Posts Tagged novel

‘The Last Ritual’, by S.A. Sidor

Disclaimer: I was so excited to receive this book for review! I’d seen the new Arkham Horror series as Coming Soon for most of the year, and given the popularity of Lovecraft-inspired fiction happening right now (almost as if the world’s gone mad), I was hopeful that such a dedicated selection of books from proven writers would be both true to the Mythos and also original for the 21st Century.

I’m glad to report that this book hits it out of the park on both fronts.

The story is narrated by famed artist Alden Oakes, and while we are told he is revealing horrific events from his youth, he seems at first to be more of a rich old man simply reminiscing. But soon you’re (appropriately) sucked into the tale and the momentum begins to rise…

We travel from the Old Ways of Europe to the newer – and stranger – happenings in Arkham itself. The town is as much a character as any of the humans, and it’s fascinating to see that while it’s comparatively forward-thinking (particularly with regard to women and people of colour), it’s built on a truly ancient foundation.

It’s difficult to speak about the plot without giving anything away, but suffice to say that the tale is the best sort of rollercoaster matinee adventure. By spending time with the protagonists, we become invested and genuinely caring for their wellbeing in a way that Lovecraft never really had time for. I was also relieved that the author has far more liberal views than HP himself – no racism, sexism or xenophobia here.

Initially, I felt that the book could be shorter, but I quickly realized that it’s precisely as long as it needs to be. While Alden can seem a little Wooster-like with his rank and privilege, he realizes it and tries to use it to help those other than himself. He’s a silly young man, who is forced to grow up and face the very real dangers of his home town (hopefully without pranging Father’s Rolls).

The 1920s setting is both well-researched and appropriate. Prohibition is something that everyone kind of works around; the recent war was its own kind of madness. Arkham is almost an island, tangentially affected by the wider movements of America at large but also looking far beyond, to the stars and the deepest seas, where the mysteries are strangely hypnotic, even attractive.

The characters are so well-drawn that I was casting them in my head (and missing Christopher Lee for one crucial baddie!). This would make a wonderful TV serial, akin to the recent ‘Lovecraft Country’.

I enjoyed my time in this strange land immensely, and am looking forward very much to the next titles in the series. Absolutely recommended.

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‘In Darkness, Shadows Breathe’, by Catherine Cavendish

NetGalley kindly provided a review copy of this book, but my opinions are my own.

Spooky hospitals seem to be their own trend in recent horror. From ‘The Ward‘ to ‘American Horror Story: Asylum‘, we’ve seen so many protagonists fight their way free of institutions that are supposed to be helping them. Perhaps timely in this crazy year?

This book takes the best of such tropes and combines them into a modern gothic tale that gripped me immediately with its spooky atmosphere, despite being set in a very mundane world – at least at first.

We initially follow Carol, a down-to-earth supermarket worker who’s flat-sitting in a posh apartment complex. But it’s adjacent to a hospital that was refurbished from a building with a much darker purpose… and soon this very 21st-century lady is being drawn back in time.

About halfway through, the action jumps to Nessa, a patient in the hospital undergoing a pretty intense operation. From the easy familiarity of Carol’s life, we suddenly find ourselves with a woman going through a traumatic fight with cancer. It’s a bit of a jarring leap, but we quickly find out what they have in common – besides strange dreams (memories?) of a filthy secret corridor echoing with screams.

I don’t want to give any more away, but a thread of uncertainty runs through the book as to whether our protagonists are hallucinating due to medication, going actually mad, or somehow really experiencing supernatural horrors that are tied up with the hospital’s history.

I enjoyed the start of this book. A brief prologue reminded me of Dennis Wheatley somewhat, before settling down into ultra-normality. Once we relate to the character, strange things start to happen, making it easy to ask what we would do in her situation. So far, so good.

The writing is beautiful and an absolute pleasure to read, with the transition from modern renal ward to Victorian squalor (or reality to Otherworld) being almost tangible.

However, the leap from one character to another is sudden and, for me, rather awkward. Nessa’s cancer treatments are focused on quite closely, and that’s a very different type of horror. When we see Carol again, I was left wondering what happened during the time we weren’t with her – because something certainly had.

The book demands a bit of work on the reader’s part, I think, to keep up with what’s going on in several deliberately confusing scenarios. Hospital staff don’t seem to act rationally, and the dreamlike quality of the ghostly scenes draws you along. It all seems to be heading for some sort of dramatic crescendo, as you think the characters have broken free to safety…

And then the book stops.

I don’t think this is a cliff-hanger, but it was shocking in the worst way. Nothing was resolved, I was left wondering what would happen next, and the commitment to both Carol and Nessa’s battles seemed wasted. It’s almost as if the author wanted a ‘Seven’-like twist, but couldn’t quite manage it.

I did enjoy the majority of this book, but it left me wanting more. I found myself making up ‘head-canon’ for the characters, because I genuinely did like them and I wanted more than the author gives. The final part of the novel appears to have vanished.

Do check this out if you like a bit of modern gothic on a dark winter night. Personally though, it left me feeling that the protagonists had checked out of the story early, as well as the hospital.

Available to pre-order on Amazon, for release mid-January 2021.

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Review: The Burnt Watcher

The Burnt Watcher Cover

This book was recommended to me by Nimue Brown, which kindled a lovely friendship with the author! I would say that any bias is unintended, but…

This book is absolutely in my Top 10 Reads of 2020. For a first-time, independently-published novel, it caught me up in its tale and I found myself trapped within its pages late into the night.

‘Five hundred years ago the old world burned and the Fear rose from the ashes and the Glass. Watchers knew the Fear and found the ways of fighting it, enabling the world to be built anew.’

This may be the calmest post-apocalyptic novel I’ve ever read. It starts long after the Big Catastrophic Event, and reminded me at first of Ellis Peters’ ‘Cadfael’ books: a spiritual man, injured in the course of his work and seeking peace and quiet, pulled into a mystery from a world he’d left behind.

Master Grey is a Watcher, trained to fight The Fear which destroyed the ancient cities and drove all survivors into the countryside. This is recognisably England, albeit with slightly changed names (watch out for the dangers of the M4 motorway!), with technology that is something between medieval and steampunk, born of practicality and without using any concrete whatsoever.

I love how Master Grey leads us through his world. He assumes that those hearing his tale already understand the foundations of his society, so doesn’t go out of his way to explain them – there’s little exposition here. He remembers events and people as they’re important to him, and so the reader is able to build the world he moves through it.

The Fear hasn’t been seen in many years, so the Watchers are now few in number. However, we soon learn that it has certainly not disappeared, but is working subtly in the background while humanity starts to forget. Yes, magic is present here, but in a very practical manner… and scoffed at by the ‘educated, civilized’ folk. Until they have need of it.

The author uses his own interpretation of folk magic such as ley lines and runes to create a very grounded spiritual tradition that quickly seems very natural. I’d be intrigued to see how the society of the book formed post-event, but at the same time it’s tremendous fun to figure it out myself.

There’s a few influences here, I’d guess, but all combine to make a fascinating world. From Cadfael we move to the Swiftian bureacracy of middle England, then on to ‘The Wicker Man’ (or even ‘Deliverance’), with shades of ‘Rivers of London’ and ‘Neverwhere’. I use these as hints, by the way – the book is absolutely its own creature – but if you like any of the above, you’ll likely enjoy this.

Before you know it the gentle pace has ramped up, and by the end is hurtling along as we read faster and faster to see how Master Grey will discover what’s going on, defeat the Fear, and how even moreĀ  damaged he might be as a result.

I understand that there is a sequel (or two) in the works, and they can’t come fast enough!

I love being recommended new books, and this is one Find that I’m happy to sing the praises of. Absolutely do seek it out.

The Burnt Watcher‘ is available for Kindle and in paperback via Amazon.

 

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Review: What Hell May Come

What Hell May Come Cover

I was kindly sent a review copy of this book by Crystal Lake Publishing.

The concept of this tale alone was intriguing to me, before I even began. What if the ‘Satanic Panic’ during the 1980s in America was real? This was the moral scare about Dungeons & Dragons being an entryway for impressionable young minds to discover Satanism, in case you didn’t know. Not the UK panic, which was concerned with video Nasties (all of which are now widely available).

My initial thoughts about the D&D scare was based on articles I read years ago from American newspapers, while researching for my BA dissertation. Worried mothers believed that their children were somehow possessed by their player-characters, or becoming drawn into the occult. For anyone who’s seen the D&D books of that time (or seen the television cartoon), this seems far-fetched, but it did happen. Blame the books that fire children’s imaginations in a way that the Real World never could…

Well, that last part is present in this book, at least. But this is no comedy poking fun at Conservative Christian parents.

If this book reminded me of any roleplaying game, it was actually White Wolf’s World of Darkness. This is the ’80s through a lense of nihilism, suspicion and kids just trying to survive in a messed-up world that makes absolutely no sense. Reaganomics translates to ‘every person for themselves’. Sexism and racism are still present, fear of The Outsider, money being the ultimate goal of life… this is darkest satire, but for those of us who remember that decade (I was one of those kids), this is an alternative universe that with just a nudge, could be our Real World.

We follow a young protagonist, Jon St Fond, and his alter-ego Crixen Runeburner, as they battle past monsters of very different types, but equal threat. Jon and his friends come from messed-up and neglectful families (each in its own unique way), and D&D brings them together for those rare times when they can be heroes instead of losers.

So far, so typical of how D&D was often portrayed. But as we delve deeper into Jon’s life, we see that there’s more to the ‘mundane’ world that he may have thought. A new roleplaying game that seems more obviously influenced by the occult, acquired by a dodgy magician in a strange part of town. His parents are acting suspiciously, apparently encouraging his sisters to dive into the worst debaucheries. And why are there cameras all over their house?

I don’t want to give too much away. This is a slow burn of a novel, and occasionally difficult to read – but the ‘money and drugs’ image of the ’80s is shown here in filthy Trainspotting-style glory. Everything has a veneer of sleaze, everyone’s corrupt or on the take. The occasional innocent is food for the wolves.

I was hypnotised as Jon’s journey took him ever deeper into the abyss that lay behind the everyday normality of life. More than a few times, I caught myself thinking ‘this can’t be happening!’ – but it was. This book throws any rules or tropes of genre out of the window, and bloodily carves its own path, dragging you along with it.

My only disappointment was that after the slow click-click-click of the rollercoaster rising to the climax of the story, the ending seemed sudden, almost rushed. Everything was concluded, but somehow faster than it deserved. I wanted Jon to get more, after all he’d been through.

But hey – life is tough. By the end, our hero(es) set off into their lives very different people from that waaay back at the beginning.

And this is a story that won’t leave my mind anytime soon, either.

Recommended, but be wary. Here there be monsters – and you may know some of them already.

‘What Hell May Come’ is out now in paperback or ebook via Amazon.

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Review: The Magpie Coffin

The Magpie Coffin Cover

I was kindly offered a review copy of this book by the publisher, but decided very quickly to buy it in order to support the author.

I rarely read Westerns. I’ve known many who do – often ex-soldiers, for some reason –  but while I enjoy the occasional Clint Eastwood movie, my experience with them is minimal.

I finished this book in two days. That’s only because I a) had other work to do and b) wanted to not consume it all in one quick gulp!

Salem Covington is an ex-soldier, having survived the American Civil War intact in body… but not in soul. We discover that he and his brother made a deal, and he has to follow through on that. His legend is notorious, and when he walks into a bar, the scar on his face means only fools challenge him (and of course, they do).

But that’s only part of the story. Salem spent a whole mess o’ time (yes, he speaks like that) learning what could be called ‘magic’ from his local Native tribe – and the tale begins when he learns that his esteemed teacher has been killed by A Right Gang of Bastards.

So because his deal means that he can’t be killed by any bullet except that from a particular gun, and as the titular Black Magpie he has to avenge his teacher’s murder, he grabs up the body (coffin and all), acquires a random sidekick, and sets off to fulfil his task.

This book has the subtitle of ‘A Splatter Western’, and yes, it’s gory in places. But I think that’s actually a misnomer. I’ve studied American history, and this book seems to nail the cynical attitudes and yet ‘interesting’ sense of honour held by folks in the (very) Wild West at that time. A war has ended that saw more people dead than any other in history, until World War One. People are doing their best just to get by. Violence is a familiar neighbour.

Salem tells the story, and while you sometimes get the urge to wince at his actions, it can’t be argued that he’s absolutely justified in what he does. He may be a Bad Man, but those he fights are so very much worse. By the end, I was cheering him on.

Given my limited knowledge of the fictional West, I admit to seeing parallels between this and the TV show Firefly. That carries an undercurrent of desperation as well, survival against the odds, and doing what has to be done, even when it seems foolish or dangerous.

The atmosphere, though – it’s akin to Silent Hill. The wilds of America are, to me, parallel in storytelling to the moors in Britain, or the forests of Europe. This place absolutely has its own character, and its own spirits.

Salem’s no hero, by his own admission. But he’s the one we’ve got – and by the conclusion, I was sad to see him ride off into the sunset. I very much want to know what he gets up to next.

The additional quirk of including Native tribal magic means you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. Is the corpse talking to Salem, or is he imagining it? Does it matter? And if it didn’t, where did that bear come from?!

This is an excellent tale, engrossing and memorable. It deals respectfully with the spirits of the Old West, be they Blue, Grey or Red, and every character is well drawn. I was especially pleased to see some strong women arrive in the narrative, even if they weren’t always the most pleasant. Assume nothing about anyone in this book.

Absolutely recommended, and already looking forward to what this fine gentleman writes next.

‘The Black Magpie’ is published by Death’s Head Press, and is available from all the usual bookstores, in paperback and ebook.

 

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Review: ‘Deus Ex Mechanic’

Deus ex Mechanic cover

‘Deus Ex Mechanic’ is the first full-length novel by Ryann Fletcher. I was kindly provided with an early ARC, but have promised an unbiased review.

This book has had a difficult birth. Originally scheduled to be hitting shelves (and ereaders) last year, it was delayed due to the publisher unfortunately closing down. The author took the brave decision to self-publish… and I’m very glad that she did.

We are taken on the journey of Alice, a humble mechanic in a future where humanity has colonised the galaxy and potentially beyond. We see a little of her life deep in the bowels of an enormous starship – where she’s busy working on the boiler with her trusty wrench. For this is science fiction, but with a generous slice of steampunk thrown in. Shiny and space-age on the outside, messy and basic underneath!

The action begins quickly, as Alice is kidnapped during an explosive incursion by a pirate crew led by Captain Violet. And if you know anything about this book, the sparks that soon fly aren’t just those in the boiler room.

The universe-building is intriguing, and definitely drew me in. There are clear parallels with the benevolent socio-political framework of ‘Star Trek’, with hints of the ‘Warhammer 40K’ fascistic society – but let’s not hide the obvious. This is a loving wink at ‘Firefly’, with a hierarchical ruling political body being quietly opposed by small groups of active pirates and folks just looking to survive.

Alice faces the dilemma of the ‘safe’ captivity of her regular role within the not-Federation, versus the freedom and danger offered by the crew of the ‘Cricket’. It isn’t an easy decision, and the pirates each have their own opinions on their new mechanic. It’s not ‘hard’ sci-fi, instead absolutely its own engaging form of space-opera drama.

The characters soon become like old friends. I was again reminded of ‘Firefly’, with its tiny-but-unique gang of criminals, but the Cricket is definitely its own beast. I found myself mentally casting a TV series as the book went on, because I so wanted to see the action-packed adventures of Violet, Ned, Hyun and the rest.

The story moves along fast, with pleasant pauses in the action to allow breathing room for relationships to develop… before jumping back into Major Peril again! It’s tremendous fun, moving smoothly from one incident to the next, but never feeling rushed. We know why everyone acts as they do, and are keen to see what happens as events unfold.

Also, this isn’t ‘just pin a cog on it’ steampunk. I was so glad that the universe seems organic (so to speak), without any hand-waving technobabble to make the plot progress. Pipes and boilers must be maintained to make starships run. Whole worlds of people rebel against the wider accepted society just by living their lives. Freedom under threat is preferable to (comparative) luxurious captivity. Literal Steam-Punk.

I understand that a sequel is already complete, and am very pleased to say that I can’t wait to see what shenanigans Alice and Violet get up to next. A fantastic first novel. Definitely recommended.

‘Deus ex Mechanic’ is available on Amazon, Apple, Kobo, etcetc.

Note: Because the in-person event had to be cancelled, Ryann is kindly holding an online Launch Party tonight on her YouTube channel. I’ll be there!

 

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