From Dead to Worse: Tortured Life

Tortured Life

Written by: Neil Gibson and Dan Watters
Art by: Casper Wijngaard
Colors by: Jan Wijngaard
Letters by: Jim Campbell
Layouts by: Eric Irving

Published: September 22nd 2015
Publisher: T Pub
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Horror
Format: Paperback
Length: 164 pages

Tortured Life reads like a hack novelization of a gore-drenched heavy metal concept album, and it’s about as well-plotted as your average double-LP. In fact, the art wouldn’t look out-of-place on a metal band poster, especially when the skull-faced villain shows up and starts killing people.

Rich seems like a nice, normal young man. He has a good job and a beautiful girlfriend, but then one day he starts having visions of how everything and everyone around him is going to die. When the visions don’t go away, his life quickly falls apart and he is left friendless and alone. The book opens on the day he decides to commit suicide because he saw his own death in the mirror.

However, unbeknownst to Rich, his nearness to death opens a door to the underworld, letting through both a helpful ghost girl and the murderous Bloodyman – that aforementioned skull-faced killer.

The ghost girl, Alice, sticks around just long enough to point Rich at some exposition before disappearing from the story until the end. The explanation for her absence is that crossing over to the world of the living is difficult and dangerous, so she can’t keep going back and forth, but it makes her feel even more like a lazy plot device.

When the explanation for Rich’s visions arrives, it is both incredibly convoluted and completely nonsensical. The revelation doesn’t tie in thematically to his visions of death, and Rich and Alice respond to the explanation by as much as throwing up their hands and moving on. The ending is ultimately both anticlimactic and dour.

To be honest, I also really wasn’t a fan of the art style. The book’s cover is eye-catching enough that it drew me in, but the interior art just didn’t do it for me. It’s slightly similar to the cartoony style of the Chew books, but seems ill-suited to Tortured Life’s bleak tone.

However, I think I would have forgiven the art if I’d liked the story and characters more. Tortured Life was an underwhelming read, and I can’t recommend it.

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Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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Glitterbomb: Red Carpet Bomb

Glitterbomb, Volume 1Glitterbomb, Volume 1: Red Carpet

Written by: Jim Zub
Line Art by: Djibril Morissette-Phan
Colors by: K. Michael Russell

Published: March 7th 2017
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Horror, Satire
Format: Paperback
Length: 136 pages

I’ve lived in Los Angeles for just over three and a half years now, so obviously that means I can consider myself an expert on the city, as is traditional.

Therefore, with my sacred powers as an Angeleno, I’ve decided that satires and takedowns of LA only work if they come from a place of love. If you’ve got nothing but hate for Los Angeles, if you can’t see even one iota of the appeal of this ridiculous city, then your critique will probably come out sour and clichéd.

Or, in any case, that was my reaction to reading the first volume of Jim Zub’s Glitterbomb.

In Glitterbomb, we meet Farrah Durante, a struggling middle-aged actress only minutes from destitution. Her sole claim to fame was a small recurring role on a cheesy sci-fi show many years ago, but after the show fired her, nothing has gone right since.

That all changes when she tries to drown herself in the ocean and a horrifying vengeance monster possesses her, giving her the ability to eviscerate anyone who has wronged her. At first, the unexplained black-outs and gruesome murders confuse and horrify her, but it isn’t long before she gives herself over completely to the monster’s dark desires.

Glitterbomb reads like the author visited LA once, hated it, and then funneled that hatred into a takedown of easy targets.

It’s common knowledge that actors are oftentimes horribly mistreated and that the industry is especially bad for women who no longer look like twenty-somethings, but that also means that it is an over-used cliché. Throwing in a monstrous twist isn’t even a particularly new idea, but it is what gave me a glimmer of hope about this book.

The fact that these tropes are familiar wouldn’t matter if the execution brought something new to the table, but Zub’s writing completely misses the mark. My theory is that it’s because he can’t seem find anything to love about LA.

In fact, there are any number of Hollywood satires and critiques that feel both more realistic and more powerful because they understand the allure of Hollywood without immediately holding the city and those who love it in contempt.

For example, FX’s Better Things focuses on a middle-aged actress trying to balance family life with an acting career, but it’s obvious that she loves what she does, despite the terrible people and sometimes crushing grind. It tells a far more well-rounded story by focusing on a main character who has a complex love-hate relationship with a difficult industry.

All that Glitterbomb has to say about Hollywood is that aspiring actors are shallow idiots who want fame and validation for the sake of it, and movie producers are nothing but predators.

