What a cool, demonic sapphic noir! C.L. Polk always knows how to write the most intriguing worlds and yet keep them accessible to the casual speculative reader.
First off, I must say that the Tordotcom publishing house has become unstoppable with their cover design and title choices recently. This cover + this title? It was screaming to be read.
Helena Brandt is a magical woman living in Chicago in the mid-1900s. In this alternate-yet-similar America, magic and demons are all too real. And there are "good" magic users and "bad" magic users.
Ten guesses as to what side Helena's been labeled... Yep, you were right: a "bad" magic user, or warlock in this world.
Helena made one life-altering decision nearly 10 years ago, and the Brotherhood of good magicians cast her out for her sins. Ever since that fateful day, Helena's turned to a life of magical detective work and crime photography.
But life isn't all roses and daisies for a female detective in 1940s Chicago. Especially for a queer one who doesn't stay in her lane. With enemies closing in, the law a constant threat, and an internal clock ticking ominously down to a very final end, the LAST thing Helena needs is to encounter the worst case of her detective career.
She'd walk away from that job in a hot minute, but her boss offers her a deal that she just can't refuse...
And now it's up to Helena to catch a killer before the deadly trap closes around her.
Even Though I Knew the End was C.L. Polk at their finest. Complicated concepts done simply with accessible character development and dialogue. A fantastical world with the codes and dark sides of our real-world reality. And some very intriguing twists that feel simple and predictable...until they're not.
I recommend this novella to anyone who enjoys historical noir, queer stories, demonic thrillers, and perfectly packaged short fiction. This was a fun ride!
Classic K.J. Parker flair and wit! Not my favorite in his canon, but still a fun ride.
I think it's no surprise that I'm a huge fan of K.J. Parker. Both Inside Man and Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City are some of my favorite books of all time--I can't seem to get enough of his wit and no-holds-barred sense of "you better keep up, because I'm not slowing down" energy.
Pulling the Wings Off Angels had that classic wit and barreling-freight-train energy.
What would you do if you found yourself caught in a theological paradox? Think chicken and the egg, but instead of farm animals we graduated right to the big guns: the existence and willpower of God.
A clerical student grew up with the truth and lies surrounding his family name. If you believe the myth, he says, then you believe his grandfather trapped an Angel and thwarted the will of God.
Despite being a supposed clerical student, our main character has always assumed that this was the myth, not the fact. Angels and God aren't actually real, right?
Wrong. Said clerical student finds out the hard way that the unbelievable is possible, and the barometer of believability is much more suggestible and fragile than he imagined.
Enter into the vortex with K.J. Parker and find yourself questioning everything and nothing at the same time... No matter what, you're always in for an experience.
Like all of Parker's works, I find his unique writing voice and sharp wit truly one-of-a-kind. There really isn't another narrative voice out there that matches him. It's a dash of Pratchett, a splash of something sharper than Gaiman, and a heavy dose of... Parker.
Pulling the Wings Off Angels was a truly fun ride. I will admit, I think it's one of my least favorites, but that's not saying much as I still enjoyed it. My personal lower rating is more to do with the subject matter and how heavy-handed the religious theme was in this novella more than anything else. (I can only handle so much theology and philosophical whirlpools.)
K.J. Parker fans are already onto this novella, so my pitch here is for the newbies. If you like irreverent takes on religious, smart humor, and quick stories: pick this one up.
Thank you to Tordotcom publishing for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
A secluded lake. Death and secrets. And a house with glass walls hiding something sinister inside... Keep your eyes focused on the house across the lake.
Casey Fletcher is at her family's lake house for the summer for a forced recuperation from the press. A character actress who has spent the past year burning down her life with alcohol and bad decisions, she's drinking her way through her own personal lockdown in rural Vermont.
It's an interesting place for Casey to attempt to find her center, as it's the location of her husband's death by drowning.
