Vigilant by Will Bowron

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Ever since I saw Super I’ve never really been able to get invested in a traditional superhero story. What’s the worst thing about superheroes? Cheesy outfits? Police collusion? Zack Snyder? Vigilant by Will Bowron, book one of the Hudson Saga, suggests that the worst thing about superheroes is what they inspire in the rest of us.

Taylor (played in my mind by a Cronenburg amalgamation of every actor who has ever played Peter Parker) is a journalist who gets the scoop of a lifetime: a televised interview with the enigmatic Hudson. In this newsroom the part of Sassy Gay Bestie who has nothing in their life other than helping the protagonist on their emotional journey is filled by the station manager. But it’s OK, because Jake brings up some good points, like “Don’t do it” and “Seriously, though, are you sure you want to do this?” I’m being too hard on Jake. He’s alright. Unlike Alice, who is dead as shit. That’s Taylor’s formerly alive ex-wife, whom he has only recently stopped mourning. This is all connected in some way that Bowron chooses not to tell us just yet. This story has more teasing and front loading than one of those creepypastas called “I went into that one forest with Steve and you’ll never guess why I wish I hadn’t.” Taylor is determined to do the interview, and travels across the river and out of West Ham to the Hudson mansion. No, not that West Ham. They live in a place called West Ham, and it’s a fictional city in America. Don’t ask me why. On his way out of the city, he comes across a homeless person whom he treats with about as much dignity as an ugly horsefly. The guy asks for the time, and Taylor assumes he’s after his watch. It’s gratuitous and comes out of nowhere, and I couldn’t make up my mind if this was Bowron showing us that Taylor is actually the villain, like when Johnny Depp throws a lizard friend out of a flying stagecoach, or if the author thinks this is how normal people interact with the homeless. Seriously, Taylor calls the man a “whino.” That’s not Bowron telling us about Taylor’s bad spelling or something.

Then we cut to the next chapter, and I was sold (see? Front loading is easy!). The next chapter follows Sam, the homeless man who asked for the time (played in my mind by Aaron Paul). Sam’s life on the streets is tough, sketched out in brief but vivid detail. We get running tallies of his daily anxieties around food, shelter, and his fraught relationships with other people living on the streets. Oh, and the vigilantes. Apparently West Ham has gangs of thugs- again, not THAT West Ham- who roam the streets looking for alleged criminals to beat up. Sam needs a jacket to survive the coming winter, so he heads to the Salvation Army. The latte-quaffing, collar-popping middle class employees refuse to help him get his hands on a jacket he can’t afford in a scene that is both cartoonish and effective. Eventually Sam breaks the impasse by breaking a guy’s face and high tailing it with the jacket. Only once he gets to safety does he realize that he left his bag when he ran off. Out of the frying pan, into a larger, hotter frying pan. There’s nowhere to run from the vigilantes who have largely taken over day to day policing in the city, but maybe Violet will help him, or at least shield him from Davey. Seriously, every chapter ends with one of these transitions.

And they work pretty well. The suspense never becomes too obnoxious because the pace is quick and the characters are interesting enough to make you actually want to know who Davey is. Teases usually get resolved in a chapter or two with a satisfying reveal, which basically makes this book a unicorn. I only covered the first two chapters, because for once I don’t want to spoil too much; some of the early twists are pretty snappy. We get other perspective characters, too, from horny Jessica to hoary Hudson, and they all work reasonably well. I go back and forth on Bowron’s presentation of some of the characters. We really get to feel for Sam. But his humble background is partly shown to us by the fact that he can’t spell, which is very cringe (Lord knows I’ve seen some awkward representations of homelessness and classism on this blog). He acts like a selfish jerk, above and beyond anything that would be strictly required by his situation, but never to the point that he becomes unrelatable. Taylor and Sam take turns being unsympathetic, and I am surprisingly here for it. I guess it works especially well for tragic people like me; I am my own frog and scorpion, trying to cross a river. I also went back and forth on what I thought Bowron was trying to say. It’s never clear what the characters are saying as an allegory for everything that’s wrong with the world, and what they are saying as a mouthpiece for the author. I guess that’s a good thing? What is happening? Is this… literature? Is this what literature is supposed to feel like? What the hell is this poindexter doing on my blog? Somebody bonk an orc and bring the world back into balance, please.

This is one of those rare situations where I recommend a book without hesitation or reservation. In places Vigilant is a bog-standard crime thriller, but it’s well-crafted and just unusual enough to peek above the crowd. It’s five dollars on Kindle. Reviews might be a little spotty this summer, as I will be traveling around the United States. Thanks to my Protestant upbringing, part of my brain will always see vacation as just unemployment that you have to pay for, so no doubt I will be miserable the whole time, and tell you all about it when I return.

My favorite creepypasta is called “I like big butts and now I wish I hadn’t.”

Reaching the Heights: the Trail Above by Tony Woods

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

First off, I want to stress that I believe in everyone’s freedom of religious expression. I have no intention of belittling or disrespecting anyone’s beliefs. But hear me out: is Christianity an MLM? Tony Woods seems to think so. Reaching the Heights: the Trail Above is a getting-unsolicited-messages-from-the-girl-you-went-to-high-school-with-who-never-left-her-hometown simulator about an old man on walkabout.

The plot of Reaching the Heights is an allegorical tale of a pilgrim known only as Friend, but whom we’ll call Blony Bloods. In a move that causes fear and confusion to his long suffering wife Wife, he obeys without question God’s command that he go on a spiritual journey, combining the plucky resourcefulness of Pizza Rat with the smug dogamtism of a CrossFit trainer. Some guy named Charlie takes Blony to a spontaneous get together that sounds kind of like that apocalypse deli on the Appalachian Trail. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. Blony is joined by his son, whom he is promptly instructed to sacrifice. Then we get a long list of agents of Satan who try to tempt Blony off his path. They start with what I would call reasonable talking points like “Woah, crazy about your kid, right?” and move on to fiendish enticements like “But no, seriously, you should probably get a second opinion about all this.” There’s an archangel named Jake, and a literal scapegoat, who apparently works for the devil… I’m no religious scholar (case in point: are communion wafers still vegan if you believe in them? I have no idea), but I don’t think that’s what scapegoats do in Hebrew scripture.

