Normally I tend to skip the novellas and short stories that authors are always tacking onto or in between books of their series, but believe me when I say all bets are off when it comes to Rivers of London. The instant I learned about The Furthest Station, I just knew I had to read it. Chronologically taking place between Foxglove Summer and The Hanging Tree, the story is probably meant to be a fun little side episode to help us Peter Grant addicts curb our appetites while waiting for the next book, but ultimately I found it so entertaining that I’d readily recommend it to newcomers and old fans alike.
As a city with a long history, London is also home to a lot of ghosts. Many of them even ride the Underground each day along with—and unbeknownst to—the thousands of living Londoners on their work commute, but rarely do these spectral passengers make any trouble. So when the police start receiving a number of reports about frightening, aggressive, and disturbing ghost sightings on the Metropolitan Line, the situation is worrying enough to get PC Peter Grant and his supervisor Inspector Nightingale on the job. After enlisting the help of Peter’s aspiring magician cousin Abigail and Jaget Kumar of the British Transport Police, the four of them take to the trains in order to try and get to the bottom of this ghostly mystery.
The problem though, is that none of their witnesses can recall much of their haunted encounters. Interviews with the ghosts themselves are also out of the question, after it is found that their incorporeal bodies quickly dissolved after the sightings—a rather unusual sign. Gradually though, Peter and the others are able to collect enough clues to piece together an explanation for the ghosts’ strange behavior…and the prognosis is not good. A very real person’s life maybe in imminent danger, and it is up to the Folly as Britain’s only paranormal investigative unit to save a kidnapping victim before it is too late.
While it might help to be familiar with the series before starting The Furthest Station, it is absolutely not required and this novella can be enjoyed just fine as a standalone. In fact, the story actually features little to no mention of the overarching plotlines in the main series, so don’t expect to see anything about Lesley or the Faceless Man, and even Beverley Brook and the other aspects of the genius loci play only a small role here. In essence, this book reads like a compressed version of a normal Peter Grant adventure, without all the side dramas and extra flavors that usually flesh out an urban fantasy series. For those of us who want to see Peter and Nightingale get back to some good old fashioned sleuthing, this compact mystery tale contains an irresistible case with all the ingredients to keep us on the edge of our seats.
Likewise, The Furthest Station is also perfect for someone who just wants to dip their toes into the world before deciding to take the plunge into the novels. Everything I love about the main series this novella has in spades, including the sharp witticism, rich history and world-building, and of course the diverse and charming characters. With the cast being reduced for this shorter installment, we don’t get to meet as many of the usual contacts to whom Peter goes for advice or consulting, but we do get a couple of new faces as well as larger roles for characters who deserve more attention. Abigail for one is a treasure and I certainly hope her position as the Folly’s summer intern isn’t going to be a one-off because I would love to see her play a bigger part of this series (and given the discussion between Peter and Nightingale in the final chapter, something tells me there’s a good chance I’ll get my wish). Speaking of which, Nightingale fans are also in for a treat. I’ve always bemoaned the fact we hardly ever get to see Peter’s governor in action, even though Aaronovitch is always teasing his immense magical power. Well, this time I’m pleased to say Nightingale gets involved with a lot of the police work, and also gives us many reasons to be in awe of his wizarding skills.
All in all, this was a wonderful book and a nice break from the usual routine. I typically shy away from novellas that supplement a series because I often find I don’t gain too much from them, but The Furthest Station is actually one that I’m glad I got to read. This is the way to do it, in my opinion, by offering a complete standalone story that is both substantial and fun, as well as featuring elements that appeal to those who love the series while also being newcomer-friendly at the same time. If you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting PC Grant yet, this is a fantastic opportunity to do so. And if you’re a fan of the Rivers of London books, I think you’ll be pleased as well, and if nothing else, this novella should help make the wait for the next novel just a tad little easier....more
The Seventh Age: Dawn certainly knows how to kick things off with style. In fact, the very first page opens with us standing twenty-one floors up above the city of Chicago on an I beam with our protagonist Mike Auburn, a man with a death wish. Rather, he is obsessed with death; everyone he has ever loved has crossed into the great unknown, and now Mike flirts regularly with it in the hopes of glimpsing the ghosts of his past on the other side. As it happens, Mike’s penchant for death defying stunts and near-death experiences also catches the attention of a group looking to recruit a candidate of his skills and interests.
Before long, Mike finds himself joining forces with a mysterious organization led by a man called O’Neil, enlisted into the war against the coming apocalypse. Soon our hero is battling demons, staving off the encroaching forces of the Unification whose aims involve resurrecting a powerful being named Lazarus so that they can usher in a new age where magic will once again reign supreme. After devouring the heart of the monster Golgoroth, Mike transcends his own humanity, becoming the key to an age-old conflict between the realms of supernatural beings.
I enjoyed The Seventh Age: Dawn for the most part, though I’ll also be honest and say that there were times where I really struggled. It’s an ambitious book for sure, though it also suffers occasionally from excessiveness and bloat, a common issue for first novels where you get the sense that the author is trying to cram as much as possible into their debut effort. Rick Heinz throws in everything but the kitchen sink: angels, demons, warlocks, vampires, ghosts, shapeshifters, and I’m sure there are quite a few more creatures that I’m forgetting. I believe therein lies part of the problem. There was simply too much to process such a short time, and in the end I felt like I was only able to absorb a small fraction of the information deluge.
Fortunately, after a few false starts I managed to fall into an easier rhythm, though I also can’t help but feel that “rhythm” might be a wildly inaccurate term to describe the nature of this book. The plot is complicated and rather dense, and the reader is dropped hard into the thick of things straight from the beginning. To the novel’s credit, at no point does the story slow down as we’re thrust into one frenetic situation after another. There’s really nothing soft or predictable about it.
That said though, for an urban fantasy, it’s a bit on the heavier side for my tastes. This is my go-to genre from straight-up fun, not to wrack my brain teasing out multiple impenetrable layers of hidden agendas or trying to work out who’s who. A book with so much action should not feel tedious, or else there’s something not right going on, and I just feel that the story tries to do too much at times and things can get very messy especially with the overabundance of POV characters. The constant shifts and back-and-forths made it nearly impossible to connect with any one person, and trying to keep all the names straight was one reason why I had difficulty getting into this book early on. Another issue is wordiness. In my opinion, there are quite a few scenes that could have been cut down or omitted altogether.
Still, the overall concept is a good one, even if the execution was a little shaky. For all the pomp and zeal that The Seven Age: Dawn tries to pack into its 400 or so pages, the overall plot is relatively light on substance, though that could change in the next installment. Rick Heinz may have tried to cover too much ground in this series opener, but there’s no denying that he’s created an interesting world that I wouldn’t mind exploring further. I also enjoyed the gritty dry tone he established for the rest of the series, a style which reminds me somewhat of Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim. Perhaps I just need to spend more time in this world to form stronger attachment to the characters and to get a better sense of where things stand....more
Bookburners initially landed on my radar around a year and a half ago when it was first announced as the launching project by Serial Box, a publisher with an ambitious new idea to deliver their stories in a weekly serialized medium. The plan was that “Season One” will be a 16-episode run, written by a team of authors made up of Max Gladstone, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, and Brian Francis Slattery. Though at the time I was only familiar with Gladstone’s work, it was enough that my interest was immediately piqued.
But as much as the concept of serialized novels intrigued me, it didn’t long at all for me to realize I preferred my books the same way I prefer my TV shows—as in, binge-watching a full season all at once. Sure enough, I tried to follow Bookburners when it first came out and promptly fell behind, which is why I was so glad when I found out that a collected edition was coming from Saga Press. I honestly loved what I saw of the first couple episodes, and thanks to this more convenient format, I finally got my chance to catch up with the full season.
Now, I’ve always admitted a huge weakness for “books about books” but what I liked about Bookburners is its unique take on the subject. You have a kickass lady cop, her wayward brother, and a group of demon hunters from the Vatican, and before you know it the stage is set for an urban fantasy adventure that will make you see “dangerous reading” in a whole new light. For NYPD Detective Sal Brooks, it was just another day on the grind when she gets a strange phone call from her brother Perry asking to hide out at her place. Over the years, Sal has become used to Perry’s idiosyncrasies, but this time, she knows something is seriously wrong. Turns out, her brother has gotten himself into some deep trouble, and it all comes down to a demon-possessed book.
Soon, Sal finds herself entangled with a Catholic priest and his secret team of agents whose mission is to travel all over the world tracking down and securing dangerous books infused with nasty magic. The book in Perry’s possession is revealed to be one such artifact, but the intervention comes too late and he succumbs to its evil. Now in order to save her brother’s life, Sal has little choice but to join up with Father Arturo Menchú and the Bookburners (even though they don’t actually burn the books), relocating to Rome to help fight for the cause. She quickly discovers a whole secret world that the Vatican’s Societas Librorum Occultorum has been keeping from the public, but a recent string of deadly magical threats is about to bring everything crashing down.
At first, I thought the structure of Bookburners was going to be like any other traditional novel which just happens to be released in 16 parts. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that each episode actually contains its own mini-story roughly complete with intro/exposition, rising action, climax and resolution, etc. Together, the 16 sections then make up a more complete and overarching season plot, so that in a sense, the format really does mirror that of a TV show. With Bookburners, I also noticed that the episodes grew progressively deeper and more complex, so for instance, earlier episodes that played more to the “Monster of the Week” trope would gradually give way to ones that contributed more to the overall “bigger picture” storyline.
This definitely affected my experience with the characters. I started the book not really caring all that much for anyone but Sal, but as each episode went on, her relationships with the other team members were explored. Eventually I became a fan of the whole cast, especially Father Menchú, whose portrayal was a breath of fresh air in contrast to the clichéd representations of religious figures I’ve seen in many other books; and also Grace, whose “origin story” wasn’t revealed until an episode halfway through the book, but wow, it was well worth the wait! Grace might have started the season as one of the most mysterious and least developed characters, but by the end of it I was in love and I wouldn’t be surprised if she ends up being a favorite for many others too.
But even though hands down Grace had the coolest and most unique backstory, it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. You’ll find so many more incredible and creative ideas in here, because every episode offers something different and new. A few of my favorite ones include “A Sorcerer’s Apprentice” (the one where Sal and Asanti go to Scotland and find that an entire town has become crazily obsessed with a restaurant), “Under My Skin” (the one where the Bookburners head to Vegas to investigate the competitors on a tattoo reality TV show, after the people getting inked start dying one by one under mysterious circumstances) and “Shore Leave” (the one where Grace and Sal get to spend some buddy time together on their shared day off). Probably not a coincidence that all three are written by Mur Lafferty, who has certainly gained a new fan in me after this book, but truly, all the authors involved did a fantastic job. Their styles and voices complemented each other very well, leading to seamless transition from one episode to the next, which became all the more important towards the end of the season when everything had to come together for the final showdown.
In case you couldn’t tell, I am beyond ecstatic that I got to read Bookburners in its entirety. With the serialized format, it’s always tough to know whether something will work or not, since a project often takes more than a couple episodes to take off (and I’m not exactly a font of patience either, so having to wait for anything tends to take the air out of my sails). Needless to say, I saw plenty of potential back when the first episode was released, but having this collection and being able to binge read several installments all at once was what ultimately got me well and truly hooked. Bookburners was a lot of fun and now I can hardly wait for Season Two....more
In the interest of honesty, I picked up Lost Souls without realizing that it was part of the Cainsville sequence, so that probably had an impact on my rating. Still, despite my oversight, I really enjoyed this novella, and I think fans of the series who are familiar with the characters and the subtle nuances in their relationships will no doubt appreciate it even more.
