Review: “Found You,” Mary SanGiovanni

Pros: Freaky!
Cons: Ends a little suddenly
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Mary SanGiovanni’s Found You (The Hollower Trilogy Book 2) is an excellent sequel to the creepy book The Hollower. In that book, a handful of people were being stalked by a faceless figure who preyed on their insecurities. They were finally able to bring it into wholly physical existence and kill the twisted, horrifying monster it was. Unfortunately, the body was reclaimed by several other faceless figures, one of whom seemed quite angry about the turn of events. Now the Primary has returned to take vengeance upon our heroes, and goes straight after Sally, journalist Dave’s mentally ill sister. It’s also hunting some new people: recovering heroin addict Jake Dylan, gay police detective sergeant Steven Corimar, and weight-obsessed Dorrie Weatherin. Sean’s mother has moved him out of state, and detective Anita DeMarco is on maternity leave. That doesn’t make the young man and the mother-to-be safe, but being away from the others and harder to reach makes them no longer the immediate target that the others are.

In The Hollower, there was one passage that was from the point of view of the faceless creature. This is hard to do well, as it can undermine the creepiness of a monster. SanGiovanni makes it work, however, and includes more of this in this volume. The new creature is a Primary, more powerful than the Secondary that our heroes fought before. It can affect the physical world in ways the Secondary couldn’t. This makes it seem unbeatable, but its weakness seems to be its need to feed on people’s insecurities and despair. That causes it to keep its prey alive beyond the point where its own hatred and rage cause it to want to kill them outright, giving our heroes time to find ways to fight.

The Hollower is sustained by impressions and perceptions and points of view.

The ending is a little quick and sudden, but somehow it works. Especially since I know there’s a book three in the series, which I’m looking forward to, although it’s hard to imagine how our heroes could possibly succeed against something even more dangerous! Dorrie is a little one-note in her weight obsession, but most of the characters have depth and a decent amount of background. This is an enjoyable creepy tale!

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Review: “Terminal Uprising,” Jim C. Hines

Pros: Hilarious, heart-warming tale of space janitors!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

I’ve been waiting eagerly for Jim C. Hines’s Terminal Uprising (Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse), the sequel to his Terminal Alliance. This is a post-apocalyptic future in which a plague turned all of mankind “feral”. The alien Krakau have been individually curing and educating humans, who in return serve as soldiers in the Krakau Alliance. Marion “Mops” Adamopoulos headed up the sanitation and hygiene crew on board a spaceship. When her crew was turned back into ferals, she and her team had to rally to save their crew from being put down. In the process they discovered a horrible secret: the Krakau had some responsibility with respect to the plague, and they’ve been covering this up ever since! Now Mops and her team do their best to operate their stolen spaceship while trying to find out more about what’s going on. Admiral Pachelbel, one of the Krakau, seems to sympathize and is helping Mops on the down-low. Pachelbel sends the team after information that shows there may be non-infected humans living on Earth! What is Admiral Sage up to with her secret research base?

The Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse series is hilarious, poignant, and inventive. Mops and her crew have so much personality, particularly evident as they try to adapt to running a spaceship on their own. They have to make frequent use of the delightful tutorial programs as well as Mops’s personal AI, Doc. They cleverly use their experience and supplies (from floor polish to sealant to industrial lubricant to cleaning solutions that should not be mixed) to achieve their goals. They also adapt as their enemies–Mops is now known as a traitor to the Alliance–cotton on to their strategies. Once they find more people to work with, they have to adapt to being soldiers and leaders as well as janitors. Just to up the difficulty level, Mops of course does not want to kill any humans if she can avoid it, even when they’re sent after her and her crew.

I’m giddy over what Mops finds on Earth: librarians! (Leave it to Hines to incorporate the lure of books into his tale.) She also finds evidence that Admiral Sage is up to some unexpected, and fascinating, stuff. There’s plenty of inventive action scenes to keep things entertaining, including escapes, fire-fights, delaying actions, and rescues. The pacing is wonderful, ramping up and getting quite exciting.

If you enjoy a good dose of humor with your heart-warming science fiction, the Janitors of the Post-Apocalypse is a fantastic series to read. I absolutely recommend it. Note that this book includes a wonderfully diverse cast, including various skin colors, gender preferences, and sexualities.

