Creatures of Want and Ruin: A sheer pulpy delight

Reposting to include Marion’s new review.

Creatures of Want and Ruin by Molly Tanzer science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsCreatures of Want and Ruin by Molly Tanzer science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsCreatures of Want and Ruin by Molly Tanzer

At first glance, based on the title and cover art, Molly Tanzer’s Creatures of Want and Ruin (2018) looks and sounds like it’s a sequel to her earlier novel Creatures of Will and Temper, but it’s not. The stories have different characters and settings, so I’m going to treat Creatures of Want and Ruin as a stand-alone novel.

During prohibition, Ellie West is a bootlegger in Amityville, a village on New York’s Long Island. Due to her father’s declining health and inability to work at his trade as a fisherman, her family struggles to make ends meet but is unwilling to accept charity. Ellie’s brother Lester, a smart young man who was crippled by polio, has been accepted to medical school, but the family can’t afford to send him. That’s why Ellie is selling moonshine.

Ellis’s parents, who have been tolerant of her activities in the past, have recently come under the sway of a charismatic new pastor who is “preaching something that didn’t sound like the gospel,” including abstinence from alcohol, intolerance of immigrants, and suppression of women’s rights. This cult leader’s influence in the community is rising, but Ellie refuses to conform.

When Ellie gets a lucrative bootlegging deal, supplying illegal hooch to some rich folks who are vacationing in a Long Island mansion, she thinks she will finally earn enough money for Lester’s schooling. But things go south when this particular moonshine, which she acquired from a questionable source, seems to have some supernatural qualities that are, at least, foreboding and, possibly, dangerous. She teams up with an unlikely ally — a wealthy woman named Fin who’s in a failing marriage — to solve the double-mystery of the hooch and the cult.

Molly Tanzer

Molly Tanzer

Creatures of Want and Ruin is dark, imaginative, entertaining, and well-written with a great setting and some nice imagery. The characters are original and, for the most part, developed well enough to feel real. I liked Ellie’s independence and the way Fin understood and fell in love with Long Island while her silly companions just wanted to have fun on their vacation.

While the plot of Creatures of Want and Ruin is nicely paced, there were a few places where it was predictable. For example, I knew almost from the beginning that two characters who hadn’t yet met would be getting together. But there were some unexpected twists, too.

There were several places where characters made decisions that served the plot well but seemed unnatural or out of character. Most of these involved characters deciding, without good reason, to leave or go somewhere so that other characters would be left alone (and vulnerable) or would meet each other (e.g., the two I mentioned above) or would be in the right place to witness something bad happening. One instance involved two characters getting into an argument that seemed like unnecessary drama just so they could separate for a while. In one of the final scenes of the novel, one character admits to murdering another in front of the victim’s mother and the conversation goes on for a very long time before the mother finally says something. (It is more shocking than I can relate here without spoilers.) In fact, everyone’s reaction to, and behavior after, this tragic death is completely unbelievable — it’s the novel’s biggest flaw, in my opinion.

Still, there’s a lot I like about Creatures of Want and Ruin and I loved the way Molly Tanzer ended the story. The audiobook version, by Recorded Books, is narrated by Gabra Zackman. It’s a nice production but I had to speed it up due to Zackman’s sleep-inducing pace. At double speed, it sounds great.

Oh, and I love the cover art by Eduardo Recife!


Creatures of Want and Ruin by Molly Tanzer science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsCreatures of Want and Ruin, published in 2018, is the second in Molly Tanzer’s DIABOLISTS series. These three books are linked by theme and one premise: that entities from another dimension, called demons, grant humans certain magical abilities in return for physical possession. Each book takes place in a different historical period. In this one, we travel to Long Island during the jazz era, for an adventure that’s a cross between an F. Scott Fitzgerald story and a pulpy adventure that could have appeared in Weird Tales. The climactic scene is masterfully lurid. As a bonus, much of the story is set near that favorite haunted house site, Amityville, NY.

Ellie West runs bootleg liquor across Long Island Sound to help her family make ends meet. Her father, wounded in the first World War, no longer goes out on the water. He is a bitter, angry man. Even though Ellie is basically supporting the family, he berates her constantly. Her brother Lester, who survived polio, got a scholarship to medical school, but Robert West never fails to tell him that he’s a weakling. Even Ellie’s hard-working, movie-star-handsome fiancé isn’t good enough, since his parents were Polish immigrants.

