Book Review: American Craftsmen by Tom Doyle

When I first saw some stuff on Tor.com about Tom Doyle’s American Craftsmen, I got it mixed up with Myke Cole’s Shadow Ops books. They’ve got similar premises: the US Government creating and establishing special forces that can use magic. It’s just that in American Craftsmen, the magic-commandos (and magic in general) is still secret.

craftsmen

No, this book is not about the world’s most badass cabinetmaker. 

American Craftsmen stars Captain Dale Morton, one of the aforementioned wizard-commandos. The novel starts with an operation in the Middle East that goes terribly wrong: an ancient Persian sorcerer hits Morton with a curse, and a whole village of innocent bystanders gets slaughtered. Now, this could be the part where the curse gets used as a none-too-subtle-metaphor for PTSD, but … Doyle doesn’t do that, for better or worse.

Instead, Morton quits the magic-military, only to in turn get swept up into an evil scheme by some evil wizards who have infiltrated magic-command. A basic “spy on the run” story ensues, as Morton runs away from a sword-toting puritan with a grudge against his family, and falls in with Scherie (which is short for “Scheherezade,” which– is that even an actual name?) an Iranian-American woman who turns out to have powers of her own. Scherie honestly has some weird characterization going on, as the first time she meets Morton, he’s seeing ghosts and babbling in Farsi. She figures out he’s a special forces type, at which point she … goes to his creepy haunted house so she can ask him to teach her how to fight? What? And then the third time they meet they have sex. Yeeeah.

All and all, American Craftsmen is honestly kinda boring. Myke Cole does the whole “military with magic!” thing a lot better, and writers like Charles Stross or Daniel O’Malley really have the “supernatural spy fiction” thing locked down. And sure, one could argue that “there are no new ideas,” and that the aforementioned authors don’t invalidate Doyle’s work. It’s just that most of the magic bits in American Craftsmen are pretty dull. Most of Morton’s spells are just simple commands, written in italics: “move air” or “drop gun” or whatever. It doesn’t even have the structural specificity of The Language in Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library series.

On top of that, the “American” part of the magic in American Craftsmen has a very specific meaning. See, Morton and all of the other wizard-commandos are members of the “First Families,” bloodlines of wizardy folk who originally made a pact with George Washington to protect the country. Which, admittedly, is kind of a cool idea. It’s just that the book never progresses beyond that. Hell, the book barely seems to acknowledge there’s a big chunk of the US west of the Mississippi river– or even west of the Appalachians. Where’s the New Orleans-style voodoo? LSD-powered San Fransisco hippie magic? Or other quirky magic traditions brought over by immigrants from every country in the world? It’s wasted potential, if you ask me.

It doesn’t help that Doyle kind of cheats with the book’s structure– half the novel’s written from Dale Morton’s first-person perspective, but then later chapters periodically switch to a third person perspective to show other stuff going on. It’s kind of the worst of both worlds, as Morton’s chapters don’t quite have the the ‘zing’ that really good first person narration does, and the switch between perspectives just comes off as a bit jarring.

So yeah. I made it through American Craftsmen, if barely. There’s two more books in the series, and they … might expand on the world and make things more interesting, but I’m honestly not that interested in reading them to find out. Next time I get in the mood for something about wizard-commandos shooting monsters with M-16’s, I’ll track down something by Myke Cole instead.

Book Review: The Black God’s Drums, by Djeli Clark.

The thing about Steampunk is that it’s not very punk at all.

More often than not, Steampunk novels boil down to yet another story about Lord Whifflebottom and Lady Corsetgear foiling yet another assassination attempt against Queen Victoria, and otherwise upholding the status quo. Rule Brittania, etc.

P. Djeli Clark said “nuts to that,” and wrote The Black God’s Drums.

black god's drums

Right off the bat, Clark makes it a point to distinguish The Black God’s Drums from ‘standard’ steampunk/alt history stuff. The novel (well, more of a novella– it’s short) is set in the Free Port of New Orleans, a city that earned its independence from both North and South in a slave rebellion during the American Civil War. New Orleans is in turn allied with the Free Islands– a confederation of Caribbean islands led by Haiti, which was able to back up its revolution through mad science. As you do. By making successful slave revolutions a cornerstone of the setting, and by making Haiti the nation with the best technology in the world, Clark deliberately flips the table on the standard boring steampunky tropes.

