Fantasy

“Handmaiden’s Fury” by JM Guillen

I spent most of an afternoon drawn into JM Guillen’s free short fiction over at Irrational Worlds, and was quickly hooked by the rich and evocative worlds conveyed in just a few paragraphs.  Needing even more, I decided to try the novella Handmaiden’s Fury.

Handmaiden’s Fury is the story of a young priestess named Keiri.  She is a devotee of the goddess Rydia, whose grants power through sexuality.  Keiri’s power allows her to bond with people, control them, and even destroy.  Of course, it is not without personal cost, as the rituals to channel Rydia’s power involve a fair share of pain and submission.

When Keiri’s master discovers an evil sorcerer who smuggles slaves and ritually tortures innocent victims, he decides to use Keiri to put a stop the vile magic.  As he and Keiri work together to defeat their foe, Keiri realizes the depth of love and passion that she and her master share.

As with the short fiction at Irrational Worlds, I was immediately drawn into the story, which combines elements of horror, dark fantasy, and erotica.  Sexuality is an important part of the story, but is handled tastefully.  The bond between Keiri and her master is something to be treasured, and it keeps Keiri’s power from consuming anything in its path.  The magic system is unusual and well-developed, and the city in which the story is set seems like an organic part of a much larger world.  My only real complaint about Handmaiden’s Fury is that it didn’t come to a complete resolution, leaving me wanting more.  I hope that Guillen returns to Keiri’s story one day.

Categories: Erotica, Fantasy, Fiction, Horror/Gothic | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Black Fire Concerto” by Mike Allen

After seeing glowing reviews at The Little Red Reviewer, Lynn’s Book Blog, and Just Book Reading, I knew I had to read The Black Fire Concerto.  I’m on a book-buying hiatus until the government shutdown ends and I have a regular paycheck again, but lucky for me, it is available through the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library.  It’s the first time I’ve used that particular feature of Amazon Prime.  Mike Allen, you have taken my Kindle-book-borrowing virginity.  Yay!

Every evening, twelve-year-old Erzelle is called to play her harp aboard a riverboat named the Red Empress.  Like Scheherazade, this means that she can live another day.  You see, the boat is kept by the Family, who lure unsuspecting diners aboard their ship to feast on ghoul meat, which is said to grant extended life.  Once aboard, the poor unfortunates are bitten by ghouls, turned, and served up as dinner themselves.  When they decide that Erzelle isn’t worth her keep, then she too will become dinner.

That all changes when Olyssa, a kickass woman with a magic pipe, shows up one night for dinner.  She springs Erzelle from her predicament, and the two embark on a voyage to find Olyssa’s long-lost sister.  While doing so, Erzelle learns about the origins of the magical apocalypse that caused the Storms, the ghouls, and the end of normal life.

The magical apocalypse envisioned in The Black Fire Concerto is unlike anything I’ve ever read.  Magic is real, but humans only learned to tap the darkness a few decades ago.  The results were catastrophic, and led to the dystopian society that presently exists.

One of the things that impressed me the most was the way that the author was able to depict the way that magic affects its users.  This was especially evident as Erzelle learns how to use it and is gripped by the rage and the temptation to unleash too much power.  Heroes and villains alike are shaped by the magic that they use, and every action has a consequence, regardless of intention.

Mike Allen’s imagery is incredible.  He creates great machines fueled by rotting corpses, the friendly fox-like Vulpines, and villains that will give you nightmares and make you feel sympathetic at the same time.  A blend of fantasy and horror, The Black Fire Concerto will leave you begging for more.

Verdict:  Buy this.  Immediately.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Horror/Gothic | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

“Lucretia and the Kroons” by Victor LaValle

I received a copy of Victor LaValle’s novella Lucretia and the Kroons through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  The novella is a companion prequel to LaValle’s full-length novel The Devil in Silver.

Twelve-year-old Lucretia Gardner (Loochie for short) is excited at the chance to have her best friend Sunny over for a late birthday celebration.  Sunny missed Loochie’s real birthday celebration because she has cancer and was in the hospital for treatments.  Right before Sunny is supposed to come over, Loochie’s brother tells her a story about the Kroons, a family of crackhead monsters living in unit 6D who snatch children.

“I don’t know why things like that have to happen to children,” Louis said quietly.  “But being young doesn’t protect you.  Horrors come for kids, too.”

When Sunny doesn’t show up, Loochie knows what she must do.  She must travel to unit 6D and face the evil Kroons who abducted her friend.

The sinister and nightmarish world beyond the doors of unit 6D serves as a backdrop to Lucretia’s deeper struggle, coming to terms with her friend’s condition and learning to move on.