Coming back across the sound one night in a storm, Ellie has a terrifying experience with another boat. (I’m avoiding spoilers.)  She comes away with a cache of strange moonshine. Ellie tells no one the truth of what happened. Later, the Reverend Hunter makes a visit to her parents’ house. Hunter’s anti-immigrant, white-supremacist pronouncements are disturbing, but not as disturbing as the sparkles of oily rainbow light around Hunter. Ellie’s seen those before.

Delphine Coulthead, who goes by Fin, is the wife of a wealthy party-boy Jimmy, who has rented a house on the water near Amityville. A crowd of hangers-on has followed, including Fin’s former friend Bobbie, a scandalous woman. Fin finds herself pushed out of the group, so much so that people mistake her for Jimmy’s sister instead of his wife. Fin would rather read her books, practice archery or explore the island than endure endless drinking and card parties. She asserts herself, though, when Bobbie starts to plan a huge party. Fin insists on purchasing the booze for the party and chooses Ellie. To meet the commission, Ellie throws in the moonshine she took from the damaged boat. That liquor causes hallucinations in people, and Fin has a horrifying vision of the destruction of Long Island.

Hunter’s propaganda, the sudden irruption of oily, dank mushrooms all over the island, and Fin’s fearsome vision converge. It’s up to Ellie, Fin, and a handful of others to save Long Island from a demonic transformation. To succeed, Fin must reach out to a demon herself, with serious consequences.

I loved Fin’s backstory. She had been a suffragist and a women’s birth control advocate, until a brush with the law frightened her and she skittered into the relative safety of a society marriage. Over the course of the story, she realizes that she is naturally a fighter. Ellie, meanwhile, has to face ugly truths about her father. Ellie is a scrapper in more than one way. Her band of fighters includes her fiancé Gabriel, who reads Weird Tales and Argosy; Jones, the sexy deputy who clearly carries a torch for Ellie, Ellie’s bootlegger friend SJ and SJ’s brother Aaron. SJ, a Black woman moonshiner, is the most at risk of them all, although Hunter’s hooded minions do threaten Gabriel because of his Polish heritage.

Tanzer weaves in themes that are familiar from her other work. Ellie is flirting with a polyamorous relationship with Gabriel and Deputy Jones. Misogyny rears its head in a number of ways, large and small. Like the other books in this series, making a deal with a demon is morally ambiguous. A specific demon may not be inherently evil, but while demons are curious about humanity, they aren’t altruistic. The demon Fin contacts, for instance, states plainly that it doesn’t care what happens to Long Island. They are not benign, but they are not all evil, and making a deal with them is the ultimate act of free will, and means surrendering that free will at some point.

I enjoyed Creatures of Want and Ruin very much. The final quarter of the book was a sheer pulpy delight as Tanzer pulls out all the melodramatic stops and, to mix metaphors, goes for broke. The visuals are convincingly weird, and I could imagine a Frank Frazetta cover illustration for the climax. It was probably my favorite of the three novels. It’s a weird, sharp, convoluted love letter to Long Island, and definitely a book I will read again.

~Marion Deeds

Published in 2018. A finalist for the Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel. Amityville baywoman Ellie West fishes by day and bootlegs moonshine by night. It’s dangerous work under Prohibition — independent operators like her are despised by federal agents and mobsters alike — but Ellie’s brother was accepted to college and Ellie’s desperate to see him go. So desperate that when wealthy strangers ask her to procure libations for an extravagant party, Ellie sells them everything she has, including some booze she acquired under unusual circumstances. What Ellie doesn’t know is that this booze is special. Distilled from foul mushrooms by a cult of diabolists, those who drink it see terrible things–like the destruction of Long Island in fire and flood. The cult is masquerading as a church promising salvation through temperance and a return to “the good old days,” so it’s hard for Ellie to take a stand against them, especially when her father joins – but Ellie loves Long Island, and she loves her family, and she’ll do whatever it takes to ensure neither is torn apart.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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