The Wizard and the Rat by Aaron C. Engler

As a fan of Victorian and neo-Victorian settings which depict oppressive urban squalor, I liked this book. That is to say… I wanted to like this book. I liked some of the characters and I liked some of the scenes, and I was impressed by the quality of the writing in places, but too often I felt like I was being led away from the story’s strongest points in favor of fleeting distractions.

An example of this would be the telling of the story’s two titular characters, the Wizard and the Rat. Either of them alone would have been a protagonist compelling enough to carry this tale along, and together they end up carrying the narrative, but that requires roughly one-quarter of the book’s length to set up. The first 100 pages are a dizzying dance card of shifting character perspectives, often exacerbated by sudden flashbacks, dream sequences, and extended internal monologues.

Both of these characters have a tendency to daydream or get distracted, a problem only hampered further by the author’s eagerness to keep adding new characters, locations, or concepts to the story with little introduction. Is that an advanced spacefaring alien race? Maybe! We don’t really know, do we. Does that piece of important-seeming plot gristle just tossed onto the reader’s plate actually impact the course of events in any way? Who knows, who cares! Here, have another prolonged flashback.

The pity of this is that, when motivated enough to care, the author has quite the talent for describing detail. The problems arise from the fact that he seems to have so little interest in doing so. The act of laying a stable, coherent foundation for the reader to grab onto seems secondary to the impulse of leaping up to grab whatever thought seems most striking in the moment. This creates a frantic, breathless kind of hopscotch from concept to concept, epiphany to epiphany.

An example: early in the story, our young urchin protagonist (Rat) is gazing up at the sky from a rooftop. The reader is treated to several paragraphs of internally monologued exposition regarding the character’s feelings and memories about that sky, but only after all that’s done do we get a brief, passing description of what the sky actually looks like to the observer.

This is one of the book’s refrains: the external world is often discussed, but seldom as anything more than a backdrop to the passion play of the two leading men. One of the story’s main environments is an industrial slum, its factories are mentioned more than once early on, but they’re never actually shown. Rat spends a fair amount of time scampering around the city, and the gloomy spectre of industry often looms large in the background… but it almost never shows its face.

We see the sadness, we hear about all the misery, but where’s the belching smoke? The coal cinders? There’s a brief mention of ash and smog early on, but the grime of the slums seems to exist only in the hearts of its denizens. No mention of soot in the air comes again until page 146, and that’s only a brief mention of what the air outside of the city is like without it.

So… what was the air of the city like with it? When the protagonists pass through a hub called River Junction, the river is described as being both central to the hub and filled with poison. No mention is made of what that poison is, what the color or smell of the water is, how high it is, what purpose it serves, etc. It’s just another detail, invoked in passing and left behind just the same.

These are the details which stick in my craw because, in my opinion, the story is at its best when it commits to a location and a steady cast. The author has some potential for creating characters, the Vermin (urchins)can be touchingly human in their own base way. Rat’s personal journey is far more interesting than the multiplicity of high concept intrusions battling for the reader’s attention. When that character is on the prowl, just being Rat, the narrative is at its best. It moves along at a good clip, it’s rich with detail and pathos, and the story requires little external reinforcement to be interesting. Sadly, these moments are few and far between, quickly overtaken by long fits of narrative exposition.

I was more engaged by Rat’s struggles to survive on the streets of Haven than I was by his attempts to save the world. I wanted to learn more about his crew of fellow orphans than I did about the cast of ancillary wizards and assassins propping up the main plot. More than anything, I wanted to see and feel more of this world. There’s a short scene with a back alley drug dealer that was one of the story’s best works of conversational dialogue. Some of Rat’s memories of lost love, and the humble-but-grim threats of life on the street, do a lot to humanize the character, and bring some much-needed focus to the story. There are genuine moments of gold here, buried under all the exposition.

