TRACKED: Reverend Matt and Low's "Blue-Eyed Devil"

My writing has always leaned on music. Whether inspiration, mood, or energy to keep me going through the many hours of drafting and editing, it can be an important force and fuel for what I do. These tracks in particular were especially crucial, helping me build or refine a character, a scene, or a whole story arc. 

The Track

As much as I love the Soul Coughing original of this song, with it’s bright guitars, sardonic tone, and punchy bass, I’ve long found this version to be more compelling. Low’s version of this tale, a song about the “god among salesman,” is a complete different character study. Smooth, slow, mournful, and a touch creepy, it feels more complex and evokes a whole different set of emotions than the original. It’s perfect to fit Reverend Matt Renault. On the surface, he’s a salesman of a sort. He sells a new destiny to the ignored, the excluded, and the failed. With all of his smooth talk and his intricate plans, he’s a suave force of malevolence. A song like this fits him and his slow, meticulous, and dangerous ways. 

The Character

Reverend Matt Renault has been many things in his life. A former altar boy with a grasp on the power of religion, he originally felt called to Seminary school. His mastery of theology was beyond question, but very quickly his teachers realized he was too skilled at twisting its meanings into manipulating his own heretical understandings of life and God. He had an eerie talent for using the forces of religion and faith to manipulate people. It didn’t take long for Matt to realize his potential was being wasted and drop out of Seminary school to find more fruitful endeavors. The agents of Hell were quick to approach with an offer, eager to turn Matt’s talents with words and manipulative flare for religion into something they could use. His skill was particularly well-suited to Summoning, the art of calling Demons from Hell itself and binding them to his will. Very quickly, Matt found himself able to call and control some of Hell’s mightiest creatures and even converse with the Pit Lords themselves. 

Eventually recruited by the Goetians, an elite group of Hell’s servants composed of mortals like Matt and devilkin who could trace their lineage to the Pit Lords themselves, he had a radical idea. Why not copy the model of active fundamentalist churches, but turn it on its head? Building a Hell church with active outreach programs to disaffected youth, loners, and social outcasts could yield an endless stream of angry recruits that could hide in plain sight as it masqueraded as any number of “normal” churches. It didn’t take long before the Goetians saw the virtue in his proposal and decided to fund it. One of Matt’s mentors, a talented Sorcerer, even helped design the church to be a veritable fortress of arcane defenses in case they were ever exposed. 

Over the years, after recruiting and carefully grooming a handful of talented and powerful acolytes, his following and his church have grown into something dangerously special. With his honeyed words and talk of better lives, Reverend Matt has built quite the force of adepts and soldiers ready and able to fight for Hell all under the roof of what looks to be a normal church. And under that church? He’s built something even more dangerous. It started with an idea from his Goetian mentor, a construction from the middle ages called a Possession Chamber. While his mentor perished after completing the first phase of it in a summoning gone wrong, Matt has remained determined to make the Chamber a reality. Able to pull Demons directly from Hell to infest the souls of anyone placed in the Chamber, Reverend Matt has constructed the ultimate factory for Hell’s sleeper agents to hide in the bodies of others and terrorize all of humanity. 

That is, once the Chamber is finished. Matt witnessed his mentor die, then over a dozen more talented enchanters follow suit as they try to complete the design. Hell’s power is not easily controlled, nor are its bloodthirsty denizens. As the number of enchanters that Reverend Matt can lay hands on begin to dwindle even as the design inches ever closer to completion, he finds himself in a strange place. His cult of acolytes is ready to act, to help Reverend Matt ignite the world and knock the forces of Heaven back from their dominance over humanity. The only problem? Their best weapon may never be complete. His last ditch hope before he falls to truly desperate measures is the name of one last enchanter he’s discovered - an obscure graphic designer named Derek Watts.

Web of Light (Books: My Favorite Movies!)

