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!

In the Shadows of Men – by Robert Jackson Bennett (Review)

Novella

Horror, Supernatural

Subterranean Press; August 31, 2020

120 pages (ebook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

In the desolate wastes of West Texas, In the Shadows of Men finds two brothers down on their luck, looking to cash in on the oil boom. To do this they need to renovate the old Moon and Stars Motel, sold to them by a cousin who wanted nothing to do with the place. As the younger Pugh and his brother, Bear wade into the wreck, they find its dusty halls and empty rooms strangely comforting, at least at first. But after a while, little Pugh begins to notice a disquiet about the place. Apparitions haunt his dreams; a looming man in white, young Mexican women, and an almost palpable feeling of lust and desire. Soon these thoughts begin to infect more than just his dreams—and that’s when things get stranger still.

The brothers find a hatch in one of the rooms: a steel door padlocked from the outside. As neither can discern the combination lock, they try to forget about it and move on. But once unearthed, it proves to be a mystery that just won’t die. Especially when the local sheriff comes by, teasing them with information on the history of the place and its owner—their great-uncle—Corbin Pugh.

Their own father was a devil of a man, but supposedly his uncle was something else entirely. What kind of man was Corbin Pugh, and what was the secret he was hiding? And how badly do the brothers want to find the truth, when it means they can never unlearn it?

My first question is what kind of person would think that moving to Texas would solve all their problems?

Well as they’re both from Texas, I guess this point is moot. West Texas is far removed from Houston, which the younger Pugh has just left. The story takes place in a small, lonely town, a suitable setting for just such a ghost story. And while little Pugh isn’t a terrible narrator, he’s not not the best lead, either. In fact, as neither brother is a conversationalist, the story often skips ahead days or weeks at a time, even after unearthing some new piece of the puzzle. While he’s pegged as the less inquisitive of the two, Bear seems to be more interested in solving the puzzle than his brother, who typically finds something curious and then goes and doesn’t think about it until a week later. Who finds a golden puzzle piece only to wait until a week later to see where it might fit?

Though the stoicism of the narrator works against the story, I felt it also prolonged the mystery in a way, which helped the atmosphere surrounding it. There was a greater sense of anticipation, a bigger building of tension. Though while the build was more enjoyable, I would’ve liked it to’ve been longer, or more intricate. Also, the conclusion itself was slightly underwhelming. So, yes, it hurt in some ways, but helped in others. All in all, the story evened out. Definitely a good read—though it didn’t leave much of a lasting impression.

On an unrelated note: I really hate when we don’t learn the narrator’s name. We learn his brother’s name, his uncle’s, his wife’s and daughter’s—but not his own. Annoying. And harder to write a completely coherent review.

TL;DR

In the Shadows of Men was an entertaining enough read, considering a sped through it in less than a day. It’s the mystery, if nothing else, that drove me through it, as neither the story nor the premise are particularly original or interesting enough to carry all the weight. But a dark tale, full of supernatural elements, a mystery that needs solving, and a man whose life is in desperate need of an escape—all combine to make this an enjoyable (at least in some ways) horror-thriller. It’s a good, quick read, just don’t expect it to leave much of a lasting impression.

They Mostly Come Out at Night – by Benedict Patrick (Review)

I quite like the cover, done by Jenny Zemanek

Yarnsworld #1

Dark Fantasy

One More Page; June 16, 2016

216 pages (ebook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

Lonan is an outcast, accused of leading monsters to his village and letting them in to the homes of his fellow villagers. That night Lonan’s father died, while Branwen—the love of his life—was horribly scarred. Neither his love nor his mother has looked at him the same again. All the while, the real culprit escapes notice, the man and his strange Knack keeping suspicion from him. Now, years later, the village still cowers in their cellars in the dead of night, fearing the monsters that roam above.

The Magpie King keeps us safe…

An old adage in the village of Smithdown, referring to the forest’s king and mysterious protector. But the Magpie King is more myth than monarch—none of the villagers having seen him in their lives. So when Lonan starts having dreams of the young Magpie King, he’s certain his mind is starting to dessert him. Certain, but for one thing.

Adahy is the son of the Magpie King. His father, equal parts ruler and protector of the forest, stalks the night, keeping the villages safe from the monsters that would otherwise prey on them. The King wields mysterious and supernatural power and speed, granted his bloodline by the Magpies. But when a new monstrosity appears in the forest, it challenges everything the King has worked so hard to build. It falls to Adahy and his closest friend, Maedoc, to deal with this foe. Yet the dark history of the forest has more in store for this pair than just what looms before them. What follows is a tale of hope, deceit, and darkness all rolled into one.

