Johannes Cabal the Necromancer – Like Johannes’ Zombies, Flawed but Functional

Hi again, and welcome back to the Spooky Cor- no, wait. Hmm. Let’s try that again, shall we?

51ai-ncxy-lHi again, and welcome to something-analogous-to-but-not-quite-as-spooky-as-the-real-Spooky-Corner! I’m here today to review Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, by Jonathan L. Howard, the first book in the aptly-named Johannes Cabal series. As something of a connoisseur of horror books, zombie books, books involving Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and books that make me laugh I find it surprising that it’s taken me this long to hear about this series. Currently on its fifth main installment (with an additional 5 supplementary books), Johannes Cabal clearly has something going for it. Let’s find out what that something is.

We’ll begin with a quick rundown: Johannes Cabal, the main character and essentially a differently-named version of the titular character from Lovecraft’s Herbert West – Reanimator (funny how similar the titles are…eh?), has sold his soul to the devil in exchange for necromantic powers and he wants it back. He goes to hell with the intention of making a wager with Satan, and does so. The rules are that he must provide Satan with 100 souls in the next year or he will be killed and damned to forever remain in hell. To make this less of a sisyphean task, the devil provides Cabal with a demonic carnival that he will act as the proprietor of for the duration of the year. This all happens in the opening of the book, and the remainder is spent touching on various scenes from the year Cabal spends on the road (well, rails, it’s a train).

There are really only two main characters in the book (three if you include Satan, which is a bit of a stretch but I could see an argument for it), Johannes Cabal and his brother, Horst. As such, the majority of the book follows them and their friendly (from Horst’s end, Johannes flatly hates him) sibling rivalry. Much of the book’s humor comes from one of the brothers reacting to something the other has done, and the vast majority of it was charming. Like the protagonists of most horror books, though, Johannes is…well he’s not a shithead, and I wouldn’t call him strictly “evil” per se. Let’s put it this way, he’s someone who has no qualms collecting 100 other souls to get his own back, which puts him firmly in the “not a good person” category. Does he do some good things? Yes, but if you’re the type of reader who needs a noble, selfless paragon of good as your main character, this is definitely not going to be the book for you. However, the specific ways in which Cabal is sort of terrible lend a lot to the humor of the book and work very well with the story being told.

Considering the subject matter (a necromancer on a task from satan to steal souls), you could be forgiven for assuming a lack of humor. You would be very wrong. There’s something for almost everyone here, Cabal’s personal sense of humor and dialogue is incredibly dry and sardonic, the zombies he creates are bumbling and almost entirely inept sources of slapstick humor and what would be sight gags if this were a movie, and some of the descriptions of scenes had me guffawing. I was particularly fond of Cabal’s painfully awkward run as a carnival barker, as a man dressed like, and with the demeanor of, a mortician yelling about how astounding a freak show is really hits me in the funny bone. Not every joke landed, but even the jokes that didn’t quite hit for me didn’t have me rolling my eyes, so I think that overall the humor in this book was pretty on point.

Sadly, the same can’t be said about the horror. Considering the inspirations for this book (Something Wicked This Way Comes and the various Lovecraft shorts), I’m disappointed to say that there was only one scene that really had my hair standing on end, and even that was brief. I would have liked to see more of a focus on the horror aspect of the book, but I think if I’d gone into it expecting that, it wouldn’t have been quite so disappointing for me, so your mileage may vary.

I also had some issues with the end of the book. It felt rushed to me and a lot of plot threads that I thought deserved some time got wrapped up very quickly. It left me feeling unsatisfied and and somewhat disappointed, as those plotlines had been dealt with very well up until that point. Having them resolve in the matter of a few pages cheapened what could have been some very impactful moments of character development. This wasn’t enough to ruin the book for me, but I think 50 more pages or so would have brought this book’s score up considerably for me. It really is too bad when the aspects I don’t like in a book are so close to the end, as I can’t help but feel it colors my perception of the book’s quality up until that point, particularly when it’s a book I had been thoroughly enjoying.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer was a fun book that I flew through. I think the way it told its story was clever and entertaining, as long as you don’t mind how close it stands to the stories that it takes its inspiration from. While I wish that a novel set in the same universe as the Cthulhu Mythos was at least a little scarier than this was, and I had some problems with the resolution of certain plot threads, I would recommend that everyone give this book a shot. At 291 pages it’s not a huge commitment, and you’ll know by about 25% whether it’s something you want to keep reading or not, so try it out and see for yourself.

Rating: Johannes Cabal the Necromancer – 7/10

-Will

This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It – I Spent Longer Reading The Title Than I Did Reading The Book. No, Seriously, This Was An Unnecessarily Long Book Title

51hnqg0ylal-_sx331_bo1204203200_To you catchers of creeps, you hunters of haunts, you finders of frights, I bid you welcome to the Spooky Corner on the spookiest day of the year! Happy Halloween from those of us at The Quill to Live, and we hope you’re having a delightfully dreadful time. Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, let’s get to what you came for.

We’re back with the second installment in the John Dies at the End series: This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It (henceforth referred to as Spiders, since that title is half a dictionary long). For those of you who don’t remember or didn’t read my review of the first book in the series from a week or two ago (shame on you), you can find it here. As a brief summary, I absolutely loved its take on horror and the human understanding of the universe, but thought that the childish humor and despicable characters may, understandably, impede enjoyment for some.

