Women of the Otherworld #6: Broken

It’s Halloween, the night for all things spooky and ghastly, so what better time to review a Women of the Otherworld tale of a portal hidden in a letter from hell, of zombies and an infamous serial killer unleashed to stalk the night? Let’s rip open Broken, by Kelley Armstrong.

Synopsis:

Ever since she discovered she’s pregnant, Elena Michaels has been on edge. After all, she’s never heard of another living female werewolf, let alone one who’s given birth. But thankfully, her expertise is needed to retrieve a stolen letter allegedly written by Jack the Ripper. As a distraction, the job seems simple enough—only the letter contains a portal to Victorian London’s underworld, which Elena inadvertently triggers—unleashing a vicious killer and a pair of zombie thugs.

Now Elena must find a way to seal the portal before the unwelcome visitors get what they’re looking for—which, for some unknown reason, is Elena.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Is there any character more overdone than Jack the Ripper? He’s in the Nightside and Secret Histories series by Simon R. Green. He’s in the Golgotha series by R. S. Belcher. He’s in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and Nobunagun and Fate/Grand Order. He’s even in freaking Babylon 5. Even before picking this book up, I’d had enough Jack the Ripper to last me a lifetime. So, needless to say, I was going into this one with a negative attitude from the start. However, I might have been able to overcome that if the story itself had been up to usual Women of the Otherworld standards. Unfortunately, it was not.

The central mystery which is supposed to be sustaining the novel, Elena and her pack’s quest to track down Jack after they accidentally unleash him from a portal, is so laughably simple that it just gets more and more frustrating the longer the characters fail to figure it out. Look, Jack the Ripper went into the portal, and Matthew Hull came out. Hull claims that he was one of the sacrifices used to make the portal, but the other two sacrifices came out as zombies whereas Hull is still alive. You don’t have to be a polymath to put 2 and 2 together, here; this is not something it should take the length of an entire novel to puzzle out. And yet, the protagonists completely fail to make the connection, even as they remark on how good they are at reading people:

While I wasn’t discounting Tolliver as the source of the power outage, my money was on Shanahan. His “horrified innocent” act didn’t work with me. I’d seen too many mutts pull the same routine. We’d show up at their doorstep and they’d stand there, stammering and wide-eyed at the very notion that they would be hunting people, denials pouring out on breath that reeked of human flesh.
Broken, “Truth”

Well, guess what? Turns out Tolliver and Shanahan are both completely innocent while you completely fell for Hull’s “horrified innocent” act. Way to go, Elena; I’m slow-clapping for you here.

Broken feels like the first genuine misfire for the Women of the Otherworld series. Dime Store Magic took a little too long to get started and Industrial Magic dragged a little towards the end, but Broken was lackluster throughout. Really, the only bright spot was the introduction of Zoe, the lesbian vampire master thief. She was a fascinating character, and I definitely wouldn’t mind her getting a book of her own. But she alone is not enough to redeem this disappointment of a story, and so it is with a heavy heart that I must give my first non-recommendation to a book in the Women of the Otherworld series.

Final Rating: 2/5

Women of the Otherworld #5: Haunted

If there’s something strange in the neighborhood, who you gonna call? Well, the Ghostbusters, obviously; but if they aren’t available, there’s always the Women of the Otherworld. Let’s took a look at Haunted, by Kelley Armstrong.

Synopsis:

The afterlife isn’t all it’s cracked up to be…

Former supernatural superpower Eve Levine has broken all the rules. But she’s never broken a promise—not even during the three years she’s spent in the afterworld. So when the Fates call in a debt she gave her word she’d pay, she has no choice but to comply.

For centuries one of the ghost world’s wickedest creatures has been loosed on humanity, thwarting every attempt to retrieve her. Now it has fallen to Eve to capture this demi-demon known as the Nix, who inhabits the bodies of would-be killers, compelling them to complete their deadly acts. It’s a mission that becomes all too personal when the Nix targets those Eve loves most—including Savannah, the daughter she left on earth. But can a renegade witch succeed where a host of angels have failed?

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Eve Levine is probably the most interesting of the Women of the Otherworld introduced thus far. A witch who dabbled in the dark side and began leading her daughter along the same path before meeting her premature demise; and who following death has not meekly resigned herself to the afterlife but continues to obsess over ways to regain power in the material world so she can continue to watch over Savannah. Particularly interesting is her interaction with the ghost of Kristof Nast, Savannah’s father, who previously only appeared as the one-note villain of Dime Store Magic. Here he’s fully fleshed out into a real character, making it possible to understand why Eve was attracted to him and to believe that he really was seeking custody of Savannah for personal emotional reasons rather than to exploit her as a resource for the Cabal. He serves as a strong foil for Eve: he has accepted his death and separation from the material plane, despite his children being left in arguably worse circumstances than Savannah, and wants Eve to stop clinging to her mortal past and come to terms with life, for lack of a better word, in the spirit world.

