The Dark Tide – Witching Hour

Alicia Jasinska’s The Dark Tide was my third and final Dark Horse debut pick for the first half of 2020. The novel slotted neatly into my dark horse reading slate, adding an atmospheric fairy-tale inspired story to pair with my epic fantasy (The Kingdom of Liars) and sci-fi (Goddess in the Machine) selections. The Dark Tide meshes unique twists on classic fairy tale fantasy tropes and lyrical prose, forming a poetic reading experience. And while those elements bring a fresh feel to the narrative, I struggled to connect with the characters and their stories. 

The island of Caldella holds an annual festival on St. Walpurga’s Eve. During the festival, the witches from the nearby Water Palace join in the revelry, singing and dancing alongside the non-magical islanders. Witches trade spells for songs, dances, and performances, giving the islanders a chance to earn magic that’s otherwise extremely expensive. But the festival’s sinister underlying purpose is to choose a sacrifice. Each year, the Witch Queen kisses one boy at the festival, marking him for sacrifice. The boy is then whisked away to the Water Palace and kept safe until the full moon, when he’ll be given to the dark tide to prevent Caldella from sinking into the black depths of the sea. Only one boy–Thomas Lin–has ever escaped the sacrifice. Two years earlier, he convinced the former Witch Queen to sacrifice herself in his place. In response to his triumph, the tide has reached further and further up the island, and many believe the Witch Queen’s sacrifice didn’t take. 

This year, protagonist Lina fears that her brother Finley will be taken. So she locks him in his room to prevent him from attending the festival. He escapes out the window and attends anyway, so Lina rushes to the event to bring him home. On the way, Thomas Lin offers to help her find Finley. But when they arrive, the festival rages and Thomas Lin–once again–is chosen as the annual sacrifice. Lina sails to the Water Palace to rescue him, eventually offering herself as a replacement sacrifice. Eva, the Witch Queen, accepts her offer, but neither expects to fall for the other. Eventually, Eva and Lina have to make a difficult choice.

The Dark Tide’s concept is promising and intriguing. The islanders of Caldella live a half-magical life away from the mainland (where we’re told they boil witches to use their parts for magic). Witches offer magic to the islanders, but every spell takes a part of them with it–a strand of hair, a drop of blood. And when a witch uses all of his or her magic, they simply fade into nothing. The islanders use this relationship mostly out of fear that the dark tide will rise and sink Caldella permanently. The magic system (everything has a cost) and dark underbelly (necessary sacrifice) of the book lend it a cool premise that had me invested early. 

Jasinska’s writing only boosted my excitement. She writes lyrical prose that has a shadowy, darkly poetic slant to it. Her writing is some of the most unique prose I’ve read in a while, creating a thick atmosphere and crafting a stand-out identity for the book. 

Where The Dark Tide fell short for me, though, is the character work and the plot itself. Lina and Eva, our two POV characters, have limited space to breathe and never truly come into their own as semi-protagonists. The supporting cast is the same. Each character has a few defining traits that make them distinct from others, but I didn’t feel for them or empathize. Thomas Lin is a mysterious, handsome boy; Finley is a headstrong, temperamental, protective (and handsome) brother. Eva is a troubled queen mourning a loss. Marcin–another witch–is cutthroat and clearly desires to rule the witches of Caldella over Eva. I am a handsome book reviewer. All of this is to say that each character has defining traits, but The Dark Tide tells these details instead of showing them. It’s one aspect of the story that felt overshadowed by the remarkably descriptive prose. 

The Dark Tide’s narrative never hooked me enough to genuinely wonder what might happen next. The novel’s climax–the choice Lina and Eva must make to save themselves or Caldella–breezes by in a few pages without any emotional payoff. What should’ve been a hard-hitting character- and plot-defining moment felt like the story fizzling out. Instead, I found myself reading for the joy of Jasinska’s writing. The story of sacrifice and love and shirking tradition in The Dark Tide may strike the fancy of some readers, but I found it the weakest point of the story. The narrative is riddled with plot holes, but I’m not even sure that it matters. The fairy tale atmosphere makes it easy to ignore any consistency issues or glaring questions, allowing the reader to enjoy the book as a unified whole. It’s like hearing a tale passed down through oral tradition. Details may clash, but the message remains. 

The Dark Tide also features LGBTQ+ romance as it should be featured: it’s one of many aspects of life on Caldella. It’s great to see strong representation for marginalized communities in fantasy.

From an objective standpoint, I think many readers will enjoy The Dark Tide. The story has a flavorful hook, and the prose proves that Jasinska has writing chops. I personally didn’t connect with the story or the characters, but I still found plenty to enjoy in the beautiful writing and strong themes contained within. 

