Title ~ Ink and Shadows
Author ~ Rhys Ford
Publisher ~ DSP Publications
Published ~ 7th July 2015
Genre ~ M/M Fantasy, Paranormal
Kismet Andreas lives in fear of the shadows.
For the young tattoo artist, the shadows hold more than darkness. He is certain of his insanity because the dark holds creatures and crawling things only he can see—monsters who hunt out the weak to eat their minds and souls, leaving behind only empty husks and despair.
And if there’s one thing Kismet fears more than being hunted—it’s the madness left in its wake.
The shadowy Veil is Mal’s home. As Pestilence, he is the youngest—and most inexperienced—of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, immortal manifestations resurrected to serve—and cull—mankind. Invisible to all but the dead and insane, the Four exist between the Veil and the mortal world, bound to their nearly eternal fate. Feared by other immortals, the Horsemen live in near solitude but Mal longs to know more than Death, War and Famine.
Mal longs to be… more human. To interact with someone other than lunatics or the deceased.
When Kismet rescues Mal from a shadowy attack, Pestilence is suddenly thrust into a vicious war—where mankind is the prize, and the only one who has faith in Mal is the human the other Horsemen believe is destined to die.
It Just Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This
Before I even start, I need to confess that I’m a long-time Rhys Ford fan. But if I weren’t, Ink and Shadows would have turned me into a dedicated, lifetime admirer of Ms. Ford, one of the finest authors of Gay Fiction writing today.
Ms. Ford has produced such a remarkable body of work, including a number of successful series that span a wide variety of themes and characters, from rock stars (Sinners series), to detectives (The Cole McGinnis books), to the young manager of a hotel for ghosts (the charming Hellsinger novels), that, considering her staggering and wide-ranging imagination, I shouldn’t be surprised by anything she writes. But I must admit, Ink and Shadows threw me for a loop. It was not what I expected. It was so far beyond anything I might have imagined, it literally took my breath away.
This book is so paranormal, it almost redefines the genre. It’s so philosophical, so touching, so scary, so adventurous and built from so many layers that it’s virtually impossible to categorize this astonishing work.
The main characters are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Death, War, Pestilence and Famine. That’s what they’re called, but that’s not their names, it’s their job descriptions. The current War and Famine are not the first, and there seem to have been many Pestilences over the centuries. Only Shi (Death) seems to have had the job forever, and Ari (War), almost as long. Min (Famine) has been around a century-or-so and the young Mal (Pestilence), only a few years. They are a family, these four, with the older three picking on the inexperienced, and rather too naïve Mal, affectionately known as “Cooties” for the diseases he spreads across the earth and time.
Despite their titles, Ms. Ford doesn’t treat them as bad guys. They are Immortals, and the most powerful of them all, but they’re also almost human. Their job is not to punish humanity, but to nudge it in one direction or another, since they’re not allowed to interfere directly with Free Will. Death is, surprisingly, the most compassionate. His job is not to take life, but to help the dead leave their empty corpses and former lives behind, and move on to wherever they’re supposed to go. That doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t take lives; he is merciless against those who would harm them or their own, or threaten the world beyond the Veil.
However, I truly began to understand the nature of the Horsemen only when Pestilence (Mal) explained that he started this little disease called AIDS to drive humanity to band together to battle a common enemy, as did Polio and Ebola. No one was more shocked than Pestilence when this little retrovirus he cooked up ran amok across the globe when his best intentions were thwarted by religious hatred, discrimination, disdain and neglect, and grew into a worldwide pandemic.
This fearsome foursome, who live in a plush high-rise penthouse in San Diego (if it’s really in San Diego - it may well just be on the dark side, beyond the Veil, in the lightless spaces between and beyond that city), gets dragged into a world-threatening battle by a young gay human who’s a remarkably talented painter, occasional tattoo artist, drug addict, and seer. He doesn’t know why he sees the shapes coming out of the shadows, dark monsters of every imaginable (and unimaginable) kind, and ghosts walking around displaced and lost, including an innocent young boy who never leaves his side - his baby brother, Chase, dead these many years. The brothers, Chase (the ghost) and Kismet (the live one) were raised by their mother, the inveterate whore. She didn’t want them interfering with her “dates”, so she’d drug the kids to put them to sleep. One morning, Chase didn’t wake up, dead of an overdose at the hands of his frigid, uncaring mother. Kismet spends some time in the system, anxious to be released from its prison of rape and child-abuse and, at the age of 17, is taken under the wing of the wealthy drug dealer, Nick, who used to boff him while he paid for time with his mother, and now takes care of him, but only in return for the use of Kismet’s body.