The villain this time is an evil spirit called a Nix, which has escaped from the afterlife and which Eve is tasked with tracking down. The book is peppered with occasional flashbacks to the Nix’s past misdeeds. They get a little repetitive, since the Nix isn’t very creative in its crimes – murder, murder, and more murder – but they contain enough information to not be a waste of time: each manages to include some actually relevant detail such as how the Nix was captured the first time, how it subverted one of the previous agents sent to capture it, the circumstances under which it is vulnerable, and so on. Slipping in important information like that prevents the flashbacks from seeming excessively gratuitous, even taking account that Eve manages to acquire all the same information through other means; showing is after all more effective than telling.

Though if there’s one thing I don’t like about Haunted, it’s the cameo appearance by Lizzie Borden. It makes me a little uncomfortable when authors use actual real historical figures in fantasy novels. I mean, don’t get me wrong, it can be done perfectly well; I’m a big fan of the Doctor Who episode “The Shakespeare Code”, for instance. But as dictated by Sturgeon’s Law, it’s done poorly more often than well; and there’s this nagging unpleasant feeling I get when a real person is demonized – sometimes literally, in the case of fantasy novels. In this case, Haunted makes Lizzie Borden one of the former hosts of the Nix and has a scene where Eve finds her suffering in hell. You do know that Lizzie Borden was acquitted, right? There’s a real chance that she was in fact an innocent woman who was unfairly ostracized and demonized for most of her life for a crime she didn’t commit? But sure, go ahead and use her in your novel for shock value. Oh, that Nix; it’s, so evil it’s responsible for Lizzie going to hell. Of course, I can’t really hold it against Kelley Armstrong alone when it’s so prevalent in pop culture. Personally, I blame Dante Alighieri for starting this trend in the first place – heck, he put people in hell who weren’t even dead yet.

And hey, look on the bright side – it could have been worse. I mean, she could’ve had the Nix partner with Jack the Ripper. What a horrible cliche that would have been; it’s become practically standard for a supernatural Jack to show up in every goddamned urban fantasy series under the sun. Yes, it sure was wise for Haunted to avoid introducing Jack the Ripper as a character. And I’m sure that the Women of the Otherworld series will never in the future stoop so low as to make him to focus of a book. That would just be stupid. (*Nervous laughter*).

Anyway, that small gripe aside, I think this is probably the best Women of the Otherworld book so far. A definite highlight of the series.

Final Rating: 4/5

Nadia Stafford #3: Wild Justice

It is blind, it is swift, it is merciless, it flows from the barrel of a gun, it is done though the heavens fall; and now, it’s wild. Nadia Stafford returns to dispense justice in the third and final book of her trilogy; Wild Justice, by Kelley Armstrong.

Synopsis

Protect the innocent. If there is any one principle that drives hit man Nadia Stafford, it’s this. In her own mind, when she was thirteen, she failed to protect her older cousin Amy from being murdered. Now she fails again, disastrously, when she botches a hit. To help her find her equilibrium, her mentor, Jack, brings her a gift: the location and new identity of the predator who killed her cousin and disappeared after the case against him failed.

Vengeance, justice? With the predator in her sights, nothing seems more right, more straightforward, more easy. But finding justice is never as simple as it seems.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Over the past two books, everything has been building towards a confrontation between Nadia and Drew Aldrich. He’s the one who got away: the man who raped and murdered her cousin and got away with it, setting her on the path to becoming a professional killer. He’s still out there, still preying on women, exactly the type of monster Nadia wants to take down. And there have been repeated hints that Nadia has repressed her memory of the incident, that he raped her as well as Amy before she managed to escape. Clearly, a final showdown and reckoning between them is the natural conclusion to the trilogy… until you actually start to think about it.

Nadia is a professional hitman in her prime, a highly skilled assassin who is friends with no less than three other highly skilled assassin she can call on for back up. Aldrich is an aging man who once killed a single teenage girl while she was heavily restrained. That’s nobody’s definition of a fair fight. So, when I read that the plot was going to be about her going after Aldrich, I actually found myself dreading it: what stupid contrivances will the plot be relying on to try and wring fake tension out of this incredibly lopsided battle and stretch it out over the length of the entire book? So it’s a very good thing the story throws a curveball: just as Nadia tracks Aldrich down, he gets killed by another hitman. Now the plot is about unraveling a web of intrigue surrounding his sudden death. It completely flips the script: Aldrich, who has been set up as the ultimate villain, is instead the inciting victim; and Contrapasso, which has was presented to Nadia in the previous book as a benevolent organization and a goal to aspire to, seems like it might turn out to be the villain. It’s surprising, it’s clever, it pits Nadia against other trained hitmen who are capable of serving as worthy adversaries. In short, it’s good storytelling.

