Review – A Season of Monstrous Conceptions by Lina Rather

Lina Rather’s novella, A SEASON OF MONSTROUS CONCEPTIONS, is a story of an epidemic (more on this word in a moment) of fae/uncanny-affected births in late 1600s London. It interrogates themes of gender roles, the nature of what it is like to born different in some way, and about the interplay between forces that are revolutionary and poorly understood dueling for supremacy in a world desperate to apply some manner of order to events that appear chaotic and uncontrollable.

Our protagonist, Sarah, is a young widowed apprentice midwife whose husband drowned under mysterious circumstances. Furthermore, she has a connection to these uncanny births–she was born with a tail… a tail that was amputated. Therefore, we see this world through the eyes of someone who can pass as an unaffected human, and who sees those born affected not as monsters but as something else.

Sarah, by strange twists of fate, finds herself working with a pregnant gentlelady with a husband who is a man of means and of reason and science (such as it was at the time). And her connection to this pregnancy as well as her own uncanny nature places her squarely at the heart of a struggle between science and reason and an embrace of the primal weird of the uncanny.

The book is a compelling read, and pulls the reader forward, layering in a deepening mystery at the heart of why these births are happening with every chapter, and more importantly, tying every development to the conflict at Sarah’s heart (navigating her place in a world designed to exclude people like her (people like her in many more ways than one)). And it leads us to an epic climax where the fate of the world lay in the balance.

If anything, it is the efficiency with which the story is told that may be my only “criticism.” We move from discovering the conflict, to discerning what it is that makes Sarah Sarah, to turning the page and finding ourselves in the climax so quickly, I found myself wanting more time spent meandering these paths, ruminating on not only what those paths meant for the world of A SEASON FOR MONSTROUS CONCEPTIONS and its characters, but more importantly what they mean for the real world, and the way I see that world.

Because (and here’s where we pay off that very first parenthetical) how does one reckon with the central conceit at the heart of this story? As a baseline, it’s clear that to the people of London in this book, they do not want uncanny children. In their eyes, these uncanny children are defective–if they even survive. They’re cast out. They’re… other. One need not be terribly introspective to see the metaphor applied to our society. How does our society view children born… different? How should we? How do I?

There’s a peculiar type of fear to parenthood where you want the best for your child–how could you not–and you hope nothing goes “wrong.” What if my child were born unhealthy? Or with some genetic abnormality? So many birth announcements include some variant of the phrase “both baby and mother are healthy” and no doubt that phrase addresses this looming fear that is everpresent and almost entirely out of anyone’s hands but chance. But is it ethical to desire my child not be born with a genetic abnormality? Would I be unethical to hope my child be born striking some kind of genetic lottery–or at least avoid rolling genetic snakeyes?

And it’s the latter question that cuts to the heart of how Sarah and the increased incidence of uncanny births fits into this analysis and makes the closing description an “increased incidence” rather than an “epidemic.” Clearly, Sarah thrives regardless of her Uncanny nature. Clearly one can look around the the real world and see countless children and adults dealt hands not of their choosing and who are thriving nonetheless. And yet, still that question lingers: How would I react faced with similar circumstances?

It’s not an easy subject matter, and it’s certainly not something resolvable in a few hundred word book review. But, to my perspective the finest stories are the ones that expose conflicts within the reader and demand the reader look at hard places within themselves. Those, ultimately, are the stories we remember.

This is one of those stories.

A SEASON OF MONSTROUS CONCEPTIONS is out on October 31, 2023. I strongly encourage you to preorder it from your local indie bookseller, from, or the Seattle website if you must. (psst, as of this writing it’s cheaper on

Review – The Jasad Heir by Sara Hashem

Sara Hashem‘s debut fantasy, THE JASAD HEIR is a a story that feels a blend of story elements that each feel familiar by themselves but when combined and placed into a unique setting creates something compelling. On one hand, this is a book that lends itself to the current-marketing-zeitgeist of making funny faces while moving a book across a phone screen for thirty seconds while listing tropes and emojis, but that would do it a terrible disservice.

