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:

Reviews

DREADFUL COMPANY (Dr. Greta Helsing #2), by Vivian Shaw – Wyrd & Wonder 2020

 

I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in Vivan Shaw’s Urban Fantasy series, and did not wait long to add this second volume to my reading queue: Dreadful Company proved to be an even faster and more entertaining read, adding further depth to the characters I already knew and presenting a few new ones that spiced up the mix in a very interesting way.

The story opens with Greta traveling to Paris for a symposium of supernatural medicine in the company of her vampire friend Lord Ruthven. What could have been a pleasant, if slightly boring, diversion from her work in London becomes first a puzzle when Greta finds not one but two weird critters in her room – beings that are magically summoned rather than being born – and then turns into a harrowing experience as she is kidnapped by a local vampire coven whose ruler, the dangerously capricious Corvin, intends to use her as bait to exact vengeance on Ruthven, with whom he clashed, and lost, in the past.

The situation is further complicated by some weird ghostly manifestations pointing toward a lessening of the barrier between the mundane plane and the afterworld, which require the summoning of two licensed psychopomps and the intervention of a demonic overseer in the person of Greta’s special friend Fastitocalon, who had been recuperating his health in Hell.  As it becomes clear that the critters found by Dr. Helsing and the vampire coven are tied into these “reality hiccups”, the guardian of Paris, werewolf St. Germain, joins forces with Ruthven, Varney and the rest of Greta’s friends in what turns into a mixed rescue & restoration enterprise that kept me turning the pages with highly amused enthusiasm.

Not unlike what happened in Strange Practice, Greta often cedes the limelight to the other players and while this might look somewhat odd, it also allows them to gain more substance and provides a welcome balance to the story. Still, the distressing situation in which she finds herself here puts Greta’s personality into sharper focus and we see how it’s made out of equal measures of kindness, dedication and common sense: being a prisoner does not exempt her from being a doctor first and foremost, so that she has no reservations in treating one of her captors’ wounds, or in feeling deep pity for the youngest member of the coven once she realizes that the girl has been turned without permission and then left to her own devices to face the transformation into a vampire.  If I wrote, in my review of the first book, that Greta looked less substantial than the other characters, I have come to understand that her reserved attitude hides a core of strength and cleverness that comes to light when need arises, and which in this particular circumstance leads her to take matters in her own hands without waiting for rescue to come her way.

It is of course interesting to see Lord Ruthven shaken out of his usual aplomb as he realizes that Greta is in danger at the hands of an old adversary, or to witness the blossoming closeness between Varney and the doctor – while not a fan of romantic entanglements, I’m quite curious to see how this vampire/human relationship will progress – but this time around I truly enjoyed getting to know the new characters on the scene. The overseer of the Parisian supernatural population, Alceste St. Germain, is one of my favorites: a werewolf with a penchant for historical studies, he’s gruff but hospitable – I loved seeing how he turned his house into a command center for the rescuers without batting an eyelash; the two psychopomps are a source for tongue-in-cheek humor and oblique references to horror and gothic themes, their names also an indication of the main facets of their personality – where Gervase Brightside was fun, Crepusculus Dammerung was downright hilarious.

The vampire Grisaille is an interesting study of the bloodsucker mentality from a different perspective than that offered so far by Ruthven and Varney, while the other members of the coven – particularly their vile leader Corvin – manage to appear dangerous and ludicrous at the same time: lacking the kind of moral foundations at the roots of Ruthven’s psychological makeup, for example, they seem more inclined to follow a behavioral template taken from folklore and so tend to dress with flamboyant bad taste and cover themselves with body glitter, in a pathetic – if weirdly entertaining – imitation of a certain vampire saga. Still, they are nonetheless dangerous: partly in fear and partly in devotion of their leader, they prey on hapless humans that are drained and discarded as nothing more than… food rations, and the scenes of their blood-and-drugs orgies represent the more serious and shocking side of the story.

To balance these dreadful narrative elements there are the delightful callbacks to several gothic myths, mainly that of the Phantom of the Opera, one of my all-time favorites, and the appearance of these furry critters, summoned from a different plane of reality, who are unabashedly cute and offer a few rays of light in the darkest sections of the story, without forgetting the intangible entity that Greta summons at some point and can become visible only while covered in cloth – try to imagine a helpful, cuddly ghost as an improbable but precious ally…

At the end of this second novel in the series much has changed for the main characters and they seem destined to walk some different paths than the ones they were traveling when we met them for the first time: given the entertaining mix of adventure, drama and humor that’s typical of these books I know I can look forward to the next one with great anticipation.