It is always heartening to see a more diverse world in speculative fiction.  Lucretia and the Kroons is a perfect example.  Lucretia is African American, and Sunny is Chinese.  The story takes place in an apartment building in Queens, and the monsters are suited to an urban environment.  For example, while in a park in unit 6D, Loochie battles flying rats with pigeon wings.  The horrors imagined by Victor LaValle are equally as scary as more traditional monsters, and are without a doubt a product of hellish alternate version of New York City.

The ending of the story leaves more questions than answers.  It didn’t feel organic, but rather like a way to set the stage for The Devil in Silver.

If the theme of the book wasn’t so horribly depressing (and let’s face it, cancer always is), I would have enjoyed it a lot more.  Lucretia’s adventures in the land of the Kroons were action-packed and filled with suspense.  However, readers quickly realize the message that Loochie is there to learn.  Bad things can happen even to children.  The Kroons are a metaphor for the cancer that is ravaging Sunny.

At only 102 pages, Lucretia and the Kroons isn’t a particularly long read, so if the premise sounds interesting, then by all means give it a try.  Even though the book was more depressing than I generally like, I give LaValle credit for an unusual and imaginative story.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Horror/Gothic | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Passage” by Justin Cronin

I received an electronic copy of The Passage by Justin Cronin through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.  I had originally intended to read it for last year’s R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril Challenge, but took a blogging hiatus around that time and never got around to reading it.  I picked it up last week and realized just how much I’d been missing out on.

This is not your ordinary vampire book.

A top-secret military operation called Project NOAH thinks that it has stumbled upon the secret of regeneration and life extension.  After following legends about vampires, they discover a virus that significantly alters the human body.  The military experiments on a group of twelve death-row inmates, finally perfecting a mutation the virus which they give to a little girl named Amy.  Unfortunately, their test subjects are more powerful than they thought, and they escape and wreak havoc on mankind.

The book is divided into two main sections.  The first describes the progression of Project NOAH up until the vampires are unleashed, and the second is a post-apocalyptic tale of a small colony of human survivors.  The book alternates between point-of-view characters in order to tell a story that’s much larger than any of their individual lifespans.  This style of narration reminded me a bit of Asimov’s Founation Trilogy, and it Cronin uses it spectacularly.  There’s a lot of description of the characters and their relationships with each other, but it doesn’t weigh the book down.  Instead, it makes you more invested in the fate of every single person, and it emphasizes the strength and weaknesses of a community trying to survive in the face of extreme danger.

My initial thought as I read about Project NOAH’s experiments is that there is no way in hell that an IRB (Independent Review Board) would ever sanction that type of experiment.  It violates pretty much every rule of the ethical treatment of human subjects currently in existence.  It was a disaster waiting to happen.

The characters in the second half of the book face a different ethical question.  They see family and friends being turned, and it’s like zombies, really.  You know you have to shoot them.  At the same time, they seem to retain at least a shadow of the people who they once were, so it’s hard to do it, even though you know you have to.  People are taught that the vampires have no souls, but their behavior is a bit more complex and isn’t very well understood.

Cronin’s biggest strength was the way that he showed how life goes on, even when there are vampires and you know you might not live another day.  In one part of the book, a band of brave colonists embark on a journey to bring Amy to Colorado.  They think that she is the only hope left for humanity, and that they could discover a way to end the vampires.  On the way, some members of the group fall in love.  One couple has a baby.  The fact that it’s the apocalypse doesn’t mean that people stop being people, or that human interactions change in any fundamental way.

The Passage is well worth the time spent reading it (and at more than 700 pages, it does take quite a bit of time to read).  It’s the kind of book that makes you ask “Where have you been all my life?!” as you read it.  I’d highly recommend it.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, Sci Fi | Tags: , , , , | 9 Comments

“Days of Blood & Starlight” by Laini Taylor

Days of Blood & Starlight is the sequel to Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke & Bone, a YA fantasy novel of angels and demons that is both chilling and unputdownable.  This post will contain spoilers from the first book, so if you haven’t read it, stop reading now.

In a parallel world to our own, the chimera are at war with the angels.  Unlike in our own heavenly mythology, there aren’t really clear-cut good guys and bad guys.  Both sides have been at war for so long that they have no collective memory of peace.  Two young lovers once imagined another way of life, but that was before the angel Akiva ordered the genocide of Karou’s entire city.  Now, Karou and Akiva are two lost souls with the power to change the world, but an unbreachable rift between them.

Akiva has returned to his position in the angel army, but killing chimera no longer feels right to him.  His disillusionment with war begins to spread throughout the angel ranks, providing a glimmer of hope.

