Bookburners initially landed on my radar around a year and a half ago when it was first announced as the launching project by Serial Box, a publisher with an ambitious new idea to deliver their stories in a weekly serialized medium. The plan was that “Season One” will be a 16-episode run, written by a team of authors made up of Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, and Brian Francis Slattery. Though at the time I was only familiar with Gladstone’s work, it was enough that my interest was immediately piqued.
But as much as the concept of serialized novels intrigued me, it didn’t long at all for me to realize I preferred my books the same way I prefer my TV shows—as in, binge-watching a full season all at once. Sure enough, I tried to follow Bookburners when it first came out and promptly fell behind, which is why I was so glad when I found out that a collected edition was coming from Saga Press. I honestly loved what I saw of the first couple episodes, and thanks to this more convenient format, I finally got my chance to catch up with the full season.
Now, I’ve always admitted a huge weakness for “books about books” but what I liked about Bookburners is its unique take on the subject. You have a kickass lady cop, her wayward brother, and a group of demon hunters from the Vatican, and before you know it the stage is set for an urban fantasy adventure that will make you see “dangerous reading” in a whole new light. For NYPD Detective Sal Brooks, it was just another day on the grind when she gets a strange phone call from her brother Perry asking to hide out at her place. Over the years, Sal has become used to Perry’s idiosyncrasies, but this time, she knows something is seriously wrong. Turns out, her brother has gotten himself into some deep trouble, and it all comes down to a demon-possessed book.
Soon, Sal finds herself entangled with a Catholic priest and his secret team of agents whose mission is to travel all over the world tracking down and securing dangerous books infused with nasty magic. The book in Perry’s possession is revealed to be one such artifact, but the intervention comes too late and he succumbs to its evil. Now in order to save her brother’s life, Sal has little choice but to join up with Father Arturo Menchú and the Bookburners (even though they don’t actually burn the books), relocating to Rome to help fight for the cause. She quickly discovers a whole secret world that the Vatican’s Societas Librorum Occultorum has been keeping from the public, but a recent string of deadly magical threats is about to bring everything crashing down.
At first, I thought the structure of Bookburners was going to be like any other traditional novel which just happens to be released in 16 parts. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that each episode actually contains its own mini-story roughly complete with intro/exposition, rising action, climax and resolution, etc. Together, the 16 sections then make up a more complete and overarching season plot, so that in a sense, the format really does mirror that of a TV show. With Bookburners, I also noticed that the episodes grew progressively deeper and more complex, so for instance, earlier episodes that played more to the “Monster of the Week” trope would gradually give way to ones that contributed more to the overall “bigger picture” storyline.
This definitely affected my experience with the characters. I started the book not really caring all that much for anyone but Sal, but as each episode went on, her relationships with the other team members were explored. Eventually I became a fan of the whole cast, especially Father Menchú, whose portrayal was a breath of fresh air in contrast to the clichéd representations of religious figures I’ve seen in many other books; and also Grace, whose “origin story” wasn’t revealed until an episode halfway through the book, but wow, it was well worth the wait! Grace might have started the season as one of the most mysterious and least developed characters, but by the end of it I was in love and I wouldn’t be surprised if she ends up being a favorite for many others too.
But even though hands down Grace had the coolest and most unique backstory, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll find so many more incredible and creative ideas in here, because every episode offers something different and new. A few of my favorite ones include “A Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (the one where Sal and Asanti go to Scotland and find that an entire town has become crazily obsessed with a restaurant), “Under My Skin” (the one where the Bookburners head to Vegas to investigate the competitors on a tattoo reality TV show, after the people getting inked start dying one by one under mysterious circumstances) and “Shore Leave” (the one where Grace and Sal get to spend some buddy time together on their shared day off). Probably not a coincidence that all three are written by Mur Lafferty, who has certainly gained a new fan in me after this book, but truly, all the authors involved did a fantastic job. Their styles and voices complemented each other very well, leading to seamless transition from one episode to the next, which became all the more important towards the end of the season when everything had to come together for the final showdown.
In case you couldn’t tell, I am beyond ecstatic that I got to read Bookburners in its entirety. With the serialized format, it’s always tough to know whether something will work or not, since a project often takes more than a couple episodes to take off (and I’m not exactly a font of patience either, so having to wait for anything tends to take the air out of my sails). Needless to say, I saw plenty of potential back when the first episode was released, but having this collection and being able to binge read several installments all at once was what ultimately got me well and truly hooked. Bookburners was a lot of fun and now I can hardly wait for Season Two....more
In the interest of honesty, I picked up Lost Souls without realizing that it was part of the Cainsville sequence, so that probably had an impact on my rating. Still, despite my oversight, I really enjoyed this novella, and I think fans of the series who are familiar with the characters and the subtle nuances in their relationships will no doubt appreciate it even more.
As urban legends go, few are as well-known as the one about the “Vanishing Hitchhiker” or its many variations. The stories all roughly begin and end the same way: A driver encounters a hitchhiker on the side of a lonely road, but after picking them up the hitchhiker subsequently disappears without any explanation. Kelley Armstrong has adopted this motif for the central premise of Lost Souls which stars Gabriel Walsh, a lawyer who takes on a side job investigating the case of a man alleging to have been led astray by a vanishing hitchhiker in the form of a young woman in a white sundress. Gabriel would have been tempted to dismiss the story as a hoax if the circumstances around the incident hadn’t been so strange. For one thing, why would the man risk jeopardizing his successful career and marriage by filing a false report? Also, there have been a string of similar vanishing hitchhiker sightings in recent years, but a suspicious number of them have ended up with the witnesses committing suicide not long after—exactly forty-eight hours after picking up the hitchhiker, to be exact.
Plus, if there’s one thing Gabriel loves, it’s a good mystery. Lately, his relationship with his friend and employee Olivia Taylor-Jones has been on the rocks, and he has hopes too that presenting her with an interesting puzzle like this would help mend fences. In the wake of their rift, Liv has taken off on a vacation and Gabriel finds himself missing her, even if he has trouble admitting it to her or anyone else. Given their shared love for the strange and the weird, this case of the disappearing hitchhiker might be their chance to reconnect again.
Since I have not read any of the main books in the Cainsville series, I know I’m probably missing a lot here, so keep in mind these are the opinions of a newcomer to this world and its characters. The main struggle I had was with the character behaviors and motivations. I found myself exasperated with Gabriel and Liv, namely because all the drama surrounding their relationship is based on miscommunication and misunderstanding—pretty much the oldest trick in the book. While backstories were provided for both, without the deeper context of the series I had a really hard time sympathizing with Gabriel’s excuses for being jerk or Liv’s reasons for being so manipulative. That said though, the story itself was relatively easy to follow, and references to past events were freely provided. Not once was I confused or overwhelmed. So while Lost Souls is clearly intended as a companion novella to the main series, the fact that I was able to follow along just fine is no small feat.
For Cainsville fans, the interpersonal relationships and character development will probably end up being the main draw, though personally I also loved the mystery plot in between these sections. Armstrong adapts the urban legend of the vanishing hitchhiker to great effect, making it a race against time for our characters to find the answers. There are even ties to Gabriel’s past, giving me the chance to know him better. Perhaps my only complaint about the story is the ending, which I thought was anti-climactic and too abrupt, but it’s a minor issue in the big scheme of things.
All told, Lost Souls is probably best tackled only if you are caught up with the main series, though speaking as a relatively new fan of Kelley Armstrong, not having read any of the other novels did not prevent me from enjoying it either. If anything, reading this novella made me even more curious about Cainsville. I also wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Lost Souls if you simply want to read more by the author; she’s an amazing writer who knows all about creating suspenseful drama, and even in this compact novella you will be sure to find all the ingredients of a good urban fantasy mystery....more
Snowed is a story about Christmas, but it is definitely not like your usual schmaltzy Christmas book. It stars Charity Jones, a sixteen-year-old biracial student with a natural talent for all things science and engineering. At her high school in a conservative county of California though, this only gets her mercilessly bullied because she is different. Thankfully, for Charity there’s one bright spot in this bleak situation: Aidan, the sweet mild-mannered teen runaway whom her family takes in as a foster child. No one know where Aidan came from, but it is clear that he is running away from something—something terrible.
Still, despite his reluctance to share much about his past, Aidan and Charity wind up hitting it off and they quickly fall in love. Things actually start looking up for Charity, but of course this respite doesn’t last. The community is shaken one day, when the body of Charity’s worst bully is found behind the bleachers, savaged and torn apart. The authorities are quick to suspect a wild animal attack, but Charity isn’t so sure. After all, unbeknownst to the rest of the school, she was actually the first one to find the victim, and there was something strange she saw at the scene…
First, I want to go into the positives of this book, and there are certainly many. Number one is diversity. Kudos to the author for doing her best to include perspectives from all walks of life, even though her approach can be pretty heavy-handed at times, almost like she was making sure to check off all the boxes on a #diversereads checklist. Having main characters that reflect and honor the lives of all people is always wonderful though, and something to be celebrated especially in the young adult genre.
I also liked how Snowed was a Christmas story for those who might be looking for something other than the usual feel-good and campy holiday-themed books that flood the market around this time of the year. Personally, I love the festive atmosphere around Christmastime, but hey, it’s also okay to have a “bah humbug” moment every now and then. If you ever feel the need to take break from the holiday madness and the constant barrage of holiday-themed music and TV hitting you from all directions, then this book is the answer. Forget the warm and fuzzy feelings, because this is one dark book that likely won’t be filling you with the holiday cheer by the time it’s over. On the other hand, how cool is it that we get a story that explores Krampus lore and presents a darker, more sinister side to the figure of Santa Claus?
And now for the things that didn’t work so well for me. The big one was the extreme-to-the-point-of-contrived stereotypes. All the horrible people at school bullying Charity are of course the jock and cheerleader types, all of them white, bible-thumping and gun-happy ignorant rednecks according to our protagonist. The irony is that Charity frequently comes off as even more judgmental and patronizing as the people she rails against. There are also very few responsible and admirable adult characters, which is a pet peeve of mine when it comes to YA. Charity and her friends paint the police as a bunch of incompetent meatheads, while Charity’s parents are portrayed as a couple of dopes in denial, helpless in stopping her deranged psychopath of a brother hurt her and everyone she loves. The teachers are also apparently too busy planning their own holidays (or worrying about new charter schools opening in their county, threatening their precious hegemony) that they can’t be bothered to do anything about serious problems like bullying and death threats to their students.
In fact, the narrative tries very hard to make you think that Charity and her little “enlightened” group are the only ones capable of getting anything done. Not only was this unrealistic, it just made Charity and all her friends intensely unlikable. Furthermore, Charity also can’t help but remind readers every other chapter that she’s into science, robotics and technology (yet apparently not computer savvy enough to prevent her own email account from getting hacked). I agree we need to encourage girls and young women to enter and succeed in the STEM fields, but there’s no subtlety at all in the way the author is trying to prop up her protagonist as a poster child for the cause.
Finally, I didn’t like the romance. In my opinion, the instalove and Charity’s dramatics actually undermined a lot of what the story was trying to achieve, removing some of Aidan’s mystique. After knowing him for little more than a week, Charity professes to love Aidan so much that she can’t live without him, that she “dies every minute” they’re not together, or that losing him would be like the worst thing that’s ever happened to her (even worse than when Grandma Jones passed away!) In retrospect, the overwrought and sentimental adolescent language probably didn’t help either.
That said, overall I had a good time with Snowed. Ultimately it’s a book with some great ideas but which might be lacking in polish when it comes to execution, though it’s nonetheless impressive especially since we’re talking about a book from a small indie publishing house. Admittedly the story could have been streamlined to bring the horror aspects and Krampus plotline to the forefront while toning down the exposition and romance, but I also have to give it credit for its diverse cast of main characters and the fact that it also explores difficult topics, including a few that don’t get talked about much, like the emotional struggles that families of incarcerated teens go through (and I actually wish this had been given more attention in the book). All told, an interesting read that offers something a little different for the holidays....more
What a fun little book! Not to be missed by fans of Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, but even if you don’t follow the series, it might be worth taking a look. When this novella landed in my lap, I briefly debated whether or not I should read it, since I am woefully behind on the main series and I know a lot has happened to the characters since I last visited this world. I worried that I would get too confused or lost.
Well, for readers who might be wrestling with the same doubts, let me put your minds at ease: no prerequisite reading is required before jumping into this one. Of course, if it would help if you know a little of the basic foundation behind the Iron Druid Chronicles, i.e. our protagonist is Atticus O’Sullivan, a 2,000-year-old druid living in modern times with his faithful Irish wolfhound Oberon. Everything else is going to be pretty easy to pick up along the way, not to mention The Purloined Poodle is a whole different animal anyway. Pun absolutely intended.
For one thing, the entirety of the tale is told through the eyes of a dog. That’s right, Oberon fans, urban fantasy’s most popular pooch gets his very own book. In the main series, Atticus’ ancient druidic status gives him access to a full suite of nifty powers, including shapeshifting and having an ability to commune with the natural world. That also extends to being able to talk with his dog, and in every Iron Druid book I’ve read so far, Atticus and Oberon’s conversations always manage to become the highlight. This probably goes without saying, but if you find the two’s psychic exchanges as entertaining as I do, then you will love this.
What I enjoyed most about this novella was how “dog-like” Hearne managed to sound while writing from the POV of Oberon. I was laughing from the very first page, reading about his thoughts on canine butt-sniffing etiquette. Like his human, Oberon is also well-versed in all forms of geek culture, so expect tons of pop-culture references. But humor is only one part of this equation; the story quickly builds into a mystery, as a routine walk through the park leads to Oberon and his owner to discover a string of abductions in the Pacific Northwest involving prizewinning dogs. Local police already have their hands full dealing with people cases, so it’s up to Oberon to convince Atticus to help the victims’ owners to look for their stolen pets.
Right away, I knew I’d missed some key events in our characters’ lives, since the last time I saw them they were still in Arizona. The main cast seems to have expanded a bit too. Happily, these are just background details. This novella is part of the main series timeline, but it’s probably more accurate to call this one a short side-story, a lighthearted little detour. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t caught up anyway, because we’re not going to be focusing on the humans too much.
Not only is this narrative all about the dogs, I simply love how this book portrays the relationship between Oberon and Atticus. It’s clear that the two of them are best friends who dote upon each other, and when latter indulges the former, I can’t help but think of one of my own dogs, who’s also a big, lovable goofball like Oberon. It just makes me want to take this book and shove it into the hands of all my dog-lover friends, because I know they will appreciate the beauty of the human-dog bond that Hearne captures here so well.
And like I said, the story is also entertaining and funny as hell. Knowing what I do about its doggy protagonist, I went into The Purloined Poodle expecting a few chuckles, but Oberon really brought down the house with this one. I was impressed that an entire story told from his perspective would work so well, figuring that being inside his head would start to get on my nerves or his narrative get stale after the first twenty minutes. Not so, though. The novella format was well-suited for a story like this—just long enough to be satisfying, but also short and sweet enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome.
Dog lovers, urban fantasy enthusiasts, and Iron Druid fans take note: if you are one or any combination of the above, I would highly recommend reading The Purloined Poodle. It won’t take long and it’s the perfect escape; a great way to spend a rainy afternoon or a quiet evening in, curled up on the couch with your special fur baby and this wonderful little novella....more
This book isn’t your typical ghost story. While it includes a significant number of urban fantasy elements, there is also a darkly profound, rather despairing thread running beneath its surface. Thematically it is also on the weightier side, dealing with topics like suicide, survivor guilt, and emotional trauma. Fans of Seanan McGuire are still going to love her engaging storytelling style and loveable characters, but if you’re used to more offbeat and quirkier UF, I think this one may leave you with a heavier heart.
The story begins with the funeral of Jenna’s older sister Patty, who left for New York City with big dreams but ended up taking her own life instead. Grieving with the loss and blaming herself, a stricken Jenna runs off into the night during a bad rainstorm and tragically slips into the river, drowning in the raging current.
Because Jenna’s death was an accident, however, she died too soon according to a ledger of cosmic checks and balances which states a person’s soul cannot pass on until they have served their full time on the mortal plane. When Jenna died, she found quite a hefty debt still on her record, so like everyone else before her who died before their time, she became a ghost and must remain among the living until that balance is repaid.
Fast forward forty years, and Jenna is living in New York City leeching off a little bit of her debt each day on living strangers, with every minute she gives being another minute added to their youth. However, because Jenna sees “time left” as a form of currency, her gift of life in fact becomes an act of theft in her eyes. In order to earn back what she has stolen, Jenna also volunteers at a suicide prevent hotline trying to save others from Patty’s fate, hoping that when her time finally does come she will rejoin her beloved sister with a clean balance and conscience.
This is probably my third or fourth foray into McGuire’s work, and while overall I have enjoyed her books, I confess thus far I’m still waiting for “the one” which would blow me away. I started Dusk or Dark of Dawn or Day with the hopes that this would be it, but ultimately there was just something about it that didn’t quite click for me. Like I said, this is a story with some heavy, tragic themes to it, so it might simply be a case of the wrong book at the wrong time. Admittedly, the whole thing left me feeling kind of worn and heartsick by the end of it, even though I was hooked by the intro with its fascinating look into this world of ghosts and their concept of “time owed”.
Looking at this from another angle though, it clearly speaks well of the author that she can so successfully convey emotional impact with her writing and portrayal of her characters. My personal reaction to this novella aside, I can recognize a good story when I see one, and this has all the elements of an engaging tale full of imagination and feeling. Jenna is a narrator with a unique perspective, yet the care and attention to detail paid to her backstory makes it easy to sympathize with her decisions when all around her are other ghosts that do not share her same views or values. She’s a genuinely good character who not only extends her kindness to people in need as evidenced by her goal to rescue as many aging cats from shelters as possible, giving them love and a comfortable place to live out their final days. Death is a theme that infuses every page, but sometimes its oppressive presence is lightened with compassion and scenes like that.
The ideas in this book are also mind-bogglingly original. It took me some time to wrap my head around ghosts and their ability to give and take time, but I eventually came to appreciate the ingenuity behind the concept. As well, McGuire paints an interesting picture for her ghosts’ existence, linking them to special relationships with mirrors and witches. For a novella, the world-building is surprisingly robust.
