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The Devil's Only Friend (John Cleaver)
The Devil's Only Friend (John Cleaver)
by Dan Wells
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.25
66 used & new from $3.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Can't wait to see what happens next in this dark saga, June 22, 2015
This review contains spoilers for the first JOHN WAYNE CLEAVER trilogy.

John Wayne Cleaver is a seventeen-year-old boy who wants very, very much to kill people. Lots of them, one right after the other, in terrible, bloody ways. Paradoxically, because he longs to do that, he has been taking extraordinary lengths to avoid becoming a serial killer. His struggles were related in a trilogy consisting of I Am Not A Serial Killer, Mr. Monster, and I Don’t Want to Kill You. That trilogy showed how John’s efforts to avoid acting on his murderous desires ran smack into his discovery of demons, and the very genuine need to kill those demons to save the people he loved. Alas, John was not able to save the people he loved most. As this trilogy opens with The Devil’s Only Friend, John’s bitterness at his failures is on open display, even as he works with a special FBI unit dedicated to rooting out and destroying demons.

Brooke Watson, a girl John’s age who has been mentally broken by her contact with the demon called Nobody, accompanies the team, though she is not precisely a part of it. Her company tortures John, for in essence Brooke is possessed by a demon John killed named Nobody; Brooke retains that demon’s memories, and her mind was so warped by the possession that she still believes she is Nobody. Yet John faithfully spends time with Brook that goes far beyond what is necessary to do his work. The mind of Nobody insists that the Withered (as she calls the demons) are evil, and is eager to assist John and his team to get rid of them, so she’s a tactical advantage for the FBI. They keep Brooke in a secure hospital facility wherever they set up operations.

As the story opens the team is in Fort Bruce, a small city in the Midwest, where they are collecting data on two demons living there: Mary Gardner, a demon who works as a nurse in order to drain the health of others in order to keep herself healthy; and Cody French, who never sleeps, and must download his awareness into another human in order to get some rest — which drives the human mad. Alarmingly, just after the team completes one operation, Brooke reveals that yet another of the Withered is in town. Those who have read Next of Kin will recognize this character, but the team comes to the immediate conclusion that its members are being hunted by the demons. And although they reached that conclusion for the wrong reasons, they happen to be right.

The team unravels the puzzles of the demons, their powers, and how to kill them in this novel, giving it some of the characteristics of a mystery. And the team battles the demons with everything they’ve got, so it’s also an action novel. Both aspects of the novel work well, and they work well together. The pacing is excellent, as the team’s actions go from a seemingly simple operation to a more difficult one to one that seems all but impossible, leading to a climax where everything, including everything that happened in the first trilogy, comes into play. The only criticism I have is that the law enforcement personnel involved have absolutely no notion of the law, and especially of how due cause for a search is established. Perhaps Wells ought to consult with a lawyer or a police officer for his next novel.

What most intrigued me about this novel, and what lends it its bleak darkness, is John’s inner life. John narrates the novel, so he tells us how the mysteries are solved and watches the action (he’s usually not allowed to participate, for several reasons), always with a quickness of thought and a bleakness of aspect. John’s time with demons has not cured him of his desire to hurt and kill animals and other humans; in fact, he has plans for how to kill everyone on his team. He wrestles with his own internal demons, battles that are harder fought than any of those against the outer, physically real demons. Wells delves deep within the brain of a sociopath struggling not to commit sociopathic acts because he knows they are wrong, even as he longs deep within himself to see the blood, to feel the knife entering flesh. “I’m trying very hard not to become a serial murderer,” he tells another member of the team, and we are witnesses to that internal battle. (One of the scariest moments in the novel is when John actually does kill someone: “It was exactly like I’d dreamed it,” John tells us, and then goes on to explain in detail. It’s stomach-turning.)

The ending is both triumphal and bleak, and it’s hard to imagine where Wells will go from here. He has written a book that stands on its own, not dependent on the trilogy that went before and not truly needing the books that are going to come after. I can hardly wait to see what comes next.

Originally published at Fantasy Literature website. 4.5 stars rounded up to 5.


Next of Kin
Next of Kin
Price: $2.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Perfect complement to The Devil's Only Friend, June 22, 2015
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This review is from: Next of Kin (Kindle Edition)
“I died again last night.” It’s a compelling first sentence to a novella told from the point of view of Elijah Sexton, a demon, and it promises a different and exciting new start to Dan Wells’s JOHN CLEAVER series.

Sexton drinks memories. For a time, he killed people himself, “topping off” his memory as he pleases. Soon, though, imbued with a hundred thousand lives, he could no longer bear to kill. Instead, he works in a morgue and drinks the memories of the newly dead. He lives

"from death to death, sometimes two weeks, sometimes three, holding on as long as I can while my brain slips away like sand in an hourglass, grain by grain, loose and crumbling, until I can barely remember my own name and I have to find another. I drink their minds like a trembling addict, desperate and ashamed."

Other demons mock Sexton for loving humans, instead of using them, but his intimate contact with them made him a de facto member of the human race, his real self lost in the “overwhelming crowd” whose memories have been left in his brain:

"I’ve lived as a banker in Nebraska, as a soldier in the Confederacy, as a Portuguese sailor in the Age of Exploration. I wove silk in the ancient dynasties, I fought and died on the banks of the Nile. The memories sink and surface like flotsam, more painful every time. How can I kill my own heart? How can I hurt them when their joys become my own? So I wait for them to die, and then I drink in peace."

From the very beginning, then, it’s hard not to like, and even feel sorry for, Sexton. He has few friends; his one deep connection is with a man named Merrill Evans, a man suffering from a loss of memory that appears to be Alzheimer’s Disease. Evans is confined to the Whiteflower Assisted Living Center, which Sexton visits regularly. This is a demon with a conscience, a demon even worthy of pity. He is very nearly as fascinating as is John Wayne Cleaver, the star of Wells’s books.

The action begins when Sexton begins to lose his memory a couple of weeks after taking his last draught, a man named Billy Chapman who appears to have died of exposure, who was married to Rosie and loved her deeply. Sexton’s memory always goes quickly towards the end of the period between his drinks, and it is soon apparent that Sexton will need to drink from the very next corpse that comes through the morgue, regardless of its cause of death (Sexton tries to avoid the worst types of deaths, as they are too horrible for him to relive; drowning is especially awful). It is fortunate that a body arrives that appears to be another exposure case, and Sexton drinks him without thinking twice about it. But the drink makes it immediately obvious that the man was killed, and Sexton recognizes the murderer. It’s time to leave town, but Sexton loves Rosie just as Billy did, and he can’t bring himself to leave her.

So the machinery is set in motion, even if John Cleaver hasn’t appeared yet. The way Wells works this story in and around his novel, The Devil’s Only Friend, is masterful. The novel is narrated by Cleaver in the first person, so that what Sexton tells us in this novella fills in some blanks — though ultimately, those blanks are only blanks of emotion, rather than of events. It’s possible to read the novel without having read the novella, but the novel is richer and deeper if the reader has the melancholy of the novella as background. Wells impresses with his ability to weave the two stories around one another. And Sexton has a poetry about him that Cleaver doesn’t, making the prose unexpectedly lovely for a horror novel.

Read Next of Kin either before or after you read The Devil’s Only Friend; it contains no information necessary to the enjoyment of the novel, and the novel will not spoil it. I’m glad I read it first, so that I already had a sense of Elijah’s character, and someone to root for in what is becoming increasingly clear is a war by humanity against the demons. It is a surprisingly gentle tale the complements a violent, angry and disturbing one.

Originally published at Fantasy Literature website. 4.5 stars rounded up to 5.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 20, 2015 8:46 AM PDT


Calendrical Regression
Calendrical Regression
Price: $0.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Fun!, June 6, 2015
Calendrical Regression by Lawrence M. Schoen is another in his series of stories about The Amazing Conroy and his buffalito, Reggie. (A buffalito is a dog-sized creature that looks like a buffalo and eats literally anything and everything; Reggie loves a good bowl of ball bearings with peanut butter, for instance.) Conroy is on vacation, not in some luxurious spot on a beach, but in Omaha, Nebraska, indulging in his former career as a stage hypnotist when he is approached by a woman asking for help with regression hypnosis intended to find out how the Mayans knew that aliens would appear on Earth in 2012, as demonstrated by their calendar. Things get more complicated when a Svenkali appears and attempts to assassinate the woman. After the attempt is foiled, the woman reveals that she is the Uary, the hereditary enemy of the Svenkali for more than five billion years. And the complications continue to pile on, with some weird time travel through hypnosis thrown in for good measure. It’s light fun told in a breezy style, and if it ultimately doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, well, at least you had a good time reading it.


