Category Archives: Horror

Agents of Dreamland by Caitlin R. Kiernan.

Stars: 1 out of 5.

For a short 84 pages novella, Agents of Dreamland sure felt like one long read. Long and pointless.

You are probably not used to such harsh judgements in my reviews, since I usually try to find at least something positive in the books I read. So let me explain why I’m so negative this time.

The story is about the agent of some secret government organization dealing with the unexplained and the paranormal who discovers what at first glance seems like cult mass suicide, but turns out to be the beginning of the end of humanity. Some kind of alien fungus that would destroy humanity and pave the way for a different life form. Sounds like it could be an interesting story, right? I certainly thought so when I read the blurb and picked up the book.

Well, don’t get your hopes up. The story goes nowhere after that. I’m not joking. They discover the bodies of the cultist and one survivor. They take the survivor to a secured facility where she dies in an explosion of alien spores. It’s implied that this is the curtain call for humanity. The End.

Even that little bit of story could have been interesting if the characters were engaging enough to empathize with or the stakes high enough to create tension. Unfortunately, we get neither. In fact, I think that by giving one of her characters the ability to cast her mind both into the past and the future, the author effectively shot herself in the foot and killed her story.

So this character can get “unstuck” from the present and let her mind travel to all the moments she lived in the past or will live in the future. She goes into the future and sees that in the year 2043, human civilization is pretty much extinct, the remaining humans infected and changed beyond recognition by the fungus, and aliens are controlling the skies. She sees all that and chooses not to say a word about it to anybody. But the author includes a detailed description of her little trip into the future before the middle of the book…

That right there killed the story for me. If the end of the world is coming anyway, nothing the Signalman or his colleagues from Albany do has any meaning. There are no stakes anymore. So what’s the point of the story? Any (minimal) investment I still had in it plunged to zero on my “How much do I care about what happens next” meter. And when the novella ended with a non-ending that didn’t resolve anything, I wasn’t really surprised or particularly disappointed.

I came for an interesting horror story he blurb had promised. I got lots of allegories and similes and countless references to obscure black and white movies and the Beatles sprinkled with a bit of mythology. From what I understand, the author tried to write a Lovecraftian story. In my opinion, that attempt failed.

PS. I received an advanced copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

 

The end of the world doesn’t necessarily have to come with a zombie outbreak, an alien invasion or a natural disaster that wipes the majority of the population. In The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, it starts with a high fever that has a 98% fatality rate in men, 99% in women, and 100% in newborn babies. And while researchers identify the virus causing this, nobody manages to find a cure before the loss of human life is so significant that all governmental structures simply crumble.

 

The survivors are faced with a bleak future for the human race – with every baby born stillborn or dying shortly after birth, most often killing the mother as well, they might well be the last generation on Earth. People react differently to this news, but one thing is certain – it’s not fun or save to be a woman in this brave new world. There are bands of desperate men roaming around the ruins of our civilization for whom a woman is nothing more than a rare commodity and a slave, to be used and sold for other commodities. And a pregnancy might as well be a death sentence.

 

Our protagonist used to work in the OBGYN department in a San Francisco Hospital, but being a midwife is a dying profession as things stand. She survived the fever, but woke up to a world where meeting another human being was often more dangerous than meeting a pack of wolves.

 

This books is written as a mix between a series of diary entries and normal third person exposition. Most of the entries are by our unnamed midwife, though we also get stories from other people she meets along the way. That was a nice touch, because it gives the reader different perspectives into what is happening. Not everyone reacts the same to the seeming end of the world, which is normal, and I appreciated that the readers got to witness this story through several lenses.

 

But the main narrator is, of course, our unnamed midwife, though she isn’t unnamed per se. It’s just that she uses different names during the story, depending on the circumstances. I think by the end of the book, even she doesn’t remember what her real name was…

 

But constant name changes notwithstanding, I really liked her. She is a fighter. She is not one to roll over and give up, just because the situation seems dire and the future even bleaker. She adapts, she changes what she can in herself when she can’t change the external factors, and she presses on.

 

If it’s too dangerous to travel as a woman, she will dress like a man. But unlike a lot of other female protagonists we see, she doesn’t merely cut her hair and dress in bulky clothes, she tries to act, behave and think like a man. She exercises to bulk up. She practices with guns and other weapons until shooting is almost an automatic response.

 

I like just how tough and resourceful she is. How self-reliant. But that doesn’t mean that she is okay with living by herself the rest of her life. One of the problems this book tackles is the slow insanity that grips you when you spend too much time cut out from the rest of the world. Humans are social animals. We need to be able to interact with other humans on a regular basis, even a little, even just to hear somebody else’s voice answering you from time to time. And I understand why our unnamed midwife choses to join a community in the end, no matter how distrustful she’d become of other humans.

