Review of multiple short stories by Stephen A. North: “Forgotten”, “Nobody’s Hero”, “Undead In Vegas”, “Means To An End”, and “Stupid Train”
Stephen A. North has written several novels but he has a definite fondness for short stories. These stories, much like his novels, usually have flawed (sometimes very flawed) characters in them. They tend to be in a tough spot in life, and we drop in on them as things are coming to a head. Such is the case in Forgotten and Nobody’s Hero. Forgotten shares a brief bit of Private Henri Dragon’s experiences in Vietnam. Things are about to get ugly in a village where the Viet Cong have been spotted and he and his squad will be in the thick of it. Nobody’s Hero is a little more domesticated a story, where Sue is desperate to find a way out of an abusive relationship and is willing to do whatever it takes to break free.
In both stories, the author puts us in the middle of what is perhaps the most intense few minutes of two very different (but in some ways similar) people’s lives. I would dare say the titles of these stories are interchangeable. You don’t do the necessary things to be a hero. You don’t do them to be remarkable or remembered. You do the absolutely necessary things because living is better than being dead, even if we don’t think much of the lives we’ve led.
This is a gritty one, with no apologies made and none necessary by those involved. Not necessarily fun, but if you like North’s trademark run of bad luck type characters, this will suit you just fine.
Forgotten and Nobody’s Hero can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B086SKWJVW/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i1
Undead In Vegas is a return to zombie actioners for North, in a condensed format. His trademark sad sap, down on their luck characters are on display here, and not just with Wallace, the main character truck driver who has ended up in Vegas as the zombie apocalypse has kicked into gear. Wallace isn’t dislikable, but you may find him a bit of a sap with his efforts to be the good guy, or at least the nice guy here. Life has become pretty easy to discard when most folks are walking around trying to eat you, and Wallace seems pretty fatalistic. Still, he isn’t a man who likes to be without a purpose, or so it seems, even if the purpose of helping out a woman whose husband is a schmuck seems like a not so great idea. I might have felt a little more appreciation for the main character if he had a bit more desire to do something for himself earlier on and perhaps had prioritized things a bit different as the story progressed. Not that I’m not surprised at how he acted-you see people doing similar things every day. Fatalistically putting one foot in front of the other, grasping at what little bit of life is available why accepting the inevitability of death perhaps being right around the corner.
Undead In Vegas can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07YQ47RVZ/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i3
Means To An End and Stupid Train might be my least favorite short stories of Mr. North’s, but at the same time, they might be the ones that make me grit my teeth and admit that both stories are the slap in the face you occasionally need to remind you that not everything needs to be either happy, or a short story needs to come to a smooth or perhaps satisfying conclusion. In a way, both stories end before they have the chance to get very far, to get warmed up, or to get rolling along to some predestined conclusion. Instead, they are both like starting your old, reliable car on a very cold winters morning and not waiting for the car to warm up, but instead pulling out of the driveway when there is still ice on the windows, and getting flattened by a speeding garbage truck the instant your tires touch the street. It would have been different if the car had warmed up, the ice scraped away, and you got to the highway before being creamed by an out of control semi, but either way, the end result is the same-just a lot more jarring.
The characters are not likeable, but the writing style from North remains consistent. His fondness for writing unapologetically hard luck and sometimes very unlikeable characters is something I appreciate. Tammy, in Means, and Lou, in Stupid, are perhaps best described as predator and prey, in their own worlds-destined to their fates because of who they are, innately. To expect, or hope for more, is perhaps foolish, or pointless. Thankfully, I can handle my fatalism in small doses, and these two are like taking a couple of shots of hard liquor. They burn going down but you can appreciate them after you get past the bitter taste left in your mouth.
Means To An End and Stupid Train can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B078K4RGDW/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i2
Judgment Day is the fourth and final installment in the Days of Atonement series by Martin Berman-Gorvine. The book separates itself from the three previous books by a substantial distance in years and geography. The main characters: Amos, Suzie, and Vicky, are now in their forties and living far to the south of their old hometown of Chatham’s Forge, on an island in Maryland, where they are somewhat removed from the newest god to take over up north, Ba’al, and his High Priestess, Cindy, who seeks revenge against the Israel clan, which Amos’s band is now called. While Amos is the Headman, or leader, of this band that lives peacefully except for the occasional assaults by the punks that have followed them south, it is Vicky who has taken on the role of Rabbi and devoted follower of the Jewish God Amos’s family secretly believed in back in Chatham’s Forge when Moloch was the god in charge. The trio have formed a somewhat awkward family unit, with Amos married to both women and producing a large blended family. While he is admired and respected by the small community of more than a hundred refugees that have joined them over the years, Amos still retains the wishy washy and indecisive nature that has not only frustrated the women in his life, but this reviewer as well. He is a good man, but he struggles to make decisions and be an assertive leader, allowing one of his wives and a son to dominate their community with less violent, but similar rigid ritualistic expectations put upon the followers of the barbaric gods of the north.
While the group has been at peace for years, Cindy and Ba’al are prepared to get their vengeance against the Israel clan. At the same time, Vicky has become convinced that the Jewish God has taken physical form and their much smaller group is destined to go to war with the demonic gods, like Ba’al and Mote, the god of death. Amos struggles to keep his two families and two wives, who have been at odds with one another all these years, at peace and their community whole. It’s clear that is a failing effort, and war is coming.
This is a fitting, and somewhat surprising, ending to this series. I had my doubts as to how the author could effectively end this tale, given the direction it has been heading and with the world filled with so many dark and demonic gods, ghosts, and only hints of the benevolent, if somewhat absent deity of the Jewish faith. I felt satisfied in the end-that the author didn’t use a (pardon the use of the term) deus ex machina to bring things to a conclusion, as it were. The ending fits and while this alternate universe can seem somewhat baffling at times, it has its own logic to it, and the characters who survive are not left with easy answers or solutions to their lifelong problems.
