Middlegame – I Didn’t Quite Go Cuckoo For It, But Still Great

71e9du8wynlI wanted to start this review with a reference to Changes by David Bowie, but maybe that’s a little too on the nose? What about The Future’s So Bright by Timbuk 3? Probably still not quite right, and due to my lack of pop culture references to alchemy I may have to change my angle of approach. See, I know all of this may stick out as odd to you now but if you actually go and read Middlegame by Seanan McGuire you’ll notice the super-hidden and not obvious at all references I’ve made to the fact that the book is about time travel. It will also become obvious to you that they weren’t very funny and I should probably just review the book itself. The fact that I’m about to do that is another coded message to you that I hear your constructive criticism, that I’m listening to you. I’m always listening to you.

Middlegame starts in media res with our two protagonists in the midst of failing to save the world, one of them bleeding to death and the other unable to do anything about it. Through some magic that is essentially the entire premise of the book, everything is reset and we get to experience the story that led them there, sort of. This is a somewhat difficult story to parse critically without ruining a lot of the feeling of discovery, as the idea that our protagonists can essentially reset their current timeline in order to go back and try to fix something that went wrong means that we are often given information that either quickly becomes obsolete or that has significantly more importance than we’re originally led to believe. As such, I’ll try to give the barebones rundown of the setting before we move on. The world is nominally the same as ours but for the fact that the magical practice of alchemy is real. This has led to the formation of a shadowy organization called the Alchemical Congress, and it is because of their unwillingness to go along with the plans of one of their members named Asphodel Baker that our story is set into motion. Baker, in pursuit of godlike power, writes a set of children’s books that contain coded messages relating to a large number of important alchemical MacGuffins, and it is this act that sets our story into motion.

If it sounds like I’m handwaving the magic a little bit, it’s on purpose. I didn’t feel like the restraints of alchemy were really all that consistent within the text, and it felt more to me like the means to an end of telling the story McGuire wanted rather than a cohesive and living framework in which the characters lived. I don’t, however, think that’s necessarily a bad thing, as it led to a somewhat whimsical and unique feel to the magic that I enjoyed quite a great deal. McGuire’s choice to write portions of the narrative in the style of Baker’s children’s stories goes a long way to making that aspect of the story feel fundamental and coherent. The magic feels like storybook magic, which fits the story McGuire tells in Middlegame.

The characterization of our two main protagonists is great. Not only does McGuire do a great job of writing the protagonists, Roger and Dodger, she also does a great job of exploring the unique powers that the two were born with and grow into over time. I suppose I should have expected this in a book about using time travel to fix the mistakes you made in the past to save the future, but I was extremely surprised by a number of the twists and misdirects in the book. Each setback for the pair feels real and is written well enough to instill a sympathetic sense of loss in me when I think back on them. I thought McGuire did especially well writing the pair as children, their dialogue and internal monologue was believable without being over the top and really helped cement the two as real people in my mind.

I wish I could say the same for the antagonists. My main gripe with the book is that neither Reed, our main antagonist and the homunculus made by Baker, nor his assistant feel like real people. I’m guessing that’s on purpose due to the fact that they’re both constructs made by other alchemists, which McGuire takes pains to point out throughout the course of the book. While that is something of a mitigating factor, and I did enjoy getting to see the inner workings of their heads and their descriptions of how they interact with the world, they were always just a little too arch, just a skosh too pantomime evil to ever truly feel real. I enjoyed reading their segments the same way I enjoy laughing at Skeletor in images of the old He-Man show. Regardless of how close they come to succeeding, or how much danger they put the protagonists in, their motivations never feel like something I could understand or be threatened by.

I was enchanted by Middlegame. The world felt inhabitable in a very inviting way. I enjoyed the somewhat “take it as it is” magic system, I liked the protagonists a lot, and I thought the time travel mechanic that McGuire uses was a clever and unique twist on that style of story. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sequel at some point down the line and will absolutely pick it up if it comes to be, though in my research I haven’t turned up any mention of whether that’s actually planned or not. I wouldn’t necessarily bump other stuff out of your to-be-read queue, but definitely try to make some time for this book.

