Reviews

THE STRANGER TIMES (Stranger Times #1), by C.K. McDonnell – #wyrdandwonder

As it so often happens, I took notice of this book thanks to the review from fellow blogger Lynn, but did not add it immediately to my reading queue, so that it took Lynn’s mention of the second volume in the series to finally push me start this one, and now I know I will not let too much time elapse before adding the sequel to my TBR because I had a great deal of fun with The Stranger Times.

The book title refers to a Manchester-based newspaper focused on the strange and the bizarre – like alien visitations or kidnappings, the birth of two-headed cows and so forth – its anchor to reality being that the paper is only reporting those weird occurrences, not stating a belief in them.  The staff is just as eccentric as the news it publishes, consisting of Vincent Banecroft, the editor, a foul-mouthed, mean-spirited drunkard who lives on the premises; Grace, Banecroft’s secretary and office manager, whose main activities consist in keeping the editor’s profanities to a minimum and making tea for everyone; Reggie and Ox, the actual reporters, who seem to have lost faith in their work; and Stella, the young apprentice who looks far from happy about being there.

The latest addition to the team is Hannah, recently divorced from a philandering husband and the recipient of unwanted fame for having set fire to their home while burning the man’s clothes: having left her comfortable life behind, Hannah is in dire need of work and her last chance comes though the ad published by the Stranger Times, claiming to look for “desperate human being with capability to form sentences using the English language. No imbeciles, optimists or Simons need apply”.  Despite the oddities of the place, and Banecroft’s foul temper, it does not take long for Hannah to find her niche as assistant editor in this new setting, and just in time, because strange happenings are troubling the city of Manchester and soon enough a death that touches the staff very close to home launches them into an investigation where the supernatural and its dangers are not limited to the rantings of the newspaper’s readers.

The rapid POV changes in the story – which besides the main characters include a powerful villain, a police inspector and some of the gruesome crimes’ victims – make for a quick and lively run through this book, which alternates its more dramatic aspects with a good dose of tongue-in-cheek humor that I found quite refreshing for the genre: Urban Fantasy tends to be uniformly dark, its characters often tormented by a dismal past, and finding here this successful blend of seriousness and fun offered a very welcome respite from the gloom of our current reality.

Where the story is quite intriguing, listing a series of bizarre deaths and the hints of some magical dastardly plot our heroes need to prevent, the characters are its true backbone and it’s through their spirited exchanges that their nature is revealed as they turn, slowly but surely, from a group of people at odds with each other into something approaching a found family.  Hannah is of course the one whose journey is more detailed, and the one who shows the greatest changes: at first she is not only the classic “fish out of water” due to the upheavals in her life, she also looks somewhat clueless and fumbling, since her first days at the Stranger Times are a source of misery, thanks to Banecroft’s vicious attitude and to her duties for “Loon Day”, when a long theory of contributors comes calling with their weird anecdotes.  But as the days pass, we can see how those challenges help Hannah to tap some unknown reserves and turn into a determined, proactive person who is also able to face unusual or terrifying situations and even to challenge Banecroft on his own ground, probably gaining his unexpressed respect in the process.

Banecroft himself is a very interesting character: even though he’s outwardly rude and profanity-inclined (to the point that Grace had to put a daily limit to his use of nasty language), and lives in what can only be described as a disgusting mess of papers, dirty clothes and empty liquor bottles, it’s difficult to outright hate him because the way he’s written and his over-the-top demeanor lead the reader more toward indulgent amusement than real disapproval. What’s more, there are some hints at a past tragedy that might explain his current manners (or lack thereof…) and that I hope will be explored in more depth in the next book(s).  I liked Grace very much, particularly for the unflappable way in which she deals both with Banecroft and with young Stella, whose difficult-teenager attitude hides a very interesting secret which ties with some of the information (sorry, no spoilers!) we gather along the way. And, last but not least, the interactions between Reggie and Ox are nothing short of delightful.

What’s interesting here is that we see the point of view of the villain just as much as that of our “heroes” and that serves to counterbalance the whimsical tone of the story with some darkness, which grounds the story in its dramatic aspect as we learn of the increasing danger presented by this mysterious figure as he claims his victims with a sort of… amused nonchalance that’s quite chilling.

I had a very good run with The Stranger Times, to the point that I have already acquired the sequel – This Charming Man: the blend of Urban Fantasy and humor is very well balanced, an amusing journey that at times makes you laugh out loud, particularly when you get “extracts” from the newspaper itself detailing some of the published articles.  A different take on the usual elements of the genre that will not disappoint and will leave you with a smile on your face.

My Rating:

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Reviews

THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 (Dead Djinn Universe #0.3), by P. Djèlì Clark

My third foray into P. Djèlí Clark’s alternate Egypt, and the return to the workings of Cairo’s Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities,  proved to be even better than my experience with A Dead Djinn in Cairo, particularly once I overcame the slight disappointment provoked by the absence of investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi, the main character of the first novella – although she does make a cameo appearance here, toward the end.

In Haunting the supernatural detectives for the Ministry are two: sedate and formal veteran Hamed al-Nasri and the enthusiastic rookie Agent Onsi – quite different characters that, despite those differences, manage to create an effective team while dealing with the present emergency, the haunting of one of the many aerial tram cars traversing the skies of Egypt’s capital. The Ministry was summoned by Superintendent Bashir, who appears quite distraught by the presence of what looks to be a djinn that took possession of said tram car, terrifying the passengers and forcing Bashir to take it out of the regular runs.  Once the investigation goes underway, however, the two investigators understand that the infestation has nothing to do with djinns and is instead something different and far more malevolent, so they are forced to seek more specialized help, finding it in a very unexpected quarter…

The previous story featuring Fatma merely laid the foundations of this alternate world, one where the border between the mundane and the supernatural had been pierced, allowing otherworldly creatures to enter our reality and coexist with humans; this novella deepens and enriches our knowledge of this changed reality, a background where elements of magic and steampunk details turn our journey into a very intriguing one, and in this specific case add the theme of social change to the mix, offering a chance both for reflection and for some amusing interludes.

Characters are better defined in Haunting, something I felt was slightly missing from my first experience with this series, and I have to admit that I took an instant liking to the Hamed/Onsi duo, which helped me to offset the initial surprise at the shift in perspective from Fatma’s.  Hamed at first comes across as a very matter-of-fact person whose experience in magical matters placed something of a disenchanted attitude on him, so that he observes Onsi’s ebullient joy at being in the field with a touch of amused annoyance.  Onsi, on the other hand, is not only very eager – as newbies are inclined to be – he’s also very much book-oriented, but has little experience of fieldwork. This disparity might have influenced their effectiveness in dealing with this difficult case, but instead the two of them are able to find some common ground – each giving in to the other a little – and turn out to be a great team, not only where their mission is concerned, but also where their work styles are involved.

Even though the main protagonists here are men, there is an intriguing focus on women, both as individuals – the mysteriously knowledgeable waitress Abla and the sheikha Nadiyaa, performer of magical arts – and as a group, i.e. the members of the movement for suffrage, the Egyptian Feminist Sisterhood. Cairo, and probably the whole of Egypt, is on the verge of huge social changes through the implementation of the right of vote for women and this is reflected in the substantial female presence on the scene and in the narrative thread that sees a particular magic rite – performed only by women – as the key to solving the tram’s infestation. This need for change, not only in politics, but also in the attitude toward women, is subtly addressed while discussing the malevolent spirit inhabiting Car 015, which appears either as a child or a hideous crone:

That spirit was just a formless being minding its own business. Then, it encountered men. And they decided to make it this beautiful woman or this monstrous crone, because that’s the only way many men can even view women

For all his outward adherence to protocol, Hamed is a very versatile individual and he’s soon able to acknowledge that exceptional circumstances require exceptional solutions, and he wastes no time in implementing them, also accepting with grace and humor the very unusual… ahem… camouflage he and Onsi must don to fool the spirit. I ended up liking him very much, and understood that the formal exterior hides an intriguing, multifaceted personality I would not mind seeing explored in depth – maybe teamed up with Fatma, with whom he has an interesting conversation once the dust of the chase has settled.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 offered a more comprehensive look into this parallel reality, and I enjoyed the world-building even more than with the previous story: there is such a richness of detail here that the background comes alive with all its colors and smells and the views of teeming streets that make the city come alive in quite a cinematic way. Returning here through the full-length novel that awaits me down the line will certainly be an equally delightful experience.

My Rating:

Reviews

Cover Reveal: DYER STREET PUNK WITCHES, by Phil Williams

So far I’ve been quite enjoying Phil Williams’ Ordshaw novels (Link 1, Link 2, Link 3), a series of Urban Fantasy books focused on the British city of Ordshaw where magic and mundane coexist and sometimes cross – not always with desirable results. Loosely connected to this series is also the Ikiri Duology (Link1, Link 2), an adventurous tale spanning several countries and delving on an ancient mystery.

Now I’ve received from Mr. Williams the welcome news of a new book set again in the city of Ordshaw but featuring new characters and adding the theme of crime thriller to the previous mix, and I’m quite thrilled at the prospect.

So, while I wait for the book to be published, I’m quite happy to share its cover and the blurb kindly provided by the author:

Kit hung up her brass knuckles, but she never stopped fighting. She abandoned the dark arts, but the shadows lingered. And now her past is back to haunt her. There’s a new witch in town, working with a ruthless gang to stamp out rivals – no matter how long ago they quit.

An old friend warns Kit that her neighbourhood is under attack. Kit herself is a target. Her former gang are scared stiff and her magic-wielding bandmates are long gone. She dreads reviving her destructive nature, and can’t dust off the spellbook – not after what happened last time. But what choice does she have?

Besides, she rarely gets to enjoy a good brawl anymore.

Decades older, a little wiser, and contrary as ever, Kit’s going to remind them all what a punk witch can do.

Sounds intriguing, doesn’t it? And I love the crumpled look of the cover, like that of an oftend-handled book, but I’m particularly drawn by the concept of punk witches. After all, who wouldn’t? 😉

Reviews

GIVEN TO DARKNESS (The Ikiri Duology #2), by Phil Williams

The previous book in this duology introduced me to a new set of troubles afflicting this version of our world, in which the weird and supernatural coexist with everyday life, as introduced in Phil Williams’ Sunken City trilogy based in the fictional city of Ordshaw. 