While the big picture story of this series deals with a hell-wrapped apocalyptic world, the real story is more personal, dealing with the conflicts that face the challenging love triangle Amos, Suzie, and Vicky been a part of since their high school days came to an end. It is hard to say that any one of them is a hero or a villain in this piece. Instead, they are just three humans that have tried, and often failed, to do the right things for themselves and those they care about. This is not a tale of redemption or vindication for any one of them. It is a tale of realization-understanding who you are (for better or worse) and that while this particular story may end, the greater story continues to unfold endlessly into the future. Whether that is frustrating, or satisfying, is perhaps all in how you look at it. For me, this series was both frustrating and satisfying, like the characters, and like life itself. It is the same whether you live in the ‘normal’ world or (apparently) in a demon and ghost-infested post nuclear apocalyptic world.
Judgment Day can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Judgment-Days-Ascension-Martin-Berman-Gorvine/dp/1609752430/
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=
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.
Day of Atonement is the third book in Martin Berman-Gorvine’s Days of Ascension series. Amos and Suzie now have their own band of survivors living in the wilderness near their old hometown of Chatham’s Forge, where the goddess Asherah has built her empire several years after the events after the last book. Vicky remains with her two old friends, a castoff who continues to be punished by Asherah’s wrath after her time as a priestess. Asherah’s bloody reign has put women in control of things in Chatham’s Forge, where men are now considered drones-little better than slaves who do the bidding of the female population. Asherah’s priestesses have punished those who served Moloch as well as those who were once popular, such as cheerleaders and jocks, who are now considered the lowest of the low in this new world order. At the top of the heap are the nerdier castes-Irene is a skilled poetess at the high school that has been elevated to a position of high status. Molly, a classmate of hers, reveres Irene, but as a cheerleader, she is treated like dirt by everyone. Despite the stark difference in their status, they are thrust into the spotlight together as targets of the vengeful goddess’s wrath. Banished, they come across Amos’s small band in the wilderness, who are struggling to survive and find a way to defeat Asherah like they defeated Moloch years before.
Day of Atonement may have skipped ahead a few years, but in many ways things remain the same with different players. Asherah is, in many ways, no different than Moloch-she is perhaps even more blood thirsty than him. It is clear there are other gods spread across the landscape, and even more craving to return to power who can easily be summoned by willing servants who wish to destroy anyone who will stand in their way. All the while, Amos is struggling to understand the God his Jewish parents secretly worshipped during the reign of Moloch and where that faith fits into this demon-cursed world.
Going into this book, I believed it likely that this would be the third and final act of a trilogy, but it is clear the author has more ground to cover with the demonic deities he has unleashed. As this book progresses, questions of faith and devotion-not only to a demon (or god), but to one’s own self, are front and center. As Amos and his crew see hints of the God once believed in by their parents perhaps still having power, more questions abound. Vengeance, righteousness, faith, and truth are among the many ‘big picture’ considerations for the characters to focus on. What price your immortal soul? Are you willing to give it up for a bit of power or perhaps revenge on those who have wronged you in the past? Big questions. For some, the answers are easy, but for others, like Amos and Suzie, the struggle seems endless.
I am not sure where this series is headed. It has been an interesting journey thus far and the world seems to be getting larger for the characters who inhabit it. More demons, more power, and more temptations to face down. Amos, Suzie, and Vicky’s dynamic as the three main characters still remains troublesome-each of them have their own inner demons to conquer and they tend to go from being strong and confident characters the reader can admire to petulant children who whine and complain incessantly from chapter to chapter. Molly and Irene are a welcome addition to the mix as they bring a different and vital new perspective. Still, it’s clear the original trio will continue to drive the story. How they come to grips with the immortal powers that swirl around them will determine the fate of many, if not all, of the people in Chatham’s Forge and beyond.
I continue to be entertained by this creative story. The characters are challenging and not always likeable, but they continue to grow and transform along with the story itself. It will be interesting to see what fate, and the growing cast of immortals, has in store for them.
Day of Atonement can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Day-Atonement-Days-Ascension-Book-ebook/dp/B07BTGLYKN/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1530988241&sr=1-1
We return to the world of Chatham’s Forge in the second book of The Day of Ascension series, Day of Vengeance, where Amos, Suzie, and Vicky appear to be the only survivors of their efforts to annihilate Moloch and free the town from the demon’s influence. They soon discover this isn’t quite the case, although many of those who apparently came away unscathed physically have suffered in other, much more terrible ways. Others who weren’t living in the town, including the ‘muties’, have also survived, and are ready to exact revenge against those who made them suffer under the rule of Moloch.
Our trio of main characters discover a bigger and even more dangerous world than the one where they lived behind the walled protection of Moloch, with hints of other beings of great supernatural power roaming the world and one in particular which is hungry to fill the vacuum of power left by the departure of the patron demon of Chatham’s Forge.
Overall, the characters have grown and gotten tougher as well as more mature-at least this is the case with Amos, though Suzie has seemingly inherited some of his whininess from the first book. Vicky takes an interesting and far different path, and we are introduced to several new characters, both good and evil, whose personal sagas add to the overall flavor of this tale.
There are plenty of new developments and again the world has grown much bigger, though the story continues to focus mainly on Chatham’s Forge and the surrounding woodlands. There are indications that other demons, like Moloch, have sheltered other towns in the region and forced the members of those communities to follow their evil rituals to remain alive. The demon world becomes less hidden as well, with the introduction of a new and compelling potential replacement for Moloch. The author has set the table for an intriguing third act.
Overall, a solid second addition to this series. While the main characters depth have expanded, I felt that Vicky, in particular, seemed a bit too easily manipulated and Suzie a bit scattered with her jealousies, but those are more or less minor quibbles. Amos has grown-still immersed in self-doubt but stronger and more determined to be the hero people are starting to expect him to be. The writing is crisp and the story is quite unique. I was ready to gripe about women not having Adam’s Apples because the author refers to a woman with one here, but then I discovered they do, just not as prominent as the ones men have. One other minor distraction (yes, being nitpicky) is when an older character reflects back on when they got to cruise around town in their Mustang before the world went kerplooie, which wouldn’t be possible since the first Mustangs came out in 1964 and the old world ended in nuclear fire in 1962. Still, a minor distraction only.
I’m very interested to see what happens in the third installment in the series (trilogy?) and look forward to diving into it. This is the most sincere form of flattery there is for the second book in a series that I can think of.
