Infamy: The Godling Saga by Mohamed Omar

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

You know those moments when you suddenly realize how insufferably old and decrepit you are? I started writing this paragraph with “You remember Louis Black’s routine about candy corn?” Anyway, in the ancient times there was a comedian, and he asked the question about candy corn that no one else dared: why do we keep doing this to ourselves? I think of that every time I open a new “Turns out I’m a demon princess” novel. I keep expecting to find the one piece of candy corn that managed to escape the factory before the flavor-extractors and wax-injectors could do their filthy, Godless work. But alas, I just keep shoveling disappointing orange plastic into my gullet over and over again. And then there’s licorice, a favorite among enthusiasts who do not tire of telling me that I just haven’t tried the right licorice, and all I need is to wrap my gums around this weird pirate-themed candy from Groningen or something. So I do. And the result is always the same. Infamy: The Godling Saga, the first book in a series by Mohamed Omar, is like that salty Dutch nonsense that some people can’t get enough of.

“The supernatural world at one point wasn’t so secret. You know, when the time of man used to worship gods and the like, but with time, science came to be what we all feared and hated.”

This book starts with a prologue, and I hate it. You may think “Oh, quelle surprise! Hey everybody, drop what you’re doing; Madeline doesn’t like a prologue!” But this one is such a classic example of the flash forward archetype that I wish it had come out in time for my foaming rant about prologues in general. Our hero Malik starts the prologue giving the “tears in the rain” speech if Rutger Hauer was into My Chemical Romance and LiveJournal (I already said I was old, leave me alone), and then chapter 1 picks up with a happy family breakfast. It’s like the prologues are taunting me in real life now, and not just in my nightmares. We get a quick overview of the Blackwood family, including Malik, the skateboarding rascal, his sister Girl, and his parents. Mom writes African literature, while Dad drags the family all over the world to study ancient artifacts, which is apparently a job. It’s almost Halloween, and the four of them have just moved to Portland, nestled firmly in a part of the country known for three things: rain, hypocritically car-oriented development, and YA novels about comic book monsters, so we can see where this story is going.

At school Malik runs into friendly Jayden, hot girl Bianca, an emergency backup Bianca named Maya, and jock Nico. Thisis one of those high schools where the grown ups are thin on the ground, and thoughtfully stay out of the way of teenagers’ lives, especially when it comes to bullying. Actually, the whole town seems to operate on that principle. After school, Mom and Dad are having some mystery fight, so Mailk decides to go for a jog through the scary woods that are straight out of those nosleep stories called “Everyone in our town knows not to enter the dog park after dark and now I wish I hadn’t.” It’s literally called the Crimson Forest. As is tradition, a group of high school bullies spot Malik and decide to chase him through the woods with knives so they can stab him to death, the little scamps. But this is when things get interesting. A mysterious force overcomes Malik, saving his life and filling him with a power he does not understand. The jocks are now revealed to be hideous demons, all gnashing teeth and claws. A werewolf guardian arrives to help, and Malik joins the fight. He kills one demon, causing the rest to flee, but not before his protector is mortally wounded. The last words of the dying guardian are “find the wizard.”

“The ghost, for his part, had an arm that belonged to the demon, its blood dripping on the floor with a dark red pool emerging.”

If that sounds awesome, that’s because it is. At least in concept. I love a good kitchen sink fight scene. The more it sounds like it’s being improvised by a blood thirsty ten year old the better. Infamy goes on to develop this core idea of “everything, but at once” with councils and covenants of various demons and monsters, fragile ceasefires in ancient wars, hidden traitors close to home, and a demon prince possession. There is a genie-spirit-thing in Malik’s head, whom he immediately tries to free, and it’s like “Oh, no one’s ever tried to free me before!” Literally. Everything. But at once. Without spoiling too much, I have to mention that this part of Portland is some kind of sanctuary zone, and when demons try to pick a fight, the entire student body of the high school turn out to be various Universal Studios monsters and join the rumble. It’s like West Side Story if they were literal sharks (and literal jets? That one doesn’t fit as well). This is the first part of a trilogy, so eventually it comes to light that this whole thing might be bigger than Portland, and that maybe Malik and Bianca can’t date quite yet so they can have an Empire Strikes Back kiss, but less rapey.

Most of the book oscillates back and forth between boring exposition about how many different clans of were-marmot there are and crises that need to be solved with immediate punching. The fights usually feel unearned, like they’re just happening because we need an action beat. There’s a story in there somewhere, but there’s no flow. OK, this is going to be the pot calling the kettle literally a pot given how my own writing reads like the aftermath of two cats playing DDR on a keyboard, but Omar needed to hire an editor. He clearly understood the need to bring in outside talent, because he hired a great cover artist. Seriously, you can’t not love this cover, don’t even try. Illustrator Richard Sashigane is like Jean Valjean carrying Marius through the Parisian sewers on his giant Chad shoulders, turning this book from something that could be overlooked into something that commands the attention of potential readers. But the phrasing is clunky, the sentences over-conjuncted, and the dialogue sounds like it was all spoken by the same person. If Team Omar had more nerds, it would be unstoppable. Nevertheless, this is a book that will satisfy a hunger for monstery demon high school dramas. If you’re trawling Amazon for anything that has teen werewolves, this is your jam. Infamy: The Godling Saga is seven dollars on Kindle, which isn’t a bad price given its hefty girth.

Much like candy corn, Madeline’s opinions continue to disappoint.

The Man Who Was Born In 9 Countries: A Novel by Tajo

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

Have you ever looked around at your life and wondered how you got to where you are now? I never thought I would be the sort of person who owns cutting board wax, but there it is, on my shelf next to some kind of… Arabic drum? And a broken diffuser. My shelf is truly a land of contrasts. Come to think of it, I’m not sure how half the stuff on my shelf got there. Some of it shows where I’ve been in the world, and some of it just shows the trip I made to Festival Foods when I was hungry and bought some kind of Finnish candy I’ll never actually eat. Tani Goldstein, writing under the name Tajo (no last name, like Cher), is a man from presumably any one of the countries not listed below, and he thinks about this question of life trajectories a lot. So a lot, in fact, that he wrote a book about it. The Man Who Was Born in 9 Countries: A Novel is not a novel, but an aesthetically jumbled collection of artifacts from imagined other lives, much like my shelf.

“My mother would say that I have the mind of a philosopher.”

Tajo begins with a brief introduction about himself, explaining how mediocre and pointless he is. A bold choice, but I respect it. He has apparently worked in PR, retail, and education, and what do you know? Your girl has worked in those fields, so I can confirm they are the most pointless jobs. But he wants to be a journalist! Also, he doesn’t care for screens and doesn’t get FOMO. Just your typical bro, hanging out at Applebee’s, working up the courage to flirt with the waitress. But what if he were an entirely different ordinary person? The nine countries Tajo imagines as his alternate homes are Russia, Japan, America, Greece, Hong Kong, Britain, Jordan, Israel, and India (I know! I was surprised he’s not from India, too). I’m going to walk you through just one of these, Russian Tajo, to see whether the grass is truly greener on the other side.

