I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Paranormal
Series: Book 1 of The Blackwood Tapes
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (August 4, 2020)
Length: 480 pages
The Hollow Ones by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan follows a rookie FBI agent named Odessa Hardwicke as she investigates a string of mass murders after she herself survives one of the horrific attacks. At the end of a terrifying hunt for a rampaging killer on the loose, she was forced to shoot her own partner and mentor Walt Leppo after the older agent inexplicably became violent and turned on her. While the shooting was ruled as self-defense, Odessa was nonetheless put on desk duty, traumatized and filled with guilt over what she had to do. She also could not get the moment of Walt’s death out of her mind, when she thought she witnessed a shadowy entity leave his body, though she knew it sounded too crazy for anyone to believe.
Tasked with clearing out the office of a retired agent, Odessa meets Earl Solomon when she brings his belongings to him in the hospital. An old man now, Earl was one of the FBI’s first African American agents who worked on a strange case in Mississippi during in the early 1960s, where he also had his initial fateful encounter with an enigmatic British gentleman named Hugo Blackwood. Threaded through the novel is this secondary timeline in which Earl and Blackwood reluctantly join forces to investigate paranormal activity in the area, kicking off what would be a lifelong working relationship. Back in the present though, Earl recognizes disturbing similarities between Odessa’s story and his own, instantly recognizing that she needs help.
This is how Odessa is introduced to Blackwood, a mysterious figure who seemed to have stepped out of time, looking not a day older than when Earl first met him. As the story follows their desperate race to stop a demon from unleashing more of its evil and chaos, a third timeline takes us to the 16th century delving into Blackwood’s history, explaining his apparent immortality and how the doors of the mortal realm were opened to an invasion of malicious spirits.
As you can probably tell, there are a lot of elements to tease apart here, and not least of them is the acknowledgment mentioned in the book’s foreword regarding the character of John Silence and the “occult detective” subgenre as a whole, credited to famed classic horror writer Algernon Blackwood. The Hollow Ones can thus be regarded as something of a tribute to his work, which is clear from the way Del Toro and Hogan named their own detective protagonist. This undoubtedly gave their book a certain homage feel, though the authors also talked about how they created something completely new out of their inspiration. As John Silence is a character I know of by name only, I don’t feel equipped to make comparisons so I’ll just focus my review on what I enjoyed and what I didn’t.
First, what I liked: There’s a definite cinematic quality to the storytelling, which would be no surprise to anyone familiar with the authors’ work in film or their horror trilogy The Strain. However, I was also all over the urban fantasy vibe I got from The Hollow Ones, speaking as a fan of paranormal crime mysteries. In addition, the book started off in the most intense way, drawing me right into the action. As for the characters, I enjoyed following Odessa, Earl, and Blackwood in their respective POVs, but for me the icing on the cake was the dialogue, filled with clever and pithy banter. Del Toro and Hogan have clearly worked with each other long enough to know what works, and the first half of the novel flowed smoothly, keeping me enthralled with its constant action and mystery.
Now, for what I didn’t like so much. As I said, there’s a lot going on here, with three separate timelines. While the connections between them are eventually revealed, we lose a lot of steam in the meantime because of the split attention. I definitely felt less invested emotionally as the story moved into the second half, when the opposite effect should have been the case. It got just a little too overwhelming, I think, and at the same time, the answers which were finally provided in the end failed to make the impact I’d hoped for.
That said, The Hollow Ones still ended up being better than I expected. While not the most original, the ideas in this book have certainly piqued my interest for more. I’m a big fan of this subgenre, and though the second half was not a strong as the first, I feel there’s potential for future installments to explore more horror and paranormal mysteries, not to mention I would love to see some of these characters in action again.
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of The Ascendance Series
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio (July 7, 2020)
Length: 12 hrs and 37 mins
It felt great to be reading Jay Posey again with Every Sky A Grave, and what a high-flying, super massive, electrifyingly ambitious novel it was. It’s no exaggeration to say there’s a bit of something for everyone in here, from epic adventures in space to daring feats of survival.
