Reviewing Collections and Anthologies – Guest Post by Andrea Johnson

December 27, 2018

Hi!  My name is Andrea Johnson, and I’ve been running the book review site Little Red Reviewer since 2010. I review books, interview authors, talk about books I’m excited about, and more!  My work has never existed outside of a computer screen.  Until now!  In January, I’ll be kickstarting The Best of Little Red Reviewer,  a print book of my best book reviews – science fiction, fantasy, weird fiction, novels, short stories, everything in between.  Can a book review blog exist outside of the internet?  Let’s find out!  In the meantime, you can learn more here.

Reviewing a novel is fairly straight forward right?  It’s pretty easy to talk about the characters, and the plot, and what your favorite scene was, and if you were satisfied with the ending, and if you thought it was a thrilling page turner, etc. Not too hard, right?

Ok, but how do you review an anthology? The art of the limitation of short stories is that there might not be a ton of characterization, there might not be a ton of world building, and what if the entire story is only one scene or one conversation? And even scarier, if you’re planning to review an anthology that contains twelve stories, does that mean you need to write twelve reviews?

The good news is that no, you do not have to write a review for every single story in the collection (but you can if you want to!). While the “rules” for reviewing an anthology or single author short story collection might be different, that doesn’t mean writing the review will be any harder.

I used to be afraid of anthologies. I felt like I just didn’t get it. I’d get themed anthologies out of the library, read a few stories, get bored, and never go back to it. I thought maybe anthologies just weren’t for me? Maybe I was just reading ones that didn’t do it for me. I was also under the impression that there was some requirement to read the stories in order. Yes, yes, I know editors spend hours (Days? Weeks?) trying to determine the best order for the Table of Contents.  The thing that got me over my mental mind block around anthologies? Skipping around the Table of Contents. Once I realized I could read my favorite authors first, or read the shortest stories first, or read the one with the silly title first, a whole new world of reading enjoyment opened up to me!

When I’m reading an anthology for review, I do my best to take notes on each story while reading. Once I’m done reading, it’s pretty easy to look at my handwritten notes page and see which stories I have a lot to say about. And it isn’t always my favorites that I want to talk about – sometimes it is a story that made me angry, or made me curious, or took a boring subject matter and make it interesting, or it was a story that I just plain didn’t understand. If you’re going to review an anthology, don’t just talk about your favorite stories. Talk about the ones you liked, the ones that made you think, the ones that make you google the author to learn more about them.  Use an anthology to grow your curiosity.

Many of today’s best authors write primarily short stories. If you’re only reading novels you might never find these folks. A few who come to mind right away include Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Ted Chiang, C.S.E. Cooney, Ken Liu, and Carlos Hernandez.

On the flip side, some of your favorite novel writing authors also write short fiction, much of which you’ll never find in their novels. I’m talking people like George R. R. Martin, Catherynne Valente, Neal Asher, Peter Watts, and Yoon Ha Lee, just to name a few.

Not sure where to start with anthologies or short story collections?  Here are my favorites:

Bone Swans by C.S.E. Cooney

Beyond the Rift by Peter Watts

The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem

The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santaria by Carlos Hernandez

The Melancholy of Mechagirl by Catherynne Valente

Clockwork Phoenix Volume 5 edited by Mike Allen

If you’ve not had good luck with anthologies or short stories, you’re not alone. Sometimes it takes a while to find anthology editors that speak your language. And that’s ok!

Happy reading!

If you like what you read in this blog post, check out my blog, Little Red Reviewer and my twitter feed, where I’m @redhead5318.

The Hook: Xan and Ink by Zak Zyz

October 13, 2016


The Hook:

The white tower of Joymont had seven bronze bells, imported all the way from the foundries of Aran. It took a team of oxen and twenty men a week to raise them into the high tower and mount each on its beam. The work was pure murder, a labor like none of the men had ever done, but when it was all through, how fine the tower looked! A fluted shaft of white stone capped in a cone of gleaming copper, seven levels, seven bells engraved with glorious scenes from the epics. Atop it all they raised the flag of Joymont, a seven-pointed green star rising over white-capped mountains on a field of indigo.

For years the laborers had worked on this keep, hauling stones and timber, swinging hammers until their bones rang, and now they looked out across the tall ramparts they’d built, the thick walls and the fine white bell tower, and beamed with pride. Here was something for the ages!