Day of Vengeance (The Days of Ascension Book 2) can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Day-Vengeance-Days-Ascension-Book-ebook/dp/B0756S656T/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1527865747&sr=8-2
The Maggots Underneath the Porch is another gory, graphic tale from the mind of Patrick James Ryan, who loves crafting stories where the splatter is spectacular, the horror is shocking, and the payoff is quick and merciless. After reading his full novel The Night It Got Out and his anthology Blood Verse, I wasn’t surprised when this one had the same violent, gruesome flavor to it.
The Maggots Underneath the Porch takes place in the mid-70s in a small Indiana town where Jimmy Turner, a young boy who lives with his housebound grandmother, is coping with growing up, a love of baseball, and the tragic loss of his parents. On top of this, his grandmother has gone from being obese to completely immobilized, stuck in a chair in the family room. It has become so bad that a hole has been cut in the floor so she can cast away her garbage and also take care of bodily functions. She is coated in filth and flies when Jimmy’s Uncle Pete visits and makes an effort to get her better care and to support Jimmy, but things are quickly getting worse. Grandma is rotting from both the inside and out. Even worse, something is growing inside her guts…something rotten that wants to break free.
It’s pretty simple. If you love grindhouse gore, this is a novella for you. It is a quick read that provides some decent character development for Jimmy and his Uncle Pete, but the focus is on the action and the terror they and everyone deals with when they come face to face with the horror inside Jimmy’s house. The pace is fast and in several instances we are introduced to a character moments before they meet their gruesome end. This is not for the faint of heart or those without an iron constitution.
The author does tend to shade into the ‘tell vs. show’ arena here and there with how he spins his tale, but nothing that is too distracting from the story itself. After reading prior works, Patrick James Ryan continues to sharpen his story weaving skills. He loves playing on the nostalgia elicited by the good old summer days of kids playing baseball and spending their time out in the sun rather than inside playing video games. While I was not in my early teens in the 70s, I can appreciate what the story represents-a simpler time where Jaws was on the big screen, collecting beer cans was a fun hobby, and getting a wiffle ballgame together in the front yard was a blast. There is a lot of innocence to the kids that are Jimmy’s friends. Innocence that gets shredded and devoured once the horror begins. This is good B-Movie, grindhouse horror for those who love their stories full of pulpy carnage.
The Maggots Underneath the Porch can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Maggots-Underneath-Porch-Patrick-James-ebook/dp/B074VG8BTX/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1519435992&sr=8-1
Shards of Reality is a story written in a new fantasy subgenre that I haven’t been exposed to previously called LitRPG. Given that I spent several years buried in the world of Norrath via Everquest, the Sony Online Entertainment massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG for short), this seems like a natural extension into the realm of literature for me to check out. This of course means I haven’t been exposed to other LitRPG works before reading this book so I don’t know all the tropes or rules involved.
Of course, if you’ve read fantasy, you are at least somewhat familiar with the concept of leaving our reality and entering an alternate fantasy universe, whether it be something along the lines of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever or Magic Kingdom for Sale. Those are tales not attached to any sort of game, though Joel Rosenberg’s Guardians of the Flame series took that step with a Dungeons and Dragons type game where the characters/players are involuntary thrust into the world where they role played warriors, wizards, and rogues. LitRPG takes this a step further, at least with Tim Long’s new series (this book is Enter The Realm Book 1) by making it so those entering the realm realize they are still actually in the game, not some alternative universe, and this game is an MMORPG, similar to the likes of Everquest or World of Warcraft. Furthermore, the game elements stay intact. There are still levels, experience to gain, stats to get from weapons and spells, mana pools to be used when casting spells, hit points, and all the lingo gamers are familiar with, like ‘Ding!” when a character gains a level, “mob” which is short for mobile, or a non-player character that you can attack, or in many cases, a monster, and plenty of other bits and pieces of jargon.
Our main character, Walt, is a game tester and slacker who has been thrust into a version of the MMORPG his company made and runs, Realms of Th’loria. He has no idea how he got there, and when he discovers another co-worker, Oz, is there with him, they set out to figure out what the heck is going on. While Walt is intrigued by the idea of being in the game he has played for years, he isn’t his favorite high level character that took him years to build up, he is instead a “noob” or a level one character with no skills or weapons. Oz, who is even less happy with this situation, is in the same boat. Being familiar with the game environment and monsters gives them some advantages, though they quickly realize that this is a rundown, grungier version of the world they have played in their virtual reality helmets back in the real world. After hooking up with another co-worker who is stuck in Th’loria with them, they discover that this isn’t just a different version of the game they’ve played, but that there is plenty more mystery involved with this place, and why they’re here. Of course, this is the first of a series of books, so more questions are posed than answered as these unwilling heroes of the realm are forced to venture forth to gain the experience needed to provide them with a few answers and the skills they need to survive.
I’m not sure how much I like the comparison and contrast between LitRPG and the more immersive, for lack of a better word, fantasy realms that people from our world end up stumbling into. The idea of looking at a weapon and knowing its stats because they are emblazoned on the hilt, having a HUD inside your skull that shows your health, mana, and how much experience you need to hit the next level does take a bit away from the fantasy aspect of it for me, though I appreciated being in the know as a former gamer, as it were. Reading this book made me nostalgic for those times, a decade ago, when I was grinding experience and was the leader of my own guild of players in Everquest, all of us striving to get better loot and gain levels so we could unlock new skills and go on even tougher adventures. Of course, we weren’t trying to escape the game like our main characters here, and their whining complaints, especially Oz’s, was a bit annoying, though realistic; a character on a screen getting hit and taking damage is a whole lot different than feeling it when a dagger gets shoved into your back.
Overall, this story was fun. Someone who hasn’t gamed in an MMORPG may feel a bit confused at points, and for those who want full-fledged escapism from reality, they might find this type of book a little bit too self-aware, but if you enjoy the idea of being thrust into an adventure and a mystery to boot, the LitRPG subgenre and Shards of Reality in particular is something to check out.
