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Review of World After (Penryn and the End of Days #2) by Susan Ee

Rating 3.5/5

The first book in the Penryn and the End of Days series didn’t appeal to me at first—I expected another paranormal romance. I haven’t read Twilight, and I wasn’t about to read a book about angels. But then I found out that Sam Raimi (director of the Spider-Man movies and The Evil Dead) was developing the movie and it persuaded me to give the book a shot.

I’m glad I did.

Angelfall defied my expectations. It was more like a Rick Riordan, Percy Jackson book than a paranormal romance (but for those who don’t mind romance, this book probably has enough to satisfy you). Action at every turn, a lightning pace, some solid characters, weird creatures, humour, and an intriguing set up for the rest of the series.

After Angelfall, the sequel made it onto my to-read list.

Unfortunately, what I expected wasn’t what I got. Not exactly. The second book is twice the length of the first book, yet half as much happens as in the first book. Some call it second-book syndrome and World After suffers from it. There isn’t a lot of plot and though I like action, this book felt like a string of pointless action set pieces. Characters stumble from one fight sequence to the next without there being any real motive behind it.

I wanted to learn more about the Angels’ agenda—it is expanded on, but vaguely to the point that it might as well not exist at all—and more about the coming war. Second books should progress the plot, develop the story arc, but World After does neither of those things.

The writing is as strong as the first book. Ee knows how to generate pace and the action sequences are plenty and well-written. I sped through this book, despite not always enjoying it. Penryn is a tough protagonist, and the romance is fortunately light. Ee also writes horror well, and she doesn’t shy away from describing the gritty, violent details.

The world-building is well done and the settings have an eerie, desolate atmosphere. The flashbacks provided through Penryn’s connection to Raffe’s sword are also interesting, if underdeveloped. It’d be cool to learn more about the Angel’s world, where they came from.

Overall, this is a fast-paced, action-packed second book, but it feels thin despite it’s length. There’s little to no plot and the story isn’t as gripping as Angelfall. Ee’s writing style is addictive and sharp, though Penryn’s voice sounds younger than she’s supposed to be at times. The horror and action is constant and helps boost the rating. But the action and pace aren’t enough to make up for the fact that little happens in this book.

Sometimes it’s good to not know where a series is going. But at this point I’m a bit confused. This series is a trilogy, so I hope Ee can wrap everything up in End of Days and deliver a more satisfying sequel to Angelfall.

Recommended, but some may find it disappointing in comparison to book 1.

Thanks to Hodder and Stoughton for the free copy I received through Goodreads. 

Has anyone else been disappointed in a sequel, only for the next installment to make up for it? I’m still on the lookout for solid superhero fiction too, so if anyone has any suggestions I’d appreciate them…

Recommended, but some may find it disappointing.

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Review of Champion by Marie Lu (Epic ending to a great trilogy)

Rating 4.75/5 (almost five)

Is this a worthy ending?

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I know from experience that writing the final book in a trilogy or series is a hard task. There are multiple plot strands to tie together, characters to kill off or let live… Sometimes authors get it right on the money. J K Rowling ended Potter exactly as it should have ended, Suzanne Collins delivered an impressive final book for the Hunger Games and Marie Lu steps up to the plate too and makes the final book in the Legend trilogy worthy of its predecessors.

Legend was a fast-paced, gripping read that had the task of setting up world, characters and plot arc, and so it felt a little like half a book. Prodigy made up for that and delivered fast-paced action, gripping plots and some great characters.

Champion improves on both books, even if the pacing was a little off in places. Lu had created an entire world for the tumblr_inline_nc47c0ZvcQ1s3kisvLegend trilogy, and had the task of resolving the conflict that tore this world apart. She manages to do that, whilst still focusing on arguably the strongest aspect of the trilogy which is the characters. Day and June get roughly equal chapters to account the final struggle to unite their divided world–they face off against enemies they thought were friends, friends who they thought were enemies. Lu’s writing is as sharp and well-crafted as it was in the first two books, and she has the distinct voices down pat. There’s no room for rambling description in Lu’s writing, and the pace benefits from it.

There’s rarely a moment that something isn’t happening—but in places the pace went from fast to slow and it jarred overall. However, that wasn’t often and it didn’t affect how much I was gripped by the plot. There is no shortage of explosions and tumblr_m61aezXCnG1rooebpescapes, fight sequences and battles. Lu uses only a few words but manages to put you in amongst the smoke and fire and hear the jets and bombs going overhead and exploding across the LA setting. Comparisons to the Hunger Games are inevitable, but you’d be hard-pressed to read a dystopian novel these days that doesn’t borrow something from one series or other. Lu manages to make Champion, and the whole trilogy, stand out in the crowded dystopian YA market.

In essence, Champion is a war novel, it’s one big battle. And that means plenty of action. Which is one of my favourite things about this, and any, novel. Lu knows how to write action, delivering some awesome set pieces that are made for a movie (a movie is in the works for Legend, but for some reason it’s slow in tumblr_muf52u3f3J1qda125o1_r1_250developing). The stakes are high; the tension ramped up particularly in the action-packed final fifty or so pages. And there are more than a few stirring speeches to ensure this is an epic conclusion.

It’s clear that Lu has planned this trilogy carefully. All the plot strands are tied up well and characters are given enough time to have past conflicts or plot arcs resolved. The ten years later epilogue is a nicely ambiguous ending that leaves enough to the reader’s imagination but provides enough of a sense of finality to please everyone.

