Review: CARRIE, SALEM’S LOT & THE SHINING by Stephen King

Book Reviews

Ok so a while ago I mentioned I was embarking on a project to read Stephen King’s entire back catalogue in order. I’m making very slow progress to be honest, other shiny books keep capturing my attention and keeping me from moving forward. I have read his first few though, and instead of writing full reviews for every King book I read (cos that guy has wrote a lot of books) I’m gonna do mini reviews three at a time. Here’s what I thought of the first three King books.



CARRIE
King’s debut novel revolves around Carrie White, an unpopular friendless misfit and bullied high-school girl from an abusive religious household, who uses her newly discovered telekinetic powers to exact revenge on those who torment her. I started this with little idea of what to expect writing wise. I’d seen the film before, so I knew the story, but this was my first foray into King’s fiction, and from the reputation the guy has I assumed this was going to be a great read. In the end, it was fine. A decent enough read at the time but hardly memorable, with some bits I thought just didn’t work. It’s a very raw book and is unrelenting in examining how cruel people can be and in the end is a sad tale of the tragic consequences of torment and revenge. Special mention to Carrie’s mother Margaret, who is a genuinely great character. A religious fanatic with a very difficult history, a woman full of bitterness and self-loathing that she projects onto her daughter in the most appallingly abusive ways. She’s a detestable woman, but someone with a wretched past that manifests itself in ways that you can abhor, but definitely understand. I didn’t get why this was an epistolary novel though? It added nothing to the story and distracted me quite a lot from what was going on. Also, having read King’s book On Writing before this, where he laments that ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’, I’m just saying there sure are a lot of adverbs in this book…

SALEM’S LOT
Salem’s Lot on the other hand is a much better story. It centre’s on main character Ben Mears, a writer who returns to his hometown to discover that many of the town’s residents are becoming vampires. Aside from having two deeply sinister villainous characters in Kurt Barlow and his ‘business partner’ Richard Straker, Salem’s Lot excels at pulling back the curtain on the dark, depraved lives people lead behind closed doors. The vampire story is good, but it’s the examination of this dark side of the people who live in Salem’s Lot that really made this story work for me. My main criticism is that King had a tendency to ramble on at times, a tendency I would soon discover was not, unfortunately, a one-off.

THE SHINING
The Shining centres on the life of Jack Torrance, a struggling writer and recovering alcoholic who accepts a position as the off-season caretaker of the historic Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. His family accompanies him on the job, including his young son Danny Torrance, who possesses ‘the shining’, a psychic ability that allows him to see the hotel’s horrific past. Before long a winter storm leaves the family isolated and the supernatural forces inhabiting the hotel start affecting Jack’s sanity, putting his wife and son in terrible danger. While I found Carrie a bit meh, and Salem’s Lot good-but-rambly, The Shining was the first time I was truly impressed by King. Watching Jack’s slow descent into menacing insanity, haunted by his past and the consequences of his alcoholism, was a distressing and unnerving experience and there were points in this book where I was genuinely fearful.


Since finishing these books I’ve also read The Stand (and have actually already read and reviewed Pet Sematary, way out of order) and hope to move on to The Dead Zone soon. I’m in two minds about whether to include his novels written under his pseudonym ‘Richard Bachman’, but at the moment I’m leaning towards ‘yes’, so there’s a decent chance I’ll also read Rage and The Long Walk before that. Anyway, I’ve been saying I’d start on this project proper for a while now, so I’m glad I’ve finally begun!


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Review: THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS by Stephen Graham Jones

Book Reviews

THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Described as a tale of revenge, cultural identity and the cost of breaking from tradition, it follows four Native American men who are tracked and hunted by a malevolent entity after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives, leaving them helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way.



I’ll tell you what I loved about this book, and that’s the superb characterisation and atmospheric tension-building. Lewis, Gabe and Cass are such real characters. They’re no saints, they’re deeply flawed in many ways and yet they’re fundamentally good, worthy people. There’s an almost twisted slice-of-life vibe to the first part of the book where we’re invited into Lewis’ life as a postal worker, meet his partner, friends and his dog while slowly watching him psychologically unravelled by the weight of his guilt. One of my favourite things about this book is that for a long time I couldn’t tell if there was anything supernatural going on at all or whether this was more of a psychological horror about the effects of guilt, remorse and the lengths people can go to in their search for redemption. The truth is it’s both, and for me great horror writers are the ones who are able to tell a story about the human experience while tying it up in some aspect of otherworldliness. I realise that sounds pretentious as anything haha, but when you dissect good horror I think that’s what it is, and Jones excels at it.

