The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

“No one knows where the Tufa came from, or how they ended up in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, yet when the first Europeans arrived, they were already there. Dark-haired, enigmatic, and suspicious of outsiders, the Tufa live quiet lives in the hills and valleys of Cloud County. While their origins may be lost to history, there are clues in their music, hints of their true nature buried in the songs they have passed down for generations.

Private Bronwyn Hyatt returns from Iraq wounded in body and in spirit, only to face the very things that drove her away in the first place: her family, her obligations to the Tufa, and her dangerous ex-boyfriend. But more trouble lurks in the mountains and hollows of her childhood home. Cryptic omens warn of impending tragedy, and a restless “haint” lurks nearby, waiting to reveal Bronwyn’s darkest secrets. Worst of all, Bronwyn has lost touch with the music that was once a vital part of her identity.

With death stalking her family, Bronwyn will need to summon the strength to take her place among the true Tufa and once again fly on the night winds…”

There’s a lot going on in this novel, and it has many different layers.  On the one hand, Bledsoe has re-imagined the classic and well-known myths of the Irish fairies.  Known as the Tuatha de Dannan, their tales are many and various, and transplanting them to the Appalachian Mountains gives them a breath of fresh air.  In fact, for the most part, the Tufa are normal people.  They guard their privacy and keep their beliefs secret, and it’s only upon getting to know them better that you begin to see the signs that they are more than you think.  The reveal of these characteristics is slow and subtle, and the gradual picture suits the laid-back setting.

On another level, the novel follows a soldier’s recovery from war.  The author has made some interesting choices in the creation of Bronwyn: a female soldier injured in war; brutally tortured but with no recollection of it; rebellious and yet a member of the military.  These seeming contradictions all harmonize into a unique young woman, one that I would love to sit down and chat with… or perhaps go out with her for a drink.

On another level (related to the previous one), this is a story about music and its power to move us, to bring people together, and to heal the wounded soul.  Music is all-important to the Tufa, and Bronwyn’s loss of her music speaks volumes about her state of mind and how much she has—and hasn’t—healed.  Her journey to rediscover her skill, to get back in touch with her music, is essentially a quest to find her voice.  As someone who is shown to be unsure of her place in the world, this is a vital and important journey for Bronwyn.  Even the author’s language and choice of words emphasizes the musicality of these people.  It’s another bit of subtlety that you may not even notice how it influences the novel’s tone.

Yet another layer is a coming of age tale.  Throughout the novel, we learn about Bronwyn and what kind of person she was as a youth, rebellious and wild.  Upon her return, she’s forced to confront her responsibilities to her family and to her community.  It’s a subject that we all have to face at one point or another, and thus it’s one that everybody can relate to.  Not only do we all have to figure out our place in society, but we also have to find who we are and what we hold dear.  It’s rarely easy, and Bronwyn’s struggles resonate with keen intensity.

Take all of these elements together and you have a novel of splendid beauty and heartbreaking intensity.  The Hum and the Shiver ranks with the finest fantasy novels on the shelf today.  Atmospheric and filled with a music all its own, it’s one that shouldn’t be missed.  I sincerely hope Bledsoe writes more novels about the Tufa, because I’ll be the first in line to pick them up and recommend them to anyone that will stand still long enough.

This review was originally posted on October 12, 2011.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Half-Off Ragnarok by Seanan McGuire

“When Alex Price agreed to go to Ohio to oversee a basilisk breeding program and assist in the recovery of his psychic cousin, he didn’t expect people to start dropping dead. But bodies are cropping up at the zoo where he works, and his girlfriend—Shelby Tanner, an Australian zoologist with a fondness for big cats—is starting to get suspicious.

Worse yet, the bodies have all been turned partially to stone…

The third book in the InCryptid series takes us to a new location and a new member of the family, as Alex tries to balance life, work, and the strong desire not to become a piece of garden statuary. Old friends and new are on the scene, and danger lurks around every corner.

Of course, so do the talking mice.”

ALL HAIL THE AUTHORIAL PRIESTESS!  Sorry, I couldn’t resist.  I do so love me those Aeslin mice.  And it’s the mice that really represent what I love about this series and about McGuire’s writing in general: quirky and original and not something you’re going to find in just any old book.  The author most definitely has her own voice and style and she’s not afraid to use it.

This book departs a bit from the previous two in that it doesn’t focus on Verity, moving instead to her brother Alex.  While I’ll miss all the ballroom dancing references, I found myself warming up to Alex and his work at a zoo’s reptile house.  His specialization is non-sentient cryptids like basilisks, so his story is less about diplomatic situations and more about being a caretaker to the hidden species of our world.  Or at least, it starts that way.

Just because he works with reptiles doesn’t mean that those species can’t talk back.  The gorgons are a large presence in this book, and there’s even one working with Alex at the zoo.  I continue to like how McGuire delves into mythology for her creatures, and yet she puts her own touches to the different non-human characters and how they live and interact with humans and each other.

Readers even get glimpses of an organization out of Australia that is sort of like the Healy-Price clan, one that might be good allies with Alex and his family down the road.  There’s little to no Covenant presence in this book, but I’m kind of glad, because that might have muddied the waters with too many rival organizations.  Getting a look at the wider world of those who know about the cryptids is something that I was hoping for and was very happy to see.

As usual, I absolutely adored McGuire’s storytelling and humor.  And of course, the Aeslin mice.  Half-Off Ragnarok is one of the most enjoyable novels debuting this month and I’ll continue preaching the gospel of cheese and cake to anyone who will listen.

This review was originally published on March 19, 2014.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Throwback Thursday: Written in Red

written-in-redSince I just finished re-reading this book, it’s featured here as my Throwback Thursday pick.  It’s one of my favorites, so check out the review!

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“As a cassandra sangue, or blood prophet, Meg Corbyn can see the future when her skin is cut—a gift that feels more like a curse. Meg’s Controller keeps her enslaved so he can have full access to her visions. But when she escapes, the only safe place Meg can hide is at the Lakeside Courtyard—a business district operated by the Others.

Shape-shifter Simon Wolfgard is reluctant to hire the stranger who inquires about the Human Liaison job. First, he senses she’s keeping a secret, and second, she doesn’t smell like human prey. Yet a stronger instinct propels him to give Meg the job. And when he learns the truth about Meg and that she’s wanted by the government, he’ll have to decide if she’s worth the fight between humans and the Others that will surely follow.”

Read more…

My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

my-lady-jane-199x300“The comical, fantastical, romantical, (not) entirely true story of Lady Jane Grey. In My Lady Jane, coauthors Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows have created a one-of-a-kind fantasy in the tradition of The Princess Bride, featuring a reluctant king, an even more reluctant queen, a noble steed, and only a passing resemblance to actual history—because sometimes history needs a little help.

At sixteen, Lady Jane Grey is about to be married off to a stranger and caught up in a conspiracy to rob her cousin, King Edward, of his throne. But those trifling problems aren’t for Jane to worry about. Jane gets to be Queen of England.”

Okay, if you’re going to compare a book to The Princess Bride, you’d better have a darn good reason.  That book is one of my all-time favorites, one that I read long before the movie came out–and of course, I adore the movie as well.  Point being, comparisons to a classic of humorous fantasy should be made with care.

Luckily for this novel, the comparison is actually deserved.  I had no idea what I was getting into when I started this book, but I found it to be incredibly entertaining.  It takes certain broad liberties with history, true, but it ends up in more or less the same place and has lots of chaotic fun getting there.  Written by three different authors who each took one of the three main characters (Jane, her husband Gifford, and her cousin King Edward VI), the novel reminds me of watching a small kitten running–you constantly think that they’re going to crash and burn, but somehow they keep upright and get where they’re going.

I was completely unprepared for the book to contain magic.  From the very first, the authors establish a type of animal shapeshifting that is treated as worthy of burning at the stake.  In fact, the historical conflict between Catholics and Protestants is here transmuted into an ideological battle between normal humans and people called “Ethians”.  (The “th” in that word is actually written in the book using Old English thorn, but I can’t make my keyboard produce that.)  Not only does it allow the authors to avoid shoving religious dogma in the reader’s face, it introduces a fantastical element that helps keep the story from getting too heavy.

