Monday, March 25, 2024

The Completist: Richard Swan's EMPIRE OF THE WOLF

Just over a year later and here’s the second installment of my resurrected Completist series.* As a reminder, previous posts of: The Completist from the sadly closed SFSignal are still available via the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.

When a writer is able to publish a trilogy, on a book per year basis, readers, publishers, and the writer themselves is happy. Richard Swan did just that, in 2022 (The Justice of Kings), 2023 (The Tyranny of Faith), and 2024 (The Trials of Empire), through Orbit Books, he released the three-volume fantasy saga, Empire of the Wolf. An impressive accomplishment made even more impressive by the extremely high quality of the books themselves. 

Richard S. Swan has had some success self-publishing about a half-dozen science fiction novels. With The Justice of Kings, his fantasy debut from Orbit, Swan bursts onto the traditionally published scene and kicks off the Empire of the Wolf trilogy. The series is told from the first-person perspective of Helena Sedanka, the law clerk of Sir Konrad Vonvalt. Vonvalt is a King’s Justice of the Imperial Magistratum of the Sovan Empire, very much a knight in shining armor. Not unlike Watson relaying the events of Sherlock Holmes’s investigations, except that Vonvalt is not an independent investigator. He is the Emperor’s Voice, he is judge, jury, and executioner, when necessary. 

The novel, in the form of Helena’s notes, starts when Vonvalt is investigating a small town not practicing the religion of the empire, which might just be home of a witch. Konrad Vonvalt is Accompanying Vonvalt on this investigation is the aforementioned Helena (19 years old the time) and his “protector” Dubine Bressinger. At Vonvalt’s disposal are two powerful, magical/supernatural weapons. The first is the Emperor’s Voice, which compels those he interrogates to speak the truth to him. The other power is the necromantic ability to animate the dead, depending on how recently they’ve been killed and the state of their remains. Similar to the Emperor’s Voice, the dead are compelled to reveal the truth to Sir Konrad. After a short investigation in the hinterlands where a town is suspected of not conforming to the Empire’s religion, Vonvalt resolves the issue, though he gets some pushback from a rather zealous priest for compassionate towards the offenders leading to a conflict of wills. 

From there, the main mystery takes hold – the suspicious murder of a noblewoman. When Vonvalt, Helena, and Bressinger arrive and begin their investigations, they realize there is a deeper conspiracy afoot. It wasn’t a simple, random murder. Also under concern and somewhat connected to the murder is the daughter of the woman murdered was sent to a kloster prior to the events of the novel, but nothing has been heard from the girl since she entered the kloster. 

That’s the gut of the story – a murder mystery/conspiracy story. The world of the novel is at the precipice of a shift in power, and much of the conflict is between secular law and religious law. Those kinds of conflicting ideologies make for great story and Swan does a very good job of presenting this conflict through his characters. Vonvalt is looked upon as one of the highest of his order of Justices, he’s got a very strict definition of the law, he views the law as above everything else. But what makes Swan’s novel so enthralling is largely his voice as a writer, or at least how that voice comes through Helena’s reflective narration years after the events of the novel. I like that it was told from her “notes” rather than from any reflective remove of time through Vonvalt’s diaries. Utilizing this narrative structure allows for some foreshadowing and some very sharp hooks that will dig in at the end of some chapters that will keep you reading.

The magic and supernatural are present, but somewhat subtle. The power of the Emperor’s Voice is not employed very often, but the way in which other characters speak about this compulsion gives it even more weight in the story. The necromantic powers of speaking to the dead are conveyed with even greater awe, instilling even more fear into many of the characters.

Picking up shortly after the events of the previous novel, Helena and Konrad Vonvalt head to the capital of the Empire to investigate how deep the corruption they discovered in The Justice of Kings runs. Vonvalt has been away from the capital for years and so focused on his job as an investigator/inquisitor that he is a bit out of touch with the changes that have been happening, changes that don’t exactly sit well with him. The Magistratum (the body of power) is not as respected as they once were, their influence is not quite as strong and the enigmatic Patria Claver (the root of the Konrad’s problems) has spread his power widely and subtly.

But Vonvalt can’t focus on that, he is charged with retrieving the emperor’s kidnapped grandson, who is in a direct line for the throne. It doesn’t matter that Vonvalt (and most other characters) realize this kidnapping is a diversion. Even Vonvalt’s long-standing relationship with the Emperor can’t deter the Emperor from sending his most trusted knight to retrieve the heir.

Swan’s execution is very precise and measured. The building of the world, the fleshing out of the characters, the narrative drive, and the plotting all flow together from the pen and keyboard of a master. He constructed an extremely impressive foundation in The Justice of Kings and built on it admirably here in The Tyranny of Faith. What he accomplished is even more impressive considering how high the bar was. Helena was already a fantastically drawn character, but here she became more fleshed out. Konrad is still at a bit of a remove from Helena, but their relationship grows through some emotional turns.

Richard Swan’s mastery of the first-person narrative becomes even more evident in this novel. It doesn’t matter that we know at least Helena survives the events of this story, there is still a high amount of tension in the narrative, especially with the stingers like “but the good times wouldn’t last for long” at the end many chapters. It is a delicious sort of tension along the lines of the great Willy Wonka quote, “The suspense is terrible, I hope it will last.”

The somewhat subtle supernatural elements introduced in the first novel grew in prominence in this second novel in the trilogy. From the very beginning of the novel, and especially as Konrad and Helena arrive in the capital, a tingling sense of unease pervades the novel. Konrad’s health begins to deteriorate, the supernatural elements become more prominent and have an infectious affect on Helena. Part of that unease increases because of the necromantic powers Vonvalt – and all Emperor’s Justices can wield – enable him to cross the line of death, a dangerous enterprise.

