Author: Justin Bowers

Justin is a purveyor of fine code, a collector of many many things, and a sympathetic reader. Aside from here, you can find his inane rantings on Twitter at @aquaphase or on Goodreads. Justin can be reached here.

The Court of Miracles (A Court of Miracles #1) by Kester Grant

Imagine a story of the inner workings of Parisian criminal guilds wrapped up in a loose homage to Les Misérables and Jungle Book. That is exactly what Ms. Grant has pulled off with The Court of Miracles.

Our main character, Eponine (Nina for short), is a super-talented member of the Thieves Guild and is on a mission to both save her adopted sister Cosette (Ettie) from and destroy the Flesh Guild. Ettie has caught the eye of the Tiger (not a Survivor reference) who leads the Flesh Guild, and Nina is already chapped at him because he took her actual sister into service several years back.

What follows is some serious criminal high jinks, and a broad swath of literary liberty with the characters of Hugo’s Les Mis.

This YA gem was truly a joy to read. The absolute spark between Nina and Ettie’s personalities, coupled with Nina’s preternatural ability to get in and out of the most heinous of situations, seriously drives this novel in an entertaining rollick.

There is some time-hopping that occurs, but, in a tale such as this, that is absolutely to be expected. As the years progress, we see Nina becoming more mature and far more driven to her goals. One thing I greatly respected is that Nina is not always successful in her wild gambits: something I see less and less of these days from other authors dealing with their protagonist(s). In my mind, these trip-ups help painfully carve even more facets onto Nina’s vivacious personality.

While Ms. Kester took the liberty of setting up shop in a preexisting world, she does not shy from leaving her own mark on it. All the visuals, sounds, tastes, and smells of Louis XVII’s Paris — and a lot of the seedy underbelly — are laid out like a buffet for the senses, and, truthfully, a lot of it is quite unsavory.

This is a book worth picking up. Better yet, snag the audiobook which is masterfully executed by Ajjaz Awad and John Lee.

Sorrowland by Rivers Solomon

** This book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review **

Sorrowland opens with our protagonist, Vern Fields, out in the woods giving birth to twins all by her lonesome. Yeah, that’s an opening that will grab your attention.

If that were not enough, there is a malevolence — Vern calls it the Fiend — in these woods that harrows Vern and taunts her with offerings of baby-symbolic death: constant dead animals with accompanying baby accessories.

What we learn of Vern in the first half of the book is downright horrifying. She is a 15 year-old Black albino, very visually impaired, and raised in (and escaped from) a Black-centric compound/cult/commune known as the Blessed Acres of Cain.

I hate reviewing books where I feel like any little bit of detail I give could give away a major plot surprise, and Sorrowland is definitely this kind of story. There are minutiae galore, but, in an amazing display of story organization, Mx. Solomon has a wonderful little path for each and every one of them. The “everything in its right place” person in me adores this.

Ok, back to Vern. Over the next few years, Vern raises her two children — Howling and Feral — in the wild woods with zero human contact aside from the continued harrowing by the Fiend. Howling and Feral grow bigger and become more wily and rambunctious in their free environment, but Vern senses that she is going through some changes.

All the while, she is in constant fear of being discovered by someone who will drag her and her children back to the Blessed Acres of Cain. Back to the horrors of Ascensions, daily “vitamin” shots, and general tyranny under the gaze of her husband who is the leader of this commune.

And that’s it! That’s all I’m letting you know. Just let me tell you that shit definitely escalates from there.

I’ll be brutally honest, when I started it, I wasn’t really in the right headspace to appreciate the nuance of how this story was setting up. It wasn’t until I realized that there was a much bigger tale here than one of just mere survival that I was totally missing. Mx. Solomon deftly sets up a grim tableau and then proceeds to stack piece after piece upon the stage in a slow build of mystery, intrigue and mild horror until it seems that no outcome will be remotely acceptable in the “happy ending” category.

For me, Sorrowland is a story about the myriad aspects and facets of self-reliance. Never before have I experienced a character that so defines the concept of “grey area” in personality and actions as Vern Fields. I often found myself shaking my head at her sheer obstinance, but, as I began to realize that Vern only trusted Vern (and sometimes not even that), her methodical approach in a fuzzy world was what she equates with survival.

Don’t even get me started on electricity food.

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

I’ve been hearing about this novella through various outlets for a few months, and it sat on my stack longer than I would have preferred for a “short” piece of fiction.

Normally, I take breaks from “big” story undertakings to cleanse my palette with something easy to consume. Ring Shout is far from easy to consume.

Set in 1922 Macon, Georgia, the story opens with our main character, Maryse Boudreaux sitting atop a cotton warehouse in downtown with her two comrades-in-arms and best friends, Chef and Sadie. The trio is watching a Fourth of July Klan march proceed below them whilst planning out a special surprise for a pack of Klu Kluxes.

In this particular tale of alt-history and horror, Klu Kluxes are fantastic beasts of immense strength and hate who hunt down black citizens with animalistic fervor. Sadie and her friends hunt them.

As Ring Shout progresses, we learn that — as in many tales of good versus evil — there is a new resurgence in Klan evil that is rising up surrounding a new showing of G.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation that is getting ready to be shown at Stone Mountain, and Sadie’s group aims to disrupt and stop it.

Diving deep into the mystical, it appears that Griffith created the film to entrance a nation of white people into spreading more and more Klan hate, but Sadie has her own brand of mystical support to help stop it.

As social commentary, Ring Shout is pretty damn powerful. Rather than make light of the highly overt racism that was paraded around in the early to mid 20th century, the situations and stories help create a more rational picture of the mistrust and animosity that existed between the races.

As a horror story, the novella hits all the suspenseful highlights. There are mysterious monsters, Lovecraftian otherworldly overlords, and a whole lot of cultural lore and tradition. The monsters are made all that more terrifying by the ideologies they represent, and the “big bad” is about as terrifying as it gets.

I was often reminded of Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country as I was making my way through this one. While there is a lot of the same themes and tone, there are decided differences, in my mind, that make Ring Shout a more raw experience.

Whether you are a fan of horror or not, Ring Shout should definitely be on your reading list.

The Cleveland Heights LGBTQ Sci-Fi and Fantasy Role Playing Club by Doug Henderson

** This book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review **

I’ve been thinking a bit about how to approach reviewing this novel. Let me be very clear, I absolutely loved it, and I really enjoyed the very raw and emotional struggles and triumphs Mr. Henderson very smoothly navigates in it.

My quandary comes from approaching this book without discounting the very heartfelt issues presented within. Yes, this is a LGBTQ+ focused story, but, while the viewpoint is presented from and about largely homosexual characters, the core story presents situations and feelings that are far more inclusive.

Plus, its about the amazing glue that a game of Dungeons & Dragons sticks people together with.

Ben is a young man of twenty-five who lives in his parents basement with his cat — Onigiri — and spends his time thrifting and selling old toys and collectables online. Ben is openly gay, but has never really had a real relationship. Ben is also a member of a gay gaming group at a Cleveland-area local comic book and gaming shop along with the other primary characters of this story.

This is the annoying part of any of my reviews where I tell you that I’m not going to tell you anything more about the story, but, in this case, I think that it is particularly important not to. The primary charm for me, aside from the amazing role play that happens during the gaming sessions, is how each character, and their story, unfolds in the context of where everything opens.

The Cleveland Heights LGBTQ Sci-Fi and Fantasy Role Playing Club (a title that I absolutely love and is an utter mouthful) is about how each of these individuals set up their personal orbits: how each of the characters sees themselves, and the whos and whats they surround themselves with.

Everything in this book seems so incredibly personal to me, and, while I started out trying to identify with it as a gamer, I realized very quickly that the identification really came from being a normal human with human doubts, fears and desires. This story loops way out into the day-to-day hopes and angst of just being a member of society in a harsh reality, and then circles right back in to the semi-controlled comfort of the Thursday night gaming session. There is even a little jab at discrimination that doesn’t exactly land where the reader thinks it might land.

This was a hidden gem for me. I really thought there might be more “in-world” parts of the book, but I found myself turning more from that aspect being the core of the story to seeing as the neutral ground each of the characters could work out their inter-personal issues with. Kudos to Mr. Henderson for presenting probably the most realistic — to my experience — gaming session presentation I have ever read about in a work of fiction.

This one is a real winner.

The Psychic’s Memoirs (Terrafide #2) by Ryan Hyatt

*** This book was provided to me by the author for a fair and honest review ***

I’ll tell you one thing, The Psychic’s Memoirs jumps right into it as a detective drama. Above all, I think that’s what it is at it’s genre-jumping core.

Ted Kaza and Lydia Jackson are LAPD detectives who are investing the disappearance of a girl who just happened to very accurately predict the earthquake that hit Los Angeles six months ago and basically destroyed the city. The “powers that be” want a word with Miss Alice Walker, and she’s nowhere to be found.

The next genres come tumbling into play quickly thereafter: superhumans, multi-verse theory, global espionage, political uprising and last, but not least, alien invasion and mecha (major bonus for that).

I’m not going to share too much about this story because if you aren’t hooked by chapter seven, then you probably won’t finish it. I was a tad worried as each new outrageous situation unfolded, but it really works for and with Mr. Hyatt’s style.

This is a dystopian future book that seems somewhat less dystopian and a tad more scary at the same time. I find it quite realistic that there could be violent clashes in the street with ragtag gangs up against police and military forces while the average Angeleno is just going about their normal day-to-day.

Mr. Hyatt’s writing style is very well thought out, in my opinion. Scenes are very well set and the attention to situational details really enhances the personality quirks of the primary characters. Above all, you really get to understand what bothers each of them. That’s not something I think I’ve seen in many other books, but it’s incredibly humanizing.

Another thing I really appreciated was the way that interpersonal relationships were portrayed. Not every potential conflict had to be that way, and there were a couple of very interesting surprises on that front that threw me for a slight loop. Again, very humanizing.

I will say, The Psychic’s Memoirs does go “meta” at a certain point. At first I thought it was a nice little easter egg, but it turns out to be pretty core to the story. I haven’t decided if the device is hilarous, genius, or lazy. I’m not sure I’ll ever decide.

Regardless, The Psychic’s Memoirs is a solid read. It’s fast-paced, and really pushes the reader along with a lot of action and intrigue. This is obviously just the first part (or second, actually) of a broader story involving Kaza, Jackson, Walker, and others, so I hope I get to read more of it soon.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

I learned from reading The Once and Future Witches that Ms. Harrow is an excellent storyteller; a writer capable of weaving delicate wisps of plot and story that intertwine innocently until they don’t.

I was hesitant, however to pick up The Ten Thousand Doors of January because it was her first novel, and I just enjoyed Witches so damn much.

Boy am I a moron.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is the story of January Scallar: the semi-ward of a wealthy Vermont businessman/collector/eccentric. January doesn’t really fit in this world. She is basically holed up in Mr. Locke’s Vermont mansion while her father travels the world building up Locke’s collections of interesting artifacts.

As the story progresses, we start to learn that there is quite a bit more going on surrounding Mr. Locke, January’s father, and January herself. There are a multitude of worlds hidden behind random doors all over this world.

As I do not like to spoil any novel I read, I’m going to leave the synopsis at that.

As I mentioned earlier, what strikes me in reading Ms. Harrow’s works is the rolling and organic way her storytelling develops. Both of the works I’ve read from her, and especially this one, showcase and absolute love of the storytelling tradition and her adroit way of pulling in the reader as if in conversation. I absolutely love this style and I wish there was more of it.

The sensory descriptions in this book absolutely lend to the style. All of the smells, sounds, tastes and textures come to life in a flowing language that gently cradles the reader like a warm hearth. Cheesy description, but apt.

I know that Ms. Harrow has stated a few times that she has no plans of revisiting the tales of January and the multitude of doors, but, with so many doors, who says that intentions have to be stated?

The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry by C.M. Waggoner

** This book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review **

The Ruthless Lady's Guide to Wizardry

It’s very hard to start in on a review of something as magical as The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry because it just has so many facets and layers.

At first glance we get the feeling that one Miss Dellaria Wells is pretty much a hopeless case. An uneducated fire witch subsisting in the back alleys and barrooms of Leiscourt, just trying to find a way to keep a roof over her head and, sometimes, take care of her mam.

As this book really gets rolling, we find Delly stumbling her way into a very high paying job to watch over — with a passel of other more “high society” witches — a bride-to-be at a statuesque manor outside of Leiscourt.

Oh, but that’s just the start of it.

As the story ensues, we find our Delly embroiled in all manner of plot and chicanery. All of which I dare not share here as to keep the surprises to you, the reader.

In this book, Ms. Waggoner builds a robust semi-Victorian world full of class struggles, new love and some of the absolute best language I have come across in a very long time. Where else are you going to find a perfectly acceptable use for the word “enkittenated?”

I was very much reminded of Jen Williams’ The Copper Cat Series, and, especially the titular character of Wydrin. Delly and Wyd would probably be at each others’ throats a scant few pages in.

This is a book that you will not want to put down, nor want to finish. The characters all have amazing depth (even the dripper trash), and the personalities practically ooze off the page.

It would be a releftin’ shame if Ms. Waggoner did not continue to dabble in this world she has so lovingly built. I really cannot wait for more.

Oh, and then there’s Buttons… (bong)

Orange City (Orange City, #1) by Lee Matthew Goldberg

** This book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review **

It’s been a wee bit since I delved in the world of urban dystopian fare, but Orange City delivers it in spades. Imagine Man in the High Tower (with a Stalin slant) mixed with Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and Max Barry’s Syrup. That’s pretty much what Mr. Goldberg deftly delivers in Orange City.

The basic premise of the book is that there is a huge secret city ruled by “The Man,” a seemingly monstrous oligarch who leads over the corporations and keeps the citizens working and cowering in fear of being cast out into the Empty Zones of the Outside World.

Everyone in the city has a role to play, and that is where our protagonist, Graham Weatherend comes into play. Graham was snatched to the city a decade ago to be put in the position of advertising executive. When his company gets the account for Pow! Sodas, everything starts to change for him: mostly chemically.

Mr. Goldberg finds a very unique voice and builds a terribly frightening world in Orange City, and I just could not get enough of it. The absurdity of this society under the fist of a potential madman combined with a seemingly endless supply of color themed entertainment venues with all of the decadent vices you can imagine really paints a fantastic picture of a “work, play, die” ethos.

This is a city where people go from the top floors of industry to being limblessly cast out onto the streets of the Zones in a matter of hours. A city where there is not even the precept of individual privacy.

I enjoyed Orange City because of the insanity of it. Page after page unveiled new facets of what I can only describe as mild terror. Much like Graham, I can’t wait for the next flavor.

Spellbreaker (Spellbreaker Duology #1) by Charlie N. Holmberg

This is the story of Elsie Camden, a young woman who was born with the ability to unmake spells much like unraveling a sweater.

Set in a semi-Victorian England, Spellbreaker tells the story of young Elsie and her search for stability in her life. Orphaned by her family, Elsie is rescued from the work house by a mysterious group of magic wielding “Robin Hood-esque” types know as the Cowls. Throwing another monkey into the barrel: Elsie is an unregistered and unlicensed magic user (or un-user as it is), so she must hide her abilities and her mysterious jobs for the Cowls.

One one such mission, Elsie runs afoul of almost Master Spellcaster Bacchus Kelsey. Bacchus catches Elsie red-handed, and, rather than turn her over to the authorities, he “gives her the opportunity” to work off her “crimes” with him on the Duke’s estate where he is currently residing.

All along the way, and a recurring theme in this book, Elsie is frantically searching for some news as to the whereabouts of the family that up and left her so many years before.

Going too much further into the plot would reveal spoilers that I’d rather not divulge.

In Spellbreaker, Ms. Holmberg presents a very well-formed environment with oodles of the backstory I just love in a read. While I would have rather enjoyed some more practical displays of the wider variety of magic use, I can appreciate staying on task with the story because there is a lot to unpack.

The characters are all marvelously charismatic and there is a real feel of everyone’s individuality in their interactions (trust me, this is important).

Topping it all off is the cliffhanger that — if I’m being honest — I did not totally see coming.

My one whiny gripe about duologies (or trilogies, for that matter) is the waiting required to get to the conclusion. Luckily, Spellmaker is due out March 9, 2021, so I only have to wait a few months.

Spellbreaker is a fun little read. It has a nice airy mix of magic, mystery, the scandalous hint of romance and Victorian England. The language is light and quaint, and the whole production has all the fond reminiscences of MASTERPIECE Mystery!.

Tragic Fools (Children of Ankh #5) by Kim Cormack

** This book was provided to me by NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review **

Tragic Fools (Children of Ankh Series Book 5) by [Kim Cormack]

One reading peeve of mine is being dropped into the middle of a multi-book series without having read the previous books. I tend to read a lot of series, so I approach each one with a “will this stand on its own” approach. Sadly, most of the time the answer is a resounding no.

Ms. Cormack, however, has taken a very might swing at it with Tragic Fools.

I was drawn to this book by a quick blurb describing paranormal abilities, immortals, and colorful mishaps: all things I thoroughly enjoy. What I did not expect was almost slapstick irreverence and enough bawdy ribaldry to make a vicar blush.

Granted, I do not (yet) have a full understanding of what the various Clans in the Children of Ankh’s endgame is supposed to be, but damn I enjoyed the widely mixed variety of characters and situations. Throughout the constant death, emerging powers and nigh constant demon slaying, the reader can really get a feel for this totally misfit band of Ankh immortals and how they approach the tasks they are given. Do they do things right and/or efficiently? I would guess never. Are they entertaining and enticing as hell? Absolutely.

Quite honestly, I cannot wait to read the other books in the series. The childish humor and amazingly well thought out paranormal aspects of the various situations that Ankh gets themselves into have made me a fan. Plus, I’m not hooked in on seeing if the newbies can get through Testing.