Blood Red by Mercedes Lackey

“Little Red Riding Hood’s real name is Gretchen Schwarzwald, and she is from the Schwarzwald (the Black Forest) in Germany. Ten years ago, she was orphaned by an evil Earth Master who wanted her parents’ land and killed them all with the werewolves he created. She was rescued by a Fire Master, a member of the Woodsman’s Lodge, and taught how to use her own Fire Powers. Now another werewolf pack is ravaging Exmoor, and she has come to help London’s White Lodge eradicate it and find and destroy the Elemental Master behind it.”

Well, I’m happy to see that the Elemental Masters series has bounced back after a couple of sub-par books. It’s not that the writing has been bad, it’s just that the plots have been a bit, shall we say, meandering. With Blood Red, Lackey has done something a bit different: the original fairy tale, “Little Red Riding Hood”, is merely the jumping-off point to the novel. It’s an origin story for the main character, if you will. By establishing Rosa’s genesis in the prologue, the author is then free to spin her tale from there, far beyond the restrictions of the classic story.

Another welcome change is the setting. Most novels in this series take place in cities, or at least in more populated areas. The only real exception was Home From the Sea, which was one of those entries in which nothing really happened. There’s nothing wrong with that, and Lackey certainly changed things up by putting her characters in theaters and London backalleys. This time, our main character does spend some time traveling through cities, but ultimately ends up in the forests of Eastern Europe.

And that’s another change that I approve of: this story has moved beyond the bounds of Western Europe for what I think is the first time. It puts the story squarely into the lands that spawned vampire mythology and the places where werewolves were said to roam. It gives the characters the opportunity to encounter foreign cultures and unfamiliar customs and superstitions. I have no clue about the accuracy of anything written about in the book, but it was nice to see something different.

Rosa herself is one of the stronger female heroines in this series. She defiantly refuses to conform to gender norms and is eventually appointed a Hunt Master, and this is a time where a woman wielding a weapon would send most people into apoplectic shock. She habitually wears breeches and boots, has no trouble in the wilderness, and has earned the respect of men for whom a competent female hunter is something like a unicorn—heard of but never seen. Refreshingly, there’s really no romance at hand either. Oh, Rosa occasionally has thoughts like “Wow, that guy is cute!” or “Dresses aren’t my thing, but this is actually kind of nice”, but they’re less rather than more prevalent. I like Rosa just as she is—no nonsense and tough.

With its strong female main character and some welcome deviations from other books in the series, Blood Red is a fairy tale adaptation that I can heartily recommend. Lackey seems to have gotten her spark back with regards to this series, and I find myself looking forward to future installments more than I have in a while.

This review was originally published on June 4, 2014.

This book was a personal purchase.

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Night Owls by Lauren M. Roy

“Valerie McTeague’s business model is simple: provide the students of Edgewood College with a late-night study haven and stay as far away as possible from the underworld conflicts of her vampire brethren. She’s experienced that life, and the price she paid was far too high for her to ever want to return.

Elly Garrett hasn’t known any life except that of fighting the supernatural beings known as Creeps or Jackals. But she always had her mentor and foster father by her side—until he gave his life protecting a book that the Creeps desperately want to get their hands on.

When the book gets stashed at Night Owls for safekeeping, those Val holds nearest and dearest are put in mortal peril. Now Val and Elly will have to team up, along with a mismatched crew of humans, vampires, and lesbian succubi, to stop the Jackals from getting their claws on the book and unleashing unnamed horrors.”

Okay, any book that takes place in a bookstore has my attention.  Boy, I wish there had been a store like this when I was in college—I’d have definitely worked there!  The setting is guaranteed to appeal to all book-geeks like me.  Night Owl Books is open extremely late, carries all kinds of cool books, and even has a rare book room.  Plus, it’s run by a friendly vampire.  What’s not to like?

There are some fairly typical fantasy elements at play here: super-secret organizations that fight monsters; books that hold magical secrets in strange languages; kindly professors with esoteric interests; and so on.  I’m not saying that these things make the book trite or boring, but you’re sure to see some familiar tropes here that are combined in a way that’s fun to read.

I would have liked some more background on the Jackals (or Creeps, as Elly calls them).  Most of the other creatures are common enough not to need explanation, like vampires or succubi, but Creeps are something new.  I’m certainly willing to grant an author the right to make up their own things that go bump in the night, but I do want them to have some reason for existing.

Something that amused me was a running reference to Sacramento.  Apparently, Val was part of a hunting group in Sacramento where something went horribly wrong, and the details are dangled in front of us for most of the book.  We do eventually get the gist of the tale, thus saving it from becoming like the Calvin and Hobbes “noodle incident”, and it both explains why the story takes place back East and also seems to sow the seeds of maybe heading out West in a future novel.

Night Owls was a decent read with some unique monsters and a good dollop of action.  I’ll be curious to see what the author does with this story next, and very curious to see if her characters head out our way.

This review was originally posted on April 7, 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…

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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Kitty Saves the World by Carrie Vaughn

kitty-saves-the-world“It’s all come down to this, following the discoveries made by Cormac in Low Midnight, Kitty and her allies are ready to strike. But, when their assassination attempt on the evil vampire Dux Bellorum fails, Kitty finds herself running out of time. The elusive vampire lord has begun his apocalyptic end game, and Kitty still doesn’t know where he will strike.

Meanwhile, pressure mounts in Denver as Kitty and her pack begin to experience the true reach of Dux Bellorum’s cult. Outnumbered and outgunned at every turn, the stakes have never been higher for Kitty. She will have to call on allies both old and new in order to save not just her family and friends, but the rest of the world as well.”

Warning: spoilers ahead.

How do you end a series that has gone on for several years and do justice to all that has gone before?  It’s a pretty big task to wrap up more than a dozen books and bring events to a satisfying end.  So, did Vaughn manage it?  Well… not completely.

My main complaint with this book is that too much of the tension relies on Kitty, Ben and Cormac–but mostly Kitty–being stupid.  Roman’s “end game” involves triggering a massive volcano using an ancient artifact.  The gang runs around frantically trying to figure out where in the world is the volcano powerful enough to be the target of Roman’s plan.  And yet with all the clues in front of them, knowing that Roman is in Colorado and came there specifically, it takes over half the book for Kitty to realize that Roman is going to trigger the Yellowstone caldera.  I thought to myself “Maybe I’m just way too knowledgeable about stuff like this” and asked a couple of people I know to predict the volcano based on bare bones info that I gave them from the book.  They figured it out immediately as well.  The author even has Kitty thinking to herself that all the conspiracy theories about the supervolcano should have clued her in.  It’s not good when an author has a character acknowledge that they’ve piddled away a good chunk of the novel.

My other complaint is that the science aspect of these books, which I enjoyed, goes mostly out the window.  Yes, this series has magic.  Yes, there are things that are supernatural.  However, the earlier books in the series talk about scientists trying to understand the mechanisms that transmit vampirism and lycanthropy, and of course Kitty loves her research.  If nothing else, even setting aside scientific concerns, the supernatural world is well defined and follows a steady trajectory.  In this final book, suddenly, we have… angels?  Demons?   Heaven and Hell?  Where were the hints of this in previous books?

Otherwise, there are all the aspects of a final book that you would expect.  Characters from earlier books appear to aid Kitty and her allies.  Kitty herself faces some of what she has been forced to give up as a werewolf.  Much of her and Ben’s world is destroyed or seriously rocked.  It’s fairly typical “let’s wrap this up” fare.  It’s not terrible, by any means, but it also isn’t anything unique.  I got more enjoyment from the previous book starring Cormac, because it had more original aspects.

Vaughn lets her characters go out on a positive note, and it’s nice to see Kitty and Ben getting a little peace and quiet after the ups and downs we’ve seen them go through.  I may not have felt that this novel quite lived up to all that came before, but it is a solid enough ending.

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

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Pocket Apocalypse by Seanan McGuire

“Alexander Price has survived gorgons, basilisks, and his own family—no small feat, considering that his family includes two telepaths, a reanimated corpse, and a colony of talking, pantheistic mice.  Still, he’s starting to feel like he’s got the hang of things…at least until his girlfriend, Shelby Tanner, shows up asking pointed questions about werewolves and the state of his passport.  From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to Australia, a continent filled with new challenges, new dangers, and yes, rival cryptozoologists who don’t like their “visiting expert” very much.

