Review: “Apocalyptic,” ed. S.C. Butler, Joshua Palmatier

Rating: 4 out of 5

S.C. Butler and Joshua Palmatier edited the anthology Apocalyptic. It has some great familiar authors in it (Seanan McGuire! Tanya Huff!) and more by authors I’m not as familiar with. Like most anthologies your taste isn’t entirely likely to line up exactly with that of the editors, so you’ll find some stories better than others.

Seanan McGuire’s entry is “Coafield’s Catalog of Available Apocalyptic Events”–a catalog of possible apocalypses that one might “order” up. A fun and whimsical take on the genre, and one of my favorites in this volume.

Aimee Picchi wrote “Solo Cooking for the Recently Revived.” We’ve had something like the zombie apocalypse, only the zombies have now been cured and are being rehabilitated before they’re released back into the wild. But how do one’s old family and friends deal with what you were–and how they had to handle it–before you were cured? This one is poignant.

The fact that Tanya Huff has a Torin Kerr story in here made me squeal in delight! I’m a total addict for her Torin series, and since I think she’s stopped writing Torin novels now, little stories like this are jewels. Torin is a military NCO in the far future, working with alien races in a kind of blended military. In this installment, she’s been sent with some of her people to check out a mining colony that’s gone silent. It’s a fascinating story. While the various aliens and such will make more sense to someone who’s read at least one of Huff’s Torin novels, the general plot stands pretty well alone.

Nancy Holzner’s “The End of Eternity” introduces us to someone who won eternal life in a card game, as he faces the fact that the world is about to end as a rogue planet crashes into it. Nice, simple, and enjoyable.

One of my other favorites is “Little Armageddons” by Stephen Blackmoore. Imani and Daniel have been working for years at feeding all possible data into a simulation, and now every simulation they run is an apocalyptic one that ends on today’s date. Some of those apocalypses are pretty ridiculous, mind you, so the higher-ups won’t listen (I mean, who really believes that the earth will be destroyed by a giant Bob Ross cyborg with laser eyes, or maybe the Baboon King?). This story goes to some delightful places from there. It’s funny and dark all at the same time, and I loved it.

Zakariah Johnson’s “Almost Like Snow” takes place in an apocalypse where climate change went nuts and Yellowstone blew its top at nearly the same time. Things are hot and covered in ash. This one was a bit depressing.

Violet Malan’s “Shadows Behind” is more of an urban fantasy type of apocalyptic. It’s rumored that the apocalypse was due to powerful mages having a disagreement. Now the protagonist and her colleagues go to work sniffing out artefacts and pockets of power–something highly illegal. This one was fascinating.

Eleftherios Keramidas brings us “A Tale of Two Apocalypses: Flesh as a Roiling Wave, the Mind as a Dismal Oubliette.” As the title says, it covers two different apocalypses: one that one of the characters wrote about, and one that’s “real.” Each has a very different take on the end of things. It’s a bit confusing; I probably would have found it better if I’d gone back and read it a second time.

James Enge’s “Zodiac Chorus” was mostly confusing to me. There are meteors, and someone who might or might not be named Will, and memory problems, and someone’s dying, or maybe not?

Leah Ning’s “Last Letters” introduces us to Alice, a teen who’s been in hiding with her mother since the apocalypse happened when Alice was just a babe. She lives by her schedules and chore lists, and she knows that if her mother is ever gone for more than ten days, she’s to open the letter left under her mother’s pillow, because she won’t be coming home. This is that day.

Thomas Vaughn’s “Gut Truck” is fascinating. There are solar storms, and Domingo works in the “nicer” zones while living in the bad part of town. His job is to drive the mostly-robotic “gut truck” that cleans up roadkill. When the police have him haul away the head and torso of a dead woman, his AI goes a bit strange on him.

Marjorie King’s “Sass and Sacrifice” made me tear up a bit. The world has been occupied by the “Thrum,” an alien race. That race’s motto is “Do no harm. To self. To others. To all.” They train that into people such that they physically cannot harm–or even discomfort–each other. Venya’s sassy five-year-old daughter Sasha is about to start her training. Venya knows her daughter will never be herself again.