Where the weirdness surfacing in Ordshaw remained more or less confined to the city itself, and more precisely to its subterranean levels, in the Ikiri Duology upheavals manifest in a very public and quite bloody way, requiring the shady Ministry for Environmental Energy to stretch its resources to find plausible explanations for the sudden, tragic bouts of violence erupting worldwide, and to keep the consequences under wraps as much as possible.

In Kept from Cages we met MEE agent Sean Tasker trying to deal with the situation and finding an unexpected – and weird – ally in Katryzna, a young woman with a violently unpredictable attitude. On the other side of the world, a band of criminally-inclined musicians met with a strange child, Zip, who soon proved to be the key to the strange events plaguing the world. Once the two groups met, the story truly launched into its inexorable path…

The unlikely allies are now faced with the need to go to the source of the disturbance, a place deep in Congo’s forest called Ikiri, from which the spreading corruption seems to originate and where dark mysteries need to be solved, both for the sake of the world at large and for young Zip’s safety in particular, since too many people seem intent on killing her.

With the scene being set in book 1, and the characters introduced, Given to Darkness can finally embark, unfettered, into the adventure proper: not that Kept from Cages was a restful story, of course, but here the author could finally indulge into the breathless journey he must have envisioned from the start, while also enjoying the space to let his characters grow and take on new facets while they deal with the unending string of dangers and threats peppering their path. 

For instance I liked very much the way outlaw musicians Reece and Leigh-Ann become even more protective of young Zip, whose emotional growth is driven forward by circumstances that are far too complex and harrowing to be heaped on the shoulders of a child: the way they almost become substitute parents, and the comparison with Zip’s real father – a heartlessly manipulative individual who is quite easy to hate – makes the goodness of their hearts shine even brighter. 

Agent Tasker turns out to be a decidedly more human face for the Ministry, whose ways – as often seen in the Sunken City trilogy – can be quite callous, and I have to admit he grew up on me, while in the first book I was not too sanguine about him.

Still, the character that truly shone for me in this novel is that of Katryzna, mostly because we are finally allowed a deeper glance into her personality beyond the external armor of cold-blooded violence she likes to wear: getting to know her better, and learning about the person behind the mask of the brutal killer was a very intriguing – and at times emotional – journey which left me with a very different outlook on this ruthlessly determined figure.

What can you expect from this book – and from the whole duology as well? Certainly a great deal of non-stop action sprinkled with humor, even though the darkness in the title is a definite, and often suffocating, presence. If you are looking for adventure, mystery and a good measure of fantasy elements, you need look no further than this book and its predecessor.

Given to Darkness will be available from October 19th, which is exactly a week from today: the conclusion to this engaging series is indeed just around the corner, so… happy reading!

My Rating:

Reviews

THE SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB’S GUIDE TO SLAYING VAMPIRES, by Grady Hendrix – #Wyrdandwonder

The word “vampire” in a book’s title is often enough to draw my attention, but here the connection with a book club, and the more than positive reviews from some of my fellow bloggers, made it next to impossible for me to ignore this novel. In the end, I found much more than I hoped for in Southern Book Club, because the fundamental horror of the genre is only the vehicle for the creation of a few intriguing characters and for some thought-provoking social commentary.  Will it be a perfect fit for the fantasy component of Wyrd and Wonder? I hope so,  because I think that the huge amount of weirdness of the story might make it a good candidate, even if it’s not set in some castle-dotted realm…

Patricia is your typical suburban wife (the story is set in the decade between the late ’80s and the late ’90s) with a workaholic, distant husband, two growing children and a lot of commitments – plus the recent burden of a mother-in-law whose health, both physical and mental, is declining at a rapid pace. One of the rare moments she can take for herself comes from the monthly discussions of her book club, and as the story opens she’s distressed because she had no time to read the current volume, the latest highbrow choice in what seems like a long list of intellectually worthy but uninspiring books.  The disaster of her presentation becomes the drive to create a more interesting club together with her friends Grace, Slick, Maryellen and Kitty, united in their inclination for thrillers and true crime stories. 

The quiet routine of Old Village, the suburb where Patricia and her friends reside, is however shaken by a series of apparently unrelated events: her elderly neighbor physically assaults her one evening, chewing off one earlobe, then dies in hospital not much later; the woman’s nephew, James Harris, takes residence in the now-vacant house, but has strangely nocturnal habits, no readily available ID and a lot of cash; Patricia’s mother-in-law is assaulted by a horde of rats (a truly horrible, blood-curling scene); and the close-by area of Six Mile is beset by a series of disappearances, followed by suicides, of young people believed to be under the influence of drugs.  The full picture seems to come together only when Mrs. Greene, once the caregiver for Patricia’s mother-in-law, presents her with clues that point to James Harris as a predator of a most unusual and shocking kind.  Patricia’s first attempt at calling attention to the man fails miserably, causing her a great deal of grief, and only when the danger starts encroaching on her children does she find the strength and the courage to go on the offensive again – but not alone…

There is little doubt that Harris is a vampire, no surprise there: it becomes clear from the very first time Patricia sets eyes on him as he lies comatose and shriveled, only to appear in full health the following day – that is, except for his intolerance to sunlight. And she sees him later on as he’s feeding on his latest victim, revealing all the inhumanness of his nature. But Patricia and her friends have a hard time unmasking him, for a number of reasons, all of which are guaranteed to fuel the readers’ anger, if they are so inclined: for starters, Harris has managed to insinuate himself in the social fabric of the area, his affable, pleasant demeanor gaining him easy entry in the homes on the neighbors – and let’s not forget what happens once you invite a vampire in your home… Then his early victims are all part of the black community: this is the deep South of some 30 years ago, after all, and no one seems to really care about the deaths of a number of kids from a low-income, run-down neighborhood – not the authorities, nor the otherwise “concerned” citizens – so that Harris knows he has an almost-unlimited reservoir of vulnerable prey to draw from.  Last but not least, the early charge against him comes from a group of women whose husbands are his friends and business partners and who are more than readily disposed to undermine their wives’ credibility, to silence them with scorn or violence, and to set them one against the other, to divide and isolate them.

What happens after that first, failed attempt is just as sickening as witnessing an actual vampiric assault, because that’s a scene rooted in the realm of fantasy, while the patronizing silencing of women – mothers, wives – is a sadly realistic scenario: worse, Harris also manages to infiltrate the only territory these women called their own, the book club, turning it into a male-driven society where the wives have lost their voice even in the choice of reading material.  Divide et impera: by sowing a barely concealed fear of consequences, Harris and his (more or less) unwitting cronies create an environment in which acceptance comes only from conformity, from compliance with the rules, where the barest hint at dissonance bears a heavy stigma and brings discrimination. It’s only when Harris’ greed gets the better of his carefulness and he starts targeting his neighbors’ children that Patricia finds once again her determination and enrolls her friends’ help to remove the threat to their families: where on one side this turns into a couple of prolonged, blood-chilling narrative sequences I still cringe in recollecting, on the other it showcases these women’s bravery and the power of their friendship. Not to mention the inner steel underlying their deep-seated outer politeness: “He thinks we’re what we look like on the outside: nice Southern ladies. Let me tell you something…there’s nothing nice about Southern ladies.”

These ladies are not perfect heroines however, their audacious endeavor marred by the realization that the drive to act only comes when their families are threatened, when some of them are subjected to intimidation and brutal violence aimed at ensuring their silence, a silence made easier because the victims were not part of their community.  The racial and social rift works fully in favor of Harris’ plan here, and even if ultimately the group of friends chooses to take matters into their own hands, there is a bittersweet flavor to the ending that acknowledges how theirs was just an action driven by the momentary need, and not a true change in outlook.

Still, I quite enjoyed Southern Book Club and its interesting mix of horror and social analysis and look forward to sampling more of this author’s works in the (hopefully) near future.

My Rating:

image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com
Reviews

NIGHTWISE (Nightwise #1), by R.S. Belcher

Nightwise has been languishing on my reading queue for quite some time, but after enjoying both books in Belcher’s new Brotherhood of the Wheel series I knew it was high time to see where the author would take me in this journey through his Urban Fantasy realms. And what a journey it was, indeed, mixing the well-established themes of UF with those of the hard-boiled noir and placing at the center of it all a character who requires some time and effort to connect to.

Laytham Ballard is a Wisdom, or wizard if you want, trained in the arts of the Life, the magical background underlying everyday life and unknown to most humans.  Ballard’s old friend Boj is dying and as a deathbed request he asks Laytham to find and kill Dusan Slorzack, the man who tortured, raped and killed Boj’s wife. Easier said than done, since Slorzack, besides being a former military, is well connected with the criminal underworld and also apparently versed in the magical arts: any trail Ballard tries to follow is beset by dead bodies, horrific creatures and mortal danger.

Determined to get to the bottom of it all (and at some point more interested in winning the game than fulfilling his dying friend’s request) Ballard enrolls the help of a group of disparate people –  some versed in the magical arts, others possessing more mundane but still precious skills – and starts a very risky journey from which there might be no return, learning as he goes that there are layers upon layers in the occult world, and that many of them encompass unexpected domains like finance and politics. It goes without saying that the final showdown is as brutal and bloody as the events preceding it, and it opens the way to more stories focused on Laytham Ballard, the second of which I’m already eyeing with keen interest.

As I said in the premise, Ballard requires some strenuous work, from the reader’s point of view: he’s not your average UF protagonist, the kind with a shady past but a good, generous heart. No, he’s all rough edges and unpleasant traits, quite selfish and self-centered, a total badass who does not make excuses for that but rather admits it with no small measure of pride. What’s worse, from the very start we see how he has no qualms about throwing innocent bystanders under the proverbial bus when need arises, candidly acknowledging that it’s better them than him. This sounds like the perfect recipe for a loathsome character, and at first it’s so easy to despise him, but as the novel moves forward and bits and pieces of Ballard’s history come to the surface, one begins to see where he comes from, which events molded his psychological makeup and how his worldview was shaped.  It might not be enough to actually like him, but in the end I came to care for him as a character (sort of…) and to be invested in his journey.

What’s more enlightening than those fragments of Ballard’s past is the way he relates to the people in his inner circle and, more importantly, the way they relate to him: seeing how they care for him and his well-being, and how they worry about his self-destructive habits, you can see the man from a different angle and measure him not so much for the face he shows the world, but rather for the way those people perceive him. If establishing an emotional connection with this character might prove something of an effort, his friends’ continued concern is the key to a better understanding of what makes him tick. And last but not least there are hints about a crucial event that required a massive sacrifice, one that might be at the root of Ballard’s apparent lack of empathy: these words

They cut your joy […] They cut it out of you like a surgeon. They amputated your emotions…

are as revealing as they are enigmatic and just beg for a deeper knowledge of the man.

Laytham Ballard is not the only dark element in Nightwise, however. The background in which he moves is just as harsh and gritty: we are treated to several tours of the underworld where mundane and magical cross paths, a setting where drugs, extreme sex and violence are commonplace, a veritable journey through a hell in which Ballard seems to move with careless confidence. Ghastly and gruesome as some scenes might look, there is still a vein of humor running through them which manages to balance out the inevitable revulsion: this story is so very much darker than what I experienced with the Brotherhood of the Wheel novels, and without this whimsical element I doubt I might have endured through the whole book. Violence is also present in considerable quantity – there is a long sequence in which Ballard suffers days on end of torture, which was truly difficult to stomach – and it’s thanks to that amalgam of humor and brutality that I was able to move forward, wondering all the time whether he accepted that pain while waiting for the opportunity to escape or because he saw it unconsciously as a form of well-deserved punishment for his worst deeds… 

I realize I might have scared many potential readers with my considerations, but I’d like to point out that no matter how dark and unforgiving this story and this world might look, there is a fascinating quality to it all that keeps you glued to the book, and it’s enhanced by the few rays of light scattered throughout the narrative, the best of them a casual encounter on the road that sees Ballard accepting a lift from a trucker, who is none other than dear Jimmie Aussapile from the Brotherhood of the Wheel series, here making his first appearance (and probably being the seed concept for the other novels…): I can tell you that this encounter made me all but squeal with joy, as if I had found a long-lost friend, because Jimmie is a delightful creation – well, apart from the tobacco-chewing, that is 😀

If Nightwise forced me to tap into my reserves of inner strength to withstand some of its more troublesome moments, I’m glad to have explored this new area in R.S. Belcher’s rich imagination, and look forward to seeing where this grim character will go next.

My Rating:

Reviews

GRAVE IMPORTANCE (Dr. Greta Helsing #3), by Vivian Shaw

The third and final (?) book in Vivian Shaw’s series focused on Greta Helsing, the physician specialized in supernatural creatures, raises the stakes to unimaginable levels, following the progressive crescendo acquired in the previous two volumes and seeing all the characters we have come to know and love engaged in a scenario of catastrophic proportions.

After the chilling adventures in Paris, Greta & Co. are enjoying some quiet time, and Dr. Helsing herself is helping Varney with the renovation of his ancestral house as the two of them – human and vampyre – keep growing closer. Their developing intimacy must however be placed on a back burner as a colleague asks Greta to take over for a while in his spa for mummies on the outskirts of Marseille, since he needs to take a leave of absence.  Despite sadness at her impending separation from Varney for several weeks, Greta is excited at the prospect of learning more about therapies for mummies, particularly because Oasis Natrun is filled with state-of-the-art equipment that will enable her to practice the high-level kind of medicine that she always dreamed of.

Her enthusiasm is sadly short-lived: the mummies at the spa keep falling prey to a kind of debilitating seizures that in some cases also prove damaging to their fragile physical integrity.  As Greta battles with the strange ailment, her vampire friend and mentor Ruthven is touring Europe with his new lover Grisaille: a puzzling encounter with a weird individual proves quite harmful to Ruthven’s health and requires his hospitalization in the best clinic in Hell (yes, *that* Hell, with a cameo from Dr. Faust himself), and there are two angels in disguise roaming the world as they prepare the ground for an invasion from an alternate version of Heaven. Mayhem and ruin ensue as we discover how the very fabric of reality is in jeopardy and nothing short of Armageddon looms ever close on the horizon…

In the previous two books, while enjoying the choral style of the narrative, I often felt that Greta was somewhat underused: here she finally comes to the fore, showing in no uncertain way the fierce love for her profession and the unstinting dedication to her patients that have shaped her over time. The puzzle presented by the mummies’ weird fits consumes her both as a physician and as a person who cares for others, and I liked how her growing relationship with Varney has not changed her attitude but rather has become another side of her commitment to others, and a source of strength in difficult moments rather than a distraction.

Grave Importance might be best described as several books in one: there is the thread about Oasis Natrun and its endangered mummies; Ruthven’s alarming ailment and the way it impacts the newly-forged bond with Grisaille, which leads to another part of the story where the latter launches into a dangerous heist together with Cranswell (a welcome return!); then there is the mysterious Madam Van Dorne and her obsession with Egyptian artifacts; and last but not least the nebulous mission of the two angels, Amitiel and Zophiel (A to Z – it took me a while to connect the dots…) and its ominous consequences.  It might sound like too much, but it’s really not, since these apparently unconnected pieces of the puzzle slowly form the complete picture, and the constant change of POV helps in keeping the pace brisk and in making the page-turning a compelling necessity.

What Vivian Shaw does very well, both here and in the previous two books, is mix more serious themes with humor in a very successful blend, and the whimsical bits always come at the right moment to defuse a particularly tense situation – a prime example of this is the scene where the enigmatic Madam Van Dorne sees her first walking and talking mummy and faints, and the mummy in question is more than happy to carry her away in its arms imitating the famous Boris Karloff movie sequence.  Equally entertaining are the chapters where Grisaille and Cranswell play – more or less successfully – the role of art thieves from New York’s Metropolitan Museum, or our first and comprehensive look at Hell, which is run like a well-oiled city, complete with its own resorts, bars and a top-notch hospital, Erebus General.  Should I also mention that you get the news there from ENN (Erebus News Network) and that the country code for phone calls is 666? 😀

This levity is a welcome distraction from the sinister events that lead inexorably to what looks like the end of the world, but it does not steer the author away from sharper and deeper characterization and a close observation of the family that Greta and her friends have built through their adventures and the affection that ties them together. Once again I am amazed at how all the supernatural creatures depicted in these novels feel so human and relatable, both the ones we have come to know and those we encounter here for the first time. These weird creatures – be they vampires, werewolves or demons, just to name a few – are not edulcorated, they stay true to their legendary and sometimes sinister nature, but at the same time they show a side of… normalcy, for want of a better word, that puts their more outlandish traits in sharper relief.

The only part of the story that did not exactly agree with me is the one concerning the two angels from a different dimension who are working to usher in the end of our world, deemed an abomination by their plane of existence: I found this part a little confusing and not sufficiently explained, but it was really a small “hiccup” in an otherwise very engaging read, and my hope is that Vivian Shaw will choose to return to Greta & Co. in the near future because I believe there are some more stories to tell about her and her oh-so-very-unusual circle of friends.

My Rating:

Reviews

KEPT FROM CAGES (The Ikiri Duology #1), by Phil Williams

I received this book from the author, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks for this opportunity.

Kept from Cages is Mr. Williams’ new novel, loosely connected with his Sunken City series and portraying completely new characters and backgrounds: the magically-infused British city of Ordshaw is mentioned, and we get a cameo appearance from one of the older characters, but this story takes place elsewhere, broadening our horizons in the matter of supernatural phenomena manifesting throughout the world.

The novel, as I learned from the author’s site, is one Mr. Williams has been working on for a long time and runs on two parallel but distinct tracks which might have seemed confusing at first, if I had not been prepared by the Ordshaw stories and learned that the author likes to place many, apparently unconnected, pieces of the puzzle on the playing field, little by little leading his readers toward the complete picture – or at least as much of the complete picture as he chooses to share at any given time… 😉

So we are presented first with Sean Tasker, an agent from the shady Ministry for Environmental Energy, investigating a ghastly event which occurred in a remote Norwegian village, where the inhabitants seem to have killed each other in an apparent attack of mass hysteria. Tasker’s investigations lead him to connect with Katryzna, a young woman with a history of violence and murderous skills, and they both travel to Congo as they follow a strange and increasingly weird trail of baffling clues.

On the other side of the world, a band of criminally inclined musicians is on the run after their latest hit, and they end up in an isolated farm where they discover a child with peculiar red eyes, tied to a chair: this is only the first of the freaky events that will see Reece and his band mates flee across the Deep South of the USA, hunted by the authorities, by a group of disreputable bounty hunters and bu a plethora of supernatural creatures that seem attracted to the little girl, Zip, like flies to honey.

Before the merging of the two separate storylines you can expect breakneck chases, harrowing battles with things that go bump in the night, old legends about an ominous mountain from where no expedition ever returned, cloak and dagger battles between crooked agencies and much, much more: the pacing is quite sustained, alternating chapters between the two groups of characters so that I felt compelled to move forward at a considerable speed because my need to know what happened next kept growing exponentially. It’s a crazy kind of adventure where you can only expect the unexpected right up to the epilogue, where we are left with such a surprising twist that calling it a cliffhanger would be to do it a huge disservice.

The tone of the novel is a little darker than what I found in the Sunken City series – which was not always rainbows and unicorns, to be clear about it – although there are many opportunities for humor, both in the delightful banter between the musicians, that comes to the fore even in the direst of situations, and through the harsh, uncouth and delightfully ill-mannered sorties from Katryzna, whose… well… unique approach to personal interactions offers the chance for a smile in the most distressing of circumstances.

Kept from Cages moves beyond the parameters of Urban Fantasy, adding elements of mystery, horror and humor to the mix, so that it would be difficult to classify the story, even in this era where the borders between genres keep blurring: it is definitely an adventure – both for the characters and for the readers, transported all over the world in search of the answers for an old riddle that might have dire implications for the present. 

Above all, it’s fun, and I’m delighted to inform you that it will be available from today, September 22nd: if you enjoyed the Sunken City trilogy you will feel perfectly at home here (monsters included…), if you did not read it yet, it might present a good opportunity to sample this entertainingly spooky world.

My Rating:

Reviews

KING OF THE ROAD (Brotherhood of the Wheel #2), by R. S. Belcher

While I usually tend to distance the books in a series to avoid so-called reader fatigue, I did not want to wait too long for this second volume in R.S. Belcher’s on-the-road Urban Fantasy because I greatly enjoyed my first encounter with the Brotherhood, the modern inheritors of the famed Templars, the knights once protecting the pilgrims traveling toward the Holy Land. In more recent times, the old order transformed into the Brotherhood, an alliance of truckers, bikers, patrolmen and so forth cruising the roads and keeping their dangers at bay, be they mundane or supernatural.

In the first book of the series we met the three main characters: Jimmie Aussapile, a down-to-earth trucker gifted with great courage and a heart of gold; Lovina Marcou, a police officer marked by a family tragedy and set on battling all predators; and Heck Sinclair, a war veteran and member of a motorcycle club, all rough edges and deep bravery.  The book starts with a high-octane mission that sees the three of them engaged in stamping out a band of children traffickers, but soon they are forced to take different roads in pursuit of various foes: Lovina, always keen on the subject of missing girls after the kidnapping and murder of her younger sister, follows the trail of a vanished young woman who keeps haunting her in vivid dreams set at the very moment of the assault; Jimmie is battling with the usual problems of too little cash and too many repairs to his truck, but this does not prevent him from lending Heck a hand as the biker finds himself faced with a splinter group in the club whose dangerous departure from the Blue Jocks’ code of honest living threatens the very existence of their crew.

This split narrative, that at some point also sees the welcome return of Max, the talented scientist from the Builders’ branch of the Brotherhood, makes for an intense reading journey, where the alternating chapters drove me to keep reading to see how the other characters fared in their own dangerous investigations. The story is further enhanced by the introduction of twelve year old Ryan, a boy relocating with his mother to a trailer park after a distressing experience, and finding different, terrifying dangers in the new home, but also new friends, in a narrative equivalent to a theme dear to Stephen King, that of the violated innocence of youth that can sometimes turn into unexpected courage and a lifelong bond.

Murderous cults seem to be one of the most common enemies the Brotherhood must face, and the one in King of the Road is a scary one indeed: its members distinguish themselves by painting unique clown masks on their faces (and there is something special and ominous in the paint they use…) and they harvest victims for their leader and his heinous goals, leaving their dismembered remains in plain view, both for ritualistic and shock value. What we learn along the way, is that these monsters have been doing this for decades, if not more, and every single one of them has been handpicked for cruelty and the absolute lack of common human feelings like dismay or remorse. The evil clown theme is one often found in horror literature (once again I need to quote the Master and his novel IT as a prime example) and I’m aware that there is a very real syndrome (coulrophobia) engendering fear of clowns in people who suffer from it, and I found that here this fear is used very skillfully because there is nothing more frightening that finding wickedness under the mask of someone who should only bring joy and amusement.  The bright side in this very dark part of the story comes from Lovina’s determination to go to the bottom of the mystery and to bring justice to the many victims, but also from the trailer park’s kids and their bond of loyalty that proves stronger than their fears.

Heck, on the other hand, seems at first to be fighting against a more mundane takeover of the club’s leadership and goals: it’s only when the sinister character of Viper comes on the scene that the supernatural elements come to the fore – and there is also something quite ominous in the past ties between Viper, the Blue Jocks and Heck himself, that hints at possible shattering revelations along the way. But on that path lie spoilers, so I will say no more…   In my review of the previous book I wrote that it took me some time to warm up to Heck, but here I felt quite strongly for him: seeing his club undermined from its very core, having to suffer grievous losses in the war against the separatists, feeling his future leadership endangered, he rises to the challenge with a focus and a maturity that seemed impossible given his previous volatile nature.  

A special mention must go to another biker club, The Bitches of Selene, where the members are mostly women and everyone is a shapeshifter: their leader Ana Mae is the perfect, ass-kicking female character I enjoy reading, because she’s a delightful blend of strength and humor, and the perfect foil for Heck. Not to mention that she’s a werewolf too and that there is no question about who is the Alpha between the two of them… 😉

The breakneck pace of the events and the deepening characterization of the regulars are the core of the story, and the latter is notably achieved by separating the three “regulars” and so giving them more space to grow, but there is more in King of the Road that makes it special: the intriguing glimpses into the hobo culture, with its inner “laws” and customs, and the way it somehow dovetails with some of the Brotherhood’s principles; the discovery that the Road is not the only place of aggregation for modern wanderers and that the Rail and freight trains are part of a parallel lifestyle. And last but not least a closer glimpse into the other branches of the Brotherhood, the Builders (the scientists and scholars) and the Benefactors, whose focus is on the financial aspects: the final chapter of the novel sheds more light into the other two spokes of the Wheel, and lays the ground for what we will certainly find in the next novel, that for me will not be here soon enough.

