Author: James Lovegrove
The Cthulhu Casebooks, vol. 1
My rating: 4 of 5
The general public is well familiar with the stories of the great detective Sherlock Holmes as written by his friend and partner in crime-fighting, Dr. John Watson. What they don’t know is that those stories are just a cover, an embellishment of certain insignificant events in order to hide something of far greater import–something the public should never know about. Because, while in these stories, Holmes is presented as an extremely logical and brilliant man who always a scientific reason for events, the truth is that he and Watson have encountered things that defy science. Horrible, ancient things that could spell the end of mankind if left unchecked. And together, they have pledged their logic and skill to defending mankind from behind the scenes. This is the true story of their initial meeting and subsequent first encounter with the occult, as told by Dr. Watson himself.
Retellings and spinoffs of Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories seem ubiquitous, and I’ve personally had mixed experiences with them. Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows belongs to a niche segment of these stories, ones that–like Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald”–cross over with the Lovecraftian mythos. It’s an intriguing mixture, and I found it to be quite well executed in this book. It is couched as being a confession of sorts, written by Watson late in life and never meant to be published. As such, it evokes a tone quite similar to that of the original Doyle stories–I actually found this aspect of it to be fairly convincing. The author makes a lot of comparisons between what was written in said stories and “what actually happened,” which is intriguing to say the least. I found my vocabulary challenged repeatedly, which was refreshing. Unfortunately (although perhaps necessary to evoke the correct feel), the writing expresses period-typical ways of looking at certain people groups, as well as some terminology for such, that could be offensive. Regrettable, that. The actual story and the way the mythology is interwoven into the story is quite well done, a credible way for Holmes to get dragged into this mess. All in all, I found Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows to be a solid, enjoyable story that I would recommend.
By Black Chicken Studios
My rating: 4 of 5
1930, New York City: Prohibition is in effect, and the Great Depression is making itself known across the country, but for wealthy heiress Scheherazade Keating (Sadie to her friends), other things are much more immediately important. Having just graduated valedictorian of her high school class, Sadie is ready to make her mark, embarking on a whirlwind college degree in archaeology that includes on-site work at a variety of digs around the world. Incidentally, she’s following in the footsteps of her parents, a pair of famous (now missing) archaeologists . . . . She’s also following a trail of clues that may (she hopes) lead to more information about what’s happened to her parents. And she’s not afraid to break a few rules of society if that’s what it takes.
How to describe Scheherazade . . . it’s honestly a pretty unique experience, although there are similarities to a lot of other stories and games in certain aspects. It definitely plays like a visual novel–nice backgrounds, music, character pics, text describing what’s happening, and choices for the player to make that influence how the story progresses. You could, I suppose, even compare it to an otome visual novel in some senses; there are certainly several romance paths that can be pursued, if desired. But it’s entirely possible to play with purely platonic relationships as well. I actually loved how much good friendships were a part of the story. Mechanically, the game is also almost a princess-maker sort of game in that you have to choose how to spend your time, different choices build different skills, and your skills influence how certain challenges resolve. There’s actually a good bit of challenge to the game mechanics if you really want to play to meet certain goals; however, there’s also an easy mode that basically lets you focus on the story. And Sadie’s story is pretty interesting in a pulp novel sort of way. She’s a very strong character, and an amusing one to read–even if her ridiculous wealth tends to make you forget how bad life is in the world at large for a lot of people. But then, she’s more ridiculous than even her wealth, getting caught up in chases, digging in the dirt, getting into arguments, and suchlike. And there are actually a lot of interactions with people of a variety of stations in life–lots of interesting relationships to build. On the whole, I really enjoyed playing Scheherazade and found it to be an interesting slice of an era as well as an exciting romp around the world and a fun exposition of a fascinating character.
Laundry Files, vol. 1
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Warning: Mature Audience, mostly for language
At first glance, Bob Howard seems like a pretty typical IT guy–smart, sardonic, harried by the incompetence of the computer-illiterate in his organization and the demands of his managers. That is, until you consider the fact that he works for a secret government organization whose sole purpose is to protect the world from eldritch entities invading from alternate realities. And Bob’s life is about to take a turn for the weirder as he, bored with desk duty, volunteers to be put on active service. There’s no telling what horrors he’ll run into next.
So, I’ve heard some really mixed reviews about this book, and honestly the author in general. I have to say, for myself, I enjoyed The Atrocity Archives a great deal and plan to read at least more of this series–probably some of Stross’s other series as well. It’s this delightful cross of eldritch horror, office politics, techno-thriller, and spy story, all told with this delightfully sardonic sense of humor. Personally, I enjoyed Bob’s outlook and found him an interesting character to read. And just the ideas behind this story are fascinating . . . higher maths being summoning rituals and opening doorways into other realities, programmers accidentally stumbling on said summonings, secret organizations specifically designed to deal with these. Plus just the whole office drama of the organization and Stross’s presentation of it. I have heard some folks complain about the “technobabble” used in this story, and yes absolutely this book makes me wish I actually understood more higher math and programming . . . but on the other hand, I’m not sure how much more sense it would make even if I did have more context for all the terms. It seems kind of like magic spells used in fantasy novels; like, if you understand Latin, you’ll get a bit of a heads up on what the spell does, but it’s mostly flavor text, and even if you don’t understand, the effects will become pretty clear pretty quickly. I never felt lost because I didn’t understand a term, put it that way. In any case, I found The Atrocity Archives to be a truly engaging and enjoyable book–recommended for those who enjoy something a bit more off the beaten path.
Author: Ira Levin
My rating: 4 of 5
Life is glowing with promise for young couple Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse. Guy’s just waiting for his big break to launch his acting career. Rosemary is excited by the prospect of making a home and someday soon having a baby. And the both of them are thrilled at the opportunity to move into the exclusive Bramford apartment building. Rosemary’s friend and mentor Hutch, however, isn’t so excited when he hears they are moving there, citing numerous stories of strange, dark happenings in the building. Rosemary and Guy aren’t about to be put off by some stories, though, especially not after Guy hits it off so well with the neighbors. But as time goes on, those neighbors and various occurrences begin to seem more and more off . . . especially after Rosemary becomes pregnant.
Rosemary’s Baby is something of a classic horror novel–and I’m exceedingly glad that I knew that going in, or I would have been very confused. Because at first, it reads like period-typical literary fiction: young couple settling in, starting a career, making friends, that sort of thing. It’s only as you get further into the story that the atmosphere becomes more tense and the signs that something’s very, very wrong begin to show up more and more frequently and obviously. And it’s only in the climax of the last chapter or so that you get a truly apparent horror vibe, although it’s been building for a long time before you actually get there. Rather than being some intense, jump-scare filled thriller, Levin gives us a gradual build of tension with plenty of hints that (if you know what you’re looking at) point rather clearly to occult, dark influences. I would actually recommend reading the introduction to the 50th anniversary edition prior to reading the story if you get a chance, because David Morrell does a great job of pointing out some of the concepts to be looking for and points out the way the story’s focus changes from a very outside, dispassionate observation to a very narrow, emotional view from Rosemary’s perspective as the story develops–all of which add a lot to the horror aspect. On the negative side, this was written in the 1960’s, so there’s a certain amount of period-typical racism (and kind of sexism) that’s present . . . not in a way that’s central to the story, but still. But on the whole, this was an enjoyable read that I would recommend for those who enjoy a slow-build, atmospheric sort of horror.
Author: Charles Stross
The Laundry Files, vol. 3.5
My rating: 4 of 5
Lucky for him (ha), Bob has pulled the distinct privilege of working the night watch at the office over the Christmas holiday–by virtue of being out sick while everyone else was putting in their vacation requests. Go figure. Oh well, theoretically, it should be a boring job sitting around babysitting a phone that never rings . . . unless the unthinkable happens. But then, considering Bob works for a secret government organization whose sole purpose is protecting the world from the things that go bump in the night and considering his stellar run of luck so far, why shouldn’t the unthinkable happen, right?