Overall, this is a satisfying conclusion to an action-packed trilogy. Lu pulls everything together and delivers something that should please all fans.

Highly, highly recommended.

Review of Legend by Marie Lu

4.5/5

I’ve wanted to read Legend by Marie Lu for a long time. But with the many rip-off’s of The Hunger Games that were released when dystopian fiction hit its peak, I was a little reluctant. I’d heard it was pretty similar, so I didn’t buy a copy. Until now. And I probably should have bought a copy sooner.

Because it’s pretty good.

Legend_Marie_Lu_Book_coverLu’s writing style is exactly what I like to read. Sharp, not heavy on description. There’s no room in Legend for pointless metaphors and endless description. Lu delivers punchy, to the point writing that works well for the equally punchy and fast-paced plot. The plot doesn’t really kick in until well over half-way through the book, before that there is the world-building and character developing and setting up that always has to come with the first book in (yep, you guessed it) a trilogy.

The world-building is perhaps the weakest part of this book, and the aspect that cuts off half a star. It’s a little vague and I wasn’t really clear on how the world got the way it did, or why society is divided, or why the government treats people the way they do. I get that (SPOILERS) the poorer cities are experiments. Maybe I missed something, and the world-building is as it should be. But I wanted to know more, to understand more of the world Lu created worked.

The character development is strong, and both Day and June come across as well-rounded characters. They both have strengths and weaknesses; they both have something to fight for. Their voices are a little similar at times and if it weren’t for the headings above each page and different font styles, there’d be times when they’d be hard to distinguish. But for the most part they come across as pretty clear characters. giphy (6)

But character development isn’t why I read books, though investable, interesting characters are a bonus. Action and pace are what I focus on, and this book had plenty of both. Pretty much right from the outset, to the gripping, breathless climax. This is the first book in a series, and you can tell. The plot is a little thinner, as most first books are, while Lu takes the time to set up the world and the characters etc.—but she doesn’t sacrifice pace or action because of it. There is hardly ever a moment to breathe (something I like in a book), and all of the set pieces are gripping, well-written and exciting.

Overall, this is a solid book and manages to be pretty original in a genre that has become just the opposite. This is not a rip-off of the Hunger Games. It does have similarities: a dark, corrupt government, a rebel force, a hero who stands up for the poor, but look hard enough and you’d find these tropes in a lot of books.

Legend is action-packed, fast paced, and relentlessly entertaining. It’s world-building needs work, but that will probably happen in the sequels, which I’ll be reading.

Highly, highly recommended.

Review of The Infinite Sea (Book 2 of the 5th Wave) by Rick Yancey

4.5/5

No spoilers.

When the first book in a series is as good as The 5th Wave producing a sequel that is worthy and better than its predecessor is a tough task. The 5th Wave was an action packed, twisting invasion thriller that barely let up. The sequel The Infinite Sea, is around a hundred pages shorter than its predecessor, but it’s somehow slower and less action packed. That doesn’t mean this is a bad book, or that it isn’t worthy of The 5th Wave. Infinite Sea is still a fast-paced book with some awesome action sequences, but it’s also heavy on romance and a lot of talking about feelings—some may like that. I don’t. I like full on action, just like The 5th Wave provided. That book balanced excellent set pieces with great pace, a tight plot and left just enough questions to make me eager for the sequel. The Infinite Sea ended much the same way. But it also provided an awesome twist that I didn’t see coming and some burning questions for the third and final book in the trilogy.

What this book got right was the writing, the voices of the split narratives, and the action sequences. Rick Yancey cthe-infinite-sea-extract-embargoed-p1-normalan always be relied on to deliver tight, vivid writing and his characters always feel real. There isn’t always a lot of character development, but these books aren’t so much about the characters’ pasts, as about their present and their futures. Most of the characters from book 1 are back. Cassie, Evan, Zombie, Sam, Ringer, Vosch etc, and  those who didn’t get much to do last time come into the fore this time around. For most of the novel, Ringer narrates, and her voice is real. There’s too much focus on emotion and feelings and other mushy stuff that will appeal to some and make others grind their teeth, but her voice sounds real and she’s a great, tough character. Like last time, Cassie is a pain in the ass, as is Evan. There’s an apocalypse-like event going on around them and they only seem to talk about each other, about getting back to each other. Come on, Rick, where’s the action and explosions and chase sequences—Yeah, there they are. In the last fifty or so pages. Those last fifty or so pages are packed with tension, action and the final, epic twist. The twist may divide readers, but I thought it was well-timed and original and can’t imagine the book going another way.

What the book got wrong was the pacing. I read the book very quickly, could have read it faster if I didn’t have university work and editing to do, but that doesn’t mean it’s fast paced. For half of the book, very little happens and there is a lot of back and forth in time. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. There isn’t a whole lot of movement in this book. The characters don’t seem to move anywhere, but stay in only a couple of places. The book is pretty isolated, too—not that it’s a bad thing, but I wanted to know what was happening everywhere else. Even a passing mention of what’s happening around the rest of the world, or even just in the rest of America would have made this novel feel more dramatic and the threat of the invasion bigger and more serious.