In this story, we follow Elyth, an agent of the galaxy’s peace-keeping order, the First House of the Ascendance. They’re also the custodians of great power, the Deep Language which was understood to control everything. And when a planet stepped out of line? That’s when the Ascendance would step in and rectify that.
When the book starts, Elyth has just been dispatched on a secret mission to a system to quash a threat of insurgence. A true believer of the Ascendance and their creed, she carried out her task, which is to use the magic of the Deep Language to essentially cause the planet’s untimely death. Pleased with her work, Elyth’s superiors next send her to Qel, where she will put her skills of subterfuge to good use, investigating a mysterious phenomenon that shouldn’t be possible.
Unfortunately for Elyth, nothing goes as planned. Her mission is compromised from the start as her ship crashes on the planet, and our protagonist is forced to get creative and improvise. The longer she persists, however, the more she begins to realize there is a lot to the Ascendance she has never thought to question before, while the strange presence on Qel continues to perturb her.
First and foremost, I have to say I was completely blown away by the world building. Posey has pulled out all the stops when it comes to creating this universe where an all-powerful Deep Language forms the basis of everything that exists. While Every Sky A Grave is classified as science-fiction, there is a spellbinding quality to this concept that I think will make even fantasy readers feel at at home. And then there’s the sheer scope of the galaxy and the idea of a vast system of planets at your fingertips. The First House of the Ascendance, an all-female organization made up of agents like Elyth—experts in combat, stealth and manipulation—are both the arbiters and warriors of this network, bringing peace and stability throughout its reaches, no matter the cost.
And speaking of our protagonist, I was also intrigued by her evolution of her character. She’s fiercely independent and headstrong, beginning this story as a loyal agent of the Ascendance, completely devoted to her order and Paragon, its supreme matriarch. Elyth’s journey is thus an interesting one, and even when she is at her most stubborn and misguided, she remains a sympathetic lead. There’s also no denying her resourcefulness and quick thinking; this is someone who can make a quick grasp of a situation and act with urgency and confidence.
That said, I think as the story progressed, I wish we had a better understanding of the ways of the First House of the Ascendance as well as more about the Deep Language, particularly as the plot began involving more of its inner political conflicts and tensions. It grew a little confusing, causing the pace to slow considerably in certain sections in later parts of the book. It’s a shame, because I think greater clarity would have made bolstered many of Elyth’s decisions, or at the very least, given more weight to her gradual change of heart.
Still, I had a great time with Every Sky A Grave, despite some fogginess in the second half where the story suffered a bit of fraying at the ends. The world building and character development remained strong throughout, however, and overall I’m impressed with this solid opener to Jay Posey’s new Ascendance series. I look forward to the more with interest!
Audiobook Comments: I enjoyed passing the hours with the audiobook edition, narrated by Laurel Lefkow. I thought her reading gave energy and life to the prose, and her voice was also a good match for Elyth’s dialogue and inner thoughts. All in all, a good book that was easy and fun to listen to.
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Mystery, Thriller
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press (August 4, 2020)
Length: 352 pages
The Night Swim by Megan Goldin will haunt you, but in a good way. After my first spin with the author’s The Escape Room last year, I think I expected something similarly twisted, irreverently over-the-top and just off-the-wall insane and unpredictable when I picked this one up. But instead, what I got was a mystery-thriller that was much more introspective, resonating, and heartbreaking.
The protagonist of the book is Rachel Krall, creator and host of “Guilty or Not Guilty”, a true crime podcast that has taken the country by storm and catapulted her name to instant fame. In spite of that though, Rachel tries to keep a low profile, avoiding public appearances and having her photo in the media. Which is why, upon her arrival in the small town of Neapolis, she is surprised to find she is recognized, by someone who leaves an anonymous letter on her car windshield, begging Rachel to use her podcast to help.
