Umbrella Academy – A Blunderous Bumbershoot

UmbrellaThe Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite, created by My Chemical Romance frontrunner Gerard Way and brought to artistic life by Gabriel Ba, sits at a unique crossroads both within the current cultural zeitgeist and on my bookshelf. With the Netflix adaptation premiering tomorrow as of this writing, I can only imagine the book’s sales have received a positive bump as readers and superhero-loving viewers flock to read the source material if only to tell their friends watching the series “Well, that was different in the graphic novel” with an upturned nose.

That motivation fuelled my own reading of Umbrella Academy, but the timing also placed it just a few books after my glowing review of Lights’ Skin&Earth. The similarities end at “A talented musician wrote a graphic novel,” but the two books’ origins keep them locked in battle in my mind as I try to separate the best from the meh-st. Gerard Way’s brainchild falls heavily into the latter bucket.

Apocalypse Suite collects six issues that form one narrative arc for the titular Umbrella Academy band of superpowered humans. 43 children are born to women who showed no signs of pregnancy, and nearly all of them display remarkable powers. Reginald Hargreeves, a monocled philanthropist and mysterious douchebag, vows to adopt as many of the children as he can to “nurture” them and teach them to harness their powers. Many draw parallels to the X-Men franchise and Professor X, a fine and fitting way to frame the narrative to someone who hasn’t heard of Umbrella Academy. Hargreeves successfully adopts seven of the children, and they save the world from a hilariously zombified Gustav Eiffel as he weaponizes his Parisian architectural wonder.

And that brings us to page 10.

The beefiest portion of story occurs after Hargreeves’ death (again we’re only at page 10, so no major spoilers) brings the remaining six children together after many years of being disbanded.

Enter, as I see it, the story’s crowning fault: utter disregard for pacing. After the initial 10 pages, which are downright fantastic and lay the groundwork for what could be an incredible tale, the story veers off wildly into countless directions, exploring the past, the present, and the future while giving readers virtually nothing to sink their teeth into. Newspaper clippings in the background of a few panels tell us one of the children has died, and others tell us that Spaceboy, the leader of the bunch, was involved in an accident and Hargreeves saved him by implanting his head onto the cyborgian body of a Martian gorilla. What follows is a cavalcade of mixed messages and family drama that just doesn’t click. Each 22-page chapter tries to cover so much ground that Apocalypse Suite reads like a hapless smattering of beginnings and ends with no middle–there’s little meat on these otherwise sturdy narrative bones.

The pacing issue goes hand-in-hand with Way’s treatment of the characters. Each of the Umbrella Academy’s members reads like a blurry reflection of a character who could be fantastic if given more space. It’s obvious that Gerard Way has deeply explored each character, but the problem lies in volume. There are six living Umbrella Academy children plus a few side characters and a few villains. To explore the faults, flaws, strengths, powers, and psyches of each would require triple the real estate.

A prime offender here is Rumor, one of the six remaining members. Her power is bringing rumors to life by speaking them into existence: “I heard a rumor that Patrick Rothfuss published his third Kingkiller novel,” for example, would bring that truth to life (not to mention lock a bunch of nerds in their rooms for 24 hours head-down in a book). Way explores this power for maybe two panels, and Rumor’s siblings are treated with equal disregard in terms of characterization. To drive this point home, consider this: I’ve stared at my screen for a full five minutes thinking of what else I can say about the characters in this book, but I’m coming up short. Call it a product of limited space or faulty writing–either way, I think Umbrella Academy misses the mark here.

On the flip side, Apocalypse Suite shines when it lends ample time to creating a villain. Vanya, the seventh sibling who has no noticeable powers, is essentially disowned by her family following Hargreeves’ death. Her arc is painful, haunting, tragic, and intensely gripping, playing beautifully into Gerard Way’s hand as a musician-turned-author and fortified by Gabriel Ba’s artistic vision. Her narrative reveals the sharp edges and dark corners of the Umbrella Academy’s collective upbringing, and this story makes the book worthwhile. If Vanya had been absent or replaced by a different villain, I’d have written this series off completely.

