Audiobook narration: the good, the bad, and the ugly?

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I’m a relative latecomer to audiobooks, and I’ve only recently started listening to books that I haven’t already read in print. To be honest, print is still my favourite medium – I find print is more immersive and things ‘stick’ better (plus, even with narration at 1.5x speed, print reading is faster). Still, I’m doing a lot more commuting now, so it’s nice to be able to ‘read’ while I drive without crashing into anything.

I’ve found that the narrator of an audiobook really makes a difference to the experience. There are, of course, the technical aspects of whether the narrator is clear enough that you understand what they’re saying, and whether – if the book calls for it – they can ‘do the voices’. I am in awe of people who can do voices; I simply can’t. I’ve tried, and failed – it’s probably a good thing I don’t have kids, as I’d be a hopeless bedtime story reader.

But beyond the technical aspects, The narrator doesn’t just relate the story – he or she puts their own personal spin on every word, whether they mean to or not.

There are narrators who just turn you off straight away; I’ve listened to clips of some audiobooks and decided that I couldn’t stand to listen to that voice for seconds, let alone hours. Some narrators work well for some types of story but not others. Grover Gardner, who narrates Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan books, fits the humorous, sardonic tone of the books brilliantly. But for me, he didn’t suit the style of her Penric and Desdemona books nearly as well; I listened to Penric’s Demon after reading it, and found that Gardner’s narration deprived the climax of most of its emotion.

And then there are the narrators whose choices regarding tone and emphasis when reading dialogue make a major difference to how the reader experiences the story. I’ve listened most of the In Death books written by J.D. Robb and narrated by Susan Ericksen. In general, I like Ericksen’s narration – but the way she reads the main character’s love interest makes a big difference to how I see him. I read him in text as having more of a sense of humour than Ericksen gives him – so when I read him, he’s a bit of an arrogant ass, but redeemed by not taking himself too seriously. When Ericksen reads him, he comes across to me as an arrogant, controlling, borderline emotionally abusive asshole. It makes quite a bit difference to how the dynamic between the characters feels.

On the other hand, I’ve just finished listening to Kings of the Wyld, written by Nicholas Eames and read by Jeff Harding. I think it’s the first audiobook I’ve listened to where I’ve deliberately not read any of it in text because I preferred the narrator’s interpretation of the characters to mine. In fact, at one point I decided to read in text (since I was at home) but after a few lines, gave up and went back to audio because Jeff Harding’s narration was just that good.

So narration can go either way – have you listened to any books where the narrator was spectacularly good, or spectacularly bad?

Book Review: Nothing to Hide, by James Oswald

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Nothing to Hide, by James Oswald

★★★

I really, really wanted to love this. James Oswald is one of my favourite authors, and although I didn’t enjoy the first Con Fairchild book as much as his Inspector McLean series, I hoped that this second Con Fairchild book would be different.

It wasn’t, only more so.

I shall therefore attempt to unpack why this is a three-star review for a book by someone I consider to be a five-star author.

Characters

Con Fairchild, the main character, is from a rich aristocratic family: she’s actually Lady Constance Fairchild – although her father’s title hasn’t been mentioned. She is also a detective constable in the Metropolitan Police; in the last book, she was instrumental in breaking up a ring of corrupt police in her own unit. Now she’s suspended from duty and pretty much all her colleagues dislike her. This dislike is supposed to be because of what she did, but to be honest, the way she’s written, it comes across far more as if Con Fairchild is the kind of colleague whom, while you wouldn’t wish them to die in a fire, if you heard they’d been involved in a tragic accident you wouldn’t lose much sleep over it.

Con Fairchild is supposed to be a strong, independent woman, a maverick who goes her own way. To me, she comes across as a spoilt, entitled little rich girl playing at being ‘one of the people’ to annoy her family. She goes her own way not because she’s committed to the goal, but because she thinks the rules don’t apply to her. However, when things get difficult, she doesn’t hesitate to rely on the resources of her rich family – whether that’s contacts, money, or property. Despite being 30 years old, she also comes across as rather immature: possibly because so much of what she does is directed against her family, and partly due to her admitted lack of desire for responsibility. Once again, it’s that entitled-rich-girl vibe: she knows her family has enough money that she doesn’t need to work, and even if she’s abandoned (or so she pretends to herself) them, they haven’t abandoned her. So she doesn’t need to take responsibility, doesn’t need to think about her career. It’s all a game to her, and she can give it up if she wants with no real consequences. The family will always be there to catch her when she falls.

Con also sees misogynism and sexual harassment wherever she goes. Despite the fact that she’s not written to be particularly beautiful or sexy, nearly every man she encounters is apparently objectifying her or making a pass at her, or about to attempt to attack her – even random blokes she sits opposite on public transport. To be honest, Con Fairchild is the kind of person who’d be a nightmare to work with. She seems to treat most of her colleagues as if they’re rather unsavoury lower life forms, and automatically assumes that if a man so much as makes eye contact, he’s got sex on his mind. Then she wonders why they don’t like her…

Other characters don’t really get much page-time. PC Karen Eve is back, and I expect she will be a fixture in the series. To honest, I think that will be a good thing – part of the reason Con seems so self-absorbed, I think, is because she doesn’t have a sidekick/friend. Not only does having a friend to relax with make a character seem less uptight, but it also performs the valuable narrative function of allowing the main character to discuss her ideas. Con doesn’t, at present, have that, which probably contributes to her seeming stand-offish.

There are also hints that other characters will become more important – Superintendent Diane Shepherd and DCI Ed Bain (a side note – I wonder if Oswald has read the Dan Shephard and Ed McBain books?) are promising, although in this book they only flitted on and off the page.

Plot

To be honest, I could live with Con’s tiresomeness (thankfully can shut the book and not have to deal with her) if the plot had been as exciting/dark/weird as Oswald’s McLean books. Unfortunately, Con is not in McLean’s league in any respect. She doesn’t appear to be much of an investigator – she spends much of the book wandering around aimlessly, occasionally stumbling into a clue. She also goes to a family wedding and two funerals, and stays with family friends. At no point did she seem to really care about the murders she was allegedly investigating (or indeed about her job).

The plot… lacked. I kept waiting for Con to start acting instead of reacting, or actually investigating – about the most investigative thing she did was to watch some CCTV footage. Even the grand finale isn’t due to anything she did, but due to her wandering aimlessly and then having the narrative equivalent of a piano fall on her head.

When Con does stumble across a clue, she often doesn’t follow it up – on several occasions, she notices something important, and I expected that the next scene would show her investigating further – but she never did.

Setting

Mostly this is set in London, although you can’t really tell. It’s obvious that for Oswald, Scotland is where his heart lives; London is just somewhere on the map. If you’re paying attention, you can tell the difference in the narrative: London gets just enough description so you know the action isn’t taking place in a black room, like a minimalist play with no scenery. However, when the action shifts to Edinburgh, you get a breeze blowing across the Firth of Forth and ‘traditionally Scottish ornate cornicework’.

Conclusion

The fact that I finished this book at all, and until near the end was contemplating giving it four stars is a testament to Oswald’s skill as a writer. I don’t like Con Fairchild, but the story kept me going until close to the end – it was only then, and when I sat down to think about what I’d read, that the weaknesses became apparent.

If you’ve never read any of Oswald’s books before, this is not a good place to start – not only is this not the first in the series (although it will stand alone) but the McLean books are a much better display of the author’s talent.

Will I carry on? I honestly don’t know. I hope that this series gets better; I wonder if some of the weaknesses come from the difficulty inherent in trying to write a police procedural when the main character isn’t on active duty for most of the book, especially with a main character who seems to have no friends to interact with.

In short, I think Con Fairchild could learn a lot from Tony McLean!

Flying High

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Flying Solo

A couple of years ago, I posted about having a trial flight in a microlight. I haven’t posted about flying since, so you might have got the impression that no flying happened.

This is not the case.

One reason why I haven’t got much writing done is because I’ve been too busy flying. One flight in a flexwing microlight was enough for me to get the bug, and this week, my National Private Pilot Licence (Microlight) arrived in the post from the Civil Aviation Authority.

To be honest, it has not been an easy couple of years. As my instructor delicately put it, I am “not a natural pilot”. Being afraid of heights also doesn’t help, when you’re sitting on (rather than in) a very small aircraft with only a lap belt to stop you experiencing gravity in a very personal way!

I’ve kept quiet on this blog about learning to fly because a) there are plenty of people blogging about learning to fly, and b) they all seemed to be much better at it and having a lot more fun than me. It’s the sort of thing you talk about in public when – despite how difficult it might seem – you don’t doubt that you’ll finally make it.

I had doubts all the way. Right up until the end, I wasn’t sure I would ever get my licence. At no time did I ever think, Yes, I can do this. When you think there’s a distinct chance you might have to slink away with your tail between your legs, you don’t post about it on the internet.

So why did I do it? Given all the tears and snot and terror (I discovered that yes, when terrified enough, I do scream), why persevere with something that is not only expensive and potentially dangerous but I wasn’t very good at?

There is only one answer: it’s an addiction.

There is something about flying in a flexwing microlight that isn’t like anything else I’ve ever experienced – it’s certainly nothing like flying in an ordinary aircraft, even a very small one. You’re far more ‘connected’ to the air – you can feel everything through the steering bar and across your body. When you surf across a cumulus cloud for the first time, it’s an experience that you never forget.

Through all the worst bits, when I never thought I would get through, one tiny part of my mind kept asking, Could you bear never to fly a flexwing again? And the answer was always, No.

Book Review: Hell of a Bite

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Hell of a Bite, by Mark Huntley-James

This is the third in Huntley-James’ Demon Trader series, and as such, is not the place to start. When experiencing the acid-trip insanity of Huntley-James’ writing, it’s best to start at the beginning so that you can be sure that, yes indeed, it’s not you, it’s him.

So start with Hell Of A Deal.

This series is not for the faint of heart or the prudish, but by the time you get to Book 3, people who can’t take the heat should have got out of the kitchen. Hell of a Bite continues the tale of the troubles of Paul Moore, ex-demon-trader, who would rather like a quiet life but probably isn’t going to get it. This time, someone has come up with a plan for a vampire theme park; Paul is sure there’s going to be something wrong with the idea, but he doesn’t know what…

As usual, it starts with “can you just” and rapidly spirals out of control. Huntley-James writes with verve, humour, and a complete disregard for good taste – which you should be used to by now if you’ve read the first two books in the series. Hell of a Bite is a worthy entry, and it’s noticeable that Huntley-James is making efficient use of his characters – Mickey Twitch (awful, but not quite awful enough to kill) is back, and so are the Nimmers, who have gradually changed from being generic thugs to being much more interesting and fun (and they remind me a lot of some people I know). I do like the Nimmers. 🙂

As usual, you shouldn’t expect deep and complex character development, or a complicated plot worthy of an evil genius (not in a book with Mickey Twitch in it) but you should expect a rollercoaster ride of the special kind of crazy that lives in Huntley-James’ head. If you enjoyed the previous two, you’ll enjoy this one as well – and it’s the perfect antidote to a bad day, because however bad your day was, Paul Moore’s is worse!

Book Review: Tempests and Slaughter

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Cover of "Tempests and Slaughter" by Tamora Pierce

Tempests and Slaughter by Tamora Pierce

Star rating: ★★★★

Usually, I avoid YA fiction like the plague; I’m too old and too cynical for the amount of angst that sloshes around. Tamora Pierce is one of the few exceptions. I still remember buying Alanna: The First Adventure second-hand from a market stall when I was a kid, leading to hunting for all the others – a difficult task, pre-internet. I’ve read her stuff multiple times since then and will probably continue to do so. I was therefore very happy when this one – the first new one in a while – came out.

And I read it in one sitting.

Pierce wrote Tempests and Slaughter to fill in the blanks of Numair Salmalin’s background – a character introduced in the book Wild Magic. Numair is a powerful mage, working for the government of Tortall after fleeing Carthak to avoid the wrath of the Emperor Ozorne – a plot point which becomes important later on in the Immortals quartet of books, when the action moves to Carthak (in Emperor Mage)Tempests and Slaughter is about Numair’s – when he was still Arram Draper – early years at Carthak University.

Since Pierce is very well able to write an adventure story in a ‘school’ setting – which she did well twice with protagonists Alanna (Alanna: The First Adventure) and Keladry (First Test, the first of the Protector of the Small quartet) I was expecting something of the same with Tempests and Slaughter.