When I picked up Overtime, I was definitely expecting the fabulous combination of eldritch horror and office mundanity that it offered. What I wasn’t expecting was the Christmas theme. And yet, it works marvelously, providing a delightful comedy-horror plot that ties this little novelette together brilliantly as Bob deals with temporal anomalies, an eldritch interpretation of Santa Claus, and the challenges of fighting back the apocalypse using only office supplies, used Christmas decorations, and leftover treats from the office Christmas party . . . theoretically the last Christmas party the Laundry will see if the predictions offered by a Mr. Kringle (that only Bob can even remember now) are to be believed. The writing offers the same engrossing, droll style found in the earlier Laundry books (and yes, I would recommend reading at least The Atrocity Archives first for some context), but with a slightly more story-based focus and with less techno-babble . . . probably due largely to the short length of the story. Recommended for those who enjoy a sardonic tone and a solid urban fantasy and/or comedy horror story.
Author: Lish McBride
My rating: 5 of 5
Never one to miss a chance to excel, Sam spends his days flipping burgers and manning the cash register with aplomb . . . or maybe something rather more like apathy, to be honest. That is, until his chance encounter with Douglas, a super-scary dude who accuses Sam of being a necromancer and demands that Sam join him as his apprentice. Weird much? Sam is for sure weirded out (read incredibly freaked out), especially when his friend Brooke’s severed head appears in a package on his doorstep–and starts talking to him. Worse, he’s given a week to join Douglas or the same undeadness is promised to start spreading to others he loves.
Hold Me Closer, Necromancer has got to be one of the scariest, weirdest, most amazing books I’ve read in quite a while. Lish McBride takes a theme that’s so classic it’s exhausted (normal kid not only has powers he never imagined, he’s the prophesied redemption of a people he never knew existed, or some such) and blows the doors off of it. Actually, I think she blows the minds of her readers while she’s at it. I love the character portrayals–they’re rich and sarcastic and funny. And the plot, while being stereotypical at its core, is freakishly scary, exciting, and done in a brilliantly unique fashion. I’m definitely looking forward to a sequel (there’d better be one)! I’d highly recommend Hold Me Closer, Necromancer to anyone who likes odd, scary, sarcastically funny, and impossibly fantastic young-adult stories–just beware of sex and language content.
Mangaka: Mizuho Kusanagi
Powerful spiritualist medium (and incidentally, high-school student and recent-orphaned) Yayoi Suzuka is being targeted by numerous demons trying to absorb her powers in their quest to become the next demon king. When the king’s own son, Ura, attacks her, Yayoi has a tough time of it, but she manages to subdue him–and turns him into a cat. In hopes of assuaging her loneliness (and to keep an eye on him), Yayoi keeps Ura around the house with her, sometimes in cat form and sometimes in human form with his demon powers sealed. Either way, it’s still not exactly easy having him around–he’s a terrible tease–but it’s certainly not dull or boring anymore!
If you’re looking for a fun, cute shoujo manga, Mugen Spiral is a nice option that’s also short enough to read quickly (it’s only two volumes). The real selling point of this manga is the characters. Yayoi somewhat reminds me of Taiga (Toradora!)–she’s very strong, but also girly and a bit tsundere. Ura is bishounen and princely, but also sweet and a terrible tease–he’s really a bit of an enigma. I think the relationship between the two is really interesting–something like that between Inuyasha and Kagome during the early days of their relationship (InuYasha). It’s like they’re always sniping at each other, but they’re united against the rest of the world. Or something. The plot is cute as far as it goes, especially in building the relationship between the two main characters. It’s just too short and incomplete–the manga got dropped, and Kusanagi had to wrap things up pretty quickly. So there are a number of issues that are never really resolved, and the romantic development is less than a lot of readers would like (although I think it’s cute as-is). As for the art, it’s pretty typical shoujo, with something of a slight seinen flavor to the style–it suits the story well, I think. I would recommend Mugen Spiral to those looking for a cute romantic comedy with some supernatural flair–especially if they’re short on time to read and they don’t mind loose ends.