Having come to Neapolis to report on a notorious rape trial that has received national attention, Rachel nevertheless becomes intrigued by the mysterious note’s author and contents. While everyone in town is focused on the trial involving local college student and swim prodigy Scott Blair and his alleged rape of a teenage girl, Rachel begins doing another investigation of her own, unable to ignore the desperate pleas of the anonymous notes that just keep on coming. Further research leads her to the case of another sexual assault victim named Jenny Stills, whose body was found off the Neapolis pier twenty-five years ago. Although the police reports all say cause of death was accidental drowning, the writer of the notes who claims to be Jenny’s younger sister insists that she was murdered.
As the present timeline continues forward chronicling Rachel’s coverage of the Scott Blair trial, another perspective provided by Jenny’s sister through her letters gives us a look back into the events of the past. In this way, the traumatic experiences of two abused young women, separated by a quarter of a century, are revealed to us through Rachel’s tireless investigations on both cases, which also uncovers startling parallels and more difficult questions. After both the prosecution and defense teams finish laying out their convincing arguments in the courtroom, what will be the verdict? And while many in town still remember Jenny Stills, why are they all so reluctant to talk about her? Finally, who is Jenny’s sister, and why won’t she agree to meet Rachel face-to-face?
I thoroughly enjoyed The Night Swim, a novel that is one-part mystery and one-part court drama, with a slight bit of thriller thrown in. As I said, the story felt very different from my one and only other experience with Goldin’s work, the completely ridiculous yet entertaining romp that was The Escape Room. While my enjoyment of that book was entirely predicated on my ability to suspend my disbelief, this one, in contrast, did not exhibit the same kind of cheeky, throwaway quality. And whereas The Escape Room succeeded because you were never meant to take the premise all that seriously, The Night Swim on the other hand is deadly serious, tackling themes that are darker, heavier, and meant to stay with you for a long time.
After all, few topics are more timely or relevant in today’s society than some of the ones addressed in this book. Foremost of these is the subject of rape and the silent suffering of victims, particularly those who are young and vulnerable, singled out for discreditation and are powerless to speak out against their abusers. It is heavily implied the only reason there even is a trial in Neapolis is because the victim’s grandfather was the chief of police, and the sentiment is split regarding the accused, who is the town darling and an Olympic hopeful. Meanwhile, despite privacy laws protecting minors, everyone already knows the identity of the victim. Unfortunately, secrets are hard to keep in a small town, but there’s always plenty of gossip and rumor, and readers know with a dread that no matter what the jury decides in the end, a young girl’s life is going to be destroyed forever.
I also liked the character of Rachel Krall, who is motivated by the search for truth as well as a genuine desire to help others. At first, believing she had failed someone in overlooking her previous requests for help, Rachel is driven by a sense of responsibility, but then becomes more and more entrenched in the mystery surrounding the circumstances of Jenny’s death as more information comes to light. All I can say is my heart broke for the Stills girls, and there are things in this book that will leave you feeling raw from the inside out.
The thrills are actually quite minimal, mostly coming into play in the end. In general though, I would classify The Night Swim as more of a mystery with a good dose of gripping courtroom trial-related suspense. There are some surprises, but ultimately what this book delivers is an unflinchingly searing look into the way many rape cases are perceived. All told, Megan Goldin has created this emotional crime thriller from the seamless integration of two stories separated by a generation, and at its heart is a determined heroine who ties it all together.
Bookshelf Roundup is a feature I do every weekend which fills the role of several blog memes, like Stacking the Shelves where I talk about the new books I’ve added to my library or received for review, as well as It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? where I summarize what I’ve finished reading in the last week and what I’m planning to read soon. Mostly it also serves as a recap post, so sometimes I’ll throw in stuff like reading challenge progress reports, book lists, and other random bookish thoughts or announcements.
Received for Review
My thanks to the publishers and authors for the following review copies received, and be sure to click the links to their Goodreads pages for more details and full descriptions!