Our imaginary hero starts out in the closing days of the Soviet Union with a deadbeat German dad who has fine Finnish drinks. Tajo and his mom follow him to a stifling Russian compound in East Berlin, where the boy wonder struggles to fit in at school. He is “dominant among other children,” which I assume is code for being a loser who gets the borscht beat out of him on a regular basis. This is a theme, Tajo being alternately happy and miserable, while having very little agency over the process. Anyway, Dad blasts off with some chick named Tammy, and because he’s a super secret nuclear computer scientist, Mom can’t actually find him. And she’s not supposed to leave the compound anyway, so when she goes out in search of her top-notch husband, she is promptly sent back to Russia.

“I had no worries for the future, and my mother was also not worried about me.”

Tajo grows into a handsome highschooler. Filled with optimism for the country’s future under Perestroika, he turns into an oblivious himbo, merrily humping away at the student body. His girlfriend, considerably less optimistic, insists that all men beat-and-cheat, and he is no exception. Tajo obliges, because I guess you can’t be falsely accused of something if it’s true. This sets off a series of disasters in his life, chief among them being his propensity to wax philosophical about God and the subconscious (seriously, how is this book not Indian?). Other disasters include his time in the army as a “theater officer” (which I assume is part of the Soviet Union’s “pro-bullying” policies), the collapse of said Soviet Union and the ensuing social chaos, and the death of his mother.

Education policy is made using the model of a spherical algebra classroom of uniform density. Basic things like music or drama are never on the mind of reformers and administrators. You see this constantly whenever a school district makes a change to their Covid policy that segregates the grade levels, and only the next day is it brought to their attention that they don’t have the resources for seven orchestras and seven bands. If you’re an arts teacher, you’re lucky they even let you in the building. My point is, I have no faith that any education system is set up to successfully train anyone to be a “military theater officer.”

After deserting the army amid riots and shortages, our hapless handsome hero illegally moves to Germany to start a new life. Money is easier to come by, there are parties and friends to enjoy, and political freedoms undreamed of back home. Tajo is happy again, which means it’s time to go back to carelessly using women. Seriously, you don’t want to meet this guy when he has both feet on the ground. But once he gets kicked back to Russia (again!), he resumes a hardscrabble life as a journalist and meets the love of his life. Unlike him, she is a hard working, altruistic person, and they have two daughters together. The couple barely notices when Putin comes to power.

“My Russian obstinacy defeated my logic: I wasn’t prepared to give up.”

Then the repeating sine wave of Tajo’s life crests and his wife dies. So, for the record, you don’t want to be used by this man, but you also don’t want to be any woman who is a positive part of his life, either. He’s Captain Kirk. Tajo writes a scathing article about Russia’s involvement in Ukraine (that’s the 2015 one, not the 2022 one), gets fired, and goes to work for the white collar mafia. He shacks up with a woman he doesn’t love, and she’s mad because she loves him. I mean, who wouldn’t love this guy who keeps bloviating about how anything exceptional just leads to disappointment? Freedom and love are illusions, insists our broken middle-aged Tajo, and speculating about a happy future is pointless. Hopefully the girls don’t spend too much time at home with their dad.

I’ve become a connoisseur of the Mediocre White Man during my time rummaging through self-published books. The MWM is to be understood as a metaphor; as a literal description it would be very reductive and hurtful, and besides it is in no way limited to white people. Being an MWM is a state of mind, or rather a lack of awareness. Reading this book I felt that Tajo (the author) was curating nine MWM Tajos (the characters) for me, like a menagerie. At times it almost felt like the author was in on the jokes, and at other times it felt painfully sincere, as if these are real insights into the minds of young men tragically carrying unrecognized brilliance with them everywhere they go. It’s the kind of “how many layers am I looking at” piece of fiction that has you squinting at the page, like those second wave feminist books where you can’t quite figure out how intentional the racism is supposed to be. Nevertheless, some people will enjoy the meticulous, clinical breakdown of these nine life trajectories, with their attendant historical details. The research seems pretty good as far as I can tell. The translation by Judith Yakov is smooth and natural, and despite all the times I wanted to smack Tajo in the face, he does have a consistent voice as a character. The Man Who Was Born in 9 Countries is only a dollar on Kindle, so if you think it might be worth a glance, it probably is.

If we all band together, we can stop Madeline from writing crappy book reviews.

Frankenbook: Three YA Fantasy Plots In One

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

I’ve reading through a few books this week, trying to keep them all separate in my mind, so I could decide which one to write about. But in their continual effort to use me as a beta tester for various petty torments, the fates have seen fit to fill my TBR with a plethora, nay a cornucopia, nay a group of just three very similar books.

A Patriot’s Tale by Nicole Peirman is historical fiction in which Lily lives a crazy person orphan life in the woods, and wants to join the Rebel Alliance or the Washington’s Wizards or whatever the American army was calling themselves back in Yore times. The Combatant by Julie Falango follows ostensibly orphaned Lexi as she lives in the woods and wants to join the Medieval-but-with-motorcycles elite fighting force of her kingdom. In the legally distinct science fantasy novel A Shimmering World: Book One of the Shimmering Saga by A. C. Lowry, it’s Em who wants to be an elite fighter, but she’s only a second degree orphan and her crazy people cabin is a barracks. The common thread seems to be a classic YA genre trope, the 5½ P: perfect, persecuted, pugilistic, (partially) parentless prodigies. So why limit ourselves to just one PPPpPP? If these three titles represent three attempts to get an idea right, surely all three at once will give us our greatest chance of success. Welcome to the first installment of Frankenbook, where I review the book that is living rent-free in my head after absorbing several self-published YA fantasies. I’m going to blend the details of each book together like one of those tiny Asian washing machines that turn all your clothes into Klein bottles, in the hope that what comes out will be better than the sum of its parts. Allow me to summarize the first act, as best I can.

“She shook off the tears of hopelessness after the twenty-fourth survivor had spit on her shoe and cursed her name.”

At the age of five, Princess Lilexem (Lil’ XM to her friends) of the Kingdom of Odessa has it all: an intact, loving family, an intact, un-burnt house, a teddy bear. If there’s a pleasant thing you can think of pertaining to being a privileged little girl who lives in a castle for the time being, she’s got it. Her completely alive father loves to give her presents and big hugs, and her older brother Damion teases her the way only still-extant older brothers can. Everything is happy and perfect, and presumably will be forever. But then! One night our heretofore untragic heroine wakes up to find that she’s on a lot of fire. She curls up into a ball under an asbestos blanket and waits for death.

Prince General-Kirigan-slash-Hans-from-Frozen proposes to his father King Malachy that the Maq, a magical race of humanoids with jet black skin and glowing red eyes, do not need to be hated anymore. The old man is not buying it, still seeing the Maq as a tribal enemy to be exterminated. This is relevant because our protagonist LXM (940 to her Ancient Roman friends) has become a Maq somehow! She is living with her mystery replacement mother, who is very… what’s the female version of avuncular? (checks internet) Materteral? Seriously? Jesus Christ, English. Just when I’m done being mad about the word “authoress” you go and pull this shit. Anyway, her surrog-aunt simultaneously lives in an isolated cabin in the backwoods of South Carolina and a fantasy version of Kowloon Walled City. It’s very pastoral, but also one of those gritty places where nobody’s nice to each other for some reason. Even our plucky (Oo! Another p!) heroine is kind of a Mean Girl (she has this uncomfortable way of describing all the other women in the story by their hair style and color). And the closest thing she has to a mentor kills poor people to make tchotchkes out of their bones. One person I did enjoy was the sloppy foul bestie who just wants drunk cake. But she doesn’t get much screen time, probably to make room for more boys.

