From the author of The Dog Stars and The Painter, comes The River
Peter Heller’s The River tells the winding story of two male college-aged best friends, Jack and Wynn, on another outdoor expedition. The pair love to traverse nature, and this time they decide to canoe a Canadian river. Little do they know a wildfire is surging in the forests near the river. As the fire is closing in on them, Jack and Wynn spot a couple arguing in the woods. They decide to mind their own business and move along, but when they climb a tree and see the true devastating nature of the wildfire, they return to warn the couple. Only the man remains, his wife missing.
Heller does a stellar job at building atmosphere and merging wilderness and nature adventuring knowledge with the bones of a thriller. The couple’s mysterious fight plagues Jack and Wynn’s attempt to reconcile what they find with the need to escape the coming fiery devastation. This novel is a very nuanced thriller. The reader breathes quickly as they wonder if Jack and Wynn will escape – with or without one part or both parts of the couple.
The building of suspense is very slow throughout the first half of the novel, and the ideal reader can drift along with the unknown that Heller presents. The prose is poetic. It keeps the reader entranced as they wait to be fed morsels of plot. The second half of the novel picks up, and the ending is truly heart wrenching. This novel is one of journey, embarking on a wilderness adventure not all are sure to return from. I highly enjoyed the slow burn that this understated lyrical, natural thriller presented. (4 / 5)
Monastery Series 6: a Book Review
The newest installment of Monastery is a packed bag of goodies. It’s nearly impossible to discuss everything that happens in this episode, but I’ll give it my best shot. If you thought the stakes were high before then you best buckle up. We’re about to take a ride on the craziest rollercoaster you can imagine. Let’s begin!
We pick up right where we left off in the last episode of Monastery – Cassandra helping Francis cover up George Turner’s murder (she should have a business card at this point). As their luck would have it, a group of kids discover the body the very next day. Albert hilariously describes the interview that follows as pointless cameos. Our resident gang correctly assumes that the pair had something to do with it. They narrow down their investigation to probe Francis further with little success.
We also get more insight into Cassandra in this episode as it is her 60th birthday. I am shocked to say that she tugged my heartstrings this time round, especially during the seance at Madam Witch’s. During this experience, we see Cassandra and Albert reuniting at what we assume to be heaven. For those few minutes we as readers see that despite everything, there was – is – some genuine love between the two. I thought this interaction brought yet another layer to their already complex dynamic. It goes without saying that the scene between Pop Dennis and Nana Beth during the same type of experience will bring tears out of anybody.
However, my sympathy for Cassandra doesn’t last long. When she thinks everyone forgot her birthday, our resident grandma gets wasted. This causes her to nearly spill murderous beans at her super awkward surprise party organized by David. Our pointless return as he seemed to invite the most random Monastery residents.
Speaking of David, the poor guy is still stringing Erica along all the while pining for Nicole. Not that he is fully at fault as Erica doesn’t seem to take the hint. Must be hard not to hurt someone’s feelings when you can’t be with the one you love anyway, right? Unsurprisingly, this causes Nicole to finally confront her feelings for David properly, and the two end up having sex. Their dynamic now has more layers than a matryoshka doll since both are in relationships, not to mention the family aspect. Although considering Erica sees everything, we can assume David is newly single and in for a rude awakening.
Fred continues to be the biggest underdog in this episode. As if what happened between his girlfriend and his cousin won’t be enough of a blow, Cassandra also kicks him out of her house. The question of where he’s going to stay now remains a mystery. Perhaps this is an opening for him to leave Monastery once he inevitably finds out about their betrayal? Time will tell.
As for our investigative squad, their main quest is slightly pushed to the background. That is, until Thomas discovers a bloodied toy car. This only brings more questions as to what exactly went down the night Albert died. Their investigation is put to the biggest test yet when Rocky, everyone’s favorite dog, is taken by an unknown assailant. This person threatens the gang to drop everything, or else. The installment ends on quite an anxiety-filled note and I would like to have a word with whoever is responsible. I got my guesses and all I will say for now is that their name rhymes with Dick.