The Wizard and the Rat shines most as a gritty, character-driven tale of survival and personal growth in the face of abject hopelessness. If the author had spilled more ink framing that struggle by bringing the world around it to life – rather than always reaching out for the next big thing – I wouldn’t have as much to complain about as I do. Maybe I’m just resentful. The author shows his capacity for a deft touch, and there were moments that truly moved me, and so I can’t help wondering what might have been if a little more restraint had been shown.

To me, there was more magic in the Tower of Ruin, last refuge of the orphans, than in all the wizards’ city of Tandos.

Final score: 3/5. Reviewed by Eric Kandel.

Before the Flood by John Sherman

This is a book about the second coming. It follows Thomas, a jaded reporter, addict, and preacher’s son, as he unravels the story around a mysterious boy named Manny. At first, Thomas’s primary source is Beth, Manny’s adopted mother, but Thomas’s compulsive need to know the truth pulls him deeper until he encounters Manny, his disciples, and those trying to destroy them. The ultimate conflict, though, is whether Thomas will allow himself to believe.

If you aren’t a fan of religious themes, this isn’t the book for you. If those don’t turn you off, then it’s a well written rendition of the second coming that does a better job than most of avoiding condescension and excessive sermonizing. That said, two issues keep the book from standing out. First, the story is straightforward and feels more inevitable than it does interesting. Second, its framing as a series of flashbacks and quasi-parables deprives the book of any sense of immediacy. Although individual scenes are enjoyable, the whole ends up being flat.

There aren’t any unexpected turns in the narrative. Manny is the second coming whose purpose is to eventually punish mankind for its sins, Thomas is an atheist-via-abuse whose finds his faith again, and Beth is the mother struggling with her child’s divinity. There are apostles, the devil, and trials which test Manny’s commitment and faith, but everything plays out how you would expect it to.

It’s a shame that’s the case, because the book is full of small, thoughtful moments that inject more compassion than one would usually expect in this kind of story. It’s far more about the struggles of faith than it is hellfire and punishment. In fact, the only self-righteous character is the devil.

The story’s framing robs the book of most of its vitality. Instead of riding along on Thomas’s shoulder as he went deeper into the rabbit hole, I felt like I was reading his diary. This put an unnecessary amount of distance between the reader and the story, and since Thomas is about as textbook a lost-his-faith-and-finds-it-again character as he can be, the author really couldn’t afford to frame the story in a detached way.

The problems with the novel are a shame because I feel there was a more interesting story to be told. If the author had been willing to subvert the second coming narrative instead of dressing it in new clothes, or had told it from a different perspective, he could have done much more with it. Unfortunately, because each segment of the story was a parable with a predictable outcome, no amount of good writing was able to make it engaging fiction.

If you want to read a well-presented religious story concerning the second coming that doesn’t deviate from your expectations, this novel is worth a gander. But, besides a few interesting moments, nothing stands out as new or particularly unique. I give it a 3/5.

If you want to take a gander, you can pick up a copy from Amazon here.

This Land Book One: That Ribbon of Highway by L.S. Burton

The plot in this novel is a well tread one. The big evil (aliens) comes, people huddle inside of a building (monastery) trying to survive, and they end up snarling down each others throats. As is usual, the bulk of the story is how the characters cope with a nihilism-inducing crisis. Dense writing, unlikable characters, and a dour tone devoid of any hope until the last two pages of the book make this novel more tedious than enjoyable.

First, the writing. It’s not poorly done, and some stretches of the book stand out, but for the most part the author gets lost in overly elaborate descriptions of the commonplace. This drags down the pacing of what’s already a slow book, and it quickly becomes difficult to keep reading. Besides the ink that gets spilled describing every nook and cranny, the other problem is an excessive use of vocabulary that, while accurate, isn’t well suited to long prose if too much of it gets used. What works in a 5,000 word short story and a novel are two different things. Again, the words themselves weren’t the problems. It was their abundance.

Second, the characters. There are only three who stand out. The rest are, for the most part, petty little villagers who the monsters do a favor when they eat. Most of them felt like scenery to me, rather than people who I had any investment in seeing survive. I ultimately felt that their purpose was to die while Stephen,, the main perspective character, watched.

