review: the merging

The Merging by John P. Logsdon and Christopher P. Young (2017)

What do I say about The Merging, a book I didn’t really enjoy even though I really, really wanted to love it? The Merging held out the prospect of becoming immersed in a series that existed within a fictional world populated by other series with a common thread linking them all together. Fall in love with one series and I wouldn’t be able to stop myself from devouring each series in the same world, right? It would be like NCIS and all its offshoots, or CSI and all its offshoots, or… Well, you get my point. It’s an ambitious vision which I have to commend the authors for undertaking, but at the same time, one of these books was more than enough for me and I’m not inclined to give the other series in this world a try. And yet, the number of four- and five-star ratings this book has received online makes me think I’m an outlier, not the norm, when it comes to not liking this book.

What I need to say, then, is that The Merging is the first book in the Las Vegas Paranormal Police Department series featuring Ian Dex. Logsdon and his co-writers have created series featuring other protagonists who work for the PPD in other cities—Seattle, The Badlands, and New York, just to name a handful. If you’re intrigued enough to want to check out this series or the others in this world of the PPD, then you also want to know that as of this writing, they all appear to be available in the Kindle Unlimited library, but they aren’t currently available through my local library. If you’re on a book budget, well, my honest recommendation is to hold onto your book dollars to be spent elsewhere.

Frequent readers of my blog will notice that I read a lot of first books in the series. Observant readers will have also noticed that I read significantly fewer books that are the second in the series. More often than not, the primary reason that I don’t continue reading a series is because I either don’t like the protagonist or there’s just nothing about him or her that I find compelling. In this series, Logsdon and Young offer Ian Dex as the protagonist and first-person point-of-view narrator. Ian has worked for the PPD for seven years, and for the last five years he’s been the Chief of the Las Vegas PPD. Ian is an amalgamite, which means he has some characteristics of various types of supernaturals, a jack of all trades in the paranormal sense of the term. Upon signing up to be a cop on the PPD force, his DNA has been genetically modified to enhance all of the supernatural qualities he possesses. On the surface, that would seem to make him at least a little interesting, right? I thought so, too, but this potential gets lost in the execution of the story. The authors sacrifice character development for a procedural-type story (and note well that I do not say plot here, which I’ll get to later). While we do learn bits and pieces about Ian as the story moves along, there is a stunning lack of depth to him as a character. He is very much a cardboard character who serves the purposes of the story. I subscribe to the assertion that the protagonist should be someone who is compelling and who I want to follow throughout the story, someone who I just can’t take my eyes off of because I can’t wait to see what happens to him or her next. Frankly, because there’s a lack of depth to Ian’s character, not only did I not find him compelling, I really didn’t care about what he was going to do next because I didn’t really care about him.

Not only is there a lack of depth and development of the protagonist, but the same is also true for the antagonist of the novel as well as the supporting cast. Like Ian, the antagonist is a one-dimensional, almost cartoon character bent on world domination but with absolutely no indication of his motives or why world domination matters to him. He has no real weaknesses to Ian’s and his team’s attempts to stop him until the moment when, magically, they defeat him. I never really had the impression anyone on the team was in mortal peril or any clue as to what would happen should the team fail and the antagonist succeed.  In other words, nothing felt like it was at stake, and again that made it hard for me to care or become invested in the story.

Ah, the story. Yes, there’s a story in The Merging, but there’s really not a plot. Instead, what we are given is a series of challenges Ian and his team have to face as they struggle to understand what exactly they are up against. This made the story feel like the characters were just moving from one scene to another, battling monsters until they could figure out what was going on and then battle the bigger monster, failing again and again until eventually they succeed (and brought the story to conclusion).

While The Merging didn’t end up on my list of abandoned books, I can’t say I enjoyed it or that it was an entertaining read. The concept of the PPD is a good one, I just think the book failed in its execution. With so many other series to try within the urban fantasy genre, this series won’t get a second chance from me.

Have you read The Merging or any of the other series in the world of the Paranormal Police Department? What do you think?

review: first grave on the right

First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones (2011)

First Grave on the Right is the first book in Darynda Jones’ Charley Davidson series. For those of you on a budget, one of the first things you’re going to notice is the price tag on this ebook (and oddly enough, the ebook is a dollar more than the physical paperback version). If you’re like me and haven’t read anything by this author before, you might be a little wary. My monthly book budget is $30 (and that has to also cover my KU subscription), and after tax this book would have taken a third of that amount. That was a big commitment for me for an author whose work I wasn’t sure I was really going to like. But, if you’re a reader on a budget, I’ve got good news for you. First Grave on the Right was available in ebook format from my local library. So if you want to give this book a try but you’re not sure if your book budget can handle it, try your local library. If that fails, you might be able to find a copy in your local used bookstore.

As you have likely already guessed, the protagonist of this book is Charley Davidson. If you’ve read any of my other reviews on first books in a series, you’ll know that the success of a series is going to hinge, first and foremost, on the protagonist. Who is Charley Davidson and what makes her a compelling character who we want to care about and follow throughout the story? How is she different from every other protagonist we meet in an urban fantasy novel (more on that categorization in a bit)? Well, Charley is a grim reaper.  According to her, the grim reaper. In addition, she’s also a private investigator and a consultant for the local police department. She can see and talk to dead people. She narrates the story from her first-person point-of-view, and her voice is engaging, sarcastic at times, vulnerable at others. She’s not a “new adult” kind of character, fresh out of college or high school, green and without any life experience. She’s not just been thrown into a world where she has new abilities or powers that she has to learn to use or understand. She’s not a character with a destiny (at least not yet). This is not to say that she doesn’t, through the course of this book, discover some things she didn’t know.  She may not have a destiny, but there are a couple of mysteries hovering over her life.  While she works to solve mysteries on behalf of her clients, she is also trying to do the same for herself. I like Charley.

The world in which Charley exists looks a whole lot like the one I walk through everyday. Again, if you’ve been around my blog for a while, you know how much I appreciate it when an author chooses to locate his or her series in a city that isn’t New York or Los Angeles. Jones chose Albuquerque as the setting for her series.  That’s in New Mexico if you’re not good with geography. Thus far, another decision Jones has made that isn’t your norm in an urban fantasy novel is that other than the presence of the grim reaper and the ghosts of the dead, there really aren’t any other supernatural elements to the story. No vampires or werewolves or shifters, no witches or wizards, no demons or dragons. It’s for this reason that I hesitate to fully throw this series into the urban fantasy genre. It sort of fits, like a square peg in a round hole. I also want to note here that it’s also not paranormal romance (whether it becomes that over the course of the series remains to be seen, but book one doesn’t fall into that category). I’m more inclined to put this into the paranormal mystery/suspense category. And no, for most readers the category doesn’t really matter and I’m not the person who has to put a label on everything. However, I get super cranky when I think a book is one thing (based on the back cover copy or advertising, etc) and it’s something else entirely. I just want you, the potential reader, to be forearmed and have a better idea of what to expect.