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Review: “The Hollower,” Mary SanGiovanni

Pros: Builds up into something gorgeous
Cons: Starts out a little mundane
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Mary SanGiovanni’s The Hollower (The Hollower Trilogy Book 1) introduces us to Max Feinstein, who sees an unearthly figure called the Hollower. It’s dressed all in black, with a black hat and trench coat. It has no hands beneath its gloves. Its face is a featureless white: no eyes, no nose, no mouth. When Max commits suicide, he leaves a message for another person who sees the Hollower, Dave. Dave is a journalist whose younger sister, Sally, is mentally ill. He sees the Hollower as well, and drinks heavily to stave off both it and the feelings of helplessness with regard to Sally. Former coke-addict Erik also sees the Hollower, although he calls it the Jones, as in jonesing for a high. He’s afraid it will cause him to relapse, and doing so would cost him Casey, the love of his life. Bartender Cheryl, who knows both Erik and Dave from the bar she tends, has heard the voice of the Hollower for some time, and recently it’s started appearing to her. It knows about her childhood trauma, and uses it against her. 11-year-old Sean, who lives across the street from Max, sometimes sees the Hollower standing in Max’s window, or out on the street. It seems able to stretch something of its influence right into Sean’s house. When Cheryl goes to Detective DeMarco to report a break-in and threatening behavior at the bar, then finds herself admitting the man had no face, she finds DeMarco to be surprisingly sympathetic. The whole thing goes to Hell, though, when Sally goes missing from the hospital.

At first this book seemed a bit mundane, particularly when held up against some of SanGiovanni’s other work, such as Chills, Behind the Door, and especially Thrall. The bad guy is basically just a man with no face, who sometimes whispers frightening things to people. Luckily things pick up, with the Hollower gradually becoming more. We even get a passage told from its point of view, which is surprising, and carried off well. There’s one spot that maintains that it “could be anywhere it wanted, anyone it wanted, at any time.” Unfortunately this kind of begs the question of how anyone could possibly stop it if it wanted to kill someone. But we eventually see snatches of unusual behavior–such as its unwillingness to touch anyone–that make things believable. Eventually SanGiovanni puts the ‘cosmic’ in ‘cosmic horror’, and the world comes apart at the seams.

Such grotesque skins they had, to contain such delicate meat.

The characters have a fair amount of depth. Cheryl’s a little borderline, with her giggling and cooing, but luckily there’s a bit more to her than just that. I liked Sean, who is a believably mature eleven without being overly precocious, and Detective DeMarco is probably my favorite character. She’s practical and smart, but knows when it’s time to believe her eyes and her hunches. The pacing is also quite good, ramping up steadily as the book goes on. I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy!

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Short Take: “The Fading Place,” Mary SanGiovanni

Pros: Tense!
Cons: Starts out a little slowly, but it works
Rating: 4 out of 5

Mary SanGiovanni’s novella The Fading Place immediately sees Charlie Van Houten carjacked by Simone. Charlie has her baby Hayley in the back seat, and Simone wants the baby. It gradually becomes clear that Simone is paranoid and off her rocker, and plans to kill Charlie and take her baby. How will Charlie outwit her?

This tale isn’t a high-octane thriller. It spends time explaining why it’s so hard for Charlie to have children, and why she’s raising Hayley without Hayley’s father John. It gets into a bit of exploration of the history of the area of Wexton, New Jersey, and the rate at which people tend to disappear in the area. Note that while this is not a paranormal tale, it clearly takes place in the same world as some of SanGiovanni’s paranormal tales (Chills, Behind the Door, Thrall–in fact, Wexton is next door to the town of Thrall).

Simone and Charlie are both interesting characters, and for a short novella there’s plenty of personality. The question of whether and how Charlie will save herself and Hayley provides plenty of tension and suspense. Well worth a read, I believe.