But not all is sun and roses. Witness: the conclusion to the Jack-Nadia-Quinn love triangle. Given the relationship writing fumble in Bitten, I was naturally nervous as to how it would play out. And the book very nearly handled it well. Things didn’t work out between Nadia and Quinn because they were looking for different things out of their relationship, not because one of them cheated or turned out to be crazy or anything; they split up, and Nadia became a couple with Jack. Which came off as a little awkward to me, given how he’s 20 years older than her and a mentor/father figure; but whatever, that just goes to show that I don’t know what women want. Point is, everyone was handling it in a sensible and mature manner; and even though the previous books made me support a Nadia/Quinn pairing, I was fine with how things were going. And then came the scene where Quinn comes over to Nadia’s hotel room after she’s had sex with Jack, and there’s this whole bit where Nadia pretends to be in the shower and hides her hastily discarded undergarments and Jack convinces her to hide the fact that they’re now an item from Quinn. So much for everyone acting sensible and mature; we’re now apparently reading a bad romantic comedy. Oh, such hilarious hijinks and wacky misunderstandings! …Wasn’t there a hitman you were supposed to be tracking down?

Wild Justice is probably the best book of the trilogy, though not by a far enough margin that I’d bump the score up. The series is decent enough, but never reaches the heights of the best books in Kelley Armstrong’s Women of the Otherworld series. Even so, it’s interesting enough to be worth a read on it’s own merits – the first Nadia Stafford book was actually the first book by Kelley Armstrong I ever read, and I liked it enough to check out her other works.

Final Rating: 3/5

Nadia Stafford #2: Made To Be Broken

Mob hitwoman Nadia Stafford returns in the second book of her trilogy. Let’s take some shots at Made to be Broken, by Kelley Armstrong.

Synopsis

The author of the acclaimed Women of the Otherworld series returns with her latest novel featuring an exciting heroine with a lethal hidden talent. This time she’s hot on the trail of a young woman no one else cares about–and a killer who’s bound to strike again.
Nadia Stafford isn’t your typical nature lodge owner. An ex-cop with a legal code all her own, she’s known only as “Dee” to her current employer: a New York crime family that pays her handsomely to bump off traitors. But when Nadia discovers that a troubled teenage employee and her baby have vanished in the Canadian woods, the memory of a past loss comes back with a vengeance and her old instincts go into overdrive.
With her enigmatic mentor, Jack, covering her back, Nadia unearths sinister clues that point to an increasingly darker and deadlier mystery. Now, with her obsession over the case deepening, the only way Nadia can right the wrongs of the present is to face her own painful ghosts–and either bury them for good, or die trying. Because in her book everyone deserves a chance. And everyone deserves justice.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

While Made to be Broken is the follow-up to Exit Strategy, I didn’t find the premise of the plot to be as immediately unique and grabbing. A group of hitmen teaming up to hunt a serial killer was a story I’d never read before; someone close to an anti-hero protagonist being killed and the protagonist hunting down the killer to exact vengeance is a story I’ve read so many times that I couldn’t even begin to count them all. If the plot has less of a hook, however, it at least makes up for it by increasing the emotional stakes. When Nadia joined the team to hunt down Wilkes, that was just a job; this time, as the cliche goes, it’s personal.

The lack of any villain cutaways of the type that featured in the first book is likewise a trade-off. On the one hand, it slows the pace down a bit because we aren’t always seeing the killer plotting his next move – it’s one thing to be told that more innocent people might die if they don’t hurry, but quite another to actually go into the head of the killer and see him plotting the details of his next crime. The upside, however, is to increase the mystery of who killed Sammi and why; we don’t get any secret insight into the killer’s identity or motives, and thus it can come as a surprising revelation to the reader as well as the characters when they discover that it was not the act of a lone psychopath but rather a part of a conspiracy.

