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I like genre mash-ups, have loved Lovecraft’s work (and have role-played the old Call of Cthulhu RPG), and although I don’t read much dystopian works these days I was in the mood for something darker. Cthulhu Armageddon was it.

What to expect

The author notes in the preface that he set out to mix Mad Max with the Cthulhu mythos, coming from a background of gaming. He has done exactly that. The tone of the novels has that lone-gunman, cobbled-up technology relics feeling of the Mad Max movies and similar dystopia, while the creatures that inspired H.R. Giger and generations of horror lovers pop up to provide a suitable bloodbath and target practice.

The pace is quick, the action is constant, and in between the protagonist travels and adventures reminiscent of The Walking Dead there is that sense of deeper, mystical conspiracies and the doom of mankind.

What I liked

I loved the tone of the book, how Phipps unashamedly appropriates the Cthulhu mythos and asks the logical “what if” question – what will the world looks like, in the days after the horrors have already won? Don’t expect a pure continuation of Lovecraft tales, but instead they are used as the basis for a new world.

Phipps writes what almost feels like a gaming scenario, as the hero navigates the ravaged world and uncovers its secrets in between bouts of gruesome violence. That keeps the story advancing at a rapid pace, where the backstories are interspersed just in time for when they become relevant.

What to be aware of

As with most Lovecraftian horror, it’s not just about the inconceivable monstrosities but about the bleakness of existence. Don’t expect a happy ending (even by the horror genre standard). There is no good vs evil, but a sense of the fatalistic, ultimately futile, struggle of humanity to just survive. As the protagonist says, there is nothing much left but blood and vengeance, like ants spoiling the gods’ picnic.

This is makes for a harsh read, and for a harsh protagonist. I didn’t find Booth (the main character, from whose view the story is told) particularly appealing or relatable, though naturally that’s a matter of taste. Another similar aspect for me is that the writing style and characterisation feel a bit simplistic at times, going for the cheesy hard line rather than a deeper emotional description.

Summary

I’d highly recommend this novel (and the sequel) to anyone who enjoys dystopian horror, whether they’re familiar with Lovecraft’s stories or not. Especially if you like gaming-style high-action sequences of bloody violence.

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Egretia | Felix The Fox Mysteries by Felix The Fox (assaph Mehr) - 2w ago

This is a real-life-inspired, near-future science-fiction(ish) flash fiction I wrote recently. I find it poignant to our modern existence, especially after my own social-media-detox last year.

Mailing list subscribers got a chance to read it already, but for those who missed it here it is for your edification and consideration.

Megan had a problem. Automatic doors wouldn’t open for her. She often stood in front of buildings doing calisthenics in an attempt to attract the sensor’s attention, until someone walked past — usually with a curious sidelong glance — and she’d quickly rush in behind them. She couldn’t tell the number of interviews she was late for, arriving flushed from all the jumping jacks she did (no doubt to the amusement of the security cameras).

Things worsened over time. The information age was relentless, and everything had a touch-screen. Phones, watches, elevators, checkouts — even cooking appliances. For any interaction, the progress of technology dictated a bright screen with a stock image of a puppy as cheaper — and therefore better — than a human being idly chatting with you about where you’re headed and how’s life. Humans take up too much space.

Megan replaced the state-of-the-art black-glass-panelled induction cooking range with a gas one (cause I like it that way, she told the puzzled technician). She kept her old Nokia phone (to avoid addiction to social media, the scourge of modern times). She arrived earlier for meetings, stalking the automatic doors with an I-was-just-catching-a-last-breath-of-fresh-air look as she trailed others inside. She grew her nails, so she’d have something to blame when she asked passers-by to press buttons for her. Megan had resigned herself to a life of increasing technological frustration. She had clickety IBM keyboard attached to her shiny Mac, and the accompanying mouse was an old monstrosity with a rubber ball at the bottom. She filled her days with walks in the park, talking to other dog owners and the, often surprised, corner-store attendant — meeting friends became increasingly harder.

She knew the reason for this, of course. She joked about it with friends and family. Technology couldn’t sense her because she had no soul.

Oh, it wasn’t anything terminal. She wasn’t a psychopath or anything. She was a lovely lady, good with children and kind to pets. A contributing member of society. Her two cats and golden retriever were fluff-balls of happiness, a clear testament.

It was just that, despite what engineers on the Internet tell you, advanced-technology sensors react to humans and other living creatures based not on body heat, or movement, or anything physical — but on the auras of their souls.

Megan’s was a congenital defect. She was sure she wasn’t alone, though no one else complained about it. So she made jokes.

Until Thursday night, at 11:48 pm.

***

Curled up on the couch with a cup of blue pea-flower tea in one hand and a remote in the other, she flipped aimlessly through TV channels. The screen’s glare illuminated her face. She knew it’s bad for her eyes and that she should have the lights on, but she couldn’t be bothered to get up. No Alexa, or Google Home, nor any fancy voice-activated assistant — even when she was standing right in front of them and enunciating clearly like some 19th century matron addressing a foreigner, those blasted things ignored her commands to turn the lights on.

