Tag Archives: Tor.com novellas

Recent Reads: Tor.com’s October 2017 Novellas

The Murders of Molly Southbourne
by Tade Thompson

Pub Date: 10/3

I don’t usually care for horror, and Tade Thompson’s The Murders of Molly Southbourne seemed like a fairly straightforward horror concept when I read the cover copy. However, I read pretty much all of Tor.com’s novellas, and I appreciate that doing so tends to get me to read outside my comfort zone and try new things. Still, I didn’t expect that I was going to start this book sometime after my midnight bedtime and find myself unable to put it down until I finished it an hour and a half or so later. It’s a compulsively readable, at times deeply disturbing fable with a compelling heroine at war, literally, with herself.

Molly Southbourne is brilliant, brave, and cruel in turns, an often unlikable woman who is nevertheless deeply sympathetic as she tries to find some way to live a normal life while dealing with a condition where anytime she bleeds, it grows a new molly who quickly becomes intent on killing her. Even Molly’s earliest memory is of murder, and she’s lived her entire life by a set of strict rules intended to keep her safe from her other selves, but it’s exhausting, physically and mentally. The mix of body horror and psychological is well-conceived and cleverly executed, and every word and image in the book feels methodically intentional. It’s a parable with several possible interpretations, all of them interesting, and Thompson makes smart use of classic fantasy and science fictional elements to touch on ideas about identity, cloning, family, and the effects living a life full of violence has on a person.

A Long Day in Lychford
by Paul Cornell

Pub Date: 10/10

I’ve loved Paul Cornell’s Lychford novellas since the beginning, but A Long Day in Lychford is very different from its predecessors and I’m still not sure if I think it’s a step forward or back for the series. Whereas the two previous books had something of a timeless feel to them—though they also dealt with the modern-day issues changing the landscapes of small towns—this one digs into the UK’s Brexit debate with mixed success. It’s a timely story, but it’s also a painful story to read.

After focusing more on Judith and Lizzie in the first couple of Lychford books, this one shows us a bit more about Autumn, who we learn is pretty much the only person of color in Lychford. After the Brexit vote, things get uncomfortable for her, and it causes a rift between Autumn and Judith that leads, albeit somewhat indirectly, to a magical mishap that needs to be fixed. It’s a definite change of pace from the first books in the series, and it feels more deeply personal and immediately relevant than the previous two novellas that dealt a little more broadly and abstractly with small town issues, but it’s also perhaps a little overambitious for its short page count. Things wrap up a little too neatly in the end, and Cornell’s main thesis is somewhat garbled by using a sort of metaphor about the border between Fairy and Lychford and tossing in some upsetting news about Judith that has some unfortunate implications re: her vote on Brexit. It’s possible to have too much nuance for a short novella.

Weaver’s Lament
by Emma Newman

Pub Date: 10/17

Emma Newman’s gaslamp fantasy series continues with a new mystery for secret mage-in-training Charlotte to puzzle through. Her brother Ben has settled into his role as an apprentice Mage, and he seems to be thriving at his new position at a mill in Manchester. The problem is that the mill seems to be haunted—either by ghosts or by rebellious workers—and Ben calls in Charlotte to go undercover and investigate. It’s a decent premise, and it’s never a bad time for a new book about workers’ rights, but everything about Weaver’s Lament feels a little rushed and its treatment of serious issues is perfunctory. Charlotte is a likable heroine, and she’s sensitive to the injustice and abuse she uncovers in Manchester, but secondary characters are given short shrift while Charlotte easily returns to her status quo at the end of the book.

Also, while I’m a fan of slow-burning will-they-or-won’t-they romances, it’s difficult to be invested in Charlotte and Magus Hopkins when they spend so little time together in stories that are so small in scope. Brother’s Ruin and Weaver’s Lament have both dealt heavily with uncovering largescale injustices that deeply affect the characters’ lives, and these things also form the primary barrier to the central romantic relationship of the series. However, there’s been very little forward movement on any front. The romance is limited to lingering glances and subtle chemistry, and the systemic injustice and probable evil of the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts isn’t confronted head-on and doesn’t seem likely to be any time soon.

