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: 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: SHADOW STAINED by Rachel Hobbs

Book Reviews

This is a first for me – a paranormal romance review! Granted, I didn’t know SHADOW STAINED was a paranormal romance when I started reading – if I had known there’s an almost zero percent chance I would have picked it up – but actually, I’m kinda glad I did. And I know there’s some folks who read my reviews that do read a bunch in this genre and for you folks I think there’s a lot to like in this book.

Shadow-Stained is the very dark story of Ruby and Drayvex. Ruby is a city girl cooped up in the small town of Crichton, forced to move there after her mother suffers a debilitating injury in her former job as a police officer. She unwittingly attracts the attention of Drayvex, who recognises her necklace and family heirloom as a stone of power that protects the wearer from being harmed. Unfortunately for Ruby, Drayvex happens to be the king of the fucking underworld and wants nothing more than to obtain the stone to cement his rule over the rest of demonkind forevermore. This being a romance story, the two of them develop a connection that causes both of them some pretty drastic problems as the book progresses and a rival demon lord attempts to take control of the stone – and is willing to unleash all kinds of horrors to do it.

The first major disclaimer I’d start with is this is a dark book. It’s pretty twisted and fucked up in places, so if you’re looking for a fluffy, cutesy romance story this isn’t it. However, if you want to explore the darker side of relationships then this book is for you. I’ve described this story as a romance because that’s how it came across to me, but honestly this story subverts a lot of the conventions of the genre. I don’t read a lot of romance, but I think I’m right in thinking that generally you’re supposed to root for the folks to end up together after all their trials and tribulations. But I absolutely did not want Ruby and Drayvex to end up together. Drayvex is a fucking psychopath. Of course he is, he’s a demon. He doesn’t give a shit about Ruby at the start of the book, all he wants is her stone to grant him immortality in his megalomaniac thirst for power. He murders people. Frequently. In cold blood without a second thought, just for kicks. He treats her like shit for most of the book and actually exhibits the traits of an abuser quite a lot of the time. Honestly I thought he was detestable and I wanted Ruby to get as far away from him as possible.

I clearly got into the story and the characters much more than I expected to because I developed some quite strong feelings about them. I remember thinking to myself at one point that Ruby has a pretty severe case of Stockholm Syndrome and there were several instances where I literally shouted at Ruby for her (what seemed to an outsider looking in as) objectively terrible decisions. I don’t know if this was the author’s intention, but I frequently found myself thinking about people in abusive relationships who know their partner is hurting them but find themselves unable to leave regardless. Either because they love them despite the abuse, or think deep down there’s something redeemable that just needs to be brought to the surface, or any other number of reasons. Either way, this is the parallel I drew as Ruby and Drayvex’s relationship developed. It’s not healthy and I just wanted Ruby to walk away from it at every stage.

Despite not being the kind of thing I usually read, Shadow Stained is a very interesting book. It’s certainly not a standard paranormal romance story, and even though I’ve called it romance throughout this review I’m still a bit iffy on categorising it as such because it doesn’t conform to all those conventions. No spoilers, but the ending isn’t really a Happy Ever After and I spent the book actively rooting against the two main characters getting together. For me this is probably what made it interesting; if it was a bog standard Will They Won’t They But You Know In The End They Will type story I would have been bored out of my mind, but Rachel Hobbs offers up something different that, while definitely not for everyone (especially if you are looking for a nice HEA), upends the conventions and offers a lot to think about while telling an entertaining story.

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Review: UNDER THE PENDULUM SUN by Jeannette Ng

Book Reviews

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Imagine if Charlotte Brontë had dropped a shit ton of acid and wrote Jane Eyre in the middle of a really bad trip and you’ve pretty much got the gist of Under the Pendulum Sun. One of the most unsettling, eerily atmospheric and DARKEST of dark fantasies I’ve ever read, this is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

But I warn you, it is DARK.

It is twisted.

It’s an alluring and claustrophobic nightmare.

It’s the fucking best.

The book takes place in the 19th century and tells the story of Catherine Helstone, whose missionary brother Laon has gone missing in Arcadia, the mystical land of the fae, while trying to convert them to Christianity. Catherine makes the perilous journey to Arcadia only to find herself alone and isolated within the sinister house of Gethsemane while waiting for news of Laon’s whereabouts. We soon discover there’s more to the story however, and what follows is a deeply disturbing tale of guilt, absolution and a chilling take on the fae as cruel, spiteful and magically sinister beings.

The pace is deliberately slow for most of the book and Jeannette uses that to great effect to increasingly add layers to an ever more menacing atmosphere as the story progresses and the mysteries intensify. At every point during the book I was actively asking myself what the fuck was going on.

Where is Laon?

What is Miss Davenport hiding?

What the hell does Queen Mab want?

The questions, the atmospheric world building, the claustrophobia of Gethsemane all combine to make you feel (and I mean really feel) Catherine’s increasing sense of helplessness and spiral into despair.

Despite its obviously fantastical nature, Arcadia is a grounded and well-researched creation. The pendulum sun that gives the book its name doesn’t sit at the centre of a heliocentric solar system, it’s literally a pendulum that swings from side to side across the sky. Jeannette wrote a fascinating article about the science behind this and the lengths she went to to research it.

And a lot of research clearly went into this book. Every chapter begins with passages from real nineteenth century texts, including academic treatises and religious tracts. Some have been amended by the author to account for a world where the fae are real and Jeannette seriously demonstrates her skill as a writer and historian here, fully adopting the vernacular and writing style of the original authors to the point that I couldn’t tell which bits were real and which weren’t.

All told, Under the Pendulum Sun is an incredible dark fantasy and Jeannette Ng fully deserves every ounce of recognition she’s received. You know a book is off the scale good when you close it and just stare at the wall questioning everything you thought you knew about existence.

So yeah, go pick this up now and just send me a thank you note at 3:00am when the nightmares wake you up.

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