MYSTERY ROAD by Kevin Lucia

Mystery Road
(with A Night at Old Webb)
By Kevin Lucia
Cemetery Dance Publications — May 2022
ISBN: 9781587678295
— Paperback — 175 pp.


First released back in 2020, Kevin Lucia’s novella Mystery Road now gets a paperback release paired with his 2015 novella A Night at Old Webb. Both stories feature the first-person point of view of Kevin Ellison, a teenage basketball player whose journey into adulthood becomes shaped by two separate ghostly encounters of discovery in the early 1990s.

Going into these stories with little foreknowledge, I had expected them to be horror. They are not. The ghosts here aren’t malevolent, there is neither anything frightening nor suspenseful going on. In fact, were it not for identification of certain characters as literal ghosts, these novellas could be classified as conventional short fiction rather than fantasy.

Though most of Mystery Road is set in 1990, the story begins twenty years later, when the adult Kevin learns that his father has just passed away. The bad news coincides with Kevin’s observation of a mailbox and a narrow drive cutting into the woods along a major hometown road. A memory is struck to those decades prior, when 15-year old Kevin first noticed this OOPart (out-of-place-artifact) while riding his bike to a best friend’s house.

There shouldn’t be a mailbox here, nor any visible pathway at this spot. Kevin never found it there outside that period in 1990, and then never again until here 20 years later. In the intervening years the eerie incident and the discoveries he made following the path into the woods had left his mind, only a dream-like haze of uncertain reality left behind.

The bulk of the novella then passes in flashback as Kevin recollects that period in 1990 when he first saw this mailbox and investigated the roadway into the woods. There he discovers a cabin and a woman in it, who welcomes him in for a visit. Their conversation slowly reveals that Kevin has somehow transported into a setting from the 1960s. And, this woman speaking to him in her kitchen knows his father, but as the high school boyfriend to her daughter.

In this, and subsequent follow-ups with his father, Kevin discovers parts of his father’s past that he never knew, of his father’s own passage from teenager into adulthood. These reveal secrets that are not illicit or shameful at all, just bits of information lost to time and circumstance. Through these discoveries Kevin becomes closer to his father and learns a bit about his own capacity for maturation.

With the shared name of author and protagonist, Mystery Road imparts that style of memoir verisimilitude. I don’t know for certain, but I get the sense that Lucia also places the setting of the novella in what seems like his own North East US hometown. Clifton Heights of Webb County may not be the names of these actual places in the NE, but the environment of Mystery Road (and the novella that follows) both are like characters of their own in the stories. Details of the foliage, mountains, houses, and names that ring familiar give the stories a strong sense of nostalgia for anyone who grew up in the time period of the late ’80’s into the ’90s.

Mystery Road is a novella that speaks poignantly to themes of friendship, love, and family. It’s about the bittersweet nature of embracing the future and letting the past fade, whether cherished or peppered with regrets.

Though published five years prior, A Night at Old Webb is set approximately two years after the events of Mystery Road in Kevin Ellison’s life. Now entering the end of his time in high school, Kevin joins friends for a warm summer’s night party at the Old Webb, a decrepit, abandoned former grammar school in Clifton Heights. There he meets a girl, Michelle Titchner, and the two form a rapid, soulful connection. They converse amid the party at the school, and continue talking as they walk into the surrounding woods.

There is a simplicity to A Night at the Old Webb exceeding even that of Mystery Road. But that’s not to say it’s any less impactful. What looks from its set up would be a tale of raging teenage hormones instead becomes about deeper connection. Through that, Kevin again learns a bit about growing up, and some insights into the history of his town and its people.

Together, the two novellas tell symbolic stories about Kevin’s genetic and social inheritances, and the possibilities these might impart for a life ahead on his own. The end of Mystery Road brings things chronologically to a close, coming back to older Kevin and reflections on the death of his father. His journey illustrates that ghosts don’t always haunt, sometimes they reveal themselves at the right moment to help guide passages.


A MIRROR MENDED by Alix E. Harrow

A Mirror Mended
(Fractured Fables #2)
By Alix E. Harrow
Tordotcom Publishing — June 2022
ISBN: 9781250766649
— Hardcover — 144 pp.


With A Mirror Mended, Harrow hits all the right notes of success from A Spindle Splintered, and then surpasses them with additional fresh melodies of complexity. The second novella the Fractured Fables series picks up five years after the end of the first. Zinnia has spent that time traveling the Sleeping Beauty metaverse, saving Princesses in distress wherever possible. With the years of her predicted lifespan reset by the magical clearing of her misfolded cellular proteins, Zinnia has been able to go on living fearlessly, not having to worry about her own inevitable cost.

But, her activities saving Sleeping Beauties across the narrative realms has come with some costs. Zinnia’s become estranged from her former best friend Charm, who continues to live a happy life with Prim. Zinnia has become exhausted of the constant movement, the reiterations of the same story, slightly changed. She can begin to feel the effects of time passing on her health. And the universes have begun to show signs of becoming increasingly fractured and intertwined in inexplicable ways, fairy tales bleeding in to ‘normal’ reality, with elements even outside Sleeping Beauty.

Celebrating the rescue of her latest princess, Zinnia gazes into a mirror to see an unfamiliar face staring back, and she suddenly is drawn into another universe. It’s one she quickly realizes comes from beyond the Sleeping Beauty cluster. Somehow, she has ended up in a world of Snow White. And the strange face that she saw in the mirror that pulled her there is none other than the Evil Queen.

What makes A Mirror Mended so successful is that Harrow doesn’t simply rehash the types of adventure and themes found in A Spindle Splintered. Readers quickly figure out that Zinnia is not here to rescue Snow White at all, but to help the Evil Queen. The immediate question for Zinnia is, should should save an Evil Queen? Of course, Harrow deftly shows that this narrative is based on a ton of missing information on who this villain really is. Why is she villainous? Why does she not even get a name?

So begins a novella that is an adventure like the previous one, but also a tale of connected self discovery. Zinnia most come to terms with what she has been doing, and the risks they might entail. This includes some critique of her assumptions/actions in the first novella, as well as the collapse of her core friendship with Charm.

The imperfections that remain even when trying to ‘cleanse’ a problematic fairy tale of all its offenses become more clear, serving as a sort of meta analysis of Harrow’s series itself, or the idea of retelling fairy tales in general. Harrow ups the meta joy in A Mirror Mended, having absolute fun with the zaniness of the novella’s premise and its play with narratives and character agency within a narrative that Harrow controls. This really rounds out Zinnia’s journey to a next step in this book two.

