Short Take: “Not What They Seem,” William Meikle

Rating: 5 out of 5

William Meikle’s Not What They Seem: Three Cryptozoological Stories (The William Meikle Chapbook Collection 39) contains three more of his spooky paranormal stories. His stories are very consistent, so I always know I’ll enjoy them. These stories take place in Scotland. In “The Cornish Owlman,” Professor Challenger and his friend Malone go hunting for a creature that Challenger believes is a pterosaur. They meet up with Thomas Carnacki and have a spooky encounter with either a man in a long coat or a man-sized owl with wings. In “The Young Lochinvar,” Julia is disillusioned with her visit to Scotland, and is horrified to find out she’s been betrothed to a blathering narcissistic man who repulses her. She meets a mysterious figure on the train who, much like our cryptid in the first story, has some curious information to impart. In “The Monster of the Ness,” Challenger and Malone meet up again in search of the Loch Ness monster.

These stories are a bit spooky, a bit weird, and fascinating to read about. They’re quite short (it took me less than an hour to read all three), and just what the doctor ordered when you’re feeling a bit worn down and could use a mental break. Not that that’s an issue in the world right now or anything. All three stories introduce a cryptid, but leave us with a good sense of mystery afterward.

I can’t get into much more without spoiling the stories, so I’ll just say I really enjoyed these and leave it at that!

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Review: “The Demon Prince,” Ann Aguirre

Pros: Such a delicious couple!
Rating: 5 out of 5

After reading Anne Aguirre’s The Leopard King (Ars Numina book one), I was so eager to read The Demon Prince (Ars Numina) (Volume 2) that I didn’t even pause to review the previous book first! In book one, Alastor, prince of the Golgoth, was a sardonic thorn in Dominic’s side. Now he’s been given sanctuary by the cat clan. It turns out that he is little-loved by his brother the king, and is considered entirely expendable–except by his group of fellow exiles, who love him fiercely. There’s a problem, though. Alastor has a rare genetic disease that threatens to kill him at every turn. He has a finite number of doses of his medication left, and when it’s gone, it’s just a matter of time before he dies. Sheyla, one of the doctors of the cat clan, sets about trying to recreate his medicine. Before she can finish, however, the Golgoths are mobilized to help save the city of Hallowell from the main Golgoth army. Sheyla accompanies Alastor in order to keep working on saving him.

Sheyla and Alastor are both such wonderful characters. Alastor faces everything with his own particular brand of humor. Sheyla is a grump, and I’m all but certain she’s meant to be non-neurotypical. (Also, both are bisexual, as we eventually learn.) It turns out that grumpy, no-social-skills Sheyla is very confident in bed, however, and very comfortable with taking charge. Alastor absolutely adores her as he gets to know her, and she’s shocked to find herself developing feelings for him.

I totally appreciate that Ms. Aguirre neatly sidestepped one of my least-favorite tropes–the one in which two women are rivals for a man’s affection and hate each other because of that. Rowena, one of the Golgoth exiles, seems to be in love with Alastor, but it doesn’t stop her from being friendly with Sheyla, and it also doesn’t stop her from being a strong character in her own right.

The inevitable attack on Hallowell is tense and engaging, with some definite surprises in store. Our various heroes are separated as they defend the city, and they’ll have to face some real losses. I look forward to finding out more in later books!

Now if you’ll pardon me–I have to go read book three.

Content note: explicit sex.

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Review: “The Tunnel,” Gayne C. Young

Pros: Interesting monster tale
Cons: Writing is kind of rough
Rating: 3 out of 5

Gayne C. Young’s horror tale The Tunnel (Primal Force Book 1) is relatively short. A Mexican cartel is digging a tunnel beneath the border wall when they break into an underground cavern. Moments later, they’re attacked by… monkeys? White baboons? Something vicious and weird, at any rate. Only one man survives, and his boss does not believe his story. Jeff Hunter is ex-military, and he and his people work as mercenaries for the cartel. He pauses to recruit another old friend–Jarrett Taylor, who has a lot of experience with military operations in tunnels–and heads out to find out what really happened, and deal with it.

While the cartel does run drugs (and do much worse), they’re also a business. Hell, they have a human resources guy and benefits. It makes the story a little more interesting and a little less stereotypical. There’s another set of characters who are stuck somewhere between making the story more interesting and just… making it inexplicably weird. They’re Agents Andrews and Carter, and they’re weirdly obsessed with declaring every dead body to have been torn up with chainsaws. I feel like in a different book that was more quirky this would have worked well, but it doesn’t suit the military-vs-monsters feel of the rest of the book.

The mercenary team is okay. They don’t have a lot of personality. We’re introduced to them with pretty much literal resumes, where we get their names and a few defining characteristics. Only the two women really stand out–one because of her personality and use of a flamethrower, and the other woman because she’s the utter stereotype of a butch lesbian “one of the guys” who was abused as a child.

The narrative bugs me a bit. There are a lot of pieces of dialogue that get summed up clumsily in narrative. There are words that just aren’t used quite right. The pacing is a little off. It was hard to get swept up in the narrative because I was noticing the words too much.

I object to the typical use of a character’s fatness to mark them as a terrible person (this is the inevitable good Republican/Christian who hates illegals but doesn’t mind hiring them). I hate seeing disability or fatness or other physical issues used to indicate vileness. I also object to the fact that at one point, Taylor, who has seemed to be basically a good guy up until then, participates without objection in tossing a person to the creatures for his own financial benefit. It seemed out of character.

This was an okay book, but I won’t be reading the follow-on.

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Review: “The Leopard King,” Ann Aguirre

Pros: Hot, fascinating, absorbing, riveting, and did I mention hot?
Rating: 5 out of 5

Ann Aguirre’s The Leopard King (Ars Numina) (Volume 1) is set in a different milieu than the other books of hers I’ve read (if you’re a fan of scifi go read the Sirantha Jax series!). It’s absolutely as wonderful as any of them. In this world, humans discovered the existence of the supernatural (called Numina) in 1876. Therefore, we come in past the typical troubles found in this sort of setting. Numina have long since claimed their part of the world and the humans keep to themselves. The Numina also have plenty of experience working with tech, some of it quite advanced. Numina come in several varieties: the Animari are shape-shifters, divided into cat, bear, and wolf settlements. The Golgoth can transform into… well, most people think of them as demons. The Eldritch are witchy folk with highly skilled assassins. A fragile peace has lasted between these groups for a hundred years, and it’s time to re-ratify the accords. Just one problem: the cats are supposed to host, and their leader, Dominic, has been in seclusion since his wife’s murder a couple of years earlier. His second, Slay, is entirely too violence-prone to guide peace talks, so he sends his friend, Pru, to figure out how to get Dom to come home. She’s determined to succeed, whatever it takes.

One of my favorite themes in this book is the idea that one doesn’t have to have just one perfect love in one’s life. Pru has been in love with Slay for a decade, but because she’s a Latent (she’s incapable of shifting form), he just considers her a friend with benefits. Dom was totally in love with his wife before her death. Yet Pru and Dom develop an incredible connection between them. I love the fact that in this book, while there are certainly challenges to the relationship throughout the whole thing, the pair come together pretty early on. It isn’t drawn out unnecessarily. We get to luxuriate in their relationship for a while.

Pru, being a practical and learned woman, makes an excellent leader at Dom’s side, helping to smooth over some of the rough spots between the cats and everyone else. All of the groups are really interesting, and aren’t all exactly what one might expect. I love all of the characters, from the heads of the wolf and bear clans to one of the Eldritch assassins and the prince of the Golgoth. They’re all engaging, and easy to get invested in.

There’s a wonderful emotional rollercoaster to ride. Just 7% of the way in on my kindle and I was already tearing up. Consent is a great minor theme as well, and I like that the book doesn’t pretend relationships exist in a vacuum–they’re complicated and messy and not everyone gets what they want.

The only tiny complaint I had was that I sometimes found it a little difficult to keep track of who was saying what. Otherwise this book was perfect for me.

Content note for suicidal ideation, self-harm, and explicit sex.

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Review: “Machine’s Last Testament,” Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Rating: 5 out of 5

In Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s brilliant novel Machine’s Last Testament, Suzhen is just a petty bureaucrat. She’s a “selection agent,” who gets to decide which immigrants will get to join society in Anatta. Most immigrants have been displaced by war–the war that Anatta’s governing AI, Samsara, wages. Each citizen is watched over by a program called “guidance” that monitors their every move, their every heartbeat. Suzhen is only allowed to choose a certain number of refugees to allow in. When she’s introduced to Ovuha, she has already reached her quota. She can see that Ovuha is exceptional, however, and takes the only option left to her: she is allowed to sponsor a refugee herself, for whom she will be responsible.

The characters make me want to fall in love with them. Suzhen was a refugee herself, and she has a secret or two in her past. She has more empathy for the refugees than some of her peers. She’s startled by Ovuha’s self-assuredness, something rare among the refugees. Ovuha is an enigma, clearly more than she seems, but Suzhen has no idea what. She comes to long for Ovuha, but she’s unwilling to abuse her power over her. Suzhen also has an occasional lover called Taheen; they’re a fashion designer and socially well-connected. (Content note for explicit sex.)

The text is like poetry in narrative form. Every word seems carefully-chosen and perfect for its use. It’s like water that runs over smooth stones–perfectly smooth on the surface, and containing so much underneath. The action in this is slow and unwinding until near the end, and in most authors’ hands I might have felt restless with that. In Machine’s Last Testament the narrative gripped me so thoroughly that this was never a worry. The language is entrancing. There are themes that touch on issues like immigration, war, refugees, and so forth, but they’re never heavy-handed; they’re a natural part of the storyline.

I’ve already read some of the author’s other books that engage in some similar AI-related issues, such as And Shall Machines Surrender [review] and Then Will the Sun Rise Alabaster [review]. These stories feature artificial intelligences that are explored in unique and fascinating ways. There are strong female characters with a variety of personalities. There are characters with pronouns other than he/him and she/her. There are same-sex pairings. It’s so wonderful to have a fictional universe that luxuriates in these things rather than simply admitting they exist (don’t get me wrong, there’s also an important place for those).

I’m addicted to these stories. I hope the author puts out more of them!

Samsara’s wisdom protects every citizen, especially from themselves.

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Review: “The Knight’s Daughter,” S.H. Cooper

Pros: Beautiful world-building; wonderful characters
Cons: Some of the events toward the end felt a little hurried
Rating: 4 out of 5

I love S.H. Cooper’s horror work, so I was intrigued to try her young adult fantasy (and she was kind enough to give me a copy). The Knight’s Daughter (Lady Knight Trilogy Book 1) is about 14-year-old Mary McThomas and her family–father, mother, and twin older brothers. Mary doesn’t want to sew and cook like a lady–she wants to be a knight like her father. She doesn’t dare tell anyone that, however. One day she’s secretly watching her father and his men at practice when she spots an enemy coming from the forest. She races to warn the men, only to see her father go down when he shields her from harm. A small fae named Torren finds Mary and explains that she wants her own revenge on the man who commanded the invading forces. She says that Mary’s father has been poisoned, and that she can help Mary find a cure. She also says that the enemy commander, one Meverick Conan, is now hunting for Mary, and that it would be safer for everyone if she left town. An acquaintance of Mary’s, as well as her brothers, insist on going with her. She’s never left her town before–but she’s about to take one heck of a journey.

This is a delightful young adult adventure. Mary makes unusual friends, puzzles her way through various dangers, saves people through the goodness that’s in her heart, and in turn is helped by friends, family, and strangers alike. The explanation for why Meverick wants Mary alive feels a little rushed over; I would have liked something a little more solid. Perhaps there will be more detail in the next two books to anchor it–I certainly enjoyed this one enough, and felt invested enough in the characters and world, to want more.

The characters are delightful. Meverick is a little on the simplistic side, but not too much. Twin brothers Drake and Joseph have a nice amount of personality. A few of the side characters could have used a little more depth (there’s a fae queen whose on-the-page personality is pretty much just ‘fae queen’), but others are wonderful. I quite liked another fae ruler who appears.

I might have shed a few tears while reading this book! It’s a nice little treat for when you need a bit of magic in your life. Like, say, during a pandemic.

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Short Take: “Sour Candy,” Kealan Patrick Burke

Pros: Horrifying!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Kealan Patrick Burke’s short novella Sour Candy is a great little jolt of horror. It’s a perfect read for when you have a spare hour or two.

Phil Pendleton is out picking up chocolate for his girlfriend Lori when a child in a grocery store starts shrieking. The child seems almost delighted by the position he’s putting his mother in, and the woman, well… she’s at the end of her rope. She’s unresponsive and her eyes are glazed over. Phil exits as quickly as he can, but not before he makes eye contact with the child. When the woman deliberately rams into Phil’s car, he’s saddled with the mysterious child–and so is the rest of his life. Everyone tells him this is his son. There are photos of the two of them in his house. His girlfriend is no longer his girlfriend. There are little tells around the edges that this is false: for instance, the boy is the exact same age and wears the exact same clothes in all of the photos of the two of them. But somehow, no one else questions that. What is this boy? What does he have in mind for Phil? How can Phil get his life back–or can he?

This is a delightful little novella that’s perfect to read as a mental break between other things. It isn’t particularly gory. It’s a tense story about how a man gets trapped by the machinations of other beings, and what he does to get himself out of it. Despite the short space there are even a couple of interesting side characters in the police officers Phil deals with after his accident.

I can’t say much more about such a short novella without giving too much away, but I’ll say that I definitely think it’s worth reading!

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Review: “Rules for Vanishing,” Kate Alice Marshall

Pros: Incredibly intense and imaginative!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Kate Alice Marshall’s young adult horror story Rules for Vanishing is an utterly fascinating ride. Sara Donoghue’s sister Becca went missing a year ago, and Sara overheard her saying something about Lucy Gallows, the local urban legend. Supposedly if one goes to the right spot in the woods, with a partner, with a key, at the right time, a road will appear. That road leads to Lucy Gallows, a girl who got lost in the woods decades earlier. Sara found Becca’s journal filled with rules and tips and hints about the road and is determined to go in after her. She ropes her friends into joining her, and when the road appears before them, they’re off to find Becca.

There are so many questions to ask yourself along the way! Why was Becca so obsessed with Lucy and what drove her to do something so dangerous? Where did Becca get all of the information that’s in the notebook Sara found? Who sent the text message to all of Sara’s schoolmates daring them to try “the game” of looking for the road? These questions will all be answered–eventually. The manuscript takes the form of interviews, text messages, and more, all done after Sara (and others) return from the road. Something seems to be wrong with Sara–but what? There’s a crazy number of puzzle pieces to fit together, and as far as I could see Marshall manages it like a magician juggling torches. By the end I don’t think I had any major questions left. It’s the most delightfully intricate plotting, so pay attention to the details!

The world in which our heroes find themselves is daunting at best. They musn’t leave the road. If they find themselves in the Dark, each person needs to hold his partner’s hand and not let go. There are seven gates, and each one has its own rules and traps. There’s a mansion with twisting rooms inhabited by monsters, and a lighthouse with a puzzle to solve. There are other travelers on the road with them.

The characters are wonderful. Sara has gone a bit antisocial since Becca disappeared, and she seems to be the only person who doesn’t think Becca ran off with her boyfriend. The friends she grew up with aren’t really ready to move on without her, even though they’ve sort of had to. Sarah is bi, and has a crush on her friend Melanie, a crush she’s sure Mel doesn’t reciprocate. I don’t want to give too much away, but I will say this story doesn’t follow the trope of using a gay character strictly for trauma points, which I appreciate.

This is a ghost story, a cosmic horror story (content note for mild blood and guts), and a fascinating adventure. I highly recommend it.

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Review: “Pressure,” Jeff Strand

Pros: Very neatly-plotted, and heartstopping!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Jeff Strand’s Pressure is a delirious look into the relationship between a psychopathic killer and a man who’s been pushed too far. Alex and Darren met in boarding school. Darren was a quiet type, always writing in his journal, and Alex was pretty normal. The two bonded over trying to peep through the back door of a strip club, and Darren decided he and Alex were friends. Unfortunately, Darren has much darker interests than just catching a glimpse of a boob or two. He turns out to be relentlessly manipulative and horribly crafty, going so far as to get other boys kicked out of the school through thorough frame-jobs. When Alex goes to college, he runs into Darren again. Darren seems much nicer now, and he’s good at making Alex laugh. Unfortunately, Darren’s friendship comes with a price. Darren seems to think he sees the same darkness in Alex that he possesses, and he’s determined to make Alex acknowledge it.

What a twisted spin on the psychopath genre! Darren genuinely thinks he’s helping Alex, even while threatening his family. He doesn’t understand why Alex refuses to give in to the urges Darren’s convinced Alex has inside of him. It’s utterly fascinating, and yields an unusual series of events that make this book stand out.

The characters are fabulous. Darren is genuinely witty and charming when Alex meets him again in college, and it’s been about 6 years, so it’s easy to understand why Alex is disarmed by him. He even thinks of the people Darren screwed over when they were 12 and thinks, “They’d understand. People change.” Alex’s natural sarcastic sense of humor makes even day-to-day musings interesting enough to keep me glued to the page.

Serious content note here: suicidal ideation, animal harm, torture, child harm. This is a very dark tale.

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Short Take: “Operation Congo,” William Meikle

Pros: Still loving this series!
Rating: 5 out of 5

William Meikle’s Operation Congo (S-Squad Book 9) is a delightful continuance of his monster-fighting Scottish military squad stories. They’ve been all the way around the world, fought giant spiders, Nazi zombies, and all sorts of beasties, and now they’re headed into the jungle. A team of WHO doctors who were investigating a rash of deaths in a remote village have gone silent. The squad’s job is to slip in, find out what happened, and extract the doctors. They end up finding a mysterious walled village in the middle of nowhere, but what’s of more concern is what’s surrounding it–dinosaurs! (Or, well, close enough.) They’re going to have to rescue the doctors from inside the town–but how?

I love the S-Squad books. Everyone in the squad has plenty of personality, and they have their own in-jokes and patterns of behavior that continue and change from book to book. They’re totally believable and fun to read about. This time around, there are also some fascinating characters on the WHO team who fit into the plot in really neat ways.

I can’t say much more without spoiling this short book, but I guarantee you some delightful adventure, blood and guts, dinosaur-like monsters, lots of gunfire, an intriguing town full of people, and even a hint of romance! You don’t have to have read the whole series in order, but there are gradual changes to the squad, such as some of the soldiers dying and being replaced, and bits of history that come out about them, so I recommend reading it in order just for the full effect.

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