review: hunted

Hunted by Kevin Hearne (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

review: white night

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

White Night by Jim Butcher (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

review: deadly descendant

Deadly Descendant by Jenna Black (2012)

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

review: 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.