Much like Star Wars, the story here is really just a scaffold to hang fun set pieces that turn out to be thick with religious symbolism. All the classics are here. You’ve got God working in mysterious ways whenever something bad happens, which undermines Satan’s whole thing of “No, seriously, that’s pretty fucked up, Bro.” I guess the “God is always right because he is right” angle is to be expected. Again, I’m not here to badmouth anyone for having faith in an idea. I do, however, take issue with the discussion questions. Oh, did I not mention this book comes with its own homework? The discussion questions at the end of each chapter peel away the paper thin veneer of allegory and lay the theology bare. The idea of a dedicated pilgrim on a vaguely defined trip to the heavenly kingdom is replaced by claims that the whole world is scarred by sin, and everyone has to pick a master whether they like it or not. Maybe I listen to too many pod- OK, not maybe. I do listen to too many podcasts, but this all feels like all the stuff they talk about in the first episode of a six-part series called “storming the armed yoga compound” or something. Be vigilant, pilgrim! The world is full of enemies, chief among which is the notion that maybe you’re not currently on the right path in your life. Jettison anyone who sows doubt in your mind, and always remember that God could beat up a cowboy if he wanted to.

Like I said, I don’t take any joy in denigrating anyone’s religious beliefs. And I understand that this is a tender subject since the book is semi-autobiographical. But that’s just the point. The author is a missionary. Nobody’s out here getting close to God as a missionary on their own. It’s all about the size of your downline. I know this, because the moment someone finds Jesus they turn to me, the most debauched, hopeless, cheerfully ruined person they know, and tell me about all the exciting opportunities that await me in the next life. New converts look at me the way a guy who just bought a Japanese sword looks at a watermelon on a stick. This is when I think these belief system become a problem: when they are less about what you believe and more about what everyone else believes.

Do I recommend Reaching the Heights? Probably. I almost always advise people to pick up whatever I review, because it’s usually entertaining horse malarkey. This one almost reads like a Chick Tract, or a pamphlet you didn’t ask to find under your windshield wiper when you come out of the Save-U-Right. But I think I can still recommend it as an object of curiosity for anyone who finds contemporary religious writing interesting. It’s four dollars on Kindle. Let’s reflect on what we learned. Since I am a merciful demon, I will not subject you to discussion questions. Instead, here are some religious jokes I made up or improved upon:

How do you stop a Baptist from drinking all your beer when they come over for dinner? Invite two Baptists. How do you stop two Baptists from fucking when you invite them over for dinner? Invite three Baptists. How do you stop three Baptists from kicking you out of your own dining room and turning it into a church with a shared mission and doctrine? Invite four Baptists. How do you stop four Baptists from singing barbershop at you? Invite five Baptists. How do you stop five Baptists from drinking all your beer when they come over for dinner? Tell them you’re a Methodist.

A respected imam called a global conference to reform Islam, and decide which bits they should keep or change. The Kazakhs asked to scrap the prohibition against alcohol. The Saudis asked to stop giving to the poor. The Turks insisted it was too hard to fast when your food is so delicious, and the Indonesians grumbled that Mecca was too far away for a pilgrimage. The only thing that everyone could agree on was that their favorite thing in the world was complaining about Jews. The imam furrowed his brow and asked if this was really what everyone wanted. “Fine, then. It’s decided,” he said. “We’ll all convert to Judaism.”

Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Two Buddhists walk into a bar. Life is suffering.

Timmy’s mother asked a priest to talk to her son about the indiscretions he got up to in his bedroom at night. Father O’Malley took him aside after Mass and told him that anytime he touched himself, all his dead relatives were watching. Little Timmy thought about this for a moment, then asked “Is that why you always tie me up first?”

I always start Confession with a table of contents.

Realm of Monsters by Eve Roxx

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

What do you look for in your erotica? Nonsense? Faff? Extraneous things like relatable character motivation? You’ll be getting none of that claptrap from Eve Roxx, and you should thank her for it. Realm of Monsters is an isekai erotic fantasy that asks the question: how many dudes can you stack on top of yourself before it compromises your structural integrity?

Madison is playing the bouzouki in her apartment when our story begins. This establishes right away what an insatiable strumpet she is. That’s story telling right there. Actually, I get the impression this woman does enough pearl diving that the downstairs neighbors are complaining about water damage. Of course, we don’t know right away that she’s in her apartment; instead we are treated to her fantasy of boinking her cop partner on a stake-out, with a brief aside about how hot it would be to bring any of the other hard-bodied young men on the force into the mix. Make note of that, it’ll be a theme. Storytelling! Honestly, I’m pleasantly surprised that our protagonist has a discernable personality at all.

While Madison is ringing the Devil’s doorbell, someone rings her actual doorbell. Just kidding, they don’t. They kick it down because they’re the SWAT team. At first, Madison has trouble processing this, and her first instinct is to incorporate it into the fantasy, like a fire engine that blasts past your window while you’re having a dream about pirates or something. But alas, it’s a very real SWAT team, and since Madison is white and a cop, they do her the favor of arresting her alive, on the charge of murdering her boss.

This notion of half the police force in riot gear going absolutely nuts on a woman in her living room is thematically appropriate, since Ev- I mean Madison’s big Thing is group sex. That’s a fine kink to have if that’s your thing, but it’s definitely not for me. I have enough anxiety about disappointing one person at a time. I mean, how do you even keep track of whose hand is where, especially when everybody is covered in the same sweat and lube… Uh, sorry I got distracted thinking about sports.

Anyway, I love this scene. When I first started reading, I was ready for some generic crypto-prologue about a mashed potato sculpture qua protagonist and her shitty job at the not-getting-pounded factory. Instead I got a shameless fantasy that combines blatant violations of HR’s Me Too era dating policies with not even doing your damn job in the first place, a heroine who is so horny her brain fog is only gently wafted out of the way by armed intruders, and a fantastic hook to draw me into the next chapter. Bravo, Eve Roxx.

So there’s a sham trial in which Madison is convicted of killing her extremely murdered commissioner. They planted the weapon on her, put a manifesto on her computer, CGI’d a deepfake of her saying she wanted to kill her boss, jammed a “you’re fired, Madison!” note into the dead woman’s hands, sprayed Madison’s DNA on every surface of the room with a Windex bottle, collected an army of supposed eye witnesses including the Pope and a bald eagle, created a profile for her on KillYourBossWithBullets.com, and invented the entire future predicting apparatus from Minority Report. You know, all the lengths you have to go to to convict a cop of wrong-doing. Apparently, Madison made their job easier by facing disciplinary action in the past for… you guessed it! Beating up a child molester. This is such a default way to show what a loose-cannon-Johnson cop protagonists are. Where are the cops who are on thin ice because they refuse to upgrade to the latest broken version of Google Calendar? Are there no more heroes left?