Grieving, drinking, and trying her best not to think about her past, Casey doesn't have much to do while sitting in the house by herself. So she watches the residents around the lake.
In particular, there's a house across from hers with an entire side of glass windows facing the lake—and therefore facing her. At night, the lit-up box is like a real-life dollhouse complete with the movements of its two real-life inhabitants: tech mogul Tom Royce and his former model wife, Katherine.
Casey witnesses some very odd things in the Royce house when no one is looking.
And then Katherine disappears.
With unsteady hands and yet a drive for the truth, Casey's decided she can't let this lie—what's happened to Katherine? And why is her husband, Tom, acting like nothing is wrong?
Casey isn't prepared for the lid to blow off of Pandora's Box. But it's coming for her anyway.
Be careful what you spy on... You might not like what you see.
I think it's no secret that I am a huge fan of Riley Sager. Compulsively readable, engagingly paced, and ultimately fantastic fun, his stories are ones that I look forward to reading each year. His characters are the right level of flawed yet relatable. His plots veer from the mundane to the fantastical. And his settings drip with atmospheric tension.
The House on the Lake delivered, again, another Sager hit.
Without veering into spoiler territory, I really can't address the plot beyond what is mentioned above. I'd go into this story as blind as you can—it makes the ending more fun!
I will say, the ending completely surprised me. I don't know if I read this on the right day or what, but that ending completely side-swiped me in left field as I confidently thought I had it all figured out. The surprise was a good one, for me, and I loved that the author caught me off my guard.
The only thing that dragged this story down for me was the first half's pacing coupled with the heavy dose of Casey's alcoholism. Representation of her struggles was—to my limited knowledge—well done and accurate, but because the setting was so limited AND not much was happening beyond establishing the scene repeatedly, it made the alcohol references feel like they were repeating all over the place. I wish we'd had more going on in the early sections of the story to dilute that element of the plot.
Overall, a fantastic read. Ready for the next one, Riley!
LEECH - Hiron Ennes
I have never read a novel like this before. I have…feelings about it. Can you be repulsed and engrossed at the same time??
Body horror: ★★★★★
My enjoyment: ★
I love body horror books. Or at least, I used to say that. I think Leech broke my brain and has redefined the threshold on which we determine "body horror" in the realm of medical trauma, consent, and what it means to be a person in, essentially, meat suits.
If the phrase "meat suits" makes you uncomfortable, please take that as your cue to stop reading this review here—and to avoid this book.
Leech is very hard to describe. I commend whoever was tasked with writing the blurb for the inside jacket... it couldn't have been easy. How does one describe a novel like this?
Every monster is the hero of its own story... that could be said about this book.
When our society collapses in on itself and future versions of humanity exist in a very bleak, grim, and macabre future... that could be said about this book.
Let's combine the idea of parasites with a gothic, moldering castle and make it mentally insane... that could be said too.
Leech has a LOT going on in its pages. It's dense by every meaning of the word-- paragraph-wise, character-wise, worldbuilding-wise, and horror-wise. It is a LOT. And it makes no apologies for being that way. (It doesn't have to apologize, but it could have done with a stronger warning label! Lol.)
To say "I enjoyed this reading experience" would be a lie. I did not have a good time.
I loved the first bit of the book a lot—it's confusing, but intriguing and interesting at the same time. I thought the middle was a very dense attempt at trying to figure out the setting, worldbuilding, and sense of pacing. It took me ages to get through the middle sections because it was terribly easy to put the book down and simultaneously very hard to reengage with it when I tried to pick it back up. The ending... was both absolutely horrifying to my personal reading tastes and also a wild trip into the ether in terms of character arc upheaval.
If you've made it this far into my review, you might be wondering why I'm giving this novel a generous 4 stars despite being viscerally upset by its contents. I, too, am a bit confused by myself. But at the end of the day, I think the author deserves some very high praise for instilling such a unique concept into such a horrifying package that dealt with literally every single variant of medical body trauma that could possibly exist in our human minds. All of it. It's all here in this book.
