Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb is the first novel in Hobb's Fitz and the Fool series, her latest to tell the ongoing story of her beloved character, FitzChivalry Farseer. Hobb began Fitz's journey many books and series ago when the character was a child. All throughout, Fitz has built relationships, made enemies, served his king, loved and lost, and, above all, made nearly every sacrifice imaginable. It's been a long, hard road for the bastard son of Chivalry Farseer, but one that I can say with great relief isn't over yet.

Fool's Assassin picks up not terribly long after Fool's Fate. Fitz has settled into his persona as Tom Badgerlock, holder for the lands of his daughter, Nettle. Because of his past (and everyone thinking he's dead), Fitz must maintain this false identity for his own good and the good of the Farseers. Far from being resentful of it, Fitz has embraced the life of a holder since it keeps him far from the court intrigue and politics so prevalent in Buckkeep Castle. Even better, Fitz has been reunited with the love of his life, Molly, who now resides with him at Withywoods, where they lead an idyllic life. It would seem Fitz, who has sacrificed so much, has finally earned the quiet life he has wanted for so long.

That, in fact, how we find Fitz and Molly getting on for nearly the first half of the book. True to the author's style, Hobb moves us along very slowly. Longtime fans will not be surprised by this at all. It's a testament to Hobb's skill as a writer, though, that even sans many of the plot devices other authors dangle in front of readers to keep their attention, she is able to maintain the reader's interest over hundreds of pages while slowly doling out bits and pieces of the larger story to come. When the end of this first novel in the Fitz and Fool trilogy does come, it comes fast. It left me deeply interested in what's to come next for Fitz as he is finally reunited with his longtime friend, the Fool.

I will freely admit bias when reviewing anything penned by Robin Hobb as she has long been a favorite author of mine. Not that I've embraced everything she's ever written, but I, like so many other readers, has been on Fitz's journey for so long that I doubt there's any story she could tell about him that I didn't find of interest.

Even still, Fool's Assassin earned a rating of three rockets. I would have given it four if only Hobb had cut to the chase a bit and gotten to the real story sooner.

Halloween by Paula Guran (editor)

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

The hardest part about writing a review for a collection this diverse is coming up with a singular opinion to describe the entire ensemble of stories. Halloween, edited by Paula Guran, is a rich collection of seasonal stories by the likes of Charles de Lint, H.P. Lovecraft, Peter Straub, Glen Hirshberg, and many more. It contains poems, short stories, and a few works which either reach novelette status or come really close. The shortest story is a few pages. The longest, well over fifty. The only story missing from the Kindle version of the book is Ray Bradbury’s “The October Game” because Bradbury’s estate does not allow digital versions of his works (If that is a particular concern, I recommend purchasing the print version, which does contain Bradbury’s contribution). Guran does include a summary of the missing entry, though, which is especially useful since the very next story, “The November Game” by F. Paul Wilson, ties directly into that one.

“Halloween” stands in at 480 pages. It contains everything from the macabre to the hilarious to the downright depressing. The horror of some stories is driven by supernatural forces; others by the pure evil nature of seemingly ordinary people. Across all of the stories there is a wide array of characters, from the deranged to the just, from the old to the young, from the human to the inhuman. Needless to say, there is something for every Halloween fiction enthusiast here.

Guran begins her collection with a fairly long preface discussing the origins and evolution of Halloween, which likely sprung from the Celtic festival of Samhain. Little is know of the practices and rituals associated with Samhain since the Celts did not write anything down, but it is believed that in their culture faerie-folk were resentful of humans, who slowly were taking over the world. During Samhain, the faerie-folk’s power was enhanced, and thus so was their propensity for mischief. Samhain was eventually adopted by the Christians, who made it into a celebration of the Virgin Mary and martyred saints. October 31 became All Hallows’ Eve (‘hallow’ was synonymous with ‘saint’ during the Middle Ages), though the old ways did not die out so easily. Today, Guran proposes, the holiday is really split in half between adults and children. For grown-ups, Halloween is the third biggest “party day” of the year (New Years and Super Bowl Sunday are first and second, respectively). While the modern celebration of the holiday has mostly been confined to North America, retailers are slowly pushing it into other markets as well, including Japan.

As far as the stories contained in “Halloween,” I found many enjoyable. There’s “The Halloween Man,” which tells the story of a demon that rises once a year to hunt for children’s souls. “Pork Pie Hat,” which I’m still scratching my head over (but in a good way). “Three Doors,” a moving tale also included in Norman Partridge’s Johnny Halloween. “Auntie Elspeth’s Halloween Story, or the Gourd, the Bad, and the Ugly,” a hilarious story within a story told when three grandchildren are unceremoniously dropped off to visit their aunt. The list goes on from there. All told, there are over thirty stories and poems to read.