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Review: “Thrall,” Mary SanGiovanni

Pros: Very alien
Cons: Not easy to picture; one character
Rating: 4 out of 5

Mary SanGiovanni’s Thrall takes place in the same occult-heavy universe as her Chills and Behind the Door, but the character of Kathy Ryan is not present. Jesse is a young man who left behind his home town of Thrall, New Jersey, a place where strange things happened (a black hole in the grocery store, bleeding nuns, a flood of blood on Main Street). He never thought he’d go back, but he just got a call from his high school girlfriend, Mia, asking him to come rescue her–as well as the daughter he never knew he had, Caitlyn. He’s afraid to go back, but his good friend Nadia agrees to go as his moral support. He’s told her some of these stories about the town and supposedly she believes him, but of course she doesn’t really. The truth is, Nadia wants to be more to Jesse than just a friend, and she wants the chance to learn about his closely-held past. Unfortunately for her, not only are his stories true, but the town is worse than he remembers. Much, much worse. The two join up with an old friend of Jesse’s, Tom, as well as a mailman and a historian, in an effort to find Mia and Caitlyn and get clear of the town.

I’m not fond of the character of Nadia. She whines and pouts, gets jealous of the hold Mia and Caitlyn have on Jesse, and came woefully unprepared. She’s a stereotype, and I’m used to SanGiovanni’s characters having a lot more depth than that. Dealing with her was a bit like hearing nails on a chalkboard.

While Thrall takes place in the same universe as those other two books by SanGiovanni, it’s definitely more alien in aspect. The events in the town are at the apex of their craziness rather than the beginning. The setting and creatures are very alien. While some of the creatures have a certain similarity to those that showed up in the other books, others I found very difficult to picture. It made the book less vivid at times.

The story is very original. I love the explanation for why the town is this way, and the creative contortions Jesse and his friends have to go through in order to find their way out. When the town was founded, the location came with several pre-existing buildings and a handful of unusual statues. The characters do raise the question of how it is they keep finding enough food and supplies to keep going despite the fact that the town has basically been a ghost town for several years, and the answer is intriguing. SanGiovanni manages to subvert a handful of tropes by asking all the right questions.

“Kind of a chicken-or-the-egg thing. Did the statues being moved back into public view start the weird stuff happening, or did the weird stuff happening bring the statues back into public view?”

Thrall might not be quite what you’re expecting if you’ve read Chills and Behind the Door. As long as you don’t mind a crazier story that has little of the normal world left to it, that can be just fine!

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Review: “Behind the Door,” Mary SanGiovanni

Pros: Characterization, atmosphere, plot
Cons:
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Mary SanGiovanni’s Behind the Door (A Kathy Ryan Novel Book 1) returns to the world in which Kathy Ryan, occult expert, aids the police in dealing with… unusual events. Though this is book one in a series, the character was already established in Chills. I think it would be fine to read this book without having read that one, but Chills is delightful enough that I recommend reading it regardless. Behind the Door depicts a world in which the paranormal is a bit more readily available than in ours. It’s something of a poorly kept secret in some towns, where some folks believe and others don’t. In the woods just outside the town of Zarephath, Pennsylvania, there stands a Door. Local tradition holds that if you were to lay your burdens down in a letter, carefully wording how you wish them to be taken from you, then seal it with wax mixed with your blood and push the letter under the Door, within three days your wish will be granted. Not everyone will be happy with the results, however, so people are not generally encouraged to use the Door. There are two major rules one must follow when using the Door: never, ever open it, and never use it more than once. Kari, who lost her daughter Jessica to suicide, wishes to be rid of her pain. Toby, a pedophile, wishes to be rid of his terrible urges. Carl, who killed a boy in a hit-and-run, wishes it had never happened. When Kari’s wish goes wrong, she breaks the rules. Zarephath and its inhabitants will never be the same.

There are thankfully tales the older residents use to scare people into being careful with the Door, because the idea that nothing had gone wrong before now wouldn’t have made sense. There are stories Cicely tells of people wishing for the dead to return to life, only to have them return as walking corpses. She mentions to Kari that those who try to use the Door a second time die. Even everyday wishes get twisted and bent, and people are warned to word their requests carefully. There’s also a later explanation for why what Kari does is even possible (and why it isn’t known to have happened before), which is appreciated.

The characters are fantastic. Content warning: two of the characters are pedophiles, and they aren’t portrayed as wholly evil. That may be something people don’t want to read, but it’s handled skillfully. Retired Monroe County sheriff Bill Grainger, a major character who calls Kathy in and works with her and the current sheriff to free the town from evil, has also used the Door, and isn’t a perfect man. The characters are complex, and most of them, having used the Door at one point or another, are neither pure nor perfect. The sins of the town return to haunt them as, one by one, the granted wishes of the townspeople are rescinded, sometimes in unexpected ways.

