never trust an englishman with a book…

never trust an englishman with a book…

never trust an englishman with a book…

It’s been a long time since I’ve read an honest-to-goodness page-turner. Like the best thrillers, Alan Baxter’s Bound drops you in the thick of the action from the very first sentence and doesn’t let up until the book is closed. But, unlike a simple airport potboiler, the world it drags you through drips with blood and magic and horror, a shadowed underworld of cage fighters, of Kin, and of dark powers that threaten to overwhelm all who come within their orbit.

On the surface, Bound is a fast-paced, action-packed urban fantasy about a martial artist with magically enhanced abilities, who finds himself both the prisoner of an ancient and malevolent power, and the focus of a brutal supernatural manhunt. Like a classic kung fu movie, the fights are gritty and authentic, the foes of increasingly insurmountable power and ability. But the deeper Alex Caine gets drawn into the book’s central mystery (and, yes, that’s a pun, but no spoilers here), the less he can simply fight his way out, the more he needs to draw on inner resources: his training, his will, and his wonderfully messed up relationship with the beautiful and monstrous Silhouette.

No matter how fast the plot compels you to rip through it, there’s a dark depth to Bound that will resonate long after you put it down. And this resonance comes on the one hand from the book’s central theme of control, and on the other from the fact that Alex Caine is himself a monster. Alan Baxter has penned a truly unique protagonist in Caine, at once superhero and antihero; and perhaps something beyond even that, something darker still. As Caine’s power increases, so too does his capacity to commit unspeakable atrocities, horrors that are far from heroic, that threaten to engulf him and endanger those he loves.

Not for the faint of heart (I’m a calloused horror reader, and at least one scene in this book damaged me), Bound is fantastic storytelling in the vein of Neil Gaiman or Alan Moore, but with a merciless black streak. If you like a double-dose of darkness with your sense of wonder, Bound will deliver. At breakneck speed.

So what are you waiting for? Grab yourself a copy now!

last year, when we were young

last year, when we were young

last year, when we were young

I should have written this review months ago. It was sometime in June that I finished Andrew J McKiernan’s Last Year, When We Were Young and it’s close on September now, and in all that time I’ve been mulling on what I could possibly write that might do justice to this extraordinary collection of stories.

To say it is a diverse collection is both to state the obvious and to understate the breadth of ground—the genres, the ideas, the voices—that these fifteen stories cover. The tales are so varied, you might think that the only thread binding them is the restless imagination of their author. With enviable facility, McKiernan shifts between literary horror, contemporary supernatural, alternate history, steampunk, noir, and the classic, old-fashioned ghost story, without ever descending into the archness of “genre-busting”. This dissociative identity disorder is a great strength of the collection, but it also caused me no small amount of frustration; I came to the end of so many of the stories, enraptured, clamouring for more of the same, only to be dragged off in some entirely other direction. But the stories are so stylish, so effortlessly cinematic, evoking worlds that bloom outward far beyond their handful of pages, that I would soon be sucked in again, only to face the same disjunct at the next story’s end.

While I enjoyed every course of this unusual degustation, there are some clear standouts. McKiernan is an able fantasist, and his vivid otherworlds—the steampunk un-Sydney of Calliope, the Alien-like space nightmare of The Wanderer in the Darkness, and the incomparable All the Clowns in Clowntown—are all intelligent, compelling, and vividly realised genre pieces. But the stories that really shine, that grab you, fiercely, by the heart, are those that sit just askew of the everyday—the dreamlike ache of The Memory of Water, the claustrophobic and unutterably creepy The Message, and, my personal favourite, the all-too-real roadside horror of White Lines, White Crosses.

I said before that the only thread connecting these stories was McKiernan’s restless imagination. That is not entirely fair. There is another strand on which they hang like baroque pearls, that animates them, that breathes real life into the people and places, and that is an earnest, sensitive, honest-to-goodness compassion. Underpinning every one of these stories—no matter the horrors or honeytraps, the betrayals or brutalities that lie in wait for their protagonists—there is a tenderness and an empathy, an open, aching heart.