Now twenty years old, Lixmy doesn’t remember her life before bring raised in the cabin by her substi-tía and her ersatz brother and friendzoned sparring partner, Cole. A word of advice, ladies. If any human male roughly your age is practicing martial arts with you in a book or a movie, he’s in love with you. I don’t know if that rule applies at the dojo in your local strip mall that turns into a zoomba studio after five, but in books it’s a hundred percent of the time. Do with that knowledge what you will. Anyway, Lesmex has joined some murderous organization of fantasy super soldiers so she can one day become a field medic. Apparently there’s an engineered shortage of medical supplies in the kingdom, and I guess joining the steampunk Hitler Youth is the only way to address that.

Bourabon Van Verot towered over the naked man strapped to his dining table.”

Meanwhile, British soldiers ruthlessly burn villages across the part of South Carolina where our fantasy story has been taking place, leaving the survivors to fend for themselves. Our girl is elated to see starving families shuffle down the country road by her orphan cabin because she can chat them up about the war and maybe find a way into the rebel army. Because the elite combat organization she’s already in isn’t good enough. She rescues a hot boy with chocolate colored hair, and casually explains to him how much of an orphan she is, since she believes the local British corporal (who in the film adaptation looks suspiciously like Prince Not-a-Bad-Guy-Pinky-Swear) murdered her brother and parents. I guess it was him who set the fire in her bedroom, and she just assumed that the rest of her family was killed, except she also doesn’t remember the fire. Jeez, try to keep up. She shows off her badass knife-throwing skills (which in my opinion is any amount of knife-throwing skills), and probably talks to the squirrels she hunts a little too often (which in my opinion is any amount of talking to squirrels), about how useful she would be to the rebels. The chocolate-haired love interest is skeptical.

For the time being, Emmalily is merely a cadet at the top of her class in the city guard of Evil Ankh Morpork, set to replace the prince’s own guardian after the peasant-knickknack-making weirdo’s imminent retirement. Resentment follows her everywhere she goes, because on top of beating every boy and girl in training, she has the whole Maq thing going on (you probably remember from high school what a burden it is to be better than everyone else). Her protagonist-hating instructor acts on this resentment by ambushing her with a sex-fight against four armed cadets. Only the speedy intervention of the Prince himself prevents possible death. But then he shoots the instructor, and enjoys it. This is never framed as a bad thing, by the way. The instructor lives, and the Prince is obviously being set up as a “I can’t believe the evil guy was evil the whole time” twist anyway. But still, it’s weird that everyone seems to be cool with it.

One day Cole comes home with a mysterious knife wound, and Allie Maq has to use her medical skills to suture it, which inevitably leads to her wondering if maybe she was wrong to overlook him as a potential source of vitamin D. A word of advice, fellas. If any human female roughly your age tends your wounds in a steam-peasant science fantasy, she’s into you. The two go into town, where everyone loves our super swell protagonist. “Everyone simultaneously loves and hates me” is like a Madonna-Whore complex that you can inflict on yourself! But she has to duck into a combination book store and library when she notices a shadowy figure following her. I’m not sure how a book store library works; it kind of seems like a book store that has no revenue, but we can’t be dwelling on these things. At the very special birthday picnic Cole made for her, Cole admits that the knife wound was inflicted by Kill Squad cadet Damion! Oh, it turns out her whole family is alive, and I guess someone set fire to just her bedroom specifically, but of course she doesn’t put these pieces together yet. Just as this information is revealed, Damion and the rest of the jocks crash the picnic with nothing good on their minds, and the two galaxy-crossed youngsters have to flee.

“He was quite short too and looked like he would be a librarian.”

Despite being “just a woman,” LAX sets out with Hot Chocolate to find the rebel camp. They arrive just in time to see a spy get shot, a grim reminder that the fantasy Revolutionary War is no joke. HC takes another try at changing her mind, insisting that she can’t hide her sex, and besides, fighting grown men on a bloody battlefield is not the same as hunting squirrels in the woods. But it’s no use. She needs to join the rebellion to fight the invaders who destroyed her royal Maq family. She impersonates a man, fights in a gruesome battle against the fantasy British (who presumably wear horned bowlers and blast drizzly weather from their fingers), and gets captured. When she awakes in a stately Georgian bedroom, wearing a poofy gown, and tended to by a maid, it becomes obvious that she has been found out. She is now the personal “guest” of the very same corporal who has been laying waste to rural South Carolina. How will she escape from Prince Corporal McEvilFace? Which boy will she pick? Will she rediscover her old family?

That’s just the start of our Frankenventure. I’m not sure if jamming everything together like that made the end result any better, but it definitely makes the whole experience more efficient to read. Maybe there should be an app that does this senseless smashing together for us, so we can read entire genres in one sitting. Kind of like watching American Horror Story, but for books. A Patriot’s Tale, A Shimmering World, and The Combatant cost a cumulative fourteen dollars on Kindle.

I thought they would get better, but if anything Madeline’s opinions are only getting worse.

Judging Books By Their Covers

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

This week I’m looking at six books that all come out on March 1st. Since they won’t be released for two weeks as of this writing, and getting my hands on an ARC from a real author is about as likely as buying a pressure cooker and not being told I’m gonna die by every Boomer in my family, I do mean it when I say I’m just “looking.” I’m going to do my best to share with you the cover of each of these six books, and what I imagine are their strengths and weaknesses based on that. Then, if and when March rolls around, we can all find out how wrong I am. Again. As usual. They don’t call me Not-stradamus for nothing. OK, here we go.

Berserker Bounty Hunter 2: The Cat-acombs by Roland Carlsson is clearly some kind of furry low fantasy erotica, a la the LitRPG genre that has darkened the Denny’s placemat I’ve been using as a welcome mat. There’s a sexy cat lady, and a sewer (everyone’s least favorite video game level), and that’s about it. I’m guessing long-time fans of the Berserker Bounty Hunter series won’t need much else to get up to speed. It’s hard to judge this one based on such a simple premise. Actually, no, I think I can confidently place “cat sex sewer” pretty low on my TBR, below a surprising number of other sex sewers.

Now this is more like it! Freedom Against Zombies by Alathia Morgan is serving me jingoistic zombie realness. Against a backdrop of ruined buildings and hungry zombles a young Appalachian woman drapes herself in the American flag. It’s easy to see the gimmick here. It’s going to be some wholesome, bald eagle-worthy ass-kicking carried out by patriotic redneck preppers. Somebody is going to drive a tank, or oh! A fighter jet. Somebody steals a fighter jet in this book. I’m calling it now. This is the sort of book that makes you simultaneously ashamed and proud to be an American. If it turns out to be some sempai-noticing-me simuator about a blank canvas Mary Sue, I’m emigrating to Canada. Which is code for “letting the zombies eat me.”

