The Tindalos Asset – by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Review)

Tinfoil Dossier #3

Horror, Novella, Scifi

Tor.com; October 13, 2020

176 pages (ebook)
4hr 35m (audiobook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

3.0 / 10 ✪

Please beware spoilers for… actually, amazingly I don’t think there are any spoilers for the previous books in the series. Take from that what you will.

The Signalman reprises his role from Agents of Dreamland. He’s joined by a fresh-faced partner. Ellison Nicodemo also returns in what just may be her swan song. But I suppose the same could be said of mankind.

A series of paranormal events plagues the Earth, portent of the looming apocalypse. Squid are born to human mothers. Planes fill with water while in flight. Whales are discovered beached thousands of miles inland.

The time has come for this motley team to face the end of the world.

…I think. It’s kinda hard to tell.

The Tindalos Asset gets excellent ratings and reviews on Goodreads, but I think I know why. Anyone that made it through Black Helicopters and was excited to continue the series is bound to love the Book #3 more. I mean, even I loved the Tindalos Asset waaay more than the one that came before it. Though that’s not to say it’s any good. I’m the kind of person that made it through Black Helicopters and thought “well, #3 can’t possibly be any worse”—which isn’t really the best reason to continue a series, I know.

The Tindalos Asset is like Fringe meets… whatever Book #2 was about. I’d say it’s a motley start to a new series, but unfortunately it’s the final one. So, as the conclusion to a series, well, it sucks. Bonus points for the Fringe connection though. I know what happened at the end. It just didn’t make any sense why or how.

There’s a romance, kinda. But it doesn’t make any more sense than anything else in this series. I mean, weren’t there aliens at some point? What happened to them? They’re… really not in this installment. There are hints, yes—but nothing concrete; nothing even remotely approaching clear. Of the romance however: no hints. There’s some sex between the Signalman and his partner, but it’s more raw, less romantic. Does little more than peg him as human—something the other entries just left as a open question. As a romance it’s really lacking, but the only thing I felt indicative of the term. That said, this isn’t who the romance is really between (the Signalman and his partner, I mean), so I don’t know what to tell you. I really hope that this isn’t how the author thinks people flirt.

So, do I recommend this? Nope. I mean, it’s better than Black Helicopters, but that’s a really low bar. The ending was an adequate conclusion to the series, but I’ve no idea how we got to that point, and I read the damned things. But again, it’s better than what directly preceded it. There’s a (mostly) coherent plot. It actually connects to events and characters from Agents of Dreamland. There’s actually some character development, which was a complete surprise. Some of it even makes sense. But yeah, there is no lasting sense of completion or achievement. Sad to say, but the best part of this book—no, this entire series—is likely the end. When it ended.

By the way, did I mention this is $8 for an ebook? Totally not worth it.

Friend of the Devil – by Stephen Lloyd (Review)

Standalone

Thriller, Horror, Mystery

G.P. Putnam’s Sons; May 10, 2022

240 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

6 / 10 ✪

I was kindly granted an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Penguin for the eARC! All opinions are my own.

Please beware minor spoilers (and major spoilers—in one paragraph that’s marked as spoilery).

1980’s New England. An 11th century manuscript of untold value and much deeper worth has gone missing from haut monde boarding school Danforth Putnam, where the elite intermingle with the destitute. Sam Gregory—insurance investigator and scarred war vet—sets forth to the isle to investigate.

Upon landing Sam finds more cause for concern than just a lost manuscript. There are students missing—not that anyone seems too concerned. Danforth Putnam has an interesting system on the books to balance its aristocratic pedigree. Namely, granting orphans a full tuition at the school so long as they help out with some of the more unsavory labor, below the status of the rich and famous. The students that have gone missing, of course, belong to the lower class—motherless urchins that no one will miss. And indeed no one seems to.

But Sam is only here for the book. And while the missing students worry him—he really can’t do anything about them.

But the longer he spends at Danforth Putnam, the more Sam worries that the missing students might tie-in to the absence of the book. Confronted with wild rumors of witchcraft and murders, he must navigate the warren of gossip and lies that exist at any school, at least so long as he hopes to find the book. But Sam is tireless and ardent in his duty, which is good—for one never knows just how deep the rabbit hole might go.

“Cops know how much the book’s worth?”


Thomas Arundel sighed. “Danforth Putnam is technically in West Cabot County. Last year, West Cabot County had three murders, two dozen rapes, nearly four hundred aggravated assaults and eighteen arsons. I called about a stolen book. Trust me, Mr. Gregory, they don’t care what it’s worth. As far as anyone own that side of the Atlantic is concerned, this is an island full of spoiled rich kids with spoiled-rich-kid problems, and a stolen book, even a valuable one, fits firmly in that category.”