Even the King seemed moved. A few workmen thought they saw a tear gleam in the corner of his eye as he gazed up at the grand tower. His own flag flew above the tower he’d designed, crowning a keep that would repel slavers and bandits. More than that, he’d built Joymont from nothing, he hadn’t simply inherited it by accident of birth. He was a conqueror, he’d seen a kingdom where others had seen naught but wilderness.

Joymont’s cronies were flopping over themselves, each trying to find their own angle to praise. How stately it looked, how clever the design! What a fine choice he’d made selecting the scenes! Wasn’t it just perfect to have the Calamity of Rapaxoris beneath the Beheading of the Limitless Light? And if you were going to choose a battle of Grimbalgon to depict, what better than the final one? Didn’t the figure of Harlan remind you of a certain King in his youth? On and on they went until his stomach nearly turned.

When at last it was time to sound the bells, each rang more pure than the last, resonant tones that you could hear from any corner of the keep, and far out into the fields. Every man, woman, and child in Joymont was looking up at those bells as they rang, one, two, three, four, five, six…


They rang the seventh bell, and all winced. As sour as the others had been sweet, a bitter, jarring note that made teeth ache and bones lurch. At once they knew the bell had cracked, and their eyes were on King Joymont, their breath caught in their throats. The head stonemason took off his hat and wrung it, his mouth working like mad with little half-spoken excuses.

For a moment, Joymont’s eyes twitched with fury, but he swallowed it. He could feel the weight of the years to come balanced on this moment. It had to be salvaged at all costs.

“We’ll save that one for the hangings!” Joymont roared at last, winking at the head mason. There was a titter of nervous laughter. Relief rippled through the crowd, and the stonemason looked as if he’d been pardoned at the gallows. He was as pale as the white stone he worked.

“Still the traitor bell! Let the rest ring!” Joymont shouted, and they rang the other six bells until everyone’s ears ached.

As the years went on, there were few hangings worthy of ringing a cursed bell. The seventh bell grew quite dusty and forgotten at the top of the tower while the others sang out for weddings and feasts, holidays, and all other occasions for joy.

Today they rang the seventh bell.

Zak Zyz writes:

This is not the hook I had in mind!

Originally, Xan and Ink began thirty-six pages later, in a bar fight where the four adventurers get their asses handed to them. Structurally, the four archetypal characters were never meant to be more than a pack of fools, in way over their heads. In video game terms, they’ve blundered into a zone that’s way too high level for them, everything can kill them, and their save is corrupted. The book is meant to open at the point where they’re realizing just how screwed they are, as a single diminutive drunk mops the floor with the whole party.

Beta readers did not go for this! Introducing characters, and making readers care about them, is somewhat difficult to accomplish in a scene where a crazed dwarf is beating the everliving piss out of them. On top of that, this is the scene where readers first meet the titular character, Xan, a cantankerous masked scholar who has somehow managed to survive for decades in a malignant jungle teeming with hostile, intelligent insects.

I’m a strong believer in beta readers, and we had some great ones for Xan and Ink. I was really surprised to find that people cared more about the plight of our four hapless fools than I ever would have guessed. People loved the intense cat-and-mouse between Xan and Ink, they loved the weird, sinister denizens of the Kalparcimex, but they wanted to know more about the losers who, in my mind, were simply there to struggle, fail, and potentially get eaten.

Armed with that feedback, I set about to explain more about Gregary, the oaf knight, Sandros the haughty magician, Osolin, the illiterate thief, and Brakkar, the wrathful zealot imbecile.  It wound up being incredibly fun! Because the characters were originally written as walking flaws, as I explored them and wrote stronger backstories for them, I  began to discover why they were that way, and what it might mean for their arcs.

Now when you read Xan and Ink, you don’t simply peer through the door of a tavern to see an ass-kicking, you march through a screaming mob alongside four disgraced adventurers and see them banished from the very kingdom they’ve sworn to save. The introduction stands you in the streets of the backward kingdom of Joymont and you hear the story of the Traitor’s Bell, a cracked and discordant bell that hangs disused at the top of an ivory tower, to be rung only for executions. The reader learns that this cursed bell is ringing again today, and I hope they will want to know why!

Buy Zan and Ink on Amazon


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The Hook: Stay Crazy by Erica L. Satifka

August 15, 2016


The Hook:

Dr. Atchison never trimmed his nose hairs. That was the first thing Emmeline Kalberg hated about him. There were other reasons to hate him, of course: his condescending tone, his haughty manner, the way he’d tear apart your room when you were out at group therapy – all in the name of “mental health,” of course. But the nose hairs, those were Em’s main complaint about the good doctor, and she trembled with the urge to leap over his weathered oak desk and pull them out herself.

