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
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
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, walk don’t run to your bookstore and check this one out right the hell now....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
Ghost meets World War I in this really cool new paranormal alternate history novel by Mary Robinette Kowal. The book stars Ginger Stuyvesant, an American engaged to a British intelligence officer during a period of intense fighting in Europe. Our protagonist herself is a medium stationed in the French port city of Le Havre working for the Spirit Corps, a classified spiritualist project developed by Britain to gain an advantage over the Germans.
In the British army, each soldier goes through a top secret conditioning process to ensure that upon their deaths, their spirits will return to Le Havre so that the mediums there can take their report. It’s their final service to their country, passing on potential valuable intelligence like enemy troop movements and tactics. As a member of the Corps, Ginger’s job is to talk to the ghosts of these slain soldiers, collect their information, and pass it on through to the right people. If the Germans find out about what they’re doing here, the consequences can be devastating. However, Ginger’s fiancé Captain Benjamin Harford, being one of the key figures involved in the running of the Spirit Corps, is already suspicious that their secret may be out due to some recent strange activity. Ginger is soon made aware of a possible traitor in their midst, and while Ben is away at the front, the two of them exchange coded messages to share what they know. Together they work to uncover a spy and put a stop to the German’s attempts to target the Spirit Corps.
There’s also a major plot development that happens near the beginning of the book, and although the publisher description doesn’t mention it, it’s so obvious it’s coming that I’m not even sure it would constitute as a spoiler. Still, I’ll err on the side of caution and won’t reveal it, even if it will make writing the rest of this review more difficult. Without going into specific details, I think it is enough to say that this particular development will lead to some very poignant and emotional moments. Ginger felt very genuine to me, which of course is crucial to my enjoyment of a main character and her story.
I also enjoyed the ideas here. Often, when a book calls to me, there is a specific “hook” to the description that initially catches my attention. For Ghost Talkers, it was unquestionably the concept of a Spirits Corps of mediums working for the army. The idea that the military would find a strategic use for ghosts and isn’t really beyond the pale, and Kowal does a great job developing the ins-and-outs behind what Ginger and her fellow mediums do.
However, while world-building is fantastic on a micro-level, when it comes to relating it all back to the wider world out there and the history of the times, that’s where the seams of this novel start to show. When it comes to historical fantasy and alternate history fiction, atmosphere is always going to be more important than the details for me, and the main issue I had with the world-building here was that even though I knew I was reading a book set during WWI, the story never truly made me feel like I was there. I really liked how Kowal addresses many social issues at the time, such as the systemic sexism and racism, but while I applaud her intentions, in the process of tying her story together she also rushes through convenient resolutions which glosses over the harshness of the reality. It’s also not very clear how the Corps came to be, and the workings behind the huge network of people involved in maintaining its secrecy. For example, the story mentions a couple of famous figures like Harry Houdini or Arthur Conan Doyle who are actually accomplices for the British government, working on their behalf to cover up spiritualism and ghost-talking by actively debunking things like that in public. Without more context on the history of the Spirit Corps and how such a huge endeavor was pulled together though, all this comes across as mere name dropping and a slapdash way to try and connect readers to the historical era.
The story was also entirely too predictable, playing out like a conventional mystery—especially since it wasn’t subtle at all when it came to dropping false leads, so it was just a matter of the process of elimination to identify the traitor.
Still, the characters and their relationships shine, even if the plot and setting are weaker. And truly, I think the ultimate strength behind Ghost Talkers lies in its ideas about the Spirit Corps. Imagine having to interact with the departed souls of thousands of soldiers, many of whom died violently and unexpectedly. All ghosts and mediums know that they have a job to do, but reading about Ginger’s attempts to provide comfort and assurances to the spirits before they dissipate into the great unknown was both tragic and touching.
So if the book’s description catches your interest, I think that’s reason enough to check this one out. I wish the story had been expanded a little to create a more immersive atmosphere or to include some context and background information about the Corps, but perhaps that can be addressed with future books. This was a fast, enjoyable novel, and I’m glad I read it....more
This was my first book by Keri Arthur, and I was completely unprepared for how good it was. I don’t even know why I was caught so flat-footed! After all, I know friends who have been fans of the author’s for years and they all absolutely adore her work, which is what convinced me to give City of Light a try in the first place. I’ve been curious about her books for a long time, and this being the first book of a new series seemed like the perfect place to start, so I went in with pretty high expectations. It ended up exceeding all of them.
Of course, I was skeptical at first, especially right after I opened the book and was almost immediately overwhelmed by a huge solid wave of info-dumps. To be fair, I understood the reasons for this, especially after I finished the book. There’s a tremendous amount of world building and a lot of amazing wonders and mysteries to discover, but the fun can’t start until after we’ve all taken the crash course, so to speak. After the story gets moving though, things really heat up.
This series opener introduces us to Tiger, a genetically hybrid soldier known as a “déchet”—a word that translates to “waste product” and speaks volumes about their makers’ attitudes towards their creations. But all that happened more than a hundred years ago, during the war between this world and the one beyond the veil. Those alive now live a precarious existence in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, with humans and shifters alike occupying highly-secured cities lit perpetually with artificial light meant to keep all the monsters like demons, wraiths and vampires out.
Tig is the last of her kind, after the shifters eradicated all déchet at the end of the war. She lives in the remnants of a military bunker filled with the ghosts of her people, whose energies she can sense and interact with. For the past century she has been in hiding, until one day she rescues a little girl on the outskirts of Central City and learns of a disturbing string of child abductions. Wraith-like beings are snatching kids in broad daylight—which should be impossible—and after what happened to her people, Tig has sworn never to stand by and let another child be harmed again.
I admit it’s a lot to take in, and I was initially confused given the staggering amount of information I had to process about Tig’s world. I almost thought City of Light might have been a spinoff from another series, and had to double-check to make sure this wasn’t the case. The world building is simply phenomenal, with a very robust and established feel, blending sci-fi futuristic elements with magic and other aspects from the fantasy genre. Even creatures like wraiths and vampires feel very different from the kind I usually read about in urban fantasy.
And for some reason, I went into City of Light expecting it to be a full-blown paranormal romance, probably since most of Keri Arthur’s other books have that tag. I was wrong, but I was also far from being disappointed. With Tig being a déchet created specifically for espionage and seduction, I admit was prepared for nothing but romance and sexual tension, but in the end the heavier emphasis was on the mystery of the abducted children rather than Tig’s relationships. On the whole, this book read more like a well-crafted UF with some PNR elements and a couple of smoking hot sex scenes thrown in, and it was a balance that struck the perfect note.
I also loved Tig as a protagonist. Her kind was created by humans to be a mix of animal, shifter, and vampire—the ultimate weapon. But after the war, the déchet were completely killed off, and even after all these years, Tig still remembers the day when the military bunker she was in was gassed with poisons. Everyone else inside was killed, including the young déchet in the nursery. Tig herself barely managed to survive thanks to her genetically modified DNA, but two of the children, Bear and Cat, died horribly in her arms. Today, their ghosts are her loyal companions, playfully following Tig wherever she goes, but the story of their tragic deaths haunted me and shattered my heart to pieces. It made me see why Tig is so protective of her little ones, and why she would go so far to help the kidnapped shifter children. I also gained a deeper appreciation for her strength and resolve, knowing the terrible things she witnessed back during the war. And finally, being able to connect with Tig made the ending more poignant, because it underscored the sacrifice behind Tig’s decision. Ultimately, nothing can ever come between her and her responsibility to those she has sworn to protect.
All told, City of Light is exciting and well-written, its story containing a remarkable mix of intrigue and action punctuated with sizzling melt-your-mind love scenes. The book’s main character is a sympathetic and lion-hearted (or rather should I say, tiger-hearted?) heroine you just can’t help but root for. Now I am waiting on pins and needles for the sequel to see what she’ll do next! I simply couldn’t have been more pleased at how this experience with my first Keri Arthur novel turned out. If I loved it, I have no doubt her fans will as well....more
Lots of interesting things are happening in the horror genre lately, as evidenced by my latest venture into Thomas E. Sniegoski’s new novel The Demonists. Imagine The Exorcist, urban fantasy style! This is also my first book by the author, and it certainly won’t be the last—not if there’s more like this coming my way.
The story follows the husband-and-wife team of John Fogg and Theodora Knight, who are the world’s foremost experts on paranormal investigation. They’re even the stars of their own show called Spirit Chasers, a reality TV series that probes into supposedly haunted locations. But on Halloween night, the show producers decide to do a special episode as a publicity stunt, filming live as John and Theo investigate an old house reported to be filled with dark energy. Things should have unfolded like any other show, but then the hosts go into the basement and everything goes terribly wrong. The whole world watches in horror as the crew are massacred live on screen. John manages to survive, but not without sustaining serious injury. And Theo…
Something much worse has happened to John’s wife, who is a powerful psychic medium in her own right. Though afterwards everyone was made to believe it was a gas explosion, what really happened at the house was the unleashing of a host of malevolent spirits which has possessed Theodora’s body and left her catatonic. John desperately searches for a way to save his wife, even traveling overseas to investigate rumors of an excavation site containing an ancient library and books which may hold the key to exorcising Theo’s demons. Meanwhile, about half a dozen children have vanished since Halloween, snatched in the middle of the night from their homes, and a determined FBI agent is doing everything she can to find the missing kids before time runs out.
Urban-fantasy-meets-horror seems to be a burgeoning trend these days, and I find myself really enjoying the recent offerings that blend paranormal and fantasy elements with the gruesome, dreadful, and nightmarish. The Demonists delivers its monstrous demons in spades, and does not spare any of the gory, grisly details. This was a book that truly creeped me out, which is a rare occurrence; in general I consider myself quite immune to the usual trappings of the horror genre and don’t tend to scare or get grossed out easily, but I think ever since I became a parent, disturbing tales involving kids will now always have this way of making me feel unsettled. Sniegoski is a skilled storytelling with a talent for creating a foreboding atmosphere and cranking up the dread.
In fact, I think the author could have taken it even further had he chose to; at just over 300 pages though, I thought this book was a little too short for the story it was trying to tell. On the one hand, the breakneck speed of the narrative ensures that there is never a dull moment, but on the other, neither the rigorous pacing nor the frequent point-of-view switches allow enough room for the horror to build. Timing is everything in this genre, and I wouldn’t have minded more of an opportunity for the terror to linger and seep under my skin. It would have given us a chance to know the characters better as well, because I don’t know if I connected to John or Theo as well as I could have, not did I feel the full strength of their marriage and bond. But then there were the characters who were written very well, like Agent Brenna Isabel whose backstory nearly broke my heart. And of course, who could forget the antagonist Barrett Winfield, who later became known as “The Teacher”? There couldn’t have been a more sadistic and twisted villain. Just wait until you see what he does to his own mother.
If the description of The Demonists sounds like something you’ll like to read though, I definitely recommend giving it a shot. But fair warning: it’s not for the faint of heart! While outwardly the book may look like an urban fantasy, it is definitely no innocuous romp through the usual paranormal milieus, so don’t expect to find lighthearted supernatural adventuring or any underlying romantic arcs in here. Still, I do love this subgenre. Even though The Demonists is not without its flaws, I found the book intriguing and entertaining. It’s a damn good start to what looks to be a promising new urban-horror series featuring a fascinating fusion of the two genres, and I look forward to more....more
Drake is a darkly humorous urban fantasy about the unfortunate misadventures of a hieromancer hitman named Don Drake, though I must say, labeling him a “hitman” is greatly simplifying the kind of work he does. With the help of a nine-inch tall animated idol representing the earthly form of a bound archdemon—which he calls “The Burned Man”—Drake is able to summon forth demonic creatures from hell to sic on his victims, killing them without having to dirty his own physical hands. Be that as it may, Drake is still consumed with grief and guilt when his latest job goes awry, resulting in the tragic death of an innocent child who was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Traumatized and remorseful, Drake makes the decision to leave his line of work behind.
However, word of his horrible deed has gotten out, and now Drake has a trio of vengeful Furies on his tail. To make matters worse, his former employer Wormwood turns out to be an archdemon himself, and he most assuredly does not accept Drake’s resignation, pulling our hapless protagonist back into the hitman game. Drake’s only hope now lies with Trixie, an angel with a questionable history who has come to aid him in his time of need, but can she be trusted?
This is seriously a great story, full of hairpin twists and turns. While the plot could have used a bit of tightening up, the speed at which it moved was a thrill and a delight. What’s even better is that despite the modern atmosphere, certain elements in Drake reminded me of the old-style classic noir mysteries, complete with femme fatales and over-the-top diabolical villains. The dialogue is also frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious, loaded up with profanity and British slang to great effect. I’m sure I’ll have to thank my dad, who spent his college years drinking and partying studying in London, for being able to understand most of the Britishisms.