Web of Light (Web of Light Duology #1)Web of Light by Kyra Dune
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book on multiple levels. First, it's a tale full of palace intrigue, good dialogue, sharp young characters that are coming to their own, and a smattering of daddy and mommy issues that really propels the drama forward. Seva, the main character, has a mysterious origin she's trying to find more about as the queen calls a Conclave of all the major factions and races in her realm. Her over-protective grandfather has kept her sheltered for most of her life after her mother's equally dubious death, concealing a lot of important information about who her father might be. See, Seva has wings, a characteristic of the race of "flyers" in the realm, even though her mother and grandfather are human. Naturally, she assumes her father must be a flyer, but once all the races gather for the Conclave, answers are illusive and Seva's origin becomes further obscured. Perhaps she's a chosen one meant to fulfill a prophecy, or perhaps not. In either case, as the Conclave plays out, there's an important intergenerational struggle between the young adults heirs of each faction and their older peers, often with diametrically opposed viewpoints.

It all explodes when the Queen unfurls her sinister reasons for calling the Conclave, nearly at the same time as Seva stumbles into powers that might be the key to it all. If it seems very vague in review, it's only because I'm trying to keep from spoiling a real page-turner with a lot of plot twists, character development, and a rich fictional universe. That brings me to the other level on which I enjoyed this book.

As a writer myself, I think Kyra Dune teaches a master class in world-building here. Any writer who writes fantasy should read this for how effortlessly she shows and not tells and puts together an intricate realm and mythology in so few pages, while also giving it breathing room to question and upend it's own "lore" pages later. I appreciated that her protagonist Seva is vulnerable but her arc is very much HER arc. She grows, not just in maturity but in power, and does so with a little help from the many new friends she gathers in the narrative. Ganamere, one of these new friends who emerges as somewhat of an Anti-Villain, is a character I continuously think about. Introduced as a torturer with mommy issues, Ganamere grows from there to someone with conflicted loyalty. He does terrible things and great things, and somehow it all seems within the confused core of a young man who doesn't seem sure about what he wants to be. Someone who feels conflicted and guilty about his past and future.

Any lover of fantasy, YA or otherwise, would love this book and should pick it up.

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Demon City (Wrong City Book 2) (Books: My Favorite Movies!)

Demon CityDemon City by Morgan Richter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Demon City is an entertaining, quick read full of relatable characters and supernatural schemes. As an intriguing but not particularly flattering portrait of LA, it starts with Felix. A midwestern dreamer with body and food issues who made his way to the entertainment capital of the world, Felix hasn’t seen a lot of success. Other than a few modest acting jobs, Felix is stuck battling with another intern for a permanent job as a correspondent on a gossip show that makes TMZ look classy. Felix knows he’s too soft and lacks the killer instinct to get ahead in the entertainment journalism world. He pulls too many punches and gets too squeamish when it comes to asking people about their sex tapes, definite weaknesses in the cutthroat world in which he's found himself.

After a rough day at work, Felix goes to see his roommate’s band play a gig at an LA club. Things take an odd turn when he meets Claire, a mysterious woman who’s a little too interested in him. Trying to lure him away, Felix knows something about Claire isn’t right, and when he tries to run, she burns him with her touch. Things only get uglier from there for Felix, with his brother mysteriously coming to town, Claire and her similarly fire-touched friend Nicky chasing him, and an ever-sinister spiral of connections tying Felix’s job to a mysterious, faustian figure known as Sparky Mother.

Urban fantasy that uses the setting itself as a character is tricky, which is why Demon City’s choice of Felix as the main POV character is a wise decision and ultimately a successful one. He’s someone who only knows pieces of what's happening to his life and that proves effective as depths and angles that Felix couldn’t imagine are taking place all around him. The author, Morgan Richter, puts together a lot of thrilling sequences as Felix tries to escape the web of intrigue and danger ever encroaching on him and his brother. As more and more layers of LA’s supernatural underworld are revealed, the author weaves a compelling combination of the surreal and the mundane to make this vision of LA believable and intriguing. The pages really fly by. I highly recommend this book to anyone that enjoys contemporary urban fantasy and magical realism, especially when splashed with a little dark humor. The characters are relatable and dynamic, though some key ones enter a little late in the game and we barely get to meet them.

