The Black Sun’s Daughter #4: Killing Rites

I will keep quiet, you won’t even know I’m here; you won’t suspect a thing, you won’t see me in the mirror. But I’ve crept into your heart, you can’t make me disappear… at least, not without some Killing Rites, by M.L.N. Hanover.

Synopsis:

Jayné Heller has discovered the source of her uncanny powers: something else is living inside her body. She’s possessed. Of all her companions, she can only bring herself to confide in Ex, the former priest. They seek help from his old teacher and the circle of friends he left behind, hoping to cleanse Jayné before the parasite in her becomes too powerful.

Ex’s history and a new enemy combine to leave Jayné alone and on the run. Her friends, thinking that the rider with her has taken the reins, try to hunt her down, unaware of the danger they’re putting her in. Jayné must defeat the weight of the past and the murderous intent of another rider, and her only allies are a rogue vampire she once helped free and the nameless thing hiding inside her skin.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Damn, this one kicked ass.

So, from the very first book, it’s been kind of obvious to us, the readers, that Jayné is possessed by a rider – titling the series The Black Sun’s Daughter kind of tipped the hand on that one. However, it is only now that Jayné herself is forced to face that fact herself, to come to terms with the Black Sun inside of her. And it is wonderful.

Of course, Jayné’s first thought is not to deal with Sonnenrad on equal terms, but to treat it as a squatter to be evicted just like any of the other riders she’s faced. So, naturally enough, she goes to get an exorcism. And that’s where this book really won me over, by flipping the traditional script upside-down. You see, I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable about books and movies and so on with exorcist heroes. The protagonists are always cast as righteous heroes fighting absolute evil; but I can’t help seeing that there is another side to them, a dangerous zealotry. The Exorcism of Emily Rose, for instance, is based on a real-world incident where priests basically murdered a mentally ill girl; and so it makes me uncomfortable that there’s a movie casting them as heroes for doing it. But this book is willing to jump head-on into the darkness: the exorcism going wrong, the priests imprisoning and torturing Jayné in the sincere belief that they’re doing it for her own good; and Jayné, deciding that Sonnenrad is actually the lesser evil, is finally forced to reconcile with her dark passenger.

What else is great about this book? Midian Clark, the affable vampire who helped Jayné against Coin and the Invisible College, shows up again. Oh, I was waiting for this – he was just too great a character to ride off into the sunset at the end of the first book and never be seen again. Midian provides the perfect counterpoint to the priests condemning Jayné as unclean: someone in a moral position to look up to her rather than down, to acknowledge and accept the darkness within her and yet also praise her very real virtues. Plus, someone to give a rider’s point of view on the world, explaining what the experience is like from the other side.

And what else is great about this book? Dolores, the inevitable girl sidekick. I have mentioned, have I not, that it is a law of urban fantasy novels that the badass female protagonist will end up adopting an adorable orphan girl as a surrogate daughter in order to show off her feminine and motherly side? I really need to coin a catchy term for it, like “Ellen Ripley Syndrome” or something. Well, Jayné can’t permanently adopt Dolores, because she isn’t actually an orphan – she just can’t go home for a while due to her sister being demonically possessed – but they certainly have that dynamic. And, even though their time together is brief, it nevertheless manages to be meaningful, as Jayné struggles to strike a balance in helping Dolores recover from the trauma of possession: on the one hand, she wants Dolores to feel strong and empowered rather than like a victim; but on the other, she can’t push too much responsibility or weighty decisions onto a young child.

And, while I’m talking about everything great about this book, might as well throw it out there: awesome climactic battle sequence, when the hundreds of Akaname the priests have unwittingly spread among those they’ve tried to help converge on the heroes for a dramatic final showdown. “I’m the hammer now, bitch!” indeed.

The Black Sun’s Daughter series is the best it’s ever been – and the climax is still to come. Can the final installment maintain this level of quality? Tune in to my review of the last volume, coming shortly, to find out.

Final Rating: 5/5

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Wild Cards #9: Jokertown Shuffle

Cut the deck, because it’s time to deal up a new hand of Wild Cards. Lets start dealing with Jokertown Shuffle, edited by George R. R. Martin.

Synopsis:

Bloat, the boy governor of the Rox, had dreams as big as his monstrous body. He wanted to make Ellis Island a safe haven for his people, a Joker homeland. To survive Bloat needed the Jumpers, adolescent outcasts who could steal a man’s body in the blink of an eye. He needed their money to feed the Rox. Even more, he needed their terrifying powers to stave off the vengeance of a frightened world.

But the Jumpers grew more vicious and uncontrollable every day, under the leadership of Dr. Tahcyon’s psychopathic grandson.

The greatest threat the Wild Cards have ever faced continued in this series.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Looking at the structure of Jokertown Shuffle, I would divide the plot into two major threads and four minor ones. The first major thread deals with Bloat, Governor of the Rox, trying to turn his island into a refuge from Jokers. Though he’s kind of positioned as an antagonist within the Wild Cards universe as a whole, these sections from his POV make him far too sympathetic to be regarded as a true villain. His intentions are noble, and his struggle to become a protector and a leader when he is in many ways powerless – unable to move his body, unable to provide enough food or space to the refugees flocking to the Rox, unable to get the Jumpers to obey him – is an extremely compelling one. The climax of the book, where Bloat finally is able to express the full power of his Wild Card ability to bring his visions of Heironymous Bosch’s demons to life and massacre the military force assaulting the Rox, is horrible and violent, yes, but also cathartic. Even though the ending is supposed to come off as ominous, with Bloat embracing his violent desires and preparing to wage war against the rest of the world, it feels triumphant. Though maybe that’s just my tendency to take a liking to villains shining through – I’m the guy who’s favorite character is Demise, after all.