Dreaming the course of Adahy’s life, Lonan is clued into this new threat. And those that would follow it. But can he get someone—anyone—to believe him, or will the darkness overwhelm the village of Smithdown, once and for all?

I remember liking They Mostly when I first read it, but it made little impression on me at the time. Back then, I was just getting into dark fantasy, and the story—while dark, while entertaining, while foreboding—also bears the marks of a debut work.

While I found the story of Lonan a bit difficult to care about at first, I immediately took to Adahy and his tale, becoming more enamored with Lonan along the way. The young prince is, well… young. Inexperienced. The story serves much as a coming of age tale for him. At least for a time. Lonan, however, has already come of age. In a village that loathes him, but a few folk are willing to be seen with him. So few of these characters seem real, however, with a majority feeling like cardboard cutouts, introduced to fill space but do little else. Even the love of his life, Branwen, feels like a husk. I would’ve liked to see a bit more on her, on why Lonan likes her, on their lives before the incident. Sure—there’s some development here, just not much. But while I thoroughly enjoyed Lonan’s own adventure, development and growth, I cared little about that of anyone else’s. Though to be fair, there’s only one other character that’s fleshed out to any significant degree.

The character of Adahy seems like little more than an extension of Lonan at first, but grows from a dream into something more real. It was his story that I connected to initially, and this never faded over time. Unlike the village boy, Adahy doesn’t have much anyone in his life apart from his best friend, Maedoc—the whipping boy, punished in the prince’s place when he screws up (yes, this was a thing). While Maedoc too seems under-developed, the two form a special dynamic that both entertained and moved the story along, even as Lonan got a handle on his part in it.

Where the characters of Yarnsworld fell flat, it was the setting that really sold the story for me. A dark land of mystery and monsters, the Forest was equal parts fantasy kingdom, faerie tale, and horror story rolled into one. Though the writing wasn’t perfect—the author occasionally misusing words or mixing them up (e.g. I remember him using ‘gleam’ when he really meant ‘glean’, which may’ve been a typo except that his kept misusing it)—it certainly conveyed the darkness and horrors lurking just off stage, the nightmares wandering the darkness of the land. This cast a presage of foreboding over the Forest, making it seem dark and mysterious, especially at night. During the day, I really liked how it reverted to the typical enchanted forest; still dark, but no more or less than usual. Considering Lonan spent his days here, foraging, it created an interesting dynamic here, something that I actually would’ve liked to’ve seen more of.

The ending of They Mostly was a unique take, that I obviously can’t talk much about. It did feel a little abrupt, just a bit of a disappointment, but didn’t leave any threads unwoven, any stones unturned. All in all, the story was pretty great—an excellent adventure though with a bit of an uninspired conclusion.

The book contains a number of short faerie tales or myths about the Magpie King, Artemis, or the world itself. These work as interludes between chapters. Except for one or two, I found these interesting snippets of lore about the world. It’s possible they might annoy you, but if so, just skip ‘em. While they can add detail, they’re not absolutely essential to the plot.

TL;DR

With a dark, twisted setting and a mysterious, intriguing story, They Mostly Come Out at Night proved to be an interesting debut, before falling victim to some typical debut failings. Hollow supporting characters, failure to capitalize on good ideas, a fairly short and unrefined, if compelling story feature prominently among these. Oddly, the author also occasionally misused words—not misspelling them, but using one when he should’ve another—almost like there was no real editor. Which is possible, but for the otherwise lack of any glaring grammatical or spelling issues. Nothing was enough to distract me from the story, however, as Yarnsworld quickly drank me in. I read They Mostly in two days, and thoroughly enjoyed my time with it. While there definitely were issues, I’d say they’re outweighed by the gains, making They Mostly Come Out at Night if not a must-read dark fantasy, then one to consider reading if curiosity strikes your interest.

The series presently contains three other books, each set in the same world, but unrelated to the first. All also have long names—Where the Waters Turn Black; Those Brave, Foolish Souls from the City of Swords; From the Shadows of the Owl Queen’s Court. A short, free tale—And They Were Never Heard From Again—provides a good intro to the series, which you can check out if you’re interested.

Eden – by Tim Lebbon (Review)

Standalone

Eco-Thriller, Horror, Scifi

Titan Books; April 7, 2020

384 pages (ebook)

3.5 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

Global warming and climate change have wrought intense havoc on Earth, spoiling the planet almost beyond recognition. Smog clouds the formerly azure sky. Rivers run brown with sludge, silt chokes the water. The Amazon has been whittled to nothing, the remnants torched. The Arctic is hot and dry, its residents long dead. Pollutants run rampant across the planet. The Earth is dying, but not yet dead. And humanity has killed it. Or, nearly has. In a last-ditch effort to combat the change, the world establishes a number of preserves. Refuges for animals and nature, Virgin Zones are just that; zones dedicated entirely to nature, with no human involvement or activity. Zeds patrol their borders, guarding against incursion in the virgin wilderness. This is humanity’s last hope—and they won’t let anyone screw it up.

