Category Archives: Dark Fiction

Dark High Fantasy from a Great Indie Author: “Elf” by G.R. Sabian

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After a multi-year absence from blogging, this is an overt but well-deserved review for my best friend’s first(ish) novel. (I say firstish because this friend published a novel before, but took it down after a while for editing purposes. It’s a great book, too, but as of today isn’t back for sale yet.)

 

G.R. and I have been close for most of my adult life. We bonded over our love of writing (and reading) dark fiction with a fantastic slant. This includes everything from straight-up horror to all kinds of fantasy, sci-fi, speculative fiction, and so on. In addition to being a great writer, G.R. is a fantastic editor and I would be a weaker writer without our friendship.

 

Anyway.

 

“Elf” is one of the stranger novels I’ve read. The book takes familiar fantasy tropes – beautiful elves, dire world-wasting threats, quests, dragons, magical creatures, and gorgeous nymphs – and uses them to create a story that is very singular and dark. It’s a combination of high fantasy, dark fantasy, and science fiction.

 

I think the blurb on the page puts it better than I can, but I’m a reviewer so I’ll do my best to summarize. The narrative follows the journey of Euthain Kurowin, a member of a society of elves who are deeply, intrinsically connected emotionally and psychically. One elf’s joy is every elf’s joy; one elf’s pain is every elf’s pain.

 

Euthain is a very privileged member of this society. He’s the son of two renowned leaders and has everything an elf could want. The problem is, Euthain doesn’t want what other elves want. His society is extraordinarily peaceful. They’re so in tune with nature that they can’t stand even to eat meat. Euthain, however, is essentially violent, jealous, and emotionally miserable. As such, he doesn’t have a place in a society that basically reads his mind, a society that recoils from everything he feels and thinks – dark, horrible things they can’t even comprehend. This results in him being effectively shunned, even within his own family.

 

Right about the time he finally gives up and decides to exile himself for the good of his community and himself, an old, forgotten evil emerges. Even as his people panic, Euthain is euphoric: here is his chance! A war is coming, a violence his people can’t even begin to imagine. He sees the chance to channel his violent impulses and callous nature in such a way that he can be a warrior, a defender. But when he comes face to face with this threat, he unexpectedly finds himself beguiled. He has to make a choice: fight for his people, the community that reviles and fears him…or fight alongside the only person who understands him.

 

So, a couple of things. First, “Elf” is not for everyone. It’s violent, dark, and Euthain – while presented in a way that allows the reader to empathize and even root for him – is objectively a terrible man. He tries not to be. He struggles to be a force for good. He wants to be so much more than he is, and he really does work hard in pursuit of that goal. But he doesn’t work hard enough. Thus, he’s not a good person, and does many, many, many things a bad person would do. Some of these are highly objectionable. But it’s part of what makes him a well-rounded, believable character. You may not love him, but you want him to succeed at his ultimate goal.

Second, there’s the portrayal of women. Does Euthain have issues with women? Absolutely. Is his culture and society dismissive and unkind to a subset of women? Yes. Is the story disrespectful of women? No. A lot of what we see, as readers, is through Euthain’s perspective and a lot of his issues are explored, but not in any way condoned. Besides Euthain, the other main perspective is that of a young woman, and I think she’s portrayed not only realistically, but as the story’s only real, true-hearted hero.

With that disclaimer out of the way, let me emphasize that “Elf” is extremely well-written. It’s concise yet poetic, clearly composed, and proceeds at a great clip. The world-building is also exceptional. It’s immersive; from the first page I could see, hear, and feel this world that is by turns utopian and hellish. It wasn’t something I expected, but it was a wonderful treat.

I loved it. If you like a good, dark fantasy, I think you’ll like this too.

Hopefully I’ve piqued your curiosity, and if so, here is the link:

 

Note: I love reading indie books (not just ones my friends write.) I’m getting back into reviewing after a long absence. If you need reviews, then (time permitting) I’d love to help out. No charge, of course, although a free copy of the book would be greatly appreciated because I’m kind of poor. I’m honest but kind, and will let you read the review before I post it if you like.

Second Note: I also do editorials, copyediting, and line-editing. Not for free, but not expensive either. Please understand that my fly-by-night blog posting really is not indicative of my writing and editing prowess; I’m an experienced freelancer and I swear I know what I’m doing.

 

 

 

 

 

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So There’s a Book I Really Enjoyed

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If you’re into great writing, flawless pacing, and horrifying subject matter that may or may not destroy your faith in humanity, you’ll probably like it, too. It’s called “The Wish Doctor“, written by the most likely pseudononymous G.R. Sabian.

 

The book follows the exploits of a crazily rich and seemingly soulless man who, for no discernible reason (other than a near-supernatural compulsion that I suspect is rooted in a traumatic past) randomly grants violent wishes to miserable people – regardless of whether the misery is warranted, the person is good, or the wishes are deserved. As an example, he burns one family alive to satisfy the wishes of a disgruntled young scion.

 

On to other things.

 

Somehow, he crosses paths with a child prostitute named Jamie. (Can you guess where this is going?) Her deepest wish, naturally, is that the pimps and offenders all die. Our hero, Harry, accomplishes this and assumes his work is done.

 

Only it’s not.

 

First off, the child refuses to let him leave. Second, she (understandably) has many issues that make her a danger to herself and others. By necessity, she is a master manipulator and basically, they end up in a twisted, if mostly sincere, approximation of a parent/child relationship. On top of that, the two have some kind of weird, understated psychic connection.

 

I’ll be honest. First, this is most definitely not a book I wish I’d written. Second, I definitely did not write it (just want to throw it out there – I am a professional writer, but I do things like ad copy, product descriptions, and blog posts for small/midsize businesses. I want to be a novelist, but I’m too chicken as of now to put my work out there).

 

Third, the entire novel is extremely disturbing on several levels. Think graphic violence and a lot of implied abuse and memories. It isn’t for everyone. In fact, the entire book is basically one giant trigger. As good as it most certainly is, as fantastic as the writer him/herself is, I can sort of understand why it’s retailing for $1 USD.

 

That said, I’ve been trying to talk people into reading it since I first read it in July of 2014, but my efforts have been in vain (and I can sort of see why, after reading the above endorsement). So, after this, I’m honestly giving up. I just couldn’t let it go without a cursory post on my very own blog. G.R. Sabian, whoever she/he is, is a stunningly fantastic writer. Think the pacing and spare, impactful sentences of Dean Koontz with the eerie lyricism of Cormac McCarthy wrapped around Tarantino-level violence (without the absurdity) and the true-to-life, hard-to-stomach grit of “Taxi Driver”. It’s cinematic and oddly literary at once.

 

If you can tolerate this, please read it – mostly because it’s supposedly part of a series and I want to make sure it continues.

 

In case you missed the link the first time, here it is: The Wish Doctor by G.R. Sabian.

 

It’s just $1, folks. Pleeeeeeeease do this. For me.

Trains

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If you wait at any given train station on a certain date, a train will appear that isn’t on any schedule. If you board the train you will find that the interior, regardless of the exterior, will be very elegant and old fashioned.

Have a seat and enjoy the train ride. The steam engine is beautiful: plush seats, exotic decor, gorgeous windows and elegant color schemes.

The crew are refined and very eager to please. The ticket takers engage you in conversation. Every half an hour or so, a waiter comes by to offer you the most select dishes.

The landscape rushing by outside is incredibly lush and lovely. Lakes and mountains, deep forests and pristine beaches. Don’t try to recognize any of it. Not a single tree or peak or grain of sand corresponds to any known geography.

You are not alone. The train is full of passengers. Some are dressed like you; some are in clothing you recognize as ceremonial and foreign; a few are dressed very elegantly, in luxurious fashions as least one hundred and fifty years out of date. Others sport fashions you do not recognize, and carry items—electronics? accessories?—that you have never even imagined.

When the train makes its fourth stop (this will take several hours), get off.  If you disembark beforehand, you will disappear. If you manage to return—and some do—you will only be capable of speaking a language completely unknown to our world. You will panic, and weep for days on end. You will not eat. You will pine for the world you left behind until you waste into nothing.

If you disembark after the fourth stop?

No one knows.

Just be aware that every once in a while, a hideously dismembered corpse is recovered from the rails near stations. Typically these bodies are rotted masses of meat only vaguely recognizable as human. Despite the decomposition and the mess, they appear very suddenly, often in the time it takes to blink.

Many of the victims remain unidentified due simply to the appalling state of the remains. Those identified, however, all had stained and battered train tickets on their person, dated days, weeks, even months and years prior.

People will tell you the victims tragically fell or even threw themselves into the rail wells.

But surely you know better.

Best. Vampire Story. Ever.

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About the time I was finally quitting Pokemon for good for the first time, my cousin gave me a battered paperback called “Companions of the Night.” This was in the summer of 2005. “Twilight” hadn’t yet hit. Those were great days. Really, really, really great days. Vampires were still kind of an underground deal, particularly among teenage girls. They just weren’t in yet. So I shrugged, feeling absolutely no disgust at myself for reading about vampires, and started reading.

“Companions of the Night” is not Vivian Vande Velde’s first novel, but I think it’s her best. (And yes, I’ve read “Heir Apparent.”) It was original (still is) and, as far as teenage vampire fiction goes, reasonable. The vampire, Ethan Brynne, is ridiculously good-looking, and our heroine Kerry notices, but she doesn’t fall in love with him. By the end, arguably, she loves him, and really wants him. But they aren’t in love.  In fact, for most of the book, Kerry’s primary feeling toward Ethan is fury. Call me what you will, think what you want, but I liked that.  Anyway, here’s my wordy rundown:

16-year-old Kerry is a nice, responsible, normal teenager. She takes care of her brother, gets along with her dad, and though she isn’t insanely popular, she’s got good friends. Perhaps a little melancholy, she’s a cheerful, likeable person.

One night, her baby brother starts crying; he’s left his beloved stuffed animal at the laundromat. Attached as she is to him, Kerry can’t refuse him. Figuring she’ll be back in a couple of minutes, she takes off, enters the laundromat…

And walks in on a ritual murder.

The victim is named Ethan Bryne. The killers believe he is a vampire; that is why they want to destroy him. Terrified and furious, Kerry manages to save his life, and hers; they take off to safety.

Strangely, given what has happened, Ethan won’t let her call the police.

Stunned, Kerry has no choice but to let him go.

She’s a little glum over the next few days, but she slowly returns to normal. A couple of days later, something odd does happen: unable to drive, Kerry relies on her father, neighbors, and friends to get to and from work. When her father doesn’t show up to pick her up, she thinks she’s screwed–until, lo and behold, she runs into Ethan, who obligingly drives her home.

But nobody is home.

Her brother and father are gone; a threatening message is painted on the wall. Knowing exactly what this means, Ethan spirits her away. This time, they’re both on the run.

It turns out Ethan IS a vampire. Kerry is initially scared and disgusted, but as Ethan bares facets of his weird personality, she slowly warms up to him, and he to her. As they run from their pursuers, seeking Kerry’s family all the while, a strange relationship develops between them. It isn’t love–that’s part of what I love about this story, they don’t fall instantly in love, and they don’t become each other’s sole reason for living, as in most other vampire books– but it is a bond. Also, Kerry is a surprisingly strong heroine; she doesn’t let him beguile her. She remains who she is, is confident that she can definitely live without him, and even though she’s sad–even though he’s sad–they do what’s best for both of them in the end.

“Companions of the Night” is a brisk, gripping story. Even you’re not into vampires or paranormal stories, it’s good. It’s not great; the writing, while lean and skillful, is a bit juvenile at times, and we never get to hear all of Ethan’s motives for doing what he does, which is disappointing. However, both characters are likeable–even if Ethan is cause for wariness– the plot is tight, there are no gaping holes, and it moves steadily toward an an exciting, but believable, climax. “Companions of the Night” is definitely recommended.

At any rate, it beats “Twilight” any moment of the year.

My Hyper-Belated Take on the House of Night Novels

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I think most of us can agree that P.C. Cast is a decent writer.

Which begs the question: Where on earth did “House of Night” come from??

Before I go any farther, I’ll admit I only read the first book, called “Marked.” But I think that was enough. To be perfectly blunt, it sucked.

For those of you who are even more behind than me, “Marked” is Cast’s collaboration with her daughter, Kristin. It  follows the progression of Zoey Redbird, a fledgling vampyre in a world (parallel? future?)where vampyres are a fact of life. They’re separate from humans, they’re dangerous, but they’re here, and there’s nothing to do about it.

Zoey’s an interesting heroine. A normal teenage girl, she is reluctantly chosen as a vampyre, which basically means she’s separated from her family. Zoey’s also quite believable within the parameters of the story.

Unfortunately, Zoey is the only likeable part of this book.

While the opening sentence is certainly a gripper, the book swiftly falls flat from there. The writing is much too lean, and it seems unskillful; the progression is a little too fast, there aren’t any smooth transitions–it’s always very jarring, jarring enough to let you know you definitely are reading, and aren’t lost in the book–and with the exception of Zoey, nobody’s a sympathetic character. In fact, ALL of the sideline characters are incredibly shallow. Neferet is the deepest character after Zoey, and even she’s a stereotype.

For instance, Aphrodite is so openly self-centered that, from her first or second sentence, I wondered if I was reading a bullying scene written by a 2nd-grader. Most of the writing style is like that, but Aphrodite saying, “This place is awesome because of me” is so incredibly stupid, even for a villainess, that I almost stopped reading. Aphrodite can easily be a nasty character without throwing it in our faces that like. Having to be so obvious is a mark of bad writing; if the writer has to tell that tidbit, and has no way of showing it for the reader to infer him or herself first, then there’s a problem.

Also, Zoey’s friends are just as unbelievable: one’s the hick-stupid country girl, her human best friend is so without depth, so snarky and vapid, that it was boring; and even her love interest is your basic two-dimensional hero template. Excluding one dirty scene early in the novel, he’s the boy next door–without anything to his personality or history beyond that. NONE of them have any personality beyond stereotypical high school roles. It’s not that fitting the high school roles into this story is bad; in this novel, which has the potential to be funny, it could have been hysterical. But instead it’s only ridiculous.

The plot is also so insanely juvenile. While you expect high school drama here–it’s a vampire boarding school– you would think the underlying plot would be deeper, or at least not so submerged in adolescent melodrama.

I do apologize for the severity here, but for any reader who likes story depth and character development is going to be so disappointed. The story was shallow, a thin plot developed in time to cash in on the vampire craze, an excuse for more adolescent fantasy in relatively clean book-form. I know we all need escapism, but I do think it could be better than this. The writers could have done much better; I don’t know why they welshed here.

I’d advise you to skip it. Still, take this with a grain of salt; one man’s trash, and all that. 

For the record, though, I think it’s definitely trash.

Everyone Needs to Read “Rotters”, and Here’s Why

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Back in March, I was lucky enough to get a review copy of “Rotters”, by Daniel Kraus. Initially, I wasn’t all that excited, but that changed about nine words in. It’s about grave robbers. For me, of course, that happens to be a deal breaker. I love scary, macabre weirdness. And oh boy is it weird.

Now, on the surface, “Rotters” is a simple story. Joey Crouch lives with his mom in Chicago. They’re very close. Sometimes it borders on smothering, but he’s all right with that. He’s never been out of Chicago, but that doesn’t bother him too much, either. He’s basically a normal kid living a mostly normal life.

This changes when his mother dies. Crushed and shocked, Joey is even more horrified when he finds out he must go live with his father. A man he’s never met, a person his mother never even spoke of. Someone he’s barely heard of, the reason his mother refused to leave Chicago.

And Joey has to uproot and live with him.

Life is harder for Joey than he had ever imagined. For no reason, he is immediately ostracized and tormented at the school. Joey has no room there, no bed. There isn’t even any food. When, several days into his stay, he desperately searches a classmate’s purse for lunch money, a teacher catches him. Rather than pry and see what the trouble is, the teacher takes it as an excuse to torment Joey as terribly as any classmate.

As for Joey’s new home: the house reeks. The rotten stench infiltrates everything.

Joey’s father Harnett is a mystery, and a mean one at that. He has a reputation in this new town. He’s known as the Garbage Man. Yet it’s obvious he doesn’t have any part in public service. He disappears for days at a time. Joey doesn’t mind too much, though.

But this shaky peace dissolves when he finds a container full of gold teeth in his father’s room.

The awful truth tumbles out swiftly. The stench, the absences, the strange behavior of his father–it all comes togeter. Ken Harnett is a graverobber.

To my surprise, “Rotters” was stunning. Lyrical and poetic even in the midst of its darkness, it broke my heart and made me laugh just as often as it disgusted me. High school cruelty and teenage pettiness mixes perfectly with meth-head graverobbers and ongoing tragedy. All through the story, Joey’s character develops beautifully, and so does that of his father. In fact, all of the characters are fantastic. The plot is by turns delightful, shattering, triumphant, and, as so many others have noted, demented. Don’t let the subject matter turn you away. “Rotters” is a gorgeous piece that is ultimately about one young man’s plunge into the abyss and his struggle to climb out.