Reviewed in the United States on May 13, 2022
This is an outstanding anthology. Every single story was wonderfully rendered. At one point, I gave up on commenting about the writing because all of the stories in this anthology are beautifully written. This is an anthology full of epic action and adventure, fantasy, and - yes - horror! Whether you love body horror, cosmic horror, or creeping ghost stories, there's something in here for you. I loved how the editors included an anthology narrator, it made the flow of reading one story after another so smooth it was addictive. This is one that's difficult to put down once it's opened and will offer every reader something that will stick with them long after the final page.
The Crowing by Caleb Stephens - Ronyan was a princess kidnapped as a girl by the Old Crows - witches who hunt the children of Carcassonne in secret, concealed by magic. Now that she's turning 18, the day has come for her crowing. Her only chance to save herself is to follow the instructions of another magical creature, the Otherling. A fantastic opening story full of fantasy and action, yet stewing in deeper elements of humanity: family, betrayal and otherness. The voice in this is a gut punch from the opening line, the prose lush and full of beautiful images and turns of phrases. I loved the worldbuilding and was left wanting more of these characters and this world.
Angelus by Philippa Evans - When a young girl is accused of witchcraft and burned at the pyre, Father Adelard is changed. When he asks his mentee, Elias, to help him craft a new bell for the abbey, Elias cannot know Adelard's true intent. As always, Evans' writing stuns. From the first to last sentence, she exhibits such command. Truly, words fail to praise her use of language. Her writing must simply be experienced. A fabulous story exploring injustice, magic in religion, and fear of god.
Palette by J.L. Kiefer - A weaver obsessed with maintaining her beauty uses all the ingredients she can get her hands on (namely, toxic ones) in order to do so. Great body horror about beauty, self-objectification, and self-mutilation. I love the way Keifer wove themes that matter today (the protagonist's obsession with self-mutilation echoes today's obsession with plastic surgery) with elements of the period.
Brother Cornelius by Peter Ong Cook - A pair of monks in training discover a hidden room where a decrepit prior writes in a book and suspect the monastery is involved in necromancy. This story was the perfect blend of horror and satire. Ronald and Kevin reminded me a bit of Tim Roth and Gary Oldman in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. And the trumpet. I love when authors go for it and Cook certainly did.
In Thrall to This Good Earth by Hailey Piper - Three bounty hunters seek to fulfill a baron's call for the head of the ghost who howls outside his castle at night. A beautifully written story about the power of desire. There were so many lines I highlighted in this piece, Piper's prose really shines. The mystery was perfectly structured, the climax jarring and eerie, and the atmosphere so rich.
In Every Drop by Lindsey Ragsdale - Widow and single mother, Akna fights for her and her daughter, Izel's survival as draught and a mysterious monster terrorize their village. Another beautifully written story offering a different flavor of the dark ages - this one centered in a non-European setting (I think somewhere in Latin America), which I adored. A story about sacrifice, motherhood, and love.
Deus Vult by Ethan Yoder- A knight returning home from the crusades is abandoned by his horse and seeks refuge in a village where the only aid is from a bishop living in a secluded castle. I loved this take on a knight haunted by war and its atrocities. The ending mystified me a little, I think it could have been elaborated upon a bit more, but I loved the surrealist feeling of the horror and the writing was lush.
The Final Book of Sainte Foy's Miracles by M.E. Bronstein - A boy travels with his abusive, vagabond father to thank the Sainte Foy for freeing the father from prison and becomes an apprehensive convert to the child saint after she answers his prayer. I absolutely adored this story. The history of Sainte Foy, a child turned saint after refusing to renounce her faith, was fascinating and, delightfully, accurate! I love historical fiction, so the way real history was incorporated into this story was fantastic. The way the author explored a child's nature - mischievous and fickle - and created horror by infusing that nature into a saintly spirit with real, tangible powers was brilliant.
