Sea Hearts by Margo Lanagan – review

[Note: This book is released in the US with the title: The Brides Of Rollrock Island.]

Sea HeartsSea Hearts by Margo Lanagan is an outstanding achievement. I’m going to do my best to retain some professionalism in this review, but it’s going to be hard not to gush. You have been warned.

Sea Hearts is the latest novel by Margo Lanagan, a writer justly lauded for her previous novels and extensive short fiction. This particular story started life as a novella in the novella anthology, X6, from coeur de lion publishing, edited by Keith Stevenson. I read that novella back when X6 was released and loved it. When I heard Lanagan was developing it into a full novel, I had some concerns.

The novella was a beautifully realised story. It told of the menfolk of Rollrock Island and their sea-wives – devastating women brought forth from seals by the witch, Miskaella. Selkies is the proper name. The novella told of the rise of the selkies on Rollrock, the subsequent disappearance of all the human women, who couldn’t compete with the sea-wives, and the subsequent developments, which I won’t give away here.

The sense of place and culture in the story was exquisite, the characters deep and fully realised. While I loved the novella, I wondered if expanding the story into a novel would somehow destroy that fragile balance. I should have known better. This is Margo Lanagan, after all, a master at her craft. Seriously, as a writer reading Margo’s work, I can’t help but feel that we’re all playing for second place.

The novel of Sea Hearts takes the original novella and expands on both ends of the story. It begins with the early life of Miskaella, tracking her development from misplaced child, to uncomfortable youth to adult witch. Having already read the novella, therefore knowing a lot of what comes in the second and third quarters of the book, this part was probably the most enjoyable for me. Miskaella’s story, in and of itself, was a joy to read. Poignant, heart-breaking, dark, beautiful and really quite sad.

I read the novella long enough ago that I can’t tell if much was changed for the novel. Certainly some changes were made, but the overall story in that middle to last section was similar enough that I knew everything that was going to happen. But, in further testament to Lanagan’s skill, it didn’t matter. I was happy to go on the journey again. Then I was rewarded at the end with some new developments of characters and story. And these things weren’t tacked on, but powerful compliments, which turned the book into a whole, generations-encompassing narrative, with both a sense of absolute completion and a sense of an interesting future just getting underway.

All of this was done with the master-strokes of Lanagan’s writing. Her ideas are both simple and incredibly deep, the issues she deals with simultaneously everyday and absolutely profound. Her writing style is never flowery or lurid, it is simply flawless.

My wife read the book and made excellent observations, which I’ll repeat here verbatim:

“Beautiful, clean and perfectly realised, yet delving deep into many layers of raw emotional truth, the kind of truth that you know experientially. [It raises] all sorts of questions: the parallel lives of men and women, about inheritance, about ‘otherness’ and about the struggle to be fulfilled and live in a way that expresses the core of your being – that to bury parts of oneself in an effort to fit into the world can be like a kind of death. That life can seduce us or alienate us away from our core selves and that the result of this is nothing less than tragic. These ideas were so perfectly nested together, nothing was wasted.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. This book is dark and tragic on so many levels and yet always has one eye to the light, one hand reaching out for hope. Like I said at the beginning, an outstanding achievement.


The Broken Ones by Stephen M Irwin – review by Greg Chapman

Title: The Broken Ones
Author: Stephen M Irwin
Publisher: Hachette Australia
ISBN: 9780733627132
REVIEWER: Greg Chapman

Author: Stephen M Irwin has trouble making decisions. He has worked as a roadie for rock’n’roll shows, a call centre operator, agricultural science magazine editor, actor, handyman, and illustrator. The list of things he is afraid of includes heights, dark water, running late, thumbtacks and spiders. Fortunately, he has found an outlet for these and other terrors in his writing. The Broken Ones is his second novel.


Three years ago, on what’s become known as Grey Wednesday, the world became haunted. Everyone suddenly acquired a personal ghost – a friend, a lost sibling, an ex-spouse, an enemy – which is unshakable as a shadow. These peering, silent phantoms have driven millions to despair, and the global economy is in freefall.

Stephen M Irwin’s follow up to his first novel The Dead Path (2010) is an engrossing blend of the supernatural and police procedural with a dash of the apocalypse – a combination that doesn’t disappoint.

In the novel, the world has virtually been turned upside down in the wake of “Grey Wednesday” – a disaster of gargantuan proportions that saw the Earth’s poles shift, creating all manner of destruction, with earthquakes and planes plummeting out of the sky. Worse still, everyone in the entire world (including Brisbane, where the story is set), suddenly found themselves haunted by the ghosts of their past, with long-dead relatives, friends, lovers and enemies following them around.

Everyone has to learn to live with their ghosts, but with society an absolute wreck, some can’t handle the stress and crimes like murder flourish. With the existence of the supernatural now living proof, many of these murderers are quite happy to use the term “the ghosts made me do it” as readily as they draw breath.

Which brings us to Detective Oscar Mariani; the lead officer of a unit tasked with investigating crimes believed to have been perpetrated by ghosts. It’s his job to separate the real murderers from the ghosts and, given that the majority of his suspects are very much alive, his job doesn’t carry much success, prestige or respect.

But when Oscar is called to a gruesome scene of a young girl with occult symbols carved into her flesh, the possibility of supernatural involvement is all too real. Oscar of course becomes obsessed with the case, all the while trying to reconcile the mistakes of his own past and handle the politics within a seemingly corrupt police force.

Oscar’s “mistake” is a core thread of Irwin’s marvellously intricate plot. The detective’s own ghost is a young boy who appeared before Oscar as he was driving, forcing the detective to crash his car with tragic consequences.

In Oscar, Irwin gives us the classic flawed hero; a tortured soul seeking redemption, but the author brings him to life with such clarity, that the mystery almost becomes secondary. The supernatural element of the novel evolves as the story progresses, moving the focus off the ghosts and more towards Persian mythology and there’s also terrifying monsters of the feathered variety lurking in the shadows, but it’s all just lying under the surface.

There are of course sub plots a plenty, including Oscar’s tenuous relationship with his former cop father, his tenuous relationships with other police officers who were once his friends and, his tenuous relationships with the lives of the families Oscar destroyed with his “mistake” on Grey Wednesday, but as in all good tales, everything weaves together in perfect symmetry to a horrific and tragic climax.

With simple language that is still somehow powerfully evocative, Irwin paints the perfect picture of a Brisbane gone terribly wrong and a man who seeks justice for a murdered girl and his own atonement. It’s a grand supernatural murder mystery that would even, dare I say it, some of today’s best thriller writers a run for their money and is well deserving of its recent Honourable Mention in the finalist list for the 2011 Aurealis Awards.

It would be good to see Irwin return to this world in the future and perhaps give us more ghosts of the past. The post-apocalyptic premise he has created is a unique one and deserves more exploration in his distinctive style, but whatever he writes next I’ll certainly be lining up for a copy.

Review by Greg Chapman

Bram Stoker Awards live webcast

Bram Stoker Awards™ to be webcast live on March 31, 2012

The Horror Writers Association (HWA) is proud to announce that it will again webcast the Bram Stoker Awards™ presentation live in 2012. The Banquet is being held in Salt Lake City and the event will begin live on the internet at 9 p.m. (Mountain Daylight Savings Time) on March 31. The ceremony will take about 1 ½ hours to complete.

The webcast will be presented at:

This year the Bram Stoker Awards celebrate 25 years as the leading writing Awards in the horror and dark fantasy genre: . The Bram Stoker Awards Banquet is sponsored by Samhain Publishing.

Among the nominees are those for the Vampire Novel of the Century (a special Award to mark the centenary of the death of Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula) – they include Richard Matheson for I Am Legend, Stephen King for Salem’s Lot and Anne Rice for Interview with the Vampire. This Award is sponsored by Jeremy Wagner.

Lifetime Achievement Awards will also be conferred on iconic horror writers Joe R Lansdale and Rick Hautala, both of whom will be in attendance to accept the Award. And this year’s presenters include Robert McCammon (Swan Song), one of the HWA’s Special Guests.

Bram Stoker Awards for Poetry, Non-Fiction, Fiction Collection, Anthology, Screenplay, Short Fiction, Long Fiction, Young Adult Novel, Graphic Novel, First Novel and Novel will be presented. Among the nominees in these categories are Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates, Mike Mignola, Jonathan Maberry and Joe Hill. Episodes of The Walking Dead, American Horror Story and True Blood are nominated in the Screenplay category. A full list of the nominees appears at:

More information about the Bram Stoker Awards may be found here: .

The HWA is the leading writer’s organization for horror and dark fantasy and has nearly 800 members worldwide. More information here: .

Notions Unlimited: new genre bookshop opens – news

The good news for fans of Australian dark fiction — but most importantly, for Melbournian fans — is that a new genre bookstore has opened in the Victorian suburb of Chelsea.

Notions Unlimited Bookshop, is the twisted brainchild of Chief Zombologist, Chuck McKenzie; award-nominated author, Aurealis and Australian Shadows judge, former reviewer for HorrorScope, Chief Editor of the zombie-themed NecroScope blog, and a well known figure in the Australian dark fiction community.

Notions Unlimited Bookshop specialises in science fiction, fantasy and horror titles, as well as paranormal romance, media tie-ins (Doctor Who, Star Trek, The Walking Dead, etc), graphic novels, manga comics, role-playing supplies, related art and non-fiction publications, and a selection of esoteric and New Age books.

They have a major focus upon Australian small-press, stocking pretty much the entire back-catalogue of titles from Ticonderoga, Twelfth Planet Press, Mirrordanse, Couer de Lion, LegumeMan and Brimstone (including copies of Black Magazine!), plus selected publications from Agog!, Tasmaniac, Aurealis/Chimaera and Fablecroft. They’ve even managed to track down copies of some hard-to-get titles from Martin Livings (Carnies), Guy Salvidge (Yellowcake Springs), A. K. Wrox, Leigh Blackmore, and Rocky Wood.

That’s a pretty extensive list for those looking to dive head first into what Australian speculative fiction has to offer, or even if you just want to fill the gaps in an existing collection.

In keeping with owner Chuck McKenzie’s usual community spirit, Notions Unlimited Bookshop offers free meeting and seating facilities to genre groups (such as book groups, writing circles and gaming collectives). They also support local genre authors and publishers through regular signings and book launches, and future in-store events are rumoured to include community open days and mini-conventions.

From all indications, Notions Unlimited Bookshop is going to be much more than just a bookstore — it’s a place for the genre community to gather and support the Australian speculative fiction industry — and Thirteen O’Clock wishes owner Chuck Mckenzie and his staff all the best for its success.

Notions Unlimited Bookshop can be found at Shop 9, Chelsea Beach Arcade, 426 Nepean Hwy, Chelsea, VIC 3196.

Or, you  can catch up with them on their blog or on facebook and twitter.

The Darkest Shade Of Grey by Alan Baxter – review, by Robert Hood

DISCLAIMER: Thirteen O’Clock is managed by Alan Baxter, Felicity Dowker and Andrew McKiernan as Contributing Editors. While the Contributing Editors’ roles at Thirteen O’Clock are editorial and critique, all three are primarily writers. It is inevitable that their own work will form part of the Australian and international dark fiction publications which are Thirteen O’Clock’s focus, and as such it is also inevitable that their work will be reviewed at Thirteen O’Clock (to prohibit this would not only be unfortunate for Baxter, Dowker, and McKiernan themselves, but for their hardworking editors and publishers).

Thirteen O’Clock will always have a third party contributor review the Contributing Editors’ work. Such reviews will be unedited (aside from standard corrections to typos and grammar), posted in full (be they negative or positive), and will always be accompanied by full disclosure of Baxter, Dowker, and McKiernan’s place at Thirteen O’Clock. At no point will Baxter, Dowker or McKiernan review their own work.

DSOG-coverThe Darkest Shade of Grey
A novella by Alan Baxter

Reviewed by Robert Hood

“Noir” is a term that is somewhat loosely used these days, especially as cross-genre experimentation continues to attack whatever subgenres hold still long enough to get suitably mugged. Naturally, authors cherry-pick individual aspects of the noir form’s “original” manifestation (essentially 1940s and 50s “film noir”) to apply to their own work, thereby blurring the edges of the definition somewhat — the most common ingredients being a tone of dark, urban cynicism and tough-talking PIs (or some other investigative types) vaguely reminiscent of Raymond Chandler’s Marlowe or Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. But however loose the definition might become, there’s no denying the appeal of the shadowy crime-based format. Whether it melds with zombies, ghosts, robots, future dystopias (as in Blade Runner), Batman sweeping through the dark streets of Gotham City or re-worked fairytales, combining fantastical elements with the noir tropes and their air of claustrophobic darkness has proven extremely popular.

Alan Baxter’s novella The Darkest Shade of Grey, serialised on the Red Penny Papers website and now available as an ebook, boasts many of the key elements of noir fiction, adroitly combining them with other tropes – in particular the currently popular stereotype of a troubled protagonist with a psychic “ability”. David Johanssen is a journalist whose life has been rent asunder by his own flirtation with the supernatural, in the form of a Ouija board and an entity by the name of Lamashtu. Lamashtu’s femme fatale presence has tempted him into a mire of obsession, prescient vision and failed relationships, just as the noir hero becomes a victim of his own moral failures and is led astray by a sexy female client or victim. Now, living a despairing existence in a Sydney cityscape filled with demons (mostly of his own making), Johannsen struggles to find a way out, only to slide deeper and deeper into the quagmire. In true noir fashion, only bourbon offers him momentary escape from his self-loathing.

The novella begins with the bloody murder of a young woman in a Kings Cross backstreet – a murder which Johanssen’s intuition tells him is the tip of a Big Story that will put him on a better footing with his increasingly impatient editor – and leads him via a potentially insane hobo and much death to a reality he never expected to find and may not survive. The story has a strong tidal flow that drags the reader through to its imaginative climax. The investigative groundwork of the plot runs smoothly and without overt contrivance, and the revelations of the end don’t disappoint. Like the classics of film noir, which were filmed in black-and-white, Baxter’s noir plot teaches his protagonist that what seems to be black can in fact be merely the darkest shade of grey.

As good pulp fiction should be, Baxter’s story is fast-paced, yet the author maintains a noir atmosphere effectively, not simply via plot maneuvers and archetypal characters, but through snatches of effective description and a dark sensibility that is integrated into the details. He’s not afraid to stop and smell the waste run-off occasionally. If Baxter’s use of language can veer toward bare cliché at times, it is a form of genre-based cliché that mostly feels authentic and you go with it easily. Indeed Baxter gives enough individual distinctiveness to his secondary characters to make us accept them, and though Johannsen himself is a stereotype (the classic noir loner, lost to a dark, and ever-darkening reality), Baxter develops the elements that make up that stereotype into a character who is at least as believable and pitiable as your standard noir hero. Then there’s the City – an important character in noir stories. As a Sydneysider it is fascinating to watch Baxter transform Sydney into a noir hell. Indeed it would have been a bonus to see him develop this element further, if he’d had the space to do so.

In the end, The Darkest Shade of Grey may not be the ultimate example of supernatural noir, but it is certainly a good example, an enjoyable and engaging pulp-inspired read that fulfills the promise of its evocative cover and its effective title, with some ideas that linger in the mind long after the lights go out.


Robert Hood is a writer of speculative fiction in all its forms, though he veers to the dark side more often than not. He loves noir fiction and mixing-and-matching the genres. Check out some of his collected stories in Creeping in Reptile Flesh (Morrigan Books, 2011). A dark fantasy novel, Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead, is due out in 2012 from Borgo Press (US). His website can be found at and he occasionally posts reviews there and on his blog, Undead Backbrain.


Midnight Echo #7 ToC announced

ME7Midnight Echo, the official magazine of the Australian Horror Writers’ Association, has announced the line up for issue 7: The Taboo Issue, due out on May 31. So if you like your addictions, your fetishes and all the other things you’ve been told not to like, slip on your latex gloves and take a peek inside.

Editor: Daniel Russell

Cover art by Joshua Hoffine


  • Commode by Shaun Hamilton
  • Driven by Anthony Ferguson
  • Saturday Night at the Milk Bar by Gary Kemble
  • Symmetry Fades by Rick McQuiston
  • The Hunting Room by Kia Groom
  • Brand New Day by G. N. Braun
  • Dead Inertia by Sean Rodgers
  • Just Some Good Old Boys Sitting Around the Fire Talking Shit by A.J Brown
  • Parlour Party by Michael Penkas
  • The Case of the Kissing Corpse by Jack Skelter
  • My First Horror Show by Ed Higgins
  • I Like to Share by Ron Jon
  • Ghosts of You by Lee Battersby
  • See Jane Mesmerised! by Tom McLaughlin
  • The Final Degustation of Doctor Ernest Blenheim by Andrew J. McKiernan
  • What the Dark Does by Graham Masterton


  • Cat by Michelle Scalise
  • Pain and Pin Me Sweetly, My Love by Kurt Newton
  • Pleasure me by Bec Mirr


  • Allure of the Ancients – The Key to His Kingdom by Mark Farrugia and Greg Chapman


  • Graham Masterton
  • Joe R. Lansdale
  • Joshua Hoffine


  • Greg Hughes
  • Jason Paulos
  • Joshua Hoffine

Plus, a special tribute to Paul Haines.

Teasers of each story will be posted on the Midnight Echo website over the coming weeks.

Pre-orders for the limited edition print run can be made on the Midnight Echo website:


Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence – review

Title: Prince of Thorns – Book One of the Broken Empire
Author: Mark Lawrence
Publisher: HarperCollins (Aus) / Penguin ACE (US)
ISBN: 9780007423316 / 9780441020324

Author: Mark Lawrence is married with four children, one of whom is severely disabled. His day job is as a research scientist focused on various rather intractable problems in the field of artificial intelligence. He has held secret level clearance with both US and UK governments. At one point he was qualified to say ‘this isn’t rocket science … oh wait, it actually is’. Prince of Thorns is his first published novel. 


Beware the Prince of Thorns…
When he was nine, he watched as his mother and brother were killed before him. By the time he was thirteen, he was the leader of a band of bloodthirsty thugs. By fifteen, he intends to be King…

When it comes to the way the Fantasy genre has changed over the last decade or so, authors such as Glen Cook, Steven Erickson, G.R.R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie have a lot to answer for. They’ve taken our once happy fantasies, full of gaily singing Tom Bombadil’s and eco-aware woodland elves, and turned them into battlefields of death and courts of backstabbing villainy. The line between Good and Evil has blurred, and it is no longer as easy to barrack for the Guys-in-the-white-hats (or robes) as it used to be. For all that, I am very grateful to them.

Prince of Thorns, the first novel from Mark Lawrence, continues on in this ‘darker’ fantasy vein. In some ways, it takes things to an even greater level of darkness.

Once again, Prince of Thorns is a novel that is being hyped far and wide, by both publishers and a plethora of review sites. Queue reader trepidation. A trepidation, it turns out, that was entirely unnecessary on my part, for this truly is a wonderful novel. From the very first page, Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath’s sparse but poetic first person narration had me hooked.

It isn’t giving too much away to say that the story is set in a world somewhat related to our own – the map that appears on the first few pages shows a land with a coastline near identical to that of Western Europe – but to say much more would spoil the surprise of discovery that awaits the reader. Suffice to say, the land of Prince of Thorns is a barbaric one. A once great Empire has broken down, divided up into a series of warring Kingdoms and the young Prince Jorg left the castle of his father, the King of Ancrath, at the age of ten following the murder of his mother and brother by neighbouring Count Renar. Once intent upon revenge on the Count, he now (aged fourteen years old)  finds himself the leader of a bloodthirsty band of mercenaries and murderers, and on his way home to his father’s castle. It is there that he intends to confront his father and reclaim his place as heir, but instead will find only more treachery and a dark magic that sends him and his ‘brothers’ off into unknown lands to encounter the monstrous people and creatures that live there.

Yes, the narrator is only fourteen. He’s been on the road, living as a mercenary since the age of ten. He’s articulate, poetic and most of all, he has one of the darkest and cruelest hearts I have ever encountered in literature. This might seem far fetched to some, but think of the child-soldiers already waging war in parts of Africa and Afghanistan. Think of the evil little brats in their hoodies who hang around train stations and shopping malls, robbing innocents, stabbing them for a packet of cigarettes and committing rape. It happens to some degree today. They might not be as articulate as Prince Jorg, but then they weren’t born into royal houses and tutored by the finest teachers since a young age. And in the dark and medieval world of Prince of Thorns, it all comes across as very believable.

Prince Jorg is not a boy to like – he’s violent, unforgiving and without an ounce of honour or mercy. But, as you slowly learn his back story you come, in some small way, to understand him. By the end of the novel, you may even sympathise.

It can be a hard road for the reader, getting to that point of sympathy, but Mark Lawrence’s prose made it easy for me. Prince Jorg’s narration is terse, sparse and bordering on the poetic qualities often required of more ‘literary’ fiction. It all fits the mood and character of Prince Jorg perfectly. By the very end, I was itching to start immediately on the sequel, King of Thorns. Alas, part two will not be released until August, but I have already added it to my wishlist and am looking forward to it immensely.

If you like your fantasy dark and unrelenting, if you like ambiguity between heroes and villains, if you like really well written prose, then you are definitely going to love Prince of Thorns.

Review by Andrew J McKiernan