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
Drake is a darkly humorous urban fantasy about the unfortunate misadventures of a hieromancer hitman named Don Drake, though I must say, labeling him a “hitman” is greatly simplifying the kind of work he does. With the help of a nine-inch tall animated idol representing the earthly form of a bound archdemon—which he calls “The Burned Man”—Drake is able to summon forth demonic creatures from hell to sic on his victims, killing them without having to dirty his own physical hands. Be that as it may, Drake is still consumed with grief and guilt when his latest job goes awry, resulting in the tragic death of an innocent child who was merely in the wrong place at the wrong time. Traumatized and remorseful, Drake makes the decision to leave his line of work behind.
However, word of his horrible deed has gotten out, and now Drake has a trio of vengeful Furies on his tail. To make matters worse, his former employer Wormwood turns out to be an archdemon himself, and he most assuredly does not accept Drake’s resignation, pulling our hapless protagonist back into the hitman game. Drake’s only hope now lies with Trixie, an angel with a questionable history who has come to aid him in his time of need, but can she be trusted?
This is seriously a great story, full of hairpin twists and turns. While the plot could have used a bit of tightening up, the speed at which it moved was a thrill and a delight. What’s even better is that despite the modern atmosphere, certain elements in Drake reminded me of the old-style classic noir mysteries, complete with femme fatales and over-the-top diabolical villains. The dialogue is also frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious, loaded up with profanity and British slang to great effect. I’m sure I’ll have to thank my dad, who spent his college years drinking and partying studying in London, for being able to understand most of the Britishisms.
I won’t lie though, I think I would have liked this more if it weren’t for the protagonist. I’m not one who usually has trouble accepting or even embracing unpleasant characters, anti-heroes, flawed souls, or any of those morally contentious types. But when I found myself yelling “NO NO NO DON’T DO IT!” at the audiobook every five minutes (pretty much every time Drake does or says something stupid) I had to admit to myself that maybe, just maybe, the main character and I have some issues to work out.
Thing is, Drake really isn’t a bad man, but he does have this tendency to make some earth-shatteringly dumb decisions and—to my great chagrin—not learn from his mistakes. I can tolerate the occasional lapse in judgement, but I can’t abide a fool. There’s a scene in the book where the Burned Man is mercilessly laying into Drake for being a pathetic, pitiful bastard as well as a sorry excuse for a human being, and all I could think in my head in response was “Yeeeeah…I kind of agree.” Drake is for the most part a cowardly, unambitious and weak-willed magician who even admits as much, being under no illusions when it comes to his powers–he knows he is nothing without the Burned Man. Drake has good intentions, making him slightly loveable, but unfortunately he rarely sees his plans through, preferring to always take the easy way out, which was the root of most of my frustrations with his character.
I have to say though, the audiobook production of Drake is fabulous, with narrator Mark Meadows nailing the voice and attitude of our protagonist. I mentioned the excellent dialogue, which is written the way it’s meant to be spoken, and that might explain why it comes across so perfectly in the audio format. Meadows’ accents and inflections are great, so that all the characters come to life and become very real to me when he speaks their lines.
All in all, I had a good time with this book, and given the promising way it ended, I might just be willing to give Don Drake another shot in a sequel. I love edgy and gritty urban fantasy, and with so much potential in Drake, it would be a damn shame to let my feelings for the character get in the way of enjoying more, especially after this outrageously entertaining first installment....more
After the rip-roaring fun of Envy of Angels, I just couldn’t wait to be back in Bronko’s kitchen with all the gang. This time, things are really heating up as Matt Wallace serves up another course of humor-laden fare in Lustlocked, the second novella in the Sin du Jour series.
Having proved themselves on their first job, Lena and Darren are subsequently offered full-time employment by executive chef Byron “Bronko” Luck. Now all they have to do is survive the probationary period, which isn’t as easy as it sounds, given the unusual nature of the catering company at which they work. Sure enough, no sooner have the junior chefs signed their names to the contract than Sin du Jour receives their next big gig—a goblin royal wedding.
Unlike the mischievous, ugly and stooped creatures of folklore, Matt Wallace’s goblins are actually beautiful and talented beings, which explains why so many of them have found success in Hollywood and the music industry. It’s a star-studded night as all the goblin guests show up to the celebrations, excited to see their prince tie the knot with a human woman. As usual though, nothing at Sin du Jour ever goes as planned, and before long, giant lusty lizards are running amok through the wedding party, trying to have sex with everyone and everything. Let this one be a cautionary tale for us all: magic and love don’t always mix.
Like the previous book, Lustlocked is another rollicking romp into the culinary world, urban fantasy style. Once again, our characters are thrown into the zaniest and most absurd situations you can think of, playing up the action and the laughs. Compared to the Envy of Angels though, the plot feels much simpler and less adroit, giving this sequel novella a throw-away vibe which leads me to believe that it won’t stay with me as long. That said, I still had a great time with the story, which is no less entertaining for being shorter and less complex.
In fact, pacing is helped by the narrower focus, and we also don’t jump around as much following multiple groups of characters in different places. While Envy of Angels featured several side plots starring the Sin du Jour’s stocking and receiving department, the adventures of Ritter, Cindy, Hara and Moon are more integrated in Lustlocked. Fans of this unforgettable foursome need not fret though, for Matt Wallace makes it up to us by including a bonus story called Small Wars at the end of this novella. This was a free short published at the Tor.com website, revealing the origins of the team by explaining how they were all recruited and brought together by Ritter.
If a couple hours with a bite-sized, light-hearted urban fantasy novella sounds like a good time to you, then you need to check out the Sin du Jour series. Already I am excited for the next book Pride’s Spell, which promises to be even more wild and bizarre. At this point, anything can happen…and you can bet I’m looking forward to the insanity....more
It appears plenty of people are already aware of the awesomeness of A. Lee Martinez, and as usual I’m just way behind. I first heard of the author only earlier this year, when I saw the title and cover for The Last Adventure of Constance Verity. How could I not be intrigued? Is Constance the badass looking woman smiling smugly at the viewer, apparently after having taken down a bunch of cultists single-handedly? And why might this be her last adventure? I wanted to KNOW. If there’s one thing’s for sure, this book caught my attention right away.
Indeed the story does star our eponymous heroine, and things kick off with one hell of an introduction. Going incognito as “Connie Smythe”, our main character attempts to start her “ordinary” life by getting an “ordinary” job. However, the moment her would-be employers find out about her true identity, the seemingly everyday interview takes a turn for the bizarre as they try to dispose of Connie by sacrificing her to the Hungry Earth monster. Just another day in the life of Constance Verity. Trouble just seems to follow her everywhere, much to her annoyance. All she wants to do is live a normal existence, but just how is she to do that when disasters like alien invasions, time traveling supervillains, or space pirates just keep falling into her lap?
This has been the case for most of Connie’s life. Whether she likes it or not, she is destined for heroism and adventure, thanks to a wish granted to her at birth by her fairy godmother. But now Connie has had enough of all of that, and just wants to settle down. Clearly, the blessing (or curse?) isn’t going to let that happen, so she’ll just have to do something more extreme: Constance Verity is going to kill her fairy godmother and take back control of her life.
This book is the latest addition to what I have labeled my “fantasy comedy” shelf. Martinez goes to town riffing on our beloved tropes from classic action-adventure and pulp stories, combining the humor with paranormal elements. There’s even a running joke between Connie and her trusty sidekick Tia, with them always making references to her past escapades, each one sounding more outlandish than the last. Our heroine has seen it all, from foiling evil supervillain plans take over the world to escaping so-called inescapable sure-death situations James Bond-style. Despite this ostensibly cheesy shtick though, it really works. This story deftly toes the line between satire and homage, so that the premise comes off as being more witty than cornball.
And though Constance Verity is meant to be an amalgam representing a number of our favorite larger-than-life heroes and heroines from classic pulp, she’s surprisingly easy to relate to. Of course, no one can claim to have a life quite like hers, but her desire to achieve some balance between work and pleasure is something a lot of people can sympathize with. It’s also clear after a while that Connie is chasing a pipe dream. After having done the extraordinary things she’s done, there’s just no going back to “normal” for her; not now or ever. We’re along for the ride as Connie discovers this for herself through much introspection and surprisingly profound discussions about determinism and free choice. Is Connie destined to live the rest of her life saving the world every day until she goes down in a glorious death as promised, or is it really just a simple matter of her refusal to turn away from a bad situation knowing that she has the power to help? Whether she likes it or not, Connie has the heart of a hero.
The Last Adventure of Constance Verity is sure to give you plenty of good laughs and some deeper themes to chew on. It’s unexpectedly charismatic and offbeat, and I think of all the fantasy comedy novels I’ve tried this year, so far this is by far my favorite. It’s funny and farcical without being puerile, entertaining without feeling forced. All in all, I had a wonderful time with this book, and I will certainly be looking into picking up more books by A. Lee Martinez!...more
The themes and ideas of H.P. Lovecraft’s works have long since influenced the genres of dark fantasy and horror, as can be seen in Red Right Hand. Levi Black’s new novel adheres true to the Lovecraftian mythos by plunging his characters into deep dark scary places, making them confront the kind of terrors that mere human minds are not equipped to comprehend. This book is undeniably, unmistakably disturbing. And it was quite a ride.
Red Right Hand tells the story of a young woman named Charlotte Tristan Moore, who discovers there are monsters out there other than the human ones in her past. One night, Charlie returns home feeling unnerved by bad memories of the terrible thing that happened to her in high school, only to be attacked by three demonic skinhounds waiting in her apartment. A mysterious Man in Black with a red right hand sweeps in to save her, but it turns out he’s actually an elder god named Nyarlathotep. Charlie is a descendant of H.P. Lovecraft and magick is in her bloodline, he claims. To save the world, she must come with him to defeat two of his brethren who want to bring chaos and death onto this mortal plane.
Charlie doesn’t want to help the Man in Black, but she knows she has no choice. Not only has he named her his Acolyte and unlocked the magical sight to penetrate the veil between worlds, Nyarlathotep also holds Daniel, Charlie’s good friend, in his thrall. To protect Daniel and to keep chaos from being unleashed upon he world, Charlie is forced to do as the elder god commands and follow him into one nightmarish scenario after another.
It probably goes without saying, but Red Right Hand is a book with some frightening and triggering themes, and is not recommended for readers who would find these topics disturbing. While it may share some elements with urban fantasy, it’s really more of a straight-up horror than anything, featuring macabre scenes of blood, gore, and violence, etc. and leaning heavily on the use of graphic descriptions. The story will also explore the terrible thing in Charlie’s past. Even though the event is mostly alluded to in her memories, prospective readers should be aware that parts of this novel will touch upon the pain and trauma associated with sexual assault and abuse.
The narrative itself delivers a fast-paced, action-driven horror tale, full of the terrifyingly weird and supernatural elements inspired by the stories of H.P. Lovecraft. From elder gods to cosmicism, these themes are featured in the modern day setting of Red Right Hand, but it all still feels distinctively Lovecraftian even when written in the bold, stark tones of Levi Black’s writing style. What’s important is that this book does its job well, making good use of the idea that life as we know it is nothing more than an insignificant fragile veneer, underscoring Charlie’s helplessness and the real threat of losing her sanity in the face of Nyarlathotep and his kind.
Granted, neither the plot nor the main characters are particularly deep, and I also thought the visceral reactions to some of the darker, more twisted and stomach-churning scenes might have had the effect of emotionally distancing me from everything, including Charlie. There’s a small romantic subplot involving her and Daniel, for instance, which I didn’t feel much connection to. However, the story does move quickly, leaving me hanging on the edge of my seat to see what happens next. The first few chapters kick us off with barely any preamble, throwing us headfirst into this nightmarish journey with Charlie, Daniel, and the Man in Black. This snappy intro pretty much sets the pace for the rest of the novel, which proved in the end to be one super-fast, super-thrilling read.
I think whether or not you’ll enjoy this book will highly depend on your tastes for horror. The nature of the horror elements in Red Right Hand are rather more intense and in-your-face, as opposed to cold and creeping psychological dread. If what I’ve described here of Charlie’s journey sounds like something you might want to read, I encourage you to check it out for yourself—especially if you have an inclination towards fiction inspired by H.P. Lovecraft. This story will suck you in....more
When all is said and done, if you’re in the mood for a fresh twist on magic and the paranormal, or simply looking for a story featuring an interesting confluence of relationships and thought-provoking characters, then you’ll definitely want to curl up with Claire Humphrey’s enchanting novel debut, Spells of Blood and Kin. And as an added bonus, the events of this book also take place before a charming and vibrant backdrop, in the heart of a city full of its own cultural magic and diversity. Things might not turn out the way you’d expect them to, but they’re guaranteed to keep you engaged.
The novel is mainly told from the perspectives of three people. First and foremost is Lissa Nevsky, a 22-year-old woman abruptly elevated to the position of koldun’ia—sorceress, or magical practitioner—in her small Russian folk community after the sudden death of her grandmother who previously held the title. Providing healing spells like sleep aids or fertility charms quickly becomes a part of her main routine, until she is completely caught off guard one day when Maksim Volkov shows up on her doorstep, calling himself “kin”. Failing to recognize the true meaning behind the term, Lissa initially mistakes this mysterious stranger for family, but understanding that he and her grandmother may have had a long-standing arrangement for healing services, she sets her mind to providing him the same help.
However, Maksim knows he has already come too late. On the last full moon, he remembers losing control, unwittingly infecting a young man with his savage and untamable nature. The sleep spells from the witch’s granddaughter have helped a bit, but they can never truly quench the desire for violence. Now Maksim feels the burden of responsibility to track down his victim, before the effects of his blood can manifest. The young man turns out to be a college student named Nick Kaisaris, who was out celebrating the end of finals with his friend the night he encountered Maksim in an alley. Ever since then, Nick has been feeling strange; his senses have been enhanced, and his strength has increased, but it hasn’t all been pleasant. Nick doesn’t want to hurt anyone, but something is wrong and he’s slowly losing his grip on his sanity.
This was a strange book, not at all like your typical urban fantasy, even if it does contain some of the usual elements. At first glance, you’d be forgiven for thinking this story was about shapeshifters, but it is actually a bit more complicated than that. The kin are not exactly like werewolves or any kind of shifter in that they don’t go through any form of physical transformation, but they are indeed immortal and their behavior also appears to be closely tied to the phases of the moon. To suppress the violence in their veins, Maksim and his fellow kin Augusta have to drown themselves in copious amounts of alcohol or let off steam by beating the crap out of each other. Maksim, being centuries older and susceptible to blinding rages, also needs the help of a witch’s spell to leash his inner animal.
That’s where Lissa comes in. She’s also not your typical witch, young and inexperienced in the eyes of her community. I really liked how the paranormal aspects described in this book had the feel of folk magic and tradition. Following in the footsteps of her grandmother who used eggs to bind and distribute her spells, Lissa has been trying to do the best she can while still dealing with her grief. Through her eyes, we learn the ways of her magic, like how her spells are performed on the few nights around a full moon, and how regular store-bought eggs can be imbued with the power of her special ingredients and incantations. When these eggs are subsequently consumed raw, the subject will experience their effects. I thought this was a very well-portrayed and captivating mode of magic.
There were some weaknesses, though. Chief among them was Lissa’s character. Given how central her role is to the book, I was disappointed to feel the least connected to her out of everyone else in the story. Shy, aloof, and not too savvy when it comes to social situations, Lissa always felt far removed from me, like I was never able to get close enough to see her true personality. Perhaps this perceived distance is by design, in which case the author might have done her job too well, because Lissa often came across cold, two-dimensional and emotionally vacant. I really disliked her in the first half of the book, especially when her stepsister Stella (who ended up being my favorite character) showed up with an offer to help out after her grandmother’s death. The brusque, unwelcoming response from Lissa turned me off even more, though fortunately my opinion of her gradually improved as the story progressed.
As well, the story’s pacing is somewhat inconsistent, with a lot of jumping around between perspectives. Like I said, this is not your average crisis-filled, action-oriented urban fantasy, so be prepared for slow-building momentum because this one does take some time to get really going. We also never get a satisfying explanation for the kin, like where they came from or how they came to be the way there are. It’s not information we need to know to understand the story, but those who crave a bit more world-building and context are going to be left wanting for answers.
However, I did love the setting. Being a former Torontonian, I was touched on a personal and emotional level by the author’s descriptions of the sights, sounds, and culture of the city. I was also a UofT student, so the places featured or mentioned in this book, like the pubs of the Annex or the eateries on College, Victorian-style houses tucked in the neighborhoods off Dundas, crappy TTC streetcar experiences, and convocation week, all of it brought me back to memories of my old haunts and good times. It was really cool to read a story set in my hometown, and Claire Humphrey captured the spirit of Toronto perfectly.
So if Spell of Blood and Kin sounds like a book that would interest you, go ahead and give it a try. The story’s tone and style will take some getting used to, but the ideas are fascinating and the magic is superb. If character development suffers a little, Humphrey makes up for that with her wonderfully expressive writing that brings the world around the characters to life. This was an impressive novel debut, and I’ll be watching to see what she has in store for the future....more
Let me start my review of The Flux the same way I started my review of the first book Flex. There was some of this:
And then some of this:
As well as this:
By the way, if you haven’t read Flex yet, I highly recommend picking it up first because you’ll definitely want the complete ‘Mancer experience. If nothing else, getting the full rundown of the magic system will be worth it, because this series features some of the most intricate and unique concepts I’ve ever seen.
Imagine a world where magic is based around obsession. Love something hard enough—whether it be cats, cooking, or donuts—and it might just actually become your special power, giving you the ability to shape reality to your vision. As you can imagine, the possibilities are virtually limitless. For instance, protagonist Paul Tsabo (he loves paperwork, God help him) is a bureacromancer, and his friend and partner in crime Valentine is a videogamemancer (three guesses what her favorite hobby is?)
In The Flux, a third ‘mancer character also rises to prominence—Paul’s own daughter Aliyah Tsabo-Dawson. The events at the end of Flex might have turned her into the world’s most dangerous eight-year-old, but to Paul she’ll always be his little girl. It’s now up to him to hide Aliyah’s secret and protect her from those who will want to use her or do her harm. But Paul is living a double life himself, hunting rogue ‘mancers for the government by day and brewing magical drugs by night. To make matters worse, there’s now a new power-player in town called “The King of New York” and he’s got Paul and Valentine in his sights.
Like its predecessor, The Flux was pure geek escapism. In general I still think Flex was the better book, though I liked certain aspects of this sequel more. For one thing, Valentine plays a much bigger role. I remember being so excited when I realized that was her on the cover. She’s my favorite character in this series, and not just because she has great taste in video games. I am totally in love her offbeat personality, and her confidence also makes her a force to be reckoned with. Because of her, the plot is also heavier on videogamemancy. Needless to say, I was right where I wanted to be. We’re talking loads more gaming references, which to me was one of the best things about Flex. Gamers will no doubt experience multiple nerdgasms while reading this series, though in truth, I think anyone can appreciate the humor and action in these books.
Speaking of which, The Flux also introduces Valentine’s new friend Tyler Durden, whom I hope we’ll be seeing again soon in some way, shape or form. Yes, I said Tyler Durden. Didn’t I say the possibilities were limitless?
Okay, so maybe this book went just a tad overboard with the pop culture references. Which is why I’m thankful for the story’s focus on family again, especially the father-daughter bond between Paul and Aliyah. In this book, Paul faces the challenges of raising an angry and traumatized little girl, while Aliyah realizes that her father doesn’t have all the answers. If it weren’t for the emotional hurdles, ‘Mancer might have been just another entertaining yet hollow urban fantasy series, but the emphasis on relationship dynamics gives both the characters and story much needed depth.