Granted, Mr. Belcher does show again his penchant for detailed descriptions of each character’s items of clothing, and here he compounds this quirk by listing the titles of songs playing on the radio whenever one is present on the scene, but I’ve come to accept it as part of the story: to quote programmers of old who used to say, “it’s a feature, not a bug”, I’ve learned to smile indulgently at these digressions instead of being bothered by them… 🙂

My Rating:

Note: this is my first post created using WordPress’ new Block Editor, the dreaded update that seems to have thrown the blogging community in deep turmoil. It was not easy, granted, and it requires patience and a tough learning curve, but it’s not impossible. So far I have been able to style my post the way I like it, although I spent more time on it than I am used to, but I wanted to share this small success as a form of encouragement to my fellow bloggers who have been so far baffled by the new interface. Don’t give up! 😉

Reviews

STORM OF LOCUSTS (The Sixth World #2), by Rebecca Roanhorse

 

Last year I encountered a new Urban Fantasy series that felt quite different from the usual format, and its first installment,Trail of Lightning, encouraged me to keep an eye out for its sequels: book two of Rebecca Roanohorse’s Sixth World Series is just as engaging as its predecessor but it also left me with mixed feelings, because while I loved what the author did with the characters – both the old and the new ones – part of the storyline felt less defined and at times too… convenient (for want of a better word) to be completely believable.  But let’s proceed with order…

The rising oceans have changed the face of the world, and one of the few places where life is still possible is Dinétah, the former Navajo reservation now walled off from the rest of the world. It’s not a totally safe place, though, since ancient gods and monsters – both old and new – share the territory alongside humans. Maggie Hoskie is a monster slayer for hire, and in recent times she also became a god slayer when she vanquished Neizghání, the lightning god who used to be her mentor and lover.  It’s now a few weeks after this happened at Black Mesa, where Maggie also had to kill her friend and love interest Kai Arviso, whose healing powers brought him back to life but not back in Maggie’s life, so she’s trying to deal with the aftermath of it all – trying being the operative word…

When she’s called in for help against the dangerous cult of the White Locusts, she learns that the “resurrected” Kai is either their prisoner or a willing adept, and to get to the core of the matter she teams up for a search and rescue mission with two of the Goodacre siblings and a young girl with clan powers, Ben, who has been entrusted to her care. Gathering human and godlike allies along the way, the group ventures from the borders of Dinétah into the Malpais – the devastated outside world – discovering that the White Locusts and their charismatic leader Gideon are planning something that might mean the destruction of all they hold dear.

The narrative elements that made the first book in this series stand out are still here: the walled-in enclave of Dinétah where humans and supernatural beings coexist in this weird world whose face was literally changed by the rising oceans; the fascinating cultural and social milieu of Native Americans that brings a new, intriguing perspective to the genre; the land itself, with its harsh, unforgiving beauty. Maggie remains a fascinating character, her hard-won independence, her self-sufficiency still there but now tempered by the realization that opening herself to other people does not threaten those qualities but rather enhances them. And here comes the biggest change in the interpersonal dynamics of the overall story, because it transforms what early on was a one-woman battle into a group effort and a delightful quest that takes us outside the borders of Dinétah and into the Big, Bad Outside World.

Much as life in the Diné enclave might look difficult, the Malpais proves to be dangerous, and deadly: in the best tradition of post-apocalyptic stories, Maggie and her team encounter an organized gang of slavers and organ traffickers whose settlement of Knifetown has a definite Mad Max quality, complete with what looks like a deranged overlord, while the mention of the neighboring Mormon Kingdom and its theocratic rule  fulfills the worst predictions of what could happen with the collapse of civilization. It’s therefore hardly surprising that in this kind of background a cult like that of the White Locusts could easily gain supporters, won over by their leader’s Gideon seductive power and his promise of a new, better world.

Storm of Locusts sees Maggie traveling through these dangers with a crew of allies – friends – that, with the exception of reformed bandit Aaron, is dominated by women: Maggie herself, who’s trying to change her ways and not resort to mindless killing as a way of solving problems, and who is acknowledging her newfound connection to humanity and somehow finding that she enjoys it; Rissa Goodacre, who begins the journey with huge moral reservations toward Maggie and then slowly changes her outlook recognizing there can ben mutual respect and friendship between them; the cat goddess Mosì, whose feline indifference offers some of the lighter moments in the story; and young Ben, the best addition to the series because of what she comes to represent for Maggie.

Ben is a teenager who just suffered a grievous loss on top of earlier childhood trauma, the one that woke her clan powers: Maggie sees much of herself there, and where at first she somehow resents being saddled with the responsibility for the teenager’s safety, she starts to see her earlier self reflected in Ben, recognizing the signs of the downward spiral she traveled in the past, and decides to spare her the same hurtful journey by giving the young woman the support she needs to come to terms with what she is.  Despite the tragedy in her recent past, Ben’s character is an engaging counterpoint to Maggie’s, thanks to her youthful enthusiasm and drive that little by little manage to erode Maggie’s hard shell and bring her closer to her forgotten humanity.

Where character exploration offers the best elements in the story, I found that the plot felt less… solid, starting with the sensation that the questing team was never truly in danger: their experience in Knifetown, where it seems Maggie and Rissa might lose their lives and Ben be sold as a slave bride, is resolved fairly quickly by what looks like a deus ex machina set of circumstances. In a similar way, the swift conversion of outlaw Aaron, or the easy help offered by a divinity appearing as a crusty old man, look a little too convenient to feel completely believable.   And I’m still not convinced by the soundness of Kai’s motivations for joining Gideon’s cult, or by the mutual bond between Kai and Maggie, which does not offer solid vibes for me…

Still, whatever doubts I might have had about this second installment in the series were vanquished by the closing paragraph of the novel and its ominous promise of more interesting darkness to come: the next book might very well compensate for my partial disappointment with this one.

 

My Rating: