Living with Sequels: Causes and Treatments

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 monthly. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

I miss Halloween. It’s the one time of year when people look at me and say “cool Tina Belcher costume,” instead of wincing and looking at their phones. But alas and alack, time marches on, and the pumpkin that scared us one day fills our pies the next. Racist Pilgrim Day is a time to reflect on what we’re thankful for, and I am thankful that no one checks to see if they know how to write first before publishing a book. And the best thing is, it keeps happening. Sometimes people write more than one book. In this month’s installment, I decided to check in with authors I’ve featured before on this blog, to see what they’ve been up to. Below are four books, some overt sequels, by authors who are no longer debutantes de plume. Have they improved? Have they gotten worse? Have they been replaced by a Russian AI? Let’s find out together.

The first book I reviewed on this blog was The Soul’s Aspect by Mark Holloway. I accidentally called him “Matt” while I complained that his book was just a jukebox musical about every existing YA franchise. But I didn’t hate it, so there was always the possibility that the second book would be good. Well, now’s the time to find out. The Soul’s Instruments is a book by Mark (not Matt, Mark) Holloway, in which some of the characters from The Soul’s Aspect try to pick up the pieces after the dramatic events of the first book.

The first book left off with Kermit, a YA protagonist who has somehow found themselves trapped inside an actual novel, had learned to harness the power of the Aspect. Some of his friends at the magical school for imperial super soldiers also survived, and the narrative of book two sometimes follows Broch, who has gone from privileged playboy to super murder killer, so he has graduated from me renaming him Brock Turner in my head to renaming him Brock Samson. The early part of the story is dominated by the handful of survivors fleeing the authorities that seek to destroy them, ruminating over the torture and abuse they faced at the hands of the monks who are silently taking control of the Vin empire, and committing various violent crimes in varying degrees of self defense.

I complained in the first installment that Mark Holloway’s descriptions relied too much on genre tropes and too little on actual information, leaving everything a sort of indistinct gray. It was a bit like combining every branded Lego kit in a 3D printer that only has one color of plastic; the shapes are there, but without any texture. Well, book two solves this problem by only using a single branded Lego kit, The Empire Strikes Back. This is the downer one, people. We had the coming of age one, now this is the downer one, with all the gore and disappointment you would expect. Everything is still an indistinct gray, but now it’s on purpose. Case in point, I specifically mentioned the perfunctory mention of food, so in what I can only assume is a personal attack on me, Holloway included an unnecessarily detailed description of a gray clam soup. I know Holloway was already writing the sequel before my review came out, but I’m still owned.

The best thing about The Soul’s Aspect was the batshit ending. This one seems to build up to a small battle in a border town, and a tense showdown between Brock Samson and Kermit, who have beef from the way they parted in book one. But then the aspect goes bananas, and there’s some general chaos that I won’t get into here, as it’s genuinely fun like last time. The problem is, it’s too short. The fun crazy bit is only a few pages long this time around, and I know it’s setting up the events of the third book, but damn it if you’re going to make me sit through three hundred pages of purple dialogue punctuated by bloody viscera, give me a satisfying payoff. Overall, this isn’t a bad book, but this might end up being one of those trilogies where the middle one is mostly housekeeping.

Moving on. If you haven’t read the first installment of Dugan’s ongoing trilogy, you need to. I don’t say that because you won’t understand the sequel without context, although that is certainly true, but because I, personally, need you to. The Traveler Book 1 is the story of Trixie, a triangle of unbuttered toast who walks as a man, falling in love with Harry, a mysterious giant talking spider. I anticipate push-back on this characterization, so let me just tell you now: you’re wrong, they are in love, and I will accept no rebuttal on this point. It may not be a sexual relationship, but it is an emotional connection indistinguishable from romantic love, and the story proceeds according to the narrative conventions of the romance genre, complete with wacky misunderstanding in the third act. At the conclusion to the first book, Harry went into hibernation, a state which could last for an indeterminate period of time. Harry has been around for billions of years, and his love may very well be long dead by the time he is able to revive himself.

Meanwhile, Trixie has settled down with his consolation Jacob, Elena. They play house, pick out curtains and cacti, and Trixie slowly nurses himself back from a deep funk. But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, we have to go back in time, because most of Book 2 is a prequel. Trixie and Harry aren’t reunited until two thirds of the way through the book, and the rest is Harry waking up in various time periods and experiencing some kind of nebulous character growth, maybe? I’m not sure what’s happening. Dugan has come to the conclusion that the best part of Book 1 was the painfully detailed asides that withhold from the reader any explanation of how they meaningfully fit together. If you read Book 1, you will recall the series of chapters in which Harry outsmarts a bird by climbing a flower. I think. That memory has gone into the same hole I use to store explanations of fixed rate mortgage law and whatever people are saying on right wing philosophy subreddits. Book 2 scratches that itch you didn’t know you had by waking Harry up in cave man times. We get several chapters about his budding love for the human race in the body of a bigfoot, before waking up again as a spider in medieval times. Remember Brother Mark, and that guy with the donkey from Book 1? Well, they’re back, baby! Only Brother Mark is psychic, and also cats are psychic. Were cats psychic in the first one? That feels new.

Just as Trixie is starting to rebuild his life with Sally-Second-Best, Harry pops back into his life as a preying mantis. By the way, did you know it’s spelled “preying” mantis, not “praying” mantis? Because I didn’t. Apparently I have as much spelling sense as the Dutch. Since we’re most of the way through the book at this point, Dugan has to rush through the romcom sequence in which Trixie eases Elena into her new role in the polycule. She takes it well, but then what else is she going to do, date a man who actually loves her? The story ends on a high note, revisiting a moment from Harry’s time with Brother Mark, in which he directly experiences the infiniteness of the universe and the nature of the soul. In other words, Brother Mark was never psychic; they just had really good drugs in those days. The Traveler Book 2 frustrated me with its unwillingness to give me more man-spider love, but on the other hand it did give me a better understanding of where Harry comes from. A lot of that should have been groundwork in Book 1, and it’s all two or three times as long as it needs to be, but it’s not bad. Once again I have to give it to Deborah Dugan; she knows how to write readable dialogue and likable characters. I wish she would stop being so coy about her arthropod fetish, but she dances around that bush with aplomb (not a plum—plums grow on trees).

Our boy Justin has been busy. After the meteoric success of his first book, Monster Girls Unlocked, he has been steadily crisping the world’s dirty socks with scintillating stories of super heroines who have their own butts, orcs who have their own butts, and (most relevant for today) witches, who also have their own butts. The appeal here is obviously good smutty fun, and while I am judgy and inherently mistrustful of anyone having a good time, I am also a horndog (hornbitch?) who is not above a good bodice ripping piece of trash. I am, however, clouds and clouds above the kind of gross teen power fantasy that runs through books like Monster Girls Unlocked. So I was intrigued by the turn Trublood’s subsequent books have taken. In many of them, the reader insert twerp-tagonist is a conduit for powerful women to unleash their supernatural powers. Theoretically this could invest the female characters with some agency other than asking “what am I supposed to do with all these tits?” With that I introduce Justin Trublood’s sophomoric effort, Lust Witches #1.

Ordinary, unconfident Marion drives a Honda Accord and works at an accounting firm. He doesn’t have “enough money to be a snappy dresser,” which is what men say when they can’t pick out a shirt that doesn’t say Dave Mathews on it. And he’s our hero. There’s a recurring bit where he just doesn’t know basic facts, and it’s never explained. He lives in Houston but thinks the Astros are a football team. He goes to Cork and thinks the police there work for “Scotland Yard.” This book has a higher density of inaccuracies than the pledge of allegiance. I don’t know if this is Justin Trublood having as much patience for geography as J. K. Rowling has for looking up Asian names, or if it’s supposed to indicate to the reader what a thick plank of wood our Marion is. Either way, he’s every bit the cardboard cutout that his predecessor in Monster Girls Unlocked was. This is something romance fiction marketed to women does as well; whichever character you’re supposed to relate to most effortlessly must bring absolutely nothing of value. I feel like there’s a lesson in there somewhere about how writers view their audience, but that’s for another day.

Marion is hanging out at Starbucks when Morticia Addams notices him, and he starts nose-bleeding about it. But no sooner does sempai finally notice him than he is swept away from a group of kidnappers. Maybe I should back up. Marion has a mysterious book, and both the good guys and bad guys are interested in it. Or rather, him. Because through the book Marion is a familiar: someone with the ability to supply magical power to another. Morticia is part of a trio of sisters who want Marion for themselves. He visits their mansion where they all eye him like sharks circling a Baconator, and introduce him to their lawyer, who I guess also wants to fuck him. Right, in case you’re not familiar with Trublood’s ouvre, this is a smut book. The witches get the magic juice out of him, so to speak, by doing sex to him. Which they enjoy, for some reason. Seriously, they cannot get enough of this little dweeb. Luckily for him, all the magic ladies are total smoke shows, blue ribbons in their respective anime class. We’ve got your yandere, your acts-like-jail-bait whatever they call that in Japan, and most importantly, your voluptuous matron. Marion does not spare the details when he (immediately upon meeting anyone at all, mind you) gives us a running updates on the comparative quality of butts. And one of the early trysts is with a lady of advanced middle age. Trublood repeats a really annoying thing here where “Don’t worry, you do in fact please my penis despite your age” is framed as some sort of heroic body positivity. You or I might take pause when our sex partner can’t stop negging herself, but Marion, he sees only an opportunity to lean in!

