The Eterna Files by Leanna Renee Hieber

Leanna Renee Hieber’s The Eterna Files is an alternate history fantasy set at the end of the 19th Century. Following her husband’s assassination, Mary Todd Lincoln created a secret branch of government tasked with finding immortality. Almost twenty years later, the eclectic group of scientists, spiritualists, and mediums made a breakthrough—the so-called ‘Eterna Compound,’ but then everything went horribly wrong. Their laboratory is destroyed in mysterious circumstances and someone escapes with the only known sample of the compound. Clara Templeton, one of the original members of the project is determined to recover it and make sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Across the pond, Queen Victoria has also heard the rumors. She assigns Harold Spire of the Metropolitan Police and Special Branch Division Omega to recover the Eterna Compound. Immortality is the greatest discovery of all time and it must be controlled by Her Majesty’s Government, not the Americans or anyone else. Spire and Omega’s chief researcher, Rose Everhart, race Clara to the compound as they all slowly become aware that there is a deeper game at work.

The Eterna Files is a fast-moving Victorian adventure story filled with period flourishes that are lovingly ridiculous and occasionally just ridiculous. I am found of this period, and Hieber clearly is as well. The supernatural cold war between England and the United States over immortality is a deliciously pulp idea and the attention to international relations is uncommon enough to feel fresh. Unfortunately the characters are less original. Clara Templeton and Rose Everhart are both introduced well. Clara is given a personal connection to the mystery and the deeper supernatural threads than any of the other characters, but she never quite comes off the page. This was a very light novel that gestured at different ideas, but never delve beneath the surface, partly because this is the first in a series and the novel ends on a definite cliffhanger and the sense that the interesting parts haven’t even started yet.


The Eterna Files can be found here on Amazon.

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review

Writing Updates: “To Sing a Song of Distant Worlds” Published on Four Star Stories Today

My story, To Sing a Song of Distant Worlds, is now available at Four Star Stories and can be found here.

I have been interested in the idea of a ‘musical invasion’ story for a long time. I’m not sure where the concept first came from, perhaps my own short-lived efforts at composing, though I did manage to write and perform one piece many years ago.

To Sing a Song of Distant Worlds is my first variation on the theme: a dark fairytale set in the wild West, another old obsession of mine. I’ve had versions of this story, and especially its title, rattling around in my head for 5 or 6 years, so it’s nice to find it a home at last.

 

After Me Comes the Flood by Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry’s The After Me Comes the Flood is a lyrical dreamlike debut. An exercise in atmosphere and misdirection, it is short on incident yet mesmerizingly compelling. Nothing is ever quite as it seems and a sense of the uncanny hovers over events without ever becoming concrete. That is the source of the novel’s greatest strength and greatest frustrations.

John Cole is an awkward, mild mannered man. He is a bookstore owner like his father before him. He even has the same chair his father sat in behind the register. John is well suited to this life. There are hardly ever any customers and he is left largely to himself. In the middle of a heat wave, however, he takes it into his head to go and visit his brother. Closing the bookstore, he abandons London and sets out for cooler climes. Along the way, his car breaks down and he is forced to take shelter in a dilapidated old house. The residents there are a curious group. There are the siblings Alex and Claire, friendly but strangely childlike; Eve a beautiful piano player; Elijah, a former preacher with a store of understanding but no faith; Walker, a smoker and a drinker with hostile, watching eyes; and finally their hostess, Hester, controlling and plain. They greet John Cole by name. They have been expecting him.

Suffering from heatstroke and his own reticence, he cannot at first bring himself to correct their mistake. He cannot be the John Cole they were expecting. John finds himself drawn into their hazy world. He feels oddly at peace among them, and yet there are secrets all around, puzzles he cannot answer. Something binds these disparate people together, and the longer he stays; the more John feels bound himself.

After Me Comes the Flood has a number of familiar elements—the isolated setting, the old, dilapidated house, the mysterious set of characters. These are all common tropes. Sarah Perry does not bring any new elements, but rather imbues them with symbolic, atmospheric, and psychological weight. Perry admits that she was raised in a highly religious household “immersed in classic literature, Victorian hymns and the King James Bible.” It is easy, perhaps too easy, to see the effect this had on her novel. Any Biblical allusions are just one of many textures.

