Tennyson Middlebrook never considered himself a storyteller. The fairy tales he invented for his childhood friend Allison were only meant as a distraction from their troubled lives. For Tennyson, the stories were a whim, meant only to offer comfort in a bleak time of mass extinction and despair. The characters in his stories never even had names...
But Lil'it is real, if not quite human. She is feh, a non-person, existing in a fractured world of hoarded knowledge where the simple act of writing is a crime punishable by death. At best she is property; at worst she is an exotic commodity, something to be sold off to rich, superstitious lords and bankers who would use her organs as aphrodisiacs. She lives in a cage, kept as a pet, her saliva a pathogen used to concoct potions. But when she is sold to the prince of a kingdom as a plaything, she discovers her world is much bigger, more dangerous, and far more terrifying than she had ever imagined from inside the safety of her prison.
The world has been afflicted by bloom, a parasitic fungus striking down the very people who might be able to stop it. For a disease that feeds on information, the minds and memories of humanity are the perfect food.
As bloom scatters the remains of his species, Tennyson becomes separated from Allison. When he learns that she may still be alive, he must decide how far he is willing to go to see the end of the world with the only woman he ever loved... even if she has no memory of him.
One part plague horror, one part dark fantasy. A fungus spreads across the globe, consuming minds and bodies alike, and Tennyson Middlebrook must find his childhood friend before the world ends, even if she has no memory of him. Meanwhile, Lil’it, a non-human slave, discovers the price for her freedom in a world where information is a commodity. Both stories ask the question: How far will information go to be free? – Martin Kee
"Written in a style something like George R.R. Martin meets Jeff Noon with a little Anne Rice, Bloom stands out as a hybrid fantasy sci-fi tale — complete with a little touch of apocalypse. This, thank the gods, isn't a YA book (although older teens will love it): it's much more gritty and exciting than that. Which is what everyone needed. A really grown-up fantasy read. Adults basking in the slim pickings of YA books to quell the huge fantasy appetite left by the flavor of Martin and Noon will find something really tasty here. Poetic, funny, dark and exciting, Kee is set for a great career in this mashup genre he's carving for himself.
Our protagonist Tennyson Middlebrook (despite his Tolkien-style name) is a real boy in a real world, with real issues. His father is mean and abusive and doesn't care for his son's interest in becoming a writer. But when Allison becomes sick with Scribbler's Disease and can't stop writing, and Bloom starts infecting the world by feeding on information, that life becomes dangerous — in both Lil'it's world and Tennyson's.
With a beautiful cover and a solid format,and editing well-handled, this book is also a good example of how professional a self-published book can be. Given the style of the writing, with odd words and DNA strings spelt out, the work is very successful in showing how well an unusual piece can work if given the attention it deserves. Kee cleverly used beta readers on Goodreads to catch errors, and it really paid off for him given the real finish this writing has. Self-published work should always be like this, and that is why we awarded our Best Fiction prize to Martin Kee."
"Bloom relates the respective stories of Tennyson Middlebrook and his best friend, Allison, young children living in a world that is on the brink of collapse thanks to a parasitic fungus called "Bloom" and that of Lil'it, a fehconsidered less than human who is passed around like an abused puppy bought on a whim. All three must learn how to navigate their crumbling worlds where each discovers their roles to be far more important than they could have ever imagined and that their lives are intrinsically intertwined.
Bloom is an interesting mix of the Gothic and fairy tale, a world where the fantastic collides to examine the horrors of what happens when the past has been all but forgotten, thereby dooming it to repeat. All three main characters are societal throwaways — Tennyson and Allison are both children who live in a trailer park and Lil'it is both feared and revered by those who inhabit her world. By large, Kee's novel examines three ideas: the concept of detrimentally using a small section of society for the greater good of the whole, the collision of science and religion, and the gulf that exists between the educated and the uneducated, subjects that loom large in modern society. The overall question it posits—what would happen if information became currency—is one that has certainly been asked before, and the outcome Kee provides is both bleak and hopeful. The narrative language, while forthright, is seamless and packs an emotional punch without being preachy. The more horrific situations in which the characters find themselves, while not graphic, might be difficult for some readers.
Though Bloom is a bit slow at the start, Kee does an extraordinary job of tying the two worlds together and the plot quickly gains momentum and races along."
"Bloom is a lovely telling of two seemingly different stories. There's Tennyson and Lil'it—one a boy/young man whose story takes place in our world; the other a faerie, whose story is set in a different world altogether. It was fun and interesting reading about these two very different characters and worlds, wondering all the while how they were related.
That, I think, is the strongest quality of Bloom—the stories within the story, separate yet part of the whole. Wondering how the two worlds could be related to one another created a deeply engaging narrative, as did the characters that I found to be interesting and genuine. The story is, at times, endearing, which was a pleasant contrast to the sometimes more gruesome parts.
I've had a really hard time trying to figure out what to rate this book. It's worthy of five stars for its uniqueness as well as wonderfully touching moments that I found wholly unexpected for this kind of book. But there are issues. There were a fair amount of typos that kind of let the story down in their own incessant way. The pacing also kind of flagged in the middle and then the end came too soon, in my opinion. But maybe I only think that because it's a really great story, and I just didn't want it to end. I suppose 4.5 stars would be the rating I'd give it, and for the sites that don't do half-stars, that means rounding up to five.
Bloom is a story that is one part sci-fi, one part fantasy, and seasoned with a good dash of horror. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys these genres, or to anyone who is looking for an interesting and unique read. It's definitely one of the best books I've read in a while and I'm glad to have found it."
Sample: Chapter 1
recorded memory: T. Middlebrook
estimated age: 10
godstem fragment: 5944445-2014b
pre-mycelicene age: minus 15 yrs
It was the second dead body I had ever seen in my life, but the first outside the formal surroundings of a funeral. I had been five then, asking my father Jack why they replaced Mommy with a waxed figure.
Allison and I hadn't gone looking for it, this particular body, the body that would be my first encounter with bloom. In fact, if it weren't for a million little frogs we probably never would have found it to begin with.
We were both ten years old, sitting on the curb counting cars when they appeared: a swarm of little baby toads, fresh out of the river, an advancing army trying to make their way across the scorching asphalt to the other side. They were dark as stones and hopping with blind determination. Not one of them was larger than my thumb.
"The toadies!" Allison cried, her little hand going to her mouth.
A car rushed by, startling us and killing the baby toads in two long, bloody strips with a sound that reminded me of traffic in rain. Allison screamed and ran out into the street as I caught her by the sleeve of her green Visalia Oaks tee-shirt. A truck flew past, filling our world with a red blur, honking and swerving. He skidded to a halt in a cloud of blue smoke and raised his finger out the window before peeling off. His bumper sticker read HONK IF YOU DON'T BRAKE FOR SOCIALISTS.
The baby toads, unperturbed, continued their migration across the death trap of a Central Valley country road with asphalt so hot it would melt the soles of your shoes.
"They're all getting crushed!" she said. "We have to save them! We have to!"
I searched around. The dirt was arid and dry, except for the runoff irrigation that muddied the walnut grove behind us. But Allison had already started cupping her shirt, scooping up the little critters and dumping them into her pouch where they would pee, then hop back out onto the hot country road, just in time to be run over by the next Prius or Chevy. To them we were every bit as dangerous as the cars.
"We have to get something better," she said, dumping the few toads that she had saved into the grass. "We need something to carry them in."
"They're just toads," I said.
"They don't know that! It isn't their fault they're too stupid to know when they're being saved."
People tend to think of California as a beach, just few miles from Disneyland, but everything between LA and San Francisco is actually hot, dry farmland with scorching summers, freezing winters, and fog so thick they close the schools.
A mayonnaise jar stuck out of the thirsty ground near a dusty tarp covering a bench. The jar appeared as though it had been drying in the earth for decades. This would be the vessel to save the pathetic little creatures. The bench was against the side of a house that had belonged to Mr. Baker. He was extremely old, the kind of old that was defined by adult diapers and the smell of strange ointments. He used to wave at us from that bench, even though neither of us ever approached him.
"How about this?" I held up the jar victoriously, then froze.
That hand that he had used to wave with was visible from under the tarp, the fingers withered and stiff, ending in yellow nails, the veins a deep South road map with liver spots and the counties and hairs as the landmarks.
Allison had left the road and appeared behind me. Her breathing was staggered and we both just stood there for a while staring at the hand.
"Is it Mr. Baker?" she asked.
"I think so."
"We have to be sure," she said.
We both swiveled our heads around to see if anyone else was nearby, but the country road that ran by our mobile home park was empty of people. Neither of us wanted to flag down a car just yet.
Allison was the one who touched it first, reaching down, using the jar to tap the hand. It was stiff and dry as the ground.
"He's dead. Let's go," I said.
"We still don't know if it's him."
She grabbed the tip of the tarp and pulled it back.
I'm still not sure why he was underneath the tarp or for how long. Maybe someone thought he was asleep and covered him. Maybe he knew it was his time and covered himself. But it was him. Mr. Baker would do more waving to us.
The valley air was hot and dry, which made for a great dehydrating environment. His skin had turned to a drum-like leather which had begun to stretch and cave in, revealing the tendons and musculature. The eyes were closed except for small slits, the cheeks sunken, white hair so fine that it could have been cotton candy still in the machine.
We stared at him for a long time before either of us said anything, two fascinated kids frozen in the face of death's reality.
"How do you think he died?" I said.
"He was old," said Allison. "He died of a case of old."
His neck was exposed and we both noticed at the same time that a patch of dark fur was sprouting below the ear, the way a large mole or birthmark will sometimes grow unusually thick hairs, except this was almost as wispy as the hair on his head. It rose up from the skin with fine little tendrils, each one with what looked like a little dewdrop at the end.
"Do you hear that?" she said.
"Hear? Hear what?" But then I did hear it, very faint, a rustling sound—blown leaves or a newspaper being crinkled. There was no wind. The valley air was as still and stale as a summer desert.
"It sounds like singing," she said.
She had begun to reach for it when a voice from behind made us both jump. "What the hell are you doing?"
We spun around, forgetting the mayonnaise jar, the tarp, and Mr. Baker all at once. The man standing there behind us very much alive was a police officer in a dark blue uniform, his cruiser parked on the side of the road, its lights still spinning. He peered down at us from behind dark sunglasses.
"I asked you what you were doing?" he repeated.
We both faced him with guilty expressions as he tried to see around us.
"Someone reported a couple of kids playing in the road by themselves. I hope that wasn't you two."
"No sir," we said almost in chorus.
"What's that?" he pointed.
"We didn't do anything—" I started to say, but he gestured for us to move.
He took two steps toward the bench before he saw the grizzled hand. His own hand went to the radio at his shoulder, squelching the radio receiver there. He reported a "10-45" and muttered for backup.
"Are we in trouble?" I asked.
"Not unless you had something to do with this."
"No, sir. We just found him like that."
"You know him?"
"We never talked to him."
"Do you know his name?"
"Mr. Baker," we both said in chorus again.
He interrogated us a bit longer until a second police car rolled up. Two officers got out and approached us. The three of them spoke to one another in a huddle, when one of them finally said we could go.
"Hey wait up," one of them said. We both turned to face him.
"Where do you kids live?"
"River View," I said.
"The trailer park?"
"Do your parents know you were playing in the street, causing accidents?"
"And do you think you'd like them to know that's what you were doing?"
We both shook our heads.
"Then you best find someplace safer to play. I don't want us to have this conversation again. Do I make myself clear?"
We both nodded in unison.
"What are you kids, brother and sister?"
We glanced at each other and giggled. Other adults had made that assumption before. I shook my head.
"Alright," he said, and shooed us away while he pulled out a notepad.
We got as far as the wall that separated Mr. Baker's house from our mobile complex before crouching in front of it, peering through the bushes at the officers.