If, for some reason, you're not yet turned off from this book by my review, then I do recommend it. Hiron Ennes is an author to watch—they are doing very unique things in the horror space.
Thank you to TOR for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
GIDEON THE NINTH - Tamsyn Muir
A Clue-style haunted(?) mystery setting mashed with scintillating razor-sharp humor mashed with intricate puzzle-box plotting mashed with post-apocalyptic necromancy mashed with intergalactic space vibes mashed with death/not-death mashed with lesbian drama mashed with--
I could go on, but we’d be here all day. This is an excellent chaotic casserole of brilliant nonsense.
I now completely understand why Gideon the Ninth is marketed the way it is. Let me explain.
This book came out in 2019. It was pitched as "lesbian necromancers in space." I, not particularly liking space and not receiving much else from that limited pitch, took a pass on reading it. "Lesbian necromancers" was interesting... but vague. I didn't have enough to go on to outweigh my dislike of Star Wars-esque space-y stuff involving politics and planets.
Then the reviews started coming out and all of them said a confusing blend of nonsensical ?!?!?!, fandom love for the queer epic-ness, mentions of how messed up and dark and brutal it was, and a general sense of awe and an utter unwillingness to describe what was going on.
I was more intrigued, but not quite enough to pick it up. I had a lot to read, and this was still in my no-no zone of adult hard science fiction (I believed it to be, anyway.)
I waited until 2022 to read it.
Hot diggity dang. What a book. One of those Amy-you-dumbass, shoulda coulda woulda read it earlier type of moments.
Gideon the Ninth is an epic done on the intimate and bonkers foundations of the post-modern cultural moment of the now as opposed to the traditional scale of genre and expectations. Its readership both fits the pitch "lesbian necromancers in space" and yet needs to include other groups of people—myself included—who should ignore that pitch and try this glorious black hole of a book anyway.
I, too, will remain weirdly vague and wax rhapsodic on its attributes over its actual plot because going into this book blind, like a horror-thriller, is really the way to go.
It's a murder mystery. It's a haunted house novel. It's a video game-esque questing story with challenges to defeat. It's puzzles to solve. It's hidden clues on the tale ends of sentences and descriptions leading the reader unknowingly to the inevitable. It's a plot-twist thriller. It's an intimate enemies-to-[something?] with a passionate rivalry/hatred to rouse the interests of the most hardened of the slow burn smut readers—an unbelievable feat considering there is no pay-off in this particular installment. It's a gut punch, a brutal overthrow of your expectations. It's also pop-culture level funny with quips that seriously date it and yet add to the humor and surprise.
I'm honestly shocked at how not-science fiction this novel feels while remaining such a strong science fiction novel.
This is a gothic ballad to the queer emo mixed with the sardonic humor of the Black Death aficionados. I have spent this review making sentences with lofty nonsense pairings for the vibes and to depict the emotional aura of this novel because frankly, I think Tamsyn would approve. (If my review annoys you, pass on this book.)
Modern, witty, and way more enjoyable than you're imagining. A Spindle Splintered was worth the hype. (And WOW, those illustrations!)
I'm guessing you've heard of Sleeping Beauty. Right? If not the Disney version, then you've heard of her, read an adaptation, or gotten a cultural reference.
Sleeping Beauty is one of those princess stories that pervades modern culture and somehow hides its ugliness behind all of the glitter and doll toys. (If you look up the old versions, they are filled with assault and darkness. Ye be warned.)
A Spindle Splintered both showcases that ugliness and shines brighter for it, somehow both a cutting commentary and an uplifting tale of womanhood. The duality shouldn't work, but it does.
And that's really my takeaway from this novella—a lot of things shouldn't have worked for me as a reader, but they did. This was such a pleasant surprise of a fable.
It's witty, it's kind, and it's a bright ray of hope in some truly dark subject areas. The artwork is eerie and perfect. It's just... a great novella.