“I’m not sure you’re ready, Ms. Kalberg.” Atchison flipped through the thick file in front of him, brow knitted. He paused for a long while before setting down the file and placing his pale, manicured hands atop it.

“Please, Dr. Atchison,” Em said, “I have to go home today. My mother is driving all the way here to pick me up.”

The doctor sighed, a little high-pitched whine that made Em want to strangle him. “Well, the other doctors seem to think you’re well enough to go. They’re probably right.”

What you mean, Em thought, is that my insurance ran out. But she forced a smile, and kept her mouth shut.

Erica L. Satifka writes:

Stay Crazy is about the battle between two opposing otherworldly forces, centered on an interdimensional nexus point that just happens to reside within a big-box store in small town Pennsylvania.

But the opening doesn’t show any of that, because the novel is shown from the perspective of Em Kalberg, a woman recently diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia who isn’t sure if the cosmic forces are even real. At the novel’s start, she’s being released from a mental hospital after a two-month stay, and she’s full of anger, mostly at herself. But she can’t express her anger the way she wants to, so she focuses on random pet peeves, like nose hairs and imagined whines.

I chose this scene to open the book because it’s the start of Em picking her life back up. It’s the transition between the “before” and the “after,” when her entire circumstances have completely changed. Little does she know that things are about to change again, when she gets a job at Savertown USA (the fictional big-box store) and finds herself tangled in an invisible war.

The beginning of the book, though, doesn’t necessarily tip the reader into knowing this is science fiction, and that’s something I had to consider carefully. If someone missed the cover and the back cover copy and the fact that it’s published by Apex, would they think I had committed an act of – gasp – literary fiction? However, I just ran with it, because Em’s personal journey of accepting her mental illness is just as important as the spec-fic shenanigans.

Em has a healthy mistrust of authority, which proves useful to the plot and which you can see right away. While her stay at the hospital was probably for the best, in her opinion it’s gone on entirely too long. Her sarcastic, antagonistic relationship with Dr. Atchison is repeated over and over with other well-meaning authority figures, and avoiding a return trip to the mental hospital
is one of her primary goals.

Will she succeed in staying out of the hospital? Will the destruction of the universe be stopped?

And just what goes on behind the scenes of an entity-haunted big-box store anyway? Read Stay Crazy and find out for yourself!

Buy Stay Crazy on Amazon

About the author:

Erica L. Satifka is a writer and/or friendly artificial construct, forged in a heady mix of iced coffee and sarcasm. She enjoys rainy days, questioning reality, ignoring her to-do list, and adding to her collection of tattoos. Her short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Lightspeed, and Intergalactic Medicine Show, and her debut novel Stay Crazy was released in August 2016 by Apex Publications. Originally from Pittsburgh, she now lives in Portland, Oregon with her spouse Rob and an indeterminate number of cats. Visit her online at


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The Hook: Waypoint Kangaroo by Curtis C. Chen

June 21, 2016


The Hook:

My left eye doesn’t lie. The scanning implants and heads-up display can only show me what’s really there, and right now they’re showing me a border guard carrying too many weapons. Standard-issue assault rifle hanging around his neck, but also a machine pistol under his armpit, a revolver strapped to his left ankle, and a high-voltage stunner in a tail holster at the base of his spine.

I saw suspicious bulges under his coat as I rolled up to the checkpoint, and he obviously wasn’t happy to see me, so I activated my eye scanners. Now I can read the factory bar code off each weapon and look up the manufacturer’s specs via satellite link. The stunner surprises me—it was manufactured off-world, somewhere in the asteroid belt, and delivers more energy than is legal anywhere on Earth. And the concealed firearms are Hungarian-made, military issue. Not the kind of thing Kazakh border police pick up at the corner shop.

But it’s not the guns that really put me wise to Fakey Impostorov. I can also see into his body, and simple checkpoint guards don’t have an unmistakable spiderweb of ground-to-orbit comsat antenna surgically implanted in their left shoulder. If this guy’s not a field agent for a national intelligence outfit—a spy like me—I’ll eat my shoe. And shoes taste terrible. Trust me, I know. Long story.