Kicking off the roundup this week, huge thanks to Saga Press for an ARC of Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse. I am SO EXCITED for this one! I must have alarmed the whole neighborhood with my fangirl shrieking when I saw what was in the book mail. Other treasures from the publisher included finished copies of The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis, which I’m hoping to start later this month, as well as The Vanished Queen by Lisbeth Campbell which I’ve heard surprisingly little about until now, but what I’m learning of it really makes me want to check it out.
My thanks also to Titan Books for Alpha Omega by Nicholas Bowling, which was pitched to me as Black Mirror meets Ready Player One, and you know me, I’m up for anything with a gaming angle! With thanks to William Morrow I also received an ARC of Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots, which was completely new to me. Looking it up on Goodreads though, I saw that it was about superheroes but with the twist of focusing on the often underappreciated and dispensable employees of supervillains…hence henches. I’m definitely going to be giving this one a closer look! And finally thank you to Tor Books for a review copy of Uranus by Ben Bova, which is apparently a part of the author’s The Grand Tour sequence of books but also the first part of a new trilogy called The Outer Planets.
I also picked up a few audiobooks for review this week. I tried to resist, but I just couldn’t stop myself! Like many, I read Twilight back in the day, and while it didn’t exactly bowl me over, I couldn’t get over the nostalgia behind the idea of Midnight Sun by Stephenie Meyer so I nabbed a listening copy with thanks to Hachette Audio.
From Listening Library I also received ALCs of Vicious Spirits by Kat Cho, the sequel to Wicked Fox, and The Companion by Katie Alender, a creepy mystery that seems like it has a lot of potential for YA horror.
And last but not least, thank you to Macmillan Audio for a review copy of To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini. The hype surrounding this one has piqued my curiosity for a while, but the icing on the cake is the narration done by none other than Jennifer Hale, one of the greatest and most talented voice actresses to ever grace the gaming industry. Needless to say, it made my choice to do this book in audio a foregone conclusion.
This Week’s Reads
Have you heard of or read any of the books featured this week? What caught your eye? Any new discoveries? I hope you found something interesting for a future read! Let me know what you plan on checking out. Until next time, see you next Roundup!
Welcome to The Friday Face-Off, a weekly meme created by Books by Proxy! Each Friday, we will pit cover against cover while also taking the opportunity to showcase gorgeous artwork and feature some of our favorite book covers. If you want to join the fun, simply choose a book each Friday that fits that week’s predetermined theme, post and compare two or more different covers available for that book, then name your favorite. A list of future weeks’ themes are available at Lynn’s Book Blog.
This week’s theme is:
~ a cover that depicts ACTION
There were a lot of action covers to choose from this weeks, but I went with a novel of The Witcher because you can always count on Geralt of Rivia to bring the excitement. Here are some of the best covers I could find for this book:
From left to right:
Polish Edition A (1996) – Polish Edition B (2000) – Polish Edition C (2014)
Gollancz (2014) – Orbit – (2014) – Italian Edition (2014)
Portuguese Edition (2015) – Spanish Edition (2016) – Chinese Edition (2016)
French Edition (2010) – Russian Edition (2020) – Finnish Edition (2014)
So many great action covers, I can’t choose just one. So here are three of my favorites this week! (I especially love the flock of birds flying in dragon formation on the Russian edition!)
But what do you think? Which one is your favorite?
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Romance
Series: Book 1 of Mercenary Librarians
Publisher: Tor Books (July 28, 2020)
Length: 336 pages
Author Information: Website
Deal with the Devil by Kit Rocha is a dystopian adventure with strong undercurrents of sexual tensions, featuring the clash of two mercenary squads forced to form an alliance amidst hidden agendas and secrets until an unexpected spark between their team leaders ultimately leads to a reckoning. It is the year 2086 and the country has become a crumbling wasteland following a catastrophic event called the Flares that wiped out the power grid. In the ruins of what’s left of Atlanta, Nina heads the Librarians, who are actually a group of information brokers. Her teammates, Maya and Dani, have become her new family ever since Nina lost her own clone sisters following a harrowing escape from the lab that created her. They now run their operation out of a secret underground bunker, using both their combat skills and access to data to help those in need.
