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Review of Along The Razor’s Edge by Rob J. Hayes

I discovered Along The Razor’s Edge by chance on Twitter. The cover caught my eye—in fact, more than that, the cover blew me away. I don’t normally comment on the exterior aesthetic qualities of a book in my review, but I have to say: it’s one of the most beautifully designed books I’ve ever seen! The artwork is phenomenal, the choice of font and colour, the way the wraparound flows. Truly a work of splendour. I ordered the hardback, and it sits as a prized artefact on my shelf.

But Along The Razor’s Edge is not simply beautiful on the outside, but within as well. It takes a lot to impress me in the genre I love so well—Fantasy. It’s a sad truism that we often most criticise the things we truly adore, and Fantasy sadly has a tendency to slip into the province of clichés and tropes regurgitated a thousand times. I’m all for the reinvention of archetypes, but each iteration has to become living, has to speak in a new voice.

This is what Rob J. Hayes has achieved. His heroine, Eskara, is like many wronged women of fantasy’s annals, but also unique. Right away, her voice (the novel is written in first person from the perspective of an older, wiser Eskara) captures the attention and imagination. I was enthralled by her energy, fury, passion, and by the juxtaposition of her current self, with all its hard-earned wisdom, looking back on the events and feelings of her youth with a mixture of tenderness, disgust, embarrassment, anger, and even a little humour. Fantasy novels are not easy to write in first person because one has to unveil an entire universe as well as a deep and believable psychological interior. However, Rob J. Hayes manages to achieve both, a quite stunning feat.

Eskara’s voice is direct, and through this directness Rob J. Hayes manages to deploy aphoristic wisdoms that elevate the text beyond simple narrative to something more poetic. Here are some examples:

Anyone could have done his job, but those of little consequence often mistake convenience for importance.”

Fortunes change so quickly with the fall of empires.”

History is often just another word for mystery.”

These insights entertain and challenge us as we follow Eskara’s path.

We begin in the depths of the Pit, a prison into which Eskara has been thrown for fighting on the wrong side of a war. Once a great Sourcerer (and note, that spelling is significant, as you will discover later on in the book), now, she has been robbed of her powers. This is rags to riches one-o-one and its remarkable how quickly we become invested in Eskara’s journey. The Pit is like many hellish prisons from literature: the “scabs” are forced into gruelling manual labour and psychologically and physically tortured by their foremen, who are also prisoners themselves. However, what intrigues is that the Pit is also full of mysteries that the author slowly unveils throughout the story. Rob J. Hayes never bombards us with too much information, but rather allows us to gradually sense how colossal his world is outside the bounds of the Pit.

I would describe this novel as Ross Jeffery’s Tome meets The Sovereign Stone trilogy by Margaret Weiss and Tracey Hickman. I think the former comparison is particularly apt not just because of the harrowing depiction of prison life (although I should caveat this by assuring sensitive readers Hayes does not quite go so far as Jeffery into the depths of human sadism), but also a study of characters. Eskara, of course, is our main character as well as our narrator, but through her eyes we also observe a host of intriguing personas, some of whom we love, some we hate, and some whom we feel a mixture of both for. Though many of these characters—having earned their place in the Pit—are less than savoury or respectable we find them compelling and invest in their stories.

Though the opening of the book is strong, I would say that the second half of the book is where things really kick off, where the characters start to fully establish themselves, and where the momentum of the story becomes a no-stops crazy train. I know other reviewers have expressed a different view. I personally enjoy more slow and involved stories, though there were one or two moments where I felt the narrative thrust did lose momentum for the sake of filling us in on backstory. This is because Eskara does not relate her story from a single point in time, but also flashes back to her childhood and the early experiences that influence her character. Whenever a story alternates between multiple timelines, it’s natural that the pace slows and a reader instead looks for how these lines are all going to intersect. And intersect they do with stunning force at the novel’s denouement. There is real emotional weight in the final moments of this book, where we sense the utter calamity of what has to be lost in order to find freedom.

There are many wonderful surprises in Along The Razor’s Edge: characters acting in unanticipated ways, backstory revelations that reshape what we think about someone, and mysteries unveiled—story directions we simply didn’t expect the book to go in. There is one twist in particular that chilled and thrilled me and has me wondering where the author will take this in subsequent books.

I should conclude, therefore, by saying my only irritation is that I am now compelled to buy the next entry in the series! But in truth, it’s a pleasure to discover a new and brilliant Fantasy writer. I could spend a hell of a lot of time with these characters and in this world, and that’s really what great Fantasy is all about.

You can buy the book here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Amazon CA

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Review of Spontaneous Human Combustion by Richard Thomas


Spontaneous Human Combustion is Richard Thomas’s fourth short story collection, featuring 14 tales ranging from cosmic horror, to science fiction, fantasy, and into realms beyond any simple definition. Richard Thomas has a unique style of writing, a trademark syntax that I can spot a mile away, though at the same time he is also chameleon-esque, changing the style and flavour of his prose in order to suit the aesthetics of his story, or to further highlight a theme he is exploring. This is perhaps why he is such an adept of the short story form in particular (though I do adore his novel Disintegration in particular). 

Stephen King describes short stories as “a kiss in the dark” and Richard Thomas exemplifies this transitory (and sometimes transcendental) experience, in which the very brevity of the form becomes the source of its power. We can only connect with the divine momentarily. Yet, to do so can be life-changing. In this way, Richard Thomas’ short stories more closely resemble poems. They do not always operate on the plane of conscious understanding. They are not meant to be comprehended through rational intellect, but to touch something lying beneath that. I found some of the stories in this collection to be moving without really understanding them in full. This collection also took me twice as long as it should have done to read because I was drawn inexorably to re-read virtually every story in the collection (and was rewarded every time with new insight)! 

I am fairly sure that this collection will be divisive in multiple ways. Some people will hate the poetic styling. Some will love it. And beyond this, there is unlikely to be any consensus on what the best story in this collection is. The range on offer here prohibits an easy narrowing down. As I mentioned earlier, Richard Thomas touches on virtually every speculative genre known to humankind, and combines them in often unexpected ways. Secondary world fantasies give way to dystopian science fiction. Lovecraftian horror is mixed with hope-punk. One senses a mind behind all these stories striving relentlessly for originality, to forge something new and not rely on tropes or easy wins. In the extensive and enlightening Endnotes at the back of this collection, Richard Thomas often mentions “challenging himself”, and one can feel that these stories are an almost Barker-esque attempt to discover something beyond the mundane, to “[explore] the further reaches of human experience” (Hellraiser). There is an experimental nature to this which is by definition inexact, but can produce startling alchemy. 

As I have said before, the experience will be highly personal, and no doubt there will be little agreement on which are the most potent stories in this collection, but I will highlight my own personal top four to give you a flavour of the book:

“Ring of Fire”

I would be criminally remiss not to mention this story, as it is the longest in the collection, practically a novella. It was first published in Seven Deadliest Sins, an anthology of seven novelette / novella-length works that centred on the eponymous Seven Deadly Sins, so I had read the story once before (my review of this collection can be found here:https://storgy.com/2019/05/29/book-review-the-seven-deadliest-edited-by-patrick-beltran-and-d-alexander-ward/). “Ring of Fire” is a little bit like a Lynchian Möbius strip, a circle that doesn’t quite complete, a mystery that forever unfolds but never quite solves; at the same time, it’s a tremendous character-arc. It is a slow burner, in which the seemingly explainable and mundane scenes we’re privy too are steadily re-contextualised until we realise that nothing has been “normal” or “explainable” from the start. It is also carries an indescribable sadness to it, as each repetition, each “circuit” of the Möbius, seems to lead us not towards salvation but deeper into the elliptical loops of the psyche. It’s worth mentioning this is not the only story in the collection that involves repeated scenarios or looping narrative. There are several “Groundhog Days” contained in Spontaneous Human Combustion. Some are literal, some spiritual, and others more subtle, but the idea of being stuck in a loop that either cannot be broken, or can only be broken by our most extraordinary efforts—with great sacrifice—is arguably the defining image of the entire collection, and a metaphor for the human condition. 