Still, there is something about Lust Witches that puts it well above Monster Girls Unlocked. Because the women are largely in charge of the situation, the power dynamic is largely reversed. You still have a male love interest with the charisma of a pile of toenail clippings who is inexplicably desired by every woman he meets, but at least he’s not manipulating anyone. In fact he spends much of his time reacting to stressful situations other people have put him in. He’s 20% less schlemiel, 35% more schlamazel. It turns out that’s the adjustment these books really needed. I can’t say these books are ever going to be my cup of tea, but I have to give points for improvement. My preemtive cringe was mostly unjustified, as this book is like a Claymore mine that’s secretly just a piñata.

Casey Morales is an old horny gay. He just sits in his favorite booth at Perkins in his Member’s Only jacket, writing his little books, and he doesn’t hurt anybody. Then I come along and I shit all over them. The first erotic masterpiece he wrote with his pen that’s made from the wood of a famous sailboat was My Accidental First Date, in which a young man discovers he is gay. Several installments in the “Oops I Penised” saga followed, until Morales broke new ground with Winning His Vote, the steamy tale of a gubernatorial candidate and his campaign manager. Actually, though this is canonically outside the “Accidentally Gay” cycle, it is in keeping with the overall theme, as David Reese, the candidate, identifies as straight at the beginning of the story. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Joe, a campaign whiz kid, helps Marcus Sanchez become the first Republican Latino mayor of Nashville. Marcus and Maria are the Platonic form of shiny perfect people, so it’s easy for Joe to believe in them. Now he’s being tapped for the big time. Joe’s sassy gay bestie Pete, because even a gay man needs a sassy gay bestie sometimes, points out a super sexy, clean cut blond guy at Marcus Sanchez’s victory party, and wouldn’t you know it, that’s Joe’s next client, David. Joe and David start out professional, accidentally having flirtation thoughts that they try to suppress. David is a widower who loves attention, and Joe is a career-minded person with his own side piece. But they are inexorably drawn by their shared horniness to becoming a couple gay Republicans together. And I know they’re Republicans, because Morales never mentions what political party any of these people work for. Also “grocery store owner turned first Latino mayor” is definitely the author insert in Mark Rubio’s anonymously written crime novel.

In My Accidental First Date, Morales doxxed himself as your dad’s fishing buddy in several places, including a comment about a lover’s “sensuous Orville Redenbacher breath.” You’ll be glad to know, he keeps up that practice in Winning His Vote. My favorite line is when a woman with a sparkling personality is said to “make Ronald Reagan look uncharismatic.” For younger readers, Ronald Reagan was a kaiju that came to shore in 1980 and was never defeated in battle. During its reign of destruction it was known by many names, including Abaddon the Destroyer, or Shulak the Lurker in the Dark. The Inca knew it as Supay, lord of the underworld. Republicans called Ronald Reagan “the Great Communicator,” because of its folksy demeanor. Imagine Saturn eating his children, but he’s saying “aw shucks.” Point is, no one under the age of sixty remembers Ronald Reagan as charismatic. That brand had a very short shelf life, so this is another ring in the redwood that we can use to date Casey Morales and place him in his cultural and political context.

But has he improved as a writer? My Accidental First Date had a few unintentionally creepy moments where people were a little… Aziz Ansari when they were told “no.” If you’re going to have dubcon in your book, it needs to be deliberate enough that the reader knows that you know that it’s all in good smutty fun. It’s a lot less fun if you’re writing The Story of the Eye, and it comes across like you think you’re writing To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. Winning His Vote doesn’t have much in the way of dubcon, but it does show a marked improvement in communicating to the audience when the author knows that what’s happening on the page should not be taken as normal romance. Boundaries are respectfully acknowledged, and then Marie Kando’d right out the window, the way God intended. That’s what I call progress.

I’ve read enough books that are a-sequel-to-a-book-you’ve-never-read-simulators that it’s weird reading something and thinking “Oh yeah, I remember the donkey guy who helped the spider get to the monaste- sweet Jesus I’ve wasted my life.” I like the idea of writers going on a journey that the readers can tag along for. And while today’s crop haven’t changed much, they still deliver the things that made them worth reading in the first place. As usual, I would recommend any of these authors if you fancy yourself an explorer of the more dragon-y corners of the self-published world map. In the mean time, I’ll be away for the holidays, and the sequel to this post will have to wait until next year.

Sequels are the cold sores of the literary world.

Halloween Spook-off: Modern Horror vs Lovecraft

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 monthly. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

Good evening, boils and ghouls! It’s that time of year again; Michaelmas is over, the pumpkins are growing on the pumpkin trees or whatever, and put-upon moms everywhere are slaving away on Thor costumes that will be worn exactly once. It’s time to pretend we’re all pre-Christian Celts scared of an impending solstice by reading books about octopus monsters and heavy metal bands. We’ve been doing this to ourselves for so long that that one batch of candy corn they made in 1930 is almost depleted. Many attempts have been made to perfect the art of existential terror: Shirley Jackson, Steven King, the Hanson comeback album. Are we getting better at creeping each other out, or are we living in the shadow of spoopy authors of old? Specifically, do we still need to turn to eminent typist and occasional author H. P. Lovecraft to get our chilly thrills? I have here three recently published horror stories, which I will hold up to the old master, and award points in the form of skeletons. Come into my witch’s hut (sorry for the mess; I had some children over for dinner), if you dare!

Our first story is Old Wooden Bones by Jacob Mahurien. Old Wooden Bones is a first person story in which a young hiker of indeterminate age and gender (we’ll call them Pat-tagonist) stumbles across the destructive aftermath of a terrible secret. In the backwoods of California, Pat-tagonist is enjoying the late fall weather when they lose their way and find a mysterious path that leads through unkempt hawthorns to a pristine mountain village not found on any map. The buildings have all been charred, and still smell of ash and smoke despite being apparently very old. Pat is either a looter or an arson inspector, because they don’t think twice before rummaging through the ashes looking for anything of value. And voila, they find a lump of gold one one thousandth of a football field in diameter! No sooner does Pat start schlepping back to civilization than they see smoky visions of crispy villagers, bemoaning the fact that they dug too deep, and warning Pat to return the gold. After making a valiant effort to simply ignore the dreams and visions about miners breaking through a vein of ore into a vault of pure evil, Pat finally gives in and returns the gold.

There are a lot of horror tropes going on here. The mining too deep thing and the prompt appearance of the ghosts are a little cheesy, but the story is short enough to justify this kind of Chekhov’s Uzi. The stolen gold haunting the thief shows up in about 85% of all pirate ghost stories, but it feels a little weird here since Pat’s period of torment and regret is both too short to be significant, and too long to justify given how little Pat really seems to need a giant lump of gold. This story desperately needs an Expensive Grandma Operation, or a foil best friend to help ground the main character. The lack of characterization actually makes Old Wooden Bones feel very Lovecraftian. I was reminded of Nameless City, in which a completely anonymized man digs into a city of ancient aliens. But most of all, what evokes Lovecraft is the fact that the thing that was unleashed on the town, even as it features in Pat’s dreams, is never described, and named only “the unknown.”

Lovecraft is notorious for driving the Bluesmobile right up to Daly Plaza, then copping out in the last paragraph with some statement about how the narrator could never hope to report on what they saw. Apparently he got notes on this during his lifetime, because he wrote a whole diss track in 1923 called Unnamable, in which people get scared of something and then insist that it’s so scary that it’s impervious to both nouns and verbs. I have made my feelings on this matter known in the past:

“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.”

Where Old Wooden Bones succeeds is in the fact that it doesn’t matter what the evil looks like. Being told “Oh, man, I wish you could’ve been there; you woulda been hella scared” is very different from seeing the effect that something has on a mountain village and its inhabitants, and not being shown the thing that did that to them. The unenviable state of the villagers, and their persistence in advocating for their property inside Pat’s own mind, is where the spookiness ultimately comes from, not the nature of the evil itself. I am awarding one skeleton to modern horror, and zero skeletons to Lovecraft in this first round.

Next up, Dealings in the Dark by Samantha Moran. Dealings in the Dark opens with Alexandra running from some demonic beast through the woods to a haunted cabin. There she summons another demon for protection. Apparently, she has had a Calvin-and-Hobbes-style relationship since childhood with some evil spirit named Iroth, which the author openly admits she doesn’t know how to pronounce, so I’m just going to call him Hobbes. Hobbes tells her that, though she doesn’t remember it, she signed a contract in blood as a small child to save the life of her friend Selena, whom he ripped to pieces (Selena, not the contract). Seems like a bit of a setup if you ask me; why bother with all the fastidious legalese if you’re just going to cook the books? Anyway, Hobbes wants Alex to retrieve a special ring for him, setting in motion a series of events and realizations that batter the poor woman’s sanity.

I have to spoil this one in order to talk about it, which is too bad because the twists and turns are pretty effective. It turns out Alex’s grandma had the ring, because she was a witch, which means Alex has goopy witch blood flowing through her veins, which means she can wield the ring and turn Hobbes back into a stuffed tiger. But then! Then it turns out Hobbes was merely a pawn of an even bigger demonic entity, Selena! Gasp! Selena claims ownership of the blood contract (again, this is not how contract law works, why are these demons even pretending to care about contract law?), which Alex must repay by replacing Hobbes as her new lacky.

Again we have some vaguely Lovecraftian elements, like the abrupt unhappy ending. But the main point of comparison is the unsettling discovery about one’s own past. See, the thing is, I don’t think Lovecraft was being completely sincere when he said all that about the unknown, or perhaps he meant it but was uncurious about what the unknown actually meant to him in practical terms. Because I believe Lovecraft’s fears were very specific. He had a small number of things that clearly scared the absolute shit out of him (which I imagine resembled someone squeezing a six foot Goghurt tube), and showed no understanding that these were his pet fears and not the default horror that lives rent-free in everyone’s brain stem.

