Category Archives: Reviews

Horror Most Unique: SING ME YOUR SCARS by Damien Angelica Walters

Sing Me Your Scars

Sing Me Your Scars (Apex Voices #03) by Damien Angelica Walters
Genre: Adult horror short stories
Publisher: Apex Publications
Release date: March 10 2015
Source: eARC from publisher
Pages: 200

four and a half

The nitty-gritty: A powerful collection of disturbing but compelling reflections on pain, abuse and loss, beautifully written.

I left the first bridge alone. It didn’t need my Voice. Time would take its own toll. My tears tasted of honey, of loss, yet buried deep within, a hint of steel and stone. Of strength. And when my sorrow dried to salt upon my cheeks, I walked away and left behind all the pieces I’d unmade.

A husband abuses his wife and then stitches her back up with thread from his own fabric lining.

A modern-day Medusa makes a special potion that suppresses her beauty so men won’t fall in love with her.

Two women create bridges by singing them into being, but when one of them gets a taste of power, her creations turn corrupt.

These are but three of the stunning stories in this collection from Bram Stoker nominee Damien Angelica Walters. I had no idea what I was getting into when I accepted this book for review, even though I knew Apex Publications has a great track record when it comes to short stories. Walters’ collection surpassed my expectations in a big way. Each one was strange and unique and unsettling, sad and beautiful and horrible, all those things rolled into sharp, compact observances of pain and loss. Walters takes ideas we’re familiar with—like a dying man who is afraid his wife won’t remember him when he’s gone—and makes them unfamiliar by adding weird twists. Her stories drip with suffering, mostly by women, but each character learns and grows stronger by the end of it.

Twenty stories make up this excellent collection, eight of which are published here for the first time. I loved most of the stories (a few were way too short and didn’t have quite the impact of the longer pieces), but rather than talk about all twenty of them, here are my favorites:

Melancholia in Bloom

Probably my favorite story in the collection. A woman who is dying of Alzheimer’s keeps a secret box full of magic rose petals, petals that each contain one of her lost memories. She uses up the petals one by one, trying to keep her daughter from discovering her disease. What a sad and poignant story about loss, and the tenuous bond between mother and daughter.

Sing Me Your Scars

A woman is trapped in a weird relationship with a man who is trying to make her into his version of the perfect woman. Little by little, he replaces her body parts with those of other women, but his experiment does not turn out the way he wants it to. This story was gruesome and shocking  and had a great twist at the end.

Paper Thin Roses of Maybe

A man and his wife watch the world outside their windows in horror, as a strange two dimensionality begins to creep slowly over their town. This story was a sad and melancholy snapshot of a couple trying to stay together against the odds. Best of all, this one had an awesome Twilight Zone vibe!

Scarred

A girl discovers she has the power to kill the bad people she comes into contact with, by carving their names into her skin. But she hates this power, and one day she discovers how to escape her fate, only to regret it later. This is yet another story about abuse and how hard it is to get away from it.

Paskutinis Iliuzija (The Last Illusion)

The last magician in Lithuania tries to ease his daughter’s illness with small acts of forbidden magic. This is one of the few stories that made me smile at the end—although I did have tears in my eyes. This was beautiful story about a father’s love for his daughter and how he tries to keep her safe from an outside threat.

Glass Boxes and Clockwork Gods

One of the more horrifying tales about (mostly) women who are trapped in boxes, while a man “remakes” them into gruesome combinations of blood and meat and clockwork parts. It’s another story of a man trying to make a woman “better,” and it was shocking.

Obviously, these aren’t the types of stories to read if you’re looking for something light and cozy. But if you’re a discerning reader who isn’t afraid to look at the painful parts of life in new ways, you won’t find any better than the stories in Sing Me Your Scars.

Big thanks to Apex Books for supplying a review copy. Quotes were taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.

**Side note: I was thrilled to find out that Walters has a novel coming out soon from Dark House Press called Paper Tigers! I can’t wait to see what she does with a longer form. And, she’s also got a story in the Kickstarter project I’m backing, Genius Loci. Check it out!

Check out my interview with Damien here.

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Filed under 4 1/2 stars, Reviews

Good, Creepy Fun: HARRISON SQUARED by Daryl Gregory – Review

Harrison Squared by Daryl Gregory
Genre: Adult horror (marketed as adult, but perfect for teens)
Publisher: Tor Books
Release date: March 24 2015
Source: eARC from publisher via NetGalley
Pages: 320

four and a half

The nitty-gritty: A hysterically funny Lovecraftian horror story, perfect for both teens and adults.

“What? You think I want you to go to school? Then who would entertain me? This place is stultifying. True, if there’s any news, they can tell you in school just as easily as here, but how much better to spend your time with your most beloved relative? I can teach you how to make a decent Bloody Mary.”

“You’re not a very good aunt.”

“Pardon me, but I’m fantastic. The best aunts aren’t substitute parents, they’re coconspirators.”

It’s nearly impossible to write this review without referring to another book by Daryl Gregory that I recently reviewed, We Are All Completely Fine. Harrison Squared is a prequel of sorts to WAACF, although you certainly don’t need to read one to enjoy the other, and the order that you read them in shouldn’t affect your experience either. I’ll talk more about the relationship between the two books later, but I do want to say that if I didn’t know any better, I would think these books were written by completely different authors! Gregory is a talented writer indeed, to be able to switch gears like he has in Harrison Squared.

I haven’t read H.P. Lovecraft in many years, but reading Harrison Squared brought back memories of Lovecraft’s shadowy worlds, filled with sea monsters and fish-like people. Gregory captures the tone of Lovecraft perfectly, but he adds a dimension all his own with laugh-out-loud dialog and brilliantly drawn characters. Harrison Harrison (or Harrison Squared as he calls himself) has just moved to the seaside town of Dunnsmouth with his mother Rosa, a scientist who has been awarded a grant to research the colossal squid, which she thinks lives in the icy waters of Dunnsmouth’s sea. Harrison reluctantly starts school at the local Dunnsmouth Secondary School, a dank and dark stone structure with endless winding corridors and even creepier students and teachers.