Despite everything, though, there’s something here, call it an X factor, keeping me intrigued by this quirky, dark series. Even with an ending that wraps things up all-too-quickly and characters that leave a hell of a lot to be desired, I’m willing to venture boldly into the second book. In a way, it feels like Apocalypse Suite is a shaky pilot that births a seminal show. In fact, I think Netflix is the perfect platform to right the narrative shortcomings of the graphic novel, and I’m excited to see a more fleshed out version of a story that couldn’t quite reach its potential as a book.

Of course, if you’re looking for a cream of the crop graphic novel written by a famous musician, there’s always Skin&Earth.

Rating: Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite – 5.0/10
-Cole

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The Atrocity Archives – If You Gaze Long Into IT, The IT Also Gazes Into You

51zhglnwgul._sx308_bo1204203200_Show of hands, how many of you out there have worked for a large corporation before? For those of you sitting at your desk with a hand raised, likely sipping a lukewarm coffee that may or may not have been the last cup before the carafe needed to be refilled (you think we don’t know?), put your hand down. You look ridiculous and your colleagues are beginning to talk. Those of you who had your hands raised, and are now feeling a little self-conscious, The Atrocity Archives, by Charles Stross, is going to make sense to you. It shouldn’t, because the contents are mind-warping, strange, and surreal, but it will. I’m sorry.

As I was saying, today’s review is The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross, a book that is actually a long novella and a short story combined into one printing and kicks off the Laundry Files series. As of the writing of this review, there are 9 fully numbered entries in the series, so there’s clearly a readership. Considering it’s essentially about an IT guy who’s really good at math trying to contain gibbering extra-dimensional entities it seems like I may be the kind of person who’s a member of that readership. Review spoiler, as is tradition, I am.

The Atrocity Archives is written from the POV of Bob Howard, who starts the series as a low level IT guy working for Capital Laundry Services, the UK’s secret agency for all that goes bump in the night. The back blurb gives away that he quickly “gets noticed” and is bumped up to being a field agent. He subsequently goes on a few adventures, sees some scary stuff, and is generally annoyed by the proceedings. His first few (mis)adventures are told with an interesting but slightly repetitive window-dressing, in that about halfway through the action we fade to him in a staff meeting briefing his superiors on what happened next. I thought that it was funny the first time, but I think it wears a little thin on repeated use. Luckily this disappears for the most part as the story goes on, but it did stick out to me.

I don’t really hold it against the book overall, though, as one of the main selling points of the story is the way it examines and takes apart the day-to-day trappings of working for a soulless (maybe literally in this case) bureaucracy. Bob’s life as a secret government field agent who is licensed to use deadly and high-grade occult weaponry is mainly occupied by staff meetings, corporate liability training, and other equally terrifying drudgery. Bob’s inner monologue as he sits through yet another staff training exercise he’s overqualified for but had to attend because his office had the budget to send someone is dry, funny, and will spring to mind during my next conference call.

I was also very impressed by Stross’s handling of the actual horror scenes in the book. A great many crossover horror books tend to actually be a fantasy or sci-fi book with a little bit of lip service to horror in the form of a mention of Nyarlathotep or some gore and flickering lights. I can honestly say that there were multiple scenes in The Atrocity Archives where I was truly unsettled. I really can’t get across, without spoiling specifics, how effective Stross managed to be with his horror.

One thing that stuck out to me in a less-than-positive way was how juvenile the hacker culture aspects of the book were. I’ve waffled from one perspective to the other on this, and since I read this book rather than listened on the audiobook, I can only infer what Bob sounded like when he used terms like “pwnz0r3d” in casual conversation, and since I enjoyed all the other aspects of the book so much I’m choosing on a personal level to believe that Bob is so unremittingly sarcastic that he’s joking when he says it. In the interest of fairness and honesty I have to inform you that in choosing to believe this I’m ignoring some other questionable evidence (e.g. his roommates names being “Pinky” and “Brains”, though again this may just be another in-universe joke for them, it was hard for me to tell).

