The Dark at the End of the Tunnel by Taylor Grant

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The Dark at the End of the Tunnel by Taylor Grant
Publisher: Crystal Lake Publishing
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror, Paranormal, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (112 pages)
Rating: 3.5 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Discover what happens when:

– A wealthy industrialist awakens after ten years in suspended animation, and finds out that the horrors of the past can never be left behind.

– A lonely man realizes that he’s gradually vanishing from existence, into a nightmarish limbo of his own making.

– An author stumbles upon an incomplete manuscript by his deceased father, and makes the grave mistake of trying to complete the story.

– A woman learns that the imaginary voices that haunt the delusional and criminally insane are, in fact, real.

This remarkable collection of short fiction exposes the terrors that hide beneath the surface of our ordinary world, behind people’s masks of normalcy, and lurking in the shadows at the farthest reaches of the universe.

Almost anything can be terrifying if you look at it the right way.

The main character in “The Silent Ones” had a peculiar problem: even though the post office claimed nothing was out of the ordinary, he hadn’t been receiving his mail. What made it all even more bizarre was that no one else seemed to notice how upset he was by this. I read a lot of science fiction, and I’ve never seen anything like this story before. It reminded me why I enjoy this genre so much, especially once the plot progressed and the main character started noticing other strange developments in his life. Seeing how an otherwise mild-mannered guy reacted to all of these weird things made me wish for a sequel. I would have really liked to know what happened next!

There were certain things about “Gods and Devils” that never made sense to me. The storyline was about a space ship’s captain, Vega, who comes out of stasis only to realize that something horribly violent has taken place while he and all of the other humans on board were unconscious while en route to a new home. His confusion and panic was completely justifiable at first. Had he been an ordinary person who wasn’t in charge of the safety of so many other people, his later actions wouldn’t have been so jarring. I had a lot of trouble understanding why someone with as much training and experience as one would need to be a captain would react the way he did later on in the plot, though. It might have made sense for someone who wasn’t particularly intelligent, but it wasn’t at all what I would have expected from a professional with his background.

In “Show and Tell,” Jacob has been sent to his school psychologist’s office to discuss a series of disturbing drawings he created. The pictures showed medical equipment and other things that most children don’t have experience with at Jacob’s age, so his psychologist was curious to see where the boy had learned about them and why he was so obsessed with them. What I liked the most about this tale was how straightforward it was. The narrator laid everything out methodically and didn’t dance around the topic once it became obvious what was happening. While I did figure out the twist early on, it was still interesting to see if my theory was correct. The ending was also nicely handled. It fit in well with everything else that had been established about Jacob and his home life earlier on.

I’d recommend The Dark at the End of the Tunnel to anyone who likes the dark and sometimes gory side of science fiction.

Keys by Amber Kell

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Keys by Amber Kell
Publisher: Dreamspinner Press
Genre: Steampunk, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Action/Adventure
Length: Full Length (187 pages)
Other: M/M, anal sex
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Lilac

My name is Octavius Septimus Stalk, but my friends call me Oss. I live in the City of Keys, a town of gears, keys, locks, and wonder. Our forefathers banished magic long ago, bolted the doors and locked everything up tight to keep people out and the town’s secrets in. Four Lock Lords control what information is left, and everyone else is left struggling to survive.

Despite what Thorne, my naïve lover, thinks, I was an orphan, but not a victim. When I walked the streets at the age of twelve, I learned fast where to steal the best food, how to use my daggers, and where to hide my would-be attackers’ bodies. No one suspected me of such violence. No one knew then or now that I have magic inside me.

Now, power hungry men intend to release the magic for their own benefit—at the expense of the rest of the city. We will stop them, even if Thorne must battle his own kin, even if I must reveal my hidden talents and the role I seem destined to play.

A mage in hiding becomes embroiled in a conspiracy of evil men who wish to release magic into a steampunk world for their own nefarious reasons.

This story is told in first person from Oss’s point of view. He’s a former street urchin and a thief who keeps his magical abilities secret because those who have it tend to vanish in the dead of night, as magic is banned and tightly locked away. Oss is now one of the city’s key keepers and also in an established relationship with Thorne, a city guard who comes from wealth and nobility (he’s related to one of the four Lock Lords!) and whose star is on the rise. The plot moves at a quick pace, so we’re mostly not bogged down, and there’s a good balance between witty dialogue, fast-packed action, tense and thrilling moments, and sensual scenes.

The characters, especially the main heroes, are three-dimensional, smart and fun. Oss is more of an anti-hero, reluctant to be cast in a heroic role to save the world, and he hasn’t told anyone how his magic allows him unlock any locks he comes into contact with. Oss’s boyfriend Thorne is more attractive, suave, and outgoing. He’s warm and kind and a bit naive but he doesn’t retreat from dangers or challenges, and he never abandons Oss which I really appreciated. Their scenes together range from warm friendship to hot and heavy. In fact, this starts out pretty sexy and sensuous, but beyond that there’s a good story to be told. The relationship conflict is pretty mild, mainly Thorne wishing for them to be a couple, and Oss doubting true love could exist in a dystopian world. But… there’s also the fact that both men harbor a big secret from one another, so the prophecy coming to pass forces them to be honest, which creates a schism they must resolve together.

Though there’s sex in this book, this is more an adventure in a steampunk and fantasy setting than a romance. The world-building is done extremely well, it’s detailed and intricate without being overrun by useless info or smothered with info dumps. The story’s background is set by a prophecy that speaks of magic being released into the City of Locks, magic and gears colliding, and our heroes end up caught in the middle of that strife. This is something of a genre mashup, so if that’s not your thing…. For myself, I thought the mix of genres–adventure, fantasy, steampunk, fairytales, and erotic romance–was intriguing and certainly unique. I will definitely be checking out the next in the series (hoping there is one to be had!). In short, the City of Keys comes to life like one of the characters, and I longed to know more, see and hear and feel more.

You get a complete story here, but this being only the opening salvo for a new series, several things are left in the air. Yet none of that hampered my enjoyment and satisfaction of reading this tale of a fascinating world and its people. I highly recommend this for everyone who likes their established couples sassy and super-sexy, their adventures thrilling and dangerous, and their fantasy world well crafted and full of delicious details and coloring outside the lines.

Flowers in a Dumpster by Mark Allan Gunnells

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Flowers in a Dumpster by Mark Allan Gunnells
Publisher: Crystal Lake Publishing
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Horror, Paranormal, Contemporary
Length: Short Story (144 pages)
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

The world is full of beauty and mystery. In these 17 tales, Gunnells will take you on a journey through landscapes of light and darkness, rapture and agony, hope and fear.

A post-apocalyptic landscape where it is safer to forget who you once were… An unusual support group comprised of cities dying of a common illness… A porn star that has opened himself up to demonic forces… Two men battling each other to the death who discover they have much in common… A woman whose masochistic tendencies may be her boyfriend’s ruin… A writer whose new friendship proves a danger to his marriage and his sanity.

Let Gunnells guide you through these landscapes where magnificence and decay co-exist side by side. Come pick a bouquet from these Flowers in a Dumpster.

There’s something lurking around the corner. Do you hear it?

I don’t normally suggest skipping ahead in anthologies, but I have to make an exception for “Land of Plenty.” What intrigued me the most about the main character, Isabella, was how emotionally connected she was to her grandfather. They both lived in a small, peaceful community where everyone’s needs are always met. There was a dark secret lurking behind their quiet success, though, that made me shudder. I deeply enjoyed the process of slowly peeling back the layers of their society. This could have easily been a full-length novel because of how richly detailed the world building was, although it honestly did work beautifully as a short story.

There were a handful of stories that I thought could have used a little more polishing. The fact that this happened only a couple of times in the entire collection is impressive, though. I simply had some trouble figuring out what a couple of the tales were trying to communicate to the audience. “The Support Group” was one such example of this. The plot about how different cities reacted to a terrible parasite that couldn’t be cured by any known methods. The use of metaphors to show what was going on was excellent. I cringed and laughed my way through a lot of them, but the plot twists were revealed so quickly and briefly that I struggled to understand what they meant. I’m still not entirely sure that my interpretation of the hints was accurate. It would have been really helpful to have a few more clues about what was going on here as the parts I did figure out were fascinating.