But one evening when Rosa is out on the water working on her research, the boat is capsized and Rosa disappears at sea—or does she? Harrison is determined to find out the truth and get his mother back. With the help of some very unusual friends, Harrison follows the clues and uncovers a truth even bigger and more dangerous than he can imagine. It’s not safe in Dunnsmouth, especially for Harrison and his mom.

I think the biggest surprise for me was the humor in Harrison Squared. Gregory’s dialogue is so funny, and Harrison’s voice is so engaging, that I couldn’t help but tear through the pages. Harrison has had a bit of a strange life already, so he’s somewhat familiar with things that are odd. When he was three, he was out on a boat with his parents when it was attacked by a large sea monster, which ended up drowning his father and nearly killing Harrison. (Harrison lost a leg in the incident and now wears a prosthetic.) Or was it a sea monster? Harrison’s memories of that time are fuzzy to say the least.

And wow, the characters in this book! I don’t think I’ve ever run across so many well-developed and lovable secondary characters. In fact, many of them stole the show from Harrison, which is hard to do because he’s such a great character himself. I don’t want to give too much away, but I can’t write this review without mentioning Lub the fish boy, who stole my heart from the moment he opened his mouth (full of teeth!) Despite his, err, differences, Lub becomes a great friend to Harrison and helps him in more ways than one. I also adored Harrison’s Aunt Sel, who takes over as his guardian after Rosa disappears. Aunt Sel’s arrival in Dunnsmouth is like a breath of fresh air, and believe me, the dank and fishy smells of town could certainly use someone like her! At first I thought, “Oh, poor Harrison! He’s got to put up with his aunt from the big city.” But she won me over, and she’ll win you over too.

Gregory adds many Lovecraft references and touches that a true HPL fan will have a blast spotting them all. I particularly loved the name of the town—Dunnsmouth—which I believe is an ode to Lovecraft’s famous short story, The Shadow Over Innsmouth. He also pays tribute to Moby Dick by having Rosa, like her counterpart Ahab, search for the illusive monster who killed her husband. Gregory begins each chapter with a line or two from the famous poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which fit perfectly with both the tone and subject matter of the story. Do you know where the expression “to wear an albatross around your neck” comes from? Well, you will after you read this book!

For me Harrison Squared at times had that magical Harry Potter feel to it, with its mysterious school and wonderfully imagined characters. I can’t find any evidence that this book is the start of a series, although a very abrupt ending (which is really the only thing I have to complain about) left me wondering if Mr. Gregory has more adventures planned for Harrison and his friends.

Which brings me back around to We Are All Completely Fine. A very important character shows up in both stories, the terrifying and deadly Scrimshander. In Harrison Squared, he’s a much more real and immediate character, but even though he’s merely referred to as someone from a character’s past in We Are All Completely Fine, he was just as terrifying. I loved both of these books, but We Are All Completely Fine is much, much darker, with a gritty violence that may turn some readers off. For those of you looking for a highly entertaining adventure with plenty of slimy creatures just waiting in the shadows and lots of mysteries to solve, then Harrison Squared is not to be missed.

Big thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy. Above quote was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.

octopus tea

Yea, slimy things did crawl with legs Upon the slimy sea. – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

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Filed under 4 1/2 stars, Reviews

Luminous & Magical: NIGHTBIRD by Alice Hoffman – Review

Nightbird by Alice Hoffman
Genre: Middle grade fantasy
Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books/Random House Kids
Release date: March 10 2015
Source: eARC via NetGalley/Physical ARC
Pages: 208

The nitty-gritty: A sweet and magical story, perfect for readers ten and up.

When you set out to find the answers to your questions, you have to be prepared to be surprised by what you discover.

I’ve had the pleasure of reading several of Hoffman’s young adult stories—including Aquamarine, Green Angel and Indigo—and so I was curious to read her latest, which is being marketed to a slightly younger crowd, but still maintains Hoffman’s trademark magic realism. Her adult books often deal with gritty themes like abuse and death, and even her YA stories contain subjects that can be tricky for young people, like the death of a parent. But this time around, Hoffman has left out the heavy storylines and focused on something that may be closer to a ten-to-twelve year old’s experience: trying to make friends when you feel as if your life is completely abnormal.

Twig Fowler lives in an old farmhouse in Sidwell, MA with her older brother James and her mother, where they keep to themselves and tend to their large apple orchard. Ever since Twig’s mother brought them here from New York, she’s discouraged Twig from making friends or letting people into their lives. Twig’s brother, you see, is…different. He was born with wings, and he’s resigned himself to a life locked away in his house in order to keep their family secret safe.

Until the day new neighbors move in next door. Sixteen-year-old Agate and twelve-year-old Julia are everything Twig’s mom doesn’t like, but Twig is determined to make a new friend, and she and Julia click immediately. And as for James, once he gets a glimpse of the lovely Agate, he realizes how unhappy his life has been, and he begins to sneak out at night to meet with her. Meanwhile, a mysterious winged “monster” has been spotted in the woods, and random items in town start to go missing. Cryptic spray-painted messages begin to appear around town, along with a drawing of a blue monster.

Twig and Julia discover a centuries-old spell that was cast on the men in Twig’s family—hence, James’ wings—and together they decide to find a way to break the spell for good.  It’s a magical summer indeed as the girls gather ingredients to break the spell and solve the mystery of the monster in the woods.

No one brings magic to life like Alice Hoffman. Reading this book took me back to my own childhood, when I actually believed in magic, and even though I’m way beyond the age group this book is written for, I got chills—the good kind!—while reading this story. Hoffman is a genius at using symbolism and recurring themes that tie everything together. And yes, she does tend to use the same imagery over and over in her books, but having read a great many of them over the years, I have come to find this comforting. In Nightbird, Hoffman uses bees, flowers, herbs, apples, feathers, and owls over and over again to cast a spell over the reader. If you’ve read Alice Hoffman before, you know exactly what I’m talking about. (And if you haven’t, you really should:-D)

Twig’s mom bakes pies and sells them in town, her own secret recipe using a very special apple called the Pink that grows in the orchard behind their house. Like many of Hoffman’s story elements, these pies are transforming and practically magic themselves, so delicious are they. I also loved the saw-whet owls that live in the woods, owls that James sometimes rescues and nurses back to health. When James goes flying at night, the owls he’s made friends with fly with him. Such a lovely and simple story element, but one that feels magical like everything else about this book.