A Dowry For Your Hand by Michelle Tang - Lu Xian and his parents are meeting his proposed betrothed Ming Li and her parents to discuss the dowry, but Lu Xian is haunted by his past love affair. I thought this was slow to start, but once it got going, it didn't hold back. The ending reveal also tied the opening in beautifully, which made me appreciate everything Tang set up in those first pages. The writing and body horror were top notch. This was another one set in a non-European dark age, which I again loved. Fantastically done.
The Mouth of Hell by Cody Goodfellow - A page enters hell to save his wrongfully condemned master knight. Boom. I mean a page traversing hell? Yes, please! The pacing here was fantastic. It starts with a bang and is full throttle the entire ride. There was a ton of fun horror and fantasy elements. It felt reminiscent to the Inferno, which I loved. An examination of humanity, religion, and the ways in which man creates god, the devil, heaven and hell.
Lady of Leer Castle by Christopher O'Halloran - Set in Ireland, the Canain and mercenary MacMahon clans celebrate their victorious return from battle defending Ireland. The brother of the Canain's chief, Domnall, plans to run off with his soldier lover, Breccan, but greater forces out of their control have ulterior plans for them. I really connected with this one. First, I loved the representation in this. Domnall and Breccan were so sweet and, I thought, wonderfully portrayed. I also loved the thematic exploration. The idea of evil seeming to bloom in the world around us feels sadly relevant today. Domnall asks himself a question that I think many have been asking themselves for the past several years: "Was it always like this and we've only begun to notice?" The answer O'Halloran gives was *chef's kiss*. Fabulously done.
Schizzare by Bridget D. Brave - Pietro is a brother in a monastery secretly in love with fellow brother Antoni. When mysterious mushrooms appear to him in a tome, he believes they hold the key to his and Antoni's future. I loved the way the romance in this unfolded. The ending was perfectly tragic and echoed the classic romantic tragedies of bygone eras. Also loved the question of Pietro's mental state this created.
The King of Youth vs. The Knight of Death by Patrick Barb - A child crowned King of Youth during Carnival goes mad with power and rallies the other children of the city to seize the castle, leading to a standoff between them and the adults of the city. This felt like a medieval, epic take on Lord of the Flies, which I loved. It was an action packed thrill ride. Fun, gruesome, and twisty. My kind of story!
The Forgotten Valley by C.B. Jones - When Tsaleah loses her lover to the beautiful Nova, she goes in search of a legendary spear that will grant her desire. A story about the time-old truth, we desire that which we cannot have most. I loved the setting (indigenous, I believe) and the influence it had on the gorgeous storytelling with the legend that was included. There were several lines I highlighted. This was another epic-feeling story and I loved the turn in the last quarter of the story.
The Fourth Scene by Brian Evenson - A mysterious tapestry with a missing scene appears to a king who sends a knight to retrieve the fourth scene. This story about self-fulfilling prophecies and what is passed on between generations is beautifully contained while at the same time having far reaching implications into reality itself. The mystery, world building and efficiency of language were all fantastic. Simply masterful.
White Owl by Stevie Edwards - A fairytale about a murderous witch and two friends whose fate become entwined with her. I loved everything about this: the writing, the characters and their arcs, the ending. A story about women, friendship, and the ways women find to survive--life, marriage, disappointments. I will never tire of examinations of women's treatment and roles in historical periods, both inside and outside the home.
A Dark Quadrivium by David Worn - A scholar translates the text of a heretic only to discover the heretic might be right, the Good God isn't the creator of this world. I loved the disturbing proposition this story makes and the gruesome turns it takes. It was also full of fun references for any history buffs. Once the climax got going, it was full throttle. Perfect for cosmic horror and gore lovers alike.
The Lai of the Danse Macabre by Jessica Peter - Camille is troubled by visions of revelations, the end times. Declared blessed with a holy gift, she submits to voluntary immurement. Written in poetic octameter, this rhyming epic poem felt like something that very well could have been written in the dark ages. I loved that Peter didn't hold back with the horror, gore, and creepy images that seared my brain. I'm not very well versed in poetry, but I loved this. The writing was crisp, the story clear, with a familiar structure. Accessible even for people like me who only dabble in poetry.