Anyway, what is a Hungarian secret agent doing on the Russia–Kazakhstan border?

Curtis C. Chen writes:

My debut novel Waypoint Kangaroo is a science fiction spy thriller that combines elements from three of my favorite fiction genres: espionage tales in the vein of John le Carré, space adventures such as Star Trek, and superhero comics like Wonder Woman (preferably as written by Gail Simone or Greg Rucka).

Since I was mashing up so many disparate things, I wanted to make sure the start of the book clearly established the setting and the rules of the world. I revised the first few chapters many times over the many years of working on this novel. The first draft started with a James-Bond-movie-style “cold open,” which I removed in a later draft, then put back, then changed a lot more before it really worked.

In addition to world-building, I wanted the cold open to properly introduce readers to my main character, Kangaroo. The action in the first chapter leans on some straight-up spy-fi tropes; just like every 007 film, the novel starts with Kangaroo finishing up one mission and making a narrow escape before returning home. But Kangaroo isn’t a typical spy, and readers need to know what they’re getting into, both with his unique superpower–”the pocket”–and his snarky personality.

At some point, I realized that the cold open was in many ways a thematic microcosm of the whole book: the problems that Kangaroo is dealing with, how he chooses to confront those problems (or not), and how he feels about everything that’s happening. It’s all laid out in that first scene. This became a great touchstone for me during the revision process, especially when I needed to completely rewrite certain scenes while staying true to the character… but that’s another story, which I can’t tell until later BECAUSE SPOILERS.

Buy Waypoint Kangaroo on Amazon

About the Author:

Once a software engineer in Silicon Valley, CURTIS C. CHEN now writes speculative fiction and runs puzzle games near Portland, Oregon. His debut novel WAYPOINT KANGAROO, a science fiction spy thriller, is forthcoming from Thomas Dunne Books on June 21st, 2016.

Curtis’ short stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, the Baen anthology MISSION: TOMORROW, and THE 2016 YOUNG EXPLORER’S ADVENTURE GUIDE. He is a graduate of the Clarion West and Viable Paradise writers’ workshops.

You can find Curtis at Puzzled Pint Portland on the second Tuesday of most months. Visit him online at:


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The Hook: The Maids of Wrath by Josh Vogt

April 15, 2016

Maids of Wrath

The Hook:

Dani yelped and stumbled backward as the squeegee bounced off her forehead. A knee knocked the mop out of her hands, followed by a rubber boot which connected with her stomach. This racked up her butt’s twentieth rendezvous with the floor of the supernatural sanitation company’s training room.

The impact jolted her spine and forearms as she tried to catch herself. It also prompted a plastic crunch. She groaned and eyed a pants leg pocket, where a wet splotch started leaking through the material.

She undid the zipper and pulled out the cracked remains of a small bottle of sanitation gel . Barely a handful remained inside, and she dribbled this into her palm in the hopes of salvaging something from the mess.

Then she stilled as another squeegee whipped into the floor beside her—except this one sliced through the concrete like an axe splitting a particularly unlucky watermelon. She glowered at this as her attacker spoke.

“Your opponent is not about to pause and let you tidy up after every hit, Miss Hashelheim.”

She grabbed the squeegee handle, thinking she could snap it back in a surprise attack. But her gel-slicked fingers didn’t give her a solid grip on the embedded Cleaner weapon.

Between tugs and grunts, she tried to formulate a decent excuse. “I was … trying to … coat my hands … with a substance that’d keep … any Scum back.”

Huffing and admitting defeat via squeegee, she lay back and tried to let her exasperation ebb away. Sweat trickled down her neck as she took inventory of her latest bruises.

Josh Vogt writes:

Sequels are tough to write, especially when you’re trying to keep the series accessible to new readers, whether they’ve read the first book or not. With The Cleaners, now that we’ve moved beyond the events of Enter the Janitor, the opening to The Maids of Wrath had to pull a bit of extra weight.

I wanted it to do quite a few things at once. I needed to establish the central context of the story—that being people working for a supernatural sanitation company. I also needed to introduce a main character—Dani—and give a sense of her character from the get-go.

At the same time, I wanted this opening to raise a lot of questions in the minds of new and returning readers alike so they’d continue on to discover the answers. Why does this sparring match involve cleaning equipment? What are Scum? How did that squeegee slice into the floor? Will Dani ever find a fresh bottle of sani-gel again? (Okay, maybe that last question isn’t so important.)

