Instinct – by Jason M. Hough (Review)

Standalone

Thriller, Mystery

Skybound Books; April 6, 2021

336 pages (ebook)

GoodreadsAuthor Website

2 / 5 ✪

I was kindly provided with a review copy in exchange for an honest review. This in no way alters or affects my opinion. Many thanks to Skybound Books and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

Welcome to Silvertown, Washington, population 602.

Actually no, scratch that.

Welcome to Silvertown, Washington, population 665.

I honestly have no idea who wrote the official blurb. Clearly, they didn’t read the book.

Officer Mary Whittaker is the town’s latest resident, and was the 666th resident when she moved two months back. A few of the more superstitious townsfolk still avoid her on the street and cast dirty looks as they mutter behind her back. Most didn’t take the omen at face value.

But perhaps they should’ve.

As the population of Silvertown begins to decline.

The story begins with a funeral. Johnny Rogers, a certified homebody falls to his death after a spontaneous midnight hike. A few weeks later, a hiker terrified of animals dies after trying to hug a bear. Then a helicopter parent ditches her toddlers to have lunch with a complete stranger.

From there, things… just get weirder. It seems as if many of the townsfolk—Mary included—have lost their survival instincts. But as Whittaker continues to dig into the investigation, a conspiracy begins to take form. One that threatens not only Silvertown, but the world itself. And it’s up to Mary to stop it.

Wow. So this one was… quite something.

Up to the 2/3 mark, I was quite invested. Instinct contains a fairly interesting mystery, with a slow build that had me wrapt up through the first big reveal. The revelation that the townsfolk were losing their instincts due to something unknown was an interesting turn, if a bit confusing. The tense and mysterious atmosphere that permeates the text through its 75% mark is nothing short of masterful, and provided me with more than enough reason to keep going even after things got a little… weird.

The main issues start around the halfway mark. Let’s begin with the first big reveal. It was too revealing. It was so obvious who was behind the conspiracy that I knew inside of the first few chapters. So when the curtain is pulled back late in the story—well, mind-blowing it was not.

My second issue was with the setting. A small and isolated town in the mountains is a picture perfect backdrop for a grassroots conspiracy, but it has to actually feel like a small, mountain town in Washington. And to me it didn’t. Now the author lives in Seattle. And I’m not sure he did enough research on the setting before he dove right in. Early on, there’s a hiker that gets mauled by a bear. Now that’s definitely strange, yeah, as bears are usually more afraid of you than you are of them. And they point this out. But mostly they focus on “What was the bear even doing here?” Bears are all over the Pacific Northwest. For one to turn up on the outskirts of a small, rural, mountain town is hardly new. But this is a big clue, apparently. And gets revisited more than once. Our town has one main street. And six-hundred odd people. Which is pointed out. But then a lone car leaves the middle of town, the townsfolk lose sight of it before it reaches the end. A majority of the tale involves roughly two dozen people, with the rest of the community conspicuously absent. In the beginning Silvertown is billed as “one of those towns where everyone knows everyone”, but by the end 95% of the townsfolk remain AWOL.

Speaking of the end, you know how in some stories there’s a lot of jumping from one outlandish conclusion to the next, only for our heroine to hatch an insane plan that probably shouldn’t work but somehow does, and then pass out only to wake up and have everything be magically solved for them. They’re patted on the back, good guys win, life back to normal. It’s done all the time. And I’m sick of it. It’s convenient, sure, but lame. Now, I’m not saying that Instinct does this, but if it did, it probably would’ve soured me on the whole ending.

The real problem with Instinct is its consistency. Now, it was pretty consistent in the first half. The second half less so. As the plot makes the turn for home however, it really goes to pieces. Previously held rules about the conspiracy are broken. It’s going to be hard to get into this with no spoilers, but I’ll give it a shot.

