Review: “Goblin,” Josh Malerman

Rating: 5 out of 5

Josh Malerman’s Goblin: A Novel in Six Novellas is an interconnected set of six stories–as well as a connected prologue and epilogue–all of which take place in and around the town of Goblin. I really enjoyed the variety of tales!

“Prologue: Welcome”: Tom is a delivery driver, and he’s been given an unusual late-night delivery to Goblin. It’s a big ol’ box, and it comes with remarkably specific directions: don’t open the package. Don’t stop driving. Ignore anything unusual you might hear. And if it can’t be delivered within the specified half-hour window, destroy it. Naturally, it becomes difficult for Tom to adhere to these requirements.

“A Man In Slices”: Richard has been Charles’s only friend since they met in school. Now that they’re adults, once again Charles needs Richard’s help. Only the kind of help he needs may be more than Richard wants to part with! We see Richard and Charles’s interactions in slices as Richard contemplates the relationship they’ve had, and it’s fascinating. The two characters are unusual, with a particularly bizarre friendship. This is a great story!

“Kamp”: Walter Kamp is the Goblin historian, and he seems to be having a difficult time lately. He’s so convinced that something’s going to haunt him that he’s wrecked his entire apartment making sure he can see to the walls in every direction. He’s set up traps. Even his bed is made of plexiglass so he can be sure nothing’s hiding beneath it! Lucky for him, his landlady seems to have a sense for how to distract him from his paranoia. This story as well has remarkably interesting characters. Walter is not your average paranoid loon, and his landlady is remarkably astute about human nature. This story also gives us a rundown of some of the legendry surrounding the town’s origins.

“Happy Birthday, Hunter!”: Neal Nash, called Hunter by his friends (because he’s an extremely avid hunter of game) is throwing the ultimate birthday bash, and it seems as though most of the town is in attendance. But all Hunter cares about is bagging the one forbidden game creature in Goblin: the Great Owls. I certainly didn’t see where this one was going, and it’s excellent! Hunter and his friends and wife are again a really interesting set of people. Malerman has a knack for relatable, unusual characters.

“Presto”: Young Pete is a huge fan of magic shows, and more than anything he wants to see the magician who’s something of a pariah among other magicians: Roman Emperor. When he finds out Roman is going to do a show in his town, Pete goes to great lengths to get there. But Pete’s going to find out that Roman’s magic isn’t quite what he’s expecting. Both Roman and his odd assistant Maggie are, once again, great characters. I can’t really talk much about them without giving too much away, but they interact in such unusual ways.

“A Mix-Up At the Zoo”: This is a particularly bizarre tale of a somewhat odd man, Dirk, who works two jobs: one giving tours at the zoo, and on the weekends he works at the slaughterhouse. The animals seem particularly calm when he’s around, and in particular he wishes that the gorilla, Eula, could be free. This story drags on a little, particularly with some bizarre dream sequences, and gripped me the least of the stories in here. But it’s still a good story, and the end is positively chilling.

“The Hedges”: Wayne Sherman is responsible for creating a stunning hedge maze that’s supposed to be next to impossible to solve–and hides a prize for anyone who might solve it. One day a little girl solves his puzzle, and before she leaves, she tells him she’s going to go to the police and tell them exactly what she found. Wayne starts packing up to leave, but memories of his dead wife Molly haunt him and slow him down. And when Margot, the little girl, goes to the police, she finds that the very bizarre police of Goblin are maybe not people she should have voluntarily chosen to deal with. Once again, it’s the characters that make this story so good.

“Epilogue: Make Yourself At Home”: Tom is trying to deliver his box, but the recipient won’t answer the door. He doesn’t want to have to deal with the box himself, so he finds the front door unlocked and goes on in. Before the end of the night, he’ll be very glad he doesn’t actually live in Goblin. The only thing that I couldn’t quite get is how it is that the contents of the box came to Goblin from somewhere else. They seem like they should have been there to begin with.

The characters are definitely the best part of this book–not a one of them is entirely what I expected. The town’s history is fascinating and relates to a handful of the stories. There’s a ton of atmosphere, and plenty of mysterious goings-on. I absolutely recommend this collection to horror fans!

Content note: animal harm/death; animals eating animals. Mild horror-story blood and gore. Some mild sexual content. A little bit of body horror.

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2020 Ladies of Horror Fiction Awards!

There are some seriously good works in 2020’s Ladies of Horror Fiction award winners! There are some great reads on this list, such as S.H. Cooper, Carmen Maria Machado, and Hailey Piper. I’ll have to read more of the entries myself!

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Short Take: “The Sea Below,” William Meikle

Rating: 4 out of 5

William Meikle’s horror adventure The Sea Below is the sequel to his The Land Below. In that book, two men wanted to search for a treasure supposed to be underground. They hired a “bodyguard,” who was retired military man Danny, and local shepherd Stefan (along with his German Shepherd Elsa) decided to come with them to help out. That expedition didn’t end well–one of the two men died, and they couldn’t bring the treasure home. Now the remaining man, Ed, has decided to go back to the same underground area they were in before. He brought better supplies and equipment, as well as a couple of helpers. When he didn’t come back after a couple of days, Stefan sent word to Danny that he needed his help to find them. Thanks to the equipment Ed brought, they’re able to quickly make their way through the underground tunnels–only to find themselves stranded by flooding. But at least they found Ed! Since they can’t find a way back out, they all set off across an underground sea to look for another exit. Unfortunately for them, the huge cavern they’re in has quite a few dangerous inhabitants! There are underwater monsters, vicious baboon-like creatures, and giant bats, just to start with–and there are signs that the cavern once was home to intelligent life.

I’m having a little bit of difficulty with some of the types of lifeforms that are present in that cavern. While there’s apparently vegetation to act as food for relevant parts of the ecosystem, I’m not quite sure how it all works out without sunlight and photosynthesis. I’m not sure why this is bothering me when I don’t seem to have a problem with six-limbed pale baboons, but well, the mind does what the mind does.

Some of the dangers surprised me, which was fun. But unfortunately the book ends in the middle of the story. Luckily the book does say that the adventure will be continued in the next book. I will certainly look forward to seeing how that next installment continues the tale!

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Review: “Operation Grendel,” Daniel Schwabauer

Rating: 4 out of 5

Daniel Schwabauer’s military science fiction novel Operation Grendel is really intriguing, and it has a fascinating ending, but I can’t make the timeline of events that are critical to the ending make sense. If I could, this would easily be a 5/5 instead of a 4/5.

Military journalist Corporal Raymin Dahl is sent to accompany Captain Ansell Sterling on a diplomatic mission. The grendel wars started 28 years ago, and now the military is trying to negotiate a cease-fire. They’re even willing to give up their “edge” worlds in return for that peace. Grendels all wear a “symbo-collar” containing an “AI wyrm.” It’s an AI that’s integrated with the person’s mind. No one who’s had a symbo-collar put on them has ever defected from the grendels–and no one knows why. When Captain Sterling gets critically injured in an attack, he makes Dahl put on his comms, which contain a non-integrated AI–an AI that can’t get at parts of a person’s mind that they don’t choose to share. He insists that Dahl pretend to be him and take over the peace talks. Unfortunately, the local militia doesn’t think very highly of the idea of turning their world over to the grendels, so they come after Dahl and the marines who arrive to escort him to the talks.

I like the characterizations a lot. Dahl has led a complicated life, and we get to see bits and pieces of that along the way. His relationship with his famous military officer father didn’t go so well, and his relationship with Ivy didn’t end well. He seems to live a relatively solitary life. He’s written a bunch of puff pieces that seem to be slanted in the favor of the edge world militias, which doesn’t make everyone happy with him. His journey to taking on this monumental mission–one that could save millions of lives–has very unexpected consequences.

The pacing is on point with multiple ambushes and tense treks through dangerous areas. I had no trouble sticking with this story. However, I’m having difficulty writing this review because there’s one gaping apparent plot hole that is driving. Me. Insane. (I try to kind of explain it in the spoiler section marked below without totally giving it away. I think I succeeded.) I want the series of events to make sense so much, because it’s really neat. But I can’t get it to line up right, and that’s distracting me from thinking about the rest of the story.

I really like this unusual military SF story. It’s absolutely intriguing and unusual!

SPOILER WARNING: There’s a huge twist at the end that makes you re-think a whole lot of stuff. I thought it was utterly fantastic, but the more I think about the timeline of the book, the more confused I get. The twist-instigating event seems to have taken place at the time when Dahl first started working at the news syndicate–I think. If that’s so, the meeting between Sterling and Dahl and some of their interactions at the current time don’t make sense to me. But if it happened later, Dahl’s interactions with Ivy in the present wouldn’t make sense. There seems to be a rather big plot hole here. This is driving me kind of insane because I actively want the story to make sense because the idea is really freaking cool.

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Review: “Everything Is Horrible Now,” Edward Lorn

Rating: 4 out of 5

In Edward Lorn’s Everything is Horrible Now: A Novel of Cosmic Horror, Father George kills his wife and child, sits muttering on his porch, then, when a neighbor child (Wesley) arrives, shoots himself in the head. Before he does, he tells the boy “everything is horrible now.” Thus begins a series of events that will rip this small town wide open–and change it forever.

The characters are amazing. Kirby Johnson sees “the Coat Men” in his room at night, and because everyone knows of his “unnatural desires” (he’s gay), it’s assumed he killed his mother when she dies violently. He has a hell of a tale to tell, and is somehow central to the inexplicable things happening at this time. And as he says, “everything is horrible now.” Sheriff Harold “Hap” Carringer is a psychopath–he once killed two people because the girl refused to dance with him, and someone unknown covered it up. He’s also a bully, but not entirely in the usual and expected ways. He stops to talk to 11-year-old Petey, who keeps slipping out of his grandmother’s house to walk around town, and despite Petey being fat and a bit weird, doesn’t bully him at all. Beulah Blackwood, Petey’s grandmother, has custody of him because his parents were murdered in front of him. She thinks she means well, and she kind of does, but her zealous version of Christianity sometimes leads her to be cruel as well.

At the start, when Petey is talking to Hap, he comes across as neurodivergent. He doesn’t really read social cues and doesn’t seem to understand abstract language. But later, when he befriends Wesley, he seems to have a better handle on abstract language, so I was a little confused there. He’s still a very interesting character who’s a little bit different from your average 11-year-old.

There’s a family in town that seems to have leprosy, or perhaps it’s something called “the Blood Curse.” They have some interesting family history, and Gertrude, the mother, has had some very strange experiences in her lifetime. It’s thanks to her family that the Bays, Marietta and Francis, died when the town crucified and burned Marietta for witchcraft. Yes, they burned a woman for witchcraft in the not so distant past.

There’s a place called Humble Hill that seems devoted to trying out “Conversion Therapy,” or a treatment for homosexuality. Unfortunately for everyone, things go awry when Kirby Johnson is brought to the center.

Things get weirder and weirder as the story progresses. There are gods, and manifestations of human emotions and memories, there’s a place called the Roaming and another place called the Someplace. There are creepy dreams and visions, and some very creepy reality as well. This is a very messed-up town, and it’s hurtling toward some sort of conclusion.

I absolutely recommend this book. There were one or two things that confused me, or that I think didn’t actually get answered, and the story gets more and more surreal as it goes, but I held on by my fingernails and the whole thing was a serious trip!

Content note: suicide, homicide, child death, rape, racism (including slurs), domestic violence, homophobia (note that homophobia and what a horrible thing it is is a major theme of the book, so it shows up a lot).