Though it’s not without problems, Weaver’s Lament is still an entertaining read. It just feels like it could have used about a hundred pages more of breathing room, mostly so that it could do a bit better justice to the new friends Charlotte makes at Manchester. It’s not always a good thing when a story leaves you hungry for more.

Switchback
by Melissa F. Olson

Pub Date: 10/24

Switchback is a decided improvement over its merely workmanlike predecessor, Nightshades, which introduced Melissa F. Olson’s near future noir world in which humans are reacting—sometimes poorly—to learning that vampires exist. Whereas Nightshades was full of clunky exposition and worldbuilding, everything about Switchback is more relaxed and self-assured. It’s a better-plotted mystery with a more satisfying overall arc, and Olson makes the wise choice to focus more on Lindy, the vampire consultant who is more interesting that the rest of the main cast put together. While there are still some mysteries surrounding Lindy’s past, by the end of Switchback she feels like a fully realized character. “What if the world suddenly knew vampires are real?” is a question that has been answered many times in fiction, and I’m not sure there’s much new ground to cover on the issue, but Switchback retreads well-worn paths confidently while shifting focus to a fresher perspective than Nightshades had. I wasn’t sure about continuing with this series after my lukewarm feeling towards that book, but after this one I’m rather looking forward to seeing what Olson does with it next.

Recent Reads: Space Opera, Cosmic Horror, Hippo Mayhem and More from Tor.com

Starfire: A Red Peace
by Spencer Ellsworth

Pub Date: 8/22/17

The first in a trilogy of short novels, A Red Peace begins with the ending of and intergalactic war fought between natural humans and the genetically engineered hybrids who have spent years being used as fodder for humanity’s wars and slaves for their industry and agriculture. It seems as if justice has won the day until John Starfire, the leader of the Jorian-cross rebellion, reveals his final solution to end the oppression that he’s dedicated his life to fighting. The book follows the points of view of Araskar, a high-ranking vat-grown soldier in Starfire’s army and Jaqi, a Jorian-cross who just wants a tomato but who gets roped into helping some strangers instead. Jaqi is whip smart and wryly funny, a perfectly reluctant and wonderfully competent heroine who’s a joy to read about. Araskar takes a bit more time to grown on you, but it’s easy to become invested in him uncovering the truth about his heroic leader and coming to terms with what that means for his own future. A Red Peace is a clever, fast-paced space opera with a classic sci-fi sensibility, memorable characters, big ideas and an even bigger heart. I can’t wait for book two, Shadow Sun Seven, coming out November 28.

A Song for Quiet
by Cassandra Khaw

Pub Date: 8/29/17

I want to say I loved this little book, the second in Cassandraw Khaw’s Persons Non Grata series, but the truth is that I am just Lovecraft-homaged-out these days, which made it a tough read for me. That said, A Song for Quiet is a definite improvement upon Khaw’s previous Lovecraftian novella, Hammers on Bone. It’s better paced, with a more interesting main character in Deacon James, and it does a much better job of capturing the sense of truly cosmic horror that Lovecraft was known for. There’s less of Persons in this one, with Deacon as the main point of view character and the one whose actions are of the most consequence in the narrative. Khaw’s prose is lovely as always, and the book tries to answer a worthy question: What fate does an unjust world deserve? I’m just ready for this new-Lovecraftian trend to have a rest for a few years. In the meantime, Khaw also has a delightful urban fantasy romance out from the Book Smugglers earlier this year. Bearly a Lady is nearly perfect.