You probably guessed someone has framed Madison to use her for some nefarious purpose. Instead of going to cop prison (another fantasy trope), she is carted away to a secret science location, where Elon Musk and some scientist with a severe ponytail and glasses (No, she doesn’t get a makeover later; I was surprised as well) shove her into a secret science room and pull a lever. This zaps her into some mysterious realm… a monstrous realm, one might say. Waking up in an unknown place after being subjected to terrifying experimental procedures, Madison hears the rhythmic, rutting sounds of a man in the throws of passion, through a wall that appears to have no door. Now, try and guess what is going through our protagonist’s mind at this point. If you guessed “She is angry and sad that she cannot get through the wall to the sex that is probably happening on the other side,” you win. Actually, we all win. This woman is amazing. The middle of the book consists of Madison settling in to this strange place, and the three juicy cock monsters who inhabit it.

The titular (heh) Realm of Monsters is a place where there’s foosball and air hockey, a world where jacuzzi water makes great lube and nobody ever feels jealous or itchy. Madison finds herself in plenty of Xsomes, but never the “Devil’s Threesome” with another girl. In fact, in a curious distaff case of the Not Gays, Madison takes every opportunity to remind the reader how unappealing she finds every woman she knows, up to and including the evil scientist lady who zaps her to the Bone Zone. I guess if you’re going to write a straight power fantasy orgy simulator, you could do worse than being the meat in a double-decker sex hoagie, half a dozen chunky kielbasas rolling around your plate… I mean, if you’re into that. I don’t see the appeal. Shut up, you’re confused.

This book is adorable. I didn’t even talk about the ending, with what is possibly the most petty, trivial, satisfying revenge subplot that has ever gone down in a fast food restaurant. That’s what I like to see, bringing it home after a couple hundred pages of dick Jenga: wacky hijinks. Oh, and don’t think I didn’t notice Eve Roxx out here making up categories so she can be Amazon’s best seller in “Occult Occultism.” Fully earned, fair and square. Realm of Monsters is a delight, and it’s four dollars on Kindle.

Does eating an entire pizza by myself count as getting laid?

The Odd and the Dead by Jody Smith

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Remember when books were gross and fun as hell? Like, those beat-era paperbacks that Charles Keating got mad about, and presumably also hard as a bar of steel? Remember rewinding Day of the Dead so you could watch Joe Pilato get turned into string cheese a second time? Jody Smith remembers. The Odd and the Dead is a being-covered-in-tiny-wet-bugs simulator, and horror anthology.

I’ll take a deep dive into one story, The Boyfriend, but they’re pretty much all in the same vein. Our protagonist, Justice, lives in a vaguely defined postapocalyptic Buffalo. The original draft of this review had a series of jokes about how one might distinguish postapocalyptic Buffalo from regular Buffalo, but in light of recent events I think I’ll just link to this food bank that serves the Kingsley neighborhood and others. Now that we’re all miserable, that’s actually the perfect mood for reading this story. Jody Smith paints a disgusting picture on a dirty canvas with bear bile. And the picture is a butthole. Justice works a five-to-nine at Globodyne or whatever Fafkanopticon passes for an employer in this future dystopia, where she is constantly pressured to find a mate so she can advance in a society trying to shore up its population. Around her, gaunt survivors shamble down the ruined streets of Buffalo, riddled with disease and with no hope for a better life. God, how am I supposed to not make fun of modern day Buffalo? It’s right there! I guess I could tell you about Homespace instead, a charity that helps young women in Buffalo forge a better life for themselves and their children. One day, Justice learns that she is up for a promotion, but it’s not right for a manager to be single. She makes up a hasty lie about a Canadian boyfriend, and proceeds to stress and fail her way through the sitcom plot of trying to find a male who doesn’t suck to rope into her scheme.

The defining feature of this story is that Jody Smith hates your lunch. Jody Smith doesn’t think you and your lunch should be friends anymore, and intends to do something about it. The Buffalo of the future is full of danger and disease, and people die in ways that are at once quick and ridiculously graphic. Smith types out loving descriptions of human bodies bursting like time lapse footage of fruit on a hot day, and you can hear the squelch of the author’s clammy tentacles on the keyboard. Jody Smith loves this shit. Oh, speaking of, every sort of bodily discharge is involved as well. Normally I would include that to say “do not read this book,” because even I, give-me-every-dubcon-shibari-tickling-you-have Madeline, have standards. A list of my least favorite things would begin with private dog parks, the State of Indiana, and bodily functions in books. But the visceral body horror is purposeful, and believe it or not builds up to the final twist. Somehow all the ooze and slime really makes you feel like you inhabit the body of the protagonist, makes you feel like you’re in a miserable, inescapable hellscape, also known as every day in Buff- God damnit! OK, look, PUSH Buffalo is an organization working to end the lack of affordable housing, one of the main engines of inequality in the Buffalo area.

If you’re anything like me, you live your life like it’s a mission to ruin the recommendations algorithm for all the friends and loved ones you’re stealing streaming passwords from. Your girl will never say no to a sci-fi horror offering, be it a tongue-in-cheek slasher in space like Alien, or that one where Elizabeth Moss runs from a gaslighting CGI shimmer for two hours. It’s such a natural combination for a pessimist like me: speculation about the future and scaring the hell out of myself. But sometimes I’m not fully on board with what authors think will make their stories scary.

There’s a theme running throughout science fiction that it would blow a person’s mind to realize how insignificant they are compared to the crushing enormity of the universe. In The Restaurant at the End of the Universe (admittedly not a horror story) this is made overt: grasping the scale of the universe and oneself in relation to it drives people insane. I’ve always wondered what kind of sociopath would have this reaction. Who thinks that they are important? Who is surprised to learn how paltry they are in the grand scheme of things? Every time I read scenes like this it makes me want to give the tears in the rain speech about all the bullshit going on in the part of my brain where I’m apparently supposed to store my feelings of enduring specialness.

Similarly baffling is the Lovecraft truism that “the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Like, literally what? My internal demons and I laugh over salad about how stupid this idea is. What’s scary is all the stuff that’s chasing me of my own creation, the stuff I know every contour of. What’s scary is that any of those voices in my mind might be right about me. Bleeding Christ, give me the unknown! Give me whatever bashful, Disney-eyed beast slouches toward the Bethlehem of your untroubled mind, Howard Phillips. Swapsies, no backsies. Jody Smith gets it. The Boyfriend draws all of its creep factor from what the protagonist knows that no one else does.

I usually avoid short story and poetry collections, because I’m worried I won’t have enough to say, and I can’t let my readership the size of a middle-class Protestant family down. But maybe I should rethink that, because it’s been a while since I enjoyed something this much (and the last anthology I read wasn’t bad, either). Is it revolting? Is it scary? Does it make you clench every time you turn a page? Do I need to examine why I giggle at descriptions of people’s skin being sloughed off their bodies while a bus driver clicks his tongue at the mess? Yes on all counts. If you’re looking for something disturbing, you could do a lot worse than The Odd and the Dead. It’s one dollar on Kindle.

