Heart of the Storm – Book Review

At least things were back to normal now. Not the same, because nothing ever returned to how it used to be. – Heart of the Storm: Teo

It is unfortunate, but hope can only go so far. Hope can provide us the groundwork for a great future, but we eventually have to take some action to build a path forward. Otherwise, there’s always someone willing to crush a hope to fulfill their own dream.

The Moonless trilogy makes me think of hope. Of the dangers of relying on hope. And on the greatness that results from direct action. This is a book series that represents that conflict repeatedly: hope versus action. Desire versus commitment. I see it from the first pages of We Lost the Sky: “He studied the expanse for any sign of humans. And there, so far away that he had to squint to be certain, was a flicker of light.” Renn, a primary protagonist in the series, is always looking for that next bright spot on the horizon. All of these characters are—Luca, Renn, Teo, and the rest—they’re Seeking Shelter despite being in the Heart of the Storm.

Closing out this trilogy, Heart of the Storm feels especially solid and cohesive in those narrative echoes of hope and action. We Lost the Sky set the stage and gave our heroes their first chance to act to chase a dream. Seeking Shelter showed us that even the best dreams take responsive leadership in the face of a crisis. Now, Heart of the Storm is about the need for community to protect dreams for a brighter future. The hope is never enough. The dream is never enough. All the right people can be in all the right places, but they still have to act together to be effective.

After the end of the world, routines were necessary to keep yourself going. – Heart of the Storm: Luca

Picking up some time after the events of Seeking Shelter, Heart of the Storm introduces two new viewpoints, Domenico and Huan, while retaining the core cast. If you’ve read the previous books, there’s a ready rhythm in returning to Howalt’s writing that felt like taking a seat at a comfortable café. Their work always gives a sense of distinct calm; the story unfolds with quiet surety and at a steady pace. That hasn’t changed with HotS, and it was also a pleasure to rejoin this set of characters. I really enjoy Renn and Luca in particular. They feel like the heart of the entire trilogy.

In book one, Teo, Luca, and Renn helped found the new settlement of Siena. In book two, there was a plague that made the settlement seek aid outside of its walls and existing relationships. Now, book three sees the Sienans defending themselves against the long-growing shadow of Florence. The moonless world seems especially harsh in this part of the story, but not because of its physical setting. If anything, there were some real moments of beauty out on the desolate plains of a ruined Italy. But, perhaps it is the state of Earth present, but many of the fears and struggles faced by the Sienans felt especially dire and relatable.

Driven by fear, attacks from Florence threaten the lives of people that just want to live better and with more togetherness. Restless uncertainty sends Renn and Luca on a path that is more familiar rather than the one that requires a leap of faith. Teo and Arsenio face the regret of taking action while trying to find joy amidst pain and problems. These could be excerpts from the mid-pandemic world of this book’s release.

And, much like the chaos of reality, it takes a lot of steady hands and cool heads to save the day. It takes quick thinking and honed tempers to find solutions that minimize pain and death. In the previous books, I enjoyed the sense of pacifism presented by the heroes. I truly believe in an ideal of nonviolent action to achieve our goals. In We Lost the Sky, the group sought out Siena as a third option in the face of fighting over a city. For Seeking Shelter, everyone banded together to help; in the end, bartering skills and shared service won the day. Unfortunately, not all problems can be solved through talk or trade.

In a way, the settlement of Siena grows like any human in this series. First, it drew a breath. Then, it learned to walk by coordinating the efforts of its body. Finally, it faced the harshness of external pressures and had to understand itself to remain autonomous. Critically, it is only because of external pressures that the township has to redefine its limits. It is only because of outside pressures that Renn grows wistful. It’s external influences that make Teo doubt. And, it’s the external that forces Luca to finally throw all in with the Sienans.

Of course, growing up is painful, and I felt a familiar pang of regret at the end of this story. Yes, I’m a little saddened that its the last of the series. This series is a comfort read. It’s calming and reassuring to have realistic characters acting sensibly in the midst of disaster. However, the other regret is that Siena had to change in the ways it did. It’s painful to recognize the nature of conflict. It’s somber to realize that humanity is so often inhuman.

Heart of the Storm was a lovely book, and it wraps up the trilogy in a lot of great ways without any tidy neatness in the ending. It’s a living world that feels like its characters will go on living. I have an almost nostalgic fondness for this series in that it feels like it’s from another time. It provides an escape from this world, and what else can you ask for from a book?

Available from Spaceboy Books, Heart of the Storm is by Marie Howalt with a release date of 2021-09-25. Marie Howalt was born and raised in a small North European kingdom called Denmark and decided to become a writer at the age of 11 when the local library ran out of science fiction and fantasy to gobble up.

Scheduled – Flash Fiction


What a dream, those changes in the light…

There is a change in the light, but I don’t pay attention. I’m watching the news on mute while watching my phone on headphones. I’m not so much absorbing anything so much as I’m using it to prop up my mind.

Then something shakes the building, and so I jerk my eyes away from the screens. I hurry across our apartment and split the curtains to look below.

Something has landed at the intersection.

“That is a ship,” I mutter, surprised at the deadness in my own voice. “It’s a fucking ship.”

My boyfriend pulls off his headphones with a raised bushy eyebrow. He pauses the game on his phone and swallows a bite of pizza. “You okay? You look absolutely terrified.”

I glance at him. My mouth is open and I’m sure I look stoned out of my mind. I can’t even speak. I turn back to stare at the thing that’s landed on the road below our apartment. I can’t even urge myself to point. To gesture. To get his attention. I feel that I’m frozen in molasses. Everything feels slow and distant.

The ship, for it surely must be a ship, is partially translucent and crystalline. It looks like someone took one of those salt lamps, embiggened it a hundred times, then carved it into the shape of science fiction.

Marcus finally pursues his sluggish curiosity. He joins me at the window and immediately drops his phone. Then his pizza. “What. The. Shit.”

Somehow, his presence frees me of my mental prison. Slowly. I still barely nod. “Right?”

He tips his glasses so that they rest in his curly hair and digs the heels of his palms against his dark brown eyes. “Aidan. What. Do you see down there?”

I let out a bark of a laugh. “Well.” I have to swallow because suddenly my mouth feels like I’ve swallowed a desert. “I guess. It really looks like a space ship?”

“Yeah. Shit. Wow. That’s what I thought, but, hell. I wasn’t. I dunno. I didn’t trust myself.” He leans forward and takes another look. Squints. Blinking, he remembers his glasses and slips them back to his nose. His face does a slow-motion transformation into bewildering excitement. “Fucking awesome!”

My body is gradually dethawing, so I’m still in out-of-body observe-mode as the ship releases a sudden cloud of steam under one of its legs. The craft is resting on three highly-articulated limbs. They look like they could belong to an insect.

Marcus is the opposite; his reactions are going haywire with energy—a touchstone of our relationship. I, the curious one, never feel excited. He, lacking curiosity, really goes berserk when he finds something that catches his interest. Pulling on pants over his lounge-around shorts, he dances on his tiptoes. He pulls on a hoody, and then a coat. He’s slipping into socks by the time my brain finally connects actions to consequences.

“Hey, hey, hey. What are you doing?”

“Well, we gotta get down there! This is historic!”

“But, Marcus. What the hell do you think is going to happen? How do you know this is safe?” I’m feeling more nervous with each passing moment. I have an urge to start barricading our windows with plywood.

He understands my reluctance perfectly, and for that I get the stink-eye. “If you’re not going, then at least record from the window.”

“I’m not staying here alone while you go down there!”

Marcus rolls his eyes at me. “Will you make up your mind? This is either the start or the end of our future.”

I tilt my head at his statement. “Wow, how wise. So, everything we do next matters, or it doesn’t.”

His shoulders droop as he hangs his head. “Aidan.”

I grit my teeth and clench my fists. “Fine. Fine! Let’s go.” I start scrambling to find my shoes. They’re buried under some clothes maybe? We were having a long weekend and in complete lounge mode.

“Dude, dude, dude.” Marcus has his face pressed against the window. “They. Are. Coming. Out!”

My mind does a hiccup. “So, we better get this party started?”

Marcus guffaws. “Just, come on!”

We practically tumble out of the apartment while trying to use the door at the same time. I race down the stairs—still shoeless—on Marcus’ heel. My pulse is hammering. The world has decided to show the duality of time. Everything is sure as hell happening all at once and frozen in the moment. I hear a car alarm go off.

There are others in the street, but most aren’t as willing as us. Well, they aren’t as willing as Marcus. I’m just along for the ride. He leads me, holding my hand, straight to the opening spacecraft.

The opening looks like one of those hologram stickers I used to keep on a binder in school. It’s a hexagonal void that glitters and sparkles without having a surface that my mind accepts. There’s just a void in the side of the ship.

A lot of old space movies show a ramp, and some show an elevator, but this thing creates a whole damned escalator setup. It unfolds from a clump of black at the bottom of the doorway, and then there are moving stairs.

Two figures ride the escalator down to the street. They are not humanoid in any sense I understand. They look more like a combination of a camera tripod and a praying mantis—three buglike legs with probably-heads at the top.

One of them is holding a box.

Marcus stops us at the base of the escalator. He beams up at the creatures. “Hello!” He waves his arms. “Welcome to Earth!”

The two tripods twist as if facing each other. “Grbl”, says one. A subtitle—floating just under the tripod’s head—types out the word, “Shit.”

“Grbl,” says the other. Subtitle included.

The left tripod twists to face us. “Urtio la eggnz?” The subtitle offers, “You said, Earth?”

I know that tone of voice. That look. Aliens be damned, some things are universal. After all, I work for the postal service. “Where were you trying to go?”

The right tripod makes a clacking sound. All three of their legs wobble like wet noodles. “Etyu pourz ntthg ajg uiet.” The subtitle helpfully annotates, “We have a scheduled delivery for a Gregory Nassan on Truken Five.”

“Oh,” mumbled Marcus. He glances at me. “Uh.”

I grin sheepishly. “Sorry, buddy. Not on any of our maps.”

Marcus raises his hand—actually raises it. His eyes are suddenly gleaming. “Ooh, I mean, we’ll sign for it! If that’d help.”

The tripods exchange a glance. They pirouette at each other. “Vfhsdru.” The subtitle taps out, “Sure. Whatever.” Tossing us the box, both turn around without even checking to see if we catch.

Saurian Supermarket – Flash Fiction

There’s something strange, on Aisle Five.

Ah geez, I really am supposed to eat before I jump. But I really don’t want anything here.

Honestly, I never did get used to your food. Your too-cold supermarkets and their rows-upon-rows of prepackaged grains. It was like eating dust. Like chewing on stale biscuits that had been flavor-scented.

Like, if it’s got a scent maybe you won’t notice how dry they are?

Yet, you gotta fit in. So I did. I shopped, bought, and ate the same stuff your kind did. To survive.

And that’s all I thought I’d do, survive. That is, until you.

I didn’t expect it. Love. How weird I must’ve been, but you still loved me.

But, standing in front of the frozen meat, trying to decide between boneless chicken and steak, some assholes from my kingdom ruined all that. So here I am. Trying to summarize eons of history, years of hidden parts of me, seconds before I leave.

And I told myself I’d never do any serious relationship on a voicemail. But I know. You’re asleep. Damned nightshift. Gods, I hope the damned signal is strong enough for this to send.

Sorry, I know. I’m rambling. And skirting the point.

I don’t know how to start. How do I tell you that everything about me is a lie? Obviously not the important things, but. Shit. I can’t begin at the beginning. That would take too long. Definitely don’t have time for David Copperfield’s stroll through memories.

Uhm. Well. My kind.

Jeez.

Look, everyone knows about dinosaurs, right? Except, we’re not, exactly? Not the ones your fossil records have. We disappeared, right, but they didn’t, so you have their records. And then we kind of pulled magic out of your realm, so that altered everything here. Just enough to be strange. For me, at least.

And, yeah, I’ve heard the jokes. The conspiracy theories that nobody believes? Lizard people. Ooh, right? Terrifying stuff. Terrifyingly bad, anyway.

Yet. There is some element of truth?

Though, honestly, I thought I was the only one. I didn’t think anyone else would even try to get over here. Until those knuckleheads tackled me in the grocery store. Tore my favorite pair of jeans. You know, the ones you bought? Because they’re a bit snug, you said. Because you like the way they hug my calves.

But, I guess they’d look out of place anyway, over in my realm. We never really got around to the whole pants thing. Which, weird, right? You’d think? Except we evolved differently. I mean, our species were already so different, it’s not really a surprise.

Then we went and split the whole universe. Just, sealed you guys over here without looking back.

It’s a wonder that a lack of pants is one of the biggest differences in how we dress.

We do like a good jacket though.

It’s the cold-blooded thing. I am so glad you like the apartment hot. Oh, but don’t worry, we don’t shut down like our remnants do, in the cold. We evolved specialized heat-distribution organs. Better layers of fat. Everything you’d expect to happen after a few million years.

So, nights when you turned up the air conditioning, I was okay. I mean, after all, I just scooted a little closer to you. You mammals have the hottest bodies. Well, yours especially. Gods, I’m gonna miss you.

Gods. Funny, I’m already reverting. My mind is going a million meters a minute, but here I am going through changes I’ll have to make. To prevent some weird faux paus. Can you imagine. Going back to dino-earth and talking nonsense about dino-christ?

Right. I’m getting off topic again. And, sirens. I think the police are almost here. Not that they could do anything, but when do they let that stop them?

Anyway. So, here’s the deal. I have to go.

I’m from another realm. It’s literally right here, a hair’s width away from your realm. A micron. A proton’s distance from a neutron.

I ran away because they were going to kill me. There’s this whole clan of mages that wanted me dead, and I did sort of kill their sacred eddafae. Uhm, it’s a giant insect thing with potent poisonous secretions that- You know what, doesn’t matter.

I stole their shit, and they tried to kill me. It started a bit of war, and so I escaped to ape-earth. The spell was always theoretical, but also illegal, but I figured that I was already kind of toast as far the law was concerned. Let me tell you, the Eddafanian Society is deep in bed with law enforcement.

Now, I guess they sent people after me. You’ll probably see it on the news, huh? I wouldn’t be surprised. You’re gonna see some crazy video. There are at least six cameras on this aisle. So, they’ll get a good view of the siekel and nafaller that came to pick me up. I’m sure people will freak.

Oh, siekel are like, a moose-sized ape-earth human, except imagine they’re descended from a stegosaurus? And nafaller are tiny pipsqueaks, a meter tall at most, though honestly they can be traced back to the diplodocus so don’t ask me how that worked out. What it really means is that they’re not like me, they can’t pass for human. And they weren’t very good with their totems anyway.

Whatever, it was madness, pure madness. People just cleared out of here. So, I had a little bit of time. Which is why I wanted to record something. Send you something.

Before I leave. I mean.

Shit.

I don’t want to go. I love you, Collin.

It’s so stupid, I mean, not us. But this. This is so stupid.

I have to go though. If I don’t, they’ll send more bounty-hunters over here. I don’t know if they recreated my spell, or if someone else already had it, but now there’s bound to be more. I have to go put up a counter-ward to keep them from breaking through.

I can’t imagine what would happen if one of the arch-wizards comes through. With their blood-purity shit? No way.

Not letting that happen.

But, alright.

I really have to go now.

The portal is collapsing, and the cops are right outside.

I’m serious. I love you Collin.

And uh, I guess, my real name is Eylandris. Landon was close enough, right?

Oh, shit. Don’t shoot! Look! I’m unarmed, I’m unarmed!

Shit. Guess they’ll get video of me disappearing. Bye, Collin. I’ll miss you.

Effassi, coletanna pes!