The Twilight Pariah
by Jeffrey Ford

Pub Date: 9/12/17

The Twilight Pariah is either a somewhat tired paint-by-numbers ghost story or a solidly-written horror story with a nicely cinematic quality, depending on how many horror flicks you’ve watched in your time and how much you like the genre. Its collection of shallow characters go through the motions of a fairly standard issue plot without any in depth examination of their motives. The only characters who die are ones that don’t matter, and the “mystery” is fairly tidily explained at the end of the book. It would have worked as a movie, where the stock characters would have been played by unrealistically attractive young people and even low-end CGI could have been combined with some creepy music to make the monster feel menacing. As a book, not so much.

Taste of Marrow
by Sarah Gailey

Pub Date: 9/12/17

Sarah Gailey’s first Tor.com novella, River of Teeth, got a ton of acclaim, but I didn’t love it, overall. It wasn’t terrible, but it definitely felt unfinished to me. What I did love about it was the concept, however, and there were a couple of characters who I found myself getting attached to in spite of myself. Taste of Marrow both finishes the story that began in River of Teeth and focuses mostly on my favorite characters: Adelia, Hero, and Archie. Where River was a fairly straightforward heist-gone-bad story, Taste is a nuanced, character-focused follow up that’s all about consequences. There’s fewer hippos and less mayhem, but there’s far more depth of emotion and meaning in this story where everyone’s chickens come home to roost. Gailey writes her characters with a wonderful mix of tenderness and sharpness that works far better in this less frenetic book than it did in its predecessor. Still, Taste of Marrow is only one half of a wonderful whole. Obviously, you want to read this pair of books as soon as possible, but if you want to read them together you can also wait until the omnibus, American Hippo, comes out in May 2018.

Recent Reads: Some Tor.com Novellas You Should Be Reading and/or Pre-ordering

While I’m still working out how I want to do book reviews at SF Bluestocking going forward, I’ve managed to accumulate a pretty sizable backlog of stuff that I’ve been reading while too depressed to do much else. The good news, of course, is that I’ve read some great stuff, and I’ll be talking about it over the next week or two as a work to get back to the level of productivity I’d like to be maintaining here.

I’ve been reading almost all the novellas released by Tor.com Publishing since they first started doing novellas, and they continue to deliver consistently compelling and entertaining books two-to-five times a month. While I’m by no means caught up on everything coming out over the next couple of months, I’m caught up on recent releases and I’ve made some inroads on some of the upcoming releases I’m most excited about.

35664957The Ghost Line
by Andrew Neil Gray and
J.S. Herbison

Tor.com has had a whole series of excellent space opera stories coming out this summer, which came at a perfect time for me, as I’ve been in the mood for science fiction more than fantasy these last few months. The Ghost Line finds a small group of salvagers exploring a vast abandoned luxury cruise ship and discovering more than any of them bargained for. The book’s best quality is its lovely, thoughtful descriptions of the abandoned ship and the way in which it allows the reader to become immersed in the exploration of the haunted ship. It’s not the strongest of Tor.com’s 2017 lineup, and it feels slight and a little uninspired (while at the same time owing perhaps a little too much of what inspiration it has to The Expanse) in comparison to gems like All Systems Red or even Killing Gravity, but The Ghost Line is nevertheless a solidly entertaining read worthy of a lazy afternoon.

The Ghost Line is available now.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion
by Margaret Killjoy

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion is the first book in the queer anarchist punk demon hunter series you didn’t know you needed. Danielle Cain is a smart, resourceful heroine, and I am looking forward to the further adventures of her and the friends she makes in this book. However, the real star of The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion is its unique setting–a utopian squatters’ community in the imaginary Freedom, Iowa–and the magic with which Margaret Killjoy has infused it. The three-antlered deer spirit summoned by some of the town’s residents to assert order in a crisis has begun to turn on its summoners, and the debate over what to do about it has created deep divides in the community. Killjoy’s cast of characters must wrestle with ideas at the core of their beliefs and deal with a situation that threatens the very foundations of the home and families they’ve built for themselves, and the setting of Freedom is a cleverly crafted heightened reality in which to do so.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion will be available August 15.