Shards of Reality can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/SHARDS-REALITY-LitRPG-novel-Enter-ebook/dp/B075RSCJZ3/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8
Like a Man and Purchase Order #2113-21A are a couple of quick, tightly written shorts by Stephen A. North, who has bounced back and forth between apocalyptic fiction and science fiction with his prior novels and shorter works. These two tales fit in well with his other stories, both with rough and tumble main characters coping with nightmarish circumstances and impending end of the world doom.
Like A Man takes place in Rio De Janeiro set in the present, and appeared in an apocalyptic anthology the author contributed to several years ago. I’d read the story then and enjoyed it for it’s surprising, startling transition from a sun drenched flirtation between a body guard and his boss’s girl to the sudden, abrupt, and brutal end of the world sequence it proposes with the alien creatures burrowing up from the depths of the earth.
Purchase Order #2113-21A could be an addendum to the universe Stephen created with his Drifter novel. A future filled with enslaved soldiers doing the bidding of others, it has a flavor of Blade Runner/techno near future gloom, though with an even darker glimpse of how ugly humanity can potentially become then either of the Blade Runner movies.
These are two quick shorts that definitely speak of larger worlds and potentially more involved stories if the author chose to expand them. As they are, they are good, quick bite-sized bits of apocalyptic goodness for those looking for a quick fix.
Like a Man and Purchase Order #2113-21A can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Like-Man-Purchase-Order-2113-21A-ebook/dp/B0756W8NXG/ref=la_B002K8VVMG_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1507757852&sr=1-1
Tusk and Sedation Dentistry are two horror short stories with dentists as their main characters. Tusk has us sitting down next to the young, beautiful neighbor of an older dentist who enjoys regaling her with tales of his adventurous youth. You see, he has countless trophies from trips abroad adorning his office walls. But one particular trophy, an oddly elongated tooth, has caught her eye and she is insistent on hearing how the good doctor came across this strange artifact. Though reluctant, the dentist begrudgingly shares his journey of dark discovery.
Sedation Dentistry is like the sickly sweet dessert after devouring a darkly delectable meal. Weighing in at only a couple of pages, this tidbit reveals how tremendously horrifying dentistry might be. Spending every day starring into the deep, dank abysses that are people’s bacteria infested mouths and then being forced to stick your fingers inside those vile maws must be a nightmare for some. Even worse must be the secret fear that those horrible ivory pillars could come slamming together at any second to grind the flesh off the bones of your fingers…
These two ‘toothsome tales’, as the author describes them, are a quick, painless read, poured through faster than it’ll take you to go through your next six month checkup. Tusk leads us into a chultun-an underground chamber on the Yucatan Peninsula where our dentist friend is hunting for treasure with a couple of comrades. This dark lair shares some disturbingly similar characteristics to the open, steaming holes that are the mouths he deals with as a dentist, including the sharp, pointed teeth. Sedation Dentistry fooled me in the first couple of sentences, with its description of a cavernous, plague infested mouth that was as ominous as the caverns found in Tusk.
Quick easy reads for those chomping at the bit for a taste of horror.
Tusk and Sedation Dentistry can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Tusk-Sedation-Dentistry-Stephen-North-ebook/dp/B074PTDDJD/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1504145557&sr=8-1&keywords=tusk+and+sedation+dentistry
The Sanguinarian Id introduces us to Hael, a child found abandoned and left for dead in the woods outside of an asylum in England in the late 1800s. Taken in by the doctors there, they are fascinated by this little girl who remembers little of her past and appears to be supernaturally resilient and strong. They search for but fail to find anyone who knows who she is, which is completely satisfactory to Dr. Strauss and especially Dr. Mendelson, who run the asylum. They have spent much of their time experimenting and torturing their mostly female patients and have devious plans for Hael as well.
This story combines elements of gothic horror with a journey of self-discovery. Hael doesn’t truly understand what she is, but begins to grasp the truth while doing her best to escape her nightmare existence. Despite her efforts to escape the clutches of the mysterious and purely evil Mendelson, it appears that their destinies are firmly intertwined long term.
The first part of the book takes place in Hael’s childhood years, and the author has given it a strong flavor of gothic horror like we get from the classics of the era: Dracula and Frankenstein. The latter half of the book leaps forward a half century when we are thrust into the middle of World War II Germany, where Hael continues her lifelong quest for redemption and revenge.
The story is intriguing, pulling us deeper into the dark underworld Hael both lives in and tries to make sense of-she has been abused, beaten, terrorized, and violated throughout her life. In turn, she has worked to extract revenge on those who have done this to her and those she cares for, while trying to find some sense of self. She lives both in the real world painted black with despair and misery the Nazi’s have unleashed, and in the supernatural world-a world filled with pure blood and half-blood vampires and other monsters far worse.
This is the author’s first novel and in many ways is an impressive bit of storytelling, especially for someone who is barely into adulthood. The depth of research and understanding it must have taken to develop this world and underworld filled with supernatural characters and creatures must have been substantial. The author has developed a vibrant, bloody, dark, grim world and a character that successfully manages to give the reader someone to both respect and care for, while also fearing them and the dark acts they are capable of doing.
There is a fair bit of tell vs. show in this story and the dialog, at points, is a bit awkward. The main character’s use of the word “bitch” on multiple occasions as an insult to her male enemies in the World War II era felt a bit out of place, though that is a minor complaint. There are some awkward turns of phrase here and there while some of the story transitions are abrupt. We go from knowing little to nothing about the monsters that inhabit this world early on in the story, to Kael having extensive knowledge of them later on. We did not get to join her on that journey of discovery and it felt a bit like an opportunity lost.
Despite these quibbles, this is a strong first entry in this potential series of books and a very promising start to the career of the author, who will continue to refine her writing style and sharpen the dialog with the more stories she creates. Her foundation in storytelling is solid and I look forward to seeing more from L.M. Labat in the future.
The Sanguinarian Id can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Sanguinarian-Id-L-M-Labat/dp/1937769445/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=
Dead Tide Rage continues the saga Stephen A. North started with Dead Tide back in 2008. This is the fourth installment in the series, which tells the stories of a wide assortment of folks in the days following the start of the zombie apocalypse in the Tampa Bay area. There is no telling if this is the actual end of the road for the saga-while some characters disappear from the tale here (and have been doing so since the first book), there continues to plenty more to carry things forward. This isn’t any sort of spoiler. The author has never pulled his punches when it comes to the fate of those who inhabit the pages in this series. And of course, if you are reading this review and haven’t checked out any of the prior installments, I would suggest you start with Dead Tide, or DTR won’t make a huge amount of sense.