Shockingly, Spiders continues with much of the same. David and John are still despicable and relatively worthless human beings other than the whole “saving the world” thing they did in book one. A year has passed, and the town of Undisclosed hasn’t changed much over that time. It’s still a shithole, weird stuff still happens, and the “junkie scooby gang” is still deeply involved in the aforementioned weird stuff. The book opens with David and John getting drunk on a water tower as a military style convoy passes under them and violently crashes. They take a macguffin from the crashed vehicle, bury it in their backyard, and go back to daily life (as you do). Well, they try to, but David is attacked by a terrifying spider-monster that he barely fends off before it escapes and takes over the body of a police officer who was trying to arrest him at the time. This mishap leads to a few others and suddenly the town is overrun by spider-zombies, go figure. The remainder of the book mostly follows the split-up John, David, and Amy as they try to find each other in the quarantined town and, as a secondary goal, try to save the world (again).

If the plot sounds rather neat and tidy in that fantastic synopsis, that’s because it is. I thought there were some forgivable but frustrating issues with pacing and narrative flow in JDatE, Spiders felt much more cohesive throughout and really felt like one self-contained story. The order of the chapters and fondness of the author for pausing the action to go back to another character’s perspective from a few hours before could have led to some serious issues, but I actually think that it was well done and added to both the suspense and humor of the book positively.

On the topic of “things that could have really ruined this book but turned out ok in the end”, I thought that the zombie apocalypse in the town of Undisclosed was handled very well and avoided a lot of the traps that zombie books tend to fall into. As something of a zombie fiction fanboy (Link to my recommendations here for those who are interested), there are a lot of ways to do zombies wrong and, while that wouldn’t have bothered me much as I just really love zombies, Spiders avoids a lot of the major ones. The zombies are scary, gross, unique, and fit within this universe’s flavor of horror and monsters extremely well. I’m rarely spooked by zombie books at this point, but there were a couple of moments that really got to me. When you get to the garage you’ll know what I mean.

A possible major sticking point for readers of the first book, and one that anyone reading the review of its sequel likely didn’t have an issue with (or found a way to move past it), was the fact that the main characters are…sort of the worst. John is a flaky, crazy, meth-smoking junkie, David is an overweight and horrifically depressed manager of a movie store, and Amy is basically their conscience and one ray of hope for the two of them to not be so fucking terrible all the time. The dynamic trio is split up for the majority of the book for reasons I refuse to get into as I don’t want to spoil them, and seeing them interact with the variety of new side characters was a treat. While I love their dynamic together, seeing other people react to just how bad they are at being heroes was great and led to some alternatively hilarious and horrifying moments.

I’d like to take a moment, quickly, to appreciate one of the side characters featured in this book: Detective Lance Falconer. I am being intentionally vague here, as to go into any more detail than I do in this paragraph could spoil what is possibly my favorite aspect of this book. I thought the way his character was handled was fantastic and really elevated a lot of elements in the book. From his first introduction to his final scene with David, he was a constant positive addition. He really stood above the rest of the characters introduced in Spiders, and I hope he makes a return in the future, preferably jumping over a truck of some kind in his bitchin’ Porsche.

On the topic of bitchin’ cars and jumping over things, Spiders maintains the adolescent level of humor that was found throughout the first novel. Toilet humor, excessive swearing, sex jokes, and what would be sight gags if this was a movie are plentiful and unapologetic. If you made it through book one just tolerating the humor, you won’t see much of an improvement here. A lot of it was still pretty hit or miss for me, but like in the first one when the humor did hit, it had me in stitches. There were a few moments where I drew looks on the subway because I was crying from laughing so hard.

In contrast to the humor, the horror was on point for the entire book. Not only did we get a much better understanding than in book one of why people do or don’t see the various creatures, but the creatures that were added and how the main characters interact with them in various situations were absolutely fantastic. There’s a scene with a teddy bear that I am still shuddering about weeks after finishing. The mix of body horror and oppressive atmosphere, the tension reminiscent of watching someone walk down into a dark basement in the theater, and the creeping sense of wrongness that pervades Undisclosed were all handled excellently. I am even more impressed with how scary this book is when you consider how much of it is dedicated to being funny at the same time. I will be having nightmares featuring certain scenes of this book for years to come. That may not sound like a glowing recommendation, but it really is.

John Dies at the End had been on my to-do list for years before I finally got to it. I read This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It in one sitting the day after I finished the first book. It ups the quality of the first book in every way and is a must-read for anyone who enjoys cosmic horror, zombies, or creepy parasites. The humor is sometimes a little off-color and tone deaf but that is easily forgiven when considering the quality of the horror and how much fun the ride is the entire time. The Spooky Corner of The Quill to Live enthusiastically recommends This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It.

Rating: This Book is Full of Spider: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It – 9.5/10

-Will

John Dies at the End – No, He Doesn’t.

john-dies-at-the-endThe days are getting shorter, the temperature is fluctuating 30 degrees a day, and everything is slowly turning brown. This can only mean one thing: We’re most of the way through October and Halloween is fast approaching. Regular readers of this blog know that with Halloween comes…a SPOOKY CORNER POST.

Yes, that’s right. I’m back in all my cobwebby, dusty, half-seen-in-the-dark-of-a-new-moon glory. With me, I bring a review of a book that was released over a decade ago, John Dies at the End, by David Wong (pen name of Jason Pargin, executive editor of Cracked.com). Now, you may be asking yourself (or me), “Why review a book that’s been out for a decade, one popular enough at that time to have spawned a cult-favorite motion picture?” Well, kind readers, because I’ve made a note to read it, and subsequently forgotten to, more times than I can count. Also the third book in the series released this month, jogging my memory. Without further bullshit meant to inflate my word count and pay (that’s a joke, Andrew refuses to pay me), let’s find out what I think about what will henceforth be known as JDatE (note that I am not reviewing Jewish dating services though).

John Dies at the End is a weird book, for a variety of reasons. I can describe it as: scary, funny, clever, dumb, enthralling, confusing, and unique each in their turn. It is essentially the story of a couple young delinquents who take a drug and start seeing shit. This drug, named Soy Sauce by the characters, does something to them that peels back the layer of normalcy from the world and allows them to see things as they really are. Based on the fact that this is at least partially classified as a horror book, you can probably guess that “things as they really are” means “HOLY FUCK WHAT IS THAT”. After taking the sauce and having the veil lifted, they go on an adventure or two and save the world…sorta.

Now, I’m a huge fan of cosmic horror. The idea of the universe as a dark and terrifying place occupied by vast, unknowable entities is one that appeals to me. In this, JDatE is extremely up my alley. The specific explanations given for how the human mind reacts to seeing things it has no ability to fully comprehend was, if not completely unique, certainly spelled out more explicitly in this novel than in many I’ve read. The idea that paranormal sightings (ghosts, aliens, demons, etc.) are really just your brain trying to wrap itself around something that’s impossible for a human to have a frame of reference for is really cool. Now, explaining why people are seeing certain things isn’t enough, by itself, to make a good horror book. Luckily, Wong/Pargin does a great job in thinking up some actually horrific stuff. There’s a decent mix of atmospheric, shock, and body horror, and I feel like when you consider how childish a lot of the humor is, the fact that the horror wasn’t exclusively gross-out body horror is something to be applauded. I was as creeped out at various points in this book as I ever have been by Barron, Lovecraft, or Chambers, and that earns this book major points from me.

The humor was somewhat more hit or miss for me. Before I get into any criticism, it must be said that this book did have me laughing so hard I cried a couple times, so when it hits it really hits. However, a lot of the humor would find itself comfortable in a Reddit.com comments thread, and while that’s all fine and dandy, it’s really not something I’m looking for in a long-form novel. The shock humor and childishness of it can wear thin at points, even with the understanding that this is keeping in character with the novel’s two leads, David and John.

On that note, if you’re someone who needs likable protagonists, or just protagonists that aren’t lowlife shitheads you may want to look elsewhere. John and David are not successful or mature adults. They do not become successful or mature adults by the end of the book. They are very much a pair of college dropout fuckups just trying to get by day-to-day, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that by itself was enough for people to drop the book. Personally, I was alright with it, but it is something of a trope in cosmic horror/weird fiction for the protagonists to be…well…shitheads. The alcoholic and once-great detective, the journalist out of a job and needing a big story to afford his morphine addiction, the obsessive and immoral scientist: these are all standard themes in horror, and lovers of the genre will likely have grown a somewhat thick skin for bad behavior in leads. Readers coming for the humor, or simply trying out something new may not be as forgiving, and I would have a hard time holding that against them.

The one thing I’ve really struggled to form an opinion on was the pacing. It felt incredibly off in some aspects and incredibly on in others. The book really felt like three separate stories to me due to a few time jumps and narrative changes. It’s not bad to have the different “adventures” each feel relatively self-contained, but I think the transitions could have been handled a little better. They felt abrupt, and while I think that was intentional, they were still a little more jarring than I think they should have been.

When looked at as an entire package objectively, I think John Dies at the End is a solid book. It will be very hit or miss for people based on the style of the humor and some of the descriptions of various…things in the book, but I definitely recommend at least giving it a try. However, when looked at as an entire package personally, this book was an absolute blast that I read in one sitting. I absolutely loved it and cannot recommend it highly enough to people that share my love of cosmic horror and sardonic humor experienced through the perspective of characters that have no business being the heroes in any story, especially their own.

Rating: John Dies at the End – 7.0 (objective rating) 9.0 (personal rating)/10

-Will

5 Stories About the Living Dead that You Should Be Dying to Read

Will won’t stop bothering me about the lack of zombies on the site (despite our recent reviews of the Ex-Heroes series), so he has convinced me to let him do a post demonstrating the wonder and glory of the undead. Enjoy:

Can something be a guilty pleasure if you don’t feel guilty about the pleasure you take from it?

Considering I edit and contribute to a blog (this one) that trades primarily in reviewing fantasy/fiction/sci-fi/whatever, I like to think that I have what could be considered generally good taste. While I may have my soft spots, I’m usually able to tell whether a book is objectively good or not, without regard to how much I may personally enjoy the story or subject. There is one genre I have more difficulty with than others, in this regard. If you’ve read my prior reviews, you’re probably already nodding your head, a tired and long suffering look on your face. “Horror, obviously. The man likes his spooks,” you say to no one in particular as you take another sip of the mediocre coffee that your company stocks in its office kitchen. Well, to anyone who said that, no points for you! The genre is “Zombie Fiction”, and I love it all. Good, bad, indifferent, I can find something to like in all of it.

Now, that being said, I understand that most people aren’t quite fond enough of the genre to forgive what is, speaking honestly, the dearth of objectively good zombie stories. It is in this spirit that I present to you the following list of recommendations. Hopefully you try them out and find something you can enjoy without having to slog through yet another self-published ripoff of Romero’s 2004 version of Dawn of the Dead.

Please keep in mind that the following books aren’t in any particular order, except that if you haven’t read #1, stop reading this and come back to the list once you’ve finished it.