Essiya–the sole surviving heir to the royal family of Jasad–fled from the massacre that accompanied the destruction of her kingdom. She took the name Sylvia and found an existence in anonymity on the margins of society. By virtue of her bloodline as a Jasadi, she can use magic. At least, she ought to be able to use magic, except mystical handcuffs restrict her from doing so. This restriction, however, is convenient, because just being a Jasadi–to say nothing of actually using magic–is enough to warrant a death sentence at the hands of the kingdom of Nizahl which was busy finishing the job it started when it massacred her family and destroyed her kingdom.

When she found herself suspected of being a Jasadi by none other than the heir of Nizahl it’s only the intervention of a mixture of fate, bad luck, and her concern for another young orphan that combined to force the Nizahl heir to name her as his champion in an annual contest waged between the royal houses. From there she is forced to work with the scion of her world’s destruction as she learns more about her magic, her past, and discovers there’s far more to everything than she realized.

You can see all of tikstantgramable details lurking beneath the surface. A MAGIC TOURNAMENT! AN ORPHAN WITH A MAGIC SECRET! A MYSTERIOUS PAST! CONSPIRACIES AND SCHEMES! ENEMIES TO… LOVERS?! But reducing the book to those tropes might drive engagement on social media platforms I do not participate in, but it really avoids doing anything to shed light on the soul of the book. THE JASAD HEIR is about a survivor’s guilt, their shame, their trauma, their journey to liberate themselves of the harms the world perpetuated upon them. It’s about loyalty and duty and how those are often chosen for us, not by us. It’s about learning to love in spite of everything conspiring to encourage hate. And that’s all a bit more than a list of tropes… no?

I struggled with how to write this review in part because I had a nagging sense while reading it that I was missing something. The world that Sylvia exists within was hard to sort out in my mind. Perhaps this is because the ARC I read did not have a map. But I was getting the sense that people traveled among the kingdoms too quickly, or that their environment changed too much, or… something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Action sequences seemed fuzzy around the edges. Then a action scene involved a character being stabbed in the chest only to carry on a conversation, and I started to grow more skeptical. It was only when another huge set piece involving massive, almost godlike, magic reforging the very landscape it was being fought on that I had a realization:

THE JASAD HEIR does not care about that tight hyper-reality. It is not that book. Just like STAR WARS is not hard sf and doesn’t pretend to be as it celebrates the fantastic elements it incorporates, THE JASAD HEIR revels in being a fantasy. And that realization unlocked the whole experience. Not to cast any aspersions on authors who go into exhaustive details in the attempt to achieve a near-facsimile of reality in their fiction, but not all stories benefit from that.

THE JASAD HEIR comes out on July 18, 2023, and is absolutely worth your time.

Preorder it from your local indie bookseller, or or Seattle if you must.

Review – Myriad by Joshua David Bellin

Joshua David Bellin’s MYRIAD is one of those books that feels like several different things, but that defies being placed into any one box. It’s a near future science fiction novel. It’s a thriller. It’s a mystery. It’s a time travel story. It’s an introspection on trauma, coping mechanisms, and PTSD. It’s all of these things. What this book is also is *entertaining*, even if I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what it was I took from this book. It opens in a jarring, gripping, horrifying way. 

If you are squeamish about one of America’s great national shames (spoiler: school shootings) then perhaps this is not the story for you. But after the formative moment in the life of our protagonist, Miriam, she finds herself ultimately as an agent of LifeTime, a private police force of time traveling operatives who jump back in time to prevent murders. The book is punchy and fast-paced, and almost immediately she has a case go horribly wrong. When it does, Myriam finds herself at the center of a conspiracy that reaches to the top of LifeTime, back to the roots of her trauma and forward to the very end of her life (and kinda back again in an ever-tightening braid).

I recently read another forthcoming book that shall remain unidentified that aimed for a similar voice–the cynical, first person, gritty narrator. Humphrey Bogart, Harry Dresden, a protagonist carved from stone left behind by Dashiel Hammett. The other book failed, the voice felt forced and strained and unnatural. This is quite the opposite. The voice of this book owes much to the voices that have come before it, but it’s compelling, fluid, natural…

… except for at least some portion of the narrator’s fixation on her sexual relationship (or, perhaps lackthereof). There’s a long and storied tradition of men writing women and doing so poorly. I’m not quite sure MYRIAD fits into that tradition, but somewhere in the middle of the book, the female narrator’s processing of her relationship began to grate on me. It wasn’t enough to put down the book by any stretch of the imagination, and it is all roughly in line with the narrator’s voice, but it was a thing that I noticed that nudged me out of the narrative.

Ultimately, MYRIAD stands on its plot, and the (ugh) myriad plot threads that keep getting woven tighter and tighter until the third act is a series of very satisfying revelations about the characters we knew (or thought we did) and how they relate to one another. Time travel stories demand tight, satisfying explanations, and this book delivers.

The other thing that time travel stories require is a resolution to the inherent complications and paradoxes that time travel by its very nature tend to create. Scientific (or SF/pseudo-scientific) explanations, philosophical explanations, internal and external resolutions to the conflict need to be tethered to the central premise of time travel, and again this book provides that payoff.

At its core, MYRIAD is about trauma. It’s about how trauma can bleed through to stain every aspect of a victim’s life and how they experience it, their relationships, their past, and their future. It’s about coping, mourning, and moving on. It’s about failing to do those things. And, in its final pages, it’s about asking the reader what, if anything, of the story truly happened.

After all, when the entire premise is based on empowering someone to travel back in time to change the past to prevent trauma and then dealing with the fallout of those change, it’s easy to look at the final pages and wonder what exactly real is. It’s the spinning top at the end of INCEPTION, and in my opinion, the answer is up to you.

MYRIAD releases on May 23, 2023. Preorder it from your local independent bookstore,, or Seattle if you must.

Review – The Mountain and the Sea by Ray Nayler

It’s not a simple thing to capture the essence of this book in any way beyond imploring you to read it.

Starting at the most basic level, this is a story set in an Earth at some point in the future. Geopolitics have been radically altered. The United States has split apart. Tibet has risen to a be the Tibetan Buddhist Republic on the back of mastery of combat drones. AI fishing vessels ply the seas crewed by slaves. But almost none of this is truly explored. The world is changed and iterated in almost every conceivable way, but this book is not about geopolitics. It’s about perception and understanding.

A neuroscientist is tasked with investigating the possible emergence of sapient octopuses. The octopuses slowly but surely are revealed to have various hallmarks of “intelligent” culture, and the protagonist tries to puzzle out their language. She struggles to *understand* the octopuses, while the story examines how “reality” is a series of stimuli decoded by minds. How does that perception change when the world is experienced by an octopus? By a person linked in a symbiotic relationship with dozens or hundreds of militarized drones? By a synthetically created mind? How do two “normal” humans share the same perception of reality?

Ray Nayler crafted a book that is emphatically a science fiction book, but one that doesn’t quite feel like one. In many ways it’s reductive to simply say that this is “literary” (plenty of ink has been spilled on this distinction, see e.g., here). A friend (namedrop alert: J.T. Greathouse) noted that it was like it was “a contemporary novel from the future that we happen to be reading today.” But what Nayler emphatically does *not* do is provide the reader with a 3-Act, Hollywood-esque plot arc. He explores concepts, reflects on science and philosophy. Sure, disparate threads weave together into a satisfying conclusion, but this is the kind of book that resides in the mind of the reader more than the action of the page.

It’s mind-bending and wonderful.

Buy it from your local independent bookstore,, or Seattle if you must.