Posts Tagged urban fantasy

Romance Saturday Returns with Mercedes Lackey & Rosemary Edghill’s “Victories”

It’s Romance Saturday at SBR! So what could be better than a little YA romance coupled with suspense and neo-Arthurian myth?

VICTORIES, the fourth and final book of the Shadow Grail series by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill, again takes up where book three, SACRIFICES, left off. (Books one and two were reviewed here.) Muirin is dead, but her friends Spirit White (pictured on the cover), Spirit’s boyfriend Burke Hallows, and their BFFs Addie Lake and Lachlann “Loch” Spears are on the run from the evil Shadow Knights. They now know for certain that the head of Oakhurst Academy, Doctor Ambrosius, is not just evil, but is actually Mordred . . . and he’s been around since the fall of Camelot.

Why is this important? Well, Mordred was imprisoned in an oak tree for millenia, and only “woke up” as himself in the 1970s, only to then “borrow” a body from a biker for his own, personal use. Ever since, has been using his magic to recreate the conditions of Camelot — but on his terms.

And Ambrosius/Mordred knows very little about the modern world, despite the technology he and his school have been using throughout. Which is much more of a problem than it seems — but I’ll get back to that momentarily.

Anyway, Spirit and her friends end up being guided by the mysterious QUERCUS to a deserted missile silo out in the middle of nowhere. A strange woman, who seems to know them somehow, helps them get down into the silo, where food and rest awaits. Then, after they sleep the sleep of the truly exhausted (or maybe the just, I don’t know), they find out from this woman that QUERCUS wants to talk . . . via the very old computer equipment in the silo, which uses extremely old technology that has to warm up for quite some time to be used — but is still operational.

So far, so good. The story is told with breathless abandon, and the technology is explained enough that it passes and sounds logical, as it’s conceivable that this silo would be both abandoned and discounted by Mordred.

But QUERCUS gives Spirit some very bad news. He is the Merlin — yes, that Merlin — and he now exists solely as a computer program. Because of this, he’s been able to warn her and her friends . . . but because he no longer has corporeal form, nor any way to regain it (as he won’t do what Mordred did as it’s the blackest of black magic — possession), he cannot fight the Shadow Knights or Mordred directly. All he can do at this point is advise.

Making matters worse yet, Spirit finds out for certain that she and all of her friends — including the departed Muirin — are “Reincarnates” — that is, people who lived during the time of Camelot and have reincarnated at this time in place in order to fight Mordred one, last time.

In fact, Spirit was once Guinevere — the sword Spirit is carrying is actually Guin’s, in fact — and Burke was King Arthur. Addie was once the Lady of the Lake, famed for her healing abilities, and Loch — well, he was Lancelot. (I had hoped he’d be Sir Gawain, personally. Ah, well.)

And all of that is important, too, because these four must find something called “the Four Hallows” — four talismans of great power — in order to invoke their prior memories as these fabled people. Because they cannot beat Mordred if they stay the way they are, even with their magic . . . and they must beat Mordred, as Mordred’s idea of “winning” starts with all-out war and goes downhill from there.

Worst of all, because Mordred didn’t live through the Cold War (much; one assumes he wasn’t paying much attention after he “borrowed” the biker’s body he’s been using), Mordred has no fear of a nuclear holocaust. But his own Shadow Knights — those who fought on Mordred’s side back in the day, who have been reincarnated in our time and were awakened by Mordred — definitely do.

Which may give Spirit and the others an opening . . . (further reviewer sayeth about the plot — at least not yet).

There’s a lot to like about VICTORIES. It’s a rip-roaring action-adventure with some mild romance, a good amount of mystery and magic, and a believable fight against the darkest evil magician ever created for the highest of stakes — life itself. I loved the good characters, hated the evil ones, and wanted good to win out — all fine and dandy.

That said, because the book went by so fast, I missed some of the characterization I’d so adored in the previous three books. I like Spirit, Burke, Addie, and Loch, you see — but I wasn’t overly fond of Guinevere, King Arthur, the Lady of the Lake and Sir Lancelot. And while I liked how they faded in and out of focus — that is a very tough trick to pull off, having one soul with two full sets of memories in one body, and I give Ms. Lackey and Ms. Edghill full “props” for doing so — I mostly got annoyed whenever Guin, Arthur, etc., showed up to talk in “High Forsoothly” (what Ms. Lackey and Ms. Edghill called the more formal Renaissance-sounding English constructions, something that amused me very much).

Another thing that frustrated me a tad was the nature of Spirit and Burke”s romance. These two love each other in a somewhat chaste teenage way, which is sensible considering the context. (Who wants to make out in front of your two best friends in such close quarters?) But finding out these two had been married, and had many remembrances of being with each other as full adults, was a little tough for me to handle. I kept thinking that if I were Queen Guinevere and King Arthur, I’d want to steal away to some little grotto somewhere and just get it on — using proper safe-sex practices, of course — as these two supposedly had a legendary romance. And as Spirit and Burke were sometimes also Guin and Arthur, I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why they didn’t do that.

