The Black Tattoo by Sam Enthoven
Razorbill (503p), $9.99
An engaging YA fiction from debut author Sam Enthoven. Things rarely go right for fourteen-year-old Jack Farrell. So when he and his best friend, Charlie Farnsworth, get picked up on the street by a mysterious black-clad man, and Charlie is endowed with amazing superpowers and a mission to save the world, it’s just bloody typical as far as Jack’s concerned—once again, he’s a sidekick whose main job is to cheer the hero on. The man in black is part of the super-secret Brotherhood of Sleep, which guards the Scourge, an ancient, malevolent demon that wants to destroy the universe. Charlie’s mission, with the help of Esme, another teenage member of the Brotherhood, is to recapture the Scourge, which has escaped imprisonment through the treachery of one of the Brotherhood. But another betrayal occurs—Esme is defeated, and the Scourge kidnaps Charlie and escapes to Hell. Jack follows, determined to save his best mate. Hell is weirder and more disgusting than Jack could have imagined, but there’s no time to feel sorry for himself, for the Scourge plans to wake the Dragon that created the universe, an act that will instantly destroy everything in existence. Fighting to defeat the Scourge and to save his own life and Charlie’s, Jack just may get the chance to be a hero after all.
The book begins a bit shakily, with a rather generic confrontation between the Scourge and an enemy, but once the focus switches to Charlie and Jack, things get exciting. From there it’s a nonstop thrill ride of weird, scary, and sometimes very funny adventure. Hell and its denizens are entertainingly bizarre, and there’s plenty of suspense in the twists and turns of the plot. Charlie’s hubris, which leads him to make some extremely bad choices, is convincingly rooted in teen psychology, and Jack’s steadfast and sometimes exasperated resolve is endearing. In the end, it’s not superpowers, but courage and cleverness, that win the day. Refreshingly, the book appears to be a standalone, though the epilogue suggests the possibility of further episodes. Razorbill is to be commended for not editing out the Briticisms (the Earthly part of the action is set in London).—ISBN 978-1-5951-4133-0 (Victoria Strauss)
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The End of the Story by Clark Ashton Smith
Night Shade (289p) $39.95
Although he published most of his short fiction in the pulp fantasy magazine Weird Tales, Clark Ashton Smith would have been right at home placing stories in The Yellow Book, The Savoy, and other publications that carried the work of the aesthetes and decadents of England and Europe during the late nineteenth century. His tales are notorious for their juxtapositions of the beautiful and the grotesque, and for evocative depictions of sex and death that might never have flown under the radar of the censors had they not been cloaked in the benign garb of weird fiction. Smith has been tagged one of the purplest of all prose fantastists, but the lush descriptions and florid imagery with which he regularly slathered his stories were the work of a career poet who slummed as a fiction writer to put food on the table during the Great Depression.
This volume is the first of a projected five that will collect all of Smith’s fiction, most of which has been out of print for more than thirty years. Editors Scott Connors and Ron Hilger have elected to arrange the stories by the order in which they were written, which is somewhat different than the order in which they were published. Where possible, they have also cleansed the texts of recensions and corruptions imposed by editors who worried that Smith’s fecund vocabulary and occasionally outrageous set pieces would upset readers looking to their magazines for simple escapism. The twenty-five stories span the years 1925 to 1930 and cover most of the creative territory Smith would map for the next decade, including straight horror, science fiction, and stories set in Hyperborea, Poseidonis, and other imaginary worlds which one suspects he created to free him of fetters that real-world settings might have imposed on his imagination. Included in the mix are timeless tales such as “The End of the Story,” one of the best explorations of the mix of allure and repulsion represented by the vampire, and “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros,” which is imbued with the spirit of subversive playfulness that makes much of Smith’s fantasy so entertaining. Although more than seventy years old, these stories have an audacity and inventiveness that makes them seem almost modern.—ISBN 978-1-59514-114-9 (Paula Guran)