Enter Captain Garrett Knox and the Silver Devils. The former soldier and his gang of fellow exiles from the Protectorate-owned TechCorps isn’t exactly the kind of people who typically show up looking for Nina’s services, but they need her help regardless. Knox along with his friends have gone rogue from the company that created and maintained the experimental implants used to grant them superhuman abilities, and now they are in desperate need of a biochem hacker to stabilize their tech and keep them alive. The problem is that the hacker, Luna, has been kidnapped. Knox approaches Nina with a offer he knows she can’t refuse: she’ll help the Silver Devils retrieve the information they need to get out of their predicament, and in exchange, she’ll receive access to the archives of the fabled lost Library of Congress servers. However, in reality, Knox is actually setting the bait for the perfect trap. He does need Nina’s help, but not for the reasons he’s led her to believe.
Confession: this was my first book by the authors, so it’s probably on me for not doing a little more research into the genres they write before jumping headfirst into this one while taking everything in the publisher’s description at face value. Kit Rocha is actually the pen name for a writing duo who also writes paranormal romance under the moniker of Moira Rogers. Romance is thus a huge component of Deal with the Devil as well, with some R-rated erotica thrown in for good measure. Not a big deal—that is, unless you were expecting a straight-up dystopian adventure and instead became bogged down with relationship drama, which was especially predominant in the book’s first half.
This, I think, is what I struggled with the most. In general, I am not against romance in my books, but I do like to be prepared for it. Again, while it’s not really this novel’s fault that I felt blindsided, I do wish there had been more indication of it in its blurb or cover to help readers decide if they want to read it rather than be surprised—be it positively or negatively—while partway through. My own personal experience was a bit mixed. I didn’t mind the romance, but did often find myself frustrated by the lack of movement in the actual story while Nina and Knox mostly stood around drooling like a couple of hungry dogs over each other’s hot curves, abs, and asses. I mean, I know I’m not the ideal audience for this kind of stuff, but if you’re going to force your characters to fall in love in less than two weeks, the least you can do is maybe not put so much focus on objectification and physical lust. When it comes to romance in stories, I make it no secret that I prefer slow-burn as opposed to whirlwind, so the almost cringe-worthy lack of emotional connection here admittedly made this one less than ideal.
But on to the actual story. Boy was I disappointed at first to discover the complete misnomer of the series title. Let’s just say the whole “librarian” aspect of it doesn’t play much of a role at all, but thankfully, the idea of a group of underground information brokers is almost as intriguing. I enjoyed the world-building. Although nothing is really explained in great detail, the authors have nevertheless created an immersive setting using familiar themes and descriptions that worked. Also, as I said before, the plot might have dragged at first, but that’s definitely not the case in the second half of the novel. Sure, the action we got was pretty routine, but considering how close I was to outright boredom at the beginning of the book, at this point even standard-fare thrills were more than welcome.
Bottom line, I might have enjoyed this novel more had I been properly prepared for how much romance was going to dominate the story, and I might even cheered if there had been more of an emotional connection between Nina and Knox. However, the writing mainly focused on sexual attraction and how much they both wanted to jump each other’s bones, and the result was a lack of chemistry and shallow (albeit fun) characters.
Still, overall Deal with the Devil was an entertaining, light fluffy book to while away a few hours. No doubt it will appeal to the authors’ target readers or fans of romance/erotica with a speculative fiction twist. If I ever feel up for another book like this, I might consider picking up more of their work or checking out the sequel, but I’ll definitely have to be in the right mood.
Waiting On Wednesday” is a weekly meme that first originated at Breaking the Spine but has since linked up with “Can’t Wait Wednesday” at Wishful Endings now that the original creator is unable to host it anymore. Either way, this fun feature is a chance to showcase the upcoming releases that we can’t wait to get our hands on!
