‘Last Year, When We Were Young’ by Andrew J McKiernan – review by Greg Chapman

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.

Last Year, When We Were Young - coverLast Year, When We Were Young
by Andrew J McKiernan

Satalyte Publishing (www.satalyte.com.au)

Paperback: ISBN 978-0-9925095-2-1
E-book: ISBN 978-0-9925095-3-8

Review by Greg Chapman

Andrew J. McKiernan’s collection, Last Year When We Were Young, is proof yet again of the incredible writing talent that can be found in Australia and further still, proof that horror can have a meaningful voice that goes well beyond blood and gore.

Whether it is a story about a secretary taking phone messages from the dead, a group of clowns trying to avoid forced conscription in a travelling circus, or astronauts encountering cosmic monsters in the depths of space, the impossible in McKiernan’s stories never fails to engage because the stories always orbit characters that are quantifiably human.

McKiernan’s deft hand with prose is also addictive, with each turn of phrase sweeping the reader away from reality. Although many of his supernatural tales exude mysterious atmosphere, demonic forces or faith, I think the stories where the uncanny takes a back seat are where he really shines. Here the horror is less inexplicable, but no less haunting. The tales, White Lines, White Crosses, The Memory of Water, Calliope: A Steam Romance, and the title story being prime examples.

Overall, the collection is engrossing, every story leaving the reader with sensations of loss, hope, melancholy, repulsion and joy. It’s not often that a writer can convey such a broad section of emotions, but this is what makes collections so worthwhile – and enjoyable.

I recall reading one of Andrew’s Facebook posts some time ago about how he was finding it a real challenge to select the stories for Last Year, When We Were Young, but I can safely say that he and Satalyte Publishing have put together a wonderful treasury of fiction that is well worth any reader’s time, horror fan or no.

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Last-Year-When-Were-Young/dp/0992509521/
Goodreads: http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22523234-last-year-when-we-were-young

Review by Greg Chapman (http://www.darkscrybe.blogspot.com/)

Review: Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead

Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead
By Robert Hood
Publisher: Borgo Press/Wildside Press
Paperback: 432 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4344-4589-6

Blurb: In a place where no stars appear in the night sky, a group of strangers whose ancestries reach back to an earlier apocalyptic disaster are brought together to track down a resurrected corpse that might hold the key to the End of the World. Described by science fiction legend Jack Dann as “one of the strangest and most interesting visions to come out of the modern horror/fantasy genres,” acclaimed author Robert Hood’s Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead is an epic tale of greed, dying magic, strange monsters, and a motley group of heroes, with a strange and breathless climax you won’t easily forget.

When I think of Fantasy as a genre, I don’t often get the modern Epic Fantasy image of Dwarves and Orcs and Elves questing through majestic forests in my mind. I’ve always been more drawn to the works of Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, William Hope Hodgson, Robert E Howard, Jack Vance, M. John Harrison and Michael Moorcock. Their fantasies were always so much more ‘otherworldly’ than the faux-Europes and other earth-analogues of modern Epic Fantasy. Their worlds were far-distant not only in ‘place’ from our own, but often also far-distant in ‘time’. Long past or far, far in the future, they were as foreign and exotic to the reader as if they really had just stepped into another country and culture.

Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead, the debut adult-novel¹ from Robert Hood, has this Otherworldliness in spades. The ‘world’ of Tharenweyr is as strange and exotic a place as has ever existed in fantasy fiction. Indeed, it is not even a world but a solid firmament (or a ‘seed-like emanation’ as Hood puts it on his website) that exists separate from space and time as we know it. It has no sun or moon or stars. Not even the infinite void of space to stare into. Instead, Tharenweyr is locked within its firmament, a mysterious wave of energy that washes from the ‘Worldly Gods’ of the north to the ‘Dark Gods’ of the south and creating the semblance night and day.

The novel begins with Remis, a young and newly graduated spellbinder interested in starting her own magical artifacts business, who is being pressured (threatened, intimidated) into working for a powerful Merchant House. She’s also having horrible nightmares in which she finds herself trapped inside the body of a hideous corpse-like being. And then there’s Tashnark, the bastard son of a commercial slaver. He’s having dreams that he is the powerful warrior Bellaroth, questing across some strange otherworld that exists on the shoulders of a vast cosmic monster.

It is the chance meeting of Remis and Tashnark – their respective dreams unknown to each other – that sets the course of lifting Fragments of a Broken Land.. out of individual nightmares and into a fantasy who’s cosmic scope rivals anything by Lovecraft or William Hope Hodgson. Gods battling Gods. Ancient artifacts and the prophesised return of catalysmic events that will wipe Tharenweyr out of existence. And, as always, Gods using normal people as their pawns.

In the hands of Robert Hood Fragments of a Broken Land… becomes so much more than just a Fantasy or Sword & Sorcery adventure though. The philosophical and spiritual underpinnings Hood has evoked for the world and its people almost demand a denser tale. In this sense, Hood certainly delivers. At times Fragments of a Broken Land… can be a hard read. You need to concentrate a bit. Divest some of your attention in the book. But believe me, the effort is worth it; Fragments of a Broken Land… will have your brain spinning in Gnostically-induced circles.

One thing that really did stand out for me is Tharenweyr’s main city of Ko’erpel-Na. The characters of Fragments of a Broken Land… all have a wonderful depth — their sense of humour, of justice, the way they try and interpret their world and the way they react to it — but the city is just as much a character too. It reminded me of Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar or M. John Harrison’s Viriconium. It’s dirty, it’s crowded and full of disease and poverty, but there is also a feel to Ko’erpel-Na that speaks of age and so many lives lived within its walls. The impression I got of the city and its people was quite vivid, quite ‘real’. It seems a place just begging for a million more tales to be told.

Overall, Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead is a brilliant fantasy novel of the type we seldom get to read these days. Dense and exotic and full of ideas. It’s also full of sword & sorcery action too, and the type of cosmic horror that leaves you paranoid about your own reality. Really, what more could you ask for in a book?

Don’t believe me? Want to check it out for yourself? Mr Hood has three other Tharenweyr ‘Fragment’ stories to read for free on his website [http://fragmentsnovel.undeadbackbrain.com/]. Definitely worth checking out as a teaser and to get a feel for the world before tackling the very worthy Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead.

Oh, and the cover by Bob Eggleton? It is brilliant!

Footnote:
1. Robert Hood is the author of 5 previous Young Adult Novels, 15 Children’s books, published 3 collections of his own work, and edited a further 5 anthologies.

Bottled Abyss by Benjamin Kane Ethridge – review by Greg Chapman

Bottled Abyss by Benjamin Kane Ethridge
Paperback: 332 pages
Publisher: Redrum Horror (June 30, 2012)
ISBN: 978-0984751952
http://redrumhorror.com/2012/05/24/bottled-abyss-by-benjamin-kane-ethridge/

Benjamin Kane Ethridge, Bram Stoker Award-winning author of Black & Orange (2010), has a new tome – Bottled Abyss – that will no doubt earn him a second bronze haunted castle statue next year.

Bottled Abyss takes on the well-worn trope of exploring the meaning of life and death and binds it to classical myth, namely the legend of the Ferryman. But instead of focussing on the myth or blatantly trying to re-invent it (although he does twist it into fresher territory), Ethridge poses the question of “if you had the power of death, how would you wield it?”
Ethridge masterfully touches on themes of grief, loss and redemption through each of the main characters, but primarily via Herman and Janet Erikson, whose marriage is in turmoil after the tragic death of their daughter Melody when she was hit by a car driven by criminals.

Since her death, Janet has resorted to drinking heavily and distanced herself from the world. The tale enters supernatural territory when Herman goes looking for their missing dog and finds it near death. A strange man with an oar-like cane saves the dog by letting it drink from an equally strange bottle. The dog coughs up a coin and a price must be paid to a gargantuan beast from the depths of the River Styx.

And so begins the cycle of a “death-for-a-death”.

The beast, known as The Fury, is probably one of the most horrific monsters I’ve ever come across in horror fiction and it was fantastic to see a creature that wasn’t your oh-so-common shambling zombie!

Temptation also plays a big part in the plot as Janet and Herman come into possession of the bottle and realise its power. A single drop of the waters from the River Styx is enough to conjure a coin from anyone and summon the beast and Janet suddenly has eyes for the man who took her daughter’s life.

Without giving too much more of the plot away, the character viewpoints are constantly shifting from Janet and Herman and their friends, married couple Evan and Faye, and we even get to go inside the heads of the people who have the misfortune of coming into the contact with the waters and face-to-face with the Fury.

This may irk some readers, but I found it enthralling as I got to know more about each character through their interactions with the bottle.

