Short Reviews: August 2012 [reviews]

Short ReviewsThe Stepsister Scheme by Jim C. Hines

What happens after the ‘happily ever after’? In the case of the Princess Danielle (aka Cinderella), it involves learning to live with getting what she thought she wanted… and rescuing her prince when he ends up being the one in jeopardy. Hines’ take on the fairy tale worlds of Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty mixes the darker nuances of the early versions of the tales with humor–not the ‘wokka wokka’ kind, but the more trenchant and wise kind that relies on fully-realized and nuanced characters and their observations and decisions. I enjoyed this first book in the ‘Princess Series,’ and look forward to the next.

Afterlife by Naomi Clark

Yasmin Stoker, a ghost tour guide who also happens to be a 600-year old wraith who feeds on the souls of revenants, sees a man get pulled into the netherworld by a ghost. Soon, she’s both investigating the incident and trying to deflect someone else in their investigation, while the complications pile up. Afterlife serves up a potent urban fantasy story that weaves plots and subplots without ever getting tangled up. P.I. Ethan Banning, a secondary character in this one, steals just about every scene he’s in. Shoregrave, the fictional setting of the novel, had a subtly dangerous feel that crept in and lingered.

Four in the Morning by Malon Edwards, Edward M. Erdelac, Lincoln Crisler, and Tim Marquitz

Four in the Morning is an unusual anthology, in that instead of collecting a lot of short stories, it is made up of four novellas, loosely based on different stages of life (youth, early adulthood, middle age, and old age). The genres and styles of these dark tales vary as well, from steampunk (“Half Dark” by Malon Edwards) to urban fantasy (“Gully Gods” by Edward M. Erdelac) to science fiction (“Queen” by Lincoln Crisler) to horror (“Cenotaph” by Tim Marquitz). I enjoyed all four offerings, though it took me a bit to warm up to “Gully Gods”. Malon Edwards’ “Half Dark” was my favorite of the quartet, though, by turns dark, strange, charming, and memorable–qualities I only sometimes find in steampunk stories.

The Noctuary by Greg Chapman

In The Noctuary, a dark fiction writer is given a tempting offer–the ability to make his words become reality, if he becomes a scribe for underworld creatures known as the Dark Muses. He can write things out of existence, and rewrite the tragic elements of his past… but at a price. This novella is the kind of horror that appeals to me most–the slippery, chaotic kind where the fear comes from seeing how thin and easily torn reality could be, and being forced to face what is left–if anything–when all that defines us to ourselves is stripped away. Which isn’t to say it’s not gruesome and bloody–it certainly is. It’s also a lot more than that, and worth a look for supernatural horror fans.


Gary W. Olson is the author of the dark fantasy novel Brutal Light and a contributor to the dark fiction anthology Fading Light. His blog originates here. Photo: silver-john/

Short Reviews: June 2012

Short ReviewsFeed (Book 1 of the Newsflesh Trilogy) by Mira Grant

In the year 2039, twenty-five years after a virus caused humans and animals to become flesh-craving zombies, a team of bloggers is recruited to cover the campaign of a U.S. Presidential candidate. They are soon drawn into a tense situation in which virus outbreaks seem to dog the campaign, and what they learn could cost them more than their lives.

This first book in the Feed trilogy offers solid suspense and action against a well-extrapolated science fiction backdrop. One of the most refreshing things about it is that it doesn’t see zombie hordes as a sign of the end of all things–life goes on, even though it’s a life transformed in ways large and small by the possibility of becoming a zombie at any time (not just following death). Suspenseful, thrilling, compelling, and ultimately moving, it’s well worth checking out, even if zombies aren’t ordinarly ‘your thing.’

Corrupts, Absolutely? edited by Lincoln Crisler

Corrupts Absolutely? is a collection of 21 short tales on the very dark side of having metahuman abilities, with stories ranging from a wounded man who brings his explosive rage to bear on those he blames for the deaths of his wife and daughter-to-be (“Retribution” by Tim Marquitz) to a world where metahumans live under more restrictions than sex offenders and being a hero is a crime (“Pride” by Wayne Ligon) to a woman whose concerns over the ultimate use of the robo-suit she lead development of are trumped by pragmatic realities (“Fixed” by Trisha J. Wooldridge). The metahuman abilities and settings vary widely, as do the contributing authors’ styles, making for an entertaining selection of tales.

As is often the case, a story collection has its high and low points. Not all of the tales here worked for me, but my enjoyment level overall was high. In addition to the previously mentioned stories, my favorites included “Ozymandias Revisited” by A.S. Fox (where having godlike powers leads to having godlike problems), and “Illusion” by Karina Fabian (exploring the toll taken by telepathic abilities on a young telepath). Its a compelling collection of dark fiction where the ‘heroes’ are often not at all heroic, and well worth checking out.

Sings with Stars by Bethany Grenier

Gigi Storme’s life has turned upside down in the blink of an eye. On society’s margins in our world, she discovers that she has come from another–a world of clockwork and magic–one in which she is destined to play a central role, whether she’s ready to or not. Her survival, and the survival of those around her, depends on not only learning her new abilities, but upon learning how to love, and even forgive.

The steampunk elements in this YA novel seem to me to be mainly in the fashion and visible technology of the otherdimensional world Gigi came from. The overall story is one that will not be unfamiliar to fantasy readers–a young woman discovers her destiny and magical powers and must contend against an implacable foe, while dealing with uncertainty and betrayal on all sides. Bethany Grenier does a good job of bringing this plot to life, and investing the characters with depth and complexity, and ends up delivering a world that readers can easily and happily lose themselves in for a while.

Apartment 14F: An Oriental Ghost Story by Christian Saunders

Jerry, newly arrived in China as an English teacher, settles in to his lonely new apartment, unaware that he will soon be drawn into the mystery of what happened to the apartment’s previous tenant. What he learns frightens him, but even this knowledge may not be enough to drive him away… or to save him.

This story manages to do a lot within its very brief span. It creates an atmosphere of lingering dread, not only of the ghost itself, but of its loneliness and need. It’s an effective and slightly surreal tale of alienation and terror, easily read in a single sitting.


Gary W. Olson is the author of the dark fantasy novel Brutal Light. His blog originates here. Photo: silver-john/

Short Reviews: Angi Shearstone’s BloodDreams #1 / Tim Marquitz’s Resurrection

BloodDreams #1 by Angi Shearstone

Jonny, the lead singer of a punk rock band, seems to have pulled his life back together after years of struggling with his addictions. His band has a chance to make it big, and he has a chance to marry the love of his life. But fate, and a vampire, have other plans. As Jonny struggles with his new addiction, his friends wonder if he has simply abandoned them again, while a group of vampire hunters set their sights on him.

The first issue of BloodDreams, written and painted by Angi Shearstone, plunges headlong into a world where vampires have been hunted to the brink of extinction. The art is gorgeous and macabre, and the story flies out of the gate, revealing just enough to let readers keep up while hinting at many more juicy revelations to come. There are a lot of layers of bloody intrigue to be peeled back, and I’m looking forward to more.

Resurrection (Book 2 of the Demon Squad series) by Tim Marquitz

Some guys get all the hell. Frank ‘Triggaltheron’ Trigg, having barely averted armageddon two months before in the previous Demon Squad book, is back in the soup when he’s beset by several near-simultaneous crises–a zombie-resurrecting necromancer, a called-in favor that means killing a being that already killed a powerful demon’s top enforcers, and the rumored resurrection of the Antichrist. He’s got to deal with hidden agendas, long odds, dire consequences, apocalyptic endgames, and worst of all, blue balls.

All this is delivered fast and hot, and is a hell of a lot of fun. Trigg is an entertaining, dirty-minded and snarky narrator, sort of like that uncle you never see anymore because of the restraining order. The action and the twists in this tale are well-paced and superbly delivered, running all the way to the surprise at the end that sets up book three. I enjoyed this one a lot, and am looking forward to the next.

Gary W. Olson is the author of the dark fantasy novel Brutal Light and several previously published and forthcoming short stories. He can be found via his website, his blog A Taste of Strange, as @gwox on Twitter, and in many other far-flung places on the Internet.

Short Reviews: Su Halfwerk’s Intricate Entanglement / Simon Haynes’ Hal Spacejock

Intricate Entanglement by Su Halfwerk

An abused maid who sought revenge on her employer and got much more than she bargained for. A doctor who discovered his appetite for flesh was more than a metaphor. A woman who found being a certain artist’s model drained her of life. These are just three of the patients being kept in a remote psychiatric institution where reporter Doug Pinkham has gone to investigate a murder. During the course of his investigation, he will hear their stories and others, and will find there is more going on at the institution than meets the eye… and possibly more than he can escape.

Intricate Entanglement is a collection of seven short stories linked by the story of Pinkham’s investigation. The stories are creepy and effective, and the framing story is also developed in depth, avoiding the trap of just being a device to present the stories. Su Halfwerk has a marked talent for creating an unsettling atmosphere and tales that become more sinister as they progress. If you like creepy tales and a sense of growing dread, this collection is well worth checking out.

Hal Spacejock by Simon Haynes

Hal Spacejock is a down-on-his-luck starship pilot given a last chance to make enough money to pay off his creditors and keep his head attached to his shoulders. All he has to do is transport some cargo to another world (avoiding pesky things like customs agents). Which should be simple… but between dealing with cargo thieves, rogue robots, a snarky ship’s computer, and his own less-than-stellar level of piloting competence, things get pretty complicated… and funny.

Simon Haynes’ style is fast, breezy, and funny, and at its best when the characters are talking to, and often past, one another. True, there are bits that go on for too long, or seem like one convolution too far, but how much plausibility do you really want in a sci-fi space opera comedy? I enjoyed much about this book, and am looking forward to the sequels.

Gary W. Olson is the author of the dark fantasy novel Brutal Light and several previously published and forthcoming short stories. He can be found via his website, his blog A Taste of Strange, as @gwox on Twitter, and in many other far-flung places on the Internet.

Short Reviews: “Help! Wanted” edited by Peter Giglio / Lily’s “Eden Fell”

Help! Wanted: Tales of On-the-Job Terror edited by Peter Giglio

Help! Wanted collects 25 short stories on the really dark side of the workplace, with tales ranging from a financially-desperate undertaker given a horrifying request (Stephen Volk’s “The Chapel of Unrest”) to a bookstore where the more annoying sorts of customers have a habit of dying (Lisa Morton’s “Face Out”) to an interview in which a psychiatrist with some highly unusual views on treatment tries to hide his true self (Adrian Chamberlain’s “The Interview). The workplaces and workers featured vary as greatly as the styles of the contributing authors, making for an entertaining mix.

As always, a collection of stories has its high points and low. Not all of the stories here worked for me, but my level of satisfaction overall was quite high. In addition to the three stories mentioned earlier, my favorites included Jeff Strand’s “Work/Life Balance” (on a Casual Fridays policy gone very wrong) and Mark Allan Gunnells’ “Must Be Something in the Water” (featuring a new water cooler that encourages some highly unprofessional conduct). Overall it’s a good and tasty collection of sharp short horror fiction, well worth checking out.

Eden Fell by Lily

Eden, an abstract painter, journeys through reality and unreality as her life falls apart. Accompanied by a snake and a rhinocerous, she encounters a strange and surreal set of characters and situations, all while struggling to hold her life together and find what she is desperately missing. Through a stream of consciousness narrative we’re drawn into Eden’s struggles and to her ultimate fate.

Eden Fell is one of those books that, while I liked it a lot, I find difficult to explain, or sometimes follow. A lot of the pleasure of this book comes from the exquisite prose, and how well it drew me behind the eyes of Eden’s character… and since she is often at the mercy of weird happenings, so was I. I love experiences like that, and too seldom find them. If you do too, I recommend this book.

Gary W. Olson is the author of the dark fantasy novel Brutal Light and several previously published and forthcoming short stories. He can be found via his website, his blog A Taste of Strange, as @gwox on Twitter, and in many other far-flung places on the Internet.

Short Reviews: JE Gurley’s Bloodlust / Fiona Dodwell’s Obsessed

Bloodlust by J.E. Gurley

A monster is on the rampage in Detective Tack Hardin’s city, murdering young women and drinking their blood. It isn’t long before Hardin learns that the killer is a chupacabra, and that its young will soon awaken with their own thirst for blood. He finds an ally in the beautiful and mysterious Joria Alvarez, whose father was murdered by the creature and whose obsession with it may prove Hardin’s undoing. As the body count rises, Hardin risks his career and his life to fight a threat to humankind that may be more massive than even he realizes.

There’s a lot to like about Bloodlust, starting with Hardin, who reminds me in some ways of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch in his grim determination to protect the innocent and ability to take large amounts of damage and keep going. The subplot with a secret government agency attempting to capture a chupacabra alive to further its own projects was intriguing. As far as Joria’s character went, I’m afraid I guessed the twist with her well before it was revealed, but that was about all I foresaw. If you like hardboiled police noir with a supernatural enemy, you’ll likely enjoy this tale.

Obsessed by Fiona Dodwell

James Barker is haunted by the death of a man who jumped in front of a train he was driving. Despite the urging of his wife Chloe, he finds himself increasingly drawn to investigate the man’s life, and what possessed him to commit suicide. It’s not long before he is seeing visions of the dead man, both in his nightmares and in the waking world, and is forced to choose between abandoning his search to save his sanity and his marriage, or to pursue the clues all the way down to the dark truth of that night.

Fiona Dodwell does compelling work in creating a feeling of compulsive need in Barker, and as he goes deeper into obsession, in keeping the supernatural suspense as to what is really happening and what is in Blake’s fevered imaginings. The book relies more on atmosphere and suspense to draw readers in, all the way to its unflinching denouement. If you like your horror stories mixed with subtlety and suspense, I recommend trying this one.

Gary W. Olson is the author of the dark fantasy novel Brutal Light and several previously published and forthcoming short stories. He can be found via his website, his blog A Taste of Strange, as @gwox on Twitter, and in many other far-flung places on the Internet.