The sixth part of Monastery showcases once again what’s so great about this story. We got a mixture of everything – mystery, murder, fear, love, lust, heartbreak, but most of all, family. It’s arguably the biggest theme of the story and this episode showcases it perfectly. The party scene, while quite anxiety-inducing for me, was also hilarious and moved the plot while showing off different dynamics. Although I’m not gonna lie, everything that I was curious about now fades in the light of Rocky’s abduction. This is the turning point of the story for me and I’m just clutching my dog tighter thanking all the gods that I haven’t pissed off some psychopath. (5 / 5)
More from the author:
1. This episode of Monastery really focuses on the complexities of Cassandra’s character. In one of our previous talks, you mentioned that she is the hero of your story, albeit an extremely flawed one. We get a whole spectrum of emotions from her, from missing Albert to calculating George Turner’s cover-up to helping Francis to kicking out Fred – she is her own one-woman show. I guess what I’m curious about is, what’s your opinion of redemption arcs and is this something that you’re interested in doing with Cassandra or are you happy to keep her deliciously villainous yet human as she is (if you can share, that is)?
A good redemption arc is a hard thing to pull off and I often find that it hinges on convenience more than anything else – we redeem characters after they’ve done unspeakable things simply because we still love and root for them. Nothing necessarily wrong with that, but redemption is not something I think about too much where somebody like Cassandra is concerned – she is who she is, a hero and a villain, a mother and a monster, both deep and shallow, and I am happy to keep her as she is for now without worrying too much about redeeming her.
2. Further to my last question, you have no qualms about writing complex characters who do messed up things, maliciously or not. Have you got to the point writing Monastery where you stopped liking a character you created or stopped rooting for them because of this? Alternatively, have you grown fonder of a character because of how you crafted the story and where they ended up?
Honestly, the nastier the characters get, the more I love them. I get an immense kick out of Thomas blackmailing David or Nicole playing mind games on the boys she likes – those are the scenes I always can’t wait to get out. I never stopped rooting for anyone, but I will say this: when I’m caught up in the moment and the words are flowing out of me, these characters can shock me sometimes. There was an instance in episode 3 in which Aunt Doris made me spit out the words, “You bitch”, as I was writing her dialogue. I couldn’t believe the things she was saying, and I was the one writing them! I live for those little moments.
The dinner party scene was chaotic to say the least. Was your intention to make the readers anxious or to make them laugh and reminisce of their own family gatherings (hopefully without a murder revelation)? I got a bit of both, personally.
The dinner party served three big purposes for me: a) it was a bit of a breather after the intense drama of the midseason finale and its aftermath; b) it plays into the satire element of the story, as yes, family gatherings (especially in a small town) are always full of drama; and c) it was a rare opportunity to bring the whole family together, since there’s so many of them and we can’t possibly always have them in the same place at the same time. It was nice to just press pause and dig a little deeper into who they are and what makes them tick, whilst still teasing the readers about the mystery. I’m glad it awakened all those emotions in you!
Bonus question – Rocky is okay, right? Right? *pleading sad face emoji inserted*
Rocky is a series regular. All series regulars are featured in all ten episodes, and there’s four more to go. But then again, one of those regulars has been dead from the start, so…
Grayshade Review: Assassins and Intrigue
“It’s amazing how long it can take someone to die. Or to be exact: how long it can take someone to die if you’re careless. Most people like to talk about the human body like it’s a piece of glass…breathe on it the wrong way and it’ll shatter. Not that I mind; talk like that makes my work a lot easier.” – pg 1, Grayshade by Gregory a. wilson
Grayshade is the first book in the Gray Assassin Trilogy by Gregory A. Wilson. Published in 2022 by Atthis Arts, Grayshade was a 2023 IBPA Benjamin Franklin Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy Finalist. Wilson also has an award-winning graphic novel (Icarus) and actual-play show (Speculate!). Speculate! features a semi-rotating cast of speculative fiction writers (including my fave Premee Mohamed) playing a variety of tabletop role-playing games. I actually got to meet Wilson when I went to GenCon in 2023, and he was energetic and kind. I bought Grayshade because of his positive energy and zest for storytelling.
In Grayshade, the titular character is an assassin whose faith is shaken by an assassination-gone-weird. In this high fantasy world, the assassin’s guild is also a religious organization, which means doubt in his devotion puts a target on Grayshade’s back. When he is asked to undertake a mission to prove his faith, he must decide not only if he will kill for his morals, but if he will die for them as well.
You’d be hard pressed to find a book that better emulates the feeling of playing an Assassin’s Creed video game. There are (of course) assassinations, cool gadgets, mentor figures, ethical dilemmas, political subterfuge, and a dose of will-they-won’t-they. The last half of the book in particular was very gripping and satisfying in its steady flow between scenes. The world building was interesting without being over the top. I felt like I had the information I needed to understand what was happening, and not a lot more. I appreciated this, because it helped keep the plot momentum. This included a Chekhov’s Ralaar, which I promise is a funny joke if you’ve read the book. Also, the inclusion of a nonbinary character was well executed. Yay for representation!
However, I would be remiss not to mention that the first 100 pages of Grayshade were a slog. The dialogue and inner monologue felt especially campy, which was really distracting from the rest of the story because it didn’t feel intentional for it to come across that way. I am pro-camp (Jason X is probably my favorite movie in the franchise), however it can feel awkward when it seems unintentional. This makes it hard to connect with Grayshade and only gets better with the introduction of more permanent side characters.
That being said, I liked Grayshade. I look forward to reading the other two books in the trilogy. Since this isn’t my genre of choice, I had my husband (an avid high fantasy fan) read Grayshade too, so as to make sure I wasn’t projecting any genre bias. He agreed with my thoughts, liking the book overall but struggling with the first part. I would recommend Grayshade if you like the vibe of the Assassin’s Creed games, high fantasy, and are looking to support indie authors.
Also of note, Alligator Alley Entertainment is working on a Dungeons and Dragons 5E supplement for the world of Grayshade. So definitely keep on a look out for that!
(3.7 / 5)
The Dead Take the A Train Review: Queer Magic and Monster Mayhem
“Julie crawled onto the table, straddling her intern, both hands around the knife. She torqued it downward, cursing. Brad shrieked harder.” -pg 57, The Dead Take the A Train by Cassandra Khaw & Richard Kadrey
The Dead Take the A Train is the first book in a duology by authors Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey. It was published in 2023 by Tor Nightfire (like the Scourge Between Stars, which I reviewed here). I was not previously familiar with Kadrey’s work, which most notably includes the Sandman Slim series. However, I was introduced to Khaw through The Salt Grows Heavy (review here), which I absolutely adored in all its twisted, gory glory. Therefore, I was thrilled to pick-up The Dead Take the A Train, which promised similar heart in a modern cosmic horror package.
In The Dead Take the A Train, a magical fixer named Julie must hunt down eldritch monstrosities threatening the lives of those around her. To do this, she has to go up against her shitty ex, a questionable angel, finance executives, and her own sobriety. When an old friend shows up, Julie is terrified to find herself making a retirement plan that doesn’t involve getting murdered by a demon.
The Dead Take the A Train is reminiscent of N.K. Jeminsin’s The City We Became, with both featuring queer characters tackling eldritch horror plots in New York City. In the same way, the novel was reminiscent of a gorier version of Dimension 20’s Unsleeping City actual play series. However, it clearly carves out a space for itself among the droves of cosmic-horror inspired love letters to New York City. For one, it is mostly unconcerned with borough beef, which (not to sound like a curmudgeonly Midwesterner), is so refreshing. The book also has a relatively novel way the world works, which helps it stay memorable.
Overall, I really liked The Dead Take the A Train. First off, the characters are fun and easy to root for. Julie is a mess in pretty much every aspect, but her bad decisions are understandable and she is charismatic. Her romance with her friend, Sarah, also serves to make Julie more likable. It helps that the villains are so easy to hate too. What’s not to hate about rich Wall Street assholes engaging in human sacrifice? Speaking of which, I liked the juxtaposition of corporate Wall Street and cosmic cultists. The actions taken were evil, but more importantly, they were just business.
The prose was flowery, but not quite as much as in The Salt Grows Heavy. So, if you struggled with Khaw’s other works for that reason this may be a much easier read. Personally, I enjoyed the prose in both. There is quite a bit of gore in The Dead Take the A Train, but I didn’t find it to be overwhelming. I think you could still enjoy the book if you don’t love gore, though maybe not if you have a weak stomach.
One of the largest issues I have with The Dead Take the A Train, is the lack of clarity in power levels of the various characters. Especially since all their forms of magic work in different ways, it is sometimes unclear the level of danger present. This can also sometimes create room for plot holes. For example, Julie has a friend who is tapped into anything and everything happening online. This is an absurdly powerful ability (and is used as such). But there were moments where the main conflict probably could have been avoided or solved using that power. It also felt odd that no one else in this thriving magic community felt strongly about stopping a world-ending catastrophe. Because of this, the magic underground of NYC could feel smaller than I think was intended.
Having been familiar with Khaw’s work previously, The Dead Take the A Train clearly feels like a mix of Khaw’s style with someone else’s. This could be a boon or a hindrance, depending on your view of Khaw’s distinct prose and storytelling. Either way, if you are interested in learning more about the process or the authors, check out the interview they did for SFF Addicts Podcast!
I recommend The Dead Take the A Train, especially for those who are fans of modern urban eldritch horror. The book is an even bigger steal if you are looking for danger, gore, and queer characters. Check it out! And keep your eyes peeled for the next book in this duology.