Review: “Hunter,” Skyla Dawn Cameron

Rating: 5 out of 5

Skyla Dawn Cameron’s urban fantasy Hunter (Demons of Oblivion) (Volume 2) comes at the world from a different angle than book one, Bloodlines [review]. In that book, the main character was narcissistic vampiric assassin Zara Lain. In this book–which takes place I think a few years after the first–our main character is a very well-armed nun, Sister Ryann David. She’s 19 years old and about to graduate into being an official Hunter for the Venatores Daemonum. Their calling is to kill all demons (vampires count as demons). When one of their own is slaughtered by a vampire, a group including a couple of older Hunters (still under 30 as Hunters rarely survive past 30) and several new graduates is sent to destroy the vampire. Ryann is sent to make contact with a psychic named Ellie Rhys, who turns out to be a drunkard and a flirt who enjoys nettling Ryann. The vampire the group is going up against is incredibly dangerous, leaving many questions unanswered. Why has a group of mostly-new-graduates been sent after her? Why doesn’t she just kill them all when she encounters them? And why is Ryann, who’s only trying to do the right thing, becoming more and more ostracized by her peers?

I love Ryann as a character. She’s the polar opposite of Zara: empathetic, caring, thoughtful, and she doesn’t swear. She hasn’t really been in the outside world apart from an occasional grocery trip since she was a baby, when she was taken in by an orphanage from which the Venatores Daemonum recruit. She’s been told that her mother didn’t know who her father was and didn’t want to keep her. Her entire family is her fellow Hunters, but she doesn’t entirely fit in. She has a crush on her mentor, Christian, but then so does everybody, and anyway he’s together with fellow Hunter Grace even though that’s forbidden. She’s at odds with an older Hunter who’s leading this mission because, well, because he’s an asshole, honestly. Her friend Rebecca seems to be kind of a fair-weather friend at best. And Father Matthew seems to have something against her.

By trying to help Christian with something she gets on the bad side of her mission leader, who’s looking for any excuse to torpedo her career (which is also her life). She meets some good people–Ellie’s partners in the psychic detective business–who are kind to her.

There are plenty of fights–it doesn’t take long before Ryann runs into her first vampire. The vampires are stronger and faster, but Ryann has been trained all of her life to do just this. So even though she has problems and often needs help from her team, she still kicks ass. Zara does make an appearance in this one, and this clearly takes place after the end of book one but less than 10 years later (you’ll understand what that signifies if you’ve read the entirety of book one). Obviously any book in which she shows up is going to have a body count.

The pacing is on point, the characters are wonderful, there are more hints about some big event to come, and Zara calls Ryann “Buffy.” You can’t go wrong!

And though we did indeed serve God, our purpose was to purge the world of evil, not in spirit and mind alone, but in a body and with weapons.
Lots of weapons.

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Review: “Under Her Black Wings,” various authors

Rating: 4 out of 5

Under Her Black Wings: 2020 Women of Horror Anthology is an anthology of all female-authored stories (19 of them). The overall quality is quite good, although I found one or two stories that didn’t entirely appeal to me. I also thought it was a little tone-deaf to have a man write the foreword for a book of all women authors, as if someone thought the book wouldn’t stand on its own without at least one guy involved.

The only content warning I have is for some animal harm and some gore. Nothing extreme. I do have a mild objection to the fact that multiple stories identify their bad guys by bad teeth, which is really just another variation on the old “ugly = evil” stereotype that I hate so much. On an entertaining side though, I find it amusing that an anthology written by women has at least two stories for which the moral seems to be “never accept a party invitation from someone who wouldn’t normally give you the time of day.” That seems to be a very female-driven setup.

Alys Hobbs’s “What You Eat” is a bit bizarre. A young woman’s strange new governess keeps pushing food at her.

Carmen Baca’s “The Aztec” is intriguing. Señora Atlacamani Ahuatzi is looking for a particular woman who will suit her needs.