Of the characters who do stand out, Stephen, Allison, and Homer, two are utterly unlikable and the third only rises above the caricature of a senile old man for one segment of dialogue. Stephen is a man who made a lot of mistakes by being a generally bad person and came to the monastery to sort through the m. The problem is, the armor he wears is that of a sarcastic, know it all, vicious ball of disdain. The only thing there is to like about him for most of the book is his constant suffering. He deserves it.

The second character, Allison, wants to die and is willing to kill everyone else in the building so she can finish having her existential tantrum. She’s one of those people who just isn’t strong enough to make it through life but relishes tearing everyone else down until something is kind enough to extinguish her miserable self. She gets treated cruelly on many occasions and, like Stephen, she’s earned every single moment of ill treatment.

It’s rare I read a book with characters I so thoroughly despise. The author did an outstanding job of characterizing them. The problem is, Stephen is the main perspective character and Allison is the second most important one in the novel. There’s no relief from them, and, spending the whole book with them right in my face, I had absolutely nobody to root for.

Homer stood out for the one moment where he finally came down hard on Stephen and explained just how much of a miserable sack of man he was to him. I nearly fist pumped. I wanted to see Stephen destroyed. He and Allison were, given their prominence, characters to endure, not enjoy. Again, the writer did a great job with them, but there was never any other character that really served as a counterbalance. Daniel, Stephen’s ‘friend,’ never registered with enough impact to do the job. Moving on.

Third, the tone. There is almost no hope in the book. When anyone survived in the end I was legitimately surprised, because, based on the tone, I expected the whole thing to resolve with them feebly flailing against the inevitable before receiving their reward of a horrific death. The characters are cruel and petty, they never make any progress, and their trapped in an old, decaying monastery bathing in their own despair. The only humor comes from tertiary characters, and it’s not particularly funny or long lasting.

If this was a short story, that tone would be fine. But for a novel, it makes it very difficult to care about anything when the plot is just an endless parade of misery. It’s not until the very end of the book, when Stephen stops using his guilt as a reason to inflict himself on others and finally makes peace with himself, that there’s a faint glimmer hope. Without anything before that, though, it was too little, too late, to salvage the relentlessly grim, slow story.

As much as I hated Stephen, the author knows how to write well enough that, when Stephen finally had his moment of grace, I was pulled in. It’s a shame that the author used too much flowery, descriptive language and an excessively dark tone, because there was an interesting story at the heart of it. And, sentence by sentence, the writing was of decent quality. The author has the ability to write well, I just don’t think it shone through in this novel.

This one gets a 3/5.

The Thought Readers by Dima Zales

Darren is a young man with the ability to step out of his body into a frozen mock-up of the world called the Quiet. While there, he can manipulate any physical object he desires to gather information, but upon exiting he returns to the real world at the exact moment he left it, and none of the physical changes take hold. Thus, he can explore as much of the world as he want in what amounts to a paused state, reading entire novels and rifling through a hundred people’s pockets in what to us is less than a millisecond. The novel kicks off when he discovers a young woman in an Atlantic City casino who shares this power.

Although the book has an interesting hook and is a snappy read, it feels more like an extended introduction than a full length novel. Too much time gets spent explaining Darren’s powers and fleshing out the world. Besides Darren, none of the characters amount to anything more than shallow caricatures. Finally, the novel reaches an abrupt climax that solidifies the sense that it’s a lengthy introduction to a longer book.

For most of the novel, the reader is either being told how Darren’s powers work, how people with his powers fit into the world, or the motivations and backgrounds of the various characters. It felt like reading a dossier concerning the world rather than a story set within it.

Even when there’s action, it’s constantly broken up by trips to the Quiet. Rather than walking the reader through every one, it would have been more interesting to show us the results without telling us what Darren had learned. He could use the information and then let the reader in on what it was in the first place, or just hint at it. The difference is akin to having Sherlock Holmes tell us exactly how he’s solving a case as he does so, rather than springing it on the reader at the end. As it is, there was never a sense of mystery.