Meanwhile, Karou has returned to the chimera and is using her power of necromancy/restoration to breathe new hope into the chimera’s fight. However, the chimera army is being led by Karou’s unscrupulous almost-ex-fiance, and Karou constantly feels unsafe among her own people.

Days of Blood & Starlight is fast-paced and suspenseful.  We see both Karou and Akiva struggling with their own beliefs, but even at their darkest moments (and there have been plenty of them so far), you can tell that neither believes that war and violence are a productive way for their peoples to move forward.  It is heartening to see both Karou and Akiva inspiring others by their example.  And the cliffhanger ending… so dramatic!  I can’t wait for the final book in the trilogy to be released so that I can see how it all comes together in the end.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, YA | Tags: , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Guest Post on H.P. Lovecraft

When fellow H.P. Lovecraft fan Brandon Engel contacted me about writing a guest post, I was eager to accept.  Lovecraft’s stories are especially fitting during this time of year, as the leaves begin to change and Halloween approaches.

  It takes a unique individual to construct an alternate world ruled by sinister gods who resemble octopuses. And, apparently, it takes several more unique individuals to flesh out that world — to canonize it and to enrich it with their own interpretations of Lovecraft’s work. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a writer of some note. He will be affectionately remembered by fans for his rich writing style, and his distinct ability to match his keen attention to detail with an artful restraint. Lovecraft would disclose the minute details about the interior architecture of some alien monster-god dwelling, but then when you see the description of the monster, it would be extremely brief and would force readers to evoke their own monsters — which is, ultimately, the most horrifying thing any horror writer can do.

   It was around 12 years ago that a wonderful and fairly comprehensive compilation of Lovecraft’s best known works was released — an omnibus entitled The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories.It features such classic Lovecraft tales as: “The Dunwich Horror”, “At the Mountain of Madness,” and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

   Unfortunately for Lovecraft, he never achieved the recognition he deserved while he was alive and writing. Even though he was impoverished throughout his lifetime, Lovecraft is regarded by modern readers as a distinguished author of horror and fantasy — one of the strongest fiction writers within his niche from the early 20th century, and potentially one of the greatest horror authors of all time.

     He first started to build a reputation, and make friends within his peerage, in the 1920’s when he started contributing short stories to the pulp magazine Weird Tales. Among his contemporaries at Weird Tales were Robert E. Howard (the creator of Conan the Barbarian) and Robert Bloch (the author of Psycho). Among the stories which Lovecraft first published through Weird Tales was The Call of Cthulhu, published in 1928. The story introduced the Cthulhu character, who would become extremely important within Lovecraft’s world. The story is based on the fictional manuscript of a character named Francis Wayland Thurston. Thurston had been investigating the death of his uncle Gammell Angell, a Semitic language scholar, who had written about a strange cult which worshipped a god named Cthulhu, a gigantic sub-aquatic monster who is described as resembling an “octopus, a dragon, and a human caricature…. A pulpy, tentacled head surmounted a grotesque and scaly body with rudimentary wings.”

     Lovecraft was relatively unknown during his time, but he did correspond with some fellow fantasy writers and publishers who admired his work, such as August Derleth. It was actually Derleth who coined the “Cthulhu Mythos” to describe Lovecraft’s self-contained world ruled by Lovecraft’s pantheon of strange, Alien gods. Other writers have contributed to the Mythos, creating unique characters, and striving to expand upon the world Lovecraft created. Among the many writers who’ve contributed are Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell, Clive Barker, and Derleth himself.  

  Lovecraft fans and scholars have attempted to categorize alien entities within the Cthulhu Mythos. In the H.P. Lovecraft Companion, author Philip A. Schreffler divided all the alien gods into two distinct camps: there are the “Outer Ones” living in the center of the fictional universe who we can not reach, and then there are the“Great Old Ones” like Cthulhu who live on earth and are worshipped by deranged cultists.

   Lovecraft’s alien deities predate human beings, and they also have no reverence for humanity. In Lovecraft’s bleak world, the human phenomena of grief, anxiety, and emotion are inconsequential. A beast like Cthulhu would look upon a “mere mortal” in the way that “mere mortals” look upon gnats. We are an inconsequential species in their fearsome eyes.  

    But it’s not just alien god monsters that Lovecraft will be remembered for! He authored some works which dealt with bizarre medical practices, and raised questions about scientific ethics, such as his short story Herbert West Re-Animator which was immortalized in the 1980’s by director Stuart Gordon with his film adaptation Re-Animator. The story followed Herbert West, an eccentric, morally ambiguous medical student who has developed an elixir which reanimates dead bodies. Or his novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which followed the story of an elite young Rhode Island man who has resurrected a remote relative of his, Joseph Curwen, an infamous wizard who practiced black-magic and was responsible for countless deaths. Not only did Ward resurrect Curwen — he surrendered his very identity to him. Curwen attempts (unsuccessfully) to live as Ward, but his great antiquity works against him. The towns’ folk, believing that Curwen is insane, have him locked up in a mental institution. Roger Corman used the story as the basis for his film The Haunted Palace.