Ultimately the story is about choice as well and its repercussions, with Janet and the others falling victim themselves to the bottle’s promise of salvation and like with any Hell of any mythology, the chance of escape is unlikely.

The suspense, characterisation and plot of Bottled Abyss will definitely grab you by the throat and hold you until the final page, dragging you deep into the cold waters of the River Styx. So get yourself a copy and dive in because you won’t forget this journey anytime soon!

The Author provided a copy for review.

Review by Greg Chapman

The Corpse Rat King by Lee Battersby – review by Greg Chapman

The Corpse Rat King
Author:
 Lee Battersby
Publisher: Angry Robot
ISBN: 9780857662866 (pbk.) / 9780857662880 (eBook)
Published: September, 2012

Blurb:

Marius don Hellespont and his apprentice, Gerd, are professional looters of battlefields. When they stumble upon the corpse of the King of Scorby and Gerd is killed, Marius is mistaken for the monarch by one of the dead soldiers and is transported down to the Kingdom of the Dead.
Just like the living citizens, the dead need a King — after all, the King is God’s representative, and someone needs to remind God where they are.
And so it comes to pass that Marius is banished to the surface with one message: if he wants to recover his life he must find the dead a King. Which he fully intends to do.
Just as soon as he stops running away.

Lee Battersby is one of Australia’s leading speculative fiction authors with more than 70 short stories published across the globe. He’s also been at the helm of many of magazines as editor, including Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine and Midnight Echo, so he definitely knows what makes a great story.

His first novel, The Corpse-Rat King is the very definition of a great story; the perfect concoction of old world fantasy, intrigue, adventure and full-bodied characters that sweep you deeper into the story with each turn of the page.

I’m not an avid reader of fantasy books, but when I was presented with the opportunity to “beta-read” (sort of an advanced-advanced reader copy) I jumped at the chance simply because I knew it was Battersby. I’m glad I jumped.

The Corpse-Rat King centres on Marius Helles, a man who has made a living out of pillaging riches from fallen soldiers on battlefields throughout the war-torn realm of Scorby. But all that changes when Marius’ young apprentice is run through by a pair of soldiers who catch him the act. Instead of going to his charge’s aid, Marius plays dead amongst the other corpses and this act of cowardice brings Marius to their attention. The dead, mistakenly believing he is their king, issue a decree that Marius must deliver unto them a king and, to make sure that he does, they turn him into one of the living dead and so begins his quest.

From there, Battersby uses his exemplary world-building prowess to place us alongside Marius as he journeys across the kingdom in search of the seemingly impossible. With each step, we see Marius slowly realising his failures and flaws in life and his efforts to reconcile with the people he did wrong. If anything, Marius’s quest is secondary to the main plot, which is Marius coming to terms with the type of man he was in the past.

The realm of Scorby is a character in itself with Batterbsy offering the reader a richly detailed history of its kings, mythology, temples and taverns. While not as epic as Middle Earth (and it doesn’t pretend to be), it’s certainly a very realistic and memorable landscape.

But there are many good doses of adventure to be had in this novel. Some of my favourite scenes include Marius competing in a very unique and dangerous poker-style game in order to secure funds for a place on a boat and an underwater (yes underwater) meeting with a long dead, but still very mad, king and his favourite and also, long-dead horse. Batterbsy also adds a pinch of tongue-in-cheek humour to the mix, which only serves to make us sympathise with Marius even more.

The Corpse-Rat King is intended to be the first in a series of books and given the apparent finality of the ending, it will be very interesting to see where Battersby’s plans to take us with book two.

Lee Battersby is one of those writers which writers aspire to and with The Corpse-Rat King he has once again cemented that reputation. Highly Recommended.

– review by Greg Chapman

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis – review

Title: Bitter Seeds – Book One of the Milkweed Triptych
Author: Ian Tregillis
Publisher: TOR (US) / Orbit (AUS/UK)

Author: Ian Tregillis lives near Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he works as a physicist at Los Alamos Laboratory. He is a member of the George R.R. Martin Wild Cards writing collective. ‘Bitter Seeds’ is his first novel.

Blurb:

It’s 1939. The Nazis have supermen, the British have demons, and one perfectly normal man is caught in between.

Bitter Seeds is the first novel from US author, Ian Tregillis, and it contains all the ingredients to make any dark-fantasy, horror, spec-fic or alternate/secret history fan salivate with anticipation. The novel contains not just Nazis, but scientifically enhanced Super-Nazis with strange powers! Mad scientists. Bookish British warlocks conjuring demonic entities. Kick-ass British soldiers on secret missions into the heart of enemy territory. It’s all there, on the cover and in the blurb, just inviting you to dive into its pages. The big question is, does it all work? Does the content satisfy such an exciting premise?

Raybould Marsh is a British secret agent on a mission in the final years of the Spanish Civil War. When his informant, with important information on Germany’s preparations for all out War in Europe, spontaneously combusts Marsh finds his cover almost blown and must escape back to England. He thinks that is the end of his mission, but really, it is just the beginning of something much bigger. It’s the strange lady he sees down on the docks, with what appears to be wires coming out of her head and a look and a wink that seems to say she knows, him that sticks in his mind.

Back in London, Germany has invaded Poland, and the British Government is preparing for war. The Nazi war-machine ploughs through western Europe with astonishing speed, much faster than intelligence would suggest, and faster than you can goose-step they’re breaching the borders of France. It is agent Raybould Marsh who discovers the Nazi secret – a secret linked to the mysterious woman with the wires in her head – that the Germans have a developed the ability to turn certain individuals into Übermensch; men and women with amazing super powers that allow them to stay one step ahead of the Allies at all times.

Faced with the prospect of defeat at the hands of such an unnatural onslaught, the British resort to their own unnatural (nay, supernatural) defense… the creation of a secret organisation known as Milkweed, and the hiring of Warlocks capable of negotiating with Demons in order to defeat the oncoming Nazi menace.

It is against this backdrop that Tregillis weaves his tale through the viewpoint of four major characters: Marsh, the British ‘every-man’ soldier and spy; Marsh’s friend, dilettante and amateur occultist, Lord William Beauclerk; and the German twins Klaus and Gretel, both of whom have been ‘recruited’ since childhood into the Nazi’s secret Gotterelektrongruppe.

There is a lot in Bitter Seeds that Tregillis does well. The powers possessed by the Nazi super-humans are, if not wholely original, treated in a very interesting way. Prescience, invisibility and the manipulation of matter are just a few of the tricks they can accomplish. So too is the fact that the magick practiced by the Warlocks is not straight forward in a Harry Potter ‘just say the words and wave your wand’ fashion. There are real consequences to dealing with Demons; consequences that effect not only the Warlocks, but everyone around them, in horrendous ways.

The writing though is, unfortunately, uneven. The action scenes are especially well written, but prone to falling into unwelcome info-dumps at the most inopportune times. Many of the characters – especially that of Raybould Marsh – seem two-dimensional, and the most interesting character (Gretel, the Nazi super-human who can see the future) often seems to be little more than a walking deus-ex-machina for the author’s plot twists. The troubled amateur occultist, Will Beauclerk, is probably the most well rounded (and most likeable) of the characters while others seem almost comic-bookish in their actions.

Overall, Bitter Seeds comes across as very well researched. It is easy to get a feel for the time and the place, and there is a real sense of urgency to the threat of winning or losing the war. One area that did annoy me greatly though, is the use of ‘Enochian’ as the magick of choice for the British Warlocks. Despite the great amount of information available on this particular magical discipline, Tregillis appears to have either ignored it or not bothered with his research. Maybe something like this will only bother someone like me – someone who spent over 10 years studying and practicing within the Western Magical Tradition – but what Tregillis describes as ‘Enochian’ magick in Bitter Seeds bears no resemblance to the system crafted by the famous 16th Century English magician Doctor John Dee and his seer Edward Kelley. The system Tregillis describes works very well within the context of the novel – and the idea of ‘negotiating’ with Demons and the ‘blood price’ that must be paid for such congress is great! – but if you’re going to co-opt the name of an existing system you should use something resembling that system or call it something else.

This is a nit-pick though, and many readers will neither know nor care about the methods and intricacies Enochian magic.

Now, it might seem from some of the above that I didn’t like Bitter Seeds. That I wouldn’t recommend it to other readers. This is not so at all! For a first novel, Bitter Seeds is generally a ripping read with some first rate ideas. It isn’t a bad novel… just an uneven one. But in the end, the good out-weighs the bad. I mean, Nazis with scientific super powers versus British Warlocks conjuring almost Lovecraftian demons… what’s not to love about that?