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.


THE ECHO WIFE by Sarah Gailey

The Echo Wife
By Sarah Gailey
Tor Books — February 2021
ISBN: 9781250174666
— Hardcover — 256 pp.


If you haven’t read anything yet about the plot to Sarah Gailey’s The Echo Wife, you might consider starting it without indulging in any summaries, not even what’s on the cover jacket. And long story short, I strongly recommend The Echo Wife. I received the novel and placed it on the ARC shelf with all the others, entering into my notes for potential review. As time passed I saw more word-of-mouth posts praising the novel; mentions included it being featured on several Best… or Most Anticipated… of 2021 lists, both within the SF genre and pop-culture wide. I still didn’t read what the book was actually about, and as for Sarah Gailey, I couldn’t recall ever reading their work before to know if I would like it. Despite the broad hype (which always makes me leery), I decided to start reading The Echo Wife – probably because specific authors and reviewers I’m fond of also hyped it. I cracked the ARC open and began reading, still without even reading the back cover synopsis, only expecting something SF that somehow involved genetics.

Not until approximately page 50 of the novel does the The Echo Wife fully reveal one of its major themes and plot elements. It takes a few more chapters still for an event to occur that sets the rest of the novel into motion. For certain there are hints to these things earlier in the novel, but Gailey gradually reveals details about their protagonist and the speculative world, details that the synopsis just flat-out states, lessening the reveal.

Now this is understandable, potential readers have to be told something about what this book is about, and even knowing these details, there are still a lot of surprises and discoveries for the rest of the novel until its ending. But, if a reader can be convinced to give this book a try without knowing any details, well, it makes it even all the more a satisfying read. Prior to any plot ‘reveals’, here is what Gailey establishes in the earliest pages of the novel:

The novel begins with genetics researcher Dr. Evelyn Caldwell attending an awards reception/banquet in her honor. Brilliant, but feeling out-of-place in this social setting, Evelyn cooperates in the engagement only because of its necessity for securing continued support for her ground-breaking research in growing human tissues in the lab. While tolerating the spectacle of the present by keeping her eyes on her future plans, Evelyn also reflects upon her past struggles to get here. Throughout professional and personal hurdles, including recent separation from her husband Nathan, Evelyn has persevered, sacrificed, and found success.

Following the reception and rest to recover, Evelyn returns to her life: the laboratory. Fired up to keep things moving forward and squashing all uncertainties or self-doubt that still rear their heads in her psyche, Evelyn gives orders to her lab assistant, the only other person that Evelyn trusts as competent and reliable. About to start on the research, Evelyn’s assistant informs her that she has received a phone message from a woman named Martine. This stops Evelyn with a shock: Martine, the new fiancée of Evelyn’s former husband Nathan, a woman whose existence she has even kept secret from her trusted assistant. Hesitant, Evelyn decides to go meet Martine, where she – and the reader – find their first surprise.

If you happen to still know nothing more of this novel, do consider leaving it at that. The Echo Wife is a speculative fiction thriller that predominantly focuses on themes of women in research and the personal life that a woman is expected to have versus that which they may choose to have. The speculative aspect involves genetics, though do not expect it to be fully fleshed out science. Dr. Caldwell’s award-winning research and techniques are vaguely described in terms of epigenetics and development, but not in believable detail that a biologist could imagine this speculative technology as actually existing. The reader is just asked to accept the science (fiction) as a set up for the social issues and character relationships that lie at the heart of the novel. That seems intentional by Gaiely, and that’s perfectly fine to a reader like me. In fact, a lot of the details in the science are things that Evelyn herself doesn’t at first understand completely, things she’ll have to look into further. The unexpected, seemingly ‘impossible’ aspects of the speculative elements in the novel are thus kind of the point, part of the mystery.

And mystery/crime/thriller is a category that The Echo Wife fits into just as comfortably as science fiction. However, it is not about solving a mystery, nor is it filled with taut action. It’s about how characters deal with secrets, mysteries, and uncertainties; how crimes can be covered up, and with resilience, moved past to still find some sort of success. It’s a psychologically driven thriller around the characters of Evelyn and Martine, women with a shared history, yet very unique. The Echo Wife speaks a lot to the experience of women in science – or professional lives in general. It raises a lot of moral questions, but doesn’t seek to provide trite answers. Again and again Evelyn writes: I am not a monster. The reader is left to conclude the truth to that statement. Gailey writes their characters in ways that blur the lines between hero and victim and villain, and they capture them with prose that never becomes oppressively dark, yet always has a foreboding shadow of secretes and deception lying behind it.

If you have already read other reviews or synopses of The Echo Wife to know more specific details, I’ll go into a few of those things, particularly biology aspects I find interesting as a biologist, here after this Gram negative:

SPOILER OUTER MEMBRANE

SPOILER PEPTIDOGLYCAN (PERIPLASM)

SPOILER CELL MEMBRANE

So, Martine is a clone of Evelyn; after voicing resistance to Nathan’s desires for her, and then being attacked by Nathan, Martine kills Nathan. Evelyn is willing to help, both in physically hiding Nathan’s body in the garden, and supporting Martine, who Nathan has biologically programmed with limitations and kept in ignorance. Bodies in the garden will return in multiple ways before novel’s end.

Gailey handles all of these twists fantastically well, plus others like Evelyn’s betrayal in the lab and Evelyn’s relationship with her parents. All disparate elements filter in for the same theme, the formation of a woman. Who is Evelyn/Martine, and why? How much is her and how much is conditioning and the will of others? Gailey takes this beyond the whole nature/nurture kind of debate when it comes to speculative genetics in a more modern way.

What I mean is: Clones are not a new theme to science fiction. The term ‘clone’ in this context means an organism that is genetically identical. Science fiction has used clones – even furthered to include the copying of memories and experiences. What Gailey does a bit differently here is playing with that term ‘identical’, in ways that more closely match actual biological reality. In that classic SF sense of ‘clone’ Martine isn’t really a clone of Evelyn at all. She is a genetically modified creation built upon an Evelyn template. And really, that is what all human cloning would result in.

After all, all of our cells are clones of each other. They all contain the same DNA (or lose it). Yet one cell can form part of heart tissue, another lung, another a neuron, another a leukocyte, another osteoclast. Very, very different, yet with the same blueprints. And that’s just in one organism through developmental variations in gene expression. Between two that share 100% of the same genetic material there is a complicating factor of epigenetics – changes that occur through DNA modifications, inherited protein structures, inherited microbes, etc.

Somehow, Dr. Evelyn Caldwell has found a way to not just let those processes proceed, that create variability even in a 100% DNA identical genetic clone, but to exert directed changes in them. Moreover, she has somehow found a way to map memories and selectively impart those. Nathan has taken her techniques and purposefully made changes she explicitly set out to not allow in the clones. This creates a lot to ponder regarding bioethics, even if Gailey doesn’t really go that classical direction in their novel.

Instead Gailey takes it to that level of the ethics of Nathan purposefully making an Evelyn replacement adhering to his desires and plans that the actual Evelyn did not make a priority. These physical actions mirror what men (or really spouses or even relationships in general) do to one another in s symbolic sense all the time. Within a relationship, what are the balances between sacrificing versus selfishness? Are professional concerns different from others? And what are the differences between the genders for these decisions/expectations?

With the foundation of speculation around ‘cloning’ Gailey forms all of these questions (and more) through their fascinatingly flawed characters and engaging plot. Whether all, or just some of it, represents a surprise to readers shouldn’t affect one’s overall appreciation of the novel. If you go into this expecting an action-driven SF murder thriller, you might be disappointed, because that’s not what it is. If one lets The Echo Wife speak on its own terms, I believe readers will find it has a lot to say and provide one to consider, and it will entertain. And that is what good speculative fiction and a thriller does.

I’ve now had the chance to also read a short story by Sarah Gailey in the Escape Pod anthology, which I’m reviewing for Skiffy & Fanty. I’ll definitely keep my eyes open for more of their future work, and hopefully have a chance to also read some of that prior.


CLARKESWORLD MAGAZINE #172 (January 2021) Edited by Neil Clarke


There are some excellent stories in this issue, complex and imaginative, but there are some let-downs compared to the best of what Clarkesworld has offered (for my tastes at least). Unfortunately, there are no translations in this issue, something that this outlet can almost always be relied upon to support. The novella here falls into a category that Clarkesworld novellas often are in (again for me): far too long for e-format and too short for a story I could best get into. And, with one third of the stories written in the second person that you of course will skip, you end up with a mixed bag for January’s issue.

“Intentionalities” by Aimee Ogden — Saddled with crippling debt and few options to dig herself out to secure any kind of stable future, a woman decides to apply for corporate support by offering her womb, carrying and delivering a child that will then be contracted after five years with her to go work for the company’s off-world mines. She comes to regret this decision and begins a campaign to fight a system that allows coercion of this horrible choice and ownership. Well written commentary on existing capitalist conditions that aren’t too far off from this scenario, all but literally.

“Deep Music” by Elly Bangs — Probably my favorite story of the issue for its themes and tones. Quinn takes care of aquids, squid-like water-creatures that have begun to appear on dry land and come into contact with humans. While some consider them as annoying pests that need to be removed or exterminated, Quinn is convinced they have intelligence, so gathers them and cares for them, trying to make sense of their communications. However, the owner of a rival aquid-removal service who treats the aquids with disdain begins to target Quinn (and the aquids) with hateful harassment. Quinn’s actions in response help solidify an understanding with the aquids in her care. Though the bones of the story and its ending will be recognizable to many readers, its lightness and familiarity feels welcome amid the rest of this issue, and the themes work in more modern ways as commentary on ‘troll-like’ relationships of harassment.

“Philia, Eros, Storge, Agápe, Pragma” by R.S.A. Garcia — I’m slowly growing to appreciate the novella-length story more when published on its own. But I still struggle with them in the contexts of short fiction magazines, particularly when having to read it on an e-reader or – even worse – a computer screen. This story is complex, organized in alternating passages between different times in the characters’ history. It serves as a prequel to a previous story by the author in Clarkesworld that featured the couple Dee and Eva. This recounts their meeting, when Dee rescues Eva who has crashed landed on a planet after a conflict that has left her paired AI “Sister” apparently malfunctioning. While dealing with loss of/changes in Sister that she had always been accustomed to, she begins romance with Dee and faces the enemy. I would have much preferred these two stories just as a novel, on their own. Nothing wrong with the writing here, so for readers who do love this novella length, the story will be successful and appreciated.

“The Last Civilian” by R. P. Sand — You did not read this story.

“Aster’s Partialities: Vitri’s Best Store for Sundry Antiques” by Tovah Strong — The most imaginative and magical of the stories here, reading more akin to fantasy than science fiction, it’s also the story that I felt benefitted from rereading. A magician named Syd who works in magical secrets of space and time is executed by the officials of Vitri. From drops of her blood upon the text of speels, her death gives birth to the narrators of the story, a ‘we’ that forms a house, with mirrors within that a form of Syd inhabits. The house consumes a man who dares enter, but then a curious child arrives, carrying with a necklace talisman that belonged to the magician. A fun story to read as I tried to figure out the nature of things as it unfolded. On some level about the persistence of a person’s influence beyond death on a city and its inhabitants, discovery of forbidden things by a new generation, and likely much more. Subsections are titled with a series of four numbers, but I haven’t figured out their relevance. Certainly a story to analyze but also just enjoy.

“Leaving Room for the Moon” by P H Lee — You start this story and all seems fine, only to realize it is yet another story to skip.

The issue also features “Science Fiction and Schmaltz: A Conversation with Connie Willis” and “The Ten-Year Journey: A Conversation with E. Lily Yu”, each by Arley Sorg, a 2020 in Review editorial by Clarke, and cover art by Yuumei.


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.


NIGHTMARE MAGAZINE #100 (January 2021) Edited by John Joseph Adams


For its 100th issue, this Nightmare includes a large selection of stories beyond the four that normally an issue would contain. Some of the stories are available to read for free on the website, but it’s a particular bargain this month to purchase for the complete contents. I’ve subscribed since (near) the start of the magazine’s run, and as a fan of dark fantasy, I haven’t regretted it. The close of this issue has given me one of those moments where I wish the horror field could collectively decide to take a breather from mining the Lovecraft though.

“How to Break into a Hotel Room” by Stephen Graham Jones — A scam artist goes to steal some things from a hotel room to sell off to his friend and longtime partner. Though the job seems to proceed well, he enters into a bare hotel room to face ghosts from a tragic episode of their past crimes. What sets this story above the norm is the voice that Jones gives to Javi the scam artist. Solid display of horror short fiction here, though I’m uncertain why the past choses this particular moment to catch up on Javier.

“Rotten Little Town: An Oral History” by Adam-Troy Castro — Written as a series of interviews with the (surviving) creator/writer and cast of a successful cult TV show. It chronologically proceeds though the seasons of the show’s run, providing details of the on-screen and behind-the-scene elements of cast relationships and bringing the series to life. Between the lines, the reader realizes that there is something dark and sinister influencing things. I enjoyed the format of this story and the idea of the ‘dirty secrets’ of production that can occur only to be hushed up, but taking it in a really malevolent and controlling direction.

“I Let You Out” by Desirina Boskovich  — A woman is haunted through life by a monster that emerges from closets. An over-zealous religious family makes the terror worse, and casts judgement and doubt upon the victim. She recalls the monster’s first visit, and forces herself to look upon its face. The metaphoric themes of this are familiar in dark short fiction: feminism, overcoming trauma. Boskovich approaches them with some fine, tender writing that doesn’t go down the ‘revenge’ route that other stories in this vein often turn.

“Last Stop on Route Nine” by Tananarive Due — Driving in Florida from her grandmother’s funeral to a luncheon Charlotte and her younger cousin Kai get lost in the fog on Route 9. Stopping for directions at a house by an old boarded-up gas station, they are hexed by a crazed old racist woman and flee back into the fog before finding aid. The story involves a journey into another time in a way. The realization of the characters that they don’t want to go back also serves as a reminder that the racist, dark corners remain.

“Darkness, Metastatic” by Sam J. Miller — I read this right before going to sleep, and a story has not creeped me out as much as this one did in a long time. As usual, Miller writes exceptionally well, with characters and situations that can tug on emotions. In this a man named Aaron becomes concerned when his ex, and investigative documentary partner, begins leaving lots of dark messages on another ex’s phone. Digging deeper and trying to connect back with his ex, named Caleb, he learns more of Caleb’s investigation into seemingly unconnected murders, and discovers a creepy viral app called Met_A_Static that may have changed Caleb, and now has targeted Aaron. I haven’t found much interpretation to make of this story yet after one read, but it certainly works on the base horror level.

“Wolfsbane” by Maria Dahvana Headley — A feminist retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story with witchcraft, mother, daughter, sister, grandmother, and wolves. Not the style of story I go for, but the themes of it are great and Headley’s writing, as usual, is exquisite.

“Thin Cold Hands” by Gemma Files — First published in LampLight in 2018, this story has popped up since reprinted The Dark Magazine and in one of Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year collections. This is a creepy changeling story about mothers, daughters, and home. Though others by Files have resonated more with me, this is a solid horror story that is worth a reread.

“The Things Eric Eats Before He Eats Himself” by Carmen Maria Machado — A short story whose title sums up the plot entirely. The list of foodstuffs is fascinating varied to read, written in a careful flow of musical words.

“Up From Slavery” by Victor Lavalle — This reprint of a short novella that originally appeared in Weird Tales starts with a scene of a train crash, a scene that shows how well Lavalle can write. Simon Dust grew up as a black boy in the foster care system, and never knew who his parents were. One day, while copy-editing a new edition of Booker T. Washington’s memoir (which gives this story its title) Dust receives a letter with his father’s name in it, informing him that his father has died and left his home in Syracuse to Dust. There, Dust further discovers this man who has claimed to be his father was a white man, and that his body was discovered under creepy circumstances. This sets up the Lovecraftian horror that follows, a story of gods and slaves that takes creatures from the iconic and inexplicably influential writer’s stories and reworks them into powerful themes of racism and identity. Those who are familiar with Lovecraft will probably get more from this story. I had to look up the references, and as much as I enjoyed the emotional and thematic core of the story, I just don’t get the fascination with Lovecraft tropes.

“Jaws of Saturn” by Laird Barron — Another Lovecraftian reprint taken from Barron’s collection The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and Other Stories. A woman tells her hired gun boyfriend about the strange dreams that have been plaguing her, and the hypnotist she is seeing for treatment in quitting smoking. After a marathon sexual encounter together and further talk of her odd dreams, the guy decides to look into this hypnotist further. The weird horror that he discovers is beyond anything he could’ve expected. Barron writes amazingly, but here there is nothing underneath the cosmic horror angle for me to really grab onto and appreciate, and this genre of horror alone doesn’t suffice.

With “The H Word” horror column by Orrin Gray, author spotlights, a book review from Terence Taylor, and a roundtable interview with outgoing editor John Joseph Adams and incoming editor Wendy N. Wagner.


ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION & FACT Vol. CXXXI #s 1 and 2 (January/February 2021) Edited by Trevor Quachri


The first issue of the year features a number of strong stories, but also some (particularly among the shortest) that seem less complete or impactful. Though still dominated by ‘hard science fiction’ that favors technology and speculative details, a surprising number of the stories here put the speculative element to the back to focus on character relationships or other non-technical themes. I’m fine with that trend, and certainly with the balance that it brings to this issue.

“Mixed Marriage” by Dan Helms — Soon Jae-won, the only son in a Korean family, awakens within their small allotment of living space to an important day ahead when he will meet his future wife. The story is set in a future where human population levels have resulted in adoption of ‘time share’, where families are designated just one day a week for going about activity, while sleeping the other six in cramped, shared quarters. Jae-won is a Friday, but the woman he is to marry is a Sunday, and generations kept separate has given rise to class and cultural differences that his family worries might interfere with a successful marriage. Interesting premise and story here from a clash of a conservative, traditional mindset with one more relaxed and open. I liked the ending and its take on how people can get comfortable in anything, and fear the work or discomfort that might arise from changing even something repressive. I don’t know why Helms chose Korea as the setting, and am not familiar enough with Korean culture enough to know the accuracy in portrayal here. Looking at other’s reviews of the story I’m concerned that so many of those seem to conflate Asian nations and cultures.

“A Shot in the Dark” by Deborah L. Davitt — On Uranus’ moon Titania, Dominic Vadas works for a UN space agency alone at the farthest station from Earth, happy to live a hermit away from human contact, and keeping interactions with his AI to a minimum. A new message from Earth with orders for Vadas to leave the autonomous robots going there and pack his bag to intercept and check out an extrasolar object that has arrived in our system. Along with the increased news from Earth arrives a letter from a daughter Vadas hadn’t realized he had. Fantastic story with natural dialogue, lots of technical details, and a strong human element with character development to boot.

“The Liberator” by Nick Wolven — A man infiltrates a criminal group that supports human reproduction without genetic modifications. Though the story is written well and engagingly as a thriller, the central theme here seems well-trodden and I didn’t feel the story added much perspective on what human modification should or should not entail, or the nature of how ‘defective’ could be defined.

“The Nocturnal Preoccupations of Moths” by J. Northcutt, Jr. — One of two stories in a row in the issue featuring a Martian colony. Here, the setting centers on botanists who are working hard to maintain seed banks amid the failing colony mission. The story is followed by a note of its historical influence from actions of botanists during the siege (of Leningrad if my memory serves) during WWII. The scientists actions and discussions are interspersed with passages on the behaviors of moth in the habitat. For me it was a beautiful, melancholy story of nature and human behavior during times of short supply.

“Belle Lettres Ad Astra” by Norman Spinrad — Written for a special volume themed around the state of reading in the future, this tale involves “Elon Tesla”, interstellar expansion of humanity through hibernation, and the possible discovery of a Dyson Sphere. I’m not a fan of Spinrad’s columns usually, and this story felt just as ambling and uninteresting.

“By the Will of the Gods” by Charles Q. Choi — A young man who has been raised an orphan in a temple found on a space route looks into the death of the temple’s caretaker, the one man there who showed love for the boy and helped mentor him. A nice mixture of SF, mystery, and class commentary.

“My Hypothetical Friend” by Harry Turtledove — Dave Markarian has built Interstellar Master Traders by profiting from his carefully established business relationship with the enigmatic Brot, a slug-like alien race that arrives on Earth with advanced technology well beyond humanities capabilities or even comprehension. He learns that the Brot representative that he has worked with for decades – perhaps even developed a friendship with – is leaving. Markarian’s symbolic gift for the departing Brot shows a deeper perception of the human-Brot relatioship than he may realize. Alien contact (arrival on Earth) stories stereotypically go the way of conqueror or altruistic saviors, but as he excels at, Turtledove looks to history to speculate more realistic and imaginable interactions (business and personal) between trading partners with such differences in development between them.

“Photometric Evidence of the Gravitational Lensing of SAO23820 By a Nonluminous Low-Mass Stellar Object” by Jay Werkheiser — A physicist relates being ostracized into an academic pariah after relentlessly pursuing publication of data he feels indicates the presence of a black dwarf star. Others refuse to accept this as it runs counter to the Standard Theory. Maybe physics is more black/white than bio, but I would think a bit of data might be consistent or inconsistent with something without leading a grand theory being so threatened. Other explanations seem to always exist. And this, I guess, takes place in the days before preprint servers? Story does say something about dogma in science that is worth saying, I just am not sure it did so in the best way.

“Conference of the Birds” by Benjamin C. Kinney — Only after reading the author biography after this story, did it completely click with me. This is a story that merges artificial intelligence concepts with neurobiological intelligence concepts, a tale of drones acting out the will of a central hub, of individual actions within a larger societal organism. This one is dense, with a unique voice for its major character. For my tastes in fiction I’d say I like the concept more than the execution. But I get why some readers would find this a fascinating and rewarding read. Scientists or laypersons with an interest in neurobiology or AI should definitely give this a look.

“Interstellar Pantomime” by Martin Dimkovski — A probe from Earth responds to an object trailing it as programmed, but unbeknownst to the probe’s designers, this alien object can use its observations of the probe to extrapolate its origin. A simple, fair speculative idea. But, I’m not a fan of this kind of minimalist story around a hard SF concept, even if short.

“Matter and Time Conspire” by Sandy Parsons — Flash fiction like the previous story, this one dealing with multiple ‘me’ characters due to the messing with time. An enjoyable enough read, but nothing special or particularly new to it.

“The Tale of Anise and Basil” by Daniel James Peterson — This brief story features a human prisoner forced to be royal storyteller in an alien court. The alien ruler demands a story that conforms to rules of leaving no details unexplained or left to the imagination or face death. Considering the demand and its traps, the human storyteller finds a way to oblige. A commentary on unreasonable reader/reviewer demands for authors? Reads like a fable, but with the technical/philosophic arguments that perhaps make it fitting for Analog.

“The Practitioner” by Em Liu — Medical students in 2093 observe events through time from past eras as part of their Medical Ethics course. One student has difficulties coming to terms with what she observes in the mid-1960s at an underground (illegal) abortion clinic. The politics of the story stay relatively muted despite the subject matter by focusing mainly on the student’s emotions and her rationale for being involved in medicine. I liked it, and the story focuses less on the technology than I would have expected from the Analog venue, but that’s fine with me.

“What Were You Thinking?” by Jerry Oltion — What is consciousness? What is intelligent behavior compared to simple programmed responses. A boy observing his girlfriend’s cat vomiting up hairballs designs an animal behavior experiment to address this question. I adored this story, and will probably feature it in my Biology in Fiction course where the debate over consciousness comes up quite a bit.

“Changing Eyes” by Douglas P. Marx — The second story featuring Martian colonies, here with people descended from Sherpas, where a man who helped terraform the planet returns to help solve a technical problem/disaster, having left some time ago after his wife and daughter perished. The science behind the story (involving energy generation) was inconsequential to me, though may interest some. But, I did enjoy the theme of returning to a belovedly important place that also holds painful memories.

“A Working Dog” by anne m. gibson — The second story in the issue featuring animal behavior and this one is humorous, clever, and charming. A woman who has invented lawncare robots made to appear like rabbits becomes concerned when she realizes they provoke canine hunting instincts, so she searches for a solution. Aside from the topic the story perfectly illustrates scientific problem-solving and carefully considering assumptions of what the problem is.

“So You Want to Be a Guardian Angel” by Michael Meyerhofer — Candidates looking to work in the protection of Earth from asteroids receive a talk about what the job would entail, especially the loneliness. Very short story – not quite flash – but nothing particularly special about it.

“Choose One” by Marie DesJardin — This strange piece of flash fiction features a dancer who has been selected by aliens as a potential ‘best of’ humanity (from all walks of life). Housed separately but with information on who remains, she watches as one-by-one other candidates ‘disappear’. Unclear what happens to those who fail to measure up, or what the aliens are actually looking for. Existential angst is what this story seemed to be for me.

“We Remembered Better” by Evan Dicken — Interesting story where two siblings are left one single memory in their estranged, abusive mother’s will. One sibling is trans, and this decision seems to have led to much of the rift between mother and children. The story raises issues of what one might choose to do with the opportunities to view memories from the point of view of others, including those who you might vehemently disagree. It also touches upon sibling support.

“The Last Compact” by Brian Rappatta — Another set on Mars. A young man and his mothers are moving, ending an AI-related museum project he was helping work on, with an AI saint now going into archive that the man wishes he could save and take with. This felt like a fragment of a story, and I cannot find it fulfilling anything significant with what it does contain.

“Riddlepigs and the Cryla” by Raymund Eich — A vet who is really excited to get to treat a dinosaur is sad to discover her patient is actually a pig who has been injured by the escaped dino from the nearby preserve on this extraterrestrial planet setting. Some interesting ideas here on the ‘value’ of organisms common versus exotic, some speculation on transplant organ production, but lacked any depth beyond.

“The Last Science Fiction Story” by Adam-Troy Castro — Flash fiction almost akin to a prose poem (although I guess that is oxymoronic?) The title is ironic, for there can never be a last one, as the story explains.

With “Constructing a Habitable Planet” science fact by Julie Novakova and poetry by Jennifer Crow (Hidden Things) and Bruce McAllister (If).


LIGHT OF THE JEDI (Star Wars — The High Republic) by Charles Soule

Light of the Jedi
(Star Wars — The High Republic)
By Charles Soule
Del Rey Books — January 2021
ISBN: 9780593157718
— Hardcover — 380 pp.


Today is John Williams’ birthday, so it seems fitting to review a Star Wars book on it while listening to the soundtrack of The Empire Strikes Back. I’ve managed to keep up with reading almost every canon Star Wars novel released to-date. I just have Zahn’s latest “Thrawn” novel not yet gotten to. So I know that, as the novels of old were, the new canon novels are a mixed bag. Some have been amazing, many have been good to okay, and a few have been disappointments. But as Star Wars, I’ve enjoyed them all.

The Light of the Jedi, first in the new “High Republic” series set generations before events in the Prequel movies, stands among the the best and most satisfying of the canon novels to-date. It features decent characterization, mysteries, and plenty of action. The novel reads like Soule had a blast writing it, and its pacing ranks as some of the most steady that Star Wars fiction has offered.

For any who haven’t already heard about this, or looked into the plot, it takes place at a time of galactic peace and prosperity for the Republic and strong numbers among the Jedi. The pride and ambition of the Republic to improve the lives of planets beyond the galactic core and mid-rim leads to a project to build an outer-rim station staffed by Republic and Jedi representatives that can then be close on-hand to help with strengthening distant ties to the Coruscant capital.

Amid this hopeful time where all confidently assert “We are all the Republic” in patriotic solidarity, a disaster suddenly emerges from Hyperspace. Fragments of a ship destroyed in hyperspace exit out into real space in seemingly random spaces and times, heading uncontrollably, at phenomenal speed, towards populated systems. One fragment crashing into the right planet or moon, could cause the loss of billions of sentient lives.

A concept and technology understood by relatively few, but the utter foundation for the galactic republic to actually be in contact, Hyperspace, is something that everyone relies upon and trusts. Most don’t understand the math or theory, but those who do claim that this kind of accident should not be possible. Yet, the disaster the Republic suddenly faces demonstrates otherwise.

Jedi and Republic forces posted in the outer rim respond to the first ’emergence’ of these fragments, trying to save as many as they can. In the aftermath, all groups begin to try to investigate the nature of the disaster – an accident, or something planned?

In the meantime, a group of outer-rim pirates with a reputation for almost supernatural terror continue their criminal activities while also trying to capitalize on the chaos and uncertainty surrounding these emergences. The group calls themselves the Nihil, and they stand for an almost anarchic freedom from the brand of freedom that the Republic gospel spreads. Though relatively small-time, with activities limited to the outer-rim, they have an edge on their prey, knowledge of transport paths between space that the Republic, and the hyperdrive system, is ignorant.

The investigations of the Jedi and the Republic, while trying to avert further emergence disasters, brings them into direct contact with the activities of the Nihil, as this group of pirates also goes through a transition under its relatively new leadership.

I knew next to nothing of the plot of this book when going into it. I assume like everything Star Wars, this “High Republic” concept is being linked into multiple multimedia formats, but I only read the novels. I also haven’t read much of the older Star Wars “Legends” that were published before, so if this era was covered then, I have no idea if characters reappear now in canon. The only thing I knew about Light of the Jedi beyond its cover was when roughly it took place, and that the new ‘Big Bad’ for the series was apparently marauder pirates.

My first though was: “Pirates? Really? That’s the big threat?” Then: “Well, at least they aren’t doing the big Empire and Sith concept all over again.” When I saw the corny name of the nihilist group, I also thought: “Well, Star Wars was never really about subtlety in names.” I’d still rather them have a different name, but in this novel the Nihil become something far more than marauders, and their mysterious, sinister leader is definitely intriguing. By novel’s end we still have lots of questions as to his history and motivations, and I am definitely intrigued.

With short chapters, Light of the Jedi hops from scene to scene among protagonists and antagonists with seamless flow, revealing twists, turns, and discoveries to characters and readers alike all along the way. Soule makes the enemies interesting, and some of them even sympathetic or at least comprehensible despite the horrors they commit. Meanwhile, he rapidly draws readers into empathetic support of the Jedi and Republic individuals who are trying so hard to preserve life, to keep the light of Republic ideals shining amid threats. It becomes heart-wrenching as characters you like and would love to see develop, in an instant, die.

Soule’s characters all also have a sort of witty charm to them, a light sense of humor or laid-back manner. From the everyday Republic heroes who speak of “those space wizards” to the Jedi on the high council, they all are very human, even the alien species. That is typical Star Wars. What is more uniquely Soule, perhaps, is that even the most stoic and rigid Jedi still have little rebellious or wry streaks to them. Those Jedi who are most outside the mold he seems to have the most love for writing.

Star Wars books aren’t always really science fiction, either. Usually they are more fantasy. Space wizard is a joke, but also kind of serious. Light of the Jedi actually does qualify to me within the speculative science fiction realm, however. The entire plot revolving around the science of how Hyperdrive works – though not explained like an issue of Analog would – gives the novel a decidedly SF feel more than other Star Wars I’ve read. In one of the more interesting scenes, a young man builds a supercomputer by connecting thousands of droids together, for the purposes of trying to analyze the emergences and predict when/where others could occur. The realization of his plans, and what he does to solve problems that arise with it (with the help of those space wizards too) reads just like a little SF short story within this Star Wars whole.

I don’t think I could’ve reasonably asked or expected more from Light of the Jedi than it delivered. I really look forward to the next book that Soule writes. (Maybe) unfortunately, the next book in the “High Republic” series will be by a different author, and Soule seems to have mostly been on the comic book front. But we will hear more from him in novels. Regardless, I am still looking forward to the follow-up novel in this storyline, with another author then I’m unfamiliar with. Claudia Gray also has a “High Republic” YA novel, coming, and I can’t imagine anything but loving that, as all her other canon work has been phenomenal.

It’s nice having a Star Wars novel set so apart from the film main line. My biggest disappointment with the canon novels has been that while they tell stories from the larger universe, those still could’ve been better connected to the actual films taking place around the same times. Particularly this is true for any of the novels taking place around the sequel trilogy. They all faltered by not being able to connect in any substantive way. With “High Republic” the only connection I had was with the mentions of beloved Yoda. Otherwise, it was a lovely playing field to allow actual new and unique stories in the expanded Star Wars universe. I still wouldn’t mind some Yoda action in there 😀


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 DARK VEIL (STAR TREK — PICARD) by James Swallow

The Dark Veil
By James Swallow
Gallery Books — January 2021
ISBN: 9781982154066
— Hardcover — 336 pp.


Good, mediocre, or even bad, I always enjoy reading media tie-in novels for properties I love. They are comfort reads, familiar and undemanding even after a long stressful day. I’ve lately been both (re)/reading the older Star Trek novels while as keeping up with the new releases. The newer ones definitely are more consistently higher in quality, but even among them The Dark Veil stands out as stellar. Among the best Trek novels I’ve read, it also makes a highly satisfying science fiction story on its own.

Branded as the second novel within the Star Trek: Picard series, The Dark Veil follows soon after the events in Una McCormack’s The Last Best Hope, and serves as a continued prequel to the CBS All-Access Picard series. Despite its appellation, The Dark Veil includes only two brief scenes with former Admiral Jean-Luc Picard. Instead, it focuses on Captain William Riker, counselor/diplomatic liaison Commander Deanna Troi, and their young son Thad, aboard the USS Titan. However, the novel chronicles an incident in their lives that impacts events seen in the television series, particularly the “Nepenthe” episode where Riker and Troi appear with daughter Kestra, still mourning the loss of their son Thad. Moreover, the plot and themes of The Dark Veil echo those brought to the fore of the Picard series: the Romulans and the eminent destruction of their homeworld star, the Zhat Vash, and the potential threat or fear of artificial life.

In its setting on the USS Titan and featuring that crew, The Dark Veil also represents a new novel in the Star Trek: Titan series, shifted now into the new ‘canon’. It remains to be seen how The Next Generation of series of novels could possibly be forced into the new canon timelines. I imagine that this now contains some retcons compared to what was in the original Titan series of books. Now, I haven’t yet read the Titan series, so I’m not sure how this compares or alters, but I believe The Dark Veil does use many of the characters first written from that series of novels.

Following the AI-led insurrection/destruction on Mars, the Federation has banned further research into, or development of, artificial sentient life. To the disappointment of hopeful idealists like Picard and Riker, they have withdrawn active support for the evacuation of Romulan citizens and turned insular. Among the instability and rising authoritarianism of multiple powers within the Alpha Quadrant, the unaligned and reclusively secret Jazari choose to convert their entire planet to a large vessel that will take them away from an area where they no longer feel safe or welcome. The handful of Jazari serving in Starfleet resign their commission and Starfleet (via the USS Titan) is chosen by the Jazari to transport the last remaining expats back to their now-converted home world to join the others for departure.

With the Jazari world near the Neutral Zone, the Titan notes a Romulan warbird maneuvering nearby, watching and making itself known. As the Jazari make their final preparations and the Titan is about to depart, a horrible accident occurs that threatens the Jazari and all of nearby space. While trying to save lives and avert disaster the USS Titan takes significant damage, and the Romulan ship arrives. To their surprise, the Romulan Commander offers assistance to the Titan and the Jazari.

Aboard the Romulan warbird, an agent of the Tal Shiar makes her displeasure for his act of altruism known to the Commander. Aboard the Jazari ship, the reptilian-appearing species debates what to do about the humans and Romulans who have now helped save them. Their Code demands offering support in return, but an important secret they hold also demands the continued limited contact of their reclusiveness from the humans and Romulans alike.

“Doing the right thing” exists as the central concept of the The Dark Veil. Characters from all sides repeatedly espouse this as a guiding principle. The Jazari take each step with the morally ‘right’ thing in mind for the safety of their species, but also taking into account the welfare of others. Similarly, the crew of the Titan – and the Federation as a whole, debate what the ‘right’ amount of engagement should be with a culture that asks to keep to itself and seems intent on abandoning their home, and another that is just as secretive, but also more of a threat, whose home is about to be taken from them. Now that the Federation has turned their back on the Romulans, what is the right thing for Riker and his crew to do? The Romulan Tal Shiar agent will do the right thing for what the spy organization envisions the Empire to require, but as a fanatical member of the Zhat Vash, that ‘right’ course of action for the Empire may, or may not, align with what she sees as best for all of organic life, faced a perceived AI-driven extinction. For the Romulan Commander, he will do his duty to what is right for Romulan Empire, but also sees a responsibility to help any and all life. For all the divisions between Romulans and the species of the Federation, he also sees commonality and like Riker, hope.

Amid all the action and intrigue born of these competing viewpoints and hidden secrets, brilliant and precocious young Thad becomes gravelly injured. His only hope of survival might come from the advanced technology of the Jazari, that they remain hesitant to share. Moreover, their treatment is not without risks, forcing the Jazari, Troi, and Riker to face difficult decisions of what is right for saving Thad. These scenes with Thad are bittersweet, knowing from the Picard TV series what ultimately happens to the boy, and the events here help explain some of what the show only vaguely mentioned.

Swallow does a fantastic job of balancing all of the elements of The Dark Veil together into an entertaining and even profound Star Trek adventure. I had high expectations for this novel based on how much I enjoyed the other Star Trek novel by Swallow that I’ve read: Day of the Vipers, the first in the Terok Nor trilogy. There too he writes excellent characterization combined with deeper themes and entertaining action. Even with those expectations, I remained impressed here. Swallow writes points of view from each of the three sides that seem realistic, that readers can empathize with. Even with the crazed fanaticism of the novel’s villain. Further, he nails the voices of Riker and Troi alike, using them both to the best they’ve ever been.

The novel is bookended with a Romulan tribunal questioning Riker, the Romulan Commander, and the Tal Shiar/Zhat Vash member. At first I wasn’t sure about this structure, but the end made it worthwhile, with a surprise guest appearance that worked very well tying in events of Star Trek movies with the TV series and novels.

And that reminds me of another aspect of this that I had wanted to bring up. I am in the camp that thinks that most of the Star Trek: The Next Generation movies are pretty awful. Insurrection was largely forgettable, and I wish I could forget Nemesis. Likewise, the first season of Picard was disappointing overall. While it had some highlights, most of it went in directions I found both overused and too dystopia-ridden. The ending was awful and contrived. Somehow, Swallow took elements from, and references to, these things that I didn’t really like much, and did take them in interesting ways, rather than making them worse. He maintains a dark ‘edge’ here that the newer Trek has gone toward, but kept it more consistent with the optimism of the past.

The Dark Veil succeeds in all aspects more than The Last Best Hope, which was already a very good novel. If you are a fan of Picard already and read media tie-ins, I imagine this is already on your radar. But if you are not either of those things, but like Star Trek, I still recommend this. If by some miracle you are reading this, but are an utter stranger to Picard – or even Start Trek, I would still say this is worth reading for a SF fan. Familiarity with the universe and characters is certainly a bonus, but it wouldn’t be essential. It may even work as an entry.

I won’t be reviewing the older Trek I re/read, but look here for reviews of future new novels out from Gallery Books – all but Discovery for now, as I still haven’t watched that.