 

My review might have made it sound like this book is rather bleak and depressing. It kinda is, since it is a post-apocalyptic novel, after all. However, the overall message is one of hope. Life will find a way, no matter how bleak the circumstances…

 

So all in all, I would recommend this book to anyone who likes the post-ap genre and would like to read something more realistic than the usual zombie fare.

The Girl with all the Gifts by M. R. Carey.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

 

Can I just take a moment to say just how much I loved this book? It is rare to find something new in the overly saturated zombie apocalypse genre, so The Girl with all the Gifts was like a breath of fresh air. I loved the premise, I loved the story and the characters, and I loved the author’s unique take on the whole people turning into zombies trope.

Melanie’s life is a well-oiled routine. Every morning, she waits in her cell to be collected by armed guards and taken to class. She likes her classes. She learns all sorts of things about history and the world outside the Compound, a world she will probably never see, even though she likes to imagine herself exploring it when she lays in her bed during quiet time. Her teachers tell her that she was found wandering out there one day, but she doesn’t remember. They tell her that she is special. They call her “our little genius”, but the guns the guards keep pointed in her direction and the fear in their eyes tell her that there is more to the story than she suspects…

I love zombie apocalypse books, whether they are the “OMG shit just started happening and nobody knows why” genre or the “the world went to hell twenty years ago, how do we pick up the pieces” genre. My only requirement is that I get an interesting story with strong characters and no Deus ex machina in the end. And no gratuitous splatter gore that does nothing to advance the story. And that’s where a lot of books in this genre loose me, because a lot of authors concentrate on the horror of the situation (or the joyful elimination of throng upon throng of shuffling zombies) and forget that a story is first and foremost about people and how they change when faced with horrible situations.

That’s what I loved about this book. Since the world as we know it ended over twenty years ago, humanity has already come to terms with what happened, discovered why it happened and is how trying to recover and maybe find a cure. So even though the book doesn’t have the life or death urgency of the first days of the zombie outbreak books (at least in the beginning), this gives the author a chance to explore the drastic changes such an event would bring to the world and our civilization.

I liked the fact that we know what cause the outbreak. I like the fact that there is a scientific explanation that doesn’t sound too farfetched because it makes this story even more chilling. The hungries are not really zombies in the classical sense – they didn’t die and come back to life, they were overtaken by a parasite instead. So they are still alive, even though the parasite is the one at the wheel. And none of these half-rotting, shuffling nonsense either. The Hungries are fast and once they latch to your scent, they don’t stop until you kill them or they feed on you.

I also liked the overall message of this book that this outbreak isn’t something that can be reversed, that it’s only the next step in the evolution of our planet and of the human species as well. Yes, humans as we know them will perish and the first generation of hungries, but the next generation will be like Melanie -smart, strong and capable of individual thought, even though they will still be parasite carriers. Earth will be different than what we know now, but life will carry on and humans will still walk it.

I am actually really interested in revisiting this world and seeing what became of it say 10-20 years after the end of this book, so I am definitely preordering the next book in this series, The Boy on the Bridge, which comes out in May 2017.

The Emperor’s Railroad (The Dreaming Cities 1) by Guy Haley.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you a little gem in post-apocalyptic genre? This is a relatively short novella (only a little over 100 pages long), but it’s packed full of goodies: huge and very interesting world, a great catastrophe the cause of which is not fully explained, strange beings that might or might not be angels, a mysterious knight, and an engaging narrator. What else would you need for a wonderful book?

Our narrator, Abney, is a 12-year-old boy, and the whole story is told through the prism of his knowledge and perception, even though he tells it as an old man, many years later. And this is important to know, because Abney’s world had not extended past his little town until it got destroyed by the living dead. He is thrown into this vast and dangerous world after a traumatic event and armed only with the stories and beliefs his mother instilled into him.

So to him the Angels are supreme and perfect beings. God is almighty and everything that happened to mankind, from the war that destroyed all the cities of old to the plague of walking dead and even the dragon, is his punishment for the hubris of men of old. And Quinn is a Knight, which to little Abney makes him about just as legendary as the Dreaming Cities and the Angels themselves.

Even though this novella is a story of Abney’s journey through the perilous Kingdom of Virginia to the village of Winfort and the safety of his cousin’s home, it’s also Abney’s journey towards adulthood, complete with disillusionment, injustice and loss. The Angels are not as perfect as he believed them to be. God’s justice isn’t always just. And Knights are not the noble warriors almost larger than life he’d pictured them to be.

