Short Take: “Clockwork Dragon,” Lee French, Jeffrey Cook

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

Lee French and Jeffrey Cook’s novella Clockwork Dragon introduces us to Dwago, a clockwork dragon who was just brought to life. “Papa,” the wizard and engineer who brought him to life, has tasked him with three roles: to be a companion to Papa’s daughter, Rozalia. To protect Rozalia. And to help Papa finish creating a new, clockwork heart with which to replace Rozalia’s ailing heart. The only outsiders who ever come to visit are Gita, who takes care of the housework, and Mr. Drac, who seems to be distant family of some sort. Fixing Rozalia’s heart, however, won’t be the end of this little story.

Dwago is positively adorable, and the tale is told from his point of view as he does his very best to fulfill his obligations. Gita is a strong, brave woman who adds so much to the tale, and Rozalia is a sweetheart. The characters are, in large part, very wholesome. It’s nice sometimes to see some genuinely good characters in fiction.

There’s a surprising amount of tension to this story! Chase scenes, evil spells, walking suits of armor, fierce wolves… Dwago has a lot to worry about when protecting Rozalia. And the castle they’re living in has some real surprises in store for them!

Absolutely pick up this delightful little story. It’s quite fun!

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Review: “Beyond the Gate,” Mary SanGiovanni

Pros: Still interesting
Cons: Not much happening
Rating: 3 out of 5

Mary SanGiovanni’s next novel about occult consultant Kathy Ryan is Beyond the Gate (A Kathy Ryan Novel). A company called Paragon Corp is dabbling in opening doorways between universes. When something inevitably goes wrong, they call in Kathy Ryan to help them. After all, closing doorways and keeping out monsters is in her job description. They end up sending her and several other people through the gateway and into a seemingly uninhabited world. Their mission: to rescue missing scientists, collect information, and find their way home again.

That sounds a little sparse, doesn’t it? I mean sure, it could be fleshed out into something quite meaty, but it isn’t. And that’s disappointingly different from the other Kathy Ryan books. Those had plenty of monsters and chases and fights and all that jazz. This story is mostly telling, going over facts about Kathy and other worlds that we already know from other SanGiovanni books or just ruminating overly long about what’s going on in this book. I honestly didn’t find it all that interesting. The material set in the other universe spends most of its time on getting lost in a giant, mostly-empty city.

I also wasn’t thrilled with the climax. We’re finally introduced to some big, bad entities, but then it felt as though they were so powerful that SanGiovanni didn’t really know what to do with them. There’s a disappointingly short and relatively uninteresting climax to the book and it doesn’t do much to answer any questions. I felt like this could have been condensed and turned into the first third of a longer, more intense work.

It’s certainly possible to do this kind of low-key horror with not too much physical happening, but it’s not what we’ve come to expect from the Kathy Ryan novels. And it doesn’t mesh with what Kathy finds out about the world they’re visiting.

The other books also had a much more traditional horror approach to their bad guys, primarily relying on cultists. This time it’s a large corporation with ties to the US government. It’s a whole different feel, and I don’t think all readers will like the transition. I think it was good enough, although some of it was a bit obvious. The corporation had a weird tendency to just let obviously messed-up things leave their premises, yet at the same time tended to round up the main characters any time they found them, using standard-issue goons with guns. Only a few of the corporation folks broke the mold enough to give it some variety.

I still plan to check out another Kathy Ryan novel assuming there is one, but I hope it goes back to a more familiar style.

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Short Take: “Green Door,” William Meikle

Pros: I just love this strange world Meikle has developed
Cons: A little confusing
Rating: 4 out of 5

I’ve read quite a few novellas by William Meikle at this point, although none from his Sigils & Totems/Midnight Eye books. Green Door: A Sigils & Totems / Midnight Eye Novella (The William Meikle Chapbook Collection 2) fits in well with his other cosmic horror (I couldn’t help but recognize the song lyric, “And the Dreaming God is singing where he lies”). Derek Adams is approached by young David Balfour at the pub. Balfour wants to hire Adams to find a mysterious green door. Balfour seems to understand that Adams is aware of unusual things beyond this world, and is not surprised to find out he bears a sigil on his arm. The door belongs to one of a group of places called “Sigil houses,” that call to people and put them in touch with things beyond the veil. Adams spends a fair amount of time and money tracking down the door, and when he finds it, he discovers it’s being put to use by people who maybe shouldn’t be messing with things they don’t entirely understand.

