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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,” mumbles 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.

Flash Fiction: Distant City

a footprint in white sand

Which burned worse: Sun or sand. A thousand pinpricks, sunburn and scrapes, or unending thirst. We had no room in our pain to decide. So, we continued over the desolate waste.

Something would appear. A town. A village. A lone hut. We had to believe.

By day, we huddled together in the cloth-shaded sled. Sleep was less a thing of rest than escape, and dreams were broken between moments of being fitfully half-awake.

By night, we traded at leaving footprints in the sand. The heat lingered, but it was cool by contrast. Sweat still slithered down my skin.

“Water,” gasped Lilou. She tugged the rope wrapped around my chest. “You, water.”

Stopping was more torturous than the heat, but she was right. I had ignored my turn for water, and she had been too delirious to remind me. It was easier to walk, to lean forward and ignore pain. Movement, every breath, was driven by my will. Stopping threatened to break me.

“Nuette, sit.”

I didn’t sit. I collapsed into the covered sled. “Lilou, we have to move.”

“We will. I will.” She handed me our canteen. It was nearly empty, but she struggled as if it were filled with rock. “You rest. My turn.” Lilou took the timer from my belt, flipped it over, and hung it from hers. Its black sands renewed their constant journey. A mirror of ours. Unending and seemingly without a true destination.

“But-“

“You. Need. Rest.”

Every word took effort. Her wheezing breath carried the dry pain. The skin on her knuckles was cracked as if she’d grown impossibly old. Like mine, her clothes were baked with sand and painfully stiff. Unlike me, she was smaller overall and had always been little more than skin and bone. Nevertheless, she crawled onto the searing sand.

I tried the canteen. My arms wouldn’t work. Circulation tingled where the rope had pressed. Weariness dragged at me, but I managed a sip. All that we could spare. Hardly more than a drop.

It took twice as long to screw the cap tight. To ensure that it was tight. To protect that last gulp.

Sleep drugged me with its release. I dreamt of home. The home I struggled to remember. Across oceans of distance and time.

Later, a timeless moment later, we were stopped. The change made me wake. I peered into the moonless night with groggy worry. “Lilou?”

Outside, her body was a shadowy lump on the ground.

I braced myself. As agreed, my first step was to take another sip of water. It felt like every drop melted into my cracked lips. I took a breath.

I crawled back onto the burning grit. “Foolish,” I murmured in breathless words. Speaking hurt my jaw. My throat.

Pulling her back to the sled was draining. I shook her. “Water.”

Three nudges, two slaps, and she woke. “Sorry.” Her face was covered in sand where she’d fallen. Gently as possible, I brushed the grains from her skin. I tipped the canteen to her mouth. Held my thumb between her lips to make sure water made the important journey.

“Thanks,” she mumbled, nearly unintelligible.

“Gonna pull now,” I whispered. I took the timer and found the end of the rope. Wrapped it around my waist. Looked ahead. Something glowed in the distance.

A city dimmed by the days between us and its gates. But it was progress. We were heading toward something.

For the first moment in weeks, my thoughts reached beyond survival. We might still find her. Wixie still had friends so long as we survived. With friends, she had hope too.

A want for speed tingled in my mind, but I kept a steady pace. Lilou slept, and when the timer ran out, I let her sleep. I did not collapse into the sled until dawn.

That next night, we could see a skyline. I memorized the jagged edges of shadows against a star-pricked canvas of blue-black. For the first time in weeks, the slimshine rose in the west. Glowing purples and shimmering greens painted our desert in treacherous beauty.

I watched from the sled with half-lidded drowsiness. Sleep was harder to find because of a rising expectation. Those ethereal lights were a sign of good luck. I chose to believe that meaning.

Our sled jerked to a stop. Lilou was motionless, arms limp. She was stuck, leaning forward, passed out but held like a puppet.

I opened the canteen and jiggled its contents. Enough to make noise, but not enough to feel the weight.

The city was still too far.

Purple-tinted shadows misted and melted under Lilou’s feet. Sand shifted under one of her feet. Her body tilted. She toppled to one side. Again, a lump on the dunes.

My glimmers of hope vanished in a breath.

Every limb seemed drawn to the earth like anchors. I had to roll from the sled, and even then, I stayed on my back for long enough to forget the passing time. The sky loomed over me and the swirling color drew me into a trance.

In that state, I forgot my reservations. I forgot my terror at the powers I’d lost. The ability I had forsaken. Spirit reached toward me and I remembered its grace.

Lilou’s presence touched me first. She was a faint outline of power that trembled on the edge of vision. She was a fading heartbeat of soul.

But the desert was afire with power. There were lifelines pulsing just below the surface. I shifted onto the mental plane and sank into the ground.

The pressing dark was pushed back by creatures too small to see. A million tunnels and miniscule chambers teemed with wriggling things. They were insects, vermin and barbed-predators, and there were larger animals with naked skin and blind eyes.

Spirit was in all things, and so the beasts added to the desert’s hidden light, but that did not account for the greater sense of power from further below.

Curiosity pulled me further into the depths of sand. I sank until the sand became stone. I sank until the stone grew warm.

A great cavern opened around me, and I floated above a ruined city. Toppled towers were strewn across the rubble of crumbling homes. A market square was sunken into a pool of water where a central well once stood.

Water.

I shot toward the pool without thinking. My thirst ravaged me with an intensity that I had forgotten. My spirit’s form ignored the water’s touch and I attempted to drink without feeling cool refreshment.

And then I remembered my physical body, far above on the desert surface, and suddenly I was staring at the stars.

I was reaching up, toward the undulating slimshine, and my wrist glowed from the tattooed band of the Severed. Sisters of the Cylnai were connected to me, but I had not reached out to them since leaving the sea.

‘Nuette?’ whispered some half-forgotten voice. It had hardly been a year, but the faces of that great ship were already nearly-faded.

‘Sotin?’ I had to strain to hear my old teacher, but I was sure it was her. The Embrahm sounded distant, and I did not know if that was a product of weakness or separation from the oceans. ‘I hope you are well.’

‘Nuette, what is wrong? Why does your soul feel so broken?’

It was foolish, but her words filled me with a fear beyond a death in the desert. Memories of a terrifying island and the loss of my parents strangled me with sudden grief. I snatched my mind away from the connection. I closed myself to the voices of Severed Sisters.

The twin golden bands ceased glowing around my wrist, and they were simple black tattoos once more.

But the connection had been a reminder of more than the failures in my past. I had remembered what I could do with enough spirit in my veins. True, those powers were once driven by the shard of a god, but perhaps I could reach beyond who I had been.

Still lying on my back, still staring up at the sky, I reached back into the ground’s wealth of old power. Some civilization had left its ghosts far below, and I knew enough of the dead to realize that they could be worthy allies.

The hollow of my right eye gave a twinge of pain. I hadn’t felt anything beneath my eyepatch for months, and the sudden renewed feeling did nothing to assure me that I was choosing a path toward safety.

I ignored the pain and dove into the sands. My spirit form sped through earth until I was back in the ruined city. Steeling myself against voices of the city’s forgotten, I pulled at the lingering spirit.

They flooded me with their eager return to the living.

Dozens of minds pressed against mine and I fought to keep my own voice. Theirs were mad and disjointed. They had no knowledge of their age or mine. I experienced the last flashes of their deaths. I saw great crowds of a purple-skinned people, and they fought with four arms, two legs, and a powerful tail. The Xanali, that long-extinct race, convulsed in their empire’s death.

Traps of lava were released into chambers of councilors. A king, crown askew, tore at his own tongue. A family, barricaded into their chambers, slashed their own throats until the mother stood weeping and alone.

I could feel my body convulsing like the buzz of a tiny insect. The annoying sensation of my physical form was nothing compared to the madness of those old souls. I did not think I would have the endurance to outlast their torment, but their spirit also filled me with power.

Their combined spirit was nothing compared to the wealth of a god, but the return was still a too-sweet promise. I’d hardly hoped for such a return, for such freedom as power could forge. I had thought myself severed from connections beyond myself, but the dead were bringing my spiritual plane back to life.

My focus steadied with the touch of those broken ghosts.

And as my focus steadied, I remembered my purpose. I remembered that pool of water and its promise of refreshment.

Reaching into my new well of spirit energy, I pulled at the hidden lake and drew strands of life back toward the surface.

It was slow going, and my mind ached with the effort, but I could feel the closing distance. My gambit was working.

A trickling well was bubbling toward a lifeless desert.

I did not have the control, by the end of it, to direct a steady flow of water. Had I been less dehydrated, less hungry, I might’ve made an oasis of that unknown spot in the dust. As it was, the most I could do was fill our canteen.

The water was warm, and it smelled like sulfur, but it quenched my thirst.

I pulled myself to Lilou’s side and propped her head in my lap. “Lilou, wake up.” My voice was rough, my throat was still sore, but I felt alive with the great gulps of water I had taken. It had taken all my will to keep from downing the canteen into sickness.

Lilou stirred, moaning with her aches, but she did not wake. I rested, doing little more than brushing away sand from her fall, until I could finally pull us back to the sled’s meager shelter. One drop at a time, I helped her drink away her stupor.

We dozed through the day, but Lilou continued a feverish sleep through the night. She had not been given the same breath of power as granted to me.

Reaching back through the earth, I drew what I could from the remaining souls. Some fled from my presence on that attempt, and I felt a growing unease at my abuse of their spirits. Death was supposed to send the living toward new chances, but a terrible end could bind souls to their place of death. I was freeing them from their chains, but I did not know enough to understand what became of them next. Was I lessening their torment, or increasing their pain?

Yet I justified my actions because I was alive and they were dead. I had to save my friend, and to do so I had to save myself. I took their lingering power and struck at the creatures beneath the desert surface.

I drew insects and rodents from the ground and killed them by the dozens. I broke parts from our wooden sled and tore strips of cloth from my clothes. Fire rushed through the dry shards, but it was enough to build a bed of meager coals.

Scraps of bugflesh made a glorious feast. I fed carefully-cut strips of desert shrew to Lilou as she shivered in the evening heat. We stayed there, in sight of that unknown city, until Lilou’s fever broke. Then, when she could open her eyes, when she wondered how we were still alive, we continued over the desolate waste.

Scraps of bugflesh made a glorious feast. I fed carefully-cut strips of desert shrew to Lilou as she shivered in the evening heat. We stayed there, in sight of that unknown city, until Lilou’s fever broke. Then, when she could open her eyes, when she wondered how we were still alive, we continued over the desolate waste.

And finally, after weeks of broken skin and parched throats, we stepped into the shadow of towering buildings.

Kuerati. Against all odds, we’d reached a destination that might be worth wandering across sun-baked sand. It was known as the City of Infinite Chances.

I helped Lilou from the sled. She was too light. Still too weak. But we stood together at the gates, and together we walked toward the hope of salvation.