Self discovery is also central theme for the Evil Queen, who Zinnia chooses to name Eva. Eva must discover how far she is able to go to ensure self-survival, particular when she suddenly realizes there are other people who may actually care about her. Eva is a fabulously multidimensional character that drives the novel forward and ends up saving the woman who has played the savior heroine these last five years, Zinnia. And only through letting herself be saved does Zinnia save Eva.

This is all so meta! A recursiveness and eternal knot formed by the two women. The struggles within each of them become entangled their relationship. That entanglement is itself they key for the progression of each to self resolution. It’s an absolute inversion of the saving trope that was the focus of the first novella, one that was predicated on someone saving another so that the other can have personal agency. Here, full agency is only achieved through a partnership of sorts, a giving up of agency. It’s meta, an apparent absurd contradiction. Yet, it is also the basis of the concept of marriage.

A Mirror Mended succeeds on so many levels, even down to that symbolic level that the title evokes. It’s a love story of Zinnia and Eva, the foundation of a true partnership without the loss of choice or control for either party. The individual shards (lives) of a fractured mirror become united into something whole that reflects back an image of the other – just like that moment that initially pulled Zinnia into Eva’s seemingly hopeless story – staring into a face that is not your own, but that together make a tale for the ages.

I’ve probably drifted way too far here into the realms of analysis over that of review, forgive me. But this is what I really, really loved about A Mirror Mended. It’s simply brilliant on multiple levels, meta and all.

Even without all that, A Mirror Mended is simply an entertaining adventure filled with great language, rich characters, humor, and deep human emotion. Harrow’s choice to make this more about the villain than simply another princess in distress story is essential to its success. But atop that I also adored her inversion of the Snow White tale by having Zinnia and Eva end up in a universe where Snow White has become the one-dimensional villain of the story, like some Disney aesthetic Lady Bathory.

Another final detail of A Mirror Mended that I really enjoyed were the original silhouette illustrations by Michael Rogers. I forgot to mention that style of illustration that appeared included in A Spindle Splintered. That first novella included doctored illustrations whose originals were done by Arthur Rackham, a fairy tale illustrator often mentioned in that text by Folklore nerd Zinnia. I had no prior familiarity with Rackham, or fairy tales in general. I don’t think I could even explain what the plot to Sleeping Beauty is prior to reading Harrow’s first novella. Though I enjoyed the whimsical alterations to Rackham’s silhouettes, they didn’t quite fit with the text of the novella where they were placed. In A Mirror Mended I liked that a similar vibe could be attained without having to use pre-existing ones inverted and fractured.

Somewhere I noticed mention that this would be end to the Fractured Fables series. I’m not sure if that’s true, or I misunderstood, but I would hope that if Harrow can find new directions to take the idea, or new themes to delve into, that she would. A further fracturing and entanglement of fairy tale metaverses could prove interesting if used symbolically for new relevance. But if not, I will continue to reread and enjoy these two little gems.


A SPINDLE SPLINTERED by Alix E. Harrow

A Spindle Splintered
(Fractured Fables #1)
By Alix E. Harrow
Tordotcom Publishing — October 2021
ISBN: 9781250765352
— Hardcover — 128 pp.


Today is the publication date of the second book of Alix E. Harrow’s Fractured Fables series, so I’ll have reviews of both novellas today in celebration. I first encountered Harrow’s writing with some of her short stories and immediately felt drawn to their intelligence and passionate zeal. Even when they fell within a sub-genre of fantasy that wasn’t among my favorite, like the fairy tale, I still found them to be interesting perspectives riffed in a fun, inventive way. I read her debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January feeling the same, and her next novel sits on my purchased TBR shelf.

The Fractured Fables series is excellent because it distills the best of Harrow down to the novella length. I was once a complete novella skeptic, but I’ve realized works like this can do it well, giving characters and worlds a chance to breathe, but limit unnecessary padding.

A Spindle Splintered introduces readers to Zinnia Gray, a young woman about to celebrate her twenty-first birthday, the upper limit of years her doctors expected her to survive. Zinnia has a genetic disease brought on from industrial pollution, a ribosomal (chaperone-associated?) disorder that leads to cellular accumulations of misfolded proteins throughout her body. Her curse of a young death has led to a personal affinity with the story of Sleeping Beauty, even though it is “pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it,” and pursuit of a degree in folklore.

Zinnia’s life-long best friend Charm arranges a Sleeping Beauty inspired party for Zinnia’s monumental birthday, held in an abandoned factory tower, complete with an antique spinning wheel – even if the earliest versions of Sleeping Beauty and original Grimm tale predate its invention. When contact with the prop causes Zinnia to black out and fade into a faux Medieval Europe setting, complete with a confused fantasy Princess named Prim, a version of Sleeping Beauty with a hyper-real, idealized radiance. Zinnia wonders if the misfolded proteins have finally obliterated neurons into hallucination, if her body is simply in the process of giving up the ghost.

But no, all signs point to this being real, and Zinnia finds she’s even able to text on her cell phone to Charm, seemingly across universes. She and Charm reason that Zinnia has discovered the ability to shift across a multiverse of fairy tale universes through some sort o object-induced narrative resonance. Zinnia knows the fate that awaits Prim: one curse of lost agency broken by another, marriage to a man she neither knows nor desires. Zinnia can do nothing to save herself from biological fate, but she realizes she just might be able to do something to save Prim from Prim’s curses before trying to return to home reality. And one thing Zinnia has learned to do well is running from her own problems by focusing on fixing others.

The premise of Zinnia’s fantasy adventure here is utterly absurd, defying logic in ways that the characters – and Harrow – readily admit. Charm comes up with ‘explanations’ for what is happening to Zinnia, how the magic of multiverses works. But really, it’s all a big MacGuffin (as admitted in meta call-out in the sequel novella) to facilitate the adventurous fun. With Mystery Science Theater 3000 music in your head: “If you’re wondering how she hops ‘tween worlds, and other science facts, just repeat to yourself it’s just a farce, I should really just relax.”

The obvious large theme of the fun romp that is A Spindle Splintered would be the feminist one: a sisterhood of support between female characters who each face their own particular curse or demon that tries to hold them back, that tries to eliminate their agency as individuals with any choice in their futures. For the novella length, Harrow does remarkably well balancing character relationships, and their growth (particularly Prim’s.) We get the friendship between Charm and Zinnia, the partnership between Zinnia and Prim, and as the novella goes on, a budding romance between Prim and Charm.