As urban legends go, few are as well-known as the one about the “Vanishing Hitchhiker” or its many variations. The stories all roughly begin and end the same way: A driver encounters a hitchhiker on the side of a lonely road, but after picking them up the hitchhiker subsequently disappears without any explanation. Kelley Armstrong has adopted this motif for the central premise of Lost Souls which stars Gabriel Walsh, a lawyer who takes on a side job investigating the case of a man alleging to have been led astray by a vanishing hitchhiker in the form of a young woman in a white sundress. Gabriel would have been tempted to dismiss the story as a hoax if the circumstances around the incident hadn’t been so strange. For one thing, why would the man risk jeopardizing his successful career and marriage by filing a false report? Also, there have been a string of similar vanishing hitchhiker sightings in recent years, but a suspicious number of them have ended up with the witnesses committing suicide not long after—exactly forty-eight hours after picking up the hitchhiker, to be exact.
Plus, if there’s one thing Gabriel loves, it’s a good mystery. Lately, his relationship with his friend and employee Olivia Taylor-Jones has been on the rocks, and he has hopes too that presenting her with an interesting puzzle like this would help mend fences. In the wake of their rift, Liv has taken off on a vacation and Gabriel finds himself missing her, even if he has trouble admitting it to her or anyone else. Given their shared love for the strange and the weird, this case of the disappearing hitchhiker might be their chance to reconnect again.
Since I have not read any of the main books in the Cainsville series, I know I’m probably missing a lot here, so keep in mind these are the opinions of a newcomer to this world and its characters. The main struggle I had was with the character behaviors and motivations. I found myself exasperated with Gabriel and Liv, namely because all the drama surrounding their relationship is based on miscommunication and misunderstanding—pretty much the oldest trick in the book. While backstories were provided for both, without the deeper context of the series I had a really hard time sympathizing with Gabriel’s excuses for being jerk or Liv’s reasons for being so manipulative. That said though, the story itself was relatively easy to follow, and references to past events were freely provided. Not once was I confused or overwhelmed. So while Lost Souls is clearly intended as a companion novella to the main series, the fact that I was able to follow along just fine is no small feat.
For Cainsville fans, the interpersonal relationships and character development will probably end up being the main draw, though personally I also loved the mystery plot in between these sections. Armstrong adapts the urban legend of the vanishing hitchhiker to great effect, making it a race against time for our characters to find the answers. There are even ties to Gabriel’s past, giving me the chance to know him better. Perhaps my only complaint about the story is the ending, which I thought was anti-climactic and too abrupt, but it’s a minor issue in the big scheme of things.
All told, Lost Souls is probably best tackled only if you are caught up with the main series, though speaking as a relatively new fan of Kelley Armstrong, not having read any of the other novels did not prevent me from enjoying it either. If anything, reading this novella made me even more curious about Cainsville. I also wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Lost Souls if you simply want to read more by the author; she’s an amazing writer who knows all about creating suspenseful drama, and even in this compact novella you will be sure to find all the ingredients of a good urban fantasy mystery....more
Continuing with my ongoing love affair with books about carnivals or circuses, I decided to check out Freeks by Amanda Hocking which features a group of traveling sideshow performers in the 80s as they travel across the country looking for work.
The story stars Mara, a teenager who has practically spent her whole life growing up on the road with Gideon Davorin’s Traveling Carnival. While their show boasts many of the usual attractions, what most folks don’t realize is that many among Gideon’s crew actually possess supernatural powers. For example, they have a telekinetic on staff who helps out with a lot of their magician’s “tricks”. Their trapeze artist has abilities to manipulate the air around him so that he can never fall. Mara’s own mother is a fortune teller who gains insights about her clients’ lives by being able to commune with the dead. However, despite being surrounded by these powered individuals and being the daughter of one herself, Mara has no special abilities. She has sometimes wondered what it might be like to settle down and live like “normal” people, but the carnival is the only family she has ever known, and even though the going can get tough sometimes, Mara loves her life and can’t imagine it any other way.
That is, until Gideon takes up a contract to set up camp in a small southern town named Caudry, and sparks fly between Mara and Gabe, a handsome local boy she meets at a party. Mara likes Gabe—a lot—and he seems to like her too. But how would he feel once he finds out she is a carnie? On the other hand…does he even need to know? By this time in two weeks the sideshow will be on the road again and Mara would be on her way to their next destination; if the relationship is doomed to fail anyway, she sees no harm in withholding a few personal details, especially since Gabe seems to be keeping some secrets himself. Before long though, Mara has more pressing matters to worry about. One by one, members of Gideon’s crew go missing or come under attack, savaged by some mysterious creature. Caudry also seems to be giving off some strange, bad vibes. The carnival came here in the hopes of making some extra revenue, but if the incidents keep up at this rate, Mara fears they’ll run out of performers long before their contract is up.
What I didn’t realize before starting this book was how prominently it would be featuring the romantic side plot. While that by itself isn’t always a negative, it is somewhat frustrating when you get teased all these other fascinating elements in the story, such as the sideshow’s supernatural performers and all the peculiar goings-on happening around Caudry. I wanted more of the carnival life, more details on the backgrounds and personalities of the people working there, and more development into the mysteries of the town. But instead, most of what we got was Gabe, Gabe, and more Gabe. The story keeps shoving his and Mara’s relationship down our throats and I can’t help but think way too many pages were wasted in this area.
Plus, after all this buildup to the grand finale where supposedly huge revelations would be revealed, the results were decidedly underwhelming. When all is said and done, the mystery felt much smaller than it was meant to be, and reasons are clear as to why: there’s actually very little plot in this book. Like I said, most of it is padded by the romance, and I won’t deny that this is somewhat disappointing. Hocking has set up something really cool here, creating a world where people with supernatural abilities live among us, then shining a spotlight on a traveling sideshow run by many of these special individuals. However, instead of exploring this aspect, she has decided to go with the tired and well-trod route of “yet another YA romance” while adding nothing too new or different to the formula. Big time missed opportunity here, which is what gripes me the most.
In sum, Freeks had the potential to be more but ended up being rather average. Too much emphasis was placed on what was arguably a lackluster romance complete with stale dialogue and hints of insta-love, while regrettably the best and most interesting aspects of the story were underplayed. The book wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great, just another ordinary middle-of-the-road YA fantasy novel.
Audiobook Comments: I’m glad that I listened to the audiobook version of Freeks, otherwise my rating might have been slightly lower. The performance by narrator Em Eldridge made up for some of the weaknesses of the story, as talented voice actors and actresses are able to do sometimes. For one thing, she’s great at accents—when a character’s description states that they have a southern drawl, for example, that is exactly what she delivers. Her energy also gives life and personality to everyone in the story, especially Mara. I believe this is the first book I’ve ever listened to Ms. Eldridge read, but I’ll definitely be looking for more audiobooks narrated by her in the future....more
Snowed is a story about Christmas, but it is definitely not like your usual schmaltzy Christmas book. It stars Charity Jones, a sixteen-year-old biracial student with a natural talent for all things science and engineering. At her high school in a conservative county of California though, this only gets her mercilessly bullied because she is different. Thankfully, for Charity there’s one bright spot in this bleak situation: Aidan, the sweet mild-mannered teen runaway whom her family takes in as a foster child. No one know where Aidan came from, but it is clear that he is running away from something—something terrible.
Still, despite his reluctance to share much about his past, Aidan and Charity wind up hitting it off and they quickly fall in love. Things actually start looking up for Charity, but of course this respite doesn’t last. The community is shaken one day, when the body of Charity’s worst bully is found behind the bleachers, savaged and torn apart. The authorities are quick to suspect a wild animal attack, but Charity isn’t so sure. After all, unbeknownst to the rest of the school, she was actually the first one to find the victim, and there was something strange she saw at the scene…
First, I want to go into the positives of this book, and there are certainly many. Number one is diversity. Kudos to the author for doing her best to include perspectives from all walks of life, even though her approach can be pretty heavy-handed at times, almost like she was making sure to check off all the boxes on a #diversereads checklist. Having main characters that reflect and honor the lives of all people is always wonderful though, and something to be celebrated especially in the young adult genre.
I also liked how Snowed was a Christmas story for those who might be looking for something other than the usual feel-good and campy holiday-themed books that flood the market around this time of the year. Personally, I love the festive atmosphere around Christmastime, but hey, it’s also okay to have a “bah humbug” moment every now and then. If you ever feel the need to take break from the holiday madness and the constant barrage of holiday-themed music and TV hitting you from all directions, then this book is the answer. Forget the warm and fuzzy feelings, because this is one dark book that likely won’t be filling you with the holiday cheer by the time it’s over. On the other hand, how cool is it that we get a story that explores Krampus lore and presents a darker, more sinister side to the figure of Santa Claus?
And now for the things that didn’t work so well for me. The big one was the extreme-to-the-point-of-contrived stereotypes. All the horrible people at school bullying Charity are of course the jock and cheerleader types, all of them white, bible-thumping and gun-happy ignorant rednecks according to our protagonist. The irony is that Charity frequently comes off as even more judgmental and patronizing as the people she rails against. There are also very few responsible and admirable adult characters, which is a pet peeve of mine when it comes to YA. Charity and her friends paint the police as a bunch of incompetent meatheads, while Charity’s parents are portrayed as a couple of dopes in denial, helpless in stopping her deranged psychopath of a brother hurt her and everyone she loves. The teachers are also apparently too busy planning their own holidays (or worrying about new charter schools opening in their county, threatening their precious hegemony) that they can’t be bothered to do anything about serious problems like bullying and death threats to their students.
In fact, the narrative tries very hard to make you think that Charity and her little “enlightened” group are the only ones capable of getting anything done. Not only was this unrealistic, it just made Charity and all her friends intensely unlikable. Furthermore, Charity also can’t help but remind readers every other chapter that she’s into science, robotics and technology (yet apparently not computer savvy enough to prevent her own email account from getting hacked). I agree we need to encourage girls and young women to enter and succeed in the STEM fields, but there’s no subtlety at all in the way the author is trying to prop up her protagonist as a poster child for the cause.
Finally, I didn’t like the romance. In my opinion, the instalove and Charity’s dramatics actually undermined a lot of what the story was trying to achieve, removing some of Aidan’s mystique. After knowing him for little more than a week, Charity professes to love Aidan so much that she can’t live without him, that she “dies every minute” they’re not together, or that losing him would be like the worst thing that’s ever happened to her (even worse than when Grandma Jones passed away!) In retrospect, the overwrought and sentimental adolescent language probably didn’t help either.
That said, overall I had a good time with Snowed. Ultimately it’s a book with some great ideas but which might be lacking in polish when it comes to execution, though it’s nonetheless impressive especially since we’re talking about a book from a small indie publishing house. Admittedly the story could have been streamlined to bring the horror aspects and Krampus plotline to the forefront while toning down the exposition and romance, but I also have to give it credit for its diverse cast of main characters and the fact that it also explores difficult topics, including a few that don’t get talked about much, like the emotional struggles that families of incarcerated teens go through (and I actually wish this had been given more attention in the book). All told, an interesting read that offers something a little different for the holidays....more
For so long I’ve been wanting to read something by Barb and J.C. Hendee, and with The Dead Seekers being the first of a new series, I figured there’s no better time and place to jump onboard! Better yet, later I was even more excited to learn that the book is set in the same world that was made well-known by the authors’ popular Noble Dead Saga.