The story is entertaining, exciting, and immersive. The mystery itself is interesting and fast-paced, so I never had any trouble reading it. Sam Gregory is a little bit of a cliché—a Vietnam vet who uses cigarettes and a wise-ass routine to mask his PTSD, while refusing to play by the rules. Good thing he’s a PI and not a detective, or it would’ve been an unacceptable level of cliché. But I guess my tolerance for freelance or third-party gumshoes is a lot more lenient than beat cop. I actually quite enjoyed his renegade persona and sarcasm, though I still feel like it’s the default state for any 80’s cop. Don’t get me started on the reporter angle. If there are two POVs in any mystery/thriller nowadays, odds are they’re a reporter and some kinda detective.

The character development in this was about as deep and intricate as the characters themselves. As in, they weren’t. Everyone—even Sam and Harriet—were one-sided and shallow. Only one character showed anything even remotely like growth, and yet I really wouldn’t’ve called it that.

While Friend of the Devil doesn’t try anything new at the outset, the more you dig into the story, the more it threatens to exploit these clichés in unexpected ways. Overall, the story was interesting, immersive, and thrilling. An 11th century manuscript missing, a wayward teen obsessed with magic and power, missing students, terrible secrets, a plot that refused to slow down once it got rolling. And then comes the end.

And the main issue I had with it. The scene comes close to the end and is the lynchpin for everything that follows. And it’s… ridiculous. It’s clear that the author had an ending in mind, and had written up a thrilling conclusion to match, but was having trouble connecting the two. And instead of reworking one or the other—they forced it.

°°

Beware spoilers for the following paragraph
The scene in question takes place between a teenage girl and a grown man. The girl is noted as being undersized, appearing much like a twelve-year old instead of her actual sixteen. The man is described as strong, 6’3, 220, built a bit like a boxer. Additionally, the teenager has no history or interest in martial arts or dedicated exercise (yes, I know one can be physically fit without an interest in such things—that’s not the point I’m trying to make—just give me a minute here). She also suffers from none-too-rare epileptic seizures. The lynchpin exchange has her suffering a seizure just after taking the man’s hand. She proceeds to judo-throw him over her shoulder ten feet. While seizing up. No, he’s not off-balance. Yes, this is vital to the plot. If it were reversed, and it were a 200+ pound man seizing up and throwing a girl over his shoulder teen feet, I’d still be calling bullshit, so it makes perfect sense that I’m equally incensed about it the other way around.

°°

And forcing it—particularly in this manner, in this case—just doesn’t work. Like, at all. It soured me on the ending, and a bit on the plot to this point. Which just had (I’ll point out) dropped another bombshell on us, which I was still working through, deciding if it made any more sense (it DID, but only just, not that that mattered for very long). I’m not saying that this was the intent, but it just struck me as lazy: you’ve written a thrilling and entertaining story; you dropped your big twist; and now see fit to ruin it with some uncooked scenario just so you wouldn’t have to rewrite a conclusion that actually makes sense.

Two weeks out, and I still find myself looking back on the tale: the immersion of the setting, the story; the way the tense atmosphere slowly devolves into horror and terror; the mystery that’s there to solve, that has you looking one way for so long and then suddenly opening your mind to a dozen new possibilities—and then I remember the ending. And it’s mostly soured.

TL;DR

If you happened to read the entire review—welcome to the end! If you didn’t, that’s okay too, I guess. But only one of you will understand just how hard it is for me to rate this book. I mean, you’ve seen my star-rating above, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. I thoroughly enjoyed this book—or around 90% of it. Around the 80% mark things started to get a little weird, but that’s to be expected with these horror titles. 9/10ths of the way down, Friend of the Devil was sailing towards an 8 star rating, with little that could derail its bright, bright future. But at the close, everything fell apart. An impossibility; a ridiculous moment that should’ve been laughed off and rewritten, but instead went down as a major plot-point, something the entire ending hinged on. And it soured everything for me. And yet… I guess I’m still going to recommend this. Maybe it won’t be as big an issue for you. Maybe you’ll be willing to overlook a few clichés, a few shallow characters, a few stumbles.

After skimming the other reviews of this, it seems I’m hardly alone in my disappointment. So, maybe… wait for it to go on sale. Or look for it at your local library. Or go in with an open mind, but temper your expectations.

Black Helicopters – by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Review)

Tinfoil Dossier #2

Horror, Scifi, Novella

Tor.com; May 1, 2018

202 pages (ebook)
4hr 11m (audiobook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

1 / 10 ✪

The idea of a “story” is to give an account or description of events, not randomly spout prose and leave it up to the reader to decide what the fuck you’re talking about. I mean, for Book #2 in a series, at the very least.

Enter Black Helicopters. I don’t understand what this is about. And I don’t understand why I don’t understand what this is about. In Agents of Dreamland, we learned that there was an an impending apocalypse, which only Ptolema might prevent, so I thought maybe this would be a continuation of that. And, yeah, Ptolema’s got a POV within, but it’s only one of three. The other two are SOMEONE, who lives in the post-apocalyptic city of Sanctuary (I think) and writes daily letters to her sister, and Johnson, who crews aboard the Argyle Shoelace, a ship at some pre-apocalyptic time that is probably important for some reason that’s not immediately clear. The Signalman makes an appearance, but even he can’t seem to tell us what the fuck is going on. Maybe he doesn’t know.