There’s a fair amount of gruesome violence and I’d forgive you for rolling your eyes and dismissing this book if I was to describe it as slasher revenge horror, and it kind of is, except that it’s also very smart and doesn’t resemble any of the tropey mess that makes up the core of that genre. Instead there’s genuine tension and palpable fear, uncertainty is instilled in the minds of both the reader and the characters and the result is a story that feels both vibrant and unnerving. It’s a book whose premise is deeply-rooted in Native American history, mythology and culture and while I was unfamiliar with most of these references prior to reading the book, it was still accessible enough to someone as ignorant as I am to still grasp how important this culture is to the characters and still feel compelled by the plot. In fact one of the strongest parts of this story was the complicated relationship the characters have with their own culture and is a major theme of the book.

The Only Good Indians is a strange book with a unique writing style that worked for me in some ways but did leave me confused in others. It’s an unsettling horror book and there’s this combination of colloquial, but also disjointed, prose that’s pretty darn masterful at keeping you simultaneously comfortable and close to the characters and yet really on edge the whole fucking time. Having finished the book I can absolutely see what Jones was doing with his storytelling and I appreciate his skill in pulling it off (it’s actually quite impressive from a craft perspective) but sometimes it took a lot of work to keep on top of and there was more than one occasion where I had to skip back a few pages to make sure I knew what was happening. I went into this book knowing nothing about the author, or even a great deal about the plot, and just wasn’t prepared for how unorthodox the writing would be, so I’d say if you’re into unsettling horror with some pretty gruesome violence you should read The Only Good Indians, but be aware going in that you’re just gonna have to roll with the weirdness at times and accept it and I think you’ll get a lot more out of it that way. Overall an unnerving, challenging book with lots of smart things to say about the development of indigenous culture.


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Review: THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING by Alexis Henderson

Book Reviews

First off you can’t tell me you looked at that cover without wanting to drop whatever you’re doing and charge through the doors of the nearest bookshop to demand they sell you a copy right now. I mean I guess you could, but I wouldn’t believe you, cos it’s actually not possible. That daguerreotype picture, the gold lettering, the fucking blood splatter. Don’t let anyone tell you covers don’t sell books; I was hooked on this well before I knew anything about the plot or the author. And a good thing too, cos THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING might well turn out to be one of my top books this year!



It’s the story of Immanuelle Moore, a young mixed race woman in the puritanical settlement of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law and women are expected to be meek and obedient. Her white mother’s union with a black ‘outsider’ has cast her once proud family into disgrace and rumours of her ancestors consorting with the witches of the Darkwood cause many to look on Immanuelle with fear and suspicion. When a chance mishap forces her into the depths of the woods and she finds herself face to face with those same witches, Immanuelle begins to confront why her mother chose to consort with them, while uncovering even darker secrets surrounding the prophets and the stifling theocracy that rules over Bethel.

I expected this book to be dark, but I didn’t expect it to be this dark. There’s a lot of troubling themes explored, from severe misogyny and racism, to paedophilia and sexual assault. Like the best horror stories, it shows us that the most disturbing things that can happen to us are all to real and are committed not by witches and monsters, but by people and the oppressive systems that rule over our lives. I really came to despise the Prophet and his egomaniacal lust for power, but what this book did well was put him in context; he’s the result of a social system that places people like him beyond reproach and all others (but especially women, and even more especially, black women) as subject to his whims and desires, dressed up though they are in the words of holy scripture.

Opposed to this it would have been easy to root for Immanuelle regardless, but Alexis Henderson didn’t take anything for granted. Immanuelle is everything. I’d probably die on a pyre myself to save her from all the shit she goes through in this book (and reader, she wades through a ton of shit). She’s a mixed race woman in a white society that quite literally frames whiteness as all that is good and holy, and blackness as cursed and evil; she’s a woman in a violently patriarchal society, where men can take as many wives as they wish (literally carving sigils into their wives foreheads to display ownership) while women are subjected to corporal punishment for the crime of ‘tempting’ men into indiscretions. Despite this, Immanuelle is strong-willed and refuses to be entirely ground down by her oppressive environment. She’s still very much a part of her society though and conforms to most of the strict customs demanded of her. Henderson does a phenomenal job of portraying the contradictory push and pull of these two forces shaping Immanuelles’s actions and changing views of the world as she navigates through the story and, for me, that was one of the most compelling parts of this book.

And what is any horror story without a hefty dose of atmosphere? Henderson absolutely nails this. From the oppressive puritanical land of Bethel, to the Darkwood with its legends of witches and missing children, to the horrifying effects of the plagues that promise to be unleashed should Immanuelle fail to defeat the power of the vengeful witches of the wood. I was honestly pretty well freaked out at parts of this story, it was really bloody disturbing actually. It’s a tale built on tropes we’re very familiar with, but Henderson wields them with such power and skill that they buzz with a seemingly uncontrolled energy that fills your imagination with horror and anger and hope all at once, finally building to a crescendo that floored me stone dead. And when I say that I mean I was listening to the audiobook on my walk to work and literally stopped in my tracks, standing stock still, mouth hanging wide at the nightmare that was unfolding before me.

THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING is utterly compelling, horrifying and knows exactly what it wants to say and doesn’t flinch at saying it. It explores some very difficult topics with a deft skill that still doesn’t shirk from laying bare the injustice and abuse of power on show. And it’s all told in a perfectly-paced story that sticks the knife in at just the right moment, lets you rest, think you might be ok and then twists that fucker in again. Alexis Henderson is a wonderful writer and, given that this is her debut novel, I’ll no doubt be reading everything she publishes forevermore.


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Review: BAPTISM OF FIRE (The Witcher #3) by Andrzej Sapkowksi

Book Reviews

Ah, feels good returning to my poorly-written guilty pleasures haha. I’ve had complicated feelings about The Witcher books so far. They’re not very good and I wouldn’t for a second recommend anyone actually read them, but I sort of enjoy them regardless. I dunno, they just have a kind of raggedy charm, like an old scabby dog that just wants to be your friend. Having read the two short story collections and the first two novels, how did number three fare?



Not as entertaining as the first two novels unfortunately, though still enjoyably shit. At the end of Time Of Contempt all hell broke loose and I was ready for things to kick up a gear in BAPTISM OF FIRE, with lots of intricate kingdom politics and armies on the move, scheming mages conniving behind closed doors, and Geralt maybe finally becoming…interesting? We get some of this in a very patchwork sort of way, but what I really got struck by was just how much the pace of this book slooowed everything the fuck down. Like too much. Geralt actually just spends most of his time being injured, slowly trying to make his way to Nilfgaard in pursuit of Ciri, though meeting quite the colourful cast of characters along the way which, admittedly, was very enjoyable.

First he meets Milva, a baller archer who stalks the forests of Brokilon. She’s not very interesting actually but we do get an absolute treat when Sapkowski uses her knowledge of archery to give us a much-too-long lesson on composite bow craftsmanship. It was totally self-indulgent and absurd but I lived and loved and laughed while reading it. Anyway, she joins the party for this book and decides to travel with Geralt. Obviously Dandelion turns up, everyone’s favourite misogynist (I’m still bitter about his antics in the short stories), as well as a medicine man harbouring a dark secret who becomes an unlikely ally. My favourite addition to the troupe though was the dwarf, Zoltan Chivay, and his band of mercenaries, who provide some good old rollickin’ humour.

Ciri, meanwhile, is absolutely nowhere near where Geralt thinks she is, having made a home for herself with the notorious group of brigands known as The Rats. I really like the direction Ciri’s story has forked off in, it’s far from the noble hero coming to the rescue of the helpless princess; for one thing Geralt is totally mistaken as to her whereabouts, so he’s actually not coming to rescue her at all, but also Ciri trained to be a witcher herself and, despite being a politically-important princess, is becoming quite a brutal criminal on the fringes of society. I really can’t tell where her story is going, but I’m intrigued to find out.

The part of this book I found disappointing though was the newly-formed Lodge of Sorceresses. Philippa Eilhart founds The Lodge after leading the coup against The Brotherhood of Sorcerors. The idea itself is amazing. A disparate group of female mages from conflicting sides of the nascent war coming together to set aside their political allegiances and elevate the cause of magic above the interests of petty kingdoms. It has so much potential for the various members to be distrustful of one another, for backstabbing, fear of backstabbing and all the conflict that could arise with it. All this conflict actually does play out but it’s made very difficult to buy into because Philippa Eilhart just straight up tells all the members her plans before they even know why the first meeting has been called and (crucially) before they’ve agreed not to go straight back to their respective kingdoms and spill the beans to the various kings. It made no sense! None, not a bit. Throughout all these scenes I was left scratching my head about whether I was missing some vital piece of the puzzle that allowed all this to make sense. I’ve read enough Sapowski now though to know I probably wasn’t haha.

You know what though, I still enjoyed this book despite its many flaws. There’s a big part of me that wishes I could read Polish cos I can’t shift the feeling that a lot of my criticisms of this series stem from translation issues. Not all, but certainly a sizeable chunk. Regardless, I’m gonna carry on reading these books to the bitter end; they’ve got a hold on me that I can’t quite shake. I enjoy them, even though they’re a bit shit, and I’m quite happy with that 😀


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Review: GOLDILOCKS by Laura Lam

Book Reviews

The Earth is in environmental collapse. The future of humanity hangs in the balance. But a team of women are preparing to save it. Even if they’ll need to steal a spaceship to do it. The elevator pitch for this book perked me up instantly. Imminent climate catastrophe, a crack team of all female astronauts and grand theft auto on an interstellar scale? I’m in. Sadly, this story just didn’t end up pulling me in. Usually if I don’t enjoy a book it’s because I think the writing is bad or the characters are two dimensional, some craft reason I can point to and say here’s is why I this book isn’t good. With Goldilocks though, I don’t even think it’s a bad book; it just didn’t work for me. Let me try and pick apart why.



First off I just didn’t get the narrative structure right off the bat. The book opens far after the events of the main plot line of the book have taken place, with the main character, Naomi Lovelace, in the throes of old age, finally relenting to tell the full story of her life to her daughter, who is ostensibly the narrator. I’m not against that in principle, but it felt so out of place here given that the rest of the story is just told in close third person from Naomi’s perspective and there’s no more reference to this narrative device until the final chapter, when whoops, we’re reminded again that this was Naomi’s daughter telling the story all along. I just found it incredibly jarring and pointless. On top of that, just before we dive into the main story, there’s the old “We’ll start at the beginning” line, except it’s really not the beginning at all because the story proceeds to jump back in time again to many years prior. Look, I love a good non-linear story as much as the next guy and think it would still have worked well here, if it wasn’t for the first chapter that just made everything afterwards feel weird to me.

Another unfortunate aspect of the story being told via an intermediary and far removed in time from the events of the story was that I just didn’t feel connected to what was happening from the get go. There are other books that have done this well (Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune does it masterfully) but for me Laura Lam just didn’t quite manage it. I actually think I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if I hadn’t immediately been thrown off in the first few chapters.

That being said, the content of the plot and the detail of the world building was super interesting. From massive sea walls off the coast of California to slow the rising sea levels to state-mandated mask-wearing (ahem) to protect against air pollution and from vat-grown babies to an operational Alcubierre drive to achieve FTL travel, there’s a lot going on in the background of this story. Some of it is done well and I appreciated the detail, but parts also felt a bit too hasty and left me feeling a bit unsatisfied with what could have been explored. But hey, Laura for sure knew what story she wanted to tell and it’s not objectively bad that she devoted more time to exploring the parts she wanted to explore. The one thing I felt really did deserve more attention was just how the women managed to steal a fucking spaceship without anyone noticing or being able to stop them in time. Launching a shuttle isn’t like hotwiring a car, that shit’s gotta take time and set off all kinds of instruments and technological gadgets that’s gonna alert someone. It’s kind of waved away as AI took care of all the stuff required for launch which, ok fine, it’s a plot device and there’d be no story if these guys got busted before getting the shuttle off the ground. I just felt, given how much detail was put into other aspects of the story, this part felt a bit too rushed and hand-wavy.

I think an inevitable repercussion of having a wobbly start with a book is that it makes you less forgiving of other minor things you may have otherwise been more forgiving of. Psychologically it means that once you’re a bit down on it from the start, it’s much harder for the story to dig itself back out of the hole and get you back on track. I’m consciously aware of that, which is why I would still recommend this book to certain people despite not really enjoying it myself. Comps for this book have described it as The Handmaids Tale meets The Martian and that sounds pretty darn accurate and, while I personally just didn’t manage to gel with it, I think if you’re looking for a bit of a dark, feminist, near-future science fiction story there’s definitely a lot to like in here for you.


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Review: MEXICAN GOTHIC by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Book Reviews

It’s Mexico, 1950s. Noemí Taboada receives a letter from her recently-married cousin, claiming her husband is poisoning her and that she hears voices in the walls of the dilapidated, isolated family mansion they’ve removed to. Noemí agrees to travel to the mansion, aptly named High Place, up in the hills and abandoned silver mines of Triunfo. There Noemí discovers her cousin is certainly not herself and the family she’s married into harbour sinister secrets and a murky past that she must uncover, or she may never leave the house at all.



MEXICAN GOTHIC has solidified the gothic genre as a new found love for me. I read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein many years ago and just didn’t get it (looking back I fundamentally misunderstood it I think) so it wasn’t until I picked up Jeannette Ng’s dark gothic fantasy Under The Pendulum Sun last year that I read anything remotely like it again. I loved that book and I’m so grateful for it, because otherwise I wouldn’t have paid much attention to this book when it came out – and MEXICAN GOTHIC turned out to be an absolute dread-inducing delight.

Moreno-Garcia’s writing is a master class in invoking a claustrophobic, paranoid feeling in the reader’s mind, expertly mirroring Noemí’s spiral towards an increasingly sinister and surreal Stockholm Syndrome under the roof of High Place and its ageing eugenicist patriarch, Howard Doyle. The setting is just as much a character as the people in it and the writing gives the house a menacing and confining aura whose presence weighs on you throughout the story. So much so that in the brief interludes when Noemí manages to escape to visit the nearby town, I could practically feel myself breathing easier, as if I’d been almost suffocated the whole time she was stuck between the watchful gaze of the walls of High Place. Moreno-Garcia uses language in clever ways to invoke this feeling. When Noemí is walking the darkened corridors she feels she is being watched by the family portraits and Moreno-Garcia uses active verbs to make us feel it with her. This is the kind of writing that sets good writers apart from great ones; knowing how to manipulate language to invoke the feelings of your characters in the reader is something that makes me sit up and take notice.