Things kick off with a prologue which introduces readers to the story’s two protagonists. What should have been a happy time instead turned to sorrow as Tris, the baron’s only son and heir, was born without breath. But even when the baby was revived, the disturbing circumstances around his apparent miraculous recovery only causes more fear and unease. Thirteen years later in another time and another place, young Mari was in the woods with her family making camp after a long day of travel when they were suddenly ambushed by violent spirits. Being a shapeshifter, Mari was able to take her cat form and escape, but everyone else was killed. Ever since that day, she has been searching for the one she believes is responsible for her murdered family—the mysterious figure known as the Dead’s Man who is said to have the ability to command spirits.
When the main story starts in earnest, both Tris and Mari have grown to adulthood and are living very different lives, though without knowing it, the two are linked by their tragic pasts. Tris had experienced something very similar to what Mari saw in the woods all those years ago, and now he travels to wherever he is called, banishing spirits for a living. While a close encounter with a spirit would usually mean death to any normal person, Tris however possesses a remarkable power enabling him to touch ghosts and destroy them. It is this ability that initially makes Mari suspect that Tris may be the Dead’s Man she is looking for, though at their first meeting she has to admit he is nothing like she expected. Wanting to make sure she has found the right mark before killing him, Mari decides to stick around and observe Tris as he makes his way to his next assignment to banish a particularly troublesome spirit.
The Dead Seekers is perhaps best described as a mystery in three distinct parts. First Tris and Mari travel to a small village, where the ghost of a girl who died under peculiar circumstances has been coming back to haunt the people she knew. But this humble intro soon leads our protagonists to uncover an even bigger conspiracy in the middle section, requiring them to travel to a border garrison where they realize their spirit problem isn’t so simple anymore. The last third of the book is the resolution where everything ties together and ends in a satisfyingly explosive way. As plotlines go, it’s a pretty straightforward and “on-rails” experience even if the story is no less enjoyable because of it. However, this also meant the authors had to rely mainly on flashbacks and memory sequences to explain anything that took place in the past, and these weren’t always integrated very smoothly.
This also might not be a terribly deep or sophisticated fantasy novel, but it will hit the spot if you’re simply looking for a light and fun read. Most notably, I found the book weaker in the areas of world-building, though to be fair I am a newcomer to the Hendees’ work and the bulk of this novel’s audience will probably know the world already from the authors’ previous series. That said, I don’t want to make is sound like world-building aspects are completely lacking though, because I definitely saw enough to make me care and want to know more. I also loved the characters. Mari and Tris are fascinating and memorable, and so easy to root for. I’m really enjoying their dynamic so far (they are a good example of an amazing non-romantic male/female team-up!) and the story even leaves plenty of room for their alliance to grow.
The Dead Seekers is a great introduction to a new series that’s all about ghostbusting, fantasy-style. What the story lacks in impact, it makes up for with pure, fantastic fun. There’s an addictive quality to it that will make you want to pick up the next book and dive straight back into this world to spend time with Tris and Mari. Already I’m looking forward to see what our protagonists will be up to next....more
I suppose it was bound to happen sooner or later. Let me just start by saying I adored the last two novels I read by Claire North, which is how I know firsthand her reputation for writing unique and fascinating stories. I never know what to expect when I pick up a book by her—only that it will be innovative with a good chance of being a bit weird. Well, it seems my luck with those experimental qualities finally ran out. The End of the Day didn’t work nearly as well for me as The Sudden Appearance of Hope or Touch did, and I believe there were several reasons for that.
But first, I’m going to attempt to brief summary of the novel, which is harder than it sounds. The End of the Day did not have a story per se, and if it had a plot, it was disjointed and muddled. There was a another review I stumbled across recently that likened the book to sitting on a park bench people-watching or something to that effect, which is actually a pretty accurate description. Literally, there are pages just filled with nothing but snippets of quotes from conversations featuring random people talking about current issues. In between, what we get is more of a character study rather than a true story.
Our main character is Charlie, and he has a very interesting job from a very interesting employer. His official title is the Harbinger of Death. He’s the guy everyone meets once, before his boss comes a-knocking. Charlie’s visits are sometimes a warning but more often a courtesy, and he usually comes bearing gifts to the people he’s scheduled to visit. From a small village in South America to Greenland to New York City, he also never knows where he’ll be or who he’ll see next. Wherever Death arranges to send him, he just goes, whether or not his employer ultimately decides to “follow up”. Not surprisingly, Charlie has seen and learned a great many things from his experiences traveling around the world and meeting people from all walks of life. Eventually, he starts to question his own existence and the role he performs, gaining a new perspective on death and the meaning of life.
The premise of the book is interesting, I’ll give it that. The execution, however, left much to be desired. I think one of the reasons I loved Touch and The Sudden Appearance of Hope was because, in a way, those could be considered thrillers, with both books featuring the same inventiveness and ingenuity that is pure Claire North, yet they were still fast-paced and exciting reads. In contrast, The End of the Day is more of a slow-burner, and did not contain any overarching conflicts or high stakes.
Instead, what we get a lot of is food for thought. One thing I can say about North’s books is that they’re always discussion-worthy, and indeed, there’s a wealth of clever themes and ideas in this one, not to mention plenty of social issues to explore. And yet, none of this really makes a good story, especially since we spend so much time with Charlie and in the end I still feel like I know so little about him. While I sympathized with many of his points, his character often came across as somewhat shallow and uninformed about a lot of the topics that come up in the novel, given the number of generalizations and strawmen arguments littered across the narrative.
Still, in spite of my disappointment, this is not the end for me and Claire North. The End of the Day might have fizzled for me, but I’ll keep reading her books because when all is said and done, North is an incredible writer and I can always count on her imagination to come up with plenty more fresh and creative ideas for stories. One of my favorite books is Touch, which I highly recommend to anyone who wants a taste of what the author is capable of. On the other hand, The End of the Day might not work so well for pleasure reading; it is heavier on commentary and lighter on story and character development, and coming from a couple of the author’s more plot-driven stories, I simply cannot say I liked the style and tone of this one as much....more
What a fun little book! Not to be missed by fans of Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, but even if you don’t follow the series, it might be worth taking a look. When this novella landed in my lap, I briefly debated whether or not I should read it, since I am woefully behind on the main series and I know a lot has happened to the characters since I last visited this world. I worried that I would get too confused or lost.
Well, for readers who might be wrestling with the same doubts, let me put your minds at ease: no prerequisite reading is required before jumping into this one. Of course, if it would help if you know a little of the basic foundation behind the Iron Druid Chronicles, i.e. our protagonist is Atticus O’Sullivan, a 2,000-year-old druid living in modern times with his faithful Irish wolfhound Oberon. Everything else is going to be pretty easy to pick up along the way, not to mention The Purloined Poodle is a whole different animal anyway. Pun absolutely intended.
For one thing, the entirety of the tale is told through the eyes of a dog. That’s right, Oberon fans, urban fantasy’s most popular pooch gets his very own book. In the main series, Atticus’ ancient druidic status gives him access to a full suite of nifty powers, including shapeshifting and having an ability to commune with the natural world. That also extends to being able to talk with his dog, and in every Iron Druid book I’ve read so far, Atticus and Oberon’s conversations always manage to become the highlight. This probably goes without saying, but if you find the two’s psychic exchanges as entertaining as I do, then you will love this.
What I enjoyed most about this novella was how “dog-like” Hearne managed to sound while writing from the POV of Oberon. I was laughing from the very first page, reading about his thoughts on canine butt-sniffing etiquette. Like his human, Oberon is also well-versed in all forms of geek culture, so expect tons of pop-culture references. But humor is only one part of this equation; the story quickly builds into a mystery, as a routine walk through the park leads to Oberon and his owner to discover a string of abductions in the Pacific Northwest involving prizewinning dogs. Local police already have their hands full dealing with people cases, so it’s up to Oberon to convince Atticus to help the victims’ owners to look for their stolen pets.
Right away, I knew I’d missed some key events in our characters’ lives, since the last time I saw them they were still in Arizona. The main cast seems to have expanded a bit too. Happily, these are just background details. This novella is part of the main series timeline, but it’s probably more accurate to call this one a short side-story, a lighthearted little detour. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t caught up anyway, because we’re not going to be focusing on the humans too much.
Not only is this narrative all about the dogs, I simply love how this book portrays the relationship between Oberon and Atticus. It’s clear that the two of them are best friends who dote upon each other, and when latter indulges the former, I can’t help but think of one of my own dogs, who’s also a big, lovable goofball like Oberon. It just makes me want to take this book and shove it into the hands of all my dog-lover friends, because I know they will appreciate the beauty of the human-dog bond that Hearne captures here so well.
And like I said, the story is also entertaining and funny as hell. Knowing what I do about its doggy protagonist, I went into The Purloined Poodle expecting a few chuckles, but Oberon really brought down the house with this one. I was impressed that an entire story told from his perspective would work so well, figuring that being inside his head would start to get on my nerves or his narrative get stale after the first twenty minutes. Not so, though. The novella format was well-suited for a story like this—just long enough to be satisfying, but also short and sweet enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome.
Dog lovers, urban fantasy enthusiasts, and Iron Druid fans take note: if you are one or any combination of the above, I would highly recommend reading The Purloined Poodle. It won’t take long and it’s the perfect escape; a great way to spend a rainy afternoon or a quiet evening in, curled up on the couch with your special fur baby and this wonderful little novella....more
Adam and Meryam are a newly engaged couple from very different backgrounds, but they have always bonded over their love of adventure. In recent years, they have even achieved moderate fame for their series of videos taken from their travels around the world. Now they are eyeing their next great challenge, an expedition to climb Turkey’s Mount Ararat after an avalanche has reportedly revealed a massive cave up high in the side of the mountain. Wasting no time, Adam and Meryam call upon an old friend to be their mountaineering guide, and together they begin a harrowing race up Ararat in order to be the first ones to discover its secrets.
However, what they end up finding in the cavern goes even beyond their wildest dreams. Within its depths, the couple discover the remains of a large ancient ship, which immediately raises the question: could this be Noah’s Ark, the great vessel that weathered the Biblical flood in the Book of Genesis? To answer this question, a full team is quickly assembled to excavate and study the find, with Meryam at its head as project manager. Included among the scientists and other experts is also a documentary crew, which is how, when a mysterious coffin is unearthed among the ruins, everything that happens next is captured on film.
Throwing caution to the wind, the coffin is pried open, revealing an ugly, desiccated corpse. It is immediately apparent to everyone present that this could not be Noah—for the body is twisted and misshapen, and the top of the creature’s skull is adorned with a pair of horns. The remains of the demon—for it is impossible not to think of it as such—puts everyone on edge, regardless of their religious beliefs. Soon, the tensions start taking their toll, with project members acting erratically and others going missing. Worse, there’s no escape, for a blizzard has swept in, leaving them all trapped on Mount Ararat with an evil force.
This is my first Christopher Golden novel, and I was not disappointed. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I’m a big fan of “snowbound horror”, which I truly believe is starting to become a bonafide subgenre of its own. The most effective stories of this type can make you shiver even while reading in the sweltering heat of summer or indoors beside a warm and cozy fire, if the author can convey the right type of atmosphere. There’s just something I find so creepy and oppressive about the isolation of wintry, sub-zero temperature settings, and happily, Ararat was no exception. Golden was able to capture the forbidding environment of the mountains, making it clear that, whatever may happen to our hapless characters, they are on their own.
I also enjoyed the novel’s premise. I think most people are familiar with the story of Noah’s Ark, but probably far fewer of us would expect it to be the topic of a horror novel. It made for a strange but suspenseful read, with just enough ambiguity to keep one guessing. Contrary to what one might think, the story is also very light on the religious themes, focusing instead on the human drama. Even without the threat of a demonic presence, trap a large group of strangers together in an inaccessible cave on the side of a mountain and inevitably you’ll see the fur start to fly. I was motivated to turn the pages simply because I wanted to see how everything would resolve, and in a way, the tensions and mistrust between the project members reminded me a lot of John Carpenter’s The Thing—all it takes is a bit of doubt and suspicion thrown into the mix, and even the strongest relationships can begin to fall apart.
Yet I do have one major complaint about this book, and that is the story’s pacing. From browsing reviews of Golden’s other works, it seems like a rather common issue among readers, and I couldn’t help but notice a lot of a similar pacing problems in Ararat. Namely, the author blew through things so fast that I barely had a chance to connect to any of the characters, and therefore many of their ultimate fates left me feeling unaffected. Character depth was also pretty much non-existent, with heavy reliance on telling rather than showing, and sometimes the difference between a good book and a great one is the effort and time it takes to develop these little details.
Still, Ararat was a solidly fun read, despite not meeting its full potential. It’s certainly no Dan Simmon’s The Terror, but these kinds of books are also satisfying in their own way, and not least because they are often guaranteed entertainment. If you’re simply in the mood to pass the time with a creepy thriller-horror novel complete with gore, violence, and a staggering body count, this book will get the job done well....more
Put on your chefs hats and smocks, because it’s time for another crazy adventure starring the ragtag crew of New York’s most exclusive kitchen and catering company. And if the first three books of the Sin du Jour series can be considered the early courses of a meal, then with this fourth installment we have come to the entrée—the meat of this story arc, so to speak.
The last we saw these characters, Lena had just dropped the big news on everyone that she was leaving Sin du Jour. As we would soon discover at the start of Idle Ingredients, however, her so-called bombshell of a decision ultimately led nowhere, for it didn’t take long for Bronko to track her down, pluck her up from her new place of work, and unceremoniously drop her right back into his kitchen line. That’s because it’s all hands on deck again for their next big assignment, catering a series of campaign events for the underground supernatural community’s upcoming elections. Bronko has even brought on a new liaison named Luciana Monrovio to help him streamline Sin du Jour’s operational processes and salvage their reputation after their last few disastrous gigs.
But instead of improving things around the place, Luciana ends up driving a wedge between Bronko and his staff. Jett, the event planner, is one of the first to be pushed out. Then Ryland loses his home as his trailer is towed away. Boosha ends up comatose in the hospital after a mysterious accident. Lena becomes infuriated after she is banned from the kitchen, reassigned to work with Nikki on deserts and pastries. Darren and his new boyfriend James are inexplicably sent off on vacation in the middle of this busy time. The Stocking and Receiving department, a mainstay of the company, gets ordered off the premises and put on call. Worse, the women seem to be the only ones noticing these odd changes, since the men seem to be unnaturally smitten with Luciana, like they’ve all suddenly come under a spell. Something is seriously wrong at Sin du Jour, and it’s up to the ladies to figure it out and put a stop to whatever’s happening.
While it’s true that Pride’s Spell was an improvement over Lustlocked, this installment might finally be the one to bring the complexity and substance I feel has been sorely needed since Envy of Angels. Granted, the introduction was a bit weak due to the considerable time spent getting the team back together again (cycling through all the characters in order to catch up with every single one of them took up the entire first quarter of the book) but still, it’s probably safe to say Idle Ingredients is my favorite addition to Sin du Jour so far.
For one thing, I like how this series has settled into a rhythm—and no, that does not mean things have slowed down or become stuck in a rut. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. We seem to have found what works, and now Matt Wallace is building upon those foundations with this fourth installment. Apart from the intro, the story in Idle Ingredients was fast-paced and consistent, focusing on some of the most interesting characters like Lena, Bronko, and Nikki. The plot was tightly woven and we didn’t waste much time with distractions, instead diving straight into the main conflict. Even though there wasn’t as much cooking when compared to the previous three books, I thought Sin du Jour’s catering job in this one—providing food for a party of elementals during a Sceadu candidate’s campaign speeches—was their coolest assignment yet.
I hope we’ll keep seeing these “big picture” plots, because as much as I’m enjoying reading about Sin du Jour’s action-packed and insanity-fueled adventures, I think I like following the characters’ relationships even more. As their personalities continue to grow and develop, the books also seem to be getting better, and Idle Ingredients is evidence of this upwards trend. Besides, with a teaser like that in the epilogue, how can I not feel excited for the future of this series? Thank goodness the next book Greedy Pigs is already on the horizon, because I can hardly wait....more
Sarah Pinborough is fast becoming a must-read author for me. Her books, like the Dr. Thomas Bond duology and The Language of Dying are among some of my favorites, demonstrating her incredible writing talent and versatility. Needless to say, my anticipation for her new mystery suspense novel Behind Her Eyes was tremendous, especially with the #WTFThatEnding social media campaign working in overdrive throughout the months leading up to release.
The story opens with an introduction to Louise, a divorced single mom who works as a doctor’s assistant. Having watched her ex-husband move on with a new girlfriend and a baby on the way, she’s understandably feeling a bit dejected and lonely, which is why her spirits are lifted when she meets a handsome man at a bar one night and things end with a clandestine kiss between them. However, that rush quickly fades when she arrives back at work on Monday only to find that the firm’s new psychiatrist is none other than the man from the bar. His name is David Martin, her new boss. And he is also very much married.
The two of them decide to put the night behind them and promise to never speak of it again. But then by chance, Louise runs into Adele Martin, David’s chic, sophisticated and beautiful wife. Try as she might to stay away, Louise can’t help but be drawn to the other woman. Adele may seem perfect on the surface, but Louise senses a timid and broken soul underneath. The two of them strike up a close friendship, keeping their interaction a secret from David, who seems to make Adele nervous and scared. The secrecy is just as well for Louise, since despite their earlier promise to each other to forget the kiss, she and David have become involved in a passionate affair. Louise isn’t proud of what she’s doing, but she also can’t deny that she’s falling for David. And yet, she also cares very much for Adele, a woman who appears to be in desperate need for someone to listen to her and be her friend. Something awful is going on in the Martins’ marriage, and even though Louise is smitten, she also has concerns about David’s angry, controlling streak and wants to know why Adele is so afraid of her husband.
Before one gets drawn into the sense that this is nothing but your usual mystery thriller about a love triangle from hell, I have to warn you that trusting anybody in this book would be a huge mistake. There’s nothing ordinary about this novel, and I mean that on so many levels. Sarah Pinborough is not only an amazing storyteller, she’s also a master of pulling the strings and keeping you guessing. Like a lot of her books, there’s always an element of something beyond the realm of the mundane, and that is all I’ll say to hint at the underlying riddle at the heart of this story.
Here’s also where I’ll be getting a little vague in my review, since I doubt there’s any possible way to discuss plot details without spoiling, so I’m limiting my descriptions to emotions. First, I was intrigued. Most of the story is told through Louise’s perspective, and the author has created a very well-rounded character in her. It’s true that I hated her for her duplicity in carrying on with a married man while being friends with his wife, but at the same time there’s an authenticity to her that made it easier to understand why she couldn’t extract herself from that situation. I felt something similar for Adele, the other major point-of-view character. Her sections were both strange and disturbing. Clearly she’s a damaged woman, and flashbacks to the past reveal tragedy and pain. The scenes she shares with her husband also indicate something very wrong in their marriage. The truth is a mystery, with subtle clues doled out along the way, adding to the growing feelings of unease. These days it might seem like a cop-out to compare any kind of dramatic suspense-thriller novel to Gone Girl, but no joke, I got those same vibes with this one. Tensions reach a peak as we close in on the finale, where Pinborough drops the major bombshell.
That brings us to the ending, where the author clearly delivers on the marketing campaign’s promise of WTFuckery. Still, there’s a part of me that wishes the publisher hadn’t hyped the hashtag all over social media, not only because it raises readers’ expectations but also because everyone knows that surprises always work best when you don’t know they’re coming. Granted it was still a shocking ending, but I think it would have been even better if I hadn’t known ahead of time to prepare for something big. That said, if it drives people to be curious and pick up this amazing book, I can’t complain; just know that this story so much bigger than #WTFThatEnding because it is the twisted, complex and clever build-up which makes the conclusion such a powerful whack on the head.
If you’re fan of psychological thrillers, you need to do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Behind Her Eyes because I really can’t recommend enough. Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride.
Audiobook Comments: I was also fortunate to receive an audiobook copy of Behind Her Eyes to review, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The book is read by multiple narrators (Anna Bentinck, Josie Dunn, Bea Holland, Huw Parmenterto) to illustrate separate character storylines, though on several occasions a couple of their voices sounded too similar for me to distinguish right away whose perspective we’re following. There were also a few confusing chapter transitions and moments where I was confused whether we were in the present “Now” storyline or flashing back to the “Then” timeline, so I really had to pay careful attention. These nitpicks aside though, this audiobook was a great listen and I was fully immersed in the experience....more
This book isn’t your typical ghost story. While it includes a significant number of urban fantasy elements, there is also a darkly profound, rather despairing thread running beneath its surface. Thematically it is also on the weightier side, dealing with topics like suicide, survivor guilt, and emotional trauma. Fans of Seanan McGuire are still going to love her engaging storytelling style and loveable characters, but if you’re used to more offbeat and quirkier UF, I think this one may leave you with a heavier heart.
The story begins with the funeral of Jenna’s older sister Patty, who left for New York City with big dreams but ended up taking her own life instead. Grieving with the loss and blaming herself, a stricken Jenna runs off into the night during a bad rainstorm and tragically slips into the river, drowning in the raging current.
Because Jenna’s death was an accident, however, she died too soon according to a ledger of cosmic checks and balances which states a person’s soul cannot pass on until they have served their full time on the mortal plane. When Jenna died, she found quite a hefty debt still on her record, so like everyone else before her who died before their time, she became a ghost and must remain among the living until that balance is repaid.
Fast forward forty years, and Jenna is living in New York City leeching off a little bit of her debt each day on living strangers, with every minute she gives being another minute added to their youth. However, because Jenna sees “time left” as a form of currency, her gift of life in fact becomes an act of theft in her eyes. In order to earn back what she has stolen, Jenna also volunteers at a suicide prevent hotline trying to save others from Patty’s fate, hoping that when her time finally does come she will rejoin her beloved sister with a clean balance and conscience.
This is probably my third or fourth foray into McGuire’s work, and while overall I have enjoyed her books, I confess thus far I’m still waiting for “the one” which would blow me away. I started Dusk or Dark of Dawn or Day with the hopes that this would be it, but ultimately there was just something about it that didn’t quite click for me. Like I said, this is a story with some heavy, tragic themes to it, so it might simply be a case of the wrong book at the wrong time. Admittedly, the whole thing left me feeling kind of worn and heartsick by the end of it, even though I was hooked by the intro with its fascinating look into this world of ghosts and their concept of “time owed”.
Looking at this from another angle though, it clearly speaks well of the author that she can so successfully convey emotional impact with her writing and portrayal of her characters. My personal reaction to this novella aside, I can recognize a good story when I see one, and this has all the elements of an engaging tale full of imagination and feeling. Jenna is a narrator with a unique perspective, yet the care and attention to detail paid to her backstory makes it easy to sympathize with her decisions when all around her are other ghosts that do not share her same views or values. She’s a genuinely good character who not only extends her kindness to people in need as evidenced by her goal to rescue as many aging cats from shelters as possible, giving them love and a comfortable place to live out their final days. Death is a theme that infuses every page, but sometimes its oppressive presence is lightened with compassion and scenes like that.
The ideas in this book are also mind-bogglingly original. It took me some time to wrap my head around ghosts and their ability to give and take time, but I eventually came to appreciate the ingenuity behind the concept. As well, McGuire paints an interesting picture for her ghosts’ existence, linking them to special relationships with mirrors and witches. For a novella, the world-building is surprisingly robust.
Ultimately, I feel the ending could have been handled better, but since I can’t elaborate without giving away details, I’ll just say that it didn’t come across as eloquent or consistent as the rest of the story. That said, there is no shortage of feeling, and at the end of the day I think the conclusion manages to achieve its desired impact. If this book sounds like something that might interest you, I highly recommend giving it a try....more
In gaming lingo, the term “level grind” often has negative connotations, typically used to describe having to engage in mind-numbingly tedious or repetitive tasks to gain experience or complete an achievement. Happily, this is not at all how I would describe my experience with Level Grind by Annie Bellet, which is in fact a very witty, vibrant, and entertaining urban fantasy. Collecting the first four novellas in the Twenty-Sided Sorcerer series, this omnibus admittedly offers pretty standard fare when it comes to the genre. Still, it manages to be a very entertaining read thanks to the stories’ vigorous pacing, the characters’ irresistible charms, and the author’s fun take on the usual tropes.
Meet Jade Crow, a sorceress on the run. After twenty-five years of hiding from her ex-lover and fellow sorcerer Samir who wants to eat her heart (gross, yes, but that happens to be the only way to kill a sorcerer and steal their powers) she has ended up settling in Wylde, Idaho, home to a thriving paranormal community that includes shapeshifters, witches, and leprechauns. A lifelong gamer and nerd, Jade is content enough to lie low and live a quiet life among friends, running her comic book and game store.
Justice Calling is the first novella of the collection, introducing us our main characters and setting. It was just another day at Pwned Comics and Games when a tall and handsome stranger breezes through the door and accuses Jade of murder. Alek is a Justice, an enforcer for the Shifter community, and he has arrived in Wylde after receiving a vision that someone or something may be harming the lives of those he has sworn to protect, and he believes Jade is to blame.
This first story also sets the tone for the rest of the series: lots of gaming and pop culture references, unashamedly geared towards the gamer and geek demographics. That said, any general fan of urban fantasy can definitely enjoy these books as well. As the opening novella and also the shortest of the bunch, Justice Calling is unfortunately rather light on character development and world-building (imagine a full-length novel by Patricia Briggs or Ilona Andrews compressed into a little more than 100 pages, and that’s how I would describe this), but it does solidly establish more to come. This is when reading the omnibus comes in handy; with the next book conveniently waiting on the next page, there was no excuse not to satisfy my curiosity and hankering for more.
MURDER OF CROWS
This second story starts with Jade’s estranged father showing up at her doorstep, imploring her for help. Our protagonist has never forgiven her family for kicking her out of Three Feathers crow shifter ranch where she grew up, but she ultimately agrees to help after learning someone was out there brutally killing innocent people. As always, Jade suspects Samir, her evil sorcerer ex who could be murdering members of the Crow clan to get to her.
If book one was about laying down the groundwork and hooking readers in, then Murder of Crows is where things start to get a little deeper. Bellet fleshes out her world-building, exploring the various shapeshifting communities in her series and also incorporating Native American history, culture, and lore into her story. But it is character development that gets a huge boost. We learn a lot more about Jade and where she came from, and by the end of the book she is changed by the many difficult decisions she had to make. There’s also a strong vibe of mysticism in this one as Jade comes to terms with being a sorceress and what it’ll take to control her magic. The only thing I wasn’t crazy about was her romance with Alek; I mean, come on, it ends before it even begins!
PACK OF LIES
The next story begins as Alek suddenly comes back into Jade’s life, showing up at her door asking her for help (yes, there’s a clear pattern emerging here with regards to the way these books begin). The Wylde community is again threatened as news comes that wolves are killing other wolves, but things take an even worse turn when an innocent family is found slaughtered, seemingly caught in the middle of a shifter conflict. Even though Alek broke her heart, for the sake of her town Jade decides to lend him a hand in his investigation.
I didn’t get a chance to feel invested in Jade and Alek’s relationship in the previous two books, so quite a few of their interactions felt empty. These plots are also starting to become very predictable, especially when read back-to-back; someone always comes to Jade for help with a gruesome terrible crime, and as always, Jade thinks it must be Samir, the big bad who has been a constant threat in the back of her mind and yet he is still nowhere to be seen. To be fair, this is a rather common feeling for me when it comes to novellas, with there being so few pages to really develop a deeper story. Still, these books are meant to be short and sweet, and when all is said and done, Pack of Lies was another fast, entertaining read. Jade also reveals herself to be a sorceress at the end of this book which causes no small amount of tensions in her small town (even the other paranormals are kind of creeped out by sorcerers, with them being known to eat hearts and everything) which adds another interesting source of conflict to the series.
Yep, this one also starts with someone showing up at Jade’s door for help, and again we are led to believe that these dastardly acts (in this case, the grisly mass killings of unicorns) might be attributed to Samir. But this time, we actually get the sense that a greater story is emerging. Finally! A mysterious sorceress also turns up in Wylde, claiming to be running away from Samir and needs protection, and Jade is torn between wanting to help and not wanting to put her friends at risk.
I’ll be honest, this being the fourth installment, I thought we would have a lot more answers by now. But this is also a story with some great developments and nice twists. Hunting Season was perhaps the best of the novellas, and a great story to end this first collection.
Closing thoughts: So far, I’m really enjoying The Twenty-Sided Sorceress and I would highly recommend the omnibus format of Level Grind for an easy, convenient way to enjoy the first four novellas one after another. While it’s true that UF fans may find it a little derivative and too similar to many of the popular paranormal series out there, I think it aims for being light and fun rather than groundbreaking. And it worked! The stories’ short lengths also definitely had some impact on the depth of world-building, character, and story development, but the good news is, these areas continue to expand with each installment. It’s probably not a stretch to say if you love Mercy Thompson or Kate Daniels, you will do get a kick out of this series as well. Geeks and gamers will especially have a blast! I look forward to seeing what’s next....more
Last year Mishell Baker burst onto the scene and shook up the urban fantasy world with her debut Borderline, dazzling me with her fresh take on the genre. She also introduced us to Millie Roper, one of the most genuine and notable protagonists that I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. It is therefore with great excitement that I can say the sequel Phantom Pains is even better, stronger, and more inventive than its predecessor. The Arcadia Project, welcome to my favorite series shelf!
If you haven’t read the first book yet, 1) you’re missing out, and 2) you may want to catch up first before tackling this one. Phantom Pains begins approximately four months after we last saw Millie, who has left the Arcadia Project after the devastating loss of her partner Teo. The Hollywood soundstage upon which the incident happened has since been designated a magical crime scene, restricted to all but those who are savvy to Arcadia, the “other” realm where Fey and other supernatural creatures reside.
However, just as Millie and her former boss Caryl are carrying out their final inspection of the soundstage before clearing it to open again, something strange happens. A vision of a tormented Teo suddenly appears to Millie, beseeching her to “let him in”. Traumatized, Millie is only marginally comforted when Caryl tells her that it could not have been the spirit of Teo, since ghosts don’t exist. But if that’s true, then what did she see?
While reluctant to rejoin the Arcadia Project as a full agent, Millie does agree to help them get down to the bottom of this, if nothing else to get the soundstage up and running again so she can get a particularly nettlesome studio client off her back. For the first time in months, Millie returns to her old home of Residence Four, where she is scheduled to meet with two bigwigs from the Project’s National Headquarters. Soon after her meeting though, one of them is found brutally murdered with dark magic—the kind that only Caryl, a warlock, is capable of. Still, despite the overwhelming evidence, Millie is certain that Caryl didn’t do it. Painfully aware that she is her friend’s last and only hope, Millie must now gather whatever allies and resources she has left to try and clear Caryl’s name before it is too late.
Let’s start with how simply awesome Millie is as a protagonist. Phantom Pains continues to develop and grow her as a complex and fully-realized character, while also progressing her journey as a survivor. I could tell you that Millie has borderline personality disorder, or that a about a year ago she had a failed suicide attempt that caused her to lose her legs a promising film career. But the truth is though, those mere descriptions simply don’t do her justice. Millie is so much more, and once you pick up these books and experience her voice for yourself, you’ll know what I mean. It really speaks volumes about the author’s skills as a writer that she is able to convey the character’s tragic past and disabilities in an unflinchingly honest yet respectful manner, making her feel realistic and convincing without resorting to stereotypes. Outstandingly, Baker challenges our established views on disability in fiction simply by writing a fun and enjoyable story, and her protagonist is portrayed as she is: vulnerable but strong, flawed but indomitable, different but no less important.
Bottom line, I just love Millie, despite her not always being likeable. It’s true that she’s a straight-talker, and her BPD sometimes affects her emotionally, making her say or do impulsive things. Interestingly though, I find that she has mellowed out somewhat in Phantom Pains, her voice reflecting the ongoing treatment she reports to have been receiving in the four months since the events of Borderline. And on that note, I was also happy to find out that Millie and Caryl remained friends, even in the aftermath of all that happened. The two of them have a great dynamic, not to mention Caryl was one of my favorites from the first book and it thrilled me to see her play a bigger role in this sequel. If you aren’t familiar with Caryl’s circumstances I’m not going to spoil anything for you, though I will say that Phantom Pains revealed much more of her history and what I learned broke my heart into a million pieces.
And that brings us to the story, which was absolutely fantastic. While the plot may have been slower to take off and there were more holes in it than I would have liked, I am completely willing to forgive everything in light of how this book ended. It’s not going to be the epic conclusion you would expect in terms of style and tone, but for me the ending was still surprising and emotionally impactful, the kind that makes you look back and realize the entire story had been setting up for this moment. There is a very real kind of beauty in the way everything came together in the end, and of course Mishell Baker nailed it perfectly.
In sum, Borderline was great, and to my delight, Phantom Pains was even better. Bar none, The Arcadia Project is the most refreshing series to come out of the urban fantasy genre in years. Anyone who is a UF fan needs to do themselves a favor and check out these books right now!...more
I’ve been going back and forth in my mind on how to review this book. Having anticipated it for so long, I honestly thought it would be more—and yet, I can’t say I’m all that disappointed either. Sparse at is might have been on story and plot development, The Bone Witch has a lot else going for it, including topnotch writing and impressive atmosphere.
The book introduces us to twelve-year-old Tea, a bone witch. Unfortunately for our protagonist, she came to discover her powers for necromancy in the worst way possible—by accidentally raising her older brother Fox from the dead, while everyone looked on at his funeral. From that moment on, the siblings’ fates were forever linked. But now that she has been identified as a dark asha, a magic user that deals with death, Tea must be taken away to receive the proper training. In this world, bone witches do not have the best reputations to begin with; within many communities they are feared and reviled, despite the crucial role that bone witches play—for you see, only they can defeat the demonic beings called Daeva, creations of the False Prince that resurrect every so often to plague the populace. During her training, Tea will not only learn how to control her powers, she will also be learning how to fight the Daeva.
Not long after Fox’s resurrection, an experienced bone witch called Mykaela comes to take Tea and her brother away to a school for dark asha. Far from home and still reeling over the fact that her life has been changed forever, Tea nonetheless puts all her efforts into learning all she can for the next few years, gaining control over her powers while also further bonding with Fox, the one tie she has to her family. Throughout this time, her resolve is tested again and again—and the challenges include more than just an appraisal of her magical abilities. Tea uncovers a whole other world of secrets among the leaders and other ashas at the school, some that may hold dire consequences for her homeland and those she cares about.
The story here is very simple. While I wouldn’t exactly say I was bored for most of the first half of the book, plot development in this section was admittedly on the sluggish side, especially once we got past the ruckus over Fox’s surprise resurrection. Instead the narrative spent a lot of time building up the relationship between Tea and her brother, which thankfully was something I enjoyed. Despite Fox’s awkward status as an undead, they say that no one can come back from the afterlife unless they truly wanted to, and it was clear that love and protectiveness for his little sister were the main driving forces behind his character. It was heartwarming to see his support for Tea, especially during her early years at the school at a time when she needed his guidance the most. In fact, this attention to siblings’ character development and the strengthening of their bond was likely what saved the book for me and kept me from losing interest completely.
The first section also spent a considerable chunk of time on world-building. To the author’s credit, she has created a fascinating universe in The Bone Witch, filling it with a complex system of magic which became almost too convoluted at times. There are many types of ashas, or witches, in this world—most have powers that are based around the elements like earth, air, fire, etc. The book doesn’t really go into the details of each kind of magic, only telling us that the kind Tea has, i.e. death magic, is different. Apparently there is an entire set of other rules for bone witches, even though there’s no rhyme or reason as to why, and while they are considered to be a type of asha, it is also generally accepted that they are just “special”. Then there are the Daeva, plus the convenient fact that bone witches just so happen to be uniquely equipped to deal with them. Don’t get me wrong, the concept itself is interesting, but at the same time a lot of it feels way too “constructed” for me to find it convincing.
In the face of all this, the idea of heartglasses almost feels extraneous. To give you a crash course on what these things are, in this world everyone wears a mood ring like bauble around their necks called a heartglass, and they can change color depending on what the person is feeling. It is a more than a piece of jewelry though, because it many ways it is also part of the wearer’s identity and soul. They also hold cultural significance, as lovers can opt to exchange heartglasses (though given the dire consequences in the event one person becomes less committed, I don’t know why anyone would risk doing this) and as well the power of potential witches can sometimes be gleaned from the color of their heartglasses. However, heartglasses can also be forged. Not surprisingly, despite all the focus on world-building, I still have a lot of questions. If I do end up continuing this series, it is my hope that the next book will provide more information on ashes, the magic system, heartglasses, etc. and explore how it all fits together.
For now, I plan to take a wait-and-see approach. I didn’t love The Bone Witch, but I also saw a lot to like about the book, including great characterization and fantastic atmosphere. In addition, the magic system holds plenty of potential—though world-building probably needs to be streamlined and polished up a bit. I guess I’ll wait for reviews before deciding whether or not to dive into the sequel; if book two beefs up the storytelling and improves the plot, I just might give this series another try....more
For those who have not yet been initiated into the strange, scary and wonderful world of the Valducan series, better strap in, because you’re in for one hell of a ride. Here you will find monsters and demons and the secret international network of warriors who hunt them, and at the center of it all is the most important tool in their arsenal—holy weapons. These are imbued with the spirits of angels, forming a deep and reverent bond with their wielders to grant them amazing supernatural powers.
Hands down, Ibenus is my favorite book in this series yet. There are so many reasons why, but most of all, thank you Seth Skorkowsky for giving me something I’ve wanted since the beginning: a Valducan story centered on a female knight! Victoria Martin is our protagonist, a former London police officer whose life falls apart following a vicious demon attack which leaves her traumatized and her partner dead. Her employers subsequently let her go, dismissing her report and claiming that the impossible things she saw was due to stress and psychological damage. Unwilling to accept this, Victoria decides to take matters into her own hands. This is how she winds up tracking down and fighting alongside the Valducans, after one of their most experienced knights saw potential in her and agrees to take her on as his student.
Allan Havlock, protector of the holy blade Ibenus, didn’t know why but agreeing to train Victoria simply felt right, like the angel in his weapon was showing him his path. Little did he know though, his new apprentice had been in contact with an internet conspiracy group led by a man named Tommy D, an amateur filmmaker who shares her desire to expose the world to the truth of monsters. On her part, Victoria thought she was doing the right thing, infiltrating the Valducans with the goal of blowing their cover wide open. However, this was before she got to know her fellow demon hunters, before she got to sympathize with their mission…and before she started to fall in love with Allan. By the time she realizes she might have made a mistake though, it may already be too late.
Ibenus is the third installment in the series, but like the previous novels it can be read as a standalone. In fact, I would even say it’s a great place to start, since it does a fine job introducing the Valducans and laying out the nitty-gritty of what they do. Unlike the previous two books, Ibenus also features a lot more team action, whereas both Dämoren and Hounacier focused mostly on their respective main characters. I think this gives the book an edge, showing the ins and outs of how a new recruit like Victoria is initiated and integrated into the complex Valducan network, as well as how this shadowy group functions like a well-oiled machine. It’s this level of detail in the world-building that makes Ibenus a wonderful jumping-on point. That being said, the stars from the earlier books also make cameo appearances, so if what you read of Matt Hollis or Malcolm Romero sounds interesting here, I strongly urge you to go back and read their backstories.
This book also offered up just the right blend of different genre elements. I am a big fan of urban fantasy tinged with horror, and the Valducan series has always scratched that itch for me. In this world there are everything from werewolves to wendigos, but these are the no-holds-barred kinds of monsters—brutal and terrifying. In Ibenus, the creatures the knights are going after are even worse. Called Mantismeres, they are giant insectoid demons that spawn doll-faced carapaced minions, which in turn lure in their unwitting victims by emitting sounds that imitate crying or giggling babies. Imagine meeting something like that in the dark.
There’s also a great plot here, involving more than just action and thrills. Skorkowsky takes the storytelling to another level in in this book, developing character relationships and using their different motivations to create tension. There’s everything from love and betrayal to hidden agendas and conflicts of interest. A new light is shone on the will of holy weapons like Ibenus, emphasizing the fact that they are fundamentally sentient beings and can be considered characters in their own right. The enmity between the Valducan and Tommy D’s gang also becomes a focal point, for while they may both fight on the same side against the demons, the two groups are driven by different forces. Yet it’s easy to understand where the “bad guys” are coming from, even if you disagree with their methods. Likewise, despite the Valducans being the “heroes” of this series, what happens in this story will lead to many questions about their motives. I really appreciated how things were never simply black and white.
All told, Ibenus is another amazing demon-gore-splattered sequel in the highly entertaining Valducan series. The author has come a long way since the first book, and the series itself has also grown from stories about lone heroes to a bigger, fuller, more epic experience involving greater consequences and higher stakes. I love it. Highly recommended....more
I think it’s incredibly awesome that The Empty Ones is a lot like punk rock but in book form—loud, fast-moving, aggressive. It does its own thing, all the while being shamelessly, wickedly unapologetic about it. Better yet, I loved that this sequel was even better, funnier, and more entertaining than the first book!
The story picks up again not long after the events of The Unnoticeables, for both timelines—because as you’d recall, we follow two major points of view in the previous volume—one in 1977 featuring a young New York punk named Carey and a second one in 2013 featuring Kaitlyn, a stuntwoman in Los Angeles. The Empty Ones is once again using this structure of going back and forth between these two points-of-view, using the battle against the monsters to link up past and present.
For Carey, 1978 has become all about seeking revenge. He and his friend Randall survived last year’s secret war against the savage cult of Unnoticeables, Empty Ones, angels and tar men, but many more of their fellow punks weren’t so lucky. Carey is determined to hunt down the immortal Empty One who killed several of his friends, tracking him all the way to London, England where the punk scene is really rockin’. As it happens, it’s also crawling with Faceless, the British punks’ own term for the strange kids with unnoticeable, forgettable faces. Carey and Randall end up meeting Meryll, a one-woman wrecking crew who is also part of an underground London punk resistance group against the monsters.
In 2013, the situation is a lot different, though the plot also revolves around the hunt for an Empty One, a B-list actor and former teen heartthrob named Marco Luis. The first book saw Carey (now an aging hobo) team up with Kaitlyn and her friend Jackie to thwart an angel, sending Marco packing. However, the monsters still won’t leave Kaitlyn alone, forcing the trio to go on the run, eating at cheap diners and staying in sleazy motels in order to keep a low profile. Finally, Kaitlyn can’t take it anymore, and decides to take the fight straight to Marco, hoping that killing him will end this once and for all. Last she heard, the psychopathic actor was filming a new show in Mexico, which means time for a road trip!
I really can’t stress how much of a blast I had with this book. It’s gory, gross and just damn great. It’s also very funny, much more so than the first book. The type of humor in this is dark and cutting, but in spite of that, I laughed out loud more times than I could count.
In my review of The Unnoticeables, I also mentioned how much I enjoyed the characters, especially Kaitlyn, but in The Empty Ones it was definitely Carey who stole the show. I just adore this nutty young punk turned nutty old hobo, whose brain is permanently tuned to sex, beer, and punk rock whether he’s 20-something or 50-something. Still, as vulgar as he is, I couldn’t help but find the guy compelling. His propensity to think with what’s between his legs rather than what’s in his head is somewhat redeemed by all the times he reacts to situations with his heart—which proves he’s really just a big ol’ softie. Brockway has created characters who aren’t just one-trick ponies, and Kaitlyn is proof of that as well, showing lots of growth in this sequel. No longer content with running and hiding, this badass stuntwoman has taken it upon herself to face her fears head-on, so that no one else would ever have to live through her terror.
Furthermore, The Empty Ones introduces a ton of new elements to the mix. The trilogy surely would not be complete without a visit to the British punk scene, and we get to check that one off with style as Carey and Randall rock and drink their way across London, fighting Faceless at a Ramones concert and evading tar men in the Underground. Meryll is also an interesting wildcard, the addition of her character changing the game completely, so there’s really no telling where things will go from here. Finally, this book expands the lore of the monsters, building upon what we know about the angels, Empty Ones, Faceless, and tar people, and how their roles are all connected. Brockway even offers us a glimpse into the horrifying, inhuman existence of an Empty One by giving us a few chapters written in the perspective of Marco, or “this thing” as he calls himself, and it is truly some downright fucked up disturbing shit.
Technically, new readers can start here since Robert Brockway does a fine job catching us up, but I do strongly recommend starting with The Unnoticeables. I’m pleased at how much I’m enjoying this series. It has a little bit of everything, a mishmash of elements from urban fantasy, metaphysical science fiction and cosmic horror. The tone can be describe as vulgar, violent, fast-paced and hilarious. Bottom line though, The Empty Ones was simply incredible, just one hell of a great read. It takes everything from the first book to a new level, and assuming things keep going this way, the third book promises to be amazing and I cannot wait to get my hands on it....more
All is Fair is the third installment of Emma Newman’s The Split World series. After two books of introducing multiple threads and building everything, we’re finally starting to see it all come together.
As this is an ongoing series, spoilers for Between Two Thorns and Any Other Name are entirely possible, so beware if you haven’t read the first two books yet. We’re picking things up right where they left off, following Will’s violent ascent to the Londinium throne. Now the consequences of his actions have caught up with him, and there is no telling how far his adversaries will go to see him pay. Meanwhile, Cathy is determined to bring change in the Nether, even as she faces obstacles at every turn. Between the threat of the Fae lords and the Agency, no one wants to stick their necks out for her cause.
In Mundanus, Sam is coming to grips with his grief and dealing with a new reality. In the course of his investigations, he has caught the attention of Lord Iron and the Elemental Court, and what Sam finds out from them turns his world upside down. Max and the gargoyle have gone on to pursue their own case, trying to find out the truth behind all the chapter murders. These efforts lead them to uncover even more disturbing questions about the Agency.
While reading the last book together with the SF/F Read Along group, I likened this series to a soap opera, and more and more I’m finding that to be an apt comparison. There are plenty of twists and turns and more than a few shocks, giving these books the addictive quality that keeps me coming back for more. Things slow down a bit in All Is Fair, but that is more than made up for by the last quarter of the book. There’s a real sense of thread-tying and trying to bring everything together, perhaps in an attempt to streamline the plot for the next installment. If you’ve been crying for answers like I have, then the revelations in this book should make you very happy.
That said, I have some issues with the hasty way things wrapped up, almost like Newman was in a rush to finish the book. After spending two and a half books on all these plot threads, it was disappointing to watch some of them resolve with what effectively feels like a snap of the fingers. Cathy’s solution to her problems with the Agency seemed way too convenient, considering all that she went through. The same goes for Sam’s storyline, where the Fae-related conflicts that have been plaguing him for so long are suddenly made trivial. As for Max and the gargoyle, I wasn’t too crazy about the curveball we were thrown at the end either. I enjoy plot twists when they make sense, but not when there’s absolutely no setup for them, like the one we had here.
Still, it’s good to know that there’s more to come. I hear that the plan is for five books in the series, though in many ways All Is Fair feels like the end of an era for a lot of the characters. Cathy has grown so much from when we first met her in book one, and now she is prepared to take on the next challenge to bring change to the Nether. Sam has gone through a huge transformation as well, discovering his new potential. His story has been up and down for me, but there’s a distinct feeling of peace and closure when we last leave him at the end of this book, so I’m hoping that Sam can start afresh now that his past is behind him. For Max and the gargoyle, the future is perhaps the most uncertain, but they too will have to walk a new path given the way things went down. They may have solved the mystery, but left without a clear direction, where will they go next?
I’m really looking forward to finding out what’s next for everyone, despite some of my misgivings here. I have a strong feeling that book four, A Little Knowledge, will be a new chapter in all their lives and I think it would be a refreshing change of pace to explore some new directions. Can’t wait to dive right in....more
Any Other Name is the second book of Emma Newman’s The Split Worlds series, and things are certainly getting very interesting. I read this one as part of the SF/F Read Along group, and as you can imagine, the last month has been filled with much intense and spirited discussion over the characters’ outrageous actions and other unexpected surprises in the story.
While I’ll be keeping plot details to a minimum without going into anything beyond the publisher’s description to keep this review spoiler-free, bear in mind that this novel builds upon the events of the previous one and can’t really be read as a standalone. Back in Between Two Thorns, readers got to meet Catherine Papaver, a young woman who was living in double life in Mundanus while trying to escape the old-fashioned society of the Nether. Any Other Name sees Cathy back in her home world after being dragged back by her family, and against her wishes she is quickly married off to William of house Iris.
Will himself is also tasked with an impossible mission. His patron fae lord has demanded of him the Londinium throne, leaving the newly-wed couple no choice but to move to London’s mirror city in the Nether. Cathy reluctantly tries to integrate herself into their new social circles, while Will sets about finding allies to support his bid for dukedom. As much as he wants to be a good husband to Cathy though, certain desires and other dark temptations seek to draw him onto a different path. Meanwhile, Max the Arbiter continues to investigate the Agency in an attempt to uncover the mysterious circumstances behind the Bath Chapter incident, and Sam also seeks out magical help to figure out what’s wrong with his wife Leanne.
I liked this book, probably just as much, if not more, than its predecessor. While I’m not completely blown away by this series yet, I think we’re gradually getting there, with layers upon layers being built up in the story. In my review of the first book, I commented on the disjointedness of the plot as well as the imbalance the character POVs. Thankfully, these aspects are much improved in the sequel, even though there are still many threads that need to be addressed. I still think there’s way too much going on here all at once, but on the whole this book answered a lot of the questions I had after finishing Between Two Thorns, so I was pleased.
This sequel was a lot easier to read too, now that I have a better understanding of the world. The story was less hampered by the details, which allowed me to settle back and simply let myself be swept away by its events. I gained a deeper appreciation for this relationship between the realms of Exilium, Mundanus, and the in-between world of the Nether. Furthermore, groups like the Arbiters or the Agency who have the ability to affect more than one of these places add an intriguing dynamic to the situation. Max got his chance to play a bigger role again in this volume, allying with Cathy to investigate the dastardly Agency and even briefly teaming up with Sam to see what’s going on with Leanne. This latter plot development was perhaps my favorite part of the novel, and I’m pleasantly surprised at how thoroughly I’ve enjoyed this thread of mystery.
That said, certain aspects of this novel were…problematic. I remain torn on a couple of our main characters, since one moment they would be turning me off, but the next they could be redeeming themselves. I don’t often flip-flop so much on my feelings for characters, but I definitely sense a “soap opera” quality to some of their dramatics. Still, Cathy is actually a much stronger person in my eyes this time, thinking things through instead of just digging in her heels. Plus, she is starting to see beyond her own predicament, perhaps reaching out to help others as well. Sam steps up too, trying to do some good in his own bumbling way, and I found myself rooting for his cause. In contrast, Max shows us what it means to be literally soulless, having no qualms about resorting to unsavory means to get the information he needs. And Will…oh Will. Pretty much every other thing he did made me angry. It’s a good thing I’m keeping this review sans spoilers so I won’t have to go into details, or else we’d be here forever.
I will say this about The Split Worlds series, though: it’s incredibly addictive. I’m officially hooked, and I can’t wait to find out what happens next, especially after the way this book ended. I don’t know what Emma Newman has in store for us, but it’s clear none of her characters are going to come out of this clean and unscathed. Now onward to All Is Fair!...more
I must confess, I only finished The Rook last month when the surprise arrival of a Stiletto ARC prompted me to do some quick catching up with the series, so I can’t claim to have waited for this sequel for as long as others. That said though, I was no less excited to jump right in! I loved the first book, and practically dove into this next one straight away.
The first thing you should know about Stiletto is that even though it picks up where The Rook left off, it’s also not your typical conventional follow-up. For one thing, Myfanwy Thomas is no longer the main protagonist. Instead, we get two new leading ladies: a Checquy Pawn named Felicity Clements, and a Grafter surgeon named Odette Leliefeld. After centuries of being on opposite sides, the two young women are suddenly thrown together when their respective organizations are forced to make peace in a new alliance. However, putting aside their differences is easier said than done. The enmity between the two groups runs deep, and not everyone is happy about the new partnership. Almost immediately after arriving in Great Britain with the Grafter delegation, Odette becomes targeted by an angry and bitter Checquy agent, and in order to avert diplomatic disaster, a new bodyguard is swiftly assigned to her in the form of Pawn Clements.
Meanwhile, bizarre paranormal attacks continue to plague London, keeping the Checquy busy running around putting out fires. It’s all just business as usual…or is it? Do the Grafters in the delegation know more than they let on? What kind of secrets are they hiding from their hosts? Who can they trust? Both factions are on edge, with a fragile peace hanging between them. Surrounded by paranormal dangers, threats of sabotage, and deep-seated hatreds, just about anything can shatter this delicate young alliance.
Not going to lie; I was initially surprised when I started this book and discovered that we’d shifted away from Myfanwy Thomas as the main protagonist, since the publisher description makes no mention to the contrary. At the same time though, I wasn’t especially jarred by the change. Perhaps it had something to do with the short time I had between reading The Rook and Stiletto, but I found the new voices pleasantly refreshing. Don’t get me wrong; I loved Myfanwy and was delighted to see her make a return in the sequel (albeit in a supporting capacity) but clearly the Checquy-Grafter alliance is the key focus here, and there’s no better way to portray all the consequences and challenges of the fledgling partnership than to give us a new character from each side. Myfanwy might be the Rook in charge of brokering this deal, but in order to get right down to the nitty-gritty details, we had to go to the straight to the frontlines with a Pawn.
Enter Felicity. She’s a warrior, meticulous and determined. She is also completely loyal to the Checquy, aspiring one day to join the Barghests, their most elite combat force. Trained to fight and protect, Felicity won’t flinch from doing what needs to be done either, making her the perfect bodyguard to assign to Odette. Myfanway Thomas knows she can count on the Pawn to lay down her life for her charge, but given the order, Felicity also won’t hesitate to put a bullet in Odette’s head if it turns out the young Grafter woman can’t be trusted.
This makes the relationship between Felicity and Odette very interesting. For almost the entirety of the first book, we got to hear all about how the Grafters were evil, insane, and brutal enemies of the Checquy. But in this one we get Odette, a mild-mannered and well-balanced young woman who is completely overwhelmed by her visit to London and just wants to make it through the day without starting a war. I loved seeing the Grafter perspective through her eyes. She and Felicity come from two very different worlds, making the early friction between them no surprise, but as the story progresses, a precarious link begins to form between them, making this part one of the more rewarding aspects of Stiletto. Whereas in The Rook we got to read about Myfanwy Thomas having a relationship with her own pre-amnesiac self, here we actually get to see an incredible example of true female friendship. O’Malley did a great job developing Felicity and Odette’s connection.
The fresh focus on the two women also means that technically, Stiletto can be read on its own without having to read The Rook first, but I wouldn’t recommend it. For one thing, although the author does a great job recapping and explaining the important details you need to know (which also helps to refresh memories after four years, I imagine), there are various references and other ties to the first book which will feel a lot more rewarding if you can spot and recognize them. More importantly, the first book was so much fun, you definitely won’t want to rob yourself of the experience.
My one and only complaint is that the novel is weighed down here and there by some bloat, but this could simply be a stylistic choice by O’Malley. Huge chunks of history and background information are sometimes injected into the narrative, which was also the case in The Rook. Over time, this has evolved to become a part of the series’ unique charm, but every now and then it still gets very distracting, taking attention away from the characters and main conflict.
When all is said and done though, I had a great time with Stiletto. I don’t love it any less than I love The Rook—I just love it differently. While the protagonists may have changed, all the ingredients that made the first book great are still there: laugh-out-loud humor, compelling characters, a wonderfully twisty plot, detailed world-building, and amazing super-powers! The Grafter perspective is a welcome addition to this series, and I’m surprised how much I enjoyed reading about the Checquy’s former enemies. I’m certainly curious to see how these two organizations will continue moving forward, and I await the next book in the series with much excitement....more
Being a huge fan of author Sarah Lotz, naturally I just had to check out The Apartment, since she’s one half of the writing duo of S.L. Grey. While I’ve never read anything by her collaborator Louis Greenberg, I do know he’s quite an accomplished dark fantasy and horror writer as well, and together the two of them have created something truly startling here.
The book is told through the eyes of a married couple from Cape Town, South Africa. Mark Sebastian is a middle-aged English professor struggling both personally and financially after a terrible event seven years ago had shattered his first marriage. Steph is a young woman who had to put her life on hold after she got pregnant and married Mark, deciding to be a stay-at-home parent to take care of their young daughter Hayden. Despite the couple’s difficulties though, the Sebastians’ marriage was loving, happy, and idyllic—that is, until their home was violently invaded by three masked men who threatened Mark and Steph at knife point and robbed them of their already meager possessions.
Unfortunately, while the family came out of that agony physically unharmed, the psychological trauma has taken its toll. Mark and Steph are unable to return to their normal lives, due to the constant fear and paranoia. So when a friend refers them to a house-swapping website and suggests that they take a nice relaxing vacation, the two of them are intrigued by this money-saving option. Almost right away, Steph connects with the owners of a charming little apartment in Paris, a young couple who would just love to visit Cape Town and stay at the Sebastians’ place. Despite a few lingering doubts, Mark and Steph decide to take the leap and plans are swiftly made for childcare and travel. After all, who can resist the draw of the city of light and love?
However, once they arrive in Paris, their dream vacation quickly spirals out of control and becomes a living nightmare. Instead of rest and romance, they find only darkness and terror.
Before I go further, there are some quibbles I have to mention. The first and biggest discrepancy that leaped out at me was, of course, Mark and Steph’s decision to agree to a house-swap in the first place, opening their house to complete strangers after we’ve been repeatedly told how uncomfortable and traumatized they were following their home invasion. I would think that the last thing they’d want is to have more unfamiliar people coming into their private living space, sleeping in their beds, eating off their plates, handling their personal belongings, etc. (I thought maybe it was just me, but after seeing other reviews that also point out how this made no sense, I actually feel somewhat vindicated.) More of these puzzling irregularities pop up especially once the characters arrive in Paris—leaving aside the fact they’re quite possibly with the worst credit card company in the world, I also don’t think they tried anywhere near hard enough to exhaust all possible options before resigning themselves to stay in that awful, freaky apartment. If it were me, I would have found some cheap hostel or even slept on a bench at the train station before going back to that place.
Still, despite a few things that didn’t add up, I had a really enjoyable time with this novel. The tensions are thick enough that I was happy to push aside those little inconsistencies if it meant I could just sit back and let the story take me where it wanted to go. Indeed, what I appreciated most about this book was its atmosphere. There was a gradual shift from oppressive and dreadful at the beginning to downright creepy towards the end, leading the reader through several different stages of suspense and horror before letting the conclusion come crashing down on us. I was up way too late many nights reading this book, breaking the promise to myself that “I’ll go to bed once I finish this chapter” multiple times because I kept caving to the temptation to peek at the next page, getting sucked into reading another chapter, and then rinse and repeat.
A couple more comments before I go (though I doubt too many avid horror readers would be surprised by what I’m about to say): You’re probably not going to find any of the characters very likeable. Like many horror novel protagonists, I think both Mark and Steph were meant to be a little foolish, unstable and reprehensible—all by design. And like in most ghost/haunted house stories, there will also be some ambiguity, so don’t be surprised when the book ends without providing all the answers.
All told, The Apartment is a creepy little tale combining traditional horror story-telling elements with the uncertainties and struggles of a recently-married couple who probably don’t know each other as well as they think they do—and some of the shocking revelations from their alternating POV chapters really serve to emphasize that. Despite the story being riddled by little inconsistencies, my overall pleasure at reading this book was unaffected. The Apartment was a very addictive read and I had a lot of fun with it....more
Chasing Embers is an urban fantasy that seems to have a little bit of everything. There are dragons, magical spirits and mages, the Fae, and even a generous helping of ancient Egyptian mythology. The strange thing is though, even with so much going on in this novel, I actually find myself with very little to say about it. The story was a fun romp, but I enjoyed it on a very “surface” level without forming many deep attachments to its people, places, or events. That said, being the first book of a series, it has strong potential and room to grow.
The story stars Ben Garston, who’s no ordinary UF hero. For one thing, he is a dragon (which I don’t think is a spoiler, since it’s revealed almost right off the bat, not to mention it is blatantly hinted at in the synopsis and on the cover). Centuries old, “Red Ben” now walks the streets in human form, bound by a pact that was made long ago between all the magical creatures of the world. To prevent widespread chaos and fear, Ben and others like him had to agree to hide their existence and live among the mortals as one of them. In turn, guardian knights will protect them and ensure that the pact remains unbroken.
However, the peace is about to be shattered. Recent events make Ben suspect that his protections are no longer in place, and already there have been a couple attempts made on his life. But Ben has more than himself to worry about. From years of hiding in plain sight among the humans, he has come to learn to look like them, live like them, and even care for them. Even knowing from the start that their relationship is doomed to fail, Ben has nonetheless fallen in love with a mortal, a young woman named Rose. It is in his nature to protect those he treasures, even though he can never tell Rose who he is—or what he really is—and all those unspoken truths have strained things between them. Now an old enemy has resurfaced to hunt Ben, and worse, they know all his secrets.
I enjoyed Chasing Embers; I really did. I thought it had a lot to offer UF fans, including a unique twist on the paranormal creatures that usually populate this genre. James Bennett deftly combines fantasy with real world elements, sometimes blurring the lines between mythological lore and history. I particularly enjoyed the story of Ben’s origin, which touches upon so many aspects of his character (both as a dragon as as a “human”). While heartbreaking, the details of these past events also make it easier to understand his complicated relationship with Rose, and reveal much about the tragedy that sparked an old rivalry. In fact, I actually thought a lot of the flashbacks and past sequences were done very well, going against the norm of how I usually feel about nonlinear storytelling.
But while I could list many more things that I thought were interesting or cool about this book, there was also this nagging sense of distance between myself and the plot and characters, that try as I might, I could not shake. It’s a dissonance that’s hard to explain, but we often use the term “bring something to life” to describe how an author can not only create something interesting but also make them exciting and easy for readers to feel passionate about. Part of my problem was that I never managed to reach this point with Ben or the world of Chasing Embers. I’m not sure why, since on the whole I found the book well-written and put-together. A few forced metaphors aside (how does one grin widely enough to “fill a car park”, exactly?) I also thought Bennett’s prose was complex and rich but also easy on the eyes. Still, something prevented me from feeling fully invested. In the end, perhaps it simply boils down to having too much to absorb in a very short time. There is, after all, a lot going on in this book.
The good news though, is that Chasing Embers has established a strong foundation for future books in this series. Now that most of the world-building, history and background of the lore has been covered, hopefully the sequel won’t be as bogged down and will be freer to delve deeper into the characters and expand on plot development. If I sound like I’m placing some high expectations on the next book, the truth is that most urban fantasy series take a time to build, and it’s not uncommon for one to take more than one installment to hook me. This might be the case here. Chasing Embers gave me a good taste of what’s to come, piquing my interest even it did not sweep me off my feet, but I am definitely curious to see what else Bennett has in store....more
So, another one of my favorite urban fantasy series has come to a close. Finding out that Anne Bishop will soon be following up with a spinoff series did soften the blow somewhat, but I won’t lie; when I picked up this final chapter of The Others starring Meg Corbyn and Co., my heart was filled with excitement but also a lot of bittersweet feelings. I’m definitely going to miss spending time in Lakeside Courtyard and reading about its colorful residents.
Since Etched in Bone is the fifth and final installment of the series though, please beware this review may contain spoilers for the previous books. Marked in Flesh saw the Humans First and Last movement violently crushed by the Elders, and the repercussions of that event have been widely and deeply felt across the land. Pro-human groups have lost much of their power, and many of their remaining cities are now cut off from resources and protection. The thriving community of Lakeside Courtyard, having emerged from the Elders’ wrath largely unscathed, now finds itself in the position to offer help to those in need. Its wolf-shifter leader Simon Wolfgard is seen as one the more sympathetic Others, and word soon spreads that they are offering jobs and shelter to human refugees who are willing to work hard and won’t cause trouble.
Everything seems to be running smoothly, until the arrival of Cyrus James “Jimmy” Montgomery. Against his better instincts, Simon decides to let Jimmy stay in part because he is the brother of Lieutenant Montgomery, a well-respected man in Lakeside Courtyard, but also because Jimmy is the brother and son of two other current residents. That decision to show compassion ultimately turns out to be a huge mistake, for Jimmy is a con artist, seeing this opportunity not as the blessing it is but as an easy meal ticket and a way to scam money. Not realizing that the Terra Indigene reserve the worst kinds of punishment for his sort, Jimmy continues to emotionally blackmail his sister and abuse his privileges at Lakeside Courtyard, until it’s only a matter of time before he takes things too far.
I’m going to be honest here. I thought Etched in Bone ended up being another fantastic installment, but as an ending, it was somewhat disappointing. I think Bishop might have overplayed her hand when it came to the resolution of the HPL storyline in the previous book, because let’s face it, anything coming up on the heels of that epic conclusion in Marked in Flesh would be hard-pressed to rival that that act. And indeed, the conflict in Etched in Bone felt rather tame in comparison. For example, if this had been just another book in the series, I think Jimmy Montgomery would have made a pretty decent villain. For a series conclusion though? A small bit conman felt too low-key and insignificant to be the story’s main focal point, especially since we’d just seen the likes of Nicholas Scratch, leader of the Thaisian HFL who had the power of an entire movement behind him.
Then, there’s Simon and Meg. I’ve never made it a secret how I feel about these two. Their romance, if you could even call it that, has always weirded me out. I don’t care much for Meg either, and my enjoyment for this series has always been carried by my love for some of the other characters. Other than being able to tell the future by cutting herself (which the Others actually want her to stop doing), Meg brings absolutely no valuable skills to Lakeside Courtyard, and yet the Others all bend over backwards to treat this helpless little woman-child like a queen. To me, Simon’s attraction to Meg has always felt more like a loyal guard dog’s devotion to his master, like she’s something fragile to be protected and kept safe because she’s too weak to look after herself, and in turn she treats the wolf-shifter like he’s her big fuzzy pet. Bishop had this one last chance to finally set their relationship on the right course, and I was a little surprised that she didn’t take it. Simon still bends to “his Meg’s” every whim, while she continues to be portrayed a meek character who requires constant sheltering and protection.
Bottom line, Etched in Bone would have worked perfectly fine as a middle book of a series, but as a series conclusion, I felt it left something to be desired. But while my review probably goes against the grain of the overwhelmingly positive response this book has been getting, I just want to say I still adore The Others, and if nothing else, this was a satisfying and happy ending for everyone involved. I’m beyond excited that Bishop will continue to write stories set in Thaisia because I’ve enjoyed every moment I’ve spent in this world, and even though this novel didn’t exactly end with the bang I’d wanted, it was nonetheless a very good book and a must-read for fans....more