My biggest issue with the book is actually not related to the main plot, but rather the romance subplot dealing with the love-triangle between Nadia, Jack, and Quinn. I actually don’t think it’s the sort of thing that would normally bother me, it being a relatively quite minor aspect of the book; but the first Women of the Otherworld book, Bitten, really left a bad taste in my mouth with the heroine repeatedly and remorselessly cheating on her boyfriend; and so each time Made to be Broken hinted that Nadia was pining for Jack but had resigned herself to Quinn, it set off warning bells in my brain. I mean, I like Nadia as a protagonist; I would hate for her to make me hate her by doing something like hooking up with Quinn and then cheating on him with Jack, all the while justifying herself by saying it’s not really cheating because she’s known Jack for longer. Or, in her case, because Quinn doesn’t make her heat go “pitter-patter”. Which makes it totally okay for her to sleep with another man and lie about it, right? Elena thinks so.

But as I’ve said, I’ve been liking Nadia as a protagonist so far; and so I am holding out hope that she will be able to resolve the love triangle in a mature and respectful manner without cheating and lying about it. Tune in to next week’s review of Wild Justice to find out whether my faith is rewarded or punished.

For this particular book, it is better than Exit Strategy in some ways but not quite as good as Exit Strategy in others; the positives and negatives cancel each other and it averages out at around the same overall level. Therefore, my final rating and recommendation remain unchanged.

Final Rating: 3/5

Nadia Stafford #1: Exit Strategy

Kelley Armstrong doesn’t just write about the Women of the Otherworld; she’s also written novels about women of our world. Introducing Nadia Stafford, ex-cop and current mafia hitman (hitwoman?), and star of her own trilogy of books. Let’s kick things off with a bang in book number one: Exit Strategy, by Kelley Armstrong.

Synopsis:

Regulars at Nadia’s nature lodge don’t ask what she does in the off-season. And that’s a good thing. If she told them, she’d have to kill them. She’s a hit woman for a Mafia family. Tough and self-sufficient, Nadia doesn’t owe anyone any explanations. But that doesn’t mean she always works alone. One of her contacts has recruited her in the hunt for a ruthlessly efficient serial killer cutting a swath of terror across the country. The assassin is far too skilled to be an amateur—and the precision of the killings is bringing the Feds much too close to the hit man community for comfort.

To put an end to the murders, Nadia will have to turn herself from predator to prey as she employs every trick she knows to find the killer. Before the killer finds her…

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The first book by Kelley Armstrong I ever read was not part of the Women of the Otherworld series, but rather Exit Strategy. At the time, I wasn’t aware that it was the first book of a trilogy. I was just drawn in by the premise. And what a premise it is: a group of hitmen teaming up in order to track down a serial killer. Now that’s a hook that really grabs me. A varied group of professional killers, unable to trust one another, forced to work together in order to hunt another former hitman who has gone insane and begun murdering indiscriminately.

While the inter-party conflict is downplayed, as all the cooperating hitmen mostly know each other and get along well – no surprising betrayals here – I still found the book to be very tense and suspenseful. I think a lot of that has to do with how fast-paced the writing is – I’m not actually sure how long a time period the story takes place over; but reading it, it felt like the murders were taking place one right after another and the heroes were in a desperate race to catch the villain before it’s too late.

The cutaways to the villain’s perspective are well done and serve to heighten tension by giving us insight into his twisted thought processes without going overboard and letting us figure out his identity before the main characters do. It’s actually easy for this technique to backfire, to defuse tension instead of building it by giving the game away and making the rest of the book a long slog for the protagonists to finally piece together what the reader already knows – in fact, my “to-do” list of books to review includes one book which completely feels for this very reason – but in this case, Kelley Armstrong manages to pull it off.

I wouldn’t say Exit Strategy is Kelley Armstrong’s best book by any means – the mundane world described here simply can’t match up to the suspense, mystery, and interconnected continuity on display in the better Women of the Otherworld Books – but it stands on its own as a decent story and served me well as an introduction to her writing. So, of course, when I found out that it was not a stand-alone novel as I’d assumed the first time I read it, but rather the first book of a trilogy, I naturally had to read the sequels. Stay tuned for reviews of Made to be Broken and Wild Justice.

Final Rating: 3/5

D-List Supervillain #2: Confessions of a D-List Supervillain

Mechani-Cal is a supervillain who fights in an Iron Man armor suit. But his superpowers are nothing compared to those of the author, who apparently possesses a time machine: for this book, book #2 of the series, was published three years before book #1. But temporal paradoxes aside, let’s listen in on Confessions of a D-List Supervillain, by Jim Bernheimer.

Synopsis:

“Being a supervillain means never having to say you’re sorry … Unless it’s to the judge or the parole board. Even then, you don’t really have to. It’s not like it’s going to change the outcome or anything.”

Those are the words of Calvin Matthew Stringel, better known as Mechani-Cal. He’s a sarcastic, down on his luck armored villain. Follow his exploits as he gets swept up in a world domination scheme gone wrong and ends up working for this weak willed, mercy loving heroes. Immerse yourself in his epic battles and see what it’s like to be an outsider looking in at a world that few have ever experienced.

Climb into Cal’s battlesuit and join him on his journey. Will he avoid selling out his principles for a paycheck and a pardon? Can he resist the camaraderie of being on a super team? Does he fall prey to the ample charms of the beautiful Olympian Aphrodite? How will he survive the jealous schemes of Ultraweapon, who wears armor so powerful it makes Cal’s look like a museum piece?

See the world of “righteous do-gooders” through the eyes of someone who doesn’t particularly care for them.

And remember – Losing an argument with a group of rioters isn’t a good excuse to start lobbing tear gas indiscriminately at them. You’ve only got so many rounds and it’s going to be a long day, so make sure you get as many as possible with each one.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Even though this book was retroactively declared number 2 in the series, it’s the one which came out first and which I read first, so it’s the one I’m going to be reviewing first.

I think the way this book begins is a mistake. It starts off with the world in peril: most of the population has been dominated by mind-controlling insects, including all of the Earth’s mightiest heroes, and the world now faces destruction. Except… this our first introduction to this world. We haven’t yet gotten invested in it or in the characters. It’s notable that all of the subsequent fights in the book will have technically lesser stakes – when you start with 1.5 billion people being killed by bugs, it’s pretty hard to up things any further without transition from the superhero genre into full Mad Max post-apocalyptic hellscape – and yet they’ll feel far more dramatic. Because by that point, we’ll have developed a connection to the characters and care what happens to them. Additionally, Cal is supposed to be a supervillain, so it’s strange that he’s introduced in the role of a hero: the last free man fighting to liberate the rest of the world from mind control. When I think “D-list supervillain”, that’s not really the image that comes to mind.

Fortunately, after the awkward introduction, the book starts to get good. Really, Cal saving the world from the bugs is just the inciting incident for the real story: the heroes offer Cal a chance to reform and become a hero rather than a villain, and Cal’s not sure whether or not he wants to commit to it. He feels a responsibility to pre-mindwipe Aphrodite, to live up to the potential for good that she saw in him; but he’s not sure if he can work with a bunch of people he fought against in the past, who openly mock and distrust him. And the ethical concerns go both ways: just as the superheroes view Cal as either a double-agent, a con man working an angle, or a bad seed sure to turn on them as soon as he sees something in it for him, Cal sees the superheroes as hypocrites who are all too happy to smash the faces of those they deem villains but are willing to overlook even the most heinous acts committed by their own members. And I kind of have to side with Cal on this one. How the hell is Ultraweapon able to mindwipe one of his own teammates – who had just played an instrumental role in saving the world – for petty personal reasons and not get punished? I mean, after seeing him walk away with nothing more than a slap on the risk for that, is it any wonder that Mindover figured nobody would care if he went full Kilgrave and just enslaved and raped and murdered anyone he pleased? Someone get Jessica Jones in here to explain why screwing around in someone’s skull is a violation akin to rape and not something to be just brushed off.

While I liked the story a lot, the writing style took a bit of getting used to. My first impression was that it came off as extremely awkward. For instance:

Concentrated blast! Got her! Sorry, beautiful. Twelve percent! Maybe if I sprint to her hover-sled? Dodge left! Phew! That was close. Aw crap, she’s getting back up; I didn’t even do that right.
Confessions of a D-List Supervillain, Chapter One

I think it’s supposed to represent Cal’s internal monologue during the fight, but it really doesn’t let me get any kind of mental picture of the action. When I read a fight scene, I want an actual scene, not just a bunch of disconnected exclamations. Speaking of which, there are far too many exclamation points being used outside of quotations – what are you yelling at ME for?

But even if it isn’t the most polished story, I still found it an enjoyable read. It’s the author’s first book, position as #2 in the series notwithstanding, and so some allowances can be made. It’s gotten me interested enough in the universe to want to check out the sequels/prequels is my point, and the author’s writing skills may well improve with time.

Final Rating: 3/5

Ash

Last week, we looked at Huntress; now it’s time to review the sequel. Except this book was actually published first, meaning I guess Huntress was a prequel? Well, either way, it’s time to sweep open Ash, by Malinda Lo.

Synopsis:

In the wake of her father’s death, Ash is left at the mercy of her cruel stepmother. Consumed with grief, her only joy comes by the light of the dying hearth fire, rereading the fairy tales her mother once told her. In her dreams, someday the fairies will steal her away, as they are said to do. When she meets the dark and dangerous fairy Sidhean, she believes that her wish may be granted.

The day that Ash meets Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, her heart begins to change. Instead of chasing fairies, Ash learns to hunt with Kaisa. Though their friendship is as delicate as a new bloom, it reawakens Ash’s capacity for love-and her desire to live. But Sidhean has already claimed Ash for his own, and she must make a choice between fairy tale dreams and true love.

Entrancing, empowering, and romantic, Ash is about the connection between life and love, and solitude and death, where transformation can come from even the deepest grief.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

Ash is, at its core, a retelling of the classic fairy tale Cinderella, with only two real differences. The first is that, rather than a benevolent fairy godmother, Ash’s benefactor is Sidhean, an intimidating lord of the Fair Folk who would claim ownership of Ash’s life for eternity in exchange for granting her wishes. The second is that, rather than falling in love with the prince, Ash’s affections are directed towards the King’s Huntress. Kaisa.

Ash makes for an interesting contrast with Huntress. My biggest complaint about Huntress was the lack of a happy ending for the lesbian couple, who were forced to separate at the end due to contrived plot bullshit. Ash has exactly the “happily ever after” ending that I wanted; yet on the whole, I believe it the inferior of the two. A satisfying ending can’t save an unsatisfying story, and Ash has a major problem with its plot: namely, the lack of stakes or tension. In Huntress, nature is out of balance due to the rise of a powerful evil fairy sorceress and the whole world might be destroyed if the protagonists don’t stop her. In Ash, the protagonist has a mean stepmother and mean stepsisters. Which is unfortunate for her, sure, but doesn’t quite approach the same level of narrative tension. Sure, Lady Isobel ticks all the boxes on the “wicked stepmother” checklist, but it’s never seriously implied that Ash’s life is in danger, let alone the continued existence of the world. In the end, Ash just walks away from her abuse, without even so much as a final confrontation.

Perhaps, then, the menacing antagonist is meant to be Sidhean, who lays claim to Ash’s soul in exchange for the Cinderella magic he performs on her behalf. The book of fairy tales Ash reads is certainly full of tales about humans being abducted by fairies or being trapped forever in their world by eating their food or being driven to ruin by their glamour or somesuch. But this, too, falls flat. As a child, Ash repeatedly travels into the forest and actively seeks the fairies out, doing everything that the stories warn against: going to her mother’s grave at midnight, following the moonlit path in the woods, entering the faerie ring, eating and drinking faerie food, on and on and on. And each time, Sidhean does not capitalize on the opportunity to kill her or abduct her or claim her immortal soul; instead, he repeatedly sends her safely home with warnings not to come back. He is simply far too benevolent towards her to function as an antagonist.

I wish I could give Ash a good review. I want more books with lesbian protagonists who actually end up with their love interests instead of dying or being separated, and I wish over novels would emulate Ash in that regard. But only in that regard, for Ash is the inverse of the other books about I so often complain: instead of a good story with a disappointing ending for the lesbian partners, it’s a happy ending attached to a disappointingly bad story. And the muddled mess which occupies the majority of the pages of the book is just too bland and uninteresting for me to overlook. There’s no joy in a happily ever after when I never really got invested in the characters or interested in their struggle; so, on a fundamental storytelling level, Ash simply fails at what it was attempting.

As much as I prefer it were otherwise, you can sweep Ash into the dustbin.

Final Rating: 2/5

Huntress

Behold the noble hunter. As night falls, he scales the castle walls and slips unnoticed into the queen’s chamber, where he unsheathes his dagger and raises it high above the sleeping monarch’s prone, defenseless form… Or is it assassins who do that? I always get the two confused. But in any case, let’s take a stab at Huntress by Malinda Lo.

Synopsis:

Nature is out of balance in the human world. The sun hasn’t shone in years, and crops are failing. Worse yet, strange and hostile creatures have begun to appear. The people’s survival hangs in the balance.

To solve the crisis, the oracle stones are cast, and Kaede and Taisin, two seventeen-year-old girls, are picked to go on a dangerous and unheard-of journey to Tanlili, the city of the Fairy Queen. Taisin is a sage, thrumming with magic, and Kaede is of the earth, without a speck of the otherworldly. And yet the two girls’ destinies are drawn together during the mission. As members of their party succumb to unearthly attacks and fairy tricks, the two come to rely on each other and even begin to fall in love. But the Kingdom needs only one huntress to save it, and what it takes could tear Kaede and Taisin apart forever.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

There is one truly great scene in Huntress. The protagonists have heard stories about a village where a baby has been born that people say is a changeling: a fae impostor swapped for a normal human child. Each story about the changeling baby is more bizarre and improbable than the last, and the heroes finally decide to go see the truth of the matter for themselves. They aren’t entirely sure what to expect: strange and undeniably supernatural things have been happening in the land, but the stories seem far too exaggerated and contradictory to be true. When they finally arrive at the house, they discover a mother caring for a baby which seems human enough – until it transforms into a hideous monster and attacks them. They are forced to slay it by driving an iron dagger through its heart, at which point the dead body reverts to its human appearance under the gaze of its horrified mother.

Remember when I reviewed The X-Files: Antibodies and complained how the intended suspense scenes which put the child character in danger all completely fell flat because it was obvious that the book didn’t have the guts to kill a child? This is a book that’s got guts.

That aside, however, I do have some problems with the story. First of all, the title doesn’t strike me as very applicable. The ostensible justification for it comes from a statement by the Fairy Queen:

“I am not seeking an assassin. I am seeking a hunter.”
– The Fairy Queen, Chapter 30

I’m afraid I’m going to have to disagree, there. Perhaps if the Fairy Queen wanted Kaede to track Elowen through the woods, or pursue her with hounds, or lay a cunning trap for her, I could see it. But what the Fairy Queen is actually asking is for Kaede to sneak into Elowen’s palace and stab her with an iron dagger. I’m fairly certain that does in fact fall under the category of assassination, rather than hunting.

The course of the novel is also somewhat predictable. For instance, the group headed to Tanili includes the two main characters, a prince, a girl in love with the prince, and also two random guards. The main characters obviously aren’t going to die before the climax, and the prince and the girl have this whole forbidden inter-class romance thing going on, so guess who’s going to bite it in order to prove the seriousness of the danger? They might not be wearing red shirts, but they’re definitely redshirts, is what I’m saying. And since from the very beginning of the book Taisin has been having prophetic future-visions about how she’ll eventually fall in love with Kaede and Kaede will head to Elowen’s palace alone, there are no surprises to be had in those regards, either. When a character has a vision of the future, and then that vision comes exactly to pass without any sort of subversion or ironic twist… well, that’s no so much foreshadowing as a spoiler.

And then of course there is the lesbian romance, which like all lesbian romances in literature is doomed to end with the lovers either dying or being separated. It’s not even a surprise anymore when even a supposedly progressive and gay-friendly book ends with the romantic couple having to break up for some contrived bullshit reason. I’m not angry, just disappointed. …Well, okay, maybe a little angry. Just why does it have to be so hard to find a book with a lesbian couple who has a happy ending? When I go over my bookshelf trying to find a novel where the protagonist is a lesbian and actually ends up with her love interest at the end instead of being tragically separated by death or needing to split up to follow different life paths or some bullshit like that, and the closest I can come is The Dark Defiles by Richard K. Morgan – because, you know, Archeth is probably going to rescue Ishgrim at some point in the near future, the novel doesn’t have time to actually show it but it’s fairly strongly implied that it’s going to happen – well, it makes me suspect that the authors are copping out. Sure, they’ll include a lesbian or two here and there to show how enlightened and progressive they are – but a happy ending? Whoa, let’s not go crazy here; “happily ever after” endings are a privilege reserved for straight protagonists.

But hey, it’s not all bad; at least the protagonists succeeded in their quest! If they hadn’t, the world might have turned to ash; and that would be just terrible. Preventing such a horrible outcome was surely worth all the sacrifices they were forced to make. Anything to stop the world from being reduced to ash, right? As it is, we’ll check up on the beautiful and idyllic world created by their victory in the sequel… Ash. Um, oops?

(Okay, okay, I kid. The title of Ash actually refers to something else entirely, unrelated to this book’s threat. I just find it delightfully ironic that the next one’s named that way when such a big deal was made about preventing the land from turning to ash in this one).

Final Rating: 3/5

Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children Trilogy

Children, born with peculiar gifts, are recruited to a secret school. There, they will be trained to defend a world which hates and fears them… no, wait, sorry, that’s the X-Men I’m thinking of; we’re reviewing something else today. In honor of the Tim Burton movie adaptation coming out, it’s time to take a look at the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children trilogy by Ransom Riggs, consisting of Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, Hollow City, and Library of Souls.

Synopsis:

A mysterious island. An abandoned orphanage. A strange collection of curious photographs.

A horrific family tragedy sets sixteen-year-old Jacob journeying to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where he discovers the crumbling ruins of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. As Jacob explores its abandoned bedrooms and hallways, it becomes clear that the children were more than just peculiar. They may have been dangerous. They may have been quarantined on a deserted island for good reason. And somehow—impossible though it seems—they may still be alive.

A spine-tingling fantasy illustrated with haunting vintage photography, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children will delight adults, teens, and anyone who relishes an adventure in the shadows.

Source: Goodreads

SPOILERS BELOW

The main gimmick of the book is the integration into the story of vintage photographs which seemingly display peculiar children. As it so happens, I actually previously read a series which used photographic inserts in the same way. Unfortunately, it was the Asylum series by Madeleine Roux. Suffice to say, it did not make for a very good first impression of the style.

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children, fortunately, is much better than that sadly disappointing series. It starts off just slow enough to build an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue surrounding Abe’s history at the now seemingly-destroyed orphanage, then dives straight into the fantastical with Jacob’s entry into the loop and the introduction of Peculiars and their powers. The Hollows are a grotesque and menacing foe, giving real tension to the building conflict, and the climax and cliffhanger are well-executed and instantly made me want to pick up the next book of the series.

This book is not without its problems – the dissonance between the chronological and apparent mental age of the “children”, for instance, was kind of awkward and was never really explained other than Jacob thinking it must just be some inherent effect of looping – but the narrative was engaging enough that they didn’t bother me too much. Overall, the book was highly enjoyable, and a very promising introduction to the trilogy.

Final Rating (Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children): 4/5

The second book, Hollow City, is where the inclusion of the pictures actually started bugging me a little. In the first book, they were handily justified by the framing device: the photos presented to the reader were the actual in-universe photographs of Peculiars once owned by Abe and discovered by Jacob. Here, the photos don’t exist in-universe; they’re simply presented to the reader accompanying the events described in the text, even if there is no-one with a camera actually taking pictures of the events. It may seem like a little thing, but it damages the suspension of disbelief that the first book painstakingly created – as if a found-footage movie suddenly just switched to the omniscient third-person camera view of a standard movie with no explanation. It’s a tacit admission that the photos might have been interesting, but they were just an easily-discarded gimmick rather than anything truly integral to the story being told. And that makes the Miss Peregrine trilogy less unique; less, dare I say, peculiar; more like every other generic young-adult story about extraordinarily empowered children.

It’s also a mistake, I feel, for the book to end on Jacob suddenly developing the power to control Hollows, without providing any reason or explanation. The protagonist out-of-nowhere gaining a previously unhinted-at ability that just so happens to be exactly what he needs to resolve the current predicament smacks of deus ex machina; it’s bad storytelling.

In sum, while I suppose it’s a decent enough book, it doesn’t really live up to the expectations set by the first one.

Final Rating (Hollow City): 3/5

I do have to give Library of Souls some credit: the ending, where the Peculiar children are able to leave their loop because their ages have been reset, has been accused by some as being another deus ex machina, but I thought that it was properly foreshadowed: when Bentham explains that he was able to trick the Claywings into trapping themselves in a collapsing loop because the fountain of youth they sought was a side-effect of the loop-closing ritual. Furthermore, it managed to smooth over the improbability of Jacob suddenly developing Hollow-control powers by explaining that all the seemingly unconnected different abilities he had displayed were all just expressions of various facets of his true power, being a Librarian of Souls. So there are a number of things which the concluding volume did right.

That doesn’t change the fact, however, that it also did a lot of things wrong. Most immediately noticeable is the pictures. For the first few chapters, the book seems to return to the precedent set in the first novel of the photographs presented to the reader being actual in-universe photographs seen by Jacob. After a short time, however, it seemingly decides no, forget that, and goes back to the style of the second novel, where the photos exist solely for the reader’s eyes and have no in-story counterparts. And if the change in the nature of the photographs was jarring between the first and second books, it’s doubly so when occurring within the pages of a single volume.

Then there’s Jacob’s boneheaded decision to leave the Peculiars and return to his family. Just what was he expecting to happen – did he forget about them sending him to a mental institution the first time? Was he not paying attention to the running subplot about what bad parents they are and how completely incapable they are of dealing with the reality of Peculiardom? I mean, I honestly thought that this was resolved at the end of the first book, when Jacob made the decision to leave his father and accompany the Peculiars on their mission to rescue Miss Peregrine. So consider me unimpressed by the series choice of closing conflict.

I found Library of Souls to be an overall adequate conclusion to the trilogy: it mostly wrapped things up, it mostly made sense, it mostly left off on a satisfying note. It’s just a shame that a trilogy with a premise that seemed so unique, so promising, so Peculiar, should end up being merely adequate.

Final Rating (Library of Souls): 3/5