review: black wings

Black Wings by Christina Henry (2010)

I have another first-in-series book to write about, this time Black Wings by Christina Henry.  It fits into the urban fantasy genre and takes place in one of my favorite cities–Chicago (I wonder if the protagonist and Harry Dresden have run into each other). This series follows the story of Madeline “Maddy” Black, who is an Agent of death (if you’re a Supernatural fan, think of her as a Reaper).  Maddy’s job is to escort souls of the newly departed to the Door, which presumably leads them to the afterlife.  Being an Agent gives her a set of black wings and the ability to fly, but it’s not a paying job and she does her best to get by.  As you would expect from the first book in an urban fantasy series, Maddy’s life is about to change drastically.

Since this is the first book in a series, Henry has some world-building to do.  The best place to start is Maddy’s job as an Agent.  In this world, death is treated as a bureaucracy, where Agents receive schedules each week telling them where and when to collect souls and have supervisors to answer to if they don’t meet their quotas–that is, convincing souls to choose to walk through the Door. Souls that refuse are cursed to walk the earth forever as ghosts.  Maddy’s boss is J.B. Bennett, who loves rules and paperwork and accountability.  Maddy does not like him, but she does have to deal with him and it appears that he will be one of the supporting characters as the series progresses.  Another aspect of this world is that it is populated with fallen angels.  We learn this early in the story that Maddy’s father, whom she has never known or met, is one of these fallen angels and that as his only human child, he values her greatly.  These fallen angels also have begotten nephilim–the monster children born of their human consorts.  Maddy’s father, as well as the foremost of fallen angels–Lucifer–will also be part of the supporting cast, playing roles somewhere between antagonist and ally.  There are also gargoyles in this world.  Beezle has been both friend and family to Maddy for years, and he fills the role of protector but also comic relief and confidant.  Rounding out the supporting cast is Gabriel Angeloscuro.  He, too, plays the role of protector but he is also the primary love interest (which is a subplot of the novel and doesn’t ever overtake the main plot of the story).  Gabriel is also the character who will help Maddy navigate this new world that she learns she is a part of but knows nothing about.  It is clear, from the way the book ends, that he will also perhaps be used as a pawn by those who want something from Maddy, and that he may become her greatest weakness.

Unlike Harry Dresden, Maddy is not a private detective by trade, and unlike Cat Crawfield she is not on a mission to save innocents by destroying vampires one at a time.  Maddy is simply a woman trying to do her job and make ends meet.  She becomes an accidental detective of sorts, pulled into tracking down a killer for reasons that start out being more personal than professional.  In this way, she is a likable and relatable character, thrust into a world that she doesn’t understand, trying to figure things out as she goes along, and making mistakes along the way.  The story is told entirely from her first-person point of view, and it works in this story because we only know what she knows and we’re stumbling through the story trying to figure out the puzzle just like she is.  Her development from the start of the book to the end is believable, and there is plenty room for more change and growth as the series continues.  The book really feels like it’s an origin story, that she is only at the start of her journey in becoming who she will be several books down the line.  I find that I am pulled into her character’s potential and want to see what else is in store for her.

There are some elements of the book that will be familiar to readers of the genre. Maddy has daddy issues (with good reason), she is a loner and mostly alone in the world when we first meet her, she is beset by foes that are much more powerful and knowledgeable than she is and who play by a completely different set of rules that she has yet to learn or even understand.  In this way the book adheres to the conventions of urban fantasy.  Still, it’s different enough that it isn’t a mere derivative of a more popular, better constructed series.  There was enough to like in this book for me want to read the next book in the series, Black Night.  My final verdict is that if you are looking for a new author to sample or a new series to try, add Black Wings to your to-read list.  I would also say that if you are a fan of Supernatural, this book may appeal to you as well.  It has that same feel to me and I think it has the potential to build an intricate world and mythology in the same way that the show has and payoff your investment in the characters and the larger story that Henry is telling.  Again, this is the first book in the series and I’ll have to wait and see what happens in the second book, but for now, I am looking forward to Maddy’s next adventure.

review: destined for an early grave

Destined for an Early Grave by Jeaniene Frost (2009)

Destined for an Early Grave is the fourth book in Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series featuring Cat and Bones as the protagonists.  I’m going to do my best not to spoil too much of what happens in this book, but if you haven’t read the first three books in this series, beware.  I strongly recommend reading the books in this series in order; if urban fantasy is one of your preferred genres, then start with the first book in this series, Halfway to the Grave.  Everyone else, read on.

To begin, a lot happens in this book.  I’m going to try to avoid revealing too much because I really don’t want to ruin it for you if you haven’t read the book.  Frost does an excellent job of building the tension throughout the book until it reaches its moment of crisis and the action heads into the final showdown.  Oh, and there are really two moments of crisis–one for the plot that is the continuing love story between Cat and Bones, and the other for action/suspense plot that involves Cat and her new enemy, Gregor, the novel’s antagonist.  Frost’s ability to manage both plot lines, get me invested in both and keep me caring about both, is refreshing because I find that the more I read and try to review here on my blog, the more books I find that can barely manage one plot, much less multiples.  I say this because if you are looking for books that are well-written, this series has a lot to offer and I have not yet been disappointed by one of Frost’s books.

Destined for an Early Grave pushes the world-building Frost has been developing in a new direction, making sure that it doesn’t stagnate or get boring.  It’s one of the things that makes it important to read the books in order (more on that later).  At the end of the previous book in this series, At Grave’s End, Cat has quit her job with the secret department within Homeland Security that is headed by her uncle, Don.  There’s a sense that Cat and Bones’ relationship is moving into a new phase, and Cat herself is starting a new chapter in her life.  The change means that the framework of the last two books–with Cat commanding a team of secret government operatives to save innocent lives from vampire predators–has given way to the Cat becoming more entrenched in Bones’ world, the world of vampires and the rules and customs of vampire society.  The change of framework works, especially in the way that it allows the vampire characters that have been introduced in earlier books to be further developed.  We get more information about Spade, Mencheres, and Vlad, and no doubt this is done as a way of setting up those characters for to be featured in their own stories (and I’ll admit right now that I read the first two books in the Night Prince series featuring Vlad before starting the Night Huntress.  That was a mistake in that I think readers will better enjoy the Night Prince series if you’ve read the Night Huntress/Night Huntress World books first.).  While Cat understands the rules and ways of the human world and protecting humans, it becomes clear as the story unfolds that Cat has been straddling the two worlds, not fully in one and not fully in the other.  By the end of the novel, she is firmly in the vampire world, and having to learn the rules of that society is a painful process that impacts many of her relationships.  The change in the framework was needed in order for the series and the characters to continue to grow and evolve and gives a new momentum to what I’m sure will follow in the next books in the series.

One of the things I really enjoy about the way Frost’s structures the love plot is that she finds ways to continue to build tension and conflict between Cat and Bones without it feeling forced or manipulative or conventional.  While it’s clear at the end of book three that they are solidly a couple, they still have things in their relationship to figure out.  Evolving their relationship so that they are an “us” by the end of the novel is something that drives the love plot and “the path to true love never runs smooth” convention is at work here but it’s done in a way that only makes me care about the characters even more, and it also functions to further develop Cat and Bones as characters.  They both have to give and compromise and recognize the other’s flaws and accept them.  Although the story is told completely through Cat’s first person perspective, Frost does a really good job in delivering Bones’ emotions and thoughts through the dialogue.  I am not as close to him as a reader as I am to Cat because of the narrative structure, but he’s not distant either.  I get a deep sense of his struggles right along with Cat’s so that it doesn’t just feel like Cat’s story and Cat’s journey.  In my opinion, so much of what makes a series success is the characters and character development.  Cat and Bones are not the same characters they were at the start of the series, and I expect they will continue to develop and grow.  Thus far, Frost hasn’t caused them to do anything that feels out of character for either of them, and the more I read, the more I want to read and see what happens to them next.

Like I said above, I would definitely recommend reading these books in order, particularly if you are interested in reading the books that feature Vlad (Once Burned, Twice Tempted, Bound By Flames, Into the Fire).  He is definitely a supporting character in this book, but Frost does a lot of work in terms of developing his character.  I can remember Cat and Bones making appearances in the first two books of the Night Prince series and I would have appreciated those appearances more if I’d read in chronological order in terms of publication.  Take the recommendation for whatever it’s worth.

