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They Were Here Before Us

*** I received an ARC in return for an honest review ***

Publisher’s Description

The less you know going in, the better off you’ll be. If you know, you know.

The only thing more brutal than nature is love.


Review

My most recent read was They Were Here Before Us by Bram Stoker Finalist Eric LaRocca.

I have read two of LaRocca’s other novellas Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke and You’ve Lost a Lot of Blood and both explored the depths of dark fiction, social prejudices and queer fiction. They Were Here Before Us is series of stories united by the common theme of otherness – seeing humanity through its darkest and most depraved lenses by those who are other, seperate and different.

Final Thoughts

They Were Here Before Us is a complex, visceral and raw exploration of humanity through the lens of otherness. LaRocca’s writing is skilful and a delight to read even as the subject of each story gets darker, the masterful writing holds your attention until the very end and beyond. Accompanied by richly detailed illustrations that complement the novella, the tales will haunt you well after you’ve turned the final pages.

Conclusion

A highly recommended read for fans of LaRocca’s other work, dark fiction, societal issues, queer fiction and horror.

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The Twisted Ones

Publisher’s Description:

When Mouse’s dad asks her to clean out her dead grandmother’s house, she says yes. After all, how bad could it be?

Answer: pretty bad. Grandma was a hoarder, and her house is stuffed with useless rubbish. That would be horrific enough, but there’s more—Mouse stumbles across her step-grandfather’s journal, which at first seems to be filled with nonsensical rants…until Mouse encounters some of the terrifying things he described for herself.

Alone in the woods with her dog, Mouse finds herself face to face with a series of impossible terrors—because sometimes the things that go bump in the night are real, and they’re looking for you. And if she doesn’t face them head on, she might not survive to tell the tale.


Review:

I recently read horror novel The Twisted Ones by US author T. Kingfisher.

The Twisted Ones follows the protagonist Mouse who is given the unfavourable task to clean out her holder grandmother’s house after her death. It is no surprise to Mouse that no one liked her grandmother, especially not Mouse. The only person Mouse shared any similarity with was her step-grandfather Cochrane.

While cleaning out the house Mouse finds her grandmother’s hoarding was far beyond anything she had expected. The only room in the entire house that hasn’t been filled with junk is Cochrane’s room. What she does find is Cochrane’s journal which contains the madness of a man falling into dementia and the sane writings of a man who believed in folklore of white people he’d known about in Wales and the standing stones associated with something he calls the twisted ones.

Pretty soon Mouse encounters the terrifying reality of the things Cochrane had been describing. And even sooner, she is drawn into a world that cannot exist and the monsters called the twisted ones. Accompanied by the neighbour from the hippie commune, Mouse and her dog venture into the madness of Cochrane’s world and hope to escape it- knowing that he did not.

Final Thoughts:

The Twisted Ones is skilfully written, enjoyable and terrifying. An intriguing combination of folklore and horror with the right amount of gore, terror and mystery to create just the correct balance to make it fast paced and exciting. Kingfisher writes with a talent that makes it seem easy, the characters are all unique and secrets revealed with perfect timing.

Conclusion:

A fantastic read for anyone who enjoys horror, folk horror, dark fiction and a good character driven story. Highly recommended!

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Burnt Sugar

Publisher’s Description

Decades after the incident in the woods, Gretel has forged a good life in a small village, running a bakery and taking care of her brother and the stray, bedraggled women who find work as her apprentices. Business is good, and when it’s not, Gretel took more from the witch than a knack of making sweet treats and gingerbread, just as her brother returned home forever changed by the torture he experienced.

The book of magic hidden beneath the stairs has kept Gretel and her household comfortable for years, but it also calls to Gretel in the night, demanding she return to the woods and replace the witch they killed. For years, she’s been resisting, determined to keep Hansel and her apprentices safe.

Then Hansel’s drinking goes too far and Gretel realises her brother is dying. Finally, the seductive call of the book’s magic might be too strong to deny…


Review

I read Burnt Sugar (Never Afters, #1) by Australian author Kirstyn McDermott.

Burnt Sugar follows the well-known Grimm fairytale characters Hansel and Gretel in the decades after their abandonment in the forest, and stumbling on the witch’s cottage. The tale of Gretel’s servitude to the witch while Hansel rotted behind bars. That is where the familiar tale we know ends and a new reimagined one begins.

Gretel is now an older woman and her brother Hansel a town-thug and drunkard. After what they both endured in the Witch’s cottage, the siblings have gone down two very different paths in life. Gretel manages a bakery and is haunted by memories of burning the witch alive so she and her brother might escape. Stranger still is the book of witchcraft she stole from the cottage and the gems that frequently appear. In a town that is hard on the poor and wretched, Gretel adopts those she can and provides handouts for those she can’t – the memory of being a starving unwanted child one that is still fresh.

Final Thoughts

Burnt Sugar is an intriguing “what if” novella that offers a conclusion to the tale of Hansel and Gretel. There are some aspects which are unanswered – such as the hands that push at Gretel’s back – reminiscent of the witch’s own ending. Whether this is deliberately unexplained or not it is unclear. Regardless, this is a deeply emotional and thought provoking idea of what might have happened once two children expected lost to the forest, stumbled back to their village and how their lives would have altered from the experience.

Conclusion

A fascinating literary reimagining of the Grimm’s fairytale of Hansel and Gretel. Definitely worth reading for those who enjoy a historical fantasy. A solid fairytale reimagining for those curious to know what might happened after Hansel and Gretel escaped the witch and the forest.

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Malice

Publisher’s Description

Once upon a time, there was a wicked fairy who, in an act of vengeance, cursed a line of princesses to die. A curse that could only be broken by true love’s kiss. You’ve heard this before, haven’t you? The handsome prince. The happily ever after. Utter nonsense. Let me tell you, no one in Briar actually cares about what happens to its princesses. Not the way they care about their jewels and elaborate parties and charm-granting elixirs. I thought I didn’t care, either.

Until I met her.

Princess Aurora. The last heir to Briar’s throne. Kind. Gracious. The future queen her realm needs. One who isn’t bothered that I am Alyce, the Dark Grace, abhorred and feared for the mysterious dark magic that runs in my veins. Humiliated and shamed by the same nobles who pay me to bottle hexes and then brand me a monster. Aurora says I should be proud of my gifts. That she . . . cares for me. Even though a power like mine was responsible for her curse.

But with less than a year until that curse will kill her, any future I might see with Aurora is swiftly disintegrating—and she can’t stand to kiss yet another insipid prince. I want to help her. If my power began her curse, perhaps it’s what can lift it. Perhaps together we could forge a new world. Nonsense again. Because we all know how this story ends, don’t we? Aurora is the beautiful princess. And I—

I am the villain.


Review

One of my recent reads was Malice (Malice Duology, #1) by US author Heather Walter.

Malice follows the protagonist Alyce, one of the Briar kingdom’s Graces- mortals born with weak Fae heritage with blood able to produce eilixrs. The other Graces have golden blood which bestows beauty, charm and wit. Alyce, or the ‘Dark Grace’ as she is known, is part-Vila, one of the Dark-Fae and her green blood reviled for bestowing curses not charms. Yet, like all the Graces, Alyce is unable to leave the Kingdom of Briar – bound to serve in Grace Household and earnings leveraged to the Briar crown.

In the Kingdom of Briar, Alyce is despised for being part-Vila, the Dark Fae who were too powerful for the Light Fae Etherians to destroy until they allied with the mortals. The alliance forged between the Etherians and the Queens of Briar resulted in the establishment of Briar.
In Briar, Alyce is considered a symbol of past hatred and fear. Only the heir to the Briar crown, princess Aurora finds companionship and understanding with Alyce. All heirs to the Briar throne bear the curse from a powerful a Vila to die before their twenty-first birthday if the curse isn’t broken by their true love. Despite this history, an unlikely relationship is forged between Alyce and Aurora. But Alyce has kept her secrets from Aurora when she allies with a mysterious prisoner from the destroyed Vila kingdom with promises to unlock Alyce‘s true power.

Final Thoughts

Malice was an exciting read, a unique twist on the Sleeping Beauty fairytale that was both satisfying as an epic fantasy in its own right, an queer romance, and a fairytale retelling. It was the combination of these aspects which made Malice something more than a genderbent version of a fairytale – it made it a reworking of a classic into an epic fantasy in its own right. Expertly done.

Conclusion

A highly recommended retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. A unique epic fantasy that will satisfy readers of fairytale retellings, dark fantasy, queer romance and truly excellent worldbuilding. A great read!

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You’ve Lost A Lot Of Blood

Publisher’s Description

“Each precious thing I show you in this book is a holy relic from the night we both perished-the night when I combed you from my hair and watered the moon with your blood.

You’ve lost a lot of blood . . .”


Review

I recently read Eric LaRocca’s second independently published novella You’ve Lost A Lot of Blood.

You’ve Lost a lot of Blood is a fictionalised presentation of the writings from Martyr Black and recorded conversations with his partner Ambrose Thorne. Martyr Black was accused by authorities of the serial murders of gay men whom he’d lured into relationships before killing them.

The story-within-a story is a novella supposed written by Martyr Black, focuses on Tamsen and her younger brother Presley, when Tamsen takes a job debugging a famous virtual reality game. Inevitably, things go terribly awry and the darker truth behind the mysterious game designer and the game becomes clear.

The final passages of You’ve Lost a lot Blood conclude of the linear storyline of Martyr Black’s infamous life and the plagiarism of various works from his victims throughout the years of his killing spree.

Final Thoughts

I was immersed in the beautiful and striking prose immediately. You’ve Lost A Lot of Blood has been described as being like an art installation and it’s certainly the feeling I had. The snippets of conversations between Martyr and Ambrose, the poems and novella, combine with a memoir-like passages by Black are all presented as a fictionalised volume itself. It’s an intriguing read, brilliantly written and a clever design.

Conclusion

You’ve Lost a lot of Blood is highly recommended for its literary skill, the unique presentation of writing ‘voices’ to reflect the different fictionalised authors is expertly done. Horror readers won’t be disappointed either with some truly distributing dark fiction aspects. An absolute must read!

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Drowned Country

Publisher’s Description

Even the Wild Man of Greenhollow can’t ignore a summons from his mother, when that mother is the indomitable Adela Silver, practical folklorist. Henry Silver does not relish what he’ll find in the grimy seaside town of Rothport, where once the ancient wood extended before it was drowned beneath the sea—a missing girl, a monster on the loose, or, worst of all, Tobias Finch, who loves him.


Review

I recently read Drowned Country (Greenhollow Duology, #2) by UK author Emily Tesh.

Drowned Country follows almost directly from events of Silver in the Wood, when eccentric protagonist Henry Silver is now the avatar of Grennhollow Wood and Tobias Finch now a mortal man assisting Silver’s mother Adela in her monster hunting business. Sadly, the romance between Silver and Tobias has soured and the pair are now estranged.

Silver answers a summons from his mother to aid him and Tobias in the retrieval of Maud Lindthurst from an ancient vampire. Things are quickly discovered to not be as they seem. Maud is not a common wealthy young woman and both Silver and Tobias are soon pulled into an entanglement with the beings of Fairy.

Final Thoughts

Drowned Country was a satisfying conclusion to the Greenhollow Duology in a story that was not a classic fairytale ending but one which provided closure for all the characters.

Conclusion

A highly recommended read for those seeking folkloric fantasy and queer fiction. A great conclusion to the events from Silver in the Wood and a satisfying folkloric novella series.

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Night of the Mannequins

Publisher’s Description

We thought we’d play a fun prank on her, and now most of us are dead.

One last laugh for the summer as it winds down. One last prank just to scare a friend. Bringing a mannequin into a theater is just some harmless fun, right? Until it wakes up. Until it starts killing.

Luckily, Sawyer has a plan. He’ll be a hero. He’ll save everyone to the best of his ability. He’ll do whatever he needs to so he can save the day. That’s the thing about heroes—sometimes you have to become a monster first.


Review

I recently read horror novella Night of the Mannequins by US author Stephen Graham Jones.

Night of the Mannequins follows a group of school friends in a final summer. In what begins as a ‘coming-of-age’ story quickly turns for a darker and more disturbing route as a mannequin adopted by the group for the summer takes on a life of its own.

Soon, the bodies begin to drop and exactly where reality ends and madness takes over becomes blurred. Equally blurred are the lines between hero and monster.

Final Thoughts

Night of the Mannequins was another brilliantly twisted tale from Stephen Graham Jones- now firmly cemented as my favourite horror writer. Disclaimer: I’m terrified of mannequins. The lure for me was Graham Jones’s skilful writing. This was a delightfully dark novella where nothing is as it seems and becoming a monster was one of them.

Conclusion

Highly recommended! For horror readers of the psychological, thriller, bizarre and supernatural. A great read.

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The Dark Matter of Natasha

Publisher’s Description

Natasha stalks the quiet streets of dead-end Lunar Bay like doom in a denim jacket. She’s a grim reminder that some teenagers can never escape the ever-tightening noose of their lives. Burned out and benumbed by a traumatic past, dogged by scurrilous small-town gossip, she finds solace in drugs, sex and Slayer.

When a naïve transplant crosses her path, he’s drawn into shadow and doubt. With his girlfriend ghosting him, Natasha’s fresh introduction to her half-lit world is darkly appealing. Now faced with confusing quandaries—connection or convenience, relationship or exploitation—can he help any of the women in his life? Or is he just helping himself?

The untold tragedies of Natasha’s lonely life may be more than he can handle. And in a town whose history is littered with dead girls, there may be no happy ending for anyone.

A tar-black coming of age story, this gritty psychological thriller from Shirley Jackson Award-nominated author Matthew R. Davis, eloquently chronicles the crushing gravity of small-town hopelessness, the double-edged catharsis of sex, drugs, and heavy metal, and the brutal weight of youth’s first lessons in accountability.

What horrors have Natasha’s flat eyes witnessed? And how far will she go in pursuit of the one tiny spark of hope that still flickers in her haunted heart?


*** I received a free ebook in exchange for an honest review ***

Review

I recently read The Dark Matter of Natasha by Matthew R. Davis, an Australian horror and dark fiction author.

The Dark Matter of Natasha follows a teenage protagonist as he navigates poverty and the isolation of a small town, always wanting something more in a place that can’t offer much. After a confusing sexual incident and subsequent rejection by his girlfriend Caitlin, there’s a real sense of abandonment and that the life he’d hoped for is slipping away from him. Then he meets Natasha and everything changes.

Natasha is alluring in many ways. She’s someone he doesn’t understand, someone who seems to accept him regardless of his naivety, insecurities and how different he is from her. But Natasha is a greatly flawed. She’s someone who’s seen the worst of the world and it’s betrayals. She’s hardened and jaded by life and expects nothing but more of the same from it. There’s a sense of hopelessness to her and a waiting out the clock despite her young age.

It’s hard to discuss how our protagonist changes over the course of the story without giving away major plot developments as spoilers. But after a series of catastrophic events occur, he’s changed in ways he can’t ever recover from. Although he and Caitlin remain together, their marriage is a cold one and bound by shared experience rather than any love remaining between them.

Final Thoughts

The Dark Matter of Natasha is a complex novella that is both a coming-of-age story and one of desire and trauma. In an exploration of the bleakest natures of human experience and how repeated trauma reduces human capacity to a shell of itself, a hardened and emotionally distant one fuelled only by memory. Despite the dark undertones to the story, there are such clearly defined characters.

Davis makes us witnesses to how despite her indifference to life, Natasha changes lives forever. But the trauma that seemed to only belong to Natasha at the beginning of the story is a creeping thing, almost a character in itself, to where by the end our protagonist and Caitlin exist but no longer seem to truly live in the world. Davis shows us the spreading tide of trauma and hopelessness from a small community that has indelible effects on those who survive it.

Conclusion

A powerfully written and intense dark fiction novella. Trigger warnings are necessary for psychological and sexual abuse and suicide themes. A recommended read.

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A Dead Djinn in Cairo

Publisher’s Description

Egypt, 1912. In Cairo, the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities investigate disturbances between the mortal and the (possibly) divine.
What starts off as an odd suicide case for Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi leads her through the city’s underbelly as she encounters rampaging ghouls, saucy assassins, clockwork angels, and a plot that could unravel time itself.


Review

I recently read A Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark after many recommendations for this alternate history series.

Fatma el-Sha’arawi is a Special Investigator for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. A flashy-dresser in male attire, she is unrepentant in a very male-dominated world.

Once she begins investigating the strange suicide of an ancient djinn – an unlikely case of death for djinn- she’s soon led to the City of the Dead in the slums of Cairo after reports of increased ghoul attacks.

In the City of the Dead, Fatma discovers another horrible death of an angel and clues to a cult active in Cairo. Soon, aided by a sultry assassin, Fatma el-Sha’arawi is in a race against the dawn to save the world from a cataclysmic event.

Final Thoughts

A Dead Djinn in Cairo is an amazing novella set in an alternate Cairo during 1912. The world building is fantastic with airships, clockwork angels, automaton servants and the magnificent but terrifying djinn.

Conclusion

A perfect short read for fans of alternate history, steampunk, dark fiction, horror, queer fiction and a fantastical blend of all genres. Highly recommended!

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The Old Dragon’s Head

Publisher’s Description

Constructed of stone and packed earth, the Great Wall of 10,000 li protects China’s northern borders from the threat of Mongol incursion. The wall is also home to a supernatural beast: the Old Dragon. The Old Dragon’s Head is the most easterly point of the wall, where it finally meets the sea.

In every era, a Dragon Master is born. Endowed with the powers of Heaven, only he can summon the Old Dragon so long as he possess the dragon pearl.

It’s the year 1400, and neither the Old Dragon, the dragon pearl, nor the Dragon Master, has been seen for twenty years. Bolin, a young man working on the Old Dragon’s Head, suffers visions of ghosts. Folk believe he has yin-yang eyes and other paranormal gifts.When Bolin’s fief lord, the Prince of Yan, rebels against his nephew, the Jianwen Emperor, a bitter war of succession ensues in which the Mongols hold the balance of power. While the victor might win the battle on earth, China’s Dragon Throne can only be earned with a Mandate from Heaven – and the support of the Old Dragon.

Bolin embarks on a journey of self-discovery, mirroring Old China’s endeavour to come of age. When Bolin accepts his destiny as the Dragon Master, Heaven sends a third coming of age – for humanity itself. But are any of them ready for what is rising in the east?


*** I received an ARC in exchange for a voluntary review ***

Review

I recently read The Old Dragon’s Head by UK author Justin Newland.

The Old Dragon’s Head follows protagonist Bolin, a worker on mending the Old Dragon’s Head, a part of the Great Wall associated with the head of Old Dragon who embodies the wall. But Bolin has an ability to see ghosts and prophecies, including the loss of his fiefdom’s Prince of Yan in battle.

To restore the balance of power in China, the Emperor’s Dragon Throne can only be earned with the aid of the true Old Dragon, Laolong. Eventually Bolin accepts the reality and responsibility of his supernatural gifts and becomes Dragon Master to help protect China’s Empire from the coming war.

Final Thoughts

The Old Dragon’s Head explores a fascinating era of Chinese history and the use of historical fantasy elements works well – the supernatural invading reality and threatening to drive Bolin into madness. Unfortunately, the writing style lacked immediacy and engagement, characters feeling two-dimensional. The world-building and historical knowledge was exceptionally well detailed though.

Conclusion

A recommended read for those who enjoy historical fiction, historical fantasy, alternate history and strong paranormal elements. A detailed historical read.