“Halloween” would have earned a solid four rockets if not for the numerous typos I discovered while reading. Many readers demand perfect spelling and grammar; I am one of them. Some of the errors were simple characters missing. Others were entire words or a repeated word. These sorts of errors jar the reader from the experience and are somewhat easily corrected by employing a good line editor and proofreaders.

That aside, Halloween is such a diverse blend of Halloween stories there’s really something for everyone here. I give it three rockets and a solid recommendation to add it to your Halloween reading list.

Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Let me say this straight out: Dark Harvest by Norman Partridge is the perfect Halloween story. Well-written, engaging, full of rich characters, and with a villain that’s about as sympathetic as you can get all contribute to a true page-turner. Dark Harvest won the Bram Stoker Award and was named one of the 100 Best Novels of 2006 by Publishers Weekly. It comes in at about 200 pages with a style that’s so relaxed it didn’t take me longer than a few hours to finish reading.

Part folklore, part small town horror tale, Dark Harvest tells the story of a once a year ritual when, on each Halloween night, a pumpkin-headed creature called the October Boy rises from the cornfield armed with a butcher knife to make his way into town to massacre any he comes across. He isn’t the only one on a rampage, though, because every boy in town from age sixteen to eighteen is out too, armed with knives, axes, chains, and anything else that might carve or crush the October Boy’s pumpkin skull. The boys of the town are on a hunt of their own, the prize to the one who takes down the October Boy a one-way ticket out of town and away from the bleak future otherwise waiting for them if they stay.

What starts as a fairly straightforward monster hunt turns into something else entirely as we soon learn that the October Boy is a monster with goals of his own, goals that don’t necessarily start or end with slaughtering the town’s people. We are also introduced to Pete McCormick, on his first Run and eager to kill the October Boy like everyone else until he meets Kelly Haines, who left the town once but came back under dubious circumstances. She knows things, things she shares with Pete, so that soon he isn’t so much interested in hunting the October Boy as much as he is just leaving his drunken father and the hopeless town they call home behind for good. But leaving town isn’t any easier than killing the October Boy, especially when you’ve got a psychopathic  town sheriff making sure no one ever leaves.

Partridge’s writing style really shines and is just perfect for this kind of a story. He isn’t shy about breaking the fourth wall with his narrative, either, pulling the reader right in as if he or she is just another member of the town. The array of characters is another high point for Dark Harvest. There is a certain hopelessness about each. The sheriff, who has committed himself entirely to the annual ritual and is most certainly damned because of it. Pete, and every other teenage boy for that matter, who sees their only salvation in hunting and brutally killing the October Boy. Even the October Boy himself, who slowly reconciles his own existence and is no more comforted for having known it.

Dark Harvest deserves the five rocket rating I’m giving it. It’s that good. This is a book I could see myself reading every Halloween.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow by Washington Irving (Narrated by Tom Mison)

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is perhaps the most well known and popular of classics written by Washington Irving. The story’s enduring popularity no doubt has much to do with the tale’s terrifying villain, the Headless Horseman, whose status as an undead Hessian soldier gallivanting about the countryside sans his head has made it a classic Halloween tale for all ages. There are many editions of the story available, from the plain ol’ text edition found on Gutenberg’s web site as a free read to illustrated ones sold by your favorite online retailer. This review pertains to the Audible audiobook edition narrated by Tom Mison, who ironically played the main character, Ichabod Crane, in the Fox television series, Sleepy Hollow.

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Written in 1820 while Washington was living abroad in Birmingham, England, the story takes place outside Tarrytown, New York, in a glen known as Sleepy Hollow. Our hero, Ichabod Crane, an unassuming school teacher, is introduced to the reader as a “worthy wight” and further described as such:

He was tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs, hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves, feet that might have served for shovels, and his whole frame most loosely hung together. His head was small, and flat at top, with huge ears, large green glassy eyes, and a long snipe nose, so that it looked like a weather-cock perched upon his spindle neck to tell which way the wind blew. To see him striding along the profile of a hill on a windy day, with his clothes bagging and fluttering about him, one might have mistaken him for the genius of famine descending upon the earth, or some scarecrow eloped from a cornfield.

Crane is not that different from you or I. He is a contribution member of his community, acting as schoolmaster and music instructor; has dreams of success, which are perhaps exacerbated  when he meets Katrina Van Tassel and wonders over the life they might have together (or, rather, the lands and other assets he will inherit as a result of such a union); and he possesses a healthy interest in the fantastic:

His appetite for the marvellous, and his powers of digesting it, were equally extraordinary; and both had been increased by his residence in this spell-bound region. No tale was too gross or monstrous for his capacious swallow. It was often his delight, after his school was dismissed in the afternoon, to stretch himself on the rich bed of clover bordering the little brook that whimpered by his schoolhouse, and there con over old Mather’s direful tales, until the gathering dusk of evening made the printed page a mere mist before his eyes.

Much of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow revolves around Crane’s pursuit of Katrina and the many obstacles standing in the way of his taking her hand in marriage. The entire audiobook runs about 1 1/2 hours; it isn’t until the last 22 minutes or so that the reader receives the full measure of Sleepy Hollow:

There was a contagion in the very air that blew from that haunted region; it breathed orth an atmosphere of dreams and fancies infecting all the land. Several of the Sleepy Hollow people were present at Van Tassel’s, and, as usual, were doling out their wild and wonderful legends. Many dismal tales were told about funeral trains, and mourning cries and wailings heard and seen about the great tree where the unfortunate Major Andre was taken, and which stood in the neighborhood. Some mention was made also of the woman in white, that haunted the dark glen at Raven Rock, and was often heard to shriek on winter nights before a storm, having perished there in the snow. The chief part of the stories, however, turned upon the favorite spectre of Sleepy Hollow, the Headless Horseman, who had been heard several times of late, patrolling the country; and, it was said, tethered his horse nightly among the graves in the churchyard.

It should come as no surprise that Ichabod Crane finds himself alone at night traversing the same area the Headless Horseman frequents. A chase ensues, and while we know the Headless Horseman proves too much for our gangly hero, Ichabod’s exact fate remains a mystery. All we know for sure is that he is never heard from nor seen again, though those passing his now deserted schoolhouse sometimes claim they can hear “his voice at a distance, chanting a melancholy psalm tune among the tranquil solitudes of Sleepy Hollow.”

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Enough cannot be said for the narration of Tom Mison, whose voice with its captivating eloquence and English accent is a treat for the ears. His having played the role of Ichabod Crane in the Sleepy Hollow television series aside, he is the perfect narrator for this story, as he captures the time period and the story’s classic language superbly. As for the author himself, Washington demonstrates a mastery of the written word that somehow retains a high level of eloquence while remaining very readable despite the year the story was written.

If I were to have any complaint about this classic story is that it takes far too long to get to the real attraction: the Headless Horseman. That aside, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow is a classic read made even more so during the spookiness of Halloween. I give it four rockets and a recommendation for you to give it a read or a listen.

Johnny Halloween by Norman Partridge

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Johnny Halloween by Norman Partridge is a collection of Halloween-themed horror short stories. All but one of the stories appeared previously in other publications. Partridge is perhaps best known for Dark Harvest, which won the Bram Stoker Award in 2006. This collection contains references to that novel in multiple stories, and concludes with a story set in the same town as Dark Harvest aptly called “The Jack o’Lantern: A Dark Harvest Tale.”

In fact, a word of caution: DO NOT READ “The Jack o’Lantern: A Dark Harvest Tale” until you’ve read Dark Harvest. That story is so closely related to Dark Harvest that it will ruin it for you if you read the story in this collection first. I did, and, yes, it did indeed ruin the ending of Dark Harvest for me.

Johnny Halloween is a fairly quick read. It took perhaps two hours to consume its 125 pages. While every story is not specifically Halloween related, at minimum they each contain a spooky overture inline with the spirit of the holiday. Supernatural elements are present in only some of the stories, though the setup for something otherworldly is there in almost every story, so it isn’t until the end that you find out just what you’re dealing with. When a story does delve into the supernatural, it does it effectively, with the right amount of spookiness and unexplained mystery. The author’s style, which is easy and flows well, reminded me a lot of Stephen King. There’s a fair amount of swearing, but it’s used effectively.

The best story in this collection was “The Jack o’Lantern.” It contains the heaviest dose of supernatural elements and was a real page turner. The worst? Calling anything in this collection “worst” doesn’t feel right because I found all of the stories well-written and enjoyable in their own way. But if I were to call it the “least ranked” instead, I’d say the story “The Man Who Killed Halloween” rated the lowest. The author makes a point of discussing in the introduction how he grew up in the 1960’s in the Bay Area where the Zodiac killer struck multiple times and so this story is obviously his expression of that time period in his life, but it fell somewhat flat for me. I don’t doubt having the fear of a serial killer hanging over your every waking moment is something tangible and real, but I didn’t feel those elements were conveyed well in the story itself.

All told, Johnny Halloween is a good collection and a worthy read for this Halloween or any other. I give it three rockets.