In “The Locked Tower,” a writer named Alec becomes obsessed with seeing what is hidden in the top of the tower in one of the buildings at his alma mater. The more the people who work there try to convince him to stop asking about it, the deeper his desire to see the tower for himself grows. What I enjoyed the most about this character’s quest was how much foreshadowing was used to hint at what was going on. Such an intelligent character needed a good reason to ignore all of the signals he was receiving about the contents of that tower. The foreshadowing only seemed to make his curiosity grow stronger which was an interesting thing to witness as well.

Flowers in a Dumpster was the best book I’ve read from Crystal Lake Publishing so far! I’d strongly recommend it to anyone who enjoys modern horror.

To Kill a King by Theodore Singer

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To Kill a King by Theodore Singer
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Paranormal, Action-Adventure, Historical
Length: Short Story (91 pages)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Vengeance!

His beloved has been stolen from him by slavers, to satisfy the lust of an evil king! Kalath the barbarian sorcerer travels across many lands in search of her, meeting foes both human and supernatural. In his heart is not only rescue, but revenge!

A fast-moving Sword and Sorcery tale for adults.

Sometimes the most interesting quests are the ones that are the least likely to succeed.

The world building in this story was nicely done. I especially liked reading the narrator’s descriptions of the people he met while on his journey. The most memorable ones for me were the ghosts that had been haunting an otherwise fertile and highly desirable piece of land for generations. Their presence was the only reason why the living refused to visit that area. I can’t go into any details about how this situation came to be or what happened to these spirits, of course, but the explanation for it made me wish for a sequel that would revisit this part of the storyline because of how fascinated I was by all of it.

What puzzled me about the main character was how little he revealed about his personality, habits, quirks, identity, and backstory. While there were excellent reasons why some of these things were so well hidden from the audience, keeping all of them a secret made it difficult for me to empathize with him when he found himself in dangerous situations because I had such a hard time imagining what kind of person this character was. I didn’t really feel like I knew him at all despite everything I’d already seen him go through. It would have been much easier for me to worry about his fate had I known a few more things about who this individual was before the plot thickened.

The combat scenes were exciting. Mr. Singer’s writing style is well suited for describing battles and fights of all kinds because of how much attention he paid to the little things that were going on during the course of them. Time slowed down during these sections in a good way. I felt like I was experiencing every spell and blow that the characters exchanged.

To Kill a King should be read by anyone who is in the mood for an adventure.

Dark Stranger by Lisa Carlisle

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Dark Stranger by Lisa Carlisle

 Chateau Seduction Series
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Contemporary, Paranormal, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Length: Short Story (100 pages)
Other: M/F, Spanking
Rating: 4.5 stars
Reviewed by Orchid

Wolf shifters come to Chateau seeking a missing pack member. During an altercation, Cameron Stevens, the manager of the art colony, is separated from the others. He ends up alone with Nadya, one of the female shifters.

Together, in the forests of DeRoche Island, they struggle against conflicting feelings. In addition to battling each other as well as their mistrust, they fight a powerful, inexplicable attraction to one another—one that leaves them irrevocably entwined.

They’re mates? Cameron can’t comprehend or accept such a thing is possible. They’re two different species and their worlds don’t mesh. He can’t fight the heated desire burning between them and her touch is impossible to resist. His heart and mind aren’t on the same page where she’s concerned. One thing is certain—Nadya is stamped on both.

The peace and quiet of Les Beaux Arts chateau on DeRoche Island is disturbed when a shape shifter attacks one of the residents. After dealing with the shifter, Antoine Chevalier, the owner of the castle searches for the wolf shifter’s pack.

The shifters come looking for their missing packmate and Cameron, the chateau manager, falls headlong for Nadya, the female of the group. Nadya returns his feelings but they don’t see how they can ever be together. The two groups are virtually at war, and they are needed on their own islands.

This book is the third in this series and once again Lisa Carlisle has shown how so much can be put into so few pages. The characters from the previous book appear but the story revolves around Cameron and Nadya. Emotions, confusion, hot sexy scenes are all included and it was nice to have Nadya as the shifter rather than another male paranormal.