I won’t lie though, I think I would have liked this more if it weren’t for the protagonist. I’m not one who usually has trouble accepting or even embracing unpleasant characters, anti-heroes, flawed souls, or any of those morally contentious types. But when I found myself yelling “NO NO NO DON’T DO IT!” at the audiobook every five minutes (pretty much every time Drake does or says something stupid) I had to admit to myself that maybe, just maybe, the main character and I have some issues to work out.
Thing is, Drake really isn’t a bad man, but he does have this tendency to make some earth-shatteringly dumb decisions and—to my great chagrin—not learn from his mistakes. I can tolerate the occasional lapse in judgement, but I can’t abide a fool. There’s a scene in the book where the Burned Man is mercilessly laying into Drake for being a pathetic, pitiful bastard as well as a sorry excuse for a human being, and all I could think in my head in response was “Yeeeeah…I kind of agree.” Drake is for the most part a cowardly, unambitious and weak-willed magician who even admits as much, being under no illusions when it comes to his powers–he knows he is nothing without the Burned Man. Drake has good intentions, making him slightly loveable, but unfortunately he rarely sees his plans through, preferring to always take the easy way out, which was the root of most of my frustrations with his character.
I have to say though, the audiobook production of Drake is fabulous, with narrator Mark Meadows nailing the voice and attitude of our protagonist. I mentioned the excellent dialogue, which is written the way it’s meant to be spoken, and that might explain why it comes across so perfectly in the audio format. Meadows’ accents and inflections are great, so that all the characters come to life and become very real to me when he speaks their lines.
All in all, I had a good time with this book, and given the promising way it ended, I might just be willing to give Don Drake another shot in a sequel. I love edgy and gritty urban fantasy, and with so much potential in Drake, it would be a damn shame to let my feelings for the character get in the way of enjoying more, especially after this outrageously entertaining first installment....more
After the rip-roaring fun of Envy of Angels, I just couldn’t wait to be back in Bronko’s kitchen with all the gang. This time, things are really heating up as Matt Wallace serves up another course of humor-laden fare in Lustlocked, the second novella in the Sin du Jour series.
Having proved themselves on their first job, Lena and Darren are subsequently offered full-time employment by executive chef Byron “Bronko” Luck. Now all they have to do is survive the probationary period, which isn’t as easy as it sounds, given the unusual nature of the catering company at which they work. Sure enough, no sooner have the junior chefs signed their names to the contract than Sin du Jour receives their next big gig—a goblin royal wedding.
Unlike the mischievous, ugly and stooped creatures of folklore, Matt Wallace’s goblins are actually beautiful and talented beings, which explains why so many of them have found success in Hollywood and the music industry. It’s a star-studded night as all the goblin guests show up to the celebrations, excited to see their prince tie the knot with a human woman. As usual though, nothing at Sin du Jour ever goes as planned, and before long, giant lusty lizards are running amok through the wedding party, trying to have sex with everyone and everything. Let this one be a cautionary tale for us all: magic and love don’t always mix.
Like the previous book, Lustlocked is another rollicking romp into the culinary world, urban fantasy style. Once again, our characters are thrown into the zaniest and most absurd situations you can think of, playing up the action and the laughs. Compared to the Envy of Angels though, the plot feels much simpler and less adroit, giving this sequel novella a throw-away vibe which leads me to believe that it won’t stay with me as long. That said, I still had a great time with the story, which is no less entertaining for being shorter and less complex.
In fact, pacing is helped by the narrower focus, and we also don’t jump around as much following multiple groups of characters in different places. While Envy of Angels featured several side plots starring the Sin du Jour’s stocking and receiving department, the adventures of Ritter, Cindy, Hara and Moon are more integrated in Lustlocked. Fans of this unforgettable foursome need not fret though, for Matt Wallace makes it up to us by including a bonus story called Small Wars at the end of this novella. This was a free short published at the Tor.com website, revealing the origins of the team by explaining how they were all recruited and brought together by Ritter.
If a couple hours with a bite-sized, light-hearted urban fantasy novella sounds like a good time to you, then you need to check out the Sin du Jour series. Already I am excited for the next book Pride’s Spell, which promises to be even more wild and bizarre. At this point, anything can happen…and you can bet I’m looking forward to the insanity....more
Lovecraft Country was not what I expected, but it was a good kind of different. I’ve never read Matt Ruff before and only know of him by his reputation of being a cult novelist, and perhaps I thought I was going to be in for a pulpy horror read, considering the title and the cover. It turned out to be all that, plus a lot more substance.
Told in a series of interconnected short stories that form an overall bigger narrative, much of this book takes place in the 1950s following the lives of several members of a black family who find themselves entangled with a cabal of sorcerers in “Lovecraft Country”—a term that has more to do with the rampant racism in that part of the US at the time, rather than the Lovecraftian horror subgenre.
The novel begins with the title story. After serving his country, Atticus Turner returns home to Florida to find that his father Montrose has gone missing, prompting a road trip to Chicago to find out what happened. Soon, his journey brings him to New England with his uncle George and a childhood friend named Letitia. Together, they discover that Montrose has been captured and held prisoner by the Order of the Ancient Dawn, a secret society led by the enigmatic sorcerer named Samuel Braithwhite. Trapped at the estate, Atticus and his family are ultimately rescued by Braithwhite’s son, Caleb.
It turns out, however, that Caleb may have his own agenda. Through the rest of the stories in book, we’re introduced to the other characters in Atticus’ extended family and circle of friends. Each section of the novel is a tale of a supernatural encounter with the Order of the Ancient Dawn or Caleb Braithwhite, who has remained in the shadows, hounding their every step.
There are definitely plenty of Lovecraftian themes in this book, which is what initially led me to pick this up. But while the hallmarks of cosmic horror and paranormal elements abound, that’s not what really disturbed me. The thing you should know about Lovecraft Country is that it takes place in an era where racial segregation and Jim Crow laws are still very much alive, and Ruff’s depictions of the terrible ways African Americans were treated back then are as stomach-churning as you would expect. If the characters react pragmatically in the face of the supernatural horrors and cosmic creatures in this book, well, maybe that’s because the dangers they have to deal with in the real world are a lot worse in many ways. Violence and abuse fueled by racism, ignorance and hate is something that hangs over them every single moment of their lives, coming from monsters that are all too human.
To be sure though, there are also strange events and unseen monsters lurking at every turn, and I thought Lovecraft Country was an intriguing, creative blend of pulp horror with social commentary. The speculative elements made this one a fun read, but the story also made me reflect upon the deeper themes the like identity and history, how both have a hand in shaping a society and the people who live in it. It’s a very “connected” novel, and I don’t simply mean the way it’s structured so that the book reads more like a collection of related short stories with multiple character arcs instead of just the one traditional plotline, because all the themes and ideas in the individual sections come together in the end to form a cohesive whole as well.