One of my favorite stories in here is “The Riddled Path” by Somer Canon. Mark takes his son’s Boy Scout troop for a hike and encounters a Sphynx. The Sphynx’s riddles are just entirely too much fun! Normally I find riddle stories to be kind of eh, but this one made me laugh out loud.

“Desert Kisses” by Michelle Garza and Melissa Lason is a satisfying tale of beyond-the-grave vengeance.

“Somewhere to Belong,” by Yolanda Sfetsos, is a very poignant story. It’s oddly horrifying and yet sort-of weirdly optimistic at the same time. Enid meets a mysterious little girl at the playground who wants to help her shed her loneliness.

Charlotte Munro’s “Heart for the Heartless” is a bizarre story of obsession and life after death. It has some nuance to it, although it’s also a bit “talky.”

Another favorite story is Stevie Kopas’s “The Darkness.” The world has ended in plague and a mysterious Darkness. Lana needs to find food before her starving younger sister Katie dies. It just gets awesome from there.

I didn’t entirely enjoy “Sarah Smiles.” I mean sure, it’s great to see a guy who obsesses over a girl and won’t give up after she breaks up with him get a rather harsh lesson in letting go, but the rest of the story is just sort of… random. It left me with too many unanswered questions.

“Goddess of the Lake” by Malena Salazar Maciá is short but sweet. Morgo decides to use two hapless refugees as bait in order to hunt the Goddess of the Lake. Only things don’t turn out the way he expected.

Sharon Frame Gay’s “Abigail’s Army” introduces us to two sisters during the Civil War trying to maintain their farm. When an injured soldier comes looking for a place to rest and hide, they offer to help him in exchange for his help with their farm. I started out disliking Abigail, and absolutely loved her at the end.

Sharon Frame Gay has a second story in here called “Road Rage.” Chris’s husband is a cheater, and he just died in a car accident. From there things get interesting.

Paula R.C. Readman wrote “Cold Calling,” a story in which Evelina has been roped into helping her boss’s daughter decorate for a Halloween party–and now she’s invited.

Copper Rose’s “Upon Acceptance” is the other story in which a woman receives an unexpected invite to a party with the beautiful people. This story felt a bit glib for its subject.

Maria Lanza’s “The Faceless Woman” involves a couple who are speculating about various urban legends connected to the place where they’re hanging out. The ending is a little abrupt.

Andrea Dawn’s “Kingdom By The Sea” is melancholy and beautiful. Allan is an orphan with a lung disease; there’s little he can do to help out in the whaling town where he lives. Then he meets a gorgeous, exotic woman who lives in the sea. This is a very poignant tale.

I feel like Dawn DeBraal’s “Unplugged” is a great concept with questionable execution. Vivian Markley, former pornstar, becomes good friends with her therapist, Dr. Lauren Fenton. The point of view is slippery; sometimes it slides from one character to another in the middle of a scene, which is very awkward. Also the pacing is odd, with too many short, terse sentences.

Interestingly, there are two stories involving Malaysian mythology. In Jill Girarde’s “Firstborn,” Adi Mansur’s wife Hajar is due to give birth at any time–while Adi has intense erotic dreams about a mysterious young woman. In Tina Isaacs’s “Pontianak,” Corey wants to visit Malaysia–but his father won’t let him go. Finally his dad tells his son the truth about what happened when he visited in his own youth. My only problem with this story is that it’s hard to imagine a father telling his teenaged son a story in this much explicit detail, down to phrases like “her moist core.”

Lydia Prime’s “Sadie” is short but interesting, starting off with a woman having absolutely bizarre nightmares that eventually bleed into reality.

All in all I enjoyed this anthology. It had a few rough spots, but otherwise was entirely worthwhile.

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Review: “Ramskull,” William Meikle

Rating: 5 out of 5

William Meikle’s Ramskull is an intense cosmic horror tale. In 1494, Alexander Seton, on order from the King, visits the site where an abbey will be built so he can find out why the crew has ceased construction of the foundation. There he finds a barrow that they’ve unearthed, and he sets the loosed beast to rest. Or so he believes. In the present day, Sergeant Dave Wilks and Constable John Campbell are called out to the island of Leita because an irascible old farmer is having some sort of trouble with his sheep. When they get there, they can’t find anyone. There’s an awful lot of blood that’s been spilled in the bar, however. They try to get hold of more police, but they’re out of radio range, there’s no cell tower, the only laptops in town have been destroyed, and the town radio and landline have both been destroyed. Then their boat goes missing.

The story follows both Alexander Seton dealing repeatedly with the site over the centuries (he doesn’t age, as he has some of the “darkness” within him as well), and Dave and John dealing with it in the present. I’m hoping Seton shows up in some of Meikle’s other books, because he seems like a fascinating character and I’d like to know more about him. Dave and John are good characters. Dave’s the grizzled close-to-retirement cop, and John’s the fresh-faced new guy, but they both have more to them than those stereotypes. The farmer Grainger and his wife, Jan, are probably my favorite characters in here. They turn out very differently than how I thought they would! I find it amusing that in so many of Meikle’s books, you can tell when the main character hits a certain threshold of stress because they go back to smoking, which they apparently quit some time ago.

The good guys end up dealing with a man who has a ram’s skull for a head, and his crazed cannibalistic followers. They even find themselves getting sucked in by the creature’s magic. Of course they’re trapped on this island, with no idea at what point the cops might realize they’re missing and come to find them. Their armory consists of some flares, a shotgun, and some kitchen knives, and that isn’t likely to be enough! The pacing is excellent, building up from a creepy empty town to a slasher-fest.

There are some unanswered questions. In particular, early on Dave goes into a room and sees it filled with gore. Later he returns to the room and it’s spotless (although it’s obvious from a trail of blood leading up to the door that it really has been somehow cleaned). We never do figure out what happened there.

Content note for gore, cannibalism, and animal death.

“I think the whole fucking island is a crime scene.”

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Review: “Bloodlines,” Skyla Dawn Cameron

Rating: 5 out of 5

After reading Skyla Dawn Cameron’s urban fantasy Blood Ties [review], I had to go back and start on one of her other series. I started in with Bloodlines (Demons of Oblivion Book 1). Zara Lain is a 300-year-old vampire who was “turned” when she was 17. She’s a delightful wish-fulfillment badass who is capable of taking down bad guys with more than a little snark along the way. Her old friend Mishka (a witch) sometimes passes on assassination contracts to her, and she has a new one: Mishka’s parents want the head of a rival coven killed. Mishka promises an additional $10 million if Zara will kill sexy, brooding Nathan Gregory, the target’s son, at the same time. She infiltrates a big party hoping to kill both of her targets and steal anything that isn’t nailed down. Not all goes as planned, and soon there are entire covens being massacred and vampires being kidnapped. Zara has to take what help she can–from an annoying flirt of a vampire (Jamie), to a demonologist who’s a fan of hers (Peter), and even Mishka’s mother (Heaven). Oh, yeah–and sexy, brooding warlock Nate.

Zara is the poster child for an unlikable protagonist who nonetheless remains perfectly engaging. She’s almost entirely narcissistic, sarcastic as hell, and totally, utterly tactless. She got into thieving–followed by assassination–because after 300 years she got a bit bored. It takes a long time for Nate and the others to worm any trace of empathy or sympathy out of her. She’s all sass and very nearly does not give a whit about anyone other than herself.

Nate and Jamie are fun. Jamie flirts shamelessly with Zara while Nate refuses to take any interest in her (despite her shamelessly flirting with him–but then, he is a recent widow). Nate and Jamie end up bickering so much I half expected them to end up in bed together! The two vamps and a warlock make a fun triangle.

Zara is a violent narcissist who has no problem killing people for money, or because she got a little hungry, or because they got in her way. I’m sure that won’t be every reader’s cup of tea, but I had fun with her. There are rumors of Armageddon, so I’m looking forward to seeing if that goes anywhere in later books. In particular, I thought that the plot revolving around the vampires who are being kidnapped was original and fascinating.