The second major thread is about the ordeal of Dr. Tachyon as he is imprisoned and tortured by Blaise. And… what can one even really say about this plotline? Frankly, I find it unpleasant to read. Which is not necessarily to say that it shouldn’t have been written – I’m of the opinion that even extremely explicit torture scenes are not inherently gratuitous, that they can serve a useful and even necessary role in a story’s plot if properly executed; and I even greatly enjoy a number of works which feature revoltingly graphic descriptions of torture. It’s just… wow is it hard to talk about. …I’m just going to let this part lie.

The first of the minor threads is a conclusion to the long-running feud between Yeoman and Kien. Those two have been going after each other since the very first Wild Cards book, so it really is about time that it came to an end. It probably seemed like a good idea in the beginning – a Hawkeye or Green Arrow type character, someone who was good enough to hang with superheroes despite not having superpowers himself; and another Nat as his arch-nemesis – but I never found the story all that compelling. When super-beings are battling for the fate of the world, this little conflict between a local crime boss and a guy with a bow and arrow just doesn’t seem to amount to much. But still, even as I’m grateful that this excessively long plotline has finally been concluded, I have to say that the actual execution made it extremely anticlimactic. Some powerful Ace, who we’ve never seen before and will never see again, just pops in and uses her power to kill Kien like it’s nothing. While it’s supposed to bring closure to Yeoman’s story, it just ends up making Yeoman look like a hapless dope. He’s spent all these years struggling his utmost to take down Kien, never quite managing it, and then this completely minor character handles it in literal seconds with a mere wave of the hand. It kind of makes one think that Yeoman could have avoided years of strife and turmoil if, instead picking up his bow and deciding to put an end to Kien himself, he’d just asked someone with actual superpowers to do it for him. The times Yeoman worked as a character were when he was the underdog, facing super-powered opponents with nothing but his natural wit and skills. Being unable to handle a merely human opponent and having to get an Ace do the job for him… is pretty much the opposite of that.

Then there’s Cap’n Trips and K.C. Strange teaming up to rescue Sprout. If you recall, my major complaint about the Jumpers is that they lack any unique characterization; they’re all flat, interchangeable, two-dimensional villains. This plotline finally does something to rectify that by putting some actual focus on K.C. Strange and giving her a distinguishing personality – she’s no long just some random Jumper who could be switched out with Zelda or Molly Bolt or any of the many nameless ones without anyone noticing the difference, but a distinct person I’m able to form an attachment to. So, naturally, she immediately gets killed off. Naturally. Wouldn’t want any of our antagonists to be, you know, interesting.

The third minor thread concerns Veronica and Mr. Nobody. Veronica, if you recall, vowed vengeance against the Jumpers when her girlfriend, Heather, was killed in the first Jumper attack, and conveniently turned the latent card she’d gotten during the Typhoid Croyd epidemic to gain an Ace power. Well, now we get to see her in action… and it turns out she’s completely incompetent, capable of accomplishing nothing. First she learns that she’s actually been unknowingly working for Loophole, aka Jumper Prime, and is nearly killed by his bodyguard Zelda before Mr. Nobody rescues her; then, she has the opportunity to kill Loophole, but can’t go through with it, once again requiring Mr. Nobody to step up to the plate and get shit done. Veronica: the militant feminist who can’t accomplish anything unless a man does it for her. It’s so ironic that I almost wonder if it was meant to be satire; but honestly, bad writing seems more likely. Well, at least we get the cool scene of Mr. Nobody using his shapeshifting power to egg-beater Loophole’s brain.

Finally, the fourth thread deals with Shad, the man of many aliases: Black Shadow, Wall Walker, and Mr. Gravemold, to name a few. He takes part in several plot events, most notably rescuing Dr. Tachyon from the Rox, but there’s also a very strange interlude where Chalktalk transports him to an alternate world where samba music is illegal. It’s so weird and unconnected to anything else that’s going on; I have no idea what the point of that little diversion was.

Anyway, Jokertown Shuffle has a bunch of good stuff and a bunch of not-so-good stuff going on, and it all balances out at about average.

Final Rating: 3/5

Blood Singer #4: The Isis Collar

Uhhh… about the title. Funny, isn’t it, how new events can change the connotations of old words. In any case, the Isis referred to in the title is the Egyptian goddess, not the terrorist organization. Though the book does happen to be about terrorist attacks by religious extremists… You know what, forget it, let’s just get to reviewing The Isis Collar, by Cat Adams.

Synopsis:

Celia Graves was once an ordinary human, but those days are long gone. Now she strives to maintain her sanity and her soul while juggling both vampire abilities and the powers of a Siren.

Warned of a magical “bomb” at a local elementary school, Celia forces an evacuation. Oddly, the explosion seems to have no effect, puzzling both Celia and the FBI. Two weeks later, a strangely persistent bruise on Celia’s leg turns out to be the first sign of a magical zombie plague.

Finding the source of the plague isn’t Celia’s only concern. Her alcoholic mother has broken out of prison on the Sirens’ island; her little sister’s ghost has possessed a young girl; and one of Celia’s boyfriends, a powerful mage, has disappeared.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Just what trouble has Celia Graves gotten herself into this time? Well, she’s had the misfortune to stumble into the middle of a massive terror attack using a magical bio-weapon; a zombie plague that has been unleashed on schools across the country. With the lives of countless children at stake, only Celia can unravel the conspiracy and expose the perpetrator! …But, unfortunately, the truth turns out to be, well, kind of stupid. See, the terrorists were actually given the bio-weapon by a pharmaceutical company looking to make money by selling the cure. Yep. That’s not just stupid, that’s made-for-TV movie stupid; in fact, I’m pretty sure I once saw a really shitty one with that exact plot. Robert Ludlum’s Covert One: The Hades Factor, or some bullshit like that.