“The Caged Bird Sings In a Darkness Of Its Own Creation” 

This is another story that I’d read once before; it was first published in Storgy’s Shallow Creek anthology, one of the weirdest and most underrated collections of fiction ever put to print. You can also read my review of that collection here: https://themindflayer.com/review-shallow-creek-storgy/. Richard Thomas’s story is the last story in the collection, and for good reason. It is a total mind-f*ck of chthonic proportions. It centres on Krinkles The Klown, who is a kind of Pennywise for Shallow Creek. But rather than going for shock-horror and killer clown antics, Richard Thomas instead tries to peel back the laters of Krinkles and show us why he is so strange (interestingly, there is another story in Spontaneous Human Combustion about a clown taking off their makeup—I sense a theme emerging!). I do not normally enjoy narratives that leave so much in the reader’s hands, but what I loved about “The Caged Bird Sings In a Darkness Of Its Own Creation” is that Richard Thomas give us a series of choices, and we realise that this is exactly what Krinkles has faced: a series of choices, bargains, and decisions that have led him to the edge of the abyss. The story can be seen as bleak, in some ways, but is this how Krinkles sees it? Richard Thomas shows us that perception is everything in this tale. What we choose to see in the mirror is the reality we inhabit. The story has two strange parallels: Twin Peaks, especially Part 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return (in which the macrocosm of the Lynch-universe is seemingly unveiled)and secondly, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. In terms of the second comparison, not so much the retro late-seventies vibe, more the contact with something entirely other, and the sense of obsession, panic, and euphoria such contact can bring. 

“Nodus Tollens” 

This story was a huge surprise. It is almost an outlier of the collection, in that it is written in a more prosaic and down-to-earth style. Richard Thomas himself described it as his most “King-like” story, and I would have to agree. As much as I love Richard Thomas’ impressionistic bent, it was refreshing, indeed electrifying, to see him tackle a story in a more grounded way, and as a consequence the story stands out. The title, Nodus Tollens, is a phrase invented by John Koenig on The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows which means “the realization that the plot of your life doesn’t make sense to you anymore”. Thus, what starts as a simple hand of poker quickly becomes a cosmic game in which sin must be unburdened. 

“Undone”

This story was the biggest surprise in the collection. When I first started reading it, I was uncertain whether I would enjoy it. Essentially, and I don’t think this is not giving away too much, the entire 1,500 word story is written in one sentence. Usually, I would regard this as pretentious; howeverRichard Thomas pulls it off, for several reasons, perhaps the most important of which is that the frenetic, relentless nature of the single run-on sentence is used to encapsulate the relentless nature of a terrifying, heart-pounding chase. This clever mimesis justifies the technique and elevates the intensity of the narrative. The plot of the story is simple, or seems to be. Two people are running from something unspeakable. What emerges at the end of the tale, however, is a moment of transcendence, of contact with something ineffable and divine. It is weird, grotesque, beautiful, harrowing, and spiritually uplifting. There are shades of China Miéville here. Never in a million years could I have guessed this would be my favourite story in the collection, but it is. 

Spontaneous Human Combustion is not easy reading (to be fair, in general I do not find collections easy to read due to the stop-start nature of digesting a series of stories); however, it is a rewarding and powerful experience on so many levels. Richard Thomas pushes the envelope of what is possible in fiction, and strives to show us something truly sublime. Perhaps the collection is best summarised in Richard Thomas’s own words from his story “Undone”: “everything I could never be, nothing we have been before”. 

You can pre-order the collection here:

Amazon UK

Amazon US