Category: Urban Fantasy

Queen of the Dark Things (Dreams and Shadows #2)

Cover image for Queen of the Dark Things by C Robert Cargill by C. Robert Cargill

ISBN 978-0-06-219045-1

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher as part of the Harper Voyager Super Reader program.

“Don’t speak to me about power as if you understand it, boy. You don’t know what power is. You twiddle your fingers and deconstruct a thing in front of you and you think that’s power. That’s not power; that’s ability. Power is another thing entirely.”

When he was a boy, Colby Stevens made a wish that changed his life forever. Although he became a wizard, and gained the power to see beyond the veil, the djinni he wished on, Yashar, was cursed, so all of his wishes twist and end badly. Colby was able to defeat his enemies in the Limestone Kingdom, and ban them from Austin, but he couldn’t save his best friend, Ewan. Still reeling from the loss of his friend, Colby takes a step too far in his new role as the supernatural sheriff of Austin, and runs afoul of the city’s genius loci. But Austin is the least of his problems; the battle with the faeries earned Colby a certain amount of infamy, and now all of his old enemies know where to find him. The Queen of the Dark Things is coming for revenge, and it may be that nothing short of a deal with the Devil can save him.

Like Dreams and Shadows, Queen of the Dark Things starts slowly, as Cargill carefully assembles all the threads of his story before he begins to weave them together. The result is a delicately crafted narrative about power and the responsibilities that come with it. It takes some time for the central plot to emerge, but playing it close to the vest gives Cargill a great capacity for surprising the reader, though he sometimes gives away too much in the epigraphs. Where Dreams and Shadows focused on faerie lore, Queen of the Dark Things shifts the mythical focus to the traditions of the Australian Aborigines, particularly the Dreamtime, which Cargill utilizes to great effect. Another standout in this story is the personification of the city of Austin, who struggles to protect her people from the forces descending on the city. Once again, Cargill’s patient work pays off with a stunning conclusion that makes it worth going along for the ride.

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The Taken (Celestial Blues #1)

Cover image for The Taken by Vicki Pettersson by Vicki Pettersson

ISBN 978-0-06-206464-6

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book as part of the Harper Voyager Super Reader program.

“People created chaos, not places, and they were damned good at it no matter where they lived. And when this glittering gem of a city teamed up with the world’s oldest profession, fantasy piled atop fantasy, it could convince just about anyone that impulse was a virtue, not a vice.”

Journalist Kit Craig and her photographer partner, Nicole Rockwell, are investigating a prostitution ring in their hometown of Las Vegas, when Nicole is murdered during an undercover meeting with a potential source. Griffin Shaw, one time private investigator, has been dead for fifty years, but unable to overcome the trauma of his death and pass over to Paradise, he serves as a Centurion angel, charged with collecting other souls who have met a violent end. It is he who is sent to retrieve the soul of Nicole Rockwell, but when he does Nicole one last favour before she passes over, he doesn’t realize that his actions will change fate, leading Kit to her death in pursuit of her partner’s murderer. Charged by a higher power with cleaning up his mess by collecting Kit’s soul, Grif is cast back onto the mortal plane. But instead of following orders, Grif breaks rank, and protects Kit, even as he enlists her help in figuring out a mystery that has been haunting him for fifty years: who killed Griffin Shaw?

Grif died in the fifties, but Kit is still living them as a rockabilly. She dresses in vintage clothes, hunts down antique décor for her house, and drives a classic car. While the persecution Kit faced for her interest in rockabilly seemed overstressed, it does create an interesting dynamic between her and Grif. Since Grif actually lived (and was murdered) in the fifties, Kit’s idealization of that period strikes a nerve with him, at the same time that her fifties décor makes him feel right at home, epitomizing the way Kit puts him off balance. Rockabilly also helps Grif pass in Vegas, even though he still looks and dresses exactly as he did when he died.

