The European Review of Speculative Fiction

Book Review: Peacefire

European Review of Speculative Fiction

Andor Bochenkov


Title: Peacefire

Author: Amber Bird


Peacefire opens with a bang and never lets go. Amber Bird’s skewed take on cyberpunk drags the reader through a queered up, near future landscape of one potential dystopia waiting for us around the corner. Breezy and light in tone, it could be read as young adult or adult fiction; but Bird takes the themes of cyberpunk – high tech, low life – to a new and sometimes enlightening place. She focuses on the roots of dystopia: the disintegration of family, the loss of identity and privacy, the erosion of moral choice in a consumer culture.

Written from a female hacker’s point of view, Bird stays realistic about her character’s limitations both social and physical. Much of the book takes place on a couch, with the narrator focused on the arduous and, at times pointless, process of information gathering, coding and security intrusion. Forget what you know about tough men with electrodes stapled to their foreheads making instant cyberchoices which condemn the world. This book shines light on the demented concept of cyberpunk’s iconic macho loner. Bird shows instead a family struggling with slow motion disaster and tasting every repercussion of choices they’ve made or having lost agency, that were made for them by prior generations.

She dwells on moral agency, the thrill of the long hunt and the necessary interconnectedness of being a real person, making her cyberpunk as much a genre criticism as an adventure story.  One part morality tale, one part queer re-vision of the universe, three dashes of crazy plot twists and some romance, this book could well have been Pride, Prejudice and Global Conspiracy if Lizzie had a genderless sibling, way too much computer hardware and access to unlimited cat videos. If you aren’t queer, neuro-atypical, versed in fighting the Man or otherwise used to the weird wild universe of everyone who isn’t walking around with lots of power and privilege, then this novel might be a soft entry into the critical rejection of what starts as mansplaining and ends with the deaths of continents.

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Book Review: Bound

European Review of Speculative Fiction

Andor Bochenkov


Title: Bound

Author: Alan Baxter


Anyone reading Bound by Alan Baxter would recognize it as an Aussie book five paragraphs in. Oz goes full throttle from the moment you arrive – the animals are there to kill you, the beaches boast waves big enough to drown the Prime Minister and the sun will roast you alive (they have monuments for the hapless many who succumbed – usually water fountains for added irony). That’s Australia and that’s Bound. It starts with a punch and never lets up. Every character is there to kill you, every scene will drown you in tragedy and suspense and the world itself has enough cruelty to burn you down to your skeleton.

Plotwise the book takes the reader down the rabbit hole to a world where magic not only exists but subverts humanity in various ways – we are not only low on the food chain but the use of magic itself tends to remove us from our humanity. It’s an almost Lovecraftian conceit which combined with the Australian landscape which comes alive and tries to murder you translates into a grimdark plunge into sex, madness, combat, betrayal and the occasional murder / snacking on a human. It gets dark from there and then darker still until we’ve got old gods fighting new ones and an incarnation of the Narns that should curdle your blood walking free in the suddenly less kind world.

In a way the actual character and plot are secondary to the world Baxter paints. What he’s introduced us to is a very brutal universe where humanity lives in dangerous ignorance while corrupt powers collide in a bid for power and control. In that world any character can be explored and one suspects Baxter will do so in subsequent books. In such a universe the only sane men are those who fight and whose violent demarcation of their boundaries and limits define their humanity. Bound serves up several examples of that struggle. Both villain and hero alike claw their way through Baxter’s cruel cosmos – failure leads to extinction, survival leads to evolution and perhaps to extinction of a different sort. No one exits the book unscathed neither in body nor soul. Read it at your peril, because the novel has bite and it will like its plagued world, leave some proper scars.

Book Review: Valducan Series

European Review of Speculative Fiction

Andor Bochenkov


Title: Valducan Series – Dämoren, Hounacier, Ibenus

Author: Seth Skorkowsky


If there’s a difference between Urban Fantasy and Horror, it’s in the intimacy of the violence. Seth Skorkowsky will make you cringe in all the right ways. Disguised as a supernatural adventure, his Valducan series will keep you up late into the night long after the adrenaline gives way to terror. I tried reading the whole series in one go and made it halfway through Ibenus before my lizard brain called a timeout. Why? Because Skorkowsky crafts the details finely enough to make your skin crawl and his central conceit, that demons have invaded our world and live among us feels almost true. That verisimilitude accompanied by lots of obviously well researched details relies on a fine hand attuned to swap the slow and fast, the intimate and epic. As a result, the pace for each book drives mood and tone as much as they deliver plot. The Valducan series creates an atmosphere of existential dread that proves both unrelenting and untenable: you read to be rid of the shadows lurking behind you, to find some comfort in what you pray will be closure and safety, if not a happy ending.

The series starts with Dämoren which should read like a gunfighter meets monsters adventure. It starts out with the right kinds of clichés – the gruff hero, the mysterious past that worries the supporting cast, monstrous monsters and danger with an exclamation point. If the book had sound effects, there’d be a 90s style record scratch as Skorkowsky runs the whole narrative off the rails and plunges the reader into the heart of hell. The clichés evolve into living breathing characters who befuddle one another make painful mistakes and get people killed. The demons of Valducan should sicken the strong of heart and for folks who nauseate easily, read this with ginger ale by your side table. The heroes might not be much better and this takes a simple premise, hunter vs hunted and becomes a moral passion play that pits obsessed, perhaps even mad modern paladins against beings of ageless hunger and rage. Dämoren dares us to question whether we should tolerate evil to prevent evil and to what degree we can address moral or ethical questions under duress. Skorkowsky showcases every imaginable form of physical and emotional coercion leaving the reader to supply moral context. There are protagonists here, but they might murder one another before book’s end. There are villains too, some antagonists, others plot drivers and such. But the world itself, the physics of demonic possession and the nature of the Valducan’s spiritual bond with their weapons delivers the most visceral impact. In a world where malign spirits seek to worm their ravenous way into our reality through innocent flesh, is there any price we should not pay to prevent this? Dämoren both asks and answers that question.

Hounacier picks up where the last book left us – emotionally crippled and wishing we never knew the truth. Skorkowsky then shows us the next level of Hell, when he pits his most intelligent, successful and one intuits powerful hunter against the brutal truths of a pitiless universe. Readers experience first-hand what it means to be powerless before the horror of invasion and possession. Here’s a hero or rare self understanding and control, one whose only weaknesses are love and perhaps regret for not exploring it more in a world that punishes such extravagances. He’s traveled everywhere but cannot avoid the reckoning at home. Nor can we, because Hounacier drags us kicking and screaming past the vault of sanity into the monsters’ worlds. It shows us what we have most feared, that it’s so much worse than we expected. These things from beyond know us, are the worst of us and they shape our lives, have crafted and molded our world to be a playground for their pleasures. They love and breed – they make children who covet our world and bodies. In a fittingly Lovecraftian sense of powers beyond human scope toying with our flesh, the novel tears apart any comfortable assurances you might have had about luck, fate and safety in the Valducan world. Only the stained knights whose brutal, often sociopathic existence makes their own messes stand between you and the End. Skorkowsky shows proper understanding of indigenous spirituality and Voodon, bringing the colorful and dangerous world of the Crossroads and its menagerie of Powers to vivid and, at times, painful life.

Ibenus seems like a nice distraction from the Valducan series’ prior descents into betrayal, torture, madness and hard won redemption. Don’t be fooled, Skorkowsky only wants you to relax long enough to gut punch you with a whole new level of angst. Ibenus ups the game for the series by giving readers a front row seat to watch the dance between would be knights and their weapons. This time the horror creeps up slowly, masked by break neck pacing and an international cast of scary hooligans and beasts. The main villain turns out to be human frailty – whether in trusting the wrong person, loving the wrong woman or simply choosing emotions over the strict protocols of the knighthood. Not to worry, Skorkowsky provides another set of spiritual no-win situations as characters have to choose between what’s mandated and what’s right. In this world saturated with the prospects of looming assassination, the hunters always hunted, no choice matters except locally. Every path leads to death or madness, perhaps delayed by the stalwart efforts of the Valducan knights. Ibenus delineates how large a price each knight must pay to stand between the world and its demons. That’s what the Valducan series delivers: a horrific landscape of deeply flawed choices that cannot set the scales right. There is only survival and regrouping, a waging of battle between epic forces, some ruthless in the extreme, others malicious beyond reason. All the good comes from humanity whose sacrifices and compromises transform the series from a cracking good set of reads into a moral tempest. For it is by human light that ancient beings find meaning and while we are led to believe some presences, alien and monstrous, have found a way to battle demons in the material plane, it’s the steadfast courage of the knights who dare love and trust in a world devoid of both that we draw hope.

Book Review: Grayshade

European Review of Speculative Fiction

Andor Bochenkov


Title: Grayshade

Author: Gregory Wilson

Sometimes a book turns out better than it has any right to. Somehow Grayshade, which starts as a genre comforting spin on gritty fantasy and feels like a shared world built by gamers, turns into something more, something intriguing and seductive. Titled after the narrator, a religiously driven killer, author Gregory Wilson takes his unreliable narrator through the wringer and out to a new place beyond the reader’s expectations. When you forget the author and fully give in to the verisimilitude of the worldbuilding, you know you’ve got a winner.

Wilson paints his wider world with spare references to places beyond the ken of Grayshade, the fanatic assassin who begins to question his purpose and more impotently begins to suffer. Wilson’s an English professor and it shows – his allusions to classical literature are many and well placed. Shades of the blind Tiresias who finally sees echo as Grayshade goes from murder to doubt to potential protector. More than anything else, this fast paced adventure evolves in its finessed transformation of the narrator. “Like Flowers for Algernon” or “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-precious Stones” Wilson wraps the revelatory and morally important nature of his main character’s journey in a great story.

We ache for Grayshade as he learns about the world outside him, not just geographically beyond the little city where his cult reigns supreme but beyond his mental walls. Wilson keeps the hints spare and action flowing; he does not ever sacrifice a scene for exposition. So there’s a mystery here for the reader to solve, a set of breadcrumbs set out like tiny clues and embedded Easter Eggs that make the process of getting to the denouement much sweeter. Plus, it’s just plain fun. What should be a shady guy (literary pun intended by Wilson?) who “learns his lesson” and becomes one of the good / not so shady guys becomes a timely study in the price of fanaticism and the burden of violent faith. Look for the book and be prepared to wait for the sequel. Grayshade will get under your skin.

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