Ask me how I know Lovecraft never met a clown.

Through The Ages (The Fox and Crowe Chronicles Book One) by Sarah Allder

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Through the Ages opens with our protagonist Eliza Fox strolling down the leaf-cobbled streets of a quaint New English town. She stalks some old couple as they shuffle between the haberdasher and the malt shop or whatever it is old people get up to, and seethes with jealousy. You see, Eliza is one of those TV child stars. Her family does a ghost hunting show, and it sucks. The lifestyle, not the show. I haven’t seen the show, but given what an easy mark I am when it comes to reality television, I’d probably watch the whole thing. Eliza’s mother is a domineering figure whose only concern is the care and feeding of her baby, the show. Eliza is a loose cannon who’s on thin-ice-Johnson, and also fat. Gotta make time to give your daughter an eating disorder. The real world is hardly any better, full of fawning stans who don’t get how their voyeurism affects her, or boys who don’t want to date her because of… I don’t know, pointy elbows I guess. A few minutes alone in a sleepy little town is the only vacation she can look forward to.

In general Sarah Allder does a good job of making minor celebrity look like a prison sentence. But I never find it very compelling when the protagonist starts off in sad, Debra No-Date territory. It’s a romance. We know the hunky guy is going to be obsessed with her in, like, two paragraphs. Just watch. In the cute little cafe, Eliza gets accosted by a human Star Wars crawl, who presumably wanders the Earth seeking young protagonists with the whiff of a Scene I fade in still hanging off of them, so she can swoop in and tell them why nobody in town crosses the tracks after dark. Margie, Arg to her friends, tells Eliza about the Crowe Manor. So, rewind. The Fox Family Ghastly Ghosts n’ Friends is in town to do a bit on the Crowe Manor, so they can pretend to be scared and exploit society’s desire to believe in something frightening that’s not climate change for once. Luckily for us, Eliza didn’t do any research, so she gets to sit and listen to the local chamber of commerce list all the bad things that happen there, in accordance with Massachusetts state law. The keystone of the story is the murder of William Crowe by his incel failson brother Oliver.

And boy, does she get into it. This lady delivers exposition like a coal barge. As it went on and on, the backstory started to blend psychedelically with the other conspicuous feature of Allder’s writing: the fact that she needs to tell you every inane detail. We read about a phone coming out of a threadbare cardigan pocket; we read about it descending back into said cardigan pocket. Strangers momentarily pause as they walk down the street, then, after that, continue walking in the same direction. We receive regular updates on the state of puddles. There is a running subplot about a cup of tea that goes from being slightly too hot to moderately hot, to just right. There are rocks on the sidewalk. But wait, there’s less! Pumpkin spice lattes get a sociological breakdown, while tea gets a nutritional one. Then it all loops back to Margie Barge, who is still talking about this one house through history like it’s the architectural equivalent of Black Adder. It’s like Allder is stalling for time, but then the thing she doesn’t want to get into yet is also an interminable wasteland of chatter anyway, so the prose cycles back to counting spots on the linoleum like it’s bored with itself.

But luck, Hunk Dude is here (see, I don’t you). William Crowe is a ghost, and wears ruffles because this is that kind of romance. He is immediately obsessed with Eliza and doesn’t think her elbows could pop a balloon at all, no matter what her mother says. Not only is he infatuated with the certain… energy, the certain… je ne sais quoi, the certain… protagonistness of this young woman, but he also muses to himself that she might be “the one.” If you’re like me, you have the same thought about all these romances with a hot guy from Kate and Leopold times. He’s… He’s gotta be super racist, right? Or sexist? At the very least, he’s going to “just have some questions about crime and Black culture.” And he’s going to talk funny. There’s this thing called the Kissinger age. See, Henry Kissinger and his brother came to American when they were fifteen and fourteen, respectively. Walter Kissinger lost his accent, while Henry Kissinger spoke with a distinct accent until his death in (checks notes) Jesus Christ, he’s still alive? The point is, anyone who’s old enough to have hot, consensual Bridgerton sex with (OK, bad example) does not have full linguistic plasticity. As the centuries go by, they’re just not going to keep up. Our boy Billy is definitely going to speak in Gregorian chants. About ethics in games journalism. I can’t be the only one who thinks this when reading these books, right?

I’m not going to spoil the middle any more than to say that there’s sock-hop-and-Suzie-Q time travel, chosen one underworld transiting, and of course breakfast in bed. But I could. I could spoil all of it and it wouldn’t matter, because about ten pages before the end of the book Sarah Allder stomped her manuscript into the garbage and wrote the ending to another book instead. I can’t even describe to you the experience of feeling my Kindle administer Ambien directly through my eyeballs for hundreds of pages, with entire subchapters dedicated to the texture of water droplets falling on a newspaper, or the progress of a boiling pot of water, only to be picked up at the very end and thrown off a building. I wish I could tell you all about it, but even if I wanted to I don’t think I could.

This is the sort of thing that makes me appreciate indie books. There are just so many people throwing spaghetti at the wall, and every once in a while somebody runs out of spaghetti and just throws a live squid against their kitchen tiles. Does Through the Ages work? Who knows, who cares? But it’s the first part of a trilogy, and it definitely hooked me, so I guess? Through The Ages is five dollars on Kindle.

Hamilton rearranged for Gregorian chant actually doesn’t sound that bad.

The Princess’s Pet by J. K. Jeffrey

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

This is a real treat for me. I read a lot of romance and erotica for this blog, and I rarely get to talk about lesbians. Although technically, if they’re not from the Greek island of Lesbos, the proper term is “sparkling gays.” The Princess’s Pet is a love story by J. K. Jeffrey that asks the question “What if Christian Gray was a feudal lord at Vampire Hogwarts, and also a chick?”

Eighteen year old Persephone, Percy to her friends, loves gardening behind a seaside cottage with her happy family. I agree; it’s a miracle this girl is even still alive. The whole gardening thing is a lot easier when you’re half witch. And the other half is something called “beast shifter,” or rather three eighths beast shifter and one eighth vampire (it’s quite a pie chart). But not the good kind of vampire like the ruling family. Oh, speak of the devil, a Princess shows up to take Percy away. So, OK. So, in this world, everyone gets mandatory blood screening to see if they’re soul mates with anyone in the royal family, and guess what? Percy is now the personal property of Princess Selene Borealis, a gigantic vampire meanie face who we are told in various non-committal ways is super hot. Not too this, not too that. Just fill in what you like, I guess.

Selene takes Percy to vampire college, aka “Sanguis Academy,” where everybody dresses like they’re about to play a spirited game of whiff-whaff. Percy has to escort her mistress to some boring prat classes where we learn about some prat feuds and prat wars that J. K. Jeffrey spent too much time working out to just not mention in the book. Percy has her own classes on servitude, and makes some new servant dude friends, which makes Selene jealous. Nobody bothers to ask Percy her orientation, but I’m guessing this is one of those romance universes where everyone is bi by default. I’m not complaining, but Princess Gold Star is not about to let her new slave have any other romantic connections, or any external support network. That would make her harder to abuse.

Just as there is no aspect of traditional masculinity so undesirable that it can’t be incorporated it into the “girl boss” trope, there is no toxic heteronormative power dynamic that is not gleefully reproduced in glitter by the authors of gay erotica. The verbal and physical abuse starts from day one, culminating in Selene restraining her servant and drinking her blood (Capitalism, amirite ladies?). This is all very erotic, because of course it is; this is what you came here for. Percy is clearly into it as well, given her heightened state of arousal any time Selene is kicking the shit out of her. She starts to fall for her overlord, using her witch powers to create gift baskets or something, and learns to love being treated like a carton of milk that answers to a name.

Eventually a sort of mutual care and respect develops between them. Selene defends Percy from the obligatory Malfoys that want to pass the new girls around, and even manages to comply with basic consent. This is a great victory of will, since, as Selene puts it, Percy “smells appetizing” to the point that the princess can hardly hold herself back. Heck, you know they’re in love when Selene puts balm on the fang-holes in Percy’s neck. Why is dressing wounds such an erotic experience in fantasy novels? Actually, it kind of makes sense. People had a lot of babies in ye olden times, and they were constantly having to lance a seeping boil or suture a rabid weasel bite. Their deadly, disgusting world was basically a never-ending tease.

Speaking of setting, I never quite got a handle on the time period, but it seems to be part of the classic Early Modern fantasy setting. Military dorks call it “pike and shot” times; the rest of us know it as the golden age of the quick-release bodice. It’s great for authors, since you don’t have to worry about technology when your book takes place in that one moment of history where people thought it was totally fine to bring a halberd to a musket fight, or take a steam train to the jousting match. But from a reader’s perspective, it deprives the setting of any tangible character it might otherwise have. It creates a blank canvas that the author has to fill with their own ideas, and Jeffrey mostly leaves it empty. This is a common problem with Pigpimples Legally Distinct Escuela de Magic type books, where presumably you’re just supposed to fill in all the blanks with your favorite Harold Jim Potter fan art. See, for example, the very first book I reviewed on this blog, The Soul’s Aspect. But I’ve never enjoyed that as a reading experience. Maybe because I’m not nostalgic for Hank Potter in the first place, or maybe because the only character in those books I ever related to was Kreacher. The problem is me; I’m more than willing to admit that fact.

Otherwise I didn’t hate The Princess’s Pet. It’s all about deriving pleasure from behavior that would lead to an amber alert in the real world, but that’s the point of dark romance. The big strength of The P’s P is that it understands the romantic, pre-sexual side of a story like this. I had to wait a few chapters to even get a kiss, let alone anything more, and in the meantime Jeffrey built up the tension and relationship between the leads. That alone puts this book on a higher shelf than the “Orc Bosoms” subgenre that frequently makes its way into my fantasy romance TBRs. It’s five dollars and eighty seven cents on Kindle, a baffling amount that probably gives us a very specific insight into the author’s level of debt (update: it has dropped to five fifty four!). That’s a little steep, but I guess it’s the price we pay to queer our dark fantasy erotica.

Kreacher doesn’t want to be free, Hermione. Vote New Labour.

The Cartographers’ Guild by Aaron Cummins

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Have you ever wanted to smuggle a mummy out of Cairo Airport? Does the phrase “gentleman’s bastard” intrigue you? Do you have a very specific idea of what mustaches looked like in the 1930s? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this book is for you. The Cartographer’s Guild is a George-Lucas’-childhood simulator by Aaron Cummins.

The titular Guild is a group of scientists digging for Elgin marbles or whatever in Turkistan, when our story begins. Professor Oak, aka “Doc,” is captured by angry Uzbeks, while his assistant Jimmy Olsen cowers on the ground. Ace pilot Launchpad and grizzled grumpyman Davis try and fail to rescue him. Back at base camp, leader Marge and Intern the intern discover that doctor Carambo, who unlike Doc is an actual medical doctor, has been taken by mystery nomads. The kidnappers chose their victims curiously, took no money, and showed the clothing of disparate ethnic groups. Since this is the 30s, I’m guessing Marge also noted their relative skull shapes and Cummins was good enough to leave that part out. There’s nothing to do but go back to town and hope that the authorities can help.

On the way, Launchpad has to get into a gunfight, because this book has the tonal range of a vuvuzela, and heaven forbid we should have two pages where some Dudes Rock stuff isn’t happening. We get a tavern brawl, an unhelpful magistrate who I guess works for the Soviet Union but nobody ever talks about it, another tavern brawl in the warehouse district, then finally the gang catches a break. See, there’s a young boy tailing them, who is paid by the mysterious Yando, who has a map to a hidden Roman city that contains a magical mask, and their timing couldn’t be better, because the angry mob of Lawrence of Arabia extras has converged on their position, presumably hoping to hand them a bill for broken tavern furniture all over town. This kicks off a mad cap adventure that travels by red line across half of central Asia, encountering yeti caves and warlords.

This particular “action archaeologist” subgenre is part of the ecosystem of boys’ adventure serials that made up a big part of those pulp magazines with Frank Frazetta covers and ads for decoder rings. In interviews about Raiders of the Lost Arc, George Lucas made it pretty clear he was operating from nostalgia. “ ‘I started out by asking myself ‘Gee, when I was a kid what did I really like?’ ’ Mr. Lucas recently explained. He liked the derring-do of the serials, and the unbeatable courage of their characters, not to mention the 30’s settings. ‘Practically every movie star of the 30’s has one movie like this, be it Alan Ladd or Clark Gable or whoever – playing a soldier of fortune in a leather jacket and that kind of hat,’ Mr. Lucas said, referring to Mr. Ford’s snap-brim. ‘That’s a favorite period of mine, but it was more the character we were after than the period, although they’re obviously both rooted in the same ground.’ ”