Despite the interesting and complicated dynamic between Kit and Grif, I didn’t feel any investment in the development of their romance. I was more interested in watching them try to mesh their different investigative styles, than in seeing them get together. Unfortunately for me, the romance was fairly central, and it was into the last hundred pages of the book before the mystery plot really picked up steam. The turning point comes at a confrontation between Grif and a Pure—a higher angel that was never human—over his refusal to let Kit die. From that point on, I was hooked, but it was slow reading prior to that. Unfortunately, while this explosive ending wraps up Nicole’s murder and the investigation into the prostitution ring, it leaves the question of Grif’s murder still hanging.

Although the rockabilly aspect of the story was overstressed, and the plot was a bit slow to get going, there were some elements that worked quite well. The Taken conveys a great sense of place, depicting Las Vegas as it might seem to the locals, past and present, rather than skimming the familiar, touristy veneer of the city. I also loved Vicki Pettersson’s writing style, which combined a surprisingly workable mix of hard-boiled narrative, and more lyrical prose. I would be interested in checking out Pettersson’s other work, but for this particular series, it is a lot to ask the writing to carry a slow plot and unengaging romance for three quarters of the book, and expect readers to keep going.

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Every Which Way But Dead (Hollows #3)

Cover image for Every Which Way But Dead by Kim Harrisonby Kim Harrison

ISBN 9780060572990

“How many mistakes can one life survive?”

Rachel Morgan has succeeded in getting master vampire Piscary put in prison for five centuries for murder, but her troubles have only just begun. With Piscary behind bars, her deal with Algaliarept has become enforceable, and she must follow through on her promise to become his familiar. Piscary’s absence also forces Ivy and Kisten into a difficult position, as Ivy continues resist fulfilling her duties as his scion, and Kisten continues to pretend Ivy hasn’t ousted him. Piscary’s imprisonment also offers the perfect opportunity for a new player to gain a foothold in Cincinnati’s supernatural underworld, challenging Piscary’s interests, and horning in on Trent Kalamack’s business as well. Rachel is no fan of either Piscary or Kalamack, but Saladan’s aggressive incursions are costing lives, and Rachel isn’t one to stand idly by when she could help.

The plot of Every Which Way But Dead is diffuse, as Kim Harrison follows up a number of threads left over from previous books, such as Rachel’s deal with Algaliarept, and the fallout of her battle with Piscary. Harrison doesn’t go in for overly neat endings, and events from one book tend to have real repercussions and carryover to the next. The desire to follow up these threads has kept me reading, even as I’ve struggled to get past the numerous spelling and grammar errors that plague this series.

With such a diffuse plot, much of the book is focused on character development. Surprisingly, Ivy’s decision in The Good, the Bad, and the Undead to become a practicing vampire again actually marks an improvement in her relationship with Rachel. Because she is sating her blood lust elsewhere, she has a much easier time resisting Rachel. This means that their scenes together can focus on more substantial interactions, rather than every conversation devolving into Ivy vamping out. Trent Kalamack is another character who continues to receive significant development. Although he seemed like a bad guy at the beginning of the series, each new reveal moves his character further into a gray area. It seems likely that eventually he and Rachel will be willing allies, and he may even develop into a love interest at some point. For those who like some romance in their urban fantasy, Rachel’s love life becomes significantly more complicated in this installment, and Harrison has also ramped up the sex a bit.

The Hollows series continues to suffer from spelling and grammar mistakes, and continuity errors, and dialogue is not Harrison’s strong suit. These books are fun reads for fast-paced action and a bit of humour, but still leave much to be desired. I will probably continue to pick them up as vacation reading, or as an interlude between heavier fare, but three books in, the Hollows series has serious weaknesses that don’t seem to be going away any time soon.

The Good, the Bad, and the Undead (Hollows #2)

good-bad-undeadby Kim Harrison

ISBN 9780060572976

“Maybe if I didn’t say anything about what happened, we could get back to the way we were. Ignoring a problem was a perfectly acceptable way to deal with it, as long as both people agree never to bring it up again.”