The third and final volume in the trilogy, The Trials of Empire continues the story seamlessly from The Tyranny of Faith, with Konrad Vonvalt drastically powered down. He’s still got the Emperor’s Voice at his disposal, but from a stature standpoint, he is not what one would call “in good standing” with the empire. Despite this, he, Helena, the knight von Osterlen, and Sir Radomir are determined to put an end to Claver’s uprising. The problem is Claver’s influence has become very far ranging, to the point that Vonvalt is doubting his former allies, especially with Vonvalt being a wanted man.

The companions travel north towards the city of Seagurd, in the hope of finding the Emperor’s grandson. Unfortunately, the rumors of the city being destroyed are rather accurate. Claver’s power and influence are even wider than Vonvalt feared leading up to this point, he and what’s left of the Empire will not be able to defeat the arcane “priest” in its current state. He must find some allies who want to bring down Claver as much as Vonvalt does. This is no easy task because the Empire, and Vonvalt, has made enemies across the land.

The term “by any means necessary” is at the forefront of Vonvalt’s approach and this is quite distressing to Helena. She worries that Vonvalt will descend into the same kind of darkness that engulfed Claver. Vonvalt has already crossed some uncomfortable lines leading up to this point, lines that helped to define him. Vonvalt sees that the ends justifies the means, that any dark deeds he performs will pale in comparison to the world of darkness Claver seeks to unleash.

The demonic and otherworldly forces come more to the stage as the trilogy leads to its conclusion. The demons pulling Claver’s strings are more prominent and Helena’s ties to the god(?) Demon(?) Aegraxes (the character depicted on the cover of The Trials of Empire) become more defined. Aegraxes haunts Helena’s dreams, he may be pushing her towards something, but it may not be as bad as she fears.

While Vonvalt and Helena have their inner struggles, and struggles with each other, the fate of the Empire is hanging in the balance. Whether the Empire survives, is destroyed, or evolves into something else is not certain. This is one of the things Volvalt struggles with the most, for as he’s had to shift his morality – do evil deeds so a greater more imposing evil doesn’t succeed – he has had to examine the Empire that formed him. It is a very interesting concept to tackle, is the Empire we are trying to save worth saving? Has the world changed to the point that something different is better for the world and the people? Swan does not shy from any of these kinds of heavy topics throughout the series and especially here as the saga draws to a conclusion.

The Empire of the Wolf is a magnificent fantasy trilogy. Swan shows great skill in his characterization and how those characters deal with morally complex and philosophical challenges presented throughout the series. Epic Fantasy often flirts with horrific elements, after all, many of these tales demons or demonic entities are major threats or the actual Big Bad/Final Boss. As a reader who thoroughly enjoys horror, I really like when horror elements start to seep into Epic Fantasy and Swan deftly weaves those horrific and terrifying elements into his story. There are some eldritch powers at play in the magical powers in the world of this novel and Swan’s pace at easing those elements into the novel were superb.

Given that Helena was our narrator for the breadth of the series, it is no surprise she survived to the end of it. Swan brought the series to a fantastic conclusion, tying up the majority of the plot threads in a satisfactory and expert fashion. There’s definite potential for more stories to be told in this world and specifically featuring Helena, however changed it became from the first page. Helena is a marvelous narrator and character, I’d say her voice is as consistent and engaging as Fitzchivalry Farseer from Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings saga. Helena is utterly believable, she exudes empathy, and is magnetic in a way that made me as the reader drawn to her very powerfully. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t draw major attention to the wonderful design and art, by Lauren Panepinto and Martina Fačková respectively. Striking images that provide these three books with a gorgeous visual identity that perfectly match and complement Swan’s powerful and engaging storytelling between the covers.

Each book in the 500-page range and would make for a wonderful reading experience back-to-back-to-back.

Empire of the Wolf is a must-read of 21st Century Speculative Fiction. It is a series that upon completion I can look back and level no real faults at what Swan accomplished. I am eager to see where his words take us next. The series has been very successful: it has sold quite well and it is held in high regard by fans, reviewers, and published authors alike. In short, Empire of the Wolf is an instant classic.

Parts of this column appeared previously at SFFWorld in the form of my reviews of the first two books in the series: 

*having more job responsibilities (A GOOD THING, BTW) does get in the way of regular blogging

All images copyright Orbit Books and used with courtesy. The last tryptich was borrowed in good faith from Martina Fačková's website. Head over there to bask in the glory of her powerful, beautiful images. 

Monday, January 01, 2024

2023 Reading Year in Review

Two years in a row with a Reading Year in Review, crazy right? Well, since I resurrected the blog earlier in the year, I’ve been much more consistent with posting my reading wrap-ups so of course that calls for a year in review, right? As I’ve done every year I've posted a Reading Year in Review, here are the previous years I’ve put up a reading year in review, 2022, 2021, 2018, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006.

As I've done every year for the past decade and a half, I've contributed to SFFWorld's Favorite of the Year lists: Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, and Film/TV. For those yearly recaps, Mark Yon and I focused only on 2023 releases. Here I will not limit the list to just 2023/current year releases because there are a lot of good books out there from previous years I haven’t read although most are from 2024. I'm still very actively reviewing for both SFFWorld.

Two years in a row, Horror was the dominant genre for me, with Fantasy a fairly close second. Horror continues to be in a fantastic place within the genre, both in printed form and filmed. The breakdown/full statistics of the 93 books I read in 2023:
  • 41 2023/current year releases
  • 53 can be considered Horror
  • 44 can be considered Fantasy
  • 9 can be considered Science Fiction
  • 47 reviews posted to SFFWorld
    • 28 books by authors new to me 
    • 47 Books by women
    • 13 total debut
    • 18 audiobooks
    • 7 Book reviews posted here at the Blog o' Stuff
    • 4 books I DNF'd
    How did I come up with this list? For years, I've been keeping track of the books I read in an Excel workbook and assign each book a rating between 1 and 10. All the books I’ve called out are books I’ve rated 9 (out of 10) or higher. For the purposes of this post, I've listed the books alphabetically by author last name, outside of the first book in this post which was the book I enjoyed the ost.  If I've reviewed the book, the title will link to the review either here at the blog or over at SFFWorld with an excerpt of that review below the cover image. If I haven't given the book a full review, then I've provided a brief summary/reaction to the book.

    So, without further adieu, below are the books I enjoyed reading the most over the past year.

    How to Sell a Haunted House by Grady Hendrix
    (My Favorite Overall Novel Published in 2023 even though I read it in late 2022)

    Balancing out the creeps is another thing that Hendrix has excelled at portraying in his previous novels: relationships, family or close friends (who might as well be family). Family is an important part of this novel, not just the siblings, but the extended family who reside in and near Charleston, SC. Louise and Mark’s aunts and cousins who are wonderfully drawn supporting characters help to provide some humor and idiosyncrasies that help to make the family unique. Family is who helps us through grief and a lot of this novel is about grief, too. Frankly, many haunted house stories have grief as a major theme and component, and Hendrix’s very human and empathetic characters navigate this complicated human emotion with plausibility…if you factor in creepy haunted puppets into the mix

    Grady Hendrix has become must read for me, he’s grown into a modern master of the genre and each new book he publishes shows his growth as a storyteller in everything that word encompasses. He’s a smart, savvy writer who spins emotional stories featuring very human people and themes with the best of them.

    The Vagrant Gods by David Dalglish

    I was incredibly impressed with my first experience reading a novel by David Dalglish, which happened to be the first book in this series so I was very excited to dive into book 2. That excitement was warranted. 

    The Sapphire Altar picks up shortly after the conclusion of The Bladed Faith with The Vagrant (a.k.a. Prince Cyrus) questioning the rebellion, his place in it, and the man pulling the strings of the rebellion. But Cyrus knows the Empire must be taken down, regardless of his misgivings because the fist of the Everlorn Empire is clenching harder on Thanet. Violent executions of disbelievers are the norm while they try to capture the Vagrant.

    What impresses me the most about the characters is that none of them seem short-changed. They all feel incredibly well-wrought to the point that I wouldn’t be surprised if Dalglish has a notebook on each of them with details that we as the readers will never see and that the characters most definitely have lived.

    In The Sapphire Altar, Dalglish has managed to craft a second book of a series that improves upon the original in layers of world-depth, character building, and stakes. It doesn’t merely tread water waiting for the next volume of the trilogy. I’d call this more of the Second Chapter of the Vagrant Gods series than anything else.

    The Reformatory by Tananarive Due

    When Robbie's white neighbor Lyle McCormack, the son of a fairly influential man in Gracetown, makes advances on Robert’s sister, Robert steps into the situation. There’s a minor physical altercation between Robert and Lyle. As a result, Robert is beaten by Lyle’s father, handcuffed, and shipped off to the Gracetown School for Boys. As it turns out, Gracetown is a recurring town in Due's fiction and if anything screamed the opposite of what its name implied, it is this “home for boys.”

    Due has a very personal connection to the history that informs the backdrop of the novel. Without knowing that, the novel feels intimate and personal. Knowing the connection only hammers home that part even more. Her prose and storytelling is gut-wrenching, addictive, and powerful. None of this would work nearly as well if Tananarive Due wasn't a marvelous writer and storyteller. She pulled me into the story immediately, I felt empathy for young Robert and Gloria and felt their anger, pain, and frustration. Her skill at portraying youthful protagonists dealing with adult horrors is powerful, engaging, and enthralling. This is the kind of book that entertains and enlightens. It is simply transcendent.

    Just Like Home by Sarah Gailey

    The novel is told from Vera’s perspective, but in a unique and fascinating way. We get the “current” timeline of the novel with Vera returning home in the past tense, but when we focus on a pre-teen / teenaged Vera, it is told in the present tense. We only get her perspective, either way. Her wariness in the present about her mother, or Daphne as she’s been calling her mother since she was thirteen becomes understandable the more the past chapters reveal about their lives together. Vera’s whiplash of emotions from being protected and adored by her father to only be verbally and psychologically abused by her mother is raw, it felt real, and I felt a great deal of sympathy for Vera.

    In the present, Vera is continually left unbalanced by her mother’s mood swings which can contradict the spiteful woman she knew growing up. The verbal confrontations with James only amplifies Vera’s sense of unease. To the point that she hears noises, thinks she sees shadows moving, and is convinced *something* is under her bed to the point she goes out and buys a new bed. The icing on the cake of these creepy and potentially supernatural moments are the folded pages she randomly finds that are written in her father’s handwriting. There are more creepy/supernatural elements, I’ll just leave it at that. The timing of the instances of these creepy scenes is expertly doled out by Gailey. She’s got a wonderful sense of pace in the novel. That incredible pacing is also on full display in how Gailey reveals Vera’s past and how she grew closer to her father.


    Black Sheep by Rachel Harrison

    Harrison has proven to be very incisive with her ability to marry horror tropes with societal challenges like werewolves and sisterly love/competition in Such Sharp Teeth, friendship (ranging from true friendship bonds and toxic friendship) and supernatural/demonic possession. Here, Harrison takes her writerly scalpel to cultish religions and familial relationships. There’s a point, about 1/3 into the novel that is one of those “kick wham” moments that is best enjoyed without knowing it, and even that is too much of a spoiler. I’ll just say that I had to re-read it a couple of times.

    Within the novel’s pages is a powerful examination of family, truth, what it feels like to be an outsider everywhere, and betrayal. Rachel Harrison sets these important themes against the backdrop of dark, engaging, and delightfully sinister cult novel. Another great Rachel Harrison novel that continues to establish her as one of the preeminent voices in modern horror..


    101 Horror Books to Read You're Murdered by Sadie “Mother Horror” Hartmann

    What Sadie has done with 101 Books... and its focus on books published (mostly) between 2000 and 2023 is serve up a perfect modern companion to Hendrix’s Bram Stoker Award winning book. Just like Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell, Sadie Hartmann’s love letter to modern horror should be honored with the Bram Stoker Award for Non-Fiction. … 101 Horror Books to Read Before You’re Murdered is a definitive look at horror fiction in the early 21st Century by a smart and engaging voice who has her finger on the pulse of the genre. … If I haven’t made it clear by this point, this is a MUST-OWN book for any horror fan and a great book for anybody with a passing interest in the genre.

    Night’s Edge by Liz Kerin
    (My Top 2023 Debut)

    Damn, is this a potent novel. Kerin painfully depicts the co-dependent bordering on parasitic relationship dynamic in Night’s Edge. I’ve had family members who found themselves in a familial caregiver type of relationship and damage and negativity can grow over the years… even when the caregiver and caretaker love each other like family. I was at a remove from that relationship, but other members of my family with whom I was close heard a lot of that negativity. The relationship between Mia and Izzy is ratcheted up a couple of levels, after all, Izzy is literally taking her daughter’s blood as sustenance. 

    I can’t recall if Kerin actually used the word “vampire” in the novel and in that regard, I found a parallel to Mike Flanagan’s masterpiece, Midnight Mass. While Night’s Edge is a bit more intimate and personal, the effect is similar. I was also reminded of another vampire (and zombie) masterpiece, Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend in the way the vamprisim is more of a plague/disease and how it halts civilization.

    The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz

    The Plot was one of the rare non-genre books I read in 2023. My wife read it and recommended it to me and I loved it. The story concerns a promising young writer, Jacob Finch Bonner, who manages to publish a bestselling novel, but struggles to find his next book. He is teaching an MFA program when Bonner encounters a very strange student whose story is so unique and different, it sticks in the professor’s mind. The student dies under mysterious circumstances, but the story he told Bonner won’t leave him…so he decides to publish it. The novel is a fascinating and taut thriller, a mediation on authorial voice, authenticity, truth in fiction, and the inner fears many writers experience. I still question things about it months later after breezing through the 320 pages in just two days.

    BE SURE collects the first three, Every Heart a Doorway, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and Beneath the Sugar Sky. … Seanan McGuire has done it again. She’s hooked me on yet another of her long running series. I’m about a dozen books into her October Daye series, just started her Incryptid series, and loved the Newslfesh saga under her Mira Grant pseudonym. As fun as those series and books are and were, Wayward Children feels like it may be her may be her defining work. It is enthralling, tackles some really important themes (not that she doesn’t in all of her work), and has some of the most endearing characters in her many works. This is a series that will stand the test of time and BE SURE has more than earned a spot on the shelf of my personal Omnibus Hall of Fame.

    The September House
    by Carissa Orlando

    ...this story isn’t about somebody trying to escape their haunted house, our protagonist Margaret has embraced her haunted house. It was the dream house she and her husband Hal purchased and she is not giving it up. … Of course, haunted house stories are always about more than just a dwelling being haunted. Margaret is the narrator of the story and Orlando all but begs the reader to question how reliable of a narrator she is. We know from her conversations with her daughter, Margaret is not sharing very much information. Margaret is haunted and the pacing at which Orlando reveals Margaret’s past is handled with measured precision. Details about her marriage to Hal come to light, which helps to give reason for Margaret’s actions.


    The Justice of Kings
    and The Tyranny of Faith (The first two books of The Empire of the Wolf) by Richard Swan

    Two books for one slot, largely because I read them sort of back-to-back and they are part of the same story. With The Justice of Kings, his fantasy debut from Orbit, Swan bursts onto the traditionally published scene and kicks off the Empire of Wolf trilogy. The novel is told from the first person perspective of Helena Sedanka, the law clerk of Sir Konrad Vonvalt, a King’s Justice of the Imperial Magistratum of the Sovan Empire. Not unlike Watson relaying the events of Sherlock Holmes’s investigations, except that Vonvalt is not an independent investigator. He is the Emperor’s voice, he is judge, jury, and executioner, when necessary. … the gut of the story is a murder mystery/conspiracy story. The world of the novel is at the precipice of a shift in power, and much of the conflict is between secular law and religious law. Those kinds of conflicting ideologies make for great story and Swan does a very good job of presenting this conflict through his characters. … Swan’s novel is one of the best series starters and fantasy debuts I’ve read the past decade. He has absolutely captured a “voice” in this tale. … Swan picks up the tale of Konrad and Helena in The Tyranny of Faith. Picking up shortly after the events of the previous novel, Helena and Konrad Vonvalt head to the capital of the Empire to investigate how deep the corruption they discovered in The Justice of Kings runs. … The somewhat subtle supernatural elements introduced in the first novel grew in prominence in this second novel in the trilogy. I am immensely impressed with Richard Swan’s Empire of Wolf trilogy thus far. He has set the story up for a thrilling, heart-rending, dark, and tension-filled finale and I cannot wait to read it.

    Camp Damascus by Chuck Tingle

    Yes, there are quite a few Messages in Camp Damascus, neurodivergent people matter and can strive; let people be who they are and love how and who they love; trying to squeeze everybody into a myopic worldview and narrow vision of love is evil. But this book wouldn’t work if it didn’t tell a damned good story. I’ve pointed out the incredible character of Rose, there are true moments of horror and terror, some great horror images evoked in the pages. It works as a gripping horror novel as much as it has a message. It is a thrilling story and it is the kind of story that just may help people suffering in some of the same ways as Rose is suffering.

    Black River Orchard by Chuck Wendig

    It has become predictable at this point for me to include a Chuck Wending novel in my favorite/best-of-the-year post. Blame him, not me. Evil apples, that’s the core (pun intended) of the MacGuffin in this novel. A strange, delicious apple variety that is addictive and drives people to some of their darker instincts. In this character-driven novel, the town of Harrow, in Bucks County, Pennsylvania town becomes obsessed with a new strand of apple. (I'm a short drive over the river from Bucks County so it was kind of fun to hear some locales I'm familiar with being referenced in the book.)

    A down-on-his luck famer named Dan Paxson comes across this strain of apples after a chance encounter with a mysterious individual. When he brings the fruits to the local farmer's market, he realizes he's got something special. These apples, named "Ruby Slipper" by Dan's daughter Calla, makes people feel good, allows them to give into some of their more base desires. As it turns out, Calla does not like apples, much to her father's chagrin.

    Chuck also focuses on a couple named Emily and Meg, who move back to the countryside of Pennsylvania to Meg's hometown after life in the big city didn't quite work out for them. As Meg eats more of the apples, the dark side of their relationship becomes more evident to Emily, who also does not like apples. 

    There's also an "apple hunter" named John who seeks out lost strands of apples and he knows a little bit about the apple known as "Ruby Slipper" though under a different name. 

    Small town drama and pettiness play out on a grand scale, all because that most American of fruits, the apple. Granted, all those unsavory elements were lurking beneath the surface (and right on the surface for some), but the Ruby Slippers enhance, exaggerate, and highlight those unsavory aspects to an even more uncomfortable degree. Wending naturally weaves in themes of gaslighting, bullying, the growing facist sect in America (and how it is impacting Bucks County, PA in real life), queer representation, sexual freedom, parenthood, just to name a handful. 

    With every book he publishes, Chuck Wending grows his resume as a modern master of horror and dark fiction and is a must buy and read for me.

    The Foxglove King (The Nightshade Crown#1) by Hannah Whitten

    The Foxglove King covers a lot of bases, there are political elements; faith & belief; trust; Whitten touches on parental abandonment issues on a couple of potent levels; there’s a romance triangle between Lore, Gabriel, and Bastian; the plot follows something of a mystery thread, it has the feel of a city fantasy and almost urban fantasy even though set in a secondary world. She pulls these elements together masterfully for a unique story. 

    The milieu in which the story takes place has enough details as well, there’s a mythology/religion that provides a strong foundation, but also seems to have more details yet to be revealed. I found a pleasant resonance between the world Whitten has created in The Foxglove King with the world Tad Williams revealed in The War of the Flowers as well the world of League of Legends as revealed in the Netflix show Arcana and the novel Ruination by Anthony Reynolds.… 

    I was enthralled with this novel from beginning to end, Whitten’s characters came alive as real people with emotions, snark, and annoyances that real people posses.

    Honorable mentions: Clown in a Cornfield 2: Frendo Lives by  Adam Cesare, Bloom by Delilah S. Dawson,  Engines of Chaos (The Age of Uprising #2) by R.S. Ford, Nightborn: Coldfire Rising by C.S. Friedman, All Hallows by Christopher Golden, Starling House by Alix E. Harrow, Good Girls Don't Die by Christina Henry, The Gwendy Trilogy by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar, Son of the Poison Rose by Jonathan Maberry, The Bloody Chorus by John Marco, The Mary Shelly Club by Goldy Moldavsky,  The Endless Vessel by Charles Soule, and White Horse by Erika T. Wurth.

    That brings my 2023 read wrap-up/review to a close. Hopefully, 2024 will bring just as much quality fiction into our lives.

    Wednesday, November 29, 2023

    Book Review: The Reformatory by Tananarive Due

    Publisher: Saga Press
    Page Count: 576 Pages
    Publication Date/Year: October 2023
    Genre: Horror

    Tananarive Due is one of the Important Voices in horror literature, her work has been nominated for many awards, she’s won the American Book Award (The Living Blood), she teaches Black Horror at UCLA, has been a expert “talking head” on multiple horror documentaries (In Search of Darkness, Horror Noire) and no less a horror Icon than Stephen King is an advocate for her work. In a genre that is largely white and male, Due is a bright light as a Black Woman writer who spins a damn good story and often with Something to Say. I’ve read about a half-dozen of her novels at this point in time.  I consider her novel The Good House a modern Haunted House masterpiece. Her African Immortals series (My Soul to KeepThe Living Blood) is a powerful dark fantasy saga.

    When I saw the book for sale at New York Comic Con a few days before the official on-sale date, I knew I had to have it.

    With all of that said, The Reformatory will likely go down as her Magnum Opus, her defining work. Set in Florida in Jim Crow 1950s, the novel focuses on Robert Stephens, Jr., an African-American boy who is forced into a prison camp as a result of a minor scuffle with a white neighbor. The novel is a tale of racism (duh), family bonds, ghosts, the dead, and the dark underside of our country.

    On to the story...

    When Robbie's white neighbor Lyle McCormack, the son of a fairly influential man in Gracetown, makes advances on Robert’s sister, Robert steps into the situation. There’s a minor physical altercation between Robert and Lyle. As a result, Robert is beaten by Lyle’s father, handcuffed, and shipped off to the Gracetown School for Boys. As it turns out, Gracetown is a recurring town in Due's fiction and if anything screamed the opposite of what its name implied, it is this “home for boys.” 

    I was immediately put in the mind of "Sunlight Gardner's Home for Wayward Boys" from Stephen King & Peter Straub's The Talisman. However; the Gracetown School is even more horrific because it is based on a place that actually existed and history tells us horrible, racist, abusive behavior existed in places like this. At the school also known as "The Reformatory," racism and brutality are the norm. When Robert is taken into the School, during the drive up, he has a vision of pain and suffering, he sees fire, he feels the flames, and Robert hears the screams of death. It affects him profoundly and does not go unnoticed. What makes it all the more strange is that this fire occurred 25 years prior to the events of the novel. Robert has shown a proclivity for seeing ghosts. He is often visited by the ghost of his own mother.

    The Gracetown School for Boys is haunted not just by the looming hands of racism and violence, but actual ghosts, or “haints” as they are referred to in the novel. It is not a term I was familiar with before reading The Reformatory and I’ve read quite a lot of horror. Then again, I haven’t read enough horror written by non-white people. Be that as it may, haints are considered vengeful spirits, especially by the people in power at The Reformatory.

    Robert is not only haunted by the ghosts at the School, his father’s past haunts him as well. Robert has to live in the shadow of his father (Robert Sr.) being a wanted man. Robert Sr. dared speak out about inequities in Gracetown, he was labeled a communist and his voice of "dissention" was looked down upon even more because he was black.  Because Robert Sr. is nowhere to be seen and can’t be found near Gracetown by the local authorities, there’s a little bit of the sins of the father being paid for by the son.

    As hard and brutal as life is within the walls of The Reformatory, Robert makes friends and tries to be upbeat. He catches the eye the whipping master and Warden of the School, a man named Haddock. Robert’s affinity with seeing haints is something that makes him useful to the Warden, because Warden Haddoc does not like being haunted.

    While Robert is the central figure of the novel, Due gives ample “page time” to his sister, Gloria. Gloria is a little bit older and has one single goal: get Robert out of the Reformatory. Her journey shines an equally powerful lens on the racism of the time (and frankly, it is sad to see how some of the ugliness is still alive today) and the inequities she faces even when simply trying to visit her brother or trying to have her voice heard.

    Due has a very personal connection to the history that informs the backdrop of the novel. Without knowing that, the novel feels intimate and personal. Knowing the connection only hammers home that part even more. Her prose and storytelling is gut-wrenching, addictive, and powerful.

    None of this would work nearly as well if Tananarive Due wasn't a marvelous writer and storyteller. She pulled me into the story immediately, I felt empathy for young Robert and Gloria and felt their anger, pain, and frustration. Her skill at portraying youthful protagonists dealing with adult horrors is powerful, engaging, and enthralling. This is the kind of book that entertains and enlightens. It is simply transcendent. 

    The Reformatory is a landmark work, a powerful coming-of-age horror novel that is a beautiful and harrowing tale. I will be shocked if The Reformatory is not at least short-listed for multiple awards for books published in 2023.

    Highly, highly recommended.

    © 2023 Rob H. Bedford

    Monday, November 27, 2023

    Watch this Space!

    Yes, this blog is still alive!

    However, I seem to have gone on something of a hiatus at the o' Stuff again. Work life has been extremely busy since the summer. Most people who read me here know I review over at SFFWorld and it has been quite busy over there, too.  October is always busy with New York Comic Con (Interviews with Jim Butcher, Delilah Dawson, and Christina Henry plus a Horror Panel recap) as well our annual Countdown to Halloween focusing on horror. Five book reviews in October for me! 101 Horror Books to Read Before You're Murdered by Sadie Hartmann,  The September House by Carissa Orlando, The Handyman Method by Nick Cutter and Andrew F. Sullivan, Starling House by Alix E. Harrow, and Looking Glass Sound by Catriona Ward. 

    Acquisitions from NY Comic Con 2023

    Anyway, I'll be posting a new review here this week (there's a hint in the picture above). I'll be posting a reading year in review, too.

    Thursday, June 22, 2023

    Book Review: Blood Country (The Raven #2) by Jonathan Janz

    Publisher: Flame Tree Press
    Page Count: 288 Pages
    Publication Date/Year: 2022
    Genre: Horror

    I’ve been making my way through Jonathan Janz’s backlist over the last couple of years. About a year ago (June 2022), I read and thoroughly enjoyed The Raven, his take on the post-apocalyptic story, but with a very potent horror lacing throughout the story. Blood Country is the second novel in the series and the focus, as the title implies, is vampires.

    Briefly, in the world of The Raven, a group of rogue scientists released a virus that transformed humanity into creatures out of our nightmares: werewolves, trolls, cannibals (the strength of the people they eat is added to their own), witches, and vampires. Dez McClane is a rarity, he was unaffected by the virus so he is a man without any added abilities. Since the first novel, he’s been searching for the woman he loves. The conclusion of that novel provided him with a direction to head: Blood Country, the land of the vampires. With the woman he saved (Iris), Dez sets out to find his girlfriend Susan and to hopefully right a wrong.

    Reading The Raven is a must before diving into Blood Country as the two novels very much feel like two episodes of a larger story, and the story Janz is telling in these novels is an absolute blast. He puts us in Dez’s head, which allows Dez’s fears and doubts to be felt quite effectively. Before the events of the series, Dez lost his family and has blamed himself so his self-blame is only increased with the loss of Susan.

    Dez, Iris and their other allies (Michael, a man who can control fire as a result of the changes to the world, a young boy named Levi, and a couple of other allies I won’t spoil) head to the heart of Blood Country, a high school which serves as the seat of power for the vampires, particularly the Vampire Queen. Once they arrive at the high school, the action gets more intense and the emotional twists and turns become more sharp.

    The story is very brisk and works somewhat cinematically. I was able to visualize a lot of the action Janz was relaying the novel and felt myself turning the pages rather quickly as a result. In the relatively short space of the story (under 300 pages), Janz crafts a story that is equal parts breakneck plot and character. After having read a small sampling (4 novels at this point) of Janz’s work, I’ve found my reading sensibilities really sync up with the stories he writes. When I was younger, one of my favorite RPGs was Gamma World. I think what appealed to me about that game is something Janz nails so well, even if Gamma World leans more towards fantasy-based monsters and Janz is firmly planted in horror.  The mix of “our world” and something fantastical and horrific is what both these things capture so well. Ultimately, Blood Country was just pure fun for me because I love an over-the-top apocalyptic tale, especially when there are monsters and/or mutants of some kind.

    After two novels in The Raven series, I was very pleased to learn there will be at least one more novel. The conclusion most certainly left a very clear path where these characters need go and I cannot wait to catch up with Dez and his crew. The world and characters seem rather fertile for more stories and the length of the two novels so far lend themselves nicely to an episodic, long-form story that could lead to more than just one additional novel.

    © 2023 Rob H. Bedford

    Thursday, April 06, 2023

    In Search of Darkness: 1980s Horror Documentary Trilogy

    I’ve been a horror fan for years, I cut my reading teeth on Stephen King, just as many “children of the 80s” did, as well as early Dean Koontz and Robert R. McCammon. I sort of skipped all the Goosebumps and Christopher Pike books, I was already on King early in my middle-school years and maybe even before that.

    From a TV perspective I remember the show Tales from the Darkside with great fondness, too and the fact that it isn’t available a streaming service like Shudder boggles my mind. As relates to this post, specifically, I also was a fan of the horror movies of the 1980s. Movies like An American Werewolf in London, Gremlins, Tobe Hooper’s Lifeforce were movies I often returned to during my formative years. I remember being drawn to the video cassette boxes at my local mom & pop video store, Video Unlimited in Linden, NJ for many rentals. In those days, there was no Blockbuster Video, just mom and pop stores capitalizing on the home video craze.

    Fast-forward a few decades and I learn of the documentary, In Search of Darkness and I’m intrigued. When I learned that the horror streaming service Shudder had rights to air it on their service, I signed up for the service. I’d wanted to sign up for Shudder for a while, but for whatever reason, the app wasn’t available in my smart TV and was eventually made available through Prime Video via amc+. This was January/February 2021 and I was recovering from shoulder surgery so there wasn’t much I could do except sit up straight. The first installment of the In Search of Darkness was an absolute delight. This documentary, like the best of them, was clearly a passion project for the creators. It was so much fun reliving some of those classic movies that are now much more readily available thanks to streaming services. It was wonderful to get both insider perspective on the movies from the people behind the scenes (actors like Hellraiser’s Doug Bradley, directors John Carpenter and Joe Dante, 1980s Scream Queen Barbara Crampton) as well as fans/media personalities like Phil Nobile, Jr. (Fangoria’s Editor-in-Chief Cinnemascre’s James Rolfe (f.k.a The Angry Video Game Nerd) and Daily Dead News’s managing editor Heather Wixson.

    A few months later, the second installment of In Search of Darkness landed on Shudder after a successful crowd-funding campaign. The first installment shone its lens on the more well-known horror films like An American Werewolf in London, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Fright Night, and Pet Sematary that have entered the larger public consciousness with some smaller films like Dolls and Night of the Creeps thrown into demonstrate the breadth of the genre. 

    In Search of Darkness Part II highlights some of the lesser-known films, or rather, the films that most horror-junkies know and might be considered cult classics. Movies like EvilSpeak, C.H.U.D., and Night of the Demons. If the first installment was something of a reminiscence and films to revisit, this second part was very much a “To Watch” list. As I said, with so many streaming services, many of these films can be found with a few clicks of the remote control. The creators also expanded some of the “panelists” / talking heads for this installment and more of the filmmakers including Nancy Allen (Carrie, Dressed to Kill), filmmaker Jackie Kong (Blood Diner), and one of my favorite professional wrestlers of all time, Chris Jericho!

    Of course, a third installment would have to happen, right? Well, a crowd funding campaign through Kickstarter made sure that would happen. From past experience, I had a pretty strong feeling Shudder would eventually be airing the third installment, so I commenced a re-watch of the first two installments….all 9-ish hours of the first two volumes.

    February 2023 rolls around and I'm finishing my re-watch of In Search of Darkness II and the third installment is about to release to Shudder. On Valentine’s Day, my wife gifted me something on a piece of paper… “Nothing says love like a nice cozy night or two or three or 666” along with an image of the three-disc set. She had the link to watch online, but I wanted to wait for the Blu-Ray to arrive. 