Rating: Middlegame – 8.0/10
-Will

Advertisements

A Lush And Seething Hell – If This Is Hell I’ll pass On Heaven

91dsajyop2lI am not a religious man. Despite my Catholic upbringing and coming of age in the American midwest, the world of the spiritual has never called out to me. I’ve never felt the rapture of religion or the whisper of the divine. As such, I find myself sorely lacking in vocabulary to describe my experience with A Lush and Seething Hell by John Hornor Jacobs. Comprised of the novellas The Sea Dreams it is the Sky and My Heart Struck Sorrow, this “anthology-lite” as I’ve come to think of it is beyond normal description for me. Had I truly submerged myself in the dogma of Catholicism, with its near-magic and incensed ritualism, I might be able to better put into words how these stories affected me. As it is, however, I can only imagine that this is what people who have had spiritual revelations felt like in the aftermath: my nerves are raw and frayed, and I feel as if I have been exposed to something separate from me and all the experience I’ve had up to this point.

I know that sounds rather overwrought and excessive, but so much of this book has infused me and singed the edges of all that I am that there’s no other way to describe it. The book’s cover art slowly wore away from my fingers as I read it, and over the week it took me to read and re-read and really digest the depth and weight of the stories it contained, I would find little black spots on my hands and forearms from the ink wearing away. It was almost as if I was physically consuming the book as I read it. I’ve received and reviewed a decent number of ARCs at this point, and while they’re never quite as well put together physically as a release copy of a book, I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. I felt personally connected to the stories of Isabel and Cromwell, and felt that I was being marked just as they were by something incomprehensible and vast and somehow more than the paltry world I had experienced to that point. Jacobs uses the phrase “collapsed-time” in both stories to describe the fluidity and lack of form of time when experienced through a period of great pain or emotion, and that is exactly what I felt during my time with the stories. Time as I had known it ceased to act for me in the way it always had, and I felt myself separate from it in a fundamental and indescribable way.

I’m normally more lighthearted in my reviews and take less care in my attempts at mellifluous descriptions and language, but I don’t know that I could review something that I felt so profoundly without all of this extra…everything. I’ve waited to start writing this review for weeks now to see whether the feeling would change or stick with me, and if anything my experience with these stories has grown more profound in retrospect. I don’t know if I’ll ever find a novel or anthology or anything else that will impact me quite the same way. I never have before.

The book begins with The Sea Dreams it is the Sky, a tale about Isabel, an exiled teacher from the made-up South American country of Magera. While the country described in the story is imaginary, the trials and tribulations it undergoes at the hands of a totalitarian regime supported from behind the scenes by the United States are all too based in history. She meets her country’s most famous (or infamous) exiled poet Avendano, who is believed by most to be dead after being captured and tortured by the government. When he tells her that he must return to the country under strange circumstances, he gives her his apartment and access to his unfinished translation of an ancient and obscene text. In the process of continuing the translation she is drawn back to her country to search for Avendano and to try to reconcile what is currently happening to her with what has happened and continues to happen to her country. The story becomes more dreamlike and terrifying as it continues and Isabel is drawn further into the horror that has subsumed her home, horror of cosmic and sadly mundane nature. While there are great and unknowable forces at work in Magera, they are contrasted against the totalitarian regime of Vidal, and I found this comparison to be remarkably profound. Cosmic horror relies heavily on the fear of the unknown, that the forces at work against the protagonist are so vast and alien that the horror happening in the story is actually impersonal, because why would an ancient being with the power of gods actually care about a single individual? In stark relief against this is the specific pettiness of the horror Vidal’s government inflicts on its own people. Teachers, students, Marxists, and regular citizens who know the wrong people are intentionally targeted and disappeared in ways horrific enough that the description of Avendano reacting to the tortures that aren’t themselves described was enough for me to be truly unsettled. It is a trip down a rabbit hole into a twisted surreal wonderland that I wanted to leave but couldn’t get enough of.

My Heart Struck Sorrow, the second story of this anthology-lite, is a more classic cosmic horror tale of a researcher discovering a work of art that tells a story humans aren’t meant to understand. I want it to be clear that my description of this as “more classic” is not meant to imply that this is in any way less scary or meaningful for that fact. With as much horror as I read, it’s rare for me to be physically affected by a story, but in three pages my scalp was tingling and the hair on the back of my neck was raised. This story masterfully mixes both supernatural horror and terror of a mundane nature and is stronger for not relying on one or the other. Following a music researcher, Cromwell, as he explores recordings left to the historical agency he works for as part of an old woman’s estate, My Heart Struck Sorrow is a mysterious and haunting story about the magic the world used to, and may still, contain and a man’s desperation to tap into that regardless of the personal cost. I will say no more about the story, but, “He’s a bad man, Stackalee.”

I need to wrap this “review that isn’t really a review so much as me pouring my heart out about something that filled it too much” up. I’m sure you can tell from everything up to this point that I absolutely loved this book. I have never been impacted by stories the way I was with this, and the very act of reading cast a sort of glamour over me and my life for both the week I was actively reading it and each day since. Maybe it was the mindset I had going into the reading of this book. It could have been a strange cosmic alignment that changed me and made me more receptive to it. I’m not sure, but I had as close to a religious experience as I’ve ever felt while reading this, and to anyone looking for another great cosmic horror writer, look no further than John Hornor Jacobs.

Rating: A Lush and Seething Hell – 10/10 (I would give it more if I could)
-Will

Ghoster – Too Substantial to Properly Spook

ghosterI don’t have a lot of experience with dating apps, having been in a long term relationship until recently, and as such have viewed them with the same amused indifference granted to most of the technology I don’t interact with. Having spoken to friends that have used them, and through some low-level environmental exposure, I have, however, picked up on some key facets. All of this personal information none of you care about is here to explain that I have not personally experienced “ghosting,” but I do understand what it is through the cultural zeitgeist of modern dating technology, and have a general understanding that it is “bad.” Pretty great lead-in to the review of Ghoster by Jason Arnopp, eh?

Ghoster is a Schrodinger’s Book for me, a story that appears to have been written directly for me and one that is so far outside my normal sphere of enjoyment I would never pick it up on my own volition. A horror story about a relationship gone wrong written through the lens of modern technology and dating apps is very much not my normal fare and with the cover on the ARC we received displaying a text messaging screen, I began reading with no little apprehension, steeling myself for what I was fairly sure would be more toil than enjoyment. I am happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised by Ghoster. While not without its faults, there are some very strong foundations to this story, and I came out of this reading with a fresh lesson in not judging books by their covers.

In Ghoster we follow Kate Collins as she moves across the UK to begin living with a new boyfriend, Scott. It should not be surprising based on the title, cover art, back of book blurb, and the fact that this is advertised as a horror book that the move-in does not go according to plan and Kate finds herself “ghosted” by Scott. This already fraught situation is complicated by two large problems. Firstly, Kate is a social media addict (and something of a stalker), and has gone cold turkey from digital media in general, trading her smartphone in for a simple texting device. This complicates her search for Scott’s whereabouts and forces her into more and more outlandish actions to try to find him. Secondly (and arguably the less weird problem), Scott’s apartment that Kate has recently moved into appears to be haunted.

