Book review: The Heat, by Sean O’Leary

8 09 2019

Jake works nights as a security guard / receptionist at a budget Darwin motel. The job suits him: he has an aptitude for smelling out potential trouble, and he has no qualms about enforcing expectations of reasonable behaviour whenever guests under the influence of alcohol or something stronger look to make trouble. But Jake’s problem is that he seldom knows when to back off, and it’s this characteristic that gets him into strife.

The Heat

The strife around which The Heat, Melbourne author Sean O’Leary’s noirish Darwin / Bangkok novella of intrigue and natural justice, revolves begins with the murder of Jake’s friend, the Thai prostitute Angel. Jake’s certain that he knows who’s responsible for Angel’s demise; but the Darwin police aren’t overly interested in the woman’s death and certainly aren’t interested in Jake’s theories on that death, see him only as an unreliable witness with behavioural issues and a police record of his own. But Jake’s not the sort to take defeat lying down, and he’s determined, for the sake of her young daughter being raised by her grandmother in Bangkok, that something positive is going to come out of Angel’s death.

I edited O’Leary’s second collection of stories, Walking (now sadly out of print), in 2016. O’Leary’s writing is taut, visceral, and vivid, as at home within the framework of a literary short story as in an exploration of noirish criminality, and his evocation of place and personality is excellent. The Heat simmers throughout, and its characters amply earn their keep in a story that feels substantially larger than the novella within which it’s confined. If you get the chance to read it, don’t turn down The Heat.

Book review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire

3 06 2018

Seanan McGuire is an American speculative fiction writer who would be prolific enough under her own name, but who also writes under the pen name of Mira Grant. She’s best known for her long-running ‘October Daye’, ‘InCriptid’ and ‘Newsflesh’ series, but has written much else besides. She’s received numerous award nominations, has won Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy and Locus Awards (and many others besides), and is also a noted filker.


Down Among the Sticks and Bones is McGuire’s second title in the ‘Wayward Children’ novella / short novel series; I’ve reviewed the first, Every Heart a Doorway, here. Down Among is a prequel of sorts to Every Heart, since it explores the backstory of troubled twins Jack and Jill who feature prominently in the first book. Twin daughters Jacqueline and Jillian are raised by their status-obsessed parents, Serena and Chester Wolcott, to be, respectively, the daughter and son they had always (sort of) wanted, as long as they don’t have to do any of that messy parenting—a task which, for the most part, falls to Chester’s mother Gemma Lou, until such time as she is bundled out of the family home for fear of exerting too substantial an influence on the growing girls. Trapped in their respective roles as pampered princess (Jacqueline) and loner tomboy (Jillian), it’s not too surprising that when an opportunity for escape arises, the girls take it. And so it is that a bored rainy-day exploration of their grandmother’s former bedroom results in their finding a Narnia-style magic door at the base of a chest of clothes. They descend a long flight of stairs to arrive, mysteriously, on a bleak moorland with a sky dominated by a super-large blood-red moon: it’s not, perhaps, the most salubrious of escapes, but they have no way back. The door has closed behind them.

Jack and Jill find themselves in the fabulously magical castle of a man known only as the Master who, it transpires, has a fear of sunlight and a near-insatiable taste for human blood. He would be happy to adopt both girls as his ‘daughters’, but a pact with Dr Bleak, who lives in a rickety hilltop windmill, requires that one of the girls must go to the windmill. Jack, tired of a childhood of pretty dresses, chooses the windmill; Jill, who has never been allowed to explore glamour, opts for the castle. They grow into their roles, as mad scientist’s apprentice and vampire’s understudy, and do not see each other for years. It seems as though this situation could endure indefinitely … except, of course, it cannot.

McGuire’s writing seems effortless, declarative, steeped in hidden or slow-unfolding meaning. Her play with the stereotypical tropes of B-grade horror, and with the deftly-drawn polar-opposite personalities of tomboy-to-princess Jill and princess-to-tomboy Jack, is both surprisingly effective and unexpectedly heartening: there’s a sense (illusory, as it transpires) that the scenario is so classic, so timeless, that nothing truly grim can happen. It’s an intriguing book, and one that expands in useful respects on the events in Every Heart a Doorway. (The connection between the two books is sufficiently tenuous that it would be entirely possible to read Down Among the Sticks and Bones first, but I think I’d still recommend beginning with Every Heart.) If you have any kind of affinity for portal fantasy, this is very definitely worth checking out.