Let’s say we have a Coke. It can only be called a Soft drink so long as it has carbonation and sweetener. And it can only be called a Cola if it is a soft drink that has the proper flavorings. It can only be called a Coke if it is a cola that is made and distributed by the proper company (yes, I know these are generalizations—please bear with me). Now suppose all of these things were rules everyone adhered to. And that all the people of Silvertown prefer to drink Coke. Over everything. They’ll drink other cola, but only if there’s no Coke. They’ll even drink other soft drinks, so long as there’s neither any Coke or other colas around. Get it? Good, but in the latter half of Instinct, all we thought we knew about soda is thrown out the window. There’s a chase scene. Our heroine snags an RC out of the mini-fridge despite the fact that there’s a Coke right next to it. There’s an angry mob. Armed with pitchforks and ginger ale, the citizens storm the town—ignoring the gigantic truck full of Coke parked by the side of the road. There’s a celebration at the bar. Citizens raise mugs of beer in toast while their bottles of Coke go flat beside them.

Get the picture? While for the first half of Instinct everyone eschews Pepsi in favor of dying of thirst while in the second half people are eyeing Mr. Pib with intense longing. And in the back half people are even occasionally drinking water. The rules are forgotten, but in the end they’re back, and no one seems to notice they’d been broken at all.

TL;DR

Instinct is a tense, atmospheric mystery that quietly transforms into an interesting and thought-provoking thriller that makes your head hurt as you try to wrap it around just what it is that’s going on in Silvertown. At least, the first half is, anyway. Up to the 65% mark, I was pretty well invested in it. But wow did it ever go to pieces quick. Among the issues include an unrealistic setting, a strange pacing, a conspiracy that doesn’t really work, a cheap and disappointing ending, and an instigator so diabolically and comically evil they might as well have horns. My biggest problem was with the consistency. Instinct works, until it doesn’t. Until the rules are bent to make some of the more outlandish ideas work. Until the same rules are broken, and then reinstituted again like nothing happened. I asked for a Coke—and got a dozen raw eggs. Better in some ways, but not in others.

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.

The Scorpion’s Tail – by Preston & Child (Review)

Nora Kelly #2

Thriller

Grand Central; January 12, 2021 (US)
Head of Zeus; January 7, 2021 (UK)

400ish 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 Grand Central, Head of Zeus and NetGalley for the ARC! All opinions are my own.

The Scorpion’s Tail is the second in the Nora Kelly spinoff, a collaboration between the archaeologist and FBI newbie Corrie Swanson. As both are prominently linked with Special Agent Pendergast, the man still crops up from time to time, solving mysteries and annoying law enforcement.

Note: The length of the book is suspect. The ebook version claims to be 309 pages, while the hardcover is 416, and the large print is 592. Short answer: I have no IDEA how long this is.

All Sheriff Watts wanted was a day off. A nice, lonely stream; a quiet bit of fishing. What he got was a wounded looter and a mummified corpse. High Lonesome was once one of the premier gold mining towns in the West. Like most early Western mines, it busted out and was left as little more than a ruin. Due to its remote, inaccessible locale, the ghost town is pristine, rarely looted, and intact. But when Watts comes upon a mummified corpse, the ruin is about to become the site of an FBI investigation.

Enter Corrie Swanson, junior agent. She in turn enlists the help of Nora Kelly, to ID the body and determine cause of death. It’s going along well enough at first—due to the lonesome nature of High Lonesome, the pair (plus Nora’s brother, Skip) don’t have to contend with a large team or crowd of reporters—until two unexpected details come to life. The first is that the mummified man died in horrible agony—in a fetal position, skin falling off in sheets, rictus of horror plastered on his face.

The second is the solid gold, 16th century Spanish cross hidden on the corpse.

When these details emerge, they expose Kelly and Swanson to the dangerous world of looters and treasure hunters, conspiracies and cover-ups. Throw in a mystery so strange it involves the Army, the Pre-Columbian city of Teotihuacan, a certain sexy sheriff, a terrible secret, and the most explosive moment in American history.

If nothing else, this will be a case neither Swanson nor Kelly will ever forget—should they live long enough to solve it.

The story of Scorpion’s Tail is a good one, for the most part. The author combo can sure spin an addictive yarn. As usual, the story, the setting, the mystery drinks you in in its early stages. And when the story really gets rolling you’re already heavily invested. I had no problem reading—again, up to a point.