The first third to half of the book loosely follows history, and then things go off the rails to follow the added magical influences.  On the way, there are several sly nods to other popular or well known stories.  My favorite was when Jane, not long after being crowned queen, turns down an invitation to something called the Red Wedding.  Wise lady.

This is a sizable book, clocking in at a hefty 512 pages, but it flies by so quickly that you’ll hardly notice the length.  So yes, go ahead and compare this to my beloved The Princess Bride.  It’s just as much fun, highly original, and tells a good solid story.

This book was a personal purchase.

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Marked in Flesh by Anne Bishop

marked-in-flesh“Since the Others allied themselves with the cassandra sangue, the fragile yet powerful human blood prophets who were being exploited by their own kind, the delicate dynamic between humans and Others changed. Some, like Simon Wolfgard, wolf shifter and leader of the Lakeside Courtyard, and blood prophet Meg Corbyn, see the new, closer companionship as beneficial—both personally and practically.

But not everyone is convinced. A group of radical humans is seeking to usurp land through a series of violent attacks on the Others. What they don’t realize is that there are older and more dangerous forces than shifters and vampires protecting the land that belongs to the Others—and those forces are willing to do whatever is necessary to protect what is theirs…”

Okay, so this is one of those series where I try to review the books and end up just Muppet-flailing all over the place because I love it so much.  So, please bear with me while I try to write something coherent.

My first love in this book is the characters.  I feel like Meg, Simon, Tess, Vlad, Henry, and all the other residents of the Lakeside Courtyard are friends, and the book is like a long letter from them catching me up on what they’ve been doing since I last heard from them.  The interactions among them feel very genuine, and it reminds me of something said by someone overhearing my co-workers and I bantering: “You sound like family.”  The people in this book are the same way–you can hear the depth of their relationships and the time spent together in what they say to each other, as well as in what they don’t say.  I adore Meg and Simon’s friendship, and while I know there are those out there rooting for them to start a romantic relationship, I hope they stay just friends, because it’s so sweet to read about.

My next love is for the world-building.  Once again, Bishop has expanded her readers’ view of her world, not only by going across the ocean for some scenes, but also by giving us a glimpse at the older, more powerful creatures that live in the wild places of our country.  They’ve only been hinted at in earlier books, but now… well, you don’t get a really good look at them, but they do step out of the forests and take an active role in the story, and you will get to see the aftermath.

My third love in this novel is the politics that have been slowly built up through the entire series thus far.  Knowing that human nature is to take as much as we can, the situations that play out through this book are all too believable.  I was wincing reading what the humans in this world do in the name of “humans first”, not because it was far-fetched, but because it was so plausible.  That being said, there are some long-running aspects of this storyline that come to their natural conclusion here, and I defy you not to do a fist-pump when they do.

This series remains one of my all-time favorites.  Ever since Meg and Simon and the other Courtyard residents first appeared in book form and helped to get me through a rough period in my life, they’ve occupied a place of honor on my shelves.  Marked in Flesh wraps up some parts of Meg’s tale but leaves plenty of room for more adventures.  I, for one, can’t wait.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Fire Touched by Patricia Briggs

fire-touched“Tensions between the fae and humans are coming to a head. And when coyote shapeshifter Mercy and her Alpha werewolf mate, Adam, are called upon to stop a rampaging troll, they find themselves with something that could be used to make the fae back down and forestall out-and-out war: a human child stolen long ago by the fae.

Defying the most powerful werewolf in the country, the humans, and the fae, Mercy, Adam, and their pack choose to protect the boy no matter what the cost. But who will protect them from a boy who is fire touched?”

While I have consistently enjoyed this series, the previous couple of books felt like the overall story had stalled.  With this novel, however, Briggs has brought the story roaring back to life and delved into some interesting politics among both the werewolves and the Fae.  There was more excitement and forward momentum in this book than has been the norm in the recent past.

