Psycho – Scares From Page To Screen

Robert Bloch’s Psycho is one of those iconic stories that summons a deluge of mental images with its name alone. It’s a flagship horror/murder mystery tale that defines its genre and earns countless homages in various mediums. Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation is undoubtedly the first thing that springs to mind when anyone mentions Psycho, thanks largely to the classic shower scene, replete with nails-on-a-chalkboard-esque violin screeches and chocolate syrup masquerading as violent spurts of blood. Hitchcock’s adaptation itself is the very reason I read Robert Bloch’s Psycho. The book and its big-screen sibling were the latest topic of discussion on my Page2Screen series with Kicking the Seat founder and movie critic extraordinaire Ian Simmons. Bloch’s novel of addled minds and murder mysteries is simultaneously prescient and a surefire product of its time. If you’ve missed the book or the movie, here’s your requisite spoiler warning before I dive in. 

Psycho puts Norman Bates centerstage. Bates runs a motel on the side of a now-defunct highway that receives very little traffic. His only constant companion is his mother, who hovers over him and prevents him from truly growing into a functioning adult. Norman, as any reader will quickly discover, suffers from some undefined mental ailment. His mother has been dead for 20 years, and Norman has carried on as though she’s right beside him, and in a way she is. Mary, a beautiful young woman engaged to a hardware store clerk she met on a cruise ship, steals $40,000 from her boss and makes a run for it, hoping the money will help her pay off the debts of Sam Loomis, her fiancé. She makes a wrong turn and ends up at the Bates motel for an evening. Norman welcomes her and checks her in, but his mother’s influence takes over. Norman’s “mother” kills Mary and buries her car in the swamp behind the Bates house near the hotel. The story that follows is told through alternating POVs: Norman Bates as he tries to cover up the damage he’s done and Sam Loomis, accompanied by Lila, Mary’s sister, as they try to track Mary’s whereabouts. 

Psycho offers a chilling dissection of psychosis via Norman Bates. It’s a thin tome–my paperback copy has 176 pages–and the story moves along briskly. The plot itself is fine, and the book’s pace is surprisingly nestled between fast and slow, right in the middle. I won’t waste any space detailing the intricacies of what actually happens, because that’s the crux of the book. Instead, I’ll discuss a few aspects of Psycho that left me uncertain about whether it’s worthy of a recommendation. 

I’ll start with the good. Psycho’s treatment of authorities is hauntingly relevant to our current social climate. Lila believes from the start that Mary’s disappearance bears signs of overt criminality. She finds Sam Loomis and asks him for help, but he is hesitant to bring in the police. A private investigator joins the hunt for Mary and asks for 24 hours before they contact the authorities. Sam and Lila agree. It’s fine to shrug this off as a plot device. But when the 24 hours expires and Sam and Lila do contact the sheriff, he does virtually nothing, sweeping Bates’ crimes under the rug. I actually found this the most haunting aspect of Psycho: the police are unwilling to solve a clear issue, instead choosing to fuel the fire by completely ignoring the problem altogether. Self-interest reigns supreme, especially if it means the guy with a badge doesn’t have to answer for his wrongdoings. I’ll leave it there to avoid delving into more social commentary, but I enjoyed Psycho for its honest look at authoritative complacency and its consequences. 

Psycho faltered when it came time to truly scare the bejeezus out of me. Norman Bates? Terrifying, but as a concept. The things he does? Horrific. His mental impairment (which is explored later in the book)? Tragic, with chilling results. Psycho has all sorts of fodder for a terrifying and suspenseful experience, but I think it’s too much a product of its time to offer any real jump scares or true tension. When I read a book billed as “Icily terrifying!” on its back cover, I want hair-raising horror moments. I want to be scared to head downstairs to my unfinished basement just to do a load of laundry. I’m no horror connoisseur, but I think Bloch’s writing comes from a time when “telling” was the norm and “showing” hadn’t quite snuffed it out as the dominant storytelling device. It’s hard to say this, though, because Psycho excels in many areas, and I appreciate it for its place among influential literary achievements. I just wasn’t bowled over by the prose.

This problem peaked at the novel’s conclusion, when loose ends are tied up neatly with a few pages of blatant exposition. Again, likely a product of the book’s time, but I left unsatisfied. On the other hand, the final pages brought me the only jump-scare-worthy moment of the entire book. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s one many first-time readers will likely predict and enjoy despite expecting it. 

From a genre point of view, Psycho seems to teeter between horror/thriller and the slightly supernatural. For me, Psycho felt like a precursor to authors like Stephen King, who blend the mystic with the real and package it all in a tight story. Psycho does just that, though with a few hiccups along the way, making it a worthwhile read for SFF fans. 

Psycho first published in 1959, and Hitchcock’s cinematic retelling released in 1960. I highly doubt a 2020 review will do much to sway newcomers one way or the other. Psycho exists in a weird sort of limbo where the horror elements age poorly but the social issues contained within can still resonate 60 years later. If you’re a horror/thriller or murder mystery fan, Psycho is worth the read if only to understand how it influenced the genre. If you want a modern and tense thriller, you may be better off finding a different read. 