I realize that Ptolema is out to save the world, but I only know this entirely from the last book, as this one never makes any real sense whatsoever.

• Okay, so a quarter of the way through: I’ve no fucking idea what is going on in this stupid book. I know what it’s SUPPOSED to be—another entry in the Tinfoil Dossier, an alien invasion story happening in the future, unless Ptolema can stop it. But… so far, we just rambled on for 6 chapters (an hour and a half in), and I’ve no idea what’s happening.

• There’s something in the near-future that’s caused the end of the world, but we knew that in the last novella, so this isn’t super informative. There’s a place called Sanctuary, where someone and 66 live. And they hunt alien monsters.

And that’s it.

That could’ve been covered in a letter. Like the ones she writes her sister. Like ONE of the letters she writes.

• We just took 10 minutes and a full chapter saying that aliens landed somewhere at sometime because something and then ended it. The next chapter spouted a prophecy amidst a fountain of nonsense. And now we’re speaking in French (a lot of French) with no translation offered. Helpfully I never learned any French.

• So we’re on a ship—the Argyle Shoestring—that has what to do with what? I can’t make heads or tails of any of the threads of this story. Or what they have to do with the apocalypse and/or preventing it.

I could complain about this one all day, but instead I’ll leave off with a quote I feel sums up the consistency of the text.

“Gentlemen, we have arrived at the oneness of allness, a single cosmic flow. You would label disorder, unreality, inequilibrium, ugliness, discord, inconsistency.

“Checkmate. Because this is the meaning. Black queen white, white queen black. A game of chess played in the temples of Erss, the halls of Discordia. There will be murders on La Manzanna de la Discordia. You know, or may learn of, Omar Khayyam Ravenhurst—not his real name, but let that slide. The gods were not pleased, hence of course all were turned into birds. Even the birds will rain down upon the bay and upon the island. Erss tosses the golden apple and the sea heaves up her judgment upon us all. Watch for the Egyptian, and the arrival of the Twins, and my daughter’s daughter. Watch for Strife, who—warns Homer—is relentless. She is the sister and companion of murderous Ares. She, who was only a little thing at the first, but thereafter grows, until she strides on the earth with her head striking heaven. She then hurls down bitterness, equally between both sides, as she walks through the onslaught, making men’s pain heavier. The Calla Lilies are in bloom again. Such a strange flower, suitable to any occasion. Be still—the chaos reigns around you now.”

Normally, I do a summary, then put a quote, then discuss how I feel about the book, the plot, the characters, whatever. But since there’s no way I could’ve done a coherent summary of any plot—mostly because the “story” didn’t seem to have one—I guess I’ll just skip to the end.

TL;DR

If you didn’t read this review, I wouldn’t read the book. Yeah, it was that bad. Nope, it didn’t make any sense. Yup, it even got me to swear in my review of it. And it’s usually got to be pretty fucking bad to do that. The best part of Black Helicopters was the narration. Justine Eyre somehow managed to make parts of this sound pretty good, almost coherent. Too bad none of it was.

I’m actually planning on reading Book #3 of the Tinfoil Dossier, mostly because I can’t believe it can be any worse than #2.

Agents of Dreamland – by Caitlin R. Kiernan (Review)

Tinfoil Dossier #1

Scifi, Horror, Novella

Tor.com; February 28, 2017

125 pages (paperback)
2hr 39m (audiobook)

GoodreadsStoryGraph
Author Website

6.5 / 10 ✪

Winslow, Arizona
2015

The events of the earlier week in Riverside still haunt the faceless agent known only as “the Signalman”, but he’s more worried about the woman he’s set to meet than any memories he could ever suffer. Still, the ranch house comes close.

Meanwhile, the disappearance of an interplanetary probe just beyond the orbit of Pluto hints at something more worrying. If the Signalman is lucky, the two are isolated incidents. Coincidence. But the government doesn’t believe in coincidence. And the Signalman wouldn’t consider himself lucky. Hence his presence at the meeting in the first place.

And with the two coincidences comes a third: a mysterious, pallid woman outside of time and place. With her, comes the Signalman’s greatest worry. But also—humanity’s last hope.

A confusing start eventually gives way to an intricate science fiction tale of spores, zombie fungus, invading aliens, but ultimately presents its reader a conclusion featuring more questions to ask than it deigns answer, at least before the second installment.

While I ended up relatively enjoying this title, it certainly did not start out this way. In fact, the first time I picked up Agents of Dreamland, I ended up DNFing it due to lack of interest: I couldn’t figure out what was going on, where the story was headed, WHAT the story was at all, and why I was supposed to care. In the audio version, while these were still very real concerns, I could focus on something else (in this case Cyberpunk 2077), while I waited for the plot to come together.

Fortunately, everything did gradually converge, as the two very different story threads were eventually tied together with a third POV joining the mix. I’ve seen this approach work before—quite well, even—but it was an interesting choice for this particular format. A full-length novel, or one longer, would be a good choice, because it allows ample time for world-building and/or character development. A novella, on the other hand… never has much of either. So, when the story finally comes together, not only is there only 30% or so of an already undersized book left, but neither does it really feel like we’ve accomplished much more than subtle hints at the greater whole.

I guess that it’s a good thing that when the plot comes together, it actually hints at something so promising, so interesting. I’ve mentioned that nothing really comes out of this story, but it sets the stage for something greater come Book #2. That it begs more questions than it answers. Obviously I can’t get much into what this is because of spoilers, but sufficient to say that it involves zombie fungus, aliens, and a world that has not yet come to pass. Between the subtlety and vagueness, there’s not much of substance in Agents of Dreamland. But the world that it hints at—I want to see. I NEED to see. Something on par with the Last of Us or The Last Man with its detail or immersion or depth of field.

Another point in Dreamland’s favor is the ambience of the story. Even from the first—a dust-choked town, a 2015 diner with 1940’s vibes, a mysterious lead known only as “the Signalman”—it’s all so atmospheric. Say what you want about the story or its characters, from the very first scene I connected with this world. I could feel the dust in my eyes and on my skin, the sweat drying on my back and armpits. I could taste the stale, tepid Dr. Pepper. I could hear the relative quiet of the desert, the click-clack of the train. I could picture the lit cigarette, dirty suit, 40’s diner, hazy twilight. I’m not sure what I have to say about the world-building of Agents of Dreamland, but it has nothing on Caitlin R. Kiernan’s ability to illustrate a scene. All the places we spent time in were as vivid as they were intricate and detailed. While I didn’t necessarily connect with the story, I connected so much with the world around it that it almost made up for it in the end.

TL;DR

Overall, Agents of Dreamland was an interesting, if not exciting beginning to the Tinfoil Dossier. The world itself is beautifully rendered, and hints at a deep, thoroughly thought-out plan for what’s to come in the series. Which is good, because the story of Dreamland itself fails to wow in any meaningful way. Only materializing with about a quarter of the text left, it does little more than introduce the reader to the world, before snapping the book closed on it. Despite this, I’m interested to see where the story goes from here. There’s promise of aliens, brain-fungus, and some sort of apocalypse in the future entry, Black Helicopters. That said, the reviews of Book #2 that I’ve seen are less than flattering, so it might well be all for nothing. Guess we’ll see.

When I bought the novella, it had the reasonable price of $4 for the ebook of a novella—though that’s now risen to $8. Which… ehhh. Not so great. I got the audiobook free, so that’s what I’d recommend doing if I were you. The 2nd entry in the series, Black Helicopters, is currently $7 for an ebook, which isn’t a lot better—though it IS about twice as long.

Return of the Whalefleet – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

Darkstar Dimension #2

Fantasy, Dark Fantasy

Self-Published (Kickstarter Edition); December 12, 2021

length/page count N/A

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4.0 / 5 ✪

Please beware minor spoilers for Flight of the Darkstar Dragon (Darkstar Book #1)! Or maybe just check out my Review for Flight of the Darkstar Dragon first;)

Just what is the price of survival?

This is the very question First Officer Choi Minjun and her crew have been trying to answer. For months they’ve been trapped in the mysterious Darkstar dimension, with its violet oceans and glowing fish, floating rocks and peculiar gravity, turtlemoths and gigantic dragon alone for company. They’ve made a kind of home for themselves with the rift’s only other human resident—Brightest, an old man who was been living in the dimension for decades—but it is a far cry from New Windward.

Although… they’re not technically “trapped”. Min and the crew of the Melodious Narwhal can leave whenever they want. In fact, they’ve been doing it for months—traveling to and from the Darkstar dimension via the numerous rifts that orbit the star itself. Unfortunately, while these rifts visit upon untold worlds, none of them will return the crew to their home.That can only be reached through a particular rift, one that only comes once every few years. And until it does, the Narwhal will be staying put.

But Min and the crew have been busy.

There’s not enough to live on in the Darkstar dimension. Other than a few tiny islets and oceans full of tasteless, glowing fish, the place is fairly sparse. Thus the crew have been busy scavenging from other dimensions—while chronicling their experiences within.

While traversing the rifts is rife with danger, it is also myriad in wonders. The best example of this is the Whalefleet: a race of interdimensional travelers sailing across the sky upon the backs of massive, luminous whales. Their passage has continued for months; a constant and aloof, untouchable by the crew despite their best efforts.

But it turns out Min and her crew weren’t alone in the dimension after all. When a mysterious force reaches out and attacks the Whalefleet, the crew is faced with an impossible choice: stand-by as these peaceful travelers are wiped out, or intervene and risk the attention of the ancient horror that haunts the Darkstar—one not even the dragon is willing to face.

“He?” Min said, looking at Loom again, unable to find any… features that would suggest a particular gender. “Loom is a ‘he’?” She lowered her voice, feeling the colour rush to her cheeks. “How can you tell?”

“Silly. He’s glowing green, isn’t he? Clearly a boy.”