Mercy’s character has continuously grown and matured as the series has gone on, but I’ve liked watching her expand into both an independent woman and a strong member of Adam’s pack.  The two roles seem like they’d be mutually exclusive, but they actually complement each other quite well.  Mercy has to be very sure of herself and confident in order to find her place in the pack hierarchy, and I like seeing that in her character.

What I enjoyed the most about this novel was the deeper dive into werewolf pack politics across the entire United States and the interplay between them and the Fae.  Some of Mercy’s actions early in the book have some far reaching consequences that she didn’t expect, and that sets up a lot of the conflict–in this book, certainly, but I can tell that it will continue to ripple outwards into future installments as well.  Those events also play into how humanity views the supernatural creatures living among them and advances that part of the global plot as well.

The power struggles of the Fae step front and center too.  Readers finally get to see some of the more powerful players in Fae politics and what their beliefs are concerning their contact with humans.  And it’s not just the beautiful, human-looking Fae, either; there are more frightening things living in the shadows that are starting to peek out into the light.  Finally, standing behind it all, is the spirit of the Fae lands itself, who has an agenda of its own.

Mercy is one of my favorite characters in urban fantasy, and I look forward to each new book with her in it.  With this book, the series takes on fresh life and will delight fans.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Wake of Vultures by Lila Bowen

wake-of-vultures“Nettie Lonesome lives in a land of hard people and hard ground dusted with sand. She’s a half-breed who dresses like a boy, raised by folks who don’t call her a slave but use her like one. She knows of nothing else. That is, until the day a stranger attacks her. When nothing, not even a sickle to the eye can stop him, Nettie stabs him through the heart with a chunk of wood, and he turns into black sand.

And just like that, Nettie can see.

But her newfound ability is a blessing and a curse. Even if she doesn’t understand what’s under her own skin, she can sense what everyone else is hiding — at least physically. The world is full of evil, and now she knows the source of all the sand in the desert. Haunted by the spirits, Nettie has no choice but to set out on a quest that might lead to her true kin… if the monsters along the way don’t kill her first.”

Until recently, I hadn’t really read much in the western genre.  It just isn’t my thing.  With the rise of the Weird West sub-genre, though, I’ve started branching out and seeing what it’s like.  This particular book was one that I saw had gotten a starred review in Publishers Weekly, and the premise sounded intriguing, so I picked it up.

Initially, I had a little trouble getting into the story, and I’m not sure why.  I think it may have been because Nettie doesn’t get the chance to settle in with one group of people for a good chunk of the book and is hopping from character to character pretty quickly.  Some of what makes her the unique person that she is comes from playing off of those around her, and so until she had people to interact with on a more regular basis, I felt like she was hard to get a handle on.

But at about a third of way the into the novel, I got hooked and blew through the rest rapidly.  By that point, the story had a firm direction, some great characters had been established, and the plot took off.  There were just enough encounters with supernatural creatures to keep the story feeling like fantasy, but not enough to overwhelm the Wild West setting.

Although the plot is definitely interesting, what made the novel so strong was its exploration of identity.  Nettie’s half-breed lineage makes it hard for her to fit in among most communities, and thus she not only becomes self-sufficient but also has to learn how to relate to people being nice to her.  Even more interesting is how Nettie identifies more as male than as female.  It puts her at another level of remove from those around her.  Having to hide her female form, as well as having to endure taunts for her skin color, mirrors her struggles to inhabit her inner self.

I may have had to push through the early chapters of this book, but by the end I was eager to see what comes next.  Luckily, this appears to be the first in a series, so I should get more of Nettie’s story in the future.  Give this one a chance, even if it lags at first–it will pay off in the end.

This book was a personal purchase.

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Tainted Blood by M. L. Brennan

tainted-blood“Former film student Fortitude Scott is finally gainfully employed. Unfortunately, said employment happens to be with a group of sociopathic vampires—his family. And as much as Fort is loath to get too deep into the family business, when his brother, Chivalry, is temporarily unable to run the territory, it’s up to Fort to keep things under control.

