And They Were Never Heard From Again – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

Love the cover, courtesy of Jenny Zemanek.

Yarnsworld #0

Novella, Fantasy, Faerie Tale

Amazon Digital; February 21, 2019

41 pages (ebook)

4 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

And They Were Never Heard From Again is a teaser tale from They mostly Come Out at Night author Benedict Patrick. This tale—or tales (if you get the omnibus version)—can act as an introduction to Yarnsworld, without getting the reader too attached to any one character or place. See that’s the thing with Yarnsworld—the stories jump around, like Discworld. So you’ll have stories set in the same world, but often none of them will share characters. This novella serves as a glimpse into the world, but don’t expect to be hearing from the denizens of this short anytime soon.

I mean, especially with the title and all.

The story centers on two brothers. The live in a little town, surrounded completely by forest. Each night the townsfolk lock themselves away in their cellars, fearful at what the night will bring. For every villager knows the stories—each one more bloody than the last. Of what lurks in the darkest corners of the wood. Of what more comes out at night. And of what happens when someone encounters one of these creatures. Hint: it’s in the title.

There is but one nightly visitor of the forest not feared: the Magpie King. Myth and legend and ruler wrapt into one, he patrols their forest searching out the lost, the vulnerable, the beasts that lurk and prowl. Each he deals with in turn. Tad loves the tales, especially the Magpie King’s. But there is one that he loves more than any other—that of the Bramble Man. The terrifying beast that Tad himself invented, and whose legend he’s spread far and wide, despite his five years. Felton cares little for these stories. Tad’s older brother is more interested in a certain farm village, beyond the forest’s reach. A certain village, with a certain girl. But when Felton whisks his little brother off on an adventure to court said girl, he forgets two important details. One, the road is long, and night is never far away. And two, sometimes stories are just stories, but other times they can take on a life of their own.

I was pretty much captivated with this tale. The setting, the dark vibe, the people that lock themselves in, the many faerie tales of Yarnsworld. I’ve never finished They Mostly Come Out at Night, but there were extenuating circumstances—when I was reading it, I quite liked the vibe, the fables, though it did reek a bit of inexperience. And They Were Never Heard From Again was just enough to make me want to dive back in, something to whet my appetite. The ending, however, I didn’t care for. But I won’t spoil it. Sufficient to say it’s a resolution I wouldn’t’ve used, and leave it there.

If you’re interested, give it the tale a try. The kindle version is free right now, so there’s nothing to lose. If you enjoy it, you can even pick up an omnibus of shorts from Yarnsworld free, direct from the author. And if you enjoy that as well, you can get into his proper novels in the world. Or, you could check out his Kickstarter on now—he’s on Book #5 of Yarnsworld, To Dream and Die as a Taniwha Girl—there’s even an option to pick up his complete works, if you’re in a gambling mood. Or if you’re completely sold. Otherwise, it’s cool—there’s always more out there to read!

Seven Endless Forests – by April Genevieve Tucholke (Review)

I absolutely love the cover—all those greens and trees!—courtesy of the amazing Elizabeth H. Clark.

Standalone / Torvi #1

Fantasy, YA, Arthurian Legend

Farrar, Straus & Giroux; April 28, 2020

352 pages (ebook)

4.0 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I was kindly provided an advance-copy of the book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to Macmillan and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Torvi has seen little in her eighteen summers, as she’s rarely been out of sight of her family farm. Daughter of an Elsh farmer and a Merrows’ sailor, she spent her entire childhood being told that her lot in life would be to tend the animals, steal glory from her sister, and only provide worth to her family through a dowry. Though her nan would often tell her tales of adventure and glory, Torvi’s mother would dismiss these as too fanciful for her eldest daughter, instead using every opportunity to focus on the talents of her second daughter, Morgunn.

The story opens in the aftermath of a plague, one that has devastated farms in the Middlelands. Everyone Torvi has ever known or cared for died in that plague, excepting two: her father—who broke his promise and returned to the sea some years before—and her sister, Morgunn. But their mother, nan, and all farmhands and servants perished, all to be burned or buried by Torvi’s own hand. Even Viggo—her lover—passed, leaving her all alone. Except for Morgunn. Morgunn, the daughter her mother doted on. The daughter that Torvi never could be. The daughter that would inherit the world, that would win glory, the daughter likely to retrieve the mythical sword of Esca, thus commanding a Jarldom.

The daughter that gets kidnapped in the opening chapters.

A roving band of wolf-priestesses, disciples of flesh, blood and flame, descend upon the farm, taking Morgunn off for sacrifice after razing the steading to the ground. And it’s up to Torvi, her only family left, to rescue her sister and kill the wolves holding her. Something she’ll never hope to do alone.

And so Torvi sets out upon a quest: to find and gain allies in her fight, to save her sister, to rebuild her life, and even—maybe—to liberate a magical sword from a certain stone, thus winning glory. Though on her journey Torvi shall face death, tragedy, danger, and deceit, she may yet find adventure, love, glory, and the acceptance that’s eluded her all her life. But will she reach her sister in time?

Well, she certainly doesn’t reach her sister IN TIME. This is NOT a spoiler, just a note on just how long it takes her to get going. A few chapters in, she (and Morgunn, before her capture) meet Gyda, a druid, and gain their first companion. Then a little after her sister is taken, they collect some Butcher Bards—and are off on a magical adventure! Just, not a time-sensitive one. Honestly, the first part of the story is so random and wandery that by the 1/3 mark I fully expected them to reach the wolves only to find that the raiders had sacrificed Morgunn a month past. And then I realized this probably wouldn’t be very Arthurian. Nevertheless, there’s no real sense of urgency to the plot—as if they’d a gentleman’s (or ladies) agreement from the wolves to stay any executing of anyone until there could be a showdown. Torvi and her band just kick around the world having exciting adventures and telling mystical tales while at the same time casually keeping an eye out for anyone they could use to help free her sister.

The most surprising revelation wasn’t actually that they were wasting waaay too much time. It was that—despite the lack of urgency, despite the impending death of Torvi’s sister—I was actually enjoying the story. Torvi and her band travel to exotic and fanciful locales, face unknown horrors, meet exceptional people, and explore breathtaking forests. And despite the lack of any urgency—or maybe because of it—I really enjoyed it. I mean, the fact that they take their sweet damn time is entirely irksome, something that can’t be understated. It bothered me when I picked up Seven Endless Forests every evening. But by the time I set the book aside each night I was over it, already lost in the aftermath of the adventures they’d undertaken. It is a magical and wondrous world Tucholke created, one that overwhelmed all the issues that came with it. Not that there are many. Other than the sense of urgency, I had one other issue—that of the plot that is Morgunn. Without spoiling as much as possible… the kidnapping of Morgunn doesn’t extend through to the end. At about the 3/4 mark, we clear that up and take on the next adventure: that of the sword of Esca. Now, the two tales are loosely connected, but Tucholke doesn’t really take any pains try and tie them closer. And as much as I adored the story—and I did—this disconnect was annoying, and stupid.

The world-building of Seven Endless Forests is impressive. The myths and stories that appear in the text are so varied and unique that I’d be interested to go back and read Tucholke’s other stuff to see if they weren’t established earlier. Now some of the legends within are retelling of Norse faery tales, like how the story is a retelling of Arthurian legend. But others I didn’t recognize. Now, I don’t pretend to know everything about either topic, but I have dived pretty deep before, into each, so I’m aware of a decent amount. But the various characters that Torvi and her band meet are so wondrous and colorful; the Butcher Bards, the Quicks, the wolf priestesses, the Pig witches, the Merrowsfolk, the monks and witches and wizards and more. And the places they visit are no less amazing—tree villages, night markets, endless forests—that it was easy to lose myself in the world for a few hours or more and then go to bed, forgetting that the plot had basically wandered around aimlessly during that time.

Magic is different depending on who you are. Instead of one universal magical system, there are many. Pig witches read the entrails of beasts to decode the future. Drakes read the stars to accomplish the same. Flemmish Wizards do a bit of both, but command the more traditional magicks besides, making them a class all their own. Wolves (priestesses) rely on yew-berry poison to see the world as it truly is, and to manipulate it to their own ends. Additionally, there are Sea witches, Druids, Bone monks, Jade Fells, and more. Each with their own abilities and styles.

TL;DR

A retelling of Arthurian legend with an emphasis on ancient Norse culture and a map that very much resembles Finland, Seven Endless Forests is the wondrous, meandering adventure that I didn’t know I needed. While it wastes too much time to be considered an urgent rescue mission, and while that whole plot thread ends at the 3/4 mark, the resulting tale that this book tells are worth their weight in gold for their adventure, questing, myths and legends, and its fabulous world. Though possessive of a strange blend of wandering and urgency at first, the story settles down to tell the tale of Torvi, a farm-girl out to seize control of her destiny. It’s not without fault, but succeeds much more than it fails—at least, in my opinion. It reminded me of a novelized Quest for Glory game, if you remember those. Magic, fun, adventure—what more could you ask for? Definitely worth a read.

A Note: While everything I’ve read claims that this is a standalone, at the end of the epilogue there is a disclaimer noting that the story is not over yet, and the conclusion reopens a few threads, just in case the author decides to revisit the world in the future. What I’m saying is: this is just primed for a sequel. So don’t count one out.

A Historical Note: Seven Endless Forests is set in a mythical not-Finland. The story is a retelling of Arthurian legend, but relies heavy on ancient Norse culture and tales. I actually had this in the midst of the review and one point, but then I rambled a bit too much (and this is the CUT DOWN version). Now, as I’ve been an archaeologist and historian in past lives, well… Finland wasn’t originally Norse. It was conquered by Sweden in the Late Middle Ages and generally settled as a colony. They converted the people to Christianity, and several Norse cultural aspects bled into Suomi during this time. But while they bordered one another, the two cultures aren’t the same. The Scandinavian and Finnish languages aren’t even remotely similar. The myths and legends, while occasionally similar, are not the same. And importantly, Norse paganism and Suomenusko are not the same. Norse featured Odin, Thor, Asgard, and Yggdrasil. Suomenusko relied on its own pantheon of gods (like Ukko, Lempo, and Nyyrikki), ancestor worship, and the veneration of forests—that did actually make it into the text. Otherwise, despite the fact that the map is essentially that of Suomi, it’s heavily Norse, with a few Finnish influences.

The Hazel Wood – by Melissa Albert (Review)

The Hazel Wood #1

Fantasy, YA

Flatiron Books; January 30, 2018

356 pages (ebook)

12 hr, 11 min (audio)

GoodreadsAuthor Twitter

4 / 5 ✪

When Alice Proserpine was six, a strange red-haired man came to kidnap her. Now, unlike most kidnappers, he didn’t cover his face or hers. He didn’t bundle her into a van and threaten her or her mother. He didn’t demand a ransom for her, or much of anything else. He simply pulled up in an old blue Buick and asked if she’d like a ride to meet her grandmother. And Alice, being a child, said yes.

Years later, Alice still remembers the man. The way he spoke and laughed. How he’d bought her pancakes and told her the strangest stories while she ate them. How the police found them after 14 hours, and how they were amazed to hear he hadn’t mistreated her. She remembers him, and how panicked her mother, Ella, was to find her. Years later, Alice’s mother is still haunted by this event—although Alice remembers it fondly, through a haze of being young and impressionable, she reasons. It is the reason they move from town to town like drifters. The reason Alice concocts a different last name and life story each time they do. The reason that some days she awakens to find her mother up, the car packed and waiting. It—and her grandmother, Althea—is the reason they are never safe.

Alice is seventeen now, and her mother has settled down somewhat. They currently reside in New York City, where her mother has married wealthy businessman Harold. Now Alice shares a penthouse loft with him and her mother, and his daughter Audrey, a stereotypical rich, popular, snob who’s addicted to her phone and fashion. That is, until one day when Ella vanishes, and Harold throws her out at gunpoint, wild-eyed and raving nonsensically. Newly destitute and—well, more destitute than usual—desperate to find Ella, Alice turns to the only person she can: billionaire’s son Ellery Finch, and the closest thing she has to a friend. But not only is Ellery the awkward, geeky slush fund of disposable income that Alice has never wanted, he’s also the only person she has ever met who’s read “Tales from the Hinterland”, her grandmother Althea’s book, and—apparently—the reason this whole fiasco started.

A cult classic, Tales from the Hinterland is nothing but a collection of loosely-tied fairy tales, though each one featuring a strange and dark ending. Not that Alice has ever read them. But Finch has. And it’s his knowledge that may be the key for finding Ella. All Alice has to do is disregard Ella’s final message to her: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.”

The Hazel Wood was not at all what I expected. I mean, going into it, I didn’t know what to expect. Something about fairy tales, surely. But we really don’t get into the fairy tales until the halfway mark or so—prior to that there’re only snippets and clues. An adventure-thriller, with mystery and fantasy thrown in—the Hazel Wood defied my expectations as surely as it will your own.

It’s a great read, for the most part. What begins as a thought-provoking mystery soon becomes a heart-pounding pursuit, which itself becomes a rescue op gone wrong. It’s quite the ride, on the whole, twisting and turning plot-lines that weave and intersect so frequently that there’s never any problem reading. But in the end—which I’m totally NOT giving away—it all kinda fizzles out. Not that there isn’t any resolution. Just that it isn’t entirely satisfactory. It’s certainly lackluster. Althea, Ella, and the Hazel Wood have all been the driving factors to this point. But following the resolution, what Alice wants gets… muddied up a bit. The results of this are a bit anticlimactic, but hopefully get resolved in the next book. In fact, “The Boy Who Never Came Home”, a short told from Ellery’s POV, helps fill in some bits and pieces. This was included with the edition I read, though you may have to find it elsewhere if you get a different one. While this novella and the original story combine to create a MORE satisfactory ending, it’s still far from what I’d hoped. But as I said, hopefully the second book pulls everything together.

The setting of the Hazel Wood is spectacular. Not so much New York City, which looks and sounds like a city no matter how you spin it—once we get Upstate, or to the Hazel Wood itself, the depiction really takes a turn. It certainly reads like a dark fairy tale from that moment on, and I was left picturing a world like that of Hans Christian Andersen or Lewis Carroll which had been dipped in ink and left to absorb around the edges. A truly dark and twisted world that inspires both dreams and nightmares alike.

The characters—Alice and Finch in particular—are impressive. While none else have the depth, the attention to detail that these two command, no others are around quite as much as they are. From the relationship between the two (whatever it is), to the way it affects their actions, to the manner in which it changes over the course of the telling, I was absorbed by the way Melissa Albert uses it to strengthen her story. Though it can’t be said that individual character growth and development are nearly so strong, their mutual bond shows that such a thing can be possible [in the future].

TL;DR

The Hazel Wood was quite a read—action, adventure, mystery and enjoyable but dark fantasy all twirled into one. While I’m definitely interested in anything more Melissa Albert has to offer, the ending somewhat soured me on it, thus I did not go out and buy the next book directly upon finishing it. Where the individual character development disappointed, the twisting way in which Alice and Finch’s relationship changes more than makes up for it. The dark fairy tale setting is lovely, as the author seems to have captured the very essence of fairy tales and brought them to life, but with a dark, bloody twist. I hear a copy of the Tales of the Hinterland is in the works, and would love to read it! But until 2021, you’ll have to make do with The Night Country, which follows the Hazel Wood and hopefully ties up some loose threads. If you get to it before me, could you stop by and let me know how it is? Thank you!

Audio Note: It actually took me some time to get used to the reader, Rebecca Soler, but once I did I thought that she encapsulated Alice quite nicely. While I’d certainly recommend it (and her) for the heart-pounding moments of anticipation or the slow, methodical mysteries throughout—I’m less than sold on the fast-paced action elements. It may just be me but I found that she sorta slurs the words together a bit to get them out faster (like I do when I talk fast), and at protracted times it became more difficult to follow. Just my opinion, not a shot or anything.