What about the titular Isis Collar? Well, it’s a powerful magic artifact owned by the villain behind the terrorism; but she seems to be using it for a second, completely unrelated evil scheme at the same time. Even as she’s doing this bioterrorism thing to earn lots of money on selling the cure, she’s also using the Isis Collar to steal magic power from other mages and add it to her own. Some villains want money, some want power; I guess this one wants both and is too impatient to go after them one at a time?

And just for a bonus: literal deus ex machina ending. Because a third-rate villainous plot deserves a third-rate resolution.

Well, at least I can say that the running subplots are interesting. Celia is still having major family issues with her alcoholic mother and enabling grandmother. Ivy’s ghost is possessing a young spirit medium, which isn’t really psychologically healthy for either of them. And desperate circumstances force Celia to promise a favor to a mysterious spirit entity. All good and interesting stuff. There’s also a continuing love-triangle subplot with Celia, Bruno, and Creede, but I can’t say I care about that. It’s dragged on for so long that I’ve completely lost interest.

You know what does interest me? The introduction of an FBI agent who’s a shapeshifting demon spawn. Now there’s a character I wouldn’t mind reading more about. A member of a species considered inherently evil, going against her nature and striving to good in the world… sounds intriguing, right? But I know better than to actually hope to ever see Indira Matumbo again. My past experiences with Zoe Takano and Dru Cristoffer have taught me not to get my expectations up, because the characters I find the most interesting always turn out to be extremely minor one-shot bit characters.

So, overall, The Isis Collar is a flawed but decent entry in the Blood Singer series.

Final Rating: 3/5

The Westing Game

Millions of dollars. Sixteen people. Only one winner. Let’s try to solve The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin.

Synopsis:

A bizarre chain of events begins when sixteen unlikely people gather for the reading of Samuel W. Westing’s will. And though no one knows why the eccentric, game-loving millionaire has chosen a virtual stranger – and a possible murderer – to inherit his vast fortune, one thing’s for sure: Sam Westing may be dead… but that won’t stop him from playing one last game!

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

What can I possibly say about The Westing Game? Many of the books I’ve reviewed on this blog are obscure genre fiction pieces, but this is an acknowledged classic of children’s literature. It managed to win a Newbery Medal despite not one single dog dying in its pages – quite a distinction, let me tell you.

Well, despite now being considerably older than the book’s intended target audience, I actually did read it once before, back when I was a kid. The only thing I actually remembered about it, though, was the house being blown up by fireworks at the climax. So, when it popped up in my Goodreads recommendations, I decided it would be interesting to go back and give it a re-read.

The set-up of The Westing Game is fairly standard for mysteries of its type. You’ve got the large group of people with no connection to one another (or so they think) gathered together, the puzzling will, the inciting murder (or so they think), the storm which turns the setting into a closed circle. The large cast of quirky characters gives the story a somewhat humorous bent that prevents it from being taken too seriously: rather than following a single major character who methodically works through the clues until they arrive at a conclusion, we jump between the perspectives of all the participants in the Westing game and are permitted to follow their often quite amusingly incorrect reasoning. The number of characters in the cast does mean it gets a bit difficult to keep track of at times, especially because it’s not immediately clear who’s important – we’re told at the start that some have secrets or are hiding their identities, so even apparently minor characters can’t be written off. Normally, I would classify these as flaws: lacking a focal character, ping-ponging between tons of different POV characters, and having a cast so large that it’s difficult to keep track of them all. Mystery novels, however, are meant to test the mental acuity of the readers. Many may read the book, but only a few will have the intelligence and patience to keep track of all the clues and characters, think everything through, and reach the conclusion before the final dramatic unveiling. So, I don’t have any problem with it.

Say… something’s been nagging at me about this story. A mysterious will featuring a wordplay game. Sixteen heirs challenged to a game in order to gain a fortune. A storm which traps them together for a time. Someone bearing lingering guilt over a past death. One person playing multiple roles. The house blowing up at the end. Chess metaphors. All this seems… familiar somehow. Like it’s similar to another work I very much enjoy, though intended for a younger audience and thus far less dark and violent. Now what could I possibly be thinking of?

DlanorAKnox

Oh, hi Dlanor. Don’t know what you’re doing here; this isn’t really an orthodox mystery, in that there isn’t a detective or a culprit…

Okay, I admit it: returning to The Westing Game felt like reading baby’s first edition of Umineko no Naku Koro ni. But hey, that’s fine: Umineko is not just a mystery story, but a meta-analysis of the very nature of the mystery genre, and therefore heavily relies on the stories that have come before it. So, while it pays heaviest homage to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, it’s no surprise that it would also hold similarities to other mystery works. And though this story is of course much shorter and simpler than Ryukishi07’s epic eight-volume masterpiece, you can’t expect people to dive straight into the deep end. Plenty of young folks out there might start out reading books like this, find that they like it, and end up moving on to heavier fare. Just like I did. And, having returned to The Westing Game with my by now far-broader understanding of the mystery genre, I find that it still holds up as a fun and enjoyable read.

So, congratulations to Turtle: bratty little shin-kicker that she is, I liked her character and she was worthy of being the one to win the Westing game. Good on you, young detective.

