"A fantasy built on divine, chaotic action and written with immense heart."– Kirkus Reviews
After a plague destroys civilization, a young, white Virginian finds himself in the midst of a race war between barbaric neo-Nazi warriors and people of color and their allies throughout Appalachia in Neill’s (Finding St. Lo, 2019, etc.) novel.
In the 2020s, a deadly disease that eats away at the skin kills billions, resulting in an anarchic society. Most survivors are people of color, particularly those of African descent, who have natural immunity. Others that remain include white supremacists, born-again Confederates, neo-Nazis, doomsday Christians, and resurgent Viking-raider types, who are gearing up for a race war—and all are heavily armed. Scot Jamieson is the lone survivor of his prominent Virginia family, who wrote him off as an underachiever. Now he’s alone again after his post-catastrophe settlement—the remnants of his family’s affluent housing development—is devastated by a wave of white brutes sweeping through the territories. Members of a largely black settlement of generous, savvy survivors rescue him using impressive fighting skills. He finds a mentor and verbal sparring partner in Kimberly Bethune Tomlinson, a home-schooled black girl with an illuminating Afrocentric worldview. However, many of the strong emotional bonds that Scot makes are shattered when barbaric racists kidnap or murder his friends. Scot tries to find and protect those who still remain despite ongoing conflicts with a marauding Nazi horde called Right Nation, who draw their fascist philosophy from such sources as the Bible and racist writings of Abraham Lincoln. Its leadership only tolerates nonwhite people in their midst as underlings or sex slaves—as Kim soon finds out.
Imagine a vivid, nail-biting apocalyptic horror novel on the scale of Justin Cronin’s The Passage (2010) or Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954) that replaces mutated vampire-zombie-cannibals with scruffy Ku Klux Klan recruits (who are also cannibals). Certainly, the action is satisfying—Neill can describe ghastly, unsparingly bloody combat and atrocities with the best of them—but there’s also no shortage of thoughtfulness. By getting inside the heads of the enemy, the author clearly lays out the sinister cosmology of organized racism and entitlement, as when Right Nation leaders orate at length and debate the formidable Kim to justify their hateful crusade. President Donald Trump and his followers are specifically called out, as are Fox News, Ted Nugent, and Kid Rock, and shoutouts and praise go to former Black Panther Bobby Seale and African American authors Octavia Butler, Audre Lord, and James Baldwin, among others. Although Scot’s eyes are roughly opened to his society’s race-related shortcomings, the much-abused hero still manages to come up with a potentially nonviolent strategy to undermine the white-supremacist onslaught. Even so, the lengthy narrative ultimately winds down to a grisly grudge-match showdown between the principal characters, painting the pages red—and leaving far too much hanging. Another grating detail is the inclusion of an angelic orphaned girl, who apparently exists only to be put in deadly danger—a narrative device that calls to mind the adorable tykes that Michael Crichton insisted on menacing with velociraptors.
An angry, harrowing, and topical, if occasionally flawed, what-if actioner.
Neill (Two Years of Wonder, 2018, etc.) investigates his late grandfather’s military service during World War II, in an attempt to better understand him.
Robert Lewis Fowler was always an elusive figure. Although he could be gregarious and loving, he also had a darker side, Neill says, and could be a “careless, reckless, belligerent drunk.” The author’s grandfather served in the Second World War and often candidly discussed the extraordinary experiences he had during that time, and after some cajoling, he finally wrote a short unpublished memoir about them. After he died in 2006, Neill felt driven to investigate his grandpa’s life, and to come to grips with the ways in which he was disappointing: “I had to delve into the words he had left me, study the context of the time, and read into the subtext of all he had left us in his memoir.” The author reproduces his grandfather’s recollections, which recount his decision to join the Nebraska National Guard in 1937, when he was anxious to escape “the privation of the failed farms and job shortages.” He eventually fought in France with the 35th Infantry Division in 1944, and he bravely participated in the battle for Saint-Lô, a victory that proved “pivotal” for the liberation of France and the triumph of the Allied powers on the western front. Neill also offers his own account of his independent research, and of times that he spent with his grandfather. In the process of further study about the war, Neill came across the memoir of another veteran, Gordon Edward Cross; he includes it here, as well, noting that Cross’ “lyrical style” offered a perspective that Fowler’s more “terse” prose didn’t capture.