Yesterday's Kin
Yesterday's Kin
Price: $7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Good, hard SF, June 6, 2015
This review is from: Yesterday's Kin (Kindle Edition)
Yesterday’s Kin by Nancy Kress was published as a stand-alone volume by the small but mighty Tachyon Press. Kress’s story posits the arrival of aliens on Earth who are just as human as we at a basic biological level, despite their larger eyes and a few other differences that are explained as adaptations to their home, which they call World. The aliens bring news that Earth will pass through a cloud of space-borne spores that will kill every human in a mere ten months, and offers both samples of the pathogen and laboratory facilities that offer a breath of hope that a cure can be found before the spores intersect with Earth. The story is told mostly through the eyes of Marianne, a scientist who becomes involved with the aliens, not to find the cure, but to do more basic research into finding those humans that bear genetic markers of a closer relationship to the aliens, whom the aliens consider family. Marianne’s grown children all play roles as well. Kress pays scant attention to the convulsions of a world approaching what may well be its end, and the emotions of her characters are not sufficiently developed. But she plays out the biological issues she has set up with rigor, which is perhaps why her ending is telegraphed well in advance.


We Are All Completely Fine
We Are All Completely Fine
Price: $9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My pick for the Nebula win for 2014 novella, June 6, 2015
My favorite novella of those nominated for a Nebula Award this year is Daryl Gregory’s We Are All Completely Fine. It’s inspired by Lovecraft and is firmly set in the Cthulhu Mythos but it isn’t by any means a pastiche; the style is fresh and new, and the story is original despite a few familiar elements. I was taken by Gregory’s exploration of how small groups work, particularly in the context of group psychotherapy. Dr. Jan Sayer has assembled a group of deeply damaged individuals who have survived horrible experiences, many of them with especially depraved serial killers: “If they’d gone through a fraction of the s*** that Harrison had,” one group member things, “that had to be Very Special Trauma indeed. The traumas of most of the group members have had something to do with monsters that do not seem to be part of our consensual reality. And the monsters haven’t left for good. Gregory works out how the group bonds, from a fairly hostile beginning, ultimately facing one of the monsters directly. It’s written so matter-of-factly that one hardly doubts the sanity of any of these group members despite the outrageous things they say they have experienced, in a shifting first person plural voice that shifts from person to person, but often stays in Harrison’s voice. Harrison, we are told, was at Dunnsmouth ten years ago, and though we are not told what happened there, we are given to believe that it was horrible indeed. (“Dunnsmouth” is a particularly fine touch, combining the names of two places in which Lovecraft set his stories, Dunwich and Innsmouth.) The characters are all fully imagined, and they all have extensive back stories that are dropped into the narrative as needed, without ever bogging down the action. I plan to read more Gregory now, especially Harrison Squared, which came out this past March and deals with Harrison’s earlier adventures.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #171
Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #171
Price: $0.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Decent stories for the price, May 12, 2015
In Issue No. 171, dated April 16, 2015, Spencer Ellsworth writes about an assassin, a mother and a child fleeing through a desert in “The Fires of Mercy.” The desert is unending and remorseless, and the three are in danger not just from bandits, and not just from those who are chasing them, but also from a lack of water. The story is one of mystery — not just the mysteries of the assassin’s order, and of her abilities, but also about why the assassin chose to save the mother and her child. These are mysteries even to the assassin herself. But the assassin, having made her choice, will do anything to keep the mother and child alive, and the bargain she strikes for their lives gives her a power that may do much more. I’d like to read more about Ellsworth’s world, and wish I knew more about these characters and their lives than he chooses to give us in this short story.

“Sinseerly a Friend & Yr. Obed’t” by Thomas A. Waldroon is about Stutley Northup, who isn’t a magistrate or a lawyer, but who has something of a reputation for resolving disputes. James Ezekiel Chambers has need for his services to resolve the problem of the Dusseau brothers and their great sea serpent. Does the serpent actually exist? What is it? The story is a cross between a tale from the Cthulhu Mythos and a throwback to the bug-eyed monster tales of the 1950s, with a fine sting in the tail.

Originally published at Fantasy Literature website.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #172
Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #172
Price: $0.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Weird westerns are definitely weird - Cashier's is the best of these three stories, May 12, 2015
Issue 172, dated April 30, 2015, is a Special Weird Western Issue. The first story, “Splitskin” by E. Catherine Tobler, attempts mysticism, but is instead incomprehensible from the first sentence: “Gugán was always my khaa yahaayí, my soul bound into the flesh of another while yet part of my own.” Gugán has Raven heritage, the first person narrator tells us, while she is an Eagle; as far as I can tell, they share a body. Their mothers were thunderbirds. The two deal with miners during the California Gold Rush, which shattered their way of life, until a man comes looking for a guide — not to find gold, but to find thunderbirds. So begins a quest by train, told in lyrical language that conceals as much as it reveals. In attempting to tell a story in the form of a native folktale, Tobler is too opaque to allow her readers to figure out what’s going on.

“Swallowing Silver” by Eric Cashier begins with John Halpern awakening to the knowledge that he must “kill a thing that used to be a man”: a wendigo has come to Golden Falls. The killing is difficult to do when you’re only a man yourself, so Halpern calls on his brother-in-law for help. Eldred himself is something more than a man:
[Eldred] lumbered, wide-shouldered, wide-hipped, but it would have been a fool who called him fat. There was a chance he’d wrestled that bull he was slaughtering to the ground himself. Depending on the moon, Halpern wouldn’t put it past him. Devil-men’s strength knew no bounds.
It takes a devil to kill a devil; in this version of the Wild West, there are some devils you can live with, and some you can’t. It’s a well-written, sad story that is more about the loneliness of living in a time and place where family is exceptionally important.

Shannon Peavey turns to two themes common to westerns: the sideshow and the purveyor of ersatz medical remedies. “The Snake-Oil Salesman and the Prophet’s Head” opens with Leo coming face to face with his brother’s head in a jar of grain alcohol. That would be bad enough all by itself, but the head — Cary — talks to Leo. And Leo’s girlfriend, Sabina, the Mexican woman who tells fortunes, somehow makes it so the words coming out of Leo’s voice are in Spanish, even though he doesn’t speak the language. Leo wonders whether any of the words that come out of his mouth are truly his own anymore, because he always seems to say what his companion of the moment wants to hear. To become his own man, Leo must turn to action and leave the speech to others. It’s an odd story that seems to ultimately be about being true to one’s self.

Originally published at Fantasy Literature website.


Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #173
Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue #173
Price: $0.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Worth reading, May 12, 2015
The most recent issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, No. 173, dated May 14, 2015, opens with “Out of the Rose Hills” by Marissa Lingen. It starts promisingly, with a merchant’s daughter and her companion coming through the title hills on an unexplained but apparently urgent mission. The first person she sees when she comes out of the hills and into the city asks her if she is the princess, as prophesied for generations. She denies it, but a voice comes from behind her (where there should have been nothing but rose-covered hills). A shadow woman has followed her, who contradicts everything she says. It’s an interesting set-up, but the story doesn’t move forward much from that point, and seems to be just getting under way when it abruptly ends.

I’m not usually one for humorous science fiction, but I found “The Punctuality Machine, Or, A Steampunk Libretto” by Bill Powell amusing. It’s a mash-up of Gilbert & Sullivan with time travel and steampunk with romance and a visit by aliens thrown in to boot. The rhyming of the lyrics is pure silliness. On top of it all, the characters all seem to be aware that they are characters at some level, adding a metafictional spice to this already overloaded stew of genres.

Originally published at Fantasy Literature website.


Forever Magazine Issue 2
Forever Magazine Issue 2
Price: $2.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Good hard science fiction, April 22, 2015
Issue 2 opens with “Dream Houses” by Genevieve Valentine. The first person narrator is Amadis, who is essentially a trucker — but a trucker in the days when “long-haul” means a ten-year trip out to the dwarf star Gliese and back, hauling supplies for a fledgling human colony. She’s made the trip a few times before, but this time something has gone very wrong. She has wakened prematurely from the deep sleep that was supposed to carry her for nine years of the voyage; she and the rest of the crew were to have been awake only for six months upon leaving Earth and six months before reaching Gliese. All the other crew members are dead. There isn’t enough food to last the voyage. And the artificial intelligence that powers the ship is keeping some very big secrets. The hard science fiction problems of long space flight and artificial intelligence are combined with the spooky haunted ship atmosphere of “Alien” and the softer science fiction concern of how a single person stays sane for years on end in solitude. I particularly enjoyed Amadis’s concern with music, and especially the complexities of vocal music; music which soothes and is also a metaphor for her loneliness. The use of music for this latter purpose, especially vocal music, is one of the more beautiful parts of the story. Valentine’s tale is longer than it needs to be to address its concerns, and, frustratingly, several issues remain unresolved by its end, but it is one of the best bits of hard science fiction I’ve read of late. A short interview with Valentine follows her story that mostly serves to point out some of her favorite short stories and work she has coming out soon.

“The Endangered Camp” by Ann Leckie is one I hate to tell you much about, because there are so many wonderful surprises, right from the start. It takes place when the dinosaurs were still at the top of the food chain on Earth, though this tale takes place in the vacuum of space between Earth and Mars. It’s a well-thought-out story of a civilization that is neither human nor alien, with rituals and practices carefully designed based on biological behavior.

Tobias S. Buckell and Karl Schroeder teamed up for “Mitigation,” which takes place in the Arctic after not only global warming but also attempts to avert the effects of global warming have irreversibly contaminated the world’s oceans. Chauncie St. Christie and Kulitak are attempting to make a living from the mess shooting CarbonJohnnies, devices intended to sequester carbon — not for the good of the Earth, but to make money from carbon credits. This is penny-ante stuff, though, and Maksim, Chauncie’s employer, has a better idea: Chauncie is to use a job as a bodyguard for a genetic archeologist visiting a seed vault to collect his own information on rare seeds. The story is dense with science as well as with action. It will require your full attention — but it will reward it, as well.


Forever Magazine Issue 1
Forever Magazine Issue 1
Price: $2.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent reprint magazine, April 22, 2015
Forever Magazine is a new venture by Neil Clarke, editor of the esteemed Clarkesworld. He explains in the introduction to the first issue of the magazine that it is a monthly publication focused on previously published works, mostly from this (still new) century. Clarke is the entire staff of the magazine. The Kindle subscription price is currently $1.99 per month.

The first issue opens extremely well, with a novelette by Ken Liu, “The Regular,” about a serial killer who targets high-end prostitutes. Ruth is a freelance detective who is hired by the mother of one of the killer’s victims. The story is alternatively told from her viewpoint and that of the killer, which allows us to understand the killer’s motive and keeps us one step ahead of Ruth in figuring out how to catch this vicious man. Liu also addresses racial issues in his story, as is characteristic of his work. These issues do not necessarily power the story, but do add flavor and complexity to Ruth’s character. The traditional mystery structure to the story blends well with the futuristic technology that powers the plot for both viewpoint characters. The story makes me eager to get to Liu’s new novel, The Grace of Kings.

Of all the stories I read for this review, “The Fate of Mice” by Susan Palwick is my favorite. It is narrated by Rodney, a laboratory mouse whose intelligence has been artificially boosted by Dr. Krantor. Rodney not only has intelligence, but also electronic vocal cords so that he can communicate with the man who regularly makes him run mazes. Rodney has memories of a different kind of running, galloping with wind in his mane and the road against his hooves; that is, Rodney has memories of being a horse. Dr. Krantor tells him this is impossible, dismissing Rodney’s questions about reincarnation. It takes Dr. Krantor’s young daughter, Pippa, to realize that Rodney is remembering being one of Cinderella’s horses. And Rodney starts to have other memories: he remembers frightening an elephant, gnawing the ropes holding a lion to a stone table, being blind and running with two blind companions. And then one day Rodney has another memory: being a mouse named Algernon. What happened to Algernon, he wonders? He asks Pippa to find out. The story is very much one that only science fiction fans will really understand, harkening back as it does to Daniel Keyes’s marvelous “Flowers for Algernon,” which became the movie “Charly.” Palwick doesn’t go for the easy and obvious end for this story, but takes it somewhere else altogether, making this story more than an homage to Keyes and into a new tale in its own right. It’s excellent.

The final story in the first issue is “Firebrand” by Peter Watts. It opens with a startling sentence: “It had taken a while, but the voters were finally getting used to the idea of spontaneous human combustion.” What is making people go up in flames? The alcohol-industrial complex is working to make sure no one ever figures out the answer to that question. It employs a number of people whose only job is to come up with plausible reasons for the deaths, reasons that have nothing to do with the biofuel industry. But the truth will out, and then the question is: what will the population do about it? The answer isn’t as easily arrived at as you might expect. It’s a cynical story with a solid basis in history.


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