Plus, since The Cleaners is an urban fantasy series with more humorous elements than most, I wanted to introduce that comedic tone as early as possible so expectations could be set as to what the rest of the story will be like.

In the midst of everything else, the immediate setting quickly becomes ground zero for the major crisis of the book, catapulting Dani and friends into a race against time to save the whole company. In Enter the Janitor, she underwent a rough-n-tumble initiation into this weird world of magical janitors, maids, plumbers, and more. Now she has the chance to be more proactive, take even more control of her powers, and discover just how much of a mop-wielding badass she can be.

Assuming she survives her first official job in the field, of course.

Buy The Maids of Wrath on Amazon

About the Author:

Author and editor Josh Vogt’s work covers fantasy, science fiction, horror, humor, pulp, and more. His debut fantasy novel is Pathfinder Tales: Forge of Ashes, published alongside his urban fantasy series, The Cleaners, with Enter the Janitor and The Maids of Wrath. He’s an editor at Paizo, a Scribe Award finalist, and a member of both SFWA and the International Association of Media Tie-In Writers. Find him at or on Twitter @JRVogt.


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The Hook: Glitch Rain by Alex Livingston

February 25, 2016

The Hook:

Akuba needs to get rid of her client’s face if she plans on living past the week.

She sees herself from above, the image floating in front of her eyes. She’s in a gondola, high above the canal. Isaac is with her.

He tweaks something on his phone. “Getting it?”

She nods. Her new airhud keeps the video in the same spot, in the upper left of her field of vision. She slides down the bench to get a look at the city’s dark skyline, making the gondola sway. They’re too far away from downtown to see any people, but the haze of drones is just visible in the fading light. The airhud puts bubbles above the buildings, recommending places she can spend her daily.

“Can’t believe you bought that thing,” Isaac says with a petty grin. He told Akuba once that his teeth are so very white from sucking on sugar cane as a boy back in Gulu. He tells her lots of things. “What’s wrong with your phone?”

“I got a bunch of kiz from the last job. And it’ll be useful.” It won’t really be all that useful, but that’s the kind of thing people say about money. Responsible people. And airhuds are getting so popular now. They’re not as expensive as they used to be.

Isaac sniffs. “Tell that to Shaky. He’d rather you paid him than bought yourself pretty toys.”

Alex Livingston writes:

Glitch Rain is cyberpunk gone mobile. Phones, drones, self-driving cars, shipping container homes. It’s about privacy as a commodity, the nodes on the consumption chain, and the psychological effects of being broke and alone.

I love it when a first sentence doesn’t make any sense. This can be done with words invented for the story (e.g. “droogs”), but when the writer depends on unexpected word usage or an odd sentence structure, it makes a puzzle out of that initial line. And I do love to solve a puzzle.

In the first line of Glitch Rain, I wanted to accomplish two things: make the reader wonder what I was talking about and present the stakes Akuba is living with. The story starts with two people playing with some tech in a near-future city, all familiarity and easy friendship. But Akuba has to keep her cash flowing or the guy she owes is going to kill her. She and Isaac are talking like they’re planning dinner with friends, not going on a hacking mission and hoping to make enough money to keep Shaky from sending his assassins. Weird, right?

The dissonance between a dangerous situation which would be completely crippling to many people (myself very much included) and Akuba’s casual demeanor is a big part of what makes her who she is. How can someone just shrug off that kind of pressure? What kind of person lives like that? The intent is to make the reader want to find out.

Buy Glitch Rain on Amazon.

About the Author:

Alex Livingston grew up in various quiet New England towns before moving to Buffalo, NY to study English at Canisius College. His fiction has appeared  in Apex Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and Bastion Magazine among others, and his interactive fiction can be found at Choice of Games and Storynexus. He self-published the novel Rhymer, an Irish wonder myth told as an exciting sci-fi space opera.  He lives in an old house with his brilliant wife and a pile of aged videogame systems. Visit him online at



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The Hook: Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free by Randy Henderson

February 16, 2016

Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free

The Hook:

Imagine the sweetest-smelling perfume, something candy-like, perhaps worn by tweenaged girls. Now, pour a bottle of that into your eyes. Welcome to the joys of fairy embalming.

I stood beside a stainless-steel worktable on which a fairy’s parakeet-sized body rested, in the familiar chill and antiseptic smell of our family’s basement necrotorium—a mortuary for the magical.

Randy Henderson writes:

“So,” I said, “What do you think of the hook?”