In addition, Darren is the only character with any depth. The story is told from his perspective in the first person, so the reader has ample time to get to know him, and there are some interesting quirks to his character that make the process entertaining. Unfortunately, all of the other characters have neatly assigned roles. There’s a hacker, a love interest, a mad scientist whose job it is to dump more information about how the powers work, etcetera. That’s not a problem on its own, but nothing interesting happens with the characters to make them stand out.

The one that bothered me in particular was Darren’s love interest. She cries, scowls, tantrums, and smart-alecks her way through the book, but never in a way that makes her feel real. Sure, she has a rough past that would stress someone in her position, but her emotional reactions did not feel natural. It was more like the author flicked a switch in the middle of a scene. One moment she would be self-assured, the next nearly in tears over the same event that theoretically toughened her up in the first place.

Finally, there’s the climax. The book ended right at the point that the story had moved past all of the information dumps and started rolling ahead. There’s a kidnapping, a rescue, and a quick twist that, in most books, would mark the end of the introduction. Here, however, it marks a “to be continued” that left me unsatisfied. It was a taste of what the second book will hold, a book that, as set up, I find far more intriguing than the one I read through.

It’s unfortunate that the novel has the issues that it does, because there’s a genuinely entertaining story buried beneath them. It left me wanting more like any good rainy day read should, and I still found the whole setup interesting despite the flaws. That said, I have to give this one a 3/5.

If you want to take a gander, you can pick up a copy from Amazon or Smashwords.

Psychedelia Gothique by Dale L. Sproule

Every collection of short stories has some that work and others that don’t for any given reader, and this volume was no different. More of the stories didn’t work for me than did, but when I was able to connect with one it hit with an impressive impact. As a whole, this was a respectable but inconsistent body of work, and to review it I’m going to focus on the broad problems I saw with the stories as well as on the individual stories that resonated with me.

The stories that didn’t work for me tended to have the same two problems: first, the turn from mundane to fantastical happened so quickly that there wasn’t enough time to savor the building sense of dread; second, the horror elements tended to spin out of control so quickly I couldn’t really keep a coherent image in my head of just what was going on.

It’s not easy to write something that creates a fundamental sense of dread, and often the author managed to do so. When he didn’t, though, it was because the world in the story would go from normal to nightmarish faster than flipping a light switch. In addition, there was rarely a ‘why’ that explained the reasons for what was happening. This made what were abrupt transitions particularly jarring.

I usually got the sense that the bad stuff was happening simply because it did. There was no real explanation for me to latch onto, and I have trouble buying into something if I don’t know the why. There are a lot of readers that specifically seek out the kind of horror stories that lack explanations because they find the fear of the unknown particularly engaging. I do as well, but with such fast transitions from normal to surreal, I didn’t have the time to anticipate the dreadful thing that was coming.

The best way I can put it: I often felt more like I’d accidentally cut my finger while cooking instead of being tied to a chair while someone chopped each digit off in succession, and with this kind of inexplicable, anticipatory horror, that’s what really sells it. Some of the stories that were guilty of this: “The Onion Test,” “Lifestreams,” and “Corrosive Agents.” Although the stories didn’t click with me, “White on White” and “Exposure” did better jobs of building up to the finale.

The second problem, the lack of coherence once the fantastical elements took charge, is largely attributable to the author’s diction and use of language. The sentences become fast and frantic but use words that aren’t common in everyday speech. I consider myself a (somewhat) literate person, but there were quite a few instances where I had a choice of either grabbing a dictionary or forging ahead.

I always chose to forge ahead, and as a result I could never quite form a mental image to accompany the text. Given a little more space, or simpler descriptions, I think the writing would have been more compelling and would have drawn me much deeper into the worlds than it did. Short stories are notoriously difficult to write well, and I think the author’s focus on magazine publication forced him into such small word counts that his talent didn’t have time to shine through.

There were, however, some truly unsettling and engaging stories in this collection worth discussing.

The first was “Fourth Person Singular,” which was a horror story more in the crazed-psychopath-for-a-father sense than it was because of anything fantastical. It was a straightforward, simple idea that lasted just long enough to unsettle me. Part of what made it work was there was nothing supernatural, just a gradual build to the payoff the reader knew was coming.