Rating: The Dark Tide: 6.0/10

-Cole

The Kingdom Of Liars – Fast Fun Fantasy Fodder

Nick Martell’s The Kingdom of Liars delivers a strong debut that lays the foundation for a promising epic fantasy saga. Martell’s story of king killers, magic-induced memory loss, and political corruption springs off our Dark Horse 2020 list with fresh concepts and a high-speed narrative. 

Michael Kingman wears the fire-seared brand of a traitor thanks to his dad. His father, David Kingman, was executed ten years ago for the murder of the king’s nine-year-old son. Now, Michael and his siblings Gwen and Lyon are also branded and ostracized, their Kingman name disgraced. As Gwen and Lyon struggle to rebuild lives removed from the Kingman legacy, Michael begins to find inklings of evidence that may prove his father’s innocence and expose the corrupt royal family of Hollows. But as Michael explores the possibility of his father’s innocence, he finds his life at risk when he learns that the mercenaries, politicians, Nobles, churches, and royalty of Hollows all have a stake in the game. Meanwhile, Michael begins to notice gaps in his memory, usually a symptom of using Fabrications (magic) without learning to control them first. 

Michael tells his tale in the first person, ushering readers on a journey through Hollows (the primary setting) and the Endless Waltz, an extravagant multi-event celebration meant to pair High Nobles into political relationships and solidify powerful alliances. Michael joins the event thanks to the guiding hand of a rich maniac who the royals won’t dare defy. His presence alone sends ripples of discontent through the nobility, eventually reaching corrupt Prince Adreann, who makes his distaste for Michael abundantly clear. 

Naturally, I’ve managed to scratch only the thinnest surface layer of what this novel has to offer. Michael’s trek through Hollows and the details of his family’s past, present, and future feel like a supercut parkour video. The story jumps from one plot point to the next at a breakneck pace with the occasional pause for dramatic effect. I think this tone is the result of Martell’s succinct-yet-descriptive prose and the myriad plot elements that Michael needs to encounter for the narrative to work. The Kingdom of Liars is one of those books that you pick up for a quick 20-30 page reading stint, only to end up flying through 150 pages. And that feeling fits the style of the novel really well. There are so many moving parts that even Michael has trouble tracking all the information he receives, the conversations he has, and the events he attends. Michael’s experience mirrors the reader’s; the more invested he becomes in the events unfolding throughout the novel, the more I felt drawn to the story. This breakneck spiral of a story could be a massive draw or a significant detriment, depending on the reader. Personally, I loved being whisked from one locale to the next through Michael’s eyes. Each page gave me something more than the last.

Kingdom’s scattershot worldbuilding slots neatly into the narrative. It’s clear that Martell has a unique and vivid setting constructed in his mind, and for the most part that translates to the page. Hollows is a poverty-ridden city with a rich history of turbulent politics. The military factions and rebellion add some nice flavor to the personal story Michael tells. The magic system is a novel concept: overuse your magic, and you risk losing memories. Not just recollections of events, but possibly the muscle memory of how to see or how to walk. The world of Kingdom has two moons, one of which has shattered into 7 separate pieces. Bits of the moon fall from time to time, and the city has an alarm system to indicate where the piece will hit. 

All these worldbuilding tidbits offer refreshing takes on tried-and-true fantasy tropes. However, it’s tough as a reader to truly grasp what this world is like. Cogs turn and the story moves at a relentless speed, so much so that I often wished for a filler chapter that would tell me about one tiny aspect of the world. Martell constantly drops hints about the history of the shattered moon Celona, mercenaries, Hollows royalty, mythical beasts, and Fabrications. There’s a bigger picture here, but The Kingdom of Liars zooms so far in that it’s easy to miss things. 

Space to breathe is the one thing Kingdom is missing, but the end promises much more from this richly imagined world, and I think Martell’s second and third outings will up the ante big time. Michael as a character has a fun arc. He begins the book as a stubborn, overly-independent child, but he spends much of the book learning from his mistakes and trusting those he loves. So much of the book’s central narrative results from Michael’s own growth, so I won’t spoil much here. One thing is worth noting, though: if you find Michael an insufferable brat for the first half of the book, you’re not alone. The second half makes it worthwhile, in my opinion. The supporting characters, meanwhile lend some verve to the book, much needed considering Michael’s single-minded purpose and frustrating first half. Domet, an incredibly rich aristocrat with a secret, stands out among them. Michael takes a job with the rich, elite, functioning alcoholic Domet that eventually catapults him into the center of political unrest. Michael’s siblings Gwen and Lyon have great moments as well. They both dealt with their father’s execution in different ways, shaping their unique relationships with Michael. 

Like I mentioned, I’ve only scratched the surface. I’ve left out some details–a few because they’re spoilers and others because they take a backseat to the main points of the story. There’s a veritable treasure trove of fantasy fun to be had in The Kingdom of Liars for the right reader. For me, it was an enjoyable and breezy read. Though I saw some slight issues, I’m really excited to see where Martell takes us next. This debut neatly sets the stage for book two, where I’m hoping the worldbuilding takes a front seat and the larger web of intrigue starts to point toward a climactic conclusion. For now, though, I’m happy I picked up The Kingdom of Liars, and I look forward to following Nick Martell as he explores his unique world. 

