Foreword Reviews

What World Is This?

Eight Fantasy Books Double Down on Humanity

Fantasy

At times, we all need to be reminded that books have special powers—the ability to take you out of your life, to transport you somewhere extraordinary. This is especially true with works of fantasy. Most of us, after all, don’t often come across aliens, dragons, mole people, magic amulets, werewolves, wizards, angels, or banished princesses in our everyday lives.

But in these eight fantasies, it’s the normal, everyday joes who are so entrancing, not the magic, not the supernatural. Yes, books have special powers, yet when the world is not the world we know, and werewolves come a calling, we can’t be blamed for warming up to our fellow man.

Suckers

Book Cover
Z. Rider
Dark Ride Publishing
Softcover $16.99 (324pp)
978-1-942234-01-2
Buy: Amazon

The vampire mythos hasn’t been this creepy since Bram Stoker wrote Dracula. In Z. Rider’s horror debut, bandmates Dan and Ray are on the last leg of a long tour when they take a shortcut down an alley one night and are attacked by what they think is a bat. Then Dan starts getting sick: headaches, dizziness, and a buzzing in his head that sounds like a swarm of bees. Until one night he snaps and, in a delusional fog, attacks Ray. Dan wakes up in a hospital feeling completely better, and for awhile, everything seems fine. Until the headaches return and he discovers the only thing that helps is blood. It soon becomes clear, too, that whatever bit Dan is still out there and still attacking more people.

Set in three parts, suspense and fear build slowly at first, mirroring the sense of entrapment Dan and Ray feel, and then faster through each subsequent section. The book refuses to be pigeonholed. Borrowing heavily from vampire lore, it also pulls in elements from horror science fiction like Alien and apocalyptic fiction, à la The Walking Dead. The characters set this book apart. Missing are the traditional stereotypes: the outdoorsman, the brain, the beautiful love interest. It’s refreshing for the protagonists to not have all the answers; Dan and Ray are just two musicians equipped with Google and the nightly news. And their relationship forms the book’s core.

Rider is an excellent writer, peppering the text with descriptions of the grotesque: “Hot and rubbery and writhing—not the thing itself, but underneath its skin, like it was a coarse leather pouch dug from a hot riverbank and full of squirming things.”

ALLYCE AMIDON (February 27, 2015)

Werewolf Cop

Book Cover
Andrew Klavan
Pegasus Crime
Hardcover $25.95 (304pp)
978-1-60598-698-2
Buy: Amazon

Though the title might suggest more lighthearted fare, make no mistake, this is a gritty crime novel at heart. Texan Zach “Cowboy” Adams is part of a special government task force whose goal is to bring down Dominic Abend, the head of a far-reaching European crime group. Abend is after something in New York, and Adams and his partner, Martin Goulart, desperately try to catch up as Abend leaves a pile of corpses in his wake. However, all is not well in Adams’s personal life. His boss fears Goulart is corrupt and wants Adams to keep an eye on him, the woman who seduced him into one mistaken affair is set on ruining Adams’s perfect family life, and finally, while following a lead in Germany’s Black Forest, Adams is attacked by a huge wolf, barely escaping with his life.

Klavan is a suspense expert, building slowly through the first half of the book and then setting a rapid, tense pace for the second. He doesn’t shy away from descriptions of gore and horror, from cockroach-infested hallways to werewolves disemboweling people with their claws. The characters are, for the most part, deliciously complex, tethered at either extreme by Adams’s angelic wife, Grace, and the shell of a man who sold his soul to the devil himself. And for all of that, Klavan also infuses the text with plentiful wry humor.

