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!

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