But, another aspect of that sisterhood comes up with a visit by Zinnia and Prim to the ‘evil fairy’ who originally put the curse on Prim. Here, we see Harrow’s focus on the untold stories of secondary characters in classic fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty. These tales give little to no motivation to characters, and usually no background history. This leads to the reader forming assumptions. As a student of folklore, Zinnia knows all the stories, and knows the caveats. Yet, she also cannot help but make assumptions. The Fractured Fables sequel to A Spindle Splintered plays with this idea even more, but we get hints of it here as well.

Retellings of fairy tales in modern ways is nothing new, and ‘modern’ of course is relative as time continues on. Harrow acknowledges this within the multiverses of Sleeping Beauty stories by at first mentioning, and then literally brining in, the ’90s era retellings featuring ‘strong women’ who kick ass. I became reminded as I read A Spindle Splintered of the anthology series of fairy tale retellings edited by Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling, starting with Snow White, Blood Red in 1993. At the time, many of the stories in that were viewed as cutting edge, attempts at casting less problematic versions of the classic fairy tales, ones that inverted or ‘righted’ biases and inequality. Of course, viewed now many of these now have their own problematic issues that remain from the older tales, or that were created anew through the reimagining.

And that brings me to what I see as the second major theme of A Spindle Splintered, and the series as a whole: the concepts of ‘saving’ someone and ‘agency’. How do these play together? Who deserves to be saved? Are there actions that make someone no longer worthy of being saved? Does saving someone – even with the best intentions – create other problems? How much of saving is interference, and when does that interference act to inhibit agency in the other? Is one’s personal agency reduced if allowing oneself to be saved by another?

From A Spindle Splintered to its sequel A Mirror Mended, Harrow begins to show just why this series is called Fractured Fables. Zinnia’s activities in helping trapped women find freedom is still an interference that disrupts other things. I’ll get to this more in the review for A Mirror Mended, but it begins here in the first book. Just as Zinnia’s well intentioned changes have imperfect effects, so too are retellings of fairy tales to try to make them less problematic an imperfect endeavor. Assumptions still remain, characters are still short-changed. What seems to work now, may still have issues reveled in retrospect. One can’t do everything in a story with absolute equity. So too can Zinnia not save everyone, or completely save herself.

But, that doesn’t mean the effort is not worthwhile, that the adventure shouldn’t be had, that righting injustices and fighting for others to have choice over their lives should be abandoned.

Harrow’s start to the Fractured Fables series begins to explore this all, to ask these questions of its characters and its readers. But, no clear answers are given; I don’t think clear answers even exist. It’s about the exploration and doing one’s best. And that, at its heart, is what A Spindle Splintered is about, even on its surface level of entertainment, of celebrating supportive female relationships. It’s an exploration of possible worlds, of characters finding their way through hardships to do the best they can not just for themselves, but also for each other.


SCREAMS FROM THE DARK Edited by Ellen Datlow

Screams from the Dark:
29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Tor Nightfire — June 2022
ISBN: 9781250797063
— Hardcover — 496 pp.


Amid a period of lots of horrible news, the 2021 debut of the Tor Nightfire imprint has provided a lot of literary relief as a major new outlet for horror fiction. The deeply respected editor and anthologist Ellen Datlow has long acquired short fiction for the Tor.com site, and its more fantastic news that she’s expanding that role into the Nightfire realm.

With Screams from the Dark: 29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous, Datlow compiles an impressively diverse array of dark fantasy and horror stories from an all-star lineup of authors. Indeed, reading this collection feels like the literary equivalent of watching an all-star sports team under the management of a venerated Hall of Famer. Screams from the Dark is a celebration of achievement in dark fiction. It takes a simple theme, gathers a broad panel of award-winning artists under Datlow, and lets them all do their thing. Like in a sports all-star game, some play as seriously as they normally would, some show off a bit, and some just have fun.

For casual fans, or people looking for a specific brand of the game of horror, the results might vary. But, there will surely be something to enjoy. For devoted fans of the genre whose tastes enjoy sampling across the range of the genre, there is unlikely to be a more successful anthology than Datlow and the authors provide in Screams from the Dark.

The theme of this collection, Monsters, is not a new one for Datlow. In 2015 she published The Monstrous, an original anthology for Tachyon Publications that I reviewed here back then. Screams from the Dark serves thus as a thematic sequel, bringing some authors back, but also bringing in new voices that give this a more modern vibe consistent with the latest in dark short fiction. Additionally, whereas that older collection mostly fell within the horror genre, Screams from the Dark, I would argue, draws equally from dark fantasy as horror. For me that is no problem at all. But some may wish for chills – or screams – from the horror side. The only criticism I have of the collection is actually its title. I feel it’s too generic for the specific monster theme, and a bit distant from the style and effects of the stories within.

29 Tales of Monsters and the Monstrous makes a better lead title, even if less evocative. But that number in there, 29, does reflect the hefty amount of text that this anthology gifts to its readers. Few of the stories here are very short, and also few are super long. Most fit into that perfect short story length to exert their spell. And for discerning readers with diverse stylistic or genre tastes, all 29 of these stories should captivate.

I started the anthology with plans to simply review/mention only my favorite stories. Though I did have favorites, I soon found that would be too difficult, or would shortchange a lot of stories/authors still deserving note. All the contributors in Screams from the Dark offer high quality tales that show off their talent and speculative, dark vision.

So, to the individual stories:

“You Have What I Need” by Ian Rogers – A perfect start to things, an entertaining story of the attack on a hospital ER by viral-infected vampires. The characters and setting, with pandemic relevance, play with the idea of exactly what a ‘monster’ is.

“The Midway” by Fran Wilde – The question of who and what are monstrous develops even more in this story of having to work a real lousy summer job at an amusement park where the electrical power and crowd draw come from sacrifices to an eldritch sea creature. Loved the combining vibes of nostalgia with something just a bit off.

“Wet Red Grin” by Gemma Files – A truly horrific tale set in a nursing home. Vividly written and grim, it delves into family and magic through the threat of a parasitic essence within a dying old woman. One of my favorites for emotional depth, language, and imagery.

“The Virgin Jimmy Peck” by Daryl Gregory – Should be among the favorites for anyone who likes humor with their horror. A cult has implanted a monstrous creation within the eponymous protagonist. The horrific set-up is played lightly, though still darkly, with character silliness and fun nods to horror classics.

