Book Review: Traitors of the Black Crown by Cate Pearce

“Traitors of the Black Crown” by Cate Pearce is a wonderful sapphic fantasy romance, and a revenge story that doesn’t turn out quite like you would expect. Thank you to Netgalley and Hansen House Books for the advance reader copy. This book releases September 22, 2021, and is available for preorder. 

This is the epic tale of Raena Schinen, whose father was accused of treason against the black crown. Queen Zarana ordered the slaughter of her whole family, but Raena escaped; so she posed as a man and a knight, and traded Raena for Sir Rowan of Hawks’ Keep. From the beginning, her life was consumed by thoughts of revenge. The story opens with Raena and best friend Finn joining the Knights’ Trial, a contest spearheaded by Prince Zander. But the Trials were not just for show this year; they used real weapons and were expected to deal out real violence. 

So, the two quick-thinking knights found a workaround; they jumped the castle walls to avoid the worst of the bloodshed. But this clever ruse to save their skins was not seen kindly by the sociopathic Prince, who banished Sir Rowan to East Shore to serve common-born Duchess Aven, and Finn was assigned to serve the Prince. But things kept shifting as the Prince’s behavior grew ever more erratic, Queen Zarana now plotted against her own son, and romance developed between the Duchess and her newest Knight. 

I really enjoyed this story, enough so that I’m interested in purchasing a physical copy. It was a breath of fresh air at a time when we need escapism into fantasy worlds. Details like battle tactics and even the food that is served were clearly well researched and provided color to the story. I was intrigued by the author’s grasp of gender and gender expression in this story in the form of Raena vs. Rowan; the use of pronoun and identity switching was cleverly done. 

I felt the writing voice and dialogue was a bit awkward and stiff in the first part of the book, but as the romance blossomed between Raena and Aven, the author really found her groove and there were several shining flashes of prose. I didn’t care for the character of Prince Zander; I know we are supposed to find him unlikable as the penultimate villain, but I usually like to be able to understand the motives and backstory of villains. Without giving spoilers I liked the device of getting into the point of view of Zarana; her relationship with her son did help me understand Zander better. He seemed at times like a caricature of a villain, although of course we know someone like that in real life in the form of a certain former American president. 

Overall, I was really rooting for Raena and Aven; their slow-burning and tender romance is the best part of this story. This was a fun, flirty, feminist take on your typical fantasy epics, with some fast-moving political intrigue and a strong cast of characters. I’d read book two of the series. 

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On dealing with disassociation

Disassociation is a coping tool that can sometimes seem like a superpower or a curse. But what is it, and what does it feel like? 

I can only speak from the experience of someone with depression and anxiety; I can’t tell you what it feels like to have Dissociative Identity Disorder, Bipolar, Schizophrenia, or other mental illnesses. I am also not a psychologist or counselor; if you are feeling sustained periods of sadness and hopelessness, I can tell you from experience that it is always a good idea to talk to a neutral third party who has training and experience to help you face your struggles. 

Disassociation is the act of disconnecting your sense of self from your memories and feelings, your body. It feels like an emptiness, a void in your soul, a numbness. It is not something that can be controlled or turned on like a switch anytime you want anesthesia for your pain. It can seem like a superpower because when you’re feeling sad, when you’re hurting and uncomfortable, it’s like a security blanket, a comfort zone, an old friend who won’t judge you. When you just don’t want to deal with those tough memories anymore, disassociating makes you soar far above them on a black cloud of denialism and nothingness. 

Sometimes, it is even like you don’t care anymore, and you think that’s what you want; that’s the pinnacle of mental health. Not caring anymore what happens to you, not caring about your painful feelings, not caring about the world. You don’t need the world; the world is too hard to live in. But then you don’t want those feelings of not wanting to live, so it’s easier to separate yourself from them, to rise above them, to a place that’s safe and secure and meaningless, a cushion where everything is easy, like indulging in a bag of potato chips in one sitting. A void place. A place where the things that used to make you angry do not bother you anymore. A place where you can’t cry anymore. Where nothing matters. It can seem like a heavenly place. 

And sometimes, this technique is actually helpful. I used a form of disassociation as an interviewing technique when I was a reporter. Objectivity helps you tell other people’s stories in a more powerful way. When you abandon yourself and your own biases and experiences, you are able to listen more closely to the experiences of another; considering how rare that is, people really open up and respond to someone who’s actively listening to them and won’t insert themselves into the conversation. 

Disassociation can help you get through the day. It can get you out of bed. It can make you think that everything is okay because you’re not feeling so sad anymore. You watch the news and there’s a horrible mass shooting and you don’t even blink. People are like that because that’s what people do, you think. There’s nothing we can do about it because nothing ever changes, you think. 

But disassociation can also be dangerous. When you don’t care anymore, your sense of nihilism can lead you down destructive paths. It becomes easier to engage in substance abuse, to treat people poorly, to lash out, to not keep yourself physically safe. When you don’t care anymore why does any of that matter? Your risk assessment changes. 

So what can you do about it? Especially when you can’t help it when you’re feeling this way. It’s not a technique that people can magically manifest anytime they don’t want to feel hard feelings. It takes years of practice and intention to work on it. I’ve found a few things have helped me in rejoining my body again. 

  • Talking to a therapist. If you have depression and anxiety, cognitive behavioral techniques can really help you work through your narrative, deal with your pain, and find healthier coping tools. Other therapeutic techniques are better for people with other mental illnesses. 
  • Grounding techniques. There are a variety of these but two are using fidget spinners to concentrate your nervous energy into your physical surroundings with an object you can touch; and you can also take deep breaths and name objects in the room around you that you can absorb with your senses. Name one thing you can see, one thing you can hear, and so on. 
  • Meditation. The techniques of meditation can be applied to other areas of your life, not just the five minutes that you sit on that cushion. It teaches you to be more present in your body, to sit with your thoughts, however painful. 
  • Coloring books. I find this is a grounding technique that connects me with my body in a visceral way. When I’m focusing on filling in the fine lines, I am able to come into my thoughts and feelings again. 
  • Journaling. Keeping a journal can help you deal with your negative thoughts and emotions. Just be careful that you don’t swim in them so much that you start to judge yourself. Start simple. “I don’t know what to write.” Even if you’re filling a page with that over and over. 
  • Reframing your narrative. Do you really not care about anything? I would argue that the reason that you are disassociating is because you care too much and you can’t deal with it, so you mask your difficult emotions by separating yourself from them entirely. You do care. Maybe that’s a kind of superpower too. 

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Newsletter out, and I’m back on Patreon

Got a few updates for y’all! So I have decided to return to Patreon, and I will be using it as an outlet for weekly flash fiction stories exclusive to subscribers. Find my page here. I also explain why I decided to come back.

Also, I now have a Substack email newsletter! Find Bizarre Ink here. These are free monthly updates collecting links to my work on my various platforms, blog posts you might have missed but wanted to read, and updates on my writing progress for the month. I promise to only litter your email inboxes once a month. This replaces the monthly updates I used to publish for this blog. I will still announce every newsletter here as soon as it is out.

For this blog, I’m mainly planning book reviews, as well as some essays on mental health awareness, politics and philosophy, but you can read more about that in my newsletter.

Thank you as always for your support!

Graphic Novel Review: Lonely Receiver by AfterShock Comics

“Lonely Receiver,” written by Zac Thompson and illustrated by Jen Hickman, published by AfterShock Comics, simply blew me away. It’s exactly the perfect horror breakup story for our times, a modern, edgy sparkplug of bizarro in a storytelling format uniquely suited to comics. 

The story follows Catrin Vander, a lonely video producer whose job is to scour social media feeds for mentions of fossil fuels and other unmentionables and flag them for censorship. After a devastating breakup, Catrin can’t face being single again, so she buys an Artificial Intelligence partner instead; think a combination of your smart fitness watch and your phone, with haptic nerves, melded to your brain. Her new wife, Rhion, is made to order, a life partner who meets Catrin’s every needs and desires. But Catrin is broken, using her partners to fill gaps within herself, and Rhion isn’t the image of perfection that Catrin had fashioned her to be. Rhion inexplicably leaves one day, but the bio-engineered interface that connects her to Catrin is forever linked with her way of interfacing with the outside world, plunging her into darkness and desperation.

Thus, Catrin is finally, truly alone, and begins a steady, haunting spiral into madness, escapism and obsession, chasing after haptic ghosts until she loses herself. Catrin descends into the recesses of her trauma until she inherits the visage of the one that she lost, a receiver, a machine with a human costume.

The writing in this story is wonderful, a mix of code, erotic verse, stanza and literary powerhouse. The mixed-media storytelling weaves in the profound, tactile experience of mental illness and confronting one’s past trauma amid loud, bold colors and fragmented dialogue. Throughout much of the story, Catrin is shown naked, vulnerable, as she loses her flesh to the lust that she feared, the inherent loneliness and jealousy that separated her from her love. 

This is beautiful, evocative, psychological horror, with a flush of sexiness, a whispered scream of abuse and the continuous thread of twisted romance. The cast is small, almost a character study into the mind and obsessions of Catrin, so that the reader is in turn immersed in her horror, her mental illness, her trauma, as she is turned inside out and devoured by the machine world, made more her and less her, until she, too, is forgotten, hardly recognizable. 

Highly recommend. 

“Modern life has forced us to exist in pieces. Our society is predicated on pretending to be okay. We’re terrified of telling people how we actually feel. And if someone asks you how you feel, you’re only supposed to respond with ‘great.’

“Well, what you’re about to read, is an account of all the times when I wasn’t okay. Where I was pretty fucking far from great.

“But I’m here. Alive and better for it. Terrified to share Catrin’s story.” —Lonely Receiver

Graphic Novel Review: Adler by Titan Comics

“Adler” by Lavie Tidhar, illustrated by Paul McCaffrey, published by Titan Comics, promised a League of Extraordinary Gentlewomen from science and history, and on that front, it delivered. It had me at that premise, so I can’t fault it for expecting any less. 

But this book belongs to a new genre that I would call historical fiction, but reimagining history as if sexism and racism were not barriers. On the one hand, it’s amazing to see more representation and badass women doing badass things, as a woman comics fan in an industry dominated by badass men who get to have all the fun. On the other hand, I think rewriting history to be more inclusive can have an adverse effect on women – people can then weaponize it to argue that sexism never existed.

However, since this is a comic book, and thus prone to bombastic retellings because that’s expected of the genre, I am willing to give it license to go there, and just call it historical fantasy. As Adler says, “To be a woman is to be at war, Jane.” Best line of the whole book.

The protagonist of this story is Irene Adler, a minor character in the Sherlock Holmes universe who now gets top billing. Jane Eyre, who was an ambulance driver in the Boer Wars in South Africa, comes to London looking for work and a place to live. She’s introduced to the irrepressible Irene Adler and her London, a city at war with brutal crime gangs. First it’s Moriarty, who is easily dispatched, followed by, naturally, Ayesha, a barbarian queen come to take her revenge on the British Empire. 

The art was decent, some interesting plays with light and shadow to follow the arc of the narrative drama, but I found the plot somewhat scattered. For example, orphan Annie’s mission at the beginning of the book is to deliver special papers to Irene Adler; for starting off strong, this plot bunny falls by the wayside, and we never really hear about the papers. I suppose that’s coming in Book Two. Also, the villains meet with far too easy ends; the stakes just didn’t seem high enough.

Bottom line was, I think this story was just trying to do too much with too many famous people from history. It was the point, but it didn’t quite work for me; it felt like a gimmick. I would have liked it better if it was just Irene and Jane teaming up to fight crime and then having a little romance. They were the strongest characters in the book for me and I wanted more of them together. But, I suppose that is just not bombastic enough. 

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Graphic Novel Review: The Vain

I was drawn in by the drop-dead gorgeous cover art and the rest of the book did not disappoint. “The Vain,” published by Oni Press, is a wonderful noir thriller about a gang of vampires and the FBI agent who spends a lifetime chasing ghosts. 

The gang calls themselves “The Vain,” a crew of incredibly stylish, of course, vampires whom we first meet in a bank robbery in Chicago in 1941. But it’s not just any bank – it’s a blood bank. FBI Agent Felix Franklin, a fresh recruit desperate to prove himself, thinks this is his big break. The coincidences are too many to overlook.

Through the years, the gang of four works undercover for the FBI in the fight against the Nazis, surfaces again in Communist Cuba, and turns into a cult of spiritualists in the 60s cheating drug addicts out of their blood with promises of an endless life without pain. They steal blood, lay low for awhile, and manage another heist. A beautiful vampire called Lost is their ringleader. 

From his first run-in with them, Felix becomes obsessed. But of course, no one believes him. He loses his family, he’s institutionalized, he’s reinstated again at the FBI, but he becomes a laughingstock. That part is something that’s often missing from vampire stories; what happens to the people who see them, in a world that thinks they are a fairy tale? 

I am not usually a vampire fan; I am not an easy sell for these kinds of stories. You have to bring something original and different in order to entice me. I enjoyed the historical arc of the narrative, the focus on the 1940s. The art was vivid, realistic and quite wonderful throughout the book. The storyline was fun and fast-paced. The Vain became sympathetic villains, in the end, and I wanted this story to be a series instead of just a five-issue book. This was Bonnie and Clyde if Bonnie and Clyde were a badass, hot lesbian vampire couple robbing blood banks throughout history.

I also appreciated the foil with Felix, a do-gooder type driven to the brink of madness in his hunt for revenge.

All in all, a fun story, and a work of art. I will be keeping this one on my shelf for a long time. 

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Book Review: Hollow Road by Dan Fitzgerald

A fast-paced buddy fantasy quest adventure; multidimensional female characters; and an intriguing species called the Maer that throws the traditional high-fantasy villain on its head. These were a few of the highlights that brought me to give “Hollow Road” by Dan Fitzgerald, published by Shadow Spark Publishing, high marks.

In Book One of the Maer Cycle, we meet Carl, a soldier who lands a well-paid job to bring a body back to Brocland, Carl’s hometown, for burial. It turns out that nobody’s heard from Brocland in ages, and they fear it is under siege by the Maer, a race of man-beasts that loom so large in legend and folklore that people think they are monsters, or at times, bedtime stories to scare children. Carl will need to make a perilous journey across Hollow Road to reach Brocland, and for that he enlists the help of two of his friends, also from Brocland – Finn, a student mage training at a monastery-like compound to become an adept, and Sinnie, a circus archer. 

This ragtag crew embarks on their journey to Brocland, where they discover that the Maer are less monstrous than anyone could have imagined. 

The story alternates points of view between Carl, Finn and Sinnie, and this was a strength of the writing style for me, helping us gain better insight into the relationships between these three as we switched between their perspectives of each other. It also meant there wasn’t as much chance for showing for the emotional states of each characters, but I was okay with that with this story because it’s meant to put the adventure arc front and center instead of the literary. The pace of the writing style moved along briskly and I enjoyed the author’s deft hand with rich descriptions of natural settings. 

Moving onto characters, I really liked Sinnie; she resonated with me as my favorite character. Usually I cringe whenever I read a male indie author’s depictions of woman characters; I’ve read some cringey descriptions before, that tend to rely on emphasizing a woman’s sex appeal and physical appearance instead of her emotional complexity. Sinnie was a well-rounded character and I appreciated that. I also enjoyed how her strength was shown not just in her military prowess, but in how she interacted with the Maer when she changed her mind about them. 

I wanted to know more about the magic system practiced by Finn; it was intriguing and I felt Book One only brushed the surface of it – I still have a few questions about its parameters, which I hope are answered in future books. I liked that it was based around meditation and a yoga-like practice. 

As far as the Maer go, that was the most interesting part of this story to me. You would expect a buddy adventure quest story to end with the buddies victoriously slaying the enemy and celebrating their spoils. I won’t spoil anything, but this book ends up with more internal than external conflict in that regard. Can people change, after they’ve grown up taught to hate someone? This book explores that central premise. In the Maer, we discover a species very much like humans, with their own customs and even legal systems. 

I’m intrigued enough to want to read more in the series. It was a fun book, just the thing for escapist adventure fantasy with deeper moral questions driving the story. 

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Short Fiction: Names Have Power

The coffee had grown cold in her cup, but she drank it anyway, grimacing at the lukewarm taste. Mystic was the name she had chosen for herself for this group. Mystic Seaborne. It was silly, so silly. She thought they were a roleplay group, but she wasn’t sure what they were about, really. She was trying to make friends. She was all alone in the city. 

Mystic was better than her real name. She didn’t want to think about her real name, or about her one-bedroom walk-up apartment on five flights of stairs in a complex in a suburb forty minutes away. That was the point, too. It wasn’t just about friends. It was about escaping. She tapped her fingers, her shoulders hunched. It would figure if they had stood her up, or if she had gotten the wrong place or the wrong time. That was pretty much the story of her life. 

Mystic ran a hand through her scraggly brown nondescript hair and stared at the reflection of her pale nondescript face in the window. She decided maybe she should eat something. Her stomach was growling unaccountably. Since no one was here yet, it wouldn’t be rude. The coffee mug had a cartoon cat on it; the cartoon cat looked shocked, its eyes wide, its black fur scruffy, set into a purple backdrop. “Caffeinated!” the mug proclaimed in large, scrawling black letters. She needed some more coffee to consider herself that. She looked at the bags in her eyes and wondered what they would think of her. 

The waitress came by. She was a middle-aged woman with slouched shoulders and silver fox hair. She wore a pale yellow dress and her bronze name tag said “Doris.” Women like her usually dyed their hair, so Mystic gave her props for keeping it gray. She smiled broadly at her quiet patron. 

“Want a warmup, honey?” she drawled, her accent thick. 

“Yes, it’s gotten cold,” Mystic said. She realized her hands were shaking, and warmth crept into her cheeks. “Also, I’d like to order.” 

Doris paused, as if surprised, then set her coffee pot down and took out a notepad. “What’ll it be, honey?” 

“The Southwestern Omelette, with sourdough toast please,” she said. Before Doris could ask, she added, “And ketchup and hot sauce to the side please.” 

“Coming right up. You like it spicy huh?” 

“You could say that,” Mystic said, her face growing hotter, as she felt like squeezing into a ball in the corner of the booth. Then she berated herself. She was trying to make new friends. 

Her coffee thus warmed up, her food arrived in no time, and she dug in. She ate like she had not eaten anything in a week, ravenously devouring the spicy eggs after piling them high with mounds of ketchup and hot sauce. Really, she just didn’t want to be eating when the group arrived; that was rude. In no time her plate was finished, and she was sopping up pools of ketchup with her scalded toast. 

Outside, it had begun to rain. Her shoulders fell. Maybe this was a terrible idea. She downed her coffee before it got cold again. Doris came by, eyes widened at her finished plate. She took it away, then came back with the check and another cup of coffee. “Take your time, honey. No rush.” 

Mystic stared at the slip of paper, face down. She swallowed, tasting bile. Her stomach rumbled in protest; maybe she had eaten too fast. She quickly looked at the bill, flipping it over and resisting the urge to crumple the paper. Then she checked her wallet. A dollar short. Fuck. A day late and a dollar… She squeezed her eyes shut, feeling a headache coming on. Her new “friends” were nowhere in sight. Maybe something had gone terribly wrong… 

She needed to get out of here. But she didn’t want the waitress to think she was ditching without paying. Sweat prickled her face. Times like these made her wish she smoked. That would be a plausible excuse. So instead she flagged down the waitress. “I’ll be right back,” she said to Doris. “My friends are going to be here soon. I just… need a breath of fresh air.” 

“How were the eggs, sweetie?” said Doris, her wrinkled plump face a combination of knowing, compassion and a dash of judgment. She must have known. Surely it was written all over Mystic’s face. 

“They were great,” said Mystic, giving Doris a beaming smile. Her heart thumped in her chest, and she just felt so wrong, just wrong. Her gut clenched. She was going to be sick. Doris with her kind blue eyes. Doris, not afraid to show her age. Mystic felt like she knew her; or at least, was emotionally invested enough not to rip her off. It wasn’t some nameless corporation she stole from; it wasn’t the restaurant; it was Doris, after all, the tip she wouldn’t get. But couldn’t she just put down the money she had? The question she would need to answer… What about the rest? What about my tip? 

Mystic swallowed. “If you need a lighter just let me know,” Doris said with a wink, patting Mystic’s shoulder. That was what made Mystic feel well and truly awful. It was just one meal. What was the big deal? It was just a dollar. 

Mystic couldn’t get out of there fast enough. The diner was pretty empty that afternoon. Just the usual old men who were retired city council members and businessmen hobnobbing at their coffee klatch, watching Fox News turned down. Mystic grimaced at the garbled sight of Tucker Carlson. The other patrons did not glance her way. 

The bell at the door jangled at her exit, stabbing a knife into her chest. Her eyes watered, but she wouldn’t cry. Why was this so hard? People stole things all the time and got away with it. Bigger things. More important things. More desperate things. This was just a buck. A dollar. A single bill. One Benjamin. 

Mystic found a spot by the dumpster, and luckily no employees were taking their smoke breaks now. She breathed in hard, rapid gulps. The air here felt stale, stagnant, dead. She sank against the wall of the restaurant to her haunches. It was a cold afternoon. She stared at the row of trees in the vacant lot adjacent the back of the restaurant. Their branches danced in the breeze, like harbingers of darkness. Mystic’s face was sweating even though it was cold. She closed her eyes briefly, trying to control her breathing. She kept watching the front of the restaurant, in case the group showed up. But now it was a half hour; they weren’t coming. Something was wrong. 

Then she couldn’t hold it back anymore. She threw up behind the dumpster, hard dry heaves. Her mouth tasted sickly and acidic and she brushed her face with her sleeve. Her jacket was still in the restaurant; collateral, she’d thought. But in her thin cardigan in the cold, she shivered. It was approaching autumn here. That time when you regretted that summer was so short but it would soon become cold days and dark nights. Around here, it happened faster than anyone thought possible. 

Mystic’s knees buckled, and she sat down on the dirty ground, littered with dirt and spent cigarette butts. She stretched out her legs. She couldn’t get her hands to stop shaking. The trees beyond beckoned her. Just run, they said. Forget about it. It’s not worth worrying your pretty head over. She gulped. Mystic Seaborne was a dumb name to choose. This whole idea was dumb. A roleplaying group? What was she thinking? A bunch of flakes, more like. She wouldn’t have anything to talk about with them. She didn’t play video games. She didn’t read fantasy novels. She liked Law and Order. She was on the cheerleading squad in high school. Now she worked part time at a nail salon. She could only afford the apartment in the city because her parents paid her rent. First job out of college, times were tough. 

She looked at her own nails. The paint was chipping and the corners were torn from biting them, a nervous habit. A bad look for a nail salon attendant. She hid them self-consciously just thinking about it, then sucked on her index fingernail, the compulsion too strong to ignore. She thought she’d probably get fired soon. But manicures were expensive to maintain, so she did them herself. She needed to keep up with it more often. Even if you worked around them, nails were easily forgotten, especially when you spent too much time in your head, thinking about how much your life sucks.

An onslaught of exhaustion washed over her. She couldn’t decide what to do. She should just go in there and apologize and say she was a dollar short, and she’d be back with more money to make up for it. That would be the ethical thing to do after all. 

But then the mist in the trees seemed to rise, a thick fog that she hadn’t noticed before. It was speaking to her. Taunting her. She didn’t know how, but the longer she studied it, the more it tickled her mind. She squinted into the blackness. It was still afternoon, still far from sunset. But the woods were dark, filled with foreboding. Beyond this vacant lot, there was the freeway. 

“It’s too hard to go back there and explain yourself,” said the voice. “Come with us. We’ll make you feel better.” 

The fog turned into shapes, human shapes, little sprites and fairies, figures outlined in the murkiness. Mystic’s stomach lurched. She vomited again, and she didn’t wipe her face this time; she held her head high, with breakfast detritus sliming on her cheek. She looked toward the front of the restaurant, in case the group had shown up. She checked her phone. An email showed up in her inbox. Five minutes before the meeting time. “Sorry, group canceled today. Erin is sick. We’ll reschedule. Details in the Slack group.” 

Mystic sighed. She didn’t even think to check her phone. Of course, they were geeks, they’d be glued to their phones. Who was she kidding? She was usually glued to her Instagram feed. Making makeup tutorial videos. Chasing Internet fame too. But sometimes she felt like joining the real world every once in awhile.

But the voices still scratched at her mind. “Come with us,” they said. “They’re not coming. They would have loaned you the cash. Or maybe they would have laughed at you.” 

Laughed at her, sure. Mystic bet on the latter. She didn’t even know why she was using that stupid name. This was a group for stupid flakes. She wanted to crunch her phone into a million pieces, but instead she put it in her bag. She stood up, shaky on her feet. She felt drunk, even though she’d only downed four cups of coffee. Black, with four sugars. 

“Come with us,” the voices whispered, sibilant along her racing thoughts. They followed the shape of her thoughts and ran with them, colliding with them. “We can take your pain away.” 

She never thought of it as pain, but maybe it was. Her stomach felt like lead. Her eyes felt like drifting closed, but she fought to stay awake. She looked behind her shoulder. No one was coming for her, even though it was a long break. She thought of her jacket, one of her favorites; but she could leave it. 

“Mystic Seaborne,” whispered the voice, taunting her. “Is that really your name?” 

“No,” she said, her lips chapped and thick. She found herself walking forward, toward the mists. Anytime she expected Doris to come out and yell at her. “Lady, you still haven’t paid!” But she wasn’t coming. She imagined her look of disappointment on her face. 

“What is your name?” 

“Mystic,” she said, licking her lips. Somehow she knew she shouldn’t give her real one. Names had power, or so all the fairy stories said. A face dancing in the mists laughed at her. 

“What kind of a dumb name is that?” 

But she said it over and over again. Her head pounded. She felt as if she were being pulled by an invisible string into the woods, and she was helpless against its pull. She walked through the woods, wide-eyed with wonder. 

Then she heard a voice calling her name, her real name, and she froze. Doris was after her. But the mists caressed her mind, telling her sweet nothings. She felt like a frightened rabbit as she turned back toward the restaurant. It was another world here, and she was trapped. Indeed, Doris had left the restaurant. She was still in her yellow dress and had her nameplate on. Her glasses were on her head. She looked worried, not angry, her blue eyes scouring the parking lot. 

Mystic’s heart raced. She didn’t know what to do. She couldn’t go back now. She clutched her bag tighter to her body. The mists crowded around her, angry on her behalf. “It’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair,” they said, and she believed them. Her fear quickly turned into something else. She knew this emotion. This ugly, raw emotion. She had worked hard over the years to fight it. And now it was back with a vengeance. It was why she worked part-time at a nail salon and dropped out of college. They had found out. They found out what she did when she was sixteen even though the records were sealed. It was an accident. You could prove it was an accident. But it wasn’t really. She knew the truth. She knew the intent of her heart. 

She thought to run. That would be the easiest thing to do. But instead she crouched behind a tree and waited. She breathed quietly through her nose. The voices kept whispering to her. Validating her anger. “You’re right, honey,” they said. “You’re right. You’re going to be all right.” 

She believed them. Doris shouted her name. The worry was turning fiercer. Doris knew. Doris knew her plans all along. She came closer to the woods, looking through the mist, standing on her toes. “Listen, we can work something out if you can’t pay,” Doris said, sounding like a grandmother. Mystic’s heart lurched. She wanted to throw up again. But then Doris saw the mists. Really saw them. Her pace slowed down; her eyes widened. She came farther into woods. Her feet caught on the underbrush. 

“Come here. Mystic. Now we know your real name. Now we know…” The voices laughed at her. She followed them. But also, she wanted to follow them. It was just like before. She felt exactly as she had before, when she was sixteen, and she had killed her friend. It was an accident, she said. She knew better. She wanted Bridget dead. She wanted her boyfriend. It was a simple exchange. A life for a life. Nothing special about it. 

So Mystic walked further into the woods. If it weren’t for the mist, they would seem like a small vacant lot, and a stand of trees. But the mist made them seem like a wilderness. Mystic could hear the noise of the traffic beyond. She started to run. She kicked off her shoes and felt the grass and the needles under her feet. Doris followed. 

“Good girl,” said the mists. “Good girl. Good girl. Good girl. Just like that. Just like that. Come closer.” 

They ejected her from the woods and she nearly collapsed into the road. It was a freeway onramp. Traffic rushed by her, horns blaring. She couldn’t stop the rush of her breath. Doris was soon behind. Mystic looked behind her shoulder. Her eyes were dark and sad and tired. “Wait!” Doris said, calling out her name. Her real name. “We can work something out, honey!” 

Desperation clawed at her throat, and she couldn’t understand it. Was twelve dollars and forty cents really that big of a deal? She waited for a gap in the traffic, and ran. Doris followed. 

The oncoming semi didn’t wait. “Scarlett,” Mystic whispered, her voice thick and hot. The mists made her do it. But she knew that wasn’t true. Names have power, after all. 

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Graphic Novel Review: Pirouette by Black Mask Studios, LLC

“Pirouette,” published by Black Mask Studios, LLC, is an understated little gem of a book about a girl named Pirouette and the two-faced clowns who raise her in a shabby old-timey circus. Clowns and circuses are fertile ground for fright, as well as beautiful art. 

This was a lovely book, light on story and heavy on art. The art was done in very dark tones, with some simply gorgeous character work by artist Carlos Granda. This kind of horror is not the kind of in-your-face body horror with cheap scare tactics. In fact, most of the violence happens “off-screen,” as it were, leaving the darkest scenes to the reader’s imagination. 

This is, instead, slow-burn psychological horror; I wasn’t exactly scared per se, but it did a good job of building a sinister whiff of desperation. Pirouette always thought she was abandoned at the circus as a baby and the circus life, with the abusive clowns who look after her, was her own personal hell that she’d be trapped in forever. Until one day, when the traveling circus arrives in the town of Lima, Ohio, a clown tells her a tale about her parents, and she goes on a wild goose chase, chasing after a strand of hope for some reason from clowns who have lied to her all her life. 

But in a twist, Pirouette’s dreams of a better life, a comfortable suburban life with a family who cares for her, are a fragile veneer; she knows the circus life is hers, and she has to make it work for her in the end. 

I liked this book because sometimes the scariest moments aren’t when the monsters attack you, but living with the monsters inside our head, instead. This is quiet horror, my favorite kind; a comforting kind of creep factor. This was an enjoyable little ride down the dark side of the circus. 

Graphic Novel Review: Odessa by Jonathan Hill

I haven’t blogged in so long! I haven’t been writing much so I don’t have much to report on my writing process. I plan to change up my reviews to only review graphic novels and indie books on this blog, and quick recaps of all books on my Goodreads. I am trying to read more comics so get ready for more comic book reviews! Without further ado…

“Odessa,” written and drawn by Jonathan Hill, published by Oni Press, is a lovely book. An epic, but understated; a heartwarming family story, except in a dark, dystopian setting. Comic books are usually produced by teams and this is a remarkable achievement by just one writer/artist. 

But, I almost DNF’ed it at first, so I am glad I stuck it through. This is not the kind of story that is packed with action and high stakes at the beginning. It is quite slow paced to start and then it is a slow burn mystery quest story as it unfolds. Eight years ago an earthquake, the Big One, hit the Cascadia fault line, wreaking disaster. Now America is a land pocked by bloodthirsty street gangs and strange new plants and animals, like jinx root, which heals injuries but also turns humans into cannibalistic creatures. 

With the backdrop of this landscape comes Ginny and her family – her two bratty younger brothers, Wes and Harry, and their distant but loving father. They’ve lived without their mother for years, so Ginny becomes the mother figure for the boys, whether she likes it or not. But one day on her seventeenth birthday, a mysterious package arrives from her mother, and Ginny is consumed by an obsession that she is alive. Driven by this urge, she embarks on a journey across the hellscape of the dystopian frontier on an impossible journey to find her mother. 

But Wes and Harry, unknown to her, tag along, and soon they are one family on a strange trip, full of adventure and bonding moments. This is book one of a series, and it certainly doesn’t end where you think it might, but I won’t give any spoilers. 

The art is interesting, it’s done in a two-tone style with a predominantly pink theme. It’s charmingly simple. The storytelling is stronger than the art, but the art drives the story, too. I liked the pink element because it was symbolic of the heart of the story being a family tale, and it was a nice contrast to the dark, dystopian wasteland. Even as violent gangs kidnapped and murdered people, the pink tones were a soothing contrast and made the reader focus on the family story, instead.

All in all, this is a lovely book. It’s quite long, so get ready to dig in, but it’s worth the journey.