Though intended to provide the planet with badly needed air, the Zones draw incursion like dung draws flies. Extreme athletes and adventurers flock to the Zones, eager to prove their mettle at the last challenge the Earth has to offer. They compete in illicit races, tests of endurance and speed, each netting huge rewards on the black market. The Zeds may protect the Zones, but not even they are infallible. With the proper motivation—and for the right price—anyone can enter one of the Zones. But after that, they’re on their own.

The oldest and most famed Virgin Zones, Eden represents the ultimate test of endurance for athletes. It is the Everest of Zones, the Ironman of races, the… you get the idea. Teams will do anything to cross it—or die trying. And yet in the half-century since Eden’s creation, there has never been a successful crossing.

Jenn and her father aim to change that. Just two of the members of one of the most elite adventure race teams on the planet, they represent years of skill and success. A tight knit group of six, they have crossed over half the Virgin Zones—some multiple times—often posting record times in the attempt. For three years the team has considered testing their skills on Eden—now is their chance.

Unlike the other Zones they have crossed, Eden has never conquered. What lurks beyond its borders is shrouded in mystery. The team goes in expecting the unexpected, confident that Eden holds nothing that can defeat them. Yet the Zone may surprise them, because—contrary to their beliefs—Eden is truly wild.

I like a good thriller every now and then, especially one with supernatural elements. Eden provides this and more; an entertaining and fast-paced mystery intertwining with a slowly building horror story rife with primordial glee. While the plot tips its hand early, ruining some of the anticipation, I was still thoroughly absorbed in the story through the halfway mark, when the pace really gets rolling. And when the reason behind Eden’s mystery breaks—the story starts to falter.

The problem with writing the perfect thriller is threefold. It has to be a steady build at first, something to tow the reader along, tempting them with clues to keep them reading, while not doing anything to overt to tip its hand. When it comes to the heart of the mystery and everything breaks loose, it must mix action and suspense in such a way that the pacing neither slows down too much or burns too fast so as to keep the reader’s attention. And then there’s the hook. Something presented in the beginning, something that teases a revelation further on, something juicy enough to keep the reader wondering, wallowing in the mystery and suspense until the realization finally breaks free.

Eden does the first part masterfully well. The mystery and suspense blend superbly beneath the primordial backdrop—an Earth undisturbed by the hands of mankind. The suspense builds slowly as the runners infiltrate Eden, set out across its primeval landscape, slowly creeping closer to the heart of the wild. And then the trap is set: mysterious happenings and clues begin to crop up, making the team question their choice, without overtly scaring them off. I read to the halfway point with little issue, despite the mistake Eden makes early on.

The hook is the first problem. It’s too revealing, too soon. Before this, it’d been revealed that it hadn’t been a fluke that Jenn decided to go to Eden when she did. Her mother—Dylan’s ex-wife—had come here first. She had sent Jenn a photo with a cryptic note, prompting her daughter to follow her. Kat has come to Eden to die, but her reasons are her own. And she’s just far enough ahead of her daughter that the others might not be able to do anything to stop her. We’re given one interlude in Kat’s POV every ten chapters or so. In her first one, she states she’s come to Eden to die, but no more. In the second, she more or less gives away the mystery.

The suspense had been building slowly to this point. I wasn’t sure what was going on in the book, but was keen to find out. The hook—when it came—was too revealing. It gave away the suspense, the mystery, almost the plot. Eden was still a good read after that, until the SHTF moment makes the pacing go sideways. There’s a lot of action, then a break, more action, more break, action-sequence, wait, action, wait, action—in that order. Every now and then, the book tries to reintroduce the mystery, the suspense, but for me that ship had sailed. Since it broke the surprise so early on, there’s nothing to pace the action to the end. It’s just action, and less-actions more-waiting parts. Shockingly, this combination doesn’t blend well. The second half is so strangely paced—it’s almost reason enough to read Eden to see it. The story is still good, however. It kept me reading, entertained me enough to see it through. While the mystery of Eden itself is blown wide-open, some other threads are still up in the air. Characters I’d grown to care about, possible conclusions I’d like to see come to pass. It kept me reading, almost up to the end. It struggles a bit then, as we leave some threads open. I would’ve liked to see a more adequate conclusion, on the whole. Instead the story veers, giving an ending to one of the stories being told. But not the other.

Furthermore, the whole thing has a bit of an After Earth vibe (not the kinda thing any media wants to be compared to) (if you don’t understand that reference, feel free to google it). It comes down to evolution. And leads up to the question—how could something have evolved this quickly? To which the answer is—it really couldn’t’ve. Which kinda kills the premise.

TL;DR

Eden is a thrilling eco-horror novel with some brilliant suspense, but with the added feeling of an After Earth kinda vibe. So as you might expect, I was a little torn. I loved the beginning and the slow build, but thought the author might’ve tipped his hand too early on. This glimpse into the mystery all but killed it, and the suspense, for me at around the 1/5 mark. Moreover, with the jig up, the story gets into it well before it’s ready—at around the halfway point. After that it’s one extended action sequence to the end, which really screws the pacing all to hell. That said, I enjoyed Eden, on the whole. It was a good eco-thriller, despite some outlandish parts. And a decent mystery, despite giving it away too early. I would’ve liked to’ve seen a more thorough ending, but there is AN ending, which I suppose is enough. I left the book having enjoyed my time reading, annoyed though I was about a few pieces of it. I’d recommend Eden, just realize it’s not perfect. But it IS waaay better than After Earth.

Book Review: Black Feathers – by Joseph D’Lacey

The Black Dawn Book #1

Horror, Fantasy, Dystopian

Angry Robot; March 26, 2013

494 pages

2.7 / 5 ✪

I first read Black Feathers in 2014 and really enjoyed it. Just goes to show what difference five years can make. The second time I got through it, I was put off by its inconsistency, an unsatisfying conclusion and a “look but don’t touch” world. D’Lacey manages to tell an interesting, entertaining story populated by real, human characters, in a world that (initially) can draw many parallels to our own.

The characters themselves are D’Lacey’s greatest achievement. Gordon Black is our pre-apocalypse narrator. Crows herald his arrival into the world, following his story from then on. The tale follows him from birth, early on casting him as the herald of the coming doom. His is very much a coming of age tale, as Gordon is just a regular boy. Dark hair, dark eyes, and crows follow him everywhere—but normal just the same. D’Lacey really manages to portray him as a flesh and blood kid, someone very real and human. This is a triumph for any author: creating a relatable, mortal lead.

Megan, the post-apocalypse DJ, is… inconsistent. When I went to choose a paragraph to describe her, “inconsistent” was as far as I got. Hers’ is as well billed as a coming of age tale. She is as well chosen by the Crowman. But, rather than to live his tale like Gordon, she is tasked with telling it.

Megan isn’t a believable POV. What I mean is… okay: it’s a coming of age story for her. When the reader is first introduced to her, Megan is just a kid. No puberty, no experience with the world, no Crowman. And she acts like any other kid. Until her second chapter. She runs across the Crowman before the first, in the first we find her fleeing from him. In the second, she begins her tale about seeing him. And she completely departs from her background (as just any other kid) thus far. Only to fall back into it after the story ends. I understand that D’Lacey is probably trying to set the mood here. But she’s just a kid. The words she uses, the pauses, the explanations, her state—they all change. They’re too advanced, too professional, too… scripted. D’Lacey flip-flops on her enough, going between her being just a kid, maturing into a young woman; to a mature, well-worded and serene woman—sometimes even chapter to chapter.

The looming apocalypse seems very plausible at first. A world wracked by natural disasters, solar flares, a tanking economy, an outbreak of war and strife. One full of shades of grey. When the Crowman is entered into it, the plausibility is muddied somewhat. Later, when he/it takes center stage, I felt a real disconnect between the story I was reading, and the one carries on from there.

It was a very dark tale. But it tried to be something more, even should’ve been something more. D’Lacey makes a play for a realistic apocalypse. Something that could very well happen today. Black Feathers is almost… could’ve been this, maybe. But loses itself shortly after inception. Gordon Black’s story (the story of the Crowman) gets distracted, and becomes the story of the Ward.

The Ward is the organization running Britain. Through the beginning of the tale, they become more and more prevalent in the UK, gaining political strength and support. They represent control and stability—or try, at least. A quasi-communist, nationalism, isolationist state. Eventually, they go after Gordon, trying to prevent him from reaching his destiny. And in doing so, any realism the story might have cultivated goeth out yon window. I mean, the reasoning behind this—the prophecy, or whatever—isn’t well explained. There are bits and pieces but. It doesn’t feel realistic. Or like a good scifi story. By attempting to toe the line between these two, any chance at being either is gone.

It’s not that Black Feathers isn’t a good read. It presents an adequate premise which it carries out reasonably well. But slowed down by inconsistent characters and a story that can’t decide what it is, D’Lacey’s possible masterwork becomes just another book, though an interesting one. Any lack of conclusive ending left a bad taste in my mouth, even through beginning the second one (note: I never finished #2, for a number of reasons) Worth a read, though. Maybe get it from the library, or on sale.