I liked the book. I liked the book so much I immediately bought the second and read seven chapters before reminding myself I have other books on my schedule and it can wait. That being said, I think that the writing itself is pretty much just okay, and my enjoyment of it was heavily influenced by the fact that it was written for someone with almost exactly my interests and history of media consumption. I don’t really think this is a “recommend this to anyone and they’ll love it” book, I don’t even think it’s really a “recommend this to anyone and they’ll finish it and still have faith in your recommendations, at least” book. If you have a good grounding in the Cthulhu mythos, but really wanted to experience it from the perspective of a late-twenties British IT guy who’s pretty funny most of the time I’d recommend you pick it up.

General Audience Rating: The Atrocity Archives – 6.5/10
Will Audience Rating: The Atrocity Archives – 9.5/10
-Will

Vigilance – About What I Expected

51jlcyt6qilSo, Robert Jackson Bennett has a new novella out – its called Vigilance. The lovely people at Tor.com know I think Bennett is some sort of literary Midas, so they kindly sent me an ARC copy of the story in exchange for an honest review. Now, while it is definitely true that I think Bennett is one of the best fantasy authors out there, it could be argued Vigilance is a slight departure from his usual work, and is much more of a post-apocalyptic political piece. However, everything I have read from Bennett thus far has been a fantastic fantasy novel with a hidden brilliant political manifesto inside. In the same vein, Vigilance feels less like a change in style for Bennett and more like he trimmed the fat from a full novel and put the core driving values of the story on display.

Vigilance is a 200-page novella on gun violence and a commentary on the direction that America is headed, with its mentality and legislature surrounding firearms. The book gives a glimpse into a decrepit America a few decades in the future. With growth crippled by us vs. them national policy, and an increase in weapon sales via fear mongering, America has become a reoccurring news cycle of gun violence and tragedy. Faced with the realization that gun violence was only going up, a media and marketing studio essentially made a reality show out of mass shootings under the pretext of “hey, you have to experience mass murder one way or another, you might as well have a shot at making money off of it.” The show debuts to grand success and is dubbed Vigilance, for the idea that everyone in America must always be vigilant.

The plot follows McDean, a managing director of Vigilance, as he strives to maximize the viewership of the show through algorithms and marketing techniques. The chapters slowly break down the methods that he used to incorporate such a horrific show into the daily life of Americans, and the path of events that led to the USA willing to embrace it. We also follow a second character in the general populous; a bartender and gives a glimpse into what the daily life in the US is like. The result is a truly depressing tale that made me feel like walking out my front door protesting guns and the rhetoric behind them.

Vigilance is a stunningly well-argued piece on an imagined future for the current US political path. Full disclosure, I abhor gun violence and I was worried that my biases might make it hard to objectively review this story. However, having finished I find it the most compelling argument I can think of for the anti-gun side of the argument. This is not an unbiased thought piece, and if you find yourself on the pro-gun side of these issues, I do not think you will like it. For me personally, Bennett uses his smart prose, excellent pacing, and copious narrative skills to put into words feelings and ideas I, and I will bet many others, have wanted to express, but lack the ability to do. Vigilance, like everything Bennett writes, is an excellent piece that I think everyone should read.

Rating: Vigilance – 8.5/10
-Andrew

The Hod King – Hat Of The Sphinx

51tbh9qip2lI am running late on this review and I feel a deep sense of shame. Orbit was kind enough to send me a super advanced copy, which I promptly shelved because it was too early to review it. Unfortunately, my December reading schedule was a nightmare, so I am only getting to The Hod King now, and I am keenly aware that I should have read it weeks ago. Anyway, welcome to my review of the third Tower of Babel book, The Hod King, by Josiah Bancroft. If you missed my reviews of the first two books they can be found here, and here. Although you probably won’t care about this review until you read the first two books – there are no explicit spoilers so you are free to take a look even if you ignored my explicit advice to pick up this series (for which I am judging you).

The Books of Babel are shaping up to be a really hard series to holistically review. Although each book shares the same gripping plot, Bancroft’s incredible prose, and a delightful sense of humor,they also each have very different narrative styles that will pull readers towards one over the other. Senlin Ascends has a boyish naivety to it, and the storytelling is focused mostly on exploring the tower and introducing you to many of its marvels without revealing its secrets. The Arm of the Sphinx, my personal favorite, focuses more on building out the story. It takes the foundation and plot snippets that Senlin Ascends laid and builds them into a plot to rival any of the best fantasy stories out there. The Hod King takes the next logical step and fleshes out the characters to a heightened degree. However, don’t get me wrong – all three books have a lot of wonder, story, and character building in each.

The Books of Babel has been a story about characters from the start, and while we have witnessed Senlin’s slow change from selfish naive schoolteacher to selfless brilliant hero – the rest of the series amazing cast had not nearly been explored enough. To remedy this, The Hod King is split into roughly three equal 200-page parts. Each of these sections tells the same-ish section of the story from a different set of characters POV. Normally, I am not a huge fan of this style of storytelling. While it is always interesting to experience an event through the eyes of a variety of cast members, it can get really boring when 2/3rds of the book rehashes scenes where you already know the outcome. Bancroft remedies this brilliantly in two ways: first, his characters are so interesting that I was able to move past my initial reservations and have a wonderful time hearing about scenes a second time. And second, while the three sections of the story did have large overlaps, they also each moved the plot forward with different plot lines. That being said, if I had one complaint about The Hod King it would be that I don’t feel the plot made enough progress after 600 pages. I don’t really feel like any improvements were made toward remedying the imminent threat to the cast– we just know more about said threat.

At the same time, holy cow is the writing compelling. Every damn chapter is a cliffhanger that will have you burning through the pages to find out what happens. Bancroft has steadily improved his combat writing, and a number of the fight scenes had me on the edge of my seat sweating. The Hod King also has the most heart, due to its character focus, out of the books so far and there were a number of heartfelt and touching scenes that deeply moved me. The book also does an incredible job setting up the story for final fourth book – a release date I am now watching like a hawk.

In summary, The Hod King is great. The Books of Babel series continues to cement itself as one of the best character stories in the fantasy genre, and Senlin and his crew are an original group of rogues of whom I can’t get enough. The only complaint I have against The Hod King is that there wasn’t enough of it to feed my Bancroft addiction. The fourth installment of this modern classic cannot come soon enough, and if you aren’t reading these books, you don’t know what you are missing.

Rating: The Hod King – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Gunpowder Moon – Not A Bang, But A Pop

513oyhqa4bl._sx330_bo12c2042c2032c200_I never really intended to read this book. In fact, I didn’t even know it existed until Andrew handed it to me in a parking lot, with all the subtlety of a kid’s first drug deal. All I needed was the book’s cover and tag line “the moon’s first murder is just the beginning.” And honestly, if I did not write for this site, I probably would never have picked it up. Luckily for me, I got more out of it than I expected. For a shallow premise, there is a decent amount of potential hidden in this mixed bag of goodies. With Gunpowder Moon, David Pedreira weaves physics and danger into an entertaining read despite its lackluster story, serviceable characters, and uninspired worldbuilding.

Gunpowder Moon follows Caden Dechert, chief of moon mining operations for the United States and former Marine, as he and his small team of engineers and miners uncover a murder mystery. It is the year 2072 and the climate crisis is in full swing. Decades before, a large methane bubble escaped the Pacific Ocean, with the United States feeling most of its effects. The last hope for humanity lies in helium-3, a fuel used in fusion reactors that is found in accessible quantities on the moon. China and the U.S. both attempt to stay out of each other’s way with a tense truce while vying for the precious resource. Unfortunately for Dechert, the first murder on the moon occurs under his watch. The murder has the potential to set off a chain of events that could plunge the nations of Earth into another dark age. Dechert and his team work to solve the mystery before the “forces that be” on Earth find a way to use it an excuse for war.

