Blog — Crouching Chukar, Hidden Pheasant

Review of “The Broken Darkness” by Theresa Braun

In her debut collection, Theresa Braun explores the inner workings of the human heart and what it is we most desire—forgiveness, acceptance, love, fame, or merely to escape who we really are. Whether we are battling ghosts, demons, mythical monsters, the past, or other dimensions, we are really facing the deepest parts of ourselves. These thirteen tales of horror and dark fantasy may appear to be a matter of good versus evil, but they are all a reflection of the hidden corners of the soul that are often shades of broken darkness. The characters in these stories must face their inner and outer terrors, or else suffer the consequences.

I seem to be reading and reviewing mostly horror lately, but this collection stood out and did not disappoint. I always enjoy horror that focuses on the inner demons of its characters rather than simply external monsters and gore. Each of these thirteen stories comes at these inner demons slightly differently and in unique settings. I love how many of the stories include some myth or ancient-feeling lore with a twist, and many of the locales naturally lend themselves to deepen the impact of these myths – I’m thinking of “Dying for an Invitation” and “Homecoming” in particular.

It was also great that the “voice” of the writing changed for many of the stories so that it didn’t feel like I was reading the same tone and style over and over. Some main characters are male, some are female – that alone is a nice changeup from a lot of horror I read. Some stories feel older, some feel newer. The stories are set all over the place. Many of the stories seem to be predictable and then there’s a nice twist – something you expect in short stories, I think, but I liked these twists.

My personal favorite was probably “The Celestial Assignment.” It’s a unique perspective on guardian angels that drew me in right away, and I liked the story more and more as the main character learned and grew.

All in all, this was a great collection. It’s a quick read that draws you in. There were occasional missed edits in the writing, but nothing major that was a distraction. The characters are good, the settings are good, the plots are interesting and diverse, different subgenres change things up, and there’s a nice cohesive feel to the whole collection because each story focuses so well on the characters’ inner demons being just as problematic as the external monsters.

See it on Amazon!

Review of “Red” by Calvin Demmer

Inside, the red raged. Its true intentions had united with near-surface primal instincts. It wanted to hunt, kill, and devour…

A short story.

I loved this quick and suspenseful story. It was great to see a unique deviation from typical zombie storytelling in that this story is from the monster’s perspective – not something you often see with these “mindless” walking corpses. Everything in the beginning was vague, but you very quickly get what’s going on simply because of how the author describes their movements. We’ve all seen zombie movies – we know how they move. This description alone lets you understand whose head you’re inside, and I loved the rare opportunity to have this much sympathy for a zombie. The more you learn about the “red,” the more you want our meat-eating friend to fight, but cruel fate seems to have a hand here too.

See it on Amazon!

Review of “Sting of the Scorpion” by Evelyn Puerto

An orphaned girl, powerless and destitute. An Endless War, that threatens to consume everyone in its path. Magic amulets, that hold the promise of victory.

After Damira witnesses the brutal slaughter of nearly her entire clan by a roving warband, she resolves never to feel helpless again. With nowhere to go, she, her brother and a friend surrender to a warlord, resigned to becoming little more than pawns in the Endless War.

But when Wei Fang, a warlord wielding magic amulets threatens to destroy anyone who stands against her, Damira must choose. Will she seek to master the power of the amulets and make a stand against the brutal Wei Fang? Or will the power behind the amulets destroy her first? 

Having read the first two books in this series, I had high hopes for this third part of the story. I was not disappointed. Each book has its own main character and unique storyline that can stand alone as a great fantasy read, but there are also elements that connect these worlds within a bigger world. This book feels even more like a stand-alone story than the first two, but there is a brief section where you’re reminded what’s going on in the rest of the…well, world, quite literally. But mostly, you’re reading about this new and before-unknown setting.

Far, far across the sand from that main world we’ve gotten to know, THIS section of the world feels very different. I LOVED how it felt like a real place with its own history and cultures and beliefs and politics, etc. etc. The author clearly had everything mapped out in her head and worked to make each clan and culture distinct. You quickly and completely understand how these peoples have been in an “Endless War,” and the tension and suspense is immediately infused in the story because of how clearly the characters are forced to struggle for survival while living in fear. From the very start of the book, you can feel the weight of this reality on the main characters’ shoulders.

Puerto’s heroines often start a bit naïve and are forced to learn quickly. I’d say that Damira is a bit ahead of the curve because she’s already quite capable as a hunter and horse rider, and she often butts heads with her leader-figure brother. But she is a girl. And in this world, that means she has to do extra to prove herself. I did very much like that, despite his traditional mindset, Syzyan does listen to her and knows she’s smart. And Shagonar is a good balance to Syzyan and also a good love interest – it’s a subtle romance and just the right amount for this story. Although at times these three disagree and take sides, it never feels like you have to side with one over the other because you can understand each of their viewpoints and you root for them all.

The plot has several twists and turns and adventures. The pacing is great. There’s quite a bit of action but also great heartfelt moments of dialogue. I was never bored. (Confession: It took me forever to read this book because of “real life” distractions, but I could pick it back up even after long periods and NEVER forgot what was going on because the writing always drew me right back in.) At one point I feared Damira might go the way of Daenerys from “Game of Thrones,” but in a lot of ways that remains to be seen. The ending allows a lot of room for future books, and WOW has this book covered a lot of ground already.

I highly recommend this book as either a stand-alone fantasy read or as a follow-up for anyone who’s read the first two books in the series. It has adventure, action, excellent world-building, creepy magic, characters worth rooting for, and truly great writing.

See it on Amazon!

Review of “Faster” by Calvin Demmer

In a word: Gripping.

Here’s yet another story from this author that made me want to read an entire novel about the main character. In just a few short pages, Demmer tells the story of a man with a far more interesting past than anyone suspects, a man both cursed and blessed by the choices he has made – and specifically, the deal he has made. I love that this story picks up without exposition but rather sucks you in with intrigue and then far later you discover the big reveal. The disturbing mystery keeps you reading and eager to learn more with every hint of Brock’s secret.

I really loved how you got the feel of what Brock’s post-deal-with-the-devil life has been like, even though he only shares a few details. Each stop, each victim, each encounter with devilish messengers keeps him moving forward, and you understand that this has been a very long, weary, tense, dark journey. For this part of his story, you see only a few brief hours (maybe less) of what that life is like, but it’s clearly a moment he has lived through again and again.

Demmer’s stories always have some twist or play on a familiar horror trope or monster, and I liked the addition of the crystal that Brock’s used to prolong his life. The devil maybe didn’t see that coming. But like Brock is told by the possessed women fated to be his next victim, everyone loses in the end. All Brock can do is move forward, move faster, and hope to last as long as he can. It sounds like a horrible life, but as Brock points out, once you know the devil is real, nothing is as bad as where you know you’re going next.

See it on Amazon!

Review of “Peel Back and See” by Mike Thorn

I cannot say enough about this book. I can’t pick a favorite story from this collection. I can’t wait for more from this author. He and these stories are just that good.

“Peel Back and See” is a perfect title to encapsulate these 16 stories. In each one, the characters go deeper and deeper into whatever they’ve discovered, uncovered, or searched for. The complex horror of each takes time to come to light. The reader is taken further and further into the inner world of each character’s particular depression, self-destruction, or struggle for answers. The sheer weirdness grows and grows as you read – I’m looking at you, “Vomitus Bacchanalius.”

I also realized as I read that, for each story’s main character, the horror comes only because they went looking. This isn’t a monster-and-slasher kind of horror collection. Nobody’s car breaks down and they’re randomly attacked by some terror from the woods. No masked figure attacks strangers with a chainsaw. These characters go looking for trouble, in one way or another, and find their own doom. Some regret it immediately. Others embrace the darkness.

The horror is also, like the author’s “Shelter for the Damned,” very psychologically driven. While there are indeed gruesome monsters, they are often so terrifying because of how they relate to whatever the characters are personally afraid of. And in the era of COVID, when so many of us have been trapped in our own heads more than usual with only the internet as an escape, stories like “Havoc” and “@GorgoYama2013” as well as “Fade to White” feel a bit closer to home than they might have in the world before. These characters feel isolated from society in a way we might not have understood so well pre-pandemic.

In fact, that was a main thought which I, Lit nerd that I am, kept coming back to – these stories are like a collection Poe might have written if he lived today, like Poe in the era of COVID. The terrors are often spawned by the characters’ own doings. The monster is inside the house, so to speak. Everything happens because of whatever demons these people are already fighting, whether poverty, academic pressure, depression, grief, greed, etc. Because of their internal struggles, they “Peel Back and See” something horrible.

The author’s unique and seemingly effortless mastery of language is a joy to read. Many of the stories will leave you thinking. Many may give you the creeps. One left me forever unable to look at my daughter’s dollhouse the same again. Overall, I’m just in awe of this collection and can’t wait to be horrified by more.

See it on Amazon!

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