One of Lovecraft’s biggest personal anxieties was discovering the impurity of one’s own bloodline. Our boy was shitless at the prospect of learning that his own genetic foundation was compromised. This took a lot of different forms. In Old Bugs, one of his earliest stories, a young man discovers that the town drunk is secretly his father. In The Rats in the Walls, a young man discovers that his distant ancestors were cannibals; this is a problem because he finds this condition to be hereditary. The secrets of one’s ancestry are scary precisely because, in Lovecraft’s mind, parentage is destiny. This is the point where Racism bursts onto the set like Kramer, to the general applause of the studio audience. In Arthur Jermyn, a young man discovers that his great grandfather fucked a gorilla, and this news distresses him so much that he lights himself on fire. As we all learned during the AIDS crisis, people fucking monkeys in Africa is a gateway racism, and sure enough, by the mid-twenties Lovecraft was in full “Wouldn’t it be scary if miscegenation” territory.

I’ve written before about the typology of racist writing. There’s personal racism that doesn’t directly affect the text. There’s stereotyping and caricature, which make a story gross to read but still functional. And then there’s the type of racism that breaks the story itself. The Horror at Red Hook isn’t just a horror story that features racist stereotypes. The existence of mixed communities is the thing that’s supposed to be scary, so it loses all of its bite for readers who aren’t on Gettr. People love to talk about this one story in isolation and say “Well, yeah, Red Hook was racist” without acknowledging that this is what Lovecraft believed the whole time, and its flaws are on full display across his body of work. Dealings in the Dark manages the twists and turns of discovering things about your ancestors and yourself in a way that actually packs a punch. Once again, modern horror earns a skeleton, and Lovecraft skulks away with nothing.

I broke my own rule featuring Panicus Satanicus, because it is Tom Duffy’s sophomoric release. But come on, the title is literally Panicus Satanicus; I am genetically incapable of not reading a book with that title. The story begins when Plague (nee Steve) and Bloodfist (nee Jon) have a falling out and Steve quits their heavy metal band. When it seems that Steve has driven off with the van and equipment, Rhea lets the rest of the band crash in her apartment over the bar where they just performed. Then everybody gets kidnapped by a freaky religious cult. There are various attempts to escape, subdue the kidnappers, coax devotees to come to their senses, the usual antics. Eventually the psycho cult leader makes good on his promises of being blessed by some sort of deity by peeling off all his skin and not dying about it. The gang has to come up with some van-based hijinks to defeat him before it’s too late.

This thing is a grab bag of horror tropes. Besides the cult, we have actual supernatural forces, human sacrifice, van theft, and possibly ghosts. But the horror of Panicus Satanicus comes from societal anxiety. Hostile, ignorant moral panic is the foundation of almost everything bad that happens to the protagonists. There is some extremely gooey body horror in the finale (I would say “here for it” interspersed with clapping emojis, but nobody can give me a straight answer on whether or not that’s appropriative, so just imagine me being quietly but enthusiastically here for it), but mostly the fear comes from the question “how much can you trust the strangers around you to not tie you to a stake and burn you to death for listening to Mastodon?” Since we all rely on civilization to deliver our ice cream and equitably apportion our airplane armrests, the question of social trust is inherently terrifying, especially since deep down we kind of all know the answer.

The closest Lovecraft gets to the unknown being scary in a sincere way, not as a feeble dog whistle for racism or a DIY scare kit that the reader can assemble on their own time, is when he talks about the greater universe. In a few stories, like At The Mountains of Madness, the proposition of a vast and ancient firmament full of intelligences and natural forces that do not care one bit about the well being of the human race is presented as some mind-flaying notion that would drive anyone who thinks it to the brink of insanity. To give him the benefit of the doubt, this idea was probably scarier when people thought the universe was a blue dome hovering a couple hundred feet over their turnip farm. I think to some extent these scares all derive from the same place: the lingering doubt that the warm fuzzy ideas that allow you to go about your life without turning into a puddle of anxiety, that allow you to feel like you understand how the world works, could in fact be utter bullshit.

There is one story, From Beyond, that handles this better than most. In it, a classic mad scientist breaks down the barrier between this world and another, with vaguely destructive effects. It has that trope where peasants and servants have a kind of instinctive fear of anything that will ultimately prove dangerous, like horses in a western movie. But the danger of this mysterious portal between universes eventually gives way to the danger of scientific ambition unconstrained by common sense, so it touches on both of the anxieties I just mentioned. I’m half convinced this story was ghost written, because it displays an awareness of scare-progression not seen again in Lovecraft’s work. I think I have to award one skeleton each to Tom Duffy and H. P. Lovecraft on this, bringing the total to three skeletons for modern horror, and one lonely skeleton for the old boy.

We’ve all gone through a Lovecraft phase, just as we all went through a phase in high school where all we read was Edna St. Vincent Millay poems about suicide, and we quoted Edgar Allen Poe like it was real books for grown ups. Just as we learned to put down the Anne Rice and Goosebumps, it’s time to grow out of our society-wide reverence for a bigoted stick insect whose idea of terror was anything that would set Cecil Rhodes’ mustache twitching. Nobody knows nostalgia better than I do; I’m so old my book is on Project Gutenberg. But modern horror has a much firmer grip on what actually makes a story scary. Happy Halloween everyone. Good night, and don’t let the bed bugs bite, because if you do, you might come to like it.

Hell is other people’s manuscripts.

Gaijin Monogatari by Jerome Baquilar

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 month. This is meant for entertainment purposes only, not serious consumer advice. And there will be spoilers.

I have seen a classification of public restroom disasters based on the question word it evokes at first glance. Your “whats” and “whys” are bad enough, but if you make it to “how,” you know you’re in trouble. Pray that your experience stops there, and does not progress to the final question, “who.” It’s the same for books. When I find myself asking “what” and “why” a lot while reading, it’s bad. If I ask myself “how did it even come to this,” I am in for serious pain. But when a book is so baffling, so infuriating, so punishingly miserable that I ask myself “who in the Punctured Christ would subject another human being to this,” that is the only time I am truly happy. Gaijin Monogatari is what you get when you take the backdrop from Earthquake Bird or Lost in Translation, insert a less accomplished Wesley Crusher as the lead, and have the whole thing eat itself halfway through like Wet Hot American Summer, but without being a parody. None of these is a good thing, and I loved every second of it.

I’m going to front load the recommendation, because I have to spoil this book for you. It’s just something I need for me, OK? Pause here and go buy it, so you can follow along. You can get a paperback copy, or print the ebook, because you’re gonna want to take notes. Anyway, let’s jump in. The only name we know our main character by is Jay, and he lives in Denver in the year 2043. International travel (and, we later find out, social media) is difficult to the point of being nearly impossible, due to legal repercussions from the pandemic. But luckily, there is a service that uses society-wide memory scans to reconstruct other times and places, which you can visit in VR for a price. Jay travels to Japan, circa 2021. There’s a lot of directions you can go with this premise, right? Total Recall, The Matrix, Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, the list goes on and on. We’re not doing any of those things.

“He was a medium build, not particularly thin or overweight, kind of somewhere in the middle.”

Jay wakes up on a suburban street in Zama City, south of Tokyo. The program usually provides you with a guide within the simulation, so he introduces himself to the first person he meets, who luckily speaks English. His name is Jerome. Yes, Jerome. It’s not subtle. Jerome doesn’t seem to understand what the deal is with this random twerp, but he politely drives Jay through the incessant clapboard and corrugated tin midrise of suburban Japan to meet his friend Michiko, who might be able to hold Jay’s hand more effectively. This was the first point in the book where I watched a potentially interesting plot device zip past the passenger window. You see, Jay is reluctant to tell Jerome that he is an AI in a simulation, because it is likely to crash the system. This opens a whole book of ethical questions that is firmly shut when Michiko shows full, untroubled awareness of being an NPC in someone else’s adventure.

Naturally, she takes him to Japanese Olive Garden, aka Saizeriya. This is when we establish a theme that will play on a loop until the last page of the book: every ordinary thing in Japan is amazing to Jay. The ramshackle Hoovervilles along either side of the street are “neat and cool.” The signs advertising noodles are “fun and interesting.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with being affected by prosaic things in a foreign country. What gets me is the one-two punch of Jay exclusively witnessing the most boring aspects of the world around him, while simultaneously having the descriptive power of a magic 8 ball. At the Olive Garden, he tries Mexican Coca Cola, and is impressed that it tastes more “clean and fresh and good” than American Coke. That’s just Mexican Coke. France has Mexican Coke. South Africa has Mexican Coke. That’s what Coca Cola tastes like in any country not built out of corn and deregulation. This happens constantly. “Wow,” remarks Jay, upon seeing the train station, “do you ride the trains often?” Mother fucker. You have trains in Denver. You’ve traveled twenty years back in time and you’re leaving your brain matter on the floor of Olive Garden because you got there on a beat-up privatized commuter rail line.

OK, I need to come clean. That one-two- punch ends in a nasty uppercut for me personally, because in pride of place on my elaborate shrine to my hundreds of pet peeves is my irrational hatred of Weeaboos. This hatred is going to develop in stages as we go through this book, but we’re currently at Stage 1, in which Japan is heaped with commendation for doing ordinary shit. I can’t tell you how many Americans I’ve met in Japan who accept illegal working conditions and an unheated apartment, because they are so honored to be walking on the same ground that gundams walk on or whatever. Yes, in case you haven’t guessed, I was once that very Weeabtrix I now despise, living in Japan at the bargain price of my own sanity. Let’s see our boy eat a sea urchin gonad that tastes like a balloon full of harbor water, and find out if it’s “neat.”

“He couldn’t help but think that as attractive as she was now, she must have been twice as beautiful years ago.”