I didn’t quite get it.

Tempests and Slaughter started with a lot of telling rather than showing; Arram is already a student at the University (at the age of ten) when the story opens, so there is a certain amount of catching up to do, involving rather a lot of exposition. The amount of telling reduces as the book progresses, but I never felt there was quite the close focus on events that there is in Alanna or First Test. This might be because Tempests suffers, I think, from a lack of actual plot.

In Alanna, although the book is the tale of Alanna’s four years as a page (disguised as a boy) in Tortall’s palace, it very much moves towards the climax of the book – the final fight scene where the immediate enemy is vanquished and the villain for the next book (In the Hand of the Goddess) is revealed. In First Test, the book chronicles Keladry’s first year as a page at the same palace – but she is the first openly female page, and is put under probation for a year. The ‘villain’ of the book is the training master who opposes girls being trained to fight – the climax is when Keladry finally proves her ability, and he has to admit that he has no grounds for preventing her carrying on with her training as a page.

Unlike Alanna and First Test, Tempests has no discrete story arc of its own. The trilogy as a whole tells the story of Arram’s relationship with the future Emperor Ozorne, from friendship to enmity, but that is not obvious during Tempests: Arram and Ozorne begin the book as friends (or at least, they meet and become friends shortly after the start of the book) and they are still friends at the end. There are hints that some plot is in motion, but nothing is resolved by the end of the book. A person who isn’t already invested in the characters and the world is likely to be left thinking, “What was the point of all that?” Yes, it’s a nice story about three young people at a magic school – but where’s the villain? Where’s the danger? Where’s the story?

I think Tempests suffers from being a book that only exists to tell people how a character got to be where he was in another – previously published – book. And although the final result is going to be a big confrontation with attendant danger and excitement, what Tempests is doing is pure setup. In a way, Tempests is not a story itself – it’s one-third of a story.

Of course, it’s usual for a trilogy to have an overarching plot which only pays off at the end of the last book, but it’s also usual for each book to have its own storyline that comes to some sort of climax and conclusion at the end of each book – as Pierce did with her previous duologies/trilogies/quartets. Each of her previous novels has functioned very well as a standalone story – except Tempests. It makes me wonder why not.

Character-wise, you can see how the three main characters ended up where they did in Emperor Mage. I liked Varice more than I expected to, and I hope she gets developed more in Book 2. When we see Varice in Emperor Mage, she doesn’t show to particular advantage (although that might be due to point of view), and it was interesting to see how Pierce has written people’s attitude to Varice – she isn’t taken seriously not because she is female (there are plenty of powerful female characters) but because her magic is dismissed as ‘kitchen witchery’ and therefore less important/powerful. After reading Tempest and Slaughter, the one character I’d like to see more of is Varice. This book makes me wonder what she did after the events of Emperor Mage

Ozorne was less interesting, as we pretty much knew what was going to happen with him, and we know where he’s going to go. However, Pierce seems to be managing the move from Ozorne as he is at the beginning of Tempests and Slaughter to where he is when we meet him in Emperor Mage. We know what has to happen, of course, but it’s not an easy character development to write convincingly.

In some ways, Arram/Numair was the least interesting in the way of character development – he’s a nice kid, and he stays a nice kid throughout the book. To some extent, Varice and Ozorne both have more to put up with than Arram in this book – Varice with the mild disdain she endures from others, and Ozorne with the changes in his status – so they change more. Arram has no real challenges, and he’s also younger than the other two and a bit of a follower – I suspect that the real development will come in Book 2, as he has to make difficult choices.

So, to conclude: this is a book for existing fans who have already read at least The Immortals Quartet (starting with Wild Magic) and want to know how Arram Draper became Numair Salmalin. As a story, it relies on the reader’s interest in the characters rather than plot – and a lesser writer than Pierce couldn’t have pulled it off. Four stars for pulling it off!

And the prize for idiocy goes to…

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Me.

I’ve had an Audible subscription for several years, and always struggled to find enough audiobooks to buy. This is because, historically, I’ve been a purely print (ebook) reader. I like to see the words – otherwise they don’t seem quite real. Definitely a visual learner!