Overall, this is a worthy sequel to the 5th Wave, with a huge twist at the end that most people won’t see coming. The characters are believable, if some of them are annoying, the writing is tight and vivid; the action is gripping and there is plenty of tension. If Yancey had just got the pacing a little tighter and injected a little more plot and added maybe fifty more pages, this would have been as good as the 5th Wave.

Highly recommended. The third book, The Last Son, coming this year, is high on the top of my to-read list.

Review of Red Rising by Pierce Brown

3/5

Hype is a dangerous thing for a book. If you build people’s expectations up too much, if the book is even a little disappointing it’s exaggerated ten-fold. Looking at most of the other reviews for Red Rising, I fall into the minority who thought this book was average. I started this book expecting it to be exactly the thing I would read and that would blow me away with epic action, great writing, fast pace and a twisty plot. It delivered on one and a half of those things.15839976

Red Rising is well written, there’s no doubt about it. Pierce Brown can write, and he has a great imagination. A trippy imagination, but a great one. The writing is rich, if heavily descriptive in places, and the world is easy to imagine and vividly imagined by Brown. Most of the dialogue is pretty good too, if melodramatic in a lot of places. If the editing has been a little sharper, the description thinned out, this would have been some of the best writing I’d read so far this year.

But the action, fast pace and twisty plot I expected didn’t show. The action and pace did, just in the final forty or so pages of the book when the story was nearing its end—end in YA fiction terms, which means a cliff-hanger for the next book/s in the series. The final forty pages were intense and relentless, but why couldn’t the three hundred and fifty pages before that be the same? Most of the book was moving back and forth across the crazy landscape of mars, characters arguing, fighting, having random battles that didn’t seem to make a lot of sense most of the time. There was little in the way of plot, and for a book that has been praised for originality, I had a hard time finding anything very original. The kids fight to survive (Hunger Games) while people watch (Hunger Games). The games are corrupt (Hunger Games), and the main character, Darrow ends up turning the games on their heads and exposing the corruption (Hunger Games). The world is unique, the cultures and landscapes and creatures are unique—but it wasn’t enough to distinguish Red Rising from dozens of other games themed YA books.

I like action and fast paced and violence in a book, and this had violence in buckets. I’m not a reader who gripes about character development most of the time, but I want a character I can root for, who I can know or look up to. Darrow wasn’t it. He hasn’t got much to do but think about avenging his family, and Brown spends little time in developing him—apart from the obvious, crazy physical changes he goes through near the beginning (Hunger Games again). During the ‘games’ there are so many characters in play that it’s hard to keep track of them—very few are given any development and when they are, it’s brief and vague.

Overall, this book disappointed. I expected great things—maybe too great. There wasn’t enough plot, pace or action. The writing is awesome, and the set up promises great things. Hopefully the sequel will deliver on what Red Rising didn’t. Man, I really wanted this to be in my top ten books of all time.

Recommended.

Review of The Fire Sermon by Francesca Haig (There’s still life in YA Dystopian fiction)

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5/5

I’m a big fan of dystopian, but the YA market has been flooded with so much of it that it’s now almost impossible to find a solid, unique dystopian novel. There’s always too much romance, or too little world-building, or the plots are always derivative of other superior series/novels.

The Fire Sermon by poet Francesca Haig isn’t perfect. There are some things borrowed from other books—but creating a completely unique dystopian novel would be nigh on impossible these days. But Haig gets very close with The Fire Sermon.

After a world-wide (or so the characters believe in this first book) event called the Blast swept across the planet and destroyed infrastructure and poisoned the earth, the remaining population have reverted to living in a more simple, medieval word. But the Blast also affected humans—it made every birth a twin birth, in which one of the twins is born sickly or with some form of deformity, while the other is born strong and healthy. The weaker are the Omegas, the stronger the Alphas. Separated when it becomes apparent which is which, the twins go on to lead separate lives—in physical sense. Because they can never really be separated. They are bonded by  link that means if one is seriously injured, so is the others, and if one dies, so does the other. Cass and Zach are the two twins this first book in what will be a series focuses on. Specifically Cass who flees capture when her brother imprisons her to keep himself safe, and goes in search of a ‘mythical’ place known as the Island—a refuge for Omegas.

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Author Frencesca Haig

Haig keeps the pace moving all the way to the climax, which offers a great twist—which I had suspicions about, but was never certain. Her writing is detailed, but somehow the vivid descriptions never bog down the pace of the story or detract from the action. And there is plenty of action—some great chase sequences that Haig builds some gripping tension in. A lot of the book is about journeying across the desolate landscape, but I was never bored and the pages always kept turning quickly. Cass and Zach are great characters, as are the other characters who are introduced throughout the story. There is romance, but luckily it isn’t the focus of the story and doesn’t get so heavy it takes away from the main plot.

The world-building is well done, Haig describing the half-post-apocalyptic, half-medieval world in enough detail that it feels real and believable. The ruined landscapes aren’t the most original setting for a dystopian, but Haig offers enough pace, plot, quality character development and vivid writing that any problems are quickly forgotten.

As with most first books in a series, this one ends on something of a cliff-hanger. The plots started in this book are mostly resolved and this does have a satisfying ending. But once you’ve read this book, you’ll be eager for the sequel/s.