If you haven’t read any of Benedict Patrick’s Yarnsworld before, know that his novels often have an eerie, unsettling feel, complete with dark overtones and a story that doesn’t always work out too well for anyone. It’s often not bleak enough to be grimdark, but it’s certainly not your classic “and they lived happily ever after” fantasy. It’s dark fantasy-horror, pure and simple. When Flight of the Darkstar Dragon released, it seemed as though the author might be graduating to something else. This book featured a perilous but triumphant story, with themes of hope and perseverance playing a major role. But if you took that as a sign the author was turning over a new leaf, Return of the Whalefleet has just adequately dashed these hopes.

But while Book #1 seemed to be presenting the Darkstar as a temporary prison, it was one with limitless potential for adventure, exploration, and discovery. Sure, there would be danger, but also thrills, boons, and maybe even a new way home within the rifts. And if everything else failed, the crew could always escape to the (relative) safety of the Darkstar.

Only the Darkstar isn’t the haven that it appeared. Sure, there’s the dragon the size of a small moon to consider, but it turns out the real horrors have always been there, lurking just out of sight the entire time. There’s definitely more of a horror vibe to Flight of the that seemed to be absent from Return of the. But again, if you’ve read the author before this series, this shouldn’t surprise you. And shouldn’t disappoint either.

It’s not a huge leap, and one that returning fans should take in stride. I found that this darker overtone made the place seem like more of a challenge, more a test of survival than the adventure its predecessor depicted. It’s a little like the jump from Lord of the Flies to Pincher Martin. If you loved one, you probably loved the other; but which did you enjoy more? Both are about survival, but one has much more to distract the reader from this—and the other is much darker. But even if I were challenged, I’m not sure I could say which I enjoyed more. Yes, I know they’re unrelated story-wise, but both books are in the same vein and by the same author. Plus they relate really well to the question at hand. That being: Flight of the was inauspicious but ultimately hopeful while Return of the is much more morose albeit with the same adventure and thrill—but which is better?

While I didn’t enjoy this quite as much as I did its predecessor, it wasn’t down to the darker twist to the tale. Instead, it’s how the story seems to get sidetracked from the main event, particularly by exploring the rifts themselves. And this shouldn’t be the case, particularly because there’s no reason this should be a problem. If the plot to this was simply “explore and survive” á la William Golding—I’d be down with it. But the main setup at the end of Flight of the Darkstar Dragon really implied that the Whalefleet would take center stage—something that the title itself all but confirmed. And yet, we’re too distracted to notice it for way too long.

The beginning and the end focus on side issues, details that—while interesting—don’t directly connect to the tale Return of the is trying to tell. That being the return of the Whalefleet. Also I think the buildup in the previous book about the Whalefleet’s majesty and awe was a bit of a letdown, as this just didn’t wow with its description of the travelers’ procession. That said, had Flight of the not built my expectations quite so much, and the title of Return of the made me anticipate these more—I don’t think it would’ve let me down quite like it did. Just like I doubt I’d’ve noticed the off-topic distraction but for the book’s size. Yet there’s more than enough to love about Return of the Whalefleet: new allies, new enemies, new adventures, history and development of our returning cast and crew. The ancient horrors themselves were a particular favorite of mine; the entire buildup was amazing, but when they were described in detail it cast a noticeable chill up my spine. The haunting descriptions of these will stick with me, I think, more than so many one-offs in other books. Not that these are a one-off—that remains to be seen.

TL;DR

If you’d never read Benedict Patrick before, you might be forgiven in thinking that the Darkstar series took an abrupt 180 from its start in Flight of the Darkstar Dragon. If you had, on the other hand, the creepier, darker tone to Return of the Whalefleet shouldn’t surprise you. In fact, it might even come as a relief; a sign that the author still has it, can still tell a spine-tingling tale. Either way, this entry certainly marks a turning point for the series. But just where it’s headed exactly… I don’t know. Despite the change of tone (or perhaps because of it) this is still a great read. While held back by a slightly longer detour from the main plot than you might see in other books of its length, when the author does focus on the Whalefleet and the story surrounding it, I had no problem becoming immersed in it. The setting continues to be vibrant (albeit a wee bit more shadowy than before), the plot intriguing, and the overall adventure a thrill. While it’s not quite as good as its predecessor, I have no problem at all recommending Return of the Whalefleet! If you’re new to the series, I would definitely start with Book #1, but returning fans should be able to dive right in. Look out for Book #3—The Game of Many Worlds—hopefully releasing sometime in the next year. Can’t wait!

Beautiful World of Books – The Works of Benedict Patrick

Five from Yarnsworld, two from Darkstar—all of them from the same artist, Jenny Zemanek. Say what you will about the content, the realism, the use of color, or even the books themselves; they are certainly distinctive.

Benedict Patrick may have created this beautifully dark series, written the books, and brought the whole thing to life through the power of suggestion and the written word—but it was the artist herself that took this series, this world and really gave it a face. Or six faces, to be exact.

The Darkstar series quite literally stars the stars. Here, both the Dragon and the Whale curl around the star that is the center of their dimension.

If you’ve not read these, I’d heartily recommend—well, half? I’ve read 4 of the 7 that are out, and am eagerly anticipating Return of the Whale Fleet, a book which I adore the cover of. Which are your favorites? And have you read any of this week’s books?