1: World War Z – Max brooks 

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Please don’t watch the movie. Actually, go ahead and watch the movie, but make sure you pretend the entire time it’s called “Brad Pitt Saves the World from Zombies” and has nothing to do with this license.

Written as a series of interviews taking place 10+ years after the conclusion of the Zombie War, World War Z is a very different experience than the books making up the rest of this list. The reader is put into the shoes of a United Nations investigator trying to find out what the cost of the Zombie war was. You are treated to interviews with people ranging across the entire spectrum of humanity. From a doctor in rural china to a young Russian soldier to the Vice President of the United States at the start of the outbreak, the viewpoints are varied and tie together incredibly well. This is a book that rewards careful attention to detail and multiple rereads, as many of the stories are intertwined and crib off of one another. This is my personal favorite book of all time and I cannot recommend this enough.

Personal Rating: 10/10

2: The Zombie Survival Guide – Max Brooks 

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Set in the same universe as World War Z, and published earlier. The Zombie Survival Guide is probably the lightest entry on the list in terms of weight and depth. It is, however, effectively comedic and fun to read.

Taking the form of a, you guessed it, survival handbook for people in zombie outbreaks, this book is very similar to titles in the Worst Case Scenario series. If you enjoy how-to guides with a sprinkling of brains and machete recommendations, this is a fast, fun book to pick up. There is also a graphic novel version of this book that, while great, I would recommend reading as a supplement after the novel itself.

Personal Rating: 8/10

3: The Morningstar Saga – Z. A. Recht

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This series is difficult to review as a single entity due to the tragic and untimely death of the author partway through the third and final book in the trilogy. The ghostwriter, Thom Brannan, did what he could but the change in tone and character voice is just too stark for me. With some major character arcs being wrapped up unsatisfactorily and a muddy, confusing end, I can’t personally recommend book 3.

All that being said, I thoroughly enjoy Recht’s take on zombies. He combines the two classic versions (fast rage zombies and slow relentless zombies) into different stages of the same infection. This gives a formulaic “military response to global catastrophe” story a breath of fresh air. While nothing is absolutely exceptional, all the ingredients work well together and create some zombie fiction comfort food.

Personal Rating: Plague of the Dead – 8/10  Thunder and Ashes  9/10 Survivors – 4/10

4: Day by Day Armageddon – J. L. Bourne

daybydayarmageddon

Another military-focused entry on the list, which is something of a theme for the genre, Bourne eschews the more standard pov of the military machine itself in favor of a single soldier.

Taking the form of the (now ex) soldier’s journal entries, we are treated to a….day by day…look at the world falling apart and the overall struggle to survive in a worldwide collapse. With simple, direct prose informed by the journalistic window-dressing, Day by Day Armageddon is a quick, fun read that I highly recommend.

Personal Rating: 8.5/10

5: The Remaining – D. J. Molles

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Well, I probably should have mentioned this earlier, but for those of you who are turned off by military fiction the zombie genre is likely not the place for you.

The Remaining is written from the perspective of Captain Lee Harden of the United States Army. Lee is an embedded agent specifically trained to maintain the rule of law in the US and rebuild after any near-apocalyptic event. If that sounds awfully convenient to you, well it is. While there are some things in this series that you may roll your eyes at, the action is well written and nothing I read was too egregious to overlook.

Personal Rating: 8.5/10

Well there you go. Now, valued and beloved reader, you are ready to take your first slow, shambling steps into the world of zombie fiction. With this list you should be able to get a nice strong start, without getting completely turned off by thinking that my zombie fan fiction is actually anything you ever want to read (you do, by the way, it’s pretty great). At the very least go read World War Z, it’s been out forever and it’s amazing. No, really, I promise, just read it and you’ll see.

-Will

Two Serpents Rise – This Sequence Gets Craftier

2sr-coverMy father was 60 years old when I was born. Kind of an odd thing to start a book review off with, but those of you who are the guessing sort are probably guessing that this will be tied into the review later on. Bonus points for you. As for the rest of you, just bear with me. 60 years is a long time, and when you think about how much of a generational gap there is between those of us born on the cusp of the millennium and those born as recently as the early 80s, one can imagine just how different my father and I were. I loved him dearly, but we had what some would call a tempestuous relationship. It’s something that I regret, but am unable to change since he passed.

I touch on this because the story in Two Serpents Rise, the second book in The Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone, is a departure from what was the main theme of book one, Three Parts Dead. The first book in the series, as you can read in Andrew’s review here, was an exciting and satisfying look at difficult workplace dynamics. Two Serpents Rise, on the other hand, examines how we can deal with the family we’re born into, and how important it is to build another family for ourselves through our friends and loved ones.

Caleb Altemoc, the protagonist of this book, is a risk manager and avid card player working for Red King Consolidated. For those of you new to the world of The Craft Sequence, the gods fought a battle with some powerful sorcerers known as the Deathless Kings…and lost. As you can probably guess from the name, RKC is run by the Red King, a skeletal sorcerer of immense power. After an infestation of some frankly horrific water demons (they take the form of arachnids, imagine drinking some water infested with them and having them form inside your stomach…shudder), Caleb is embroiled in a variety of plots as he tries to keep the city of Dresediel Lex, and the company he works for … afloat (I had to).Caleb interacts with his boss frequently, and The King in Red is an absolutely fantastic character. We are given some incredible insight into what could drive someone to become something so inhuman, and how underneath all that…bone…is something that was human once and may be human still. I think the scenes where we learn about the Red King’s past and his history with the city of Dresediel Lex are some of the strongest in the book.