The Five Daughters of the Moon and
The Sisters of the Crescent Empress
by Leena Likitalo

Jacqueline Carey’s cover blurb for The Five Daughters of the Moon calls the book “a lyrical elegy to the fall of an empire,” and the book description is clear that this duology is inspired by the 1917 Russian revolution and the final days of the Romanov sisters, so you must know going in that this story doesn’t have a happy ending. In alternating chapters told in first person from the perspective of each of the titular five daughters–ranging in age from six to twenty-two–Leena Likitalo brings each girl to vivid life and lets them tell their own stories. Fifteen-year-old Sibilia (whose chapters are excerpts from her diary) and sixteen-year-old Elise have the strongest voices of the five, and Sibilia’s journey and coming of age is perhaps the most profound and deeply-felt story of any of the girls. However, Likitalo also does a lovely job of portraying the little girls, Alina and Merile, though the author’s vocabulary is far better than any six- or eleven-year-old’s would be. Eldest sister Celestia is a more difficult character to get to know and love; she’s often distant from her sisters, focused on her own trauma and still trying to bear up under the weight of her responsibilities in a situation that is far different and more dangerous than anything she was ever prepared for.

The best part of this duology, however, is the way that Likitalo manages to capture the ambivalence of revolution. There’s tragedy here, for sure, and there’s a definite villain, but there’s also a recognition of the hope the revolution offered to many people and some meditation on the idea that there’s always a human cost in any system; the question is just who has to pay it and who benefits from it. The Waning Moon duology is a gorgeously written and deeply humane meditation on this question and its answers.

The Five Daughters of the Moon is available now, and The Sisters of the Crescent Empress will be out November 7.

Acadie
by Dave Hutchinson

Acadie describes a future in which a colony of genetically modified and enhanced humans has been on the lam for several hundred years after fleeing restrictive regulations on Earth. It’s a smart, snappy and often very funny space opera with some neat ideas, an entertaining POV character, a load of crowd-pleasing pop culture references and a genuinely unexpected ending. I’m a huge fan of shorter, rather than longer, novellas, and Acadie clocks in at under a hundred pages, which combines with Hutchinson’s engaging, conversational prose style to make for a fast read, but it’s also a book that will keep you thinking well after you close it. I still don’t know if I’ll ever get around to reading Hutchinson’s longer Fractured Europe Sequence, but I can say with certainty that I’ll be snatching up any more shorter work he puts out as soon as I see it.

Acadie will be out September 5.

The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune
by J.Y. Yang

Listen. There’s basically a 100% chance that anything Kate Elliott calls “effortlessly fascinating” is going to be wonderful, so it’s no surprise that this pair of novellas by J.Y. Yang are pretty close to perfect. Yang has crafted a meticulously beautiful fantasy world that cleverly melds science and magic together with a central sibling relationship that sustains the heart of both books. Much will surely be made of Yang’s treatment of gender and sexuality, and any accolades on that score are well-deserved; in Yang’s Protectorate, sexuality is fluid and gender is self-chosen, confirmed or not as the individual decides, and gender-neutral pronouns are commonplace. That said, Yang’s worldbuilding in general is marvelously executed, and they do a great job of managing the expansion of the world readers are exposed to between The Black Tides of Heaven, which really ought to be read first even if the books are being sold as standalone companions, and The Red Threads of Fortune, which takes place several years later and has an emotional arc that provides a resolution to a major subplot in Tides, albeit from a different perspective. That said, there’s really no wrong way to enjoy such a marvelously balanced mix of magic, romance, revolution and dinosaurs.

The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune will both be out September 26.

Book Review – Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

I didn’t love Binti when I read it in 2015, in spite of having loved everything else I’d read by Nnedi Okorafor up to that point. It was on the short side for a novella, and I’d recently read Okorafor’s absolutely superb Lagoon, which set the bar high for Binti. There were things I loved about it, but I was definitely in the minority of readers who didn’t consider it one of the top novellas of the year, so I wasn’t sure how I would like Binti: Home. This book is about twice as long as its predecessor and addresses many of the things I considered shortcomings in Binti, though it does end on a particularly unsatisfying near-cliffhanger made even worse by the lack of release date for the planned third book that will complete the series.

