Robert Brockway’s The Empty Ones is a punk rock take on a weird and spooky world full of butt kicking, hard drinking and surprising emotional investment. This book will turn the volume up to 11, and follow it up with a punch straight to the heart when you least expect it.
A continuation to the first book in the series, The Unnoticeables, this book picks up shortly thereafter. Telling the next step for our rough–around-the-edges “heroes,” it also tells a little more of their history. Brockway does a great job of gradually revealing the mysteries of its world and the nature of the eldritch enemies his characters face while darkly foreshadowing the future ahead of them. The ending completes a satisfying story while setting up the next chapter, leaving readers excitedly waiting for the third and final volume of the series.
Readers who enjoy more bizarre humor and “out there” fiction will enjoy it for sure; this book is weird and there’s just no way around it. Joyously counter-culture and unrelentingly vicious at points, it balances this with surprising heart and depth of character in ways you won’t always expect. It’s is a heck of a ride that readers may just need to strap in for and enjoy. Brockway also does a good job of capturing the unique feeling of the exhaustion you get when it feels like the world has nothing but further misfortune for you, no matter what you do — but you push on anyway.
I highly recommend reading The Unnoticeables before starting on this one — the mythos is convoluted enough that it could be a little confusing to try and jump in midstream. If you enjoyed this title, you should also try David Wong’s John Dies at the End, which similarly is a story full of strange humor and surprisingly dark moments. Both Wong and Brockway write for the internet humor site Cracked, and they share an esoteric style of writing. Readers might enjoy other stories of magic and adventure, such as Jim Butcher’s Storm Front or Daniel Polansky’s Low Town.
Katherine Arden’s enchanting debut novel buries readers in the freezing winter of medieval Russia, a place still steeped in myth and fairy tale. The Bear and the Nightingale is an atmospheric debut that brings to life 14th century Russian history, makes it relatable to readers and fills it with magic.
Vasya grows up in the northern wilderness, the daughter of the wealthy lord of a remote village. The family’s wealth doesn’t spare Vasya’s mother, who dies giving birth to her, or the children from spending long winter evenings huddled together around the giant kitchen stove as their nurse spins folktales about demons and sprites.
Their kind but distracted father lets the children, especially Vasya, grow untamed. She may be a little unusual, but she is also brave, intelligent and kind. She tells no one, not even her brother, that she actually sees and speaks with the sprites in the house and the horses in the stable.
When her wild behavior starts to scare off potential suitors, her father is finally convinced he needs to remarry in an effort to tame his youngest daughter.
His new wife, a deeply devout woman, forbids the villagers from honoring the old traditions by leaving out dishes of food for sprites in the house or barns. Vasya realizes it isn’t because her stepmother doesn’t believe they exist, but because she sees them too that she is determined to rid the village of these old customs. However, by starving the spirits that have kept them safe and prosperous for years, the village allows an ancient evil to creep back into their midst.
Because she can see what is happening, it's up to Vasya to save herself, her family and her village from demons straight from her nurse's stories.
The Bear and the Nightingale is perfect for a cold winter night. The compelling plot and lyrical writing will hold readers under its spell, unable to put down the book or go to bed at a decent hour. Vasya is an unforgettable heroine who Arden has crafted so carefully, she seems like a real person. While readers are supplied with proper villains, their evil is complex and nuanced.
Readers who enjoy books by Neil Gaiman or Naomi Novik’s Uprooted will enjoy this title.
In the midst of the Civil War, President Lincoln’s youngest son Willie Lincoln was laid to rest. Newspapers from the time report seeing the President visit his son’s crypt in the night to cradle the boy’s body. Departing from this real historical event, Lincoln in the Bardo, MacArthur Fellow George Saunders’ first novel, is a moving journey through the netherworld and a meditation on what it means to love what you cannot hold.
In a Georgetown cemetery, the spirit of Willie Lincoln refuses to move on, instead arriving in a strange place called the “Bardo,” a dizzying state between life and death where the dead refuse to believe that they’re dead. There, spirits replay past events and undergo strange transformations in their struggle to cling to the world. The arrival of Willie upends this delicate world, particularly the visits from his father, who is the first living being the dead have seen in years.
Lincoln in the Bardo is written in a style unlike anything you’ve seen before. It’s narrated by characters who speak in turn like a play, some of whom are from real historical sources such as Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, and some of whom are ghosts. I found myself re-reading the first few chapters, not quite sure of what I was getting into, but once I adjusted to the unusual style, the novel was accessible, fast-paced and binge-worthy.
Saunders has created a historical novel that flirts with fantasy and sacrifices, features his readers have come to love. Fans of his comic imagination, Vonnegut-esque inventiveness and blunt sensitivity will find his talents are on full display.
Anyone who enjoyed The Underground Railroad’s inventive approach to American history will find much to love, but Lincoln in the Bardo is sure to ensnare adventurous readers of all kinds.
In the more than 20 years that Hellboy has been engaged in supernatural pulp adventures, he’s been everywhere from Mexico to Romania and crossed paths with countless fantastic figures from history and myth. Though Hellboy made himself comfortable all over the globe throughout his life, there was only one logical place for him to end his journey: home. Hellboy in Hell by Mike Mignola is a somber and surreal swan song that finally forces Hellboy to face the infernal heritage he spent his life rejecting.
Creator Mignola announced in 2015 that Hellboy in Hell would be his final art duty on a comic before an extended break to focus on traditional watercolor painting, and this series truly reads like a fond farewell to a beloved friend. Minimalist compositions present the majestic architecture and unholy denizens of the underworld in a way that invoke melancholy rather than horror. Fans of Mignola will recognize returning motifs throughout the glorious hellscapes he illustrates here, and new readers can look forward to being introduced to his unique style with a story that showcases him at the top of his game. Longtime collaborator Dave Stewart provides most of the book’s color, bathing each page in dismal limited palettes that perfectly compliment the gloomy tone of the story.
This is the sendoff Hellboy deserves. The unmistakable artwork and understated writing that readers have come to expect from Mike Mignola are here, presented in perhaps their most moving use since Hellboy’s origin. Whet your appetite with Hellboy: The First 20 Years and then settle in for a quiet evening navigating the depths with Hell’s lost son himself. Full disclosure: I cried a little.
Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black is the first installment of a new series that takes an exciting and refreshing approach to the aliens attacking Earth story. Set 500 years in the future, the people of Earth have been in a grinding war with a mysterious alien species. With them came the mysterious force of "thelemity", which they brought to use as a weapon. Luckily, humans found that they could use thelemity too.
Black introduces us to a variety of characters that, through their multiple viewpoints, build up this multifaceted and detail-rich story. Jax is a 12-year-old "fontani", someone who can use the mysterious element of thelemity and plays an important part in the defense of the Ninth City. Torro is a factory worker in a settlement of the Ninth City who is chosen in a sudden draft for the war. Naomi and Rae are sisters that travel and live outside of the city who end up becoming much more important to the Ninth City than they could have known. Though these are just a few of the characters who lend their viewpoints, we learn the truths of the war and their part in it as each of them train and prepare for battle.
Black’s future Earth is wonderfully imagined with sharp attention to detail. Many things aren’t what you think they are initially, and the twists in the story add an air of mystery that I was not expecting. Lovers of science fiction and fantasy will find Ninth City Burning intriguing and intense in the best possible way. Be sure to keep an eye out for the rest of the series.
Nick Mamatas manages the rare feat of making the reader feel utter disgust and laugh hysterically without having to turn a page in I Am Providence. Mamatas alternates between two narrators, an unsuccessful curmudgeon author and his platonic green-haired vegan roommate at a hotel in Providence, Rhode Island — one of whom tells their tale from the beyond after they are murdered and their face is removed. This particular disfigurement happens after it is revealed that the victim had been hired to act as a go-between in the sale of a book bound in human skin.
If you are curious as to why unsuccessful authors, book dealers, green-haired vegans, a face-removing murderer and a variety of other characters are all staying in a Rhode Island hotel, the obvious answer is notorious racist and occasional horror author H.P. Lovecraft. The Summer Tentacle is an annual con of sorts for fans of the Rhode Island native and his short story "The Call of Cthulhu." To keep things interesting, wine and social anxiety fuel this crowd, best summed up when Mamatas quipped; “The crowd drank with an intensity that only comes with the combination of free alcohol, unsuccessful writers and high stress.”
To those out there that have never heard of Cthulhu or find Lovecraft’s work to not your taste, don’t fret about not being able to enjoy Mamatas’ tale of murderous social commentary.
Spies. Monsters. Super powers. And…bureaucratic humor? In Stiletto, Daniel O’Malley delivers a riveting novel that covers all of the above and more. A follow up to his smash hit The Rook, this novel delves deeper into the world of the Rookery, a covert agency in the English government that employs individuals with unusual abilities to protect their country from threats internal and external.
In this book, the Rookery is looking to make nice with an age old foe. But how do you join two groups, when both have been raised since time immemorial to despise the other? Old wounds are re-opened and loyalties are tested when these organizations are forced to confront very real threats to themselves, their colleagues and to England itself.
While modern fantasy/espionage/horror/office humor is a pretty niche sub-genre, Daniel O’Malley does a great job of making this book accessible to all audiences. Funny and insightful one moment, terrifying and tense the next, O’Malley seamlessly blends genres to keep the reader engaged from start to finish. He also does a great job of mining his premise for unexpected humor — at one point they discuss how a Gorgon was driven from England not by an armed assault, but by a series of increasingly withering tax audits.
A great read for fans of urban fantasy, this book has humor, heart and a few good scares in store for its readers. If you enjoy this book, you could also check out The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross, another series about English spies defending crown and country from the supernatural while dealing with bureaucratic red tape. Urban fantasy fans might also enjoy Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files; the first book in that series is Storm Front. It follows a modern day private investigator who also happens to be a wizard, mixing dry humor with thrilling action and some terrifying moments.
For suburbanite Ben, what starts out as a dull business trip to the Poconos rapidly becomes a horrifying ordeal of epic proportions when he decides to go for The Hike through the local woods. Pursued by a menagerie of monsters through locations found nowhere on Earth, Ben struggles to survive. As he stumbles from one nightmare into the next, he longs for a way to escape the path and return to his family. But to leave the path is to die, and Ben will have to find his way if he ever wants to make it home again.
The Hike is a bloody mash-up of genres, as if author Drew Magary threw The Odyssey, Alice in Wonderland and the top 10 B horror movies of all time into a blender to see what would happen. The book is a wild ride from start to finish; once the action starts, it never really lets up. Some of the images are gory, yes, and some of the monsters are really grotesque, but Magary never lets Ben’s experiences on the path descend into the literary equivalent of torture porn. There is a purpose to what Ben is enduring and a destination he has to reach, and the quest-like feel of the narration keeps the plot from being bogged down by too much horror. The violence and heartbreak Ben endures is balanced by Ben’s deadpan humor and determination to see this journey through to the end. The inclusion of some seriously fun characters, including a talking crab, is an added bonus, and there are plenty of surprise twists awaiting Ben and the reader.
These twists make The Hike the engaging and fun read that it is, culminating in a shocking revelation right up to the last page. The Hike is a quick read, with enough bizarre world-building and action to make it perfect for any fan of shows like The Twilight Zone, video games like Limbo or podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale.
Can a person con their way out of a "lawyer-tight" contract that promises his or her soul to the Devil upon death? K. J. Parker, a two-time winner of the World Fantasy Award, will elegantly feed you this delicious information in his science fiction and fantasy novella The Devil You Know.
“...Why exactly do you want to sell your soul to us?” This is a question that a demon case officer, who is in the soul buying business, asks his new client, Saloninus, the world’s greatest philosopher, liar, cheat and trickster. Time flew by rather quickly for Saloninus, a 77-year-old man who believes he wasted his talent on scheming others. Unhappy with the fact that he has no self-respecting achievements, he decides to sign a contract to sell his soul to the Devil in order to acquire 20 more years of life on Earth and a youthful transformation to age 25 for the opportunity to make a mark on history. Once Saloninus signs the contract, the demon case officer becomes his servant, who uses his own supernatural abilities to grant Saloninus outlandish requests. When the demon questions Saloninus about what he plans to do with his additional years on Earth, the philosopher behaves suspiciously. This behavior gives the demon a reason to believe that the old trickster is up to his old tricks again and that his target is… the Devil. Saloninus is supposed to be the cleverest man on Earth. Will Saloninus successfully swindle the Devil? The demon case officer is supposed to be the best in the business. Will he halt Saloninus’ plan? To swindle or not to swindle, that is the question.
Readers who relish stories that involve the supernatural, mortality and good and evil, will find K. J. Parker’s novella The Devil You Know delightful and possibly frightful. Add this entertaining treat to your summer reading list — if you dare.
Have you ever wanted to be in your favorite book? Make sure the bad guys lose? Maybe change the entire course of the story? Of course you have; you’re reading this blog. In Michael R. Underwood’s Genrenauts: The Shootout Solution, Leah Tang can be your stand-in. Leah is a stand-up comedian trying to make a name for herself in Baltimore and enduring all the frustrating nonsense that being an Asian female comic in a dive bar can provide: drunken hecklers, rude come-ons, people who completely misunderstand a really good joke. But Leah presses on, despite the bar owner’s lack of support for anyone other than drunken louts. By the end of her set, she has attracted attention of both the wanted and unwanted kinds.
The wanted kind: He was the only one who got her jokes. Why not go along for the ride? Being a smart person, Leah texts her friend to let her know she is heading down I-97 with a strange man who had promised her a job.
At the Genrenauts Foundation building, however, Leah begins to rethink her life choices. What’s with 19th century period attire? Why is a woman being wheeled down the hall in a gurney? What’s with the thing that looks suspiciously like a spaceship? Leah almost walks away. When they step off the spaceship into the wild, wild West, she wishes she had run when she had the chance. How can she help save the so-called real world if she cannot figure out the tropes and devices of even one Genre World?
If you like the TV show Leverage or the books of Jasper Fforde, Genrenauts is absolutely the series for you. Exploring genre tropes while saving the world has never been more fun. And be sure to check out the second in the series, Genrenauts: The Absconded Ambassador!