Bel, The Last Dragon begins in the Land East-of-Nod, a dizzying and unreal metropolis populated by beings that defy easy description. Not altogether dissimilar from Barker’s Midian–though the nature and scope of this story is far more grand than Cabal–there’s a certain flair and beauty from which one definitely feels a Barker-ish flourish as Bel wanders the streets of this hidden city. Bel, long believed dead, believed himself to be deceased as well. During the American Civil War, he’d sacrificed himself in the centuries-long War of Dictates between the Sheydim and the Watchers (fallen angels bent on molding the human world to their twisted whims). Following that sacrifice, Bel’s fellow dragons sacrificed themselves in retaliation, each falling in turn, though the tide of the long war only marginally swayed in the direction of the Sheydim. No longer solely the first, Bel awakens outside the Land East-of-Nod as the last dragon. Enraged and distraught by the loss of his brethren and the minimal benefit gained by their sacrifices, Bel wants revenge. Advances and knowledge gleaned during his centuries of restorative slumber have provided Bel with a chance to obtain the revenge he seeks. A series of islands existing in a strange tangential space separate from the human world is ruled over by Watchers who seek dominion, independent of their brethren. Here, the Sheydim and their allies have a chance to strike profound blows against the power of the fallen angels, to gain strength and the expertise necessary to ultimately assault the Watchers divying up the human world. In this place, Bel will mete out the bloody, fiery vengeance that drives him as he learns to work with those who have fought this war while he slumbered in near-death. The first target is the jungle island ruled over by Habbiel and his forces. Whether you’ve read the epic poem, War of Dictates, you’ll benefit from diving into this tale of cosmic horror and fantasy crafted by Baltisberger. If you’ve had the pleasure of reading War of Dictates, you’ll be pleased to see familiar faces in a format more conducive to truly getting to know them. If you haven’t read the poem, this can be your introduction into the realm of War of Dictates and a primer of sorts that can make your journey through that twisted and violent epic all the more complete.
This title comes out in May of 2022. A link will be added once it becomes available.
As much a collection of world-building elements as a story, The Raven Tower contains the same depth of political intrigue, examination of social structures, and mythological explorations one should expect if they’ve read other books from Ann Leckie. Much of the narrative is taken up by historical musings and the interactions of various gods, in particular The Strength and Patience of the Hill and The Myriad, two ancient gods who watched as humanity evolved and developed cultures and language. Relayed to us by that ancient god, The Strength and Patience of the Hill, The Raven Tower is the story of Eolo, a soldier and the aide to Mawat, the next in line to serve as Lease to the Raven, God of Vastai. Upon being called back home from the conflict at the border, Mawat discovers that his father, the previous Lease, has disappeared when he should have sacrificed himself upon the death of the most recent incarnation of the Raven. In his father’s place, Mawat’s uncle is sitting on the bench belonging to the Lease, proclaiming himself as such, in defiance of both custom and Mawat’s wishes. While Mawat mourns the father he believes to be dead and seethes with anger at his uncle’s presumptuousness and betrayal, Eolo sets out to solve the mystery of how any of this could have transpired. The truth, when revealed, might be too costly for those involved and far too dangerous for the kingdom of Iraden. As interesting as the story of court intrigue, murder, and betrayal happens to be, I found myself wanting to hear more about the gods, their machinations, and the history of this world the deeper I delved into the story. Leckie has a knack for creating worlds that beg for the reader’s attention, drawing us in and making us crave more. The Ancillary books had a trilogy that allowed for greater satisfaction of this need, and I’m hoping that this won’t be the last time we visit the world she’s created with The Raven Tower. The casual acceptance of Eolo as a trans-masculine character was a nice touch, without ever seeming shoehorned in or forced. This should come as no surprise to anyone who read the Imperial Radch trilogy, in which it was obvious that Leckie has a knack for exploring non-binary identities and cultures with the same deft hand that Ursula K. Le Guin brought to The Left Hand of Darkness. There are sure to be readers who dismiss this book because of that. But those are the same people who proclaim that they don’t want politics in their fantasy or science fiction, so it’s a simple thing to dismiss their opinions as uninformed, historically ignorant, and irrelevant. Adjoa Andoh’s narration captures a wide breadth of characters and accents with seeming ease, though there were times when certain accents initially seemed a bit silly or cartoonish at first. As the audiobook continues, those accents seem less pronounced as the listener adjusts to hearing them and becomes acclimated to the environment cultivated within the narration. I certainly prefer this over the alternative, where every character sounds approximately the same, and there’s no variation where cultural differences should exist.