Content note for sex and child death.

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Review: “Coney Island Siren,” Theresa Varela

Rating: 5 out of 5

Theresa Varela’s Coney Island Siren is a little outside my regular reading–more literary fiction than genre fiction–but I picked it up in a Latinx “dark fiction” storybundle.

First, a warning. Content note for emotional and physical domestic violence, partner rape, and drug use. Not just a line or two, or a scene or two, but the whole theme of the book. A number of you might want to skip this one; it’s hard to read. That said, it’s written extremely well.

Maggie is a nurse; her boyfriend Frank is a police officer. He’s handsome and charming, but we quickly see that something isn’t quite right about their relationship. Maggie’s “intuition” leads her to an old journal, in which she reads about the life of Ellen, a young maid whose own life echoes Maggie’s in eerie ways. Dulce Fortunato is Maggie’s best friend and another nurse on the same ward. Dulce has been trying to encourage Maggie to leave Frank, but she’s losing her patience. It doesn’t help that Maggie has started stealing patients’ pain meds, not to mention getting dope, and more, from Frank. When Frank gives Maggie a head injury, she starts to unravel. Things get strange. She seems to be imagining things that haven’t happened.

The characters are excellent. There’s a nurse’s aide named Mrs. Graham who could have easily been the stereotypical gossipy, judgmental, lazy nurse, but her attention and caring toward her charges belies that. We can see at the beginning that Maggie is a nurse who cares about her job, but as she slips deeper into despair and drug use, not to mention some brain damage, that unravels. Dulce really does try to be there for Maggie, and by the time she starts pulling away we can understand why.

It’s hard to say whether there’s anything paranormal about this story. Maggie mentions seeing auras at one point. Her “intuition” is never delved into very far. Not that it particularly matters to the story one way or the other, but it becomes an interesting question.

Thanks to Ellen’s journal, which Maggie reads at intervals, we sort of get two abusive relationships for the price of one.

This was an intriguing read, and in some ways it could really benefit from a re-read. I don’t think I could bring myself to re-read all of that abuse, however.

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Review: “Forgotten Magic,” Various Authors

Rating: 3 out of 5

This is volume three in an unusual trilogy. Each author provides one story in each volume as their own individual little trilogies: Forgotten Magic (Magic Underground Anthologies Book 3) is part three. Unfortunately, I wasn’t entirely happy with how this series ended up. I gave book one (Hidden Magic [review]) a 4/5, because it was a nifty set of stories. Not all of them were great, but some of them definitely caught my eye. I gave book two (Wayward Magic [review]) a 3/5, because there was some serious second-story slump, along with some other issues. Now I’m giving book three also a 3/5. My impression was that these trilogies would stand decently well alone. Sure, they might introduce you to an author’s work, but if you’re reading “a trilogy,” you expect the story to come to some sort of a meaningful, satisfying conclusion at the end. Many of these stories did not, and it was frustrating.

A goodly handful of these stories picked up in odd places compared to where they left off last time. I had trouble reconciling them together, and many of the transitions were confusing. Each three stories by each author still add up to a relatively short story, so it’s weird to have some of them be so disjointed and in some ways unconnected. I still can’t figure out how Toasha Jiordano’s “Dreams of Valonde” got from part two to part three, and found the whole thing entirely confusing. Raven Oak’s “Honor After All” picks up sometime after its second story with a pregnant Shara having left the Order of Amaska and being in hiding from her brother. That’s a lot of important events relegated to the empty space between stories. Alesha Escobar’s “The Great Return” involves the same main character as in story number one, without addressing anyone or anything from story number two, and it’s so much later in the main character’s story that we’re obviously missing a wealth of information. Story number two really should have been used to fill in those gaps instead.