The paramedics arrived and pulled on blue gloves. They didn't seem to be in much of a hurry since Mr. Baker wasn't going anywhere. The tarp came off and I heard Allison gasp. Even the officers took a few steps back.
Had we pulled the tarp all the way off, Allison and I would have seen it as well. The black fur on his neck was mold, and it covered Mr. Baker from the waist down. It looked as if he had fallen asleep with a black wool blanket over his legs. Both the officers and the medics immediately donned paper masks as one cop spoke a bit more urgently into his mic.
"Is that what bloom looks like?" Allison whispered.
I shrugged. I didn't know.
"It looks like the pictures," she said.
"It just looks like mold," I said. "Like bread mold, doesn't it?"
"Yeah, but what if it is bloom?"
"It isn't…" But I wasn't sure. Everyone said that the pictures on the internet were a hoax.
A white windowless van pulled up behind our hiding position, blocking us is. We couldn't leave without getting caught and neither of us wanted that. A man emerged wearing a white coverall and a plastic mask, the kind with the filter on the front. In one hand was what might have been a folded Glad bag; in his other hand, a long metal instrument that had a distinct turkey thermometer appearance.
They took samples and measured everything: the bench, Mr. Baker, the mayo jar. One of them inserted a metal probe into the dense black fur that covered the old man's lower half and took down more measurements. Allison and I were about to lose interest, until they moved him.
He came free of the bench with a sound of dried bark being pulled from a tree and Allison said she could hear the sound of leaves again. I couldn't hear it at all. The top half of Mr. Baker's body broke free first, as the cops stepped away quickly. One of them drew his gun and aimed at the ground.
Allison let loose a squeak of surprise and I felt suddenly sick to my stomach, but not because of the way Mr. Baker broke in half. Something long and white was on the ground, kicking spores up into the air as it flailed like a landed fish. Both officers hopped back and began yelling. Two of them fired on it as a medic stepped to the side a few yards, covering his face. Spore dust flew into the air.
The plastic suit men were yelling at the officers when one of the cops shoved him. He froze there for a minute and they all gazed down at the white thing that had been moving. I had never seen a human spine before, except in video games and in movies. The fact that there was no blood was what confused me—that and the fact that it moved on its own.
Sample: Chapter 2
Lil'it is feh, nothing more and nothing worth noting.
Feh is the sound a butcher makes when cutting off a piece of unwanted gristle from a side of meat, flicking it from his finger in disgust. "Feh!"
Lil'it, feh, the half-word a merchant uses to pantomime spitting, but still remaining polite enough as to not offend customers. Feh is a shrug, a half-gesture, a sound used when even a word is too considerate.
Feh, a flick of the wrist, a dismissal.
The hag had called her Lil'it. Her mother had only called her "it" after screaming at the nursemaid to remove "it" from her sight, wrapped in bloody cloths and screaming red-faced into the darkness.
"That did not come out of me! Kill it in the ditch behind the cabin. Kill it in the ditch and burn it! That never came from me!"
But the nursemaid had found profit in "it" and sold "it" to the hag, with her long brown fingernails and her horns made of hair. The hag had too called her "it" but with more affection.
Lil'it is a pet, a companion, but still nothing more than feh.
Lil'it rocks back and forth in the cage as the wagon rolls over cobble and brick, through the uneven grand mall of the city Bal Mahheel, and into the central square. This is the place others like her have died sold to the highest bidder: their flesh trimmed, their skin stripped, their organs harvested, the liver removed, the gall bladder dried and powdered so that it might be snorted. This is the place she should have died, next to the albinos and the dwarves, the other misfits of genetic dice throws.
The wagon crawls over the cobble. Children with strange and malformed faces run alongside, stealing a glance of the strange little woman in the back. They spit in attempts to land some on her. She watches with mild curiosity as the children laugh, shove, and point. The pointing boy has a clawlike finger, while his other nine digits are human. They too are misfits, but they are human and human is the label she does not carry.
Occasionally the palace comes into view, a massive structure of carved crystal and volcanic rock, inlaid with pink coral and gold. She stares at the moving city with wide blue eyes, now dry of tears. The sheer vastness of it distracts her from grief, providing a welcome diversion from the fresh memories of the "transaction," from the pain of seeing the hag for the last time.
"Let me see your wings, dear," the hag would say.
And Lil'it would show her, turning in a circle, her wide, colorful membranes shimmering in the lamplight, flaring from her shoulder blades like explosions trapped in glass.
"Lovely wings! Such lovely, lovely wings! Here is your dinner."
Sometimes it would be a grape, other times a maggot (or three), maybe a caterpillar. Most of the time she got the scraps of whatever the hag was eating: a crust, a fallen pea or palm sprout.
The carriage pulls through the market district amidst the smells of burning sapients, burning wood, burning flesh, burning dog. Her stomach grumbles all the same. Food is food and flesh is flesh.
Voices rise up through the market, beckoning the drivers.
"I'll give you half a shell for the skinny one back there," says a tall man with a thick beard. He holds up a dull coin and grins. As with most humans, his face is asymmetrical, his left nostril larger than the other and twisted outward. Inside rest layers of gills.
Yakel, her carriage helmsman, ignores him.
"Just keep driving," says Pyrie, the man next to him. "Don't slow down, they'll grab somethin' if they get the chance."
The tall man fades into the distance, distracted by a potential customer at his stand. Along the racks Lil'it sees meat shaped like her, small people hanging from hooks, their skin a dark blackened red. There are other beasts as well, things with horns and hooks, monsters cut in half, their eyes removed and their bodies hollowed. She sees hallocks, willowcats, pigsnorts and fentrollops.
"She's been quiet lately," says Yakel. He looks at her over his shoulder, the metal helmet he wears covering his thick uneven eyebrows. His eyes are of two different colors and sizes. "Go check on it, Pyrie."
"Why I gotta check?"
"Because I'm the driver and if we stop here, who knows what asshole is gonna run up and grab it from the wagon. Just go like I told ya."
Pyrie groans and rolls off the driver's bench, crawling past the loops of rope and bottles of wine to where her cage clatters back and forth.
"Eh, you alive in there?" He leans in at her, his oily, smelly face filling her world. He raps once on the cage and then slides his hand through the bars intending to poke or grab.
She bites him, hard.
Her teeth appear human from the front, wide and square, but are thin and razor sharp at the edge. They are designed to scrape and slice sideways with tiny serrations. She comes away with a small sliver of skin and the taste of coppery blood in her mouth. Pyrie jerks his hand away, "Shit!"
Lil'it smiles, rolling the matter along her tongue, closing her eyes in ecstasy as the proteins that make up the man travel along her taste buds revealing secrets, stories, twined narratives of DNA, opening up his body to her like a blueprint to an architect. She sees tumors waiting to erupt, hidden triggers that—when activated—could cause a hemorrhage, kidney failure, or even a heart attack.
"Fucker bit me!" he says, examining the small bite just between his thumb and forefinger.
The helmsman laughs. "That's what you get. Feh. I reckon she'd eat your soul if you could butter it."
Pyrie grabs the sides of the cage, rattling it and sending her crashing against the bars. He isn't as big as Yakel, but then most humans are easily three times her size, a race of giants.
"You little cunt," Pyrie hisses. "I hope the prince tears your ass wide open before he skewers you on a spit."
"Hey!" shouts Yakel. "Keep it down you dumb fuck. You want everyone in the city to know what the prince does in his spare time?"
Pyrie sneers. "Oh, like they don't already suspect."
"They killed the last man who spread that rumor," Yakel says, turning to face the road. "I saw the head roll across the square myself."
Pyrie glares at her through the bars and spits. "You best hope he kills you up there, because if he don't I'll finish the job."
She smiles back at his oily face. Liar, she thinks. They wanted me intact, you even said so. I can smell the lies on your breath.
But there is a tickle of doubt in her mind, shattered by Pyrie shaking the cage again. He laughs as she tumbles around the cage, hitting her head and crying out.
"Hey! Easy! Don't break it," says Yakel. "We'll be a year findin' another."
