The Seventh Age: Dawn certainly knows how to kick things off with style. In fact, the very first page opens with us standing twenty-one floors up above the city of Chicago on an I beam with our protagonist Mike Auburn, a man with a death wish. Rather, he is obsessed with death; everyone he has ever loved has crossed into the great unknown, and now Mike flirts regularly with it in the hopes of glimpsing the ghosts of his past on the other side. As it happens, Mike’s penchant for death defying stunts and near-death experiences also catches the attention of a group looking to recruit a candidate of his skills and interests.
Before long, Mike finds himself joining forces with a mysterious organization led by a man called O’Neil, enlisted into the war against the coming apocalypse. Soon our hero is battling demons, staving off the encroaching forces of the Unification whose aims involve resurrecting a powerful being named Lazarus so that they can usher in a new age where magic will once again reign supreme. After devouring the heart of the monster Golgoroth, Mike transcends his own humanity, becoming the key to an age-old conflict between the realms of supernatural beings.
I enjoyed The Seventh Age: Dawn for the most part, though I’ll also be honest and say that there were times where I really struggled. It’s an ambitious book for sure, though it also suffers occasionally from excessiveness and bloat, a common issue for first novels where you get the sense that the author is trying to cram as much as possible into their debut effort. Rick Heinz throws in everything but the kitchen sink: angels, demons, warlocks, vampires, ghosts, shapeshifters, and I’m sure there are quite a few more creatures that I’m forgetting. I believe therein lies part of the problem. There was simply too much to process such a short time, and in the end I felt like I was only able to absorb a small fraction of the information deluge.
Fortunately, after a few false starts I managed to fall into an easier rhythm, though I also can’t help but feel that “rhythm” might be a wildly inaccurate term to describe the nature of this book. The plot is complicated and rather dense, and the reader is dropped hard into the thick of things straight from the beginning. To the novel’s credit, at no point does the story slow down as we’re thrust into one frenetic situation after another. There’s really nothing soft or predictable about it.
That said though, for an urban fantasy, it’s a bit on the heavier side for my tastes. This is my go-to genre from straight-up fun, not to wrack my brain teasing out multiple impenetrable layers of hidden agendas or trying to work out who’s who. A book with so much action should not feel tedious, or else there’s something not right going on, and I just feel that the story tries to do too much at times and things can get very messy especially with the overabundance of POV characters. The constant shifts and back-and-forths made it nearly impossible to connect with any one person, and trying to keep all the names straight was one reason why I had difficulty getting into this book early on. Another issue is wordiness. In my opinion, there are quite a few scenes that could have been cut down or omitted altogether.
Still, the overall concept is a good one, even if the execution was a little shaky. For all the pomp and zeal that The Seven Age: Dawn tries to pack into its 400 or so pages, the overall plot is relatively light on substance, though that could change in the next installment. Rick Heinz may have tried to cover too much ground in this series opener, but there’s no denying that he’s created an interesting world that I wouldn’t mind exploring further. I also enjoyed the gritty dry tone he established for the rest of the series, a style which reminds me somewhat of Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim. Perhaps I just need to spend more time in this world to form stronger attachment to the characters and to get a better sense of where things stand....more
Bookburners initially landed on my radar around a year and a half ago when it was first announced as the launching project by Serial Box, a publisher with an ambitious new idea to deliver their stories in a weekly serialized medium. The plan was that “Season One” will be a 16-episode run, written by a team of authors made up of Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, and Brian Francis Slattery. Though at the time I was only familiar with Gladstone’s work, it was enough that my interest was immediately piqued.
But as much as the concept of serialized novels intrigued me, it didn’t long at all for me to realize I preferred my books the same way I prefer my TV shows—as in, binge-watching a full season all at once. Sure enough, I tried to follow Bookburners when it first came out and promptly fell behind, which is why I was so glad when I found out that a collected edition was coming from Saga Press. I honestly loved what I saw of the first couple episodes, and thanks to this more convenient format, I finally got my chance to catch up with the full season.
Now, I’ve always admitted a huge weakness for “books about books” but what I liked about Bookburners is its unique take on the subject. You have a kickass lady cop, her wayward brother, and a group of demon hunters from the Vatican, and before you know it the stage is set for an urban fantasy adventure that will make you see “dangerous reading” in a whole new light. For NYPD Detective Sal Brooks, it was just another day on the grind when she gets a strange phone call from her brother Perry asking to hide out at her place. Over the years, Sal has become used to Perry’s idiosyncrasies, but this time, she knows something is seriously wrong. Turns out, her brother has gotten himself into some deep trouble, and it all comes down to a demon-possessed book.
Soon, Sal finds herself entangled with a Catholic priest and his secret team of agents whose mission is to travel all over the world tracking down and securing dangerous books infused with nasty magic. The book in Perry’s possession is revealed to be one such artifact, but the intervention comes too late and he succumbs to its evil. Now in order to save her brother’s life, Sal has little choice but to join up with Father Arturo Menchú and the Bookburners (even though they don’t actually burn the books), relocating to Rome to help fight for the cause. She quickly discovers a whole secret world that the Vatican’s Societas Librorum Occultorum has been keeping from the public, but a recent string of deadly magical threats is about to bring everything crashing down.
At first, I thought the structure of Bookburners was going to be like any other traditional novel which just happens to be released in 16 parts. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that each episode actually contains its own mini-story roughly complete with intro/exposition, rising action, climax and resolution, etc. Together, the 16 sections then make up a more complete and overarching season plot, so that in a sense, the format really does mirror that of a TV show. With Bookburners, I also noticed that the episodes grew progressively deeper and more complex, so for instance, earlier episodes that played more to the “Monster of the Week” trope would gradually give way to ones that contributed more to the overall “bigger picture” storyline.
This definitely affected my experience with the characters. I started the book not really caring all that much for anyone but Sal, but as each episode went on, her relationships with the other team members were explored. Eventually I became a fan of the whole cast, especially Father Menchú, whose portrayal was a breath of fresh air in contrast to the clichéd representations of religious figures I’ve seen in many other books; and also Grace, whose “origin story” wasn’t revealed until an episode halfway through the book, but wow, it was well worth the wait! Grace might have started the season as one of the most mysterious and least developed characters, but by the end of it I was in love and I wouldn’t be surprised if she ends up being a favorite for many others too.
But even though hands down Grace had the coolest and most unique backstory, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll find so many more incredible and creative ideas in here, because every episode offers something different and new. A few of my favorite ones include “A Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (the one where Sal and Asanti go to Scotland and find that an entire town has become crazily obsessed with a restaurant), “Under My Skin” (the one where the Bookburners head to Vegas to investigate the competitors on a tattoo reality TV show, after the people getting inked start dying one by one under mysterious circumstances) and “Shore Leave” (the one where Grace and Sal get to spend some buddy time together on their shared day off). Probably not a coincidence that all three are written by Mur Lafferty, who has certainly gained a new fan in me after this book, but truly, all the authors involved did a fantastic job. Their styles and voices complemented each other very well, leading to seamless transition from one episode to the next, which became all the more important towards the end of the season when everything had to come together for the final showdown.
In case you couldn’t tell, I am beyond ecstatic that I got to read Bookburners in its entirety. With the serialized format, it’s always tough to know whether something will work or not, since a project often takes more than a couple episodes to take off (and I’m not exactly a font of patience either, so having to wait for anything tends to take the air out of my sails). Needless to say, I saw plenty of potential back when the first episode was released, but having this collection and being able to binge read several installments all at once was what ultimately got me well and truly hooked. Bookburners was a lot of fun and now I can hardly wait for Season Two....more
In the interest of honesty, I picked up Lost Souls without realizing that it was part of the Cainsville sequence, so that probably had an impact on my rating. Still, despite my oversight, I really enjoyed this novella, and I think fans of the series who are familiar with the characters and the subtle nuances in their relationships will no doubt appreciate it even more.
As urban legends go, few are as well-known as the one about the “Vanishing Hitchhiker” or its many variations. The stories all roughly begin and end the same way: A driver encounters a hitchhiker on the side of a lonely road, but after picking them up the hitchhiker subsequently disappears without any explanation. Kelley Armstrong has adopted this motif for the central premise of Lost Souls which stars Gabriel Walsh, a lawyer who takes on a side job investigating the case of a man alleging to have been led astray by a vanishing hitchhiker in the form of a young woman in a white sundress. Gabriel would have been tempted to dismiss the story as a hoax if the circumstances around the incident hadn’t been so strange. For one thing, why would the man risk jeopardizing his successful career and marriage by filing a false report? Also, there have been a string of similar vanishing hitchhiker sightings in recent years, but a suspicious number of them have ended up with the witnesses committing suicide not long after—exactly forty-eight hours after picking up the hitchhiker, to be exact.
Plus, if there’s one thing Gabriel loves, it’s a good mystery. Lately, his relationship with his friend and employee Olivia Taylor-Jones has been on the rocks, and he has hopes too that presenting her with an interesting puzzle like this would help mend fences. In the wake of their rift, Liv has taken off on a vacation and Gabriel finds himself missing her, even if he has trouble admitting it to her or anyone else. Given their shared love for the strange and the weird, this case of the disappearing hitchhiker might be their chance to reconnect again.
Since I have not read any of the main books in the Cainsville series, I know I’m probably missing a lot here, so keep in mind these are the opinions of a newcomer to this world and its characters. The main struggle I had was with the character behaviors and motivations. I found myself exasperated with Gabriel and Liv, namely because all the drama surrounding their relationship is based on miscommunication and misunderstanding—pretty much the oldest trick in the book. While backstories were provided for both, without the deeper context of the series I had a really hard time sympathizing with Gabriel’s excuses for being jerk or Liv’s reasons for being so manipulative. That said though, the story itself was relatively easy to follow, and references to past events were freely provided. Not once was I confused or overwhelmed. So while Lost Souls is clearly intended as a companion novella to the main series, the fact that I was able to follow along just fine is no small feat.
For Cainsville fans, the interpersonal relationships and character development will probably end up being the main draw, though personally I also loved the mystery plot in between these sections. Armstrong adapts the urban legend of the vanishing hitchhiker to great effect, making it a race against time for our characters to find the answers. There are even ties to Gabriel’s past, giving me the chance to know him better. Perhaps my only complaint about the story is the ending, which I thought was anti-climactic and too abrupt, but it’s a minor issue in the big scheme of things.
All told, Lost Souls is probably best tackled only if you are caught up with the main series, though speaking as a relatively new fan of Kelley Armstrong, not having read any of the other novels did not prevent me from enjoying it either. If anything, reading this novella made me even more curious about Cainsville. I also wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Lost Souls if you simply want to read more by the author; she’s an amazing writer who knows all about creating suspenseful drama, and even in this compact novella you will be sure to find all the ingredients of a good urban fantasy mystery....more
Continuing with my ongoing love affair with books about carnivals or circuses, I decided to check out Freeks by Amanda Hocking which features a group of traveling sideshow performers in the 80s as they travel across the country looking for work.
The story stars Mara, a teenager who has practically spent her whole life growing up on the road with Gideon Davorin’s Traveling Carnival. While their show boasts many of the usual attractions, what most folks don’t realize is that many among Gideon’s crew actually possess supernatural powers. For example, they have a telekinetic on staff who helps out with a lot of their magician’s “tricks”. Their trapeze artist has abilities to manipulate the air around him so that he can never fall. Mara’s own mother is a fortune teller who gains insights about her clients’ lives by being able to commune with the dead. However, despite being surrounded by these powered individuals and being the daughter of one herself, Mara has no special abilities. She has sometimes wondered what it might be like to settle down and live like “normal” people, but the carnival is the only family she has ever known, and even though the going can get tough sometimes, Mara loves her life and can’t imagine it any other way.
That is, until Gideon takes up a contract to set up camp in a small southern town named Caudry, and sparks fly between Mara and Gabe, a handsome local boy she meets at a party. Mara likes Gabe—a lot—and he seems to like her too. But how would he feel once he finds out she is a carnie? On the other hand…does he even need to know? By this time in two weeks the sideshow will be on the road again and Mara would be on her way to their next destination; if the relationship is doomed to fail anyway, she sees no harm in withholding a few personal details, especially since Gabe seems to be keeping some secrets himself. Before long though, Mara has more pressing matters to worry about. One by one, members of Gideon’s crew go missing or come under attack, savaged by some mysterious creature. Caudry also seems to be giving off some strange, bad vibes. The carnival came here in the hopes of making some extra revenue, but if the incidents keep up at this rate, Mara fears they’ll run out of performers long before their contract is up.
What I didn’t realize before starting this book was how prominently it would be featuring the romantic side plot. While that by itself isn’t always a negative, it is somewhat frustrating when you get teased all these other fascinating elements in the story, such as the sideshow’s supernatural performers and all the peculiar goings-on happening around Caudry. I wanted more of the carnival life, more details on the backgrounds and personalities of the people working there, and more development into the mysteries of the town. But instead, most of what we got was Gabe, Gabe, and more Gabe. The story keeps shoving his and Mara’s relationship down our throats and I can’t help but think way too many pages were wasted in this area.
Plus, after all this buildup to the grand finale where supposedly huge revelations would be revealed, the results were decidedly underwhelming. When all is said and done, the mystery felt much smaller than it was meant to be, and reasons are clear as to why: there’s actually very little plot in this book. Like I said, most of it is padded by the romance, and I won’t deny that this is somewhat disappointing. Hocking has set up something really cool here, creating a world where people with supernatural abilities live among us, then shining a spotlight on a traveling sideshow run by many of these special individuals. However, instead of exploring this aspect, she has decided to go with the tired and well-trod route of “yet another YA romance” while adding nothing too new or different to the formula. Big time missed opportunity here, which is what gripes me the most.
In sum, Freeks had the potential to be more but ended up being rather average. Too much emphasis was placed on what was arguably a lackluster romance complete with stale dialogue and hints of insta-love, while regrettably the best and most interesting aspects of the story were underplayed. The book wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, just another ordinary middle-of-the-road YA fantasy novel.
Audiobook Comments: I’m glad that I listened to the audiobook version of Freeks, otherwise my rating might have been slightly lower. The performance by narrator Em Eldridge made up for some of the weaknesses of the story, as talented voice actors and actresses are able to do sometimes. For one thing, she’s great at accents—when a character’s description states that they have a southern drawl, for example, that is exactly what she delivers. Her energy also gives life and personality to everyone in the story, especially Mara. I believe this is the first book I’ve ever listened to Ms. Eldridge read, but I’ll definitely be looking for more audiobooks narrated by her in the future....more
Snowed is a story about Christmas, but it is definitely not like your usual schmaltzy Christmas book. It stars Charity Jones, a sixteen-year-old biracial student with a natural talent for all things science and engineering. At her high school in a conservative county of California though, this only gets her mercilessly bullied because she is different. Thankfully, for Charity there’s one bright spot in this bleak situation: Aidan, the sweet mild-mannered teen runaway whom her family takes in as a foster child. No one know where Aidan came from, but it is clear that he is running away from something—something terrible.
Still, despite his reluctance to share much about his past, Aidan and Charity wind up hitting it off and they quickly fall in love. Things actually start looking up for Charity, but of course this respite doesn’t last. The community is shaken one day, when the body of Charity’s worst bully is found behind the bleachers, savaged and torn apart. The authorities are quick to suspect a wild animal attack, but Charity isn’t so sure. After all, unbeknownst to the rest of the school, she was actually the first one to find the victim, and there was something strange she saw at the scene…
First, I want to go into the positives of this book, and there are certainly many. Number one is diversity. Kudos to the author for doing her best to include perspectives from all walks of life, even though her approach can be pretty heavy-handed at times, almost like she was making sure to check off all the boxes on a #diversereads checklist. Having main characters that reflect and honor the lives of all people is always wonderful though, and something to be celebrated especially in the young adult genre.
I also liked how Snowed was a Christmas story for those who might be looking for something other than the usual feel-good and campy holiday-themed books that flood the market around this time of the year. Personally, I love the festive atmosphere around Christmastime, but hey, it’s also okay to have a “bah humbug” moment every now and then. If you ever feel the need to take break from the holiday madness and the constant barrage of holiday-themed music and TV hitting you from all directions, then this book is the answer. Forget the warm and fuzzy feelings, because this is one dark book that likely won’t be filling you with the holiday cheer by the time it’s over. On the other hand, how cool is it that we get a story that explores Krampus lore and presents a darker, more sinister side to the figure of Santa Claus?
And now for the things that didn’t work so well for me. The big one was the extreme-to-the-point-of-contrived stereotypes. All the horrible people at school bullying Charity are of course the jock and cheerleader types, all of them white, bible-thumping and gun-happy ignorant rednecks according to our protagonist. The irony is that Charity frequently comes off as even more judgmental and patronizing as the people she rails against. There are also very few responsible and admirable adult characters, which is a pet peeve of mine when it comes to YA. Charity and her friends paint the police as a bunch of incompetent meatheads, while Charity’s parents are portrayed as a couple of dopes in denial, helpless in stopping her deranged psychopath of a brother hurt her and everyone she loves. The teachers are also apparently too busy planning their own holidays (or worrying about new charter schools opening in their county, threatening their precious hegemony) that they can’t be bothered to do anything about serious problems like bullying and death threats to their students.
In fact, the narrative tries very hard to make you think that Charity and her little “enlightened” group are the only ones capable of getting anything done. Not only was this unrealistic, it just made Charity and all her friends intensely unlikable. Furthermore, Charity also can’t help but remind readers every other chapter that she’s into science, robotics and technology (yet apparently not computer savvy enough to prevent her own email account from getting hacked). I agree we need to encourage girls and young women to enter and succeed in the STEM fields, but there’s no subtlety at all in the way the author is trying to prop up her protagonist as a poster child for the cause.
Finally, I didn’t like the romance. In my opinion, the instalove and Charity’s dramatics actually undermined a lot of what the story was trying to achieve, removing some of Aidan’s mystique. After knowing him for little more than a week, Charity professes to love Aidan so much that she can’t live without him, that she “dies every minute” they’re not together, or that losing him would be like the worst thing that’s ever happened to her (even worse than when Grandma Jones passed away!) In retrospect, the overwrought and sentimental adolescent language probably didn’t help either.
That said, overall I had a good time with Snowed. Ultimately it’s a book with some great ideas but which might be lacking in polish when it comes to execution, though it’s nonetheless impressive especially since we’re talking about a book from a small indie publishing house. Admittedly the story could have been streamlined to bring the horror aspects and Krampus plotline to the forefront while toning down the exposition and romance, but I also have to give it credit for its diverse cast of main characters and the fact that it also explores difficult topics, including a few that don’t get talked about much, like the emotional struggles that families of incarcerated teens go through (and I actually wish this had been given more attention in the book). All told, an interesting read that offers something a little different for the holidays....more
For so long I’ve been wanting to read something by Barb and J.C. Hendee, and with The Dead Seekers being the first of a new series, I figured there’s no better time and place to jump onboard! Better yet, later I was even more excited to learn that the book is set in the same world that was made well-known by the authors’ popular Noble Dead Saga.
Things kick off with a prologue which introduces readers to the story’s two protagonists. What should have been a happy time instead turned to sorrow as Tris, the baron’s only son and heir, was born without breath. But even when the baby was revived, the disturbing circumstances around his apparent miraculous recovery only causes more fear and unease. Thirteen years later in another time and another place, young Mari was in the woods with her family making camp after a long day of travel when they were suddenly ambushed by violent spirits. Being a shapeshifter, Mari was able to take her cat form and escape, but everyone else was killed. Ever since that day, she has been searching for the one she believes is responsible for her murdered family—the mysterious figure known as the Dead’s Man who is said to have the ability to command spirits.
When the main story starts in earnest, both Tris and Mari have grown to adulthood and are living very different lives, though without knowing it, the two are linked by their tragic pasts. Tris had experienced something very similar to what Mari saw in the woods all those years ago, and now he travels to wherever he is called, banishing spirits for a living. While a close encounter with a spirit would usually mean death to any normal person, Tris however possesses a remarkable power enabling him to touch ghosts and destroy them. It is this ability that initially makes Mari suspect that Tris may be the Dead’s Man she is looking for, though at their first meeting she has to admit he is nothing like she expected. Wanting to make sure she has found the right mark before killing him, Mari decides to stick around and observe Tris as he makes his way to his next assignment to banish a particularly troublesome spirit.
The Dead Seekers is perhaps best described as a mystery in three distinct parts. First Tris and Mari travel to a small village, where the ghost of a girl who died under peculiar circumstances has been coming back to haunt the people she knew. But this humble intro soon leads our protagonists to uncover an even bigger conspiracy in the middle section, requiring them to travel to a border garrison where they realize their spirit problem isn’t so simple anymore. The last third of the book is the resolution where everything ties together and ends in a satisfyingly explosive way. As plotlines go, it’s a pretty straightforward and “on-rails” experience even if the story is no less enjoyable because of it. However, this also meant the authors had to rely mainly on flashbacks and memory sequences to explain anything that took place in the past, and these weren’t always integrated very smoothly.
This also might not be a terribly deep or sophisticated fantasy novel, but it will hit the spot if you’re simply looking for a light and fun read. Most notably, I found the book weaker in the areas of world-building, though to be fair I am a newcomer to the Hendees’ work and the bulk of this novel’s audience will probably know the world already from the authors’ previous series. That said, I don’t want to make is sound like world-building aspects are completely lacking though, because I definitely saw enough to make me care and want to know more. I also loved the characters. Mari and Tris are fascinating and memorable, and so easy to root for. I’m really enjoying their dynamic so far (they are a good example of an amazing non-romantic male/female team-up!) and the story even leaves plenty of room for their alliance to grow.
The Dead Seekers is a great introduction to a new series that’s all about ghostbusting, fantasy-style. What the story lacks in impact, it makes up for with pure, fantastic fun. There’s an addictive quality to it that will make you want to pick up the next book and dive straight back into this world to spend time with Tris and Mari. Already I’m looking forward to see what our protagonists will be up to next....more
What a fun little book! Not to be missed by fans of Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, but even if you don’t follow the series, it might be worth taking a look. When this novella landed in my lap, I briefly debated whether or not I should read it, since I am woefully behind on the main series and I know a lot has happened to the characters since I last visited this world. I worried that I would get too confused or lost.
Well, for readers who might be wrestling with the same doubts, let me put your minds at ease: no prerequisite reading is required before jumping into this one. Of course, if it would help if you know a little of the basic foundation behind the Iron Druid Chronicles, i.e. our protagonist is Atticus O’Sullivan, a 2,000-year-old druid living in modern times with his faithful Irish wolfhound Oberon. Everything else is going to be pretty easy to pick up along the way, not to mention The Purloined Poodle is a whole different animal anyway. Pun absolutely intended.
For one thing, the entirety of the tale is told through the eyes of a dog. That’s right, Oberon fans, urban fantasy’s most popular pooch gets his very own book. In the main series, Atticus’ ancient druidic status gives him access to a full suite of nifty powers, including shapeshifting and having an ability to commune with the natural world. That also extends to being able to talk with his dog, and in every Iron Druid book I’ve read so far, Atticus and Oberon’s conversations always manage to become the highlight. This probably goes without saying, but if you find the two’s psychic exchanges as entertaining as I do, then you will love this.
What I enjoyed most about this novella was how “dog-like” Hearne managed to sound while writing from the POV of Oberon. I was laughing from the very first page, reading about his thoughts on canine butt-sniffing etiquette. Like his human, Oberon is also well-versed in all forms of geek culture, so expect tons of pop-culture references. But humor is only one part of this equation; the story quickly builds into a mystery, as a routine walk through the park leads to Oberon and his owner to discover a string of abductions in the Pacific Northwest involving prizewinning dogs. Local police already have their hands full dealing with people cases, so it’s up to Oberon to convince Atticus to help the victims’ owners to look for their stolen pets.
Right away, I knew I’d missed some key events in our characters’ lives, since the last time I saw them they were still in Arizona. The main cast seems to have expanded a bit too. Happily, these are just background details. This novella is part of the main series timeline, but it’s probably more accurate to call this one a short side-story, a lighthearted little detour. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t caught up anyway, because we’re not going to be focusing on the humans too much.
Not only is this narrative all about the dogs, I simply love how this book portrays the relationship between Oberon and Atticus. It’s clear that the two of them are best friends who dote upon each other, and when latter indulges the former, I can’t help but think of one of my own dogs, who’s also a big, lovable goofball like Oberon. It just makes me want to take this book and shove it into the hands of all my dog-lover friends, because I know they will appreciate the beauty of the human-dog bond that Hearne captures here so well.
And like I said, the story is also entertaining and funny as hell. Knowing what I do about its doggy protagonist, I went into The Purloined Poodle expecting a few chuckles, but Oberon really brought down the house with this one. I was impressed that an entire story told from his perspective would work so well, figuring that being inside his head would start to get on my nerves or his narrative get stale after the first twenty minutes. Not so, though. The novella format was well-suited for a story like this—just long enough to be satisfying, but also short and sweet enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome.
Dog lovers, urban fantasy enthusiasts, and Iron Druid fans take note: if you are one or any combination of the above, I would highly recommend reading The Purloined Poodle. It won’t take long and it’s the perfect escape; a great way to spend a rainy afternoon or a quiet evening in, curled up on the couch with your special fur baby and this wonderful little novella....more
Put on your chefs hats and smocks, because it’s time for another crazy adventure starring the ragtag crew of New York’s most exclusive kitchen and catering company. And if the first three books of the Sin du Jour series can be considered the early courses of a meal, then with this fourth installment we have come to the entrée—the meat of this story arc, so to speak.
The last we saw these characters, Lena had just dropped the big news on everyone that she was leaving Sin du Jour. As we would soon discover at the start of Idle Ingredients, however, her so-called bombshell of a decision ultimately led nowhere, for it didn’t take long for Bronko to track her down, pluck her up from her new place of work, and unceremoniously drop her right back into his kitchen line. That’s because it’s all hands on deck again for their next big assignment, catering a series of campaign events for the underground supernatural community’s upcoming elections. Bronko has even brought on a new liaison named Luciana Monrovio to help him streamline Sin du Jour’s operational processes and salvage their reputation after their last few disastrous gigs.
But instead of improving things around the place, Luciana ends up driving a wedge between Bronko and his staff. Jett, the event planner, is one of the first to be pushed out. Then Ryland loses his home as his trailer is towed away. Boosha ends up comatose in the hospital after a mysterious accident. Lena becomes infuriated after she is banned from the kitchen, reassigned to work with Nikki on deserts and pastries. Darren and his new boyfriend James are inexplicably sent off on vacation in the middle of this busy time. The Stocking and Receiving department, a mainstay of the company, gets ordered off the premises and put on call. Worse, the women seem to be the only ones noticing these odd changes, since the men seem to be unnaturally smitten with Luciana, like they’ve all suddenly come under a spell. Something is seriously wrong at Sin du Jour, and it’s up to the ladies to figure it out and put a stop to whatever’s happening.
While it’s true that Pride’s Spell was an improvement over Lustlocked, this installment might finally be the one to bring the complexity and substance I feel has been sorely needed since Envy of Angels. Granted, the introduction was a bit weak due to the considerable time spent getting the team back together again (cycling through all the characters in order to catch up with every single one of them took up the entire first quarter of the book) but still, it’s probably safe to say Idle Ingredients is my favorite addition to Sin du Jour so far.
For one thing, I like how this series has settled into a rhythm—and no, that does not mean things have slowed down or become stuck in a rut. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We seem to have found what works, and now Matt Wallace is building upon those foundations with this fourth installment. Apart from the intro, the story in Idle Ingredients was fast-paced and consistent, focusing on some of the most interesting characters like Lena, Bronko, and Nikki. The plot was tightly woven and we didn’t waste much time with distractions, instead diving straight into the main conflict. Even though there wasn’t as much cooking when compared to the previous three books, I thought Sin du Jour’s catering job in this one—providing food for a party of elementals during a Sceadu candidate’s campaign speeches—was their coolest assignment yet.
I hope we’ll keep seeing these “big picture” plots, because as much as I’m enjoying reading about Sin du Jour’s action-packed and insanity-fueled adventures, I think I like following the characters’ relationships even more. As their personalities continue to grow and develop, the books also seem to be getting better, and Idle Ingredients is evidence of this upwards trend. Besides, with a teaser like that in the epilogue, how can I not feel excited for the future of this series? Thank goodness the next book Greedy Pigs is already on the horizon, because I can hardly wait....more
Sarah Pinborough is fast becoming a must-read author for me. Her books, like the Dr. Thomas Bond duology and The Language of Dying are among some of my favorites, demonstrating her incredible writing talent and versatility. Needless to say, my anticipation for her new mystery suspense novel Behind Her Eyes was tremendous, especially with the #WTFThatEnding social media campaign working in overdrive throughout the months leading up to release.
The story opens with an introduction to Louise, a divorced single mom who works as a doctor’s assistant. Having watched her ex-husband move on with a new girlfriend and a baby on the way, she’s understandably feeling a bit dejected and lonely, which is why her spirits are lifted when she meets a handsome man at a bar one night and things end with a clandestine kiss between them. However, that rush quickly fades when she arrives back at work on Monday only to find that the firm’s new psychiatrist is none other than the man from the bar. His name is David Martin, her new boss. And he is also very much married.
The two of them decide to put the night behind them and promise to never speak of it again. But then by chance, Louise runs into Adele Martin, David’s chic, sophisticated and beautiful wife. Try as she might to stay away, Louise can’t help but be drawn to the other woman. Adele may seem perfect on the surface, but Louise senses a timid and broken soul underneath. The two of them strike up a close friendship, keeping their interaction a secret from David, who seems to make Adele nervous and scared. The secrecy is just as well for Louise, since despite their earlier promise to each other to forget the kiss, she and David have become involved in a passionate affair. Louise isn’t proud of what she’s doing, but she also can’t deny that she’s falling for David. And yet, she also cares very much for Adele, a woman who appears to be in desperate need for someone to listen to her and be her friend. Something awful is going on in the Martins’ marriage, and even though Louise is smitten, she also has concerns about David’s angry, controlling streak and wants to know why Adele is so afraid of her husband.
Before one gets drawn into the sense that this is nothing but your usual mystery thriller about a love triangle from hell, I have to warn you that trusting anybody in this book would be a huge mistake. There’s nothing ordinary about this novel, and I mean that on so many levels. Sarah Pinborough is not only an amazing storyteller, she’s also a master of pulling the strings and keeping you guessing. Like a lot of her books, there’s always an element of something beyond the realm of the mundane, and that is all I’ll say to hint at the underlying riddle at the heart of this story.
Here’s also where I’ll be getting a little vague in my review, since I doubt there’s any possible way to discuss plot details without spoiling, so I’m limiting my descriptions to emotions. First, I was intrigued. Most of the story is told through Louise’s perspective, and the author has created a very well-rounded character in her. It’s true that I hated her for her duplicity in carrying on with a married man while being friends with his wife, but at the same time there’s an authenticity to her that made it easier to understand why she couldn’t extract herself from that situation. I felt something similar for Adele, the other major point-of-view character. Her sections were both strange and disturbing. Clearly she’s a damaged woman, and flashbacks to the past reveal tragedy and pain. The scenes she shares with her husband also indicate something very wrong in their marriage. The truth is a mystery, with subtle clues doled out along the way, adding to the growing feelings of unease. These days it might seem like a cop-out to compare any kind of dramatic suspense-thriller novel to Gone Girl, but no joke, I got those same vibes with this one. Tensions reach a peak as we close in on the finale, where Pinborough drops the major bombshell.
That brings us to the ending, where the author clearly delivers on the marketing campaign’s promise of WTFuckery. Still, there’s a part of me that wishes the publisher hadn’t hyped the hashtag all over social media, not only because it raises readers’ expectations but also because everyone knows that surprises always work best when you don’t know they’re coming. Granted it was still a shocking ending, but I think it would have been even better if I hadn’t known ahead of time to prepare for something big. That said, if it drives people to be curious and pick up this amazing book, I can’t complain; just know that this story so much bigger than #WTFThatEnding because it is the twisted, complex and clever build-up which makes the conclusion such a powerful whack on the head.
If you’re fan of psychological thrillers, you need to do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Behind Her Eyes because I really can’t recommend enough. Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.
Audiobook Comments: I was also fortunate to receive an audiobook copy of Behind Her Eyes to review, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The book is read by multiple narrators (Anna Bentinck, Josie Dunn, Bea Holland, Huw Parmenterto) to illustrate separate character storylines, though on several occasions a couple of their voices sounded too similar for me to distinguish right away whose perspective we’re following. There were also a few confusing chapter transitions and moments where I was confused whether we were in the present “Now” storyline or flashing back to the “Then” timeline, so I really had to pay careful attention. These nitpicks aside though, this audiobook was a great listen and I was fully immersed in the experience....more
This book isn’t your typical ghost story. While it includes a significant number of urban fantasy elements, there is also a darkly profound, rather despairing thread running beneath its surface. Thematically it is also on the weightier side, dealing with topics like suicide, survivor guilt, and emotional trauma. Fans of Seanan McGuire are still going to love her engaging storytelling style and loveable characters, but if you’re used to more offbeat and quirkier UF, I think this one may leave you with a heavier heart.
The story begins with the funeral of Jenna’s older sister Patty, who left for New York City with big dreams but ended up taking her own life instead. Grieving with the loss and blaming herself, a stricken Jenna runs off into the night during a bad rainstorm and tragically slips into the river, drowning in the raging current.
Because Jenna’s death was an accident, however, she died too soon according to a ledger of cosmic checks and balances which states a person’s soul cannot pass on until they have served their full time on the mortal plane. When Jenna died, she found quite a hefty debt still on her record, so like everyone else before her who died before their time, she became a ghost and must remain among the living until that balance is repaid.
Fast forward forty years, and Jenna is living in New York City leeching off a little bit of her debt each day on living strangers, with every minute she gives being another minute added to their youth. However, because Jenna sees “time left” as a form of currency, her gift of life in fact becomes an act of theft in her eyes. In order to earn back what she has stolen, Jenna also volunteers at a suicide prevent hotline trying to save others from Patty’s fate, hoping that when her time finally does come she will rejoin her beloved sister with a clean balance and conscience.
This is probably my third or fourth foray into McGuire’s work, and while overall I have enjoyed her books, I confess thus far I’m still waiting for “the one” which would blow me away. I started Dusk or Dark of Dawn or Day with the hopes that this would be it, but ultimately there was just something about it that didn’t quite click for me. Like I said, this is a story with some heavy, tragic themes to it, so it might simply be a case of the wrong book at the wrong time. Admittedly, the whole thing left me feeling kind of worn and heartsick by the end of it, even though I was hooked by the intro with its fascinating look into this world of ghosts and their concept of “time owed”.
Looking at this from another angle though, it clearly speaks well of the author that she can so successfully convey emotional impact with her writing and portrayal of her characters. My personal reaction to this novella aside, I can recognize a good story when I see one, and this has all the elements of an engaging tale full of imagination and feeling. Jenna is a narrator with a unique perspective, yet the care and attention to detail paid to her backstory makes it easy to sympathize with her decisions when all around her are other ghosts that do not share her same views or values. She’s a genuinely good character who not only extends her kindness to people in need as evidenced by her goal to rescue as many aging cats from shelters as possible, giving them love and a comfortable place to live out their final days. Death is a theme that infuses every page, but sometimes its oppressive presence is lightened with compassion and scenes like that.
The ideas in this book are also mind-bogglingly original. It took me some time to wrap my head around ghosts and their ability to give and take time, but I eventually came to appreciate the ingenuity behind the concept. As well, McGuire paints an interesting picture for her ghosts’ existence, linking them to special relationships with mirrors and witches. For a novella, the world-building is surprisingly robust.
Ultimately, I feel the ending could have been handled better, but since I can’t elaborate without giving away details, I’ll just say that it didn’t come across as eloquent or consistent as the rest of the story. That said, there is no shortage of feeling, and at the end of the day I think the conclusion manages to achieve its desired impact. If this book sounds like something that might interest you, I highly recommend giving it a try....more
In gaming lingo, the term “level grind” often has negative connotations, typically used to describe having to engage in mind-numbingly tedious or repetitive tasks to gain experience or complete an achievement. Happily, this is not at all how I would describe my experience with Level Grind by Annie Bellet, which is in fact a very witty, vibrant, and entertaining urban fantasy. Collecting the first four novellas in the Twenty-Sided Sorcerer series, this omnibus admittedly offers pretty standard fare when it comes to the genre. Still, it manages to be a very entertaining read thanks to the stories’ vigorous pacing, the characters’ irresistible charms, and the author’s fun take on the usual tropes.
Meet Jade Crow, a sorceress on the run. After twenty-five years of hiding from her ex-lover and fellow sorcerer Samir who wants to eat her heart (gross, yes, but that happens to be the only way to kill a sorcerer and steal their powers) she has ended up settling in Wylde, Idaho, home to a thriving paranormal community that includes shapeshifters, witches, and leprechauns. A lifelong gamer and nerd, Jade is content enough to lie low and live a quiet life among friends, running her comic book and game store.
Justice Calling is the first novella of the collection, introducing us our main characters and setting. It was just another day at Pwned Comics and Games when a tall and handsome stranger breezes through the door and accuses Jade of murder. Alek is a Justice, an enforcer for the Shifter community, and he has arrived in Wylde after receiving a vision that someone or something may be harming the lives of those he has sworn to protect, and he believes Jade is to blame.
This first story also sets the tone for the rest of the series: lots of gaming and pop culture references, unashamedly geared towards the gamer and geek demographics. That said, any general fan of urban fantasy can definitely enjoy these books as well. As the opening novella and also the shortest of the bunch, Justice Calling is unfortunately rather light on character development and world-building (imagine a full-length novel by Patricia Briggs or Ilona Andrews compressed into a little more than 100 pages, and that’s how I would describe this), but it does solidly establish more to come. This is when reading the omnibus comes in handy; with the next book conveniently waiting on the next page, there was no excuse not to satisfy my curiosity and hankering for more.
MURDER OF CROWS
This second story starts with Jade’s estranged father showing up at her doorstep, imploring her for help. Our protagonist has never forgiven her family for kicking her out of Three Feathers crow shifter ranch where she grew up, but she ultimately agrees to help after learning someone was out there brutally killing innocent people. As always, Jade suspects Samir, her evil sorcerer ex who could be murdering members of the Crow clan to get to her.
If book one was about laying down the groundwork and hooking readers in, then Murder of Crows is where things start to get a little deeper. Bellet fleshes out her world-building, exploring the various shapeshifting communities in her series and also incorporating Native American history, culture, and lore into her story. But it is character development that gets a huge boost. We learn a lot more about Jade and where she came from, and by the end of the book she is changed by the many difficult decisions she had to make. There’s also a strong vibe of mysticism in this one as Jade comes to terms with being a sorceress and what it’ll take to control her magic. The only thing I wasn’t crazy about was her romance with Alek; I mean, come on, it ends before it even begins!
PACK OF LIES
The next story begins as Alek suddenly comes back into Jade’s life, showing up at her door asking her for help (yes, there’s a clear pattern emerging here with regards to the way these books begin). The Wylde community is again threatened as news comes that wolves are killing other wolves, but things take an even worse turn when an innocent family is found slaughtered, seemingly caught in the middle of a shifter conflict. Even though Alek broke her heart, for the sake of her town Jade decides to lend him a hand in his investigation.
I didn’t get a chance to feel invested in Jade and Alek’s relationship in the previous two books, so quite a few of their interactions felt empty. These plots are also starting to become very predictable, especially when read back-to-back; someone always comes to Jade for help with a gruesome terrible crime, and as always, Jade thinks it must be Samir, the big bad who has been a constant threat in the back of her mind and yet he is still nowhere to be seen. To be fair, this is a rather common feeling for me when it comes to novellas, with there being so few pages to really develop a deeper story. Still, these books are meant to be short and sweet, and when all is said and done, Pack of Lies was another fast, entertaining read. Jade also reveals herself to be a sorceress at the end of this book which causes no small amount of tensions in her small town (even the other paranormals are kind of creeped out by sorcerers, with them being known to eat hearts and everything) which adds another interesting source of conflict to the series.
Yep, this one also starts with someone showing up at Jade’s door for help, and again we are led to believe that these dastardly acts (in this case, the grisly mass killings of unicorns) might be attributed to Samir. But this time, we actually get the sense that a greater story is emerging. Finally! A mysterious sorceress also turns up in Wylde, claiming to be running away from Samir and needs protection, and Jade is torn between wanting to help and not wanting to put her friends at risk.
I’ll be honest, this being the fourth installment, I thought we would have a lot more answers by now. But this is also a story with some great developments and nice twists. Hunting Season was perhaps the best of the novellas, and a great story to end this first collection.
Closing thoughts: So far, I’m really enjoying The Twenty-Sided Sorceress and I would highly recommend the omnibus format of Level Grind for an easy, convenient way to enjoy the first four novellas one after another. While it’s true that UF fans may find it a little derivative and too similar to many of the popular paranormal series out there, I think it aims for being light and fun rather than groundbreaking. And it worked! The stories’ short lengths also definitely had some impact on the depth of world-building, character, and story development, but the good news is, these areas continue to expand with each installment. It’s probably not a stretch to say if you love Mercy Thompson or Kate Daniels, you will do get a kick out of this series as well. Geeks and gamers will especially have a blast! I look forward to seeing what’s next....more
Last year Mishell Baker burst onto the scene and shook up the urban fantasy world with her debut Borderline, dazzling me with her fresh take on the genre. She also introduced us to Millie Roper, one of the most genuine and notable protagonists that I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. It is therefore with great excitement that I can say the sequel Phantom Pains is even better, stronger, and more inventive than its predecessor. The Arcadia Project, welcome to my favorite series shelf!
If you haven’t read the first book yet, 1) you’re missing out, and 2) you may want to catch up first before tackling this one. Phantom Pains begins approximately four months after we last saw Millie, who has left the Arcadia Project after the devastating loss of her partner Teo. The Hollywood soundstage upon which the incident happened has since been designated a magical crime scene, restricted to all but those who are savvy to Arcadia, the “other” realm where Fey and other supernatural creatures reside.
However, just as Millie and her former boss Caryl are carrying out their final inspection of the soundstage before clearing it to open again, something strange happens. A vision of a tormented Teo suddenly appears to Millie, beseeching her to “let him in”. Traumatized, Millie is only marginally comforted when Caryl tells her that it could not have been the spirit of Teo, since ghosts don’t exist. But if that’s true, then what did she see?
While reluctant to rejoin the Arcadia Project as a full agent, Millie does agree to help them get down to the bottom of this, if nothing else to get the soundstage up and running again so she can get a particularly nettlesome studio client off her back. For the first time in months, Millie returns to her old home of Residence Four, where she is scheduled to meet with two bigwigs from the Project’s National Headquarters. Soon after her meeting though, one of them is found brutally murdered with dark magic—the kind that only Caryl, a warlock, is capable of. Still, despite the overwhelming evidence, Millie is certain that Caryl didn’t do it. Painfully aware that she is her friend’s last and only hope, Millie must now gather whatever allies and resources she has left to try and clear Caryl’s name before it is too late.
Let’s start with how simply awesome Millie is as a protagonist. Phantom Pains continues to develop and grow her as a complex and fully-realized character, while also progressing her journey as a survivor. I could tell you that Millie has borderline personality disorder, or that a about a year ago she had a failed suicide attempt that caused her to lose her legs a promising film career. But the truth is though, those mere descriptions simply don’t do her justice. Millie is so much more, and once you pick up these books and experience her voice for yourself, you’ll know what I mean. It really speaks volumes about the author’s skills as a writer that she is able to convey the character’s tragic past and disabilities in an unflinchingly honest yet respectful manner, making her feel realistic and convincing without resorting to stereotypes. Outstandingly, Baker challenges our established views on disability in fiction simply by writing a fun and enjoyable story, and her protagonist is portrayed as she is: vulnerable but strong, flawed but indomitable, different but no less important.
Bottom line, I just love Millie, despite her not always being likeable. It’s true that she’s a straight-talker, and her BPD sometimes affects her emotionally, making her say or do impulsive things. Interestingly though, I find that she has mellowed out somewhat in Phantom Pains, her voice reflecting the ongoing treatment she reports to have been receiving in the four months since the events of Borderline. And on that note, I was also happy to find out that Millie and Caryl remained friends, even in the aftermath of all that happened. The two of them have a great dynamic, not to mention Caryl was one of my favorites from the first book and it thrilled me to see her play a bigger role in this sequel. If you aren’t familiar with Caryl’s circumstances I’m not going to spoil anything for you, though I will say that Phantom Pains revealed much more of her history and what I learned broke my heart into a million pieces.
And that brings us to the story, which was absolutely fantastic. While the plot may have been slower to take off and there were more holes in it than I would have liked, I am completely willing to forgive everything in light of how this book ended. It’s not going to be the epic conclusion you would expect in terms of style and tone, but for me the ending was still surprising and emotionally impactful, the kind that makes you look back and realize the entire story had been setting up for this moment. There is a very real kind of beauty in the way everything came together in the end, and of course Mishell Baker nailed it perfectly.
In sum, Borderline was great, and to my delight, Phantom Pains was even better. Bar none, The Arcadia Project is the most refreshing series to come out of the urban fantasy genre in years. Anyone who is a UF fan needs to do themselves a favor and check out these books right now!...more
For those who have not yet been initiated into the strange, scary and wonderful world of the Valducan series, better strap in, because you’re in for one hell of a ride. Here you will find monsters and demons and the secret international network of warriors who hunt them, and at the center of it all is the most important tool in their arsenal—holy weapons. These are imbued with the spirits of angels, forming a deep and reverent bond with their wielders to grant them amazing supernatural powers.
Hands down, Ibenus is my favorite book in this series yet. There are so many reasons why, but most of all, thank you Seth Skorkowsky for giving me something I’ve wanted since the beginning: a Valducan story centered on a female knight! Victoria Martin is our protagonist, a former London police officer whose life falls apart following a vicious demon attack which leaves her traumatized and her partner dead. Her employers subsequently let her go, dismissing her report and claiming that the impossible things she saw was due to stress and psychological damage. Unwilling to accept this, Victoria decides to take matters into her own hands. This is how she winds up tracking down and fighting alongside the Valducans, after one of their most experienced knights saw potential in her and agrees to take her on as his student.
Allan Havlock, protector of the holy blade Ibenus, didn’t know why but agreeing to train Victoria simply felt right, like the angel in his weapon was showing him his path. Little did he know though, his new apprentice had been in contact with an internet conspiracy group led by a man named Tommy D, an amateur filmmaker who shares her desire to expose the world to the truth of monsters. On her part, Victoria thought she was doing the right thing, infiltrating the Valducans with the goal of blowing their cover wide open. However, this was before she got to know her fellow demon hunters, before she got to sympathize with their mission…and before she started to fall in love with Allan. By the time she realizes she might have made a mistake though, it may already be too late.
Ibenus is the third installment in the series, but like the previous novels it can be read as a standalone. In fact, I would even say it’s a great place to start, since it does a fine job introducing the Valducans and laying out the nitty-gritty of what they do. Unlike the previous two books, Ibenus also features a lot more team action, whereas both Dämoren and Hounacier focused mostly on their respective main characters. I think this gives the book an edge, showing the ins and outs of how a new recruit like Victoria is initiated and integrated into the complex Valducan network, as well as how this shadowy group functions like a well-oiled machine. It’s this level of detail in the world-building that makes Ibenus a wonderful jumping-on point. That being said, the stars from the earlier books also make cameo appearances, so if what you read of Matt Hollis or Malcolm Romero sounds interesting here, I strongly urge you to go back and read their backstories.
This book also offered up just the right blend of different genre elements. I am a big fan of urban fantasy tinged with horror, and the Valducan series has always scratched that itch for me. In this world there are everything from werewolves to wendigos, but these are the no-holds-barred kinds of monsters—brutal and terrifying. In Ibenus, the creatures the knights are going after are even worse. Called Mantismeres, they are giant insectoid demons that spawn doll-faced carapaced minions, which in turn lure in their unwitting victims by emitting sounds that imitate crying or giggling babies. Imagine meeting something like that in the dark.
There’s also a great plot here, involving more than just action and thrills. Skorkowsky takes the storytelling to another level in in this book, developing character relationships and using their different motivations to create tension. There’s everything from love and betrayal to hidden agendas and conflicts of interest. A new light is shone on the will of holy weapons like Ibenus, emphasizing the fact that they are fundamentally sentient beings and can be considered characters in their own right. The enmity between the Valducan and Tommy D’s gang also becomes a focal point, for while they may both fight on the same side against the demons, the two groups are driven by different forces. Yet it’s easy to understand where the “bad guys” are coming from, even if you disagree with their methods. Likewise, despite the Valducans being the “heroes” of this series, what happens in this story will lead to many questions about their motives. I really appreciated how things were never simply black and white.
All told, Ibenus is another amazing demon-gore-splattered sequel in the highly entertaining Valducan series. The author has come a long way since the first book, and the series itself has also grown from stories about lone heroes to a bigger, fuller, more epic experience involving greater consequences and higher stakes. I love it. Highly recommended....more
I think it’s incredibly awesome that The Empty Ones is a lot like punk rock but in book form—loud, fast-moving, aggressive. It does its own thing, all the while being shamelessly, wickedly unapologetic about it. Better yet, I loved that this sequel was even better, funnier, and more entertaining than the first book!
The story picks up again not long after the events of The Unnoticeables, for both timelines—because as you’d recall, we follow two major points of view in the previous volume—one in 1977 featuring a young New York punk named Carey and a second one in 2013 featuring Kaitlyn, a stuntwoman in Los Angeles. The Empty Ones is once again using this structure of going back and forth between these two points-of-view, using the battle against the monsters to link up past and present.
For Carey, 1978 has become all about seeking revenge. He and his friend Randall survived last year’s secret war against the savage cult of Unnoticeables, Empty Ones, angels and tar men, but many more of their fellow punks weren’t so lucky. Carey is determined to hunt down the immortal Empty One who killed several of his friends, tracking him all the way to London, England where the punk scene is really rockin’. As it happens, it’s also crawling with Faceless, the British punks’ own term for the strange kids with unnoticeable, forgettable faces. Carey and Randall end up meeting Meryll, a one-woman wrecking crew who is also part of an underground London punk resistance group against the monsters.
In 2013, the situation is a lot different, though the plot also revolves around the hunt for an Empty One, a B-list actor and former teen heartthrob named Marco Luis. The first book saw Carey (now an aging hobo) team up with Kaitlyn and her friend Jackie to thwart an angel, sending Marco packing. However, the monsters still won’t leave Kaitlyn alone, forcing the trio to go on the run, eating at cheap diners and staying in sleazy motels in order to keep a low profile. Finally, Kaitlyn can’t take it anymore, and decides to take the fight straight to Marco, hoping that killing him will end this once and for all. Last she heard, the psychopathic actor was filming a new show in Mexico, which means time for a road trip!
I really can’t stress how much of a blast I had with this book. It’s gory, gross and just damn great. It’s also very funny, much more so than the first book. The type of humor in this is dark and cutting, but in spite of that, I laughed out loud more times than I could count.
In my review of The Unnoticeables, I also mentioned how much I enjoyed the characters, especially Kaitlyn, but in The Empty Ones it was definitely Carey who stole the show. I just adore this nutty young punk turned nutty old hobo, whose brain is permanently tuned to sex, beer, and punk rock whether he’s 20-something or 50-something. Still, as vulgar as he is, I couldn’t help but find the guy compelling. His propensity to think with what’s between his legs rather than what’s in his head is somewhat redeemed by all the times he reacts to situations with his heart—which proves he’s really just a big ol’ softie. Brockway has created characters who aren’t just one-trick ponies, and Kaitlyn is proof of that as well, showing lots of growth in this sequel. No longer content with running and hiding, this badass stuntwoman has taken it upon herself to face her fears head-on, so that no one else would ever have to live through her terror.
Furthermore, The Empty Ones introduces a ton of new elements to the mix. The trilogy surely would not be complete without a visit to the British punk scene, and we get to check that one off with style as Carey and Randall rock and drink their way across London, fighting Faceless at a Ramones concert and evading tar men in the Underground. Meryll is also an interesting wildcard, the addition of her character changing the game completely, so there’s really no telling where things will go from here. Finally, this book expands the lore of the monsters, building upon what we know about the angels, Empty Ones, Faceless, and tar people, and how their roles are all connected. Brockway even offers us a glimpse into the horrifying, inhuman existence of an Empty One by giving us a few chapters written in the perspective of Marco, or “this thing” as he calls himself, and it is truly some downright fucked up disturbing shit.
Technically, new readers can start here since Robert Brockway does a fine job catching us up, but I do strongly recommend starting with The Unnoticeables. I’m pleased at how much I’m enjoying this series. It has a little bit of everything, a mishmash of elements from urban fantasy, metaphysical science fiction and cosmic horror. The tone can be describe as vulgar, violent, fast-paced and hilarious. Bottom line though, The Empty Ones was simply incredible, just one hell of a great read. It takes everything from the first book to a new level, and assuming things keep going this way, the third book promises to be amazing and I cannot wait to get my hands on it....more
All is Fair is the third installment of Emma Newman’s The Split World series. After two books of introducing multiple threads and building everything, we’re finally starting to see it all come together.
As this is an ongoing series, spoilers for Between Two Thorns and Any Other Name are entirely possible, so beware if you haven’t read the first two books yet. We’re picking things up right where they left off, following Will’s violent ascent to the Londinium throne. Now the consequences of his actions have caught up with him, and there is no telling how far his adversaries will go to see him pay. Meanwhile, Cathy is determined to bring change in the Nether, even as she faces obstacles at every turn. Between the threat of the Fae lords and the Agency, no one wants to stick their necks out for her cause.
In Mundanus, Sam is coming to grips with his grief and dealing with a new reality. In the course of his investigations, he has caught the attention of Lord Iron and the Elemental Court, and what Sam finds out from them turns his world upside down. Max and the gargoyle have gone on to pursue their own case, trying to find out the truth behind all the chapter murders. These efforts lead them to uncover even more disturbing questions about the Agency.
While reading the last book together with the SF/F Read Along group, I likened this series to a soap opera, and more and more I’m finding that to be an apt comparison. There are plenty of twists and turns and more than a few shocks, giving these books the addictive quality that keeps me coming back for more. Things slow down a bit in All Is Fair, but that is more than made up for by the last quarter of the book. There’s a real sense of thread-tying and trying to bring everything together, perhaps in an attempt to streamline the plot for the next installment. If you’ve been crying for answers like I have, then the revelations in this book should make you very happy.
That said, I have some issues with the hasty way things wrapped up, almost like Newman was in a rush to finish the book. After spending two and a half books on all these plot threads, it was disappointing to watch some of them resolve with what effectively feels like a snap of the fingers. Cathy’s solution to her problems with the Agency seemed way too convenient, considering all that she went through. The same goes for Sam’s storyline, where the Fae-related conflicts that have been plaguing him for so long are suddenly made trivial. As for Max and the gargoyle, I wasn’t too crazy about the curveball we were thrown at the end either. I enjoy plot twists when they make sense, but not when there’s absolutely no setup for them, like the one we had here.
Still, it’s good to know that there’s more to come. I hear that the plan is for five books in the series, though in many ways All Is Fair feels like the end of an era for a lot of the characters. Cathy has grown so much from when we first met her in book one, and now she is prepared to take on the next challenge to bring change to the Nether. Sam has gone through a huge transformation as well, discovering his new potential. His story has been up and down for me, but there’s a distinct feeling of peace and closure when we last leave him at the end of this book, so I’m hoping that Sam can start afresh now that his past is behind him. For Max and the gargoyle, the future is perhaps the most uncertain, but they too will have to walk a new path given the way things went down. They may have solved the mystery, but left without a clear direction, where will they go next?
I’m really looking forward to finding out what’s next for everyone, despite some of my misgivings here. I have a strong feeling that book four, A Little Knowledge, will be a new chapter in all their lives and I think it would be a refreshing change of pace to explore some new directions. Can’t wait to dive right in....more
Any Other Name is the second book of Emma Newman’s The Split Worlds series, and things are certainly getting very interesting. I read this one as part of the SF/F Read Along group, and as you can imagine, the last month has been filled with much intense and spirited discussion over the characters’ outrageous actions and other unexpected surprises in the story.
While I’ll be keeping plot details to a minimum without going into anything beyond the publisher’s description to keep this review spoiler-free, bear in mind that this novel builds upon the events of the previous one and can’t really be read as a standalone. Back in Between Two Thorns, readers got to meet Catherine Papaver, a young woman who was living in double life in Mundanus while trying to escape the old-fashioned society of the Nether. Any Other Name sees Cathy back in her home world after being dragged back by her family, and against her wishes she is quickly married off to William of house Iris.
Will himself is also tasked with an impossible mission. His patron fae lord has demanded of him the Londinium throne, leaving the newly-wed couple no choice but to move to London’s mirror city in the Nether. Cathy reluctantly tries to integrate herself into their new social circles, while Will sets about finding allies to support his bid for dukedom. As much as he wants to be a good husband to Cathy though, certain desires and other dark temptations seek to draw him onto a different path. Meanwhile, Max the Arbiter continues to investigate the Agency in an attempt to uncover the mysterious circumstances behind the Bath Chapter incident, and Sam also seeks out magical help to figure out what’s wrong with his wife Leanne.
I liked this book, probably just as much, if not more, than its predecessor. While I’m not completely blown away by this series yet, I think we’re gradually getting there, with layers upon layers being built up in the story. In my review of the first book, I commented on the disjointedness of the plot as well as the imbalance the character POVs. Thankfully, these aspects are much improved in the sequel, even though there are still many threads that need to be addressed. I still think there’s way too much going on here all at once, but on the whole this book answered a lot of the questions I had after finishing Between Two Thorns, so I was pleased.
This sequel was a lot easier to read too, now that I have a better understanding of the world. The story was less hampered by the details, which allowed me to settle back and simply let myself be swept away by its events. I gained a deeper appreciation for this relationship between the realms of Exilium, Mundanus, and the in-between world of the Nether. Furthermore, groups like the Arbiters or the Agency who have the ability to affect more than one of these places add an intriguing dynamic to the situation. Max got his chance to play a bigger role again in this volume, allying with Cathy to investigate the dastardly Agency and even briefly teaming up with Sam to see what’s going on with Leanne. This latter plot development was perhaps my favorite part of the novel, and I’m pleasantly surprised at how thoroughly I’ve enjoyed this thread of mystery.
That said, certain aspects of this novel were…problematic. I remain torn on a couple of our main characters, since one moment they would be turning me off, but the next they could be redeeming themselves. I don’t often flip-flop so much on my feelings for characters, but I definitely sense a “soap opera” quality to some of their dramatics. Still, Cathy is actually a much stronger person in my eyes this time, thinking things through instead of just digging in her heels. Plus, she is starting to see beyond her own predicament, perhaps reaching out to help others as well. Sam steps up too, trying to do some good in his own bumbling way, and I found myself rooting for his cause. In contrast, Max shows us what it means to be literally soulless, having no qualms about resorting to unsavory means to get the information he needs. And Will…oh Will. Pretty much every other thing he did made me angry. It’s a good thing I’m keeping this review sans spoilers so I won’t have to go into details, or else we’d be here forever.
I will say this about The Split Worlds series, though: it’s incredibly addictive. I’m officially hooked, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next, especially after the way this book ended. I don’t know what Emma Newman has in store for us, but it’s clear none of her characters are going to come out of this clean and unscathed. Now onward to All Is Fair!...more
I must confess, I only finished The Rook last month when the surprise arrival of a Stiletto ARC prompted me to do some quick catching up with the series, so I can’t claim to have waited for this sequel for as long as others. That said though, I was no less excited to jump right in! I loved the first book, and practically dove into this next one straight away.
The first thing you should know about Stiletto is that even though it picks up where The Rook left off, it’s also not your typical conventional follow-up. For one thing, Myfanwy Thomas is no longer the main protagonist. Instead, we get two new leading ladies: a Checquy Pawn named Felicity Clements, and a Grafter surgeon named Odette Leliefeld. After centuries of being on opposite sides, the two young women are suddenly thrown together when their respective organizations are forced to make peace in a new alliance. However, putting aside their differences is easier said than done. The enmity between the two groups runs deep, and not everyone is happy about the new partnership. Almost immediately after arriving in Great Britain with the Grafter delegation, Odette becomes targeted by an angry and bitter Checquy agent, and in order to avert diplomatic disaster, a new bodyguard is swiftly assigned to her in the form of Pawn Clements.
Meanwhile, bizarre paranormal attacks continue to plague London, keeping the Checquy busy running around putting out fires. It’s all just business as usual…or is it? Do the Grafters in the delegation know more than they let on? What kind of secrets are they hiding from their hosts? Who can they trust? Both factions are on edge, with a fragile peace hanging between them. Surrounded by paranormal dangers, threats of sabotage, and deep-seated hatreds, just about anything can shatter this delicate young alliance.
Not going to lie; I was initially surprised when I started this book and discovered that we’d shifted away from Myfanwy Thomas as the main protagonist, since the publisher description makes no mention to the contrary. At the same time though, I wasn’t especially jarred by the change. Perhaps it had something to do with the short time I had between reading The Rook and Stiletto, but I found the new voices pleasantly refreshing. Don’t get me wrong; I loved Myfanwy and was delighted to see her make a return in the sequel (albeit in a supporting capacity) but clearly the Checquy-Grafter alliance is the key focus here, and there’s no better way to portray all the consequences and challenges of the fledgling partnership than to give us a new character from each side. Myfanwy might be the Rook in charge of brokering this deal, but in order to get right down to the nitty-gritty details, we had to go to the straight to the frontlines with a Pawn.
Enter Felicity. She’s a warrior, meticulous and determined. She is also completely loyal to the Checquy, aspiring one day to join the Barghests, their most elite combat force. Trained to fight and protect, Felicity won’t flinch from doing what needs to be done either, making her the perfect bodyguard to assign to Odette. Myfanway Thomas knows she can count on the Pawn to lay down her life for her charge, but given the order, Felicity also won’t hesitate to put a bullet in Odette’s head if it turns out the young Grafter woman can’t be trusted.
This makes the relationship between Felicity and Odette very interesting. For almost the entirety of the first book, we got to hear all about how the Grafters were evil, insane, and brutal enemies of the Checquy. But in this one we get Odette, a mild-mannered and well-balanced young woman who is completely overwhelmed by her visit to London and just wants to make it through the day without starting a war. I loved seeing the Grafter perspective through her eyes. She and Felicity come from two very different worlds, making the early friction between them no surprise, but as the story progresses, a precarious link begins to form between them, making this part one of the more rewarding aspects of Stiletto. Whereas in The Rook we got to read about Myfanwy Thomas having a relationship with her own pre-amnesiac self, here we actually get to see an incredible example of true female friendship. O’Malley did a great job developing Felicity and Odette’s connection.
The fresh focus on the two women also means that technically, Stiletto can be read on its own without having to read The Rook first, but I wouldn’t recommend it. For one thing, although the author does a great job recapping and explaining the important details you need to know (which also helps to refresh memories after four years, I imagine), there are various references and other ties to the first book which will feel a lot more rewarding if you can spot and recognize them. More importantly, the first book was so much fun, you definitely won’t want to rob yourself of the experience.
My one and only complaint is that the novel is weighed down here and there by some bloat, but this could simply be a stylistic choice by O’Malley. Huge chunks of history and background information are sometimes injected into the narrative, which was also the case in The Rook. Over time, this has evolved to become a part of the series’ unique charm, but every now and then it still gets very distracting, taking attention away from the characters and main conflict.
When all is said and done though, I had a great time with Stiletto. I don’t love it any less than I love The Rook—I just love it differently. While the protagonists may have changed, all the ingredients that made the first book great are still there: laugh-out-loud humor, compelling characters, a wonderfully twisty plot, detailed world-building, and amazing super-powers! The Grafter perspective is a welcome addition to this series, and I’m surprised how much I enjoyed reading about the Checquy’s former enemies. I’m certainly curious to see how these two organizations will continue moving forward, and I await the next book in the series with much excitement....more
Being a huge fan of author Sarah Lotz, naturally I just had to check out The Apartment, since she’s one half of the writing duo of S.L. Grey. While I’ve never read anything by her collaborator Louis Greenberg, I do know he’s quite an accomplished dark fantasy and horror writer as well, and together the two of them have created something truly startling here.
The book is told through the eyes of a married couple from Cape Town, South Africa. Mark Sebastian is a middle-aged English professor struggling both personally and financially after a terrible event seven years ago had shattered his first marriage. Steph is a young woman who had to put her life on hold after she got pregnant and married Mark, deciding to be a stay-at-home parent to take care of their young daughter Hayden. Despite the couple’s difficulties though, the Sebastians’ marriage was loving, happy, and idyllic—that is, until their home was violently invaded by three masked men who threatened Mark and Steph at knife point and robbed them of their already meager possessions.
Unfortunately, while the family came out of that agony physically unharmed, the psychological trauma has taken its toll. Mark and Steph are unable to return to their normal lives, due to the constant fear and paranoia. So when a friend refers them to a house-swapping website and suggests that they take a nice relaxing vacation, the two of them are intrigued by this money-saving option. Almost right away, Steph connects with the owners of a charming little apartment in Paris, a young couple who would just love to visit Cape Town and stay at the Sebastians’ place. Despite a few lingering doubts, Mark and Steph decide to take the leap and plans are swiftly made for childcare and travel. After all, who can resist the draw of the city of light and love?
However, once they arrive in Paris, their dream vacation quickly spirals out of control and becomes a living nightmare. Instead of rest and romance, they find only darkness and terror.
Before I go further, there are some quibbles I have to mention. The first and biggest discrepancy that leaped out at me was, of course, Mark and Steph’s decision to agree to a house-swap in the first place, opening their house to complete strangers after we’ve been repeatedly told how uncomfortable and traumatized they were following their home invasion. I would think that the last thing they’d want is to have more unfamiliar people coming into their private living space, sleeping in their beds, eating off their plates, handling their personal belongings, etc. (I thought maybe it was just me, but after seeing other reviews that also point out how this made no sense, I actually feel somewhat vindicated.) More of these puzzling irregularities pop up especially once the characters arrive in Paris—leaving aside the fact they’re quite possibly with the worst credit card company in the world, I also don’t think they tried anywhere near hard enough to exhaust all possible options before resigning themselves to stay in that awful, freaky apartment. If it were me, I would have found some cheap hostel or even slept on a bench at the train station before going back to that place.
Still, despite a few things that didn’t add up, I had a really enjoyable time with this novel. The tensions are thick enough that I was happy to push aside those little inconsistencies if it meant I could just sit back and let the story take me where it wanted to go. Indeed, what I appreciated most about this book was its atmosphere. There was a gradual shift from oppressive and dreadful at the beginning to downright creepy towards the end, leading the reader through several different stages of suspense and horror before letting the conclusion come crashing down on us. I was up way too late many nights reading this book, breaking the promise to myself that “I’ll go to bed once I finish this chapter” multiple times because I kept caving to the temptation to peek at the next page, getting sucked into reading another chapter, and then rinse and repeat.
A couple more comments before I go (though I doubt too many avid horror readers would be surprised by what I’m about to say): You’re probably not going to find any of the characters very likeable. Like many horror novel protagonists, I think both Mark and Steph were meant to be a little foolish, unstable and reprehensible—all by design. And like in most ghost/haunted house stories, there will also be some ambiguity, so don’t be surprised when the book ends without providing all the answers.
All told, The Apartment is a creepy little tale combining traditional horror story-telling elements with the uncertainties and struggles of a recently-married couple who probably don’t know each other as well as they think they do—and some of the shocking revelations from their alternating POV chapters really serve to emphasize that. Despite the story being riddled by little inconsistencies, my overall pleasure at reading this book was unaffected. The Apartment was a very addictive read and I had a lot of fun with it....more
Chasing Embers is an urban fantasy that seems to have a little bit of everything. There are dragons, magical spirits and mages, the Fae, and even a generous helping of ancient Egyptian mythology. The strange thing is though, even with so much going on in this novel, I actually find myself with very little to say about it. The story was a fun romp, but I enjoyed it on a very “surface” level without forming many deep attachments to its people, places, or events. That said, being the first book of a series, it has strong potential and room to grow.
The story stars Ben Garston, who’s no ordinary UF hero. For one thing, he is a dragon (which I don’t think is a spoiler, since it’s revealed almost right off the bat, not to mention it is blatantly hinted at in the synopsis and on the cover). Centuries old, “Red Ben” now walks the streets in human form, bound by a pact that was made long ago between all the magical creatures of the world. To prevent widespread chaos and fear, Ben and others like him had to agree to hide their existence and live among the mortals as one of them. In turn, guardian knights will protect them and ensure that the pact remains unbroken.
However, the peace is about to be shattered. Recent events make Ben suspect that his protections are no longer in place, and already there have been a couple attempts made on his life. But Ben has more than himself to worry about. From years of hiding in plain sight among the humans, he has come to learn to look like them, live like them, and even care for them. Even knowing from the start that their relationship is doomed to fail, Ben has nonetheless fallen in love with a mortal, a young woman named Rose. It is in his nature to protect those he treasures, even though he can never tell Rose who he is—or what he really is—and all those unspoken truths have strained things between them. Now an old enemy has resurfaced to hunt Ben, and worse, they know all his secrets.
I enjoyed Chasing Embers; I really did. I thought it had a lot to offer UF fans, including a unique twist on the paranormal creatures that usually populate this genre. James Bennett deftly combines fantasy with real world elements, sometimes blurring the lines between mythological lore and history. I particularly enjoyed the story of Ben’s origin, which touches upon so many aspects of his character (both as a dragon as as a “human”). While heartbreaking, the details of these past events also make it easier to understand his complicated relationship with Rose, and reveal much about the tragedy that sparked an old rivalry. In fact, I actually thought a lot of the flashbacks and past sequences were done very well, going against the norm of how I usually feel about nonlinear storytelling.
But while I could list many more things that I thought were interesting or cool about this book, there was also this nagging sense of distance between myself and the plot and characters, that try as I might, I could not shake. It’s a dissonance that’s hard to explain, but we often use the term “bring something to life” to describe how an author can not only create something interesting but also make them exciting and easy for readers to feel passionate about. Part of my problem was that I never managed to reach this point with Ben or the world of Chasing Embers. I’m not sure why, since on the whole I found the book well-written and put-together. A few forced metaphors aside (how does one grin widely enough to “fill a car park”, exactly?) I also thought Bennett’s prose was complex and rich but also easy on the eyes. Still, something prevented me from feeling fully invested. In the end, perhaps it simply boils down to having too much to absorb in a very short time. There is, after all, a lot going on in this book.
The good news though, is that Chasing Embers has established a strong foundation for future books in this series. Now that most of the world-building, history and background of the lore has been covered, hopefully the sequel won’t be as bogged down and will be freer to delve deeper into the characters and expand on plot development. If I sound like I’m placing some high expectations on the next book, the truth is that most urban fantasy series take a time to build, and it’s not uncommon for one to take more than one installment to hook me. This might be the case here. Chasing Embers gave me a good taste of what’s to come, piquing my interest even it did not sweep me off my feet, but I am definitely curious to see what else Bennett has in store....more
So, another one of my favorite urban fantasy series has come to a close. Finding out that Anne Bishop will soon be following up with a spinoff series did soften the blow somewhat, but I won’t lie; when I picked up this final chapter of The Others starring Meg Corbyn and Co., my heart was filled with excitement but also a lot of bittersweet feelings. I’m definitely going to miss spending time in Lakeside Courtyard and reading about its colorful residents.
Since Etched in Bone is the fifth and final installment of the series though, please beware this review may contain spoilers for the previous books. Marked in Flesh saw the Humans First and Last movement violently crushed by the Elders, and the repercussions of that event have been widely and deeply felt across the land. Pro-human groups have lost much of their power, and many of their remaining cities are now cut off from resources and protection. The thriving community of Lakeside Courtyard, having emerged from the Elders’ wrath largely unscathed, now finds itself in the position to offer help to those in need. Its wolf-shifter leader Simon Wolfgard is seen as one the more sympathetic Others, and word soon spreads that they are offering jobs and shelter to human refugees who are willing to work hard and won’t cause trouble.
Everything seems to be running smoothly, until the arrival of Cyrus James “Jimmy” Montgomery. Against his better instincts, Simon decides to let Jimmy stay in part because he is the brother of Lieutenant Montgomery, a well-respected man in Lakeside Courtyard, but also because Jimmy is the brother and son of two other current residents. That decision to show compassion ultimately turns out to be a huge mistake, for Jimmy is a con artist, seeing this opportunity not as the blessing it is but as an easy meal ticket and a way to scam money. Not realizing that the Terra Indigene reserve the worst kinds of punishment for his sort, Jimmy continues to emotionally blackmail his sister and abuse his privileges at Lakeside Courtyard, until it’s only a matter of time before he takes things too far.
I’m going to be honest here. I thought Etched in Bone ended up being another fantastic installment, but as an ending, it was somewhat disappointing. I think Bishop might have overplayed her hand when it came to the resolution of the HPL storyline in the previous book, because let’s face it, anything coming up on the heels of that epic conclusion in Marked in Flesh would be hard-pressed to rival that that act. And indeed, the conflict in Etched in Bone felt rather tame in comparison. For example, if this had been just another book in the series, I think Jimmy Montgomery would have made a pretty decent villain. For a series conclusion though? A small bit conman felt too low-key and insignificant to be the story’s main focal point, especially since we’d just seen the likes of Nicholas Scratch, leader of the Thaisian HFL who had the power of an entire movement behind him.
Then, there’s Simon and Meg. I’ve never made it a secret how I feel about these two. Their romance, if you could even call it that, has always weirded me out. I don’t care much for Meg either, and my enjoyment for this series has always been carried by my love for some of the other characters. Other than being able to tell the future by cutting herself (which the Others actually want her to stop doing), Meg brings absolutely no valuable skills to Lakeside Courtyard, and yet the Others all bend over backwards to treat this helpless little woman-child like a queen. To me, Simon’s attraction to Meg has always felt more like a loyal guard dog’s devotion to his master, like she’s something fragile to be protected and kept safe because she’s too weak to look after herself, and in turn she treats the wolf-shifter like he’s her big fuzzy pet. Bishop had this one last chance to finally set their relationship on the right course, and I was a little surprised that she didn’t take it. Simon still bends to “his Meg’s” every whim, while she continues to be portrayed a meek character who requires constant sheltering and protection.
Bottom line, Etched in Bone would have worked perfectly fine as a middle book of a series, but as a series conclusion, I felt it left something to be desired. But while my review probably goes against the grain of the overwhelmingly positive response this book has been getting, I just want to say I still adore The Others, and if nothing else, this was a satisfying and happy ending for everyone involved. I’m beyond excited that Bishop will continue to write stories set in Thaisia because I’ve enjoyed every moment I’ve spent in this world, and even though this novel didn’t exactly end with the bang I’d wanted, it was nonetheless a very good book and a must-read for fans....more
Pride’s Spell is the third installment of Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour series of novellas starring the ragtag crew of New York’s most exclusive kitchen and catering company. While these books can work perfectly fine as stand-alones, I was delighted to read this one and discover multiple overarching story threads and character paths finally coming together to form a larger picture.
Most of NYC’s in-crowd have heard of Byron “Bronko” Luck, a celebrity chef who used to have his own upscale restaurant and even a TV show. Now he is the head of Sin du Jour and the boss of the Lena and Darren, two ordinary junior chefs who have suddenly found themselves thrust into a world of the paranormal and bizarre. For one thing, Sin du Jour’s clientele is anything but ordinary. Lena and Darren’s first gig with the catering company saw them cooking and serving up a banquet for demons. Their second major job involved providing the food at a goblin wedding. But just when they thought they’ve had it with the weirdness factor, Bronko happily surprises the two of them with an assignment that actually sounds halfway normal: preparing a grand feast for a Hollywood movie premiere.
The team is split up. Understanding on some level that this is a test, Lena and Darren accompany Chef Bronko to California with only a few other staff in tow, while the rest of the crew stay behind to take care of the paranormal convention circuit, and Sin du Jour’s Stocking and Receiving department finally gets some well-deserved time off. Still, even as Ritter, Hara, Cindy and Moon are settling back to enjoy some much needed rest and relaxation, their enemies are not so accommodating. One night, all hell breaks loose as the New York team gets ambushed by the strangest group of assassins you could ever imagine. Meanwhile out west, Lena, Darren and Bronko are also dealing with troubles of their own, as they learn the hard way just how cutthroat the world of Hollywood can be.
No doubt about it, this was probably my favorite Sin du Jour tale so far. I was initially wary when came upon the book’s premise, expecting another celebrity-laden story related to the entertaining industry like in the last book, Lustlocked. Instead, Pride’s Spell had other ideas in mind. Matt Wallace deftly launches a two-pronged attack, hitting us with a storm of outrageous action and humor as both groups of characters scramble to deal with their respective crises. In New York, a wacky scenario unfolds as Ritter and his team are attacked by homicidal holiday icons, with the whole fracas finally ending in an epic showdown at Sin du Jour HQ where Dorsky and his kitchen crew have been holding down the fort while the big boss is out of town. In Hollywood, Lena and Darren struggle to come up with a suitable menu to suit the fastidious dietary demands of pampered celebs, while Jett and Nikki have sequestered themselves away to prepare the greatest, most transcendent dessert experience the world has ever seen. They say that sometimes, the after party is even better than the main event, but as we soon see, this is most certainly not the case for the Hollywood team.
In spite of its absurd plot, I thought there was a lot more substance to this sequel relative to the previous one. Looking back at my review for Lustlocked, my chief complaint was that it felt very much like a “throwaway” installment, a fun side-story that doled out plenty of action and laughs but ultimately added little to the overall series narrative or how I felt about the characters. On the other hand, while Pride’s Spell was every bit as zany and twisted, I thought it offered a lot more when it came to emotional weight. Finally, we can see how Lena and Darren have been integrating into the Sin du Jour family, making friends and forming attachments. In between all the cooking and fighting, we’re also seeing glimpses of who all these characters are on a deeper level, like how they’re starting to connect with each other, what kind of backgrounds they come from, or what makes them tick.
This was especially true for the Stocking and Receiving team. So far, Ritter et al. have featured prominently in their own mini-adventures in each book, and this one was no exception. Like a company of mercenaries, they’ve always stood a bit apart from the kitchen crew in my eyes, providing some extra thrills and comic relief on their rare ingredient-hunting escapades. This however was probably the first time I thought of them as more than a sideshow to the series, gaining a little more insight into the kinds of lives they lead when they’re not off doing jobs for Bronko.
Pride’s Spell ended up being everything I wanted and expected out of a Sin du Jour novella. It’s ridiculous but fun. Humor, action, insanity and violence are still key ingredients in this madcap urban fantasy series, but I’m also glad that we’re starting to see more development in the characters and their relationships. There’s a sense of everything coming together here, even tying in some elements introduced from the first book in the series, making me hunger for the next course. I have a feeling it’s all going to culminate into something great....more
Several weeks ago I received a book that I was unfamiliar with, a gorgeous hardcover with its page edges stained an ominous red. The title was Dark Debts by Karen Hall, which I quickly looked up to find out more. Turns out, what I held in my hands was a revised, new edition of an old cult classic theological horror/thriller, published again now by Simon & Schuster for its 20th anniversary.
According to an article I read though, this is not just a simple reissue, as some of the changes are pretty significant and extensive. Among them are a new major character as well as a reworked ending. The reason for these rewrites, the author explained, had much to do with how she has changed as a person in the last two decades, as well as updates to her knowledge on the Catholic faith. Since I’ve not read the original, there’s no way for me to compare the two editions, but knowing all this new information did make me even more curious. It’s a rare opportunity whenever an author gets to rework a previously published novel, and I was drawn to the themes and subjects of this book.
Gothic horror. Theological questions. Demon possession and exorcism. Mystery. Romance. Dark Debts is all of this and more. The story begins with a Jesuit priest named Father Michael Kinney testifying as a witness to a horrific crime involving a teenage boy and his two parents, appearing in court against the wishes of the church. In response, Father Michael’s superiors transfer him to rural Georgia immediately after the trial, forcing him to leave his old parish in Manhattan. Believing his exile to be a result of church politics, Father Michael is stricken when he discovers the truth about the dark, terrible secrets in his family’s past and that his transfer might in fact be no accident at all.
Meanwhile, a journalist in California receives some shocking news. Randa is informed that her friend and former lover Cam Landry, a man she had always known to be a kind and mild-mannered pacifist, is dead by suicide after robbing a liquor store and killing an employee. After promising to return Cam’s belongings to his brother in Georgia, Randa ends up meeting Jack Landry, the last surviving member of their notorious family. Everyone in town is familiar with the name Landry—the father Will was an abusive alcoholic who took out his awful anger on his wife and sons; youngest brother Ethan’s death was a suicide, though rumor has it that his father killed him; oldest brother Tallen went on a murder spree at a church during Christmas services and was then convicted and executed by the state; and their mother took her own life one year later. Now Cam is gone too, and friends close to him told Randa that he was acting strange and having bad dreams before he snapped. Jack is the only one left, and he is terrified of growing close to anyone, convinced that the Landry curse will claim him next and make him lose control.
If you enjoy experiencing the disturbing feelings of unease or creeping dread brought on by the atmosphere of old-school horror movies, then Dark Debts is for you. It is a very subtle novel, and those looking for more of the in-your-face horror elements will probably have to look elsewhere. There is a supernatural aspect to the story involving satanic cults and demonic possession, but at its heart this book reads a lot more like a slow-burn mystery-suspense rather than a straight up horror novel. There’s also a thread of romance woven in as a spark ignites between Randa and Jack, despite the latter’s reticence and fear to let anyone new into his life.
In particular, I really liked reading about the characters in this book. They are all wonderfully flawed and complicated, as evidenced by the prime example of Father Michael Kinney, a Catholic priest whose devotion to his faith often clashes with his progressive views. He has even broken his vow of chastity and is secretly carrying on a relationship with a woman in New York, and every day he fights an internal battle that challenges his relationship with God. This undoubtedly is the cause of some conflict as he is called upon to perform an exorcism, for how is he to vanquish others’ demons when he is still clearly dealing with his own?
If I had any complaints about this book at all, it would have to do with the story’s pacing. I gave a nod to the slow-burn effect, but I still felt the narrative took an inordinate amount of time to establish the two storylines (one featuring Father Michael, the other focusing on Randa and Jack) and the question of how they are related was not answered until much later. Also, I’d expected this book to be a lot more chilling and disturbing from its cover and the blurbs. While I certainly don’t mind that Dark Debts turned out to be more of a supernatural mystery with a greater emphasis on suspense than actual horror, I still can’t help the twinge of disappointment that this was not as scary as I had hoped.
I spent a lot of time thinking about this book after I was finished though, and realized that even in light of the pacing issues, Dark Debts kept me engaged from cover to cover. The research that went into it must have been tremendous. I didn’t even know until later that the downtown Atlanta fire at the Winecoff Hotel, which was central to Father Michael’s story, was in fact a real event, the deadliest hotel fire in US history claiming 119 victims back in 1946. I looked it up after finishing Dark Debts, and reading the details of the disaster sent shivers up my spine. It makes me wonder what else I might have missed.
Whether you’re new to this book, an old fan interested in seeing some of the updated changes, or just an avid reader of horror/mystery/suspense in general, I definitely recommend checking out this edition of Dark Debts if the story intrigues you. An impressive novel featuring great atmosphere, multilayered characters, and a number of complex themes surrounding the conflict of good versus evil....more
While I’ve made it no secret that I love the Mercy Thompson series, if you recall my reviews for the last few books, you’ll know how I feel things in the overall story arc have been stuck in a holding pattern for some time now and the lack of progress was starting to take its toll. For this milestone tenth installment though, I’m glad to report that Briggs has brought the energy back to these books in a huge way.
It all began like any other night. A pirate-themed video gaming session ends with Mercy heading out to the store to pick up some cookie baking supplies, but she never makes it home. Her car getting wrecked is the last thing she remembers of that day. Next thing she knows, she’s waking up alone, imprisoned in some strange room. Her mysterious captors are soon revealed as two vampires playing good cop/bad cop come out to question her, cluing Mercy in to the identity of the one behind her rude abduction. If she’s right about her guess though, things are only about to get worse.
By shapeshifting into coyote form, Mercy manages to escape her confinement by outmaneuvering the werewolf assigned to guard her, but the resulting triumph is short-lived. Outside, the world is completely unfamiliar, and with a sick realization, Mercy suddenly understands why she cannot feel her mate bond with Adam anymore. Not only have her kidnappers taken her out of the Tri-Cities area, they’ve taken her out of the country altogether and somehow gotten her unconscious body across the ocean to Europe, where she now finds herself with no clothes, no money, and no allies.
Mercy has been in some hairy situations before, but nothing like this. Silence Fallen is the big shakeup this series needed, in my opinion, and it delivered phenomenally in both content and structure. The synopsis alone should tell you why this story should not be missed; aside from being able to take an unexpected but totally awesome trip to Europe with Mercy, we also get to see a side of the werewolf-vampire political war that we’ve never seen before. This one blows the door wide open on what we think we know, adding a great many more layers to the history of the conflict and to the various parties involved.
The other big deal is how Briggs has chosen to tell the story. So far for the most part, all the books have been told from Mercy’s point of view, though recently we’ve seen a smattering of other POVs involved, like Adam’s. Silence Fallen takes things even further this time around by making Adam’s perspective a central aspect of the novel, though given the nature of the plot, it’s easy to understand why it had to be this way. With Mercy in Europe trying to problem solve her way out of a jam, Adam and the pack have not been sitting idly by, and having both storylines running along side by side is a good way to show how everyone is working in concert trying to figure out why Mercy was kidnapped and how to bring her home. I was truly delighted with the way the two timelines ended up tying together, and especially enjoyed the way it emphasized the power behind their partnership.
Plus, seeing Adam take such an active role in a Mercy Thompson book was a refreshing change of pace. None of us are strangers to Mercy’s resourcefulness, so of course it is no surprise when this book once again shows her using her wits and skills to wriggle out of an impossible situation. But Adam? Thus far, Adam has mostly played the role of Mercy’s support, and bless his heart, he’s good at things that require strength and a voice of authority when it comes to pack drama, but he’s never exactly been one for subtlety. At long last, we see him out of his element and it is a real treat, not to mention the new challenges also add a lot of depth to his character. What do you know, our great commanding Alpha is actually quite capable of diplomacy!
When you’ve been following an urban fantasy series for this long, it’s always fantastic to see a tenth installment that still brings fresh ideas. This being Briggs and Mercy Thompson, I was never truly worried, though the last couple of books have led me to feel slightly underwhelmed by the direction the overall story seemed to be taking. Well, no longer. There are so many great twists here, so many new developments, and so much new potential. Silence Fallen is the shot of energy I needed, and I am once more excited about the future of this series....more
If you asked me what horror novels I’ve read recently that are 1) creepy, 2) fun to read, and 3) highly addictive, right away I could probably name a few of my favorites including M.R. Carey’s The Girl with All the Gifts as well as Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. Now I’m happy to have another title to add to my best-of list, and this amazing book’s name is The Last Days of Jack Sparks.
As the first line in the novel’s blurb states, its protagonist Jack Sparks died while writing this book. What we’re reading now is the manuscript of his gonzo style exposé of the supernatural that he was working on right before his mysterious death, which drew plenty of attention due to the eponymous writer’s cult fame and active presence on social media. Jack Sparks was one to throw himself wholly into his research, as witnesses to his cocaine addiction after his last book Jack Sparks on Drugs can attest. Jack Sparks and the Supernatural was meant to be his comeback tour de force, reminding his fans that he still has what it takes.
Jack, however, makes no pretense at objectivity. He doesn’t put much stock in ghosts, demons, or anything of the supernatural, and makes no effort to hide his skepticism or contempt while sitting in on an exorcism in rural Italy on Halloween, laughing and tweeting out snarky remarks the whole time. But everything unravels for him after that trip though, starting with a disturbing video appearing on his YouTube channel that he doesn’t remember uploading. Determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, Jack becomes obsessed with the occult and plunges deeper into his investigation, embarking on this harrowing journey that will eventually kill him.
At its heart, The Last Days of Jack Spark is a ghost story, but what amazed me was its refreshingly original premise and structure. We’re told that our protagonist’s last book is published posthumously, with much of the work undertaken by his brother Alistair who pulled together all of Jack’s research and rough drafts. The final book is also supplemented with notes, reports, and transcripts of interviews conducted with people Jack had contact with in his final days.
This additional content also reveals much about our protagonist: that he’s a bit of an asshole. Not that readers couldn’t already tell that from Jack’s own pompous, overblown narrative. Armed with a cutting sense of humor, he’s often flippant with the people he works with and disrespectful of their beliefs. He’s also a narcissist who frequently plays up his own importance in his writing, twisting the situation to make himself look good. Not surprisingly, this makes Jack one hell of an unreliable narrator. And yet, while the differing accounts give us multiple versions of a single event, we have to ask ourselves who we can trust. Most of the other characters have plenty at stake as well. Perhaps they too are out to protect themselves, like Alistair who has good reason to discredit his brother’s scathing accusations of him, or other supernatural experts who have their professional reputations on the line.
What really happened to Jack Sparks? The story will keep you guessing, with plenty of mind-bending twists and shocking revelations along the way. As the horrors begin to take their toll, Jack’s mind becomes more and more unstable, which really starts to come through in his voice. When the impossible occurs, we can’t help but wonder whether it’s real or just a result of Jack’s deteriorating sanity. In a way, that’s almost beside the point; what’s important is how effectively author Jason Arnopp has created terror out of that uncertainty. Tensions rise to a crescendo as we approach the story’s climax, where Arnopp springs on us the most brilliant surprise of all. This book featured one of the best conclusions I’ve ever read. Though we all knew Jack Sparks was going to die, the ending still managed to catch me off guard. It was horrifying, clever, and just perfect.
The Last Days of Jack Sparks is a book every horror fan should read. For two days my life was entirely consumed by this this gripping page-turner. Even now that I’m finished the book, I still can’t stop thinking or talking about it. Seriously, if you’re looking for some spine-tingling entertainment, especially for the Halloween season, run don't walk to your bookstore and check this one out right the hell now....more
I’ve been champing at the bit to read Certain Dark things ever since I first heard about the book. Back then it still didn’t have a title, but the mere description of it clinched it for me. I’m not someone who’s ever needed much motivation to pick up a vampire story after all, and after learning that one of the main characters is a descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, I was even more intrigued.
That the book takes place in Mexico City was a compelling factor too. Gangs, drugs and corruption run rampant in the capital, but what you won’t have to worry about are vampires. That’s because the city has declared itself to be a “vampire-free zone”. But as with all rules, there are times when individuals have found a way around this particular edict.
This is something Domingo knows all too well. A homeless teenager who ekes out a meager living by salvaging landfills for usable goods to resell, he is on his way home one day when he spies a pretty girl trailed by her large Doberman. To his surprise, she notices him back. And actually talks to him! It isn’t long before the girl confides in him her name and true nature. She is Atl, and she is a member of a subgroup of vampires who trace their line back to the ancient Aztecs.
Atl is in trouble, so she cuts to the chase: some other dangerous vampires are after her, and she needs to get out of Mexico City and head south right away. But while she’s here, she will need a place to hide as well as a “Renfield” to feed on and to assist her during the day. Completely smitten by this confident, beautiful girl, Domingo readily agrees to help her out—the fact that she’s a vampire and wants to drink his blood be damned.
However, it turns out Atl’s troubles are worse than he realized. The vampire gang she’s on the run from are headed by Nick Godoy, a real nasty piece of work. Brash young Nick is a “Necro”, a subspecies of vampire that most closely resembles the classical vampire archetype, and he has a grudge to grind. Bent on seeking vengeance for a long-ago slight, Nick has tracked his target to Mexico City where he and his Renfield Rodrigo have been getting into all sorts of mischief, attracting the attention of a police detective thus causing even more problems for Atl and Domingo.
I had high hopes for the world-building going into Certain Dark Things, and I was not disappointed. Instead of charging in with an attempt to turn the vampire mythos on its head though, Silvia Moreno-Garcia does something more subtle—and ingenious, in my opinion. As we go deeper into Atl’s past, we get to learn a wealth of information about vampire lore in general. We find out about the subspecies, of which there are many. Considering how many cultures throughout history have developed their own version of the “blood-sucking/flesh-eating monster” legend (the Chinese and the Jiang-shi, or the stories of the Wendigo in Native American folklore, to name a couple) I thought this to be an especially clever twist. By drawing from inspiration taken from all over the world, the author has formed a basis for her story that at once feels fresh but still has roots firmly planted in our reality. The results are very effective and pleasing because the reader feels an immediate affinity for the setting and characters.
The plot was also kept rather simple. It’s also fast-paced as hell. Everything about this book is slick and elegant, furnished with all the best features without being weighed down. This lack of complexity is perhaps the only thing holding me back from giving it a full five stars, but while it may not be phenomenal, it is still great. Certain Dark Things easily ranks among my most interesting and entertaining reads of the year.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia offers a whole new world to discover in Certain Dark Things, a novel that offers rock solid world-building and compelling characters that are guaranteed to charm you and open your eyes. So if you’re getting a hankering for a vampire story, why not give this one a try? You won’t regret it....more
I found a new favorite author in Keri Arthur when I read City of Light last year, and my hope is that I will continue to enjoy her work for years to come. Certainly those odds are looking good with Winter Halo, the sequel. Not only did I enjoy it as much as the previous book, this second novel of the Outcast series also came along when I needed it the most, providing a much needed counterpoint to the heavier reads I’ve had on my plate lately. It was nice to simply let loose with Tiger in her world again; that and we all know there’s nothing quite like vampires and shapeshifters plus a little a bit of sex and action to serve as perfect entremets.
The story picks up from the end of City of Light, continuing Tiger’s quest to rescue a group of kidnapped children. With the help from some new allies (because calling them friends would still be quite a stretch), she traces the trail to Winter Halo, a pharmaceutical company whose research arm appears to be involved in a bunch of shady activities. Our protagonist hatches up a plan to go undercover, using her déchet abilities to shapeshift and gather information from a top company executive to find out what’s going on within their research facility.
Her findings end up being even more bizarre and worrisome than expected, including everything from reports of hauntings to illicit experimentation and dissections. Just what is going on inside the walls of Winter Halo? To find out, Tiger must infiltrate the company and go deep into the heart of hostile territory. Time is fast running out, and the lost children are depending on her to find and rescue them.
If you haven’t discovered the world of Outcast yet, you’re in for a treat. As I mentioned before, Tiger is a humanoid being known as a “déchet”, a French term that means “junk” or “waste”, referring to the process with which she and others like her were made. Déchets were the super-soldiers created for the war against the monsters that came through rifts into our world more than a hundred years ago, genetic hybrids cobbled from genes from human, animal, and even paranormal creatures. Tiger’s main role in that long-ago war was to act as a “lure”, an agent capable of seducing her victims and extracting sensitive information from their heads before killing them. This explains why she is more “emotionally connected” than many of her fellow déchets who were mainly bred to be violent war machines. Pretty much all of them were eradicated by the end of the war though, so Tiger lives a lonely existence, making her home in an abandoned bunker surrounded by ghosts of murdered déchet children.