Finn shrugged. “Well, I think it’s safe to say you’re not the world’s greatest hooker.”

“Huh, I feel weirdly defensive about that that on multiple levels, but okay, fine, what’s wrong with it?”

“Nothing I guess, it’s just strange seeing my life written out.  I don’t suppose you’ll tell me how this all ends?” Finn asked.

“No, not in detail.  Too much knowledge of your own future is dangerous.”

“Okay, Doc Brown, whatever.  Just lay it on me.”

“Well, suffice to say, there’s lots of magic and adventure, drama and romance.”

“No doy!” Finn replied.  “How about the next one you just make a straight up Romance novel?”

“I hate to break it to you, but even Romance novels put their characters into physical and emotional peril.”

“Fine.  How about you make the next one a sex guide?  The Finnasutra?”

“Dude, you’ve had sex, like, twice thus far, at least as written.  I hardly think you’re qualified to teach on the subject.”

“Awesome.” Finn said.  “Thanks for telling the world.  So why did you start off with me sucking in fairy stench in a basement?  Why couldn’t you start off with me laying around on a beach somewhere?  Or playing some awesome new game on my Commodore 64?”

“Well, this is book two in a series.  My whole goal with this book overall was to dig deeper into the magical world and into the characters introduced in book one, to really lay a solid foundation for the rest of the series, and to do so in as fun a way as possible.”

“And putting me in a basement with a dead fairy does that how?”

“Well, specifically, I put you in a situation where it was easy to reintroduce readers to the world and characters from book one, and then build on that in an entertaining way.  You sitting alone in your room playing Genesis or Commodore 64 games wouldn’t really do that.”

“You know what else me sitting around playing games wouldn’t do?”

“What?” I asked.

“Suck. I mean, in the first book, I get back from twenty-five years of exile in the Fey Other Realm, and you immediately send me running for my life.  I thought here, you’d at least give me a chance to chill out, enjoy the rewards of not being deadified in book one despite your best efforts.”

“Well, this one starts three months after that, so if you want to imagine you spent that time laying around playing video games, I’m fine with that.”

“Great.  So you start me off with a dead fairy who looks like a parakeet.  You could have spun that as a Monty Python reference, and sent me off to retrieve the grail from a castle filled with lonely maidens.  But no, instead you send me off trying to find true love for a sasquatch, and get me mixed up in a feyblood rebellion.”

“Yeah, well, you wanted to make the world a better and brighter place with your adventures and all.”

“Uh, no, that was you.” Finn said.  “I didn’t really have a choice in the matter, oh Great Puppet Master of my fate.”

“Oh.  Right.  Well — oh gosh, look, here comes the link.  I guess we have to go!”

“What?  Wait!  No!  I meant to ask you the meaning of — ah, bat’s breath.”

Buy Bigfootloose on Amazon

About the Author:

Randy Henderson is an author, milkshake connoisseur, Writers of the Future grand prize winner, relapsed sarcasm addict, and Clarion West  graduate. His “dark and quirky” contemporary fantasy series from TOR (US) and Titan (UK) includes Finn Fancy Necromancy, and the sequel Bigfootloose and Finn Fancy Free.  His website is


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The Hook: Darkness Fair by Rachel A. Marks

February 3, 2016


The Hook:

The demon is crouched in the corner, between the Cheetos and the onion dip. It’s a small one, only about four feet tall: a low-level creeper. I flick my gaze over the spot like I don’t see it and open the cooler door to get a Coke. 

I watch the cashier behind me in the security mirror as he finishes ringing up a customer. He notices me—eyes my ratty hoodie, grungy backpack, scruffy jaw, tattooed fist gripping the cooler handle—and reaches one hand under the counter, probably to grab the butt of a shotgun or a bat he’s got hidden there. He’s totally oblivious to the real danger that’s hanging out in the junk food aisle. 

The bell on the door rings as the customer leaves. 

I walk past the demon casually, hoping it doesn’t sense my awareness. It’s not here for me, though; its bulbous black eyes are trained on the cashier. Its scarred and misshapen wings twitch and knock at the shelf as its leg muscles tense, like it’s ready to pounce. Clawed feet dig into the linoleum floor, surrounded by traces of black ash and sulfur that seep from its skin. 

I set the can of Coke down on the counter and toss a Snickers up there too—dinner of champions. 

