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In the 18th century, it was rather common for young wealthy English folks to embark on a Grand Tour of continental Europe between their school years and their careers or higher education. Henry “Monty” Montague’s Grand Tour, however, is anything but common. Monty’s formal education at Eton ended rather abruptly, due to being caught in a rather compromising situation with another one of the boys. Now his future as his father’s heir is in jeopardy, and his tour is his last chance to redeem himself.

So it is that Monty departs for the continent, knowing that if he doesn’t manage to behave himself (at least in his father’s eyes), he’ll be left penniless. He’s accompanied by his younger sister, Felicity, herself off to a school in France, and his best friend Percy, who will be leaving England for law school at the end of their tour.

Monty naturally feels a bit overwhelmed by the mounting pressure on him to completely turn his own life around. However, understanding the plights of others isn’t something he’s ever been good at, and Felicity and Percy each have their own deep concerns about what awaits each of them at the end of their trip. None of them expect Monty’s knack for attracting trouble to draw them into a web of intrigue that leads them from France to Spain to Italy, pursued by highwaymen, pirates, and vengeful nobles. And none of them, least of all Monty, expected him to fall desperately in love with Percy along the way…

The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee was everything I wanted it to be and more. Adventure, mystery, and romance all fall neatly into place in this YA treasure. It’s available now, so do yourself a favor and pick it up.

Note: I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair review.

I’ve been following Sam Sykes on twitter for a while, and given my affinity for both well-crafted fantasy worlds and action-adventure stories, it was only a matter of time before I picked up a copy of The City Stained Red, the first book in Sam’s Bring Down Heaven series.

At almost 650 pages, The City Stained Red is a doorstopper of a book, but a fast, fun, vicious read. The book follows Lenk, an adventurer that some readers may recognize from Sykes’ previous series, The Aeon’s Gate Trilogy (though reading that series first is by no means a prerequisite for Bring Down Heaven). Lenk has finally decided that he’s done with killing, and wants to put aside his sword and pick up what he believes will be a normal life in the trade hub city of Cier’Djall. He and his friends, Denaos the thief, young wizard Dreadaeleon, khoshicht (Sykes’ clever take on elves) archer Kataria, healer/priestess Asper, and dragonman Gariath have killed scores of people and monsters. With the money owed to them for their services, they could happily retire from their violent lives. However, the man who owes them is not so easily found.

Cier’Djall is a massive, sprawling city, and the wealthy who rule over it have made their gold by selling silk produced by enormous spiders. However, the beautiful silk-draped spire that towers over the city leaves long shadows. In darker corners of the city, some of the poor are disappearing, and the ruling fashas may be to blame. Two rival churches seek to position their armies within the city, and tensions are running high as negotiations between them loom. Then, there’s the small matter of the local thieves guild and their ongoing conflict with a new but powerful cult that claims to have demons backing them. This is reality in the city where Lenk hopes to find Miron Evenhands, the priest at whose behest they have been doing what they do best. Cier’Djall is a bonfire piled high, drenched in oil, and awaiting a spark, and Lenk and his friends are unwittingly bringing lit torches through the gates.

The City Stained Red takes a page from A Song of Ice and Fire by presenting chapters from the perspectives of each member of Lenk’s band of adventurers. After arriving in Cier’Djall, they split up to try to located Miron, each using their unique skills and connections to make their way through the city. Denaos has connections from his previous life in the thieves guild, the Jackals. Dreadaeleon seeks the assistance of the Venarium, the wizard’s alliance. Asper, a follower of the same church as Miron, travels to the various temples in the city. Kataria finds herself in Shichttown, a slum where the non-humans try to live out of the way of the fiercely racist upper class. Gariath attempts to gather information from another dragonman who works as a bodyguard for one of the fashsas. Lenk is trying to cope with the fact that his pursuit of retirement may lose him the closest thing he’s ever known to a family. None of them are remotely ready for what they find.

After a footwar between the Jackals and the Khovura cult spills from the back alleys into the streets, every faction with an interest in controlling the silk trade comes out of their corners swinging, and Lenk and company can do little more than hope to survive.

I absolutely loved this book. Sykes blends dark humor and trope deconstruction beautifully. I’m already reading the sequel, The Mortal Tally, because I couldn’t wait to see what happens to these folks next. Reading about these characters is like watching my college Dungeons and Dragons group in action. There’s violence and bloodshed, but also fervent emotion. It’s a wonderful thing.

Edit: As of 7/26/16, a copy of this review can also be found here and here.

The world is burning, one person at a time. A new sort of plague, a spore known colloquially as Dragonscale, is infecting hundreds of thousands around the globe. It begins with something small. It gets into your head. It grows. You feel fine until you see it on your skin-a small stripe, like a gold-flecked stain. You might even mistake it for a bruise at first. But then you know you have it. You know that you’re going to burn, and it’s only a question of when. No one knows exactly how it spreads, and there’s no sign of a cure short of being killed before you ignite. You’ll smoke a bit first, and then you’ll combust, unless someone decides to end your life before then.

In the midst of the chaos is Harper Willowes, a Portsmouth nurse who sincerely wishes for nothing more than to be able to help others through the crisis. She volunteers her services caring for the infected while her husband Jakob works for the Public Works Department, helping to clean up the devastation left behind by the burning infected. It’s at work that Harper first meets the Fireman. He brings a child in for treatment, not for the Dragonscale covering him, but for a ruptured appendix. After the boy, Nick, is taken in for surgery, the Fireman vanishes. A few days later, Nick is gone as well, leaving only questions in his wake. Then, disaster strikes and the Portsmouth Hospital burns to the ground. Harper escapes, but soon makes two discoveries. She’s pregnant and she has the ‘scale. Believing himself to be infected as well, Jakob snaps and Harper is forced to flee for her life and that of her unborn child.

When all seems lost, the Fireman intervenes. He rescues Harper from Jakob’s pursuit and secrets her away to a small camp where over a hundred and fifty infected are living in hiding, including Nick. Living and thriving, to Harper’s great surprise. While there’s no cure for the spore, the people of the camp have found a way to live in harmony with the Dragonscale, under the leadership of Nick’s grandfather. Harper’s medical skills quickly make her indispensable. The camp, however, is no paradise. As panic grips the nation, marauders seek to eliminate any infected. Harper only wants to survive long enough to deliver her baby, but internal power struggles in the camp threaten to expose them all to the roving Cremation Crews. The Fireman may be the only one who can save them all, but he hides a dark secret of his own.

Joe Hill takes on an apocalypse of his own, one that rivals The Stand in scope and violence (not to mention pop culture references). As the world around them burns, his characters must face the fact that other humans may be a greater threat to them than the Dragonscale ever was. The Fireman is a hell of a ride from beginning to end, and is every bit as intense as the flames it evokes.

The Fireman, hits store shelves on 5/17. Go check it out.

[My most sincere thanks to William Morrow for the Advance Reader Copy of The Fireman, acquired at PLA 2016]

In 1977, Stephen King chilled readers with a tale of a young couple and their son, and the worst winter to ever pass in a hotel in Colorado. That book, The Shining, was King’s third novel, and thanks in part to the brilliant work of Jack Nicholson and Stanley Kubrick, is widely remembered as the basis for one of the greatest horror films ever. Now, almost forty years have passed since The Shining first hit shelves, and we are granted a rare treat from the master of horror. On September 24th, 2013, Stephen King released Doctor Sleep, a sequel to one of his earliest and most famous novels.

One winter, long ago, one of Colorado’s finest hotels burned to the ground after the aging boiler exploded. Four people were at the Overlook Hotel at the time. Jack Torrance (the recently hired winter caretaker), his wife, Wendy, and their son, Danny (a young boy gifted with the titular “shining”, a type of psychic power), were living in the hotel for the season. Also on location was Dick Halloran, head cook of the Overlook, who had returned from vacation in Florida because of a growing concern for the safety of the Torrance family. Mr. Torrance was killed in the blast while the other three escaped with relatively minor injuries. Torrance had reportedly returned to the hotel’s basement in an heroic attempt to relieve the pressure in the boiler, albeit regrettably too late to save the hotel and himself. The truth of that winter is known only to the survivors.

Years later, Danny Torrance is a grown man struggling with ghosts, both literal and metaphorical. Having inherited his father’s propensity for alcohol, Dan tries to hide from his past, locking away the memories of the Overlook and drinking to numb his psychic abilities, always on the move from town to town. After a time on the road, bouncing from bottle to job and back again, Dan realizes that he has to get his life back together. In a small town in New England (surprise!), Dan finds an AA sponsor and gainful employment at a local hospice. Before long, he’s learning to use his shining to help those who are near death to cross over to the other side, earning the nickname “Doctor Sleep.”

Far across the country, a group of people known as The True Knot are stalking people with shining, feeding off of their powers and extending their lives. They soon set their sights on a young girl named Abra, whose latent shining is a blazing fire next to the flickering match that is Dan Torrance’s power. The True intend to find the girl, torture her to death, and feast and rejuvenate on her power, or “steam.” When she learns of their existence and their plans, Abra reaches out via the shining, attempting to find someone who can help her stand against the True, and finds Dan. Soon the two are communicating, planning a way to defend Abra from those who would do her harm and simultaneously lay Dan’s ghosts to rest once and for all.

King has crafted a delightful tale with Doctor Sleep, continuing the story of a tormented young boy as he passes into adulthood. He skillfully weaves new and old, tying details of The Shining into the present-day narrative. It’s not The Shining all over again, but rather a different, more mature type of horror. Dan is sympathetic, and overwhelmingly human, struggling to flee from the gifts that saved his life when he was a child. Abra is a bright spot in his life, reminding him of the hope his family once had.

If you’re a Stephen King fan, odds are that you’ve already at least considered giving Doctor Sleep a read. I devoured it, and as always, I wanted more when I was done. It’s a fascinating opportunity to see the evolution of King’s writing style and technique, and a great story in its own right.

I recently finished Chuck Wendig’s first novel for young adults, Under the Empyrean Sky. As a fan of Chuck’s blog over at Terrible Minds, I felt I owed it to myself to give one of his full-length books a read, and I’m damn glad that I did.

Under the Empyrean Sky introduces us to our intrepid young hero, Cael McAvoy, captain of a teenage scavenger crew in the Heartland. Cael and his friends sail a land boat across the seemingly endless fields of corn to salvage anything they might be able to sell in their home town of Boxelder, because any extra money they can bring in helps provide for their families.

See, only one thing grows in the Heartland. The Empyrean makes sure of it. Hiram’s Golden Prolific is a modified strain of corn that spreads anywhere it pleases, choking out any other potentially competitive life (and it’s not fond of people walking near it, either). It’s the only seed that the Empyrean distributes to the farmers in the Heartland, and the returns for working for the Empyrean machine are enough to barely survive.

So Cael McAvoy scavenges, but he and his friends are not the only crew at work. The mayor’s son has a crew, number one in salvage recovery in Boxelder, and Boyland Barnes Jr. brings daddy’s money to the fight to ensure that Cael’s crew remains in second place. With tensions running high as the Harvest Home festival approaches, Cael takes his ship out for a prime target, only to be shipwrecked in the corn by Boyland Jr. It’s then that he finds something out in the middle of the field, something no one in the Heartland could have predicted. Vegetables. Fruits. Things that have no right growing in the midst of Hiram’s Golden Prolific. The discovery could make them all rich enough to buy passage to one of the flotillas, massive hovering cities of the Empyrean, where the wealthy live in splendor floating over the Heartland like Cael’s boat over the corn. Or it could get them and everyone they’ve ever loved killed.

Wendig packs one hell of a punch into the pages of this book. Deep characters and rich world building blend seamlessly with gritty violence and some of the most honest dialogue to hit the pages of a young adult novel. While some things might come across as a bit heavy-handed (like Empyrean agent Simone Agrasanto‘s name), most of the novel is quick and sharp, like the leaves of the plant that lends its name to Wendig’s self-dubbed “cornpunk” genre. Under the Empyrean Sky weaves teenage love, sex, violence, and intrigue into a wild land boat ride that will leave you counting the days until the release of volume two.

Some time back, I’d mentioned that I was looking forward to the eventual release of J.K. Rowling’s first novel for adults. Turns out I had very good reason to be excited. I wrapped up the final chapters of the book about an hour ago, and I have not felt such a powerful emotional response to a book in a long time. Bittersweet is the best word to describe it, but then, the novel is set in a far more realistic world than Rowling’s other works.

Rowling’s novel is set in the fictional town of Pagford, a seemingly ideal English village where a seat on the local parish council is the highest life achievement to which many aspire. The parish council is about to deal with several major issues, including a low-income housing development that tarnishes Pagford’s image (The Fields) and a local addiction clinic with a questionable success rate, called Bellchapel. Due to a deadlocked council, it seems that neither problem will be sufficiently resolved when the unthinkable occurs.

On his wedding anniversary, Barry Fairbrother, parish council member and longtime supporter of the Fields and Bellchapel, suffers a brain aneurysm and dies, leaving his seat on the council open in a casual vacancy. The story is primarily character driven, with reactions to Barry’s death serving as motivation for most. In the wake of Barry’s passing, Pagford splits into three main groups. We are privy to the perspectives of the pro-Fielders and their staunch opponents as well as the teenagers who are caught up in the conflict. Barry’s death means that an election will have to be held to fill his seat on the council, and each side strives to arrange for someone who shares their views to be appointed. The buildup to the election sends ripples through the community, as no one is fully prepared for the revelations that will rise to the surface. Unrequited love, racism, drug addiction, teen sex, and dirty politics are only the beginning in this unflinching look at small towns and modern life. Narrative shifts from character to character in a manner akin to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, allowing Rowling to place us inside the heads of girls who are being bullied at school, heroin addicts who are being threatened with the loss of their children, corrupt businessmen who live with the constant fear of being caught, and more. Barry’s death shatters the veneer of Pagford, and life there will never be the same.

Rowling’s book is a drastic departure from her earlier writing, and I have to say that it’s a great step for her. Whether she continues along similar lines in future books is uncertain, but she has crafted a wonderful exploration of the sides of humanity that many writers are afraid to examine. The Casual Vacancy is intense, and certainly not for the faint of heart, but I loved it. It’s a damn good novel. I would highly recommend that you give it a read, but be aware that, like life, it’s rarely pretty.

Pictured: A wonderful representation of the town of Pagford. Seemingly uninteresting but hiding one hell of a story.

Pictured: A wonderful representation of the town of Pagford. Seemingly uninteresting, but hiding one hell of a story.

 

House of Leaves is an editor’s nightmare.

I love it. It’s a jumble of narratives, strange font choices and jarring shifts between them, footnotes that ramble on for several pages, and pages that suddenly switch direction as the labyrinthine house that serves as the main location for the book.

It is riddled with grammatical errors, and seems utterly nonsensical to anyone who picks the book up and flips through it, hoping to find some semblance of sanity within the pages. In short, it is everything that a novel about an eldritch abomination should be.

I recently finished reading the book, and I must say that while it was one of the most dense reads of all time, it was incredibly satisfying to be able to put the book down and know that it was complete. There’s nothing beyond the text whatsoever. There is nothing behind me, growling in my ears now that I’ve completed the book. 

In short, read the book if you’re looking for psychological horror. It’s not a quick read, but it will definitely make you think.

Three and a half years ago, Stephen King released a short story collection entitled Just After Sunset. Twelve of the stories in the book had been previously published, leaving one new title to bring the total up to that wonderful number of thirteen. That story was N.

N. was one of the most terrifying stories that I’d read at the time I first encountered the book, and it still chills. King crafted a phenomenal series of layers of narrative. N. is the story of a psychiatrist named John and a patient referred to in his records only by his first initial, the titular N. N. is suffering from insomnia and severe obsessive compulsive disorder that he claims stem from a visit to a field near John’s home town. When N. eventually commits suicide, John is driven to investigate more, to see if there was something that he could have done to save his patient.

The outer layers of the story focus on John’s investigation and the impact that his own visit to the field has on his family and friends. It’s eventually revealed that part of the madness that comes upon the people who visit Ackerman’s Field derives from a series of standing stones in the middle of the field. There are seven stones (a bad number) there when the field is viewed by the naked eye. Gazing through a filter of some sort such as a camera, however, reveals an eighth stone. Is it there? Touching each of the stones in turn seems to prove that there are eight, but the other stone isn’t always there. N. believed that something, some Lovecraftian horror, lurked in the center of the stones, and as long as there were eight (a good number), it would be contained. “Eight stones would keep them captive, but if there were only seven…they’d come flooding from the darkness on the other side and overwhelm the world,” he said. Was he right, or is it only a delusion?

I recently returned to the world of N. Marc Guggenheim and Alex Maleev collaborated with Stephen King to transform his novella into a skillfully paced graphic novel.  If you’re a fan of well-written horror, I would highly recommend giving N. a read, in either format. The graphic novel maintains the delightful and terrifying prose that King is known for, and shows just how unsettling uncertainty can be.

King himself has said that, despite the Lovecraftian atmosphere of the story, it’s actually inspired by Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, of which Lovecraft himself said “No one could begin to describe the cumulative suspense and ultimate horror with which every paragraph abounds.” Time to add that to the list of stuff to read tonight.