The Black God’s Drums centers on a girl named Creeper– a scrappy street urchin (is there any other kind?) who also has an African goddess of storms kicking around in her head. As you do. When Creeper overhears a skullduggerous plot to steal the titular Black God’s Drums, the superscience superweapon Haiti used to cement its independence. Seeing as of how this would be a Bad Thing(tm), Creeper soon falls in with Anne-Marie, a dashing, one-legged airship Captain who has a connection to a goddess of her own– not to mention a history with Creeper’s mother. And so, with the help of some suspiciously well-informed nuns and a bitey little girl named Feral, they set out to foil this evil scheme.

And then they do.

That’s it.

It’s probably a good sign that one of my major complaints about a book is that “there’s not enough of it.” As again, The Black God’s Drums is more novella than novel. This said, the plot pretty much progresses from point A to B to C without twisting things up as much as it could. Clark’s created a really cool and original setting, and it’s almost a disservice to wrap things up with “go here, fight some guys, save the day, the end.” Oh, and in a slightly lesser quibble, Clark goes a little bit overboard with dialects. The whole book’s written from Creeper’s perspective, so she speaks with a New Orleans patois, intentionally written as a little hard to follow. But when a random Scotsman shows up, it just feels like it’s a bit too much.

Again, in the grand scheme of things, these are minor things. Because, again, I have to give The Black God’s Drumsa lot of points for being something more than “God Save the Queen!” It’s a short, quick read– there are worse ways to spend an afternoon. So if you want something different in your airship adventures, give it a read.

Book Review: Still Life With Crows, by Preston & Child.

And now, for something completely different.

For as fun as it is to read books with spaceships and/or dragons on the cover, sometimes you’ve just got to change things up? You know, see what’s popular outside ‘the genre.’ Or, well … maybe genre-adjacent, in this case, but whatever. And so, perhaps in the spirit of an ‘airport read,’ I randomly snagged Preston & Child’s Still Life With Crows from my library app, just to change things up.

crows

Still Life With Crows is the fourth book in the Agent Pendergast series, a collaboration between authors Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. The books started with Relic, a novel I’ve only heard of because it got adapted into a movie that I accidentally watched on Netflix thinking it was Mimic. (I am not the only one to have this problem, apparently). Ironically, Pendergast himself was written out of the movie adaptation of Relic, but I digress.

In any case, Special Agent Pendergast is a weirdo who solves weird crimes. While he works for the FBI, he’s also apparently ludicrously rich (as in Saville Row tailored suits and a sweet Rolls Royce rich), so I guess that’s just his hobby, or something. He’s kind of a combination of Fox Mulder and James Bond, maybe with a little bit of Sherlock Holmes thrown in for good measure, all wrapped up in a tall, possibly albino package.

Still Life With Crows brings Pendergast to Medicine Creek, Kansas, a tiny middle-of-nowhere town that’s suddenly being plagued by gruesome and seemingly impossible murders, possibly related to a mysterious massacre dating back to the Indian Wars. Pendergast, being the weirdo he is, is quite the contrast to the various small-town stereotypes of Medicine Creek. There’s the hayseed sheriff, some gossipy busybodies, the clueless bible-quoting preacher, and so on. There’s even a snooty college professor visiting from out of town, just to condescend to everybody. And while most of the characters are straight out of trope-central, Preston and Child at least give them some degree of depth. It’s vaguely reminiscent of a Stephen King novel, only with the small town taken out of Maine and plopped down on the prairie.

The most interesting character of the book is Corrie Swanson, a teenage goth who winds up as Pendergast’s sidekick. Corrie’s smart and nerdy and cynical– which means she is a terrible fit for Medicine Creek. Though one of the fun things about her as a character is that you’ve got two grown-ass men trying to write a teenage goth girl and figure out what she’s into, sometimes making up their own bands and books, sometimes not. There’s even mention of “the latest Resident Evil game on Nintendo,” which … assuming the book was written in 2002, would be the Gamecube remake? And yes these are the things I think about and research when I read books. Apparently Corrie only makes sporadic cameos in later Pendergast novels, but at least she’s the star of one that came out in like 2013, so I may check that’un out.

Anyway, the book plays out mostly how you’d expect. Pendergast goes around, asks inconvenient questions, while one of the townspeople gets gruesomely murdered every couple of chapters or so. There’s a little bit of out-there stuff as apparently Pendergast has some weird ‘memory palace’ stuff going on that allows him to perfectly envision events that had taken place over a century ago. And the identity of the killer really does come out of left field, and the ensuing finale in a labyrinthine cave system honestly kind of drags after awhile, as it’s got like four different sets of characters blundering around in the dark.

