THE MONSTER OF ELENDHAVEN by Jennifer Giesbrecht

The Monster of Elendhaven
By Jennifer Giesbrecht
Tor.com Publishing — September 2019
ISBN: 9781250225689
— Paperback — 160 pp.


A decaying, disease-infested city in the frigid North, Eldenhaven is populated by many sorts of unsavory characters, profiting on the misery of others as the city apocalyptically slouches on the edge of the sea into grimy ruin. But stalking among them is a monster, a man – a creature. Born of Eldenhaven: its magic, its perversity, its cruelty, this monster has given himself the name Johann, and he thrives on the messy violence of taking lives, unstoppable. With hazy to no memories of his existence before he washed up on the docks of the city, Johann’s lust for murder seems beyond his control, or escape, for he does not seem able to die.

One day, Johann observes another monster, Florian Leickenbloom, a young man who can influence the minds of others. A magician. Coming from one of the former leading (founding) houses of Eldenhaven, Florian couldn’t look any different from the rough lower-class edges of Johann. But beneath outward appearances, Johann can see the vile nature, something maybe more darkly powerful than himself, and something also beautiful. Together, Johann and Florian begin to discover one another, forming a twisted relationship that spins with threads of their pasts, and a tragedy surrounding Florian’s deceased twin sister Flora. Meanwhile, a woman named Eleanor has arrived in Eldenhaven, in search of Florian and looking for monsters to slay.

I’ve been watching a bunch of the TV program Oddities recently, and one of the things that I appreciate about the people featured on the show is how they find beauty in the dark and macabre, even in cold, indifferent tragedy or horror. It’s a quality that attracts many to the horror genre as fans, a way of seeing and remembering the human inherent in mortality and even within the monstrous. The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht is a book for that sort of person. Gruelingly dark at times, the novella features a Victorianesque gothic atmosphere brought alive by some of the most luscious prose I’ve seen in the genre. It mixes modern in with the antiquated vibe, making this feel a lot like steampunk, though without the technology aspect.

The blurb by Joe Hill on the cover is no exaggeration. Giesbrecht writes poetically and honestly no matter what the topic of focus: architecture, a blood-splattering murder, a character’s outfit, a rape. The prose isn’t for the squeamish, and those wishing to avoid reading certain dark topics might wish to stay away. It is a story from the point of view of a serial killer, after all. But, nothing of this is gratuitous. And it is not merely just Grim Dark. Beneath the moments of violence (physical or mental) is a study of characters, a study of relationships among people who have been broken, in a city coming apart. Even amongst all of that darkness sits something beautiful, something of love.

As twisted as the relationship is between Florian and Johann, and as awful as they each individually are, together they hold the possibility of redemption for one another. Saying too much about this would spoil the major revelations of The Monster of Elendhaven, but the bubbling eroticism between these two represents a fascinating study on the question of power imbalances in relationships. Who is the exploiter and who is the exploited between the two is not so clear. And, as wrong as so much is about their relationship, it has the power to make some things more right. But will it? And is it ‘okay’ if it does?

Like Oddities, the novella forces its characters (and thus the reader) to look at things that might be uncomfortable and horrendous and consider what can be learned from it, or how something gorgeous might be made from it. That is one of the things that the horror genre does so well. The ending to The Monster of Elendhaven doesn’t seem to neatly wrap things up or give answers to these questions as some readers might crave. There is definitely room here for Giesbrecht to take and resolve things further, and I really hope that she does return to this world and its characters.

I read The Monster of Elendhaven back in October, a perfect fit for the Halloween season. Just getting to a review of it now and thinking about it, I would be just as happy reading it any time of the year. I also read it back-to-back with Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, another dark offering from Tor.com Publishing I’d recommend. I plan to also feature that here soon while also covering its sequel Harrow the Ninth. If you happened to read those novels of The Locked Tomb series already and enjoyed them, I think you’d likewise enjoy Jennifer Giesbrecht’s novella.


THE WORM AND HIS KINGS by Hailey Piper

The Worm and His Kings
By Hailey Piper
Off Limits Press — November 2020
ISBN: 9780578779799
— Paperback — 116 pp.


I’m very happy to see the start of this new publisher devoted to horror, Off Limits Press. I took advantage of a sale they had on two of their first releases, this novella and Crossroads by Laurel Hightower, and the other day I just received a copy of Tim McGregor’s novel Hearts Strange and Dreadful for review. That one is just released today, so I hope to get it read and reviewed up here soon. If Haley Piper’s The Worm and His King is any indication of their quality, I’ll be happy to keep up with all of Off Limits horror releases.

The Worm and His Kings does an awful lot in just a little over one-hundred pages. Cosmic horror used to symbolize one woman’s journey of resilience and strength, its plot is fairly straightforward to encapsulate, but doesn’t do the book’s rich characterization or complex themes justice. But, it is the framework for those things:

Monique and Donna have fallen on hard times. Forced out of their New York City apartment with the rising rents of the early 1990s, they end up in a shelter, and now Monique is on the street without Donna, who has gone missing. Donna is just one of several ‘invisible’ people in the city that have not just been lost, but have been taken. Monique has seen a taloned monster, the Gray Maiden, creeping from the tunnels and taking other homeless through the cracks into the subterranean underside of the city’s belly. Monique sleeps in the tunnel beside a strange spot that all others avoid, a spot that her senses tell her is a bleak nothingness. There, when she next sees the Gray Maiden appear, come for prey, Monique follows it into the lair of a frightening cult, to find and rescue Donna.

During Monique’s journey into the underworld she another woman looking for a professor friend who infiltrated the cult, and together they follow suit, trying to blend into the horror they discover, ignorant of what exactly it all entails. Monique finds the courage to keep going – to never give up – with thoughts of her devotion to Donna, and recollection of horrors she already has faced and survived: a family who has ostracized her, and a criminally incompetent back-alley surgeon who botched her sexual reassignment surgery with intent to merely harvest organs from her for the black market.

Monique’s history, and the nature of the cult, the Gray Maiden, and the fate of Donna are only gradually revealed as Monique’s journey from surface tunnel into the depths of the otherworldly cult occurs. The story shines as a positive example of a transexual’s journey of discovery; acceptance of everything they always have been. Even with the dark tones of horror, and body horror of botched surgery, Piper’s message becomes that a human being – including transexuals – is not just about their physical body, but is something deeper and ingrained. In her past Monique never felt comfortable in her (male) body. Now that aspect of dysmorphia may be gone, but she still feels the scars of the surgery and not feeling fully female now either. Her relationship with, and support from, Donna drives her to overcome these doubts. They fuel her mission to find her strengths, who she really is, to be reunited with the woman who makes her feel whole, healed and just right.

Cosmic horror is not my favorite sub-genre (despite how much of it I seem to have read recently), and some of the hopeless darkness inherent to it I feel battles somewhat against the positive themes of empowerment in the novella. Cosmic horror is about the individual, the human, being powerless, against the cosmic evil (as I understand it at least). This novella subverts that, yet also its ending still provides heavy doses of uncertainty and darkness that one might traditionally expect.

Piper also effectively sets the pace and rhythm of the novella, each chapter like a step, revealing more. Not every moment is taken up by action, but Monique’s sense of purpose provides a momentum that drives things forward all the same. Once she steps onto the path of her journey things proceed in a rush, and details come in a blur. Important observations, or key memories, arrive in a burst, easy to miss if not reading carefully for the nuance. This permits Piper to fit everything into the slim novella length, but also keeps the reader fully engaged. The reader, along with Monique, muddles through the uncertainties to reach the revelations.

The characters in The Worm and His Kings are the destitute and oppressed, those that feel powerless against the world, let alone a cosmic horror and its giant clawed monsters. Even the acolytes of the cult are victimized, misled and turned towards something awful in their despair, succumbing to what they see inevitable. Monique demonstrates this doesn’t have to be the case, that resistance and perseverance alone become form of victory.

Like the best of weird horror, Piper’s novella chills and entertains, but potently reflects the horrific in society that we can resist: economic divisions, bigotry, misogyny, and the temptations to just give up. Off Limits Press is still offering deals on their first releases, and whether you can take advantage of those or not, The Worm and His Kings is a shining gem that the genre fans should appreciate.


DEPARTMENT ZERO by Paul Crilley

Department Zero
By Paul Crilley
Pyr Books — January 2017
ISBN: 9781633882010
— Paperback — 320 pp.


For some reason my reading over the last days has featured a good amount of cosmic horror, a sub-genre I don’t dislike, but also don’t gravitate toward. Given this, I thought it might be a good time to feature Paul Crilley’s 2017 novel Department Zero for a review from the backlist. Supernatural horror equal parts cosmic and comic, Department Zero has accurately been compared to the Men in Black series concept, with monsters in place of aliens. But, it also features characterization and motivation in its protagonist that goes beyond what those films attempted, and a multiversed panorama of settings and Lovecraftian creatures.

If you read any of my short fiction reviews, or the one I’ll soon write on Hailey Piper’s The Worm and His Kings, you’ll already know that I haven’t read Lovecraft. And even with the number of cosmic horror stories inspired by his style and creations, I don’t pay attention to, or care, who’s who or what’s what. Department Zero can be enjoyed without knowing anything about Lovecraft’s stories. I imagine it would be even more enriching for fans of the sub-genre who might get references. But, the heart of the story, its humor, and its non-stop moving action persist even if stripped from the cosmic horror particulars.

The protagonist of the novel is Harry Priest, a good-hearted – but generally failing-at-life – guy, whose job is to clean up deaths at crime/accident scenes. Stability at least accompanies this unpleasant occupation, stability that keeps him up with financial responsibilities to his ex-wife and continued visitations with his beloved daughter. No matter what crappy kind of day he has, Harry’s sole priority in life is getting to say goodnight to his daughter with a bedtime story.

On what he expects to be a routine biohazard removal job, Harry discovers something inexplicably bizarre amid the gory scene, and soon finds himself targeted by unfathomable creatures of nightmare. Harry’s actions at the crime scene draw the attention of one Havelock Graves, a self-absorbed agent for the Interstitial Crime Department (ICD), whose team has been demoted to “Department Zero” in punishment for the botched crime scene that Harry has accidentally disturbed. Harry has now been targeted by an evil cult that thinks he is involved in their multidimensional schemes, forcing Harry to join up as part of Graves’ team to reinstate them to ICD’s good gracious, and to thwart a criminal plan that spans the dimensions. The cult seeks the Spear of Destiny, a tool that can be used to free the cosmic entity/god Cthulhu from his dreamlike stasis.

Department Zero thus represents one huge mashup novel: science fiction, fantasy, gory horror, with a bit of mystery/thriller mixed in, all written with a lighthearted tongue-in-cheek humor from Harry’s point of view. No single one of these elements really works to overtake the rest, and Crilley keeps the engaging plot moving swiftly so that on a whole these disparate genre elements just all add up to a simply entertaining read.

The rapid pace of the novel has some downside to it, in that the reader doesn’t get too much of a chance to breathe or appreciate the multiverse as much as might be possible with more extensive scene-setting. On the other hand, like a good action movie, it keeps readers from worrying too much about the sense or silliness of it all, and simply instead just enjoying the ride. The main moments of ‘down-time’ from the novel’s plot propelling forward in action come from the grounded characterization of Harry Priest’s love for his daughter. Amid all the craziness and fantasy, there is something purely human and ‘realistic’ in his motivations and desires.

I suspect that the most prominent factor to Department Zero that will determine whether a reader likes the novel or decides to put it down unfinished will come down to appreciation of the humor. Some may find it too much, but others will find the quirkiness to hit the spot. It’s hard to predict where potential readers may lie, but if this summary and genre mash-up peaks your interest, it’s a wacky entertainment worth trying out. The blog Books, Bones & Buffy: Adventures in Speculative Fiction has an excerpt available for download, which might help potential readers decide if the novel’s tone is the right fit.

While Department Zero was not a book I was particularly looking for, it was one of those random ARC finds that left me pleased and glad that it found me.


THE TEN THOUSAND DOORS OF JANUARY by Alix E. Harrow

The Ten Thousand Doors of January
By Alix E. Harrow
Redhook (Orbit) — September 2019
ISBN: 9780316421997
— Hardcover — 374 pp.


I discovered Alix E. Harrow’s writing in Shimmer Magazine, where it matched the former ezine’s title so perfectly that her name stuck in my memory to be recognized in later short fiction I came across as: ‘oh, this is an author who wrote something that really resonated with me.’ Typical for that reaction, it was a combination of her power with words and the insights that lay behind her stories that captured my attention. In 2019 when I saw that she had a debut novel coming out, I jumped on the opportunity to read and review it. I devoured it, and mulled over its magic and beauty for awhile after, but academic priorities put the review on the back-burner until now. Since then, The Ten Thousand Doors of January has garnered numerous award nominations, and I’ve purchased Harrow’s second novel, The Once and Future Witches, now in my priority TBR pile. If you’re unfamiliar with these works still, I hope this backlist review brings Harrow’s debut novel into your list of books to read.

January Scaller has been raised through childhood in the care of the seemingly kindly Mr. Cornelius Locke in his sprawling estate, amid the antiques, rarities, and oddities that her wealthy guardian has collected. Her mother has been gone since January was a baby. January’s father, Julian, works for Mr. Locke, traveling far and wide to obtain exotic items for Locke and other members of the Archaeological Society. With her father away for long stretches of time, January is left to grow up surrounded by wonders, but is trained to keep a proper distance from them, or the activities of the men in the Society. Though she never completely loses the curious, precocious nature of her childhood, January becomes molded according to Locke’s vision. As she matures into a teen, January feels more isolated and confined, never fully at home. As stated in the publisher’s description, January feels like another one of Locke’s rare, exotic treasures, “carefully maintained, largely ignored, and utterly out of place.”

Things change for January around her seventeenth birthday, with the discovery of a book: “The Ten Thousand Doors”. Therein she reads a story about Ade Larson, a young woman who finds a door that leads to a strange land, and to love. January recalls her own discovery of a similar door earlier in her childhood, and Mr. Locke’s attempts then to suppress January’s curiosity and excitement. Confronting Locke with her book, memories, and growing questions January becomes threatened by the true nature of her guardian and the Society that employs her father. Told that her father has gone missing and presumed dead, but with indications otherwise, January’s calm and lonely life becomes overturned in dangers and new discoveries.

Luckily for January, she is not alone. Supporting her are a childhood friend, Samuel, a faithful dog ironically named Bad, and a warrior protector sent by Julian named Jane. Helped on her journey by this trio of trusted companions, January discovers that the tale in “The Ten Thousand Doors” is intertwined with her history, and the nefarious plans of Locke and the Archaeological Society.

Though described as a portal fantasy, The Ten Thousand Doors of January doesn’t conform to one of the major aspects that readers might expect from that connotation. The novel is indeed full of physical doors, portals between worlds. But, this is not a story focused on the journey of a protagonist through these portals and some other world, like a Narnia, or the Thomas Covenant epic fantasies. The portals here serve as an influence on the plot, as a backdrop for its world(s) and the setup of its characters. Far beyond that, they serve a symbolic role as gateways of change. They can be opened to new possibilities, or they can be shut to maintain the status quo. The book-within-a-book of the novel exists as just another type of door, full of the same symbolism. Books may be opened to allow a broadening of knowledge, a discovery of new worlds. Or they can be kept closed, dusty and unread, to keep learning limited and controlled.

Harrow also builds the symbolic change of moving through doors, back and forth, forward and backward, into the narrative structure of the novel, alternating between chapters from January’s present point of views and chapters from “The Ten Thousand Doors” book that January finds, recounting the past. This creates a situation where the first half of the novel is all about character establishment and discovery. As readers along with January, we learn of realities and possibilities from the book she discovers. In the meantime we learn the context in which January finds herself, and begin to see the nature of the secondary characters around her.

While slower moving, the start to the novel is where the care of Harrow’s writing can really be felt at a tempo to bask in and fully appreciate:

I returned to my ledger copying after dinner feeling sullen and strangely rubbed raw, as if there were invisible chains chafing against my skin. The numbers blurred and prismed as tears pooled in my eyes and I had a sudden, useless desire for my long-lost pocket diary. For that day in the field when I’d written a story and made it come true.

My pen slunk to the margins of the ledger book. I ignored the voice in my head that said it was absurd, hopeless, several steps beyond fanciful — that reminded me words on a page aren’t magic spells — and wrote: Once upon a time there was a good girl who met a bad dog, and they became the very best of friends.

There was no silent reshaping of the world this time. There was only a faint sighing, as if the entire room had exhaled. The south window rattled weakly in its frame. A sick sort of exhaustion stole over my limbs, a heaviness, as if each of my bones had been stolen and replaced with lead, and the pen dropped from my hand. I blinked blurring eyes, my breath half-held.

But nothing happened; no puppy materialized. I returned to my copy work.

Sometimes words written on a page are a sort of magic spell. Harrow’s magic continues through the novel, but after the establishment of characters and the start of January’s (and our) discovery of the history within the book, the action kicks in. And it kicks in to drive the plot at a more rapid speed that twists and turns all the way to The Ten Thousand Doors of January‘s satisfying conclusion.

Through this all, it is January who really shows the sole development of character, transforming from a docile girl who has been ‘curated’ by Mr. Locke into a fiercely assertive young woman. The other characters mainly exist as they are, like types. Some have criticized this about Harrow’s novel, but to me it fit perfectly. The novel is set in the early 1900s, with events chronicled in “The Ten Thousand Doors” taking place just prior. The setting of the novel and its atmosphere evoked familiarity to that age just prior, particularly the works of Dickens. January as protagonist represents change, a more modern world coming into/from an era where the things worked differently, where power distributed differently, that represented in the other characters. Harrow’s characters are very Dickensian, from the careful names that she gives to them to their representation of a particularly kind. This is most classically apparent in the villain Mr. Locke, but also in the weary, exploited Julian, the mentor protector Jane, and the love/devotion embodied by Samuel and Bad.

Dickens’ novels were also more than just money-making entertainment. They are filled with political and social commentary. Just look at A Christmas Carol. Harrow does the same sort of thing with The Ten Thousand Doors of January, using her characters, the situations they are in, and the symbolism of doors to speak to things like colonialism, race, class, and gender. The old order of power resists change and the opening of doors. Yet, brave individuals fight to open the doors and remove barriers. It’s a simple and powerful message that could be made rather tritely, but Harrow achieves it skillfully, as you would find in Dickens.

The final avenue taken with the door metaphor in The Ten Thousand Doors of January gets summed up early in the novel by the protagonist:

At this point, you’re thinking this story isn’t really about Doors, but about those more private, altogether more miraculous doors that can open between two hearts. Perhaps it is in the end — I happen to believe every story is a love story if you catch it at the right moment, slantwise in the dusk — but it wasn’t then.

Doors opening to romantic interests figure into the novel, but it is this aspect of The Ten Thousand Doors of January that comes across as most forced, in an instance even unnecessary. Since it might have been developed more if anything, this aspect is certainly not intrusive to enjoying the novel, even if it doesn’t seem natural.

After all this, the letter included in the ARC I received from Nivia Evans, the Redhook/Orbit editor sums The Ten Thousand Doors of January up perfectly:

It’s easy to say it’s mesmerizing ad absorbing, that it’s a tale of fathers and daughters, lost homes, inherited stories, and magical doors…

…But there are three things you need to know:

1. There’s magic hidden in our myths and fables.

2. The smallest, most ignored voice can shift the world in unexpected ways.

3. [This novel] will leave you dreaming of all the doors waiting to be explored and will linger in your mind for years to come.

I’m now eager again to dig into The Once and Future Witches. And Harrow has a novella coming out this year from Tor.com (A Spindle Splintered). One way or the other they’ll find their way here for review too. Go find her work and become enraptured along with me.


THE KRAKEN SEA by

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Skiffy & Fanty BookTube Roundup

If you didn’t already know, I contribute reviews to the Hugo-nominated Skiffy & Fanty Show, and sometimes they even allow me to take part in their podcasts. The gang has recently started adding features to our YouTube channel, including BookTube recordings. If you like SciFi and Fantasy (yes, that is where the name comes from) and don’t already subscribe to the podcast and/or YouTube, what are you waiting for?

So far, I’ve only contributed two BookTube reviews, and I have one more to record. I tried to pick shorter books received, so two of these are novellas I had been sent from the Tor.com press. I hope more will eventually come, but in the mean-time I thought it would be worthwhile to also post short written reviews here on the three books I covered:


Vigilance
By Robert Jackson Bennett
Tor.com Publishing — January 2019
ISBN: 9781250209436
208 Pages — Paperback

I’ve wanted to start The Divine Cities trilogy from him (hearing nothing but great things about it), but bookstores always seem to have all but the first book. So, I was happy to see this in the mail and have a chance to read something else by him. On the other hand, I immediately was put off by the cover and title. Like Batman and MacGyver, I loathe guns, and didn’t feel particularly eager to delve into a story about gun violence, even if satirical and critical. However, once started I couldn’t put it down, drawn into this near-future America where reality TV, terrorist threats, and cultural/moral apathy merge into a frightening, violent landscape. Bennett’s writing is brutal and unsubtle in both action and politics, the setup at first seems so over-the-top to appear unbelievably absurd as any type of realistic extrapolation for the future. But as you continue through the story and consider where we are, and how that trajectory could continue into the future if unchecked, it begins to seem horrifyingly more plausible were people to continue to lose hope and fall into despair. Even with all of its darkness, the satire and absurdity of it also makes for some humor, albeit dark humor. Short, powerful, and well worth reading.


©1998 EyeWire, Inc.

The Revenant Express
(Newbury and Hobbes Investigations #5)
By George Mann
Tor Books — February 2019
ISBN: 9780765334091
256 Pages — Hardback

Making the mistake of just glancing at its size and cover, I opened this book expecting it to be a young adult novel. Scant pages in with the grisly description of a murder victim, I realized the error. A lack of – or misplaced – expectations did nothing to dim my enjoyment for this exciting adventure, even without reading any of the previous books in the series. It took me a little while to understand the timeline of events that start this book, and their placement relative to those from the prior book in the Newbury & Hobbes Investigations series. A fair amount of character quirks and development also became lost to me because I began this mid-story, and this book 5 of the series is in fact the conclusion to a book 4 cliff-hanger. Thus, even though I enjoyed the steampunk/horror/mystery/spy adventure mashup of this, if you aren’t a reader of this series, it probably would be best to start at its beginning. I liked the mashed-up elements, despite not being a huge fan of steampunk, and in large part the enjoyment came from the story’s engaging female characters. If I come upon the earlier books of this series I’d pick them up without hesitation to read more.


The Test
By Sylvain Neuvel
Tor.com Publishing — March 2019
ISBN: 9781250312839
112 Pages — Paperback

Another dystopic vision from Tor.com, Neuvel’s explores speculative technological advancements to probe human psychology and the themes of immigration, community, and family. While answering examination questions for British Citizenship, Idir’s nervous anticipation and hopefulness are blasted away when a team of terrorists enter the immigration office, take hostages, and begin executing people. What this story says about psychology, morals, fear, and power is a brilliant commentary on immigration, nationalism. At the same time the story serves as a cautionary one on the dangerous ways that technology could be turned. Reading The Test, you might think you can see where Neuvel is taking things, and how he will go about it, but you begin to suspect what in the story might be really happening or not, forcing you into the same position of uncertainty as the characters find themselves. A reviewer I follow on Goodreads, Emily May, calls this a Black Mirror episode in novella format, and having now finally seen the show, I’d 100% agree. In fact, this should just be adapted into an episode, it would pack one hell of a punch. But for now, go read this touching and disturbing masterpiece.

A LARGER REALITY, Edited by Libia Brenda

A Larger Reality:
Speculative Fiction from the Bicultural Margins
Edited by Libia Brenda
Kickstarter — Cúmulo de Tesla — 2018
190 Pages — eBook


A bilingual anthology available for FREE download in English or Spanish, A Larger Reality: Speculative Fiction from the Bicultural Margins (Una realidad más amplia: Historias desde la periferia bicultural) arrived via a Kickstarter campaign initiated by The Mexicanx Initiative, with help from Fireside Magazine.

Awhile back I discussed this collection with Trish Matson and Brandon O’Brien as part of the “Reading Rangers” series of short fiction review/discussion for Skiffy & Fanty. You can listen to the podcast here for all of our varied thoughts on it.

Edited by Libia Brenda, the collection has a diverse selection of stories that span speculative classifications from science fiction to fantasy to horror. Some are lighter adventures and some are more serious in tone, or more experimental in style. At least among the three of us in the “Reading Rangers” discussion, we differed on which we enjoyed most versus didn’t appreciate. But readers are likely to find several stories here of interest, and all give a unique Mexicanx perspective. Approximately half are translated from the Spanish for the English edition, with the remainder presumably translated from the English for the Spanish one.

The highlights for me were:

“Fences” by José Luis Zárate and translated by Joey Whitfield is a post-apocalyptic story that makes a great start to the collection by introducing a theme that pops up in other stories as well, the falsity of being restricted to or choosing between binary identity. Caught between two worlds both literally and figuratively, the protagonist of the story is a character that can be recognized by anyone who has lived abroad.  

“Aztlán” Liberated” by David Bowles is a science fiction military adventure featuring chupacabras that features indigenous characters in empowering roles. Reading it gives you feeling of watching an action movie.

 “A Truth Universally Accepted” by Julia Rios features themes and a plot that aren’t unfamiliar, but Rios uses them to create a potent exploration of identity and subjectivity. I’m not a fan of things written in the second person, but somehow this still worked for me.

“Kan/trahc” by Iliana Vargas and translated by Adrian Demopolus is a fascinating work that features a loss of coherence in both the protagonist and the text. Dark and surreally weird, the story has many levels of interpretation and is one that bears rereading.

“Ring a Ring ‘o Roses” by Raquel Castro and translated by Ruth Clarke involves a young girl who brings her pet zombie to school. One of a couple more comedic stories in the collection, this was both funny and touching, revealing the insecurities of childhood and how adults so easily ignore what children are up to.

“It All Makes Sense Here” by Alberto Chimal with translation by Jesse Ward, and “Music and Petals” by Gabriela Damián Miravete with translation by Megan Berkobien represent two of the more horrific stories in the collection. Many of Chimal’s stories deal with ambiguity, and here it is with what constitutes ‘monsters’ and how they are perceived and feared in society. Miravete’s story is a psychological horror of family secrets that is also quite disturbing.

“Clean Air will Smell like Silver Apricots”, written and translated by Andrea Chapela, with editing by Kelsi Vanada ends the collection with a poignant science fiction look at grief and memorials. Its bittersweet tone makes a nice palate cleanser after the stories that preceded.

As a contributor to Rachel Cordasco’s Speculative Fiction in Translation empire and champion of more translated fiction in general, I really appreciated the endeavor that this anthology represents. The high quality of the stories made it a success, and if you haven’t read it yet, you should go download a copy now. You can’t beat free.

CONTENTS:

  • “Fences” by José Luis Zárate (Translated from the Spanish by Joey Whitfield)
  • “Aztlán” Liberated” by David Bowles
  • “A Truth Universally Accepted” by Julia Rios
  • “Matachín” by Felecia Caton Garcia
  • “Kan/trahc” by Iliana Vargas (Translated from the Spanish by Adrian Demopolus)
  • “The Binder” by Angela Lujan
  • “Ring a Ring ‘o Roses” by Raquel Castro (Translated from the Spanish by Ruth Clarke)
  • “Shoot” by Pepe Rojo
  • “It All Makes Sense Here” by Alberto Chimal (Translated from the Spanish by Jesse Ward)
  • “Music and Petals” by Gabriela Damián Miravete (Translated from the Spanish by Megan Berkobien)
  • “Clean Air will Smell like Silver Apricots” by Andrea Chapela (Translated from the Spanish by the author, and edited by Kelsi Vanada)

ARCHMAGE by R.A. Salvatore

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Archmage (Forgotten Realms)
(Homecoming #1; The Legend of Drizzt #31)
By R.A. Salvatore
Wizards of the Coast – September 2015
ISBN 9780786965854 – 384 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


It astounds me that R.A. Salvatore is still writing Drizzt Do’Urden novels with a sense of freshness, telling stories that still captivate and entertain. Salvatore does this by sticking to the simple themes and core characters that have helped make him so successful, while adding a tinge of complexity through additional characters to focus on. Hardcore fans of his Forgotten Realms novels shouldn’t be disappointed with the start of this new sub-series.
I had read the first ten volumes within The Legend of Drizzt (comprised of three separate series) when I began to feel bored enough with the familiarity of the plots and its characters to consider just stop reading any more. Characters seem to die but come back, Drizzt seemed too perfect, and supporting heroes had become too predictable. I returned to Salvatore’s universe with the chance to read The Companions as part of the multi-author series The Sundering. This skipped me ahead in the saga to book 27, and I reviewed it here. That volume seemed to offer a reset button of sorts, but suffered in my view from existing as merely a set-up for the series to come, without lets of its own. I missed the trilogy that followed that reset and come to Archmage now behind on the overall Drizzt story arc from two fronts.
Archmage certainly references many events in the books I haven’t read yet, but I can’t say it significantly detracted from my enjoyment of the start to this sub-trilogy. Readers who have been away from Drizzt’s tales for awhile should be alright picking things back up again. (Though if you’ve never read any of them, I suggest you go back to the very start, publishing-wise, with The Crystal Shard.)
Salvatore creates compelling characters well, particularly outsiders or those with dark sides who still show signs of humanity. He wisely seems to have chosen not to completely abandon his bread-and-butter character of Drizzt, while also giving the novels room to explore other personalities. In Archmage that other personality that caught my attention is Gromph Baenre, the most powerful drow male of Menzoberranzan, the archmage of the novel’s title. His plot thread interwoven into a larger tapestry dealing with the role of males in drow society may also have been a larger part of previous entries I haven’t yet read. But for me Gromph and associated politics of the drow city became the most fascinating part of this novel, compelling because it shows there may be more possible for the drow than simple villainy against Drizzt and company.
Gromph’s brother Jarlaxle has appeared in previous novels (including ones I’ve read) as a more roguish figure who is neither good nor really an enemy. He continues that role here and I look forward to seeing how it mixes with Gromph’s plans that are set into motion (some accidentally) in Archmage. However, Jarlaxle also becomes somewhat problematic in serving as a quick fix in the plot to getting Drizzt out of dire situations.
In the end Archmage is a fairly typical Drizzt novel. Enjoyable, but not the best. At over thirty books just in this series, these novels are obviously pulp. Salvatore generally writes it really well though. Archmage suffers from problems that plague such a long-running series, particular with its familiar heroes. As the first in a trilogy its impact is also lessened in setting up promises for what is to come with Gromph, rather than achieving the development now. But for such a long running series, focusing now on new evolutions/directions for drow society and how that impacts their relationship with outcast Drizzt kept this fun, and leaves me willing to come back to for more reading candy.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

FALLING IN LOVE WITH HOMINIDS by Nalo Hopkinson

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Falling in Love with Hominids
By Nalo Hopkinson
Tachyon Publications – August 2015
ISBN 9781616961992 – 240 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


Contents:
“The Easthound”
“Soul Case”
“Message in a Bottle”
“The Smile on the Face”
“Left Foot, Right”
“Old Habits”
“Emily Breakfast”
“Herbal”
“A Young Candy Daughter”
“A Raggy Dog, a Shaggy Dog”
“Shift”
“Delicious Monster”
“Snow Day”
“Flying Lessons”
“Whose Upward Flight I Love”
“Blushing”
“Ours is the Pretties”
“Men Sell Not Such in Any Town”

“I didn’t used to like people much.” So starts Hopkinson in the forward to her third short fiction collection, Falling in Love with Hominids. The title comes from a line by science fiction author Cordwainer Smith, whose “Instrumentality of Mankind” work Hopkinson cites as an important influence on her own writing.
“I loved his imagination, style, the poetry of his writing, his compassion. Loved his sensibility in writing about a racialized, manufactured underclass and telling some of the stories from their context.”
The stories within this collection originate from across roughly a decade span of Hopkinson’s writing career; with varied styles and themes they are absolutely unified only in their author. So then who is Hopkinson?
Born in Jamaica and raised in Guyana, Trinidad, and Canada, Hopkinson writes speculative fiction and fantasy that typically includes elements of Caribbean culture and tradition. Many readers appreciate this perspective that her heritage provides the field, and she is equally valued for sincere inclusion of characters who may be any combination of people-of-colo(u)r, female, or queer. Such unique perspective alone shouldn’t define her work though. Above all Hopkinson is talented, attracting the respect of writers such as Junot Díaz and earning accolades such as the 1999 Campbell Award for Best New Writer.
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The uniqueness of her perspective also doesn’t mean that her writing is just for people like her. It’s really important to have books by all kinds of people, not just straight, white men. But that doesn’t mean that a book by a straight, white man can’t speak to a queer, black woman. Or in this case, the reverse. Hopkinson’s writing touches all those qualities that her quote on Cordwainer Smith mentions. She writes universal, core themes of what it is to be human, to deal with despair and to fight it. As her forward to the collection relates, this comes from her own evolution as an individual in society.

“One of the progressions I’ve made is from being a depressed teenager who saw how powerless she was to change all the ills around her to being a mostly cheerful fifty-something who realizes there are all kinds of ways of working together towards positive change… So part of the work of these past few decades of my life has been the process of falling love with hominids.”

The opening story of this collection, “The Easthound”, is an exquisite introduction to the range of Hopkinson’s writing. Set in a post-apocalyptic world where adults become ‘sprouted’ into creatures that kill and feed upon the living, the story uses setting and a minimized plot as backdrop to focus on characters and emotion. This balance – tending towards what typically gets called literary – is typical of Hopkinson’s stories. Also common for her work, here she takes a general premise that should be familiar to science fiction fans and puts on her unique twist. Her writing is not usually ‘light’ reading and some of her stories benefit from multiple reads because nuanced characteristics aren’t at first registered. Yet, “The Easthound” demonstrates that Hopkinson can write taut action sequences amid more quiet moments of deep character introspection. The language can vary from the straight-forward to a more artistic poetry, such as lines in this story that form part of a ‘Loup-de-lou‘ game that children play.
Because of her range as a writer, readers may not enjoy or appreciate all the stories in the collection. Some, like “Flying Lessons” or “Blushing” seem designed to challenge the author and reader alike. “Soul Case” puts a lot of complexity into a relatively small bit of space. (Not unlike, perhaps, fitting a  soul and intelligence into the limitations of a human body, the ‘soul case’ of the title). For some its explorations of politics, history, race, and humanity will work brilliantly. Others may wish its soul had more room to breathe, to develop within the novella length. “Shift” adds a Caribbean twist to The Tempest, another example of a story grounded in something familiar to contrast with stories that have elements more unconventional – and verging on bizarro, like in “Emily Breakfast” or “Snow Day”.
Overall this collection conveys a feeling of reading folklore. Readers particularly drawn to that style of fantasy will probably easily enjoy Falling in Love with Hominids, as Hopkinson uses the style effectively even in the context of a science fiction tale. Some of the stories here have been included elsewhere, including “Best of…” anthologies, pointing to Hopkinson’s success and recognition. If you haven’t yet experienced her writing, there is no better place to get a representative view of it as this.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard

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The House of Shattered Wings
(Dominion of the Fallen Book 1)
By Aliette de Bodard
Roc Books – August 2015
ISBN 9780451477385 – 402 Pages – Hardcover
Source: AceRocStars Street Team


Set in an alternate history, late 20th Century Paris that lies in near ruins, The House of Shattered Wings is a dark urban fantasy of competing houses who compete for control of the city. But these houses of noble power set in the ashes of a great apocalyptic conflict are not founded or controlled by humans, but by fallen angels and ancient magic. Once at the top of political influence, House Silverspires is in rapid decline, its powerful founder gone missing decades past, and its current members now targeted by a mysterious, unknown force. As its current leader tries to maintain House Silverspires’ existence, a trio of potent wild-cards fall under its protection: a human alchemist struggling with addiction and escape from past loss, a newly fallen angel, and a strange young man of rare abilities who appears neither human nor angel.
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Those who read the major markets for short speculative fiction and fantasy are likely familiar with Aliette de Bodard’s science fiction stories set within her alternate history Xuya Universe. Prior to reading The House of Shattered Wings this is the only writing I really knew her from, so I was surprised to find out the novel I anticipated was a fantasy. (I later learned she does have another alternate history fantasy series of novels from Angry Robot Books). This ignorance actually made me start the novel with optimistic expectation because I was curious to read something from her that I could approach more independently from my previous reading experiences of her SF.
Of her short fiction that I’ve read, I consistently find the stories to be beautifully written. A native French speaker, de Bodard’s English prose is spectacular and her dialogue is generally engaging. Despite this, her stories have been very hit or miss in enjoyment for me. Some pulled in my attention, while others I could just never fully connect with the plot or characters. Reading The House of Shattered Wings I felt similarly. Rarely do I feel so ‘wishy-washy’ over a book. I had a difficult time first getting into the novel, but slowly began to develop some more interest as the story unfolded. Yet, overall I never felt strongly connected to its characters (perhaps due to their being so many), and I found myself strongly regretting the absence of certain elements, while still enjoying fairly well those elements that were present.
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Another general way to state all of this: I understand how readers could both really love this book, while also find it a big disappointment despite the obvious quality of the writing and de Bodard’s talent. Because I felt all of this, like a tug-of-war, throughout my reading The House of Shattered Wings. So then, what specifically did I like and what did I feel was missing?
To start with my negative impressions, they stem from the complexity of de Bodard’s universe that she is introducing here. The first volume in a series, it contains a troop of characters of major importance, including multiple protagonists. It is a mashup of several speculative genres while also including a prominent mystery, several angles of romance, and some decent delving into matters of spirituality, culture, and mythology. It is rich and dense: a universe I really want to get to know filled with characters that should become dear to me. But it’s all too much for just this book, the first step in what is to be an even grander series. And despite those statements, I’m going to go on and say that I wished it had something more: a fuller setting. With fewer characters, fewer twists to the plot, and perhaps fewer focused themes there could have been some more room to see more of this post apocalyptic, alternate history Paris that the characters inhabit. Another reader I noticed use the word ‘claustrophobic’, and I think this is apt. The view is so close to the myriad characters that there is little direct sense of the physical world they inhabit.
The added bit of mystery genre to this novel, however, is one factor that really made me enjoy the story, particularly by its closing chapters as I finally also got the plethora of character identities under some type of memory, control. de Bodard incorporates the magic, the fantastic, into the politics of this universe really effectively. Towards another point of the novel’s strengths: I’ve read so many novels where I adore the setup and then become embittered by its ending. While The House of Shattered Wings may try to overdevelop its setup, it does takes all of its plot threads and ties them up satisfyingly well. I finished this pleased with its conclusion, and looking forward to what future books would bring, perhaps with a bit narrower focus.
If you’re familiar with de Bodard’s short fiction, then decisions on whether to read this novel should be easy, particularly if you have strong feelings one way or the other on urban fantasy featuring fallen angels (in a generically spiritual sense). For those unfamiliar with her writing, I suggest you try out some of her short fiction if you are curious, but hesitant, to start a full novel. She has several short stories set within the Dominion of the Fallen universe. Though I haven’t read those – like her other short stories – I suspect they are representative of the high quality of de Bodard’s writing, and also contain style,  plotting, or character that will permit you to judge the ‘fit’ for yourself.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher as part of the AceRocStars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.