Rockstar Ending by N.A. Rossi

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

Ahhhh, Dystopian Fiction. Oh how I love thee.

When I was far younger and beginning my journey into the twisting disillusionment of how society could potentially crumble upon itself, the general themes of Dystopian Fiction were either rooted in the past (e.g. post-World War II era), or set just out of reach in the near future.

I feel, now, that advances in consumer digital connectivity have bridged that gap and make Dystopian Fiction that much closer to a current theme than we could previously visualize. I’m not even going to touch on how modern politics pushes hard against those previously fictional themes.

That’s where Ms. Rossi slides right into the picture with Rockstar Ending. The setup is completely plausible. Our story opens with Meg: a woman approaching 85 who has lost her husband, has grown kids who have moved away, and is now approaching the cutoff of NHS benefits due to her age.

In Meg’s world, the “Yuthentic” movement has taken over the political climate in the UK. Younger people, who have become politically active, and see the older generation as more of a leech on the system than a resource for inspiration, have set into place laws that, effectively, remove health and welfare benefits for all citizens over the age of 85, and increasing restrictions for those over the age of 70.

The icing on the cake is the new “benefit” the government — and the corporation — are pushing as the “One Last Gift,” a.k.a. sanctioned euthanasia.

Rockstar Ending tackles the development, marketing and sly execution (if you’ll pardon the pun) of a complex, and very technology-driven, propaganda machine targeting UK’s aged population: leveraging hopes and fears, and exploiting some very grey areas of ethics.

At the same time, we have the story of Lexi and Bob: two (among many) individuals who are trying to fight the system against all odds.

I’ll leave the synopsis at that because this is a novel that is well worth discovering on your own.

Ms. Rossi is a natural storyteller. While there are, seemingly, many threads winding about the London setting of the story, all slowly begin to weave together in an intricate interconnection that pivots viewpoint and reader perspective. It’s a device that I absolutely love from authors like William Gibson, and Ms. Rossi uses the mechanism deftly.

Another thing I greatly appreciate is the likability, but also fallibility of just about every character we come across. None of the heroes are particularly shiny, and the villains (if there really are any) aren’t really the puppy-kicking variety. Rockstar Ending is a grand example of the snowball effect of bureaucracy and how the bounds of greed and success are not necessarily defined by ethical borders.

I feel like this was a very relevant novel to read, and gave me pause many times to consider how such steps were taken, and how they could easily be actualized.

Ms. Rossi has already written two sequels to Rockstar Ending, and you are damn sure that I’m going to be reading them very soon.

Whisper Down the Lane: A Novel by Clay McLeod Chapman

If you grew up in the 1980’s, there is a chance that the “Satanic Panic” affected your life in some way. For myself, a nerdy, Dungeons & Dragons playing kid growing up in semi-rural New Mexico, the “Panic” glanced off of a lot of our community. There were always whispers of rituals and Satanic graffiti popping up in abandoned buildings, and many many rumors of both the humorous and downright terrifying swirled around us constantly. Proctor and Gamble were a company who promoted the occult through their product logos, Liz Claiborne went on Oprah and said she gave profits to a Satanic cult, and even McDonalds and the Smurfs were in on the rise of Satanism and the Mystical in our nation that was quickly sloughing off it’s good Christian roots.

This is the world that Mr. Chapman brings Whisper Down the Lane into.

This is the story of Richard… or is it Sean… an art teacher at an elementary school in a sleepy little town that has just gained a bit more attention by the hipster city-set looking to come to somewhere “quaint” to raise their brood.

Something, however, is rotten in the city of Danvers, and it very strangely starts to mirror Richard’s — or is it Sean’s — past.

Then we start to learn some things. Richard Bellamy used to be Sean Crenshaw: a boy who, in 1982, was pulled into what can only be described as one of the biggest shitstorms of the Satanic Panic.

Rather than say anything more about the plot of this gem, let’s take a look at Mr. Chapman’s approach to building terror and uncertainty into a story. In The Remaking, Mr. Chapman totally drew me in with an approach he similarly uses here in Whisper Down the Lane. I like to think of it of the old adage about putting a frog in a pot of water and slowly bringing it to a boil. The frog (allegedly) won’t notice until it is far too late. That is how Mr. Chapman writes horror, and Whisper Down the Lane is a perfect example. Yeah, this weird Sean story is building in alternate chapters, but Richard really has his shit together. Then, quite suddenly, peanut butter meets chocolate, and the whole house of cards explodes. There is such a subtlety of tone, and even sanity, that just makes this novel a joy to read. Yes, it’s not perfect, but it is a wonderful homage to so many other masters of the craft. Certain scenes and situations may seem clichéd, but that is because they draw from the very origin of the cliché, and that is the purest form of flattery. Plus, it really does add to the depth of the story in a way that isn’t remotely cheesy or contrived.

Hell, there’s even a “made for TV” movie reference in there.

The City of Dusk (The Dark Gods #1) by Tara Sim

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

The City of Dusk (The Dark Gods Book 1) by [Tara Sim]

Sometimes you stumble on a book that hits all the right buttons at just the right time. Boy howdy, The City of Dusk sure did.

Set in the realm of Nexus (a very telling name, no?) in the city of Vaega, The City of Dusk is the story of four noble houses: each with their own divine magic affiliation and abilities. Well, really it’s about the heirs of these houses and their interaction with each other, their deities, and with the impending doom they sense coming.

The gods these houses descended from have shut off the realm that contains Nexus from the other realms of magic. To add a special twist, the Holy King may announce one of the heirs the heir to the crown at any moment.

Yeah, all the makings of some serious grimdark tomfoolery.

Above all The City of Dusk massively excels at a pervasive inner conflict that roils through each and every one of the main characters. Attitudes, allegiances and even relationships sway back and forth, caroming off of every obstacle imaginable. Just when things begin to even out a little bit, some new bit of madness drops in out of the ether and everything is upended. As a plot device, however, it really really adds to the sense of uncertainty that is practically a character in its own right. Ms. Sims deftly weaves together impossible and improbable situations that each of the heirs has to traverse, and, in some cases, there doesn’t seem to be a plausible “right answer” that can be achieved. It’s absolutely delicious.

This is a series that is going to pain me greatly to have to wait for. This first book isn’t even officially “out in the wild,” and I’m craving the second. This book is definitely bound to be on several of the “best of” lists for 2022. On March 22, make sure you have your copy.

Aurora’s End (The Aurora Cycle #3) by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff

Ms. Kaufman and Mr. Kristoff are deities at creating perfect YA science fiction trilogies. The Illuminae Files was just an incredible experience of whirlwind storytelling piled on with some crazy space action, and The Aurora Cycle follows suit without even being the least bit derivative.

It’s almost sickening how deft these two are and cranking these literary Skittles out.

So, Aurora’s End. It’s hard to believe, with the amount of crap Squad 312 has gone through, that this is only the third book in the series. Worst of all, they’ve committed the mortal tabletop gaming sin of splitting the party.

Now, each group isn’t sure if the other is alive, and there is a whole lot of shenanigans going on to prevent this gigantic hive-mind galactic threat that has pretty much thwarted our protagonists (and even a couple of the anti-heroes and one supreme baddie) in the previous books.

Seeing that this is the wrap-up of a trilogy, I’m going to say exactly squat about what transpires in Aurora’s End. Instead, I strongly suggest you, gentle reader, grab up this fully formed — and now finished — trilogy to consume, like Power Pellets on a Pac-Man board, for yourself.

All of the characters are so well developed, and really take on so many more incredible traits and personalities as the trilogy progresses. There are so many “No effing way!” moments in all three books, especially Aurora’s End, that, as a reader, you just start to expect the most incredibly insane things to happen.

Great books, great authors. This series is an absolute no-brainer for spacey sci-fi folks.

The Circus Infinite by Khan Wong

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

Here’s the setup. Our protagonist, Jes, is a “fugitive” on the lam from a sinister institute that was basically torturing him as a method of studying his gravitational powers. At the start of The Circus Infinite, Jes has escaped pursuit and gotten passage to Persephone-9, a pleasure moon covered in pleasure palaces, entertainment, and casinos.

Purely by chance, Jes manages to get involved with a circus troupe as well as getting mixed up with Niko Dax, Persephone-9’s resident crime lord.

Throughout the book, we learn more and more about Jes. He’s mixed-species (which is often shunned), he’s asexual, and his powers are very very atypical for anyone.

Jes finds friendship, and a bit of romance; all the while increasing his role in the circus, but also being tasked with doing more and more horrible things for Niko Dax.

There were aspects to the worldbuilding that I found very creative. The terminology as well as the detailed explanations of the alien species, the history of federation of worlds that unites all of these species, as well as great details on the encountered technology made for an enjoyable read. I do wish that I had discovered the included glossary before I finished the book, but that’s on me.

All-in-all, The Circus Infinite was a very enjoyable read. I do hope that Mr. Wong continues in this universe because I feel like there is so much more to explore in it.

Reality Testing (Sundown, #1) by Grant Price

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

Reality Testing (Sundown Book 1) by [Grant Price]

It’s funny how one doesn’t realize how much they miss a solid slab of cyberpunk until they have one under their nose. Mr. Price absolutely owns the genre with Reality Testing. It’s got everything a good cyberpunk novel should have: dystopian future, techno-bio-enhancements, specialized slang, and massive classist conspiracy.

The story opens up with our protagonist, Mara Kinzig, waking up to having apparently murdered someone she does not know. Mara had signed up to basically have her dreams harvested (oh yeah, and that’s just the tip of the techno-weird iceberg for this amazing world), but now is apparently in this situation.

Mara then does the only thing she knows to do and heads out for the tiny apartment she previously shared with her girlfriend. Here’s where it starts to get weird. Mara, apparently, isn’t Mara. It’s her brain and personality, but it’s been all decanted into a different body.

Then the real trouble starts. Mara is hunted by the law, and a lot of bad things happen forcing her to seek out the Vanguard: a sort of utopian semi-terroristic cell of outcasts trying to change the current plight of the world.

That’s all I’m going to share because this story is very very hard to describe without diving deep into the spoilers.

Mr. Price definitely excels at creating a very gritty and highly polarized world where the divide between the haves and the have-nots is utterly massive. This dystopia is an absolute chef’s kiss of “wow, everybody got fucked really badly.”

The twists and turns of Reality Testing are what really make it a winner, though. We meet characters who, despite all odds, still find faith in humanity in a world where people are rapidly removing bits of what makes them human. We have a transformed Berlin where the “old ways” of building/living/working/polluting are looked down upon with such disdain that it basically becomes criminal to exist. The darkness set up in the first part of the story is so palpable that every small step towards the revealing of answers seems like a herculean task.

This book is really really fun, but, at the same time, Mr. Price tricks the reader into thinking about what is going on in our own world through acid-etched carbon nantotube silica lenses. Don’t sleep on this book

Birthright (The Impavidus Cycle #1) by M.A. Vice

Birthright (The Impavidus Cycle Book 1) by [M. A. Vice]

Here’s the setting. A young daemon gets inhabited and taken over by his father and proceeds to go on a Duke Nukem-style bloodbath to help raise power for and spread the corruption of his father. His sole driving force was to just ambush and kill and kill and kill.

Then the oddest of things happens. The young daemon, who we learn is named Albtraum, is captured, taken in, and, in the first of many twists, given the opportunity to fight against his father and maybe make the world a better place.

Ms. Vice opens this one with an absolutely master-crafted bloodbath and then deftly slides into a very involved story of political intrigue and a broad exploration of political relationships, interpersonal relationships, trust, and growth.

The fantasy presented in Birthright is top-notch. Having Albtraum constantly at odds with his father, and the uncertainty of how he can and does act in situations added a nice tension to this read while progressing the story nicely. In the shadows of spreading corruption, the reader never really knows when Albtraum will be infected by his father’s nefarious spirit and begin resorting back to his ways of violence.

I really enjoyed the variety of terrains that our characters are taken through. This world was very well adapted, and does help lend to a fair amount of character development. Through the worldbuilding, the reader can see the roots of many of the characters, and a lot of it is reflected back in personality.

Birthright is chock full of twists: some seen from a mile away, and some that just smack you in the face as they are happening. The final book in the series comes out in December 2021, and I really can’t wait to see how the story progresses considering the way things were left at the end of Birthright (no spoilers).

I’d really suggest picking this novel up. It’s independently published, and it’s always good to support those creators who take it upon themselves to push their works out in the world.

Hollywood Dead (Sandman Slim #10) by Richard Kadrey

James Stark can seriously not catch a break. Good ol’ Sandman Slim is freshly back from Hell thanks to making a deal with Wormwood, but — because it’s Wormwood — there’s a catch. Stark has to do some errands for the horrible organization and he only gets brought back at half-strength to do them. Typical Wormwood.

There is some serious shit brewing that Stark has to try to either diffuse or destroy, and he’s got a super limited timeline to do so. Naturally everything goes haywire and Stark — who is trying to lie low since he’s been dead for a year — has to go back to enlist some help from some old friends.

The Sandman Slim novels are just good damn fun to read, and they are always very inventive. Mr. Kadrey has a proven record of building some seriously screwed up situations to get Stark in, and some very creative solutions as to how Stark gets out of them. Stark’s LA is exactly the type of gritty hell-hole it needs to be, and the wide range of creatures, magicks, weirdos, groupies and goons makes for the perfect melange of fantasy noir.

Yes, a ten (actually twelve) book series is very daunting to approach, but I highly suggest devouring these as soon as you can. This has been one of my favorite series for a decade and I recommend it to everyone.

Gutter Mage by J.S. Kelley

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

Rosalind Featherstone is a badass. Yeah, she might not always make the best decisions; she’s a little impulsive, and she probably drinks too much, but, nonetheless, Roz is a badass. When we first meet her at The Skinned Cat — one of the few taverns she is still welcome in — Roz manages to get in a bit of a knock-down, drag-out scuffle whilst waiting for her partner, the humongous Lysander Tunning.

Lysander has lined up a cherry of a job for him and Roz: rescuing the kidnapped infant of the highly respected Lord Edmund which was kidnapped by the relatively new and notorious Alath Mages Guild.

That’s how this marvelous tale kicks off. From there we drop right into hardboiled noir, magic, spirits, deception and a little bit of sexy time. J.S. Kelley has absolutely nailed the banter between our two primary protagonists. Roz and Lye and old friends and the relationship is just so beautifully executed. In fantasy fiction such as this, you usually expect the big lunk to be the hot-headed one, but it is just absolutely refreshing for Lye to be the voice of reason while Roz will pretty much take on anything regardless of risk. That being said, though, Roz has a real intuitive noggin on her shoulders. The mystery aspect of Gutter Mage is what really sets it apart from much of the fantasy fiction that is out there. I would think I had a certain twist sorted, and be absolutely wrong: an incredibly enjoyable feeling when navigating a new book.

Rolling this all up in Roz’s semi-mysterious history is just the icing on the cake. J.S. Kelley definitely has some serious talent at character development, and the worldbuilding in Gutter Mage is also incredibly top notch. Do yourself a favor and put this one in your TBR stack. I honestly can’t think of a more enjoyable mystery novel that I have read in the past year. I feel like a night out drinking with Roz would lead to some serious mirth.

I do hope that this is not the last that we see of this world. I feel like there were enough unanswered questions to warrant another book (or ten), and, honestly, I just can’t wait for more.

The Kill Society (Sandman Slim #9) by Richard Kadrey

One of my absolute favorite fictional characters is James “Sandman Slim” Stark. The just amazingly insane escapades that Mr. Kadrey has put ol’ Jimmy through over the years is just gargantuan.

I’m not sure how I messed up and missed the release of four books, but now I get the opportunity to motor through the rest of the series all in one fell swoop.

In the Kill Society, Stark finds himself deposited by his old buddy Death back into a far reaching part of the Tenebrae. Almost instantly he is set upon by what seems to be a nomadic caravan who has more questions that Stark has answers. When dragged before the mysterious Magistrate who leads the caravan, Stark comes upon a very familiar face: Father Traven.

The Magistrate is fascinated by Stark (who is going by a false name so this group doesn’t know he’s Sandman Slim) and keeps him on to help with a mysterious plan that he has.

Very quickly, Stark finds himself teamed up with the preferred elite of this group, which he hilariously calls the Dog Pack.

Working with the Dog Pack, Stark begins to find out more and more bits of information about what the Magistrate is trying to achieve. The rest I shall leave for you to find out.

Per usual, Mr. Kadrey excels at setting up a remarkable description of the landscapes and challenges of his version of Hell. Worldbuilding is definitely a forte of his. The Kill Society had a very large cast of characters that were executed perfectly with individual voices and quirks. This is nothing new in the Sandman Slim universe, but it is very refreshing in its consistency.

This is the type of fun reading that I really really appreciate as a book lover and constant story consumer. I don’t have to rack my brain reading them, but the scratch every itch I love about gritty urban fantasy. Watching the way that Sandman Slim has developed over all these years has been just fantastic, and, while Stark’s attitude is slowly shifting away from just being an evil bastard, there is still all of that aggression and scathing wit that makes him such a delightful character to read. I cannot wait to jump into book number ten!