   It is somewhat heartbreaking that Lovecraft never got to fully experience real commercial or critical success within his lifetime. Nevertheless, his legacy lives on, as his terrific body of work still resonates with readers to this day.

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Author bio: Brandon Engel is an entertainment blogger with Direct-ticket.net whose chief interests include cult films and classic horror literature. Among Brandon’s favorite authors are Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen, and Stephen King.

Categories: Guest Posts, Horror/Gothic | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

“Choose Your Weapon” by Sarah Rodriguez Pratt

I’ve been following Sarah Rodriguez Pratt’s blog, That’s a Girl’s Car, for a long time now, and when she contacted me about reviewing her book, I was thrilled to accept.

Choose Your Weapon, the first book in the Helen of Hollingsworth Trilogy, is the story of a dragon-slaying high school girl trying to find her identity.

As a child, Helen loved the Glorious Dragonfighter books.  She also knew something that most people did not.  The world of Erwingdon isn’t just a fantasy, and people from our own world travel there in their sleep to help fight dragons.  Recruiting warriors from our world is better, of course, because if someone dies in Erwingdon, they only die there, and not in real life.  Helen was supposed to join the ranks of the warriors and become a Dragonfighter, but then one night, all communication with Erwingdon stopped.  Years pass, and Helen loses touch with her nerdy interests because she sees them as incompatible with having a social life in high school.

Out of the blue, Helen is summoned back to Erwingdon.  The land is under threat by powerful dragons, and the people there have again called upon our world for aid.  Helen is grateful to be back, but not so thrilled that her new comrades are people she knows from school.  Helen must discover her own inner strength and learn to get along with her classmates in order to have any hope of saving the world.

Choose Your Weapon is kind of like Narnia for teenagers, but without the whole Jesus-lion-allegory thing.  Helen’s got the same issues a normal teenager does.  She feels like her interests aren’t good enough and that she can’t speak out in classes and still fit in.  She’s got a crush on the head of the academic quiz team, but doesn’t know how to act on it.  She’s also just lost her best friend, who ditched her to hang out with the dance team.  Helen also has problems in Erwingdon.  She’s not particularly athletic, and fighting dragons requires a lot of coordination.  She’s also the only girl.

I liked the fact that Helen was awkward and yet believable.  She’s the kind of teenager that a lot of us remember being, and I was constantly rooting for her as she began to come into her own.  Choose Your Weapon focuses on finding one’s inner strength rather than succumbing to peer pressure and apologizing for being oneself, and that’s an important lesson for teens and grown-ups alike.

This book rocks!  Sarah is a sophisticated and talented new writer, and I can’t wait to see what she comes out with next.

Categories: Fantasy, Fiction, YA | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Petals and Thorns” by Jeffe Kennedy

Petals and Thorns by Jeffe Kennedy is an erotic retelling of Beauty and the Beast.  I’m a sucker for reimagined fairy tales, so I had to give it a try.

Amarantha is convinced by her family to marry the Beast.  The Beast has agreed to divorce her and give her family a fortune if she doesn’t agree to consummate the marriage in a week’s time.  While he can’t take her virginity, nothing else is off-limits.  The Beast introduces Amarantha to BDSM, while at the same time emphasizing the fact that he’d never cause her real harm, and that he cares about her well-being.

At first, Amarantha is terrified, but she quickly realizes that she finds the Beast exciting.  She also realizes how empty her life with her family was, and that they care more about money than they do about people.  As she falls in love with the Beast, she realizes that her new life is far more fulfilling.  Meanwhile, the Beast is portrayed as a multifaceted creature.  He’s intelligent, caring, and has interests and personality outside of the bedroom.

I first became familiar with Kennedy’s work after winning a copy of Ruby during Armchair BEA.  Conveniently, it lined up with a project I was doing for a genre fiction class at the time.  Even though I don’t read much erotica, I realized that I had misjudged the genre as a whole.  As in Ruby, I was blown away by the character development present in Kennedy’s books.  They aren’t just about the sex, but rather use it as a way of showing how a character grows over time.

I’m quite impressed with Jeffe Kennedy’s stories.  Clocking in at a little under a hundred pages a piece, they’re good for a relaxing bedtime read when you want a book with a happy ending.  Petals and Thorns was no exception, and I would highly recommend it.

Categories: Erotica, Fantasy | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

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