I loved this book. It’s a small glance into a rich and complex world, but just because it’s a small story of a little boy traveling a short distance (a mere 50 miles or so) through dangerous country to reach a new town, it doesn’t mean that it’s not interesting. In fact, it manages to introduce this world without resorting to info dumps and leaves the reader with a sense of satisfaction, because Abney’s journey is done, but also with a head full of questions about what the heck happened to make the world this way and what the Dreaming Cities really are.

I can’t wait to pick up the next book in the series because I want to know more about this world. Who are those Angels? Are they really winged beings sent down by God or are they robots, AIs or aliens something like that like Quinn implied? Speaking of Quinn, what promise did he break that he  is seeking penance for? And who is the person he is determined to find in a place that everybody thinks is a dead wasteland? And what are the Knights? From what Abney described, Quinn has a lot more stamina and healing speed than any normal human should have.

A first book in a series did a good job when it managed to tell a compelling and self-sufficient story AND leave you with enough questions to want to pick up the next book. I say good job, Mr.  Haley, because I can’t wait to read the next one

PS. I received an advanced reader copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Deep in the Hollow by Brandy Nacole.

Stars: 4 out of 5.

 

Apart from a few little gripes about the last part of the story, I really loved this book.

 

Jo is a typical teenager faced with very untypical circumstances. A year ago she witnessed the death of her boyfriend Bryce and the circumstances were less than ordinary. Something attacked them at the overlook and pushed Bryce over the stone wall and into the hollow. Problem is, nobody believes her. In fact, everyone in the little town seems to think that she killed her boyfriend. So Jo turned from the leader of the cheering squad and popular girl into the school pariah. Only Jo isn’t as crazy as everyone thinks, and monsters do exist. And this one isn’t done with her yet…

 

I loved Jo. She has a very distinct voice and is a very interesting and believable character. How do you deal with a tragedy like that when you are barely 18 and struggling with your life as it is? She has PTSD and survivor guilt, and recurring nightmares of the thing that attacked her and Bryce that fateful night. So much so that she’s almost persuaded herself that she is slowly going crazy.

 

And it doesn’t help that the police thinks she’s guilty, and that everyone in school think the same. Even her parents bailed and left town, abandoning her with her older brother. Her brother tries to help, but the big problem is that he doesn’t believe her when she says there’s a monster haunting her dreams and think that it’s all due to depression.

 

How do you cope with that and not break? How do you keep on living when everyone around you would rather wish you slunk away and quietly died somewhere out of sight? Even adults would crack under that pressure. So I really admire Jo for hanging on in there and for finding the courage to do what’s right when the truth comes to light.

 

All these trials have made her cynical, with a rather gloomy outlook at life, but she still possesses a wry sense of humor that gives us a glimpse of the firecracker she used to be before tragedy ripped her life apart.

 

The story itself is suspenseful and interesting as well. I love the way it deals with difficult themes like loss and grief and the need to move on (and the guilt that arises when you are starting to move on). I liked how the author managed to show the stifling atmosphere of a little town where everybody knows everybody and rumors spread at the speed of sound. And where deep dark secrets are kept from generation to generation.

 

SPOILER!!!! READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!!!

 

 

 

 

 

The gripe I had mentioned earlier has to do with the coven that comes into the limelight in the last part of the book. First, it felt like it popped into existence almost out of nowhere. Second, the members of the coven were way too bat shit crazy to be believable. I mean how can they function and appear normal in everyday life when they fly off the handle like it was depicted in the scene on the overlook?

 

But apart from that, it was a very enjoyable read, and I would love to see this book turned into a series.

 

PS. I received an advanced reader’s copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for a honest review.

The Singular & Extraordinary Tale of Mirror & Goliath by Ishbelle Bee.

Stars: 5 out of 5.

 

I fell in love with this book. Absolutely and totally. But this will also be one of the hardest reviews I’ve had to write so far. Not because the book is bad obviously, since I loved it, but because it’s so different from anything else I’ve read recently. Heck, I don’t even know what genre to put this book into. Gothic? Fairy tale? Horror? New weird? It’s all of that and none of it at the same time. The Singular & Extraordinary Tale of Mirror & Goliath is a genre of its own, that can be summarized by three words: Weird, wicked, wonderful.

 

First of all, this book tells several different stories, some shorter, some longer, but all of them are intertwined and influencing each other.