Many of these stories don’t have a satisfying ending. Gwendolyn Woodschild’s “The Rebellion” (which picks up 450 years after the second story) just doesn’t really end. Same with Tiffany Shand’s “Bound by Darkness” (which picks up 5 years after its second story). Melinda Kucsera’s “Spells of Scales & Steel” ends in the middle of things, and also relied heavily on characters that are apparently from the time before the first story began, so I constantly felt like I was missing something. Also, having a Christ-like figure in a fantasy world may not be new, but it’s certainly heavy-handed in this story (the figure goes by J.C.). H.M. Jones’s “Ariana’s Gift” also leaves off in the middle of the story.

One favorite story I’ve been following has been Majanka Verstraete’s Red God story. I find the worldbuilding intriguing, and the characters really interesting. Saleyna is an Empath who is attempting to infiltrate the ranks of the Priests of the Red God to figure out how to bring them down. Only she’s found something much more complicated than she bargained for. Unfortunately, and to my frustration, this story ends in the middle of things. It isn’t remotely satisfying.

Anela Deen’s “Through a Valley of White Mist” is an exception to the above-mentioned problems. I love Simith and Jessa’s story, and I think it ended in a very satisfying place. Another favorite is S. Wallace’s “The Prodigal Son.” It’s years later for Al and Urk, and they have a handful of half-minotaur, half-centaur children. One of those children, Droless, is imprisoned for his crimes, and his family tries to save him. This is a fascinating story, and very satisfying. Yet another good story is H.B. Lyne’s “The Forgotten.” Veteran Felix’s sister is dead, and the “demon” riding in his head is prodding him into blaming the shapeshifters he saw. This story does leave off before it’s finished, but it’s not quite so blatant as some of them.

“Aamira: Letting Go” by Barbara Letson finds Aamira all grown up and working as a doctor. She’s still using her abilities to save children, but she has to face the dark figure again. This story was actually pretty beautiful, and I got pulled into it more than I did with the first two installments. I think William C. Cronk’s final installment, “Great Sun Trilogy, Part III: Bands of Iron” is better than the previous two installments. People’s actions make more sense, and things wrap up in a satisfactory manner. Joynell Schultz’s “The Mail-Order Witch: Episode Three” is quite good and follows nicely from the previous two stories about Ettie’s magic shop. In this installment we finally figure out who was behind everything.

Devorah Fox’s “The Mouth of the Dragon: Revelations” concludes her philosophy-based trilogy. I still don’t like it. Actually, I like it even less than I did before. Heavy-handed philosophy stories are not something I find interesting, and this one is really bald-faced. But this time around the story had an additional issue. In the previous stories, Prince Bewilliam has left one of his knights behind in each of the bizarro towns they’ve passed through. We eventually find out that each of his knights has “fixed” the over-the-top weird behavior of the natives in each town. Yes, the more civilized strangers taught the befuddled natives how to be better. It’s gross. Also, Prince Bewilliam is painted as being a fairly good guy, yet his big regret in life is that he wants “his sons back.” Well, one of those sons took religious orders, and the other is trans. Yes, the sorrow Bewilliam carries is that one of his sons is actually his daughter. And I’m supposed to like this character??

Leah W. Van Dinther’s “The Fort and the Fair” is just… weird. Along with the fact that it doesn’t really wrap anything up, it’s just hard to believe in. Carol (who sees ghosts) gets roped into a game played with Tarot cards that involves betting heirloom-quality trinkets. Which everyone at the table seems to have in abundance, just carried around on their persons while at a fair. It’s obviously a trap to enable Freddie to take the moonstone ring from her, and she just… goes along with it. I should also note that accents in this story are very one-note stereotypes. “Ze” for “the” and “Ah” for “I,” things like that. When it comes to accents, if you can’t do it right, just don’t do it at all. Mention the accent and move along.

C.S. Johnson’s “The Ones Who Choose” is also a bit of a philosophical story. So far we have learned that all unhappiness and injury in the village is magically transferred to one small boy who has to bear it all so that the rest of the population can be happy. Skyla is determined to save him, but apparently humanity is so naturally sadistic that the moment everyone loses this sink for their negative emotions, they go crazy. Content note for domestic violence. I mean, I get it that these people haven’t had to learn to control their emotions, but it’s way over the top.