I think that’s the part which gets me the most. Let’s face it, urban fantasy and paranormal books about their main characters trying to rescue kidnapped kids are a dime a dozen. What makes Outcast and Tiger so special is that the reader can deeply sympathize with her reasons for going the distance for these stolen children. Her own life has been touched by the cruel and untimely deaths of young souls, and those experiences have affected her and stayed with her. Whenever we encounter scenes with Bear and Cat, our protagonist’ energetic helper ghosts, sometimes they charm us so much that it’s easy to forget the horrible way they died. For Tiger though, the heartbreaking circumstances around their deaths are always on her mind, and she’ll fight hard to prevent another child from ever being harmed again.
This sequel also builds upon the relationships established in the first book. The feelings growing between Tiger and Jonas are likely to be of the most interest, their attraction having been teased since the two of them first met. I’m actually surprised at the slow-burn approach Arthur is taking, when in a lot of other series, their authors often seem so eager to throw their love interests together as quickly as possible. I love this more measured pacing though, giving time to let the characters’ lives and personalities sink in.
Finally, I’m really enjoying the new plot developments. There’s a noticeable shift in Winter Halo’s themes towards more subterfuge, but the tensions and thrills remain high. The hunt for the missing children still makes up the main story arc, but now several secondary plot threads have also come into play and I’m curious to see where they will go.
The stakes have definitely been raised for this one! Arthur’s world-building and characterizations continue to be outstanding for this series, and I am having a blast with the twists and turns of the story. Now begins the hard part: the wait for book three....more
I badly wanted to like this book, but its style was just completely wrong for my tastes, a model example of the classic “It’s not you, book–it’s me.” In these cases I always struggle to write my reviews, because I know what I perceive as flaws are in fact really selling points that will be very attractive to others. They say good content will always have an audience though, which is why I’m not too concerned about this book’s chances of finding success with readers everywhere, but I confess it didn’t really work as well for me, in spite of its huge charisma.
First, a little bit about Heroine Complex: The book tells the story of two best friends—one is a flashy superheroine, and the other is her quiet personal assistant. Ever since they were five years old, our protagonist Evelyn Tanaka has always found herself in Annie Chang’s shadow, and that’s become especially true now that Annie has become Aveda Jupiter, savior of San Francisco. It isn’t easy keeping up with a superheroine, or putting up with her epic tantrums whenever things don’t go her way, but Evie always tells herself she doesn’t mind the work. After all, Annie-now-Aveda is her oldest, most loyal friend. She’s been there for Evie through all the bad times, rescuing her whenever she needed the help and emotional support. Evie figures the least she can do to repay Aveda is to give her boss anything she wants, and do whatever she commands.
But then one day, Aveda injures herself while fighting cupcake demons, suffering a sprain which would put her out of commission for at least four to six weeks. Refusing to accept being out of the spotlight for that long, Aveda convinces Evie to act as her double and make public appearances in her stead. True to form, Evie caves spectacularly to her friend’s demands, never mind that she has no experience schmoozing at glitzy events, or fighting portal demons for that matter. In fact, Evie has spent most of her adult life actually trying to hide her own superpower, which she fears would be dangerous if she ever let it out.
What can I say? The whole superheroes meets The Devil Wears Prada premise wrapped up in an urban fantasy package was certainly irresistible to me, and at first I genuinely thought Heroine Complex would be right up my alley. And indeed, I would have loved it, I think, if some of the elements which first attracted me to this book–the humor, the action, the snark, etc.–hadn’t been so exaggerated and over-the-top. Another key problem I had with this book was how cartoonish the setting felt. UF has always been one of my favorite genres because I love the way it reimagines our world with supernatural aspects in it, while still maintaining the realism and believability of the setting. In contrast, Sarah Kuhn’s San Francisco and all the characters populating it are more like comic caricatures, and her writing style also reflects this general vibe.
By the way, I use descriptions like “cartoonish” and “comic” because I believe none of this is by accident. I get the feeling that this is exactly what the author is aiming for, but I really have to be in the right mood for this tongue-in-cheek style, and I guess I just wasn’t.
Not surprisingly then, story and characters are also ultra-predictable. Again, I know all that is part and parcel of this particular narrative style, but it still nettled. Evie, despite her quirkiness and ebullience, comes across too bland and two-dimensional. She and her friends are like walking clichés playing their assigned roles and speaking their hammy lines. The romance also felt a bit tacked on and flat, since whenever Evie and her love interest Nate shared a scene, their relationship only seemed to have two settings: sniping-at-each-other mode, or can’t-keep-our-hands-off-each-other mode. I did think the story was fast-paced and fun though, and the plot had its flashes of brilliance every now and then, but it simply wasn’t enough to keep me energized for nearly 400 pages.
Major kudos for the Asian American superheroine protagonists though, even if I could have done without a couple of the stereotypes, like how Asian parents only care about their kids’ grades and would disavow us if we didn’t get into med school, and my eyes just about bugged out of my head when I read that part where Evie said she was used to not letting herself feel because she’s Asian and knows all about emotional repression. Yes, I realize there’s usually a nugget of truth to stereotypes and I’m aware this is all done in the spirit of good fun, but seeing them propagate even for the sake of humor still makes me a tad uncomfortable especially since I’ve had to face many of these same misconceptions in my life (“You’ll want your daughters to be doctors, right?” Even when said in jest, this one is my own personal bane.)
Overall, I know I’m in the minority with my lukewarm reaction, so if you think you’ll enjoy the story’s style or the type of humor I described, then you should definitely give this book a try. Heroine Complex accomplishes what it sets out to do, and it does all of it very well, even if it did turn out not to be the kind of book for me....more
I knew I was going to have fun with this book, but I ended up liking it even more than I expected. I’ve reached the point in my reading where I already have several go-to authors or series I seek out whenever I want my routine Urban Fantasy fix, so for me to jump into a new UF, something has to be unique or special about it to catch my interest. I’m happy to say that It Happened One Doomsday was just that—fresh, original, and extremely entertaining. It’s not every day you come across a magic system based on crystals, minerals and gems, or a version of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse who herald in the end of the world driving fast classic cars.
Our protagonist is also not your typical sorceress. In fact, by her own admission, Dru Jasper is barely a sorceress at all. She knows her own magical potential is weak, but she tells herself she’s fine with that. Most folks in the magical community aren’t the most stable, anyway. All Dru wants now is to be a “normal” person, to settle down with her “normal” successful dentist boyfriend Nate, and start a “normal” life together with him. In the meantime, she’s happy enough supporting other more talented sorcerers with her store, The Crystal Connection, supplying them with powerful potions and magical crystals. Every once in a while, a regular customer will also come in asking for some relaxation incense or crystal healing.
Then one day, a hunky mechanic named Greyson rolls up to her store in a black muscle car and walks in with complaints of nightmares keeping him awake. Right away, Dru feels a connection with him. Just being near him seems to amplify her powers, so that she can achieve more magical healing with her crystals than she’s ever managed before. However, despite Dru’s best efforts, Greyson’s symptoms don’t seem to be getting any better. Her worst fears are confirmed when horns start sprouting from his head and his eyes start glowing red: Greyson is turning into a demon. Turns out, an order called the Harbingers are bent on bringing about doomsday and for some reason Greyson has been targeted to be one of their Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. To stop the end of the world, Dru and her friends must recover an artifact known as the Apocalypse Scroll, but first they’ll have to survive long enough to find a way to reverse Greyson’s terrible transformation.
I had a wonderful time with this fast-paced and entertaining story. Laurence MacNaughton’s writing is very engaging and readable, and he has a great touch with dialogue, especially when it comes to snappy back-and-forth interplay between characters. However, for this review, I want to focus on what I thought were the book’s main standout features.
To start things off, Dru’s use of crystal magic is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. The author recently wrote a guest post for The BiblioSanctum which talked about the magic system in It Happened One Doomsday and it is clear he knows a lot about the history and properties of crystals and gems. The main focus of the post was on galena, which Dru uses in the book to fight demons, but there are so many more types of rocks, minerals, and even metals that are featured in this story. Our protagonist’s touch can activate the magical potential in the crystals, which she can then use or channel to so some pretty amazing things. It’s a simple idea, but the possibilities are virtually limitless.
Second, the characters are what makes this book shine. Dru is headstrong and isn’t afraid to step up to do what needs doing, but she’s also far from being the perfect heroine archetype. MacNaughton paints her as something closer to an underdog, someone who doubts her own powers and worth. She’s reluctant to reach for what she really wants, fearing failure and disappointment, so she decides to settle for what she thinks is good enough. Fortunately for Dru, she has good friends who provide her with a daily dose of reality check. Enter Rane, a six-foot-tall Amazonian sorceress who can turn her body into whatever substance she is in contact with, which makes Dru and her extensive inventory of metal and rock jewelry a good ally for her to have. Rane is proof that sometimes you can like a supporting character even more than the main protagonist; I just loved her and her friendship with Dru, and I was happy that she had a big role in this story.
Third, I liked the idea of possessed cars. While I’m not a fan of muscles cars or hot rods, the concept of demons riding them seemed like an apropos, modern-day equivalent of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Greyson’s car, dubbed Hellbringer, was a delight, and much credit goes to MacNaughton for giving an inanimate object such a convincing personality and for making it seem so alive.
The ending ties things up nicely, but also sets the stage for more. Bottom line, even though I’m following way too many urban fantasy series these days, I’ll never say no to entertaining stories and great characters. It Happened One Doomsday definitely sold me, and I know I’ll be waiting on pins and needles until the sequel....more
I want to say right off the bat, this was the most fun I’ve had with an urban fantasy in ages! Not only was I blown away by the potential—the most I’ve seen when it comes to a new series—Kristi Charish appears to have this uncanny ability to push all my right buttons. I became a fan of hers after the Adventures of Owl, and I’ve been hankering for anything she writes ever since. That’s how this first book of her new series came to my attention. Hard to imagine anything beating a fast-talking, tomb-raiding, RPG-playing ex-archaeology grad student turned international antiquities thief, but Kincaid Strange of The Voodoo Killings might actually give Owl a run for her money.
For one thing, she’s not your typical voodoo practitioner, nor is this book your typical ghosts-and-zombies fare. However, like a lot of her peers in the UF genre, Kincaid is flat broke. And while she might be the best at what she does, what she does best isn’t exactly paying the bills these days. New Seattle laws against the raising of zombies have dried up her source of income, leaving her scrounging for séance jobs among the city’s population of university students, especially those with an obsession with grunge rock. It helps a little that the ghost of Nate Cade, the legendary Seattle grunge rocker who died in the late 90s, is her roommate. The two of them make a great team.
Then one day, Kincaid gets a call about the stray zombie of prominent local artist, and before she knows it, she’s his brand new guardian. Cameron can’t remember who raised him or even how he died, but an unauthorized zombie walking around town spells very bad news for everyone, so Kincaid takes it upon herself to help him piece together the final days of his life. The investigations go south when she connects Cameron’s death to a string of recent murders, and the victims are all zombies and other voodoo practitioners like her—which can only mean one thing: it’s only a matter of time before the killer comes gunning for her.
As I said, The Voodoo Killings is not your typical UF. The world Kristi Charish has crafted here is all her own, and I love what she’s done with the magic and mythos behind the raising of zombies and summoning of ghosts. There’s an intricate process behind animating a corpse involving a complex series of spell threads that only someone with the skills can recognize and manipulate. A practitioner’s relationship with the “Otherside” is one of the most fascinating aspects of the story, hooking me in right from the very start. It’s also the wild little details that make me want to giggle and rub my hands together with glee, like the practice of writing on mirrors to communicate with ghosts, or Cameron having to pan-fry his servings of human brains that come neatly packaged in highly illegal (but highly convenient!) vacuum-sealed packets.
The characters themselves are instant favorites. There’s a special place in my heart reserved for all the underdogs of UF, and Kincaid definitely counts. In truth she actually shares a lot of traits with Owl from Charish’s other series, save for the recklessness and smart-alecky mouth, which made connecting with Kincaid a lot faster and easier. Like Owl again, Kincaid has few human friends and spends the bulk of her time associating with other practitioners and supernatural beings, and as a result we have a fascinating and very diverse cast of supporting characters. First and foremost is Nate, who is in no way your everyday sidekick ghost, though his loyalty to Kincaid is unequaled. Then there’s Lee Ling, the centuries old mysterious zombie who runs a tavern in the magical underground and who will keep you guessing at her motives at every turn. And last but not least, there’s Cameron, the stray zombie Kincaid so reluctantly took under her wing. Throw everything you think you know about zombies out the window, because he will make you see them in a whole new light.
The plot is also fast-paced there’s never a dull moment. This story hits the ground running and not once do we hit a lull. Kincaid Strange appears to belong to the same school of UF protagonists as Harry Dresden, where the heroes and heroines must handle the challenges of juggling a million crises at once while multiple fires around them keep screaming to be put out. Still, while there may be a lot of things going on in this book, I didn’t actually find any of it to be too much or overwhelming. All it did was make it hard to stop reading.
While I still love Owl and her Indiana Jane persona, Kincaid really appealed to me in her own unique way. Whenever I read urban fantasy, it’s not uncommon for a new series to take several installments—two, three, sometimes even four books—for the characters and world to draw me in. Rarely does it happen with the very first book, but that’s exactly what happened here with The Voodoo Killings. If you’re a fan of the genre, I can’t recommend this one highly enough! Hands down, this is my favorite book by Kristi Charish right now, and to my happy surprise, I think I’ve also found a new favorite urban fantasy series....more