There was a woman, her hands tightly held in her lap, her light hair pinned up, who regarded Noemí with large eyes from her picture frame.


Noemí tried to think of the house filled with the noise of children’s laughter, children playing hide and seek, children with a spinning top or ball between their hands. But she couldn’t. The house would not have allowed such a thing. The house would have demanded they spring from it fully grown.


The book is also littered with allusions to real life classics of gothic literature, including Shelley’s Frankenstein as well as Jayne Eyre and Wuthering Heights. I’ve never read Jayne Eyre, but I’m still familiar with the story and themes simply through a process of cultural osmosis and from that limited baseline I think Mexican Gothic takes a lot of inspiration from Charlotte Brontë’s social commentary on feminism, sexuality and class and updates it for the twenty-first century, yet still makes the themes relevant when the story itself is set in the 1950s. I don’t know if this was a deliberate theme of the book, but it felt to me it was saying that, despite the social advances in intervening years, women still put up with a lot of the same shit that decades of ingrained sexism has instilled in society. There’s a lot of overt sexism in the book, from Virgil Doyle pronouncing that Catalina is his wife and he decides whether she leaves High Place or not, even when her mental well being is at stake, but also a lot of subtle social interactions that highlight the myriad ways men interact with women in belittling or dismissive ways. For instance, Virgil making a slightly inapproapriate comment with sexual undertones that makes Noemí uncomfortable and yet she doesn’t say anything “because it wasn’t really that bad of a comment, a few words, and she didn’t wish to start a fight in the middle of a dark hallway over what amounted to almost, but not quite, nothing”.

I particularly liked the book’s exploration of class and how wealth and ownership is such a massive instrument for the wealthy to lever their power. The Doyle family historically owned the defunct silver mines in the hills around High Place and an important sub-plot in the family’s history is their repression of a labour strike when the miners downed tools amidst an epidemic that was killing a large proportion of the workers (seems particularly apt now, in the Covid era where some sections of workers are rediscovering their power by going on strike in protest at lack of protective equipment). This element of the story highlights the racism and white supremacy of the ruling class in post-independence Mexico. Howard Doyle is particularly overt in his racism and passion for eugenics and doesn’t mind Noemí knowing it. There’s even some dark humour in parts of the book when Noemí wonders if he keeps a pair of calipers to measure his guests’ skulls. The Doyle family are particularly hung up on the Mexican Revolution, which they lament as taking everything from them, despite their continued exploitation of Mexican workers to profit from the riches of the silver mine.

There’s a lot of great social commentary in this book and the writing is superb, but the plot and character relationships are also top notch. The slow burn unravelling of the story, the Doyle family’s sordid, shady history and Noemí’s relationship with Francis, the one seemingly-decent member of the Doyle family all weave together to tell such a compelling, eery story that on many occasions had me shuddering and mouthing oh my god at the sheer creepiness of it all. It’s paced so perfectly and I’m awed by how natural it felt that a story beginning with a young socialite leaving a party in Mexico City ended up in the utterly messed up place it did. MEXICAN GOTHIC is excellent and a solid recommendation from me.


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Reading Update 09/09/2020

Book Reviews

Recently Finished: MEXICAN GOTHIC by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
I pre-ordered Mexican Gothic months ago, was so excited the day it came out and predictably, in true book blogger fashion, only just got round to it this weekend gone. Mortified I waited so long though cos it’s so good! Creepy and atmospheric and weeeird, it’s only the second book I can claim to have read in the gothic genre after being wonderfully horrified and disturbed by Jeanette Ng’s Under The Pendulum Sun, so I can’t claim to be well-versed or steeped in the genre, but this felt like an inspired take. I’m really keen on reading some of the inspirational material, like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, to get a real appreciation of gothic storytelling and its modern iterations. The slow, atmospheric building of dread in these stories is something I’ve realised I really love.

Currently Reading: GOLDILOCKS by Laura Lam
This is a book that has such a cool-sounding premise. A group of female astronauts steal a spaceship after the mission is taken from them by a Handmaids Tale-esque government and head to the first practically habitable exo-planet to establish a new society. Sadly I feel like it’s not living up to expectations so far. It’s not a bad book per se, it’s just not really grabbing me you know? I’m also having some major issues with the politics of the book, in that it so far it’s seemed to advocate the if only we had more female CEOs brand of feminism, which is just utter trash. It’s possible I’m misguided about that though, cos I’ve just reached a point where the direction of the story has taken a sharp turn and might actually be about to pull me in. Let’s see eh?

Next Read: THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING by Alexis Henderson
Aaaarghhh! I’m really in the mood for creepy horror stories right now and I’ve been itching to read The Year of the Witching for months. It’s got spooky dark woods, it’s got the legacy of four murdered witches and a puritanical Church with a dark history to unearth, bound up in a story about fighting patriarchy and corruption. I can’t wait!


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Review: RING SHOUT by P. Djèlí Clark

Book Reviews

This book is off the scale magnificent. It’s taken me about ten weeks to feel ready to even try and talk about how much it blew me away, and even now I can feel myself getting overwhelmed by the prospect of trying to do it justice. RING SHOUT tells the story of Maryse Boudreaux, a young black woman who runs bootleg whiskey through prohibition Georgia with her pals Sadie and Chef, respectively a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and veteran WWI Harlem Hellfighter. Oh, and she also fights evil monsters called ‘Ku Kluxes’ with a magic sword that she summons from another dimension. Now if you’re anything like me that right there is enough for you to abandon this review right away to go buy a copy of this book (you should totally do that by the way – every second you’re reading this review is another second you’re not reading RING SHOUT) but there’s so much more to talk about and I need to release the pressure valve cos I feel like my chest has been about to explode with adoration ever since I closed that final page.



Okay okay okay, I can feel myself getting over-excited and this has the potential to become an incoherent stream-of-consciousness squee-fest, so I’m gonna do my best to rein myself in and speak with poise and grace about what makes this book so damn incredible. First off, there’s the over-arching concept of the book. D. W. Griffith was a real life film director who made a notoriously vile, racist film called Birth Of A Nation in 1915; Clark reimagines him here as a sorcerer, and his film a spell that draws power from the racist hatred that is so prevalent in early 20th century America (and let’s be real, in modern day America too). The Klan are the footsoldiers of this movement and have a plan to unleash Hell on Earth. What I love about this concept is that this spell isn’t the cause of the racism portrayed in the book, as can often be the case in some SFF books where the social evil is represented as the result of some outside intervention. In this case it simply feeds on the power of the bigotry that already exists. It doesn’t absolve people of responsibility for their racism. I don’t want to say too much more about this aspect of the story because it’s so tied in with plot development, but trust me when I say that Clark uses this concept and takes it to a truly dark and horrifying conclusion that kept me transfixed from beginning to end.

As a work of art RING SHOUT is superb in every way, but as a story it’s the characters that bring it to life. Maryse is a hero that I just gelled with instantly. She’s a magic-sword-wielding monster hunter who runs bootleg whiskey for eff’s sake, but she’s also a righteous hero and a complicated person who lives, loves and makes mistakes. I loved her comrade-in-arms Chef, a veteran of The Great War whose prized possession is a knife she took from a slain German soldier. The opening chapter takes place in a cotton warehouse and it’s this setting, combined with the object of Chef’s knife, that serves as a poignant reminder that throughout the story that follows, with all its racism and violence against Black people, that it was Black folks who built America and Black folks who also fought and died to defend it. Sadie the sharpshooter is wonderful too. Every single one of Clark’s characters are incredibly well-developed, fully-realised people with so many facets to their personality (a remarkable achievement in the limited word count of a novella by the way) and not one of them fits the caricature of how women (and young Black women in particular) are often represented in stereotypical media portrayals, but I think Sadie, above all, is the best representation of this. She swears, she flirts and she’s a crack shot with a rifle. There’s a great scene where she, Maryse and Chef are driving through town and see a poster for Griffith’s film; Sadie leans out the car window to hurl abuse at it and Maryse’s reaction is simply ‘Can’t say I blame her’. This scene in particular hit me hard because there’s always that argument that’s brought up whenever we talk about historic racism, that ‘times were just different back then, people thought racism was more acceptable’, when what they really mean is white people thought it was acceptable. And this just lays bare who we centre whenever we discuss these things because – shock, horror – there never was a time when Black folks thought racism was acceptable.

As a quick aside, when I started reading P. Djèlí Clark’s books, I wasn’t prepared for the level of dark horror that he incorporates into his fantasy. There’s definite Lovecraftian vibes to his short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo and some quite chilling horror in his associated novella The Haunting of Tram Car 015. His books are often billed as ‘dark fantasy’, and while that’s definitely true, I don’t think it captures the level of horror that’s present in his stories. RING SHOUT takes that to the next level; genres are fickle things, but if you’re going into this thinking it’s just dark fantasy, be aware that horror is absolutely front and centre in this book. Also, since I mentioned Lovecraft, that guy can get fucked but he also wrote some existentially terrifying stories. Gore horror and jump scares can get in the bin, that’s the sort of horror I love; the stuff that leaves you questioning your place in the universe, how you exist and relate to powerful forces you have no control over as an individual. P. Djèlí Clark is the anti-Lovecraft, but also the antidote to Lovecraft because he takes the best of that kind of storytelling and energises it with much more intelligence and talent while challenging the racism that overshadows Lovecraft’s legacy.

As a writer, Clark is exceptional. His prose is crisp and evocative, conjuring up images in your head that draw you so completely into the world of his story in a way that makes everything feel that much more real and visceral. A lot of the time in my reviews I talk about plot, setting, character and themes separately, but I honestly have a hard time doing that here because Clark is a master of having all these elements interplay so gracefully that it’s difficult to untangle them and almost feels like a disservice to do so. While each element on its own is incredibly well done, they weave together into a beautiful tapestry that’s somehow greater than the sum of its parts.

I honestly think P. Djèlí Clark is a genius and, simply put, one of the greatest writers alive right now. He makes my chest swell and bones vibrate in awe at his talent. There’s actually a lot more I want to discuss about RING SHOUT, particularly the politics represented in the book, from Marcus Garvey to the Bolshevik Revolution, because there’s a lot to pick apart and is another aspect of Clark’s storytelling where his intelligence looms large and his understanding of the relations between race, economics and political movements is abundantly clear. This review doesn’t do justice to just how much of a groundbreaking author he is. Long story short, put RING SHOUT at the top of your reading list, I promise you it will be one of the best books you read this year.


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Review: BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED (THE FIRST LAW #2) by Joe Abercrombie

Book Reviews

I’m just gonna say it folks: this book was a big disappointment for me. And that was a big surprise because I enjoyed The Blade Itself a lot. BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED picks up just after the events of the first book, with Sand dan Glokta taking up his position of Superior in the soon-to-be-besieged city of Dagoska; Logen, Bayaz the mage and the rest of gang traipsing off westward on a quest Bayaz is still very cagey about; and Collem West and Threetrees’ crew up north on an inevitable collision course with Bethod’s army. Bear with me here, cos there’s a bunch of story lines and perspectives in this book and I’m gonna do my best to talk about each one, as well as the bits and pieces I liked and disliked about the writing.



So my biggest disappointment in this second book was the sheer amount of lore dumping we’re subjected to, and any scene with Bayaz in it was particularly bad for this. Pretty much any time Bayaz opens his mouth for the first three quarters of this book it’s to vomit out paragraphs upon paragraphs of history about some long-forgotten war or a once-majestic city now fallen into ruin. I’m not against this in principle and a lore dump can be very interesting if done well, but the irksome thing about the way it’s done here is that there’s no reason for anyone to care, because neither we as the reader or the characters really know where they’re going or why, so none of the reams of lore he spews out means anything in the context of their journey. We do get drip fed a bit more detail about what Bayaz is up to as the book progresses, but for me it just felt like I was watching this motley crew of reluctant adventurers going on a very long, pointless walk with no clear reason or motivation for far too much of this book.

Despite that I thought there was some good character development in this story line. I particularly enjoyed seeing Ferro take some tentative steps towards dismantling some of the defensive barriers she’s so far put up around herself, even if it is against her better judgement. Jezal dan Luthar likewise undergoes some noticeable changes in this book. I’ll avoid getting into specifics because spoilers, but the important part is that this progression is written well; I found it very believable that these characters would undergo the changes they did and in the way they did. There are definitely identifiable turning points in their character arcs, but nobody changes their entire personalities overnight because of a single epiphany and even at the end of the book, the core of who they are is still there, even if they’ve noticeably changed in other ways.

I enjoyed Glokta’s story line for the most part. He was my favourite character in the first book and his story is still the most interesting for me. I think that’s just for the simple fact that he rubs shoulders with so many scheming wankers in the upper echelons of Aduan society, all jockeying for power and influence. I love that shit. Even so, I was often disappointed by Abercrombie’s execution of the things that really are low-hanging fruit for me. I don’t think he delved into the gritty, grimy world of the traitors of Dagoska as much as he could have and so much of that ruthless world felt unexplored and I ended up feeling a bit unsatisfied as a result. Hints are made at the end of the book that the scheming, bribing, blackmailing and backstabbing are going to be amped up in the next book, but the execution felt so crude and rudimentary and I just felt disappointed by it. This really is low-hanging fruit for me, an author doesn’t have to try particularly hard for me to love this stuff, but it just didn’t work for me here.

Collem West and the Northmen fight a few battles with Bethod’s army, but this story line was pretty forgettable for the most part. I just didn’t care very much and these were the parts where my attention drifted the most. Except when I got actively frustrated by some of the side characters; mainly Generals Poulder and Kroy who, frankly, are just cartoon characters whose only character traits are that they’re jealous of each other and argue every chance they get. They’re so one-dimensional and cartoonish that whenever they started fighting I just pictured them rolling around Looney Tunes style in a cloud of dust, fists and feet poking out as they scrapped with each other.

There were flashes of things I really loved. I feel like they’re possibly things other people might find a bit weird, but I often find joy in the corners of stories that hint at larger things and one of my favourite sentences in this book takes place when Jezal is changing into an outfit someone has laid out for him; ‘he pulled on the clothes that had been left for him. A fusty-smelling shirt and breeches of an ancient and absurdly unfashionable design’. To me this shows that the world is alive, that fashion exists and that it’s not static, that people have tastes that change over time; that despite all the war and killing and plotting people in this world still think about such mundane things as what clothes are fashionable. This one tiny morsel of world building did so much more for me than the pages and pages of grand monologues from Bayaz about the sweeping histories of fallen empires.

Overall this was a major departure from The Blade Itself. I thought the characters in that first book were vibrant, the writing was engaging and the world was fascinating, but everything that made it so enjoyable was absent in this second instalment. There were aspects of it I liked and some isolated moments I loved, but overall BEFORE THEY ARE HANGED is a shadow of its predecessor. I only hope this was simply a case of Middle Book Syndrome and the final part of the trilogy takes us back to the highs of that first book.


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Review: OF DRAGONS, FEASTS AND MURDERS by Aliette de Bodard

Book Reviews

This is going to be such a fun review to write 🙂 OF DRAGONS, FEASTS AND MURDERS is Aliette de Bodard’s latest addition to her Dominion of the Fallen universe and it contains everything I’ve come to love about her writing. Murder. Intrigue. Much stabbing. And that probably tells you all you need to know about how much I loved this book, but I do have a bit more to say.



Thuan, a bookish dragon prince who relies on wits and diplomacy and Asmodeus, his stabby fallen angel murder bird husband return home for Lunar New Year and are quickly caught up trying to solve a mysterious killing in their own unique ways, while trying (and failing) not to fall foul of the strict rules and customs of a Vietnamese-inspired underwater dragon court. I mean that just ticks so many of my boxes I practically screeched with delight when the book appeared on my Kindle. I think Aliette de Bodard just crafts such an incredibly well-constructed fantastical world and society, replete with its own rigid social structures and customs, with characters who are both shaped by their world and also butt their heads up against it. I’m coming to realise more and more what makes great fiction, and it’s characters who are products of their world but who also react to it and often against it to create tension and dramatic conflict. Fonda Lee’s The Green Bone Saga is another fantastic example of this and, while that style of storytelling is very different to Aliette de Bodard’s books, both authors share that same ability to craft incredibly well-rounded characters who aren’t simply outsiders conceived in a vacuum and dropped into a fictional setting, but actually feel like people truly steeped in the culture and practises of the settings they inhabit.

One of my favourite things about this book is how it highlights the use of language to denote things like uncertainty and social status. I’m not familiar with the Vietnamese language, so this may be taken directly from the structure of Vietnamese culture and linguistics, but there’s a great scene where Thuan is talking to another character, who uses ‘a peculiar tense, something that wasn’t the future but something a great deal more uncertain’. I’m such a nerd for this kind of stuff and it makes me wish I was more familiar with how language is embedded with abstract concepts like uncertainty. Another great moment comes when Thuan deliberately demeans another character through his subtle use of language by deliberately using ‘a pronoun he was entitled to use, but which emphasised Dang Quang’s vastly inferior status’. This is another skill de Bodard shares with Fonda Lee, who is also fabulous at having her characters use these kinds of social cues to assert social power in her fiction.

I also need to take a moment to talk about the absolute power couple that is Thuan and Asmodeus, ’cause these two guys are just instant faves. Bookish dragon prince. Fallen angel murder bird. They’re chalk and cheese, but they couldn’t be more perfect for each other. I haven’t actually read the Dominion of the Fallen novels so it felt like I missed out on some of the inside jokes and history they share but even so, these two have such a blazing chemistry that’s just an absolute joy to watch unfold in all its chaotic triumph. Thuan isn’t too happy about the prospect of having to solve a murder, but Asmodeus is simply thrilled about it and that dichotomy is dramatic, full of tension and also incredibly funny to watch. Thuan’s description of his lover Asmo in the book sums up his character perfectly: “I get it. He’s aggressive and he threatened you and he’s generally very, very unpleasant. But he’s also very difficult to shake off when it comes to the well being of his people”. And that’s Asmodeus. A bit of a dick, but also deep down still very caring. As much as he might not want to admit it. After reading OF DRAGONS, FEASTS AND MURDERS I’m feeling very excited about finally cracking open the trilogy novels and discovering how these two hooked up.

As a final aside, reading this was the first time I became consciously aware of the existence of the ‘fantasy of manners’ subgenre. I mean, clearly I’ve read stuff that falls under this umbrella before (including other Aliette de Bodard books of course), but oh boy am I excited by the prospect of specifically searching out more of these kinds of stories. I did a little research and fantasy of manners stories are basically described as stories where the protagonists aren’t pitted against fierce monsters or marauding armies, but against their neighbours and peers. The action takes place within an often hierarchical society, rather than being directed against an external foe and, while duels may be fought, the chief weapons are wit and intrigue. That’s exactly what OF DRAGONS FEASTS AND MURDERS delivers, and all with that signature de Bodard flair.


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