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:

Reviews

THE LAST SMILE IN SUNDER CITY, by Luke Arnold

 

I received this novel from Orbit Books, through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review: my thanks to both of them for this opportunity.

Urban Fantasy scenarios often share several common elements: a city where supernatural creatures exist side-by-side with humans, either in plain sight or hidden; the presence of magic; an atmosphere typical of noir movies; and a P.I. engaged in a complex investigation. The Last Smile in Sunder City does possess these elements, granted, but sets them in an unusual background that gives the story and its characters a new, intriguing perspective.

The world in which the story is set was imbued with magic once, but a catastrophic event named The Coda closed off its source with tragic consequences, and now the city of Sunder, once a flourishing center of industry, is just a ghost of its former self, as are its supernatural inhabitants, stripped like their world of any magical attribute that made them what they were. Fetch Phillips is a human Man For Hire, eking out a meagre living by accepting odd jobs, just enough to pay the rent and fuel his drinking habit – he does not work for his fellow humans though, out of a deep-seated sense of anger and guilt whose roots are explored in the course of the story.

Tasked with looking into the disappearance of a teacher from the city’s multi-species academy, Fetch finds himself caught in the kind of complex tangle of misdirections and threats that is to be expected in a story’s investigative thread, but this inciting incident is only the pretext to explore the world and its inhabitants as they try to pick up the pieces of the past and to build a new life out of the ashes of the old one. Fantasy novels more often than not rely on magic, but here instead we explore a culture that has to deal with the sudden death of it, and what this means in the everyday existence of Sunder’s citizens: the sad, grey, hopeless mood of the story often reminded me of Tolkien’s Elves’ long defeat, a battle with no hope of victory that is however still fought because the idea of surrendering to the inevitable is even more loathsome.

The world building in The Last Smile in Sunder City is its best feature, indeed. The image of Sunder City that I built in my mind reminds me of a town in the throes of the Big Depression, where people have to find new ways to survive not so much out of financial troubles (although they are a factor in many instances), but out of the disappearance of the magic that helped run many of the activities, like the streets deprived of wizardry-powered electricity and barely lighted by torches or fires. Then there are the dreadful physical transformations brought on by the Coda: werewolves frozen in the transition from wolf to man, formerly immortal Elves who aged overnight or even crumbled to dust, vampires who lost their teeth and the ability to thrive on blood – the description of what happens to the majority of those supernatural beings at the very moment in which the Coda happens is something both nightmarish and imbued with profound emotional impact.

The social changes in the post-Coda world have taken another, uglier facet as well: the connection to the world’s magic was severed by humans in an underhanded attempt at harnessing that power – humans were the only ones unable to tap it, and it was their intention to put themselves on the same level as the magically-able creatures. Now that supernatural beings have been stripped of their edge, humans feel entitled to take over: their technology, the mechanical means by which their civilization moves, are the only ones that work now, which puts them in the position of superiority they craved for a long time. Not a pretty spectacle at all…

In all of this, Fetch Phillips keeps his distance from everything and everyone, a loner by personal history and by choice, nursing his deep guilt with the same care he nurses the endless bottles of liquor and the drugs that barely help him go through the days: at face value this personality traits, and attitude, would have made me dislike him immediately, but for some reason I felt pity for him, which increased as his story was revealed through the flashbacks showing how he came to be the individual he is now. Fetch Phillips seems destined from a very young age to be alone, even in the company of others, of being the one looking in from the outside, never being part of something, never feeling accepted, and this shapes both his psychological profile – past and present – and the string of bad choices that ultimately bring him to the momentous decision whose outcome will weigh him with endless guilt and regret. He is a man possessed by a strong death wish, uncaring of the damage he sustains as a result of his actions, but at the same time he does not seem to really want that end, because it would also mean the end of his self-inflicted penance – and also the end of what little good he might do to atone for his past mistakes.

I’m aware that all of the above might sound depressing and excessively gloomy, but in reality it’s not as grim as it might seem and it’s also quite compelling, not to mention that the small, very small glimmer of light that can be perceived toward the end promises that things might not look so hopeless in the next book, or books, of this series.

As a debut novel The Last Smile in Sunder City is not a perfect one: there are some pacing issues, particularly in Fetch’s flashbacks that could have been tightened a little to avoid the loss of focus on the issues of the present, and there are times when the search for the missing vampire teacher seems to become irrelevant, instead of being the connecting element of the story. Yet, the narrative remains engaging throughout, and that’s definitely a plus: I will look forward to seeing how Sunder City – and Fetch – will fare in the next installments.

 

 

My Rating:

 

Reviews

THE LAST SUN (The Tarot Sequence #1), by K.D. Edwards

 

While I was aware of this book through the enthusiastic reviews I read from my fellow bloggers, I had not managed to add it to my reading queue yet, so that when the first posts announcing the second volume of the series started to appear I decided it was high time for me to read The Last Sun.

The premise for the story is very intriguing: the people of Atlantis did not vanish under the ocean as uncounted myths tell us, but rather survived a catastrophic conflict and established a new settlement in Nantucket, where they were able to thrive and where the rest of the world – our mundane world – is quite aware of them.  Atlantean society is based on a sort of feudal stratification, where the ruling families take on the names and qualities of the Tarot’s Arcana, and magic is an everyday occurrence, stored in objects called sigils that can be imbued with any kind of supernatural attributes to be used as necessity dictates, especially in combat. Yes, because this is a brutal culture, the violence barely masked by its sophistication and flaunted riches: Houses can effect hostile – and ruthless – takeovers on other Houses, the only requirement being a notification of their intention (how civilized…), and indeed the novel starts with one such vicious action in which the main character plays an important part.

Rune St. John, only survivor of Sun House – decimated twenty years prior by its rivals – is now working for the powerful Tower, and after the successful coup on the Lovers’ premises he’s tasked by Lord Tower to find Addam St. Nicholas, the missing heir of  House Judgment, who disappeared in mysterious circumstances.  Together with his Companion Brand – a human bonded to him from infancy as bodyguard and partner – Rune will need to navigate the complex Atlantean politics as his investigation reveals unexpected twists and plots within plots that are more far-reaching than anyone might have suspected.  Facing violence, perverted magic and terrifying creatures, the two of them, and the allies they gather along the way, will find their work cut out for them as they try to unravel the complicated twists of a conspiracy that might have escaped even the control of its designers.

As I expected from the reviews I read, the world-building for The Last Sun is quite amazing, starting with the new incarnation of Atlantis itself: the descriptions made me think of a cross between Hogwarts and Blade Runner’s L.A. and there is a definite feel of unexplored layers here, as the tantalizing hints about the past offer just enough to whet one’s appetite without fully satisfying it. Atlantean society is a fascinating mix of complex customs and liberal attitudes, where no choice is barred, be it sartorial or sexual or whatever one might think of.   Another expected detail, and one I quite enjoyed, came from the constant banter between characters, particularly between Rune and Brand whose partnership/brotherhood is delightful and offers a great deal of humor in a situation that moves toward darker and darker shades as the story progresses.

Yet, despite all of those positive traits, The Last Sun is not devoid of problems, some of which managed to spoil the story’s overall effect, progressively scaling down my initial rating of the book as the cons started to overshadow the pros.  The most glaring of those problems is the portrayal of female characters – what few of them are included, that is, because there is a conspicuous scarcity of women in this book, and they are either placed in a menial role, like Rune and Brand’s housekeeper Queenie, or are distant, cold figures like House heads. The only woman who appears in a more substantial way is Ella, sister of the missing Addam St. Nicholas: a girl suffering from anorexia and very low self-esteem, who is ultimately revealed as a far-too-easily deceived fool.  For a society depicted as broad-minded and unconventional I would have expected a more balanced portrayal of its citizens instead of this all-male focus on characters, no matter how interesting they proved to be.

The worse drawback, however, comes from the relentless action sequences which succeed each other with almost no respite, turning into magical wrestling matches that after a while lose their novelty appeal to become almost… ritualistic, for want of a better word, and progressively less engaging. The magic, as fascinating as it is with the use of sigils, ends up shadowing individual abilities or stamina and turns any fight into a contest where the biggest, baddest and more powerful sigils win; to compound this aspect there is the parallel use of healing magic, acting as a deus-ex-machina in repairing whatever injury, no matter how grievous, and so removing any sort of anxiety about the characters’ survival. The case in point comes from the instance in which one of the players suffers a mortal wound, literally bleeding his life out: when I should have worried about his survival, and bonded with the others’ anguish, I just knew that it would be only a matter of time before someone arrived to magically bring him back to life and health – which to me felt wrong, and a sort of cheat.