Hope everyone has a good weekend!

The Liar of Red Valley – by Walter Goodwater (Review)

Standalone

Fantasy, Horror

Solaris; September 28, 2021

368 pages (hardcover)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

4 / 5 ✪

I was kindly provided an advance copy of this in exchange for an honest review. This in no way affects my rating or review. Special thanks to Solaris and Rebellion for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Don’t Trust the Liar.

Don’t go in the River.

Don’t cross the King.

Red Valley, California isn’t like other towns. Sure, there are schools and grocery stores and restaurants. There are parks and businesses and bridges. There are forests and families and livelihoods. But there are also some things in Red Valley that aren’t in the rest of the world.

There are things that aren’t human, but aren’t exactly inhuman either. There are things that go bump in the night, but have been convinced not to do so here. Are are beings as old as time, and some things even older. There are rules that you don’t break, not if you want to live. And there’s power, power to rule the world—or remake it.

Sadie is just another small town girl. Born into Red Valley, she’s now well on the way to dying in it. A waitress at a local diner, Sadie’s life isn’t exciting or notable in the least. Except that she’s the only daughter of the Liar—and the Liar has power.

Not power like the King, but not insignificant either. When her mother dies, Sadie is forced to confront this power directly. For she is now the new Liar, and her mother’s power is now her own. But what is it, and how does it work? While her mother never explained the power to her, Sadie knows the basics. Someone comes to the Liar. They have money, and something about the world they want changed. They tell the Liar what they want changed, and supply the Liar with an offering of blood to do it. An offering that often enacts another price entirely. Ofttimes it’s something petty, something superficial. The more inconsequential, the cheaper it is for them. But something is missing from this, something that Sadie needs to know. Just where does the power come from, and how does she harness it?

Something she’ll have to find out quickly, for it’s not long before people come a’calling. The sheriff wants to use her new power, while the town junkie wants something else. And when the King calls on her, Sadie knows it can only get worse. But what is the real purpose of the Liar, and is it a fate Sadie even wants to share?

While I’ve most often seen this classed as ‘horror’, I didn’t find the Liar of Red Valley terribly “horrifying”. It was an interesting—and entertaining—fantasy debut, one that makes you think about the origins of power, authority, and the things that go bump in the night. The main thing I latched onto out of the official blurb was the “inhuman” aspect. Now there’s just enough of this in the book to make you think—but no more. I really would’ve liked to explore more of the things that bump in the night, not a mere one or two that show up in the text.

It is an entertaining read, fortunately. Entertaining with quite a few plot twists. Including one in particular that’s head and shoulders above the rest. It’s a doozy of a twist, one that both makes you think and makes you buy into the story like never before. Not that the story was a drag before that. This was never a difficult one to read. With a lively plot, a relatable lead, a decent supporting cast, a number of mysteries to solve, and an intriguing setting—the Liar of Red Valley had so much to love, and more.

Sadie’s mother is central to the plot, but we spend the entire book trying to learn more about her. She was a power in Red Valley, one that might have even rivaled the King itself. But what was her power? How did she control it? And what was the great Lie she told that everyone wants to get a hold of? It’s really a book of mysteries, not horrors. And the answers to those mysteries and more are just inside!

The Twisted Ones – by T. Kingfisher (Review)

Horror

Standalone

Saga Press; October 1, 2019

381 pages (Paperback)

Goodreads • Author Website

4 / 5 ✪

I’m usually one for horror. In movies, I find the genre boring, and a waste of a couple hours. In games, I find it annoying, if worthy of jump-scares (which also isn’t my thing). I’m more accepting of horror books, but only comparably. I’ve read some few—a couple that I’ve loved, none that blew me away. So that’s where I’m coming from.

Enter Mouse, the unfortunate lass who’s task it is to clean out her Grandmother’s house. Now, Mouse didn’t much care for the old bag when she was alive—actually, she thought the old woman was a horrid human, really more of a demon than anything—but she now thinks a deal less of her father’s mother now that the woman’s dead.

See, Grandma was a hoarder, her house stuffed with useless trash.

There’s rooms upon rooms filled with leaning towers of junk: plastic bins full of soap edging up next to stacks of china and silverware, bags scented candles and used disposable chopsticks piled among heaps of expired coupons and PennySaver ads yellowed with age, even a room filled with plastic dolls, you know, the imitation baby ones that blink? Hell, if this’d been a book about THAT, I think I’d’ve been too terrified to read it.

And so Mouse buckles down to clean out the house. Alone in the woods with only her dog, Bongo, for company. In a holler where cell signal is spotty and the only neighbors are a half-mile away. In all honesty, it was creepy enough to start with. But that was before Mouse finds her Grandmother’s second-husband’s old journal.

Ramblings. Rants. Impossible and nightmarish things. Fantasies of a broken mind—that’s what Mouse assumes. A result driven upon the old man by marriage to a horrible woman. And so Mouse discounts the journal, and gets on with her cleaning.