Pyrie leans in toward her. "You're just lucky that you're worth more than a fucking sword or I'd lodge one so far up your ass, it'd rust before they got it out."
He gives the cage one last shove and crawls up to the driver's bench, inspecting the sizable gash in his hand. "Look, she took off a chunk."
"Don't get too close," says the helmsman. "Especially now."
Lil'it tunes them out, tasting the sweet proteins down to their base, rolling it in her mouth. She closes her eyes and sees people, long dead. She sees houses with wives and fields, pets and children, some of them dead for centuries, her subconscious reconstructing their stories from the proteins in Pyrie's blood.
Pyrie she sees inside and out. She feels her mouth water again, this time not with hunger, but with the small glands behind her jaw as they go to work, crafting her curse.
"Ya don't go up close to it once it got yer blood. Ya just don't."
"Why not? She's all locked away."
"Pyrie. I ain't an alchemist. I ain't a house wizard or a smart man, but I sure ain't stupid enough to get close to one of 'em when they tasted my blood. You'd be safer kissing a rock adder."
"Fucking superstitions," says Pyrie. "You and the Northenders, a bunch of superstitious kooks."
In Lil'it's stomach the flesh sits, pieced apart by enzymes and acids. Most of it is converted into energy needed to live, but a small part is sectioned off, whisked away into what the hag had called her "stir pot", where it sits. There it becomes something new, something tailored to Pyrie, a special gift should he ever get close enough to receive it.
It isn't a conscious action anymore than a snake thinks about its venom. She knows she hates the man. She knows she wants him dead, but killing him with her bare hands is an impossibility. The man is two meters tall, a hulk. She is but feh.
The carriage arrives through the stables, hidden from the public eye. It rounds walls choked with ivy and glow bugs. The driver slides off the bench and the back of the wagon opens. Pyrie reaches in to grab her cage.
"Better let me," says Yakel, stepping up to the cart.
"Oh, piss off," says Pyrie, shoving him aside and reaching in with both hands. "I want to personally deliver this little piece of filth to Prince Heredi myself."
Her cage, large and wicker as it is, forces Pyrie to hug it. He wears gloves of thick leather this time, his sleeves reinforced. "Bite me now you little bitch."
She crawls to the bars and grips them, staring at his huge pocked face. He turns to her—keeping his nose out of biting distance—and grins.
Lil'it places an upturned palm in front of her mouth and blows.
"What's that? Blowing me a little kiss are we? Decided a little late to apologize," says the man as he turns with the huge cage. "Save your apologies for Heredi—"
She sits back on the cage floor, kneeling, watching as Pyrie twitches his tickled nose. He opens his mouth, stretching it, blinking his eyes and flaring his nostrils.
"What is it?" asks the helmsman.
Pyrie blinks. "Nothin'. Shut up."
He takes two more steps and then stops. "Jus' feel like I'm gonna sneeze is all."
"You better let me—"
"I said piss off!"
Two more steps. A pause. Lil'it smiles at his huge greasy cheeks then leans up close to the bars.
"You don't look so good," she whispers to his ear.
Pyrie sneezes, the cage slipping from his grip, sliding towards the ground.
Yakel is too busy catching the falling cage to notice the second sneeze, the one where something solid and red emerges from Pyrie's nose, dangling an inch or two. It hangs there, swaying as his hand moves up to wipe it away.
Before he can reach it, he sneezes again, extending the tissue another six inches where it sticks, a strip of necrotic esophagus, naked and red with his blood. Pyrie, being a layman as it were, doesn't know his esophagus from a rat tail. He lifts the tissue, still connected, stares blankly at it, and then vomits up the rest of his shredded stomach and part of a lung.
He is dead by the time Yakel reaches the slaver's delivery door. Guards begin burning the body, yelling for a priest to come remove the curse that would never hurt any of them. At the most, the pathogen would give them a sniffle. Lil'it had made that one especially for Pyrie.
"Fucking idiot," Yakel mutters as he carries the cage with the tiny woman up the stairs to the slave buyer.