“The Ballad of Rory McDaniels” by Jason Palmatier is fantastic! Mysterious “Dust” falls to earth and creates new and unusual forms of life, many of which can be deadly. A local group of people is having one last party before planning to join up with the Amish since things like electricity are no longer in the cards. Rory refuses to give up, however. The tone of this thing is wonderful; there are turns of phrase that just make it feel like an actual ballad even though it’s in prose form, and it has some nice surprises in store.

In Blake Jessop’s “Trust Fall,” Alina and her Uncle Stig must climb to the top of a very tall ruined building to retrieve a chip for the AI that helps them. The climbing portion is heart-stopping. The AI is interesting, particularly in how the members of different generations view it very differently. And the relationship between Alina and Stig takes center stage. Absolutely wonderful.

I definitely recommend this book for fans of apocalyptics. You’ll find some great entertainment and food for thought in here!

Content note for animal harm and death, as well as mild gore.

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Short Take: “King’s Bounty,” Skyla Dawn Cameron

Rating: 5 out of 5

King’s Bounty (Livi Talbot) is sort of book 3.5 in Skyla Dawn Cameron’s “Livi Talbot” series. It takes place after Emperor’s Tomb [review], and is a novella about a short adventure that takes place locally to where Livi lives in Canada. While it probably isn’t necessary to the series, I would absolutely read it in order. Not only is it a great little adventure, but who would voluntarily turn down the opportunity to see Dale West babysit six-year-old Em for a night??

We get to see more than usual from West’s viewpoint, which is really neat. Normally we see his actions through Livi’s eyes. He clearly has a ton of fun babysitting Em, and it brings out a whole other side to him.

Livi and her date are having a perfectly nice evening until they get kidnapped. Trace Diaz seems nice, he doesn’t mind that she keeps checking for texts from West in case anything goes wrong with Em, and Livi’s genuinely having fun! At first it seems like he isn’t going to handle the situation they find themselves in at all well, but Livi’s able to poke and prod him into rising to the occasion.

This is a really fun little novella, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to fans of the series.

After a final glance at the mirror, I opened the front door. “I should be home by ten or eleven.”
Spoiler alert: I was not.

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Review: “Worst Laid Plans,” ed. Samantha Kolesnik

Rating: 4 out of 5

Samantha Kolesnik edited Worst Laid Plans: An Anthology of Vacation Horror. As typically happens with multi-author anthologies I ended up giving it a 4 out of 5, because it’s almost impossible for a given editor’s tastes to exactly match a given reader’s tastes. I definitely enjoyed quite a bit of this book, however.

S.E. Howard’s “You’ve Been Saved” involves two guys on a road trip, and a young woman who slips one of them a “HELP” note. One of them is determined to believe the girl is just messing with them, while the other isn’t so sure and starts following the camper the girl got into. This one didn’t go where I was expecting, which was nice!

Greg Sisco’s “Summers With Annie” is a bizarre little tale. It involves a boy whose dad went missing while they were watching a movie on vacation, and what happens when he returns to that movie theater. A little bit of fate, a little bit of strange, and some interesting lingering questions.

Asher Ellis’s “Expertise” is a great little tale involving a scuba guide, a woman who’s paying him, and some curious barracuda. This is one of my favorites in this volume.

Hailey Piper brings us “Unkindly Girls.” Morgan’s father insists she dress modestly even when going swimming on vacation, so that she will never become one of those “unkindly girls” he looks down on so much. She excels at making friends, however, and this time they’ll try to convince her to go a little wild. Chilling!

Waylon Jordan wrote “Deep in the Heart,” involving a cavern tour in Texas. Michael is excited to go on the tour, until the screaming starts. This is a fun little tale.

Kenzie Jennings’s “Peelings” is both amazing and hard to read. Beth and Marc are on vacation to the happiest place on earth with their twin girls, Sadie and Sylvie. Marc is manipulative and downright mean, and the girls are starting to take after him. When Beth gets a bizarre sunburn and her skin starts to peel away, the tale gets strange. I had trouble reading the parts where Marc was belittling and condescending to Beth, but it was worth it for the rest of the tale.

“The Difference Between Crocodiles and Alligators,” by Malcolm Mills, was a weak point in the anthology for me. It’s too surreal, and some of the narrative is in the first person while some is in the second. I was fine with people cosplaying alligators and crocodiles, but it just got really weird after that.

“The Cucuy of Cancun,” by V. Castro, is intriguing. The Cucuy is a bit of a boogeyman, and she’s set her eyes on some vacationing tourists. I love where this one ends up.

Jeremy Herbert’s “Taylor Family Vacation ’93” is really powerful. Dan’s precious new video camera keeps getting used by someone overnight, and Dan becomes convinced someone is breaking into their hotel room, after first thinking it must be his and Amy’s son Josh. This one punched me in the gut and is another favorite.

Scott Cole’s “The Penanggalan” was too quick, had too little buildup, and had too many unexplained coincidences. It was a nice idea, but not much more than that for me.

Chad Stroup’s “Sex With Dolphins” was quite good. Newlyweds Kristy and Daniel went to Hawaii on their honeymoon. A secluded stretch of beach alters their lives forever. I love where this one ended up.

Patrick Lacey’s “Caught a Glimpse” introduces us to Alan, who told his wife he was going on a business trip while instead he went for a weekend off in a cottage. The woman next door, who never takes off her sunglasses, intrigues him, until things take a bizarre turn. This is another of my favorites, with a delicious twist to it.

Mark Wheaton’s “In the Water” involves a strange series of deaths in Thailand, and the local officer who has to work with the FBI to solve it. I loved the concept, but I ended up feeling like it’s missing a causative detail or two.

Laura Keating’s “Good Time in the Bad Lands” is just a fun, quirky, bizarre little side-trip into hilarity blended with horror, and it’s a great note for the anthology to end on. It’s the strangest little tale of cosmic horror, and it’s easy to see why the parents on this vacation go a tad insane.

Overall this is a really enjoyable collection, and I recommend it.

Content note for some mild gore and sex, as well as some emotional abuse.

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Review: “Emperor’s Tomb,” Skyla Dawn Cameron

Rating: 5 out of 5

I’m continuing the Livi Talbot series by Skyla Dawn Cameron with book three: Emperor’s Tomb (Livi Talbot volume 3). (Note you should read Ashford’s Ghost, a novella, between books two and three.) Livi Talbot is an ex-beauty queen, disowned debutante, single mother, and badass treasure hunter. She’s still dealing with the death of her estranged father and the aftermath of being assaulted by a tabloid journalist, and is in a sort of semi-flirtatious “thing” with borderline sociopath Dale West. Said journalist has published scandalous images from Livi’s hedonistic teenage past, and Em’s just old enough that she’s getting bullied about it at school. It’s the perfect excuse for a group trip to Japan! Dale wants Livi to go with him to find an artifact, and he’s happy to arrange for Em and Pru to come along and do some sight-seeing. When he gets unexpectedly called back to work, his agent Thomas comes to Livi behind his back. Thomas is an ex-cat burglar and is part-Djinn. He’s being blackmailed into stealing an artifact in Australia, and he needs Livi’s help to do it. When the heist inevitably goes wrong, Livi finds out there’s a rival thief in town, and she gets blackmailed into helping to find the rumored elixir of immortality, which is supposed to be found on a legendary island off of the shores of China.

Dale wants Livi to start trusting him and to realize she can ask him for help when she needs it, but it’s awfully difficult for her. She has been screwed over on a number of occasions, and even Dale won’t deny that he’s a charismatic, manipulative quasi-sociopath who doesn’t seem like a smart person to trust. This is one of the few times I’ve seen this dynamic where it doesn’t come across as forced. She has good reason to not trust despite the quasi-relationship they seem to be developing. It’s absolutely understandable that it isn’t easy for her, and I love that he’s trying to give her the space to do things in her own time. (It’s been multiple books and a novella and they have yet to kiss, but I’m still rooting for them!)

Pru’s MS is handled really well. She has to balance wanting to do things (trip to Japan on someone else’s dime!) with needing to rest and not push herself too far. It’s an important and genuine part of her life, not a gimmick. We also get to know Thomas better, and Laurel and Dawson make appearances as well as Denny.

I love the fact that the urban fantasy part of things is not as overwhelming as in some books. It’s such that there are still people who are “Pulse deniers,” who refuse to believe in magic because they don’t typically see magical being used in public. There’s plenty of magic, but it’s still somewhat in hiding.

The characters do some tomb exploration in this one, leading to a whole lot of very tense adventure material! There are puzzles to solve, traps to disarm (or just set off), creatures to battle, and more. It’s clever and wild and so much fun to read.

We also get into Livi’s treasure-hunting ethics. There’s a reporter who wants to talk to her about the subject, and we find out that Martin, Livi’s do-gooder archaeologist brother, is against repatriation of artifacts–making him not quite so righteous as he seemed. It spurs Livi to start thinking about the ethics of what she does, and what she wants to do.

All in all this was a wonderful book, and I can’t wait for more!

“Head shots, people. This is what Call of Duty has been training us for.”

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Review: “Celestial Seepage,” Brian Fatah Steele

Rating: 4 out of 5

This is the second book I’ve read by Brian Fatah Steele. The first, Hungry Rain [review], was okay. It lacked in certain areas, but the main of it was interesting enough, and targeted closely enough to the type of story I like to read, that I decided to try another one of his books. Celestial Seepage is definitely a bit better. It’s certainly imaginative!

Harper Llewellyn is a librarian who’s been temporarily assigned to the Historical Society to digitize and catalog all of the Society’s documents. It’s going to be a very long task, made all the harder because the director of the museum, Elizabeth Vickers, doesn’t want her there. Shortly after Harper’s arrival, strange things start to happen, and Miss Vickers starts to go ’round the twist. Harper tries to figure out who approved the project and assigned her to it so she can get out of it, and finds herself dealing with three mysterious figures who run “the Trust,” which seems to have some influence in the town. Augustine is a chaotic, moody artist. Donovan is into technology. Riley is just a college student, but she tells Harper she’ll try to find out what’s going on and get her reassigned. Soon people in the failing town of Ellesmere start dying off, getting stabbed by suddenly-crazed drug dealers or running into traffic, all near the Historical Society. Something’s been trapped under the building for decades, and now it’s getting loose.

This is a fascinating blend of horror with just a smidge of science fiction and a dash of cosmic horror. Two terrible entities, the Motherarium and the Orthodoxant, are determined to be free. And once they’re free, they plan to wipe out every human on the planet by spawning horrific–and hungry–creatures. But they’re not the only alien entities hanging out in Ellesmere–there are others who were sent to stop them from their repeated destruction of “lesser” sentient races. The setup is intriguing.

I really like the characters in this one. The characters were a down-side in Hungry Rain because most of them were stereotypes and you couldn’t really tell who was meant to be the protagonist. In this one, Harper and Riley are the main protagonists. The other characters including Lana (Riley’s girlfriend), Petra (Augustine’s friend-with-benefits), and Sean (Harper’s husband), not to mention Miss Vickers and her semi-suitor Richard, have more interest than did all the side characters in that other book. Even Donovan, who doesn’t get much screen time, has a little bit of backstory that informs his choices.

There are only a few quibbles that I had with this book. There’s one development regarding Harper near the end that I don’t think gets sufficiently explained. And the epilogue to what happens feels a bit like a cheat–it either rang a bit false, or maybe just needed some extra detail, or something. I also felt like the reason Harper’s arrival at the Society triggered the story’s events was insufficiently explained.

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Short Take: “Ashford’s Ghost,” Skyla Dawn Cameron

Rating: 5 out of 5

Skyla Dawn Cameron’s novella Ashford’s Ghost (Livi Talbot) is sort of volume 2.5 in the Livi Talbot series–it’s set after Odin’s Spear and before Emperor’s Tomb. It’s a good idea to read this one in order; it covers some slowly-changing relationship issues and introduces elements regarding the villa Livi and her makeshift family have moved into. (I also have it on good authority that it sets up later events in the series.)

Livi, Pru, and Em have been living in the villa for three months now. To recap, this is the villa from volume one where Livi killed the djinn who had been living there, and the Pulse Threat Investigation folks are willing to let her live there, since she’s going to be working for them. Now Em wakes up in the middle of the night to see a man in her room. Livi checks out the room and finds the temperature fluctuating wildly for no apparent reason. Then she, Em, and Pru all spot a dark figure in the main hallway. Livi calls in Laurel, then, after the master bedroom spontaneously combusts (but the fire just disappears afterward), she calls West as well–and sends Em to stay with her not-quite-father, Denny. Is Ashford haunting the house? He certainly has reason to haunt Livi!

This is a comparatively short adventure for Livi, and Pru’s around for this one. A medium that West knows, Kai Cardosa, joins the hunt for Ashford’s ghost, and Laurel and West disclose that there are secret rooms and passages throughout the house–and it’s possible they don’t know about all of them. There’s plenty of interesting character interaction, and of course the relationship between Livi and West is, as always, one step forward, 7/8ths of a step back. This is an entirely engaging story–just on a quicker and smaller scope than the previous two. Highly recommended!

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Review: “Deal With the Devil,” Kit Rocha

Rating: 5 out of 5

Anyone who’s read Kit Rocha’s “Beyond” books will recognize the delirious blend of danger, sci-fi super-soldiers, post-apocalyptic grunge, and erotic romance found in Deal with the Devil: A Mercenary Librarians Novel. Nina is an information broker–and unexpectedly tough. Together with Dani (a former bodyguard with insane reflexes) and Maya (former data courier with perfect audial recall) she trades information for money in order to fund their real activities: supporting their neighborhood. They print out books as needed. They dehydrate foodstuffs to last. They’re doing everything they can to make life better in a very stratified world. Decades earlier, solar storms and flares put an end to traditional governments and hierarchies. Now there’s a huge wealth gap between wealthy TechCorps employees, poor people just trying to eke out a living, and raiders who will happily steal and kill for their next meal.

Into this comes Captain Knox, head of the Silver Devils squad that used to work for TechCorps–until they revolted after growing sick of being used to hurt people. They’ve been hired to kidnap Nina unharmed, and unfortunately they don’t have much choice. If they don’t do it, their biohacker contact Luna will be killed, and they need her to maintain their implants so the implants don’t degrade and kill them. To this end, Knox dangles a rare jewel in front of Nina–a rumored cache of information from the Library of Congress.

Knox and Nina have an intriguing chemistry between them, which they’re both trying to avoid. Nina doesn’t trust Knox and his people, and Knox knows it’ll get a lot harder to turn Nina in if he grows to like her too much. All of the characters are enjoyable and interesting. Nina is relentlessly optimistic, which confuses the hell out of Knox, especially once he finds out how she grew up. Knox’s squad has the charming, outgoing Rafe, sweet tech guy Conall, and stoic sniper Gray. Dani is somewhat psychotic and is incapable of feeling physical pain. Maya regrets being the only one of the group to not have unusual combat skills, but Nina and Dani do their best to train her to defend herself. Multiple characters are bisexual, which I appreciate.

There’s plenty of action to be had out on the road–raiders, a town that needs help, an old enemy of Knox’s, cage fights at a bar (another thing “Beyond” fans will recognize), explicit sex, cinematic fight sequences, and more. I absolutely love this story, and can’t wait to read the next book in the series!

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Review: “Snow Over Utopia,” Rudolfo A. Serna

Rating: 4 out of 5

Rudolfo A. Serna’s novel Snow Over Utopia is… umm. Well, I’m having a little difficulty with this review so please bear with me. It’s surreal. Kind of psychedelic, really. And I wasn’t always entirely sure what was going on, or where/when things were in relation to each other. (That’s what dropped it from a 5 to a 4: I don’t really enjoy being confused all the time while reading.)

There’s a town in which slaves with dark hair and dark skin work at pulling ore from a mine. People in this town don’t have names; they’re known by their occupation. A girl gets noticed for her unusual blue eyes. You see, there’s a religion used to help keep the slaves in line, and one of the tenets of that religion is that a figure called “the Juggernaut” used to have blue eyes, and any miner who finds those eyes is guaranteed a happy afterlife (I think). It helps to keep the miners working, always hoping to make that find. When someone takes those blue eyes from the girl, she’s helped by an old woman who lives alone–except for the nearly-dead folks she “resurrects” to serve her. She names the girl Eden, and sends the girl, together with a man called Miner who escaped the town, on a trip to Utopia. There, supposedly someone will be able to restore her sight.

This is definitely sci-fi rather than some sort of historical or alternate fantasy world, despite how the above sounds. There are nanomachines, mutated people who run the town from behind the scenes, psychic transmissions, an Earth Machine with a Witch Mother program running on it, a Robot Queen, genetically altered humans, a futuristic Utopia filled with nearly-identical blond-haired blue-eyed people programmed to be happy, a terrible slave town where people are kept constantly drugged into submission… It’s quite wild. They’re really two ends of a continuum of slavery. One that’s supposedly for the betterment of the overlords in charge, and one that’s supposedly for the betterment of the population. There are purple fumes, yellow potions, and pink flowers that get turned into yet more drugs.

The characters are, uh… hard to really get a handle on. Miner and Eden are the most complete, although a friend Eden makes along the journey (Delilah) and that girl’s father (the Librarian) have some interesting depth. There are “free-range humans” still living on the planet. A group of hunters have genetic alterations. Some descended from gangs use significant body modifications and try to kill the hunters. The Robot Queen seems like she’s going to be the standard fascistic ruler (of Utopia) with the usual accoutrements, but develops into something more than that.

There were definitely times when the book surprised me. At one point I remember going, “wait, what?” and going back a page to make sure what I thought had happened had really happened.

I just wish the story had been less confusing. I always felt like I needed more context, or more specificity, or… more something. I enjoyed what I read, but I wanted to understand it better.

Minor content note for a little bit of sexual content, violence, and cannibalism. I think.

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Review: “Odin’s Spear,” Skyla Dawn Cameron

Rating: 5 out of 5

Skyla Dawn Cameron’s Odin’s Spear (Livi Talbot) (Volume 2) is the sequel to book one, Solomon’s Seal [review]. This is another wonderful combination of urban fantasy, thriller, adventure, and horror–a combination that hits exactly the right spot for me.

In a post-Pulse world, elements of magic have returned. Some people had dormant genes activated (perhaps? No one really understands), like Dale West, who can turn into a giant white tiger. Various artifacts also turned out to have power, and some of them are downright dangerous. Martin Talbot hunts some of these down for museums, while his sister Livi hunts them down for private buyers. The PTI, which employs West and wants to employ Livi, is the department of Pulse Threat Investigation. Richard Moss is a tabloid reporter who will not back down from trying to get a date with Livi, no matter how hard she tries to push him away. Livi’s daughter Em was kidnapped in the previous book, along with Livi’s disabled roommate, Pru. Livi is trying hard not to dive back into her dangerous profession, because she believes it would be irresponsible after nearly losing Em and Pru. But the truth is, she’s an adrenaline junkie. So when the PTI wants help finding the three parts of Odin’s Spear–preferably before a half-mad rogue agent finds them–she reluctantly agrees to help. Adding a bit of extra angst is the fact that Livi’s wealthy father, who disowned her when she got pregnant out of wedlock, has died–and gone out of his way to make sure neither she nor her daughter will see a penny of his money.

The background scenery is fantastic. There’s a museum full of artifacts, a trip to Spain, underwater wreck diving, undersea caving… it never gets boring! Livi at first decides not to go to Spain, then after a bizarre encounter with one part of the Spear, she decides she’ll do it after all. Only she’s going to take along Richard Moss, who has a business opportunity for her–he’ll get to take lots of photographs of her doing dangerous stuff, and she’ll become a highly-sought-after treasure hunter after she gets a handful of articles in his new, not-so-tabloid news magazine.

Also: hostile fungus.

Liv is having trouble with parenting. She’s quick to get irritated, something that’s understandable under the circumstances but also something that she shouldn’t take out on her daughter. I like that she’s an imperfect parent, and that she’s willing to listen to Pru’s advice and try to take it. I also like that Pru is perfectly willing to call Livi out when she thinks Livi isn’t living up to being a decent mother or friend. Martin, for his part, thinks that the PTI had an interest in their whole family and may have murdered their father, and Livi agrees to poke into things and find out. There’s also some interesting stuff going on in the relationship between Livi and Denny, who has kinda-sorta been acting as Em’s father, even though he isn’t really.

As always Livi and West have an appreciation/hate relationship. She digs into his background, which you know won’t end well. She and he butt heads often over the Spear and occasionally over other elements of the mission. On the other hand, they also save each other’s lives a few times and Em likes him. I can’t wait to start book three!

NOTE: Spoiler warning AND content warning: If you don’t need trigger warnings when you read books, skip this spoiler. There is an attempted date rape in this book. It’s harsh, it’s extremely realistic, and it’s brutal. The author does a supremely amazing job at being in the mind of a strong woman going through this–the urge that’s been drilled into us not to react or fight back because that might make the whole thing worse, but also the urge to do something, and the emotional aftermath. Also, the characters around her who might most want to react on her behalf allow her to decide whether or not they’ll interfere, rather than running off to take care of it for her, which is respecting her strength. End spoilers!

Cthulhu. I was going to encounter Cthulhu down there. I fucking knew it.

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Review: “Queen of the Conquered,” Kacen Callender

Rating: 5 out of 5

Kacen Callender’s Queen of the Conquered (Islands of Blood and Storm (1)) is a tornado of a novel: it touches down seemingly out of nowhere and whips your feelings into a frenzy. I’m still feeling a little shell-shocked from reading it.

Sigourney Rose is the sole survivor of the massacre of her family. Her mother was an Islander with dark skin; her father was white and the local equivalent of nobility. Sigourney was born with kraft: she can sense others’ thoughts, delve into their memories, and sometimes even control them with a thought. She has managed, through a whole lot of effort, to get herself made the heir to her cousin’s estate and title. She has arranged a marriage to Askel Jannik, heir to another house, while slowly killing off his mother to hurry the inheritance. Askel is in love with Beata, but feels duty-bound to commit to the marriage, no matter how much he hates Sigourney. They’re invited to spend the storm season on the central island with other nobles and their ruler, and she has long planned to take this opportunity to take revenge on the other nobles for her family’s death. The others hate and despise her for her dark skin–but so do her own slaves, because she came from them yet still keeps slaves. She may not hurt them for fun the way some of the other nobles do, but she has had them killed at times.

She’s determined to become the ruler of these islands, but is she doing it for her own ambition, or for her people? Those around her begin to suspect more and more that she’s doing it for her own selfish reasons, and that she won’t set the slaves free once she becomes ruler. Then the nobles begin to show up dead, and even with the advantage of her kraft she can’t figure out who’s doing the killing. Also, there’s something very wrong with the current ruler–her ability detects no life in him at all, leading her to think one of the other nobles is creating some sort of illusion.

I was absolutely crushed by this novel. It isn’t my usual read, in that it has a fairly sedate pace; I tend to go for higher-action more fast-paced fare, and in general I try to avoid “depressing” books because I read for escapism. But Book Twitter recommended this, and I’m so glad I listened. There is an absolutely unflinching look at slavery in here. Pretty much anything that could happen to slaves happens to or is remembered by someone in this book. Because of Sigourney’s unusual ability, we get snippets of memory and history and thought from all sorts of characters. In most hands this would be awkward, but in this book it felt utterly natural.

Sigourney is most definitely not built to be a “likable” character, but she’s engaging enough that it works. She takes one of her slaves to bed with her regularly, even though she knows he can’t refuse her without risking his life, making it rape. She’s exceedingly ambitious and very self-centered. Not in a bratty sort of way, but in terms of justifying to herself whatever it takes to achieve her goals. Still, she very much wishes her own people didn’t hate her. She wants to be a hero, but she lives in reality.

There’s a fascinating mystery at the heart of the book, as nobles continue to die one-by-one. Sigourney’s kraft isn’t infallible, and she’s been unable to determine who’s doing the killing. She’s sure she’s on the killer’s list, and she can’t even trust that her own slaves won’t necessarily betray her if they see the chance.

I really can’t recommend this book highly enough.

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