Until she begins to see impossible things on her walks about the holler. Hills that don’t exist. Stones that seem to move when she looks at them. Effigies of blood and bone, hanging from the trees. These and worse make Mouse question her sanity. And question the journal. And these are just the beginning.

The Twisted Ones starts out easy enough, with a middle-aged, —a freelance editor fresh off a bad breakup. Mouse proves a likable enough lead right from the start—especially when she introduces her dog Bongo, the star of the show—she’s independent, reasonably confident, somewhat insecure and really just… average. She’s not an ex-Marine, she doesn’t fight crime in her off-hours, she’s just… normal. A person. A regular person. Plus she has an adorable dog. The only real problem I have with Mouse is that she’s not the brightest lead. She often doesn’t see things until she walks right past them—often not even then. She’s a bit slow on the uptake. It makes for a frustrating adventure.

The mood of this turns creepy quickly. Not scary, not dark and forbidding. Just… strange. Eerie. With the somewhat slow, affable narrator it’s hard to see the mood shift—as it does right off the start—and by then the story is already on. The weirdness sets in and takes off. Pretty soon I was sitting up wondering if the owls I heard at night were keeping the nocturnal woodpeckers at bay. Or if they were even owls at all. I hoped they were (we get a lot of owls (or pseudowls) out here).

It certainly wasn’t difficult to read—though it took me longer than I would’ve liked to finish, but see I went and got COVID in the middle and that ruined things for a bit. Honestly, it’s probably the kinda thing I could’ve made it through in a couple days: easy and quick to read, nothing too advanced or mysterious, just a creepy air that snowballs out of control in a hurry.

The ending proved a bit of a letdown, but that may just have been me. See, my proclivity for horror is restricted to the weird bits, the strangeness, the mystery, all with a bit of thrill. But when we eventually reach the exciting conclusion, everything just got a bit blasé. The build was good, the execution as well—but the ending could’ve been better. Otherwise, I really have no complaints.

TL;DR

The Twisted Ones is an atmospheric horror novel with a likable lead, a likable dog, and a nice, slow build that’s equal parts totally normal and weird. Then it starts to get creepy. The atmosphere really sells this; the house packed with junk, the journal filled with nonsense, the impossible things in the woods—all in a holler completely separate from everything, a world all of its own. It’s all nice and easy to read, and cruises right along, something you could probably speed through in a day or two (so long as you don’t mind staying up nights). The ending is a bit of a letdown (or was to me), but nothing else jumps out as a dealbreaker. A solid horror story from T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon)—someone I hope to read more of in the future!

Note: Probably not something to read during isolation. The fever really killed any enjoyment I had for reading this, or well… reading anything. And pretty much doing anything. But if you’re asymptomatic or just bored: go for it.

New Games for 2021 Q1

There’s actually not a ton that I’m excited about in the first quarter of this year. I haven’t decided yet on a next-edition console (plus they’re all sold out anyway), so it’s time to focus entirely on my current backlog of games

…and a couple new titles.

First off, though, have you seen the new Harvest Moon game? Now, I’m a sucker for Harvest Moon, but uh. Well, give it a looksee, eh?

Seriously though.

The art looks like an N64-era game and the concept is pretty lame. Also, it doesn’t look big. Or even interesting. I guess if I have a craving for some farming I’ll just play Friends of Mineral Town or Stardew Valley. Or wait til spring and plant my own.

Either way, there’s no way I’m recommending this.

As for the things I AM excited for…

Hitman 3

1 / 20 / 21

IO Interactive

Now, obviously I don’t condone the wanton murder of anyone. Or the any kind of murder of anyone. But as a stealth gamer I have very limited options. Options that are as distasteful as… well, um I actually quite ADORE the Hitman series. The first was pretty entertaining. The second was monumentally entertaining. The third I have great hopes for.

Warning: the following footage contains some violence and spoilers for the game itself

The amount of options, of disguises, of new and unique places and people, of stealth capabilities—even more so, the fact that you get rewarded for using stealth, minimizing casualties and collateral damage, and exploration. I think it’s a very well rendered and executed concept, and a very entertaining game in general. In addition, I’ve always found its replayability to be quite high, just from the number of different ways to play, secrets to discover, and side-stories to interact with.

Little Nightmares II

2 / 11 / 21

Tarsier Studios

I’m not a huge fan of horror. Only occasionally do I read the genre. Generally, I find horror movies boring. Horror games… no thank you.

Welcome to the exception (well, one of them). Maybe it’s the art-style or the setting or the non-specific lore, but I loved the first of these, though the trial and error nature of it and the less than stellar controls sometimes frustrated me. But after gameplay footage of #2 from one of my favorite outlets, I’m totally on board.

Warning: the videos/links do contain some language and minor spoilers for the game itself

It’s not going to be a long game, though #2 seems like it’ll be a bit longer than the first one. If you’re a more casual, less interactive gamer with a penchance for horror, I urge you to give it a shot. The story’s a bit light, but there’re more than enough secrets and clues throughout for you to come to your own conclusions. Also, if you haven’t heard of these before, maybe check out some footage from the first one to see if it’s something you might be into.

