Laura Hubbard

While set in very different worlds and starkly different eras, Summer Sons and Revelator are marvelous modern additions to the Southern gothic canon, full of paranoia and the grotesque (as well as the occasional jump scare).

★ Summer Sons

Lee Mandelo’s Summer Sons opens in tragedy. After the death of his adoptive brother and best friend, Andrew is left with a legacy he never asked for: Eddie's money, Eddie’s sports car, Eddie’s house, the American Studies graduate program at Vanderbilt in Tennessee that Eddie picked out for the two of them and even Eddie’s roommate. Driven by grief and convinced that there is more to Eddie’s death than meets the eye, Andrew slides into the life that Eddie prepared for him, discovering all that Eddie had tried to conceal. As Andrew dives deeper into a world of sun-soaked men, racing and trouble, he is forced to deal with another unwanted legacy. Eddie’s revenant won’t leave him alone, and neither will Eddie’s research into their shared supernatural experience, a topic they had agreed to let lie. Summer Sons is raw and chaotic, driving readers through the disordered grief and anger of its main character. Mandelo’s visceral writing tugs at readers’ hearts as well as their amygdalas. Alternating between discussions of identity and sexuality, the horror of grief and an actual haunting, it is part The Fast and the Furious, part The Shining and part Ninth House.

Revelator

While Summer Sons deals in the present, Daryl Gregory’s Revelator is a story of ancestry and ancient powers. Set in the 1930s and ’40s, in the mountainous triangle where Tennessee, North Carolina and Georgia collide, it follows Stella Birch: moonshiner, businesswoman and Revelator and prophet to Ghostdaddy, the god under the mountain. The red splotches across Stella’s face signaled this title when she was born and sealed her destiny. She would be the one to go under the mountain and commune with Ghostdaddy, bringing his word out to be recorded and interpreted by the men of her family. That is, until tragedy and rebellion struck. Stella fled, leaving her role and god behind. But when her grandmother Motty’s death calls Stella back to her childhood home and to Motty’s adopted daughter, Sonny, whom Stella has long ignored, she will have to deal with her past if she is to have any hope of a future.

Full of matter-of-fact descriptions of unthinkable horror, Revelator is both weird and wonderful. On the one hand, it tells a story familiar to Southern literature: the chaos resulting from the death of a matriarch. And on the other, it tells the story of a creature so alien that it’s difficult to wrap your head around. Perfect for fans of Lovecraft Country and anyone who wished the 2000 film Songcatcher had a few more monsters, Revelator is full of surprises both fascinating and stomach-clenching.

Both Summer Sons and Revelator serve a slice of cold terror, paired with a view of humanity that is equal parts revelatory and humbling.

Two new novels put their own horrifying spin on the Southern gothic.

Looking for a quick bit of adrenaline, a spot of intrigue and the drama of an international sports event? Look no further than the second entry in K.B. Wagers’ NeoG series, Hold Fast Through the Fire.

This second book in the author’s military science fiction series picks up roughly a year after the events of A Pale Light in the Black. The crew of Zuma’s Ghost have achieved a repeat victory at the intermilitary Boarding Games, which was quite an achievement given that the Near-Earth Orbital Guard (NeoG) are looked down upon by other branches of the armed forces. Zuma’s Ghost is facing a change of staff, and everyone is uneasy about what that means for the future of the ship. The prelims for the next year’s Games are fast approaching, and the Ghost has been put on a new task force to investigate potential smuggling issues from off-world settlements.

Nika, still off balance from the loss of his hand, is apprehensive about his new command on Zuma’s Ghost, despite the fact that it was the ship where he cut his teeth as a budding lieutenant. His budding romance with Maxine Carmichael is on the rocks, and to make things worse, he has accepted a secret assignment that will put both Max’s and the crew’s trust to the test. Chae, Zuma’s Ghost’s new pilot, has issues of their own. Forced into the NeoG as part of a plea bargain, they are torn between their growing loyalty to their new crew and the need to keep their fathers safe from intergalactic intrigue. Meanwhile, Max is certain something is desperately wrong with Nika, Chae and their new assignment, but no one will back her up. With Nika effectively gaslighting her to throw her off the scent of his new top-secret mission, Max will have to hew closely to her own instincts if she is going to get the team through the prelims in one piece—let alone their official assignment.

Unlike A Pale Light in the Black, Hold Fast Through the Fire’s central mystery begins unrolling nearly at page one, giving the book a more sinister feel than its predecessor and pulling readers into a labyrinthine plot that surprises and delights. This does take away slightly from the Games aspect of the series, but readers who enjoyed A Pale Light in the Black’s focus on the competition won’t be disappointed. When training for the Games does make its appearance, it still packs the same adrenaline-filled punch of A Pale Light in the Black. Despite the increase in intrigue, Wagers devotes ample attention to the relationships among the crew of Zuma’s Ghost. From the exploration of Jenks’ and Max’s close friendship to Chae’s struggles to fit in with the group to Nika’s battle to accept himself after his accident, Hold Fast Through the Fire is as much about found family and interpersonal relationships as it is about mysteries or the Boarding Games.

This brilliant and entertaining installment in the NeoG universe is a great choice for readers looking for military drama, evocative writing and espionage.

Looking for a quick bit of adrenaline, a spot of intrigue and the drama of an international sports event? Look no further than the latest entry in K.B. Wagers’ NeoG series, Hold Fast Through the Fire.

What is left when a person dies? Their spirit? The obsessions they had in life? Or are the ghosts that haunt us of our own making, composed of grief and the impulse to somehow hold onto the soul that has been taken from us? Veteran horror writer Ronald Malfi tackles these questions and more in Come With Me, a stunning and heart-clenching novel that represents the best of what both the horror and thriller genres have to offer.

All marriages have their secrets. But before his wife Allison’s death in a Christmas Eve mass shooting, Aaron Decker never contemplated the depths of the secrets held in his. Afterward, the discovery of an unassuming box launches a haunting that is part grief and—perhaps—part otherworldly. Buried within that box is a slip of paper that shakes Aaron to his core: a receipt for a motel in rural North Carolina, paid for in cash, when Allison was supposedly at home alone while Aaron was gone on a business trip.

Mired in grief and tormented by what could either be his own delusional emptiness or the ghost of his dead wife, Aaron is driven to find out what exactly she was up to. His search envelops him in a decadeslong mystery that had consumed Allison prior to her death, testing his own sanity and making him question just how much he actually knew about his wife.

A striking meditation on love, grief and the drive for closure, Malfi’s latest novel is eerie and claustrophobic. Told from Aaron’s first-person perspective, Come With Me captures the unreality of bereavement, the sense that the person you’ve lost is just in the other room and that the world you’re experiencing can’t possibly be real. This feeling is compounded by the novel’s narrative structure. As Aaron begins to unravel the mystery of his wife’s obsession, Come With Me jumps back and forth between his investigation and his memories of Allison, both of which contain clues for Aaron to piece together. Malfi creates a mental landscape that is both easy to empathize with and impossible to take at face value, as the thin line between memory and reality is continually blurred.

A perfect fit for fans of Stephen King and modern true crime classics like Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Come With Me both awes and terrifies from beginning to end.

A perfect fit for fans of Stephen King and modern true crime classics like Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, Come With Me both awes and terrifies from beginning to end.

In these two dark visions of the future, empathy provides a much-needed source of light.

In the future, the world has been dominated by advanced artificial intelligences, and the majority of humanity has chosen to live entirely online. The Caspian Republic presents itself as a traditionalist utopia, the last bastion of humanity. In reality, the country portrayed in When the Sparrow Falls is a repressive surveillance state ruled by a single paranoid anti-AI party. Dissidence can get you killed—assuming you don’t starve first. 

This carefully controlled political ecosystem is thrown into jeopardy after the death of an anti-AI journalist named Paulo Xirau. During Xirau’s autopsy, officials learn the unsettling truth: The writer, a mouthpiece of the party, was in fact an AI himself. In the aftermath of this discovery, State Security Agent Nikolai South is asked to escort Xirau’s wife, Lily, who is revealed to be another AI, as she identifies her husband’s remains. Despite his initial distrust and revulsion, Nikolai soon forms an attachment to Lily, beginning an unlikely friendship that will test the mettle of Nikolai’s morals—and potentially the strength of the Caspian Republic itself.

Neil Sharpson’s debut novel (based on his play The Caspian Sea) is surprisingly retro. Part John le Carré, part Kurt Vonnegut, When the Sparrow Falls feels more like a Cold War-era spy novel than a story set after the singularity. Part of this is aesthetic; the Caspian Republic is a country without a stitch of modern technology in sight, full of poorly bound notepads, stacks of paperwork and face-to-face meetings. The threat of AI takeover is ever present, but it is abstract, more akin to the looming atomic threat during the 1950s than an actual impending attack. 

The other portion of the novel’s Cold War aura is in the nature of the Caspian Republic itself. The hidden eyes of Party Security watch every move from cobweb-filled cracks, an embargo threatens to drive the entire populace to starvation, and a series of purges purify the party and country from within. Together these variables add to a disconcerting, uneasy whole.