The story in Home picks up with Binti and Okwu a year into their studies at Oomza University, and Binti is still struggling to deal with the trauma of her experiences in the first book as well as more generally with the transition to University life. I would have liked to read more about this, but instead the book moves on fairly quickly to Binti’s decision to return home, Okwu in tow, to visit her family and participate in a pilgrimage. There’s something to be said for jumping straight into things, but Binti spent the whole first book getting to university, and it’s somewhat disappointing to see her leaving again so quickly.

That said, part of the reason I struggled to connect with Binti in the first book was because I didn’t think there was a strong enough sense of who she was before she left Earth. In Home, however, we get a much fuller picture of what Binti’s life was like before she decided to go to Oomza. I loved getting to meet her family and friends, and Okorafor does a lovely job of examining how Binti has changed and how the loss of her has affected her community. There is a lot of wonderful exploration of the dynamics of this sort of close-knit family and community and the drama and upheaval caused Binti’s leaving and returning and likely leaving again. After leaving and undergoing so much drastic change and growth away from the other Himba, Binti has to face consequences that she didn’t expect.

I don’t think I realized quite how young Binti was in the first book, which made some things a little weird in this one. I guess because Oomza is a university I perceived Binti as more U.S. college-aged, which seemed backed up by the character’s seeming maturity and independence. In Home, it’s more clear that she’s still a teenager, and what I (in my thirties) would consider a young one. Back within the context of her family and community, Binti feels younger and much less sure of herself, which I found both interesting and frustrating. As happy as I was to see more of Binti with her family on Earth, in some ways her character in Home feels like a significant regression. It’s relatable, sure, to see her revert to some childish behaviors and dynamics with her parents and siblings, but it’s not always altogether enjoyable.

Still, Binti: Home is a significant improvement upon its predecessor. A lot more happens in this volume of Binti’s story, and Binti herself feels much more fully developed in general, even if she does feel very young at times. Okorafor’s themes about identity, home, and family are evergreen ones, and examining them through the story of a Himba girl transplanted across the galaxy and back again bring a freshly fascinating perspective to classic coming of age questions. My only real complaint about Binti: Home is the aforementioned cliffhanger ending. When I finished the last page, I was devastated to realize that was the end and that we don’t know yet when the rest of the story will be out. It needs to be soon.

This review is based upon a free advance copy of the title received from the publisher via NetGalley.

Book Review: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Passing Strange is an absolutely magical story and by far my favorite thing I’ve read so far in 2017. In this gorgeously imagined romance, Ellen Klages brings the queer side of 1940s San Francisco to glittering life and peoples it with characters who are fresh and interesting and yet still feel like the kind of old friends one wants to visit with over and over again. It’s a book that works precisely because of the specificity of its characters and its setting in time and space, and Klages does a great job of balancing the reality of history with the light fantasy elements she introduces over the course of her story. It’s still early in the year, but I fully expect Passing Strange to make a lot of year’s best lists, my own included.

Structurally, Passing Strange is slightly odd, with a lopsided framing story that leads off with an almost too-long sequence in the modern day (or possibly the near future) that introduces an extended flashback and then a final very short coda that wraps up both stories with a clever punchline. While the payoff is totally worth it in the end, it did make for a bit of a slow start to the book, and I was a little disappointed that Helen Young didn’t get more page time in the middle parts, especially when there were other characters introduced who felt much less consequential overall as a consequence of the bookends of Helen’s present day story. The problem, however, is mostly a matter of managing expectations. It’s not that Helen is unimportant after all or that other characters are given too much importance in the narrative. It’s simply that the early focus on Helen kind of leads the reader to think we’re getting more of Helen’s story, and the realization that we’re not takes a while and then doesn’t fully make sense until very late in the book. That said, once I figured out what Klages was doing, I found it easy to appreciate the deliberate way in which she reveals her story.

Passing Strange is less a straightforward love story (though romance figures largely in it) and more a detailed portrait of a specific time and place and an examination of a particular set of experiences, here, the lives of queer women in San Francisco in the 1940s. I love the way Klages introduces her characters once the flashback starts, and the picture she paints of all these interconnected women, their struggles and friendships and the joy they have in spite of often difficult circumstances is vivid and real-feeling. Klages seamlessly weaves together scenes of sweetness with scenes of visceral pain without shying away from depicting the ugliness of the era (which is sadly not always very different from our current one) but without dwelling on darkness. It’s a balancing act that can be hard to manage, and Klages does so superbly, crafting a story that is true to reality but still ultimately optimistic.

If there’s any real complaint to be made about Passing Strange, it’s that the fantasy elements of the story are only slight until the very end, when magic is almost (but not quite) a deus ex machina. It’s hinted at throughout the book that magic is both real and not very uncommon, but there’s only one actual magical event of any significance, and it’s not tied to the other magics that are described elsewhere in the book. Just in general, I would have loved to see all of the various magic and witchery suggested in the story be expanded upon more fully, to be honest. The richness of 1940s San Francisco is a lush backdrop for the story already, but Klages hints at an equally rich world of magic just out of the reader’s sight.

All this said, Passing Strange is still a near-perfect novella. The few complaints I have about it all amount to just wanting more of it. I want more stories about women loving women, and I want them to have grand romances, magical adventures, and happy endings. As delightful as Haskell and Emily and their friends are, they aren’t enough. Passing Strange deserves to be more than a singular work of its type, and if Ellen Klages ever decides to revisit this setting or any of these characters, I’m here for it. If anyone else is writing anything like this I’m looking for it.

This review is based on an advance copy of the book received from the publisher through NetGalley.

Book Review: Runtime by S.B. Divya

I read all of Tor.com’s novellas, which is a good thing because I otherwise might have missed out on this gem by S.B. Divya. I would never have picked up a story about a cyborg endurance race on my own, but I’m glad I read this one. Runtime is a marvel of world building and character portraiture wrapped around a perfectly executed straightforward plot and just the right amount of smart-but-not-overbearing social commentary. It’s a near-perfect use of the novella length, and I cannot wait to see what S.B. Divya does next.

Marmeg Guinto is as prepared as she’ll ever be for the grueling Minerva Sierra Challenge, but she’s nonetheless not nearly as prepared as some of the other racers, with their support teams and wealthy sponsors. In a race where people compete and win on the strength of extreme body modifications, Marmeg has cobbled together her cyborg enhancements from cheap parts, black market materials, and sometimes literal garbage. Still, she’s determined to race well enough to win a better future for herself and her family. When she actually gets out on the trail, however, things don’t go entirely as planned, and Marmeg soon has to make some hard choices that put her future plans in jeopardy. The surface narrative here is simple enough and fits neatly into the popular genre of stories about young people who participate in extreme sports or contests in order to help their families in dystopia-ish futures. It could have been banal, but S.B. Divya does several things in Runtime that elevate it above the usual stories of its type.

Partly, this is accomplished by cleverly adding layers of meaning and nuance to a simple story. Within the simple framework of the race/survival story lies a cleverly integrated fable with something to say about cheating and good turns. Wrapped all around the story and built into the fabric of Divya’s excellent world building is some insightful social commentary about capitalism, gender, immigration, and community. It sounds like a lot, but it never feels like too much for the reader to take in. There’s never any obvious lecturing or moralizing, which is often a mistake made in these kind of stories, and the ending is satisfying and thematically appropriate without feeling pat.

The heroine, Marmeg, also accounts for a great part of Runtime’s appeal. She’s a nicely complex character but without falling into either any of the common Strong Female Character tropes or the common Morally Grey Character tropes. Instead, she’s highly distinctive, with a backstory and personality that are both well-considered and well-constructed. The key here is the specificity of this character and her background. Marmeg isn’t a Generic Dystopian Heroine, and the reader’s understanding of her situation, her family, and what she’s willing to sacrifice for them is absolutely necessary for the story to work. Fortunately, Divya communicates all of this information clearly and concisely with sparely elegant prose that is perfectly styled for the story she’s telling.

Where S.B. Divya excels most notably, however, is in simply balancing all the many moving parts of this novella. The race itself necessarily takes center stage, but Marmeg is a strong enough personality to really carry the story by getting the reader invested in it. There’s a nicely cinematic quality to the action, enough to earn this little book a place on my ever-growing list of things I’d like to see adapted for film or television. Marmeg’s peril feels like a very real threat, and there are a couple of small subplots that nicely augment the main story and could provide fodder for more stories or even a full-length novel in this same universe. Every piece of Runtime is meticulously crafted and fitted together with every other piece in order to make a whole that is even greater than the sum of its parts.

Book Review: The Ghoul King by Guy Haley

I didn’t hate Guy Haley’s first Dreaming Cities novella, The Emperor’s Railroad, though it wasn’t one of my favorite reads of the year so far. Nonetheless, I was intrigued enough to read this second installment of the series. The Ghoul King seemed to promise more action and a female character with something to do besides die for male character development, and I was hoping to see Haley dig a little deeper into some of the potentially very cool world building of his post-apocalyptic landscape. Sadly, I found myself disappointed on all counts with this book, and this is another series that I’m very unlikely to continue with.

Here’s the thing about these books: they’re fine. Haley has a handful of neat ideas, and a solid (if a bit hackneyed) premise. Quinn is a perfectly serviceable anti-ish-hero; the angels are theoretically compelling antagonists; and a post-apocalypse full of zombies and robot dragons marauding brigands and petty feudal-esque politics should offer plenty of minor conflicts and quests for an itinerant adventurer. Unfortunately, once you get past the initial observation of “huh, that’s cool,” there’s very little actually happening under the surface. Haley is great at window dressing, and the books’ appeal is helped along by sharp-looking covers, but when I finished both of these books I was just sort of like “is that it?”

Quinn is as inscrutable and laconic as ever in The Ghoul King, but he never manages to be in the least bit likeable or even interesting. Perhaps because of the choice to have the action narrated again from a point of view that isn’t Quinn’s, Quinn remains a bit of a cipher, as the first person narrator is never quite able to connect with him or get to know him on a personal level at all. Once again, Quinn is a sort of cowboy-ish character who rides into town, impresses the locals and rides away with his cloak of mystery intact. He’s a notably old-fashioned construct of stoic masculine heroism that just… isn’t fun to read about at all. Unless that’s your thing, in which case do you, but it’s not much fun for me.

There are a couple of female characters this time around, though only one, Rachel, plays a major role in the action. In fact, she’s the instigator of this novella’s adventure. Unfortunately, she’s also—through sheer ineptitude and ignorance—kind of the story’s main antagonist as well, and Rachel’s search for pre-apocalypse technology doesn’t end well for pretty much anyone. It’s an almost archetypal arc, with Rachel cast as a sort of Eve who lures men on a fruitless quest for knowledge that ends in tragedy and, ultimately, their expulsion from the seat of knowledge and into an uncertain future. On the one hand, there’s something almost mythologically epic going on. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem as if Haley has anything in particular to say with any of the mythology he’s crafting.

Certainly not every story has to be deep and insightful, and there’s something to be said for straightforward, uncomplicated adventure stories, but there still has to be something to engage the reader, make them care about the events they’re reading about, and keep them coming back for more. Without a likeable protagonist or any discernable message, and with the world building stalled out (there’s not much new information revealed in this volume at all, sadly) this series doesn’t do that for me.

This review is based on an advance copy of the book received through NetGalley.