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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Review: “Blood Ties,” Skyla Dawn Cameron

Rating: 5 out of 5

Skyla Dawn Cameron’s Blood Ties (Elis O’Connor Book 1) is an intriguing start to a new series. 22-year-old witch Elis O’Connor is a serial killer. She kills “garbage men”–men who molest, abuse, and terrorize their victims. In-between she plays private investigator. Just after wrapping up a killing (and cat rescue), someone new shows up on her doorstep: a part-demon, part-witch named Melinoë Takata. She’s looking for Elis’s older half-brother Dev, who is also Melinoë’s cousin and who is apparently missing. After getting off on the wrong foot, the two women decide to look for Dev together. When the police come looking for Elis regarding the murder she committed, the two decide it’s the perfect time to follow up on an out-of-town lead. They find themselves in a very strange little town where they quickly run out of leads. Just to keep things jumping, they keep getting chased by a demonic swarm of rat-tarantulas!

There’s some nice queer content in here. An ex-girlfriend of Elis’s, Tanvi Chaudhary, warns her when the cops are looking for her (she’s a police officer herself, in the Ontario Provincial Police, Occult Department). And Elis finds herself attracted to Melinoë as they work to find Dev. The characters are wonderful. Elis’s vampire father is charmingly bookish (he’s almost 60 but looks late-twenties). Elis absolutely owns her identity as a serial killer. Melinoë balances tough-yet-vulnerable remarkably well. Tanvi seems like a hard-ass who’s going to come down on Elis’s activities, but it’s more complicated than that.

There are some dangling threads, but not in the unsatisfactory “hey, they forgot this” vein. Instead, there are just some things that will obviously be longer-term plot arcs. Such as exactly what Elis is, since apparently she isn’t supposed to exist; her father is a vampire, and her mother was… something. Her father is doing magical experiments that aren’t explained here, but are clearly relevant to the arc-plot. There’s a creature (one of the Aanzhenii, Ashur) who wants Elis to be indebted to him. Melinoë also has a few secrets of her own.

The two women get into heaps of fascinating trouble as they search for Dev. They find out the secrets of a strange town, go dimension-hopping, and get into some nasty fights. This is a fun, exciting world with all sorts of interesting characters and plots going on. I look forward to reading more!

Note added later: Since reading this book I have read the 5-book “Demons of Oblivion” series which is set roughly 25 years earlier in the same world. You do not need to read that series first–I hadn’t and I really enjoyed this book–but you’ll get a whole extra layer of meaning if you do. I re-read Blood Ties after reading the Oblivion series and loved it even more! Start with Bloodlines [review].

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Short Take: “Fungoid,” William Meikle

Pros: A fungal apocalypse with a touch of cosmic horror!
Cons:
Rating: 5 out of 5

William Meikle’s (novella? Short novel? Not sure which) Fungoid introduces us to a fungal apocalypse. Jim Noble is on hand when the first drops of greasy rain begin to fall–the ones filled with spores of some unknown fungus. He has protective clothing due to being on a rapid response team, but most other people don’t. When Rebecca Lovatt realizes this is in the rain, she rushes to her kids’ school, worried they may be outside playing. Her husband, Shaun, discovers a logging camp where all the flora has become rotted and black, and the people inside the camp are dead–taken over by brown fungus. He’s determined to make it back to Becca and the kids, no matter what it takes. Meanwhile, mycologist Rohit Patel studies samples of the fungus inside his lab, and comes to the conclusion that this was engineered. Maybe not for this purpose, but engineered nonetheless.

Things are not wrapped up in a bow at the end of this story. We have some idea of where the fungus came from, how it works, and what affects it, but the world isn’t settled yet. It works. To me the most intriguing parts are those exploring how the fungus functions, but of course it’s always interesting to watch the Lovatts try to get back together again. Rohit and Irene (the server from the cafeteria in the building where Rohit works) were my favorite characters; they had a lot of personality to them.

If you’re familiar with William Meikle’s other work, you’ll note a couple of familiar threads that point to a strain of cosmic horror associated with this fungus–the reference to “dancing in the dark” and the visions of the Blue Hills. It remains at a somewhat surface level, though, which feels right for this particular story.

There’s plenty of tension in here. People die, people fight for their lives, and civilization strives to maintain. It’s a very enjoyable work.

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Review: “Whispers in the Dark,” Laurel Hightower

Rating: 5 out of 5

Laurel Hightower’s Whispers in the Dark is divinely horrifying! Sergeant Rose McFarland is a S.W.A.T. sniper and mother of two young children. She has a lover she’s been friends with for years, and an ex-husband Sam she’s still very friendly with. Sam even knows her secret: when she was a child she used to hear the Whispers, and she saw terrifying things. Her parents largely beat it out of her, until her father and brother died in a fire that started in her locked bedroom. Now she’s looking down her sights at Charlie Akers. Negotiator Zack still hopes to end this standoff peacefully–Charlie kidnapped his own wife and two children–but Rose has a feeling this one won’t end that way. When she’s forced to kill Charlie, her whole world starts to fall apart. She starts seeing things again. Her son Tommy starts having weird “spells.” An FBI agent threatens that if she doesn’t come talk to him by the end of the weekend he’ll ruin her in the investigation into her shooting of Charlie. When she comes back to work on Monday Zack is missing and she’s being accused of having a history with Charlie. Soon the investigation is the least of her worries.

The creepy things that inhabit the dark places definitely got to me. I haven’t felt afraid of the dark in more than 30 years, but it gave me a shudder after I read this book last night! Roughly the first half of the book builds up the characters and the base-level weirdness and fear. After that, things really get hopping!

Rose is an excellent badass character. She’s tough and she knows how to handle herself, but she has her own fears and difficulties. She’s not sure how she feels about her lover, Luke, whom she’s known for more than a decade. She’s also not entirely sure how she feels about Sam, her ex-husband, who still comes over for pancake breakfasts with the kids and flirts shamelessly with her. The story doesn’t take an easy way out of this confusion. Another fascinating character is FBI agent Evan Neal. Is he an enemy? Is he an ally? Is he something else entirely? He doesn’t seem to be strictly on Rose’s side (witness that whole thing about threatening her, which if he’d known her at all he’d know was the exact wrong thing to do). But he knows something about Charlie Akers, and claims they can help each other. He comes across as a bit sly, so you never quite know where you stand with him.

When the story gets into details of Rose’s childhood and family, things get really interesting. Her family has a few secrets they’ve been keeping, and there aren’t a lot of people Rose can ask about them! The threat to her family becomes a much greater threat as tension builds.

This is such a chilling read. Absolutely recommended!

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