Rating: Psycho – 6.5/10

-Cole

The Vela: Season One – Didn’t Quite Come Together

51-5yjqg17lThe Vela is a (fairly) new serial story that can be purchased in seasons from Serial Box or in collections from Amazon. As a concept, the idea of serials is interesting: the book is written and released one chapter at a time. Instead of having a single author, serials are often written by a group, with a different author handling each chapter. We have also actually covered a serial that we really enjoyed called Bookburners – you can find the review here. The Vela: Season One is written by a group of authors composed of Yoon Ha Lee, Becky Chambers, SL Huang, and Rivers Solomon. All of these authors are individuals whose work I have previously greatly enjoyed, some of whom appear on our yearly best-of lists. This made it surprising when I didn’t really like The Vela.

The Vela is a science fiction drama that reframes how the rich treat the poor through an interesting futuristic lens. The narrative takes place in an original solar system, but to explain it more easily I am going to use ours analogously. So science has progressed, all of the worlds of the solar system have been colonized, but faster-than-light travel is impossible. Mercury and Venus were terraformed early, and they’re home to the wealthiest individuals. Meanwhile, Uranus and Neptune are more problematic and result in a poorer way of life. Then the wealthy of Mercury start to mine the Sun for Hydrogen. This goes on for a long time without issue, until they realize too late that they are diminishing the power of the sun. By the time they figure it out, the people of the furthest planets have essentially had their death warrants signed by the 1%. The planets are cooling and soon will reach lethal temperatures. Given the limitations of space travel, only a few can escape on refugee trips inward – while most will have to sit and freeze to death. The story focuses on a single refugee ship, The Vela, that somehow gets lost on its way towards safety. Our protagonists set off on a humanitarian mission to find and save it, but they find a lot more than they bargained for.

The story starts strong with some very interesting ideas, and I was extremely invested from page one. One of the best things The Vela does is capture the human condition in these refugees and those who are left to die. It is an impressive glimpse into the minds of people in a truly awful position, and it did a great job of reminding me of refugees in the actual world and how we need to help them and how the actions of a single group can have far-reaching implications that we don’t consider. However, while the premise and atmosphere were both fantastic – the story, characters, and writing didn’t really come together.

First off, the story doesn’t really live up to its grand premise. The pacing is a bit clunky, plot points are fairly predictable, and there is a lot of time spent chasing MacGuffins. Some of my favorite parts of the story are the extremely beautiful moments told through diaries and interviews of people doomed to die. They are deeply touching and crystal clear fragments of human experiences – but they don’t actually push the narrative forward. It results in alack of direction that hampers the investment in what is happening.

Second off, the characters feel a bit flat. We have two major POVs, Asala and Niko, and a smattering of minor POVs. Asala is a mercenary hailing from one of the dying planets on the fringe of the solar system. She is contracted to find the Vela, and through her we are supposed to get a glimpse into the psyche of these poor doomed people. Niko is the privileged child of one of the leaders of an inner planet. They join the mission out of a crushing amount of guilt for what their people have done, and a desire to make the world a better place. These two make an interesting duo, but they don’t feel like they have a lot of depth and personality beyond what I have already listed. I did like some of the secondary characters a lot, like the authoritarian dictator who is pulling together her planet after a brutal civil war, but they just don’t represent enough page space to make up for the momentum lost by the two leads.

Third, the writing of the four authors doesn’t blend together well. In Bookburners, I could barely tell when a different writer swapped in. In The Vela, it was extremely evident who was writing at any given time. The different authors have very different foci and voices, and it builds to this inconsistency in the narrative that pulls the reader out. I really liked each of the writers individually, but the end result was a sum that was less than its parts.

The Vela has a strong premise, and it certainly isn’t terrible, but it fails to meet the high standard I have for the authors who wrote it. Each of the authors is fantastic on their own and does a great job creating these pockets of quality work, but the combined product feels uneven and poorly blended. I am mildly curious to find out what happens next in The Vela, but it would take a strong recommendation from someone I trust to get me to pick up Season Two at this point.

Rating: The Vela: Season One – 5.0/10
-Andrew

The Book of Dragons – more. More. MORE DRAGONS

52583994._sx0_sy0_Its the start of October, my favorite month, and it seems like the perfect time to curl up with a giant book of short stories. Today we will be talking about The Book of Dragons, by a whole hell of a lot of authors and edited by Jonathan Strahan. Jonathan Strahan has been on my radar for a while. He continuously puts out anthologies that pique my curiosity, but not quite enough to divert my reading schedule for a massive pile of short stories. Well, the stars have finally aligned. This is a collection edited by Strahan, it has a serious A-list of authors, and it’s about DRAGONS. Who doesn’t love dragons? Dragons are experiencing a real renaissance right now, so I decided to get into the spirit and dig into this big book of dragons in search of treasure. However, as usual with anthologies, the results were mixed.

To begin, I think Strahan did a fantastic job organizing and gathering up these stories. This is a truly eclectic group of works, and I really enjoyed their diverse nature. There are traditional dragon/sword-and-sorcery stories, tales about metaphorical dragons, poems, inventive takes on what a dragon is, and more. I think holistically, The Book of Dragons is a great package deal that would satisfy any dragon fan looking for more fresh content to dig their greedy claws into. The writers and their dragons are also from nice diverse backgrounds so you really get a nice mix of perspectives on the topic.

On the other hand, there weren’t a lot of stories that stood out as being particularly exemplary to me. What was particularly interesting is that my past experiences with the various authors’ writing had little to no bearing on whether I liked their shorts. Scott Lynch has written some of my favorite books, yet I found his story slow and dull. I feel like I am the only person I know that didn’t like R.F. Kuang’s Poppy War, but her short story was probably my favorite in the entire series. It felt like a number of authors took this as an opportunity to step out of their comfort zone and really take flight to explore new territory with their writing. While I definitely think that is a great thing to do, the resulting product can be a little uneven.