A.R. Johnston’s “Weather Witch Weapon” is pretty good. The language gets over-expository. The bad guys (Willow and her father) are total stereotypes. And I’m still trying to figure out how it devolved into a scythe-fight? Between characters who are largely much more about wielding magic? But at least it has a satisfying ending! C.K. Rieke’s “Parallel Princess: The Wizard and the Demon” is about a princess who got shuttled off to the land of the fae in order to save her from an attack. That’s the plot of the first story, and the plot of the second story (separate trips to the fae realm). It’s pretty close to the plot of the third story, although finally we get some more information, there’s some decent action, and the princess has gained some personality.

I’m going to have to ding Lee French and Erik Kort’s “The Greatest Sin: A Sacrifice of Soul” a bit, which I hate doing, because I love their writing overall, this story was very well-written, and I love the world they’ve created (buy the rest of the books in the series!). But I think this third story would be really hard to grasp if you haven’t read any of the actual books in the series, and even then I had a hard time making sense of it. I’m still not sure what happened.

I wish more of these “trilogies” stood alone, and that fewer of them were so disjointed from story to story. There are some excellent characters and worlds in here, but that isn’t really enough to make up for the rest.

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Review: “Hidden City,” Alan Baxter

Rating: 5 out of 5

Alan Baxter’s paranormal/urban fantasy novel Hidden City absolutely intrigued me with its worldbuilding. Steven is a citymage, a man with some small “talent” who’s able to commune with Cleveport City, his jealous mistress. His best friend Abby is a cop who doesn’t really believe in magic, but sometimes has to admit that reality can get a little weird around the edges. Right now she has six mysterious bodies with no obvious cause of death, and she thinks they may be “his kind of people.” Gina Baker is a young woman with a small talent in illusions, and she watches her boyfriend Trev die from an overdose of a magical drug that shouldn’t be able to cause overdoses. Jerry Rundle is an entirely ordinary cop who finds himself caught up in a mystery of naked people running around attacking folks, and turning into fibrous masses. There are pools of tiny fungi sending up spores and turning people into these lunatics. He’s doing everything he can, but magic is definitely not his forte. Add in a Russian mob boss irate over the loss of his drug shipment, and things start going to hell quite rapidly!

One of my favorite details of this book is a tiny throw-away thing near the front. Steven and Abby have been friends since they were 8 years old. At one time they tried out having a fling, but it didn’t work out and they mutually went back to being best friends/adopted family. Nowhere is there any hint that Steven feels he has somehow been “friend-zoned.” I am so grateful to Baxter for not including that all-too-common crap, and it makes Steven all the more likable.

The characters in general have a lot of depth to them. Abby is a smartass. Gina puts on a hard exterior, but is intelligent and street-smart. Jerry is starting to think that early retirement might be a good idea, and he happily adopts a dog he finds at one of the crime scenes. There’s a group of technomages who feel they’re better than other mages–more “evolved”–but our rag-tag group of heroes will need their help before long.

There’s a lot going on in here! The fungal infection and the lunatics spreading it, mysterious bodies with no obvious injury or poison in their system, a harmless high that suddenly isn’t harmless any more, and the magic level in the city is climbing fast. Steven and Gina find their abilities growing–this is very handy in places, but it could also be a problem. The biggest questions are how are these things related (if they are), and what’s the source of it all? There’s a ton of action built around answering these questions and more.

My only wish is that there were more books in this universe. The concept of a citymage is fascinating, and I’d like to see more of it.

His was a jealous city. He had always loved her, but had no idea until far too late that she loved him back.

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Review: “Hungry Rain,” Brian Fatah Steele

Rating: 3 out of 5

Brian Fatah Steele’s horror novella Hungry Rain takes place at Woodlands Resort and Camping. A heavy rain falls, leaving behind a strange odor that primarily contaminates the lakes. Later that night, horrific creatures come stalking out of the lakes, casually killing all who flee before them.

I’m actually not convinced that this book had protagonists. It had named people who died about 30 seconds after being introduced, and named people who lasted a few scenes instead of 30 seconds. It kind of seemed like manager Hank might be the main character at first, then it seemed to be girlfriends Laney, Amanda, and Demi, along with possibly college students Mark and Todd (who are working at the mini golf course for the summer). But there were other named characters who stuck around for a while–really too many to be a standard ensemble cast. It was just… unsettling. I was never sure who I was supposed to be identifying with or rooting for.

Some characters, both side and central, are a bit too on-the-nose and one-note. Like open-carry-gun-nut, sexually-liberated-college-student, “budding psychopath” 10-year-old bully (really, we could tell he was a budding psychopath from the descriptions of what he does; we didn’t need to be told it explicitly), and so on. A few characters, such as Amanda and Mark, have more dimension to them thankfully.

The battle is too one-sided. There’s nothing that can harm the monsters. Bullets just annoy them, and no one really has the means to try anything else. The one character who has a science background–just enough to hint at what might be causing this–isn’t used for anything other than postulating about what’s going on. For some reason everyone seems to think that as long as they can live until morning they’ll be okay, but there’s no actual reason for that.

Of course there’s no phone service, but this actually does become a plot point, so that worked out okay. In fact, my favorite part of the book was the very end. Things actually get interesting, the situation changes, we learn a lot more, and I found what was going on to be very intriguing.

Content note for child death and description of animal harm, as well as plenty of general gore.

“Ahh, hell no. This is some white people horror movie shit. Where’s Jordan Peele?”

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Review: “Seeing Things,” Sonora Taylor

Rating: 5 out of 5

Sonora Taylor’s Seeing Things is every bit as good as her Without Condition [review], and I loved that book. She has a knack for taking well-used story elements like serial killers or seeing ghosts and turning them into something more.

Abby is thirteen years old and wants to visit her Uncle Keith and Aunt Sandra over her summer vacation. Keith plans to spend the summer renovating the old family homestead, and would be happy to have her help. Of course, things aren’t going entirely well these days. Sandra left Keith. Keith just lost his job as an English teacher. And as for Abby? Well, she just started seeing dead people. Like the girl in the locker at school, crushed into that small space, her eyes gouged out, blood running into the hallway. None of the ghosts she sees, however, have any interest in talking to her. Quite the opposite, in fact. One ghost even flips her the bird before running away. When she finally arrives to visit Keith, one of the first things she sees is the streams of blood running out and down from the house.

The book perfectly depicts the awkwardness of puberty and entering one’s teen years, and how this affects your relationships, especially with family members. Abby is none too happy when her parents virulently reject what she says she saw, but she learns quickly to not tell them anything. Her parents also argue about whether they should really let her go visit Keith with all that’s going on in his life. They opine that he shouldn’t be saddled with “babysitting” her, and her father keeps dismissing Keith as a lazy good-for-nothing. Abby’s understandably hurt, since she thought Uncle Keith liked her visits and didn’t see them as babysitting. When she visits him, there’s so much awkwardness around his lost job and all of the other subjects that seem to come up. It all strikes so true. It makes a great context for the abilities Abby has suddenly developed and has to come to terms with.

Abby of course starts noticing a handful of ghosts around this small town, and has some interesting interactions with both the living and the dead. Keith has found a part-time job at a bookstore, and Abby is frustrated it’ll eat into her time with him during her visit. This is a nice opportunity for us to meet a couple of new characters, and for Abby’s ability to come into play a bit.

The pacing is great. Things start a bit gradually, and this is never a high-octane read, but it’s still riveting. It’s a relatively short read, and like Without Condition, it goes to some unexpected places.

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Review: “Wayward Magic,” Various Authors

Rating: 3 out of 5

This is an unusual trilogy of anthologies. The idea is, each author involved wrote a trilogy of interconnected or continuing stories, with the first found in Hidden Magic [review], the second found in Wayward Magic (Magic Underground Anthologies Book 2), and the third found in Forgotten Magic. Back when trilogies of novels were more common, it wasn’t unusual for their to be a second-act slump in the middle book. Unfortunately, a lot of these short story trilogies also suffer from a second-act slump, so I’m giving this book a 3/5 instead of the 4/5 of its predecessor.

Don’t worry though; there are still some excellent stories in here. Raven Oak’s “Pretty Poison” picks up with Shendra and her brother ten years after the first installment. They’ve been sent by their order to kill a man, only things get complicated. In Majanka Verstraete’s “The Lair of the Red God,” Saleyna, a mage who has the ability of Empathy, tries to settle into her new role pretending to be a follower of the Red God. I love this story and setting just as much as I did in the first book; it’s tense and intriguing. “The Mail-Order Witch: Episode II,” by Joynell Schultz, is an adorable story of a witch and a warlock who are trying their best to fit in amongst the non-magical while being “out of the closet.” This time someone seems to have set an awful lot of hamsters loose in Ettie’s magic shop to wreak havoc!

In H.B. Lyne’s “The Watcher,” former military man Felix Jones is one of a very few people who seem to realize that part of the city has gone missing, and he’s determined to find his sister Julie, who disappeared with it. Anela Deen’s “When Day Fades Into Night” continues the story of pixie knight Simith and human Jessa, who now share a single life-force. Simith is being forced to enable the continuation of a war between faeries and trolls, while both he and Jessa suffer from being separated. Finally, Lee French and Erik Kort bring us “The Greatest Sin: A Sacrifice of Body,” in which Algernon and his parents and grandmother have fled to a sanctuary. Their enemy Miru is already there, but he can’t attack them while they’re within the sanctuary. There seem to be other secrets afoot, however, and poor traumatized Algernon can’t figure out how to tell his parents that he had to kill people in order to save himself and his grandmother.

Some of the stories involve too much navel-gazing. Others really don’t stand on their own at all; the stories I mentioned above have their own story to tell, while some of the rest are just interludes in the middle. At least one story is very overwrought, and contains no less than six characters whose names start with the same letter–some of which are very similar to each other–so good luck keeping the characters straight (Braxton and Baxter in particular are both boyfriends of teenage girls, so it’s very easy to confuse them). One story is quite short and confusing.

In general S. Wallace’s “Better the Devil You Know,” with its main characters being the married centaur and minotaur warriors, was good except that the Baron of Wings seemed to behave inexplicably oddly at points. Also there was so much blow-by-blow action that it actually got a little boring. One story was so out-of-touch with its first part from the first anthology that I had to go back and read the other story to figure out which one it was, and even then they had only the most tenuous of connections. Another tale is pretty much just a repeat of its first installment–a princess is whisked away to the fae realm for safety, spends time seeing the wonders and wishing she could go home. Not much actually happens.

My least-favorite story is based on the work of a philosopher, and boy does it show it. Towns have names like “Here” “There” and “Near,” and we’re told straight out what trait each town embodies. I prefer to read my genre fiction, not be hit over the head by it.

“Aamira: Healer,” by Barbara Letson, is somewhat interesting; a girl who can heal people encounters a mysterious dark figure who may be Death. In C.S. Johnson’s “The Ones Who Fight,” a settlement remains happy and healthy by shifting all of their pain and damage and unhappiness onto a mysterious boy, and in this installment the main characters who found out about him decide to free him. (Not as heavy-handed as the other story with a philosophical bent, and the surrounding story is more interesting and better-written.)

A story about a ghostly Viking takes an intriguing turn. Another story about two young men on the run from their family and town is good, but I still find myself wondering how so many people in the first installment could have turned on the boys so rabidly. Melinda Kucsera’s “Spell of Bone & Ash” involves dark magic, weird owl-monkey-cats, and a comatose mage fighting off evil. The critters are weird, but this is an interesting story and I look forward to seeing what happens.

This isn’t the high point of the trilogy, but I’m still going to read volume three because there are stories in here that I really care about.

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