Redemptor is another fantastic addition to the Valducan series, becoming the fourth book to be published in the sequence, though I think any of the novels can be enjoyed as a standalone. That said, while each of the first three books have featured a different protagonist, this one breaks the pattern by swinging the focus back to Matt Hollis, the demon hunter whom we first met in Dämoren. Prospective readers who wish to get the full picture may want to tackle that one first, since Redemptor contains quite a few characters and references from book one.
Our story begins approximately three years after the events of Dämoren, which saw the defeat of Tiamat’s Cult at Matt Hollis’s hands. Matt is now married to Luiza, a fellow Valducan Knight, and they even have a daughter. But still, the war on demonkind continues, as does the hunt for more sacred weapons to add to the Valducan arsenal. These sentient weapons are the only things capable of destroying a demon, and the knights who wield them are also bonded to them for life, their minds, bodies, and souls becoming one with the angelic spirit within.
Understandably, everyone is concerned when grave news emerges from South America that someone has been trying to steal holy weapons from museums across the continent. An evil buried long ago has suddenly awakened, leaving a trial of death and destruction in its wake. Now even the paladins of the Catholic Church have stepped in to join the fight, offering to put aside their differences with the Valducans in order to help stop their common foe.
So far, each book in the series has expanded upon the world-building and mythology of holy weapons, and Redemptor was no exception. We also get to find out more about the inner workings of the Valducan. In the years since Dämoren, Matt has become an important member of the order, hunting demons with a team instead of being the lone wolf he once was. A bigger cast of characters opens up the book to multiple perspectives, giving the reader a fuller and more detailed picture of the relationships between the various knights, as well as the roles they play. I especially enjoyed the sections featuring Mei and her training sessions with her master, highlighting the importance of trust and friendship among the ranks. No matter who they are or where they come from, the members of the Valducan are like one big family.
But unlike the earlier books like Dämoren or Hounacier, which mainly followed a single hunter, we don’t get to know any one character as intimately in Redemptor. It’s also a very fast-paced and action-oriented novel, so there’s not as many opportunities for in depth characterization—another reason why it might be best to start this series from the beginning if you are a newcomer, so that you can get the foundation for Matt’s character from the first book. Existing fans, however, will most likely find this one to be the most exciting and action-packed installment yet. Matt and his friends are up against the most powerful and dangerous enemy they’ve ever faced, and once this plot gets going, it doesn’t stop.
This book also introduced Felisa, a formidable female paladin of the Vatican, and she was probably my favorite character. Religion tends to be a contentious subject in sci-fi and fantasy, and often, I find that the Church or religious figures in many of these stories are set up to be scapegoats or strawmen, which to me is just lazy writing, and then there are the blatant stereotypes of the zealot. In contrast, it was a breath of fresh air to meet someone like Felisa, who is a strong, positive force—merciless when dealing with demons, but who also has boundless compassion and support to give to people like Luiza’s mother, whose faith is a beautiful and integral part of her life. I hope this won’t be the last we see of Felisa, especially since I’m very interested to see how the partnership between her people and the Valducan will play out, now that the Catholic Church is an ally.
I’m sure I sound like a broken record by now, but simply put, this is a fantastic series and perfect for readers who enjoy their urban fantasy with some darkness and grit. Redemptor was another action-packed sequel featuring compelling characters and topnotch world-building. I can’t wait to read more Valducan.
Audiobook Comments: Certain narrators who make books a better listen than a read, and R.C. Bray is definitely one of them. I’ve been an admirer of his work ever since I listened to him read The Martian, and I love that he is also the voice of the Valducan series. He’s the kind of narrator who can adapt to anything he’s reading, and once again he was excellent with Redemptor, capturing the atmosphere and mood of the story, delivering a pitch-perfect performance....more
While I will always continue to recommend and cheer on The Arcadia Project series, this third and I think final installment was probably my least favorite. Having said that, it was well written, as the two previous books had been. Plus, we get to see the return of many of our favorite characters, both good and bad. Whether you love them or hate them, the unique and fascinating personalities that you find in these books are the key to making this series so vibrant and enjoyable to read.
Impostor Syndrome once again stars Millie Roper, a young woman with borderline personality disorder who is still trying to get a handle on all her mental health issues. She’s also a suicide survivor, who had to have her lower legs amputated following her disastrous attempt to take her own life. After joining the secret organization known as the Arcadia Project, keeping tabs on the Seelie and Unseelie denizens of fey realm was able to keep Millie on a new track, but recent events have not helped her already fragile state of mind. A rift has formed in the Arcadia Project, and as a result the fey are at war, with half the Court backing the Los Angeles branch while the other half has thrown in their lot with London. This leaves Millie and her boss Caryl scrambling to find allies for LA, hoping to head off the conflict before things can get too far out of hand.
But then, London decides to play dirty. In an underhanded attempt to sabotage LA, they arrange to have Millie’s partner Tjuan framed for a crime he didn’t commit. As a result, one of LA’s most senior agents is forced into hiding, and it’s up to Millie to find the real culprit and clear Tjuan’s name. Following the clues across the Atlantic and beyond, our protagonist finds herself entangled in web of secrets and lies that go much deeper than anything she could have imagined. With the fates of the mundane realm and Arcadia hanging in the balance, Millie must pull off the greatest heist that both worlds have ever seen by cracking the fae Queen’s impenetrable vault to get at the answers that lie within.
Impostor Syndrome may be the series’ most ambitious book yet. Unfortunately, it also felt like it contained the least amount of development. In preparation for this review, I went back to see what I had written for the first two books, Borderline and Phantom Pains, to see if I could spot what might have been lacking from this third installment. In the end, I determined that the missing ingredient is none other than that sense of wonder and awe which comes with being surprised by something unexpected. With Borderline, I was impressed because what started as a rather conventional urban fantasy quickly morphed into a kind of story I’d never seen before. Mishell Baker portrayed the fey and their realm in refreshingly new and interesting ways, introducing concepts like the Arcadia Project, Echoes, and a whole bevy of other neat ideas. Against all odds, Millie also won me over despite being the kind of protagonist many would find difficult to like. The sequel Phantom Pains developed these elements, patiently planting the seeds in a carefully constructed plot which ultimately led to shocking revelations.