Demon City is a sequel to Wrong City, volume 1 of the Wrong City series. I hadn’t read the first book, but had no problem following this one even though there are some clear connections to events in that book, so don’t worry too much if you haven’t read it. More likely you would simply get a little more out of this second installment. If there’s one thing I would criticize this book for, it’s that it seems to take a bit of a detour right before the epic climax to rope in some characters that are apparently from the first book that feel more like an exposition dump than a logical development in the plot. All the same, I plan to check out the first in the series and look forward to the next one. Morgan Richter has put together a compelling fictional universe while keeping it light and entertaining.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review, and have reviewed it for the Masquerade Crew.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0 on The Masque Scale


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The Rhesus Chart, Laundry Files #5 (Books: My Favorite Movies!)

The Rhesus Chart (Laundry Files, #5)The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Offbeat humor? Check. Hilarious government acronyms for occult stuff? Check. Ultraviolence? Check.

I was wondering where Stross would head next with the Laundry Files, and the fact that vamps would come up eventually isn't surprising. As usual, though, Stross twists the very concept to fit the Laundry universe impeccably. After a young investment banker opens a window to another world and finds himself with an odd hunger and a sensitivity to sunlight it's only a matter of time until the wheels fall off.

While Laundry novels often have plenty of plot twists, this novel was moreso than many of the others. Dragging in Bob's ex, a bunch of "transformed" investment bankers looking for "threats and opportunities" their condition enables, an alley cat, a vicar mentoring a young vampire, two elder vampires waging a centuries-old war by proxy, marital issues between two deadly occult operatives, and even a vampire hunter with an exceptionally unique way of dispatching her prey, this story never quite goes where you expect it to all the way to the end. Stross has always been good at juggling a lot of plot elements, but he's becoming a true master at this point.

You could probably read this without having read every book in the series, but you would definitely need to have read Atrocity Archives and if you've read the others (particularly The Fuller Memorandum) you will get a lot more out of the story. Especially considering that the blood-soaked and emotional conclusion leaves the Laundry universe and specifically Bob Howard's world changed forever.

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The Rhesus Chart (Laundry Files, #5)The Rhesus Chart by Charles Stross
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Offbeat humor? Check. Hilarious government acronyms for occult stuff? Check. Ultraviolence? Check.

I was wondering where Stross would head next with the Laundry Files, and the fact that vamps would come up eventually isn't surprising. As usual, though, Stross twists the very concept to fit the Laundry universe impeccably. After a young investment banker opens a window to another world and finds himself with an odd hunger and a sensitivity to sunlight it's only a matter of time until the wheels fall off.

While Laundry novels often have plenty of plot twists, this novel was moreso than many of the others. Dragging in Bob's ex, a bunch of "transformed" investment bankers looking for "threats and opportunities" their condition enables, an alley cat, a vicar mentoring a young vampire, two elder vampires waging a centuries-old war by proxy, marital issues between two deadly occult operatives, and even a vampire hunter with an exceptionally unique way of dispatching her prey, this story never quite goes where you expect it to all the way to the end. Stross has always been good at juggling a lot of plot elements, but he's becoming a true master at this point.

You could probably read this without having read every book in the series, but you would definitely need to have read Atrocity Archives and if you've read the others (particularly The Fuller Memorandum) you will get a lot more out of the story. Especially considering that the blood-soaked and emotional conclusion leaves the Laundry universe and specifically Bob Howard's world changed forever.

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Going Clear (Books: My Favorite Movies!)