I’m not going to lie, I thought there were a few stumbles in A Longer Fall, but I’m still having a lot of fun with the Gunnie Rose series. And this third installment sounds like all kinds of great action.
“#1 New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author Charlaine Harris is at her best in this alternate history of the United States where magic is an acknowledged but despised power in this third installment of the Gunnie Rose series.
Picking up right where A Longer Fall left off, this thrilling third installment follows Lizbeth Rose as she takes on one of her most dangerous missions yet: rescuing her estranged partner, Prince Eli, from the Holy Russian Empire. Once in San Diego, Lizbeth is going to have to rely upon her sister Felicia, and her growing Grigori powers to navigate her way through this strange new world of royalty and deception in order to get Eli freed from jail where he’s being held for murder.
Russian Cage continues to ramp up the momentum with more of everything Harris’ readers adore her for with romance, intrigue, and a deep dive into the mysterious Holy Russian Empire.
#1 New York Times bestselling author Charlaine Harris (Sookie Stackhouse mysteries and Midnight, Texas trilogy) continues to ramp up the momentum with more of everything Harris’ readers adore her for with romance, intrigue and a deep dive into the mysterious Holy Russian Empire in the much loved Gunnie Rose series.”
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 2.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Horror, Mystery
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Harper Audio (July 7, 2020)
Length: 12 hrs and 42 mins
Narrators: Luis Selgas
Football and horror. These are the two cornerstones that make up The Bright Lands, John Fram’s debut about secrets and the supernatural in a small, insular Texas town. It was an ambitious effort, I’ll give it that, but ultimately, I thought the novel struggled to evince both its main themes, which at times resulted in a rambling, clichéd plotline and uninspiring characters that failed to interest me.
More than ten years ago, former high school quarterback Joel Whitley left Bentley, Texas for Manhattan, New York after being ostracized for being gay in the small conservative town. But now he’s back, brought home by a series of worrying texts from his younger brother Dylan, himself a star quarterback who is feeling more and more disenchanted with the culture of the game that their whole town worships.
But then Dylan disappears, leading Joel to team up with Sheriff’s Deputy Starsha Clark for the investigation into the missing teen. The two of them have a history, having dated briefly before Joel came out and left town, not to mention the way Dylan’s case also brings back painful memories for Starsha of her own brother’s disappearance.
Interspersed through this main thread are also a profusion of other subplots, some that have greater significance than others, though admittedly more than a few are trivial in the greater scheme of things. Unfortunately, I thought this scattered focus was the book’s greatest flaw. Like a lot of debuts, I think The Bright Lands suffered from a first-time novelist’s eagerness to include as many ideas and themes he can think of without considering how that kind of overload will negatively impact the overall story. Mainly, it inevitably divides the reader’s attention between too many plot points and character perspectives.
On that note, I also had a hard time connecting with any of the characters, which is a shame because as much a I want to praise this book for its efforts in representation, its execution is seriously flawed. For one thing, Joel is supposed to be our main protagonist, but his characterization doesn’t get nearly the amount of development or page time he deserves as the story skips too often between different POVs. Other characters are also painted in broad strokes, relying heavily on hackneyed stereotypes especially when it comes to high school football players and cheerleaders, police officers, and generally southern townsfolk.
I was also first drawn to The Bright Lands because of its description of a small-town horror, but after finishing it, I feel I have to challenge that label. Yes, there are elements of the supernatural, but the story mostly reads like a mystery or a police procedural. There’s a lot more drama than action, and when you do get the latter, it’s more of the thriller variety rather than true horror. I was most disappointed in this of all because the premise itself had so much potential, but the ending was more of a head-scratcher than a jaw-dropper, and its so-called answers also left a lot to be desired. In addition, there were a few explicitly graphic scenes that just felt out of place.