Sorry, back to the story. Jay is sitting in the restaurant, taking stock of how hot his benefactor is. She’s well endowed, and in pretty good shape for her age, but the fact that she’s several years older rules her out as a potential love interest. The reason Michiko brings Jay to Olive Garden is to meet other potential guides on his journey. And wouldn’t you know it, before Jay even gets a chance to try the ketchup and hot dog spaghetti, some woman spills wine down the front of his shirt. Maiko, as it turns out she’s called, apologizes profusely. Jay gets a look at her, and notices that she is hot, and much closer to the Window of Bangability. Is this what it’s like to live your life as a cis-het man? Just scanning the room at all times with Terminator vision, but instead of looking for Sarah Conner it’s tits? Anyway, Maiko offers to wash his shirt if he comes over to her place. Once there, she strips his shirt off him, and suggests he get under the covers of her bed to avoid being embarrassed about having his shirt off. If you’re new to my little self torture chamber, you may not know just how tightly I’ve been clenched the whole way up to this scene. Gaijin Monogatari is a story where a nerdy college-age loser uses VR to meet women, and in previous works this premise has been used as a thinly veiled fantasy to finally get Jessie from third period to touch the author’s entire wiener. So to see that the first real romantic encounter is basically a random woman subjecting our protagonist to the D.E.N.N.I.S. system, I was both anxious and intrigued. But like the other potential plot twists that zipped past my window, the Japanese femdom utopia never materialized. Jay is still a virgin when he takes the walk of shame back to Michiko’s place.

Jay’s next big day out is with a girl named Ai, who brings along a couple of Japanese friends for an evening of beer and karaoke. You can probably guess how this goes. The beer is amazing, even though it’s Kirin, so it’s literally the sweat of Satan’s taint. Jay finds a banana to be more delicious than its American equivalent, and is impressed to learn that it is imported all the way from the Philippines (as opposed to those Colorado bananas he’s used to back home). The friends all have the same narrative voice as Jay, by the way, so when they describe Japanese customs or attractions to him, they stick to the same set of four adjectives: neat, fun, cool, and interesting. It’s like an Orientalist version of Delicious Dish with Molly Shannon and Ana Gasteyer. Jay quickly earns the admiration and respect of his companions by doing basic things. He can stand to the side when riding the escalator, which I guess they don’t do in Denver, so this is framed as a “Japanese” thing, and everyone praises him for “fitting in so well.” He’s met enough people by this point to have picked up the phrase “nice to meet you,” and when he whips it out everyone in the room is flabbergasted. It’s the most animu thing I’ve ever read, complete with diagonal cut-ins of background characters going “But that’s impossible!” This, for those keeping score at home, is Weeaboo Stage 2.

A lot of this can be blamed on the difference between visiting Japan, i.e. a brief romp through an Asia-themed amusement park, and actually having to live there, i.e. a Groundhog Day scenario but with even more stupid rituals. Consider the toilet-gradient. In a hotel, you’re likely to have a Western-style toilet, possibly even one of those robot toilets that sing Happy Birthday, so you go back to Dubuque and tell everyone they’re crapping in robots out there in Japan. Try the landlord specials that put the phrase “hole in the ground” to shame, or the one in my closet that doubled as the apartment’s only sink (don’t work too hard to visualize that). Have you ever tried to walk to work in Japan? Every square meter of the country is five railroads at once; they’re all privatized, and they all hate you. You can’t pass through a station without a ticket, because of the dangerous possibility that you will use this sudden embarrassment of mobility to reach a competitor’s station. If you live in a rural area, this means walking a mile out of your way to the nearest level crossing. And when you get to work, trying to kvetch about it to your coworkers is like trying to have a conversation with an answering machine, because they cannot conceive of anything better. Sure, visitors gawk at how the trains always arrive on time, but sit through a mandatory meeting during your planning period about better use of planning periods before you talk to me about Japanese efficiency. But hey, their Mexican Coke is very neat and cool!

“There was nothing else to say, Jay thought, so, McDonald’s.”

At this point we get a sort of second act low. Jay is interested in Ai, but scares her off when he mentions sleeping in Maiko’s bed the night before. He returns to Michiko’s only to find he is unwelcome there as well, after her boyfriend discovered a man was living there. Jay reflects on what a blow this must be to a woman of her age, to lose her last chance at happiness. She forgives him soon enough, but in the mean time it gives him an opportunity to spend more time with Jerome and his two children, Alexei and Danielle. Danielle is around his age, so naturally Jay asks Jerome to his face why the program is sending him Jerome’s daughter as a guide, when his previous ones have been romantic encounters. Jerome shrugs this off like it’s not something he’s going to have to repeat to the police in about six hours, and the youngsters go to Tokyo to see the sights. “The sights” mostly boils down to the parts of Tokyo that would be destroyed in a Roland Emmerich movie, but I guess you never get around to doing this stuff unless someone comes to visit, right?

Jay’s next guide is Yayoi, a girl who teaches him the basics of photography around Shibuya Station. She does this mainly without verbal instruction, because the guides are getting progressively worse at English. Not because Jay is getting better at Japanese, but just because. I was still clenched for the eventual transformation into a shameless dubcon power fantasy, but that’s not the turn this story was about to take. The two of them go to the Starbucks at Shibuya intersection, the famous one that all the videos of “busy Japanese intersection” are taken from. Jay is fantasizing about kissing Yayoi when she trips (while sitting in a chair), shouts “ayee,” and lands on his lips. Actually, I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this yet, but this happens a lot, where the narration tells us one thing, only for it to be immediately addressed in the action. Usually this takes the form of the narration and the dialogue endlessly parroting each other: Jay just had one more question. “I just have one more question,” said Jay. So we have secondary characters who use the same voice as the perspective character, and all of them are mirrored by the narration. Should make the sex scenes more interesting, if they ever happen.

“As Jay observed the woman, he realized what a pretty sight it, or she, was.”

Yayoi is replaced by Akane, a hot girl who takes him to Akihabara, which you may have heard is famous for maid cafes. Jay thinks nothing of picking out a maid from a lineup to serve him and his date tea and omelets. Now fully dependent on a translator app, Jay and Akane talk about baseball and Star Wars. Jay reveals that he has no knowledge of dogs or cats, but finds them “cool and fun.” The pair buys tickets for the next day’s baseball game at 7-11, which amazes Jay both for being a place to buy baseball tickets, and for existing at all. He seriously considers pursuing a romantic relationship with Akane during the time remaining to him inside the simulation. For the third time, a possible interesting plot complication zips by, in which Jay tries to play out his bodice-ripper fantasy in a fake scenario under a time limit. But instead, we get something I never saw coming.

The first thing that threw me was when Jay met his own grandmother, and took her out to Burger King. I wish I had more context for you, but that’s just how it unfolds. He seems only mildly surprised that she’s there, even though she’s the one who had to explain to him that they’re related. Or rather, that she is the VR representation of an AI based on his grandmother’s memories. Then she reveals that her husband is Jerome. If you’re following along, that means that Jay and his grandfather did not recognize each other, and also Alexei and Danielle are Jay’s uncle and mother, respectively. Does he not know that his mother’s name is Danielle? This adds another layer of bafflement to the scene where Jay is confused that the program wants him to hang out with Danielle in a non-romantic way, given that he’s speaking to people who all have the same names as his immediate family. So without warning, the story pivots from an abortive harem fantasy to a Becket play about spending wholesome time with his American family who live in Zama City.

And then! And then, we find out that Danielle and her husband have already had their first child, so apparently Jay was born in Japan. And Jay isn’t even his real name! Schoolyard bullies of near-future Denver started calling him “Japan Boy,” or “J-Boy,” which our protagonist reclaimed as “Jay.” I flipped back to the first chapter, looking for some clue about all this. When Jay is getting hooked up to the VR, he tells the tech that “his family loved it” in Japan, but neglects to mention that a) he was also there, and b) he is missing the part of his brain that stores facial memory. “I used a false name on the form, by the way,” he goes on to not tell the tech. His family are ecstatic to spend time with him, which in my pessimistic brain raises further urgent questions. Do these AIs cease to exist when he logs out, or do they just go into storage? Jay meets another time-visitor to 2021 Japan named Mion, so it’s a possibility that these characters just hang around indefinitely, forever reliving 2021 in case any tourists show up, while another set of AIs infinitely loops 2022 for a different set of tourists. Jay has no time to focus on these questions, because just before his time in the simulation is up, he returns to hot milfu Michiko, who strips naked and tells him about the Genji Monogatari.

The Genji Monogatari is an unreadable tome in which some nonce who kidnaps a ten year old learns that life is pointless (if you like allegorical Buddhist literature, I would recommend The Cloud Dream of the Nine). But I guess Jay has gone on some journey of self-discovery and shit, so whatever. He’s Genji now. In case the subtext wasn’t already blinding, some minor character points out that the reason Jay gets on so well with cute Japanese girls, and can figure out how to stand on an escalator and say hello, while being such a pathetic loner in Denver, is because deep down he has a Japanese soul. This is Weeaboo Stage 3: Exoticizing foreign cultures to cope with your own inferiority complex. Sure, in America you might be the left half of that Virgin/Chad meme, but in Japan, you will be cool. You’ll dance with their wolves, kiss up their ladies, and everybody back in Denver will be jealous. The story ends with Jay using his contacts in Japan to secure the nearly-impossible task of moving to Japan, and in the airport remarks that he feels like the “luckiest, most loved person in the place.” This is objectively true, and that’s a bad thing.

“Never had any experience with cats.”

