Review: “The Shadowed Sun,” N.K. Jemisin

Pros: Such delightful characters and plot!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

N.K. Jemisin’s The Shadowed Sun (The Dreamblood) is the second book in The Dreamblood Duology. And frankly, I can’t stop giving 5-star ratings to all of these Jemisin books! This volume takes place ten years after the events of The Killing Moon. The Kisuati rule Gujaareh in an uneasy peace. Prince Wanahomen has been living among the desert tribes of the Banbarra, attempting to raise an army. He may finally be ready–a number of Gujaareen nobles and merchants have pledged soldiers to his cause and the tribes of the Banbarra will soon cast votes to see if they will follow him to take back Gujaareh. Even the Hetawa is willing to back war–they’ve sent their first female Sharer-Apprentice, Hanani, along with her mentor Mni-inh, to aid Wanahomen by healing him and his troops as needed. Hanani is our protagonist, and she has much to learn of Banbarra social customs as she comes to live among them. Among the Hetawa she has had to live largely as a man since the Hetawa has never had a female Sharer before, and now she has to learn to be a woman. But where the men of the Hetawa fear and resent her presence–with a few exceptions–some of the women of the Banbarra take her under their wing and help her to finally come into her own. Meanwhile, there’s a horrible nightmare traveling through the dreamers of Gujaareh–one that is contagious, and can literally kill! When it contaminates the majority of the Sharers, the Hetawa falls into disarray.

The society-building is exceptional. For instance, it isn’t just a case of one society empowering women while the other doesn’t–it’s more nuanced than that. It’s only because of the Kisuati that the Hetawa has finally inducted a woman, but on the other hand, there are ways in which the Gujaareen see women as higher beings as well. And the Banbarra have their own mixed treatment of women. It’s much more interesting than stories in which women are treated monolithically by each society. The same is also true of slaves and servants in this society. The Kisuati and the Banbarra keep slaves, while the Gujaareen keep a servant caste. Again, it isn’t straightforward who has it best or worst.

I do have to include a content warning for attempted rape, rape, and incest. There are some dark themes in this book, particularly regarding who has power over whom and how they wield it. It’s handled well, however, and is never made to be titillating or prurient.

I love the characters in this book, and the relationships between them. Hanani is a very involving protagonist, and I got terribly wrapped up in her situation. The story was intense, and I loved being carried along for the ride. The characters have a lot of depth to them, and this makes for interesting evolving relationships. Hanani and Wanahomen, as well as Hanani and Mni-inh, have really interesting interactions. We do get to see Gatherer Nijiri again, and it’s interesting to see him through Hanani’s eyes.

Obviously I’ll try not to spoil anything, but I will say that I was very pleased with how things worked out. Hanani is allowed to be a strong character with plenty of agency and depth to her. She doesn’t have an easy time of figuring things out for herself, but that’s okay. That’s part of what makes her so interesting.

He had grown up watching Gujaareen noblemen offer ten layers of insult with a shift in tone and an out-of-place bow. Banbarra were so direct that he found them refreshing, even when they meant to be rude.

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Review: “The Killing Moon,” N.K. Jemisin

Pros: What a marvel of worldbuilding!
Cons: Mildly confusing at first
Rating: 5 out of 5

N.K. Jemisin’s The Killing Moon is the first book in The Dreamblood Duology. Ehiru is a priest of Hananja, a Gatherer, who collects the tithe of Dreamblood and thus ushers the tithe-bearers into the afterlife, giving them peace. In his most recent Gathering, he accidentally mishandled a soul–and in the process, was told that he was being used somehow. When he and his apprentice, Nijiri, are sent to Gather the soul of a visitor from another nation, they find more evidence that someone is using the sacred charge of the Gatherers to political ends. They’re supposed to Gather from those who are dying and want peace, or from those whose souls are corrupt. But Sunandi, whom they’ve been sent to Gather, may not be corrupt as they’ve been told. The Prince of Gujaareh is up to something, and some of the Hetawa, those who serve Hananja, work with him for their own reasons. A Reaper–a Gatherer gone bad–is loose in the city, ripping souls from their bodies and devouring them whole. If Ehiru and Nijiri can’t puzzle out what’s going on, thousands upon thousands of people could die.

The worldbuilding comes at you fast and furious, and it confused me a little at first. Still, that doesn’t last long, so it’s a minor niggle at most. More important is the fact that the worldbuilding is highly original and creative. The religion of Hananja is complex, but we’re never subjected to monologues or info-dumps about all the details. Instead, the relevant bits of information are worked skillfully into the story. One of my favorite details is that plenty of people welcome the Gathering and the peace it brings. Not everyone is desperate to live just a moment or two longer. And yet, when we encounter people from Kisua, another land, they’re horrified by the idea of the Gathering. There’s a variety of reactions to the whole idea, and it’s a complex concept.

The characters are wonderful. Ehiru is a true believer in Hananja and his duties as a Gatherer, and he’s doing his best to impart these values to Nijiri. There are only two other Gatherers, both of whom–even though we only see them a scant amount–are very interesting (I’d like to see more of them). The characters are complex and layered, with their relationships changing and evolving as the story progresses. I definitely got attached to them, and shed a few tears toward the end of the book.

The plotting and pacing are delightful, although I can’t get into much discussion about them without spoiling details. I love the twists and turns the plot takes, and the tension ratchets up wonderfully as the book progresses.

I can’t wait to read the second (and final) book!

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Review: “Beyond the Night,” Colleen Gleason

Pros: Nifty worldbuilding and characters
Cons: One annoying “misunderstanding”
Rating: 4 out of 5

Book provided courtesy of the author.

In Colleen Gleason’s Beyond the Night (The Heroes of New Vegas) (Volume 1), Elliott and his friends were hiking in a cave system when an earthquake hit. They all fell unconscious, and when they woke up and emerged, it was 50 years later and the apocalypse had come and gone. There are very few people left alive, almost all of whom are younger than the end of the world, so they haven’t yet found anyone to tell them what happened. They know there are gangas, zombie-like flesh-eaters, that roam at night. When our story starts, the group does their best to rescue a bunch of kids who got stuck out at night and ambushed by gangas. In return, the kids take our heroes to the closest thing there is to a city–Envy. Another woman, Jade, had helped during the ambush as well, and since she ducked off in the early morning, Elliott hopes he’ll see her there. When they reach the city, which exists in the remnants of Las Vegas, they’re welcomed as heroes. Then they meet a man, Lou, who was alive when the apocalypse happened. He thinks he knows who caused it to happen–a mysterious group of immortal people called Strangers. Most people don’t believe the Strangers are up to anything bad, so he and Jade and a couple of other people run an underground network collecting as much information as possible.

It’s an interesting setup. There truly are very few people left–massive earthquakes, fires, tsunamis, etc. wracked the entire world at once. We’re seeing the world 50 years later, so we skip the part that most apocalyptics already cover. The guys who’ve stepped through time by some means have been changed in other ways as well. Quent can read memories off of objects. Elliott, who was a doctor, can heal people–although he absorbs their injury, and can pass it off to another. This gets pretty fascinating and adds some definite tension to the plot, as an injury he’s absorbed gets worse until he can pass it off. And he can pass it off accidentally as well as purposefully. The men’s hair and nails have also largely stopped growing, and they seem preternaturally strong and swift. They’re very well-suited to their new surrounds. The story also doesn’t skip the emotional repercussions of suddenly discovering that everyone you loved and everything you expected from your life is suddenly gone.

Jade has a background of having been caught by the Strangers and kept by a particularly sadistic one. She’s been raped and beaten. She gets sexually assaulted in this book, and we go through a scene of seeing her brutally beaten. It’s not out-of-place in a post-apocalyptic, but it’s a little hard to read.

I didn’t entirely like the “misunderstanding” that kept Jade and Elliott apart through much of the story. I’m not big on misunderstandings in romance novels anyway, because they tend to be fairly annoying, and should be easily cleared up. Certainly it should have been obvious to Jade much earlier than it was that Elliott needed reassurance that she wasn’t “with” Luke. Elliott also leaped ridiculously quickly to a conclusion that she’s basically a slut:

Women [who looked like Jade] attracted [men] in droves. And they couldn’t settle on just one.

The implication is that pretty women are always going to be promiscuous, which is an assumption that doesn’t do much for my opinion of Elliott. He cuts her some slack by presuming she needs to feel in control of her relationships due to having been kidnapped and raped, and cuts himself some slack by stating that the reason he cares about this is because he’s strictly monogamous, but the starting assumptions are still unwelcome.

The characters and plot of this series are interesting so far, and the sex scenes are nice. But I hope there are fewer misunderstandings to come.

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Non-Review: “Netherkind,” Greg Chapman

Greg Chapman’s Netherkind is the story of Thomas. He’s a Flesher, a creature who feeds on the skin of humans and takes their DNA into himself, changing him just a little with each feeding. If he doesn’t give in to “the urge” quickly enough, his own skin starts to deteriorate. One day he meets Stephanie, who is beyond pushy and basically sexually assaults him, although he gives in. In the morning he discovers that not only is she a Flesher, who seems to know much more than he does about what they are, but she’s killed all of his neighbors. She leaves, but shortly thereafter he has an encounter with a Flesher named Nero, an outcast who seems to hate Thomas for his choice to live among humans. When the two start battling, a “prince” shows up and it seems Thomas is about to find out what he is.

Since this is a non-review, that means I didn’t finish the book, nor will I review it on Amazon or GoodReads or give it a star rating. I’ll just tell you why I decided not to finish it, and you can decide for yourself whether it would interest you. The one thing I did like is that the feeding process is pretty disgusting–it isn’t yet another eroticized vampire-like thing. But that was pretty much it.

The feeding always changes Thomas’s appearance, yet he doesn’t seem confused when Stephanie recognizes him as though he hasn’t changed after he feeds. Then later, it’s stated that he is close enough after feedings to resembling his victims that he can go through and leave messages for the victims’ friends and families. The story seems very inconsistent as to how visible the change really is.

The dissolution of his flesh seems to happen rapidly, frequently, and obviously, so it’s hard to understand how he avoids being noticed as much as he does. The idea of how thoroughly he is able to blend in vs. how erratically he behaves also seems inconsistent.

Apparently Stephanie doesn’t want to be bothered explaining to Thomas what he is–“God, you and your questions!”–except he only asked two questions and she hadn’t answered either of them. I didn’t find Thomas interesting or engaging as a character, and the other characters were even worse.

There’s way too much brooding and ruminating on Thomas’s part after Stephanie leaves. It’s just the same dark thoughts over and over again. And given how much it resembled every other brooding vampire-like being in fiction, it held nothing original.

Nero is just ridiculous and waaaay over-the-top. The introduction to the prince is overly stylized. By the time the Fleshers are ready to cart Thomas off to meet “the King”, I had no interest anymore in finding out what he was or who these people of his were or how they managed to remain undiscovered in the world. It just feels like a lot of over-used tropes bundled together haphazardly.

Hopefully that’s enough information for you to figure out for yourself whether you might enjoy the story or should just give it a pass!

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Review: “Operation Syria,” William Meikle

Pros: Creepy!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

That’s odd. I could have sworn I’d written my review of William Meikle’s military-vs.-monsters horror novel Operation Syria (S-Squad book 6), but apparently not! I apologize for posting it out of order. Once again, Captain John Banks, Sergeant Hynd, and Wiggins (along with several new people) get sent on a dangerous mission. In this case, there’s been a call for help on an archaeological dig in Syria. The squad jumps in at night and heads for the dig, where they find evidence of a firefight. They soon realize, however, that rebels are the least of their troubles. While Banks and a couple others head out to rescue hostages, the rest of the squad babysits the remainder of the archaeological team at the dig–where some truly awful giant spiders have arrived.

The characters are, as always, simple-yet-interesting. The squad dynamics have some detail to them, particularly with the new recruits added. The living members of the archeological team are strong and interesting, particularly Maggie Boyd. And, as always, Wiggins is the comedian of the group who brings the occasional needed laugh that keeps the squad from getting overwhelmed.

“Where’s Sigourney fucking Weaver when we need her?” Wiggins said at Banks’ back.

There’s a nice added bit of archeological interest to this volume, including ancient tunnels and mosaics depicting Romans fighting giant spiders. The hostage crisis gives us the chance to see how the spiders can take on an entire town. (Content warning for child death.) And the sheer number of spiders–oh my! This fight won’t be easy on our heroes!

These books are fairly short and simple, but are wonderful examples of the military-vs.-monsters genre. They’re brief and seriously enjoyable–kind of like candy–and I can’t wait for more!

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Review: “Operation Norway,” William Meikle

Pros: Very satisfying
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

William Meikle’s Operation Norway (S-Squad Book 7) tackles a new monster in this wonderful military-vs.-monsters series: the mountain troll of Norway! Just a reminder, so far the S-Squad has faced giant undersea isopods, Nazi ice zombies and UFOs, giant and aggressive resurrected ancient animals, giant Amazonian snake-shifters, and giant spiders in an archaeological site. This time, the squad is sent to check out a joint British and Norwegian research base that was active from 1949-1951. The site was abandoned overnight, and it more or less froze over. Now that the site is thawing out (presumably due to climate change) the military wants the base sanitized. And no wonder, too: they were working on a super-soldier project that went horribly wrong. When the squad blows up a cavern, something gets loose and comes after our heroes. And it turns out the project may not be as defunct as the British think it is.

Captain John Banks is still having his hunches, and thank goodness he does. They certainly help, even if things do go horribly wrong. For once the squad ends up having to do some of their hardest work in a heavily occupied area (content warning for child death), bringing new challenges to the fore. There’s also something of a mad scientist added to the monster-mix this time.

I don’t have a lot to add over my reviews of previous books–all the wonderful aspects of them are repeated here. The characters are simple-yet-interesting. The monsters are scary, with a few poignant moments mixed in. The squad spends plenty of time swearing and shooting at things, although maybe not as much shooting as in some previous books. As Wiggins himself pointed out in a previous book, this is something of a Scottish “X-Files”-like series. It’s a fairly simple genre, but Meikle carries it off unusually well.

I truly hope Meikle plans to publish more books in this series–I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for them!

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Review: “Operation: Loch Ness,” William Meikle

Pros: Loving this series!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

William Meikle’s “S-Squad” series is a fairly simple series of military-vs-monster short novels. If you like that genre, they are absolutely worth the read! Operation: Loch Ness (S-Squad Book 5) is exactly what the title indicates: a story of Captain John Banks and his Scottish lads going up against the Loch Ness monster. It all starts out with a “situation” at the Highland Wildlife Park in Inverness-shire in Scotland. A great deal of damage was done and many animals were killed: a polar bear, a lynx, eight red deer, three bison, and six caribou. There are only a couple of tracks that can be found in the boggy landscape, and they’re huge. It puts the squad in mind of their trip to Russia a couple of books back. But the real similarities they’ll find are to their encounter with Nazi ice zombies: Aleister Crowley lurks at the bottom of this mystery, and that touch of Lovecraftian cosmic horror comes back to bite the squad on the ass. Literally. Soon there’s an attack on tourists, and the squad is scrambling to find the creature before it can do any more damage. They find a man named Alexander (Sandy) Seton who knows a couple of chants that might lead the creature right to them. Unfortunately for the squad, however, this time they’re not in the middle of nowhere, so they’re also dealing with a second terrible beast: the press!

“What the fuck is this now, the bloody Scottish X-Files?”

I think of this more as an R-rated depiction of a modern-day UNIT from Dr. Who, but I can see where it could also be viewed as the X-Files with lots more gunfire and swearing. Either way, it’s a terribly fun series in which we get to watch a military squad take on all the types of fun monsters you can imagine. So far, giant undersea isopods, Nazi ice zombies and UFOs, giant and aggressive re-discovered ancient animals, giant Amazon snake-shifters, and now Nessie. The fun pop culture references are courtesy of Wiggins, and are not overly frequent–it’s just enough to get the snort of laughter for a moment, and helps to ground this in the modern day.

Speaking of Wiggins, I do love the characters. They’re drawn with a few simple sentences here and there, but it’s enough to give them detail. From Banks, who’s gone back to smoking since the Amazon mission, to Wiggins, who feels it necessary to break the tension with jokes about Sergeant Hynd’s wife. Sandy is an interesting character. He plays a similar role to the Russian scientist in the first book, but has his own specialties and personality. He has a bit of a background in the occult, and is able to help the lads with finding their prey.

Despite the relative shortness and simplicity of these novels, they’re very good at answering the little questions I find myself writing down as I read. I eventually end up crossing them all out as answered.

The storytelling is excellent. It’s easy to get a visual sense of the story, and the firefights feel positively cinematic. All in all, a great bit of fun.

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Review: “Operation: Amazon,” William Meikle

Pros: Such fun little horror novels!
Cons: Minor details
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

William Meikle’s Operation: Amazon (S-Squad Book 4) is the fourth installment in this excellent military-vs-monsters series. Captain John Banks and his squad first dealt with giant undersea isopods in the Arctic, then Nazi ice zombies and UFOs in the Antarctic, enormous and aggressive ancient animals such as mammoths and cave lions in Siberia, and now giant snakes in the Amazon. Employees, some of whom are British engineers, have been going missing from a river-dredging operation, and the father of the boss has the connections to get government help. Thus, Banks and his squad get sent to find out what is quietly, unobtrusively, making off with these men. When Banks arrives, the natives who are helping with the operation take advantage of the opportunity to leave. Only Wilkes, the foreman, is left to help. The squad finds a phone belonging to the missing boss that has a brief video and some GPS data on it, and when the local with a boat returns, they head out to rescue him.

My only (very minor) quibble with this book is that we never really find out how the bad guys managed to get their victims out of their beds silently and without being noticed. There’s a hint that one of them may have been drugged, but there’s nothing about how that might have been accomplished.

There’s some great Mayan mysticism in here. Rumors of a snake god named Boitata abound, and there’s a cult of people who call themselves “the children of Boitata.” There are interesting local superstitions to deal with, mysterious stonework ruins, a temple, giant hungry snakes, and gold.

The characters, as usual, are drawn in short strokes that make for just enough depth. Banks is still trying to resist the cigarettes that everyone else indulges in so readily, and as always he has to keep Wiggins out of the booze. This time around we see our heroes get caught and stripped of their equipment, so they have to use more than just their guns to escape! There are some great action sequences, firefights, and so on. And it’s easy to love to hate Buller, the boss-man. I’m still very much enjoying this series!

“What are you moaning about this time, Wiggo? I promised you something warmer, didn’t I? It doesn’t get much hotter than this.”
“Warm shite is still shite,” Wiggins said.

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Review: “Operation: Siberia,” William Meikle

Pros: Enjoyable military vs monster tale!
Cons: One or two very minor details
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

William Meikle’s Operation: Siberia (S-Squad Book 3) is book three in his excellent military-vs-monsters series. In book one, Captain John Banks and his group of special ops soldiers dealt with giant carnivorous isopods from beneath the Arctic sea. In book two, he and his men encountered “Nazi ice zombies” and a demon-powered UFO (pro-tip: the “demon” is actually some sort of Lovecraftian beastie). This time around, Banks and his men are on a “cushy” (ha!) assignment to babysit three UN scientists as they investigate a wealthy Russian businessman’s private zoo. It seems Volkov has been resurrecting long-dead creatures such as dire wolves, mammoths, and cave lions, only he’s been pumping them full of growth hormones as well–making them huge and aggressive. He also has a back area that he seems eager to steer them away from, and all Banks’s men can suss out from their Russian counterparts is that they’re scared of whatever’s back there. When things inevitably go awry, the team has all they can do to try to keep their charges alive and kicking.

“There’s no creepy drifting boat, no empty Nazi UFO bases, none of that weird shite from the last couple of missions.”

One of the things I will continue loving about this series is that it has nothing to do with the US. I’m so used to military-themed horror being US-centric, and it’s very nice to have characters from the British military instead. I also love the characters. These books aren’t terribly long, so it isn’t like we’re going to go into essays on their childhoods, but with just a few deft strokes Meikle gives them plenty of dimension. Personally I love Wiggins’s constant jokes regarding Sergeant Hynd’s wife.

Meikle rides a deft line, keeping the creatures deadly without taking away the fact that most animals aren’t naturally murderous. I felt heartbroken for some of the animals at one point. And an unfortunate series of events that leads to one of the more tense sequences makes perfect sense, rather than leaving me yelling at the horror characters to stop being stupid. Speaking of which, I like that Banks is so careful about trying to keep the party together, along with avoiding some other typical ‘stupid horror character’ moves.

I fully intend to read the whole series, and I hope Meikle keeps putting them out!

“Fucking Jurassic Park. That’s all I need,” Wiggins said.

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Review: “Operation Antarctica,” William Meikle

Pros: Enjoyable military vs monster tale!
Cons: One or two very minor details
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

William Meikle’s Operation Antarctica (S-Squad Book 2) is a great military-vs-monsters tale of cosmic horror, involving “a horde of fucking Nazi ice zombies.” Captain John Banks, whom you might remember from the first S-Squad book, is tasked with checking out a defunct Nazi research base in the Antarctic–apparently a recent satellite pass showed an infra-red reading there, so the British government is concerned the Russians might be checking the place out. Banks brings along Sergeant Hynds and six others. They find newspapers dated 1942, and a bunch of frozen corpses with no obvious cause of death. Then they find the UFO.

Unless I missed something, the anomalous infra-red reading was never explained. It’s a little detail, but since it sets off the entire chain of events, it would be nice if it was covered.

The characters, as before, are excellent. The individual soldiers have plenty of personality, and again, dialects are handled smoothly. The characters are from the British military, so we have some variety from the typical US-centric tale. Oddly enough, I can totally see this as being the adventures of UNIT, the military branch depicted in the Dr. Who series.

The zombies are a side effect of the real evil here, which is a Lovecraftian entity that used to sleep beneath the sea. It’s an original and interesting way to play with Nazi zombies. The book is comparatively brief, but Meikle manages to fit in a fair amount of material. There are plenty of firefights, old journal entries of conversations between Winston Churchill and occult detective Carnacki, terrible frigid Antarctic conditions to endure, and death and mayhem.

If you’re looking for a fun, tense bit of military-vs-monster action with a helping of cosmic horror, this is a great reading choice!

“Can you not get us a wee job in the Bahamas? If they want us to investigate weird shit, I vote for the Bermuda Triangle next time.”

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