Outranked: The Weight of It All by J. J. Thorn gives me mixed feelings. First, it calls itself a LitRPG series, which is code for problematic erotic power fantasy. But this cover. This is some Frank Frazetta-level cheese. There are way more lizard creatures getting wasted on this cover than I could hope to draw with my primitive monkey fingers. Our dude is standing on a pile of lizard meat, converting more lizards into meat. It’s glorious. I’m almost afraid to read it, in case it’s about a guy who works at Comcast and uses an elaborate fantasy world to trick lizard women into sleeping with him. A weaker woman, or a smarter one, would stop subjecting herself to this level of disappointment over and over again. But I’m clearly not alone, as the ongoing manufacture of Peeps will prove. Hopefully Outranked lives up to its badass cover.

Blaze of Glory by A. M. Van Dorn is a western with a cover that looks exactly like what I imagine the concept art for the Custer’s Revenge video game looked like. There’s a kneeling cowboy shooting at someone off screen, and two ladies posing (I only drew one because it was really redundant – same reason why I skipped the perfectly spaced out cacti on the horizon). The guy is literally in the process of shooting someone, with his hand on the hammer of his revolver; why are these ladies just posing? Are they in danger? Were they doing some Looney Toons plan to distract the bad guy so our cowboy could do a sneak attack? So many questions for March. You know what, A. M.? You tried. OK, you didn’t really try very hard, esepcially on those cacti, but you showed up. True, you haven’t technically shown up yet because it’s not March, but you exist. Probably. Well done.

Bloody Mayhem by Jack Quaid is a shooty-shoot action adventure with one of those cool 70s movie poster covers. There’s a looming hooded figure, cars exploding into stuff, and a gun-toting duo of disco ass-kickers front and center. I’m guessing this book is going to have car chases, mustaches, gun fights, sassy AAVE one-liners watered down for Wine Beckies like me, and at least one evil corporation run by a guy with a Persian cat. Possibly two. Two Persian cats, people! The 70s aesthetic is criminally underappreciated in pop literature today. You can’t see this thing and not imagine a car that looks like it was made out of scrapped battleships flying down the road to the tune of “wacka-chicka wacka-chicka.” It’s instant cool. And believe me, I know cool. I was a hall monitor all four years of high school. I made regionals.

A Fubar Kind of Day by Martha Carr and Michael Anderle is not here to waste your time or insult your intelligence. Mike and Martha have a simple story to tell with this cover art. It’s a classic story you’ve all heard before, a tale of gun fights, kicky-flips, magical energy blasts, and all the major inney and outey bits of the female body (I’m talking of course about the root chakra). Something I didn’t even notice while drawing this is that Blasty McTitsface is holding a handbag during the magical gun battle portrayed on the cover. That’s how transfixing this woman is. In case it’s not obvious, I have no patience for the “where are her organs” response to stylized depictions of women. I don’t know where Mafalda’s organs are either; she’s a cartoon. If anything, I find this kind of hyper-sexualized drawing very useful, because it tells me so much about what I will find inside the book. As an advertizement/warning, this cover is a huge success. If you want to read about women doing magical stuff other than having boobs, go browse the Hugo awards. Seriously, it’s like 100% women authors now and nobody’s noticed.

It’s usually not that hard to judge a book by its cover. I knew a woman once who organized her bookshelf by color, and the books were all still grouped by genre. Some of them were still grouped by author. Book covers and visual marketing are a precise science. But self publishing, as usual, allows for a lot more surprises. There are no boardrooms calculating ROI to the penny, and so the rules are looser. Any one of these books could turn out to be a Latvian haiku compilation. We’ll just have to wait until March 1st to find out.

Some crazy woman drew the covers of six upcoming releases. I think she needs help.

Conversations N The Dark: Part 1 by Tmonee’

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

Let me just take a moment to explain the mental relief given to me by Kindle Unlimited, and why it is the best money I’ve ever spent. Before I bit the bullet and gave Jeff Bezos some money that he’ll use to buy space slaves or something, my typical experience on the Kindle store went something like this: “Oh, this one is hastily translated from Tamil and has an MS Paint cover? Goodbye, little four dollars! Goodbye forever! I’m sorry you didn’t get to buy any food or shelter, but I will always remember you!” But now? Now I’m swiping right on short stories about “erotic vegetable insertion,” because life is too short not to, and it can only get shorter the more power I give to Jeff Bezos.

And once again, the world of random self published novels has not disappointed me. I asked for something I haven’t seen before, and it plopped this into my lap like a cat that found a finger in the backyard. Conversations N The Dark Part I is a speedrun-of-real-life simulator by Tmonee’, a dense web of personal conflict, desperation, and loss. Below I have summarized each chapter and sorted them in random order, so you can try to guess how they are arranged in the book. Also, I changed the names to try and minimize spoilers.

Connor asks Kelli if her children are his children. Connor is pleased with the answer, though Kelli also recounts the abuse they have suffered at Tyffanie’s hands.

Kelli and Abbey talk about a person named G-spot.

Connor is only engaged to Tyffanie because he thinks she is carrying his child, but his true love is Kelli. He gives her a secret mansion next to IKEA.

At the happy reunion, Kelli is pregnant again, but terrified when she learns that Tyffanie has impersonated a nurse.

Tyffanie and Kelli ruin Abbey’s celebratory promotion dinner by fighting over paternity and lap dances.

Abbey does a very aggressive Live about Pizza Hut.

Tyffanie shoots Connor.

Abbey has no actionable advice for her brother Connor.

Kelli is a terrible mother, who has been betrayed by Connor.

Tyffanie is not remorseful, and hides from the police in her parents’ house. They’re not into it.

Kelli, Abbey, and all their kids congregate at the hospital.

Connor asks Kelli if she has had children with G-spot.

Tyffanie also wants Connor, even though she didn’t support him while he was in prison, so she is faking a pregnancy until she can become pregnant for real.

There is something about the structure and characters of Conversations N The Dark that feels very different from the sort of story telling I usually see. The way quotidian aspects of the characters’ lives are combined with over the top twists and reveals feels like a Greek tragedy. Everybody acts like the ancient Greeks were a bunch of pretentious Rick and Morty fans who talked about trolley problem solutions all day on their white marble bean bag chairs or something. But in reality they were nasty boys and girls who loved nothing more than a good high school beef. Most of Sophocles’ oeuvre could be an episode of Maury and no one would notice. Stories like this one humanize their subjects by taking their problems and their emotional turmoil seriously, without resorting to a more noble motivation than their desire to be happy and lead a good life.

“You hurting my feelings and making my dick hard at the same time.”

And it’s a whirlwind. There is a genre out there called “insta-love,” where instead of doing all the legwork of making the reader care about the characters and their struggles before the meet-cute, or charting out a long will-they-won’t-they, you just smash the two leads together like chocolate and peanut butter or college students and Chipotle. In the same vein, this book wastes no time building up to the main crisis. It almost feels like stealing glimpses of the characters’ lives through a series of windows. Only less perverted. OK, maybe not.