I did a lot of complaining about the first part of the book for being such an insipid fantasy. It’s like those author insert Star Trek fanfics, but instead of effortlessly perfect teen genius Mary Sue, the protagonist is Reginald Barclay, the guy who fails performance reviews and spends too much time doing “something” in the holodeck. It also takes a page from bodice rippers set in World of Warcraft, but instead of a large n’ lusty swordsman, the protagonist feels his sciatica threatening to act up, so he just stays at the tavern until last call. It bears some resemblance to a harem story, but the protagonist is a fizzle that no man or woman in their right mind would want to sleep with. Wait, that last one is just Tenchi Muyo. I think I may have solved the riddle. But somehow the ending makes it worse.

Besides the moral qualms around ethnic essentialism, this sort of fantasy runs into the problem that Japan sucks (yes, I am doing the same thing I’m complaining about; try to keep up). I have always been of the opinion that Americans who are easily impressed with Japan are not good people. People who like plastic smile politeness are people who are fundamentally uncurious about what people around them are really thinking and feeling. People who eagerly absorb the constant back-patting for knowing two words of Japanese do not stick around to see that praise dry up once you are fluent enough to understand what people are saying around you. I mean honestly, what’s the appeal of a maid cafe? Is it a sex fantasy so milquetoast that it forgot the sex, or is it nostalgia for a time when the labor market was even more dystopian than it is now?

The clunky writing doesn’t alleviate any of this, but adds another layer of weirdness to explore. There are lonely “thoughs” with no obvious point to contrast against. I’ve already mentioned the hall of mirrors of having all characters plus the narration repeat the same ideas in the same words over and over. On rare occasion we are directly told a secondary character’s thoughts, which is extremely unsettling in a narrative otherwise in third person limited, especially when our perspective character is struggling to interpret what’s going on around him most of the time. Something I should address is the fact that the author may be from the Philippines, and it is possible that English is not his first language. Foolish people might take this to be a reason to leave this book alone, and not pick at its every loose thread. This is nonsense. Besides the obvious fact that millions of Filipinos speak fluent English, you don’t have to speak flawless English to write a good book. I taught ESL for years; my brain auto-corrects most common errors. I couldn’t care less if an author uses the simple past where the present perfect would be better, or says “all intensive purposes.” What I care about is things like “the room had brownish-themed accents.” What the fuck is that? What does that mean?

I started this rant with a recommendation, and I stand by that. This book is an encyclopedia of Weeaboo brain-curse, with hypnotically bad writing, plot holes so blatant they are entertainment unto themselves, and a protagonist limper than Olive Garden linguine. Reading this book should be mandatory for writers, travelers, and anyone who has ever thought about going to Saizeriya. Seeing the world through the eyes of a case study in mediocrity like Jay is like staring into a yawning abyss, only to find that it’s about three feet deep. I cannot recommend Gaijin Monogatari enough. It’s eight dollars on Kindle. Buy it. Educate yourself. Just whatever you do, don’t go to Japan.

N.B.: This one got a little long and personal, which is perfect because I want to make these reviews more in-depth and less frequent, so I’m switching to a once-a-month format. Hopefully this will allow me to bring you more apoplectic rambling about even stupider grievances.

The world would be better off today if George Bush’s response to [the existence of Japan] was to do absolutely nothing.

The Vigilance of the Angels by Doctor Erik Christopher Wimbley-Brodnax

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 looked at a noun without an adjective, and just seethed with anger? Have you ever wanted to rub all the punctuation out of a book until reading it out loud sounds like the Sardaukar throat singing from Dune? Well, this is your book. The Vigilance of the Angels is a smelling-burnt-toast simulator by Doctor Erik Christopher Wimbley-Brodnax.

Our story takes place in a fictional town called Prize County, in Georgia. That’s right; we’re back on my home turf, baby! And wouldn’t you know it, I have comments about Prize County’s geography that absolutely none of you asked for. The fact that the town and county are used interchangeably is actually fine. We do that a lot because we can’t read. More important is the fact that it’s described as thirty miles west of Atlanta, but one day’s ride from the mountains. So this must be the type of west that’s straight north, again a common and understandable error in Georgia. The bigger problem is that this places Prize County smack dab in Cherokee County.

For those who don’t know, Cherokee County competes with Jimmy Savile’s rec room for the title of Most Cursed Place on Earth. Just to give you an idea, Cherokee County has an official language. So when you go there, you’d better not be some interloper who fails to assimilate to the local culture. Guess what Cherokee County’s official language is. Go on, guess. Did you guess Cherokee? I’m sorry, that’s not correct. Cherokee County is also the place Fuckface is from (whose name I will not repeat), the man who killed eight women, including six Asian women (whose names should not be forgotten). Not to suggest that Atlanta proper has no history of violence and bigotry, but when the identity of the shooter was made public, the universal reaction in the city was “Fucking of course.”

You might think a racist murder spree would be a curious thing to bring up on a comedy blog about books. But murder and race, even some pretty uncomfortable depictions of racism, are central to The Vigilance of the Angels. In fact, this is one of those rare occasions when I have to include a trigger warning to anyone brave enough to follow the trail of breadcrumbs back to Doctor Erik Christopher Wimbley-Brodnax, PhD’s work. I don’t put trigger warnings on reviews of rape fantasies, but this book gets one for sure: The Vigilance of the Angels includes frequent use of the N-word and other racially hostile language. Like, a lot. Like, the n key on this guy’s keyboard is mirror smooth. We’ll get into how race is dealt with in the story, but you should know that up front.

Doctor Erik Christopher Wimbley-Brodnax, Esquire’s fictional version of Cherokee County circa 1908 is a small, idyllic town of Black farmers centered around a store, a church, and most importantly a school. There is one White family in town, formerly headed by Lazlo Keper, up until the moment of his murder. Deputy Brooks is tasked with solving the murder, and the gravity of this task weighs heavily on his shoulders. Not only was Lazlo a formidable person in life, but the longer it takes to solve his murder, the greater the risk of White vigilantes coming to do Brooks’s job for him. And in proper Cherokee County style, they’ll probably leave a bunch of random bodies in their wake and blame it on “having a bad day.”

The narrative jumps back and forth between Lazlo’s perspective as he lives through the Civil War and comes to settle in Prize County, and Brooks’s perspective as he tries to solve the case with the help of his girlfriend Sophoronia. In the Lazlo chapters, the perspective character is complex, with a lot of hidden nuance. But he’s kind of a jerk, at one point using the Civil War as a smokescreen to bail on an ex. And of course these chapters are… unflinching in the way they present a turn-of-the-century White American’s view of race. The Brooks chapters are a little more upbeat, with quirky relationship drama and walks through the pastoral landscape. But that’s also the part of the book where the Klan threatens to show up, so I guess it’s all pretty dark. Actually, I’m remembering now the parts that aren’t trying to be tragedy are some of the parts I enjoyed the least. There’s an extended sequence (and in this book, the word “extended” is not used loosely, see below) in which Lazlo buys and resells a case of Coca Cola, and it is interminable. The biographical and detective stories mesh reasonably well together, though neither one really succeeds on its own terms.

The thing that really drags The Vigilance of the Angels down, and probably the only thing anyone will notice if they flip through the first few pages, is the writing style. Doctor Erik Christopher Wimbley-Brodnax, Notary Public, writes in what I would call “Thesaurus Gothic.” If you’ve ever read the classic Eye of Argon, you know what I mean (and if you haven’t, look for that to feature in future installments). Entire paragraphs are subdivided by nothing more than commas, with every noun embedded in a phalanx of adjectives. Parentheticals that interrupt a sentence mid phrase? Lots of those. Adverbs on adverbs, describing how adverbially the adverbs adverb? Oh yeah. This book’s only review on Amazon says “I believe the author is trying too hard.” Here’s one of my favorite sentences: “[He had to bring them] Some news that might relieve them of the ghastly pain that stuck in their chests and caused racking, heavy heaving sighs to emit from their mouths, drawing as they did all of the body’s oxygen up through and past the throat and carrying with it heart wrenches that were as powerful as the anvil in the local smithy.” literally the entire book is like this.

As luck would have it, I have met Illinois National Guard Honorary Lieutenant Colonel Doctor Erik Christopher Wimbley-Brodnax in real life. I doubt he remembers me, but the point is I feel entitled to stalk him on social media and see if this is just how his mind works. And wouldn’t you know it, he knows no other mode of communication. He “midwifes dreams” for a living, which took me a couple tries to parse. Multiple students on professor rating sites complain of “pretentious and condescending” courses. In case it isn’t obvious, I fully support this. Creators who commit to a character in all aspects of their lives will always earn my respect. And the man’s clearly ahead of the curve. Everyone has a coherent personal brand these days. It’s all about what personality you can sell. Tom Brady is out here telling people to eat five avocados a day and getting away with it. It turns out, all those cult of personality documentaries were small business webinars the whole time. Shine on, Eurovision Song Contest Third Runner-up Doctor Erik Christopher Wimbley-Brodnax, shine on. And to anyone interested in diving into this book yourselves, I would say it is unquestionably better than its first impression. The verbosity slacks off a bit over time, or maybe I just developed an immunity. And while there isn’t much to the plot, it does hit all the beats a detective novel needs to hit. I would recommend it to anyone with a high tolerance for cringe, on the grounds that you’re not going to find a lot of books that deal with these issues in exactly this way. I say this a lot, but The Vigilance of the Angels is definitely different. It’s three dollars on Kindle.

Rate My Professor banned me for insisting they bring sexy back.

Ancient Enemies by Thomas Fisher

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 know I love to complain. Your girl’s on a first name basis with the manager. Maybe that’s why I keep reading random stuff on Amazon. Sometimes I find a real gem, a high quality book hidden in the noise. Other times I am in my element. Ancient Enemies is a random word generator by Thomas Fisher about lots of trains and no raccoons.

The first chapter establishes the backstory of our main character, Mark. The Lorians, i.e. the children of Lorias, have a festival called the Lorarian. With me so far? Mark’s dad is Mister Pride, the leader of their pride of Isharans (Isharanas are a type of Lorian, obviously). Mark is just an innocent lad/were-cat-creature, who loves to play “game of ball” with his friend Don. As in any good fantasy story, our perspective characters have names like Steve and Debbie, while everyone else is called Astrazion or something. Case in point, Mister Pride is named Herodotus. He puts on a hell of a Lorarian, and everyone gets good and drunk. And dead, because the wine was poisoned. See, there’s these bad hyena-people called the (checks notes) Caenons, and they’re attacking the shit out of the merrymakers with guns and fire. In the blood bath, Mark is saved by a man-cat-man who gets shot for his trouble, then watches his friend Don get trampled “like a sandwich wrapper,” which is a weird way to describe that, but honestly works really well. Finally the nefarious Caenons find Mister Pride. The Caenon commander does a “meat’s back on the menu” and has his soldiers kill and eat Mark’s dad, even though he could easily have beaten up a cowboy. In case any readers from the forties didn’t realize these are the bad guys, the Caenon are also textually compared to “little girls.” Reddit’s been trying to convince me for years that women are basically hyenas in disguise, so this kind of tracks.

Smash cut to present day high school. Except for the fact that there are guns, and a passing mention of humans and their “Christ god,” I had no idea this story took place in the real world until the now orphaned Mark started slumping through the halls of Hill Valley High like any other sullen teenager (tamping down his inherent awesomeness so as to avoid detection). This isn’t really a teen drama, though, as much as I wish the rest of the story would be about a talent show that has nothing to do with murdered parents. The Caenon commander has been spotted in the area, wearing a Calgary Flames hat (this is a very important plot detail, just trust me), and Mark decides it’s time for some good old revenge. The middle 90% of the book is a primer for the climactic battle in the penultimate chapter.

Not that it did me much good. I read chapter 19 twice, and now I can’t distinguish colors from tastes. I did a lot of flipping back and forth, trying to remember what clan of Gorgons the Praestors belong to, which is not fun on a Kindle. Finally I decided to break my own rule. When I read a book, I skip the prologue. If you want me to read something, put it in the book. I didn’t sign up to read the fan wiki about your book. My thoughts on prologues (mostly con) have been documented elsewhere, but know that it hurt me to go back and read the prologue of Ancient Enemies in a last-ditch effort to try to even. And it didn’t work! I got some origin story about the Lorians, but nothing that illuminated what in the hell was going on. This is all Tolkien’s fault.

Tolkien famously wrote a story to provide context for his invented universe, which he in turn created to provide context for his invented languages. He started with the toy trains and worked out from there. And it sort of worked, as long as you don’t read the Silmarillion, and skip most of the songs. So now this is just a genre of fantasy forever: show us your trains. Elaborate magic system that’s just steam power with extra steps? Whip out them trains! Twenty generation-deep family tree for the House of Protagonistia? Choo choo! In a pinch, you don’t even need to make new trains. You can write a story where there are ordinary raccoons, but they’re called “Bumblebears” or something. The real problem comes when the reader does manage to Google translate Bumblebear back into raccoon. Sure the narrative may be elaborate, but is there really that much story hiding behind all the capitalized words and proper nouns with apostrophes in them?

This is not an inevitable problem. Any time I talk about elaborate narratives based on nothing, another example comes to mind. No, it’s not sports, although the Calgary Flames always try to walk it in during the second half (how’d I do? I’ve been practicing). No, I am of course referring to raccoon youtube. There’s this man on youtube who owns his own raccoon. One day he decided to do a bracket-style competition to see which flavor of potato chip his raccoon prefers. I don’t remember which chip brand ultimately won, because here’s the important part: from the beginning, it is overwhelmingly obvious that the raccoon just likes food, and has no opinion about which flavor of potato chip she (it’s a girl raccoon) gets her eerily human-like hands on. But our boy is committed to the concept (I’m guessing he already had a thumbnail ready to go), so he spends the episode building narratives out of the random scavenging of a wild animal on his kitchen counter. “Oh, what’s this?” he asks in his best sportscaster voice, “She’s going back to the chili lime Sun Chips!” Yeah, no shit, they’re delicious. Just like the plate of cool ranch Doritos she obliterated two seconds ago. She’s a fucking raccoon! Part of me admires the determination of a man who will not abandon his idea, even as he sees it collapse before his very eyes. He is the Ed Wood of Youtube. The other part of me cheers on the raccoon, whose understanding of the situation is limited to: chips now, more chips, eat chips while human distracted. I relate to this creature more than any human I know, and she just keeps winning at eating chips. Go, you beautiful disgusting goddess, go.

My point is that weird fluff that tries to build a story out of nothing doesn’t have to be meaningless or boring. But unfortunately, Ancient Enemies falls into this trap. The toy trains never become interesting in their own right, nor do they reach the accidental transcendence of raccoon youtube. What we’re left with is a spelling test from an alternate universe. I always try to review books I can recommend to try and convince myself I’m not a bad person, but this time I might have to break my streak. If you are a fan of elaborate world building, and equally elaborate fight choreography, you might legitimately enjoy it. It’s three dollars on Kindle. And to any authors reading this, please, please, please: if you are going to write a prologue (and I strongly recommend that you don’t), make it an unrelated story about a raccoon. It won’t drag the book down any more than a typical prologue does, and at least I might be entertained for five minutes.

Everyone knows raccoons prefer all dress flavored chips.

Aliric: Vantric Prince by Iris Moon

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.

I found the most confusing book. Super for real this time. But it’s not confusing in a ending-of-2001-a-space-odyssey kind of way. This is a sipping confusion, for connoiseurs. Aliric: Vantric Prince is an urban fantasy, or possibly high fantasy with a few real world details, that may or may not be a coming of age story or a romance, written like the literary equivalent of a municipal flag designed by a committee.

Prince Aliric lives in the palace of the Vantric Kingdom with his mother. One night she is murdered by some kind of mist creature, and when Aliric goes to investigate, he is knocked out. These mist creatures are described as strange to the point of incredulity, despite the fact that Vantrics can also turn into mist. Just to get it out of the way, here is an exhaustive list of things Vantrics can do: turn into mist, materialize objects, run at approximately 440 miles per hour (by my calculation; the book alternates between Metric and Imperial), and become bats. They sleep at night, are injured by sunlight, and their eyes glow funky colors when they’re horny, which would be really fun in Vantric high school and not traumatizing at all.

When Aliric wakes up, he discovers that he’s on death row for killing the queen, because the cops in Vantricland expect to find the killer passed out on the floor next to the victim with a concussion. Absolutely stellar police work. Kind of makes you understand how they managed to pin that murder on Amanda Knox. Oh, I forgot. They’re Italian. The Vantric Kingdom is in the Apennines, near the town of Castelluccio. I know what you’re thinking; is this Volturi fanfiction? But the Volturi are from a small town in Tuscany, while this is a small town in Umbria. Don’t you feel stupid? At first I assumed that calling the Vantrics “Vantric” and not “vampire” was one of those things where zoomers are too cool for existing vocabulary, kind of like how Weight Watchers is called Noom, and trailers are called tiny houses. But no, they’re not vampires because vampires also exist in this story. I’m not really sure why the Vantrics live in Italy, since it’s not clear how Italian they are and most of the story takes place in Canadian Asgard. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Aliric escapes with the help of his late father’s “right hand male” (male and female are used exclusively to refer to men and women, so I guess we’re gender atheists in this universe), and makes it all the way to America, specifically Yachats, Oregon. He’s there because that’s where the vampires are according to “local folklore.” I assume he means Vantric local folklore, and not the scuttlebutt on the streets of Portland. The vampires are supposed to be in Yachats, because that’s where they settled after a war with another race, the Fae, seventy five years ago. Since the book takes place in 1999, this means that Aliric relies on folklore to tell him about things that happened in 1924. Vantrics are immortal, right? And they have books, presumably. It would have been less jarring if I didn’t know exactly when the story takes place, but we get Jack Bauer style time stamps at the beginning of every chapter and subchapter. Usually they are completely irrelevant, and sometimes there are typos. Since I didn’t know they were just there for vibes when I started reading, the first time I ran across one of these mistakes I wracked my brain trying to reconcile the unacknowlegded time travel subplot.

The bulk of the story revolves around the budding relationship between Aliric and Genesis Amelia Rodrigues, a half-Fae woman with a mysterious past, who is also inherently awesome at everything, and their journey to live with the Fae in southwestern Canada. The realm of the Fae, known as Ashintar, is a combination of fantasy elements from Tolkienian elves to Celtic brownies, and becomes the young couple’s new home as they figure their shit out. Without spoiling too much, the long arc for both characters is about finding a new home and new family, without needing to wrap up the crisis that set the whole story in motion in the first place. It’s a little anticlimactic, but it’s possible it’s intentional. I have a hard time telling with this book what’s intentional.

The writing style is reminiscent of what I like to call By The Way Gothic, in which every sequence is painfully bloated with extraneous detail, much of which never pays off or is repeated from a previous scene. You’re familiar with this from those classic novels where your ninth grade English teacher turns their chair backwards and says that Brahm Stoker was the OG Billie Eilish or some crap, but every page of the book is “and then Lord Flappyminge dusted his antique bust of Cicero, which adequately-craniumed readers will recall he acquired during one of his many uneventful trips to the Dinaric Alps, all the while going over the list of his other possessions, which include…” and by the second chapter you’ve sworn a blood oath to never trust an English teacher again. Iris Moon compounds the problem by explaining things in reverse, such as telling us that Vantrics can turn into mist only after our protagonist is baffled by a creature made of mist. More forgivable is the fact that she probably speaks English as a second language. The systematic fragments using participles as main verbs are not ordinary L1 English mistakes. Normally you go to Hell for making fun of people for not speaking English flawlessly (I mean, Jesus wept, look at me; I’m one night of restless sleep away from writing like Tommy Wiseau after a ministroke). But in combination with everything else, the fact that so many phrases are slightly off, and so many sentences don’t quite parse just makes the book difficult to slog through.

