the Little Red Reviewer

A Sinister Quartet, with fiction by Cooney, Wick, McGee, and Allen

Posted on: June 6, 2020

Because I haven’t posted in, holy crap, like a week, you get a MASSIVE review today.  You’re welcome.


A Sinister Quartet (pre-order through Indiebound!) was originally planned to be a chapbook of two novellas by Mike Allen and C.S.E. Cooney.  Thanks to scope creep, and Allen and Cooney both having other stories that they loved, the project grew into a quartet of creepy dark fantasy and horror.   Something I’m only realizing right now, as I write this review, is that all of these stories deal with familial love.   Sisters saving brothers,  daughters saving parents,  a foster daughter being loved and supported by her foster mom, a woman coming to terms with the death of her beloved sister. If it wasn’t for family love, none of these stories would have the emotional impact that they did. (huh, maybe that’s why horror affects us so much? it is loss of those we love and watching that loss happen?)


Part of me wants to tell you to read this collection in the order the stories are presented, so that you can move from least dark and scary to most dark and scary: Start with Cooney’s beautifully rendered fantasy “The Twice Drowned Saint”;  then go to Jessia P. Wick’s “An Unkindness”, a dark fantasy of a sister trying to save her brother from the fae;  from there go to Amanda J. McGee’s “Viridian”, a contemporary gothic horror of isolation and obsession;  and from there go to Mike Allen’s absolutely horrifying and terrifying “The Comforter”.  If you go that path, you’ll slowly ramp up from “fun, sorta creepy” to “not sure I should be reading this before bed”.


But, on the other hand, maybe you should save Cooney’s story for last.  Because you see, the problem with reading her story first, is that you’ll be expecting everything else in this collection to be as good or better, and I’m sorry to tell you, but you’ll be disappointed. Let me put this another way:  on a scale of zero to ten, the Wick, McGee, and Allen are all easily a score of 7 or above.  On a scale of zero to ten, the Cooney is a twenty, easily one of the best things I’ve read this year.


As a compromise, I’ll save my thoughts on Cooney’s story for last.  Scroll to the end if you want to read that part first.

In Jessica P. Wick’s “An Unkindness”, the story opens with Ravenna concerned about the personality changes in her other brother, Aliver.  The two of them were besties when they were kids, why is he avoiding spending time her and sneaking out in the middle of the night all of a sudden?  She watches his bedroom door, only to see dark shadows doing impossible things. She follows him, only to lose sight of him.  He pushes her away,  he nearly begs her not to follow him, and being a bored, adventure-craving, lonely younger sister, she completely ignores his requests to be left alone.  Not only does Ravenna miss him, but she feels left out.   She follows him into their estate’s formal gardens, and when he dives into the fountain and doesn’t resurface, she follows.  What comes next is a wonderfully dark and creepy intrusion into a fae (?) world.  While reading this, I kept wanting to yell at Ravenna “don’t eat anything there!!!  You’ll be stuck there forever if you do!”.


The story is told in short chapters that have cute/funny/entertaining names, and I really enjoyed Ravenna’s voice. I won’t tell you much more, for fear of spoilers, but Ravenna’s experiences in the Fae lands (not sure if it is specifically Fae? I don’t remember if the author specifies it?) where a bucket of fun to read,  she’s not entirely sure what’s going on,  she doesn’t know if conversions will trap her, or why certain people do or don’t want to talk to her.   If you’re a fan of stories of “don’t make bargains with fairies!!”, you’ll get a kick out of “An Unkindness”.  And I do  love stories like this,  where people go to a Fae/Sidhe type world and have to manage to get out safely.  And it was cool to read a story about a sister wanting to save her brother!


It took me a little while to get my claws into Amanda J. McGee’s “Viridian”, but once I got into the groove of what was going on, hooo  boy was this a killer story!  Lori has moved to a small town in New England to start over after her sister Annie’s death.  She’s able to get settled into a small apartment, and she gets a job at the local cafe. A few locals are happy to befriend the newest member of their small, isolated town.  Maybe one day, Lori will finally feel grounded enough to come to terms with Annie’s death, and be able to grieve.  And then Lori meets Ethan, who sweeps her off her feet. A wealthy widower,  Ethan yearns for a woman he can take care of, someone who will bring warmth into his home, someone who will be there to welcome him home when he returns from business in the big city.


With gothic echoes of Jane Eyre (but a very, VERY different ending!),  I quickly found myself whipping through the pages of “Viridian”.  Lori twigs to the fact that something is very wrong, but she’s already in too deep, can she escape on her own?  Ethan’s house is so far out in the woods there’s no cell service, and she never did put snow tires on her call.  As he isolates her further and gaslights her, she feels her self confidence unravelling.  Personally, I didn’t like Lori. I thought she was too trusting, I wish she’d just get a therapist to help her with her grieving and guilt. But? It didn’t matter that I didn’t like her as a person, I wanted her to win!  I wanted her to escape Ethan and the other awful members of his household and his terrible plans for her!!  According to the “about the authors” in the end of the collection,  “Viridian” was inspired by “Bluebeard”.  But still. . .  reading this makes me want to read Jane Eyre.

I was nervous about reading Mike Allen’s “The Comforter”.  I tend to avoid things labelled as horror because to put it plainly, I’m a scaredy cat. My personal anxieties give me enough nightmares, thank you very much.  But, I have huge respect for Allen, he has edited a bunch of my favorite anthologies,  and his “The Button Bin”, which takes place in the same world as “The Comforter”, was a finalist for the Nebula for best short story.  So I’d be cheating myself out of some damn good writing if I didn’t give “The Comforter”  a chance.


Told from multiple points of view, I found myself most invested in the chapters about Maddy and her maybe, possibly, secret friend at school.  Someone keeps leaving Maddy notes in her desk, weird notes about how their moms know each other, how if Maddy just puts the notes together that she’ll learn a secret.  It’s too bad that the person who is leaving the notes doesn’t really know what he’s doing.  He’s escaped something too, he knows he’s connected to Maddy, and he knows he’s in deep shit if his mom finds out what he’s doing.    Allen doesn’t scrimp on the horror, desperation,  or discomfort, he doesn’t shy away from descriptions of people (who aren’t actually people anymore) being sucked through themselves into worlds that are not our own.  I’ll admit this was a hard story for me to read.   If you like horror,  you’ll eat this up.  And me? You know what? I did okay!  Horror of this style may never be my cup of tea, but  I got through it, I’m happy I read it, and most importantly to me, it didn’t give me any nightmares.


And now we get to C.S.E. Cooney’s “The Twice Drowned Saint”.   I loved so many things about this story, but what makes the story shine so bright is the worldbuilding.  The way Cooney does world building,  she makes the world absolutely gigantic, and then she focuses the lens onto these intimate moments in people’s lives. Yes, yes, I know, that’s the literal definition of how to be a good storytelling, but she is just so fucking good at it.  Not only does Ishtu live in a city rules by angels, but she runs the city’s only movie theater that she inherited from her father.  Not only is the city run by angels, but the angels devour the sacrifices of blessing starved pilgrims and refugees, often through public executions. People really will do anything to gain access to this city, won’t they? Oh, and the angels also ate their god, and they can take over your  body and mind at a whim.  Their choral voices sound like scrapes and screeches in your head, so in this city, music is something to be avoided. Back when the city had an opera house, the composer wanted to imitate angelic voices in his operas, which meant they were three hours of atonal screeches.  Opera was not very popular, people enjoy the building more, now that it is a movie cinema.  The Worldbuilding,  it feels so much bigger than the story!


The more Ishtu described her late father, how fled where he came from, how he brought canisters of silent films and bargained for popcorn, in my mind her dad looked just like Omar Sharif.  But reading Cooney’s description closer,  Ishtu’s dad looks more like Gene Wolfe. And jeez, how many uncles does she have, and why does she describe some of them as good uncles and bad uncles? Who the heck would call their uncle “bad uncle” to his face?  Oh, OH, I get it now, holy crap do I get it!  And with that revelation that I had, regarding good uncles and bad uncles, this fun, sarcastic dark fantasy turned into something very terrifying indeed.


And oh, I totally forgot to mention (because worldbuilding!  uncles!), Ishtu has a friend amongst the angels. And their relationship is a secret.


My clumsy words don’t do justice to “The Twice Drowned Saint”.   Just read it. It is a sunrise, where all things are beautiful and possible,  and it is blood on the ground surrounded by those who lap it up, hungering for more. This is one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve read this year.  If you are on the fence about reading / buying a small press novella collection from a bunch of authors you’ve never heard of, “The Twice Drowned Saint” alone is worth five times the cost of the collection.



12 Responses to "A Sinister Quartet, with fiction by Cooney, Wick, McGee, and Allen"

Netgalley categorizes this (also) as Horror. How horrific is it on a scale 1-10? (Because I hate horror)


The Mike Allen story is the only one I’d categorize as horror, and for what it’s worth I’m not a horror fan either.
I’d categorize the Cooney and Wick as dark fantasy, and the McGee as a psychological thriller.
(these are my personal definitions of things. I have no idea how categories are defined on Netgalley)

Liked by 1 person

Thanks, I’ve out it on the tbr.
Is there anything combining those 4 stories or is the selection for an anthology just random?


none of the stories are connected, by character or world, if that’s what you’re asking.

Liked by 1 person

SO RIGHT about CSE Cooney’s story. That one is just staggering.


yes! Staggering is the right word! I feel really bad for the next thing I read, because no matter what it’s gonna seem mediocre in comparison.

Liked by 1 person

[…] (13) READY FOR YOUR MT. TBR. The Little Red Reviewer has high praise for ”A Sinister Quartet, with fiction by Cooney, Wick, McGee, and Allen”. […]


Oh-ho! This sounds frigging awesome! 😀

Liked by 1 person

i think you would love it!

Liked by 1 person

It’s on the list!


[…] Quite a few terrific and incredibly thorough new reviews appeared, too, including this one from Little Red Reviewer: […]

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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