The city of Dresediel Lex and its history is as large a character as any of the human/skeleton/whatever(s) in the book. Drawing heavily from mesoamerican history and mythology, Gladstone has created an incredibly unique city, at least in terms of fiction I have experienced. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been exposed to cities in fantasy that were influenced by Aztec culture, and even fewer of those that weren’t simply relegated to “BLOODTHIRSTY GODS WANT BLOOD”. While human sacrifice is definitely something that is explored, the conflict of what constitutes true sacrifice and how those sacrifices are offered is a huge aspect of the book and I thought it was handled very well. I also want to really quickly touch on how unsettling the bug taxis are. They’re giant dragonfly-type things that suck your soul out as taxi fare. I am so uncomfortable thinking about that, just the description gave me shudders every time.

The conflict between Caleb and his father, Temoc, is one of the main driving forces of the book. His father is an Eagle Priest, a powerful and uncompromising worshipper of the old gods of Dresediel Lex. He is very much of the old guard and his belief that human sacrifice is an absolute necessity to appease the gods is in direct conflict with Caleb’s views of it as murder by another name. The descriptions of the arguments they’ve had playing out for the thousandth time reminded me a great deal of my relationship with my dad, and I was left upset and shaking my head when I saw myself in Caleb’s shoes, unable to understand his father and unable to make his father understand.

My only real complaints with the book come from the pacing and the climax. In terms of the pacing I was left feeling like more time had passed in the world than made sense for the story, though that could be a personal gripe. In addition, I felt the climax was rather abrupt. While the end of the book was exciting and certainly not short of spectacle, the actual final showdown with the ultimate enemy of the book was over very quickly and felt almost glossed over. I was expecting more going into it than I received, and while this is an issue, I think it’s a minor one when considering the story as a whole.

Two Serpents Rise is most definitely not the book I was expecting when I started it. After the funny and quirky romp that was Three Parts Dead, the introspective nature of this story really surprised me. I think, though, that the mileage of this story may vary for readers that aren’t in my shoes. In our book club discussion of Three Parts Dead, the ratings varied along the lines of those who enjoy their work and those who don’t. I Imagine that ratings would vary similarly in readings of Two Serpents Rise for those who have difficulties dealing with parts of their family and those who don’t. Regardless of that fact, though, Two Serpents Rise is an enjoyable read that I would recommend to anyone who enjoyed the world of The Craft Sequence and wants to delve further into this land of gods and the people who live with them.

Rating: Two Serpents Rise – 9.0/10

-Will

Grayshade – 1 Shade of Gray

Back by popular demand (and because I chained him to a desk because I have been busy), our editor Will is here with a post about the new book Grayshade by Gregory A. Wilson

grayshade-digital-coverHaving been an avid reader of fantasy since my days as a child, I’ve gotten the opportunity to explore a wide variety of worlds and stories. From the heavy adventurer-focus of the Forgotten Realms books to the sardonic and dry wit of Discworld, all the way to the unique and unforgettable worlds of Sanderson’s Mistborn and Stormlight Archive series, fantasy fans have a wide breadth of choices for settings, characters, and worlds. It is partially due to this that authors have a choice to make when setting out the goals of their story and characters; do I try to expand the genre and write something never seen before, or do I write in the reader’s comfort zone and give them an enjoyable take on something they’ve seen before? Both of these options have their pros and cons, and we’ve seen fantastic series that follow both schools of thought. I mentioned Sanderson’s collections of stories as being an exemplar of building something completely fresh and new for a reader, and one need only look so far as Sullivan’s Riyria stories for how an author can take well-tread tropes and make them enjoyable without feeling like they’re pandering.

Grayshade and the world it takes place in attempts to fulfill both options. It is the second release in the brand new fantasy setting of Stormtalons, a series of 150 planned novels from a wide variety of writers. I’d like to take a second immediately after mentioning that to say, “Oh. My. God. That is a LOT of books.” Grayshade in particular is the first book in the self-contained The Gray Assassin trilogy. If the respective titles of the book and the trilogy it is contained within didn’t tip you off, let me do the honors. Grayshade is a book about an assassin of the same name. He is an Acolyte of Argoth, the god of justice, and has for his entire life to this point been a member of this order. We begin the book with Grayshade on a mission to assassinate a target, jumping directly into the action and never really stopping from there. Throughout the course of this book we learn more about the city of Cohrelle and the various religious orders that are contained within, as well as getting a look into a formative moment in Grayshade’s life and development as a character.

If this sounds like a well-trod path in other stories…well, it is. Following an assassin, or any character of nefarious profession, as they develop from a morally indifferent character to someone who takes a stand for their values and virtues is a trope that I’m positive everyone reading this blog has encountered at some point. I certainly don’t mean to paint that as a bad thing, necessarily. Tropes are tropes for a reason, and having something immediately familiar to readers as a touchstone into a brand new fantasy world and setting is very helpful in allowing the reader to place their focus on learning how this new world works without having to spend a great deal of mental energy on trying to understand where the main character is coming from. I think that Gregory A. Wilson does a good job in this novel of telling a satisfying, if familiar, story in a brand new world. I enjoyed Grayshade’s inner monologues and the way he went about his work to an impressive extent.