Let’s start with the phone stuff. I’m not going to get into the believability of having such a severe addiction to social media that you revert to what is essentially an old Nokia brick, I’m sure there are people out there like that, but I did find it hard to sympathize with Kate a lot of the time due to the nature of her character flaws. I’m sure that says something about me, but while I like my protagonists to be flawed I did feel like this particular issue was pretty overblown. Additionally, and I think this is probably the biggest issue with the book, the references to specific apps and reliance on current technological jargon means this story will age poorly. Not every book needs to be a classic, and there is a time and place to pig out on popcorn, but if you’re looking for a full meal (excuse the metaphor) I would recommend another choice.

The thing that really bugs me about the issues I had with the technobabble and constant references to dating app etiquette, is that I honestly don’t think it was necessary. If the tech addictions and more romance-heavy aspects of the book were removed, I think the horror story at its foundation would be stellar. The bones of this book, the novella that lives within this full-length novel, is outstanding. I did not see the twist coming and the ending goes toe-to-toe with a number of horror shorts I place at the very top of my list. I was expertly misdirected, and the pacing of the horror elements, as well as what information is given, is fantastic. I wish I could say the same for the pacing of pretty much everything else.

The climax of the story happened so quickly that I’m fairly certain it was purposeful to instill a sense of shock in the reader, and while it did have something of a shocking effect, I felt more bemused than anything. Additionally, there’s a fairly long final chapter that seems almost like a postscript to explain all the things that got sidelined during Kate’s search for Scott. Once I finished and closed the book for the final time I was struck by how much more coherent and enjoyable the story would have been to me if it had a runtime of 100-150 pages and stripped all the fat from its bones. There is a story in here that I think would win awards if it were distilled to its core, and I think that a lot of what’s in there distracts from what could be a truly terrifying tale.

I’m conflicted about Ghoster. I went into it expecting a painful trudge through a horror-romance and ended disappointed in an entirely different way. I did truly enjoy my time reading it, which is more than I was expecting, but was left unsatisfied by the heights it failed to attain. There are aspects of this book that will remain memorable for a long time, but a large portion of the book has already slipped from my ability to recall. I sense that the parts I liked will eventually be all I remember of the book, and I wish Arnopp had written a novella or short story with just those bits, but this book probably isn’t really for me, and as such I will take the enjoyment I received and selectively remember it as shorter and scarier than it ended up.

Rating: Ghoster – 6.5/10
-Will

The Last Astronaut – One Small Step Into… Eh, You Should Figure It Out

I would not say that The Last Astronaut by David Wellington is a bad book. It just didn’t quite hit the marks that it set out to hit. The story itself was okay on its own; it did not feel entirely new to me, but it was not stale either. The possibility of extraterrestrial life visiting our solar system can be a fun way to uncover aspects of humanity left unexplored in other genres. The secrecy around the discovery in The Last Astronaut made the race to answer the question of ‘who are they and what are they doing here’ more personal than most first contact stories I have read. The general structure of the book’s beginning felt like I was going to dive into some characters who carried demons. I expected that this unknown entity was going to exploit this baggage, shining a light on the characters’ faults as they plunged deeper into the darkness of space. My eyes were open for whatever curveballs the author was ready to throw at me. Unfortunately, Wellington’s strange choice to frame the narrative as a documentary paired with his unremarkable writing softened the emotional punch foreshadowed for the characters. 

The Last Astronaut takes place fifty years in the future after a failed manned mission to Mars. The captain, Sally Jansen, had to make a life or death decision and sacrificed a crew member for the rest of the group. Afterwards, NASA was defunded to near non-existence. Fifteen years later, an object is spotted slowing down as it enters the solar system, and with very few people who know about it, and even fewer astronauts remaining, Jansen is called in to lead a crew of inexperienced people to a presumed alien ship. Their mission is to make contact and find out what they might be doing here, and whether or not they could be considered a threat. 

