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Book Review: The Repentant Edited by Brian M. Thomsen and Martin H. Greenberg

28 Jul

Why, you might ask, am I reviewing an anthology of stories published in 2003? Well, I wanted to start working through my book shelves and read some of the ones I had acquired and stored for later (apparently 19 years later) and I wanted to start writing short stories again. Good news, I rather enjoyed some of the tales about penitent supernatural baddies, and I whipped out a 6,000 word story in the past twenty-four hours.

The Repentant collects 13 original tales about creatures that haunt the night, but decide not to use that excuse to be their worst selves. The stories are divided into sections: Werewolves and Witches, The Dead, The Undead, and the Demonic. Many of these stories prove to be somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and more than a bit campy, but campy horror comedies are among my favorites in the spooky genre, so reader be warned. Almost all of the authors were new to me, except for Jeff Grubb, who did a lot of work with Marvel Comics in the past. I believe he may have even written elements of the long gone MARVEL SUPERHERO ROLE PLAYING GAME which I arduously studied when I was twelve. Grubb’s tale, “Lycanthrope Summer” was well written and atmospheric and is a good start to the anthology. Overall, I will definitely be looking up a few names from my favorites to see what else is out there by these authors. Some of the stories were a little hard to get through (especially the ones that were fantasy based and had plots around the strange rules around death and life in this particular fantasy mythos). Although, I am intrigued to read more by some famous types (Yarbro, Elrod), there were a few that were sort of…boring. It seemed that the editors included some of these stories just based on the name of the author. The best were a bit light-hearted and clever send ups of the traditional spooky situations. Let’s get to some highlights:

  1. “A Hollywood Tradition” by Brian M. Thomsen- This one stood out as a fun homage to Tinsel Town, where a non-fic book writer, desperate for a new pitch, takes a room in an old Hollywood Mansion and gets an earful from the old man running the place. The Caretaker gives the writer a story he can really sink his teeth into.
  2. “The Devil You Know” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman- This tale, set in 19th century America, is about the child of amateur wizards who watches while a demon devours his parents after a botched summoning. The Demon adopts the kid and teaches him for the price of bringing him a human to feed on every Solstice. The story is a real page turner with the kid desperately trying to figure out a way to defeat his adopted parent while gathering a group of gifted people around him.
  3. “The Recall of Cthulhu” by Tom Dupree- This one is pretty funny, well written, and acts as a kind of humorous sequel to “The Dunwich Horror” by H.P. Lovecraft. In this, the monstrous twin brother of Wilbur Whateley, F’tagn, tries to make friends despite the fact that he has the heart of a man, but the form of an obscene Old One. I had a good chuckle from this one.
  4. “Slaughter” by P.N. Elrod- This pulp noir vampire story, details a vampire assistant to a mob boss in Chicago having to contend with an upstart and newly transformed Vampire honing in on mob territory. Although a bit straightforward, it reads at a real clip, and I will probably look into Elrod’s other vampire works.
  5. “The Den Mother” by Edo van Belkom- This story is about a therapist who steps in to help a domestic abuse victim come into her own power. The story is a satisfying one, where the real monster is the brutal jerk who lives next door.

Overall, although the quality of the stories is a bit uneven, there were plenty of gems to pass the time, and they did help inspire me to write a weird little witch story of my own.

3 Stars out of 5.

Book Review: The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin

20 Jul

The City of Mirrors is the final volume in The Passage Trilogy, which details the outbreak of vampirism virus in modern day America and the struggle for survival for the few remaining humans about a hundred years later. All three volumes switches vantage points in time between the modern and the post-apocalyptic eras. They are also all written with a passionate eye for detail and human nature by the virtuoso writer Justin Cronin. My feeling upon finishing this amazing series is that it belongs in the handful of truly original and landscape changing works of vampirism that I have ever read. My personal list goes as such:

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

Interview with a Vampire by Anne Rice

I am Legend by Richard Matheson

The Passage Trilogy by Justin Cronin

To try to sum up the effect this trilogy had on me is very difficult. Justin Cronin writes beautifully, his descriptions heighten the hardships and horrors that come from living through and beyond the apocalypse. His characters are fully human and fully realized, from the patient zero (the leading baddie) to the provincial members of the surviving human walled cities. I would argue that this work stands tall amongst any writing today as a work of literature. The allegories and social commentaries throughout are varied and profound. At times I am reminded of Watership Down, other times I think of The Stand. If you haven’t read the first volume, start there, and frankly, I’m jealous. I am sure this is a work that should I ever need something to read again, I would do so gladly.

In this volume, the survivors are living in Kerrville Texas and beginning to spread out into the “frontier” resettling the surrounding land, believing that the dracs and dopeys have all been destroyed at the end of the previous volume. We get to see the young people that survived the harrowing journey to get there in the first volume as middle-aged leaders of the remnants of humanity. Then, when Alicia, having succumbed more and more to the virus inside her, ventures to the ruins of New York City she meets Patient Zero, Tim Fanning, who tells Alicia (and the reader) his origins as an alienated middle class kid from Ohio who enters the world of privilege as a biochemistry student at Harvard.

Admittedly, there is a slow build up in this final novel, and it might not be for every reader, except that anyone who has read through the first two volumes will stick around to see how each detail is woven into the greater whole. Tim’s experiences in college reminded me of many of the literary works I had to read as an English Major in College. We get to see the characters warts and all, as well as fully understand what brought about this horrible pandemic.