Another thing to be aware of before you pick up the book is the existence of two separate mystery plots, and honestly, I think this is one area of the book that could been executed better. The first mystery plot revolves around the murder of Patrick Sussman, whose ghost appears to Charley and asks her to solve his murder. Not long after he appears, Charley gets a call from her Uncle Bob, a detective for the Albuquerque Police Department, asking her to come to a crime scene. When she arrives, with Patrick in tow, she learns that her newest client and her uncle’s murder victim knew each other. Within this mystery plot is another mystery to be untangled, involving a missing teenage boy and a man convicted of a crime he didn’t commit. In addition, there is a second mystery plot involving a mysterious stranger that appears in Charley’s dreams as well as someone she calls Bad, a shadowy figure that has been present at critical times in her life but whose face she’s never seen and whose identity remains unknown. The challenge, as you might guess, is balancing these two mystery plots, particularly since one really has nothing to do with the other (they do not come to intersect, as you might expect, but instead run in parallel). What happens is that Jones puts down one plot in favor of the other plot, so that at times it feels uneven and I wondered “when are we going back to the other plot?”. Put in a different way—there is a lot going on in this novel so be prepared.

Since this is a first book in a series, I tend to pay particular attention to the supporting cast of characters. Charley’s best friend is a woman named Cookie, a single mom who runs the office and does research for Charley’s P.I. agency. Cookie is exactly what you’d want in a BFF type character. She is supportive but also challenging. She is a trusted confidant with an open-mind. There are also two sidekick type characters in Uncle Bob and Garrett, a bounty hunter. Garrett also could qualify as a love interest, though whether that’s where future installments in the series go is another thing that remains to be seen.  In First Grave on the Right, Garrett is more antagonist than love interest. Indeed, Garrett is meant to be contrasted against the actual love interest in the story, a man from Charley’s past called Reyes. There are also two ghosts who help Charley with her investigations. Angel, a thirteen-year-old boy killed during a gang drive-by shooting, and Rocket, a ghost who died in a psychiatric institution. All of the supporting characters are intriguing and more than cardboard characters performing their specific roles in the story. None of them will make you want to stop reading and throw the book across the room.

The job of a first book in a series is to get me invested in the characters and their world, and make me want to pick up the next book in the series. I will say I was immersed in Charley’s world and I wanted to keep reading to find out the solutions to all of the mysteries. Jones also leaves the book on a kind of cliffhanger, a coda if you will, that entices me to want to pick up the next book to see what happens next. As I said above, I like Charley and I like the supporting cast. And while I gave this book a five-star rating (not something I do lightly), I can’t say that at the end, I was ready to rush out and find the second book. Will I come back to this series in the future? Yes, I’m sure I will, but it’s not on the top of my reading list. It’s not even currently in my reading list. With that said, though, I do recommend reading First Grave on the Right simply because it is distinct enough to not be like every other series in the genre.

Have you read First Grave on the Right? What did you think?

review: skin and bones

Skin and Bones by Susan Harris (2016)

Skin and Bones is the first book in Susan Harris’ urban fantasy series, The Ever Chace Chronicles. Before you have a chance to read the blurb teasing the story, the first thing appearing in the back cover copy is a pronouncement identifying the book as a “2017 RONE award nominee for best paranormal romance!”. Not going to lie—after I read the description of the story, the suggestion that this book is part of the paranormal romance genre was the gentle push I needed to download the book and give it a try. Do not be fooled like I was—this is not a romance novel. Yes, there is a love plot, but it’s definitely not the A plot. Paranormal suspense is probably a better descriptor of the book’s genre. This is not to say that, once my expectations were adjusted, I didn’t enjoy reading the book. I just didn’t get what I thought I was getting, and while that is sometimes a good thing (like when you get even more than what you were expecting or you get something you didn’t even know you wanted and it was totally awesome), Skin and Bones presented a few other challenges that were difficult for this reader to overcome. Continue reading

review: these haunts are made for walking

These Haunts Are Made For Walking by Rose Pressey (2014)

I have a complicated relationship with cozy mysteries. On the one hand, cozies typically provide a pleasant but not too intellectually demanding reading experience. On the other hand, they are too often littered with boring, plain vanilla characters and plots that are wholly sanitized of life’s hard, and sometimes ugly, realities. When I do find a cozy series I like, I inevitably abandon it after a few books because I get frustrated when the main character shows no growth or change as the series progresses. If you are new to this category or the term, cozies generally have a few things in common. The murder itself is not gory or graphically depicted, and they contain little to no violence. Cozy mysteries typically take place in a small-town setting where everyone knows everyone else. When a murder is discovered, the whole town is thrown out of balance. It is the job of the amateur sleuth to find the killer, bring him or her to justice, and return order and normalcy to the community. For the most part, cozies are “clean” reads. I tend to favor hardboiled or noir detective fiction, but cozies are mostly on the opposite side of the spectrum.  Maybe that is why I feel so conflicted about this genre. Continue reading

review: lost soul

Lost Soul by Adam J. Wright (2016)

Have you ever downloaded a sample of a book, gotten a couple of pages in, and decided to take a pass? Then, months later you give the sample another, dive in, and devour the book? Well, this is what happened to me with Lost Soul by Adam J. Wright. If you’ve seen the book and haven’t decided whether or not you should give it a try, my five cent recommendation is to take a chance and give it a read. If you like urban fantasy featuring a private detective-type main character, or if you are looking for a new series to read, then this book checks a lot of boxes. I’m disappointed this book isn’t available from my local library, but it was certainly worth the withdrawal from this month’s book budget.

The protagonist of Lost Soul is Alec Harbinger, a preternatural investigator banished from Chicago and sent to work in Dearmont, a tiny town in Maine. Alec works for the Society of Shadows, an organization that has its roots in 17th century England. His job is to investigate preternatural threats and solve them. The Society has offices in cities around the world, and though they don’t exactly hide what they do, the majority of the population doesn’t believe in the existence of the supernatural and looks skeptically upon Society investigators. This has the effect of making Alec an outsider, marginalizing him to the fringes of society, and placing him in the long line of protagonists similar to the archetypal hardboiled private eye.

As a character, Alec is fairly ordinary (or at least, that is how he seems right now). He’s not immortal, he doesn’t have any odd idiosyncrasies, he’s not super-flawed or morally grey, he’s not dark and tortured. He’s a likable guy. He’s normal within a world where the paranormal is real. In that way, he’s easy to relate to as a character. What drives him, what he wants most, is to protect unsuspecting people from falling prey to the supernatural creatures walking among them. He wants to do good, and yet he finds himself in opposition to the very Society he works for, which may or may not care about doing what is good and right. Alec resents being stationed in Dearmont and misses Chicago, and as the story begins to unfold, we learn that the reason for his reassignment stems from something that happened while he was in Paris, though it’s a while before the details are revealed (and I won’t spoil them here!). Suffice it to say, this bit of backstory sets up what I expect to become one of the through-lines of the series.

Alec doesn’t expect Dearmont to be a hotbed of supernatural activity, an assumption proven wrong early in the story. How refreshing is it to have a little town in Maine as the primary setting for this series? It’s almost to the point of being a cliche to find urban fantasy series set in New York, Los Angeles, London or even Chicago, and that gets to be imaginatively boring after a while (at least for me it does, and yes, I get that I’m talking about “urban” fantasy). I really appreciate Wright’s decision to set the story in an unconventional location on the map, and I’m hopeful that as the series progresses, the setting will provide a whole gamut of interesting characters and challenges that a big city setting can’t offer. Even though Wright didn’t choose a metropolis for the setting of his story, he is still working in the same tradition of hardboiled detective fiction familiar to readers of the genre, only he takes it down the path that anyone familiar with Stephen King’s work will recognize—a small town that on the outside looks idyllic and wholesome, but underneath the surface lurks the ugly underbelly of humanity.

But of course it’s not just about the protagonist. Overall, it’s a good supporting cast. Each character has potential in his/her own right, but each character also reflects different sides of Alec, showing us who he is and what he cares about. The Society has assigned Felicity Lake to be Alec’s assistant, and while she’s working for him, she can also complete the year of training necessary for her to become a preternatural investigator herself. She’s also there to spy on him for the Society. There’s also Mallory Bronson, who’s been friends with Alec for a few years. Mallory is a “Final Girl” (a term I was not familiar with until reading this book, but then, I don’t watch a lot of horror movies ). As a teenager, she was at a party where everyone was massacred by an assailant called Mister Scary. Now Mallory’s sole mission is to find him and end him, and she puts that mission above everything else in her life. We also meet Leon Smith, a young man Alec encounters as he tries to solve the case his first client in Dearmont brings his way. Leon is new money and good at anything involving computers (yes, he’s your requisite “tech” character). He’s bored and jumps at the chance to help Alec when he needs it. We’ve also got Alec’s absent father, Thomas, who I’m sure will pop up again in future books and seems to be one of the characters with whom Alec will be in conflict as the series continues.

Sheriff John Cantrell also looks to be a conflict character. What is up with the antagonistic law enforcement character that seems to be pervading every urban fantasy series I pick up? I am seeing that trope with greater prevalence these days and I’m bored with it. And yet I understand why this character keeps reappearing. One, it’s a way of adding conflict to the story and another kind of antagonist for the protagonist to have to deal with. This character generally ups the stakes for the protagonist and puts him/her into some sort of peril. Two, it follows in the hardboiled tradition of law enforcement being corrupt and underscores the need for the protagonist to continue doing his job and in doing so, protect the community, sometimes using any means necessary. So while I’m not a fan of this kind of character, I understand the reason for his/her existence, and in this series we’ve got Sheriff John Cantrell.

The more time I spend writing this review, the more I realize how much I liked this book. It marries two of my favorite genres—urban fantasy and hardboiled detective fiction. I definitely recommend reading Lost Soul, especially if you’re like me and have trouble finding new urban fantasy series you can enjoy and don’t feel the same as everything else in the genre.

Have you read Lost Soul? What did you think?

review: haunted on bourbon street

Haunted on Bourbon Street by Deanna Chase (2011)

It’s a ghost story + a love story + a cozy mystery sans the murder and has touches of the supernatural. Oh, and it’s also book one in the Jade Calhoun series. The mishmash makes it a challenge to categorize Haunted on Bourbon Street in a specific genre. It’s not exactly urban fantasy and it’s not exactly paranormal romance. My inability to pigeonhole the book into a genre doesn’t erase the fact that I did enjoy this book. It wasn’t great but it was good enough to keep me engaged and make me curious about what happens in the next book in the series. If you’re on a book budget (welcome to the club!) the good news is that with this series the first one is free, and I noticed that it’s also available through my library. So if you’re looking for something to read but have also blown your book budget for the month, consider this one as an option to feed your book habit until your budget is back in the black.

Let’s start with the protagonist, shall we? Jade Calhoun is an Idaho transplant who has recently settled in New Orleans. She is an empath and able to sense the emotions of others—this is her superpower, the thing that makes her different from everyone else and will be the source of challenges and obstacles to overcome as her character develops. The thing I like about Jade is that she’s real—she makes mistakes and bad decisions just like people do. Another thing I like about Jade is that she feels like a contemporary, 21st century female protagonist. If you’ve visited my blog before you already know the next question that’s on my mind—is she a compelling protagonist? The kind of main character you absolutely can’t resist and enthusiastically follow through his or her adventures? Jade didn’t draw me in from the first paragraph, but she definitely grew on me, and by the end of the story I definitely wanted to keep reading to see what happened next. The best answer I have right now is that I’m on the fence. I’m willing to go on another adventure with Jade but in the back of my head I’m thinking the next one better be good.

While I might be on the fence about Jade, I’m ready to go along with the supporting cast of characters. There’s Pyper, her new friend and boss at The Grind, the cafe where Jade works. Pyper is the say anything, do anything character that will push Jade’s limits and be a catalyst for her growth as the series continues (this is just my guess, I’ll let you know if I got this one right or not). There’s Aunt Gwen, who still lives in Idaho and can sense Jade’s moods from afar. Aunt Gwen doesn’t have a big role in this book, but I envision that it’s a possibility that she could be more of a presence in future books and she’s also one of the mentor characters for Jade. Bea, a white witch who owns an herbal shop, also has the potential to become the wise woman/mentor figure in the series. We also meet Kat, Jade’s best friend, though how this friendship will play out as the series continues is a mystery and honestly, Kat is probably the character I like the least. Finally, we come to Kane, the love interest and other half of the love story. Kane is cut from the protector cloth so I have instant love for him, though Chase is careful to keep him shrouded in some mystery throughout the story. I’m eager to see how his character is developed in future books. All in all, though, the supporting cast is a good one, and the best part is that Chase succeeds in giving each supporting character enough screen time to introduce them, show how they fit into Jade’s life, and begin to develop them as characters we can get invested in and care about. They are not mere devices used to propel the plot forward and keep the protagonist’s character arc in motion.

As the title of the book suggests, Haunted on Bourbon Street is a ghost story. Jade has recently moved into an apartment above the strip club, Wicked, which is owned by Kane and right next door to The Grind. It doesn’t take long for Jade to learn that her new home is haunted, and this is the catalyst that sets the mystery plot into motion. With the help of her old and new friends, the mystery of the ghost is unraveled, the ghost (read: antagonist) is vanquished and order is restored (at least until the next adventure begins). This familiar rhythm is what ultimately makes me place this book into the mystery section of my bookshelf. It has romance and it has elements of the supernatural, but in the end, discovering the identity of the antagonist, bringing him to justice and restoring order is the conventional setup of a mystery novel. That’s what you’ll find in Haunted on Bourbon Street.

I stumbled upon this series because I found myself on Kate Danley’s website (author of the Maggie Mackay Magical Tracker series, which I recommend starting if you haven’t) and she had a link to a box set of seven books that were series starters. Because I’m me and can’t resist sampling a new series, I clicked through and read through the synopsis of each one and decided to give the Jade Calhoun series a try. I know that otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have discovered this series because it’s not exactly what I normally read, and yet it has all of the elements I love in a good book. I’m glad I tried this one and have already added the second book in this series, Witches on Bourbon Street, to my to-be-read list. If you like mysteries but want something that isn’t as…sanitized as some cozy mysteries can be (this is not a knock on cozies as I’ve read my fair share of the category, they just tend more toward clean and wholesome and lacking any kind of sharp edges, which doesn’t align well with my reading preferences) then give this one a try.

Have you read Haunted on Bourbon Street or any other books by Deanna Chase? What did you think?

review: the grendel affair

The Grendel Affair by Lisa Shearin (2013)

Have you seen The Librarians or Bones? The Grendel Affair feels a lot like those shows, but with supernatural elements. This is the first book in Shearin’s SPI Files series and it could easily be viewed as a kind of pilot episode for the series itself. We are introduced to the main characters that will make up the crime-solving team whose purpose is to protect humanity from the supernatural baddies stalking the underbelly of the world. Like you would expect, we don’t get to know to know too much about any one character, but by the end of the story, there’s the expectation that as this series unfolds, more will be revealed about each member of the team and the supporting cast. But as with any pilot episode—and more to the point, any first book in a series—the characters have to grab you, drag you into their world, and make you want to stay there with them. I’m not convinced that this particular Scooby gang succeeds.

Let’s start with the main protagonist. The story is told through the first-person point of view of Makenna “Mac” Fraser. Mac is relatively new to SPI (Supernatural Protections & Investigations) and the talent that makes her unique as well as placing a perpetual target on her back is her ability to see beneath the glamours, veils and disguises that supernaturals are able to draw over their features and make themselves appear to be human. This ability makes Mac a Seer, a rarity in the world Shearin is building and as such a highly valuable asset to the SPI team. Given that she’s still new to the team, though, Mac is still learning how to navigate the ins and outs of her new job, and though her talent isn’t new, putting it to use is. She’s not an uninitiated innocent that doesn’t know about the hidden world of the supernatural, but she is at a starting point in the series where she has a lot to learn and tons of room for character development and growth. The problem with Mac, at least in this first book, is that she’s not compelling enough. Yes, she has her struggles in terms of fitting into this new world of SPI, but other than the fact that she’s a Seer and the promise that this will likely put her life in danger again and again, there weren’t any glimpses or teases that there’s anything interesting lurking in her backstory. Mac is normal. Maybe too normal.

Which brings me to the supporting cast. Mac’s partner is Ian Byrne, formerly an NYPD detective. She’s not really sure if Ian really likes her or sees her as an equal member of the team, and worries that he thinks of her as someone to babysit. From early on in the novel, there’s a bit of mystery surrounding Ian, as Mac runs into someone she doesn’t know but who clearly knows her and asks her to send his regards to her partner, whom she identifies by name. Then near the middle of the book, Ian relates the event from his past that caused him to leave the NYPD and start working for SPI, adding another layer of interest to his character. Ian doesn’t have any supernatural talents, but he knows how to strategize and soldier. He’s a protector (and yes, maybe that’s why I’m so drawn in by him as a character) but he’s also clearly not a plain vanilla character. Another key member of the supporting cast is Vivienne Sagadraco, the founder of SPI and director of the New York office. Like her name is intended to suggest, Sagadraco is a dragon (cue references to the “dragon lady”) and as the plot develops, it becomes clear that she, too, has a compelling backstory that will come back to haunt her present and impact the team as a whole. It’s also clear that Sagadraco could become the mentor-type figure for Mac, supportive but authoritative, cautious but encouraging. Then there’s Sagadraco’s right-hand man, Alain Moreau, a vampire who is also the lead counsel for SPI (cue references to the “blood-sucking” lawyer). He doesn’t have a big role in the story, but when he does appear it’s with the sense that at some point in this series, he will be featured more prominently and that Moreau is definitely much much more than he seems. Rounding out the cast are Yasha, a werewolf; Calvin, a human who agent who is good in battle; and Kenji, the computer/tech wizard. The problem that Ian and Sagadraco pose is that they are far more interesting than Mac, the perceived protagonist. I can imagine myself picking up the second book in this series just to see how the characters develop, but at the same time it’s not a book I’m going to rush to download or add to my to be read list.

Shearin has chosen New York City as the setting for her series, and no offense to the New Yorkers out there, but once again I find myself rolling my eyes and shaking my head at this choice. Though popular culture wants me to believe it, NYC really isn’t the only city in the world. At the same time, I do have to admit that the choice of New York City is a good one for this particular story. In order to “save the day” Mac and Ian must stop the antagonist of the story from revealing the existence of the supernatural community before the ball drops in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Aside from the setting, there isn’t a great deal of world-building in the first book in this series, but again, I’m willing to chalk that up to this being the equivalent of the pilot episode of a new series. The point here is that thus far, there’s nothing unique or new about the world Shearin presents, which means you’ll feel at home if you’re a frequent reader of urban fantasy but that there’s also the potential for being bored. For new readers of the genre, it is a good entry point that isn’t so complex that you’ll be put off or alienated.

Is The Grendel Affair a satisfying read? Yes, but I’m not sure I would take the next step and say that it was hard for me to put down or that I was fully engaged throughout the story. It was average, not by any means the worst of the category but not an exemplar, either. Considering that I’ve always got my eye on my book budget and want to make the most of my book dollars, I’m not inclined to read the next book in this series any time soon. If you’re looking for urban fantasy that is similar to what you’d find in the cozy mystery genre, this one might be for you; however, if like your urban fantasy to be populated by characters with haunting backstories and a world that is a bit more dangerous and threatening, then take a pass on this one.

Have you read The Grendel Affair or any other books by Lisa Shearin? What did you think?

review: maggie for hire

Maggie for Hire by Kate Danley (2011)

Looking for a new urban fantasy series featuring a female protagonist as the main character? May I suggest Maggie for Hire, the first book in Kate Danley’s Maggie MacKay Magical Tracker series. Even for this slow reader it was a quick read, and I’ve already added the second book in the series to my to-be-read list—which, if you come here regularly, you know is my litmus test for the first book in a series. Here’s what you’ll get if you give this series a try: an engaging protagonist surrounded by a strong supporting cast, operating in a world that is familiar enough to be comfortable but also different enough to offer some surprises. I happened to get the first book in the series for free, and I don’t see that they are available from my local library, but they are reasonably priced and I will buy them without a moment of buyer’s remorse.

The story is told from Maggie’s first person point-of-view (POV), and the setting is Los Angeles. Maggie is a magical tracker, the equivalent to your garden variety bounty hunter. She tracks down skips who are from the Other Side. These Other Siders are not human, and they have either overstayed their visa permitting them to travel through an official portal to Earth, or they have travelled to Earth through an unofficial portal. When we first meet Maggie, she is fighting a vampire. Just before she stakes him, the vampire delivers an ominous warning—that Maggie has a bounty on her head. This opening is merely that—a prelude to the real catalyst of the story, which comes in the form of Killian, an elf who has been sent by the Queen of the Elves to ask Maggie for help. She agrees to help Killian, and the adventure begins.

I don’t know about you, but an unappealing main character will make me put a book down and abandon it faster than any other element of the story. Maggie MacKay shares similarities with other protagonists you’ll find in this genre, but the good news is that she’s not a carbon copy of another character, derivative and unoriginal. Maggie is an engaging narrator, amusing and sassy, real in the way the best fictional characters always are. Something we learn about Maggie right away is that her father was from the Other Side and her mother is from Earth. Her father was a powerful “world walker,” someone who could open a portal between Earth and the Other Side by simply ripping a hole in the fabric of the border separating the two. Maggie has inherited this gift, and it’s because of this ability that she’s able to do the job she does. The other thing that is different about Maggie is that she’s not the stereotypical twenty-something whose world as she’d always known it is about to fundamentally change. This isn’t to say there aren’t some revelations awaiting Maggie as the story progresses—there are—but Maggie isn’t the character whose about to be initiated and introduced into a whole new world she’s never known existed before, and for me, that makes her all the more interesting. What also makes her intriguing is that because she can easily walk between both worlds, and because her mother is human and her father is Other, she is the kind of character that struggles to know where she fits, where she belongs. Is it on the Other Side? Or is it on Earth? Is it both, or neither? How does someone who can straddle both worlds, negotiate both worlds, find her place to call home?

When I’m reading urban fantasy, the second element that must be done well is the supporting cast. Danley succeeds in surrounding Maggie with a strong group of characters that have the potential to be interesting in their own right as well as how their relationships with Maggie develop and change. Killian, the 6-foot-4 elf, is both sidekick and love interest (and honestly, I can’t help imagining Captain Hook from Once Upon a Time – wily and capable, but definitely riding in the passenger seat instead of driving this train). Father Killarney and Sister Magdalena are both mentor figures and the wise/scholar type characters of the story, fully aware of the Other Siders and how to battle and defeat those that are malevolent. Maggie’s family is also part of the supporting cast. Her mother lives on the Other Side and is a seer, and yes as you’d expect that means she can see into the future. Maggie has a twin sister, Mindy, who appears to be a plain vanilla, non-magical human. She lives on Earth and in Los Angeles with her husband. Maggie and Mindy are close enough that Mindy keeps a room for Maggie to sleep in when she’s on Earth, but it remains to be seen how that relationship will be further developed in the future. For now, though, Mindy has been set up as a kind of confidant. Then, perhaps most typical in this particular genre, there’s the missing father. Years ago, Maggie was working a job with her father, and when it came time for both of them to jump through a portal and travel from Earth to the Other Side, she made it through but he didn’t. You’ve read enough books in this genre to know that he’s not going to stay missing, right?

This book was a pleasant surprise. So many times after reading the back cover copy of a book, I think to myself, yes, this book has potential and might be exactly what I’m looking for, and it’s disappointing when all that potential goes to waste. That didn’t happen with Maggie for Hire. Actually, in the days after I finished it, I realized just how much I liked it and that it stood out among its peers, which is not always an easy thing to do in this genre. I’m looking forward to reading the second book in this series, Maggie Get Your Gun, and in fact it’s near the top of my to-be-read list. Whether you’re new to the urban fantasy genre or a long-time fan, I recommend giving this book a read if you haven’t yet stumbled upon it.

Have you read Maggie for Hire or any other books by Kate Danley? What did you think?

review: the strongest steel

The Strongest Steel by Scarlett Cole (2015)

Are you here to find out whether or not you should add The Strongest Steel by Scarlett Cole to your to-be-read list of books? Short answer: yes. Want to know more? Keep reading…

The Strongest Steel is the first book in Cole’s Second Circle Tattoos series. The book is set in Miami and is a contemporary romance falling more on the sweet side of the spectrum than the steamy side. Also, the book is more of a romance with elements of suspense, than romantic suspense. I was able to borrow this book from my library, so if you are on a book budget like I am, or if you’ve already overspent your book budget (I could be guilty of this, too) but want a book to read, see if your library has this title. Even though I borrowed the book, I would have paid for it and had no regrets about spending the money (even if it sent me into the red with my book budget – I may also have some experience with this, too). I am glad I found this title, and that it’s taken so long to show up on my radar only reinforces my suspicion that where I’m concerned, Amazon’s algorithm is way, way off.