And finally, with regards to the football aspect, we are told it is king in Bentley, but speaking as someone with minimal interest in sports, it would take a lot more showing rather than telling to create a realistic sense of setting, which the writing failed to provide. For me, this resulted in a greater feeling of disconnect between myself and the story, the world-building and character motivations. Consequently, I found myself struggling to get into the book while finding more and more excuses to take breaks from it.
The audiobook version was great, but could be better, and I can’t really fault the production or the narrator too much. I think too many characters and plot threads will make it difficult for any one person to keep voices and accents consistent, and it was confusing at times to figure out which POV I was following, but Luis Selgas did his best. Still, overall I can’t really recommend The Bright Lands as it such a disappointing case of unfulfilled potential.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Ace Books (July 21, 2020)
Length: 368 pages
I confess, when I went into The Year of the Witching, my expectations were pretty high. This debut by Alexis Henderson had already drawn comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale and other highly acclaimed TV shows and movies like Salem and The VViwtch, and I mean, those are some mighty big standards to live up to. Perhaps that’s why I finished the book with some mixed feelings, though in the end I felt this was a solid effort for the author’s first novel.
The story follows sixteen-year-old Immanuelle who hails from a shepherding family in the small isolated village of Bethel. Here, the people live in a closely-knit but insular community, following the word of the Father. Their leader is the Prophet, who is the head of both the church and government, enforcing a body of strict rules and laws based on the Holy Protocol.
Still, the problem for Immanuelle is that her very existence is anathema to everything her society stands for. The product of her mother’s scandalous union with an outsider, our protagonist had been branded an interloper the moment she was born. Raised by her grandparents, Immanuelle was brought up to worship the Father, follow the Holy Laws, and swear obedience to the Prophet, though it’s not as if she had much of a choice, as anyone who strays from this path are punished severely.
But then one day, on the way home from the market, Immanuelle accidentally wanders into the forbidden woods surrounding the village, which are said to be filled with dark magic and evil spirits. After a terrifying encounter with witches, a curse is unleashed upon Bethel, putting everyone in it in grave danger. Fortunately, a most unlikely ally comes in the form Ezra, the Prophet’s son, and together he and Immanuelle try to save their home and those they love.
No doubt about it, the greatest strength of The Year of the Witching is its spooky and oppressive atmosphere. I loved Henderson’s handling of the setting, with the highlights being life in the village of Bethel as well as the horror of the surrounding woods. The story is also written in a style that feels vaguely old-timey but is nonetheless very readable. In fact, its label of adult fantasy notwithstanding, the novel feels distinctly YA at times, mostly likely due to the age of the main characters and the way certain plot elements are handled, such as the romance.
Regarding the themes though, they’re admittedly a bit pedestrian and familiar, speaking as someone who reads a fair bit of feminist fantasy. Bethel’s society is puritanical and patriarchal, the women having little to no say in the running of things. Predictably, the male leaders who are supposedly the most pious of them all are in fact the most hypocritical and corrupt. The plot also followed a similar trajectory as many of these kinds of stories, so there were no big surprises there.
In addition, I thought characterization was slightly lackluster. Henderson’s rich prose is something of a double-edged sword in that regard, with much of the emphasis on the artistry of the writing which sacrificed creativity of the plot and authenticity of the characters. Immanuelle didn’t have much of a personality beyond what her role called for, and Ezra fared even worse, coming off as bland and ultimately forgettable. As I alluded to before, their love story felt scripted and not very convincing, reminding me of the way some YA romances are included not because they are really needed, but because they are what genre conventions call for.
All in all, it is clear that Alexis Henderson has a lot of talent and skill, though balancing that with original storytelling and interesting characters will likely come with more experience. At the end of the day, while The Year of the Witching was not entirely what I expected, I still thought it was a well-crafted debut and hopefully the author will have future projects because I’m looking forward to see how her work will continue to grow.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Thriller, Mystery
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Macmillan Audio (July 28, 2020)
Length: 10 hrs and 39 mins
Narrators: Richard Armitage, Stephanie Racine
His & Hers is the second book I’ve read by Alice Feeney, and it’s definitely a thriller that’s more to my tastes! I love a good mystery that presents multiple sides, keeping you on your toes to pick up on those subtle clues, not to mention the story also closes out on one hell of a fantastic twist. However, reader discretion is advised if you’re sensitive to certain topics, as this one also contains a lot of graphic depiction of unsettling themes throughout.
