Mini-Reviews of Suburban, Ezaara, Zombie Dog, Valythia, and Frozen Shadows
Updated: Oct 29, 2018
A selection of mini-reviews. The reflections below are of titles on my bedside table recently ‒ some of which have been waiting for my attention for way too long. Five books, including three New Zealand titles. Two first time writers and a veteran. Dragons, zombies, and ancient ones…
THE SUBURBAN BOOK OF THE DEAD
First up is The Suburban Book of the Dead, a creepy YA coming of age, the debut novel by local writer Jamie Sands. I was lucky enough to read an early version of this book, which I enjoyed even in its raw state. Now, the text is sharp and lean, perfectly capturing the teen voices of the story’s protagonists Rain, Jacky and Rachel, revealing both their camaraderie and their cruelty with painful acuity. When Rachel is murdered, possibly by Rain’s Ferris Wheel Boy love interest, things get complicated. Then there are the ancient ones ‒ the Oozrau and the Yargathrul ‒ monsters that appear to have stepped into this world from another dimension, Rachel’s ghost coming back to haunt Rain, and the fact that the crush, Jake, appears to be some sort of monster hunter. Our young protagonist, Rain, doesn’t know where to turn. Is she going mad? Many experienced writers would struggle to manage the psychological complexities of this Lovecraftian plot, Sands handles it with aplomb, and the result is an engaging and entertaining narrative delivered with pace. An urban fantasy for the modern age, Sands is an author to watch.
“A great fantasy read,” says Dean O’Gorman, the actor who played Fili the dwarf in Jackson’s cinema version of The Hobbit. And it’s true that lovers of high fantasy fiction will devour Ezaara, the first book in Eileen Mueller’s epic Riders of Fire series. Another YA coming of age story, this book focuses on Ezaara, a teen with healing skills and a competitive streak. Raised in sheltered (almost backward) Lush Valley, one day, out of the blue, she’s whisked away by a dragon, none other than Queen Zaarusha herself, leaving behind her parents and her twin brother. But her arrival at the dragon stronghold throws the Council into disarray, as unknown to her, Ezaara’s parents have history here, and had left the stronghold as outcasts. Against a backdrop of political intrigue and betrayal, the disdain of her tutor, and the incessant march of the approaching tharuk army, Ezaara must prove her worth as the Queen’s dragon rider. As you would expect from a two-time winner of New Zealand’s Sir Julius Vogel Award for Science Fiction and Fantasy, Ezaara is a pacy adventure, filled with all our favourite fantasy elements ‒ dragons, feuding masters, battles, and young love. I especially liked Mueller’s monsters, the brutish tharuks, with their muscled bodies and dripping tusks, which put me in mind of warthogs, or perhaps the Gamorrean guard Jubnuk ‒ the one who’s eaten by Jabba the Hutt’s pet Rancor in the Return of the Jedi movie. This is the first in a series of five books, so a lot of the magic and world-building work for the series is done in Ezaara and yet the story isn’t weighed down with explanations, as could easily be the case. Instead, Mueller uses every word to introduce the magic of her world, while also telling an engaging story in its own right. A fabulous debut to what will no doubt be a great addition to fantasy fiction.
Zombie Dog by Doug Goodman attracted me for its use of a dog as a key character in an investigation team, and I immediately drew parallels to my own supernatural crime-noir series the Path of Ra (with Dan Rabarts) where our retriever Cerberus has an uncanny knack for detecting where the veil between worlds is stretched thin and dark forces lurk. In Zombie Dog, when I saw the dog’s name was Murder, well of course I one-clicked. Here’s the back cover blurb:
Murder has always been there for Angie. He stood loyally by her side in the Colorado wildfires, and he led her to safety in Big Bend National Park. But now they are hunting zombies in the city, joining the City of Houston Zombie Task Force. Their mission is to discover the source of weaponized zombies and prevent gangs from using them. Working with police detectives and curanderos, Angie and Murder work their way through Houston’s criminal underworld, but at what price? Angie must remember, Murder is her responsibility, her loyal friend, and her fur-baby. Can she protect him as well as he has protected her?
Zombie Dog will keep you up turning the pages. At its centre, the protagonist is slightly uptight Angie, with her unfailing sense of responsibility. [Lee grins. Anyone else seeing the parallels with Hounds of the Underworld?] Angie’s sense of responsibility is as much a flaw as an asset, as she follows Murder into dark places with Sigourney Weaver-like regularity. I loved the way local mythology is woven in to the mystery, with the intrepid investigators following up on a brujo’s curse. And certain leads are not for the squeamish! What’s more, the science behind the zombie weaponisation was revealed in a way which made it plausible (yes, I know, in a zombie novel!). I hadn’t read the first two books, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying Zombie Dog, although readers who prefer a completed story will be disappointed as this one finishes on a doozy of a cliff-hanger. The good news is the next book in the series is out in just a couple of months, so by the time you read the first three over the holidays, the next one should be ready for you.
THE SANDS OF VALYTHIA
The Sands of Valythia is the fourth book in The Token Bearers YA fantasy series by Whangarei author Derin Attwood.
The sand glowed golden in the distance. I loved the contrast of it against the deep constant blue of the sky at the far curved horizon. The ripples at my feet reminded me of the patterns left by the waves on the beach.
In The Sands of Valythia, several characters play the role of story-teller, but, in general, the story is seen through the eyes of young heroine Kirym, who is a leader of her people and the character at the core of the series. It’s one of the things I love about these books, Attwood’s insistence on showing us rounded female characters ‒ both young and old ‒ and most of whom act with wisdom and agency. Attwood’s world-building is fantastical, but also credible, and you discover more about the expansive world and its creatures even as you are drawn in by the verve of her characters and the simple authenticity of her writing. The story’s themes are universal: survival, determination, community and connectedness. Like my own novels, there is a cast of thousands. Happily, a handy family tree in the front of the book serves as a quick memory jogger, if by chance a minor character slips your mind. I’ve read all the books thus far, but each episode can be read as a standalone. And there is plenty of reading here, with five books in the series to date, and another three coming... A satisfying feel-good fantasy. And yes, here be dragons. Highly recommended.
I’ve had this collection Frozen Shadows and Other Chilling Stories by Gene O’Neill on my kindle forever, and now I’m wondering why it took me so long to finish it. I think it’s because there’s an intensity to O’Neill’s writing that takes time to digest. The everyday reality of these stories is like taking a sucker punch every time you draw breath. It’s O’Neill’s sixth collection, so there is no question he’s good at the form and indeed he has a Bram Stoker Award and numerous nominations to prove it. As a collection, Frozen Shadows is a strange blend of genres, the tales here ‒ two novellas and a handful of short stories ‒ are loosely connected, and all focus on the broken and marginalised corners of society, tackling the oddness of their inhabitants head on, without kid gloves, and displaying them in all their beautiful bizarreness. These accounts are startling in their accuracy. O’Neill’s word choices are inspired ‒ you have to love an author who is prepared to put the term ‘bull-pucky’ in the mouth of a character. And then there are the settings, like this one in Broken Lady where the “…sidewalks were swarming, a tingling sense of excitement palpable in the foggy air, like smoky ringside at a big fight in Vegas.” My favourite story in this collection of impeccable stories is A Shaken Man, but perhaps that is because something equally unspeakable occurred in my own family, as it has in in all families. This is a must-read collection from a master storyteller.
Disclaimer: I have met all but one of the authors whose books are reviewed here. Naturally, you cannot trust me to be impartial, so the only way you’re going to know for sure if these books are any good is to pick up a copy and find out for yourself.