In contrast, Impostor Syndrome felt less well put together, at least when compared to its predecessors. The first quarter of the book was also sluggish and boring (two words I never thought I’d have to use to describe this series) as we followed Millie and the gang around for several chapters while they played at faerie politics, which is quite possibly the most overused trope in stories about the Fey. This unfortunately set the tone for most of what came after, as the characters were shuttled from one disjointed scene to the next, and it took way too long for the main conflict to reveal itself and for the real story to start.
Then, there was Millie. I loved her character unequivocally in the first two books, but something about her just rubbed me the wrong way in this one. I’ve never minded her personality, even though it can be extremely unpleasant and exasperating at times, because up to this point, Millie has been portrayed as a dynamic individual who is constantly growing and adapting. However, in Impostor Syndrome, her character felt stagnant. For the most the book, the narrative merely rehashed the same old patterns of Millie’s self-conflict as well as her conflict with others that we’ve seen before. By the time her epiphany came around at the end, it was a little too late and she was already on my last nerve.
Needless to say, this wasn’t the feeling I’d hoped for when it comes to the conclusion of one of the best urban fantasy series I’ve come across in years. And yet, I’ll always love these books, because nothing can change the fact that Mishell Baker has created something very special in The Arcadia Project. While Impostor Syndrome may have been a bit lackluster when compared to the previous novel, I would still highly recommend this trilogy to anyone looking for a refreshingly imaginative and unique urban fantasy series....more
These Oberon side stories have been given a series name now, called Oberon’s Meaty Mysteries (which is just so perfect) so hopefully that will mean a lot more of these hilarious novellas to come! Spinning off from Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles, this book once again follows Atticus O’Sullivan’s faithful Irish wolfhound as he and his owner embark (pun intended) upon another mini-adventure to solve a mystery and bring the dastardly culprits to justice.
While knowing the basics behind the main Iron Druid series will help you get the most out of this story, thankfully like its predecessor The Purloined Poodle, this one can be read perfectly fine as a standalone if you just feel like jumping in. This time, our doggie protagonist and his human are off to Portland. But first, Oberon would like everyone to know: Squirrels are pure evil and must be stopped at all costs—especially when they are so bold as to hitch a ride on the train.
After giving chase to a particularly impudent squirrel through the crowded Portland station and banishing it into a stairwell, Oberon and his fellow canine companions Orlaith and Starbuck inadvertently lead Atticus to stumble upon the scene of a crime. A man with an uncanny resemblance to him has been murdered, shot through the skull with a plastic bolt fired from a crossbow. Stunned and disturbed at how much the victim looks like him, Atticus is driven to do some investigating for himself, and with few leads to work with, the lead detective on the case reluctantly agrees to let the druid and his hounds help her out.
I’ve only read a few books in the Iron Druid Chronicles, but even with my limited experience with the series, it was impossible not to fall in love with Oberon. For readers who simply can’t get enough of this goofy pooch, you must read these novellas, which are completely told from his point of view, and as an added bonus, this book also features a lot more of his fellow wolfhound Orlaith as well as Starbuck the Boston terrier. Once again Hearne does a fantastic job putting his readers inside his canine characters’ heads, and all the doggy quips never failed to crack me up. In particular, Starbuck reminds me very much of my own dog with his adorable outbursts of “Yes food!” or “No squirrel!” which sounds just about right.
Compared to the first book though, this one was perhaps a tad less funny, with many of the jokes and pop culture references feeling a bit forced. The mystery plot was also a bit slapdash in places, with explanations that don’t make a lot sense or are simply glossed over to push the story along. Still, I can’t say I minded too much, considering these novellas are meant to be breezy little excursions on the side and nothing too complex. That said, in a head-to-head, I would hand the edge to The Purloined Poodle in a heartbeat, hence my slightly lower rating to this follow-up, but in the end you really can’t go wrong with either of these novellas which are both solidly fun and entertaining.
Bottom line? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Dog lovers, Iron Druid enthusiasts, and Kevin Hearne fans—this one’s for you. I had a great time with The Squirrel on the Train, which proved to be another lighthearted diversion featuring one of Urban Fantasy’s most popular and beloved pets. With luck, I hope to see even more books starring Oberon in the future....more
Seventeen-year-old protagonist Alice Proserpine has never stayed in one place for long. Most of her childhood memories involve being on the road, staying with one family friend or another until her mother Ella decided that they had to move on. Ella never spoke of why they had to live this way, but Alice always felt the sense that her mother was trying to run away from something. But run away from what? Alice has no idea, though she can guess from Ella’s tight-lippedness about her past that it might have something to do with the Hazel Wood, a magnificent home nestled somewhere in the woods of upstate New York. The estate belonged to Alice’s grandmother Althea Proserpine, an author who achieved cult celebrity with her book of fairy tales titled “Tales from the Hinterland”. It was probably no coincidence that no sooner had they received news of Althea’s death, Ella finally decided that they could settle down in the city and start a normal life. She even marries Harold, a wealthy businessman, so that Alice has to start going to school at an exclusive academy for rich kids, where she feels like a fish out of water.
The only person closest to a friend is Ellery Finch, a somewhat geeky and awkward boy whose father is one of the richest people in New York City. Finch also happens to be an Althea Proserpine superfan, and has been fascinated with Alice ever since he found out that the author was her grandmother. Alice, however, is nettled to have to admit that she knows next to nothing about Althea, nor has she even ever read “Tales from the Hinterland”, for Ella had always forbidden her to seek out her grandmother or her work. Still, Alice had tried, and none of her efforts had ever borne fruit. Althea’s book has become very rare and hard to find, and it appears only a small circle of mega-enthusiasts know all the stories. Then one day, Alice comes home from school to find that her mother has been stolen away, and the only clue she left behind was a message: “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.” Getting a sick feeling that this has everything to do with her grandmother and her fairy tales, Alice turns to Finch, the only person she can think of who might be able to help her rescue Ella.
If my usual blurb seems a bit more detailed than normal, it’s because The Hazel Wood is a novel filled with so much breathtaking allusion and tantalizing prose that it’s almost overwhelming to consider the amount of setup packed into the first few chapters. Although the fantasy aspect doesn’t come into play for quite a while, even from the start I could feel the aura of mystery and magic wrapped around everything despite the ordinary urban setting.
I was also pulled into the story right away, captivated by the power of Alice’s personality and voice. Granted, she’s not always the most pleasant person to be around, being prone to some truly disconcerting moments of anger as well as snide remarks. But given her itinerant upbringing and the darkness that is later revealed in her life, it makes perfect sense. She also has a dry sense of humor that I found strangely endearing, as well as those rare moments where we got to catch a glimpse of her true self through the cracks in her armor. Belying Alice’s fierce independence is in fact a frightened young girl whose nightmare scenario has just come to pass. Her mother has always been a constant presence in her life, and now she is gone. It is little wonder then that Alice ends up latching onto Finch, who became my favorite character the moment he came into the picture. I’ve always had this soft spot for the geeky type of guys in YA who might not be conventionally attractive but are nonetheless charming and cute in their own way.
As time goes on, the book starts going through a transformation, becoming darker and stranger until at the end, readers are faced full on with the magical fairy tale-like elements of the story. Ironically, I actually found myself less enamored of The Hazel Wood at this point, because the plot loses a lot of its uniqueness and instead plunges into territory that has been covered before in a plethora of other YA novels and re-imaginings with fairy tale themes or settings. Without doing into spoilers, I also did not like how the book ended. One could say this was a fitting way to wrap things up given the overall tone of the story, and, if I’m being completely honest, on some level I can even understand why the author decided to do it this way. Still, I was left pretty feeling pretty cheated and unsatisfied. It seemed a shame that we started things roaring but ended them on a whimper.
However, I am encouraged by the fact that a follow-up is already in the works. Rarely have I been this happy to find out that a book I’ve just finished is going to be part of a series. While I think The Hazel Wood will work perfectly fine as a standalone, if ever a book needed a sequel, it’s this one. Hopefully, the next chapter of Alice’s journey will reveal more answers and dispel the unsettled feelings I got from the ending. Above all, I’m also looking forward to reading more of Melissa Albert’s gorgeous writing. The Hazel Wood may have a few flaws, but overall it is an impressive debut....more
Ever wonder what it’s like to be a girlfriend or wife of a superhero? The answer is not so glamorous in The Refrigerator Monologues, a new book containing a series of linked short stories by Catherynne M. Valente. Inspired by “Women in Refrigerators”, a term used to describe a trope used in many comic book plots involving the deaths, disablement, and disenfranchising of female characters to forward a male superhero protagonist’s storyline, this clever collection offers both a darkly humorous commentary on the subject as well as a vicious lampoon on these kinds of story arcs as a whole.
Meet the six women of the Hell Hath Club, all inspired by well-known characters in the DC or Marvel universes so that even passing fans of comics should recognize some of their origins. There’s Paige Embry, the brilliant and driven college student who saw her bright future snuffed out when she was thrown off a bridge by her superhero boyfriend’s arch nemesis. Gwen Stacy anyone? Or how about the powerful telepath and telekinetic, taken away at a young age for a school for special powered people to fight another group of special powered people by an ostensibly well-meaning professor, who later puts Jean Gre—I mean, Julia Ash on an otherwise all-male superhero team called the “Millennial Men”? And of course there’s also Samantha Dane, based off of Alexandra Dewitt, the girlfriend of Kyle Rayner whose gruesome manner of death in the Green Lantern comics is what inspired the “refrigerated” term in the first place.
The tales go on like this, each one exploring the background of a female character who has been killed, depowered, or generally dismissed in favor of the male superheroes (and in one case, a supervillain) in their lives. Now the six of them meet regularly in the afterlife, hanging out at a quaint little joint called the Lethe Café where they share their stories, support each other, and listen to the gargoyles bands play punk rock.
The Refrigerator Monologues was a quick read, offering brief but plentiful examples to illustrate the concerning trend in comic books of having bad things happen to female characters as merely a plot device. While these are entertaining stories, I’m afraid there’s also very little lightness to them. After all, the women portrayed here are meant to represent the victims of “lazy writing” and “stock storylines”, most of them reduced to playing second fiddle to their male superhero counterparts or as pet causes for their romantic partners. Valente shines a harsh, subversive light on the injustice and absurdity of these situations, from Gwen Stacy whose death has somehow become an inextricable and defining moment in the life of Spider-Man, to Harley Quinn who is forever standing resolutely by the Joker even after the bajillionth time he leaves her to rot in Arkham. The short vignettes here capture both the tragedy and comedy of the women’s fates by putting readers in their shoes.
I also thought the length and format of the book was perfect for the author’s vision. It is clear anything less would have failed to deliver the same level of poignancy, while a longer book containing more stories would have run the risk of being repetitive. The writing style here is very distinctive, aiming for biting humor and as much as snarky finesse, though after a while I found it difficult to distinguish the different voices of the women for they all seemed to speak with the same mannerisms. By the end, I was also feeling a little weary and heartsick from the underlying tones of sadness and dejection. For you see, this isn’t a book that “fixes” things, nor was it ever meant to be—I think Valente put it best in an article I once came across where she said (and I’m paraphrasing based on memory), “I might not be able to swoop in to save the damsel, but I can turn on the mic to let her scream.” You might read these stories expecting more anger and indignation from the characters, but ultimately the Hell Hath Club isn’t so much about fury than it is about a place where its members can come together to vent, grieve, commiserate, or simply to tell their personal stories and be heard.
In closing, I also want to give special mention to the world-building of Deadtown. Aside from being the most unique and interesting aspect of the book, this brilliant setting ties all the characters’ stories together and gives this collection a special touch. Being dead isn’t easy—you’re basically stuck wearing whatever god-awful outfit you were buried in for all eternity, and there are bizarre rules like how all food can only be made from plants and animals that have gone extinct, or that the only books available are those that have been forgotten to time, etc. Still, it isn’t all bad. Residents of Deadtown share the afterlife with a population of friendly gargoyles who sure know how to have a good time!
Finally, you certainly don’t need to be familiar with comics or comic book characters to appreciate this book, but knowing some of the context would probably help. Sharply droll and acerbic, The Refrigerator Monologues offers a look at the superhero genre from a rare but important perspective. Whether these stories make you laugh or cry, pound your fists or roll your eyes, at the end of the day they’re bound to evoke emotions and start some conversations. And sometimes, that’s all that really matters....more
Lake Silence is the first book of a new spin-off series set in world of The Others by Anne Bishop, therefore making a great place to jump on board if you’ve ever played with the idea of checking these novels out. While the story takes place in a different town following a group of new people, it still shares many traits with the original series such as Bishop’s incredible world-building as well as her flair for creating compelling and dynamic character relationships.
This novel opens on the small village of Sproing (is that not just the cutest name ever?) where a rustic little property called the Jumble sits beside the calm shores of Lake Silence. Our protagonist Vicki DeVine is the proprietor, having turned it into a cozy resort after receiving it in a divorce settlement. There’s a catch though; the land it is built on actually belongs to the Others, also known as the terra indigene—powerful, paranormal creatures that have called Earth home long before humans came into the picture. Territory controlled by the Others are often governed by strict rules, but as long you are willing to abide by them, most of the terra indigene are content to live in peace with the humans living on their land.
For Vicki, the Jumble has become her pride and joy, after all the time and effort she has put into upgrading the place. Her first tenant is even one of the Others, a shifter named Aggie Crowe. But then one day, Aggie finds a dead body on the property, so naturally, Vicki calls the police. When the human authorities arrive, however, they only bring more trouble and worries. Suddenly, our protagonist finds herself suspected of murder, despite evidence showing that no human could have committed the crime. Worse of all, someone appears to be after the Jumble, and they’ll do anything to force Vicki off the property even if it means angering the Others and threatening the stability of their domain.
If you are a newcomer, Lake Silence will cover everything you need to know. It really is meant to be a fresh start, with only minimal references to the events that took place in the previous series. Admittedly, for those who are already familiar with the world, most of the introduction of this book will feel routine, covering the history of the Others and explaining the natural order of things. Still, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing of interest for old fans. Sproing is a very different setting compared to Lakeside Courtyard, and there are also plenty of new names to learn, new places to visit. I especially enjoyed meeting Vicki DeVine, a fascinating protagonist despite her struggles with a lot of personal problems and insecurities. After the first few chapters told from her point of view, I already knew I was going to like her more than Meg Corbyn from the original series. Perhaps it was due to the first-person perspective, but I immediately connected with her on a deeper and more emotional level.
That said, I noticed quite a few parallels to the first series too. Sproing may not be Lakeside Courtyard, but it does contain certain similarities and analogs to it such as the quintessential good cop, the charming little bookstore, its own population of elemental ponies, and the list goes on. Even the attitudes and personalities of the villains remind me of the ones I’ve seen before in the previous series. The author appears to have recycled a lot of her ideas, repackaging them to be used here. Even Vicki is a lot like Meg in some ways, in that she is a victim of past abuses so that her fragile nature leads the Others to think she must be protected. On the one hand, I don’t see a problem with a spin-off series retaining a lot of the tone, spirit, and themes of the original, but on the other, part of me had hoped for something a little different and more inspired.
Still, this being the first book, I’m optimistic that the characters and setting will get their chance to develop their own distinctiveness as the series continues to grow and evolve. Already, there appears to be character backstories to explore and more connections to be made. Plot pacing and levels of excitement are also off to a good start, and the way things ended in this installment got me all pumped up and ready for the next one. In sum, Lake Silence is a great book if you enjoyed the previous five novels in the world of The Others, but it also makes a perfect beginning for readers who haven’t read them and are curious to see what the fuss is all about....more
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
A solid 3.5 star read. Kat Howard enchanted me with her debut Roses and Rot last year, so I was excited to check out An Unkindness of Magicians, her sophomore novel about a hidden world of magic and power. In this “Unseen World”, members of elite magical houses come together every few years to duke it out in a tournament called the Turning, with each family represented by their chosen champion. Ostensibly held to place each house in a hierarchical order based on magical proficiency, the competition may in fact be a front for a more nefarious purpose, as this twisted and snappy tale will soon reveal.
Unlike Howard’s first novel which was written in the first person, An Unkindness of Magicians features a larger cast and bounces between multiple third-person perspectives. Our key players include Sydney, a relative unknown who bursts upon the scene with her extraordinary and unmatched talent with magic; Laurent, an outsider who hopes to enter the Turning for a chance to establish his own House; Grey Prospero, Laurent’s best friend who was disinherited from his House as the result of a serious and undisclosed transgression he committed; Harper, an independent magician determined to infiltrate the Unseen World to discover the truth behind her best friend’s mysterious death; and of course, there are also Miles Merlin and Miranda Prospero, two powerful House leaders who each have a stake in how the Turning plays out.
The situation gets a little muddy though, as the heirless House Prospero takes on Ian Merlin, the beloved son of Miles, as their champion. Left with no other choice, House Merlin must put forth Ian’s sister as champion, potentially pitting the siblings against each other in a fight to the death. Meanwhile, acting as a free agent, Sydney has decided to partner with Laurent and compete on his behalf, and Grey, who is taking a page from his best friend, has decided to try and establish his own House as well, by representing himself in the Turning.
That’s a lot to take in, right? But wait—there’s more, believe it or not. I haven’t even gotten into the “serial killer” part of the plot yet, involving magical women who are murdered for their power-infused finger bones. Then there’s the House of Shadows, a prison for slaves and sacrifices, because unfortunately, magic isn’t an unlimited resource and using it exacts a cost. This is where the Shadows come in, paying the price for the great Houses’ power. As a child, Sydney was a prisoner of the House of Shadows, but she survived and is on her way to winning her freedom, as long as she can fulfill her orders and emerge victorious in the Turning, even if it means having to kill Ian Merlin, whom she has become romantically involved with.
If your head is spinning right now, I don’t blame you; I felt much the same while reading this book, especially in the first half while I struggled to keep all the names and their relationships straight. There’s almost too much going on here for a mere 350-page novel, and as you can imagine, the story felt extremely rushed. Character development also suffered because of this, with the focus being so dispersed on the different storylines and people involved. As a result, I found it nearly impossible to connect with anyone, a stark contrast from my experience with Roses in Rot, which mainly centered on the main protagonist and the deeply compelling relationship with her sister. Possibly, Howard is still trying to find her feet when it comes to writing a large cast and multiple perspectives, finding a balance between pacing and characterization that works. Things were a little shaky with An Unkindness of Magicians, which failed to impart the same level of emotional impact due to weaker characters as well as the breakneck speed at which we whipped through important events.
That said, the story itself is fascinating, and so is the Unseen World in which all of these magical power struggles take place. Furthermore, the second half of the novel is stronger than the first half—not coincidentally, perhaps, since this is also where Howard begins to stitch together the many pieces of the plot. Once the bigger picture starts to take shape, this is when the author’s writing really shines. While her prose in this book is not as beautiful or as deft as it was in Roses and Rot, it does come through every now and then, especially during some of the story’s quieter moments.
All told, I didn’t think Kat Howard’s An Unkindness of Magicians was as meaningful or as gorgeously wrought as her debut, but it does make up for that in other areas, like having a fantastic premise and imaginative world-building. Lack of character development and uneven pacing are perhaps the novel’s main weaknesses, but in spite of that, I still enjoyed myself. I’ll continue to be on the lookout for the author’s future work....more
When I Cast Your Shadow is a very different kind of story about a haunting. In it, we follow teenagers Ruby and Everett Bohnacker, twins who are still grieving for their older brother Dashiell following his tragic drug overdose. In life, Dash had been a popular, handsome, and charming young man, but underneath that perfection was also a cruel and manipulative side. Now not even death can stop him, as his devious spirit returns to the world of the living in order to coerce his siblings into helping him finish what he started.
First, Dash sets his sights on Ruby, knowing that her love for him would make her a malleable and compliant target. He invades her mind while she sleeps, convinces her to let him drown her in her dreams, which would then allow Dash to possess her waking body like a puppet. Not content with just having his little sister under his thumb though, Dash does the same thing to Everett next, using the boy’s concern for his twin as a weapon. With the ability to possess both his younger siblings, Dash proceeds to drag his family into a dangerous game, involving Ruby and Everett in his battle against some powerful dark forces in the Land of the Dead.
On paper, this book sounded awesome. The premise hinted at a possible new twist on ghosts and had the potential to be a creepy YA horror. Unfortunately though, the story ended up falling short of my expectations due to poor execution, as well as an overall sense of “strangeness” about it that just didn’t really sit well with me.
First were the unlikeable characters. Dash, whose role made him something of a trickster, was obviously meant to be unpleasant, but instead of making me feel more sympathetic towards Ruby or Everett, this only made me grow more frustrated with both of them. The twins are naïve and exasperating in their own ways. Totally blinded to Dash’s faults and unable to see him for the toxic influence he is, Ruby’s hero-worship of him made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, especially with the strong implications that her love for him went beyond the sisterly-brotherly type. Everett was also infuriating with his tunnel vision and complete lack of agency or ability to make any meaningful impact for most of the story, which is a shame because this was due to his character being treated like a footnote for the first half of the book.
On top of that, it was difficult to form any lasting connection with any of the characters because of how utterly bizarre and unrelatable they were. Most of what they said and did struck me as either strange, silly, or lacked common sense. Character development for Ruby and Everett wasn’t so much as non-existent as it was a complete mess, as they seemed to be always flip-flopping on their motivations or feelings. The worst was Dr. Bohnacker, who would be a loving father one moment, but in the next he would be spouting off some of the vilest, most spiteful things that not even a parent in their darkest moments of grief should ever say—especially in front of their surviving children. Speaking of which, a lot of the dialogue was also clunky and awkward, which often made me cringe and think, “No one actually talks like that.” The less said about the cloying nicknames Dash has for Ruby and Everett the better, and their annoying constant repetition.
To the novel’s credit, the plot was actually quite imaginative, though it would have been better if it hadn’t been so confusing. While I enjoyed the concept behind the Land of the Dead and thought that many of the ideas regarding the spirits and possession were creative and suitably chilling, I was disappointed in the lack of explanation into Dash’s conflict with the story’s main antagonist, Aloysius. He was just the “bad guy”, with no context to justify his endgame.
The result was this muddled narrative punctuated with brief periods of brilliance and clarity—because to be fair, the story here did have some outstanding moments. I just don’t want to make this sound like a terrible book with no redeeming qualities as that is simply not the case, though my ambivalence after finishing this novel did prevent me from giving it more than a mediocre star rating. Ultimately the story, characters, and writing all fell short of my expectations, but hopefully others drawn to this book will end up enjoying it more than I did....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
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
Admittedly, I was both excited and a little nervous about starting Strange Practice because of the mixed reviews, but as it turned out, I ended up really enjoying it. Swiftly paced at times, but also slow-moving at others, I can see how some readers would be put off by the story’s hodgepodge construction and eccentric writing style. Fortunately though, the book’s mix of humor, mystery, urban fantasy, and gothic horror ultimately struck all the right chords with me.
Our protagonist is Dr. Greta Helsing, a woman who hails from a long and illustrious line of monster experts, though her family has long dropped the “van” from their name. Following in the footsteps of her father, Greta is a doctor for the supernatural, specializing in providing care for London’s underground population of undead creatures, with patients ranging from vampires to mummies. One day, Greta receives a request for help from her vampire friend Ruthven, who brings to her a special case. Another vampire has been gravely injured, and the patient is none other than Sir Francis Varney himself, from the famed Victorian era gothic horror tale. Varney had been stabbed by a mysterious cross-shaped blade, following an ambush in his home by an intruder with glowing blue eyes dressed in monk robes. At once, Greta can sense something wrong, and not least because the vampire is unable to heal from his wound.
After stabilizing her patient, Greta and her friends set their sights on figuring out the culprit behind the heinous attack. Meanwhile, there’s also a Jack the Ripper-like serial killer on the loose, targeting prostitutes and leaving plastic rosaries in their mouths as a calling card. Although the methodologies are different, our protagonist is concerned that the recent string of killings and the attack on Varney may be connected, and all too soon those fears are realized as Greta becomes a victim of blue-eyed monk herself.
I was completely charmed by this novel from the very first page. Greta is such a great character, with her selfless mission to carry on her father’s work in serving the paranormal community of London. Of course, her specialized clinic keeps her pretty busy, and as a result she keeps mostly to herself, both out of necessity (it’s hard explaining what she does for a living to any new people she meets) as well as from the amount of work she gets from trying to help anyone who comes to her for care. Fortunately, she has some very good friends around to support her, and we are lucky to meet several of them here as well, including Edmund Ruthven, the wealthy vampire whom she treats for chronic depression (and who has the distinction of being one of the first vampires in literature), as well as Fastitocalon, a demon who has been a friend of the Helsings for generations (known as “Fass” to his friends, he quickly became a personal favorite).
At first, Greta may seem aloof, but over time we start to see her compassionate personality come through, and even a little bit of her wry sense of humor. To be honest, I was surprised at how often the jokes in the dialogue made me chuckle. In some ways this reminds of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, another series I love because of its dry, subtle, very British humor. As other reviews have noted, the language in Strange Practice is quite formal, despite the novel being an urban fantasy story set in the present day. The result is both strange and alluring, frequently transporting my mind back to the Victorian era, and the Ripper storyline simply added to this effect, even though the text is peppered with references to modern day amenities and technology.
However, I can easily see how this anachronistic writing style can be a deterrent for some readers. The prose got clunky at times, causing disruptions to the flow of the story, and unfortunately Greta’s medical jargon did little to help. Pacing was also slightly uneven, but certainly I’ve seen worse in a lot of other debuts, not to mention whenever things slowed down, I found that it was often due to character or relationship development and world-building, so I didn’t mind too much.
Overall, I was pretty happy with my time with Strange Practice. It read like an urban fantasy but with a very cool twist, and I took to the story’s unique blend of genre elements instead of being turned off by them like I had feared. That said, this probably won’t be a book for everyone, but for me it was quick read and I found it hard to put down. I’m already looking forward to the next one....more
Brad Abraham’s Magicians Impossible is a fascinating debut that blends together many genres, reading much like a magic school story for adults wrapped in a part-urban fantasy, part-spy thriller package. The novel stars protagonist Jason Bishop, a 30-year-old bartender from small town New York who has always felt deep in his heart that he was meant for bigger things. For many, such desires are nothing more than a pipe dream, but unbeknownst to Jason, the potential in him has always been in his blood.
Shortly after the apparent suicide of his estranged father Daniel, Jason discovers that he is actually the son of two very power magicians. Daniel, whose real name was actually Damon King, was a secret agent for the Invisible Hand, a secret coven of mages involved in an ancient war against another shadowy society of magic users called the Golden Dawn. After Jason was born, Damon had concocted a cover story so that the boy would never suspect his parents’ true identities, and then he distanced himself, becoming an aloof and absent father in order to keep his son hidden from his enemies.
As a result, Jason grew up harboring a deep resentment for Damon, knowing nothing about his family’s origins. The existence of a magical secret world was a shock to him, when at his father’s funeral, a mysterious stranger representing the Invisible Hand named Carter Block appeared before him and revealed everything about their order. Carter also told Jason the heartbreaking truth: Damon King did not really commit suicide—he was murdered. Now the Invisible Hand needs Jason on their side to strike back against the Golden Dawn and to complete the work his father started, hunting down a powerful artifact that could help turn the tide of this magical war. But first, to prepare him for the battles ahead, Jason will have to undergo and complete his secret agent mage training—and he’s got a lot of catching up to do.
From the start, I was impressed with the presentation of Magicians Impossible and was struck by how incredibly cinematic it was. If you’ve ever wished for more action in your urban fantasy, then this is the book for you. Hints of what to expect are in the title’s reference, which practically screams the kind of dynamic excitement and edge-of-your-seat thrills typically found in Mission Impossible or James Bond movies. In keeping with the comparisons to Hollywood blockbusters, however, one should not expect to go in finding anything too original in the novel’s plot either, though to Brad Abraham’s credit, he does a good job casting his own brand of magic on familiar ideas by combining them with other elements or sprucing them up with new and wild twists.
The flow of the novel is also relentlessly driven and fun, though like many debuts, the pacing does encounter unevenness in some places. Many new authors tend to become too enthusiastic with their first novels, biting off more than they can chew by trying to do too much, and I sense a mild case of that here. Things start to drag as we move into the second half of the book, following Jason as he is inducted into the Invisible Hand. This section was weighed down by too much exposition into the smaller details while not providing enough of the background information needed to understand the bigger picture, leaving me a bit confused as to ultimate purpose of these magical societies and their much flaunted all-important war. Abraham’s ideas are certainly ambitious, but perhaps his attention was spread too thin trying to juggle them all at once.
That said though, if you were drawn to this book by the promise of explosive action and riveting spycraft, I seriously doubt any of these issues will bother you. The flaws are also relatively trivial in the greater scheme of things, especially in a novel like Magicians Impossible which makes no bones about its prime objective—to entertain the reader above all else. While the plot might not be all that extravagant and the twists might be on the predictable side, these weaknesses are offset by the delectable fantasy elements, family drama, magical espionage, adrenaline-pumping fight sequences, and globetrotting adventure. I had a good time with this novel and hopefully Brad Abraham has plans for a sequel in the works, because I wouldn’t mind a chance to return to this world....more
Graveyard Shift, pitched as paranormal urban fantasy meets hard-boiled mystery noir, landed on my radar earlier this year and immediately had me salivating at its potential. On top of genre staples like vampires and shapeshifters, this intriguing debut also features a millennia-old main character who used to be a pharaoh and mummy, and as far as selling points go, you just can’t get much more irresistible than that.
When the story begins, our aforementioned former pharaoh/mummy protagonist and Miami vice cop Detective Alex Romer has just been called upon to investigate the scene of grisly murder. It appears that the serial killer known as “Abraham” has struck again, dealing another vicious blow Nocturn-human relations. While vampires—or Nocturns, as they prefer to be called—have been integrated into society ever since their big reveal many years back, these incidents are proof that not everyone has been quite accepting of them. Anti-vampire attitudes have led to groups of vigilantes targeting and killing Nocturns, and worse, the police has also recently learned of a rash of incidents involving poisoned artificial blood drinks showing up on store shelves, sending whoever consumes them into an uncontrollable frenzy.
Now Alex and his partner, an ancient vampire named Marcus, are on the case, doing whatever it takes to sniff out new leads, from shaking down black market blood-dealers in back alleys to trying to infiltrate the shady blood clubs operated by the violent gangs. Meanwhile, paranormal crimes are at an all-time high across Miami, straining the already stressed resources at the special police department in charge of such matters, which is unfortunately leaving their detectives with little support in the field. Desperate to put an end to the chaos but quickly running out of time to do it, Alex and Marcus are forced to team up with dubious allies in order to save innocent lives and keep the city from tearing itself apart.
While it didn’t turn out to be as original or distinctive as I’d hoped, Graveyard Shift was still a lot of fun. Unfolding like your typical police procedural, the story might not be breaking any new ground, but author Michael F. Haspil does succeed in injecting some fresh elements into this equation, and foremost of them is his main protagonist Alex. Once known as the Pharaoh Menkaure, Alex has racked up quite a resume for dealing with supernatural incidents in the thousands of years since he’s been around. Even before he became a Miami detective tasked with investigating Nocturn-related crimes, he was a part of UMBRA, a top-secret government organization involved with the hunting down of any wayward blood drinkers. However, now that the existence of vampires has been revealed to the world, his job has become a lot more complicated and mired in bureaucracy.
Despite the cool factor behind Alex’s origins though, I do wish that we’d gotten a bit more character development and backstory. While he may have fulfilled all the expectations of a standard urban fantasy hero, few of his personality traits stood out to me in particular, and there was also nothing specific in the book that convinced me that we were following the perspective of an ancient Egyptian king, beyond what the text simply stated. On top of that, we were only given tiny and infrequent glimpses into his past, though to be fair, I suspect Haspil might have been vague on Alex’s history on purpose in order to save that story for a future installment. While I wish we’d gotten a fuller picture of his character, I can also understand why an author might want to hold on to some cards and not reveal them all too early.
The story was entertaining and its fast pace kept me on my toes. That said, there was also a lot going on, and sometimes the multiple plot threads had a way of straying from the main conflict. If you enjoy action and mystery though, this novel will have plenty to satisfy your thirst, and eventually everything will tie together and set up possibilities for the future.
All in all, Graveyard Shift is a debut that delivers a solid beginning, and the seeds of potential have been planted for this series to become a strong contender in the genre. The way the book ends leads me to think there will be a lot more to come and I look forward to seeing what’s next....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
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
A Kiss Before Doomsday is the second novel in an urban fantasy series starring Dru Jasper, a bookish sorceress whose power allows her to unleash the magical properties of precious stones and crystals. Pretty cool, right? Now Dru and the whole gang are back in another madcap adventure to prevent the end of the world, and once again the results are as entertaining and fun as you would expect.
Since the story begins in the immediate aftermath of the first book, I would highly recommend reading It Happened One Doomsday before tackling this one if you haven’t yet. I won’t spoil any of the details, but suffice it to say that our protagonist did not exactly come out of the previous ordeal unscathed. Dru’s store The Crystal Connection has been left completely destroyed, and her new boyfriend Greyson is missing after he and his demonic muscle car Hellbringer were blown up in the Netherworld. Dru doesn’t know what’s worse: the idea that Greyson is dead, or that he is still alive but still afflicted by the curse that transformed him into one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
In the meantime though, the city of Denver is facing other problems. Despite our characters’ efforts in the previous book, the world is still heading towards Doomsday, with signs that someone is still trying to fulfill the prophecy of the apocalypse scroll. The latest disaster is a plague of undead, and for some reason, they seem to be targeting all of the area’s magic users, including Dru and her friends.
If you’ve read my review of It Happened One Doomsday, then you’re probably aware already that I’m all over this fantastic series. With a flood of new urban fantasy titles coming out every year, it’s always refreshing to come across something that immediately leaps out at me, even if it’s because of seemingly minor things like a twist in the usual story formula or a really cool magic system. Little details like that are just as likely to catch my attention, and that’s exactly what happened when I read the first book last year and fell in love with the idea of crystal magic. Laurence MacNaughton did a great job taking off with the concept, allowing Dru to harness a crystal’s power depending on its properties (and there’s just something so charming about the idea of our main character running around with an arsenal of different crystals stuffed in her purse, so that she’ll be ready for any situation). The best part is, now that Dru’s magic is even stronger in this sequel, we get to see even more of her in action.
Then there are the characters. I love them all so much! Rane, my favorite Amazonian metal woman from the first book is back, and this time around she even has a mini-side plot involving her and a former flame, a jerkwad sorcerer named Salem. Opal also returns with a bigger role in this novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed watching the three friends working together to figure out why the dead are rising from the grave to attack sorcerers.
On the other hand, there was not as much of Greyson. This also meant less of Hellbringer, which was a shame since I am a big fan of that demon car. Still, Greyson and his hot rod taking a step back also meant the story got to really focus on our three ladies and their mission to kick some ass and rescue the guy for a change, so this was definitely a silver lining. That said, a part of me still wishes we could have seen more development into Dru’s relationship with Greyson, because while theirs was a whirlwind romance from the start, I wasn’t quite convinced that our protagonist would be the kind of girl to turn into a weeping mess over someone she’s only known for a couple weeks.
Apart from those minor quibbles though, I really have no complaints. With this solidly written sequel, Laurence MacNaughton really seems to be hitting his stride, giving readers more of his quirky characters and their action-packed adventures. Indeed, if the series continues in this exciting and lighthearted vein, it is sure to become smashing hit and be warmly welcomed by myself and other urban fantasy fans. A Kiss Before Doomsday was another excellent, fun-filled read, and I can’t wait for more....more
Ah, I love the Heartstrikers! I don’t know why it took me so long to read this book. Maybe it’s because I initially thought it was going to be the final installment and I just didn’t want the series to end! But A Dragon of a Different Color is in fact the penultimate volume, and I’m glad I finally got to read it. The story picks right up from the end of the previous book, so as always, the standard caveat applies for all my sequel reviews: spoilers for the previous books are possible, so avert thine eyes if you’re not caught up to the end of No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished yet.
Once again, we meet up with our protagonist Julius, the youngest and nicest dragon of the Heartstriker family. To stop his clan from literally killing itself, Julius had set out to change the way things worked—by overthrowing his tyrannical mother, Bethesda, and forming an elected council so that none of them would have to resort to bloody violence ever again. But in accomplishing his goals, Julius has also lost so much. As the book opens, we see him mourning for the death of a dear friend. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, his grief is soon compounded by another shocking revelation about his siblings Bob and Amelia. Julius can’t bring himself to believe that Bob, the Heartstriker seer and the brother who has always been so kind to him, would commit such an unthinkable act, but the evidence doesn’t lie. It also means there are now even fewer people our protagonist can trust.
Meanwhile, the powerful spirit of the lake Algonquin is stirring, and unfortunately, in the midst of all these changes, the Heartstrikers are in no state to defend themselves. It also appears that their weakness has not gone unnoticed by the Chinese dragons and their Golden Emperor, who are now seizing this opportunity to invade Heartstriker territory. But is everything truly as it seems? Julius soon learns why the Golden Emperor is so powerful and how he has reigned for so long. But the Golden Emperor has his secrets too, and clearing the air may be the Heartstrikers’ only chance to come out of this catastrophe in one piece.
With so much happening in this book, it’s no wonder that there was never a dull moment and the pacing remained energetic and non-stop throughout. The narrative mainly bounced between two different threads, the first being the dramatic events occurring at Heartstriker Mountain, where Julius has his confrontation with the Golden Emperor, and the second being a more metaphysical subplot involving the afterlife and discovering what happened to the world’s magic all those centuries ago. Algonquin, who has thus far been a powerful force in the background, also gets a bigger role in this book and readers are even provided a glimpse into the events from her point of view.
But for me, the highlight of this novel was everything that unfolded at Heartstriker Mountain. As fascinating as it was to learn about the history of the Merlins and magic, it couldn’t hold a candle to the emotions and action being tossed all around at Bethesda’s former stronghold. Julius puts his diplomatic talents to good use, and shows how being “nice” doesn’t necessarily have to mean being a doormat. Undoubtedly, the traumatic events of the previous novel must have taught him some lessons, because I loved how he has developed more of a backbone in this one, pushing back when the situation calls for it.
But of course, in other respects, Julius is not quite so quick on the uptake. By the end of No Good Dragon Goes Unpunished, I think most readers have already figured out the big secret involving his sister Chelsie, given all the obvious hints. If you’re anything like me, then you’ve probably been impatiently waiting for the moment Julius the Oblivious finally gets it, and this book will be immensely satisfying for you. Chelsie has become one of my favorite characters, which is really incredible if you think about how she began this series as a kind of bogeyman figure for Julius, as the clan enforcer everyone feared. Now I just can’t get enough of her, and it delighted me to see her open up in some downright touching and tear-jerking moments in this novel.
To be honest, aside from some of the more mystical elements got in the way of the flow sometimes, and the fact we also didn’t get to see as much of the rest of the Heartstriker family like Justin, there really weren’t too many flaws with this book. Besides, I believe that the strengths more than made up for these minor weaknesses. Everything is shaping up quite nicely for an epic finale. As sad as I am that the next book will indeed be the concluding volume, I’m making a promise to myself that this time I won’t wait as long to read it.
Audiobook Comments: I’ve gone back and forth between the audio and print for this series and personally I find both formats to be equally enjoyable. After reading the print edition of the previous book, returning to Vikas Adam’s narration was a nice change of pace. I enjoyed his performance (except his Bob still sounds way too goofy for my liking, even if it’s all part of his character) and his huge range of accents and voices means he’s fantastic at making each individual’s personality stand out....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
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
Ultimately, my second foray into the Dominion of the Fallen did not turn out the way I’d hoped, though to be fair, I did have a lot riding on this sequel. It’s true that the first book left me with mixed feelings, but I found the premise intriguing enough that I wanted to see where things would lead, and maybe give this series a another chance to sweep me off my feet. Regrettably, this did not quite happen—despite The House of Binding Thorns being a pretty decent follow-up. At the end of the day though, I simply found myself tripping over a lot of same hurdles as book one.
First of all, in spite of the suggestions that this can be read as a standalone, I would highly recommend against it. Definitely read The House of Shattered Wings first if you can; you will find the background information absolutely indispensable, especially in anchoring you to the setting. In the aftermath of the war between angels, the proud city of Paris is now only a ghost of what it once was, and the Fallen are now divided in several houses all vying for power among the crumbling ruins. Most of the characters here were originally introduced in the first book, including Madeleine, an alchemist suffering from an addiction to angel essence. Upon her return to House Hawthorn, their leader Asmodeus mercilessly purges that addiction from her, with the intention of sending her on a diplomatic mission to the dragon kingdom under the Seine.
Meanwhile, Philippe is also back, now mourning the loss of Isabelle, the fallen angel with whom he had shared a mental link. While searching for a way to resurrect her, he comes across Berith, another Fallen who claims to be Asmodeus’ sister. The exiled angel is currently keeping a low profile, hiding herself and her pregnant human lover Françoise from the chaos and poison of the clashing Houses. However, due to their familial connections, Berith may not be as well hidden from Asmodeus as she has led Françoise to believe, and in the escalating conflict between all the factions involved, it is becoming increasingly clear that no one will be safe from the violence.
Right away, I was struck by how little I remembered from the first book. I had to go back to my review of The House of Shattered Wings to remind myself who was who, and in doing so, I also noticed what I had written about the characters and how I’d struggled to engage with any of them. Unfortunately, this is a problem that persists; there are too many characters and not enough personality between them to justify so many, and the result is just a jumble of names and descriptions that I tried to but could not connect with on a deeper, emotional level. For this simple reason alone, the rest of the book fell apart for me, even though I admit from a technical standpoint, The House of Binding Thorns is probably a better book than its predecessor. However, I need to care about the characters to care about the story; without that foundation, it’s hard to get on board with everything else.
Furthermore, though I was impressed with the allegorical themes of post-colonialism, I’m not sure they came through well enough amidst all the noise. Paradoxically, the plot felt simultaneously too complicated and too superficial, overly simplistic. At times, The House of Binding Thorns felt very much like a “middle book”, in the sense that it is neither here nor there, striving to expand the story and characters beyond the first novel but ultimately falling short of achieving the desired result. Again, all the ingredients seem to be there—the history, mythology, philosophical discourse and world-building, etc.—and in many cases they even surpass their scope from the first book, but for the reasons I touched upon above, the story simply failed to “speak” to me.
In the end, I have a feeling that this might just be another classic case of “Good book, but not for me”. Still, despite not winning me over, I’m glad I gave this series another shot. Chances are I’ll probably sit out for the third book of Dominion of the Fallen, but I’m definitely not closing any doors to trying more of Aliette de Bodard’s other work in the future....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