Neill offers a compilation of material that’s eclectically unconventional, and, despite its sundry elements, it comes together as an emotionally coherent whole. His commentary is literary and exceedingly thoughtful, even in its digressions; for example, he discusses his own yearslong infatuation with the work of Jack Kerouac and his final disillusionment with the artists of the Beat Generation. He also tells of how he came to understand the deep-seated contempt that some World War II veterans harbored for younger generations, including their own children: “It was born of their own displaced pain, born of loss, born of trauma. These angry fathers, counter-protesting in their uniforms, were protesting their own lost youth.” Both of the military memoirs are remarkable on their own; indeed, the elder Fowler’s meticulous, matter-of-fact descriptions somehow make the subject matter’s gruesomeness more vivid: “I rushed over to him and saw that a piece of shrapnel had gone through his mouth from the front and had gone through the throat and was in the back of his neck. He bled to death in a matter of a few seconds.” Overall, this is a moving book—a sensitively and lovingly constructed account that lacks even a whiff of false sentimentality. Neill also includes dozens of captivating photos, taken by Cross during the war.
An emotionally affecting and historically instructive trio of remembrances.
A journalist recalls his time spent volunteering in a Kenyan shelter for children with HIV and his later struggles with mental illness in this harrowing memoir.
Neill (Jamhuri, Njambi & Fighting Zombies, 2018, etc.) first began reading about the worldwide HIV crisis while attending Georgetown University as an English major. This led him to volunteer at a local shelter, where he found that “vulnerable, sick, abandoned children quickly became a passion for me.” Neill was an aspiring investigative reporter who had developed a great admiration for the “hero-activist-journalist” Greg Mortenson. However, he struggled to get any of his own work published. He eventually came to the realization that the scope of his stories was too small, so he contacted a Jesuit priest who had set up a hospice for HIV-positive children in Africa and asked to volunteer. In 2002, he traveled to Kenya, eager to “comfort the afflicted” and write what he was sure would be an “eye-opening work of staggering genius.” However, Neill now admits that he wasn’t at all ready for the “horrors of sub-Saharan Africa’s generalized epidemic.” He goes on to recount the suffering and terrible conditions in and around the Rainbow Children’s Home where he worked and lived for two years. In addition, he offers imagined reconstructions of events in the lives of children at the shelter, written from a third-person point of view. The narrative goes on to detail the aftermath of the author’s time abroad, during which he exhibited suicidal tendencies and spent some time in a psychiatric ward.
The author shows intense attention to detail in this memoir, and many of his descriptions have a cameralike immediacy. For the most part, this unflinching approach is shockingly visceral, as when he describes a baby boy found alive in a trash pit in the Dagoretti section of Nairobi: “His face had been mauled by dogs, the torn flesh covered in an oozing miasma of maggots.” Throughout, Neill is consistently unafraid to show the dire nature of everyday life in the shelter, but he also captures rare moments of beauty, such as when he heard children gleefully sing a song about bananas, taught to them by a Canadian volunteer, or when he saw a “flowering eucalyptus or flame tree growing up between rusted corrugated tin roofs.” On occasion, though, the book dips too far into the macabre; for example, when Neill buries a deceased fellow volunteer in Kenya, he visualizes the coffin lid slipping off to reveal her “restless, putrefying visage staring out at us.” This imagined detail seems unnecessary and driven by an overzealous desire to provide prose with impact. That said, there’s no delicate way to accurately describe the dreadful reality of Kenya’s street children, who regularly faced the prospect of “kidnap, rape and murder.” Overall, this memoir is a disturbing exposé, and Neill is acutely aware that the narrative could be read as one of “unmitigated tragedy.” But there’s also a sense of hope within these pages that may convince others to volunteer for similar causes.
Eye-opening, gut-wrenching journalism.
Kids battle arrogance, selfishness, guilt, and a cannibal zombie apocalypse in this lively suite of African-themed middle-grade fantasy stories.
Neill (Bunny Man’s Bridge, 2018, etc.), author of the Elk Riders series, creates a beguiling fictional world where cellphones and Land Rovers coexist with magic and spirits in a traditional African village. In “Jamhuri the Proud & the Tree of the Sky,” the young titular character declares himself a great warrior and demands the hand of the chief’s daughter, Latia Solei. To reach her hut atop an enormous acacia tree, he concocts grandiose, Wile E. Coyote–esque schemes: bouncing from a trampoline, lassoing a flock of flamingos, launching himself from a giant slingshot. But when he finally meets Latia, he gets a lesson regarding women’s autonomy that transitions the story from boisterous picaresque to a quietly resonant meditation on maturity. In the King Lear–inflected “Njambi, the Littlest Daughter,” four sisters set out on separate daunting journeys to Mount Kaliande to find the Water of Life that could heal their ailing father. Along the way, Njambi rediscovers that kindness and compassion pay off—and confronts murkier notions about the paradoxes of life and death. The longest story, “How to Fight Zombies,” finds the living dead besieging a nameless African city, where 13-year-old Anastasia is guilt-stricken when her negligence allows her little brother to be infected with the zombie plague. Advised by Njambi and Latia and assisted by Esmeralda, a blind girl who kicks butt with her walking staff, Anastasia astrally projects herself into Limbo to lead the zombies’ departed souls to the afterlife; unfortunately, she first must confront a 20-meter-tall demon called “Devourer of Souls.” The horror elements here are atmospheric and scary, but the story sometimes bogs down in rumination on the metaphysics of storytelling. Pitched at tweens, Neill’s prose throughout is usually well-paced and richly textured, with a nice balance of vigorous action (“a leopard leapt out at her, swinging its claws and grinning a terrible, hungry smile full of sharp teeth”) and Aesopian moralizing (“To hold a thing, one must keep an open hand”).
An entertaining, piquant set of fantastical yarns.
A collection features a mix of fantasy and coming-of-age stories.
In his introduction, Neill (The Magus, 2016, etc.) explains a legend from his childhood about the Bunny Man, an asylum patient who’d been abandoned in the nearby woods when the institution closed. The episode evolved among teens to describe a crazy hermit who hoarded rabbits and lured kids to their deaths. This imagery draws readers into a series of elegiac tales, half of which star one of two young men, Sidney and Daniel. In stories like “Vespers,” about a fishing trip that forces Daniel to trespass on a supposedly haunted island, and “Quarry,” in which Sidney decides to jump a car into a lake, boyhood is left behind for the harder realities of manhood. “Verities” and “Tyra’s Story,” about the impermanence and unpredictability of love, further explore manhood while addressing religion (specifically Roman Catholicism) and death. Fantasy-tinged entries that offer levity include “Oral Composition,” about a young man whose penchant for biting celebrated artworks makes him famous, and “The Houseguest,” featuring the devil himself as he crashes on a hedge fund manager’s couch. The strangest vignette, “Milk Money,” describes a milk drinking contest in all its gross-out glory. Neill frequently wears his cynicism on his sleeve, as when perfect student Maria Lofton “killed herself with Prozac and a bottle of champagne” while wearing her homecoming dress, leaving a note saying, “Isn’t it obvious.” Yet at the collection’s core are the same themes that make his Elk Riders fantasy novels so rewarding, albeit presented through the greasy lens of young adulthood. The author is deeply fond of outcasts—like David Palmer, war enthusiast—and the sanctity of nature, seen in the passage “Vesper Island...loomed large in my imagination. I could picture the trees, with their cobwebbed branches disturbed by the occasional breeze, which carried the stench of carrion.” Neill’s humor is far left of center, as when God appears in court looking not like “George Burns, Morgan Freeman, or Alanis Morissette” but “a vagrant” who’s been picking through the trash.
Addictive tales that read smoothly while aiming for the gut.
The final installment of Neill’s (The Journey to Karrith, 2016, etc.) baroque fantasy series.
After the disastrous battle in Karrith, in which dark elks slayed King Talamar, Prince Haille Hillbourne is a ruined man. Haunted by memories of his father and by the city’s carnage, he runs through an empty Karrith at night to try to cope. Eventually, the new king, Oean, arrests him for regicide and for conspiring with the invading Maurvant tribesmen. It doesn’t help Haille’s case that he rode into battle on Adamantus, an ally elk, hoping to thwart the dark elks. While clutching an odd, blue stone around his neck, King Oean sentences Haille to exile. Meanwhile, Katlyn, the prince’s classmate; and Avenger Red, a former child slaver, search for Adamantus, who’s fled. They meet Tallia Senkar, a Maurvant girl who describes a cloaked being called the Magus, who convinced the Maurvants’ Chief Kiruna that Karrith was to blame for failing crops, enabling a war. At the same time, Haille travels by filthy slave cart to the west coast, where he’s shipped to Castle Drahlstrom. There, he becomes the servant and secret confidant of Twiceborn Gregor Lachnor, a mage-in-training with secrets of his own. All the while, warrior sorcerers work to open the Seal of Dormain to release immortals called the Kryen. In this fifth Elk Riders novel, Neill continues to cut a unique swath through the epic-fantasy genre. Although so much has happened (and continues to happen) in the saga, the lush depictions of nature allow readers to pause and remain grounded. Along the Rimcur Mountains, for instance, “one could witness all varieties of weather: slanting slopes of rain draining from clouds, patches of brassy sunlight, rainbows slung over rainbows in-between.” Events from previous volumes continue to have importance in this one; the curative Font of Jasmeen, for example, failed to fix Avenger Red’s dwarfish height—and yet the woman is determined to atone for past sins, as if the font treated some other aspect of herself. Neill’s philosophical tone remains sharp, as when one character tells Haille, “Life does not owe you happiness, just purpose.”
A finale that delivers on the series’ promised action and emotional grandeur.
This fourth Elk Riders fantasy novel sees Neill’s (The Font of Jasmeen, 2016, etc.) heroes caught in the war for the land of Anthor.
After using the miraculous healing waters from the Font of Jasmeen, Prince Haille Hillbourne, his classmate Katlyn, Capt. Valateen “Val” Mandaly, and swashbuckler Cody Youngblood find themselves hunted in the eastern wilds of Anthor. The High Council of Carasans has hired the dauntless Victor Twenge to eliminate Val and Cody, the last of the Order of Oban. With the prince is Adamantus, a sage elk who helps the foursome survive after they plunge off a bridge and into a river. From there, they head for the majestic but cursed woods of Sidon, hoping to meet Haille’s father, King Talamar, in the realm of Karrith. A prophecy says that Haille will save the king during a battle with marauding tribes. On the way, the heroes find the farmhouse of legendary swordsmith Pathus Sumberland. He gives the prince a blade called Elk Heart, which proves essential to survival in the steamy, exotic world of Sidon. The group eventually runs into a cadre of foul creatures called Vaurgs, who’ve captured a wily young woman who isn’t what she seems. In this installment, Neill leans on numerous fantasy tropes in apparent homage to towering genre figures such as Lord Dunsany and J.R.R. Tolkien. That said, even seasoned genre fans may feel like Sidon is their first passage through an enchanted wood, as Neill’s prose is stately and hypnotic, telling readers, for instance, that the heroes hear “Clicks, songs, even throbbing, which was something like distant thunder, but with the regularity of a fading heartbeat.” But like Sidon, where “Emotion was the most powerful current,” this narrative is strongest when examining the movements of love, no matter how swift or hesitant they may be; Haille’s connection with Veolin Crossborn, the scarred elf girl, is achingly portrayed. Readers also revisit Gail, formerly the villainous Avenger Red, who struggles to atone for her past. This penultimate chapter of the series offers nobility and disaster, as Neill’s fans have come to expect.