Boy are they! That soldier of fortune bit is telling, since mercenaries filled out a lot more of those stories than scientists ever did. The writer Larry Kasdan made the connection to deliberate historical narrative ever clearer: “With ‘Raiders,’ Mr. Kasdan added, the filmmakers hoped to draw upon ‘all of our greatest, most productive myths about ourselves. Being strong, resourceful and quick. It’s your best dream of heroism- a time of no fears and absolute resourcefulness. And a certain kind of competence in the face of almost any adversity… George is a real American boy. A lot of things he’s interested in have touched a lot of us American boys. One of the things George understands in a very liberating way is what his audience is about. It’s not the only audience in the world. But it just happens to be an enormous one.’ “

History, that heinous killjoy, is as usual more complicated, with multiple cultural trends converging over the course of the twentieth century. Orientalism has always been an integral part of how archaeology is presented to the public. Ever wonder why natural history museums are full of human artifacts, like there’s a T-Rex skeleton and then you turn a corner and you’re in an exhibit on Tibetan Buddhism? You can thank people like Agatha Christie’s husband. They did a fair bit of traveling between historical sites together, and the paternalistic vision of consequence-free galavanting, a sort of imperial Grand Tour, pops up time and again in her books. In the seventies Elizabeth Peters standardized the setting by taking it out of the mystery genre and using it for historical fiction. Crocodile on the Sandbank combines irreverent humor with second wave white lady feminism instead of misery with classism, so that’s an improvement I guess. This was the transferable aesthetic that had been established by the time Indiana Jones was written. So like most instances of nostalgia, the vision Lucas et. al. were working with was largely the invention of intervening decades. Now we’re nostalgic for the version of the thirties that was invented in the seventies.

It’s not for me to say how people should enjoy stories like this. If I were in charge of what media gets created everything would be box-ticking tropey horror anthologies, and that stuff is no better. There’s enough transphobia in classic horror to fill J. K. Rowling’s entire Twitter feed. If we approach it with an open mind, The Cartographer’s Guild is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the ending is a blatant “our princess is in another castle” sequel-bait, but on the other hand, yeti cave! It’s an entire genre based on the question “what if the people looting antiquities for a living were the good guys,” but on the other hand, and I cannot believe I even have to repeat this, a cave of yetis. This is the quintessential example of big dumb fun. It’s three dollars on Kindle.

My childhood was based on George Lucas’s childhood, and I’m surprisingly OK with that.

Multiple Winters of Discontent

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Scrolling through my TBR, I found two books, published a week apart, about protagonists named Winter. And, since in a previous life I was apparently one of those people who drive behind ambulances to avoid traffic jams, every book on my Kindle is dark romance these days. So which book beats up and molests an innocent woman better: Winter’s Storm by Deja Brown, or Hunting Winter by Ivy Thorn?

At the start of Winter’s Storm, Winter is working a dead-end job when she gets an invitation to her step family reunion. Her alarmingly well-informed coworker insists that she should go, since she’s probably over wanting to bone her step brother. The rest of the first chapter is a whirlwind flashback that progresses from the image of her parents being killed in a car accident when she’s seven, to making out with hot, blue-eyed Kyle. There are butterflies from the beginning, but the crescendo is the classic trope of rescuing a girl from getting raped by Chad on prom night. Naturally Kyle is furious about what almost happened to his sister, and emotional, so he expresses this by kissing his Bun Buns. Oh, right, he calls his kid sister Bun Buns.

Meanwhile, in Hunting Winter, Winter wakes up tied to a smelly, dead-end mattress, in pain and with a bad case of amnesia. A man walks in, and through the blood and panic Winter instantly notices that he is drop dead gorgeous. At no point does she describe any of this man’s actions without prefacing it with a fawning account of his piercing blue eyes. He looks down at her and says simply “you’re mine.” It turns out that Gabriel is in a biker gang, caught up in some dicey local politics. There’s been a bloody coup, and Winter lost her memory as she was dragged from the burning aftermath. Once stuck up and too good for a man like Gabriel, now she is scraps to be snatched up by anyone with hot enough desire and blue enough eyes. But of course Winter doesn’t remember any of this, so Gabriel decides to Overboard her. The story is, he rescued her from a bad accident, which of course explains the restraints and lack of proper medical attention.

Now firmly rooted in the present day, we learn that Kyle has been obsessed with Winter his whole life, to the point that other women are basically Fleshlights to him. As he puts it, “I need my Bun Buns.” At the reunion, the sexual tension is immediate, to the delight and frustration of both parties. They sneak a few make out sessions under their parents’ noses, have a few jealous fights, and just generally act like any young lovers in a romance novel. Deja Brown really takes her time with oral sex scenes, which I feel is unusual in these kinds of books, but that might be my imagination. But all is not well. I mean, obviously, but even less is well than I’ve already described. In addition to being bummed that his love for Winter can never lead to a real family with marriage and kids, Kyle has (an additional) deep, dark secret. The shadowy cabal he works for is looking for him, and they are not happy, despite all the buckets of cash he’s made for and from them. The rebellious bad boy with a money market account, truly the distaff version of the Madonna/whore complex. I don’t want to spoil too much of the later chapters of Winter’s Storm, but it does eventually get pretty crazy once the cartel gets involved. This is a dark romance, so you know there’s gonna be miscarriages, immediate replacement pregnancies, people getting shot and dying, people getting shot and not dying, this Winter even gets tied down at one point, like her biker slave counterpart.

The vibe of Hunting Winter follows a similar track of domestic melodrama punctuated by criminal activity. Winter and Gabriel are constantly fight-fucking, with the narration always careful to remind us that any time Winter is putting up some token tee-hee resistance, she is re-enacting the Vajont dam collapse in her pants. “Everything about him screams predator,” muses Winter, but he is “dangerously hot.” Sometimes she fears his anger, but blames herself for provoking him. After all, he never hurts her in a way she doesn’t like. While her friends are insisting that if she loves him, it will all be worth it, the various biker gangs are playing a massive chess game with Winter as a pawn. Gabrielle defends her from danger, primarily because she makes his dick twitch. In every scene. Winter will say something he likes, and we’re told that this caused an immediate kinetic reaction in the man’s penis. This guy’s dick is more expressive than a pair of boobs in a Game of Thrones book. It could have a whole conversation in semaphore. It could play jazz drums like that kid from Whiplash.

So how do we compare these two books? Since the content is nearly identical, I think it comes down to style. Winter’s Storm was slightly more fun to read, because the writing was less polished. Let me be more specific, because you might read that and think “Oh, Madeline’s poking fun at someone who’s trying, because she’s such a failure herself.” Well, that’s mostly accurate, but while I did find it amusing when the characters call a psychotic jerk “you psychic jerk,” that’s not what I mean. It’s a common pitfall for new authors to write every character in the same register, and the same dialect, whatever he or she finds most natural. I don’t want to assume too much about Deja Brown, but somehow Winter’s rural white step family all speak exclusively in AAVE. They say “She mad” instead of “she is mad,” “he favorite” instead of “his favorite,” and they’re all really excited about Teyana Taylor. For some reason, I found this delightful. More redneck erasure in my dark romances, please.

The writing in Hunting Winter is more deliberate. Ivy Thorn knows exactly how penises operate, how unhealthy relationships form, and how generic middle class white people talk, and she tells you succinctly, so she can make room for more dubiously consensual finger banging in a bathtub. Eventually Winter’s memories come flooding back to her, and although I had been pretty checked out (and even started to forget that Gabriel was still Overboarding her twenty chapters in), that last chapter where she recalls how she came to be tied down and injured is some of the most effective sequel bait I’ve seen in the first installment of a series lately. Overall, though, it just wasn’t fun. Maybe it’s better if you’re looking for efficient ratios of “you belong to me, now get spanked” per page. Or if you’re looking for a good deal; Winter’s Storm is ten dollars on Kindle, and Hunting Winter is only five dollars at nearly twice the length.

He penised down the hall, penisly, his penis penising up a penis.

Going Homeless by Kevin Becker

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

You’re not going to believe this, but sometimes I can be a bit… critical. No, there’s no use arguing with me on this. You may see me as a happy little sidewalk daisy, but deep down, under all those cheerful layers, I’m more like an actual sidewalk plant: gnarled, trodden, and smelling faintly of cat piss. Well, no more! Today, I am turning over a new leaf as Polly Positive. I’m going to read a book, and for once I am going to find things to enjoy about it. Going Homeless by Kevin Becker is a first person account of a young man who spends five days on the streets of Chicago. This is a hefty one. If I ever scratched off something more lucrative than a hangnail and found myself rich enough to afford physical books, this one could stun a bear. So let’s start by getting to know our protagonist.

Kyle is Lao Tzu’s uncarved stone. He’s bored with his classes and classmates. He has a lukewarm friendship with another boy, who moves away. No other friends are mentioned, so I’ll assume he’s just too busy. As far as school goes, he has the apathy of a greaser in the background of a teen movie from the 50s. You know that podcast where Elon Musk said when he was a kid, he didn’t realize that everyone else’s mind wasn’t constantly exploding with ideas? That’s our Kyle. He gets a 13 on the ACT, and you know what? Screw the ACT. Kyle’s got bigger fish to fry, like biking to the Polish deli to look at Maxim Magazine and not buy anything. He briefly toys with the idea of being a garbage collector, until he realizes that garbage smells bad. In spite of everything, thanks to the diligent efforts of a school counselor, our underappreciated genius gets a few college credits before graduating, mainly because he likes getting to leave school early. It’s a story about inevitable triumph. Kyle’s destiny is woven so deep into the weft of the universe, even he can’t unravel it. I like it. This is fine. Everything about this is absolutely fine, and I am engaged with the material.

Kyle just sees things that other people can’t see, you know? Like the rat race. All the “robot zombies” on the train to Chicago every morning, don’t they realize they’re wasting their life? They should be more like Kyle, slowly discovering that he’s not going to be a professional musician and being generally unflapped by everything. The list of things that don’t bother our hero includes: silence, pigeons, Black people, religion, the emotional needs of intimate partners, the continued existence of social media, and hot dogs. I’m sure this is all part of some elaborate set up, a flawed character who undergoes a painful learning experience later in life. Anyway, the story really gets started when Kyle sees an advertisement for an amateur film festival, and thinks back to an experience he had as a child. Visiting the city with his father, he was struck by an encounter with a young homeless man named Marvin. The idea hits Kyle to film himself living on the streets for five days, to… show people what it’s like, I guess.

Not knowing any homeless people, and apparently unaware that he could speak to one ahead of time, Kyle sets about making a to-do list, with things like “sleep on bench” and “urinate in public.” Presumably “practice bindle tying” didn’t make the final draft. No! Positive. This is a good book, I just need to open my frigid little heart and let Kyle’s warm magic inside. What’s next? He begins his first day on the streets with a quote by Martin Luther King. OK, nope, skimming a few pages. Kyle describes his time wandering the streets of Chicago as a series of goals and encounters. He helps a man named Irv sell newspapers. A nice lady goes with him to scrounge a cup of coffee, and he informs us that she has worth despite not having any assets. At some point he gets mugged by cartoon splatter punks whom he describes as “goblins.” That’s a theme. Anytime our author doesn’t like someone, they are described as something other than human. The high school kids who tried to beat him up in the pornography forest (don’t ask) are “hyenas,” while the Chads beating up a mentally ill homeless man are “jackals.” This makes it just a tad alarming when he describes the hustle and bustle of a city street as “the zoo,” but we’re not going to unpack that one. Kyle is befriending people, broadening his horizons, the whole deal. What kind of obstacles does he face, being on the street with no money? How does he get food?

Kyle tells us his first encounter with starvation was in college, when he ran out of money and had to ask his mother to send him some. Hold on, I just need to get up and stretch my legs a little. OK, so hunger. Kyle ends up doing a little begging at a local food festival to get a few slices of pizza. This requires a little bit of sneakery, but he knows the police won’t touch him, because it would be bad PR if they were seen roughing up a person in need. Yes, you know that’s not why the CPD are letting him go, and I know that’s not why the CPD are letting him go. We’re just going to move on. It’s a learning experience, remember? We’re building a better Kyle out of spit and bubble gum. The whole time he’s living on the streets, he’s filming with a hidden camera, and planning out the sketches and narration that will go along with them. I never did get any indication of what this film is supposed to be other than random footage of a guy selling newspapers or free pizza at a beer festival. What sort of lesson does Kyle take from all this? There is a scene near the end of his experiment, where Kyle looks around at the swirling mass of humanity around him, and thinks that if only people worked for the common good, like ants, then maybe the world would be a better place. Sure, the queen may squash the plan, but what if she didn’t? What if they got away with it? Kyle relates his epiphany to a random stranger, and is disappointed that “even this bug-eyed man” (classy) didn’t get it.