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Review: “Shadow Warriors,” Nathan B. Dodge

Rating: 4 out of 5

In Nathan B. Dodge’s science fiction novel Shadow Warriors, there are five teenagers leading difficult lives. Cal’s father is perennially drunk after the death of his wife and doesn’t even have enough money to feed them both. Letty’s parents are constantly yelling at each other and don’t pay any attention to her. Tony’s mother is dead and he’s living on the street. Ophelia (Opi) should be inheriting her father’s wealth, but her stepmother schemes to cut her off. Sasha lives with an abusive foster family that routinely starves him. When all five are abducted by aliens to fight in an intergalactic war, they’re forced to set aside their differences and learn to become the best of the best. An enemy called simply “The Horde” is coming toward Earth, and their pattern is well-established: they’ll bomb the hell out of the planet, kill everyone, and move in. The five teens are being taught by both older humans who were abducted in earlier years, and Molethians, a race of aliens that formed the “Shadow Warriors.” They’ve been attempting to use their fighters to harry and nudge The Horde in order to guide them away from inhabited planets like Earth, but they’re vastly outnumbered. The Horde may be uncreative and slow to change, but they definitely have the numbers.

The teens definitely had trouble co-existing at first. It was neat to watch them gradually bond and form into a cohesive team. Cal ends up being the pilot with Letty as his second. Tony is the navigator, Sasha is on weapons, and Opi turns out to be a strategic genius. Normally I’m left going “why the heck would the aliens want teenagers?” but this time it makes perfect sense. They need people who are malleable, still able to learn, adapt, and change, and able to be intimidated frankly. People who can be indoctrinated into the rah-rah military atmosphere and be passionate and enthusiastic about saving Earth. I love the detail that they deliberately research and choose teens who are in conditions that they’re not likely to want to return to (yes, this does imply they have representatives on Earth, but since they have older generations of Shadow Warriors, it makes sense that some of them could work under cover on Earth).

The training is done partially with brain implants that impart knowledge, and partly by spending day in and day out training using a simulated craft running a variety of missions. The author manages to make these test missions surprisingly interesting. It’s Opi who starts to notice certain patterns in The Horde’s simulated actions, and decides to go to the library to research everything she can on past battles. This is a teen wish-fulfillment fantasy, so naturally our group is one of the very best–perhaps THE best–serving the Molethians. When training time ends, our heroes are going to have to put all of that unusual talent and knowledge to the test.

I like the characters. They’re relatively straightforward, but not one-dimensional. I thought in one case it took them waaay too long to realize a certain thing had happened. There’s a paragraph of Letty talking to Cal about how she didn’t want to have “feminine weaknesses” and wow did that have “men writing women” energy. Which was weird, because most of the time Letty and Opi are handled pretty well.

There’s a very complex tournament to determine which teams-in-training will join the Shadow Warriors at the end of their training. The book spends pages on a superior explaining how the tournament works. Then there’s a quick summary on the order of “they needed to win four fights in a row,” to which Cal thinks that’s all he needs to know, and I couldn’t help thinking that’s also all the reader needed to know.

This book was certainly entertaining, but I don’t think I’ll read the sequel. It wasn’t amazing enough to make up for the fact that this wasn’t really my jam.

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Review: “Invasive Species,” Ben Stevens

Rating: 3 out of 5

Ben Stevens’s science fiction novel Invasive Species is the start of a series. I did enjoy this volume, but not enough to read the rest.

We’re decades post-Storm, when the very face of the earth changed. Many died. Aliens started appearing in what are called “Drops,” which seem to come out of nowhere with no rhyme or reason. Chairman Accoba Warbak of the Human Republic somehow came into power, and he hasn’t aged since then. He’s also a complete megalomaniac, ruling this one bastion of human civilization with an iron fist. He has troops of all kinds–Heavies (mechs), Hoppers (soldiers in flying suits), Scrubbers (odd people who seek out those who shape “Strange”–or do magic–and kill them), and so on. We’re just in time for the first graduating class of “New Breed” soldiers, those who have been genetically engineered to be the best. Jon and Carbine are in this graduating class. Jon absolutely believes in the Republic, so when a famous singer, Lily Sapphire, touches his mind with Strange, he turns her in. What he doesn’t realize is that she planned on that, and is sure she’ll be able to count on his help to get back out again. She and her allies are going to take Jon and Carbine on a journey in which the two young men will learn to see the truth of their lives–and they hope to take down Warbak at the same time.

There’s some time at the beginning when there are characters sitting in a tavern picking up rumors and it feels like a D&D game (not in a good way), but luckily this doesn’t last long. The first section of the book is slooow and full of capitalized terms (all the ones in the paragraph above plus things like Harvesters (a certain type of hostile alien), Sniffers, the Resistance, and the Strange. I really liked the combat sequences (which are very creative since there are so many different kinds of soldier and Resistance member, and Strange can be shaped in creative ways). This is the real strength of this book.

The Chairman is definitely a stereotypical villain. He even monologues like one–the graduation speech for the first class of New Breed is an evil villain speech if I’ve ever heard one. There’s also the usual military school bully. Most of the rest of the characters, however, get more interesting. There’s a very deadly woman named Lucy who is absolutely devoted to Lily (whose real name is Maya). There’s a good array of Resistance characters. But Colonel Taylor is the stereotype of the jaded older military man who takes advantage of his position and does whatever he wants in his little fiefdom. This is made weird because he’s also a stereotype in terms of how he talks, which is very much a stereotype in our time period–he feels like an anachronism. Also, there’s a gang that shows up that’s incredibly stereotypical.

When Jon and Carbine head to their first post-graduation assignment, they’re shocked to find that the soldiers already out in the field absolutely do not match their idea of how soldiers behave. They rape “Drop-trash” (aliens), they kill civilians, and they deal with Harvesters. I don’t understand what the purpose was of teaching the New Breed such traits as honor and loyalty if that was going to be detrimental to incorporating them into the rest of the Chairman’s forces. The State raised and trained the New Breed after all, so it should have been able to mold them and their expectations in whatever way it wanted. Also, it felt like Jon turned toward helping the aliens too quickly given he’s been told all his life that they’re basically evil.

SPOILER WARNING: The part that made me enjoy the story despite the above is a sort of mythological underpinning to what’s going on. Maya (Lily) claims to be a goddess who has existed for thousands of years. She thinks she can find the location of a mythological item that can tip the balance of power, but she needs Jon’s help to do it. Another god, Umbra, works together with the Chairman for his own reasons. This entire plot is what kept me thoroughly involved in what was going on. END SPOILERS

Content note: strongly implied rape, ethnic slurs

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Short Take: “Black Site,” Michael Patrick Hicks

Rating: 4 out of 5

Michael Patrick Hicks brings us the bio-horror tale, Black Site. It’s a blend of science fiction and horror that takes place on an abandoned mining colony, in a lab. All of the characters were vat-grown from manipulated DNA taken from “Papa.” Alpha is the oldest, the most similar to Papa, and seemingly the leader. He’s worried about the latest clone, Victor. The whole point of the project is to work backwards through human DNA to find the original progenitor to all life on Earth. Whenever Alpha is near Victor, his head hurts, and Victor doesn’t look all that human. Soon he decides that it would be a very good idea to terminate Victor’s life.

I was a little unhappy with how the only female character–Echo–was treated. As the only female naturally she’s sleeping with our main character Alpha, and she has the usual soft-heartedness. However, I do like the fact that there’s an aspect of, ugh, these two are basically clones of the same person (just with a few tweaks) and yet they’re having sex. It’s one of those random things you have to wonder about when dealing with genetic experimentation.

While I love what eventually turns out to be going on, and why, it comes a little too easily. Alpha comes up with a fairly complex explanation of what Victor is with very little information to work with at first, which was just kind of, “huh?”

Luckily the setting and the plot and the events that happen are all really interesting. I’m glad I read this book.

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Review: “The Malan Witch,” Catherine Cavendish

Rating: 4 out of 5

In Catherine Cavendish’s The Malan Witch, Robyn recently lost her husband Simon. Her sister Holly, who owns a remote cabin with her husband, offered to let Robyn stay there for a while so she can have some time to recover. As soon as Robyn arrives, however, strange things start happening. She’s sure she sees someone in the shadows of her room. A crow follows her around and even attacks her. Two mysterious stones with holes in the middle appear in her kitchen. Eventually she enlists the help of Hedra Trescothick, a local woman who knows the stories of the Malan Witches (two sisters). They were burned to death quite some time ago, and they haunt the land the cottage stands on. Two poppets were placed in specific parts of the house to bind the witches so they couldn’t do any harm, but when Holly had the place extensively renovated, one of those dolls got tossed into a fire and burned. Now the witch will do anything it takes to free her sister’s spirit.

The subject of the Malan Witches is introduced very clumsily. As soon as Robyn arrives she peruses the books on the shelves, picks up one about local folklore, and just happens to read the description of the Malan Witches. This was entirely unnecessary, since Robyn has extensive conversations with Hedra later that go over pretty much all of this information.

There’s plenty of tension, creepy moments, and so on. However, at the very end of the book the author suddenly decides to take a so-far good-guy character and inject confusion as to whether or not they’re actually a good guy. It feels shoe-horned in, doesn’t make a lot of sense, and ultimately doesn’t have much impact on the plot except to confuse things for a little while.

The really good part about this book is the characterizations. Robyn is a wonderful strong female character. Rather than running away, she’s determined to free her sister’s cottage from the witches’ influence. Hedra and her white witch friend Meliora also have a fair amount of personality. The plot, pacing, and characters are perfect. The only problems are the couple of details I mentioned above.

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Review: “Babylon’s Ashes,” James S.A. Corey

Rating: 5 out of 5

James S.A. Corey’s Babylon’s Ashes (The Expanse, 6) follows on the heels of his Nemesis Games. Earth is in dire straights after the “Free Navy” bombarded it with asteroids. Billions are dead and the rest are refugees living under falling ash and dirt. Filip, Naomi’s son, now knows she’s still alive–and he blames Holden for her having left him and his father, even though Holden had nothing to do with it. Medina Station (in the middle of the alien gates) has been repurposed as a sort of Belter homeland, while Captain Michio Pa thinks maybe there’s something wrong about following Marco (Naomi’s ex and the architect of the current disasters). The Rocinante and her crew are on their way to confront a ship that may be the one hurling rocks at Earth, and they have Bobbie on board now. And Marco’s true colors are showing through–he claims to be working for the benefit of the Belters, but he’s all too happy to abandon them as it suits his goals.

We’re getting to see the effects of the war on various people, governments, and sectors. A couple of old characters from a previous book (Pastor Anna and her family) make a reappearance as refugees on Earth. We get to see Avasarala interacting with one of her granddaughters (I may have cried a little). Prax shows up briefly regarding a particularly useful new strain of yeast that could help ease Earth’s hunger crisis.

I love the fact that relationships include a variety of orientations and situations. Pastor Anna has a wife. Michio Pa is in a plural marriage that’s accepted as perfectly normal by those around them. Holden and Naomi have never bothered getting married despite the closeness and length of their relationship. Holden’s eight parents are also in a plural marriage, although it’s partially for convenience.

This entire book, actually, is about tribes and families (really, so is the entire series), of every kind. Marriages, parent-child relationships, romantic love, and more get explored against a magnificent backdrop of military science fiction with plenty of action. There’s also a good theme of whether humanity deserves to be admired or reviled, and where that line lies.

The big problem coming up is the viability of the new economy. One of Marco’s advisors is very clear on the fact that certain things have to be accomplished by certain times in order to make sure that the Belt becomes self-sustaining within five years, which is how much time they have before the situation becomes critical. Unfortunately, Marco doesn’t entirely care about such worldly matters, so not everything is getting done.

It’s also fascinating to explore one station that’s taken over by the Free Navy and how the people there live–the ones who support the Free Navy, the ones who don’t, and the ones who just want to do their jobs and live in peace.

This is a great continuation of the series!

“So,” Holden said. “Martian coup. Free Navy killing the shit out of Earth. Pirates stripping down all the colony ships that were heading out. Medina Station’s gone dark. And we-don’t-know-what eating some of the ships that go through the gates.”

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