That being said, there were some things that started to get under my skin as the story went on, and kept me from truly losing myself in the reading. While I understand that Grayshade takes place in an entirely new setting, there were a great deal of names for objects and substances that seemed purposefully vague and opaque. At the 20% mark of the book (I read this as a Kindle ARC) there was the following line, “I laughed. ‘It’s rivid gas, first of all, not rethel. Rethel gas wouldn’t dissipate that quickly.’” What does this actually tell me about these substances? That they’re both dangerous and that one dissipates more quickly than the other. What this doesn’t tell me is why these substances are dangerous. Are they flammable? Poisonous? Do they explode? Are they acidic? I would have a much healthier respect for the substance if I actually knew what it did. This is a consistent issue I had with the book, whether it’s describing dangerous gasses, or never really describing what the “darts” that Grayshade uses in his missions look like. I want to know whether he’s talking about throwing knives or stars, whether they have a flat blade or are more like a stiletto. No, this doesn’t ruin the book, and no it isn’t a catastrophic error, but it’s a small thing that would have made it easier for me to fall into the story had it been addressed. It’s also an easy way to flesh out the world and setting that I thought was a missed opportunity.

The other issue, and a bigger one in my opinion, is that the pacing of the second half of the novel just felt off to me. Major events came out of nowhere and were handled in a page or two, while Grayshade’s travels through the districts and inner monologues were given entire chapters. The final showdown between Grayshade and his enemies was, while exciting and fun, over very quickly and without the fanfare it deserved. I was hoping for an epic showdown and was treated to a quick knife in the back. I felt let down at the end, which isn’t a note you want to end on in the first book of a trilogy.

Grayshade is a book that reminds me of so many other fantasy novels I’ve read. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. As I said earlier when I mentioned the “assassin with a moral compass” thing, tropes are essentially a gray area (see what I did there?) in storytelling. They’re not good or bad by default, as they’re essentially just references to experiences the reader has had before. What makes or breaks them is how they’re used. Grayshade has both the good and bad. It’s great that the book provides an easy to understand touchstone into this new world with a perfectly functional take on a story we’ve heard before, and bad that it relies on previous experiences for basic things like the gas issue I mentioned earlier. I think this is essentially the chicken noodle soup of fantasy. You’re not going to be blown away, and this isn’t going to be the best you’ve ever had, but you can’t go wrong with Grayshade if what you’re looking for is something familiar and satisfying.

Rating: Grayshade – 7.0/10

Guest Post: The Hatching – Spidery Horror that’s not quite spooky enough

I am letting Will slowly build his own spooky corner on the blog, as I am told horror books are pretty good but I am a huge pansy. Enjoy as he sets up a few cobwebs:

the-hatching-9781501125041_hrLet’s get this out of the way right at the start. If you couldn’t guess by the cover art consisting of cobwebbed lettering backed by silk, or the name The Hatching, this novel is about spiders. As such, this review will also at least be partly about spiders. If you have arachnophobia, or if they just give you the willies, you should ABSOLUTELY READ THIS BOOK.

Now that we’re done with the disclaimer, friendly reader, I’m sure you’re wondering why I would recommend a book about spiders to those with arachnophobia. I’m recommending it specifically because it’s a horror book, and horror is supposed to freak you out. That said, for spider lovers, spider enthusiasts, and the spider agnostic out there, while this book entertains I think it falls a little short of the mark in terms of spooks. This isn’t to say that The Hatching isn’t fun, it maintains a quick pace and achieves what it’s going for to a respectable degree. To me, though, it was notably lacking in chills running down my spine.

The Hatching is the debut novel in The Hatching Series, by Ezekiel Boone. In it, we follow a wide variety of characters as they find out about, and react to, an invasion by hordes (swarms?) of man-eating spiders. Think Arachnophobia on a global scale. It riffs heavily from previous novels of the “world catastrophe” genre and I was particularly reminded of both World War Z and Robopocalypse with their large casts of characters from around the world. In typical fashion, the world is given warnings that are ignored or dismissed before everything gets completely out of hand. Subsequently, a group of people (this group containing members with varying importance, from world leaders to a marine Lance Corporal) are forced to deal with the fallout. The fallout is spiders falling from the sky. Literally. Oh, and some nuclear fallout. Really, there’s fallout of all kinds to deal with.

Sadly, that fallout doesn’t really get dealt with. While that is likely due to Boone saving the meat of the crisis for later in the series, the satisfaction of the story within The Hatching itself suffers for it. The choice to write this story as a series of short to mid-length books, rather than one larger self-contained book, is a departure from the genre standard, and one I don’t entirely agree with it. Horror is significantly less effective when you’re given a chance to decompress from it, and breaking up what was a lightning fast, headlong rush into global catastrophe right at what felt like the denouement was a letdown to me. We’re left on a somewhat unsatisfying cliffhanger that sets us up for the next installment of the series, which precludes this book standing on its own. All this combined with a long wait for the next book, and some issues I’m about to get into, lead me to find it difficult to maintain the hype that I imagine the author, publishers, and readers were hoping for.