Final Rating: 5/5

Allie Beckstrom #5: Magic at the Gate

Allie Beckstrom is knock, knock, knockin’ on heaven’s door. Let’s open the gates of the afterlife with Magic at the Gate, by Devon Monk.

Synopsis:

Allie Beckstrom’s lover, Zayvion Jones, is a Guardian of the Gate, imbued with both light and dark magic and responsible for ensuring that those energies don’t mix. But Zayvion lies in a coma, his soul trapped in death’s realm. And when Allie discovers that the only way to save Zayvion is to sacrifice her very own magical essence, she makes a decision that may have grave consequences for the entire world.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

We resume where we left off: her beau Zayvion Jones’s soul having been dragged through a magic portal into the realm of death, Allie Beckstrom makes the brave but impulsive decision to follow and retrieve him. With only her father’s ghost and her faithful gargoyle companion for company, she takes her first step forwards into the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns…

So, do you remember how, in the last book, Allie was the only person acting at all sensibly? Alas, though she was capable of rational thought for a time due to all of the other characters using up the plot’s entire supply of stupidity, the beginning of this book sees the dumbness redistributed, and Allie ends up shackled to a big ole Idiot Ball. She has just jumped through a mysterious portal into the realm of death, which she knows nothing about, but she quickly discovers that it is extraordinarily dangerous – she can’t even breathe the atmosphere without adhering to certain arcane and ambiguous rules. Fortunately, she has her father’s ghost to guide her: someone intimately familiar with the nature and rules of the realm of death, capable of advising her about what she needs to do in order to survive and achieve her goal. So, naturally, she immediately starts doing the opposite of everything he says, just to spite him. He warns her not to draw her magic sword because it will attract monsters? Whip that sucker out! That’ll show him!

If the villains really wanted to defeat Allie, all they’d have to do is say, “Please, Allie, whatever you do, don’t go jump off that cliff.” She’d do it, just to be contrary. And if she happened to survive, they could say, “See what happens when you jump off cliffs? So now you can see that you really shouldn’t go jumping off that higher cliff.” Because she’d then go do that, too, just to really drive the point home.

Seriously, it takes about three nearly-fatal incidents caused by her stubbornly disobeying his advice before Allie’s father decides that he needs to mind-control her for her own good. And while Allie objects furiously to being put under the Influence spell, I’m pretty much on her dad’s side on this one. She literally could not survive unless he kept her on a leash. That goes way beyond being strong-willed and independent and into the realm of willful stupidity.

As you can tell, the first half of the book dug itself into a mighty big hole. And yet, somehow, amazingly, it managed to pull itself back out and manage to become something approaching halfway decent by the end. I know, no one is more shocked than me. I was ready to just completely write it off, and then all these interesting plot points started popping up: something following Allie back through the portal, Veiled using stolen magic disks to become corporeal, Pike’s ghost, a conversation between Allie’s father and Jingo Jingo which laid down a ton more cryptic foreshadowing about the civil war in the Authority (because, while it currently seems that Sedra’s side is good and Mikhail’s side is bad, we don’t have the full story yet and since we’re only halfway through the series it’s obvious that the truth is going to turn out to be way more complicated than it first appeared), the battle over the Winter Well in the graveyard… it was good. Really good, actually. Good enough that this book would have scored my highest rating yet for the Allie Beckstrom series, if not for the painful stupidity on display in the opening. Because, say it with me now: if your book gets really good halfway in, that’s half a book too late.

And you know what? I’m going to go ahead and say it: I think a big reason that I liked the second half of this book so much is because Zayvion Jones spent most of it in a coma. The more I think about Zayvion, the more I realize what a total asshole he is. Back when he was first introduced, I complained about how enigmatic he was – failing to tell Allie about things like the Veiled even when her lack of knowledge resulted in her being placed into dangerous situations unprepared. Later, I moved on to complaining about how arrogant and condescending he was, such as when he told Allie that she was wrong and he was right about Jingo Jingo. (Allie was actually right and he was wrong about Jingo Jingo). And even in this book, most of which he spends in blessed unconsciousness, he manages a dick move: upon awakening from his coma, the very first thing he says to Allie, who spent a week traipsing through the land of death to recover his soul, risking her life to save his, the very first thing he says is: she shouldn’t have tried to save him. That she shouldn’t have tried to be a hero. That she should’ve just gone home like one of them proper wimmin-folk who know that their place is in the kitchen. Okay, I’m exaggerating that last one a little – but only a little.

Zayvion: “You said you wouldn’t be a hero.”
Allie: “Don’t like getting saved by a girl?”
Zayvion: “I told you to go home.”

Magic at the Gate, Chapter 12

Damn, Zayvion really is kind of an asshole, isn’t he? Hey, is it too late to get this series a new love interest? Or, if that’s too much to ask, maybe arrange for Zayvion to spend a lot more time unconscious? …Just asking.

So, in summary: overall strongest story yet from the Allie Beckstrom series, but unfortunately crippled by some real bad opening chapters. Average out the scores I’d give for the individual halves of the books – 2 for the first half, 4 for the second – and the result is, well, average. But this is not the ordinary 3 of common, everyday goodness: it is the compromise 3, the 3 which straddles the tightrope that runs between the peaks of glory and abyss of failure, the 3 which stands proud and alone at the nadir of an inverse bell curve.

