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The Plot

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes place 64 years before Katniss becomes District 12’s tribute in the original Hunger Games trilogy. Coriolanus Snow, the president of Panem, comes to us in Songbirds as an eighteen-year-old student at the Academy.

It is the year of the tenth annual Hunger Games and Snow is chosen to be a mentor to District 12’s Lucy Gray Baird. Lucy comes from a group called the Covey, musically inclined and always performing. While Snow is at first upset to be assigned the girl tribute from District 12, his mind begins to change when Lucy Gray Baird drops a snake down the dress of the mayor’s daughter on her way up to the stage after being named tribute.

Lucy sings a tune for all of Panem and Snow is enthralled. He will do anything he can to make sure Lucy survives the Hunger Games. Not just for her safety, but for the university scholarship winning would afford him.

The Verdict

This novel, at its core, is a love story. While we know President Snow and his diabolical and evil ways in the original trilogy, this novel gives us a look into what makes Snow tick. The novel is philosophical, contemplating what it means to have control and be governed. What is peace and how do we keep it? Snow grapples with intense emotions as he questions his loyalty to his friends, his tribute, and the nation state.

Lucy Gray Baird is an enchanting character, a manic pixie dream girl, who Snow falls for while trying to maintain her life inside the arena. Snow must choose between love and duty many times throughout the novel, showing us what it means to become the President Snow we know he later is.

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While I felt at times that the narrative wandered and slowed, overall this was a great return to Panem and its intricacies. Twists and turns are around every corner and they were always there surprising me. I didn’t know how this would end, but I know I needed to find out.

The Subsequent Film

Our first look at Snow and Baird in the upcoming film from Vanity Fair

Releasing in November of 2023, I am sure I’ll be back to cover all the details for you. Below, you can watch a sneak peek into the future release.

4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Sarah Moon is a stone-cold sorceress from Tennessee whose interests include serial killers, horror fiction, and the newest dystopian blockbuster. Sarah holds an M.A. in English Literature and an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing. She works as an English professor as well as a cemeterian. Sarah is most likely to cover horror in print including prose, poetry, and graphic forms. You can find her on Instagram @crystalsnovelnook.

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Book Reviews

Grayshade Review: Assassins and Intrigue

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“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. 

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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 out of 5 stars (3.7 / 5)

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Book Reviews

The Dead Take the A Train Review: Queer Magic and Monster Mayhem

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“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.

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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!

Cassandra Khaw and Richard Kadrey on the 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. 

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[USR 4.2]

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Book Reviews

Monastery Series 5: a Book Review

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I can’t believe we’re already at the mid-season finale of Monastery! Time indeed flies when you’re having a blast (or feel like you’ve been hit by a bag of bricks). The fifth installment of the novel is so action-packed I don’t even know where to start. All I will say right now is that we are in for a ride of a lifetime. Buckle up, folks. 

Plot

We begin the episode with Thomas preparing to leave Monastery, a plan put in motion by his mother which is thankfully quickly reversed. Can you imagine anyone else leading the investigation? Didn’t think so. Although Thomas is still dealing with his guilt over Pop Dennis’s death, he knows there is a lot at stake. After all, his cousins need directions to get to the bottom of things. 

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For arguably the first time the group comes across something of great importance as they discover Francis’s DNA test. The group then trails him and our antagonist George Turner on their quest for the money Albert hid before his death. The characters encounter a bunch of clues that the narrator basically screams are foreshadowing but David once again disregards them. Nice going, man. 

On the other end, we have an extremely disturbing scene involving Francis digging up his father’s grave and desecrating it. I don’t blame Nicole for throwing up at the sight. Seeing him getting more and more unhinged throughout the episode is unsettling as well as riveting.

Speaking of graves, we finally get a flashback sequence of the night Albert’s family covered up his murder. We still don’t know who committed the crime but can see who helped to bury the body aka who is complicit. The scene provides some great characterization to the adults of the ensemble cast. It also explains why George Turner is so involved in everything. Hell, it even manages to make me feel bad for Cassandra. Just for a moment, though. 

Our neighborhood bully Rick continues to be heavily entangled in the story. He and Thomas have a highly emotional altercation when Rick attempts to take his own life. It’s a shame Rick doesn’t tell Thomas why he’s doing this as it would alleviate both their guilt. However, it’s also a realistic exploration of how young children handle something they are not emotionally equipped to deal with.

It is purely because of Thomas’s intentions to help him that Rick ends up being a witness to something horrible. Let’s just say, Francis finally snaps and George meets his brutal end. I definitely won’t miss the guy but this doesn’t bode well for our main cast. It can’t get any crazier though, right? 

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Overall thoughts

This is easily the most exhilarating episode of Monastery so far, with action just seeping off the pages. A lot of other storylines take a backseat (such as the love triangle that is seemingly dead but not quite). Despite that, there is still some time for emotional moments to let the readers take a breath. Words can’t say how excited I am for the next part. I just hope against all hope all my favorites will come out safe. Only time will tell… 

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

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More from the author:

1. This episode of Monastery was probably the most morbid one yet (the flashback of the family covering up Albert’s murder, Francis digging up his body, Thomas climbing into his grave). What is your writing process when it comes to these types of scenes as they can be quite uncomfortable to think about?

I may well be a little unhinged, as I honestly love writing these morbid scenes – probably because they always feel like the reward you get after you’ve worked so hard for something, you know? As a writer, you try to build up to those big moments, so that they feel earned. My process then ties in with ensuring those big, morbid scenes aren’t gratuitous, that they make sense to the plot and the characters. The family covering up Albert’s murder comes from a place of despair and self-preservation; Francis digging up his body comes from a place of anguish and resentment, and Thomas, well, he’s a very driven young man who will stop at nothing to find the truth, and we’re only just beginning to see that.

2. The neighborhood bully Rick turned out to be a lot more integral to the story than I would’ve originally thought. What prompted you to connect a non-family character to the action to such extent and why him?

I always knew I wanted the regular cast to be an eclectic mix of characters – we have people of all generations of the family (from young Henry to nonagenarian Nana Beth), and even a couple of characters who aren’t family. There is no real reason for that, other than a quirk of mine. But Rick’s true purpose isn’t yet revealed – he just witnessed something immense, it now remains to be seen what he chooses to do about it…

3. I picked up on the theme of beauty throughout the installments of Monastery (especially Nicole and Cassandra’s interaction). Was this choice purely to provide some context for Cassandra’s character or to provide some social commentary about how beauty and youth are worshipped and as soon as a woman starts aging she’s discarded? Maybe a bit of a mix?

A little from column A, a little from column B. The commentary here ties in with the importance that the characters give to female beauty – Nicole is smart, resilient and courageous, but all everyone talks about is how beautiful she is, whereas Cassandra is often regarded as a former, faded beauty. Both women themselves attribute a lot of importance to beauty, an importance that was clearly hammered into them by the world around them. So, when we learn that Cassandra sacrificed her beauty to protect her family, it goes to show all that she was willing to sacrifice to keep her loved ones safe. She may not be grandma of the year – but she’s the hero of a lifetime. A really nasty, emotionally abusive hero, but a hero all the same!

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