The Dark Between the Trees – by Fiona Barnett (Review)

standalone

Horror, Gothic

Solaris/Rebellion; October 11, 2022

304 pages (ebook)

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6 / 10 ✪

Please beware minor spoilers for the Dark Between the Trees.

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

In 1643, two soldiers from the Roundhead company—a unit of Parliamentarian soldiers—stumble into the small village of Tapford, wounded and shaken. Here, the men are taken and gaoled for desertion. Only one man, Thomas Edgeworth, sees the sunrise the following day, his companion, Josiah Moody, having succumbed to his injuries during the night. Upon asking to speak with a local priest, he tells his tale, the one that eventually drew Dr. Alice Christopher to him—and to the Corrigal.

Onto the present day, which finds five women heading into the confines of Moresby Wood in an effort to trace the footsteps of the Roundhead company, as provided by Edgeworth, the sole survivor of the incident. In addition to the stories and legends passed down by locals over the years, the history of Roundhead company remains one of the most promising pieces of the puzzle—a tale that Alice has staked her entire career on.

And so, while Dr. Christopher leads her team of wardens and grad students into the Wood, some 350 years prior, Captain Alexander Davies leads his company of seventeen men into Moresby as well. Neither know what they’ll find here—though one has a much better idea.

Something dark lurks in Moresby Wood. Something ancient, something unnatural.

The Corrigal.

I was surprised by just how much of this book wasn’t about the Corrigal. I mean, the starring, almost titular villain, and it plays just a footnote to the real mystery of Moresby: that of the… what exactly?

There’s a witch in there—or so it’s said, as we never see one. Like the Corrigal, after a time it’s just abandoned in place of… a mystery.

But let’s not get too far ahead.

The Dark Between the Trees starts out as a gothic, atmospheric horror story, set in the disorientating and often claustrophobic confines of Moresby Wood—a place that might’ve been lightened up somewhat had anyone had the idea of climbing a tree. Plastered by rain and often choked by mist, the two groups follow more or less the same pathways along their journey to the center of the mystery—one to find what has befallen the other. There are two main POVs: that of Dr. Christopher’s group, and that of Captain Davies. They are told in alternating form, with the two groups progressing at around the same rate. It actually works quite well, for a time, as the tension and atmosphere of the tale plays well in the confines of the Wood.

The dueling legends of the Corrigal and the Witch wreak havoc with each group, albeit for different reasons. The scientists are divided in two on the legend—between skeptics and believers. The soldiers, on the other hand, are divided into three—those that fear the Witch (and through her the Devil), those that fear the Corrigal (an ancient beast predating religion), and those that scoff at both notions. It’s honestly hard for me to pick which group I related to more, as I think they’re all a bit disillusioned. The Witch never really materializes into anything. The Corrigal does, but likewise is dropped in favor of the more mysterious mystery. A mystery which I still don’t really understand even though it was the center of the last handful of chapters.

Okay, so what am I saying here? I realize it’s a bit confusing, as even I’m a bit confused. The story was good until it wasn’t. The atmosphere, the tension, the plot all start off strong, but wither long before the end. I experienced some genuinely terrifying moments when we are at last confronted by the Corrigal, but then it’s whisked away and never really holds the same place in the story again. The end was confusing. And a letdown. Not to mention a complete departure from the rest of the book. The pacing—again, which started off quite well, and continued that way for most of the tale—went to pieces near the close. The characters followed its lead.

So… pretty much what I’m saying is that the Dark Between the Trees is 50-80% of a good book. After that it’s a book, and after that it’s just confusing and dark. I… wouldn’t recommend it, but I’d keep an eye on the author, as this was her debut, and there’s a lot to like in this story. Just maybe not enough.

One Dark Window – by Rachel Gillig

standalone

Fantasy, Gothic, Romance

Orbit Books; September 27, 2022

392 pages (paperback)

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DNF at 92 pages

As is usual for my DNFs, this will be a fairly quick review. If I don’t like something—unless it annoys or offends me on a truly rant-worthy level—my thoughts on it are typically pretty succinct. In this case, I just didn’t meld well with it. It never claimed my attention in the first place and then just couldn’t hold it as the pages began to turn.

I mean…

Well, this was an absolutely frustrating book. Strange, uneven pacing. A plot told in starts and stops. I never understood the cards, which were such a big part of the plot (in the beginning at least). I didn’t like the romance—which had barely even begun by the time I DNFed it.

I’ve seen an incredible variation in the ratings for One Dark Window among people that I know (and whose opinions I really, actually, somewhat care about). Among the rest of everyone—it’s a hit. Overwhelmingly praised, albeit with quite a few non-rating DNFs. If you read this to the end, odds are you’ll like it. Love it, even. But if you don’t love it, it probably won’t hold your attention.

I’m actually tempted to believe that there’s a decent read here, if you can find it. But I didn’t, and it wasn’t for me. And if I’m not enjoying something, I won’t push through it in search of what everyone else can see. I don’t see it—and that’s enough for me.

I can’t thank Orbit enough for—not only granting me access to a digital ARC—but also providing me with a lovely physical copy. Sorry I didn’t like it, but that’s the chance you take, I suppose. This particular copy will be donated to my local library so that it will hopefully fall into the hands of someone(s) who will give it the love that it deserves.

The Immortality Thief – by Taran Hunt (Review)

Kystrom Chronicles #1

Scifi, Horror, Space Opera

Solaris; October 11, 2022

608 pages (ebook)

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9.5 / 10 ✪

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

A decade ago, Sean Wren had a family, a future, and a home. And then the Ministers came to Krystrom.

The mysterious, immortal aliens landed in Sean’s home city of Itaka, which had been recently been visited by the Republic, and razed it to the ground. Not content with simply burning the city, the Ministers marched through the streets, killing everyone they came across—every man, woman, and child—effectively transforming Itaka into a graveyard. Sean and his friend Benny escaped that day, now they’re all either has left.

After the last decade spent on the lam, the Republic has come calling again.

Sean’s now in a very different place than before. A refuge, criminal, and linguistic savant, imprisoned and left for dead, he’s given a simple choice—do the Republic a favor, or die behind bars.

Sent to an abandoned spaceship orbiting a dying star, Sean and his crew of four are to retrieve the Philosopher’s Stone—an experimental data set intent on and rumored to unlock the secrets of immortality. Return with the data before the star goes supernova, and he’ll be free to go: record wiped clean, and five million dollars richer.

There’s a problem though. The “abandoned” ship is a bit less abandoned than they’d thought. Inhabited by nameless terrors and dead men, it’s really not the best place to explore. Nor is the nameless ship “forgotten” either. A fact that Sean learns first hand when both the Ministers and more Republic soldiers arrive seeking the data. Now, surrounded by both his worst enemies and an entire ship full of monsters, Sean must find the Philosopher’s Stone, translate the data, unravel the mystery of what happened on the ship, and live long enough to escape before the entire thing vanishes beneath the surface of a dying star.

Simple, right?

The Ministers had turned off their lights, both collar and flash. I could hear them moving around, the soft scrape of boot against the ground, the swish of fabric, or a sword coming free. And something from far off to my right snarled.
That wasn’t a Minister.

The Immortality Thief was an amazing read in a spot I really didn’t expect much out of. Second week in a month I’d covered my big name releases already, this debut science fiction horror story took the zero expectations I came in with and absolutely shredded them.

The setting was a great first start. A “lost” spaceship orbiting a dying star. Only the star is dying quite a bit faster than we’d expected, and the spaceship wasn’t nearly as lost as we’d been told. It was, however, haunted by most of the things that go bump in the night, plus several more no one even had names for yet. Where I’d expected a small, cramped spacecraft to give the story a claustrophobic feel, the resulting behemoth left me awed and more than a little skeptical. Luckily, my fears were assuaged. With tight and crumbling spaces, random walls, pitch black corridors, and a massive assortment of terrors lurking almost anywhere, this was the perfect setting.

The beam of Benny’s flashlight abruptly terminated at a solid wall. He stopped short. “Sean. What is this?”
“It’s a wall, Benny.”
“I know what a wall is, asshole. Why is there a wall in a hallway?”