After the first chapter, Wellington tells the audience that the text that follows is a revised edition of the report he initially penned. This was not merely a statement of the facts, but an inspection of the characters’ mental and emotional states as they explored this alien artifact. The documentarian flair was unexpected and a little jarring, as it tells the reader exactly what to expect instead of letting the story tell itself. I did not pay too much attention to this stylistic choice at first because it felt like an afterthought. By the time the third documentary-style quote from a character appeared, I was already bored with it. It was not consistent enough to add any real tone to the story, and the weird pacing interrupted the natural flow. These little snippets offered little new information, and tended to just hang there, like the guy at the party who pushes his way into a discussion by repeating what someone just said. I was mostly able to ignore these asides, but as they continued to show up, it became a problem for me. 

The whole book suffered from this mismanagement of tone. It felt like it was written to be a sci-fi blockbuster movie. The text lacked a real sense of tension, almost as if Wellington was relying on the reader to feel the wonder or fear of entering an alien spacecraft without experiencing it through the characters. There were moments where the author would dive into a description and relish in it, but there were no subtle reminders of the atmosphere or the character’s disposition. I did not even realize this was supposed to be a horror story until about sixty percent of the way through the book. However, the horror elements of the narrative were more to do with the plot than the tone or general ambience. It wasn’t until the crew was deep inside the alien ship that I realized that most of the scenes inside the alien craft were supposed to be set in the dark. This took place long after the crew realized they might be trapped and resources were limited. It was so jarring I flipped backwards through the pages to find descriptions of the dark setting and found little. Instead, Wellington preferred to describe everything that was happening- regardless of a character’s ability to see it- and then wait for you to remind yourself that it’s actually quite dark and scary. It was frustrating to say the least.

The characters were fine. They were not nearly as cardboard as others I have read, but they did not quite hit the level of depth I think Wellington was aiming for. If this was meant to be a journey into the darkness of space and the madness that comes from encountering an alien entity, there was a lot left to be desired. The character’s actions and choices often felt in service to the plot as if their arcs were already predetermined. The ‘darker’ qualities to the characters were amplified immediately, leading them to feel necessary to the plot and artificial. It kicked the story into overdrive, but at the cost of growth or underlying tension. It felt like Wellington was racing to the finish, wanting to reveal the nature of the alien rather than investigate the people involved, which seemed at odds with his initial framing. Little effort was spent in trying to convince the reader of the struggle within the various characters and their conflicting goals as they became more aware of the aliens’ goals.

The overall mystery of the ship and the increasing madness of the crew are good foundations, but they just didn’t feel fully fleshed out. Throughout the book, the only thing that compelled me to keep going was to find out the truth of the alien ship, not how the characters were affected. The retrospective framing was also distracting in a way that removed any sort of horror. It foreshadowed a nice conclusion, dissipating any tension that could be built. All of the emotional impact had to be supplied by the reader, never by the writing itself. If it had been a movie, it would have been an enjoyable schlock sci-fi horror flick. Instead, the book feels lackluster and in service only to itself. 

Rating: The Last Astronaut – 5.0/10
-Alex

The Neutronium Alchemist – Hotter Than A Dying Sun

original_400_600I am back with installment two of our collective journey through the strange abyss that is Peter F. Hamilton’s The Night’s Dawn Trilogy. If you have absolutely no idea what I am talking about, the staff of QTL is doing a collective read and discussion of this iconic sci-fi trilogy. However, the discussions have a ton of spoilers for the books, so as the reader who is the most on top of his schedule I am also writing some reviews of the books. Today I will be talking about book two, The Neutronium Alchemist. You can find the spoiler-free review of book one here and the group discussion of book one here.

