Review of Twin-Bred by Karen A. Wyle

Twin-Bred2 by Karen A WyleTitle: Twin-Bred
Series: Twin-Bred
Karen A. Wyle
 13 October 2011
science fiction
 eARC from the author

When considering the possibility of alien contact, I worry how humanity will behave. As a species, we have frequently proven to be intolerant or hostile when confronted with difference (of race, gender, culture, nationality etc.). Sf has frequently used the alien as a metaphor for the other, exposing and critiquing modes of prejudice and oppression. Less socially conscious tales often reveal our assumptions about the other; consider the stereotype of aliens kidnapping humans for experiments or how many sf stories are about violent alien invaders, portraying other intelligent species as our enemies.

Twin-Bred by Karen A. Wyle is a case of humans behaving badly towards an alien whose motives and culture they do not understand because they can’t or won’t speak to them. It’s an almost embarrassing portrayal of close-minded people encountering a race of technologically inferior beings who might turn hostile.

In the novel, a human colony has been living on the planet Tofarn for 70 years. They share the world with the indigenous Tofa, a race of inscrutable four-armed aliens who don’t have any facial features except a blank pair of eyes. The humans do not know how to communicate with the Tofa, and after seven decades of co-habitation the two races still don’t understand each other. So far, this hasn’t been too problematic and the Tofa didn’t seem accepting of the human presence on their planet. But every now and then a conflict arises: the Tofa pack up and leave a village for reasons the humans cannot discern; they complain that humans are shaking hands in public or wearing the colour blue; they make a noise to prevent the humans sleeping at night.

Mara, an ambitious but emotionally dysfunctional young scientist, comes up with a solution: breeding human and Tofa twins. They will not have any genetic relationship; instead, a host mother (human or Tofa) will be implanted with both a human and a Tofa foetus. Mara believes that sharing a womb will forge a unique bond between the twins, finally enabling the two species to communicate. The humans will be able to learn about the Tofa, and the twins will be trained to resolve inter-species conflicts.

Mara’s idea is the result of her bond with Levi, her own twin who died in utero. Mara has secretly kept him alive in her mind as an entity who is also her only friend and confidant. Mara even names her twin project after him: the Long-Term Emissary Viviparous Initiative or L.E.V.I.

The Project gets government backing, probably because the government officials all have their own agendas, hoping to use the twins and their abilities to gain power and influence. Even the Tofa seem to be plotting something, not that any of the humans have the means of finding out what they’re up to.

Now that you have the gist of the plot, I’ll return to the start and begin unpacking all the ludicrously implausible aspects of this story. Humans lived for 70 YEARS on Tofarn without talking to the Tofa. SEVENTY YEARS. There are actually villages and towns where the two species live together, but still, nothing. Granted, the Tofa are not what you’d call sociable, but the overwhelming impression I got is that humans didn’t even try. It seemed like they took one look at the Tofa’s featureless faces, and gave up any hope of conversation. A couple of them might have tried speaking loudly in English.

But guess what: the Tofa have mouths and they can speak. A little girl named Laura learns this when she befriends a young Tofa who tells her his name. Her father tells her that Tofa mouths are just hidden by membranes. She tells her friend Veda this and introduces her to the Tofa. They play together until the Tofa’s father comes and breaks up the friendship. Laura, her father, and Veda never mention this groundbreaking information to anybody, and no one reports a similar experience.

So humanity plods along in total ignorance. Apparently they left Earth without realising they might encounter beings who aren’t exactly like humans. Many of them are outright racist and a couple behave like rednecks whose ideal social gathering would be a lynch mob. It’s been seventy years and the sight or close proximity of the Tofa still disgusts and disturbs them. The Tofa basically allowed them to set up a very comfortable colony on their planet, and all the humans can do is complain about how weird and icky the aliens are.

Enter Mara with L.E.V.I. Because when people don’t even want to look at the Tofa you can try implanting human women with their foetuses. Humanity goes from making virtually no effort at communication to setting up an extremely complex, long-term, expensive Project based on an “uncertain and speculative” hypothesis from a scientist with serious mental problems.There are so many holes in this Project it’s easier for me to put a few in point form:

  • Humans know NOTHING about Tofa biology. They haven’t even realised that the Tofa have mouths. They don’t know how Tofa reproduce. How could anyone possibly conceive of a Project that involves implanting Tofa and human mothers with embryos of both species?
  • Most humans seem disgusted or at least disturbed by the Tofa, so why is it so easy to get host mothers who are willing to carry an alien foetus?
  • The humans can’t speak Tofa and the Tofa can’t speak English so they have to explain the Project using drawings with stick figures. WTF?
  • If the humans can explain something as complex as the Project using stick figures, then why didn’t they try this before or after?
  • The Tofa are technologically inferior to the humans, so how are they able to harvest and store embryos for the human scientists to use?

But whatever. The Project continues as (badly) planned, with a few hiccups like foetuses dying or human mothers freaking out when they see alien babies inside them during the ultrasounds (were they not briefed?). Nevertheless, a bunch of healthy human-Tofa twins are born.

The Tofa children are taught to speak English, which they do as easily as the human children. And to everyone’s shock, the Tofa mothers learn to speak English too, picking it up while living in the Project compound. If communicating was so simple why have none of the Tofa done it before?! Yes, they aren’t generally in favour of speaking to humans, but if the mothers are so willing to do it, I find it impossible that they were the first. The ending reveals additional reasons for the Tofa remaining aloof, but it’s unconvincing and just leaves you with another slew of questions.

It’s impossible for the humans to truly learn the Tofa language, because it has a telepathic component, so humans are conveniently exempt from having to bother. But you’d think that the human scientists would spend every waking moment learning everything they can about Tofa biology and culture. They don’t. Or at least they don’t seem to. Every revelation happens by chance, usually when the twins are playing together and one of the adults notices something unusual and asks for an explanation. It’s perhaps not surprising when you consider what some of the staff members are like – even after years spent working on the Project they still squirm at the sight of human and Tofa children sitting together, or seeing a Tofa come up to speak to them. Considering the resources that must have gone into the Project, it seems almost fruitless.

Even more so when the twin-bred are actually sent out on their first assignments. Up to this point, the Project remained top secret (highly unlikely, given their sloppy security measures). You can imagine what happens when the the results of a human/alien breeding program are introduced as surprise communication specialists to a world full of people who don’t like aliens. FAIL.

There are loads of other plot issues, but there’s not much point getting into them; you get the picture. I’ll move on to the writing, characters and worldbuilding.

The writing is fine and seems to have been properly edited, but the style or structure is very strange – Wyle tells the entire story in brief sections with more POVs than I could possibly remember. Most of these are only a few paragraphs long; the longest scenes are maybe 2 or 3 pages. The result is that the story moves very quickly because each little section is like a report on an issue or development in the plot, which covers 30-40 years. You could argue that this very perfunctory narration suits the pseudo-scientific plot, but it’s also completely… um, alienating. It struck me as a means of writing a novel if you were focussing on the plot but weren’t in the mood for things like character development or worldbuilding.

There are far too many characters, quite possibly more than I’ve encountered in any novel. Many of them make such minuscule contributions to the plot that it doesn’t matter if you instantly forget who they are. Sometimes Wyle randomly throws in a new character with a name, job title and a cup of coffee just so they can make a minor point about something. There’s almost no characterisation except to distinguish Tofa children from their human twins and to emphasise how socially inept Mara is. She’s actually the only character with a personality, but at the same time I found her thoroughly unlikeable.

The worldbuilding is equally flat. Tofarn is the most un-alien alien planet I’ve ever come across. It’s like a human society on Earth with a scattering of aliens thrown in. We hear very little or absolutely nothing about the flora, fauna, climate, geography, etc. of Tofarn. Whatever is mentioned has no bearing on the plot whatsoever. The humans are still in the process of reproducing what they had on Earth (they don’t have the resources to farm cows yet, for example), but most of the time you could forget that they were on another planet. Their society is almost identical to an affluent American town. They eat chocolate and muffins, wear leather, keeps cats as pets. The only major differences are the technological advancements like hover cars and the tablets everyone carries around in lieu of cellphones.  It makes perfect sense that they brought the necessary plant seeds, animal DNA and tech from Earth, but how is it that everything works perfectly on Tofa? Did they not have to make any adjustments? How do the humans even know that the planet is called Tofa?

Even though I didn’t like the way the humans behaved or how mysterious the Tofa are as an alien race, I can accept that as the tough situation within which the characters must struggle. One of the more interesting aspects of the plot was the way some people viewed the Project as a means of customising the Tofa, making them more acceptable to humans. Clearly the novel is meant to function as a critique of intolerance, which is good, although it ends up being quite defeatist about the issue. But I can accept that too – we can’t always have he endings we want. What I can’t ignore are all those other flaws. It’s just so deficient in the speculative part inherent in speculative fiction.

An interview with Terra Whiteman

Terra Whiteman is a scientist by profession, a philosopher by hobby, and author of The Antithesis series. After graduating with a degree in biochemistry, Terra now works as a clinical toxicologist while continuing her writing endeavors on the side. Whiteman’s genres include science fiction and gritty dark fantasy, sewing together intricate plots and philosophical themes.

The Antithesis is my favourite indie series, and one of very few series that I follow compulsively. I seldom make it past book two, even if I like a series, but Terra’s characters and ideas have kept me hooked through four books and I’m eagerly awaiting the final novel, due to be published later this year. In the meantime, I asked her to tell me a bit about her life as a writer and her thoughts on The Antithesis.

Tell us a bit about your journey as a writer.

Not much to say, really. I’d never actually considered writing professionally until I was approached by 1889 Labs. I ran a web serial as a hobby and it ended up attracting a lot more attention that I’d anticipated. I think The Antithesis had over three thousand regular readers that showed up each week to read each chapter (at the time called ‘episodes’) before I signed a contract with 1889 Labs. The Antithesis itself was sort of an escape from my real life as a broke, overworked and sleep-deprived student. Before The Antithesis I’d only ever written short stories which I’ve never published or even let anyone read.

As an indie author, you’re responsible for so much more than just writing the book. What has your experience been with the publication of The Antithesis series?

Actually it’s not that much different than traditional publishing. I don’t self-publish (self-published and independent published authors seem to be blocked together nowadays; before that wasn’t really the case). I have two editors, one for content and grammar and the other for contininuity and flow. I write the books, send it to one, then the other, and then it gets published after hours of arguments and tantrums and negotiations over what I should and shouldn’t change.

I think the real difference is the fact that I do have more control. Though my book covers are designed for me, I get to tell them what I want. I also get a say in how I want to price books and promote books. 1889 Labs is an independent publishing company, and albeit small, they’re very efficient in giving the author as many resources as possible. They even gave me my own publicist.

The Antithesis takes a sci fi approach to the war between Heaven and Hell. Nothing is as you’d expect it to be, and there aren’t even any gods in the traditional sense. What inspired this story?The Antithesis was actually a scientific project in a literary sense. I’m a biochemistry major with a serious passion for philosophy. That being said, The Antithesis (which will be called TA from this moment on) isn’t actually about the war between Heaven and Hell. At its core, it’s about relationships and a complete rejection of duality. The entire point of this story is the fallacy of good and evil and there was no better way to set the stage than to use the two most renowned symbols for these polarizing ideals: angels and demons. TA explores a very messy shades of gray character cast, set within an idea of how Heaven and Hell might exist, could it actually be explained in a scientific sense.

How has your background as a biochemist influenced the series? 

I’ve been obsessed with the biochemical sciences since early high school. It’s one of my passions, and it was only natural for me to incorporate it into the series. I feel the hard science in TA gives it a very realistic component to the otherwise fantastical premise of the story. Basing the Vel’Haru race off of the biological behavior of ants, for example, allows readers to quell the disbelief of certain elements revolving around them. Providing a world with a gaseous, oceanic core while its land masses are actually suspended above it in layered islands because of the alterations in gravity allows a more realistic approach to how the Nehel (or the angels and demons for that matter) could have evolved into winged beings.

And, well, the only obvious representation of God would be a genetic engineer. Clearly. Though giving him OCD and making him a teenage prodigy was a nice touch, don’t you think?

I do 🙂 

Your main character, Qaira Eltruan, is one the most temperamental, reckless bastards I’ve ever come across in a book. He’s killed so many people and is even responsible for the collapse of his own society. How did you come to create such an unlikeable character, and yet still allow the reader to empathise with him, even like him (I like him; I can’t explain it).

Qaira is an enigma. He took a lot of planning. And although he’s an arrogant self-righteous bastard, he’s necessary. You can’t explain why you like him because we’re taught throughout our entire lives that some actions are good while others are, well, not good. In our functioning society this might be true. However for a project that deals with an underlining theory that good and evil doesn’t actually exist, Qaira is the supporting evidence. He’s neither evil nor good; he’s a moral nihilist. He does what suits him and isn’t necessarily restricted to any forms of moral principles. But his goals aren’t usually sinister, and he does have the capacity to love and care for others. Actually, his love for Leid is proof enough that he does in fact have a heart. He would do anything for her.

He and Yahweh also have a very interesting friendship. Despite being complete opposites – one a benevolent leader who is bound to his moral principles, the other a reckless temperamental ex-Regent who frequently walks the line between villain and hero – they respect each other and understand that their existences are necessary.

TA purposely places readers into uncomfortable and sometimes appalling situations in order to make them question how they themselves would react. We have plenty of ethical guidelines–one specifically being that ‘killing is intrinsically wrong’ (thanks Kant), but in some situations is it actually wrong? Could we honestly say we wouldn’t fall apart or lose our sense of morality in moments of grief, despair or fury? We can’t truly hate Qaira because despite all of the horrible shit he does throughout the series, there’s always a reason for it.

The next book – Three Beta – will be the last in the series. Do you have any plans for future projects?

I already have two books of a new trilogy completed, which will be out sometime in 2013-2014. It takes place in the TA multiverse and explores all of the things TA fails to explain (much because Qaira knows nothing about them). This is a prelude to The Antithesis, and the title of the series is called The Sanctuary.

I am also currently working on a stand-alone science fiction novel titled The Key of Ascension. It’s a clash of steampunk and dystopian/apocalyptic with a strong emphasis on genetics/eugenics. Very violent and not for children.

Very violent and not for children? Awesome 🙂 I can’t wait to check out the new books. Thanks for taking the time out to chat on Violin in a Void!

Looking for Terra?
Email: terra[AT]1889[DOT]ca


Links to my reviews of the books in The Antithesis series

Book One
Book Two Alpha
Book Two Beta
Book Three Alpha

Review of The Antithesis: Book 2β by Terra Whiteman

Title: The Antithesis:  Book 2β (Two Beta)
Author: Terra Whiteman
Published: 19 October 2011
Publisher:  1889 Labs
Genre:  genre mash-up of mythology and science fiction
Source: own copy (ebook)
My Rating: 7/10

Terra Whiteman left me dangling from another cliffhanger at the end of The Antithesis: Book 2α.  I was trapped. I had to read the next instalment right away so I clicked my was over to Smashwords and bought the ebook (it’s only $2.99; money very well spent)

Note: this review contains spoilers for books 1 and 2a in the series.

Book 2β picks up a few days after the end of Book 2α. Qaira is in hospital recovering from his fall from the Archaen ship after his devastating battle with Lucifer. He managed to chop off the Archaen’s hand but also got his entire team slaughtered and would most likely have been killed too if Leid hadn’t come to save him.  The battle destroyed half of Sanctum and killed over a hundred thousand Nehel, but achieved absolutely nothing. This is enough to make even Qaira realise what an arrogant, selfish, stupid bastard he’s been and he makes a public apology. When two Vel’Haru come to take Leid back to their home world to be punished for violating the terms of her contract, Qaira caves completely. Devastated at the prospect of losing her forever, he swears to end the conflict and let the Archaens make the Atrium their home if only the Vel’Haru will let Leid stay with him.

The two Vel’Haru agree, and a decade of peace and social reform follows. Sanctum is not just rebuilt but improved upon, with the help of the Archaen’s advanced technology. A slow process of integration begins, and even Lucifer and Qaira manage to work together. Leid and Qaira get married and they live very happily.

Everything is just dandy, but, based on book one, you know that this story can only end in an epic disaster. It keeps the novel a bit tense even during the good times. You’re often reminded that heaven and hell will be at war several centuries from now, thanks to several appearances (in this book and Book 2α) of angels who will later become demons. Book 2β also sees the first cases of the deadly respiratory disease that afflicts the angels. According to book 1, Yahweh will eventually create a cure that (unknown to him) will affect the angels at the genetic level, turning them into demons. I really liked the idea that ‘god’ created the demons and that it was the angels’ prejudice towards this new race that started the war. From books 2α and 2β however, you can understand the root of that prejudice – the demons look just the Nehel (red-rimmed pupils, black wings), who oppressed the angels for decades.

But more important, for now, is the very volatile couple at the centre of the story. You know that Leid is keeping some extremely dangerous secrets, and you know that Qaira is eventually going to do something horrific. If you started to warm to him, know that very soon you’ll almost certainly want to scream curses while beating the crap out of him. He’s struck by an appalling tragedy for which he blames Lucifer and then becomes completely obsessed with revenge. The novel doesn’t definitively state whether or not Lucifer is innocent, but either way, Qaira’s revenge is so destructively over the top that there’s no hope of redemption for him. His actions are also the catalyst for what we know must happen – the extinction of the Nehelian race, with the exception of Qaira who is sent to the Nexus and has his memory wiped, to become Alezair Czynri.

Once the novel concludes the this tale, it leaps back to the time of book one and picks up where that narrative left off, having equipped you with some of the backstory that puts the later story into better context. Alezair Czynri wakes up in the Nexus, having relived the story you just read. He reclaims his identity as Qaira Eltruan, now more pissed off and hateful than ever.  Lucifer, no longer willing to let his people suffer miserable lives in the cold, dark, subterranean levels of the Atrium, makes a decision to change the course of the war.

The novel builds up to fresh conflicts and violent clashes but once again, Whiteman ends it without resolutions. But this time I couldn’t go out and get the next book because, unfortunately, it hasn’t been published yet. I’m told that The Antithesis: Book 3α will be released sometime in February, but an exact date has not been decided upon. I for one cannot wait and will be sure to get my hands on a copy as soon as frickin’ possible.

Buy a copy of The Antithesis: Book 2β

Review of The Antithesis: Book 2α by Terra Whiteman

Title: The Antithesis:  Book 2α (Two Alpha)
Author: Terra Whiteman
Published: 14 August 2011
Publisher:  1889 Labs
Genre:  genre mash-up of mythology and science fiction
Source: ebook received from author
My Rating: 7/10

Note: this review contains mild spoilers for Book 1 in the series.

In September I reviewed The Antithesis, an indie novel that put a sci fi spin on the war between heaven and hell. In this version there are angels and demons, but they’re not fantasy creatures or forces of good and evil; they’re just two species in a universe with multiple dimensions (the Multiverse). The war is not fought in physical battles; instead a more scientific approach is taken, with religion designed as part of an experiment whose results will decide the outcome of the war.

I had a lot of issues with the Antithesis, but it had a compelling story nevertheless. It also seethed with untold backstories. For example, Alezair is obsessed with Leid, plagued by the feeling that he’s met her before. Yahweh and Lucifer seem to be more like friends who are creating the illusion of being enemies. The whole war began for reasons very different from the biblical ones and is a matter of politics, not good and evil. The Antithesis itself provided little information on these and other backstories, ending instead on a cliffhanger that promised to reveal some of the history. I was curious, so I dove into Book 2α, which turned out to be a very rewarding read.

Book 2α is set 800-900 years before the events of book 1. The great war has not yet begun. In fact demons don’t exist yet and the Atrium isn’t the domain of heaven and hell but the home of beings known as the Nehel. Qaira Eltruan is Commander of the military forces in Sanctum, the Atrium’s great city. For all intents and purposes, Qaira is also the ruler, having taken on the job when his aging father could no longer perform his duties.

Qaira’s greatest concern is the decades-long conflict between his people and the Archaens – the angels. Fifty years ago their ship arrived at the Atrium after the destruction of the planet Felor. Over a million Archaens were stranded, and their commander, Lucifer Raith, begged for sanctuary in the Atrium until they could move on. Qaira’s father granted them space in the upper layers. Fifty thousand Archaen refugees set up camp but then refused to budge.

Unfortunately the Atrium is a small planet and the Archaen presence puts pressure on their limited resources. Qaira, never a gracious or tolerant person, wants the aliens dead or gone, but political considerations and the Archaen’s superior technology prevents him from taking drastic action. The two species continue to exist in an uneasy stalemate until the Nehelian Council hires a Scholar, Leid Koseling, to advise Qaira in the conflict.

Leid and Qaira can’t stand each other, but her contract requires her to stay at his side for the next decade, or until the conflict ends. They gradually warm to each other, and Leid even gives Qaira and his army a massive advantage against the Archaens.  However, combined with Qaira’s temper and his hatred for the angels, Lucifer in particular, the conflict can only end in bloodshed and destruction.

Book 2α was a better read than book 1, largely because the plot is much more focussed. Book 1 dropped the reader into the middle of a conflict that’d been raging for centuries, in a context that’s always been the domain of fantasy but which Whiteman claims for sci fi. The result is fun and interesting, but also confusing, as the reader has break away from some of the usual tropes while absorbing a lot of information. Book 2α however, is more recognisable as sf, and has a more streamlined plot, sticking to the political conflict between the Qaira and the Archaens and the blossoming romance between Qaira and Leid.

The political conflict is a tough one to call. The Archaens might have lost their home, but they also rocked up uninvited at a small planet and expected to move in. The Nehel develop a racist/xenophobic attitude toward the angels, referring to them by the derogatory term “whites” (because of the colour of their hair and wings; the Nehel are darker-haired with black wings) and making it illegal for them to move freely outside of the refugee camp. As a result the angels are forced to live in terrible conditions, to the extent that some Nehel feel sorry for them and are in favour of integrating the two societies. However, it’s not like the Nehel don’t have their own ghettos and social ills, making integration a contentious issue.

Qaira, being the person that he is, openly hates the angels and is determined to get rid of them. The first thing he does in the novel is shoot one in the head. Shortly after he makes plans for attacking the refugee camp. Qaira generally claims that he does things like this for the good of his society, but it’s not hard to see that he’s also driven by extreme prejudice and blinding hatred for Lucifer, the Archaen Commander.

It’s stated several times, in this book and the previous one, that Qaira Eltruan is a monster, and in fact he’s often the one to make that claim. While it can sound a little dramatic when this comes from Qaira himself, it’s not hard to see why he was branded as such. He’s temperamental, stubborn, violent, sexist, arrogant, vulgar and bigoted. Oh, and he’s got a drug addiction What makes this worse is that he’s got control of an entire world and his actions affect the lives of millions of people. Or, more frequently, the deaths of those of people, when his bad temper, prejudice and gargantuan ego lead him to make the most appalling political and military decisions. It’s a good thing that I found Qaira to be a compelling character, because he’s certainly not a likeable one.

Nevertheless, the novel gives you a chance to empathise with Qaira, if only for short periods before he goes back to doing something violent. You see him with his family, and although he is often rude or dismissive toward them, he clearly cares for them very much. His romance with Leid reveals a (slightly) softer side to him. Perhaps the most endearing thing about Qaira is his reluctant friendship with Yahweh Telei. In Book 1, Yahweh is ruler of the angels, and the god-figure of the religions used in the war. In Book 2α he’s still a young boy, albeit a genius who is a qualified physician, geneticist and engineer, among other things. He is captured by the Nehel and held prisoner, but Qaira can’t help respecting and even caring for him, despite the fact that he persists in referring to Yahweh as a white.

Sadly, this story is doomed to end in tragedy, based on the knowledge carried over from book 1. This lends the book a sense of gravity and sadness; you know from the start that Qaira will eventually fail and millions will die, but even though he’s such a bastard it still sucks that there won’t be a happy ending.

To learn the full extent of the tragedy however, you’ll have to read Book 2β. This novel is just the first half of the story, and it ends on a cliffhanger. Whiteman is clearly doing something right because after I finished Book 2α, I immediately bought a copy of Book 2β and started reading. Thank god for ebooks – you never have to wait for them.

Obviously, I had a really good time reading The Antithesis: Book 2α. There’s loads of action, plenty of tension, and a hot-headed narrator with an extremely dangerous temper. You get to see ‘god’ when he was just a little boy genius, and ‘the devil’ when he was ruler of the angels. The simpler structure allows you to get a much better grasp on the world Whiteman has create, preparing you for the books ahead. Admittedly, it still feels a bit unrefined, a bit… wild. As with book 1, I sometimes feel I should be more critical of the novel for some reason, but then I stop and say, who cares? It’s really fun to read.


Buy The Antithesis
Smashwords $2.99

Review of Voices edited by Mark S. Deniz and Amanda Pillar

Title: Voices
Mark S. Deniz and Amanda Pillar
Published: 9 March 2011
Publisher: Morrigan Books
Genre: horror, short stories
Source: Review copy from publisher
My Rating: 6/10

Impersonal and unknown, surrounded by strangers and desperately lonely – these are the most unsettling characteristics of hotel rooms and while hotels sometimes carry connotations of holidays and pampering, they also lend themselves very easily to horror. Voices is an indie anthology of horror stories set in a sinister old hotel.  The authors have imagined what you might hear in those rooms, and behind the locked doors are voices that whisper, plead, threaten and scream. Some reveal dark secrets; some are the ramblings of insane minds; some might be the voices of ghosts or other paranormal beings. Hotel rooms are so impersonal and alienating and yet, as this anthology often suggests, they bring out deeply personal, often deeply disturbing aspects of the people who occupy them.

The stories play around with the various characteristics and uses of hotel rooms. One of the most common uses is as a space for lovers. Several of the stories use this theme, although in this case the relationships are stained by obsession, loneliness, tragedy and violence. In “His Only Company, the Walls” by Brad C. Hodson (one of the collection’s best stories), a man waits with demented tenacity for the arrival of his lover, Julia. The narrative is composed of the voicemail messages he leaves on her cellphone. The days and weeks go by and he becomes increasingly unhinged, missing Julia then hating her, while worrying about the thing lurking in the hallway. He’s managed to puzzle out the language in which the walls are talking, he tells Julia: “I wish they would shut the hell up. I don’t believe a thing they’re saying about you.”

In “Paris” by Todd C. Edwards, a junkie ODs in the hotel room she shares with her drug dealer boyfriend. She can hear and see but is completely paralyzed and has to watch, helpless, as the lover who promised to take her to Paris deals with the body in his hotel room.

Hotels can often provide an escape from normal life, but since this is a horror anthology, the characters in Voices aren’t having happy holidays. In “Mirror” by K.V. Taylor, Max and Luca are hiding out in a hotel room after some unknown crime that Max committed. He stares constantly at the mirror in the room, while his mind is warped by the loud, chaotic music only he can hear. The unnamed woman in “Sanctuary” by Carol Johnston is trying to find some relief after a failed relationship and the last of a long series of hospital stays, but instead of finding comfort she’s ravaged by nightmares, the tortures of her own dysfunctional body and the otherworldly nature of the room itself.

Hotel rooms offer more permanent escapes too. According to author Paul Kane, anonymous hotel rooms are favoured places to commit suicide, so in his story “The Suicide Room”, a man who has been lonely all his life checks in with a suitcase full of things with which to kill himself; he just has to decide which method to use. Anonymity presents a different kind of suicide in “The Man Who Wasn’t There” by Rodney J. Smith. Ash, a man whose job has turned his life into a miserable journey from one lonely hotel room to the next, one day hears a voice that tells him that if he wants to escape his life he can give up his name, his existence and simply cease to be.

The privacy of hotel rooms allows for another common theme – murder. “Just Us” by Pete Kempshall is my favourite in the anthology – a police procedural that begins with a brutally hacked body in a hotel room and goes back a few hours to witness the murder. Another police procedural – “A Picture of Death” by Shane Jiraiya Cummings – also begins with a body in a hotel room, this time hanging from the ceiling. It seems that this killing had something to do with witchcraft, and no matter where the detective stands in the room, the corpse turns to stare at him with dead, bulging eyes.

Cleanliness is a worrying issue in dodgier hotel rooms and “Bedbugs” by Martin Livings takes a psychological and supernatural approach to the idea of a bed swarming with disgusting, biting bugs. “Sentinel” by Sonia Marcon has a surprisingly optimistic approach to the idea of something living inside the walls, watching the people who come and go from the rooms. Another room haunted by a paranormal presence is found in “Faking it” by Siobhan Byford, where a con artist who pretends to be psychic finds her act being taken over by the real thing.

The anthology also contains a series of six shorter stories by Robert Hood that act as an overarching structure for the theme of the collection. The idea is that the narratives are all set in the same hotel, and Hood’s tales (which include the prologue and epilogue) give us glimpses of the hotel across the decades, from 1928 to 2008. Unlike the other stories, which are all set in rooms, Hood’s take place in the lobby and corridors, the public spaces of the hotel. Each story features a creepy porter – possibly the same porter, a man who’s just as much a part of the hotel as the masonry.

I like the premise that all the stories take place in the same hotel and the implication that there is something sinister about the building itself. The creepy, haunted building is a standard horror trope and it’s one of my favourites. Unfortunately this presents a flaw in the anthology, as the stories don’t feel like they’re taking place in the same building. Of course, you could argue that the specifics of the hotel change over time and some differences and contradictions could be explained by the supernatural nature of the building, but that’s a very weak explanation. It may have been better if the editors presented the authors with specifics about the structure of the hotel for the sake of thematic consistency.

On the whole it’s a nice collection, if not great. Quality varies from very good to average to dull, but it’s an enjoyable, easy read – a bit of light horror for a quiet evening. At its worst the stories are forgettable (as opposed to being badly written or schlocky, which is much worse), while at its best it’s punchy and unsettling. Many of the narratives are deliberately ambiguous about their supernatural elements (is the character insane or is there really something weird going on?) but there’s a very fine line between being mysterious and being vague. Some authors find that sweet spot of creepy intrigue; others feel like there’s something missing.

I’d looked forward to Gary McMahon’s story simply because he was the only writer whose name I was familiar with, but his piece, “Constance Craving” was boring. It’s about a therapist who tries to treat a young girl who’s convinced she’s a vampire (they meet in a hotel room, in keeping with the theme).  The story doesn’t tell you whether or not the girl is really a vampire, but instead of being mysterious it was melodramatic and dull. Which also goes to show that you shouldn’t judge a story on the name of its author; chances are you will not have heard of the authors in this collection, but that’s no reason not to read it because there a few gems.

Among those are a few features that scored points with me. Each story is accompanied by a bio of the author and a personal note about their writing process. I particularly like the latter, and it makes the anthology that much more interesting for writers and anyone else who enjoys hearing about the creative process.

I also appreciate is that the collection favours more subtle psychological horror over blood and broken bodies. Gore and other gross things are often a major part of the horror but do not overwhelm the far more interesting things that make these stories disturbing – insanity, cruelty, revenge, misery, loneliness and of course, the paranormal. I’m glad I got the opportunity to read this little collection, and although I’ve never felt weird about hotel rooms, I certainly will now.

Buy a copy of Voices



Spiral X by J.J. Westendarp

Title: Spiral X
Author: J.J. Westendarp
Published: 2010
Genre: Urban fantasy, crime, vampire fiction
Source: Pdf received from author for review
Rating: 4/10

Cheryl Erickson is a sexy, wealthy 22-year old vampire hunter. She’s been staking vamps since they killed her father when she was 16 and now she’s part of an underground vampire-hunting force in Dallas with the help of her gay best-friend Virgil, who handles all the electronics. There’s a dangerous new drug on the streets called Plast, which awakens addicts’ most predatory traits, turning them into violent psychopaths. For some reason vampires are dealing Plast to humans, but no one has been able to find out why. Cheryl is determined to crack the case, but her investigation forces her to question and sometimes violate her own code of ethics.

Spiral X is fast-paced and heavy on the action, spanning just a few days and nights as Cheryl goes on a relentless mission to find out what the vampires are up to and stop them. But although it has the ingredients for an entertaining novel, it failed to interest me. Despite being a meagre 201 pages long (pdf) I struggled to finish it. I can sum up my feelings with a shrug – it didn’t do anything for me; it was simply average, not terrible, but not good either.

Despite the fact that it’s about a vampire hunter, it’s surprisingly short on vampires. It’s some time before the reader encounters the first vampires, and Cheryl’s stake brings that to a quick close. People read vampire novels because they like vampires, whether they prefer evil monsters or angsty romantic heroes, so Spiral X disappoints a bit there.

Clearly Cheryl is the focus of the story, but she’s no Buffy Summers. Yes she’s sexy and feisty, which is what most of us want in our heroines these days, but she’s not emotionally engaging and in fact, I don’t like her or even care about her. Her character is a forced – super-hot, wealthy, and the best, most bad-ass vampire hunter around – it’s too much, too convenient. Of course, she’s got issues man, but most of the time her angst rings false or is simply annoying.

At one point she spits out this lovely bit of gender stereotyping, to explain why she and her partner Tank won’t talk about their feelings:

“It was weird, since women and emotional issues are synonymous with weepy little tarts wondering why the cute guy the occasionally slept with was suddenly giving them the cold-shoulder. The trouble was, I grew up sansmother so all I had to learn from was my dad and his friends. They weren’t exactly the type to express their emotions, and it rubbed off on me. Virgil was really the only person I had ever opened up to, so while I knew Tank and I needed to have a sit down to hash out our issues, I was doing the guy thing by not being the first to bring it up. (47)

Gee Cheryl, thanks for reinforcing all those stereotypes. How great that you were raised to be like a man so you didn’t end up a weepy little tart like the rest of us females, otherwise you might spend all your time waiting for some guy to call you instead of fighting evil.

This is one of several things that lower my opinion of Cheryl. Another is the way she treats her boyfriend Thom. She learns that he’s a police officer but he lied about his job so that she wouldn’t be worried about him. Cheryl finds this deception unacceptable and dumps him. Her excuse is that she can’t trust a Thom enough to one day tell him that she’s a vampire hunter.

Excuse me? You don’t trust him enough to stop lying to him? So you’re dumping him for doing the exact same thing to you that you’re (still) doing to him? Nice.

The vampires are actually a bit more interesting than Cheryl. It seems like everyone writing a vampire novel these days tries to add something new to the mythos. What’s wrong with the classic vampire? But anyway. Westendarp’s vampires are not the usual undead humans but dead human bodies possessed by demons. When a person is bitten by a vampire and dies, the bite leaves a supernatural ‘marker’ on the person. After sunset, the soul departs from the dead body, creating a small hole in the fabric between this world and the next. Using the marker left by the bite, a demon in hell can pinpoint the location of the departing soul and use the hole it makes to enter our world and inhabit the dead body.

The result is that Westendarp’s are completely inhuman. The person who inhabited the body is dead, the soul is gone and the vampire is pure demon in human packaging. When killed (by the usual means – sunlight, decapitation, stake through the heart), the demon is sent back to hell.

This is important for the novel in two ways. Firstly, it affects Cheryl’s morals. She can draw a very clear distinction between humans and vampires, and she’s got strict rules about not killing or hurting humans, even if they’re hardened criminals. Some of the tension in the novel arises when these morals are challenged. Cheryl often has to break her rules, sometimes more brutally than seems necessary. In the opening scene she’s trying to get information by threatening a man with a knife. He realises she won’t cut him and refuses to talk, so she decides that her ethics are of less importance than information and shoots him in the kneecap.

A bit much, I think, but then later, she’s explaining why she won’t tolerate any violence against the drug dealers supplying Plast:

These guys probably don’t know they’re supplying vampires with the drug, if they even know the vamps exist. For them it’s business. A dirty, filthy business that hurts people, but business all the same. That doesn’t warrant violence, not from us.

I find this a tad questionable to say the least, and Cheryl’s morals often seem shaky – at one moment she refuses to use violence against humans, at another she’s extremely brutal but considers it justified.

The second important thing about completely inhuman vampires is that they play into the novel’s increasingly Christian tone. At first, it’s nothing notable – Cheryl has to find a mysterious man known as The Reverend; a nurse gives Cheryl some spiritual comfort of the “God is looking after us” sort. As the novel progresses, the Christian message becomes more pronounced – angels, white light, God’s wrath, a biblical character, Cheryl being saved from death by a miracle. The whole vampire problem is framed as part of the ongoing battle between God and Lucifer. Vampires are demons entering the human world, and the humans need to be saved from them, but it’s not the usual situation where humans are damned after being turned into vampires, because their souls escape unscathed. The whole idea of an Eternal War is cool – the movie Constantine (2005), based on the graphic novel Hellblazer, was awesome. But unlike Constantine, Spiral X is not ambiguous about good and evil, and the demon-vampires aren’t even that scary. The arch-villain is the type who says things like “it would be far too easy to kill you now” and gives Cheryl ample time to kill him later.

I started to get worried that this would turn into Christian urban fantasy. Luckily it didn’t go quite that far – it’s more like urban fantasy with a strong Christian theme.  While I don’t mind, and sometimes enjoy, religious themes in fiction, they have to be balanced; I don’t like being preached to.

But if the Christianity didn’t bother me, the writing most certainly did. It’s not all that bad, but it needs an edit. Westendarp does an awful lot of telling rather than showing, dumping large amounts of info on the reader whenever a new character or location pops up. At other times, he does the opposite, suddenly dropping a titbit of surprising information that should have been mentioned earlier. For example, you don’t even know that Cheryl has a boyfriend until she sees him. At one point, Cheryl states that her relationship with fellow vampire-hunter Tank is “strained to the breaking point”, but that was the first I’d heard of it. Almost halfway through the novel, Cheryl mentions (in an info dump) that she has psychic powers that allow her to detect vampires. You think this would have come up ages ago, but instead it sounds like Westendarp made it up on the spot and didn’t bother working it in.

Another bad habit is the tendency to repeat the same phrase within a short space (like a few paragraphs). I got really, really irritated with the way Westendarp kept using and in fact misusing the term “begs the question”. This phrase actually refers to a logical error in which you assume the truth of a claim you’re supposed to prove. A very simple example: killing people is wrong because it’s immoral. However, many people use the phrase to mean “raises the question”, as Westerndarp does multiple times. Even if he didn’t misuse it, I would have been irritated enough by its frequency.

Because good writing is important to me, these flaws were constant distractions, always drawing attention to themselves and spoiling the book. Add to that a main character I don’t like or care about and action that fails to excite, and the only really good thing I can say about this book is that at least there weren’t any love triangles.

Buy Spiral X


Horror that’s too horrible? A review of Shadows by Joan de la Haye

Title: Shadows
Joan de la Haye
Published: 2008
Genre: Horror
eBook purchased on Smashwords
My Rating: 3/10

This review contains some mild spoilers.

Sarah’s father just committed suicide, and she’s having a hard time dealing with it, particularly because a demonic, yellow-eyed man keeps appearing out of nowhere and scaring the hell out of her. No one else can see the man (who she later names Jack), and he plagues Sarah with gory hallucinations in which her loved ones are dead and mutilated. The hallucinations seem far too real to Sarah, but to everyone else it seems like she’s going insane. To make things worse, she gets no sympathy from her selfish boyfriend Kevin who reacts to Sarah’s need for him with anger and disgust. He thinks nothing of cheating on her with the sexy, aloof Denise, who also happens to be his sister Carol’s girlfriend. Kevin, Denise and Carol form a twisted, incestuous threesome with a parallel plot involving some sick plans for taking revenge on the people who have hurt them.

I was in the mood for horror when I picked Shadows up, and I was pretty excited about it because I love the darkly fascinating worlds that you can find in novels about insanity. Unfortunately, I found neither the horror I was hoping for nor the dark world I wanted to explore. In fact I did not like Shadows at all, for several different reasons. Firstly, the writing – it’s not that bad but it’s pedestrian and adds nothing to the story. It’s also riddled with continuity errors, especially when it comes to characters – often characters do or say things that don’t fit their personalities.

Which brings me to my second problem: characterisation. On the whole, Shadows doesn’t have any likeable characters. Sarah initially had my sympathy, but she’s so weak and pathetic I quickly grew tired of her. Kevin is an appalling boyfriend, not only because he cheats on Sarah but because he doesn’t show her one iota of affection during the novel. Denise is an oversexed sociopath. Carol was molested as a child, and the trauma has turned her into a vengeful psychopath.

Unlikeable characters however, are not a flaw in themselves. My problem here is that these characters feel forced. Sarah is too much of a victim, while Kevin, Denise and Carol are too crazy and cruel. Yes, people like Kevin and Denise do exist in the world. And yes, you can look at the evidence and decide that it makes sense for Sarah and Carol to be the way they are. My problem is that you have to take that step back from the novel before you can really accept these characters. While reading, they seem unnatural, overdone.

But my biggest problem with Shadows was the grotesque sexual violence and depravity. Please note that I’m not referring to its sexual content in general: yes, there is a lot of it and while some would complain that it’s gratuitous, I’d argue that there other unnecessary details in the novel, and the sex doesn’t deserve to be singled out. In fact, some of it provides the most exciting content Shadows has to offer. I would also argue that some of the sexual depravity – incest in particular – is part of the characterisation, a means of showing just how messed up Carol has become, and how much of a sex addict Kevin is.

But Shadows goes too far. The following scene in particular was so bad, I almost abandoned the book. The context: Jack the demon tricked Sarah into stabbing Kevin, and he’s now in hospital, venting his anger with Denise and Carol. They’re worried that Sarah won’t get the punishment they think she deserves, in which case Carol suggests they make their own plans for revenge:

“I know a couple of guys who, for a couple of grand, can organise a girl to be gang-raped. They’ll dump her somewhere in Soweto. It’s worse than dying.”

“I don’t know what’s scarier, the fact that you know people like that, or that you even think like that,” Kevin said, looking at his sister with new-found respect.

“I think it’s sexy when you think like that,” Denise said and planted a hot kiss on Carol’s lips.

“Hey, ladies,” Kevin said, trying to get their attention. “I’m the one who was stabbed. I’m the one who should be getting some loving.”

“Sorry baby,” they cooed, cuddled onto the narrow bed and smothered him with kisses.

As they hugged and kissed him, visions of Sarah being raped and left for dead, in some ditch, made him smile.  He made a silent promise to himself, she would pay and the girls would help him take his revenge.

I couldn’t believe how many disgusting things made its way into so few lines – a woman suggests using gang-rape as a means of taking revenge; the suggestion causes her brother to respect her more than he did before; another woman is turned on by the thought of her girlfriend arranging to have someone gang-raped; and then all three start kissing and cuddling each other. What. The. Fuck.

After my knee-jerk revulsion however, I tried to think calmly about it and even asked other horror fans for their opinion as I struggled to decide if this could be considered part of the horror or if it’s just in bad taste. Obviously, the whole thing is supposed to be appalling, and it makes the three villains more despicable. This is also a horror novel and there’s no denying the fact that I was quite horrified when I read this. The thing is, I’ve read novels that have scarier, darker villains than these three but didn’t resort to using gang rape as a shock tactic.

And being shocked just wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to be scared, unnerved and my final problem with Shadows is that it just couldn’t do that to me with either its sexual perversions, Sarah’s personal demon Jack and the hallucinations he makes her suffer, or even its promising aspect – the curse of being considered insane.

The gory visions Jack conjures up are standard blockbuster slasher-movie fare, and they get repetitive without moving the plot along. For first half of the novel, Sarah’s part of the story is largely about hallucinating (at home, at work, at the movies). Later, Sarah has to accept Jack’s presence in her life, and he becomes an almost comical figure. It’s his job as a demon to make her kill herself but she keeps resisting and soon Jack has all the menace of a frustrated cubicle drone.

There is a greater sense of menace towards the end as the novel picks up its pace and the various strands of the plot are drawn together, but by then nothing could have saved it for me. I can at least add a disclaimer by saying that I also disliked The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker for similar reasons. The Hellbound Heart was the basis for the movie Hellraiser (1987) and is considered something of a horror classic, but I just thought it was gross. If being shocked and disgusted is what you want from the horror genre, then you may find Shadows satisfying, but unfortunately for me I was hoping for a lot more.

Buy a copy of Shadows