Looking forward to more of this series. Read it!
Sultry, slow, and dripping with tension-filled nods to a classic novel--The Daughter of Doctor Moreau was a unique reading experience. (Aren't they all, when it comes to this author?) Silvia Moreno-Garcia strikes again! It's a shame that this particular one didn't hit the favorite zone for my reading tastes.
Character connection: ★★★
Sense of atmosphere: ★★★
This is going to be an interesting review. I didn't love it, but let me gush about it anyway and try to get you to pick it up...
Carlota is growing up on her father's remote estate in the wilderness of the Yucatan peninsula. It's the late 1800s. Her father is a disgraced French scientist—with the name of Moreau. Carlota's childhood is strange. It's filled with medications, an odd cast of friends and servants with physical peculiarities, and the constant reminder from her overbearing white father to keep calm and hide behind the verses of the Bible.
Laughton Montgomery is a middle-aged Englishman accidentally entrenched in the Mexican scene. He's an alcoholic with a sad backstory, and he's in serious debt to Eduardo Lizaldes, a wealthy light-skinned Spanish-Mexican man holding all of the cards in this story: including both Montgomery's debts and the estate funding holding up Moreau's life in the wilderness.
Moreau needs a man on site to help with his work. Montgomery needs to do what Lizaldes tells him to. Carlota finds herself involved and intrigued by the things simmering around her.
As the years pass by, Montgomery and Carlota find themselves at the heart of a slowing unfolding drama involving experimentations, Mexican/Maya politics, and the meaning of humanity.
Will they find (or lose) themselves along the way?
Mm, mm, mmm. Silvia Moreno-Garcia continues to rock pretty much anything she sets her mind to. So far, I've personally seen her kill it in body horror, 1970s crime noir, futuristic urban vampire dramas, 20th century Mayan death god adventures, and high fantasy quests. There is seemingly nothing she can't conquer—and in this case, her sights are set on a culturally rich interpretation of an H.G. Wells classic, The Island of Doctor Moreau.
I think this novel is going to be like all of her other ones: it's going to REALLY work for some people, and it's going to REALLY not work for others. The added complexity to this particular story is the restraints placed upon it. By tying it to the H.G. Wells concepts, this adaptation was already roughly structured to follow certain ideas, tropes, and trains of thought. Whether subverted or followed, The Daughter of Doctor Moreau was going to have certain elements addressed.
And that's, I think, where I struggled a bit and others will love this.
I love Moreno-Garcia for her ingenuity, her turns of concepts, her bizarre way of writing sentences that make me slow down. Linger. Absorb.. These are stories with interesting characters that do things you don't expect or approve of, and they're often not very likeable or relatable. I've always liked that—the distanced yet intimate journeys with people I don't understand and therefore can't predict.
However, this particular story deviated from those expectations. I found Carlota and Montgomery—our two points of view—to be both predictable and weirdly bland, and yet the most likeable of all of her characters. I personally neither liked nor disliked them. Frankly, I think the characters were a lower priority in this story compared to the setting and interweaving of the Moreau/H.G. Wells template and the late 1800s Mexican conflicts that Moreno-Garcia wanted to address. Which, again, is both a negative for readers like myself and yet a huge positive for fans of historical fiction and atmosphere.
Was it lush? Yes. Was it filled with dripping gothic tension? Yes. Was it a jungle dream of animal hybrids meeting Mexican interpretations? Yes. But was it a personal, Amy favorite? Nah.
I was looking for surprise, for character-driven ingenuity. For an atmosphere I didn't want to leave and felt was sucking me into its pages. The Daughter of Doctor Moreau didn't do that for me. But I think that's more due to the fact that I have an unsustainably high standard for each Moreno-Garcia work that comes in my path and an expectation for characters rather than flaws within this particular story.
This book would be a shining star in other circles, and I think it is shining for those who have loved it and are potentially new to this author's work and/or interested in historical fiction. For us returning folks (and those of us who don't care about the H.G. Wells original), I'm not sure.