 

My Rating:

 

Image by Tanantachai Sirival @ 123RF.com

Reviews

COME TUMBLING DOWN (Wayward Children #5), by Seanan McGuire

 

This new installment in McGuire’s Wayward Children series held the double incentive of following up on a previous story, Down Among the Sticks and Bones – one of my favorites – and I was eager to move back to the world of the Moors, its delightful Hammer Horror mood and the characters of twins Jack and Jill.

The last time we saw them, Jack was carrying back to the Moors the body of her sister Jill, that she herself had killed (not that death is exactly final there…); now the novella opens on Eleanor West’s Home and the arrival, after a lightning storm, of Alexis (one of the Moors’ dwellers) with an unconscious Jill in her arms – only it’s not exactly Jill, since there has been an exchange of bodies between the two sisters. Jack-as-Jill asks her former schoolmates to follow her to her world and help her regain her body, one of the compelling reasons for it being that otherwise the carefully maintained balance in the Moors will be thoroughly upset.

That’s as much as I feel entitled to share, since both the group’s journey and the quest’s final outcome must be explored without spoilers, so I prefer to concentrate on the story’s main components – and to get it all off my chest right away, I’m sorry to report that Come Tumbling Down ended being something of a disappointment. Don’t misunderstand me, I enjoyed reading it and I still look forward to the next novellas in the series, but in this case – not unlike what happened with Beneath the Sugar Sky – the overall result fell a little short of the mark.

The writing was as good as ever, as was the world-building, but the characterization seemed to lack the in-depth look I’ve come to expect from Seanan McGuire: as was the case with the third novella of the series, this is a choral story and this choice seems to have diluted the strength in characterization that’s typical of this author when she concentrates on one or two individuals only.

The writing style is as mesmerizing as expected, moving from weirdness to gallows humor to drama with seamless transitions, and it’s the true glue that keeps the various elements together. The further look into the world of the Moors is both fascinating and scary: we shift from the dual perspective of the main players – the vampire lord and the mad scientist – to see other parts of the realm, and learn that other kinds of monsters dwell here. The peek into the domain of the Drowned Gods and its human-inhabited village is truly horrifying and it carries some delightfully fearsome Lovecraftian vibes (Innsmouth, anyone? 🙂 ), that together with the march of resurrected skeletons at the height of the story makes for the highest point of the tale.

The core concept of identity at the root of the series is still strong: the young people at Eleanor West’s academy share a feeling of alienation with our primary world and can find fulfillment and a sense of belonging only by crossing the magical doors leading them to the various alternate worlds they inhabit for a while. Here that quest for identity gains a new layer of meaning: the body exchange perpetrated by Jill and suffered by Jack might not look like such a tragedy from the outside, since they are identical twins, but through Jack’s own words we learn that what we do with out bodies, and how much our minds form connections with them, creates unique bonds that go way beyond simple muscle memory, and whose severing causes intense trauma.

Where all of the above created a strong foundation for the story, the characters felt a little unsubstantial this time: I could not connect emotionally with any of them, not even when some truly horrifying things happened, and what’s worse I’m still puzzling over the need for the whole group to travel to the Moors, since their contribution to Jack’s “mission” was quite minimal, if any, especially during the final showdown – something that happened far too quickly and with the kind of ease that belied Jack’s passionate request for help.

The other major point of contention comes from the concept that in the Moors death is not a permanent state: we go from Frankenstein-like electrically induced revivals, to the unexpected resurrection of people who seemed to tragically lose their lives, and what it all comes down to – at least for me – is the fundamental irrelevance of any dramatic turn of events. Granted, there is always a price to be paid for a return to life (or something approaching it), but in the end it removes personal stakes or any emotional impact attached to the loss of a given character.

While somewhat frustrated by the way this much-looked-for installment turned out, I still hope that the next one will be more in keeping with the series’ overall tone and mood.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

STRANGE PRACTICE (Dr. Greta Helsing #1), by Vivian Shaw

 

Urban Fantasy is one of the hybrid genres I enjoy, although it’s difficult to find books or series offering a different take from the much-used theme of the private investigator (either with or without special powers) dealing with an underworld peopled by fae and/or supernatural creatures: Strange Practice, the first novel in the Dr. Greta Helsing series, offers such a breath of fresh air, depicting a very human main character working as a physician for these weird beings, who live in our world while managing to keep hidden in plain sight from the public.