Speaking of the structure though, I wasn’t expecting the short story format when I picked this up, and I admit I was initially thrown off by the frequent transitions. Even though this book is not your typical collection, it still has a few of the same issues, mainly that some stories are better than others. Not all of them captured my attention the same way and I fell into a lull with one or two, but that’s probably the only criticism I have for this book. As with most anthologies and collection-type books, not all the stories will have the same quality or appeal to me the same way.
Audiobook comments: Finally, I want to mention that I listened to the audio edition of Lovecraft Country. It is narrated by Kevin Kenerly, who did a great job bringing the all the different characters to life. Though, it feels kind of like a missed opportunity that they didn’t get an additional reader or two on board, since multi-narrator productions are pretty common these days for anthology/short story collection audiobooks that feature stories with way more than just one central character. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed Kenerly’s excellent performance. If I had to do it all over again though, I might have opted for the print version, or even read/listened to the print/audio versions in tandem, because some of the stories in here definitely required more time to digest. Audiobooks are not exactly well suited to frequent pauses mid-chapter to reflect, but I still very much enjoyed my experience in this format....more
It appears plenty of people are already aware of the awesomeness of A. Lee Martinez, and as usual I’m just way behind. I first heard of the author only earlier this year, when I saw the title and cover for The Last Adventure of Constance Verity. How could I not be intrigued? Is Constance the badass looking woman smiling smugly at the viewer, apparently after having taken down a bunch of cultists single-handedly? And why might this be her last adventure? I wanted to KNOW. If there’s one thing’s for sure, this book caught my attention right away.
Indeed the story does star our eponymous heroine, and things kick off with one hell of an introduction. Going incognito as “Connie Smythe”, our main character attempts to start her “ordinary” life by getting an “ordinary” job. However, the moment her would-be employers find out about her true identity, the seemingly everyday interview takes a turn for the bizarre as they try to dispose of Connie by sacrificing her to the Hungry Earth monster. Just another day in the life of Constance Verity. Trouble just seems to follow her everywhere, much to her annoyance. All she wants to do is live a normal existence, but just how is she to do that when disasters like alien invasions, time traveling supervillains, or space pirates just keep falling into her lap?
This has been the case for most of Connie’s life. Whether she likes it or not, she is destined for heroism and adventure, thanks to a wish granted to her at birth by her fairy godmother. But now Connie has had enough of all of that, and just wants to settle down. Clearly, the blessing (or curse?) isn’t going to let that happen, so she’ll just have to do something more extreme: Constance Verity is going to kill her fairy godmother and take back control of her life.
This book is the latest addition to what I have labeled my “fantasy comedy” shelf. Martinez goes to town riffing on our beloved tropes from classic action-adventure and pulp stories, combining the humor with paranormal elements. There’s even a running joke between Connie and her trusty sidekick Tia, with them always making references to her past escapades, each one sounding more outlandish than the last. Our heroine has seen it all, from foiling evil supervillain plans take over the world to escaping so-called inescapable sure-death situations James Bond-style. Despite this ostensibly cheesy shtick though, it really works. This story deftly toes the line between satire and homage, so that the premise comes off as being more witty than cornball.
And though Constance Verity is meant to be an amalgam representing a number of our favorite larger-than-life heroes and heroines from classic pulp, she’s surprisingly easy to relate to. Of course, no one can claim to have a life quite like hers, but her desire to achieve some balance between work and pleasure is something a lot of people can sympathize with. It’s also clear after a while that Connie is chasing a pipe dream. After having done the extraordinary things she’s done, there’s just no going back to “normal” for her; not now or ever. We’re along for the ride as Connie discovers this for herself through much introspection and surprisingly profound discussions about determinism and free choice. Is Connie destined to live the rest of her life saving the world every day until she goes down in a glorious death as promised, or is it really just a simple matter of her refusal to turn away from a bad situation knowing that she has the power to help? Whether she likes it or not, Connie has the heart of a hero.
The Last Adventure of Constance Verity is sure to give you plenty of good laughs and some deeper themes to chew on. It’s unexpectedly charismatic and offbeat, and I think of all the fantasy comedy novels I’ve tried this year, so far this is by far my favorite. It’s funny and farcical without being puerile, entertaining without feeling forced. All in all, I had a wonderful time with this book, and I will certainly be looking into picking up more books by A. Lee Martinez!...more
It’s a real shame this book and I didn’t hit it off, because I feel it had the potential to be something much greater. I doubt I can pinpoint any one reason why it didn’t work for me either, because in actuality it was a series of smaller issues that compounded together to give me a feeling of “offness”.
When details about Revenge and the Wild first came out, it was billed as a Young Adult fantasy western taking place in a lawless world of “dark magic and saloon brawls, monsters and six-shooters.” The protagonist is Westie, a seventeen-year-old who lost her arm to cannibals as a child while she and her family were on the wagon trail to California. The lone survivor, Westie was rescued by a tribe of Wintu and taken to Rogue City where she was subsequently adopted by Nigel Butler, the eccentric local inventor. The cannibals responsible were never captured or brought to justice.
Armed with a new—well, arm made of metal, Westie has taken it upon herself to hunt the family of cannibals who killed hers, and she’s not going to rest until vengeance is served. Then one day, at long last, Westie believes she has found her targets—except there’s one huge problem. The cannibal family are the Fairfields, wealthy friends of the mayor, and they’re all in Rogue City now looking to make a deal with Nigel, who desperately need the funds to finance his newest invention: a machine with the potential to improve the lives of magical creatures everywhere.
With a buzz term like “fantasy western” (which happens to be a growing sub-genre I’m crazy about), I should have been all over this book. Unfortunately though, the “westerness” ends up getting lost in all the noise. I’m a big proponent of the “less is more” principle, and I have been perfectly happy in the past with fantasy western settings that have just a touch of magic. In contrast, Revenge and the Wild was the prime example of having too much of a good thing. Magic, werewolves, vampires, zombies, elves, dwarves, trolls, leprechauns—it felt like the author threw in everything but the kitchen sink. And then there was the steampunk. In a world already over-encumbered with all manner of paranormal creatures, throwing in more things like airships, robot limbs, and mechanical gadgetry felt like overkill. Greedy. Attempting to cram so much into one book results in not being able to develop any one aspect, so in the end they feel tacked on.
Then there’s Westie, who is just one hot mess. This girl is a walking disaster who can’t seem to do anything right, breaking promises, telling brazen lies, going off on half-baked plans, and making the same impulsive mistakes again and again. Poor Nigel. I’m amazed he hasn’t dropped dead from anxiety caused by Westie-related stress. It would be comical if this were aimed at younger readers—which I originally thought, given the overly simplistic prose, but the strong language, violence and sexual undertones ended up dispelling that theory.
To be fair, this book had some strong points. Westie’s flashback and run-ins with the cannibal family were creepy as hell—like I’m talking Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets Children of the Corn creepy. I also really liked Bena and her Wintu tribe, and I can’t help but feel the story might have been stronger if more attention had been given to the Native Americans rather than the paranormal creatures. Lastly, there were a few great twists at the end, including one that I never would have seen coming IN A MILLION YEARS.
All told, Revenge and the Wild was a fun but rather shallow and disorganized story on account of it trying to do too many things at once. It is okay for a debut novel and great for a light read, but overall I feel it needs more streamlining and polish. If you’re looking for a book with teen appeal that also has a fantasy setting with a stronger western vibe, you might want to also take a look at Lila Bowen/Delilah S. Dawson’s Wake of Vultures. It also has magic, Native American mythology, and paranormal creatures, but I feel it better integrates those elements....more
After the brilliant novel that was The Girl with All the Gifts, I swore to myself I would read anything else M.R. Carey writes. Not long after, I was practically beside myself when I found out he was going to be writing a ghost story.
Turns out, Fellside is a very different kind of ghostly tale, and not exactly in the horror vein. Instead, it’s a little bit of mystery, a little bit of paranormal, and even a little bit of court drama, all bundled up in a wonderful package along with Carey’s unique brand of imagination and creativity. The story follows Jess Moulson, a junkie convicted after she set fire to her apartment complex following a heroin bender, accidentally killing her neighbor’s ten-year-old son who was home alone. Even though Jess has no recollection of the events that went down that night, the court ruled it as murder and sentenced her to life in a maximum security prison called Fellside.
Jess is haunted the moment she arrives, not only by the ghost of Alex Beech, the boy she killed, but also by the shame, loneliness and guilt she feels from all the mistakes she made in the past. But instead of plummeting her further into darkness, the spirit of Alex actually rescues her from the abyss and gives her a new sense of hope. Jess immediately makes an enemy of a fellow prisoner named Harriet Grace, the boss of G-Block, when she refuses to run drugs for Grace’s corrupt racket. The road to redemption, Jess believes, is not to commit even more wrongdoings, even though she is aware such attitudes might eventually get her shanked in a place like Fellside. But she has a purpose now, and she is determined to see it through to the end even if it kills her.
In a book like this, there are not a lot of sympathetic characters. In fact, the beginning of Fellside made me boiling mad, and not just because of all the healthcare professionals, prison guards, and other authority figures who were corrupt and/or incompetent, but also because that seemed like such an easy way out for an author to paint someone as a villain. Even someone like Jess took time to grow on me, given the complete and utter disaster she was at the beginning of the story. After all, it is hard to sympathize with someone who has abandoned all hope, becoming entirely convinced of her own worthlessness. However, I now know that Carey set it up this way for a purpose; Jess had to fall far before he could raise her up again and juxtapose that to the new person she becomes. Even so, my favorite characters ultimately came from the most unexpected quarters, mostly minor bit players like Shannon McBride, Fellside’s resident storyteller, or Lorraine Buller, Jess’s taciturn yet compassionate cellmate.
The story also didn’t hook me right away, mostly because of its many moving parts that didn’t all come together until the second half of the novel. I didn’t care much for the humdrum chapters on Harriet Grace’s drug-running ring, for example, at least until that plot thread collided with Jess’s. Things became many times more interesting when the story morphed from a prison drama to a full-blown mystery. While I plodded through the first part of the book, I must have read the last two hundred pages or so in a single sitting, so energized as I was at the plot’s new direction. I definitely found the ending to be stronger than the beginning, even though it started running along a more predictable path. There was a court scene which was especially played up for dramatic effect, but hell, I ate it all up. I could hardly have made myself put down the book by that point.
Even if you enjoyed The Girl with All the Gifts, it’s difficult to say if you’ll enjoy Fellside, simply because the two books are so different. Fellside is not your typical ghost story, more suspenseful rather than creepy, and I can see it appealing more to mystery fans than horror buffs. Still, there are some mirroring themes. As ever, Carey is fond of keeping his readers in the dark right up until he springs the big surprises. And then there are scenes of intense violence, but when all is said and done, we’re also left with a spark of hope.
Finally, of course, there’s the author’s writing itself, which is as bold and hauntingly evocative as I expected. No disappointment there, as far as I’m concerned. If anything, this novel demonstrates Carey’s versatility and my admiration for his talent has actually increased. While it took me some time to warm up to Fellside, I ended up really enjoying the story’s poignant look at life on the inside of a women’s prison, as well as the memorable characters you’ll love to hate and hate to love. Recommended for fans of paranormal mysteries and suspense....more
The themes and ideas of H.P. Lovecraft’s works have long since influenced the genres of dark fantasy and horror, as can be seen in Red Right Hand. Levi Black’s new novel adheres true to the Lovecraftian mythos by plunging his characters into deep dark scary places, making them confront the kind of terrors that mere human minds are not equipped to comprehend. This book is undeniably, unmistakably disturbing. And it was quite a ride.
Red Right Hand tells the story of a young woman named Charlotte Tristan Moore, who discovers there are monsters out there other than the human ones in her past. One night, Charlie returns home feeling unnerved by bad memories of the terrible thing that happened to her in high school, only to be attacked by three demonic skinhounds waiting in her apartment. A mysterious Man in Black with a red right hand sweeps in to save her, but it turns out he’s actually an elder god named Nyarlathotep. Charlie is a descendant of H.P. Lovecraft and magick is in her bloodline, he claims. To save the world, she must come with him to defeat two of his brethren who want to bring chaos and death onto this mortal plane.
Charlie doesn’t want to help the Man in Black, but she knows she has no choice. Not only has he named her his Acolyte and unlocked the magical sight to penetrate the veil between worlds, Nyarlathotep also holds Daniel, Charlie’s good friend, in his thrall. To protect Daniel and to keep chaos from being unleashed upon he world, Charlie is forced to do as the elder god commands and follow him into one nightmarish scenario after another.
It probably goes without saying, but Red Right Hand is a book with some frightening and triggering themes, and is not recommended for readers who would find these topics disturbing. While it may share some elements with urban fantasy, it’s really more of a straight-up horror than anything, featuring macabre scenes of blood, gore, and violence, etc. and leaning heavily on the use of graphic descriptions. The story will also explore the terrible thing in Charlie’s past. Even though the event is mostly alluded to in her memories, prospective readers should be aware that parts of this novel will touch upon the pain and trauma associated with sexual assault and abuse.
The narrative itself delivers a fast-paced, action-driven horror tale, full of the terrifyingly weird and supernatural elements inspired by the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. From elder gods to cosmicism, these themes are featured in the modern day setting of Red Right Hand, but it all still feels distinctively Lovecraftian even when written in the bold, stark tones of Levi Black’s writing style. What’s important is that this book does its job well, making good use of the idea that life as we know it is nothing more than an insignificant fragile veneer, underscoring Charlie’s helplessness and the real threat of losing her sanity in the face of Nyarlathotep and his kind.
Granted, neither the plot nor the main characters are particularly deep, and I also thought the visceral reactions to some of the darker, more twisted and stomach-churning scenes might have had the effect of emotionally distancing me from everything, including Charlie. There’s a small romantic subplot involving her and Daniel, for instance, which I didn’t feel much connection to. However, the story does move quickly, leaving me hanging on the edge of my seat to see what happens next. The first few chapters kick us off with barely any preamble, throwing us headfirst into this nightmarish journey with Charlie, Daniel, and the Man in Black. This snappy intro pretty much sets the pace for the rest of the novel, which proved in the end to be one super-fast, super-thrilling read.
I think whether or not you’ll enjoy this book will highly depend on your tastes for horror. The nature of the horror elements in Red Right Hand are rather more intense and in-your-face, as opposed to cold and creeping psychological dread. If what I’ve described here of Charlie’s journey sounds like something you might want to read, I encourage you to check it out for yourself—especially if you have an inclination towards fiction inspired by H.P. Lovecraft. This story will suck you in....more
Good Girls was introduced to me as the standalone sequel to Motherless Child which immediately put me in a bit of a dilemma, because standalone or not, I don’t like to jump in mid-series if I can help it. Nevertheless, Glen Hirshberg’s name has been making some big waves in the horror genre lately and I’ve been meaning to check out his work for a while now. I admit that in the end, it really didn’t take much convincing for me to throw caution to the wind and dive in with both feet!
Almost right away though, I could sense the drawbacks from not having read Motherless Child. While this sequel primarily focuses on a new protagonist, it also follows several returning characters who feature quite prominently in the story, namely Jess and those with her who survived the fallout from the end of the first book. Good Girls also sees the return of The Whistler, the antagonist who was responsible for turning Jess’s daughter Natalie into a vampire (that said, this is in no way your typical “vampire story”). More monster than man, The Whistler is back on the hunt now, not having forgiven Jess after she was forced to kill her own daughter, thus robbing him of his Destiny.
Ending up caught in the crosshairs is Rebecca, a young college student and the aforementioned new protagonist. Since fleeing the South, Jess has settled in New Hampshire with the remnants of her family, which includes her orphaned infant grandson Eddie whom Rebecca is hired on to babysit. Completely unaware of her employer’s gore-soaked past, Rebecca and her friends are staying near her campus for the summer when one day they inadvertently catch the attention of The Whistler, who has followed his prey all the way to this quiet little college town to seek his revenge.
My final verdict is that while Good Girls can indeed be enjoyed as a standalone, I still can’t help but feel that not having read Motherless Child affected my experience somewhat. Perhaps the biggest challenge was trying to tease apart the web of relationships. Jess, her lover Benny, and Natalie’s best friend Sophie are all apparently characters from the first book, but that fact wouldn’t be obvious if you’d jumped into this one blind. You’d meet them for the first time in chapter three, abruptly introduced amidst a scene of utter carnage, with little to no context of what had happened. The same goes for the indeterminate Aunt Sally and her evil minions lurking in the shadowy hollows of the Mississippi Delta. The story eventually revealed enough to allow me to fill in the gaps, but throughout most of the novel, that sense of playing catch-up never truly left me. Only after finishing Good Girls and going back to check the publisher’s description of the first book was I able to piece together the full picture and understand how these characters fit into the narrative.
Still, in spite of these obstacles, I was able to appreciate the story overall. Rebecca is an intriguing character, haunted by her own past of being raised in a foster home by a troubled couple. What’s interesting to me is how her character is complemented by Hirshberg’s prose. His writing style isn’t exactly my cup of tea, being on the clunky side with too many distracting interruptions mid-sentence, but the distance this creates to the protagonist somehow feels appropriate. Rebecca is someone who prides herself on her empathy and in turn those close to her feel a measure of comfort in her presence, but there’s also an aloofness to her that the author does such a good job of “showing” without having to ever “tell”.
As a matter of fact, this entire novel is suffused with a kind of intensity that’s so thick it’s almost palpable, raising my sensitivity to the story’s more personal and emotional themes. As a result, I think I found the atmosphere of this “Horror” novel to be more grim, desolate and sobering than anything, as opposed to being truly terrifying, creepy or disturbing. It raises some interesting questions about love and family, grief and sacrifice, and of when to hold on versus when to let go.
Do I recommend Good Girls? Yes. However, I would also strongly advise reading Motherless Child first. I honestly think I would have enjoyed this book even more if I had done the same (I have plans to go back and read it now, that’s for sure) and at the very least, I probably would have had less trouble getting into the beginning of the story. This isn’t your typical supernatural horror, but it’s definitely well worth the read....more
The Witch Hunter is probably one of this summer’s more buzzworthy Young Adult titles, if the amount of coverage I’ve seen for it is any indication. Most of my friends who have read it also enjoyed it, while others were not so keen. If nothing else though, the book did succeed in getting my attention, and I was grateful to receive the audiobook for review, which is actually my preferred format when it comes to reading YA.
The story starts off by introducing us to its protagonist, Elizabeth Grey. She’s sixteen years old and already an accomplished witch hunter, part of the king’s elite group of agents trained to track down and capture sorcerers. But when a nighttime rendezvous goes awry, Elizabeth is accused of being a witch herself and is taken to the dungeons to await burning at the stake.
On the eve of her execution, a strange man pays a visit to her cell. Believing her to be a witch, he helps break her out of prison. As it turns out, her mysterious rescuer is none other than Nicholas Perevil, the most powerful sorcerer in the kingdom as well as leader of a group of young rebel witches and wizards who are unhappy with being persecuted by the king’s laws. By helping her escape though, Nicholas has also turned Elizabeth into public enemy number one, forcing her to accept his terms or be left on her own to deal with the authorities. Reluctantly, Elizabeth agrees to help Nicholas break a deadly curse that has been laid upon him, and the group also takes her in as one of their own.
But of course, Elizabeth knows that it’s all a lie. Not only is she not a witch, she is one of the hunters whom they hate and fear, and there is no telling what Nicholas and his group might do when they find out the truth about her.
Now that I’ve finished the book, I feel I can better understand the different reactions I saw across the board. My own feeling lie somewhere in between. The Witch Hunter is a story peppered with tropes and familiar clichés, making it a very typical middle-of-the-road YA fantasy. As a protagonist, Elizabeth was not exceptional, nor did she really strike me as particularly sharp. Are you really telling me, that in all the years of witnessing countless examples of her mentor using magic as a tool in their witch hunter training sessions, Elizabeth never once suspected he was a magician? The logic is not strong with this one. It was also one of the bigger plot holes I tripped upon. The story itself is rather simplistic too, with the obvious message of “magic itself not being inherently evil, it just depends on how you use it” being presented as the crux of the conflict. Not exactly profound.
For all its flaws though, The Witch Hunter also has plenty of redeeming factors. The novel’s strength is in its light and adventurous tone, which had me chuckling at a couple places in response to some clever lines of dialogue. I especially loved the conversations between Elizabeth and Fifer, the only other female in their group. When Fifer’s character was introduced, I despaired thinking she would be yet another typical “girl rival” whose only purpose in the story is to make the heroine look good. Suffice to say, I was glad to be wrong. I also enjoyed the lack of a full-blown love triangle, and I felt the romance arc was stronger for it.
Most of the time I also prefer to listen to YA novels in audiobook format. I’m less likely to get hung up on world-building (or the lack of it) when I’m experiencing a book in this format, and characters feel richer to me when a narrator gives them a voice. This isn’t the first time I’ve listened to an audiobook narrated by Nicola Barber; in fact it was just a few weeks ago that I listened to her on another title so her performance was still fresh on my mind. I find myself very impressed with her versatility. For The Witch Hunter, Barber sounded younger, giving the protagonist the bubbly, energetic personality which her character called for, and her deftly delivered curses of “Damnation!” made me think, yep, that’s Elizabeth right there.
Simply put, this book was a lot of fun. I may have called the story simple, but that in itself is not necessarily a weakness. In fact, if you enjoy tightly woven plots and are tired of the ostentation and gimmicky shticks cropping up all over the genre these days, this one might very well work for you. It’s mainstream and not looking to break new ground, but it definitely knows what it has to offer....more
When all is said and done, if you’re in the mood for a fresh twist on magic and the paranormal, or simply looking for a story featuring an interesting confluence of relationships and thought-provoking characters, then you’ll definitely want to curl up with Claire Humphrey’s enchanting novel debut, Spells of Blood and Kin. And as an added bonus, the events of this book also take place before a charming and vibrant backdrop, in the heart of a city full of its own cultural magic and diversity. Things might not turn out the way you’d expect them to, but they’re guaranteed to keep you engaged.
The novel is mainly told from the perspectives of three people. First and foremost is Lissa Nevsky, a 22-year-old woman abruptly elevated to the position of koldun’ia—sorceress, or magical practitioner—in her small Russian folk community after the sudden death of her grandmother who previously held the title. Providing healing spells like sleep aids or fertility charms quickly becomes a part of her main routine, until she is completely caught off guard one day when Maksim Volkov shows up on her doorstep, calling himself “kin”. Failing to recognize the true meaning behind the term, Lissa initially mistakes this mysterious stranger for family, but understanding that he and her grandmother may have had a long-standing arrangement for healing services, she sets her mind to providing him the same help.
However, Maksim knows he has already come too late. On the last full moon, he remembers losing control, unwittingly infecting a young man with his savage and untamable nature. The sleep spells from the witch’s granddaughter have helped a bit, but they can never truly quench the desire for violence. Now Maksim feels the burden of responsibility to track down his victim, before the effects of his blood can manifest. The young man turns out to be a college student named Nick Kaisaris, who was out celebrating the end of finals with his friend the night he encountered Maksim in an alley. Ever since then, Nick has been feeling strange; his senses have been enhanced, and his strength has increased, but it hasn’t all been pleasant. Nick doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but something is wrong and he’s slowly losing his grip on his sanity.
This was a strange book, not at all like your typical urban fantasy, even if it does contain some of the usual elements. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking this story was about shapeshifters, but it is actually a bit more complicated than that. The kin are not exactly like werewolves or any kind of shifter in that they don’t go through any form of physical transformation, but they are indeed immortal and their behavior also appears to be closely tied to the phases of the moon. To suppress the violence in their veins, Maksim and his fellow kin Augusta have to drown themselves in copious amounts of alcohol or let off steam by beating the crap out of each other. Maksim, being centuries older and susceptible to blinding rages, also needs the help of a witch’s spell to leash his inner animal.
That’s where Lissa comes in. She’s also not your typical witch, young and inexperienced in the eyes of her community. I really liked how the paranormal aspects described in this book had the feel of folk magic and tradition. Following in the footsteps of her grandmother who used eggs to bind and distribute her spells, Lissa has been trying to do the best she can while still dealing with her grief. Through her eyes, we learn the ways of her magic, like how her spells are performed on the few nights around a full moon, and how regular store-bought eggs can be imbued with the power of her special ingredients and incantations. When these eggs are subsequently consumed raw, the subject will experience their effects. I thought this was a very well-portrayed and captivating mode of magic.
There were some weaknesses, though. Chief among them was Lissa’s character. Given how central her role is to the book, I was disappointed to feel the least connected to her out of everyone else in the story. Shy, aloof, and not too savvy when it comes to social situations, Lissa always felt far removed from me, like I was never able to get close enough to see her true personality. Perhaps this perceived distance is by design, in which case the author might have done her job too well, because Lissa often came across cold, two-dimensional and emotionally vacant. I really disliked her in the first half of the book, especially when her stepsister Stella (who ended up being my favorite character) showed up with an offer to help out after her grandmother’s death. The brusque, unwelcoming response from Lissa turned me off even more, though fortunately my opinion of her gradually improved as the story progressed.
As well, the story’s pacing is somewhat inconsistent, with a lot of jumping around between perspectives. Like I said, this is not your average crisis-filled, action-oriented urban fantasy, so be prepared for slow-building momentum because this one does take some time to get really going. We also never get a satisfying explanation for the kin, like where they came from or how they came to be the way there are. It’s not information we need to know to understand the story, but those who crave a bit more world-building and context are going to be left wanting for answers.
However, I did love the setting. Being a former Torontonian, I was touched on a personal and emotional level by the author’s descriptions of the sights, sounds, and culture of the city. I was also a UofT student, so the places featured or mentioned in this book, like the pubs of the Annex or the eateries on College, Victorian-style houses tucked in the neighborhoods off Dundas, crappy TTC streetcar experiences, and convocation week, all of it brought me back to memories of my old haunts and good times. It was really cool to read a story set in my hometown, and Claire Humphrey captured the spirit of Toronto perfectly.
So if Spell of Blood and Kin sounds like a book that would interest you, go ahead and give it a try. The story’s tone and style will take some getting used to, but the ideas are fascinating and the magic is superb. If character development suffers a little, Humphrey makes up for that with her wonderfully expressive writing that brings the world around the characters to life. This was an impressive novel debut, and I’ll be watching to see what she has in store for the future....more
Let me start my review of The Flux the same way I started my review of the first book Flex. There was some of this:
And then some of this:
As well as this:
By the way, if you haven’t read Flex yet, I highly recommend picking it up first because you’ll definitely want the complete ‘Mancer experience. If nothing else, getting the full rundown of the magic system will be worth it, because this series features some of the most intricate and unique concepts I’ve ever seen.
Imagine a world where magic is based around obsession. Love something hard enough—whether it be cats, cooking, or donuts—and it might just actually become your special power, giving you the ability to shape reality to your vision. As you can imagine, the possibilities are virtually limitless. For instance, protagonist Paul Tsabo (he loves paperwork, God help him) is a bureacromancer, and his friend and partner in crime Valentine is a videogamemancer (three guesses what her favorite hobby is?)
In The Flux, a third ‘mancer character also rises to prominence—Paul’s own daughter Aliyah Tsabo-Dawson. The events at the end of Flex might have turned her into the world’s most dangerous eight-year-old, but to Paul she’ll always be his little girl. It’s now up to him to hide Aliyah’s secret and protect her from those who will want to use her or do her harm. But Paul is living a double life himself, hunting rogue ‘mancers for the government by day and brewing magical drugs by night. To make matters worse, there’s now a new power-player in town called “The King of New York” and he’s got Paul and Valentine in his sights.
Like its predecessor, The Flux was pure geek escapism. In general I still think Flex was the better book, though I liked certain aspects of this sequel more. For one thing, Valentine plays a much bigger role. I remember being so excited when I realized that was her on the cover. She’s my favorite character in this series, and not just because she has great taste in video games. I am totally in love her offbeat personality, and her confidence also makes her a force to be reckoned with. Because of her, the plot is also heavier on videogamemancy. Needless to say, I was right where I wanted to be. We’re talking loads more gaming references, which to me was one of the best things about Flex. Gamers will no doubt experience multiple nerdgasms while reading this series, though in truth, I think anyone can appreciate the humor and action in these books.
Speaking of which, The Flux also introduces Valentine’s new friend Tyler Durden, whom I hope we’ll be seeing again soon in some way, shape or form. Yes, I said Tyler Durden. Didn’t I say the possibilities were limitless?
Okay, so maybe this book went just a tad overboard with the pop culture references. Which is why I’m thankful for the story’s focus on family again, especially the father-daughter bond between Paul and Aliyah. In this book, Paul faces the challenges of raising an angry and traumatized little girl, while Aliyah realizes that her father doesn’t have all the answers. If it weren’t for the emotional hurdles, ‘Mancer might have been just another entertaining yet hollow urban fantasy series, but the emphasis on relationship dynamics gives both the characters and story much needed depth.
Final thoughts on the audiobook: I started the series in this format, so I decided to continue in this format, and I am quite happy with my decision. Peter Brooke is fantastic with voices (especially with his New Yorker accent) and in my opinion the only character he faltered with was Aliyah. Granted, this probably has something to do with her written dialogue itself, which I didn’t find convincing. Still, there’s a very good chance I’ll do the third book in audio too. All in all, well worth the listen!...more
I have to say, so far I’ve been very impressed with the variety of Tor.com novellas. Just as I’ve gotten myself settled in with a couple stories that are rather sober, more serious-like endeavors, along comes Envy of Angels barging into this black tie dinner party like your favorite uncle, the one who gets loud when he’s had too many but is always ready to entertain the crowd with a funny yarn.
I had such a great time with this book. Imagine Hell’s Kitchen meets Dresden Files, marinated in a flavorful blend of action and thrills, seasoned generously with humor. When I first glimpsed the conspicuously short publisher description for this novella, I had my suspicions about what this meant and now they have been confirmed: The less you know about this story going in, the better.
Fortunately, I can give the general gist of it without spoiling anything. Envy of Angels is about Lena and Darren, two ordinary down-on-their-luck New York chefs who suddenly find themselves landing the gig of lifetime at Sin du Jour, an exclusive catering company owned by one of the city’s hottest celebrity chefs. However, it soon becomes clear that Sin du Jour is no ordinary catering company. For one thing, their clients are demons.
When asked to serve a morally questionable item on the menu at their next event (and we’re not talking about veal), Sin du Jour owner and executive chef Byron “Bronko” Luck gathers his staff and puts it to a vote. Should they do what they’re told and go through with the whole thing? Or should they take the dangerous, near-impossible option and attempt to pull the wool over their devilish clientele’s eyes by preparing a substitute main course and praying they won’t notice? By the way, these types of hellish customers, when they don’t get what they order, aren’t just going to be sending it back. But guess what our characters decide to go ahead and do anyway.
The result is an extraordinary amount of story packed into this novella. Envy of Angels features plenty of action both in the kitchen and out in the field, and even includes a thrilling heist sequence starring Ritter, Cindy, Hara and Moon, the unforgettable foursome who make up Sin du Jour’s Stocking and Receiving Department.
The plot is also very addictive, especially when it gets more and more bizarre. Between getting completely sucked into the story and the sheer morbid curiosity to see what other crazy things might be happening next, I kept turning the pages and finished this book in no time at all. It was fantastically good fun. I really don’t want to give much more away, though in truth, there are moments so absurdly hilarious, so out-of-this-world-insane that I would be hard-pressed to describe them, anyway. Seriously. There are moments in here that you simply must experience for yourself.
One thing is certain though. I’ll never look at a Chicken McNugget the same way again....more