Go into it with a historical and atmospheric expectation, and see what happens. I'm curious about what you'll find...
Oh YES. I had such a horrifically good time. This is the mirror-twin counter melody to Mexican Gothic, the Fall of the House of Usher done grotesque.
Well, it's happened again: I have fallen in love with yet another bizarre and lingering horror story with a special focus on mushrooms. ("Again," yes, because this niche apparently has multiple books in it.)
Join me and the spores...
Alex Easton has heard word that their childhood friends, the Ushers, are struggling. Madeline is gravely ill, Roderick is not faring much better, and something is amiss.
Alex arrives, and they quickly realize that Roderick's understated things. There is something very, very wrong with this scene.
Madeline looks like she's already dead, Roderick doesn't look much better. The Usher estate is damp, moldy, and near-death itself. There's a visiting American doctor who has no idea what is going on, and a wandering older British woman on the grounds with a passion for mushroom study and a daughter named Beatrix Potter.
As Alex stays in the home, a creeping sense of foreboding and inevitability starts to sink in. The longer they stay at Usher, the worse it seems to get...
And that's IT. I won't say any more.
What Moves the Dead looks like—and sounds like—a repeat of concepts to those of us who have already read and loved Silvia Moreno-Garcia's Mexican Gothic. In fact, T Kingfisher themselves writes in the Author's Note that they'd been chewing on this idea already, and then Mexican Gothic came out and What Moves the Dead disappeared into a drawer, almost for forever, as Kingfisher went "gah, I can't do it better than THAT!"
Well I, personally, am thrilled that someone got T Kingfisher to revisit and finish this tale. This is something akin to a cousin, a neighbor, someone with the same facial features as Mexican Gothic but with an entirely different set of personality traits. These two novels are NOT the same, and—as a Moreno-Garcia superfan I can't believe I'm saying this--What Moves the Dead did it... better.
This was grotesque, truly horrifying, and went somewhere that even I didn't full expect. I thought I knew the steps, and I was having a good time, but then... yeah. This seasoned reader was still surprised in an interesting way. A very, very good horror novella that I recommend to anyone with the stomach to handle it.
Thank you to TOR/Nightfire for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
PAYBACK'S A WITCH - Lana Harper
Witchy fall vibes, sapphic love, and a cute cozy town atmosphere collide in this fun rom-com. And it's the start of a series!
A short reader disclaimer: So first off, I have to SINCERELY apologize to the publisher, as I messed up and did not review this book in a timely manner despite having an early digital copy. In general, I've struggled a lot more with ARC reviews this past year due to a lot of upheaval in my personal life, but that's not this book's fault or the publishers so please keep that in mind.
On to the review!
So, did you ever watch Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Halloweentown, or those other adorable witchy vibe tv shows and wish they had a lot more lesbian action and just a gooey romantic plot arc?? Payback's a Witch is the novel for you.
The magical town of Thistle Grove has been the home of several powerful witch families for generations—including the Harlow family. Emmy Harlow thinks that her family's line isn't exactly prestigious or on the same level as the others, but it's still their claim to fame and Emmy's the reluctant heir of the situation.
The catch is, Emmy fled Thistle Grove years ago due to some unfortunate angst and hasn't been back to her home town in quite some time.
When she does come back for the all-important tournament that requires all of the Thistle Grove witch family heirs to be present, Emmy is met with something new: the enigmatic and wickedly devious Talia Avramov, one of the other family heirs and a reluctant partner-in-arms.
Will Emmy and Talia intertwine as they work together to bring down their mutual ex, Gareth, or will tensions collide?
Ok y'all, this was super cute. I do regret missing out on the opportunity to read this in the fall, when the vibes would have been immaculate, but this did give me a wonderful dose of the season anyway. Payback's a Witch was clever, funnier than I expected it to be, and filled with a lot of small town shenanigans.