Latest in a line of healers descended from the famous Dr. Van Helsing out of the Dracula myth, Greta is very dedicated to her London clinic whose patients include banshees and ghouls, mummies and vampires, and any other kind of imaginable (or unimaginable) otherworldly creature. Greta’s busy but interesting routine is upset when she’s summoned by one of her closest friends, the vampire Ruthven, who is sheltering another vampire he literally found on his doorstep seeking help after a brutal assault.

The attack on Varney, the victim, seems closely related to a series of murders that’s worrying the authorities and creating sensationalist ripples in the public for the bizarre ritual connected to them: each of the victims was found with a cheap plastic rosary in their mouths, and it took no time for the tabloids to dub the series of killings with the name of Rosary Murders. Varney’s assailants wore what looked like monk robes, muttered outlandish chants and hit him with a cross-shaped dagger covered with an unknown poison apparently able to hinder a vampire’s quick healing powers.

The mystery deepens when Greta herself is attacked in her car by a scary individual, also dressed as a monk and uttering incoherent Bible quotes, with a face scarred by fire and strangely-glowing blue eyes. Moving to Ruthven’s house for safety, Dr. Helsing is soon joined by the other members of what will soon become a sort of investigative team set on finding the dangerous “monks” and removing the threat to the supernatural community: Fastitocalon is a mysterious being who was Greta’s father’s friend and acts a sort of uncle to the doctor, while she tries to make him take better care of himself – the true nature of Fastitocalon (Fass, for short, which is a blessing considering how stumble-worthy that name is….) will be revealed in the course of the story, and it’s a very, very intriguing one, indeed. And finally there’s the only other human of the group, young Cranswell from the British Museum: he’s aware of the existence of these extraordinary beings and delights in the possibility of delving into their lore – an enthusiastic, if at times naïve, person who offers a needed counterpoint to the weirdness of the… differently human characters.

Where the overall story is interesting and at times gripping, as it develops across the city of London and through the mazes of its underground, it often takes second place to the characters and their interactions: the narrative style itself is a quaint one, relying very much on an old-fashioned expressive mode that at first seems to place the novel in the Victorian era, and only reveals its modern background at the mention of cars, wi-fi connections and so forth. After a while I became convinced that the unusual choices of phrase were due to the fact that most of the supernaturals are very ancient beings, and therefore still tied to an older way of expression: the clearest example of this dichotomy is Ruthven, a man – pardon, a vampire – who enjoys the comforts of modern living, including a state-of-the-art expresso machine, but still loves to surround himself with the vestiges of the past.

Bizarrely enough, Greta does not feel like the strongest character in this novel: she is of course admirable in her dedication to her peculiar patients, and one of her best moments happens when she is asked why she cares so much about “monsters” and she replies that to her they are people – no more, no less. Yet to me she appears much less substantial than the strange and scary creatures surrounding her, who literally stole the scene, from the mummy whose bones are falling apart and needs a few replacement pieces fashioned from a 3D printer, to the ghouls who gather in close-knit family clans, including a baby ghoul who remains cute even as we learn that he’s being fed sewer rats.

The best, however, remain Ruthven and Fastitocalon, and both of them quickly became my favorite characters and managed to overshadow Greta thanks to their peculiarities and the way they both related to the doctor, each in his own way: Fass is confidant and protector, the person who somehow filled the void left by Greta’s father’s death; Ruthven is the go-to-friend, unfailing in his support and generosity and a very suave gentleman to boot. That on the surface, of course, because they also enjoy very intriguing talents: Fass can all but disappear from notice, masking other people’s presence as well – as is the case when he helps Cranswell replace some important books from the Museum after he purloined them for research into the monkish sect; Ruthven, as a vampire, can thrall people to do his bidding, and he avoids looking menacing thanks to his laid-back attitude toward his nature, something I will leave to his own words:

The easiest thing is to think of me as a large well-dressed mosquito, only with more developed social graces and without the disease-vector aspect.

Or

He didn’t even own a coffin, let alone sleep in one; there simply wasn’t room to roll over, even in the newer, wider models, and anyway the mattresses were a complete joke and played merry hell with one’s back.

This is indeed one of the peculiarities of Strange Practice: the distinctive sense of humor that might not be for everyone: in my case it worked very well, due to its light-handed nature, offering some needed respite in the most tense moments. Respite that also comes in those quiet passages where the group of characters takes a moment to discuss the situation over cups of tea or glasses of something stronger: these more intimate interludes help to better understand what makes these individual tick, and in the end they proved to be some of my favorite sequences.

Strange Practice is a very promising first book in this new-to-me series, whose unusual take on the genre’s themes might turn it into one of my favorite reads. Hopefully I will not wait too long before getting to the other two volumes published so far…

 

 

My Rating: