Category Archives: horror

Review of Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds stands out as one of my favorite novels so far this year.  To be fair, it’s probably not everybody’s cup of hot arterial blood, but if you like your novels down-and-dirty, pedal-to-the-metal, and still thought-provoking, you can’t miss with this novel.  I’d say it’s actually more horror than “urban fantasy” – it has more in common with the novels of Joe Hill and Gary A. Braunbeck than it does with those of Charles De Lint and Neil Gaiman – but wherever it gets shelved in the store, this is one feisty mofo that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you till you pee yourself.  Seriously, folks, if you like your fiction dark and weird, you need to read this book.

Still don’t believe me?  Here’s seven reasons you’re gonna love this book:

The Cover – I mean, come on!  Have you looked at this thing?  Angry Robot not only publishes awesome books, they adorn them with the magnificent covers they deserve.  Wendig must have come in his pants when he saw this thing the first time.

The Premise – Wrestling with the question of fate versus freewill is as ancient as the Greeks and as timeless as Shakespeare, but you’ll notice that we’ve never actually solved this particular problem.  Add in a protagonist who can foresee the future, and you’ve got all the working materials of classic myth. Wendig makes these old conundrums fresh with his lively prose and his knack for contemporary grit.

The Prose – This author can flat out write.  There’s nary a wasted word in the novel.  The nouns sing brightly and the athletic verbs leap from the page.  Ray Bradbury would have loved Wendig’s effervescent prose style.  You will too.

The Protagonist – Miriam Black is the most troubled, sexiest, spookiest clairvoyant you ‘d ever hope to meet in a novel.  Her struggles with her gift/curse and the problems it causes her in relation to others makes Miriam a girl you’d never want to meet in real life, but vicariously through a book, her character is as compelling as they come.

Rampant, Gleeful Mayhem – From midnight strolls along the interstate, to bar room brawls, to visits from thuggish people carrying FBI badges, you never know what’s going to happen from one page to the next.  This ups the ante in the fate versus freewill contest because Miriam has already seen the deaths of anyone she’s touched.  And fate always wins, right?

Wendig’s Dirty Mouth – Chuck Wendig has more fun with creative obscenity than anyone I’ve read since early Stephen King.  Who else would have the writerly balls to pop out with insults like “fuckpie” and a nameless character referred to as Gray Pubes.  Again, this book is clearly not for everyone, but if you’re going to use dirty words at least make them interesting.  Wendig does.

Mockingbird – If there’s anything better than reading a great book you don’t want to end, it’s knowing that a sequel is already in the works.  Even more awesome than that is knowing you don’t have to wait a whole year.  The next title in this series is slated for release in September 2012.  You can bet I’ll be snagging mine the week it comes out.

Quibbles?  Yeah, I’ve got a few.  I always do, but I’ll spare you hearing about them.  The scale firmly tips in favor of this novel.

Blackbirds easily earns five out of five stars.

Why are you still sitting there?  Go get a copy of this book and start reading it.

Advertisements

Review of Dead Harvest by Chris F. Holm

Okay, so I know you can’t judge a book by its cover, but before launching into an assessment of the novel per se, let’s pause to admire the artistry that went into designing the cover of this paperback original.  Angry Robot has been publishing quite a number of interesting novels lately and they’ve all had great covers, but they outdid themselves with the jacket for Chris F. Holm’s Dead Harvest.  The stark blue and white vintage look works very nicely on its own, but they’ve gone one step further by making the cover look smudged and time-worn.  That’s awesome.

That said, the novel housed within very nearly lives up to the pure aesthetic joy of the cover.  Almost, but not quite.  To be clear, Dead Harvest is a fast fun read with plenty of lively action sequences.  Imagine a bodiless Jack Reacher finding himself in a cross-over episode between Joss Whedon’s Angel and the old comedy-drama series Dead Like Me.  For fans of hard-boiled supernatural fiction like that of Jim Butcher and company, this is definitely one of the better books you’ll read this year.  Holm’s full-length debut, the first in his series of Collector novels, introduces us to Sam Thornton, an eternally-damned yet still-ethical soul collector.  This book is a thrill ride and I enjoyed it immensely, but there’s a “but” and I’ll get to that in a minute.

Doomed to do the dirty work of collecting souls of the damned for his mysterious and angelically mesmerizing overseer Lilith, our hero Sam finds himself on the run after he’s sent to collect the soul of a young murderess and fails in his mission because touching her pure soul convinces him there’s been some terrible mistake in the bureaucratic offices of the great beyond.  Either that, or it’s a frame up job and whoever’s pulling the strings is trying to cause the end of the world by having an innocent soul sent to hell.  The smart money’s on the latter as demons and angels alike start cranking up the pressure on Sam to comply with his orders.  Or else.  By the way, the thuggish angels are an especially wonderful touch here.

Other than his hard-boiled attitude and his impeccable morals, Sam’s best weapon is his ability to shift around and inhabit bodies of the recently deceased, or crowd into and commandeer the body of a living person.  Unfortunately, one of the ringers the powers that be send in to clean up Sam’s mess has this same ability.  I know, this sounds confusing, but it’s actually great fun in the novel.  And to Holm’s credit, the reader never gets lost during all this body jumping.

But – ah, you knew that was coming – for all the shoot-’em-ups and narrow escapes from certain doom, Dead Harvest seems to lack moral weight.  Perhaps this is a quibble to ask for ethical substance from an “entertainment” but I don’t think so, especially since we’re asked to imagine we’re on the front lines of an epic war between good and evil.  The quasi-Christian mythology seems somewhere on the spectrum between Milton’s Paradise Lost and Whedon’s Buffy universe, but Dead Harvest never pauses the shoot outs and chase sequences long enough to give all this action the ethical dimensions that would make this novel live up to its titular allusion to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.  Hammett never wrote about angels and demons, but he wrote about real moral dilemmas.

True, Sam’s backstory, told throughout the novel in italicized flashback sequences, attempts to give the action hero more depth, but ultimately it never manages to give him or his actions quite the moral dimension we’re expecting.  Holm has turned up the volume, but doing so actually flattens the moral affect.  These angels and demons seem like the larger-than-life figures in a riff-heavy speed metal song.  Just like anybody, I’ll crank up the stereo when a Judas Priest song comes on, but when the song is over I don’t find myself wondering about the ethics of “Breaking the Law.”

Of course I do want more.  Can’t wait for The Wrong Goodbye.  I expect these adventures will get better and better.

Four stars out of five.