Every incident is imbued with a sense of history, of meaning and allusion. It is a simple story but there are layers of symbols in every incident. This creates an eerie, dreamlike atmosphere. Even as the mysteries of the plot are revealed and the characters’ relationships reach their conclusion, there is an underlying sense of the unknowable. It is a ghost story without ghosts, unless you chose there to be. It works on both levels. There are too many symbols, too many meanings. Perry explicitly states that this is the point. You don’t have to know what everything means; you just have to know it has meaning. There is power in that, although some readers might be more annoyed than intrigued. The After Me Comes the Flood was a psychological and atmospheric triumph, and personally I look forward to her next novel.

 


After Me Comes the Flood can be found here on Amazon.

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review

The Glittering World by Robert Levy

Robert Levy’s The Glittering World is a dark, fantastical story set in a remote Canadian town. Michael “Blue” Whitley is a young chef trying to keep his restaurant afloat. Having fallen afoul of a loan shark, Blue and his friends travel to Starling Cove to sell his Grandmother’s house as quickly as possible. It’s supposed to be a quick trip, but Blue soon uncovers a mystery stretching back to his forgotten childhood, a mystery that soon traps him and all of his friends.

Elisa is one of Blue’s oldest friends. She and her husband are there partially for moral support and partly as a vacation. She and Blue share a deep friendship and a history from their younger partying days, but she’s keeping a secret from both of them, a secret that will have major consequences before the end. The final member of the group is Gabe, one of Blue’s employees. Significantly younger than the others, he seems to have fallen under Blue’s spell like Elisa before him. There are undercurrents of tensions and feeling between these four friends that are slowly teased out over the course of the novel. The story is split into four sections one for each character’s point of view. It is an effective, if occasionally frustrating technique. Once the perspective shifts it never returns. That allows for a series of shifts in understanding and revelations, but it also obscures. Blue is the central character of the story, but after the first part he appears only in glimpses. He is a cypher, perhaps deliberately.

Starling Cove itself is a fascinating creation filled with mystics, philosophers, old hippies, and the remnants of an artist’s colony. It is a town with buried secrets and old legends about the Other Kind. Levy gives the Other Kind a depth and a lyrical sense of history and strangeness.

The Glittering World is a wonderful debut. Levy shows a dark and beautiful world within the world and puts his own twist on Fairy legends and changelings that are both recognizable and strange. The characters are compellingly conceived, although they ultimately feel less connected than they might have. Enjoyable and definitely worth reading.


The Glittering World can be found here on Amazon.

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review

Cannonbridge by Jonathan Barnes

Jonathan Barnes’ Cannonbridge promises to be a fantastical journey through an alternate 19th Century, where a Matthew Cannonbridge is the greatest English literary figure of the age. He’s been everywhere, written everything. He was there when Mary Shelley first dreamed of Frankenstein. He encouraged a young Charles Dickens, visited Oscar Wilde in prison, and went drinking with Edgar Allen Poe. His plays, novels, and poems are acknowledged as peerless even by those great men of letters. And he never seems to age.

The combination of fantasy and a whirlwind tour of 19th Century literature is nearly irresistible for me. This is my genre. This is my period. The notion of an academic desperately trying to unravel a literary, reality-bending conspiracy with a fake 19th Century author at its heart is, more or less, designed to appeal directly to the reader, writer, and 19th Centuryist in me. For me, at least, it conjured vague notions of a Borgean, perhaps even Kilgore Trout-esque, narrative filled with as many well-known and obscure 19th Century literary references as possible. This is not that book.

Barnes has written a fast-paced fantasy thriller that encompasses literature and capitalism. He is playing with fascinating ideas about transhumanism and Matthew Cannonbridge himself is an intriguing creation. Dr. Toby Judd’s efforts to pierce the illusion and expose the conspiracy of Cannonbridge are taunt and filled with compelling, if lightly drawn characters. The passages with Cannonbridge and any number of literary and historical figures are fun, especially as they start to turn towards horror and grotesque.

Cannonbridge is, in short, a fast-paced novel with intriguing ideas. The nature of Cannonbridge is an intriguing mystery with an unexpected resolution. It’s just not the book I, personally, hoped it was. It doesn’t quite come together at the end. I have put myself into this review a bit more than I usually do, partly because I’m experimenting with style, but mostly because this book was so nearly in my wheelhouse that I can’t quite separate myself from it. It’s difficult to be objective and take the book on its own terms, when I really want to read, or even write, the book it isn’t.

 


Cannonbridge can be found here on Amazon.

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review

Emissary by Chris Rogers

Chris Rogers’ Emissary is an odd hybrid of political thriller, murder mystery, and science fiction epic. There are a lot of moving parts with different characters and genres interacting and conflicting. Some elements will be more successful than others depending on the reader. Personally the science fiction concepts and the slow exploration and explanation of the alien Szhen culture was the most interesting and unique.

The titular emissary, Ruell, is from another planet. His people were forced to abandon their planet to escape a catastrophe. Surviving only as sparks of energy, Ruell and his people need living hosts to survive. This classic sci-fi horror trope is ameliorated by the fact that the Szhen are a peaceful people who have no desire to harm the humans. Ruell and his fellow emissaries have been sent out to multiple planets to find the species best suited and set up a mutually beneficial relationship. Unfortunately Ruell arrives during the middle of a crisis. The chosen host is Addison Hale, the first female President of the United States. She is in the middle or her reelection campaign when the Vice-President is taken hostage in Kuhndu, Africa.

Ruell tries to use the situation to demonstrate what the Szhen could offer, but utterly fails to understand human nature. Passing through a series of hosts until finally settling on Kirk Longshadow, a down-on-his-luck cop, Ruell tries to unravel the political conspiracy and possibly save his own people.

In Emissary, Rogers nearly manages the high wire act of seamlessly consolidating these various plots and genres. It is a long book that gives them all time to breath, and the fact that Rogers comes as close as she does is in itself an impressive feat. The presence of Ruell, essentially commenting on the other genres and trying to understand humanity is an excellent trope and helps tie the elements together and breath new life into a number of other plotlines. As a first contact story, it is meandering but promising and often insightful. As a political thriller, it is taunt but overlong. In fairness, that is not my genre of choice and the parts where I lost interest slightly may make the sci-fi elements more palatable for other readers. This is clearly a labor of love by an author who enjoys each of the genres equally. I enjoyed the novel, but parts of it more than others.


 

Emissary can be found here on Amazon.

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review

The Witch of Napoli by Michael Schmicker

Michael Schmicker’s The Witch of Napoli is an engrossing historical tale based in part on the life of Eusapia Palladino, a 19th century Italian Spiritualist and medium who toured Europe and was examined by numerous experts before being dismissed as a clever but fraudulent fake. Schmicker’s fictional creation, Alessandra Poverelli, is a Neapolitan peasant and medium who purports to be able to levitate tables, summon apparitions of the dead, and most chillingly of all, be possessed by the spirit of Savonarola.

When a young newspaper reporter, Tomaso Labella, photographs her levitating a table at one of her séances in Naples, the picture catapults her to local celebrity and accelerates Tomaso’s career. Tomaso’s boss, the editor of a local newspaper, plans to lure the noted psychiatrist Camillo Lombardi, a noted skeptic with a history of debunking psychics and mediums. What he experiences with Alessandra changes his life. Although he remains skeptical of ghosts and spirits, he becomes convinced that Alessandra is proof of some latent telekinetic power perhaps only accessible to hysterics. He pins his reputation on this theory and funds a European tour challenging experts and scientists to test Alessandra’s powers. He sacrifices his marriage in this bid to redefine and rewrite turn-of-the-century science. He offers Alessandra more money than she has ever imagined and the chance for freedom from an abusive husband. She leaps at the chance. Their twin ambitions lead them across the Continent. Ultimately the debonair and arrogant Nigel Huxley, a member of England’s Society for the Investigation of Mediums hatches a plot to expose her as a fraud which culminates in a dramatic séance back in Naples.

Alessandra’s story is told through the sympathetic and besotted eyes of Tomaso Labella. He is instantly infatuated with her and follows her and Lombardi throughout Europe. His involvement with her carries him from lowly photographer taking illicit photographs on the side to the editor of a powerful newspaper in his own right. His relationship with Alessandra is touching, occasionally fumbling and tragic. She is a broken woman with a well of strength and a dark secret.

Schmicker takes the reader across Europe mixing historical figures and fictional characters into an expertly crafted and engrossing world. Turn-of-the-century Naples comes alive filled with politicians, newspapermen, mafia, psychologists, religion and spiritualists. The question of Alessandra’s powers hangs delicately over the text. A Neapolitan peasant himself, the infatuated Tomaso shares Alessandra’s superstitions and seldom doubts her powers. Schmicker is more careful and keeps the reader guessing until the final séance. The Witch of Napoli is an enchanting and mesmerizing novel. Highly recommended.

 


 

The Witch of Napoli can be found here on Amazon.

Received a Copy From NetGalley For Review