Another good book in this series. Could there possibly be more, maybe Kelly’s story? I hope so as she makes an appearance in the other books.

Sands of Time: Fate of the True Vampires by Christine Church

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Sands of Time: Fate of the True Vampires by Christine Church
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Historical
Length: Short Story (79 pages)
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Mysteries uncovered from tombs. Secrets dug up from the grave. The truth about vampires has been unearthed.

These are the journals of an ageless woman, a hybrid half human, half “Pet Mer,” (Sky Gods in ancient Egypt). A blood drinker from the ancients. Their story is scarce told, but Kesi’s is all too clear…

She appears a delusive goddess, wanting more than anything a family. Unable to bear children, and after the death of her husband, she travels the world searching for a way to share her bloodline (“creating” children, later known as “Vampyre”). She offers aid to those who need her. But her deep desire to have kin of her own blood is not met, until she comes across a Chinese alchemist named Yin – another of her race. Hope for a life with him is banished, however, by his dark desires to destroy all the world’s hybrid offspring, to find a “cure” for the “blood drinking aberrations” created by those of his and Kesi’s kind.

Taking what she needs and leaving behind chaos, Kesi runs, always searching. Her everlasting quest takes her through history, from one continent to the next; from her home in Egypt, to China, Rome, Scotland, and finally France. But she is never able to outrun Yin, and eventually she must face her enemy and the darkness within herself in order to have that which she truly desires.

Read her story, learn the truth behind the “myth” of what humans call the vampire, read about Kesi’s unique take on her species and those they create, and discover the mayhem and bloodshed caused by a man determined to put an end to vampires forever.

How would you spend your time if you could live forever?

Vampires are one of my favorite monsters in the science fiction and fantasy genres because of how mysterious and dangerous they generally are. I really liked how Kesi and the others like her were described, especially when it came to their interactions with humans. It made sense that people would respond to these creatures quite differently depending on the culture they came from and what kinds of experiences they’d had with vampires in the past. This was well done.

I would have liked to see a little more attention paid to Kesi’s character development. There were a few times when she reacted to certain events in the storyline the exact opposite way I would have expected her to behave. The explanation she gave for why she acted that way was so brief that I almost overlooked it. While it did make sense, it would have been helpful to have additional information about why she seemed to act so out of character in those specific instances. I would have especially liked to know more about her reaction to her husband’s death early on in the book as it was the most puzzling mystery of them all.

With that being said, I was so fascinated by the premise that I couldn’t stop reading it. The pacing was strong and steady from beginning to end. There simply weren’t any good places to take a break because every single scene was so packed with intriguing clues about what might happen to Kesi. I simultaneously couldn’t wait to see what she would do next and desperately didn’t want this tale to end.

I’d recommend Sands of Time: Fate of the True Vampires to anyone who likes the scary kind of vampire stories.

Beauty and Cruelty by Meredith Katz

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Beauty and Cruelty by Meredith Katz
Publisher: Less Than Three Press
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Length: Full Length (218 pages)
Heat Level: Spicy
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Cruelty, once an evil fairy and now working in fast food, comes home one day to find the lazy, drooling King of Cats on her doorstep. Worse, he comes bearing news Cruelty would be happier not hearing: Sleeping Beauty has gotten tired of lying around and is trying to save the world Cruelty left long ago.

Any respectable Archetype knows it’s a waste of time; their chances of survival are much better if they can hide in the human world. But since nobody sent her an invitation to the world-saving, she’s practically obligated to interfere.

The land where fairy tales exist is dying. Will Cruelty be able to save it?

Cruelty might have technically been a villain, but that couldn’t stop me from adoring her. Her personality was so well developed that I was able to predict how she’d react to virtually anything by the time I’d reached the midway point in the storyline, and I get so excited when that happens in a book. All of her choices made perfect sense as well given what I’d learned about who Cruelty was as an individual. Did I occasionally wince at the thought of certain decisions she made? Yes, but I never would have expected anything different from this character. Her tendency to be callous sometimes was as much a part of her personality as her intelligence or her uncanny ability to blend into her surroundings.

