Friday, August 18, 2017

Dark Fantasy Lite - Sea of Shadows

Sea of Shadows (Age of Legends Trilogy Book 1) by [Armstrong, Kelley]There's plenty to like in Kelley Armstrong's new Age of Legends Trilogy, starting with Sea of Shadows. A ritual meant to keep vengeful spirits at bay takes place annually in the Forest of the Dead . Twin girls are just old enough to conduct the ritual themselves, but things don't go smoothly-their entire village is wiped out by shadow monsters, and it's up to them to travel to the Imperial City to warn the emperor.

Armstrong did a lot of things right in this fantasy. I'm a sucker for rituals and legends coming to the foreground, and the legendary creatures that represent the main peril of this story were described in great detail. The narrative had darker strains, with great mood in the way the Forest of the Dead was depicted, as well as the devastation wrought on Edgewood, the village that lies just beyond. Characterization was spot on, both for the twins Ashyn and Moria and for the two other survivors, Ronan and Gavril, and the surprise twist at the end will absolutely keep me reading the rest of the series.

The main drawback of this series was the world building itself. The concept is a fine one, and I really appreciated that it had a more Eastern flavor in its underpinnings, but the depth and breadth of the world building were insufficient to match the concept. As I was reading, I could feel the potential for world building to have happened on an epic scale. Its beginnings were there, but in the end the language wasn't hefty enough to bring the world to life as much as it promised. Part of that was the action-oriented pacing of the plot, which focused on fighting monsters. There was nothing wrong with these segments, but they did stop us from feeling the world in all its fullness, and the book in truth could have been twice as long in its description to really draw me in to the universe.

Another thing that detracted was the sometimes too transparent use of culturally specific details. The worst offender was the ritual suicide as a form of defeat. The self-stab and then beheading for honor's sake is just too specific to Japan, and it pulled me out of the world. You want to use that concept? Fine, but make it your own in some way, don't just cut and paste. It was world building at its laziest.

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And lastly, the author seems to have been confused about just what kind of threat she wanted to write about. The things that come out of the forest: are they shadow vapors? vengeful ghosts? shadow-stalkers, which is sort of like the walking dead? That concept was not cohesive. Discovering the source of the disruption is framed with a sense of urgency-figure it out, fix the problem, contain the spirits. But the political intrigue that becomes apparent in the last quarter of the book, while interesting, does not jibe with what we'd been presented with thus far, and does raise questions about the direction of the rest of the series. My vote is for something more spiritual and mysterious, rather than man-manipulated sorcery.

Overall I liked Sea of Shadows, but felt it was playing it a little safe. And for dark fantasy, you never want that. Hopefully the second installment will pick up the slack.

K Rating: 3.5/5
(No more 10s: too many numbers to keep track of)
**New Author Goal: 16 out of 30**

#15 was another I put down after about 75 pages: Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. I really wanted to like that book, but the writing was just atrocious, and little stupidities kept me from being engaged. Medieval Carcassone had suburbs? Really????

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Extreme Gothic: The Cure for Wellness

Very few films can claim to have it all. This one does. The Cure for Wellness (2016) has heady doses of Gothicism, body horror, psychological terror, and a disturbingly believable modern aesthetic.

New York financial analyst Lockhart is sent by his employers to fetch the boss, who's seemingly gone off the deep end while taking in the waters at a shi-shi  spa/clinic/resort/asylum set in the Swiss Alps. Then there's the old, "I'm not a patient" routine, and things devolve from there.


This movie has a lot of things going on, but they all work together in a surprisingly deft way that is simultaneously horrifying and refreshing. To summarize:

This is a solidly gothic film. The entire beginning of the plot is structured like Dracula-a young man at a firm sent to get the senior exec who's lost his marbles. He's staying up at the mountain, where the old castle has been converted to a luxe retreat for high-powered magnates suffering from society's ills. There is a sharp divide between the castle staff and the dwellers below-a legend of an incestuous, sadistic baron destroyed by fire, and rumors of crazy experiments keeping people away in the past and the present. There's the mysterious grounds keeper, who is not carrying water, as he claims, down to the subterranean bowels of the castle. There are secrets: hidden identities, relationships, motivations.

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I'd be totally relaxed by this, wouldn't you?
It's also the best asylum-based horror scenario I've ever seen. I'm normally intrigued by such settings, but end up rolling my eyes at trite, tropish storytelling. Not here. The hydrotherapies offered at the castle were well-developed and thought out, and the water theme gave everything a sense of robust detail and cohesion. Nevermind that there's something in the water, and the clientele are slowly withering away like Egyptian mummies. Aside from the gothic layers, there are layers of mad science that, combined with the other elements of the film, turn the plot into more of a labyrinth. There are layers and sublayers, and then there are sublayers. Then's there's the sideways surrealism of such scenes where Lockhart gets lost in the steam rooms, made all the more special by the kinds of truly bizarre touches that earned the director, Gore Verbinski, kudos for his version of The Ring.

