This collection is a reverse chronological exploration of the nefarious Calipash family, a bloodline cursed to depravity, transformation, and dissolution. It is also a masterful exercise in parody, as it lampoons Gothic horror, novels of manners, Lovecraft, and the history of Roman Britain.
The title story, a novella of twists and turns set in a private school in faux-English civil war Oxford, and it genderbends, challenges reader assumption, and sexes things up a lot.
I drive it hard to describe exactly what I looked about this book, but I looked it a lot. The writing is pitch-perfect, adopting the voice and style of each period cleverly, and it twists the tries of the styles in just the right way to keep things interesting.
Hearthstone Cottage by Frazer Lee Review of a NetGalley eArc.
Four friends travel to the Scottish Highlands for a post graduation holiday, and of course things go terribly wrong.
Mike, a party hard kind of guy, and his girlfriend Helen begin to drift apart. Their friends Alex and Kay seem to just be along for the ride, while Alex’s sister Meggie, the vegetarian artist, haunts the fringes.
This felt like a very confused book from the beginning. It starts off like a pretty traditional “folk-horror” story, with legends of witches and creepy locals mocking the city kids, but then the growing fixation on Mike’s drinking and weed smoking starts to feel like an 80s slasher morality story.
There is plenty of chilling atmosphere and gross-out horror to satisfy the horror feels, but I honestly felt so disgusted by Mike as a character that I just didn’t care what happened to him. The tension eventually just became a sense of wanting to know how much of what was happening was actually in his head.
Then comes the end and you realize nothing at all had anything to do with what just happened, and the story falls apart.
Quill by A. C. Cobble I was given a review copy by the author.
Quill is a story set in a different universe’s version of the British Empire, one that seems very familiar, but is wholly different. It happens in a world with magic, and spirits, and also airships and trains. There are guns and bombs, and sorcerers and druids, too.
It is the story of nobleman adventurer Oliver Wellesley, the Cartographer of the series title, who is very far down in the line of royal succession so he is merely rich and aimless, and also apparently a sex-magnet. He is finagled into investigating a murder which smacks of the ancient, forbidden art of sorcery, and is partnered with beautiful, sex-hungry (this comes up a lot) sorcerer-killer priestess, Sam No-last-name.
They jaunt all over this not-at-all British Empire (which pays little heed to the true costs of empire and colonialism) and meet sorcerers and hedge witches and lustful heiresses and, generally, spill a whole lot of blood.
It’s an adventure. It’s a romp. It’s two-fisted, leather-pantsed, drunken alley fighting fun.
There’s a lot to recommend this book. It’s got originality, it’s got some very nice structural planning (the alternating viewpoints work very well, and the character tics turn out to be actually quite meaningful), and the dialog isn’t weighed down by hyper-witty banter. People who like airships and hard-punching women will dig the story.
The pacing was nice, and never felt draggy either.
The writing is solid, if a bit too in love with certain turns of phrase (the euphemism “sanguine fluid” for blood appeared a few times, and bothers me still), and generally well-edited. There are more typos than you might find in a pro publication, but far less than in most self-pubs, so it’s on the good side. I was pleasantly surprised by the overall quality of the prose, honestly. It’s better than, say, Sanderson in many respects.
There are a few plot tunnels but they’re really not that important overall. It’s the kind of book that you should go into for a fun read, rather than looking for a deep reflection on human nature or what have you.
I liked it. I’d like to read the sequel, honestly, since the end kind of went for a semi-cliffhanger and I like these characters.
Thank you, A. C. Cobble, for the copy, and the fun read!
The follow up to The Witchwood Crown, which itself was the followup to the incredible Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy of 30 or so years ago, had enormous shoes to fill. The original series was a landmark in fantasy, and when Tad Williams opened the door to Osten Ard once more in 2017, expectations were understandably high.
The Witchwood Crown met those expectations and more, bringing readers a glimpse at that familiar realm after decades away. Characters we know and love return, while some are lost forever, and new faces were introduced: Prince Morgan, grandson of King Simon and King Miriamelle, his troll friend Sennec, the half-blood Norn Nerez, and many more. The Witchwood Crown placed our characters in deep peril, with a gut-punch of an ending, and with the Empire of Grass we finally get to take up the cause again after an agonizing wait.
But oh, it was worth the wait. This book is a middle book – it has very little closure and lots of progression. There is more movement and plot flow than in the first book, since the stage is all set, but even so this is not what I’d called a fast book. It is smooth and steady, but not racing.