After this, Fanning admits that all the virals are not gone and he isn’t through taking out his frustrated pain on the scanty remnants of humanity. The citizens of Kerrville must rally to defend themselves and avoid division as some characters are following a psychic vision and preparing an ark in which to save the hopes of humanity’s future. Finally, four stalwart heroes led by the enigmatic Amy, must travel to do battle with Fanning in the Big Apple.

I loved reading this series and was only annoyed once. Cronin is fair and just in showing all sides of his characters, but in the end, I feel that he lets the despicable Fanning off too easy, but that did not change my overall love for this work.

5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: Wildcards: Three Kings Edited by Melinda Snodgrass and George R. R. Martin.

14 Jul

When I was thirteen years old, I purchased and read (and reread) the first volume of this shared universe and alternate history fantasy series. Now, thirty-five years later, I just finished the 28th volume, Three Kings, and I am just as enraptured by the storytelling by Wildcard’s many talented writers as I was back then. In fact, this volume (the second in the proposed British Triad) may just be one of may all time favorites.

The premise of Wildcards is that in 1946 and alien virus from the planet Takis, was released over New York City. 90 percent of the victims die almost instantly upon infection in lurid and gruesome ways. The majority of survivors and twisted physically and are designated Jokers. Occasionally, these Jokers gain useful abilities and are called Knaves. The lucky one percent are gifted with amazing superpowers and are designated Aces. In the previous volume, Knaves over Queens, the history of Britain during and after the first outbreak was detailed and we are introduced (or re-introduced) to many of the characters that become power players in this volume. Personally, I enjoyed this volume better, as it had a more direct and cohesive plot, with all of the characters contributing to the events that occur.

In Wildcards reality, Elizabeth died, leaving Margaret to take the throne. In this world Margaret bears two princes, Henry (a proponent of Britain First and an outright bigot) and the younger prince Richard (a closeted homosexual and husband to Diana). When Margaret dies, Henry ascends to the throne, but immediately threatens the cohesion of the British population with his hateful rhetoric. Jokers are being systematically attacked by the deplorables in British far right society. Richard challenges his brother’s rhetoric and begins scheming for power. The third would-be-king comes into the picture when rumor gets out that Elizabeth had given birth to a Joker prince who was whisked away in secret and may still be alive. It is against this royal conflict and the threat of mass riots that our main players most contend.

The main characters are a Knave historical figure, Alan Turing (known as ‘Enigma’), now one hundred and eight years old and serving the royal family, The Seamstress, an Ace who has been providing protective clothing to the royal family for decades, Double Helix, a teleporting gender-swapper who has previously betrayed his colleagues in MI7 (or Silver Helix), and The Green Man, a reluctant anti-hero who has been leading the Joker activist group, The Twisted Fists, for decades. Finally, one of the main antagonists is a monstrous woman from Ireland named Babh.

Three Kings winds through the shadowy conflict with plenty of twists and turns that will keep you turning the pages until you arrive at the satisfying conclusion. The protagonists are deeply flawed individuals who are doing their best and sometimes worst because of life circumstances that have forced them into service for one side or another. Although all of this conflict arising from dispute over a ceremonial throne may seem ludicrous, the book effectively shows how dangerous rhetoric can be in a time when too many individuals in our own world are choosing to act out of hate and fear. I don’t want to give anything else away, so I will end with this: if you enjoy intrigue, well-developed and flawed characters, superhuman battles and well orchestrated plot twists, then you should enjoy this recent addition to this remarkable series.

5 stars out of 5.

Book Review: The Chosen Ones by Veronica Roth

28 Jun

This first venture for the author into the world of fantasy adult literature was a surprisingly addictive read with a huge supernatural mystery and a flawed and tormented protagonist at its heart. The narrative is broken into three parts (or acts) with many inter-chapter sections acting as epistolary insertions (government files, news articles and journals) to catch the reader up or fill in the details of this multiversal plot. I have always loved when authors do this, and it successfully kept the mystery alive and allowed for a lot of cool exploration of the world(s) involved without bogging down the plot in exposition.

The story begins with the 10 year aftermath of a battle to save the world between a mysterious “Dark One” and the five teenagers who were prophesized to defeat him. As the world commemorates this victory over evil, the reader gets to know these characters through their continuing pain and trauma and dysfunction from their experience. At the center of this is our anti-hero, Sloane Andrews, a troubled survivor who shuns the world of publicity she is immersed in having been in a long-term relationship with the celebrated “chosen one” Matthew Weekes. Sloane is not my favorite type of protagonist, but she is masterfully executed by Ms. Roth into a very memorable character. The difficulties of living through trauma (whether from a bad childhood or from fighting the world’s first supervillain) is explored thoroughly. Then in the second act, the reader is thrown for a loop as Sloane and some of her compatriots become immersed in an inter-universal conflict.

My favorite elements of this book are the powerful characterizations, the building mystery and the exploration of “what if?” that when done well (which it is here) always helps us look at our own world with new lenses. I would recommend this book to anyone who is intrigued by modern worlds infected with magic, parallel universes, or just love a strong female protagonist.

A word of warning: the book introduces itself using compilated news articles, the second and most lengthy being an entertainment column written by a sexist idiot. It is our first foray into the world and our first introduction to the main character, before we get to the main narration, and it turned my wife off from reading further. I pushed on and was glad I did. I enjoyed this grueling adventure through alternate worlds and the trauma of being a hero.

4 stars out of 5.