Final Rating: 3/5

The Mermaids of Eriana Kwai #2: Ice Crypt

I’m truly glad my own heart is encased in a tomb of ice. I can achieve my goals, don’t stand in my way! Even if I’m surrounded by warmth, I don’t feel a thing; I’m in the dark. But enough about Ryoko Asakura; let’s read about a tomb of ice of a more literal kind with Ice Crypt, by Tiana Warner

Synopsis:

Meela has just returned from the Massacre—the annual attempt to wipe out the mermaids threatening her people’s survival. After forming an unlikely connection with Lysi, a mermaid she was trained to kill, Meela is determined to stop the war between humans and merpeople for good. She knows of a legendary weapon that could bring peace if she uses it against King Adaro, ruler of the Pacific Ocean. But her people have plans for future Massacres and refuse to help her uncover it.

While Meela works in secret to unearth the Host of Eriana, Lysi is held captive under Adaro’s tyranny. Sent to the battlefront, Lysi joins forces with a band of rebels that could either bring her freedom—or have her executed for treason.

Separated by the vast Pacific Ocean, Meela and Lysi must find a way to defeat King Adaro and end the war that has been keeping them apart.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Welcome back to Eriana Kwai, the island besieged by murderous mermaids. Whereas the previous book focused solely on Meela, this one alternates between the perspectives of Meela and Lysi. The two plotlines are almost entirely separate, only intersecting at the end.

Lysi’s plotline, unfortunately, is a perfect example of the problem with the middle books of trilogies: the first book sets up the conflict, the third book resolves the conflict, and the second book merely spins its wheels. In this case, the story revolves around a plan to assassinate Adaro. However, since the narrative has not introduced any other possible candidate for Big Bad, we know that Adaro cannot possibly die until the climax of the third book. Therefore, the assassination plot cannot possibly succeed, and therefore Lysi’s storyline is a complete waste of time.

The other plotline, watching Meela follow the clues to Eriana’s Host, is a little more interesting; in contrast to Lysi, we know that Meela is most likely going to succeed, thus setting up the Host to be a major source of conflict in the final book. Since her efforts aren’t completely meaningless, it’s entertaining enough seeing her puzzle out the truth behind Eriana’s legend and the terrible beast serving as her Host. And what do you know, the Host turns out to be an old friend:

Annith made an indiscernable noise of surprise. Tanuu came to see for himself.
“Sisiutl,” he said.
“Bless you,” said Blacktail.
Tanuu shoved her. “The two-headed serpent. The symbol of invincibility.”
I shrugged. I hadn’t heard the name before.

Ice Crypt, Chapter Eleven: “Eriana’s Bargain”

Oh, maybe Meela hasn’t heard the name before; but all you faithful readers of my book reviews have, right? Yes, it’s our old pal, Sisiutl; last seen in the Greywalker book Underground. In that book, it had three heads, could speak human language, could transform into a canoe, could create zombies out of its victims, and just generally felt really out of place with regards to the rest of the universe. Fortunately, the incarnation of Sisiutl featured Ice Crypt seems to fit in a lot better with the world and mythology: a massive sea-serpent with a head on each end of its body, a great leviathan of the sea with impenetrable scales and unstoppable jaws. Naturally, since the second book of a trilogy is always the Empire Strikes Back of the arc and ends with the villain ascendant, Adaro manages to steal away control of the Host from the humans. Though, I think his plan for doing so was really rather luck-dependent – what exactly was he planning to do if the humans who unsealed the Host hadn’t immediately devolved into bickering amongst each other like idiots with their backs conveniently turned towards him? Was he just absolutely confidant that they’d somehow screw things up for themselves before being able to turn the Host against him, in an “Evil will always triumph because Good is dumb” kind of way? I suppose he might have an advantage in knowing that humans are soft and squishy and far easier to assassinate than he is; and it isn’t explicitly stated how close the Host’s master has to be to it in order to command it, so perhaps the range is very limited and he was aware that the Host’s master would be forced to place themself in an exposed position to use it… he might have had a ranged weapon like a crossbow prepared to snipe them even if they had tried being as cautious as possible…

Look at me, still trying to come up with excuses for every plothole I notice. I really do want to like this series. Welp, Adaro has his unstoppable superweapon and it’s up to the protagonists to find a way to stop it: the stage has been set for the grand finale. I can give you 2:1 odds on a friendly thrush informing the heroes of a loose scale on its underbelly which can be pierced by a Black Arrow, and 20:1 on a small thermal exhaust port on the creature’s midsection.

Final Rating: 3/5

Greywalker #9: Revenant

We are the revenants, and we will rise up from the dead. We become the living, we come back to reclaim our stolen breath. And Hans says, “Not again!” Boom! It started as an obscure song lyric reference, but ended as an obscure Magic: the Gathering card flavor text reference! …I think it’s obvious at times that I write these intros mainly with the aim of amusing myself. In any case, let’s resurrect Revenant, by Kat Richardson.

Synopsis:

Harper Blaine was your average small-time PI until she died—for two minutes. Now Harper is a Greywalker, treading the thin line between the living world and the paranormal realm. And these abilities are landing her all sorts of “strange” cases….

Turmoil, sickness, and destruction are sweeping through Europe—and its effects are being felt all the way across the world in Seattle. Harper Blaine and her lover, Quinton, suspect that Quinton’s father, James Purlis—and his terrifying Ghost Division—are involved.

Following a dark trail of grotesque crimes and black magic across the Old World, the pair slowly draws closer to their quarry. But finding and dismantling the Ghost Division won’t be enough to stop the horror that Purlis has unwittingly set in motion.

An ancient and forgotten cult has allied with Quinton’s mad father. And their goals are far more nightmarish than Harper and Quinton—or even Purlis—could ever imagine.

