Jonathan Maberry brings his fast-paced, high-intensity blend of grit, well-drawn characters, action, and wry humor to the realm of fantasy literature with one hell of a splash. Kagen the Damned is everything readers have loved about the Joe Ledger and Pine Deep novels but transferred to a world of swords and sorcery, complete with an homage to Chambers, Lovecraft, Bloch, and Derleth. Kagen Vale is a broken man, devastated and demoralized by his failure to protect the imperial family he’d been charged with protecting. Possibly the last surviving member of the Vale family, Kagen is driven solely by his need for revenge, forced to wander alone as the gods he’d worshipped have abandoned him. Walking a tightrope between drunkenness and violence, Kagen is hunted by those he hunts, and unless he can find some allies in his quest for vengeance, he’s doomed to fail. As long-forbidden magic and old gods return to the realm of the Silver Empire, the world Kagen was familiar with becomes increasingly strange and threatening, as an unexpected enemy with enigmatic and sinister plans seeks to take a throne that Kagen will die to defend. Fans of Richard K. Morgan and George R.R. Martin are sure to love Maberry’s foray into horror-tinged fantasy, but there’s nothing not to love about this introduction to a must-read trilogy. Ray Porter perfectly captures the character of Kagen in his narration, while bringing the cast of additional characters to life with a blend of accents that are at times both familiar and alien to the listener. Porter was quite likely the best possible choice for the audiobook narration of this novel, and I trust that he’s contracted to provide his services for the remaining two books as well.
It’s not uncommon to encounter political machinations and glimpses of the underlying bureaucratic structure of the world in fantasy novels. Along with the history of the realms and people in question, understanding something of the politics of those fictional worlds is an important element in making them feel like real places. Daniel Abraham has taken this world-building further than most authors by focusing a great deal of his storytelling attention on the facets of finance and trade within the world of The Dragon’s Path. What’s superbly surprising about Abraham’s novel is how interesting he manages to make the details of this commerce. Of course, it isn’t all banking and trade relations. Abraham has packed this first novel of The Dagger and the Coin series with conflict (both small and large scale), gods and myth, political intrigue, and plenty of witty dialogue. Cithrin is a half-breed orphan raised as a ward of the Medean banking house of Vanai, and she carefully studied under the tutelage of Magister Imaniel. As the armies of Antea approach the city walls, the only way to keep the resources of the bank safe from plunder is to send them away from the city. Cithrin is tasked with escorting the bank’s property to safety as part of a caravan headed by the tragic hero, Marcus Wester. As it happens, Cithrin isn’t the only member of Wester’s party who isn’t who they seem. Marcus has replaced some of his complement with a troupe of actors led by Master Kit, the performers playing the role of soldiers and guards. But Master Kit is more than he seems as well. A past he’d thought he escaped will come back to haunt him again before the tale concludes. In the middle of everything is Sir Geder Palliako, a bookish and weak man who finds himself tossed about by fate and the machinations of those above him in the royal court of Antea. Struggling against forces he only barely recognizes as nudging him along, Geder becomes the key to leading the world down a path from which there will be no turning back. Abrahamson packs this novel with a diverse cast of characters, both sympathetic and flawed in equal measure, and he sends them on a series of adventures as captivating as they are well-thought-out. It would be virtually impossible to reach the end of The Dragon’s Path without wanting to see where this tale will take us. Pete Bradbury’s narration spectacularly breathes life into the vast cast of characters populating this story, setting them apart from one another without any apparent difficulty. His voice propels the listener through the circuitous web of the narrative, leading us to the end far more quickly than we want to arrive.
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.
If you’ve been following my reviews at all, you know how much I adore Ash Ericmore’s writing and especially the sordid tales associated with the Smalls Family. To say I was pleased when Ericmore indicated there would be more to come after he’d concluded the stories of the seven Smalls brothers with Candyboy’s agricultural escapades would be an extreme understatement. With Valentine, we’re fully introduced to their cousin Marian. Babysitting Backy for Adam (Bliss) becomes quite the adventure when a group of Scottish criminals force their way into the house and leave with Valentine’s charge, hoping to take something of importance to Adam. Unfortunately for them, Valentine is no less prone to violence and impulsive behavior than the other Smalls we’ve met. Physical torture, superhero antics, excessive violence, a reptile ruckus, and a big rig brouhaha ensues as Valentine tracks down the twice-stolen baby, hoping to return him home before Adam is any the wiser. As with Ericmore’s other criminal capers, this story is non-stop, full-tilt excitement from the first line to the conclusion. You can’t be disappointed when you’re delving into the world of the Smalls clan, it’s simply not an option.
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Lushbutcher is back, and she’s back with a vengeance. After the slaughter of St. Practice Day, she’s set her sights on Chucky Knight, the man who organized the pub crawl that threatened the innocent victims of those drunks and degenerates. A sprawling estate patrolled by samurai, ninja, and martial artists of all stripes is all that stands between Lushbutcher and her conquest of the evil force behind so much drunken debauchery. Lesser people might turn away when faced with such seemingly insurmountable odds, but Lushbutcher has God on her side and the brilliant legs he led scientists and engineers to develop on her behalf. As Janey carves and slices her way through dozens of security personnel, leaving a trail of limbs and broken bodies behind her, it’s her confidence and unflinching faith in the righteousness of her cause that blind her to the threat she faces. Will this finally be Lushbutcher’s mission that ends the scourge of drunken revelers terrorizing her city? Or will this be the end of Lushbutcher’s vocation, as she finally meets her match? You’ll have to read it to find out. Excelsior!
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It should have been a better world. Adam Levine was dead. The oligarchy and patriarchy of the old world order were dismantled by revolutionaries. Direct democracy had replaced the corrupt justice system, allowing all citizens to participate as members of the jury of peers. Unfortunately, the future envisioned in Lucy Leitner’s Outrage Level 10 is not the utopia the people believe it to be. Alex Malone is a throwback, a former enforcer on the ice with a history of drug abuse and brain damage as mementos of the days when hockey was still a sport. As with all violent and destructive forms of competition, hockey is no more. Malone’s former career has become a ridiculed and maligned memory of the brutality and uncivilized nature of the world before the revolution. There aren’t many options available to someone with Malone’s history, so he becomes a cop, a member of another institution with a tainted history of violence and cruelty, extant in this future America as little more than glorified meter maids and health inspectors. When Malone’s psychiatrist injects him with a potential cure for his brain damage, Alex initially seems happier, and his memories appear to be returning. But are they his memories? What unfolds from there is a high-intensity mystery, as Alex and his unlikely partners in crime seek to unravel a sinister plot that strikes at the very heart of the nation and threatens to display the utopian society for the savage and superficial dystopia it is. Leitner does an excellent job of sharing this cautionary tale of a revolution compromised by not only the flawed and dangerous men guiding it but also by a society engrossed in social media and an unwillingness to recognize the lack of justice associated with the court of public opinion as a substitute for legitimate courtrooms. Differences of opinion are escalated to the point of being perceived as assaults, and “cancel culture” truly becomes a thing as citizens sentence one another to death for crimes against their fragile sensibilities. Reading Outrage Level 10 reminded me of the way Lenin–and later Stalin–essentially took the reigns of the revolution’s government apparatus and steered the force it gifted them toward their political opponents and enemies of the state who did nothing more than offer dissenting opinions. In all respects, it applies here in America just as effectively. There’s a worthwhile message to be found in these pages, that the revolution doesn’t end when the old structures are taken away. A constant state of vigilance is required to keep the new structures honest and focused on the goals of the revolutionaries.
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While Christopher Buehlman doesn’t add anything new to the heavily-tread mythology of the vampire, what he does provide us with is a fresh and captivating story with characters that come to life–or undeath–and a gritty 1970s New York that feels tangible, even if we do spend a significant amount of our time in the sewers and subway tunnels beneath the city itself. The admittedly unreliable narration of the tale from Joseph H. Peacock is both entertaining and, at times, depressingly bleak. A spoiled child from an affluent family in the early 20th century, Joey was accustomed to getting what he wanted, and when his mother insists that the cook who adores him has to go, Joey doesn’t take kindly to the replacement. A successfully implemented plan to remove the new cook from his household triggers the cascade of events that leads to Joey becoming a vampire at the young age of 14. Forty years later, Joey lives beneath Manhattan with an eclectic assortment of other vampires when he first sees the children mesmerizing their victims on the subway. Concerned with the hazard these child vampires pose, Joey’s undead family begins the hunt for these strange and unexpected creatures. Monstrous, cruel, and driven by a sort of nightmarish glee, the children represent a greater threat than any of the other vampires imagined. Buehlman weaves a fantastically disarming narrative filled with twists and turns that keep the reader reeling. Characters are developed only for the reader to discover that they have to dispel what they thought they knew. Minor details take on sinister connotations as new information gets revealed. As a narrator for his book, Buehlman displays a keen talent for accents and speech patterns, thoroughly gifting his characters with distinct personalities that come through the tone and inflection of his voice. I’ve heard lower-quality narration from numerous “professional” narrators and voice actors in the past.
Insatiable is, at least for those who listen to the audio narration, a match made in Hell. Rayne Havok’s tale of uncontrollable lust giving way to hunger that bleeds into gluttony is, on its own, a spectacularly visceral story. When one includes the eloquent and superbly articulate narration provided by The Professor into the mix, it serves to take the story to an entirely different level. His voice lulls the listener into a receptive state with an almost soporific cadence that belies the sinister undertones hinting at what’s to come. Even as we arrive at the tale’s vile and blood-drenched conclusion, we’re still held captive by the strangely soothing, borderline palliative quality of The Professor’s voice. Havok captures the all-consuming nature of obsession with Insatiable, portraying in literal terms the insatiable need of our narrator as well as the object of that attention. Insatiable feels like the result of what we’d discover if one were to eavesdrop on a sexting exchange between the smuttiest members of the extreme horror community; this story could be the adaptation of that cruel, visceral, and uniquely erotic conversation. With The Professor’s narration in the mix, the listener might be forgiven for suspecting that they’d dialed into the phone sex line of the damned. For those old enough to remember the late-night advertisements promising forbidden pleasures with real live participants only a phone call away–and some ungodly per-minute price. Ungodly is certainly an appropriate term in the context of this story, but the price is far more palatable.
