The Dark Horse Initiative: January-June Wrap Up

Welcome to our Dark Horse Initiative wrap up for the first half of 2020! This year, we found a surplus of debuts we wanted to review, so we divided our Dark Horse list into two halves. 

January through June brought us 12 debuts. After a handful of delays, we finally knocked most of these off our TBR. We didn’t get to every book on our Dark Horse list for January to June, but we did finish nine of them. Now it’s time for a wrap up before we shift focus to the second half of the year, which is also stacked with anticipated reads. Here’s our round-up:

Repo Virtual 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. 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.

From our review: “Repo Virtual is a peculiar and somber book that feels like a mash-up of different stories…The result is a fascinating and chaotic story of a possible near-future Korea where the virtual and the physical worlds are almost indistinguishable.”

The Unspoken Name 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 page to the last.

From our review: “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 Vanished Birds – Although we read it, we didn’t review The Vanished Birds. It’s a poetic and beautiful piece about suffering and the tenacity of the human spirit. It is certainly a beautiful and powerful book – it was simply too depressing for us to find the right words to accurately talk about it. If you want to feel profoundly sad, check it out.

Docile – K.M. Szpara’s debut is stunning in its portrayal of two men developing an unhealthy and antagonistic romantic relationship that negates their humanity. If it had been the destruction of said men, this book would have been good, but the healing process and the slow reconciliation makes this book a real treat. 

From our review: “Szpara succeeds in balancing his knack for subtlety and smashing through a brick wall with a megaphone. He achieves subtlety in the quiet moments, where the characters reflect on their actions, and through which point of view situations are described. His loudness comes through in his use of language and Szpara’s refusal to couch actions in metaphor or euphemisms.”

Beneath the Rising – Preemee Mohamed busts through several dimensions with this debut, offering a fast and fresh take on the Cthulu Mythos, bending it and twisting it to reveal some of its darker and more haunting origins. 

From our review: “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.“

The Loop – Ben Oliver’s debut left a lot to be desired. It engages the reader as much as it engages with its own world: barely. 

From our review: “…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.”

The Dark Tide – Alicia Jasinska’s debut novel boasts delectable prose and a gritty, satisfying concept, but the characters and plot might make some readers hesitant.

From our review: “The Dark Tide meshes unique twists on classic fairy tale fantasy tropes and lyrical prose, forming a reading experience that feels breezy and poetic. And while those elements bring a fresh feel to the narrative, I struggled to connect with the characters or their stories.” 

The Kingdom of Liars The Kingdom of Liars offers an impressive fantasy debut and a promising start to Nick Martell’s The Legacy of the Mercenary King series. 

From our review: “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.” 

Goddess in the Machine – Lora Beth Johnson’s sci-fi debut brims with fun moments, clever twists, and an intriguing concept. 

From our review: “…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.”

Eager for more debuts? Check out our Dark Horse picks for July through December 2020, and keep an eye out for more reviews every week!

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