Thursday, March 23, 2017

#Horror Review: The Tower of Zhaal by C.T. Phipps

Whereas Cthulhu Armageddon was comprised of equal parts horror, science fiction, and weird western, The Tower of Zhaal pushes the first two to the margins, thrusting us head-first into the depths of Lovecraftian horror.

I thought the first book was dark, but C.T. Phipps may as well have stamped "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here" on the cover here and left it that. I mean, this is a book that starts with Booth and Mercury discussing when to kill him (before he turns into a monster); quickly has the party they're guarding slaughtered by cultists (for the sole purpose of getting Booth's attention); and then proceeds to have one of the Old Ones themselves reveal they've already witnessed humanity's end (but, if we're good, we might earn a false paradise in dreamland). At that point, most heroes would say, "Fuck it," throw their arms up in the air, and walk off the nearest cliff. Fortunately, Booth is too stubborn, too angry, and too rebellious to simply accept the fate that the Old One's decree.

If he can't prevent the end of the world, he'll at least ensure we face it on our own terms.

The twist here, compared to the first book, is that it's not just an insanely powerful madman standing in his way, but a heap of Cosmic Horrors as well. The stakes are raised, right from the start, and the sense of doom weighs heavily upon the story. In fact, Phipps introduces a whole new cast of supporting characters here, some of whom are just as memorable as Richard (my favorite supporting character from the first book), and most of whom die just as quickly and unceremoniously a death. He also broadens the world, taking us farther and faster than was previously possible, thanks to time/space warping "technology of the mind" developed under the oversight of the Old Ones at Miskatonic University.

Not surprisingly, this is a story that delves as deep into ethics as it does magic, often questioning whether the end justifies the means, whether the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, and at what cost is survival no longer worth it? Nowhere, though, do those questions weigh more heavily than when Booth and crew pass from the ruins of Insmaw into the subterranean paradise of Shak’ta’hadron . . . and come across Booth's ex-wife. It's not necessarily the most important or exciting part of the story, but it's very much at the heart of what makes such a doom-laden story, fronted by such a gloomy protagonist, still so utterly compelling.

The climax at The Tower of Zhaal is not necessarily bigger than that of the first book, but it is certainly more significant, especially when it involves the words, "We have to summon Cthulhu." I will say no more on that front, but rest assured Phipps isn't merely content to play with the fringes of the Lovecraftian mythos, he's plunging right into its heart.

Kindle Edition, 264 pages
Published January 22nd 2017 by Crossroad Press

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary ARC of this title from the publisher in exchange for review consideration. This does not in any way affect the honesty or sincerity of my review.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Waiting on Wednesday: Owl and the Electric Samurai by Kristi Charish

"Waiting On" Wednesday is a weekly event, hosted by Jill over at Breaking the Spine, that spotlights upcoming releases that we're eagerly anticipating.

Owl and the Electric Samurai by Kristi Charish
Expected publication: May 8th 2017 by Simon & Schuster

The third exciting novel starring the unforgettable antiquities thief Owl—a modern-day “Indiana Jane” who reluctantly navigates the hidden supernatural world. From the pen of rising urban fantasy star Kristi Charish (Owl and the Japanese Circus) and for fans of Kim Harrison, Jim Butcher, Jennifer Estep, Jenn Bennett, and fantasy lovers everywhere.

The International Archaeology Association (IAA) is responsible for keeping all things supernatural under wraps. They’re also responsible for ruining the promising archaeology career of Alix Hiboux, better known as Owl.

Needless to say, Owl’s still a little sore about that.

Just to keep Owl’s life lively, the IAA has opened a bounty on the two designers of World Quest, the online RPG that is much, much more than it seems. Owl needs to locate the notorious gaming duo before the other mercenaries do. But finding the gamers won’t be easy since every clue points to them hiding out in the legendary lost city of Shangri-La. Not to mention that the last time Owl and the game designers spoke, their conversation didn’t exactly end on the best note…

Meanwhile, undercurrents of supernatural politics are running amok in Tokyo, dragging Owl and her friends into a deadly game of wits with an opponent who calls himself the Electric Samurai. The cost of losing? All-out civil war between two powerful supernatural factions.

All in all, just another great day on the job.

Technically, I am no longer waiting, since I nabbed an electronic ARC last week, but I have been looking forward to this. It's such a fun series, mixing urban fantasy with archaeological adventures, and Owl is a fantastic heroine.

Monday, March 20, 2017

#Thriller Review: The Only Child by Andrew Pyper

The Only Child is . . . well, it's a lot of things, and I think that might be the problem. Andrew Pyper weaves what could have been an entirely satisfying gothic horror story, but then dilutes it with the trappings of a contemporary psychological thriller, drags it down with a 'hunter' subplot that's as weak as it is unwanted, and ties it all to a protagonist who loses all appeal after the first few chapters.

Dr. Lily Dominick is introduced as a smart, strong, independent young woman who chooses to confront and catalogue the monsters around us. There's a glimmer of humanity beneath her cool, clinical exterior that engages the reader and draws us is, but it's all too quickly extinguished. Instead, she's reduced to the role of victim, an emotionless pawn who forces the story forward, but about whose fate it's really hard to care.

Michael, the madman and monster at the heart of the tale, is really the only reason to keep reading, but even he wears thin after a while. His backstory is utterly fascinating, a tragic tale of gothic horror that ensnares Shelley, Stevenson, and Stoker, but it's only a small part of the story. Unfortunately, the bulk of the story involves his pursuit of Lily, and while there are some interesting questions there to drive the suspense, his threatening taunts and incestuous sexual innuendo are so over-the-top that he becomes a mockery of the genre. Even worse, their contrived cat-and-mouse game will have you mentally calculating the odds of continually being in the right place, at the right time, to see/hear/find the right thing.

The whole 'gothic' thing is played very well for about the first half of the novel, before it's almost completely forgotten. There are some great set pieces, such as the Kirby Forensic Psychiatric Center and the abandoned asylum in Budapest, but too much of the story takes place in airports, hotels, and tile-floor bathrooms. Similarly, Michael's diaries and journals are utterly fascinating, and really serve to bring the story to life, but then they just disappear. As for the hunter subplot, the story could have done very well without it. Aside from introducing a lame romantic subplot and orchestrating a violent climax that feels out of place for the genre, it never really serves a purpose. It never feels as if Lily is truly threatened by the hunters; we're not given enough detail to ever question (or care) whether they are good or bad; and their pursuit of Michael adds absolutely nothing to his story.

There's a really good gothic horror story buried in The Only Child - unfortunately, it's overwhelmed by a boring contemporary psychological drama and a clichéd procedural thriller. The twist ending (which should come as a surprise to absolutely no one) redeems it somewhat, but by that point it's too little too late.

I won't be so crass as to suggest The Only Child should have been aborted, but it's probably for the best that it doesn't have any siblings.

Paperback, Canadian Export, 304 pages
Expected publication: May 23rd 2017 by Simon & Schuster Canada

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary ARC of this title from the publisher in exchange for review consideration. This does not in any way affect the honesty or sincerity of my review.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

From the Shelf to the Page: This Week in the Ruins

Stacking The Shelves and Mailbox Monday are a pair of weekly memes that are about sharing the books that came your way over the past week, and which you've added to your shelves - whether they be physical or virtual, borrowed or bought, or for pleasure or review.

I'm still trying keep a tight reign on the review pile, knowing that we have a lot of work ahead of us with the move to another city, but I did give in to one request, snagged a sequel I'd been looking forward to, and grabbed a new release (in a new genre) from a fave indie author:

The End Is All We See by by M.F. Wahl & A.J. Brown
Two horrific tales of struggle and loss - a crash landing on an uninhabited planet, and a world where an ice age has driven life underground

Owl and the Electric Samurai by Kristi Charish [May 8th]
The third exciting novel starring the unforgettable antiquities thief Owl—a modern-day “Indiana Jane” who reluctantly navigates the hidden supernatural world

The Brothers Three by Layton Green
Three charmed brothers, three magical talismans, an alternate wizard-ruled New Orleans, an alluring but deadly adventuress, and an evil wizard who can raise legions of the undead


It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is another weekly meme, this time focused on what books are spending the most time in your hands and in your head, as opposed to what's been added to your shelf.

This week's paperback read is The Only Child by Andrew Pyper, while my dueling e-book reads are once again Mythos Christos by Edwin Herbert and The Tower of Zhaal by C.T. Phipps.

What's topping your shelves this week?

Friday, March 17, 2017

WTF Friday: Dinosaurs and Drag Queens

Well, another WTF Friday is upon us, which means we once again turn the Ruins over to my dark half. As regular visitors will know, Foster Medina has a passion for messed up literary diversions - books that are bizarre, twisted, grotesque, and kinky - and he's only too happy to splatter them across the page.

When your story opens with a baby triceratops being birthed from the grotesque, ingrown chest hair of a bingo-calling drag queen, you know you're in for a wild ride. Drag Queen Dino Fighters is exactly what I look for in the bizarro genre, a weird tale, well-told, that allows the story to be surreal, as opposed to forcing it to be strange simply for the sake of being strange.

MP Johnson throws a lot into the mix here - drag queens, dinosaurs, aliens, firemen, skeletons, mad scientists, and more - but does it all within the context of an unusual family drama. It's that family element at the heart of the story that pulls it all together, with Steven juggling a home life with his boyfriend, his son, his ex-wife, and her father. The baby triceratops may just be his ticket to drag queen stardom, but it may come at the cost of everyone who loves him.

There are so many little moments here that I loved, not the least of which is the way Ivanna's drag queen rivals continue to read each other, despite having the flesh dissolved from their bones, their heads removed from their bodies, or their eyes harvested. I thought Ivanna's crawl through a drag king's subterranean lair might be the height of absurdity, but the final dance-off between Ivanna and Dragosaurus Rex makes for an epic finale.

Of course, Drag Queen Dino Fighters isn't just a sci-fi flavored slice of bizarro, it's also a story about love, family, and finding one's self. It's not a heavy-handed message, but it's part of what makes the story work.

Expected publication: May 1st 2017 by Eraserhead Press

As much as I enjoyed the first two episodes of Futanari Dino Riders of the Apocalypse, Jada's Basement Sex Show is the story I was waiting for. Not only do we get more dinos - and a flying Quetzalcoatlus at that! - but we also get a good dose of world building, with a glimpse of ruined skyscrapers, talk of nanobombs, rumors of a spaceship in New Mexico, and the introduction of a strangely beautiful woman who I suspect may be an android.

The Magpie gets shunted aside somewhat in this episode, leaving Xenia to carry the world building and plot development, but she certainly plays a role in the climax. It takes a while to learn just how Jada plans to collect her payment, but Bryce Calderwood manages to top the already over-the-top erotic elements of the first two episodes. It's wild, it's dangerous, it's messy, it's extreme, and it's exhibitionistic, but it's a whole lot of futa fun.

Not only did Jada's Basement Sex Show satisfy my curiosity, but it's got me stoked to see what's next.

Kindle Edition
Published March 10th 2017

Thursday, March 16, 2017

#Horror Review: Honger by Terry M. West

Hunger knows no friend but its feeder…
That is a great line, and one that perfectly exemplifies this short tale from the bloody, gore-strewn pen of Terry M. West. Honger is a sad, violent tale, an otherwise simple story of monstrous cannibalism, but with a solid backstory and well-developed mythology.

Although he's been a monster for over 300 years, Willem Tenner never loses his humanity, making him a surprisingly sympathetic character. Sure, he murders a few people every season, devouring everything but their bones, but he takes no pleasure in it. When the Honger comes on, he is simply powerless to resist. In many ways, this quiet loner reminded me of Bill Bixby in The Incredible Hulk, wandering from life to life, minus the post-transformation shame and guilt.

When another monster arrives on the scene, a man who knows William's darkest most secrets, it's time to walk away from another life - but not before dealing with a few things first. After a slow build of character and mythology, the final third of the story races along, only becoming darker, bloodier, and even more chilling with each development. As for the climax, West always nails his endings, and this is no exception.

Kindle Edition
Published March 1st 2017

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary ARC of this title from the author in exchange for review consideration. This does not in any way affect the honesty or sincerity of my review.