The pursuit leads to Portugal, where the desecrated tomb of a sleeping king and a temple built of bones recall Harper’s very first paranormal case and hold clues to the cult’s true intentions. Harper and Quinton will need all the help they can get to avert a necromantic cataclysm that could lay waste to Europe and drag the rest of the world to the brink of war.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The final book in the Greywalker series is here, and the stakes are appropriately apocalyptic. James Purlis has joined with a cult of bone-worshiping evil mages and is leaving a trail of death and terror across Europe as he gathers materials for his dark allies to use in a massive summoning ritual which will call forth a Hell Dragon – a beast of fire and plague, an unstoppable engine of destruction which will lay waste to the wold. Doing this is indisputably an act of pure evil and absolute madness.

His face was calm, but the colors in his aura were now heaving and flickering in a polychromatic display I’d seen only once before. In the past year, Purlis had progressed from a fanatic who believed in his cause without wavering, to a full-blown psycho. For the first time in my life, I was certain that the world would be better off if I shot a man in the head and bore the consequences.
Revenant, Chapter 23

Say, remember last book when Harper and Quinton had Purlis at their mercy? And they could have executed him on the spot, but chose to let him go instead? Were you thinking that might turn out to be a “Frodo spares Gollum” moment where their act of mercy would eventually be karmically repaid as an essential element of their victory? Ha ha, nope. Purlis is a rabid dog which has to be put down. Killing him is the only solution. And, of course, killing him is now morally acceptable, even though it wasn’t last book.

Quinton: “I wish you hadn’t stopped me. I wish I’d shot him dead last year.”
Harper: “No, you don’t.”
Quinton: None of this would have happened if he were dead.”
Harper: “Maybe.”
Quinton: “I don’t see any way to end this without killing him. And if I have the opportunity, I’ll take it this time.”
Harper: “OK.”
Quinton: “Oh, now you’re all right with it?”
Harper: “It’s not the same.”
Revenant, Chapter 26

Quinton: “I wish I’d quietly broken Dad’s neck when you weren’t looking last year.”
Harper: “I’m glad you didn’t.”
Quinton: “Why? If he’d died, none of this would have happened.”
Harper: “You’ve said that before, but we can’t know that, and you wold have become a man who had murdered his own father in a fit of rage.”
Quinton: “But I still think the world would be better off if he were dead.”
Harper: “I agree, but a year ago, you weren’t thinking of the world. You were caught in your own fury and fear. If you had killed him, your remorse and your horror at what you’d done would have torn you to pieces.”
Revenant, Chapter 27

See? If Quinton had struck down his father with all of his hatred, his journey to the Dark Side would have been complete. Whereas now, after much deep thought and rational consideration, he’s determined that he can kill his father in cold blood and it will be fine. Because this time Purlis will have brought about his own downfall as a consequence of his evil acts; unlike the previous time, when they decided they couldn’t kill him yet, not even to stop his evil acts. Don’t you see the difference? It may seem like a subtle distinction, but I’m sure all the hundreds of people that Purlis killed in the meantime were happy to give their lives over that minor point of philosophy.

Well, the novel did have plenty of good things going for it as well. Namely, all the scenes featuring Carlos. Carlos is by far the best character in the Greywalker series, and the fact the he’s heavily featured in this book does a lot to make up for the stupidity surrounding Purlis. I had hoped that Dru Cristoffer might also make an appearance, as she was the other character in the series who I thought had the potential to become as interesting as Carlos if given the opportunity and proper development, but she was a no-show. I guess all that big dramatic buildup to her introduction in Labyrinth really was pointless after all.

In the end, the Greywalker series was fairly decent. It had its share of low points, but I was entertained more often than not; and the ending is fairly solid.

Final Rating: 3/5

Allie Beckstrom #4: Magic on the Storm

Don’t know why there’s no sun up in the sky, stormy weather. Let’s open our umbrellas for Magic on the Storm, by Devon Monk.

Synopsis:

Allison Beckstrom is committed to her work tracing illegal spells. Now, there’s an apocalyptic storm bearing down on Portland, and when it hits, all the magic in the area will turn unstable and destructive. To stop it from taking out the entire city, Allie and her lover, the mysterious Zayvion Jones, must work with the Authority-the enigmatic arbiters of all things magic-and take a stand against a magical wildstorm that will obliterate all in its path…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Well, this one sucked pretty hard.

The biggest and most obvious problem is that the initial plot we’re presented with, a storm of wild magic approaching the city, is basically a natural disaster. There’s no mystery to be solved, no criminal to be pursued, no antagonist to be fought: nothing to do but sit around and wait. Furthermore, Zayvion specifically tells Allie that she’s not to get involved in the Authority’s disaster preparation plans or emergency response efforts; so we can’t even look forward to her leaping into action to come to the aid of imperiled citizens during the chaos of a frenzied storm. Why are we even reading this if our protagonist isn’t being allowed to do anything? Zayvion points out that there have been plenty of wild magic storms before, and the Authority has always managed to handle them perfectly fine without Allie’s help, so there’s no need for her to get involved now, which… well, I’d certainly complain if Allie was suddenly the Chosen One who this whole ancient conspiracy of powerful magic users was completely reliant upon, but way to complete drain all sense of drama and tension from the book’s major conflict.

Come one, come all: marvel at the action-packed thrill-ride of our main character being told that she’s not needed and should just stay home and sit quietly in the corner. Can your heart handle the pulse-pounding excitement and suspense of knowing that everything’s under control, that there’s no emergency and no need for her to risk herself to save others? You’ll be on the edge of your seat wondering what Allie is going to be doing during this devastating magical cyclone: perhaps sorting coupons, or maybe watching paint dry.