“Memory Games” was a fantastic entry and a perfect example of how the ‘why’ of a situation can pull me in. In short, shape shifting monsters disguise themselves as humans, angels, and other such things to try and breed with humans. The downside is that the birth is fatal (in a pretty horrific way for the human).

But rather than focus on this, the story deals with one woman and her lover, a mix of uncertainty and desire. On the one hand, she can’t be sure he’s not one of the monsters; on the other hand, she has a strong desire to have one person in the world she feels safe being with. Part of what makes this story so good is that it uses horror to magnify the issues that might already exist in a relationship, which makes the main character’s dilemma entirely relatable. Also, the fantastical elements were simply background material rather than the focus, which is where this author shines.

My absolute favorite story, however, was “Razorwings.” The author describes the genre as splatterfairy, a spinoff of splatterpunk, and it’s an apt description. The imps in this are fey creatures that jump into human hosts to survive then feed the human souls to an imp king. I’m not going to say too much about this one other than it was fantastic. Sproule did a great job selling just how horrific what the imps did to humans was, as well as how awful it was being an imp. The final confrontation ran away from the writer and lost some coherence, but the overall delivery was spot on.

“Masks of Flesh” and “Touching the Screams” were solid post-apocalyptic stories, but that’s not a genre I really jump on most of the time. Both were interesting, but there was nothing in either that grabbed me.

Overall, this is a decent collection of short stories, but there are some real gems in there worth reading through. I think the author shines better when he gives himself some breathing room to write, and it’s clear he has the talent to produce high quality work. If I rated each story, I would have been giving everything from a 2/5 to a 5/5. The collection as a whole, however, measures up to 3/5.

I suggest picking up a copy here. There should be at least a handful of stories in this collection for everyone, and the price of entry is low.

 

 

 

DangerRAMA! By Danger_Slater

This book is a collection of three novellas that neatly fit inside the bizarro genre. By neatly fit, I mean they’re each foul, absurd, and deranged. This is the sort of fiction where a man makes love to a giant, rotting finger while it rains treacle outside. Although not a bad thing in and of itself, I felt the stories served the genre, rather than the other way around, which undermined their impact and left them more a novelty than the sort of fiction that sticks with you.

First, let’s be clear: these stories are strange and disgusting. Ample amounts of sewage, bodily functions, and foul language punctuate each story, although more the first two stories more than the third. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing: when the author uses the gross-out factor well, he makes interesting point and jars the reader to attention. It’s a powerful tool.

The problem is that the genre seems to demand this particular tool’s overuse, so it quickly becomes mundane in the context of the story. Of course the main character has to swim in a pool of feces, it’s the genre! It wasn’t really until the third story that I felt the author consistently used foul language and disgusting scenarios well. Once he did, they drove home the point of the story and did more than just shock for shock’s sake.

The second issue that stood out was the pacing: the stories tended to ramble then break into headlong dashes. I particularly felt the first story, following a former teacher turned mad scientist, started with a great deal of promise then dragged on as the author tried to throw every absurd thing he could think of into the story. It got a few laughs out of me, but by the end it’d worn thin.

The third issue, present more in the first two stories than the third, was that there really wasn’t a point to the story until the author declares it right at the end. It’d be like a comedian telling a depressing story about a dead child then screaming “Laugh, monkeys, laugh!” at the end of it. It’s not to say that the stories didn’t have a few entertaining moments, but on the whole they felt more like the author was experimenting with the genre, or kowtowing to it, with little concern for the stories themselves beneath the malarkey.

All of that said, the third novella in the book was the best by far. It was structured, I had an idea what it was about, and all of the grimy details really drove home the point of the story. There were parts where it detoured, but on the whole the author made the genre work for his story and did so in a provocative way. My favorite part of it was when the main character, an astronaut slowly being driven insane by his isolation, asks Mission Control if it loves him, then asks the same of the ship’s vacuum. He was the first character that felt like a person, not a caricature of one.

To be honest, I hadn’t encountered this genre until I read these stories, so I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt to compensate for my ignorance. Additionally, the third story in the collection demonstrated how the genre could be effectively used as more than a novelty. Unfortunately, the first two stories reveled in the genre and lost themselves somewhere along the way. I give the book a 3/5.

I’d recommend taking a gander if you have a strong constitution and a desire to experience something peculiar.

Penny Palabras: Season 1 by James B. Willard & Patrick K. Beavers

This comic follows an unsettled girl being tormented by the Straw Man, a nightmarish creature that’s slowly working to drive her insane and eat her soul. The only friend she has is a peculiar librarian, and Penny’s world is a hostile place full of ghosts, mysteries, and despair. It’s an interesting premise for a comic, but it doesn’t live up to its full potential. The presentation of the setting, the absence of useful information, and Penny’s constant introspection prevented the comic from drawing me into its world.

The themes and the set up intrigued me, and I think the artist did a fantastic job drawing up monsters that communicated an entire personality just in the way they looked. The first episode drew me in, and I was primed to enjoy a disturbing mystery. I think there’s a lot of potential here, and both the writer and artist demonstrated that they have a good idea of how to put together a comic. That said, the issues mentioned above held me back from really enjoying myself.

The problem with the presentation of the setting is that the reader never sees how the world could be. There’s no glimpse of an ideal world, not prelude in which Penny has a normal life. From the get go, everything is strange, off. But, it’s only strange in the context of the world we live in compared to that of the comic. Without any contrast in the comic itself, everything that happens seems to be part of the natural order of things. When the entire world is strange and appears to have always been that way, it quickly becomes a new normal and prevents anything from standing out.

I think the comic would have been much better served if the first episode was in color, in a normal world we’re accustomed to. A chance for the reader to see Penny happy, to bask in banality. Sharp lines in the art, where everything is clear and defined, where it has its place. Then, the Straw Man could have appeared, the colors shifted to black and white, and the blurry art style could have replaced clean lines.

Without any of this, with the strange world rapidly becoming normal to the reader, a lot of the tension and horror gets sapped out of the comic. There’s no fear of the unknown and very little tension. That leaves the comic grey and dreary, rather than unsettling.

The second issue with the comic is that it gives the reader almost no helpful information about the world and how it works. Penny offers a morsel here and there, but for the most part the reader just has to accept the world as strange on its face. There are plenty of mysteries kicking around, but not much way for the reader to start figuring them out. The world seemed rich and full of interesting tidbits, but I never felt like I could really get my hands on any of them.

I think my biggest problem was the fact that everything in the world simply is, and there’s very little why given. The Straw Man is after Penny. Why? Because he is. Penny can see ghosts. Why? Because she can. I could go on, but you get the point. There are some explanations, but they’re usually delivered as lectures, such as the one concerning how time works for ghosts.

Additionally, when the comic does present a mystery and then explain it later, the explanation is usually anticlimactic or unsatisfactory. The reason Penny’s father is a broken drunk, the reason the library catches on fire, the librarian’s identity, none of these had a resolution that really struck me.

Penny herself is an introspective person, so most of the dialogue in the comic is her thinking to herself. It really doesn’t work for me. In a comic I look to the art, and what the characters say and do, more than what they think, to communicate the story to me. A navel-gazing loner just doesn’t make for engaging reading in this particular medium. I felt this entire thing would have worked better as a short story than it did as a comic, at least in the way the writer presented it to me.

In the end, I felt like I was following a drifter in a strange world. There were some nice postcards, but nothing there that made me want to return. It’s a shame, because the artwork set the tone quite well, and the story itself had a lot of potential. And to be clear, this comic certainly wasn’t bad. Even though it didn’t engage me, it also didn’t bore me. I really do think it has potential to become something unsettling. The first scene with a devil in it was the best in the entire season, so I know the writer and artist have the talent to pull it off. But as it stands right now, I give it a 3/5.

If you want to check it out, you can pick up the first issue from Amazon here.