I will admit that it did take me some time to immerse myself in what was happening in the plot. The pacing was slower than normal in the beginning due to all of the information the main character needed to share with her audience about who she was, where she came from, and why she’d decided to emigrate to our universe. Sharing all of these details with the reader was necessary in order to understand what happened in later scenes, though, so I was grateful to have such a complete picture of everything up front. Once the pacing sped up, I was so glad I had stuck with it!

Ms. Katz’s whimsical writing style was not only a ton of fun to read, it was a perfect match for this story as well. The whole novel was full of quotable sentences that made me giggle. I wish I could fill every paragraph of this review with the humorous things the characters said and thought along the way, but I will restrict myself to only mentioning the one that amused me the most: “There was really no point in taking your anger out on cats. They were entirely resistant to curses, and they wouldn’t feel guilt if they didn’t deserve your rage.” The fact that every single chapter had several sentences like this one that I simply had to highlight and remember for later has made me an instant fan of this writer. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.

Beauty and Cruelty was a fairy tale for the twenty-first century. I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who loves this genre as much as I do.

Dark Muse by Lisa Carlisle

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Dark Muse by Lisa Carlisle

Chateau Seduction Series
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Contemporary, Paranormal, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Length: Short Story (107 pages)
Other: M/F, Spanking
Rating: 4.5 stars
Reviewed by Orchid

Voted BoM by LASR Readers 2013 copy

It takes time before Gina Meiro warms up to people and her shyness is often misunderstood. She hasn’t had to worry about meeting new people at a remote art colony until a new resident arrives—a rock guitarist more suited for a billboard. Her carefree days of painting at the medieval-styled castle on a remote New England island are shattered when she stumbles right into his welcome gathering.

After a falling out with his band, Dante Riani wants nothing more at Les Beaux Arts on DeRoche Island than solitude to work on new songs. When a shy young painter asks to paint him at sunset, he’s tempted by the opportunity to be alone with her.

Someone at the colony claims to know what Dante is and asks for his help. Dante fears his plans are coming undone, especially as grows more drawn to Gina. Her scent and vulnerability are too difficult to resist. But he must stay away from her—she would never understand his secret.

Les Beaux Arts on DeRoche Island exists to assist artists in all forms to dedicate themselves to their art. Antoine Chevalier is the owner of the castle and offers residencies to painters, writers, musicians, sculptors and other devotees of the arts. Dante Riani falls out with his band and comes to DeRoche to concentrate on his muse. Gina is a young painter, painfully shy, who plucks up courage to ask him if she can paint him against the sunset.

Dante’s secret prevents him from getting too close to Gina, but when someone at the castle asks for his help he agrees and then wonders if Gina would understand the part of him he must keep hidden.

A wonderful continuation of the Chateau Seduction Series. Involves the previous characters, but definitely a stand alone book as well. I love the new (to me) aspect of the paranormal. I often find hot sex scenes are put in merely to enhance the scene, but in these books the romance and sex intertwine and fit perfectly into the story.

Well done Ms Carlisle, I’m now reading the third book.

Tangling with the Tiger by Vivi Andrews

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Tangling with the Tiger by Vivi Andrews
Lone Pine Pride Book 5
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Genre: Paranormal, Sci-Fi/Fantasy
Length: Full Length (270 pages)
Heat Level: Hot
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Sorrel

It might be love. If they don’t kill each other first.

Siberian tiger-shifter Dominec Giroux doesn’t play well with others. Horribly scarred by the Organization scientists who killed his family and tried to turn him into their pet assassin, his sanity has been hanging by a thread ever since his escape.

His one reason for living—revenge. But when he snaps during one of the shifters’ strikes against the Organization and goes on a killing spree, it doesn’t go over so well with his pride mates.

As the only female lieutenant in Lone Pine Pride history, Grace Calaveras has a lot to prove, and a lot on her plate. The last thing she needs to deal with is Dominec’s brand of crazy, but until she can get him under control, she’s his babysitter.

It would take a miracle for these two to find common ground, but when they’re sent on a mission that could impact the future of every shifter in the world, lioness and tiger form an uneasy alliance…and unleash an attraction that could be their salvation. If it doesn’t destroy them both.

A Siberian tiger shifter and a lion shifter make for one heck of a cat fight.

Dominec has gone through hell and back and the only reason he’s alive is revenge. Revenge for what he has lost. He’s determined to take revenge on the organization who has stolen his his family, gave him scars both mentally and physically.

After his escape from the organization that took so much from him, he became a member of the Lone Pine Pride for one reason, revenge. That’s what he wanted, planned for. Thanks to some volatile anger issues, he’s stuck with a babysitter. Grace is no Mary Poppins, but she’s the only female lieutenant of the pride. At first, I thought he’d hate her but, what he starts to feel more for his ‘babysitter’ isn’t anywhere near child’s play.

Dominec and Grace, well, their relationship from the start has been off the charts rocky. Grace, a lioness, is a feisty fighter but also someone who is, unofficially, the person that everyone comes to unload their stress and all. This made her an endearing character because she didn’t act like she had to be tough all the time.

Somehow Dominec trusts and cares about Grace. What I loved about their relationship was he understood Grace when her family had difficulty understanding her. He knew that she was perfectly capable of taking care of herself and did not try to smother her with over-protectiveness though he would follow her around everywhere he could and only interfere when he’s positive she needs helps.

They had understanding as well as burn-your-clothes kind of passion. According to Grace, Dominec is unpredictable and according to Dominec, Grace is a pain in his tail, but a pain he’s willing to protect if she needed that.

Descriptive, with a plot about a nightmare organization and the shifters fighting to protect themselves. The plot unfolds with each page read and ensnared me to the end. Reader’s who like a strong female lead and man who’s strong enough to follow, should give this one a try.

After the Queens of the Sicarii by William Wire

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After the Queens of the Sicarii by William Wire
Publisher: Self-published
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Suspense/Mystery, Action/Adventure
Length: Full Length (152 pages)
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

One hundred years ago a deadly super-virus infected humanity, killing off the world’s male population. Women have ruled alone ever since. When a cure is finally discovered, man was born again, and women began gradually reintroducing the boys back into society. But not all women were happy about that. A secret cult called the Sicarii wanted men to remain extinct.

Nancy Rose is a US federal agent under the powerful Department of Safety (an institution that insists everyone conform to their safety rules, or else). Nancy and her fellow agents are specially charged with protecting men from the murderous Sicarii.

After Nancy receives a tip that leads to a party of man-killers, she is set on a path to confront one of the formidable Queens of the Sicarii, the so-called Queen of Spades. Nancy will need to shoot from the hip, aim straight, watch her back, and keep her own secrets from being uncovered if she wants to track down and stop the Queens of the Sicarii.

It isn’t easy to track down an organization that has only ever existed in the shadows, much less figure out who is leading it. Nancy definitely has her work cut out for her. Only time will tell if she’s smart enough to piece together all of the clues in time.

Wow, what an action-packed storyline! I ended up taking a handful of short breaks from reading this novel because of how rapidly certain scenes made my heart beat. The tension was so strong that I simultaneously wanted a chance to catch my breath and couldn’t bear to go another moment without finding out what would happen next. It was simply that suspenseful in a good way.

I would have liked to see much more time spent developing the characters’ personalities. While I can easily imagine exactly what they all looked like, it would be much harder for me to say what it would be like to have a conversation with them. The narrator never showed me if the characters were outgoing, cheerful, irritable, kind, or any number of other personality traits. Not having this information made it harder for me to relate to Nancy in particular as not knowing these basic facts about her made it difficult for me to predict how she’d react to a stressful situation.

One of the most interesting things about reading books set in the future is discovering what traditions and social mores from our world an author thinks will still be practiced generations from now. Finding these connections between our contemporary life and a futuristic society is my one of my favorite parts of reading this kind of science fiction. Luckily there were many of these connections to discover in this tale. Some of them revealed themselves right away, while others took a little more effort. All of them were absolutely fascinating for reasons I can’t share here without giving away spoilers.

After the Queens of the Sicarii should be read by anyone who enjoys dystopian science fiction.