Overall, The Last Sun turned out to be a not-unpleasant read but either because of the expectations I built through previous reviews, or because of my points of contention, it fell quite short of the mark. While other fellow bloggers are looking forward to the second book in the series, I will wait for more information on The Hanged Man before returning to this somewhat disappointing universe.

 

My Rating:

Reviews

THE WICKED KING (The Folk of the Air #2), by Holly Black

 

With a story concerning the Fae, spells and enchantments are to be expected, but in the case of this series the magic spills over from the books and bewitches the readers: I am myself surprised at the involvement I experienced with Holly Black’s Folks of the Air series, which deepened with this highly engaging second installment.

In Book 1 we met the two human sisters Jude and Taryn, whose mother had been for a while the wife of a Fae, Madoc, before escaping from Faerie with another human and the child she bore her husband, who later on found her, killed her and Jude and Taryn’s father and took the three girls back with him.   Life in Faerie proved difficult for the two human twins, unlike their half-Fae older sister Vivi, but both of them had found a way to survive: Taryn by striving to blend in and make herself as inconspicuous as possible, Jude by her desire to emerge in a vital role in Fae society.

That desire and a burning ambition have now brought Jude to the position of seneschal to High King Cardan, one of her most bitter enemies and now bound for a year and a day by a promise to do her bidding, as she gains time for her step-brother Oak to grow into the role of monarch that is his rightful birthright.   But as her stepfather Madoc used to lecture her, Power is much easier to acquire than it is to hold on to, and Jude struggles to keep abreast of the byzantine Court intrigues, of the constant plots to undermine her authority and of Cardan’s efforts to evade her control.  As if all this were not enough, the Sea realm is plotting against the Land, threatening war, while Taryn’s impending marriage to the Fae Locke, one of the trickiest denizens of Elfhame, might compromise Oak’s safety since he and Vivi will be guests at the celebration.

Where The Cruel Prince introduced us to the story’s main players, The Wicked King is more plot-oriented, and while some new character angles are shown here, with quite interesting consequences, this novel moves at a steady pace through a succession of events that more often than not manage to overthrow any conclusion we might have made until that point: if Jude is being run ragged by the countless elements she must juggle in an ever-complicated balancing act, we readers experience a similar kind of mental exhaustion by trying to keep up with the many surprises the author springs on her main character as well as them. And yet we look forward to more…

What’s more, there is an increasing tension building between Jude and Cardan that takes on interesting shades since the mutual attraction is in conflict with their equally mutual hate – or is it? I never make a mystery of my wariness of romantic plots, and here I should have been even more skeptical about them considering the slight YA mood of these novels, but I have to admit that Ms. Black managed to convince me with her portrayal of these two characters and their contradictory emotions, which works very well inside the uncertain frame of Faerie, where misdirection and unknowable layers prove to be far more dangerous than outright lies, which the Fae are incapable of.  Besides, this odd attraction works even better when considering that both Jude and Cardan are not immediately likable characters, even when taking into account the dramatic circumstances that have scarred their childhood and turned them into the people they are now: the most fascinating angle of the relationship, such as it is, does not come from the proverbial “will they or won’t they?” question, but rather from the desire to discover where it will lead them and what it will teach us about what truly makes them tick.  And considering the way this second installment ends, that curiosity is now at its highest peak.

If power and the desire to wield it is one of the main themes in The Wicked King, there is another one that’s just as important: family ties. The relationship between Jude and her twin Taryn is not an easy one anymore, now that their paths have forked in different directions, separating them in outlooks if not in looks, and yet there is this unexpressed desire in Jude to keep the bond alive – even more so when considering they are both strangers in a strange land.  It’s one of Jude’s character traits that managed to endear her to me despite the initial difficulties I encountered given her prickly demeanor, but the quality of Taryn’s responses makes it abundantly clear she has… gone quite native and that trusting her might prove ultimately dangerous.  Jude’s relationship with Madoc is burdened with worse problems, though: in my review of The Cruel Prince I mentioned Stockholm’s Syndrome when referring to the two of them, and here that ambiguity is far more pronounced, where Jude knows he is one of her adversaries, and yet keeps wanting to prove her worth – even as she tries to obstruct his plans.

If middle books sometimes tend to disappoint after a riveting beginning, The Wicked King raises the stakes in a major way, adding more levels of uncertainty to an already thorny situation, and given the very unexpected outcome at the end of the book, one that literally pulled the rug from under my feet, I can’t wait to see how the story will be wrapped up in the upcoming third volume, The Queen of Nothing. Anything, literally anything could happen…

 

My Rating: