Tag Archives: magic

Review: Raw Power

Raw Power
Raw Power by Ambrose Ibsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ordinary bloke gets demon heart-transplant and finds it does more than just pump blood. Plus, he now has a new job, and life has got more complicated.

What I Liked
Lucian. Lucian (who doesn’t like being called ‘Lucy’, but had probably better get used to it) rang true for me. He’s bright but lazy, making a reasonable living prodding buttock and collecting debts – and, later on, art. He’s allowed himself to drift to where he is, without thinking about any of the morality involved – and he’s so overconfident you just know he’s in for a shock. Shocks. In short, he comes off as a realistic twenty-something lad with more testosterone than brains (and since he’s a bright lad, that’s a lot of testosterone). However, he has enough self-awareness to make him someone I would actually like to spend time with.

The whole demon-heart business. This is a new idea, or at least a sufficiently new spin on an old idea that it looks new. There’s some interesting hints that we’ll see more ramifications later on in the series.

Lucian again. Lucian doesn’t go from ordinary ass-kicker to supernatural hero overnight; he does what most twenty-something lads would do in that position: he screws up. Repeatedly. It’s the testosterone thing again. It can be irritating to watch, but Ibsen made the right decision, I think. Lucian is a more interesting character for being just a bit morally ambiguous, just a bit too laddish for his own good. It’s just not realistic for an ordinary person to be given some kind of supernatural power and then to immediately think “With great power comes great responsibility; I must be sensible and mature from now on.”

The magic system. We don’t actually get much information on the magic system, but Ibsen seems to have some interesting ideas.

What could have been improved
Pacing. Apart from a few blips, everything seemed to go a bit too much according to plan. There wasn’t that sense of imminent failure and risk that heightens the tension late on in most books.

Character interactions. I’ve observed before that the best urban fantasy (at least, for me) tends to be where the main character has a team he can bounce off. Where the character is isolated, either because he has no friends, or because his colleagues aren’t sharing, it makes the story a bit two-dimensional. I’m hoping that in further books, Ibsen will lighten up and let the other characters have a bit more page time (come on, Ibsen, you’ve set up some really good stuff and I want to know!).

Conclusion
This is a solid three-star read for me; I can’t quite justify giving it four stars, not when I compare it to such authors as Kim Harrison, Faith Hunter, Jim Butcher et al. However, I think Ibsen definitely has the potential to get there. Technical things like pacing can always be sorted out with practice; what Ibsen has is the ability to write an engaging character whom you’re actually interested in reading about – and I think that’s more difficult to learn.

So, Ibsen is a new author I’m going to read more of. I love it when that happens. 🙂

I’ve already bought Book 2, Roaring Blood, which has zombies.

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Review: Spell Blind

Spell Blind
Spell Blind by David B. Coe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I knew I was going to enjoy this book within the first couple of pages; with a hiatus for doing work, I stayed up late to finish it.

Justis (Jay) Fearsson is an ex-cop turned PI, and his ability to do magic is not only an advantage in his line of work, but also the reason why he’s ex-, rather than just cop. Magic has a pretty steep price, but Fearsson is willing to pay it, and keep paying. This was one of the things I really enjoyed about the book – the ability to do magic was almost an addiction. Fearsson pursues magic even though he knows what it will do to him eventually – but, to him (though not to some others) it’s worth the price.

A serial killer who is also a powerful weremyste (sorcerer) is on the loose, killing a person every moon. Fearsson worked the case while he was a cop; his ex-partner, still on the case, needs his input when there is a new murder.

The action plays out over a few days, with much excitement and danger, and an increasing awareness that Fearsson is in way over his head (of course, it wouldn’t be a very exciting novel if he wasn’t).

Fearsson’s love interest, I liked. Other reviewer(s) didn’t, but I found her to be exactly the sort of woman who would do well with him: smart, driven, honourable, and not willing to take any crap from him or anyone else, but also capable of having fun. She’s got her own priorities, and (thank you, David B. Coe) she doesn’t gratuitously interfere in Fearsson’s investigation or put herself or him in danger through being an idiot.

For that matter, Fearsson’s ex-partner, Kona (nicknamed after the coffee, because that’s what she always drinks) Shaw, was another great character. One thing I particularly appreciated was that Coe has a gay black policewoman without waving a big flag saying “Hey! Diversity credentials!” Kona is who she is, and the most important thing about her is that she’s a really good policewoman and a really good friend to Fearsson – not her race or her sexuality, which are very much in the background. She’s in the book to do her job, not to be a representative character.

Coe also managed the ending very well. I was wondering how he would do it, given how deep the doo-doo was in which Fearsson was swimming/drowning. Since there’s a second book in the series, it’s obvious that he must survive – but how? The way Coe did it, in the end, I found was very satisfying – no massive stroke of luck, no sudden wild inspiration, “It’s a million-to-one chance but it might just work…” Just… a good way of doing it.

So, all in all, an excellent start to a series. I’m going to start reading the second book, His Father’s Eyes, which just came out recently. I want to know what happens next…

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Review: Revenant

Revenant
Revenant by Kat Richardson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this – thus, four stars out of five (but a strong four).

The action happens mostly in and around Lisbon (Portugal), where Carlos is from. Carlos is a major character in this book as the plot is mainly based on necromancy, and his old enemies – now working with Quinton’s father.

I’ve always liked the way Richardson portrayed the vampires in this series – they are reliable allies as well as enemies, and not always enmeshed in the kind of petty, pointless point-scoring that vampires are in many books. Here, Harper is working with Carlos directly, instead of just going to him for advice when she needs it, and we get to see a bit of more him. I have to admit, I do like ambiguous characters – I find those who are wholly good or wholly evil to be dull. So Carlos is one of my favourites: the man who makes his own choices, good or evil, and lives by the results. He doesn’t make excuses for himself, and he doesn’t repent. I like that.

Quinton and Harper work together well and without silly pissing-contests – though not without disagreement. Quinton is also a pleasant change from the usual fare. He’s not some gorgeous alpha-male hunk (or, worse, he’s not two of them). He and Harper have a relationship that’s based on love and friendship, not just sex and lust.

But the one thing I liked best about this book was the end. This is the last of the Greywalker books – as I suspected it might be, because there’s only so long that the situation with Quinton’s father could be made to last. While we could be pretty sure that Good Would Triumph in the end, as it does in the majority of fantasy series, in this case, the end was not without cost. Often, the reader gets the impression that having Saved The World, the heroes go home for tea and medals, and back to ordinary life. No muss, no fuss. In this book, Good might well Triumph, but not without cost. Harper will have to live with the consequences for the rest of her life.

The book ends suddenly, and without all the loose ends tied up. But I like that. The heroes have to go home, but now they have a life to build. Their own life, free to make of it what they will, with gains having been made as well as losses suffered.

We don’t know what Harper, Quinton, et al will make of it, but whatever it is, they will probably be doing it off-page. I hope they will, because if there is anything worthy of writing a book about, it won’t be the happy life they deserve!

I shall certain look out for what Richardson writes next.

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Alchemystic, by Anton Strout

Alchemystic

Alchemystic, by Anton Strout

This book had such potential; the idea is original and the sketch of the characters in the blurb seemed to indicate the possibility of something really interesting.

Unfortunately, when I attempted to read it, I loathed this book so much I couldn’t bear to finish it.

Usually, I will finish a book just so I can say I gave it every possible chance, just in case it improves drastically in the last four pages. Unfortunately, with Alchemystic, I decided that not only could it not possibly dig itself out of the depths in order to be even marginally tolerable without heavy engineering equipment, but I wasn’t willing to waste precious minutes of my life on a book that had absolutely no good points whatsoever.

Firstly, Lexi, the ‘heroine’. She’s twenty-two, and according to the blurb, she’s a ‘struggling artist’. According to the book itself, she’s a spoiled little rich girl who has a studio in her parents’ vast mansion and has been allowed to play at being an artist. There is no indication in the book that she has ever sold any artwork. She doesn’t even seem to know what medium she favours – everything from sculpture to pottery to charcoal drawing, apparently. She also thinks she’s far too good to accept advice from art teachers. And she fusses over getting clay on her clothes; tip: real people who work with clay do not throw clothes out just because they’ve got clay on them. They keep using the same clothes because who cares what you look like in the workshop, and why ruin more clothes?