ALLYCE AMIDON (February 27, 2015)

Armageddon, Texas

Book 3 of The Messiah Trilogy

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Tommy Zurhellen
Atticus Books
Softcover $14.95 (250pp)
978-0-9915469-1-6
Buy: Amazon

The stories of Beowulf and Genesis are played out across a postapocalyptic Texas in a book that is not only witty and exciting but wickedly smart to boot. Thirty years ago, the world ended—most of humanity is gone, half of the American South is under water, and the other half is turned to unforgiving desert. No one under the age of fifty is left, except for a boy and a girl who are maybe aliens, don’t have belly buttons, and can talk to animals. Oh yeah, and there’s a dragon. And a monster and his mother. If the story is starting to sound familiar, it’s guaranteed you’ve never read it like this.

Tommy Zurhellen is a master craftsman. Each chapter is written from a different character’s perspective, and he captures each voice perfectly, from Eve’s disdain for paragraphs to Adam’s insistence that “accordion” means “according” to Dog’s direct discourse with the reader. Eve is recast as the smarter and braver of the pair, a feminist who will have none of these old-world gender constructs, thank you very much. Allusions are made to everything from classical Greek mythology to Breaking Bad. And when it’s least expected, Zurhellen packs a wallop of a punch with a breathtaking image: “In the beginning, everything was poetry. Before God invented water or air or amoebas or even sunlight, there was poetry.”

ALLYCE AMIDON (February 27, 2015)

Broken

Book Cover
Traci L. Slatton
Parvati Press
Softcover $16.99 (225pp)
978-0-9860611-5-8
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop)

Slatton has created a beautiful, heart wrenching tale of humanity during the Second World War. When her beloved Ariel is lost, the angel Alia chooses to fall, taking on a human body in Paris on the eve of war. She befriends the city’s artists, from Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí to Edith Piaf and Sacha Guitry, and experiences all of Paris’s human pleasures: drinking, partying, and having sex with wild abandon. Two men, in particular, catch her affection: bullfighter Pedro and openly Jewish musician Josef. As the war takes over, Alia also finds herself drawn protectively to Josef’s widowed sister, Suzanne, and her young daughter, Cécile. But as the Nazi’s march in, Alia begins to fear she cannot save them all.

Slatton writes poignantly, with lyrical prose: “I have been shattered, the shattering is still with me. I am only shards now. There is no core.” This is a gorgeous philosophical treaty on right and wrong, the “why” behind impossible decisions, and what remains when everything is gone. Slatton guides the reader gently through to the end, all the more heartbreaking for its inevitability, imparting powerful, resonant themes as she goes. Among them, “neutrality is an excuse to give free rein to a bully.”

ALLYCE AMIDON (February 27, 2015)

The Girl on the Swing and At Night in Crumbling Voices

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Peter Grandbois
Wordcraft of Oregon
Softcover $12.00 (144pp)
978-1-877655-86-9
Buy: Amazon

Comparisons between Peter Grandbois’s eerie stories and The Twilight Zone are inescapable. Though the previous two volumes in the series visited classic horror films from the perspective of the monster, The Girl on the Swing and At Night in Crumbling Voices explores two lesser known tales.

In “The Girl on the Swing,” a young girl swings so high she seems to disappear into the sky for a moment. And when she comes back, she’s changed, psychologically at first and then physically, morphing into a plant. Chapters alternate from the perspective of her increasingly frantic father to a scientific study done on their family. Though the story starts filled with a fantastical light humor, the moments of creepy horror (“She still operated under the assumption that this was her daughter, while he was no longer sure”) grow in frequency and length, matching the father’s descent into madness.

“At Night in Crumbling Voices” revisits a little known ’50s classic, The Mole People, who ostensibly live underground and steal people away from the surface. The story moves between a lecture series given by a professor on mole people and the hollow earth theory, the recorded reports of a police officer investigating the disappearances, and the voices of the mole people, which are heard by the vanished before their disappearance and give voice to their most secret and desperate desires. Language again plays a rich part in this story. One word in the language of the mole people translates into a whole phrase in English, a feature Grandbois carries over into the sections where they speak, which read like beautiful prose poems.