Maybe it’s a good thing that this element didn’t come into play, mind. This is a series meant for tweens and teens. Too much sexual activity would’ve perhaps taken the focus away from all of that action-adventure. But finding out some information through pillow-talk between Guin and Arthur would’ve been extremely interesting; having Burke and Spirit have to deal with the aftermath of that also would’ve been quite riveting.

The reason this is only a minor quibble, though, is because Ms. Lackey and Ms. Edghill clearly set it up that Guin and Arthur’s marriage was more one of state than one of love. (Which would be accurate for the times they lived in, granted. Damned few people married for love back then.) They were great friends, yes. And they cared about each other deeply. But there was actually more romance between Spirit and Burke in this time than there seems to have been between Guin and Arthur.

The other teensy issue I had with VICTORIES is that the ending goes by too fast. (Spoiler alert! Turn away now. You have been warned.) I wanted to see Mordred suffer, and I wanted to see our four heroes be able to luxuriate in the victory while thinking about how terrible it is that Muirin didn’t live to see the day — and while I got a little of the latter, I just didn’t get anywhere near enough of the former to suit me.

Bottom line? This is a nice evocation of the Arthurian mythos for the 21st Century Millenial crowd, and I enjoyed it very much. But it doesn’t stand alone — please read LEGACIES, CONSPIRACIES, and SACRIFICES first.

Grades:

VICTORIES — B-plus.

Shadow Grail series — A-minus.

–reviewed by Barb

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The Six-Gun Tarot — An Amazing and Insightful Debut Novel

The Six-Gun TarotVery rarely does a debut novel make a lasting impression upon the reader. Usually, the first novel is the author looking for their voice and haven’t mastered the delicate art of building up the suspense. R. S. Belcher’s debut novel, The Six-Gun Tarot, destroys those preconceived notions.

The book starts with the young Jim Negrey leading his horse Promise across a barren wasteland of desert in 1869. Near death and with little water, Jim is on the run from the law for a terrible crime. However, before the law can hang him, Jim has to survive the desert known as the 40-Mile. His hopes were to find a railroad job in a new city under a new name. But a shadow, something more than a crime he committed, lingers over the boy. Between dangerous animals stalking him and the desert, he is doubtful he will survive.

Before the desert takes him, though, Jim is found by a strange Indian named Mutt and an even stranger man named Clay. The two men hail from the town of Golgotha, which is the closest town to where Jim wants to go. He accepts their ride into town when they are attacked by the coyotes which had been stalking Jim. Clay kills two, though the coyotes seem to be mildly nervous around Mutt. Jim is taken into town and, for the time being, will live another day.

Or perhaps not. As he’s getting off the wagon, Mutt (who is the deputy sheriff in the town) gets a call for help. A deranged and drunken man has taken hostages inside the general store, and Mutt needs to stop him before he hurts anyone. He deputizes Jim, and they prepare to try and figure out how to stop the man from hurting anyone inside. Before they can do anything which might end up with some bodies, though, the town sheriff gets back to town. Jon defuses the situation with Mutt managing to save an innocent woman’s life, and the town settles down. Jim, uncertain what to do next, is officially deputized by Jon and taken to get some food and some rest. For the first time in a long time, Jim feels like he’s somewhere he belongs.

Intertwined in the story about the crazy town of Golgotha is a deeper story about an angel who, while not exactly defying the Host, begins to doubt nonetheless. Because of this, he is tasked to stand guard over the sleeping darkness. Biqa, annoyed and angry, obeys, though it is evident that he is not happy with his punishment. After a time, though, his watch begins to take on a deeper meaning. Biqa begins to understand the little beings who exist around him, and begins to feel for humanity.

This book… wow. Just wow. There is a blend of religion and folklore in the book that drags you in and makes the reader really think without lecturing. The pacing is fantastic (as evidenced by reading it, for the second time, in less that five hours) and the characters are all very well thought-out and believable. The setting of the town itself is magnificent, and seems to be a character all its own, a breath of life in what would normally be merely a static piece of scenery in any other work. The darker undercurrent of the book, which both drives the plot and lends a creepiness factor to some characters, is wonderfully done. The overall story arc is absolutely rock-solid.

This book is a must-buy. I’d give this to someone asking me if I had read anything good and new lately. The author has done a tremendous job, and I for one can’t wait for the next round.

–Reviewed by Jason

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Tiger Gray’s “No Deadly Thing” — An nonworking mish-mash of urban fantasy and military thriller

No Deadly ThingTiger Gray’s debut novel No Deadly Thing takes place roughly during the Iraq War (2004 edition) and stars Ashrinn Pinecroft as a military veteran who is severely injured during the war. During the battle in which he was wounded, he gets the feeling for the first time of a “higher calling” and charges recklessly into the fight. After being injured in said battle and discharged, he is recruited into a mystical organization called the Order. The Order fights against “the serpent”, which is the symbol for evil across the board, thought this is (again) not explained well initially. Because of his military experience, Ashrinn is tasked to train the Seattle-Tacoma area group of the Order, which is just getting off the ground there. Beset on all sides by lack of experience and equipment, he struggles to bring the (children, really) under his tutelage to be ready for combat against the ancient evil before it is too late.

Meanwhile, his home life is an unspoken mess. His son, who doesn’t quite grasp his father’s mental and emotional war within, is struggling to go about his everyday life now that his dad is back from the war. Ashrinn’s wife, on the other hand, is thrilled that he is home and that he has finally discovered the power within him that the esoteric society (the Order) recruited him for. However, there is a taint to her aura, and Ashrinn suddenly realizes that he does not trust her or her own side of the power.

Let me get this out in the open right now: this book could have been amazing. Instead, it falls flat and is merely average.

The idea behind it, the concept and breathtaking research that the author delves into to bring the powers inside both the protagonist and the antagonists is amazing. There is talk of the Morrigan (Celtic goddess), dryads, Mesopotamian gods intermingled with Zoroastrian belief, western civilization and the modern world.

Excellent research into esoteric and ancient religion aside, there really isn’t any smooth transition points in the story. You never get a feel of right about Ashrinn, and his movements are wooden and do nothing more than to try and move the plot forward. It’s hard to explain, but bear with me for a moment. When Ashrinn talks, it doesn’t come out as honest and appealing. He’s a very unlikable  protagonist, and yet he doesn’t fit into the mold of anti-heroes that one can root for. He’s just there, and this is a crime unto itself. The background that should have been around him is not there. There is no reason to cheer him on. The strange conflict he has between his wife and a new recruit early on does nothing to make me like him more, and actually detest his weakness. I’m not demanding that he be inhuman and unfeeling, but the inner conflict inside him should be a little more evident, make him more appealing to the reader. Here is where the author failed.

The plot is convoluted but there, and the pacing is fast (a little too fast at some points, but who am I to complain about a fast-paced novel?) and doable. The right elements for a tremendous book are there, but something is missing. My gut tells me that it’s the main character. Plus, it’s about a military veteran, but what? Not every infantryman can teach people to become soldiers instead of fighters, for example. I just didn’t get the feeling that, despite him using the military to escape his eccentric family beliefs, he really never seemed to “be” the Special Forces operative that the author portrays him to be.

A mildly decent read, nothing to shout to the heavens about however. I’d borrow this one from the library, or perhaps look for it on an e-reader at a discounted price.

–Reviewed by Jason

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Nocturnal Interlude — The Pride Lives On

Nocturnal InterludeOne of the things I love about books with shape shifters in it is that once you get past their “origin” book, the subsequent books are simply awesome. Nocturnal Interlude, book 3 of the Nocturnal Lives series, tried to live up to the reputation. Granted, Amanda S. Green’s debut novel in the series, Nocturnal Origins was rock-solid (and previously reviewed here at SBR). But the subsequent books are almost always better.

Detective Mackenzie Santos (our heroine, and all-around bad-ass… oh, and enforcer) has just returned back from vacation when she is suddenly taken into custody by the FBI. Denied a phone call or any way to contact anyone, she is whisked away and placed in a windowless room and guarded by two annoyed FBI agents. Mackenzie, needless to say, is pissed off by the treatment. No sooner has she arrived, however, when she is pulled from their clutches by her cousin, Marine Captain Mateo Santos (we met him in Nocturnal Serenade, book 2 of the series, previously reviewed here). She is immediately moved into protective custody as she receives horrifying news: her police partner, Pat (who is also Mackenzie’s pride leader’s girlfriend/mate), has gone missing and Internal Affairs at the Dallas PD has informed everyone to not tell her for reasons unknown.

Now, to be fair and honest, this part of the book nearly threw me out of the story (indeed, I spent the rest of the book asking “What?” It became sort of a running joke between myself and the other secondary characters). Mateo informs Mackenzie that, in order to have her be able to work outside the Dallas PD jurisdiction to discover what was going on with Pat and others of their kind who have gone missing, she is going to be reactivated to her Marine Reserve officer status and work with him as part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Nothing, and I do mean nothing, in the books leading up to this point even remotely suggested that Mackenzie was a Marine. Nothing in her casual comments, nothing in her behavior or attitude ever hinted at the possibility. I about threw a fit (indeed, I went to the author and asked her was was going on) because that was something that appeared to have been pulled from her ass. Even my math couldn’t figure out how she found time to be a Marine reservist while in the Police Academy and nobody knowing about it. Even now, I can’t figure it out. Four years of college, six years of reserve duty (even though she went straight from college to the academy. I recall this from the first or second book), and… argh. It still bothers me. Okay, back to the rest of the review.

Much to everyone’s surprise in her division at the police department, she shows up as Marine Captain Mackenzie Santos and they try to get a grasp on the fact that she just found out about her missing partner (and her being a Marine). There is some internal squabbling between Mackenzie and the detective from Internal Affairs who ordered her not to be told, to which Mackenzie stomps on his toes and just about threatens his career in front of their respective bosses.  Turf war averted (for now), Mackenzie gets the rest of the detectives on her team prepped for a renewed investigation into the disappearance of her partner, Pat.

There is a shadowy group of individuals out to hurt pures and weres, though their reason is obscure, their goal is to break them and kill them. Their motive was never really explored, but it’s creepy enough on its own. Still, a little more depth into the “why” part of their kidnapping and murders would have been welcome, as well as the reasoning why their financier and backer wanted them to specifically avoid Mackenzie Santos (and why the two men doing the kidnapping who were supposed to be so smart completely botched that one).

One of my favorite things about this series is the pretty strict adherence to proper police procedure while balancing the urban fantasy side of the shape shifters and their place in society (hidden in plain sight, but still). Unlike other well-known police procedural novels, this one actually doesn’t feature the “lone wolf, do what I want” detective and show the importance of working with others as a team. It is smart, well-paced novel that has its ups and downs, but plants some very interesting seeds for the remainder of the series. A pretty solid little book, I would have liked a little more “I AM SANTOS!” and a little less “frustrated and impotent heroine”, but other than that, a good enough addition to your library.

I’d give it a recommended read, though don’t blame me when you reach the end.

Reviewed by Jason

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Noah’s Boy — The Shifters Return

Noah's BoyWhen the Great Sky Dragon mysteriously disappears and is believed dead, the weight of the world falls upon the shoulders of Tom Ormson.

Noah’s Boy, the third book of Sarah A. Hoyt’s Shifter series, starts off without pulling any punches. The Great Sky Dragon wants another dragon, Bea Ryu, to marry the dragon shifter Tom and create many dragon babies in order to keep the dragon line alive. Bea is not thrilled with this idea, and voices her dissent. One doesn’t tell the Great Sky Dragon “no”, however, without some consequences coming down upon them.

Meanwhile, lion shifter and Goldport detective Rafiel Thrall has been called to what is being classified as a “mountain lion attack”. However, Rafiel smells the distinct scent of shifter in the area and begins to suspect that the individual who survived the attack (not the poor man who was found mauled to death) may know more than he was letting on. In fact, Rafiel discovers that the man is a bear shifter. Rafiel realizes that he has another shifter murderer on the loose and, if not caught quickly, could bring down the entire shifter community – which includes Tom and Kyrie, his two best friends.

Tom, meanwhile, is suddenly hit with the memories and images of the Great Sky Dragon, which, according to the other shifters, means that the Great Sky Dragon was dead and Tom had just been unceremoniously promoted. Tom is not happy with this – he has a cafe to run and he doesn’t have time to play Lord of the Shifters – and shirks his duties as the Great Sky Dragon as long as he can before a challenge is issued by an older pair of brother dragons. Tom defeats them with ease, cementing his leadership as the Great Sky Dragon (at least, until the Great Sky Dragon returns. Tom isn’t convinced he’s dead, merely incapacitated).

However, in the midst of this all is a troubling… incident is the only way I can say it, an incident which caused my heckles to rise. Rafiel is taken control of by a rouge shifter female and is forced to mate with her, which in anybody’s book is called rape. It’s a bit uncomfortable to read but illustrates just how far gone this rogue shifted is, and just how dangerous the older shifters are to the newer ones. Of course this makes Rafiel feel extremely violated (as it should) but he really doesn’t talk about it to anyone (which is bad).

Noah’s Boy is a fun, fairly well-paced continuation of the entire Shifter series. Of particular note is that my longtime favorite in the series, Rafiel, is finally front and center as he and Bea begin to be drawn closer together, in spite of the Great Sky Dragons command that she bear the children of Tom (who is not happy about the insinuations at all and prefers his live-in girlfriend, Kyrie). The development of Rafiel from potential love-interest/conflict to loyal confidant is something to behold, as the richness of his personality practically dominates the book (I must admit, this feels like it should have been Rafiel’s book and not a “joint” book with Tom and Kyrie).

The only thing I can complain about is the ending being too “pat”. Everything concludes nicely, with a potential new love interest for Rafiel. However, with new shifters appearing from everywhere and Tom’s diner (The George) still attracting shifters due to the pheremones sprayed by the previous owner (see Draw One in the Dark for more about that little bit of back story), there are many more tales to be had in Goldport.

A definite addition to my library, and for any fan of quality urban fantasy.

Reviewed by Jason

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“Arcanum 101: Welcome New Students” — Winning YA Urban Fantasy from Lackey and Edghill

Arcanum 101: Welcome New Students by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill is about Tomas Torres, a fifteen-year-old from the barrio.  Tomas saves himself and his younger sister, Rosalita, from a nasty encounter due to his previously unknown talent for pyrokinesis — fire-starting, but with the additional ability of being able to move the fires he calls about.  But in doing so, he calls attention to himself and ends up working for the local padrone — a very dangerous man — until he quickly ends up behind bars.

Fortunately for Tomas, he’s sent away to St. Rhiannon’s School for Gifted and Exceptional Students (“St. Rhia’s” for short) in upstate New York for three years of probation rather than hard time for arson.  St. Rhia’s is a place where psionics like Tomas, or magicians, like his friend and love interest Valeria Victrix Langenfeld (always called “VeeVee”), get trained.  Because they’re in the middle of nowhere, that limits the damage these untrained kids can do; it also allows these kids to fight against some really noxious magical things without anyone in authority getting wind of it.

