“Harrowing” is the best word to describe this fast-paced short story that serves as a prequel to the novel His Name Was Zach. The book is told in first-person, from the point of view of the title character, a young girl whose normal life is interrupted in horrific fashion.

As befitting an introduction to the world of His Name Was Zach, the book is intense and not for the fainthearted. Martuneac does a great job conveying the sheer terror of the speed at which Abby’s world collapses. Some of the techniques he uses in the text are quite ingenious, creating a memorable atmosphere in a brief space.

This is a very short story, and I think it is probably best read as a prologue to the main novel. I had already read the novel before reading this, but even though I knew what would happen, it still pulled me in.

There is one thing about the story that I felt could use a bit of expansion, but I can’t discuss it without major spoilers.  Let’s just say it concerns Abby’s reaction to a very traumatic event. She seems to accept it very quickly, more so than I would have expected. However, this is just my interpretation, and there’s no doubt that different people process traumatic events in different ways. (This is, in fact, one of the major themes of this series.)

I highly recommend this to fans of dark, post-apocalyptic stories. It’s a good intro to a gripping series.

Truly, the more I like a book, the harder it is to review it. I don’t want to give you my second-hand summary of the plot or the setting; I want to take you into this world to see it. Like previous books of Litka’s that I’ve reviewed, Keiree and A Summer in Amber, Beneath The Lanterns instantly enveloped me in its setting.

The world-building that he put into this thing! It’s breathtaking. I can practically feel myself looking out across the Azere steppes under the Yellow Lantern. Read Litka’s posts here and here about how he carefully crafted this setting.

With just a few lines, Litka can suggest a whole world, a whole culture. Most fantasy books with intricate settings have to spend pages and pages on description. Not Litka. As in his paintings (one of which you see on the cover above), he suggests a great deal with but a few strokes. His work reminds me of Joy Spicer’s fantasy novels in that regard. Spare, yet rich.

But what of the characters, you say? Ah, I’m glad you asked! Beneath The Lanterns features a character who instantly became one of my all-time favorites: Ren Loh, the daring, independent and stubborn daughter of the Empress of Jasmyne, who leads the scholarly narrator, Kel Cam, into one wild adventure after another as they flee toward Lankara.

What I like most about Ren Loh is her sheer audacity. Displaying the recklessness characteristic of most heroes, Loh realizes that “fortune favors the bold” and thus is always at her most aggressive when the odds seem most against her. Sometimes her gambles work, sometimes they don’t, but what a great character she is! Of course, I can also sympathize with Kel Cam, who prefers a quiet, ordered life to the sort that Loh leads. I would probably behave much as he does in his situation, which makes him the perfect Boswell for the larger-than-life Lieutenant Loh of the Lancers.

This is a wonderful journey across a fascinating world. A classic romance, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. As Litka describes it on his blog, “It is not an epic, but… about people caught up in the gears of statecraft, whose main concern is personal survival.”

And yet, somehow, it feels epic. I don’t know how to put it exactly, because it is certainly a very personal story, but at the same time it feels momentous, and not just because of Ren Loh’s status in the political machinations, but in some deeper sense. An epic about the human condition, about duty, about freedom… I could go on, but I can’t do it justice. Just read the book already!

Having now read three of Litka’s books and a good many of his blog posts, I have some understanding of his style and his literary philosophy. And all I can say is, the man is a treasure. He writes these wonderful stories, creates these fantastic worlds from nothing, and he does not do it for fame nor money, but simply because he loves it.

Since you are for some reason still here and have not gone out and downloaded the complete works of Chuck Litka, indulge me in a flight of cultural criticism, beginning by way of analogy.

As a teenager, I drank diet soft drinks all the time. As in, multiple cans per day. Diet Dr. Pepper was my favorite. Then, at some point, I read some articles about what’s in soft drinks, and decided to quit cold turkey and drink water instead.

Many years later, I had a diet soft drink again one day, and it tasted disgusting. “How did I ever drink that stuff?” I asked myself.

Our mainstream entertainments are basically the equivalent of diet soft drinks. What else can you say about an entertainment industry that does this, for example? The spark of creative talent is almost entirely obscured by the needs of marketing in this world, leading to endless reboots and spin-offs that all have this shared quality of soullessness.

If you want to wean yourself from these artificially composed concoctions and seek the pure waters of original stories told with wit and charm, know that the spirit of good storytelling is not dead. It lives in Litka, who tells stories for the sheer fun of it, for the love of the storytellers’ art.

Read his books. Read his blog. Look at his paintings. Above all else, be glad that there are people like Litka sharing their work with the world.

This book starts off with the death of a university administrator at a retirement party. A retirement party for a staff member who isn’t there. Not physically, anyway–James Crawford is the guest of honor, but he is monitoring the events remotely. As an IT manager, he is able to watch as his boss abruptly collapses just as he is about to give a speech.

The late boss, Sean Thomas, is not exactly missed by his former subordinates. The title of the book refers to him, and this sentiment is shared widely by the staff. Nevertheless, no matter how much he may have deserved it, there’s still a great deal of suspicion surrounding his death, and when his chief lackey also turns up dead, the provost recruits Crawford to investigate.

Crawford is a likable protagonist; a southern gentleman who takes his time about things, and muses his theories on the case to his dog, Tan, and cat, delightfully called “The Black.” Usually, he does this while preparing a meal, which is described in mouth-watering detail. Sometimes, he meets with his colleagues Stan and Bobby to discuss things, and more than once, the gruff but goodhearted police officer assists him in solving the case.

The book is slow-paced, but that’s not a bad thing at all. It captures the feel of a Southern college campus perfectly, right down to how life in the university town has to be carefully planned around whether the collegiate football team is playing at home that week.

While I enjoyed the denouement, I will say that I pretty much guessed how the mystery would be resolved long before it ended. But that’s okay. This book is more about the journey than the destination, and it’s a fun one. More than a mystery, it’s really about getting to know the character of Crawford, and his reflections on life at the university.

The book even has a theme: centralization and power. This can be seen everywhere from the late Dr. Thomas’s management of the media center, which ends up being critical to the plot, to a minor detail like Crawford’s description of a popular football commentator:

“A couple of years ago, the radio station he’d been on had been bought up by one of those conglomerates that try to homogenize the stations so they all sound the same, from coast to coast. I guess the idea is eliminate any but essential staff, but that kills the local color as well.”

The university’s buying up of the surrounding properties to create a carefully-manicured off-campus “shopping experience” is another example of this. For me, the real fun of the book is hearing Crawford’s sometimes cynical, sometimes sentimental views on the place where he has spent his career.

Another striking thing about the book is the way it shows the university from the perspective of administrators. Students hardly register except as obstacles to be avoided on the drive in. Classes are scarcely mentioned; the world of college administration is a world unto itself.

While the mystery of Thomas’s death gets cleared up, the book ends on a cliffhanger introducing another mystery for Crawford to solve. I’m looking forward to the second book, and recommend this one to anybody who enjoys a nice, leisurely mystery.

This is the third and final book in the Cassie Black series. If you’ll recall my review of Book Two, I didn’t want to go into too much detail for fear of spoiling Book One. And so now, I face the same problem doubled, because to describe the setting of this book risks spoiling the first two.

Hmm, what to do? Well, I think I’ll start by talking about an element of these books that I neglected previously: the food. To power her magical abilities, Cassie needs lots of sweets, and eats a steady diet of delicious foods throughout the series. I love Painter’s descriptions of her meals. In fact, the one that sounded best of all to me was a description of a salad in this book. Reading this series is sure to whet your appetite.

As for the rest of it? Well, Cassie is snarky as ever, and her sarcastic voice stays with her even into her final confrontation with the arch-villain. The supporting characters are once again enjoyable, and I was especially pleased with how the character arc of the ghostly Tower Warder Nigel turned out.

All told, this is a fun series for readers who enjoy fantasy adventures that don’t take themselves too seriously. Painter’s magical world is entertaining and populated with plenty of amusing characters. The Untangled Cassie Black is a fitting way to wrap it up.

This is a re-telling of the Ancient Greek myth of Perseus, son of the God Zeus, and his quest to slay Medusa. It’s told in a light, witty style, which readers of Pastore’s first novel, The Devil and the Wolfwill certainly enjoy.

Along the way, Perseus meets with various other of the Ancient Greek gods, including Hermes and Athena, and more than a few monsters. And as befits a hero’s journey, he grows from an unsure, often impulsive boy into a brave and wise hero.

I knew next to nothing about the myth of Perseus when I read this book. After finishing it, I looked it up, and in fact, Pastore has hewed fairly closely to the myth. He explains in his afterword that, while many modern re-tellings change things up, i.e. making the confrontations with the monsters more “Hollywood,” (my word, not his) he wanted to be faithful to the source material.

But while he does a fine job at following the ancient story’s plot, there’s still no question it’s a Pastore book, through and through. Fans of The Devil and the Wolf will hear the echoes of Meph and JR in Perseus’s banter with the gods, and the ending, while true to the original myth, has a poetic irony to it that is perfectly in keeping with the overall tone of the book. If you don’t already know the myth of Perseus, then please don’t look it up before reading this. My ignorance of it made the ending that much better.

But even if you are an expert on Greek mythology, you should still read this. Pastore’s treatment of the story is witty and humorous. It fits perfectly with the overall sensibility of the myth.

Lovecraft! Few names are as loaded as his. The weight it carries, the emotions it evokes–what power this strange, little-known-in-his-time pulp writer has assumed!

Most of the time, when I talk about Lovecraft on this blog, it’s to criticize him. And there’s a lot to criticize. I’ve written about this before. But Lovecraft has this way about him: just when you’re ready to dismiss him, you remember some piece of his work that’s so interesting you can’t just write him off altogether.

Which brings me to the topic of today’s post: his 1935 short story “The Haunter of the Dark.”

“The Haunter of the Dark” tells the story of a young writer named Robert Blake who moves to Providence, Rhode Island. Blake is fascinated by the occult, and soon becomes obsessed with a huge church on a hill far across the city, that he is compelled to stare at for hours from the window of his apartment.

Eventually, he visits the church, where he finds the remains of a reporter who apparently died while investigating the activities of a mysterious religious order called “The Church of Starry Wisdom.” He also finds a strange object in the abandoned church, and immediately upon seeing it, feels an evil presence.

This evil presence–some manner of alien entity, left vague in classic Lovecraftian fashion–can move only in darkness. But when a thunderstorm knocks out power to the city one night, Blake feels sure he is marked for death by the creature that lives in the church tower.

It’s not a long story. It can easily be read in one sitting. And for the seasoned HPL veteran there’s not a lot of new ground here: there’s a legend haunted New England town, a weirdly antiquarian protagonist, a nameless alien horror–this is all familiar. But there are nonetheless some things I find noteworthy about this particular story.

The first is, I admit, purely subjective. “The Haunter of the Dark” is my favorite Lovecraft story. Can I point to anything to say that it’s clearly better than some of his other really good stories, like “The Music of Erich Zann” or “The Hound”? Not really. I could probably make an argument for why it’s better than many of his most famous stories, including “The Call of Cthulhu.” But nevertheless, this is purely a matter of personal taste.

Or is it?

Well… maybe there are some other, non-subjective reasons why I can say that “The Haunter of the Dark” is the apex of Lovecraftian horror. Or maybe not, and what I think is objective is just more subtly subjective. But there must be some reason why this story stands out to me above all the others, right?

Well, let’s dig into the evidence–but all the while, bearing in mind the guarded distrust of the narrator that is the hallmark of any Lovecraft tale. After all, “the papers have given the tangible details from a sceptical angle, leaving for others the drawing of the picture as Robert Blake saw it—or thought he saw it—or pretended to see it.”

That’s as good a place as any to start. So, who is Robert Blake?

In one sense, he’s a stereotypical Lovecraft protagonist. He’s an eccentric weirdo who lives alone and is fascinated by the bizarre and the esoteric, and has seemingly no life outside his dedication to these subjects. Almost everyone in Lovecraft-world is like this.

But there’s more to the story: Robert Blake is a surrogate for Robert Bloch, a correspondent of Lovecraft’s, to whom “The Haunter of the Dark” is dedicated.

All right, so who was Robert Bloch?

Well, eventually, he would go on to be a fairly popular horror writer himself. But in the 1930s, he was basically nobody; just a teenager who read Weird Tales magazine and had written fan mail to Lovecraft.

And Lovecraft wrote back. He encouraged the young Bloch in his own writing efforts, giving him advice and introducing him to other members of his literary circle. Lovecraft even gave Bloch permission to write a story in which a Lovecraft-surrogate was killed off. “The Haunter of the Dark” was HPL’s reciprocation of this gesture.

Now, of course in the 1930s, Lovecraft was not as well-known as he is today. But still, imagine what a thrill it must have been for teenager Robert Bloch to become so close (closeness being evaluated on a relative scale when it comes to Lovecraft) to someone he perceived as a great author.

“The Haunter of the Dark” is, among other things, a reader’s dream come true. What if your favorite author put you in one of their stories? Lovecraft even included Bloch’s actual address in Wisconsin! (Which today would be considered doxxing, but hey, it was a different time.)

Lovecraft often referenced his literary friends’ works in other stories as a sort of in-joke, but to write a whole story around someone who wasn’t really even a peer, but just a young fan, is pretty extraordinary.

But that’s not all that makes “Haunter of the Dark” special. In fact, usually fan service in fiction ends up being detrimental to the overall story, and to see why that is not the case here, we have to look at what Lovecraft did in designing the story’s antagonist. For this, Lovecraft plays on humanity’s most basic phobia: the fear of the dark.

Lovecraft rarely created rules for his monsters. He didn’t use vampires who only come out at night, werewolves who appear only when the moon is full, etc. Largely, this was because it was important to him that his alien monsters be utterly inscrutable to humans–beings whose motivations, if any, lay so outside our own domain as to be unfathomable.

And this is still true for the thing which haunts the deserted church on Federal Hill. But Lovecraft does give this monster one very basic, almost childishly obvious rule: it can’t go out in the light.

It sounds almost too simplistic. This is the kind of thing you’d make up in telling a campfire story about a generic boogeyman. But damme, it works! The climax of the story, with Blake watching in mounting terror during the huge electrical storm, is, in my opinion, the best thing Lovecraft ever wrote:

He had to keep the house dark in order to see out of the window, and it appears that most of his time was spent at his desk, peering anxiously through the rain across the glistening miles of downtown roofs at the constellation of distant lights marking Federal Hill. Now and then he would fumblingly make an entry in his diary, so that detached phrases such as “The lights must not go”; “It knows where I am”; “I must destroy it”; and “it is calling to me, but perhaps it means no injury this time”; are found scattered down two of the pages.

Then the lights went out all over the city. It happened at 2.12 A.M. according to power-house records, but Blake’s diary gives no indication of the time. The entry is merely, “Lights out—God help me.”

Lovecraft had a fair amount of disdain for classic ghost stories. In his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, he wrote:

This type of fear-literature must not be confounded with a type externally similar but psychologically widely different; the literature of mere physical fear and the mundanely gruesome. Such writing, to be sure, has its place, as has the conventional or even whimsical or humorous ghost story where formalism or the author’s knowing wink removes the true sense of cosmic fear in its purest sense. The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain—a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.

But with “Haunter of the Dark” Lovecraft hit a terrific balance between his own incomprehensible creatures of inconceivably distant worlds and the most basic elements of an old-fashioned scary story. In almost all his stories, Lovecraft undercuts the atmosphere somehow, but this time, he kept a steady hand.

And to me, what makes this especially remarkable–poignant, even–is that it’s Lovecraft’s final story. He died in 1937, shortly after “Haunter of the Dark” was published in Weird Tales, and I think he had a sense that the end was near when he was writing it. It feels valedictory, from the way he quotes his own poem Nemesis as an epigraph, to the fact that he dedicated it to a younger protegé as a way of passing the torch, right down to its final lines. Admittedly, having a story end with the protagonist’s last words before death is a Lovecraft staple, but

I see it—coming here—hell-wind—titan blur—black wing—Yog Sothoth save me—the three-lobed burning eye . . .

…was the last thing he wrote for publication, and this seems intuitively fitting. H.P. Lovecraft could not go out any other way.

This is why “The Haunter of the Dark” is always worth revisiting, especially at this time of year–“the aeon-shadowed Walpurgis time,” as Lovecraft would say. It encapsulates so much about Lovecraft–his unique philosophy of horror, the evocation of the eerie atmosphere he sought to create, and perhaps above all else, his skill at cultivating relationships with other weird fiction aficionados.

It’s always tough for me to review sequels. I don’t want to say too much about previous entries, for fear that someone who hasn’t read previous books will stumble upon the review and read spoilers. On the other hand, I can’t talk much about what happens in this book without referencing the first book, The Undead Mr. Tenpenny.

So, I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum, and just say that it’s fairly essential to read the first book before you read this one. If you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean when I say that Cassie Black and her snarky attitude are back in this one. If you enjoyed Cassie’s smart-aleck way of speaking in Book 1, there’s more of it here, only this time transplanted from Portland to the Tower of London.

My favorite aspect of the new setting is Nigel, the ghostly Yeoman Warder and aspiring tour guide, who continually gets his history of the Tower mixed up in comical ways. Most of the characters from the first book also reappear and develop further, including Cassie’s landlord, Morelli; to whom there is more than meets the eye.

I could say more, but I’d be treading into spoiler territory, and I hate to do that for a new series. If you liked Mr. Tenpenny, you’ll like this one too. Both books are perfect for readers who enjoy fantasy adventures with a sardonic sense of humor.

This is a short story I heard about thanks to Lydia Schoch’s weekly list of free speculative fiction stories. The cover caught my eye immediately. Look at that beauty!

Anyway, the story itself is very short. It’s about a ten-minute read. But Turpeinen packs a lot into those ten minutes. It begins with the title character transporting a captured killer. The killer tries to flee, causing their small plane to crash in the middle of the desert. They make their way to a ghost town, where the criminal begins having strange visions.

I won’t spoil the rest, but as it’s so short, and you don’t have to pay for it, there’s no reason not to give this book a try. I love weird westerns, and I love sci-fi, and this story contains a blend of both. It makes for a wonderful setting.

Now, obviously, the nature of the story precludes any major character development. The author openly admits that this was written as an experiment, and the book ends with a request to readers for feedback on whether it should be expanded into a longer story. My answer: yes, it absolutely should. There’s so much potential here; it is just crying out to be made into a fully-fleshed out world.

Read it for yourself. It won’t take long, and it’s a fun story.

My three pieces of feedback for the author are these: first, I see from his bio that he is a pilot. Very cool! Given that, it would be nice to have a longer scene with the bounty hunter and the criminal on the plane. I’m sure Turpeinen knows all sorts of details about flying that could make that into a really gripping part of the story.

Second… and this is a pet peeve of mine, but I see it all the time, including in books by big name authors and Hollywood movies. I may have even made this mistake myself, early in my writing career. But, when talking about firearms:

clip ≠ magazine

Now, I know–sometimes you want a short, one-syllable word, not a mouthful like magazine. In that case, I suggest “mag.”

That’s a super nit-pick, of course, but it’s something that always jumps out at me.

And finally, my last piece of feedback is simply “MORE!” I want to read more about these characters and this world. I know I said it before, but it bears repeating: this could be built upon in all sorts of ways, and there are a ton of interesting concepts teased here. I would be thrilled to read a novel or short story collection in this setting.

H.R.R. Gorman has a wonderful book review site I recently discovered. I urge my readers to check it out, because Gorman reviews all sorts of books, including lots of indie titles.

Gorman has also written a novel, American Chimera. I am reviewing it here, and you will note I am doing it in a slightly different style–that is, I am following the typical format Gorman uses for reviews. I’m doing this partly for fun and partly as a respectful tribute to what is quickly becoming a favorite book review site. If the author happens to read this, I want to make it clear that this is intended purely in the spirit of an homage from a fan.

On to the book itself.

THE BOOK

American Chimera
Author: H.R.R. Gorman
2020
Available for free at the author’s blog here.

And before we even dive in to the story, I have to pause to talk about the cover. What a masterful piece this! You know, perhaps, that I love yellow/gold on book covers, and combined with the lovely Art Deco aesthetic, it made me instantly interested. That this is a science-fiction book set in the future makes me like the retro-futuristic touch all the more. For that alone, this belongs to the canon of what I call early 21st-century techno-decadent art.

NON-SPOILER REVIEW

American Chimera is set in 2087 in the aftermath of a horrific war. It combines the elements of multiple genres, including sci-fi, horror, political thriller and a healthy dose of dark comedy. It is also told in an unusual style–much of the story comes in the form of the testimony from prisoners held at a secure government facility, relating their own perspectives on what happened as a result of a remarkable discovery a couple of them made one day.

Like all dystopian sci-fi, American Chimera uses its surreal premise to explore political and philosophical issues. There are dark themes woven throughout the story: prejudice, militarism, religion, climate change and more are all addressed in these pages. Most prominent of all are the ethics of experimentation on living beings: the central premise of the story has to do with bio-engineered super soldiers, in a world where populations are already suppressed through forced sterilizations. This book takes the reader to some dark, dark places.

But it’s never done in a heavy-handed way. The characters in this book, (with one minor exception) all feel like real people. Even the ones who appear at first impossible to relate to–from the seemingly-soulless government interrogator to the central character, who is the product of a perverse experiment–all become human and relatable as they tell their stories. At times, the book has a Rashomon-like quality, as the same events are told from different perspectives, revealing different facets and details.

The plot moves along nicely and comes to a fairly satisfying conclusion. There were a few sub-plots I wished could have been tied up more neatly, mostly because I loved the characters so much I wanted to hear more about what happened to them, but nevertheless, the overall story comes to a definite resolution.

MY RATING

Ah, now this is a feature of Gorman’s reviews that I don’t use: a numeric rating system. It would be a step too far to appropriate Gorman’s Discoball Snowcone scale. There’s a fine line between paying admiring homage and shameless copycattery, but that would cross it.

And yet… the form does demand a number be assigned, even though that’s not my usual style on this blog. I struggle to reduce my feelings for a book to quantitative terms. I would give both The King in Yellow and Right Ho, Jeeves five out of five stars or whatever, and yet this does not imply that I think anyone who enjoys the one would necessarily enjoy the other.

Besides, is there any such thing as a perfect book (5/5), or a perfectly imperfect book (0/5)? I had a few minor quibbles with American Chimera (see below)–what implications should that hold for its numerical score? While every single element in the book might not be exactly what I’d choose, the overall impression is of a magisterial, brilliant, thrilling and surprisingly poignant work of genius that quickly proved impossible to put down. What score, exactly, reflects that?

Enough of this navel-gazing! “Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without,” as Confucius said. As a special, one-night-only event–my rating, in classically Gambrellian terms:

5/5 Jack-o’-lanterns

🎃🎃🎃🎃🎃

SPOILER REVIEW

The story begins with two poor rural people discovering a mysterious egg that has fallen out of the back of a truck. The couple, Brett and Janie, are under the influence of some mind-altering substances, and suppose that what they’ve found is a dragon’s egg. However, it soon hatches, revealing not a dragon, but a gigantic spider–a spider that wails like a human baby.

Desperate for help, they take the creature to the local vet, who, against her better judgment, helps them treat the being they ultimately name Daenerys–Dani, for short.

Dani soon makes it clear that she has the mind of a human girl trapped inside the body of a spider. Brett and Janie do their best to raise her by painstakingly convincing the local community of her friendliness. It helps that Dani is a sweet, good-natured soul–but even that doesn’t win over everyone, such as the local preacher.

All this is told through the framing device of a government interrogator, bringing each of the witnesses in for questioning at a remote government prison in Nevada. Brett, Janie, the veterinarian, the preacher, Dani’s best friend Stacy and more are all questioned about how this remarkable series of events occurred.

It’s a critical problem, because the United States has recently emerged from a war known as the Chimera War, in which North Korea created monstrous ape-like chimera super soldiers. The war ended with a treaty banning such abominations, but of course–as always happens–governments carried out such research anyway. After all, there could always be a “chimera gap.” However, if such research became widely known, it would inevitably spark another war.

What stuck out to me most is how real the characters are. Everyone feels so believable and so interesting. And, with a few exceptions, most of them are basically good people. Sometimes they do awful things, but it feels like they are doing them because this monstrous system they are in forces them to do it.

The best illustration I can think of is a scene where Stacy’s aunt Jen is returning home from the war. Stacy and Dani have gone to greet her, but when Jen sees the spider-girl, she is horrified; knowing it’s a chimera, and realizing that after all she suffered, all her comrades died for, their own government has cynically betrayed everything they thought they were fighting for.

What’s astonishing about this part is how you can empathize with both sides–Dani, who is after all just a normal person trapped in a fiendish form, feels bad that she’s perceived as a monster. And yet it makes sense Jen would react the way she does.

All the characters are like this, leading to a world that feels incredibly well-realized and believable.

Well, I should say almost all the characters. There’s one fairly minor character, a football player at Dani and Stacy’s high school, who is kind of flat.

I understand why he’s in the story, because on his own, he’s quite funny in a sad sort of way. He’s a completely self-absorbed narcissist who can’t even manage to reveal useful information when subjected to interrogation, simply because he’s so oblivious to anything outside himself. And there’s no question, many of his lines are grimly amusing.

It’s just that he feels like a caricature. An entertaining caricature, to be sure, but in a book otherwise populated by real people, he sticks out like a sore thumb.

That’s one of two minor criticisms. The other is that the ending–while extremely effective and generally satisfying–felt a little bit rushed and didn’t tie-up all the other characters arcs as much as I would have liked. Don’t get me wrong–it’s not like this doesn’t come to a satisfying end, because it absolutely does, but, because all the characters were so good, I would have liked to hear more from them. But maybe that would be true no matter how long the book was.

It’s funny–I’ve written quite a bit here, and yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of everything that makes this book so interesting. There are so many layers, I feel like I could write a whole review focusing on just one aspect of it. So many deep themes, so little time.

It’s a dark, disturbing and violent book. Not for the faint of heart, as the disclaimer at the beginning makes clear. And yet, at the same time, I think everyone should give it a try. This is one of those supremely strange but incredibly good books you find sometimes, like The Master and Margarita or Hyperlink from Hell. Above all, don’t be put off just because one character is a giant spider. I am a card-carrying arachnophobe myself, but even I ended up rooting for Dani.

And the book is free to read on the author’s blog! Let me repeat: free! Can anyone doubt the sheer love of writing an author must have, to weave such a magnificent tale and put it out into the world for free? Oh, read it already, my friends! For this is the art of storytelling in its purest form, and should not go unrecognized. If you like sci-fi, or dystopias, or horror, or political thrillers, or just plain good fiction, please read American Chimera.

Oh, my sci-fi loving friends, what a treat we have today! I hardly know where to begin. Should I start with the excellent cast of main characters? Maybe so. There’s Viekko Spade, the Martian warrior with a white hat and a long braid, and two 1911 pistols. He’s a classic pulp protagonist–a hard-drinking, hard-living, rough-hewn tough guy. I love his gruff way of speaking and his habit of swearing in Martian.

Then there’s Althea Fallon, Viekko’s former lover, the highly competent medical officer who does her best to manage Viekko’s dangerous addictions, and Cronus, a computer expert who lacks the martial talents of the others, but makes up for it with his skill with computers.

The team is led by Isra Jicarrio, a hard-driving, powerful and often stubborn woman, who tries her best to control them, which is no easy task.

But maybe it doesn’t make sense to introduce the whole crowd without talking about the situation they’re in. Yes, I should have started with that–they are exploring Titan, the moon of Saturn, which is now a wasteland left behind in the desolation of a massive civilizational collapse. There, they find two warring factions, fighting over the remnants of what was once a mighty empire.

Speaking of that mighty empire–did I mention that every chapter starts with an epigraph from a fictional text about the collapse of the empires? Here’s a quote from the first one: “It could be that civilization is an inherently destructive force. A kind of virus that consumes and destroys everything around it and, when it can no longer sustain itself, commits suicide.”

I love, love, love it when authors use fictional texts as a world-building device. It’s practically like getting two books in one, at least when it’s done well. And is it ever done well here.

So there are two native groups fighting each other on Titan, and throw into that mix a mega-corporation that intends to conquer Titan to exploit its resources. This is the fraught environment in which the four protagonists must try to survive against dangers of every imaginable sort.

This book is everything I look for in sci-fi. Deep philosophical concepts mix with exciting action sequences. (The climax of the book in particular is a pulse-pounding page-turner, but even then, there’s a brief pause to reflect on the meaning of history. Just amazing stuff.) There’s even a tinge of horror in the scenes involving the Venganto–winged demonic figures that patrol the night skies of Titan.

The plot is perfectly paced and the writing is crisp–the characters each have distinctive ways of speaking, from Viekko’s hardboiled drawl to Cronus’s techno-philosophical flights of oratory. More than once, I stopped to savor a particularly well-turned phrase, both in dialogue and in description.

This is science-fiction at its best. Reading it felt kind of like how it must have felt to see Star Wars in 1977, or read Dune in 1965. They don’t make ’em like that anymore, you say to yourself.

Except they do. This book was published in 2018. Maybe someday it will get popular enough they will make a movie out of it. I’d love to watch it. In the meantime, though, you need to read this book. This isn’t quite the end of the review, but we’re at the part now where I’m going to nit-pick and rant about my personal hobbyhorses, so you might as well bail out and nab this book before reading the rest of this.

Right, so first of all, at one point they call a weapon’s magazine a “clip.” This is super-common. But it drives me nuts. There is such a thing as a clip, but ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when someone says “clip,” they mean “magazine.” See Peter Martuneac’s blog for a visual clarification.

Second thing: covers. The cover above is seemingly the most recent and therefore “official” cover for this book.  But it’s not the cover that made me buy this book when I saw it on Goodreads. No, that would be this:

Now, it’s true, these covers aren’t that different. To the extent they are, the new one is more polished. But I like the unpolished-ness of the yellow one better. Directly I saw it, I said “Wow, that looks like a 1930s pulp cover!” The top one is a fine cover, but it doesn’t radiate that vibe that says, “You are looking at a treasure from a bygone era.”

But you know what they say about books and covers and judging. Of course, we all do it anyway. I judged this book by its cover, and thought it looked pretty cool. And I was right. If anything, I under-estimated just how cool it was. This is a fantastic novel that could have easily been from the Golden Age of sci-fi. I take my hat off to Mr. Jones, because he’s created something really, really special here, and his work deserves to be widely read.