The atmosphere is tense and engrossing. I read the book in one sitting, and then went looking for something more from SanGiovanni. The idea of what the Door might be does get addressed (there’s writing of some kind on the doorway), and it’s intriguing. The idea of why the wishes are granted isn’t addressed, but I feel like it’s at least possible to imagine some of the options from what’s here, and that’s good enough for me in this kind of story.

SanGiovanni’s world in which the occult is very much real, and more widely experienced than in our own, is full of possibility. I look forward to reading more!

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Review: “Chills,” Mary SanGiovanni

Pros: Wonderful icy horror!
Cons: Some interminable monologues; one obvious bad guy
Rating: 4 out of 5

A friend wrote a nice review of Mary SanGiovanni’s horror novel Chills, and I decided I had to give it a read. I’m so glad I did. Detectives Jack Glazier, Oliver Morris, and Reece Teagan, together with occult consultant Kathy Ryan, are charged with investigating a ritualistic homicide. It’s clear that in this reality, while most occult things are seen as superstition, they’re taken a bit more seriously than they are in the ‘real’ world. The town of Colby, Connecticut is experiencing a freak snowstorm in the middle of May, when they should be preparing for summer. As the bodies start adding up–much faster than one might think–it becomes clear that the snow is more than just snow. It’s a part of a cleansing that’s preparing the way for something much greater as the Hand of the Black Stars cult opens a forbidden doorway. Can Ryan and her colleagues avert the end of the world–and save Colby?

The detectives spend some time trying to find the cultists, and the identity of one bad guy is too obvious; there needed to be a few more side characters to obscure their identity. The other problem I had is that there are some overly-long monologues–one in dialogue, and several in the narrative. Particularly later on, when the pace should be picking up rather than slowing down. Most of the pacing is great, however, so it isn’t a huge problem.

SanGiovanni manages to create creepy, scary monsters that can show up in numbers without becoming too mundane. They’re Lovecraftian in feel but uniquely wintry in execution.

There was nothing alive as far as she could see, except for her…and the giant creature scaling the side of the hospital’s mental health ward in the moonlight.
“Oh fuck no,” she whispered.

There are bodies aplenty. We get to see quite a few of the deaths first-hand, building the tension up as the town’s population dwindles exceptionally quickly. Winter manages to be a setting, a weapon, and very nearly a character as well, with a mind of its own and death on its mind. I love the fact that the bad guys’ ritual is something very difficult, that they’ve tried before and failed at, that can easily go wrong and requires luck as well as hard work. This is not typical for most such stories. I also like the fact that while the good guys could simply rely on throwing off that ritual and it might be easier than finding a counterspell, that’s likely to cause grave repercussions that could cause additional problems. This gives the good guys plenty of reason to do their research, question their informants, and get it right.

There was a lot of blood, but there was more snow.

Chills was successful enough that I immediately bought Behind the Door, another Kathy Ryan book by Mary SanGiovanni. I plan to start reading it as soon as I’ve finished writing this review. I’m looking forward to reading more about this rather scary version of the world!

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Review: “Power of Magic,” Linsey Hall

Pros: Great action; tearful ending
Cons: Books are formulaic; one important spot doesn’t hold up
Rating: 4 out of 5

In book one of Linsey Hall’s “The Amazon” (book 26 of her “Dragon’s Gift” universe) Rowan had to keep her demon-touched power secret, start integrating her Dragon God magic, make nice with her new (and hot) teacher Maximus, and stop a couple of monstrous demon-birds from feeding on humans. In book two, Maximus came to the Protectorate for their help: evil witches were trying to steal the magical artifact that was a prize in a magical race. Maximus needed Rowan to be his partner in the race so they could get the prize instead. In book three, Rowan had to track down the Amazons, save them and Atlas, and figure out what the Stryx were up to next. In book four, Rowan and Maximus visited a seer who sent them off to track down the goddess Hecate. Now, in Power of Magic (Dragon’s Gift: The Amazon Book 5), Rowan gets an audience with the Great One of the Amazons, a seer. Through her she communicates with the three Titans the good guys have been trying to track down. The Titans straight-out invite Rowan to come to them at their fortress so they can kill her, and even give her a map. Sure, she knows it’s a trap and they’re only doing it to kill her, but it is true that she needs to get to them. First, she’ll just have to make a side-trip to Mount Olympus to gain the rest of her Dragon God powers!