“Hey,” I say to the cashier. The chill of being too close to the demon crawls over me, but I clench my jaw and ignore it. 

Rachel A. Marks writes:

My debut YA Urban Fantasy series The Dark Cycle begins with DARKNESS BRUTAL, where we get to know the homeless seventeen-year-old, Aidan, and learn about his very strange abilities, which he’s been using, up until now, to try and keep his little sister safe. It’s based loosely on the idea that the underbelly of society could hold the greatest treasures of humanity; you know that bum walking past talking to himself? He might be just the guy to save the world. Think of it as Dickens’ Oliver Twist meets TV’s Supernatural in the gritty streets of Los Angeles.

I wrote this opening after several missed attempts, since I was trying to decide where Aidan’s story really started. I wanted to reveal him and his world in a way that would allow the reader to see his everyday life while still providing enough information and action so it wasn’t boring. And so, I imagined the most mundane thing in the daily life of Aidan, and plopped a demon on top, which he would see as an “everyday” thing but the reader certainly wouldn’t.

Demons and snack foods. It’s an opening line that people seem to attach to and instantly want to understand and know more about. I also wanted them to see how the rest of the world saw him. So when the store owner looks on in suspicion we know Aidan is a little ratty and not fit for “good” society. He’s an outsider. And he’s more worried about the demon knowing his awareness than the store clerk suspecting him of criminality. He avoids his abilities. And so in this scene, we watch him fail to stay in the shadows like he wants.

As the story progresses Aidan begins to realize what he’s really running from, and why, and we see that he’s not alone in these strange abilities, even if he thought he was, as other young people crowd around him. Without spoiling it, one thing that makes this series unique in the UF world, are the ties it has to legends and history. Time is a central theme as the story reveals the ancient battle that follows Aidan and his sister, which will soon have them looking at each other across a chasm of their parent’s mistakes.

Book two, DARKNESS FAIR, releases today and is the second part of the siblings’ story. It takes the reader even deeper into the legends and magic that Aidan has to traverse to help his sister, and gives us the story from another perspective. We see Aidan settling into his new role and attempting to use and grow his abilities rather than hide from them. Just before it all goes wrong, of course.

Buy The Dark Cycle on Amazon

About the author:

Rachel A. Marks is an award-winning author and professional artist, a cancer survivor, a surfer and dirt-bike rider, chocolate lover and keeper of faerie secrets. She was voted: Most Likely to Survive the Zombie Apocalypse, but hopes she’ll never have to test the theory. You can usually find her hanging out with her four teenagers, reciting lines from Buffy the Vampire Slayer or arguing about which superhero rocks the hardest, while her husband looks on in confusion. Find out more about her and check out her art at


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The Hook: Steal the Sky by Megan E. O’Keefe

January 6, 2016


The Hook:

It was a pretty nice burlap sack. Not the best he’d had the pleasure of inhabiting, not by a long shot, but it wasn’t bad either. The jute was smooth and woven tight, not letting in an inkling of light or location. It didn’t chafe his cheeks either, which was a small comfort.

The chair he was tied to was of considerably lesser quality. Each time Detan shifted his weight to keep the ropes from cutting off his circulation little splinters worked their way into his exposed arms and itched something fierce. Despite the unfinished wood, the chair’s joints were solid, and the knots on his ropes well-tied, which was a shame.

Detan strained his ears, imagining that if he tried hard enough he could work out just where he was. No use, that. Walls muted the bustle of Aransa’s streets, and the bitter-char aromas of local delicacies were blotted by the tight weave of the sack over his head. At least the burlap didn’t stink of the fear-sweat of those who’d worn it before him.

Someone yanked the bag off and that was surprising, because he hadn’t heard anyone in the room for the last half-mark. Truth be told, he was starting to think they’d forgotten about him, which was a mighty blow to his pride.

Megan E. O’Keefe writes:

Right off the bat, I wanted readers to realize that Detan Honding’s view of the world is different than most. I think it’s fair to say that most people would be concerned to find themselves tied to a chair with a bag over their head, but not Detan – he’s calm as can be. Instead of worrying about what’s coming for him next, he’s busy critiquing the quality of the bag obscuring his vision.

And yet, Detan is beginning to show cracks of annoyance. Splinters are picking at him, and he’s growing bored – worried that he’s been forgotten about – but also trying to work an angle, trying to see his way clear of the mess he’s gotten himself into. The overall picture is that Detan is a man who’s familiar with danger, perhaps even thrives on it. He’s been in this chair or ones like it before, and though he’s a wee bit irritated, he’s confident he can see his way through.