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of BeliefGoing Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I've always found the topic of Scientology as a religion and social movement and its enigmatic founder L. Ron Hubbard a fascinating if a touch disturbing. While I'm sure there are a great many Scientologists out there who would find this book deeply upsetting and would dispute every word of it, its quite thoroughly sourced and even provides a substantial amount of real-estate to the various rebuttals and responses Scientology functionaries have given over the years to the events this book covers. Even though I've researched these subjects before, it's an exhaustive and authoritative investigation of L. Ron Hubbard's personal history, the founding of Scientology, and its checkered and complex history up to the modern day. A great deal of it was eye-opening, especially the personal stories of so many former Scientologists and members of the church's "Sea Org" that the author has clearly conducted extensive interviews with. It's an excellent read for people who not only want to know about Scientology specifically, but who have any interest in modern social movements and how new religions form and grow in the modern age, warts and all.

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A Gazillion Little Bits (Books: My Favorite Movies!)

A Gazillion Little BitsA Gazillion Little Bits by Claudia Brevis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

A Gazillion Little Bits is a rewarding and intriguing book, but it is not an easy read. Following two main characters and scads of minor characters, it weaves a detailed tapestry of post-apocalyptic New York that can often seem too much like a difficult puzzle. Primarily, it follows a conflict between a group of people who survived the implied apocalyptic events sealed away in a Vault and the descendants of everyone who was left outside.

We’re first introduced to the world through Lahara, a woman living in the ruins of New York’s neighborhoods like so many others. We get a sense of her daily life and how various post-apocalyptic communities have sprung up all throughout Manhattan. The author has placed an immense amount of thought and detail into how it would all work, along with careful consideration of geography, ecosystems, a rudimentary barter economy, and even the crucial role of genealogy. Injected into all of that is the eerie concept of whispers, knowledge certain people have of specialized subjects they couldn’t possibly have learned through any normal means.

The whispers prove useful to these people in that sometimes they give those who have them medical, scientific, cultural, or even geographic knowledge that has helped a great deal in rebuilding some kind of civilization. That said, they also come with lots of baggage and are viewed with suspicion as a new breed of more intense and consuming whispers have begun to “infect” people and change their very identities and memories.

Lahara seems to possess special whispers, ones that enable her to recall the collapse of New York in vivid fragments. That knowledge and these unique whispers set her apart from the others, eventually making her a target for the Vaulters. The Vaulters want to retake and reshape their corner of the world according to their own agendas and vision but the people of New York just want to live their simple albeit primitive lives. The Vault almost reminded me of a twisted, evil version of the Foundation from Asimov’s famous Foundation series as their quest for knowledge trumps all other concerns.

The other primary character, Anthony, is a Vaulter who flees that sanctuary in an attempt to thwart their plans. Like the other Vaulters, he’s been asleep for centuries and finds this ruined landscape of New York more disconcerting and dangerous than he planned. Aside from simply surviving, he has the momentous task of convincing the New Yorkers to actually accept and trust him before the Vaulters can execute their plans.

A Gazillion Little Bits takes this story to fascinating and unpredictable places. The world is vividly detailed, full of fascinating characters and compelling communities. Even the Vaulters themselves, ostensibly the villains of the story, only want to preserve knowledge. A noble goal, if pursued through ignoble means.

That said, I did have a lot of issues with this book. The detailed descriptions that fill the novel verge on too-detailed a lot of the time. While this post-apocalyptic New York is intriguing, the author dedicates a little too much real estate during tense and thrilling moments to describing minutae in a way that can cause the narrative to lose steam.

The other big problem for me was the pacing. It takes a long time to set the primary plot in motion, likely so it can adequately introducing the reader to this complex fictional universe. Then, as the plot finally begins to really take off, the perspectives are shifted around a bit too much. I understand that one of the primary themes of this novel is constructing and re-constructing a world through lots of different varying perspectives, but here it is done so often it makes the plot and even time itself hard to follow. Weeks or even months pass in the story and the reader is left to figure that out through remembering dates and narrative descriptions of seasonal weather changes.

