Hey there, everyone! June 2020’s Lady of Grimdark is debut author A. J. Vrana, and while her story within a story The Hollow Gods isn’t necessarily a Grimdark tale, it’s Dark and Psychological Fantasy at its finest, with the perfect amount of horror elements and snarky humor infused to keep readers on the edge of their seats. Keep scrolling for more info about the book, my review, and my interview with the lovely A. J. Vrana.
A perfect story for contemporary fantasy readers who love their narratives razor-sharp and their secrets dark and deadly.
Black Hollow is a town with a dark secret.
For centuries, residents have foretold the return of the Dreamwalker—an ominous figure from local folklore said to lure young women into the woods and possess them. Yet the boundary between fact and fable is blurred by a troubling statistic: occasionally, women do go missing. And after they return, they almost always end up dead.
When Kai wakes up next to the lifeless body of a recently missing girl, his memory blank, he struggles to clear his already threadbare conscience.
Miya, a floundering university student, experiences signs that she may be the Dreamwalker’s next victim. Can she trust Kai as their paths collide, or does he herald her demise?
And after losing a young patient, crestfallen oncologist, Mason, embarks on a quest to debunk the town’s superstitions, only to find his sanity tested.
A maelstrom of ancient grudges, forgotten traumas, and deadly secrets loom in the foggy forests of Black Hollow. Can three unlikely heroes put aside their fears and unite to confront a centuries-old evil? Will they uncover the truth behind the fable, or will the cycle repeat?
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We are no different than the machines we ourselves have made. Like clocks, we spin around the same axis without alternative, infinitely, as though to turn in circles is the very purpose for which we were made. And all the while the world passes us by. We erode, and yet we continue to tick and tick and tick until the axis itself grows weary of our burdens, unhinges, and finally, we break.
The Hollow Gods is budding author A. J. Vrana’s beautifully surreal, captivating, and genre-bending debut novel. At its heart, it’s a tale of suspending your disbelief and opening your heart to the mysteries the world has to offer, accepting what’s meant to be is what’s meant to be. Told in a contemporary tone, this book delves far down the psychological rabbit hole, urging readers to question the realities of our own world, insisting we embrace the unknown and the inevitable. As human beings, we strive to perfect although we are flawed, to seek answers that should remain shrouded in shadow, to force reason by suppressing wonder and faith; The Hollow Gods promotes the idea that the cycle of history will repeat itself until we learn to just let go and enjoy the ride. A tale of mysteries and folklore with splashes of horror, all balanced with rakish humor, this Dark Fantasy/Magical Realism blend is truly a unique and engrossing read.
Vrana’s complex characters take center stage, each coping with their own pains of the past on their rocky road to redemption. Miya, a young woman struggling with the cards she’s been dealt, suffering from crippling anxiety and depression. She’s her own worst enemy, and witnessing her emergence from within her fragile shell, becoming the woman she was always meant to be, is definitely something special to behold. Mason, a resident doctor who has learned the damaging effects of arrogance, he believes he’s left with nothing but tragedy and guilt. His intended escape from his own dire reality leads to his world views crumbling to dust at his feet. Kai, the lone wolf living beyond the world of man, hunted and haunted and hurting, finds comfort in the most unexpected of places. Although Vrana labels the POV of the chapter being read, each is told with a specific voice, there’s no mistaking whose eyes we’re peering though.’
Because you’re not afraid of the dark. You came looking for it.
As expected, there’s a convergence of these characters, each so distinctly different, yet each complementing the others. There’s no shortage of snark and sass, barely veiled insults, and gorgeous transformation. There’s also an underlying romantic element to this book; tender moments and playful banter leading to sexual tension you could cut with a knife. While it does seem a bit rushed and unrealistic, things become clear as the story continues, all the pieces carefully falling into place.
An area this book excels is the atmospheric and immersive worldbuilding. Set in the quaint and quiet Black Hollow, this small British Columbia town harbors many ghastly secrets and superstitions. Local lore has the people on edge, always looking to horizon for the next string of unfortunate events to begin yet again. Beyond its borders lies a dark forest blanketed in fog, a dreamlike setting that houses histories long forgotten. While the fear of sinister fables torments the townspeople, there’s magic and mysteries to be discovered along the meandering paths beneath the forest canopy, and solace to be found beneath the languid branches of the ancient willow. Vrana easily transports readers to another place and time, so perfectly crafted and portrayed.
Creation…destruction…we think of them as opposites, and yet they are like brothers–two sides of the same coin.