Rachel Morgan has gotten out from under the IS death threat that resulted from breaking her contract, and has been running her own agency for a few months, along with her partners Jenks and Ivy. Money is still tight, so Rachel is grateful when Captain Edden calls her in to consult on a missing person’s case for the FIB. It quickly becomes clear that the missing warlock is connected to the serial murders of the witch hunter, a killer who has had Cincinnati’s Inderlander population edge for months. When Rachel discovers that all of the victims have a connection to Trent Kalamack, she thinks she might finally get a second shot at putting the councilman behind bars, but in order to do so, she may need to draw on the very ley line magic she is so suspicious of, putting her soul at risk in the bargain.

In the first book in the Hollows series, Dead Witch Walking, Rachel is basically on the run, struggling to stay alive under a death threat. We don’t learn much about her past, so it is great to see Kim Harrison delve into this more with The Good, the Bad, and the Undead. We meet Rachel’s mother, and learn more about her father’s connection to Trent Kalamack, as well as some details about her childhood. Trent also becomes a more rounded character, and he is shaping up to be an intriguing, multi-faceted antagonist with understandable motivations rather than a one-dimensional villain.

If Rachel and Trent make some interesting progress, the interactions between Rachel and Ivy begin to border on the repetitive. While the tense character dynamic was intriguing in Dead Witch Walking, it goes a bit over the top in The Good, the Bad, and the Undead. Almost every scene featuring both characters turns into Ivy jumping Rachel and almost biting her. Instead of the growth I was hoping for, their partnership has experienced a fairly serious, albeit inevitable, setback, and one which I wasn’t expecting to happen so early in the series. Hopefully in the later books we will get to see Rachel and Ivy really work together on a case, so that there is more to their relationship than trying to figure out how to live together without killing one another.

As in Dead Witch Walking, the writing itself is a little rough. There are numerous basic spelling and grammar errors, and Harrison continues to use awkward turns of phrase. When you have to read a sentence three times to figure out what the author is trying to say, it understandably detracts from the story’s forward momentum. Harrison has created an intriguing world, and knows how to write a rollicking plot-line, but the numerous errors in grammar, spelling, and continuity distract from the story in a fairly substantial way. Others have compared Harrison to urban fantasy greats, such as Patricia Briggs, but for me, this series just isn’t there yet. I’m willing to give it another book or two to get going, but I’m still not committed to finishing the series.

Dead Witch Walking

Cover image for Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrisonby Kim Harrison

ISBN 978-0-06-057296-9

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher as part of the Harper Voyager Super Reader Program.

“People are motivated by three things, Rachel. Love …” A red marker clattered in with the rest. “Revenge …” A black one landed next to it. “And power,” she finished, tossing in a green one. “Trent has enough money to buy all three.”
“You forgot one,” I said, wondering if I should just keep my mouth shut. “Family.”

Rachel Morgan is a runner for Inderlander Security in Cincinnati, using her powers as a white witch to track down supernatural criminals. Rachel’s world diverged from our own in the sixties, when the government focused funding on bioengineering rather than the space race. The result was the Angel virus, spread by genetically modified tomatoes, which wiped out half of the human population. Only the presence of the Inderlanders—witches, vampires, and weres immune to the virus—kept the world’s infrastructure from collapsing. Long a shadowy minority, the Inderlanders rose to prominence and power, but never gained the trust of the diminished human population. Since the Turn, humans have crowded into city centres to be close to one another, leaving the former suburbs to the supernatural. In Cincinnati, these neighbourhoods are called the Hollows.

Tired of getting the worst assignments from a boss who hates her, Rachel decides to quit the I.S. and go out on her own, refusing to believe rumours of hits on ex-runners who renege on their thirty year contracts. Unfortunately, she attracts her boss’s ire when his top runner, vampire Ivy Tamwood, decides to quit to join Rachel, and the hit becomes all too real. Desperate to pay off her contract before she ends up dead, Rachel sets her eye on bringing down one of the I.S’s oldest and most elusive targets, Councillor Trent Kalamack. Biodrugs have been illegal since the Angel epidemic, but Rachel has reason to believe that Kalamack is mixed up in the drug trade. Bringing down Kalamack would be enough to pay off her contract and get the I.S. hit cancelled, but if she doesn’t play it right, she’ll have two powerful enemies instead of one.

Rachel and Ivy have a tense but intriguing relationship. They joined the I.S. around the same time and worked together for a year, but didn’t exactly jive. Rachel is extremely surprised when Ivy asks to be her business partner, and the situation becomes unexpectedly tense when the hit on Rachel causes her land lady to evict her, forcing her into close living quarters with Ivy. While professional at work, Ivy is a living vampire, not fully turned, and sworn off blood, but Rachel can’t quite trust her not to bite. Although Ivy obviously considers Rachel to be a good runner, Rachel likes to fly by the seat of her pants, whereas Ivy always needs to have a plan for every angle. Their talents have the potential to be complimentary, but as their partnership gets off to a rough start, they end up butting heads instead. Back up and comic relief is provided by Jenks, a feisty pixy with a passel of pixy children. Although I wasn’t enamoured of the writing style, I enjoyed the character dynamics immensely, as Ivy, Rachel, and Jenks try to figure out how to work as a team in their new business.

When it comes to the writing, Dead Witch Walking is undeniably a bit rough around the edges. With a bit of stilted dialogue here, a forced twist of the plot there, and some inconsistent grammar and punctuation, more polishing and editing wouldn’t have gone amiss. Sometimes Rachel will drop a new piece of slang without explanation, and other times there are long detours from the story to clarify the terminology. But Kim Harrison has assembled an intriguing cast of quirky characters, and made a good start on her world-building. The action is intense and well-paced, and has a real sense of urgency. The success of the Hollows series in the ten years since Dead Witch Walking debuted makes me think that it is worth giving the series a chance, despite a slightly bumpy start.

Dreams and Shadows

Cover image for Dreams and Shadows by C. Robert Cargillby C. Robert Cargill

ISBN 978-0-06-219043-7

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher as part of the Harper Voyager Super Reader program.

Monsters are real. Very real. But they’re not just creatures. Monsters are everywhere. They’re people, they’re nightmares. They’re jealous viziers. They are the things that we harbour within ourselves. If you remember one thing, even above remembering me, remember that there is not a monster dreamt that hasn’t once walked within the soul of a man.

In the Hill Country outside of Austin, Texas, and just beyond the veil, lies the Limestone Kingdom, the faerie realm ruled by Meinrad, and inhabited by creatures of legend and nightmare. Only supernatural beings live there, but once, for a brief time, two human boys played in those woods. Ewan and Colby have been friends since childhood, for so long that Ewan can’t quite remember how they met. Colby has never forgotten, but he has never told Ewan, either. As adults, Colby is working in a bookstore, constantly grappling with the consequences of a childhood wish come true, and Ewan is trying to make it as a musician, but despite their seemingly normal human lives, the Limestone Kingdom hasn’t truly let them go.

Dreams and Shadows is a difficult novel to describe without dealing in spoilers, because it takes more than a hundred pages for Colby and Ewan to finally meet, and another hundred pages or so before they are adults in present-day Austin, where the plot as described in the cover blurb really begins. Cargill brings together a plethora of familiar and unfamiliar fae, seelie and unseelie alike, to populate the Limestone Kingdom, and also incorporates the Native American Manitou, Coyote, and the Middle Eastern djinn to create a diverse supernatural cast for his world. It takes quite some time to assemble all the players, and get the action going. Above all, Dreams and Shadows requires patience; Cargill is setting up a worthwhile end game, but the pieces seem disparate until the moment before they come together. While this book has the right plot elements to qualify as urban fantasy, the fast pacing so common to the genre is not present here.

While the long term end game of Dreams and Shadows remained unclear until late in the book, the chapter-by-chapter developments were a made a little too obvious by the academic extracts that appeared between chapters, taken from a fictional book entitled A Chronicle of the Dreamfolk by Dr. Thaddeus Ray. Dialogue in one chapter would hint ominously at something called a “tithe,” and then the very next extract would spell out exactly what that was. Although the extracts aided world-building, Cargill frequently gave away the element of surprise in these passages, rather than allowing the mystery to develop and naturally be revealed in the course of the story. The extracts also slowed down this already ponderously paced novel, and while I’m glad I stayed aboard until the very end, and eager to see what Cargill has in store in Queen of the Dark Things, it was only a matter of chance that I didn’t put the book down for good before he got to the good stuff.

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Night Broken (Mercedes Thompson #8)

Cover image for Night Broken by Patricia Briggsby Patricia Briggs

ISBN 9780425256749

If she tried anything, she would be sorry. Adam was mine. She had thrown him away, thrown Jesse away—and I had snatched them up. Finders keepers.”

Night Broken is the eighth book in Patricia Briggs’ Mercedes Thompson series. When we first met Mercy back in Moon Called, Adam was her hot werewolf neighbor, broken up about his recent divorce. Now Adam and Mercy are married, but Adam’s ex-wife, Christy, is back in the picture. When Christy calls in a panic about being stalked by a one-night stand, Adam and Mercy agree to take her into their home and protect her, even knowing the trouble she will bring. Mercy has never been popular with the pack, whereas Christy was beloved, and a skilled emotional manipulator to boot. Meanwhile, the Fae are stilled holed up in their reservations, but some of them are quietly moving about in the human world, and they aren’t above causing Mercy trouble. And there’s nothing Coyote likes more than trouble.

Meeting Patricia Briggs at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, photo taken by her husband, Mike.
Meeting Patricia Briggs at Seattle Mystery Bookshop, photo taken by her husband, Mike.

The plot description for this installment smelled like drama, and I was wary going in, but I really should trust Patricia Briggs by now. She handles interpersonal relationships, even tense ones, extremely well. Christy is more manipulator than seductress, and she seems to want the safe home and happy life she had with Adam back, as much, or more, than she wants Adam himself. Christy’s antics were infuriating, but even when she managed to get to Adam in some way, he and Mercy still kept their heads and didn’t get into any ridiculous fights. It can be hard for a writer to maintain the tension of a romantic relationship after she’s married the characters off, but Christy challenges Adam and Mercy’s relationship not by causing whiney drama between them, but by complicating their relationship with the pack. It’s hard to watch this setback, since Mercy finally seemed to be gaining some ground, but she mostly manages to take the highroad without being unbelievably saint-like.  She has uncharitable thoughts, and insecurities, but she doesn’t dissolve into an angsty pile of slop.

Briggs has created a vast cast of characters over the years, and it takes a lot of skill to stage manage them all. It’s hard, but necessary, to set some characters aside if they don’t have a role to play in this particular story. Some favourites, like Ben and Bran, barely make an appearance, but we get a bit of a glimpse of what is going on with Stefan, plus a telling moment in Warren and Kyle’s relationship. The best character development in this installment comes for Tad, and especially Honey, who is coping with the aftermath of her mate’s death, and what that means for her status in the pack. We’re also introduced to Gary Laughingdog, another walker, and meet Alistair Beauclaire, the Gray Lord who orchestrated the Fae retreat to the reservations. Some old questions are answered, and new dangling threads are exposed, so that, as always, Patricia Briggs leaves me wanting more, and preferably now rather than sometime next year.

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Looking for more Urban Fantasy? You might also like The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad Williams, or Dark Currents by Jacqueline Carey.

Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2013

These are my favourite fiction titles read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2013. Click the title for links to full reviews. My top 5 non-fiction titles for 2013 will go up Thursday.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (ISBN 978-0-7704-3640-7)

Cover image for A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony MarraAnthony Marra’s debut novel is set in Chechnya around five days in 2004. From the woods behind her home, eight-year-old Havaa watches as her father, Dokka, is “disappeared” by Russian soldiers. Desperate to save Havaa from the same fate, Ahkmed, the incompetent village doctor who dreams of being an artist, delivers her to a nearby hospital, and into the reluctant care of Sonja, a British-trained physician trapped in Chechnya by the war. Marra’s lyrical prose contrasts with the brutal reality of the war torn country in which his story takes place. Dark and depressing on one hand, and buoyed by hope on the other, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena delivers the highs and lows life under difficult circumstances. Full of beautiful, striking details, this moving and resonant novel captures the heartache of war, and the depths of human resourcefulness in a narrative that will remain with you long after the final page.