If that was the only plot problem, it would be bad enough. But making matters worse is that every single character in the story seems to have taken a double dosage of stupid pills today. Right from the beginning, everyone is making the dumbest, most irrational, most certain-to-backfire decisions possible. For instance, at the beginning of the book, we’re told that the Authority – in their infinite wisdom – have decided the best location to imprison the Necromorph they captured last book is within a cage placed next to one of the city’s wells of magic. Keeping the super-powerful immortal monster which feeds on magic in the same room as a massive repository of magical energy? I don’t see how that could possibly go wrong in any way whatsoever.

WhatMeWorry

Spoiler alert: the Necromorph escapes. Fucking duh.

Want another massively boneheaded move? Even though the Authority has officially declared Allie to be free from possession by her father’s ghost, she’s still having some big problems due to actually being possessed by her father’s ghost. When she raises this issue with Zayvion, he tells her that she should get help with her ghost problems from Jingo Jingo. In case you’re not aware, it was established just last book that Jingo Jingo already fully knows that Allie is actually still possessed, is deliberately lying to everyone else in the Authority about Allie still being possessed, is totally untrustworthy, and kinda has the enslaved souls of dozens of dead children chained to him. But sure, go talk to Jingo Jingo, that sounds like a good move.

Now, recognizing that Jingo Jingo is seriously bad news and that going to him for help would be incredibly stupid, Allie does come up with a better idea: have Shame, a talented Death-magic user who she actually trusts, look into the issue instead. But this idea is eminently sensible, so everyone else ignores her suggestion; for this is Magic on the Storm, and logic has no place here. Zayvion instead pressures Allie into agreeing to go talk to Jingo Jingo again:

Zayvion: “We should tell Jingo Jingo about it. About you hearing him now, and about you hearing him near Greyson.”
Allie: “I’ve already told Jingo Jingo about my dad.”
Zayvion: “And you’ll tell him again.”
Allie: “Sure I will.”
Zayvion: “You’ll do what’s right. Even if you don’t like it.”
Allie: “Don’t be too surprised when you find out you’re wrong. Jingo gives me the creeps.”
Zayvion: “Allie–“
Allie: “Yes, fine. I’ll tell him. Again.”
Magic on the Storm, Chapter Seven

Double spoiler alert: Jingo Jingo is revealed to be working with the antagonists at the end. I know, shocking, right? So, way to go on that one, Zayvion Jones, you condescending fuck.

And because this latest example of Zayvion being an arrogant asshole has put me in a particularly foul mood, I might as well go on to point out that this book having the worst and least interesting plot thus far means that there’s nothing to distract me from all the other problems with the narrative. Minor annoyances which I would normally let side now have no reserve of goodwill to blunt my wrath. For instance, I couldn’t help but notice that Allie describes Zayvion as “Zen” every. Single. Chapter. Now, repeating a character description at the beginning of a book is understandable; there’s no telling how long it’s been since a reader read the previous one, and they may need to be reminded of certain details or character traits. But I think I can remember a character description for more than one chapter. Zayvion’s attitude is Zen: got it, message received, je le comprend. What’s the sound of one reader not caring?

Grudgingly, I must admit that this book is not entirely without merit. In the second half, once the Necromorph has inevitably escaped, interesting plot stuff finally starts happening. Allie begins actually doing things – probably because Zayvion’s soul gets dragged through a death gate and he goes into a coma, and thus is no longer around to give Allie stupid advice like “don’t try to help out with the wild magic storm, Allie, just stay home like a good little girl” and “I know better than you, Allie, and I say you can totally trust Jingo Jingo”. There’s a really intense battle scene at the end of the book which I must admit to kind of liking. But seriously – I shouldn’t have to struggle through the whole first half of a novel in order to reach the point where it actually gets interesting, and there’s just no excusing the sheer stupidity evidenced by the characters within those pages.

All in all, a very disappointing book. But fear not; I shall give the Allie Beckstrom series a chance to redeem itself in future volumes.

Final Rating: 2/5

The Encyclopedia of Monsters

I was working in the library late one night, when my eyes beheld an eerie sight; for a monster from his slab began to rise, and suddenly to my surprise… he gave me a book. So let’s mash up The Encyclopedia of Monsters, by Jeff Rovin.

Synopsis:

Whether it’s a blood-drinking vegetable (The Thing) or a bronze-skinned Gorgon whose snake-topped head turns people to stone (Medusa), monsters have always fascinated people with their astonishing power, size and appearance. Monsters represent the exotic, the spectacular and, of course, the frightening; the stir our sense of wonder.

In THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF MONSTERS, Jeff Rovin, author of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SUPERHEROES and THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SUPERVILLAINS, has called up all the fiends, specters, werewolves, mummies, creatures, demons and living dead that have chilled and thrilled since the beginning of time. Here, in all their astonishing forms are monsters from every imaginable medium: films, comics, television, folklore, mythology, literature, and more.

Ranging from the familiar and beloved Frankenstein Monster to lesser knowns such as Uranian Brain and newcomers like Alien, THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF MONSTERS tells all. The Introduction provides a history of monsters, starting in 4000 B.C. with the Egyptians’ monstrous gods, continuing with the Babylonians’ Gilgamesh and including the lore of the Hebrews, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Norse and Slavs. But the greatest number of monsters have been produced in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the advent of motion pictures, television, comic books and computer games.