I often felt as though crucial events and conversations involving the major characters were skipped over only to be told secondhand by minor characters later. Again, I understand the construction of oral histories and how knowledge is transmitted are important motifs in the novel, but I often felt frustrated as a reader trying to piece the puzzle together and having always to figure out how much time had passed and what had happened in the gaps between chapters. When the climax to the story comes, it’s fast and disjointed in a way that makes it hard to follow with a cryptic epilogue. I do recommend this book for people who like post-apocalyptic science fiction, particularly of the hard sci-fi variety, but it will be quite a challenging read.

Reviewed for The Masquerade Crew, Score of 3.0 out of 5.0 on the Masq Scale.

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A Gazillion Little Bits
By Claudia Brevis

Through a Tangled Wood (Books: My Favorite Movies!)

Through a Tangled WoodThrough a Tangled Wood by Jamie Campbell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A good short story anthology can be difficult to find, even if it has an intriguing theme. Individual styles can clash and make the anthology disjointed or they can mesh to much and leave the reader with a feeling of samey tales that start to feel dull and boring. Through a Tangled Wood is more than good, though. It is something truly special. A collection of fairy tale retellings, the anthology transports these stories to post-apocalyptic, alien, and dystopian fictional universes. Jamie Campbell, Katie French, Ariele Sieling, Sarah Dalton, Marijon Braden, H.S. Stone and Zoe Cannon all do a superb job with their fairy tale retellings. Some of the fictional universes they created are so fleshed out I wanted to read more and see what else could be done with such a richly textured environment. These stories did what they needed to do in hitting or subverting all the high notes of the fairy tale but did not overstay their welcome. Most left me wanting more, with moods and settings that ranged from bleak to comical, all while retaining an undercurrent of dread.

My favorites of the anthology were definitely Katie French's “Plan B,” Zoe Cannon's “Flight,” and Sarah Dalton's “I Am the Maid.” All three definitely show tis anthology and the concept of fairy tale retellings at their best. “Plan B” spins an almost unrecognizably suspenseful tale that transports sleeping beauty to a despair-filled and mysterious dystopia. “Flight” takes beauty and the beast and changes both lead characters into rebellious youth craving to be mages in a high fantasy setting. “I Am the Maid,” puts Robin Hood in a zombie apocalypse and changes him into a sidekick, making Maid Marian into a cunning and lethal hero in the process.

By keeping the number of stories down, the anthology feels short and brief but also lets each of the individual stories stretch out a bit when needed. Given the diversity of authors and story types, Through a Tangled Wood always left me wondering what would happen next and what creative twists would be applied to these well known tales. It never disappointed.

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Through a Tangled Wood
By Jamie Campbell, Katie French, Ariele Sieling, Sarah Dalton, Marijon Braden, H.S. Stone, Zoe Cannon

Femmes Du Chaos (Books: My Favorite Movies!)

Femmes du ChaosFemmes du Chaos by Kristen Duvall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Short story collections are a mixed bag, both within themselves and across the whole genre. They often have a very "mixtape" feel to them, taking on varied tones, genres, and themes. Sometimes this can have a jarring effect if the sequence isn't carefully chosen or a disjointed feel when one or two stories feel drastically different from the rest. Thankfully, Kristen Duvall's collection Femmes Du Chaos does not suffer too much from it.

A wicked and twisted series of tales, some of which are endowed with a grim sense of humor, Femmes Du Chaos starts on the outrageous side and keeps charging forward. Some of the stories are unrelentingly grim ("The Fallout," "The Chosen One," "Irreversible") and can be hard to take but are intense and vividly-written. Others are real classics. My favorites were "Like Father, Like Daughter," "Magic Shoes," and the closer for the collection, a dystopian horror story titled "The Price You Pay." Some of these felt like ideas that could've become entire novels but the author delivered them as fully-realized and carefully constructed stories that left me wanting more. It's not often that short stories feature such interesting, yet economical world-building.

I will definitely need to check out more by Duvall, as Femmes Du Chaos feels like a taste of what she could do with more pages. Given it's grisly content and often despair-filled moments, it may not be to everyone's taste, but I certainly enjoyed it.

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Femmes du Chaos
By Kristen Duvall