So long story short, The Neutronium Alchemist is reallllllly good. It’s superior in almost every single way to book one, The Reality Dysfunction, and is probably one of my favorite science fiction books. The plot is a little hard to talk about without spoilers, but the story, in brief, is a natural continuation of the events that started in book one. The aforementioned spirit plague has started consuming entire planets, but the collective of humanity now understands the threat that they are facing and are starting to get organized around the threat. Despite everything I loved about The Reality Dysfunction, one of its few major misses was the fact that the overarching “spirit plague” plotline felt divorced from the independent stories we were reading through the various characters. Conversely, The Neutronium Alchemist is almost entirely a reactionary piece cataloging how humanity is facing this new massive threat. Through this narrative, Hamilton fleshes out the higher level plot in ways that were severely lacking in book one as well as showcases his incredible ability to explore how a collective species would react to rapid large scale changes in their lives. In my opinion, The Neutronium Alchemist is an anthropological wet dream.

Additionally, the characters grow both in depth and in cast size. There are some very satisfying development arcs with existing characters, as well as a much more even division of POVs across Hamilton’s universe. I mentioned that there felt like there was some potential lurking sexist writing in the first book, and while The Neutronium Alchemist doesn’t do much to justify the small problematic parts of book one there also aren’t any additional offenses that I noticed. The second book seems to do a much better job elevating female POVs and putting them center stage. The worldbuilding is a step more coherent, with Hamilton moving from describing a number of individual planets to painting a picture of a large galactic human empire. The second book does a much better job characterizing humanity as a whole and showing the tensions and interactions between the various sects of human culture.

All in all, if you enjoyed The Reality Dysfunction – you are really going to like The Neutronium Alchemist. If you managed to finish TRD but didn’t know if you wanted to continue, I recommend that you do. Book two has kept everything that was good about Hamilton’s debut novel and improved almost every place it fell short. Despite being over 1300 pages I tore through TNA and could not put it down. Now we will just have to see if my fellow site members agree with me.

Rating: The Neutronium Alchemist – 10/10
-Andrew

The Luminous Dead – Dark, Bleak And Lively

I have not engaged with a lot of horror on the written page. I enjoy watching horror movies, good or bad, and sometimes play survival-horror games, but I rarely read it. I have Edgar Allan Poe’s collected works and got turned onto Laird Barron by our resident horror reader Will, but beyond that, I am lost. I think my fear is that the kind of horror novel that would pull me in is harder to find on my own, and the effort I would have to expend feels like it would not have enough of a guaranteed payoff. I want to engage with someone’s psyche and see how they deteriorate under pressures of their own making. I want to feel them spin out of control with no options besides pushing forward, edging closer to their own insanity. So when I heard this book was reminiscent of The Descent, a horror movie I adore, I had to read it. Caitlin Starling, in her debut novel The Luminous Dead, explores the depths of a character’s mind through a haunting and unnerving sci-fi trip that focuses on personal relationships to increase the horror.

Gyre Price is willing to go to any length to escape the life she’s been given. Her mother abandoned her while she was young, and now all Gyre can think about is getting off the backwater mining planet she’s on and maybe find her mother. An opportunity opens up in the form of a cave diving position. Gyre leaps at the chance, sure of her ability to overcome the risks to receive the big paycheck at the end. As she is not a caver, she fakes her resume, surgically alters her digestive tract to conform with the diving suit’s needs and hopes that those hiring will not find out. With the amount of money on the line, Gyre is sure she will have a skilled support team, guiding her every step of the way. Instead, she is stuck with Em, a woman who is unwilling to compromise and will use whatever is at her disposal to make sure Gyre gets the job done, even if it means drugging her at a moment’s notice to make her sleep or force an adrenaline rush. But Gyre signed the contract, and the only way out is down.

The characters and the atmosphere are the shining stars in The Luminous Dead. Starling’s writing allows the reader to slip into Gyre’s head with ease. She also makes sure you stay there, unable to see the world outside of Gyre’s senses. While Gyre is rough around the edges, she is relatable in her need to escape her dreary circumstances. She has a nearly indomitable will that permeates through her every action. Her thoughts center very much on the task at hand, and she is not written to impress the reader. In a refreshing twist, Em is not the opposite of Gyre. She possesses a similar will but has issues with control. As Gyre learns more of Em’s history, the more she questions her intentions, feeding into her own instability which undermines Em’s need for control. Their tensions are only exacerbated by the fact that their communications are through radio, and to the reader’s knowledge, they have never met in person. This strained relationship weighs heavy on Gyre’s frail but stubborn psyche throughout the book, taking the reader to some dark places.

The horror is subtle and creeping. Starling paces the moments of dread well throughout the book, never quite showing her hand. She relays everything to the reader through Gyre, and it becomes impossible to really know what is happening. As Gyre starts to lose sleep, small nagging thoughts become larger, and what may have been slightly weird before now feels like a conspiracy. I kept waiting for Starling to pull back and show me what was really happening, but she never did. Gyre’s journey deeper into the planet is paralleled by the reader’s dive into her psyche. I never once felt that Gyre was overreacting to the environment or Em’s decisions. It was unnerving to consistently feel the need for Gyre to look over her shoulder, but frustratingly I couldn’t make her. Her suit is designed to completely encase her body, shielding her from the elements and hiding her from local fauna. But it also means she is completely reliant on supply capsules left by divers before her. This leads to another question for Gyre’s mind to play out: who was down here first? Where are they now? And so the vicious cycle of thoughts and lack of information continues.

To add to the tension, Starling made the interplay between resources and physical needs symbiotic in a way I had not seen written before. Missing or broken equipment reduced Gyre’s food and power supply, forcing her to move faster and take bigger risks. But by doing that she depleted her body’s and suit’s energy faster. She slept less, letting her mind wander in the darkness of the cave. As this cycle perpetuates itself, her drive becomes stronger while her mental acuity loses focus, and she becomes less mindful of her surroundings. As I have mentioned in other reviews, I love watching systems play themselves out. But to watch something like that happen on such a personal level was a treat and a terror. It made me root for Gyre, but also fear the reality that she might not make it.

I have barely mentioned Em, even though she is arguably close to half of the story. And as much as I want to talk about her, I think it’s better for the reader to discover her for themselves. But in lieu of that, Starling did write one of the more dynamic relationships I have read recently. The way Gyre questions Em, oscillates between liking her, hating her, finding herself attracted to her, and bounces to dozens of other emotions that made their way into Gyre’s head about Em. The sheer volume of thoughts and feelings was astonishing. How do you deal with someone who your life depends on, but they have gone out of their way to feel unattached to you? Can you forgive someone after they have manipulated your body against your will? Can a personal relationship blossom from a clearly contractual agreement of who is in charge? Watching these two women wade through these questions was probably the reason I read all the way through the book. After years of hardening oneself against the world, the horror of beginning to know someone else, and having them know you in turn, felt stronger than the psychological dread of being trapped underground.

The Luminous Dead is a welcome respite from the galaxy-ending science fiction I am used to. It is a deeply personal story that digs deep. It had its share of slow moments, and I felt I had to push myself through at some points, but Starling stayed true to her characters. They never felt off-base to me, which in this case became more important to my experience than how often I felt fear. There are plenty of metaphors littered throughout, as if Starling left several trails of breadcrumbs, asking the audience to dive deeper on their own. It is a purposefully disorienting read, forcing the reader to explore the darkness with Gyre, but it is worth the journey.

Rating: The Luminous Dead – 8.5/10

-Alex

Pet Sematary – Sometimes Read Is Better

Screen Shot 2019-04-02 at 9.06.19 AMStephen King’s Pet Sematary plunges readers into a deep well of terror that provides a steady supply of eerie atmosphere, horrifying happenings, and a look into their effect on human relationships. The novel wrestles with death, grief, and human nature, bleeding dark themes onto every page. Pet Sematary transformed me from a hesitant first-time King reader to a horror rookie who can appreciate the power of scares and omnipresent creep-factor. Over the course of the book’s ~400 pages, I eagerly read from chapter to chapter hoping to learn something new about the characters, the small town Northeastern United States setting, and the mysterious goings-on that drive the story to an incredibly satisfying end.

