Agents of Dreamland – Caitlin R Kiernan

“Here’s the scene: It’s Thursday evening, and the Signalman sits smoking and nursing a flat Diet Dr Pepper, allowing himself to breathe a stingy sigh of relief as twilight finally, mercifully comes crashing down on the desert.”

Mysterious meetings in small town desert diners, shocking photographs, secret agents, time travel, space fungus, kool-aid cults… for a short novella, there is a heck of a lot packed in here!

I’d previously read Caitlín R Kiernan’s novel, The Red Tree, following a recommendation based on the terrific House of Leaves (Mark Z Danielewski) – and while not quite as mind-bending as the latter, it shared that sense of disquiet and reality-breaking. Agents of Dreamland has quite a similar tone: unease and creeping levels of horror.

With such a short volume, we’re thrown into the action immediately and left to fend for ourselves a bit in terms of figuring out what’s what. Who is the mysterious Signalman, who is he waiting for, and why does he fear her? Perhaps knowing that ‘Dreamland’ is another name for Area 51 might give some clues…!

Chapters jump back and forth on the timeline a little – so you have to pay attention to the title dates, which is generally something I hate, although it does serve its purpose here – revealing slightly earlier events even more remotely in the desert locale, from the point of view of a young teenager saved from the streets and brought to a different kind of purpose. Even without the subsequent revelations, this would have its own kind of chill.

I did fear at one point that the ‘short’ would feel ‘unfinished’, but no: while there is a lot of scope for continuation, and a wider tale that is hinted at, this is an almost perfectly formed slice of story. It does perhaps take a couple of (short) chapters to get going, and it’s slightly unfortunate that the core idea is familiar to me from something I read a few years back – it would be more shocking otherwise, I imagine – but overall this is a great short fiction from an author I intend to read more of. Recommended for fans of Twin Peaks and The X-Files.

NetGalley eARC: 112 pages / 11 chapters
First published: February 2017
Series: none
Read from 24th-27th March 2017

My rating: 8.5/10

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The King’s Justice – Stephen Donaldson

“The man rides his horse along the old road through the forest in a rain as heavy as a damask curtain – a rain that makes dusk of midafternoon.”

A man rides into a small town recently afflicted by a horrible murder. The locals are suspicious, but the stranger, known only as Black, has but to rub a mark carved into his skin and they are reassured, if puzzled. Black can sense the evil and the trail it has left. He has come to deliver the King’s Justice.

Stephen Donaldson is one of the Big Names in fantasy, after The Chronicles of Thomas Convenant. I’ve read and enjoyed most of his books, but have to say that while the stories are pretty amazing, the tone of the writing is often a little close to the line of pretentious and affected – and yet, still worth reading.

The short form can make this even more obvious. I can’t imagine many writers getting away with so much introspection from the main character, half the story being inner thoughts hinting at Deeply Important ‘stuff’ and tortured pasts and rather a bit too much ‘telling’ instead of ‘showing’.

There’s also a tendency to try to be as slow to reveal anything as possible, and I think if this had been any longer than a short novella it would have come across as annoying rather than building mystery.

And yet… Donaldson is a strong writer, and despite all of the above the story kept my attention, kept me wondering, and pulled all of the threads together rather well by the end. Perhaps the biggest strength is the feeling that there is a large, well-conceived, and very intriguing world going on behind this tale, and we’re being treated to the merest glimpse – so far!

(Note: there are two books that may be called ‘The King’s Justice’ – this, the single novella, and another that also includes The Augur’s Gambit.)

Kindle: 128 pages
First published: 2016
Series: none
Read from 27th October – 3rd November 2016

My rating: 6.5/10