Short Take: “Breaking the Habit,” Yolanda Sfetsos

Pros: Good monster story
Cons: Lack of chemistry
Rating: 4 out of 5

In Yolanda Sfetsos’s short story (novella?) Breaking The Habit (Short Sharp Shocks! Book 27), Cisco and Isla just got married. Unfortunately, while the two have planned on a honeymoon in the Bahamas, Cisco has decided to surprise Isla with a cabin in the woods. Why unfortunately? Because Isla does not like surprises. And, as it turns out, with good reason. As soon as they arrive, Isla is greeted by a card addressing her as “Lala,” a name that brings up incredibly bad memories. Soon she’s in a fight for her and Cisco’s lives against the man/monster she once escaped from.

I was so frustrated with Cisco on Isla’s behalf. He really and truly meant well, but when your wife says she doesn’t like surprises, listen to her. He had reasons for wanting to treat her to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, and I thought Sfetsos struck just the right balance between Isla’s despair and frustration and her understanding of what Cisco was trying to do.

The story is short enough that I didn’t really get into the chemistry between the characters. But it did an excellent job of unsettling me right from the start.

The book doesn’t have much in the way of surprises, but it’s an excellent exploration of how a strong woman might fight against her obsessive stalker, combined with a monster story. Content note: sexual assault and lots of blood.

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Review: “This Is How You Lose the Time War,” Amal El-Mohtar, Max Gladstone

Pros: Stunning!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone bring us the gorgeous novella (short novel?), This Is How You Lose the Time War. Red is an elite time-traveling agent working for the Agency. Blue is an elite time-traveling agent working for the Agency’s rival, the Garden. When Blue leaves a message for Red on a battlefield (“Burn before reading”), the two begin a clandestine relationship that starts off by gleefully thwarting each other and ends up with the two women falling in love. They go to extreme lengths to keep their agencies from noticing the communication, but eventually the higher-ups realize something is amiss.

The time-travel is carefree and surreal, with strands and braids and upthread and downthread and… frankly, I still don’t understand it. Know why that’s okay? Because it’s only the framework for the relationship between these two women, and we don’t need to understand it. It’s exactly as detailed as it needs to be. And I’m grateful for that, because it means my brain’s tendency to produce logical doubts about time travel didn’t kick in.

Much of the story is in the form of letters between Red and Blue–strange, unique letters that they hide and encode in all sorts of bizarre ways. It’s poetic. It’s lyrical. It’s so delightful to watch the relationship between these two grow. There’s also still plenty of material on bits and pieces of the time war to keep things exciting. Something seems to be chasing Red through the time streams, and Blue has a plan that would give her side a real advantage. Could Blue simply be trying to groom Red in order to turn her traitor? Could Red really be trying to kill Blue? Only time will tell.

I got so caught up in this story that I could barely breathe for the last half-hour of it. I’m so grateful that I heard about this book all over book-Twitter, because I would have hated to miss it! It’s unusual, extraordinary, and positively stunning.

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Short Take: “The Long Sleep,” William Meikle

Pros: Delightful short mystery
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Mostly I’ve read William Meikle’s creature-features and cosmic horrors. This time I decided to read one of his Sherlock Holmes tales: The Long Sleep: A Weird Sherlock Holmes Adventure. Watson narrates a tale of a mysterious coffin-shaped box that’s been shipped from Persia to England, spreading terror and disease in its wake. He doesn’t think much of the story when he hears it, but in a slow moment he relates the tale to Holmes, and Holmes connects it with an article he read. He’s between cases and happily dives into solving the new mystery. Holmes and Watson track down various people who encountered the box while on its journey, and finally figure out who was in charge of the shipment. When they track him down, he offers to hire Holmes and Watson to figure out how to open the sarcophagus. His business partners, however, aren’t so sure this is a good idea.

This is a novella–not terribly long, but just the right length for what it is. Watson’s voice is engaging and feels appropriate to the milieu. Holmes is his entertaining self, as are the various typical characters around them. My favorite parts are interactions between the famous duo and those they aim to help. The side characters have more depth than I tend to expect from a story of this length, that’s already focused heavily on specific characters. Lord Northwich’s manservant in particular intrigued me.

The sarcophagus holds some interesting mysteries, and for a while it’s hard to tell whether they’re supernatural or man-made (I won’t spoil the answer!). I really enjoyed watching Holmes work the mystery, and watching Watson try to keep up! This is a fun read, and I’ll have to check out some of Meikle’s other Holmes tales.

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Review: “Minor Mage,” T. Kingfisher

Pros: Funny, poignant, and engaging!
Rating: 5 out of 5

T. Kingfisher writes marvelous fantasy stories with a fairy-tale feel to them. In the novella Minor Mage, twelve-year-old Oliver is a very minor mage indeed. He only knows three spells, and one of them is to keep him from reacting to his armadillo familiar’s dander. He’s decent with herbs, but mostly he does things like curing people’s poison ivy or getting rid of gremlin infestations. Since the old village mage died, he’s the closest thing to a wizard these people have. And now, there’s been a terrible drought, one that threatens everyone. Oliver’s mother, a retired mercenary, is off visiting Oliver’s sister in another town, so Oliver’s neighbors band together to insist that he go to the mountains to bring back rain (something the old mage did once in his youth). Oliver had planned to go anyway, but it still hurts that his neighbors would do this to him. He and his armadillo head for the nearby forest on their way to the mountains, but they quickly run into danger. They make a friend in the person of Trebastion, a young minstrel who’s compelled to make magical instruments out of the bodies of murder victims, and who’s on the run from a murderer he outed. The woods are filled with bandits and more, but there might be something lurking that’s on Oliver’s side.

The worldbuilding is interesting. Magic, as seen through some odd abilities various people have, is intriguing and unique. It tends to be different for each person. I love seeing how Oliver with his three spells manages to use them in creative and interesting ways, combining them with a little help from his armadillo and a couple of pigs. On the one hand his familiar keeps saying there’s no point in trying to learn the invisibility spell, which is not as useful as Oliver thinks and beyond his ability, and it hurts Oliver to be discouraged. But on the other hand, the armadillo is very encouraging when it comes to doing the things Oliver is capable of.

Trebastion is a fascinating character. He has this horrible magical ability that he’s compelled to use. When the magical instruments he creates encounter their murderers, they begin to scream–and don’t stop. This doesn’t exactly make him popular, even when people do want his services. When he outs a town mayor as a murderer of children, things go very badly for him. Oliver is forced to choose whether he’ll risk his mission to help Trebastion. He also has to face the fact that his actions result in injuries and deaths, not all of which are clear-cut. And he has some interesting takes on mob mentality that show how gray the issue can be.

Kingfisher notes in her afterword that she thinks of this as a children’s book, but that her readers and editors have told her it’s definitely not. I would have loved this when I was young, but I’m also a lifelong horror fan who wasn’t thrown by some violence, death, and the occasional monster in my youth. It’ll depend on your own kid’s reading habits. As an adult, however, I absolutely loved this book.

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Review: “Skin Deep Magic,” Craig Laurance Gidney

Pros: Beautiful, magical stories!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Craig Laurance Gidney’s Skin Deep Magic: Short Fiction is a most excellent collection of magical short stories centered around, primarily, black women. Content note for slurs, suicide, and brief sexual material. A couple of stories include gay characters.

Some stories are very brief slices-of-life. “Psychometry, or Gone with the Dust” is one such–we get a brief glimpse into the life of Margo. She cleans up the homes of dead people, and sometimes gets impressions off of objects she finds there. This particular house has a collection of rather racist items. “Zora’s Destiny” involves Zora, who goes to reputed witch Hattie for a headache cure for her mother, and gets her fortune read. It feels like the first chapter in a novel that I’d like to read.

Transformation is a repeating theme in this book. “Sapling” sees young Mabel start to come into her own. She meets a very odd man who inhabits a park near her home, and then she starts to change. “Sugardaddy” introduces us to Tasha, who meets another strange man no one else can see, and like Mabel, starts to change into something… else.

“Lyes” sees Sheri writing a thesis on the images of African Americans in advertising. When some of the women from her ads start to come to life and are determined to make over her life, she has to enlist the aid of another iconic advertising figure.

“Death and Two Maidens: The Sad Fate of Prothenia Jenkins” shows us the life and death of Prothenia, and what happens to her afterward.

“Coalrose” is my favorite of the stories in here, although it had to do battle with “Sugardaddy” and “Sapling” for that honor. In 1930, Etta goes to the big city because she wants to be an actress. Of course, roles for black women are scarce and not entirely appealing. She reinvents herself as Zoë Coalrose, using her mysterious ability to affect people’s minds to become a cult favorite. We get to see how she touches a handful of the lives around her over the course of 30 years.

I absolutely love this set of stories. There are so many strong women in here, living such magical lives. It’s a delightful anthology.

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Review: “Without Condition,” Sonora Taylor

Pros: Fascinating!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Sonora Taylor’s Without Condition introduces us to a 22-year-old serial killer named Cara. When she gets gradually spun up over the voices from her past (largely classmates whispering about her), she kills to ease the feeling. Her mother not only knows, but encourages her, even going to far as to display Cara’s trophies (belts, keychains, hats) on a basement wall. One day, Cara meets Jackson, a pharmacist, and the two have instant chemistry. When she’s with him, she doesn’t feel as much of a need to kill. But can she ever have happiness and love with such a huge secret between them?

This doesn’t line up with the handful of other stories I’ve seen that come at things from a serial killer’s point of view. It isn’t the stream-of-consciousness of an unhinged mind. It isn’t highly stylized or hyper-violent. It isn’t a cat-and-mouse game with the authorities. And it isn’t wacky humor. Instead, it turns a social outcast into a protagonist I could actually get invested in. I found myself rooting for her relationship with Jackson, wanting her to be able to trust him and be happy with him. The relationship has its ups and downs. Jackson’s friend Moira sets off some of Cara’s old triggers. Jackson also has a particularly bad relationship with his mother, which does set Cara off a bit as well. Cara’s mother also isn’t handling her new independence very well. The more time Cara spends with Jackson, the more unhappy her mother becomes. And as Cara and her mother’s relationship deteriorates, it becomes harder for Cara to remain in control of her impulses.

The story is really all about Cara as a character and about her relationships with Jackson and her mother. It isn’t a thriller and it doesn’t pit Cara against the authorities. If anything, it demystifies the serial killer compared to most media depictions, revealing her to be messed-up, but still fundamentally human. If you’re looking for a very thoughtful and unusual look into the mind of a serial killer, as well as a wonderful relationship story, this is an excellent read!

Content note: animal harm, animal death, and sexual content.

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Review: “The Singularity Trap,” Dennis E. Taylor

Pros: Interesting story and characters; intriguing worldbuilding
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Dennis E. Taylor’s The Singularity Trap is an intriguing and creative take on the alien first contact story. Ivan Pritchard has signed onto the Mad Astra, an asteroid mining ship, as a last-ditch attempt to make some money to support his wife and children. While out searching their claim, they find a mysterious alien artifact, and Ivan makes contact with it. This may well be the end of Ivan’s life as he knows it–soon his body starts changing, and he and the crew of the ship are placed in quarantine. It’s only a matter of time before the military gets involved, and they tend to view things in a rather black-and-white manner.

I just have one small complaint. Later on in the story, the mysterious computer Ivan makes contact with is described and portrayed as having “no conscience, no emotion”–but early on in contact, Ivan absolutely feels emotions coming from it. Luckily this is the only inconsistency I noticed.

I love the characters. Ivan is such a relatable protagonist that I found myself, like him, almost caring more about whether his wife and children got the money from his stake in the mining claim than I did about whether Ivan himself made it through the experience. His fellow miners and ship crew don’t fall entirely to either end of the spectrum when Ivan starts to change: some don’t want to be involved, while others worry for their new friend. The details of how the ship’s captain and crew try to retain some control over events are creative and interesting. Also, while the military of course has to think in terms of possible threat neutralization, they aren’t wholly antagonistic, particularly as time goes on. I particularly liked Ivan, his crew, and the doctor in charge of the quarantine–they all had plenty of depth to them.

I don’t want to go into too much spoileriffic detail on the situation Ivan finds himself in, so I’ll just say that the setup is quite detailed and interesting. Ivan’s plans get quite convoluted, and his fellow crew find themselves racing to keep up. The worldbuilding is also quite good–climate change has done a number on conditions on Earth, leaving a lot of people rather desperate–hence Ivan’s switch to a mining job even though he was trained as a computer scientist. The speculation as to what path the humans might be on is quite fascinating. Ultimately it’s really the characters that made this story shine for me.

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Review: “Stay Away,” Ike Hamill

Pros: Very intriguing setup; good characters
Cons: Weird switch partway through
Rating: 4 out of 5

Ike Hamill’s novel Stay Away has a setup that really drew me in. There’s a town in Maine that has a place people call the Trading Tree. There one might find a mysterious, rather dapper man who’s willing to make a trade. You never know what he’ll want, but he can give you almost anything. Eric wants to know if he should leave his aunt, uncle, and cousins behind and go mend fences with his mother. He doesn’t even realize, when a man gives him advice on the matter, that he’s made a trade–one he hasn’t paid for. Just two years later he finds himself on the run: his mother is dead, and a man keeps coming to him in his dreams insisting that he pay up his end of the trade. He returns to Maine, just as his cousin Lily runs away after losing her job. When Lily returns, her brother Wendell goes missing. Various trades are coming to fruition, and it seems almost everyone has a history with the Trading Tree. Unfortunately, the details of what happens with the tree tend to fade with time, such that people never quite remember what happened. Of course the trades eventually go wrong, and Eric and his friends and family find themselves in a fight for their lives.

I felt like this book had an abrupt change in… sub-genre, I guess? part-way through. It went from this really neat exploration of what the Trader might want and how he operates to a relatively standard monster story. At this point some of the hints about what’s going on also fall by the way-side. (I never did figure out what on earth one part involving Wendell was supposed to lead up to, and what was with the fish?) It didn’t wreck the book at all, but it was disappointing. I couldn’t help feeling like the story could have been more than it was.

The characters are interesting. Can I tell you how nice it is to have a front-and-center male/female friendship that doesn’t involve sex or romantic feelings? That’s one cliché that Hamill neatly avoided. One of my favorite characters is Reynold, Eric’s uncle and Lily’s father. He has odd sayings that mostly serve to confuse his kids, and he’s just kind of an odd duck. His relationship with Zinnia, his wife, is also rather interesting. It isn’t a perfect marriage, but it isn’t a bad marriage either. It just has its ups and downs, the way most relationships do.

One of the reasons people keep leaving is that it’s such a dead-end town, but it’s also one of those places where the patina of time away (or perhaps the Trader’s influence) causes people to eventually forget how bad it was and come back. The story takes place in the 1970s–I guess Hamill wanted to do something different than the ever-rehashed 80s. The book has a great sense of place, right down to remembering that the characters have to stand up and go over to the television to change channels.

This isn’t a perfect story, but it’s a very good one, and I certainly enjoyed it. Note that it does include gore and violence.

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Review: “The Exiled,” William Meikle

Pros: Original take on faerie abduction myths
Rating: 5 out of 5

William Meikle’s The Exiled is a creative mélange of horror, thriller, and a sort of quasi-urban fantasy. Police officer John Grainger is called to the scene of a crime: a black swan has been torn to pieces, and a young girl is missing. When it happens again, and the girl disappears seemingly into thin air, people start to panic. Reporter Alan Grainger, John’s younger brother, finds a disturbing clue: six rare black swans have been stolen. If that indicates how many girls will go missing, John and Alan had better hurry and find out what’s going on before four more girls disappear! When John and Alan each have a disturbing, all-too-real vision of a mysterious land with crumbling stonework buildings and a terrifying, gigantic black bird-like creature, they start to realize that something much worse is going on than they suspected.

I love the blending of genres in this. It takes place in Edinburgh, Scotland. There’s the kidnapping mystery/thriller aspect of it; the brothers must race against time to save as many of the (theoretically six) girls as possible. There’s a touch of urban fantasy, as they end up delving into folk tales about faerie abductions. And of course there’s an undertone of cosmic horror running beneath the whole thing. The combination works surprisingly well in Meikle’s hands.

I do have to issue a content warning for child harm and animal harm. They’re confronted in retrospect rather than in real time, but some people might find them disturbing.

The brothers find some interesting resources and potential allies, but pretty much everyone seems to have their own agenda to follow or secrets to keep. The characters are all interesting and nicely individuated. The book isn’t a long one, yet there’s still enough difference in each character to make them worthwhile. It’s the small details that add up to a wonderful whole. I also have to make a note of something I’ve noticed after reading 13 books by Meikle: His stories tend to feature a lot of rather strong, masculine characters (often investigators, law enforcement, or military), and only a scattering of women. Normally when I see this I’d expect to see some amount of concomitant depiction of those women as weak or as victims. This is not at all the case here! Instead, those few women he includes tend to be strong and independent and easily hold their own with “the boys”. I really appreciate this.

Meikle takes the old tale of faerie abductions and puts a creative, harrowing spin on them. I really enjoyed the results!

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Review: “Spectre,” Shiloh Walker

Pros: Hot, hot, hot!
Rating: 5 out of 5

Shiloh Walker’s character Spectre is a hard-hitting assassin-for-hire. Mob boss Tommy O’Halloran wants him to take a job, but when Spectre finds out the job is to kill the half-sister of the cop who put Tommy’s brother in jail, he decides he doesn’t want to play that game. Instead, he kidnaps Tia (and her dog, Valkyrie), determined to keep her safe until he can get rid of Tommy. Tia is an art therapy teacher with Asperger’s, and she doesn’t take too kindly to being kidnapped. Still, something about Spectre and his drive to keep her safe appeals to her. Once she gets a little used to the idea that no really, he’s trying to save her life, the sparks start to fly.

Content note: Interracial romance and some non-neurotypical characters (yay!). Very explicit (and varied) dom/sub sex. Some dark implications regarding past child abuse.

I love the characters in this book. Both Spectre and Tia have some difficulties dealing with emotions–both their own, and other people’s. The journey of discovery that they go on together is wonderful. I also particularly liked Tia’s half-brother, Mac, the police officer, and how he figures into the story. The relationship between Spectre and Tia is by no means simple or easy, but Walker makes it believable.

While there’s definitely a framework of thriller to this book, it’s mostly erotic romance. The sex is lusty and hot. It beautifully shows the fact that the submissive in a dom/sub relationship has power, and that acquiring consent can be a very sexy (not to mention important) part of sexytimes (that doesn’t at all have to take away from being dominant). I really appreciate this, because some authors skirt that consent line a little hard for my tastes.

Spectre and Tia make an amazingly hot couple, and I love the story they’re caught up in! If you’re looking for something tense and hot, this is a great investment.

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