This is the story of Harper and Trent. Harper works in a small cafe. Cole is careful to keep Harper’s full story shrouded at the start of the book, slowly revealing bits and pieces of her history as the story progresses. What we do learn about her is that she has scars on her back, received during a violent attack four years ago. What Harper seems to want most at the start of the book is to cover those scars with a tattoo, seeing it as a way of moving forward and putting the violence of the past behind her. Trent is the owner of Second Circle Tattoos and just like you’d expect, he’s a tattoo artist (don’t call him a tattooer). The name of his business is taken from Dante’s Divine Comedy (how much do I love the interweaving of classic literature into contemporary novels??) and all of his tattoos are inspired by the classic text. Part of Trent’s mission as a tattoo artist is to serve those seeking tattoos as a form of emotional healing from the trauma that left their bodies scarred. Trent’s studio is successful and he’s content with his life, but when Harper approaches him at one in the morning and asks if he can tattoo her scarred back, his life takes an unexpected turn. The love story and romance between Harper and Trent is the focal point of the novel. Yes, there is some trouble lurking on the edges of the story, but the main source of tension stems from the path to true love being anything but smooth.

The story is told from Harper and Trent’s alternating third-person point of view. Both Harper and Trent are well-developed characters, though I would say that Trent’s character arc is more flat while Harper’s character arc is one of positive change. She has definitely grown as a character by the end of the book. The supporting cast of characters in the story is worth mentioning, particularly since they will be featured in their own stories as the series continues. Cujo is Trent’s best friend and also works in the studio as a tattoo artist. Lia is also a tattoo artist, and Pixie runs the reception desk and is effectively the office manager. There is also Drea, Harper’s best friend, who works at the same coffee shop as Harper. The supporting cast is a good one. Each character gets just enough “screen time” to make me curious about them and interested to see how they are developed in future books. The world Cole has started to build in The Strongest Steel, with Second Circle Tattoos standing at the center of that world, is one where friends are family and everyone supports each other. Along with Harper and Trent, the supporting characters are flawed but likable, and I can’t overstate how important that is to me when considering whether or not I want to continue reading a series.

I liked this book. I didn’t love it, but I liked it a lot. If there were something between four and five stars, that’s the rating it would get from me (since there isn’t, I gave the book four stars). I wanted to keep turning the pages and I was invested in Harper and Trent’s story and engaged while reading. For me, The Strongest Steel falls into the quality read category. It’s a book I enjoyed reading and don’t feel like it was a waste of my reading time. If you liked the Hard Ink series by Laura Kaye, I think you’ll also like The Strongest Steel. There is more action in the Hard Ink books and they are also a bit steamier than The Strongest Steel, but I would still put them in the same section on my bookshelf. I plan on reading more of this series and have already added the second book, The Fractured Heart, to my to-be-read pile (and that’s saying a lot, considering I usually avoid the enemies-to-lovers trope, which is the convention the book turns on).

Have you read The Strongest Steel or any other books by Scarlett Cole? What did you think?

review: wrong side of hell

Wrong Side of Hell by Sonya Bateman (2016)

I read a lot of books that are the first in a series, and Wrong Side of Hell by Sonya Bateman is the next addition to that particular section on my bookshelves. When I read the first book in a series, I’m looking for the author to satisfy a few specific requirements and convince me that continuing to read the series is going to be worth an investment of my time and my book budget (this is always an important factor for me, because I’m a woman who does have a book budget and though I love my public library, there are so many titles that are simply not available; I’m always disappointed when I spend my money on a book and end up with buyer’s remorse). I won’t bury the lede here—I really enjoyed Wrong Side of Hell and am looking forward to reading the second book in Bateman’s The DeathSpeaker Codex series. Let me tell you why.

If I’m trying out a new series and a new author, the most important thing the author must do is give me a compelling protagonist. I have to like the protagonist and I must want to continue following him or her through the story. Bateman offers Gideon Black as the protagonist. He’s twenty-six years old and lives out of the back of his van, which he parks in the garage attached to his gym. Gideon works as a body mover—meaning, he’s the person who gets a phone call requesting that he pick up a corpse and deliver the dead from the places where they died to what Gideon calls their next stop—be that a funeral home or a morgue. He works primarily during the night and sleeps during the day. When we first meet him, the person he seems to be closest to is Abe, who we come to learn is the mentor figure in his life and who works as an NYPD homicide detective. What makes Gideon compelling? Well, he’s your typical loner and he overcame an early life filled with adversity. But he’s just a guy, working in the city, doing a job few would be willing to do to make ends meet. He’s drifting through life, but of course, that changes dramatically when he saves a young woman from a group of men intent on killing her. Why else am I willing to follow him through the book that amounts to his origin story? He’s resourceful, compassionate, and knows that sometimes doing the right thing means doing the hard thing. Considering this is just the first introduction to Gideon Black, Bateman has given me enough reasons to want to see how he will evolve as he settles into his new normal now that the veil of innocent ignorance has been ripped from his eyes.

In addition to a compelling protagonist, I also need the supporting cast of characters to be sketched out and developed to the point that I can see how each character will fit into the protagonist’s life as he navigates his new world but also are interesting in their own right. Sometimes what I find is that I like the protagonist well enough, but the supporting cast are annoyances to be tolerated or are somehow obstacles to get through. Again, Bateman succeeds here in not giving me a reason to stop at the end of the first book in the series. The supporting cast is a strong one. First there is Sadie, a werewolf who is initially drawn to Gideon because of a talisman in his possession. She is his first source of information into this new world he has been thrust into and at least at the beginning serves as his first guide. Second there is Taeral, a Fae cut off from his home world of Arcadia. Taeral stands as Gideon’s protector and a reluctant teacher, and in many ways he is established as Gideon’s opposite. From his “normal” life, there is Viv, the medical examiner with whom Gideon has worked to solve murders in the past, as well as the aforementioned Abe, Gideon’s mentor and an NYPD homicide detective. Rather than existing as carbon copies of a particular character type, all of the characters are distinct in their identities, at least this is the case in book one. Taeral is probably the character I’m most intrigued by, and I will be interested to see how he is developed as well as how his relationship with Gideon unfolds as the series continues.

The third aspect I’m going to be analyzing when I’m reading the first book in a series is the world building. Bateman doesn’t diverge here in terms of what you might expect from an urban fantasy novel. We have the unknowing human world moving alongside the hidden supernatural world. Bateman locates her world in New York City, and well that’s fine if a bit unoriginal. One thing that does standout about this world in regard to the supernatural is that in this book, the Others (as Bateman calls them) exist on the fringes of society. They are not the wealthy, powerful individuals passing as human as you frequently see in other urban fantasy worlds. Instead, the Others in this world are hunted by the Milus Dei—a secret faction of humans intent upon eradicating the Others from the planet. Of course, this secret society of hunters is not original either, and to be honest, I’m at capacity when it comes to the conventional trope of secret societies hunting paranormal beings. The one reason I wasn’t turned off by the appearance of this trope is that at least it was introduced in the first book of the series. Meaning, I expect to see Milus Dei as a recurring antagonist, instead of being brought in out of nowhere during the middle of the series. Also, from my perspective at the end of the first book of the series, I am setup to cheer on the eventual overthrow and destruction of Milus Dei, but of course, we’ll have to see where Bateman takes it. Overall, though, the world building is enough to keep me interested and there’s nothing that makes me want to stop reading.

Indeed, the book ends in such a way that I want to keep reading the further adventures of Gideon Black. Once I finished the book, I added the next book, Fields of Blood, to my to-be-read list. I’m glad I stumbled upon this book, and it was worth my time and money. If you enjoy urban fantasy and have been looking for a new series to read, I recommend reading Wrong Side of Hell.

Have you read Wrong Side of Hell or any other books by Sonya Bateman? What did you think?

review: odd thomas

Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz (2003)

Though I have liked both of the books I have read by Dean Koontz in the past (Fear Nothing and Phantoms) he isn’t one of my go-to authors.  My perception of his work and the fact that his name is frequently spoken in the same breath as Stephen King’s (and as it happens, the books of these two writers are often found on the same shelves, almost back to back with each other), I tend to think of his novels as residing more in the horror genre than anything else.  Horror isn’t a genre I seek out all that often because I don’t like to be scared.  Life in the 21st century is plenty scary enough.  But then every time I read a book by Koontz I remember that it isn’t that his books are really horror.  Instead they are suspenseful and you don’t always know what awaits the characters around the next corner.  If you haven’t ever picked up a book by Dean Koontz because you’re also not a fan of the horror genre, but you do like suspenseful stories that will keep you turning the pages, give Odd Thomas a try. Continue reading

review: cursed city

Cursed City by William Massa (2016)

Do you ever get into reading slumps?  You know, those periods when you search and search for something to read (even though you have tons of books already on your bookshelf just waiting for your attention) but nothing ever really sparks your interest? When you read sample after sample and give up before you get to the end? When you force yourself to finish the book you took a chance on even though it doesn’t fully capture you and demand you keep turning the pages? Well, this is where I have been for the last few weeks.  I have started several books but haven’t finished one, and I’ve spent way more hours scrolling through my options on Amazon than is good for me.  At last, I opted for Cursed City and I read it from start to finish in one day. While I feel terribly accomplished in that I actually met my reading goal for the week (to read just one book), I’m not enthusing about the book itself. Continue reading

review: dead things

Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore (2013)

I stumbled upon Dead Things by Stephen Blackmoore when I was trying to find new authors to read.  I decided to give this one a try and it’s been on my e-reader for a couple of months.  Dead Things exists within the urban fantasy genre, and if you don’t know what that means you’re not alone.  In basic terms, urban fantasy gives you a world and setting that looks very much like our own but that setting is occupied by all the things that go bump in the night–vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and lots of other supernatural creatures.  The setting for Dead Things is Los Angeles, and in some ways it has the feel of fantasy noir.  Blackmoore doesn’t create a dark paranormal underbelly beneath the sun-drenched glitter of Los Angeles, but there is the potential to see his vision of Los Angeles evolve into that kind of world that you might expect from fantasy noir.  Without further ado, here are my thoughts on the book in a different format I’m experimenting with for my reviews.

Is it part of a series?  Yes.  Dead Things is the first book in Blackmoore’s Eric Carter series.  The next book in the series is Broken Souls and the third book, Hungry Ghosts was just released last week (February 2017).  One note that might help in case you are interested in starting the series–there is a fourth book called City of Souls that takes place within the world of Eric Carter, but from everything I can find, it does not feature Eric Carter.

What is it about?  Eric Carter is a mage and necromancer who receives news that his sister, Lucy, who he hasn’t seen in fifteen years, has been brutally murdered.  He returns to Los Angeles to find the person responsible for her death and exact vengeance.  Complicating his return to Los Angeles is the fact that he is a man going home again after fifteen years of being on his own and out of contact with everyone who had been in his life before.  As the hunt for his sister’s murderer unfolds, Eric is also trying to decide if coming back home (and staying home) is a good idea, if it’s possible to reconnect with the people he left behind, and reconciling the man he is now with the person he was when he left everything behind.

Tell me more about the main character.  Eric Carter is the kind of protagonist you would expect to find in a noir-ish urban fantasy novel.  He is the isolated loner who has lived a nomadic life since he left Los Angeles, never settling down in one place and never thinking of any one place as home.  He’s mad, bad and dangerous to know, street-smart, quick-thinking and smart-talking.  He is a powerful necromancer, which means he can see and speak to the Dead, and though it takes a while for him to reveal this aspect of his character, it is the Dead that he helps and to some extent, saves.  He considers himself to be one of the speakers for the dead, and he gets vengeance and retribution for them (and yes, some would call it justice).  He is their champion and he understands them, a lot more than he understands the living.  He also feels incredible guilt for leaving his sister and his friends behind when he left Los Angeles fifteen years ago.  Dealing with that guilt and finding a way to make things right are two of the primary motivators for his character.  In some ways, he’s like a lot of other male protagonists you find in this genre, but like the world of Los Angeles that Blackmoore presents, he has the potential to be more than average.  In truth, he is only at the beginning of his journey, and though he has developed and undergone important changes by the time the story ends, there is lots of room for more growth and change.

What about the supporting cast?  Tough question.  In this novel, the supporting cast is comprised of Alex, the man who was his best friend and who looked after Eric’s sister after he left home.  Vivian is Eric’s ex-girlfriend, who has become a doctor in the time that he’s been away and moved on to someone else.  There is Tabitha, a waitress who works in the bar Alex owns and is a potential love interest.  The two non-human characters are Darius–who seems to be some kind of genie or djinn perhaps–who owns a bar whose doors move and within which time moves at a different rate than that of the outside world, and Santa Muerte, a goddess who wants Eric to be her right hand assassin.  I don’t want to spoil how the story ends but there will definitely be changes to this supporting cast in the next book.  Eric’s interactions with the supporting characters say just as much about him as they do about the secondary characters themselves, particularly Alex and Vivian, the latter of which is drawn realistically, I think, but at the same time she grated on my goodwill as a reader.

What is the narrative style?  I think this is an important aspect of the book to highlight because before reading Dead Things I started a different book that I put down after fifty pages because it was told in the narrative style I dislike the most–that being multiple point-of-view (and when I say multiple I mean from the perspective of three or more characters).  Blackmoore takes the more traditional route in terms of narrative style and it will be familiar and comfortable to readers of the genre, choosing to tell the story solely from Eric’s first-person point of view.  Another notable aspect of the narrative style is that it is told in the present tense which may feel different to readers who haven’t encountered this before, though I will say it is a style that seems to be growing in popularity.

Should I invest my time?  Another tough question.  One of the things that instantly came to mind while reading this book is that it has the same feel as the Sandman Slim books by Richard Kadrey (also set in Los Angeles, also noir-ish, also told in that present tense, first person narrative style).  The Sandman Slim series is one of my favorites, and though I think the Eric Carter series could be as good, it’s not there yet. I don’t know what the next book in this series will bring.  For me, the first book in a series should make me want to read the next book, if not right away then at least inspire me to immediately add it to my to-be-read list.  I didn’t have that feeling at the end of Dead Things, and admittedly part of this may be due to the way the book ends, which is clearly setting up for the next installment.  I think that if you like this genre, you should at least give the first book in this series a try and decide if you want more.  Personally, there are so many books on my to-read list for the year that I don’t see myself adding Broken Souls to my reading list any time soon. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the book. I’m just not convinced I want to go back for more.

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: the lazarus gate

The Lazarus Gate by Mark A. Latham (2015)

While haunting the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore a couple of weekends ago, I picked up the second book in this series–The Iscariot Sanction–and was intrigued enough to seek out the first book, The Lazarus Gate.  This year has been about completing and catching up on some book series I have been reading, but now that the year is almost over and I’m starting to build my reading list for 2017, I’m looking for new authors and new series to sample.  Enter The Lazarus Gate by Mark A. Latham.  I call this a series because each one appears to be part of a greater whole–The Apollonian Casefiles.  One thing that is still to be determined is if these books necessarily have to be read in order of publication.  Based upon the blurb on the back cover of the second book and after completing the first book, my initial thought is that they can be read in any order.

The story is set in London, 1890.  The main protagonist of The Lazarus Gate is Captain John Hardwick.  He has recently returned to London after serving for six years in the Far East in Her Majesty’s Army.  At the start of the book, John has been released from his captivity as a prisoner of war. During his captivity, he was subjected to torture and turned into an opium addict.  Upon his return to London, he is certainly not the man he was when he left, and with no family or real home to return to, he is adrift and uncertain what the future holds after being honorably discharged from the Army.  He has only been home a week when he receives a letter from Sir Toby Fitzwilliam to join him at the Apollonian Club.  John accepts the invitation and after listening to Sir Toby’s pitch, becomes initiated into the inner sanctum of the club that operates as a secret service that identifies and eliminates threats to the Crown and the British Empire.  John’s first assignment is to uncover the perpetrators of dynamite explosions that have shaken the city in recent weeks.  As the story unfolds, John learns that those responsible for the attacks are from an alternate universe, that his version of London is only one in a multiverse.  Though there are some elements of the supernatural–psychic visions and apparitions, primarily–the story leans more toward science fiction than the paranormal/supernatural.  Indeed, one of the characters in the novel is philosopher William James (yes, brother to Henry James).  James’ character endeavors to explain the existence of alternative universes and the idea of a multiverse, using science and the scientific method to support his theories and conclusions. Latham is careful to include a conflict between science and religion during James’ explanation, as would be appropriate to the late Victorian era, and it is one of only many details that give the novel the feeling of authenticity in terms of portraying the time period.  One of the other details is the emphasis upon the Apollonian Club’s mandate to protect the Empire against all enemies, foreign and domestic, if you will.  In this story, the Empire is under attack, and the attack is carried out at the very heart of the Empire–the capital of the metropole and, in the eyes of the British at least, the center of the world. The way that Latham characterizes the fear of an invasion of London by outsiders illustrates the fears that Londoners and Britons had during the late Victorian era that enemies of the Empire would strike against them in the very place where they felt the safest and least threatened by the strife and unrest that existed on the farther reaches of the Empire. The fear of reverse colonization radiates through the narrative, as well as all of the questions attendant to empire-building and colonization.  Because my academic research interests lie so closely to this time period and the implications of Empire, I love this particular aspect of the novel and it alone will bring me back for additional installments of this series.

John is a character that engaged my interest from the beginning.  The narrative is told from his first-person point of view, and it is framed as a journal account that he is writing from the distance of time.  He is likable and fallible and goes through what would be expected of a man who is taking on the role of covert spy for the first time.  As he moves through his character arc, he questions who he can trust, faces temptation and struggles with his addiction, and eventually, for Queen and Country, evolves into the man who can defeat the Empire’s enemy and prevent the invasion from succeeding.  Without spoiling the end, at the close of the novel John is certainly not the man he was when we first meet him.  Though he does not seem to lose his loyalty to his country and its protection, things are not nearly as black and white as they were at the start of his journey, and there are greater shades of moral ambiguity visible in him.

I would comment on the world-building of the novel, and yet it appears that the world that Latham builds in The Lazarus Gate will be slightly different from but slightly the same as the one that we will discover in The Iscariot Sanction.  Again, not to spoil anything, we are sure to definitely find at least one character we met in The Lazarus Gate in The Iscariot Sanction, and yet it will clearly be a different version of the individual.  For me, this is one of the things that can keep the series fresh and make it fun–seeing characters you have met before but at the same time knowing that these are not the same characters.  They will, I presume, feel familiar but also wildly different.  In this sense, the series has the opportunity to explore paths not taken, how lives could truly be different had not one choice been made or one event not occurred, even as it offers the opportunity to consider how who we are, at our core, influences us to the extent that even if there are infinite possibilities, we are in a sense hardwired to make the same choices regardless of which universe we inhabit.

In short, The Lazarus Gate does many of the things that we expect from our science fiction.  It questions the universe in which we live, it uses science to help us understand the nature of our world, and it looks at the capacity individuals have to be good, evil, or somewhere in between.  It makes us question what would we risk, what consequences and actions would we accept, if our very survival were on the line? The book does have its flaws–it starts a little slowly, and for this reader the pace is also a little slow, and there is a section of the novel, primarily in Part 2, that is a kind of pastoral interlude that takes a bit too long in revealing why it’s important and relevant to the story as a whole and John’s character arc–but it was a good read, and I’m interested in seeing where it goes.  If you are a fan of Fringe, alternate realities/alternate universes, and/or the late Victorian era, I would recommend giving The Lazarus Gate a try.