Review of Queen, written by Lincoln Crisler

A little background, I’d read Lincoln’s short story, Queen’s Blood in Manifesto UF earlier in the year. Enjoying the story, I soon after had an opportunity to tell Lincoln. He in turn asked if I’d be willing to read his short story collection, Queen. Queen’s Blood is in this collection, but it is not the reason for this book’s title. The last story in this collection is a novella titled Queen. These are my thoughts.

queenfrontfinal

 

This is going to come off as negative, but bear with me, it’ll make sense in the end. The first story, titled D.T.F., was a little clunky and I had difficulty finding its voice. Once I found Lincoln’s voice, the story rolled easier. The characters were interesting, but I felt the story ended a little abruptly. However, with knowing this anthology told a chronological build beginning with Lincoln’s first professional publication, I found this approach both daring and uniquely interesting. Designing a collection of short stories starting with the earliest story first is a bold move because by doing so the collection begins on its weakest note. Most collections would merge the early (and generally weaker) stories somewhere into the middle.

Progressively, I enjoyed each story more than the first, but the themes in the first few stories felt a little common to other stories I’ve read. That is not completely true, I got to witness the development of Lincoln’s strong natural ability with writing speech dialects. I also saw his willingness to try common themes, yet add a new blend or twist, even if the first couple stories didn’t fully satisfy my reading needs. (Exception, Flaying Around in the Sun was a good vampire story putting a cool spin on vampire relationships within their family, and a unique punishment for insubordination.)

The first story that ‘wowed’ me was a flash-fiction piece called Three Blind Dice, a story about a bad gamble with a heavy price. The first story I loved in this collection was The Columbus Ghost Caper, a well-rounded story about the ghost of a bank robber obsessed with posthumously robbing the vaults he haunted. He had big plans for the rat bastards who’d set him up. Common to the preceding stories, this tale was rich with dialect, but the characterization, plotting, and pace had all merged impeccably. All the elements of a professional writer showed themselves in this very cool tale. Although this was a unique gem in this anthology, there are still several great stories to follow.

In a three way tie with The Columbus Ghost Caper, I’d add Seymour’s Descent and Kettletop’s Revisionary Plot for my favorites. I hadn’t expected to find a sci-fi edge in this collection, but here it is. Seymour’s Descent is a story about an advanced research robot forced to find a loophole in its programming to complete a disastrous mission—a loophole that had grim consequences. Kettletop’s Revisionary Plot was a clever time-travel tale with a scientist and his trusty Warbot coming back in time to save the world from a zombie outbreak. There is a lot of going on in Kettletop’s Revisionary Plot for a story less than 5,000-words.

Although not my favorite story in the collection, a true victory is Queen. Queen is a novella about a woman over 40 and watching her body succumb to the punishment of time, and seeking an acceptable aversion to aging. Queen was Lincoln’s most mature story in this collection. Even though the story kept its POV centered on protagonist Rita, I could sense more happening outside her scope. The subtlety of the writing made this story worthy of being a proud centerpiece.

 

Lincoln is a (Master?) Sergeant in the U.S. Army, deployed where fashionable masks are in.

Lincoln is a (Master?) Sergeant in the U.S. Army, often deployed where fashionable masks are ‘in.’

 

All in all, I would recommend Queen to anyone who enjoys short stories with a touch of horror. Few of the stories (save two) were overtly gruesome, but all the tales explored darker themes of the human condition.

More so, I would highly recommend this book to any aspiring writers. Not only were the stories enjoyable, but Queen showed a beautiful scale of the evolution writers make along this grueling journey from being “a talented writer,” to achieving the role of professional author. I’ve never before seen such proof of the over-stated expression ‘just keep on writing’ like Lincoln Crisler has bravely exhibited for all of us to read, learn from, and compare.

I deeply appreciated seeing proof of this lesson from Mr. Crisler.

 

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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.

TimBs Mug

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.

Sin City’s Social Reject

[This is the first story I’d written about the Devil. It isn’t the last, and eventually, it might get redesigned and sold just like the others. But for now, it is free to read.]

Sin City’s Social Reject

Mickey Boushan smiled, speculating there must be a full moon tonight.  Las Vegas on a good night was strange, but the gamblers frequenting his table had all been freaks, and his night was only beginning.

A grim looking Goth girl was the first gambler to sit at his table. With nearly cute little piggy snorts of laughter, every time the King of Hearts showed, she would gleefully giggle “Suicide!”  Pasty white with black lipstick and nail-polish, Mickey secretly nicknamed her ‘Dead Girl.’

The next guest Mickey nicknamed ‘Tex.’ Similar to Chuck Norris, this was what a Texas Ranger should look like. Wearing a long-sleeved white shirt, accessorized with a wide brimmed hat, the man refused to remove his aviator glasses. Tex must have sat a little too close to Dead Girl since she gathered her small stack of chips and left with a sneer.

Mickey found humor in someone as obsessed with death having problems with a man who lit one cigar off the butt of his last. It seemed to Mickey here was a man actively seeking his death rather than just wearing black and pretending.

Tex never spoke.  A cloud of obnoxiously dense smoke perpetually shrouded Tex’s head as he played Blackjack with only hand gestures.  He’d scratch for a card, wave to stop, and if he won, he’d occasionally toss a chip in Mickey’s direction, but never a word. Not even so much as a ‘thank you, what’s up, howdy, g’day,” no words – no nothing.

Mickey was just getting used to the silence and the stink of cheap cigars when Mr. Bigteeth rolled up and took a seat. Not only did he wear a cape with his 1920’s era tuxedo, but  his mustache and beard had been waxed to sharp points, curling almost comically. The pins in the lapel of his tuxedo were little golden dice with two single dots facing – snake eyes. Offering a wide smile, his mustache and beard parted to shine a flawless grill.

Mr. Bigteeth had the best tan in Vegas. With black hair slicked back with styling grease, the cunning twinkle in his dark eyes had been enhanced. His view darted from Mickey’s name tag to Tex’s hand, which was holding a Jack of Diamonds paired with a Seven of Clubs. He coached against the rules, “You should hit.”

Tex blew out a choking amount of smoke, polluting the airspace even further. Tex waved his hand over his cards and Mickey revealed a Nine of Clubs tucked underneath the Seven of Spades. House rules required him to hit on sixteen. Mickey pulled a Four of Hearts from out of the card-shoe before collecting Tex’s chips, pulling them towards him.

Mr. Bigteeth spoke, barely moving his lips, “So Mickey, how about a little wager?” He whipped his cape, creating a rippling sound before extending his hand, “Please, allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of great wealth and taste. I’m known to many as Mr. Mephistopheles, but you can just call me Uncle Lou.” He kept grinning.

Mickey matched the grin, only his looked forced and chiseled on, “This is Las Vegas, we do wager here.” Quickly deciding he didn’t like this guy, Mickey’s instincts nagged there was something very wrong with Mr. Smiles. Mickey set both his thumbs on the table with all his fingers underneath. The cameras above him showed this signal to the security room, readying them for trouble.

A noticeable new smell penetrated through the initial cloak of cigar stench, something stinking like sulfur or gunpowder. Mickey nodded, “Okay, well… Mr. Lou, the game is Blackjack. Ten dollars is the minimum bet.”

Mister Bigteeth shook his head but kept right on grinning, “How does this sound? We play one hand of cards and if you win, I’ll give you one million dollars, but if I win, you will deed your soul to me.” Lou winked.

Speechless Tex rolled his head to get a good long look at the new gambler. Mickey never wavered in his professional courtesy, and asked, “Have you tried across the street at The Wynn for such wagers?  They are a bit more daring than us at Treasure Island.” Inconspicuously, he pressed a hidden button under the outer rim of the table.

Twisting the left point of his mustache, Lou commented, “Steve didn’t want to play, and he just traded straight across.” Pointing at Mickey, like his finger was a gun, he repeated his offer, “Wha’da’ya say? One round of cards? Be it one soul or one million smack-a-roos?”

Mickey shook his head just as the first of two large goons materialized out of seemingly nowhere, the second man appearing within a second after the first.  Both men wore expensive gray suits which barely concealed bulging muscles beneath. With hands big enough to curl a basketball, each man held one of Lou’s shoulders. Lou looked up at one of the Cro-Magnon giants, “Hey, hey, we were just about to wager!”

Goon Number Two stated, “Not here you’re not.” His voice sounded like skin across asphalt.  Neither man waited for ‘Uncle Lou’s’ reply. They lifted Mr. Mephistopheles about a foot off the ground and rushed him quickly towards the door. Being dragged through the casino, Mickey heard Lou protesting, “You can’t do this… I built this city…”

A small bead of sweat dripped from Mickey’s scalp behind his ear, tickling his neck as it rolled down to his collar.  He exhaled sharply and pulled the next card for Tex, face up, Ace of Spades.  Tex pulled his third cigar out of his pocket and clipped the end as Mickey dealt. Just before lighting his cigar, Tex broke his vow of silence, “Must be a full moon, the freaks are out tonight.”

(I wrote this one as an assignment in a flash-fiction class. I enjoyed this one more than anyone else in the class, so I never sought publication with it. I still like this one a lot, and hopefully some of you will find it worthy of at least a genuine grin. This is free to be enjoyed, but I’d suggest against stealing this one; the $50 you’ll make will not be worth the thousands you’ll get sued for. Also on the topic of suing, please Mr. Wynn, have a sense of humor, we both know you have a lot more influence in this city that the devil ever could– and that is why the joke is funny.)