    A big focus for the third installment was home video and some of the movies that were direct to video. While the first installment covered some of the "video nasties" elements of 1980s horror, there was more of a deep dive into people like Charles Band of Media Home EntertainmentEmpire Pictures (Ghoulies), and Full Moon Features (Puppet Master) and quite obscure movies like The Video Dead and Sorority Babes in the Slimeball Bowl-O-Rama. Some very obscure (to American audiences, at least) films were featured as well, like the Canadian film Things, Japan's Guinea Pig: The Devil's Experiment, and Italy's Hell of the Living Dead.

    All told, the In Search of Darkness is a masterpiece, a piece of media lovingly created, meticulously detailed, and just pure fun. One hand hand, it is a lens to the past, on the other it can be seen as an elaborate curation of movies to watch. Seek it out if you are a horror fan, horror curious, or simply want to experience an exceptionally well-made documentary.

    As for extras that came with the gift...

    Not only did the Blue-Ray of In Search of Darkness III arrive, it came with the In Search of Darkness I and II and a nice slipcase for all three Blu-Rays, the three posters were part of the package. I got a sense that when they filmed the panelists for In Search of Darkness II the creators knew they were going to release a third installment. It is a common practice nowadays when film series are being made, so it shouldn't be a surprise, for example, when you see Chris Jericho in the same jacket and seat in both In Search of Darkness II and III

    My wife also said for me to make sure that she’s awake when I watch the end credits.

    You see, I acquired the nickname of ManBearPig a few years back and my wife wanted to make sure my name stuck out in the credits so she had them add me as Rob ManBearPig Bedford.

    Tuesday, March 21, 2023

    Book Review: Son of the Poison Rose by Jonathan Maberry

    Page Count: 687 Pages (including appendix/glossary)
    Publication Date/Year: January 2023
    Genre: Epic Fantasy / Epic Horror / Grimdark

    I was a big fan of Jonathan Maberry’s first foray into Epic Fantasy last year, Kagen the Damned; which was one of my favorite fantasy novels I read in 2022, so I was looking forward to diving into Son of the Poison Rose, the second installment of the Epic Horror-Fantasy.

    I was not disappointed.

    Son of the Poison Rose picks up almost immediately after the events of Kagen the Damned. Kagen is on the run, mentally, physically, and emotionally scarred as a result of the events of the first novel. He’s got a pair of trusted companions, Filia and Tuke, at the start of the novel with whom he is attempting to take down the Witch King who has conquered the Silver Kingdom, Kagen’s hope.

    The first book is required reading before jumping into Son of the Poison Rose and there may be spoilers below.

    Kagen is a great study in dealing with dread and post-traumatic stress … he witnessed his parents killed, his kingdom conquered, felt his gods abandon him, and learned the identity of the Witch King. He blames himself for many things that have befallen the world. A good chunk of the early narrative focused on Kagen’s self-doubt, fears, and not-so-positive coping mechanisms. He “recovers” and gains more focus. He comes to realize he was drugged so he couldn’t fulfill his duties of protecting the youngest children and heirs to the throne and also learns they were not actually killed.

    I appreciated that Maberry devoted a significant amount of the narrative to the Witch King as he tries to cement his rule. That is proving quite difficult for the man once known as Herepath since his coronation was interrupted, thus throwing into question how powerful he truly is. His “children,” the aforementioned heirs of the empire twins Alleyn and Desalyn (whom the Witch King renamed Gavran and Foscor respectively, and has passed off as his own), are demonstrating a strength that is making it difficult for Herepath the Witch King to keep under his spell. Plus Herepath is obsessed with finding Kagen.

    Maberry sets these two personalities at odds with each other along with the supporting characters for each. I’ve mentioned Tuke and Filia for Kagen already. Herepath has a mysterious, powerful, being with Lovecraftian roots join as advisor – The Prince of Games, who may be Nyarlathotep, but lists off other possible names he’s had in the past including Flagg (yes, Randall Flag, The Walkin Dude) and one very familiar to fans of Maberry’s Joe Ledger novels – Nicodemus. Remember, this book is set in “our world” but about 50,000 years in the future (A conceit I love) and fits in with how Maberry likes to link his stories together. The Prince of Games here comes across far more mischievous than I remember Nicodemus being in the Joe Ledger novels

    Maberry also introduces readers to Kagen’s siblings, the twins Jheklan and Faulker , brings back Rissa from the first volume somewhat briefly, Mother Frey (another great character) as well as what I’d call a guest appearance from the vampire sorcerer Lady Maralina.

    While Maberry established a fantastic, deep, mythology through smart world-building in The Sword of Kagen, more depth and richness is elaborated upon in Son of the Poison Rose. The Cthulhu/Lovecraftian elements become even more prominent and I loved it. I said about the first volume how well Maberry interwove horror elements into Epic Fantasy framework. That intermingling worked to an even greater degree in Son of the Poison Rose because he was enhancing and building upon a strong foundation with intriguing details.

    The only criticism I can level at the novel is that there was a bit of a repetitive nature to some of Kagen’s self-doubt. It felt like he was going through the same conversations with himself more than a couple of times in maybe the first third of the novel. Granted, depression and self-doubt drive that kind of internal dialogue in reality. In the novel, it slowed the pacing just a bit for me. Thankfully, that is just a minor criticism because I was glued to the pages and loved how Maberry structured his chapters.

    Son of the Poison Rose is a wonderful follow-up that sets things in motion for what I hope will be a thrilling conclusion in Dragons in Winter.

    This series provides for a dark and intriguing take on the Epic Fantasy genre and will appeal to horror fans as well. Great stuff and Highly Recommended.