Rating: The Kingdom of Liars – 8.0/10

-Cole

The Space Between Worlds – The Abyss As a Mirror

One of my favorite things about writing for this site is the Dark Horse Initiative. One of the best choices we made this year was to split it into halves to discover even more new authors. It forces me to look for books that interest me but I might hesitate to pick up otherwise. The Space Between Worlds, by Micaiah Johnson, is the ideal dark horse. It’s exactly what you want in a debut novel: new ideas. It’s an engaging examination of identity that is full of grit and character while showing an incredible amount of promise for Micaiah Johnson beyond her debut. It has a couple of issues that are noticeable in the beginning of the book, but are improved upon as the book continues giving me faith that Johnson will only improve as she writes more books in the future. 

In Johnson’s far future setting, people are able to traverse between worlds, three hundred and seventy two of them to be exact. Through the miracle of quantum physics, humanity has found other instances of Earth that are similar enough that information about the future can be gleaned by travelling to them and bringing back the necessary data. While this seems like a boon, not all is well for the world Caralee inhabits. Caralee is a woman able to traverse between worlds, not because she’s particularly skilled, but because she happens to be dead in most of the other worlds. In order to hop to a parallel world, a version of you can’t currently exist in that reality. There are only eight other versions of herself still alive, and another one of them has just died. So Enbridge, the company conducting these excursions, wants to send her there to collect some data, and she can’t help but look into why she may have been killed.

First off, Johnson does an excellent job of keeping the story tightly focused and evenly paced to make sure the reader is hooked to the page. She clearly defines the limits of the multiverse and people’s abilities to travel fairly quickly so that it doesn’t bog down the later thriller- and action-oriented sections. I do want to point out that the beginning has a lot more telling than showing, but it tapers off pretty quickly. It’s not that the telling was uninteresting (in fact, it was extremely compelling), it just created a weird dissonance between the world and Caralee that made me want to know more about the world at large, than Caralee as a person. However, this does get resolved over time as Caralee’s character is brought into sharper focus. I was little concerned that my interest in the wider system would become a frustration that pulled me from Caralee, but Johnson sewed character focused seeds that made her story more interesting and coherent within the world. 

Johnson’s ability to write characters is astounding. There is a lot to like about this book, but something I absolutely loved was reading from Caralee’s perspective. Luckily for me, the entire book is from her point of view. It really helps that she’s such a well thought through character that feels complete in a writing sense, but incomplete in the human sense. She has this world-weary, cynical know-it-all feeling to her that helps her survive, but can sometimes blind her to things right in front of her. Caralee is the perfect lens through which the reader can view the issues of identity that book so heavily grapples with. Through Caralee, and the people who inhabit her admittedly few lives, the reader is treated to examinations of who people might innately be. I particularly enjoyed the fact that Caralee herself was not particularly curious about the nature of the multiverse as her detachment further steeped her in the morass of her own actions. She had a grim acceptance that the others may die, but she had the will to survive, regardless of cost. It made watching her grow and develop that much more satisfying.

Another aspect of the book that really hammered home everything I mentioned above is Johnson’s prose. Her writing is brash, unapologetic, and fierce. There is an undercurrent of anger to Caralee’s practicality as she narrates her life and describes the life of a traverser. The idea that the poor, brown, and black folks are the ones who are able to traverse due to their expectancy to be dead in other worlds clearly affects her, but she tries to hide it from herself by focusing so much on her own survival. Johnson’s writing feels so intentional and sometimes feels as if Caralee is talking to herself, or another version of herself, defending every one of her actions. It makes her feel vulnerable and as if there is a cognitive dissonance to how she has lived her life until this point. It’s fantastic and really pulled me into her life in a way I was not expecting. 

Overall, The Space Between Worlds is an incredible debut. It’s tightly focused and paced like a rocket launch. The world is interesting even though some aspects felt for a while as if they didn’t fit into the plot. Caralee’s voice is so incredibly strong that her development feels earned and true. The writing feels so deliberate and is tinged with a slight animosity, but not so much you’re pushed away from the story, just enough to make you feel as Caralee does. I definitely recommend you grab a copy of this book, and I can’t wait to read more from Micaiah Johnson.

Rating: The Space Between Worlds 8.5/10
-Alex

Dark Horse 2020 – July to December

If you’re like us, then books have offered you a necessary coping mechanism during this endless downward spiral of a year. Our Dark Horse Initiative is one of many ways we combat that spiral. Every year, we search for promising debuts among the Sci-Fi and Fantasy pantheons and compile them into our Dark Horse list. 