Janine Pipe delivers a diverse assortment of stories with Twisted: Tainted Tales, the only theme being that the bulk of the action takes place in the 1980s. This collection, framed as being stories from a missing author, as discovered by a woman tasked with sifting through the missing person’s household for anything of value, is packed full of nostalgia for those of us who recall the era. Unlike some nostalgia-heavy writing I’ve read recently, Pipe doesn’t lean on the nostalgia to do the heavy lifting and instead keeps the focus on her largely spectacular storytelling and captivating set pieces. Each of the stories contained within Twisted: Tainted Tales has been titled (or retitled) with that of a song from the music released in the 1980s. This is done with the explanation that there’s a mixtape accompanying the discovered manuscripts. The collection starts strong with Footsteps, a story of three women venturing into a section of wilderness where something sinister and bloodthirsty might be waiting for anyone unfortunate enough to stumble upon its hunting grounds. When Doves Cry is a period piece about a woman accepting the kindness of a stranger on a cold night from a man seeking the right woman to fulfill his peculiar needs. The third inclusion, I Want To Break Free, subverts our expectations as we experience the same event from a captured victim and her captor. But which one is the monster? Maneater introduces us to two detectives investigating a series of exsanguinated victims. The nature of the crimes themselves is perhaps less startling than the perpetrator when one of the detectives discovers the monster behind the killings. A night at the club turns into a bloody, violent act of intimacy in Addicted To Love. Sweet Child Of Mine delves into the topic of imaginary friends and the potential consequences if those friends aren’t as fanciful as we suppose. Tainted Love recounts a narrative of obsession, as an infatuation transforms into something far more unsettling, culminating in brutal violence and skilled craftsmanship. With Lost In the Shadows, we’re introduced to a town plagued by a rash of missing children, and a sinister discovery at the local drive-in theater. It’s a Sin is a ghost story about friendship, child abuse, and overprotective parents that ends unhappily. The post-apocalyptic tale, Love Is a Battlefield, acquaints us with a society where the rich and powerful have been stripped of their privilege. We follow one of the former upper crust as she believes she’ll be forced to face death as entertainment for those now in control. Running With the Devil is a story of urban legends and ghost stories, and the profoundly negative impact those things might have if we discover them to be true. Boys being gross, led by adolescent hormones, and burgeoning sexual discovery is the topic of Paradise City. Of course, things take an awful turn that is sure to make every man cringe. School’s Out Forever resonated well with me as someone who routinely ventured into condemned and abandoned buildings. A couple of friends decide to trespass in a haunted school where atrocities once took place, hoping to find the place haunted but ultimately terrified by what they discover. Two brothers on a camping trip with their father discover that a mother’s love transcends death, in Living On a Prayer, especially when there’s an ancient burial ground nearby and revenge to be taken. The fifteenth track, Thriller, delves into the fact that the topic of urban legends and ghost stories again, exploring the haunted houses we’re all sure exist within our hometowns as we’re growing up. Nobody’s Fool explores the possibility that one young boy’s night terrors might be rooted in something other than an overactive imagination and that there might be an important message embedded in the unconscious horror that he experiences. Stephen King’s not the only one who can tell a tale about the convergence of coming of age and sewer drains. Janine Pipe concludes her collection by introducing us to a different sort of monster that might be lurking in the storm drains the most daring children explore when there’s pride and a kiss on the line. The closest thing I have to a complaint is that I’d have preferred the author’s notes compiled at the end of the book rather than at the end of each story. It was more jarring, having those notes breaking up the framing story of discovered manuscripts rather than placing them at the end of the collection. I’m a fan of the author’s notes being included, so I’m pleased that Pipe included them, but I feel like they could’ve been in a better location.
Michael is the final Smalls brother to make our acquaintance in Ash Ericmore’s Smalls Family series, and he’s the core around which this whole sequence of events has orbited. It’s Candyboy’s thriving drug enterprise that rubbed the Eastern Europeans the wrong way. Coming together after what happened to Bod in the previous installment, the Smalls brothers could have ventured out en masse to take their bloody and brutal revenge on the Eastern Europeans; but Candyboy feels responsible for what’s already happened, and it’s up to him to set things right in a truly Smalls fashion. Michael Smalls will torture, degrade, and dice up anyone and everyone who stands in his way as he searches for the man calling the shots. Ericmore, perhaps recognizing how profoundly Backy has wormed his little baby way into our black hearts, delivers more baby action with this volume. And, while there is no baby armor this time around, the little ones find a way to fly into the midst of the action just the same. As we reach our agrarian climax, Ericmore pulls out all the stops with Candyboy destroying everyone and everything in his path, using whatever he has at his disposal, including farm implements. This story is a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to what will hopefully be one of many Smalls Family series. Not that there should have been any doubt.
You can find this title as well as the other Smalls Family stories at http://www.godless.com or by downloading the Godless app to your mobile device of choice. The link is below: