Category: Novels

Review: The Darkening by Chris Sarantopoulos

TL/DR: A good page-turner, but hard to get over the premise.

The Darkening is not a book that I would have normally picked up. I was looking for post apocalyptic fiction in the vein of Dmitry Glukhovsky’s Metro 2033 series when I stumbled across it. The “back cover” description sounded intriguing and the reviews were generally positive so I picked up a copy.

I want to start with the premise of the novel, because it was the hardest thing for me to come to grips with: light, or rather the shadows cast by light can kill. Imagine this for a couple of minutes… People would have to learn to adapt to complete darkness in order to survive such an environment. You’d need to stay indoors, in a room with no window, except during the night hours when the moon was not in the sky. I couldn’t suspend disbelief long enough to fully enjoy the novel. I kept questioning how people could survive these conditions. Anyone who’s ever tried to navigate a Lego-strewn living-room floor to let their dogs out in the middle of the night understands how utterly dangerous it is to be without any light. Also, you can’t make a fire to boil drinking water or cook food. Even if you didn’t break your leg stumbling around a forest on the first night, you’d probably die of dysentery in a week.

OK. Put that paragraph in a box for a little while and let’s dig into what this novel does well. The first thing that struck me was the excellent portrayal of the main character. John Piscus is a survivor. He’s seen horrible things. He’s done horrible things. He’s filthy, frightened, practically starving to death and he’s batshit crazy. It’s not surprising. He’s been living on his own since the world changed. His personality has fragmented. He constantly plays with his cigarette lighter, but can’t bring himself to light it up and end it all. I simultaneously loved and loathed this character. He was a complete and utter son-of-a-bitch, but the author still managed to portray him as someone you could empathize with. Hastur only knows how far any of us would go to survive if the world ended.

After the author established John’s character, he introduces the big wrinkle. John meets a girl. A girl who glows with a soft light. Light kills, remember? Is she a demon? Is she the ghost of his daughter back to haunt him? John doesn’t want anything to do with her. He tries to drive her off, even threatening her with violence so he can go on with his miserable existence. It doesn’t work and when he finally believes she is not there to hurt him, John begins to regain some of his humanity.

The girl is being pursued by unknown forces. Men who can walk in the light. John reluctantly decides to help her and continually confuses her with his long-dead daughter. The author shows John’s inner turmoil during this portion of the novel. The “survivor” in him wants him to kill or abandon the girl, while the “father” in him is desperate to help her. John is no hero though. He’s barely capable of taking care of himself. He stumbles through the next sections of the novel bringing death and pain to the only people that tried to help him.

I really can’t describe the rest of the book without spoiling it, but I do want to say that it was a real “page turner”. I spent a couple of late nights reading chapter after chapter to find out what the next calamity would be. It’s a bang-up job. Despite my inability to come to grips with the premise, I was drawn into the story and wanted to see where it would go.

Unfortunately, it took a wrong turn. The “big reveal” was another place that I had a lot of trouble suspending disbelief. The main adversary was two-dimensional and seemed a little too much like a mustache-twisting villain in some sections. The final showdown was messy and left of lot of things unresolved. I had come to like the main character despite the horrible things he had done and while there was redemption, the ending of the novel didn’t give me the closure I had hoped it would.

Would I recommend it? Probably no… There are better tales out there. If you are interested in how far someone would go to survive a holocaust, the portrayal of John and many of the other characters in the book would be great source material. Check the library for a copy or if all else fails you can grab it at Amazon.

Review: The Watchful Dead & Dark House of Dreams

TL/DR: Don’t read just one.

I stumbled across Joe Pawlowski’s books and when I saw “A Tale of Old Hastur” on the cover, my interest was piqued. Gothic horror, dark fantasy, the mythos and the title – The Watchful Dead – I was caught like a voormi in Atlach-Nacha’s web.

The central character of the story is a young boy, Ring Gargery. Ring is no typical protagonist. His father and uncle are slavers. His mother has been bed-ridden since he was an infant. He’s lived most of his life confined to his house with only household slaves as his companions. Ring is clever, introverted and a somewhat fascinating character. Many of the characters he interacts with are terrible excuses for human beings, but rarely does Ring judge them as such. This is a subtle, but incredible piece of world-building by the author. Wherever the city of Old Hastur lies, it seems culturally different than any place we are familiar with.

The The Watchful Dead is a not complete story. It introduces a lot of characters. I learned their motivations. I felt sympathy for some, despised others and was intrigued by how they all interact. While reading this book, I kept wondering, “what the heck is going on here?” When there were only a handful of chapters left I began to despair that the answer was “nothing”. I was right. The book never really had a story, rather it is the introduction to the real story that is told in the next novel in the series.

Things start to heat up in Dark House of Dreams. Ring, takes part in his first real adventure. Back in Old Hastur, the machinations set in place by his father’s cronies turn pear-shaped. Dark sorcery is practiced, the dead walk and soon the gods themselves contest over the right to rule over the ancient city. There were some really terrible happenings in this book… Rape, necromancy, and a child killer make an appearance. I found Pawlowski’s depiction of the dead haunting Old Hastur to be particularly enjoyable. After the initial shock wore off, people just started going about their lives. The wealthy could afford to exorcise obnoxious spirits. The poor just adapted. It seemed so… Reasonable?

Should you read these books? I’ll be honest, I would have given up after reading The Watchful Dead if I hadn’t bought both. I am glad I stuck with them. The story, world building and characters were really interesting, but I feel like it is an “acquired taste”. These are not action-filled romps with competent heroes, but slower and darker tales similar in vein to Clark Ashton Smith or Ambrose Bierce.

The Watchful Dead and Dark House of Dreams are available on Amazon.com.

Review: The Sword of Thongor

TL/DR: A rousing set of tales that any fan of sword & sorcery will appreciate.

Much of Lin Carter’s career was built upon loving pastiches of other author’s works. He dabbled in the worlds created by Lovecraft, Smith, Howard and many more, so it is interesting to see Robert Price take a stab (pun intended) at one of Carter’s best known heroes: Thongor. In case you’ve been encased in amber by a malicious sorcerer for the past 50 years, I’ll remind you that Thongor is a mighty barbarian that adventured in the lost continent of Lemuria thousands upon thousands of years ago. These stories are great fun and hark back to the classic “pulp” sword and sorcery stories of the 1930s.

Price’s book gives us ten more tales of the mighty barbarian king to enjoy. They are all written in the style that Carter adopted and are great romps across the primeval continent of Lemuria. Are they as good as what Carter wrote? Honestly, I’m going to leave that up to you to decide. What they are is an excellent chance to enjoy more tales set in this exciting world of mad wizards and dinosaurs. Carter, sadly, won’t be penning any more tales in this exotic locale and I applaud Price’s contribution to the sagas.

The Sword of Thongor is available at Amazon.

Review: A Wintering of Evil – Books 1 & 2

TL/DR: Real page turners. You’ll like them if you are a fan of S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

We’re having our first significant snowfall of the season, so I thought I’d better get on my duff and type up a quick review of A Wintering of Evil – The Pandora Affair. (And If I’m lucky, the boy will shovel some of the driveway while I’m at it.)

I picked these books up a couple of years ago. I’d just read the Metro 203X series and Roadside Picnic and was looking for more “Russian SciFi” in a similar vein. These books are set in the Exclusion Zone surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. They borrow from the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. computer game. The zone is rich in plunder and weird artifacts. Mercenaries, scumbags and all sorts of adventurers are drawn to the area hoping to strike it rich. Both Russia and the Ukraine tussle over control of the zone. It is a lawless frontier. Mutants, radiation and other anomalies pose additional hazards to the men and women trying to make a euro in the zone. If you’re not smart and handy in a fight, you’re going to end up dead in this environment. Unlike a lot of S.T.A.L.K.E.R. fiction the books are not just “dungeon crawls” in the Exclusion Zone. There’s something deeper going on. Something that has been building since before Chernobyl melted down.

General Nikolai Petrosky (a right bastard of a man) has been working for years to get back into his old stomping grounds in Pripyat – a complex called Pandora. He has hard copies of files in his old offices and he needs them to blackmail top Russian government officials. He’s also got a secret project buried in the depths of this compound and he desperately desires to start up his nasty experiments again.

Opposing the General is a man named Jarred McKenzie. McKenzie first crossed the Petrosky back in Vietnam. By exposing the Russian’s scheme during that war, McKenzie laid Petrosky’s career in ruins. Petrosky swore revenge. I’m not going to spoil the story, but let’s say the battle between McKenzie and him is very personal. McKenzie has pulled together a coalition of Russians, Ukrainians, and Stalkers who aim to take Petrosky down. They’ve been building a plan for decades and have the tacit approval from the highest levels of the Russian Government to move on the General when the time is right.

As if this wasn’t enough, there is a third player in the mix: an ancient race known as the Krailiaki. These creatures have stalked the Earth before mankind built the cities of Ur. Nearly impossible to kill, these apex predators are highly intelligent; they just don’t choose to use technology. As humanity has expanded, they have withdrawn into the darkest corners of the planet, but they are still there. I don’t think it is too much of a spoiler to say that the secret project Petrosky was working on centers on them and they want revenge on all humanity for the suffering Petrosky has inflicted on one of their elders.

I can’t go into much more detail without spoiling the books, but they are well worth a read. The author knows how to keep you in suspense and writes great battle scenes. I’m not quite as sold on the characters. McKenzie seems a little too competent and Petrosky seems a little too evil. There are also a lot of characters. I think the author wanted to show that this was more than just a “good guy from the USA” versus an “evil Russian General”, but I had trouble following all of the agenda’s and names. A list of characters with a brief biography would have helped a lot. I should also mention that by the end of book 2, things haven’t been tied up. I assume the author had a book 3 in mind, but it has been 6 years since these books were published so Hastur knows if they will ever see the light of day.

There are some weird formatting issues in both of my copies: For example, long sections of white space in the middle of a sentence before they pick up on the next page. It’s annoying, but not too hard to get around.

The books are available at Amazon: Book 1 & Book 2.

Deepest, Darkest Eden

TL/DR: It’s really good!

I, Filbanto, shall type with my left hand…

I love the Hyperborean cycle tales. Set in the dim reaches of the past, in a land that faces destruction by an advancing sheet of glacial ice – I guess it ticks all the boxes of what interested me in college (I dual majored in Archaelogy and Geology).

Deepest Darkest Eden is a collection of short stories and poems set in the proto-continent envisioned by Clark Ashton Smith. As with most anthologies there are some tales that really struck a chord with me and others that (pardon the pun) left me cold.

My favorite tale was “Daughter of the Elk Goddess” by John R. Fultz. This was a great adventure that really channelled the ‘sword and sorcery’ tales of the old pulps. Atanequ could certainly hold his own against Kull or Elak if push came to shove. I shan’t spoil the ending of the tale, but anyone who appreciates Smith’s work will certainly chuckle at it.

“To Walk Night…Alone…” by Joseph S. Pulver Jr. was, quite frankly, a slog to get through. Being the second story in the anthology, I started to despair that I’d bought a real stinker. I think I know what the author was trying to accomplish with this style of writing, but it just didn’t work for me.

Overall, I’d recommend the anthology for lovers of Smith’s works. Deepest Darkest Eden is available at Amazon.com.

Zothique via Ran Cartwright

TL/DR: They’re ok.

Every now and again I think about how cool it’d be to run a game set in Zothique. I’ll dig out my Clark Ashton Smith books and read through the stories looking for inspiration. When the bug hit me this time, I figured “surely somebody has written up a story since the Toad God took old C.A. Smith to his bosom”. I stumbled across a novel and two collections of short stories written by Ran Cartwright: The DarkeningSorceries Gnydron, and Sorceries Zothique. Technically, the first two, being set in Gnydron, predate Zothique, but what’s 850,000 years when we’re peering a billion years into our future.

I didn’t go into these books with high expectations. Smith had a way with words that few authors can capture. Cartwright has some interesting stories in these collections, but none of them capture the black humor you get in a C.A. Smith story. In fact – and I guess I should insert a spoiler alert here – most of the stories just end in a bloody mess. I almost felt like the author couldn’t figure out a way to end the tale, so he just killed off all his characters to wrap things up.

Out of the three books, I think The Darkening was the best. The collections of short stories can be mined for adventure ideas for games like Barbarians of Lemuria or Conan, but beware of a TPK.

As for gaming in Zothique, G.R. Hager has written up guidelines for D20. I’d likely use Barbarians of Lemuria.

Review: Red Right Hand and Black Goat Blues

TL/DR: Read ’em for some exciting mythos-inspired action.

Red Right Hand and Black Goat Blues are the first two novels in Levi Black’s Mythos War trilogy. I stumbled across them at my local library and thought “It’s been years since you read any Cthulhu stuff, why not give it a go?” Man, I am glad I did. Warning – if you are looking for a traditional mythos novel, these are not the books for you. Black clearly loves the mythos, but he takes everything Lovecraft did and flips it on its head.

First of all, the mythos gods of this universe are nothing like the unknowable, alien beings we all know and love. Nyarlathotep is terrifying, but he is also petty and vindictive. I actually felt sorry for mighty Cthulhu and Shub-Niggurath at points in the novels. These beings are knowable, we understand their designs. Sure, they’re intent upon screwing up the world, but we can grasp why they want to do it. They feel more like the gods of ancient Greece than the eldritch beings Lovecraft described.

Second, humans are important. Our myths and legends play an important role in this universe. Nyarlathotep wears the skin of a flayed archangel and uses the knife with which Abraham planned to sacrifice his son. Powerful sorcerers have captured elder gods and use them for nefarious purposes and even the Crawling Chaos needs help to overcome such foes. Finally, the lead character, Charlie, grows during the course of the story and is able to go toe to toe with the “big bads” at the end of the first book.

Finally, these stories are fast-paced and action-packed. Events happen at a frenetic pace. The fight scenes are great and the gore is, well, pretty gory. The chapters are short and I found myself reading “just one more” way too many times. Heck, I finished Black Goat Blues in two nights!

I highly recommend these books and cannot wait for the next one.

Review: Hunter’s Song

TL/DR: Give it a read.

Hunter’s Song is the debut novel from William Rutter. I recall when it was announced on Daniel James Hanley’s excellent The Engine of Oracles blog last fall. I dropped it on my Amazon wishlist and promptly forgot about it… I sure wish I’d ordered sooner!

The novel centers around a young English gentlewoman named Lila Davenport. The sole child of a wealthy banker, Lila’s only ambition is to marry the man she loves – her childhood sweetheart Richard Fairfax. Unfortunately, Fairfax has been ensnared by dark powers. His actions drag Lila into hidden terror. Disowned by her friends and family, she must fend for herself in a world where monsters are very real. Rather than give in, Lila takes up arms to fight against the creatures who stalk the night. She finds a mentor who teaches her to become the hunter instead of the hunted.

I really enjoyed this book and I am all the more impressed that it is the author’s first novel. Lila is engaging. From the first chapter, you can see the iron in her character. Here is a woman who “had it all”. Not only did her world fall apart when she was disowned by her family, but it was also turned on its head when she realized that what she heretofore took to be superstitious nonsense is actually very real. A lesser woman would have given up, but Lila strikes back, taking revenge for the wrongs she has suffered, only to become the target of revenge herself.

My hope is we will see more novels set in the world of “A Ghastly Affair”. I sure won’t let the next one sit on my wishlist for months!

You can purchase this novel at DriveThru Fiction or Amazon.

Postscript –

Mr. Hanley, my wife loved the cover of the book.