The narrative itself is told in exceptionally polished prose, infused with subtle metaphors and surreal elements that requires attention and an open mind to navigate. Beneath what is presented on the surface lies an intelligent discussion inviting readers to dig deeper, not only into the book’s content, but into their own beliefs, as well. To be clear, this is not an epic adventure, but a highly personal account of finding the truth, of finding your true self and purpose. A story within a story, Vrana seamlessly shifts between timelines, points of view, and states of consciousness, allowing for a charming and comfortable read that’s nearly impossible to put down.
The Hollow Gods was one of my most anticipated reads of 2020, and this beautiful tale of acceptance has far exceeded any and all expectations I had prior to falling deeply into A. J. Vrana’s dark and magical world. Utterly consuming with palpable emotion, an engaging mystery, and absolutely delicious tension, this is one that lingers after you’ve turned the final page, an itch that needs to be scratched. The conclusion of the book is left open for readers to discern on their own, but the fateful ending is not meant to be the end, but just the beginning.
If you’re on the hunt for something a bit dark yet cozy, and unafraid to color outside the lines, then The Hollow Gods may just be what you’re looking for.
Note: A huge thank you to the author for providing me with a complementary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
P.S. Despite what others are saying, this is not a werewolf book. This is the story of the Dreamwalker, her wolf, and the coming darkness.
A. J. Vrana is a Serbian-Canadian academic and writer from Toronto, Canada. She lives with her two rescue cats, Moonstone and Peanut Butter, who nest in her window-side bookshelf and cast judgmental stares at nearby pigeons. Her doctoral research examines the supernatural in modern Japanese and former-Yugoslavian literature and its relationship to violence. When not toiling away at caffeine-fueled, scholarly pursuits, she enjoys jewelry-making, cupcakes, and concocting dark tales to unleash upon the world.
Thanks so much for joining us, A. J. Since we already have your official bio, care to tell us about yourself in ten words or less?
I am made of salt, sarcasm, and many pointy things.
What is “Grimdark”?
Ok, confession: I had never heard of the term up until recently. However, that’s not to say I wasn’t exposed to it. I guess loosely speaking, grimdark started as a particular brand of SFF that focused primarily on a kind of violent realism. It’s supremely dystopian, regardless of the setting, and appears to be centered around conflict at a near-apocalyptic scale. But I think what separates ‘war’ in grim dark from ‘war’ in conventional SFF is the tone. War is epic and heroic in traditional fantasy, but in grimdark it’s fucking horrendous. It’s bloody and off-putting and makes your stomach lurch. It’s bodies and bones and scavengers and storm clouds in an eerie silence. There’s no orchestral score, so to speak.
All that said, I do think grimdark has expanded significantly, and I would probably include my own work in that ‘expanded’ version. Rather than focusing solely on traditional ‘battles,’ I’d say that grimdark has grown to include psychological battles and more diverse settings.
What about the Grimdark and Dark Fantasy genres appeal to you most?
I’ve always loved dark fiction. I guess it’s just something in my DNA. As a writer, I’ve always been drawn to telling dark psychological stories veiled beneath the fantastical. Dark fantasy (and horror) are such amazing tools to layer your work and give it depth. So rather than talking about something difficult or uncomfortable explicitly, you get to bury it under a bunch of violent metaphors and cackle in a dark corner while your reader tries to peel those layers back and figure it out.
In a more general sense, I am fascinated by the darkest parts of humanity. What is it about our world that brings out the worst in us? I’m also pretty obsessed with the supernatural and the role it’s played in human culture. It doesn’t seem to matter how advanced our societies get; our fascination with monsters and ghouls persists. I think in many ways, dark fantasy is a modern iteration of old folk tales. It’s a way for us to explore those dark impulses and facets of human nature and society.
What’s a day of writing like in the shoes of A.J.? Do you have any quirks, routines, or rituals?
Well, first off, there are no shoes, just cat slippers. It’s usually spent wrestling with myself to open the document I’m working on and stave off distractions long enough to get into the groove. Some days the groove finds me, other days it doesn’t. Those days I just grit my teeth and push through it. I can’t say I’m much of a “routine” person. I tend to get a bit manic when I work, so I will just work and work and work until eventually the thing is done. One sort-of ritual I have is reading my work to my partner, because it forces me to check how it sounds out loud. I struggle reading out loud with no one else around, so I just force him to stop what he’s doing and tolerate my first draft storytelling.
Give us an idea of how The Hollow Gods came to fruition.
It actually started off as a short story about a wolf who mangled a murderer who was mangling other people whose families were blaming the wolf. But, that was 10 years ago. I wrote the majority of the book while I was living in Sapporo, Japan. The landscape there is so beautiful and it definitely inspired the setting a bit. Many elements of the story drew loosely from South Slavic folklore, which is as dark as folklore comes. A lot of the plot, however, was a work in progress and changed numerous times throughout my many drafts. With this book, I had characters and concepts far more than I had plot, so coming up with the plot to adequately tell my characters’ stories required quite a bit of deliberate contrivance on my part.
Can you share with us something about the book that isn’t in the blurb?
There’s a lot of swearing.
Was there anything specific you drew inspiration from while writing this book?
Aside from Slavic folklore and Hokkaido’s landscape, there’s a particular scene in the book that is almost a word-for-word transcription of a dream I had a bout a place that I wound up visiting while in Japan. Miyajima (off the coast of Hiroshima) has this stunning shrine with a torii gate that comes out form the water when the tide is high. It’s honestly surreal, and I based one of the dream-sequences in the book on it.
I was also inspired by a lot of my research on witch trials in Europe. Fun fact: witches were never burned in the Americas. That was specifically a European tradition, but when I was writing my novel, I took the liberty of drawing mostly from European sources.
All that said, there’s a lot of inspiration I can’t trace. I just don’t think I’m cognizant of all the things that inspire me on a subconscious level. But that’s kind of the beauty of writing stories—you don’t know half the shit you’re externalizing in the process.
What do you hope your readers take away from The Hollow Gods?
Honestly, I just want it to make people think. Of course I hope for people to enjoy themselves and be entertained, but more than anything I want people to feel disrupted by it, to be left with questions and theories. I would love for people to be able to identify broader themes in the work, but more than anything, I want them to feel just a little bit haunted.
What comes first, the plot or the characters?
For me, personally, always characters. Stories just don’t have any meat to them unless you have messy characters at the wheel. I also just love crafting characters and making them come alive. I can rip through a plot-driven book no problem, but it just doesn’t stay with me the way a well-done character-driven book does.
Writing can be a stressful pursuit. Do you have any tips for aspiring authors?
First, find people you trust when it comes to editorial feedback. One of my biggest setbacks was trying to take editing advice from too many people. As a result, my earlier drafts read like they’d been written by three people instead of one person. The problem with feedback is that most people don’t know how to make it actionable. Even if they have rightly detected something that needs improvement, they rarely know how to articulate it in a helpful way. In my opinion, there are only two types of useful feedback: the stuff that resonates and makes you think, “Oh, yeah! That’ll make my book better!” or the stuff you hear over and over again. The latter sucks, but it’s also the most pressing.
Second, be patient. Dear god, be patient. Publishing is a very, very slow industry. Painfully slow. If you’re looking to get traditionally published, expect to do 3-5 drafts of your first book, and that’s not including superficial edits. If you’re querying, expect hundreds of rejections, but don’t send out 100 queries at once. Send 10. If no one bites, revisit your query and your first 10 pages. If agents and publishers bite but don’t want to move past a partial manuscript, revisit your first 100 pages. You’ll think your manuscript is ready. It’s not. Trust me. I thought mine was ready at least 6 times before it actually was. Even now I’m sure it could be better!
Third, don’t get too caught up in the writing culture on social media. Social media presence is more important than ever for marketing, but I will say upfront that there’s a lot of toxicity to the culture. Writing is highly romanticized on social media, much to the detriment of, well, everyone actually aspiring to write. The romanticization of the writing process contributes to imposter syndrome, where you feel like if you’re not constantly frothing with inspiration or itching to write, you just aren’t a writer. Ignore all the self-congratulatory, “you know you’re a writer when…” posts. They’re bullshit and will just make you feel bad. There’s no such thing as being born a writer as twitter would have you believe. It takes practice, dedication, and thick skin. It’s work just as much as its artistry.
Thank you again for taking the time to chat with us, A. J. Do you have anything coming up in the future that you’d like the world to know about?
It was truly my pleasure!! I do have some upcoming projects. My supernatural horror story, These Silent Walls, will be published in Three Crows Magazine’s upcoming volume. I don’t have a date for that yet, but keep an eye out if you like spooky stories. I’m also currently in the editorial stages of the sequel for The Hollow Gods. The sequel is called The Echoed Realm, and it will likely be out in late 2021 or early 2022, but that is 100% up to my publisher and so I can’t guarantee any publication date at the moment.
I was also planning to attend several events this year, like FanExpo in Toronto, but that is super up in the air because of Covid. I anticipate it will likely be cancelled, but I’ll be doing my best to make it to events like it in the coming months/years!