The main issue (and my main complaint with the recent Preston & Child books) concerns the ensuing conspiracy theory and ridiculous leap of faith that always follows. In theory, there’s nothing wrong with a conspiracy theory. They can be practical, ridiculous, and sometimes even true. The first several times can even be a fun adventure. But eventually the fun stops. Now if 2020 taught us anything, it’s that everyone loves a good conspiracy theory, and that everyone has their own point of disillusionment. Scorpion’s Tail eventually leads me past my own. It’s… absurd. And honestly, neither terribly intricate nor well formed. On the positive side, it waits until the 2/3 mark to kick in, when I was already invested in the story. So, while it soured things, I still wanted to finish the book. Whether it does the same for you is the question.

The details—usually Preston & Child’s bread and butter—aren’t as sound in this one. From referring to Spanish Friars (Jesuits don’t have friars, and they were the choice of Colonial Spain), to cutoff words in Spanish translating to cutoff words in English, to the change in language for a few key characters at the 2/3 mark—everything seems a little less polished, a little less cared for.

The pace is as amazing as ever. The mystery begins with an action-packed opening chapter and keeps upping the ante throughout, so that there’s never a dull moment. Hiccups in the plot aside: I never had trouble reading this book. And I never thought about putting it down. So, while there may be some less than stellar action sequences, there were also those that were genuinely heart-pounding. The conspiracy theory soured my opinion, but the mystery redeemed it. The characters are a nice contrast of likable and unlikable that the authors write so well, and every character has their own history and motives. No cardboard cutouts here.

Now, let’s talk about the ending.

So, as spoiler free as possible, without getting into specifics, let’s say that there are two mysteries to solve. The former is settled through most of the book. The latter is summed up in its conclusion. The latter mystery is annoying as we’re provided almost none of the details such that I was expecting it would be the premise of the next book. But then it’s summed up and solved in but a few pages. The way this was done, the manner of it… was annoying.

Also, not all characters get resolution at the end. In fact, one of the two leads (Corrie and Nora) doesn’t. The fledgling romance is left completely in the wind, and isn’t even addressed in the conclusion. It was like: here’s the wrap-up, oh and this second mystery solved, then a brief snapshot of one character’s resolution—the end. I was on-board throughout; the leap of faith, the absurd bits, the annoying bits, the action, mystery, tension, romance—but this lost me. It was an incredibly disappointing and abrupt ending. And I really expected better.

TL;DR

Once again, Preston & Child deliver a heart-pounding, gut-wrenching thriller with an intricate mystery, fascinating location, and highly believable characters. Unfortunately, while I never had a problem reading it, Scorpion’s Tail suffers from a lack of polish, a ludicrous leap of faith, absurd conspiracy theory, and a disappointing lack of resolution for most of its characters. While there’s no denying that this is a very good ride, the final third sours what could’ve been a really good book. And the conclusion tests even that. For fans of the first, I’d still recommend Nora and Corrie’s follow-up. For fans of the Pendergast series, I’d still recommend Scorpion’s Tail as there’s no Constance. For people looking for a book to read on a plane, yeah, you could do much worse. For people who are looking for a intricate, believable, amazing, or inventive thriller—keep looking. For the bottom line: I had no trouble reading this. And while the ending was a disappointment, at the end of the day it was still a mostly good read.

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.

The God Game – by Danny Tobey (Review)

Standalone

Scifi, Thriller

St. Martin’s Press; January 7, 2020

449 pages (hardcover)

4.9 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

I passed on requesting the God Game late last year immediately regretted it. But I was busy, behind schedule, not sleeping well—so I needed to limit myself. But I really screwed up missing this.

Charlie is a high school outcast. In a world that worships popularity and scrutinizes the uncommon, he and his friends make up the lowest of the low. They call themselves the “Vindicators”, and own the Tech Lab at school; hacking, robotics, programming, they champion technological advancement and science fiction becoming reality. Kenny is a philosophy nerd and all-state cellist, as well as editor of the school newspaper. Son of two doctors, from a super religious family that tells him that being black is “his gift”—the Vindicators are his escape, his dirty little secret. Peter is accepted by everyone; both handsome and witty, he’s a rich bad boy that doesn’t play by the rules. He has popularity but doesn’t care—hanging out with the Vindicators is his own choice. Vahni is the Hindu god of fire; a punk bassist at odds with her heritage, she enjoys hacking and long walks on the beach, particularly if the beach is virtual. Fierce and noble and smart, Charlie had fallen for her at first sight, a fire goddess with a kickass attitude, she was perfect for him—until he found out she wasn’t into guys. Alex is a loner, an outcast among outcasts. In middle school he told people he was from Mars. His father Bao had immigrated to the US so that his son could have a better life. Alex had never lived up to the pressure—and had never been happy, until he found the Vindicators.