Below is a list of my top five pieces (in no order) from the collection and a little about them. If these sound appealing to you, the book is likely worth buying just for them – and you will get a ton of additional content to explore. Take a look and see what you think:

1) Hikayat Sri Bujang, or, The Tale of the Naga Sage – Zen Cho – Zen Cho’s story is about a naga dragon named Hikayat who abandoned his family (who rule the sea) to live atop a mountain and try to gain enlightenment. He remains there for thousands of years until his sister comes to tell him his father is dying. Hikayat returns home to take over his father’s throne – but finds he can’t quite give up his mountaintop retreat. In the course of commuting back and forth between his mountain and the sea, his natural aura creates monsoons and wrecks the countryside, and he is forced to think about the consequences of his actions.

This story is both cute and clever. It does a really good job of both modernizing dragons while also speaking to their eternal aspects from lore. The reader gets a true understanding of how Cho envisions dragons as their beings that don’t hate humanity but simply do not notice them in their comings and goings. It is fun, cute, emotional, and funny. Definitely recommend.

2) Yuli – Daniel Abraham – This is one of the metaphorical dragons. Abraham tells the story of an US veteran of the War in Afghanistan who comes home to find that his family has abandoned him and left a grandson he doesn’t know on his doorstep. He resents the burden he has been left with, but quickly finds he has much bigger problems to worry about. While the soldier was in the Middle East, he stole a ton of money and brought it back with him. Now enemies have come looking for his hoard and he will destroy any insignificant insects that even think of laying a hand on his treasure…

The metaphor here is fantastic. The story is told from split perspectives. In one, the grandson is playing a game of dungeons and dragons with his friends trying to attack a dragon and steal its treasure. In the second perspective, the grandfather (and metaphorical dragon) is defending his hoard from those who would try to take it. The prose here was phenomenal and the execution of the concept was the best in the entire anthology.

3) Habitat – K. J. Parker – This is one of the more “classic” dragon shorts about a dragon hunter who is recruited by a king to capture a dragon. The story tells the reader about the childhood of the protagonist during which he accidentally killed a dragon and managed to get a reputation as a dragon hunter. It then goes into a lot of fun gritty details about how Parker’s dragons work and how hard they are to hunt and capture while the protagonist tracks a dragon for the king.

This book is a great mix of old and new. The dragons scratch that itch I have for big dangerous beasts that knights set out to slay – with a lot of subversion of expectations mixed in. This short is only a handful of pages long and yet Parker manages to work in a few twists that surprise and delight. I really enjoyed this one, and it continues to cement my opinion that Parker is a great short writer (and a great writer in general).

4) The Nine Curves River – R. F. Kuang – In The Nine Curves River Kuang tells the story of two sisters who are walking into town for a ceremony. The entire story takes place over the course of the walk and is mostly filled with reflection from the older sister about the siblings’ life together. The older sister is very plain and untalented, whereas her younger sister is filled to the brim with talent, beauty, and intelligence. This results, unsurprisingly, in a life filled with jealousy and spite from the older sister – until this walk. The younger sister has been selected to be sacrificed to the dragon that rules the area, and the end of the walk will be the end of the younger girl’s life.

Yeah, so, holy christ this story is a gutshot. It is by far the most emotional of all the shorts and as a person with siblings, it felt like Kuang was bombarding me from orbit. It is a masterful work of fiction and I cried at least twice while reading it. It made me sad for a day and I ended up sending awkward ‘I love you’ texts to my brothers. Highly recommended.

5) The Long WalkKate Elliott – Elliott’s The Long Walk is a powerful feminist piece that isn’t afraid to bare its teeth. It tells the story of a widow who recently lost her husband. In Elliott’s world, the sons of the family need to give the church a massive donation upon the death of their father or their mother, of the obviously useless sex, will be thrown into the sea with her husband’s body. The story is about the man’s funeral, the family coming up with the funds to keep their mother alive, and the woman processing the death and her realization that she is a commodity in the world. There are dragons involved but I don’t have enough space to explain how.

The Long Walk is a very smart and powerful commentary on the way society treats women in a package with fantastic prose and an inventive world. It made me think a lot about what women struggle with on a day-to-day basis and reassess some of my preconceived notions about what it means to be a woman. Forced me to do some introspections, great writing, A+.

Despite my minor complaints, this anthology is a great collection of works and one of the better anthologies I have ever read. I recommend that you pick it up and skip around to the stories that inspire your curiosity. There is a lot to find in this big book of dragons.

Rating: The Book of Dragons – 7.5/10
-Andrew

Dead Man In A Ditch – Jump In

61ei-m9ghjlOrbit was wonderful enough to send me a review copy of Dead Man In A Ditch by Luke Arnold. It is the second book in the Fetch Phillips Archives, and you can find my review of book one in my fantasy cop throwdown here. I was going to hold off on reading Ditch because I was a little lukewarm on the first book, but the absolutely gorgeous cover got to me, and I ended up diving in earlier than expected. In a nice turn of events, Ditch is a better book than its predecessor and mostly leaped beyond my expectations.