Of course, Torres doesn’t believe in magic, much.  Nor does he believe in anything beyond what he can do himself.  This is something that needs to get knocked out of him, fast.  And as Tomas has adventure after adventure (some with VeeVee, some not), he starts to realize that the world as he knew it is a whole lot bigger — and a whole lot deadlier — than he’d ever imagined.

Fortunately for Tomas, he has experienced help at the ready, as Arcanum 101 is an offshoot of the “Bedlam’s Bard” universe.  That means such well-known characters as Eric Banyon, Kayla Smith, and Hosea Songmaker either teach at St. Rhia’s, or are counselors, and can help as needed.  The reason for these characters to help at a school like this is simple; none of them want these kids to have the types of growing pains they did.  And while none of the teachers overtly state this, the point still came across.  (Loudly and clearly, too.)

So there’s a rationale for the school.  And there’s a rationale for why these kids are better off at this school than they would be if they were simply left on their own.  Which is why Tomas, once he settles into it, decides he rather likes St. Rhia’s, even if it is rather far from civilization.  And his liking is not simply due to “get on the bandwagon” psychology, either — instead, it’s actual fellowship, which is hard to write well.  (Lackey and Edghill not only wrote it well, but got me to believe that Tomas indeed wanted this sense of fellowship, even when he didn’t know what it was.  And writing inchoate longing is even harder than writing about the sense of fellowship without it turning to treacle.  Full marks for the pair of them!)

At any rate, Tomas’s and VeeVee are good characters and I enjoyed reading about their adventures.  Better yet, I believed in their nascent romance, complete with ups and downs — some of which will be familiar to every teen whether they have Gifts or not — and believed it added greatly to the book as a whole.

Bottom line:  Arcanum 101 has magic, teens, a boarding school that’s nothing like the “Harry Potter” series, adventure, a believable, PG-rated romance . . . in other words, this is a winning effort, Young Adult-style, from the gifted duo of Lackey and Edghill.

The only minor drawback is that this is a short novel, somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 words.  But as it’s obviously meant to be the start of a whole new crop of adventurers in the “Bedlam’s Bard” universe — complete with Elves, Guardians, and bad guys galore — it works out just fine.

So what are you waiting for?  Go grab the e-book today!  (Then do as I did, and devour it in a few hours, cold.  Then enjoy the re-reads.)

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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Sharon Lee’s “Carousel Tides:” Excellent Urban Fantasy

Sharon Lee’s CAROUSEL TIDES is about Kate Archer, her grandmother, the half-dryad Ebony “Bonnie” Pepperidge, and the enigmatic André Borgan, whose powers derive from the sea.  Kate is magically talented, being a Guardian of the Land, but renounced it years ago; she’s been forced to return to Archers Beach, Maine, because her grandmother is missing.  Worse yet, her grandmother’s business — a magical carousel ride, where every carousel animal has a spirit that has to be bound every season or it’ll escape and cause great harm — needs attending to, as does the Land.

Kate’s an interesting character for more than one reason; though she scans as a normal, thirtyish human being, she wasn’t born on our Earth at all.  This means Kate, unlike most humans, is familiar with the Six Worlds and the magical ability called jikinap, which isn’t exactly the same as Bonnie’s inborn abilities as a dryad, her mother Nessa’s various abilities due to her voysin (or magical spirit), or even Kate’s Guardianship of the Land.

So while Kate wears a Google sweatshirt with pride, and speaks of how magical code and computer code seems to have a lot in common, the fact remains that Kate has hidden depths.  One of the reasons for this is because Nessa was taken prisoner many years ago in the Land of the Flowers (one of the other Six Worlds) by the evil Ramendysis, a man who’s attempting to swallow whole as many mages — and as much jikinap — as he possibly can.  Worse yet, Kate was forced to watch as Nessa had to submit to Ramendysis, then endure many more privations before she finally escaped Ramendysis’s clutches and found her way to our Earth (and her grandmother’s guardianship).

But just because Kate’s been on our mostly non-magical Earth for years and away from her magical duties doesn’t mean that Ramendysis has forgotten about her — oh, no.  (That would be too easy.)  Instead, Ramendysis, for whatever reason, just can’t leave Kate alone.  Because of this, Kate has to not only keep Bonny’s business alive and resume her Guardianship of the Land, but she also must make alliances, pronto, or Ramendysis will end up destroying her, just as Ramendysis has destroyed so many other mages of various abilities and talents in the process of swallowing their magic and using it for himself.

And if Ramendysis kills a bunch of non-magical humans in the bargain, that’s just a bonus.  For him.

This is where Borgan comes in.  Borgan, you see, has many hidden depths also, and with his affinity being the sea (or, in the more usual terms, he’s Water and she’s Earth), he’s very strongly attracted to Kate.  Her personal story only furthers and deepens this growing attachment, which is why Borgan decides to mix in, along with other various magical entities (including a hidden-in-plain-sight Fire mage).

But will all of these various entities, which Ramendysis sneeringly calls “Low Fae,” be enough to stop the nasty Ramendysis?

And even if Ramendysis is foiled, will Bonny be found?  What has happened to Nessa in the intervening years?  Will the animals of the carousel escape Kate’s magic for good due to all of this upheaval?  And will Kate and Borgan be able to gain any peace, much less allow their romance to progress, amidst all this turmoil?

All of these questions will be answered, but tend to pose more and more questions.  But if you give this book time — for me, it took about five chapters to settle in — you will get hooked.  Guaranteed.  (Further reviewer sayeth not.)

Bottom line: CAROUSEL TIDES is a highly satisfying, extremely enjoyable, and manifestly excellent novel that urban fantasy lovers will devour with relish because it succeeds on every level.  As a quest story, it works.  As a coming of age story for Kate, it works.  As an understated romance between Kate and Borgan, it works.  And as a story of female empowerment — coming into your own power unapologetically — it also works.

A book that can do all that is one that should be in your library.  So what are you waiting for?  Go grab a paperback copy of CAROUSEL TIDES today — or go get the e-book directly from Baen Books.  (You’ll be glad you did.)

Grade: A.

— reviewed by Barb

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E.C. Myers’ “Fair Coin:” Better than Fair, but not Exceptional

E.C. Myers’ FAIR COIN is a suspenseful book set on present-day Earth that contains elements of fantasy and science fiction.  In FAIR COIN, we meet Ephraim Scott, a normal sixteen-year-old-boy who’s worried about girls, school, and his alcoholic mother; however, his life changes the day someone who looks exactly like him dies.  His mother gets called down to identify the body; horrified that her only son appears to be dead, she ends up drinking herself into an alcoholic stupor.  When she ends up in ICU, Ephraim investigates what happened and searches “his” belongings; only then does he find an unusual coin, a commemorative quarter that has Puerto Rico on it and a date of 2008, which clearly isn’t right as Puerto Rico is only a Commonwealth, not a state.

Then, when Ephraim goes to school, he finds a note that tells him that all he has to do is flip the odd coin to make all his dreams come true; it appears to be in his best friend Nathan’s handwriting.  Figuring he has nothing to lose, Ephraim first wishes for his mother to get better and ends up, somehow, in a parallel universe where his mother never identified a body that looked exactly like his — in this universe, Ephraim’s mother, while still an alcoholic, isn’t in the hospital at all.

Confused, Ephraim flips the coin again and asks for two things: for his mother to be well (no longer an alcoholic) and for Jena, the girl he’s been interested in since the second grade, to like him.  This actually happens, and Ephraim grows even more confused; when other strange things happen, like a set of identical twins becoming only one person instead of two, and when his best friend Nathan no longer knows him, Ephraim knows something is deeply wrong.

Fortunately for Ephraim, his love-interest, Jena, is a budding young physicist and recognizes the “parallel worlds” theory from her studies.  She does her best to explain things to Ephraim, but then the unthinkable happens — a version of Nathan shows up who’s violent and irredeemable.  Nathan causes problems for Ephraim, for Jena, and for Jena’s analogue, Zoe, because of one thing: Nathan wants the coin, and he will kill in order to get it.

So, will Ephraim figure out what’s going on before it’s too late?  Or will Nathan  gain the coin, and its unusual powers, for himself?

FAIR COIN is a nice action-adventure story with parallel worlds and some romance.  It relies on the plot carrying the characters rather than the reverse, but isn’t necessarily bad; the plot demands that Ephraim be a teenage “Everyman,” and it’s plausible that bookworm Jena would understand enough about parallel worlds and string theory to explain it to lovesick Ephraim.

The problem I had with FAIR COIN was this: Ephraim, rather than having the idiosyncracies that would’ve made him more lifelike, was instead an archetype — “teenage Everyman.”  While this is OK, it would’ve been better if Ephraim had more internal monologue and some reactions other than, “Wow!  How’d that happen?” or “Why is Nathan behaving so badly, anyway?  What’s up with that?” as it would’ve deepened his character and made him seem far more believable.  (And speaking of Nathan,  he also is an archetype from beginning to end no matter what universe he’s in, which really didn’t help anything, either.) 

In addition, I never really understood why Ephraim’s mother felt so terrible about life that she’d ended up as an alcoholic.  And considering that the whole plot depends on us believing Ephraim’s mother is in bad shape, this is a bit strange.  Once again, the only reason Myers gets away with this is because Ephraim’s mother is an archetype, so the reader immediately categorizes her and then doesn’t worry any more about it. 

Bottom line: there was no reason to use so many archetypes.  One per book is usually all most readers are likely to tolerate; here, we have three.  Worse yet, Ephraim, his mother, and Nathan may as well have been cardboard characters, as for the most part they lacked personality.  More to the point, they lacked soul, which is why I did not believe in any of them.

Fortunately for Myers, he has two very strong characters in Jena and Zoe to help pick up the slack; they have real motivations and idiosyncracies, and I believed they could be real people existing somewhere (or somewhen).  Without them, I’d not have wanted to finish this novel.  

That being said, the action-adventure works.  The romance, for the most part, worked, though I kept thinking Jena deserved better.  The plot was fast-paced and well-written, which I appreciated, and helped distract me from how much I hated the use of all those archetypes. 

FAIR COIN is a good novel for young adults, but falls short of the exceptional read I’d hoped for, mostly because Myers needs to stop using so many archetypes.  While he tells a nice story, he must learn to draw up characters with a bit more weight and heft to them, as plot will only carry you so far. 

Grade: B

— reviewed by Barb

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SBR 2-for-1 Special: Lackey and Edghill’s “Shadow Grail” Series off to a Rousing Start

Tonight’s reviews are for the first two books in Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill’s new “Shadow Grail” series, those being Legacies and Conspiracies.  These are urban fantasies and feature as their main character Spirit White, an ordinary teen from Indiana. 

Legacies coverLegacies starts off with a terrible accident, as Spirit’s whole family has been killed in a car accident.  That same accident landed Spirit in the hospital; she endures extensive rehabilitation in order to be able to walk around.  When she starts feeling a little better, at least physically, she finds that her parents had apparently left a will saying that Spirit should be sent to Oakhurst Academy in the event of their deaths — and as she’s never heard of Oakhurst Academy before, she doesn’t really like this.  Spirit’s parents weren’t wealthy, and she wonders, once she sees the lavish school (which is in the middle of Montana, far from the maddening crowd), how she ended up there of all places.   It turns out that Spirit is a Legacy — that Spirit’s parents had attended Oakhurst themselves, and never discussed it with her — and apparently there are many other Legacies out there in similar situations to Spirit’s own.

Despite these other folks in similar situations, Spirit immediately starts to flounder because Oakhurst isn’t just a preparatory school with an outstanding record; oh, no.  It’s a magical school, and everyone who attends must have magic — so even though Spirit hasn’t any more magic than a flea as far as she knows, she’s quickly ensconced in the school.  And she becomes friends with four others, all of whom have evinced magical talents Spirit herself doesn’t have: Muirin Shae (a chocoholic and caffeine addict; she’s wealthy and her stepmother doesn’t like her), Adelaide (“Addie”) Lake (a sweet girl who rarely raises her voice), Lachlann (“Loch”) Spears (he’s wealthy, he’s gay, and he quickly becomes Spirit’s BFF), and Burke Hallows (a jock, and Spirit’s eventual love interest).  These disparate teens all know that something about Oakhurst Academy has set them off, and they aren’t buying what the director of the Academy, Doctor Ambrosius, is selling, which is the main reason they take to Spirit right away.

But of course there are other reasons, the primary one being that Spirit is grieving.  She misses her parents.  She misses her sister.  She’s been thrown into demanding educational coursework, and even though Spirit herself doesn’t have a clue what her magical talent is (if she even has one), she knows magic is real by the talents her friends have — and accepts it rather placidly at first, as Spirit obviously has only so much energy and she’s using it all just to live.

But then, terrible things start happening; some students go missing.  And in doing some research, Spirit and her friends find out this has been going on for many years — the Wild Hunt seems to be involved (this, by the way, is the only “typical” arcane referent here, and the only sidewise reference to the Court of King Arthur), and yet the teachers aren’t doing anything about it.

So Spirit and her friends decide to mix in . . . while I’ll stop my review for Legacies right there, know that the action-adventure was crisp and believable, and the “teen speak” makes sense.  All the conventional trappings are there: this is present-day, so we have IPods, computers, instant messaging (IMs), e-books, you name it.  And we have a believable, workable system of magic, plus some authority figures that don’t ring true and some real bad juju going on.

In other words, as book one was a success, next is book two, CONSPIRACIES.conspiracies cover  Here, Spirit White and her friends continue to fight against the Wild Hunt as more kids — and even some teachers — have been taken.  No one is helping Spirit and her friends out openly, though there may be a teacher or two who is willing to help covertly as Spirit gets help from an unlikely and unusual source, one that is not named.  And now, Doctor Ambrosius has asked the alumni to come back to Oakhurst Academy in order to help the students “fight the evil,” yet these alumni don’t necessarily seem all that much on the side of the “good and the right,” either . . . so what’s to do?

Once again, Spirit and her friends are able to keep themselves alive, and they learn a few more things.  It turns out that at least some of them are Knights of the Grail — that is, they’ve been reincarnated, even though neither Spirit nor any of her friends know which person they might’ve been in the past.  And there also are Shadow Knights out there — those who originally backed Mordred (Arthur’s son) against him — and this conflict has escalated because of a number of factors (all of which I’d have to blow the plot out of the water to explain, so apologies for stopping with that).

Here’s what’s going on with Spirit’s friends:

Muirin is courted by one of the alumni assiduously, to the point that it sets Spirit’s “antennae” off because Muirin is only sixteen, at most, and this guy courting Muirin has to be at least twenty-one.  Spirit and Muirin become closer due to this and Muirin starts teaching Spirit about fashion (one of Muirin’s passions).

Loch is nearly outed by one of the alumni, which really worries Spirit as she’s not sure what to do about this.  (Loch doesn’t seem overly concerned, except they are in Montana and Montana isn’t exactly known to be gay-friendly.)  Loch had already determined that most of the alumni called in by Doctor Ambrosius were up to no good; that someone would be willing to “out” him for no reason just confirms his belief that these alumni must be fought.

Burke and Spirit become much closer, and their romantic relationship starts to deepen; unfortunately, his foster family (with whom he was very close) has been killed and he’s very upset.  (This might be one reason he takes to Spirit, though, even though it’s more subtextual than out in the open.  Spirit lost her whole family; Burke’s family was already dead, but he had a vibrant foster family he loved very much.  Then they, too, were killed, reasons unknown, but signs definitely point to one of the returning alums.)

Addie realizes she has a Destiny — soon after, the other three of Spirit’s friends also realize this (though Spirit, herself, doesn’t seem to have one) — and that means either something very good is in her future, or very bad.  In either sense, though, Addie won’t be able to avoid it, as a Destiny is something that absolutely must come to be even if you’re not exactly sure what it is.  (This seems akin to clairvoyance without actually needing a clairvoyant around to muddy up the works.)  Addie helps hold the disparate group together, as she definitely seems the most maternal; she’s gifted at organization, planning, and compassion.

So that’s where the Shadow Grail series stands thus far; we have five people who know they must fight against magical evil.  They know reincarnation has something to do with it.  They know that the Morte d’Arthur has more than a little to do with it, no matter how odd it seems.  And yet, they’re teens, with typical teen problems and angst, with the additive problems of these chaotic alumni and the fact that two of the five are seriously grieving at the moment.

I definitely recommend this series; it is a must-buy, mostly because it gets the issues right that teens have to deal with, and partly because it gets the grief issues absolutely right.  I’m looking forward to reading books three and four, and will be very interested to find out what Spirit’s magical talent is (as it’s still not been revealed), whether she and Burke will stay together, whether Loch will be “outed,” and whether the alumni truly are as evil as they seem.

Grades:

B-plus, Legacies, only because of a slow start.  (I honestly don’t know of a better way to get all the information in there than what Lackey and Edghill did, mind you; they didn’t “info-dump,” for which I thank them.)  Nice action, intrigue, and hints of menace, along with getting the major “teen stuff” right.

A, Conspiracies.  Great action is shown here, and many more hints of menace, with the ante being upped by the additional attacks on teachers at Oakhurst.  When the alumni show up to “save the day,” but don’t end up saving much of anything, the plot deepens . . . excellent all the way ’round.  (Hurry up and write the sequels, please!)

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Kelley Armstrong’s “Spell Bound” — A Quick, Fun Read

Spell BoundKelley Armstrong’s SPELL BOUND is part of her “Women of the Otherworld” urban fantasy series, and stars Savannah Levine.  Savannah is a witch who has demon blood, so she’s grown used to having enormous power; in the previous WAKING THE WITCH, Savannah had offered to give up her power if it would help an innocent young girl be able to live with her grandmother as she ought, because Savannah felt guilty over the part she played in putting the innocent girl’s grandmother behind bars.  Well, something, or someone, heard Savannah, and took her up on this bargain within two chapters.  This is why the vast majority of SPELL BOUND deals with how well — or badly — Savannah deals with people while her powers are gone.

Of course, it gets around the Otherworld rather fast that Savannah’s powers are gone — suspiciously fast.  Savannah has to deal with witch finders and others early on while learning how to work well with others in order to defeat these awful people.  While Savannah has powerful friends, including a vampire, a half-demon or two, a necromancer, and a clairvoyant, Savannah isn’t used to “playing well” with others, as she’s always had more than enough power to take care of herself.  This is a weakness she must overcome in order to stay alive.

Savannah is a tough, strong, smart woman, but somehow, without her powers, she feels inadequate.  That some of the people around her keep telling her to “snap out of it” — these people being a werewolf (Clay), and a half-demon (Adam, her best friend and potential love interest) — doesn’t really help overmuch.  Savannah is only twenty-one, and she’s never faced anything remotely like this before.  This means Savannah’s story is roughly equivalent to the “hero’s journey” being taken into the unknown.  That Savannah is lost without her power (something she’s leaned on her entire life, and allowed to prop up much of her self-esteem and self-worth) just makes the “hero’s journey” all the more fascinating, especially when Savannah’s internal struggle is juxtaposed with the external struggles Savannah’s having in running from the witch finders, etc.

Savannah, while fun, sassy, and interesting, is a heroine with definite flaws; that she can’t easily share the burdens she’s now under is only one of them.  And the various adventures she gets into, and out of, are worth reading about even though half the time I wanted to slap Savannah into the next hemisphere.

There are many questions left at the end of SPELL BOUND, but a few of the dangling plotlines are tied up.  Plus, in this twelfth novel of the “Otherworld” series, many of Ms. Armstrong’s favorite characters from previous novels and stories are present (including Jeremy the werewolf Alpha, Clay’s wife and fellow werewolf, Elena, and many others) and the table is set for a final, tumultuous battle of some sort to start in book thirteen.  All good.

SPELL BOUND is a quick, fun read that delivers a big punch due to the skillful way Ms. Armstrong deals with Savannah’s internal struggles while on the run from various and sundry bad guys.  I enjoyed it quite a bit, and believe if you give it a chance, you will, too.

Grade: B-plus

— reviewed by Barb

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