That said, this was not an easy read. And for once, it’s not because ignorant old me reading a book written in a Black vernacular involves kanji charts, one of those flippable chalk boards, and a montage. No, the language here is very accessible, just not the formatting. For the record, I am not a language snob. I don’t care how many times Tmonee’ says “escape goat” or “multimillionaire company.” What I am asking for is paragraph breaks. Quotation marks, indications of the passage of time, indications of who is speaking. Reading Conversations N The Dark was like one of those Darren Aronofsky movies that feel like they were edited on a woodchipper. Everything is in one giant pile of words marked “book,” and if you can’t figure out what’s happening, then you don’t deserve it you stupid pleb.

“That’s right [redacted] you deserve the ass whooping that you are about to get when we find you.”

Conversations N The Dark is obviously a labor of love. Tmonee’ apparently spent nearly a decade perfecting her vision, the whole time working under the constant noise of living inside the Detroit airport. This is the sort of book I love to see. Somebody wanted to write a book, so they did. They didn’t follow any rules, or listen to anybody, or take a class. Screw that, Dad. They just did what they wanted. I often end these reviews with a plug for self publishing in general, but this is exactly why I say things like that. Unfortunately this gem is ten dollars on Kindle, so it might be a Kindle Unlimited-only sort of indulgence, especially considering the length. Ostensibly this is Part 1, with a heavy implication that Reign may be the focus of the story arc as a whole, so maybe some day we’ll get a cheaper box set.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, so now you have to, too.

Prologues: Why They Are Bad, And You Are Bad For Liking Them

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

Many of you know about my visceral hatred of prologues in novels, and you may be wondering “Hey Madeline, why are you so unhinged about prologues? Seriously, what’s your deal? We’re trying to cut Brenda’s birthday cake in the Kroger break room, not listen to another one of your stupid opinions.” Well I’m glad you asked!

Prologues are a crutch that authors use when creativity and coherent story telling elude them. To see why, let’s take a stroll down my lovingly curated menagerie of prologue archetypes, and point out why they should go away.

Let’s start with the classic “Star Wars Crawl.” These prologues are here to give us essential background information, without which we will be babes adrift on the ocean. You can’t follow Rhalgrar’s motivations without being told ahead of time that Beast Wanderers instinctively hate Rune Casters or whatever. A common theme in this rant o’ mine is that some of these tropes work better in movies, where time is limited and omniscient narrators aren’t really a thing. But in a book you have plenty of time to demonstrate how the Accountant Clan feels about the Actuary Clan and vice versa. Dumping it in a prologue makes me feel like I’m reading a wiki about your universe rather than narrative fiction. Far better to mete out this information through the interactions of the characters as it becomes relevant.

An even worse version of the above is the “Pet World Building” prologue. In these artisanally crafted time wasters, the info dump doesn’t exist as a necessary preamble to get the reader up to speed, but as a place to put all the superfluous world building details our author can’t not tell us about. This is where we learn about far-away lands that do not appear in the narrative, or ancient wars that have no real impact on present events. Sometimes I feel like I’m playing a game of Red Rover, trying to break through pages of geographical and historical descriptions to get to the plot on the other side.

Not all prologues are non-narrative info dumps. Sure, they’re all terrible, but each one is terrible in its own way. One of my least favorite is the “Flash Forward.” Someone is murdered in the opening pages, and then you turn the page to see the words “ten days earlier.” Every time I see this it drains me faster than a fire extinguisher at a gender reveal party, and leaves me in a state of indifference for the next couple of chapters. You just told me there’s been a murder! If you wanted me to care about the protagonist’s struggle to find a babysitter on the weekend, you should have started with that. Instead I already know what the main crisis of at least the first act will be, and I’m just waiting to get there.

Just as bad is the “Flash Back.” The most egregious, and surprisingly common, subcategory of flash back prologues is gratuitous childhood trauma. I’ve read books that kick down the door with rape and child battery in the first few pages, and then pick up the main narrative with the protagonist trying to get a job in an Italian restaurant or pick out an outfit for the school dance. This kind of writing can only have shock value; it’s not going to make me feel anything for the characters, especially since I barely know who they are. If I haven’t had time to care about the victims of abuse first, the abuse is just torture porn. That’s the worst kind of torture, and the third worst kind of porn. Lately I’ve come across some truly awful (i.e. extant) examples of the flash back type, so I’ll showcase a few of those for you now.

Our first example comes from The High Fiving Awesomers: A Vendetta Against High Fives and Awesome, by Mathew P. Barkevich. In the prologue, the author of this very book defends their writing choices to an editor. It’s all very meta, which normally I would enjoy, and it does seem that Barkevich is in on the joke. But it’s not a good sign when you write a fictional editor ripping your writing style to shreds and I end up relating to her more than anyone else in your book. I guess technically she’s not an editor, she’s a partner in the law firm that fires our author insertion MC for writing a legal investigation in the style of a hack writer. In the report that’s in the prologue that’s in the book, someone actually wrote “You’ll see, it’s in my report.” I almost don’t hate it, because it crosses the line twice, or maybe three times, but it’s still a prologue. It still gives us no useful information except that Barkevich can deftly convince us to hate their own prose. I award it zero high fives out of awesome.

“Me and an assortment of people suffering from mental illness and veterans without homes comprise the bulk of library patrons.”

Next, consider The Rogue Among Us by Lou Dittrich. This is a classic example of telling rather than showing. Our perspective character Anne tells us how her relationship is with her step mother. It would have been nice to see that relationship in action, but by the time we see them have any meaningful interactions a few chapters later, there isn’t much to indicate how well they get along. Then Dittrich hits us with the punchline. A “rogue” shows up, and we get a few paragraphs about the story “everybody knows” about hunting the dangerous, savage, and presumably extremely sexy rogues. You know that scene in Atomic Bride Issue Seven where Dr. Scientist says to a room full of other qualified scientists “As you all know, here is how our faster than light technology works.”? This is that trope, but without even the pretext of narrative flow. I’m not trying to be mean. Dittrich didn’t invent this trend, and they’re not wrong to copy ideas that are clearly tolerated by the industry as a whole. They are a victim, just as much a victim as I am for reading this sexy werewolf infodump. Just as much a victim as you are for sitting through the froth-gulleted ravings of an elderly hack with too many opinions.

“Tricia put the tray of food onto my desk and scanned the room attentively before spilling the tea.”

Where was I? Ah, yes. Faking It For the Holidays, by Bethany Monaco Smith. We start out with the old “13 years ago” opener, and see Sam’s perspective as he gets friend zoned in a hay loft. Simp Sam promises never to date the woman he loves because she doesn’t want to ruin their friendship, and I guess he learned early never to value his own feelings or leave a relationship that’s causing him pain. Some guys just can’t take a hint. Mark my words: the first draft of this story involved Sam subordinating his needs to Kaila’s convenience until eventually he snaps and starts posting slurs on Gettr. Lucky for us, Sam gets a reprieve, and it only takes a decade and change. But before you feel bad for him, Sam does make this promise fully hoping that Kaila will someday forget about it. What a winner. This prologue isn’t bad at setting up the characters, assuming Kaila being emotionally oblivious and Sam being a lying weasel was intentional. But it’s still unnecessary. Smith could easily show us that grown-up Sam has been in love with Kaila from afar their whole life. That’s, like, thirty percent of the history of romance novels. You can just paint that one by numbers.