The aspect of Gunpowder Moon that grabbed me the most was the attention Pedreira pays to physics on the moon. He wastes no time in making sure the reader is aware of how hostile the moon is to human life. From the effects of the lower gravity to the abundance of fine granules that make up the moon’s surface that cause attrition to the complex machinery, Dechert and his crew have a lot to worry about. It really set the stage for me as a reader, highlighting what can and cannot happen if violence breaks out between individuals or separate moonbases. In addition, it spotlights the sheer amount of work that must be done in order to hold the moon at bay while the miners extract the necessary fuel to power Earth. I also appreciated that a lot of the rules were set in the beginning, providing the reader with knowledge that newcomers to the moon may overlook as the story progresses. It also circumvents the problem of breaking down an issue after it has occurred, while allowing the reader to feel engaged when things start to go wrong.

I also enjoyed the setting in terms of the historical context leading to the events of the book. The nations of the world are in recovery after a large and costly war, instigated by the effects of a rapidly changing climate and reduced access to cheap energy. While this setup was interesting, it did not feel fleshed out. Pedreira seemed to rely on projecting current international politics into the future, expecting the reader to fill in the blanks. Readers are treated to a greatly-diminished U. S. that is all too willing to instantly go to war in the Middle East. Their adversary feels more like a bogeyman than a nation with goals and aspirations. I do not doubt that these could be very realistic scenarios, but considering the book takes places fifty years from now, it was hard to accept that government and international relations would not experience the upheaval that the general populace did, especially when it seemed like the United States suffered catastrophic population loss. If there had been a clearer setup, or at least more exposition time on Earth highlighting the problems, it would have felt more dire and volatile. Instead, it seemed a tacked-on reason to place a story on the moon.

When it comes to exploring the characters, Pedreira does a decent job of placing the reader in Dechert’s shoes through a noir-style narration. It is easy to tell what he is thinking, and how he makes the decisions he does. While he is your typical gruff commander type, Dechert comes off as someone who cares deeply for his crew, while remaining uninvested in the Earth itself. His mild misanthropy was easy to relate to because of his devotion to making sure everyone on the moon station was constantly aware of the risks they posed to themselves and each other. My biggest problems with Dechert stemmed from his flashbacks from his time in the war. They were not necessarily bad, but they did not add anything, like showing him rethinking a decision or forcing him to confront something he had hidden deep down. The flashbacks mostly were there to remind you that Dechert was a Marine, he cared for his squad, and he killed people. They did not enhance his experience on the moon or reveal anything about his character to the reader that they could not already glean from his actions throughout the narrative

Unfortunately, Dechert was surrounded by stock characters who did not add much to the story beyond dialogue and tension with Dechert himself. Lane is the quintessential smart female engineer with a penchant for wanting to murder those who disturb her. Quarles is a snarky, younger, slacker genius who serves as Dechert’s delinquent but lovable foster son. Standard – yes that is the character’s actual name – is the typical corporate stooge, coming to inspect the station, making sure everything was on the up and up. The characters themselves were not bad, and their dialogue was largely enjoyable. There was clearly chemistry between everyone, but a lot of their quirks were handled through narration by Dechert. The reader is never treated to one of Lane’s death stares, or Quarles’ need to smoke pot. These are just traits that Dechert relates to the reader at odd times, ignoring the “show, don’t tell” rule. I never really felt like I got to know the people he cared so much about, only that he cared about his ragtag little group of misfits. I wish we encountered a little more of the characters outside of Dechert’s brain because they genuinely did seem fun, and possibly interesting. Instead, it felt like someone coming home from college trying to tell you about how cool and zany their new friends were.

If all these other parts of the book are a mixed bag, surely the plot itself was engaging enough to shepherd me to the end? Well, like most of the other things I have talked about, the story itself was also just on the cusp of being good. Pedreira managed to keep the pacing tight and fast. He did not waste time setting the rules of the world, and the murder quickly kicks the plot into high gear. The book never truly felt dull, and even though the flashbacks did not add anything, they felt appropriately placed. Tension built consistently, and I felt danger lurking at each turn as the moon’s environment and international tensions intertwined. However, the plot itself did not feel novel or exciting. The stakes were set high from the beginning, and never really grew. To be fair, it is hard to get any higher than globe-spanning warfare set off by a single murder on the moon, but it just fell flat for me. I am not a big fan of mysteries in general, so to center the fate of the world on solving a murder felt too big. And the reveal felt very “Saturday-morning cartoon” by way of Scooby Doo.

All in all, if you are just looking for a fun space romp that has a noir aesthetic to it, Gunpowder Moon scratches that itch. It has fun moments, and Pedreira really put some work into the moon-based setting. The addition of extreme caution to every decision the characters make supplemented the standard murder mystery storyline in a way that made it more appealing. Pedreira also shows a lot of potential in his writing abilities, especially with his dialogue and general structure of the story. I would not recommend it to avid readers of science fiction, but if you know someone who likes the idea of science and new rules attached to their mystery-thrillers, Gunpower Moon is a good start.

Rating: Gunpowder Moon – 6.0/10
-Alex

The Tiger And The Wolf – Team Maniye

911er8bm6nlThis was a hard book to summarize my feelings on. The Tiger and the Wolf, by Adrian Tchaikovsky, is a weird novel built on the premise of shapeshifters. Set in a fantasy world where every human belongs to an animal tribe, individuals are all capable of shapeshifting into their peoples’ totem animal at will. It is a fairly common magical system in fantasy, but like all things that Tchaikovsky infuses with his imagination, The Tiger and the Wolf manages to stand out from novels with similar premises by diving deep into the duality of man and beast and building a world that is awe-inspiring to explore.

The world of Tiger & Wolf is a fractious one, with most animal tribes competing (and waging war) for land and resources. This is particularly true in the north, where the hearty tiger, wolf, bear, eagle, seal, boar, and deer fight to survive the habitually recurring frost. The Tiger tribe once ruled the north uncontested – until the various wolf clans banded together and threw them down. In the process, one of the wolf clan leaders took the tiger queen hostage and had a child – Maniye. Maniye in our main protagonist and she has an interesting problem – she has two spirit animals. Being able to “step” into both the form of a wolf AND a tiger initially sounds like a blessing. However, Tchaikovsky does an incredible job of bringing the nature and majesty of each animal to life in their respective tribes, and the tiger and the wolf HATE one another. The spirits of the various tribes are not faceless forces, but sentient deities with agendas – and the tiger and the wolf both despise the girl who forces them to “be in the same room”.

The majority of the book follows the escapades of Maniye, and how her duel heritage constantly makes her the center of conflict and intrigue. In particular, her father wants to use her tiger heritage to subjugate the remaining tigers that survived his war – a plan that she wants no part of. As Maniye continually (literally) runs from this fate she meets a cast of fantastic support characters and travels all around this fascinating world introducing us to a number of interesting animal tribes. The side cast really is memorable, in particular, the snake priest who finally makes serpents feel like good guys for once. The animal tribes are all extremely well developed and you will find yourself burning through the pages to learn about all of them. Additionally, on top of the grade-A worldbuilding, the combat is absolutely stunning. The individuals of this world all fight by blending their human and animal forms into unique fighting styles and reading the characters move between their forms with such fluidity makes the fighting feel innovative, original, and brings the clans to life.

However, as I mentioned at the start of this review this was a difficult book to review. Despite all the wonderful things Tiger & Wolf has going for it, it also has some issues. The first is that something like 70% of the book revolves around Maniye just running from something. There are, so many, chase scenes in this book. They are super cool the first five times, but by chase 17 they were starting to wear a little thin. On top of being repetitive, the pacing also suffered due to the bloated chase sequences. The plot is also not particularly strong. It’s certainly not bad, but I didn’t find myself often wondering what would happen next. Maniye’s path forward was always fairly easy to see, and it was who she met on the way that made me want to keep picking up the book, not wondering what was going to happen to her. The book also felt a little overly focused on Maniye when there was such a strong set of support characters to give more spotlight.

The Tiger and the Wolf is only the first book in a larger series, one that I definitely plan on continuing. The world is very fun to explore and continues to showcase Tchaikovsky’s impressive imagination and skill at writing fight scenes. However, I hope that the future books will have slightly better pacing and at least a small reduction in chase scenes. Regardless, The Quill to Live definitely recommends The Tiger and the Wolf.

Rating: The Tiger and the Wolf – 7.5/10
-Andrew

The Ballad Of Black Tom – Not Going To Dance Around This One

51y55ipp1jl._sx311_bo1204203200_I’m certainly not a prolific reviewer – you can take a look at the history of the blog and see that without too much difficulty. At the same time, since joining The Quill to Live I’ve reviewed a decent amount of horror stories. I’ve come to some conclusions on what attributes great (or just my favorite) horror tales share. These are certainly not commandments written in stone from on high, but when I truly enjoy a spooky story it tends to share the following traits.

Great horror stories are short. I’m not saying something needs to be five pages long to be scary, but the longer you spend on a subject the more it tends to move out of “horror” and into being just “scary”. I find the sweet spot is right in the novella length, somewhere between 70 to 150 pages, long enough to unfurl the entirety of itself but short enough to leave you uncertain what it was that you just experienced. I find in the longer stories you tend to be left with a few scary moments, rather than a truly horrifying experience.

There are no “Good Guys” in great horror stories. The very existence of a Good Guy in a horror story means that it’s a scary story, not a horror story. Any kind of tale can be scary, all it requires is a distinct kind of tension and discomfort. To be truly horrifying a story needs to be bleak, hopeless even. In a great horror story, the characters who survive to the end haven’t won, they’ve merely prolonged their role in the tale.

You can’t “win” a great horror story. Regardless of the outcome, whether the big bad ostensibly won or lost, everything is worse at the end of a horror story. Sometimes there is no right answer, and the best in horror makes sure there isn’t a happy resolution.

An awful lot of whinging for what was ostensibly a review of The Ballad of Black Tom, the novella by Victor LaValle, right? With a lead-in like that there are only two potential opinions I can have on the book. One: I loved it, and this is all an elaborate way to review the book without actually saying anything about it. Two: I hated it, and this is all an elaborate way to lead into me tearing this book to shreds with visceral glee.

It will put LaValle’s mind at rest, in the vanishingly small chances that he’s a member of our loyal readership, that Black Tom firmly falls into the first category. I absolutely loved the story and wish I could talk about a number of things that I’m unable to without ruining some of my favorite aspects of the narrative. I shouldn’t need to, but will regardless, say that Black Tom is perfectly pithy and short, the characters are complex and flawed, and the story ended in a compelling and chilling fashion. I won’t say anything else here, as I don’t want to influence you going into the book. It really is a frightening story in the style of the old weird authors, and manages to twist the telling of the story in a way that I think makes it all the more interesting and adds a sense of realism to the otherworldly horror that makes up the majority of the narrative.

If you don’t enjoy frightening short stories and the mention of Cthulhu is enough to make you put a book down, this book won’t change your mind and I don’t think you should pick it up. If you enjoy stories that leave you paralyzed by doubt, discomfort, and distress on their conclusion, I think you’ll find this one to be right up your alley.

Rating: The Ballad of Black Tom – 9.0/10
-Will