Or started the sprinkler system. It was a toss-up.

She flipped a last round. A horror flick; a televangelist who wanted her money to save her soul (ha!); the inevitable rerun of M*A*S*H; the shopping channel. She was about to press the blue up-channel button again, when a grave voice spoke over a miserable-looking woman: “Having trouble with technology?”.

Her finger remained poised over the remote as she saw the woman on TV tapping her phone, slapping it, then throwing it across the room. “Do you feel technology is against you?” asked the voice, as the woman walked smack into closed automatic doors, and clutched at her nose. “Well, we know why — and we can fix you!” the voice turned cheerful. “Here at SpiritWorx, we find the perfect soul for you. Not only will technology respond, you’ll find your social life blooming as you interact freely with everyone and everything – no matter their preferred mode of communication!” The previously-miserable woman strode confidently across a lobby, coffee in one hand and a briefcase in the other, straight through automated doors that opened on a gaggle of cheering friends.

Megan made an appointment for the next day.

***

“We match you with just the right soul,” said her Holistic Spiritual Advisor. “It’s like organ donors. We have an extensive selection of recently departed who’ve chosen to kindly assist their spiritually-challenged, still-living brethren. We’ll find a soul of the right sex, background, temperament — even age, if possible. The benefits will manifest almost immediately!” the woman smiled.

“Is it painful?” Megan asked. “What about side-effects?”

“Not at all,” the advisor’s smile broadened. “The grafting procedure is done under local anaesthesia, and you’ll be out by lunchtime. And no side-effects — not unless you count being fully integrated with society a side-effect! Think about it. No more boom-gates closing on you, no more vampire jokes.”

Megan owed it to herself, she reasoned.

She signed the dotted line and gave the lady her credit card.

***

Two days later, and Megan walked across the SpiritWorx lobby. The space between her shoulder-blades was still numb, but the physiotherapist had ensured she resumed full mobility after the surgery.

She didn’t feel any different. No sudden urge to educate children (the donor had been a school-teacher), or any foreign thoughts and desires.

Three metres from the automatic doors. She held her resolve.

Two metres. She didn’t break stride.

One metre — and the doors opened. Megan let out the breath she was holding.

Once outside, she rummaged in her handbag and took out the shiny new smartphone she bought that morning. She swiped the screen. The phone unlocked. She kept swiping, just for the joy of seeing it slide with every movement. She launched every social media app on the device.

“Finally,” she thought, as she sat at a cafe where everyone was staring at their own electronic devices without talking and ordered a latte via the touchscreen embedded in the table, “finally I can get out of my seclusion and join the world.”

Enjoyed it? There are plenty more free short stories and novels for you (including a free novella!). Already read them and don’t want to miss out or wait when I publish new material? Join the mailing list!

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As anyone who read my previous review of the series up to this point can imagine, I had this one on pre-order. As soon as it arrived I delved in (and the world could burn while I read — though see below how I handled it in between!).

What to expect

If you’ve read the series so far, this is possibly the last piece of set-up before the grand finale. (And if you haven’t, you need to go back to God Stalk and catch up!). Jame returns to Tai-Tastigon, the wonderful city that is the background of the first (and only the first) novel in the series. While this affords the reader (as well as Jame) some reunions, the tone is quite different.

The events in the book are spread over six days (not like the discrete episodes covering a larger time span, as in the previous books). There is also an almost metaphysical aspect, as Hodgell further explores the boundaries between life and death or lack thereof. It makes sense if you follow the series, as it will obviously provide Jame if not exactly the weapon then the last pieces of the puzzle for the final confrontation.

What I liked

I like Hodgell’s writing style, her depiction of martial arts without specifying a single move, the alien-ness and bizarre-ness she imbues the world, the rich historical knowledge and terminology that she brings. The characters and their adventures are always engaging, although — as usual — Jame is the centre and others stay in the wings (as much as we’d like to hear more from them).

What to be aware of

As mentioned, this is an epic cycle. Don’t jump in near the end and don’t skip volumes — there are just too many references to events in previous volumes.

Summary

A lovely addition to this wonderful series. Looking forward to the next — possibly final — volume!

Not convinced?

One of the more interesting pieces of advice someone once gave me, is to learn to recognise that butterflies / sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach as a good thing. Getting out of your comfort zone is when good stuff happens (like, y’know, publishing a book).

So while I am in awe of authors like Hodgell, that didn’t stop me from approaching her about interviewing Jame! And, rather than a restraining order, Hodgell has graciously replied — and has worked the ‘interview’ into something truly magical, that reflects the tone of the series.

You can read it here.

