Review: THE HOLLOW PLACES by T. Kingfisher (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Horror
Year Release: 2020
Source: Audible

Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings: Body horror, bad taxidermy

After a divorce, 34-year-old Kara moves in with her uncle rather than live with her mother. Uncle Earl owns the Wonder Museum, a place full of strange and manufactured finds, which is the key tourist attraction in their small town. A hole in the walls pulls Kara and her friend Simon into a twisted Narnia full of willows and untold horrors.

This book is immersive in the creepiest way. You are so deep in the physical sensations and the way reality slips slowly away from Kara as she gets deeper and deeper into the secrets of this haunted, hollow place. The creatures are creepy and vivid. But more over, I greatly admire how the narrative makes sure to let the reader that these terrors are having an effect. There’s lingering trauma that make more pedestrian problems seem far away, especially the rock bottom Kara felt like she hit.

What unnerved me the most was that this alternate reality is simply a malevolent beast. Unlike other horror where the chills and thrills clearly map to the protagonist’s trauma, this one just exists in its own evil. Thankfully, Kara has enough snark and faulty coping mechanisms to elicit a laugh when the tension gets too much.

If you ever wondered what Narnia would be like if it was less fairy tale whimsy and more Pan’s Labyrinth folk horror, definitely step into this world nested between different realities.

Review: THE LAST SMILE IN SUNDER CITY (The Fetch Phillips Archives #1) by Luke Arnold (2020)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult Fantasy
Year Release: 2020
Source: Audible

Listened to the audiobook
Content warnings: Violence, drug use, fantasy gore, arson
I saw that Long John Silver from Black Sails had written a fantasy novel, and I was immediately interested. In this fantasy noir, Fetch Phillips is a human detective who doesn’t work for humans, investigating disappearances around town.

This city felt so alive. There is a deep sense of history and a contemporary culture. It manifests most obviously in the presence of a private school which teaches both magical and human students, and the various types of bars and tea shops. It feels modern in a way I don’t see too often, especially given the presence of cars and other non-magical technology. I found it interesting that perspective of the city came from a feeling of recent-history, not so much ongoing conflict. There is healing, there is trauma, and Arnold doesn’t flinch from any of it.

Fetch is also a compelling narrator. A depressed PI consumed by his regrets, he has insights into the city that ring true given its history. There’s a very self-inflicted kind of bitterness, and that kind of introspection lent the voice an authenticity. He doesn’t seem to feel that the world did him any wrong, but his view of things isn’t at all optimistic. Fetch, however, is also a bit of a disaster. He’s so nervous about repeating the mindset that set off his mistakes, at the expense of his own better judgment and safety.

The plot, however, is a bit slow, with not many action pieces until the very end. It meanders through the different worldbuilding pieces which help us get to know Fetch and Sunder, plus the things that ail both of them. It’s windy, but the bitter, darkly humorous voice helps bring it to life.

A fantasy noir about a city with as many regrets as our main characters, drenched in the aftermath of conflict.

Review: THE TWISTED ONES by T. Kingfisher (2019)

Rating: 4/5 stars
Genre: Adult horror
Year Release: 2019
Source: Audible

Listened to the audiobook

Going to grandmother’s house turns into eldritch horror as Mouse is tasked by her father to clean the place out after grandma’s death. Armed with freelance work, helpful townsfolk, and a very good dog named Bongo, Mouse must face haunted woods, a creepy, prophetic journal, and her step-grandfather’s own descent into madness.

The concept of rifling through the deceased’s items can be uncomfortable enough. Mouse’s grandmother, however, had also been a hoarder on top of a generally terrible person. I really liked all the coping mechanisms Kingfisher presented during this cursed clean-up job: diving into edits, reading an old-timey journal as if it’s another editorial gig, listening to NPR, going on walks, and more. None of this, however, distracts from the creeping dread. It starts with a pedestrian kind of weird, i.e. the room of dolls, to something ripped out of Bloodborne’s design works.

Though immersive and character-driven in a way that makes the dead feel as alive as the living, the pacing of the story could have been a bit more consistent. I think I understood the intention of the normalcy, but when the ending came, it felt so abrupt. Perhaps that had been the point.

That being said, I will always appreciate a work which starts by “spoiling” the ending, but continues to deliver on the terror. We know Mouse and Bongo are telling us the adventure at grandma’s house after the fact. It doesn’t make the monsters any easier to look at or the mantras any less disturbing.

Unsettling in a way that makes rocks absolutely horrifying, a must-read for fans of folkloric horror and very good boys.