While I enjoyed the plot of the book well enough for what it was (crazy huge spider attacks, OH NO), the characterization left me feeling cold. We begin the book with 9 consecutive chapters from different viewpoints, two of which are never visited again. I still have no idea what the purpose of one of those two was, perhaps that will be fleshed out in the next installment? This could be easily moved past if these characters felt more real. We are introduced to three scientists, the White House Chief of Staff, an agent for a government organization that is never actually identified, a doomsday prepper, and a marine Lance Corporal. While that’s a decently diverse list of characters, I had some problems with exactly how they were made to feel human and their roles in the story. It seemed to me like Boone’s go-to character flaw was a sexual or relationship failing of some kind. The White House Chief of Staff and one of the scientists are divorced from each other, the agent is divorced and struggling with his wife’s new relationship, the President is cheating on her husband with the Chief of Staff, and the phrase “want to spend a week in the bedroom with ____” was used with such frequency it bordered on the inane. In addition, I don’t understand the purpose of the doomsday prepper character. Considering they are shown to live in underground bunkers they choose to seclude (read: trap) themselves in, I went in with the belief that they would be a highlight for swarms of carnivorous spiders. I was left confused and let down, as it almost seemed to be an exercise in simply showing how a specific subgroup in a population would react if things got weird. I don’t think they added much to this story, and while I’m sure they’ll be a more important part of the series going forward, I think they could have been completely excised from this novel without any negative impact. With such a large cast for a novel of its type, some of these issues are understandable, excusable even, but I can’t help but think that had Boone decided to crib a little more heavily from Brooks style in World War Z the errors wouldn’t have been quite as noticeable. Brooks’ use of a journalist as window dressing helped to smooth out any inconsistencies in his characters, and I think a similar device would have been an improvement here.

However, all of the issues are forgivable, as long as the book is scary. Unfortunately, as I mentioned earlier, the horror never quite hit the mark for me. A common complaint of horror fans in film is the oversaturation of jump scares and body horror. It is, understandably, much more difficult to sell an atmosphere of horror than it is to gross people out or have some supernatural icky thing appear with a string accompaniment in D minor. The Hatching falls firmly into the body horror category. While it is not without its tense moments, the constant descriptions of what was happening to people physically as they were overwhelmed by swarms of voracious spiders felt more gross than scary. To illustrate, one distinct thing that makes these spiders different is the fact that they “chew” on their food instead of the typical arachnid feeding method of injecting venom and sucking out the liquefied tissue from their prey. The distinct “clacking” noise that their mandibles make as they chew on the flesh of their victims is frequently and relentlessly described. This, in addition to a few other examples of behavior unnatural for most spiders (that I can’t go into because of spoilers) firmly cement this as gross-out horror, rather than the creeping, all-encompassing kind that I personally prefer. I mentioned at the beginning of this review that I would recommend this book to people that have already existing fears of spiders. As someone who isn’t afraid of spiders, this book missed the mark for me in terms of scares, but someone with a preexisting fear of them that enjoys the horror genre would probably find this scary without being so sinister and horrific that it would make them put it down.

The Hatching is ultimately a flawed book, but still enjoyable to readers that both know what they’re getting into and are fans of the genres it straddles. I enjoyed it well enough that I’ll likely be picking up the sequel once it arrives, but I’m not going to rearrange my reading list to do so.

The Hatching is fast and fun, but not without its issues, and is given a hesitant recommendation by the author of this post.

6.5/10

“Collaborative Creative Fiction” – Why You Should Stop Worrying And Learn To Love The [REDACTED]

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It’s starting to warm up here in Chicagoland. The birds are chirping, the grass is growing, the sun is occasionally showing its face, and the scent of thawing dog shit is filling the air. You can understand why this is my absolute favorite time of the year. Now that we have that out of the way, as we start to make our way into the golden days of summer, I find myself longing for the shorter, darker days of autumn and the spooky stories that brings.

I have been a huge fan of horror writing for as long as I can remember. I have fond memories of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark being read around campfires, and less fond memories of the hours I spent later those nights staring out my window in expectation of some supernatural horror coming for my soul. Perhaps these experiences scarred me somehow, instilling a kind of Stockholm syndrome in me. “No, I love being scared….totally.”

I also have a fondness for novel window dressings. I love distinct storytelling formats and the unique constraints that authors writing within them have to deal with. It should be no surprise then, to those that are aware of it, that I am an avid reader of the SCP Foundation wiki. For anyone reading this that have no idea what I’m talking about, here is the Wikipedia definition: The SCP Foundation is a collaborative creative fiction writing website that describes the exploits of the SCP Foundation, a fictional organization responsible for containing entities, locations and objects that violate natural law. It is essentially one part creepypasta, one part science fiction, one part lab report.

The website is essentially a large group roleplaying exercise, wherein the authors take on the roles of researchers and agents working for “The Foundation”, a worldwide, multi-planetary, trans-dimensional organization with the objective of Securing, Containing, and Protecting entities, objects, and places that don’t behave in the way they should. These range from vending machines that can dispense anything to some of the most horrific entities you can imagine. While the concept of a secret non-governmental organization operating behind the scenes to keep us safe from various boogins isn’t exactly one of a kind, the vehicle through which these stories are told is. Each individual SCP file, or skip, is given a numerical label and filed in the website in the form of a lab or field report. Within this report, they are given a classification that describes the level of difficulty in containment, what measures must be taken to maintain containment, and what anomalous behavior is manifested by each skip.

The dedication to the website’s conceit is such that each file has a variable amount of it redacted or blacked out, maintaining the illusion that the reader is a member of the foundation with limited access to certain files. By using this technique, the authors are able to “hide the shark”. Any avid fan of horror knows that the terror in your mind is always more intense than the terror you can see, and authors on the site use this with a great deal of efficacy. By covering up the details of various anomalous effects on victims, or various procedures, the author is able to let the reader decide just how sympathetic they want the Foundation to be.

All is not peaches and cream in the various Foundation facilities though, as in order to understand how anomalous objects and beings function and interact with their environment, tests must be undertaken. These tests are, frequently, horrific and gruesome. The reader is quickly shown that the Foundation, while acting for the greater good, is almost an example of pure philosophical utilitarianism. Due to the danger presented by the majority of the skips they encounter, the Foundation employs a variety of criminals that are given the designation of “D-Class”. These D-class are used as a sort of cannon fodder. They are used to guard dangerous skips, they are experimented on, and they are frequently killed in a huge variety of absolutely awful ways. It is in the interactions with D-Class that we see something of the true heart of the Foundation. The researchers directing these convicts are often shown to be cold and heartless scientific monsters, for example, forcing them to walk into an endless maze that they know there is no escape from, just to see what’s inside.

It is only in the asides, the journal entries and personal notes often included as “Addendum” near the bottom of each individual SCP report, that we see the conflict going on inside these characters. The conflict is visible in the suicide note of a researcher who has sent someone to their death, or the request for a transfer to a less dangerous skip due to an inability to deal with the consequences of one’s research. We are supposed to see that the researchers are humans, humans who believe that what they are doing is truly for the greater good.

The reports are entertaining to the extreme, and incredibly creative. I think, however, that in reading these reports, of which there are thousands, we as readers are asked the question: how far is too far? There are several places on the site that do not deal with skips, and instead deal with the organization itself. There is a piece explaining what the Ethics Committee actually does, and it is especially hard hitting for me. When the author is relating exactly how difficult their job is, the job of determining what the “line” is that the Foundation cannot cross, the reader is also asked what they think is “too far” when the stakes being played for are the continuity of reality and all life on earth. When the stakes are this high, can there be a “too far”?

With the advent of Amazon Kindle, and the ease of self-publishing, it has never been easier to get independent writing to the public. The SCP Wiki, and sites like it, are another option for aspiring writers to flex their creative muscles. With an active community commenting and voting on submissions, a healthy and robust set of rules for aspiring contributors, and a very distinct style that will force a content creator to use every tool at their disposal to create something fresh and exciting, the SCP Wiki is a must read for any fan of horror and a must-visit for any aspiring independent writer. If your time is limited, look at the top posts of all time. There is something for everyone here, and I cannot recommend falling into this alternate reality highly enough.

Rating [REDACTED]/10

-Will

Guest Post: The Wrong Post – A Post On Trusting Your Friends

A post by William Klein

I was wrong.

I want to get that out of the way, so let me reiterate, I was wrong. Horribly wrong, terribly wrong, absolutely and wholly despairingly wrong.

I think a major issue that a lot of readers face in starting new series and reading new authors is coming to terms with the fact that your initial gut feeling was incorrect. Being forced into the realization that your instincts, which you’ve been able to rely on in Fantasy Series X, are giving you incorrect information in Fantasy Series Y can be a bitter pill to swallow.

This guest post is being written entirely due to this happening during my initial reading of The Black Prism, book one in the Lightbringer series by Brent Weeks. Having not read any of Weeks’s writings prior to this novel, and entering into the series based on Andrew’s recommendation (with no knowledge as to its content), I was in a perfect position to judge a book by its cover, as the tired cliché goes. I was also just coming off a reading of a book by Joe Abercrombie, and thought that my ability to sense twists and plot reveals was at an all-time high. I had no idea how wrong I was.

For those of you not familiar with The Black Prism or its sequels, I’ll very vaguely sketch out the concept so you can see where I’m coming from. Outcast son of a drug addicted whore finds out he has magic powers, embarks on a “quest” to get better at using those powers and, shockingly, gets better at using those powers. As I was getting around a fifth of the way through the book, I remember scoffing at one of the main characters’ use of what is essentially a glider that is shaped like a glass bird pooping rainbow balls. This, after what I thought was a somewhat formulaic opening to a fantasy series, was nearly the final straw and had me seriously considering finding another book to read. I told Andrew this, and his only response (besides agreeing that the rainbow-poop bird-plane is absurd) was to laugh and tell me how wrong I was, and asking me to trust him and just keep reading. Rolling my eyes as hard as I possibly could, I continued reading, hoping to be pleasantly surprised.

Was. I. Ever.

One of the, at a guess, ten major plot reveals/twists occurred in the very next chapter, and it left me with my jaw on the floor. Now, not every one of them was a total surprise, some of them had a good deal of foreshadowing or “this is the only outcome that makes sense” about them, but after that first moment I was absolutely hooked, and continued to be pleasantly surprised through the remainder of the series. I eagerly anticipate next year’s finale, The Blood Mirror.

Had I put the book down, and not given it the chance it needed to shine, I would not have read what is now one of my absolute favorite series out there, and would have missed out on so many excellent moments. It was during my conversation with Andrew that I learned about his “20% rule”, something I now take to heart. The rule is this: lots of authors have great book ideas and are incredibly talented, but have no idea how to start their books, so sometimes you have to give about the first 20% of a book a pass. While there are a lot of books out there that start strong, I feel like there is something to be said for making an effort to get to the halfway point before really evaluating your feelings on a story. I don’t think that’s the case with The Black Prism, as I think the “standard fantasy hero” beginning to the story acts to set up the story’s many plot twists incredibly well by setting the reader’s expectations against them.

So let me say it one final time, and send out an apology to Brent Weeks for my lack of faith at the same time. I was wrong about The Black Prism, it is as far from a formulaic hero’s journey as can be. I was the most wrong, wronger than wrong, the wrongerest, and I will use this experience to try to be less unbelievably wrong in the future.

The Black Prism: 9/10