All and all, Still Life With Crows is a textbook example of an airport read. It’s breezy enough (except for the aforementioned climax), and it’s got a quirky combination of procedural investigation and over-the-top weirdness. While it didn’t really floor me, it’s at least not objectively/hilariously awful like something along the lines of Level 26, but … that’s kind of a low bar to set, innit?

Book Review: Grand Central Arena, by Ryk E. Spoor

And for this week’s book review, it’s time for a trip to the Baen Free Library! It’s like the e-book equivalent of the dollar paperback bin. Only, uh, free, I guess. Because sometimes you’re just in the mood for punchy sci-fi with a terrible cover.

arena

Either they’re locked in mortal combat, or settling their dispute through space ballroom dancing

Ryk E. Spoor’s Grand Central Arena is, of course, the first in a series. The titular Arena is an … odd place, to say the very least. It’s a scale model of the entire universe, nearly a million kilometers across, constructed by unknown, ancient aliens. Any civilization that discovers faster than light travel soon finds they wind up in the Arena as soon as they try to leave. The Arena in turn hosts thousands of different alien species, who resolve their various disputes through formalized challenges, often taking the form of ritualized combat.

And then humanity shows up. A ragtag bunch of scientists and explorers test out their own FTL drive, blunder into the Arena, and are forced to be the representatives of Humanity as they navigate the Arena’s strange rules and traditions. It’s all very oldschool space opera a-la Flash Gordon, and deliberately so. Spoor gives a shout out to Doc Smith in the book’s forward, and sprinkles in little shout outs here and there. For example, the daredevil spaceship captain names a racing ship the Skylark., and one of the main characters is named directly after a villain from said series as well. I’m sure there’s a lot of other winking nods that I missed over the course of the book.

Grand Central Arena works best when it’s in slam-bang action mode, and there’s a fair number of action sequences, as sometimes you’ve just got to solve problems through punching, or a breakneck spaceship race. One of the gimmicks of the novel is that, in the setting, humans are insane risk-takers when compared to the other various aliens. This allows humanity to shock all the greebly aliens by doing unpredictable, daredevil stunts that no sane creature would even contemplate. This is most embodied by one of the book’s main characters (and the woman on the cover there), Captain Ariane Austin, daredevil spaceship racing pilot.

On the other hand, since Grand Central Arena draws heavily from old-timey space opera, that means it’s got a lot of the same flaws. There are a lot of info drops, as Spoor likes to show off the all the intricate worldbuilding he’s put into the Arena. I kind of get the feeling he took a look at sci-fi megastructures along the lines of Niven’s Ringworld, and said “what if I do that, but BIGGER?” On top of that, the characterization for a lot of characters isn’t TOTALLY flat, but it’s not exactly super in-depth, either. There’s Austin, the daredevil pilot/captain, Dr. Sandrisson, the inventor of the FTL drive, and Dr. Duquense, a brilliant engineer who just happens to secretly be a nanotech-enhanced super soldier. As you do. Once you get past those three, however, there are five other members of the crew who are mostly forgettable, and seem to mostly be there because the ship needed certain positions filled, and also to have somebody to bounce exposition off of. There are also a couple of eye-rolling conceits in the book as well– like, the main characters use the replicator to make themselves katanas to tote around, ’cause Austin & Co played a lot of VR RPG’s so they’re halfway decent swordsmen. Or something.

GCA-Sphere-Diagram

Diagram Sci-Fi may be the equivalent of Map Fantasy.

All and all, Grand Central Arena is a perfectly serviceable bit of space opera. It didn’t blow my mind with its ideas or action, but it wasn’t actively offensive, either. The book also lacks the “ALIEN SPACE MUSLIMS ARE COMING TO STEAL YOUR GUNS THANKS OBAMA” reactionary stuff you see in certain Baen titles– which, uh, is something of a low bar to set. There are three more books in the series, which I might look into at some point. What’s interesting is that the fourth (and final? I dunno) book in the series wasn’t actually published by Baen, but rather the author self-published it through Kickstarter. Which, well … when Baen doesn’t want you, that’s kinda saying something. Still, if you’re in the mood for some throwback Sci-fi, Ryk E. Spoor’s got you covered.

Book Review: NBA Jam by Reyan Ali

“He’s on fire!”

Either you know exactly what that’s a reference to, or you’re gonna call 911.

jam

The latest from Boss Fight Books, NBA Jam centers on, well, NBA Jam. First hitting arcades in 1993, the basketball game was soon ported to pretty much every console of the time. It’s kind of a cliche to call any given video game a phenomenon– but, well, NBA Jam certainly was. I wasn’t huge into basketball as a kid (and I’m still not now), but even I got in some games of NBA Jam back in the day– even if my friend and I always argued over who got to play the Bulls.

When it comes to Boss Fight Books’ library, half of them are personal reflections on the titular games (like Metal Gear Solid) and the other half examine their subjects in a more general/historical perspective. NBA Jam falls into the latter category, given this “season” of Boss Fight Books is focused on video game production.

NBA-Jam-Arcade-Game__84171.1564102667.jpg

The great thing about NBA Jam, however, is that Reyan Ali does a great job in talking about more than just the game. His research into the technology and licensing behind NBA Jam’s creation is fascinatingly thorough. What really makes the book is how Ali ties NBA Jam into a greater context of the 90’s. There’s the rise (and fall) of video arcades, the rise (and fall) of video game companies Midway and Acclaim, the increasing popularity of pro basketball in the 90’s, and so on. It’s all written in a breezy style that’s both entertaining and educational. Ali peppers the book with various fascinating facts, like how Acclaim employees raided the office for souvenirs (and threw one of them in the Chicago river) when the company went under, or how there is a single NBA Jam cabinet out there where you can play as Michael Jordan.

snes_nba_jam_p_e24i15

Honestly, NBA Jam is one of those books that’s a little but frustrating, as there’s not too much to say about it. Ali does exactly what he sets out to do– but in that, it’s arguably the best book out of Boss Fight Books’ season 4. So if you’re a fan of video games, or basketball, or video games about basketball, go give it a read.

Book Review: The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera.

Okay!

October is past, which means I no longer feel obligated to read/review random horror novels! Which … well, confession time, after Red Harvest, I kind of gave up on Horrortober and went on to more interesting stuff, and … well, here we are!

I’d been meaning to read K. Arsenault Rivera’s The Tiger’s Daughter for awhile, but when Tor.com’s ebook of the month club gave it out for free, I was all about that. I mean, I’m a sucker for a good Asian-themed fantasy. And ever since I watched The Legend of Korra I am entirely too interested in anything that has kung fu lesbians in it.

tiger daughter cover

The Tiger’s Daughter is the story of not one, but two warrior-princesses. There’s Shefali, crack-shot archer and heir to her mother’s Not-Mongol horde, and Shizuka, a master swordswoman with the blood of gods in her veins. Bound together by fate (and the fact that their respective mothers were kick-ass adventurers in their own right), Shizuka and Shefali meet as children, spend a great deal of time together– and fall madly in love.

At which point they start making a lot of bad decisions. Like, “let’s go off and fight some demons!” kind of bad. Which, admittedly, makes for interesting reading, but still. Of the pair’s many virtues, common sense is not foremost among them.

A lot of the book is painfully earnest, in that teenaged “nobody understands us!” kind of way. Shizuka and Shefali constantly pine for each other, especially when they’re separated (which is often). It’s understandable– though at the same time the theatrics can drag a little bit. I suppose I was going in expecting more of a rollicking, quip-filled adventure. Which isn’t to say The Tiger’s Daughter doesn’t have action, as there’s a fair deal of bandit-fighting and demon-slaying, but the soapy melodrama can be a bit much sometimes.

Some of this comes from the novel’s structure– the grand majority of it is written as a letter from Shefali to Shizuka, telling the story of their lives together. So occasionally it comes off as “you did this and it was super awesome, my love” and so on. It’s not TOO distracting, but second-person past-tense is still kind of an odd choice, I guess.

tigerdaughter map

Rivera’s worldbuilding is solid, both Shizuka’s vaguely Japanese-Ish Empire and Shefali’s Not-Mongol-Horde are painted with intriguing detail, and we get little glimpses into other cultures around the map as well– all the time without delving into expository “and the history of the land is blah blah blah.” This said, the plot can get … a little RPG-y, in places. Like, at one point, the book has a straight up “go kill some bandits in a cave and bring back my coveted family heirloom” quest. Given that Rivera gives a shout out to her tabletop group in the dedication, I suppose that kind of thing’s inevitable.

Really, the dirty secret of The Tiger’s Daughter is that I’m pretty sure it’s the biography of one of Rivera’s D&D characters. Like, (spoiler alert), the book ends on a sort of cliffhanger with Shefali teaming up with a couple of other quirky weirdos to go literally delve into a dungeon in search of magic treasure. Admittedly, there’s a very good reason, tied heavily into the plot, for Shefali to go dungeon-crawling, but still.

Ultimately, these are little quibbles. The Tiger’s Daughter is a solid fantasy adventure that leaves plenty of room for sequels– of which there are two so far. Though, perhaps more importantly, The Tiger’s Daughter is a solid fantasy adventure that’s not about a generic farm boy with a magic sword and a foretold destiny. It’s fun and original– and if it gives otherwise marginalized sci-fi/fantasy fans a chance to read about characters like themselves? Even better!

So yeah. I’m gonna have to get around to reading the sequels, The Phoenix Empress and The Warrior Moon at some point. But if the characters start the book by meeting in a tavern, I’m gonna have to give Rivera the side-eye.

Book Review: Joe Schreiber’s Star Wars: Red Harvest

Oh hey, y’all catch the latest Star Wars trailer?

I could probably write a while blog post on that alone, cooking up my own crackpot theories– but that’s what everyone ELSE on the internet is doing, and I’m a couple days too late anyway. But! To stay … vaguely topical, how about we look at a Star Wars novel? And since it’s October, how about a horror themed Star Wars novel? Because those exist! Which brings us to Joe Schreiber’s Red Harvest.

harvest
Or, well, I suppose the official title is Star Wars: Red Harvest, so as not to get it confused with the Dashiel Hammett novel– which ironically went in to inspire the film Yojimbo, which in turn was the kind of samurai movie that Lucas drew from when he cooked up the Jedi– just the sort of strained recursive stuff I absolutely love.

Red Harvest (I’m just gonna drop the Star Wars prefix and assume you’re smart enough to tell the difference) sadly does not measure up to any of those aforementioned works, but that’s kind of a high bar to set. Still, it goes to show the kitchen-sink bunch of influences Star Wars draws from: Flash Gordon, Kurosawa flicks, WWII dogfights, and so on. It’s honestly not that far of a stretch to throw some horror into the universe, right? I mean, the movies are already full of various greebly alien monsters, what are a few undead in the grand scheme of things?

Set thousands of years before the movies, during the time of the Old Republic (I guess they might’ve just called it The Republic back then?), Red Harvest is actually a prequel to another horror-themed Star Wars book written by Schrieber: Death Troopers. I’d actually planned on reading that’un, but it wasn’t available at the library, so here we are. It’s also worth noting that Red Harvest is part of the “Legends” continuity, the old and sprawling Expanded Universe that’s been ignored since Disney bought out Lucasfilm. I suppose the very existence of Red Harvest implies that the EU was beginning to scrape at the bottom of the barrel. But hey, at least it’s not Kevin J. Anderson.

The book centers on a young Jedi named Hestizo Trace. Her Force powers are more inclined towards speaking with plants than chopping up dudes with lightsabers, which is actually a rather interesting take on things, considering we mostly only see space-samurai in the movies. “Zo” has a particular bond with a strange, force-sensitive flower known as the black orchid. Which makes things difficult when she and the flower are both kidnapped by a bounty hunter and sold to a dude named Darth Scabrous, who must have been at the back of the line when it came to getting cool “Darth” titles.

In any case, Scabrous takes Zo and the flower to his Sith-Academy (those are a thing? I guess it’s like Evil Hogwarts?) at which point he distills the black orchid down into some kind of weird potion thing that creates a zombie plague. As you do. And said plague gets loose in Evil-Hogwarts, creating a bunch of zombies, and mayhem ensues. As it does.

Of course, the biggest problem with zombies is … they can be a bit weak, as far as monsters go. Especially when you’re a telekinetic samurai with a laser sword. Schrieber does a little bit to make things more difficult. They’re fast zombies, for one. On top of that, they … have some sort of Force sensitivity and/or hive mind thing going? It’s not particularly clear. Oh, and they’re ridiculously infectious, too (of the ‘any body fluids’ variety) so that’s a thing, if a more standard zombie trope.

So yeah. Most of the book plays out with various kinds of zombie mayhem, and it’s … okay? Like, I kind of get the feeling we’re dealing with the worst of both worlds here. For one, the Star Wars label means that Schreiber has to keep things ‘on brand,’ so to speak. Which means the gore and violence, while plentiful, doesn’t hit quite as hard as it could. Or maybe I’m just a jaded reader who craves more and more over the top violence.

And as for the Star Wars side of things … well, Schreiber tosses in a bunch of references, but pretty obscure ones. Like, I had to look up aliens like Whiphids and Neti, though I did recognize the HK droid that shows up. Oh, and there are zombie tauntauns at one point, ’cause why not? Schrieber also throws in some business about the zombified Darth Scabrous needing to eat a Jedi’s heart in order to absorb their midichlorians, which … well, we try to forget about midichlorians, man. At least there aren’t any zombie Gungans?

Honestly, though, the biggest problem with Red Harvest is that it’s unfocused. Horror is a genre that depends on its characters, because otherwise why are we supposed to care when they get horribly ripped to pieces? Evil-Hogwarts is an interesting setting, Schrieber does little to distinguish the various students from each other, as they’re mostly all flavors of ‘backstabbing bastard.’ Which … makes sense for a Sith-Academy (so much as a Sith-Academy makes sense to begin with), but the book would’ve been a lot stronger if Schrieber focused on a couple of characters instead of tossing in bunches of them at a time to get horribly eaten and zombified. It doesn’t help that most of these characters are pretty flat– and that’s before you get into the little bit where Zo’s brother (who’s also a Jedi) gives a “very particular set of skills” Taken-ripoff speech which had me rolling my eyes.

All and all, I can’t recommend Red Harvest. It doesn’t even quite have that lurid so-bad-its-good quality that a lot of pulpy horror novels do. There are better Star Wars novels, there are better Zombie novels, and hell, given that this book is a prequel, there may even be better Zombie Star Wars novels. Though to be honest, I’m not inclined to read Death Troopers to find out.

Book Review: Horrorstor, by Grady Hendrix

Okay, so apart from The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein, this October’s batch of random horror novels has kind of been a dud. And so, y’know can save Halloween? Grady Hendrix!

horrorstor cover

Horrorstor is a horror novel set in an Ikea-knockoff furniture store called Orsk. When I first heard about the book, I thought the labyrinthine store layout would be perfect for a slasher story, but Hendrix doesn’t go that route. Instead, Hendrix makes Horrorstor a haunted house tale– after all, what is a house but a building with a kitchen, living room, bedrooms, etc? And Orsk has a lot of kitchens, and living rooms, and bedrooms …

Much like We Sold Our Souls, Horrorstor captures the banal, everyday horror of living paycheck-to-paycheck in retail. Even before things get spooky and terrible, the characters are trapped, stuck in a soulless, dead-end job that doesn’t quite pay the bills– but it’s the only chance they’ve got. If you’ve ever worked in that kind of gig (furniture store or no), the first couple of chapters of Horrorstor are gonna hit really hard. This becomes an ongoing theme of the book, kicking around just what “work” means, and why we do it.

The characters themselves are well done, too, as just about all of them have more depth than their character archetypes might imply. The nice old lady cashier has a wild past, the corporate-mantra-spewing nerd of a boss is really a good guy at heart, and so on. Which in turn makes the various horrible things that happen to them hit all the harder.

Horrorstor certainly is full of, well, horror, with plenty of gore and so on. And yet, Hendrix never forgets the absurdity of a haunted Ikea-knockoff, either. Things get absurd in that way that only corporate-mandated store culture can manage, and the second act of the book gets downright Scooby Doo-ish. At least, it does until throats start getting cut.

Once the mayhem starts, it keeps up pretty well, as Hendrix re-envisions various pieces of furniture as torture devices. The last third or so of the novel is just a cavalcade of terrible things happening to the characters as they blunder around in the dark. Hendrix doesn’t get too repetitive, and the background behind why Orsk is haunted is properly chilling … but at the same time there’s only so much depth you can put into “and then the main character got strapped to a torture chair.”

Speaking of torture chairs, one of the best parts about Horrorstor is the formatting. Each chapter has a catalog entry for one of Orsk’s products, which get progressively more and more terrifying as the book goes on. But even in the first couple chapters, Hendrix is able to make something so simple as a cheap cabinet seem menacing. On top of that, there are occasional bits of mock-epherma in the book, like employee reviews or building floorplans that add more depth to the story. I read Horrorstor via e-book, but I kind of wish I’d wound up with a physical copy instead, just so I could pore over the little details better. Suffice it to say, I wouldn’t recommend the audiobook version (even if I’m sure it’s very well produced).

horrorstor interior

So yeah. Horrorstor is a solid (if short) horror novel that does exactly what Hendrix wants it to do. There’s plenty of gore and mayhem– but at the same time the book actually has a lot more depth than that. It’s definitely worth a read for any horror fan– and for anybody who’s ever worked in ‘big box’ retail, I’d say it’s downright essential.

Book Review: Some Girls Bite, by Chloe Neill

If there’s a dude in a trenchcoat on the cover, it’s Urban Fantasy.

If there’s a lady in leather pants on the cover, it’s Paranormal Romance.

Those are the rules.

(That I made up).

somegirls cover

Some Girls Bite is one of those books that shows just why I made those arbitrary rules up in the first place. See, after the gory cynicism of The Scarlet Gospels, I figured I’d go for something lighter, so I picked Chloe Neill’s novel more or less at random off of the Overdrive app (technically it’s under horror?) and … here we are. I might’ve swung a little too far into ‘light’ territory here. Funny how that works.

Some Girls Bite is the first in a series, centering on a grad student named Merit. When Merit gets randomly attacked by a rogue vampire while walking across campus, she gets “saved” by a different bunch of vampires who turn her into one, and thusly is introduced to the wider supernatural world of Chicago (as well as a bunch of sexy vampire dudes). Oh, and it also turns out that Merit’s grandfather is Chicago’s head magic-cop, and Merit’s cool roommate Mallory has a bunch of untapped magical power for, uh, reasons. And on top of all that, Merit’s apparently the strongest and special-est new vampire that’s been seen in centuries, again … for reasons?

To be honest, I’m willing to look past the ramshackle coincidence of Merit’s circumstances … mostly so I can complain about other parts of the book. For one, while Merit gets turned into a vampire, White never really delves into the horror of the situation. While Carrie Vaughn really highlighted “Lycanthropy as a metaphor for assault and PTSD,” Neill never gets close to that. Becoming a vampire is presented mostly like joining a fancy country club/sorority. She’s strong and immortal and beautiful, and only has to drink blood like every other night? Blood which her “house” (aforementioned vampire country club/secret society) is able to deliver in convenient blood bags. It’s all very tame– which makes it kinda boring, really.

What doesn’t help is that the book never really builds up stakes (ha ha vampire pun intended). Most of the book is just Merit blundering around trying to get used to being undead– fine … but at the same time a lot of the stuff that she should be worried about seems to get put on the back burner. Like, there’s the whole matter of the rogue vampire that attacked her in the first place, which is never resolved. Or there’s some other business about Merit having to swear fealty to the vampires who turned her– like, I kept on waiting for her to just say “no, screw you jerks, I’m gonna do my own thing.” Buuuuut no. She takes her oaths like a good girl, and then gets appointed to be the super-special “Sentinel” to guard the House (and its sexy sexy 400 year old yuppie vampire CEO). And then she gets a magic katana.

Did I mention the vampires in this book carry katanas? Because they do. And of course they wear lots of leather jackets (and pants!) as well, because Some Girls Bite is pretty much the platonic ideal of “generic paranormal romance” novel.

The thing is, Merit gets a fancy magic sword, but she barely gets to use it. There’s ultimately not that much in the way of conflict in the book, and when the book’s villain does show up, said villain goes into a supervillain-ish rant explaining their (rather stupid) plan before Merit takes her down. Like, ostensibly, I guess this could be setup for later books, but … I’m honestly not all that eager to read more books to find out.

The funny thing is, I wanted to like this book. Complain as I may about the generic-ness of the plot, Merit is still an interesting character. She’s snarky and overwhelmed, and also kind of a nerd– but she’s fun to read about. She was supposed to be studying medieval literature as a grad student– I would’ve liked to see more of that played up, maybe by having her fangirl out over old poetry with some vampire that might’ve been around when it was written, buuuuut the book never goes there. Pity.

I have to admit, Some Girls Bite is just one of those books that is Not For Me. I suppose if you’re up for some fluffy and light paranormal romance, it’s a decent enough read. It’s just that, again, much like the main plot, there’s not much in the way of “payoff” for the romantic angles. Like, Merit kisses some of the pretty vampire boys, sure– but nothing’s ever resolved. And heck, she doesn’t even get laid. Which, well, maybe it’s better if she doesn’t ’cause if sex scenes are all you want Laurell K. Hamilton is right there, but … yeah.

In the end, my biggest criticism of Some Girls Bite is that it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It’s all vampire tropes and cliches tied together in a cozy couple hundred pages. If you’re in the mood for something low key and not very spooky, I guess you might like it better than I did.

Book Review: The Scarlet Gospels, by Clive Barker

Ooof. You guys, I think this year’s Horrortober may not quite as good as it could be. I imagine it’s partly ’cause I’ve had a bunch of Real Life business pop up. I shan’t bore you with the details (what is this, Livejournal?) but the silver lining is that things seem to be mostly back to normal. Just haven’t had as much time to read as I might like.

Still, with Halloween approaching, I figured I’d go for one of the widely acknowledged big names in the horror genre: Clive Barker. I haven’t read much Barker in the past, to be honest– like, I think I may have read a random volume of the Books of Blood at some point? And I did rather enjoy Mr. B. Gone, though I wound up listening to that on audiobook, which kinda threw a different spin on things.

scarlet

Which brings us to Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels. Published in 2015, The Scarlet Gospels is a crossover of sorts. It brings together Pinhead (er, the Hell Priest, from The Hellbound Heart and/or the Hellraiser movies) and another of Barker’s characters, one Harry L’Amour, a hard-drinking paranormal investigator with a trenchcoat and magical tattoos and he’s totally not a John Constantine ripoff you guys. Really.

 

Oh, and also Harry was played by Scott Bakula in Lord of Illusions which is freaking hilarious. Because Bakula.

BAKULA

Should I make a Star Trek joke, or a Quantum Leap joke?

If anything can be said about The Scarlet Gospels, it’s certainly a Clive Barker novel. Which is to say, it’s messy. Possibly even Splatterpunk, to get genre-quibbly. Right off the bat, in the first couple of chapters, Pinhead shows up and gruesomely tortures a bunch of occultists to death. There’s disembowelment and rape and an evil demon-baby and dismemberment and it’s all pretty much Barker just leaning over your shoulder going “oh, poor baby, you don’t need a barf bag, do you? Is my story TOO SHOCKING for your tender sensibilities?” So, uh, I guess at least he’s got an aesthetic.

Barker finds more ways to be creatively sadistic over the course of the book, though one thing that the book keeps on going back to is dick. Monster dick. Nearly every horrible demon in The Scarlet Gospels whips it out at some point or another, which … well, I get that it’s supposed to be shocking mix of horror and sexuality, but after so much repetition it just starts being unintentionally amusing. Penises are just funny, that’s all. Even the ancient Greeks knew that.

To be honest, I didn’t even finish this book. Not ’cause of all the floppy demon-dongs, mind you, but rather because … it was boring. The basic gist of the plot is that Pinhead has decided he’s going to take over Hell, and he wants Harry L’Amour to follow him around to honestly chronicle his exploits. For, uh, reasons. While this has the potential of being a gory re-envisioning of Dante’s Inferno, it … never quite gets there.

Ultimately, this boils down to Pinhead. Or, as his proper title is, the Hell Priest. He hates being called Pinhead, and you get the feeling that Barker does too. I can’t imagine he was too thrilled about the later Hellraiser sequels, but what can ya do. I’m just gonna call him Pinhead anyway.

The problem with Pinhead is that he has the “Superman problem.” He’s so ludicrously powerful that he can just steamroll over any problem in his way, effortlessly torturing his victims to death with a mere wave of a hand. On top of that, just about every other character in the book immediately goes on about how scary and powerful Pinhead is whenever he’s mentioned. Hell, there’s even a bit where Pinhead gloats about he doesn’t need people to do the puzzle box for him to show up anymore, which is the whole damn point of the puzzle box. I get the need for powerful antagonists in the book, but a good chunk of The Scarlet Gospels centers on Pinhead wandering about executing his well-laid plans without any complications or difficulty. There’s not much depth aside from seeing what kind of creative gore Barker can come up with, and so The Scarlet Gospels commits the one unforgivable sin for horror: it’s boring.

It doesn’t help much the book’s littered with various ugly stereotypes, too. Harry’s best friend is a literal Magical Negro, and there’s a really tone-deaf depiction of a trans woman character who apparently is only there to be an asshole to Harry in one chapter, and gets horribly murdered off-camera sometime later?

So yeah. About 2/3rds of the way through The Scarlet Gospels, I gave up. The book just came off as meandering and a bit self indulgent, and I was tired of Barker telling me how rad Pinhead was. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anybody but the biggest of Clive Barker fans– and even then, I’m sure his earlier stuff is a lot better anyway.