As for the novel’s story and plot structure, it might be a bit of a gimmick but I gave it credit for its cleverness and I thought it worked. “His” chapters are told from the perspective of police detective Jack Harper, an experienced and jaded old hand on the force who thought nothing could surprise him anymore—until his latest case that brings him to Blackdown, a quiet and peaceful English village upended by the brutal murder of a local woman. Meanwhile, chapters labeled “Hers” are told from the point-of-view of Anna Andrews, an ambitious reporter who recently lost a cushy news anchor position to return to her former job as a station correspondent. Along with her cameraman, she is called to Blackdown to cover the shocking story of the murdered woman.
From here on out, the surprises start coming at you in rapid fire. Blackdown turns out to be a significant place for Anna and Jack, as they both grew up and used to live there. The two also find out they know the murdered woman, identified as Anna’s childhood friend Rachel Hopkins, whom Jack also had been seeing recently for casual romantic dalliances. If his connection with the victim gets out, Jack knows how bad it will look, even without someone seemingly trying to plant evidence to frame him as the prime suspect. And the final surprise? Anna and Jack used to be married, but they divorced soon after the devastating death of their child which caused their relationship to fall apart. Now the two of them are thrust together again by the murder of Rachel, the situation made even more painful and difficult by the shared memories between them. But pretty soon, that awkwardness is replaced by sheer terror as a second victim is found, another woman who used to be part of Anna’s close circle of high school friends. Through a third perspective, we get to see through the eyes of the mysterious killer, who is constantly watching, plotting, and may be going after Anna next.
The author makes it no secret here that she is actively playing a game with the reader, trying to deceive and obfuscate, and I loved every moment. From the start, we are left wondering if we can trust either Jack or Anna because there are plenty of reasons given to doubt their narratives, with both having secrets to hide. Ironically, the only perspective that we can trust as the absolute truth is the killer’s, and their identify remains a mystery until the very end. In fact, the brilliant way their chapters are written does not rule them out from being literally anyone that you meet in the story—even our POV characters.
However, I also have to warn you, there is some seriously twisted, horribly sick shit in this book. Do not read if you are bothered by disturbing subjects such as animal cruelty, extreme bullying, traumatic loss of a child, sexual assault, and other such violent and unpleasant topics. This is a very dark thriller, especially in the sections that delve into Anna’s past. I’m talking the kind of stuff that makes you shake your head in disgust and wonder at the lack of humanity in some people.
As well, as with many thrillers, sometimes His & Hers can get a bit extreme and carried away with the shocks and surprises—unless, of course, that’s exactly what you signed up for. Feeney certainly isn’t the least bit shy or apologetic about throwing every kind of twist she can think of at us, which made this one a whiplash inducing read. But again, to an extent you must be willing to suspend your disbelief when it comes to the genre, so I’m not sure calling this one “over-the-top” is truly a criticism.
Ultimately, I found His & Hers very enjoyable and exactly what I wanted into a thriller, the kind that keeps you guessing until the very last moment. I also thought the book’s concept was pretty damn clever, and as difficult as it is to read at times because of its unsettling themes, I know I won’t be forgetting the story any time soon with the way it dug its claws into my heart.
Audiobook Comments: As a special bonus, I listened to the audiobook narrated by the one and only Richard Armitage alongside the equally talented Stephanie Racine, both of whom were perfect for their roles. I was especially thrilled with Armitage’s performance because I am a big fan of his work both on screen and in the audio recording booth, and his voice is especially well-suited for thrillers. I also enjoyed the voice changing/distortion effect used for the killer’s chapters, which helped to preserve the mystery. A great listen overall.