FOR THE WOLF by Hannah Whitten

For the Wolf
(Wilderwood Book 1)
By Hannah Whitten
Orbit Books — June 2021
ISBN: 9780316592789
— Paperback — 437 pp.


To escape the will of the Kings, they fled into the far reaches of the Wilderwood. They pledged that were the forest to offer them shelter, they would give all they had for as long as their line continued, let it grow within their bones, and offer it succor. This they pledged through blood, willingly given, their sacrifice and bond.
The Wilderwood accepted their bargain, and they stayed within its border, to guard it and hold it fast against the things bound beneath. And every Second Daughter and every Wolf to come after would adhere to the bargain and the call and the Mark.
Upon the tree where they made their pledge, these words appeared, and I have saved the bark on which it is written:
The First Daughter is for the throne.
The Second Daughter is for the Wolf.
And the Wolves are for the Wilderwood.

Thus opens the first volume of Hannah Whitten’s Wilderwood series, a modern and atmospheric romantic fantasy that draws from deep folkloric roots of the “Animal as Bridegroom” archetype. As the first royal second daughter in centuries, Redarys (Red) has accepted her sacrifice to the monster within the mystical forest, taking in faith that the stories entwined with her fate are true. In contrast, her elder sister Neverah (Neve) skeptically pleads with Red to resist, and with their mother to stand up against the religious traditions.

Though wary of her uncertain future, Red feels equal fear at the prospects of staying home. She wrestles with her obligations to longtime friend Arick who harbors romantic feelings that she cannot bring herself to reciprocate. Even more, she worries about a mysterious power within her that once boiled to the surface in a dangerous moment that almost left Neve dead. Red remains uncertain of who she is, what she is. And, if the Wilderwild is indeed a part of that puzzle, she is ready to discover what that means. Perhaps she can even succeed where second daughters of the past have apparently failed: in convincing the Wolf to let the imprisoned Five Kings go free.

With Red’s entry into the Wilderwood to meet her destiny the novel steps into a rhythm of sets of chapters that focus on her third-person point-of-view, broken up by interludes from Neve’s. Though Red serves as novel’s protagonist, Whitten makes her sister’s importance clear. I imagine this will bear more fruit with a focus on the first daughter in the sequel For the Throne that is coming out this June.

Once in the cursed forest, Red comes upon a ruined castle and a man within. He is Eammon, the warden, the wolf, son of the original couple that made a pact with the mystical wood. She discovers that the myths she has learned don’t speak the entire truth. And she begins to explore powers within her that might not just keep her and Eammon safe, but also protect the Kingdom and the world beyond safe from the real monsters that are eager to spring forth from their containment. However, forces gather back in the Kingdom in the meantime to take exert control over Neve and block either her or Red from reaching their potentials.

For the Wolf is a novel that’s about two young women discovering not only what they are capable of, but what they want. It’s about learning to make difficult choices, but also embracing the freedom of having the agency to be able to make those choices for oneself. To really be in power, rather than needing another to provide it or permit it. If not already apparent over the course of the novel, Whitten transparently summarizes it within the novel’s climax:

It was time for choices. [Red] could see only one.
“Arick.” Her voice was hoarse.
“At his name, Arick’s eyes closed tighter. “I’m so sorry,” he said quietly. “We were all just trying to save you.”
“Come here.” Tears choked her. “Come here, please.”
A pause, then a lurch as he moved over the darkened ground. Red fought to keep herself steady against her childhood love’s broken stance and the sure knowledge of things vast and terrible stirring beneath her feet.
She reached up when he came close enough to touch, gently laid her fingers on his bloodied face. “I know you didn’t mean for this to happen.”
“No. But I didn’t care what was going to happen, not then.” There was shame in it, just barely. “I only wanted you safe.”
Red’s lips pressed white. All of them loved like burning, no thought for the ashes.
“I am safe.” Her hand left his face, fell to her dagger. She tried not to think on it, tried to let her body work without her mind’s direction. “I love Eammon, and he loves me. That’s safe.”
Another roar ripped through the grove. “Do you love he’s become?”
“We’ve both been monsters,” Red whispered. “I’ll love him, whatever he is.”
“You loved me once. You never said it, but you did.” Arick’s dry throat worked a swallow, eyes still pressed shut. “Didn’t you?”
“I did.” It was barely a whisper, this gentle thing that existed beyond truth and lie. Her fingers closed around the dagger hilt. “Not the way you wanted me to. But I did.”
His eyes opened. “Do it quick, then.”

The cover of For the Wolf, along with Red’s name, may lead readers to believe that the novel is a take on “Little Red Riding Hood”, but it really draws more from “The Beauty and the Beast”. Also, I would not characterize it is ‘dark’ fantasy as Jodi Picoult does in her cover blurb. It may not be bright or optimistic, but neither does it lie very close to horror. Brooding romantic fantasy would be a more apt description, and it’s an important consideration.

For the Wolf is well written, with fantastic prose and exceptionally lush visual imagery. The themes are great, and the world building is enticing. But, for my tastes Whitten emphasizes the style and plot to the neglect of fleshing out characters or the potential of that world building. The romance at the heart of the novel is not a sub-genre element I gravitate toward, because it’s a complex bundle of emotions and social patterns that get so often simplified to cliché. This seems particularly true with young love written all angsty and brooding. Eammon fits the mold perfectly, a rough and gruff exterior hiding a puppy dog core. The relationship between Red and Eammon reads very much like the bits I’ve read from YA fantasy formulas. Though Red is well developed, all other characters lack significant attention. I found this particularly unfortunate with secondary characters who give glimpses of interesting histories and personalities.

The magical system of the Wilderwood series, and the reality of its mythology become slowly revealed over the course of the novel, right on up to its close. Paradoxically, information is both repetitive and lacking in that Whitten provides some details multiple times while leaving other matters unanswered or unaddressed. Partially this comes from the character’s own ignorance and confusion on how the Wilderwood and its magical pacts work. But that also easily confounds the reader. I remain uncertain about the limits and possibilities of magic here, of the nature of the Five Kings, or the Shadowlands, or even the forest. I just know that somehow the union of Red and Eammon, and the supporting sisterhood of Red and Neve will somehow keep the world safe from evil.

Thus, there are a lot of individual elements to For the Wolf that make it an interesting novel, they just don’t come together in a way I found really satisfying, or emphasize the complexities and details I find most intriguing.

However, if you like a good romantic fantasy, made up of a tried-and-true formula done well, then this would certainly be a novel that you might love. Whitten’s writing is evocative with a stress on the magical atmosphere of the novel’s sylvan setting. The novel’s central themes are fantastic. I just yearned for something a bit more complex in character interaction and clearer in world-building from that foundation.

I still plan to read the sequel, For the Throne, which I’m scheduled to review in June for Fantasy Book Critic. I can imagine Whitten writing something that was more in my wheelhouse, even within this series, but regardless I know there is an audience for this, even if that’s not me.


ALL THE HORSES OF ICELAND by Sarah Tolmie

“… Fans of rich historical fiction, sumptuous prose, and the alluringly magical wonder of legend will eat up this short, transformative story. Tolmie takes the academic and renders a long-dead past into a timeless, vividly painted portrait of cultural exchanges, and the history-altering possibilities they can provide to the adaptable among us.”

Read my entire review of All the Horses of Iceland HERE at Fantasy Book Critic.

Tordotcom Publishing – March 2022 – Paperback – 112 pp.

SLIPPING by Mohamed Kheir (Translated by Robin Moger)

Slipping
By Mohamed Kheir
(Translated by Robin Moger)
Two Lines Press — June 2021
ISBN: 9781949641165
— Paperback — 260 pp.


Struggling journalist Seif decides to pursue a risky, but intoxicating story: a fresh exploration of Egypt that penetrates into the mystical and arcane realms that exist alongside the mundane, echoes from the past and hopeful susurrations of the future, scenes unnoticed and unfurling outside time. He partners with Bahr, an older man who has recently returned to the nation from exile, and carries within him expertise on the location and properties of these ethereal corners of the ancient land, urban and rural.

Along the journey Seif discovers insights into his past: unexpected connections between their fragmented discoveries and his own tumultuous experiences, between the characters they meet and people who have shaped his own life. Most notable is his former girlfriend Alya, a radiant woman with an otherworldly talent for song who disappeared from his life amid the chaos of the Arab Spring, and its revolutionary potential.

Slipping is an apt English title for Kheir’s novel. He constructs it with a fragmented architecture that mimics the parties and voices within the Egyptian state. The characters fluidly slip through time and space, dry reality and seemingly magical realms, memory and aspirations, in fractured revelatory moments. As Kheir steps around the investigatory tourism of Seif and Bahr, he intermixes chapters of other characters in unresolved flashes, people who turn out to be connected to a spot where the pair eventually visit (or visited). By the end all the loose threads and haziness clarify into coherent interconnected fabric of existence. Again, like a national identity composed of individual souls.

This architecture makes Slipping a bit of a challenging read. It’s a novel that’s short enough to easily be worth rereading, and seeing how things are constructed after already knowing how they all fit together. The challenge of Slipping also exists in its nature of magical realism. While technically qualifying as fantasy for some, it’s not always clear what is real, what is imaginary, what is symbolic, etc. But, in the end, I’m not sure if that matters much. Only in the sense that it gives the novel a very surreal kind of feel that celebrates uncertainty and even a bit of confusion.

Kheir (and Moger) temper the relatively heavy demands of following the plot and characters of Slipping by placing a huge portion of its artistic and entertainment value in the melody of its phrases and the richness of its atmosphere. The mysterious vocal talents of Seif’s girlfrind Alya are in part a personification of the musicality of the language in Slipping, a celebration of a culture and a nation though words. Not only written, but in their sound. Many parts of Slipping are outright poetic, demanding not just to be read, but heard. Performed.

This became particularly obvious to me when I had the opportunity to attend a remote online session organized by the publisher of the English translation here in the US, Two Lines Press [It may have also been sponsored by a book store, if memory serves. It’s been awhile now, at the height of the pandemic, so I can’t recall exactly, apologies.] The event featured a discussion between author Kheir and translator Moger, an enlightening bit of insight into the magic that went into making this text available to English language speakers here.

As part of that event, Kheir read a short section in the original Arabic. I cannot speak or decipher Arabic (though some of my current research students are now teaching me a bit :D) But, my goodness was it a beautiful passage to listen to. I followed along with Moger’s translation within my copy of the book. Like when listening to music with no words or lyrics I can’t decipher (hi early REM and Michael Stipe) the sound of the Arabic conveyed the mood, the emotion, set by the text exactly. Not telepathic, it was empathic. Robin Moger then also read from his translation and spoke a bit about the choices he made when working on being faithful to the text and its musicality.

Even without that event, Slipping is a testament to the power and preciousness of literature in translation. Though a challenging novel in many ways, it is easily emotionally resonant. Anyone who is in particular a fan of magical realism would also want to look into this, a gift to unwrap from the complexities of modern Egypt.


CHILDREN OF DEMETER by E.V. Knight

Children of Demeter
By E.V. Knight
Raw Dog Screaming Press — August 2021
ISBN: 9781947879331
— Paperback — 186 pp.


Sociologist Sarah Bisset needs her sabbatical not just for an academic recharge, but to find herself again following tragedy and betrayal. Her husband has died in a car accident, and with him in the vehicle was the mistress she didn’t know he had. She uses the insurance money to buy an infamous property in rural Wisconsin, a destination for her sabbatical research, but moreover an escape from her routine life and a home soured with memories of her duplicitous husband.

The purchased farmhouse and its lands are the former homestead of the Children of Demeter, a mysterious counterculture commune that led a seemingly peaceful hippie existence within the small community before disappearing overnight without trace or explanation in 1973. Partnering with a podcast that features stories of the unexplained (that is run by the son of her longtime friend) Sarah sets out to investigate the history of the agrarian hippie group and its enigmatic leader, interviewing longtime residents of the town and scope out the property, its lake, and the adjacent caves. Each bit of an answer they find only brings more questions.

Already confused by a personal relationship clouded in deception, Sarah begins to notice oddities around the house that begin to lead her to further question her identity, and her sanity. The secrets of the property and the twenty-five mostly women and children who once called it home come coupled with inexplicable oddities: signs of someone – or something – living in the basement, barren land where nothing will grow, a psychedelic mural depicting a strange creature coming from the lake, and a hostile neighbor who appears to want a dark past kept hidden.

I previously read and reviewed E.V. Knight’s The Fourth Whore from Raw Dog Screaming Press, a title that impressed me in its feminist themes and vibrant writing despite not being the genre of story that I’m particularly partial to. The plot of that novel necessitated a harsh, almost vitriolic tone and style, making a novel that while thought provoking and high quality, wasn’t ‘fun’ to read, or bewitching in that pleasurable way that some horror can do for me. Horror like a gothic ghost story. When I read the plot synopsis of Children of Demeter I knew this would probably be something I’d adore, a beloved sub-genre in the hands of an author who writes engagingly and who can place powerful feminist themes in an interesting light. Children of Demeter didn’t disappoint that expectation.

The mysteries of a possible haunting, the secrets of an old property and the uncertain nature of this cult of fertility and harvest make for a classically captivating gothic horror. Knight puts an interesting spin on this by tying it in with psychedelic hippie culture. At heart of the novel is not something of ghosts, monsters, or the true story of the cult’s past. It’s the nature of Sarah, her identity as a person, as a woman. It’s a psychological, or perhaps even a social, horror story, though those other paranormal elements do get their due, secrets become revealed. The journey toward that is just coupled to Sarah’s rocky path to self-rediscovery, both literal and metaphorical.

The only aspect of the novel that didn’t really work for me was the podcast angle. As a concept of the plot it works fine, the issue becomes Knight’s incorporation of the podcast dialogue into the novel. There is a cheesiness to the podcast presentation that takes away from the tone of the novel and Sarah’s point of view. It also ends up serving as a way to reveal information about the past quickly in the form of interviews. But, that doesn’t have as satisfying an effect on the reader than if these details were divulged in another format than a verbatim oral transcript.

Aside from these moments, the creepy slow build up and the ultimate climax of the novel play out pitch perfectly in a successful combination of mythology, classic horror, and modern themes. Knight has won the Bram Stoker award already for horror, but after reading this I feel as though she’d also have great things to contribute to the mystery/suspense genre. Children of Demeter could almost classify in that realm over horror. If mythology, mysterious cults and gothic tones are among your cherished elements of fiction, check this one out.


THE BONE FIRE by György Dragomán (Translated by Paul Olchváry)

… a brilliant novel about self-discovery, a coming-of-age within those shadows of the teen years before the Spring of adulthood. It’s a parallel for the self-discovery of a nation, or a people, formed through many past traumas and facing uncertain future. To make it through requires ritual, a bone fire cleaning of house that acknowledges those lost, the souls and sins of the past, a rite that strengthens the ties between the community of individuals who have survived to hang on to each other even amid failings.

Read my latest review of The Bone Fire at Speculative Fiction in Translation

Mariner Books – February 2021 – Paperback – 480 pp.

SAINT DEATH’S DAUGHTER by C.S.E. Cooney

Saint Death’s Daughter
By C.S.E. Cooney
Solaris (Rebellion Publishing) — April 2022
ISBN: 9781786184702
— Hardcover — 480 pp.


Not every story with a young adult protagonist is a young adult story. Though marketed as an adult fantasy, Saint Death’s Daughter features a set-up that is easy for prospective readers to gloss over and make a wrong assumption regarding target audience.

Teenage Miscellaneous (Lanie) Stones has lost both her parents within a month, the latest in an ancient family line serving the Royalty of Liriat as Assassin and Executioner. With her sister Amanita (Nita) Muscaria Stones away studying magic in Quadiib for the past four years, Lanie is left to face the family’s debts and future as the sole living soul within Stones Manor. However, though destined to be the next great necromancer from the Stone family line, Lanie has suffered from birth with an intense allergy to bloodshed, and violence in general, that manifests as physical trauma to her own body. How can she possibly be a powerful and successful necromancer with this disability?

Complicating Lanie’s situation further, Sari Scratch, the matriarch of a rival family, and the Stones’ creditor, is pressuring Lanie for payment, or marriage to one of her sons. In this time of fearful uncertainty, Lanie has precious few for company or solace: the Stones’ long-dead and magically bound servant Goody Graves, and the ghost of Irradiant Stones (Grandpa Rad) the previous family necromancer whose spirit is now trapped in the lock of a sarcophagus in the family ossuary (and longs to be free, restored to corporeal power).

The first part of Saint Death’s Daughter builds from this coming-of-age setup that is familiar from young adult literature. But Cooney’s novel approaches those themes with a dark complexity that combines playfulness with moments of uncompromising brutality.

Lanie’s maturation becomes tied with her elder sister, who returns home upon receiving the news from Lanie. Nita resolves to take over the position of Royal Assassin for Liriat to earn money that can keep Scratch creditors at bay. She is soon tasked in this with taking out powerfully dangerous enemies of Liriat: the four-and-twenty membered Court of wizards serving the Blackbird Queen Bran Fiakhna. With her from Quadiib, Nita has brought a man she has magically Fascinated and bonded, who she calls Mak. Able to transform between man and falcon, Mak’s abilities are completely under control of Nita’s call and whim.

The plot quickly goes beyond the set up and young-adult-novel trappings with intricate developments that I wouldn’t want to spoil. After its first part the novel jumps ahead seven years, continuing focus on Lanie’s struggles to develop as a necromancer, but now also as aunt to her fiery niece Sacred Datura Stones, daughter of Nita and Mak.

I immediately became enraptured by the gothic tones, sophisticated language, and compelling characters of Saint Death’s Daughter. It’s a large novel; it could have been conceivably split into two separate publications, but I think it works well as the single epic work it is. Cooney drops readers right into the story and world of the Stoneses, with its unique vocabulary, naming conventions, and societal structure. It requires some reader patience and attention to detail, but Cooney does a great job at introducing the essential elements to her characters and their world in a logical way that never feels like info-dump for its own sake, and permits the thrill of discovery. A brief glossary before the novel on names for time and deities in the novel seems unnecessary as most of these are not major or essential details in the novel, and may needlessly dissuade some readers.

The language is on one hand ornate, yet with Lanie’s point of view also alternates formality and intricacy with blunt flippancy and wit. This parallels the rigid social stratifications and traditions of Lariat and Quadiib and the contrasting youthful yearning of characters (like Lanie and Datu) to forge their own new way of doing things.

There is a gothic eccentricity to Saint Death’s Daughter that many others have likened to The Addams Family, and I wouldn’t disagree. Even with its dark themes, moments of despair, and unflinching violence/trauma, the novel still manages to be humorous and endearing. This is in no small part to how well Cooney writes the characters and their relationships with one another. Family is all. This is something many (if not all) can relate to – even when family members/ancestors may be horrific, selfish, or damaging. The next generation always represents hope.

Cooney’s world building is excellent in this fantasy, though not without limitations that some readers might criticize. The magic systems are fleshed out well, particularly the necromancy of Lanie. Cooney slowly introduces others as the novel progresses, particularly during the action sequences, culminating in a fantastic battle scene. The other strength lies in the characters, compelling in both the protagonists and antagonists, with even sympathies for enemies to be felt. However, most all of these characters come from the upper rungs of societies, readers never really get a sense of what the ‘regular world’ is like, or the lives of the common population. This is surprising given how class distinctions seem significant to the societies. I’m hoping we’ll see more of that in future volumes of the story. The glossary also hints to a pantheon of deities and complexity that even this long novel really doesn’t explore too much.

Ultimately, what Saint Death’s Daughter is all about – and what gives it meaning beyond sheer entertainment – is ways in which people use one another, how they let themselves be used, and what they sacrifice. This general theme plays out in all the relationships, both individuals with society and individual with individual: Lanie and Nita, Nita and Mak, Lanie and Mak, Datu and Lanie, Datu and Mak, Lanie and Grandpa Rad. Cooney uses these to explore power differentials in relationships, both healthy and unhealthy ways in which they manifest.

There are two relationships that particular stand out as fascinating and timely. First is the close friendship and building romance between Lanie and Canon Lir, the non-binary priest, and sibling in Liriat’s ruling family. Touching and painful, it will pull at heartstrings. Second is Lanie’s relationship to the family’s indentured undead servant Goody Graves. Lanie’s realization of the injustices that her family did to the woman who became Goody – and the continued exploitation of her becomes a major plot of the novel, as Lanie fights not just for her security and the safety of her family, but also liberation and reparations for Goody.

Saint Death’s Daughter succeeds in many ways, most basically as an exciting story filled with atmospheric text, rich characterization, and subtle depth. For as long as the novel is – and even with the amount of closure as a self-contained story that it does offer – I finished the book and was fully ready to start reading what comes next.


FARTHEST SOUTH by Ethan Rutherford

Farthest South
By Ethan Rutherford
A Strange Object (Deep Vellum Press) — 13th April 2021
ISBN: 9781646050482
— Paperback — 184 pp.
Cover Design: Nayon Cho; Illustrations: Anders Nilsen


I have such a fondness for surreal short fiction, stories on the edge of familiar and unsettling. If dreams are the product of the mind’s processing of events and emotions, dream-like fiction represents an ideal format for writers to pierce the veils of the human condition, the assumptions and ignorance of our everyday interactions that shroud from insight. In Rutherford’s new collection Farthest South, his stories provide a foundation for magical lyrical prose intermingling with a frugal simplicity. Like bedtime stories, his style cuts to the core of the mundane while still meandering into asides, conveying tantalizing flashes of the fantastic.

Rutherford frames the collection with two stories that integrate that concept of a child’s bedtime story into the plot itself, with the same characters. Both are outstanding stories that start and conclude Farthest South in a perfect way, introducing readers to Rutherford’s style and leaving them with uncertainties to ponder. In some respect, the stories feel more unsettling after their conclusion, as they stick with you.

“Ghost Story” (originally published in Tin House) begins things, where a father is asked by his son to tell a scary story before bed. Prior to this ghost story getting underway, the father and mother discuss normal marital concerns; the father considers the art of telling a story, how to strike the right balance between something being ‘scary’ for a child, but not over so, and how to still include a valuable lesson. Soon the story settles in with the father telling his story of the ‘Seal Woman’, a witch-like creature he encountered when younger while working one fishing season on his dad’s boat. “Ghost Story” is two stories in one, meta-fiction in a way; though I enjoyed all the parts (the relationship side between the parents, the father-son interaction, the Seal Woman tale) I still am not sure how they all fit together.

The final story in the collection, “The Diver” (originally published as “The Soul Collector” in Conjunctions) returns with the same story for another ocean-set tale featuring ‘Old Gr’mer’. Shorter than “Ghost Story”, “The Diver” doesn’t feature the mother-father interactions as much, and that tighter focus made it seem more cohesive in comparison.

These, and the other stories in Farthest South, are reminiscent of fairy tales in style, but with important functional distinctions. Most focus on adults, over children without guardians. And they aren’t written to convey a morale, so much as invite insights, subtly. The stories all revolve around family matters, the anxieties of people not acting just for themselves, but also for a unit, a pack. “Fable” takes this most literally in a story where a fox couple without any kits of their own adopt a human child. However, like in “Ghost Story”, this fable becomes nestled within a larger framework of friends coming together. One, a translator and storyteller, relates the fox fable to her friends.

The uncertainties and unease of families, of parenthood in particular, crop up again and again in Rutherford’s stories. “Family, Happiness” delves into that specific theme in a very short, but lush and emotive handful of pages. “The Baby” (originally published in Post Road) uses the same theme from an opposite, almost nightmarish, perspective. A couple bring their feverish child into the hospital emergency room:

“The weather outside is feral and snow-clotted. And when the doctor says hold the baby, they do.”

In probably my favorite story of the collection, Rutherford depicts the frightening unease of any patient putting their trust into a doctor, having no choice but to do what the doctor says, even amid doubts or evidence that the doctor can’t be expert in all. The story is the most absurd of the collection, with details that will ring familiar to anyone who has ever faced a medical bureaucracy that seems to prioritize everything but patient care and communication.

“Holiday”, approaches the parenthood theme from yet another angle, the haunting of possibilities and chance encounters. This eerie tale almost reads like a horror story, but never goes into full darkness.

A couple of stories do focus on the childhood perspective of the family relationship. In “Pools, I am a Hawk” a young girl goes with her mother to a fancy club where the woman’s more affluent friends have invited them as guests. There, the girl goes off on her own and encounters other children who think she’s a ghost of a dead classmate. In “Angus and Annabelle”, two siblings deal with the trauma of a lost mother. Amid a flutter of sparrows, Annabelle practices a skill that their mother had taught them, making stick-and-berry dolls that disquiet Angus (and perhaps the reader.)

The title story of the collection, “Farthest South” first published in BOMB can still be read there. It’s a fitting one to pick for the title of the entire book, as this story combines many of Rutherford’s elements into one tale. It’s surreal and has bits of comic absurdity, yet also is chillingly haunting. It also is a story nestled within another, though done far more quietly. It recounts the experiences of a man across the inhospitable terrains of Antarctica, a survivor among children and animals that inexplicably were among an expedition team. The survivors are plagued by the ghostly skulls of those from the team who died. But the man has a companion to help him in this ordeal: a talking Emperor Penguin named Franklin. Told from the perspective of a grandchild of this man, only a brief line(s) of the story suggest that what the tale in reality represents. While that detail may not be essential, it is a touch that lends added layers of appreciation to “Farthest South”.

Layers of appreciation is something that all of Farthest South offers readers. It’s imminently readable, neither dense nor pretentious. It capitalizes on key tricks of genre fiction to build something that’s certainly more in the literary camp – entertaining but giving things to intellectually unpack and ponder, even over multiple reads.

Ecotheo Review, a blog on ecology, theology, and art hosts an interview with Ethan Rutherford on Farthest South and his other work. It offers additional insights into the collection and what readers might take from the stories. It’s something that could be read after reading the book, but might also be useful to potential readers who still haven’t made up their minds if this is for them. There are also multiple upcoming events with Rutherford, including one at Madison’s Books in Seattle. If you happen to live near there, you can find more information on the event here.


ON THE NIGHT BORDER by James Chambers

On the Night Border
By James Chambers
Raw Dog Screaming Press — September 2019
ISBN: 9781947879119
— Paperback — 218 pp.
Cover: Daniele Serra (Art) and Jennifer Barnes (Design)


Seeing posts about the recent release of There Comes a Midnight Hour by Gary A. Braunbeck put me in the mood for reading something from Raw Dog Screaming Press, so I read one I had on-hand: The Fourth Whore by E.V. Knight. After reviewing that the other day, I decided to just make both review posts this week on RDSP titles.

It’s been awhile since I read James Chambers’ collection On the Night Border, so I glanced through it anew to write this. I’d previously encountered Chambers’ writing in Truth or Dare?, an anthology from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, which included the Chambers story “Marco Polo”, reprinted in On the Night Border. Though I thought it was an average to good story back then, it is only upon rereading it in the context of stories by Chambers that I could fully appreciate all it is, and the wide range of what Chambers can effectively write within the horror genre.

The first handful of stories in this collection immediately establish that Chambers can work well with completely different voices and styles. “A Song Left Behind in the Aztakea Hills” features a Lovecraftian plot set in New England. Its protagonist is an artist, a painter, who once knew Jack Kerouac. A mathematician seeks him out at the local bar to hear a story about his time with Kerouac, in particular an incident that occurred in the nearby hills on a trip with a band. As they travel back to the hills, the artist recalls the otherworldly sounds they experienced there, and he faces the mingling grief and indifference of being recently dumped by his boyfriend. The story is written with poetic descriptions and complex layers to its sentences. Chambers renders one section in the style of Kerouac, a mad frenzy that is a fitting pairing to Lovecraft. Though taken place in relatively contemporary time, the richness of the style and words evoke the eldritch inspirations behind the tale.

The next story, the aforementioned “Marco Polo”, is also set in relatively contemporary times and draws on themes of madness and recovery, but centers on a completely different population: teens. A group of friends dare one another to enter the fire-charred remains of a house to recover an object. The notorious house inspires fear both due to the physical danger of its ruins, but also on the spiritual side. It was the site for something horrendous, and the object is somehow associated with it. The reader soon learns more details, and the meaning of the title becomes apparent. But I won’t spoil that. With a focus on the impetuousness of youth, Chambers style and tone completely shifts from the first story. Curt dialogue between the friends and colloquial taunts blend with the inner thoughts of teenage uncertainty. But these soon give way to text again depicting madness. However, where in “A Song Left Behind in the Aztakea Hills” that madness fit the Lovecraft style mold, here it takes the form of slasher film syle.

Already, readers can begin to get a sense of those elements common to all of Chambers’ stories. First, he uses a plot set up that will be familiar to horror readers, or anyone who has heard a scary story or urban legend. He then chooses a unique voice to explore one central theme through that plot setup. He does that in ways that then take something ordinary and and skew it into a dark and dream-like haze. The story formed as the end product thus really fits with the title to this collection: a tale on the border between the mundane and bone chilling, on the border of familiar and uncanny.

“Lost Daughters” serves as a great example. One of my favorites in the collection, it began like something I read or heard before. A man drives on dark road over ‘suicide bridge’. He stops to pick up three young women, concerned for their safety out alone on such a night. Sounds like a ghost story from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. To that setup Chambers then explores the emotions of a concerned father, and through that character’s voice reveals the terror as terror begins to unfold and his concern shifts to self preservation. I quickly realized these aren’t ghosts, they are another horror staple But, then the end brings the fatherhood concern theme full circle in novel ways.

To follow this, “Sum’bitch and the Arakadile” demonstrates yet another unique character/voice for Chambers to use, while also illustrating the first example in the collection of using some humor alongside the horror, even if the tone doesn’t ever really become ‘light’ per se. Later, with “Living/Dead”, Chambers shows that he can in fact do that too, with a memorably sweet story that uses the zombie concept to explore the mystery of love. This, right after the most brutal story in On the Night Border: “The Driver, Under a Chesire Moon”, where the main character is the eponymous driver, explaining to a passenger his fascination with the evils done against children, and the staggering statistics of child disappearance.

Though Chambers’ stories all share some common core, the shifts in voice and sub-genre of horror make it a very eclectic and varied collection. Looking at other reviews of On the Night Border, readers often seem to indicate very different stories as favorites, note others as good, and more rarely point out one not liked. Considering Chambers’ range, I don’t find this surprising. He’s very much a jack-of-all-trades within short fiction horror. Unless one really doesn’t like the voice or sub-genre he chooses, a reader will at least find a story to be decent. He’s not going to change your mind about what you’re partial to. But whatever horror thing is your favorite, he’ll write one that you will probably just adore.

I could not read “Mnemonicide” because it is written as an exercise in the second person. No matter how much that fits the story, I just don’t care. But others mark that as a favorite. I could take or leave Lovecraft. “Odd Quahogs” a story here featuring Dagon was good, but nothing special to me. The Lovecraftian “A Song Left Behind in the Aztakea Hills” I liked even more, but still wouldn’t put at the top.

Beyond ones mentioned earlier above, “The Many Hands Inside the Mountain”, “What’s in the Bag, Dad?”, “Picture Man”, and “Red Mami” were among my favorites. I won’t belabor things with summaries of those, and I’m out of fresh insights to particularly connect with them as examples.

Before getting to my last points, for the sense of completeness: “The Chamber of Last Earthly Delights” sat kind of in the bottom middle for me in level of appreciation. It’s inspired by the mythology of Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow (not James Chambers the author of this collection). Unlike Lovecraft mythos, I have never heard of Robert Chambers or his work before. The story goes in a more SF direction than others, which I found interesting. But, perhaps missing the reference/inspiration, the themes and plot of the story were really lost on me.

That James Chambers can so effectively employ varied voices/styles in a range of horror sub-genres seems to have led him to not just use other mythos as his inspiration, but to go even a bit further and pen additional stories featuring classic characters. The remaining two stories in the collection I haven’t yet mentioned fall into this category. In both cases, I’ve read nothing on the original sources, but unlike The King in Yellow, I have at least heard of them and/or their creators.

The first, “A Wandering Blackness” features Anton Zarnak, Supernatural Sleuth, a character by Lin Carter. Once Zarnak gets into this story by Chambers, it is awesome. The lead up to that, however, seemed unnecessarily prolonged. The second I read as far more successful: “Lost Boy” featuring Kolchak, the Night Stalker, a character who Chambers has also written for in the graphic novel format. It’s a familiar changeling fairy story, but the modern twist of a mother wronged by a rich businessman and the Kolchak series placement make it interesting and satisfying.

The collection is followed by author notes on each of the stories. I found these really useful for recalling some stories for this review so long after first reading them, but also they provide fantastic insights into why Chambers wrote them – the themes he found himself pondering or the inspiration/voice he wanted to delve into. The notes enhance the stories, especially for then rereading and gaining new appreciations.

Horror fans are sure to find a good deal to enjoy in On the Night Border. I failed to mention earlier one other element that ties together all the stories. No matter their voice or style, they are all cinematically evocative. Chambers writing really makes the reader hear and see what is going on, while also triggering the other senses like any good horror should. It deserves continued notice, and I hope to see much more from Chambers.


THE FOURTH WHORE by EV Knight

The Fourth Whore
By EV Knight
Raw Dog Screaming Press — March 2020
ISBN: 9781947879164
— Paperback — 226 pp.


Struggling day-by-day to survive in the slums of Detroit, Kenzi Brooks does whatever is necessary to keep control of her life, using the power of her body as a woman, supported by her street-wise friend Gloria, but at odds with her alcoholic, hostile mother. As rough as Kenzi’s present may be, her past has been even more damaging. Sixteen years ago, at the age of seven, she walked to the store with her brother, and watched him struck down in a hit-and-run. She would have died in that accident as well, were it not for the strange, dark-robed figure she saw. A man who made her pause, a man with scrawled writing up his flesh, and a large black bird with him. Through the ensuing years she years Kenzi couldn’t be certain if this Scribbled Man was a figment of her imagination or something very real. Arguing for the latter, she carries a lucky rabbit foot that she recalls him giving her. It serves as a reminder of that tragedy, of her father’s subsequent death, and her continued pain; the sharp edges of the claw used to cut herself in ritual self harm.

An attack by members of a drug gang after payments leaves Kenzi badly injured and her mother dead. During the assault, Kenzi unknowingly releases the spirit held within the rabbit foot: Lilith, the first created mate for Adam, who was cast from the Garden of Eden for refusing to be subservient to her husband. Abandoned and tormented by fallen angels, Lilith becomes mother to half-breed demons and slowly a demon herself, or as she comes to think of it, a goddess. One of the angels she trusted, but who ended up failing and betraying her, is Sariel. For Sariel’s actions in defiance of the Creator, he is punished to serve as the Angel of Death, forced to collect human souls with his avian companion Enoch until he also captures all of Lilith’s demon-spawn. Sariel is Kenzi’s Scribbled Man, and he has plans and hopes for this special girl who can see him through her heterochromatic eyes.

But, the escaped Lilith has very different plans for Kenzi, and for the world. Lilith intends to usher in the apocalypse, to destroy the world and remake things in her image where women are not terrorized in subservience. Where she is worshipped. She recruits other women to her path, to serve as the Whores of the Apocalypse (parallels to the Four Horsemen of Revelation). Due to the unique nature of Kenzi and what Sariel has done, she will make the ideal fourth whore. But who will Kenzi choose to believe and follow: Sariel her Scribbled Man from her childhood, or the powerful and vengeful Lilith?

The Fourth Whore thus has a lot going on in it for ~225 pages: multiple intersecting back stories as well as competing paths for Kenzi’s future. Knight structures the novel with short chapters written from different points of view. Sariel, Lilith, and Kenzi account for the most, but other chapters use the point of view of the Whore of War, the Whore of Pestilence, and a young male doctor who sympathizes with/is attracted to Kenzi. This organization works really well, and the chapter titles, rendered as “The Book of Sariel” (for example), make it easy to figure out what character or plot thread will be featured. Even with two “Books of Kenzi” in a row, Knight splits her protagonist’s point of view into two chapters that break with the action and a hook to keep reading. This makes The Fourth Whore easy to make one’s way through it.

What may make The Fourth Whore more difficult to get through it, for some readers, is its uncompromising and unflinching intensity. It features dark, troubling themes of rape, mental/psychological trauma, self harm, and perverted abandon. Readers can almost hear, see, smell, and feel the viscera that fills the pages with all bodily fluids imaginable. Knight writes raw, graphic scenes of sexuality that equally don’t shy from biological frankness.

Some may then wonder why would somebody want to read such things? I imagine that regular fans of dark fantasy and horror know exactly why such brutal honesty can be therapeutic, while others know it is something that they just have to avoid and can’t manage. Either is fair. For those who aren’t so sure, or wonder how all of that could transcend simple vulgar gore to mean something significant – and something feminist at that – read on…

The Fourth Whore is a fascinating work of feminist fantasy/horror built upon the iconic JudaeoChristian mythology of Lilith, the Nephilim, and the history of the Salem Witch trials. It illustrates the many ways in which women have been suppressed, oppressed, demonized, controlled, and assaulted. Literally and symbolically. Mentally and physically. It also contains female characters who have all witnessed or experienced this and chosen to reject being trapped within that system. To act differently with unapologetic pride and fervor. They take derogatory language and weaponize it. They take something that they’ve been historically asked to view with shame, guilt, and submissiveness and made it into a celebration of power. The question that all of the The Fourth Whore hinges upon becomes one of at what point does rebellion against an unjust system of power become equally hurtful in new ways? Or, is one really free from that system of power if it merely redirects harm?

Kenzi’s internal battle through the novel is between trusting two powerful forces of authority who both lie to her and want to use her. One is male, admits mistakes in the past, but professes to be trying to do better. The other is female and says that the male just wants to continue using her. The kicker is, both are kinda right! Kenzi comes to appreciate just how horribly and awfully Lilith has been treated. Without excusing any of that, though, she cannot necessarily come to condone what Lilith has become or now desires. She confronts the realization that victims might turn into the monsters, continuing the pain that was visited upon them. Others might act as monsters – and still have that in them, but perhaps want something more. These realizations become symbolic for Kenzi’s own victimhood. Without losing sight of what unfair trauma she has faced and the wrongs done to her by others without any fault of her own, she sees a fork in the road of what can be done to perhaps heal. One pathway exists as the one she herself has so often taken: relief by further pain. Cutting. Another path is turning that vengeance away from oneself and outward to the world – the route of Lilith and her disciples. But perhaps there is also a third to find.

All readers may not agree with how all these themes and questions go in the novel. And frankly many – including Knight – might disagree with my interpretation of things. It’s important to note I am male and coming at this from a different perspective than other readers may. As a male I really appreciated the characters of Sariel and Henry (the doctor). Not because I wanted someone like me in the story, but because Knight does convey that male perspective so well (imho) of wanting to do better, to do right, but likewise existing on societal pillars both conscious and unconscious that might work against it. Even if others end up feeling very differently about the novel’s themes, the one thing I think it’s safe to say is that The Fourth Whore invites analysis around them.

The only significant criticism that I might make of the novel is that the dialogue becomes very stilted and hammy at times, particularly in the more sexually or generally emotionally charged scenes. Some of those lines then make secondary characters comically clichéd, or at the very least too un-nuanced. Despite such moments of unevenness, the overall arching plot of the entertaining story, as well the depth and complexity of its themes, makes The Fourth Whore an overall success.

This should give potential readers an idea if they fit into the novel’s audience. But even if this isn’t a fit, I would say that the name EV Knight is one that you should keep an open mind for with future titles. She writes intelligent and perceptive horror, and future things from her may connect to dark fantasy fans who might not be able to quite manage this particular intensity of content and themes.

EDIT IN UPDATE:

I just realized that I completely neglected to say more on Enoch! Enoch is the real star of the book :D. I particularly love the running ‘gag’ that Enoch’s gender is abundantly clear to Kenzi, but Sariel remains mostly obstinate and clueless. She could star in her own series.


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.