Altered Starscape – Conflict of Disinterest

26001236Hey there readers, I’m Alex, a new guest poster here at The Quill To Live, and boy do I have a treat for you. I recently read Altered Starscape: Andromeda Dark Book One by Ian Douglas of Star Carrier fame. Altered Starscape follows one Lord Commander St. Clair, a naval officer within the newly proclaimed United Earth Directorate, as he leads his crew to set up an embassy at the galactic center- a super massive black hole. Upon arrival, an attack blows up the space station and the blast throws the Tellus Ad Astra (the ship) and its crew into the black hole. In ways that can only be explained by some science, it throws them four billion years into the future, where the majority of their time is spent encountering the mysterious enemy, known only as the “Andromedan Dark.”

The story itself is a military space adventure, following the crew as they discover a breadcrumb trail of interstellar coordinates left behind by another species. As they reach each location, the crew finds several wondrous and derelict superstructures. Most of these were variations on the Dyson sphere, a construct that encapsulates a star. As the ship approaches the objects, the size grabs the reader’s imagination. However, upon landing on the artifacts, the language employed leaves the reader wanting, destroying any sense of awe I had. Too many of these discoveries were shoved into a short span to evoke any sort of fascination or make the reader feel small.  There was no sense of human scale, as the environment becomes uninteresting scenery where the marines  engage in battle. With a little time and some flourish, these landscapes could have been unforgettable. Instead, they’ll continue to float in space, and the reader couldn’t care less.

The few scenes of action that do take place are exciting. Especially important is Douglas’ ability to illustrate the chaos of the scene without getting lost. While not as engaging as some other military science fiction I’ve read, the story is built on clear action with a good amount of frenetic tension. There were moments of confusion, distress, and triumph that blended together in a satisfying way. The enemy’s otherworldly ability to appear out of nowhere using the fourth dimension was a delightful addition that made the conflict more exciting as well.  However, as the story pushed on, I was less and less engaged as it became apparent that the Dark’s sole motivation was mere domination. Each successive battle felt like there was less on the line, instead of ratcheting up to a climactic battle that sets the stage for future books.

Another positive aspect of the book is Douglas’ willingness to talk science. Black holes, fourth and onwards dimensions, spacetime, faster than light travel- you name it, this book probably mentions it somewhere. Luckily, Douglas spends a decent amount of time trying to explain the theory, even working to break it down so that the reader can follow along. Because St. Clair is no scientist, he relies on his crew to explain, allowing the reader to feel included. To me, this is Douglas’ strongest skill in this book, even though he makes a bad habit of explaining after the fact.

Douglas doesn’t only depend on the latest scientific theories to tell his story, but frequently turns to other science fiction writers’ ideas. Unfortunately it never feels like a tribute, as the book descends into a show of one-upmanship.  Douglas builds his world on concepts introduced by the likes of Asimov and Niven.  Instead of accepting the fictional worlds they created, however, he uses them as a jumping-off point to promote what he believes to be his own shinier, more streamlined ideas.  The book also tends to follow in the tradition set forth by Heinlein. As if it were an ode to Starship Troopers, Douglas blends military action with musings on the nature of civic responsibility and personal liberty. Regrettably, the book read more like an self serving update to the genre, rather than an expansion of science fiction.

As I continued to read the book, I became painfully aware of its incompleteness. Douglas rarely spends the time necessary to polish his ideas. From his history of robots to the establishment of the imperial United Earth Directorate, I never felt that any major theme or idea in the book was satisfactorily explored. Everything was the beginning of something that turned out to be nothing, which was disappointing. While it makes sense to set a foundation in book one of a series, everything felt unfinished in a “project due tomorrow” sort of way. On top of that, all these small parts served as reminders to the reader that they are, in fact, reading a science fiction book.

Altered Starscape continues to fall apart from there. It’s hard to discern what the point of the book actually is. Is it just a military sci fi romp? Is it a discussion of freedom within an inherently rigid societal structure? Is it a sightseeing tour of a future universe we can only begin to imagine? These are several of many questions that never get answered. It also doesn’t help that our point of view is very limited. As the book is written in the third-person, following mostly St. Clair, every scene feels tinted and in some ways tainted by the main character’s perception. St. Clair’s feelings set the standard for every character’s  feelings and the tone for every interaction, regardless of his involvement in the scene. The narration is intended to be taken at face value, hiding nothing about St. Clair’s intentions, and offering no alternative perspective.

This problem is only compounded early in the book, where the entirety of chapter five is devoted to St. Clair’s political and personal views. St. Clair’s worldview consists mainly of notions of individual freedom, a dislike of concentrated power, and distrust of those willing to use that power. The bluntness with which they are unveiled shades future interactions between St. Clair and his peers. The rare times when St. Clair engages with his dissenters were lectures, not conversations.  These diatribes occur at different times throughout the book, and never feel like they are a part of the plot. On top of that, there is very little nuance in these interactions. It was disengaging, as no character really had an ability to dialogue with the protagonist. This distance is further solidified by the fact that St. Clair’s convictions are never truly tested, almost making them pointless.

