Novel Review: The Alpha Plague 4 by Michael Robertson

The Alpha Plague 4: A Post-Apocalyptic Action ThrillerThe Alpha Plague 4: A Post-Apocalyptic Action Thriller by Michael Robertson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This 4th installment to the series chronicling a British rage-style zombie apocalypse stands alone despite or rather because of its placement. The opening trilogy largely follows 12 hour increments of the pandemic’s spread from the limited POV of Rhys and later Vicky as they save 6 y.o. Flynn [Book 1], then Larissa [Book 2], and then battle the healthy and the infected to meet back up [Book 3].

This book veers dramatically on a new course into existing with the infected littering the landscape on a long term basis. The early chapters show Rhys and Vicky doing their first supply run from the freight containers in which they had taken shelter at the end of the last book. Boldly and abruptly, as they start their retreat back to young Flynn and his mother Larissa back at the containers, the storyline jumps a full ten years to Rhys and Vicky returning to the freight containers from yet another supply run. 10 years, no change in prospects and barely a notch forward in comfort. They’ve found nobody in the decade that’s elapsed.

Flynn is now a strapping teen still not allowed to leave the safe confines of the freight containers. His mother is just as unprepared since Rhys and Vicky have been doing all of the heavy lifting the entire time. But it’s time for Flynn’s education to begin.

The outer world starts to assert itself, too. Others have survived and are grouping together. A radio message beckons the uninfected to find the sanctuary of Home. A couple societies are glimpsed, with very different responses to the new state of the country.

This tale stands as Flynn’s coming-of-age. Unexpected turns of event separate Vicky and Flynn from Flynn’s parents, echoing the 3rd book. The plot really revolves around Flynn’s quick social and educational growth as he doesn’t remember people or times before life in the freight containers surrounded by zombies. His entire world has been 3 adults in a fractured world.

I highly enjoyed the previous three installments in the series [enough that it made my Jaffalogue’s Best Reads of 2015: Part 2]:
     The Alpha Plague–5 stars
     The Alpha Plague 2–4 stars
     The Alpha Plague 3–5 stars

[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “The Neon Morgue” by Nathan Wunner

2 of 5 stars.

In a Matrix-like scenario, a human survives in a world controlled by automatons and other sentient machinery. The 1st-person narrator trades human sacrifices for time.

Due to the conditions of the speaker–not well–and a raging storm setting followed by a setting in the depths of a sewer, the details remain vague and the backstory sparse. This person is living in the moment trying to buy another day. The title refers to the husk of a big city in which the automatons have embedded. The remnants of the previous human occupants linger in the background. The narrator also mentions dead bodies being raised in a drone-state.

This tale appears in Whispers from the Abyss edited by Kat Rocha. I received this new anthology directly from 01 Publishing through I’ve previously reviewed this author’s “Death May Die”.
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “The Well” by Tim Jeffreys

3 of 5 stars.

Claustrophobia [fear of tight spaces] and nyctophobia [fear of the dark] are both common and widespread. Add a dose of chiroptophobia [fear of bats], and this scenario makes for nightmares. This vignette barely has a tale or story, it’s a mere scene or scenario, but enough to provide a snapshot of fear.

“He” has fallen down a well, and waits for his girlfriend to find help. Shuffling noises and dripping sounds spur him to light a match he has on him. In the brief flare of light, he sees that he’s surrounded. The walls of the well are lined with sleeping winged things.

The girlfriend returns with help. As they loudly call down to the guy, the creatures awaken . . .

This tale appears in Whispers from the Abyss edited by Kat Rocha. I received this new anthology directly from 01 Publishing through
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “Secrets in Storage” by Tim Pratt & Greg van Eekhout

3 of 5 stars.

A quiet gnawing horror, an unease, resides in the sticky place between the absurd and the inexplicably supernatural. In this Lovecraft-inspired tale, a dark place of worship in locked away and forgotten much like the gods it serves. But how it is locked away and forgotten is both mundane and absurd. In a lapsed storage locker, under stained drop cloths, lies a locked chest:

I took a hopeful breath and lifted open the lid. The underside was densely carved with peculiar shapes, like hieroglyphics drawn by a drunk with a corkscrew.

At first I thought the chest was empty, which was a crushing disappointment, but then the darkness at the bottom struck me as a little too dark, and I frowned and reached inside, thinking there was… I don’t know what. A sheet of midnight black velvet at the bottom, maybe.

Defying physics, the chest contains the top of a stairway [and potentially an unseen portal] leading far, far down to a cavern with altars and jewel-eyed idols and dead bodies. And voices . . .

The skull that fell out of the robe I’d picked up rolled against my foot. I can’t even describe the sensation. Imagine a spider walking across your exposed eyeball, maybe.

This tale appears in Whispers from the Abyss edited by Kat Rocha. I received this new anthology directly from 01 Publishing through
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Novel Review: The Great Hunt by Kachi Ugo

The Great Hunt (#1, The Hunt Series)The Great Hunt by Kachi Ugo
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This opening novel in a series poses an interesting premise–what if all animals except humans died out. It answers with this view of a divided humanity, 2000 years past a man-made apocalypse that wiped out the fauna leaving humans to fill multiple niches. Eventually, cannibalistic predators and vegetarian prey sub-species emerge.

The 2 main characters, Sam[antha] and Luke are both teenaged scions of clan leaders on the verge of their first official hunt of prey humans. They alternate narration expressing the various angst and rollercoaster that is teenaged affection and nerves in the face of heightened expectations in the culturally important Great Hunt. Luke leans toward stoic in his emotions under the hard hand of his father, the second most powerful person in their society. He keeps his love of Sam in tight check, though he compromises many rules and beliefs in his devotion to her. Sam tends toward the petulant as the only child of the most powerful person in their society.

The ramp up to The Great Hunt, and the hunt itself play out not unlike The Hunger Games and Red Rising in which teens pit against teens for glory and survival. The stakes are life and death.

This novel does a very adept job in capturing the “predatory” mindset and how that rules social, cultural and individual beliefs and actions. The young cannibals feel and act like the potential killers they are meant to be. The other POV, that of the prey, is left wanting. However, the situation at the end of the 1st book is primed to tell this alternate vantage for the sequel.

Unfortunately, the novel also critically undermines itself in some major ways, destroying the suspension of disbelief and the immersive quality of the tale. A thorough and clean proofread would solve half the problems, as malaprops and homophonic errors riddle the narrative. Passed is used to mean past a dozen times. The characters phantom rather than fathom a reason. And throughout the book, the word floor is used in lieu of ground, but connotatively are not interchangeable. As the hunt and most of the actions take place outside, the ground isn’t an uncommon reference. Perhaps the most jarring mistake was a final scene with 2 rather important characters, one of whom has died. The name of the dead character is accidentally used for the living character many times in a row making it very hard to understand what is happening.

The other half of the problems come from the novel not believing in itself. Fantasy and sci-fi work when they double-down on their worlds, defining their ethos from within. This tale repeatedly has teens comparing what would be everyday things and practices, to those of the pre-apocalyptic world of the 21st Century. Nothing could ring less true for a sub-species that has evolved so quickly and radically that they consider the vegetarian sister sub-species to be less than human. Making such comparisons would be as drastic as everybody today constantly comparing cell phones and IMAX to life in the Roman Empire. Academically? Perhaps. Everyday, non-academically? Not likely. Clearly, this was done for the sake of the readers which gives them little credit and shows little faith.

I received my copy of this novel directly from the author through
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Graphic Novel Review: Liberty: Deception by Travis Vengroff

Liberty page 35 colors jpg

A new outer world universe premieres in Travis Vengroff’s Liberty: Deception in which an Earth outpost beyond our solar system gets cut off from the rest of humanity.  The “civilized” peoples of their world live in the lone city, Atrius, seen in the image above from Volume 1.  The urban images are stunning thanks to lead artist Raymund Bermudez and his team.  Images like that are often reserved for the cover, but this beauty hides on page 35 among other hidden gems.

But wall art aside, it’s the story here which ensnares.  Beyond the borders of this one-city system, are fringe communities deprived of resources in every possible way.  Not surprisingly, fringers resort to stealing and less savory activities including cannibalism for survival.  [Incidently, the novel I’m reading also depicts a sci-fi cannibalistic culture . . .] This is a fractured community of gangs & gangsters, cultists & sadists, and most of all cannibals. Issue 0 of the series is currently available and depicts but 1 of many gangs. The art in this issue, by Casey Bailey, is even more consistent and mood-setting. I especially enjoy the dialect of Claw’s crew, the Conways:

Also available at this time is the Liberty: Fringe Iconography Guide by Atrius’ professor, Dr. Kovski. The world-building is evident in the inclusion of culture and style guides for the various subgroups. But also impressive is the willingness of Liberty’s creative team’s inclusion of the reader into the world building. Their podcast, Nerdy Show, contains research segments from the fictional Dr. Kovski, too, all in an effort to make the world immersive and multi-media.

Liberty: Fringe Iconography GuideLiberty: Fringe Iconography Guide

However, it is Volume 1 which brings the meat and potatoes to this world. Atrius is under the firm control of Archon Reeve who controls all peoples and media within. Propaganda is rife. The hero of Atrius, Tertulius Justus, is the most decorated citizen in history for his actions in keeping Atrius safe from the dastardly Fringers. He is also a fraud and a construct not unlike Captain America–he’s an actor playing his role at Archon Reeve’s whim until she’s done with him, and the populous is none-the-wiser. Brilliant.

Available now are the podcasts, Issue 0 and the Liberty: Fringe Iconography Guide. Volume 1 is due out in October, but this crew has a kickstarter to aid in production, but also to offer a great way for the fans and supporters to get involved and possibly to even show up on the page as a villain or hero of Atrius.

Short Story Review: “Nutmeat” by Martin Hill Ortiz

4 of 5 stars.

Humor and horror may not make for a long-term marriage, but for a romp in the hay this duo satisfies. The horror element comes from the periodic antagonist–the parasite. Parasites are always good for a creep-out factor in that a host body and sometimes mind gets hi-jacked undeservedly and often unknowingly. Plenty of real-world examples exist that make bedbugs and lice look like house pets. The humor comes in the telling, and hopefully not just in my reading.

A pimply, daft young adult son of a walnut farmer is visited by a plant parasitologist from UC Davis who’s come around looking into reports of infestation at a walnut grove a few miles over. [At this point, the tale reminds me of Charles Stross’ Equoid in which dastardly parasitic snail-like mollusks invade a horse ranch creating a full-blown evil unicorn infestation–the horn is the shell of the snail . . . but I digress.] Dr. Lerner reports that mollusks–uh oh!–normally found parasitizing tube worms at black vents seem to have a relation that is using the walnut shells as a shell and the nutmeat for early sustenance.

But there is more going on than meets the eye. These clever, tentacled gastropods are known to enslave nearby bodies into doing their bidding, too. And the more complex a body they parasitize, the more complex they themselves become slowly taking over whole ecosystems. Btw, the neighbors from the nearby grove are missing . . .

This tale appears in Whispers from the Abyss edited by Kat Rocha. I received this new anthology directly from 01 Publishing through
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “When We Change” by Mason Ian Bundschuh

3 of 5 stars.

The hardest part was not killing the kids, but cutting them up to fit in the furnace. All we had in the cabin was a carving knife and a small hand saw.

There’s no mincing genre with that opening line–this is horror, dehumanized and owned. Not flushing out into a full story, this tale remains a kernel which could have expanded into many directions without overstaying its welcome. More would have been more in this case. That is not to say that what little is offered doesn’t work–it does. It just doesn’t develop. Half of the tale is dealing with the living memories of the 2 deceased kids without offering any explanations.

Only two hints are given for what has led to this horrific opening action and those two hints don’t mesh easily together. 1) “We never should have moved back. I thought it had ended with the murder-suicide of my great-uncle so long ago.” So, it could be the house, or a haunt. Something supernatural is going on. 2) Later, the narrator’s wife acknowledges that she expects to change and she doesn’t want to live through it. Huh–not much to go on. She was reading the Innsmouth Times which references the Lovecraft Universe where people physically morph away from their humanity.

This tale appears in Whispers from the Abyss edited by Kat Rocha. I received this new anthology directly from 01 Publishing through
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Novel Review: Turquoiseblood by Cecelia Isaac

TurquoisebloodTurquoiseblood by Cecelia Isaac
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a word–brilliant. This novel deftly weaves 2 narratives of adopted albino women separated by 200 years but joined by their shared ostracism, small country and their involvement in trying to solve murderous political machinations during their respective eras. Each thread is its own political thriller touching on like locations and motivations across mountainous Rak.

Nothing about this premise should work. And yet it slays. Each thread reverberates through the other without compromising itself.

In the earlier steampunk-like era with magic-fueled airships crossing the mountains and lowlands, Pristina Aikaterine is the feared huntress daughter of Rajin, the country’s only wielder of magic and a national hero for his role in freeing Rak from its occupation. She has been burned by her rash defense of the magic essence gleaned from the death of magical creatures [think ivory from elephants, or whale oil from whales]. Almost no magical animals are to be found anymore. Pristina tries to convince others that someone’s trying to gain the knowledge of magic and start a political revolution.

200 years later, no one wields magic. No airships ply the skies. Pristina Aikaterine is known in legend as the traitor that aided the short-lived revolution. In the absence of hunters of magical creatures, dragons have become more common including the largest and grandest of the dragons–the Imperials. Dragons and humans have decent relations except in the rare cases that an Imperial goes insanely and murderously rogue. At that point, it’s known as a Turquoiseblood, and there is no return from the state.

After the murder of her partner Red, Anya goes Turquoiseblood, destroying a castle and scores of mountainous villages. Dying, she crashes in a blizzard in the remotest of villages where young outcast and illiterate Kiri propels her back to life and out of the rogue state. Anya, in return, takes Kiri on a broad tour of the kingdom educating her along the way in the ways of language, reading, history and courtly behavior. Their investigation of Red’s murder [and the collection of his essence] points the finger at someone trying to revive the forgotten practice of wielding magic . . .

I received my copy of this novel directly from the authors through
[Check out my other reviews here.]

Short Story Review: “Nation of Disease: The Rise & Fall of a Canadian Legend” by Jonathan Sharp

3 of 5 stars.

Literature purporting to be a journal or article adds an air of impartiality, but also separation of ownership. Tone matters. In this case, the tale claims to be a magazine news article reporting the facts of a horrific situation. However since the article merely reports it after the fact, the tale itself is not horror but rather realistic fiction that hints at a potential larger supernatural element, or more accurately at the belief in supernatural involvement by those firsthand participants in the story.

The setting is a murder of a musician at Austin’s annual South by Southwest Festival by his fellow band member–during a stage performance. The tale reads like a police blotter with a modicum of extra reporting to reveal witness statements and descriptions of found witness video from online sources. While “crime of passion” or drugs might seem like obvious explanations, this article implies that the goth-metal musicians dealt in the occult and were artistically attempting to tap into a larger, ultra-dimensional unseen force musically.

The strength of this story is not in what it shows about the crime itself or the individuals involved, but rather in the implications of what is not seen in this type of reporting. The first-hand accounts of those involved are absent. In the mainstreaming and normalizing process of report stories, real and perceived supernatural evidence and implications are edited out. Journalism would abide nothing else outside of a supermarket checkout rag. Demons, whether present or in the mind of the perpetrator, do not make the final cut. Rather, a musical genre stands scapegoat in the face of tragedy.

This tale appears in Whispers from the Abyss edited by Kat Rocha. I received this new anthology directly from 01 Publishing through I’d previously reviewed this author’s “Skoptsy”, which was quite compelling.
[Check out my other reviews here.]