“The Ghost of a Flea” by Priya Sharma – Fascinating and well composed historical dark fiction inspired by Robert Hooke’s early micrographs and William Blake’s painting that gives this tale its name. As a microbiologist I was excited to see something alluding to Hooke. Though I’m unfamiliar with Blake, the story here of a couple investigating strange, supernatural killings works even without the historical references as a dark fantasy/crime mash-up.

“The Atrocity Exhibitionists” by Brian Hodge – Another story with connection to the pandemic, this shows even more timeliness in its treatment of self-harm and the allure of the fleeting nature of fame. Such an intense and dark story, that will truly haunt readers.

“”The Father of Modern Gynecology”: J. Marion Syms, M.D. (1813 – 1883)” by Joyce Carol Oates – Here, Oates goes the route of dark details from history to reflect on the fears and terror of today. You can look up the real J. Marion Sims, but the fictionalized autobiographical story here shows the monster just as well, with clear parallels to contemporary politics.

“Here Comes Your Man” by Indrapramit Das – Here is a perfect example of how to build tension and make that suspense pay off in a short story. Wit the tale of a young couple who leave their rural home for a festival in the city, Das makes the reader feel the discomforts of culture shock and displacement among things that still have the air of familiarity and safety. Exceptionally well-rendered characters and brutal story telling.

“Siolaigh” by Siobhan Carroll – Set among the Outer Hebrides off the coast of Scotland, this story grabs the reader with “A man’s severed arm lay in the surf” and doesn’t let go. Is it a legendary sea serpent that is the monster responsible? The local color of setting and the customs of lore give this tale an eerie, briny atmosphere as it considers what a monster may be.

“What is Love But the Quiet Moments After Dinner?” by Richard Kadrey – A date between Caleb and Patti seems to be going along swimmingly, heading for the bedroom, until they each reveal surprising secrets. Kadrey takes an absurd moment that could be played for humor, but twists it into a splendidly macabre romance of the monstrous.

“The Island” by Norman Partridge – The action of the story opens with a vampire aboard a ship, forced to flee hunters in his homeland, in dire and gruesome battle with the sailors. The vampire Count washes onto island that is not an island, shores that seem to gather monsters. The story has a vintage tone that ties to its allusions to the cast of the classic Universal monster films of old Hollywood.

“Flaming Teeth” by Garry Kilworth – Another story with a hidden island to follow the previous, this harkens back to old Hollywood adventures in exotic lands where monsters abound, in this case a corner of the southern Pacific where a giant creature known by a local name that translates into “Flaming Teeth”. It’s an entertaining look at natural predation and what we consider (hypocritically?) ‘monstrous’ from our point of view in the food chain.

“Strandling” by Caitlín R. Kiernan – This story paints a picture of a bleak future sadly too believable, saturated with the “hydrocarbon debris of a thoughtless world.” A lonely, exhausted desolation where mutant monstrosities are born from our monstrosity, and two women cling to one another against seeming inevitability. A beautiful, if dark, tale that features some lovely nuggets on the parasitic – mutalistic continuum of symbiosis that stands at the center of life and the the themes here.

“The Special One” by Chịkọdịlị Emelụmadụ – “They named her Joy, an ordinary name for a child who became extraordinary, at least in childhood.” Filled with luscious text, this story presents itself as a fable on expectations and the pressures one bears to meet them. On the dark side of fantasy, it turns into horror with an unsettling ending that masterfully closes things.

“Devil” by Glen Hirshberg – A second modern-day tale that plays upon classic stories of exotic exploration. Here, the devil refers to the Tasmanian devil, a creature some tourists seek sight of in the wilds of the island, in a place where only train tracks remain from the colonizers who attempted to conquer the wilderness. Predator-prey dynamics and the ghosts of history haunt the unsuspected interlopers.

“Crick Crack Rattle Tap” by A. C. Wise – One of the most impactful stories of the collection, troubling and brutal, yet compassionate all at the same time. A young mother grapples with post-partum emotions, her desires conflicting between nourishing and exasperated. Shamed as flashes of tendernesses give way to resentment, her mind nonetheless turns in horror to a fairy tale rhyme, to rid her aching of its burden. Hardly an easy read in its emotion, this is just a brilliant fable of darkness and melancholy.

“Children of the Night” by Stephen Graham Jones – Light fare from Jones that embraces silliness and humor to have fun with the monster theme. The title evokes the classic line from Tod Browning’s Dracula (or was it even in Bram Stoker’s novel?) However, this one is actually about Bigfoot, and plays fancifully with the typical explanation of sightings of the cryptid as people in ape costumes.

“The Smell of Waiting” by Kaaron Warren – Such a touching and bittersweet story of a girl who discovers she has the power to resurrect life after the death of her puppy, and later, a vicious attack/murder of her mother. While she has this extraordinary power that others might view as ‘monstrous’, Warren forces readers to confront what such abilities might be like when able to provide relief to others, but never oneself.

“Now Voyager” by Livia Llewellyn – Wow, ummm, what? This was my first reaction to this genre-bending offering by Llewellyn. Then I reread it and loved it even more. The story is a science fiction dark fantasy that imagines a far-future Earth where a Princess, member of a deformed royal family looks out over a caldera considering the approaching death of the human Camera of the Gods and the selection of a replacement from among potential novitiates. This gem does so much, and so subtly, with exquisite prose. Are the monsters the alien Gods, or the Princess and her family who look the part and knowingly sacrifice others to a form of slavery? The richness of the story allows interpretations and new discoveries with rereads. An unconventional horror amid the rest of the collection, but superbly uncanny.

“The Last Drop” by Carole Johnstone – A tale that echoes the earlier offering from Oates, this is a fictionalized retelling of historical events and (at least some) characters. Set in the mid/late 19th century, it involves a woman put on trial for murder. In it, Johnstone includes details from actual court transcripts. The modern reader’s uncertainty of the woman’s guilt of the monstrous crime becomes accentuated by appreciations of societal blindness and atipathy toward women.

“Three Mothers Mountain” by Nathan Ballingrud – I have adored everything I’ve read by Ballingrud I think, and this was no exception. I still haven’t read his recent (now maybe old?) collection and really need to. Anyway, this story about witches, repercussions of magic, and the painful choices/sacrifices people make for family has familiar tones and themes for any dark fantasy fan. Yet, somehow Ballingrud manages to make it all seem fresh and evocative.

“Widow-Light” by Margo Lanagan – Fans of modern feminist recasting of fairy tales should adore this short fantasy from Langan. It stands unique among the other offerings of the collection in having perhaps the most hopeful, happy of endings. This is not to say it doesn’t touch upon darkness or horror in getting there, with themes of relevance to today’s reality as much as a fantasy world. I particularly appreciated how this is an original story in the fairy tale style, rather than something based off any particular fable or trope.

“Sweet Potato” by Joe R. Lansdale – The neighbor of an old woman who likes to set out bird seed, sit on her porch, and then shoot the birds who come each day, decides to take up gardening. When he discovers the perverted old lady dead and decomposing in her yard, he considers whether her body might be put to better use. This reads like a fairly standard contemporary short horror, but Lansdale’s talent keeps it engaging and fun.

“Knock, Knock” by Brian Evenson – A man kills his uncle, but soon a knocking comes on the door, revealing the murder may not have quite taken. This plays well both as a literal horror and as a psychological one of a man being tormented by his monstrous actions. In either case it is another familiar horror theme, but again one handled in just the way, with just the right atmosphere and structure, to make it enjoyable.

“What is Meat with No God” by Cassandra Khaw – I believe this is the shortest story within the collection, but Khaw does a lot within its fitting length. Heavy on hypnotic atmosphere, with an equally dazzling title, the story is a simple one of a monstrous soldier who cannot be killed, whose path of bloody carnage has no deviation until complete. The short length leaves a great deal of ambiguity to the background of the story and its interpretations, leaving a lot of room for the reader to draw conclusions.

“Bitten Himself” by Laird Barron – This one is a follow-up to one of Barron’s most known stories, “The Procession of the Black Soth.” I haven’t actually read that one, to my memory, so can’t comment on connections beyond the reappearance here of the title entity. In this, the protagonist is a deprived criminal/murderer who encounters his doppelgänger, and then cosmic-horror-vibed Black Sloth, to face his eternal punishment. Fans of Barron’s horror won’t be disappointed.

“Burial” by Kristi DeMeester – Something about DeMeester’s writing tends to hit the right notes with me. They are windows into the dark and pain that women have faced, and continue to face in life, tales of finding power and agency in that. Even so distant from my own experiences, the passion of her writing still resonates with me. No different here, a tale of a girl trying to save her sister and herself from a selfish, abusive mother, and her creation of a new mother from that agonizing desperation.

“Beautiful Dreamer” by Jeffrey Ford – In a time of increased partisanship, mistrust, and rancor between those on opposite ends of the US political expression, it is nice to see this short monster story of a horror that might help bridge the divide. Despite its themes, the story is a simple, unadorned one of people protecting themselves/hunting a dangerous mutant creature. Not very dark in tone, it is gory and splatter filled, an entertaining story that creature feature horror fans should enjoy.

“Blodsuger” by John Langan – Datlow saves the longest story for last, a practice that seems common to collections and anthologies. But, it’s one that I don’t really care for much, I’d rather a shorter sip to end things. The title of this one is an Anglicization of ‘bloedzuiger‘, the Dutch word for ‘leech’. (Advanced copies of the anthology used the Dutch spelling for the title from what I can tell.) A horror author tells a tale about an ice fishing experience with his grandfather where he lands a monster from Danish lore, that proceeds to unleash terror. Though I personally found the text too long, Langan certainly does a great job balancing an atmosphere of dread/horror with the nostalgia/mundane of family life.

Screams from the Dark is an anthology I could see easily returning to. Many of the tales bear rereading, and I am sure that personal favorites (or ones that resonate most strongly with me) might vary with time and age.

Datlow concludes her introduction to the anthology with these words, which I find just as fitting here:

What’s most interesting to me as a reader is the range of monstrousness that exists within ourselves and that we impose on the creatures unlike us that we name monsters. Monsters are our mirrors: in them, we see who we hope we are not, in order to understand who we war.

This is why the diverse range of authors, styles, and sub-genre are so integral to the success of Screams from the Dark. Monsters are deeply personal beasts, and the monstrous will change over one’s life experiences, through the political and social upheaval that surround us. Not every story here will likely resonate with you. But, which do, may change. And even at this moment of now, they all offer an empathic glimpse into what others see lurking in their mirrors, darkly.


FOR THE THRONE by Hannah Whitten

“… an extremely satisfying conclusion to Whitten’s Wilderwood dark romantic fantasy series. It’s an inventive fairy tale sequel that elevates the first novel from any perceived shortcomings to effectively tell the enchanting story of twin sisters tied together in love. Each of them fights, in linked mirror-image worlds, to save humanity. In so doing they affirm their free will, protect the magic with which they’ve been entrusted, and preserve the right of all to pursue lives of choice.”

Read my entire review of For the Throne (Wilderwood Book 2) HERE at Fantasy Book Critic.

Read my review for Book 1 of the Wilderwood Series, For the Wolf, HERE

Orbit Books – June 2022 – Paperback – 457 pp.

THE TURNOUT by Megan Abbott

The Turnout
By Megan Abbott
Knopf Publishing Group — May 2022
ISBN: 9780593084922
— Paperback — 368 pp.


First released last August, but only recently out in paperback, The Turnout is the tenth novel from Megan Abbott, a popular suspense/crime writer whose work typically focuses on female perspectives. I have always heard good buzz around her novels, and I even have a couple sitting on my shelf that I hadn’t gotten around to reading yet.

This solidly constructed thriller affirms why Abbott’s work has been bestselling and award winning. The Turnout is propelled forward by a simplicity of suspense and atmosphere that make it immanently readable. Furthermore, the familiarity of everyday characters and seemingly mundane conflicts of work and family form a curtain of universal relatability for readers. Beyond that curtain lie secrets and crimes that Abbott allows poke out: dark, uncanny shivers and susurrations amid everyday life. With plotting and language she deftly builds suspense up to the shattering revelations of the novel’s climax.

Sisters Dara and Marie oversee the prestigious Durant School of Dance, an institution of ballet they inherited after the tragic death of their parents in a car accident. Dara’s husband Charlie works alongside the sisters. Once their mother’s prized student, who spent life growing up with the sisters as an adopted part of the Durant family, Charlie’s ballet talent buckled to injury. Now, the trio work fluidly in an intimate choreography of instruction, molding a new generation of dancers into ballet artists.

The clockwork precision and smoothness of the professional and personal lives of this trio becomes unbalanced when Marie suddenly decides to move out of the familial Durant home and crash at the dance studio, away from Dara and Charlie. Then, just as the school begins its preparation for their annual crowning performance of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, a fire breaks out from a space heater Marie has been using. Though firefighters save most of the school, extensive repairs become necessary just when the school is busiest and the family is most stressed.