Midnight Mass provides readers with an alternate history of our world. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, a scourge of vampires rapidly overwhelmed Europe and Asia before turning their sights on America. The population centers of the East Coast are the first to go dark, as those in positions of power are quickly turned by the calculating monsters who seek absolute dominion over the world. Everything seems hopeless as the remaining human beings are slaughtered or captured and treated as livestock, recruited as daytime enforcers for the undead, or driven into hiding as they await the inevitable end. This is where F. Paul Wilson’s novel begins. In a devastated town on the Jersey shore, a demoralized Rabbi desperately seeks the assistance of his best friend, a disgraced Catholic priest, to restore both the faith and resolve to his former congregation. A desecrated church awaits them, but with the power of the cross being one of the only weapons against the undead, Rabbi Zev Wolpin hopes this one priest can spark the fire that will cleanse the community of the evil that’s taken hold. But maybe Revelation 13:4 is right, in that it will take one like the monsters to make war against them. But it’ll take more than that. There’s a deadly secret that could turn the tide of this war between the living and the undead, and it’ll be up to Father Joe and his unlikely compatriots to uncover the truth and bring it to the light of day. Midnight Mass is an action-packed narrative that manages to provide a great deal of character study along the way. Father Joe’s transformation throughout the story is both heartbreaking and exhilarating at the same time. The characters populating Wilson’s novel are spectacularly well-developed and realistic. An anarchistic, lesbian atheist isn’t going to lose her skepticism and begin believing in God or the power of Christ simply because crosses have the power to harm the undead. A nun isn’t going to cast aside a lifetime of faith and assumptions regarding right and wrong solely because the world has become a dark place filled with creatures of the night. A faithful Rabbi is bound to suffer a crisis of faith when the holy symbols of the Christian faiths have a power that’s notably absent from those of other world religions. A lifetime of seeing the world a certain way isn’t something that can be flipped off like a switch. Wilson acknowledged that in this book. It influenced his characters to make them feel more three-dimensional than I’ve seen in other vampire fiction, where the old myths and folklore are relevant. Jamie Renell’s narration is excellent, especially the performance of Father Joe’s dialogue, nailing that gruff New England accent. The accents of the various European vampires are portrayed well enough that they don’t sound cartoonish or silly. Overall, the whole narrative flows well with Renell’s voice work, and I think this was a great pairing.
Beyond the Creek tells us the story of Alex Foster, a young woman who finally discovered the strength to escape from an abusive relationship when she learned she was pregnant. Starting over with nothing in a small forested town, Alex is desperate to provide a better life for her unborn child. She takes a job as a caregiver for Peter Nox, a recent stroke victim undergoing physical and speech therapy, and it seems like she might be on track to make a go of life away from her abusive ex. Shrouded in mystery and the subject of rumors and superstitious whispers around town, the Nox family and their sprawling estate might be something more than Alex signed up for. Is it possible that she escaped from one monster in her life only to fall into the web of something far more terrifying? The answer to that question–and many others–may only be discovered beyond the creek on the property. Or are there answers to be found in the secret room beneath the Nox house? Nico Bell spins a dizzying tale of survival, family, and motherhood that keeps the reader breathless as they follow Alex on her journey into the darkness. Drawing from Greek mythology, Bell provides us with something captivating and unpredictable as she guides us along with Alex to unravel the threads that threaten to bind her to a fate worse than anything we imagined as the story began.