I wouldn’t recommend this as your first Meikle book; I probably should have read some other Sigils & Totems books first, since I felt a little left behind by the start of things. It didn’t take too long to get my bearings, though. It’s a fairly quick read, and I think my favorite part of it was Balfour and how he turns out. I also enjoyed watching Adams work his neighborhood network of contacts to get the information he needed and track down the door–there are some real characters that come together in a very short space and they’re a lot of fun. I would have liked to see a little more depth to Jennings as well, but that’s a minor thing.

If you’re fond of cosmic horror, I definitely recommend Meikle’s work. I always know I’m going to have a good read when I pick up one of his pieces!

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Short Take: “Then Will the Sun Rise Alabaster,” Benjanun Sriduangkaew

Pros: Fantastic worldbuilding
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s novella Then Will the Sun Rise Alabaster takes place in the same world as her book And Shall Machines Surrender [review]. In this story, a woman named Panthida (referred to as Sister Josephine) lives in an Abbey. Many orphans are taken in and trained to join the sisterhood here. There is much use of corporal punishment (Panthida has scars all over her back), and old names and identities are driven out of the young women. One day, someone from the armed Order of Eshim arrives, Anoushka, bringing a new sister, Numadesi, to join the Abbey. Panthida is drawn to them both, but it takes little time for her to realize that they’re dangerous to her carefully-ordered world. What could their agenda be?

Content note for explicit lesbian sex (f/f and fff). Anoushka, if you’ve read some of Sriduangkaew’s other tales, is also known as the Alabaster Admiral. I really love this character, so I’m thrilled to see more of her. She’s a powerful, dominating warlord with a thirst for women.

The worldbuilding is probably my favorite part of this. It’s told from Panthida’s point of view, and the dystopian future it paints is quite vivid and detailed. Still, there’s a sense of hope to it all. This is a wonderful short story in an engaging universe. If you want to see a little more first, there’s an online story called Where Machines Run With Gold that first introduces Numadesi to Anoushka. (Content note for very explicit sex!)

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Review: “Retribution,” Joshua James

Pros: Excellent follow-on to the Lucky’s Marines series!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Lucky’s back! The “Lucky’s Marines” series may have ended with book nine [review], but Lucky himself carries on in Joshua James’s Retribution: Lucky’s Mercs | Book 1 Lucky, Jiang, and Malby joined up with a crew of mercenaries–Otto, Knives, Spider, and Merlin–when the Empire and the Emperor went full-on psycho and pretty much wrecked themselves. It’s been three months, and the crew finally has a job offer. There’s clearly something fishy going on–no one should be offering them that much money for a babysitting job–but they’re running out of money. If they want to stay operational, they need the cash. They’re supposed to watch over a shipment on a train on an alien world, protecting it from the aliens who want the cargo. Meanwhile, the Empire is ditching the planet and leaving in a hurry. The aliens turn out to be very afraid of something called Blight, which is a networked mind operating super-soldier bodies, with the ability to siphon information directly from a person’s brain (ouch–it isn’t pleasant). Knives is bound and determined to do the job and get out, but Lucky, as usual, has to save the world. If Blight and his army of one gets off-planet, it could do an awful lot of damage.

It’s interesting watching the new team jostle and jockey for position and understanding. Spider’s willing to follow Jiang’s lead, more or less, because Jiang seems to have her head on straight. Merlin goes where Spider goes, and Knives needs the rest of them in order to get his money. Lucky will always be a reluctant hero, even if he is the hyper-violent kind (violence alert!). The book notes up front that this second series is meant to be able to stand alone, so you don’t need to have read Lucky’s Marines. Since I have read that series I can’t say for sure, but I believe it actually does stand up well on its own. Even the complicated things like the Hate are fairly well summed up just by explaining they were the products of Empire skunkworks (special projects), which works surprisingly well.

The characters are fun. They’re just beginning to be sketched out as we start the new series, but there’s already some character growth and interesting relationships forming. In her own way, Jiang is pretty much the one holding the party together with her quiet strength and sheer competence; without her Lucky would be screwed. Spider is an interesting character who clearly has a fascinating background, and it looks like we’ll be poking into that quite soon. Malby is his old, crazy, foolish self, and Merlin is a depressed cyborg who’s having a sexual relationship with an AI. It’s all just plain fun! And if you have read and enjoyed Lucky’s Marines, you’ll find more of what you’re looking for in here, but minus Emperor April’s occasionally too-twisted crazy plans. I think it’s the perfect setup.