From word-of-mouth recommendation, Dara hires a construction remodeler to repair the damage. Though relieved to see the team gets to quick work, Dara becomes increasingly concerned by the odd behavior and comments of the lead remodeler, Derek, who has seemingly enchanted Marie into an alarming relationship of sexual passion and psychological control. Strange accidents and setbacks to the repair begin to occur, and Dara begins to fear that Derek is not just further fragmenting the Durant family, but has his eyes set on much more.

One of the things that Abbott does very well is to convey the harsh, painful toll of ballet on the dancer’s body, from the feet on up. Dara repeatedly echoes the voice of her mother in encouraging and glorifying the torment and self sacrifice given by children for their art. It’s a bitter truth that any success involves struggle and pain, contortions and wounds. Something like that physically embodies this. Abbot takes this dark idea and runs with it, showing the manipulation of students by mentors that parallel the bodily manipulations of muscle and skeleton in the ballet dancer. The title of the novel refers to this specifically: the turnout, where a dancer achieves full 180-degree rotation of their feet to jut at a right angle from front, a physical achievement requiring contortions of the hip to manipulate human anatomy into atypical forms.

These themes of physical manipulation and pain center into the dynamics of all the character relationships, and the plot of The Turnout. The family strife, the histories of past trauma kept hidden, and the toxic agenda of Derek: these all echo the tolls taken by ballet for excellence. The difference, however lies in the questions of what one demands from (and gives of), oneself, versus what others selfishly take. That distinction is key, particular in the example of protagonist Dara, who is quite willing to endure pain for the sake or her art and things she controls, but refuses to bear it for others.

As the protagonist and point-of-view for the novel, Dara represents the most complex and developed character. It’s a shame that Abbott doesn’t put the same intricacy into the others. To an extent she has little choice. We can’t know the thoughts of others, and to reveal more depth in many would ruin the suspense or reveal truths prematurely. However, I do think that Marie could have been more of a focus for development and insight.

Despite the darkness of its plot elements, The Turnout is a pleasure read, an engaging thriller that doesn’t require much beyond reading and enjoying. Dara’s voice of growing confusion and fear lend a shadowy atmosphere where the reality of what faces her becomes obscured amid her assumptions and suppressed memories. This creates a perfect mood for suspense fans to enjoy, and I look forward to reading more of what she has written.


YOU HAVE A FRIEND IN 10A: STORIES by Maggie Shipstead

You Have a Friend in 10A: Stories
By Maggie Shipstead
Knopf Publishing Group — May 2022
ISBN: 9780525656999
— Hardcover — 272 pp.


A debut collection of short fiction written over a span of ten years, You Have a Friend in 10A highlights Maggie Shipstead’s versatility of fiction and empathic range. Readers are likely to be familiar with Shipstead’s name through her multiple-award-nominated novel Great Circle, out last year. I haven’t read that, or any of her short fiction prior to receiving this collection.

The power of a collection like You Have a Friend in 10A lies in its survey of an author’s depth and range over the span of years. This summation of Shipstead’s short fiction reveals a literary craftsmanship and keen insight into human identity that none of her individual stories can completely reveal on their own.

Yet, this power comes along with the risk that some readers might find the stories within the collection to be uneven, particular with the broad spectrum of setting, plot, and voice that Shipstead employs. I appreciated the majority of the stories in the collection. They sparked reflection, stimulated emotional connection with their everyday characters, and evoked wonder with turns of idiosyncratic language that fit those characters perfectly. Many entertained. Only in a couple cases did the style of the story leave me less engaged. Readers who enjoy a variety of literary short fiction, or who are fans of Shipstead, would find this worthwhile as well.

The title of the collection comes from one of the stories within, but the number 10 seems fitting. Besides the roughly 10 year span of time of publication, 10 stories fill the pages. “The Cowboy Tango” opens things strongly with a story of a love triangle on a Montanan dude ranch between the owner, a young female employee, and his nephew. It’s a beautiful story of rejection, told with a simple honesty that reveals the discomforts and complexity that people abide in relationships of life.

This theme of loss echoes through many of the other stories in the collection, perhaps the only thread that ties the disparate tales. Shipstead’s frank depiction of difficulties and resilience of characters through it reminded me of the short stories of Katherine Anne Porter that I’ve also recently read. It may be solely due to the correlation of timing in my reading these, but the familiarity strikes me in their foundational core of hardship/pain, with Shipstead’s stories being more modern and global in setting.

Unfortunate burdens and complications of life/relationships appear in other stories that I adored. “Souterrain” moves through time to reveal the connections – real and perceived – between an American woman and a French man in Paris, two young people whose past, present, and dire futures link to a wealthy, older, blind man who has just died. It’s a story might be most accessible to readers who crave plot and appreciate mystery and twists, even in short fiction. “Angel Lust” likewise features a character dealing with a recent death, in this case his father. The experience leads to symbolic unloading of emotional weight alongside handling the father’s physical possessions.

The standout story for me was “La Moretta”, a devastating tale of a couple on honeymoon in Europe. The growing antipathy and rancor between two people who realize they might not actually love one another overflows into tragedy. The dissolution of the marriage partnership into dark isolation contrasts with a world where people put value and power in community. It’s a literary horror tale, subtle even in the darkness.

The eponymous “You Have a Friend in 10A” completely changes tone and style from many of the other stories. Though still featuring the theme of loss and missed opportunities in life, there is a humor and parody to this story that makes it lighter. It features a character on a plane who ruminates on her experiences as part of a cult. Though Shipstead changes all the vocabulary, it’s a very clear allusion to Scientology. Though I think the story is largely successful, the ersatz details within really broke my connection to it, and made it sillier than I feel Shipstead intended.

“Acknowledgements” represents a solid literary story whose character of an author reflecting on publishing their first novel and the relevant impact of past relationships also made the story a little less engaging. A tad overlong, its metafiction really felt like an obligatory writing class exercise as opposed to heartfelt.

The remaining stories: “In the Olympic Village”, “Lambs”, “The Great Central Pacific Guano Company”, and “Backcountry” were ones I appreciated less, particularly the closing “Backcountry”. “In the Olympic Village” is a short and simple take on relationships, featuring two athletes hooking up for sex during the international games. Their relationship felt empty, and their likewise seemed to be less depth to the story than Shipstead usually achieves. “Lambs” succeeds very well in its atmosphere around the theme of loss of life. I only would rank it lower compared to other entries due to its relative simplicity. Which, for some may be a strength.

Although I now look forward to reading her novels, I also hope that Shipstead continues to produce short fiction that can be enjoyed in literary magazines and future collections. The successful experimentation and evolution in her writing displayed in You Have a Friend in 10A promise substantial achievements to come with continued maturity in the short form.


QUEEN’S HOPE by E.K. Johnston

Queen’s Hope (Star Wars)
(Padmé Amidala Trilogy Book 3)
By E. K. Johnston
Disney Lucasfilm Press — April 2022
ISBN: 9781368075930
— Hardcover — 280 pp.


Set during the onset of the Clone Wars immediately following the climax of Episode II on Geonosis, Queen’s Hope completes a trilogy of YA Padmé Amidala stories by Johnston. It’s an unconventional trilogy in its chronology, overlap with the prequel film canon, and its thematic focus. Also, as much as it’s been a series featuring Padmé, it’s equally been a spotlight on her retinue of handmaidens/doubles, in particular Sabé, played in The Phantom Menace by Keira Knightley.

The first novel, Queen’s Shadow, established the core exploration of Padmé’s relationship with her handmaidens in far more deeper ways than the films (or television series) could do on their own. Half of the novel directly paralleled The Phantom Menace, from the fresh perspectives of Padmé and Sabé. It then also bridged her transition from royal Queen of Naboo to being a Senator of the Republic. The sequel novel, Queen’s Peril, went back in time to relate Amidala’s election as Queen and how she selected/found her handmaidens.

In this, Padmé was revealed in it to be more than just an individual, but a team of young women working together for justice and the betterment of Naboo – and then the Republic. While Padmé’s story has been well covered through the visual media, these novels allowed fans to see some more background while also building the look-alike handmaidens into unique individual personalities. Together, their various talents and expertises were shown to complement Padmé’s, all united by a vision of hope for a better tomorrow.

Queen’s Hope chronicles how the physical partnership of this vision comes to an end, even as the hope it embodies does continue on. How the story of the Republic and the galaxy will go is of course well known. The Clone Wars series and The Revenge of the Sith chart Padmé’s path to giving birth to twins Luke and Leia, and of course her death (with its inane droid explanation of causation.) She’s going to die, and her handmaidens will go onto lives apart from her. But what happens to their hope amid that?

Johnston crafts the novel with brief passages in italics prior, in the middle, and after the main novel. One from the view of Shmi Skywalker, one from Padmé, and one from Breha Organa (adoptive mother of Leia.) Through this she makes the hope theme of the novel (and series) clear. Through the generational lines of women hope and a struggle for betterment will pass. As Yoda points out later, Luke is not the ‘last hope’, there is another. And the sequel trilogy continues that theme with Leia more to the fore (even more so planned before Carrie Fisher’s premature death) and the use of Rey as the next generation of hope.

The problem with Queen’s Hope is that the pessimism surrounding what will come becomes rather hard to surmount, particularly when there is no significant new plot or character focus in this novel to capture the reader’s interest. This third novel spends a lot of time establishing Padmé’s rather messed up relationship with Anakin – a situation that Lucas did a bad job to start with in crafting in any believable way to the character’s personalities. Johnston tries to work with this, showing how Padmé’s emotion and empathy leads to blindness with Anakin, potential darkness that her handmaidens, like Sabé, can see so readily.

The novel is disappointing in how it fails to go as deeply into the minds and future of the handmaidens, both Sabé and the others, who barely appear. Meanwhile, Padmé goes off on a secret mission tied to the Clone Wars and Palpatine’s continued rise. There’s nothing surprising or new in any of this, and the novel suffers as a result, lacking the emotional heart that the previous ones did by doing a larger dive into the secondary characters.

Here, the secondary characters appear fleetingly, with details seemingly thrown in by diversity committees, with no flesh behind them. A transgender Clone Trooper, a non-binary handmaiden: these would be great additions if they were crafted as anything more than a hollow checkmark on some list, with no development or intimacy or stake in the plot.

The first two novels remain among my most enjoyed Star Wars reads in the new canon universe. It’s in that light that perhaps I react more harshly to Queen’s Hope. Unlike those previous novels, it doesn’t seem to be able to rise above the limitations of the prequels in terms of the Padmé – Anakin – Palpatine relationship. It was fairly unbearable in the films, and it remains so. By failing to focus more on new elements and giving more on the Padmé – handmaiden links, we’re left with little.


SECRET PLACES OF WESTERN NEW YORK: 25 SCENIC HIKES by Bruce Kershner, Jennifer Hillman, and William McKeever

Secret Places of Western New York: 25 Scenic Hikes
By Bruce Kershner, Jennifer Hillman, and William McKeever
Ready Press — April 2022
ISBN: 9781681063683
— Paperback — 192 pp.


In the early 1990s, Bruce Kershner wrote and published Secret Places: Scenic Treasures of Western New York and Southern Ontario, a well-regarded and influential book in the local environmental/nature scene. As an educator and ecologist specializing in old-growth forests, Kershner passionately advocated for land conservation and environmental activism, as well as the general appreciation of, and participation in, natural spaces.

Outdoor enthusiasts enjoyed this hiking and discovery guidebook for years. However, with the passage of time the information within became outdated, and the text soon fell out-of-print and increasingly difficult to find. Though Kershner kept extensive notes and thoughts on an eventual update, his death in 2007 from a battle with cancer prevented the fruition of any updated volume.

Kershner’s legacy, influence, and inspiration has lasted long after his death. Numerous sites are still available for people to enjoy, protected, because of his pioneering research and advocacy. This includes Reinstein Woods Nature Preserve, which is dear to me as a site to enjoy the outdoors, but also because I serve on the board for the Friends of Reinstein Woods non-profit group, which partners with the DEC employees who oversee the preserve. It’s also the site of one of Kershner’s 25 scenic hikes.

Another offshoot from Kershner’s legacy are Jennifer Hillman and William McKeever, two academics and nature lovers who became spouses through their shared interests, and shared that connected by hiking through all twenty-five sites in Kershner’s guidebook. Through connections with environmental/ecological groups, Hillman and McKeever eventually came into contact with the Kershner family, specifically Bruce’s wife Helene and their daughter Libby. Conversations led to the development of this update to Kershner’s original book, with Hillman and McKeever’s complete access to all of Kershner’s notes and materials.