For Kismet, the drugs are medication, not recreation. It’s only when he shoots up that he stops seeing and hearing the thousands of voices leaking out from behind the Veil, stops being assaulted by wraiths and other dangerous, clawed monsters that invade his mind and his body. It is the only peace he’s ever known in his young, tortured life.
Kismet is not normal. Yes, it’s true that other humans see things, but it’s not normal for any human to see all the things he does. No human can see the Immortals. He can. In fact, it turns out that Kismet has become immortal himself – not an Immortal like the Horsemen, with a calling and a duty, but a completely human Immortal, something that’s never been seen before. For a variety of reasons, that makes Kismet more valuable than gold or diamonds, because anyone who can decode his blood, learn his secret, could become both immortal and incredibly powerful.
And that’s where a couple more Immortals come in. Faith and Charity are brother and sister, powerful, though not even in the same league as the Horsemen, who are feared and respected throughout both worlds, the real and the dark, and have been for eons. These disloyal siblings are jealous of the Horsemen’s power and see their roles, not as a noble calling, but as a prison to escape from. Beckett is the human Magus (sorcerer) who is Faith’s lover and accomplice in the siblings’ plot to kill the Horsemen and take over the world. Needless to say, Faith is not faithful and Charity has none. They are betrayers who are willing to put the entire world at terrible risk of untold suffering and imminent destruction. The Horsemen cannot let that happen.
The conspirators are using Kismet as their guinea pig, lacing his heroine with the distilled essence of the ingredients they use to cast their spells, achieve true immortality, and use the monsters they conjure up to threaten and kill all who oppose them. His blood is the drug that will make them more powerful than the Horsemen, and they must have him to harvest it.
But Kismet is not going to go along willingly, and in the first battle for his blood, the Horsemen get called out to rescue him from the jaws of a wraith from hell. In the process, the young Mal saves the vulnerable boy, and is stunned when he sees Kismet’s wounds healing while he holds him. This can’t be. This has never happened: an impoverished, unwashed drug addict, a human, who is also immortal.
In that moment, it’s entirely possible that Kismet and Mal fell in love, each for the first time. The life of an Immortal is lonely; the life of an addict living in a slum, battling the demons both inside and out, is lonely too. They have much in common.
A great deal of heart-pounding action ensues, as the conspirators unleash a host of monsters upon the Horsemen and Kismet, almost killing the Immortals as the Veil grows thinner from the mucking-about by the Magus. Things that were intended to be hidden suddenly appear in the very real world, and those protected by the Veil suddenly become vulnerable.
I won’t disclose the outcome of the battles (no spoilers, sorry), and to Ms. Ford’s eternal credit, she doesn’t telegraph or tease it, either. However, adding to the strangeness and uniqueness of this very unusual book, there is also no ending. Yes, things do wind down, things do get back closer to normal, but not entirely. Ms. Ford has allowed enough of the bad guys to remain afoot to leave the reader wanting more, and plenty of opportunity for her to provide it - which leads me to believe that this is not just a single book, but the introductory book of a new series, or at least a book with a sequel. I certainly do hope so.
What can I say about Ms. Ford’s writing? She is one of the very best. Not a word out of place, not a flagging moment in the story, characters so vivid, you forget you’re reading fiction, battle scenes that steal your breath, love scenes that move your soul, concepts that challenge your intellect. This is what I dream of in all the books I read. This is what I have come to expect from Rhys Ford.
What I didn’t expect was such a powerful book that works on so many levels simultaneously: an action story, a gay romance, an allegory, a cautionary tale, a skeptical take on religion, a passionate exploration of drug addiction, exploitation and poverty, a denunciation of the hypocrisy and bigotry of the human race, and a celebration of the families we make. And above it all, just a hell of a good read. Once I opened the book, I couldn’t put it down – and I didn’t.
If you’re looking for a challenging, exciting read that will stun you and move you, Ink and Shadows is that book. If you’re like me, and not always a huge fan of fantasy and the paranormal, don’t let that stop you. This book so transcends those genres that it defines its own category.
I can’t help but give Ink and Shadows my highest recommendation – after all, it just doesn’t get any better than this.
Meet Rhys Ford
Rhys Ford was born and raised in Hawai’i then wandered off to see the world. After chewing through a pile of books, a lot of odd food, and a stray boyfriend or two, Rhys eventually landed in San Diego, which is a very nice place but seriously needs more rain.
Rhys admits to sharing the house with three cats of varying degrees of black fur and a ginger cairn terrorist. Rhys is also enslaved to the upkeep a 1979 Pontiac Firebird, a Toshiba laptop, and an overworked red coffee maker.
My books can be purchased, folded and first chapters read at Dreamspinner Press. http://www.dreamspinnerpress.com