Final thoughts on the audiobook: I started the series in this format, so I decided to continue in this format, and I am quite happy with my decision. Peter Brooke is fantastic with voices (especially with his New Yorker accent) and in my opinion the only character he faltered with was Aliyah. Granted, this probably has something to do with her written dialogue itself, which I didn’t find convincing. Still, there’s a very good chance I’ll do the third book in audio too. All in all, well worth the listen!...more
I have to say, so far I’ve been very impressed with the variety of Tor.com novellas. Just as I’ve gotten myself settled in with a couple stories that are rather sober, more serious-like endeavors, along comes Envy of Angels barging into this black tie dinner party like your favorite uncle, the one who gets loud when he’s had too many but is always ready to entertain the crowd with a funny yarn.
I had such a great time with this book. Imagine Hell’s Kitchen meets Dresden Files, marinated in a flavorful blend of action and thrills, seasoned generously with humor. When I first glimpsed the conspicuously short publisher description for this novella, I had my suspicions about what this meant and now they have been confirmed: The less you know about this story going in, the better.
Fortunately, I can give the general gist of it without spoiling anything. Envy of Angels is about Lena and Darren, two ordinary down-on-their-luck New York chefs who suddenly find themselves landing the gig of lifetime at Sin du Jour, an exclusive catering company owned by one of the city’s hottest celebrity chefs. However, it soon becomes clear that Sin du Jour is no ordinary catering company. For one thing, their clients are demons.
When asked to serve a morally questionable item on the menu at their next event (and we’re not talking about veal), Sin du Jour owner and executive chef Byron “Bronko” Luck gathers his staff and puts it to a vote. Should they do what they’re told and go through with the whole thing? Or should they take the dangerous, near-impossible option and attempt to pull the wool over their devilish clientele’s eyes by preparing a substitute main course and praying they won’t notice? By the way, these types of hellish customers, when they don’t get what they order, aren’t just going to be sending it back. But guess what our characters decide to go ahead and do anyway.
The result is an extraordinary amount of story packed into this novella. Envy of Angels features plenty of action both in the kitchen and out in the field, and even includes a thrilling heist sequence starring Ritter, Cindy, Hara and Moon, the unforgettable foursome who make up Sin du Jour’s Stocking and Receiving Department.
The plot is also very addictive, especially when it gets more and more bizarre. Between getting completely sucked into the story and the sheer morbid curiosity to see what other crazy things might be happening next, I kept turning the pages and finished this book in no time at all. It was fantastically good fun. I really don’t want to give much more away, though in truth, there are moments so absurdly hilarious, so out-of-this-world-insane that I would be hard-pressed to describe them, anyway. Seriously. There are moments in here that you simply must experience for yourself.
One thing is certain though. I’ll never look at a Chicken McNugget the same way again....more
I’m so glad I finally got the chance to read Borderline. I admit I haven’t been trying out a lot of new urban fantasy lately, since after a while so many of the common themes start to run together until I can’t keep the different stories straight in my head anymore. Borderline, though, is special. Very special. It’s completely invigorating and just what I needed to rekindle my excitement for the genre.
The story, which I originally thought would be darker and grimmer in tone due to what I read in the publisher description, actually turned out to be a lot of fun. The book stars Millie Roper, a young woman with borderline personality disorder who is in recovery for a failed suicide attempt a year before. The incident caused her to lose her legs and her promising filmmaking career, but just as Millie has decided to resign herself to her new reality, a strange woman called Caryl Vallo shows up in her room at the psychiatric center, claiming to represent a group called the Arcadia Project.
And what is the Arcadia Project? Now that’s where things get interesting. Imagine something like Men in Black, but replace the aliens with faeries. Arcadia is the name given to the “other” realm, where the Fey and other mythical creatures reside. They frequently come visiting in our mundane world, and some even make it their home. It’s the mission of certain secret branches of the government working with the Arcadia Project to track these Fey visitors and make sure they don’t stir up too much trouble on this side of reality. What that also means is when the Fey break the rules or go off radar, agents have to be sent in to investigate. That’s where the Arcadia Project comes in, and now Caryl is asking Millie to be their newest recruit.
Wow, where do I start? First of all, Millie is an incredible protagonist. Yes, she’s a complex, fully-realized character. And no, she’s not always likeable. Her borderline personality disorder sometimes makes her emotions volatile, and her behavior unpredictable. But paradoxically, I also found her very genuine despite her moods and thoughts constantly swinging in different directions. I find that unreliable narrators are commonly used in stories about characters with mental illness or behavioral disorders, but Millie also somehow breaks that mold, coming across to me as an exceptional and very different kind of protagonist. She can’t help what she feels in the moment, but she will always tell you straight. She has her dark and low moments, but when she’s not experiencing symptoms she can also be a very humorous, energetic and upbeat person. I loved her unique voice and wouldn’t have wanted anyone else at the helm of this wonderful story.
Speaking of story, on the whole Borderline features a rather conventional urban fantasy plot, but the joy of it is in the details. The book takes place in Hollywood, amidst sprawling film studio lots and glitzy celebrities. Millie herself was a former film student and an indie director before her suicide attempt. Both the character’s background and the setting are woven tightly into the story, so we also get to have some quirky twists involving the movie making industry. For example, almost every successful filmmaker and actor or actress in the past century has had some connections to Arcadia. Central to the plot is the really cool concept of Echoes. The idea suggests that every creative genius in our world will have a muse, or Echo, in Arcadia. And when they meet, it’s like the faerie-touched version of finding your soulmate—you just know. Once a person and their Fey Echo are joined, their talents can reach their full potential, unleashing even more creativity into their work and furthering their success. It’s a lovely idea, and I find it works especially well in this world Mishell Baker created.
I really don’t have many complaints. Perhaps the only thing that tripped me up is the way the author sometimes portrayed Millie’s BPD. I used to work in the therapy and rehabilitation field, and spent a great deal of time working with clients with mental illness, personality and behavioral disorders, as well as acquired brain injury. Millie’s “checklist” style of discussing her BPD at times felt exactly the way I’d described—often it felt like she was reading out of a copy of the DSM and ticking off all the major points like “Borderlines do this because” or “I am like that because” it’s what the info on the disorder says she should feel or do. It hasn’t really been like that in my experience; every individual is different and rarely does the full gamut of symptoms come neatly described and packaged together like that with any one person. It didn’t greatly affect my overall enjoyment of the novel though, and I appreciate the fact that Baker is trying to shine a light on mental health issues and the personal struggles of people who live with them.
I really wish I had read Borderline sooner, as it was such an extraordinary, refreshing novel. It’s exactly what I want in an urban fantasy: entertaining, original, and even meaningful. The fantastic cast simply further highlighted this read for me, from protagonist Millie Roper to my personal favorite character Caryl Vallo. Everything about this book was a delight, and I highly recommend it....more
As someone who was totally new to Cathy Clamp’s work, I was very excited about the opportunity to read Forbidden, book one in a new series set in the Sazi universe. A “reboot” of sorts, the novel takes place ten years after the events at the end of The Tales of the Sazi, featuring a new story and new characters – a fresh start, essentially, and a perfect jumping-on point for a newcomer like me.
Indeed, there’s not much you need to know before starting this series, and any required knowledge is helpfully provided by the author. For example, I found it interesting that the two protagonists of Forbidden actually first appeared in the original series as relatively minor characters. According to Clamp’s afterword, the heroine Clarissa Evans (who goes by Claire Sanchez here) was in Moon’s Fury as one of the young victims of a child abductor. All grown up now and an agent of the Wolven, Claire is being sent to investigate a string of missing children cases in the remote town of Luna Lake.
For obvious reasons, the mission hits a bit close to home, and Claire finds herself struggling to deal with unpleasant memories on top of trying to figure out the complex hierarchy of her new pack. The community at Luna Lake is unlike anything she’s had to deal with before, on account of it being a former refugee camp for displaced Sazi and lost orphans. Shapeshifters of all sorts live together here, including owls, falcons, bears, cougars, and of course wolves like Claire herself. On her first day, she meets another wolf named Alek, a Sazi orphan who grew up in Luna Lake after being adopted into a family of owls. Sparks fly between them immediately – both the good and bad sort – but whatever attraction or differences they have between them, solving the mystery must come first…before it’s too late for the missing kids.
Right away, I was captivated by the magic of this world. There are all sorts of Sazi, like those who can turn into wolves, big cats, birds of prey, snakes, etc. There were also the little things that charmed me, like the fact they can talk in their animals forms, or use food smells (most often desserts, I find. Or maybe I just notice them more because of my sweet tooth) to identify the emotional states of other Sazi.
I was also amazed by the social dynamics of Luna Lake. You don’t have to be familiar with the Sazi series to understand that it’s a very special community. The bird shifters aren’t big fans of the cats, the cats don’t much like the wolves, and the wolves can’t stand the smell of the birds, but at Luna Lake all the groups manage to live in relative harmony because that’s the only way to ensure survival. For Alek and other Sazi like him who were adopted by the Williams, the town is literally one big family. Even though he is a wolf, Alek is a big brother to owls, eagles, bobcats, other wolves and more, and there’s this sense of solidarity and togetherness about Luna Lake that gave me all the warm and fuzzy feels. Yet, there’s also a cost to that peace. Over the years the pack has developed a way to identify their “omegas”, and these low ranked individuals are treated poorly and forced to do all the dirty jobs in town. It made me feel really unsettled and angry towards Luna Lake’s leaders and those townsfolk who turn a blind eye to this blatantly unfair and broken system.
Be aware too that while Forbidden is described as an Urban Fantasy mystery, in some ways it actually reads more like a paranormal romance. Claire and Alek’s relationship is often the focus of the story, and the mystery elements of the plot are in truth not that substantial. To really get into the story, you would need to buy into the chemistry between Claire and Alek, and that was perhaps my problem; I didn’t feel like I got a chance to know either of them very well before they were thrust together, and right on the heels of them falling in lust came the obligatory plot contrivances to introduce conflict between them. I also found Alek too self-absorbed for my tastes and Claire too much of a “special snowflake”, which all made it harder for me to care about their developing relationship. That said, I’m not a big reader of PNR so there may be a lot genre norms and nuances that I’m not accustomed to, so feel free to take my opinion on the romance with a grain of salt!
The world of the Sazi does have the benefit of being fully fleshed out and realized though, from all the groundwork that has been established by the original series. Just this little taste of it has gotten me hooked, and I find myself wanting more. Certainly if you have a love for stories about shapeshifters, you need to check this one out for the many different kinds of creatures alone. Recommended for urban fantasy/paranormal romance readers and fans of strange and beautiful magic....more
It’s really interesting to me how the Daniel Blackland trilogy has evolved over the three books, and reading Dragon Coast made me want to cheer because we were going back to the series’ heist story beginnings. I am a total sucker for caper stories, so not surprisingly I loved the first book California Bones. On the other hand, the second book Pacific Fire took a different direction, and was more like a coming-of-age tale that explored the characters’ histories and relationships. To me, what’s great is that this third book felt like a combination of both, tying up loose ends to bring it all home. Throw in a fire-breathing dragon, and I really can’t ask for more than that.
Right away, Dragon Coast resolves a few questions left open at the end of the last book, so if you haven’t read Pacific Fire yet, you probably should first. This review won’t be revealing spoilers beyond what’s available in the publisher description, but they might be unavoidable anyway because each book builds on the previous one, and I would not recommend reading either of the sequels as stand alones. The focus returns to Daniel in this book, though Sam still plays a big role. A golem made from the magical essence of the late Hierarch, Sam was taken in by Daniel as an adopted son. Together they’ve been on the run for a long time, until things came to a head with a Pacific firedrake, a magical creature constructed by Daniel’s half-brother Paul.
Everyone thought Sam was lost when he was consumed by the firedrake, but it turns out the boy’s consciousness is still alive and aware inside the dragon, albeit in magical form. This leaves Daniel and his friends with a bit of a dilemma. They cannot kill the firedrake without losing Sam, even while the huge creature rampages across Southern California turning huge swathes of it into fiery ruin. Daniel comes up with a plan: he will find a way to subdue the dragon, then use a magical substance called the axis mundi to draw out Sam’s essence, before replacing it in a new constructed golem body. Great plan, except for one problem – axis mundi is one of the rarest substances on earth. To get it, Daniel will have to pose as Paul—whom he killed—to sneak into the kingdom of Northern California, win a promotion to become the Lord High Osteomancer, then steal a piece of axis mundi on the ceremonial jeweled scepter of the Northern Hierarch herself as she uses it to confirm his position.
It’s like stealing the crown jewels…meets Face/Off. I love it.
I’ll also say this about Daniel: the man never does anything by halves, even when it comes to planning the riskiest, most impossible of heists. However, this time he’s going into the enemy’s lair without the usual caper crew, with only Moth by his side as his bodyguard. He sends his Cassandra, his go-to safe-cracker, with Gabriel the water mage and Max the hound to track down the firedrake. Meanwhile, Sam is stuck in the belly of the beast, so to speak. We as readers are treated to a somewhat abstract concept of the boy’s consciousness trapped within the half-organic, half-mechanical insides of the dragon. The team is split into those three main threads that make up the story.
For obvious reasons, the most compelling of these was Daniel’s sections. It’s intense and exciting watching him pose as Paul, working against the clock to achieve his goals while also struggling to familiarize himself with all the intricate customs of the Northern Kingdom in order to pass as his dead half-brother. Of all the supporting characters, Moth also shines in Dragon Coast as the muscle and the brains of this operation, taking over some of Daniel’s duties as mastermind to gather intelligence. Next up was Cassandra, Gabriel, and Max’s sections, which featured a bit of sleuthing and espionage, adding intrigue to the equation. Finally, even though Sam is my favorite character, unfortunately his sections were the weakest in my eyes. This has a lot to do with my own preferences; I just don’t do well with abstract conceptualizations and I also felt those bizarre glimpses inside the dragon were less relevant to the story and seemed more like dream-like interludes.
This isn’t a very long book, which means there’s a lot happening in a relatively small number of pages. It’s great because there is absolutely no slowing down, and Greg Van Eekhout’s writing has a very cinematic quality that helps the story drive you ever forward between these three separate plot threads, so one thing you can count on is snappy pacing and a quick read.
On the flip side though, this also means there’s little opportunity to delve deeper into anything else. Our time with Daniel in Northern California feels far too brief and there’s not much to his challenge to become Lord High Osteomancer. Remember in Face/Off, when John Travolta’s character with Nic Cage’s face finds himself in his nemesis’ hideout, meets his lover and his child, and realizes then that even the bad guys have their lives, their loves, and their families? I sense this book going for the same kind of deep, heartfelt revelation but it never quite manages, simply because there was so little time to know everyone in Daniel’s — or rather, Paul’s — life. Dragon Coast should have been a more emotional story, exploring the painful side of one’s self and past, but realistically, the novel was just too short to be effective with that.
Still, this series has long established itself to be more fun and adventurous than weighty and profound, though it has a deep and very complex magic system and some pretty dark themes, what with osteomancers cannibalizing each other for their powers and all that. The world-building remains one of my favorite aspects, and I love how each book has given us more osteomancy as well as the author’s strange and dystopian version of a flooded and divided California. If you’ve enjoyed the previous books, Dragon Coast is not to be missed. It wraps up the series with a bang, and gives satisfying answers to a lot of character conflicts and plot questions besides. And if you’ve always been curious about these books, now is the best time to check out the whole completed trilogy. It’s one I highly recommend....more
Midnight Taxi Tango is the second book of the vividly imaginative Bone Street Rumba series. I can honestly say I’ve never encountered an urban fantasy quite like this, and I said as much in my review of the first book last year, which I enjoyed immensely! I knew as soon as I was finished reading Half-Resurrection Blues that I wanted to continue this cool and unique series.
But I won’t beat around the bush; while I had a good time with Midnight Taxi Tango and thought it was overall a fun and entertaining read, there were a few issues that I thought made this sequel weaker than its predecessor. First, a quick rundown of the story to provide context for my points below. The series’ main character is Carlos Delacruz, a man who is not quite alive and also not quite dead. His time before is a complete blank; all he knows is that he died and was brought back to life into this state of “in between”. Now he works as a kind of enforcer for the New York Council of the Dead, tasked to hunt down and execute the city’s errant ghosts or any supernatural denizens who misbehave.
Most recently, a string of paranormal-related murders have been occurring around Brooklyn’s Von King Park, and naturally Carlos is sent to investigate. On one such trip to the park, his team actually manages to catch and stop an attack in progress, and the would-be victim happens to be someone Carlos knows—Kia, a teenage girl who works for one of his good friends. The incident has terrified her, especially now that she has been touched by the ghost sight, opening her eyes to a whole other side of New York.
Carlos himself isn’t in the best frame of mind either. The events of the last year have left him heartbroken and depressed, even though he tries hard not to admit it. Sasha, the woman he loves had walked out of his life following his act of unspeakable betrayal, and he still lives with the guilt every day. And herein lies one of my biggest issues with this book. The coolheaded and capable Carlos I was first introduced to in Half-Resurrection Blues is a shadow of himself in Midnight Taxi Tango. As soon as he thinks about Sasha or anything related to her, he turns into a complete and utter mess. Even though I understood on multiple levels where he was coming from, he would have gotten himself killed many times over had others not stopped him from rushing headlong into danger. I knew something was wrong the moment Carlos became someone I could no longer root for, and in fact many times over the course of this book I silently hoped to myself that Sasha would never forgive him.
Initially, I was also excited when I found out Kia was a POV character in this book. There was a real noticeable lack of female presence in the first book, so if nothing else, I was very happy that Daniel José Older beefed up this aspect in Midnight Taxi Tango. I also remember meeting Kia from Half-Resurrection Blues and she was one cool girl, so I was looking forward to getting to know her better. Turns out, I was right in that there were many things I loved about her, like her courage and her strength and resourcefulness. But Kia is also a teenager, and there were a lot of other things I found off-putting, like her petulance and her judgmental attitude. I also have no problem with profanity in books, especially in prose and in dialogue where they add feeling to the characters and story, but Kia’s chapters frequently quoted song lyrics riddled with F-bombs and I felt these served little purpose other than to make want to me skip through large swaths of her narrative, to be honest.
There was a surprise third POV in this book, however, and that was Reza. Now Reza, I adored! I loved absolutely everything about her, from her backstory to the way she talks and operates. I wish I could say more, but since this is the grand debut of her character and her colleagues’ “midnight taxi service”, it would be way more fun to discover her story for yourselves. Suffice to say, she is a force to be reckoned with—cool, calm and always prepared for anything. I loved her take-no-prisoners attitude and the way she pretty much took over Carlos’ role in this book as the one who got things done. I really hope she’ll return for future books; if not as a POV character again, then at least in a supporting role.
I have a few more minor quibbles, but in general they can be summed up by the fact I just didn’t feel this book was as well put together as the first one. I only found out after I finished that a few scenes in this novel were apparently drawn from a couple of previously published short stories by the author, and maybe that had something to do with it? In some ways, this story did feel like an amalgamation of several parts cobbled together, with the seams not too carefully hidden, and the final product needed some detailing and polish. For example, I felt the villains in this book were crudely sketched and had a “Monster-of-the-Week” feel to them like they were specifically written for this book and then meant to be thrown away, never to be dealt with again. Overall I also felt the prose in this sequel lost a lot of that “poetic” quality that made me fall in love with the writing in Half-Resurrection Blues.
Still, I thought Midnight Taxi Tango was a good book. Technically you can also jump into it without having read the first book because Older does a fantastic good job recapping the story. If you enjoy action, you might even prefer this sequel because it contains a lot more suspense and excitement. As a series, however, I think the next book will have to step up its game if Bone Street Rumba is to distinguish itself from all the urban fantasy available out there. No matter what though, I’m too invested in Carlos’ story to stop now so I definitely have plans to continue. I’m curious about the wider story arc, and I have to admit a part of me is really looking forward to see Carlos and his pals rain hell down on the NYCOD!...more
And now time for something totally different. Long Black Curl isn’t a book I would have normally picked up on my own, and not least because it’s actually the third book of the Tufa sequence. I don’t usually like to jump onboard mid-series, but two factors made me decide to make an exception. First, I was told this book can be read as a stand-alone, and second, I’ve been hearing all these great things about it, which got me curious.
Now I’m so glad that I decided to give it a shot. I suppose Long Black Curl is technically an urban fantasy, but it’s certainly unlike anything else in the genre that I’ve ever read. When I think about the typical setting for a UF, I picture big cities or built-up metropolitan areas. The setting of the Tufa, on the other hand, is a remote valley nestled in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee. We’re talking the rural south, a land of gorgeous peaks and ridges upon ridges of pristine forests. But it’s also a land of no indoor plumbing, dirt roads, and where bigotry is still very much alive.
It’s an interesting world. There’s beauty, but also a whole lot of ugliness. It’s also where the Tufa make their home. No one knows exactly where they came from before they settled here, but for generations they have lived in the quiet hills and valleys of Cloud County, passing on the their stories and traditions in the form of song. Music is a huge part of their lives, and an innate part of their identity. To be cast out of their community and stripped of their ability to make music is one of the worst fates imaginable, but this is exactly what happened to Bo-Kate Wisby and her lover Jefferson Powell, the only two Tufa to have ever been exiled.
Now Bo-Kate is back, and she is angry, bitter, and determined to take over both tribes of the Tufa, which means taking out the two leaders Rockhouse Hicks and Mandalay Harris. Her secret weapon is Byron Harley, a famous musician from the 50s who went down in a plane crash but did not die, trapped instead in a faerie time bubble for the last sixty years. Bo-Kate hopes that Byron will help her by taking advantage of his desire for revenge, and for a while she seems unstoppable, until the rest of the Tufa decide to seek out a secret weapon of their own: Jefferson Powell, Bo-Kates old boyfriend.
Anyway, that’s the brief description of the book. What’s way more difficult is putting into words the feelings I got while reading it. The first thing that struck me about the story was how atmospheric it was, seemingly evocative of so much more than meets the eye. Reading about the Tufa was like walking through a veil into another realm. And it’s not just the nature of the setting either; reading about some of the things that go on in this small community (especially those perpetrated by one of the Tufa leaders Rockhouse) are just so hideous and beyond the pale that convincing myself that this is some faraway fantasy world becomes easier and less traumatic to accept. Furthermore, because the Tufa are such a closely knit group, everything that goes on within their ranks – like internal politics or scandals, for example – feel so much more personal, making the emotions cut even deeper.
What I loved the most though, was the music. Creating it is an art form I find both mysterious and beautiful. And to a non-musician like me, it even almost seems like magic. Alex Bledsoe pretty much takes this idea and runs with it, so that music to the Tufa is in fact the source or their magical power. Songs become more than just a way to communicate ideas; they become a means for them to affect the world around them. Music is also a part of the Tufa shared heritage, something that links the community together and gives the individual a sense of identity and belonging. Of course, I’ve seen music used as a magical device in fantasy novels before, but Bledsoe’s handling of it is one of the more unique examples I’ve seen so far, despite—or perhaps because of—the abstractness in its execution.
Needless to say, I enjoyed the book a lot, and something tells me I would have liked it even more if I’d read the previous two before I tackling this one. Long Black Curl worked absolutely fine as a stand-alone, but I think the extra background information would further enhance the story by adding more context to the Tufa characters and all their complex relationships. I’ve gone ahead and added the first book The Hum and the Shiver to my to-read list, because this is a very special series and I would love to go back and read more. Highly recommended....more
In this remarkable debut fantasy novel by Jordanna Max Brodsky, Greek gods walk the earth. They’ve actually been with us since time immemorial, but with the arrival of science, technology and new forms of faith, their powers have faded throughout the ages so that the ones who still living among us are practically human, barely hanging onto their immortality. As the goddess of the hunt and protector of women and girls, Artemis still embodies a lot of the values she was known for, though these days she has taken the name of Selene DiSilva and has adopted Manhattan as her home.
Walking her dog one morning, Selene stumbles upon the corpse of a young woman washed up on the shores of the river. Horribly mutilated and wreathed in laurel, the victim bears all the signs of a ritualistic murder. Recognizing the significance of this, Selene swears to find justice for the woman, and her investigations ultimately lead her to team up Dr. Theo Schultz, a professor of mythology and classical studies.
While this might sound strange, one of main reasons I adored The Immortals is the way it bought me back to some of the wonderful books and authors I’ve enjoyed in the past. Essentially, the author has managed to shape something brand new and unique out of a hodgepodge of familiar themes and ideas, and I was amazed at how well the end result worked for me.
For example, like many of my favorite books by Juliet Marillier, we have a powerful feminist icon as a protagonist, one who champions women through her words and actions. Selene reminds me very much of Blackthorn from Dreamer’s Pool in that both characters start off very suspicious of everyone around them, but she gradually comes to accept that there are good, honorable men out there who are deserving of her love and trust. In The Immortals there’s also Theo, a Dan Brown-esque geeky scholar-type hero who uses his esoteric knowledge to solve puzzles and chase a killer across the city, trying to stop the murders before they happen (Angels and Demons, anyone?) Finally, and perhaps inevitably, there are the obvious parallels to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, what with both books strongly featuring a blend of modern culture and ancient mythology along with the central premise that gods only exist because of belief and veneration. Once that worship wanes, so too will the gods’ strength and immortality.
The Immortals mixes these popular tropes freely and generously, but in spite of this, its greatness is diminished not one single bit. In fact, the book feels both familiar and new, and I was able to ease into it effortlessly. It didn’t take much convincing to get me on board with the mystery plot either, which was suspenseful and enticing. Brodsky’s prose feels natural and elegant, infused with a hint of casual humor which made this one a rather light fare even in the face of some darker themes, and as a big fan of Greek mythology, I also enjoyed her fantastic and often very witty portrayals of the gods. In addition, the narrative brings to life a side of Manhattan I’ve never seen before, and in a way the setting becomes a character in its own right. There’s always a place in my heart for stories that teach me new things and/or make me see things from a different angle, and this book definitely fits the bill.
I also feel very fortunate that I was able to receive a copy of the audiobook for review. To my surprise, one of the narrators is Jordanna Max Brodsky herself, and she ended up delivering an impressive performance. I’ve not listened to too many author-narrated novels, but I can see them having a certain appeal. Not all authors are able to pull off narrating their own books, but Brodsky is undeniably as talented at voice acting as she is at writing, giving her character Selene the perfect attitude on the page and in audio. Robert Petkoff matched her with an incredible performance of his own while reading the chapters devoted to Theo, infusing his character’s geeky but lovable persona with the necessary charm. I also appreciated the sound effects and other little touches that made this audiobook even more immersive.
Bottom line, I loved this novel and I have to say the audio format was also a phenomenal experience all around. I honestly can’t recall the last time I rated both story and performance on an audiobook a full five stars (or if I’ve ever even done so before!) but The Immortals most certainly deserves it!...more
The Craft Sequence is unlike many conventional fantasy series in that each book can be read as a stand-alone, their stories ping-ponging unapologetically all over time and place, focusing on different characters. It makes it an unusual, albeit very special series. That said, many of these characters and events connect to each other, and there is a clear advantage to reading these books in the order in which they are published.
Last First Snow, for instance, is technically a prequel, taking place before the other three books, but it still felt like I was reaching a “crossroads” of sorts, on account of some of the familiar faces. The two main protagonists, Elayne and Temoc, are characters we’ve met before, though both appeared in their respective books in a supporting capacity only. It is also only forty years after the God Wars, and the city of Dresediel Lex still feels its effects, not least of all the poor population in the district of Skittersill, constrained by the old gods’ wards. Elayne Kevarian, a craftswoman, necromancer, and lawyer (not necessarily in that order) is retained by the King in Red to repair the wards, but the people of Skittersill rise up against her efforts, led by the warrior-priest Temoc.
Something had to be done, so Elayne organizes a meeting between all the parties in the hopes of negotiating a deal. After long days of bargaining back and forth and against all odds, an agreement is finally reached. However, no sooner had the ink dried on the contract than an assassination attempt throws all possibility of peace out the window. An all-out battle ensues. Gods and mortals, law and tradition, magic and reason, duty and family – it all comes to a head as both Elayne and Temoc must decide what they fight for.
In spite of all the cool ideas and fiery clashes, so far in the series Last First Snow was probably the toughest book for me to get into. Each installment has focused on a different theme, and something about this one just didn’t quite capture me right off the bat. We got started on a lethargic note, establishing the situation and mood in the Dresediel Lex. I didn’t feel what we were supposed to feel: a growing pressure, a sense of a city on the brink of losing control, the citizenry holding its collective breath. I don’t think I felt much of a connection to the people of Skittersill, not if I spent half the book actually rooting for the King in Red – whom, I might add, is not the villain in my eyes. In truth, there are no villains in this story. It also means no good guys either, but more on that later.
In essence, it felt like Max Gladstone tried to save all the good stuff for the second half of the novel. It wasn’t until the negotiations went sideways that I found myself full engaged; those scenes following the assassination attempt featured some of the best writing I’ve seen from Gladstone in this series so far. Once those floodgates were open, the story became more interesting, but still only because the main characters’ potentials were unlocked and not because I felt much for the nameless, faceless crowds of Skitterskill. Bottom line, Last First Snow is all about Elayne and Temoc, both of whom valiantly propped up the narrative.
Let’s start with Elayne Kevarian. You don’t mess with her. For readers who’ve been following this series since the beginning, that’s a lesson we learned early. There’s a certain satisfaction seeing her take center stage in this book, because though we’ve already taken her measure, there are still clearly so many ways in which she can surprise you. While Elayne remains one of my favorite Craft Sequence personalities, Temoc on the other hand stirred up plenty of mixed emotions. Seeing him with his young son Caleb, who will grow up to be the main character in Two Serpents Rise, was both a treat and a dreadful reminder of how things will turn out. Temoc’s personal journey in Last First Snow puts him in the difficult situation of choosing between two things that mean everything to him. Is he right for choosing one over the other? Just as difficult as it is to call the King in Red a villain, I too find it hard to get a bead on Temoc; for all the reasons there are to support him, I can probably find just as many to condemn him.
I enjoy books that throw me curve balls. Last First Snow by Max Gladstone is such a book. Is it my favorite of the series? Probably not. Still, as I say, there’s no such thing as a bad Craft Sequence book, just that some are better than others. Taking place before all the other books, Last First Snow was perhaps disadvantaged from the start, because the future is known for a lot of the characters. We already know who will make it out alive, how events will come to pass, how certain relationships will play out. For a book that’s mostly for filling the gaps in history though, it paints a rather fulfilling picture of two important characters who have thus far been on the periphery of our attention. I still love this series, and I can’t recommend it enough....more
Urban Fantasy is such an exciting genre right now because of books like The Brotherhood of the Wheel. While mythological creatures and vigilantes have long been a mainstay, R.S. Belcher has shaken up these conventions and breathed new life into UF by looking at a slice of American culture that arguably hasn’t gotten a lot of attention: Truckers. Motorcycle clubs. The U.S. Interstate Highway System.
Meet Jimmie Aussapile, an independent truck driver who lives a double life as a knight of an ancient order, protecting the country’s roads and its travelers from monsters—both the supernatural and the human kind. He and others like him are part of a brethren who call themselves the Brotherhood of the Wheel.
One night, Jimmie picks up a ghostly hitchhiker and follows her message to a number of unsolved missing person cases. Along with his new squire Heck Sinclair, the two men uncover a terrifying situation involving a supernatural serial killer known as the Pagan who has been using the highway system to prey on children since the mid-1900s. Meanwhile, Louisiana cop Lovina Marcou has been conducting her own investigations into a group of missing teenagers, leading her to creepy internet stories about abductions by the inhuman Black-Eyed Kids or BEKs. She eventually crosses paths with Jimmie and Heck, setting in motion a string of events that would pit them against a great evil that has been preparing to make its return into the world.
This is the third book I’ve read by R.S. Belcher, and damn, his storytelling just gets better and better. I found myself really digging the combination of urban fantasy and horror, and I think The Brotherhood of the Wheel would be perfect for readers who love the gritty stylings of Chuck Wendig, or the creepy and otherworldly stories of Joe Hill. I also love the blending of the modern and the ancient. On the one hand, we’re reaching back into history and referencing the Knights Templar to explain the origins of the Brethren, and on the other we’re pulling in elements influenced by internet memes and other online myths that go viral. This fantastic mashup comes together to create a very special kind of magic, bringing a rough and terrible kind of beauty to the places we wouldn’t typically associate with the spiritual or magical—like tunnels, trailer parks, or truck stops.
The characters, especially Jimmie, are really what makes this book stand out. This is the first volume of a new series, but it does take place in the same world as the author’s novel Nightwise, in which Jimmie actually makes his first appearance as a truck driver who gives protagonist Laytham Ballard hitch a ride in his rig. It was a small scene, but for those who have read the book, that intriguing introduction to Jimmie and the Brethren might have made a strong impression. I know it did for me, which was why I was really looking forward The Brotherhood of the Wheel, a novel that would explore his story and his order’s background. Just in case you’re wondering, both books can be indeed be read as standalones, as they’re the openers to two different and separate series, but I still thought it was really neat to read both and catch all the easter eggs and references they make to each other.
Anyway, as it turns out, Jimmie is quite a remarkable man. He’s a reminder that a hero can come in many shapes and sizes, even in the form of a gruff truck driver with a potbelly and bad, tobacco-stained teeth, wearing a hideous Squidbillies mesh baseball cap. By day, he’s a humble worker and a loving husband and father to his wife, daughter, and another baby on the way. Off the books, he’s chasing down murderers, sexual predators, and paranormal beasties that go bump in the night, often putting his job in jeopardy when he misses delivery schedules or deadlines. Unlike Laytham Ballard of Nightwise—who wasn’t an entirely likeable guy—Jimmie Aussapile is a completely different kind of protagonist, almost like a Peter Parker-like character who immediately appeals to the reader because he is willing to make personal sacrifices for the greater good. I also loved Heck, Lovina, and Max the Builder researcher who later joins the team, and together the four of them kick some seriously major ass. It’s impossible not to root for them, especially when they’re fighting against a most twisted and depraved antagonist.
This is probably my favorite book by the author so far and I’m intensely excited about the future of this series. It’s clear he has put a lot of careful planning into this world populated by all kinds of heroes and anti-heroes united as one to protect innocents from the malevolent forces of the occult. By combining modern technology, contemporary urban myths, and age-old folkloric legends, Belcher made me see “road magic” in a whole new light, and I can’t wait to see what he does next. The wheel turns, baby!...more
Total newcomer to Chloe Neill here, so I had no idea what to expect when I started the first installment of her new Devil’s Isle series. Being peripherally aware of her Chicagoland Vampires books though, I knew enough to prepare myself for a fun urban fantasy story, and I was right. Leaving aside a shaky start and a couple rough edges, The Veil is a pretty solid introduction to a brand new post-apocalyptic world featuring an intriguing protagonist.
Her name is Claire Connolly, just another young woman trying to survive in post-war New Orleans running her late father’s antique shop (which sells more emergency batteries and MREs than furniture these days). She’s also a Sensitive, someone endowed with the magic which seeped through the Veil when the Paranormals came through seven years ago to wage war on humanity. It’s a secret she guards closely, for if anyone discovers her powers she could end up in Devil’s Isle, a prison for Sensitives and other stray Paras trapped in this world after the fighting was done.
However, keeping her secret also left Claire untrained and unable to control her magic. When bounty hunter Liam Quinn discovers the truth about her, he wastes no time finding her a mentor before the magic can consume Claire and turn her into a wraith like the one that killed his sister. But then strange things start happening to the Veil, which has remained closed for many years now, and Claire and Liam stumble upon a plot to plunge what is left of NOLA back into conflict with the Paranormals, a threat they and their friends must stop in order to prevent more death and destruction on all sides.
I confess, this book and I didn’t exactly start off on the right foot. If things like large swaths of infodumps bother you, then you might experience some of the same difficulties I had with the introduction. Claire’s story about how she discovered her powers, along with the entire history of the war with the Paras following the opening of the Veil were unceremoniously crammed into the first handful of pages, without much effort to make the deluge of details less awkward or obtrusive.
However, the book also started with a party, with the characters celebrating the not-so-imaginatively named War Night, a day which commemorates the survival of New Orleans after one of the biggest battles towards the end of the war. New Orleans is a city that ranks high among my favorite urban fantasy book settings, so it was really hard to resist the boisterous and frenetic atmosphere where everyone just wants to have fun and forget the hardships of everyday life. Even though the city is a shadow of what it once was, the spirit of its people is alive and well.
My impressions of the story also improved a lot as it progressed, once we were through with laying down the groundwork. I wouldn’t say the premise is anything unprecedented and there are admittedly a few kinks in the world-building that need ironing out or expanding, but on the whole I had a good time with this book. I enjoyed Claire as a protagonist, even if she is still feeling rather generic at this point, but I do look forward to seeing her develop more of a personality as the series progresses. The character of Liam Quinn, on the other hand, I really loved; when we first met him I immediately pegged him for a cookie-cutter UF love interest, one of those mysterious and smoldering tall, dark, handsome (and boring!) types — but turns out, I couldn’t be more wrong. He’s the character I found most likely to surprise me by going against my expectations, which immediately made him the most interesting in my eyes.
I was also astonished (but not entire unhappy) to see that the romance is relatively understated. The priority here is the overall story, and Chloe Neill really takes a no-nonsense approach to pacing by limiting the superfluous drama, instead focusing on driving the plot forward so that I never lost interest.
All told, The Veil may not be breaking any new ground, but I found it satisfying and entertaining. I’m curious to see where the author will go with the world-building, but what I’m most interested in is the potential in these characters. I’m definitely on board for the next book....more
Just as fun and entertaining as the first book! Going back to earlier this summer, here were some of the words I used in my review of The Shadow Revolution, book one of Clay and Susan Griffith’s new Crown & Key trilogy: feisty, ass-kicking, fast-paced, pulpish and adventurous, the perfect beach read. Now I’m pleased to report its sequel proved just as satisfying, especially since we know what we’re getting into and are more acquainted with our main characters.
The Undying Legion is the second installment of the trilogy, but instead of hitting the “middle book slump” this book really takes off and hits the ground running. Simon Archer, Kate Anstruther, and Malcom MacFarlane are back on the hunt for monsters and other things that go bump in the night, and true to form, we kick off this story with a grisly discovery. While on one of his nighttime patrols, Malcolm comes across the mutilated body of a woman in a London church. Based on evidence at the scene – signs of black magic, cryptic words carved in stone, mysterious Egyptian hieroglyphics carved into the victim’s exposed heart – Malcolm, Simon and Kate determine this to be a ritual murder.
However, this just turns out to be the first of many more gruesome ritualized killings around the city. We follow our heroes as they join forces with a quirky gadgeteer and a young werewolf to solve these mysteries, creating an unlikely alliance to battle demons, Egyptian mummies, necromancers and hordes of zombies. Let’s just say The Undying Legion sure lives up to its title.
I ended up enjoying this book even more than its predecessor, mainly due to the improvements in a couple of areas I felt were lacking in The Shadow Revolution. While I love the fast-paced action and page-turning enthusiasm of “popcorn” reads such as this, let’s face it, these kinds of stories don’t often leave much room for fully-fleshed character development or robust world-building. This was the key weakness of the first book. Still, I understood the reason for the trade-off, and had hoped to see the authors go beyond the surface-level details in this sequel to expand upon the characters and the world.
This was the real test for me, and happily, The Undying Legion passed with flying colors. It’s often expected of a sequel to build upon its preceding volumes, and this one carried that responsibility well, giving us a more intimate look into the lives of Simon, Kate and Malcolm, as well as rendering their world into a fully realized setting. I felt like I was given a lot more reasons to care about the characters, especially as their relationships strengthened and grew more complex. Likewise, I could appreciate the clever and snappy dialogue from before, but knowing the history behind all the relationships now, many of the interactions started taking on a deeper significance. Supporting characters aren’t left out either, and I was very happy that Penny Carter the adorable inventress as well as Charlotte the child werewolf both got bigger roles.
The pacing in this book was also far less chaotic, allowing more opportunities to develop the story and explore its overall arc. The Undying Legion presents a new adventure, but rest assured, the questions raised in the first book about Kate and Simon’s connection and the mysterious key won’t be forgotten. Throughout it all, the plot maintained its rigorous momentum, so effectively that even now it’s a wonder to me how this book managed to accomplish all that it did in a little over 300 pages.
Final verdict? I once said this series is like the equivalent of an explosive summer action blockbuster if movies like that existed back in the Victorian era, and I stand by that. The Undying Legion doesn’t add much to the first book in terms of its light, pulpy tones and monster-hunting themes, but it’s still a deeper experience for all that because of how much more we’re invested at this point. I’m looking forward to check out what I believe will be Kate, Simon and Malcolm’s biggest adventure yet in the series conclusion, The Conquering Dark....more
I have a feeling I’m going to be the sole voice of dissent on this one. It’s not that thought Blood of the Earth was a bad book, but quite honestly I was expecting a lot more. However, it should be made known that this was the first time I’ve ever read Faith Hunter; I’ve never read any of the books in the Jane Yellowrock series, and maybe that was part of the problem. A spinoff can be a tricky beast, and though this can be read separately from the main series, I’m guessing that not having the benefit of a previous connection to this world likely had an impact on my overall enjoyment—or lack thereof.
The story stars Nell Nicholson Ingram, who was, as I discovered later, a character first introduced in a Jane Yellowrock short story called “Off the Grid”. She grew up in a cult called the God’s Cloud of Glory Church, and was only a young girl when she was made to marry one of its other members, a much older man named John Ingram. For all his faults though, John had wanted to do right by Nell. So, when she turned eighteen, he also married her legally in the eyes of Tennessee law, which is why when he passed away, ownership of his entire estate was rightfully transferred to her. This, however, did not sit right with the Church. Even after Nell left the cult, its members still kept coming, harassing her about her property, which they considered as theirs no matter what the law says.
The attacks have made Nell nervous, which is why when a group of agents from PsyLED show up at her door one day, she isn’t sure whether or not she can trust them. Turns out though, Jane Yellowrock had referred Nell to the paranormal investigation agency after finding out about Nell’s earth magic and special connection to nature, so now Agent Rick LaFleur and his team of were-cat operatives are here hoping she can help out on a case. There has been a string of disappearances involving young women lately, and one of the missing victims is a member of a very important vampire house. PsyLED suspects Nell’s old cult might have something to do with it, and they believe access to her past and property could be a very useful resource.
As I mentioned previously, I didn’t think this was a bad book. That said, I also found nothing terribly exciting about it. First of all, a “missing girls” story? Urban fantasy isn’t exactly suffering from a dearth of missing-or-kidnapped-kids plots lately, so that ho-hum was one of the bigger disappointments. Second, the first third of the novel with its slow pacing almost did me in. What made it even more frustrating was the constant repetition, what with Nell finding about fifty thousand ways to beat it over the readers’ heads that the God’s Cloud Church wants her land because they didn’t agree with her late husband’s decision, or how some of their men came over and killed her dogs. Yes, Nell, cult goons bad. I got it the first time, and really could have done without the image of the poor dead pups over and over in my mind. The rough pacing continues in the later parts of the book, like when we’re introduced to the vampire family of the missing girl, and for the next hundred or so pages she is barely mentioned again. The story just feels like it’s all over the place.
I also didn’t think there was anything too special about the world. Again, I know I’m at a disadvantage because I haven’t read the Jane Yellowrock series, so I’m probably missing years and years’ worth of relevant world-building which would have helped me gain a better appreciation for it. Still, at this moment I don’t know if I’m jumping up and down to start another series about vampires and shapeshifters, since I’m already following a bunch of them that scratch that itch, though I did find Nell’s nature-based magic fascinating.
The main character’s background is also one of the most intriguing aspects of this book, since a life of growing up in a cult definitely shaped her into a very interesting person. However, I wasn’t entirely convinced of her random Sherlock Holmes moments. The story spends a lot of time painting Nell to be this country bumpkin, but every so often she will get these flashes of genius (all at the most convenient times, I might add) where she will surprise all her PsyLED team members and then proceed to lecture them all about how a lifetime spent hunting and trapping in the woods somehow taught her to become a whiz at deductive reasoning. And then when they all feel bad about judging her, Nell gets to pat herself on the back, all the while ignoring the fact she can be pretty judgmental herself, of course.
So yeah, this one didn’t exactly blow me away me due to a multitude of smaller issues that simply added up, hence the middling, uncertain rating. In spite of this, I haven’t entirely ruled out picking up the next book yet, especially since I still plan on starting the Jane Yellowrock series one of these days. I think there’s potential for Nell and Soulwood to be a lot more, so here’s hoping the sequel will help them grow on me....more
Even before I started this one, I had a feeling something big was coming. For three books now, Anne Bishop has been ramping up the tensions between the Others and the Humans First and Last (HFL) movement, a radical anti-terra indigene group that has been playing with fire since the beginning of this series. All that pent-up rage and energy had to be going somewhere, and that somewhere turned out to be in the pages of Marked in Flesh.
For centuries, a delicate balance has existed between humans and the creatures that inhabited the land before we got here. The Others, who see humans as prey, have only allowed this truce to continue because they benefit from the relationship as well, enjoying the useful trade goods that humans produce from the natural resources that are under terra indigene control. However, the HFL has made it clear that they are tired of this compromise, issuing a warning to all that a reckoning is at hand.
Caught in the middle of this conflict is Lakeside Courtyard and its leader Simon Wolfgard, the wolf shifter. The arrival of a cassandra sangue named Meg Corbyn has done much to alleviate the bad blood between the Others and the humans in this location, creating a relatively safe place for the two groups to get along. But as HFL violence starts spilling into their daily lives, Simon and the rest of the terra indigene will have to take steps to protect their own, and that may lead to some difficult choices.
Marked in Flesh is undoubtedly a turning point for this series, complete with a significant event that draws a line in the sand. Going forward, a lot of the characters will likely be defined by this moment. The world is also forever changed with the awakening of the Elders, which for all intents and purposes are the “super-terra indigene” of The Others universe. These are beings that even the earth natives themselves fear. For all their bluster and rhetoric, HFL is clearly screwed.
Still, these intense circumstances are merely the backdrop for what happens in Lakeside Courtyard, which is where the true interest is. Simon and Meg are again at the center of all this chaos, but there are also a lot of supporting characters to fill out the story. There’s a good number of perspectives to follow, but at this point in the series, I think this broader view is exactly what it needs. The Others is also somewhat of an oddity for me, since it’s one of the rare cases where I love the books but I’m not too crazy about its protagonist. Meg Corbyn hasn’t grown on me, and I feel her lack of agency in her own series continues to be a weak point, even in Marked in Flesh. She makes a bit of progress in this book, seeking other ways for her fellow blood prophets to get by without resorting to cutting, but in the end Meg is still a confused mess, even to herself. I still don’t really understand the reverence the terra indigene have for her. My enjoyment was instead carried by my love for some of the other characters, and so getting a bigger picture from those POVs actually worked well for me.
Of course, a lot happens in this very important volume, and Anne Bishop does not pull any punches. On the other hand, I also couldn’t help but feel that certain things have been dragging out. It took this long for the HFL conflict to finally come to a head, but certain other plot threads are still hanging. Not much progress has been made it comes to the fate of the liberated cassandra sangue, for example. And if there’s ever going to be any romance between Simon and Meg, then it had better come quick. When I look at the two of them now, I don’t see lovers; I see a relationship that reminds me of a child and her dog. Any chemistry between the two of them has been slowly leaking away, and if something doesn’t happen soon, I’m afraid it will fizzle out altogether.
In spite of my misgivings though, I’m still really excited for the future of The Others. It’s typical for urban fantasy series to have their ups and downs, and I feel that Marked in Flesh found a middle ground, holding steady on some plot points while also giving readers a watershed moment that will leave no one unscathed. If nothing else, I think this will set the stage for even greater things to come. I eagerly await the next installment!...more
t all begins with a fallen angel. The War in Heaven has come to Paris – or what’s left of it. The proud city is a ruin now, the once beautiful Seine clogged with the ashes of the dead and destroyed. House Silverspires, which used to be one of the most powerful Fallen factions, has followed Paris’ downfall into decay and disarray. It is thought that the House’s founder Morningstar has abandoned them, or he may be dead; either way, the fate of Silverspires now rests in his protégé Selene’s hands. And Selene, while she’s no Morningstar, is trying to do her best to keep her House together and her people safe.
The situation grows more complicated when a new Fallen named Isabelle comes to Silverspires with a young man named Philippe. Isabelle, being one of their own, is embraced immediately, but Philippe – as an immortal but not a Fallen – remains an outsider until they can figure out what he is and where he came from. However, as Selene and her alchemist Madeleine struggle to unravel the enigma of Philippe and his strange mental link to Isabelle, a sudden string of uncanny deaths strikes those with ties to Silverspires, including a visiting dignitary of another Great House. To prevent another a war from tearing them all apart, friends and enemies must band together to uncover the secrets of their past and figure out how all of this is tied to the stranger in their midst.
The House of Shattered Wings is therefore a very different kind of murder mystery, one that involves the blending of a great number of elements. Using a broken and crumbling version of Paris as a backdrop lends the story a gothic vibe, in all its dark and portentous glory. Snippets of the story behind Lucifer’s fall can be glimpsed in the long history of House Silverspires and their infamous founder. Fallen themselves become the favorite prey of the urban gangs hiding amidst the hollowed out ruins, waiting patiently for their chance to harvest the magical flesh and bone to sell for lucrative sums on the black market. East also clashes with West when the mythologies of two very different cultures meet. Characters still dream longingly of a bygone era, clinging to ideals that they’ll never have again.
This book also has all the hallmarks of an “Aftermath” story. There’s a strong sense of being thrust into the middle of a situation, which I felt so keenly that at one point I actually stopped to wonder if I had unknowingly stepped into a spinoff or a continuation novel of an existing universe. These types of narratives are often tricky; after all, I have to be convinced that the “post-event” is in fact more interesting to read about than the event itself. For the most part, I think author Aliette de Bodard pulled it off. You won’t get a lot of background information here – at least, not laid out in a traditional or organized fashion. Instead, the world building and character details are integrated seamlessly into the plot, to be absorbed gradually as it progresses. It’s a very immersive way to experience a story.
On the other hand, throughout my reading of this novel there was a constant tugging, nagging sensation deep inside of me always demanding to know more. I wanted to know more about this bombed-out world, learn more about the author’s vision of this shattered version of Paris. I wanted to see the scope of the story expanded, because really, what we get to see here is merely a sliver. While the power struggle among the many Fallen Houses involves a great number of individuals, it’s still a relatively small piece of the puzzle. We know from the presence of Philippe that there’s a much bigger picture, and to her credit De Bodard does plenty to indicate this, though she left little room to explore further.
I also struggled to engage with the characters, the reason being most of them had pasts that sounded a lot more intriguing than their present circumstances. In many ways, Isabelle was a blank slate and Philippe’s own journey was part of the mystery, so I was all right with those two. With Selene and Madeleine, however, I felt like their histories overshadowed their current selves. Selene was apprentice to Morningstar himself, a relationship I would have really liked to know more about. And as for Madeleine, mentions of her past at House Hawthorne often made me feel out of my depth, like I was already supposed to know everything about her origins and her associations with the Fallen there. Ironically, she was probably the most interesting character, but I also felt disconnected to her most of all.
And yet, in spite of the areas which I thought could have been improved, I still thoroughly enjoyed this book. I’m not denying there were hurdles, but overall I thought it was very well put together story that presented an intriguing and sophisticated never-seen-before side to the “fallen angels” mythos. In a way, my desire to know more is a testament to how thoroughly this book drew me in. It might not have swept me off my feet, but it got me paying attention. I look forward to reading more of Aliette de Bodard’s work in the future....more
The Brimstone Deception is the third installment of Lisa Shearin’s paranormal urban fantasy series SPI Files. For a while I’ve been comparing these books to a jauntier version of the X-Files when it suddenly hit me–the relationship between the main characters reminds me more of Brennan and Booth from Bones, except in this series Makenna is the cheerful half of the partnership while Ian is the down-to-business one. Either way, I love the fact our heroine is a Seer, one of just a handful of people in the world able to see through the glamor of supernatural creatures, and in a city like New York AKA Supernatural Central, Mac’s unique talent comes in high demand, meaning she gets pulled in on all kinds of interesting missions.
This time, SPI is investigating a new type of designer drug that has hit the streets, a serious but nonetheless seemingly non-supernatural crime, except for one major problem—called “brimstone”, the drug itself may have supernatural origins. Like its name implies, its key ingredient is discovered to be a substance only found in Hell, and its effects are equally disturbing. Humans who take a hit of brimstone essentially gain Seer abilities while they are under its influence, but lucky for Mac this doesn’t mean she is out of a job, since brimstone users are typically 1) freaked out of their minds when all of a sudden they start seeing werewolves, vampires, and other monsters crawling all over the city, and 2) they can’t remember a thing after the high wears off. Thank goodness.
Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean brimstone isn’t causing all kinds of other complications for SPI. A string of gruesome deaths coinciding with the sudden emergence of this drug have them convinced that it is all related. The victims are drug dealers and other criminal underworld types, meaning someone or something might be clearing out the competition in preparation for their next move. What that might be is anyone’s guess, but with all evidence pointing to SPI’s hidden culprit having an all-access portal to the magic from Hell, things definitely can’t be good.
As with most urban fantasy series, the second or third books is where we often see a shift in direction, and I am getting that feeling from the SPI Files now. In the first book The Grendel Affair we had a group of Grendel monsters threatening to wreak havoc in New York on New Year’s Eve, while in its sequel The Dragon Conspiracy we had Gorgons making trouble for everyone on Halloween. Clearly, I’ve been spoiled by the previous novels, because I admit I came into this one expecting another unique type of monster villain. While that didn’t really turn out to be the case, it’s also good to see SPI evolving from literal monster-of-the-week plots to wider, more series-encompassing story arcs. For instance, Mac gets a special boost to her powers in The Brimstone Deception which allows her to see dimensional rifts, and this was a direct result of the events from the last novel.
Speaking of Mac, I’m also glad that she got a more active role in this book. She disappointed me in The Dragon Conspiracy, where she was more observer than actual player, and it had struck me as strange that the main character and narrator would have so little to do with the outcome of the story. Mac was a much more important presence in The Brimstone Deception, so that was great, though now I have to wonder if we’ve gone a little too far in the other direction. Our protagonist is starting to give me “special snowflake” vibes, being the darling of the entire SPI office. And now having the ultra-rare ability to see portals too, she has caught the interest of every supernatural in the country including the wealthy and ridiculously good-looking goblin sorcerer Rake Danescu, who now finds her even more irresistible. This aspect of Mac’s character still feels like it needs balance, but I admit it is an improvement over her passivity from the last book.
Ultimately, avid fans of urban fantasy might not find anything too new in the SPI Files, though you’ll certainly dig the earlier books if you enjoy seeing unique or underused monsters in action. It’s also perfect for readers looking for a lighter tone to their UF, since Mac’s bubbly personality and her conversations with her co-workers go a long way in brightening up the darker moments, especially when SPI is called to deal with some of the more violent and brutal aspects of the supernatural underworld. It’s good, fluffy entertainment and I’m still having a fun with this series. Recommended if you need a quick escape from the stresses of life, or if you need a break from your heavier reads....more
Last year I discovered the awesome world of magic, demons, and sentient spirit-imbued weapons in Seth Skorkowsky’s Dämoren, so when I was offered a chance to read the sequel, I didn’t hesitate.
Hounacier builds on the first book, which introduced us to an order of modern-day knights called the Valducan. All the monsters or the world are actually human beings possessed by demon, and the type of demon in turn determines the type of monster and the transformation into werewolf, ghoul, lamia, wendigo, etc. A Valducan knight makes it his or her life’s work hunting and killing these demons, with the help of a holy weapon which the knight is bonded to with their whole heart and soul.
Book two expands upon these themes, but the story is also very different. For one thing, we have a change in protagonist. While Dämoren follows the life of a rogue demon hunter named Matt Hollis, Hounacier instead features another Valducan knight named Malcolm Romero. Dämoren was a jet-setting action/adventure thriller that took us on an ass-kicking demon hunt across the globe, while Hounacier takes place mostly in New Orleans and the story reads more like a mystery. The pacing is thus slower, but this is a good thing because it also sets the book up nicely for a heavier and more macabre horror vibe.
This dark fantasy series just got even darker, which is how I like it! Eleven years after he faced his first demon and became apprenticed to a Voodoo priest, Malcolm receives news about the grisly murder of his mentor. Now he returns to New Orleans to in order to catch the killer, armed with his holy weapon, a machete named Hounacier. As the investigation deepens and the details surrounding it becomes more disturbing, Malcolm finds himself betrayed. With his soul violated and his holy blade stolen from him, Malcolm is plunged into a nightmarish existence of violence and terrible dark magic. Seth Skorkowsky kept me on my toes the whole time, and it’s such an intense and brutal tale that I couldn’t even begin to guess how everything would turn out.
In many ways, the scope of Hounacier is smaller than that of its predecessor; we’re mainly in a single setting, there aren’t as many characters, and we also don’t see a big variety of demons in this book. Still, the narrower focus serves an advantage here, because it immerses us deeply into the culture and traditions of Voodoo magic. The author has clearly done a lot of research in order to make his portrayal of it as authentic and accurate as possible.
We also get to know the protagonist a lot better. Malcolm was a side character in Dämoren, one of the lead knights who gave Matt Hollis a hard time because the Valducan believed Matt was demon-touched. So in the first book, Malcolm was painted as this huge asshole and admittedly that’s how I remembered him too. Imagine my surprise then, when I read Hounacier and realized how much I liked him and sympathized with him. Malcolm is awesome – he’s interesting, deep, and conflicted, and this makes him an engaging character to follow. I think I ended up liking him even more than Matt Hollis. The powers granted to Malcolm by the mystical properties of his weapon are also unique and new. Matt Hollis may have his blood compasses, but Malcolm Romero has his magical tattoos, including one that can see through your soul to tell if you’re pure or tainted by a demon. Very cool stuff.
I would consider these Valducan books to be Urban Fantasy, but there’s also a great deal of Horror thrown into the mix. The horror element is even more prominent in Hounacier, as we follow the trail of a murderer and then come face-to-face with a werewolf demon. The werewolves here are the savage, psychotic and bloodthirsty variety, with the monster in control rather than the human. More than once, the terrifyingly gruesome scenes in here evoked a visceral reaction from me. If you like your UF dark, brutal and completely unflinching about the fact, then Valducan is the series for you.
One final thing I’m grateful to Mr. Skorkowsky for is that these books can be read as stand-alones. Hounacier has some connections to Dämoren, like Matt Hollis showing up near the end to team up with Malcolm, etc. but for the most part both novels are self-contained stories. Pick up either one (they’re both good!) and read away. Highly recommended....more