Ultimately, I find this series to be highly satisfying and I always get what I came for and then some. I read them typically in one day and once I start I can’t stop.  I am looking forward to reading the next book in the series, First Drop of Crimson, which features Spade, one of Bones’ best friends.  If you’re a reader who enjoys strong, well-developed characters, a well-crafted plot and subplots, and watching an imaginary world come to life, these books deliver in every way.  Definitely one of my recommended reads of 2016.

review: hunted

Hunted by Kevin Hearne (2013)

Hunted is the sixth book in Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles series, which features Atticus O’Sullivan, a two-thousand year old Druid.  If you haven’t yet discovered this series, I highly recommend it.  The first book in the series is Hounded.  There are spoilers below for readers who have not completed book five, Trapped.  You have been forewarned.

Hunted picks up right where Trapped left off.  If you need a reminder, goddesses Diana and Artemis are intent upon killing Atticus for ripping five Dryads from their trees in order to flee the wrath of Bacchus.  All of the Old Ways that would grant Atticus, Granuaile, and Oberon to flee to the alternate plane of Tír na nÓg have been blocked, and the trio are left to run–yes, run–across Europe as they are hunted by the goddesses.  Oh, and don’t forget that Loki has arisen and Ragnarok is on the eve of beginning. There is also still the matter of Theophilus, a Roman vampire who is directly responsible for the near extinction of Druids and wants Atticus and Granuaile dead.  There is also an enemy within the Tuatha Dé Danann who is intent upon ending Atticus.  Which is all to say there are a lot of enemies to run from and there is a lot going on in this book.  There are also two major deaths in Hunted, and though I have no intention of naming names, those events add an extra punch to the book and only raises the stakes even higher.  If you hadn’t felt it by the time Trapped ended, Hunted definitely leaves you with a sense that war is looming and worrying about whether all of our favorite characters will make it out alive.

From the first book in this series, one of its strengths have been Atticus’ voice as a first-person narrator.  He is two-thousand years old and yet up on all the current lingo and pop culture references of the day, while at the same time he can quote passages from Shakespeare and Dante at will and make them applicable to his current situation in a way that makes those writers accessible to the typical reader.  His view on life and the human condition, particularly during the more philosophical passages of his narrative, are what give the series depth and have made it resonate with me as a reader; they are also likely some of the reasons why I’m so invested in Atticus, his adventures, and how all of this is going to play out.  The internal by-play between him and Oberon, his Irish wolfhound, adds another rich layer to the narrative, and I laughed out loud when Oberon made a direct reference to one of my favorite films (and books, for that matter) of all time, The Princess Bride.  All of this makes it even more notable when Hearne elects to diverge from Atticus’ first person narrative and allow us to see some of the action through Granuaile’s first person point-of-view.  Granuaile’s voice is significantly different from Atticus’.  More serious in tone, I think, and though she communicates her rapturous joy with being a new Druid connected to the Gaia and the earth, there’s a certain gravity in her narrative tone that is missing from Atticus’.  I have not yet figured out the meaning of this–or if there is a reason at all–other than that Hearne wants to show how becoming a Druid and being in all of these life and death situations with Atticus on top of standing on the brink of war right beside has changed her.  Atticus himself makes note of this change at one point in the book, just in case we missed its importance, and this is an aspect of Granuaile’s character development that also bears keeping on our eyes on as we enter the final three books of this series.  Of course, I really wanted to read this through my literary gaze, the emergence of Granuaile’s voice in the narrative is quite possible connected to her transformation into a Druid as well as her importance to the events unfolding and a signal that she, too, has a role to play in what is to come.

The book’s title is a strong theme that carries throughout the novel, and it is not only Atticus who reflects on the feeling of being hunted, but so does Granuaile.  Although the Olympians are hardly friends by the end of the book (more like frenemies), there appears to be no end to the number of people who want to help Atticus into the hereafter.  Even in the book’s climactic showdown, Atticus is in the position of being the hunted.  Though I must admit that I didn’t recognize the showdown for what it was. When I got to the Epilogue, I thought to myself, wait, that was the end?  It felt anticlimactic, especially when compared to the previous novels in the series, but again I attribute this to the fact that it is the end of the second movement of the series.  The showdown scene provides plenty of information but nothing that truly illuminates one of the challenges looming on the horizon–that being who among the Tuatha Dé Danann is plotting against Atticus? I can’t help wondering if I’m the only reader who anticipates a really surprising ugly betrayal in Atticus’ near future?

As is always the case when I finish a book in this series, I’m definitely looking forward to the next installment.  From everything I’ve read, this is going to be a nine-book series, and I will be sad when it is finished but plan to enjoy what is left and all that is to come.  I can only say that I’m expecting an epic conclusion and sincerely hope Hearne doesn’t let me down (yes, I’m looking at you Dead Ever After).  The next book in the series, Shattered, is already on my bookshelf and given what happens at the very end of the book–the surprise introduction of a character I never would have imagined popping up–I am positive it will be quite entertaining.

review: white night

Note: This is the ninth book in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher.  Spoilers will inevitably follow.  You may want to look away now if you haven’t read the first eight books in this series.

White Night by Jim Butcher (2007)

Well hello, Harry Dresden! It’s been a long time but I have not forgotten how much I love your adventures and shenanigans.  A lot happens in White Night, book nine (of fifteen) in the Dresden Files.  Reading this book has really made me feel like it is the start of the second movement, to borrow a musical term, of the Dresden Files and Harry’s journey. Although the previous book, Proven Guilty, does a lot to further entrench Harry within the world of the White Council–the group of wizards that police users of magic to ensure that they do not break the Laws of Magic–and establish a new direction for the series, specifically that the White Council is at war with the Red Court of vampires, that book felt like it was the warm-up act, the prologue to set the table and help you get to know all of the characters on the board of this new game that will (or at least seem to) dictate the course of the books that will follow.  Enter White Night and all of the events that take place in the book.

On the surface, the basic plot revolves around a group of magical users who are part of the broader supernatural community but don’t possess as much power as others.  In other words, they are the weaker class of individuals in this world, and they are being preyed upon.  Murphy brings the case of an apparent suicide to Harry, who investigates and discovers it’s not really a suicide, and there’s a larger plot at work.  Because the series straddles the line between urban fantasy and hardboiled detective fiction (and there’s a moment where Harry refers to himself and another character as being ‘hardboiled’ and it’s great), the basic plot–discovering who is behind the murders of these magical users–is solved about two-thirds of the way into the book.  The last third of the book, then, involves chasing down the culprits but also revealing how their nefarious deeds are part of an even bigger story arc that is directly related to the White Council’s war with the Red Court of vampires, a power struggle within the White Court of vampires, and the internal threat to the White Council that Harry is sure exists but hasn’t yet figured out who the traitor is.  Beyond the plot, the supporting cast once again rallies to Harry’s aid, and like I mentioned in my review of Dead Beat, shows just how far Harry has traveled from being the loner that he was at the start of this series.  It’s been a few books but we do get treated to an appearance by Gentleman Johnnie Marcone in this book, and a mystery that had surrounded him earlier gets revealed.  The story is fast-paced and I had a really hard time putting the book down.

One striking aspect of the book is the depth of Harry’s thoughts and ruminations.  His ex-girlfriend, Elaine, reappears in his life, and he has an extended meditation on pain–why it exists, why it’s vital to the human existence, how it shapes us into who we are.  He also has similar meditations upon the nature of anger, how it can be constructive and turn into passion, as well as the nature of existence, and if a person can or cannot change.  Before our eyes, Harry is going through a kind of metamorphosis in this book.  He has been teaching his apprentice, Molly Carpenter, about magic and demanding that she think about if she should or should not use magic, why she should or should not take a certain action.  In doing so, Harry himself is becoming more of a thinker but also more thoughtful about his own actions, what motivates him, and the consequences of his actions.  Make no mistake, there is a lot of action in this book, but there’s also quite a bit of internal monologue, and it is also complicated by the presence of Lasciel–the representation of the demon within the coin that Harry touched and then buried in his basement at the end of Dead Beat. It isn’t that she is part of Harry’s conscience, and yet, she is a part of him, and her presence has impacted him and the way he views himself.

