moments Asunder being very skeptical. The time travel and multiverse nature of the story line bugs me, but I have to admit that Dayton Ward does a good job at trying to give fans some kind of closure and excitement to start things off here. It’s a Kobayashi Maru scenario he faces. He can’t avoid tragedy, but he minimizes the mess.

Building the plot line with Traveler Wesley Crusher makes sense, and drawing in elements from the other Star Trek series and novels works well, for the most part. It gives this start to the trilogy the sense of being the culmination of everything, a grand send-off to the literary franchise that has been built around the original source materials. At the same time Moments Asunder shows greatest focus on The Next Generation. (Presumably the next two novels may focus more on others. The official ‘synopsis’ for this novel mentions the Benjamin Sisko and his crew, for instance. Yet, they don’t appear in here at all.)

The most significant consequences seem to befall members of the Enterprise crew who were created for the Star Trek: The Next Generation novels, meaning that any real emotional impact from the novel will come to fans who have stuck with the novels through the last decades. Casual, or new, readers of the novels might not be completely lost amid the characters, references, and time/multiverse shenanigans – but they also won’t feel connected to those characters or events either. Despite the well paced action and the quality writing, even I felt it somewhat hard to feel engaged in it all, to stave off boredom that would creep up.

(There is one sole exception to major consequences only befalling characters created for the novels. One character from the televised Star Trek series does meet death in Moments Asunder. I wouldn’t spoil who that is, but mention it only to say that it is handled as badly as many other Star Trek major character deaths have been: i.e. Yar and Jadzia Dax. If this is meant to have import, it should have been written better.)

The multiverse nature of things further makes it difficult to care what happens to anyone here. After all, there are plenty more of the same person out there. Unlike Everything, Everywhere, All at Once, Moments Asunder can’t overcome the nihilism inherent to the multiverse. Maybe the next two novels in the series will change my mind or surprise me, but I can’t help but read this and shrug my shoulders in annoyed anticipation of where it will all end up, putting things into the bland Picard-verse. I wish they’d just simply let two sets of novels continue, with two different separate universes of these characters – sort of like the double duty they get from the classic series between the original and Kelvin timelines.

I feel like this review is sort of all over the place, hard to organize. Likely because that’s pretty much how I feel about Moments Asunder. It has some good elements, and generally strong writing. But it simply shouldn’t have to exist, if there were justice in the universe.

Fans of the novels who have kept up with things will likely really appreciate Coda for its closure to what they’ve enjoyed. Maybe not the end they want, but better than other options available. For all other potential readers I’d say this trilogy is probably something to just skip. Pick up with the Picard novels and check out what comes in the future, don’t worry about what was or may-have-been.