I’ve read several novels by Stephen Kozeniewski and I can always rely on a different flavor of horror being explored in each. I know he has written some non-horror stuff, and I’d be curious if they have the same…edge to them, if that is the proper word. The author is fairly clinical with his precision in presenting a horrific idea and not being timid about seeing it through to its conclusion. All in all, The Hematophages fulfills that commitment, and should leave the reader disturbed and uncomfortable for quite some time after reading the last page.
I was able to read the prequel short story, Skinwrappers, before checking out this novel. While it gives a taste of the universe where The Hematophages takes place, it, for the most part, serves as a background piece, though the main character in the short earns a key role in the novel.
A few centuries down the line, the human race has expanded its reach to far distant planets. Paige Ambroziak is a grad student given the opportunity to go on a corporate funded expedition to explore an ancient seed ship humanity sent out in the early years of space exploration. Until recently, it was believed it was lost forever. It is outside charted space, hovering above what is called a flesh world, which is covered in an ocean of blood filled with strange monsters. This is a chance of a lifetime for Paige-promotions and prestige will follow this expedition, if she can manage to survive.
I don’t get exposed to a lot of space horror tales. Horror, yes. Science Fiction, yes. The combination doesn’t always come together in print for me, so the comparisons (done by other reviewers already) is mainly to Event Horizon, a movie that shares certain levels of intensity and some commonalities with this novel. Alien, or perhaps even Aliens, might share a tiny bit of DNA with this one as well, though in a more generic way. While I don’t get exposed to a lot of sci fi horror, I certainly enjoy the concept and this book does a pretty solid job of universe building to help set up the story. There are questions left unanswered about what has led the human race to its current status, though they aren’t necessarily critical to the story at hand. Getting to the meat of the story is what the author does, and we are presented with quite a few rather interesting characters besides the main one and get to understand their motivations fairly quickly. The horror elements are unpacked in pieces, though reading the description of the book provides some pretty strong hints as to what direction things are headed.
The author does a solid job, as he has done with other stories he’s written, in ratcheting up the tension and dropping the occasional shock bomb on the audience. It’s always good when an author manages to zig when you expect a zag. There were, unfortunately, a couple of zigs where I expected them, that didn’t necessarily lead to disappointment as much as a knowing nod. The end result is a fairly satisfying tale with a few minor frustrations as to where the story led.
The author does not scrimp on gore and horrific visual imagery, giving us some disturbing things to think about and digest. With a starting point of a world with oceans of blood, it should be clear to the reader that we are in for some pretty twisted things that I would guess came straight from one of Mr. Kozeniewski’s nightmares. The author does not disappoint in escalating the grotesqueries and terror from there.
While others have used the Event Horizon comparison, and it is an apt one, one I will use, but only partially, is Greg Bear’s Blood Music. I won’t play the spoiler by sharing details of that tale, but would encourage a look at it for anyone who enjoyed this story. The short story Mr. Bear wrote that was expanded into a full novel shares a few elements of fear and horror with this tale (alien creatures and the potential for body manipulation), though only toward the end of The Hematophages. Still, I couldn’t help wonder what Kozeniewski might do if he chose to carry things beyond this story and how he would approach it vs. what Mr. Bear did when he expanded his short story into a full novel. I would guess Kozeniewski’s would be end up being a bit more on the dark side…
The Hematophages can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Hematophages-Stephen-Kozeniewski/dp/1944044558/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
Down in the Gutter Like Me has, like a lot of Stephen A North’s work, a bit of a noir-ish flavor to it, with a down on his luck main character who isn’t squeaky clean by any stretch. Unlike a lot of his other works, this isn’t a character that gives the reader much of a reason to gain a sense of empathy for him. If you feel empathy for Guy Masters, I might feel a bit sorry for you, but more likely, I’ll just make every effort to steer clear of you (and make sure anyone I care for does as well).
Guy isn’t just down on his luck, he lives in the gutter, as the title of this short story infers. We are invited to join him down there as he stands in the dark one night, trying to peep through the window of his ex-girlfriend to get a look at her as she undresses while he wishes he had a handful of the painkillers he’s addicted to pop like candy…and it only gets seedier from there.