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Felix Blackwell managed to craft a captivating and unsettling narrative that digs its way under the reader’s skin. Like many of the best horror stories, Stolen Tongues envelops the reader in an atmosphere that conveys a sense of both helplessness and fear. As the characters and their plight become more three-dimensional and fleshed out, the threatening force looming in the shadows becomes more unreal and difficult to comprehend. That alien and unfamiliar threat mingling with the all-too-real lives of the protagonists it imperils propels this story beyond the realm of casual, easily dismissed horror literature. When Felix and his fiance, Faye, begin their romantic getaway at her parents’ cabin in the Colorado Rockies, there’s no way they could have anticipated the disquieting experience that would greet them. If they’d only known the sinister history of Pale Peak, the cabin that rested there in the dark forests, and the way that past resonated within Faye’s dreams and psychology, they certainly would not have stayed. What unfolds from there is a feverish and unreal sequence of events that follows the couple from waking life into their dreams, influencing their relationships, and impacting everyone who seeks to help. And as the terror escalates, the reader can’t help but wonder if anyone will walk away without being led into the darkness by the creature speaking with stolen tongues. Growing up in and near the Black Hills of South Dakota and having spent a good deal of my life in the Rocky Mountains of Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, and Idaho, I feel like Blackwell captured the beauty and isolation of the environment. Just as importantly, he captured the way these mountain forests can play tricks on people unaccustomed to such places. As someone who has spent most of his life straddling the outskirts of Indigenous cultures, I appreciated Blackwell’s attempt to avoid exhausted and exhausting tropes while incorporating elements of those cultures in his story. My former step-mother and half-sister are Lakota, my ex-wife, multiple ex-girlfriends, numerous friends, and my teenage daughter as well. This book doesn’t treat the Indigenous characters as overly romanticized token characters, but it does treat them with respect and obvious appreciation for the history of North America before the arrival of European colonizers.
The Ritual is a fantastic journey into the realm of folk horror, a literary exploration into the sort of narrative that evokes themes familiar to fans of movies like The Wicker Man or Midsommar. As four friends hike into the autumn wilderness of Sweden, they discover that not all shortcuts are meant to be taken, that there are secrets and horrors in hidden places, and they find tensions that refuse to remain beneath the surface as stress and fear take a heavy toll on the men. The gloomy, sinister forest is brought to stark, claustrophobia-inducing life as Adam Nevill draws us deeper into the trees and brush as the relentless rainfall paints everything gray and lifeless. The characters of Hutch, Dom, Phil, and Luke are similarly well-drawn and three-dimensional in their portrayal. This realism serves to make the narrative all the more captivating as we become invested in the drama playing out between the hikers and the overwhelming sense of unease as we experience the disquieting events through Luke’s perspective. By the time the four men discover they’re not alone in the woods, it’s far too late to turn back, and the desperate push forward presents challenges that grow increasingly difficult. Now, because I’ve seen the movie adaptation as well, I’m going to compare the two. This portion of my post will include spoilers, so anyone seeking to avoid spoilers of either book or film should stop here. The movie would have benefitted a great deal from incorporating elements that were exclusive to the novel, such as the multi-generational graveyard and the ancient, decrepit church Luke discovered when he ventured off on his own. I loved that whole section of the story, and I think it added something to the atmosphere of the narrative moving forward. Similarly, the familiarity Hutch had with some of the architecture and runic writing was a nice touch that I felt could have made the movie better. I also preferred the absence of the cowardice subplot, wherein Luke did nothing and allowed a fifth friend to die. Unfortunately, with the absence of that subplot, we also lost the element of blurred reality that I enjoyed a great deal in the movie, wherein the god of the forest used illusions and hallucinations to manipulate the men. The movie was superior once Luke made it to the village near the end. The addition of Dom being present and alive for a portion of that section of the story was a nice touch that I think made for a better overall story. Sure, we had the reconciliation between Luke and Dom in the novel as well, but it felt more appropriate at the point when the men were in captivity and facing the very real probability of death. Removing the irritating caricatures of Loki and Fenris was a great choice, as I almost stopped with the book when those characters insisted on remaining present for altogether too much of the narrative. The random insertion of the fictional, murderous nordic black metal band, Blood Frenzy, felt like a pointless way to share the author’s familiarity with contemporary bands within the genre. Additionally, the portrayal of the god/monster within the movie was spectacular and exceeded anything I imagined from the book. Overall, I think I enjoyed the movie a bit more than the book, which is an uncommon thing…but it does happen. The audiobook narration provided by Matthew Lloyd Davies was spectacular. He even managed to superbly capture the accents of the characters I’d have preferred to do without. The narration certainly served to add depth and texture to the narrative, something that leapt from the page, so to speak, bringing an extra quality to the words penned by Nevill.
Nikki Noir has an exceptional talent for blending supernatural elements with splatterpunk sensibilities. If you haven’t read the Black Planet installments–or the collection of the first four–you are seriously missing out on a writer who is easily one of the best emerging voices of indie horror. If, however, you want to avoid diving into a series, you’re in luck. Nikki has several stand-alone short stories like this fantastic tale. Jen is still an outsider at school, even after spending a year in the new town where her family moved. One of her only friends is a young boy named Dale, a special boy from an unhappy home. Jen met Dale hanging out near the river, and she began telling him stories. One of those stories Jen shared concerns the Japanese myth of the Kappa. Dale internalized that particular myth and began playacting as a Kappa near the water. But Dale has been missing for a couple of weeks. Heading home after a party where she’d gotten into an unpleasant verbal exchange with one of the popular girls, Jen is startled and pleased to discover Dale hanging out on one of the rocks near the river. She attempts to take him home, but he resists, insistent on playing a Kappa. Leaving him with the cucumber she’d carried with her–the favorite treat of one of those supernatural creatures–Jen races off to bring attention to Dale’s presence near the river. From there, Cucumbers & Comforters becomes a barrage of sex, sexual violence, unraveling mysteries, sinister family drama, and myths seemingly come to life. There may be no amount of childlike security found in carrying cucumbers or hiding beneath comforters that will save Jen from the awful repercussions of the events set in motion the night of the party…but you’ll have to read the story to find out for yourself. If you’re in the mood to read about glowing orbs brutally extracted from human anuses, taboo sexual trysts, and murder, you are in the right place. This is a voyage Nikki Noir is the perfect host to guide you on.
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This one is a fast-paced and frenetic descent into horrors that lurk just below the surface of our reality, much as the dark web lurks just below the surface of the conventional, everyday internet of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and such. There are some fascinating parallels to be discovered in this story because of that mirroring aspect. Most of the novella focuses on true-crime novelist Niles Highsmith and his search for a missing younger brother, Leon. Through Leon’s friends, Niles soon learns that his brother had recently been searching the dark web in hopes of obtaining a firearm for protection–only to be diverted along the way–witnessing perversions and unsettling horrors instead, just before he disappeared. With no other avenues of inquiry available to him, Niles dives into the dark web as well, unaware of the attention he’s drawing to himself. Fans of the author will be pleased to find references to other works within the story as Niles explores the dark web for himself. The story, while captivating, takes a backseat to the intense, graphic visuals that Mangum conjures in his writing. If one were to toss the paintings of Zdzislaw Beksinski, Salvador Dali, and H.R. Giger into a blender, they might come up with something approximating what Mangum describes in parts of this narrative.
The newest book from Thomas R. Clark hits the ground running and never lets up. Beginning with a series of gruesome murders, The God Provides spins the reader a grimly beautiful tale rooted in old-world folklore and modern monster mythology. The blend of fantasy and horror is so perfectly combined as to produce something that transcends both categorizations. What you end up with is a narrative that feels like the modern-day retelling of a forgotten epic masterpiece. At the same time, Clark manages to craft a thrilling tale that feels like something fresh and new that only now sees the light of day. Delving into the McEntire family’s history–which isn’t at all what it might initially seem–we discover a community in rural upstate New York where ancient gods, witches, werewolves, fae, and other supernatural creatures thrive. All of this in plain view of any who might pass through the region…assuming they aren’t the sacrifices provided by the titular god. Take one part The Wicker Man (the original, not the god awful remake) and Midsommar, another part The Howling, and toss in some Macbeth and Beowulf for flavor, and you’ll have a recipe that might bring you within spitting distance of this story. You’ll also want to borrow a smidge of the considerable literary prowess Clark brings to the table. If splatter-folk is a genre…this is the introduction to that world.