While When the Sparrow Falls projects an aura of a dingy, rain-soaked East Berlin, We Have Always Been Here creates a world that is stiflingly sterile and bright. Lena Nguyen’s debut novel tells the story of Grace Park, a socially awkward psychologist tasked with monitoring the 13-person crew of the Deucalion, a ship sent to survey Eos, a strange icy planet far from civilization. 

Park’s position as psychologist immediately puts her at odds with the rest of the crew, who think that she has been sent to spy on them by the Interstellar Frontier. To make matters worse, however, Park prefers the company of the ship’s androids to her fellow humans. In a society where “clunkers” are at best tolerated and often despised, this oddity leads to rising tensions. And when members of the crew start falling prey to waking nightmares and violent fits of insanity, paranoia sets in on the windowless ship. As crew members fall to all-consuming delusions, the terror of the unknown grips Park. The question soon becomes not what the crew of the Deucalion will find on Eos but whether any of them will survive the journey.

Nguyen maintains a delicate balance in We Have Always Been Here. The slow, creeping unease aboard the Deucalion is punctuated by memories from Park’s past that  soften the growing horror of what’s happening on the ship and slow down what otherwise might be a rather straightforward psychological thriller. Flashbacks explore the depth of Park’s relationship with her android caregivers, providing a soothing counterpoint to the anti-android animus on the ship. However, her memories of violent anti-android protests also highlight the lack of regard for android life and the latent distrust for both artificial intelligences and the people who associate themselves too closely with them.

When the Sparrow Falls and We Have Always Been Here show startlingly different yet equally dark views of the future. Sharpson’s future is a mirror of our past, thrusting us into the surveillance state of regimes gone by. Nguyen’s is full of precise lines and icy sharpness, creating a world that is simultaneously oppressively expansive and uncommonly claustrophobic. Despite their differences, the thrillers share a surprising theme: empathy. Nguyen and Sharpson have given us two different views of what life with machines could be like—and the challenges that we will have to deal with as we encounter intelligences dissimilar to our own. But if you aren’t in the philosophical mood, both books share something else as well: insomnia-inducing plots that will leave you looking over your shoulder long after the stories conclude. 

In these two dark visions of the future, empathy provides a much-needed source of light.

Readers and gamers alike will be well served by two refreshing science fiction novels that are both exciting and thought provoking.

Whether you’re looking for a trippy walk through the American Pacific Northwest or a Modern Warfare-esque tromp through a dystopian hellscape is up to you. The only question is this: Are you playing?

Woodpeckers photographed decades after they are thought to have gone extinct. A game in an arcade that suddenly has a level that no one has ever seen before. Videos of violent crimes that never actually happened. These are the hallmarks of the alternate reality game Rabbits, known by its players as just “the game.” Some think the game was created by spy agencies as a way to find new recruits. Others think the game is far older and that it has been going on for centuries. But there are two things that all who know about Rabbits can agree on. First: You don’t talk about the details of Rabbits, ever. Especially with outsiders. If you do, things will go poorly for you. Second: Playing the game, nevermind winning, will change your life.

K (yes, it’s short for something, but don’t ask what) learns this firsthand on an otherwise normal Seattle night. After giving his regular presentation about the history of the game at a local arcade, he is approached by eccentric billionaire (and rumored Rabbits champion) Alan Scarpio. Over rhubarb pie and coffee, Scarpio tells K that there’s something wrong with the game—something that Scarpio needs K’s help to fix before the next iteration of the game begins. K is skeptical at first, but when Scarpio disappears soon after their late-night meeting, K is pulled into a warren of intrigue and danger that will change not just K’s life, but reality itself.

Set in the same world as his pseudo-documentary podcast of the same name, Terry Miles’ debut novel, Rabbits, is all about reality: discrepancies, changes and patterns. Or, more precisely, it’s about the moments of unreality that we tend to shake off, like a store we swore closed a year ago that’s actually still open or a movie we remember watching as children that never actually existed. Miles masterfully evokes this sense of unreality by thoroughly grounding his novel in a sense of place. His depictions of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest are spot on, so tangible that you can nearly feel the constant drizzle and smell the roasting coffee. From his description of the Capitol Hill neighborhood to his exploration of the outer neighborhoods of the cloudy city, reading Rabbits feels like you are walking in step with K for every page of the novel.

That is, until the changes start. Miles slowly chips away the steady ground he’s built for you until it feels as if you are about to step into a sinkhole or a well where gravity has been reversed. The effect is so unsettling that it will leave you looking for those discrepancies—in a sense, playing your own game of Rabbits—long after Rabbits is over.

Where Rabbits deals with the breakdown of reality, Nicole Kornher-Stace’s Firebreak is about the opposite: a game meant to shape our perceptions of reality. The novel's heroine, Mal, lives in a world where the implants she uses to stream virtual reality games are free, but water is a tightly rationed commodity you have to pay for ounce by precious ounce. It’s a world where refugees from a never-ending war live eight or more people to a room, each working three jobs merely to scrape by on instant noodles and soda.

So when a mysterious benefactor offers to sponsor Mal's VR stream of the war game SecOps for five gallons of water a week, it’s hard to say no. But the sponsor has a strange request: She wants Mal to prioritize capturing in-game close-ups of SecOps’ superstar nonplayer characters (NPCs). Modeled on real supersoldiers grown in vats by Stellaxis, the corporation that runs both Mal’s city and SecOps, the NPCs are cultural icons. But the sponsor claims that the story everyone has been fed about the super soldiers is a lie: The soldiers weren’t grown in vats at all. They were orphaned children, just like Mal, who were turned into soldiers when it was clear that they wouldn’t be missed. As the evidence for the strange theory piles up, Mal realizes her sponsor's claim wasn’t so far-fetched after all, and she will have to risk everything in order to make things right.

On the surface, Firebreak may seem familiar. A book about virtual reality in a war-torn corporate dystopia? It’s been done. But after just a few pages in, it’s clear that Kornher-Stace’s novel breaks the mold. Part Snow Crash, part spy novel, part Twitch stream, Firebreak raises serious questions about the power of corporations and the potential to shape public sentiment through virtual reality. Where corporations rule, necessities are commoditized to control the public. Stellaxis, for example, controls the water supply so tightly that even trying to purify rainwater for personal consumption can get you fined or worse.

The level of worker and consumer regulation portrayed is chilling, but it comes nowhere near Kornher-Stace’s terrifying, imaginative depiction of the intersection between war propaganda and VR gaming. In this world, virtual reality games are used to maintain and grow support for a war that has decimated entire cities and left untold thousands of children orphaned. The result is both exhilarating and deeply disturbing, as it shines a light on how easy it can be to manipulate people through the media they consume.

Readers and gamers alike will be well served by two refreshing science fiction novels that are both exciting and thought provoking.

Two monsters lurk on Mattie’s mountain. The first is her husband, William, a harsh man as likely to starve, berate or beat Mattie as he is to make sure she’s safe. The other is an unknown terror in the woods, a clawed beast that strings its kills up in the trees as if displaying a macabre collection. William is convinced that it’s a demon. Mattie isn’t so sure. But when a trio of strangers bent on photographing the strange creature suddenly appear on the mountain, Mattie knows that no matter what the truth actually is, the situation can only end badly.

With its visceral depictions of gore and emotional and physical abuse, Christina Henry’s Near the Bone can be a difficult read. At times, it inspires cold sweats of terror. At others, it causes stomach-clenching levels of dread. As Mattie and her strangers move around the mountain, we feel rather than see the sinister intelligence dogging their every step and threatening to turn them into piles of bones. Bigger than any bear, with razor-sharp claws and a nearly human intellect, the beast lurks just offstage, all the more terrifying for its incomplete profile. It is humanity’s primeval fears given form.

Near the Bone is a tale of survival in more ways than one, pulling readers through Mattie’s struggle against both her husband and the unknown terror in the woods. Just as she must deal with the terror of the unknown beast, Mattie must also come to terms with what she doesn’t remember of her own past, including just how she and William came to live on the mountain. That part of the tale isn’t an easy one to read. As the book opens, Mattie is meek, even pitiable, weakened by years of malnutrition and physical and psychological abuse, a far cry from the typical heroines of the monster-slasher subgenre. Even as the book progresses and she begins to process her trauma, Mattie is far more practical than heroic, more cautious than selfless. In short, she is believable rather than fantastic, a trait that makes rooting for her success all the more nerve-racking.

Henry is the author of more than a dozen novels, including the Chronicles of Alice series, and she may have written her best book yet. Near the Bone features compelling and creative characters, descriptions of snow so realistic that they’ll make you reach for a blanket and a monster so terrifying that it is sure to haunt the dreams of even the most stoic reader. Best for people with a strong stomach, Near the Bone is a terror-ridden yet poetic hike that will leave your nerves frazzled and heart aching.

Two monsters lurk on Mattie’s mountain. The first is her husband, William. The other is an unknown terror in the woods.

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