So I’ve steered away from audiobooks I didn’t already own in print – I’ve mostly been using my Audible subscription to buy books so that I can ‘re-read’ old favourites while doing household chores. The first time I bought an audiobook I hadn’t already read in print was one in a long-running series, so I already knew all the characters. And that didn’t go too badly. I followed the story quite nicely. 🙂

And I’ve just recently (as in today) realised that… well, I can do that again! Those books that I’m waiting for the Kindle prices to drop so I can justify buying them? Well, I can get the audio versions with my mostly-still-unused subscription!

Wow. Who knew?

Now I’m off to go and listen to some books…

Review: Charming

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Charming
Charming by Elliott James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was looking for something to fill in the wasteland before the next Jim Butcher book, and although Elliott James has a way to go before he reaches Butcher’s standard, I congratulate myself on having made a good decision when I picked this one up.

Characters
John Charming, sort-of-werewolf and definite bartender, is the main character. He’s on the run from the Knights, whose job it is to enforce the Pax Arcana, which is a spell enforced policy of leaving supernatural wotsits alone as long as they keep their heads down. Anyone sticking their head up gets it shot off. Being a werewolf is a career-ending state, and the knights would like it to be a life-ending state.

I liked John. He has a nice, self-deprecating sense of humour, and is tough without being an eye-rolling cliche. James puts him in quite a few situations, ranging from the embarrassing to the dangerous, and I enjoyed the way John reacted. Especially to the embarrassing ones. The man actually thinks with his brain rather than his… other parts. In some ways, that’s a pretty courageous decision on the part of the author; it means James actually has to put actual plot in place instead of just have the MC commit hormone-fuelled stupidity to move things along.

Sig, female, is the secondary character. I really liked Sig. If it’s rare to have a male MC who doesn’t commit testosterone-fulled stupidity, it’s even rarer to have a female character who manages to keep her brain operating all the way through the book and doesn’t fall over backwards as soon as a hot guy shows up. There was a lot to like about Sig: she’s intelligent, tough, and a leader.

There are other characters – Molly the episcopalian priest, Choo the exterminator and Man With Van, plus others – who all have their own personalities, backgrounds, and motivations. I seriously hope that James is building a team for keeps here, because I want to hear more about these people. It’s also noteworthy that the MC doesn’t immediately take over and start being better than every other character at what they do. The dynamics between all the characters felt reasonably realistic as a team.

The Plot
Was not terribly complicated. This is where James has a way to go before he reaches Jim Butcher’s standards. Still, it kept moving, and it kept me interested. The pacing suffered somewhat from a lot of exposition in the early stages, but picked up after that. I would recommend, if you’re a bit ambivalent about the first bits, that you carry on reading at least a third of the way through.

The World
James has some interesting ideas, and doesn’t just follow the usual urban fantasy tropes. It’s not as dark as The Dresden Files, but it’s not rainbows and unicorns either.

The Bad Bits
There honestly weren’t many. I could definitely have done without the heavy slugs of exposition, but hey, it’s the first book in the series, and I survived. Hopefully, he won’t see the need in future books.

And on the very, very last page, he did an irritating thing that actually appears on a couple of ‘reader pet peeve’ lists I’ve seen. But it was only one page and though it scraped across my mind like fingers across a blackboard, I survived that too.

The Verdict
This book didn’t exactly knock my socks off (four out of five stars, but only just), but it’s joined my list of good urban fantasy that I’m going to carry on with. Given the style of the book as a whole, I’m expecting that further books will improve as there is less need for exposition, and more room for plot.

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Review: The Death of the Necromancer

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The Death of the Necromancer
The Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read this years ago – maybe when it first came out. It’s one that’s stuck with me, and when I saw the Kindle version on sale, I snapped it up.

I’m glad I did.

Some books, when you read them a second time, years later, have lost their lustre. This is not one of those books; I enjoyed it just as much as I did the first time round.

So, what did I enjoy?

The Characters
All the characters are just a bit larger than life – the gentleman-thief, the actress, the sorcerer, the great detective, and so on – but not so much so that it disturbed the enjoyment of the story. They felt real – they lost their tempers, sniped at each other, and made mistakes.