If you read my review of the first book in the series, The Last Smile In Sunder City, you would hear me talk about a decent book that had great potential but a bad focus. Sunder tells the story of how Fetch Phillips inadvertently broke the magic in the world, hideously deforming most magical creatures and generally making life worse for everyone. The problem with the first book is it was really telling two stories – one about how Fetch broke the world in the past, and another about how his crimes related to a missing person case in the present. The divided attention of the narrative is problematic as it resulted in neither plotline feeling fully fleshed out. Splitting the reader’s attention made it harder for me to be invested in either story. Ditch lacks this problem.

With the backstory of Fetch established, Ditch is a much more present-focused book that picks up right on the tail of book one. It focuses more on how people are trying to cope after the loss of magic and how they can solve the new problems they are faced with. Fetch ends up with another case, but this time it is revolves more around how the humans (who weren’t affected physically by the loss of magic) are capitalizing on the apocalypse and showing the reader how the world is evolving. There is more of a sense of progression in Ditch, and I found myself more present and engrossed than I did with the first novel.

In particular, the cases that Fetch finds himself in charge of are more interesting and focus more on mystery elements than the tragedy of the apocalypse. Which of these foci readers prefer is likely a matter of personal preference, but I definitely enjoy a whodunit much more than wallowing in the pain of magical creatures 24/7. The one thing I wasn’t a fan of in Ditch is (mild spoilers ahead) that a portion of the book’s plot revolves around an artificer inventing guns. The book treats this as a mystery when it is pretty obvious what has happened immediately after you see the aftermath of a murder. To me, this element of the story felt a bit cliché, and I am fairly tired of reading about “what would happen if a fantasy person invented guns?”

Overall, I definitely do recommend Dead Man In A Ditch – and it was so enjoyable that it makes me want to retroactively recommend The Last Smile In Sunder City more. Ditch shows me that Arnold is going somewhere I want to go with this story, and it makes the slower set up of book one feel more worth it. Ditch was a captivating, well-paced, and exciting story that scratched my itch for mystery and intrigue. I will definitely read the next installment of the series when it comes out.

Rating: Dead Man In A Ditch – 8.0/10
-Andrew

The Bone Shard Daughter – Lacking Muscle

Andrea Stewart’s debut had all the telltale signs of a bonafide winner. The Bone Shard Daughter boasts a back cover full of big-name recommendations, including Sarah J. Maas, M.R. Carey, Tasha Suri, and many more. And as I read the first few chapters, I perked up at the exciting premise and unique magic system, hoping for a home run debut from my sixth and final 2020 Dark Horse pick. But in reality, I was relieved to turn the final page. The Bone Shard Daughter met my expectations in some areas, but the story as a whole failed to resonate with me. The good thing for anyone reading this review is that your experience may differ, especially given the book’s 4+ star average on Goodreads.  

The Bone Shard Daughter takes place in a failing empire comprising a network of drifting islands in a vast and unforgiving sea. The current emperor, Shiyen Sukai, rules the world using bone shard magic. Every citizen is required to give a small shard of bone from the base of their skull as a tithe to the empire at a young age, and those shards are used to power constructs that perform various tasks for the kingdom. If a person’s shard is used in a construct, the person gradually grows ill, and years of their life are shaved off as the magic drains their life force. 

We follow five points of view throughout the story:

  • Lin Sukai, the emperor’s daughter, who is forced by Shiyen into sick competition with her stepbrother, Bayan. They both attempt to recover lost memories, learn bone shard magic, and earn keys that unlock doors throughout the palace and the secrets behind them. 
  • Jovis, an imperial navigator turned smuggler whose wife was kidnapped and whisked away on a ship with blue sails seven years ago. Now, he searches for signs of the ship in the hopes of finding her. 
  • Phalue, heir to the governorship of Nephilanu, one of the Empire’s larger islands. 
  • Ranami, Phalue’s girlfriend and anti-classism advocate who hopes to free the common people from Phalue’s father’s iron grip and unrealistic taxes. 
  • Sand, a resident of Maila Island in the far reaches of the Empire. Sand spends her days collecting mangoes until she falls from a tree one day and begins to question how she arrived at the island at all. 

I list these as bullet points because the narratives are interconnected, but not so much as to yield an easy explanation as to how. The pieces come together by the end of The Bone Shard Daughter, but Stewart also leaves a helluva lot for the next two books in the trilogy. I don’t plan to move on in the series for a number of reasons I’ll cover below, but first, I want to highlight the novel’s overwhelming positives. 

The Bone Shard Daughter’s premise and magic system are inextricably intertwined. The Empire forces its citizens to contribute bone shards as a sinister tax, and Emperor Sukai uses them to power constructs of all sorts to run his operations. He has four primary constructs that each require dozens if not hundreds of shards, each with a complex network of commands that dictate how the construct behaves and who it obeys. Simpler constructs, such as customs agents that work on the docks, only require a few shards engraved with rudimentary commands. There’s much more here to sink your teeth into, and fans of cool magic systems will be rewarded with some neat tidbits. It’s a novel idea, and Stewart does a great job of putting the magic to work in the world she’s built. 