When Lexi’s brother dies, Lexi’s parents finally insist that she does something useful (i.e., takes some notice of the family business) upon which she throws a tantrum but gives in with exceptionally poor grace. Throughout the novel, Lexi does not act like a twenty-two-year-old woman. She acts like a spoilt brat; if I had to put an age on her, I’d say sixteen – and needs a slap. When Stanis the gargoyle turns up, the way she treats him is appalling – she clearly thinks he is a mere thing, yet he has some measure of free will. But she doesn’t seem to see this, or think of the implications, and treats him as simply one more thing to which her position as heiress-of-loads-of-money entitles her.

Lexi’s friends are equally annoying. There’s the dance student who somehow has the time and inclination to skip classes and follow Lexi around. Then there’s the computer-geek type who has no visible means of support. Both of these characters, again, come across as about sixteen years old, rather than the adults in their early twenties that they are supposed to be. None of them seem to have any responsibilities or outside commitments.

OK, now let’s move on to plot.

Firstly, Lexi’s brother (who is apparently horrible, so we don’t have to feel any sympathy) gets buried by a collapsing building. Yet his hand – still clutching his mobile phone – is found outside the building. OK, so I didn’t read all the way through the book, but I still find it difficult to believe how this could happen.

Secondly, at one point Lexi is attacked, and, held from behind with a knife to her throat, manages to kick backwards with her Doc Martens, niftily getting her attacker in the jewels, and thereby managing to get away. Now, I challenge anyone to try this. I did, with my long-suffering husband. And unless Lexi is abnormally tall (or deformed), or her attacker is abnormally short (or deformed) this doesn’t work. The distance from knee-joint to groin is longer than the distance from knee-joint to foot. Plus, a certain amount of wriggling is necessary to get into position. In reality, Lexi would have had her throat slit. Pity she didn’t in the book.

On to the magic. Lexi’s grandfather was apparently a magic-user, and left his books etc cleverly hidden in his studio (which Lexi is now using) so that… well, I don’t know. It wasn’t really explained (as far as I read) why Lexi’s grandfather never handed down his skills to his descendants. However, it doesn’t matter because Lexi manages to figure out where he hid his stuff in about five minutes. Another five minutes, and she’s managed to make a spell work. His security spells are easily circumvented by Lexi, and by Marshall (the geek) because of his immense dungeons-and-dragons experience. Obviously Grandfather was a D&D fan, because he seems to have based all of his magic on it.

Note: can you prick your finger on an earring post? All the earrings I’ve ever seen have had blunt ends, presumably so that you don’t prick your finger on them.

Later on in the book, Rory (the dance student) apparently turns into some kind of ninja-fighter, because her training in dance means that she’s good at fighting. WTF? Believe me, dance training is not the same as fight training. Being good at one does not mean you are good at the other. The crucial difference being, your partner in the dance is working with you, and your opponent in a fight is working against you.

Then there’s the occasion when Lexi finds that some building contractors have been murdered in a building her family is renovating. Instead of calling the police, she directs the gargoyle to collapse the ceiling on them to make it look like an accident. OK, I’m British, so maybe I just don’t understand. Over here in the UK, we have this thing called ‘Health and Safety at Work’ which means that your boss is not allowed to put you in avoidable danger at work, and if, for example, a ceiling collapses and you get killed, your employer is going to have a lot of difficult questions to answer and maybe even get charged with corporate manslaughter. Obviously in America (or at least Strout’s America) it’s perfectly acceptable for innocent builders to get killed at work.

And there’s the jewels that seem to contain Stanis’ soul, that Lexi’s grandfather apparently removed from Stanis, for reasons Lexi doesn’t know. Yet, immediately she discovers this, she becomes determined to find them and put them back so that Stanis can ‘protect her’ better. She does not appear to consider that maybe her grandfather, by all accounts a powerful alchemyst, might have had a good reason for doing this, and if she’s going to reverse his decision, she really ought to find out the details of what might happen if she does. No thought of caution crosses her spoiled-me-me-me juvenile mind.

Other reviewers have also commented that, this being being written in the first person, and since some chapters are written from Lexi’s point of view and some from Stanis’, they found it difficult to remember who was ‘speaking’ at any point. I agree; both characters seem to have the same ‘voice’. Possibly it’s because all of the characters are kind of flat. Yes, I loathe Lexi to the point that I wanted an invisible demon to eat her face, but she’s still… flat. None of the characters seem to have any depth to them, or any real connections to other characters. Lexi didn’t like her brother, doesn’t seem to have any feelings of love or respect for her parents, and uses her friends shamelessly for her own ends. If she wasn’t so spoiled and childish, I’d call her a sociopath (although we are clearly supposed to like her; can’t imagine how or why). Except she just doesn’t have enough depth to be a sociopath; she’s just a generic spoilt rich brat. If she had a bit more depth, it would be easier to like her, or at least understand her. She doesn’t seem to have any deep feelings – she doesn’t get on with her parents, but doesn’t seem to feel anything deeper than annoyance with them. There’s no hint of hurt, or longing, or anything.

Likewise, Marshall and Rory: they don’t seem to have any concerns other than doing what Lexi wants. Even their ‘talents’ seem to fit the plot so well that they simply seem to be cardboard cut-outs introduced for Lexi’s benefit. They accept the existence of magic rather too easily, too; even people who play D&D generally recognise that magic is not real. Yet Rory and Marshall accept it with barely a murmur…

Thinking about it, this book lacks struggle. Everything comes rather too easily. Lexi doesn’t like her parents, but she doesn’t struggle against them or seem overly bothered by this. Her brother is killed, but she didn’t like him anyway, so she doesn’t really feel any grief. She finds her grandfather’s spell books almost as soon as she starts to search, and the magic works for her after only one or two false starts. There is no struggle to accept the existence of magic. There is no sense of overcoming challenges. There is no sense of personal growth.

All in all, this is the worst book I have read in ages. Flat, insipid, unattractive characters. Ininspiring plot, in places demonstrating that the author has not even bothered to do the most basic of research.

I have finally discovered a disadvantage to electronic books: you can’t burn them. Deleting isn’t nearly as satisfying.

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Curse of Chalion

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold

This book, and its sequel, Paladin of Souls, are two of my favourite books. I have read both of them multiple times, and I will read them multiple more times.

Cazaril is a man who has hit rock bottom. Of noble birth, his military career has been one disaster after another, in the service of the perennially unlucky ruler of Chalion. His final posting, as a castle warder, resulted in a nine-month siege; it only ended when he was ordered by his superiors to surrender. All his officers were ransomed except for him; he and the other unransomed men were sold as galley slaves. So, after the ship on which he was a slave is captured by the navy of the neighbouring country, Ibra, Cazaril walks back to the castle where he was a page as a boy, intending to beg for a place as a servant. He has lost his sword, his money, his career, and his health. But he has not lost his honour.

A stroke of luck gives him a little money and some decent clothes, so he can beg for shelter as himself, rather than having to pretend to be a commoner. And so he eventually ends up as the new secretary-tutor to the Royesse (princess-equivalent) Iselle and her lady-companion, Betriz.

Iselle is an intelligent and energetic young woman, somewhat more clever than her younger brother, Teidez, who is the heir to Chalion – their much-older half-brother, the ruler, being childless. When both young people are called to Court, it is Cazaril’s task to steer Iselle and Betriz through the dangerous waters of diplomacy.

And it is at Court that he learns that the ruling family of Chalion is under a curse (hence their perennial bad luck), and the only way to break it is for a man to lay down his life three times for the House of Chalion.

This sounds impossible; a man might lay down his life once, but three times?

But Cazaril, wholly committed to the Royesse Iselle, is determined to save her, at whatever cost to him, body and soul, is necessary.

This is a story of love, honour, courage, tragedy, sacrifice, faith, and theology. It’s a story of destiny, and free will. But it is ultimately the story of Cazaril, a man who has lost everything, regained much, and is willing to lose everything again to save his Royesse and his country.

The ‘Black Jewels’ series, by Anne Bishop

Daughter of the Blood

Daughter of the Blood – first book in the Black Jewels series by Anne Bishop

This series is interesting. Firstly, I would say, do not read these books if you are prudish. Even a little. Or if you are squeamish.

If you do not fall into any of those categories, and you like a complex story with interesting characters and a unique fantasy world, then you’ll probably enjoy this. Greatly.

Firstly, the general premise. Bishop’s human population is divided roughly into two parts: those who have magic, and those who do not. Those who have magic are generally higher-status, and are further divided by power-level. Females, on average, are more powerful than males.

Reducing the story to its bare bones, you have the Evil Queen who has spent several hundred years consolidating her evil power (one race of humans is extremely long-lived); then you have the heroes (who, being male, are in a position of subordination); and you finally have the Saviour, the prophesied Witch who will be born with almost unlimited power and will (hopefully) save everyone from the Evil Queen. OK, so that’s the bare bones, and it doesn’t look very different from any other kind of traditional fantasy. But what’s interesting is what Bishop does with this.

Bishop’s society is matriarchal, but she’s actually put some though into how a magic-oriented, female-led society might be like. It also has a significant BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission/sadism, masochism) element. If this offends you, don’t read the books.

This book is very relationship-oriented; it’s not about big battles and the movement of armies; it’s about the actions and interactions of individual people, and how they change outcomes. It’s also about power corrupting, and what the result of that might be, if allowed to proceed unchecked.

Bishop doesn’t pull any punches, and she hasn’t fallen into the trap of making her female characters all nice, or, if not nice, then misled. Remember the mean girls at school? The girls who took cruelty to whole new levels without ever laying a finger on their victims? Now, imagine those girls with carte blanche to do what they liked, physically and mentally, to anyone else? Bishop graphically illustrates what anyone who’s been bullied by girls knows: women are just plain nastier than men.

She also illustrates what happens to the vulnerable in society when those in authority choose to look the other way rather than confront the wrongdoing they know is going on – so if you don’t want to read about child abuse, don’t read these books. If you don’t want to read about parents ignoring the fact that a member of the family is abusing their children, because that’s easy, way easier than having to deal with something so unpleasant (of course, that couldn’t happen in the real world, at all, could it? Yeah, right) then don’t read these books.

Bishop manages to portray a society gone horribly wrong in a way that is very plausible; after centuries of top-down corruption, this is what you get. In a way, it’s reminiscent of Nazi Germany – individuals who, in a different society, would probably be upright, honest and caring are twisted and corrupted until they participate in acts that are wrong by any standards of morality. Good books, eh?

But one of the things I like the best is Bishop’s BDSM angle. She never refers to it as that, but if you know anyone who’s into the Dominance/submission (D/s) lifestyle, you’ll recognise it instantly. Bishop has described it accurately in two forms: the healthy, and the dysfunctional.

Now, I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey and I don’t intend to; the excerpts and reviews I’ve read have convinced me that not only would it bore me rigid but it’s written by someone whose research was done by reading Mills and Boon romances and The Story of OThat is, her understanding of BDSM is pretty limited and stereotypical.

The typical image of a D/s relationship is a bullying dominant who runs the relationship and gives the orders, and a weak, rather pathetic submissive who does what s/he is told and acts as a sort of physical and emotional punchbag for the dominant – and, worse, gets off on being treated so badly. Or, alternatively, the dominant is as I’ve just said, and the submission is just too weak and confused, or too beaten down, or too powerless, to get out of such an unhealthy relationship.

Now, those are not D/s relationships. Those are abusive relationships. There are plenty of them in the Black Jewels books. (At the start, it’s kind of fantasy-dystopia – or had you figured that out?)

A healthy D/s relationship is consensual and respectful on both sides. The dominant generally takes the lead, but there’s very much an element of the old military advice: “Never give an order you know will not be obeyed.” Or, alternatively, don’t order your sub to do something you don’t already know that he is willing to do. Both sides of the partnership – and it is a partnership, and a partnership of equals, at that (no matter how much the participants pretend it isn’t) – gain from the relationship. It’s not about one side getting all the rewards at the expense of the other. And Anne Bishop clearly understands this. She has thought about, or researched, the ways in which such a dynamic works, and how the submissive half of the relationship makes his or her wishes known, and even forces the dominant to change their mind, or behaviour, without once stepping out of the submissive position.

It’s a complicated dynamic, and Bishop captures it perfectly.

Of course, the story starts with trouble and strife; otherwise it wouldn’t be a very good story. But that’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom and angst and horror. There are some brilliantly funny scenes, and these serve to lift the books out of the potentially wrist-slittingly depressing and into the realms of being a great read that you don’t want to put down. You get to know the characters, and you cheer the good guys on and you desperately want the Witch Queen and her minions to get what they so richly deserve.

So if you want to read fantasy that’s a bit out of the ordinary, and you’ve got the ability to cope with the sometimes pretty edgy stuff Bishop throws around with gay abandon (that’s, ‘light-hearted’, not ‘homosexual’, by the way… although the latter isn’t totally absent), then read the books. They are some of the most original fantasy I’ve ever read.

Dark Currents, by Jacqueline Carey

Dark Currents

Dark Currents, by Jacqueline Carey

From Amazon.com’s product description:

Jacqueline Carey, New York Times bestselling author of the acclaimed Kushiel’s Legacy novels, presents an all-new world featuring a woman caught between the normal and paranormal worlds, while enforcing order in both. Introducing Daisy Johanssen, reluctant hell-spawn…

The Midwestern resort town of Pemkowet boasts a diverse population: eccentric locals, wealthy summer people, and tourists by the busload; not to mention fairies, sprites, vampires, naiads, ogres and a whole host of eldritch folk, presided over by Hel, a reclusive Norse goddess.

To Daisy Johanssen, fathered by an incubus and raised by a single mother, it’s home. And as Hel’s enforcer and the designated liaison to the Pemkowet Police Department, it’s up to her to ensure relations between the mundane and eldritch communities run smoothly.

But when a young man from a nearby college drowns–and signs point to eldritch involvement–the town’s booming paranormal tourism trade is at stake. Teamed up with her childhood crush, Officer Cody Fairfax, a sexy werewolf on the down-low, Daisy must solve the crime–and keep a tight rein on the darker side of her nature. For if she’s ever tempted to invoke her demonic birthright, it could accidentally unleash nothing less than Armageddon.

OK, what did I think of it?

It’s not as dark as I expected from Jacqueline Carey, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. I enjoyed the book as it is. The above plot summary calls Daisy ‘Hel’s enforcer’, which I don’t think is accurate – she’s more of a liaison, although in this book Hel makes it clear that her duties go beyond diplomacy.

Pemkowet is an interesting invention: in Daisy’s world, some towns have a magical element, and others do not. So Pemkowet has a magical tourist trade, of visitors coming from more mundane towns eager to see a glimpse of the eldritch. However, the magical community is not all about rainbows and unicorns – most if its denizens are dangerous in some way – and careless tourists can get hurt, or killed. You also have the prejudice of the mundane against the eldritch – many of the inhabitants of the neighbouring (non-magical) town, Appeldoorn, want Pemkowet’s magical element destroyed.

Daisy herself is an attractive protagonist; we are not told for how long she has been Hel’s liaison with the mortal world, but one gets the impression it either isn’t very long, or it hasn’t been very eventful so far. This is Daisy’s first big problem, it seems, and we see her getting to grips with it. She’s young enough to be excited by the prospect of working on ‘real police work’, rather than filing, but is smart enough to know that this isn’t a game. Her interaction with Cody the werewolf is well-written; unlike many urban fantasy heroines, she doesn’t completely make a fool of herself, and towards the end of the book we see the schoolgirl crush being replaced by an adult friendship. There are also a couple of other handsome males introduced, so I think we can expect Carey to do something with them in future books.

The secondary characters are also well written: her best friend, Jen, who is non-magical and therefore Daisy has to decide whether or not to keep the secrets of the magical community from her. The police chief, who is non-magical but committed to doing the best he can for all the residents of his town – a relief to see a police chief who is committed to his job, not to the furtherance of his political career.

Some of the urban fantasy stereotypes are there (one can see the love triangle, or polygon of one’s choice, forming up already) but Carey has stayed away from others. It’s nice to have a heroine who isn’t a badass lone-wolf type with the social skills of a bull in a china shop. Daisy wasn’t born in Pemkowet, but she was conceived and grew up there, and she’s well-known in the town. Her mother lives in the town, and she has friends (and schoolgirl-enemies) there. This means that she comes across as a lot more of an ordinary (for hell-spawn) young woman than some kind of superhero.

The plot is a good one; it moves along at a brisk pace, and when the mystery is solved events are revealed that have a certain horrible plausibility. The nature of what happened makes me wonder where Carey is going to take this series, since a number of issues were brought up that would be very interesting indeed if developed. It wasn’t as deep and multifaceted as some of Carey’s other writing, but then, this book is much shorter. I’m hoping that the complexity will build through the series, and there are signs that this is is a possibility.

In conclusion, therefore, Jacqueline Carey has proved that she most certainly can write urban fantasy. I shall be looking out for the next book in the series.

A Shot in the Dark, by K.A. Stewart

A Shot in the Dark

A Shot in the Dark, by K.A. Stewart

Jesse James Dawson has mostly recovered from the events of A Devil in the Details, although the stress has taken a toll on his friendships. What better way to patch things up than at the annual lads-only paintballing trip?

Well, you pretty much know that things aren’t going to go according to plan (otherwise it would be a very short and boring book). Events go south pretty much as soon as everyone arrives at the cabin, with the arrival of the Yeti (the demon that nearly killed Jesse four years previously, before the first book in the series) who now has an army of zombie helpers. And the Yeti, it seems, has been planning this particular confrontation for a while.

We also get to see more of Axel, the demon who seems to take a particular interest in Jesse (excellent, because Axel is, I think, my favourite character), and we learn more about him. Although Stewart has kindly given us information which doesn’t actually translate into knowledge… very tantalising. About the only thing we can deduce is that Axel is undoubtedly going to be very important to future events. (Good.)

Again, there isn’t much in the way of plot complexity, but this book has more action in it than the previous one. One of Stewart’s strengths, however, is the way she writes the interactions between Jesse and his friends. She’s got the ‘bunch of mates’ dynamic down to a T, and also what happens to that dynamic when one of the group (i.e. Jesse) is doing something that’s way beyond the comfort zone of the others.

After I finished, I went straight on to read the next one in the series. These books are a very good addition to the urban fantasy genre, and I hope Stewart carries on with them.

A Devil in the Details, by K.A. Stewart

A Devil in the Details

A Devil in the Details, by K.A. Stewart

This is the first book in the Jesse James Dawson series. The main thrust of the plot is that the protagonist, Jesse James Dawson, fights demons. People sell their souls to demons for some advantage; then they tend to regret this. In these circumstances, a champion (of which Jesse is one) may put their own soul on the line to fight the demon and get the original soul back.

For:
1. The main character (male!) is slightly unusual in the urban fantasy genre in that he is, in fact, male. He also does not have a disastrous love-life. He has a happy marriage and a daughter. This makes for an interesting angle to the story: while most urban fantasy protagonists are lone-wolf types, Jesse has family responsibilities. He has to think about what will happen to his wife and daughter if he is killed in the line of work. He also has a day-job. This makes him a slightly more believable protagonist.

2. He is pretty durable, but equally it’s made clear that fighting demons does have consequences in the matter of hospital stays etc.

3. Jesse himself is a likeable character, as is his wife. The dynamic between them is convincing, and Mira (the wife) is not simply a cipher with no part in the plot herself; not only is she a witch (and therefore plot-useful), but the author has not made the mistake of thinking that he can give Jesse a wife and then not have him act and think like someone who is in a strong, committed relationship with someone he loves. He’s a bit stuck on the ‘chivalry’ (i.e., male chauvinism), and if I were married to him I’d have slapped him on several occasions, but Mira seems to be OK with him ‘protecting’ her by not telling her things in case she ‘worries’. She’s a strong enough character that if it really bothered her I’m sure she’d have sorted him out, so presumably it works between them.

4. The plot itself works. Unusually, Jesse does not have working magic (although there is a hint that he has some kind of magical ability that he has never worked out how to use), so he’s very much almost the ‘ordinary joe’ making demon-fighting into something between a job and a vocation.

5. K.A. Stewart obviously knows that when it comes to martial arts, you don’t get good – and stay that way – without a lot of training. Some people might say that the frequent descriptions of Jesse’s training regime are a bit repetitive, but for me they add to the ‘realism’ – this is a guy who has a dangerous job. Of course he’s going to train. A lot. It’s going to be a major part of his daily routine, and it’s nice to have an urban fantasy protagonist to whom everything does not come easily.

Against:

1. K.A. Stewart does not appear to have had any contact with really good plate armour, if he thinks mail is preferable. There is a reason why plate replaced mail, and that reason is BECAUSE IT WORKS BETTER. Well-fitted plate does not sacrifice much in the way of mobility, and the protection is obviously excellent. Jesse (and Stewart) needs to do some research, or get a better armourer.

2. In some ways, as has been commented before, not much seems to happen in this book in the way of actual action, or indeed in the way of complex plotting. Although it does work well, it’s clearly intended to be the first book in a series. Presumably the next book will have more action and/or complexity.

In conclusion, I enjoyed this book; I will certainly be reading the next book in the series, starting immediately. If you enjoy the Dresden Files, or the Twenty Palaces books, you’ll probably enjoy this.

It’s nice to see an author stepping away from the kick-ass-female-with-no-social-skills stereotype urban fantasy protagonist. The first couple of times, that was new and interesting. Now it’s old and boring. I like Jesse because he’s just an ordinary guy (mostly); he’s got a family, he’s got responsibilities. He worries about what’s going to happen if he gets killed, and he actually talks to his wife (well, some of the time). And she isn’t written as the kind of bitch who makes his job even more difficult by guilt-tripping him – she supports him because ‘someone has to take a stand’ and she recognises that if she says ‘not my husband’ then she’s just as bad, if not worse, than all of the other bystanders who know what needs to be done and choose to do nothing. In a way, she’s just as much of a protagonist as Jesse is; Stewart has written their relationship well. I expect that as the series progresses, we will see more of Mira; she is too well-drawn, and her relationship with Jesse is too close, for her to stay as a background character.

I wonder where Stewart is going to take the series, however. Harry Connolly’s Twenty Place Series, despite being a good series, died due to lack of sales. Personally, I think this may have been because his Evil Beasties did not have enough variety. If you contrast with Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Harry Dresden gets a different kind of Evil Villain in every book – poor old Ray Lilly (Connolly’s protagonist) got a different, worse, variation on the same thing each time. Maybe readers got bored with it. I hope that the same does not happen to K.A. Stewart; however good a concept is, if it’s basically a one-trick pony it will only have a limited shelf-life.

But hey, no need to worry yet. Even if it is only a one-trick pony, the trick is still pretty entertaining. I think I’ll go and start reading Book 2 (A Shot in the Dark).

Oath of Swords, by David Weber

Oath of Swords

Oath of Swords, by David Weber

David Weber is famous for his Honor Harrington science fiction/space opera series, and not every author can do fantasy and sci fi successfully.

David Weber, however, most certainly can.

If you are expecting something like Honor Harrington, but with more swords (OK, not that many more swords) but fewer spaceships, forget it. Oath of Swords is something else entirely. This is a funny, observant romp of a traditional swords-and-sorcery fantasy novel.

In Weber’s fantasy world, there are five ‘races of man’ – humans, dwarves, elves, halflings and hradani. The hradani are a kind of orc-equivalent – large and violent – and Our Hero, Bahzell, is one of them. This immediately marks the book off from other fantasy novels as the hero is not straight vanilla human, and he’s from a race that’s traditionally the Bad Guys in fantasy. In fact, since Bahzell’s world is several hundred years after a fairly apocalyptic mage war in which the hradani fought on the wrong side, hradani are seen as the Bad Guys by everyone who isn’t a hradani in this book too. The lingering prejudice against hradani is a running theme in the book.

Bahzell, being the son of the ruler of one of the hradani city-states, is a sort of envoy crossed with hostage at the court of another hradani prince. He interferes in some local nastiness which results in him having to flee (with the female victim) for his life. His local friend, Brandark, goes with him ‘to keep him out of trouble’.

The rest of the book is the chronicle of Bahzell and Brandark’s amusingly ill-fated journey across the continent, dealing with evildoers, rescuing maidens in distress, and confronting unwanted gods. Unwanted by Bahzell, anyway. There are plenty of running jokes throughout the book, and Weber takes the opportunity to play with as many well-known fantasy tropes as he can conveniently handle, either playing them straight or twisting them into interesting pretzel shapes. But behind the humour, you do get some sense of what it’s like to be an orc in Lord of the Rings – you get pressganged by the Dark Lord, you get magically changed into something else, and then the so-called Good Guys put all the blame on you for it, and keep blaming you (and your descendents) for the next several hundred years. Not that you’ve got much time for self-pity in amongst trying to put your shattered society and culture back together.

Although this is quite definitely ‘light fantasy’, it has enough depth to be interesting and Weber has written characters that you like (or like to hate) so you want to read on in order to find out what happens to them, and what scrape Bahzell (and Brandark) is going to get into next. It’s good clean fun, and I’ve read it more times than I like to admit.