The updated guide narrows the geographical focus down to the Western New York region, removing sites in Ontario to allow inclusion of new featured sites in WNY. With their photographer, Courtney Grim, Hillman and McKeever visited all the sites that would be retained to compare against the original text and Kershner’s notes. They completely rewrote information to match updated realities and changed landscapes. For instance, some sites referenced caves that the pair were no longer able to find based on Kershner’s maps and details.

The locales encompassed within the WNY region are: Niagara Falls and its proximity, Erie County (with Buffalo), the Rochester area, Zoar Valley and Cattaraugus County, and the Allegany to Dunkirk region. Each of the twenty-five sites that fall within these areas is featured in chapters that describe unique features to the landscape (or points of interest), a description of possible hiking activities, information for planning a visit, and a spot to take notes. Fabulous colored photos and hand-drawn maps of features break up the text. These maps (most, if not all, by Kershner) are a tremendous resource, in some cases the only known maps in existence for areas with ecological and geological details.

The start of each section includes vital summary information including GPS coordinates, key features, hike distances, and level of hike difficulty. Most all of the 25 hike locations fall into the easy to moderate scale of difficulty, though some more challenging also exist. In addition to specifying who manages the land and where more detailed trail maps can be obtained, each site entry also has extremely helpful usage icons. One set of four possible icons denote the seasons during which the hikes may be safely accessed. Another 28 different usage icons (with key at the start of the book) provide information on things like restroom availability, scenic overlooks, waterfalls, nature centers, family friendliness, etc. Most meaningfully to Kershner’s memory, there is also a usage icon for old-growth forests, which I’ll be enjoying again very soon at Reinstein Woods.

If you happen to live near WNY, know someone there, or plan a vacation to the area, grab this book and head outside to discover nature within one of these 25 gorgeous “Secret Places.” And let’s continue protecting them for the future to enjoy as well.


THE MURDER RULE by Dervla McTiernan

The Murder Rule
By Dervla McTiernan
William Morrow — May 2022
ISBN: 9780063042209
— Hardcover — 304 pp.


Hannah Rokeby reads an article in the popular press about The Innocence Project at the University of Virginia and the founder behind it, attorney/professor Rob Parekh. A program set in place to check and correct imbalances in the US legal system, The Innocence Project fights to prevent or overturn wrongful convictions and related injustices. But, Hannah is a bit skeptical about Parekh’s motivations, and she is particularly alarmed to see the project’s current poster case: fighting for the release of Michael Dandridge, a man convicted of rape and murder. Parekh and his team seem convinced of Dandridge’s innocence. But Hannah is aware of a relevant past history that no one at the Innocence Project could possibly know. Hannah knows this man is a monster.

As the novel opens, Hannah is working on her first steps of an elaborate plan to earn a coveted spot with the ace team of students working closest to Parekh on the high-profile Dandridge case. She will do anything that is needed to achieve that. And then she will destroy any hope that Dandridge has of seeing freedom.

McTiernan writes this page-turning legal thriller in a way that slowly reveals Hannah’s plans and motivations. A diary kept by her mother serves as the catalyst for Hannah’s radical actions, and the reader sees the contents of these pages in chronological order interspersed with chapters from Hannah’s point-of-view. Written when her mother was around the age Hannah now is, the diary testifies to how her mother’s life became debilitated and turned to alcohol to give Hannah the familial life she now has.

I don’t want to reveal more about the plot to avoid the surprises of a good mystery/thriller, but I can talk a little bit more about the central theme of the novel and why it resonated for me. The Murder Rule is all about story, what we choose to believe as the truth, and what we view with skepticism. Having just sat on a jury in a murder trial myself (even as I read this novel), I can’t think of any considerations more important than these within the law, justice, and punishment. Hannah herself sums up the human tendency to run with assumptions and accept false narratives:

“We, I mean people, all of us, we love a story. We want a hero. We want a bad guy. We want a beginning, a middle, and an end. And life is more complicated than that but we love it when we’re served up a story and sometimes if we don’t get it, we make it for ourselves. We believe only the facts that suit the story we like and we ignore everything else.”

The Murder Rule reveals how true this is, in ways unexpected for all of its characters, both primary and secondary. McTiernan actually plays with this from the very opening of the novel, which is presented as an email exchange between Hannah and Parekh. The text of those emails, with no other context, heavily implies that Parekh is guilty of sexual misconduct, and other offenses linked to that. However, once Hannah and Parekh meet we find additional information that this is actually not the case. We didn’t have the whole story yet to really make the correct judgement.

Hannah’s personality is an aspect that I adored about the novel. Though extreme and misguided in ways that could lead many readers to find her unsympathetic or dislikable, I found traits of her character to show, at heart, a tenacity for justice and loyalty. There is a complexity here of someone doing horrible things, for the right reason – or the utterly wrong reason, that shows the complexities and possible errancy of human decisions. Now, consider that ordinary people make exactly such decisions every single day in court rooms when deciding the fate of other people. This complexity is the heart of the Innocence Project in the novel (and the real one in life.) Still not perfect, it’s an added check to a generally imperfect system.

The title of the novel is another layer of complexity to what otherwise might be read as a simplistic legal thriller. It refers to the Felony Murder Rule, a legal doctrine whose merits Hannah and another character discuss in the novel. How this doctrine relates to the plot of the novel is a little less obvious. Directly, I don’t know as it is. However, in its general sense as a matter of ‘transfer of intent’ it is most certainly relevant. The Murder Rule revolves around the delicate uncertainties of agency and intent in crime, not just murder, but broadly.

For reasons of plot, once the diary text by Hannah’s mother has been fully revealed, chapters stick to Hannah alone, with one glaring exception: a chapter near the close fo the novel written from the point-of-view of a male secondary character who works with Hannah on Parekh’s team for the Dandridge case. The consistency and pattern of the novel could have been aided by finding some way to work around this bit of plot that Hannah is not present for. It’s a minor point, but such architecture and consistency bears some aesthetic import for me at least.

The other negative thing I would have to say about the novel is that it is a sort of missed opportunity to get into the social justice that the Innocence Project and its ilk provide. The characters of the novel don’t really allow exploration of the political or sociological issues relevant to this topic at all. McTiernan could have delved into that more without sacrificing the deeper legal ethics she goes into generally or the entertainment of a well plotted and paced thriller.

Nonetheless, The Murder Rule provides a good amount for a diverse audience to chew on. It’s sure to be enjoyed by readers who are looking for an easy summer thriller to read in leisure, but it’s also a story whose deeper themes invite some optional introspection and consideration.