There are some books I wish I’d written myself, and this is the second review in a week where I’ve wished I’d written a book by another author. Francesca Haig is a brilliant writer, and it shows on every page of The Fire Sermon. Even if you’re tired of dystopian, give this book a shot—it won’t disappoint. A movie is already in the works, with a screenplay being written by Haig and the team behind Guardians of the Galaxy, so this book/series will be talked about for some years to come.

Highly recommended.

I received this arc from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Got myself a copy of the latest book in the Wardstone Chronicles/Last Apprentice

Ever since i picked up the first book in Joesph Delaney’s Wardstone Chronicles (or Last Apprentice in the US) I was completely hooked. Delaney paints a dark and atmospheric world rife with dangerous creatures and malevolent witches. Rarely, since Potter, has a series led me to follow it so voraciously. Each book is as addictive as the last and they truly earn the title of page turners. Following the adventures of Tom, the books detail his life as an apprentice to the Spook (a man who rids the world of evil, dark creatures) John Gregory.  With an intriguing, on-going plot arc involving an enemy non other than the Devil himself, Delaney’s books are truly awesome.

The series will consist of thirteen books, twelve of which are already available, along with three additional books that flesh out Delaney’s world. I received my copy of the twelfth book in the series only today and will no doubt start it immediately after finishing this post. 

If you haven’t already discovered this series then i implore you to do so. A movie, The Seventh Son, based on the first book in the series is due for release in October of this year. 

UK Cover for book 1 of the Wardstone Chronicles

Extract from a short story i’m writing

The wolf’s breathing seemed to echo from every direction, as if the forest itself were taking great, rattling breaths. But the girl didn’t hear it, couldn’t hear it, for her heart thundered so loud in her ears as she ran, that it drowned out all other sound. Glacial air forced its way down her throat, like a fist, pushing back the sour bile that terror and exertion formed in her stomach. Freezing motes of snow bit her cheeks and blurred her eyes, all but blinding her and casting the twilit forest around her into hazy silhouette. The basket hooked in the crook of her arm beat hard and fast against her hip. She steeled her hold on it: she couldn’t drop it. With her free hand she rubbed her streaming eyes clear; vaulting a fallen tree she would have been blind to only a moment ago.

Now she could hear the wolf: its guttural snarls punctuating the silence, its great paws thudding against the earth. The girl knew it was closing in, and though her legs screamed in protest and her throat stung with every intake of breath, she quickened her pace. She had to clear the forest- she didn’t stand a chance if she didn’t get out of the trees. Her rolling, wide green eyes caught fleeting sight of the ravens, dozens of them, perched in the twisted limbs of the towering trees overhead. The inky birds took up a cawing chorus, looking down at the girl, with black, indifferent eyes.

The lower branches of the trees snatched at the girl’s face, seeming to reach across her path like the clawing arms of a jostling crowd.  And for all her ducking and weaving it was only moments before her pale face and arms were patterned with cuts. The whole forest seemed to be trying to stop her. Logs she had not seen, emerging to trip her; pools of mud as thick as tar swallowing her leg up to the knee; scree covered inclines that broke away beneath her scrambling feet. And all the while she fought on, lungs burning, head spinning, the wolf grew closer. So close now she could hear its gnashing jaws.

But just as despair and sheer exhaustion threatened to claim her entirely, the girl saw light up ahead. Great shafts of scarlet sunlight reached towards her, like beckoning fingers, through the dark trees. She put on another burst of speed as the trunks thinned and she hurtled out into the open. At that instant, when hope flooded terror, something heavy hit her in the back. Pain: sharp and searing, struck out across her back and before she could throw her arms up to stop herself, the girl landed hard to the scrubby earth. The wolf’s jaws snapped so close to her ear that she felt its fetid breath on her cheek.

Fury rose within her and the girl rolled away, screaming as the claws pinioning her, ripped free. Leaping to her feet she thrust her hand into the basket. Her fingers closed around the hilt of what she sought and she pulled the sword free from the basket’s enchanted depths.

“Stay back, wolf,” Red spat. “Or you’ll feel the temper of my blade.”

What could have been a smile curled the wolf’s pointed, fang lined maw. It padded slowly forward: twice the size of Red, the muscles of its back legs tightening like cords as it prepared to pounce.

Red stared into its yellow, lamp like eyes, as she tossed aside the basket and brandished her sword. The beast growled: a deep resonant sound that rumbled up from its throat. Its raggedy, pointed ears twitched and each strand of its thick coat of black, blood streaked fur, seemed to stand on end. Then, in a movement so lightning fast it rendered the wolf a blur, the beast bounded forwards. Yelling her fury, Red curled her fingers tight around the sword’s hilt and thrust the blade forth, driving it up and into the exposed belly of the wolf. There was strangled yelp, a sickening crunch of bone and a wet splashing sound as Red tore the sword free, releasing the wolf’s innards.

Heart thumping, entire body trembling, Red stared down at the great wolf, dead at her feet. Then, she turned her back on the beast and set off for the village silhouetted in the distance. A wind picked up, Red’s scarlet cloak rippled about her. In her hand, the bloodied sword glistened in the last traces of twilight.

 

 

Supernatural fantasy short story

This short story is what i will be submitting for my university assignment this year, tell me what you think. 

            The Father of Lies

 

She felt the whispering before she heard it. It traced the nape of her neck, drawing the fine hairs of her pale flesh into salute. It might have been a caress if it were not so cold. But this was the chill of a breath.