The author changed the tense with the third installment of this series to past vs. present and he sticks with past tense with DTR. Regardless of the tense used, there is an immediacy found in each book of the series-things move at a fast clip. You are in deep in the action, regardless of what character’s perspective you are subjected to in that moment. Many of them are familiar by now, but there are a few new additions to the cast. If it has been a while since you’ve read Dead Tide Surge (the third book), the author has provided a dramatis personae at the beginning of the book as a quick refresh. Keeping up with everybody can get a bit confusing, but if you have made it this far, you likely have a good handle on who is who. There are plenty of folks that have survived long enough that you probably have your favorites, and the ones you are hoping die an ugly and brutal death. It should be noted, there is plenty of diversity-women, men, and children of different races and socio-economic classes, coming together or falling apart on a daily (and hourly basis) regardless of who they were before the zombies rose. No one comes away clean in this tale. Of course, this means the story isn’t locked into any single group’s survival-there really are no permanent groupings anyway-things change far too quickly and the ensemble cast drifts on and off each other’s radar unless they make a conscious effort to stick together…and even that doesn’t work out all that well too often.
The reality of a review of a fourth book in a series is that you, the reader, likely have made up your mind about this series by now and you are reading this because you want to see if this book matches up well with the others that came before. My answer to that is yes-this book fits seamlessly with the others, like a new puzzle piece. Again, there is no telling if the puzzle is complete-the outer edges aren’t quite straight. I almost feel as though the author could call it a day with this book or write four more books in the series if he chooses. As with most apocalyptic tales, the idea of a happy ending is pretty subjective. Orson Welles once said “If you want a happy ending that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” I’m not sure Stephen A. North has decided where to end his story, or if he is all that interested in a happy ending for his characters. But the ride, so far, has been a pretty interesting one.
You can find Dead Tide Rage here: https://www.amazon.com/Dead-Tide-Rage-Stephen-North-ebook/dp/B073HR3TFL/ref=la_B002K8VVMG_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1499300622&sr=1-1
Hunter of the Dead does its best to shed new light into vampire mythology with a story spanning the ages from the early days of vampires and the inquisitors who wage a constant war with them to today, when a strange monster, shrouded in mystery, has come forth, slaying both vampires and inquisitors alike.
The story passes through multiple time periods, flashing back into the history of characters both significant and petty, while the main story focuses on events occuring in present day Las Vegas. Cicatrice, the strongest immortal in the world and leader of the most powerful house of vampires, is locked in a war with all other rival houses, including house Signari, led by Father Otto, Cicatrice’s greatest rival. Cicatrice has just found his true heir, Idi Han, a freshly turned but incredibly powerful young vampire who shows remarkable skills and control over her powers. We are also introduced to Nico Salazar, night manager of a convenience store who is thrust into the world of night dwellers when his store gets attacked by a strange, vampire-like creature and only by luck and the assistance of an employee does he manage to survive. It turns out that his ragged compatriot is Carter Price, an inquisitor who looks like he’s been run through mill a few too many times to be classified as much of a vampire slayer.
There is a lot going on in this story, with the authors own unique take on the world of vampires and immortality being shared on its pages. Kozeniewski does bring some fresh takes to the genre, with his own brand of dark humor steeped in heavy doses of gore drenched horror. The main characters are solidly developed-in particular Idi Han-the young vampire whose powers are growing at a far more rapid rate than normal, along with her resentment toward being seen as some sort of savior of her kind. Also intriguing is Carter Price, the washed out, rough and tumble inquisitor that likes to go it alone in a profession that typically requires massive teamwork to survive given how much power immortals wield.
This story is jam packed with characters and flashbacks that lend a healthy appreciation for the history of the immortal bloodlines and the wars they’ve waged with one another and humankind. The advantage with that is that the story moves at a very fast clip-there is very little downtime in its pages. Unfortunately, this also means that some of the flesh on its bones I would have liked to have seen within the pages is hard to find. This is a tale that could have been further developed with a much larger work, or perhaps sliced into multiple novels about the diverse characters populating its pages. The Hunter, a malignant and yet fascinating monster, could have garnered for more pages and storyline here, but so to could have Idi Han, Cicatrice, and Carter Price. It is clear that there is more to tell with each of them and given that the author has left the door open for a sequel (or a series of books), perhaps we will see a great deal more of each of them in later works.
Overall, the writing here, as is typically the case with Kozeniewski, is rock solid. He knows how to weave a creative, darkly funny, and diabolical tale. Perhaps it isn’t much of a criticism that his story could have been more fleshed out-after all, leaving the audience wanting more isn’t the worst sin in the world.
Hunter of the Dead can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Hunter-Dead-Stephen-Kozeniewski/dp/1944044310/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1491760206&sr=8-1&keywords=hunter+of+the+dead
Mists of the Dead, by Travis Adkins, takes the tradition of high adventure and adds a liberal helping of modern day zombie horror to bring something to the page that is both familiar and yet fascinatingly unique.
We are introduced to Warrel, a roguish charmer of a bard who has it made being the house balladeer in a tavern run by man of questionable means. Still, Warrel yearns for a life of adventure. His chance for something more occurs when Kogliastro, the most famous wizard in the world, decides to leave his fortress behind and venture out into the wide world once again. With a bit of finesse, Warrel is able to convince the magic user of his potential usefulness as a scribe on his journeys, and thus begins a saga that will take the old mage and young, impetuous bard (along with their dwarf warrior companion) to a strange new land filled with both mystery and the eponymous mist.
Being someone who grew up on Dungeons and Dragons, this tale has much that was familiar to me, from the magical items and spells the character’s use and discover, to the chosen professions of not only the three adventurers but others they meet in their travels. The world the author has created is filled with gods and monsters of his own creation as well as those taken from the pages of the manuals I devoured as a fanatical fantasy gamer in my youth. Adkins puts his own spin on the mix, in particular related to the gods of Erda, the world in which Warrel lives, and how his characters communicate. Warrel in particular uses an entertaining mix of the classic ‘ye olde’ common tongue and modern vernacular that put a smile on my face at is creativity.
While the story can be easily classified as traditional fantasy, Adkins does not forget his own history, which includes at least two traditional modern-day zombie apocalypse novels. The zombies our adventurers meet don’t share the traits of magically enchanted undead, raised up by dark priests and necromancers, but adhere in many ways to the zombies we are familiar with these days-those who die within the mists rise up and are compelled to devour the brains of the living.
Naturally, given my own life-long fascination with both fantasy adventure and the undead, I am probably a biased reviewer of this tale, but I must say that the characters are solidly fleshed out, as is the world(s) the author has created. If perhaps there is an area I would be critical of, it is the length of time it takes for Warrel to go from committing to leaving his home behind to travel with a famed wizard and actually doing it. While the detail the author commits to Allswell, the city that Warrel calls home, and the cast of characters he has relationships with is tremendous, it perhaps takes a bit too long for the real adventure to begin. With that said, for me, Mists of the Dead was both an exciting journey into the unknown and to places I am very familiar with and love returning too.
Mists of the Dead can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B06XC5Q794
Life After: The Void carries the story of Jeff Grey and company forward about three months after the events of the first book, where the dead rose and he and several other people attending a high school band competition managed to turn the high school they were at into a barricaded fortress while the world outside goes to war with the undead.
Jeff remains bitter after the loss of his girlfriend and is dealing with a somewhat awkward burgeoning relationship with another friend, Mel, despite many awkward misgivings and some fairly contentious interactions. Jeff, along with his National Guardsman friend Anderson, and older survivor Rich are the leaders in their reasonably stable new community. They have provisions and routines to keep them safe, though the tension in the group is palpable. The undead, for the most part, have become background noise, slaughtered when they get close but thought of more in theory than reality. Except when, occasionally they overwhelm the survivor’s reality and become more of an immediate danger.
It is the humans outside that are the real threat, as they have always been and ever will be. Jeff has been grasping the fact that nothing will ever return to normal despite the seeming static routines of his new existence. This is compounded by the guilt and rage he feels at the loss of his brother and girlfriend, while his parents are a thousand miles away. The group makes their way outside the barricades they have built and have to deal with the living in a variety of ways, coping with marauders, the military, and rescue missions. Throughout these experiences, we see the world through Jeff’s eyes, though we know what those around him think of him. Jeff is a self-admitted asshole, bitter and more often than not itching to get in a fight, or at least a debate, or how best to survive and to live. The events he has to face and the tragic experiences he has had to cope with wage a constant war with his ability to keep it together. He is a trusted and relied upon member of his group, but at the same time he seems to have a contentious relationship with just about everyone who crosses his path. A teenager still, he is reluctantly being forced into the role of leader and does so often like a bull in a china shop.
My understanding is that there were a few short stories that the author wrote that take place between the first book of this series and this novel. I am sure they would have added to the depth of the story, but having not read them didn’t make me feel as though I was lost in any way when I started this book. This is definitely a sequel though, with the expectation that the reader already knows the main characters introduced in Life After: The Arising.
The action is a bit more tempered in this second entry of what I am guessing will be (at least) a trilogy, since the urgency of immediate survival in the hours and days that followed the first onslaught of the undead has subsided. The characters have settled into life where they still have electric power and plenty of supplies, but of course are trapped in both a world and a barricaded fortress that is somewhat claustrophobic. There are bursts of action in the book but much of the first half deals with the human dynamics of a group of people forced to unify and create a new existence with rules and routines that everyone can live with. The author focuses a good deal on the interpersonal relationships between Jeff and pretty much everyone else. His awkwardness with the children, annoyance with other leaders, and anger with just about anyone who confronts him are front and center. The action picks up as the story progresses, but Jeff’s battles with those around him as well as his inner demons continue throughout, especially when he is forced to confront some very hard truths about himself and his place in this new world.
Jeff is a hard character to like in many ways. He was in the first book and remains true to the personality the author created there in this book. Abrupt, gruff, itching for an argument, and perceived as a know it all, it takes more than being forced to take a leadership role in a desperate survival scenario to force him to grow up and come to grips with his failings. It is the life he must live, interacting with others in regular, routine daily activities versus coping with swinging a sword and blowing a zombie’s head off that are slowly chipping away at his desire to be contentious with just about everyone. Much like with the first book, I believe that whether the reader enjoys this tale will likely hinge on what they think of Jeff and appreciate the path he is on-whether it be to redemption or ruin. It is certainly an interesting path, regardless.
Life After: The Void can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Life-After-Void-Bryan-Way-ebook/dp/B01LX8ZPSQ/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1486918475&sr=8-2&keywords=bryan+way
Kings of the Dead came out six years ago, and as was quite popular at that time with zombie genre books, was written in a journal format. The popularity of that format has died down in recent years but with my attempts to read many of the books I failed to read in years past, I am reminded once again how many authors chose to go this route. I’ve shared the advantages and disadvantages of this format in prior reviews, and of course, this book is no exception. I do give credit where credit is due, of course. Author Tony Faville remains true to the format, not moving to a third person narrative at any point, which some authors tend to do when they feel the relentless need to reveal things the narrator doesn’t know and thus can’t share with the reader. To avoid this pitfall, Cole’s journal is written in by others when he is not available at certain points in time, which fills in those gaps in the story there would otherwise be if limited to his perspective alone. This adds a few interesting twists to the story as Cole himself reads these entries, left as notes for him upon his return to his journal. It serves as smoother tale because the author didn’t suddenly change writing styles, which I appreciated.
The story is fairly standard zompoc fare, told from the perspective of a man with former military and medical experience, who has prepared with a group of friends for the end of the world as we know it for several years as a hobby. Zombies crop up when the vaccine for a new strain of the flu ends up reanimating those who have taken it. The zombies are mainly the slow shamblers here, with a mix of faster undead joining the fray as the story and timeline moves forward.
This is a fairly personal story. Like some of the other journal written sagas, there is a good chunk of the author’s personality shining through the narrator. This is a story of someone who is a fan of the genre writing a story of survival they have envisioned for themselves and their friends. It does add something to the telling of the tell-a pseudo autobiography envisioned by the author were there a zombie apocalypse. Authors are guided to “write what you know” and Tony does so here, having the personal knowledge related to weaponry, medical skills, and other related topics that would have an impact on survival in an undead world. Credit to the author for not ‘over doing it’ as I have seen a tendency of some to do when it comes to slathering their pages with an excess of demonstrated expertise in a particular area that rapidly turns into overkill. The flow here is more natural and the while the reader will know the author knows his stuff, they won’t be blasted with it on every page.
While the survivors hunker down, attempting to build a new home in their region of Oregon for much of the first half of the book, the story becomes, in time, more of a road trip as Cole, the narrator, ponders the meaning of existence in a dead world and chooses to take a journey of discovery. Cole struggles with the loss of friends and trying to find a reason to carry on, but there are also glimmers of hope that give him, and the reader, reasons to carry on.
There are some rough spots in the story and some of that comes from the format-we don’t get to discovery something happening as it happens, but written as a report done the following day or in the hours following the actual event, which dilutes some of the emotional resonance. Still, there is definite emotional potency here, especially as related to the people Cole deeply cares for and will do anything to try and keep safe, which in the an undead world is a very difficult thing to do.
As is the case with many journal oriented zombie tales, there is not necessarily a main focus outside of survival written on its pages-survival of the body as well as the spirit. As such, it meanders a good bit, but the ending was quite satisfying and unlike many of the books of a similar make and model, the author doesn’t demand that you read three or four more entries in a series to make his point. This book does so succinctly and with quiet grace.
Overall, if as a zombie genre fan you aren’t burnt out on the diary approach to zombie fiction, Kings of the Dead is a solid addition to your library.
Kings of the Dead can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Kings-Dead-Tony-Faville/dp/1934861839/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_product_top?ie=UTF8
It has taken me far too long to read the first Zombie Fallout book by Mark Tufo. Tufo is one of the most prolific zombie writers out there, with nine books in this series plus spinoffs including a series of werewolf stories that take place many years after the zompoc. Naturally, I’ve heard of Tufo for years. This particular novel has nearly 1800 reviews on Amazon, which is a staggering number considering it was self-published.
This book has some similar characteristics to other notable books in this genre. It is in a journal format, though the author strays from sticking with the main character’s perspective for certain portions of the book. While this isn’t a major issue, it does point out the flaw in this type of storytelling-things the main character doesn’t know must be shared by other characters or in third person and it feels like a bit of a disruption when another voice jumps into for a chapter or two.
The prologue makes it clear the zombie apocalypse is about to get into full swing when a vaccination for a new strain of flu ends up bringing the dead back to life. From there we switch over to narrator Mike Talbot, ex-Marine and family man, while he is getting ready to take a shower in his house. This is interrupted when zombies show up on his front lawn and his family starts to freak out. Mike is sort of a prepper/gun nut who has been fascinated by the idea of zombies for a long time, but it’s clear he isn’t prepared for the sudden all-out assault taking place on his neighborhood and threatening his family’s existence.
Things move pretty fast from the get go, with rescue trips to save family members and friends while Mike and his neighbors work to barricade the walled-in neighborhood from impending doom. The story is, in many ways, pretty routine zompoc stuff, though the author throws a few curve balls into the mix. This includes the idea that these zombies perhaps aren’t undead, but infected and still with a spark of life, and more importantly, perhaps a spark of intelligence. There is also a hint of the supernatural, including a bit of prognostication and mental telepathy thrown in to give things a bit of mystery.
Overall, I can see why this series has been so popular. Tufo uses snarky humor and heavily descriptive verse to describe the gore, the smells, and the overall madness engulfing his character’s life. Despite some of the more odd things about Mike, he is, for the most part, just a family man trying his best to protect his loved ones in a time of ultimate danger-something very relatable.
That isn’t to say that I didn’t have some issues with the story or how it’s told. Many of my complaints have been pointed in other reviews. Though the story is fun and I’m intrigued as to how some of the more unique elements the author introduced here will be expanded upon in future volumes, I felt that many characters outside of Mike are somewhat one-dimensional. This is in part due to the fact that a diary format is somewhat limited in stepping away from the single perspective it showcases.
Women in particular are given short shrift in this book. Mike’s wife is somewhat of a stereotypical shrew who naturally is the only person on the planet he is afraid of, yet at the same time she appears to be helpless and lacking in common sense. Despite having lived with a prepper for many years, she has no idea how to even load a weapon. Neither does Mike’s daughter, for that matter, who, like her mama, has a mean temper and a stubborn streak a mile long. Another woman who agrees to go a supply run outside the safety of the walls of Mike’s neighborhood does nothing more than cower in the truck while everyone else takes care of business. All I could remember about the wife of Mike’s best friend was that she was a lousy shot-there is little else shared about her.
Mike is a funny character and his internal monologues and flashbacks are sometimes very amusing as he tries to make light of a desperate situation. At other times his perspective is best described as a bit…off. Comparing the horror of possibly being forced to shoot a loved one who has been attacked by a zombie to the more meager fear of speaking in public for the first seemed somewhat dismissive. The obsession Mike has with his Jeep Wrangler and not using this durable off-road vehicle during the zombie apocalypse because it might get scratched plus having his family be fearful of his wrath if they use it even under desperate circumstances seemed a bit lacking in focus. Mike would do anything for his family, and that comes across on almost every page, but there are occasional lapses in perspective like those above that seem a bit disjointed given the situation.
Despite the criticism I have, the book is fun and certainly does a good job of paving the way for future installments. Without leaving things on a cliffhanger note, there is enough mystery hinted at to keep a reader guessing and wanting to know what is next-in particular related to the supernatural elements of this tale.
Zombie Fallout can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Zombie-Fallout-Mark-Tufo-ebook/dp/B003A022YO/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1473094523&sr=8-1
Holiday of the Dead is a rather sizable volume of zombie short stories that mostly stick to the theme of being on holiday, though a few seemed to stretch that concept a bit. For us Yanks, a holiday means a day of festivities, while with the Brits it is what we call a vacation. There is a pretty healthy mix of both types of tales to be found here. It isn’t just a mix, but a mixed bag, with a few stories forgotten as soon as I finished them. Fortunately, quite a few others were memorable and demonstrated the author’s ability to have some fun with the theme and with zombie fiction in general. When you have a book filled with nearly forty short stories, things are going pretty well when you come away feeling that at least thirty were worth the price of admission.