North has a knack for creating characters that are down on their luck. Bubbling with barely controlled rage, just beneath the surface. With most of what I have read, these characters are no choir boys, no boy scouts, but they have a moral streak that give the reader a reason to root for them and hope they find their redemption. Not so here, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. This reads like the transcript of some news docudrama: a night of insanity perpetrated by a soul who isn’t just lost, but comfortable being lost-it doesn’t take much for them to do what the rest of us would call questionable or deplorable-little in the way of justification crosses Guy’s mind. He’s used to life sucking and he’ll make his own luck, no matter what kind of ugly he has to perpetrate for that luck to happen.
I guess you could feel something for Guy more than disgust. Perhaps it is that way for me because it’s pretty damn hard to imagine falling that far and that hard in life and being grateful those circumstances haven’t befallen me. We don’t want to be as hard, as cruel, or as vicious as life has been to him, or he has been to the world around him, so sympathy creeps in and we get tantalized by how wrong everything is that he does-never does he step onto the right pathway in this story and you get the sense he never has at any earlier point in his life. It allows us to take a quick glimpse into that type of vile world and step back, wash off the filth, and perhaps not feel so bad that some of the buzz Guy feels when he does yet another terrible thing didn’t instantly disgust us. After all, we’re not down in the gutter with him, living there. We’re just visiting for a little while…
Down in the Gutter Like Me can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Down-Gutter-Like-Stephen-North-ebook/dp/B082Z6STW7/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=down+in+the+gutter+like+me&qid=1577667634&sr=8-1
I haven’t read Stephen Kozeniewski’s The Hematophages, but this novella serves as a prequel. Based on what I have read, Kozeniekski has created yet another darkly creative universe where the horror is fresh, fantastical, and yet quite real and very disconcerting.
The main character is a teenage girl living on board a space freighter called the Blue Whale. She lives with her two mothers, and corresponds with a friend who is on another ship far off in another shipping lane in the galaxy. She is at an age where she is not yet ready to move into a career role on the ship, which is the only home she has ever known. While it is clear the corporation that owns the ship controls all aspects of its inhabitant’s lives, she seems pretty happy with her existence.
That’s when the ship gets attacked. In the space of a few words on the page, our main character’s life is irrevocably changed and we understand the grave danger she is in as she races through the ship and the scattered zero g carcasses of her crew mates, victims of the Skinwrappers, pirates whose methods and motives are ghastly. Relying on a voice inside her head to force her to remain calm while doing her best to hide from the interlopers, she struggles to survive this abrupt and grisly nightmare in deep space.
I’ve read several works from Kozeniewski and despite the fantastical nature of the environments he creates, there is a realness to them, a sense of place and time that puts you in the story. This tale is no different. While this is a novella, I would say it has the jarring feel of a short story that moves at a breakneck speed. You don’t know every detail of the world the characters inhabit and you don’t need to know them all to get a sense of their reality. The telling of the tale is precise, with little to no fat left on the bone. You’re moving forward, racing to a conclusion that is nearly impossible to guess at, and holding on to the ride the entire time.
While this tale takes place in deep space, it is as real and down to earth as a horror tale can get. Nothing but good old fashion humans doing ill to other humans, in so very many creative and unspeakable ways. Definitely worth a read, and an excellent appetizer to what I suspect is a pretty darkly detailed horror novel in The Hematophages.
Skinwrapper can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Skinwrapper-Stephen-Kozeniewski-ebook/dp/B07TNPP4NZ/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1S5ZWZ6IU6UWJ&keywords=skinwrapper&qid=1572196944&sprefix=skinwrapper%2Caps%2C168&sr=8-1
Wild, Dark Times by Austin Case is a very trippy journey into a world of magic and monsters that had my head spinning at times. Elizabeth Megalos is a bank teller and a former art student who is bored with her life until one of her coworker friends shows up at her doorstep and attacks her. She doesn’t just attack like a normal person, she attacks like a possessed lunatic. Moments later, in steps Eddie, who saves Elizabeth from the assault and then claims he is a sorcerer. Bewildered and somewhat stunned, she reluctantly follows Eddie as they flee and later head to a local native American burial ground. Here is where she witnesses more solid proof that Eddie does have magical powers and his urgent believe that she has something to do with stopping the impending apocalypse might possibly be true. Later, they meet up with Hugh, a college professor who is even more skeptical than Elizabeth about Eddie and his claims of magical powers, though he too is saved from certain death from a magical assailant. Things continue to get even crazier when they jet off to Europe to meet with some of Eddie’s magical friends, all in an effort to discover what apocalypse they are supposed to prevent and to figure out what role Elizabeth has to play in stopping it from happening.
The author keeps things moving along at a rapid-fire pace in a story which is described as occult fiction or urban fantasy. While those terms do a good job of describing the book, another descriptive word is the one I use in the first sentence of this review: trippy. The author clearly has an extensive knowledge of the occult and a history of magic from a wide array of ancient cultures, but he also knows his hallucinogens. That a variety of intoxicants would be used in tandem with magic to achieve desired results perhaps isn’t very surprising-communing with other planes of existence and the supernatural likely requires a much more fluid and open mind. Acid, mushrooms, and other hallucinogens play as much a role here as the magic itself and Elizabeth’s initial and a later experience with these drugs provide us with some very existential stream of conscious poetry that had me tripping just reading it.
The characters in this story are well developed-Eddie’s magical friends are musicians and artists who each have their own unique perspective and unique magical talents. Eddie is the only one who seems to have skills not restricted to a specific area of magic. He is also a mystery. He does not remember anything about himself before he met up with his friends a few years earlier. Each one of these friends encourages Elizabeth to regain her lost passion for art and to overcome the fear and self-doubt that challenge her at every step as she is coming to grips with being a potential savior of humanity. Especially since she has no magical abilities of her own.
Overall, this is a fun story with a far dose of humor peppered in with action, drama, and horror. While it was enjoyable, some of the dialog was awkward and stiff and occasionally the motivations of certain characters seemed a bit off. And if you are turned off by the use of hallucinogenic drugs, this probably isn’t a story you will fully appreciate. Otherwise, it is a magical adventure filled with some wild occult oddities.
You can find Wild, Dark Times here: https://www.amazon.com/Wild-Dark-Times-Austin-Case-ebook/dp/B07SHC8FRN/ref=sr_1_1?keywords=wild+dark+times&qid=1566439993&s=gateway&sr=8-1
The concept of transporting an average person into an alternate realm for high adventure has been around about as long as stories have been told. Authors such as Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs all took swipes at this concept over a century ago. Science fiction and fantasy writers have followed that route time and time again ever since. With the advent of table top role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, Gamma World, Call of Cthulhu (among many others) in the seventies, the concept of transporting oneself into a fantasy realm took on a whole new meaning. Since then, more and more writers have embraced this concept, including the likes of Terry Brooks (Magic Kingdom for Sale), Joel Rosenberg (Guardians of the Flame), and Stephen R. Donaldson (Thomas Covenant). Time marches on, and more recently, a new subgenre has been gaining popularity, thanks mainly to the influx of MMOs, or massively multiplayer online games, such as Everquest, World of Warcraft, and numerous other computer (or mobile ap) based games where a player can craft a character in a strange fantasy world and join thousands if not millions of others endlessly questing for new adventures. This subgenre is known as LitRPG, though another variation is called Game Lit. Much like with their predecessors, the characters in these written works are tossed into a fantasy realm, though in this instance, it is a computer game universe. It may be a virtual reality, but it is with real world consequences-the characters are in true mortal peril with no reboots or extra lives to spare.
This is where J.E. Reed’s first novel, Running With The Wolves, lands. We are introduced to Kiuno, who wakes up one morning in a strange, primordial forest realm, separated from the real world where she lives in with her husband, working a regular job, and living a regular life. She can remember her life back home, but not her true name (Kiuno is her online ID-the one she created for the games she plays). Searching for anyone else in this wild and strange place, she comes across other survivors who are struggling to come to grips with this strange and dangerous place. It doesn’t take long for her to realize that she has somehow been thrust into a game she played with numerous others online called Chronopoint, where she was an expert at building alliances and facing enemies both human and inhuman. With that in mind, she forms bonds with others with the goal of finding her online friends (including her real life husband) and to discover a way out of this lethal place, which is made of ten different realms, each one far more dangerous than the one before.
While the story is filled with fantastic creatures and strange magic (Kiuno has to figure out how to manage the extremely potent and dangerous magic she possesses), this boils down to a story about survival and finding those around you who you can trust and build friendships with. Everyone you didn’t know before, when it was just an online game, is a potential threat that might be willing to kill you to survive and find a way to the tenth realm where they might find a way to get back home.
For a first novel, this is a very solidly written work of fantasy, with a main character that is well fleshed out and worth rooting for, along with the friends she connects with, both new and old, in her journeys. The editing is solid, though I did have a gripe with an overabundance of pronouns and some confusion, at times, as to who was speaking a given line-words are spoken but the actions in the same paragraph are that of someone else. Overall though, the writing and editing is crisp and the action moves at a rapid pace. It did seem a bit odd that Kiuno seems to be about the only female character of any relevance in this, the first book of what is likely a trilogy. There are other females, but none seem to take up more than a paragraph here or there, while there are numerous male characters to challenge and engage Kiuno in both battle and friendship.
Another minor criticism is that while each of these realms are quite perilous, with the introduction of several creatively fiendish monsters, it seems as though there isn’t a vast amount of difference from one realm to the next, except that each is inferred to be incrementally more dangerous. Much of the terror in this tale lies in the nightmares that Kiuno is going through-hoping her husband still lives while watching those around her die gruesome deaths as she learns how to control the lethal magic the realms has gifted her with. The monsters she faces represent only brief interludes on occasion.
The story does draw you in, despite the universe the author has created being a bit sparse when it comes to the fantastical (again, there are a few run-ins with some quite fantastical monsters, but they are somewhat limited). The hope is that as our protagonist and her band of loyal allies move deeper into the ten realms and closer to the ‘front lines’ where the war to find a way home is being fought, that there will be more to see, and more to challenge her beyond her own fears and insecurities.
Her closest friends are well thought out characters that I grew to both appreciate and enjoy, though the villains in this book were fairly uninteresting. While there are inhuman monsters that come in many shapes and sizes, none serve as more than a passing danger. The human monsters are a far greater threat and much more vicious, but unfortunately, none hold the reader’s attention for very long. As the author continues to shape this world and crafts more and greater challenges for the heroes of the piece, it is my hope that Kiuno becomes more of the natural leader her companions believe her to be.
Again, this is a solid debut novel and I look forward to checking out the second book in the series.
Running With The Wolves can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Running-Wolves-Chronopoint-Chronicles-Book-ebook/dp/B07CH47MVW/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1551067659&sr=8-6&keywords=running+with+the+wolves
The Legacy of the Sky Pendant is Jonathan Crayford’s first novel. It tells two stories, with the first being the tale of Marcus, who lives in the village of Soulwind. The village is under assault by dark strangers who have slowly engulfed the Kingdom of Termelanor and who intend on wiping out his village before marching on the capital. It will be up to Marcus to do whatever he can to save the village, whether that means fighting to the death or racing against time to convince the King of the dire threat they all face. The second tale takes place nearly a century later, when Cruise, a young man in the same village, is bound and determined to win the annual foot race that takes place there every year. His family is poor, and the prize money will go a long way in helping them fight their way out of poverty. Unfortunately, the odds are stacked against him with an elite band of champions who come from the capital city every year to compete and always win.
What ties these two stories together is the necklace both characters wear. It is the mysterious sky pendant, with metal that fell to earh and seems to have strange powers that influence and give the wearer great strength in times of need.
It was clear from the first word of this book that this was the authors first attempt at writing a novel. There is great enthusiasm here, but there is a significant disconnect between the story he wants to tell and the story that ends up on the page. The primary issue, especially with the first story, is that it suffers heavily from the author telling vs. showing. The best way to describe this effect is to imagine having someone tell you about a book they read instead of reading it yourself. The author volunteers a great deal of information, whether it is truly pertinent to the tale or not, and in many places, it reads like an information dump. We are not experiencing the story through the eyes of the main character, or even as though we are there with him, watching breathlessly as he deals with countless life and death situations. We are reading a news report of what is happening to him. While this issue also hinders the second story, it is clear the author had already made great strides in his writing skills by the time he crafted the tale of the race and there is more of a sense of being present in the moment along with Cruise, rather than feeling like you are reading a book report on what is happening at the race and when he is training.
The book could have benefited greatly from an editor spending some time going over the story with the author. The dialog is often choppy and awkward, especially in the first story. While it does improve in the second part of the book, it still doesn’t feel quite natural. The stiffness subsides a bit the further we go, but it hangs with us to the very end. Many of the characters also don’t feel very real-in what they do or how they act. Simple caricatures instead of in depth, drawn out people you would take an interest in…perhaps except for Cruise and the man who chooses to coach him for his race, but even there, more character development would have been necessary for me to really invest or truly care what happens to either of them. The villains are obvious, the King is a simple-minded idiot, and so on. The plot is overly basic in the first story, and yet again the second story gains in complexity. The author invested quite a bit more energy in turning Cruise’s experiences with the race into something dramatic and worthwhile, though it still left needed more for me to really believe in it. Finally, an editor could have saved the author from his zeal for somewhat odd descriptors and an overabundance of adverbs. You cannot look at someone sarcastically, and yet that description pops up numerous time throughout the story.
I realize how brutal this review may seem, but I was asked by the author for a fair and honest review and to his credit, he knew what to expect since I shared many of my critiques with him before I had even finished the first part of the book. More than likely he will be surprised with my reaction to the second part of the book, which showed a few signs of someone getting closer to crafting a story that would draw you in and make you care for the characters.
The author wants to continue to improve as a writer and wants to continue this saga as a series. Hopefully he will also continue to sharpen his skills as a writer and seek out a professional editor and some brutally honest beta readers to support him on this path, because despite the many issues I may have seen with this work, I can also see potential in the author as a storyteller.
Legacy of The Sky Pendant can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Legacy-Sky-Pendant-Jonathan-Crayford-ebook/dp/B07K4DV13M/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1549575938&sr=8-3
Oblique by Neal Vandar, which is an anagram of the author’s actual name, Alan Draven, is his first foray into the mystery thriller genre. Much of what the author has written previously, under his real name, has been more in the horror/supernatural realm. While this story is firmly planted in reality, the characters and what happens to them does require the suspension of disbelief as they go through some pretty surprising events.
Our main character, and narrator, introduces himself by sharing an event that happened during his teen years, some twenty five years earlier. That was when he saved a female classmate who was being chased by a man in the woods. Acting quickly, the narrator bashes the man in the head with a rock, killing him. At the girl’s urging, they dump the body in a nearby river rather than notify the police to avoid any potential trouble. This event would have remained in the dark corridors of the main characters mind except the girl he saved has reached out to him recently, asking him to meet her for dinner at a local restaurant. Given that he hasn’t seen her since shortly after the gruesome event that brought them together so long ago, it seems a rather strange request. Stranger still, when they meet, things go awry very quickly when the narrator returns from the restroom during their meal to find the woman, and everyone else in the restaurant, dead at their tables, though there is no sign of foul play. Things only get weirder from there as our hero is pursued and assaulted by virtually everyone he comes in contact with, sending him on a quest to find out what is really happening to him and why he has been thrust in the middle of a murder mystery.
It’s clear that this is the author’s first attempt at a novel in this style and genre. This isn’t a disparaging critique as much as it is an indication of his enthusiasm for the genre. Influences abound here, with Hitchcock being the heaviest. Another movie from the same era, Charade, also appears to have left its mark upon the author. Weird occurrences, odd coincidences, and mysterious strangers fill most of the pages, almost to excess, with each reveal opening a door to another deeper and darker mystery. It would be easy for the narrator to hold to the belief that he should trust no one, but that would be limiting, especially since it’ll likely be hard for the reader to even trust him.
There are, of course, deceptions galore, some of which might irritate and annoy the reader because what they believed to be true is in fact, a double-cross or plot twist. Naturally, there is plenty of action, ominous characters of all sorts, and journeys back and forth across the map so our hero can figure out who is after him, who wants him dead, and who, perhaps, are his allies. The geography is kept purposefully vague. All we know is the story takes place in the United States and there are some shadowy people involved belonging to equally shadowy organizations.
There are a few elements that the reader might find a bit fantastical or plain hard to believe, but the author does a good job of fitting most of the puzzle pieces together by the end of the story. I say most because there are at least a couple that felt a bit forced, but I was willing to forgive those missteps for what I felt was an entertaining, and very twisty read.
Overall, a decent tale from an author new to the genre. Hopefully he will continue to refine his style here and come up with some new twists and turns in his next thriller.