            The voice seemed to speak to her from every dark corner of the cell. It whispered words that Sarah Buckley’s thumping heartbeat muffled before it gave a great retching cough. Then, out of the shadows flanking her came a hand, curled into a fist even blacker than the gloom; gnarled and calloused as if it had been hewn from an ancient tree root. The long, spindly fingers creaked as they unfolded, as if the bones beneath the meagre flesh were snapping. Sarah Buckley’s blood roared loud in her ears as her darting gaze caught sight of the symbol branded into the flesh of the palm. It was an inverted cross, and from it issued a thin tendril of smoke as if, only seconds ago, it had been seared into the skin.

            There was a rattling intake of breath and the voice came again. “Are you well, Sarah Buckley?”

            She did not answer, could not, for fear had lodged in her throat like a stone. Her wide, green eyes were unblinking as she watched the hand withdraw, seeming to melt into the darkness from which it had taken form. Her shaking hands gripped the wooden bench she sat upon and the terror rendering her paralysed made her unable, even, to feel the splinter of wood piercing her soft palm. Blood pumped from the wound, falling in beads to the earthen floor of the cell. The cold air congealed her blood into rubies that winked under the moonlight reaching its skeletal fingers through the bars of the cell’s solitary window.

            “Do you fear death? The voice said. “Do you fear the eternal torment that awaits you, the abyss of despair that encroaches?” The words came slowly, growing louder as if they were travelling a great distance to reach her.

            For a seemingly endless heartbeat a ringing silence filled the cell, closing in on Sarah like the pressing bodies of a crowd.

            “Let me show you what waits beyond the noose, Sarah Buckley.”

            A sudden pain lanced through her body, akin to a thousand bodkins piercing every inch of her. The hand returned from the shadows and fingers like hot pokers tightened about Sarah’s shaking wrist. Tears streamed down her pale cheeks, leaking into her mouth and filling it with a bitter taste. And through the blur of her tears she saw a sliver of scarlet light growing from the darkness before her; as if the very air were being sliced open. The scar widened, opening like the scarlet stained maw of some smouldering beast. Hot coals gushed from the fissure in a tide, smoking and hissing as they spilled across the damp earth.

            The next instant she was standing, held fast by the blistering hand’s grip, on the periphery of a jutting cliff. The sight that opened up before her was one so unimaginably horrific that she could not tear away her gaze. A sea of roiling lava swept against the cliff face, showering the rippling air with smoking embers. Flames gushed and writhed across the vast expanse of shadow and caverns, clawing at the roof of darkness above like desperate hands. Gusts of heat such as that Sarah Buckley had never felt, assailed her from every angle, filling her lungs and searing her throat. She saw silhouetted forms, hunched and marching slowly in endless lines across the swelling waves of fire. She heard the manacles binding the figures’ twisted hands, clanking; the glowing links emblazoned with the sins they had committed in life. The boiling air rang with the animalistic screams of a hundred million tortured souls. The sound of snapping limbs, of sloshing blood, of necks twisted and broken by ropes drawn taut, assaulted her ears. A haunting orchestra of screaming and roaring and howling, conducted by the fingers of a thousand flames.

            Now she did speak, but her uttered words gushed forth in a scream that rendered them incoherent. She thrashed at her face, beating her tightly fastened eyes with the hands she had balled into fists. Yet the sight she had just bore witness to would not diminish, it played before her closed eyes just as clear and horrific as before. And all the time she writhed and howled, unable to escape, the voice spoke to her.

            “You served me well, Sarah Buckley. The Father of Lies always rewards those most faithful to him.”

            Sarah’s lamentations met no mercy; the white knuckles of her clenched fists, pressed against her closed eyes gave no subsidence to the sights that still danced across her vision. Her echoing scream could not drown the chanting voices of the dead and her shadowy tormentor paid no heed.

            Until, a drawn breath… and silence.

            The burning fingers that had clutched her wrist let go. She took a breath and felt cold air rush mercifully down her throat, filling her lungs. And though it seemed to demand all of her strength, Sarah Buckley opened her eyes to see not the burning plains of fire and lava but the hay strewn ground and her own bare feet. Relief flooded her, shunning the despair she had been teetering on the edge of. As she stared down at the floor, at the silver dappled earth, the final tendrils of clinging fear left her. She took in great lungfuls of air, not caring that it was so glacial, just relishing how real it was, thinking she’d never tasted anything so sweet.

            “A price must be paid for your sins.”

            The voice struck out of the silence like a knife.

            “Do you not agree, Sarah Buckley? Those who sin must pay.”

“Sins? I didn’t commit no sins.”

“But surely you must remember?”

“Remember?”

“Yes, the contract and your signature upon the curling page.”

“I never signed no contract.”

“Oh?”

“I never signed no contract!”

“Yes, Sarah Buckley, you did.”

“No.”

“Yes.”

“I didn’t. I never!”

“And the hurt… the hurt you put on those people.”

“I never hurt no people. I never hurt nobody.”

“Yes.”

“No.”

“Remember, Sarah Buckley, remember… her.”

There was the sound of something thudding softly against the ground. Opening her eyes that she had clamped shut once more Sarah looked down upon the object that had landed by her feet. It was a doll, staring up at her with black, unseeing eyes. Like her eyes had been that day. The doll’s white smock was raggedy and blood-stained, sodden and dirt smeared. Like her dress had been that day.

“I…” Sarah said, as memories crept back from the corners of her mind she had banished them to.

“Yes, Sarah Buckley…”

“I remember.”

She saw the shore, her feet bloody, torn by the sharp rocks as she ran to the lake’s edge. She felt the cold, searing through her skin and numbing her as she plunged into the water. The girl’s pale face- her girl’s face- breaching the lake’s black surface like a fallen moon. Green eyes staring up through the murky water, wide and unblinking. Raven hair rippling about her head and shoulders like tendrils of blood. The white dress, shifting about her ivory body, patterned with crimson tears and smears of black earth.

“I remember her… my girl.”

“Yes,” the voice urged, “your girl, your poor, innocent pretty girl. And what they did to her.”

“They…”

She saw herself turn from the lake, from the sight of her dead daughter and through the blur of tears she saw them. Silhouetted against the red sun were five figures, like scars against the scarlet sky. Standing there and calling down, voices carrying on the whining gale, “Witch, witch, witch!”

“They murdered her.”

“Yes,” said the voice, the word transforming into a drawling laugh. “And you delivered them their just deserts, did you not, Sarah Buckley?”

“I…I… No.”

“Oh, but I think you did. You signed the contract, in exchange for those powers you needed to avenge her life. You hurt those murderers with witchcraft.”

“I never did no witchcraft.”

“I think you did, Sarah Buckley, I think you did. Let me show you.”

Voices echoed up from the recesses of her mind: chanting, jeering voices. “She deserved what she got, that little witch.”

Sarah was standing in the doorway of a house, looking down at the fat priest sitting at a table, his face ruddy, thick yellow fingers clasping a tankard. Rage boiled in her, it seemed to rise in her throat like bile. She brought her trembling fist from behind her back, clutching the crude effigy of the man sat before her. In the other she held a bodkin.

“What’re you doing, witch? D’you think-”

In one swift movement she plunged the bodkin into the doll’s chest, saw it appear, sharp and shining through its back. At that moment the fat priest’s sickly yellow eyes bulged. The tankard thudded to the floor, spilling ale across the flags as the priest’s fat fingers scrabbled across his chest. Raspy, choking breaths rattled from his throat. Veins, blue and thick as cords, struck out across his pale, doughy neck. The next second his eyes rolled back in their sockets, transforming into two bloodshot white orbs, and he fell limp.

“Ahhh,” the voice said. “Is revenge not the sweetest of tastes?”

“I never did no witchcraft.” Sarah closed her eyes, willing the memory to change. She saw herself again, standing in the doorway. It was not a doll and bodkin clutched in her hands but an axe, her white knuckles wrapped tight about the haft, the blade shining dully in the wavering flame light of the priest’s hearth.

“I never did no witchcraft, liar! You’re lying.”

The answer came as a drawling, guttural laugh. “Yes… yes… But you must forgive me, Sarah Buckley, I cannot be without lying. It is in my… nature. After all, what is the devil, what is the Father of Lies without deception?”

In her fury, Sarah forgot her fear. Forgot the terror keeping her from looking upon her tormentor. She turned, and the sight that met her eyes sent her mind spinning. Her already racing heart quickened its beat, hammering at her ribcage so hard it hurt. Her eyes, wide and uncomprehending fell upon no creature, no hellish daemon sent to torment her. The Father of Lies did not sit beside her, his palm did not expose the branded symbol of an inverted cross for there was no palm to bear it. And the whispering voice did not thaw from the cold silence for there was no mouth from which it could be uttered.

*

 

            The jailor bound Sarah’s hands with a lopsided grin on his pockmarked, stubbly face. The thick rope bit the flesh of her wrists as he tugged her out of the cell and led her up towards the grey daylight.  A driving rain greeted Sarah Buckley, beating her exposed flesh like the fists of a hundred angry townsfolk. She did not lift her gaze to meet the eyes of those who watched. Instead, she scrutinised the ground she walked upon, her wounded, bare feet in the soft churned mud, her blood staining the puddles scarlet. There were taunts and jeers from the gathered crowds, but she did not hear them. She heard nothing but the voices of the crows that had taken perch upon the freshly cut beams of the gallows, their shrill cries cutting through the thrum of the rain. Something struck her, thrown by a member of the masses, but she did not flinch or wince. And the rain came harder, stronger than she had ever imagined rain could be. It wasn’t long before the rags that hung from her emaciated body like folds of pale, dirty skin became burdens on her aching back and shoulders.

            She arrived at foot of the stairs up to the gallows. One… two… three slow steps up. The jailor led her across the slick boards, the splits in the wood grinned up at her like so many sardonic mouths. Splinters bit the soft flesh of her feet, but she did not feel them. She stumbled, almost giving into the weariness pressing upon her. But hesitation provoked a jab in the chest from the jailor’s staff. “Don’ worry,” he sneered. “There’ll be plen’y o’ time for rest soon enough, witch.”

            Sarah stepped up onto the stool. Invisible fingers seemed to press down on her eyelids but she managed to keep them open. She felt the saturated noose fall about her neck. Rough fibres chafed against her skin, as if tasting, bristling, almost, in anticipation of a fresh victim.

            “You, Sarah Buckley, have been accused of four counts of murder by means of witchcraft.”

Now Sarah’s eyes grew wide, life ebbed back into her. That voice… She looked down, searching the sea of pale, scowling faces. Her searching gaze found him, taller than the rest, face pinched, eyes black and empty. “Do you confess it?” said William Yfel.

For a moment the only sounds were the crows and the rain.

Sarah Buckley met the eyes of William Yfel, the man who had ordered the murder of her daughter. The man who now stood there, unblinking, figure unyielding save the trembling of his lifted arm.

Then Sarah Buckley answered, she bellowed her reply to the heavens, screaming her words at such a pitch it burnt her throat. “You’re a liar! I’m no more a witch than you are, and neither was my daughter. You are the only servant of the Devil here, little man, and if you take my life, he will deliver you and all those who follow you to the burning gates of Hell!”

William Yfel’s raised arm dropped and the noose drew tight.

           

           

           

            

Excerpt from a supernatural fantasy novel i’m writing

You may think the dark is empty, that it is just space without light. But this is an untruth. For in the recesses and corners of this world where, shadows form and night banishes day, there are things that live and breathe. Though you may not have seen them- or perhaps you have and just dismissed it as your mind playing tricks- they are there and they are dangerous.

It is my job to hunt them, to track them, to drive them from their shadowy pits and to kill them. Believe me, it’s not easy. When you’re groping around in the inky nothingness with naught but your wits and heightened senses for company, that’s when you have to shun fear and face what lies in wait.

Many call me a heretic, their narrow minds refuse to acknowledge that which preys upon them. Others call me a demon; they say I was born from the dark. The truth… the truth is I cannot remember very much. In fact I recall nothing of my life, but for one thing, one memory that is set in my mind as if carved there. It is the image of a woman’s face, pale, blood smeared and screaming while charcoal fingers scrape at her, pulling her backwards. But for that image I remember nothing until three years ago. That is when I began hunting the denizens of the dark, tutored to do so by one who called himself, The Deliverer. Now, I don’t hold with such egotistical titles, no, that’s not my way at all. My name is lost with the memories of my life… But my title, what they call me, I am Darkbane.

 

The flame sputtered as the wick it danced upon burned closer to the pool of melted tallow in the base of the tarnished brass holder. The candle had burned through the night, during the long hours when the dark is at its thickest. But, as the red fingers of dawn reached over the rooftops, the flame gave a final, almost relieved hiss, and went out. Through the thick rippling panes of glass the first light of the new day broke, sending the room beyond the window into coppery relief. The light fell upon a battered wooden table, strewn with curling playing cards, a dented plate: empty but for a scattering of crumbs and a hard bread crust; and a silver dagger. There was little else in the room, just a rickety set of drawers, a heavily fortified wooden chest and a bed. And, stretched across the bed, fully clothed and seemingly dead- for there was no twitch of a finger nor a flicker of closed eyelids- was a man. It was only as the dawn’s rays: warm and probing, fell across his scarred, bearded face that he did move. His eyes opened, wide and alert as if their sleeping owner had been pretending all along and had not just awoken from a mere hour’s rest. He grunted, realising that it was only just morning. Not yet, he thought, not yet.

            It was the hammering that woke him next. Thrice the sound came: a sonorous thudding that echoed up from below. It seems I’ll be busy this night, he thought.

 Ignoring the spikes of agony that lanced up and down his back, he rose from the hard bed. He glanced at the remains of the setting sun as it retreated over the silhouetted mountains far in the distance and a grim, knowing smile creased his face. Though he was weary- something the day’s rest had done little to alleviate- he mustered a small reserve of strength and cast his hand in the direction of the table. A flame sprang into life atop a half melted candle and the room was lit indistinctly with its soft glow.

            “Darkbane, your services are called upon.”

The call was one Darkbane had heard often. He smiled again, nodding to himself. He made his way to the window and glanced down through the panes.

Standing in the street below, his figure distorted by the rippling glass, was a young man. In one hand he clutched a flaming torch in the other a hammer. The pale oval of his face turned up to the window and for a moment the lad was perfectly still before he turned and took to his heels. As if the devil were in pursuit, thought Darkbane, smiling.

“To work then,” he mumbled, turning away from the window.

Pain struck him again, stinging this time, as he started towards the iron braced chest beside the door. Carefully, Darkbane pulled up the sleeve of his battered leather long coat. An ugly gash that ran from his wrist to his elbow was revealed, glistening scarlet as he held it closer to the candle. Wincing, he procured a length of fraying white cloth from one of his pockets and bound the wound. He wondered why he had not felt the cut before. But the thought was fleeting; he had more important things to concern himself with.

Darkbane knelt down in front of the chest and passed his uninjured hand over each lock and bolt that adorned the trunk’s face. After a series of metallic thuds, clicks and whirs the heavy lid groaned ajar.

Rising now, Darkbane swept back his long coat to reveal a belt patterned with loops of leather, several sheaths and a long scabbard. Then from the chest he procured an array of silver and wooden instruments, and with the speed and grace of a hand well practised, slid each of them into his belt. There were three daggers of flawless silver, a rowan stake, a pouch of iron filings, an iron chain and then he drew forth a long sword. With reverence Darkbane held the blade up, examined it, before sliding it into the scabbard. Lastly, from a hidden compartment in the chest’s lid, Darkbane brought a small glass vial, filled with a clear liquid, a piece of bone and a shard of rowan. He dropped the amulet into his pocket.

 “So it begins.” With gritted teeth he plucked a battered leather fedora from the chest of drawers, fitted it on his head and left.

 

The address scrawled on the scrap of parchment was one Darkbane knew. He ripped the scrap free; leaving the nail among the many others that pierced his front door and set off.   

A bone pale moon grinned in the starless sky overhead, dappling the muck caked cobbles with distorted shadows. The night was soundless but for the muffled ruckus emanating from the tavern at the top of the street. As he passed them, Darkbane grunted at each house he saw that had ignored his instruction and neglected to place a candle in one of their windows. “Fools,” he growled.

With a vigilant gaze, Darkbane scrutinised the dark alleys and corners as they passed. A frown furrowed his scarred brow. The stillness and quiet unnerved him. But he had little time to think on his misgivings as his destination loomed up from the dark.

The wattle and daub house was gilded with the light of a dozen torches; their bearers fell quiet as Darkbane approached. A path appeared between the gathered ranks before he had stepped within five yards of them. Their silence belied their fierce stares, though he knew none would speak their mind until he was out of earshot. Then my ears will burn, he thought.

The young man who had hammered the request parchment to Darkbane’s door was standing outside the house shifting uneasily. “M-master Shadow S-slayer,” he said, inclining his head.

Darkbane returned the gesture. “Did you not see fit to heed my instructions?” he said, making no effort to hide his anger, as he motioned to the shadowy windows of the house.

“M-my father s-said it w-was nonsense, sir,” the man said, eyes fixed at his feet. “He says that no mere candle can keep the Devil in hell.”

Darkbane grunted. “Well,” he said, “show me to this witch, young master and let us see what we are dealing with.”

Darkbane could feel a presence before he had even crossed the house’s threshold. The witch’s dark power assaulted him from every corner of the house as he entered. He felt it as a dull pain in his heart.

 “This is no ordinary hag,” he said, fingering the implements on his belt with one hand and tracing the wall with his other. “The light of my candles would have done little to keep this witch at bay.”

“Can you rid us of it, master Darkbane?” The young man said. The light of his lantern danced frantically across the walls.

“Hold that lantern steady,” Darkbane said. “She may be powerful but she certainly won’t like its light. And to your question… nothing is certain, not when you’re dealing with the dark.”

As they moved deeper into the house, the pain in Darkbane’s chest grew fiercer, until it felt as if a dozen bodkins were puncturing his heart.

“She appears in the attic,” said the man, his voice cracking. 

Darkbane nodded. “I know, lad,” he said. “There’s no need for you to accompany me any further.” He stopped at the foot of a staircase and turned to face the young man whose eyes were wide and fearful. “You must not come up, no matter what sounds you hear. Neither must anyone else, do you understand that, lad?”

The young man nodded earnestly, “Yes, sir.”

“Then hand me that lantern, and get you gone. And, lad…”

The man handed over the sputtering lantern as Darkbane pulled a pouch from a loop on his belt and handed it over, “if things go awry, seal off every entrance to the attic with the iron filings in there.”

Nodding again, the man turned and hastened back out into the street, clutching the sack as if it were a lump of gold.

 

With every creaking stair Darkbane climbed, the witch’s power burned harder within him. But he bit back his anguish and, arriving at the top of the staircase, pushed open the attic door.  

The room beyond was lit indistinctly with the soft glow of the lantern’s tallow candle. Not that there was a great deal of anything to light. The attic was barren but for the cobweb drapes strung in the eaves and a dark stain upon the floorboards.  

As he closed the door behind him, a ringing silence resonated in Darkbane’s ears. He placed the lantern on the floor at his feet then set his hat alongside it. The top of his spine tingled.

From the hush a low moan rose up, a chill thickened the air and as Darkbane watched, the dark stain on the wooden floorboards began to smoke. With the curling tendrils of steam came glistening scarlet liquid that bubbled and spat through the cracks between the boards. The groaning waxed louder and the boiling puddle of blood spread and thickened across the floor.

The ribbons of smoke reached into Darkbane’s nostrils and mouth with acrid fingers, coating the back of his throat with a foul, metallic taste. His grip upon the hilt of his sword tightened, his other lingered at his side, fingers twitching, anticipating what implement he would draw from his belt. 

As Darkbane took a step backwards, retreating from the lapping edges of the pool, something burst from the scarlet depths. It was an arm, bloody and crudely formed. Another swiftly followed and from each of the arms reached splayed fingers that slapped wetly down onto the boards. The thin limbs trembled under the strain of supporting whatever lurked below the gory surface.

Now, Darkbane did draw his sword. He held the silver blade ready as a hunched back rose up now, followed by a long neck and a bald head.  Gore dripped from the body in thick ropes as it rose fully from the pool. It spread its thickening limbs and jerked its head up. A maw split the now sallow, featureless face in two and a guttural, rasping sound emanated from deep within its throat. With a flick of talon fingers, the form commanded the cobwebs from the eaves and the thick sheets draped across the chalky limbs and wrapped about the emaciated body. The last strings of blood dripping from the head, darkened into knots of pitchy hair and in the sunken sockets two black eyes formed. And standing there, hunched and grinning, was the witch.

Her thin lips parted wider, “What fool is this,” she rasped, “that dare’s stand before me? Speak human, or I shall carve the flesh from your bones.”

Darkbane held forth his sword, “I am Darkbane, witch, and before this night is done you will meet your doom.” 

 

 

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