THE OCCULTISTS

A delectably moody supernatural nail-biter.

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A teenager in the early 20th century enters into a precarious relationship with a cult in this debut dark fantasy.

To avoid working for his abusive stepfather, Max Grahame takes a job at the post office in his small Georgia town. The postmaster, Peter Sylvester, and his wife, Addie, seem to take a liking to the 15-year-old. But Max quickly learns of their eccentricities when they take him to a séance. Peter and Addie belong to the Brotherhood of the Aurora, a spiritualist faction whose members believe in and practice “occult phenomena.” Evidently certain that Max has potential, Peter sends the teen to study at an academy of sorts in Nebraska. Max has little choice but to agree, as local cops are eying him for a recent murder he witnessed. Once in Nebraska, he joins other “initiates” in honing such abilities as mind reading, astral travel, and, in Max’s case, psychokinesis. Sadly, as he had left behind his family, Max longs to return home only to learn that his stay at the school may not be voluntary. Soon, he has no idea whom he can trust, and he’ll have to form alliances with potentially dangerous individuals just to keep himself safe. Schattel wastes little time in establishing a brooding atmosphere. For example, the story offers an early introduction to Mister Splitfoot, a “man-spirit” who torments Max throughout the novel. Indelible prose further augments the environment: “Stale chilly air. The stink of saliva. A clutter of upturned chairs, decayed, crumbling tables and medicinal cabinets.” In the same vein, a host of characters is ambiguous, as Max is never sure what seemingly amiable person will ultimately become a menace. The author adds fantasy trademarks, including displays of paranormal capabilities, sometimes in tense, combative sequences. There are some notably violent scenes, like Max as a “blood boy,” assisting a doctor during a particularly visceral operation.

A delectably moody supernatural nail-biter. (dedication, author’s note, author bio)

Pub Date: July 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-950305-44-5

Page Count: 330

Publisher: JournalStone

Review Posted Online: Sept. 11, 2020

MASTERS OF DEATH

A reasonably charming urban fantasy that could have used a more rigorous edit before primetime.

The latest in a series of rereleases from a prolific fantasist’s previously self-published works is a contemporary spin on the fairytale “Godfather Death.”

Viola Marek is an aswang, a shapeshifting vampire from Filipino folklore. She’s also a Chicago real estate agent trying to sell a mansion even while the ghost of its last owner, Thomas Edward Parker IV, is doing his supernatural best to block the sale.  In a desperate attempt to earn her commission, she hires Fox D’Mora, Death’s mortal godson, to use his connection to get the ghost to leave. Unfortunately, Death is unavailable: He’s been kidnapped, and to get him back and prevent a worlds-spanning catastrophe, Fox, Vi, the ghost, and assorted other supernatural creatures will have to enter a high-stakes gambling game that usually only immortals can play…but rarely win. The story begins with an unusual blend of myth, fairy tale, and cosmology and inevitably descends to an almost unbearable level of sentimentality, which is simultaneously a refreshing change from Blake’s usual tableau of self-involved, selfish characters who seem driven toward tragedies of their own making. Blake could definitely do a better job at showing the love between characters rather than merely telling the reader that they’re in love. She also has an unfortunate tendency to skip potentially intriguing bits of backstory if they don’t immediately drive the plot along, which is why readers never learn anything about Fox’s childhood and what it was actually like having Death as a parent. Nor does she explain why only two of the four archangels, Gabriel and Raphael, play outsize roles in determining the order of the cosmos, while Uriel and Michael are nowhere to be seen. Bits of anachronism—like the use of a rubber band as aversion therapy 200 years ago or the presence of a magical wristwatch from a time long before watches were common—might be intended to be Pratchett-style humor or chalked up to magic? It’s hard to tell what’s intentional and what is simply careless. Now that Blake has a traditional publisher, perhaps the editors of her future novels will guide the author to address these issues when they arise.

A reasonably charming urban fantasy that could have used a more rigorous edit before primetime.

Pub Date: Aug. 8, 2023

ISBN: 9781250892461

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Tor

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2023

A BLIGHT OF BLACKWINGS

A charming and persuasive entry that will leave readers impatiently awaiting the concluding volume.

Book 2 of Hearne's latest fantasy trilogy, The Seven Kennings (A Plague of Giants, 2017), set in a multiracial world thrust into turmoil by an invasion of peculiar giants.

In this world, most races have their own particular magical endowment, or “kenning,” though there are downsides to trying to gain the magic (an excellent chance of being killed instead) and using it (rapid aging and death). Most recently discovered is the sixth kenning, whose beneficiaries can talk to and command animals. The story canters along, although with multiple first-person narrators, it's confusing at times. Some characters are familiar, others are new, most of them with their own problems to solve, all somehow caught up in the grand design. To escape her overbearing father and the unreasoning violence his kind represents, fire-giant Olet Kanek leads her followers into the far north, hoping to found a new city where the races and kennings can peacefully coexist. Joining Olet are young Abhinava Khose, discoverer of the sixth kenning, and, later, Koesha Gansu (kenning: air), captain of an all-female crew shipwrecked by deep-sea monsters. Elsewhere, Hanima, who commands hive insects, struggles to free her city from the iron grip of wealthy, callous merchant monarchists. Other threads focus on the Bone Giants, relentless invaders seeking the still-unknown seventh kenning, whose confidence that this can defeat the other six is deeply disturbing. Under Hearne's light touch, these elements mesh perfectly, presenting an inventive, eye-filling panorama; satisfying (and, where appropriate, well-resolved) plotlines; and tensions between the races and their kennings to supply much of the drama.

A charming and persuasive entry that will leave readers impatiently awaiting the concluding volume.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-345-54857-3

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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