The Plot
There’s an awful lot of running around, and a fair number of corpses. To be fair, I think the actual plot was the weakest point of the story, because there were a few holes in it, and things just got wrapped up a bit too neatly and too quickly at the end, but…

The Setting
I think this probably the main reason why Death of the Necromancer stayed with me for so many years. Wells writes the city of Ile-Rien vividly enough that I could see the dark, foggy streets in my head. It had weight and depth – it felt real.

Conclusion
Thinking on, this is the book by which I measure all other gaslight fantasy.

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Review: The Gate of Sorrows

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The Gate of Sorrows
The Gate of Sorrows by Miyuki Miyabe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is definitely Young Adult fiction – but it has a distinct lack of romance (let alone a love triangle featuring the protagonist) and a refreshingly low angst quotient. And at 600 pages or so, it’s about twice as long as your typical YA novel. I found myself wondering whether this book was unusual, or whether that’s just the way Japanese YA writers write. If the latter, Japanese Young Adults are very fortunate.

The Translation
I found the translation pretty good: there was only one instance in which an obviously wrong word was used (people don’t ‘audit’ a lecture unless they’re doing some kind of quality control, despite the fact that the root of ‘audit’ means ‘to listen’). Furthermore, the translation seemed to me to have kept the ‘Japaneseness’ of the setting and the people.

The Characters
Once again, this story is different from the general run because our hero (Kotaro) is just an ordinary 19-year-old student who gets involved in paranormal goings on. He’s not some kind of superhuman ‘chosen’, and he doesn’t have amazing powers. Nor is he the only one who can save the world. This means that the scope of the story is somewhat smaller, but it’s more realistic. Kotaro is dealing with issues that ordinary people deal with – although most people don’t get the paranormal angle.

Another interesting difference between this and many other YA books is that in this one, the adults aren’t all stupid and/or oblivious. People are people: they have their own concerns; they make decisions – good and bad; they live with the consequences. Kotaro is the main character, but he moves in a web of associations – friends, family, colleagues. It all felt refreshingly normal.

The Plot
There were at least two intertwining plot strands – the murders, and the school troubles of Kotaro’s younger sister’s friend. Both of these were very much in service to the book’s overall message: the power of words and communication, for good or for evil. There were definitely times that the author seemed to be speaking directly to the reader – which is one reason this is definitely pegged as Young Adult, in addition to the age and situation of the protagonist. That said, the author did put together an interesting plot – and I found that the pace definitely picked up in the last 25% of the book, as things start to come together. This is a long, slow read – but rewarding.

The Conclusion
Definitely a Young Adult book, rather than ‘adult’ as it’s labelled on Goodreads. However, refreshingly free from angst, and rather more thoughtful and less dramatic than most.

Am I glad I read it? Yes, definitely – although YA isn’t a genre I enjoy as a rule. Would I read anything by this author again? Yes, if I can find an adult book translated into English.

Definitely several hours well-spent. 🙂

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Review: A Discovery of Witches

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A Discovery of Witches
A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You can definitely tell that this book was written by a historian – and an academic at that. Not only are there lots of bits of history in it, but the author’s love of learning, of acquiring knowledge, shines through. Not simply because Protagonist 1 (Diana) is an academic, and a historian of science at that (just like the author!), but Protagonist 2 (Matthew) is a centuries-old vampire. Interestingly, the author doesn’t chart his long life in terms of money, or power, or sex, but in terms of scholars known and books read and/or acquired. Similarly, Diana’s reaction to old manuscripts is entirely believable.

Many people don’t seem to like the amount of detail in this book – myself, I loved it. I loved the way Diana and Matthew discuss history, alchemy, genetics, the eating habits of wolves… It was a real treat to read two protagonists who are highly intelligent, very well-educated, and have an insatiable desire to learn.

The plot – well, there are two. The love story between Diana and Matthew, and whatever is going on with Ashmole 782. The first got rather more advancement than the second – I expect Books 2 and 3 will have more about the mysterious manuscript. If you are looking for a fast-paced plot with lots of excitement, this book is not for you. This is a slow-burn sort of book, and I expect the story will play out with a lot of finding of information, and putting together of puzzles, rather than explosions and car chases.

Urban fantasy done with academics.

I love it. 🙂

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