review: trapped

Trapped by Kevin Hearne (2012)

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

review: dead ever after

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

Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris (2013)

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

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

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

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

 

 

review: dead beat

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

Dead Beat by Jim Butcher (2005)

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

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

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

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

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

 

book review: sandman slim

Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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