“First we pinky swear on it. Then we exchange our special handshake.”

Lastly, I want to talk about Family Sucks by Jesse Stimpson. I really want to. This one is just a chef’s kiss of bad prologues. Pretty often on this blog I read something so bad that I end up unironically loving it. I don’t know if that adoration comes through when I’m complaining about how this or that author couldn’t successfully complete a census form, but just know that this one is something special. The narrative purpose of this prologue is to set the tone and the danger level, in a world full of vampires. This is accomplished by showing us the gory dismemberment of a cute family out for ice cream. And without spoiling too much, none of these people is terribly important. I don’t think any of them show up again until almost the end of the story, leaving me to wonder for an entire book why Stimpson made me watch some randos get bit up by some vampires in an alley. I would read a chapter, stop, ask myself “did the vampires wait outside the ice cream shop?”, and read another chapter. Then I would stop again and ask “were they, like, the bad vampires? Do we know them?” This is not the feeling most authors want their readers to have, but I have learned to enjoy it, because someone has to. Bottom line, this prologue left me knowing less about the story than if I had just skipped straight to chapter 1.

“There was a sudden splashing sound, like a speed boat cutting through calm waters. Jada’s skirt went from dry to wet.”

So how do we avoid writing prologues, and secure for ourselves the most coveted of accolades: my approval? Show don’t tell is pretty vague advice, but it can certainly help us in this case. If there is something the reader needs to know about the setting, ask yourself why they need to know it. That will give you a clue as to when the information should appear in the narrative. If a character has a tragic backstory, give us a chance to like them before paying the backstory out as it becomes relevant to the story. Are you building to a key plot point? Put it after the rising action so we can get a feel for how important it is. This stuff isn’t always easy, but it will make your writing better. And more importantly, I won’t have to skip the first few pages of your book with an ugly look on my face. Hopefully this explains why I am the way I am. If not, then it would make for a great prologue to the story of my life.

Madeline is right to hate prologues, and you should all be ashamed of yourselves.

Blind Rage by Nick Clausen

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

Two things I know for sure: the empty kitchen sink is a myth perpetuated by the patriarchy, and zombies are a dead genre in the world of traditional publishing. You know who didn’t get the memo? Nick Clausen, who wrote a book about a zombie outbreak in Denmark that results in a 10% reduction in the country’s measurable happiness, and I’m glad he did. It’s been too long.

The story opens with a mystery narrator telling us about the first of our perspective characters, Mark (Dan to his friends), sitting in a boring office conference room. Talk about feeling like a zombie, amirite, folks? Dan Mark momentarily loses his hearing, and feels a presence, like someone is standing just behind him. But before he can figure out exactly what’s going on, his boss (Minnie to his friends) disrupts the meeting by staring out the window at nothing. When Mark investigates, it turns out that Minnie Boss has lost his pupils. His pure white eyes are apparently inoperable, but his teeth sure as shit still work as he chews through one intern after another. So, pretty normal corporate work culture. OK, I’ll stop. A few guys go full zombie and start beating up the other guys, as well as a woman named Erika. Then some office guys start fleeing and creating a panic around the building. This isn’t my terminology; Nick Clausen uses the word “guy” to refer to any unnamed character throughout the entire book.

“Being a mom seems to be noncompatible with being a babe.”

Cut to Gina, a young woman walking down the street concerned about her looks, like women be doing. She catches some complicated feelings about getting hit on by skater guys when she experiences the same hearing loss and feeling of being watched that Mark experienced. This is a theme in Blind Rage: we get a lot of the same information from each of the perspective characters, dutifully explained in full detail. Gina’s karate reflexes allow her to fend off the now enzombled skater guys, getting a good look at their eyes in the process. The completely white eyes, with no hint of a pupil or iris, are described as even more disturbing and frightening than an actual blind person’s eyes! The horror! Looking up, she notices what everyone has been staring at: a Doctor Who rip in space-time clear across the sky.

Next Mystery Narrator follows Tommy Teenager, which means we get the hearing loss and presence again, and a glance at the sky crack. Climbing out of his stepfather guy’s car, he is surrounded by panic and chaos. The skin of affected guys appears gray and dead, with black veins showing through the pallor. He runs into Gina, but then gets hit by a Danish bus. I’ve always wondered how many people during a zombie apocalypse just get killed by, like, undercooked chicken or Danish bus collisions, and I’m glad Blind Rage is addressing these prosaic dangers in the midst of the pandemonium.

Meanwhile Mark is still trying to make his way out of the office building. He takes the time to explain the sky rip a third time, then fills us in on the eyeless zombies. They can still hear, and possibly smell, and have some limited consciousness left. In fact, after hearing them make guttural noises to each other like “wrough” and “grruah,” he realizes that the zombies are able to use a rudimentary form of communication called Danish. The Danish language is made up. I will not budge on this belief, so don’t even come for me. In writing it looks like any other language: vowels, consonants, pauses for breath. But hear it spoken and you won’t be able to differentiate one gargled uvula from another. The whole thing sounds like someone yawning through a mouth full of rubber bands.

“Maybe a plane has crashed into a building, just like it happened in New York in 2001.”

Anyway, Gina has managed to push Tommy out of the way quickly enough to save him from certain death, but now she has to drag his injured, unconscious body to the safety of an abandoned department store. Surprisingly, the 911 call goes through just fine and the Danish police are on their way. The action cuts back and forth rapidly between Gina and Mark at this point. Mark saves Useless Erika from Minnie Boss and a zombie guy on his way out the building, while Gina tries to fight off a fat retail worker zombie with her now famous karate reflexes. Tommy regains consciousness, saves Gina from a motorcycle guy, and notices her butt, which is good because she was really worried about the state of her butt, but collapses again from his injuries. The four survivors meet in an alleyway and join forces. After nine chapters and several small plot twists, Act I is only now hitting its stride. The story goes on to hit such highlights as useless cops, a prettiness competition between Girl and Girl, and plenty of wise-cracking teenagers.

Nick Clausen is clearly going for a cinematic style, and on its own that’s not necessarily a problem. In fact, it’s sadly unavoidable. I spend an embarrassing amount of time catching up on publishing news, book tours, and the latest trends, and lately the book-to-visual-media pipeline has taken over with about as much collateral damage and brazen disregard for quality of life as an actual pipeline. It’s gotten to the point that authors are carefully describing every detail of a protagonist’s outfit, and putting them in that outfit in every scene like a video game character, in the hopes that it will be an iconic look on the upcoming Netflix original series. In the case of Blind Rage, the movification is turned up to eleven. I’m not being an old fuddy duddy about this (I mean, I am one of those; my spirit animal is a Boomer asking to talk to the manager of a Culvers). It’s just worth pointing out that even in a book that defies industry trends, they are difficult to avoid entirely. The rapid fire chapters, present tense, and minute physical descriptions go beyond the cinematic. In places it even reads like scene notes, with narration like “he’s coming this way,” and “She’s just standing there.”

Actually, we need to talk about the narrator. At first I didn’t realize there was a definable narrator. I read things like “Mark saw…” and assumed it was just the sort of sloppy writing we all do from time to time. But then it kept happening. We get lots of editorializing like “Obviously…” but Mark’s own thoughts would be written in italics. The narration clearly has its own consistent style and voice distinct from the dialogue of any of the perspective characters. Who is this person? I know I sound crazy right now, but hear me out. Did Nick Clausen write a character telling the story of three people of his or her own creation? How much of it is “real” within the context of the story? Which ones are even Danish?

“The motorbike guy spins around and exclaims: Pourah? The blonde snaps back at him: Kroouh!”

I find the whole idea of a zombie apocalypse pretty weak escapism, mainly because I have spent my entire life preparing for the moment when I die in the first ten minutes after patient zero starts gnawing on people. Even in one of those realistic scenarios where the outbreak is actually contained, I am the person who dies in the opening credits. But for some people, the sort of people who always root for the Ever Given, people who don’t own canned goods but still feel like preppers deep down in their gutty-wuts, find endless entertainment in this sort of story. And that’s one reason why I love the landscape of self-published books. Nick Clausen doesn’t care what trends are dead according to the publishing industry, Dad, and neither do his readers. If you want a cinematic zombie gore fest, Nick is here for you. Blind Rage is three dollars on Kindle, and if Danish zombies and fast paced storytelling are your thing, it’s well worth the price.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, so now you do too.

The Crystal Sphinx by G. D. Talbot

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

Have you ever wondered what would happen to the Indiana Jones movies if they replaced Harrison Ford with a Mediocre White Man? I mean, other than that time they put MWM patron saint Sam Witwicky in the movie. Do you think the Illuminati and the Lizard Pope should join forces and wear special jackets? Have you ever submitted “Aliens” as a write-in candidate on a presidential ballot? Most of all, would you watch a documentary about the pyramids narrated by Kirk Cameron? If you answered yes to any of these questions, The Crystal Sphinx by G. D. Talbot is the book for you. Also you’re weird.

“As Arthur drove closer to the university, he began to sigh more and more.”

Our trepid hero, Professor Arthur Tomat, has a dream about a Mayan grandpa stabbing, and a little girl who mutters clues. Technically, this is not a prologue, so I’ll allow it, but it’s a shaky start. He wakes up and we get to learn something about him as he goes about his morning routine. A middle aged untenured academic, he seems pretty dissatisfied with his life. Despite his mediocrity, he reminds himself in the mirror that he still has some muscle tone, and needs to find a wife to make him feel young again. Ladies, please form an orderly line. He sits down to breakfast and has a little chat with his grandpa. Who is dead. And in an urn. He has a conversation with an urn. OK, I need to know: who are these urn people? I see them on TV, but do they exist in real life? Are there really people who want to bring the cemetery experience into their own home? If you or someone you know talks to urns, we need to chat. I guess it’s useful for exposition, so maybe it’s just a useful trope.

During breakfast, a morning news show explains why Arthur is in such a dour mood. In an interview with a peppy morning show host, a representative of a Christian archaeological organization calls him a phony, and his grandpa too. The guest just keeps hitting the poor man and his dead grandpa with haymakers while the host asks weirdly leading, catty questions about how much of a phony he is. Newly discovered Mayan tablets in Africa have cast doubt on the integrity of the work Arthur has done on the Mayan civilization, and now everyone hates him and agrees that he smells bad. It’s a helluva good morning. Professor Eeyore mopes his way over to the University where he is probably going to get fired for being an alleged phony, taking a moment to mourn for his precious parking spot.

Arthur is a professor of “Ancient and Dead Languages.” I’m here to tell you, that’s not a department. Unfortunately, the traditional name for departments like this is almost as weird: Classical and Semitic Languages. Whatever, he’s a professor of Ozymandias plaques and shouting at Aziz for more light. His students apparently watched the same morning news program, because they cannot settle down to a nice morning of studying ancient and/or dead languages until Arthur explains the exposition to them all over again. It turns out, he and his grandpa discovered some artifacts that suggest a connection between the Mayans (who are said to live in “South America,” despite the fact that most people in the book appear to be Guatemalans who should know better) and ancient Egyptians at some point in prehistory. That’s right. Buckle your seat belts and adjust your tin foil hats. We are going full-on History Channel in this book.

“Their stares made him feel uncomfortable, so he stared at the ground until they went back to facing each other again.”

Despite having spent enough money on a world history education to buy an island in the French Antilles, I will refrain from critiquing the whole Maya/Egypt thing. I am willing to accept that ancient Egyptians founded Jack-in-the-Box, so long as I get a fun adventure story out of it. Of course, Arthur is presenting all this with the tacit acceptance that his work has been discredited, even though the reader knows this is all going to be true before long, so he’s not really giving me “fun adventure” energy. After Arthur gives a desultory run down of his life’s work to his students, “Dean Romero, the dean of the college,” whisks him away to have a courageous conversation about how on thin ice Johnson he is, about the future of his employment at the university, and how there isn’t any starting immediately please leave. Arthur is bummed that he lost his job and reputation, but relieved that class is over. It’s like a whirlwind of emotion, but tiny and inconsequential. It’s like a dancing plastic trash bag of emotion. It’s like… if a snail could be depressed, but also benefit from the wage gap.

Now that we have dismantled the protagonist’s life and given him nothing to lose, it’s time for the story to begin. Arthur notices a “large Black man” looking at him and proceeds to be afraid of this man for the duration of the book. Brutus works for the Christian archaeological organization that worked so hard to discredit him and, to Arthur’s surprise, offers him a lucrative employment opportunity. Arthur accepts the shadowy offer of millions of dollars from a man he hopes “won’t get mad,” and is whisked away on a private jet.

They land in the Iraqi desert, and Flat-as-Indiana Jones gets a VIP tour of the facility and its discoveries. There was something to his grand father’s research after all, and this hilariously massive and well funded church is pulling amazing discoveries out of the ground on a daily basis. There is golden oil that powers mysterious artifacts, colorful fruit that improve a person’s physical and mental abilities to superhuman levels, and Mayan documents to decipher. Arthur is dodging the dangerous Black man who reminds him of the wild dogs on campus, and enjoying the Christians’ excellent charcouterie (seriously, who are these people?), when he sets up his living quarters and delivers the punchline. The man still has the urn. He brought his grandpa’s urn in his luggage to an undisclosed location. How am I supposed to even when I read something like that? Thank God I wasn’t drinking water.

“Arthur felt very uneasy every time Brutus walked by or worst when Brutus was behind him. He felt like if Brutus had the chance, he would kill him or at least hurt him in some way.”

And that’s Act I. Will Arthur decode the secret Mayan inscriptions? Will he vindicate his grandfather by authenticating his most controversial discovery, the titular crystal sphinx? Will he ever address his exoticizing fetish for Black men? Does the urn talk back? Why did I spend over a decade getting two useless history degrees? The book does a great job of setting up a hook for the main body of the plot. I have to admit I was engaged the whole way through, although in my usual way of staring at the page in total incomprehension. I didn’t even talk about the quirky team of experts, each with their own specialty and foreign accent. I didn’t count the number of times people begin their sentences with “well,” like everyone in Guatemala is secretly Ronald Reagan. There’s a lot going on here. Like, A LOT, a lot. I’m not ready to say The Crystal Sphinx is… good. The writing is repetitive and not well edited. But it’s constantly surprising, and the length is about perfect for a story like this. At four dollars on Kindle, it’s worth it if you’re into tongue-in-cheek adventure stories and pop pseudo-history.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, and now you do too.

Bonus Content: Barrel’s Bottom, Village of Protagonists

1 – Ye Gyrlie Chandlery: providing the community with scented candles and adjunct girlfriends.

2 – Earl’s General Store: no protagonists allowed! Boo! Hiss!

3 – The Hefty Hock: tavern, adventurers’ outfitter, and amateur barfight venue. Ask us about our local heresay!

4 – Problematic ethnic mentor. It’s not a “magic negro” trope if she’s an elf.

5 – Secret royal protagonist hunter, sworn to rid the world of child wizards, chosen ones, and gifted elementary school students.

6 – Dark forest

7 – Mini-boss dungeon

8 – Combination dark forest and mini-boss dungeon

9 – Protagonists

10 – Turnips

11 – Side kicks

12 – Steampunk dragonship trapped in temporal vortex: currently used to store turnips.

Daemon Lover by H. R. T. Burns

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

Welcome back from your long exile, far from the warm glow of my idiotic opinions. I for one am excited to be back. 2022 is going to have bonus content, end-of-year awards, possibly t-shirts. There won’t be t-shirts. But I’ve been forcing myself to read the latest self published offerings on Kindle through the holiday season, using the same will power that has allowed me to eat stale panettone, grin through racist tirades, and sit through enough showings of A Christmas Story to feel like Alex from A Clockwork Orange. To begin the year, we’re revisiting a classic subgenre: sexualized World of Warcraft, also known as “men’s adventure fiction” on Amazon, which means that this thing could show up in your customers-also-boughts when you buy a cowboy novel for your dad. I give you: Daemon Lover, by H. R. T. Burns.

“If I want your opinion, I’ll steal it from you.”

Daemona is a succubus thief in one of those standard fantasy cities where it’s always nighttime, and you can just grab an apple off a cart at the night market and nobody will stop you for some reason. Not sure why mama and papa succubus named their kid Daemona, but it fits. She gets a tip from her informant, human-rat hybrid Marcenko. It’s implied that he’s not actually part rat, but I’m not sure. This is always a problem I have with the first few pages of generic fantasy novels. You’ve introduced a main character who is some kind of devil-thing, complete with horns, and you expect me to know the short guy with an overbite is a rodent in spirit only? I can’t read your mind, H. R. T. Burns. He gives her a tip on a sweet elephant jewel in an octopus tower that has no guards and is totally not suspicious at all. But then it turns out there’s a golem guarding the sweet elephant jewel in the octopus tower with no guards! Luckily, our protagonist is a kicky flippy badass who is effortlessly cool and good at everything. Specifically, she can teleport. Poof, gone, teleport. Of course, she can’t just teleport anytime, anywhere, without consequence. She has a finite amount of teleporting energy, which has to be replenished by semen.

OK, I may have skipped some critical parts of the first chapter. Our story actually began with the first of many scenes in which Daemona has awkward and very expeditious sex with some rando. I am not complaining. The way this usually works is that I take time out of my day to curl up with a good book that explains to me how each wrinkle on Lord Bargnarg’s manhood feels passing Lady Fningwig’s uvula. Then I have to take a deep breath and promise myself that fearless emotional inventory I’ve been putting off. Any day now. The sex scenes in this book linger about as long as a Wikipedia article on a village in Poland. In, out, next disposable bowl-cutted farm lad. So the golem. It was a trap, laid by the captain of the guard, Harlin. But Harlin’s not looking to simply lock up his sexy thief nemesis. This was all a ruse to get her in front of King Graymont. The king’s daughter Tamarind was kidnapped, and his other daughter Skyrim got kidnapped chasing after the first daughter. No word on how many previous daughters burned down and fell into the swamp. By his order, Daemona, Harlin, and a third companion Obvious Werewolf team up to go find and bring back as many daughters as they can carry.

“I’m looking for some wood.”

The trio gears up, and Daemona helps herself to a quick release stable boy. A pinch, a twist, a circular motion, and voila, she is recharged. There’s a pattern of premature ejaculation in these scenes, presumably because Daemona is just so sexy, but again this is to my benefit. I’m pretty sure we don’t even get one single horse disturbance in this entire book. The journey kicks into high gear when they meet an ogre friend Tish, who makes a portal to help them escape the black soldiers of the Gray Sovereign. Tish also calls her slutty, which confuses me. What constitutes a “slutty” succubus? How does slut shaming even work in a genderless species living in a world populated by sex demons? There are some fights with random minibosses wielding D&D weapons, and more teleporting, and soon Daemona needs to recharge. She calls Harlin a cuck when he refuses to sleep with her, and also she gets rejected by a dog.

The saucy banter between Daemona and the supporting cast is a big part of the book. Unfortunately, none of it really lands, except for the part when Daemona fails to convince a dog to have sex with her. The rest of it was Tarantino-style zippy one liners that were maybe trying to be funny, or cool, or both? I’m not sure. You may have also noticed a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of sex positive girl power liberation and gross normative gender roles. Your girl loves some love-em-and-leave-em leading ladies, but the problematic aspects of a Han Solo archetype don’t get any better when you swap out the hardware. Maybe I’m overthinking it because the truncated sex scenes have prevented my brain from shutting down in self defense.

“The hunter is now the hunted.”

Long time reader(s?) of this blog will remember the award winning classic Monster Girls Unlocked, in which a young nerd finds a way to bang his professor in virtual reality. In that masterpiece we all have to watch Professor McTits and every other woman in the world throw themselves upon the altar of this guy’s sexual preferences. I’ve read plenty of books where the main character’s fetish is red flags, or where flagrant abuse and self-indulgence stand in for romance, so I was braced for the inevitable scene in which her boobies were just too big to fit through the sewer grate, or a lovingly presented scene in which an ogre dungeon guard doesn’t understand consent. To my slack jawed amazement, this book actually takes the main character’s perspective seriously, treating her as an agent of the plot rather than a vehicle for gaze-y fan service. I mean, there’s obviously fan service. I don’t mean to give the impression that you won’t get the slippery meat slapping you came for. But the author, in a strange twist of fate, seems to understand that their personal desires, the perspectives of the major characters, and the rules of the universe they’ve made, may not all be the same thing.

Not that Daemon Lover is great literature. In general the writing feels rushed. There are missing verbs, and H. R. T. Burns has a habit of spelling “the” as “eth.” It took me way too long to realize that wasn’t some Hogar-style archaic word I didn’t know. Amateurism is not a mortal sin in a debut author, and I am almost ready to say that I am curious what they do for their sophomoric installment in the Daemona series. This is one of those guilty pleasure books that scratch a secret, shameful itch many of us have for erotic fantasy. It’s cheesy; the “hilarious” banter sucks. But it manages to walk the fine line between dumb sexy fun and just dumb. It’s way too short for the five dollar price tag, but if the price ever comes down I would give it a careful recommendation to anyone who wants their erotica to contain more premature ejaculation and fewer horse disturbances.

I sat through another one of Madeline’s dumb reviews, and now you do, too.