The book’s world, unfortunately, doesn’t live up to its premise. The characters take the reader to multiple islands throughout the book, but none of them feel distinct. I imagine a world of islands would birth numerous different subcultures and idiosyncrasies, even if they all report to the same ruler. But they’re all homogeneous and indistinguishable from one another. In addition, scene transitions can be so violent and fast you sometimes don’t even realize you have hopped islands. Every chapter starts with a header telling the reader which island the character is on, and that’s a red flag itself. I’d rather be shown through descriptive prose and narrative hints where a character is instead of simply reading it at the top of each segment. Two islands on the book’s map are never visited and rarely mentioned, leading me to believe they’ll be important in the sequel despite having little purpose in this installment. 

The characters are my biggest sticking point with The Bone Shard Daughter. I struggled to connect with any of them because their most relatable traits were difficult to reconcile with what the book told me. For example, Jovis searches for his wife, who’s been lost for seven years. I know nothing about her (other than that she’s lost), and the precious few memories he shares aren’t vivid enough to bring her to life. Jovis also befriends a cat-like sea creature named Mephi early on. They form a close bond and have a playful back and forth. It’s cute and fun, but to me, treating animals with kindness is a baseline barometer for human decency and does very little to tell me about Jovis, who already shows those traits by smuggling kids away from the tithing festival. He saves those kids, mind you, as he complains to himself about getting distracted from searching for his wife. 

Jovis raised another issue, and it’s the action sequences. There are multiple fights in the book, but they do little to impact the reader. In one scene, Jovis throws his quarterstaff about 60 feet, completely knocking out his opponent. Seconds later, he throws it again and accomplishes the same exact thing. This is a common occurrence; fight scenes breeze by with a lot of telling and remarkably little showing. 

Lin has arguably the best storyline, and I genuinely enjoyed following her journey to please her distant father and discover the castle’s secrets. But because she has lost her memories, there’s not much to latch onto, character-wise. Instead, Lin becomes a vehicle through which the reader can explore the world and how it functions, learning things as Lin does. 

Phalue and Ranami’s storyline has to do with anti-classism and reworking your worldview to skew toward altruism instead of self-serving capitalism. It’s a great message, but their story in a vacuum doesn’t do much to advance the larger plot. They are also completely unmemorable with almost no character or development whatsoever. Their joint role in the story feels truncated, and once again I’m inclined to believe their relationship will be fodder for the sequel. 

Sand appears in so few chapters that I debated even dedicating a paragraph to her. Her story is a mystery, and by the novel’s conclusion, her purpose is apparent. The mystery at her story’s core is the most intriguing of the book’s many secrets. However, it’s near impossible to care for Sand and her comrades with so few pages covering their story.

The novel actually ends from Sand’s point of view, and the conclusion in general left me disappointed. I turned the final page ready to leave The Bone Shard Daughter behind. Some readers, I’m sure, will eagerly devour the next two installments of the series, and I wish them all the best. There are still some things to like here; Stewart’s magic system has heaps of potential, and the story could bloom into a gripping fantasy epic. For me, personally, The Bone Shard Daughter’s flat characters and bland world just didn’t strike a chord. 

Rating: The Bone Shard Daughter – 5.0/10

-Cole

The Trouble With Peace – A Delicious Dark Book For A Troubled Year

abercrombie-troubleI didn’t really want to review The Trouble With Peace by Joe Abercrombie, because I don’t want to draw your attention to it. As I have said before, Abercrombie is best enjoyed with no expectations and as little knowledge as possible. If you have read him, you likely are going to read this book. If you haven’t heard of him, and want a really intense fantasy series, go check out his first book in this world: The Blade Itself. So if I can’t really talk about the book, and I don’t want to talk about the book, and no one really needs to hear about the book, why am I writing a review of it you ask? Well, because The Trouble With Peace is a contender for my best book of the year and it would feel unprofessional to say nothing about it.

The thing that makes The Trouble With Peace, and all Abercrombie books, great is the characters. The plot, in the abstract, is fairly simple. We follow the POV of a number of characters who have thrown themselves behind two charismatic leaders: Leo and Orso. These men are extremely different in character and personality, but both want to lead their country to a brighter future. They cannot agree on how best to do that, so a war erupts between them in when their differences can’t be resolved

It sounds simple enough, but emotionally it is like being drawn over hot coals. There are no bad guys here, only people with good intentions trying to do what they think is right. Whether or not you agree with either side is up to the reader, but there are really no victories to be had here. Every battle means death on BOTH sides and the loss of characters you are deeply attached to.

And what characters they are. If I had to pick a single side in the book it would be Orso’s, possibly because he’s one of my favorite characters of all time. But Leo certainly is no slouch. You just don’t find people in stories with this heightened level of complexity. The actors in this play have depth and thought put into them that just pulls you into the book to the point where you feel you are there. I loved every single moment of Trouble, but it was agonizing to read. My wife kept asking me if I was enjoying it and my constant reply was “I am stressed all the time.”

2020 might not have been the best time to read The Trouble With Peace. It is a thoughtful and depressing book that filled me with a multitude of emotions that would be difficult to describe in a review. It is certainly one of the best written and most powerful books of 2020 and I absolutely recommend that you read it, if you have read all the previous installments. You just might want to have some soothing music and a spa day lined up to wash away the anxiety that Abercrombie’s newest book will inject straight into your veins.

Rating: The Trouble With Peace – 10/10
-Andrew

The Kraken’s Tooth – What’s Krakenalackin

the_krakens_tooth_by_anthony_ryanThe real takeaway I got from The Kraken’s Tooth is that Anthony Ryan is a strong writer. I obviously already knew that, given my familiarity with his other work, but it’s nice to be reminded that the authors you like are good at their craft. The Kraken’s Tooth is the second installment of a seven-part novella series called The Seven Swords that Anthony Ryan is writing for Subterranean Press. In my opinion, the physical copies are a bit cost prohibitively expensive due to being collectible (which is a bummer for physical book lovers), but the digital versions are very reasonable. Normally I don’t mention the price and publisher when talking about a review, but in this case, I think it’s important to point out the roadblocks that will keep this body of work from being better known because I want you to jump them and go check The Seven Swords out.

The series tells the story of a man questing to find seven magical swords for reasons I don’t want to spoil. My review of the first book, A Pilgrimage of Swords, dives deeper into the series’ premise. All you really need to know is The Kraken’s Tooth picks up where Pilgrimage leaves off and unsurprisingly tells the story of one of the seven swords our protagonist (called the Pilgrim) is seeking. The plot brings our Pilgrim to a new Venetian style city, where the entire urban area is supported by a kraken’s heart deep underneath the streets. The Pilgrim’s arrival kicks off a multi-party race for the heart to see who will reach it first and claim the power of the heart for themselves.

I think what’s really interesting about The Seven Swords is it kinda feels like reading a fantasy book blueprint. That isn’t to say the novellas are unfinished, but that they are stripped down to minimalist plot points to keep the meat of the story moving. It feels like looking at the bones of a book and reading the author notes that tell you what the major story beats are, and it works. Ryan has really good ideas, which is particularly impressive for a fantasy subgenre (sword and sorcery) that is considered by many readers tired and cliché at this point. His writing (excuse the pun) has teeth. The Kraken’s Tooth has a real feeling of adventure around it and it sparked both my imagination and my love of fantasy with its fun and thrilling story.

On paper, The Kraken’s Tooth is a dungeon crawl where the party needs to surmount traps, decipher riddles, and kill monsters to reach the treasure beneath. What I love about it in practical terms is it refuses to be boring. Ryan never phones it in, and all of his ideas stick in the mind. It’s a raucous story that is easy to consume and discuss. It’s the perfect snack to bring a little fun and excitement to this depressing year.

There isn’t much else to say about The Kraken’s Tooth. It’s fun, easy, and you should definitely make the extra effort to check out the series. I really hope Subterranean eventually puts out a compilation book as I would be willing to stand on a street corner and hawk it. Don’t let a little leg work distract you from this excellent read.

Rating: The Kraken’s Tooth – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Hench – It’s Good To Be Bad

IHench have a tenuous relationship with the concept of superheroes. Like many young boys in the U.S., I was exposed to them early and often through cartoons and memorabilia. Rarely did I read comic books, but sometimes they found their way into my hands, and on those occasions I did quite enjoy myself. Obviously, I grew fond of the Marvel cinematic universe, but after a while I became exhausted by what I feel is it’s constant stream of content. The DC Snyderverse did little to assuage the glut or reduce my apathy, and the only way I felt I could consume these stories was through comics and, even then, only as a form of critique. I returned to Watchmen, Swamp Thing and oddly Superman became one of my favorites even though I liked him least growing up. So now that you know my baggage with superheroes, I’m especially excited to share my review of Hench, a fantastic new perspective in an overcrowded genre and the latest book from our H2 Dark Horse list. Hench, by Natalie Zina Walschots, is a revelation within the superhero genre, bringing humor, darkness, and character to the evil doers with panache while breathing life into the tropes it also examines on a deeper level.

The story follows Anna Tromedlov, a henchwoman who usually finds work through a temp agency. She’s more of a behind-the-desk type, preferring to be a data analyst for the villains of the world. When an opportunity to move into a lair and take up more field work pops up, she takes it for a little excitement. However, her first time in the field leads to disastrous results when she becomes a casualty to Supercollider, the world renowned ultimate Superhero, and is hospitalized by the encounter. Laid off, without health insurance, and about to be evicted, Anna begins a blog to track the destruction and death caused as collateral damage, earning her the ire of Supercollider, but the unexpected praise of one of the world’s top villains, Leviathan. Seeing her chance to do some good for the world while being the “bad guy,” Anna joins the villain’s ranks and begins to enact her revenge.

It would be easy to base this review on just how much a breath of fresh air Walschots’ debut novel is in the superhero genre. While she gets a lot of mileage out of focusing on the villains, she takes it much further by making the novel more than just a clever twist. The whole world is built on the premise that both Heroes and Villains need support staff, whether it’s the “Meat” who take the majority of the punishment for Villains as your standard bodyguard henches, or the interns who get to work early to make a fresh pot of coffee for the evil meetings. Walschots takes the time to build it out in a fun, brisk way that will be easily recognizable to most people even vaguely familiar with superheroes. It’s a blast, and I cackled heartily as the villainous bosses acted very much like a CEO out of today’s headlines. It wasn’t exactly lighthearted, but Walschots’ definitely knew how to adapt work culture to her world and it instantly ingrained me to the book.

After the initial introduction, Walschots doesn’t let up as her knack for character really begins to pull the story along. She knows how to make you care for her characters while you watch them descend into a form of madness. Anna’s journey was especially compelling from a temp who just wanted to do remote work, to a hench calling the shots on big operations. The best part about the endeavor is Walschots’ tenacity in sticking to Anna’s strength: data. Gathering data, forming predictions, and coming up with ways to help accelerate her plans are Anna’s powers, though it’s never mentioned in that way and she’s extremely good at it. None of her “battles” resort to her using her smarts to physically outwit opponents, she’s just there in the background, pulling levers and letting the disasters play out. On top of that, the conflicts were usually in a more personal space. How far was she willing to go to see her models through? Who was able to be sacrificed for the greater good of taking down superheroes? It was refreshing that she never had to throw a punch herself, instead becoming the villain she thought she could be by making her own choices and living with the consequences.

Walschots clearly has a deep love for the superhero genre as she just nails so many small details with style. I can’t tell you how many times I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standup when a superhero’s backstory lined up with their names. Or the amount of times I muttered “well that’s fucking cool” to myself during fight scenes. After being tired out by so many of these tropes in past few years, Walschots breathes a new life to them. She also isn’t afraid to turn over the rubble they use to cover their dark sides. While she does well with the caped crusaders, it’s clear she has a special place in her heart for the villains and their henches, and with the way she writes them, who can blame her. Anna’s life is turned upside down by Supercollider, and he doesn’t even apologize. Leviathan in turn gives her the resources to fund her newfound purpose and allows her ambition and skill to take her where she needs to go. The other members of the villains’ team, while not as fleshed out as Anna, are just as broken, ambitious and skillful in their own ways. They are also incredibly likeable and have full stories of their own that help Anna to find her place among equals. There are several moments shared between her and the other henches that are genuinely heart wrenching and breathtaking. Walschots fills the book with little surprises that are nods to the genre that don’t self aggrandize their own importance, and instead sneak up on you and embed themselves in your soul.

Hench is as solid a debut as I’ve ever read. The humor is dark and spot on, making me laugh out loud several times. Anna’s journey to becoming a top hench is compelling, emotional and weirdly fulfilling. The world is energetic, realistic where it needs to be, and stylized just enough to make the weird stuff more impactful. It feels like the perfect antidote to the superhero craze. Walschots makes it all look easy, too, but it’s clear a lot of love and effort was poured into this book.

Rating: Hench – 9.5/10
Alex

A Fire Upon The Deep – Golden Goodness

b000fbjago.lzzzzzzzA Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge, is a 1992 sci-fi modern classic that is getting a re-release this year from Tor. While it is not a golden age sci-fi, missing the era by about 50 years, it definitely feels like a tribute to the great classics. At the same time, it is highly regarded as one of the best science fiction novels to come out in the last 30 years. So, is this modern classic worth your time? Is the reprint something to look forward to? The answers are a resounding yes, so let’s dive into what makes this book popular.

A Fire Upon the Deep, on top of being written by an author with one of the coolest names ever, is an epic science-fiction story that explores a galaxy-spanning conflict that is being determined through medieval warfare on an unmapped planet. One of the best things Deep has going for it is, despite its size, the story starts off like a relay racer hearing a starter shot. The prologue begins with a human expedition exploring an archive/prison outside reality. Almost immediately, the group accidentally releases an ancient AI/consciousness with godlike powers. This universe is filled with beings that have ascended to higher planes of existence, so initially, this is taken as a mild problem – but then the being immediately starts to rapidly devour reality at an unheard-of rate. Realizing that this expedition has colossally shit the bed, they try to flee the being after grabbing a database containing methods left by the jailers to defeat it – only to get slapped massively off course and crashland on a primitive world with a species of dog-like alien. These aliens immediately kill most of the expedition and then rival sides in a medieval war capture the survivors (who are young children). Then (yes, after all this) things start to get interesting.

The book splits into three storylines. One is from the POV of the children who are trying to navigate a completely unknown world without advanced technology and get back to their ship. The second is from the POV of the dog aliens, who are trying to steal the technology that has fallen out of their skies, then learn to harness it to win wars. The third and final POV is a group of individuals trying to find this unmapped planet in order to recover the crashed archive to figure out how to stop this ascended being from destroying all of reality. The pacing is fast, the stakes are high, and the conflict is extremely gripping.

However, while the plot is great, where Deep really shines is its exploration of three key ideas in its worldbuilding. First are the zones. The zones are areas of space that represent different realities where the laws of physics change. High zones allow for much more flexible and powerful technology while low zones cause most tech to simply drop dead due to reality simply not supporting their functions. The planet where this archive has crashed is located in a very low zone, making it extremely hard to extract once it has been located. The second idea is around bootstrapping innovation. As the war between the sides of the dog aliens escalates, humans try to shortcut the growth of the species by showing them tech and skills they are eras from discovering. Thus, we get a thought experiment that represents Star Fleet’s worst nightmare: what could you achieve with a nascent species if you messed with their evolutionary path as much as possible.

Finally, the most interesting idea that Deep puts forth is how the minds of the dog aliens work. They are pseudo-hive minds and have a very creative form of intelligence. Each individual isn’t very smart, so they congregate in groups of 3-6 to bootstrap their intelligence by combining their minds. Each alien added to the group fundamentally alters the personality of the whole as their identity is incorporated into the collective. If the collective grows too large, the cohesion of the mind begins to fail. The aliens are constantly balancing improving their intelligence, keeping themselves sane, and not washing out their personality with unwitting pairings. It was a really original take on the hive mind idea and is absolutely fascinating to explore. There are tons more detail on how their minds work, but to learn more you will just have to read the book.

The character writing in Deep is above average, with almost every individual in the story representing a complex and deep combination of quirks and personalities. There is a surprising amount of character growth for a single book – but the story’s giant size makes that possible. The prose is also intense and powerful, resulting in a number of memorable quotes that will stick with you. Really my only complaint about Deep is that it’s a shame that all its narratives aren’t equally good. The two planetside stories around the children and aliens are always fascinating and engrossing as you slowly understand how these alien minds work and the gritty in-your-face conflict grows. The third narrative about a strike team trying to recover the archive and fight the big bad universe-eating being had a tendency to occasionally drag. There are some sloggingly long passages where it is just a group of people sitting in a traveling spaceship talking about things. It reeks of telling instead of showing and it can really break up the otherwise fast pace of the book.

I think it is fantastic that A Fire Upon the Deep is getting a re-release, as it is a great book that needs more readers. Deep’s modern ideas and old school feel make it appealing to a very wide range of sci-fi fans and will be sure to entertain anyone willing to give it the time of day. Make sure you don’t sleep on this winner or Tor will have to re-re-release it in another 30 years in an effort to give it the attention it deserves.

Rating: A Fire Upon The Deep – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Noumenon Ultra – Every Ending Is A New Beginning

51rxroewdxlAnd so here we are, at the end and the beginning of a journey started a few years ago with Noumenon. Now, I had reviewed a few books prior to reading that delightful novel, but Noumenon may have been the book that really sold me on continuing to read and review new books. It is a special book in my heart, and my affection for the series only grew with Noumenon Infinity. Marina J. Lostetter seemed to have a special touch for writing humanity into the big question of “why are we here?” While she never provides an answer, her ability to explore the question through vignettes over centuries and millennia is astounding. If you’re wondering, does the third book encapsulate the things I mentioned in my previous adulations of Lostetter’s work? Of course it does, and it does so much more, making me reflect on why they feel even more important in the world of today. Noumenon Ultra is a near perfect capstone to the trilogy, offering deeper and more personal ruminations on our place in the universe with the perfect blend of scientific anomalies and personal struggles with them.

Ultra starts where Infinity leaves off, which, as readers of the series know, means absolutely nothing. I don’t want to get into too much detail, as it would inevitably spoil the other books, but needless to say humanity in all its forms are spread across the stars in search of ancient super structures and unlocking their secrets. After the considered “success” of the original Noumenon mission, there are still questions about the nature of the machines that are being found, constructed and activated by human hands. Characters from previous novels make their return along with new ones, with ever more distinct lives and even more questions.

First off, I absolutely adored this book. Second, there is one thing readers might be turned off by, but if you’ve liked the books to this point, it will be a non-issue. This is a slow burn meditation on what it means to be sentient without purpose in the universe. Lostetter’s prose sometimes feels like it meanders, following the thought patterns of the character as they tell their story. It’s easy to get lost in, and it might be off putting to those who are looking for something a little more concise. But again, I think this is true of all her work and fits nicely with the themes she explores. It also never gets overly bogged down; the story is broken into nicely sized vignettes that can be read on their own or in succession. So now those are out of the way, I feel I can gush a little more.

One of the things I praised previously about Lostetter was her ability to write characters and imbue them with significance even though they usually only exist for a chapter. I feel she has only gotten better at this, as each character still feels distinct, with their own issues, but they all feel even more tied together. There is a prevailing sense of loneliness in each character that once you see it, it’s impossible not to notice. Every one of them has their unique problem from the child who physically ages exponentially slower than they do mentally, to the clone of a long dead man who lives life back and forth over and over again never dying, while losing his memories of previous lives. This loneliness, while all-encompassing, never felt insurmountable. This is where Lostetter succeeds in her storytelling. While the big things in the background are shifting into place, these unknown scientific marvels being pieced back together for unknown purposes, these people are living their absurd lives, finding out who they are, and coping together.

What continues to perplex me about Lostetter is while she can do the smaller stories, she is also a master of mind bending scale. The size and scope of the artifacts she writes about is nearly unfathomable. The effort that the characters put into understanding and reconstructing these ancient behemoths is ludicrous. Smartly, she doesn’t spend too much time on the details of the construction process, instead focusing on their import to the character’s lives. Lostetter also takes the chance to explore design philosophy and scientific concepts with these artifact sections, providing insights to our world while presenting problems to her characters. There might be some dissonance with some of the examples, however, as they seem a little too on the nose, but it didn’t bother me too much. There is a reasonable in-universe explanation for the seemingly anachronistic analogies. Either way, Lostetter made me think about these concepts in new ways in and outside the book.

On its own, Noumenon Ultra stands tall, but it does require the shoulders of its predecessors. If you haven’t picked up Noumenon and you’re looking for a fresh and exciting dive into time- and universe-spanning science fiction, I highly recommend this series. Noumenon Ultra serves as a fantastic finish, pushing the boundaries of the previous novels, while adding new insight without overshadowing them. Lostetter shows a lot of growth book to book, digging deeper and finding more empathetic and meaningful ways to engage with science than previously explored. Lostetter feels more determined than ever to explore the connections between humanity and science, exploring the benefits as well as the consequences. There is so much more I could say about this series, especially Ultra. However, if there is one word that sums up this series, it’s human. Lostetter wonderfully captures the human experience in all its absurdities, trivialities, and grandiosity, never forgetting the importance of an individual’s ability to affect the universe at large.

Rating: Noumenon Ultra – 9.0/10
-Alex