One teeny-tiny glimmer of bookish hope for this hellscape of a year emerged as we collected our most anticipated 2020 debuts: we had too many. And if you’ve followed along, you know that we split our 2020 Dark Horse list into two halves to bring you more reviews of SFF debut novels. We’re chugging right along with our January-June list (some of the books were pushed to July or early August); after a few more reads we’ll wrap that half of the year up. Now, it’s time to share our Dark Horse picks for July through December of 2020. 

As always, we’ll aim to review these titles during the next six months to help you parse out which debuts are worth your time. The Quill To Live is your guide to every world but this one, and thank goodness, because this world needs a break right about now.

Also, if you need a guaranteed win, check out our top books of the first half of 2020 for some top-notch reads.

  1. The Bone Shard Daughter by Andrea Stewart
  2. Nophek Gloss by Essa Hansen
  3. The First Sister by Linden Lewis
  4. Elatsoe by Darcie Little Badger
  5. The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
  6. Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis
  7. Star Daughter by Shveta Thakrar
  8. Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots
  9. Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne
  10. The Phlebotomist by Chris Panatier

Goddess in the Machine – An Otherworldly Sci-Fi Debut

Fresh from our Dark Horse list for the first half of 2020 comes Lora Beth Johnson’s Goddess in the Machine. This YA-leaning debut hits hard with twists and turns galore, all neatly packaged in a far-future setting with a mysterious cast tangled in an intricate web of court intrigue. 

Andra (short for Andromeda) wakes up drowning. When she emerges from her cryo’sleep, she learns that her stint in hibernation, originally planned to last 100 years, actually spanned 1,000. She wakes up to a desolate planet where the English language (of which Andra is a studied connoisseur) has shifted through the years to become a truncated, to-the-point means of communication similar to today’s internet slang. Zhade (pronounced, as Johnson eloquently describes, like a mix between “shade” and “jade”) is the first face Andra sees, and he quickly becomes her semi-reliable guide to this new world. Zhade tells Andra she is a Goddess, the third to have awoken, and brings her to the domed city of Erensed. In Erensed, Andra stays in the place of Maret, a leader dubbed the “Guv.” Maret rules alongside his quietly malicious mother and has a complicated history with Zhade. Andra’s escorts into this new world tell her very little, and she’s forced to discover where she is, what being a Goddess means, who she can trust, and how the barren world’s hodgepodge technology relates to the innovations of her own time. 

Goddess in the Machine mixes unique elements together to form an intriguing and altogether pleasant reading experience. Johnson’s primary strength lies in her command over the English language. Protagonist Andra broadcasts her linguaphile status to the reader and quickly assimilates to the “High Goddess” language employed by Erensedians. As a reader, I found the language tough to grapple with for the first third of the book. In a world where “matter” becomes “meteor,” “magic” means “technology,” and adverbs use a fixed suffix–”actually” becomes “actualish”–I struggled to find my linguistic footing. But Johnson smartly makes the language easier to understand by simply earning it. These characters talk, grew up talking, and have always talked in a world that uses “certz” instead of “sure” or “certain.” And while Zhade has a few POV chapters narrated in this new speech, most of the book happens from Andra’s “normal” English POV. The strange, evolved English plays a significant role in stressing how out of place a millennial English speaker would feel in Erensed or the desolate world beyond the dome. Major points to Lora Beth Johnson for using her strengths and her love of language to seamlessly entrench the reader in a foreign world. 

At one point, probably about 35% through the novel, I heaved a sigh and wondered “where is this all going?” The very next chapter brought a well-earned and skillfully revealed twist. Johnson continued the pattern throughout Goddess. Every time I thought she had revealed all of her cards, she whipped another one out of her sleeve. It’s impressive for any author to pull off a twist, much less multiple in a row. The fact that Johnson does that as a debut author makes me incredibly excited for her future work. 

That said, Goddess in the Machine isn’t perfect. The plot, though twisty and well-handled by Johnson’s natural linguistic talents, doesn’t burst with stakes. I generally cared about what would happen, but it was mostly to search for the next big reveal or twist. I wanted to feel for the characters and their arcs more than I did–particularly the supporting cast. Andra is a multi-faceted and flawed protagonist while the characters she interacts with sometimes feel vapid. There’s plenty to love about each of them; I just wanted more. Goddess’ plot has hooks–space traveler hibernates in cryo’sleep for 900 years longer than intended–but the characters stifle Andra’s questions, instead hoping to use her to their own ends. As a result, the side cast felt diluted, as if they’re one-note archetypes interacting with a multi-dimensional main character. 

And that point leads neatly into worldbuilding. Erensed clearly overflows with danger, and the surrounding desert landscape proves a harsh backdrop to this story of the future. But I never felt like I was there. I’m a big “theater of the mind” reader, and I try to visualize scenes and settings in great detail. The world of Goddess in the Machine has some unique elements, but few details exist to truly set it apart from other sci-fi settings. Through Andra’s eyes, I hoped to experience Erensed via wonderful sensory descriptions. Instead, many of the locales struck me as generic. 

When you mix all of these ingredients together, Goddess in the Machine emerges an interesting and readable concoction. Johnson’s unique perspective and ideas go a long way in carving out a niche for this book within the sci-fi community. Even with lackluster character and setting work, I’m convinced that Lora Beth Johnson is a debut author to watch. After reading Goddess in the Machine, I’m eager to see where she takes us next. 

Rating: Goddess in the Machine – 7.5/10

-Cole

The Loop – Round and Round, Here We Go Again

I’m not big on young adult fiction. I didn’t read a lot of it growing up, and as I get older I have an even harder time considering it. It has just never resonated with me, and continues to be low on my literary priorities list. Granted, I just said I have not read a lot of YA, so I’m generalizing it with my most memorable experiences. This is all to say that you should take this review with a grain of salt. Upon my realization that this dark horse was YA, I knew I was going to have reservations but I still tried to go into it with an open mind. The Loop by Ben Oliver feels like a standard action-oriented science-fiction dystopia that does not challenge the reader and barely scratches the surface of its own world. 

The Loop follows Luka Kane, a teenager who has been in prison for over two years. This prison is called The Loop, and its prisoners are subjected to some pretty horrible stuff. They do not see any of the other prisoners, and they are confined to their cells for the most part. However, every six months, they can participate in a Delay, a stay of execution granted to them by being subjected to scientific and medical experiments that the wealthy can then benefit from. Around Luka’s sixteenth birthday, the prisoners are separated into two groups and an unscheduled Delay is offered to everyone. Upon Group A’s return to the Loop, something is different about them– namely, that they try to escape their cells with wide grins plastered upon their faces. The prison is thrown into chaos as it seems to the prisoners that the world itself might be falling apart. This offers the prisoners an opportunity to escape, but is the world outside even worse than the one they have come to know within the Loop? 

When I first read the description of this book, I was excited. Some tiny part of my brain planted a seed deep inside, hoping that this prison would be a time-based maze. Don’t ask me where that thought came from, but there it is. So like I said, this book was doomed for me. Maybe a lot of how I read it was from a close-mindedness about the genre, agitated by my preconceived notions. Now since you’re here though, I might as well get into the actual review. 

The biggest gripes I had with The Loop were its characters and its worldbuilding. There was not a whole lot going on that made it interesting. Luka Kane was a fairly standard teenage boy. He’s in prison, for a crime the reader does not learn about until later, who does his best to stay absolutely fit mentally and physically with a daily reading and exercise regimen. Throughout the book, Luka never reveals any flaws, beyond he is just too good of a person. Any interpersonal conflicts he gets into are due to his naiveté, even when his “friends” are telling him otherwise. You could make the case that he is just willing to face the consequences of his choices, but ultimately he feels like someone who would stick his head in a wild alligator’s mouth, have the gator bite down and his last thoughts be “I was too trusting, I guess.” Luka often felt like someone discovering the world as a reader would, instead of feeling like a character who knew the world for what it was. Once the nature of his crime is revealed, I felt justified in my feelings of him as a character. I won’t spoil it here, but for me, it was unintentionally deflating. I won’t even go into the side characters because honestly, I barely remember their names only a week later, let alone their roles in Luka’s life.

So what does Luka reveal about the world he lives in as he travels through it? Well, again, I found the book lacking. That is not to say there aren’t details. Oliver clearly is imaginative in his construction of a cruel society. It also helps that the society that exists in his future feels eerily familiar, but turned to eleven. Society is split between the elites and the rest, all under a single world government. Elites have access to bionic technology that the rest do not. They run the prisons, which are used as science labs which experiment on the poor for the benefit of the elites. Percentages of the population are lost in drug-enhanced virtual realities. However, I did not care about this world. Sure, it’s cruel, it’s mean, and it’s hard, but I just never got the sense that it could be real. I didn’t believe that the characters were frustrated with it or dealing with it in any significant way. I’m not even sure there was an accepted resignation to it either. It was frustrating given that on the surface, the world they inhabit is terrifying but hollow.

Like I said earlier, this is just not really my kind of book. That said, and with my admitted lack of knowledge of YA literature, I don’t think this offers new or different ideas to its genre. Knowing that it’s the first in a trilogy also dampens any sort of excitement, considering that a lot of the questions the series will raise probably won’t be answered, let alone asked until the end of the second book. Even as a romp, I can’t recommend this book because I didn’t feel any sort of suspense or apprehension. But hey, to each their own, I just know I was not a fan. 

Rating: The Loop: 4.5/10
-Alex

Repo Virtual – Planet Of The Bots

91pmbl4opmlRepo Virtual is a peculiar and somber book that feels like a mash-up of different stories. Although it’s not quite a debut, as the author Corey J. White has a number of other publications to their name, we decided to put it in our dark horse initiative because not a lot of people seemed to be talking about it. The novel feels like it borrows storytelling elements from a lot of popular stories while also contributing its own original takes and ideas. The result is a fascinating and chaotic story of a possible near-future Korea where the virtual and the physical worlds are almost indistinguishable.

Although it doesn’t quite seem it, I think Repo Virtual might be a post-apocalypse story – even though the apocalypse in question is more like a quiet sigh than a big bang. The narrative follows the POV of Julius Dax, a bot technician by day and a virtual repo man by night. He makes his living by stealing gear and items in giant online games and selling them for hard currency. Julius lives in Neo Songdo, a city that is more virtual interface than stone and concrete. He is barely scraping by when his sibling brings him a job of a lifetime – stealing an unknown object from a reclusive tech billionaire. However, when it turns out the item he steals is the first sentient AI, everything goes south rather quickly.

On its surface, Repo Virtual is a fairly basic heist novel. The plot is serviceable, the job is exciting enough, and the characters are fun if a little cliche. However, the book really shines when it uses the heist plot to facilitate some fantastic social commentary as well as advance its pretty heavy themes. I would argue that Repo’s two biggest ideas are 1) that humanity is destroying its own existence through the facilitation of capitalism and 2) the rise of AI and how a new computer mind might see and change the world – both of which it explores in great detail. As I mentioned, Repo paints a bleak future for humanity. Through Julius, we get to see how hard literally everyone but a handful of billionaires work, how greedy fanatics make use of people’s anger and frustration, and how these things eventually fuel the collapse of society. It doesn’t inspire a lot of hope – but it is nicely balanced by the rise of the AI representing a new hope. The AI is like an inquisitive child and does a lot to provide a light at the end of a dark capitalistic tunnel. While I think that White did a good job arguing for his themes, I would point out that his arguments are not subtle. In fact, this is some of the most blatant and opinionated writing I have read in a while. In many ways, the book reads like a well written political paper more than a story – which weirdly works for me.

On the novel front, the world and characters are a mixed bag. Neo Songdo is bleak but feels like a well-realized and well-written possible future. The characters, however, are where things get a little uneven. Julius was great, though I did feel that his inner monologues sometimes felt a little redundant as he constantly thought about past injuries he cannot afford to have fixed, reminding the reader how terrible life is under a capitalist society that monetizes everything. On the other hand, the antagonists (who I don’t name to avoid spoilers) left a little to be desired. They felt cookie cutter and generic in comparison to Julius’ more dynamic personality, and I don’t actually think they added a lot to the story. Their entire side story would have functioned the same if the antagonists had been removed and replaced with “cops trying to stop Julius from committing crimes for good reasons.”

Repo Virtual feels like a poignant and clever criticism of capitalist society and commentary on AI wrapped up in a single package. The story is short, entertaining, and drives its points home well. While I don’t see this being the next blockbuster hit, it is definitely worth the short amount of time it would take to read, and it might make you think about the future trajectory of the human race. White has done a great job crafting a novel that depressed then uplifted me – all the while entertaining me with a kick-ass action-adventure.

Rating: Repo Virtual – 7.0/10
-Andrew

Beneath The Rising – On Top of Its Game

I have always been enticed by cosmic horror and other Lovecraft adjacent stories, but I never really dove into the genre. It’s always lurking in the background, taunting me with its perceptions of madness. Luckily for me, Premee Mohamed’s Beneath The Rising is a Lovecraftian story filled to the brim with horror, adventure, a dash of comedy, and a lot of fast-paced adventure. Beneath the Rising follows two teenagers on the cusp of adulthood and on the eve of destruction as they sort out their friendship and try to contain the Lovecraftian consequences of their decisions. Written through the eyes of seventeen-year-old Nick Prasad, the story explores the nature of cultural and class differences, shared traumas, and teenage romance as the characters attempt to save the world from Eldritch horrors.

The story begins when Johnny, Nick’s childhood friend and supergenius, Joanna “Johnny” Chambers”, returns from her latest travels of the world and shows Nick her latest experiment, a new unending source of clean energy. Upon activating the device, strange beings start appearing and harassing the two teenagers. Soon, Johnny reveals to Nick that she fears she has awoken the Ancient Ones, beings she has learned about through the various scientific societies she is a part of. Nick is inadvertently pulled into the chaos of Johnny’s quest to save the world by virtue of being her closest friend, even though he feels he barely knows her. He’s poor, of Indian descent and secretly in love with Johnny, a rich, white supergenius who flies around the world. 

Mohamed’s ability to explain the world through Nick’s eyes is wonderful. I sometimes felt lost, but it seemed like a deliberate choice, becauseNick’s consciousness switched between memories and current events with no real transition. It was as if I was reading someone’s thoughts while they were trying to parse what was happening in front of them and also reconciling it with a memory it triggered. These were the only times I felt pulled out of the book, but it gradually became less jarring as I attuned to the style. Nick felt like a teenage boy, aware of the seriousness at hand, but willing to take a crack at a joke to impress his friend. He referenced pop-culture a decent amount, but mostly because that was the easiest way to relate to the absurd situations he found himself in. Normally, I cringe at pop culture mentions, but they felt natural here in a way I have not experienced before. It felt like Mohamed purposefully wrote them as a point of contact for Nick to make sense of the world instead of being used to relate to the reader, and that is refreshing.

With the story being told in the moment through Nick’s point of view, the pacing is fun and frenetic. It conveys a sense of what Nick and Johnny must be feeling as they face the end of the world. There are constantly new threats that must be dealt with, or a new library to get to in order to find a way to defeat the Ancient Ones. Mohamed’s strength as an author is not just in her ability to keep the plot moving, but also giving the characters room to breathe and process what they just went through. Johnny lends an air of “whatever, I see crazy stuff all the time,” while Nick is still playing catchup and questioning the nature of their friendship, let alone the nature of the cosmos. Their fights with each other hit hard, and the reconciliation is earned if it even happens. Their relationship is truly engrossing as it’s pushed to the limits as these two teenagers travel across Northern Africa and the Middle East. Even more astounding is Mohamed never let the larger plot fade away and lose relevance, having it hover over the characters like a sword of Damocles. It put a lot of pressure on the story and kept pulling me to the next page.

I am not an avid reader of Lovecraft, but even so, something about the way the mythos is used felt refreshing. The Ancient Ones were always within reach, but rarely ever in sight, adding an increasing amount of tension. This might be disappointing for some, but I did not mind it. The first time “something” showed up in the story, I felt my blood run cold and I owe that to Mohamed’s careful and deliberate revelation of the world. My feelings as a reader often seemed to mirror Nick’s, unsure of what was going on and always needing an explanation, but only able to get a little bit from Johnny. It felt like a madness creeping into Nick’s brain, as if what he was going through could not possibly be real, but there was no other explanation. Moments that were humorous could also be easily turned on their heads as moments of horror. I never got the sensation that I missed the cue, however, as if Mohamed was hinting at the ambiguity for a reason and making me think about how teenagers would handle themselves in these terrifying situations.

The last aspect of the book that really gripped me, however, was just how insidious every interaction felt. Mohamed starts the story off with a moment of alternative American history in which 9/11 happens, but the planes miss. Similar tensions still pervade the western hemisphere, however, and Nick receives some of the backlash as an Indian person born and raised in Canada. It felt real, and as if Mohamed looked at me through the pages of her book, and asked “are you paying attention?” I could not stop looking for the little ways this change wove its tendrils into how Nick and Johnny engaged each other and the world given their backgrounds. I felt every word and turn of phrase had to be dissected. Being inside Nick’s head only fine-tuned this notion, making Johnny feel unreliable and dodgy in response to his inquiries. It was bold, and I felt it paid off immensely through the rest of the story.

Overall, if you’re looking for a fast, fun take on the cosmic horror genre that pushes its characters to the limits, Beneath The Rising is for you. Mohamed cares for her characters, and her love of the world that she’s built shines through. There are plenty of twists that are as revealing of the story as they are impactful to the characters. I had a blast, and this book makes me want to dive further into the genre. So, if you feel its pull even slightly, its worth it to answer its call.

Beneath The Rising: 8.0/10

-Alex

The Unspoken Name – A Maze Of Mystery

unspoken-gld-t1Yesterday we posted our first 2020 Dark Horse Initiative list, but you might have missed it because we put it out on an unusual day for us. The reason for this is I was dead set on getting my review of The Unspoken Name, by A. K. Larkwood, out today, and it felt weird to review it before including it as part of our DHI. The Unspoken Name is a powerful, unusual, and extraordinary debut that will likely be the talk of the town for many months to come. The book is not at all what I expected from its back blurb, but I think that may be the point. This story is mercurial, untraditional, engrossing, and occasionally a little rough. But, above all else, it is a beautiful story that is worth reading and a debut that promises that Larkwood is an author to keep an eye on.

The plot follows Csorwe, an orc priestess of the titular god of “The Unspoken Name.” Her job, for a short period, is to be a conduit for communication between the god and supplicants who come with offerings. She is supposed to serve this role for a number of years, starting as a young child, and eventually be sacrificed to the god at a certain age. She knows that her death is marked on the calendar from day one of her service, and she reacts accordingly, becoming a sullen, fatalistic, and incurious person. What is the point of exploration and discovery when you know you will die soon? This all changes when a supplicant, a Gandalf-esque wizard, comes to The Unspoken and whisks her away right before her death. He enlists her in a bodyguard for a quest to reclaim his homeland and they travel Larkwood’s multiverse (a series of worlds interconnected by a giant maze of portals) seeing all sorts of wonderful things – and that’s about all I am going to tell you.

The story of The Unspoken Name is surprising. It doesn’t follow a clear path and often takes unexpected turns and twists into wonderful new directions. For a large portion of the book, Csorwe doesn’t really have a goal. She thought she was going to die, it didn’t happen, and she doesn’t have a plan for what to do now. She has some ideas, but not many, and a huge part of the story is her just trying things out and learning about the world. It is a beautiful and unique narrative style that I really enjoyed and gave the book a very pervasive atmosphere of whimsy and wonder. This is helped enormously by the fact that the world is just absolutely wonderful to explore. he magic and multiverse are convoluted and complicated by design to keep everything mysterious. However, what you do learn about – such as the race of giant snake philosophers who built the foundation of civilization as they know it – is wonderful. I also particularly liked how there are a variety of different magical races, but race politics was a very minor footnote in the story. For example, Csorwe is an orc and while that carries through into a lot of her flavor and general identity, there is very little attention and time given to it by the other races or people. The entire book projects this idea of a universe where people come in all shapes and sizes and that is very normal and not worth commenting on.

I ate up every second of the world-building and constantly found myself desperate for more. However, the world is more of a vehicle for the journey of self-discovery that Csorwe and many other characters find themselves on and it definitely plays second fiddle to the characters. The characters are absolutely fantastic. The protagonists mostly share the theme of growth and self-discovery and the antagonists are mired in a refusal to change or grow. It is a powerful high-level idea that plays out wonderfully in the character stories and the individual journeys of the cast are extremely satisfying to boot. I really enjoyed Csorwe. She feels so real and relatable it hurts. Her joy at discovering new things and skills is so sweet, and her mistakes feel like important moments that she learns from and grows. I don’t want to talk too much about the supporting cast for spoiler reasons, but they also share the same arcs and moments.

Despite all my lavish praise, I do think the book struggled in a place or two. In particular, the book can have slightly uneven pacing and some trouble with telling versus showing. While it’s wonderful that the book wanders, Larkwood occasionally seems to feel scared the reader will get bored if she lingers too much in any particular place and jumps from set-piece to set-piece. In a book about stumbling and finding your way, I didn’t think there was enough breathing room to occasionally take in and process things. In addition, for someone who has sheltered her entire life and has “inexperience” as a cornerstone of her personality – Csorwe has a weird tendency to just announce everything there is to know about a person in her head the second she meets someone. Meeting new characters often has Csorwe take one look at them and think things like “he was a cruel man, who seemed like he had a troubled youth. He wasn’t respected by his peers and spent his life trying to live up to the expectations of his father. He didn’t call his mom enough.” I kept waiting to find out she secretly possessed psychic powers or some sort of keen insight, but by the end of the book, it seems like the story just suffers from a little too much telling.

The Unspoken Name is a stroll through a garden of wonders in book form. It is filled with whimsy and wonder and tells the story of a woman finding her place in the world after rejecting the role fate placed on her shoulders. It is a wonderful book that surprises and delights from the first to the last page. A.K. Larkwood has crafted an absolutely stellar debut that only has a few minuscule issues. I cannot wait to see where the story goes next, though I have absolutely no idea where Larkwood will take us next.

Rating: The Unspoken Name – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Dark Horse 2020 – Jan to June

After the success of last year’s Dark Horse Initiative, we knew we were going to do it again this year. For those of you just joining us, the DHI is our attempt to sift through all the relatively unknown debuts coming out in a year and bookmark a handful to check out and review just based on their descriptions. However, when we were building the lists this year we realized that we had A LOT of books on it – so we decided to make two. We are splitting the DHI into two lists, one for each half of the year. The following books are our picks for books coming out from January 2020 to June 2020, and we will have a second list for the back half of the year in July.

As mentioned, each of the following 12 books (in no particular order) is something that caught the eyes of one of our reviewers. We will do our best to read and review all of these, but there are only so many hours in the day so no promises we will get to all of them. Regardless, each looks like a promising new story and we are very excited to check them out! Happy 2020 everyone.

  1. Repo Virtual by Corey J. White
  2. The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood
  3. Mazes of Power by Juliette Wade
  4. A Song Below Water by Bethany C Morrow
  5. The Vanished Birds by Simon Jimenez
  6. Rebelwing by Andrea Tang
  7. Docile by K. M. Sparza
  8. Beneath the Rising by Premee Mohamed
  9. The Loop by Ben Oliver
  10. The Dark Tide by Alicia Jasinska
  11. The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell
  12. Goddess in the Machine by Lora Beth Johnson