Often I try to provide a mini-review of each story in an anthology, but not with a tome this size. There are far too many to recount in detail. Suffice it to say, you will get an assortment of traditional and inspired here. There are some very recognizable names in the table of contents, well know writers of zombie and horror fiction, including Iain Mckinnon, Eric Dimbleby, Tonia Brown, David Dunwoody, Eric Brown, William Meikle, Joe McKinney, and Wayne Simmons. A couple of special guests, John Russo and Tony Burgess, add tales of their own at the end of the book.
Perhaps Holiday of the Dead could have been pared down a bit, but overall it was an entertaining read with only a few minor speed bumps. The most inventive tales should more than make up for any issues you may have with the handful that don’t resonate. Stories like Change Is As Good As Rest, Naked Fear, Daddy Dearest, Home Is The Sailor, Home From The Sea, Burj, The Day The Music Died, Where Moth And Rust Destroy, and Crossover kept things popping, though quite a few others were just as fun to dive into.
Solidly entertaining zombie shorts with a few misfires, but more than enough undead goodness between its pages.
Holiday of the Dead can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Holiday-Dead-John-Russo-ebook/dp/B004XJ7HZK/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=#navbar
It has been several years since I read the two prior entries in this trilogy of zombie books, so Dying To Live: Last Rites gave me some vague recollections of the four main characters reintroduced here when I started reading this one, but fortunately, this book in many ways is a standalone novel, separate from the other two books with the story it tells.
Two characters, Will and Rachel, are living, while Truman and Lucy are zombies who have worked to retain and regain elements of who they were in life-they can speak and interact with humans. Most importantly, they can refrain from giving in to their base urges to kill and devour the living. Truman more so than Lucy, who still loves to kill and revels in its purity, believing that most humans are selfish, despicable creatures, although she more or less tolerates and even respects Will and Rachel, especially due to the relationship they have with Truman.
The four have been banished from the community they lived in and have been traveling by boat on rivers in the wilderness the world has become. Rachel grows deathly ill and they find another community called New Sparta near the water that can help her, but only under certain conditions. The zombies are to be sold off and Will and Rachel will have to pay for the care she receives and the housing and food they will need. They’ve stumbled into a much more complicated, larger, and more “civilized” society than the one they are used to, with many of the perks of our modern world having returned including electricity, credit, regular jobs, etc. Of course, their objective initially is to get their two undead friends back to safety, but a myriad of distractions and enticements create some challenges for the two of them, while things are far worse for Truman and Lucy.
Once again, the author has created some interesting dilemmas like those that ran through his first two books in this trilogy. Dilemmas based on what it means to be human and also retaining what we call humanity, regardless of who, or what, you actually are-living or undead. It’s clear that the two sentient zombie main characters see humans as selfish and self-destructive beings, even those they care for. Many are far worse than Rachel and Will, but it seems as if this internal focus is ingrained in the living, almost by necessity, to keep the fragile spark of life alight. The undead, including the other zombies the two meet while enslaved in New Sparta, are not subject to this selfishness, or so they believe. But with sentience comes certain needs and desires, even if biological urges have been almost all eliminated. Love, connections to others, and an urge to understand their existence still remains, plus the desire to devour the living still remains…and in most there is no remorse for them either, especially since all memories of what the undead were before they passed on are gone.
Dying To Live: Last Rites may be the third book in Kim Paffenroth’s trilogy, but in many ways it stands on its own as its own examination of life, compassion, and self-sacrifice. The author has expanded the amount of the sentient zombies from beyond the first two books substantially and that may be a turnoff for some readers who are looking for zombies to mostly remain dim cannibal monsters. If this were a pure action/horror type trilogy the author could take things in some interesting, Planet of the Apes-type directions with the undead past this story, but these books have always been much more about the examination of the differences between being human and being humane. Those who have enjoyed the first two novels will likely enjoy this one as well.
Dying To Live: Last Rites can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Dying-Live-Rites-Kim-Paffenroth-ebook/dp/B004T334A2/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1466867283&sr=8-3
Children of God by Craig DiLouie and Jonathan Moon is an unexpected surprise from these two horror writers. I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever read something quite like this, even though I’ve read quite a bit of poetry. This is a book that shares the tales of tragedy lived through by ten survivors, most of who can only do so through the poems they craft years after the events that destroyed the lives of everyone they knew and with whom they shared a slavish faith.
Going in, we know that the Family of God cult, led by David Prince, came to a horrific end via a mass suicide and bloody massacre on August 17, 2008, when well over three hundred members holed up in their mountain compound died with barely thirty surviving. Years later, as a form of therapy, a psychiatrist suggests the survivors write poetry as a way to express themselves. This book shares what theses ten survivors who chose to offer up their words had to say.
How the two authors craft an overarching vision of what led up to that day of tragedy, through it, and beyond is haunting, vivid, and gut-wrenching. This diverse group of poets includes children, a former prostitute, seminary student, an elderly woman abandoned by her biological family before joining the cult, a mentally impaired man, an organist, gangbanger, war veteran suffering from PTSD, and a young man who lost his immigrant parents in an accident years before joining the Children of God. Their poetry speaks of sacrifice, devotion, desires for a better world, regret, and a heavenly reward beyond this realm promised but never realized.
A story takes shape through their words and despite being a fairly short book, it paints a vivid picture of what takes place, especially on THE day where the cult comes to its brutal and horrible end. It’s easy to say that such slavish devotion to a charismatic leader is misplaced and to convince yourself that you could never fall for such lunacy, but all one has to do is to take a look at the world at large to see how desperate so many of us are, and how willing so many are to believe in false prophets and leaders who promise extreme and distorted visions of a better world. Which makes this book of poetry all the more poignant.
Children of God can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Children-God-Dreams-Nightmares-Family-ebook/dp/B01ENXYWU8?ie=UTF8&qid=&ref_=tmm_kin_swatch_0&sr=