ALLYCE AMIDON (February 27, 2015)

Homegoing

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Michelle Markey Butler
Pink Narcissus Press
Softcover $17.00 (374pp)
978-1-939056-08-5
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

In this ambitious epic, a disgraced former princess turned scholar is one of the few people in the Three Lands who can read. So when an impossible ship from a land that does not exist delivers a set of missives written in an ink no one has ever seen to a land that is, by and large, illiterate, Doctora Bann is called in to help. The message: return to the traditions within a year or face the wrath of Saradena. The only problem—no one’s ever heard of Saradena or knows what traditions the message refers to. While some of the kingdoms prepare for war, Doctora Bann begins a frantic search of the few known manuscripts, looking for some mention of Saradena, some hint to save them. But all is not well on the home front either, as threats of rebellion surface.

Butler has crafted a highly imaginative world, at once unique but with strong hints of the medieval. Doctora Bann’s efforts to teach herself Old Valenian will be relatable to anyone who’s struggled to learn a dead language. Reading and literacy form the heart of the book. Intriguingly, it seems as if literacy was much more common in the past, a theme sure to be explored in the book’s sequel. Though the book doesn’t precisely end on a cliffhanger, readers will certainly eagerly anticipate the next chapter.

ALLYCE AMIDON (February 27, 2015)

The Wizard and the White House

Book Cover
Mike Maggio
Little Feather Books
Softcover $14.00 (268pp)
978-0-9913329-7-7
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

One fateful day, the president of the United States wakes up to discover he has no mouth, a janitor across town wakes up to discover he has two, and a Pakistani immigrant in Arlington hears the voice of God in a waterspout. With no voice to communicate, President Thorne quickly learns how much of a mouthpiece he’s been. With an extra mouth espousing Thorne’s fervent prayers, Larry White’s wife takes it as a sign her hard-drinking husband has finally been moved by the spirit and whisks him off to church. And Fuzzaluddin Choudry finds, despite his best efforts to turn the wheel and slam on the breaks,that his car is driving him to the White House itself. Behind the scenes, a wizard secluded in a cave is pulling the strings, seeking revenge for wrongs committed long ago. Like really long ago. But it was important, okay?

This thinly veiled satire of the Bush administration is a lighthearted romp through the political landscape of the early 2000s. Maggio pairs sharp barbs (“Though not an especially successful physician, [the surgeon general] was considered a wise, circumspect man, well respected among political circles”) with more slapstick humor (Easter service on the National Mall is held inside “a huge, fully-inflated plastic cathedral, towering high before them like a giant Moon Bounce”) to create a highly entertaining read.

ALLYCE AMIDON (February 27, 2015)

Black Moon Draw

Book Cover
Lizzy Ford
Kettlecorn Press
Softcover $12.99 (316pp)
978-1-62378-157-6
Buy: Amazon

What reader hasn’t wondered what it would be like to wake up in his or her favorite book? When Naia’s fiancé dumps her right before their wedding, she decides the best coping mechanism is to drink a lot of wine, marathon her favorite movies, and read an online story that contains absolutely no romance, an irredeemable main character, and lots of death and destruction. Only one problem: when she wakes up hung over the next day, she’s not in her apartment; she’s been transported into the world of the story. Now’s she’s stuck with a victory-obsessed knight who seems to think she’s a witch sent to help him, a pretty-near-useless squire, and a magic amulet she can’t control, with no clear way home.

The book follows many of the conventions of a typical romance fantasy, but it does so with self-awareness and a sense of humor. Though the trope of the misfit who finally finds a place to excel is a common one, Naia is refreshingly terrible at life inside this new world. Gifted magical powers upon entering the story, she has no idea how to use them. Horseback riding is painful, she’s way too out of shape for running, and she keeps offending people with her lack of cultural awareness. The book is also replete with winks to more famous fantasy stories, from Lord of the Rings to Arthurian legend.

ALLYCE AMIDON (February 27, 2015)

Allyce Amidon

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