 

The first story is about Mirror who is and isn’t a little girl. When she was 12, her grandfather locked her inside a big clock painted with ladybirds. When Constable Goliath rescued her out of the clock several months later, she was no longer human, but something else entirely. What, nobody knows, not even her. And Goliath himself is not entirely human either. He is a shapeshifter who can become may other things, like a great big bear or a giant eagle.

 

The second story is about Mr. Loveheart, who used to be an ordinary little boy until the day his aunt poisoned his mother, and Mr. Fingers, the king of the underworld, killed his father and took him into his domain. Now Loveheart has eyes black as tar, wears red hearts on all his clothes and isn’t entirely sure that he still has a heart. He is also pretty sure that he is at least half-mad.

 

When Mirror appears in London, Mr. Fingers sends Loveheart to find her, because he wants to eat her heart and capture the soul she holds inside her. The soul from inside the grandfather clock.

 

This books reads like a fairy tale in parts, but not the sanitized and cheerful version of fairy tales that we got used to see from Disney. No it’s the real deal, the Brothers Grim and Andersen tales where the Little Mermaid sacrifices her life to save her Prince in the end and he never even learns that she loved him.

 

It’s also part horror story, because some really horrible and macabre things happen to all the characters. I mean, the little girl who became Mirror died inside that clock before she became something else. And one of Mr. Fingers other “sons” is the famous Jack the Ripper.

 

I loved the language in which this story is written. It’s simple and clear, but beautiful and poetic at the same time. I could really see, feel and smell everything the author described. And those pictures were strangely beautiful and scary at the same time.

 

This whole book was similar to one of those strangely vivid dreams you have sometimes. Dreams that are so real that they cling to you like smoke tendrils even after you wake up and leave you with the feeling that you had touched a secret world in your sleep.

 

I admit that this kind of book is not for everyone. Some will probably hate it or think it’s too weird for them. But I would definitely recommend it to everyone who used to love fairy tales when they were a child. My opinion: definitely a must read and re-read!

PS. I had received and advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Deep by Nick Cutter.

Stars: 3 out of 5.

 

I am hard-pressed to grade this book, because I loved it… until I didn’t. And that “didn’t” came in the last 1/3 of the book, including the ending.

 

The premise of The Deep is very promising. There is an incurable disease called the GETS that slowly kills people. First you start forgetting little things like where you put your keys or the name of your boyfriend in high school, then you forget more essential things like how to feed yourself, until you forget how to breath or your heart forgets to beat. It’s always lethal and nobody knows what causes it. But there might be hope for humanity. A substance has been discovered deep in the Mariana Trench that might be able to cure the GETS. A group of scientists had been lowered down to study it in a high tech habitat called the Trieste. Only the base station above has lost contact with Trieste several days ago, and then a horribly broken body of one of the scientists surfaced in the bathyscaphe that had been attached to the habitat. Two people are sent down to investigate what happened. They will face more than just crazy scientists and the crushing pressure of the depths.

 

As I said, I started really liking what I was reading. Loved the main characters and the world Nick Cutter built. Can’t say anything bad about the language either. I read the first 2/3 of the book in two days. It took me a whole week to finally bring myself to finish it. But I need to mention that I don’t think it’s because the last third of the book is bad. I think it’s just that I really didn’t agree with the choices the author made and what he made his characters do.

 

Without going into details, because that would be a huge spoiler, but I don’t think anyone would make the choice the protagonist makes in the end, no matter how crazy they become. There is no mistaking that evil thing for his son. Sorry that’s just not plausible.

 

I have two other gripes with this book.

 

The first one is also deeply personal and might not put off other readers. But for me, there were way too many flashbacks in this book. I understand that they are necessary and an important part of the story, and that the reader wouldn’t understand what’s going on without at least some of them. But they are just too long! And they break the narrative, killing the suspense. I mean one chapter we are on board of the positively creepy Trieste and the tension can be cut with a knife… and then we have a whole chapter about the day the protagonist’s son disappeared. Once we come back to the Trieste, the tension is gone, flushed down the drain.

 

My second gripe is how the characters behave. I mean they are both smart people, they both come to the realization that weird s%&t is happening on board of that station, and that they are more susceptible to it when they are alone. So why oh why do they think that separating and wandering off on their own is a good idea? And why did the author use that tired old trope from every bad slasher / horror movie ever? Especially if bad stuff repeatedly happens when they do it, surely after the third time they would have worked out that staying together might be wiser?

 

*Deep breath*

 

So to summarize, it’s a well-written book with an interesting story. Some of the things in it didn’t work for me, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t work for other readers. So I would say, if you like horror, you should give The Deep a try.

PS. This review is for an advanced copy I got from NetGalley.