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Review: “Laughter at the Academy,” Seanan McGuire

Pros: These stories made me feel things
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Laughter at the Academy is a book of stand-alone short stories by Seanan McGuire (you don’t need to have read any of her series in order to read these stories–if you’ve never read her work before, this would be a great introduction!). The span of genres is great: science fiction, urban fantasy, horror, bio-thriller (more bio than thriller), apocalyptic, cosmic horror, and even a story set in a steampunk realm. Every story in here was a winner for me, which can be unusual in anthologies (although less unusual in single-author anthologies). Some stories naturally hit me harder than others, but I have to tell you, I felt things while reading these. I may have even bawled my eyes out once.

The first story, Laughter at the Academy, introduces us to the idea of Schizotypal Creative Genius Personality Disorder, and how it results in outbreaks of mad scientists. It’s a wonderful, twisted, beautiful take on mad scientists and how they’re created.

There are some stories that I can’t explain much about without giving too much away, but that gave me a really nice chill or shudder. Lost is one of these, and it starts with children being drawn to the night sky. Crystal Halloway and the Forgotten Passage introduces us to a portal fantasy, where a young woman has been saving a fantasy land in her spare time. This is definitely a chilling one! Frontier ABCs involves a not-as-young-as-she-looks schoolteacher and the guns she makes use of in her spare time.

I’ve always been a big fan of bio-terror end-of-the-world stories, and The Tolling of Pavlov’s Bells delivers quite nicely. A scientist who’s been trying to warn the world about the dangers of disease decides she’s warned humanity enough. Each to Each is neither bio-terror nor end-of-the-world, but it has hints of both. Women serving in the Navy are being modified to survive in the sea, and all the details that go into that are fascinating. Lady Antheia’s Guide to Horticultural Warfare details how a race of alien plants comes to earth. The first to make it ate a young lady’s maid, taking on her memories and understanding, allowing her to grow close to the ruling humans.

Uncle Sam is an unexpected treat. To quote the intro, “This is the story of Uncle Sam, and the founding of the United States of America, and why girls always go to the bathroom in groups…” (If that combination doesn’t intrigue you, nothing will!) It’s a little riff on modern folklore. Driving Jenny Home is a bittersweet telling of a phantom girlfriend who asks for a ride home. I shed a few tears. Another folklore-based story is In Skeleton Leaves, which is a very unusual Peter Pan tale.

Emeralds to Emeralds, Dust to Dust is an “urban fantasy film noir” take on the world of the Wizard of Oz. Dot is a Princess of Oz, the Crossover Ambassador, and the Wicked Witch of the West–and she has to solve a murder in a city where everyone hates her. This story is sharp as a knife!

Homecoming is my favorite story in here, even though it centers around football and cheerleaders, which I have no interest in. A mysterious game of football is played with cheerleaders who seem to know more than they’re saying. The sides are chosen as the game progresses, and that isn’t the only irregularity. This one, umm, might have actually made me cry. “October never ends if the game is never truly finished.”

We Are All Misfit Toys in the Aftermath of the Velveteen War is another story that I found absolutely gripping. When AI was discovered, we were (for once) smart enough to not put it in charge of our weapons or our healthcare system or anything like that. No, we built it into toys that were made to be self-learning teachers to our children. Yeah, that couldn’t possibly go wrong… “The war is over and the war will never end.” My favorite touch in this story is that the first AI toys were built to help non-neurotypical children, who needed a friend who could adapt to their needs.

The Lambs is another take on how smart robots might be used. Someone developed robots who can pass as human. Bullying was such a problem in schools that there was at least one “lamb” inserted into each class. Their purpose was both to draw the ire of the bullies away from other loners, and to record all the instances of bullying so that they could ‘tell on’ the bullies at graduation. There’s a lot of fascinating detail in how they have to balance everything in order to keep people from identifying the lambs, and we definitely get into the down sides of putting children under constant surveillance.

A couple of these stories have very unusual formats. Bring About the Halloween Eternal!!! is, in fact, told as a Kickstarter campaign! It’s a hilarious and fun look at how someone plans to bring about an eternal Halloween, and defeat her older sister, who wants to make Christmas rule. Office Memos is told through, what else, office memos. It’s a delightful tale of a Gremlin hired by a company and how she makes life… interesting… for them. This one really made me smile. From A to Z in the Book of Changes is… well, I’m not honestly sure how to describe it. It’s a bunch of entries in the form of a children’s “A is for…” guide. Except not for children. #connollyhouse #weshouldntbehere is a story of ghost hunters checking out a haunted house, told through tweets. Don’t skip the hash tags! This one is surprisingly gripping and frightening.

There Is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold I found slightly confusing at first, but it’s well worth sticking with. The premise is unusual (let’s just say that a woman is making some very strange dolls), but the real meat of the story is in a very satisfying tale of revenge. Another guilty pleasure vengeance tale is Please Accept My Most Profound Apologies for What Is About to Happen (But You Started It), in which a genius loner with an obsession with dinosaurs takes their revenge on their childhood bullies. And, well, everyone else, too.

Threnody for Little Girl, With Tuna, at the End of the World is a very sad little tale of climate change and the world’s last known Pacific Bluefin tuna, named Matthew. Tears were involved when I read this one.

Another of my favorites is Down, Deep Down, Below the Waves, which is an oddly hopeful bit of Lovecraftian work. Violet is a grad student at Harvard, only she’s experimenting on her fellow students. When she invites four of them to accompany her back to her family’s bed and breakfast for a little getaway, they certainly don’t expect to become part of a gruesome experiment.

Content note for gender-based slurs, occasional discussion or depiction of prejudice, and bullying. There are several nice depictions of same-sex relationships.

This is a truly wonderful collection of short stories, with ups, downs, love, revenge, the end of the world, and so much more.

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Short Take: “Sick, Part III,” Christa Wojciechowski

Pros: Morbidly fascinating
Cons: Rather unlikable characters
Rating: 4 out of 5

Christa Wojciechowski’s novella “Sick: Part III” is part of her SICK: Psychological Suspense Series Box Set. In volume I, Nurse Susan Branch tried to juggle a job with taking care of her seriously (and mysteriously) ill husband, John. She lost her job only to find out that he’s been causing his own injuries and illnesses out of a need for attention and a deep-seated masochism. In a fit of anger she attacked him, and in volume II he told her all about his childhood and tried to convince her that now that she’s let her violent side out, they’re perfect for each other. Now Susan has to make a false police report of an intruder in their home to explain why her husband is so terribly injured. Unfortunately for her, one of the police officers becomes convinced there’s something more going on than the husband and wife are saying. And it’s Susan the police suspect of ill-doing. Just to make things worse, for once John is genuinely ill–he has cancer. And Susan won’t be home to take care of him this time.

As before, these characters are over-the-top and unlikable, but it’s hard to look away from their shared perversities and bizarre problems. John is so self-centered that he even believes that Susan is kept in jail because her being away is what he deserves for being so manipulative. Absolutely everything is about him in his eyes. But it’s interesting to see how at least part of how bad he’d gotten was due to her enabling as well, when we inevitably have a moment of seeing them together again. They’re both profoundly messed-up people, and well, maybe they do deserve each other in some strange way.

Content note for sex, detailed deterioration due to cancer, and violence.

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Short Take: “Sick, Part II,” Christa Wojciechowski

Pros: Morbidly fascinating
Cons: The characters are over-the-top
Rating: 4 out of 5

Christa Wojciechowski’s novella “Sick: Part II” is part of her SICK: Psychological Suspense Series Box Set, which includes three volumes. In volume I, Nurse Susan Branch tried to juggle a job with taking care of her seriously (and mysteriously) ill husband, John. Now Susan has just lost her job, only to find out when she arrived home early that her husband, who has spent nearly all of his life battling illness and injury, has been doing it to himself deliberately. It seems to be a combination of a need for attention and a not-so-healthy dose of masochism. In a flying rage, she beat him with the hammer he’d been using to raise his own bruises. In response, John is… happy. While Susan is trying to cope with what she’s just learned, John is trying to push their relationship to a new level. He wants them to be co-conspirators now.

As I noted in my review of volume I, these are not likable characters. It’s for the best that these three novellas are fairly short, because they rely on a kind of train-wreck fascination with horrible people, and that only goes so far. This time the story is from John’s point of view, and he spends the time telling Susan all about his childhood and how it shaped his current behavior. His childhood was another kind of train wreck altogether. There’s some hint that part of his mental illness might be inherited, and the rest was clearly shaped by the events of his childhood. I am curious to see where things go in volume III. It’s interesting to see the couple’s evolution from caretaker/invalid to possible co-conspirators.

Content note for sexual content, violence, and animal harm.

I wanted for both of us to let out our Mr. Hydes to play together.

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Short Take: “Sick, Part I,” Christa Wojciechowski

Pros: Morbidly fascinating
Cons: The characters are over-the-top
Rating: 4 out of 5

Christa Wojciechowski’s novella “Sick: Part I” is part of her SICK: Psychological Suspense Series Box Set, which includes three volumes. In part I, we meet John Branch and his wife, Susan, who’s a nurse. John has a long and storied history of illness dating back to his childhood. He has some sort of tricky blood disorder, constantly turns up bruised, has broken a number of bones, and ends up in the hospital regularly. Susan is beside herself trying to keep her job while taking care of him. They’ve lost his family wealth, Susan isn’t showing up to work regularly (and has started stealing Demerol for John), and Susan has started finding strange things in the house (a hammer under their bed; an opened bottle of anti-freeze).

John is, from the start, clearly manipulative. There’s an odd son/mother vibe to his relationship with Susan, and he often convinces her to do things by acting childlike. It isn’t long before we find out that the only times his mother paid him any attention when he was young was when he was ill, so the suspicions pile up quickly. Susan’s life is falling apart–where will it take her next?

I’m not really sure whether I’d consider this horror, or a thriller, or perhaps some odd thing like “psychological fiction”–the author is exploring a disorder through the lens of watching a couple fall apart. I did find some of the material (particularly John’s manipulation) to be rather over-the-top, and of course there are no really likable characters in here. Even Susan is a bit of a martyr, steals Demerol, and has a few racist thoughts running around in her head.

Content note for explicit sex and a variety of unflinching medical descriptions. (As a note in case you’re thinking of reading the whole series, there’s also a little bit of animal harm in the next volume.)

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Review: “Beyond Surrender,” Kit Rocha

Pros: Such a sweet, hot romance
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

Kit Rocha’s Beyond Surrender (Beyond, Book 9) concludes the war that has broken out in her post-apocalyptic erotic romance Beyond series. Nessa is every O’Kane’s younger sister–she grew up around the gang, and she’s also the key to their wealth with her skill at distilling liquor. As she is a sort of younger sister, none of the regular gang members are about to put the moves on her. But she likes sex, and she wishes for the kind of partnership some of the other gang members have found. Unfortunately, any smart men interested in her probably just want the money she could make for them. And frankly, she isn’t too fond of the not-so-smart men. She recently met Ryder, the head of Sector Five who was raised to be a weapon, to win a war against Eden that’s already begun. And oh, does Ryder look delicious (although she really needs to teach him how to appreciate fine liquor). Luckily he has more than enough wealth of his own and has no need of hers, and he’s just as interested in her as she is in him. The question is whether the two of them can carve out happiness in the middle of a war.

The war hits its climax in this volume. Noah uses his skills to kill Eden’s electricity. There’s an interesting subplot as he goes up against Penelope, Eden’s top hacker, who’s loyal to Councilman Markovic but believes him to be dead. The sectors plan to use Markovic in some propaganda of their own with the goal of getting as many of Eden’s citizens as possible to either join on their side or even just sit the whole thing out. It’s time for the sectors to strike at Eden, before Eden can mess up the sectors too much more. This becomes particularly clear when Eden finds a new way to strike at Sector Four, leaving quite a few people dead and injured.

I like that there are so many interesting characters we’ve come to care about that it’s possible to introduce painful losses into the story without robbing us of the romance-genre expected Happily Ever After (which might be tempered a little in this post-apocalyptic, dystopian setting, but is still basically intact).

Ryder and Nessa are probably the simplest pairing in the series so far, and the most straightforward. The situation of the war itself, and how they were both raised, puts enough obstacles in their way. Nessa is more than a little raw and crude herself, so there’s plenty of straightforward sex and sex talk. The sex in this one is straighter than in the others–straight m/f, no kink, no orgies.

I don’t know if this is meant to be the last book in the Beyond series. It is the last book in the full-series bundle I bought, which probably indicates that it is. However, I noticed recently that Kit Rocha has started a spin-off series about Gideon’s Riders, so I look forward to that!

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