The first book was a moderately meandering urban fantasy about supernatural politics through the eyes of a young, wish-fulfillment character (supernat...moreThe first book was a moderately meandering urban fantasy about supernatural politics through the eyes of a young, wish-fulfillment character (supernatural powers, gaining powers from other groups, working with covert agencies, with a beautiful vampire princess desperately in love with him).
This volume cuts out any pretense and goes for urban fantasy as juvenile comic book: more superpowers, more sex, every problem solved with simple violence, and no real story other than "how can this guy piss everyone off and still scare them into giving him anything he wants." By the end, Adam Baldwin wouldn't play him(1).
There isn't really a plot here—it reads as if Freytag's Pyramid had been used for target practice by Napoleon's troops—but the vague direction is the protag getting more powerful, pissing off or scaring everyone, and threatening everyone he scares or pisses until they let him do anything he wants, no matter how dangerous he's suggested that would be.
The interpersonal conflict resolves around a series of sitcom miscommunications between him and his girlfriend, all of which his friends refuse to explain, ostensibly because they're too busy trying to out-flex someone somewhere.
And the denouement (there is no climax, instead we have a rapid falling action as the protag demonstrates that he's able to destroy the United States and is therefore trustworthy) falls off the rails into complete adolescent wish-fulfillment: the protag stages a standoff with the US government where he demonstrates that he can kill the president, so they should stop treating him as a threat.
Really, that isn't a spoiler. It's fair warning.
The first book looked like it could go somewhere. Sadly, it took a left turn into "Immortal WWE Baddass Cagematch" territory (yes, there is a cagematch) and all the not-horrible politicking and character development of the first book was thrown out.
We do get a lot of light "but maybe I'm a monster" angst, in case you missed every book with vampires and werewolves in the last 20 years.
We do get lots of intimations of hot-and-heavy sex with the vampire princess "so beautiful that if she walked in to a Victoria's Secret runway show everyone would stare at her, even the models" (not a quote, but a close paraphrase).
We get what could be a plotline about a violent werewolf pack (unlike, say, the kind that puts him in a cagematch), but that is basically thrown away with "and he killed 200 of them in under a second" and pushed again in the next book, where he apparently hunts them down one by one or something.
And, of course, because this is set in NYC, we get extremist terrorists taking schools hostage and our hero saving the day despite the government clearly not caring if the kids die.
I don't know what happened between books one and two. But read book one if you want; I enjoyed it enough. And stop there.
Footnotes: 1) No offense intended to Adam Baldwin! But let's face it, he's made a career out of playing a certain type, and this caricature of that type would embarrass him.(less)
Summary: Interesting (and comfortably conventional) urban fantasy setting, memorable secondary characters, and a first-hit's-(almost)-free price make...moreSummary: Interesting (and comfortably conventional) urban fantasy setting, memorable secondary characters, and a first-hit's-(almost)-free price make this a fun enough romp. Just don't read the second.
Throws some good, established tropes together and stir: The rookie cop with a paranormal secret. The vampire-run nightclub. The secret, off-the-books NYPD unit that deals with the paranormal. The Evil Federal Agency That Gets In The Way Of Honest Cops. The "PCP-like" street drug made by paranormals. The beautiful vampire princess. Angels who hint that they could explain what's going on, but choose not to. The salt-of-the-Earth grandfather who raised the citified, supernatural-wielding young man with a savior complex. The ancient totem spirit who follows the protagonist around in the big city.
The apparently-new spice in the soup is that our protag exorcises demons, rather than being some other form of supernatural denizen. Of course, being a tough, slightly-smart-alecky protagonist exorcist(1), he has to refuse to talk about God while exorcising demons at the behest of various clergy(2), but that's what you expect from kids these days.
He's a rookie NYPD officer, so you know he'll be pulled in to a shadowy group that exists to keep the peace with vampires, werewolves, and whatever else they can find to shoot at. And the federal agency that does the same thing, being federal, will be run by tight-ass, career-minded jerks who want to make sure the honest cops of the NYPD fail.
And the vampire princess will be beautiful. And she will fall hopelessly in love with the protagonist the moment they meet.
And the new street drug making people go crazy and kill each other will be based on something supernatural and part of some plot that threatens the princess, the city, and probably life as we know it.
But don't get me wrong: I would have been happy to have read this even if it cost more than a dollar. It's schlock, but it's competently written schlock with fun characters (the totem spirit character—trying not to give any spoilers here—is especially memorable), the exorcism angle (although basically tossed off-screen early in the book) is nicely handled, the main character has a great collection of flaws and foibles (none of which the fantasy-wish-fulfillment vampire princess girlfriend could ever see, but she's not one of the better-drawn characters), and the expected plot direction (hint: it's vampire politics; it's always vampire politics) is quite readable.
There isn't really any plot here, just a series of vaguely-related things that happen, but for a quick, standalone story about an interesting angle on comfortable tropes, I'm glad I read it.
There is one caveat, though: I went ahead and read the second book in the series, Demon Driven. Don't. It's a bait-and-switch to a completely different genre, it display the weak stereotypes, hackneyed angst, and transparent sitcom miscommunications that the first book avoided, and it falls apart in a badly-plotted ending. Treat this as a one-shot and you'll do fine.
Footnotes: 1) You can't have an actual, religious protagonist—even an exorcist—unless he's a priest or (maybe) some other kind of clergy in a modern fantasy book without being pigeonholed as "Christian literature."(3) If that happens, your market expands tenfold, but no one outside of that market takes you seriously. And there are so many things wrong with that, I don't know where to begin.
2) This being NYC, clergy of all types are mentioned, as long as they aren't Muslim.
3) Of course, generic, woovy-groovy all-encompasing "Native American" shaman are grandfathered in, as long as they mostly follow some Americanized representation of a trickster god.(less)
Summary: There's nothing really wrong with this modern-fantasy-intercut-with-historical-fantasy. It's inexpensive and a quick read and a fine way to s...moreSummary: There's nothing really wrong with this modern-fantasy-intercut-with-historical-fantasy. It's inexpensive and a quick read and a fine way to spend a few hours. I don't know that it starts a series I want to follow, but I'm glad enough to have spent some time with it.
This is one of that horde of self-published-on-Kindle genre fiction that keeps promising—someday—to give us gems that bypass the slush piles at overworked print houses but—in the meantime—keeps delivering good self-tests for aspiring copyeditors(1). The basic setup is stock enough to be comforting and unconventional enough to be tantalizing: cross-cut chapters between a modern, amnesiac, magic-wielding thief(2) and a 15th century magic-wielding monster hunter, thankfully without any real pretense that we don't know they're going to be the same person.
The main characters are likeable enough and the overall world setup is interesting. If you find the genre(s) enjoyable it's a reasonable way to clear the palate between books you'll care to remember.
And that's the problem. When I looked at the sequel (Born of Hatred) on the Amazon store, I realized that, despite having finished Crimes Against Magic less than three days ago, I can't actually recall the main character's situation at the end of the book. Or what his name was. Or what the actual primary conflict in the larger, modern setting was. I know it had something to do with someone trying to torture people to turn them into magical nasties, but I'm pretty sure that turned out to be uninteresting to the main character and he went off in search of someone else instead. I do think there was a fight scene against a gargoyle in the modern story. Maybe there were two. But I can't think of any reason to start the second book. It's $4.99 on Kindle, which may be above my "get it for a spare bus trip someday" level.
The 15th century story was much better presented. I knew what the character was doing and why he was doing it and I mostly cared that he succeeded. I definitely liked the secondary characters (and the villains) in that story. As a bit of fun, it was a bit of fun. As historical fantasy, it was just a bit of fun, though. I don't know that anything in the text couldn't have been transported to any other poorly-detailed time period or location that wasn't in a modern city. This wasn't "15th century France," it was "a generic place where mercenary werewolves were killing people on both sides of a war."
Oh, I remembered something else: there was a bit about someone claiming to be descended from Cassandra, despite the protag knowing that Cassandra died (well, was murdered) childless. This bit of interest was then promptly ignored and never picked back up.
So the modern story won't stack up for the modern, urban fantasy crime crowd; the backstory won't stack up for the historical fantasy crowd; and the actual plot has completely slipped my mind. But I definitely have a feeling that it was a pleasant way to spend some time when I was travelling over the holidays and the cheap price plus lack of weight to carry it along in digital form left me pleased enough to read it.
I'm happy to keep checking out Steve McHugh's new books. Sadly, I'm not sure I can talk myself into five bucks for the sequel to this one. I wouldn't look down on my friends if they read Crimes Against Magic the next time they want some discount comfort food. I'd even gladly lend them my copy (since digital lending is thoughtfully enabled on it, which I heartily applaud). And if one of my friends loaned me a copy of the sequel, I'd happily read it while watching TV or crocheting or something.
Maybe that isn't a bold, resounding endorsement, but it's a lot better than many of books that made it through the slush piles at some of the print houses.
1) Although the self-published-on-Amazon crowd (and, by and large, the self-published crowd) tend to poor line editing (typos, word confusion, bizarre layout, grammatical errors that distract the reader, etc.), this book didn't jump out in that way. I commented while I was reading it that it read very, very smoothly for the flock it flies with.
2) I think "modern, amnesiac, magic-wielding thief" is a common enough trope to warrant a name at this point. (less)
So far, the Sandman Slim books have been non-stop, rollicking fun. Our (anti)hero, Stark, just wants to be left alone and he'll kill anything that get...moreSo far, the Sandman Slim books have been non-stop, rollicking fun. Our (anti)hero, Stark, just wants to be left alone and he'll kill anything that gets in the way of that, which keeps him picking up strays to care for and responsibilities to maintain at a disturbing rate. As of this short story, listed as volume "3.5" in the books, he's taken over the title of Lucifer and trying to keep hell from boiling over into rebellions that could affect the mortal world. After all, the mortal world is where he keeps his stuff. And his favorite bar. And the vampire-thing he's kind of dating. And the video rental store he stole.
You see how it is. A short story about him proving he's as tough as they say would come in handy right about now.
But it's barely a three-out-of-five, sadly, for two reasons.
First, setup isn't strong. It isn't clear if the story is intended to be only for readers familiar with book 3, but there are too many throwaway characters and too many lines explaining what someone who's read along so far already knows and somone jumping in at this story probably won't understand anyway.
The action is fine (and actually understated, for the series), and we get some great bits from Stark about why he's immune to the various psychological harrassment that does in the Hellions around him, but the mythology behind it, and the motivation for him to be involved at all, aren't handled as well as we know Kadrey can do in a longer form. It feels like the various mythology sections of book 3 pared down to a few dozen lines, which just doesn't work well.
But it's the second flaw that really hurts the story: It just doesn't matter. I mean, it really doesn't matter. At the end of the story, it might as well not have happened. We get some fun along the way, but it has one of those auctorial cop-outs that make a story basically a writing exercise. Story, but no plot.
It is possible, of course, that Kadrey intends to reference this story somewhere later, and it's possible that the cop-out is an important plot element. I hope so. It would be great. But even then, there would be ways to write the story (or maybe times to release the story) that wouldn't leave the reader feeling as cheated.
If you read the series, and if you're continuing after book 3, go ahead and spend the $0.99 to get this and enjoy it. But try to have the next book handy for when you realize it wasn't what you wanted.(less)
Capsule Review: This is a funny, often-offensive book that winds up being more than it says on the tin. Our protag narrates his awful predicament (yes...moreCapsule Review: This is a funny, often-offensive book that winds up being more than it says on the tin. Our protag narrates his awful predicament (yes, he really is being eaten by a bear) and intercuts flashbacks and explanations as he tries to convince the reader to be sympathetic. It is short enough that the schtick doesn't get old and the real story is handled delicately enough that it works well. There is more here than simple laughs at the protag's expense and he is neither the simple schlimazel nor the Brett Easton Ellis-esque ass that he seems. This is a great book in the Unreliable Narrator space; it's also a good and accessible introduction to the Bizarro world.
Full Review: Simple summary: Marv Pushkin brought his employees, his wife, and his mistress into the woods on a team building exercise. Now he's trapped under his SUV (a jack slipped while changing a tire) and a bear is chewing on his foot. He narrates, explaining his circumstances and trying to explain how it happened without it ever looking like it was his fault, revisiting events as necessary when his omissions or outright lies fail.
I'm going to 5 stars on this one. I admit to being influenced by my love of Bizarro Lit, but there is more to it than that. The book has to work on several levels.
It's a joke, of course, and that has to stay fresh. Hansen keeps the joke going by mixing it up: the bear wanders off to do whatever it is bears do in the woods, the bear comes back, the bear eats the protagonist's beef jerky instead of the protagonist, a different bear comes by--and our protagonist is angry at the slight to his bear. He fantasizes about killing the bear but promises us that he would do so with respect. As the book proceeds the painkillers he's taking leave him less cognizant and more loquacious, giving us hallucinations, dreams, and paranoia to break up any monotony in the narration.
Of course, if it were just a joke, you'd give it about 15 pages and give up. We also get a mystery story. Marv intimates early on that something happened and that he had plans and goals that weren't obvious. He doesn't really want to reveal anything about these, but his urge to confess--or at least to explain, since he isn't always certain that he's done anything wrong--keeps revealing pieces of the story: What happened with his wife? What was done to his pants and jacket? Was anyone else in the car when he went to change the tire? How did the tire come to need changing? Why hasn't his team sent for help? The mystery is handled very well, with pieces revealed that lead to other pieces and Marv's awareness of how much he's revealing about himself varying with his medications.
That sort of mystery also leaves an opening for character study: Marv is a drug-addled, philandering, racist, narcissistic, power-mad ass terrified of being exposed as a fraud. As he reveals what led him to his predicament, both what he says and what he doesn't say reveal his deepest feelings of guilt, shame, and fear. To Hansen's credit, Marv stays an ass: there is no attempt to excuse any of his actions. If anything, we see how he's turned away from every offer of help and support. When we reach the end--a one-two punch of understated revelation and consequence--Marv's character study is complete. Rather than just the "this is the guy and this is why he is that way" that some stories offer, we have a more complete picture: Here is the guy and his past and his psychology, and here is a new situation for you to watch and see how it all affects him.
And there needs to be a story. A guy waking up, getting gnawed on, and going to sleep over and over is barely a vignette, much less a story. We have Marv's personal life story (which may be coming to an end, given the circumstances), his marriage, his career, his affair, and his potential psychological insight and transformation/breakthrough--as well as the bear's story, actually--which need to progress and, to some degree, resolve. These all do so successfully and some are much, much more than successful. The revelations ramp up towards the end of the story: Where was he driving and why? What was on his pants? What happened to his SUV? What will Marv do after he's rescued (if he's rescued)?
The resolutions are handled gently, without calling too much attention away from Marv. This is good, because we have two well-handled shocks in the climax that elevate this above the "joke" story or "shockingly foul" story and remind us that Bizarro literature isn't just being show-offy or reactionary or goofy.
At its best, Bizarro fiction mixes language and imagery into metaphors that let the author write about perception, belief, and interpretation directly and allow the reader to experience the metaphors rather than describe them. At the end of the book, Hansen can simply show us what Marv saw and what Marv's reaction was; we know his voice and his past and his fears well enough that trying to describe his emotions would get in the way.
So yeah. I'm going to 5 on this one. Two chapters from the end, I wouldn't have thought so. But the author came through way better than I expect.(less)
The premise is simple: Insane fans who worship Bruce Campbell use unexplained technology to destroy William Shatner while he's hosting a convention, b...moreThe premise is simple: Insane fans who worship Bruce Campbell use unexplained technology to destroy William Shatner while he's hosting a convention, but instead it pulls many/most of his characters into our world and seals off the convention and pits the characters against "Real" Shatner in a battle to the death.
When you put it that way, how could it fail?
On the plus side: It's a novella, so the joke doesn't have time to fall too flat. It treats the "Real" Shatner kindly. Great running gags about the Singing Shatner. Includes Elizabethan Shatner and Twilight Zone Shatner and others that are easy to miss. Has Denny Crane Shatner, which more stories need.
But there are plenty of minuses, mostly in the world-building. We have a hyper-violent society with unnecessarily explicit torture that only seems to matter once. Convention security are referenced repeatedly but only appear in two scenes. Some thought seems to have gone into how the two high-tech bombs work and how the failure of one leaves the imported characters (Kirk Shatner is able to activate a toy light saber, creating a spectacular crossover at the expense of a deus ex machina), but we get minimal, muddled explanations, as well as other plot devices like a "static field" that keeps anyone from leaving for help. The relationship between the rest of the world and the Campbellians is unclear and hard to believe. Some history about "network wars" and other celebrities being executed feels hand-wavey at best.
The writing was readable, although muddled on any details that weren't action and avoided most action details by describing action after-the-fact. I couldn't tell it if was supposed to be a thriller, a comedy, or satire. The level of violence seemed erratic and probably gratuitous. The writing around the cold, murderous convention organizer was completely different in tone from the earnest, doomed terrorists or the desperate "Real" Shatner or the various parodies of Shatner's characters. Add in a bizarrely superfluous faux-Shatner character and a completely unnecessary and jarring scene with Animated Kirk Shatner and it felt a little like reading a shared-world story.
But really, it's short, it's cheap, and it has Rescue 911 Shatner standing around dying people asking the air to stay tuned and see if paramedics make it in time, while The Negotiator Shatner (from the Priceline commercials) keeps saying he can get them out of here cheaper and every shatner stops to remind you not to interact with Singing Shatner, since "he only does it for the attention."
As a wrapper for some fun fanboy slapstick, it's 3 or 4 stars. As actual science fiction, it's 2.
Call it 3 stars, get the ebook version cheap, and have a fun, quick read.(less)