And that’s it! I still have a fair amount of backlog to dig through (which I’ll mock up something for in a little), including Cyberpunk, which I’ve only just scratched the surface of—and which I’ve yet to find any bugs. But there’re these two gems (or, I hope they’re gems) which I figure I’ll likely play one or the other around their release.

Have you heard of either? Are you excited for anything else coming out before April rolls around? Does anyone that reads this even PLAY video games (I won’t hold it against you if you don’t but I know one or two of you occasionally need to escape from your children or spouses, so…)

Those Brave, Foolish Souls from the City of Swords – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

Again, I adore the cover, courtesy of Jenny Zemanek.

Yarnsworld #3

Dark Fantasy, Horror, Fantasy

Createspace Publishing; October 17, 2017

286 pages (ebook)

4.2 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

When Arturo was a small child, his mother used to tell him stories of the Mistress of the Wilds, of the Black Shepherdess, but especially of the Bravadori of Espadapan. The Bravadori were painted as the Queen’s heroes, protectors of the weak and innocent, saviors of the helpless, monster slayers extraordinaire. As he grew, Arturo always dreamt of becoming one of their number. Occasionally, Bravadori traveled to his father’s estates in search of coin and renown. Upon seeing them, Arturo knew his path was set. He trained hard and dreamed big, until one day he developed his very own Knack in sword-fighting. One day he was finally ready. Packing his blade and mask, Arturo set out for the City of Swords—and destiny.

Yet upon finally reaching Espadapan, Arturo learns that his heroes are nothing like the heroes his mother painted them as. Selfish and ignoble, the masked vigilantes are nothing more than thugs, running unchecked through the city. Unwilling to give up his dream so easily, still Arturo attempts to join their ranks. He is repeatedly mugged, mocked, and beaten. But when he hears tell of bandits terrorizing a nearby village, hope swells in Arturo. For while these swordsmen were nothing like he’d imagined, surely they would line up to defend those oppressed, like he’d seen them do as a boy. And Arturo would finally join their number, defeat the bandits and forge his own legend. Together with a disgraced Bravador and an honorless swordsman, Arturo sets out once more—for destiny.

Benedict Patrick’s Yarnsworld mixes dark fantasy with faerie tales, adding a splash of horror for taste, and adventure for the heck of it. While his debut—They Mostly Come Out At Night—divided me on its effectiveness at combining all four, I assumed that with experience and practice he could hammer out most of those imperfections.

Which he has.

Sadly, it’s not yet perfect, but still a marked improvement upon his earlier work. The POV characters of City of Swords—split three ways between Arturo, Yizel and Reuben—each could solo the story, as all three are strong, fleshed out leads, with depth, backstories, and even development. Unlike Come Out At Night, these characters delivered. Thoughtful, entertaining, and ambitious, I was never sure who was on whom’s side, as each showed mixed loyalties and complex emotions. They felt human in a way that no one did in Yarnsworld #1.

As before, the faerie tales play as interludes between each chapter, something that both entertained and annoyed me in equal parts. Sometimes it was an extra bit of vital lore, but other times it was a distraction from the plot at hand. While most of the time I appreciated the extra bits of world-building, I really could’ve done without them between EVERY chapter.

While the format annoyed me, the aspect of was most torn on was that of the world-building. The initial setup—the land and its backstory—was just lazy. It’s a carbon-copy of the New World exploration by Spain (or, well, most European powers), complete with Spanish-sounding names and places. That being said, the New World is just a backdrop for the tale. While the faerie tales bring the world to life. Admittedly, I’m not too well versed in faerie tales. I’m familiar with some of the most popular ones, and have a working knowledge of folklore from all over the place. Anyway, these tales seem pretty unique to me. And they really help bring the story to life.

I was caught up picturing the masked Bravadori when Arturo first arrived in the City of Swords, and felt his disappointment as if it were my own. I actually shook upon reading through the Black Shepherdess tale, and she haunted my dreams that night. I could hear her wails, her cries; feel the ash as it fell from the sky; the world itself seemed to grow darker when she blacked out the sky. These faerie tales aren’t just good reproductions, they’re incredibly raw and vivid, dark and haunting and… well, REAL. They feel real. Really real.

TL;DR

Those Brave, Foolish Souls from the City of Swords may be a mouthful, but the where the title draws on, the story itself manages to be gripping, dark, and packed with detail. The number one strength of Yarnsworld continues to be its faerie tales, which alternately had me awed or shaking depending on which terrible or heroic figure was being portrayed. Where They Mostly Come Out At Night fell flat, City of Swords delivered with its characters, its language, and its realism. Though the format of including a faerie tale between every chapter ofttimes annoyed me, I also usually appreciated the dark, interesting snippets of lore they provided. It’s a good, dark read just in time for Halloween. More importantly, City of Swords tells a completely different tale from any of the others found in Yarnsworld, so there’s no reason you can’t just skip right to it. I’d definitely recommend this one, and look forward to continuing my trip through the Yarnsworld saga!