Farrah doesn’t even have a compelling character arc in this first volume; she switches gears from despairing to malevolent with little to no build-up – it almost felt like I missed an issue – and then the book ends in a way that feels both rushed and inconclusive. I have absolutely no idea where Glitterbomb might go after this volume, but that isn’t an exciting prospect.

I also thought the art was wildly inconsistent throughout. The characters sometimes looked like completely different people from one page to the next, and I had no idea that Farrah’s babysitter was black until her mother said something her race.

This is the second Jim Zub book I’ve read and found disappointing, so I probably won’t pick up any more of his work.

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Empty Inside: The Beauty, Volume 1

The Beauty Volume 1The Beauty, Volume 1

Story By: Jeremy Haun & Jason A. Hurley
Art By: Jeremy Haun
Published: March 16, 2016
Publisher: Image Comics
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Horror, Thriller, Mystery
Format: Paperback
Length: 164 pages

The Beauty Volume 1 has one cool idea and not much else: there is a new sexually transmitted disease that makes you beautiful. If you contract it, you become young, thin and pretty within minutes. The only apparent side effect is a constant low-level fever, so people go out of their way to get infected. It isn’t long before half the population has The Beauty.

There are factions who object to The Beauty for political and religious reasons, but the real problem is that people with The Beauty are starting to spontaneously combust and nobody knows why. When a woman combusts in public, two police detectives (one of them infected) try to find an explanation. They face opposition from government officials trying to cover it up and a shady pharmaceutical CEO who just wants to make a profit. The story turns into a by-the-numbers conspiracy thriller/mystery after only a few pages.

One of my biggest problems with The Beauty is that I didn’t care about the main characters at all. They are generic pretty people who only want to Solve The Crime And Stop The Conspiracy. Neither of them has an identifiable personality and their dialog is basically interchangeable.

The villains get slightly more characterization and/or back story, if only because we see them doing things that aren’t necessarily related to the case at hand. That doesn’t mean their motivations are clear, however.

One villain wears a skull mask and eviscerates his victims to show that he’s obviously a very bad dude, but his appearances in the story are all gore and no tension because his actions feel utterly impersonal.

When I finished reading this volume, I had to check to find out if it was a mini-series or an ongoing title. It felt like a complete (if underdeveloped) story, so I wanted to know if my instincts were correct. It turns out that it is an ongoing series even though the sixth issue wraps up a lot of threads and ends with a note of finality.

One thing I did like about The Beauty was the art. It has a clean, realistic style that emphasizes the absurd horror of spontaneous combustions. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t give the art much to work with, so the book feels slight and generic.

After reading so many disappointing comics with boilerplate stories and undeveloped characters, it’s starting to feel like a problem with the medium. There are exceptional writers like Matt Fraction, Chip Zdarsky and Brian K. Vaughan working in comics, but the ability to fully develop a character in a few panels seems like a rare talent.

Unfortunately, The Beauty doesn’t deliver on the clever idea at its core because the characters are personality-free and generic.

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Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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A Bloody, Surreal and Hilarious Trip to The Library

The Library at Mount Char by Scott HawkinsThe Library at Mount Char

Published: June 16th 2015
Publisher: Crown
Genre(s): Fantasy, Horror
Format: Audiobook
Length: 16 hrs and 47 mins

The Library at Mount Char is a fantastic book, but it’s almost impossible to summarize. Part of the problem is that a lot of the book hangs on misdirection. The main character knows a lot of things that she isn’t telling us, so we have to work with what little the author provides.

This means that to summarize the book past the first few chapters is to spoil some really great surprises. On the other hand, some of the bat-shit weirdness that occurs in later chapters is what made me truly, madly, deeply love this completely insane novel. It’s a bit of a quandary, because I want to recommend this book to everyone I know.

It doesn’t help that the book’s cover looks like the sort of thing you might find on a remaindered thriller in the bargain bin. The design doesn’t really grab you by the face and insist that you start reading the book RIGHT THIS INSTANT.

The basic summary is as follows: Carolyn and her adopted brothers and sisters are apprentice librarians in a massive, strange Library full of books that include all the knowledge in the world. When they were young, all of their parents died suddenly and a mysterious man they call “Father” adopted them. Father is viciously cruel, incredibly dangerous and infinitely powerful… but he’s gone missing and now none of them can get back into the Library. When they discover what actually happened to Father, it may change the fate of the entire universe as we know it.

Read moreA Bloody, Surreal and Hilarious Trip to The Library

Horrorstör Was Assembled From Generic Parts

HorrorstorHorrorstör by Grady Hendrix
Published: September 23rd 2014
Publisher: Blackstone Audio / Quirk Books
Genre(s): Horror, Satire
Format: Audiobook
Length: 6 hrs and 16 mins

Anyone who has ever shopped in an IKEA knows that it is the ideal setting for a horror story: a vast, maze-like structure filled with an infinite number of uniform objects designed to frustrate the sane mind. Not to mention all the screeching children jumping on mattresses in the bedding section.

In an ideal world, Horrorstör would deliver that perfect combination of surreal horror and retail satire. Unfortunately, although there are clever touches throughout, the book falls flat.

Amy works at Orsk, a US-based IKEA knockoff that is identical in everything but name. She’s disaffected, burnt out and sarcastic, mostly because she hasn’t lived up to any of her potential. When her straight-laced boss, Basil, asks her to stay after work to help him investigate some strange goings-on in the store, they discover something far more sinister than smelly goo in the furniture aisle.

For a book billed as a horror comedy, Horrorstör is relatively laugh-free. The satire of retail drudgery feels non-specific, and as soon as the supernatural elements come to the forefront, the rest of the story is humorless bordering on bleak. The only sustained joke are the fake product listings, but they’re only mildly clever.

The horror aspect of the book relies on well-worn tropes, and after a certain point it feels like the events could be happening in any enclosed space as opposed to specifically inside a big-box furniture store. Hendrix introduces the idea of the characters getting lost in Orsk’s seemingly endless showroom, but it’s quickly dropped in favor of more traditional supernatural horrors. I also thought it was a huge missed opportunity that none of the characters assemble an improvised weapon out of random kitchen-ware and furniture pieces.

The main character spends most of the novel avoiding responsibility, reacting to horrible events or giving up entirely. Following her was frustrating, and she only develops as a character very late in the story. The conclusion is open-ended enough that Hendrix could write a sequel, but it definitely feels like he saves all potential character development for another book.

Ultimately, Horrorstör is underdeveloped and forgettable. The book’s design was by far the best part of an otherwise disappointing package.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley, but I listened to an audiobook version from the library.

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The Fold: Inter-Dimensional Holmes

The Fold by Peter ClinesThe Fold by Peter Clines

Published: June 2nd, 2015
Publisher: Crown
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Horror
Format: eBook
Length: 384 pages

My first exposure to Peter Clines’ work was thanks to Audible, which recommended his earlier novel, 14. I rarely buy books without existing knowledge or recommendations to go on, but the summary sounded really interesting – a man moves into a Los Angeles apartment building and starts experiencing mysterious and possibly supernatural events – and the narrator, Ray Porter, was excellent. I ended up really enjoying that book, and added Clines to the short list of authors I plan on reading as thoroughly as possible. Accordingly, when I saw that he had a new novel coming out this year, I immediately wanted to get my hands on it.

In The Fold, teleportation is a reality… but it’s not quite ready for public consumption. Enter Mike Erikson, a man with an eidetic memory hired to find out why the scientists involved refuse to share their invention with the world. Thanks to his observational skills and analytical mind, he soon discovers that things are not what they seem and that “the fold” is far more dangerous than anyone imagined.

The Fold’s strongest points are its plotting and sheer readability. I tore through the book in a matter of days, and I was definitely hooked throughout, forgoing sleep and important chores so that I could continue reading. Clines is skilled at subtly injecting creeping horror into his stories, and I loved that feeling of being slowly drawn into something horribly doomed. Clines also injects timely pop culture references throughout, which makes the book feel grounded in the here and now

Anyone who has read Clines’ previous work knows that he has a fondness for a certain brand of cosmic horror. When hints of a connection to the world of 14 started cropping up in The Fold, I immediately had a guess where the story might be going. Although this did make the book slightly more predictable for me, I was also excited to know that Clines was continue to play in a setting that I throughly enjoyed.

Unfortunately, the characterization in The Fold isn’t quite up to snuff. Mike isn’t given much depth other than his stated discomfort with using his intellectual abilities, and we are only provided the barest glimpse into his life before this story begins. Most of the time it felt like his function in the plot was more important than who he was as a person, and ultimately he became a kind of Holmes pastiche without the humanizing flaws or down-to-earth partner.

The other characters don’t fare better. The supporting cast is a bit one-note, and Jamie, the love interest, reads like such a wish-fulfillment cliché that Clines hangs a lantern on it:

She sighed. “All that brain power and it never occurred to you why a cheerleader turned into a computer geek?”

“I just figured you were some Internet male fantasy come to life.”

I was also disappointed that the novel raises existential issues like whether you’re still the same person after you teleport and then quickly discards them in favor of resolving the story with a series of bloody fights. In fact, the climactic scenes don’t really have anything to do with the side effects of teleportation. Instead, they turn The Fold into the kind of story you could tell about any door into a hostile place, and felt like a bit of a re-tread of 14 in some ways.

Although I did enjoy reading The Fold, I definitely wish the characterization had been stronger. I think there might be a more interesting version of this book, perhaps in an alternate universe, where Clines draws his primary influences from Philip K. Dick’s worries about reality and selfhood. I do still recommend checking out his work, however, and I’m hoping there will be further books in this world.

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Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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The Long, Slow End of the World: Black Feathers by Joseph D’Lacey

Black FeathersPublished: March 26th, 2013
Publisher: Angry Robot
Genre(s): Fantasy, Horror, Post-Apocalypse
Format: eBook
Length: 496 Pages

Joseph D’Lacey’s Black Feathers is an interesting anomaly in the world of apocalyptic fiction. Instead of focusing on a dystopian post-apocalypse, as is the fashion nowadays, Black Feathers consists of two interlocking plot threads: one that starts in modern-day and continues through the fall of society, and one that follows a character hundreds of years in the future. It’s also the first part of a two-book series which continues in The Book of The Crowman (December 2013).

In the modern-day, Black Feathers focuses on the Black family, specifically their young son Gordon Black, who may be connected to a mysterious messiah figure named The Crowman. Crows seem to follow Gordon everywhere he goes. His mother and father are oftentimes accosted on the street by people with prophetic visions of a future where The Crowman heralds the beginning of the Black Dawn and Gordon’s part in it. The Crowman is an interesting combination of savior and destroyer, sometimes described as a demonic presence, a half-man half-crow who only wants to destroy the world and at other times as a healing presence with a deep connection to nature. The more we hear about The Crowman, the more unsettling and dangerous he seems, even as it also becomes increasingly clear that Gordon is deeply connected to The Crowman.

In the far future, Black Feathers tells the story of Megan Maurice, a young woman picked to apprentice with her village’s Keeper, a sort of combination medicine man and archivist tasked with keeping the story of The Crowman alive. Megan must travel along the Black Feathered Path to cement her destiny as the next keeper, a journey that involves visions of the past as well as harrowing encounters with The Crowman’s more animalistic aspect. Megan experiences visions of Gordon’s life and tasked with recording them in a special journal for safekeeping. One thing I really liked is that Megan’s world might be “post-apocalyptic”, but it doesn’t feel ruined. She has a comfortable life in a small village, and it is only when she ventures outside that safe place that she begins to encounter danger, all in the name of traveling on her path towards becoming a Keeper.

In fact, there are a lot of things I liked about Black Feathers; the portrayal of The Crowman was particularly nuanced and unsettling, and I also liked the juxtaposition between the modern-day and far future. I love the idea of a messiah who isn’t so black and white, simply because maybe the world needs a little destruction before it gets saved. The book’s true villains, the power-hungry Ward, were a bit more stereotypically drawn – the bloodthirsty corporate influence made flesh – but that didn’t make their methods any less terrifying.

My biggest complaint is with the book’s pacing. It took me a long time to make it past the first third of the book, and it was only when I decided to make a concerted effort to finish it that I finally started making progress. However, as I neared the end it became clear that Black Feathers wasn’t actually going to resolve anything major. Gordon and Megan both have some intense experiences as the book progresses, but these events seem relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Black Feathers, sold as the first volume in a two-book series, feels more like the first half of one massive novel. I liked it enough to finish this first volume, but I’m honestly not sure if I’ll make the effort to pick up the second book later this year.

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Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

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A Selection of Scary Stories

I’ve never been a huge fan of horror, but over the years I’ve gained an appreciation of scary stories. They aren’t necessarily the same thing, either. As I see it, horror is a genre with a few common tropes, one of which is that the story may or may not be scary. For example, I’ve never really thought that slasher movies were scary. They’re mostly just gratuitous. I’ve read a bunch of Stephen King, but few of his books are truly scary and most feel more like dark fantasy than outright horror. Evil Dead 2 isn’t particularly scary, either, but it’s definitely a horror classic.

Scary stories, on the other hand, can exist in almost any genre. I think a good author can wring a bit of terror out of something entirely realistic and/or mundane. However, it’s pretty rare that I read something that genuinely freaks me out. When it does, it’s the sort of thing that sticks with me forever, which is definitely something to strive towards as a writer. I’m certainly drawn to writing scary stories myself.

LullabyWhen I think of scary stories, one of the first that springs to mind is Chuck Palahniuk’s Lullaby, which tells the story of a man who discovers an African culling song in a children’s book. Unfortunately for him, he only discovers the song’s powers after he’s read it to his wife and child and accidentally killed them both. Then, of course, the song gets stuck in his head, and if he inadvertently thinks it at someone, they die. Needless to say, I found the concept of a deadly thought virus completely and utterly terrifying.

CoralineNext in line is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, which is probably my most favorite of all his books. The funny thing about the book is that I’ve heard it tends to scare adults far more than children. Apparently a young girl exploring a frightening alternate universe full of terrible danger tends to freak out adults but sounds like an adventure to kids. Go figure! Gaiman skillfully uses surrealism and an omnipresent menacing atmosphere to keep the reader constantly off-kilter, and the tension just keeps building. Coraline isn’t the only work of Gaiman’s that I’ve found creepy and/or disturbing. Some of his short stories are particularly chilling as well.

The End of EverythingI’d also argue that Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything fits in this category. The narrator, Evie, is a teenage girl in the 1980s whose best friend suddenly disappears one day. Was she abducted? Did she kill herself? Panic in the community builds as the disappearance drags on and on, and Evie takes it upon herself to investigate what happened. Part of what makes the book so terrifying are the uncomfortable parallels between Evie’s crush on an older man and the increasing likelihood that her friend was abducted by a pedophile. Nothing in the book is black and white, and even though it’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, I hesitate to recommend it to anyone simply because it filled me with such a palpable feeling of uneasiness throughout.

I hope to someday tell a story that manages to convey the same sense of dread and uneasiness I felt when I read those books and others. Until then, I’ll continue on my quest to read truly frightening books wherever I may find them.

The Postmortal by Drew Magary

Published: August 30, 2011
Publisher: Penguin
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Dystopian
Format: eBook
Length: 384 pages

The Postmortal is pitched as a darkly comic satire about a world where a cure for aging is invented and becomes widely available. However, if it is a satire, it is of a character most similar to Jonathan Swift’s infamous essay advocating the cannibalization of Irish babies as a solution to poverty. If you happen to smile while reading The Postmortal, I imagine it will be a mirthless rictus intermingled with horror rather than anything signifying amusement. For my part, I don’t think I laughed a single time reading the book in a mad rush over the past two days, but I don’t count that as a mark against it. In fact, I found it both gripping and chilling in equal parts.

When the cure for aging, commonly known as “The Cure”, is first invented, doctors are quick to point out that it isn’t actually a cure for death, either by cancer or a more violent end, but that and the fact that it is initially banned by the government don’t stop the main character, John Farrell, from spending seven thousand dollars at a black market clinic to get cured at the age of twenty nine. The narrative follows John over the next 60+ years of his life, as he learns what it truly means to have eternal youth from both a personal and a global perspective.

An early scene where John takes his roommate back to the same clinic to get the cure sets the tone for the rest of the story, as unexpected tragedy decisively intrudes. John’s life is forever changed in an instant, both by the looming spectres of death and destruction that seem to lurk just around the next corner for the rest of his life, and by the fleeting glimpse outside the clinic of a beautiful blonde woman he feels certain he will meet again some day. Magary does an excellent job of setting up a palpable sense of dread very early on in the book; we quickly learn to expect that nothing good will ever come to John without some greater evil following quickly behind.

The book alternates between John’s journals/life recordings and excerpts of articles, interviews, and news headlines. We soon get a fuller picture of the way that the cure for aging affects the world around John in new and terrifying ways. One particularly chilling article recounts the story of a woman who gives the cure to her child so that the girl will stay a lovable, innocent baby forever. Magary also spends a good amount of time establishing the particularly catastrophic results of the cure in already over-populated China, and you get the sense that an entire novel could be set in that particular corner of the apocalypse.

The book jumps forward in time over the decades of John’s artificially extended life, and we watch as his personal tragedies and disappointments all add together to transform him from a hopeful young lawyer to a cynical, hardened “End Specialist”, a sort of bounty hunter who ekes out both euthanasia and questionable justice as forms of legalized population control. My only real criticism of the book is that John still felt like a bit of a cypher by the end of the story; Magary does a great job of portraying the personal hardships that he experiences over his long life, and we get little snapshots of emotion and grief, but John feels more like a window into the world rather than a fully lived-in protagonist.

The Postmortal is a brisk read even at just under 400 pages in print, and if I hadn’t started reading it so late at night, I might have finished the entire thing in one sitting. The scenes of action peppered throughout the book are written in a clear, compelling style, and Magary has a knack for grabbing the reader just in time to show them how bad things can get. The brightly-colored cover and the author’s history as a comedy writer are a bit misleading considering the searing bleakness of his debut, but if you can stomach it, The Postmortal is a incredibly thrilling piece of dystopian gallows humor, and I highly recommend it.

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The God Engines by John Scalzi

The God EnginesPublished: December 31, 2009
Publisher: Subterranean
Genre(s): Dark Fantasy
Format: Hardcover
Length: 136 pages

John Scalzi is commonly known as an author, a prolific and long-established blogger, a man with a mischievous sense of humor, and a connoisseur of all things bacon-related. I’m not entirely sure where I first came across his work, but as soon as I finished reading Old Man’s War, he instantly became one of my new favorite authors. I worked my way through the rest of his books and so thoroughly enjoyed them that I was inspired to check out the work of one of his clear inspirations, Robert A. Heinlein.

Up until just recently, all of Scalzi’s fiction output was fairly easily categorized as science fiction. Sometimes it was militaristic, sometimes funny, but all of it generally involved space travel, future societies, aliens, and other common sci-fi tropes. Accordingly, when he announced that he would be publishing his first fantasy work, The God Engines, I was intrigued. It’s always fascinating when an author you love decides to branch out into new territories. However, I do remember him cautioning his fans that it was particularly dark fantasy, and would probably surprise anyone used to his existing work.

After finishing the book, I can see why he felt the need to warn his readers about a possible bumpy ride. It’s a short, sharp, brutal window into a particularly cruel and twisted society. None of Scalzi’s trademark humor is present, the characters are all deeply flawed individuals, and the climactic events are so gruesome that I would not be surprised to find the book filed under “horror”.

The God Engines tells the story of a society that uses captured gods to power its starships. In this world, gods are very real creatures, sustained by the faith and prayer of their followers, but subject to the machinations of more powerful deities. When a society is conquered, the citizens aren’t simply converted to a new religion; as a further indignity, their former god is enslaved and bent to the task of providing interstellar travel to the conquering faction.

The main character, Ean Tephe, is the captain of a ship powered by a particularly nasty and recalcitrant god. The very first thing Ean does in the book is whip his starship’s captive god for disobedience. Ean is a true believer in his society’s way of life and in his god’s grace above all others and generally comes off as a stiff-necked, unsympathetic hard-liner. The only real glimpse we get into Ean’s softer side is the time he spends with Shalle, one of the ship’s rooks, who are essentially nuns, therapists or prostitutes depending on the situation.

The most noteworthy thing about Shalle is that the character is never described with gendered pronouns. It’s never quite clear if Shalle is a woman, man, or something else entirely. Ultimately, however, this is a bit distracting, and I was never quite sure how Shalle’s lack of apparent gender played into the story other than as a method of subverting our expectations. The end result is something that read more like a formal exercise in gender-neutral storytelling instead of genuine world-building.

The main plot of the book is set in motion when Ean is sent on a secret mission to an unconverted world that his god has secreted away from its enemies. Ean’s ship is tasked to travel to the distant world and open up a portal for his god so that it can convert the citizens to believers and become more powerful from their new faith. However, Ean’s experiences on the unconverted world shake his personal faith to its core, and events only snowball from there.

To be honest, The God Engines is a hard book to enjoy. The main character isn’t particularly likable, his actions are in service to a clearly corrupt society, and the end results are particularly horrifying. Scalzi doesn’t pull any punches here, but as far as I can tell, that’s the main point.

In a way, it makes sense to think of The God Engines as a writing exercise in novella form; that isn’t to say it’s an unpolished or unfinished book, however. Rather, it seems perfectly designed to let Scalzi step outside of his comfort zone and play with a new storytelling palette.

Unfortunately, although it may have been a useful experience for him as a writer, it didn’t really work for me as a form of entertainment. Although I do enjoy stories that go to dark places, I usually need someone or something to root for, and Captain Ean Teshe is not that man. The book might still be an interesting read for the Scalzi completist, but I can’t really recommend it to anyone who isn’t a hardcore fan.

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