Ultimately, I feel the ending could have been handled better, but since I can’t elaborate without giving away details, I’ll just say that it didn’t come across as eloquent or consistent as the rest of the story. That said, there is no shortage of feeling, and at the end of the day I think the conclusion manages to achieve its desired impact. If this book sounds like something that might interest you, I highly recommend giving it a try....more
In gaming lingo, the term “level grind” often has negative connotations, typically used to describe having to engage in mind-numbingly tedious or repetitive tasks to gain experience or complete an achievement. Happily, this is not at all how I would describe my experience with Level Grind by Annie Bellet, which is in fact a very witty, vibrant, and entertaining urban fantasy. Collecting the first four novellas in the Twenty-Sided Sorcerer series, this omnibus admittedly offers pretty standard fare when it comes to the genre. Still, it manages to be a very entertaining read thanks to the stories’ vigorous pacing, the characters’ irresistible charms, and the author’s fun take on the usual tropes.
Meet Jade Crow, a sorceress on the run. After twenty-five years of hiding from her ex-lover and fellow sorcerer Samir who wants to eat her heart (gross, yes, but that happens to be the only way to kill a sorcerer and steal their powers) she has ended up settling in Wylde, Idaho, home to a thriving paranormal community that includes shapeshifters, witches, and leprechauns. A lifelong gamer and nerd, Jade is content enough to lie low and live a quiet life among friends, running her comic book and game store.
Justice Calling is the first novella of the collection, introducing us our main characters and setting. It was just another day at Pwned Comics and Games when a tall and handsome stranger breezes through the door and accuses Jade of murder. Alek is a Justice, an enforcer for the Shifter community, and he has arrived in Wylde after receiving a vision that someone or something may be harming the lives of those he has sworn to protect, and he believes Jade is to blame.
This first story also sets the tone for the rest of the series: lots of gaming and pop culture references, unashamedly geared towards the gamer and geek demographics. That said, any general fan of urban fantasy can definitely enjoy these books as well. As the opening novella and also the shortest of the bunch, Justice Calling is unfortunately rather light on character development and world-building (imagine a full-length novel by Patricia Briggs or Ilona Andrews compressed into a little more than 100 pages, and that’s how I would describe this), but it does solidly establish more to come. This is when reading the omnibus comes in handy; with the next book conveniently waiting on the next page, there was no excuse not to satisfy my curiosity and hankering for more.
MURDER OF CROWS
This second story starts with Jade’s estranged father showing up at her doorstep, imploring her for help. Our protagonist has never forgiven her family for kicking her out of Three Feathers crow shifter ranch where she grew up, but she ultimately agrees to help after learning someone was out there brutally killing innocent people. As always, Jade suspects Samir, her evil sorcerer ex who could be murdering members of the Crow clan to get to her.
If book one was about laying down the groundwork and hooking readers in, then Murder of Crows is where things start to get a little deeper. Bellet fleshes out her world-building, exploring the various shapeshifting communities in her series and also incorporating Native American history, culture, and lore into her story. But it is character development that gets a huge boost. We learn a lot more about Jade and where she came from, and by the end of the book she is changed by the many difficult decisions she had to make. There’s also a strong vibe of mysticism in this one as Jade comes to terms with being a sorceress and what it’ll take to control her magic. The only thing I wasn’t crazy about was her romance with Alek; I mean, come on, it ends before it even begins!
PACK OF LIES
The next story begins as Alek suddenly comes back into Jade’s life, showing up at her door asking her for help (yes, there’s a clear pattern emerging here with regards to the way these books begin). The Wylde community is again threatened as news comes that wolves are killing other wolves, but things take an even worse turn when an innocent family is found slaughtered, seemingly caught in the middle of a shifter conflict. Even though Alek broke her heart, for the sake of her town Jade decides to lend him a hand in his investigation.
I didn’t get a chance to feel invested in Jade and Alek’s relationship in the previous two books, so quite a few of their interactions felt empty. These plots are also starting to become very predictable, especially when read back-to-back; someone always comes to Jade for help with a gruesome terrible crime, and as always, Jade thinks it must be Samir, the big bad who has been a constant threat in the back of her mind and yet he is still nowhere to be seen. To be fair, this is a rather common feeling for me when it comes to novellas, with there being so few pages to really develop a deeper story. Still, these books are meant to be short and sweet, and when all is said and done, Pack of Lies was another fast, entertaining read. Jade also reveals herself to be a sorceress at the end of this book which causes no small amount of tensions in her small town (even the other paranormals are kind of creeped out by sorcerers, with them being known to eat hearts and everything) which adds another interesting source of conflict to the series.
Yep, this one also starts with someone showing up at Jade’s door for help, and again we are led to believe that these dastardly acts (in this case, the grisly mass killings of unicorns) might be attributed to Samir. But this time, we actually get the sense that a greater story is emerging. Finally! A mysterious sorceress also turns up in Wylde, claiming to be running away from Samir and needs protection, and Jade is torn between wanting to help and not wanting to put her friends at risk.
I’ll be honest, this being the fourth installment, I thought we would have a lot more answers by now. But this is also a story with some great developments and nice twists. Hunting Season was perhaps the best of the novellas, and a great story to end this first collection.
Closing thoughts: So far, I’m really enjoying The Twenty-Sided Sorceress and I would highly recommend the omnibus format of Level Grind for an easy, convenient way to enjoy the first four novellas one after another. While it’s true that UF fans may find it a little derivative and too similar to many of the popular paranormal series out there, I think it aims for being light and fun rather than groundbreaking. And it worked! The stories’ short lengths also definitely had some impact on the depth of world-building, character, and story development, but the good news is, these areas continue to expand with each installment. It’s probably not a stretch to say if you love Mercy Thompson or Kate Daniels, you will do get a kick out of this series as well. Geeks and gamers will especially have a blast! I look forward to seeing what’s next....more
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
Chasing Embers is an urban fantasy that seems to have a little bit of everything. There are dragons, magical spirits and mages, the Fae, and even a generous helping of ancient Egyptian mythology. The strange thing is though, even with so much going on in this novel, I actually find myself with very little to say about it. The story was a fun romp, but I enjoyed it on a very “surface” level without forming many deep attachments to its people, places, or events. That said, being the first book of a series, it has strong potential and room to grow.
The story stars Ben Garston, who’s no ordinary UF hero. For one thing, he is a dragon (which I don’t think is a spoiler, since it’s revealed almost right off the bat, not to mention it is blatantly hinted at in the synopsis and on the cover). Centuries old, “Red Ben” now walks the streets in human form, bound by a pact that was made long ago between all the magical creatures of the world. To prevent widespread chaos and fear, Ben and others like him had to agree to hide their existence and live among the mortals as one of them. In turn, guardian knights will protect them and ensure that the pact remains unbroken.
However, the peace is about to be shattered. Recent events make Ben suspect that his protections are no longer in place, and already there have been a couple attempts made on his life. But Ben has more than himself to worry about. From years of hiding in plain sight among the humans, he has come to learn to look like them, live like them, and even care for them. Even knowing from the start that their relationship is doomed to fail, Ben has nonetheless fallen in love with a mortal, a young woman named Rose. It is in his nature to protect those he treasures, even though he can never tell Rose who he is—or what he really is—and all those unspoken truths have strained things between them. Now an old enemy has resurfaced to hunt Ben, and worse, they know all his secrets.
I enjoyed Chasing Embers; I really did. I thought it had a lot to offer UF fans, including a unique twist on the paranormal creatures that usually populate this genre. James Bennett deftly combines fantasy with real world elements, sometimes blurring the lines between mythological lore and history. I particularly enjoyed the story of Ben’s origin, which touches upon so many aspects of his character (both as a dragon as as a “human”). While heartbreaking, the details of these past events also make it easier to understand his complicated relationship with Rose, and reveal much about the tragedy that sparked an old rivalry. In fact, I actually thought a lot of the flashbacks and past sequences were done very well, going against the norm of how I usually feel about nonlinear storytelling.
But while I could list many more things that I thought were interesting or cool about this book, there was also this nagging sense of distance between myself and the plot and characters, that try as I might, I could not shake. It’s a dissonance that’s hard to explain, but we often use the term “bring something to life” to describe how an author can not only create something interesting but also make them exciting and easy for readers to feel passionate about. Part of my problem was that I never managed to reach this point with Ben or the world of Chasing Embers. I’m not sure why, since on the whole I found the book well-written and put-together. A few forced metaphors aside (how does one grin widely enough to “fill a car park”, exactly?) I also thought Bennett’s prose was complex and rich but also easy on the eyes. Still, something prevented me from feeling fully invested. In the end, perhaps it simply boils down to having too much to absorb in a very short time. There is, after all, a lot going on in this book.
The good news though, is that Chasing Embers has established a strong foundation for future books in this series. Now that most of the world-building, history and background of the lore has been covered, hopefully the sequel won’t be as bogged down and will be freer to delve deeper into the characters and expand on plot development. If I sound like I’m placing some high expectations on the next book, the truth is that most urban fantasy series take a time to build, and it’s not uncommon for one to take more than one installment to hook me. This might be the case here. Chasing Embers gave me a good taste of what’s to come, piquing my interest even it did not sweep me off my feet, but I am definitely curious to see what else Bennett has in store....more
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
As its title implies, this novel is a bit of an oddball. Even the style of it reminds me a little of a children’s storybook, complete with its own whimsical fairy tale message: Your eyes only see what your mind wants to see, so sometimes all it takes is a change of perspective. Or, if you’d like: Magic is real, if you just look for it.
The book starts with an introduction to the saddest protagonist ever. Wil Morgan is literally the kind of guy who has dreams about coming in second in a World’s Biggest Failure competition. He’s crotchety, cynical and unimaginative—but that didn’t used to be the case. His childhood was filled with hopes and dreams, and his mother the brilliant jet propulsion scientist Melinda Morgan always encouraged him to reach for the stars and believe in the possibility of magic. But the year he turned ten, Melinda died in a laboratory accident, leaving young Wil in the sole care of his father who is as different from his mother as can be. Barry Morgan, who was never an outside-of-the-box kind of man to begin with, became even more paranoid and set in his ways after the death of his beloved wife, fearing that he would lose his only son too. He essentially forbade Wil to have an imagination, setting the boy on a path to a safe and unadventurous life. And so this was the story of how Wil came to be in his boring, miserable, and uninspired existence.
But a part of Wil has never given up hope. He still wants to believe in the possibility of magic. Maybe that’s why he became a private investigator in defiance of his father who wanted him to be an accountant, even though being a PI pays poorly and he is stuck working out of an office building whose elevators smell like rat vomit. One day though, Wil gets a new assignment from a strange man called Mr. Dinsdale, who claims to be the curator of the Curioddity Museum. Even though Wil secretly thinks the man has lost his marbles, he reluctantly accepts the task of finding Mr. Dinsdale’s missing museum exhibit, something called a “box of levity” (as opposed to gravity).
Paul Jenkin’s debut prose novel is a bit of a surprise, to be sure. I’ve been following his work as a comic book writer since his Hellblazer days and Curioddity is quite different from what I had expected when I first heard that he wrote a book. It’s a little hard to describe, since it has some elements from everywhere, including urban fantasy and even a little bit of magical realism. It’s also somewhat off-the-wall and weird. The reader’s mileage will therefore vary, as it’s so often the case with books like this. If you enjoy unusual stories or eccentric humor in the style of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, then you might want to pick this one up.
On the other hand, if you’re not so sure this will be for you, it might be worth checking out a sample of Jenkin’s writing style if you can, which, speaking of, is very distinctive. You can probably get a good sense of what you’re in for within the first chapter. There are certain quirks like random breaks in the middle of scenes, and not a page goes by without a droll one-liner or some kind of cheeky metaphor. Here’s just one example from a random page:
“Wil felt like a nun at a fashion show: he was clearly out of his comfort zone, and would probably be better off sticking to his usual habits.”
Okay, that one got a chuckle from me. But a constant barrage of that can also get a little distracting, I’ll admit. I also don’t typically do so well with wacky plots and characters, and getting into this novel took time. Like I said, parts of this story reminded me of a children’s tale, and at times the book read like one too. There were flashes of cleverness, but also moments where the juvenile scenarios or Wil’s groan-worthy similes made me roll my eyes.
It’s not that I didn’t enjoy Curioddity though, because I did. Jenkins is clearly a talented writer and he can spin a good yarn. However, I’m also pretty sure I’m not the ideal target reader for this book. And you know what? Considering how well I did with it in spite of that, I would say that’s a win. Though its style sometimes ran counter to my tastes, the book’s whimsical message is something that will stay with me for a long time, as will its heartwarming conclusion. Bottom line, if you think his style will be a good fit for you, then I think you’ll love this one to bits....more
I’ve been champing at the bit to read Certain Dark things ever since I first heard about the book. Back then it still didn’t have a title, but the mere description of it clinched it for me. I’m not someone who’s ever needed much motivation to pick up a vampire story after all, and after learning that one of the main characters is a descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, I was even more intrigued.
That the book takes place in Mexico City was a compelling factor too. Gangs, drugs and corruption run rampant in the capital, but what you won’t have to worry about are vampires. That’s because the city has declared itself to be a “vampire-free zone”. But as with all rules, there are times when individuals have found a way around this particular edict.
This is something Domingo knows all too well. A homeless teenager who ekes out a meager living by salvaging landfills for usable goods to resell, he is on his way home one day when he spies a pretty girl trailed by her large Doberman. To his surprise, she notices him back. And actually talks to him! It isn’t long before the girl confides in him her name and true nature. She is Atl, and she is a member of a subgroup of vampires who trace their line back to the ancient Aztecs.
Atl is in trouble, so she cuts to the chase: some other dangerous vampires are after her, and she needs to get out of Mexico City and head south right away. But while she’s here, she will need a place to hide as well as a “Renfield” to feed on and to assist her during the day. Completely smitten by this confident, beautiful girl, Domingo readily agrees to help her out—the fact that she’s a vampire and wants to drink his blood be damned.
However, it turns out Atl’s troubles are worse than he realized. The vampire gang she’s on the run from are headed by Nick Godoy, a real nasty piece of work. Brash young Nick is a “Necro”, a subspecies of vampire that most closely resembles the classical vampire archetype, and he has a grudge to grind. Bent on seeking vengeance for a long-ago slight, Nick has tracked his target to Mexico City where he and his Renfield Rodrigo have been getting into all sorts of mischief, attracting the attention of a police detective thus causing even more problems for Atl and Domingo.
I had high hopes for the world-building going into Certain Dark Things, and I was not disappointed. Instead of charging in with an attempt to turn the vampire mythos on its head though, Silvia Moreno-Garcia does something more subtle—and ingenious, in my opinion. As we go deeper into Atl’s past, we get to learn a wealth of information about vampire lore in general. We find out about the subspecies, of which there are many. Considering how many cultures throughout history have developed their own version of the “blood-sucking/flesh-eating monster” legend (the Chinese and the Jiang-shi, or the stories of the Wendigo in Native American folklore, to name a couple) I thought this to be an especially clever twist. By drawing from inspiration taken from all over the world, the author has formed a basis for her story that at once feels fresh but still has roots firmly planted in our reality. The results are very effective and pleasing because the reader feels an immediate affinity for the setting and characters.
The plot was also kept rather simple. It’s also fast-paced as hell. Everything about this book is slick and elegant, furnished with all the best features without being weighed down. This lack of complexity is perhaps the only thing holding me back from giving it a full five stars, but while it may not be phenomenal, it is still great. Certain Dark Things easily ranks among my most interesting and entertaining reads of the year.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia offers a whole new world to discover in Certain Dark Things, a novel that offers rock solid world-building and compelling characters that are guaranteed to charm you and open your eyes. So if you’re getting a hankering for a vampire story, why not give this one a try? You won’t regret it....more
I found a new favorite author in Keri Arthur when I read City of Light last year, and my hope is that I will continue to enjoy her work for years to come. Certainly those odds are looking good with Winter Halo, the sequel. Not only did I enjoy it as much as the previous book, this second novel of the Outcast series also came along when I needed it the most, providing a much needed counterpoint to the heavier reads I’ve had on my plate lately. It was nice to simply let loose with Tiger in her world again; that and we all know there’s nothing quite like vampires and shapeshifters plus a little a bit of sex and action to serve as perfect entremets.
The story picks up from the end of City of Light, continuing Tiger’s quest to rescue a group of kidnapped children. With the help from some new allies (because calling them friends would still be quite a stretch), she traces the trail to Winter Halo, a pharmaceutical company whose research arm appears to be involved in a bunch of shady activities. Our protagonist hatches up a plan to go undercover, using her déchet abilities to shapeshift and gather information from a top company executive to find out what’s going on within their research facility.
Her findings end up being even more bizarre and worrisome than expected, including everything from reports of hauntings to illicit experimentation and dissections. Just what is going on inside the walls of Winter Halo? To find out, Tiger must infiltrate the company and go deep into the heart of hostile territory. Time is fast running out, and the lost children are depending on her to find and rescue them.
If you haven’t discovered the world of Outcast yet, you’re in for a treat. As I mentioned before, Tiger is a humanoid being known as a “déchet”, a French term that means “junk” or “waste”, referring to the process with which she and others like her were made. Déchets were the super-soldiers created for the war against the monsters that came through rifts into our world more than a hundred years ago, genetic hybrids cobbled from genes from human, animal, and even paranormal creatures. Tiger’s main role in that long-ago war was to act as a “lure”, an agent capable of seducing her victims and extracting sensitive information from their heads before killing them. This explains why she is more “emotionally connected” than many of her fellow déchets who were mainly bred to be violent war machines. Pretty much all of them were eradicated by the end of the war though, so Tiger lives a lonely existence, making her home in an abandoned bunker surrounded by ghosts of murdered déchet children.
I think that’s the part which gets me the most. Let’s face it, urban fantasy and paranormal books about their main characters trying to rescue kidnapped kids are a dime a dozen. What makes Outcast and Tiger so special is that the reader can deeply sympathize with her reasons for going the distance for these stolen children. Her own life has been touched by the cruel and untimely deaths of young souls, and those experiences have affected her and stayed with her. Whenever we encounter scenes with Bear and Cat, our protagonist’ energetic helper ghosts, sometimes they charm us so much that it’s easy to forget the horrible way they died. For Tiger though, the heartbreaking circumstances around their deaths are always on her mind, and she’ll fight hard to prevent another child from ever being harmed again.
This sequel also builds upon the relationships established in the first book. The feelings growing between Tiger and Jonas are likely to be of the most interest, their attraction having been teased since the two of them first met. I’m actually surprised at the slow-burn approach Arthur is taking, when in a lot of other series, their authors often seem so eager to throw their love interests together as quickly as possible. I love this more measured pacing though, giving time to let the characters’ lives and personalities sink in.
Finally, I’m really enjoying the new plot developments. There’s a noticeable shift in Winter Halo’s themes towards more subterfuge, but the tensions and thrills remain high. The hunt for the missing children still makes up the main story arc, but now several secondary plot threads have also come into play and I’m curious to see where they will go.
The stakes have definitely been raised for this one! Arthur’s world-building and characterizations continue to be outstanding for this series, and I am having a blast with the twists and turns of the story. Now begins the hard part: the wait for book three....more
This year, I’m resolving to do a much better job at controlling my TBR and a big part of that will involve being a lot more prudent with the books I choose to accept for review, but when I was contacted about The Rogue Retrieval, I knew there was no way I could resist giving it a try. The book’s main character is a Las Vegas stage magician who one day hopes to make it big and headline at a Strip casino! Call me cheesy, but I have a real fascination for illusionists and magic shows. Fantasy is fantasy, but watching a skilled magician at their art is always fun because if nothing else, you can suspend your disbelief and imagine—even if it’s just for a moment—that you’re experiencing something beyond the realm of possibility.
In fact, that explanation might also be analogous to why I love urban fantasy. I love imagining our real world with magic in it. The idea of the contemporary mixed with the paranormal appeals to me, and I also enjoy asking the question, “What if?”
Perhaps that is why I had so much fun with The Rogue Retrieval, because at its core, that’s what this book is—one big “What if?” story. What if a whole other world was discovered, connected to ours via a secret portal? What if everything we think of when we think “fantasy world”—like magic, sorcerers, sword-wielding warriors, etc.—is all a reality in this secret realm? And what if someone, just an average guy from our own world, was tasked to go over there to on a real-life quest?
Though, calling our protagonist “just an average guy” wouldn’t be entirely accurate, because Quinn Bradley is actually an extremely talented and ambitious illusionist. But on his big night, instead of being scouted by one of the big Vegas hotels, representatives from CASE Global, a powerful corporation, make him an offer he can’t refuse. The company has discovered a portal to another world called Alissia, a place where magic is real, and they need Quinn to be as good as the real thing so he and a team can travel there and capture a rogue scientist whose actions threaten to put all of them at risk. However, what CASE has neglected to tell Quinn is that impersonating a magician in Alissia is serious crime with fatal consequences.
What makes The Rogue Retrieval special is that it doesn’t read like your typical urban fantasy. In truth, most of the book actually takes place in Alissia, a world closer to what readers would regard as a “high fantasy” setting. But while Quinn and his companions go through the portal in disguise pretending to be native Alissians, they also carry with them advanced technology and other high-tech gadgetry to help them in their quest. So in essence, you get an interesting mix of traditional fantasy, urban fantasy, and even some science fiction thrown in.
This makes The Rogue Retrieval a very different sort of read, one that might appeal to fans of UF who are looking for something that breathes new life into the genre. At the same time though, it retains a lot of the characteristics that makes UF fun—namely the fast pacing, lots of laugh-out-loud humor, and plenty of thrilling action scenes. For better or worse, it also doesn’t take itself too seriously, forgoing much world-building so that Alissia feels like your very generic fantasy world. The book has a feeling of satire at times, reminiscent of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, where a present-day person is transported to another world where he is able to fool its inhabitants into thinking he is a bona fide magician with his knowledge of modern technology. Nothing too deep here, but the story is admittedly tons of fun.
That said, there were a few puzzling issues with the plot. I was never entirely convinced why CASE specifically needed a stage magician for the mission, though a big deal was made about an aspect of Quinn’s background and the reasons for that might be revealed in the next book. But on the whole, I was hoping Quinn’s talents would’ve had more relevance to the story. There’s also the prospect of a romance that I’m not sure was really required. By the end of the book, nothing really gets resolved either, and there were a lot more loose ends than I would have liked.
Still, it’s clear we’ve only scratched the surface here, and hopefully the next installment will develop things further and give more answers. A few minor issues notwithstanding, I’m definitely interested in reading the sequel. Dan Koboldt’s new book is an entertaining urban fantasy with a fascinating angle, great if you’re in the mood for something light, fluffy and fun. I’m looking forward to see where the story will go....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
Just when you think things can’t get any crazier, Rachel Aaron doubles down on the dramatic tensions by throwing us onto the emotional rollercoaster that is No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished. If you aren’t caught up to this series yet, first of all, what are you waiting for? And second, the usual caveat applies for all my sequel reviews: there are potentially spoilery details ahead for the previous two books—nothing too much beyond what’s already revealed in the book’s description, but it’s something to keep in mind just in case you’d prefer to approach Nice Dragons Finish Last or One Good Dragon Deserves Another with completely fresh eyes.
For readers who have been following Julius Heartstriker on this wild, twisting journey since the very beginning though, they’re going to be so proud of our little nice dragon after this book. The youngest Heartstriker of J-Clutch is finally coming into his own. But even after gaining the power to overthrow his mother the great dragon Bethesda, our protagonist still has much more to do. He’s about to introduce a concept that no other dragon in the history of their species has ever contemplated before: Democracy. Refusing to kill Bethesda, Julius decides to put forth the idea of a new ruling Council instead, splitting the power of the Heartstriker into three. With Julius and his mother occupying two of the Council positions, that means only one more seat remains open, and whoever fills it will be decided by vote.
Queue the insanity. Because the rules stipulate that no further major decisions can be made until the Council is whole, both Bethesda and Julius have their own reasons for wanting the election to proceed quickly. However, only the latter has the greater good of the clan in mind, while the former simply wants to get her old power back. Bethesda is pulling out all the stops in an attempt to keep the Council from even happening, backing her own candidate for the coveted seat, and her supporters are also not above trying to kill Julius outright in order to gain her favor. To protect him, his older sister Chelsie is running herself ragged all over the mountain trying to keep the clan from tearing itself apart. Meanwhile, Heartstrikers from all over the country are flocking to the vote, and tensions are high with so many dragons crammed into one place. As they’re busy bickering away though, Algonquin, the ancient spirit of the lakes has declared war on all dragons, and they’re all sitting ducks as long as the last Council seat remains empty. Time is running out, but Julius doesn’t want a quick fix. He has only one chance to change the fate of his clan, and true to form, he wants to do it the right, honest, and good way.
Even after all that, we’re only just scratching the surface. No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished follows a lot of other plot threads, beyond the major one surrounding the Council election. One of these threads are hinted at by that gorgeous cover art, which of course features Chelsie Heartstriker in all her glory. Julius’ scary big sister plays a huge role in this book, and I think her fans are going to be very happy with all the big reveals about her past. There’s a particularly big bombshell that Julius is a little too guileless and innocent to figure out, but for me, it was like WHOOOOAAAAAA.
All of our other favorite characters also return, and then some. I love Marci even more with each book, and she and Julius are just so adorable that I want to melt into sappy puddle every time I read about them thinking of each other. As Julius makes strides in achieving his own potential, so does Marci; she’s set to become one of the most important mages in the world since the great meteor strike that brought magic back to the planet, thanks to her spirit companion, a spectral cat named Ghost. As much as I enjoyed reading about Marci and Julius’ relationship, I had even more fun discovering more about the bond between Marci and Ghost. I’ve always said the world-building is incredible in this series, and Rachel Aaron expands upon it with each book. In the last installment, we learned the true nature of Ghost, but he’s still a big enigma in many ways and this book offers up another key piece of information in the understanding of the series’ magical lore. There’s a reason why everyone wants this ghostly cat, including the UN and Algonquin herself, making Marci’s storyline just as exciting as Julius’.
And of course, how could it be a true Heartstrikers sequel without the rest of the family? Bob, Amelia, and Justin are back, along with Chelsie. But for the first time ever though, we’re also given a good look at just how truly massive the Heartstriker clan is. Feathers fly as the entire family, more than one hundred members strong, are gathered at the mountain. There’s a lot of dragon politics. We’re introduced to the plight of F-Clutch. There are plenty of those who don’t believe in Julius’ vision. Our protagonist pretty much spends this entire book trying to convince his many siblings that killing is wrong, and it’s almost painful at times to watch him try to sell his non-violent approach to those that you know will never come to his side. In several places, Julius’ naiveté made me want to throttle him, to scream at him to “Stick up for yourself!” or that “They deserve it!” Even with killing off the table, without the threat of some kind of punishment, aggressive and manipulative dragons will always try to game the system, and it baffled me that Julius never thought to address that problem. Even with all his blind spots though, I had to admire his conviction. It’s as the title says, no good dragon goes unpunished, and Julius takes a lot of abuse in this book, but he sticks to his guns through even the worst of it. Respect.
All told, this novel is simply excellent, and it’s another incredible installment in the Heartstrikers series. I felt that it was a very different book than One Good Dragon Deserves Another, which featured more action and adventure on a grander scale, whereas this focused more on dragon politics and family ties. This might make the book feel slower, but I personally felt the tradeoff was worth it for the more substantial and meaningful look into the characters’ relationships, not to mention the focus on weightier themes. The author has said that the next book will probably be the final Heartstrikers novel, which makes me sad that the series will be coming to a close but I’m also excited to find out how everything will wrap up. This one ended with a real shocker, and I can’t wait to see what happens next....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
An Import of Intrigue is the second installment in the Maradaine Constabulary series and another impressive achievement in storytelling and fantasy world-building by author Marshall Ryan Maresca. While this book may be the follow-up to last summer’s A Murder of Mages, it is also the fourth novel set in a bigger universe featuring Maradaine, a vibrant and exotic city filled with diverse characters and rich stories.
Once again, readers are following inspectors Satrine Rainey and her partner Minox Welling on a murder investigation involving baffling circumstances. This time, we’re in the neighborhood of Little East, a section of Maradaine home to a large number of different cultures and traditions. Druth, Fuergan, the Imach, Tsouljans, the Kierans, and the Lyranans all make their home in this largely forgotten part of the city, where it’s not uncommon for one to walk down its tumbledown streets and hear a multitude of conversations spoken in the languages of the speakers’ respective home countries or regions.
However, not all of Little East’s denizens always get along, and this latest case involving the death of an important foreign dignitary seems to be an attempt by the killer to stir up even more trouble, knowing that the tensions between the different groups are already on a knife’s edge. Evidence at the crime scene appears to implicate several of them, and Satrine and Minox spend the bulk of their investigation following up on leads in all the various cultural districts. Meanwhile, being an uncircled mage, Minox is starting to feel the adverse effects from his ongoing struggle with his magical powers and the stress of it is threatening to consume him, and Satrine is forced to confront her past as a figure from her former life comes to warn her away from digging too deep.
Just as I expected, I had another rollicking good time with the dedicated duo of Constables Rainey and Welling. I also really enjoyed the story, though if I was forced to pick favorites, I still have to go with first book. An Import of Intrigue had a lot to offer, exploring the political and social factors that affect the lives of everyone in Maradaine, but in terms of readability and flow, A Murder of Mages is the clear winner. Don’t get me wrong, for this sequel featured a plot that was just as strong and entertaining, but admittedly it suffers a little from pacing issues. The book’s introduction winds up being quite a slow builder, weighed down by the storm of people, places, and other names that reader has to quickly absorb in order to get the full picture of this murder mystery.
On the one hand, I love that Maradaine is such a multicultural city full of amazing sights and sounds. On the other, the half-dozen or so cultural groups involved in the investigation, along with the huge cast of characters that are introduced in such a short period of time made this already complicated case even more confusing. I found myself having to start and stop again and again in order to get all the various pieces of this story straight, which had an overall negative impact on the book’s energy and momentum. Not to mention, we also had to take several detours away from the main arc to focus attention on Satrine and Minox’s own personal conflicts. It just seemed like a lot to throw at readers, and better transitioning between the multiple plot threads could have helped smooth out the pacing.
The characters though, they were as ever well-written and top-notch. From an interview with Maresca, I learned that he is planning to be writing at least four series set in the world of Maradaine. To make each one unique and stand out from the others, I think the author’s creative approach to characterization will be the key. He has built complex lives for both Minox and Satrine, and An Import of Intrigue continues to flesh out their personalities and backstories. Minox has finally come to a point where he has to address his uncircled status and how that lack of training might be affecting his work, but it is undoubtedly Satrine who steals the show in this one with the revelations about her past life as a spy. Several of her secrets are blown wide open here, and I can’t help but wonder what this will spell for Satrine’s daughters as well as her severely disabled husband, who depends wholly on her to support him.
The plot thickens, as they say, and I am still just as curious and enthusiastic about the characters and their stories now as I was after I finished reading A Murder of Mages. If you enjoy fantasy and mystery, you’ll find both genres terrifically combined here within the pages of the novels in the Maradaine Constabulary series. Marshall Ryan Maresca continues to impress. Needless to say, if you liked the previous book, An Import of Intrigue is not to be missed. ...more