Gunter Adler is particularly illustrative of these interactions.   Adler, the leader of the civilian portion of the Tellus Ad Astra, is portrayed as a sniveling man who flexes his power to enrich himself under the guise of civic duty.  In contrast to St. Clair’s unquestioned stability and virtue, Adler is shown to be weak of mind and spirit through his inability to act in the interest of anyone but himself.  In keeping with the superficial nature of their relationship, Adler spends most of his time belittling St. Clair without actually challenging the substance of what St. Clair says.  Had Douglas added weight to Adler’s character through deeper conversations, he would have also added dimension to St Clair as well. Instead the reader just gets to enjoy the show without witnessing any moral consequences of these leaders’ decisions.

In the end, I just couldn’t enjoy this book. Unfortunately for Douglas, I’m a tenacious little bastard and powered through, trying to enjoy the little bits of the book that felt like they belonged to a larger narrative. Even though it’s clearly written with the intention to continue as a series, Douglas just tried to do too much with very little space. The characters never felt fully fleshed out. Even St. Clair only felt characterized to the point of relatable, but reluctant hero. After the initial politics were outlined, I read it out of spite. While there is still so much more to discuss, I will end this here for fear of this review turning into a political rant. I recommend this book only to people who aren’t concerned by their personal politics or those who want to read it in spite, to discuss it afterwards.

Verdict : 4.5 out 10

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

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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

Reading for Love – Kavalierly

A guest post by Quill To Live editor Sean Burns:

We all have that person in our lives. A family member, a good friend, a co-worker, or a significant other. One who loves reading and can’t wait to recommend another one of their favorites to you, and that’s great! You smile as you accept the book, but somehow it comes out looking like a bit of a grimace. You bring the book home and decide to bite the bullet immediately, well maybe not immediately, maybe after opening up a craft brew or some wine, anything to help you relax a little bit. You read the back cover to make sure you know what you are in for, then you take a big gulp of your drink of choice, and you crack the cover. Then, just as you suspected, just as you feared, the book is terrible. Empty. Flavorless. Your loved one has recommended another dud.

I guess I am taking a leap here, I don’t know if everyone has someone like this in their life. Maybe all you get is recommendations like The Greatcoats, Lightbringer, or Malazan. If so, you are one of the lucky ones. I have been blessed with relatively few people who have managed to consistently maintain a stellar recommendation list for me (*ahem*the-owner-of-this-blog*ahem*), but I have had close friends and significant others recommend me some of their #favorites to which I sigh internally, grimace, and prepare for the dark work of appeasing them.This post is an ode to the many times I have endured suffering for a loved one, specifically when my most recent girlfriend recommended the book The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, and I hope you enjoy the telling of my journey.

51o-jqnlkil-_sy344_bo1204203200_My girlfriend had just finished The First Law Trilogy on my recommendation, and wanted to return the favor (perhaps sadistically so?). So she walked over to her bookshelf and reverently drew forth a large red paperback and handed it to me. A Pulitzer Winner, and the premise was intriguing, something about superheroes, young misfits, and comic books. Needless to say, it was enough to pique my interest. My to-read list has never been short, but when your significant other gives you a book with special meaning to them, it gets a free pass to the top. So I brought Kavalier and Clay home with me, and started the book. I read before bed, which usually leads to a tiring morning because I am up too late turning the pages of my latest paper-based love, but let me tell you this, I was as rested as I’ve ever been the first week I tried to get through this book. There were some great, young misfits named Kavalier and Clay with some character driven moments that countered the droop in my eyes, but then I would turn the page and there would be two full pages of description about a partially run down building in New York that served only as a monument to the author’s descriptive ability. And then it would happen again. And again. And then all of a sudden I would wake up with the sun shining through my windows, and the book lying on the floor, where it had fallen from my limp grip after sleep claimed me.

So I quietly hid the book under the rest of my to-read pile, and got back to books that filled me with wonder and joy, all the while making vague obfuscations to my girlfriend about my progress in her beloved book. The guilt of not finishing it began to build up, and soon she and I were headed out on a weekend camping trip. I decided to take a drastic step. I brought no reading material with me EXCEPT for Kavalier and Clay. Gods help me. It had been long enough that I began again from the beginning, and I quickly learned to skip the excessive descriptives. In doing so I began to see some extremely well-written and realistic characters. There are great moments of darkness, light, and the shades in between during the story of two kids becoming friends and eventual business partners. There is a great dichotomy of the successful Kavalier and the failure Clay that brings about questions of friendship. But soon the weight of the prose, and a too slow buildup of the actual story continued to tear at what little interest I had managed to garner.

I tried to hold on to my goal of finishing this book for the sake of love, this book that I would normally have never looked at again after my first attempt. However, after reaching nearly the halfway point I must have let slip one too many sighs into the tent, as my girlfriend looked upon my brow, sweated with the effort of ploughing through the book, and asked if I wanted to stop. I shamefacedly admitted I did, but luckily she cared enough for me to take the book from my hands, set it down, and suggest we go out of our tent on an Amazing Adventure of our own.

All in all, I think it’s wonderful to get book recommendations from loved ones, even if you do have to struggle through them on occasion. The great thing about loved ones is that you can (usually) be honest with them, and they won’t love you one iota less. The same goes for giving recommendations. If your loved one hates City of Stairs, well, surely they have some other redeeming qualities, right? I sure hope they do.

Rating for Kavalier and Clay: Did Not Finish (DNF) ~50% (but 100% love)

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