I. OK. So. This is. That’s is not how ants work. The queen of an ant colony is not a divine right monarch, directing her minions to bring her chocolate crumbs and mouthfuls of Pepsi. For that matter, ants do not have a concept of the common good. Ants operate on instinct, usually following the chemical trail of the ant that came before them. I thought we weren’t supposed to be mindless sheeple doing some mechanical nine to five, Kyle! I know I said I was going to like this book, and I tried. I really did. I didn’t even talk about how all the homeless people’s lines are spelled phonetically, or that he calls people “gypsies.” Yeah, didn’t like the taste of that, did you? Well I swallowed it. And this was the thing that brought it all chundering back up: misinformed fucking ant politics. It’s no wonder nobody gets your Earth-shattering revelation, Kyle, you human jar of mayonnaise. This man doesn’t even know how much of a personality vampire he is. The only thought he has for the women in his life is how they can feed him, motivate him, or reward him for success, because oh, did I not mention that his asinine documentary about glamping in Millennial Park got a streaming deal? Because of course it did! This man fails upward faster than a SpaceX rocket. That’s right, two Elon Musk references in one review. That’s how bad it is. There’s no indication that anything he did helped a single person. Kyle is to the homeless what Betty Friedan is to the woman who cleans her house.

Should you pay six dollars to read this on Kindle? It’s still possible this whole thing is an elaborate parody of mediocrity and middle class cluelessness. The fact that I can’t tell for sure may make it worth the read for some people. If your idea of a good time is watching a narrator use “the end of the Civil Rights era” as a reference point and trying to figure out what year he thinks that is, then you’re going to love Going Homeless. Otherwise, not so much.

I tried owning my own house for five days and made a movie about it.

Helfyre by Mariel Pomeroy

Hot Off the Presses scours the internet for newly published debut books from unknown authors, and saves everyone else the trouble of actually reading books to find out if they’re good or not. New posts every Tuesday, or maybe Wednesday? This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Sometimes I get to read a power fantasy, where a pimply nerd invents a machine that makes him irresistible to the girl who ignored him in third period. Sometimes I get to read a romance about a main character whose fetish is being miserable. And sometimes, I get both. Helfyre by Mariel Pomeroy is a dark romance named after an Axe body spray, in which the reader learns a lot about a fictional world and its singular beef with the protagonist.

The story begins with Aheia running across a desert, afraid and alone, trying to make it to some sort of border. There’s a death eater chasing her, but I guess she’ll be fine if she can cross into Aljira. They don’t have an extradition treaty with death eaters. She makes it across the shimmery fantasy border (which, shockingly, is not described as “coruscating,” in flagrant violation of sf/fantasy law), and collapses smack into the arms of Some Dude, who saves her from certain doom. Aheiea is immortal, which means she attained the visual age of twenty eight and stopped there, so it wasn’t clear to me at first what was at stake or what she was running from, but as the first chapter went on it became clear that I was going to have to let go of a lot of questions. The amount of front loading, eyebrow waggling, and unexplained terminology is just bonkers. I will elaborate.

When Ahehe first meets the male lead, he is described as a demon, which is not italicized, and a Leviathan, which is. Also a Nephilim. No idea what any of this means yet. Also he has an Avarice, or is an Avarice? He is later identified as Al Shaytan, of course. He can bend shadows, the way that Ah-Ah-Ah’s Dioscuri people can bend light, except she doesn’t have her light powers anymore, obviously. In any case her kingdom is ruled by winged Maleks (or possibly Mithras), not the race of her mother, who is dead, as I’m sure you already assumed.

One thing I’m not going to dock points for is cramming how hot the dude is into her chapter. Yeah, it’s a little weird that she would be focusing on that when she’s dying of thirst and sand and stuff, but it always annoys me when the hot bod description happens in the man’s perspective chapter. You know what it is? I just figure out why it bugs me. You know how guys are constantly taking dick pics from a top-down angle? What the hell is that? Am I supposed to imagine having that attached to me? Give me a photo from, to put it delicately, the diner’s perspective, and maybe we’ll talk.

Our hunky love interest is Arioch, an evil handsomeman who gets a thrill from watching Aihaheay suffer. I mean, presumably you, the reader, are supposed to get off on that as well; Helfyre XXXtreme is one of those dark romance stories where you watch a reader insert endure wanton abuse for hundreds of pages. Before he will agree to grant asylum to the stranger dying in the desert, he makes her do a highly sexualized soul binding ritual, with hair pulling and everything. There’s dubcon kissing, and a “good girl” that will either make your skin crawl or your seat damp, depending on what sort of parties you’re no longer invited to.

Believe it or not, I’m not going to shit on Pomeroy for putting abuse and porn in the blender. Helfyre by Monseigneur Frollo is very upfront about what it is. Have you ever cut into a delicious looking BDSM cake, only to find it full of 50 Shades candy corn? You know what I mean. You read a chapter where Christian complains about women who use safe words, and you’re like “Well, that retroactively changes how I feel about everything I’ve just read.” Yeah, you’re not gonna get that scene in this book. Right out of the gate you’re reading lines like “He wanted to see what it looked like when she truly begged, and imagined it would be so fucking pretty.”

Aiiiiiii wakes up and fights a bed, which, it turns out, is her bed at home. Surprise! It was all a dream. She is back in Keloseros, ruled by her father Ophion, the thing she was running away from in the first place. Fresh off a description of our heroine getting Weinsteined moments before death, we get to see her receive a routine beating from her father’s henchmen, while he watches and licks his lips. Pomeroy doesn’t specify, but I assume just out of sight there is a conveyor belt of injured puppies for him to continuously kick. But just then, Fifty Shades of Bruise wakes up again in Aljazeera, under Arioch’s care. It all being a dream was all a dream! Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Something I didn’t mention before is that the handsome monsterman has the ability to make her aroused with the sound of his voice, which he does frequently and randomly, as a joke. So we get descriptions of pain, anger, and abuse interspersed with sudden desire to get boned.

Some of the worst flowery language is poured over Arioch’s head. He has “a stare that spoke of burnt secrets and gray ash, eyes that were flecked with embers, dark and angry.” He has shadows on top of shadows next to his shadows. We can’t have grains of sand; sand comes in kernels or granules. In addition to the thesaurus abuse, some words are spelled weird for fun, like magyck. I’m not counting in this category made up words that we have to figure out along the way, like achlys, eyrid, and the various demon curse words. That’s fine. It’s all about finding the right balance of “The Fnang-Blade coruscated with a resplendent luster under the two suns of Thoop” and “Sword shiny.”

Given all that, is Doritos Helfyre Sour Cream n’ Onion worth checking out? The Baroque prose was a lot, but I doubt most people will find it cringe-worthy. The nazty bits are spaced out very deliberately to keep the reader sweating through their white gloves and hoop skirts. I would say maybe don’t buy it as a gift for someone who is likely to read the annihilation fantasy as romanticizing self harm, or the abuse as passion. But then again, if you have the temerity to buy a book like this as a gift, you’ve earned the right to do as you please. Overall it’s a pretty good piece of artsy erotica if you like it rough and full of pseudo-Herbonic mythology. Helfyre is seven dollars on Kindle.

I coruscated all over myself when I read this review.