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Harbinger Island

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Every community has a dark side, a sordid past that's kept to hushed whispers and out of the ears of prying tourists - and Harbinger Island has the darkest shades of them all. Professor Bartleby Prouse is obsessed with the secrets and occult conspiracies surrounding the island's myriad of unsolved murders and mysteries. He'll have to use every bit of magic and cunning at his disposal if he is to protect his students after they unwittingly draw the attention of one of the island's most insidious cults.

A collection of character-driven stories which combine dark fantasy and horror elements within a modern setting. The diverse cast of LGBT+ individuals come from various backgrounds, and the stories examine the prejudices they experience in their day-to-day lives along with the supernatural horrors they face.


First published February 1, 2017

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About the author

Dorian Dawes

7 books7 followers
Dorian Dawes is a self-described social justice witch and full-time gender disaster. They also like to write things. Their work attempts to bring a diverse queer perspective into the sci-fi, fantasy, and horror genres. When not writing they can be found watching horror movies, playing too many videogames, or hiding from the existential horror of it all beneath a black, fuzzy blanket.

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Displaying 1 - 9 of 9 reviews
Profile Image for Heloise West.
Author 7 books105 followers
February 26, 2017
Excellent debut of short stories linked by whatever evils inhabit the island besides the humans and which the humans must fight.
Profile Image for Elle Maruska.
232 reviews90 followers
September 8, 2017
I really enjoyed this book. Like. REALLY. A LOT. MUCH ENJOYMENT.

First off, I love the interconnected-short-story format when it's done right and here, it's done right. Instead of trying to pack a bunch of content into a single narrative, having multiple narratives that involve a host of connected characters allows for the story to move organically.

I also love how the book doesn't feel the need to explain itself. It doesn't infodump, or go into convoluted back stories...it gives you enough information to enjoy what's happening while leaving enough unsaid to keep you thinking about it. I loved the shout-outs to the big names of cosmic horror (hi King in Yellow!!) but I ALSO loved how it called out the grosser aspects of weird fiction. Lovecraft was a racist, a misogynist, an overall awful person for all he introduced in terms of his stories; thus cosmic horror from marginalized voices will always be my favorite. Marginalized authors using characters that exist within different axes of oppression to tell weird horror stories is incredibly effective. In this book especially, the author makes it a point to show his characters' strengths against the occult horrors ranged against them emerge from their marginalizations.

I would love to read more from this author, and I'd LOVE more books set within the universe of Harbinger Island; it's a terrifying world for sure, but one with enough points of light to give you a bit of hope.
Profile Image for Bryan Cebulski.
Author 4 books39 followers
August 23, 2017
Recently I’ve felt that, as a critic, I have an obligation to approach critique differently when dealing with small-scale content. I know I should allow that people have thick skin and can handle criticism, but when the creator has a high chance of actually coming across my response to their work, my writing shouldn’t be as detached as it might be for a book printed by major publication. I want to be and know most creators would want me to be honest, even if that honesty means declaring that I didn’t enjoy the work. But on the other hand, I want these small-publication or indie creators to thrive and feel motivated. Even if I’m critical, I want it understood that if I’m taking the time to write an in-depth review of something, that means I feel deeply enough about it that I think it deserves attention, if not necessarily unanimous praise.

This in mind, I start by saying that I did not enjoy Harbinger Island by Dorian Dawes. Some parts worked better than others, but in its entirely it didn’t work for me. I thought the setting was underdeveloped, the atmosphere thus lacking. The short stories collectively working into one larger narrative arc didn’t work for me either (though to be fair I haven’t been thrilled with this structure in any novel, as with Lovecraft Country and Everfair). The writing felt in-your-face when it should have felt subdued. There was little mounting tension. I liked the characters but wasn’t convinced by their dialogue and behavior.

Now part of this has something to do with the way identity is handled in the novel. Every character in Harbinger Island is a minority, meeting at underrepresented intersections of race, gender, religion, subculture, and queerness. At first I thought that Dawes was leaning too heavily on identity as encompassing the entire character. The introductions of these characters in the first few chapters came off to me as “I am X, Y, and Z, and that is my whole personality.”

To an extent, Harbinger Island can still be criticized for abrupt, unnatural-sounding introductions. But the more I read, the more I realized that the main reason these intros were coming off as unnatural was because they weren’t what I was used to. Mainstream cis, hetero, white narratives don’t demand an establishment of identity in quite the same way as minority narratives. Characters in Lovecraft or Derleth or whomever are assumed to be proper Anglo-Saxon types, and so they don’t need to declare. There’s a whole spectrum of identities in Dawes’ work and while the author does introduce them a bit gracelessly, it’s no worse than I would see handled in most pulp horror fiction. Seeing it in the best light, these intros are so abrupt because they merely serve to get us quickly to where we need to go.

While I’m still unsatisfied with how identity is dealt with in this novel, it was more because Dawes didn’t delve as deeply into their characters as much as I would have liked. I could forgive those abrupt intros if we got into the characters’ heads more, and I think we only received surface-level impressions. There are a few solid character interactions. The relationship between Veronika and Kara was affecting, since you got to see the nuanced arc of their feelings developing concurrently with the eldritch machinations of the main narrative. But others aren’t as convincing. There is a Sikh character named Dayabir Singh for example (who, incidentally, reminds me a lot and was probably inspired by an individual on Twitter who has unfortunately since left the platform due to harassment), who never really has a minute to discuss his background. “Sikh” feels less like a religious identity for the character than an easy means of communicating his appearance and persona. And when Dayabir and another character become romantically involved by the end, it feels less like a believable development than as a requirement to pair off all the characters.

Surface-level characters aren’t necessarily a deal breaker in pulp horror, of course, but in order to counterbalance lack of characterization you need good horror. The writing is solid, with some typos and awkward sentences here and there but ultimately capable and smooth. It fails however because it doesn’t communicate some of the essential pillars of Lovecraftian horror: a solid sense of atmosphere and place, and a genuine sense of terror. Harbinger Island‘s descriptions are always turned up to 11. There is no building dread, everything goes from “Is something wrong?” to “Everything is trying to fucking kill us at once”. If one thing is wrong, everything is wrong. It gets comical how messed up the setting is at almost all times, it’s a wonder anyone still lives there at all when cultists seem to be murdering everyone all the time. There is one section that attempts to go for slow, quiet dread, in which one character goes to an eerie, empty hotel to stay the night, but this section was too brief and ultimately too tangential to the main plot to make a large enough impact.

The dialogue shares this lack of subtlety. It often repeats what is happening in the action, lampshading the ridiculousness of certain scenarios when it should just be rolling with it. The result is a weird mishmash of comedy and horror, awkward to read. I couldn’t be adequately humored because there was too much fucked up shit going on but I couldn’t be adequately scared because there were too many laughs.

And there’s the narrative itself, which moves in awkward starts and stops. Returning to the Sikh character Dayabir, he begins his section of the story by visiting an historical society for the first time. He is somehow hired immediately as an assistant, and from there is rushed into the middle of Harbinger Island’s conflicts. The scene unfolds far too quickly. The historical society is seriously involved in unlocking the dark mysteries of Harbinger Island, and the character is brought in on this secret mission almost as soon as he’s brought onto the scene. A little fix would have improved the believability of this scene tremendously: Make the character already a worker at the historical society, remark upon some small weird things he’s seen, and then get him to actually see even greater and more consequential weird things. The Historical Society would then more believably trust him, and it would be a more believably paced sequence of events. As it stands, though, this is a representative example of the problem running through the novel. Again, little action builds, and when it does it goes from 0 to 11.

A great deal of the novel would be improved by these little adjustments, which is important to note because it suggests that Dawes will likely be much more successful in future writing projects, unshackled by the inherently flawed confines of a first published work, which has likely gone through numerous iterations, which causes pacing issues. But here the adjustments aren’t made and it’s up to the reader how much it does or doesn’t work for them. Granted I am much more inclined toward slow, atmospheric horror, and someone with a greater affinity for King-style all-out horror will likely find more to enjoy. It’s just a shame for me because I love the tropes we’re dealing with and I love Dorian Dawes’ ambition: A Lovecraftian horror novel for a modern, queer audience. It’s a brilliant way to carry on this strand of the horror tradition because it’s essentially a big “fuck you” to the white dominated, racist, sexless (when not explicitly homophobic) Lovecraftian legacy. Which is why, again, I want Dawes to flourish and create more work. Harbinger Island didn’t work for me, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a promising start.