I haven’t even gotten to the sex scenes yet. Obviously there are sex scenes. At this point I’m surprised that HVAC handbook I read a while ago didn’t have gratuitous snu-snu shoehorned into it between the duct sizing chart and the extended job interview questions. The middle part of the book is largely dedicated to Genesis and Aliric making the vampire with two backs, and it follows the trend of doing too much and too little. I had to start skimming when I go to the line “I am going to lick your sweet nectar now.” On the one hand, this is the sort of direct communication we should be normalizing in sex. On the other hand, fuck that noise. Maybe all the dark romance I’ve been reading has led my subconscious to believe that true romance comes with a police report.

There are so many questions that ran through my mind while I read this book. Why does Aliric pick the pseudonym Jensen Jorgensteen to be inconspicuous in rural Italy? Do the Fae have Canadian citizenship? One question I doubt I will ever be able to answer about Aliric: Vantric Prince is whose fantasy this is. The “Silver Skeeter” trope of making the Vantric inherently awesome at whatever the moment demands feels like an ordinary teen power fantasy. But there are too many abrupt changes in tone to say with confidence that that’s what it is. There are five chapters in a row dedicated to parental bliss, and the perspectives in the sex scenes are all over the place. I know who this book is for, ultimately: the author. I don’t mean that as a dig. Everybody has a book in them that no one else will get, and that book deserves to be on Amazon like all the others. It’s just hard to pretend I’m offering useful advice to would-be readers when I myself have no idea what I just allowed into my eye holes. I keep making books sound awful and then recommending them, but honestly I think a book that makes your brain skip like a loose CD player in an Egyptian taxi can be a very rewarding experience. If you’re looking for something different, Iris Moon’s debut novel is ten dollars on Kindle.

If I could turn into a bat, I would do it to avoid paying taxes.

Their Precious Princess by Leslie Ayla

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.

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a pretty little princess who wanted nothing more than the overbearing, possessive kindness that only four dudes at once can provide. Their Precious Princess is a (deep breath) polyamorous daddy dom age play erotic thriller, in which the classic romcom dilemma of too many boys becomes an asset.

Clara’s abusive husband Jasper leaves her, then her abusive mother leaves her by dying of cancer. After caring for her mother and having no one and nothing left in her life, Clara runs into an old friend at the funeral. Emmett lived across the street, with his step brothers Jacques, Fitz, and Liam, but they faded from her life after her marriage to Jasper. The boys are back in town to “claim what is theirs.” Emmett is the alpha, although we don’t use that term because this book is written in a universe where Omegaverse fiction also exists. We know this about him because he is enormous, and has a beard, though personally I consider beards to be the padded bras of masculinity. Liam is the softboy, and Fitz is the short, spunky one with a chip on his shoulder. Jacques is… also there, I guess. Clara has missed her favorite boys so much that when they return to her life, she faints. I think. I can’t keep track of how many times this woman loses consciousness. It’s like every chapter opens with her waking up in a bed trying to remember how she got there.

She wakes up this time and Fitz is feeding her, hopefully some iron supplements or something, while Clara treats us to a flashback of how things went down with Jasper. At some point in their young adulthood the five protagonists proclaimed their love for one another, because Leslie Ayla does not waste any time. Now stay with me, because this next part is a little much. Jasper chose this moment to do what Tutar Sagdiyev would call a “sex attack” to her. You’ve experienced a romcom before, so you know this means two things. One, Clara feels guilt that’s never fully interrogated as far as I could tell, and two, the Brothers Fuckamazov arrived just in time to witness what they assume to be a last-minute betrayal. Yeah, not the best trope to pull out of the bargain bin. Whatever happened to rattlesnake bites? Remember when it was routine for a major subplot to revolve around a rattlesnake bite? You could do a lot with that in a MMMMF age play romance.

Once she got the preliminaries out of the way, Clara gets down to business; she falls asleep, and wakes up in the next scene, where two of her new dad-brothers boarding the beef bus in the spare bedroom. Thus begins the long process of turning this poly-cute into a bone-fest. Along the way we have a shadowy crime lord, the return of Jasper, an abduction, a pet kitten, and an extended sequence in which Clara’s boys explain the house rules and corresponding punishments (to answer your question, yes, there will obviously be spanking). Ultimately there is an armed showdown, because lately all my dark romance TBRs feature protagonists waving guns around like batons at a parade. But all that is just a scaffolding to hang loving descriptions of five people boinking each other on a pile pile of teddy bears off of.

That’s what everyone is here for; how good are the sexy bits? As I’ve pointed out before, this is what makes or breaks this sort of story. I can’t begin to communicate how unqualified I am to try and explain what makes sex writing good or bad. I have less authority on that point than Jackie Weaver. So you’re just going to have to take my word for it that they slap. I mean, literally there is slapping, but you know what I’m trying to say. It got to the point that I had to stop reading this book in public, because the paranoia-center of my brain (a.k.a the gray, wrinkly part) came up with this cool new idea that what if I’m sweating or blushing or otherwise drawing attention to myself while reading my Kindle, and people start staring at me, wondering what kind of disease I have, figuring out that it’s a smutty book, and concluding that it’s Thomas the Tank Engine slash fiction and I just got to the knotting scene. And then I have to leave the country, and change my name, and that’s a hassle. Point is, Leslie Ayla knows how to make a hot scene sizzle.

We’ve got a couple of fetishes glommed together like some sort of sex chocolate in some sort of sex peanut butter. There’s the… what do we call this, reverse harem? That seems a little condescending, like calling women in medicine “reverse doctors.” Maybe “Xsome?” Basically, we get the whole boy band, so we don’t have to pick one, and then have buyer’s remorse when we realize the one we picked is the producer plant who’s secretly 35, and it’s too late to swap because your friends are all pretending to date the rest of the band. Look, growing up in the 90s was complicated. For Clara, though, it’s simple. Need someone to give you an Abigail’s Promise, but you’re interested in giving someone a Colorado Sleeper Car at the same time? No worries! With four boys, you can get stuffed, and have dicks left over to put on a big, bouncy, bi show for your entertainment.

The other angle is maybe a little more complicated, and that’s the little fetish. This is where I surprise my audience by forgoing my usual procedure of treating the fetishes in this book like the pages are radioactive. No, I’m not into DD/lg, calm down, perverts. I’m just saying, in this book the little fetish is baked pretty deeply into every aspect, so it’s more of a literary element. Everyone, the people, the animals, the spoons, everyone, is bigger than Clara. She is surrounded by stuffed animals and people who decide whether her life is full of pain or happiness. The deference she shows her childhood friends qua sex partners transitions seamlessly from the raunchy scenes to the boring ones. She spends so much time reminding us how exhausted she is after dedicating much of her life to taking care of others, that the opportunity to abdicate responsibility over her own life is presented as a satisfying catharsis. It’s like getting the girl after slaying the dragon, except the girl is four dudes who make you sit in timeout when you don’t swallow. Remember when I mention Omegaverse? So, in this story, one character reads an Omegaverse story to another character, and everyone acts like it’s totally normal. It’s like someone in a zombie movie watching a zombie movie.

You can probably guess if this witch’s brew of kinks is your cup of… witch’s tea. The execution shows the author’s priorities: get to the part where two to six people are churning butter the hard way, and put all your energy into that scene. Don’t think too hard about it, don’t fuss and fret over plot details. Just get to the point. If you’re into this sort of thing, Their Precious Princess is probably the best you’re going to get for a while. It’s three dollars on Kindle, the standard price for newbie self-published authors. Since this one came out in March, Leslie Ayla has published another reverse harem novel, and upped the price to six dollars. You can’t see it, but I am slowly nodding my head with tremendous respect right now.

Theoretically, a “reverse harem” should be a bunch of eunuchs guarded by a slut.

Him & I by Melia A.

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’s the difference between a sex predator and a hunky dreamboat? Depends on whether you’re asking about the length or the girth. Him & I is a dark romance about an eighteen year old American girl named Hailey, who has a long, hard, journey into adulthood.

Hailey lives a celibate life to focus on her student career, which seems to be going great but this is the last you’ll hear about it so who knows. She is best friends with Kevin Smith’s daughter from Cruel Summer, and has two siblings: a twin brother, and a younger sister who is apparently evil. We are just told this by the main character, and whenever the sister appears, Hailey is immediately screaming at her for being a horrible person and ruining everything. One day on the set of The Office, Steve Carrel decided “I’m just going to hate Toby.” And that became an unexplained recurring joke. Michael Scott says things like “I were in a room with Hitler, Stalin, and Toby, and I had a gun with two bullets, I would shoot Toby twice,” and it’s never explained. It’s the same kind of energy with the sister. But I’m getting bogged down in the details.

Hailey is still in love with her ex Kayden, or Jayden, or Ayden, or whatever. Mid-conversation with Kevin Smith’s daughter she gives us a flashback about how they met at a gazebo (seriously, am I being targeted by big gazebo?). She assures us she is not naive, but she was “on cloud nine” because they were “written in the stars.” That’s a recurring theme: cliché metaphors, mixed and sprinkled at random. At one point we are asked to “imagine being on the same path as someone and suddenly you’re on different pages of the same book.” Whatever. Teenagers repackage awkward groping at the movies as unprecedented romance all the time, so this is just a window into the mind of our protagonist.

One fact we establish right away about Hailey is that she is eighteen. You hear that? Eighteen point zero years old. Fully legal. This means the she can celebrate her birthday in her dad’s club, where alcohol is served (The author is not American, which will become obvious later if it isn’t already). I assumed Hailey’s age was signposted to assure the reader that all the steamy high school sex antics aren’t creepy, but it turns out this is a dark romance, so the shit that Hailey is subjected to mostly does not have an acceptable age threshold. Speaking of wacky sex horse play (I should go back and hyphenate that, but I’m not going to), Splayden is at the party, in accordance with narrative tradition. Now we get to see this beefcake in action. How does he sweep her off her feet? Mostly he just ignores whatever she tells him, coerces her into a dark room where he pulls off her clothes, and generally acts like what pickup artists tell you is supposed to work on girls. Of course, it works on Hailey because surprise! Pickup artists were right the whole time! Just treat women like something a movie theater janitor would scrape off their shoe at the end of the day, and achieve success! But before Fnayden can neg her about her back rolls, evil sister shows up, causing a ruckus. This calls for apoplectic screaming from Hailey, before 7ayden and Hunter join forces to calm the situation.

Oh yeah, Hunter. Stupid sexy Hunter. He thinks he’s so great just because he’s so great. On the way to the extremely American discotheque party for drunk babies, Hailey drives her BMW into Hunter’s Ferrari (it’s never explicitly mentioned that these people are all rich, so I’m going to assume this is just supposed to be how normal Americans get around town. Or maybe Hailey is rich because “club owner” is the highest echelon of European society, as opposed to in the States, where it is one rung above “man who owns his own shovel”). Stupid Sexy Hunter insists on repairing the damage to her car to keep it a secret from her dad, and takes the keys right out of her ignition. People are constantly taking things from Hailey in this story.

See, the thing is this is a dark romance, which is a genre for people whose fetish is red flags. I’m not trying to shame, but it’s difficult for me, because projecting is my main defense mechanism when there is something I fail utterly to understand. The sexy man-chunks in this story are constantly gaslighting Hailey, inserting things in her without consent, and delighting in treating her like an old gym sock. And she loves it, because this is your fetish, too, dear reader. Case in point, Caleb. Caleb is a pushy, violent misogynist. Jackpot, right? No! Caleb is an antagonist. What separates him from the guys who are playing dick-pong with Hailey as the ball? If shock, hate, and fear are Hailey’s aphrodisiacs, how does she distinguish the good and bad love interests? It’s the same way you know that Malfoy making fun of Molly Weasley’s weight is bad, while Ron making fun of Dudley’s weight is good fun; the value of actions is a function of which team a character has been sorted into during the drafting stage.

To get back to the plot, there’s an extended will-they-won’t-they-get-on-with-it between Hailey and Aydnayden, an obligatory love triangle with SSH, some cloak and dagger drama around Kevin Smith’s daughter that ends with people getting killed. Oh yeah, throughout the book people just whip out guns, because America I guess, and the climax is like the end of Hamlet, but all the characters have guns, and all the actors are guns, and Denmark is a gun. Hailey gets almost as many guns shoved in her face as dicks, and she’s equally blasé about it. Honestly, after a hundred pages of our leads being cute and coy to one another, it was a nice change.

Melia A. made a name for herself in the world of online long-form fiction, i.e. modern LiveJournal but we all agree not to call it that. Currently she is very active on Episode, which I gather is Wattpad for zoomers, but more polished and less collaborative. Given that your intrepid author’s attempts to understand the youth are about as successful as Praeger U’s efforts to convince me I should be grateful for landlords, it’s hard to give my usually brilliant analysis on the literary origins of this book. I get a little Cruel Intentions, with the rich, violent teenagers. There’s also an attempt at a certain kind of narration, with a casual, “Oh, I didn’t see you there” style. We’re constantly being told things “by the way.” What by the way, narrator? You’re in charge of this five cent pony show; is this detail important or isn’t it? You made us sit through a finger-banging scene between two people who hate each other, but you’re hesitant to overshare now? I haven’t talked much about the parents. The way they are always on their kids’ level when it comes to drama feels very Disney movie to me (When mom sees one of her daughters screaming at the other to point of dry heaving because so-and-so kissed such-and-such, the adult’s response is “Gasp, did you really kiss him?!?”).

As usual, I sound way more negative than I feel about Him & I. The sexy parts come out of nowhere and are probably triggering for anyone who’s not into dark romance, but if you can turn off the top and bottom of your brain (i.e. the parts that are telling you consent is important, and that there is danger), the middle part will tell you that these scenes are very well written. I can see why Melia A. has a following when it comes to good, smutty fun, and I’m well aware I’m not the target audience. If you’re… doing whatever nasty things go on over at Episode (am I even saying that right? Can someone tell me what “bet” means?), and you want to upgrade to a thick, juicy book, Him & I is probably for you.

Here in America, the drinking age is guns.

Into the Wind by Abigail Jeanne

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.

Normally, when one goes mad with power, a crucial prerequisite is to have actual power. Never keen on reading the manual, I have decided to skip a few steps and drag a seventeen year old author into the pathetic kangaroo court I call a review blog. That’s right, your girl is now dunking on literal children on the internet for your amusement. I cannot sink any lower without dressing up as a cat and making ASMR sourdough tutorials, so don’t give me any ideas. Into the Wind is a YA fantasy domestic drama in which Zephyr and her friends restore proper order to their village.

Zephyr, who is the daughter of the chief and who may or may not be the last airbender, is overdue to be married. Mom is dead, in keeping with local custom, and Chief Dad is tasked with finding a man sturdy enough to become chief one day. In the mean time, Zephyr plans to move in to the sorority wigwam with her besties so they can have some privacy while they watch Meg Ryan movies and have pillow fights. That’s a little anachronistic, but maybe the pillows are raccoons. Zephyr is stifled by the demands of propriety, the pressure to work in a certain way at a certain time, with no breaks to dance like an idiot over a bowl of porridge. At the same time, she dreams of a “godly man who loves the Protector,” and she shows no compunction against one day becoming “Chieftess” (a word which, for once, my spell check and I are in agreement about).

That’s the bird’s eye view, but on the ground what we get is a dinner scene where our principle characters hide from the rain, then a breakfast scene where everyone decides what kind of porridge they want, and an extended scene where villagers are going around repairing minor damage caused by last night’s rain. Once the buckskins get hung up and the dogs get wrung out, Chief Dad has made his decision. Zephyr is to marry the Head Warrior, an arrogant, unlikable man. I don’t remember his name, so we’ll call him Chakotay. You can see what this setup is. It’s just Pocahontas. We’re reading the novelization of Pocahontas. Take that, you filthy Zoomer! You think you’re so great for being able to bend over without waking up the cat. Wither and wince as my vorpal red pencil goes snicker-snack across your precious manuscript!

Except it’s not Pocahontas, though. As soon as Zephyr draws a dick and balls on the marriage contract before handing it back to the men planning her future, another character steps into the spotlight, Stiff Arrow. Abigail Jeanne snuck this guy in as the obligatory hometown friendzoned twerp, but then a couple chapters in reveals that Stiff Arrow eschewed the position of Head Warrior so he could be assigned to the heir apparent’s personal detail. So that’s our real setup, right? Zephyr has to figure out that the right guy for her was under her nose the who- oh, no. She figures out immediately that she likes him better. If I had a nickel for each fake-out inciting incident in Into the Wind, I would finally have a book that earns me money.

Without spoiling too much, John Smith never shows up; the giant dome hiding them from modern society doesn’t collapse; the framing of the story never becomes anything other than the dynastic politics of a small village. That, on top of an agonizingly slow build up featuring several flavors of porridge, should add up to a slog. But it mostly avoids that fate. Mostly. There were plenty of chapters where I wondered “is this the point? We’re just cooking porridge? Is this porridge porn?” It’s not a typical coming of age fantasy novel where the curtain pulls back on a larger world, nor is it a quick and easy “let’s all share Virginia” Disney story. But it also isn’t one of those painfully slow slice of life animes where the main character is always running to nowhere with toast in her mouth.

As an aside, I’ve broken my own rule comparing Into the Wind to Pocahontas. I hate it when people compare things to Pocahontas, because Pocahontas is nothing; it’s like saying that something tastes like chicken. Case in point, Avatar. When people aren’t calling it “Dances with Blue Wolves,” they’re accusing it of being a Pocahontas rip-off. But Avatar is so much less than that. It’s a nearly verbatim copy of an early Ursula K LeGuin novella called The Word For World Is Forest. Whenever I see someone compare Pocahontas to anything, I think “you could be peeling back so many more layers of this onion,” and now I’ve done that very thing. I guess I’m just salty because Pocahontas was the first Disney movie to disappoint me. For me, as one single disgruntled child (imagine me as I am now, but even smaller and holding a balloon or whatever it is children do with their time), the Disney renaissance ended when Pocahontas failed to live up to the hype.

Into the Wind does not disappoint. While the main character is clearly a power fantasy author insert, she never reaches the level of a Mary Sue, partly because she has her own complex inner life. In general, young people in this book have a complicated relationship to tradition, embracing parts while balking at others, and it works pretty well. The world building is a sometimes cringy Native American analog, and the names are all over the place (I blame Eragon for establishing the precedent that one village may contain people named “Galadyrionx of the Crimson Blade” and “Steve”). The constant made-up words for things that could just be English is a little try-hard. But usually I find myself flipping through a terrible fantasy story that is carried along by its world building, and this was the opposite; I didn’t care that the continent people live on is literally called “The Continent,” because for once the story was actually engaging. Am I bitter that someone still picking amniotic fluid from their hair can write better characters than me? Shut up, no one asked you. Just read Into the Wind by Abigail Jeanne. It’s four dollars on Kindle.

Ursula K LeGuin is a ripoff of a short story by Ursula K LeGuin.