So when the leader of a powerful faction of shifters turns up murdered, Fort finds himself tracking down a killer while navigating dangerous rivalries, longtime grudges, and hidden agendas. Even with the help of his foxy kitsune sidekick, Suzume, he’ll need to pull out all the stops to hunt for the paranormal assassin.

But as he calls on fairies, witches, and ghouls for help, he discovers that the problem is much bigger than a single dead werebear. The supernatural community is preparing for a massive shift in power within the Scott family leadership—and Fort has landed right in the middle of the gathering storm.…”

One of the things that I like about the power struggles in this series is that it’s not the typical clash of megalomaniac vampires bent on world domination.  Fort’s family has a territory, and rules of living within it, and they co-exist at least somewhat peacefully with other supernatural creatures.  And yet, it’s still apparent that Fort’s mother, the formidable Madeline Scott, has many habits and ways of thinking leftover from earlier centuries.  She expects to rule supreme and to have those under her act as her vassals.  And some of her attitudes bleed over into her older children, Prudence and Chivalry.

Fort is the one who seems most caught in the middle of the oncoming shake-ups.  It’s clear that his mother is weak and near death, and it’s also clear that the races living in Scott territory are hoping to take advantage of the passing of power to effect some change.  With Prudence and Chivalry so set in their ways, and with the other peoples so firmly steeped in the modern world, Fort is the best bridge between all the various factions.

It’s in this way that the main mystery of the novel, the murder of the shifter leader, plays into this larger plotline.  Fort is drawn further into his family’s politics as this smaller change of power echoes and predicts the greater ones to follow if and when Madeline dies.

This book is obviously setting up some massive events and yet it doesn’t drag.  There are plenty of funny moments and memorable lines.  The characters are solid and the worldbuilding strong.  It’s no wonder that I’ve stuck with this series when others have lost my interest.  I heartily recommend this novel, and the ones preceding it, as a great alternative to the cookie-cutter urban fantasy that is all too common.

This book was a personal purchase.

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Vision in Silver by Anne Bishop

vision-in-silver“The Others freed the cassandra sangue to protect the blood prophets from exploitation, not realizing their actions would have dire consequences. Now the fragile seers are in greater danger than ever before—both from their own weaknesses and from those who seek to control their divinations for wicked purposes. In desperate need of answers, Simon Wolfgard, a shape-shifter leader among the Others, has no choice but to enlist blood prophet Meg Corbyn’s help, regardless of the risks she faces by aiding him.

Meg is still deep in the throes of her addiction to the euphoria she feels when she cuts and speaks prophecy. She knows each slice of her blade tempts death. But Others and humans alike need answers, and her visions may be Simon’s only hope of ending the conflict.

For the shadows of war are deepening across the Atlantik, and the prejudice of a fanatic faction is threatening to bring the battle right to Meg and Simon’s doorstep….”

Like most other reviewers, I find it hard to write a review of a book in the Others series without descending into frantic Muppet flails of happiness.  For me, this series is pure entertainment, and I find it effortless to sink so far into the story that I put down the book and wonder which world I’m in.  This book, and the series as a whole, works on so many levels that it’s hard to categorize them all.

On one level, like I said, this book is just fun to read.  I love the characters–Sam with his squeaky-door howl, Grandfather Erebus and his love of old movies, the Crowgard and their addiction to sparkly things–and I especially love their interactions with the main character, Meg.  She oftentimes puzzles the local terra indigene, but they retain a deep affection for her, and it shows how they treat her.  There are some new characters introduced in this novel, most notably Monty’s daughter Lizzie, that liven up the story.  And readers learn what happened to the freed cassandra sangue after the end of Murder of Crows by following one as she adjusts to freedom.

On a deeper level, you can read the story as having to do with prejudice, racism, and even colonialism.  Here, the “white man” is the intruder and is often dealt with harshly for seemingly minor transgressions.  The backlash against this attitude manifests in the Humans First and Last movement, which sadly echoes a lot of the social conflicts of the modern world.  Both humans and Others have a lot of learning to do, but I think the humans have the farthest to go: they feel owed a supremacy in Thaisia that they haven’t earned.  On the other hand, isn’t rising up against prejudice something we applaud others for doing?  It’s an interesting mix in which you identify with, and condemn, both sides of the conflict.  I don’t know if the author meant all that to show up in the story, but that’s how it resonated for me.

On a different note, I love how the worldbuilding expands with every novel.  There are hints that we’ll soon see what things look like in the Thaisian version of Europe, which I can’t wait to see.  I also look forward to seeing the feline Others (I’m a cat person) that were briefly mentioned herein.  It’s so obvious to me how much thought Bishop has put into this world, and I adore every square inch that we get to see.  She even roleplays as the wolves on Facebook–if you haven’t checked out the Anne Bishop’s Courtyard page, I highly suggest that you do so, because it’s tons of fun to read.

So, while I stop myself from gushing further over this book, go out and get it for yourself.  If you haven’t started the series yet, go get Written in Red without delay.  If you like urban fantasy, you’ve got to read this one.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Murder of Crows by Anne Bishop

murder-of-crows“After winning the trust of the terra indigene residing in the Lakeside Courtyard, Meg Corbyn has had trouble figuring out what it means to live among them. As a human, Meg should be barely tolerated prey, but her abilities as a cassandra sangue make her something more.

The appearance of two addictive drugs has sparked violence between the humans and the Others, resulting in the murder of both species in nearby cities. So when Meg has a dream about blood and black feathers in the snow, Simon Wolfgard—Lakeside’s shape-shifting leader—wonders if their blood prophet dreamed of a past attack or a future threat.

As the urge to speak prophecies strikes Meg more frequently, trouble finds its way inside the Courtyard. Now, the Others and the handful of humans residing there must work together to stop the man bent on reclaiming their blood prophet—and stop the danger that threatens to destroy them all.”

I have to admit that I absolutely adore this series.  There’s something about it that just hits the spot with me, kind of like a warm hot chocolate on a cold day.  I’ve had a hard time pinning down what I find so appealing about it, but now that I’m reading the first book aloud to my husband, I’ve been able to figure some of it out.

First, there’s the worldbuilding.  Bishop has obviously put a lot of thought into how she has structured this version of North America and how the various races interact with each other.  Everything seems to constantly balance on a fine line between a workable compromise and utter disaster.  The Others hold much of the power, controlling things like raw materials and access to water.  Humans, on the other hand, are more technologically advanced, and there are hints that such advancements may tip the balance and cause problems that humanity may not be equipped to deal with.

The plot centers around this tension, as humans have discovered a way to drug Others so that they’re vulnerable to attack.  All of the escalating violence reminds me of conflicts over such issues as race and religion in real life—eventually, both sides end up ignoring the message from the other side in favor of hammering their own views home no matter the cost.  In this case, though, the scales are significantly more lopsided.  After all, you may disagree with your neighbor, but he’s not likely to see you as clever meat.

What I like most about this book are the characters, and especially the little details of how they interact with each other.  Even though the Others are ultimately dangerous predators, it’s hard not to be charmed at the image of Simon in his Wolf form putting his head in Meg’s lap to snooze while she watches television.  The Crows may be canny information gatherers, but their love of all things shiny gives them a childlike quality.  And who can help but smile at an elderly vampire who loves watching old human films?

The story revolves, of course, around blood prophet Meg.  Bishop has done an excellent job at giving her a lot of power without making her all-powerful.  There are restrictions on what she can see when she has a prophecy, and while what she sees always comes true, it’s often best understood in hindsight.  Mostly, Meg is just a human whose kindness and goodwill becomes the bridge between Others and humanity, and I have to admit that it’s refreshing to see a character who is just a nice person.

I can’t wait to see what Bishop does with this world next, but I hope she continues to expand outward and give us a look at what the world is like in more of North America, and even over in Europe (or the equivalents thereof).  I devoured Murder of Crows the way a Wolf devours cookies—quickly and eagerly, and wishing for more when it was done.

This book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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