The Hardy Boys Mystery Stories #160: A Game Called Chaos

Do you want to play a game? Let’s boot up A Game Called Chaos, by Franklin W. Dixon

Synopsis:

A stalking wolf! Monster spiders and snakes! This game is real – and deadly!

Legendary computer game designer Steven Royal has disappeared – with the only complete new game in the Chaos series. With just two weeks to go before the game goes into production, Viking Software, where Frank and Joe’s friend Chelsea works, is in big trouble. The boys must find the master disk – now!

Strange e-mails lead the boys into a dark steam tunnel and then to a remote state park, where weird creatures attack them. After barely escaping with their lives, they end up in a creepy New England ghost town. Time is running out, and danger lurks around every corner. But the most awesome monster of all is ready to download real chaos!

Source: Back of the book (courtesy Goodreads link)

SPOILERS BELOW

A while ago, I decided on a whim to review an old Hardy Boys book I had sitting on my bookshelf. Well, I happened to have another one lying around, so I figured why not review it as well?

Now, I stated in the previous review that I read two distinct series of Hardy Boys novels: the Casefiles and the Mystery Stories. In my recollections, the Casefiles tended to be shorter and slicker, more focused on action beats than on laying out a proper mystery, while the Mystery Stories were slower paced and put more effort into the clues and characters. Now, I stand by that assessment: the Casefiles definitely had more blood and death and violence in its first volume than you’d find in any dozen randomly selected Mystery Stories. However, that’s only a general rule, and doesn’t apply to every single volume. The Mysteries Stories could go some pretty weird places themselves, on occasion. Case in point: in A Game Called Chaos, investigating a kidnaped video game developer leads to the Hardy Boys fighting robots.

Yep.

Robots, shaped like snakes and spiders and a giant gorilla.

No, there’s no actual reason for it. The villain is just kinda crazy and really likes robots.

It’s ironic, because the villain’s motivation is wanting more money, and the Hardy Boys note that she must have spent a ton of money building these pointless robot things.

They aren’t even that dangerous – aside from the giant gorilla, none succeed in hurting anyone.

Alright, leaving aside the villain’s insane robot fetish, how is the plot? Well… it kind of has some holes in it. See, she had up to now been living off of royalty money from Steven Royal’s games. But Royal changed his contract for the latest game, planning to keep all the money for himself, and she couldn’t contest it in court because she had faked her death and was living under a false identity. So, instead, she kidnaps Royal. Okay, I’m with her up to this point. But then, for some reason, she decides to leave a trail of riddles and hints as to the location of her secret lair where she’s keeping Royal prisoner. Why? Why would you do that? It is the most utterly stupid and counterproductive thing she could possibly do. For instance…

“As we suspected, Sakai did have her own program within the university computer. When we went poking around, the program activated, sending us the clue. That’s how she knew when to go to Kendall State Park with Scavenger and roll the rocks away from the cave entrance.”

– Frank Hardy, Chapter 16, “The Final Blow”

Why move the rocks away from the cave entrance, when you’re trying to hide Royal? Why send the clue in the first place? You make no sense, crazy lady! The Hardys say she was playing “a game of revenge”, but she wanted revenge against Royal – who she already had tied up in her lair. Who exactly did she expect would be following the clues? What kind of person commits a perfect crime but then feels compelled to leave behind a trail of cryptic clues and deadly traps for the detective who wouldn’t even be on the case if not for those very riddles and… and… and…

RiddlerAndEnigma

It all makes sense now. Obviously she laid these elaborate traps out for the Batman, only for the Hardy Brother to unwittingly fall into them instead. I get it now! It all makes sense!

…No, wait, it’s still stupid. Nevermind.

Now’s the point where I’d bring Dlanor back to comment about how well the mystery follows the rules of fair play like she did for the last one, but she refused as soon as she heard about the robots. Said that meant it no longer qualified as a mystery, but was some kind of action-adventure story instead. Sorry about that.

So, yeah… in hindsight, this one doesn’t hold up too well either. Still, I remember enjoying it as a kid, and it’s one from the series that I apparently liked enough to actually buy and keep on my shelf all these years, so I’ll give it a +1 Nostalgia Bonus.

Final Rating: 3/5

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Dreg City #1: Three Days to Dead

I’m looking for a new urban fantasy series to read, and it seems I’ve been reduced to sifting through the dregs. Let’s start a countdown for Three Days to Dead, by Kelly Meding.

Synopsis:

They’ll never see her coming. . . .

When Evangeline Stone wakes up naked and bruised on a cold slab at the morgue—in a stranger’s body, with no memory of who she is and how she got there—her troubles are only just beginning. Before that night she and the two other members of her Triad were the city’s star bounty hunters, mercilessly cleansing the city of the murderous creatures living in the shadows, from vampires to shape-shifters to trolls. Then something terrible happened that not only cost all three of them their lives but also convinced the city’s other Hunters that Evy was a traitor—and she can’t even remember what it was.

Now she’s a fugitive, piecing together her memory, trying to deal some serious justice—and discovering that she has only three days to solve her own murder before the reincarnation spell wears off. Because in three days Evy will die again—but this time there’s no second chance. . . .

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Evy was murdered, but now she’s back. A friend of hers performed a resurrection spell, placing her soul into the body of a stranger, but she lost the memories of the last few days before her death in the process. Now, she only has three days before the spell wears off and she dies again… three days to solve her own murder.

It’s a really interesting concept, which is why I picked up the book in the first place. But the execution… I just wasn’t feeling it. Look, take this passage:

Wyatt: “You know, you’re showing amazing restraint.”
Evy: “With what? The cheesecake?”
Wyatt: “No, with not asking me about the night you died. And who else was in the room.”
Evy: “You’ll tell me when I need to know something.”
Wyatt: “Fair enough.”

Three Days to Dead, Chapter 10

No, not “fair enough”. Wyatt has told you that you discovered some terrible truth relating to the rumors of a budding alliance between goblins and vampires – an alliance which, if it comes to fruition, could result in the devastation of the world and the enslavement of humanity beneath the heels of their new goblin and vampire overlords. You tried, literally with your dying breath, to convey this vital information, but were unable to because of someone who was in the room at the time – someone who is thus, presumably, a traitor involved in the plot. Possibly involved in the events leading to your death. Maybe even involved in that big genocide of Owlkins you feel oh-so-guilty about being indirectly responsible for. You have only three days – closer to two at this point in the story – to investigate each of the people who were in that room, determine their guilt or innocence, and put a stop to their evil plan. And you don’t even care enough to ask for the suspects’ names?

Well, there goes all the suspense and drama you might have gotten from your mystery with a ticking clock deadline, deflating like a punctured balloon making a humorously flatulent sound as it shrivels up. Because if Evy doesn’t even care enough about her own murder to ask the most basic of questions to begin investigating it, how can I?

Of course, once Evy does regain her memory of her death, the big surprise twist is that Wyatt was lying to her: she never actually discovered any vital information, there was no-one else present at her death, and Wyatt made the deal to resurrect her not to gain any vital clue to save humanity but because he was in love with her and wanted to spend a few more days with her. So, it doesn’t matter that Evy didn’t even try to solve the mystery, because there was never any mystery to be solved. And actually, given that Evy was murdered by the goblins specifically to motivate Wyatt into making the deal with Tovin into bringing her back, not because of anything relating to Evy but because Tovin needed a way to get Wyatt in his debt for part of his evil plan, Evy pretty much fits the bill of a woman getting stuffed into the fridge. This is probably the first story I’ve read where the fridged woman is the main character; so congratulations on that, I guess?

By the way, Wyatt: good job making Evy relive all her traumatic memories of being tortured and raped to death in an attempt to learn the non-existent truth behind a made-up mystery you invented because you didn’t want to admit you had her resurrected for purely selfish reasons. You ass. I never at any point in the book got anywhere close to liking Wyatt’s character; which spells a big problem for this series, if he’s going to be the main love interest. Frankly, I would have been more satisfied if he’d died at the end. It was established that Wyatt’s death could remove the 3 day time limit and allow Evy to continue to live on in her new body indefinitely – which, you know, pretty much has to happen, given that there are at least five sequels – so he could have had a big redemptive death scene where he gives his life in order to foil Tovin’s plan, give Evy additional life, and atone for lying to her about her death and resurrection. But no, instead he gets his own bullshit deus ex machina resurrection scene. Can anyone say, diminished impact of character mortality? Though, of course, only main characters are apparently worthy of cheating death in such a manner; even though they seem to have discovered this huge loophole that allows permanent resurrection, nobody’s going to offer to bring any of those poor dead Owlkins back to life.

Hey, speaking of the Owlkins: what exactly was the deal with that whole incident? So, a big deal was made about how Evy was framed for murdering her partners, and how the Hunters came down on her with totally excessive force for it. The speculation was that they had been pressured by the big Brass in the police, and that the Brass had been pressured by the Fey Council. And when we thought that there was a highly-placed traitor whose identity Evy had discovered, that made sense; someone within the system using it to bring her down. But evil mastermind, as we discover, is Tovin. And Tovin isn’t one of the Fey:

Among the oldest and wisest of the nonhumans in the city, Tovin is rumored to be an elf prince banished from Upside by his people for choosing a bride outside of his race. He’s also rumored to live in a mushroom, eat cats for breakfast, and fly during full moons. No human I’ve met prior to Wyatt had ever seen him, or any other elf. Neither Fey nor Dreg, elves have six-hundred-year life spans. Tovin has supposedly spent the last four centuries among humans.

Three Days to Dead, Chapter 8

I’m not seeing how Tovin was in a position to get the Council to go all overboard in hunting down Evy. I mean, he was obviously responsible for the initial set-up, since the other members of her team were killed by half-vampires and Tovin has an alliance with the Halfies. But after that, if the Council jumped right over “Bring her in for questioning” to “Nuke the site from orbit, it’s the only way to be sure”, that’s kind of on them. I guess the alleged good guys just really callously decided it was worth committing genocide on the peaceful Owlkins in order to catch one measly fugitive. She was accused of killing two of them, so they decided the rational and proportionate response was to murder 300 innocent civilians? Not really feeling any sympathy for these people.

Ah, well. I liked at least one character: Isleen, the vampire princess. At least that’s something, right? I mean, sure, she’s some kind of blood-sucking abomination, but she probably commits the fewest objectionable acts out of any of the characters in the book. Even Evy manages to shoot an innocent bystander while engaging in a public running gun battle. Say, I don’t suppose it would be too much to ask for to read a series with Isleen as protagonist instead?

Now, I like to be lenient when reviewing book series. Even if the first book isn’t the greatest, I tend to at least begin reading the next one to see if it doesn’t improve itself. Hell, I gave the Felix Gomez series like half a dozen second chances, and I’d consider a number of those books to be worse than this one. The thing is, though, that my local library had a copy of every Felix Gomez book except the last one; and by then, I was pretty much committed to seeing how the series ended. With Dreg City, though, the first book is the only one my library has. And I really, really can’t bring myself to justify buying however the hell many books are left in this series based on the level of quality I’ve seen in this first installment.

Maybe, someday, if either I acquire a significantly larger disposable income or my library acquires a larger selection of the books, I’ll return to the Dreg City series. But I wouldn’t advise holding your breath for the next review.

Final Rating: 2/5

Kate Kane, Paranormal Investigator #1: Iron & Velvet

Baby take a seat, eyes on me, this is my show. Your one and only pleasure, all decked in lace and leather. …Or iron and velvet, as the case may be. Let’s investigate Iron & Velvet, by Alexis Hall

Synopsis:

First rule in this line of business: don’t sleep with the client.

My name’s Kate Kane, and when an eight-hundred-year-old vampire prince came to me with a case, I should have told her no. But I’ve always been a sucker for a femme fatale.

It always goes the same way. You move too fast, you get in too deep, and before you know it, someone winds up dead. Last time it was my partner. This time it could be me. Yesterday a werewolf was murdered outside the Velvet, the night-time playground of one of the most powerful vampires in England. Now half the monsters in London are at each other’s throats, and the other half are trying to get in my pants. The Witch Queen will protect her own, the wolves are out for vengeance, and the vampires are out for, y’know, blood.

I’ve got a killer on the loose, a war on the horizon, and a scotch on the rocks. It’s going to be an interesting day.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Supernatural crimes are always a real bugger. None of the suspects officially exist, there’s never any physical evidence because magic, and everybody’s motivated by thousand-year-old blood feuds, ancient debts of honour, or perverse occult master plans. And most of the time everyone blames the mages anyway.

Iron & Velvet, Chapter Four, “Biscuits & Memories”

There is a certain narration style characteristic of noir detective fiction, a mixture of cynical wit and dark snarkiness. I can’t precisely define it, but I know it when I see it; and Iron & Velvet manages to perfectly nail the mark. From the very first page, I could tell that I was going to love Kate Kane.

Now, I’m not saying that the book’s perfect in every single respect. For one thing, Kate’s detecting style leaves something to be desired: it seems to consist not so much of investigating as approaching the suspects one at a time, asking “Did you do it?”, and believing them when they answer no. But what the hell, a book doesn’t have to be perfect in every single respect for me to absolutely love it. In this case, I think that any plot awkwardness is more than overshadowed by the incredible cast of fascinating characters.

I love all the characters in this book. I already mentioned, of course, that Kate herself hits that perfect sweet spot for the hard-boiled detective first-person narration noir pulp protagonist; but the secondary and even minor characters also struck me as immediately interesting and got me invested in their tales. Aeglica Thrice-Risen, the vampire Prince of Swords, an ancient and weary Geat warrior who serves as executioner for the vampire court. Ashriel, the celibate incubus fighting to deny his infernal nature. Elise, the discarded golem given new purpose, a perfect foil for deadpan humor. Julian, vampire prince of sex and pudding nun. Nimue, witch queen and watery tart who throws mystic swords at people. Hell, if I try to list them all, I’ll be here writing this review all day. Even the King of the Court of Love was an extremely creative concept for a villain – a fae lord who was formerly a vain and cruel predator of women, but who was killed and has arisen from death horribly changed and twisted. The description of the mentality of the creatures of fae was great: how they are the ultimate narcissists, how they create their own little world with themself as the sole center and regard everyone else as props and scenery in their tale.

Another example of great writing in the book? The references of varying subtlety it makes to certain other literary works. For instance, Kate’s deceased former partner Archer is clearly Miles Archer from The Maltese Falcon, killed by a femme fatale over a statue he never did manage to find. Likewise, her ex-boyfriend Patrick is Edward Cullen from Twilight: a vampire who met her while undercover in biology class and who has a creepy habit of sneaking into her room to watch her sleep. The first time he was mentioned, I actually wrote him off as a throw-away joke, since taking a perfunctory swipe at Twilight is practically mandatory in vampire fiction nowadays; but to the book’s credit, it actually goes the distance with Patrick’s character, showing just how unhealthy and destructive such a relationship between an immature teen girl and a creepily obsessed immortal stalker would be, and how nightmarish it could ultimately turn if no “happily ever after” was forthcoming.

Overall, this was an extremely enjoyable book to read, and I’m looking forwards to the rest of the series with eager anticipation.

Final Rating: 5/5

Blood Singer #6: To Dance With The Devil

I won’t stay long in this world so wrong. Say goodbye, as we dance with the devil tonight. Don’t you dare look him in the eye, as we dance with the devil tonight. Let’s tango with To Dance With The Devil, by Cat Adams.

Synopsis:

Celia Graves’s newest client is one of the last surviving members of a magical family that is trapped in a generations-old feud with other magic-workers. She’s supposed to die at the next full moon unless Celia can broker peace between the clans or break the curse before it can take effect.

For the first time in a long while, Celia’s personal life is looking up. Her vampire abilities seem to be under control, her Siren abilities have gotten more reliable, and even though her office was blown up, her services are more in demand than ever now that she’s fought off terrorists and been part of the royal wedding of the year. Her friends all seem to be finding love and her grandmother has—finally—agreed to go to family therapy. The only trouble spot is Celia’s love life. Not long ago, she had two boyfriends.

Now she barely has one and she isn’t sure she wants him. But Bruno DeLuca is a powerful mage and Celia needs his help . . . especially after she’s attacked and her client is kidnapped.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

I love it when the order I write these book reviews serendipitously lines up to allow me to make a point about storytelling. In my previous review, of Magic on the Hunt, I pointed out that the plot didn’t start until literally halfway through the book and stated – not for the first time regarding the Allie Beckstrom series – that a really good story which begins halfway through a book is a story which begins half a book too late. Now, the plot of To Dance With The Devil is also a bit slow to get rolling, since Celia first turns down the bodyguarding job and only decides she’s going to do it later on after she’s been threatened by goons and the woman who first contacted her is murdered. But, whereas Magic on the Hunt spent the time waiting for the plot to get rolling by having all the characters talk to each other about things we in the audience already knew, To Dance With The Devil decides to use those pages productively: by focusing on Celia’s emotional growth. She has finally reached the point where the ghost of her little sister Ivy, who has been hanging around with her for longer than Ivy was even alive, is comfortable leaving her and departing to the afterlife. It is an extremely bittersweet moment – even though it’s a good thing for Ivy that she’s finally managed to settle her lingering regrets and move on to her eternal reward, it still feels to Celia like she’s losing her sister all over again – and very effective emotionally. It’s the kind of big emotional scene which you would normally expect to be saved for the climax or denouement of a novel, but which works here as an opening because the circumstances are quiet rather than dramatic: not a huge culminating moment, but something born of calm reflection on how much Celia’s grown and changed over the series.

The point is, it had a slow non-action opening that wasn’t really connected to the main conflict of the novel, yet it didn’t make me hold up the book and yell, “Boring! When’s the actual plot going to begin?” So, you know, maybe the Allie Beckstrom series could take a hint from that.

Anyway, the actual plot involves Celia trying to protect a woman being targeted for assassination; apparently due to a blood feud between two families, but actually as part of a complicated magical prison-break scheme. It’s a decent enough plot, with plenty of fight scenes and moments of tense drama. The narrative does contain some storytelling decisions that I’d consider iffy; for instance, suddenly throwing in a “Somebody has to die!” bit regarding a magic ritual being performed by four of Celia’s friends, but then walking it back so that no, nobody has to die after all. Also, a big deal was made about Dawna’s cousin applying to work for Celia’s company and Dawna not being sure if she would be a good fit, but nothing ever really came of it. But, you know, whatever. The story overall was pretty good; and in particular, the resolution to Ivy’s storyline was the highlight of the novel and bought a lot of leniency for any following missteps.

Final Rating: 3/5

Allie Beckstrom #6: Magic on the Hunt

People ask me how I do it, and I say, “There’s nothing to it: You just stand there looking cute; and when something moves, you shoot!” Well, that quality of hunting skill is pretty representative of the level of competence on display in this book. Let’s go shoot ourselves a pure-bred Guernsey cow with Magic on the Hunt, by Devon Monk.

Synopsis:

In the secret lockup of the Authority, the council that decides what can and can’t be done with magic, an undead magic user has possessed one of the prisoners. He wants his freedom-and then some. Now Allie Beckstrom and her lover, Zayvion, are the first line of defense against the chaos he’s about to unleash on the city of Portland…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Welcome back to the wonderful world of Allie Beckstrom. This novel begins with one of the villains, Dane Lanister, bursting into Allie’s apartment, knocking out Zayvion, and shooting Allie twice – in non-lethal locations, of course. Even though he has her dead to rights, could totally put a bullet through her head at any time, and indeed states that it is his desire and intention to do so, the conventions of the genre dictate that he bluster and posture and exposit about his evil plan until Allie’s ghost dad is able to come up with a way to turn the situation around. Seriously, he practically reaches Dr. Evil levels of supervillain self-parody, monologuing to Allie about how the smart thing to would be to kill her rather than stand around monologuing at her:

“You are a problem. And the easiest way to get rid of a problem is to kill it. Simple, efficient, gone. A gun to the back of the head, a knife through the spine, magic to boil your blood, crush your skull, stop your heart. The kind of death we gave your father, Greyson and I. The kind of death I will give you.”
– Dane Lanister, Chapter One

Now, I know what you’re going to say: it’s not Dane’s fault. Even though he wanted to kill Allie as quickly as possible, he couldn’t do it immediately; he needed to question her as to where Sedra was being imprisoned. Oh, dear kind-hearted reader, you give the book too much credit. For you see, Allie doesn’t end up telling him anything about where Sedra is imprisoned. And yet, Dane later manages to find the location all on his own, proving he never needed to question Allie in the first place. He could have just shot her in the head and been done with it. The real reason he didn’t is because Allie is the protagonist and this is still the first chapter of the book, meaning she is cocooned within impenetrable plot armor.

Well, after that shocking, action-packed first chapter where the villains broke into Allie’s own home, you’re no doubt thinking that this book is going to be an extremely fast-paced roller-coaster ride of one intense high-stakes fight scene after another. Lol, nope. First chapter aside, the first half of the book is dedicated to characters finding out thing which we, the reader, already know. For instance, Nola discovers Stone, Allie’s Gargoyle companion. A shock for Nola, to be sure, but we’ve already known about Stone for the past couple of novels. As another example: the Authority learns that Jingo Jingo is a serial killer who murders children and enslaves their ghosts to add to his magical power. And while they are all disturbed by this revelation, we the readers already knew it: it was pretty clear what Jingo Jingo was doing back when Allie saw him surrounded by the souls of dead children bound to him by chains. The characters also spend a lot of time discussing how a ton of weird magical stuff seems to have been going down in the St. Johns area, despite it not being connected to the magical grid; so we lucky readers, who remember from the first book that there is a secret reserve of natural magic beneath the area, get to watch them bumble around in the dark about this. They still haven’t figured it out by the end, so we can look forward to their ignorance continuing to be a plot point in future books – oh joy. And then there’s Stotts; since he recently had his memories of the Authority Closed, Allie has to re-explain everything to him – “everything” also being the amount of this stuff that we, the readers, already know.

Which is to say: BOOOOOORING! Get to the interesting stuff already!

It’s only halfway through the book, when the shade of Leander starts trying to steal a human body and sets off a prison break at the Authority’s super-special-double-secret prison, that the action actually starts to pick back up again. Say it with me, everyone: if the plot gets good halfway through the book, that’s half a book too late. The revelations which follow are fairly predictable: it looked like Sedra was the good guy and Mikhail was the bad guy; but Sedra is possessed by Isabelle, meaning Mikhail was actually the good guy all along! Except, you know, serial child-murderer Jingo Jingo was working for Mikhail, so clearly he’s not all that good. Big fight scene, Leander and Isabelle retreat but vow that they’ll be back, roll credits.

Let’s see, anything else to say about this book? Well, Cody Hand, nee Miller, returns as a character; but not as a POV character this time. It was his POV sections in the first book which made his character interesting to me; without that, just seeing him from Allie’s POV isn’t nearly as interesting. So, his return for this novel just isn’t recapturing any of the special qualities that made me like him so much in his first appearance. Sorry, kid; nice try, but not even you can save this mess.

Final Rating: 2/5

Wild Cards #10: Double Solitaire

Oh my heart, it became so hardened; hard like a rock, cold like stone, white like a diamond, black like coal, cut like a jewel, yeah. I repair myself when you’re not there: solitaire. Double solitaire, to be precise. Let’s deal out the cards for Double Solitaire, by Melinda M. Snodgrass and edited by George R. R. Martin.

Synopsis:

Aboard his grandfather’s spaceship and fleeing the violent turmoil between Jokers, Aces, and Nats that his vicious ambition spawned, Blaise is headed for a new conquest: the planet Takis. Dr. Tachyon is left behind… but he’s lost more than his only way of returning to his home world. Blaise has stolen his body, as well – leaving Tach trapped in the pregnant body of a teenage runaway.

Tachyon must sell his soul to reach Takis – and once there, confront Blaise amidst the political and military machinations of Takisian society. Treachery and treason await him. At stake is nothing less than the destiny of an entire world.

Join Melinda Snodgrass, creator of Dr. Tachyon, in the first solo Wild Cards novel!

Source: Back of the book; courtesy link to Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Finally, mercifully, we have reached the end of the Blaise storyline. When the little bastard steals Dr. Tachyon’s ship and flies back to Takis, it falls to Dr. Tachyon, Cap’n Trips, and Popinjay to head off after him and put an end to the Abomination for good. Ultimately, he gets his brain buzz-sawed out of his skull and sold off to the Network to be used as a component in an irrigation pump on some nameless alien world. Couldn’t have happened to a more deserving guy. Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say.

Of course, Blaise manages to wreak quite a bit of devastation on Takis before the heroes manage to bring him down; and to be honest, there’s a pretty big amount of schadenfreud in reading about the horror he inflicts on them. After all, the Takisians pretty much brought this upon themselves: they were the ones who created the Wild Card virus, and decided to unleash it on Earth so humanity could serve as their guinea pigs. Did they ever once offer to make reparation for their crime, or even to offer the most basic of aid or disaster relief to humankind? No, they did not. So, it is only karmic justice that the seed of evil they planted should put forth poison fruit which would return upon their own world some measure of the pain and chaos they inflicted on Earth. Reap what you sow, and so on.

With regards to the protagonists: as those of you who have read my previous Wild Cards reviews know, Popinjay ranks among my favorites. And, though the story starts with some idiocy on his part when he tries to go all Captain-Kirk-and-Green-Skinned-Space-Babe on Nesfa the Network alien, once he gets past that little hiccup he ends up giving another exemplary performance. One of my favorite bits, in fact, is when he wonders whether his teleportation power is strong enough to send someone all the way from Takis back to Earth, and ends up musing on the philosophical implications of the manner in which he defeated Ti Malice:

Jay remembered the hideous parasite Ti Malice, and that place, and wondered how far away nightmares lived. Decided he really didn’t want to know – he was afraid it was no farther than the floor beneath his bed.
Double Solitaire, Chapter 30

I can’t say I’m as big a fan of Cap’n Trips as I am of Popinjay, but he also manages to acquit himself well in this novel. He puts his classical education to good use, analyzing the society and culture of Takis from a human perspective. And hey, despite what I said earlier about the pleasure of seeing it all get torn down and destroyed, the book does a really good job making Takis interesting with its descriptions of the planet’s natural environment, of Takisian cities and technology, and of Takisian culture and customs.

I’ve certainly never enjoyed reading about Blaise. But the more vile the villain, the more cathartic his defeat; and in that aspect, Double Solitaire excels. It also benefits from having only a single author, giving it a focus and a consistency that can be lacking in some of the tapestry novels. So, overall, one of the highpoints in the Wild Cards series.

Final Rating 5/5

Edgeland

You, you’re walking on the edge; you, you choose the way of love and pain. You, don’t you see the bridge I’ve built for you? It’s just one step to start again. Let’s cross over Edgeland, by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski.

Synopsis:

Thousands of miles south of the island of Bliss, day and night last for 72 hours. Here is one of the natural wonders of this world: a whirlpool thirty miles wide and a hundred miles around. This is the Drain. Anything sucked into its frothing, turbulent waters is never seen again.

Wren has spent most of her life on Edgeland, a nearby island where people bring their dead to be blessed and prepared for the afterlife. There the dead are loaded into boats with treasure and sent over the cliff, and into the Drain. Orphaned and alone, Wren dreams of escaping Edgeland, and her chance finally comes when furriers from the Polar north arrive with their dead, and treasure for their dead.

With the help of her friend Alec, Wren plans to loot one of the boats before it enters the Drain. But the boat–with Alec and Wren onboard–is sucked into the whirlpool. What they discover beyond the abyss is beyond what anyone could have imagined.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Two children in need of money decide to rob the riches of the dead from a funerary barge. But when their plan goes wrong, they end up falling through a portal to the underworld and discover that all is not well in the afterlife. It seems there’s a log-jam in Purgatory, where the deceased are unable to move on to their final reward and have been piling up for the past 500 years. Naturally, it falls to our plucky heroes to correct this cosmic imbalance and set things back to rights. Fortunately for them, it doesn’t turn out to be too hard.

Really, the most interesting thing about Edgeland is the setting. The world with 72-hour days and 72-hour nights. The islands around the entrance to the underworld, and their cultures based around providing funerary rites. The two competing religions and their small but significant differences in ritual. The fog-shrouded island of purgatory and its dysfunctional society of trapped dead. A lot of thought seems to have gone into the details of this world – particularly the funerary traditions and superstitions of the inhabitants. In fact, a lot of the time, I found reading about these world-building details to be more interesting than the plot itself.

Not that the plot didn’t have its moments: Wren reuniting with her deceased mother, for instance, was pretty effective. But overall, it’s pretty light fare. Wren and Alec don’t really have to figure out anything for themselves, since they have Flower and Sebastian there to act as guides and pretty much hand them all the answers; and the actual method for fixing things is extremely simple. There’s no great revelation involved, no introspection or riddle-solving; they’re just told to go to the place and do the thing and they do and it works and everything’s good now. It really kind of makes me wonder what kind of god or deities thought that this was a sensible way to construct their purgatory. The Divine Comedy, this ain’t.

Ah, well. It was a bit simplistic, but the story was ultimately decent enough. And all those little details fleshing out the beliefs and customs of this world were interesting enough to keep my attention. Ultimately, yeah, I guess I can say that I enjoyed it.

Final Rating: 3/5

Humans Bow Down

I am machine, I never sleep, I keep my eyes wide open. I am machine, a part of me wishes I could just feel something. Let’s welcome our new robot overlords with Humans Bow Down, by James Patterson, Emily Raymond, and Jill Dembowski.

Synopsis:

In a world run by machines, humans are an endangered species.

The Great War is over. The robots have won. The humans who survived have two choices: they can submit and serve the vicious rulers they created, or be banished to the Reserve, a desolate, unforgiving landscape where it’s a crime just to be human. And the robots aren’t content–following the orders of their soulless leader, they’re planning to conquer humanity’s last refuge and ensure that all humans bow down.

The only thing more powerful than an enemy who feels nothing is a warrior with nothing left to lose. Six, a feisty, determined woman whose parents were killed with the first shots of the war, and whose siblings lie rotting in prison, is a rebel with a cause: the overthrow of robot rule. Her partner in crime is Dubs, the one person who respects authority even less than she does. On the run for their lives after an attempted massacre, Six and Dubs are determined to save humanity before the robots finish what the Great War started and wipe humans off the face of the earth. Pushed to the brink of survival, Dubs and Six discover a powerful secret that can help set humanity free, but they’ll have to trust the unlikeliest of allies–or they’ll be forced to bow down, once and for all.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Here we have an example of utterly bland, perfectly generic young adult dystopia. A book without a single spark of creativity, passion, or inspiration. Something that exists not because an artist had a vision, but because someone somewhere said “Looks like young adult dystopia novels are popular right now. I bet we could make some money if we quickly churned one out that’s basically the same as all the others and slapped a famous author’s name on it.”

One of the reasons I picked this book up was because of James Patterson’s name on the title; after all, he’s written plenty of other stuff which I’ve liked. In retrospect, however, I wonder how much of this book he actually wrote, and how much was done by these Emily Raymond and Jill Dembowski people I’ve never heard of. According to that ever-reliable font of all human knowledge, Wikipedia, Patterson “has been criticized for co-authoring many of his books, and for being more of a brand that focuses on making money than an artist who focuses on his craft” and “does not do much actual writing when collaborating with other authors”. And this one has the stink of “just didn’t care” all over it.

The setting, such as it is, is a world where humans are generically oppressed by robots. They’re forced to use serial numbers instead of names, because of course they are. They have to eat food made from processed bugs, because remember that scene from Snowpiercer? And, just to really hammer the point home that we’re reading something constructed entirely out of cliches, we get an early scene of robots beating an elderly slave. Because why bother putting any thought into constructing a complicated setting featuring any degree of subtlety or nuance when you can just show one of the villains whipping an elderly slave, thereby immediately informing the audience that they are irredeemably evil bad guys who will inevitably get defeated by the plucky underdog heroes.

Oh, but that assumes we have heroes. Our protagonists, however, are instead shitty edgelord anti-heroes, because the book wants to emphasize how GRIMDARK its dystopia setting is. Our protagonists: they steal purses from little old ladies, because they aren’t your grand-daddy’s type of hero! HARDCOOORE! Our protagonists: their favorite movies are robot-made films produced specifically to torture humans, A Clockwork Orange-style, and which can actually kill humans which watch them, because that’s just how edgy and hardcore they are! EXTREEEME! Our protagonists: presumably, they are supposed to have some kind of positive traits to make me want to root for or at least get invested in them in some way. Unfortunately, I was too overwhelmed by the novel screaming at me how DARK AND EDGY!!!!OMG!1! they are for me to notice any.

owtheedge

So, rather than being interested in the protagonists, I pretty much hated them and just wished they’d die. Which, to be fair, one of them promptly did; but rather than being heartbroken over how tragic it was, my thoughts went more along the lines of “One down…”

Then there are the pictures included in the novel, probably trying to emulate the style of works like the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children trilogy by Ransom Riggs or the Asylum trilogy by Madeleine Roux. However, I can’t really say it works. The unique charm of those books was that they used genuine old found photos and wove a narrative around them. Here, however, the narrative was clearly written first and the pictures staged to match; so there’s no real sense of mystery or wonder to them. Plus, the whole photo thing just doesn’t fit as well with an advanced sci-fi future setting as it does with series rooted in antiquity.

Was there anything about the book I actually liked? Well… the Hu-Bots were as much meat as machine, manufactured from 3D printed flesh as well as circuitry. That was kind of interesting to learn, and it explained why “robots” would behave so very much like living beings: they are far, far closer to actually being human than they would ever admit. And the Hu-Bot detective, MikkyBo, was a good and likeable character – who even showed glimmers of such traits as compassion and internal conflict – who I was much more interested in than I was in Sixie.

The final plot twist made no sense, though. Wasn’t there a scene just a short while ago where the Hu-Bot leader synchronized his datastream with all the Hu-Bots at his rally, to reprogram them into wanting to kill all humans? How could he have done that if… You know what, it doesn’t matter. It’s just a classic case of someone figuring, “Hmm, there should be some surprise twist at the end” and then picking one at random no matter how little sense it made. Whatever. It’s not like anything was going to change my opinion of the novel by that point.

So: pretty bad. Only MikkyBo’s section save it from total worthlessness, and even they aren’t good enough to redeem all the other boring and lousy parts.

Final Rating: 2/5

The Black Sun’s Daughter #5: Graveyard Child

Bet you rue the day you kissed a rider in the dark. Now she’s gonna play and sing and lock you in her heart. Bet you rue the day you kissed a rider in the dark. Let’s open the cemetery gates with Graveyard Child, by M.L.N. Hanover.

Synopsis:

After years on her own, Jayné Heller is going home to find some answers. How did the powerful spirit calling itself the Black Sun get into her body? Who was her uncle Eric, and what was the grand plan to which he devoted his life? Who did her mother have an affair with, and why? And the tattoo—seriously—what was that about?

Jayné arrives during the preparations for her older brother’s shotgun wedding, but she’s not the only unexpected guest. The Invisible College has also come to town, intent on stopping the ceremony. They claim an ancient evil is threatening the child that would be Jayné’s niece, and that the Heller family has been rotten at the core for generations.

The deeper Jayné looks, the more she thinks they might not be wrong. And behind them all, in the shadows of Jayné’s childhood home, a greater threat waits that calls itself the Graveyard Child…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

And so, we arrive at the final book of The Black Sun’s Daughter. Having reached a kind of peace with the daughter of Sonnenrad within her, Jayné returns to her parents’ home to finally learn the truth about how she was originally possessed and what Uncle Eric’s grand evil scheme was. While dealing with the emotional issues surrounding her long estrangement from her family, she discovers that she’s being targeted by the remnants of the Invisible College – still pissed off that she assassinated Randolf Coin; which, since it was Eric’s plan and she now knows Eric was evil, in hindsight may have been a bit of an oopsie-daisy – and ends up facing off against the monster which has been behind everything from the beginning, the Graveyard Child.

There’s some good stuff in here. Big momma Black Sun finally makes an appearance to aid her daughter. Jayné’s ultra-competent lawyer finally gets a name: Roshi Annabel. We finally get to meet Jayné’s family firsthand, after so many books of only hearing about them through Jayné’s memories and pieces of gossip passed along by her brother Curtis. Good stuff, yeah. And the ending is satisfying: evil has been vanquished, Jayné has come to terms with her past and, if not exactly reconciled with her family, at least come to accept the gulf between them. And, give the book some credit: I was pretty sure that the rider within Jayné was either going to sacrifice herself to save Jayné’s life or else pull some “but now I must go” bullshit and depart from her, and the loss would be played up like a symbolic step forwards into adulthood: being fully self-determinate, able to live her life as she chose without the pernicious influence of a rider. But instead, Jayné tells Sonnenrad that she’s welcome to remain within Jayné’s body for as long as she wishes. It’s implied that Sonnenrad will eventually grow too big for Jayné’s body to hold her and she will have to leave Jayné and return to the Pleroma; but until that time comes, in the distant future of books never to be written, Jayné and Sonnenrad will continue to share their body and work together. No clumsy, ham-fisted “end of innocence” or “end of youth” metaphors to be found here.

Unfortunately, I ultimately can’t say that it rises to the same heights of greatness that the previous installment in the series did. There’s no long-anticipated return of a great character like Midian Clark; and the final showdown against the Graveyard Child just doesn’t have the visceral impact of that army of hundreds of Akaname marching on the heroes.

Graveyard Child gives The Black Sun’s Daughter series a good, strong conclusion; just not the outstandingly excellent one that Killing Rites made me dare to hope for.

Final Rating: 4/5

Blood Singer #5: The Eldritch Conspiracy

Well they showed you a statue, told you to pray; built you a temple, and locked you away. Aw, but they never told you the price that you’d pay, for the things that you might have done. Only the good die young. Let’s pour a libation for those too innocent for this wicked world with The Eldritch Conspiracy, 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.

Not every bride needs a bridesmaid who can double as a bodyguard. But Celia’s cousin Adriana is no ordinary bride: she’s a Siren princess, and she’s marrying the king of a small but politically important European country. She’s getting death threats from fanatics who want to see the whole Siren race wiped out—including Celia herself, who is half Siren.

Luckily, Celia is on duty when a trip to a bridal salon is interrupted by an assassination attempt, so everyone survives. When Adriana returns to the Siren homeland to try to prevent a coup, Celia is free to hunt for the terrorists and the vile mage who is helping them (while keeping her eyes open for the perfect maid-of-honor dress).

Assuming the bride and groom both live to see their wedding day, this will be one royal wedding no one will ever forget.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Celia’s latest bodyguarding gig has her providing security for a royal wedding. Naturally, assassins start coming out of the woodwork one after another. While not the best news for Celia, this does give a strong start to the book, as things are fast-paced, tense, and exciting right from the very beginning.

Which is fortunate for this book, because it’s going to need every point of goodwill it can accumulate when it comes time for me to give its final grade. You see, while I liked the wedding security plotline, the book also happens to feature a major plotline which I very strongly dislike. So, let’s talk about Okalani.

Okalani is a character who was first introduced back in the second book of the series: a young siren with an exceptionally strong talent for teleportation spells. Having lived her whole life on the Island of Serenity, she longs to leave her small homeland and explore the wider world. Her mother, having had a past bad experience, is against it; but Okalani’s talent is making it difficult for her mother to prevent her from sneaking away. I was definitely interested in Okalani when she first appeared; and given Okalani’s interest in Celia, I pegged her as an eventual kid sidekick character who would end up joining Celia’s pool of allies when teleportation was needed. Her power was too strong for her to be available to aid Celia all the time, hence the overprotective mother providing an easy excuse for Okalani being unavailable whenever it would resolve the plot too quickly. Demon Song contained a perfect example of how I expected this dynamic to play out, with Celia calling upon Okalani for help. All well and good.

Early on in this book, Okalani’s mother calls Celia to tell her that Okalani has run away from home, and that she is afraid that Okalani’s father – a small-time thief and con-man – might feign love for her and put on an act of being a loving parent in order to get Okalani to abuse her magical talents for his profit. Since Celia is the only person from the mainland who Okalani knows and trusts, Okalani’s mom asks Celia to find Okalani and convince her to come home. No problem, right?

Okalani gets captured by the demon, tortured, and horribly murdered.

What the fuckity fuck was that? I mean, when The Dresden Files did something similar by having the Denarians kidnap the Archive, at least Jim Butcher had the sense to see that a satisfying ending would require Dresden to actually succeed in saving the little girl from a hideous fate.

Now, if this was an uber-grimdark series like The Second Apocalypse, I’d just nod and say, “Saw that coming.” Indeed, in such a series, I would probably complain if Okalani survived, busting the author’s balls for going for grimdark but not having the guts to fully commit to it. Blood Singer, however, is not that kind of series. When Celia sets out to save someone, I’m reading in order to see her succeed, not to see her fail and suffer and probably just make things worse in the process, the way your Logen Ninefingers or Kiritsugu Emiya type of protagonist would. In this context, it comes across as horribly out of place and tonally discordant. I’m not sure it actually qualifies as being stuffed in the refrigerator, since it wasn’t to motivate a male character, but I’d call it very fridge-adjacent. Definitely in the kitchen area.

Anyway, given the strength of the other stuff in the book, it averages out as decent; it wasn’t something so egregious that I couldn’t conscience recommending it/ It does definitely bring the book down from the heights it could have achieved, though; and it makes me slightly less excited for the future of this series to know that a character with so potential has been so unceremoniously removed from it.

Final Rating: 3/5