My sisters had both gotten wings when they’d become Dragon Gods. To be honest, I’d quite like a pair myself.

Unless I turned into a bug. That’d be a letdown.

The formula holds true, of course. Our heroes set off on a major task or two (finalize Rowan’s powers; take out the Titans). They have to prove themselves worthy to various gods and other creatures. Since it’s the final book in the series heading up to a huge fight, the heroes collect new allies along the way who offer to show up to said final battle. The positive thing is that this tried-and-true Linsey Hall formula enables some great stuff. The worthiness tests allow Hall to explore an insanely wide variety of challenges, escapes, and trials that aren’t all straight-out fights. Rowan, like her sisters, gets a fun new form she can assume and gets to use that.

The one thing Rowan has had that her sisters did not (nor the Fire Souls) is her ‘darkness’ that she retained from her time being controlled by the Rebel Gods. It’s been obvious from the start that the question of how she’d deal with this darkness would be important to the finale. The problem is, the darkness has been largely abstracted. It’s a force that every now and then threatens to get free and gives Rowan a few dark thoughts. When it isn’t rumbling to get out, it’s nowhere to be seen at all. Because of this, the climactic moments in which she inevitably has to fight off the worst of the darkness are neither tense nor believable. If instead the darkness had contributed to a buildup of darker behavior and emotion on the whole, it would have been easy to buy into the idea that Rowan really was getting called to the dark side.

One of the real payoffs in this volume, of course, is the climactic battle of The Amazon sub-series. It’s a little on the short side for what I’d expect from book 30, but on a par with some of the others from other sub-series endings. It also had some lovely emotional moments and there might have been a tear or two in my eye. Just for a minute there, anyway.

This is a solid climax to the series, and I’m looking forward to seeing what Hall does next! A friend and I are half-convinced there’ll be an installment about Aerdeca and Mordaca.

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Latinx SFF StoryBundle!

I just picked up the latest StoryBundle; it’s available for the next three weeks. It’s a bunch of Latinx SFF novels! The bundles are a great way to check out new and interesting authors and books you might not have encountered before, for cheap.

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Review: “Lucky Revenge,” Joshua James

Pros: Plenty of machinations; great action
Cons: A bit confusing
Rating: 4 out of 5

In Joshua James’s Lucky Revenge: Lucky’s Marines | Book Six, the Cardinal Order has joined forces with the alien Dalmuk to attack the home world of the Empire. The Emperor is coming back with a fleet aided by the alien Da’hune to try to offset this. It seems like it’s going to be a fairly straightforward clash–but nothing involving Emperor April is ever straightforward. She has plans within plans, and she needs Lucky and his marines to go through an open “corridor” within space and blow it up from the other side.

It took me a little bit to work out again what all the various alliances were, so try to read this book while the previous one is still fresh in your mind.

I found some of April’s machinations a little opaque and overly complex. She tends to the extreme of paranoia and secret-keeping. It makes her character interesting, especially when paired with her particularly entertaining brand of crazy, but she does tend to over-complicate things. Maybe I’m just a little sleepy today, but I never did entirely figure out why she did certain things in a certain way and added particular layers to her plan.

The narrative tone is snarky, sarcastic, zingy, and clever. I really enjoy the feel it lends to the book.

“This would be hilarious if someone wasn’t trying to kill us,” Rocky offered. “Oh, wait, it’s still hilarious.”

The action quotient, as always, is high and creative. Lucky and his marines, while trying to deploy, get their drop ship blown up and end up making their way to a space station in a highly dangerous, unusual, and eventually hilarious manner. A chase scene that plays out on slow-moving cargo-loader drone platforms–something that sounds ridiculous–is explosive and exciting. As usual the Hate puts in an appearance and Lucky gets the ever-loving crap beat out of him. Things get seriously bloody, folks! Thanks to on-board AIs, nanobots, med bots, regeneration patches, and so on, the marines can take an awful lot of damage and keep on ticking.

Make sure to read past the author’s note at the end–the author included a copy of “Lucky Shot” in the kindle ebook version I read, which is Lucky’s origin story. This volume is a solid entry into the series, and I look forward to the next release!

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