Because this is for younger readers, Twig, James, Julia and Agate steal the show. Hoffman avoids turning adults into bad guys in this story, which I was grateful for. Several of the adult characters turned out to be favorites of mine, including Twig’s mother, a flawed woman with a terrible secret (her son James, who can never be seen in public); and Mr. Rose, the mysterious journalist who comes to town and helps Twig solve her mysteries.

I would have to call this a “kinder, gentler” Alice Hoffman story, which is perfect for ages ten and up. Nothing really terrible happens in the book, although there are plenty of mysteries to solve and a few tense moments that will have pre-teens on the edge of their seats. But as an adult reader, I clearly saw everything that was coming. Nothing surprised me about the plot, and I easily predicted every twist and turn.

But Nightbird is a simply delightful tale, full of Hoffman’s special brand of luminous and magical writing. Young readers will identify with Twig’s and James’ loneliness and their desire to make friends and be part of the world. I have not seen the finished hardcover version of this book, but I suspect it will be a lovely gem, with color illustrations and even colored ink, if the ARC is anything to go by. As with everything I’ve read by Alice Hoffman, Nightbird is highly recommended.

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy!

Final Rating: 9/10

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Filed under Rating: 9/10, Reviews

Blog Tour Review: UNCHAINED MEMORY by Donna S. Frelick

Today I’m part of the Unchained Memory blog tour, hosted by INK’d Press! I had the best time reading this book, and you can read my review below. First, here’s a little about the story:

Unchained memory

Unchained Memory (Book #1 of The Interstellar Rescue series)
by Donna S. Frelick
Genre: Science fiction romance
Publisher: INK’d Press
Release date: February 24 2015
Pages: 338

Three hours ripped away her past. His love promised her the future.

From the night she wakes up in her pickup on the side of the road, three hours gone and everything of value lost to her, Asia Burdette is caught in a clash of invisible forces. She has only one ally in her struggle to understand why-Ethan Roberts, a man she shouldn’t love, a psychiatrist who risks everything to help her.

With black ops kidnappers dogging their trail, the lovers race to navigate a maze of mind control, alien abduction, and interstellar slavery. If they keep following the signs, they’ll find a battle that’s been raging since the first silver saucer was spotted in the skies above Earth.

My review:

The nitty-gritty: A delicious combination of hot romance and a pulse-pounding science fiction conspiracy story.

I was hesitant at first to read something from a publisher I’m unfamiliar with, but I’m so glad I agreed to read Unchained Memory. It really was a fun read, and while I knew it was a romance going in, I was not expecting the level of heat that Frelick brings to the pages! If you do love romance, and even better, if you love science fiction, then you’ll appreciate the satisfying combination of the two.

It’s very hard to summarize the story without spoiling it, but I’ll give you the general set-up, which will hopefully entice you into reading the book to fill in the missing pieces. Asia Burdette is a woman in pain, even though three years have gone by since the tragedy that took her three young children away from her. One night, after leaving a bar and driving home, Asia mysteriously wakes up in her car on the side of the road, and realizes she’s lost three hours of her life. When she rushes home to her children and the babysitter that was watching them, she finds her home engulfed in flames. All three children, as well as the babysitter, have perished in the fire, and Asia’s life is changed forever.

Fast forward three years later. Asia has been seeing a therapist, Dr. Claussen, who has been working with her to try to regain her missing memories. Dr. Claussen decides he’s done as much as he can for her, and so he turns her case over to his associate, Ethan Roberts, who is “famous” for trying to help people who think they have been abducted by aliens. Ethan and Asia are immediately attracted to each other, but Ethan knows he must maintain a professional distance from Asia, as he delves further into her confusion about the missing three hours. Under a type of hypnosis, Asia starts to have strange memories about being a prisoner who is forced into hard labor and has to fight for food.

As Ethan and Asia puzzle over the things she reveals under hypnosis, clues begin to emerge about what really happened to Asia during her missing time, and they realize that neither one of them is safe anymore. On the run from faceless enemies that want to capture Asia, the two begin a journey that will not only bring them closer together, but will finally give Asia the answers she’s been looking for.

Frelick combines the ideas of alien abduction theory and human trafficking and turns them into a plausible and exciting story. My favorite part of Unchained Memory was definitely the mystery surrounding Asia’s strange memories. Frelick does a great job of slowly teasing us with hints and clues, drawing out the suspense as long as she can. Although I knew where things were headed from the blurb (which I think gives a little too much away), it was still a fun ride getting to the end.

Because this is a romance, the growing relationship between Asia and Ethan was no surprise, and even though things heat up pretty quickly—which is what I expect when reading romances for the most part—I thought the author handled it really well. Yes, they fall for each other and hop into bed soon after they meet, and yes, there are scenes where the plot grinds to a halt while they get to know each other better, but then the action picks up again, and the last third of the book races by at a frantic pace as it becomes clear what is going on.

Asia’s “dreams” where she remembers working in a crystal mine were some of my favorite parts of the story. She meets a girl named Dozen who teaches her the ropes about going deep into the mines, and also finds ways to make sure Asia has extra food. Dozen was a brave and lovable character who could easily handle her own storyline, and I hope she’ll make more appearances in future books.

I enjoyed the duo of Ethan and Asia as well. Ethan has scruples and abides by the rule that he isn’t allowed to enter into a relationship with a patient, even though he’s having lusty thoughts about the gorgeous Asia. Both characters have suffered personal tragedy and lived through it, and I like the way they were able to share their painful stories and help each other through the bad times.

What I didn’t care for was the tragedy that Frelick saddles Asia with. The loss of three children in a house fire seemed way over the top to me. I understand the author needed to give her something so terrible that she would need therapy to recover, but it felt senselessly violent, and being a mother myself, I could barely read those parts. I was hoping that by the end of the story we would have learned the truth behind the fire, but we never do. I wanted the fire to be connected to something else in the plot in order for it to make sense (if you can even say that children dying in a fire makes sense at all). But it turned out to be a random event that for me, at least, felt disconnected and unnecessary.

I did love the way Frelick wraps things up at the end, though, with a sense of closure and moving on for both Ethan and Asia. Since this is the first in a planned trilogy, I’m curious to see where the author will take things, because Unchained Memory felt like a complete story to me.  Am I curious enough to keep reading the series? Yes, I am. The author barely scratches the surface with the alien abduction plot line, and I can’t wait to see where she takes it from here.

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.

Final Rating: 7/10

About the author:

donna-206x300Donna Frelick works in the once-small town of Fredericksburg, Virginia, about an hour south of Washington, D.C. When she’s not writing, she teaches tai-chi and Isshinryu karate. For fun she travels when she can, reads, watches movies, and enjoy her family (two great girls–now grown–one Zen master grandson, one diva princess granddaughter, an incredible husband, and two talkative cats). Next year she’ll be doing all her writing at home, a planned intentional community of 43 acres, in the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina.

Find Donna: Author Website | Facebook

Check out these “behind the scenes” articles about Unchained Memory here and here.

Read an excerpt of the book here!

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Filed under Blog Tours, Rating: 7/10, Reviews

We Are Most Certainly Not: WE ARE ALL COMPLETELY FINE by Daryl Gregory – Review

We Are All Completely Fine

We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory
Genre: Adult fantasy/horror
Publisher: Tachyon Publications
Release date: August 2014
Source: Purchased
Pages: 182

The nitty-gritty: A short but powerful tale of six unusual people who form a support group, unexpectedly horrific and sad, which left me wanting more.

We knew each other, at first, only by our words. We sat in a circle and spoke to each other, presenting some version of ourselves. We told our stories and tried out behaviors. Dr. Sayer said that the group was the place for “reality testing.” What would happen if we exposed ourselves and shared our true thoughts? What if we talked about what we most feared? What if we behaved according to rules that were not predicated on our worst suspicions?

Perhaps the world would not end.

I picked up a copy of We Are All Completely Fine after reading several glowing reviews, and it wasn’t until I recently received a review copy of Gregory’s Harrison Squared that I realized the two books are connected. These sorts of serendipitous discoveries delight me to no end, and so I decided to read this book first, even though Harrison Squared is a prequel. I zipped through this in less than a day. At less than 200 pages, it’s a quick read, not only because of the page count, but because I couldn’t tear my eyes away. Brutally violent and shocking, Gregory gives us a highly imaginative set-up that shows how fear can control us.

Most of the “action” takes place in the past, as five lost and damaged people who have suffered supernatural traumas are brought together for group counseling by psychotherapist Dr. Jan Sayer, who seems to genuinely want to help them recover. Stan was captured and partially eaten by a family of cannibals (but survived!); Harrison used to slay monsters, and has been immortalized in fiction as a monster detective known as Jameson Jameson (Jameson Squared); Greta has intricate scars all over her body but won’t talk about where they came from; Barbara was once captured by a creature known as the Scrimshander, who flayed her arms and legs and carved images onto her bones (then stitched her up again); and Martin hides behind a pair of video game glasses through which he can see the “dwellers” who come from another place to torment humans.

Jan cajoles them into coming together, week after week, as they gradually start to open up and tell each other their stories. If you were to take the supernatural aspects of this story away, you would still have a very powerful tale of the group dynamics of people with scars—both physical and metaphorical—who try to use therapy as a way to heal. But the weird circumstances of these characters are what makes this book so special. One by one, each character tells his or her tale, and the reader discovers that there are certain connections among them. Each character has a distinct personality: Harrison is angry, Stan can’t stop talking about his horrible experience, Greta is silent until almost the end, and Martin is clearly scared to death, and is afraid to take off his “frames.”

But the character of Barbara was the one I connected with the most, emotionally. She’s a wife and a mother of two boys, but she feels so distant and apart from them that it made me terribly sad. Her scars are literally bone deep and she can’t escape them.

You’ll definitely need a strong stomach for this story. Gregory describes each character’s ordeals in Technicolor blood and guts, and even though I’m not usually squeamish when it comes to descriptive violence, I have to admit several scenes in this book made me queasy. But in between these horrors are lovely human moments when the characters connect with each other.

One thing that I’m still puzzling over is the narration of this story. It’s clear in the beginning that someone in the group is narrating: “There were six of us in the beginning. Three men and two women, and Dr. Sayer. Jan, though some of us never learned to call her by her first name.” And yet—the narrator is never identified, and comments on all six characters. It could be first person omniscient point of view, but I’m not really sure because I’ve never read a story quite like this. If anyone has read this book and knows what I’m talking about, I’d love to hear what you think. It’s driving me crazy!

I was also a bit confused by the ending. I honestly expected more of an “ah ha!” moment at the end, because the lead-up was so good. But it sort of fizzled out for me, with an odd connection between two of the characters that came out of nowhere, and an ominous message that foreshadows more bad times ahead.

But otherwise I loved this story. Gregory is an author I’ll be watching for sure, and I’m all primed now to read Harrison Squared, which tells the story of Harrison’s early life. I’m also wondering if Gregory will ever write back-stories for some of the other characters. I’d love to read more about Martin and Barbara. (But not Stan or Greta. Their stories would be too much for me, I think!) For readers who aren’t afraid to dig deep into the horrors of the human condition, We Are All Completely Fine is a must read.

Final rating: 8/10

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An Absurd Journey Through Dead City: DEAD BOYS by Gabriel Squailia – Review

dead boys

Dead Boys by Gabriel Squailia
Genre: Adult fantasy
Publisher: Talos
Release date: March 10 2015
Source: eARC from publisher via Edelweiss
Pages: 288

The nitty-gritty: A folktale-like story with an odd cast of dead characters, lots of humorous moments, but not enough of a plot to keep me interested.

While reading Dead Boys, I realized after only a couple of chapters that I wasn’t going to agree with most of the glowing reviews I’ve seen for this book. And I’m not sure why. It’s got all the elements for a successful story: a fantastical setting, interesting characters, and writing that (while not my favorite style) is well done. Perhaps it was the silliness of the set-up—a dead man named Jacob is a “preservationist” in the underworld, stitching up and fixing the decaying bodies of the dead. Or it could have been the language itself, a very formal style that often felt like something right out of a Shakespearean play:

“Thy doom drops from above, body-robbers!” cried the head, bouncing past Remington’s feet. “Draw near, that I might gnaw thy hated ankles.”

(Seriously, the entire book was written this way.)

But mostly, it was the absurd humor and a plot that I quickly began to lose interest in, that had me skimming chapters near the end. Dead Boys is the story of a journey, and yet it felt as if the characters were never getting anywhere. And I’m disappointed because I really thought I was going to love this book.

Imagine this, if you will: Jacob Campbell is a corpse who lives in Dead City and patches up the decomposing dead, corpses that wash up on the banks of the Lethe river. But as much as he’s more or less happy being dead, he’s heard tell of a “Living Man” who was still alive when he crossed into Dead City, and Jacob is anxious to find him, in the hopes of someday reaching the land of the living himself.

He’s joined on his journey by a boy named Remington, who has a bird nesting in his skull, and a dubious character named Leopold who may or may not be trustworthy. Together they navigate a strange and decrepit landscape, full of armies of attacking corpses and huge, shifting piles of debris. Not to mention plenty of dead body parts falling off or getting hacked off and put back on again. Yep, this is one crazy book, people!

Now, I did enjoy parts of Dead Boys, especially the way Squailia describes the world of Dead City. The river Lethe runs through the city, washing up bodies of the newly deceased. Everywhere are piles of garbage and detritus, mostly composed of bones and decomposing flesh. Jacob’s vocation is interesting, although disgusting and ridiculous! His job is to try to make the dead appear more alive, by fixing their parts that are coming off, a sort of taxidermist for the dead. I found the idea both hilarious and disturbing at the same time, and believe me, it just kept getting weirder the further into the story I got.

My favorite character was young Remington, so named because he shot out the back of his skull with a gun (OK, I’m a little fuzzy on the details, but I think it went like that!) Remington has a little black bird that has taken up residence in his empty skull and acts as Remington’s eyes when he flies. As strange as that sounds, I adored Remington and his little bird companion.

Most of the characters are missing body parts, like a headless couple dubbed “Adam and Eve.” And then there’s Etienne, the Living Man of legend, who is now no more than a head tacked to the wall of a tavern.  And in the middle of it all, Jacob is there to help the dead regain some of their dignity by repairing their broken parts. There are a lot of body parts being lost, and then reattached, and then lost again. One particularly disturbing scene deals with a penis swap (yes, you read that correctly!). Why the dead still have penises is anybody’s guess, but I think you have to appreciate a special brand of humor in order to laugh at things like this. (And I know those readers are out there, in fact, I’ll bet some of them are reading this review right now!)

And so the characters trudge through a dangerous land that could resemble a Bosch painting. Somewhere among all the heads and limbs and penises flying around, is a story. But for me, it was buried too far under all the bones of the dead to make sense. I know one thing for sure: when I die, I certainly hope I don’t wind up here. The dead in Dead Boys are a sorry lot indeed, roaming through a dismal landscape and barely getting anywhere. For those readers who appreciate absurdity, gross humor and an author who delights in playing with language, this may be just the book for you.

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy. Above quote is taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.

Final rating: 6/10

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Backlist Burndown Review: ZOO CITY by Lauren Beukes

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It’s my first official Backlist Burndown review! Thanks to Lisa @ The Tenacious Reader, on the last Friday of each month we get to link up with other bloggers who are participating. The goal is to read a book from an author’s backlist that you’ve been meaning to read, but just haven’t been able to get to. I could honestly spend all my time reading backlist books, since I’m so behind, LOL! But trying for one a month is a good start.

This book is also part of my Women of Genre Fiction challenge, hosted by Worlds Without End.

This month I read Zoo City by the immensely talented Lauren Beukes, author of Broken Monsters and The Shining Girls.  I believe this is her second published book, and it couldn’t be more different from Broken Monsters!

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
Genre: Adult urban fantasy
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release date:  2010
Source: Purchased
Pages: 416

The nitty-gritty: A highly imaginative, gritty, dangerous romp through a fantastical Johannesburg, with non-stop action and a unique and unforgettable heroine.

The tea tasted like stale horse piss, drained through a homeless guy’s sock.

Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters was one of my top ten reads of 2014, and I was eager to read more of her earlier works. I decided to choose Zoo City for a couple of reasons. First, I just love the cover and the fact that animals play a big part in the story, and second, I wanted to read something that could count toward my Women of Genre Fiction challenge. Zoo City won the Arthur C. Clarke award in 2011, and it’s not hard to see why. The writing sizzles with electricity and is the perfect style for Beukes’ story of magic, political upheaval, and survival in a futuristic Johannesburg, South Africa.

The setting alone should clue you into what kind of story this is. Beukes, who lives in South Africa, clearly has first-hand experience with the political and social landscape of the country (although she does credit many sources for helping her with research). This book was a rough read at times, with graphic violence, terrible living conditions, and nasty characters. But there were also moments of beauty (though fleeting!) and compassion, and man did I love the animals!

Zinzi December lives in Zoo City, a block of decrepit apartments where those who have been “animalled” huddle together. In this future society, a mysterious plague has created a most unusual side effect to murder: anyone who commits it suddenly finds themselves with a personal animal companion. Their animal is psychically attached, and the two can never be separated or they experience excruciating pain. Zinzi’s animal is a Sloth who mostly clings to her back and communicates with her not in words, but with gestures. Zinzi fears what all animalled people fear: the Undertow, a devilish entity from Hell that comes to take them away when their animals die.

When Zinzi acquired Sloth, she was also saddled with a magical ability to “find” lost things, like rings or car keys. One day, she’s about to return a lost ring to its elderly owner, but when she goes to the house, the woman has just been murdered. At the crime scene, Zinzi is approached by a pair of animalled people named Marabou and Maltese (with a Stork and a Dog attached to them) who want to hire her to find a missing teen pop star. Zinzi takes the job, but her life is about to take a turn for the worse.

You may recognize the idea of having an animal companion that is tied to you, if you’ve read Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (The Golden Compass, etc) trilogy. When I first realized where Beukes was going with her story, I was a little indignant, thinking “Hey, you’re copying Philip Pullman!” But then, one of the characters actually references the book, and I realized she is only paying tribute to his books, not copying them. What I loved about the animals in Zoo City is that they act as a scarlet letter of sorts. You can immediately identify society’s criminals because they all have animals as their badge of shame.

Beukes’ Johannesburg, or “Jozi” as it’s affectionately called, is a bleak and crime-ridden city full of drug dealers, magic spells, grunge music and of course, animals. Her descriptions of the city are so vivid, that I felt as if I were right there in the middle of the stink of the slums. The writing is sharp and calculated, each word meticulously placed, and the beat of African pop music is ever-present in the background, which gave this story a relentless rhythm. Lauren Beukes’ writing reminds me so much of Chuck Wendig, that if I had to guess, I’d say the two are twins who were separated at birth!

Despite the animals that populate the story—and if you’re thinking this is a light and fluffy animal story, you need to reset you expectations—most of the characters are not very nice, and even the ones who are occasionally do nasty things. Zinzi is a girl with a horrible past (which I won’t divulge here, but you can imagine something bad must have happened in order for her to be animalled), but she’s trying to turn over a new leaf. Unfortunately, she owes a dangerous drug dealer lots of money and gets involved in an email scam in order to pay down her debt.

Zinzi’s boyfriend Benoît (whose animal is a Mongoose) has quite the interesting story, and their relationship was one of the most honest and poignant ones I’ve seen in quite some time. Benoît lost his wife and three children in a war, but when he finds out that they might actually still be alive, he knows the right thing to do is to try to find them and bring them back, even though he wants to stay with Zinzi. Their relationship was complicated and real, and I loved it.

I couple of things didn’t work as well for me. Although I did come to love all the African words and dialect that Beukes liberally sprinkles throughout her story—they give a wonderful authenticity to it—all those foreign words tripped me up occasionally and slowed things down.

I also thought the plot was a bit of a mess at times. A lot happens in this book, maybe too much. Zinzi is trying to solve some murders. Then she’s meeting with a completely vile man named Vuyo who pays her to participate in email money scams. And she’s taken on the job of finding Song, the spoiled teen pop star who is missing. During all of this she’s trying not to get shot or stabbed by the denizens of Zoo City while keeping her Sloth safe. It was almost too much for me at times.

And yet I loved this book. Once again, Lauren Beukes convinced me that she is one of my favorite authors. She doesn’t shy away from tough subjects or unlikable characters, but underneath all the social commentary and metaphors about how people carry their burdens around with them, is a story with a big heart. Luckily I still have two backlist books of hers to read: Moxyland and The Shining Girls. I suspect I’ll be reading them very soon.

Rating: 8/10

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A Magical Journey Through Londons: A DARKER SHADE OF MAGIC by V. E. Schwab – Review

 

 A Darker Shade of Magic (A Darker Shade of Magic #1) by V.E. Schwab
Genre: Adult fantasy
Publisher: Tor Books
Release date: February 24 2015
Source: Finished book from publisher
Pages: 400

Note: With this review, I’ve decided to change my rating system from a five-star system to a ten-point system. It gives me more flexibility for the subtle nuances I find in books, and also gives me a reason to justify why I would normally give this book five stars, when I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as Vicious.

The nitty-gritty: A unique world (or should I say worlds), a fascinating magic system, and characters I want to follow from world to world, and beyond.

“The bones are the same in every world,” he said, gesturing to the city, “but the rest of it will be different. As different as this world is from yours.” He pointed across the river, and toward the center of London. “Where we’re going, the castle is there. Athos and Astrid will be there, too. Once we cross through, stay close. Do not leave my side. It is night here, which means it is night in White London, too, and the city is full of shadows.” Kell looked at Lila. “You can still change your mind.”

Lila straightened and tugged up the collar of her coat. She smiled. “Not a chance.”

Schwab’s second novel for adults gave me everything I loved from Vicious (which to this day remains one of my all-time favorite books) and brought new wonders to the table as well. That being said, I subconsciously compared it to Vicious as I was reading, and I ended up enjoying A Darker Shade of Magic slightly less, which is to say I still loved it immensely! Because “slightly less” than perfect is still pretty damn good. I’ll get to my reasons for this later in the review, but first I want to assure you that this book is everything you hope it will be, if you are a V.E. Schwab fan like I am. Schwab’s imagination is endless, and even though the idea of creating doorways to other worlds has been done before, many times, she puts such an original spin on it that I was mesmerized.

One thing that Schwab does so well is that she knows how to construct a story. I’m not privy to her personal writing process, but I’m almost certain that she must do lots of outlining, either as a written outline or a visual one, because each element of the story is so perfectly placed. It’s something that only seasoned writers can pull off, and it’s hard to do. But she makes it seem easy, the way everything comes together, each element finding its place in the story. Her storylines are complex and intricate, but she manages to juggle each piece, seemingly effortlessly.

The story goes like this: Kell is an Antari, one of only two magicians in the world that has the ability to travel among the three different Londons: Red London is Kell’s home, a wondrous world where magic enhances lives and joy and beauty are everywhere; Grey London where magic is scarce and people live a hardscrabble existence, doing what they can to survive; and White London, a land of terror where bloodthirsty rulers wear the crown and punish anyone who uses magic. There is also a fourth London, Black London, that used to exist but doesn’t anymore, after the people who lived there let magic get so out of control that it destroyed them. Kell’s official job is to travel from London to London, through magical doors that only he knows about, and deliver messages between the rulers.

But Kell also has a secret business on the side, smuggling magic from Red London to Grey London in exchange for artifacts, which he collects and hides, since it’s illegal to transfer objects from one London to the next. One day he unwittingly takes a highly dangerous stone back to Red London and sets off a chain of events that will leave all the Londons in peril. He reluctantly accepts help from Lila, a thief from Grey London who only wants to escape her miserable life and go on an adventure. Both characters get more than they bargained for, and it will take all their wits to survive.

As usual, Schwab creates unforgettable characters that you’ll fall in love with. Kell is a man of mystery, one of the last of his kind. He’s an extremely powerful magician, and yet he yearns for a normal life with a loving family—which he mostly has, as he has been “adopted” by the royal court in Red London, and is as close to his “brother” Rhy that you can possibly get without being related by blood. He wears a most marvelous coat that can be turned inside out numerous times to become many different coats.

Lila is also a wonderful character (and she’s making an appearance in my Top Ten Tuesday tomorrow!), a scrappy, skinny fighter of a girl who lives by her wits and is hell on wheels with a weapon. She has big dreams and will do anything to break out of her miserable life. When she meets Kell—and I love the way they meet!—she begins to see what her life could be like. I also love that she doesn’t let a man stand in the way of what she wants. When Lila and Kell are together, their dialog practically crackles and sparks, it’s so good.

Rhy is the prince of Red London, and I adored him as well, although I wanted more of him in this story. He’s the opposite of Kell, and yet their bond was so special. And Holland! Oh how I felt for him, even though he’s evil, I just wanted to give him a hug!

Schwab’s Londons are glorious creations, similar to each other yet completely different. In Red London a river called the Isle runs through the city, a red river that is the city’s source of magic. But in Grey London it’s called the Thames, and in White London it’s something else entirely. Likewise, a tavern sits in the exact same spot in each London, even though each has a different name and appearance. All of this is described in Schwab’s lyrical writing, which has the rhythm of music about it that makes me want to read passages of the text aloud.

Where the story faltered a bit for me was the ending, which was not at all what I was expecting. (Nor should it be! Clearly Schwab did her job well by not going where readers expected her to go.) Because this is the first in a trilogy, I wanted to have something to carry me forward to the next book, some mystery that remained unsolved to puzzle over while book two is being written. And while she does give us small mysteries, like where Kell came from before he was part of the Royal Court of Red London, and why Lila has an artificial eye, the story mostly wraps up very cleanly with no cliffhangers whatsoever. I know many readers will be rejoicing over this fact, and I must say I’m usually relieved not to come face to face with a cliffhanger, but this time I predicted a certain ending that never came to pass, and I was just slightly disappointed.

And yet—the ending was actually perfect the way it was. Schwab concludes her story on a lovely beat that made me smile, and I am happy that I will get to meet these characters again very soon.

Final rating: 9/10

Cover Love: I love both the US and the UK covers! They both use the bold red, white and black color scheme that the story is base on. If I had to pick a favorite, I think I’d pick the UK cover, simply because it’s so graphically appealing. Which cover is your favorite?

Big thanks to Tor Books for supplying a review copy! 

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Filed under Rating: 9/10, Reviews

The Beauty. The Horror. THE DAMNED by Andrew Pyper – Review

The Damned

The Damned by Andrew Pyper
Genre: Adult horror
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Release date: February 10 2015
Source: eARC from publisher via Edelweiss
Pages: 304

 four and a half

The nitty-gritty: A top-notch horror story with depth and emotion, beautifully written, with enough chills to keep me on edge.

Sometimes there is a scent that precedes her appearances, less borne on the air than held tight against my face, an invisible, smothering cloth. And soaked in this cloth an odor that carries a feeling with it, particular as the past. It’s the same sugary, teenaged-girl perfume that clouded the rec room parties and school gym dances of our youth, combined with something foul, something gone wrong. A neglected wound spritzed with Love’s Baby Soft.

This was my first Andrew Pyper book, but it certainly won’t be my last! The Damned is a fresh take on ghost stories and life after death, and at times it reminded me of both The Lovely Bones and What Dreams May Come, although it’s completely different from either of those books. Pyper has come up with one chilling and terrifying ghost named Ash, who hitches a ride back from hell to terrorize her family. This story scared the pants off me, and if you love the kind of atmospheric horror that creeps up on you slowly, rather than the bloody slasher variety, then you will love this book.

Danny Orchard is a semi-famous author who wrote a book about his experience in “heaven” when he briefly died in a house fire but was resuscitated soon after. But unfortunately, Danny didn’t come back alone. He brought back his twin sister Ashleigh, who died in the fire with him. Ash was a disturbed girl in life, and she’s even worse as a ghost. Danny’s grown up now and has met a wonderful woman named Willa that he wants to get to know better. But Ash is determined to keep Danny from ever finding happiness, because she’s convinced he shouldn’t be alive. If  Danny wants to start a new life, he’s going to have to figure out a way to get rid of Ash for good.

That’s a very brief synopsis of a rather complex story, but I didn’t want to get into too much detail, because you’re going to want to experience each surprise for yourself. Danny narrates the story and flits back and forth through time, gradually revealing what’s happening. I love this method of storytelling, which may frustrate some readers, but it works so well for a story like this with so many mysteries to unravel. Danny tells us of his near-death experience in the fire, but he later admits that it wasn’t the only time he died and went someplace else. Little by little, the reader comes to understand what a terrible and lonely life Danny is living, all because he is being haunted by his psychopath of a dead sister who will go to any lengths to keep him from any kind of lasting relationship.

The best part of the story for me was Pyper’s atmospheric descriptions of Detroit, a city that nearly becomes a character itself. After reading The Damned, I’m convinced that the best city in the world to set a horror story in has got to be Detroit (side note: Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes is set there as well). I’ve never been there, and after reading this book I’m not sure I ever want to go there. Not only do we get to experience Detroit as it is today, with its seedy, rundown neighborhoods and abandoned car factories, but Danny’s various trips to the afterlife take place in a Detroit that is a scarier and more twisted version of the real place. I don’t think I’ve ever run across a story that pulls off this kind of “duality” as well as this one.

If you’re going to write a proper horror story, then you need to have some tormented characters who suffer at the hands of an evil entity, and Pyper gives us plenty of torment in this book. It seems Danny can never live a life of happiness, because each time he starts to get close to someone, sister Ash comes along and ruins things for him. And when I say “ruins,” I mean she injures or kills the new person in Danny’s life. So he has resigned himself to a lonely existence, rather than cause harm to someone he loves.

That is until he meets Willa at a support group for people who have had near-death experiences, called “Afterlifers.” Willa is an outspoken woman with a ten-year-old son named Eddie, who has her own terrifying death experience to deal with, but she and Danny recognize something in each other, and despite his fear of Ash screwing things up, the two begin dating. I loved their relationship, mostly because Willa is such a strong woman and doesn’t scare easily. She sticks with Danny even after she sees proof of Ash’s evil. I also loved Danny’s growing relationship with Eddie, who is wise beyond his age and even saves Danny’s life at one point.

And Ash. I can barely talk about her without getting goosebumps! She is the epitome of evil, a girl who is popular and beautiful on the outside, but has a twisted mind and is able to manipulate people to do the unthinkable.

If you’ve ever given any thought to what happens when we die (and who hasn’t?), I’m afraid The Damned will not offer any comfort to you, because even those souls who are “good” end up in places that aren’t necessarily considered heaven. Pyper doesn’t actually use the words “heaven” and “hell” to describe the afterworld, but readers will understand what he’s talking about without them. In this version of the afterlife, heaven and hell are inexorably entwined, and  Danny, who is intimately familiar with both life and death, can easily navigate this strange territory.

The only misstep for me, and really I can hardly call it that, was an odd shift at about the half-way point of the story, when Danny decides to investigate Ash’s death, convinced that someone murdered her. Suddenly I found myself in the middle of a murder mystery, and although the horror elements were still present, the tone of the story at that point felt different. As it turns out, Danny uncovers even more horrors surrounding his sister, and this section ultimately made the story stronger.

Pyper throws in lots of small details—like Danny’s mother’s Omega watch that he brings back from the afterlife—that give this story so much depth. A final showdown (you know there had to be one!) between Danny and Ash takes place in a location that is not only poignant but somehow brings the realms of the living and the dead together. The Damned is a perfect book for fans of horror stories, but it will resonate with many types of readers, and therefore I recommend it to everyone!

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy! Quote above was taken from an uncorrected proof and may differ in the final version of the book.

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Full of Pulpy Goodness: THE LOST LEVEL by Brian Keene – Review

The Lost Level 2

 

The Lost Level by Brian Keene
Genre: Adult Pulp Fantasy
Publisher: Apex Book Company
Release date: January 2015
Source: eBook from publisher
Pages: 186

four stars

The nitty-gritty: An outrageous, pulpy, bloody, dimension-hopping story that by turns made me laugh and cringe, and had me running to Google more than once.

I turned my attention back to the cliff. The slope had been hidden by thick vegetation, but now that I stood on its edge, I could see a deep, narrow valley below us. But the gorge wasn’t what caught my attention. What did were the two opponents who were fighting on the valley floor. I had seen many bizarre things since coming to the Lost Level, but it was at that moment that the full otherworldly strangeness of my situation hit me full fold. Below us, engaged in a fierce battle, were a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a giant robot.

So. Much. Fun! I had a blast reading The Lost Level, which as the author states in his Acknowledgements is an homage to the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard (among others). Keene takes every crazy idea and pulp fiction trope he can think of and crams it into less than 200 pages, and the result is a very crowded but completely entertaining story. Keene’s idea of a dimension in space called the Lost Level, where all the “lost” things of the universe wind up, gives him free rein to do just about anything, and he takes full advantage of that idea.

Aaron Pace is the narrator of the story, a man who fancies himself a practitioner of the occult and has figured out a ritual that opens doorways into other dimensions. One day, peeking through one such doorway, he spies a lush and tropical vista that beckons him to cross over. But once there, he looks back, only to find that the doorway has vanished. Aaron is now trapped in the Lost Level, the one world where no traveler can ever leave.

As he wanders through the fascinating but increasingly dangerous land, he manages to rescue a beautiful woman named Kasheena and her Wookie-like companion Bloop from a deadly race of snake people. Together they set out towards Kasheena’s home, where the wiseman of her village might be able to help Aaron get home again. But they will have to face many obstacles before they reach their destination. . .

The Lost Level, for all its non-stop action and fight scenes, gets off to a slow start, mostly because our narrator Aaron is alone almost up to the 25% mark. He’s writing down his story in a journal he finds on an abandoned school bus, as he introduces us to how he came to be here and what wonders he’s seen so far. The fact that there isn’t any dialog to move the story forward worried me a bit, but once he runs into Kasheena and Bloop things really get going, and the story moves at high velocity all the way to the end.

Like I said before, Keene adds everything but the kitchen sink to his story, including dinosaurs, killer grass, aliens, robots, giant killer slugs, and tiny birds that can clean the flesh off a body in seconds flat. He uses the mystique of the Bermuda Triangle to explain some of the odd things that pop up in the Lost Level, and I was curious enough a couple of times to actually hit up Google to see if octophants and Xerum 525 (red mercury) were actual things. (They are!)

If you’re going to read this book—and you really should!—you will need to put your feminist side in a box and lock it up tight, because in order to enjoy this story you have to remember that Keene is playing with tropes, especially when it comes to the female role in the pulp stories of the ‘20s and ‘30s. Take the lovely Kasheena, for example. Seeing her for the first time causes Aaron to become “awestruck” by her beauty. And it’s not only her “luxuriant chestnut and auburn colored hair” and “bronzed skin” that cause this reaction. Kasheena, you see, is completely naked when Aaron meets her, and remains so for the rest of the book, except for a tiny loincloth! If I hadn’t been laughing so hard at the notion of a gorgeous naked female running around fighting robots and dinosaurs, I would have been horrified. Luckily, I recognized what Keene was trying to accomplish, and I enjoyed Kasheena despite her unfortunate nudity.

The author has great fun with over-the-top violence, and he managed to gross me out more than once. Unfortunately, Aaron’s voice is rather dry and matter-of-fact, and so all the hacking off of heads and stabbing through eyeballs with swords felt a bit dry and unemotional. But Keene certainly knows how to keep a story moving, and our intrepid explorers are faced with one impossible situation after another, with barely time off for Aaron and Kasheena to stop and have sex (which they do a lot).

I can’t leave out one of my favorite characters, Bloop, who is a hairy, dog-like creature that walks upright and can only mutter the word “Bloop!” He reminded me of Chewbacca, since he turned out to be a loyal friend to Aaron and Kasheena, as well as a vicious killer when he needed to be.

A mysterious underground world is alluded to, but never explained, and I hope the author decides to write about it in a sequel. I also thought the story ended very abruptly, but luckily, Brian Keene explains in his Afterword that he is planning a multi-volume series, which makes me very happy. The Lost Level may not be great literature, but it was everything I expected and more, and I can’t wait to go back.

Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy!

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Filed under 4 stars, Reviews