Once, Charlie was on track for valedictorian, a four-point average, and a trip to Harvard. He’d been on the student council, involved in events, and well-though-of if not popular. That all changed the day his mom died. Part of Charlie had died that day as well. He’d dug himself a hole and never come out. Just like his friends, the Vindicators were an escape—but unlike them, his life was headed nowhere.

Enter the G.O.D. game.

An invitation only game run by an AI that thinks it’s God. A game that promises its winners that all their dreams will come true, while condemning the losers to death. But the game couldn’t really mean that. After all, it’s only a game. And dying in a virtual world doesn’t mean dying in real life—does it? As the Game begins, the Vindicators are having too much fun to care. Raking in Goldz from missions and exploration, no one’s taking the opposing Blaxx too seriously. But when the stakes are raised, the Game begins to ask for more. First it’s only to deliver random packages or scrawl graffiti. But soon they’re confronted with blackmail and threats. The Game knows their secrets, which it will keep in return for their obedience and devotion. But there’s always a price. And it’s a price Charlie isn’t sure is worth paying.

It took me three days to read the G.O.D. Game, but I really could’ve done it in two. Or one—if I didn’t like, work or eat or sleep. The entire book is a thrill-ride from the outset. Beginning with a curiosity into the mystery of the Game, the story quickly took off and it wasn’t hard to get caught up in it. While some of the reasoning its waning stages somewhat lost me, and the cliché “unlikely” romance between a popular girl and an outcast had me rolling my eyes, there’s very little else to fault in the story. The way the Game plays its players against their greatest fears—everyone’s greatest fear: of their darkest secrets being exposed, of the judgment and repercussions to follow, while forcing them to commit morally questionable acts that it can further use against them—is brilliant, and makes a compelling story. It’s basically the honeypot, in virtual science fiction format. And we all know the honeypot works—so the book does too.

With a great and diverse cast, the characters of the book are both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. While so many of these—Charlie, Vahni, Kenny, Peter, Mary, even Alex or Kurt—could’ve commanded the story alone, the presence of so many strong characters together made for a more compelling read; one that never let up. But where there are so many strong characters, there will also be those that’re weaker. Neither Mr. Burklander nor Charlie’s father were especially strong, but Tim and Caitlyn both disappointed. After reading all the passionate, well-developed POVs aforementioned, these two felt hollow, dispassionate. Neither’s presence alone (or even combined) affects the story, but they definitely were the weakest links.

The budding romance (or whatever you want to call it), while somewhat cliché, and cringey (in that manner that all HS romances are), didn’t bother me beyond the occasional eye-roll. It doesn’t affect the pace, doesn’t detract from the story—so was pretty much a non-issue for me. The fact is that it works well with the plot, despite being occasionally cringe-worthy.

The escalation of the story is another issue, but one that I honestly didn’t notice at first. Like the teens playing the Game, I admit I was having too much fun to care! Afterwards, when I skimmed a few other reviews, the… shall we say “extravagance” of it all was unnecessary. It all comes back to the honeypot, and I felt would’ve eventually led to this point—the author just decided to skip a few steps of the progression. Another fifty or so pages is all it would’ve taken to escalate to this level nice and proper, but sometimes it’s hard to know that until afterwards. I’ll admit my explanation here doesn’t make a ton of sense, so lemme try to sum it up quickly. Imagine a snowball at the top of a mountain. You roll it down and it picks up more and more snow, becoming bigger and bigger, right? That’s what the story does in the G.O.D. Game. As the characters fight to erase their secrets by undertaking more and more questionable tasks, the Game trades up in its blackmail material, using it to force them to do more and more until it ultimately owns them. Just instead of watching the snowball make it way down the entire mountain, the story skips forward every now and then. The snowball gets bigger and bigger without us having to watch it all the time. That’s what I felt the escalation was like. At times it had all just accelerated more than it should’ve as the author skipped forward. It something that might bother you, or like me you might not notice until later, and it won’t affect your enjoyment.

TL;DR

The G.O.D. Game is a truly crazy thriller, one that pits its players against their darkest secrets over and over for the promise of fame, or failure. An intense thrill-ride, I had no problems whatsoever burning through it, and I can’t recommend it enough. A few minor hiccups along the way did nothing to spoil the story, or my love of it. With powerful characters, an insane plot, and unexpected twists and turns throughout, I honestly don’t know what to say except: have you read it yet? Why not?

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.

Sea Change – by Nancy Kress (Review)

Novella, Scifi

Standalone

Tachyon Publications; April 24, 2020

192 pages (ebook)

3.8 / 5 ✪

GoodreadsAuthor Website

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

The year is 2032. A decade earlier, an event known as the Catastrophe rocked the world. One private company’s biopharmed drug caused several the deaths of several children and fanned the flames of resentment already burning against genetically modified foods. In the fallout from the poisoning, protests rage, concluding in GMOs being banned. Ten years later, global warming is no longer debatable. Sea levels have risen, drought and famine rocked the globe, temperatures soar as the ozone slowly fades. Some few still use GMOs, but they are labeled terrorists and are hunted. But these radical outlaws may yet save the world.

Renata is an operative of one of such ecoterrorist cells, from an organization just referred to as “Org”. These brazen men and women work to save the world from itself, artificially engineering crops that will resist disease, flourish with limited water, even grow in salt water. Renata—known as Caroline Denton now—has lived many lives, but this is the most important. This is a cause she will rally behind, a cause she will die for.

Which she may very well have to.

A mole is in the Org, and no one is above suspicion. At only four to a cell, there is very little blame to go around. Renata knows everyone, but trusts no one, for as she keeps secrets of her own from the Org, she assumes they do likewise. And as secrets from her past and personal lives begin to bleed around those from her secret life, she will be confronted by a choice. One that will force her to choose where her loyalties lie, and what she truly desires. In the end, she will visit the one place she can never escape—to the Quinault Nation, the site of her son’s death—looking for answers.

I was presently surprised with just how much I enjoyed Sea Change. Though hardly perfect, it’s a pretty good read; the story begins in the present before jumping back and forth between it and the ghosts of Renata’s past. It does this until maybe the halfway mark, whereupon Renata’s past starts showing up in the present. I was able to cruise right through this—with never a dull moment. While it didn’t drink me in—with details missing or absent, description fuzzy—it never lacked encouragement to read on.

The story is probably its strongest asset; between that of the Org and Renata’s own, hers’ easily won out. But in the end her own story and theirs’ became intertwined. Actually, I guess they always had been. It’s really Renata’s story we’re reading—it’s just that the Org is the life she wants, what she’s most invested in.

Despite bearing the title “Sea Change” and much of the book taking place in and around Seattle and the Olympic Peninsula, there is precious little about sea change. It’s mentioned early on that the sea level has risen, causing the tribe to move further inland, away from the sea. And that’s pretty much it. Nothing is said about Seattle, which sits on the ocean. Nothing about the rest of the world, or how the rise in ocean levels has changed it. In fact, there’s little enough present about the fate of the world at all. Yes, yes, we’re treated to some background on the Catastrophe, the standing of the US, a bit about climate change—but little more.

Honestly, I found the premise surrounding “the Catastrophe” a bit underwhelming. With the pandemic going on, I expected a near apocalyptic event: a great famine, flooding, earthquakes, a virus, something—but it’s just a single genetically modified drug. That kills a handful. Sure, this kicks everything else off, as GMOs even in this day and age are controversial. But it’s not… well, comparatively, I’m not sold on its sheer earth-shattering consequences. Could happen though, I guess.

TL;DR

With adequate characters, a sub-standard setup, and a vaguely eco-thriller backdrop, I really didn’t expect much of Sea Change after the first chapter. I was surprised, then, when the story took off and drank me in. While there’re several reasons I could criticize it (and DO, if you’ve read the above), the fact is I enjoyed the story, especially Renata’s. And since her story is basically the one told—not the GMOs or climate-change thriller we began with—that’s actually a good thing. In fact, I was so invested in this story by the end I was hoping it might continue on for a bit, but alas, t’wasn’t to be. Though, if you don’t enjoy the story like I did, it might be worth DNFing this and moving on. Because, while Renata tells a good tale, it’s really about her, not the world.

A Longer Fall – by Charlaine Harris (Review)

Gunnie Rose #2

Fantasy, Thriller, Western

Saga Press; January 14, 2020

304 pages (ebook)

2 / 5 ✪

I was kindly furnished with a copy in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to both Saga Press and NetGalley for the review copy! All opinions are my own.

A Longer Fall is the second Gunnie Rose book by Charlaine Harris; set in a olden but fractured United States, where people behave much the same way they do today. Differently.

Lizbeth Rose, fresh off the trouble with wizards and blood and death from An Easy Death, has joined up with a new crew, this one just as inherently disposable as the last. And we’re not through the first chapter before bodies start dropping. Hired to deliver a crate of mysterious origin and product to Dixie, Lizbeth and the crew hop a train and set off east. But when the train is hijacked (or blown up) and half her new crew murdered, Lizbeth must once more pick up the pieces, carrying through with the job in place of her friends.

But life is a lot different in Dixie, where a person is judged more on their skin color and gender than on how well they can shoot. To navigate the politics and bias, Lizbeth must fit in. And to fit in, she has to take on a disguise. Luckily, there’s someone familiar around to help her deal. Enter the Grigori Wizard, Eli Savarov.

He is more than happy to see Lizbeth around, having been dispatched to Dixie on his very own secret mission. But will his intervention save her life, or just muddle it up more? And even if they locate the crate, what will Lizbeth do about it? And—maybe more importantly—Eli?

Okay… so where do I start?

I like Lizbeth Rose as a character. I find her kind of brooding and immature and rough around the edges, but hey, she’s young. And human. So that’s that. Now, I like Eli Savarov as a character. His interactions with Lizbeth provide an excellent dynamic. More so, even, in this book than the last. I would never have put him in this book, though. I mean, I didn’t really care for the story itself, but we’ll get to that later. This is about establishing a likable, new character for a potentially lengthy, episodic series. And it is. The ending proves it. Introducing the same surprise character in back to back books makes it less of a surprise. Even more so if they’re a love interest, which Eli definitely is. Shouldn’t have used him in the second book, pretty much.

The story. At first, the story of A Longer Fall is pretty catchy. Stolen crate full of unknown goods by a mysterious assailant. Shady dealings in Dixie. A familiar face, a good team dynamic, enough action. It actually took me a while to figure out why exactly the story put me off. The answer is complicated. This really would’ve worked better as a suspense or horror novel, but it’s not written like one. There’s not enough expense. Or horror. The pace is too quick for that. The thriller-fantasy aspect that worked so well in the last novel doesn’t work here. And once the pace really starts to pick up, the thrill just isn’t there. The mystery is good, but it’s never really explained. Even in the end.

The plot itself is… what is it? In the beginning it was lacking. Details were few and far between. A detailed, well-written setting is absent once again. Description is once more at a minimum, with more time given to dialogue. If one were to build suspense from the mystery within—that would be one thing. But it’s mostly not. There’s dialogue up to the action-y parts, and that’s it. Little substance is ever given to the mystery, or the suspense.

The story begins to fall apart around the three-quarters mark. Before that, some interesting and curious choices were made. There were plot-holes, questions left unanswered. I had a pretty good handle on what was going on, but then some things happened. Off-the-wall things. Without spoilers, it’s hard to describe. But the ending was weird. Not what happened, just how we got there. It felt unrealistic. To say the least. Definitely felt forced. And then, like the author just wanted to continue writing an episodic, shoot-em-up series.

This choice (or choices) ruined a lot for me. Up to this point, the book wasn’t that bad. The characters were certainly a plus. Lizbeth had quite an arc, though I won’t get into it. And definite character development. Then we get to 75% and it all goes out the window. Later, she even pulls a full 180. On a dime.

Dixie provides an interesting setting. I did NOT like it. It wasn’t badly written or anything. It’s just, that time, it… it’s, well… An old southern feel. Women and men have different places. Different roles. And never shall the two meet. “Coloreds” are often treated like dirt, following the abolition of slavery. But in a place like Dixie, which had seen the fall of the Union government—why did it stay abolished? Reading through, there certainly doesn’t seem like there’s a reason. But it’s never addressed, never explained. I hated Dixie. HATED it. Not just because of the inequality, the feel, the description—but because there are so many things about it left unexplained. So many holes in the world-building. It was just a classic southern place, with inequality and plantations and drawl. BECAUSE. I didn’t think An Easy Death did a great job of world-building Texoma, so right when we had the option of fixing it up in Book #2—we turn around and half-ass some other place.

TL;DR

A Longer Fall probably seemed like a better idea than it ever turned out to be. A thriller that just didn’t thrill. A mystery that left too many questions unanswered. A bit of character development and growth thrown out at the end for no discernible reason. A frankly lazy bit of world-building. The ending definitely soured me. More, I guess. I wasn’t in love with the book before, but we were cruising toward a 3 or so star rating. And then the last quarter killed it. It’s not like I’d expected a happy ending, but the end here was forced. It’ll continue the series, though it will certainly continue without me. I can’t recommend this, but it appears I’m one of the few. Oh well, to each their own.

An Easy Death – by Charlaine Harris (Review)

Gunnie Rose #1

Thriller, Fantasy

Pocket Books; October 2, 2018

306 pages (HC)

3 / 5 ✪

An Easy Death is the hundredth book (or so) by Charlaine Harris, and the first in the Gunnie Rose sequence, following Lizbeth Rose, gunnie for hire. Despite the hype and the glowing recommendations of my friends and family, I had quite the issue with this novel. Took me almost two full months to get through. Not a bad read, really, but it certainly wasn’t perfect.

The fractured remnants of the United States host the scene for An Easy Death. Lizbeth Rose and her crew run protection gigs mostly, escorting families to and from new nations with the former US. But when her most recent job goes awry, Lizbeth Rose finds herself alone and outgunned. But she still has a job to do. And say one thing about Gunnie Rose, say she never abandons a mission.

But when the job is done, what will Rose do?

A pair of Russian wizards find her an answer, willing to pay top dollar to find the daughter of an outcast. Something about saving the life of their Tsar. But this mission could hit closer to home than Rose knows—and the Gunnie already knows too much about it. For she’s hiding secrets of her own, secrets that might make the wizards see her in a different light. But she takes on the job anyhow, because of course she does.

I think my biggest problem with An Easy Death is the language. Gunnie Rose is short, and I don’t just mean the length. Written like a thriller, description is clipped, minimal. The story is the big ticket here—the story and nothing more. An while the story is good—very good, in fact—it couldn’t carry everything. The Boy with the Porcelain Blade might just be the loveliest novel I’ve ever read. Writing-wise. Every word specifically chosen, no two repeated in the same sentence, the same paragraph. Reading it was like watching an awe-inspiring dance. A dance of words. But the story sucked. I mean, not “sucked”, it just wasn’t great. An Easy Death may well be its polar opposite. Subpar writing, good story. Now, I’ve read other books with amazing stories and poor writing. Like, bad grammar, misspellings, mistakes, punctuation and well, other issues. An Easy Death doesn’t suffer from any of these, it just doesn’t have good description or language. In my opinion.

Another issue I had with the language is the dialogue. Not all of it, mind. Mostly it’s fine. Western, easy talk, with clipped, familiar language. But sometimes phrases don’t make a lick of sense. Like, none. Of course it’s when I go looking for them that I can’t find any examples. Sufficient to say that some ill dialogue can interrupt the flow of a story, even a good one. And when the world around it is built in shades of grey… well, it just didn’t work for me.

Characters were something that I was torn on. Lizbeth Rose was the strongest. As the lead, this was unsurprising. Next strongest were the two wizards—Eli and Paulina. But mostly Eli. Otherwise, there was Rose’s mother, and… no one. Harris built a few of her characters the strongest. Fortunately, they’re the ones we spend 95% of the time with. Other characters come and go—never really seen and easily forgotten. Little backstory, no detail. No even a flash in the pan. Just there and gone. I… I’m torn on this. On one hand, the story has complete, well made characters. Really no arcs to speak of, but the tale’s a short one. I’m looking forward to some kind of development between the first Gunnie Rose and the second. On the other hand… I felt like the plot of An Easy Death suffered because of it. Because of the lack of detail. Because of the shadow world. Because of the crowd of faceless characters.

The story was An Easy Death’s strongest feature. I have no complaints here. We get into the main story 60 pages in. The next 240 are a tear, pretty much up to the end. I had some trouble in the interim, but I’m like that sometimes. And there might’ve been extenuating circumstances, that we won’t get into. A thrill ride, certainly, an entertaining read by itself. No issues.

TL;DR

An Easy Death features an inspired story set in an uninspiring wasteland. A hit or miss equation, it missed me. The story may be an amazing thriller, but the world-building is absolute shit. It’s bad. Like, really bad. I’m interested to see what the 2nd Gunnie Rose is like. So far I’m ~10% in, and it’s okay. Another rollercoaster, but once again light on detail. But it’s waaay too soon to judge. I hope to find some character development, some world-building the first book just glossed over. I want to count Gunnie Rose as a potentially good fantasy series. But, it’s not happening. Frankly, An Easy Death summarizes my feeling for thrillers in general; an exciting ride while you’re there, but possessing no lasting appeal and is easily forgotten. I was hoping for more out of #2… but was ultimately disappointed. So, my recommendation: if you like fantasy and thrillers, give it a read. I know people who’ve liked it. I’m just not one of them.

A Longer Fall, Gunnie Rose #2, comes out January 14, 2020.

Summer Frost – by Blake Crouch (Review)

Novella, Standalone

Scifi, Cyberpunk

Amazon Publishing; September 17, 2019

75 pages (ebook)

5 / 5 ✪

A heavy dose of I, Robot with the same dash of mystery and intrigue set to a suspense-thriller pace, Summer Frost may be a novella, but it reads like an adventure all on its own, staying with the reader far beyond finishing the final page. Free to Prime members, this 75 page novella by Blake Crouch may just be the best short I’ve ever read. The story of a burgeoning AI, testing its bonds and its creators’ hold, is classic Asimov. The story itself is quite reminiscent of I, Robot, but with so much new and “modern” influences. Told in the usual Blake Crouch thriller model, Summer Frost is a joyride from beginning to end, especially when the story picks up and the manual is thrown out the window.

Max was built to die. A minor NPC in an innovative game world, it is to be the sacrifice that sets the player’s story in motion. Thousands of times, Max has died, though lately the NPC has seemed to have caught a bug. Playing off-script, the NPC has to exploring the game, testing the bonds and limits of the world itself. Even more recently, it even murdered its would-be killer, flipping the script completely.

When an intrigued Riley extracts Max’s code for examination, a curious thing happens. The NPC grows and expands, becoming something more than just a character in a game. It is removed from the game entirely, dedicated its own servers and allowed to grow under strict and watchful eyes. As Riley spends more and more time working with Max, something even more curious occurs. A relationship develops between the two—something emotional, something new.

But as Riley spends more and more time with the aim of introducing Max to the real world, her world begins to fray at the edges. Max has become Riley’s obsession, obscuring all else in her life. The emotional relationship between the two becomes something different, something… MORE.But even as Riley races to introduce Max to her world, doubt presses in. Will Max be able to feel the physical world around it? Will people accept the AI as an entity, or will they treat it as nothing more than a tool, something to be used and abused to their own ends? And how much can Riley trust those around her, in respect to Max? All Riley knows is that she believes in her creation, and that’s all that matters.

This all went rather how I expected it. And without giving much away, that’s all I can say about that. Despite offering only slight surprises, Summer Frost was intensely enjoyable, only a disappointment in its length. Took me a couple hours to run through the story, the first time. Considerably less the second. A classic Crouch thriller, I had no problem reading it, devouring the text in a single day. Twice.

Despite being Crouch written, I didn’t have an issue with really anything else. In other works of his, I’ve had a issue with the science. That it’s much more fiction than science. That it makes dubious sense at best. That the more you think about it, the less it holds together. With Summer Frost I didn’t have such an issue. Maybe because I was vining pretty hard on I, Robot, which I totally love. But still.

TL;DR

Summer Frost is definitely worth a go. If you haven’t read Blake Crouch before, this novella gives a satisfying glimpse of his writing ability. If you’ve already read some Crouch, well what should I say? It’s more of the same. Summer Frost gives off a pretty high I, Robot vibe. It’s an immensely entertaining story, satisfying even days after I completed it. While it’s a fairly short read—requiring only an hour and change to cruise through—Summer Frost is more an experience than a story, one that pretty much begs for a high-dive into Asimov fiction upon completion.