Review originally published on my blog here: https://bryanonion.com/2017/08/15/rev...
Profile Image for Elisa Rolle.
Author 142 books222 followers
December 4, 2017
2017 Rainbow Awards Honorable Mention: Harbinger Island Dorian Dawes
1) There was much to like about this book. The title was evocative, and the diversity of characters was both welcome and believable. It was a solid, good read.
2) Delightfully creepy tale that could well have been part of  the Twilight Zone series, complete with menacing townsfolk and rotting buildings A different twist is given in part by the main characters who are mostly transgendered. Interesting and spooky plot.
3) I loved the way the stories all linked together to form a full story.  Great sense of evil and horror, and interesting diverse characters.  Hope there's a sequel as it feels as though the fight against evil has only just begun.
Profile Image for Jesse.
42 reviews
January 3, 2021
I wanted to read this book because it sounded interesting and promised a cast of queer characters. The characters delivered, but I just couldn’t get into the story.

My problem starts with the first half of the book. I didn’t like the way we were introduced to countless characters and I wasn’t sure if there was going to be an actual point to the story or if the whole book was just going to be vignettes of the weird things that happen to the different characters that live on this island and know each other. I didn’t know when the introductions would end.

But eventually around the halfway point, the stories finally start to interconnect. Of course, by that time I had taken a long break from the book and had to reconnect to the character and remember both who they were and what had happened to them. That was my fault, but speaks to how I didn’t know when the character introductions would end. Finally all the characters get together and have a final climactic scene that really isn’t that climactic. The big climactic scene happens after most of the characters leave and one character is left behind to fight several people.

I was afraid that for a horror book, there would be a happy ending. And not that there can’t be a horror book with a happy ending, but all but one character escaped alive. That’s one thing I appreciated. Although I suppose the characters left alive do have to live with the trauma of everything that happened.

However, the next problem I have is with the ending. There are several loose threads that are left open and I’m not sure if it’s to lead into a sequel or if it’s there on purpose to give the reader a sense of dread and that there are mysteries that will never be solved, and questions that will be left unanswered.

I do appreciate the allegory of the Maleficarum being...well, Republicans. And the irony of most followers being just zombies who get turned into literal zombies when they’re killed near the end.

My next problem is in how quickly and unrealistic the relationships are handled. These queer characters talk about how they are pretty bullied wherever they go but are quick to flirt with people whose sexualities they don’t even know and just met. One scene they’re meeting each other and flirting and the next scene they’re together without any mention of how much time has gone by. And the next scene they’re confessing their love to each other. Now, I understand that romance wasn’t the main plot point, but it still didn’t make sense to me how fast these characters fell for each other. They all made more sense as really close friends than couples.

Anyway, it’s not bad for a first book and it’s easy to read so I can’t give it one star, but I didn’t connect with it and I probably won’t read it again so I’m giving it two stars.

Edit: 3 stars cause I feel like I was too harsh, and also it wasn’t that bad.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Suze.
3,449 reviews
March 10, 2018
Well, that was a story and a half!!!
Told as a series of shorter stories with a common theme and recurring characters moving towards a resolution of the weird and horrid events on Harbinger Island.
This sort of story is outside of my normal reading but the shorter story chapters mostly kept my interest.
There are cults and horrors and tentacles and devil and ichor and hexes and spells and witches. I can’t say I fully know what was going on and I’m not sure what exactky happened at the end.
Bartleby Prouse is perhaps the common thread but he is very much in the background and there is a host of characters that fight evil in various ways.
Profile Image for Anne Barwell.
Author 17 books95 followers
October 29, 2018
I loved the way the stories all linked together to form a full story. Great sense of evil and horror, and interesting diverse characters. Hope there's a sequel as it feels as though the fight against evil has only just begun.

More detailed review to come
Profile Image for Glenn.
103 reviews30 followers
August 14, 2018
Absolutely excellent bit of modern fantasy with a mostly queer cast of characters. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!
Displaying 1 - 9 of 9 reviews

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