Australia is a cryptozoologist’s dream, filled with unique species and unique challenges.  Unfortunately, it’s also filled with Shelby’s family, who aren’t delighted by the length of her stay in America.  And then there are the werewolves to consider: infected killing machines who would like nothing more than to claim the continent as their own. The continent which currently includes Alex.

Survival is hard enough when you’re on familiar ground.  Alex Price is very far from home, but there’s one thing he knows for sure: he’s not going down without a fight.”

I’ve decided that not only is McGuire’s Incryptid series my favorite of all the things she writes, but it’s also one of my favorites series, period.  There’s a wonderful blend of creativity, humor, and wit that keeps me eagerly anticipating each new book as it comes out.

And this one is the best of the series so far.  The author continually changes things up so the books never become cookie-cutter.  This is the first book to take place in a location other than America, and this means that the main character is not in very close contact with the rest of the family.  It also means all new kinds of cryptids to marvel at.  It gives Alex that “fish out of water” status that allows him to be intrigued with the new, but his already established competence with cryptids means that he doesn’t come across as too over-matched.

I find it interesting that McGuire also chose werewolves as the main antagonistic force in Australia, because it’s not like there aren’t enough things in Australia that want to kill you.  I think that by using werewolves, she has rooted readers in something familiar while also painting them very differently than you “typical” werewolves.  That’s what I like most about the cryptids that are more commonly known–they’re not what you expect, but they’re recognizable enough to make that connection.

Of course, it’s the cryptids that McGuire creates herself that are the most awesome.  I speak, as usual, of the Aeslin mice, towards which I feel a squeeful love and a desire to cuddle them.  The lesser gryphons (like the Church Gryphon and Australia’s garrinna) also awaken in me a deep longing for a plushie of one of them.  Basically, the author regularly makes me say “aaawwwww”, and some days that’s just what I need.

In general, McGuire’s writing style is one that I truly enjoy.  She has a Pratchett-esque way of stating things that make you both laugh and think “Hey, that’s a good point”.  I’m constantly making note of lines that I want to share with others.  Pair that with a great, action-packed story, and you’ve got an unbeatable combination, as far as I’m concerned.

I’m already jonseing for the next Incryptid book and my fix of giggle-worthy dialogue.  I’m constantly recommending this series to others, so that should give you a good idea of how highly I regard it.

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

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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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Waistcoats and Weaponry by Gail Carriger

waistcoats-and-weaponry“Sophronia continues her second year at finishing school in style–with a steel-bladed fan secreted in the folds of her ball gown, of course. Such a fashionable choice of weapon comes in handy when Sophronia, her best friend Dimity, sweet sootie Soap, and the charming Lord Felix Mersey stowaway on a train to return their classmate Sidheag to her werewolf pack in Scotland. No one suspected what–or who–they would find aboard that suspiciously empty train. Sophronia uncovers a plot that threatens to throw all of London into chaos and she must decide where her loyalties lie, once and for all.”

I think that this is my favorite book in this series thus far.  Rather than continuing the same things as the previous two books, Carriger turns several ideas and characters on their heads to wonderful effect.  There are still the politics between humans and sundowners; there’s still the looming threat of the Picklemen; there are still manners to master and intrigues to plot.  What makes this book shine is that some assumptions that readers have been encouraged to hold are neatly overset.

The main way in which the author accomplishes this is by broadening the motivations of the characters.  I especially liked that a character that has previously been shown as one-dimensionally bad is given a lot more depth.  Hidden depths are revealed in other characters, giving their actions more weight.

I was also excited to see that the events of this book lay the foundation for circumstances in Carriger’s companion series, The Parasol Protectorate.  I’m pretty sure that a lot of this series’s readers came to it from the original books, and so tying them together is a wise choice.  And teen readers who enjoy these books can use them as a jumping-off point to the others.

I’m not much of a steampunk fan, but I appreciate the humor and zaniness of Carriger’s stories.  I can’t wait to read the next book in this series.

This book was borrowed from the Yolo County Public Library Davis branch.

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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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