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.

 

 

 

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?