Another unique, stakes-raising entry in a formidable saga.
A sequel sees a ragtag band of heroes seek forbidden treasure to thwart encroaching militants.
A prophecy spoken by the dead has sent 14-year-old Gabriella Carlyle away from her people on the island of Harkness. She must find the treasure of Nicomedes, which may help turn back a dangerous manipulator named Sade. He wants to purchase sacred Harkness land—next to the Tower of the Dead. Alongside Gabriella is her mentor, Omanuju; her withdrawn 11-year-old brother, Dameon; a village outcast and hunter, Mortimer Creedly; and an enchanted elk who can speak, Adamantus. They fly east on a haunted ship, Elawn, powered by a special magnetic stone. In their possession is a map that should help navigate the labyrinthine City of Dis, where the knowledge-obsessed Nicomedes stored his legacy. Along the way, the group faces wyverns, dehydration, and the mad Princess Sybil (whose own spell split her into two brats, the other named Libys). Alliances within the group, however, are fragile. Not everyone believes in the prophecy, and the promise of untold treasure can warp minds. Gabriella must also return to Harkness before the new moon, but her chances of success dwindle with each new adversary. The second volume of Neill’s (In the Darkness Visible, 2016, etc.) Elk Riders series is yet another blueprint for writing taut, exhilarating fantasy. Everything that can go wrong for the heroes does, and the author’s crafty twists seem to come from an endless supply. The characters’ emotional honesty is likewise riveting. Gabriella’s brother suffers from an ailment that enamors him more to numbers than people. She admits that, instead of saving him from drowning, “I wanted him to die.” Elsewhere, the prose is gorgeous, like a line about the moon being “a marble rolling in a puddle of ink.” Yet amid the fabulous ruins and creature battles is the imperishable wisdom that “if we treated others with the love and devotion we usually reserve for the gods...the world would be a much better place.” By the end, Gabriella, stripped of her companions, has learned this lesson well.
A fantasy built on divine, chaotic action and written with immense heart.
This third volume of Neill’s (The Voyage of the Elawn, 2016, etc.) fantasy series focuses on a young prince desperate to heal the malady that makes him an outsider.
Queen Airre’ Soliegh of Antas died giving birth to Prince Haille Hillbourne. Also known as the King’s Woe, the child suffers seizures and must be bound in his crib. When Yana Yansalyl, a newly appointed member of the King’s Council, arrives at the castle, she soothes a crying Haille while storms rage outside. Eleven years later, the young prince considers Yana his foster mother, but the curse of his seizures has left him taunted and guilt-ridden. After an incident involving Katlyn Barnes, a classmate from the Academy House, Haille must work in the library as punishment. He encounters a folio that mentions the Font of Jasmeen, “a boon to those afflicted with sicknesses and maladied from birth. For those who touch its waters will be granted any wish.” He also runs into Katlyn again, who convinces him to steal the page naming the Font’s location on Morbright Mountain. Later, Haille finds his father’s letter requesting that the prince be accommodated at Master Chambridge’s home for the afflicted. Rather than face this fate, Haille and Katlyn escape Antas and journey east to find the miraculous Font. In this third Elk Riders adventure, Neill turns from his heroine Gabriella and explores the wider realm of Anthor, where armies mobilize and the legendary vigilante Avenger Red proves “the bane of child slavers.” Fans accustomed to the author’s lilting, evocative prose won’t be disappointed: “the wind made a soft whistle in the branches and summer fattened spiders spun shining webs in the windows of crypts.” This volume revels in more swordsmanship than sorcery, giving Haille’s allies Cody Youngblood, Valateen Mandaly, and the elk Adamantus a workout. The line “Man is not measured by his brawn only but how he can love and be loved by others” appears early, hinting at the tender finale.
A darker, more grounded entry—with a
royal hero—that approaches this strong saga from a new angle.
Neill’s (City on a Hill, 2014) fantasy features a teenage girl on a quest to save her island tribe from the designs of a militant fleet.
Fourteen-year-old Gabriella Carlyle is from the island of Harkness. Her 11-year-old brother, Dameon, is fluent with numbers but a social outcast due to his inward nature. One day, he’s counting grains of sand while Gabriella and her friend, Eloise, are harvesting mussels by the shore. They witness the arrival of a formidable-looking vessel, and the cloaked men who disembark seem rough and ready for battle. The leader of the island, Chief Salinger, greets one of the men, Sade, who’s part of a group called the Servior. Sade explains that the visitors hope to purchase land next to the Tower of the Dead, which stands as a portal between life and the afterlife. When the villagers perform a ritual to consult with their ancestors, the dead speak through Gabriella and reveal that “the Servior...those whom they serve are treacherous.” A loner named Omanuju Ant decides to help Gabriella find the treasure of Nicomedes on the far-flung Eastern Continent, which may thwart Sade and his men; in return, perhaps the dead will heal Dameon. In this opening installment of a vigorously imagined series, Neill delivers an epic that’s as grand as it is brief. Episodic brilliance characterizes Gabriella and Omanuju’s adventures, such as when they befriend Ghede, who pilots the floating ship Elawn—and a dragon race ensues. Alternating chapters flash back to Sade and his younger brother, Vondales, growing up as orphans on the island of Illicaine and later becoming teenage savages on a sharp rise to power. Neill’s prose is often beautiful, as when Gabriella “could make out the shape of undulating hills and ridges silhouetted against the spray of stars.” Alongside frequent scenes of brutality, there are dear instances of wisdom, as when Omanuju says, “Sometimes when we find a person hard to love, the failure is in us, rather than them.” A finale featuring deft, magical weirdness only elevates the narrative further.
The start of what promises to be a tumultuous, visionary fantasy series.
Neill’s debut novel is a sci-fi tale, spanning four short volumes, about a future society that outlaws religion and all things supernatural after a near apocalypse.
According to the official history of the Twin Cities, Fortinbras and Lysander, a nuclear holocaust left all but a few hundred people on the planet dead in an event known as the “Cataclysm.” Those remaining few rebuilt society, shunning the things that they believed caused the division and strife that led mankind to destroy itself. In this environment, two girls meet and become lifelong friends: Sabrina Sabryia, niece of Head Minister D’Agosta; and artist Lindsey Mehdina, who has episodes in which she can see the future. Sabrina becomes a cadet in the society’s militaristic police force, responsible for stomping out all symbols and practice of religion and superstition and making sure everyone follows the strict rule of law. She often deals with Lindsey, who’s much more of a free spirit, painting public murals in colors not sanctioned by the Head Ministry. Their friendship is jeopardized when Sabrina finds out that Lindsey is involved with the very occultists that she’s been trying to bring down. This leads them both to journey outside the Twin Cities, where they find another world they didn’t know existed. It causes them to examine their faith, friendship, and everything they think they know about their society. Neill has created an immersive world—one that readers can see, hear, and smell (“The desert yawned open around them, red light from the setting sun streaking across the hardpan”).The characters even have their own profanity, somewhat in the style of the Battlestar Galactica reboot; meanwhile, a refrigerator is a “cold box,” while carlike vehicles are “roll pods.” The jargon seems like overkill in spots, but it’s effective at reminding readers that they are indeed in another world, familiar but still alien. The technology is also inventive, and the large birdlike machines that the ministry uses to hunt down the occultists are terrifyingly effective. Overall, the saga is well-plotted, its characters well-drawn, with a thoughtful philosophy framing the events. The four volumes taken together read like a miniepic.
A notable, impressive debut for sci-fi fans.