I wrote these intro paragraphs to have a slight sing-songy tone, a definite rhythm that, when it breaks, the reader notices – further emphasizing the cracks in Detan’s sense of calm. He may be telling himself everything’s okay, but the wear in the veneer of his flippant demeanor is already beginning to show and, by the end of the book, he may just be strained to breaking.

Buy Steal the Sky on Amazon.

About the author:

Megan E. O’Keefe was raised amongst journalists, and as soon as she was able joined them by crafting a newsletter which chronicled the daily adventures of the local cat population. She has worked in both arts management and graphic design, and spends her free time tinkering with anything she can get her hands on.

Megan lives in the Bay Area of California and makes soap for a living. It’s only a little like Fight Club. She is a first place winner in the Writers of the Future competition and her debut novel, Steal the Sky, is out now from Angry Robot Books.


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The Hook: Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard by Lawrence M. Schoen

December 29, 2015


The Hook:

Rüsul traveled to meet his death. The current had carried him away from his home island as if it understood his purpose. He lost sight of the archipelago before dusk, as much a function of the falling rain as the southerly wind that pushed him onward. In the days since, the sun had risen and set unseen, a slightly brighter spot that eased itself across the overcast sky. Nor had it cleared at night to permit a glimpse of the heavens. The clouds changed color as the rain ebbed and flowed, and the wind drove him across the water of its own accord toward an unvisited destination. Rüsul didn’t care. He had no need to hurry. He could feel the increasing proximity in his bones and that was enough. More than enough. An aged Fant on a raft alone and at sea, the wind filling his makeshift sail and carrying him toward the last bit of land he would ever stand upon. His father and mother had each left in the same manner, and their parents before them. That’s how it had been, going back generation upon generation to the very founding of Barsk.

Lawrence M. Schoen writes:

Barsk is an anthropomorphic SF novel set in the far future. As an elevator pitch, think Dune meets The Sixth Sense, with elephants. Its themes explore prophecy, intolerance, friendship, conspiracy, loyalty, and a drug that allows one to speak with the dead.

As I originally wrote this book, this was the opening to chapter two. But wiser heads prevailed and even though Rüsul is not the book’s main character (not even close), he is a good place to start.

There’s a gravitas to that opening line. It’s perhaps the best hook I’ve ever written. It promises drama and emotion, destiny and agency, and then immediately slips away into building the scenario, laying down the groundwork for a story in which the weather is at least as important as life and death.

The character is resolved to an action, his death, but he’s not in any hurry. He’s set off to embrace it, and the journey will take as long as it takes. Establishing that as his motivation in the first paragraph, I was naturally obligated to thwart it, and do so with the rest of the chapter. All too quickly we discover that events have been set in motion with the express purpose of interfering with the time honored tradition of an old man (or at least, an old elephant) sailing away to his death. And if echoes of the myth of a place where all elephants go when it’s time to die are starting to stir in your mind, well, let’s just say that the book’s subtitle was no accident.

Much of the book is told from the point of view of a historian (who is also the protagonist), a chronicler with a specialty of studying the prophecies of a founder of the planet’s society. This allowed me to play with the frisson that results when exploring the past explicitly involves predictions of the future, as well as that classic physics problem of the effect observing a thing has on the thing itself. Along the way I had the opportunity to invent a new type of subatomic particle, define how memory really works, make an argument for a new type of immortality, play out some teachable father-son moments, play games with telepathy, obsession, righteousness, free will, and a really disturbing child who worked very hard to steal the entire novel away from me.

After more than twenty years writing and selling stories and novels, five published books from small presses, nominations for the Campbell, the Hugo, and the Nebula, Barsk is far and away the best thing I’ve ever written. I hope you enjoy it.

Buy Barsk on Amazon

About the author:

Lawrence M. Schoen holds a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology, has been nominated for the Campbell, Hugo, and Nebula awards, is a world authority on the Klingon language, operates the small press Paper Golem, and is a practicing hypnotherapist specializing in authors’ issues.

His previous science fiction includes many light and humorous adventures of a space-faring stage hypnotist and his alien animal companion. His most recent book, Barsk, takes a very different tone, exploring issues of prophecy, intolerance, friendship, conspiracy, and loyalty, and redefines the continua between life and death. He lives near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife and their dog.


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