Protagonist Louis Creed moves his family from Chicago to Ludlow, Maine on the heels of a job offer at a nearby university’s medical center. On the day of their move, Louis, his wife Rachel, and children Ellie (5) and Gage (2) meet their neighbor Jud Crandall. Jud’s lived in Ludlow his entire life, and he strikes a friendly, pseudo-father-son relationship with Louis. The two drink beers on Jud’s porch and shoot the breeze almost nightly, and Jud eventually brings Louis and his family to the eponymous Pet Sematary, a graveyard kept (and spelled, notably) by children for the pets they’ve lost, many of which were killed by trucks speeding down the main road where Louis and Jud reside. It’s after this incident that Pet Sematary reaches a boiling point that only rarely cools to a simmer. Rachel is visibly shaken by the place while Ellie is intrigued and starts asking questions about death. An accident at Louis’ medical office kickstarts a series of events that intertwines his life with the Pet Sematary and turns the creepiness up to max volume. Turns out Native American burial grounds don’t take kindly to being trifled with–but that’s all I can say before giving away the book’s juiciest and scariest moments.

King’s shining prose won me over almost immediately, cementing Pet Sematary as a quality reading experience. He condenses lofty ideas into short, digestible sentences. He keeps the reader interested with effortless descriptions of Louis’ train of thought. He introduces supernatural elements so smoothly that they feel tangible. It feels dumb even typing this about an author who’s written more than 50 novels, but it’s true. Every paragraph serves a purpose, whether it’s exploring a motif or driving the story forward at a breakneck pace–there’s nothing missing here, nor is there any excess fat. King weaves his tale with Goldilocks-zone accuracy: it’s juuuuust right.

That paragon prose empowers King and his story to present vivid imagery and starkly accurate portrayals of family life, friendships, grief, death, and sanity (or lack thereof). Pet Sematary, told through the lens of Louis Creed’s psyche, offers a darkly radiant panorama of addled minds and the power of death over the human brain. As the nefarious events of the novel unfold, each character deals with them in ways that feel undeniably true to form. When death pops up around a corner, Ellie, a child, grows curious. Rachel remembers the traumatic death of her sister. Louis and Jud tell each other stories and do their best to keep one another afloat in grief-stricken waters. Every relationship and conversation in Pet Sematary rings with authenticity; never once did I feel disconnected from the novel due to a stray cheesy line or over-the-top description. Just as he does with his prose for readers, King gives his characters exactly what they need to keep the story compelling.

All that said, I thought Pet Sematary’s single shortcoming was the protagonist himself. Louis Creed is a Doctor who has a new job, a loving wife (sure, they fight once in a while), two kids, and a friend in Jud Crandall. But he’s the shallowest of the cast, to the point where it becomes easy to read Pet Sematary as a self-insert novel, the main character becoming a link between the reader and the world. Some may prefer this approach, but I wanted a multi-faceted Louis over the one-dimensional conduit who lends his senses to readers on their Pet Sematary journey. Still, this is a matter of preference, and despite my misgivings, I breezed through the book.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Pet Sematary for me was that I enjoyed it so much even without overwhelming supernatural or fantasy elements. Don’t get me wrong–they’re plentiful. But instead of a horror onslaught, King gives readers a steady drip of scares that builds to a steady stream. By the novel’s conclusion, readers are subjected to a terrifying deluge of scares and unsettling imagery. They’re effective moments, but their impact is multiplied tenfold by King’s restraint. Once again, he gives us exactly what we need–no more, no less.

I read the last words of Pet Sematary and noted a distinct connection to one of the book’s earlier moments. The novel’s final moments are as powerful as those that built to it, and Pet Sematary is punctuated by a deftly written conclusion that left me rattled, with an intense and newfound appreciation for the King of Horror.

Rating: Pet Sematary – 9.0/10
-Cole