Categories: Contemporary

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (ISBN 978-0-06-228022-0)

Cover image for The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil GaimanA man returns home to Sussex for a family funeral, but instead of attending the wake, he finds himself revisting the ancient Hempstock Farm, home of his childhood friend, Lettie. As he sits next to the pond that Lettie called her Ocean, he recalls seemingly impossible events from his childhood. When he was seven years old, the suicide of a boarder at the edge of this ancient property set off a chain of supernatural events, unleashing a malevolent force convinced of its own beneficence. A relatively short novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane simply distills everything that is wonderful about Neil Gaiman’s work into a smaller, more concentrated story that highlights his skill as a story teller for all ages.  This novel is for those adults who do still want to read about daft things like “Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies.”

Categories: Speculative Fiction, Fantasy

The Golem and the Jinni (ISBN 978-0-06-211083-1)

Cover image for The Golem and the Jinni by Helene WeckerDebut novelist Helene Wecker combines mythology from the Jewish and Arabic traditions to tell the stories of two magical creatures who arrive in the diverse  immigrant community of New York in the late 1800s. Chava is a masterless golem, brought to life from clay by a disgraced rabbi who practices dark Kabbalistic magic . The jinni emerges from an ancient flask taken to a Syrian metal smith for repair. Strangers in an unfamiliar land, both the golem and the jinni struggle to find a place in their new home, while trying to conceal their true natures from the people around them. Wecker brings the immigrant communities to life as the two beings forge an unlikely friendship despite their opposing natures. Their relationship between them and their two communities will be key to defeating the evil forces that are converging around them. This novel is rich in both mythology and historical detail.

Categories: Fantasy, Historical Fiction

The Dirty Streets of Heaven (ISBN 978-00-7564-0768-1)

Cover image for The Dirty Streets of Heaven by Tad WilliamsEarthbound angel Doloriel, also known as Bobby Dollar, is a heavenly advocate, charged with defending the souls of the recently departed at their final judgement. He goes head-to-head with the demonic advocates who want to claim those same souls for the ranks of hell. Closer to humans than angels, Bobby has never met God, isn’t much of one for prayer, and doesn’t really trust the angels and principalities higher up the heavenly food chain. There’s no love lost on their side either, so when a soul Bobby is supposed to be representing disappears before judgement, he worries that he will be held responsible if he can’t track it down. But of course, this case runs deeper than one missing soul.  Tad Williams masterfully blends urban fantasy with noir detective fiction in a fast-paced adventure that engages with Christian lore and puts a new spin on angels and demons. Book two, Happy Hour in Hell, also deserves an honourable mention as one of the best books I read in 2013. 

Categories: Urban Fantasy, Mystery

Eleanor & Park (ISBN 978-1-250-01257-9)

eleanor-and-parkEleanor and Park couldn’t be more different from one another. Park has had a normal middle class upbringing, even if he was occasionally teased because his mother is Korean. Eleanor, on the other hand, was kicked out of her home by an abusive step father, and spent a year living with family friends who didn’t really want her. Eventually Richie lets her come home, but the abuse has only gotten worse in her absence. Eleanor sticks out like a sore thumb at her new school making her a target for bullying, but sitting next to Park on the bus offers her some measure of protection. One bus ride at a time, they build a tentative friendship that quickly becomes first love, even as the situation seems to doom their romance to failure. Rainbow Rowell has written a YA novel that is at once hard and brutally truthful, but also beautiful and touching. Slow paced and yet never boring, Eleanor & Park is an entire book made up, almost exclusively, of tiny, amazing, resonant, details. Rowell’s second novel of 2013, Fangirl, also deserves an honourable mention.

Categories: Young Adult, Romance 

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Looking for more excellent reading? Check out my top fiction reads from 2012.