04 July 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews - It Calls From the Forest by Eerie River Press

The Dish
It Calls From the Forest is a selection of 24 stories compiled by Eerie River Press (Michelle River and Alanna Robertson-Webb). They range from very short to medium length, though none of them are quite novelettes. The authors are a motley bunch from both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific, and the talent compiled here is solid.

The Sauce
This is a horror anthology filled with the grisly, the gruesome, the weird and the wild. The only unifying theme is that ‘something terrible is lurking in the forest’. As you’d expect, there are a lot of wild beasts and savage semi-humans, but no two authors have the same approach and that is exactly the beauty of an anthology like this.

The Sweet
My favourite part of most short story anthologies is the sheer number of quality authors gathered in one place. I usually like to spread my reviews out to give attention to all the contributors but, for 24 stories, that was going to be a challenge. Instead, I’ve focused on the stand-outs that I particularly enjoyed.

The Hike by E.E.W Christman was the first story that really pulled me in. I’ve long believed that a horror story needs a likeable and interesting protagonist rather than the usual irritating slasher-bait that horror movies are peppered with. I identified with and cared for Steph very quickly. The climbing tension throughout kept me gripped right until the climactic twist. And, while I did see the twist coming, it was so well-delivered I simply didn’t mind. I also dig lesbians and nothing keeps me invested like a threatening romance.

Knotwork Hill by C.W. Blackwell stands out with its command of sleek, stylish prose. In a genre that tends to be littered with overwrought, purple description, it was nice to see a story so dedicated to making every sentence count. This story hit every beat and, though the ending wasn’t much of a shocker, it was a smooth ride through some beautiful scenery. The horror genre needs more voices like C.W. Blackwell.

Forest Man by Holley Cornetto taps into a vein of horror I only recently discovered a love for, that being the ‘group of traumatised adults try to conquer their childhood misadventure’ sub-genre. ‘Meddling Kids’ by Edgar Cantero is an excellent example of this and I can now add Forest Man to that list. The story strikes a perfect balance between present day events and flashback, gradually revealing more and more about the incidents of the past and their consequences for the future. The characters feel real and interesting and they keep the story moving along at a fair clip. The story ends the only way it really could end but that just makes it all the more upsetting.

Thirteen by Craig Crawford is a stand-out for its unique concept alone. The story is told from the perspective of a predatory spirit trapped inside a haunted shack. It’s a well-written and nerve-wracking piece, but the narrative conceit is its real strength.

Automatic Contamination by M.A. Smith is another excellent read in the same vein as Forest Man. In particular, I have to give this story credit for the character, Clem, who reminds me just a little of my girlfriend. I adored the fusion of cynicism and simplicity in the narrative, and the effort that had been put into the prose to make this a rewarding read on every line.

Fairies in the Forest by Jason Holden has a lot of strengths, chief among them the characters. The father and son are both charming and that’s what generates the story’s simmering tension. Later, when said-tension is realised, the fear for the characters is real. The horror genre has a nasty habit of making its characters act rashly and stupidly in the face of the supernatural but this doesn’t happen here and Jason Holden should be commended for it. It’s a solid story that doesn’t neglect its principle ingredient - personality.

Hollow Woods by Brian Duncan is the perfect final story for an anthology like this. A story that reminds us that, sometimes, the most dangerous things aren’t the ones that call from the forest, but the ones that walk in there with us. I cannot say how impressed I am with that bit of formatting on the part of Eerie River. The story itself is excellent. The dialogue seemed natural, the situations plausible and the outcome subtly surprising but deeply satisfying. It strikes the perfect final note.

The Salty
One unfortunate issue with some of the pieces in the book is that they can be derivative at times. Sure, I liked Stranger Things and other people liked It, but it’s important to approach things from new perspectives. Even so, those stories didn’t necessarily put me off. I still enjoyed them, probably for the same reason the original stories were so popular to begin with.

There’s also a problem with overwriting in some of the longer stories. In places, it felt that descriptions had been padded or struggles drawn out, either to increase tension or simply to add words. A couple of the stories left me fatigued but others, like the ones listed above, rocked along at a brilliant pace and I didn’t slow down once while reading them.

The Aftertaste
Horror can be very on-and-off for me. When it’s done well, I love it. It is not often done well. It Calls From the Forest has some tremendous fiction in it, some solid examples of note-perfect horror that give me hope for the genre.

Despite how many great stories this anthology had, my Pick of the Platter Award goes to Forest Man by Holley Cornetto, a story which has stayed simmering in my head throughout. I am already looking forward to Sky and Sea in this series, and can’t wait to see what else might come floating down the Eerie River.

24 June 2020

How Much Feminism is Enough Feminism?

One of my most favourite quotes is from a web comic called ‘Biomeat’. The character in question is an overweight bully whose character arc ends with him becoming a brave protector. Another character says to him, “you’re very strong”. His response is elegant and powerful.

“There are two types of people in this world. Those who are trying to be strong and those who aren’t.”

I think what I like best about this quote is that it applies to all the most worthwhile things in life. The same is true of feminism. There are no feminists, only people who are trying to be and those who aren’t.

A little while ago, I learned about the Bechdel test for feminist movies and literature that was based on two questions:

1) Does the story feature at least two female characters?

2) Does the story feature at least one scene where these characters talk about something other than a man?

It’s been suggested that the Bechdel test can be used to hold up a mirror to modern producers to show exactly how un-feminist their movies are but the issues with this are pretty striking. Leaving aside male-exclusionary politics, there’s no marker for quality. What if the female characters are weak and have no impetus? What if the conversations are vapid, all-female or not?

We’d also be excluding some solid cinema like Alien 3 (Director’s Cut, not original), where Ripley is the only female character, and literature like This Body’s Not Big Enough for Both of Us by Edgar Cantero, where the female and male leads are inextricable because they inhabit the same body.

There’s another pretty hefty flaw. Why is the bar so low? What about a point for, ‘does the female character solve their own problems?’ Or, ‘does the female character take the lead in something ahead of a male character?’ Similarly, ‘is the female character someone generally and genuinely respected by the rest of the cast, male or female?’ Let’s not forget, ‘does the woman manage to go the distance without a man rescuing her, or is the balance at least equal?’

This is why male exclusion isn’t beneficial. Feminists like J.K. Rowling, who has been courting controversy with some exclusionary comments of her own, would rather live in a world without men. This isn’t practical and their agenda will polarise, not convince. 50% of the population is male, which means 1 in every 2 characters in this soap opera we call life isn’t female. REALITY isn’t feminist.

I also resent the notion that women can only shine if men are out of the picture. When did we start believing that a man dominates the scene the moment he walks into it? Likewise, I resent the notion that a woman can only be strong if all the men around her are weak.

The Resident Evil movie by Paul W.S. Anderson features two characters intended to be ‘tough’, Milla Jovovich’s Alice and Michelle Rodriguez’s Rain. Leaving aside the (debatable) physical and mental strength of both these characters, they are couched in a cast of male characters who aren’t particularly tough, brave or smart. The implication seems to be that a strong, brave and intelligent man would immediately overshadow the strong, brave and intelligent woman.

As if to prove the point, the MCU gives us Black Widow, who does literally nothing throughout the entire series. It’s like the writers and directors gave away all the important jobs to the male characters and forgot to give Black Widow something to do every single time!

Compare this with the stunning The Night Comes for Us, where two female assassins, who have bested multiple male characters throughout the movie, fight with a third woman in one of the most brutal fight sequences ever devised in martial arts cinema. Even the winner loses fingers! This is a movie featuring Iko Uwais and Joe Taslim, two of the finest martial artists in the business today. This makes the girls’ fight better, not worse.

Feminism isn’t just about women. As much as we should be trying to break down negative stereotypes about girls and what they are supposed to be, it’s also important to challenge toxic masculinity and the male-driven stereotypes that make life so inhospitable for women in the first place. Part of how we do that is by normalising the equality of men and women, and how do you achieve that with an unbalanced equation?

You can’t address male-female inequality without addressing the ‘male’ side of the equation as well.

We can’t exclude men just so they don’t steal the spotlight. If we have so little confidence in our female characters that the mere presence, the mere mention, of a man makes them appear weak, maybe we’re not trying hard enough to be feminist.

Maybe we should all be trying to be a little more feminist.

09 June 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews - Empyrea (and other stories) by Carrie Gessner

The Dish
Let me introduce you to my new favourite author. Carrie Gessner is the speculative fiction writer behind the ‘Heartfriends’ epic fantasy trilogy and the standalone ‘The Stroke of Thirteen’. I recently had the pleasure of working with Carrie on the anthology, Reign of Queens by Dragon Soul Press, and her story ‘The Tower of Ithadir’ was an impressive introduction to her work that is embodied in the short-story collection, Empyrea.

The Sauce
Empyrea is a series of short, speculative fiction tales with varying hooks. You’ll find classic fantasy, planet-hopping science-fiction, Lovecraftian weirdness, post-apocalyptica and even cowboy elves. While the stories are all different, there are strong, unbroken themes running throughout. Expect nice characters with charming personalities, unabashed feminism and lifelong friendships.

The Sweet

Carrie Gessner’s voice is soft and lyrical. Her descriptions paint a vivid picture of the worlds she creates and the characters within and there is a conversational tone to them all that makes you feel as though you’re being given a private history lesson to each of these incredible universes. An author’s voice really determines how easy a book is to read and Empyrea has a marvellous flow that will carry you from first page to last.

The collection is loaded with female characters who display a range of strengths, from emotional articulation to compassion, physical prowess to nobility. The book is a celebration of all the best things female but without the contempt one can sometimes find towards men in similar books. It’s this balance that makes Empyrea an especially good read.

Anyone who has ever spoken to me for longer than five minutes on the subject will know that I don’t harbour any love for literary fiction. I tend to find it dull and pretentious, laden with unpleasant characters doing unpleasant things, and distinctly lacking in dragons. Genre fiction, on the other hand, can tackle issues just as important (and often does), while being a whole hell of a lot more interesting.

Every story in Empyrea is a magnificent example of genre fiction that drives at the heart of issues people actually care about - friendship, grief, women’s liberation, strength and redemption. It's also proof that genre fiction can be pretty and well-crafted while still having substance. THERE’S EVEN A DRAGON!

It's difficult to say which stories from Empyrea are my favourites. It’s a strong collection from start to finish. If you’re going to put a gun to my head (please don’t) then ‘At the End of the World’, ‘Uneasy Lies the Head’ and ‘How You Find It’ are the ones that match gorgeous imagery with powerful characters and evoke the strongest emotions. But, then, how can I really leave out humorous delights like ‘Creatures of the Night Shift’ and ‘The Real Lizard Wives of Earth’? What about ‘The Planet of Purple Forests’ or ‘A Whisper from the Waves’, which turn alien invasion and Lovecraftian horror on their heads?

And here’s a special mention for ‘Lonesome’ and ‘The Journal of Cutthroat Cass’, which form a two-part saga about a cowboy elf and her delightful found family, which was, in my opinion, the perfect final note for this collection.

In short, if you told me I could only read one of Carrie Gessner’s short stories for the rest of my life, I honestly couldn’t pick.

The Salty

If I’m going to pick nits (after all, what is this section for?), Empyrea is maybe a little charitable about female-female interaction. Throughout, the women are gentle and respectful towards one another and even the petty aspects of superficial womanhood are lauded in ‘The Real Lizard Wives of Earth’. Unfortunately, women are sometimes assholes to other women.

But I don’t want to overstate this point because it’s pedantic. I adore these worlds where women love each other unconditionally, where people are bursting at the seams with kindness and warmth and compassion, where we can heal and move forward no matter what might have happened to us and where the broken and abused know where to look to find solace. The subtle gloss over the uglier parts of human nature feels like it has been applied knowingly and with purpose.

I will never punish someone for writing stories filled with characters who are nice. It’s one of my favourite things to read about and, after all, isn’t the dislike of fantasy the rage of Caliban not seeing himself reflected in a glass? Maybe I just need to be a nicer person before I can fully appreciate these amazing women.

And, obviously, there’s my usual criticism when I find a book I really like, which is, why is it finished?

The Aftertaste
The thing I liked most about ‘Empyrea and Other Stories’ is the feeling it left me with. I was uplifted. I was happy to have soaked in these tales for a few hours. I had met interesting, kind people and looked through their eyes into magical worlds where I would be treated with respect if that was what I chose.

The feeling isn’t a common one and very few books have left me with such a pronounced sense of ease after reading. If I didn’t know better, I’d say Carrie was doing to her stories what Ainsley from ‘Steeping Spells’ does to tea.

Fortunately, this won’t be my last foray into the worlds of Carrie Gessner, because I am three chapters deep in ‘The Dying of the Golden Sun’, first book in the ‘Heartfriends’ trilogy, as I type. I look forward to bringing you a review of that very soon.

26 May 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews - Desa Kincaid: Bounty Hunter by R.S. Penney

Beware of the spoilers!

The Dish
Desa Kincaid: Bounty Hunter is part-Western, part-fantasy novel. It isn’t set in the United States (or even on Earth) but it mirrors a Victorian-era level of technological sophistication and period dress. People ride on horseback, have revolvers and Stetsons, and say things like “y’all”, “missy” and “I reckon”. One of the characters is even a Southern belle but, then, lots of planets have a south, don’t they?

There’s also magic, or field-binding as it’s locally known. Characters skilled in field-binding can imbue mundane items with special abilities, usually related to existing natural forces, e.g. heat, gravity, force, etc.

The Sauce
The novel’s ‘magic’ system is by far it’s finest point. Myth holds that the world was created by two goddesses, Mercy and Vengeance. Mercy gives and Vengeance takes away. Along the same lines, all field-binding involves enchanting items to either give or take away certain types of energy. Example, a heat source creates heat, while a heat sink drains heat away.

The result is a limitless supply of enchanted weapons with a potentially inexhaustible combination of abilities. A bullet with a gravity source will drag objects towards it (it might even make someone implode when shot with it). A glove with a gravity source could be used to steal things from a distance. Penney has created a perfectly-balanced, simple, elegant magic system and has a lot of fun exploiting all the various ways it can be used throughout the novel.

The Sweet
Aside from the magic system, which again I adore, the characters are all well-realised and likeable. The eponymous Desa Kincaid is a classic Western gunslinger but, by whit of being female, lends an element of elegance to the usual macho shenanigans. She’s rough, tough, likes the ladies and has a good heart. She tries her hardest but isn’t right all the time and that, I think, is one of her greatest charms as a protagonist.

The supporting cast all have their part to play. Tommy provides an unenlightened eye to view Desa’s world through, Marcus is a testosteronal mansplainer who’ll never be the hero the way he wants to be, Miri is by turns a comic and a cold-blooded assassin. All of them are nice in their own way and I think the good guys should always be nice deep down.

The villains scale up from small-town ruffians to world-ending loons gradually through the story. Desa’s focus on her quarry drives the action nicely from start to finish, and the primary antagonist’s motive is not only interesting but downright achievable considering what he’s learned about the world. Everything builds to the finale where the focus changes, presumably setting up the next book. The twist is well-delivered and paced right up until the moment it drops. While not necessarily surprising, the actual details of it aren’t what you’d expect, which earns this story an extra point.

The Salty
Unfortunately, this story can be hard-reading at times. The prose lacks a certain polish and the writing can get bogged down in physical details. Characters are always folding and unfolding their arms, sitting down and standing up, or looking down at the floor and then up at the sky and then back down at the floor again, which distracts from the conversation or the action as it develops.

The writing is, at its heart, utilitarian. It’s not trying to be pretty. It’s trying to tell a story. When the fighting starts, it’s borderline cinematic. But it focuses too much on the visual and there’s more to a novel than action. Language can be beautiful through more than just the images it conveys.

I suppose I also have to dock a point because, of the three relationships that develop during the story, the only one that survives is the heterosexual one. The homosexual ones lead not only to break-ups but to outright betrayal. It would have been nice to see a gay couple hook up and stay together.

There was also the small matter of the story’s denouement. After the climax, the story should have wrapped at a fair clip. Instead, it continued on for a couple more chapters, introduced a new character and then wrapped. A slightly tighter ending would have been more satisfying.

The Aftertaste
This is a perfectly readable bit of fiction. It’s like an action movie you can play in your mind, absorbing all the fist- and gunfights blow-by-blow. It has its philosophical moments but, on the whole, it is a simple pleasure. If you’re a fan of classic fantasy and Westerns, and think you might like to sit for a while at the middle of that Venn diagram, I would recommend Desa Kincaid: Bounty Hunter to you.

Also, thanks go to Henry Roi for providing me with the opportunity to read and review this book here at the Basement.

23 May 2020

Five Characters Who Will Totally Justify Your Decision to Play Darkside Detective

With Season 2’s crowdfunding goals reached, Darkside Detective is slated to arrive some time in 2020 Q3 (according to Steam). It occurs to me that there are some people out there who, through no fault of their own, may not have caught this perfect slice of throwback toast when it popped (okay, I stretched that metaphor), so I’m going to give you some awfully compelling reasons why you’d butter play the original season right now.

Anyone who played Monkey Island when they were young can probably see immediately why I adored playing Darkside Detective. But aside from the obvious retro appeal of seeing pixelated people doing pixelated things in a pixelated fashion, this game’s real charm comes from its cast of utterly bonkers characters.

In no particular order, here are five characters that will totally justify your decision to play Darkside Detective.


Emily first appears in the case, ‘Loch Mess’, as one of Dooley’s bloodwolf pack. The bloodwolves themselves are a joke from the ‘Tome Alone’ case which then became a running gag through the whole first season.

Emily is a pint-sized pyromaniac who enjoys stealing, knives and insulting grown-ups. She became disillusioned at an early age when Santa didn’t bring her a blowtorch for Christmas. She is fiercely protective of her ‘bloodwolf pack’ and seemingly immune to magic, since the curse in ‘Buy Hard’ doesn’t transform her like it does all the other kids. Actually, she reminds me of my girlfriend as an adolescent, which means there’s a good chance Emily will only grow more dangerous with age.

Emily’s dialogue is a perfect example of the dry wit that Darkside Detective does so well.

Detective Francis McQueen

Technically, it’s McQueen’s game. He should get a mention here. At first glance, he’s a little basic. Trench coat, dark hair, average build, etc. He could be the protagonist from any game about a detective solving crime. In fact, take the coat off and he could probably be a guy looking to undertake the pirate trials.

McQueen’s brilliance as a character comes from the world he lives in. Everywhere he looks is something else for him to make a quip about, whether it’s the ‘no dogs’ guarantee on the tin of hot dogs or the moon. Yeah, McQueen and the moon have a whole thing.

McQueen is also supremely self-aware and many of his jokes are made at the expense of the game or even himself. It’s like permission not to take the game too seriously, since McQueen’s not taking it seriously either.


There is some debate in my household as to whether Jamie is male or female, but I prefer not to see gender, only jokes. Jamie - head of the Twin Lakes’ Tourism Board and resident conjecture enthusiast - also first appears in the ‘Loch Mess’ case. Unlike most in the tourism industry, Jamie’s raison d’etre is to chase away as many potential visitors from Twin Lakes as possible by overstating the danger, and indeed the existence, of its tourist attractions.

All of their dialogue in the two cases where they appear is solid gold, because they are allergic to straight answers and casually hostile to everyone who speaks to them. Most surprising of all, Jamie themselves is a tourist attraction in their own right. Just peruse the brochures at the ‘Interloper’ stand.

Chief Scully

Chief Scully is a prime example of why things in Twin Lakes are maybe less efficient than they could be. Not just an X-Files reference, Scully gets herself some air time in the case, ‘Police Farce’, and talking with her is a delight.

A brief chat with the Chief will shed light on exactly why McQueen’s underfunded, undermanned, underappreciated Darkside Division is as those three adjectives would suggest. But then, there’s only so much you can expect from someone who sets fire to their own police station as a ‘gift’ to their employees.

Mostly ignorant of the strange happenings in Twin Lakes, Chief Scully’s only real interest in McQueen’s work is that he keeps all the ‘oogie-boogies’ (male, female, non-binary and all) out of her city. Easier said than done when your boss is making you clean up after the gremlins who wrecked the station.

Bloodalpha Officer Patrick Dooley


There’s probably not a lot that can be said about Dooley that hasn’t already been said multiple times by multiple people. On his own, he is hilarious. With McQueen, he is one half of a sublime double act that carries this game high on its shoulders and stoops with poise to avoid low doorways. Dooley’s family are also brilliant, though we’ve only met his sister Patricia and nephew Buzz. Hopefully, we’ll meet Patrice and Also-Patrice (actually his name) in Season 2.

The thing I like most about Dooley is his relationship with McQueen. Not just their comic timing, not just their excess of banter, but the kind words and little affections that pass between them. The first case, ‘Malice in Wonderland’, seems like a tale about a genre-standard detective and his doofus sidekick. Gradually, we come to realise, over the course of nine cases, that McQueen and Dooley are actually a bromance for the ages. They are nerdy, sarcastic, witty, ridiculous and the very best of friends and that is what makes the final moments of Season 1 so alarming.

AHAH! You weren’t expecting this article to have a cliffhanger, were you?

Obviously, this is far from an exhaustive list. I could give honourable mentions to Raxa, Devon, Nigel, Dick Brickman (presenter of ‘Dick Brickman presents’ with Dick Brickman) or the cameo ghosts of Edgar Alan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft. Actually, I’d be here all day just trying to compile that list.

Now perhaps you see why I’m so eagerly awaiting Darkside Detective Season 2. If you haven’t already played it, why? In fact, pop over to the Kickstarter and maybe get yourself a digital copy of both seasons just now.

You will feel justified.

19 May 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews - Lockdown Fantasy #1 by Black Hare Press

Beware of the spoilers!

The Dish

Another sizeable serving of free fiction from Black Hare Press. Here you will find no less than 20 fantasy tales, from the humorous to the horrifying, the poignant to the pithy. As before, I have dedicated some words to each story. You know the drill.

Fantastic Reads and Where to Find Them

Raven by Rich Rurshell
In a post-apocalyptic world, an old lady and her cats try to find home. A unique take on the concept, told from the perspective of one of the cats, Raven. The world-building is solid. The wasteland is populated by the usual suspects - raiders and mutants - and the story features several battles with them in rapid succession. Tension and pace are both high and the fights keep you invested. The ending is bittersweet, sad but hopeful. Trigger-warning for pet death, but it’s a sweet story about an awesome older character who just loves animals. What’s not to like?

Match to a Flame by Kimberly Rei
Short and sweet, like striking a match. An entire world is given to us in a slip of a story. A world where true love is deadly. It raises an interesting question. Would you really want to be destined for your partner if it meant the world ended around you?

Andromeda by Stephen Herczeg
Here’s an interesting story. A tale told from the perspective of the sacrifice to the Kraken. Evoking memories of the old Clash of the Titans, this is a short burst of Greek myth. What I liked most, I think, was that Andromeda managed to feel angry at her mother’s hubris even while awaiting her demise. The ending gives a glimmer of hope. Those of us who know Greek mythology remember what happens next.

The Groundskeeper by Galina Trefil
A tale set in my adoptive home of Scotland. Sadly, old castles, poorly maintained and filled with trash, aren’t that uncommon. Galina Trefil has done her homework. Brownies are a housekeeping sprite, they often take the form of an old man and they are appeased by an offering of milk (though I suspect the idea of scripture working to repel a Redcap was something invented by the Church).

This story deals with the descendent of an ancient Scottish family who has forgotten her heritage. It’s a stark warning about respect for tradition and just plain respect. The author creates uneasy tension through the mismatch between the mysterious stranger’s demanding manners and his apparent dishevelled state, leading to a tragic ending. Also, an interesting take on how a supernatural creature might use modern advancements to make themselves invulnerable to their age-old weaknesses.

If you’re ever in Scotland, you’re probably better carrying mountain ash tied with red string than scripture.

Festival Days by Raven Corinn Carluk
A snapshot in the life of a mysterious woman who slays monsters. I am ever-fond of the ‘woman from nowhere’ concept and this was an enjoyable short in this vein. A corgi is a strange choice of travelling companion for a wandering monster killer, but they are adorable and it gives the story an unusual quirk. The mystery woman is interesting and we’d love to see more. She comes and goes without saying a word and this just makes her seem all the more intriguing. A pleasant read.

The Witch and the Warlock by D.M. Burdett
Here’s another interesting short. A battle of wills between two magic users in the modern day. We aren’t sure who the hero is, or if there even is one, but we are given a brief glimpse of the tension, of the anger and resentment, that exists between them. The ‘man captures woman’ dynamic is one I am admittedly fond of (blog being called ‘The Basement of Love’ and all that).

Feed the Machine by Monica Schultz
A fusion of fantasy and dystopian misery. We have mentions of dragons and unicorns, as well as an energy crisis. We are not dealing with a run-of-the-mill genre story but something straddling two. The main character is defiant and strong-willed. It is a pleasure watching her escape from this terrible situation. The story is an interesting concept that could easily be developed into something longer. There is a lot here that could be of interest. I particularly liked the insidious voice of the machines, and the twist of the protagonist’s identity and parenthood. I would have loved to hear what she named herself after escaping.

The Ring of Fire by Ximena Escobar
An almost poetic short, showing us a ritual that is certainly terrible in origin. The final four words contain so much menace they are like a story in and amongst themselves. Fire and darkness are a constant theme in pagan and druidic mythology, and here their imagery is used to great and stirring effect.

The Magician’s Assistant by Kimberly Rei
Another drabble that gives us a picture of a larger universe. What has the magician done to earn this ire? Who is the little girl? The fact that he is shown to be do disingenuous leads us to believe that he might have deserved his fate, horrible as it was. The story also poses the question, who is, or was, the eponymous magician’s assistant? An intriguing story with a sinister thread running through it.

Sea-Changes by Joanna Michal Hoyt
What a first line! This story deals, primarily, with grief. It is a powerfully written, well-crafted piece that is rewarding in every line. The main character’s relationship with her sister unfolds beautifully, balancing love and resentment, animosity and longing. All of it enacted through the woman’s relationship with a fantastic creature who may or may not be there.

The tale ends on a high note, as this visitation enables the main character to feel like a whole person again, and we are left wondering if magic was at play, or something older and even more mysterious that is common to us all. The prose is moving and majestic and left me captivated. Though not normally a fan of very long sentences, I loved the vein of irony that ran throughout. A marvellous read and, yes, my favourite of the anthology.

In Search of the Prince by Christopher T. Dabrowski
A twist on many a classic fairy tale, where no one is doing what they should. The prince is captured, the princess is rescuing and the witch is winning. It’s a fun little read where nothing is quite what it seems.

Freedom Ride by J.W. Garrett

A uniquely sad story about a boy bestride the line between life and death. We’re never really sure if the fantastic creature he meets is a figment of his imagination or very real, but the idea of a dragon serving to comfort a mortal in their dying moments is a touching thought. They tend to be depicted as far too self-important, so seeing one take such a vested interest in one, small human is an interesting take. The story evokes genuine sympathy for Kevin and his family, and the ending is bittersweet, but still sweet. A delight.

Two Went into the Forest by McKenzie Richardson
Friendship and betrayal intermingle in this adventure story about two young men who travel into dark and unexplored places. At first, it seems like a tale of loyalty, but there are ulterior motives at play. The encounters are pacy and tense, keeping the speed of the story high until the conclusion. The ending makes us wonder how good-hearted Austin really is, and if the fruit of the tree takes something while it gives life. We are left wondering if maybe a terrible thing is going to happen now that the circle is broken.

Banepyre and Bitewind by Shawn M. Klimek
Much like his entry to Sci-Fi #1, Shawn Klimek delivers a poem that breaks up the anthology’s other prose nicely. Focused on an argument between wizards, this seems like it might be an object lesson in the adage ‘do unto others before they do unto you’. Instead, we learn that the story serves a different purpose. That a society’s focus on expunging ‘weakness’ from its ranks can, instead, lead to resentment, anger and, eventually, cruelty. In a way, it has the makings of an origin story for any magical villain. A fun exploration of magical politics with a rhythm you can nod your head to.

The Princess Bribe by John H. Dromey
An odd little pastiche of fantasy fiction, tongue tucked firmly in cheek, poking fun at galivanting knights and the prizes they seek to win. Written with a wry and ironic tone, the story challenges fantasy characters with real problems, like the weight of armour, dirty castle moats and the inequitable ratio of knights to available princesses. A funny joint to balance out the book’s more poignant pieces.

Fade to White by Ximena Escobar
And, as if to restore the balance, a more poignant piece is delivered. Ximena Escobar delivers a haunting, symbolic short about a moment of curdled realisation. Sometimes, fear and misunderstanding can be just as dangerous as the thing that you think is following you. Strong imagery creates a canvas of light and dark, with a splash of red to shock the scene, and the ending moves and chills.

Deathbirth by Christopher T. Dabrowski
There is a theory that, once our universe is finished expanding to its utmost, it will begin to shrink and contract until everything becomes one, before bursting out again. Theoretically, this could well be caused by time starting to run in reverse, and this story is set in a world where this is the truth. Christopher Dabrowski unpacks the interesting aspects - love, memory, society - turning our conceptions of them on their heads. Would life be better with absolute certainty? Does the reverse of everything not also have its advantages? An intriguing read.

Down the Rabbit Hole by Stacey Jaine McIntosh
Alice by another name. A story with an entirely different vibe to the whimsical tales of Lewis Carrol. Here, our heroine is a suicide, either intentionally or perhaps simply lured by something she couldn’t fully understand. We do not know where this will lead her or what horrors she will find, but the story gives us a glimpse into a fairy tale world quite different from what we know. I would be very interested to know where this rabbit hole led.

Dear Martha by Gabriella Balcom

A tale of revenge from beyond the grave. A cheating husband gets his just desserts after trying to steal from the wife he murdered. Respecting the dead has been a focal point of many religious systems throughout time and the story suggests that this is maybe the reason why. In particular, I enjoyed the face that Thompson wore in public, versus when the mask was dropped in private. The title of the story is beautifully ironic, as Martha wasn’t quite as dear to Thompson as she maybe should have been.

Fire and Ice by Zoey Xolton
A drabble focused on the revenge of nature through magical creatures. A common thread that ran through mythology, but which has been largely pushed aside in the modern era. The issue remains a pertinent one, as the world around us seems to react to our ever-invasive presence. Zoey Xolton shows us the cost of modern conveniences through the eyes of a forest dweller and, frankly, it’s hard not to sympathise with the pixie. Does it say something about our species that just about anything makes a better hero than a human?

The Aftertaste

Black Hare Press has chosen a good mix of stories. Some are longer, some are shorter. All are entertaining for various reasons. My favourites are Raven, Feed the Machine, Fade to White and Deathbirth. Particular commendation goes to Sea-Changes by Joanna Michael Hoyt for a magnificently lyrical and genuinely emotive read that wins my ‘favourite of the anthology’ award.

Should you read Lockdown Fantasy #1, consider supporting Black Hare Press at their website or the authors who have contributed, whose hard work you can read for FREE in this collection.

09 May 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews - Lockdown Sci-Fi #1 by Black Hare Press

Beware of the spoilers!

The Dish

Lockdown Sci-Fi #1 is a FREE anthology published by Black Hare Press to help us through the continuing tedium of lockdown. There are 10 stories here, each with interesting premises or characters. They really represent everything good about narrative science-fiction.

As before, with Lockdown Horror #1, I have dedicated some space in my review to all of the tales. To the authors, I am available for more detail at thebasementoflove@gmail.com

The BHP Buffet Table of Sci-Fi Finger Food

Revenge by Jacob Baugher

An enjoyable tale of the darker side of revenge. Unusual in that it is told from the perspective of a character who is not only an illegal immigrant but not even human. A pacy thriller filled with speeders, blasters, automated turrets and desert planets, but still echoing the problems of the modern era - class wars, resentment for occupying forces, love, loss and, yes, revenge.

I adored that the story’s ‘villain’ was a loving family man and oddly kind in spite of the atrocities he’d committed. I also enjoyed the casual world-building the author layers into the story. Here is a functioning sci-fi universe that doesn’t belabour the story-telling with lengthy descriptions of how everything works or every detail of its history. The ending is satisfyingly grim and a caution against giving up your future to appease your past.

Europa’s Secret by Zoey Xolton
A (very) brief dip beneath the surface of Jupiter’s most hospitable moon. Poses the question: exactly how closely linked might our planet be with others in our system? A consideration of humanity’s hubris in assuming we’re always the first to discover something, and how poorly prepared we would be if it turned out we weren’t. Could this be the first volley of interplanetary hostilities? I’m curious to know what kind of world lay beneath that ice.

Mission Ryan by Gabriella Balcom
Cats are evil. I have three, so I already know this. Here, the evil cat is a shape-changing alien bent on world-domination. Interestingly, the alien in question comes from a world like our own - overpopulation, dwindling natural resources, conflict between the entitled upper class and the ambitious working class. Because the cat regularly compares their home world to our world, it gives the impression that we are being given a gloating insight into how easily our planet has been infiltrated.

Though the story is quite funny, the ending especially, there is a dark feeling to it. The alien is using kindness and compassion against us and, ultimately, that’s a very sad thought.

Au Jus by D.M. Burdett
A story that is equal parts horrible and humorous. The comparison between the aliens’ voracious pursuit of humans to eat and the humans’ terror and struggle creates a darkly comic counterpoint between eater and eaten. Little touches, like the aliens murdering and maiming hundreds of people, then complaining about having to clean dirty cutting tools, was marvellous

In a short time, I came to care for the human characters and their kind actions, which made their eventual fate all the more terrible. I also hated the aliens very quickly, not because they were ‘other’, but because they behaved in a way that was altogether too familiar. The final joke is killer. One hell of a punchline for such a brutal story.

Skin and Fin by Jo Seysener
Space fish are an interesting concept, explored here in the context of a crime boss and her stooge. The main character’s resentment for his employer scales nicely until the final beat of the story, when the tables are turned. Similarly to Revenge, earlier in the anthology, this story dwells on the darker part of human nature and how living too long in a negative environment can twist a person into something terrible.

The author has built an interesting world full of strange creatures, but where humans are seemingly still around to pass comment on their oddness. In particular, I liked the fact that the story’s female character was physically larger and more dominant than the male, who ultimately used trickery and her own hubris against her. You actually don’t see that a lot in fiction.

Hive Mind of the Universal Soldier by Shawn M. Klimek
A unique entry to this anthology. A poem with a great meter that reads almost like an old marching song. Given that it is a lesson in new American history, it makes sense to style it this way. A pleasing commentary on issues of modern healthcare, health profiteering and what it means to be human, innate violence and all. I was impressed by the rhyme, though poetry isn’t my thing, and the narrative is strong even through the lyricism.

Memory of a Past Life by Dale Parnell
An apocalypse story with a difference. Rather than beginning with a plague or other devastating event, this one is predicated on a loss of human ability, specifically memory. Amnesia is a common device in fiction, but here it’s applied to the entire world at once and describes the devastating effect this would have on society.

As well as being about an alien invasion, this tale is, at its heart, a love story. Romantic feelings have been known to survive severe brain trauma and it was, for this reason, that the story resonated with me. Equal parts touching and sinister, dark yet hopeful, this is a fine edition to the anthology.

The Bunker by David Bowmore
Another apocalypse story, this one more traditional. Total atomic annihilation in the distant future, when an interplanetary war erupts. This story is a character study of a boy and his family preparing for war in uncertain times. The father’s insistence on preparing his son could be considered borderline abusive, aside from the fact that it is completely justified. The ending is tragic and unsettling, but blushed with a faint trace of hope when we see this lush, new world outside.

The Irony of Prosperine by Galina Trefil
My favourite story from this anthology. The author fuses a personal tale of anguish and suffering with the onset of an apocalyptic event. What results is a series of uncomfortable ironies when a woman’s prison becomes her haven, when a misled child becomes the voice of reason, when a monster becomes a prophet and when the world is destroyed, not by a meteor, but by humankind’s inability to work in cohesion.

Hannah is a powerful protagonist who remains strong in the face of tremendous adversity. An emotive story of the end, touching on human strength, frailty, cruelty and kindness from the first word to the last, while underlining these with how powerless we all are in the face of nature and fate.

Campfire Songs by Kimberly Rei
Here’s a tale set in a world of the post-apocalypse that has an almost Adventure Time-esque feel to it. The combination of otherworldly, almost fantastic scenery combined with recognisable debris, like car wrecks, gives us an impression of a contemporary world turned strange by whatever cataclysm has occurred. Immediately, we are thrown into a mystery. What is chasing the protagonist and what might they eat other than her flesh? It’s an excellent beginning to the odd tale that follows.

The world building is intriguing and natural, not belaboured by excess detail. The history of the protagonist is only hinted at, but is enough to give us a taste. In particular, I enjoyed the aloof and androgynous Auntie, who gives an interesting alternative take on the ‘wise, old mentor’ archetype. This story could easily be the first chapter of a longer work.

The Aftertaste
Much like Black Hare Press’s Horror #1, Sci-Fi #1 is a delightful collection of independent authors of all persuasions. The stories in this anthology range from the hopeful to the harrowing, from the insightful to the insane. In particular, I have to give credit to Campfire Songs and Memory of a Past Life, both of which resonated with me strongly.

The Irony of Prosperine wins my ‘favourite of the anthology’ award for its strong, layered story-telling and conflicted characters living with the onset of a terrible tragedy they are now powerless to prevent.

As before, if you enjoy this FREE anthology, consider supporting Black Hare Press or the authors who contributed.

04 May 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews - Lockdown Horror #1 by Black Hare Press

Beware of the spoilers!

The Dish(es)

Not my usual fare. Black Hare Press has served up a buffet selection of odds and ends for lockdown by various authors. I’ve left a (very brief) review for each story because fair is fair and I don’t want anyone to feel left out. I’m able to give more detail if desired. Email thebasementoflove@gmail.com

The Revolving Sushi Bar of Terror

Only Ever Night by L.P. Hernandez

A whimsical and childlike vision of the end of the world. The lights go out, loved ones disappear and the monsters come out from under the bed. A simple, pastoral tale of community and family during the apocalypse. Quaint and gently satisfying. In places, horrifying. In others, heart-warming. Explanations aren’t given but aren’t strictly necessary. When all else fails, we can light a fire to hold back the darkness and ride the Ferris wheel.

Unbreakable by Zoey Xolton
Horror in the absence of the supernatural and serial killers. A grim and unpleasant descent into a seedy world most of us are privileged enough never to encounter. A story of defiance in the face of crushing adversity. A reminder that there is horror to be found even in our own world.

Death Spores by Stephen Herczeg
A ‘visceral’ read. Like a classic ‘space invasion’ romp, circa the 1950s. On the other hand, a metaphor for our consumption society and a warning against fat-shaming. Wouldn’t we all be slobs if we had toxic fungus growing in our guts? Thought-provoking.

No Touching by Amber M. Simpson
Short and not-so-sweet. A cautionary tale of why it’s important to follow the rules. A short, sharp shock of a read with a grisly aftermath.

Howls by Gulina Trefil
Dogs make excellent sidekicks. This is an attempt to turn a dog into a main character. An interesting premise and maybe the start of something bigger? A zombie apocalypse told from the perspective of household pets. Homeward Bound with bite.

Tea Party by Kimberly Rei
Another interesting premise. Demonic possession gone wrong. What happens when you possess something more evil than you? Why it pays not to judge a book by its cover.

Nocturnal Soldier by Matthew M. Montelione
This is more a summary than a story. The last part saves it. Not just saves, but introduces the possibility of something greater. The birth of a vampire vigilante. It seems a shame that it’s only a short origin piece.

Dolly by Erica Schaef
Confirmation of what I’d already believed. Porcelain dolls are evil. A Toy Story-esque warning about the dangers of cruelty, even to inanimate objects. Short and artfully written, especially the snappy sentences that form the finale.

Cannibals of Kentucky by J.L. Royce
Longer than most. The omniscient narrator gives the story a snide, backhanded tone. Told with the kind of sneer that litters cocktail parties in Hollywood, where the story is set. Sympathy is thin on the ground for the disingenuous protagonist and the reveal is satisfying, if not surprising. Unashamedly tasteless in places, but then, this is Hollywood and the story is called Cannibals of Kentucky. Overall, the prose is the story’s greatest charm.

Halloween Pub Night by D.M. Burdett
Another cautionary tale. Don’t steal from little, old ladies. Also, don’t smash jack-o-lanterns. Lyrically written and amusing.

Reinventing the Night by Jacqueline Maron Meyer
Interesting and well-told. Information is fed in stages, building a complete picture and leading to a satisfying ending. Strangely, another story about supernatural vigilantes. An interesting juxtaposition between male activeness and feminine passiveness. The girls in this story allow themselves to become victims before acting, adequately explained as due diligence. Who wants to murder the wrong guy? Prose is descriptive without being long-winded and packed with character. My favourite story from this anthology.

Karma by Galina Trefil
Amusingly, the origin of the housepet apocalypse may be explained here. Kudos to Galina for submitting these together, and to Black Hare for choosing to use them both. In this way, the story is layered. A chilling concept. All it takes is one person with enough know-how to decide humanity doesn’t deserve to go on.

The Boy by Jodi Jensen
The Judas Goat might be one of the most terrible stories of the modern world. Here, this is captured with a supernatural twist. A true horror story in that the main character is immediately likeable. We don’t know her name, but this small fragment of her life means we care more about her than the thing in the darkness did. An engaging, if brief, read.

Candy Corn Wolves by Stacey Jaine McIntosh
A surreal prose poem. The midnight orgy of violence of werewolves on Halloween. An elegant snippet of disjointed time where the line between human and animal is distorted amid a scattering of comfort food.

Hungry by Dale Parnell
A story that is both intriguing and disturbing. Combining the psychological torment of persistent night terrors and altered reality with the physical torment of body horror. A unique twist on the ‘why won’t anyone believe me?’ story and with a gorgeously sick ending. Is there anything more horrifying than someone killing the person they love without even realising they’re doing it? The story doubles as a sad allegory for the resentment of living with disability. Superb.

Ritual by Kimberly Rei
A blurred boundary between the real and the surreal. Are we witnessing a natural process or something altogether more unnatural? There could be a metaphor at play, or a simple change of perspective. Succinct and satisfyingly grisly.

The Butcher of Blengarth by David Bowmore
Very much the ending you would expect with a title like this. Unfortunately, victims of one type of abuse will often become victims of another all-too easily. The story does a credible job of once again juxtaposing male activeness with female passiveness. John’s anger and brutality versus Mira’s warm receptiveness and masked intentions. Possessive and violent lovers, tormenting and coquettish females, protagonists who just can’t catch a break. It’s a recipe I’m quite fond of.

Dead Faces by R.J. Meldrum
The most horrible aspect of this story is the torment of having knowledge and being unable to act on it. The author leans on that feeling of helplessness while driving home the heartache. A sinister view of the feeling that the world is really just out to hurt you. The unfortunate tale of a good man burdened with a power unable to bring him any comfort. A brief but uneasy read, well-crafted.

Pig Man by Stephen Herczeg
Not a horror story so much as a satisfying revenge tale. Such a gaudy serial killer suits Las Vegas, where life is cheap and the lights distract from atrocities. A simply written tale that achieves its aim - hate the killer, enjoy the ending.

Sinister Changeling by Zoey Xolton
A short ‘trip’ into the world of the changeling. Playing on the fear of the other and the discord an outsider with sinister intentions can bring to a family. The most terrible part of the changeling myth has always been: what happens to the original child?

The Aftertaste
A fine selection with many strong contenders. In particular, Only Ever Night, The Butcher of Blengarth, The Boy, Hungry and Dead Faces. Reinventing the Night by Jacqueline Moran Meyer is my favourite of the anthology for its predatory female protagonists and their strict honour code, as well as the lingering horror that, while they may be doing the right thing, it might be costing them everything in the process.

If you like a mix of the eerie and the extreme, pick up this anthology to entertain your lockdown brain. Be warned that there are some sensitive issues, such as sex trafficking and domestic abuse, addressed within. If you enjoy this collection, please also consider reading other works by these authors or by Black Hare Press, who have given their time, effort and creativity free of charge to keep us entertained during this time.

30 April 2020

Horror & Humanism

In the original draft of Stephen King’s Misery, Paul Sheldon was supposed to end up as the cover of the Annie Wilkes edition. According to King himself, he thought his readers might not be happy to see the protagonist they’d stuck with through the events of the novel being turned into a book jacket so he changed the ending.

This perfectly illustrates the crux of all horror writing. Horror is, at its grisly heart, the story of things we don’t want to happen. It is meteors falling from the sky to crush civilisations. It is cancer in the lungs of our loved ones. It is strangers deciding that they no longer want to share the world with us because of something, or nothing, that we did.

Horror, then, must trend towards having downbeat endings because how can a story that ends the way we want be horrible? Much as Jim surviving the events of 28 Days Later softened the original ending, any horror story that ends in hope ends its horror.

But horror is harrowing. A real horror story is a test of endurance. It challenges us. It offers us a possibility of hope and closes its hand when we try to take it. No, I’m sorry, but they aren’t going to make it. They’ll try. You’ll wish for them to survive, but they won’t. The prognosis is bleak.

Perhaps that’s why horror stories aren’t really horrible anymore. We struggle with the idea of watching a movie or reading a book full of awful things we don’t want to see. Characters we care about become our sisters, our mothers, our girlfriends, our best friends. Or ourselves. We don’t want to see anything bad happen to them but the world, and horror stories, are cruel.

There is only one solution. We cease to care.

We populate horror stories with people for whom we cannot care. Pointless, insipid people. Caricatures of everything we hate about the world we had no choice but to be born into. People who walk differently, talk differently, vote differently, who think and drink and write and read and #differently to us, which in itself is a crime because we are perfect, aren’t we?

It’s a horror story. We are feeding ourselves a steady diet of murder. We are developing appetites. We have a favourite flavour. An emotional underclass we wouldn’t even consider human anymore. Like ‘being annoying’ was an offence punishable by death.

We used to watch hangings because society had deemed these people worthy of death and we were really just making the best of a bad situation, honest. Now we watch slasher movies. Or the stains people leave behind when they fall from buildings. That sickness finds a way out one way or the other.

Maybe it’s better to care. Maybe it’s better to be horrified by a horror story. Because the real tragedy is when we are unmoved by suffering.

Should we really ever be happy seeing someone turned into a book jacket?

22 April 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews - Saints & Curses by Alexis Lantgen

Beware of the spoilers!

The Dish

Saints & Curses by Alexis Lantgen is a collection of 11 short stories, all in the general ‘fantasy’ genre. The stories range from very short to medium length and there is an aggregation of micro-fiction at the end.

The Sauce

Most of the stories deal with old regional myths and legends, like forest spirits, elves and different types of vampires than the Count Dracula kind. Some are set in modern times, others in ancient times, and some in alternative histories. All of them possess some aspect of the supernatural.

The Sweet

Alexis Lantgen can write a short story. Her work is well-constructed, pleasantly written with just a hint of poetry, and always comes to a satisfying conclusion. Not necessarily a pleasant conclusion, but certainly satisfying.

The upbeat stories are probably my favourite. ‘Grackle’ might be the strongest and it was a good idea to lead with this. ‘Elven Carols’ is sweet and ‘Cinnamon Ultra Pumpkinator’ is a little bonkers but still a good read. The other stories tend to be a little on the grim side. Not necessarily bad, it just depends on what you’re into.

‘Braids’ is written in the style of a hearth fable and it suits the content of the story. The ending is bittersweet and feels like a fairy tale with its omniscient narrator. ‘Switched’ could just as easily be a heart-warming story about a mother’s determination to get her baby back as it could be about crippling post-natal depression and psychosis. ‘The Lost Cat’ is either a revenge story or a just desserts story, depending on how you look at it.

The last two stories, ‘Blood Sausage, Salt Pork’ and ‘The King of Rats’ are very different from the others. They feature a male protagonist named Nik, seemingly a bishop in the Holy Roman Empire, going about doing good deeds. The character reminds me of a pre-modern Harry Dresden from the Dresden Files, and I found these stories quite enjoyable. In fact, I’d be happy to see more of Nik’s adventures, perhaps captured in a separate anthology. I was particularly pleased with the character, Cassia, from ‘Blood Sausage’ for one very important exchange between her and Nik, where she explains what she’d do to a strigoi with a bottle of holy water. That’a girl.

The Salty

While I’m not especially sensitive about content, the book might have benefited from a trigger warning for domestic abuse, child abuse and sexual assault. While nothing is shown graphically, I can imagine the allusions can be a little heavy if you’re upset by those issues.

The anthology also suffers from a niggling flaw, which is a lack of a central theme. Though they are all fantasy stories, they are a fan-spread of different belief systems, historical periods and, most importantly, mood. The first two stories are quite moving and upbeat. The third, ‘There was a Nicholas Once’, is not. The same could be said of most of the stories until the final two, with the exception of ‘Cinnamon Ultra Pumpkinator’, which is just mad. The anthology might have benefited from a single unifying factor (geographical location, type of monster/myth, main character, etc.)

One concern is the view of men in the stories. A male character is a villain (or otherwise an antagonist) in no less than 6 of the stories, with no positive male character to balance them out. Though I will point out that a lot of the female characters seem to be their own worst enemies a lot of the time. One major saving grace on this front is the character Nik, who I take to be the protagonist of the last two stories in the book. He was charming and pleasant and, I think, more than makes up for the shortfall in the rest of the book.

Leaving aside some minor editorial errors (grammar, typos), the book is well put together and Lantgen’s husband has provided a simple but attractive cover.

The Aftertaste

Saints & Curses is good value for money. For about $3, you’re getting 11 prettily-written, interesting and emotional stories. If you’re just looking for something to cheer you up, maybe read the first two and save the rest for when you’re feeling robust. Likewise, if you want something a little more action-oriented, read the last two stories. Otherwise, this is a good purchase, with bright prose and solid pacing.

14 April 2020

Sweet & Salty Reviews - Into the Fire by Dan Trudeau

Beware of the spoilers!

The Dish

You know how, sometimes, you’ve read 2 or 3 traditionally published novels, including one that was a major motion picture directed by Steven Spielberg, and you didn’t finish any of them because they were all, let’s be honest here, a bit crap, so you jump on Twitter and someone has, very helpfully, started an #IndieApril thread where you find a book that has genuine promise, and you buy it for less than three dollars and you read it in about three days and it turns out to be brilliant and it makes you wonder why some people get published and not others?

No? Just me then.

Gina Beale: Into the Fire is a self-published magical realism novel by Dan Trudeau. It’s 469 double-spaced pages long (according to my Kindle), but it’s a very quick read. Hard to say if it was the tagline or the stunning cover that drew me in, but who doesn’t love a book about a woman beaning monsters with a table leg?

The Sauce

Gina Beale works in HR, but dreams of a different kind of conflict resolution. When a fire demon attacks her in her home, she discovers that she’s a demi-goddess, one of a dwindling number who are bound to protect the world from monsters. And she’s surfaced just in time for the worst magical catastrophe in centuries. Lucky Gina.

The Sweet

Trudeau’s book is a prime example of what a determined person can achieve with self-publishing. It’s simply-written, well-edited and attractively-packaged. The novel boasts a range of multi-cultural characters, all of whom have their own part to play in the story. Chief among them is Gina.

Gina is a heroine for the twenty-first century. A warrior woman who’d find her place in the world if only the bloody Vikings would start pillaging again. Strong and fierce and maybe just a little stubborn, but that’s okay because the world needs saving. It’s a character archetype I have a soft spot for because my favourite person in the whole world happens to fit it.

The best thing about Gina is that, while her bloodline is important to the story, it doesn’t define who she is. Her upbringing and relationship with her adoptive parents is more vital to her and she never stops feeling like her own person. She has agency. She drives the story. She takes responsibility and makes the right choice throughout. She also has an abundance of sass that makes each of her interactions a pleasure to read.

Trudeau’s world combines a healthy mix of Western and non-Western mythologies. I liked his decision to use Athena as the chief goddess of the Collegium particularly, because she’s a personal favourite. More to the point, she behaves the way I’d imagine a goddess would. Proud, aloof but with a genuine soft-spot for humans generally and heroes specifically. Her interactions with Gina are probably my favourite.

The good thing about a project as ambitious as Trudeau’s is that literally anything is possible. Chinese hopping zombies fighting wendigos? It could happen. Atlantean merpeople riding sea monsters into Pearl Harbour? It could happen. Aztec gods stealing nuclear weapons for maladjusted lunatics? It could, and did, happen.

So the magic’s pretty solid. What about the realism? Trudeau is a writer who cares about getting his facts straight. Gina isn’t just instantly good at everything she tries her hand at, even with the powers of a demi-goddess. When she makes mistakes, she is chastised for it. She doesn’t make friends with everyone by novel’s end. This is the most important aspect of magical realism. Gods and monsters can exist, but people still have to act like people.

In particular, I enjoyed the decision to do away with Gina’s double life and bring her family into the secret. Not only that, but to have them actively assist Gina’s organisation. A lot of novels in this genre seem to love the over-romantic notion of a double life, with characters delighting in lying to their loved ones over multiple books. Trudeau does away with it, along with other common genre tropes like the love triangle. In fact, surprisingly, Gina’s character arc has no romantic subplot. It’s a ballsy move, but the genre has room for a book where the main character isn’t inundated with male attention.

The Salty

I suppose my only real complaint with Into the Fire is that I wish there was more. In general, but also with specific scenes. I’d have liked to see a longer final showdown especially. By the time I’d made it to the 50% mark, I was surprised by how much had already happened. At 90% I was amazed there was only 10% left to wrap the story up. Now, I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having no more books to read.

I’d like to think that this is the first book of a series. Certainly, the world is large enough to accommodate more than one story. I’d love nothing more than to see Gina, Athena, Austin, Hector and the others continuing to work through their issues and beaning more monsters with blunt instruments.

If I’m being pedantic, the writing could be prettier. Trudeau writes in a very utilitarian style. The story is more important than the prose, but this can be an area of weakness. A little poetry in the language could have made what is an excellent book even better.

The Aftertaste

Into the Fire was the breath of fresh air that I’d been looking for and I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good story with interesting characters. The pacing is solid, the dialogue is clever and the plot beats have been double-checked to keep them credible and sensible. Check it out.