Jason Isaacs (the head doctor) wears an excellent mask of serenity as Lockhart's horror deepens, and the layers of deceit, exertions of power, and questions of sanity are just thin enough to be perfect. Normally, when one goes the way of cerebral terror, they refrain from body horror: the visceral, "oh my god I'm gonna be sick this is so cool" element. I've never seen the two work together so well, and this is mainly a praise of the careful plotting. Wrap both of those in a simultaneously gothic and modern sensibility, and this is the result: it borders on genius. This is a near perfect film, and my only regret is not seeing it sooner. The trailer did it absolutely no justice. But don't be fooled. This film is incredible, and should not be missed.

K Rating: 10/10

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Saturday, August 5, 2017

A VISION IN CRIMSON - FREE - GET IT NOW ON AMAZON

As I work towards producing Book 2 of my Frostbite Series, there's no time like the present to fall in love with new worlds filled with dark magic, sizzling passion, and vampires. Pick up your copy of A Vision in Crimson from Amazon today!


Katelyn knows her magic is risky, but Icaryan light is fading fast and she is desperate. Returning to Earth, she crosses paths with Luca, a vampire hybrid living on the outskirts of humanity. Passion sparks their weary hearts. The rogue hunter follows Kately into a world teeming with wonder and danger, forsaking his own quest to root out his father.

But his father has not forgotten him.

A Vision in Crimson is the first installment of a new epic fantasy blistering with romance and Gothicism.


Sunday, July 30, 2017

A Dry Telling- The Unquiet Bones

I'm trying to bone up on my historical fiction. I was never much of a fan when reading history day-in and day-out was a necessity, but now that I am free of those fetters I can enjoy the creativity that can flow from such beginnings. I wouldn't have become a historian in the first place if I wasn't interested by the past.

But only certain bits of history intrigue me: the weird, strange, dark, or unnatural. Unidentified bones and multiple murders in Medieval England certainly qualifies. The story of The Unquiet Bones was clearly presented, perhaps too clearly most of the time. That might be the Law and Order enthusiast talking, but I was usually a few steps ahead of the plot, and wished for more complexity. At times. Most of the time, the mystery and its investigation were finely done.

What this story really lacked was a sense of flavor. It was very straight-forward and matter-of-fact in its telling, focusing on the same kinds of details-what is eaten, how cold Master Hugh's feet are- as he travels back and forth to seek out the killers. I wanted more ambience, more local, cultural robustness to round out this story and give it mood. Looking back now, I think I may have given too short shrift to Oliver Potzch's The Hangman's Daughter (see my review here). The plot may have been slow in some places, but wasn't always, and it had local character in spades, with fully developed characters that you were drawn to love and/or hate.

In contrast, Lord Gilbert seems very empty. His dialogue was usually just a mimicking of what Master Hugh had already said, which undermined both of them as distinct or unique in character and voice. It is hard to say whether I will pick up the next in the series, especially when there are so many other things to read. It's a shame that the cover art is so fascinating.

K Rating: 6/10
**New Author Goal: 14 out of 30**

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Oh. My. God. Castlevania!!

Rarely have I seen a more fulfilling adaptation of a thing I have loved so much for so long. Netlix's new anime of the Castlevania  series was a fantastic four episodes. My only complaint is that the first season was short. So short, in fact, that you barely get to see the inside of Dracula's castle, which is a huge deal. But that really is the only bad thing I can think to say, that I wanted more, and wished Netflix had had the guts to test the waters with a full season. They learned pretty quick though, and renewed the show almost immediately. Smart.

Here's my take on the highlights of Castlevania:

Dracula: Maybe this should go without saying, but still. They made him sympathetic, providing the burning of his wife as the motivation for the curse he lays upon Targoviste. At the same time, he is every bit as bad-ass as the punishingly difficult final boss that every player expects from Castlevania. My personal favorite was the pillar of fire.



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Additionally, I liked that, in lieu of Dracula being irreparably, inexcusably evil, we have a very sinister view of the religious authority in the town, the one responsible for burning Mrs. Dracula. When he gets his comeuppance, it's both well-deserved and well-scripted. *MWAH!*

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"I'm Trevor fucking Belmont."

The humor
: Despite the awesomely despicable gore (loved that whipped-out eyeball), there was a thread of grim humor throughout, which really added something to the dialogue, and the overall feel of the show. The material is definitely being taken seriously, but the dark humor feels authentic and genuine to the kind of apocalyptic scenario that Trevor Belmont and the people of Targoviste have thrust upon them.

The catacombs: Though we only got to see a small portion of Dracula's castle, the setup for it was really well executed. A small visual moment lets you know exactly when it's happened (the light bulbs indicative of Dracula's technology). But it was presented as a subterranean sector of the town itself, which in reality was a demonstration of just how far Dracula's reach over the town extends. Clever.

Can't wait for more. Gimme more. I need more!

K Rating: 5/5

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Straight-up Creepy: The Resident

I never hesitate to watch anything produced by Hammer Studios. The Resident (2011) was no different, and my interest was piqued by the presence of Jeffrey Dean Morgan (TWD's Negan) and the Hammer idol Christopher Lee himself.

The Resident is about a recently separated doctor (Hillary Swank, my least favorite person) who moves into a new apartment, and is never quite alone there. Creepiness ensues, and interest turns into obsession, turns into violent mania. That's about all I can say without giving away more.

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The film was fine, but it certainly wasn't Hammer's finest. The depravity of the voyeurism and the brutality accompanied by it were spot on, and the production values were spot on (especial kudos go out to the lighting department), but the plot was so straightforward it was disappointing. I really hoped for more psychological bends and twists, and wished the identity of the perpetrator had been kept from me. At least a little misdirection was wanted, and with it this film would have earned its place.

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The man needed more to do...how do you
underuse a talent like his????
There were plenty of choices as to who could be harassing the unsuspecting doctor-the new landlord, (we all know Negan is very capable of being a creepy mother-fucker), his old grandfather (he's been the scariest man/monster who's ever lived), or the philandering boyfriend who she stupidly lets back into her life. But I wasn't left guessing, not even for a little bit, about who the villain of the film was. And that really took away from it, for no discernible reason. They even pulled a weird directorial stunt of rewinding scenes not even of a quarter of the way through the movie to hit me over the head with the resolution of what I thought was the plot. Then everything was laid bare, and there was nothing left for me to do but sit back and watch the grossness unfurl. I would have much preferred being kept in the dark, finding out along with the dear doctor just what the hell is wrong with her apartment, and why she can't seem to wake up in the morning.

K Rating: 6/10

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Mixed Signals: Standard Gothic Meets Paranoiac in The Widow's House

In my quest for new authors, it seems more common than not that the writers, and their stories, have great potential, but lack something in execution. The same is true of my recent read, The Widow's House. The back cover touted a terrifying gothic story set in the perpetually haunted Hudson Valley.

The "gothic" segments of the book were the hardest to swallow. For one, the protagonist Clare doesn't take her haunted situation very seriously. She states rather plainly what she saw, dismissing those supernatural instances out of hand before there's time to create any kind of atmosphere, mood, or sense of terror within the character. Automatically then, I can't be made to care much about these things either.

Second, the characters of the book (all old-school traditional (read really pretentious) writers seem to be bashing the very genre their author is writing in. That certainly didn't endear me to the book or its characters, but aside from that, it was contradictory to the plot. If Clare's husband, Jess, the "famous" (actually one moderate book ten years ago) writer balks at dilapidated houses and the stories bred by them, why is he so eager to move in to one, claiming inspiration? The only one writing a decent story in that house is Clare, based on a local Apple Blossom Queen. That was an interesting quirk, but unraveling the who's who of the story was convoluted, and not in an "AHA!" kind of way.

The plot didn't build in tension, mainly because every possible chance at a real gothic story was brushed aside, and was largely tropish. The concepts were good, but tropish. And I didn't really care about the growing distance between Clare and Jess. It wasn't exciting, or unpredictable, and again, it didn't endear me to Clare, who puts up with someone painted as lazy, self-centered, abusive, and potentially philanderous.

The last quarter of the book is the best part, but mainly because it is almost an entire shift in the book itself. Not just in the plot, but also in the kind of book you're reading. We went from a semi-haunted I don't-care-about-this story to a psychological thriller, which was exciting for the last few pages, but wasn't fully developed. The breadcrumbs that should have been there throughout really weren't. When Clare starts to question her reality, or when you start to question her reliability as a narrator, that is the author's best accomplishment in this book. But again, to see that kind of consistency in tension and telling throughout the book, rather than a sleepy novel that had a great ending, would have been immensely preferable.

This is what comes of dabbling: trying to write in a genre that you only half-heartedly, at best, seem to respect or even understand. When you look down your nose at the thing you're hoping to draw readers with, the result is usually half-assed. It's a mathematical certainty. GARBAGE IN= GARBAGE OUT.

I've said this many times before, but it is usually true. If you think this story is for you, watch Paranoiac instead. Or  Strait-Jacket.

K Rating: 5/10
**New Author Goal: 13 out of 30**