Path of the Dead; Book One of the Hungry Ghosts series

This is a review for Timothy Baker’s debut novel, Path of the Dead; Book One of the Hungry Ghosts series. (It will be published through Ragnarok and available for purchase on May 5th.) The back of the book says EXACTLY what my original idea for this review would say, the back blurb says–

 

Nestled on the foot of Tibet’s sacred Seche La Mountain is the village of Dagzê. The normally quiet streets are bustling with the steady stream of arrivals and preparations for the coming Festival of the Medicine King; a time of celebration, healing, and renewal. But a shadow is sweeping the world, a plague of apocalyptic proportions—the dead are rising and devouring the living, and no place is safe where humanity thrives.

As Dagzê burns, overtaken by the hungry undead, five people come together: Lama Tenzin, an elder monk; Gu-lang, the silent warrior nun and Tenzin’s protector; Cheung, a private in The People’s Army, driver and escort of the Lama; ten-year-old Chodren Dawa, witness to his sister’s death and rising; and Dorje Cetan, a Shaolin-trained hermit monk of Seche La and a dreamer of a dark portent. Together they must fight their way out of Dagzê to an abandoned Buddhist hermitage clinging to the mist-shrouded cliffs of Seche La.

With the undead following and gathering at Eagle’s Nest gate, they barricade themselves inside their dead-end haven, and are soon forced to battle the beasts without, as well as the ones within.

TimBs Cover

Since the book blub said everything I’d planned to say, I’m forced to say something else.  Path of the Dead is a fun book and if you love zombie stories, this one is on par with many good zombie movies and a lot better than most of them. However, the strongest reason I liked this book was not because of Timothy Baker’s traditional version of the undead, but because of the tight characterization of the survivors.

 

The story begins with Dorje, a reclusive monk whose waking dream leads him to believe that he must go into the small town of Dagzê, for that is where the spirits call him. He arrives to find his old mentor, Tenzin, has also arrived with his escorts Gu-Lang and Cheung. Gu-Lang is a silent nun and bodyguard, where Cheung is a soldier from the People’s Army.

 

Chodren is a young boy from the village who I quickly became sympathetic to. Learning early that not only did his younger sister die by snakebite, it turns out that he was first to find her returned from the dead. Chaos falls swiftly upon the village, and the five heroes must battle their way out of the village and higher into the mountains. Up top is an abandoned monastery, the Eagles’ Nest, a place once for quiet reflection, now a bastion from the undead.

 

See, I just reiterated everything the book blurb already said.

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What the blurb doesn’t tell you are the little details and sharp images Timothy Baker conjures into your mind—like the severed head Dorje removes from the truck’s grill, still gnashing its teeth and trying to eat. The blurb doesn’t express how although Cheung’s personality is a little grating for the priests, he is an anchor for the mental well-being of Chodren. Simply by sharing a soda pop, Cheung and Chodren bond—a bit of solid writing only Timothy Baker could seal with deep sincerity.

 

All his characters were masterfully built. I cannot pick a favorite from the five core characters. I wanted to pick one as a superior champion, but I can’t. Political and philosophical differences blurred, and as the story shifted to and fro, I couldn’t determine whose ideal was the most ‘right.’ These characters faced challenges with believable behaviors and emotions. Their wounds festered and built both emotionally and spiritually, and that is an incredibly hard place to create for readers.

 

However, there were a couple detractors. Minor, but detractors all the same.

 

All action books need slow spots. Most of the slower scenes were great character building moments, but some seemed mechanical and read like maintenance.  There were a couple parts where I found myself scanning the text to move forward, even during an action scene or two. Tim is a descriptive writer, and that is a blessing as much as a fault that we both share. Sometimes, the five paragraph details of ‘how the fire was built’ should simply be written, “They built a fire.”  Of course that is meant as a metaphor—there wasn’t a five paragraph description of how to build a fire in Path of the Dead—that is from my experience with an early and un-sellable version of The Wrong Way Down. I’m talking about the page-long instructions on something everyone knows, like how to unload a truck bed. It happens, it also doesn’t change the fact that in five years, Timothy Baker will be unstoppable if he keeps doing what he does–great, well-thought horror.

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Manifesto UF

 Manifesto UF is that latest anthology I managed to squeeze a story within. Therefore, I have an investment in this review. To keep it honest and fair, I will only write about my five favorite stories in this volume and share some of the inside details of my story, Bloody Red Sun of Fantastic L.A.

Personally, I love short fiction. I enjoy writing it, and even more, I love reading it. The best part of an anthology is that I get to sample between ten and thirty authors, some more experienced and some newer, and see what worked for them. Getting published in an anthology isn’t easy, each author has brought their best offering. Plus, if you want to learn how to write better, reading anthologies is a way that has helped me a lot.

What is Manifesto UF? Horror/Dark Fantasy author Tim Marquitz and Tyson Mauermann (Book reviewer at Speculative Book Review) collaborated on forming the quintessential definition of Urban Fantasy. They hit the bullseye. What is inside are vampires, werewolves, angels, wizards, dragons, demons, undead, and other forms of the supernatural all living together in our modern setting. Tim and Tyson have made it undoubtedly clear that this is not Paranormal Romance.

Before I spotlight my five favorites, I need to say it was very difficult to pick from the twelve stories I’d loved greatly. This anthology has twenty-six stories, of which I thought half were amazing, and the other half very enjoyable. These were my favorites, I’ve listed them in no particular order.

Manifesto-Fixed

I’m an Animal. You’re an Animal Too by Zachary Jernigan

I’d read I Am Legend by Richard Matheson and Salem’s Lot by Stephen King and since then haven’t found a vampire story that I could fully get into. Here’s one. It was brilliant. Zachary Jernigan’s tone set this one from the beginning, the story was ripe with frustration and uncertainty, and in the end delivered perfect meaning to its title – I’m an animal. You’re an animal too.

Naked the Night Sings by Theresa Frohock

Of the dragon stories, this was my favorite. Theresa tells of a musician who was almost good enough to be somebody, but not quite. Failing yet another audition by a margin, a mysterious woman promises him a worthy gift in exchange for retrieving a simple gift for her. She offers him the duende, a deep knowledge of the dark sounds, if he would only retrieve a small bit of yarn that is being kept by a dragon. The flow of the writing is so impossibly good, I will re-read this one again someday.

Nephilim by TSP Sweeny

I had a hard time deciding between Betsy Dornbusch’s Chains of Gray and Nephilim. The determining factor; I connected better with Sweeny’s fallen angels.

Here on Earth, there are fallen angels, and then there are Fallen angels. Dantalion is one of the fallen, and while waiting for Judgment, he works for a pharmaceutical company that recently lost an experimental drug. It’s an experimental drug with a side effect that gets people really freakin’ high. Not surprisingly, it’s turned up as a new street drug being coined Nephilim. This was a complex story with good attention to detail.

Front Lines, Big City by Timothy Baker

Timothy Baker is becoming one of my favorite new authors. Three times we’ve been published together, and each time his stories get better. His world prompts that the United States has survived its 2nd civil war. Both sides of the broken United States employed sorcerers to get the job done, but after the war, the winner decided that sorcerers were too dangerous to keep alive. This is the story of two surviving sorcerers…or maybe only one…

There were two other stories devoted to modern day wizardry, both of them were good, only Tim Baker’s was my favorite. It was the tone and atmosphere Timothy Baker set that took the story up a notch higher for me. Timothy’s story carved a deeper dread, and a sense of foreboding along with a genuine human element that the other two tales just couldn’t quite touch.

Blessing and Damnation by Wilson Geiger

As I’ve said, it was an incredibly difficult task narrowing down my five favorite stories in this anthology. Blessing and Damnation is told from a demon’s point of view, and expertly done. A superior demon had gone rogue, escaping hell and has gone rampaging through our world spreading an infernal disease. He is intentionally trying to break the peace between Heaven and Hell. The powers of Hell order another demon to rise and stop the stronger demon. I closed the story with a grim smile, appreciating the paradox.

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Now, because it’s the only chance I have to share insights, I’ll leave little tidbits about how I built my story.

Bloody Red Sun of Fantastic L.A. by Jake Elliot

Although the story took its title from one of my favorite songs by The Doors, there was a deeper reasoning beyond The Doors getting their start in downtown Hollywood. Los Angeles is the City of Angels, the sun is our nearest star, and Hollywood is the City of the Stars—this story has overt symbolic relevance to a little bit of all of that.

My inspiration for this story came from Westin Ochse’s brilliant short story, Hollywood Villainy, which offered a soiled and ugly picture of Hollywood’s nightlife. I’d hoped to describe Hollywood’s diversity and shine, even if it’s still a bit tarnished. I feel successful in painting a vivid picture of the historical street corner of Hollywood and Vine.

My protagonist is the Arch-angel Michael (Mikael,) who I envision as a cold servant of God. A lot of people don’t realize that angels were created without freewill and their sole purpose is to serve God. This does not give Michael a warm personality. In fact, I imagined his view of humanity with considerable apathy.

Ba’al, the demon, is my antagonist. I built him like Christian history and mythology make him. A friend told me they’d felt more sympathy for Ba’al than Mikael. My response was “Me too, the poor guy totally got the shaft.” Each character represented the diverse extremes of law and chaos. It was all those poor bastards getting crushed in the middle I’d hoped someone would recognize, but so far, the poor huddled masses have no sympathizers.

My ending is totally Dues ex Machina. Some will think that is a bad thing. For my story to observe the religious connotations of Angelic behavior, (assuming they are real,) then Mikael is only a messenger. I felt the ending was right, and I will say no more. I wish not to spoil anyone’s fun.

Hollow World—a Novel by Michael J. Sullivan

I’d received an advanced review copy from Michael J. Sullivan, but I paid for mine. I was one of the backers on Kickstarter. I’d briefly communicated with Mr. Sullivan before participating in his project. He assured me I’d like the protagonist after disclosing to him what I don’t like to read.

Hollow World cover

He was right, I did like Ellis Rogers.

Ellis is a 58-years old MIT graduate living with a crippled marriage and failing lungs. He’s expected to die soon of pulmonary fibrosis, and his wife barely notices he’s there in the first place. Six months to live is the doctor’s prognosis, to which Ellis responds with a chuckle. Mr. Roger’s isn’t too worried about the constraints of time—in his garage he’s built a time machine. With the promise of a painful death less than a year down the road, Ellis finds the courage to leave 2014 behind, and jump forward into 2214. No one in Detroit wants him. Maybe the veil of time hides a cure for his ailing lungs, perhaps only a quick jump up the road.

Saying good-bye to his only friend, he leaves the schematics for the time machine with his so-called pal, “Time Machine? You interrupt me for this? Can’t’chu see I’m watching football rewind on ESPN?” So Ellis goes home, fires up the time machine, and flies forward. (Ellis’s life is a bit more complicated, but this’ll get the point across.)

There is a tiny miscalculation. Ellis shoots forward 2000-years. Whoops.

‘People,’ if that is what we decide to call them, have moved underground. They’ve learned the secrets of immortality and Tomorrowland’s citizenry has figured out how to coexist without war. However, the price is pretty steep. World peace came at the cost of splicing away the Y-chromosome. No longer needing to procreate, genitals have been conveniently discarded from the gene-pool. Ellis truly is the last ‘man’ on Earth.

alternate_cover

 

Edits were tight. The writing flowed easy, and with an edge of humor, Hollow World was a pleasure to read. Those who are expecting Riyria Chronicles should instead expect Casual Vacancy. This isn’t Harry Potter. Without reading Mr. Sullivan’s earlier works I was able to see this particular work wearing clear glasses. However, in the afterword of the book, Mr. Sullivan warns (a little too late) that he expects many to hate Hollow World. There is a lot of room for hate, especially with America’s current social conscience (or lack there-of.) In the writing, Mr. Sullivan decided to poke several hot buttons. This fact raised my opinion of the book greatly.

Now is the point in this review where I will gripe, but to express my gripes there might be minor spoilers.

I’ll keep spoilers to a minimum, but you’ve been warned.

Sci-fi isn’t easy to write. I sure as hell won’t do it.

2,000 years in the future, it might be hard to get cell phone coverage. Ellis doesn’t call anyone, but he does check his 2,000-year old voice mail. Most people won’t understand that statement, so I’ll explain. Messages are not kept on the actual phone, but through a digital service accessed on a computer somewhere in ether space. No AT&T equals no voice mail.

I liked all the heady world building—some of it is real heady. Despite being well written, physicists will be annoyed by the simplicity of the time machine, and plenty of readers will hate how rocks are the source of food. Like Satan told Jesus out in the wilderness, “If you are hungry, just turn those rocks into bread.” On the downside, there wasn’t a lot of action, almost none. Hollow World is still an adventure, but many readers will be displeased with the absence of hostility—which seems ironic since the novel is about a near-utopian society.

This is the gripe that really bugged me. The character named Pax, just like Pol, Dex, Geo, and Cha, do not have Y-chromosomes. No one in Hollow World does. They are not ‘men.’ ‘He’ is the wrong pronoun. Without Genitalia, I found the supposed behavior of ‘Homosexuality’ as being implausible, if not absolutely impossible. You will understand at the end, which I found to be a little [cough-cough] ‘Gay.’

In total, the summary of my experience–I found Hollow World enjoyable to read. Eventually, I’ll find my way back to another Michael J. Sullivan story. I look forward to Rhune, reportedly beginning the next fantasy trilogy promised to be written.

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(All links lead to Wikipedia, it is easier than surfing all over the net for stronger sources, and Wiki’s data is solid enough to stand on.)