Source: The book; and here’s a Goodreads link

SPOILERS BELOW

As an inveterate book reader, I spent many a childhood day at the local library. Amongst the many volumes on its shelves, I discovered a weighty tome entitled The Encyclopedia of Monsters. It was classified as a reference book and could not be checked out; so each time I visited, I would take it to a table and read for as long as I was able. I was fascinated by the fantastical and macabre creatures described within: the gigantic beasts, the bizarre aliens, the gruesome demons. Even after I became an adult, my nostalgia for this book remained strong; and as soon as I’d acquired some disposable income, I purchased a copy for myself.

The book’s style is fairly simple. Proceeding in alphabetical order, it fills hundreds of pages with entries about various monsters from mythology, literature, and film. Each entry gives the monster’s name, first appearance, species, sex, size, a description of its notable features and powers, and a short biography summarizing the story or stories it has appeared in.

Now, I should caution any readers not to expect it to conclude any recent cinematic creations; for reference, the xenomorph is referred to as a “newcomer” and its entry only covers Alien and Aliens. The selection process seems to have been weighted towards the oldest and cheesiest of creatures, as it’s a veritable cornucopia of monsters from early B-movies. But looking on the bright side, that makes it an excellent book for Mystery Science Theater 3000 fans, as it contains a great number of monsters whose movies have been subjected to the show’s riffing: The Beast of Hollow Mountain, The Crawling Eye, The Green Slime, Repticilus, Yongary, and plenty more.

Unfortunately, not having seen many of these movies myself, I can’t vouch for the book’s accuracy. In the rare instances where I do have knowledge, I’ve spotted hints that it may not be entirely accurate. For instance, in the entry for “The Silurians”, it commits the cardinal sin of referring to the main character of Doctor Who as “Doctor Who” instead of “The Doctor”; and the list of adversaries the Doctor has faced is filled with one-shot oddities like the Zolfa-Thuran while neglecting far more famous races such as, oh, the Daleks and the Cybermen. So you may want to take the details with a grain of salt.

Still, flawed though it might be, I had great fun reading through it and learning about all sorts of bizarre and fantastical creatures from obscure works of fantasy, science fiction, and horror that I never otherwise would have heard about. In recognition of the many hours of enjoyable browsing the book gave me, I’m going to go ahead and forgive any minor errors, the majority of which I’m not familiar enough with the source material to even notice.

Final Rating: 5/5

Blood Singer #3: Demon Song

From the ashes of hate, it’s a cruel demon’s fate, he’s returned to stay; there’ll be no escape, because he’s fallen far from grace. Let’s wager a golden fiddle and sing a Demon Song, by Cat Adams.

Synopsis:

Bodyguard Celia Graves plies her trade in a world where bloodthirsty vampires roam the night and street-corner psychics have real powers. A vamp attack turned Celia into a unique creature who finds sunlight painful and who must take all her food in liquid form—but who still retains her human heart, mind, and soul.

The attack also awakened a hidden part of her heritage: Celia is part Siren, able to enthrall men…and enrage women…without half-trying. Needless to say, her bodyguard business has taken off: who wouldn’t want to be protected by a sexy, extremely capable woman who is half-vampire, half-Siren princess?

An ancient rift between the demonic dimension and our own, sealed during the destruction of Atlantis, begins to open and threatens to loose all the demons of hell on humanity (including the one personally bent on destroying Celia). Celia’s recent hellish experiences may have given her the unique combination of abilities needed to close the rift. But to overcome a death curse that nearly guarantees her failure, she’ll need to join forces with people she no longer trusts…and put people she has come to care about directly in harm’s way.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Kevin, a black ops werewolf friend of Celia’s. has been captured on a mission gone wrong. He broke into a prison to rescue an ally, only to discover that the prisoners and guards alike had fallen under the influence of a Great Demon, turning the whole facility into its private little hell on Earth. To rescue Kevin from this infernal threat, Celia is forced to team up with the mysterious mage Jones and the sinister Master Vampire Edgar. And you might think that’s a synopsis of the book as a whole, but nope: it’s just the first four chapters.

Like Siren Song, Demon Song has a whole ton of different plotlines going on at the same time. Unlike Siren Song, it actually manages to pull it off this time. What makes the difference is strong structure. After rescuing Kevin, Celia and her crew decide not to try taking on the demon and all his subjects on their own, but to do the sensible thing and call in the Proper Authorities: the police, the national guard, and the faith militant. Having handed off the issue to those presumably better equipped to deal with it, Celia decides to treat herself and her assistant to a much-needed vacation. While she’s making use of her break time to handle a large number of secondary plotlines, we’re occasionally given updates as to how things are going with the authorities’ attempts to get a handle on the demonically-compromised prison. Naturally, since Celia’s the protagonist, the situation blows up and the end of the novel deals with her getting called back in to salvage the mess. Rather than being tangled in with everything else, the demon plotline stands out as book-ends to the story, and the narrative is stronger for it.

While the demon stuff is simmering in the background, Celia handles problems such as her mother’s imprisonment for driving drunk and without a license, helping a young girl who took a job as a drug mule and ended up pissing off a crime boss, investigating that mysterious guy who got a large bequest in Vicki’s will, attending an exclusive wine tasting event… and, oh yes, finally finding out what the deal was with the sniper who tried to kill her at the beginning of the previous book. You do remember the sniper, yes? From way it gets hurriedly explained and completely tied up, I get the impression that the author herself forgot about it for a while; since it has no relation to the plot of this book, it’s really something that should have been handled in the previous one. In any case, none of these storylines are really dramatic enough to support a book on their own, but they work fine as a B-plot to the demon stuff.

So, yeah, this one was pretty great. Bravo, Blood Singer series; keep up the good work.

Final Rating: 4/5