Small note

For those looking to get a copy of this (or previous) books on Amazon, note that the series numbers are different as some early volumes have been withdrawn and then republished as omnibus editions when Hodgell switched publishers (and we’re forever grateful to Baen for picking the series up!)

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I’ve mentioned FutureLearn before, as an excellent resource for no-stress, free-time further education. I’ve had the chance to do some more courses over the past few months, and thought I’d share my experience.

Classics

The first course I’ve done at FutureLearn was about a complete virtual model of ancient Rome (see here). It was an amazing tool to learn and absorb the fabric of that city, so I tried a few more courses. I’ve now completed several courses in their history department, all excellent and which I’d heartily recommend to anyone interested in ancient history!

Hadrian’s Wall

Focusing on this well known monument, from the precursor days of the conquest of Roman Britain, to the legacy it left behind after the province was abandoned and up to the modern age.

There’s everything from archaeology, to original sources, to reconstructions. You will learn a lot about Roman Britain, naturally, but also about life on the empire’s frontiers in general.

https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/hadrians-wall/

Note: I highly recommend you also do the quick (2-week) Archaeology: From Dig to Lad course. It complements the knowledge in Hadrian’s Course quite nicely.

https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/archaeology/

Health and Wellbeing in the Ancient World

Another rich source of information, concerning what we know about how the ancient perceived and managed health issues. It covers a lot of ground and periods, from Hippocrates to Galen, though the course is organised by subject rather than period (which fits well). This is an absolute must for someone trying to get into the mind-set of people from antiquity.

https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/ancient-health/

The Fall of the Roman Republic

This course covers the last century of the Roman Republic, from the Gracchi Brothers to Augustus. The course itself is fairly quick, but is rich in references and links to extra source materials. It gives a good grounding in the reasons for the fall of the republic and the rise of the empire, though if you’re already familiar with the drives and events of the period it’s not revealing anything dramatic.

https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/fall-of-the-roman-republic

Literary

I’ve done the screenwriting course before, which was a 2-week quick intro to the subject. I found it a bit light (half was advertising the screenwriting program from the university running the course), but still a reasonable intro for someone with no background in plays and screenwriting whatsoever (like me).

I’ve now tried courses on both reading and writing fiction (in addition the previously mention Screenwriting course).

How to Read a Novel” was fairly disappointing. I hopes to glean some new aspects of critical reading, but I found the course dry (yes, Joyce’s Ulysses is a classic – but it’s also a torture device), and overly academic.

Start Writing Fiction” is very much that — about how to start. It is geared heavily to those who want to write but not quite sure how. (My hint: just do it). While I’m sure there are tips that even experienced authors might benefit from, the main focus is building good characters and an “author notebook”. The focus is, naturally, on literary/general fiction. On the plus side, they do cover topics from ideation, to drafting, to editing, and of course about building characters and conflict. It’s a supportive course, with plenty of exercises to get you writing if you need the kick.

Summary

While the ancient history and archaeology courses were excellent (and I’ll certainly keep taking more), the creative arts courses I tried were not for me. I might check occasionally for new material, but I think for me this is time better spent elsewhere. (I’d still recommend you take a look, as your mileage may vary).

There has been a few occasions where I didn’t get to complete a course (life got in the way), but as they are offered repeatedly one can always join a later date. I do have courses on my wish-list on areas that interest me (from linguistics to psychology), so I get alerted when they area offered and can try if I have the time.

In general, whatever your reasons for pursuing further knowledge, FutureLearn presents the information in an easy-to-digest format. Your level of involvement is up to you — whether you want to chase down the links to extra info and do further exercises or not — but they do (mostly) give a good cover of the study area.

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I was in the mood for some humorous fantasy, and this novel fitted the bill perfectly. If you’re a fan of American Gods and College Humour, this is for you.

What to expect

A crazy tale of cluey and clueless humans and far-less-than-perfect gods, struggling over a small college town in Indiana. Old gods and supernatural creatures converge on the town as part of grand schemes, and local residents discover the supernatural world (and most of what you knew or thought about those old gods was wrong).

Told from multiple viewpoints, events come to a head in a grand finale battle royale that will leave you in stitches with a few scenes stuck indelibly in your memory.

What I liked

Spriggs constructs an excellent plot and good characters. Hilariously random trivia becomes important later, view points shift to make you care about all participants, and I’m still not over the bits with the goats and dinosaurs.

What to be aware of

Plenty of college humour in the novel, from discussions of mythical species phalli to weaponised zombie ducks. I won’t even touch what happens to the goats. I found it cringe-worthingly hilarious, but your millage may vary.

The first edition of this novel was in desperate need of editing, which thankfully has been addressed in the second (note the subtle change in cover – update your copies if you have the old one). While still not perfect, I find it wasn’t enough to seriously detract from an otherwise excellent story.

Summary

This is the College Humour version of American Gods. If you’re in the mood for something zany, a light and funny read that still engages, get a copy now.

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