Butcher also does something different (and clever) within this book that he hasn’t done before.  At the start of this book Harry mentions to Murphy that he had been in New Mexico not long ago, helping to train new wizards to become Wardens for the White Council.  During that trip, two teenagers are kidnapped, and it has obviously left a mark on Harry.  It’s not until almost the exact middle of the story (a la The Great Gatsby) that we get to see what happened during that time in New Mexico and why it haunts Harry.  As a result of action happening in the present time of the story, Harry’s mind goes back to that moment in the past, and he narrates the events of that day over several pages before we are returned to the present.  It explains a lot about Harry’s feelings toward his adversaries, the anger that he feels, and what drives him.  It underscores the anger that he feels when women and children are harmed and his determination to mete out punishment to those who commit such crimes and atrocities. It’s a brilliant addition to the book and done really well.

The crisis and showdown of the book are also done well, bringing the unexpected even while reminding us that although Harry may be changing, he’s also still the same.  Still a badass and a smartass and still the man who will fight to the very end, where there’s no more magic to draw upon and his physical strength is exhausted.  The revelation portion of the book is a bit more extended than usual, but then I think it has to be.  We get glimpses of what Thomas, Harry’s half brother has been up to since he moved out of Harry’s basement apartment, we get some closure to part of Marcone’s story even as he is being established as a new player within the supernatural world, we find that Ramirez, one of the Wardens, is going to be a solid ally for Harry in the future, and the presence of Lasciel is dealt with, though one cannot be sure if it has been completely resolved.  Throughout the denouement, the interior monologues that Harry has been having through the book come to some sort of conclusion.  Or perhaps what I’m trying to say is that he achieves a kind of acceptance and maybe even peace, as though something in him is settling and yet maybe at the same time hardening his resolve.  His journey is definitely not over, but there’s a sense that somehow it’s going to be different going forward. Different, how, remains to be determined.

This is a great series and this was a great addition to it.  One thing I noticed that I wonder about is that so many of Harry’s allies have names starting with the letter “m”–Murphy, Mouse, Mister, Molly, Michael, Mac, even Marcone to an extent.  I wonder if that is purposeful.  Also, the women in Harry’s life that he should definitely be wary of have names starting with an “l”–Leanna (his godmother), Lasciel, Lara Raith of the White Court.  I don’t know if this is intentional or not but it’s just one more thing to make me think as I’m reading.  I typically read one of these books a year because they are so dense, full of action and emotion and depth, but this is one of the series I’m trying to catch up on in 2016 so look for a review of the next book in the series, Small Favor, in the coming weeks.

review: one foot in the grave

One Foot in the Grave by Jeaniene Frost (2008)

One Foot in the Grave is the second book in Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series.  It’s official. Catherine “Cat” Crawfield is now part of my favorite first-person narrators in an urban fantasy series (if you haven’t been paying attention, she joins Harry Dresden and Atticus O’Sullivan in that club).  If you haven’t read the first book in this series, Halfway to the Grave, you might want to stop reading and go and find that book at your favorite bookstore. The book starts about four years after the end of the events in Halfway to the Grave. I have to admit that one of the reasons the first book didn’t get a review here is that I was a little unhappy with the ending.  Not unsatisfied or upset, just unhappy with how things all played out with Cat and Bones, the vampire who loves her.  As it turns out, I needn’t have worried because by the end of this book all is well with Cat and Bones.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  It’s four years later, and Cat is still working for Don and his secret “Homeland Security” group that’s part of the FBI.  Tate returns from the first book and he’s now Cat’s second in command.  Frost wastes no time in getting to the catalyst for the plot–Don has sent Cat to kill a vampire named Liam Flannery.  Cat goes in alone, and she soon discovers that Liam is actually Ian–the man who turned Bones into a vampire more than two hundred years ago.  Knowing this, Cat lets Ian go but tells Don and her team of vampire hunters that he got away.  Well, the old saying “no good deed goes unpunished” is appropriate here, since Ian becomes the primary antagonist of the novel.  At the end of the first book, I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the plot development of Cat becoming a vampire hunter with a badge and the structure of the secret government organization in which she finds herself.  It’s still not my favorite part of the series, but it serves its purpose, and I see why Frost chose it.  It allows her to build a supporting cast around Cat and Bones and offers another way to build dramatic tension.  Cat finds herself not only at odds with Don but also Tate in this novel, and her relationship with each man helps to further develop her character.  Still, I have to say that if the time ever comes when Cat is an independent again, I’ll only be too happy.  Although she’s become the part of this organization, she has retained her independence and she doesn’t let the fact that Don is her boss dictate her actions or her choices.  There are several moments in the book where Frost delves into gender stereotypes, roles and dynamics and it helps to further define Cat as a strong female character while also illuminating that these issues continue to be pervasive in society.  Cat makes mistakes, but Frost doesn’t ever really take away her ability to make her own choices, and I love that.

Can I take a minute to talk about Bones? I love his character, which is one of the reasons I was so unhappy with the ending of Halfway to the Grove, because I just can’t imagine this series without him or without him and Cat being together.  How do I love him, let me count the ways. Bones is a master vampire, and one of the things we learn about him in this book is that he can fly (a la Eric Northman), he’s a strategic thinker, he’s supportive of Cat’s choices even when he doesn’t necessarily agree with them, and he will always do what he has to do to keep Cat safe and happy. And he has a sense of humor (indeed, in many ways he’s also the source of comic relief in this series).  He’s a great example of an alpha male character that is totally likable while at the same time being practically invincible–his weakness, of course, being Cat.  I highlight his character because so many male protagonists in paranormal romance novels fall flat because they are derivative and conventional.  Bones stands out, and he’s the perfect complementary character for Cat and the two of them are one of the reasons this series is worth reading.

The final showdown of the novel is surprising if not a little anti-climactic.  Although the antagonist is foiled in the end, achieving the goal that Cat has pursued for half of the novel ends up slipping through her grasp at the moment when she is sure to be victorious. Again, this is because she makes a conscious choice to let go of the pursuit in favor of something she wants more.  It’s a part of the book that I admire because as someone who likes to write, it highlights the need to identify what your protagonist wants most.  Cat has to decide what she wants most, and though there is a resolution to this part of the story, it’s definitely open-ended and promises to come back up again in future books in this series.  I can’t help wondering if there will be a time jump to start book three, At Grave’s End, or if it will pick up relatively soon after book two ends, because a lot of things happen at the end of the book that will have far-reaching consequences.

If you haven’t tried the Night Huntress series, I highly recommend it, and I’m definitely going to go and find book three in my favorite bookstore.

 

review: deadly descendant

Deadly Descendant by Jenna Black (2012)

Deadly Descendant is the second book in Jenna Black’s Nikki Glass/Immortal Huntress urban fantasy series.  I recommend reading these books in order, starting with the first in the series, Dark Descendant.  I’ll do my best not to spoil things that happen in the first book, but beware that spoilers may follow. Depending upon your point of view on serial fiction, one thing to know about this series if you’re considering giving it a try is that there are only going to be four full-length novels and one short novella.  I read on the author’s web page that the final novel in the series is going to be Divine Descendant, which is currently scheduled for a May 2016 release.  The world of Nikki Glass can be a little complicated so here’s a brief summary of what you need to know before you decide if you want to embark on the journey–Nikki is a private investigator living in Washington, D.C..  She is a descendant of the Greek goddess Artemis, and through events revealed in book one, she becomes immortal.  The books not only follow Nikki’s journey as she navigates this new world of immortals that she didn’t know existed before, but also work within the framework of a mystery/detective story, where Nikki and her supporting cast have to solve a series of murders and bring the murderer to justice.

The main plot of Deadly Descendant revolves around a group of murders that appear to be perpetrated by another immortal who seems to use a pack of wild dogs to kill his victims.  To be honest, there is a lot going on in this story in terms of exploring some overarching thematic questions.  One includes the question of what should be the fate of the murderer once he/she is apprehended? Anderson, the leader of the group of immortals that has taken Nikki into their community and is helping her learn about the new world she’s been thrust into as an immortal descendant of mythological gods and goddesses, has the power to destroy other immortals, something that other immortals do not have. One of the through-lines of the plot is whether or not Anderson should destroy the murderer, whether the culprit should be turned over to the Olympians–a sect of immortals descended specifically from the Greek gods, who view themselves being superior and able to act with impunity and whose philosophy is diametrically opposed to Anderson’s and his small group of followers–for them to carry out whatever justice they see fit, or if some other punishment is fitting. It’s an interesting question, and both Nikki and Anderson have very strong opinions about the “right” course of action to take, and it is another way in which we find Nikki viewing the world in black and white and refusing to see the shades of grey (more on that later).

Beyond the primary plot of the story are two subplots that give Black further opportunities to explore some larger thematic concerns.  One is the question of revenge and vengeance and the other is a look at the era of slavery in Civil War America.  The narrative is told through Nikki’s first-person point of view, so everything that the other characters reveal is filtered through her own consciousness, biases, and values.  In terms of vengeance, this comes into play with the character of Emma who is Anderson’s wife.  She has been a victim of violence, and throughout the story we’re invited to see how that violence has changed her and think about if it is her experiences or the core of who she is that causes her to seek vengeance, regardless of the costs that such vengeance would require.  For me, it’s difficult to draw a line with Emma’s character because on the one hand you empathize with her but on the other you can’t help thinking she’s going too far.  It’s not easy to dismiss her actions or her behavior, but it’s also not easy to accept.  She’s a character who exists in the grey, maybe even tending toward the darkness, and yet you can’t help wondering if her experiences have pushed her there and if there’s any other way she could be expected react.  In addition to the question of vengeance, Black explores the institution of slavery during the Civil War in the character of Jamaal.  During the story we learn that he was a slave and the son of his master, and as he recounts his history, Black offers a perspective on his experiences that once again make the reader think.  They show how Jamaal, like Emma, has been shaped by his experiences and all that he has endured, and when looked at side by side, readers are forced to think about how Jamaal and Emma have reacted to oppression and violence and draw whatever conclusions they will.

Another aspect of the novel that I find interesting is Nikki’s character.  She is a complicated character, and like I said above, she tends to see the world and people in black and white.  She is convinced that she knows what the “right” thing to do is when it comes to how to handle the murderer, and she refuses to see Anderson’s point of view or consider why he might hold a different opinion.  This same refusal to see the perspectives of others pops up near the end of the book with Blake, who happens to be dating Nikki’s sister.  Again, Nikki feels that she knows what’s best, and though she listens to what Blake has to say, she doesn’t ever really try to empathize or even walk a mile in his shoes.  This particular character trait isn’t the same as being conflicted–I think it’s rare that Nikki is actually conflicted.  Still, it makes her more complicated because at the same that she thinks she knows what’s best for others or what course of action they should take, she is resolutely against anyone else–Anderson, Jamaal, or her sister–giving her any advice on her own life.  Or maybe this actually just fits in perfectly with her character.  It’s arrogance, and yet it doesn’t make me like Nikki any less.  I like her as a character, but at the same time she is emotionally unavailable to the people in her life.  She doesn’t let herself make connections and these are things I can relate to.  I can even understand why she is this way, but…there’s just a part of me that wants her to learn how to bend, how to compromise, how to see someone else’s point of view, and understand that not everything is black and white, good or evil, and that no one is wholly good or evil.

I think I’m way over the 1000 word limit I try to set for myself with these book reviews, but that’s because this book is a lot more than just an empty urban fantasy/detective story.  There’s a lot to think about and I applaud Black for the effort.  I have no idea how this series ends but I’m definitely going to keep reading it. The next installment in the series is the novella, Pros and Cons, which takes place chronologically between books 2 and 3 in the series.

Have you read the Nikki Glass/Immortal Huntress series?  If so, what do you think?

 

review: the devil you know

The Devil You Know by Mike Carey (2007)

I tried really hard not to allow myself to do this, but alas, I have no willpower when it comes to books.  The Devil You Know by Mike Carey is the first in a series featuring exorcist Felix “Fix” Castor, and although I’ve been trying to avoid starting a new series this year, I took only forty-five days for me to fail at my goal.  Oh well.  Moving on.

The world Carey creates and that Castor inhabits is present-day London, but I wouldn’t necessarily put this into the urban fantasy genre.  What makes this London just a little different is that the dead have risen–not all of them, of course, but enough for the people of the world to notice.  Ghosts are also visible to the common, everyday person.  This is where Castor comes in–he’s a modern-day Ghostbuster.  If you have an “infestation” so to speak, he’s the guy you call.  Or that is, he was.  Until the start of this story, Castor had turned away from the life of exorcism because of a mistake that had great consequences for one of his friends.  To make money, Castor intends to set himself as a magician to perform for children’s parties, but the opening tableau of the novel demonstrates that this is not going to be a successful endeavor for him.  Just in time, it seems, he’s offered a job to exorcise a ghost that is haunting a building that houses a document archive.  At first he refuses, but events conspire and he reluctantly accepts the job.  From here, Castor’s skills and experience with exorcism blend into a nascent desire to solve the mystery surrounding the ghost and why she is haunting this specific place to begin with.  It is, in a way, the origin story for a exorcist-cum-detective.  In fact, although this book has the element of the supernatural, I’d actually more firmly place it in the detective fiction genre than urban fantasy.

But don’t go thinking that Castor falls into the mode of Philip Marlowe.  The Devil You Know does incorporate elements of noir and hard-boiled detective fiction.  There’s the mystery within the mystery that is intricate and takes time for Castor to unravel.  There’s the femme fatale in the form of Juliet, a succubus that is raised from Hell to kill Castor.  There’s the fact that the plot itself involves the seedy underbelly of the city.  One of the other things about the novel that reminds me of Raymond Chandler is the lush prose and diction.  Here’s an example: “Polished bare boards bore the muddy paw prints of early-evening punters.” I read that sentence several times and couldn’t help but admire Carey’s style. I should probably say here that American readers not accustomed to British phrases and idioms might find themselves a little puzzled by some of the things Castor says in narrating his story, but it’s not so pervasive that it would discourage casual readers.  The narrative is told from a first-person point-of-view, and as a narrator Castor is engaging and pulls me into the story.  However, there are times when the narrative pace really slows down, and to be honest, the novel is a bit slow.  The moment when this is most noticeable is during an exposition-heavy chapter where Castor confronts the murderer and details how and why the murder occurred.  The momentum that the narrative had managed to build up to that point comes to a crashing halt, and this particular chapter is the one that precedes the crisis and final showdown.  So you know what happened, how the various characters were involved, and why the ghost is haunting the archive.  At the same time, I felt like I was slogging through this part as I was reading.  It’s a first-person narrative, and Castor does move from place to place as he investigates the case and this helps drive the story, but at the same time, it feels like there’s very little action.

Since this is the first in a series, I would usually want to talk about the supporting cast. There’s not one to speak of to any great extent in The Devil You Know.  The person who Castor is closest to is his friend and landlady, Pen. He lives in her house, and they were at university together.  Pen also happens to be the old lover of Rafi, the person I named above who Castor tried to exorcise a ghost from, only to find that his friend was actually possessed by a demon.  Castor also has a brother–Matt–who makes one appearance in the novel, and I could see him popping up in future books.  Finally, there’s Juliet the succubus, who seems to be staying in Castor’s world.  Really, though, that’s about it, and I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing.  Rafi’s story is definitely not at a close, and although Juliet promises to be interesting at the very least, she and Pen are still mostly unknown quantities and their roles in the series going forward remain very much a mystery.

The natural question I always ask myself after reading the first book in a series–will I read more?  It surprises me how difficult it is for me to give a definitive answer to this question because honestly, my response is I don’t know.  Maybe.  Maybe not. It’s like that pilot episode of a new show where you’re not necessarily turned off, but you’re not waiting impatiently for the next episode either; where you don’t know if you should give it a second chance to impress you or cut your losses now.  Right now, I’m not sure which way I’m going to go.

Have you read this series? If so, does it get better?

review: “devil in the dollhouse”

“Devil in the Dollhouse” by Richard Kadrey (2012)

In the timeline of the Sandman Slim series by Richard Kadrey, this is designated as number 3.5 since it comes after the third book in the series, Aloha From Hell and before Devil Said Bang, the fourth book. The story happens three days after the end of Aloha From Hell, and finds Stark trying to, literally, survive his first days as the new Lucifer and King of Hell.