I had some small quibbles with the pacing and lack of real stakes—it was a bit too quaint for me, a little less dramatic angst than I tend to like in my romances—but overall I do think it was a wonderful and fun rom-com to spend an afternoon reading.
Thank you to the publisher for my copy in exchange for an honest review.
SUNDIAL - Catriona Ward
An ominous, snail-paced crawl to the finish line with a lot of hidden horror and an ambiguously dark ending. This was interesting, but soooo not for me. (Take the star rating with a grain of salt.)
First off, I'd like to say that my low rating is 100% tied to my personal feelings for this novel's content and my general reading experience. I think, like most horror novels, how we respond to content warnings and plot points are very much dependent on individual reader preferences—and it's hard to know what you're getting into without spoiling yourself to a book's contents. Sundial was one of those reads for me—if I'd known where the plot was going to go when I started reading, I would have passed on it. (For that reason, I think some people who aren't excited by the book's pitch but do like certain horror tropes would love this book. But they'll have a hard time learning that without knowing details beforehand. A conundrum that often exists in this genre. )
But hey, we're here now, and I am going to do my best to sell this very well-told story that did not work for me, personally.
Rob's life as a suburban mom of two daughters looks great on the surface. Her husband has money and is respected, her job is stable and conservatively appropriate, and her two daughters appear to be beautiful and normal.
This is a horror novel, so I'll stop there with how things "appear" to be.
Rob's hiding behind several of her secrets, and her husband, Irving, isn't much better. Come to think of it, her oldest daughter, Callie, and her youngest daughter, Annie, also have their secrets. This is a family bound in their silence and (badly) hiding behind the cracks.
The façade is crumbling, and Rob's about to realize that there's nothing she can do to reverse the damage—it's time to do damage control.
And for Rob, the only thing that makes sense is to return to the start of everything--Sundial.
An isolated compound in the middle of the Mojave desert, Sundial is where Rob grew up. It's an odd place—almost cult-like—with more scientific experiments and death than most of us can imagine. Her family is bizarre, her upbringing strange. Rob's childhood and its secrets lay buried in the dirt along with the truth.
Rob grabs her oldest daughter, Callie, and flees to Sundial to fix the problem. (What is the problem though, exactly? Is it what Rob thinks it is? Is it was Callie thinks it is? Is it even what we, the readers, think it is?)
Told through split POVS, split timelines, and interspersed with story entries of a fictional world, one thing is true for this novel—the story is never solid.
Sundial is a very interesting concept for a novel. It takes many pieces from other stories, and its display of the truth/reveals held a classic "twist" flavor to it that made sense when looking at the entire novel from a bird's eye view. (In practice, it led to a very frustrating reading experience.)
As the reader, I was so frustrated by the stilted, distanced gaze. All of these characters felt like they were permanently behind a glass wall—sounds and pictures came through just fine, but I could never forget that there was a wall between us. I was so aware of the story being a "story" the entire time.
I also think that without foreknowledge of the ending, the entire first half of the book feels like a snail crawl. I didn't know what was happening, not enough action was carrying me through the confused intro stage, and I was so aware of the metaphorical wall between character vs. reader that my connection to the characters didn't exist. There was nothing tying me to continuing this story beyond the sense of duty I had as a book reviewer to complete my read of an advance reader copy.
Personal issues aside, I do think Sundial excelled in its sense of place and setting. The desert compound that the book takes its title from is grounded in gritty realities and horrors that felt as real and oppressive as a desert heat. The horrors within this book had a unique backdrop in Sundial's sense of place, and the animal elements were different than other horror novels I've personally read. The unique factor is strong here—genre readers will no doubt appreciate that.
I think all fans of horror should consider picking this up, especially if my cons don't seem like cons above... this is definitely an interesting and unique entry into a genre that is brutally exacting in its demands for new content.
Amy Imogene Reads
Just someone looking for her own door into Wonderland.