That being said, the last 200 pages or so are breathtaking. So much happens, and of such import, that it is once again going to be a very hard wait for the next book, The Pilot’s Children.
I will also say, with the current state of the plot, it would not surprise me in the least of the final book ended up being split in two. There just seems like so much that still needs to happen before anything is resolved… But I suppose we shall see.
Anyway, if you have read Witchwood Crown, you should certainly read this book. If you haven’t read TWC, then by no means start with this one: go back to the beginning!
Disclaimer-I received a free review copy from Netgalley.
This is the story of an unnamed boy who yearns to be named a man in his stone-age (?) tribe. The story begins when he is chosen to join a group of mystical hunters, who offer him just that chance. However, he must go on a journey fraught with peril and haunted by magic and mystery.
This novella is a lushly worded, tightly paced journey into mystery, in the most traditional sense of the word. The author evokes the worldview of a paleolithic person in a way that feels authentic, although we can never know what authentic actually means here. The world built in this compact story is unknown and unknowable, dangerous and beautiful and enchanting. I wish there were more.
One of the things that I find most compelling here is the author’s reluctance to explain. Things are left unsaid, and things that we, the readers, do not understand are taken for granted. The characters do not explain things that they already know, just as would happen in real life, so the reader is left to wonder. What was real? What was confusion, or hallucination, or actually magic?
The use of language is also well wrought. The differences in dialect, hinting at connections beyond the tribal level, are interesting and fun. I found some parts where the language was perhaps a little too overwrought and got in the way of comprehension in a way that felt unintentional, though, so that line is a fine one.
I also spotted some basic typos, but such things are often unavoidable and so I didn’t find them to detract overall from the story.
My only drawback, and the reason I’m not going for 5 stars, is that the ending felt rushed and vaguely flat. I felt that this might actually be enough of a world to merit a full novel, if a short one to maintain that mystery.
Overall, this was a genuine pleasure to read. I am grateful to the author and the publisher, Aurelia Leo, for the review copy on Netgalley.
*Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from Netgalley.
Lesath by A.M. Kherbash is taut, eerie, and disconcerting. It’s a modern creature feature of a book, which embraces tropes of Gothic literature, psychological horror and X-files style secrets to create a surreal journey through… What? A prison? An asylum? A mad scientist’s laboratory? All three? It never becomes entirely clear.
Indeed, not a whole lot does become entirely clear. The protagonist, Greg, an aimless man living from his car apparently decides to investigate a mysterious old manor in the woods for his podcast. He ends up trapped inside and the only explanation he’s given, that he is identical to an escaped inmate, might actually be true… Or it might be a delusion? Things, of course, take a dark turn very quickly. People die. “Things” come out of ducts. More people die. And so it goes…
Many times reading this book, I was reminded of the greasy, oddly quiet scenery of horror games like Psycho-break or The most recent Resident Evil. Things are clearly bad. There is books on the walls, inexplicable mild and black ichor. You know something is coming. But lots of the scenes are just walking around checking doors and drawers.
This is my first criticism of the novel. There is a lot of compelling grotesquery and tension, but far too much of the book is taken up by sudden scenes of nothing much. The nature of the story, I think, is such that the reader is supposed to be confused by unexpected scene changes, as a way to emphasize the precarious nature of the protagonist’s mental state. But often times, the breaks don’t actually lead anywhere, and structurally seem to lose effect after the meeting of the book.
My other, and main criticism, is that a lot of the language used in the book simply didn’t mean what it’s supposed to mean. The author send to be struggling for an elevated register to evoke the Gothic tradition. The problems with this are twofold: first, sure this is a modern setting, the dialog is modern, and the clash between the elevated narrative and modern dialog is so great as to be almost comical. The second is that the register becomes so high that I dear many readers, and the author as well, don’t be really understand the words.
Phrases like “after observing the prevalent silence…” Or “he expressed a contented sigh” or the extremely frequent use of “discern” (13 times in 159 pages!) Feel like thesaurus abuse, and indeed incorrect usage at times.
Which is not to say that the writing is poor, it isn’t. It’s often well phrased and interesting. The dialog can be snappy and fun, too. But it can also be a bit messy and overwrought. I think a bit of time with a developmental editor could make the creepy story at the core of this novel shine.
I burned though it because I did want to see what happened, and the ending was fittingly unsettling and slightly confusing. I did enjoy the book, and appreciate the chance to read it given by the author, A.M. Kherbash.