Stark refers to his predecessor as Lucifer 1.0 so I’ll continue with that to keep it simple. There Stark is, sitting in Lucifer 1.0’s office, when two spies appear and tell him that in order to solidify his position as the new Lucifer, Stark needs to complete a quest that Lucifer was about to begin before he managed to return to Heaven.  Though he has no real desire to pursue the quest, he agrees, and “Devil in the Dollhouse” becomes a kind of quest tale and eventually presents with a figure that maybe is supposed to resemble the Fisher King, or at least Hell’s version of it.  Stark’s mission is to make his way to Henoch Breach, a kind of waste land fraught with perilous trials that he must overcome to reach his destination–which is to destroy the monsters who live there and exist as nightmares for Hellions.  As he moves toward his destination, Stark must go through a series of “rings”–one of fire, one of regret–and then he must also successfully survive the monsters and reach the fortress where the father of the horrible monsters the Hellions fear resides.  On his quest he is given a guide, Geryon, who is a scholar and is able to tell Stark the myths and origins of Henoch Breach.

The witty, snarky and sarcastic tone of Stark’s first person narration is very much present, though there does seem to be something missing–maybe that’s because this is a short story and there’s not enough “space” to give everything more depth.  Though, I love the way the Stark starts to tell his story.  “Hi. I’m the Devil. No, Seriously.” I also really like the way the story ends, which I won’t spoil here but it definitely makes you wonder how or if this little episode will affect Stark in the novels that follow.  Ultimately, I think this short story is an interesting glimpse into what Stark’s new life as “Lucifer 2.0” will be like, what struggles he’ll have to deal with if he ever intends to make it back topside and how he was finally accepted as the new Lucifer and not just a pretender to the King of Hell’s throne.  It’s worth your time if you like this series.

review: trapped

Trapped by Kevin Hearne (2012)

Trapped is the fifth book in Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles.  It features Atticus O’Sullivan, a 2,000-year-old druid, his faithful (and talking) hound, Oberon and his apprentice, Granuaile. The series is set in a world exactly like ours, except magic and supernatural creatures and gods exist within it.  At the end of the fourth book, Tricked, Atticus and Granuaile faked their deaths, and its ending marked the start of the twelve-year period of Granuaile’s training to become a Druid. So Trapped takes place approximately twelve years after the end of Tricked.  Hearne has written three short stories that give a glimpse into events that took place during the time jump. “Two Ravens and One Crow” is a must read because it sets up some of the events that take place in Trapped.  The other two stories–“The Demon Barker of Wheat Street” and “The Chapel Perilous”–are fun but not necessarily essential, though they are fun reads and I recommend them.  The Iron Druid Chronicles is one of my favorite urban fantasy series and I highly recommend it.  Start with the first book, Hounded, which I have reviewed here.

The story begins with Atticus and Granuaile searching for a place to start the process of binding Granuaile to the earth, the culmination of the twelve year period of her training to become a Druid.  Before they can choose a location, one of Brighid’s heralds demands an audience with Atticus and his appearance at the court of the Tuatha de Danann. This news means that Brighid knows that Atticus is alive and he has to wonder who else might know that he faked his death.  Practically at the same time, Perun–a god of thunder and an old friend we met in Hammered–appears with news of death and chaos in his realm caused by Loki, the Norse trickster god who has been awakened and escaped from imprisonment.  Loki’s escape is to mark the beginning of Ragnarok, and because of the promise Atticus made to Odin in “Two Ravens and One Crow” this event also puts trouble on the horizon.  Atticus, Granuaile, Oberon and Perun shift to the plane of the Tuatha de Danann and appear before Brighid, and there they learn that indeed, lots of other people know that Atticus is alive, including Bacchus, the Roman god with whom Atticus did battle in a previous book.  Of course, Bacchus wants to see Atticus dead, so now there is a three-pronged set of challenges for the story line of the book–the battle with Bacchus, the necessity of dealing with Loki’s rising and the signal of the beginning of Ragnarok, and completing the ritual of binding Granuaile to the earth. For good measure, Hearne throws in a fourth problem in the form of Theophilus, the oldest vampire alive who happens to spend part of his time in Greece, which is the place to which Atticus and Granuaile are driven to complete building.  Hijinks and shenanigans ensue throughout the book, and the story is fast-paced and builds to a climactic finish while also setting the stage for the next books in the series.  This book also has an epilogue that is of vital importance because it sends Atticus, Granuaile and Oberon running (literally) across the Continent in a mad dash to relative safety in the British Isles.  I can’t help writing about the epilogue here because it starts off with a fuzzy warm feeling and then ends with our characters being in mortal peril, and by the end you kind of feel off-balance and you look up from the last word from the sentence and want to cry, “What just happened?”

I have read that this is going to be a nine-book series, so Trapped is basically the halfway point of the larger story arc, and it definitely feels that way.  A lot happens in this book, and several characters from previous books return and give a sense of how they will be important for the remainder of the series.  Although the Morrigan is still on Atticus’ side, there are the new threats of the Svartalfar and an unknown enemy within the realm of the Tuatha de Danann that is plotting against Atticus.  The most important development in the book, though, is the development of Granuaile into a strong character.  Hearne does not hesitate to put her in the position of saving Atticus’ life more than once in the book and showing that she has the skills and strength to take care of herself.  Thankfully, she is not characterized as the lesser female sidekick but rather she is powerful in her own right.  Though the book is told from Atticus’ first person point of view, this thread of the story is very much her story, or at least focused upon her coming into her own as a Druid.  There are multiple times when Atticus could have made completing the ritual the last priority, but it is always the main priority until it is complete, and this shows how important Granuaile is, to the story, to Atticus and on a larger scale within the story world. It’s also interesting to read it from the standpoint of Atticus effectively doubling the number of Druids in the world. He doesn’t achieve this through procreation but through a mentor-student relationship.

I know you must get tired of reading this but I don’t tire of typing it–this is a fantastic series and highly recommend it.  The dialogue is witty and snappy, and now that Granuaile is a Druid she can hear and speak to Oberon, and that just makes the exchanges between hound and humans even more entertaining and an excellent source of comic relief.  None of the books has let me down and each one keeps me invested and looking forward to reading the next one.

 

 

 

review: dead ever after

Note: This is the final novel in the Sookie Stackhouse/Southern Vampire series.  If you’re not a fan of spoilers or haven’t read all of the books in this series, you might want to look away.

Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris (2013)

I am only just now realizing that I didn’t write any other reviews of the books in this series, which is surprising on one hand and not so much on the other.  When I first started reading this series at the end of 2013, I blew through the first eight (of thirteen) books in less than thirty days. At that pace there wasn’t much time to sit and reflect on what I’d read (or rather, inhaled). It took a while for me to finally get to Dead Ever After, and I didn’t download it onto my kindle until January 2015, and while I started it soon after, I only got about ninety pages in, and I put the book down for nearly the whole year before picking it back up again.  Wanting to complete some books I’d started but not finished was one of the motivating reasons for going back to the book, as was my motivation to finally complete or catch up on some series that I have been reading for a while.  The thing about Dead Ever After is that it bugs me and I think that’s why I have this need to write about it here.  But where to start?

This is the final novel of a 13-book series.  As I started reading the book, I had high expectations for the last book to be epic, to deliver a sense of dramatic finality, to be filled with a high level of tension and conflict as this world of Bon Temps, Louisiana was bid adieu by its author. Instead, the story starts out incredibly slow, so much so that I had no trouble putting it down for nearly a year and when I finally did decide to pick it back up, I had no real interest in re-reading the pages I had already covered. Though it does start to pick up, the plot and story felt like it was plodding along rather than building or even racing to a dramatic conclusion.  Let me say again, this is the final book in a series–I was expecting Harris to pull out all of the stops, to weave a story that made me not want to get to the last page because I absolutely did not want and couldn’t imagine having to say goodbye to these characters I’d spent so time with and in whom I’d become totally invested.  But the whole book was just lacking in the intensity I thought I was going to get.  I can’t help but remember the way that I felt when I was reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.  There was a point in that book where I was so overwrought with emotion and really, really didn’t want the story to end that I actually put the book down and walked away for a couple of hours because I wanted to prolong and savor the epic finale. I needed to take a breath and just gather myself to get through the final 100 pages, the epic showdown that the whole series had been moving toward and the revelation of the aftermath. I had no such feeling as I moved through Dead Ever After.  So much of this world has been built upon Sookie’s relationship with the supernaturals, particularly the vampires Bill and Eric and even Pam as well as the werewolves, most notably represented by Alcide.  Those characters are basically non-existent in Dead Ever After and are in no way pivotal to the story. Instead they are more like afterthoughts, and maybe this is because Harris wanted to keep the focus squarely on Sookie and all the ways she has changed since the first book and all that she has lost or given up. When this is considered in light of the fact that Harris brings back other characters who throughout the series can only be considered minor characters and attempted to make them the primary antagonists only further frustrated me because these characters weren’t ones that I really cared about.  Am I wrong in wanting the final book in a series to focus on the characters that have been the most important ones throughout rather than marginalizing them and pushing them into the background?

Which brings me to the next thing about this book that bothered me. All of the books before this one are told strictly from the first-person point of view of Sookie.  Yet Harris breaks this pattern in the last book.  Why? I have no idea.  I hated it when Stephenie Meyer did the same in Breaking Dawn, and I hate it just as much in Dead Ever After.  The reason why she breaks away from the first-person narrative style is clear–she wants to be able to fill in some of the holes of what is going on within the story that Sookie’s first-person narrative can’t reveal because she’s not privy to those events.  It was jarring the first time it happened, and it continued to happen throughout the story.  If the change in narrative point-of-view wasn’t enough, the crisis point of the novel wasn’t so much a crisis but rather just another problem for Sookie to find her way out of, and even that didn’t take that long to happen.  The last few pages of the novel give a glimpse of what life (and ever after) might look like for Sookie Stackhouse but again the denouement was all too brief and completely disappointing.

In fact, the whole book itself was disappointing, which is unfortunate because I have really liked several of the other books in this series.  I think that if you’ve gotten through the first twelve books, reading Dead Ever After will give you closure in that you can say you’ve read the series from start to finish, but in my mind the finish wasn’t all that satisfying.

 

 

review: charming

Charming by Elliott James (2013)

Charming is the first novel in the Pax Arcana series by Elliott James.  When I stumbled upon this book on Amazon, the first blurb before the actual book blurb made references not only to Harry Dresden but also Dean Winchester and urban fantasy.  How was I supposed to resist? Especially when I was able to buy it at a reduced price? Well, I couldn’t resist, but let’s clarify–while the (arguably) main character of this novel, John Charming, might feel comfortable having drinks with Harry and Dean (as the blurb suggested) don’t confuse John Charming with Harry or Dean.  All they really have in common is that they fight monsters.

Look.  Anyone who knows me or who has seen any reviews on this blog knows that Harry Dresden is, in my humble opinion, the male protagonist par excellence in the urban fantasy genre, with Atticus O’Sullivan coming in a very close second.  Inevitably, any new series I start that has a first-person narrator in what is promised to be an urban fantasy setting is going to be measured by those two characters.  Sorry.  That’s just the way it is.  Which leads me to the male protagonist–John Charming.  John used to be a knight of the Knights Templar, who were forced into a pact with the Fae to protect the Pax Arcana–the magic that prevents humans from realizing that there really are supernatural creatures among them.  Each knight is under the power of a geas that demands his or her allegiance to protecting the Pax or else suffer the consequences.  James spends a lot of time in the novel building the world, and it’s done well, with bits of the world and how it functions and operates, as well as John’s own place within the world, are revealed piece by piece in a way that feels natural and provides additional opportunities for John, the first person narrator, to show his personality and directly address readers and pull them deeper into the story. Very much like Harry and Atticus, John is an outcast from the Knights Templar and an eventual showdown with his previous family looms on the horizon, though I’ll say that doesn’t happen in this first installment of the series.

One of the charming aspects of the novel is the allusions and references it makes to notable representatives of the genre it inhabits.  There is a direct reference to The Vampire Diaries (though you’d have had to watch the show to catch it) and there are also direct references to Buffy, the Vampire Slayer as well as Scooby Doo.  The two are even more interesting in that John makes a specific reference to the Mystery Machine as well as the group he falls into as the scooby gang, which only adds another layer to the references to Buffy.  These aren’t accidental, of course, as this novel is concerned with destroying a vampire hive.  This being said, I have a lot of problems with the scooby gang, AKA the supporting cast of characters.

I said above that John is, nominally, our main protagonist.  After all, the first novel in this series bears his last name.  Of course he’s the main character, right? Well, for about sixty percent of the novel, I wasn’t entirely sure. John begins his story by telling of Sig’s arrival into the bar where he works as a bartender.  He’s not sure exactly what kind of supernatural is, but eventually he learns that she’s a Valkyrie.  This is all fine, and personally, I appreciate James giving us a strong female character who kicks ass and can more than take care of herself.  Sig is also the leader of the scooby gang, and again, that’s great.  Except…Sig makes some decisions in the novel that I have a hard time swallowing, particularly in light of the fact that I think I’m supposed to view her as someone that John can trust, and yet, some of the things she does makes that a questionable assertion. Still another problem I have is that John’s and Sig’s roles in the novel are confused, or at least, they are for me, particularly when the blurb invokes Harry Dresden.  Is John merely the newest recruit into Sig’s “monster-hunting club” or is he the one leading everyone else into the fray? There are moments when as a narrator he’s conscious of this confusion–letting readers know that the reason he remains silent or defers to Sig is because he knows a team can only have one leader.  If Sig is that leader, then fine, but I still have trouble understanding why it’s not Sig’s story rather than John’s?  Or is this intended to be part of the tension and conflict in the novel that at some point will be resolved? Because anyone who has watched Buffy, the Vampire Slayer knows that fighting the monster of the week was always a team effort, but no matter how many looks we get into Willow’s or Xander’s lives, no matter how pivotal they are to ultimate success, Buffy’s journey and Buffy’s story always remains central.  In Charming, John’s story and his journey don’t feel like the central focal point, instead he feels like a supporting character in the story he’s telling readers.  I don’t think that’s James’ intent, but I could be wrong about that.

Still, there are definitely parts of the story that are successful. Though I’m critical of John’s place within the story, I also can see James building a definite character arc for him.  Without a doubt, John develops and grows as a character throughout the novel, and there are several significant points of change and there’s also self-realization of his evolution at the end of the novel. From a craft perspective, this part is well done. The plot itself hangs together and there are plenty of action and fight scenes with good description and attention to detail.

Whenever I read the first book in a series, at its conclusion I always ask myself if I’m going to read the next book.  I thought this book was fine, but in all honesty I don’t see myself picking up the next book, Daring.  I know that first books can be compared to pilot episodes of new television shows–sometimes the writer just needs time to work out the flaws and kinks. At this point, I’m just not willing to come back for more.

review: dead beat

Note: Dead Beat is the 7th book in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher.  If you haven’t read the previous books in the series, you may want to look away now.

Dead Beat by Jim Butcher (2005)

There’s a tiny part of me that has been reluctant to post reviews for the books in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Mostly because I don’t want to spoil plot points for new readers. Trust me, if you haven’t read the series from the beginning, avert your eyes and go and pick up Storm Front. I have been reading this series for a while now and I love it.  In fact, I credit this series with introducing me to all the goodness that urban fantasy has to offer, and I repeatedly recommend it to readers who are skeptical about the sci-fi/fantasy genre as a whole.  Yes, this series has as its protagonist a wizard, but it isn’t just about all that is supernatural and what goes bump in the night.

Harry Dresden – Wizard.  His beat is Chicago, and that’s another thing I like about this series. I happen to love Chicago, and I love all the references to places in the city that I have been to.  This particular novel has several scenes that take place at the Field Museum and the big skeleton of Tyrannosaurus Rex plays an important role in the end of the story. Here’s your basic plot summary that is hopefully free of spoilers.  Harry is summoned by Mavra, the Red Court vampire with whom he had an epic battle a couple of books ago.  Mavra wants to meet Harry at his grave—yes, Harry has his own grave, courtesy of some of his enemies as a reminder that they intend to put him in it post haste.  The inscription on the tombstone reads, “He died doing the right thing.”  Needless to say, it creeps Harry out, but he goes to meet Mavra anyway because she is threatening Karrin Murphy, head of Special Investigations for the Chicago PD and Harry’s friend.  Mavra demands that Harry bring her The Word of Kemmler in exchange for incriminating photos that could land Murphy in jail if turned over to the police.  Being the kind of guy Harry is, he is willing to do what he has to do to save Murphy.  Also typical of Harry, he has no idea what The Word of Kemmler is, but he’s going to find out, and as usual, it’s not going to be anything good.

Although Murphy is being threatened by Mavra, she’s actually absent for nearly the entirety of the novel, so Butcher has to surround Harry with old and new friends and enemies.  Queen Mab makes an appearance, as do Thomas and Bob, Billy and Georgia, and Gentleman Johnnie Marcone.  There’s also Harry’s new dog, Mouse, and even Morgan the Council Warden returns to Chicago.  Indeed, the people in Harry’s life are an important part of Harry’s evolution.  At the beginning of the series, Harry was the typical loner, isolated from the wizard community and not entirely fitting into the “human” world.  Over the course of the series, Harry has lost some people that he cared about, but he has also become part of a family.  Now more than ever before, Harry has a lot to lose, but that also means he has a lot to protect.  It’s not just Harry and his cat, Mister.  It’s Mouse, and Thomas, and Murphy, and Billy and Georgia, and even Bock–a bookstore owner who at one point in the novel tells Harry that he doesn’t want him coming into his store anymore because trouble always follows him.  It’s a horrible moment for Harry, and though he understands Bock’s request, it’s sad too because Harry thinks it’s no less than he deserves. This is all to say that the supporting characters that Butcher brings into the novel are wonderfully drawn and they do exactly what they are supposed to do—show us different parts of Harry’s character, the inner conflicts that he struggles with, and why he keeps going even when all odds are against him. Butcher surrounds Harry with people who care about him, believe in him, and help him to see the good inside of him.  They give him reason to hope and make the struggle worthwhile.

There’s a lot happening in this book, but the part I want to focus on is something that happens near the end.  One of the characteristics of hardboiled detective fiction is that the detective finds himself in a situation where he faces temptation and is forced to cross a line that violates his personal code of ethics in order to save lives.  Harry finds himself in this very situation, and indeed crosses a line.  I have no doubt that it will be a choice that haunts him as the series continues.  It’s a combination of yielding to the temptation of power, doing what must be done to save lives, and having to live with the consequences.  Harry says several times in the novel that he doesn’t think of himself as a hero.  He doesn’t even think of himself as a good person, but now there’s the sense that he has absorbed just a little of the corruption and evil that he fights against. His soul bears a permanent scar that mirrors the physical scar on his hand. In this book, Harry is fundamentally changed on the inside.

With each new installment, Butcher succeeds in making Harry more complex and conflicted.  He forces readers to question the nature of heroism and the personal costs to the individual who would act heroically. Harry does not live in a black and white world, and because of that he cannot be wholly good and succeed in defeating evil.  If you like well-written, suspenseful action stories with strong characters, read the books in this series.  Harry Dresden might just become one of your favorite characters.

 

book review: sandman slim

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey (2009)

I’m worried that I’m about to sound like a broken record, but I’m not going to let that stop me.  Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey is the first novel in an urban fantasy series.  Yes, another first novel in a series.  If you haven’t caught on yet, I like serial fiction.  When I finished this book I looked up when it was published.  When I learned that it was published in 2009, I wondered how it was that I hadn’t heard of this series before.  I’m glad I found it.

Sandman Slim follows the story of James Stark.  For the last eleven years, he has been in Hell, sent there by friend turned enemy Mason Faim.  Stark and Mason are magicians, and it is through a magic ritual that Mason sent Stark to Hell eleven years ago.  Learning of the recent murder of his girlfriend, Alice, Stark resolves to escape from Hell and return to take vengeance against Mason and the rest of the Circle that helped send Stark away years ago.  Thus, the novel follows your basic revenge plot pattern; although the plot is familiar, it’s not stale or predictable or like every other revenge plot that some series begin with.  Kadrey gives readers something familiar, but he doesn’t stop there.

One of the things that made me pick this book up and give it a try was that the back cover said it was in the noir tradition, and that’s a description I would agree with.  The story is told in first-person, and so we follow Stark through the whole novel and only know what he knows, and only when he knows it.  Stark narrates in present tense, which is something of a shock when you start reading, but it never turns into a distraction and after a while you’re simply used to it.  This device makes the story feel like it is happening now, right there and then.  The first-person narrative style is a great choice for this novel because it allows readers to see all the different sides of Stark, from his reflections on his experiences in Hell and how they changed him to his feelings for Alice, which show why he is so motivated to avenge her death and won’t stop until he has succeeded.  Stark is an engaging and compelling narrator and character, and one of the novel’s strengths is that the story stays with him the entire time.  He is always on stage, and his narration makes it hard to look away.

Like a lot of first novels in a series, the supporting characters must be introduced and their relationships with the protagonist have to be fleshed out.  Kadrey has surrounded Stark with a (mostly) strong supporting cast.  Each of the supporting characters is different, and perhaps with the exception of Medea Bava, none seems cliché or just another example of a specific character type.  The strongest of the cast are Vidocq, a Frenchman who achieved immortality seemingly by accident, Carlos, owner of a bar called Bamboo House of Dolls, Doc Kinski, who heals Stark’s injuries and whose true identity and nature puzzles Stark (this is revealed at the end of the novel), Candy, a “Jade” who is in a kind of twelve-step program with Kinski to keep her from preying upon humans, and Muninn, a kind of collector or procurer of things for his clients.  These are the strongest supporting characters because they are interesting in themselves and they also highlight and emphasize different parts of Stark’s character.  As a reader, I found myself wanting to know more about each of them and hoping that they would make it out alive and become recurring characters.  I imagine that other characters introduced here will also make appearances from time to time as the series progresses—such as Aelita, an angel and Wells, an agent with Homeland Security—and it’s not revealing too much to say that Lucifer makes an appearance as well.  So I have to say that the major and minor characters in the novel add depth and interest to the story.

As I have said elsewhere, the first book in a series should make readers want to pick up the second book, and Sandman Slim definitely succeeds in achieving that purpose.  Halfway through the book I was purchasing the next book in the series.  I was completely drawn into the world that Kadrey builds and the way he characterizes Los Angeles in the style of noir detective fiction, portraying the underbelly of the city that is rife with corruption and crime, betrayal is a given because most of the individuals within this world have no sense of loyalty or community, and beautiful surfaces hide ugliness and decay.  One of the things Kadrey does well is place his protagonist in the in-between space, making him morally ambiguous as well as ostracizing Stark from any place where he might feel he belongs.  This reinforces Stark’s isolated position and loner status, but it is from this position that he draws strength and the wherewithal to get the job done.  Like so many hardboiled detectives, Stark has his own code of ethics.  They aren’t traditional or what most would consider moral or even “right”, but he has his code and he stands by it.  All of these things—the first-person narration, the supporting cast of characters, and the convincing fictional world—make this novel succeed and give me hope that the next novels will build on the strengths of Sandman Slim.

I have had a difficult time finishing novels lately because so much of what I start is all the same and I quickly lose interest.  That was definitely not the case with Sandman Slim.  I was drawn in from the beginning and kept turning the pages.  I definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy and noir detective fiction and to anyone who is looking for a new series to sample.

review: hounded

Hounded by Kevin Hearne (2011)

As much as I try to read what is already on my bookshelf or loaded onto my Kindle, there are times when I just want to buy a new, shiny book.  This is how I discovered Hounded by Kevin Hearne.  I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to read and I spent a while searching Earth’s biggest bookstore, but I eventually stumbled onto this book and it seemed like it might be what I was looking for, so I took a chance and splurged.  Hounded, the first book in the Iron Druid Chronicles, didn’t disappoint.

The protagonist is Atticus O’Sullivan, a 2,100-year-old Druid who lives in Tempe, Arizona and runs an occult shop that sells, among other things, various kinds of teas.  He rides his bike to work, takes the time to chat with the elderly widow, Mrs. Donaghue, who lives on his street and does various tasks and yard work for her.  Mrs. Donaghue is Irish and feels a kinship with Atticus for that reason. He also has an Irish wolfhound named Oberon who he can communicate with telepathically.  The relationship between Atticus and Oberon is wonderful; it adds humor and emotion to the story.  These two relationships appear to be the most trusting, loyal, and important connections he has with others.  For centuries, Atticus has been hiding out from his archenemy, Aenghus Og, the god of love in Atticus’ pantheon of gods.  It turns out that over two thousand years ago, Atticus came into possession of a sword of power—Fragarach, the Answerer—and Aenghus has wanted it back ever since.  Indeed, that is the main plot of this book—Aenghus Og’s pursuit of Atticus and Fragarach, and the machinations he employs to get what he wants while Atticus, of course, spends his time trying to thwart Aenghus’ evil master plan.  True to the conventions of myths involving heroes and gods, Atticus is both helped and hindered by other gods within his pantheon, and also true to convention, the motives of those gods is sometimes suspect and self-interested.  Case in point, Atticus has a long history with the Morrigan, goddess of death, and Flidais, goddess of the hunt. In this book he meets Brighid, who is the current reigning god of the Fae realm.  As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that these goddesses are very willing to use Atticus as a pawn to achieve their own ends.

In addition to the supporting characters listed above, Atticus is friends with the local Tempe pack of werewolves, one of whom—Hal Hauk—is his attorney of record.  His other attorney—Leif—is a vampire, and at times, Atticus pays Leif’s attorney fees with a glass of his own blood, which of course, being 2,100 years old, carries lots of power.  Rounding out the supporting cast is Granuaile, a mysterious young woman who works in one of Atticus’ favorite watering holes and Malina Kosolowski, a witch in the local coven (and by the way, Atticus does not like or trust witches).  It seems to me that based upon the way Hounded ends, these two characters have the potential to become integral parts of the world that Hearne is creating.  In sum, one of the things I liked about this book is that as a first book in a series, it presents an interesting and, dare I say it, fresh cast of supporting characters that don’t feel like recycled character types and stories.  I also liked these characters and wanted to get to know more about each of them.  And although Atticus very much belongs in the category of loner, supernatural, long-lived protagonists, I don’t feel like he’s a carbon copy of every other male protagonist I encounter in urban sci-fi/fantasy.

I said this before in my review of Fated by Benedict Jacka, but one of the things I want from the first book in a series is for it to give me a reason to want to pick up the second book in the series straightaway.  While I didn’t feel that Fated was as successful as it could have been on that particular level, I do think Hounded succeeds without question.  The characters and the world that Hearne is building are appealing and engaging, and the pace of the novel was fast but not rushed or clumsy.  I had a hard time putting the book down when bedtime rolled around, and I couldn’t wait to pick it back up again after work.  I compare this book to Fated because it was the last first-book-in-the-series that I read, but the reality is that I tend to compare all books in this genre that feature a male protagonist to one of my favorite series—Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.  I doubt Harry and Atticus would get along, but I do think they would respect each other.  So many of the things I love about the Dresden series are present in the Iron Druid series, and that’s a compliment I haven’t paid to a book in a while.  I was inclined to pick up the next Alex Verus book to see how Jacka would continue to evolve his characters and his fictional world, but I wasn’t in a hurry to get my hands on the next installment.  My response to Hearne’s series is different in that I really do want to read the next installment and at this point, I can see myself consuming each book in rapid fashion if I don’t restrain myself.

If you enjoy the Harry Dresden books, or if you enjoy urban sci-fi/fantasy featuring strong male protagonists and good supporting characters that aren’t merely tools for advancing the action and creating tension and conflict, or if you enjoy serial fiction and are in the market for a new series, I would recommend sampling this first book in the Iron Druid Chronicles.  It’s not the same old, same old worn-out story with the same old, same old worn out characters.  It’s fun, light, and satisfying.

review: fated

Fated by Benedict Jacka (2012)

Fated is the first installment in the Alex Verus series.  Alex is a mage living in London where he runs a magic shop.  He is not necessarily on the good side of the Council, the power center of Mage society.  As you might expect, Mage society is stratified, and there are further differences between Light Mages and Dark Mages.  Alex, who has good reasons to dislike the Council as well as Dark Mages, really just wants to be left alone, but inevitably he is dragged into the struggle for power between the two opposing factions.  Alex is a diviner, which means that he can see into the future (and at times, there are echoes of the Oracle in The Matrix, who reminds us that she cannot see past a choice that hasn’t yet been made).  In Alex, then, we have a cerebral mage who uses his brain rather than his physical brawn to solve problems.  Although Alex is not in the Council’s favor, he is the only diviner in London, and so they are forced to ask for his help in opening the recently discovered Precursor Relic and retrieving a powerful magical artifact called a fateweaver before it falls into the hands of a Dark Mage.  Power struggles ensue with Alex caught in the middle, and of course he must survive on his wits and a little bit of luck while saving the day.

The summary of this book might remind you of other series about mages and witches, and I can’t deny that this book definitely shares in common the traits and conventions of stories about magical societies—the “good” vs. “evil” battle, the protagonist who is alienated from the magical society and yet is somehow the only one who can keep that society in balance, the supporting cast of characters that help the protagonist succeed in his challenge, and the underlying suggestion that though the protagonist may be alienated from the magical community, he is not entirely isolated nor is he entirely alone or without people he can trust and depend upon.  There is also the familiar convention of introducing a love interest for the protagonist who is currently out of reach because touching her means death (I’m not going to go into why I find so many things wrong with this convention but seriously? Does every female character have to be a fatal threat to the male protagonist?).  As readers we know why this convention exists—it’s an easy way to build sexual tension and keep two people apart who obviously want to be together, and well, it’s a device that works so it’s no wonder it continues to be used.  Think of the number of times you’ve seen it or even the first time you saw it (Logan and Max in Dark Angel instantly comes to mind).  I would have liked for Jacka to have devised another way of accomplishing this tension and for me that’s probably the aspect of the book I disliked the most.

So what makes this book different? I’m not sure that I would say that it really is different, but I do think that this book does some things really well, especially for the first installment in a series.  The protagonist is likable and engaging.  Alex has a strong voice, and I like the way he addresses readers in order to pull us into the story and imagines what we’re thinking. There’s a moment where he says to the reader something to the effect of: I know you’re wondering why it’s taken me so long to figure this out.  It’s playful and made me smile, and I like that in a book.  Alex doesn’t take himself too seriously.  Another thing that is done well is the cast of supporting characters.  Though I was a bit impatient with the don’t-touch-me-or-you’ll-die device, the introduction of Luna, a young woman who also is on the outside of Mage society, is a good character in that Jacka can do so much with her and say so much about our current society through her.  Other characters that I expect will continue to appear in this series are Starbreeze, a friendly wind spirit that helps Alex get to where he wants to go; Arachne, a giant spider who is also a seamstress and designer of fabulous clothes; and another young mage who I won’t name by name for fear of spoiling part of the story but who reminds me of Spencer Reid on Criminal Minds.  Also, the story has fantastic movement.  There’s only one place where it slows down a bit and that’s primarily a result of giving us some of Alex’s backstory.  Still, this book kept me turning the pages, and it kept my interest engaged.  It made me want to read the next book in the series, and for me, that’s critical in the serial format.

I picked up this book because there was a blurb on it by Jim Butcher, author of the Harry Dresden series, which I am a huge fan of (and indeed, in the first chapter of this book, Alex makes a vague reference to Harry that readers of Butcher’s series will catch instantly).  If you like the Harry Dresden series, I think you will like this book.  Ultimately, Alex Verus is like many of us—he is flawed, he’s made some mistakes, and he’s just trying to do the best he can with what he has to work with.  I think he also is in that tradition of “sleuths” that has to practice situational ethics, which means that sometimes his choices fall into a morally grey area, but I think that that makes his struggles more true to life and makes him more complex as a character.  If you’re looking for a new series to try, I definitely recommend giving Fated by Benedict Jacka a read.