I often say that it’s the characters that make a story, and again the Immortality Thief got off to a bad start. See, my first several impressions of Sean Wren—the lead and sole POV—were that he was an annoying asshole. A bad thief with a “heart of gold”. A charismatic conman and savant that needed someone else to do the dirty work for him. But upon finishing the novel… yeah, I still kinda agree with this initial assessment. And yet I still came around to Sean somewhere during the tale, enough that not only had I stopped actively rooting for him to die, but also that I almost felt bad for him when he was constantly forced into terrifying situations. Which he was—a lot. I’d feel like this was a spoiler, except it’s a horror novel filled with monsters—what do you expect?

Let’s see… characters, setting, world—all good. Let’s touch on the plot. Solid enough, a simple smash-and-grab takes a twist, and all of a sudden we’re forced to work with our two worst enemies in order to survive. With the secret of immortality at stake. Sounds good, right? Well, you won’t be disappointed.

The humor/horror ration was also a winner. I’m not a huge fan of horror, unless it’s atmospheric and relies more on good story building and less on trying to make its readers actively afraid. In my book this was good horror: creepy, not actively terrifying, but with a tense atmosphere and excellent world-building.

Not much more to rave about, really. The Immortality Thief is the start of a series, so hopefully there’ll be more to fawn over in the future, though! I completely adored my introduction to Taran Hunt and expect great things from her in the future.

TL;DR

In short, the Immortality Thief is a stunning debut from author Taran Hunt. It’s atmospheric horror at its very best. A science fiction story set on a massive spaceship in orbit to a dying star, Sean Wren must recover the Philosopher’s Stone before the sun goes supernova. Unfortunately, literally everything on the ship is out to kill him. It’s a tense, immersive, and thoroughly enjoyable tale, one that you probably don’t want to miss out on. Read it today, read it tomorrow, read it next week, read it for Scifi Month—just pick up a copy if you love science fiction, atmospheric horror, or space opera. Whole-heartedly recommended!!

The Midnight Circus – by Jane Yolen (Review)

Omnibus, Collection

Horror, Short Stories

Tachyon Publications; October 1, 2020

256 pages (ebook)

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5 / 10 ✪

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

The thing I love about fantasy, science fiction, and adventure novels is the fantastical escapism. To be swept up in a story so different from one’s own; to experience something so different and unique and originating from someone else’s own imagination—I feel like it’s the very height of storytelling.

In a novel, you’re provided with one complete story (generally). There are details your imagination can fill in: the colors of the sunset, the random passersby, the foliage, the fauna, the sub stories not relevant to the plot, et cetera—but the majority of it (the vital, the long and the short) should be related to you. In an epic, less corners are cut; in a novella, more. Novellas often exclude less important pieces of the story, or details like the characters’ dress, their image, their backstory.

Short stories cut even more out. Often the introduction or conclusion. Sometimes both. Details beyond those most vital to the tale. Characters names, worldbuilding, history, dress, even any discernible plot.

Novels are hit-or-miss for me. Novellas are worse, though I find my imagination more than willing to fill in the blanks so long as I have a general story to follow. Short stories… are difficult. Some I enjoy, most I’m ambivalent to, while others I end up hating. Now, omnibuses—or collections of stories—are never going to be all one or the other. There’s always going to be a mix, some of each. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that most collections (possibly excluding those all set within one shared, established universe) are going to always receive a bit of a ‘meh’ from me.

The Midnight Circus is one of the latter. In fact, it’s maybe even a bit worse.

The Midnight Circus is a collection of some of the works of Jane Yolen, with an emphasis on her shorter horror stories. There was one singular circus tale, but no more. While it’s not dry, exactly, neither is it the kind of thing to whet your appetite.

I can’t think of one tale that absolutely blew me away. There are a few I liked—mostly some of the longer ones, or a few of the fables. There are far more I didn’t care for. Even a few I was bored enough to skim, or even quit on entirely.

My favorites, few as they were, include Requiem Antarctica, a supernatural take on the South Pole expeditions; and… I guess the Fisherman’s Wife. Otherwise, they were pretty much worthless.

Now, this could just be me: I’ve already confessed to a distaste for short stories, I’m not a huge horror fan (which a majority of the tales were), and I’ve only ever read a few tales by Jane Yolen. That said, sometimes it shouldn’t matter. If you were after this to be your intro to the author and her works—don’t. If you wanted a nice, coherent story to read in your spare time—also don’t. In fact… well. If you’re a huge fan of the author, particularly her horror—this may work for you. Otherwise, maybe skip it.

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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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!